SIGN LANGUAGE

When does an adventure stop being fun? When do you find yourself wishing for the death, preferably painful and involving instruments of the Inquisition, of someone you met only briefly? When does a straightforward four-day trek feel like forty days in the desert? If you can't answer these questions, you've never been given directions by a Pemon Indian.

Sitting huddled with someone you're not so sure you really want to be with anymore in a titchy tent, vainly attempting to ignore the river which is running underneath the wafer-thin bottom lining beneath you, dabbing at the damp patches which seem to increase proportionately with your fear, with thunder claps sounding outside, and no way of knowing how long you're going to be in this situation for, you end up wishing you could strangle the living daylights out of the mild-mannered, softly-spoken man who gave you directions only eight hours before.

"You can't go wrong, it's straight all the way," he said, smiling reassuringly. I must have looked dubious. I'd had bad experiences before.

"You're sure?"

"No, honestly, you can't go wrong. Siempre derecho."

So we set off, schlepping across the wide open plains, across the odd river with our backpacks on our head, content that we couldn't get lost, no way, can't go wrong, honest to God, on my mother's head.

But two or so hours after having said goodbye to the man, I nearly started pounding the ground with my fists. There, stretching out before me, were two, equally trod, equally probable, equally possibly the wrong one, paths. I cursed. First in Spanish, then in English, since swearing in your own language always seems more satisfying at moments like these. If I'd been in an Asterix cartoon my speech bubble would have looked like a three year-old's attempt at typing.

We were both hungry and decided this would be an opportune moment to feel a bit better. Perhaps my banana would miraculously reveal which of these two roads was the correct one to choose. But all the banana did was leave me with that taste which only bananas can leave in your mouth. The one which necessitates you ingest water rapidly.

My companion and I tucked-in to our supplies of crackers and fruit, trying to ignore the decision which loomed over us, hovering above our conversation about the state of her wholly inadequate boots and their intimate relationship with the ever-expanding bulbous blisters on her feet.

Left, right. Right, left. Yes, left, no, no, right. Left. My mind began to sound like a sergeant major with verbal diarrhoea. Finally I had to make a decision. As the more experienced of us, it fell on me to pick the path. I followed both of them for a while, trying to look for clues, like bits of discarded food, broken stems, footprints. You end up feeling like the token indian in old Westerns. "Three horses, one with limp, passed through here three days ago. One man he chews tobacco and look like Clint Eastwood". You search for anything which might indicate which is the right way. Or was it the left?

About twenty yards down the one on the right there were some horse dung. Desperate for something, I decided that was the sign I was looking for. Tracker Dom strikes back. We headed off.

About an hour after the crossroads from hell, we had to cross a fast-flowing menacing river. Then, on the other side, we were forced to negotiate a swamp which took about half an hour to wade through. I was up to my waist in water with a heavy backpack getting heavier, and an increasingly unconvinced -- make that scared -- companion behind me, sinking fast.

"Are there snakes in these swamps," she asked.

"Erm, not as far as I know," I lied.

We couldn't find where the path continued for about another half an hour. When we found it I began to feel better again. Two hours schlepping on from there the path split again, and then again. Rabbits and paths have a lot in common in the Gran Sabana. I gave up. I'd run out of English swear words, and I'd exhausted the Spanish ones I knew long ago. Off to the east, a huge, dark, ugly, I'm full of rain-cloud blackened the horizon. We decided to make camp by a river, which isn't something you're supposed to do according to the Know-all Trekkers Guide to the Universe, but I was too tired to argue with good sense.We spotted some cows ruminating quietly off in the distance which I thought was a good sign. At least we could slaughter one if our supplies of crackers and raisins ran out.

We got the tent up, washed in the river, ate some crackers and the last of the fruit, and waited for the rain. A few drops, then a few more. Within ten minutes the cliché tropical storm from hell was upon us. It was still light, and yet we were reduced to squatting in the tent, attempting not to touch the sides of the canvas with our heads, arms or legs. I had one of those thin foam mattresses to sleep on, and we sat on that.

We decided to tell each other stories to pass the time. An hour later, we were getting desperate, and not even my attempt to retell my more embarrassing childhood memories seemed to distract us from roar of the rain. We slept tip to toe on the foam mattress, managing somehow to avoid getting utterly soaked in the process. I still don't know how my tent withstood the onslaught. I spent the night tortured by my decision and my lack of vulgar vocabulary to express my annoyance, and humiliation, and hardly slept at all. Blisters ready to burst in your face don't help either.

The next day, we followed one path, decided it went nowhere, and followed another. Not twenty minutes from where we had camped the night lay five Pemon houses. No-one was home but we didn't care. We knew we weren't lost anymore. When the residents returned we asked them to accompany us to the village we wanted to get to.

"Just go straight," the old man said, "you can't go wrong."

I nearly hit him. Instead I came out with the rudest Pemon word I'd learnt. I knew it would come in handy sooner or later. Asterix would have been proud of me.

 

 This site forms part of the much larger website thelostworld.org. Please visit it for further background, travel information, maps, contacts, bibliography and guidance on the amazing Gran Sabana...
Travels in the Lost World -- © Dominic Hamilton 2002-7