OFF THE ROAD
Message sent to friends and family, returning
to El Pauji after two years' absence
to El Pau--" said Jorge, aged 9, at the top of the last hill.
Famous last words.
Cough. Splutter. Cough. Death by Niiii.
It turned out to be something to do with the distributor cables.
They were drenched in battery acid. Then again, it could have been
little green men fiddling with my points. Ignorance is not always
The definition of 'road' should be re-thought. It's a word too lightly
bandied about. "2 miles down the road". "Road rage".
"On the road". "Hit the road". It trips off
the tongue like tarmac. It needs to be redefined because it should
never be applied to the piece of "it" which scours its
way westward from the town of Santa Elena de Uairen, on the border
of Venezuela and Brazil.
Pit. Rock. Mudbath. Pothole. Larger versions of these, mixed in
a terrain blender with a healthy dollop of rain, add tree-trunk
bridges, for about four hours, would be closer to "it".
THE RIVER FLOWS ON
"Todo es vida", called out Cristobal, aged 12, swimming
through the current. Everything is life. Down by the river, letting
ourselves be pummelled by the power of the water. Wooshing down
the flat riverbed into pools. Paddling back up to start again. Sunshine.
Forest. His father, Manuel, looked on with a grin.
It's six years since I met them. Since this river changed my course.
Over on the bank, perched on the hillock is the Gajo. I saw the
house, even took a photo, when I first came down the path that leads
to the falls. Wondered, gawping, whose mind could have dreamt up
such a construction. Later I would meet him, and tell a girl I loved
her, in that house. That was when Manuel and Alina were still a
couple, when tourism was good, when the days passed.
I helped Manuel move his stuff over to his house. Gone is the battery
for the solar panel, and so the lights, the TV and the radio, the
toilet's blocked and there's no gas. It's my car. He's separated,
lives in Miami, is older, and the days pass...
PLACE YOUR BETS
I'd never gone much further than
about 6 kilometres down the road. It always seemed too much hassle.
I'd heard about the people in Cantarana. UFOs and the like. I went
to tour the places you can stay and tick more rivers off my list.
People stuck out in their private No Man's Land, living out lives
many would say were decided for them. One couple, or rather one
man, got me in particular. 'Got' in the sense of stripping your
skin clean, like a banana. Exposing your inner soul, with just a
few pertinent questions. Each one seemed to carry so much weight.
When I told him I was writing a guide, he replied, Yes, but what
are you really writing? He talked of living in the present. He didn't
seem to want me to leave, and there was a strange space as if the
moment was making up its mind. Place your bets I'll meet him again.
I taught her how to say the words forest, savannah, river, leaf
and stick. Little cherubim, in pudding bowl haircut, playing in
the water, splashing about between tantrums. I would take her by
the hand and sit with her on the hill, watching the mist materialise
on the forest's canopy.
"I can sing you a song, if you like," she smiles at me.
"Bye-bye" and "Hello" she parrots in English.
"Let's go to the river," she orders. Her hair is longer,
with a big wide fringe which frames her face and cacao-dark eyes.
She's been to Caracas, I'm told.
Lots of people live there, I'm informed.
Oh, at least eighty. There's lots.
Pierre takes Mamut for a walk.
"He needs his exercise," he says. The sun is low in the
sky, but still warms. There's a dark cloud coming in. Later, a rainbow
shone, and then another.
Mamut bucks and sits up on his hind legs. He seems disinterested
in the grass.
Pierre and Hilda want to get another two. Two females. So they can
have lots of little goats, and probably as much as two litres of
milk a day. And some company, Hilda says with a smile.
Lots of the people have left the village. It's maybe harder for
the ones who have stayed on. Plugging away at the holes in their
roofs and expectations, mending the fences, building more rooms,
or a little terrace there. Much of the life of the village went
with those who left, for one reason or another.
Pierre is skinny. He's 6'4 at least, and can't weigh much more than
me. He's one of the most gentle men I've ever met. No-one has a
problem with Pierre. He's everyone's friend. Especially Mamut's.
"You can visit
it all you wish" said Otto.
Otto's a bitter man I'd say. At least, that's the way he's always
come across to me. If it's not one thing, it's another.
Tourism is bad. The groups that did make it down the road, or came
by plane, have dried up. His camp, all spick and span as it is,
is empty. All that work and nada.
I'd feel sorry for Otto. You would too. The village is highly dependent
on tourism revenues. But the thing is, Otto's camp is a ghost camp.
I've never ever seen anyone stay there. Nor has anyone else, or
very nearly. Otto buys diamonds, not tourist dollars. Diamonds are
a boy's best friend. Forget the rest.
Not that long ago, about a year, Otto and some other villages all
invested in machinery and a mine. It was just down the road from
the village. There were some houses nearby, but not too close. They
bribed the guy with the huge earth-mover for the road. They got
him to excavate a hole as large as half a football pitch in the
river. And then set to work. There are mines everywhere, all around
the village. But this one was too close for some people. Before
they knew it, the mine was denounced in Caracas, the Guardia were
on top of them and the whole thing had to be stopped. One in a hundred.
But one, none the less.
Otto's fate is still unsure. He might yet go to court with the others.
"We should all go back to the caves," he began to ramble
as I started my engine.
The hole will become a lake. With thatched houses and some wooden
boat curiaras to paddle about in.
For the tourists who don't come.
You'll see the photo some time, maybe.
In the foreground, a wooden panel set in a stone base. The words "Bienvenidos al Parque Nacional Canaima" carved in white
letters. The road stretches off into the distance, over the hill
and faraway. The last of the light, struggling between clouds, colours
the panel and the surrounding swaying grass.
Behind it rises a silver cenotaph, a needle planted in this ancient
landscape. It doesn't sway like the moriche palm, or seemlessly
fill the pockets of forest and plain. It stands, testament. We'll
look back on these folies in years to come, and wonder.
The pylons will take electricity to northern Brazil. Or at least
that's what it says on paper. No-one was consulted, least of all
the local Indians. Even the paper makes no economic sense, according
to the conservationist Audubon Society. The money is jobs-for-the-boys
contracts. The beneficiaries of the electricity brought south to
the frontier will be the gold miners and the mining companies. With
greater power at their disposal, the more precious nuggets can be
excavated. The only cure for 'saint-seducing' gold fever: la medicina.
More gold. Unless the stockbrokers and banks cut the ground from
Into the forests of Imataca, the veins of greed burrow. Through
the range of Sierra de Lema, the pylons cut their swathe. And on
down the road in the land of the Pemon and their tepuy mountains,
the testaments to Man's folly are paced every 200 yards.
I was so filled with joy to be here once more, to be stepping back
into this prehistoric world I discovered. I'll never look on the
landscape again, or mention the Gran Sabana again, without thinking
of scars. Bienvenidos.
For more on
El Pauji see www.elpauji.com
more on El Pauji and the Gran Sabana see www.thelostworld.org