MY RE-DISCOVERY OF LONG LOST LOKONO & TAINO RELATIVES IN CUBA
On Sunday 10th November after US$1,500 in round-trip airfares (Barbados-Trinidad-Panama-Cuba and back) I arrived in Havana Cuba at the Jose Marti International Airport at 4.30pm, I had the idea in my head - due mainly to American TV programmes that saturate the media in my Caribbean Island home of Barbados - that Cuba would be a massively paranoid Police State, with a heavy secret police and military presence everywhere.
Yet, in my 7 days there I saw only 10 Police officers and 4 soldiers (and all armed only with pistols), no military vehicles, or aircraft or armed patrols anywhere.
To make matters worse, I knew no-one in Cuba, and I did not even have a place to stay...in fact, on my immigration form I left the space that asked "Address in Cuba:" completely blank, the lady immigration officer that I faced asked me why I did not fill that section in, and I told her: "To be very honest, I do not know anyone in Cuba, but I heard that there are many inexpensive Casas (literally 'houses' - as you stay in a bedroom that a family has converted to a guest room for tourists) in this country so I am sure I will find places to stay while I am here. The officer smiled, stamped my form and told me "Welcome to Cuba - enjoy your stay!". Try doing & saying THAT to an American (or even Barbadian) immigration officer - and see how quickly you will be denied entry in those 'free' countries.
I exited the airport at 5.00 pm and went to change the US$500 equivalent (in Canadian dollars & Euros) in cash I had brought with me to CUC$500 (the Cuban convertible currency used by tourists - which is roughly CUC$1 to every $25 Cuban pesos - the National currency local people use. The equivalent of US$500 is CUC$500 as the conversion rate is $1-$1 - but it is easier and better to bring Canadian dollars or Euros to Cuba instead of US$, I WAS able to pay by CC for my domestic flight from Baracoa in the South East of Cuba back to Havana in the North West on my second-to-last day there as I was leaving...but this is because my Mastercard is issued by the Canadian Bank of Nova Scotia (US bank issued credit cards cannot work in Cuba); as I saw no ATM machines anywhere I traveled - and I covered 1,000 miles by ground in my week there to be precise. I purchased a bus ticket from Havanna to Santiago for CUC$50.00 one-way, the lady said the next bus with seats was not until 10pm, but at 5.15 pm I was in a taxi for CUC$25 from the airport to the Viazul Bus station anyway, figured better to wait at the bus station instead of at the airport and kill 4/5 hours.
Upon reaching the bus station at 5.30 pm I went to check in early for the 10pm bus which I was told was the only one I could get, the guy at the counter asked if my ticket was for the 6.00pm bus - so I saw an opportunity and told him 'Yes' (liar-liar pants on fire!)...he tells me to hurry as the 6.00 bus is boarding already - so I hustle and make it aboard, at 6.00 pm on the dot the big air-conditioned Viazul tourist bus leaves the station ...with 6 seats still empty (note to self - when they tell you no seats available it actually means 'hurry and you'll still find one'). The AC is at full throttle for the entire 14 hours bus ride, on good paved roads though so you can recline and sleep most of it off (I had 2 seats to myself so I was comfy), just bring a sweater to put on as around midnight you'll think you were driving through the Arctic with the windows open, I saw tourists from Europe sleeping with Parkas on!
The first friend I made was a German Butcher named Klaus, he arrived same time as I did at the airport and we met when we went to change our cash into the local currency. He asked me about my trip and so I explained my mission for the first time. "The eldest brother Vidi Arnold Dewever of my Guyana born Lokono-Arawak grandmother had emigrated from Guyana to the island of Barbados in 1925, in 1926 great uncle Vidi left Barbados as a single man and travelled to Cuba - as he was offered a job as manager of a Cacao plantation in Baracoa by a company with an English name (he did not speak a word of Spanish himself). In those days there was no immigration authority in Baracoa, not even road or rail links with the rest of Cuba until after Fidel Castro won the revolution in 1959. My great uncle wrote 3 letters back home to his mother and sisters in Barbados and then was never heard from again. I had come to Cuba hoping to find his descendants because in my dreams the spirits of my ancestors, specifically my grandmother's mother 'Shoko Laliwa' (her native Arawak name) or 'Marian' in English (the last Princess in our tribe by European standards - being the daughter of our last hereditary Chief; she died in 1928) and her father the old Chief - told me they were there and I would find them."
Klaus thought it was a very worthy thing I was doing and without me asking at the next stop he bought dinner and a drink for me, I was planning to just snack on the nuts I had brought with me all night and eat a solid meal when I arrived in my final destination 19 hours later, spending time in the interior of Guyana with my own tribe and others voluntarily camping out as nomadic foragers like our ancestors used to - taught me to ignore hunger.
At 7.00 AM on Monday we arrived in the southern city of Santiago, I bought a new Viazul bus ticket from Santiago to Baracoa for CUC$15.00, this next bus departed at 8.00am sharp and I arrived in Baracoa at 1.00pm. Here is where my trip begins to get interesting.
1.05 pm - A lady gets on board about 10 blocks away from the bus station in Baracoa, she is holding a poster she made herself showing her guest room - and asking the passengers if anyone wanted to stay at her place....I am seated at the back of the bus (I have a paranoia about people NOT being able to surprise me so I always sit where I have a commanding view of everything - and where approaching me from behind is impossible). The lady reaches me and I ask her how much per night? She says CUC$15 so I agree, that price is CUC$5-$10 less than I saw online at other places before I came so I figure with meals included I can round off each days essential costs at CUC$25...not bad at all. The bus reaches the station and I get off with her, her husband meets us and helps me with my bags, I am surprised to see that he resembles my great uncle's father Vivian (my Great grandfather), my great uncle's younger brother David, and several of my cousins (Phillip, William etc.)...but I tell myself - since this is the part of Cuba (Baracoa) that has the highest concentration of Taino-Arawak phenotypical features - there are probably many people that look like persons in my family....so I do not think about it anymore (I never saw another person that resembled anyone in my family outside of this man's family).
As we are peddled (an old white fellow taking us by bicycle taxi) to their Casa (House), I gave the lady the introductory letter my father wrote in Spanish explaining the same thing I told my new German friend in English - for her to read - and hopefully help me find my family. All this time I am practicing my Spanish (my father is a fluent speaker but never taught us, we had to learn it in school from local clowns who themselves were native English speakers who likewise learned it at school as a second language - so it was pretty damned lousy). The final leg of the bicycle ride was up an incline on a bad road and gramps was having difficulty...so we jumped out and walked alongside him to ease his effort. By this time I was not seeing him as 'an old white fellow' in my mind anymore, I was seeing him as someone's grandfather who had to struggle daily to provide for his family, we reached my host's house and I asked her how much to pay the elder? She said CUC$0.50 was the normal rate, so I gave him CUC$1.50, that was $37.50 in the national peso currency locals use, and is more than the average person makes in a days labor. A doctor - for example, makes only CUC$20 per month ($500 pesos in the national currency) - but with free housing from the government and natural healthy non-GMO food being very abundant and cheap. Grandfather was very happy with his tip.
I was taken to my room, nothing fancy - but very satisfactory and immaculately clean, I had AC, a fan (in case I did not want to use the AC), a shower, sink, 2 mirrors, flushing toilet, clothes rack, bedside lamp, double bed, etc. The meals were too large for me to consume entirely and ranged from CUC$6-$8 per night, breakfast CUC$2, I had to keep saying "50% less please - this is too much food for me" (and my wife thinks I eat too much when i'm at home!...calls me Mr. Piggy and stuff). The food was great though! Very tasty, and natural home-made hot chocolate is there for you as often as you want it.
I met the daughter of the couple (Roberto and Magalys) who owned the Casa, her name is Yadina, and again I saw a resemblance in her face to some of my female cousins...weird...but just another co-incidence I thought, I asked Roberto if he had any neighbors (preferably female) that could work with me as my private translator for my stay in Baracoa, he brought a beautiful 26 year-old Taino descendant lady called Yenisel to meet me (her eyes are like a collage of Hazel brown with azure green)...I offered her CUC$5 per day to accompany me daily and be my interpreter and she accepted, but after hearing why I was there (to find long lost relatives) she said she would help me for free...but I insisted on the daily weeks pay I offered her. We arranged for her to return at 9am next morning so I could begin my search; then I went to bed early as I was very fatigued from the 2 days of non-stop travelling. Yenisel is to my left in the photo wearing a black shoulder-less top.
The next day (Tuesday) Roberto arranged for his taxi driver neighbor Claudio to be my daily private taxi driver for CUC$15 daily, so Roberto, Claudio, Yenisel and I headed out of town to meet the most famous Cacao expert in the world, unfortunately I cannot find the paper I wrote his name on...so let us just call him Grandpa for now.....in the photo with him in the middle of Roberto and myself - you can see me holding the book on the Cacao plant he wrote...and just for clarification COCA and CACAO are DIFFERENT, 'Cacao' is what 'Chocolate' comes from, and the 3 pods in the photo on the chair represent 2 modern varieties and the small green pod is the ORIGINAL wild Cacao plant domesticated by the Olmecs in Mexico, Grandpa has a plant of the original wild Cacao in his garden (see the photo of the Cacao tree with a green pod). Grandpa began to leaf through his old Cacao plantation records for Baracoa, but it will take some time to peruse them all, so he promised to search them to try to help me find info about my long lost great uncle Vidi; he will be in contact with Roberto with any info he discovers.
Later that day I met Roberto's son - Roberto jr....damn - he looked EXACTLY like my cousin Dean! Just one skin shade browner, I begin to ask questions about Roberto Sr's family, his parents and grandparents, his parents are still alive, but his maternal grandfather died around 80 years of age in 1985....which puts him around the age of my long lost great uncle Vidi....and Roberto said he actually does not know anything about his grandfather's history. I only met his father on the last night I was in town (Friday), as he turned gravely ill at 83 years old, and I was asked by Magalys (Roberto Sr's wife) to pray for him with my Tobacco....it was an honor I was not going to refuse, so I knelt at his feet...his face resembled my Great uncle David who went to England in his old age when I last saw him....I said a prayer for him, blew Tobacco smoke over his body, and then blew one last puff of smoke over his skull and kissed him on the top of his head. His family asked me what the spirits told me while I was praying, and I told them that the prayers of others are only half of what is possible, the person being prayed for must believe and have a will to heal of their own, if you surrender your life or surrender to despair...no-one else's prayers can make a difference in your life.
But let me not omit the events of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday......on Wednesday we went to pay our respects to the Great Taino War Chief Hatuey (whom I named my now 20 year old firstborn son after), I don't know if it was Fidel Castro's idea - but I thought it very fitting that Hatuey's statue in staring directly (I say 'accusingly') into the front door of the Catholic Church in Baracoa, the same Church that STILL has one of the original 29 wooden crosses that the genocidal villain Columbus planted on beaches in the Americas. He planted this one pictured in the Church photo on the beach in Baracoa in 1492...and when the Spaniards returned to invade Cuba in 1511 they found the cross STILL intact and on the beach where Columbus left it...that tells you a lot about how WE exercised religious tolerance for other people's beliefs, no Taino knocked down that cross or vandalised or destroyed it, it was important to these other peoples who arrived uninvited in our lands, so we left it where they put it.....when they returned the Europeans showed no such respect or tolerance for OUR spiritual objects. In case you do not know, Chief Hatuey was from the island that is today Haiti/Dominican Republic but was originally called Kiskeya....only AFTER the Spaniards heaped atrocities on the Taino of that island did our ancestors rename it Haiti....non Arawak people like to argue with me that 'Haiti' was the real first name, but I remind them of 2 things....#1 - The French speaking slaves in 'Haiti' who liberated themselves (like the people who argue with me) did (do) NOT speak our language and so would NOT have known the meaning of our words) and renamed that part of the island with the last Taino word they heard was the name of their land as 'Haiti'...and the French speakers pronounce it with the 'H' silent...they actually say 'Aiti' if you listen to them say it....and in the Lokono-Arawak language of my people (who linguistic experts say are the mother people of the Taino-Arawaks - as 50% of Taino words are actual Lokono words) 'Aiti' literally means "A cursed place".....after thousands of your people had been slaughtered in a place do you not think it would be renamed in such a manner? That is how we give place names to this day in Guyana in the tribe, anything significant (whether good or evil) that occurs in a place - becomes the new name of that place. So after waging ultimately unsuccessful defensive wars against the Spanish invaders of his island Hatuey fled Kiskeya and travelled by Koriara (large higher-sided sea-going canoe that can hold up to 80 people - as a 'Kanoa' is smaller low-sided and used in rivers and lakes only) to Baracoa Cuba, he warned the Taino Chiefs there of the evils of the Spaniards, so when the Spanish savages invaded Cuba at Baracoa in 1511 - the Taino with Hatuey as their war leader were ready for them, and years of guerilla wars in Cuba began, Hatuey was eventually captured and as he was about to be burned alive at the stake by the Spaniards...a Catholic priest asked him if he 'wanted to convert to Christianity in order to save his soul - so that he could go to heaven'...Hatuey asked the priest "Where do the souls of the Spaniards (who are about to burn him alive) go when they die?"...the priest replied "To heaven of course!"...and Hatuey famously replied "WELL I PREFER TO DIE UN-BAPTIZED THAN TO GO TO A PLACE WHERE SUCH EVIL MEN GO!"...and so the Great Chief Hatuey was burned to death by the Spaniards, and died proudly in the spiritual truths of his ancestors.
On the same day we also visited the statue of the other great Taino War Chief Guama who continued the wars against the Spaniards for 10 more years, nearly destroying the city of Baracoa several times, eventually he too was murdered by the Spaniards and his Taino elderly people butchered, Taino babies fed to Spanish dogs, and able bodied Taino men and women enslaved - enduring short miserable lives of unspeakable cruelty, sexual abuse (little Taino girls fetched a high price by Spanish men as Columbus recorded HIMSELF), and torture for amusement by evil sadistic Iberian savages. I visited a Taino cave shrine burial place (now a Museum), and I was gladdened when the Museum staff (in green shirts flanking me in the photo) - upon hearing who I was and why I was there - refused to take an admission fee from me - and instead gave me a free tour...but I was saddened to see the skeletal remains of 3 Taino ancestors on public display.....how come other people do not see how this would be insulting and upsetting to us? Is there anywhere I go and take photos of someone's white ancestor's exposed skeleton in a glass case from 500 years ago? Not that I would want to do that - but just making a point of comparison...Then why the double standard? Are we not human beings too? Still, it is not these 2 Museum workers fault, they are just doing their job, and no-one showed them how to see this issue from OUR perspective, I will still remember their kindness to me and see how I can help them in some way.
If my life is cut short now for any reason, my spirit will go in peace, I have been able to do what I promised my family, and my ancestors - and I can face them without any shame or guilt for having lived my life wearing my heart on my sleeve, following my dreams, and trusting in the will of the Great Holy Spirit to guide me through the darkness of this world.
PS - If any reader wants to visit Baracoa and needs places to stay contact me at email@example.com as I can recommend places to stay, taxi drivers to use, places to see etc. As I promised them I would help them with their tourism efforts which is their main source of income.
Damon Gerard Corrie
13 Highgate Gardens
Wildey, St. Michael
Tel: (246) 228-0227 Fax: (246) 437-2018
Copyright © 2013 Damon G. Corrie