Sometimes you find peace in the most unexpected places.
You can read a Spanish transcript of the episode.
You can also read an English translation.
If you want to get our new episodes via WhatsApp, please text us at +573229502192. You can also join Radio Ambulante’s Closed Facebook group to discuss with others around each week’s story.
[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Ambulantes, we have a huge favor to ask before we start. We’re conducting a survey to know what other Spanish language podcasts we can make for you. In addition to Radio Ambulante, of course.
So, go to radioambulante.org/encuesta and there you can help us by answering a few questions. We need at least five thousand listeners to respond and we’re only halfway there. It will only take three minutes and it will help us a lot to plan the future of Radio Ambulante. Please: radioambulante.org/encuesta. Thanks!
Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
OK, let’s start with a little history: the “Special Period” in Cuba. Normally this phrase is used to mean those difficult years immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. That time after the Soviet Union collapsed, withdrew its subsidies to Cuba and the island fell into a long economic depression.
But, if you look at it another way, the period of contemporary Cuban history that has actually been special, extraordinary, different, was the era that came just before: the 70s and 80s. When Cuba traded sugarcane and tobacco for oil, and —like magic— socialism appeared to be working.
This is Karla Suárez. She remembers that time well.
[Karla Suárez]: I grew up in the 70s. I was born in ‘69, late 1969, and… and the memories I have of that era are really very good.
[Daniel]: Havana was a safe and clean place and felt open. Cuba was a country with a future.
[Karla Suárez]: I’m from the generation that lived… let’s say the golden era, if you can call it that, of… of the… post-revolutionary period, right?
[Daniel]: Before we go on, let’s get a few things out of the way. Yes, there was an embargo, and, yes, there was scarcity and limits, and government ration cards. And the Castro regime was autocratic, and dissidents were jailed or worse in some cases. Yes. All of that. But the imminent threat of nuclear holocaust had eased. And there were good schools and an enviable health care and for many in Cuba, there was a sense of shared sacrifice. It wasn’t a paradise. But nothing like the hard times that lay ahead.
I want you to understand what I mean. So, let’s talk about an everyday aspect of any childhood: toys. A pretty defining element of childhood, right? Growing up in Cuba, in the 70s and 80s —before it all went to hell—children were entitled to toys.
[Karla]: So, what happened was that each kid was entitled to three toys.
[Daniel]: Three toys. One from each of three different categories.
[Karla]: One was called “basic”, which was like the… the most important, the largest. Another was called “non-basic”, which was medium like that. And the other one, “directed”, which was a simple little toy, right?
[Daniel]: Basic. Non-basic. Directed.
I asked Karla to give me examples of each category.
[Karla]: I don’t know. The… the prettiest doll was maybe a basic, uh… Non-basic could be, for example, a set of teacups and teaspoons and plates. That could be a non-basic. And directed could be a game of jacks. Uh… a game of jacks, right? With the little pieces and you throw a ball and you pick up two, and then three.
[Daniel]: The year Karla was born was the year Fidel canceled Christmas, so the holidays wouldn’t interrupt the harvest. So, the toys were given out in the middle of the year.
[Karla]: And so, you had a raffle with all the government ration cards —all the with kids. And so, you got a number.
[Daniel]: And that number was very important, because it dictated when you’d get to buy your toys. There were six toy-buying days in all. If you got a low number —one or two— it was wonderful because there were a lot of options.
[Karla]: And if your friend got a day one, you started to play with the toys of your friend on day one.
[Daniel]: Right. Socialist solidarity. On the other hand, if you got a high number…
[Karla]: It was so infuriating because later you got to day four and, of course, when I went in to buy them, the toys were nothing like the ones my friend had gotten.
[Daniel]: And lest you think kids in socialist countries are kinder or more generous than you or I were when we were children, Karla assures me that no.
[Karla]: The cruelty of children I think surpasses any system.
[Daniel]: Meaning the day one kids with their fancy day one toys would make fun of the day six kids with their pathetic day six toys.
Because, look, there really was a big difference between day one and day six. For example, on day one, when you chose your “basic” toy, you might be able to pick —like Karla wanted— a guitar.
[Karla]: I had the obsession of buying a little guitar.
[Daniel]: But, if you had gotten a day four, like Karla…
[Karla]: And when I got there, the one that was left didn’t have strings.
[Daniel]: When I spoke to Karla, I asked a question that I later understood was completely absurd: why didn’t you just buy the guitar and get the strings later?
[Karla]: Oh, no, sure. No way. Where was I going to get strings? No, that’s not… that’s a… No, I don’t think that you could get strings like that.
In Cuba, we grew up —my generation— with what you get.
[Karla]: I’m used to only one and that’s what I get. It’s like you’re… you’re used to having them think for you. To have someone tell you — father government tell you — what you have to do, what you get and what is right.
[Daniel]: Karla told me that when someone always chooses for you, it affects you. It shapes the type of person you are.
[Karla]: A part is not developed, which is the ability to choose, right? Of saying: “I want this. I prefer this. I prefer the other thing,” right?
[Daniel]: Because maybe you want a toy in October or in January. But you can’t have it, because there aren’t any to be had. That’s just how it is.
Okay. But these are just material things, and, well, who cares really? I mean, I’ve already said that the 70s and 80s —when Karla was growing up— those were the relatively good times. But that was about to end.
Karla was about to get into college. She still remembers Havana as it was then. She doesn’t forget the optimism she and her friends felt. What it was like to be young and hopeful. When she started college…
[Karla]: I started dreaming of things I was going to do after I graduated.
[Daniel]: But just then…
[Journalist]: Good night, Berlin, as you have just seen, is a clamor of freedom. Thousands of people have literally taken a wall that up to 24 hours ago meant the division between the East and the West.
[Karla]: In ‘89 the Berlin Wall was torn down. In ‘91 the Soviet…the Soviet Union was over.
[Daniel]: Here we have to stop for a moment and acknowledge the irony. Because world events have different —sometimes contrary— meanings in different places. In Europe and across much of the world, the fall of the Berlin Wall meant freedom, an end to dictatorship and repression. A reunited Germany. Meanwhile in Cuba…
[Karla]: When the Soviet Union disappeared, it disappeared with practically all the products of… with which we lived.
[Fidel Castro]: We proposed that if we are to face a Special Period in times of peace —a tough special period— our task is to not only survive, but to prosper.
[Karla]: Everything started to go missing in Cuba. And, of course, the problems of the 90s was what… what am I going to eat today, what am I going to cook tonight.
[Fidel Castro]: Now, this country is asked an internationalism… an extraordinary internationalist mission: Save the Cuban revolution! Save socialism in Cuba!
[Daniel]: As Karla remembers it —in what amounts to an eye blink— Cuba became an entirely different country.
[Karla]: It was very abrupt, because it was: from one day to the next everything started changing, started closing. And especially in the early 1990s, practically the whole country closed up to us.
[Daniel]: Karla describes a sense of the island —her beloved island—feeling suddenly smaller. Oppressively small. And not just spiritually, also in a practical sense.
[Karla]: And the hotels closed for us too and you couldn’t go in. They were for… for the tourists, and the restaurants too. So, suddenly the country completely… the country you could go to, wasn’t your country. But we were there.
[Daniel]: There were places you couldn’t go anymore. Because they wouldn’t let you in. Or places you couldn’t get to, because just moving around Cuba was suddenly really difficult.
[Karla]: And, so, suddenly transportation —which was already bad, because transportation has always been bad there— practically disappeared. The guagua, the buses would seldom pass. And, so, the option the government had to solve a little of that crisis, were bicycles. The city was completely awash with bicycles.
[Daniel]: Thousands upon thousands of bicycles imported from Russia. Giant, hulking heavy Soviet bikes. Thousands more imported from China. This was something entirely new. Karla had never had a bike before. Back when she was a kid…
[Karla]: I don’t know how many arrived, but very few. And, of course, they ran out in the first numbers. In the first five or six numbers, something like that.
[Daniel]: But now —during the Special Period— with the island awash in bicycles, it was her turn. Karla was a student. She had to get class.
[Karla]: And, so, I was there in the university. They started giving out the bikes. I said: “Well, I want a bike. It’s my turn.”
[Daniel]: It was her turn. But there was a catch…
[Karla]: They would make you do a lap to prove that you knew how to ride, and you could leave the university with the bike.
[Daniel]: And she didn’t know how to ride. Because, of course, no kid could buy a bicycle on a day three or four. There weren’t any left. There were lots of people like Karla, who had never learned how to ride. So, if you wanted, you could get a lesson right there, at the university. But Karla…
[Karla]: I said: “No, no. I have a reputation. I’m not going to start learning to ride a bike in front of my schoolmates.” What are they going to think? That at 20 years old I don’t know how to ride a bike?
[Daniel]: So she left and went to learn on her own, at her cousin’s. Where she promptly fell over and broke her foot. She had to wear a cast, which actually ended up being a good thing.
[Karla]: And, so, with the cast I went to… to the university, to get a bike. I couldn’t prove I knew how to ride because I had a cast, but I explained that it was… that logically I knew how to ride.
[Daniel]: They looked her over, until they said: “Sure, okay.” And that’s how Karla —at age 20— got her first ever day one toy.
Fidel announced the start of the Special Period in 1999 and that crisis never really ended. And this is what I want you to understand: how I’ve come to see this little story.
When you find yourself at a moment of transition, when you feel yourself… your country saying goodbye to something, without quite knowing, but still dreading what’s coming next. You sometimes find peace in the most unexpected places.
Karla got her bike, learned from a friend, and then slowly started venturing out into the city on her new toy.
[Karla]: You could pedal through the streets and… and I don’t know and feel the wind. And sometimes I loved, for example, when it rained —because it rains there, in the Caribbean it suddenly rains, brrrr— and… and that… the world is going to end and 15 minutes later it’s over. And I loved that. That would… would… it was like a liberation, right? It would really relax me.
[Daniel]: Because in Cuba, in the 1990s the world started to press in on you. Your choices —limited as they were— felt even more constrained. And there was so little you could control. So little personal autonomy. But you went about your business, seeing everything, taking it in, aware of the impending collapse. But on a bicycle:
[Karla]: Of course. And if I want to turn here, I turn here. If I want to change my mind, I change my mind and go the other way. And you’re the only one who… it all depends on… on the resistance of your feet. Physical, right? If you get tired, well, no. But it’s all up to you.
[Daniel]: And this is the image I want to leave you with, the one I’ve been thinking about since Karla and I spoke. A country that feels different, where doors that were always open are now suddenly and firmly closed. Where there is uncertainty and unease. A crisis you can see in the faces of your neighbors and your family and your friends. One you can feel in the pit of your stomach. Anxiety almost indistinguishable from hunger. The creeping sense that one day, you’ll have to leave, though you don’t know how you’ll manage it or where you’ll go.
But at night, the rains come, and the sleeping city is scoured clean and you put a cassette in your walkman.
[Karla]: Oh, I listened to a lot of Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd accompanied me on the bike a lot.
[Daniel]: And you pull on your headphones, shut out the world, and ride home along dark, empty streets. And you feel, very briefly, as though nothing could stop you. Except the sea.
We’ll be back after the break.
[Ad]: This message comes from NPR sponsor, Squarespace. Squarespace is the all-in-one platform to build an online presence and run your business. Create your company’s website using customizable layouts, along with features including e-commerce functionality and mobile editing. And Squarespace offers built-in search engine optimization. Go to Squarespace.com/NPR for a free trial, and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code NPR to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain.
[Ask Me Another]: Do you love trivia, puzzles, nerdy games and humor? What about interviews with actors, musicians and people of all walks of life? If that sounds like something for you, listen to Ask Me Another every Friday.
[How I Built This]: What does it take to build something from nothing? And what’s the process to build it? Each week on How I Built This, a behind the scenes with the founders of the most inspiring companies in the world.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
[Karla]: For many years, Havana was the city I went back to, the place where I lived, so getting there meant the end of the journey, back to the routine.
[Daniel]: And this is Karla Suárez reading a text called Havana.
[Karla]: Sometimes I arrived in my sleep, along with my sister, in the backseat of a car. Other times I unloaded where the truck left me and the city transformed into the faces of people looking at us as if we were coming home from war, the guys bearded and us skinny with tousled hair, everyone in dirty, often torn clothes, with backpacks full of sludge and bodies reeking from days on the road, though thanks to the strange looks or some comment on our arrival home, we realized that the collective perfume that accompanied us in the mountains and in the caves, in the city it was simply called stench.
Havana was normality, the break between adventure and adventure, the center of the world, of our limited islander world. It was taking advantage of the vacation we had left to get together and remember the journey and tell the others, “I was there, I did this, and the danger, and I’m not going back there, or I have to go back.” It was neatly copying my diaries written in notebooks that were battered from the trip so I could read them to everyone, someday, so that we don’t forget who built the bonfire so we could cook, who always arrived first, who complained, who loaded their pack with things that were useless at first but helped us to keep walking, who chronicled the journey, who we were; writing most of all for that, so we don’t forget who we were and where we had been. Havana was daily life, the point of departure for the next trip, the umbilical cord.
But, to me, Havana is also something else. It’s the city where I was born and where I’ve spent the majority of my existence. It’s my neighborhood and the happiness of feeling grown up because I can cross Avenida 41 on my own to visit my childhood friend. It’s my sister making up a choreography so we could dance together. It’s my house full of my mother’s books, all the stories of the world hidden in those bookcases and vinyl discs. It’s my father with a pair of binoculars, teaching me the constellations on my building’s rooftop. And the two of them, with maps and designs, half-crazy, trying to get me to understand that the Havana tunnel goes under the bay, that it’s a work of civil engineering that goes in one end and out the other, my desperate parents facing my childish logic of not believing in things I can’t touch. How is it possible for fish and boats to pass over cars? Childishly negative: I don’t understand.
Many years later, in Rome, an Italian told me, admiringly, that the tunnel under the bay was one of the things that surprised him most about the city. I smiled, and then I took out my map and explained: in Havana, there are three tunnels, two go under the Almendares River and are small, but the most impressive is the bay tunnel, it starts on this side and comes out the other. It has four tracks. It’s 733 meters long and was built by a French company in the ‘50s. In fact, its architecture is quite similar to the tunnels that go through the French Alps, only the one in Havana is different because when you ride it, you know that a few meters up there could be ships passing overhead or some fish, if there are still fish in those murky waters.
Havana is one of the boys in the neighborhood playing in the rain and mothers shouting from the balcony to come in, it’s time for dinner. And the little boys running, the guys playing soccer, the girls playing hopscotch. It’s the songs of Teresita Fernández: “come little friends, let’s all sing, for we have happy hearts.” And that other sublime melody you hear in the distance, seconds before grabbing a plastic bowl to go running out to the street, because the music is announcing the ice cream truck that drives through the city to stop at any corner and sell ice cream, popsicles, delicious things that you just have to buy.
Havana is school, the uniform, the Martí poems repeated and learned for life and recited every morning before the pledge of allegiance. “Pioneers for Communism, let us be like Che” and the line, class, and then recess and the sweet cookies and soda pop.
Havana is your neighbor asking you if you have a new boyfriend because the boy who came looking for you today isn’t the same as last week. It’s knocking on your neighbor’s door when you run out of salt or need to make a phone call because you don’t have a phone. It’s listening to the whole building’s arguments. It’s people going out to the balconies, looking at the street, because it’s hot and there’s nothing better to do, and we all watch each other and know everything about each other. It’s the scuffle in the middle of the streets or the shouts of that neighbor while she killed herself by setting herself on fire. It’s the long line for the bread or the line for the bus that takes centuries. It’s the pizza, and the milkshake that they sell at la Tropical before la Tropical transforms into the kingdom of dance music and salsa spreads through the air to make it to my window and keep me from watching the Saturday movie. It’s the two tv channels, the Russian and Polish dolls we grew up with, the super-Cuban Elpidio Valdés struggling against the Spanish, the Brazilian telenovelas, and the endless speeches from the Commander-in-Chief airing on both channels, right before the telenovela, so no one turns off the tv.
Havana is my fingers learning to play guitar in the conservatory. It’s the music of Ignacio Cervantes, Lecuona, Caturla, the solfeggio classes, the face of that Marxist professor accusing us of ideological diversionism because the guys wanted to grow their hair out, we all had our shirt sleeves rolled up and were hanging signs saying: “¡Long live rock n’ roll! The next day when he came into class, he saw written on the board: “Long live Cuban music too!” but, said nothing then.
Havana is sneaking out of the college prep school to bathe on the coast and then proudly show off our Caribbean tans. They’re the first discussions, the first questions, the Angolan-Nicaraguan War and the Latin American unit and the Nueva Trova music accompanying the vigils around a mug of black Soviet tea. It’s discovering poetry and wanting to learn Vallejo by heart. Meeting in a garage to sing one of our songs and read all of our poems and agreeing that the world doesn’t understand us, and the neighbors complain because it’s past midnight, and we’re still singing and the tea isn’t just tea, but it’s spiked with rum, and the boys shout and don’t let them sleep, until they close the garage on us and we have to move to the nearest park where the trees don’t complain, and we can stay there until morning.
Havana is the ice cream from Coppelia when the ice cream shop was open until two in the morning and was full of different flavors. It’s me walking in the early morning, kilometers and kilometers, to get home, for the pure joy of walking alone at night, when walking alone at night wasn’t scary. There was light in the street and people sitting on their porches. Havana is a concert of young troubadours at el Saborit, in the town of Playa; or at la Casa of the young creator in la Avenida del Puerto. It’s the outpouring of music and poetry at the museum on 13th and 8th in el Vedado in the late ‘80s. It’s books that we had to devour because they had to be passed from hand to hand, like Martí said: “Be educated to be free,” we had to be educated to then discover we weren’t going to be totally free.
Havana is the boardwalk, the nearly six kilometers of fencing along the northern coastline, defining the borders, marking our “terrible circumstance of water all around,” as Virgilio Piñera wrote. Havana is Piñera, and Carpentier and it’s Lezama Lima, and it’s all its poets and writers, living and dead, on and off the island. And it’s the parade of floats and troupes going down the boardwalk avenue during the carnavales of times past. It’s “Los Guaracheros de Regla” and the “Alacrán” troups and the boleros and the tank trucks selling beer in bulk in paper cups. And the women walking down the street with rollers in their hair. And the lions of the Paseo del Prado and el Boulevard and then the streets of downtown Havana flooded with people.
Havana for me, is the polytechnic university where I studied, so sequestered from the city, so full of numbers and late nights at the calculous center and exams and extracurricular jobs in construction or in the fields and military training and cultural festivals. It’s going to hide out at the National Library to read a novel by Cortázar or listen to a troubadour at the Museum of Decorative Arts, or to study at l’Alliance française. The el Patio de María and it’s more national and more underground rock concerts. It’s the Latin American film festival, the trips to one movie theater or another to see all the movies, the parties with a lot of rum, the friends. It’s me singing in the gallery at 23th and 12th or me turned into a choir singer at a concert at the Karl Marx Theatre. It’s all of the dreams of those years so full of movement, of wanting to do, because there was never enough time.
Havana is the unrest of 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and when, after that, “mother Soviet Union” cut the umbilical cord where practically everything came. It’s discovering another city overnight that has to adjust. It’s closing all the stores, the long hours without electricity, the water and sugar for breakfast and the bikes becoming the only mode of transport. It’s like someone wakes you up in the morning, brusquely, with no tenderness. The chaos, the implosion of the country. It’s a city opening its legs to tourism, the city where, little by little, we become a landless people, not foreigners, because the city was for them, and so was what little electricity there was, and their hotels, and their restaurants. For us it was simply “Labana,” but it was, it still was, continuing to play music and meet by candlelight to read poetry and sing songs and discuss politics and drink whatever. Not Russian tea anymore, and much less Cuban rum, which was for international tourist. For us, it was the city that no one was going to take from us, even though we couldn’t go in its hotels, even though we had to eat the same food every day and mend our clothes and get sick of everything.
Havana is, or are, my friends who died untimely deaths, too soon by the logical timeline of any life. When, as if your crisis wasn’t enough, Havana, I had to get used to their absences and ride my bike through the Colón cemetery, so beautiful, so cinematic, with all its statues and me looking for a tombstone that someone stole and later sold at a markup.
Havana… you are August of 1994. You’re disorder, people shouting in the streets, breaking storefront windows, helicopters flying overhead. You’re the boardwalk we sat on to talk, drink, and end the night so many times, where so many people sit and soak in the fresh sea. You’re the boardwalk turned dock to say goodbye to those who were leaving in homemade rafts. You’re the explosion and then the calm, the “I hope you make it,” “I hope it goes well for you, and send back money.” You’re the bitter smile: “Pioneers for Communism, let us be like Che,” yes, foreigners.
You, Havana, are the bodies of your people, the heat on the skin, the brush of a hand, their lascivious glances. You’re that desire to laugh all the time, even at ourselves. You’re the guy sitting in the steel doorframe waiting for any woman to walk by to tell her, “You’re gorgeous, mami.” You’re the woman’s smile, the undulations of her flesh. The old man who sings while he walks. The old woman smoking on her porch. The shade of your trees. The music that flies out the windows. The sound. The neighbor calling upon the Afro-Cuban saints and may Changó protect us and Elegguá clear the way. The sweat running down the back of cyclist pedaling under the Caribbean sun. The sweat running over our bodies as we make love. You’re the tick-tock of the clock on Emisora Radio Reloj, the chime that heralds the minutes, one by one, so we don’t forget the time: “It’s 5 a.m. in Havana, Cuba.” And every minute is barely 60 seconds tumbling over us.
You are, sweet Havana, which has become weariness, desperation. And you’re the airport, that pit where so many things disappear. You’re far fewer friends’ numbers in my contact book. The dream of an international visa to go to the airport and say: Chao, I hope you don’t drink the Coca-Cola of oblivion. I hope you remember me, remember us and you can write us, who knows if we’ll be back soon. You’re the airport that’s called José Martí, of course, what else would it be called. Your airport, Havana, is that cold place where people put on their best clothes to say goodbye. And there are beers and parties, and carts with luggage and sobs choked down in the chest. And our parents are there, on one side or another, waiting for an arrival or a departure, always smiling, because Cubans always smile. You’re the airport where I spent a day at immigration and stood up to look at them all and say, “Chao,” before opening the door and going somewhere else with my dreams.
And here I am, my Havana, looking at you in photos. Now, you’ve become the trip, the vacation. You’re the anxiousness of the next adventure. New friends in my contacts. The place that leaves me nothing but to keep dreaming, because of everything, in spite of everything. The ghost city I have to discover every time I return, but that looks at me and recognizes me. Maybe that’s why, of all the ones I know, you’re my city, Havana, and who knows, who could say, if maybe one day you’ll go back to being the city I return to.
[Daniel]: Karla Suárez is a novelist. The essay “La Habana” was published initially in French in the book Cuba, caminos del azar. It appears in Spanish in El hijo héroe, published in 2017. She lives in Lisbon.
This episode was produced by Daniel Alarcón and edited by Camila Segura. The translation is by Camila and Victoria Estrada. The mixing and sound design are by Rémy Lozano and Andrés Azpiri. This story was presented for the first time at our live show in Washington D.C., in September 2018.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Lisette Arévalo, Gabriela Brenes, Jorge Caraballo, Andrea López Cruzado, Miranda Mazariegos, Patrick Moseley, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Luis Fernando Vargas, Silvia Viñas y Joseph Zárate. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
And with this story, we’re ending the 2018-2019 season. We’re very grateful to everyone, for your support, for listening, for the message, the tweets, the listening clubs, for everything, everything, everything. On behalf of the team, I want to thank you and say how much it means to us to feel all that warmth and support. We are already working on new stories, to come back next season with more energy and ambition. Pay attention to our social media to be aware of any news. We’ll have a few interesting announcements in the following months.
So, all that’s left is to say the usual:
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.