HAVANA TIMES —In the beginning, Alamar was a quiet neighborhood with horrible, densely-clustered buildings and plenty of vegetation. Far from the city center, it lacked an efficient public transportation network. The problem was overcome with a terminal with a number of bus stops that shortened distances some.
Though residents never actually had the authority to set down any laws, one breathed a spirit of community and the interest in caring for the neighborhood was evident. Its inhabitants kept stairs, empty lots and gardens clean. Since most locals had spent long periods of times in State shelters, hotels or whatever they could find to spend the night in, nearly all of them accepted the tacit prohibition of expanding or adapting their apartments to suit the needs of their families.
Without a doubt, it was a healthy environment to grow up in. The air was pure, there wasn’t much traffic and one’s proximity to the coast gave afternoons the feeling of a vacation.
Time passed and passed, and the Special Period crisis came along.
To be more precise, it didn’t pass but came to stay.
Needs of every sort made people focus more on trying to overcome the problems they had at home and to forget their surroundings some. Concerns over hygiene and beauty had been left behind. The few garbage bins around overflowed with garbage and stayed that way for many days, as the garbage collection entity gradually lost its trucks and fuel. The empty lots were incorporated into the common areas. The new “owners” grew plantains, cassava and sweet potato to satisfy the needs of their families. The times were tough and the primary goal was to survive, everything else became secondary.
More than twenty years later, and despite the fact there’s now a bit more fuel, garbage trucks come once a week and new bins have been set up in several places, garbage has ceased to have a proper place, circumscribed by the dimensions of the bins, and has taken over sidewalks and flower beds. Decent and well kept individuals who keep their homes spotless hurl bags crammed with all manner of waste or empty their small bins at the street corner to spare themselves a short walk to the dump area. Toilet paper remains that perhaps were once in impeccable, sweet-smelling bathrooms are picked up by the wind and end up just about anywhere.
Right across this improvised dumpsite there is a food stand where adults and children eat. There, while having a coffee or pastry, they breathe in the dust from the refuse and stench of that toilet paper, rotten peels and putrefied animals sacrificed by the Santeria practitioners in the neighborhood.
The gardens that once welcomed visitors and made one’s day brighter are now lots that have been partitioned by fences, and each neighbor cares for their piece of land as they wish or can. In the areas that remain public, people walk over a thin layer of grass and cars leave tire marks on what was once the lush lawn.
For over forty years, my block lived in total darkness. Taking advantage of the light from cars and relying on the protection of others, we spent this entire time demanding a bit of light for our nights. The miracle finally happened this February. We can’t complain: now, several street lamps turn the night into day and, sometimes, add to the natural light about. Someone seems to forget to turn them off from time to time. Perhaps it isn’t forgetfulness, but a way of making up for so many years of darkness.
The neighborhood’s entertainment is in the hands of a tightly-knit and extensive group of people who have come to replace the deteriorated cultural center, pumping intense energy into the neighborhood. I am referring to the people who work at the corner bus terminal. Little by little, with all of the patience and zeal of work ants, they have pushed the physical boundaries of the terminal outward. Next to their friends, they spend most of their time by my building, drinking rum, enjoying a bit of coffee at the stand, speaking of personal or work-related problems and vociferating the ABC of male-chauvinism taught by the streets.
Their “lectures” are heard by the entire neighborhood, already accustomed to this “bus-driver philosophy” taken to its extreme consequences – so much so, in fact, that nearly no one is put off by the horn or whatever noisy contraption the drivers sound indiscriminately every time they enter or leave the terminal, be it day or night. People are also not bothered by the fact that, instead of turning on and warming up the vehicles inside the area conceived for such purposes, they should do so out on the street, very close to our homes, also at any time during the day.
On the block, street fights and celebrations become indistinguishable. Since the same phrases are heard over and over again, it’s hard to tell. But people don’t care either way.
The neighbors don’t lag too far behind in this business of neglecting the time of day and, perhaps unsatisfied with dirtying their surroundings and destroying public property only, they impose the music of their liking on others, competing to see who can achieve the highest decibel levels. It’s common for the voice of Marc Anthony, set to a reggaeton rhythm, to issue from the bowels of a bus, while the age-old Pimpinela duo replies from an apartment and, on the corner, the radio at a food stand raises the stakes – who could think this was disrespectful? When this happens, people seem to enjoy it and show it by moving their bodies to the deafening sounds blaring from the speakers.
From my balcony, I hear the uproar at a primary school, where all cultural, sporting, political and recreational activities are set to the rhythm of the reggaeton piece Guachineo. Children head back home humming the melody and repeating songs with very aggressive lyrics I can’t transcribe because I haven’t yet learned them. Their games are permeated by the hostile, challenging and threatening phrases they hear the musicians in vogue repeat. In their body language, one often distinguishes the lascivious and aggressive gestures of their idols. When I see them, a number of words cross my mind and try to leave my mouth…insults, anxiety…but no, I think I’m being too tragic about this. When I walk down the streets of Alamar, I don’t see any sadness in people at all, quite the contrary.
What difference does one more pile of garbage in front of one’s house make? What does it matter if we live at the mercy of our neighbor’s music tastes or if they become our victims? Why should I look after the place I live in? It’s been demonstrated that whatever happens outside my home is not my cross to bear, unless, of course, we are talking about entertainment. Because, every day in our neighborhood, as Lezama Lima might have said, is an unnamable party. Fathers, teachers, local authorities, drivers, neighbors and kids, all of us sing in unison: “it’s party time!” And no one has any time to think.