Dona Aura (centre) holds courtIt must be hard being a matriarch. First of all you have to know everyone's business. Second, you have to make sure everyone's aware of what you know. Keeping up with what's going on must take the better part of the day. And then you have to spend the other half relating what you've been told. I don't think Doņa Aura ever wanted the role either. Her age and character forced it upon her.

She's become my adopted mother too I suppose. She tells me off for not coming to see her enough, and asks me, one eyebrow cocked, what I've been up to recently. She tutts and mutters, and, come to think of it, is far harsher about the way I live my life than my bona fide mother. But then my real mother doesn't have the suspicious mind Doņa Aura possesses.

She has the most caustic wit I've ever come across. And sometimes the most vulgar. I remember her telling me once, while making the shape of a triangle with her two outstretched hands, that that's what rules in the world. The more imaginative among you will be able to work that one out. Another time I popped in to see her with two friends, and she asked me, in front of them, whether they were 'mine'. I told her I'd got them cheap in Brazil, bit of a bargain, you know...

She runs her restaurant with an iron will and an ancient four hob cooker. Her nine year-old daughter, the last of a long line of offspring, runs about from table to kitchen while Doņa Aura barks orders and chit chats with -- or insults, depending on her mood -- the clientele. She serves good ol' carbohydrate-rich criollo fodder, usually chicken and rice with black beans, potatoes and coleslaw -- hot if she likes you, loupe warm if she doesn't.

Most of her clients are local miners, or transportistas, making their arduous way along the dirt roads to the mines and back to town. She's well-liked and respected. You have to respect Doņa Aura. She's the longest surviving resident of this armpit-middle-of-nowhere village. Only extreme determination and over-priced food have seen her through the last twenty-odd years.

Her husband is a transportista, a grumpy, rarely-shaven man called Manrique who drives a clapped-out old white Toyota Land Cruiser. He always gets the women to sit up in the front with him, and scratches his groin too regularly for it to be healthy. He's always covered in grease and engine oil, and mutters almost continuously about the state of the road, the price of petrol or his knackered suspension. Occasionally, when he finds something funny, he cackles delightedly, then coughs and spits glops of phlegm from his window.

Day in, day out, he bumps and grinds and judders his way to town and back. Four hours each way. I think he left Doņa Aura for a while. I remember asking her about her husband on my second visit, and her muttering he'd gone away. I pressed her some more, but received piercing looks from a daughter who's since gone off with a miner, and I dropped the subject.

She spends most days sat just inside the door of her paint-peeling house, plonked on a old chair, crocheting lurid-coloured chinchorros (hammocks with holes). She always invites me in, tries to sell me one of her creations, and, if I've nothing better to do, we chat about 'the early days' of the village or about what I've been up to.

She was the first person I met in the village four years ago. I got out of the taxi-jeep in the middle of a ferocious thunderstorm and took cover under her tin roof. When the rain subsided, she pointed me in the direction of the nearest tourist camp. I always feel secure and cared for for some reason when I'm with her. Maybe it's her motherly-round figure, her greying hair, or her chirpy smile, I don't know. It's just a feeling I get when I'm around her. Then again, maybe it's the way, when I've been in the village and haven't come to see her, she shouts at me in front of my friends and makes me feel about seven. Only mothers can do that.



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Travels in the Lost World -- © Dominic Hamilton 2002-7