The Covid-19 Emergency in Cuba, Days 56 to 58: Our Sputnik Runs on Coal

Our 'Sputnik' would not win a design contest. (14ymedio)
Our ‘Sputnik’ would not win a design contest. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 18 May 2020 – Since the Covid-19 crisis has been unleashed in Cuba, the days and nights have passed with a cleaner sky due to the few vehicles that circulate on the streets and the closing of polluting industries. Except in Havana, unfortunately, because of the dirty column of smoke that the Ñico López refinery releases into the air every day.

To enjoy this clear panorama, it is best to climb on a rooftop. The one over our heads in this concrete block has the advantage that it is wide, has almost no television antennas since the advance of the digital signal and, in addition, at more than 14 floors above the ground, it is not suitable for those who are afraid of the heights, which is why it is little visited. If you add that birds nest in it, it looks like a paradise, but instead of the apple tree there is a huge water tank.

On this roof, Rei and I started our long journey together 27 years ago, so we have a special affection for each corner, each tile and even the lightning rod that has never worked. But what we like the most is the view that is achieved if one lies face up on the roof during a moonless night. After seeing something like this, even the most decorated chapel and the most exquisite ceiling seem small.

In these days of so much stress derived from the pandemic, a few long hours looking towards infinity can help calm the most distraught tempers and renew some hopes. When I was a little girl the future seemed inextricably linked to the stars. It was the time of the space race and in Cuba we lived surrounded by stories of Soviet cosmonauts, details about the Soyuz spacecraft, and constant allusions to Sputnik.

Back then, many children on this Island dreamed of being part of some crew that was heading towards space. We believed that, without a doubt, we were going to be adults in a world of supersonic ships accessible to everyone and that the boring meals of each day would be replaced by a couple of pills or a tube of cream, just a little bit of which would give us nutrients for long days. It was a time to dream…

Now, when I look back, I realize that in 1991 when the USSR disintegrated our astronaut chimeras were also pulverized. Almost three decades later, space has been filled with satellites, ships with crews of various nationalities and even trash. The pills to feed us, so we might resist without having to find something to put on our plates, did not arrive.

After so long, in my life the word Sputnik only means the name of a magazine that did not survive the end of the socialist camp, or of the homonymous official press agency which, founded in the last decade, now repeats everything that the Kremlin finds agreeable. This would be the case, except for the fact that an ingenious neighbor has helped us to manufacture a nice coal stove from the framework of an old gas cylinder. As soon as we laid eyes on it we nicknamed it after that satellite launched in 1957.

Sputnik would not win a design contest, nor does it measure up to the sophisticated grills advertised on classified sites, but it has something of that crude presence of objects that populated my Sovietized childhood. Maybe that’s why I got a smile on my face when I saw it finished, with one of its grills made of a fan casing, a small openwork door in the metal itself and a firepit that reminds us of the cartoons of wolves, steppes and tears with which we grew up.

These days, the cooking gas piped into our home sometimes arrives only weakly. The confinement imposed by the pandemic keeps families inside their homes longer and the stoves stay on longer. But there is Sputnik to save us. It squeaks when opened, emits fumes from its small firepit, and spreads the smell of burning coal throughout the apartment.

Today, we have put in Sputnik some sweet potatoes, a piece of chicken from the rationbook and some small capsicum peppers. The result was not like those extraordinary pills that I imagined when I was a child but – in the end – nor I did become a cosmonaut.


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.