In a Caracas artist's studio in 1993, a friend showed me a coffee-table book about a region called La Gran Sabana, full of towering mountains, haunting savannahs and amazing waterfalls. I made up my mind I wanted to see it for myself. It proved, in retrospect, a momentous bored-afternoon-with-not-much
The story of how I came to fall quite so head over heels in love with the Gran Sabana has much to do with one place in particular. And OK, yes, there was also a girl involved.
I had come to Venezuela in search of my French girlfriend of the time. She was visiting her father who still lived out there. The only way I could get to see her that summer was by meeting her out somewhere. In London, I did a crap summer job, saved some money, called her up and booked my ticket.
Finding her in Caracas proved far more difficult than it should have been. We kept missing each other with phone calls. Messages never got passed on. Finally, one afternoon, I bumped into her in the street. Just like that. But then we lost contact again, and, frustrated and having grown bored of the city and worried about my finances, I decided to abandon my Quixotic quest and enjoy what I could of my holiday, alone.
Now, this French girl, Vanessa, wouldn't be all that important in the grand scheme of things. But without her, I would never have become so besoted with the region. It was through her, and her artist friend Secundino Rivera, that I came to know the community and people of El Pauji. And that meeting changed my life.
Vanessa maintains that she mentioned this village called El Pauji at some point while we were in Caracas. I don't remember it at all. In my Lonely Planet, the village's entry ran something along the lines of "a good place to stay for a few days, friendly locals, lots of walks to waterfalls and beauty spots." You could do worse while backpacking round South America.
A week after leaving Caracas, I found myself in the village, a torrential rain storm having dogged and depressed me most of the day. I met Doña Aura, the village matriarch, at her café. Little did I know it then, but she would, in some ways, become my adopted mother. She pointed me dismissively down the road to a small place where I could get a cheap bed and some food.
I met some Spaniards and a French couple there. Together, we visited some of local waterfalls and sights. Had it not been for what happened next, I would have come away from El Pauji thinking "yeah, nice place, but nothing to write home about."
One afternoon I was lounging near the café, waiting for the sun to set to take yet another photo. A jeep made its way laboriously up the dirt road towards me. As I peered into the distance, I began to think the car looked vaguely familiar, perhaps Secundino's. I could make out bushy white hair, and a squat form behind the wheel, loosely fitting his description.
With the car still about 50 yards away, there was agitated movement in the back seat. The jeep lurched to a stop. Dust billowed from all sides. A girl I could have sworn was Vanessa emerged from the cloud running towards me, in slow motion and Vaseline-vision, an accompanying string quartet hidden somewhere in the bushes.
Perhaps I've read the Celestine Prophesy one too many times. But at that point in my life, it seemed like an almighty, too-big-to-be--coincidence moment. I had no idea she was going to visit the village. She had no idea I was there. We could so easily have missed each other.
What if I'd not hung around for the photo? What if they'd not bothered to come to the store to stock up on food? The chances of our meeting were minute. And enough for us to put it all down to 'destiny.' We were in love, afterall.
Well that was it, I'm afraid. I was suckered, or maybe it's Sabana'd. The once-impressive plains were transformed into haunting patchworks of the richest green hues. The waterfalls metamorphosed from natural wonders into gushing torrents brimming with messages which only the love-struck could decipher. The forests of yesterday suddenly became auditoria where each bird sang an aria just for my delight, where every new plant or flower appeared solely for my benefit and wonder. My quest had not been in vain, my dream had come true. Every night I drifted off to sleep on a blanket of twinkling stars, wafted by the warm currents of my happiness and relief.
With Secundino, we went to stay at friends' of his campamento. It was owned by the Matheus family. Manuel was an architect, lanky, handsome, with eyes that sparkled and shone as he spoke. He was in his mid-forties, a spirtual surfer who'd ridden the hippy wave as it swept across Latin America in the Seventies. He'd bumped down to Peru in an old campervan. He'd meditated in the temple of Monte Alban in Mexico. And he'd come to rest, for now, in this remote part of his country, as far as you could imagine from the Caracas of his youth. With the help of his friends, he'd built three amazing houses in El Pauji. The first was all based on pyramids, the second also, though it looked like an eagle at rest, and the third was campanile in shape. His wife was Alina, one of the most vivacious latin women that I've met. She was younger than Manuel, pretty and feisty as only a Cuban exile who grew up in Miami can be. Together they had three children: Ram, Cristóbal and Aran.
Together, we played in the river down by their house, washed along by the purest of waters. We sat, pummelled, at the foot of the 20-metre waterfall at the bottom of the 'garden'. We picked the savila plant which makes natural shampoo. We gazed at the stars and talked. And over the following days, we met more of the villagers. It was my first real taste, I realise now, of Latin warmth. That irresistible pull of physicality, of seemingly genuine affection which is so rare to stumble upon in northern Europe. I met Carlucho on his motorbike, Carlos and Nicole, another Alina, Miguel Angel. And probably most important of all, I met Paulista and Isabel.
Paulista is pivotal, because it was with him that I went panning for gold. He was a Brazilian, from the slums of Sao Paulo (from whence his name). He'd ended up as a gold miner, somehow, and quite how he got to Venezuela I'm not sure. But there he was, one of the most amazing characters I've encountered. Tall and skinny as a rake, with a face like a weasel, only a few teeth punturing the hole of his mouth beneath a bushy moustache. His laugh was a high-pitched wheeze, followed by a sort of hiccup. A wonderful sound, and one which anyone who meets him is priviledged to hear often.
Although I'm still sceptical as to Paulista's skills as a goldminer, what's important to the story is that I was fascinated by it. By the whole allure, and the history, and the stories. Paulista has more tall stories than New York has skyscrapers. We went off panning together, and they just kept on coming. Bent double over his batea, swinging and spinning it rhythmically, he recounted his times in the mines, and the lore of the miners. I was fascinated.
Sooner than any of us wanted, it was time to leave. "We'll come back, promise," I'm sure I must have told the Mattheus', and my other new-found friends. Little did I know I would keep my promise, and then some.
The autumn saw me back in London, embarking on a Masters' Degree in Latin American Studies. I doggypaddled my way through the course, unable to keep my head much above the sea of knowledge we were expected to know. I majored in Geography and Environmental Issues, and, El Pauji and Paulista still in my head and heart, chose to write my dissertation about the mining industry in southeastern Venezuela.
I read up on the subject, and discovered there were huge problems of mercury contamination associated with gold mining. In Brazil, where a gold rush of epic proportions had swept the country in the late Eighties, contamination was beginning to work its way through the food chain to humans. Hardly any research had been done in Venezuela, and I decided that I could make use of my MA and try to find out some more. It's probably the best excuse I've come up with so far to get back to the Gran Sabana.
So the following summer, 1995, I found myself back in Caracas. I still wasn't sure what exactly I had to do to write the MA, but began dilligently enough to research in the libraries and to interview people from the Ministry of Energy and Mines, big foreign mining companies and environmental NGOs. I also had a complicated time with Vanessa, who happened to be back in the country again that summer. After a few weeks I headed off south, spending time in the mining towns of El Callao and Tumeremo, and interviewing more doctors and mining people in the big towns of the Orinoco.
But before long, I was back in El Pauji. There, I did talk to the local miners and went to observe how one of them, a Swiss-German called Marcos, worked. I took photos of mercury being used, and burnt in the open. I took notes, and wrote them up. But I also spent a whole load of time doing nothing more than mooning about the place, writing flowery odes to rivers and basically sinking into the life and rhythm of the Sabana.
As usual, time ran out. And so did my finances. I had a terrible time getting back to Caracas, with a Visa card which wouldn't authorise. But on the way I met a curious character called Comandante Chávez and his band of colonels, lawyers and hangers on. Three years later, Chávez was to become President. And within a year of being sworn in, change the country's name to the "República Bolivariana Venezolana" in honour of his, and the continent's, hero, Simón Bolívar. Thank you, Visa.
I wrote up my dissertation. Got my degree. And with it decided to put my education to good use by becoming a barman in Soho.
From here, things begin to get hazy in my mind. This has nothing to do with the drug habit I acquired. It's more to do with how many times, and for how long, I returned to the Gran Sabana for. For the purpose of this story however, suffice to say I spent many months there over the next two years. The longest was a stretch of six months. I had decided that what the world needed was a trekking guide to the region. With no market research effected, and not a sniff of a publisher in sight, it seemed like a winning idea. So I spent the best part of four months shlepping about the place, from one mission to the next, from one bizarre encounter with desperado goldminers to the next with Indians who claimed to have seen UFOs. I trekked for days on my own, scared myself witless camping in the forest alone, and became a welcoming host for all manner of nasty parasites. I got lost on several occasions. But was found on more. I observed workshops with the Pemon Indians about tourism, reported on their meetings to dispute the latest development project, lived with various people in El Pauji, spent more time gazing at stars than I thought humanly possible. I had various amorous encounters, capped by being physically molested by a seventeen year-old Indian girl who wouldn't take 'vete a tu cama' for an answer. I also might have sired my first child, but, really, you'll have to wait for the book for that one.
At some point during this time too, I began to write for an online news service called VHeadline.com. I later fell out with the editor over money (what else?), but he did give me the chance to have many of these adventures see the light of day, and even paid me for most of them in the end. I also began to write various reports on environmental issues for the Environmental News Service. All these didn't amount to a huge amount, but they did enable me to show a prospective publisher, when the time came, that I 'knew' Venezuela well, and could write a guidebook on the country no problem.
That opportunity came in early 1999 -- just when I thought that I was going to give up travel journalism and embark on a more boring but more financially secure career. The timing was propicious.
So in March 1999, I returned to Venezuela, a decent sum in my hand, ready to spend the next months scurrying round the country researching the (now 'award-winning') Traveler's Venezuela Companion. And what did I do first? I bought myself an old Toyota Land Cruiser jeep, like the ones my friends had down in the Sabana. And then? I drove down there. Within a month of arriving in Venezuela I was back in El Pauji, proudly parading my new vehicle to my friends, and loving every minute of it. I climbed Roraima again, saw the waterfalls anew, bounced up and down the roads to the missions and villages, and even managed to make some money as a taxi-tour guide.
But again, it was time to leave. I didn't manage to return until late 2000, when I cobbled together a commission for Geographical magazine about Roraima and a news story on the World Bank's failed project in Venezuela. I got to climb Roraima once again, and had far better weather than on my last trip -- although it was still miserable most of the time. And I managed to get back to El Pauji.
Most of the people I knew have left now. Which is sad, and quite hard to come to terms with. I'm not sure if I have yet. The economic crisis bit hard in Venezuela. Many people's children have grown up and need to be near schools. And maybe the hippy dreams were just that, dreams. I think it's hard for everyone who was part of the village, whether as a part-timer or as a full-time resident. For me, I think it's hardest because the village is so tied up with my youthful, early twenties dreams. To see the people leave, the projects and ideas crumble, and for only the miners to remain, feels like an indictment on my youth. But then, I still have the Sabana. And the stories. No-one can take them away...