HAVANA TIMES — Havana’s tomb raiders of old have today met their match. His name is Pancho. He doesn’t look for treasures in the world of the dead. He does so in the dark tunnels where the city’s shit ends up: the sewers.
He’s been doing this for ten years and claims to know all of the city’s sewer tunnels. “In neighborhoods such as Santos Suarez or La Vibora,” he says, “people shit gold.” “In Cerro and Old Havana, you run into a lot of silver, especially coins.” “The best neighborhood is Centro Habana, between Reina and Monte streets. There, the muck settles in liquid form and one can reach the bottom.”
“It’s different near the Malecon ocean drive. The tunnels there are almost always dry. They’re the broadest and you can walk upright. But there’s nothing there.”
In broad daylight, accompanied by two “assistants” (as he calls them), carrying a crow bar (for lifting sewer lids), a cart and a bucket tied to a rope, Pancho sets out to work. He’s the boss, monitoring what the other two do from above. Below, the “assistants” dig into the excrement, tear apart the solid waste and drop anything that doesn’t break in their hands into the bucket. As the only light comes from above, they cannot stray far from the place or hide anything. When the bucket is filled, Pancho dumps its contents into the cart. If the sediment level is high and the waste is fairly liquid, the procedure is repeated. Mistrust is mutual, and those below monitor all of the movements of their boss’s shadow above.
Pancho recalls that, before he had a cart, he would dump everything into a “large plastic garbage bag” and would carry it on his shoulder. One day, the bag exploded right in front of someone’s door. “We had to start checking everything that fell out right there and then…it was around ten in the morning. Luckily, no one stepped out to see what was happening.”
“That day I made thirty dollars and learned that everything does end up down the drain.” He may not be right in this last pronouncement of his, but, to make a living like he does, I think he needs some kind of philosophy.
I’ve been waiting for him for days. Through a nephew of his, I found out he was “doing his thing” around Luyano or San Miguel del Padrón. The wait makes me think that someone like Pancho does not tell his story to anyone more than once.