About author and his Book
In Honor and Dedicate to
- Joining Other Travelers
- On Our way to El Macao
- Too Many People for a Yola
- The Return and the defeat
- Without a Job, without Money and Harassed
- My Companions for Adversity
- Papin: What a Shave to Leave in a Yola
- The Tortuous Road to Punta Cana
- The First Hours of Terror
- Exhaustion and Insecurity
- Our Log Night in the Caribbean Sea
- Our Second Day in the Caribbean
- The Unsuspected at a Small Island
- Our Arrival to Puerto Rican Beach
- Our Entrance to San Juan
- Papins Sad Fate
- Puerto Rico: An inhospitable Place for Illegal Emigrants
- I preferred Death than Deportation
Joining Other Travelers
It was January the nineth. We were approaching La Romana shortly after nightfall. Leo, the captain, was smoking a cigarette and the other passengers in the car were talking about the sea. I was twenty three. I had four hundred dollars in my wallet and the determination to get to the United States. My one hundred and thirty five pounds made my six-foot body look thin. My coffee-colored eyes reflected as yet a naivete, the naivete that I still held within me due to years of my adolescence devoted to the Evangelic Church. I was deep in thought while our car headed East down the narrow road surrounded on both sides by the immense green sugar cane fields. "Don't leave in a yola" my mother had told me. "Those voyages are very dangerous. You had better stay here, get married and have your children at an early age". I remembered her words. I was pleased that I had not paid attention to them, for, in spite of the apprehension and anxiety that such trips cause, I was starting to taste the flavor of victory, the victory of leaving a country of poverty and misery and not to return to it until my luck was a little better. "I will spend seven years without returning home", I would say to myself, without even suspecting that I would come back sooner than I could imagine, crushed by an overwhelming defeat.
---We have to wait until later to continue the trip to the beach ---Leo explained as he detoured through one of the barrios of La Romana-; it's safer to make these trips after midnight. In the mean time, you'll wait in one of three groups which will also make the trip. When everything is ready, we'll pick you up. Don't worry, where I'm taking you is a safe place with people that I trust; besides, you'll wait for just a few hours.
Shortly thereafter, we arrived at the front of a home. It was a house being rebuilt, Leo, tall and skinny, thirty years old, led us through a narrow dirt alley to the back patio of the house. It was a big patio, lit only somewhat by the light that filtered through from inside the house. There were lots of people in the backyard. Some of them got up and came over as they heard us arrive. All of them had found a spot on the ground. Some were reclined against the wall smoking. Leo addressed us:
---Find a place over there.
I laid down on the plastic bag in which I had brought my things. Juan sat down by me. Meanwhile, Leo was answering people's questions. But Leo did not stay too long, explaining that he must make sure that everything was going according to plan. Then, as he was leaving, he said:
---I won't take too long. Soon we'll be on the beach and by this time, tomorrow, we'll be approaching Puerto Rico. Don't go out to the street but if you do, not in groups of more than three or four people. We have to avoid suspicion there are lots of "chivatos" around here.
Having said that, he departed. Behind him, he left the murmur of excited travelers.
It was easy to get involved in conversation. Where are you from? Why are you leaving in a yola? How many hours does the trip take? Will we get wet? Do you think we can trust these people? These were some of the questions hanging in the air. Time passed quickly, everyone asking questions and giving details of their fears, hopes and the situation that pushed them to make this trip. Most of the people were well informed about the latest tragedies reported in the newspapers. The perilous voyages in yolas to Puerto Rico began to multiply during the early eighties. Since then, the poor have attempted to flee the country by any means, often being arrested in the attempt or dying as victims in one of the many shipwrecks that occur. They also perished in cases as astonishing as the so called "Regina Express" tragedy. This was the name of a Colombian Ship in which, on the sixth of September of 1981, intending to leave as stowaways, 30 of an original group of almost 40 people trying to get to Miami, were loaded into the ballast tank in order to escape detection by the authorities. They were led into the tank by the "jefe de maquina" and other employees. It was said that before the ship departed there were rumors that stowaways were on board. The Port Authority ordered a thorough revision of the ship, but the "jefe de maquina" and his accomplices, advised of this, rushed ahead and hid 30 of the illegal passengers in the ballast tank and, to avoid suspicion, added water to it. But the water added was too much, before the departure, 22 of the stowaways drowned in an event that caused an uproar throughout the Dominican Republic.
On the other hand, people with more money, interested in traveling to the United States, very often, traveled first to Central America, then to Mexico and once there, tried, usually successfully, to cross the Mexican-American border.
In the backyard, people went on talking. Those who had attempted the trip before garnered the most attention. A young man who claimed to know a lot about the matter was talking about his crossings. He said:
---These voyages can be extremely difficult. I was able to make the trip three years ago; but after that I tried and failed in four other attempts. The first time I left it was a great trip. We were about twenty five. We made the crossing in around thirteen hours. The sea was always calm and flat. Like a mirror! The difficult part was when we got to Puerto Rico. We landed at about 3:00 in the morning. As soon as we reached the shore, the organizers forced us to get off the boat, so they could return at once in their yola. We all ran into the forest and, in the blink of an eye everyone had gone their own way. I remained with a friend. At three o'clock in the afternoon we were still lost. That's the hardest thing that I have endured in my life. Our skin was cut by the bushes. Mosquitoes and ants were killing us. We were hungry, thirsty, sleepy, tired and very far from Villa Palmera.
---And what happened then? ---someone encouraged him to continue his story.
---God helped us. We came upon a Puerto Rican. He led us out of the woods, he took us to his house and let us spend the night there. The following day, he helped us get transportation.
---How lucky you were! -commented a woman in her forties---, what I don't understand is why you are here?
---Trash got into my head, señora! I spent three months in Puerto Rico. I even had a job, but as time passed I missed my country and my people more and more. Here, I had lots of friends and my girlfriends.
---That was really stupid! -I said to him---; after I'm gone, I'll return with documents so that I can go back any time I wish; I'd return without them only if they bring me by force.
---Now, I'm pretty sure I won't return. I've lost my love for everything here. If we're able to make this trip, I doubt that l'll return -he concluded, somewhat absent--minded, as if he were talking more for himself than for those who were listening to him.
This conversation gave Juan and me a more realistic idea of what the trip might have in store for us. We were not prepared for a hard trip; we had not even bought food. The others were carrying food and clothing. Some of them even had containers with water.
In a plastic bag, I was carrying underwear, two pair of pants and two shirts. I had with me a small radio-cassette player with earphones and some cassettes containing -"Merengues" and ballads. I was wearing khaki pants with a black leather belt. The shirt was white, with narrow vertical gray stripes. The shoes were gray, almost brand new; my uncle Manuel had brought them to me in December from Puerto Rico.
A young man took us around the barrio; in a nearby corner grocery store we bought salami and crackers. Juan placed these provisions in his back pack. When we got back, we found the others talking about the same things as when we left. There were about sixty people in all. Most of them were young women of not more than thirty years of age. One of the young women was very talkative and, as before, she made use and mention of her fancy camera. After taking pictures of some of us who were lying on the ground, the girl, said bragging:
---This is an expensive camera! It was sent to me from New York. Tomorrow, when we are at sea, I'm going to keep taking pictures.
---Not tomorrow, Ana! You've got to say today! It's past midnight. Those guys are almost here. You had better shut up and be quite ---said the another young lady who was lying by her side using her baggage as a pillow.
I looked at my watch. It was 12:30 PM. They had already closed the rear door of the house and no more light was filtering out from inside. But the night had cleared up. People and objects were clearly visible. At the end of the yard, in a corner, we could see the latrine; a burlap sack covered its entrance. It was one of crude concrete blocks, so was still the house and the walls dividing the yard. Undoubtedly, the reconstruction of the house was advancing along well. It only needed the concrete floor, the electrical wiring finished, and plaster and paint on the walls.
At 1:30 am, I took another look at my watch. By then, Juan and I were well informed of a lot of things. Ana, the young woman with the camera had given out quite a lot of information. She wore her hair pulled back, a pair of black jeans, a yellow blouse, and white tennis shoes. Ana's skin was cinnamon-color as was that of the girl that accompanied her. At first, I thought the two girls were sisters, but as they spoke, I realized that they were friends. The shorter one's name was Carmen. She hardly spoke; but Ana kept on chatting with the men and the other women.
---I love the way you talk ---Ana said to Juan, which my friend took as insincere. He felt that she was making fun of him, because of his pronounced accent from the central region of the Dominican Republic, El Cibao.
Our sleepiness came and went, interrupted by our restlessness and the voices of the people around us. Concerning Leo and his voyages, they said "he never deceives his customers, he always makes sure that every one gets to Puerto Rico." And they were his best advertisement, for, they, themselves, were following friends and family, former customers of his, to New York or Puerto Rico. This was one of Leo's best trips. The total number of travelers was over a hundred. Not only did they come from El Cibao and the Capital, but there were travelers from La Romana proper, and others coming from Higüey. The rest of the passengers were distributed in two houses nearby. The area from which we were to disembark was El Macao Beach, two hours away from where we were.
A few minutes before Leo's return, Juan somewhat nervously muttered in my hear:
---¿Raul, cuanto te va a cobrai, Leo?
(---Raul, ¿how much is Leo charging you?)
---Augusto! ---I said, reminding him that that's how we were to refer to Leo, because he did not want anybody to know his real name. Hence, everyone said Augusto when talking about Leo.
---Well, Augusto or whatever name he wants to be called, how much is he charging you? ---insisted my companion.
Juan and I were perhaps the only people who were not forced to pay in advance. As well, Leo had also lowered our fare. I had to pay $300 dollars and Juan a similar amount. Leo asked us not to say how much we were paying because the others would have wanted a discount. Besides we were not to mention the captain's real name nor were we supposed to say that he traveled legally to Puerto Rico, since he had U.S. residency. I thought that Juan was going to pay more than I, that's why I found it hard to reveal to him the amount I was to pay. For the trip, Leo usually would charge $500 dollars or 1,500 pesos. The latter being the equivalent, in Dominican money, of the dollars charged. The money had to be paid directly to Leo, or to Frank, who was one of his three assistants.
Juan and I met Leo in a car rental agency where we had been working together. To both of us, very often, Leo had offered to take us to Puerto Rico at a lower price than what he usually charged. Juan had decided to make the trip before I did. He had been working in the rent-a-car for the last five months. Ever since he was aware of Leo's trips, the idea of being part of one of them fascinated him. He was twenty two, round faced, white skin, short and somewhat chubby. He was a newcomer to the capital from San Francisco de Macorís, his home town. He was living in the Herrera section of Santo Domingo at his brother's house. Shortly after he arrived from El Cibao, he was hired by the rent-a-car. Juan substituted for Tonin in the morning shift, an affable old man who had trained me in the task of renting cars and handling office duties, and who, contrary to what he expected, was fired. Juan had a sister in the United States. She promised him she would file a petition to bring him legally to the United States. But Juan did not want to wait for this long process.
---Raul let's leave this fucking country ---Juan repeatedly insisted.
I did not want to quit my position as sales representative. It was the first important job I had. Since the office I worked in was in the Las Americas International airport area, it was easy for me to practice English with the tourists that came to rent vehicles. I had learned English on my own, without a teacher. My knowing the language aided me in obtaining the position.
I loved my job, but everyday my salary became worth less and less: The spiraling inflation would reduce more and more. I used to make $133 dollars monthly and I dreamed of having a house of my own, a car and sons and daughters that would not grow up like I did, same as most of the children of Santo Domingo's barrios do: going hungry, no clothes on their backs, lack of medicine and education... That's why I decided to leave. The arrangements for the trip were made very much in a hurry, almost all of a sudden, although I had a lot of time to think it over.
I met Leo one afternoon, one of my first days at work for the rent-car. It was one of those days when I was still receiving my training in the car rental business. That afternoon when I met that skinny, knifed-faced man, I overheard my fellows workers comment:
"The fishers are coming today to get a minibus! They've got another catch on their hands!"
A few hours later Leo arrived accompanied by two other young men. They were warmly welcomed. Tonin, the sales representative that was training me, was asking questions like:
"How was the last catch?; how many fish did you take?; how did they get there?; when are you going fishing again?"
I did not find any logic in the jargon they spoke. When the three young men left, I asked Tonin:
---Are those guys men fishermen?
Even though Tonin was an old man, he still loved to make jokes as much as he loved good rum and young women. With these words uttered, he burst in laughter. He even let the other fellow workers know of my naive question. After everybody laughed, Tonin, more serious now, whispered into my ear:
---Leo, the skinny one, he makes trips to Puerto Rico. Look, if you want to go, he'll take you in a jiffy!
---That's fine ---I answered--- for those who don't have a job. But since I have a job here, I'm not in a hurry to leave this country. Besides, I'd like to leave, but not for Puerto Rico. I have always dreamed to go to the United States.
---In Puerto Rico, you'll make the same as you do in the United States: dollars and not the miserable pesos you're earning here. Besides, once you're in Puerto Rico, you'll only need to take a plane to go to New York or to Chicago where you've said you have a friend who wants to help you.
---I don't think it's that easy ---I argued- to get from Puerto Rico to the United States. People who travel say that in San Juan airport immigration and even federal employees are alert to stop illegal Dominicans from getting to the United States.
---That's what they say. But once you're in Puerto Rico you'll get to the United States with no problem.
---Since you say everything is so easy, why don't you make the trip?
Then Tonin answered me in a very serious manner:
---I have my house, and wife and my sons and daughters are adults. Besides the owner of this business is a friend of mine. There is no chance that I could get fired from this job... but if I were your age or at least forty years old, that's to say, eighteen fewer than what I am, I'd have left already. You know how things are here. They're expensive and inefficient ---he counted with his fingers---: the transportation service, the water, light, gas and medical services. And there is no sign that these and the other things we put up with on a daily basis are going to change for the better, quite the opposite.
After I spent almost two weeks in training, Tonin went back to cover only the morning shift. I took charge of the office during the second shift. Leo would often come in the afternoon, so I waited on him most of the time. One of those days, while I was filling out his rental contract, Leo said:
---Tonin told me that you don't want to travel to Puerto Rico.
---I want to leave this country -I made clear-, but without risking my life.
---Risking your life! ---he protested---. I know what I'm doing. I've been in this business for several years and up to now not even one of my people has drowned...-
Leo went on talking, giving all the reasons as to why his business was different from the others. He kept talking and smoking, I had his drivers license in my hand, issued in Puerto Rico. From it I was taking the information to fill out the contract and while doing so, I told him:
---You might be as good as you say you are, but, as far as I know, you travel to Puerto Rico by plane while you send your passengers by boat.
---I travel by plane -he tried to justify- after I put the passengers in the yola. And I do it like that to be able to receive them with transportation in Puerto Rico. My people do not have to endure what many other travelers do, simply cheated out of their money without being taken anywhere. I don't abandon them when they get to Puerto Rico. I don't do what most of the trip organizers do. They just take people to the shore of Puerto Rico and, once there, they abandon them to their own luck. When they try to find transportation to get to their destination on the island, they take a great risk of being arrested, or held up by delinquents, who even rape some of the women...-
At that moment, one of Leo's companions, dark and short, with a strong body, interrupted him and, with great conviction, said:
---There is nobody that works like us in this country! Not only do we get vehicles here and in Pueto Rico to accommodate our passengers, but we also get large, sturdy boats...-
Thereupon, Leo interrupted the young man who was talking. To introduce him, Leo said:
---This is Frank, my right hand man. At the beginning I used to go myself in the yolas, now he accompanies the travelers, just as if I were doing it myself.
That afternoon they rented a minibus and kept the car they had rented. Both vehicles were in Leo's charge. The minibus was to be driven by the third young man: a tall guy, with long straight-hair, white skin, twenty six year old and, according to his drivers license, his name was Jose Perez, who resided in La Romana. In the following eight months, the group would come to the rent-a-car once or twice a month. In that time they convinced and successfully took to Puerto Rico people that I knew, among them they took Nelson, who was one of my fellow workers. Although Leo and his companions were making lots of trips, they never reported a problem. They never lost an opportunity to advertize themselves in order to get new people interested in considering the trip. That is why, one afternoon, after eight months of employment, Leo insisted again that I should go.
---It's a piece of cake, "hermano"! Don't be afraid; it's a matter of a few hours!
So far, the possibilities of my going were far away; that is why I smiled and told him;
---The day you travel in the yola, I would dare to make the trip.
He quit insisting. But eight months later, in another of his visits to the rent-a-car, he surprised me when told me:
---Well, mi hermano ---he said "my brother", for, he never called me by my name, though he knew it, for it was printed in each one of the contract copies that I handed him-, we have decided not to continue with our business. In Puerto Rico, the coast guards are quadrupling the watch. They claim that they do it not only to prohibit hundreds of Dominicans from getting into Puerto Rico daily, but also to stop the smuggling of arms and drugs.
---Are you really quitting? ---I asked somewhat doubtfully, and maybe even sadly. It appeared to me that I was to loose the opportunity to realize my undeniable dream, an illusion that I had postponed, which consisted of my going abroad to better my life and to learn about the world.
---Yes ---with an emphatic voice, he confirmed---; I'm quitting this work. But before that, I'll make my last trip. I'll be in it myself. I'm interested in taking some customers who won't travel if I'm not in the yola. I suppose that'll encourage you to travel!
---When are you making this trip? ---I hastened to ask.
---It will be made at the end of December or at the beginning of January. Decide for yourself now if you'll go with me. Otherwise you'll have to do it with one of the many "salteadores" who are cheating or drowning people. What do you say?
---I'll let you know between now and then ---I said. I did not have the money to pay him, besides, I had to make sure I had a place I could go once in Puerto Rico.
In a very short time I ran my errands and, by the beginning of December, I gave my notice at work of my determination to leave for Puerto Rico. Juan got excited with my decision and he also decided to leave. Luckily, my uncle Manuel, who had been living in Puerto Rico for the last few years, was in the country to celebrate Christmas. I let him know my plans to come to Puerto Rico and the way in which I intended to get there. He did not refuse to offer me his house and his support, but he opposed me risking my life in a yola. Among other things, he told me that in Puerto Rico, there were daily reports of the deaths of a great number of Dominicans who gave their life to the sea attempting to get to Puerto Rico the same way in which I was planning to get there.
---I don't want the same thing to happen to you ---my uncle insisted.
I tried to convince him that I was going to be successful. I failed to persuade him; however, as he saw me so determined to make the trip, he just wished me good luck. He also reminded me that not only was he at my disposal at any time, but his house as well.
My uncle and Nereida, his young Puerto Rican wife who accompanied him for his trip to the country, had come in the "Dominican Ferries", a tourist ship that would go from one island to the other daily. They had brought their car in that vessel and, when they returned, they took with them some of my clothes and a few of my books so that I could have those belongings when I arrived in Puerto Rico.
On Our Way to El Macao
It was 2:00 AM. We heard vehicles stopping in front of the house. Almost immediately, Leo had crossed the alley. He reported in the backyard applauding softly, at the same time he was muttering:
---Let's go! Let's go señores! Let's move quickly and quietly!
Everyone stood up immediately. Each one directed himself, with his belongings, toward the vehicle that was still running. It was a Toyota pickup truck, it looked brand new. People were climbing into the back of the truck. The driver, a very tall and vigorous man, standing by the opened front door of the truck was looking at the people while they hurriedly tried to get into the vehicle. Leo was urging them to hurry up. Before getting in, Juan and I each paid Leo our fare. He stuck the money into his pocket without even counting it. The driver, who saw the money, complained to Leo:
---Listen Augusto! You didn't tell me there were so many people! Give me some more money.
Then Leo, somewhat bothered, ordered Frank:
---Give him twenty pesos more!
---Ok. ---answered Frank, who a few seconds later got into the cab with the driver, who was quite satisfied with the extra money.
In very little time, almost every one had gotten into the back part of the vehicle. We were packed together to the bone. Ana and Carmen were in the front seat with Frank and the driver. Juan and I would have preferred to accompany Leo, but his car was so full that there was no room for anyone else. The pickup truck soon took the East Road. Leo stayed behind. He still had to complete one last errand for the trip. We raced to catch up with the minibus driven by José and Pedro and loaded with the other passengers.
Frank was supposed to tell the driver which way to go. The driver was driving very fast, to the point that many of us began shivering in the rear part of the truck.
---This driver is crazy! ---said a fat woman sitting next to me, who leaned all her weight on me when the driver made his brisk turns.
The driver maintained his high speed. Soon we left behind the cities of La Romana and Higüey. Then we entered onto an unpaved road, bumpy and crude, yet the driver kept up his uninterrupted pace consuming every curve, rising into the air a cloud of dust behind us. In the meantime the cold air of the morning beat against the crowded group in the rear part of the vehicle. Some men were standing up in the front, grasping the cross bar behind the cab. And on the roof of the cab, one of the men pounded down his fist several times until he got the driver's attention; he shout at him:
---Slow down! It's not a bunch of bananas what you're carrying back here!
The driver only slowed down when we caught up with the minibus. Without stopping, both vehicles continued along this deserted road. The minibus was also overfull; some passengers were hanging out of the door. In addition to the human cargo, this vehicle was carrying two motors for the boats and several plastic tanks filled with gasoline.
The night was as yet serene and clear; the sky was crowded with stars. Above us, we could just make out the moon hidden behind white clouds. Before us, we had the deserted road. We could see no vehicles ---besides ours---, no people, no animals; every once in a while a house; and, on both sides of the road, low bushes covered the flat land.
After an hour and a half of traveling, we stopped on the edge of the dusty road. Not too far from there was the beginning of a hamlet with tall and leafy trees. The village slept under the motionlessness of the night. Its wooden houses, covered up with zinc, "yagua" and "cana" were in front of us. Most of them were located on the right hand side of the road.
When we got off, the two groups came together in the middle of the road. Pedro, Frank and José were answering people's questions.
---Why don't we go on up to the beach? ---inquired one of the passengers.
---Señores, everybody listen to what I'm going to say ---said Frank, with his rested voice-:
---The beach is very close, but we have to wait for Augusto here so we can all go in at one time. Augusto is working on bringing a yola from La Romana. He'll be here any moment. In the meantime, we ought to keep quiet so we don't wake up the neighbors.
---You see that small entrance on the left? ---said Pedro hurriedly- It leads into a private farm beyond which we'll find the beach, just four kilometers away.
Pedro was the third and last of Leo's assistants. He was a short black skinned guy with brown eyes. His physical structure was that of a very strong man with a tough demeanor. He had a visible scar which went from his forehead towards the back of his skull and got lost in his straw hair. Different from Frank, Pedro always spoke quickly, with an air of grand authority. His dynamism revealed his wealth of experience in matters of passage in yola.
Half an hour went by and still we were waiting for Leo. Many of the travelers had thrown away some of the food that got spoiled on the way. The crackers that Juan and I had brought were crumbled and, unfortunately, he dumped them all on the floor when trying to take them out his bag. He commented:
---Raul, it looks like we're going to go hungry, any ways.
----I think so, Juan ---I whispered, cold and excited.
It was cold and the passengers were worried because of the delay. But after a forty minute wait, there were certain expectations. It was already four o'clock. In the distance, we perceived the lights of a vehicle that was coming quickly. We could guess it was a car, but we tried in vain to distinguish another vehicle behind it. Leo arrived in the car. As soon as he got out, he was surrounded by the crowd of people who filled him with their many questions. He kept silent for a few seconds.
---Where is the yola? ---insisted Pedro.
Leo had a sad and tired face. He became very serious and said:
"We have been greatly inconvenienced ---he started talking slowly with a disconsolate óbice---, the driver that was to bring us the yolas didn't show up. Señores, since yesterday there have been rumors about our making this trip. We have been doing business with a truck driver who, last night, brought us a yola and today was supposed to bring us the other one. But this morning the driver informed us that the truck's owner found out that he was doing this kind of business, and he prohibited him from continuing to carry yolas for illegal trips, arguing that his truck could be confiscated. Nevertheless, the driver assured us that he was going to live up to his word of bringing us the last yola, anyway. But the guy didn't show up...- to get another driver with a truck who would risk bringing us that yola is something that will take time.
The news brought a wave of discouragement. A woman lamented:
---What a shame, how awful! These fucking trips! If they don't have one problem they have another; but they never turn out to be OK.
---You're right! -complained another woman---, I've been trying to leave for six months and something always happens. I thought that everything was going to be different with these organizers.
---Everything was going OK. ---said José, trying to smooth over the situation---; but no matter how hard you try, you can never control everything. But I can assure you that I'm going to get even with that driver. He should not have led us to believe one thing and at the last minute hide himself like a scared child.
---In the meantime -said one angry man---, it's us who are screwed. It had better not be a trick to cheat us out of our money, because I kill anyone for my money.
Pedro, who was not too far away from the man, upon hearing him speak like that, approached him; he showed him his right fist, it was a fat and strong fist, and while balancing it very close to the man's face, he spat on him this threat:
---If you don't want to die ahead of time, don't talk shit, you son of a bitch!
A serious fight was about to take place. But José and Leo intervened. Jose broke Pedro away from the other man, while Leo said:
---Be quite, be quite! There are houses close by. I hope to God they haven't heard this racket.
And quickly clapping his hands together, Leo said:
---Let's get out of here! Every one get into the vehicles again! We have a yola waiting for us. Let's get to the beach and those who are most in a hurry to leave, let them leave and those who can wait, let them wait.
Once on the vehicles again, we started onto the small road that led to the beach. At the beginning there was a flooded ditch that was hard to cross. The density of the trees made it more difficult -the low branches got in the way and the vehicles had to be forced to get them through-. In the back of the pickup truck, we had to defend ourselves by lifting some of the branches with our hands. One of the men, happily shouted:
---We should quit speaking nonsense! These are great organizers! Look at the faraway and hidden places that they have found to get us into.
---It's true...- ---approved others.
And so, as tightly packed together as we were, we managed to make knight of the journey and take pleasure in the upcoming voyage and the excited atmosphere. After crossing the ditch, the vegetation became less dense. We saw the starry sky again and the moon, which was now completely undressed enhancing the restlessness of that clear dawn. The road was dry but almost impassable: it had deep cattle tracks and we could clearly see the trenches left behind, undoubtedly, by a big tractor truck that frequented this road.
Some one got off the minibus and opened a large gate of barbed wire that blocked our path. The road became more tortuous. And at just one hundred meters from the large door, Leo was asking for help. His vehicle could advance no more. The car was abandoned on the road and its passengers got into the other two vehicles. They got in, one on top of other, literally. But the beach was just two kilometers away, two kilometers where barbed wires limited both sides of the road. To the right, there were dense bushes, to the left was a vast flat field covered with grass for the cattle.
Too Many People for a Yola
We went through a second and final large gate and immediately, 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 insisted.
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, Leo said:
---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 repeating:
---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 said:
---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 gonna sink.
---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 screwed up!
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 the beach.
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.
The Return and the Defeat
Even before reaching the shoreline, once near, people grabbed their wet clothes while others helped some of the more desperate, and almost every one rushed to jump out of the yola. They could touch the bottom when they fell. But because of the movement that they provoked as they jumped out, the boat turned onto one side. But the passengers managed to get out of the boat and headed towards the shore even as the water slapped up against them. They continued to pop up out of the water; they looked something like a huge anthill overturned. Cries and laments were still heard.
I felt that in a matter of few seconds, my dreams were destroyed. The others may have been tasting the same bitterness that I was, seeing that Puerto Rico was getting farther and farther away and imagining returning home defeated. I heard the waves continue to roar and the wind howling on the large palms of the coconut trees. The moon and the stars were no longer bright and shining; the clarity of the morning was now a fact. Among all those wet people who were chilled to the bone, confused and still frightened, I intended to find Juan:
---Juan! ---I shouted, as I emerged from the water.
---Raul! ---I heard him say, about ten meters away.
---God Damn..! ---he commented
---Where's my bag? ---I interrupted him at once.
I hadn't heard Juan stutter very often, (he would do it when angry) but when he answered me, he said:
---I I I I I know know know know no no no nothing about a bag!
The trembling of his wet body still drizzling became more visible as I reproached him because he saved his belongings while neglecting mine.
Just a few seconds had gone by since the yola approached the shore. We were still in the same place. The yola, on its side, was twenty meters from the beach. I made my way there among the others who were looking for their things. Some articles of clothing were floating on the waves. I couldn't see mine; I didn't find them close to the yola, nor at the shore, nor on the sand where I saw other abandoned clothes. My efforts to find my things were in vane, so were Leo and Pedro's to rescue the yola in order to restart the trip. In the attempt to straighten out and put afloat the boat, it broke into two pieces. They had to satisfied themselves by just saving the outboard motor, completely soaked.
Under the coconut trees, and close to the last large gate that we had come through, there was a very poor wooden house towards which many of the passengers were headed for warmth and refuge. That was the only house in this uninhabited area. The breeze increased the cold. And, even without having found my bag containing my wallet, my radio and my other possessions, I headed towards the house, accompanied by Juan. Among those walking to the house, we heard a young woman that lamented and cried:
---Some one must have stolen it in the confusion..! Such an expensive camera, a gift from New York...- God damn it!
The house was inhabited by a fifty-year old man and a woman of about the same age who became aware of the disaster. They made a fire. On the three stones that sat around the fire, they placed an old can and made coffee. It was shared among those who wanted it. Most of the people remained outside the narrow house. I came out when the man took out a bunch of clothing and handed some out to those who were the most cold. Although ragged, the clothes were welcome for they were dry and warm. One of the men thanked the old man by telling him that all the clothes that he could find on the beach were his and that with them he would be paid for his kindness. But the man did not comment on that, instead, he opened his mouth and, quite nervous, warned:
---You've got to get out of this place as soon as possible. Not far from here, there is a coast guard station. They come around here several times a day looking for the people that tried to flee the country as you have.
And here we were, without transportation or money, coming from places as far away as El Cibao and the Capital. But I was helped with my basic needs: one passenger gave me a pair of sandals so that I did not have to go barefoot and my companion Juan offered to pay for my fare to Santo Domingo. "This is, I thought, the least that Juan should do for me, after having lost my money and the rest of my things".
Some of the passengers began clamoring for their money back. But Leo and Pedro repeated the same thing:
---We have no money with us. We'll make another trip. Return home until further notice. No one is going to be cheated.
Leo and a few passengers stayed there. The rest, in small group, started to walk the four kilometer that separated us from the road. I left together with Juan and two other young men. With quite a lot of difficulties with the transportation, we arrived in Santo Domingo at eleven o'clock in the morning.
When I arrived at Las Cañitas -my neighborhood, first I directed myself to Luis' house. He was a very close friend who, because of lack of money, could not make the trip. Carlos, other to me no less special friend, four years before had traveled legally to the United States. He was now residing in Chicago. My goal was to get to that American city.
Luis and I had attended high school together. If I had had enough money I would have paid for his fare. My friend's house, like mine, was reached after going through several narrow alleys bordered on both sides by ramshackle huts. I found Luis in front of the house washing his motorcycle with a pale and a rag in his hand. He turned to look at me as I approached. He must have imagined what had happened and his laugh sounded to me like a plate broken against the wall.
---Raul, but what happened? ---he asked; and still laughing added:
---If Doña Blanca sees you like that, she'd have a heart attack! But tell me, what the hell happened?
I knew well that laugh and good humor were very much a part of Luis, in the good and in the bad; but I was not in condition for being laughed at. With clenched felt- an a bitter tone, I answered him:
---I did not come here to see your clown face. Why do you think I'm here.
His facial expression changed and in a serious tone he said:
---There is another can of water in the latrine. Take this pitcher, get rid of all of that salt and sand...- I'll get you a comb and some of my clothes that might fit you.
----Try to find me something to eat. I'm starving! ---I said to him after having given him a few details of what happened on the beach.
I took a bath and settled down a little with what my friend provided me. He returned from the grocery store with bread and canned sardines. I fed the hunger that had been bothering me for quite some time. And, feeling less miserable, I said to my friend:
---What happen to you? You looked so serious. Were you offended by the rude way I spoke to you?
He said smiling:
---Oh No, my dear friend! It's just that I had the dream that when you arrived in the United States you would send me the money to pay for my trip in the yola; but I can see that the game has ended forever here. What do you say about it?
I answered him with a smile (that turned to be -saltless because of my big discouragement). Then, without fear of scandalizing my mother, as I did not look so disheveled any more, I started on my way home.