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2016 Earth Day in Cuba

Amanda Hale

Youth of Boma © Amanda Hale

They emerged from the forest, silent and solemn, carrying a small boy on a wooden platform hoisted on their shoulders. He was the youngest in a group of children aged 7 to 15, with their bodies painted, feathers in their hair, and costumes made from leaves and fibres of the forest plants. They made a ceremonial entry, marking the borders of the large oval plaza that had been cleared and demarcated with stones bearing ancient petroglyphic symbols. Their feet stamped, raising little clouds of dust from the red earth. The eldest boy placed himself in the centre and raised his arms, calling out Yuka yake ji ji agua, Bombé! Then the drumming commenced, accompanied by a thin high fluting as the children circled and danced, two steps forward, one step back, repeating their steps over and over.

We were in Boma for the day, celebrating Pachamama, Earth Day. Boma is a campesino village an hour from Baracoa, Cuba, perched on the southeastern coast of the island, close to Haiti. This area was the home of the Taíno Indians until Columbus arrived, precipitating a conflict between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Roberto Orduñez, resident archeologist and anthropologist of Baracoa, has been working all his life in the surrounding area, and particularly in Boma and Barigua where the best examples of archeological remains have been found in nearby caves. He has worked at Baracoa's Matachín Museum and was founder of Museo El Paraíso high above the town, housed in a system of caves where a skeleton, excavated from the caves of Boma, is preserved in the darkness.

The day began with a two-hour wait (not unusual in Cuba) while the group from Havana assembled in downtown Baracoa. Orduñez had gone ahead on his motorbike, bouncing along the stony pathways, muddy from yesterday's rain, to help the children with their Taíno costumes. Osmel Francis, a well-known singer and master of ceremonies from Havana, arrived in a large air-conditioned chauffeur-driven car with Theodor Friedrich, a tall German wearing an elegant sombrero. Theodor is an agricultural engineer and has worked all his life for FAO – the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – an international group founded in October 1945 in Quebec City. He has worked in 75 countries, including North Korea, the former Yugoslavia right after the Croatian war of independence, Albania, Africa, India, and Italy. Cuba, he says, is his greatest challenge yet. There are no real farmers, except for the subsistence campesinos who grow just enough for their own needs – coffee, fruits, vegetables and beans.

In the larger agricultural enterprises in Cuba everyone is a worker under the thumb of the boss and as such has no initiative. Under Russian patronage Cuba had access to pesticides but after the fall of the USSR when Cubans were literally starving, the country gained a reputation for organic agricultural practices, simply because there were no more pesticides available. In fact this reputation is false, says Friedrich. The earth has been saturated with pesticides, and now once more pesticides are available and are used for growing fruits and vegetables, the best of which go to tourist resorts such as Varadero and Cayo Coco. Visitors are eating so-called organic products and, meanwhile, the Cuban population is developing multiple instances of cancers, the global epidemic.

Osmel Francis © Amanda Hale

Osmel, in addition to his other career paths, is the head of the Internet for Cuba. Travelling with him and his group from Havana was a videographer-journalist who documented the Taíno ceremony for television and Internet. The videographer in his green shirt became part of the ceremony, intruding on every moment of the sacred re-enactment of the past, his camera like an extension of himself, a third eye. He had also filmed much of our journey from Baracoa, travelling through swathes of lush countryside filled with cacao forest, mango, papaya, coconut, pineapple, coffee and sugar cane. We had turned off at Jamal, under the curious gaze of people waiting patiently for a bus, and bounced onto a rocky pathway just wide enough for our car.

When this ritual was complete and everyone had had his say – Orduñez and Osmel are both big talkers – we gathered around a table loaded with comida tipica – a pot of spicy caballero beans cooked in coconut milk, another pot with crabs cooked in a rich tomato sauce, a salad of delicate spinach leaves dressed with oil and lemon, and bacán – a tamale-type dough made from grated platanos, filled with shreds of pork meat and wrapped in banana leaves. Also on the table were examples of local fruits such as mandarins, mangos, papaya, fat and sweet guinea bananas, and a fragrant orange-yellow fruit that assaults the mouth and tongue with extreme dryness. It is called marañon and it grows from a kidney-shaped seed which remains at the head of the fruit like an umbilicus.

Marañon and Guinéa © Amanda Hale

There were sweet concoctions of coconut, orange and guava with honey, called tulanga, and a sticky dulce de platano called frangollo, wrapped in leaves. All this had been prepared by Anaelda, the wife of Carlos who lives in Boma and has worked with Orduñez for many years. Carlos had placed a group of seedlings by the table, planted in plastic bags. They are papaya seedlings, he told me, and they will bear fruit after only eight months.

After sampling these riches of the earth – original Taíno food – and watching Osmel engage the children with Q and A about the natural world, naming animals, birds and insects, both benign and dangerous, we walked down the jungle path from which the children had emerged, to the caves – a familiar path for most of us, but new to the Habaneros who rarely venture far from the Face of Cuba, and certainly not to this far-flung corner of Oriente. The caves are high up on a plateau and Carlos has made handrails since my last visit so the ascent is easier. There are no bats in the caves this time, but we disturb a flock of swallow-like birds who circle and twitter in agitation, disappearing after their initial protest when it becomes evident that we are staying a while.

Roberto Orduñez © Amanda Hale

Orduñez explains to the visitors from Havana about the archeological remains discovered in these funerary caves. Indeed the place has a powerful atmosphere and it is only after a while that our eyes become accustomed to the darkness, allowing us to see the recessed caves that appear gradually with exquisite details of rock formations and calcified stalactites formed by the incessant dripping of water from the roof of the caves. We walk through this funerary refuge and emerge into an open area where an overhang of rock shields a simulation of a Taíno burial with a ceramic corpse and food bowls. Above us tower ceiba trees with extraordinary open root formations. We are circled by rocks high above our heads which we will climb to see a magnificent view of the sea in the far distance.

Ceiba © Amanda Hale
But first Orduñez, Osmel and Friedrich must have their say, so I sit on a rock and watch fat-bodied brown spiders nestling in the forest debris, their crablike pincer legs grasping brittle brown leaves. Despite my arachnophobia I was glad to see this little creatures scurrying around in their camouflage on this Earth Day.

My flight had landed in Holguín where I'd spent a few days before travelling to Baracoa, and it was there that I had experienced the Cuban fumigation program. Once a week, my friend Manuel told me, families must leave their houses and stand on the street while their homes are fumigated with insecticides. After 45 minutes the adults are allowed to re-enter and they must clean everything – the walls, the floors and furniture – before allowing the children and old people back into the house. While I was in Manuel's house one evening a sudden cloud of pungent air billowed into the room. The weekly truck was passing by, spraying pesticide in the streets for extra measure. We quickly closed all the blinds and windows and covered our mouths and noses until the toxic smell had dissipated.

This is a war on mosquitoes, Manuel's wife said. They carry dengue fever, chikungunya, and zika – cause of the current epidemic affecting babies in utero. But they are killing not only mosquitoes but also many other species. We never see butterflies now, she says. And there are fewer birds because there are no insects for them to feed on. This poison seeps into the earth and kills everything – insects, worms – and it gets into our water. Manuel has to buy bottled water now for our grandson, and I boil all our water for drinking and cooking. Baracoa, always the last in Cuba to receive government aid, has been blessed in this case by an absence of pesticide.

Later we move on to Barigua, where we are to sample casave, the staple food of the Taíno, a kind of flatbread made from grated yucca which is wrung dry, formed into flat pancakes, and dried in the sun. I ride pillion with Orduñez on his motorbike while the others pile into their air-conditioned Havana car. We stop first in the house of Aria, Orduñez' mother-in-law, for a warm greeting and an explanation of how make casave. She lives directly in front of the beach with its litter of coconut shells and a limitless expanse of ocean looking towards Haiti. In the House of Casave down the road we sample the dry, rather tasteless, flatbread, washing it down with coconut water and a herbal drink called pru.

Orduñez explains the meaning of the feather-haired, forest-costumed boy's cry - Yuka yake ji ji agua, Bombé! We prefer death over slavery. Interestingly this ancient Taíno sentiment echoes the more recent cry of the Cuban revolutionaries – Patria o meurte! Our country or death! Cubans, for all their problems, will be masters of their own house. Obama's recent visit has been accepted without much reaction from the people. True, there are more American tourists than before now that direct travel from the US to Cuba has been approved, but not much else has changed. Cuba has for many years been effecting its own changes from within, characterized above all by control. Patria o meurte? The choice in this changing society is whether to continue working for the government for $20 a month or to go into private enterprise; to stay in Cuba and struggle to survive, or to emigrate with the wave of Cuban youth seeking a better life, and take your chances in Ecuador, Miami, Texas, Canada if you have a little English or French; or even relocate to Europe if you are fortunate enough to have Spanish ancestors affording access to an EU passport.

Amanda Hale has been writing for over 30 years. She is a novelist and poet, has written for theatre and worked in journalism, publishing articles on theatre, film, literature and various cultural and political.