Jack EwingNature and Local History Stories

The Guy with the Black Hat Riding the Bicycle

by Jack Ewing

The Story of a Campesino Called “Tornillo”

Everyone who lives near Dominical has seen Tornillo (pronounced tor-knee-yo) at one time or another. He’s the guy with the black hat riding the bicycle toward Platanillo every week day in the mid afternoon. For twenty-four years Daniel Valverde Granados has lived in Platanillo and worked at Hacienda Barú. His work day begins at 6:00 AM, which means he has to leave home around 4:00. The ride down takes less than an hour, putting him at Hacienda Barú before sunrise. That leaves an hour to drink coffee and chat with his fellow workers, who usually begin arriving at 5:00. After eight hours of swinging a machete, building fence, planting trees and driving a tractor, Daniel again mounts his bicycle and begins the grueling uphill ride back to Platanillo, this time an hour and a half ride. As you might suspect, with an exercise-filled day like Daniel’s, he is in excellent physical condition. Now that he has decided to retire, he is worried about getting fat.
Hacienda Baru

During his years on Hacienda Barú Daniel either planted or participated in the planting of over 20,000 trees, and he knows where every single one of those trees is located. Though he didn’t plant them he remembers when Maximo Cordero, administrator of Hacienda Barú in the early 1950s planted the mango trees around the Casona. Daniel himself planted teak trees in 1985, gmelina, acacia, pochote and numerous fruit trees in the late 80s, and he planted over 5000 trees of several endangered species like cedro bateo, manú negro, espavel, maría, lechoso, ron ron, ojoche, ceiba, iguano, aceituno, and others all during the 90s. If you add to that all the living fence posts he planted on Hacienda Barú’s 14 kilometers of fences, during the 55 years since he first began working here, Daniel can claim to have planted an enormous number of trees. Yet if you asked him what he did here, he will humbly tell you that he was a tractor driver and common laborer, and probably won’t even mention the trees.

Daniel Valverde Granados, son of María Granados López and Reynaldo Valverde Gamboa, was born in Palmares de Pérez Zeledón in 1944. He doesn’t remember anything at all of life in Palmares, as his family moved to Caña Blanca, between Alfombra and San Juan de Dios, when he was less than four years old. His earliest memory of Caña Blanca was from the year 1948 when two armed men came to the house and took his father away a gun point. Three weeks later Don Reynaldo returned. Daniel remembers that his father was nearly naked with his sparse clothing torn and worn and hanging on his emaciated body. It was the first time Daniel had seen his father with a beard. The two men had taken him to Pacuarito to fight in the civil war with the troops of Don Pepe Figueres. Don Reynaldo told them that there had been 25 men in his platoon and only 12 of them survived the short and bloody war to return to their families.  After the war there was a general feeling of insecurity in the countryside. Because of his young age, Daniel’s memory is cloudy, but he remembers that strange men would come to the house from time to time demanding food.

When Daniel was ten years of age his family moved to Dominical, and for the first time in his life he attended school. His first and only teacher, whom he remembers fondly, was Doña Marina Badilla. The school was in an old building that used to be the headquarters of the defunct Resguardo Fiscal or fiscal police. There were about 15 students in the school, six grades, and one teacher. About half of the students went to classes in the morning and half in the afternoon. Daniel always went to school in the morning. Since the Valverde family lived near Doña Marina, she was always happy to help him with his homework after the afternoon session was over.

Several years before the family moved to Dominical Daniel’s sister, Blanca, had married Manuel Angel Sanchez, who worked at Hacienda Barú. Daniel used to help them with the chores. He remembers an incident in 1955 when one of Blanca’s pigs got into a basket of corn. Though she was seven and a half months pregnant Blanca kicked at the pig to shoo it away. Missing the pig, her bare foot struck the end of a stick driving a large splinter into the fleshy area behind her toes. They got most of the splinter out, but the wound still got infected. On the second day they were thinking of taking Blanca to the hospital in San Isidro but the weather turned bad and it started raining hard. The rains came in torrents for six days and six nights. The Barú River flooded like never before. Dominical was underwater from just below the paso del bote (just above the present day costanera bridge)  to Miramar, (present day Roca Verde.) The infection in Blanca’s foot got worse and she got a fever. To make a bad situation even worse Blanca’s latent malaria flared up causing her to suffer the extremes of high fevers and sweating followed by chills and shivering. Everyone was sure she would die. When the rains subsided, the Red Cross boat arrived with food and medical supplies for the stranded community. Friends and family carried Blanca to the boat on a stretcher. Daniel felt certain that he would never see his sister again. But, twice during the month they received word that Blanca was still alive and recovering. These messages came by way of airplane pilots who flew the small planes that occasionally landed in Dominical. Daniel later learned that the Red Cross boat had delivered Blanca to the hospital in Puntarenas where she  stayed overnight. In the morning she was sent to San Juan de Dios Hospital in San Jose where the doctors gradually cured her. After nearly a month she was released from the hospital and stayed several nights with family in Escazu. Road damage on the Cerro de la Muerte had resulted in closure of the route for a month. When the road was reopened Blanca was on the first bus to travel from San Jose to San Isidro since the storm. From San Isidro to Dominical the road was closed and wouldn’t reopen for six months. Blanca flew to Dominical in a small plane belonging the to a local airway called AVE. The passage cost her 25 colones, more than a week’s wages, which she borrowed from Don Rafael Cruz, her husband’s employer. Blanca’s homecoming was very emotional for Daniel. Though exceedingly happy to have his sister back he couldn’t help but worry. He had never seen a woman so thin. Two weeks later Blanca gave birth to her third child, Rigoberto.

The following year, when Daniel Valverde turned 12 years, he began working part time at Hacienda Barú in addition to his schooling. At first he helped with chores around the house, fed the pigs and chickens and cleaned their pens. Soon, however, his responsibilities increased. Don Rafael Cruz, the owner of Hacienda Barú, had built a small dairy where they milked about twenty cows. Late every afternoon they separated the calves from the cows, to keep them from nursing during the night. That way the cows had a full udder in the morning and were ready to be milked. After milking out about three-fourths of the milk for the dairy, the calves were returned to their mothers for the day. Daniel’s first job each day at 4:30 in the morning was to bring in the cows for milking. His last job at 4:30 in the afternoon was to separate the calves from the cows and lock them up in a small pen for the night. After bringing in the cows he had to feed the pigs and clean their pen, pick up the milk from the dairy and take it to Alcides Delgado in Barú, who would sell it from his small general store, called “La Novia del Barú.” Then Daniel hurried back to Dominical to go to school for three hours. Once school was out, there was no time to play, he had to hurry to pick up the workers’ lunches and carry them to where they were working. After lunch, Daniel had a little time to study or help around the house, but then had to return to the job site with coffee and an afternoon snack for the workers. This was at 2:00 PM. Sometimes, he would stay and help the workers, and on other occasions he would return home and do his homework until it was time to bring in the calves. Daniel was a busy young boy with little idle time for play or mischief. It wasn’t until he was 14 years old that Manuel Angel began paying him a salary of 15 colones per week. Daniel quit going to school and began working full time.  By that time he was doing a man’s job.

Daniel Valverde worked with his brother-in-law on Hacienda Barú all during the early and mid 1960s. Then in 1967 Don Rafael Cruz sold Hacienda Barú to a LACSA pilot named Teorico Zamorra, known to everyone as “Toco” Zamorra. At that time Manuel Angel Sanchez left Hacienda Barú and went into business for himself, logging, farming and working with heavy machinery. Daniel stayed at Hacienda Barú and worked with Toco Zamorra’s new foreman, a man named Alvaro Meza. In addition to being a commercial pilot, Toco was a partner in the local airline AVE. It was while flying one of AVE’s small planes that he crashed and was killed. After his death Toco’s widow, Ana María Acosta stepped into her late husband’s shoes and took over the management of Hacienda Barú. Alvaro Meza remained as foreman, and Daniel was a common laborer.

In 1971 Daniel lived an experience with Alvaro that neither will ever forget. Early one morning Alvaro set off up into the jungle with Daniel, Nato and Challo Campos, and Arcele Arroyo. All the men carried tools such as axes, three different sizes of metal wedges, a sledge hammer, and a couple of shovels. They walked for about an hour to a recently felled tree, a manu negro, the last one on Hacienda Barú. Alvaro left Daniel and Arcele at the tree with instructions to split it into posts. First they had to work with the axes to cut the trunk into two-meter sections and then split each section into as many posts as it would yield. This was done by driving metal wedges into the log with the small sledge forcing the wood to split. As the split widened, a larger wedge was introduced and the process continued. This went on until the entire log had been split into posts about five inches thick. Once Daniel and Arcele got started, Alvaro, Challo and Nato left with the shovels, supposedly to find the route that they would use to carry the posts out of the jungle on their shoulders. Daniel suspected that they were really going to dig up a pre-Colombian tomb they has spotted on the way up.

The first time the two men stopped chopping to rest, they heard Challo´s faint yell in the distance. “Come! Hurry! Alvaro’s been bit by a snake.” Daniel yelled back that they were on their way. He and Arcele dropped the tools and headed in the direction of Challo’s voice. They found Challo at the pre-Colombian cemetery, waiting, intently watching the terciopelo (An extremely poisonous pit viper sometimes called “fer de lance” in English – (Bothrops asper.)) “She’s really pissed,” he warned. Challo explained that Alvaro had been over by the tomb when he slipped and fell to the ground almost on top of the snake. It bit him just above the elbow.

The terciopelo held its head high, level with Daniel’s waist, looking from one side to the other, tongue flicking in and out, watching, waiting. It was the largest Daniel had ever seen, at least two and a half meters (8 feet) long. He cut a thin pole and held it out. The snake struck at the pole. Daniel swung and missed. The terciopelo advanced and struck again. Daniel’s second blow caught the enormous snake behind the head. He hit it again and again until it quit moving. Finally he chopped it to pieces with his machete. He was careful to cut the head in half. A snake’s head with a short piece of neck can still crawl and bite.

Alvaro and Nato made it to the road about ten minutes before the others arrived. In those days maybe one car a day would come down the road, but luck was with them. In less than an hour Eliecer Castro came along in his red jeep. He took Alvaro to San Isidro to the hospital. Doña Ana María Acosta later had him flown to San Jose. In the San Juan de Dios hospital they had to amputate his arm in order to save his life.

About a year after this incident I first met Daniel. It was on my first visit to Hacienda Barú. When Doña Ana María sold the farm to a group of foreigners Alvaro left and went into business for himself. When I arrived in February of 1972 Daniel was in charge. Doña Ana María had sold all of her cattle, and Hacienda Barú was empty. I was working with a meat packing company that had leased Hacienda Barú from the new owners. My employer soon bought about 100 steers to fill those empty pastures. Daniel was a very good foreman, but I felt he was lacking as a cowboy. So I brought a man named Catalán from another ranch I managed on the Caribbean side of the country. Catalán’s job was to take care of the cattle. Daniel and Catalán didn’t get along very well, and in late 1973 Daniel left. He went to work with his brother-in-law, Manuel Angel Sanchez driving a tractor.

Much of Daniel’s work with Manuel Angel was in the machine shop repairing and maintaining the machinery. As the story goes, he had a habit of getting nuts and bolts mixed up. When he wanted a nut he asked for a bolt and visa versa. That is how he got the nickname “Tornillo” which means bolt in Spanish. The name has stuck with him to this day.

In 1984 Daniel returned to Hacienda Barú, again to work as a tractor driver. At first he lived in a house on the hacienda, but after several years acquired his own home in Platanillo. For the next 24 years Daniel made the daily ride on his bicycle. As the hacienda gradually phased out cattle ranching and farming and began catering to ecological tourism, the need for a tractor driver diminished. Daniel still drove the tractor when necessary, but he also became foreman of the crew of workers, a job that he held until his retirement in February 2011. And of course he and his fellow workers planted all those trees in the meantime.