(ESTE REPORTAJE FUE PUBLICADO ORIGINALMENTE POR LA REVISTA ON CUBA)
From the National Highway you can distinguish the Guaniguanico Mountain Range. From the distance you can see that blue-green silhouette, and wonders what lies beyond the wall. A strange land where fairy tales are sometimes reality and peasant lives his daily life as in a foreign country…
The journey to those mountains can begin in the shadow of San Cristobal Bridge. The hours pass, get diluted among the cries and the hooves of horses going towards the town. People from there, accustomed to non-schedules, wait for transportation. That is their bitter daily bread.
-The truck passing around ten o’clock is broken; so it doesn’t come today, a girl says as if repeating a verse learned long ago.
At quarter past eleven the crowd starts moving. Dozens of women and men put on their shoulders bags, children, suitcases. A resounding ancient truck stops under the bridge. The assault was swift.
Twenty minutes later that private truck starts, crowded, up the steep road. For ten CUP causes cramps in the extremities, puts many lives on the brink of the cliffs, and undergoes the body a nauseating sauna.
Anyone who has been lucky to reach a window is abstracted and put his eye out to the green landscape; the majestic hills crowned by bare rock; the daring houses that have been uploaded to the mountains top. The air becomes clearer; the deep forest gives us its sounds. Back there, between mountain and mountain, we may see the image of the plain lit by the sun and skin increasingly appreciates the freshness of the palm trees.
La Olla is first, then other small towns up to Quiñones. Our road trip ends there. We await the next transport in front of the clinic of the village. It must be small and agile to get out of the sometimes narrow and always steep embankment ahead us.
The noise betrays it from afar: a motorcycle with a wagon takes a curve fast to reach us. Ten pesos. In just over one square meter seven people get huddled with our respective packages. And the journey begins jumping, tremendous leaps that remind you that you have bones.
-It would be convenient this stretch to be paved, right? One of my friends a sks to the hyperkinetic driver.
-No way boy! If p aved cars can access the Keys, and my business gets fucked.
The man replied without looking back , always looking forward.
-I have transported up to ten people in this ¨riquimbili¨, he tells us proudly.
-And how late do you work?, another friend investigates.
-I live in the village, in the Keys, and I work whenever someone needs or calls me home. He takes air and continues: Even on Saturdays when there is party or disco in Quiñones I work until two o’clock to bring the boys back.
At some point the rider asks the three men to go down the trailer. The next stretch of road is too steep at the beginning and very inclined towards the end. The less weight the less chance of an accident. Grateful first by stretching our legs, we finished shouting for that demonic tricycle to stop the march. We ran twenty minutes, and mountains swallowed our cries.
Half an hour drive until the engine stops. Without knowing there is a no return point. The fiber optic and cellular coverage gets until the Keys. Tuesday and Friday a truck runs the nine or ten kilometers of rock and mud separating it from Machuca, the nearest human settlement.
A mighty river accompanies us part of the way. Then it leaves us alone as we get into the hard forest . The feet sink to the ankles and encouragement sometimes wants to go with them.
Houses at that site are becoming less and more distant. Trees close all, heaven and our bodies. Mangos, grapefruit and limes are born without permission. The Jews reveal us, the Cartacubas follow us, Tocororo is hidden from the snooping cameras.
The road becomes thresher. The thresher gets twinned with the river. And we are going to roll up our shirts and the rags we are wearing as pants. A swollen river is something serious. It seems that it rains a lot where we go. We sharpen our view; we know that in the distance the clouds conspire against the sun. We must hurry.
We crossed the muddy riverbed one behind the other, as in infant line s.
-This is very pretty when it is quiet. The water is clear, very clear , our guide says. The family of my friend lived here for years, until they moved to Havana. Only occasional ex- neighbors remain around here.
Generational ties are amazing in these places. As a neighbor is perhaps the only person in kilometers, the links are strengthened as a kind of tribal rule. Amen to that my friend’s family immigrated to the big city two decades ago, and she left the hills being a baby, she trusts that her grandmother’s nickname to open us some hut to spend the night.
Quimbo remembers Nena as if the woman had never left the hills. He can not believe the granddaughter of Nena has grown so much. And his mouth doesn’t say it, but his eyes of peasant passing from my friend to us, the four intruders who need to stay overnight at his house because a wolf’s mouth is swallowing the afternoon.
Quimbo is discreet, speaks little. Like most men of the hill he has little time to say something. He gets off the horse, cleans his huge hands in his military pants and tells my friend we may rest over there. He makes a shy smile behind his thick mustache.
“Over there” means a house of wood and metal tiles placed behind us. The 2 meters high man walks away ringing spurs, I imagine he is crushing his hat with his monstrous fingers. He crosses very fast a pineapple plantation. That is Quimbo and his wife’s means of support. Up there the fruit is worth two pesos while in Havana is about ten to 15 pesos. It is truly a queen: the wide crown, fleshy body, juicy inside. Biting it is a pleasure.
As in those places pineapple is the daily bread, slices and juice of it are imposed as breakfast. A luxury we enjoy a lot, and that is incomprehensible to our host.
The lady of the house is absent these days. Quimbo tells us then, laid back on the stool, when the sun has almost gone down, that Cuca went to San Cristóbal to find soaps, medicines and some clothing. As we have seen, the stretch is exhausting, so Cuca stays a couple of days in the village, at her family house.
The trees engulf the weak sunlight. The guinea fowls return to vegetation, satisfied after stealing the breadcrumbs and corn leftovers that Quimbo throws to the ground to chickens. In the evening we will hear their complaints. They say that have the same couple for life.
After the afternoon dies there is nothing left but to eat, and telling stories. Asks begin. Quimbo, gentle, hears us and speaks only when necessary. Where is the nearest town? Machuca is one or two hours away. It is strange to my H avana custom by cataloging everything. Nothing has been named between Machuca and the Keys. Maybe so, an office at hundreds of miles; but for Quimbo and the peasants around there the hill s, the river that fragments the mountains, a valley we passed, everything is unnamed as the beginning of time.
Mosquitoes do not dare to get as high; Quimbo ensures that we will sleep like children. Without electricity and battery in our cells, the night in the Mountain Range is truly the night of our ancestors.
The kingdom of water
The irregular stony ground requires horse and boots. This strange landscape includes monolithic pieces of red basalt on the green carpet that goes from peak to peak; and far away there are also some cliffs made up by erected walls of white limestone.
While climbing the mountains you reach the water kingdom. It emerges from some hidden spring on the heights that are really not that high because they are at just few hours away.
Water, water and more water. It f lows into the kitchens of rustic huts through long hoses that are lost in the bush. If one day it does not reach the hut you may assume that the well is dirty, scrambled . When the water is stirred is not good for anyone. The river is emboldened and closes the paths taking animals and bridges with it like the devil takes the soul.
But even without being widened the riverbed is dangerous, it keeps a perennial mystery.
The courtyard of Duni, at just an hour drive from the house of Quimbo, is near the Puddle of Remolino. There, where there are a creek and river, the men of the area have bet hens, calves and pigs by touching the bottom. No one but the Puddle has won the bet.
But they have the water as a blessing.
For each disease, there is a measure, always designated in “jars”, which heals and brings peace. You just have to rinse the skin with ten jars and fever stops. Thus, there is a quantity for each evil your body can suffer.
It is not on their altars; they know that God is only one. There is a Bible in the house of palm fronds, images of saints. But the liquid is, they swear, the relief means. They do not preach their beliefs or gather in worship; so perhaps only few families include these rites in their beliefs.
In Cuba they are known as “aquatics”.
Most of them are located in the depths of Viñales and San Cristobal . In Machuca, for example, they are known by their surnames: “the Rodriguez”. They are quiet, honest and hard working people generally. So people have them in esteem in the high mountain communities and only few judge their way of life, respect the decisions within families even when these are incomprehensible to us.
Apparently the practice is indigenous to the island. There are not references of human groups doing this. Little is known of that sect, maybe because of its remote location, and also old prejudices.
The theme has its vague and abused reflection in our literature and cinema. The 60s and 70s generated representations in tune with the prejudices of a revolution that saw in all faiths a lag from the past.
The feature film Los días del agua and the novel La última mujer y el próximo combate by Manuel Cofiño and Manuel Octavio Gómez, respectively, attest to this. The characterization of aquatic characters goes from opportunist spiritual leader to plaintive mentally retarded.
It is known the case of filmmaker Arturo Sotto, who thought to penetrate with his team in Viñales and spend the sidelines of his documentary ¨Breton es un bebe¨ to the sect. The response of the provincial authorities was that it was not of interest to visualize that community in a material on Cuba .
The foreign country
Pablo de la Torriente Brau said that going to the East of the island meant to know another country. I think the journalist could include in his inventory to this piece of Cuba. Noble people, who do not reject the stranger, who open their doors to share the deep and blue puddle.
The catibos take advantage of noon and cross over the water, scaring the swimmer. Sony, Duni ’s husband, grown and born there is not surprised by anything. In the end the catibo is small, harmless, although he bristles a bit when talking about snakes.
-May God be praised, says the woman and left on the table the aluminum dishes in which we are going to have lunch.
-One day , when the sun fell, the boy and I came back from hoeing in the taro plantation…
-And we hear the dog barking, interrupts a ten-years, skinny, blond boy with wide eyes. He had been watching us with the half-open mouth. Children look with the impudence of those who want to know.
Duni interrupts the young narrator and puts before us a tantalizing smudged casserole with black beans, but without meat or viands.
-Go to wash your hands and look for your sister, ‘she told the boy, your father ends the story.
The boy went to fulfill the orders. “And why was the dog barking ?”
-It was a majá (Cuban boa), man! -Sony made up the scene so we were stuck squarely in his story. The animal stood up and equaled it in size. –It was at least a three meters long specimen…
Sony nodded against disbelief and amazement shared by his interlocutors.
‘I wanted to catch it, but its head was facing me and that is dangerous. If it takes you it can coil you up and can choke you to death…
-What do you mean by catching it? That’s crazy! -someone noted from the table.
Sony showed his teeth, and we heard an ironic laughter from the kitchen. The two-meter man leaned toward us. He had a cracked face, eyes of fearful ox, powerful voice of thunder. Everything was on the table. The planks creaked slowly.
-If you catch the majá with the left hand, it loses strength, you see?
When someone speaks with such conviction bit more can be investigated. Certainty is the reason, never the reverse.
-And what did you do with the animal?
-The boy tried to hit it with the hoe, and we haven’t seen it until today.
-In Havana there is nothing that looks like this, huh? Duni asked, and put another blackened casserole alongside the beans. –I tell you can not eat this corn back there.
The intense yellow cornmeal seemed a Van Gogh sunflower. Before starting, Sony opened three cans of Spam reaching Machuca as part of the Turquino Plan: a government initiative that takes resources to families in remote sites.
The boy and his sister were approaching in the distance. They were whispering when reaching us. They looked intrigued while we were chewing and praising Duni´s hands in the kitchen and some of us told some jokes once the fierce midday hunger had finished.
Duni takes the dishes to the kitchen. One of my friends follows her. Sony gets up with the promise of bringing us a bunch of the best bananas we have ever tasted in life. He tells us to sit when we talk about helping him. “You are the visit.” After a while my friend comes out the kitchen laughing like crazy. “If you see the mess Duni made when I started wetting the dishes.” “You are the visit, girl!” the woman said on the other side of the wall.
-And do you help at home? ‘I asked the children.
They smile shyly, but talking is not a problem.
‘I help my dad to plant pine trees on the hill, the boy says and points a surrounding hill, full of pine trees reminiscent of the most tender Christmas. When the Forest Company comes to take them down I do not even want to look –he puts his elbow on the table and passes his hand through the curls of his hair.
-And school? Is it far away? -We do not go to school. Mum teaches us to read, the girl noted.
The astonishment was spread from hill to hill. Few seconds of snow, until the little brother broke away our mouths with a longing :
-‘Soon dad will go away, and when him to return from Cuba he will bring me toys.
A love from the mountain
Walking two hours under the rain was not enough. It was not enough though thighs to get tensed till paralyzing you, although the five-minute break asked you to stay one more, although reaching Machuca would have seemed a feat. It was nothing.
-¡¿Do you want to call to Havana?! Well you’ll have to climb that hill there… -the peasant told us-behind the banana plantation there is a huge stone. When people want to call by cell phone they go up there.
It was still raining cats and dogs and the hamlet received us transformed into mud. Someone was listening to a reggaeton hit in the clinic. “That disease has even reached this place.” In the distance, four or five children were kicking a ball. They turn into reddish when slipping. But that does not seem to care them, in seconds water purified their skins. “Well let´s climb that hill’.
Photo: Katy MacPhoto: Katy Mac
We had to call anyway. We had remained another day engulfed by the mountain. The river level rose as ever since we got there and the ridge our volunteer guide pointed us served as the only communication tower nearby. The clouds licked the top under an overcast sky.
Here it rains every day ‘explained the farmer as he moved slightly and with long strides – but after seeing soccer games in the Video Room we formed teams despite thunders.
Sport is common language in the countryside and the city. The World Cup was the pretext to come up with the best goals, the worst faults, false whistles, bad refereeing, etc, etc, etc.
The talk distracted us while we crossed a bridge hanging over troubled waters. The river had widened three times its level beneath our wet feet. It dragged trunks and a family of ducks. Rest in peace. The handmade bridge was a pride in the town. The river, deep and wide at the bottom of an abyss, told not to anyone who would want to move from one bank to another. More than ten meters of sawn royal palm tree had saved the village from isolation. “The belly up, so that the wood does not get rot,” revealed our guide when someone complained about slipping too much with the polished bark of the national tree.
Although regret was also partially right. In truth there was danger of slipping and falling into the water: one wire per rail and the bridge was inclined. “Nobody has dead until today” said the peasant as usual. Living on the edge of danger is his everyday life. He gave us some guavas like billiard balls. The plants were full of them and no one paid attention. “And how do you get to where we’re going?” Our teeth sank into the soft pulp of the fruit.
-The girlfriend of someone from went on mission to Venezuela. In a week he went crazy of being without her. He makes a pause on the steep hill we are climbing, looks back with his nervous little eyes and a wicked grimace. It is true that there are mares that become a horse crazy!
For a few seconds he was amused by his own joke. The laughter echoed through the mountains, until the eco itself laughed with the boy.
-He sold for minutiae his entire crop of pineapples. He left a bit of money in the house and went down to Quiñones without mule. He spent outside Machuca over a week. Neither the Virgin knew where he was.
The top was close, but the rain did not cease. We had done well to take the only cell phone with charge wrapped in a thick nylon. A rattle electrified us; coldness announced that the night was near.
-And one evening he appeared bearded, dirty, with the clothes of the first day … -our guide stopped and without looking back raised an arm, with a cell phone.
-How much further? Someone asked. Military pants and pullovers stuck to our bodies in a wet pray.
-‘That was the same that boy said when he traveled section by section all these mountains-the peasant continued walking-. Who the hell think of bringing that modern stuff to the end of the world? There is no signal here… there isn’t…
-And he had no other than walking up and down the hills. He spent weeks on that. Until one day he did not go down before nightfall. ‘Our guide took a breath, as if about to plunge himself a long time. The raindrops were conjured against us up to cause chills. We seek solid rock to further advance uphill, now towards an intense fog, going into a labyrinthine banana plantation. We could barely see the silhouette of the nearest walker.
-My cousin Majin and I went to look for him. We thought we had fallen from the hill; that the river had swallowed him. And when we are around here we heard him talking loudly, perched on that stone there, moving the arm with the cell, looking for…
-Yeah, that! If you see how overjoyed he was when he managed to speak with the girlfriend!
The village was linked to the world for the love of that anonymous peasant. After that many people in Machuca bought a mobile and when they miss someone come up here to talk.
My friend trotted up the stone and started dialing numbers; all with unusual speed. Someone coughed, I coughed, and we all coughed at the end. We did it with the last forces that the walk left us. It was clearing up; needles were falling from the sky. A chorus of cicadas, frogs and crickets received the night. “Hey! … Do you hear me? …»
On the roof of the West breath misses and words are useless. On this side of the island, only Guajaibón (almost 700 meters high) was above our heads. Below, a mustard and opaque line cut the dark green up to become nothing between the thick foliage. You feel yourself really tiny; it makes you wanting to call someone and say “I love you”, “do not go”, ” come with me”. We are invisible at this time and moment. A cloud approaches the wall and we melt into it.