wonkenShe's the second captain's wife and is already chubby in her early thirties. Although you wouldn't have thought it, she's the daughter of a Pemon Indian and an Italian. Her face is round, her smile welcoming, and her dark shiny hair falls all the way to her waist. She is very sweet and generous, offering food and cafecito without fail.

They live in one of the houses in the village of Wonken built by the government according to their specifications: a nondescript, metal-roofed bungalow with three bedrooms, a reception room, kitchen and outside bathroom. Family life centres around the large kitchen table, or else on the front-doorstep or in the back garden, where friends and family come and go with accustomed ease.

She and her husband were very kind to me. He made sure I had somewhere to sleep for the night - a derelict old bungalow once used by visiting doctors - and was helpful in telling me who to talk to for my research. He introduced me to the village's men and one day we went off to work in his conuco - forest clearing.

They call it a mayu when someone's mates all come along and help cut down trees and clear a patch in the forest for future crops. A mayu has one important ingredient, perhaps a prerequisite for getting any mates in any country to help you out: alcohol. Before getting them over, your wife or sister or mother has to prepare enough manioc-root liqueur, kachiri, to go round. No kachiri, no choppy choppy. Although the combination of axes, saws and alcohol might not be the safest or most work-effective cocktail ever invented, you'll be glad to know I haven't heard of any limb-severing horror stories -- so far.

I enjoyed the mayu, and though I was forced to retire early on grounds of tipsy-tiredness, -- or tired-tipsiness, I wasn't sure which -- my help was appreciated. I think I also provided entertainment value as I struggled with an axe none-too proficiently.

While I stayed in the village, I would pop in to say hello and ask about some material I was trying to get my hands on. I would always end up staying for some lunch or dinner, or for coffee and a chat. While I was there, various neighbours and friends and members of the family would come in and out, some staying for a bit, others moving on.

She would have her two older girls do most of the cooking and most of the serving and clearing up. The young boys didn't really help at all, and spent their time painfully singing Happy Birthday to You in English to me, and giggling at the slightest provocation. She seems typical of what is happening to the Pemon people in many ways.

You see, when you walk into their house, you could really be in any rural Venezuelan house. There are the odd cheap reproductions on the wall, crucifixes nailed above beds and the kitchen boasts a large gas cooker, a fridge and a set of six frosted motif water glasses. Most Pemon houses, outside of villages, are still made of wood and mud, many are still thatched with palm fronds, none of them have gas and rarely do they have cement floors. The Pemon diet in these outlying areas will have changed little from what it was hundreds of years ago. They only buy small amounts of food, and most of their meals consist of what they grow or hunt.

Whereas in the villages, many of them centred around catholic missions, electricity and mod-cons are pretty much part of every day life. She told me they were saving up for a washing machine, once they'd completed renovating the outside toilet and shower. She seems to aspire to Western standards of living. Her husband and she work in the nearby mission, and they save their money assiduously, she told me. I was asking them lots of questions about Pemon life - what's this called, why's that, what's the story behind that - but she wasn't very good at answering them, or would look across to her husband for confirmation of what she'd just said. Occasionally she couldn't answer at all.

She doesn't go off to the conuco like most of the women, and didn't even know how to make good kachiri, she admitted. Although they still eat a lot of Pemon food, mainly spicy soups with manioc wafer-bread, they also made criollo fare, such as dumplín, dumplings, which are very fatty, and probably explain her premature chubbyness. They spoke a lot of Pemon in the house. And yet she was very insistent on the manners of the kids at table and on precisely how her girls served the coffee.

I got the impression in some ways she wanted me to see her as more Western than Pemon, or at least more sophisticated in her tastes than her counterparts in the village. It was ironic really since I was there to find out more about the Pemon. Maybe she has lots of hang-ups about her European father dumping her mother with a baby, and perhaps she endured some social ostracising as a result. Perhaps. But it was still noticeable how hard she was trying to show me they, or at least her family, weren't 'savages' or 'indians'. And yet, when we were talking about whether a road would eventually be built to the village, they said one idea had been to put a gate with a lock on it at a river-crossing about a day's walk away, so as to control who came to the village. It's already situated within Canaima National Park, so only the Pemon can live there anyway. But that didn't seem to satisfy their fear of the outside, of crime, violence and all that.

So the solution was to lock people out, and only let them in if - well if what ? Were outsiders going to produce documents proving they were not convicted criminals or child molesters ? Would they do on-the-spot blood tests to make sure no funny diseases got in ? And how were they going to allow the right people in anyway if the gate was five hours' walk away ? I left these questions mute, thinking I might be provoking them if I started to question their xenophobic logic too closely.

But it's that contradiction which is so stark in this situation. Here is a woman who aspires to the Western way of life, not just in material assets, which, let's face it, take some of the drudgery out of life, but in the manners of her daughters, her family's food, the clothes they wear, and soon, the language they'll speak at home.

It comes down to a question of identity. She isn't sure anymore what she really wants to be, and that question stares all the Pemon at the moment, and has done for at least the last ten years or so. They see and recognise the Coca Cola culture coming ever-closer. They, like most of us perhaps, would like to be able to pick and choose what they want from this culture, to buy the products which make life easier and hands softer, to get the medicines which make your parents suffer less and your kids cry just a little less.

But you can't do that. One without the other simply isn't on the menu. If you want one, you have to take the stock and barrel too, and there's no refund or money-back guarantee. The crime, violence, strong alcohol, video-nasties and nasty video-games, the death or dearth of spirituality, the all-consuming desire to have. All that lot comes with your washing machine, like having to buy washing powder, fabric softener, extra water and more electricity to keep the thing going once you've bought it.

A gate on the road isn't going to stop cultural adaptation, disintegration, or 'acculturisation' as anthropologists would put it. It might keep the nasty people out, a la LA, but it won't stop change. I think what worries the Pemon most is the pace of that change, not the process in itself. Within a generation, values, mores and social norms have transformed so rapidly that they are confused about what they really want. At least in LA, people know who and what they want to exclude. The Pemon don't have that luxury, which comes with a bankrupt dismembered society.

I don't think they'll ever put the gate up. But I bet they'll wonder, in twenty years or so, how things would be if they had.



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