“Soy guajiro y carretero, en el campo vivo bien, porque el campo es el edén más lindo del mundo entero”
- “El Carretero” (The Cart Driver), Guillermo Portabales
For Cubans, more than five decades of revolution, isolation and shortage have turned creative improvisation and common sense into more than just good habits. The DIY instinct is endemic on this island, as if built into the people's genetic package. But Don Yolando Pérez Báez' improvisational gift stands out even here- he is a farmer-turned-inventor, an eccentric craftsman, a kind of magician who builds mechanical solutions to everyday problems.
Take his hat. This handmade accessory has a wide brim like the traditional Asian woven hat, but its wide brim dips low near the eyes. The design keeps his head cool, while also providing shade and visibility in almost any condition.
For more sophisticated inventions, Don Yolando treks into the nearby dump -he calls it his "store"- in order to collect materials. He used to spray his crops with a backpack in the fields, 50 kilometers outside of Havana, but it meant he had to walk 8 kilometers and nearly six hours under the rain and sun. So he built something a little easier to use. His new, handcrafted spraying device protrudes from his head in a tangle of junk, garbage and natural fibers, but it gets the job done in just an hour, and has reduced Don Yolando's walk to a single kilometer.
The sprayer is kind of cute. It's a homemade version of Dr. Octopus' hydraulic arms, a lightweight mechanical spider that you carry on your back and hands. There is a wheel to help you maintain a regular spraying pace, two pesticide tanks connected to multiple dispersal hoses, and a manual pumping system that scatters chemicals onto on six rows of crop at once. Don Yolando's old spraying backpack could only spread its content to one row at a time.
Most Cuban farm work still depends on the backs of humans or beasts, since industrial machinery is scarce here, and once a machine has broken, repairing it or finding spare parts can be a quixotic task. So Don Yolando, his shirt soaked with sweat and belt wrapped tightly around his waist, has also built a machine capable of boosting those engines along once they fail. He built his own starter engine.
Batteries and restarting devices are usually those parts that break down earliest in a farm machine. To be prepared, Don Yolando developed a starter engine in which a weight which tied to a rope, and the rope wrapped around the engine crankshaft before being lifted and dropped a good height. The fall of the weight pulls the rope and cranks the engine back to life.
This invention has proven useful to many in Don Yolando's town of Guira de Melenas. Here, among the fallen leaves, the potato fields, the neighborhood dump and the quiet workshop where it all happens lives a simple man whose neighbors call him a genius: Don Yolando Pérez Báez.