Friday, December 23, 2005

Into the mountains

The rest of the week was spent mostly in preparation for our expedition to the mountains. However, we did take a night off to attend a program on Dominican Christmas foods at the Centro Leon – both educational and tasty. Though of course I did not partake of the whole pig roasted on a spit, I enjoyed the arroz moro, arroz navideno, pastelon, various salads, and casabe. Also the beer.

At any rate, Friday (12/16) found us rising groggily out of bed at 4:15 AM, stumbling into the shower, and hitting the road with Luis, our trip organizer, and our other traveling companions: Jorge (better known as “Pilucho”), Tamara, Denny, and Gary. In the dark, and in eery, thick fog, we headed for the hills. I fell asleep for a while and when I awoke the sun was rising and we were just about in Jarabacoa, the largest mountain town on this side of the enormous Cordillera Central range. That’s as far as I’d been before, but I discovered that from there on up it only gets prettier. The road got progressively rougher as we header onwards and upwards to Manabao, a town of about 500. It was mostly paved, though every so often a whole section of pavement had been removed (I was just glad someone else was driving). As it twisted and turned we could see tall foothills rising up on either side, their tops hidden in the clouds. We passed small plots of potatoes, strawberries, lettuce, and tayota (a popular Dominican vegetable that grows on arbors like grapes), small hamlets of colorfully-painted wooden houses, and on one occasion, a bunch of villagers slaughtering a pig.

After Manabao, the road got significantly worse – a pitted and steep one-and-a-half-lane dirt path. We came to a rushing river whose only crossing was a singularly frightening one-lane brdge constructed of logs and mud, narrow and with no railing. Much of the mud had washed off of one side of the bridge, leaving open ruts between the logs. The jeep crossed it fine, but it was scarier in the passenger sedan we were traveling in with its narrow tires. Mom and I got out and walked across to lighten the load, while Luis and Gary guided driver Jorge slowly across. About 20 minutes later we arrived in La Cienaga, a village of 200 - the end of the road and the start of our hike.

We parked under pine trees behind the ranger station, where a bunch of mules and our guides were waiting for us. While the mule-drivers strapped our bags and provisions to the pack animals, we went to the office, signed in, and purchased 2 nature guides to the flora and fauna of this national park. Soon we were saddled up and ready to go. I hopped on my trusty friend Caramelo, and quickly ran into a wire when I turned my head to ask the guide to repeat what he’d just said to me. “I said, ‘watch out for that wire,’” he told me. Anyway, we then forded a river, and started heading up.

The first four kilometers were fairly level, taking us past where some of our guides lived and into the first campground/rest stop of Los Tablones (consisting of an empty wooden house for shelter, a small corral, and an outhouse on the banks of a river). Here, pedestrians and riders again part ways so the first can cross a wooden footbridge and the latter can wade through the water. On the other side things really get going. Although our guide told us the next 4-km stretch was the hardest, I perhaps naively thought I’d walk it in order to stretch my legs and give my sore knee a break from the saddle – I could always trade back with my mom and get on the mule again. However, it quickly became impossible to keep together with the mules on the single-file, extremely muddy and Grand-Canyon-grade path and I hiked the whole stretch on foot. One of the guides (Yary) cut me a walking stick, which was the one saving grace. Somehow I made it to the next stopping point, where I promptly collapsed under a tree. From here on out, it was mules for me, my knee let me know.

After a tasty ceviche lunch, Caramelo and I were together once again. The path continued to climb in brutal increments, getting downright scary in some points – even the mules were slipping and sliding in one spot, where wet sand combined with rocks and the narrow walls of the ravine made things precarious. But it was also beautiful: moss-covered gorges, enormous ferns, bell-shaped red flowers, cloud-covered peaks, clear and cold spring water, the melodious calls of the “flute bird,” the sound of waterfalls, and the smell of pine trees. (Now that I’m safely home, I’m ignoring the trees with inch-long spines and the vines that grab your clothes and will cut like a knife if you’re not careful, as Pilucho found out.) Really, it was hard to believe I was still on the same island at all, climbing the tallest mountains of the Caribbean.

About 12 kilometers into the hike we finally reached the Cruce del Tetero, where the path forks into one branch leading up to 10,000-foot Pico Duarte and another leading down into the Valle del Tetero, our final destination. The path was just as steep as before but going down rather than up provided a nice change. As we got down to the valley floor the vegetation changed again – here pines combined with little scrubby fruited plants, like the “Moco del pavo” (turkey’s crest) with its startlingly red stems and the “Berenjena cimarrona” or mountain eggplant, which looks exactly like a small orange tomato on the outside but on the inside is all seeds surrounded by a think layer of chalky white flesh. Another of our guides, Rafael (“Felle”) told us it’s not good to eat but is useful as a medicinal tea for treating diarrhea and other stomach problems. Getting this far put the mules in a much better mood, and we made good time on the last few kilometers.

The first view of the valley proper comes as one emerges from a boggy forested area and suddenly finds oneself on the edge of a vast meadow (or sabana – a Taino word from which we get our savannah). As I came out into the late afternoon sunlight, I had a perfect and beautiful view of one of the teenage helpers running his horse across the far end of the plain, driving along a bunch of free mules and other beasts. All around us peaks rose up in a great ring around the valley, and above us, a perfectly blue sky from which little patches of mist drifted. Unfortunately, many of the trees around us were undeniably scorched from a major forest fire that occurred during Holy Week earlier this year. (Felle later told us he had been there, and that the burning pines made a noise like ten helicopters landing at once. He had been leading a group of 30 in and they had to turn back in a hurry, some mules even catching their tales and manes on fire.) But even so, it was breathtaking.

When we reached camp, it was already starting to grow dark. I had a major headache and nausea from the sun earlier in the day combined with not having drunk enough water, so I laid down for a bit while the kids unloaded the mules and got started on chopping wood for the fire. By the time anyone got around to putting up tents or making food, it was really very dark indeed, but it was also fairly clear and you could see stars all around – at least until the incredibly bright moon rose an hour later (at that point, you hardly needed a flashlight). Cooking took place in a very smoky kitchen building that contained a table, a wooden chair with half a leather seat, a sack for trash hanging from a nail on the wall, and a cement “stove” containing space for three wood fires on which to cook. As I’d already learned on my river trip, nothing cooks very fast in these types of set-ups, so I wasn’t very surprised to find we didn’t eat until nearly 10 PM. The auyama (squash) soup and roasted eggplant on bread was pretty tasty, though, and we made a deal with the two youngest kids – two adorable brothers of about 11 and 13 – to wash out our muddy hiking boots for 50 pesos.

Everyone was exhausted and expecting to sleep like a log that night. Unfortunately, the mules, horses, and the cows that had been brought in for grazing had other plans. One mule with apparent mental problems was tied up near our tent and kept wailing loudly and eerily, banshee-style. After an hour of that I got dressed again and went out to the fire, around which the three young boys were curled, and asked them if we couldn’t do something about it. One of them moved the mule to the other side of camp, which definitely helped, though a calf separated from its mother continued to cry, and in the morning, a white horse neighed repeatedly into our ears. It wasn’t all that restful, but it was such a pleasant morning when at last we got up that we couldn’t be too terribly grumpy about it.

I fetched some coffee from the kitchen and sat on the porch of one of the shelter buildings, watching the mist rising from the steep hills around us and listening to the birds until the boys came back driving the animals back from the savannah. Then I moved on to the second course – bread, cheese, pineapple, and hot chocolate with cinnamon. Entertainment came in the form of three new mules, including a very young one, which the guides had just bought in the south the day before. They provided the kids with an opportunity to work on their roping and bucking-bronco techniques. Finding we needed some more water, mom and I then wandered down to the river to fill our bottles. We followed a path that took us somewhat farther than expected, down to a swimming-hole called “La Ballena” where cold water flowed over rapids into a deep pool around which dragonflies flitted. It looked like a nice place to hang out but we were afraid we’d miss the expedition to the petroglyph rocks and so headed back to camp quickly. Indeed, when we got back we found the others had already seen the rocks, but it was no big deal because they were much closer to camp than we’d known. We went and took a look too, and found a maze-like image carved into a large boulder. When we got back to camp, the men had all gone back to bed! So we went to La Ballena again, where we washed up, read our nature guides, lay about on the boulders, and got bit by bugs. I did, at least – they never seem to bother my mother, damn it all. Then we went to the petroglyphs again. Then we walked out to the sabana to see if we could see Pico Duarte (sort of a vague blue thing in the distance behind the trees) and to look at the plants. Then we read books and rested. Then we had lunch – pasta with salmon in cream sauce – and watched some new campers arrive, including an American geology student with whom we chatted for a bit, and a father with his two young sons – he turned out to be director of a very interesting environment & development foundation in Santo Domingo.

After the sun went down, giving us a beautiful show of golden clouds with rainbows over the misty hills, the kids chopped up a cuaba tree – an extremely fragrant variety of pine – and got the fire roaring in no time. We all gathered around it – our group, the newcomers, and all the guides – and talked. At a lull in the conversation, I asked if anyone had any good scary stories (my favorite campfire activity). One of the new guides offered a true-life experience in which he actually encountered a ciguapa, a classic legendary figure in Dominican folktales. Here in the mountains, they still believe in this creature that looks just like a woman clothed only in her own very long hair, but whose feet are on backwards, complicating efforts to track her. The guide told us that in February of the year before he had been walking around the kitchen at night when he saw a ciguapa walking away from the building with a flashlight. He knew it wasn’t a real woman – besides the fact that she was naked except for her long hair, they also had no women with them on the trip. He got so scared he ran away, since as everyone knows, ciguapas can lure men away and may never let them go unless, perhaps, they get pregnant. The guides then pointed out that the spot she was seen was very near where we were sleeping, and that ciguapas have been known to open people’s tents and go inside in search of food. I asked what I should do if I saw one and they said, “say hello.” But then what happens? I wondered. “If it’s a male one, they might lure you away.” Well, perhaps I better not say hi then.

Dinner got started very late again, and mom and I were so tired that we just ate bread, cheese, and tomatoes on our feet in the kitchen and then hit the hay. Sleep was much easier with the animals farther away, and we all got up feeling rested and ready for another day on the trail. The only problem was that my ankle had started to swell up and look a bit red around all those bites from the day before. The boot felt painful, so I put on only one sock, leaving off the thick woolen one, laced it loosely and hoped for the best.

The walkers (Mom, Gary, and Denny) set off first; next Pilucho, Tamara, and I hit the trail while Luis went for one last dip in the river and the guides prepared the pack animals. We had intended to start on foot but at the last minute Yary decided to send me on one of the mules (not Caramelo but one I hadn’t yet met)– since I had horse experience he thought I could handle the beast even with no guide around. Well, if it had been a horse I would have been better off. It turned out to be more than true about mules and stubbornness. We started off OK, but soon came to a boggy patch, which the old girl simply refused to cross. I tried to lead her around it instead, but halfway along she stopped completely. I got off and tried to lead her by the bridle, but no go. And then I couldn’t even get back on, because the saddle was a bit loose and whenever I put my foot in the stirrup it would slide halfway down her side. At this point I needed a leg up and she required a jump-start, consisting of Pilucho slapping her on the rump with his walking stick. Then we came to a part where we weren’t quite sure which way the path led. Attempting to let the mule guide us (a strategy that worked with trusty Caramelo on the way up) I gave her some rein. Unfortunately, the only way she wanted to go was back to pasture. There was really no getting her to move any way but backwards. Luckily, Luis and Yary came along then, and Yary got things moving again with one or another of his famous mule-moving calls (Hijo de la grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrraan puta!! being one of his favorites). A few minutes later, though, I convinced him to give me Caramelo back, and from then on we were fine.

Things went along fine - if slowly - for the first 8 kilometers, which took us uphill back to the Cruce del Tetero and on to La Laguna, where we stopped for a lunch of tuna salad, casabe, and whatever bits and pieces everyone had left – a pineapple here, a Snickers there. We all enjoyed the views, and the coolness once we started to descend again through the clouds. However, once I sat down to check my ankle I saw things were not so fine. A line of blisters had popped up around the worst bites and liquid was coming out of those. Also, it was getting more swollen, the puffiness now reaching down to my toes and up above the ankle bone. No way to go but forward, though, so I painfully got back into the stirrup and continued on.

Soon I forgot about the pain and itchiness, as I began again to feel the pleasure of being in the saddle. (I rode quite a bit as a child but now hadn’t been for years.) I new I could trust Caramelo so I let him pick his own sure-footed way down the steep, rocky and muddy trail. Sometimes he couldn’t quite keep his balance so he just went running and sliding down to the next more level spot. It was fun, and the farther down we got, the happier he got, and the faster he went. By the time he got down to the more level part, he was trotting along happily as Yary and I chatted and sung merengue típico tunes. A little bit before getting to the last “rest stop,” Los Tablones, we came to the compound where Yary, Felle, and family (a big family – 9 brothers!) live. Caramelo and I followed Yary and Josefina (the mule that kicks) across the river to their pink-and-blue wooden house, where we had a quick cup of coffee on horseback, next to a wild pig tied to a tree and a bunch of children playing with hoops and sticks. But it was getting near sundown so we couldn’t tarry.

Arriving at Los Tablones, I hopped down from my mule in a chipper manner that quickly dissipated when my foot hit the ground. Taking a closer look, I found the ankle now of enormous size and the swelling reaching halfway up my calf. It felt itchy, bruised, and so stiff it was hard to walk on. The single bite I had on the other calf was swelling, too. Things looked bad. Certainly, my hopes for walking at least part of the trail this day were looking grim. While I played with a fuzzy caterpillar I found, the guides speculated that maybe the bites hadn’t been from malles (sand flies) at all, but from spiders or some other nasty thing. They guessed I wouldn’t die, but they did think I should get to a hospital for an injection when we got back. But we were still hours away from Santiago.

The last four kilometers from Los Tablones to the parking lot at the ranger station in La Cienaga went fast, especially since the mules were so happy and eager to arrive that Caramelo almost took off without me. When we got back, it was nearly dark. We changed our clothes as the guides quickly unloaded the mules, we got the cars repacked, and we were out of there – hoping to make it to the scary bridge before losing all visibility.

Being Sunday, there was a lot of action on the roads and in the small towns. People seemed to be dancing to merengue típico or to bachata in every colmado we passed, and everywhere noisy little motorbikes loaded down with three people were passing us by (they could avoid the enormous potholes easier than we). It was just twilight when we got to the bridge, and we passed over it with few problems but a big audience. At the next small town, we celebrated with some Presidente while watching the locals getting down. At the next town after that, we stopped again, this time for some homemade Jengibre (a ginger liquor). They were out, but instead we got some other kind of fruity hooch, made from some berry I’d never heard of. I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted though, being that I was a bit alarmed about the increasing size of my leg. But there was no hurrying this hungry group, which next stopped at a roadside restaurant for dinner (I had moro de guandules, tostones, and avocado salad, while feeling slightly mortified by my sunburned, ragheaded, muddy, and swollen appearance).

Finally, at nearly 10 PM, we made it back to Santiago and our homebase of Luis’s house. We still had to transfer our belonging to his car, go home, unload them, shower, and change before we could go to the clinic, so we didn’t get to the emergency room til about 11:00. Luckily, we were attended quickly. The diagnosis: malle. I’m just allergic to them. They decided to give me a shot of cortisone and another anti-allergy drug similar to benadryl, which was suppsed to make me very tired. However, a simple little needle wasn’t good enough for them – they insisted on an incredibly painful IV-type injection in order to get the drugs into my bloodstream more quickly. The first time they put it in, it wasn’t a good vein, so they had to take it out and put it in again even more excruciatingly. Then they had to inject the drugs, which also hurt like hell, besides making me very cold and giving me uncontrollable shivers. So by the time we got out of there I had seen better days, though I was slightly less itchy. For about an hour. Then it came back. I suffered from the Great Itch of the Year 2005 for the next three days and nights, waking up every hour or two having to apply a Vick’s scrub and several medicated creams. (The ankle still doesn’t look too hot.) But it was all worth it, for having seen the Valle del Tetero.

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