January 24, 2016, Holguin, Cuba — We met our driver last night, a young Cuban named Yuri, who owns a black ’55 Willys 4-wheel-drive wagon—a popular vehicle in the United States in the 1940s and ’50s, and a direct linear ancestor of Jeep Wagoneers and Cherokees. Vintage cars are common in Cuba, and often used as taxis. Some are in immaculate condition with fresh paint and gleaming chrome; others are complete beaters with crumpled fenders, belching black smoke as they cruise down the byways. Our Willys is somewhere in between.
Carlos Peña—a Cuban biologist who took part in Ivory-billed Woodpecker expeditions in the 1980s and early 1990s—met Martjan and me at our casa particular (the Cuban version of a B&B) in Holguin to discuss our search. Although he wouldn’t be taking part in it with us, he was a great help to us in making our preparations. We all sat together in an open patio, looking at Google Earth maps of the places we would be exploring.
After a long morning of shopping for last-minute supplies, we were on the road in the early afternoon, racing toward Farallones de Moa, a tiny village in the mountains below Humboldt National Park—the last known haven for the Cuban Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
Yuri raced through these small towns and villages, tooting his loud, high-pitched horn constantly as he slalomed through a moving maze of horse-drawn taxi carts, bicycles, pedestrians, and livestock. We drove through flatlands then turned off on a dirt road winding upward through hills with banana and coffee plantations. Everywhere we went we saw people riding in wooden carts filled with huge bunches of bananas, pulled by teams of massive, muscular oxen. The farther we traveled, the worse the road became—muddy, wet, and slippery from recent rains—and the trip seemed endless. We passed a small village en route, and it seemed like everyone in the place lined the road to view our passing. Martjan said ours was probably the only vehicle that came through all day.
We finally reached Farallones shortly before dark, and the villagers directed us to the home of Martjan’s friend, Jabao. They had not seen each other in 25 years, and Jabao and his wife greeted him like a long-lost son. He had lived with the couple for a time when he first came to Cuba as a 19-year-old in 1991. It was with them that he learned to speak Spanish so fluently. Now Martjan has two children at home in Argentina, and Jabao has a 17-year-old daughter, whom Martjan had never before met. They welcomed us into their home, fed us, and provided a place for us to stay in a rustic cabin on Jabao’s tiny coffee farm.
In the morning we will first do some birding, then see about hiring mules to begin our long trek into the mountain hideaway of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
Follow my daily blog as it unfolds at audubon.org/chasingtheivorybill.