Ernesto Perez Chang

Foto: Juan Suárez

HAVANA TIMES — Havana is a city of loud people. No sooner has the sun risen (before the roosters start to crow) than yelling begins to be heard over every other city noise: the voice of the neighbor who wakes up those who have no alarm clock, the mothers getting their kids out of bed on school days, the street cries of the baker and screams of an elderly woman asking someone on the curb to turn off the water pump.

A woman runs across the street cursing at a bus driver who’s arrived at the stop early and decided not to wait. The people crammed inside the bus complain about how uncomfortable the bus is, the bad smells and the weather (the absurd anger in their voices sometimes makes me think it is a masked way of criticizing the generally deplorable state of things).

As the hours pass, the yelling goes up in volume, as in a wild competition in which everyone tries to sound off the highest note. Street vendors lose their lungs yelling, as do people who buy gold jewelry and empty bottles.

Those who repair mattresses or old sewing machines join the chorus. They are followed by those who neither buy nor sell anything but relay messages and greet people at the top of their lungs from balconies, the employee who announces she can take no more appointments at one of the many lines we are forced to wait in daily, those who tell others the ration store is giving out the chicken or the five eggs one gets every month, water company collectors, fumigators, children coming out from school singing patriotic slogans taught them by their teachers, the loudspeaker touring the streets and announcing a political function at Revolution Square or explaining, with highly elaborate gibberish, why our single-party elections are the most democratic in the universe.

As the hours pass, the yelling goes up in volume, as in a wild competition in which everyone tries to sound off the highest note. Street vendors lose their lungs yelling, as do people who buy gold jewelry and empty bottles.

At night, the way people yell changes. It is still intense, but, if you listen closely, you can detect the weariness in people’s voices, the accumulated frustration, the silence behind the noise.

The late hours of the afternoon, when darkness invites people to undress, are a time of outbursts. The pent-up anxiety expresses itself in quarrels of every kind: yelling over the food that hasn’t been cooked because there’s no money to buy a gas cylinder, yelling because the power’s been cut or is about to be cut because of unpaid bills.

Yelling because a kid broke his new, irreplaceable shoes while playing at school, yelling because the day care has announced it will be closed all of next week because there’s no running water there. The yelling of mothers who know their absences from work will be docked from their pay.

Yelling because the rice has run out, yelling because the head of the household has lost his job, yelling because the television has announced intense rains and people’s roofs can’t hold much more humidity, yelling because they’ve again asked for money at school to buy a gift for the teacher who tends to be quite strict while grading exams.

Despite its intensity and persistence, one knows that those voices that touch the very borders of sound are nothing other than the strictest and most disciplined silence.

Yelling because some paperwork won’t be processed unless a bribe is paid, yelling because the most honest fellow in the neighborhood, a military officer who vacations at Varadero every year, has called the police on the poor old woman who sells roasted peanuts on the corner to survive.

The yelling of two desperate mothers, because no one intervenes in a bloody confrontation between gangs that involves their kids. Yells of indifference by the police, because the old woman selling peanuts without a license is far more dangerous for the nation’s safety.

Strange yelling, all-too-human, that dies out after some shots are heard. Screams that crowd in my ears and I have learned to ignore with time, because I do not want to end up on the roof of my building, yelling uncontrollably, my arms bound by a straitjacket.

In Havana, everyone yells all the time. People yell so loudly one can hear them even from a distance, beyond the waters that surround the island. Despite its intensity and persistence, one knows that those voices that touch the very borders of sound are nothing other than the strictest and most disciplined silence.


One thought on “Havana Between Screams and Silence

  • Thanks.
    That was an often funny portrayal of life in Cuba ( and almost any place outside the U.S. ) that we in the States are not often exposed to.
    Back in the 70s I lived at the foot of a very busy Beacon Hill in Boston , had a jail exercise yard out my bedroom window, the Massachusetts General Hospital and a fire house two blocks away the Boston subway train came screeching out of the Beacon Hill tunnel just across the street and Charles Circle was a very busy traffic intersection a half a block away . NOISY ? I tell you .
    Then I went to sleepy Negril ( Jamaica ) for a week’s vacation back around. 1979,
    It was very rural combined with some world class hotels but I stayed at a small place set back and the NOISE !!!! .
    The roosters got everyone up at dawn and if that work , the old dog dying of heartworm whose cough sounded exactly like an old man’s would often choose my window to cough outside of.
    At night the bass from the bands doing their thing at the various beachfront clubs would thump long into the night and right until daylight and keep anyone within a mile up with them.
    Then you’d drop off and the roosters would start in.
    Yes and Jamaicans do also yell first thing in the morning.
    Still, a very nice place to be in 1979.
    Just saying that there’s noise and then there’s noise .

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