28 December 2007

Interview with Taino Almestica

On August 1, 2007 Taino Almestica and Derrick Mayoleth, circumnavigated the island of Boriken (Puerto Rico) in a kayak. They were the first to attempt such a feat since the days when the Classic Taino people traveled across all the islands of the Caribbean in canoes. Taino Almestica a descendant of the islands original inhabitants is the first Taino to not only attempt such a feat but to accomplish his aim as well. Below is an interview I conducted with Taino Almestica upon his return to New York City:

JE: What motivated you to circumnavigate the island of Boriken?

TA: Since my childhood I have been in and out of canoes. As I got older I was searching for that experience again but unfortunately there weren’t that many opportunities around Manhattan. I did eventually find a kayak group in Manhattan and I decided to explore this different but similar craft. The dream of being able to circumnavigate the island was set into motion. I looked for the connection to my ancestors and the personal challenge to me.

JE: How long did this trip last?

TA: It took us 18 days to circumnavigate the entire island but there where a few days, which we took off the water. The first time we took a few days to readjust gear and to plan some other exploring of the island. The second major layoff was when Hurricane Dean was approaching the island. We were off the water for five or six days, which I felt, was too long. I took advantage to visit some family in Aibonito.
a) Start point: We launched from the Toa Baja region of the island near the town of Levittown. We launched from Punta Salinas.
b) Middle: I would say when we arrived in Ponce.
c) End point: that of course would be our start point.

JE: What were the scariest moments for you?

TA: I would have to say two times when we were caught paddling with lighting near to us that for me was the scariest. Not to mention that my mind was always looking out for sharks. The first time I came upon to a pair of very large manatee. I have never seen them that large and from the perspective of paddling right up to them. Did I get knocked into the water or tipped in sure did three or four times. Got caught the first time looking one way and a wave caught me off guard. Then there was one on the North coast which I could hear rumbling behind me as it build in power and size. I tried to out run it or back paddle to let it pass under me but the wall just increase over my head and then collapsed on top of me. I just rolled up. Did a 360 spin under and back up on top of the water.

JE: How was the public support for what you were trying to accomplish on the island?

TA: The community was incredible to us. They provided us with water, food and coffee during the trip. In addition they provided safe places for us to sleep and the fishermen giving us local knowledge of the waters, which we would encounter. Of course they all thought we where crazy!

JE: What does the Kayak and the sea mean to you?

TA: This is my temple, church, I worship and remember to worship and give thanks for a great day and safe journeys. No days are ever alike each wave different from the one before.

JE: As a Taino, did you think about what our ancestors may or may not be thinking as they traversed around the islands of the Caribbean?

TA: I did think about that from several points. Arriving at a location that you don’t know and then having to find a safe place to land and find food and shelter. Another point would be from those who lived in this environment- the daily experience of searching for water, food, protection from the weather. I mean, I like camping, but I came as best prepared as possible and even then there were challenges. I live in an apartment and turn on my air conditioning and go shopping for food right outside my door.. It’s almost inconceivable how our ancestors traveled throughout the islands, long stretches at sea, landing on unfamiliar beaches and then survive the way they did. How could I ever compare myself to them or whine about what I don’t have? I carried all I needed in my kayak.

JE: What message do you want to leave the people of Boriken?

TA: To explore life. If you happen to identify with Taino ancestry whether in Boriken or the other islands, know that you don’t have to be just a warrior, medicine person or a chief. I mean, some one had to throw out the garbage right? I guess that’s my job. To my people I say they must go home to their islands and explore them in their entirety to get a clear view of what it means to be Taino. You will find out what you don’t know and what that means. Experience that and then let us sit down and discuss being Taino.

JE: Any plans for a Caribbean wide trip?

TA: Yes if I could walk away from work, were a whole lot younger and could build up the courage to take the abuse!

Taino with his Daughter Alexandria

JE: You used the symbol of Guabancex Wind and Rain Society, what does it mean to you?

TA: After having some experience with various groups I found the internal and external fighting was just a waste of time and mental resources. The jealousy and envy has fogged the fact that the Taino don’t exist- at least the Taino that some are trying to portray. We have lost so much and we continue to lose our youth every day to outside cultural pressures or pop culture. It was good to be invited into Guabancex since I feel I understand what their philosophy is about.

At first I thought, since the founding members all have academic degrees what could I bring to Guabancex? Of course not all are or claim to be Taino but we all work to research, disseminate and record information whether new or old or relearning what it was. I bring a little from my experience on the island and the things that I was shown by my family; mainly on the island and some here on the main land. Of course put me in a boat or in the mountains and I’m in my elements and I can share that with others and that is the key SHARING. Working on the material and not on how many titles I claim. The connection with the land and how our ancestors had that connection is what I’m learning and experiencing. There is a need for science and a need for what is left from the island people before it is all lost. Maybe if we are lucky someone will take up the mantle on some element of our culture, and run with it. I learned so much from this adventure. That experiencing it is so much more that saying I am it.

JE: I appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions. You have truly inspired me. Bo Matum Taino.

TA: Bo Matum

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