Thursday, February 27, 2014

Cueva de La Cucaracha and a Robbery (Revised)

Architecture, La Piedra
The town of La Piedra (piedra means stone in English) is a parched campo with little water. Its rough dirt roads are laid out in grids and most of the houses are built using rusty sheets of galvanized, corrugated sheet metal and cut, un-milled poles for framing. Used blue poly-tarps are ubiquitous as building material and glass windows or even screening are non-existent. There are no actual stores and the few colmados are small, with few provisions, and operate out of homes that may only have power for part of the day. At the end of a day of caving it is often impossible to buy a cold beer anywhere.
Lynne Guitar, who is an anthropologist who teaches at a university in Santiago and specializes in studying the Taíno culture, first introduced us to this area. Several years ago Lynne bought a piece of land in La Piedra I that has a large cave on it that contains petroglyphs and she invited us to map it for her. On Alain’s and my first visit we missed the turn where the mule was supposed to have been tied to the tree and wound up all the way over in La Piedra III where we parked in front of a small group of houses. When some people came out to see who we were Alain asked them what he always asks strangers he has never met before, “Hay cuevas por aquí?” which means Are there any caves around here? The answer was yes and someone went to fetch Raphael.
Raphael (foreground) with Alain in a cave entrance.
Raphael Agramonte, 50’s, short, wiry and angular with a few teeth missing would become our cave guide for the next few years. When he was younger he attended an agricultural school in Santo Domingo and specialized in fertilizer. One thing led to another and he would up in La Piedra. Times got tough and he got involved in buying and selling black market fertilizer which comes in 55 gallon drums and needs to be hidden somewhere— thus Raphael’s extensive knowledge of all caves in the area. He did well for a while and bought several small parcels of land and saved money but eventually got busted, spent some time in jail and lost most of what he had. He now lives with his wife, Morena, and subsists by working with his machete chopeando, making charcoal, and foraging ñame, a tuber resembling a sweet-potato, in the bush which also leads him to discover more caves that no one else knows about.
One day earlier in the week we visited two caves, both of which we had to rappel into and neither of which turned out to have either pictographs (paintings or drawings on the cave walls) or petroglyphs (carvings in the limestone walls or calcite formations). Close to half the caves in the country contain some kind of indigenous art, usually a crude, often nearly invisible, petroglyph or two on a stalactite near the cave entrance in partial daylight. The first cave turned out to be very small. The floor of the second cave directly below the entrance was covered by a six foot tall pile of garbage (partial list includes pampers, tampons, pig bones, rotten chunks of wood, tires, plastic oozing shopping bags, chicken carcasses, unidentifiable glop and detritus) with no way of avoiding landing in it and sinking up to the knees.
Practically none of these caves have names and because we need to refer to them somehow in our databases the three of us confer on the spot. We might name them after the owner of the property or after a distinctive tree growing in or near the entrance. We called the first cave Cueva Colorado after some reddish iron oxide stains on the walls and the second the Cueva de Cojo, because the owner is lame. Other memorable names have included Cueva de Los Puercos Muertos (entrance clogged with pig bones, hides and carcasses), Cueva de Caoba Condenada (mature mahogany tree near the entrance that Raphael estimated was worth 3000 pesos at the sawmill, sure enough when we returned to that cave a month later, the tree was gone), and Cueva de Mano Mocha because the owner had lost a hand in a machete incident.
Thursday, after buying the usual lunch provisions in Valiente, we picked up Raphael at his house and drove over to the Barrio de La Cucaracha (Cockroach Barrio) to check out a few caves. The first was the Cueva de Bienvenido that was shaped like a very low crawlspace and was in the back yard of Bienvenido’s small house. We crawled and slithered around in it and found a half dozen petroglyphs and a nesting chicken. Bienvenido served us all coffee and gave us some plantains for the road.
The next site we visited looked a lot like Bienvenido’s— two shallow sub parallel wandering ridges pocked with various open-air abrigos or natural rock shelters and alcoves. We clambered down a short slope and wandered through the scrub poking our heads into the little pockets and hollows in the limestone walls until we came to the back of a low horseshoe shaped formation. We crawled in through a low opening, stood up, turned our headlamps on and immediately saw numerous, dark, clear, large charcoal pictographs. We quickly reconnoitered the rest of the cave and found many other paintings and went back to the guaguita to get our recording gear.
We were parked on the side of a dirt road  with grass growing in the middle of it, about 50 meters from the cave entrance. Raphael mentioned at the last minute that maybe we should not leave anything of much value in the guaguita because it was a lawless barrio and so I carried all my camera stuff down into the cave.
About two hours later, while I was photographing in an open clearing within the cave, I heard a distant buzzing noise but thought that it was probably a car alarm somewhere far away. The sound continued for 20 minutes or so and eventually Raphael walked up to check and a minute later I heard a shrill call ¡DANIEL, VEN ACÁ, LA GUAGUITA! I dropped my archeologist’s scale and went running and sure enough, someone had jammed a screwdriver into all the key entries of the guaguita and then smashed the driver’s side window in frustration. Broken chips of tempered glass all over, shades of my youth. The bags that we had left behind were in disarray and the seats turned up to expose the engine. They had been looking for the battery to sell as scrap. Luckily a chip of glass had gotten lodged under the horn cushion on the steering column and shorted out the horn which had stuck in the ON position and was blaring and which had evidently spooked the ladrones and was the buzzing noise I had heard from afar. They stole only my favorite flip-flops and my machete. They left Alain’s bag containing 100 meters of climbing rope and my bag of climbing gear worth maybe $500 USD along with the ashtray full of change and our street clothes. We had been lucky.
As I was probing the violated door locks with my key and trying to raise the back hatch, which had also been unsuccessfully jimmied, a small crowd of villagers gathered. Arguments broke out over whom the thief might have been; one woman hiked up her skirt and shook her butt in the direction of an old man in an unspoken answer to some unspoken challenge; naked children darted between the legs of taller onlookers. I left Raphael in charge and went back to the cave and collected my camera gear and got Alain, who was still in the cave obliviously working. I swept glass chips off the seats onto the road and rearranged the packs and we left.
Later we learned that local tigueres and drug dealers occasionally use that cave to torture and kill captive rivals. They reportedly noose the victim on the surface and throw him down through a skylight in the cave so that he is hanged in one of the rooms in the darkness below.

We went back to finish measuring and photographing the Cueva del Barrio de La Cucaracha a few weeks later, but this time we parked in the yard of a trusted acquaintance of Raphael.
Raphael went back on his own a few times looking for someone wearing my sandals but no luck. Evidently the prime suspect kept stealing until his neighbors got sick of it and he was killed about a year later,
The Guaguita “safely” parked
Examples of the art can be seen HERE in a photo gallery of the same name; and is discussed beginning at the 6 minute 30 second mark of the Powerpoint video below that I presented at the IFRAO conference in Bolivia in 2010 with the help of Robert Mark.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Caving in La Piedra

Yesterday I accidentally deleted a post about caving in the Dominican Republic from this blog and here is my first attempt to replace it.

          Throughout all these diary entries over the years we have continued to explore and document caves all over the Dominican Republic looking for petroglyphs and pictographs. Over the past 6 or 7 years Alain Gilbert and I have travelled hundreds of kilometers in my guaguita bouncing down hardscrabble dirt roads, changing tires, adding water to the radiator and stopping at colmados in geologically likely looking limestone-y areas to ask if anyone here knows of any caves.
         Alain is a born caver, more comfortable in darkness than light and a member of the Fédération Française de Spéléologie a prestigious French caving club. He is about 5’6“ tall with short strong arms and legs and a belly the size of a bowling ball. Our common language is imperfect Spanish. He knows how to drill a hole in a cave partition using a hammer and a star drill, and set a small charge in it to blow a hole in the wall big enough to crawl through to explore the other side. We measure every cave we encounter and Alain eventually maps every one, whether we find art in it or not. He has map data for over 500 caves in the DR; together he and I have explored about 150; some the size of a closet and others containing upwards of 6 miles of passageways.
        When we are led to a cave I take a GPS reading while Alain reconnoiters the entrance and gets his notebook and measuring device ready. This device is called a Topofil and consists of a handheld handmade aluminum box that houses a clinometer, a compass and a spool of cotton thread that unreels from an odometer of sorts that measures how much thread has been unspooled. It works underwater; I have seen him use it when he was up to his neck in viscous cave water. Alain selects a starting point, or punto in Spanish, parks me on it with the free end of the thread, flips his helmet lamp on, and walks off into the cave until he stops at his next selected punto, which might be near a stalagmite or boulder or intersection of passages. He sites back along the thread through a hole in the box to measure the elevation and compass points in degrees and he notes the distance in meters that has registered on the odometer. Then he breaks the thread off with his teeth (We usually leave it on the floor, kind of like a linear bread crumb, in case we have trouble finding our way back out) and we measure the next punto starting from the end of the last, and so on through the cave. With these three measurements and some sketches that he draws of notable nearby formations he can later draw a 3 dimensional cave map that is within 2% accuracy. He uses pen and ink and graph paper of different scales and eschews all things digital. He leaves no corner of a cave unmeasured and, despite his build, one of his nicknames is The Worm reflecting the impossibly small tunnels he can squeeze through when needed.
A Topofil device much like Alain's,
although in much better condition.

         One Tuesday morning last year Alain and I set off early for La Piedra near El Toro, near Guerra, about an hour from Santo Domingo. We had been there a few times before but today we were armed with a pencil-drawn map of a new shortcut so that we could try to avoid 5 miles of driving the guaguita over horrendous dirt roads that had been filled in with broken cement blocks (not crushed but only broken in half).
          We had to pass through El Valiente, a sad and broken backwater town which is where many tigueres go to hole up until the police stop looking for them. We bought empanadas, crackers, spam-like salami and bottled water from a colmado and then drove though town and off the back end of the pavement near the big water tower onto the depression era hard-red-mud, asteroid-hard stone studded roads that lead to Rafael and Morena’s house in La Piedra III.

The road to La Piedra
Center of town, La Piedra

          It turned out that no one was home—Morena had had to go to the capital to tend a sick sister and when we walked up to the house we saw that Rafael had left habichuelas simmering on breakfast fire coals outside the locked-up house. But he had shown us some cave entrances the year before that we had never explored and so I fired up the GPS handheld with our cuantiosas puntos saved in it and we eased off toward a cave on our own.
Wasps or avispas
          En route we spotted another cave entrance near the road and so we pulled over, and as we were changing into our grungy cave clothes a small boy rounded the curve on foot, said he knew the cave and shyly offered to guide us. His name was Sauli and he helped us hack through the thorny weeds with my machete and avoid the inconspicuous wasp nests attached to twigs. (The wasps here, as I think I mentioned before, have more potent stings than even the rightly feared White-Assed Hornet of North America. The last time I got stung here it was on the wrist-- I saw colors and my bones hurt up to the shoulder for two days. The local remedy is to obtain a few drops of urine to put on the sting; the ammonia supposedly breaks down the offending enzymes.) After examining the area around the entrance thoroughly for petroglyphs (none found) we measured our way incrementally through the cave, as we do, and surprisingly, at one point, came up against a poured concrete wall 4 meters high and way inside the cave. Sauli said that it was the wall of the cistern.
I am holding the end of the thread and the camera,
Alain is reading the elevation from the clinometer on the topofil
as we take our first punto as we are about to enter the cave.

          We wended our way around through the cave and saw other entrances, some of which were half filled with chicken manure and dead chickens discarded from the Pollo Cibao chicken farm nearby. In one of the sinkholes there was a shaky looking, narrow, concrete staircase slick with dead leaves and other detritus that led up to ground level. It looked a little like it came out of
Big heap of garbage under a skylight.
a jungle in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. We followed Sauli up it and emerged onto a tiled patio surrounding an empty swimming pool painted with regulation blue swimming pool paint. There was a nice gazebo at one end of the patio that led to the chicken ranch, which consisted of rows of low, screened barns full of pullets and chicks both live and dead. Here we could see back down into the cistern whose concrete dam we had run into from below earlier in the day. Alain looked longingly down into it, a dark rancid pool 10 meters below with several floating fowl carcasses in it, because he thought it might lead to more cave passages but I told him that if he wanted to go down there he was going alone. The half dozen or so Pollo Cibao employees who had gathered by now also all refused to rappel down into the fetid water with Alain so we retraced our tracks back down into the cave. As we passed through one of the open sinkholes a woman hollered down from the edge above to Sauli, “Where the hell have you been, your mother is half dead worried about you.”  When we finally emerged out the other end of the cave, Sauli politely refused the $100 peso tip (about $3 U.S.) I offered him and it wasn’t until I suggested that he could buy something nice for his mother that he accepted it and thanked us and went home to get ready for his 1 PM classes.
          The cave that Sauli guided us through we would eventually refer to in our database as La Cueva de Carlito #1, named for the owner of the property where we entered the cave. It had about 250 meters of passageway but had no art that we observed in it. 
          After Sauli left us Alain and I ate our lunch of spalami and crackers and we GPSed our way to La Cueva de Papasito which we had partially mapped on a previous trip guided by Rafael. We traipsed fast through the cave to get to where we had left off measuring and as we passed through the bottom of a deep sinkhole we were surprised to hear our names called out and when we looked up we saw Rafael up on the rim waving and smiling. When we finished measuring for the day the three of us drove back to Rafael’s house to wash up and change out of our muddy (and worse) clothes. Rafael had had to tend the smoldering pile of tree limbs that he was turning into charcoal to sell, but he promised to be ready to lead us to new caves the next day.
Here I am with my GPS device on a stick trying to raise it high enough to get a location.