South American Explorer, December 1997

Chasing the Rainbow

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 then...

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 and relief.

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 rainbow.