Wednesday, May 17, 2006



As most in Cuba during April of 1958 my understanding political circumstance was confused. I had little idea that our seemingly local struggle for democracy was being co-opted by marxists and that the whole country was being dragged into the “Cold War.”

My mind turns back to that time:

Right now, my only concern was the fear that filled me. I had seen many graphic photographs of the murdered opposition. Bohemia magazine was never shy about publishing them. They were horrible pictures of torture and murder. The dead rebels’ bodies were “escribillados con balas,” their deaths “written with bullets.”

To be an enemy of Batista was very dangerous. In these days corpses of those who Batista forces murdered were found seemingly everywhere in Cuba. It concerned me most that these dead were found as “warnings written with bullets” in places I knew well. They were found in urban places such as the Humbolt 7 apartment building where my mother and Enrique Sanz lived in Havana; and they appeared over five hundred miles away on the rural Oriente Province dirt road of the Camino Real across the river from where I lived now.

Clearly from what Nicia was telling me, right at that crucial time of April 1958, I must do something decisive or I would die. Yet, my worried mind was not completely sure if rebelling openly was the right decision, and besides a gun was required to join the rebels.

The morning after the rebels came to la Casa de los Generales, Nicia aware of my confusion and dilemma, takes matters into her strong, thin, long-fingered hands that have pleasured so many. She stands there a moment, in a loose and simple, once bright, calf-length dress, which was now, with many washings faded gray. It was the kind dress she wore most working days.

Her hair is thinning, receding a little, running back at the sides of her forehead, but it is still glossy black and softly wavy. It was not long, cut barely above her shoulders, showing that she had some urban experience. Her feet are in small, black, low-heel working pumps. New crows-feet edge her eyes; near her nose, traces of pincer lines are beginning to crease her face.

Nicia’s cheekbones are prominent and high on her triangular face in the Taína Indian fashion, and her eyes are deep and shiny black. Since she worked indoors, her skin is not the darkest brown, yet it shines as bronze contrasting with the black-blue highlights of her hair and gray of her clothing.

The Casa de Alto throws long shadows to the west. A slight breeze blows cool morning air. Elegant, shiny and toxic, the salvadera tree’s heart-shaped leaves flutter in the slight breeze trembling fearfully aspen like on long petioles. She motions without speaking and takes me through the west door of the Casa de Alto.

She goes up the stairs. There are no windows here in the stairwell; we are in deep shade within concrete walls. There is a strong smell of Spanish cedar wood. She goes up towards the odor of cedar and the bright purity of morning light that is pouring through open windows of the second floor. I follow.

A couple of the worn steps in the wooden staircase creak as always. The second floor is built of plainly carpentered tropical woods. The stairwell is protected by a fence of un-carved wooden banisters. As we reach the second floor, we turn west along the banisters that surrounded the stairwell.

We are in a large room that here extends across the width of the house. The windows have no screens, merely large shutters, hinged on top. The shutters are propped open now by squared wooden rods. Removing the rods drops the shutters when necessary to keep out the driving tropical rain.

The unfinished walls and the unpolished furniture’s rough simplicity humbles the fine wood from which they are made. The floor is simple tongue-in-groove joined board. We walk west. The floor boards creak.

Lapped by thin strips, vertical planks of Spanish cedar divides the space into two more rooms to the north and two more to the south. Behind us is a door that opens on to the sloping roof that covers the place where amid a chorus of distinct strong smells of well sweated canvas, wood crosstrees, thin rope, brass rings and straw padding, the mule aparejo packs are stored. Why this brass has such a strong presence I do not know.

I can see crowded together at the ends of a few branches, some big, obovate that is broadest towards the apex, leathery leaves of an East Indian almond tree. This is the tree under which the horses and mules are tethered for shoeing; and the male stud donkeys are held for service. Old dried and faded, broken apples of horse, donkey and mule dung lie about on sand and gravel. These droppings cannot be seen from here, but I can smell their presence faintly floating in the air.

This door is open. Bright eastern light makes sharp diagonal shadows on the walls. South of us, in a walled alcove to the right, against the building’s east wall, is a large new bathroom that Uncle Rafael and Guillermo Ramos built. And doors open to a balcony to the west. Uncle Rafael died of guilt soon after this was built. Guillermo Ramos, who stole the goods Uncle Rafael had purchased to support his seven families has taken his wives to live away from here.

There is no family in the batey of course, they have all left; yet their presence is still here. Nicia and I go to the northwestern corner room on the upper floor of this “Casa de Alto.” This once was Uncle Marco’s room; it is still lined with bookcases holding his technical information and a vast collection of two-prong bayonet bound USDA agricultural instructional pamphlets.

Here, Nicia shows me where Aunty Rosita's 0.38 Police Special and a yellow box of 50 precious rounds of ammunition is hidden. These are lodged between the double walls of unfinished, rough-surfaced, Spanish cedar. I look at the ammunition in its tidy upright rows, dark-tipped with lead, and wrapped in shiny nickel casings. The cardboard ammunition box is surprisingly heavy. How Nicia knows where this was hidden I do not know. Yet house servants know everything.

The revolver, a gun for the country not the city, is even deeper blue-black than Nicia’s hair; it is shiny and smells of cleaning oil. The gun has an especially long barrel for accuracy. That is good!

The revolver must have had a holster, and I must have taken it, for later use. I do not remember the holster at this frightful time.

Now there was hope for me. Perhaps I might live. The Batista forces are far and the rebels are supposed to be in "El Corojo," the hamlet across the river. I must go to them!

I take a light open-weave tropical blanket, a rubberized canvas ground sheet, and the gun and ammunition and put them in my backpack. The backpack was the WWII surplus rucksack my father had brought for me from England. It hung far too long at my back, for it was meant for paratrooper drops.

I adjust the rucksack around my shoulders; it still feels uncomfortable. Filled with apprehension and fear but also a little thrilling joy at the adventure and the relief of a decision made, I leave for El Corojo.

The hard dirt and rock road out of the batey of the Casa of de los Generales is as usual empty. This is not surprising, for it is one of our family’s gated private roads.

Hurrying, I do not notice to my left, the row of thorny maya, Bromelia pinguin, a poor relative of the pineapple and bears small bear like single fruit. My legs know the maya fence is there; and I simply walk around it, avoiding it without conscious thought. This is the species of plant that long ago in 1895 made impenetrable thickets to trap the Spanish troops at Peralejo. Grandfather had ordered it planted for fences in several places around the batey, perhaps in memory of those long gone days.

Nor to my right do I see the barbwire fence that keeps cattle and people from falling off the cliff edge. Without looking, I know that the fence is there and that is enough.

The narrow strip of lush guinea grass and bush leading to the edge of the steep cliff down to the lagoon also goes unnoticed. I am frightened; in tunnel vision my eyes, are focused rigidly ahead.

At the tall, gray trunk of the anacahuita tree, I turn west towards the Bayamo River. Seeing and yet not consciously noticing, for my mind is busy, familiar sights, I go over a broad and shallow, forb and grass covered, dry stream-bed of pebbles and boulders that the Bayamo River only uses when in its creciente floods. The large lagoon is to my right, the little lagoon to my left.

Walking up slope out of the dry river bed, I pass to the right of the spreading branched mamonsillo tree which my sisters had climbed rapidly to take refuge from some angry half Brahma cows. There often are great ugly chipojo lizards in that tree. Today, I do not care about the chipojo’s scary colors and habit of leaping down when the sun becomes too hot at midday.

Here, for the soil is poor, the grass is thin, low, wiry, esparta, which grows between half-buried boulders. I go through a heavy wooden gate in the fence near the river edges, by the oak-like bark of a mahogany tree’s trunk. Since mahogany trees are becoming rare, I usually check it for seed to plant. Today, I do not look up, for even looking may take time, as I make the sharp left turn south towards a ford on the Bayamo River.

I follow the dirt road for a short distance in the shade below the low tree covered cliffs that line the river here. I go on until I reach the dynamite cut road to the pass cleaves these cliffs; here I turn west again, crossing the river. Past the ford on the other side, Rufino, the “Gallego” Cuban vernacular for Spaniard, storekeeper has planted a row of now magnificent Spanish cedars shading a small patch of coffee. The walls of Rufino's shop come in sight on the left, south side of the road. The desperate need to move faster than my legs can carry me drives me on and on.

Finally, I reach the store at the cross road of the hamlet of El Corojo. I see the jupiter tree fence that lined the Camino Real to the west. The far shadowy side of the cockfighting arena is to the south. The frantic and mad echoes arising the shouts and screams of those attending this killing sport are only heard in my mind. There is no cockfight today; these sounds, praises to gods of violent death, are not real now. Grandfather had belonged to the Conservative Party, who once opposed the cockfighting Liberals. Thus, we were forbidden to attend this barbaric blood sport, even more so because these events were often accompanied by human fights with knives and machetes.

I look! I look again and again! There are no rebels here! That is scary! That is very scary! It is all very quiet.

With great relief, I don’t see the enemy here either. There is only a undisturbed layer of dust resting on the road to the north where the Bayamo Batista Garrisons are about fifteen miles away. Yet, the dust of the road to the south, towards the rebel-held mountains, is also undisturbed.

Nothing is there either. Nobody is outdoors all is silent. I look south again, and again nothing. Nothing, the rebel forces I desperately need to find are not here either. It is clear that this place now between the constantly shifting lines of this war is a no-man’s land, a place of great danger.

The rebels are not there!!! Panic!!! Then, breaking the silence, a friendly voice, from the dark inside of Ruffino’s store says: “They went to Arroyón. Get out of here! Vete! Go! Go, go, go...!”

In a desperate rush, I re-cross the Bayamo River. I don’t feel wetness as I rush through the ford. Crossing, I reach the dark, little, crooked gorge that starts the road to the Guamá valley.

It is some slight relief to be on our family’s land again. I climb on the lava, laja, rocks of the road to Guamá. I run up the road. To my left is the dull, red, pocked soil surface of a large oval termite mound, perched on and covering the middle part of an old thick fence post.

The road turns south, then east just before the summit. Here there are newer “jupiter” living, termite-resistant, fence posts, planted between the old posts. The road is sunken here, and the jupiter fence-trees are now high to my left where the road is cut deep. Reaching the summit, I feel more relief.

Down to the Guamá River from the summit I go. The familiar high cliff is to my back and to my left.

Today, I still see the road go down and curve to the flat floor of the Guamá Valley. This is the place where Batista's soldiers had ambushed escapees of the Gamboa revolt of 1933. Here in the 1860s and 1870s, the evil Count of Valmaseda's troops had rushed, riding hard on narrow trails through thicket and forest to surprise and murder innocents in their homes.

Splashing across the ford at Paso Caimanes, memories come. I think of family stories of Uncle Rafael's horse tripping on that small, but vicious jumping crocodile, here, exactly here, some uncounted years before.

On her death bed, Aunt Rosie recalled seeing these armored reptile beasts. They were sunning here on the sandy east bank.

Beyond the ford of the crocodiles, the flat road is also lined with jupiter trees. These solid fences were built by Don Benjamin’s grandson, Uncle Ronaldo. I go south along the fence, the shade of trees, provides cover from any wandering avioneta spotter plane.

Satellite imagery shows these fences still exist today.

Behind the fences to the east is the guinea grass and limestone karst of the Llanos Plateau, part of the old lands of Don Benjamin’s Hacienda Guamá.

Rene Cuervo's father's store, its thin porch columns and raised foundation touching the base of the plateau is here. The enormous, 150 year-old mango tree, planted long ago by escaped slaves, shades the Cuervo's modest residence. I hurry by their house, a nice and sturdy palm thatched, yagua board walled, bohío, with a fenced batey.

Nobody comes out.

Rising beyond the river to the south and west, the ridge of Cacaíto extends its arm to the north and promises safety. On this side of the river, is a long field of boulders on the Guamá River flood plain. Guava bushes, growing between boulders, seem to be emerging straight out of these rocks. The bushes are sparse and do not provide much cover.

Now I know this is the place where the Guamá River, now joined by the strong Arroyón Stream pouring out of the ruptured old crater, had eons ago found its once westward way blocked by the massive volcanic uplifting of the Cacaíto ridge. Here, blocked by that ancient lava dyke, the waters turn north. Then I did not know what geological event caused its genesis, all I felt was mystical strangeness of the place.

East and upriver from where the river turns north is another ford I desperately need to cross. I cross swiftly the open boulder field and the river.

On the other, the south side of the river a little to the east-southeast is a glistening white karst limestone hill, cave riddled and forest covered. This hill marks Aunt Muñeca's land the first, lowest and largest numbered subdivision of the ancient volcano that comprises our land of Los Números.

From high in Los Números, in the place of the hidden woman “La Escondida,” El Salto de Guamá comes down the south wall of the caldera. It falls like a silver chain from heights of Uncle Marcos’s land. El Salto de Guamá is the highest waterfall in Cuba. We were always proud of that.

There on high, the Arroyón stream is born. Today, I know that here at the ford, there once had been a complete northern crater wall. Many eons ago, water had filled the volcano’s caldera and then broken through the crater wall to reach the Guamá River. The northern parts of Aunt Muñeca’s hilly land and the eastern slopes of the heights of Cacaíto are all that remain of that north wall.

After crossing this ford on the Guamá River, I reach the deep shade of the narrow Arroyón valley trail, crossing and re-crossing, and re-crossing the cold, clear waters of the stream of Arroyón. As I entered into the jumble hills on the once crater floor I wonder:

When I got there, would the rebels accept me, would they?

I push that negative thought aside expecting to be greeted by my friend, rebel leader René Cuervo. I did not know then he had been executed on “Che” Guevara’s orders.

I will get to that later.

Larry Daley, copyright 1996, revised 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006.


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