Finding a treasure has been one of people’s most appealing dreams throughout the ages. Because of that the belief in hidden treasures – the map that leads to an ‘x’, the happy sign that a ghost wants to hand over his loot – might be the most perjuring myth of island imaginary.
There is nothing else that more beautifully expresses the persevering optimism of the guajiro. The drama of the poor man who does not accept his lot in life. It is also true that it refers, with a certain bitterness, to the distinctly Cuban irresponsibility of expecting everything from Providence. The drama of the poor individual who throws his lot in with magic.
I met Leonardo Valdés in the town of Amaro, near Santo Domingo, in the centre of Cuba. I wanted to talk about something else but Leonardo was filled with enthusiasm at the mention of treasure maps. He heard ‘gold’ and his eyes lit up. He is 80 years old, and has spent the majority of this time hunting for treasure in the hills.
How did you start out being a treasure hunter?
In a place they class Yabusito. There was a man there who had lots of money in gold, José Ramón Artiles. My dad bought oxen for him. Dad had an ox and cart business. When he was went to pay for them with notes this man would say: ‘Valdés, if you haven’t got gold, then pay me later, pay me further down the road…’ He would not accept anything else and he had all the money hidden away.
One fine day he sent off an order for a bronze tube six inches wide and a meter long. He put all the money in there and hid it. When he was dying his brother came to where he was and said to him: ‘look, you’re very sick, in the end you and I are going to die, we’re already old, tell me where you’ve put the money’. And he answered him ‘I don’t pimp my money out to anyone’. He died and the money stayed buried. I went to the farm to look for the money. I walked and I walked, I spent a week digging holes in different places and I didn’t find anything. I filled it all with holes looking for money.
Do you know many hidden treasures like this?
There is a version of another mental treasure map, which I heard listen to stories from old men and women.
In Indio, there was a count who people used to call ‘the Count of Indio’ [José Eugenio Moré, Count of the House of Moré]. The Count was told about a band, some brigands. They said ‘the guerrillas’. This was back in the other wars, when they went to wherever there was a rich landlord, robbed him and killed him. They stole his money. Others only stole a little money and said it was for the war.
How did you find out about this story that seems so old?
I met a guy whose great-grandfather had worked with the Count. The story was passed down through the family: when they told the Count that the guerrillas were coming, he loaded up a mule with money and fled. He had a friend, another rich landowner who ran the Esperanza farm, and he went there. He buried the money and carried on fleeing. They caught him in the river, hopping about by the bridge. They caught him and killed him. But the money stayed in that farm. I went there and I dug lots of holes, but there is a mineral stone there that the detectors recognise like gold. I dug a number of holes and I always found that rock, a rock with brown veins. I got rid of the rock and the equipment stopped working. I gave up. I said ‘no, no, there’s no way I can find nowt like this, I’m going to die of hunger breaking rocks here’.
The story about the Count sounds a little fantastical…
The thing about the Count is true. The house was there on the edge of the road to Mata. The guy who worked with me, the one who told me the story, Caraballo, came with me to a lagoon. I don’t know if his great grandfather was a slave, or what he was at that time.
Here in the Flor de Cuba farm they say there is also money. Many people come and search for it and there and have dug a thousand holes. I also went to explore, search, dig holes. To take a look. I didn’t find anything. I went twice. Once because some people with a treasure-hunter from Havana came. They turned up here to see me, to see if I knew about it. I says ‘how am I not going to know it if I’ve been twice already’. And I went with them. Zilch. I didn’t find anything either.
In this world of hidden treasures there’s a lot of supernatural things, aren’t there?
Listen to this: I had an aunt who was a spinster, and every now and again she would tell me about a dream she had where they gave her money. She always had this dream. One day my brother asked her ‘do you remember where she was where they gave her money? And she, without ever having gone there said ‘there’s a lagoon, like this and that and so, there’s a Guásima tree, and then by the Guásima there’s a rock, the money’s underneath the rock.
My brother invited someone and they went to this place which she had more or less described. And basically they found the Guásima, they found the rock, and they began to dig around. Underneath the rock was a hole. They stuck a hand in and pulled out a human bone – a tibia. They took it to the vet’s to analyse. But when they took the bone out they must have got scared, and the hole filled with water. They had to dig in the side of the lagoon to keep working there. It seems like they chickened out, because they didn’t keep looking. The skeleton scared them. I was a boy when I heard that story.
You didn’t think to try that hidden treasure?
On the topic of the problem with the Count of Indio, I told my Aunt and she said to me: ‘let’s go, don’t you know where it is?’
We found a pick, a spade, and a sledgehammer. We parked up the bikes and arrived at the place, but the Guásima tree was already gone and there were various stones at the edge of the lagoon. We found the place from what I had heard from my brother in his conversations. We dug various holes there and you know what? We didn’t find anything. We got tired, night was falling, and I said to Caraballo: ‘we wasted the trip’.
I’ve heard that you need to accomplish various tasks before you can end up with the treasure….
When a dead man gives you money you have to leave behind an object of yours. You can’t leave and turn your back. Because if you do, you’ll never find the place again. If you wear glasses, leave the glasses behind, or take off your shirt and leave that behind so you can go back to the place. If not, you won’t find it. I always have that in mind. If I see something I take off my trousers, I leave them if I have to leave them.
People also talk about slaves’ money
Right in front of Amado Sánchez’s house in Las Nieves, there are some big shrubs, some tress, I don’t know what type they are, if they’re Guásima. It was a slaves’ cemetery. And I wanted to go, but I never had a companion. Because they say that slaves had their savings to buy them their freedom and when they died their savings were buried with them if they didn’t manage to get their freedom.
Have you ever been scared out there, with the ghosts involved?
It’s possible that the gold lets off some kind of gas that is visible at night, but those ones where lights come out, those are tales….I have been in all the places where they said there was light and I never saw any light. I wasn’t scared. They said to me ‘in that place there’s a vision’ and I went there at night to explore it. I wasn’t scared then even. Where they tell me that there’s a vision and I believe that there might be money, I’ll go there at night, at whatever time it might be.
Leonardo’s talk is lively. You can almost feel the gold. However, on the way out his wife warns me: ‘don’t buy into it, boy. One time, one time only, he found a little coin….and he lost it.’