Photo Feature by Caridad
HAVANA TIMES — In June of last year, I turned 30 and got a trip as gift. Since I don’t enjoy tours organized by others (i.e. “tourist packages”), my friend and I set off on an adventure in southern Venezuela, that paradise of feminine beauty known as La Gran Sabana (The great plain). To travel around La Gran Sabana, you need three things: money, a good car and time.
We didn’t have any of those three things (for a change). My friend had 4 days off work and we had 10 thousand Bolivars between the two of us. At any rate, a modest look around the place was better than nothing.
We arrived at Puerto Ordaz by plane and immediately began looking for transportation, to continue on our way to Kavanayen, where a friend was waiting for us. At the terminal, however, they told us that no buses would be leaving for there until 4 days from then.
It seemed the curse of the number 4 had befallen us.
We had two options: either go back to Caracas or take our chances at Ciudad Bolivar (which meant a delay of several hours).
At the terminal in Ciudad Bolivar we came across a van (a bus of the sort that has a set, urban route) that stopped a “few kilometers” before Kavanayen. We didn’t think twice and boarded the ramshackle van.
The trip was not supposed to take longer than 8 hours. For some reason, however, the landscape outside seemed to lengthen, as though someone were stretching it endlessly. First there was rain, then dry land, then an afternoon sun over beautiful, green fields that would make my heart race, as I began to imagine we were nearing the longed-for Gran Sabana. But no: the place couldn’t have been farther away, or so it seemed to me, at the pace we were going.
Night fell. The Venezuelan National Guard began their interminable inspections, asking people for ID, taking me for an “illegal Colombian immigrant” and almost taking me off the bus, while the other passengers (who had already become familiar with me because of the long journey) defended me and assured the officers I was Cuban. I entertained myself thinking I would spend two of the four days of our trip in a dank military cell.
One of the tires of the van was leaking air and we lost even more time on the road. We saw dark highways surrounded by the homes of Pemon natives, who would occasionally board the bus and travel short distances. When I least expected it – and my neck was already aching from the drowsy bobbing of my head – the driver announced we had reached our destination.
We got off carrying our heavy backpacks and I immediately began to wonder whether the driver hadn’t lied to us and taken us quite far from our final destination, only to get some Bolivares out of us. If anyone wants to travel back in time, or, better said, cross over into a different time, they should definitely visit the “88”, a town also known as La Clarita.
Down the town’s main, narrow, dirt road – barely lit and soaked by the recent rain – dozens of gun-slingers (like those of the Old West) moved about at high speed, not on horseback but on motorcycles. A similar spectacle was offered by nasty-looking, mud-covered fellas who had nothing better to do than display their acrobatic skills, after a long, arduous day looking for gold.
We immediately realized it was a mining town. One of the women we bought coffee from, who looked at us as though we were from outer space, immediately suggested we wait for transportation at the police station that was one kilometer away.
We had no reason to question her advice and we headed down to the “station”: a stall on a small lot of land with a square of cement for a parking space. The police officer on duty allowed us to stay in the “parking lot” to wait for the inter-city bus which, the one we should have had the patience to wait for in Ciudad Bolivar.
As we waited, the cold and drizzle mocked our exhaustion and we ultimately had no choice but to buy some hot dogs across the street – the rather frightening street where a group of boisterous men were knocking back rum and beer.
At midnight, after all of the patrons had left, the hot-dog vendor laughed at our evident fear. Nothing was going to happen to us in that town, not unless we had the bad luck of intercepting a stray bullet shot off during a brawl there.
“The Union doesn’t let people bother those who are passing through. What’s more, what could they possibly take from you that’s worth more a day’s work?”
The hot-dog vendor made a living buying and selling gold. The hot-dog stand was only a front – a needless but advisable one, to be sure. Most of the people who live in that unsightly town weren’t born there, and they have no interest in investing some of their money in improving the town’s appearance. The town’s dirt roads and ugly houses should not deceive one, however, as there is more money there than in many cities and capitals.
At dawn, after a number of buses refused to stop to pick us up (they probably had the same bad impression of that place as we did), we found a taxi that drove us up to the crossroads that would take us to Kavanayen.
We traveled into the savanna for three more hours, until reaching a small town founded by Capuchin missionaries in 1943.
The enormous stone Church, like the houses of the Arekuna Pemon natives in the town, was being prepared for an imminent gathering: the first communion of some 50 boys and girls.
This would have struck me as odd had I not known the history of the town, the history of America in general and about the large number of evangelic missions that, as of the second half of the past century, flooded the Venezuelan Amazon and Gran Sabana.
After two days on the road, it struck me as hugely ironic that I had traveled so far from Caracas only to have the time to go into a Catholic Church to hear the liturgy (a mix of the Gospel and native Venezuelan world-views), to take pictures of uncomfortable little girls in flamboyant white dresses.
The passionate soccer match outside came to a halt, bathroom stalls were set up at a nearby pipe, cachiri and cassava began to be cooked and everyone, almost without exception, crowded together to bless those who were being initiated through the body and blood of Christ.
The leader of the community gave us a warm welcome and offered us a place to sleep in. We had brought a tent and had planned to set up camp where the tourists who visit the town throughout the year usually do so, but they insisted and we didn’t want to turn down their hospitality.
The friend of ours introduced us to one of the teachers of the school where the children learn all of the basic things taught at any school, and things related to their culture also, in both Spanish and Arekuna.
Surviving is slowly becoming one of the thorny issues facing the people of the community. The lands are increasingly infertile (the Gran Sabana isn’t exactly known for its fertility) and digging for gold is becoming the only profitable activity in the region.
Our friend is sad for long periods. He drinks cachiri to forget the fact that, though he dislikes the idea, he will also have to start digging for gold illegally at some point. It is not the path to follow, he tells us, “we can’t destroy the earth that way,” but, in his eyes, one senses exhaustion. Even though he studies at the Indigenous University there and has options that his friends do not, he has no idea what the future will bring. The worst is what comes along with the gold and the tourists who arrive every year in their 4x4s and their speakers blaring reggaeton music. Many of his friends are already doing drugs.
The Pemon natives, peaceful and sweet by nature, also disapprove of the increasingly frequent marriages with non-natives. These men go in search of better living conditions or quite simply fall in love and bring their partners into the community. Though divorce is something natural for them, marriage is sacred to them.
We prepare for the trip back to Caracas early in the morning. Reaching the highway that splits the Gran Sabana in two is harder than traveling from Caracas to Kavanayen, but we were lucky enough to run into one of those men who go around indigenous communities buying gold from them. He offers us a free lift and even shows us that golden dust, over which so many people have died, and thanks to which many people in and outside the Gran Sabana manage to survive and even live a life of luxury.
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