We went through a second and final large gate and inmediately, we found ourselves on
white sand of a beach with its many coconut palms dancing in step with a cold and intense wind. The
vehicles moved closer to where the yola was. Everyone got off at once and shuffled
off together curious to see the boat. Juan and I also directed ourselves toward
the yola. Leo, in the meantime, was being helped to unload the minibus. While we were approaching the yola, those who got there before us were commenting
about it. My heart was beating intensely.
Juan and I pushed our way in. He said with anguish:
---Is this the piece of shit we'll be traveling in?
The boat was there, tied to a trunk sticking out of the water. The wind and the waves moved it.
---This cannot be the yola in which we'll be traveling ---Juan
I was stunned and trembling.
I did not want to believe that this was it. I stared at the sea and with
an enthralled look I scanned over the entire beach. I expected to see another
yola, but there was no other within sight. Until then, I had the illusion of
a ship where we would travel with some comfort. But now the yola was here in
front of me; it seemed so small for so many people. It was about thirty five
feet long by twelve wide; that is to say, it was a safe boat for no more than twelve people.
There was not too much difference between this yola and the ones in which less than ten people cross the Ozama River.
Some of the disillusioned travelers were shouting their complaints. But Leo and his assistants paid very little attention to them. They were loading the yola with fuel and provisions while the northeast breeze kept on blowing and the
waves swayed the yola.
As soon as the ship was loaded and the motor was started, Leo
addressed us aloud. He was grabbing the motor's rudder with one hand, which helped
him to keep his balance. It was not difficult to distinguish his long, thin face,
nor to notice that his big round black eyes stared at all of us, who, between
murmurs, would look at him and wait discouraged. In a lamented tone, but determined,
---Señores, there is not room for all of you here. As soon as I get to Puerto Rico, I'll return to take with me those who can't make the trip today. Don't despair, this very week there'll be another trip. José and Frank will stay; they'll give you more instructions.
As soon as Leo spoke, we could hear Frank's voice saying and
---Those of you who are not leaving, get into the pickup truck
and in the minibus. We're returning to La Romana at once.
Some passengers rushed into the yola, unwilling to take the risk to wait for the next supposed trip. Others boarded
slowly and hesitantly. The rest were observing the small and fragile boat being
boarded by the others. Thereupon, my companion Juan, in his "cibaeño" accent
---I'm not crazy enough to get into that piece of shit! God, they want to kill us..!
A few more continued to get in.
And I, silent, worried and very cold, continued listening to Juan who kept on saying:
---Oh, shit! I didn't know this was like this. These mother fuckers just want to cheat us out of our money and get rid of us by putting us in this
shit. You won't get in this shit; will you, Raul?
I was wavering.
---That's it! Nobody else get in! ---said Leo repeatedly. And then they started to plunge the boat out into the deep sea. Maybe because of seeing Leo at the helm, with all my indecision, I got into the water and boarded the vessel. And Juan, my companion, with great bitterness and hesitation, getting his clothes
wet behind the yola, grabbed my hand and also got in. We tried to find a space
to accommodate ourselves while the small boat, moving with a small motor, started its slow departure.
The ones at shore saw us leave.
They were urged to return to the city before being caught on the beach. The
time of day, the isolated location and the things they were carrying would announce their intentions to the authorities if
they were to show up.
Fifteen minutes after our departure, the sea increased its
agitated oscillation. Since Juan and I were the last to board, we were at the
stern. We located ourselves close to one of the tanks containing the fuel and
at the same time close to Leo who was driving the boat. Pedro was in the bow
and by his side were many other men. The rest were as crowded as when we were
in the pickup. Almost seventy of us were stuffed into this yola. Some where sitting on the seat boards, others occupied any space they could find not taken by the three
plastic tanks that contained the fuel. Each tank held sixty gallons of gasoline. Each weighed, therefore, around three hundred pounds.
Everyone recognized that the ship was super overloaded. Juan cried:
---Oh shit, Raul! We're
really crazy, you know! We got in this shit with so many people. This shit is
---You're right, Juan ---I said-, right now is where I've realized
that we're in big trouble.
The level of anguish increased as we were getting farther into
the sea. The waves, though not too high, were very active. The top border of the yola was separated from the water by just a few inches. This allowed water, once in a while, to get in over the top. It
was obvious that the water level inside the boat was slowly increasing. Soon,
hopelessness took over a great number of the passengers; and it grew, for, the small motor turned out to be unable to move
the yola at an adequate speed.
Fortyfive minutes after the departure, the coconut trees were
only at about three kilometers away. Dawn was becoming clearer but our situation
was getting darker and darker: water kept getting into the vessel and some of
the desperate would shout to the captain:
---Let's go back, let's go back!
On the other hand, others shouted recklessly:
---Keep on moving this God dam thing, no matter if we all get
Leo kept on going. Each
minute more water got into the vessel and she could advance less. Cries, prayers
and lamentations could be heard aloud. Some women were clamoring to God and all
the Saints. A man, with a knife, was cutting off the plastic containers in which
some had brought drinking water. We continued in our effort to gather together
as close as possible in order to make room for the plastic containers with which, almost since we departed, some were scooping
water out of the yola.
Soon, no one would ask Leo to continue; almost all were begging
him to return to the beach. To get back to the beach was a matter of four thousand
five hundred meters, to get to Puerto Rico a matter of two hundred thousand. It
seemed entirely impossible to travel this latter distance in our condition. Leo,
at last, seemed to understand this:
---All right! We're going back, so that at least half of you
can get off the yola..! I told you not to overload the boat; I said no more people..!
---Ok. I'll get off! -assured some, while Leo, little by little,
began a large circle to turn the boat around and come back to the beach. I was
one of those who insisted that Leo should return to shore, like almost everybody else, I felt a great sense of relief as Leo
was turning the boat around.
The turn was completed but the water level increased inside
the vessel. The waves continued to hit the sides of the boat. Upon splashing up, the water that threatened to sink the boat kept the people inside wet. As the water level increased, so too did the desperate efforts of those attempting to counteract the attacks
of the waves. A few minutes after the turn, it seemed impossible to get to the
shore without the vessel sinking. Some would shout out, while crying:
---Oh, I don't know how to swim!
---It's too far away! -shouted some women, as they referred
to the shore that could hardly be seen in the distance. Something had to be done
and Pedro backed up one woman's proposition.
---Throw every thing of weight overboard! -repeated a thirty
year old woman, with mounting grief.
---What are you talking about? ---protested a man---. No one
has brought anything of considerable weight here.
The woman, crying with a horse and pressured voice, insisted:
---Well, let's then throw out the tanks with the gasoline! I have three small children who I don't want to leave orphaned.
After a short discussion, some of those close to the tanks
of gas managed to throw out the first tank without sinking the yola. They threw
out the second tank also, but not the third one that was by my side. This one
was supplying the motor through a piece of hose. But the boat did not indicate
that she had felt the effect of the loss of weight. She seemed to be in the same
place just waiting to sink with all these people crying. But not every one was
crying. Some women had fainted and were lying on the floor. Some of the men were trembling as the water splashed our bodies. The crying could be heard better than the murmur of the waves that were constantly
dumping in more water. It was impossible to get rid of all of it. My companion Juan would not say a word, the paleness of his round face spoke for him. I was very frightened, but focusing on the faraway coconut trees invigorated me somewhat, although I was
sure that I was not capable of swimming a tenth of the distance that separated us from them.
Pedro encouraged those who were extracting water. Leo was still at the helm; but, for a great while, he refrained from scolding us any more; he would
not say a word. He was hearing the people's cries and his face showed a strange
mix of serenity and anguish. When he spoke, he did it without scolding. I was looking at him. First, like
in other occasions, he directed his eyes to the coconut trees which were far away and fuzzy.
Then he lowered his eyes, took a look at the crowded group and, gasping, said:
---All the men, throw yourselves into the water to relieve
some of the weight of the yola! This is the only way that we have left to reach
We all heard him, but no one volunteered on his petition; not
even the strong Pedro. Instead, one of the men said:
---I would throw myself into the water if I hadn't heard that
this is one of the most shark infested water of this island.
The small ship continued at a very slow speed, almost motionless;
the waves insisted in their tenacious labor. The cries and laments of those who
considered death near and inevitable were increasing.
Some were lamenting for their lives and others for their relatives
whom they were leaving. They mentioned their sons and daughters, their mothers...
many of the women were horse from crying. The sadness on some faces was awful
and tears were abundant. I saw some cover their faces and curl up like snails. I noticed that some frightened woman snuggled up on others. I estimated that we still were at about two kilometers from the shore. Nevertheless, what I perceived more
readily was the chattering of my teeth, and the shivering of my knees. Certainly,
the cold increased my fear. Had I been a good swimmer I would have found this
easier to endure.
Leo, in vane, continued to insist that the men should leave
the boat. We were still afloat because we kept on taking water out of the vessel
and because we all endeavored to keep the yola balanced.
Thirty minutes had gone by after we turned around, but the
distance traveled was minimal. Nevertheless, the deterioration and desperation
of the passengers had increased a great deal. By then Leo called out to Pedro,
who with great difficulty made his way though the mass of people and took charge
of the rudder. All of a sudden, Leo, with all his clothes, jumped over the motor
and into the turbulent waves. From there, Leo continued to urge the men to join
him saying that they could reach the shore grasping the sides of the boat.
Since the boat did not move from its place, some men started
to jump into the water. I also decided to do so.
I took off my gray shoes which did not look new anymore. I took my wallet
out of my pocket and stuck it into one of my shoes. I put the shoes in the plastic
bag in which I had my other things.
---Juan hold this for me! Give it back to me on the beach ---I
said to my friend as I jumped into the water.
---Raul, are you crazy? Didn't you hear that there're lots
of sharks in there? ---Juan reminded me. But I fell into the sea water which
was just like the water entering the yola: warmer than the cold air that mortified us.
Once eight or nine of us, about half of all the men, had jumped
out of the yola, it advanced faster and with less risk of sinking. Those who
were emptying water had more room to do so. In the sea, we continued taking hold
of the yola which was dragging us toward the beach. And the beach, little by
little, was getting closer with its green coconut trees and its white sugar sand.