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.

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