The only road that leaves the city of Puerto Ayacucho, and heads south toward remote landscapes, has the same curves as the Orinoco River, which flows in the opposite direction, north.
The road is the central axis of the municipality of Autuna, and one must travel an hour before approaching its principal settlement, without actually reaching the town. The road ends at the river’s edge, where travelers to Isla Ratón must catch a boat - a bongo (a large motorized canoe) or voladora (a smaller, faster version) to reach, or leave, the town.
The municipal seat is a good sized island, in the very center of the river’s current, a long segment of which serves as the natural border between Venezuela and Colombia.
At this moment, three young Cubans are responsible for health care in the island town, working now with two Venezuelan community doctors who arrived just recently. The two young women and a male doctor have faced challenges of all sorts, making everyday another professional graduation.
Accompanying the healthcare team is Cienfuegos athlete Reinaldo González - who given his training in self-control says he doesn’t fear snakes, but does avoid them - and a teacher from Cacocum, Dixán Mojena, educational advisor in the municipality, now helping to implement plans to ensure that all residents who recently completed basic literacy programs reach the sixth grade level.
Not even the teacher knows why the island is called Ratón (mouse). “In fact, I haven’t seen a single one. Could be because of all the poisonous snakes,” Dixán says. What he does know is that he has strong feelings for the islet, especially since the reunion he had with his brother Danilo here, a campesino who was placed nearby to share Cuba’s best knowledge about the land.
Another member of the small Cuban mission is Berenice López, a 25-year-old podiatrist from Guantánamo, the youngest of the group, to whom many locals who walk about barefoot entrust their feet.
“It’s very common to see ingrown toenails, hyperkeratosis and other ailments related to lifestyle, but it doesn’t take me by surprise. What has been impressive is what I have had to do here outside of my specialty. It has made me mature, no doubt.”
This statement is surely related to the fact that for more than a year, she spent most of her time in even more remote areas, in the jungles of Manapiare and Atabapo, municipalities where indigenous Amazon lifestyles and traditions are more deeply rooted.
“But there were more of us there, and we didn’t dare so much to take on the work of other specialties. I’ve been a nurse here, and even the main assistant during a difficult birth. Oh, mother, I don’t even want to remember it. Let Arbelo, the doctor, tell you that story.”
She is smiling today, relieved by the arrival this very day of her fellow Guantánamo native, Yamerlis Campos, a licensed rehabilitation therapist from Nibujón, in Baracoa, who will now take charge of the rehabilitation room, which Dr. Arbelo has been managing practically alone.
“Nothing scares me, and I am ready for anything,” says Yamerlis, who didn’t show the slightest trace of anxiety during the road trip through the wilderness, or the river crossing.
“My hometown is halfway between Moa and Baracoa. I know a bit about the scrub, although, of course it’s not the same; I’m prepared for everything.”
Arbelo jokes, “Well then, you’ll be the director of the (rehabilitation) room.”
“Whatever the work may be, but not a boss, please,” Yamerlis responds.
“Don’t worry. It’s that you’ll be the only one working there. There’s no one else,” he reassures her, and everyone laughs.
The doctor, for his part, has a long story to tell of indigenous peoples, airplanes, boats, medical emergencies, and also of the river island where he now lives, works and, he says, is always learning.
At just 28 years of age, Yorlenis Arbelo will be the subject of another installment from the Orinoco, fragments of the many emotions he has experienced here and in other remote jungles.