Dominic Hamilton, journalist, guidebook writer, writer, TV production, photographer, latin america TV production, TV producer, television production, photography, images, photos, image library, stock library, latin america travel, south america TV production, south america travel, venezuela travel, venezuela articles, ecuador travel, ecuador articles, peru travel, peru articles, peru photos, images, guatemala, belize, russia articles, russia photos, mongolia, photos, journalism, writing, articles, traveler's companion, traveler's venezuela companion, traveler's ecuador companion
nomadom — condition of the nomad, as in freedom


The stories below were published under the title

"Dominic Hamilton's Impressions of Venezuela"

on Venezuela Headline, an online, English-language news provider based in Caracas.
Some have also appeared in the Daily Journal newspaper.

I recommend you print these pages, and read them at your leisure

Faites Vos Jeux (1996)

Grey modernity clashing with the decrepit, the dilapidated and the down-right dumps of modern life. Caracas, smoulders in its ashtray of a valley, the luscious green hills of the Avila Park a Times Square hoarding advertising some lost Eden, about as real as the cancer-free Marlboro cowboy. Dante's top ten noises, smells and sights finally come to life in Latin America.

The people cough-up their oil corrupted lungs, too far gone to press pause on the reel-to-reel of progress and development. No time to think ahead and plan a little. The fast forward of the Sixties and Seventies gone awry now that the money is stashed in distant Swiss bank accounts and politicians' pot-hole pockets.

Venezuela is the compulsive gambler of the continent, refusing to show his face at the gamblers anonymous meetings, even though they don't cost a penny or a bolivar. Forever asking how come he's up the creek, penniless and threadbare, aware in some distant corner of his riddled mind of the reasons for his downfall. Once so rich and confident of his luck, on a roll, going up, up, up. Now blaming everybody and everything, his rabbit's foot thrown into the gutter in a fit of anti-Yankee rage; jinxed, cursed and damned; Lady Luck now Lady Muck; with no sevens to save the day.

For the present generation the glory days are soaked in sepia, unattainable and yet oh so enticing and inviting, the motorways and concrete carbuncles the temples to a cult that went the way of Waco. They expect, they demand, they feel robbed by their parents who had it all and blew it on a binge whose hangover the youth now cushion with a spoonful of Latin fatalism, a dash of stoicism, and truck-load of hope for a scholarship to a Yankee university.

"Corrupción" in a word. Banner headlines announce the coming-soon prosecution of an ex-President, -- eat your heart out OJ, this is where it's at. It peppers every taxi driver's diatribe, every newscaster's telecue, every street vendor's all too real tragedy, as frequently as populist politicians' promises of air-cheap petrol for all and magic realist growth, -- or at least a term's worth. In just six months in office, so the corrupto-talk goes, a politician can set up his grandchildren's children for life. Nice work, if you can get it.

God gave the the Venzuelans all the riches he had left, having sprinkled them liberally over the rest of the globe. But then He gave his Venice of South America the ultimate Trojan horse: Venezuelans. And so the ironies go forth and multiply. What is remarkable is how self-effacing the people are. After a good ten minutes of corrupto-spiel, you find your orator is as much on the Irish violin as the next person. Since the Central Bank hasn't managed to bring out a note higher than a fiver, one can easily picture the suitcases required at top level. Samsonite do a roaring trade by all accounts...

Vicious circle perhaps. But who's to put the magic wand in the spokes and stop the madness ? And still the imports are sucked-in the by the magnet of gringo-gilted appearance. No matter that your cellular phones cost you three arms and half a dozen legs, or that you can't afford the electricity to plug your spanking Sony stereo into. No matter. Because it's new, it's foreign, and it's the pinky of the saint of growth and development that was canonised by the last generation. No matter because you've got your panel-beater's dream of a Chevvy, a litre of petrol is three times as cheap as a single cigarette, and if "they" did it, you're gonna get your piece of the shrinking pie too, while there's still some left.

With its foreign debt standing at $20 billion, Venezuela is not a lost cause by Latin standards. There is hope, -- and abundant natural resources -- which suggest that the right medecine at the right time could save her yet. Whether it's the hope of the amputee consoling himslf with half a leg as opposed to no leg at all, is open to endless bar room debate. Oil hasn't proved the engine for development that it was hailed as, revenues ill-distributed through red tape-fetishist and obese bureaucracy; trickle-down reminiscent of rain in the Sahara.

The government is now focusing on the country's vast and varied natural resources, and valuable tourist attractions to winch it from its present stagflated quagmire. Arguments rage over whether to raise the price of the oil from the sacred cow, privatisations are unpopular and foreign investment still flags behind that of other countries.

Radical reform is what is required, but the second-time-round president, Rafael Caldera, is the last man to ignore an opinion poll, his vision about as miopic as one can get. The mining sector, which currently contributes a mere 1% of GDP, has been seized upon as the panacea for the country. Developed in a rational and monitored way, with particular attention paid to the social, economic and environmental consequences of its growth, this could well be true.

However, future employment generation, clean water, renewable and cheap energy are all threatened by the government's haphazard and ill-conceived awarding of concessions to mainly foreign mining companies. The governor od Bolívar State, where most mining takes place, recently reminded the country, "all the gold and diamonds in the region are not worth what the Orinoco and Caroní rivers are to Venezuela." Make that "and the world".

Were the Caroní to fall victim to the development of the mining sector, 75% of Venezula's electricity would be at stake, threatening the health and future oppportunities of the mushrooming population to the southeast of the country. If inter-ministerial wrangling and contradiction can be minimised, and environmental and long-term socio-economic considerations prioritised within the long-overdue new Mining Law, then Venezuela's population could experience some positive change in the not-too-distant future.

Unfortunately it seems that the new law will be cast from the same mould as its fore-runners, favouring big business and vested interests, enrolled at the same "fast buck, last plane to Miami, get out while the going's good, Pilate come wash your hands" school of development.

Rather than turn up at the meeting, or call the 0800 number, the gambler is putting the last of his chips on red, and crossing every part of his anatomy. In essence he is only putting-off the inevitable, content to dig his own grave while he still thinks he can clamber out. If he refuses the necessary cold turkey, the chance to build a more stable, equitable and sustainable future will no doubt crumble like the concrete monoliths that adorn the capital.

Unfortunately, as in other countries of the continent that have had to undergo drastic structural surgery, it will be the poor majority who will bear the brunt of the shakes and the sweaty, sleepless nights. It appears that Chile's long-suffering population will soon experience the light at the end of the tunnel, and one could hope that Venezuelans will accept that there are new rules to the game. Whether the oligarchical forces that sit tight on top of the country will let more of the people join them on their pedestal is perhaps a rhetorical question.

Hard times ahead. Faites vos jeux.

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I met her over two years ago, when I first came to Caracas. I didn't know anybody then and used to spend most of my evenings and nights in the Gran Cafe in Sabana Grande. I would take my book and sip at my beer, before returning to my hotel room, disconsolate at the fact another day had gone by and I still hadn't managed to find Vanessa, the reason for my being in the country in the first place.

She approached me and asked me in Spanish whether I wanted my cards read. I declined, looking up from my book, One Hundered Years of Solitude, I think. I could tell she was English from her accent, and so a conversation began. She was from near Liverpool, although she didn't sound very scouse, just the more open vowels and the odd expression.

Now every time I've seen her since, when I'm back in Caracas, we talk, I buy
her a coffee, and I suppose you could say we're friends. She had her son with her the first time I met her, a little toddler who rampaged about around the tables and chairs, annoying the grumpy waiters. But this year she doesn't come down to town with him.

She's got a daughter now, she told me. I asked her whether it was an accident and she answered yes and no. The father of the son had taken him away, and she missed him and the company so much that she wanted to have another child. That simple. In the end she got her boy back, so now she has two mouths to feed.

She's forty-odd I would say, hard to tell. Maybe she's actually in her thirties.
Her teeth are black and blue-veined from lack of nutrients and too much alcohol. Her cheeks are etched with deep trench-lines, and her nails and hands are filthy. Her hair is thin and wispy, streaks of grey racing across her head and down her back. She's not a pretty sight.

I wonder when things started to go wrong, were it possible to pin-point a day, rewind to it, and start again doing things differently. Maybe she'd just fuck up again anyway. Maybe it'd be worse. But it seems like she had a decent education, and she's bright and quick-witted and humorous. But you know Life programs some people to keep beating their heads against the wall, until they finally cave in. And she's so lost, a lost sheep in the wilderness of this barbituate city. Occasionally when she's tossing and turning with her thoughts, she'll mutter "I'm so fucked up...I fucked up". It's horrible to watch.
If her cards could talk, they would have evening upon night upon day of stories to tell. And they could tell them better than I ever could.

She holds the pack together with a rubber band, which like the cards, is filthy. It holds together the only thing that keeps her from falling off the edge of this society. She's also popular though. I watch her come round the tables, flitting from one to the other, her head slightly tilted and her forehead raised as she asks the same old question over and over again. Now and again she gets a catch. More often than not, she moves on to the next group for whom two hundred bolivars is absolutely nothing but the smallest drop in the largest ocean.

She is funny and sharp as a knife despite all the abuse her senses have endured. That's why she's popular I think. She also has a certain sexiness, an allure. Her eyes, the way she tosses her hair back, the delicacy of her filthy hands, her manner in general. She really does glow with some kind of sensuality. A pretty young thing from Sixties Liverpool.

I've asked her why she doesn't go back to England, because at least there she could get social benefit, not scrape the dregs of the barrel every single day. But she says she'd get rheumatism with the cold, and besides, she hates the weather. "Oh no," she mumbles, "I couldn't go back, wouldn't want to." "Not now, anyway," she adds as an afterthought. "I nearly went back once. I did. Got the passport and everything," but something went wrong, or someone let her down, and her mind twists on to other things, retreating from my question. Back to the immediate, away from the memories of the past.

I notice that with people I meet on the edge like her. Their minds are constantly striving to accomplish the things of the present, like money, food, and sleep. Yet they always refer to the past, to mistakes, to sadness, to betrayal, to guilt, all the rows and rows of Emperor's soldiers, all the things that have gone wrong in their lives. They would so much like to turn the soldiers the other way, so they won't stare at their vulnerability with their cold eyes and colder hearts. The past eats away at them.

She goes from table to chair to table, to read people's futures. To tell them what the past will bring. That's right, isn't it. The future as reflection of the past, because if you put a mirror in the line of your life when you were twenty, you'd see the same line as it extends into the future, made of the same material, and the same faults. Your fault line.

You see, I think that's what gets me about Susan. She reads cards, she reads the future. So if the future of others is prescient to her, then hers must be too. That means that she knows where she's going. She knew the pattern of her life, the canyons and the jagged outcrops of her fault line, more than most people you meet.

She never read my cards, so I can't tell you whether she's good or not. But I wonder whether that really matters. She, like all those other people who live with the ghosts of the Emperor, knows the trick. Because to tell the future all you have to do is synthesise mentally that person's past. The divining rod of suffering. The gypsy's lyrical money-maker.

She'll still be doing the tables and the bars when I next pass through Caracas, asking me to help her out, so that she can get something to eat, go to the market, and then sleep. She's always tired. Tired of life, tired of unravelling the rubber band to deal another hand with the tattered and torn cards of hers. Death, The Lovers, Grief, Sorrow, Joy, the cards aligned in a row, staring back at the stranger, with their cold eyes and colder hearts.

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Salsa is sex. It is sensual, energetic, preferably poetic, and always leaves the three dots of intrigue in its wake, beads of sweat in the eternal battle of the sexes. It's the ultimate courtship rite, the best means of staking-out positions in a new relationship, the easiest way to get a message across in the shortest space of time. It leaves little to the imagination. Either you want more or you don't. That's that.

All cultures have their games of cat and mouse, but perhaps only in the Latin nations have the rules become so elaborate as to baffle most if not all newcomers to the game. For the average male tourist discovering Venezuelan women is like opening a Kellogg's Variety Pack every morning. Only better. Snap, crackle and pop: definitely the spice of life. Black with Indian and Indian with white and white with black and back again. Shaken, stirred, and served with plenty of ice. The country's gene cocktail is one to savour as much as the tropical fruitshakes served on every corner, the aqua vitae of the Latin world.

Walking down a crowded shopping street in Caracas is like being given twenty pence when you were nine to go to the penny-sweet shop. We're not talking your average cola bottles or white chocolate mice, but gobstoppers and liquorice allsorts, sherbet dips and curly-wurlies, lollipops and hubba-bubba, not to mention quarters of chocolate eclairs and lemon bonbons. All the little plastic compartments brim with glistening glucose temptation, protected only by a sheet of infernal perspex called ritual.

Women in Venezuela come in all different shapes, colours and sizes, and the ways to break down their defences are just as varied. The most obvious of these is the straightforward whistle, but deviants from this approach include the sucking-teeth method, the "Oye linda"upfront interlocution, the clicking of the tongue technique, or, very rarely, the all-out full frontal pincer movement.

The armoury of the machista is packed to the hilt with the whole gamut of lethal weaponry, acquired from all the greatest minds in the history of amorous confrontation. Physoiotherapists in the capital do a roaring trade in strained neck muscles from all the swivelling of heads that goes on throughout the day.

Aficionados have learnt to swivel on their heels, -- a far more elegant manoeuvre, and one which avoids any undue stress on the body. However, declaring such obvious attraction -- swallowing the bait --, immediately defines a position of inferiority in the male, which, however effective, is the last thing he wants.

Which is where dancing comes in. Working its rhythms and malleable structure, the superior salsero can have a girl hooked by the end of one dance. The simple equation of good dancer equals good lover squared never rings more true than on the dancefloor of a half decent venue. And who can deny this universal truth ? OK so Einstein never scribbled it down in a fit of lucid thinking, but surely this exhibition of superglue eye-contact, coupled with deft hand movements, undulations, gyrations, pirouettes, twists and turns and ducks and dives, is what Cosmo readers are always told to look for in their Mister Right.

The good salsero can make a girl feel a million dollars with just a few moves from his repertoire. He leads her, coaxes her, teases her, always trying to find a way round her Maginot line of defences. Maybe she really does have a boyfriend whom she loves dearly, but if she doesn't, our man with the slinky moves is the guy who's going to find out.

We shouldn't neglect the muchachas involved in this too. This is their opportunity to suss out Mister Maybe Possibly I Don't Know Yet. Obvious signs to look for are excessive sweating, noxious body odour, octupine hands, too-slick-by-half looks, and of course conversation non-starters.

This is where salsa differs from any modern Western ideas we have of dancing: it's pretty impossible to hold a conversation while pirouetting about the place. This explains why all this body language is so essential. If the dance has gone well, then it's the coming away from the dancefloor and the 'let me buy you a drink' stage which then takes over. By this time however, everything, well nearly, has already been established.

Back home, we have no concept of this. In a club you're lucky enough to get passed the 'nice night for it' stage before the chat-up chatter kicks in. But in the West, we do not have the beauty that these Latin countries covet so highly. We might have totty and skirt, fitters and bits of allright, but nothing to lose your no-claims bonus over or slip a disc for. For your average tourist, it's simply not on. It's enough to make you agoraphobic. That feeling of confusion and dumbness that you had when you were nine suddenly comes flooding back.

There seems to be no way to escape it, when every girl that passes is an oh-so chewable curly-wurly or a curvaceous cola bottle, and let's not even talk about the sherbet dips. Venezuelan men have to deal with this kind of stuff every day: a little sweet shop of delights. Some become blasé, when even the most laudable example of femininity won't get a second look. Others try to heighten their beauty threshold, only getting excited over the truly stunning. The majority however still languish in the depths of their childhood. Being able to see, admire, salivate over even, and yet denied by that perspex plastic covering or the height of the counter where the goodies are just out of reach.

Which is why the music and the interaction is so important. You see, these women know they're beautiful. They know they're the sweetest, most delectable confectionery on the world's counter: the Godiva to Europe's Ferrero Rocher. Everyone tells them so, and they see no reason to deny it. Eye-contact with these women is not impossible, but only the truly handsome, slick and loaded-looking stand a chance of actually getting near them in a street encounter. Whereas in the salsa context, the not-quite-so-appealing of the masculine sex stands a much better chance of getting to the counter and lifting the lid on all the goodies. It's their foot-up, their Inspector Gadget extendible arm. Just one dance is all it might take for him to impress her enough. Those close contact gyrating moments might be what swings it his way.

Obviously, he's still got to get over the first hurdle of getting the girl to accept his offer of a quick spin on the piste, but once that's done, he's in with a fighting chance. A salsa club exudes sexual energy and tension from every pore. If you could bottle it and label it, you'd be rich, no doubt about it. That's not to say that they're mere pick-up joints, -- far from it -- neither are they the cattle markets that one might imagine. The game's more complicated than that, which is why the energy is so great and the stakes so high.

The three dots of intrigue, the piercing, Lolololo-Lola looks, the thigh-to-crotch, crotch-to-thigh small-talk, all these things make these venues the hormonal epicentres of the Latin capitals. Take away salsa and replace it with techno or changa as it's known, and you've got trouble. All of a sudden, there's no more foot-up, no more go-go-gadget extendible arm, no way to ensnare that elusive sugar-coated cola bottle.

Maybe this is one part of Latin culture which won't succumb to gringo imperialism and Americanisation. For to lose this ritual would entail the loss of the means of production, -- or procreation to be exact. And as any analysis of Marxism will reveal, the means of production are everything.

Without salsa, the music of love falls on deaf ears. Without the melt-in-your-mouth beauty of the people, music would be superfluous. It's as simple as un, dos, tres, y un, dos, tres. Salseros and salseras of the world unite, all you have to lose is your beauty sleep -- and you don't even need that anyway...

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"Crabs. 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. With mayonnaise.

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 scrutiny.

"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.

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The Latin temperament is always in love. Cupid does sopra tempo in the latin nations like nowhere else. Romance, lust and love perfume the air, as pervasive as the sweaty swearing of taxi drivers and the vying aromas of street stalls and cafes. Flirtation is the national game, just about pipping back-handers and back-scratching at the past-time post.

In Venezuela this romantic trait has driven victims of Cupid's missiles to leave their beds in the dead of night and commune with the source of their passion. Rather than the iconoclastic image of the syrupy serenade of languid guitar and warbling vocals of times past, more modern means have been adopted. The trusty spraycan to be precise, or el espray. The walls of the capital Caracas are daubed from top to bottom with the late-night laments and cris de coeur of these poor souls.

Promoters and practitioners of graffiti in the West have long fought for its Art status, arguing it occupies an important place in the modern media of the late Twentieth Century, symptomatic of the alienation of disenfranchised urban youth. No such high-minded sentiments are applied in the countries of the South American continent.

Although I'm informed that back in the Eighties 'spraycan art' was popular for a while, it has been all but eradicated, leaving the walls with nothing more pretentious than politically- or romantically-motivated ranting. Maybe it's not as aesthetically pleasing, but it's certainly more profound.

The wall opposite your front door declares its undying love to you, in letters two foot high. Motorway exit signs and advertising billboards think you're the best thing since sliced bread. Shop-fronts and the sides of buses can't live another day without you. Eloquent poems appear on walls, with one exclusive agenda: to make you smile and feel the warm glow of emotion. Your love so publicly displayed, and yet a mutual secret.

Admittedly, your first reaction might be one of incredulity, shortly followed by acute social embarrassment. But think again. What flattery! What passion! Forget the box of Dairy Milk, wilting over-priced flowers, or the not-so-dirty weekend in Essex, the sprayed scrawl is the ultimate for those in lurv. The derring-do, the against-all-odds risks and the plain and simple act of conveying love surely elevates amorous graffiti above the run-of-the-mill romantic gesture, and beyond the mere act of vandalism.

My only worry is obsolescence. If you can remember ever scrawling 'I love Veronica Dribblethwaite in 3B' on your desk at school, and regretting the day you did for the rest of your scholastic career because you went off Veronica and her train-track braces the following week, you'll know what I'm talking about. And you can't just scratch it off during Maths either. It's get the pot of Dulux emulsion out and off into the night for a bit of hindsight-driven revision for you my friend.

But this one small quibble shouldn't detract from the impressive impact of the medium. It might well squelch the love-sick deeper into their stupour, or further depress the down-hearted. But surely it also reconfirms our faith in love, passion and all things bright and beautiful. We too, yes you and I, can be the object of such strength of emotion and romantic fervour. Modern love's alive and kicking, and the proof is there, hailed from every corner, proclaimed from every half-decent vantage-point.

Just a word before you head off to the nearest motorway tonight. "Sp." as your teacher would have put it. You wouldn't want thousands of commuters to be reminded of the dismal state of the education system. And nothing dulls impact more than a misplaced vowel or consonant. Just ask Veruca Dribblywait.

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THE GATE -- The Pemon of Wonken

She's the village's 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 liquor, 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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The General in his Stupour

The general sits in his dark shuttered room, sweating, trying to
recall his training days as the guest of the US government. If only he
could remember the words of the tutors. "It is morally right and beyond
question that the military must..." Then what ? He would feel so much
better, if only he could remember.
The half full whisky bottle stares back at him, failing to inspire
anything more than the fuzz on his teeth. "... the military must protect the
motherland from all attempts to usurp the..." Through the haze of his
addled mind, he scours his memory for bait with which to haul his
recollections from the depths of the past. "...usurp the fundamental
liberty of the people and the right of business... to carry on as normal".
No, that wasn't it either. "To do business." Christ, why couldn't he just
remember how it went?
It was starting to become clearer. The words take shape.
Legitimacy. A just cause. Democracy. They bubble and bob on the
surface of his mind, just out of reach. Like clothes hanging to dry on a
stretched-out line, devoid of any human presence, billowing in the breeze,
-- hot air. A military man all his life, he knows nothing of democracy or
liberty or freedom of speech. But he realises their worth. They are the
keys to the doors of the palace. They echo in the hearts of all those sad
small people, reverberating down the corridors of power until they come
bouncing back, all distorted and skewered into "national security, anti-
subversion, and by any means necessary."
A slug of whisky trickles down his throat, burning and fizzing
gently. He pictures the classroom, the blackboard, the bold white letters.
Soon. Soon he would be reunited with his tutors. They would sit
him down in the President's palace, wheel out the blackboard, and point
at it strenuously. And he would sit there, laughing inwardly at the irony
of it all, wondering what had happened to all the years since his last
Soon he would live, fulfill the dream, keep the fire of freedom
burning bright. Protect his beloved motherland. His tutors would
congratulate him. The commy scourge, pinko politics, greenos spoiling
everybody's fun and profits. His country was saved, they would tell him,
patting him hard on the back until he felt his denture's wobble.
The country needed him, wanted him, pleaded for him to save it.
He was on the right side. And if he fell in the attempt, how sweet his
death would be. Statues, street names, taxi companies. They would all
bear his name in bold letters like the hero liberator he truly was. The
politicians had brought it upon themselves, they'd asked for it. Now the
people would get what they deserved for voting for them. The right side.
The just cause. It was all coming back.

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Erasmo is an artist. He's tall and gangly, which is surprising for a Venezuelan, where most men are short and stubby. He has a round pea-head that sits precariously on his shoulders, and it's nearly always stooped. His skin is the colour of Nescafe with plenty of milk, and he's balding quite badly. He's only thirty-five, but definitely looks older. He hasn't got gouged frown lines, grey hairs or anything as dramatic as that. No, it's just his overall look. He's lived a lot and seen a lot. He's killed.
When he told me the other day we were both drunk. I just looked into his eyes and nodded slowly. I think I sighed, stupidly, dumbly. What do I know of killing a man ? What do I know about most of the experiences that Erasmo has lived ? Nothing. Nothing at all.
The thing is with Erasmo is that he's now an intellectual, if such a thing really exists. We talk about the books we've read, the exhibitions we've seen, the ideas that inspire us. We can talk for ages about Huxley and Márquez and the rest of them. I suppose I know it's not really him. He said the other day "I like hanging out with you, but you're such an intellectual..." So maybe he only talks of books and art because he thinks that's what I want to talk about.
He's very unsure of himself at times. As I get to know him better though, the more I'm amazed that he is where he is, and that he's still breathing. He told me his brothers and sisters kept him locked up in a room and beat him whenever they got the chance. His parents were alcoholics and so was he, for years. Which is why the other day was so disturbing.
We got down to the beach about midday, and as we walked along the sand, slowly getting hotter, each step seeming to require more effort, he accepted the offer of a beach vendor, and bought us two beers. OK, I thought, a beer at midday and a little nap in the shade, that suits me fine. But by the time we'd got our little sun shade and deck chairs hired for the day, Erasmo had bought a whole box-full of bottles. About twelve in all.
By two o'clock when he had to go and sort out some paperwork -- the reason for our trip to the sea -- he'd got through nine to my three. I wanted to say something, I really did. Something like : why are you doing this, you don't have to prove anything to me. He wasn't really drunk either. His speech had slowed down considerably and his conversation was less focused, but he wasn't what I'd call drunk. I was a bit worried about him holding it together with the pen-pushers, but I reckoned he was alright to go on his own.
He returned about an hour and a half later, as appointed, everything chevere and dandy. He bought more beer despite my protestations and consumed another three bottles by the time we left the beach. We walked along the promenade and Erasmo was still holding it together although he'd reached some strange level where he wasn't really with me at all, he was in his own world, gangling down the street with me in tow. We went into a beautiful house on the sea-front after he insisted we ask the owner to let me take a photograph. He then went up to some old biddy and accosted her as if she was an old friend, probably relying on her senility not to realise that she didn't know him from Adam, which was the case. I went along with all this, and it was funny, honestly it was.
We got to a seafront bar and Erasmo asked if the owner had any Hector Lavoie, a songwriter he'd told me I absolutely had to know. "It's all about the barrios and life on the edge, and prostitutes and knives and dodgy-as-fuck bad boys." By chance the owner did have an ancient copy and put it on for our pleasure. More beers, five each this time, ensued, as we foot and finger-tapped our way through both sides of the cassette, and some even older salsa from the Forties.
This is when he told me about having killed people. And I was too far gone to react. Now, when I think about it, I reacted in the only way possible, which was to accept what he was saying as the absolute truth and make him feel like I wasn't judging him. He asked me some pretty to-the-point questions while we sat there in the fast-fading light on the seafront, the flaring trumpets and percussion prodding us periodically from our stupor.
What was my greatest aspiration, he asked me. It took me a while to answer, and still my answer was crap. To make people think, think twice about what consequences their actions have. To make them realise what they're actually doing. There. I told you it was crap. He asked me whether I'd had a good childhood and I answered yes, I'd been extremely fortunate to have had a loving and stable family, where I was given support in nearly everything I did, and yet wasn't suffocated by my parent's will. He nodded to all this, how lucky I was... Which is when he told me about his brothers and sisters, and about growing up in the shanty towns of Caracas. I've never met anyone who's killed someone before. I've met some unsavoury characters, mainly up in Leeds, but none who could pass the Litmus test of life in a Latin shanty town.
The strange thing about our conversation was that Erasmo was progressively falling back on signing the things he wanted to express. Paw-paw, he'd say, with his hand and fingers moulded into the shape of a gun. Sclick, he'd mutter as his index finger slid across his neck. He was looking at me, checking my reaction, seeing whether I was coming close to comprehending what he was telling me. I suppose I did 'comprehend' in the strictest sense of the word. But there was and is no way that I could 'understand', 'empathise' or 'feel' what he was telling me. It's simply beyond my comprehension, that's all.
And it wasn't discussed on some higher level either. Not like something detached and 'political' which is normally the case when I talk about poverty and kids killing and alcoholism and abuse. No. This was so fucking real. It was him. This man I knew not that well but well enough, was telling me by the time he was eighteen he'd killed eight men. Eight. I tried to ask how come. For money, drugs, what ? Territory, he said, without thinking about it.
What bothered me, and what had been bothering me all day, was that Erasmo wasn't supposed to be drinking. He'd told me as we sat down in the old once-blue deckchairs that he hadn't touched a beer in a month and twelve days. He knew the days. That meant that every one was a struggle and some kind of war within himself. His jaw had started to shiver as well. I couldn't figure that out. I've never seen that with alcohol before. With speed or E or coke, sure, but not with alcohol. It worried me. This whole thing was worrying me, but there seemed like there was no way to stop it, so I just went with it.
Maybe it was bigger than the both of us, as they say. But that's bullshit. Erasmo had made a split-second decision back on the beach. A decision that somehow, -- which is where the 'bigger' might come in -- was irreversible. I didn't want to stop drinking because our mental paths would simply have diverged and diverged, and I didn't think that was a good idea. I had to stay with him.
I finally said stop when we'd been into two whorehouses in one of the scummiest parts of Caracas. He'd said he wanted to show me 'stuff' that I could write about, that was real, and true and what the people really felt. By this time he was running scared though.
I don't know enough about alcoholics to know what the symptoms are, or what they go through, or what they're like. But I know that if it's like most drugs, you're running from something, maybe somebody, but normally a whole pantheon of ghosts and phantoms and fears and insecurities, that keep pursuing you as you try to forget them with your chosen medicine/poison.
Well, Erasmo was running. Running because he knew he couldn't go back to my friend and his girlfriend Irmina, nor to his parents, nor to a hotel. Because he was drunk, and had made promise after promise after promise not to touch the stuff anymore. And so we ended up on this street by the main bus station.
At first I really didn't know where he was taking me. As I walked down a narrow green-tiled corridor towards some kind of partition wall, it slowly dawned on me where we were. At the end of the corridor there was a room about fifteen feet square, with iron-bars running along one side where rows of doors peeked out of the gloom. In the room stood, lounged, smoked and promenaded about twenty women in bathing costumes and bikinis.
Most were overweight I would say, most in their thirties and looking worse for wear. Venezuela might have beautiful women, but they are not to be found in this sort of place. I was. Well, what was I ? I didn't know where to look, I know that much. What was I supposed to do ? Erasmo strolled about and ended up talking to this one woman, leaning up against the wall. I made for the door and leant against the pale green lurid tiling, smoking my cigarette and looking. You have to look. You have to. You can't just stand there and look at the floor. But I simply didn't want to be there in that room with all these sad sad women, languid and broken and hollowed out inside like once beautiful rainforest trees that the Indians use for boats. I didn't want to be a part of that whole abuse and dirtiness and sickness and sadness, and whatever else my over-sensitive middle class upbringing had told me about prostitution. Poor little gringo couldn't take a visit to the whorehouse.
We left. Erasmo strolled off down the street, and since he had my bag on his back for safety, I followed. I honestly think that I wouldn't have followed him into the second one if it weren't for that. But maybe I'm just saying that now. Same tiles and same lighting, only a smaller, more claustrophobic room this time. Harder to look away, or somewhere other than into their eyes. Slightly prettier women also. One got hold of me, catch of the night no doubt, dollar signs going cling-cling in her head. "You want to make love?" she asked me. "I make the best love in the whole of Caracas. Let me show you." She had a hold of my arm and was gently yet firmly pulling me towards the corridor to the rooms. I pulled my arm back and tried to tell her that I wasn't interested, that I didn't pay for the pleasure. "We can talk," she insinuated, with her doe-eyes trying to break me. "I'm with my friend, honestly."
Erasmo meanwhile had latched onto an old friend. We were introduced. Rosita was tall and slim and looked like she'd seen too much of everything, and remembered every last image. She was haggard, cheeks sunken, dark eyes holes into which I couldn't look. I just couldn't. I caught a snippet of my woman saying "he doesn't pay for it..." and some curses and tuts which followed. I felt so awkward, like I was a lie, like I was cheating these women. I wanted to get out. Badly. But now Erasmo was negotiating a threesome. I turned to look at him and just shook my head over and over again as he looked into my eyes for something. "No, no, no, no," I repeated, almost chant-like. Rosita looked at me scornfully. "It's not expensive, querida," she said.
I motioned to Erasmo that I was getting out. I didn't care about my bag any more, I just knew I had no intention of sleeping with any of these women, and that the best thing I could do was leave. I turned away from them and made my way back to the entrance, keeping my eyes down, not wanting to look up to see the faces and eyes. Down the corridor and out into the stinking Caracas night. In a minute or so Erasmo followed behind me, loping along, bouncing off the tiles as he swayed his way towards me. He started to head off somewhere else, but I grabbed his arm and half pleaded, half ordered him to stop. He looked at me with his head cocked slightly, and a hurt-child look on his face.
"But I thought you wanted to see some real people, man. Well those are real people, they're good people, they've got good hearts."
"Yeah but enough is enough, Erasmo," I pleaded. " I can't handle it, you know. That's all I want to see. I can't take it."
He shrugged his hunched shoulders. He realised this meant that he'd have to stop running, that this was as far as he'd get tonight. Deep inside me, since before he'd left to do his errand, I'd started to feel uncomfortable. I don't often drink in the day, and not in the Caribbean heat. By nine o'clock I feel hungover at the best of times. I know that my discomfort stemmed from Erasmo. He knew that he wasn't doing right, that he was breaking promises, letting people down, letting himself down. He hadn't been getting drunk to enjoy himself, we hadn't laughed for a long time. This was self-destruction. He'd said earlier in the day that when he drank too much he cried and felt like taking his life. I felt that he wasn't that far away. And yet I was. So far from him and his experiences and his life and his 'historia' as they say here. I wasn't the one who could help him. Sleep and the maternal clutches of the night were the only thing that could.
"Have you had a good day ?" he asked.
"Of course I have, of course," I replied, not really knowing whether that was a lie or not. Too confused and drunk and tired to know what I thought. Now that I'm sober, I still don't know.

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Collecting cans as a way of life. A means to survive. I see young and old doing it. Not bums and junkies necessarily, just people. Collecting cans to take somewhere to sell as scrap. Sticking their hands into rubbish bins, into refuse tips, scouring their contents to see what they can unearth in the decaying depths.
They make their way from cafe to restaurant to panaderia, one by one, while I sip at my coffee and eat my morning pastry. A stream passes silently by virtually unoticed, one by one, heads down, eyes furtive, checking to see whether someone hasn't had the kindness to leave them a Christmas stocking behind. Their Christmas bonus must be finding a spanking, freshly-drunk, lipstick-smudged can, perhaps with the alluring scent of the caraquena who drank from it still clinging to its alumium lip. Plunging their hands into putrifying mess, into places where most of us wouldn't even look. Tell me that's normal, please.
They amass their cans in large string bags which they keep slung over their shoulders like Santa Claus. Or else they wield them aggressively, swaying the sacks below their arms. The sacks are made of see-through string, so they can see how many cans they've accumulated, and perhaps show their peers how proficient they are. Scraping their hands round the bottom of bins. Opening the jaws of the municipal refuse bins to see what society has to offer them today.
So these are the poor. The refuse, the junk-ees. The flotsam and jetsam all washed up on the shores of our cities. Bums and addicts and wasters. Just people. Men with families, with hopes and dreams too. Men who have no other choice.
They shuffle past as I enjoy my morning ritual, taking no notice of me or my sensibilities. Sometimes the owner tells them to get lost, to get out and not come back. But mostly they allow this symbiosis to continue. Afterall, one can less is one less for them to put out at the end of the day.
Occasionally I've walked passed a man as he's split open a black bag out on the street. They all claw away at the mess, scrabbling for their glimmering money-makers. Sometimes they get violent. Over a can. In rich countries we talk about recycling and the like, but no-one's ever maimed someone over their recycled bottle of virgin olive oil. Green fervour doesn't stretch to that.
I don't know how much they get for each can. But you can imagine what it amounts to. Coca-Cola and Hit and Malta de Caracas: working with the community. Keeping the poor on the streets. Keeping the poor alive, dentists happy and foreigners over-sensitive.

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"My heart aches when I see the river all dirty, it's true. I don't know how to put it, but when the river, when it's clean and sparkling, I feel good. I can't explain the sensation exactly, but it's strong, I know that."
I was squatted across from one miner and his friend, a kerosene wick flickering between us. It was 'Perico's' house we were camped in, a corrugated zinc roof and a cold concrete floor. They'd brought down the remains of the bottle of Cachaça we'd bring drinking earlier, and we had a tin of Diablitos and crackers. Conversation flowed and cigarettes passed round.
"At Easter we asked the miners working up-stream not to work for a while when the tourists came. They wanted to have a break anyway, so it worked out allright. And I was so happy to see the river not so dirty any more. It looked so beautiful, like it used to. But now it's muddy and brown again."
Perico interrupted, saying all miners wanted was their roncito and that was that. Life was hard on the miner, he said.
"I'd rather be doing something else, I would," continued the other, whose name I can't remember. "I've applied for credit in town to start up a poultry business here. But they say I have to wait. So I go back to the river and pan. Tourism is good but it's only at certain times of year, and the road's too rough for most people to make it this far."
"Yeah, the road's a shit. That road fucks us up," added Perico, swigging from the fast-emptying bottle.
"But the road's being improved," I said. "They're only a few kilometres away from here now. More people'll come then."
"You're right," said Perico. "But life's so expensive here. These shoes cost double what you'd pay in town. And they're rubbish anyway, look. Everything costs nearly double. Any money you do get from mining you spend on food and a bit of fun at the weekend. And then it's back to the river."
We'd arrived on a late Friday afternoon. I'd realised we were Friday when still on the far side of the hill, we were greeted by calls and hoots. I'd called back, and then remembered it was most likely the local miners would all be drunk by now.
Don Ramon, the old man who I remembered from other visits, was pretty out of it, and the others were enjoying the entertainment he was providing, stumbling from his chair to urinate vaguely in the direction of some bushes. One bottle had already been downed, and they were persuading him to contribute the best part of another. I noticed Don Ramon's eyes were clouded over and his hands shook, symptoms of mercury poisoning, but then he's probably about eighty-odd anyway, I thought. The evening shadows drew in and our hopes for a lift down the road faded. Perico offered us a house to stay in, as did another older miner, a Brazilian, who was on the way to joining Don Ramon in the out-of-it stakes.
"Come to my house," he kept on saying. "I won't charge you a penny, not a penny. I've got a chicken too, " he said, but I doubted he was up to cooking the thing.
The owner of the bodega, an amiable man in his mid-thirties in shiny sports shorts and ample pot belly had given my companion a tiny diamond since she'd asked whether he had any she could see. I thought it a bit over generous, and wondered silently whether it wasn't in fact glass.
"It's a beautiful place here," continued the first miner, his face re-arranging its features depending on the light shed by the wick. "There are more waterfalls further downstream, deep into the forest. I've taken loads of tourists down there. That's where I work when I go panning. I have to. The land's so poor here, it's hard to grow anything. You have to go looking for those diamonds and nuggets if you want to eat. I hate it sometimes, I really do. And there are more miners all the time, and the river gets worse, all brown and dirty."
He knew there was a great conflict in him, fighting out some mental battle. Clean river, dirty river. We both knew it was there, we both knew what mining in rivers does and how ugly it can be. I wanted to be able to sum it all up for us, to round up the contradictions and conflicts into a verbal corral and keep them there, safe and sound, where they wouldn't trouble us any more. But I was as inarticulate as he, unable to reduce their life into neat black and white, labelled and ledgered categories which people are so fond of. So we struggled on from one strangely incomplete, suspended sentence to the next.
He was sensitive to all this. More sensitive than most miners I've met.
And yet he'll be back up to his knees tomorrow, bent double with hope and contradiction, swirling his weather-beaten pan as the river flows on, impotent.

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Walls 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. Gold-leaf fortress, 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 my life.
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.
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"All the best with your project," I said, not sure whether it was the right thing to say. I wasn't even sure what his project was, if indeed he had one. But that's what came into my head at the time, and that's how I said goodbye to Comandante Chavez.
We were near Higuerote on the coast east of Caracas. I'd arrived there in the morning with Charbel having driven through the night from Ciudad Bolívar on the banks of the Orinoco. The car's alternator hadn't been working well and we did most of the 10-hour journey with little headlight to help us, staring out through the windscreen and hoping we didn't hit another pot hole. We'd had to stop on the side of the road once, I'm not sure where. A car stopped and some men had helped us to charge up our battery again, telling us people got murdered on this stretch of the road all the time.
Charbel had picked me up at one in the morning. The Guardia Nacional guy had ripped me from my slumber on the side of the road at the toll for the Angostura Bridge. After four hours trying to get a ride that evening, I'd finally given up and settled for a night perched non-too-comfortably on my ruck sack. I had about five hundred bees to my name and a loaf of bread. My budgetting had gone a bit astray, my Visa card wasn't authorising back in England, and so I'd set out to hitch back to Caracas from Santa Elena de Uairén near the Brazilian border. I'd already been travelling the best part of two days, and was dusty , hungry and tired.
I didn't really know much about the man then. Of course I'd heard about the attempted coups and conflicting versions of events. I'd seen pictures of rioting and a friend who lived opposite Miraflores had told me about bombings and strange goings on. But as to the man himself and what exactly he represented, my knowledge was definitely on the hazy side.
Chabel had told me he was part of the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 2000 movement, or MBR2000 for the hard-of-speaking. He was working in the mining towns of Bolivar State - Tumeremo, Guasipati, El Callao. He'd had various run-ins with the local authorities who'd accused him of being a subversive and a revolutionary. He denied that. He said he believed the Movimiento was the only real alternative for Venezuela, and believed wholeheartedly Comandante Chavez was the man to save to country from economic disaster and moral breakdown. We'd talked politics most of the night, and about the situation in Bolívar with the small miners, which at the time, was pretty critical. About ten people had died in the violence and civil strife which the government's policy of giving land to foreign mining companies had produced. Chabel was definitely on the side of the small miners, afterall, multinationals don't vote do they.
He was meeting Chavez in Higuerote in order to take him back to the town of El Dorado. Someone had stolen the sword from Bolívar's statue in the square, and Chavez and his entourage were going to ceremonially replace it with a shiny new one. We arrived tired and bleery in the morning, turning off the road to a tatty house down a dirt road. A skull and cross bones flag fluttered from a flag pole on a nearby hill, and a group of people hung around the garden waiting for the arrival of the man himself.
At the time Chavez was still being persued by the secret police and harrassed after his release from prison. He was working hard travelling the country, drumming up support for his recently born Movimiento. At about midday, after a lot of waiting around and doubts as to whether he was actually going to show, a new car pulled into the road, Chavez and his children and some other people got out and made their way over to another house.
I followed Chabel's lanky frame behind the group, wondering what I was doing there, and if the secret police and a battallion of squaddies weren't going to rush in at any minute. I started to think up what I was going to say when questioned by aggressive policemen. "I'm just a tourist... I was only hitch-hiking... No I haven't got any money..." After the locals made short speeches of thanks to Chavez for deigning to visit their humble house, I was introduced by Chabel as an English student who was researching small mining and mercury contamination in Bolívar State, which was in fact what I was doing in Venezuela at the time.
They seemed intrigued by that, and I struck up a conversation with a man in his fifties, with white, slicked-back hair and a bulky frame, who was referred to as El Colonel. He seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say about the mining situation in Bolívar, and the horrendous prospect which large scale mercury contamination presented for the future. Chavez listened in on our conversation, saying it was lamentable and that he was pleased he was going to be able to see things for himself. I asked him whose side they were on in the confrontation between formal and informal sectors, and he replied he was on the side of justice. He didn't like the idea of foreign companies running away with the country's riches, he said. He wanted to see the small miners looked after and given a chance to earn a living like anyone else.
I didn't manage to speak to them for long. Lunch was served and Chavez and his two children took their places round the table which had been laid especially. I stood to one side, trying to hide the fact I'd only eaten a few pancitos in the last twenty four hours. I chatted to Chabel for a while, speculating on whether his borrowed car would make the journey back to the south. It was hot and everybody was sweating. Once they had finished eating, Chabel and I, much to my relief, were invited to eat too, and we took our places around the table. One of the locals asked the Comandante about the skull and cross bones flag, and he launched into a thirty-minute rambling recounting of some Independence battle and numerous heroic derrring-dos. Everybody listened attentively, and didn't seem half as bored as I was at the long-winded explanation of the symbolism of the flag. The fact it's a universal symbol of pirates and bandits seemed to have escaped their attention.
The story finally came to an end, and the locals having been promised all the assistance they asked for, the comandante and his entourage made to leave. Chabel and I tagged along behind and said our goodbies. He was going on to Caracas to do something and then would head back to be in El Dorado in time for the ceremony. We climbed into the car, and then Chabel realised he'd left his briefcase in Chavez's car for some reason. He absolutely had to get it back, he said. We screeched off down the road trying to catch up with the car.
Chabel was taking risks I didn't like, but I wasn't about to tell him to slow down, since he was my only chance of getting to Caracas that day. I just kept looking nervously across at his moustachioed slightly weesily face. Round bends, up and down hills, swerving to miss the inevitable pot-holes we went, until finally the car came into sight. I thought they'd realise it was us if we started hooting or flashing lights. But obviously paranoia got the better of them and they started going faster, and when we accelerated to keep up with them, they went faster still. Shit, I thought, this is going to end in tears.
We were screeching round corners and scouring the grass verges on the side of the road. I sat wondering when I was going to wake up. As Chabel drove on at increasingly nerve-shattering speed, he kept on poking his head out of the window, shouting and waving madly. We tried to come along side the car a few times, but either cars appeared coming the other way, or else the Comandante's car moved across to cut us off. Finally, after far too many close-calls for my liking, Chavez's car slowed to a stop, and Chabel got out and walked over to it. From what I could see they seemed annoyed with him, and he made his way somewhat sheepishly back to his car, his briefcase tucked firmly under his arm.
"The paranoia gets to everyone after a while," he confessed.
I tried to smile and shrug off the fact I'd just come the closest I've come to soiling myself in public.
Most of the journey back to Caracas, Charbel and I didn't say much. I think he was embarassed about the briecase episode, while I just pondered what they'd do to the country if they did get the power they so eagerly sought, and concluded it'd probably end in tears if they ever did.
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Bump, 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 ?"
"Um, I've come to see this part of Venezuela," I mumble in less than fluent Spanish.
"Yes, but why?" she insists.
"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.
I'm uncomfortably 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. Bump.
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 reply.
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'.
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Diamonds are a boy's best friend

It was 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 moment.
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. Tambara remembers 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 ( "the fight for the fiver") 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...

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The photo doesn't even get pride of my place in my "Woz Ere" album. That's because it's rubbish. Can't see a thing. Just another Venezuelan sunset with an inky foreground. Nothing is decipherable, if you're not endowed with a pair of Superman's x-ray eyes. But every photo, no matter how dismal, tells a story.
I flew to Venezuela to meet up with my French girlfriend. Considering the country has won more Miss World crowns than any other nation, I'm not sure why anymore. Indian, white and black, and back again. Mixed more times than a Mezzo Strawberry Dachiri.
After an all-too-brief reunion in my hotel one afternoon, I lost touch with my femme juvenile (she was seventeen and I all of twenty-three). She'd gone off with her father somewhere, and nobody knew where to find her. I grew bored with Caracas and worried about my finances. Reluctantly, I decided to abandon my Quixotic quest and head for the sights of the south -- alone.
A week later I found myself in a village lost in the Venezuelan outback, near the border with Brazil. Late one afternoon, I was hanging about on the road. A jeep chugged its way up the dirt track toward me. It looked vaguely familiar. Behind the wheel, a squat figure with bushy white hair looked like a friend of... As the vehicle came within 50 yards, there was agitated movement in the back seat. It lurched to a stop. Dust billowed up from all sides. A girl answering the description of my girlfriend emerged from the cloud, and in slow motion and Vaseline-vision, flung her arms around me. A symphony orchestra, tucked away in the bushes, crescendoed. Bolts of lightning struck, twice. Village life came to a standstill. Two days later, I told her I loved her.
She claimed she had mentioned the village at some point. I say she never did -- my Lonely Planet had been my guiding star. The odds against us meeting in the epicentre of nowhere, at the right time and in the right place, were long enough for us to put our encounter down to Destiny, Fate or perhaps one too many readings of The Celestine Prophecy.
What was I doing on the road at that life-altering moment? Like any decent tourist, I was waiting for the sun to set to take another holiday snap, of course. There's no such thing as a full fat, cliché saturated syrupy sunset too many in my album, with or without the espresso foreground. Nice story, shame about the photo.
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BILE TO SPEW II -- Venezuelan diatribe -- 1997

A dictatorship of corruption. A corruptocracy.
The rule of law. The law of the land.
Paper mill, tread mill, lie mill.
Rules, laws and legislation. Ha bloody ha.
Desperation colours faces. Fear infests hearts, burrowing down deep beyond hope's knife.
La lucha por la locha. Another day in the struggle, running to stand still, sinking into a mire of broken promises.
Can't go in like this. Eventually something will give. Coup de grace, coup de brass. Has it really come to that ?
Lies, lies and more lies, foundations of the Tower of Babble, where money talks your language. Pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap. Come on down, to our level.
Not us, no, someone else. Him, over there. Yes him, that one, up against the wall. This buck ? What buck ? Nothing to do with me, pana.
Cultivate the theory, point the finger, sit back and do nothing. Hopeless, futile, pointless fight, right ? Sigh, exhale, and perhaps cry a little, when no-one's looking.
But, but, but, what of the riches, those God-given, righteous riches ? Oh, those riches. Sorry, we are unable to communicate you with the owner at the present time. Please try again later. Sorry, we are unable to...
Common sense out for the count. Next please.
We regret to inform our customers that this counter is now closed. Please try again later. Please try again later.
Frustration, indignation and anger knit and bind the people together, the super-glue of suffering. And yet the ties are brittle. Community cares crack under pressure, and the pressure is great.
Such a waste.
Line 'em up in a row, and knock 'em down, dominoes of the dictatorship of corruption.
Oh yes, and Why. This ain't right. Can't be. Has to be another way.
Participative democracy.
and more lies.
Soap operas, stereos, abdominal muscle flexers, import, extort. We want to be like them. Yes, we love their jails, the violence. Economic apartheid give me more, please, please, I need some paranoid national security ranting. Like a kick in the teeth. The only way, the best way, God's way.
The dream, ah yes, the dream. How did it go again, sorry, it's slipped my mind. Can anyone help me out here ? There was something about freedom and liberty, no ? Fraternity and equality and all things bright and beautiful. Thanks, I'd be lost without you.
We're all lost, now, or is it just me ? Our bonds with the earth slashed and burned, poisoned with toxic abbreviations in the name of productivity. Our communication with the Heavens severed now that we think we've found the answers down here. Just putting you throu-ough. Sorry, the number you have dialled is unavailable. Please try again later.
Insecurity, chaos and amorality. Nice to meet you. Pleasure's all mine.
From one disaster to the next we stumble blindly, fumble fumbling for the light switch. Click, goes the trigger.
Batten down the hatches for starters, get a dog and call it Grrr as a main, and for dessert, lashings of barbed wire please waiter.
Cocooned in contemplation, resignation, snug as a bug, home sweet who's that at the door.
Point the finger. J'accuse. But who ?
It's collective suicide. Collective madness. Collective material abuse.
But the effects are secondary and selective. Poverty-seeking missiles. Unforgiving, unforgiven.
The lies are piled high, the gleaming Palace's bricks.
But the will of the people is the mortar in-between. It's rotting and crumbling, and soon it will blow away in the winds of change.
Sharpen your knives, it's time to cut the crap.

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It must 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 Doña 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 Doña 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, you know...

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 Doña 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 Doña Aura. She's the longest surviving resident of this armpit-middle-of-nowhere village. Only extreme determination and over-priced food and drinks 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 Doña 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 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.
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  Contact:          "Je m'en vais chercher un grand peut-être"