Posted by: floridanature | July 15, 2010

In & Under the Dry Tropical Forest: A Hamaca Memory

When I wake up this morning, my right foot is swarming with ants and a segmented worm is curled up on my chest. They both seem harmless enough—the little ants are the party animals of the entomological world, seldom missing a chance to congregate anywhere en mass; while the segmented worm is a catatonic critter, the color of tarnished brass, and he has whorled himself into the shape of a disc the size of a silver dollar.

Taino pottery at bottom of cenote

I unzip the mosquito flap of my tent, crawl out into the new jungle morning, shake off the ants, place the worm down on an outcropping of limestone, and drain the last of my canteen over my head. Summer can be pleasant if you are on the coast in the Caribbean, but we are not and the rare breeze that wafts over the camp here at  Manantial de la Aleta usually feels like heat blowing out of an oven.

Today is our last day at the cenote, and we are low on both water and food. For breakfast this morning, I eat a granola bar; Nat. Geo. photographer Bill Curtsinger borrows my knife, peels a potato and—to the awe of a several grad students sitting nearby—eats it raw, all the while reveling me with tales of how valuable the potato is as a food source.

We are smack in the middle of the vast Parque Nacional del Este, a dry tropical forest that juts out into the Caribbean Sea on the southeast coast of the Dominican Republic. The foliage is stunted, not unlike what you would see in the Florida Keys. The understory of it is filled with the cycad known back in Florida as the coontie. For the Taino, its tuber-like roots were the main source for ground flour they used to make cassava.

One of the lead archaeologists, who is getting ready for a final dive into the cenote, walks over in his wetsuit.   We chat. He  figures the Tainos who lived around the cenote were the “well people” and the pottery that has been found with circles signifies this —a message of  the encircling power, in the round image of a well. Other pots with zig-zag lines around the edge are the pots of the “mountain people”, the angular incisions representing the peaks of Hispaniola.

They all came here, to La Aleta, to celebrate their ancestors, to keep their zemis apprised of their worship of them, to drink water and hang out. He could be right—who knows but the Tainos ? Certainly, they were an elegant, gentle people and I imagine they would surely be grateful that someone cares enough about the shards of their life to wish them into existence again.

Whatever La Aleta was, it has become the hottest repository of Taino artifacts in all the region, says Don Pedro Morales Troncoso, the Dominican patron of the Park. It is not the sacred cenote of Chichen Itza, because the Taino were not the Maya; they were a people who migrated to the Caribbean, island by island, up the Lesser Antilles, from South America a couple millennia ago.

Here, like the animals and plants of the islands on which they lived, they speciated from what they had once been, isolated from their brethren back on the mainland. In the islands, they became something else, a new civilization created by the distinct island bio-geography that shaped other life forms in the Caribbean. They invented burens to cook cassava bread over fire, hammocks to sleep and dream in, canoes to fish and travel by. We know because we are finding parts of all of these things—save the hammocks, which we have brought ourselves—in pieces inside the cenote.

Yesterday, another archaeologist pulled a three-foot long pistil from the sink, tapered handle and hammer-like mallet head to thump the root of the guyaba into the mash from which cassava was made. It was carved and shaped from the blows of stone tools, and as I looked closely at it, it seemed as if the craftsman just chipped the tool yesterday from the trunk of  a reddish tropical hardwood.

When I dived into the cenote, I went there as the others did—by strapping on a harness and being lowered into a seven story deep hole in the floor of the jungle. At the bottom of the hole was a great vat of water, and atop that clear water, a small Zodiac raft. Climbing in the raft to join other divers, I suited up with tanks and mask, and then, made the slow descent on a line that led to the 110 foot top of a earthen mound below. There, all was dark, the only light from the scant illumination we carried with us by hand. As I watched, other divers encircled the mound, reaching into it, archaeology by Braille.

Sometimes, they would pull out whole pots, so complete they looked as though they might have just been molded yesterday. At other times, wooden duhos—the sacred chair for a Cacique—was recovered, and then, even finely woven basketry. Gourds that would have rotted up in the tropical heat a thousand years ago, were pulled intact, incised with messages from the Taino who carved them. The darkness and lack of oxygen has been very good to preservation. I wondered how well it protected the deep and enduring sprits of the Taino. My time in that deep black hole was more than a dive; it was a journey, and it took me somewhere far beyond the present.

I have been here, as usual, to do the sort of odd work that I do to make a living. As a writer who dives and who is incessantly curious about all things of another age, I am here on behalf of a large documentary network, and a magazine. When I’m not poking about in the jungle, I use a set of compact photo-voltaic panels to recharge my laptop and digital camera and sat phone. By night, we all gather around a campfire and eat freeze dried swill and cassava, sometimes, drink good Dominican rhum, stretched out in hammocks.

We break camp today, and wait patiently for the Dominican’s army’s brown-green Huey chopper to come pick us up and take us back to Bayahibe—A shower! A coastal breeze! A bed without segmented worms! And I am both eager to go and a bit sad to leave. To have visited the depths of the sacred cenote, to have walked out on the ceremonial plazas under the pale moonlight, is as close as I can come to connecting with the energy that once fired the Tainos.

It is clear from our work here over the last week that hundreds—perhaps thousands—of Tainos regarded this as a sort of mystical energy center, a place to recharge their spiritual Duracels. Poking about in a dark cenote and sifting through dirt in the jungle are both great ways to find things no one’s ever seen before. What is uncovered is more than just a message about a culture that’s extinct on this island—it’s a lesson in history of caring.

The Taino were surely a kind-hearted people, but they were something more: They were a people who could not lie. When confronted with Spanish duplicity designed to trick and slaughter them, they openly wept. Not because of the impending assaults, but for the lies. When enslaved, they committed mass suicides in a swoon of despair.

In our modern, efficient Space Age culture, a lie is such a common thing it’s hardly even called out anymore.  But to the Taino, it was an eternal blunder, one that kept them from joining their ancestors in the cusp where the sky meets the water and the earth. Neil Young sings about searching for a heart of gold; the Tainos were the ones who found it.

Who really is the survivor in such battles, and does the victor always win?

Tomorrow, I’ll hike with the expedition from Bayahibe to Jose Maria cave, a repository for some of the best Taino rock art left in all of  Hispaniola. It was a cave only re-found in 1980, in a remote and untamed place still riddled with labyrinths, still brimming with mystery.

The thwack-thwack of the brown-green Dominican Army Huey resounds overhead in the forest canopy now, and I have to put this away so I can go climb aboard it. In doing so, I leave La Aleta, to go one last time looking for clues from a civilization that could not tell a lie, to go off once more searching for a heart of gold.


Epilogue: I wrote the above chronicle several years ago when I was in the D. R. to work on a couple of editorial projects about the Taino who once lived there. An archaeological expedition was underway, and since I was a writer who would dive most anywhere, I was asked to go along and chronicle it. As usual, I came away with more than I ever expected.

Later, I learned that some scientists theorize that the Taino continued to travel by large dugouts west through the Antilles   —until they made it all the way back to Florida. Linguists comparing the language of the Arawak-speaking Taino with that of the Timucua say there are startling similarities. It is not so startling, too, that both the Timucua and the Taino relied on the tuber of the cycad known as the coontie as a food staple.

Many words from the Taino language are, in fact, still with us: tobacco, hurricane, and of course, hamaca—a word that means “home”, a place that might also have been a thick stand of tropical woods, a place where a Taino/Timucua could also hang the woven sleeping bag they also called the “hamaca.”

And, as for hearts of gold, in my time I’ve met some exceptionally fine and generous people with some of the biggest hearts in all the world. So I guess I realized both a Neil Young dream, as well as a Taino one.  Finally, I’m always grateful whenever I can help help ease a metaphor stepped in grace through the folds of the centuries.



  1. Beautiful essay; a protector of sacred metaphors. It takes heart to do that … And so the eternal cycle continues.

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