below were published under the title
Hamilton's Impressions of Venezuela"
Headline, an online, English-language news provider based in Caracas.
Some have also appeared in the Daily Journal newspaper.
recommend you print these pages, and read them at your leisure
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
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
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
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
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
Back to menu
AND THE CARDS
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.
Back to menu
IF MUSIC BE THE FOOD OF LOVE
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
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
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...
Back to menu
"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
Searing bites of warning
had sounded the night before as I dozed to sleep in my tent, absorbing
the vocal machinations of the forest night. My torch had decided not
to work, and I didn't like using candles inside the tent, so I hadn't
investigated what exactly was nipping me with considerable force 'down
there'. I'd settled for lots of scratching and hope for the best.
But as I sat and forked down
my cold breakfast, I became aware of tens of little beasties. Dozens
of them, small as pin-pricks, cramponed on to my legs. "Little
bastards". I put my pan down and started plucking another handful
off. They were everywhere, in every nook, crevice and cranny of my anatomy.
You have to kill them too,
oh yes. You have to pinch them between your nails until you reckon you've
extinguished their alpine penchant. Otherwise, with a hop, skip and
a jump, they'll be right back after the break.
Having plucked a frighteningly
large specimen from my back after a brief mental and physical struggle,
I realised the symptoms of whatever I had didn't coincide with my admittedly
vague knowledge of what crabs were. I was too preoccupied with removing
the Klingon invasion to be much relieved however.
I later learnt the bigguns
leave their jaws behind, become infected, and effectively leave holes
worthy of adding to your passport's Distinguishing Marks section. Garrapatas
they're called. "Grab-legs". It's hard to believe something
so small can cause so much pain. You'll be walking along, following
a path in the undergrowth, when all of a sudden Tchang, you drop everything
and plunge your hand down your trousers to seek the rottweiler jawed
to your groin. Maybe it was better I was on my own afterall.
You become paranoid too,
passing any idle moment, and most active ones for that matter, scratching
and plucking and searching for microcrabs that might have escaped your
"Then there are the
akuri," tutts Ismael my Indian friend as he inspects my back, his
repeatedly mended glasses perched precariously on his nose. "Akuri
are tiny red-striped spiders, and their bite is worse than any snake's.
You're dead within hours, believe me."
"I believe you, but
you could have told me that before you sent me off into the forest with
a friendly handshake two days ago," I thought.
"But they nest in the
tall grass. You won't find them in the forest," he adds, as if
reading my mind. "That's why the Indians burn, to clear the paths
of snakes and spiders. Unfortunately fire doesn't affect garrapatas.
Unless you burn the forest down."
I turn my head and he smiles.
I laugh, then wince pathetically as he plucks another Spiderman impersonator
from my back.
For the next three days,
I continued to find die-hards clamped to my legs, hanging on for dear
life. And scratched and searched and destroyed. I think I'll settle
for crabs next time. At least you know where to look for crabs.
Back to menu
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
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
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
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
Back to menu
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
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.
Back to menu
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
could remember the words of the tutors. "It is morally right and
question that the military must..." Then what ? He would feel so
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
motherland from all attempts to usurp the..." Through the haze
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
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
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
liberty or freedom of speech. But he realises their worth. They are
keys to the doors of the palace. They echo in the hearts of all those
small people, reverberating down the corridors of power until they come
bouncing back, all distorted and skewered into "national security,
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.
PROTECT THE STATUS QUO. YOUR ENEMY'S ENEMY MIGHT
AS WELL BE YOUR ENEMY TOO. WEAR A SUIT AS SOON AS
YOU TAKE POWER.
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
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
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.
politicians had brought it upon themselves, they'd asked for it. Now
people would get what they deserved for voting for them. The right side.
The just cause. It was all coming back.
DAY AT THE BEACH
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
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
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
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.
Back to menu
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
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.
Back to menu
"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
"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
Back to menu
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
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.
Back to menu
"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
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
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.
Back to menu
ROAD TO NOWHERE or EL CAMINO SE HACE EN JEEP
Bump, lurch. Bump, lurch.
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
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'.
Back to menu
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
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
Back to menu
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
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.
Back to menu
BILE TO SPEW II -- Venezuelan diatribe -- 1997
A dictatorship of corruption.
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
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
Oh yes, and Why. This ain't right. Can't be. Has to be another way.
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
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.
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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THE LIFE AND TIMES OF DOÑA AURA -- VILLAGE MATRIARCH
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
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
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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