all by Dominic Hamilton -- all contributions welcome...
Chasing The Rainbow
American Explorer magazine
, December 1997
Faded and stained
photographs are laid out in front of us on the floor of the house, a construction
fit for a gnome, typical of the village of El Pauji. "It sounds a crazy
thing to do, but this guy really wanted to kill me," recalls Nelson, his
eyes glazed with memories. "We were so captivated by the Sabana though,
it didn't seem too odd to use the plane for a while as somewhere to stay.
I never thought we'd end up there for as long as we did."
Nelson tells his story
with a broad, cheeky grin on his weathered, handsome face, shaded by the
straw hat which rarely leaves his head. He'd fallen in love with a married
woman, Elisabeth. When her husband threatened retribution, they fled to
the south and the savannah. On their wanderings they discovered the wreck
of an old DC-3 on the edge of a forest, and, young lovers being young
lovers, decided to make it their home by converting the fuselage. It soon
became a focal point for artist friends, and the 'Aeroplane Workshop'
has grown and matured steadily ever since. Itinerant exhibitions of their
works have been held around the country, promoting the region and the
importance of its conservation.
Nelson passes another
photo over to me, all that remain of his avion. Once he abandoned the
fuselage to move to El Pauji, someone took a blow-torch to it for scrap.
"The leaky roof and low ceiling were a pain in the neck anyway," he admits
grinning. He still does all his cooking outdoors though. Old habits, not
unlike DC-3s, die hard in the Sabana.
Stories similar to
Nelson's are not uncommon in El Pauji, at the southern edge of the Gran
Sabana in Venezuela's lost and forgotten south-east. Urban professionals
in their twenties who gave it all up, leaving behind the bump and grind
of Latin American city life to build ingenious houses and a remarkable
community alongside the Pemon Indians.
The story of how I
came to know and fall in love with this colourful community is shrouded
in words like 'destiny' and 'fate', or for the more rational and cynical,
too many readings of the Celestine Prophecy. I can remember consulting
my Lonely Planet, where 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". Nothing fateful about that. But the thing
is I had come to Venezuela in search of my French girlfriend of the time.
We had lost contact in Caracas, 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.
I stopped off at a
few places in the Gran Sabana, and a week later found myself in the village,
a torrential rain storm having dogged and depressed me most of the day,
with only the parrot in the local cafe for company : who's a pretty boy
One afternoon I was
lounging near the road, waiting for the sun to set to take yet another
photo, having spent the last four days exploring the hills and enjoying
the waterfalls and rivers. 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. I could make out bushy white hair, and a squat
form behind the wheel, loosely fitting the description of a friend of
my girlfriend's. With the car still about 50 yards away, there was agitated
movement in the back seat. The jeep lurched to a stop. Dust billowed up
from all sides. A girl I could have sworn was my girlfriend emerged from
the cloud running towards me, in slow motion and Vaseline-vision, an accompanying
string quartet hidden somewhere in the bushes.
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, and
the dense-as-history forests of yesterday suddenly became auditoria where
each bird sang an aria just for my delight, and 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
But then the Gran
Sabana is a land of myths and dreams: Walter Raleigh's mad goose chase
across the 'large, rich and beautiful empyre of Guiana', Conan Doyle's
fantastical 'Lost World', those mysterious men without heads and the too-tall
tales of Lake Manoa and El Dorado. The Renaissance dreams of intoxicating
wealth, not unlike my lusty francophile longings, have also been fulfilled
- only a few centuries too late to comfort the souls of the hundreds of
men who lost their lives to disease, depravation and Indian arrows.
The area west of El
Pauji is now one of the feverish hearts of the new gold rush which has
swept the Amazon and the Orinoco basins over the last decade. The veins
of greed and destruction burrow their way deeper into the last of the
rainforest day by day. There would seem to be little hope of the fever
for gold abating without radical and concerted efforts by the government,
or a huge drop in the price of the metal globally. With so much money
to be made, it's unlikely much of this fragile and invaluable ecosystem
will be saved, or the hydropower complex at Guri which provides 75% of
the country's electricity surviving.
Although he would
rather be tending his vegetable patch and rosehip orchard, Paulista has
lived from mining most of his life. He still spends days bent-double down
by his river, digging, panning and hoping. We go together once in a while,
spinning his weather-beaten wooden pan to the lilt of Brazilian ballads,
until the fateful moment when the last of the sand is pushed away and
the shiny gold dust lights up our faces. "Enough for dinner and a few
beers..." is the usual outcome.
Paulista is struggling
to buy the house where he's lived for the last four years. The people
who built it abandoned it, agreed to let him stay there when his wife
was three months pregnant, and now they want to sell. Part of the problem
is there isn't a land titie in sight for hundreds of miles, the other
is Paulista hasn't got two coins to rub together. In El Pauji there are
no taxes, no police, no building regulations. It is the frontier in every
sense of the word.
The community has
had to assume responsibilty of its destiny, since the government takes
little interest in its plight. Decisions are made by the neighbors' association
which elects a president every year. Petty squabbling within the village
- "pueblo pequeno, infierno grande" as they say - has always existed,
but its communitarian spirit is still refreshing and remarkable in this
day and age. Although its autonomy will diminish as it receives more help
from local government and becomes more integrated through tourism and
mining, it is still to all intents and purposes a state within a state.
Over the last decade
the villagers have built their own school, parents teaching their preferred
subject, encouraging the young Pemon who now sit alongside the criollo
children in class. They have erected a dancehall which is the center of
the community's cultural activities and funded a casa de la cultura which
buys local artistic and arts and crafts works. Most years they hold a
Creator's Encounter, with musicians, artists, dancers and bohemians converging
to exchange ideas and initiate projects. All that in what is, frankly,
the epicentre of the middle of nowhere.
I've now been back
three times, irresistibly drawn by some centripetal force to the place
where I'm happiest. My French love has since faded like the ink of our
letters, though my love for the Sabana, its people and all things bright
and beautiful hasn't dimmed a watt. Mid-twenties, ragged sun hat, dishevelled
clothing. You'll spot me a mile off. They say you can find gold walking
on the road in the Gran Sabana. But it's not gold I'm chasing. It's the
of a tepui echo down the valley, barricades of a forgotten revolution.
A phalanx of rock, standing to attention, etched with white line waterfalls
which rumble their roar into the blue-veiled distance.
above the realm of the eagle and the vulture, puncturing the steely grey
horizon. Magnetic. Enough to leave you dumb for a day or two. Majestic.
Inspiring every emotion from fear to anger at their silence.
Tell me what you've
seen, tell me what you know, old man, or whatever you are, tell me please.
You're not as simple as the scientists make out. Or maybe you have nothing,
no secrets at all, no tricks up your sleeves, nothing to declare, and
it's just me, my head and I.
You hide from my gaze,
coat yourself in clouds, skulk beneath the mist and fog. If I could leave
you a note and come back another day, I would. If you had a letterbox
I'd post you a letter, or a postcard perhaps.
I'd be rid of you
then, able to roam free. Not want more, more.
I'm like the clouds
then, swept over the Atlantic by the wind's cracked cheeks. I gather my
strength across the ocean as my time nears, and come swooping across full
of ideas, and projects and dreams to offer up, to be tossed about, debated
and discussed, until they merge in to a something, a nucleus, an atom.
A pearl of wisdom for me to take back to the sea.
I reach your shores
like cumulus laden with its fruit. Into your lair you draw us in, where
you can-open us up from tip to toe, plunging your hands deep down inside
till we've nothing left but our skins.
Tell me old man, revolutionary
fist, king, queen, giant, what this all means. Blown by the wind against
your ancient angular shoulders, caught up in your mangled rock web, until
I can't think of anything else but your form, your light, your tricks
and your trade.
Every year now I've
come back and each time closer I get. How long I wonder till you tell
me the rules of this strange foreign game. And yet I don't want to spoil
it, the suspense.
Old man, give me a
clue. Something to hold on to. Pin my youthful hopes to. All this can't
be coincidence. All the papers, the books, the maps and all, my photos
and writings and trying to explain, my concern, my interest, my love and
Yes, there are the
people, the friends and the fires, and there are mirror-like lakes, palm-peppered
plains, waterfalls and forest pools, bird songs and monkey howls. Everything
to distract me from you and your presence. But you won't have it.
You want it all.
Each time I leave,
you call me back. Sometimes I tire of thinking of you, of playing your
game, and I want out.
But just then you'll
give me something, a full moon or a sunset, a sign all this has a reason.
And then, like the forests at your feet and the green-swathed savannas,
I kneel supplicant. I bow and breathe in and I smile.
Are A Boy's Best Friend
huge. Fist-full huge. No-one could believe it at first, but there it was,
glinting away like a multi-coloured million-dollar traffic light. They
sold it to a guy who seemed to be offering them the deal of their lives.
The sum was so large they were incapable of thinking straight anyway,
or even pretending to negotiate a better price. It was more money than
they'd ever handled, seen, or dreamt of. They were rich.
The guy who'd bought
it later split the stone into three pieces, and just one of those sold
for more than he'd paid them for the whole thing. Now there's a profit
margin. The three friends started celebrating, and celebrating, and er,
celebrating. Then one of them, the one whose name stuck to the stone's,
ran off with the best part of the money. And that was that. The second
largest diamond in South American history. One hundred and fifty four
carats of sparkling billion year-old carbon.
It took me ages to
get the story out of Tambara. I used to ask him regularly if he'd tell
it to me, and he'd smile wryly, say it was a long time ago, and tell me
to come back when it was quieter, around midday. But at midday it was
too hot, or he was tired, or a customer turned up just at the crucial
He told me, eventually,
(after a few beers), they'd been working for weeks down on the river Surukun
without much luck, digging, panning and arguing. They were getting pretty
desperate. One day the other friend was discarding large stones from his
pan, chucking them nonchalantly over to one side where Barabas was having
a cigarette. One of the stones happened to clang on the side of Barabas'
shovel. He looked down and thought he saw the stone glint. Then glint
again. He picked it up and examined it. Then examined it some more, until
the realisation finally dawned that he really was looking at a diamond.
They were all young
then and weren't that experienced, so they weren't sure what to do, or
who to go to. In the end they sold it more to get the weight of responsibility
off their backs than anything else.
the day they sold it with mixed feelings. He was richer than he ever thought
he would be, and yet his life would never be the same. You can't go back
to panning in a river once you've found that size of diamond. You know
you're never going to find something like it again. No-one's that lucky.
And no diamond is going to get you excited once you've handled a stone
as large as your fist.
Miners aren't known
for their business acumen. They tend to blow it quick if they don't get
out of the mines quick. There's an unwritten rule that they have to share
their luck with all the other miners in the area. When all the local miners
in a five hundred mile radius know you just hit the big-time big-time,
you end up buying more than one round at the bar.
"It was fun for a
while" says Tambara. "I drank loads, had all the women I wanted, and I'm
thankful for that."
But he doesn't sound
that convinced. Barabas' betrayal hurt him a great deal, he confides.
He thought they were better friends than that. "But money does strange
things to a man."
Tambara now shuffles
- runs would be misleading - a general store in a village on Venezuela's
border with Brazil. Nothing much happens there. Miners come and go, cashing
in their gold or diamonds, stocking up with supplies, and downing beer
and rum. Indian children sent by their mothers come in clutching a few
notes to buy some candles or a packet of rice. The odd tourist wanders
in confused. Locals exchange gossip and conflicting weather predictions.
It's dark inside the
store. Your eyes have to re-adjust for a few seconds before you can make
out the shelves stacked floor-to-ceiling with everything from sweets to
baseball caps to kerosene. Exhausted-looking vegetables squat on a metal
rack, plagued by buzzing flies. Potatoes languish on the bottom shelf,
silently sprouting shoots in the dark. Newly arrived fruit, a rare commodity,
is displayed on the worn wooden counter, and piled-up yellow salted fish
stinks away in a corner. An old fridge from the fifties, painted blue
like most of the shop, rattles and hums malignantly. Music sometimes distorts
from a transistor radio perched between packets of pasta and lighters,
usually Brazilian country and western. Rusting metal scales hang from
the ceiling above the counter.
The money is kept
in a shallow cardboard box over to the left hand side of the shop, which
means Tambara is constantly having to shuffle back and forth with every
purchase. You make sure you ask for your goods in one go.
Tambara's maths are
somewhat erratic, and his skills on the calculator dubious. If your shopping
list exceeds eight items or so, you're in for a long haul. Since prices
go up all the time in Venezuela, you never know whether he's conning you,
made an honest mistake or whether he really does know what he's charging.
He must have suffered
a lot of abuse over the years. The village is very remote, and therefore
prices high. They're not as astronomical as some gold-rush villages, but
they're still a good twenty percent higher than in the nearest town; which
gives people the right to call him a thief, a robber-baron and whatever
else comes to mind when they can't afford food for their family's dinner.
But when you look at his house, at the state of him, it's hard to follow
that line of argument. If he had a Mercedes parked outside, I'd be right
behind the abusers. But he doesn't even have a car.
His clothes are ragged,
holy and make you wonder whether they know what better days are. He is
permanently stooped from years of panning, as if he were always about
to pick something up off the floor, and his house consists of a room with
a hammock, a room with a gas stove, and a metal sheet-boxed hole in the
corner of the garden. A friend of mine once told him a swim in the river
would do him good. He answered he couldn't remember the last time he'd
even had a bath.
He's been ill quite
a bit lately too. He's had to get other people in to run the shop. I find
that very off-putting, since they serve you far too quickly and get the
prices right nearly every time. It somehow takes the fun out of spending
my money. When Tambara's sitting outside on his use-sanded once-blue (I
think) tables and benches, you feel guilty about asking him to get you
something. I've offered to get the things I want myself but he won't have
it. He cranes his way to his feet, using the creaking table for support,
and gropes his way into the darkness of the shop. The transaction over,
he sits back down with a thump.
He must have been
a handsome man when he was young I reckon. His features are fine still,
his eyes have a definite sparkle and his skin is a rich dark brown. I
don't know whether he ever got married, or had kids. I've got the feeling
he never did, which is why he's so grumpy at times. But maybe he's grumpy
because he did.
He's there every day
without fail, opening up at eight in the morning and closing the shop
at nine, in his own time, in his own inimitable way. After that you have
to go down to the other general store if you want a beer.
He must be in his
sixties now, and I wonder what will happen to him as he slowly deteriorates.
Will he sell the shop and move on -- to where ? Or will the new owners
allow him to live on in the house ? I wonder whether he knows what a pension
is. And how things could have been different if he'd been careful with
all the thousands he had all those years ago; or if Barabas hadn't run
off with the booty.
But Tambara doesn't
seem to worry about such things. Anyone who calls their shop La Lucha
por la Locha* must know something about life and the cards destiny deals.
I read something about Barabas a while later. He said he had no regrets
about blowing all his money on booze and women. "I had the time of my
life, and wouldn't have had it any other way," he said. That's my boy...
* "the fight for the
Life and Times of Doņa Aura, village matriarch
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,
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.
She'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
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 --
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
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.
IN THE CLASS
thin wooden trunk came crashing down, thumping into the bush with a thud.
Then the woman swung it down again, and we all closed in to see what the
result was. The young rattle snake was hoisted into the air on the end
of the trunk, limp and uncoiled. A minute earlier it had sat flicking
its tongue and shaking its tail menacingly. Now it looked decidedly meek
Finding a snake wasn’t
on the agenda that day. In fact grasses and flowers were more what the
workshop was looking for. But I think we all thought of it as a bonus
of some sort.
I was in the village
of Liwo Riwo, in the east of Canaima National Park. I had tagged along
with some people I knew from the Venezuelan NGO EcoNatura who were carrying
out workshops with the local Pemon indians on ‘conflict resolution’
and the future of tourism. On the second day it was decided groups would
go out into the savanna and come back with as many grasses, flowers and
plants that they could name. That’s when the snake made its guest-star
The Pemon are confused
about tourism. In fact it would be fair to say few of them even understand
the nature of the beast. At one point I was called in to tell them why
people came to the Park, revealing just how fragile their concept of the
tourist and the industry really is. It’s a bit like having a football
stadium and asking why people come to play football there.
So I told them : for
the women. That got a laugh - cheap as it was. Then I explained (seriously)
that in my country it was cold and wet; that there were no table top mountains
puncturing the horizon, no kilometre-high waterfalls vaulting into space,
no savannnas, cloud forests, orquids or natural jacuzzis (that you could
comfortably swim in…), and no indian people. They seemed content
with my reply, and I went back to teaching the young kids how to juggle
Tourism is taking
off in Canaima. Figures aren’t particularly reliable, but an estimated
63,000 national and 14,000 international tourists visited the eastern
part of the park in 1993-4 (Ruta Gran Sabana - accessible by road), and
a further 17,500 international visitors flew to Canaima village and Angel
Falls in the same period. Between 1991 and 1994, national visitors increased
by 50%, so 1997 figures are probably in the 80-90,000 region for the Ruta
The national park
was created in 1962 and later enlarged to cover an area the size of Belgium,
3 million hectares. However, only the eastern sector - the Ruta Gran Sabana
area - has a management plan which determines what kind of activities
can take place and the norms for these. The western region, where Angel
Falls and Canaima village are, still languishes without any coherent plan
at all - one reason for Canaima’s disorderly and damaging development
to date. The conspiratorial would put that down to the cosy relationship
between Aerotuy, the airline company which works a lot in Canaima, and
the National Parks Institute (INPARQUES), but that’s another story.
Liwo Riwo meanwhile
sits in plum position. Half an hour from the village the Chinak Meru (also
called Aponwao incorrectly) waterfalls thunder down for a hundred metres.
In the high season, around Christmas and Easter, up to three thousand
people pass through the village in a month. The Aponwao river ("never
dries" in Pemon) flows past the village and over the falls. Initially
the villagers used to take tourists in dug-out canoes downriver to within
five minutes walk of the falls. Until disaster struck in 1993 and six
people died when a canoe’s engine failed and it went over the edge.
Now they just take
the tourists across the river and guide them the half hour walk to the
falls - a service for which they charge B$2,000 - under $5. The problem
is many people resent paying the money. Some decide to swim across the
river and make their own way to the falls. The Pemon have been known to
let down these people’s tyres. Even if visitors don’t take
it upon themselves to swim, the obligatory payment causes quite a bit
of friction, and the Pemon and the park’s authorities worry about
The question of payment
is all tied up with tourism and what the Pemon are going to do to direct
the future of their land. The general feeling from the workshop was that
tourism was a good thing. 3,000 times $5 is a lot of money for a small
village. It brings them revenue which their subsistence agriculture can’t
provide, allowing them to buy clothes, medicines and save up for cars.
They’ve been building a new village away from Liwo Riwo and tourist
revenues are essential for this.
My favourite of the
workshop’s activities involved the participants drawing Liwo Riwo
in the past, present and future. The future was full of hotels and restaurants
and parking areas. No one drew the village without tourism. In many ways
the development of tourism is inevitable. The only way they could stop
it would be barring the road to the village (as Wonken’s villagers
thought). I doubt they would even be allowed to do that.
The negative impacts
of tourism were discussed - the litter, the noise, the obnoxious Venezuelans,
the cold Europeans, the loss of their culture. Ways of improving the village’s
infrastructure were also debated, improving signing, building new houses,
keeping the village clean, and the reason for collecting flora from the
savanna, a visitor’s centre. INPARQUES and the NGO EcoNatura will
help with all of these, and one could hope the future of the village and
its inhabitants will be as bright as we’d like.
Tourism in Canaima
is particular in that only Pemon are allowed to live in the park. That
means all the services they provide, whether restaurants, guides or canoes,
are run by them, for them. They have a certain amount of autonomy. If
they don’t like a tour operator, and had good cause not to, they
could feasibly ban him from the village. They can tell noisy tourists
to go somewhere else, or call the park warden and ask him to sort them
out. As long as they stay within the park’s management plan, they
can development the village the way they want to. Although the two aren’t
always compatible, - thus the ‘conflict resolution’ - my opinion
of the management plan is that it’s done a pretty good job of keeping
tourism development on a sustainable course for the future. Better that
than nothing at all, as Canaima village testifies.
However the Pemon
will only really gain proper autonomy when they have their own tour operators
within and without the park. That has to be their goal in the long-term,
so they can control the use of their lands and work out problems internally.
Although there is one such operator taking people on treks up Mount Roraima
and around the Gran Sabana, until they get links with Caracas or abroad,
they’ll remain small and little-known.
the workshop came to a close, the participants were saying how constructive
and helpful it had been, and how grateful they were for the support of
outsiders. But then one of the village’s older women, white-haired,
wrinkled and plump, spoke her mind. In Pemon it sounded pretty strong,
and there were a few murmurs in the room as she continued for what must
have been a good five minutes. When she finished someone translated her
thoughts into Spanish. It emerged she was saying that white people had
only brought problems to the village, that the young people were losing
their identity and why was this any different? After all the words of
good will and hope, the old woman’s words struck a cord with me.
Just as the savanna is full of snakes in the grass waiting for unsuspecting
passers-by, so, to the older Pemon, are the plans of white people, however
well-meaning, young and enthusiastic they may be. The problem is, you
can’t bash the life out of litter, noise and loss of culture with
an old tree trunk.
To Nowhere ?
lurch. Bump, lurch. Bump, bump.
Bodies sway back and
forth. On the roof, fists of rain pound incessantly. The black man drives
on, staring eyes fixed to the road, like a croupier following cards on
a table, his concentration absolute. We stop. The road's too bad, he says.
There's a mire of
light brown mud as long as a football field ahead. Nobody fancies getting
stuck today. We pile out of the jeep, all thirteen of us. A young Indian-looking
girl struggles, her sleeping baby cradled in a thin blanket. A few despondant
words are exchanged in the thick drizzle. Some young men start walking
along the side of the track, stepping on the firmer ground at the edge
of the forest. We follow in single file, thankful for the shelter afforded
by the overhanging branches and vines. Later, back in the jeep, the girl
with the baby asks me where I'm going.
"To El Paují," I reply.
"To do what ?"
"Erm, I've come to
see this part of Venezuela," I mumble in less than fluent Spanish.
"Yes, but why?" she
"It's beautiful, isn't
it ?" is all I can come up with.
She shrugs, and stares
out of the streaming window. We hit another huge pothole and the suspension
bangs and shudders, eddies of pain reverberating through our spines. We
sit facing each other, the fat man in front of me looming perilously close,
till I put my arm out to push him back, my hand disappearing into his
blubber. He smiles back at me, sweating. I try to grin.
convinced my genitals are about to peep out of the sides of my baggy shorts
at the very next lurch. I try to avoid eye contact with anyone, I pretend
to sleep and secretly fret about preserving my decency. I've been travelling
for the last sixteen hours, and I feel as if a yappy dog is nip-nipping
at my patience, willing it to snap and kick out. Bump, yap. Bump, yap.
The jalopy lumbers
up another impossibly steep incline of rock, only for the next one to
loom up ahead like a tombstone. As I tuck my shorts under my legs for
the umpteenth time and sleep unconvincingly, the girl's questions echo
in my head, tugging at my confidence and picking holes in my inadequate
That was the first
time, and of course it was the worst. How different it is now. How I love
it now. I could cry with happiness along that road. I want to clamber
out of the window and shout my joy to the forests and plains. I know every
hill, valley and curve and I don't resent a single bump or lurch.
When I finally reached
El Pauji that time, I saw a tile hanging on the wall, quoting a poem by
Antonio Machado: 'Traveller, do not seek to find a path, your footsteps
create one as you go'. Had I found mine ?
in El Pauji
The frogs have come
to life with the waning of the light, their calls a cacophony of chirps
and gurgles, gribbets and squawks. The evening mist descends step by step
into the valleys, slowly obscuring them from sight, until all that is
left is a blanket of white cotton tucking them up for the night.
The birds had their moment earlier, when the sky glowed orange and purple.
Now they wait for the first light to come and claw them from their slumber.
The light fades fast, like photos left out in the sun for too long. It's
The crickets have joined the frogs now, a giant animal auditorium. Now
and again, the electric-like call of one of them sets off another and
another, a chain of sounds, each clear and true.
The enchanter Light,
incanting different shades and hues, conjuring the patterns of patchwork.
Shadows caress the landscape like ancient lovers, knowing each and every
curve of the hills. Some days they race passionately across, their desire
ardent, youngsters again. Other days they slip and slide slowly, taking
their time to savour and remember, not wanting to move on, in case this
is the last time.
Nothing ever remains the same, as if a new painter were employed every
day to interpret this world. The light plays tricks, the grand conjuror
up in the sky, never revealing his secrets. A mountain is unveiled, a
forest prised from the haze, the painter's brush dabbing bit by bit to
bring it to life. And what life !
The landscape with its colours and textures, its plants, trees, rivers
and falls, constantly calling the eye to look once more, to reappraise
and think again. Nothing is obvious, nothing bland and repetitive. The
palm which breaks the uniformity of the plains, bold and valiant, its
crown of leaves swaying in the winds, and the straggling shrubs, the wisps
of grass, the rocks caught in the evening light.
And always there are the sheer cliffs off in the distance, tepuis which
puncture the horizon with their ancient angular shoulders. They call you
from the road, beckoning you to come closer to feel their power and their
age, drawing you into their secrets and their majesty.
For they are old, older than we could possibly imagine, and they have
seen all the wonders of nature, and every folly of man. Untouchables in
this fragile landscape of dreams.
"Just for a bit. Come
on. Just for a while. What’s wrong ?"
Exasperated I pushed
her back once again. Christ, what’s this girl’s problem?
"No. I really don’t
think this is a good idea. That’s all. Go to your bed. Now. Please."
Close encounters of
the Indian kind. But I never expected this from a sweet faced, doe-eyed
seventeen year-old. Was she seventeen ? I couldn't remember now. I knew
one of them was around seventeen. And she was in the bed a few feet away.
And now this one wants me to get take my knowledge of Indian culture a
step further than what is necessary for a guidebook.
"Come on. Just
for a bit. Your girlfriend won't know. Come on."
what are you worried about ?"
I never was any good at refusing the attentions of young women.
But having those attentions forced upon you against your will physically
is quite another matter. That has never happened before. It probably
won’t ever again either.
Another struggle ensued.
I tried to push her away. She did everything in her power to keep me within
her Black & Decker Workmate grasp."Just
a kiss. Give me a kiss. Go on, a kiss won't do anything."
And a hand grabbed something it shouldn't have been grabbing.
"Go to bed.
Please. Just go to bed."
problem. Are you gay, eh ? Are you ?"
gay. Now go to bed, in your bed. Go on, this really isn't on."
Her mouth descended
on mine. A small mouth, tasting of too much teenage beer. Her squat, powerful
body grappled with my puny traveller's torso, wearing me down.
"Solo un ratico,"
she whispered into my ear. Just for a bit. "She won't know. My friend's
on the lookout. Come on, just for a bit."
Her friend was indeed
on the lookout. But for what was happening in my bed, or who was coming
up the stairs, wasn't clear at all. It seemed the friend wanted her to
get it over with as soon as possible, and my would-be femme fatale was
telling her to shut it and get back to her post.
"Just for a bit,"
she kept on repeating mantra-like. Every now and then, I would stop her,
tell her to go away and sleep. But she kept on coming back, "just for
a bit, just for a bit, hmm? She won't know anything, just for a little
bit, come on."
The next day I wasn't
sure what I believed or could remember of the night's events. My sheets
were all over the place and the indian girls were acting all funny with
Many of the Pemon indians' stories and legends are erotic, involving a
plethora of rampant water spirits, virgins, unfaithful wives and nocturnal
carry-ons. At least now I know it's not all in their imagination.
They're definitely crabs. Shit, I've got crabs."
Early morning alarm
call. Second day alone in the forest, picking teeny creatures from my
groin at six in the morning.
How d'you get crabs
anyway ? I could vaguely remember my brother suffering from something
similar. But I had the nagging feeling that was scabies, not crabs.
"It's sexually transmitted,
isn't it ?" I asked the reticent forest, while plucking the tenth creature
from my nether regions.
My nocturnal ramblings
had come home to roost. Oops. But did it have to happen struggling to
weave my way through the forest on my own, about as far from a doctor
as could be imagined ?
"It'll probably decide
to piss down with rain too," I grumbled.
I started a little
fire, fetched some water and put the pan on to boil. "I'll feel better
after a coffee. I always do."
I settled back on
my mat to eat the remains of last night's supper. Tuna mash-something.
Searing bites of warning
had sounded the night before as I dozed to sleep in my tent, absorbing
the vocal machinations of the forest night. My torch had decided not to
work, and I didn't like using candles inside the tent, so I hadn't investigated
what exactly was nipping me with considerable force 'down there'. I'd
settled for lots of scratching and hope for the best.
But as I sat and forked
down my cold breakfast, I became aware of tens of little beasties. Dozens
of them, small as pin-pricks, cramponed on to my legs. "Little bastards".
I put my pan down and started plucking another handful off. They were
everywhere, in every nook, crevice and cranny of my anatomy.
You have to kill them
too, oh yes. You have to pinch them between your nails until you reckon
you've extinguished their alpine penchant. Otherwise, with a hop, skip
and a jump, they'll be right back after the break.
Having plucked a frighteningly
large specimen from my back after a brief mental and physical struggle,
I realised the symptoms of whatever I had didn't coincide with my admittedly
vague knowledge of what crabs were. I was too preoccupied with removing
the Klingon invasion to be much relieved however.
I later learnt the
bigguns leave their jaws behind, become infected, and effectively leave
holes worthy of adding to your passport's Distinguishing Marks section.
Garrapatas they're called. "Grab-legs". It's hard to believe something
so small can cause so much pain. You'll be walking along, following a
path in the undergrowth, when all of a sudden Tchang, you drop everything
and plunge your hand down your trousers to seek the rottweiler jawed to
your groin. Maybe it was better I was on my own afterall.
You become paranoid
too, passing any idle moment, and most active ones for that matter, scratching
and plucking and searching for microcrabs that might have escaped your
"Then there are the
akuri," tutts Ismael my Indian friend as he inspects my back, his repeatedly
mended glasses perched precariously on his nose. "Akuri are tiny red-striped
spiders, and their bite is worse than any snake's. You're dead within
hours, believe me."
"I believe you, but
you could have told me that before you sent me off into the forest with
a friendly handshake two days ago," I thought.
"But they nest in
the tall grass. You won't find them in the forest," he adds, as if reading
my mind. "That's why the Indians burn, to clear the paths of snakes and
spiders. Unfortunately fire doesn't affect garrapatas. Unless you burn
the forest down."
I turn my head and
he smiles. I laugh, then wince pathetically as he plucks another Spiderman
impersonator from my back.
For the next three
days, I continued to find die-hards clamped to my legs, hanging on for
dear life. And scratched and searched and destroyed. I think I'll settle
for crabs next time. At least you know where to look for crabs.
The river rambles
into a pool by my feet, where depths of green eddy. Water flowing gently
over water, the Slinky of Life.
On weaves the water
gently, carrying my hopes with it. On it rushes, through and over and
round and under, from sparkling fall and hushed pool, upended rocks and
sunken leaves, on through the forest and the too tall trees, the sun keeping
time all the while.
Little coloured leaves
kiss the lips of slowly swirling pools. Soon they’ll slip away unannounced,
or else stripped bare of their chlorophyll, they’ll struggle to
the last, until no more than their pale bones remain.
Roots writhe in their
struggle for survival, clawing their way through the blanket undergrowth,
their mangled fingers and hands cupped to capture the riches of the forest
in their race to the stars.
Vines mesh the trees
in a chain-mail of confusion, their torsos twist and turn into spirals
and helixes, coiling from fern to palm to tree, protected by their thick
skins and lonelier hearts.
Sand banks shine where
the river is calm, grains deposited one by one. Shingles emerge in the
pit of a bend, sparkling in the light, stranded in the sun.
Where the river hurries
down a hill, the jasper’s shiny armour glows fire orange and bright
under the white whirlpools. Into the rock each grain of sand scours age-lines
of ancient trees, burrowing water-logged warrens where only dim creatures
Treasures we covet
so highly huddle beneath the surface, carried by the waters from cloud
and sea and forest. Their turn will come soon enough. Hacked from their
context, hewn and cut and burnt and buffed. Dragged to a new home where
the air is stale with dead skin and cigarettes.
Treasures which sparkle,
treasures which shine, treasures to bring health to mankind...
Listen to the river
tell its tale of becoming, listen to the wind bring news from afar, listen
to the birds and the insects and the butterflies flutter, listen to your
heart, lulled to a rhythm where all seems to make sense.
In each and every
drop of the mass of the whole, lies the energy. Carried by its will, willed
by its power.
The greatest truths
are simple, crystal clear through the open lids of reality’s eye.
Water flows gently over water, orchestrating the strings of Life.
:: the lost world :: Venezuela's Gran Sabana