Honking in Havana


Tiberius, on the Sea of Galilee in Israel, a Saturday about twenty years ago; the Sabbath. Everything stops in Israel on the Sabbath (actually, it doesn’t, but that’s another story); there was nothing to do in Tiberius. With another Englishman I’d met along the way, fed up, wanting to be somewhere else and unable to get there we found nothing open: no bars or shops – nothing. Sitting on a wall by some traffic lights near the centre of town after spending most of the day, first trying to leave and then find something to do, this Sabbath caught us out, surprised us. We ended up at the harbour, found some old bits of discarded fishing line and made a hook from a piece of wire and put some stale bread on the hook. You could see fish in the clear water of the harbour. After much ingenuity and patience we caught a fish, the highlight of the day.


But back to the traffic lights, fascinated by the impatience of many Israelis, supposedly enjoying their day of rest, we watched their actions as they queued. The traffic lights were free flowing; there were no delays beyond what the lights required, a few seconds to allow the crossroads traffic to move in the other direction. Used to the apparent irritability of the drivers everywhere here, now we could observe it scientifically. Hands did not stay off the horn for very long; a constant cacophony of horn blowing, for no reason. We watched a queue of traffic from our side of the lights, never more than seven or eight cars; you didn’t have to wait long before the lights changed. As soon as the lights changed to green, the absolute split second, all those waiting behind the first car started honking their horns for it  to move. They didn’t give the car a chance, waited less than a second before they started blaring away as soon as the lights changed, shaking their heads, talking to themselves and the driver in front, hunched over the steering wheel in their anxiety to be somewhere else. Not many of the drivers could have been going far.


We decided to count how long the silences lasted (remember, there was no need to use the horn at all – the traffic was free flowing). Seven seconds was the longest period of silence while we were there, and we were there for a long time. I don’t think a car horn is a very pleasant sound; it’s supposed to be a warning, and it’s quite irritating to listen to, especially when it’s constant, doubly so when there’s no need for it.


Seven seconds. That was not a good day. Until we caught the fish.


Cubans honk all the time but it’s mainly a form of exuberance, a need for noise. Horns are honked partly to warn other traffic or pedestrians, but such is the driving skill, from bicycle taxis to lorries and buses, that tooting as a caution is rarely required. Parts of Havana and Cuba are fairly advanced in terms of traffic signs and lights, but many parts are practically free-for-alls; take into account that many cars don’t have lights, indicators or cannot get above thirty miles per hour, and one realises that Cubans have developed a sixth sense when negotiating traffic. Nevertheless, they honk pretty often.


Musical, novelty, multi-sound horns are a boon to Cubans and a curse to the very few (me) who can’t stand them. I am used to general noise in Havana and normal honking sounds punctuate the day. They are nothing like as relentless as in Israel and nowhere near as annoying, but I find the multi-sound horn irritating. It rises above the usual hustle to impose a strange, loud and unique sound; it suddenly disturbs. Cubans absolutely love them. There is an unconscious need for noise in Cuba; they are comfortable with noise; they like to be talking, shouting, laughing, and extraneous noise not only does not bother them, they welcome it. It seems to be part of the Cuban psyche. Freud once said that the Irish are impervious to psychoanalysis – I don’t think he ever visited Cuba – for the same almost certainly applies to them.


At night when Havana is almost quiet, when silence almost reigns, say three or four o’clock in the morning, perhaps a Tuesday, you can guarantee that a Cuban with his new la cucaracha musical air horn will give it full blast and break the silence. There will be no concern for waking anybody. I have never seen Cubans give the slightest thought to neighbours in terms of noise; it is as though noise is preferable to silence. Nobody notices it; nobody complains about it.


I have grown fairly used to the noise over the years. I only notice it here because I am often writing, and have had that perfect sentence dashed quite a few times by La Bamba, Wedding March or Cavalry Charge musical, super loud air horns. I can swear loudly, curse my own impatience, accept that I’m in Cuba and that it’s just inevitable – and just get on with it. And however one handles it, it is certainly better than the impatient all-day honking in Tiberius.


Crime in Havana

vivaI heard a sudden noise from the street, rather an increase in noise – there is always noise in central Havana, always. This was high pitched shouting and screaming. At first I thought it was kids in the corridor, not unknown, boisterous, echoing, but it was far too loud for that, so I moved to the balcony. Yuri had returned; she’d been out and gone straight to the other balcony. The disturbance must have begun right after she entered the building. I looked down, four floors; it was hard to figure out what was gong on; there seemed to be maybe a dozen people involved, nearly all women. There were two or three separate swirls of action, involving much shouting, angry, high-pitched and out of control, mostly female. I saw a few punches and kicks being aimed, but each swirl of action had another dozen people trying to break it up, and the whole thing was being watched by an almost instant crowd of about one hundred. Every balcony was full, traffic came to a standstill.


The police quickly arrived on foot and began to separate the warring parties. It was difficult though, because there were about ten women attacking two men; the men tried to take refuge in the flats or get into their white car. Every time the police moved one or two of the women, another one or two would come in from another side. And the women began screaming at the police, so more separate arguments began. The street was blocked with people by now. One of the men managed to get into the white car; a policeman stood guard at the door. A woman began screaming at him and while his attention was on her another woman opened the door and aimed a kick at the man inside. The police managed to separate the crowd from the fighting parties; one of the men was in the doorway to the flats, the other in the car. The man in the car was short and white; the one in the doorway was big, tall, probably mulatto.


The crowd watching swelled; it left just a small circle for the action, like a cock fight. The women were now screaming; at the police mostly, but also the men beyond. They were very, very loud, very angry, gesticulating wildly with their arms, jerky violent movements, explaining themselves to the police, but, I suspected, explaining nothing. I had seen this happen before in Bayamo one night. A friend and I had smashed up a hire car; we were in the police station to report the accident. It was quite a serious accident; my friend (he had no licence) had turned the car over, but we were more or less unscathed. A policewoman commented on this: why aren’t you more seriously hurt? José, my friend, indicated that we were wearing seat belts. She shook her head and wondered at the novelty. Anyway, suddenly about twenty women, mostly quite young, burst into the station. The noise was absolutely tremendous. Everything else had to stop. They were all shouting at once, waving their arms; it was hard to tell whom was arguing with whom, or what the problem was. Nothing else could be done while this was going on: the police woman excused herself. For about an hour they listened to various stories and (I think) pretended to take notes. The women talked (shouted) at the same time. Various officers listened to them. Slowly, very slowly, they calmed down a bit, perhaps talked among each other; it was hard to tell. Gradually everything went quiet and they were sent on their way. I don’t believe the police did anything. They just sighed with relief and went back to work.


This altercation reminded me of that, although three or four of the women didn’t calm down at all. The police though, calmly separated everybody and the watching crowd slipped away. Traffic started to move again. Two, then three police cars arrived. The white man stayed in the car, but the mulatto explained himself to the police. Some of the women tried to get at him, but couldn’t, so argued with the police. Eventually, the women departed. People left their balconies. The white man got out of the car. The two men left. The police stayed for about an hour, not doing anything, just talking.


Two hours later, three separate police on bicycles arrived; then a policeman on foot, then a motorcycle cop, then three police cars. The women then arrived; they came from another street, so I think did the men. The women had bought a bigger woman with them. She carried a can of beer and was built like a heavyweight boxer. She was shouting when she arrived and the whole time she was there. Two or three of the other women, the ones who’d been there before were also shouting. It was quite a performance but lacked the energy of the previous row. The police sort of listened, but really just ignored them. The men were nowhere to be seen. The car was still there. After fifteen minutes the women left. The heavyweight boxer kept stopping and shouting all the way up the street. She still held the can of beer, was probably drunk and perhaps trying to make up for not having been there. She had obviously been brought along as a reinforcement and was trying to make up for having nothing to do. The police ignored her.


The three bicycle police and the man on foot left after about thirty minutes. The three police cars, each with two police, and the motorcycle cop stayed for about another ninety minutes. They talked. One of them cleaned his car. They all had a look at the motorcycle; it was new. A trailer arrived, backed up to the white car and took it away. The police chatted briefly and left. I have no idea what it was all about. Neither did Yuri, but she lost interest after about five minutes.


I wondered about crime in Havana…