"When are you coming back?" appears to be the perennial question of the Pemon Indians. Maybe they want to get rid of me, and this is their polite way of letting me know.
But, paranoia aside, I trust it's more to do with the pride they cultivate for their land. To their minds, anyone who discovers Tei Pun - the Gran Sabana - would be mad not to come back. As the nineteenth-century explorer Richard Schomburgk remarked "they cling to their native lands... with a love like that which in former times only a Swiss could cherish for his Alps."
Swiss, German, English, American or Venezuelan, every visitor falls under the spell of the Gran Sabana's fragrant, tangled forests and bewitching landscapes, alive with exotic creatures, real and imaginary.
The Pemon are deservedly proud of their lands that unfurl like a dream as one drives south on the highway to Brazil. The Gran Sabana is beguiling. Its plays of light perform on every cardinal point - storms to the west, sun to the south, clouds to the north, and the ranks of the Pemon's 'tepuy' mesa-mountains aligned to the east. Nowhere does the Enchanter Light boast such a rich and varied anthology.
The Pre-Cambrian Guayana Shield upon which the Gran Sabana roosts dates back some three billion years, to the antediluvian continents of Gondwana and Pangea. Had Man not intervened, the mountains would still be as mystifying and enchanting. But add alternating pockets of military green forests, and patchworks of yellowed savannas and vivid green grasses which the Pemon have sown over the centuries, and the result is a fragile, unique landscape: a terra firma of dreams. Until the twentieth century however, the Gran Sabana remained effectively terra incognita.
The mythical El Dorado; those puzzling men without heads; tribes of fiery Amazonian women. Myths and fantasies about this remote, inaccessible region have fired the imaginations of explorers and fortune-seekers since Columbus first sighted the brown waters of the Orinoco. Today, the region's spell is just as binding.
A map made at the time of piratical man-of-letters Sir Walter Raleigh's expedition up the Orinoco placed Lake Manoa and the fabled city of El Dorado somewhere in-between the Orinoco and Amazon rivers. The first eye-witness account of tepuys didn't come until 1788 when a brave - or should that be foolhardy? - Capuchin monk traveled up the Río Caroní. These early incursions by Capuchin missionaries were later abandoned until the early twentieth century with the founding of the Santa Elena de Uairén mission in 1931.
About a hundred and fifty years ago, the first explorers began to arrive. Of these, the brothers Schomburgk and Theodor Koch-Grünberg traveled widely and reported their findings in Europe. Their reports, among others, led to a typically Victorian obsession with conquering the summit of Roraima Tepuy, the region's highest, and reputedly unassailable except in hot air balloon. Everard Im Thurn and Harry Perkins conquered the mountain in December, 1884. Arthur Conan Doyle, a keen member of the Royal Geographic Society, was inspired by these tales of isolated mountains and prehistory to pen his classic, if somewhat far-fetched, best-seller The Lost World in 1912.
In the late 1920s, the remarkable Catalan explorers Felix Cardona and Juan Mundó, funded mainly by the Phelps family, explored the Auyan Tepuy area. Mundó's 1929 report of their travels is thought to be the first time the name Gran Sabana was ascribed to the region, and they also claimed to have set eyes on the waterfall which would became known as Angel Falls.
Concerned by the encroachment of colonizers, in 1962 the government ensured the protection of an area the size of Belgium or Maryland by creating the enlarged Parque Nacional Canaima. The park harbors the Sabana's most precious flora - some 2,000 species of orchid alone and the exquisite Heliamphora pitcher plant - and its most endangered fauna, mainly large mammals: jaguars, giant armadillos and giant anteaters.
Within Canaima, the region's highest tepuys, Roraima, Kukenán and Auyan, rise vertiginously to over 2,500 meters. On top of each of these islands in time, entirely endemic species of prehistoric wonder survive in nooks, crannies and crevices. The tepuys' surfaces evoke moonscapes drawn from the wildest imaginings of science fiction, where unforgiving rains and winds whittle weird and wonderful sculptures from the ancient rock. The mountains puncture the clouds blown in from the Atlantic, feeding the immense watersheds of the Orinoco, Amazon and Essequibo. They are the terrestrial kings and queens of the Sabana, enthroned in majestic castles whose angular shoulders tower above the subjugated plains.
The Sabana is home to Indians of Carib descent, the Pemon, who are thought to have migrated to the region possibly six hundred years ago, although archaeological sites to the north have unearthed finds dating back almost 9,000 years. The majority of the Pemon still practice slash and burn agriculture, and continue to hunt in the forests and savannas. Their number has increased steadily since the colonization of the region by criollos over the last fifty years or so, particularly in villages close to roads or tourism centers. It is thought the Pemon, subdivided into the Kamarakoto, Arekuna and Taurepang groups, number some 20,000, making them one of the most important indigenous groups in the country.
Although most Pemon have been converted to Christianity by Catholic and Protestant missionaries, many of their traditional beliefs, particularly surrounding the natural world, are still cherished. They possess one of the most impressive oral literatures of any American indigenous people. They are great story tellers, recounting dreams and grandmothers' tales at any opportunity. The Capuchin priest, Fray Cesareo de Armellada, worked ceaselessly to translate and safeguard the Pemon's literary heritage, publishing some six tomes as testament to its richness. Their cannon includes magical invocations, chants and rites, as well as didactic, moral and humoristic tales, and a few X-rated ones too.
On the way to the mission village of Kavanayen, I gave a Pemon woman, her daughter and suckling baby a lift. Adelsa had a handsome, oblong face, a cheery disposition and not a bolívar to pay for buses or rides. As we rattled along the road, hugely deteriorated since my last visit, she told me stories that felt like jumble sale clothes, handed down by generations over the years.
To the north of the road Putari Tepuy played hide and seek with the clouds, occasionally revealing its Greek temple profile. Putari is named after the 'budare', the large flat stone or metal disc upon which casabe (manioc wafer bread) is baked. The mountain itself rises from another, Sororopan, named after Sororopachi, the female protagonist in a colorful Pemon tale of love, infidelity, jealousy and death.
Before reaching the mission-village of Kavanayen ('Place of the Cock-of-the-Rock' in Pemon), a curve in the road affords sweeping views of its plateau. From here you get the first glimpse of Wei Tepuy ('Mountain of the Sun') to the southwest. It always reminds me of Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings. Adelsa, true to her roots, told me it looked like the conical roof of her thatched hut. In the distance to the west, we gleaned the outline of the tepuys of the Chimanta massif, shrouded in lilac, gray and ochre clouds.
The mission itself, Santa Teresita de Kavanayen, was established as early as 1942, having moved from its original location nearer Luepa. The pioneer Capuchin monks devised a unique method of building stone houses, and laid out an orderly grid pattern for their settlement. At one end of the village, a square with the odd incongruous eucalyptus opens up, framed on one side by the long façade of the mission, seminary and church.
I rented a bed in the mission dormitory for the night, which turned out to be lumpy, overpriced and plagued by mosquitoes. I hardly slept a wink. In the afternoon, I wandered over to the escarpment to the west of the village. There, I was joined by a gaggle of Pemon boys, catapults at the ready for any unsuspecting birds. From the ledge, the forest fleece spread out below, pockmarked by the Pemon's clearings, before giving way to tepuys in the blue-veiled distance.
My camera and tripod proved a source of immense curiosity. The boys took it in disputed turn to peer through my zoom lens, their wonder expressed by elongated "Ohs" followed by quick-fire bursts of chattering Pemon. As the afternoon wore on, women carrying manioc and bananas in their woven guayare backpacks appeared as if by magic from below, their shirts and dresses stained dark by sweat. Although it's the men who clear the way to sow their crops, it's the Pemon women who tend to them, and walk the miles back and forth to bring dinner to the table.
As the light grew dim, I made my way back to the mission, to sit at the back of the church and listen to the sermon and songs. You can't help wondering what this White God is doing in this far-flung land, and can't help thinking that the Pemon would be far happier without the mea culpas and original sins brought by the missionaries. Catholics would claim that the Pemon are now free of backward superstitions, their pews in Heaven reserved. On the practical level, I believe the missions, now that they are so entrenched, provide a valuable buffer against the cultural sea-changes - more a tidal wave - which have, and will, wash over the Pemon as the Coca Cola culture floods their lands.
Adelsa, it turned out, wanted to visit more of her family in Liwo Riwo, a hamlet off the road to Kavanayen, where the falls erroneously known as Aponwao vault a hundred meters (328 ft) from a ledge. The next morning, we headed out together, her year-old baby girl clamped to her breast, changing sides every half hour or so. The baby gazed up at me with questioning coal black eyes, unconvinced by my driving skills as I ploughed through another worrying bog in four-wheel drive.
It was still early when we arrived in Liwo Riwo. From the other side of the Río Aponwao ('always dirty' in Pemon), the disabled man who deals with tourists crabbed his way down the banks and lifted himself into his canoe. More villagers emerged, and recognized me from my previous visits. I once spent five days there, accompanying friends who were carrying out workshops about tourism. They remembered me - "Sí, sí, tú eres el pintor" - since I'd spent most of my days sketching and filling my notebook with pen-and-inks. My friends also inform me that my other name is 'el loco Domenicano'. You have to laugh.
I waited for a group of tourists to arrive, and joined them for the brief boat-trip downstream towards the falls. Our guide was Señora Tomasa, whose prematurely age-lined face was full of warmth and wit. She pointed out carnivorous pitcher plants, mosses and the flowers of the copey tree, as well as the numerous delicate orchids which line the path down to the foot of the thundering falls. I respected Tomasa greatly. During the workshops I observed in 1997, it was clear to all she boasted the greatest knowledge of the names and uses of all the flora close to the village. As for fauna, when someone happened across a rattle snake, she bashed the living daylights out of it with a tree trunk before you could say crotalus durissus. Dainty orchids are one thing it seems, poisonous snakes another.
Adelsa and I made our way back to the crossroads on Highway 10 at Luepa. From there, we turned south, stopping at the lovely Kawi waterfalls so I could take some photos and say hello to the friendly Pemon family who live there. A bizarre troupe called the Rainbow Peace Caravan spent a while here in 1999. They were traveling from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, spreading their message of peace, indigenous wisdom, environmental awareness and recipes for lentil soup. Their influence was evident from the recycling stations by the car park, and the signs. One advised "Oye la voz de la Naturaleza" - counsel evidently lost on a caraqueño tour guide who pulled up in his Toyota and maintained his banging techno at full volume for the duration of his visit. Perhaps the Caravana should have spent more time in Caracas.
I'd spent a night camped here on my way to Luepa, staying up to talk to the eldest girl of the family with a moon-round face, Mercedes. The conversation inevitably turned to the infamous Tendido Eléctrico, the powerline presently stapling its way across the savannas like the nightmare vision of Ted Hughes' Iron Man. Many Pemon communities still oppose the powerline which is set to carry electricity from Venezuela's pharaonic Guri Dam to Brazil's power-starved north. Presidents Cardoso and Caldera signed the deal in December 1996, as a sweetener for Venezuela's expected entry into the Mercosur nations.
The primary objective of this $110 million-dollar deal however, also levies secondary effects, namely the huge impulse the mining industry in Bolívar State will receive. As the powerlines travel south, a substation in the Las Claritas area will furnish large-scale mining operations with the power they presently lack. These threaten the already harmed Imataca Forest Reserve. Another substation close to Santa Elena de Uairén could do the same for the mining districts along the Brazilian border. Other, no less damaging, effects of the powerlines will be felt in the pristine and relatively unexplored Sierra de Lema range, on the north-eastern edge of Canaima National Park. In order to implement the project, a 40-metre wide corridor either side of the pylons is presently ploughing through this precious forest. The impact of electromagnetic fields on the local natural and human environments is also of great concern. Finally, within Canaima National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the foremost parks in the world, the powerlines have already caused irreparable visual damage. The pylons rise like silver cenotaphs hammered into this ancient landscape. They don't sway like the ubiquitous moriche palms, or seamlessly fill the pockets of forest and plain. They stand, testament. In years to come, we'll look back on these follies, and wonder.
The Environmental Impact Assessment for the powerline project was, in the words of one biologist friend of mine, "woefully inadequate, even as a doorstop." The Venezuelan Audubon Society's report on the project was equally damning, claiming it didn't make economic sense for Venezuela. The bleeding irony is that much of the environmental legislation supposedly protecting southern Venezuela is designed to preserve the watersheds of the Caroní and Paragua rivers. These power the turbines of Guri, and provide some 70% of the country's electricity. If mining continues or expands, disastrously affecting the rivers and watersheds, there will be no more water left to power Guri, and no more cheap, green electricity to sell to Brazil. Venezuela is slashing its hydrographic veins for the short-term profit of very few.
While in the Sabana, I spoke to Silviano Castro, the headman of the village of San Rafael de Kamoirán. He, more than any other Pemon, has led the fight against the Tendido, encouraging the dismantling of seven pylons in the last year, and taking his people's case right the way to the Corte Suprema de Justicia. Although his words are worthy of quotation here, perhaps young Mercedes' are even more poignant: "The powerline has got nothing to do with Nature. It will scare the animals away, just like the road did. And we, the Pemon, won't benefit. We see the Warao begging on the streets of Caracas, and we don't want to be like them. We know we want to be different." Despite the articles in the new Bolivarian Constitution, the Pemon have, as yet, to be given that choice.
The Kawi falls are just one of the dozens of waterfalls which slinky down the region's hundreds of rivers. Kawi are among the most delightful, reminding one, if one needed prodding, that water is this country's, and this planet's, greatest resource: pure and simple. Traveling south towards Brazil, you pass more falls: Kama, Arapan, Kako Paru (Quebrada de Jaspe), Agua Fría, to name but a few. Large or small, all of them leave you with little doubt that the natural riches of the Gran Sabana are worth more than any "saint-seducing" gold nugget, or sparkling diamond ring.
Adelsa and I finally made it to her home town of Kumarakupai (San Francisco de Yuruaní). It's the most advanced Pemon settlement within Canaima, and has recently received a bout of town pride in the form of painted blue and white fences around the government-built houses. I dropped Adelsa off in a hurry, since the afternoon light was fading fast, and I wanted to set up camp for the night. I drove back to the Río Yuruaní and charged up the brow of a hill overlooking the nearby falls. In the distance the oriental tepuys of Wadaka Piapo, Yuruaní, Kukenan and Roraima rose sheer above the plains. Wisps of cloud formed in slow motion above the forest, while the last of the sun cast the mountains in hazy orange and pink.
Awakening at dawn the next morning, I sat and took more photographs, packed my tent and smiled as I bid the Sabana goodbye once again. On my way back through San Francisco, I stopped to see Adelsa, since she'd promised to give me some miniature thatched huts she'd been making. Her baby was still clamped to her breast as she came to greet me. And still eyed me suspiciously.
"When are you coming back?" she asked predictably, as we bid each other goodbye.
I've already booked my ticket.