Wednesday, June 21, 2006




We go to the Minas del Frio.

We leave the Guisa valley, listening for the drone of spotter planes, ready to drop into the folded little valleys on either side of the de as we went along the exposed ridge road of Pueblo Nuevo. We cross down, beneath the shaded of the living fences, on that steep hill on that lava bedded road into the Guamá valley. Once again, but at a distance this time, we pass the grave of Francisco Maceo Osorio, but we do not know exactly where for the memorial plaque is being used as a hot plate on a güajiros stove.

Passing along the side of the Guamá River and the rise of the volcanic massif of Los Números, we go past the old hacienda house of great grandfather Don Benjamín. Here we are close to Don Benjamín’s old sugar mill that was destroyed in the war of 1912. We enter the ruptured crater going south and a little upstream along the Arroyón. We enter the side little valley of the Mingo stream passing north of where the high streams of water cascading down the rock face of the waterfall of the Chorrerón of Guamá shines like silver ribbons in the sun.

Here I recall stories of just before this war:

High up in Los Números, this chill iron flavored water, this same stream we drank from as we passed in the valley below had bathed the always ready bodies of Goya, Fredeslinda and Teófila. These women were the beautiful generous daughters of Mariano Tenazas, the great non-discriminating fornicator. There is a rumor that even my Aunt Betina, who was quite stout at the time, fell into to Tenaza’s arms and submitted gladly to his wide ranging appetites.

Tenazas daughters, when they were with their father or serving Uncle Marcus’ strong lust, lived among the pine trees that grew in the poor clay of that high hidden place. The daughters had stood proudly three naked women under the trees by the stream bathing in the Taíno way. This water running between great rough rocks over the jaiba crabs, made them gasp with the cold as they poured can full of water scooped from the shallow stream over their long straight black hair. They soaped with harsh white Osa®, Bear Brand, laundry soap, their strong brown skins felt no harm.

The cold water ran down and made their nipples tingle, it flowed over their bellies and gathering soap bubbles from between their thighs fell down their legs. The water fell back to the stream; the stream flowed on and then fell in a long thin cascade to the Arroyón Canyon.

Now as we walked on towards las Peñas and the Minas del Frío, the water falls from high in La Escondida down the Chorrerón of Guamá. Of course we cannot see La Escondida, for true to its name it is hidden in Uncle Marcos part of high ridge of the Números invisible to our view.

We climb again and go towards the west ridge of the family land by Uncle Joe's and Aunt Betina's shop among the shaded coffee at the Cacaito.

Here a few short years before Uncle Joe would tell a story of Tenazas in his decline.

Uncle Joe would recount with glee, and malicious graphic detail, how Tenazas rode a horse, after swallowing too much of an archaic mixture probably containing “Spanish Fly.”

Tenazas’s penis, still painfully erect after several days, is strapped to his thigh to protect it where it forms a huge lump under his trousers. Thus, with the source of his hurt clear to all, Tenazas suffers public humiliation as he passes each house in turn going down the mountains. Tenazas screams, as the horse, it must have been Dynamo Uncle Marco’s hard trotting quarter horse, carries him jolted at each step down.

The screams of Tenazas and the public sight his long tool strapped down on the long trip to see Doctor Bueno in Guisa are cause of much amused gossip. Given Tenazas reputation, he is given very little sympathy.

We leave the Arroyón valley Tenazas’ ordeal still in my mind:

We go over the Cacaíto pass, going down into the Bayamo valley. We cross the guinea grass, guava bushes and scattered trees of the flood plain meadow called the Jigüe vega at the edge of the River. As we cross the open areas of the Jigüe flood plain we approach, the strong, clear Bayamo River.

We listen and watch out for the drone of spotter flights. The air is empty of enemies; discretely keeping to tree shade when ever possible we forded the river.

The cliff of dreams, Farallón de los Ensueños, faces south and east. The great cliff faced the batey of the Ros, and the house that Osvaldo Ros had built across the Bayamo River for Estrella. Estrella, if one recalls from the previous chapter, was Osvaldo’s woman and Nicia’s sister. A squared and massive, fallen rock the size of a house lay upstream in the river, several hundred yards from foot of the great cliff. We take a hidden path along a damp little valley going roughly west from the west side of the Bayamo valley just south of the high cliff of dreams.

We follow this little, well shaded, valley, every so often splashing through its little stream. We came through the jumble of high hills and low mountains west and south of La Loma de la Viuda to end up in "La Comandancia" that had been Universo Sanchez's at Las Peñas. There the body of the gray old spy still lies buried. Universo no longer is here.

This part of the march is well known to me because this is where we operated as Escopeteros and much of the land belongs to my family. However, after we crossed the Bayamo to the west, I feel less safe for we are out of the old Hacienda of Don Benjamín, out of family land. Yet I still remember the secret path to Las Peñas.

History of the path

This little hidden valley, in which I took such childish delight, must have been the path, between the Buey and the Bayamo valleys that tightlipped U.S. Lieutenant Rowan --preparing for the US part of the war with Spain-- was guided along in 1898. Rowan met Great-grandfather in the old City of Bayamo, a place on the plains of the Cauto once the chiefdom of the Taíno Cacique of Bayamo, a city burned as lost and then re-conquered, after 30 years of effort.

It was thought in those days that a son of Spain would never rule Cuba again. We were wrong, for Castro in time would reveal himself as far more Spanish than Cuban, and would keep a strange kinship with fellow dictator Franco. We did not know this while at war.


I remember resting and sleeping that night at Las Peñas where the column to march to Las Minas del Frio was organized. We first had to climb up the ridge. Now my knowledge of the land was gone, all this would be new to me.

This ridge is directly behind Las Peñas, which sits on its lowest slopes near the east-side of the Buey Valley south of the Mabey stream. Las Peñas faces across a broad valley the last, northern most, hills of the Sierra and then the plains of the Cauto. These northern hills were crowned by dark green cayos de monte, islands of forest, the valley and the lower slopes were in lighter green pasture.

At the very start, I remember is climbing that very steep ridge, among the shaded coffee trees and the more open maize and root crop plantings. I breathed deeply at each step to make sure I could do it. That much my reading my reading had taught me, and it helped.

Our guide, who could have been Orlando Rodriguez Puerta, told me at the top that my breathing was so labored, so painful to his ear, that he said to me afterwards that he thought I was going to die. But I felt fine and avoided the leg crippling effects of excess lactic acid and oxygen debt by me deep and repeated breathing. For it seemed that if my legs muscles, especially the calf muscles hurt from the lactic acid accumulation, but my lungs still gathered oxygen. I would be able to go on.

We had a can of condensed milk for each day. We drank the milk by punching two holes in the top, one to drink out of, the other to let air in the can, but we ran out of cans somewhere along the trip. The brand of milk was Güarina. Güarina was the brave woman of the rebel Taíno Indian chief cacique and national hero Hatuey. The milk came from the Bayamo factory. The one we sent our farms cream to. I think; the can's label showed a black and white animal, a Holstein cow, but now I cannot remember it well.

At night we slept exhausted dreams in our hammocks covered by those gaudy rubberized tablecloths we had gathered as Escopeteros. I remembered that my tablecloth was backed with light white felt which kept me warm enough at the lower elevations. To sleep we covered our bodies and heads and faces with loose woven cotton blankets. We drank out of the many cool clear streams we crossed.

I remember too passing by the round grassy top and ruined, galvanized metal roofed, barbwire fenced, old machinery littered, sawmill building at Aserradero. Was that one of the war ruined mills of Teófilo Babún, that merchant son of a Lebanese father, who did so well in business and tried so hard to help Cuban freedom? Still in the shadows of old memories I don't know.

The Sierra Maestra is full of such ruined places. There are the disappeared camps of the paleo-hunters, the people before the Taínos, the people who hunted the last, giant ground sloths. There were the long disappeared mountain holdings of the Taínos resisting the Spanish, the lost wood walled palenque villages of escaped slaves. There are the fortified houses of the French coffee planters –burned now for the French planters were fighting against Cubans for Spain, choosing again the wrong side just as they had lost their slave plantations fighting the Haitian rebels.

There were the collapsing trenches military out-posts of the Batista forces. Yet today all is gone, even the ruins of Ros's holdings, gone to the strength of the Bayamo River and the power of Hurricane Flora, and the great dam of the Corojo.

As the forest is cut, the land erodes. The mountains fill the valleys with landslides. People leave and then the forest grows back over graves of the dead. And yet more hurricanes come destroying even more traces of that war.

I remember going down a very beautiful grassy valley with a wide stream curving stream with tall Sierra pines on the southern side. All this took a number of days; how many I do not recall, they were days of very hard marches up and down very steep hills. At some time during this blur of time we crossed the then recent battlefield at Santo Domingo.


We go through Santo Domingo only once, going west across La Sierra. The old, possibly, faulty image in my mind is of a narrow valley between two vast steep mountain slopes; the river is divided in two by a field of boulders raised perhaps 20 or more feet above the surface of the river. On this raised field of boulders the Batista soldiers had been trapped by rebel forces and slaughtered.

Our guide tells us that the Che Guevara had refused to order the Batista dead buried but had ordered that the bodies be kicked into the river so those down stream would know about what had happened.

After we cross the western branch of the river, we walk up the steep mountainside to the west. After perhaps 300 feet perhaps much more, vertical rise, the slope is less steep, and is open among grasses. The place is not a lush guinea grass field, but a poor pasture, of weeds and the fine, tough, almost wire-like, blades of espartillo grass.

As we climb through the now rounded slope, the going is easier and our calf muscles do not hurt, and we are not out of blades of espartillo grass. On the now rounded slope, the going is easier and our calf muscles do not hurt, and we are not out of breath, or even breathing hard.

Looking behind and below us is the double stream of the river and its boulder strewn narrow flood plain dotted with bushes. The river looks like strands of silver thread; the bushes that dot the valley floor are round spots of dark, dark green.

Here on the rise, our guide tells us is the place that where Daniel (René Ramos Latour) had been killed. Daniel had been standing among some low thin trunked, perhaps, atejes, perhaps, the bastard elm guásima, trees to the left, to the south of the path.

A mortar shell had hit among the tops of the trees, and the fragments had gutted him. We are sad for Daniel had been a hero and competent inventive leader, and most of all a legend. The guide did not mention that the Che had pulled back his people and abandoned Daniel and his men to their fate.

We walk, perhaps fifty feet further uphill. We pass, at the edge of a group of larger trees to the south marking the edge of the forest. Further south, but quite now quite near the high ridge of the Sierra is not blue as seen at a distance, but a dark and heavily foreboding green.

Also to our south a large, well over three feet in diameter, rough bark covered tree trunk had fallen, down slope to the east. The tree had caught on a snag, so that it stayed, not yet complete fallen, forming a recumbent, acute triangular gap with the relatively gentle slope. Through the gap, framed on the bottom with low grass and on the east and upper part with the rough trunk, we can see the trunks of trees of the forest, standing rigid and still at attention like an honor guard at a military funeral. Little bushes soften the scene.

In later years, I learned that Daniel with a few men had stood alone, a much larger supporting group, I think it was the Che's, who disagreed with the Che’s politics, had abandoned him without his knowledge and only he and his few had faced the enemy. The Che was a communist and Daniel a follower of even then dead Frank País, a believer in democracy. Then, as we pass the place, even without this knowledge, we feel deep sadness and loss. Yet another of Cuba’s heroes had died here.


We reach Agua Revés days later, how long later I do not know in that trance like journey. The sea and the great Deep of Bartlett was south beyond the high trees of the ridge. The narrow ridge, in my old memory, was a saddle between two higher mountains, of the main Maestra.

We follow a little, narrow beaten-earth footpath between the mix of many thinner trunks of white lichen splotched trees and the great trunks of the rainforest giants. That ridge divides the dry from the wet, the fertile from the arid, and the safety of the trees to north from the steep, dangerous dry open slopes to the south

There on that ridge, on the forest floor are mosses, and some plants, many of them ferns growing, or struggling for light in the darkness beneath the multiple forest canopies. Looking upward there is just a high, dark, roof of indistinguishable leaves intermingled with branches, epiphytic orchids and bromeliads and hanging lianas, perhaps some neck cutting tibisí vines, to be avoided. Then it was a quiet, but very dangerous, place.

More than a century ago the reporters with the US fleet of Rear-Admiral Sampson, a fleet going to war and incredibly rapid victory, had looked north from the sea in wonder. The reporters had thought the serrated mountain wall, less than 7,000 feet, much higher. Today as then, those mountains look much higher than they are in reality, for the arid lower slopes rise so rapidly from the coast-hugging great deep that they reach almost without interruption the top of the highest peak in a few, very few, miles.

From the mountains towards the south, the slope descended from the thinning forest to the arid, hot sun of the rain-shadow, the xerophytic desert plants and the blue sea became a forbidden zone where we could not go by day.

These were the slopes on which, in the days of the revolution, the patrolling Batista frigate could kill by long ranging rifled naval cannon. Anyone the ship's officers or crew could spot in the binoculars and telescopes on the sparsely vegetated, steep, very steep, slopes was in serious danger. We are told not to even let ourselves be seen from the sea.

We Escopeteros used to the greener lower mountains and hills of the northern slopes edging the plain of the Cauto try to memorize every view and every mountain feature. Here clearly the mountains are a huge besieged fortress. It is a place where the main rebel forces hold sway. We listen in innocence awed by heights and the ghosts of the dead as our guide tell us of the rebel ambush of Sánchez Mosqueda’s elite force. The guide recites last words of Mosqueda's point man, "I smell 3-in-one oil."

Here at close to Agua Revés, at Mar Verde, I read, that Ciro Redondo, his past as former member of the socialist youth carefully hidden from us, and one of our heroes of that time died. Ciro Redondo's death saved him from becoming an officer of communist tyranny and exporter of war to South America and Africa. With Ciro Redondo died six, resting and mortally surprised Batista soldiers and sailors, all the dead sacrificed to a touted freedom that even today, well more than forty years later, has not yet come.

We climb the northern slope to the ridge passing near the top and among the surrounding rainforest a place of small bananas groves, tree shaded coffee gardens, and "conuco" raised beds of the yuca, malanga, and boniato root crops.

It is a beautiful place. A little distance to the west, in an invaginating fold, beyond the coffee bushes, on the fertile northern side of the ridge, the water, "el agua," of the creek, tumbles rapidly down. It runs through a little forested ravine, full of great brown ragged rocks not yet smoothed to boulders. The creek waters are running downward and north, running "al reeves", running "the wrong way", not to the near by sea, but to the far northern Cauto plains.

Suddenly, standing quietly by the trail, I see a black face, a jet black face, a face I know but did not expect. He is Plácido the Haitian. This was the land holding of Placido and his quiet, rarely talking, strong brother. This must be the place where Gloria, Uncle Marcus’ woman, fled. She, gossip states, ran away with Plácido to escape the terrible ire of Aunt Aida the dragon lady.

So this is what Plácido and his brother worked for. So this is what they did when at the end of autumn or early winter after the coffee they dried, so skillfully and so well, was stored in the big yellow store house at the Casa de los Generales. This is where the brothers went after the money making cane-cutting harvest of winter and early spring was over. This is the future they build for themselves; they are making a place in the cool mountains away from the heat of the summer plains.

Plácido and I exchange surprised greetings. Plácido is as always thin, and smiling. He and his, heavier more muscular, solemn and silent brother, unsparingly use the bounty from their fertile well cared for plantings to cook for and feed the whole group. We eat and eat until we can eat no more. Fed now, our bellies are full, the now unaccustomed level of blood sugar rising in our veins and arteries, we have the strength to think of home and times of peace.

I remembered how in past times of peace, directed by the Haitian brothers, the brothers and everybody else at the Casa de los Generales hurried to the concrete drying aprons, the secaderos. Those were the secaderos that Uncle Rafael, the engineer, has so carefully built. We worked pushing hard with the long pole handled flat ended wooden spatula like coffee rakes to gather the spread out drying layer of coffee berries. We would pile the scented drying coffee berries in long mounds along the slightly raised center of the drying aprons.

Going to the pile of the great six, seven or more foot long, perhaps three feet wide, stiff, flattened, sheaths of the royal palm leaves, we with speed, but care, pick up these yaguas. We drag the yaguas dragged them to the drying aprons near by. The rats, the snakes, and the scorpions beneath the yagua pile flee ignored; we are in a hurry. After all in Cuba there are no snakes that can poison humans, nor scorpions that can kill a person.

Then we dragged these improbably large, but very useful, coverings on to, across, and towards the middle of the drying apron. We hear the scraping scratching sound the yaguas make as they rubbed their stiff edges along the concrete. We cover the drying coffee berries, folding each yagua down the middle on its preformed crease. The yaguas in a series of overlapping, rain proof, giant shingles make a roof over the coffee. We very carefully placed wooden planks, and the coffee rakes at about the middle and along the length of the slope of these "shingles" to hold the yaguas down against the driving wind of the tropical rains. Rocks hold the yaguas lower edges down so they hug the concrete and keep out the rain, as the huge rain drops bounce high off the aprons’ hard concrete surfaces.

Plácido's brother could predict exactly when, at what time, each day the last, much needed, drying ray of sun would be gone and heavy tropical rain would fall. At the very last second that the rain would fall, and with a smile of pride and satisfaction on his face, Plácido’s' brother watches the first rain drops hit the protecting palm yaguas. Then all the precious coffee berries are covered and safe from the rain.

My uncles would make mental notes to hire the brothers again next year, for nobody could dry coffee as well as they could. Amazed seeing this happen day after day, I asked Plácido’s brother how he did it, he told me expressing the centuries of coffee growing knowledge from Haiti and from Cuba. He said "it will rain soon the clouds have a foot on the hills." But that was a past never yet returned.

It is still war; it is still the late summer of 1958. The column reformed after eating and we Escopeteros went on towards Las Minas de Frio. After the revolution Plácido’s brother died on a train near Santiago sticking and losing his head full of the arcane knowledge of coffee drying to another passing train.


After eating at Agua Revés we climbed the ridge, and went west on the top. Somehow after some time, perhaps a day or so, we passed and saw, and went into the little, well built tidy wooden armory cabin in a little valley steep sided very wooded valley. This place, I believe, is north of Turquino. Everything was tidy and organized on the wooden workbenches of the cabin.

This cabin was the furthest point of advance of the Batista soldiers during their last and most aggressive and most badly defeated, attack in the Sierra. A seemingly miraculous victory we called “La Ofensiva," the Batista soldiers called it Operación Verano. We were told; that the Batista soldiers in the highest tide of their Ofensiva advance, entered the cabin, but when they realized it was an armory and could have been booby trapped they backed out carefully and left without destroying or taking anything.

Our march ended the day that we climbed up on what I believe is the very steep northern slope of the strange mist shrouded plateau of the Minas del Frió. This is near La Pata de la Mesa from where the Che Guevara ordered René Cuervo be killed.

Some tell me there was no fighting of significance in these mountains; others say there were great battles. I just know that many died, in battle, or betrayed, or executed. The dead must still lie there or where ever the mountain torrents took them too. The casquitos’ mothers must have cried long and perhaps even still cry for those lives squandered, lives lost in the cause of their strongman, and yet freedom that so hard was fought for her has not come.

Larry Daley copyright@1997, revised 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006


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