by Paul Huebener
In Santa Elena, Venezuela, there are no stop signs. Despite its location in the country’s southern backwaters, the town of fruit stands and diamond peddlers is a bustling hub, home to nearly 30,000 people. Somehow, its thousands of cars, trucks, and unlicensed taxis are kept running by just two gas stations, one of which never opens. And as every intersection is unmarked, a drive through the city is a gauntlet run, made worse by the necessity of squeezing through streets narrowed by the twelve-hour gas station line-up. For pedestrians, life is Darwinian.
Frederic and I dash through a break in the traffic to arrive, sweating, in front of the Gran Café. So far so good, but after a quick glance at each other registering shared confusion, we peer uncertainly down the street. The place we need to find, we have been told, is to the left of the Gran Café.
“Which… left… do you think?” Frederic asks. The Gran Café sits on the corner of two streets, giving the word “left” eight possible meanings.
“Let’s try this way,” I say, and we walk in the direction that doesn’t require us to cross any more streets. Soon, though, it becomes apparent that not only do we not know where we’re going, but we won’t necessarily recognize it when we get there.
“Do you think they’ll have a sign?” I ask, knowing that Frederic won’t have the answer. “I mean, is it a shop of some kind?”
“I don’t know, Paul. It might be just a guy with a truck.”
We try a few more lefts, and eventually come across an auto repair shop in front of which a man is rummaging through a toolbox. Frederic approaches.
“Buenos,” he says, and continues in Spanish. “We’re looking for someone to give us a ride to El Pauji. Do you know where the place is that gives rides to El Pauji?”
“El Pauji!” the man says, sucking air through his teeth. Then, thoughtfully, he adds, “El Pauji, El Pauji.”
A second man, covered in grease, rolls himself out from under a car and the two engage in an extended conversation. Finally, the first man turns to us, smiling.
“Sí,” he says. “We can drive you to El Pauji. When do you want to leave?”
I raise my eyebrows at Frederic, who asks the man, “How much?”
“Three hundred thousand,” the man replies.
“Three hundred thousand?”
“Sí, sí,” he nods. “The roads are very bad.”
“We don’t have three hundred thousand,” Frederic says.
“Well,” says the man, crossing his arms. “How much do you have?”
“Very little,” Frederic says as we start to back away.
“Ah,” the man says, nodding. “Okay.” He points up the street towards a blue awning beside the Gran Café. “You can get a ride there for twenty thousand.”
“Oh!” we say. Twenty thousand Bolívars, about ten Canadian dollars, is much more appealing. Unsure how to respond to the ease with which this man has betrayed his own attempt to rip us off, we thank him and walk away.
The only person in the vicinity of the blue awning is a gruff-looking man with a beard tending a kiosk of hats. When we ask about a ride to El Pauji he gestures vaguely and mutters something that escapes my unpracticed Spanish ear.
“He says,” Frederic tells me, squinting skeptically down the street, “we must talk to the man who reads the newspaper.”
We walk along past a couple of diamond shops until we come suddenly across a small recess where an elderly man is sitting on a plastic chair reading a newspaper. We ask about the ride.
“Sí,” he says slowly, his eyes returning to the paper after taking us in. “Twenty thousand. Come here tomorrow. Early early.”
I had met Frederic a month earlier when we both started working for a small environmental organization on the outskirts of Santa Elena. He is a young, lanky German with long frizzy hair, and though the odd word confuses him his English is excellent. We spent a few weeks working on sustainable construction projects, taking local children on ecology field trips, and lamenting the fact that the grasslands surrounding Santa Elena were once thriving tropical forests.
When we learned during the course of our work that Santa Elena is a two-hour drive from the edge of the Amazon basin, we were determined to travel to the rainforest, and hopefully camp within it. Organizing the trip, however, proved difficult. Not only did we have to get ourselves to the tiny community of El Pauji, which lies just outside the rainforest, but we needed to have a local guide there ready to help us: a tough arrangement to make so far off the usual tourist routes. After a month of sending word through local acquaintances, we had been told that a man named Juan was waiting to take us into the rainforest.
Frederic and I arrive at the newspaper man’s alcove at six o’clock the next morning, and as no one is around we sit by the curb to wait. Eventually a woman and a boy appear, and pull two chairs up to a small table in front of the diamond shop. The woman assures us that there will be a car to El Pauji very soon. She writes down our names, takes our passport numbers, and asks us for the twenty thousand Bolívars each. It’s risky to pay upfront, but since she has a clipboard Frederic and I decide to assume that she’s legitimate. We give her the money, and sit on the curb again to see if a car will appear or if she will disappear.
After a couple of hours the streets are loud and busy and we have been joined by another eight or ten hopeful passengers. Finally a battered Jeep pulls up, and everyone’s luggage is tied onto the roof. We all squeeze onto the two small sideways benches in the rear of the vehicle, Frederic and I craning our necks against the low roof, trying to find places to situate our various limbs for the journey. By eight-thirty the Jeep is fully loaded and we depart.
At first we follow the highway south towards Brazil, but just short of the border we turn west onto a smaller road that runs along the edge of Venezuela’s Gran Sabana. The Gran Sabana is a savannah landscape of patchy grasses interspersed with remaining sections of tropical forest: a different ecosystem from the famous rainforest of the Amazon, but dazzling nonetheless with its waterfalls and Morpho butterflies. Three hundred years ago this forest covered most of the area, but after several generations of logging, mining, and human-started fires, the grasslands now stretch to the horizon.
We pull up to a military checkpoint where two young soldiers with assault rifles and full-body camouflage approach our Jeep. They beckon Frederic and me to their small outpost, pepper us with questions, and search our travel packs. Our fellow passengers chat and stretch their legs until the guards are satisfied and let us go.
Soon the pavement beneath us turns to gravel and dirt, and our driver navigates a series of small metal bridges, some of which are so collapsed that he opts instead to bounce down into the ravines they are meant to cross. The grasslands on either side of us give way now and then to sections of forest, but the bursts of lush greenery are a bittersweet sight.
“How much longer do you think this forest will be here?” I ask.
“Who knows,” Frederic says. “If this whole part of the country used to be forested, it must be shrinking very fast.” More than once we pass smouldering clearings that have recently been slashed and burned.
After a couple of hours our driver deposits us by the side of the road and pulls away, leaving a cloud of dust. The dry earth in front of us is broken in the middle distance by a stand of trees and a few scattered houses: El Pauji.
We walk towards the trees, scanning the area for the red roof that is supposed to mark Juan’s house. After a few minutes I spot a patch of red half-hidden behind foliage, and as we crest a small hill the structure becomes visible: red sheets of corrugated metal form a roof over an open-air frame of thin wooden poles. Some clothes and a hammock hang from the crossbeams; a collection of small stones and carving tools lies on a board alongside a few cooking utensils and herbs; a steaming pot bubbles over a firepit dug into the earth.
“Ah, Buenos!” says a voice.
We look up and see that a row of poles fixed horizontally seven feet in the air gives the structure a second story just under the sheet metal roof. A man who had been hidden in shadow climbs down onto the ground and grins.
“Buenos, Juan?” Frederic asks.
“Sí,” Juan says, holding out his hand. “Como esta?” Wearing only black surfer shorts and a carved necklace, Juan is a bronze-skinned man in his early thirties. His black hair is tied back in a ponytail. As a member of the indigenous Pemón, Juan is probably more comfortable in the native dialect, but for us he speaks Spanish.
“You are ready to go into the forest?” Juan asks, nodding. “Yes, we will go to the forest. My brother too—he will carry your things. First we have some food, yes?”
Juan serves us spaghetti and thick tomato sauce from the pot on the firepit, and explains that the three of us can leave as soon as we finish eating.
“Shouldn’t we wait for your brother?” Frederic asks. “We could really use his help with our tent and food.”
“No, no,” Juan says. “Don’t worry. We will leave your tent and your food here. When my brother gets here he will see that we have gone, and he will bring your things into the forest for you.”
“Um… Are you sure?” Frederic asks. We look uneasily towards our packs, the awkward tent, and our collection of muesli, bread, and fruit—not to mention the canned sardines, which for some reason are ubiquitous in Santa Elena. Even the short walk to Juan’s house has drenched us with sweat in the equatorial heat, and we have several hours of difficult hiking ahead of us. We might not make it if we try to carry everything ourselves, but arriving in the rainforest with no supplies is a worrying thought.
“We really need the tent and the food,” I say.
Juan laughs. “Don’t worry. He will find us.”
We decide to divide as much food as we can between us, and leave the rest of it sitting beside the tent. Frederic and I have noticed that Juan doesn’t seem to have any food himself, and we point out that the food we are carrying won’t last the three of us very long.
Juan laughs again. “This food is for you,” he says. “I don’t bring food into the forest.”
With this, he sets aside his empty spaghetti plate and produces a small rifle and a package of bullets. He mimes aiming the gun into the forest and pulling the trigger. Grinning, he nods lazily, then stands up; we’re ready to go.
Leaving Juan’s house and his small patch of forest behind, we walk south across dry, dusty earth. Passing a couple of houses that mark the edge of El Pauji, we cross an old gravel runway for light aircraft, overgrown with grasses. Soon we reach the base of a massive ridge that rises steeply in front of us and extends indefinitely in either direction. We begin to climb.
After the better part of an hour clambering up the wall of rock and scrubby bush we are relieved when the terrain levels out, marking the peak of the ridge. As we approach the sharp cliff edge that now drops away in front of us we are stunned by the sight. Beyond the cliff, hundreds of feet below us, and reaching to the far horizon, is the rainforest.
“El Abismo,” Juan says.
An abyss it certainly is, not bottomless, but staggering. At the top of this ridge we stand at the boundary between two worlds: behind us the dusty savannah in which scattered sections of tropical forest fight to hold their ground; in front of us an immense blanket of rainforest so thick that even the rivers Juan points to are invisible beneath the canopy. I am amazed, given our height, that we can hear the steady clamour of a thousand cicada chirps rising through the foliage. Hazy hills in the distance mark the edge of the field of view.
“Those hills are the beginning of Brazil,” Juan tells us, gesturing to the far horizon. “To walk there takes two weeks. And see, over here, is Icabaru.”
We follow Juan’s gaze down to a small bare section in the rainforest on our right hand side, partially obscured by the cliff face. I have heard of Icabaru, a mining community built into the floor of the rainforest.
“They cut down the forest to reach new mining areas,” Juan says. “That town is getting bigger.”
“Are they allowed to cut down the rainforest just like the forest in the Gran Sabana?” I ask.
“No one stops them,” Juan says. “The government, maybe, is going to restrict them sometime. They are thinking about it. But the miners will not stop—they want the jewels.”
I think of my friend Howard who had taken me along to a jewelry shop back in Santa Elena, thrilled that he had found a great deal on diamonds. Neither of us had realized that the shop owner was, in effect, selling the rainforest.
We walk along the top of the ridge until we come across a rough trail winding down the side of the cliff. Juan leads the way over the edge and begins to navigate a series of switchbacks, warning us to watch our footing on the steep rock. Stopping for a rest halfway down, Frederic and I ask Juan if he goes into the rainforest often.
“I’ve spent half my life in the rainforest,” he says. “My parents taught me how to survive in the forest, and I like it there. I was even in the forest when I was in the womb. You need to know what you’re doing in there, but it is a peaceful place. Do you like monkeys? We will see some monkeys. Araguato monkeys, they travel in groups through the trees. Listen.”
Juan points to a spot in the forest below, and we wait. After a few seconds the hollow sound of a distant wind reaches us. It gains strength, and becomes a howl that rises to a crescendo as though a storm were sending ferocious gusts through the forest, though none of the trees appears to move. The noise fades to a whisper, then picks up again.
“Those are the araguato monkeys?” Frederic asks. “The sound is incredible. How did you know they were going to start?”
Juan laughs, nodding. “You learn how to listen in the forest,” he says.
We continue down the hill, and the incline gradually begins to level out. Pushing our way through tall grasses and shrubs, we are unable to see very far ahead, and quite suddenly we find ourselves working our way through dense trees, palms, and fronds: we have entered the rainforest. The hot sticky air is now close and heavy on our sweaty skin, but as we enter the trees the dazzling rays of the sun are blocked, and we relish the shade.
This close to the equator there are no summers and winters—only wet and dry seasons—which means that for the trees here the process of growing and shedding leaves is not seasonal but continuous. With a constant supply of spent leaves the forest floor is in perpetual autumn: our feet shuffle through yellows, browns, dark reds, and purples. But from a couple of inches off the ground all the way to the dappled treetops the forest flourishes in the bright and varied greens of tropical summer. Leaves as wide as beachballs float back and forth over our heads, creating shifting patterns of light as though underwater. Butterflies twirl silently around us in reds, blacks, yellows, greens, and iridescent blues. The sharp electric buzz of the cicadas is everywhere.
Juan stops, turning towards us with his fist outstretched. “Look,” he says. “This one wants to drink your blood.” He opens his hand, revealing a large black fly which twitches, then launches itself into the canopy. Frederic and I gape for a moment, then laugh at Juan’s showing off.
We walk further into the forest, and though the downward slope is not as steep here, the ground is slippery with wet soil and leaves. We cross one shallow stream, and then another, and eventually reach a small clearing which Juan obviously uses regularly as a camp. In the centre of the clearing a few wooden poles are bound together, holding up a tarp to give shelter. Frederic and I drop our packs onto the ground and take long drinks from our water bottles.
A birdcall rings out nearby, followed by an answer. “Toucans,” says Juan, smiling. “There are many toucans here.” I peer into the trees, but there is no way to see them. When the toucans call to each other again, though, the startling cry makes me feel as though seeing the birds may not be the best way to experience them at all. Their call, serrated to cut through the foliage, is a wondrous sound.
Juan begins to build a fire, and explains that the smoke will serve two purposes. “The mosquitoes don’t like the smoke, so it will keep them away,” he says. “And it tells the jaguar that we are in the area, so he will stay away too.”
“Have you seen jaguars here?” Frederic asks.
“Yes, two of them,” Juan says. “But you don’t see them very often—they don’t like people. Usually you hear them. And when you hear them, then you know it’s a good thing they stay away from people. When they roar they make the earth shake.”
It occurs to me that while a tent would hardly protect us from any errant jaguars, it would potentially at least keep out the mosquitoes, but Juan’s brother’s continued absence means we might be spending the night on the forest floor. And as the afternoon sunlight filtering into our clearing is already growing dim, I raise my concern to Juan.
“No problem,” he says, digging through his pack. “You can use my tent.”
“You mean you had a tent all this time?”
“Yes, but I don’t use it. I sleep in my hammock.”
“Okay,” says Frederic, laughing.
We prepare a meal from the food we have with us, and soon we are in darkness. Tired from the hot journey, and grateful for the short equatorial twilight, Frederic and I fall asleep inside the tent. My mind passes the hours with dreams of busy streets and malaria.
An explosion and a flash of light shatter my sleep. Heart pounding, I can do nothing for several seconds but wait for the ringing in my ears to die down. It is the middle of the night—I can see nothing. I realize that the flash of light was an image pressed onto my retinas by my own convulsing eyelids. I hear voices outside the tent, then a second gunshot shatters the night, knocking me flat. I scramble out of the tent, and by the dying firelight I see that a new hammock now hanging beside Juan’s contains a man, leisurely swinging on his back, aiming a rifle into the trees.
“Hola!” he says, grinning. He puts down his bottle of rum in order to shake my hand.
“Hola,” I say, rather weakly.
“This is my brother,” Juan says, also grinning. “Don’t worry, no problem here. The gun will keep away the jaguars. My brother will teach you all the tricks. If you want to keep away the jaguars you bring a gun to scare them, and they hate bad smells, so you need to smoke a lot of cigarettes and eat a lot of garlic.”
“And drink coffee,” Juan’s brother adds, brandishing the rum. “Coffee?” he asks, offering me the bottle.
“No thank you,” I say.
I climb back into the tent and wrestle into my sleeping bag. Frederic releases a deluge of swear words and we lie in the darkness, our breathing slowly returning to normal.
“Did he at least bring the food?” Frederic asks.
“I have no idea.”
When the tent glows with dawn the next morning I clamber out to find our clearing blanketed in mist, already starting to burn off in the sun. Juan has disappeared, but his brother is still lying in the second hammock. As I approach I realize that I don’t know this man’s name, but it seems inappropriate to ask now that we’ve been on such intimate terms.
“Good morning!” he says, reaching down towards the bottle of rum. “Coffee?”
“No thanks,” I say. I prepare some muesli for breakfast, and Frederic joins me. Juan’s brother turns down our offer of food, and contents himself instead with a swig of rum.
With a full day in the rainforest ahead of us, and food in our stomachs, Frederic and I find ourselves able to laugh about the night’s firearm demonstration. Our chuckling is cut short, though, by another gunshot. This one comes from some distance away inside the forest.
A few minutes later Juan appears holding his gun and a dead pheasant. He builds a fire, plucks the bird, and roasts it. He gives Frederic and me a small piece to sample, but puts the rest aside without eating any himself.
“For my sister,” he says, smiling, as he eats a banana he has found somewhere.
The four of us set out on a hike taking just a daypack with the essential water, fruit, and rum. As soon as we leave camp we hear a toucan call and look up to see two toucans flying from one tree to another, their enormous beaks distinguishing their shape against the bright sky. A third toucan call startles me: this one comes from Juan as he cups his hands in front of his mouth. The toucans call again, and are joined by several more members of their flock, all chattering to one another as they choose shady perches in the canopy.
We continue into the forest, making our way between tree trunks and giant fronds. We wade across a stream, and on the far side Juan bends down to show us a series of indentations in the mud.
“Jaguar footprints,” he says. “The jaguar was here recently.”
We find our way up a gentle slope, and Juan leads us on. I try to keep track of our direction, but soon realize I would not be able to find my way back to camp alone. Juan, though, knows exactly where he is.
“A little farther,” he says.
Soon we come to the edge of a bluff overlooking a river much larger than the streams we have crossed. We pause for a lunch of fruit, and listen to the chirps and rustlings of the forest and the gurglings of the river. A large fluttering shadow passes over us, and we look up to see a flock of long, elegant birds coasting overhead. Their grand wingspan and long tails make them look like Archaeopteryx, or flying dinosaurs.
“Guacamaya birds,” says Juan, as the parrots disappear behind the canopy. “They are endangered. It is worrying to see them this close to the mines, where they may not be safe. But better than not seeing them at all. You know,” he continues, “my grandfathers were hunters. The Pemón at that time wore only thongs. The men would have five spouses. They hunted with arrows, of course. Things were different.” He peers north, where the towering wall of El Abismo is just visible in the distance through the trees. “Now we have left most of those ways behind. Some of us still hunt, but it’s getting difficult. There aren’t as many animals as there used to be, at least in the Gran Sabana.”
“Is it true that the Pemón came from the Caribbean a few hundred years ago?” I ask.
“Well,” Juan says, “That’s what they tell us in the history, in the books. I think it is true, but…” he pauses. “We don’t know.”
“Are there Pemón stories that tell about the past?”
“Oh, there are some. My grandmother used to tell them. But I don’t remember them so good.”
In Santa Elena I had talked with Manfred, the founder of the environmental organization, about recent changes in Pemón culture. He told me the Pemón were famous for basket weaving, but that he never saw any of his Pemón friends making the traditional baskets. When he asked about it, he found that the weaving skills had mostly been forgotten except among a handful of elders. So Manfred, a foreigner, set up a workshop for the elders to teach basket making to the younger generation. His intentions were good, but I wonder if the nostalgia he feels for a lifestyle he has never experienced may be misplaced. The Pemón are navigating an abismo of their own as they make the jarring transition into 21st century globalization, and keeping things the same as they used to be isn’t an option. Maybe Manfred is realizing now that the basket weaving isn’t going to work for them any more: that new traditions will have to emerge. Of course, as a Canadian who feels nostalgia for the Venezuelan rainforest, I’m hardly one to criticize his meddling.
“We still speak our language though,” Juan says. “Our children learn our language first, and Spanish second. People are mostly happy in our villages.”
“That’s good,” I say. “And what about the rainforest? Do you think it will last?” I don’t voice the feeling in my gut, that the loss of the rainforest may be something we will soon have to accept, like our own mortality.
“A lot of the forest is being destroyed. But right now there is still a lot of forest left, too.” He gestures south towards Brazil. “You can walk for weeks and not leave the forest.” He considers for a moment as we watch the flow of the river. “It will depend on what people want,” he says. “If they want jewels or if they want the forest.”
I am about to point out that most rainforest clearcuts are done not to find jewels, but to produce timber, create cattle lots, or grow feed for fast-food chickens. But maybe these things are jewels, too, in a way. Juan is saying that Santa Elena and the rest of the world would do well to internalize sustainability, and put up a few psychological stop signs. But this, of course, we have long known.
I glance at Juan’s brother sitting to one side, and see that he has quietly been doing some weaving of his own. He has torn a long piece of soft bark into thin strips, and woven them together into a small tube.
“Here,” he says, holding one end of the tube out towards Frederic, indicating that Frederic is to insert a finger. Frederic sticks his finger in the tube and can’t get it out again. The harder he pulls the more the tube tightens and squeezes. He chuckles.
“This is a girlfriend catcher,” says Juan’s brother. “I will show you how to make one. Then you can catch a girlfriend.” It’s not exactly a traditional Pemón basket, but it has its uses.
On the walk back to camp, Juan’s promise of araguato monkeys is fulfilled when a band of them jump and crash through the canopy overhead. The thick foliage hides them from view, so we scramble along in their wake hoping for a clearer line of sight, Juan and his brother making short imitation calls. Several times we catch glimpses of brown furred bodies leaping overhead before the band outpaces us and we are left alone.
Back at camp, Frederic and I ease our own sweaty and aching bodies in the deliciously cool stream. Sick of the chemical taste of purification tablets, I give in to the tempting water and drink and drink.
The next morning it’s time to pack up. We leave the camp and begin the long walk back towards El Abismo, knowing that this time we will have to climb up the cliff face instead of down. When we stop for a rest not far from the edge of the forest, Juan points to a group of termites scurrying across the leaf-strewn floor.
“It will rain at twelve today,” he says simply.
We notice a plump anteater, which avoids us by climbing a tree at an entirely unalarmed pace. Then we emerge from the forest into a shining white mist. At the top of El Abismo we pause and look back out over the rainforest, now bathed in low clouds. I am struck by a vision of the mist clearing to reveal a dusty savannah stretching to the horizon: of a rainforest lost to quick cash or global warming’s fires. The cicadas clamor.
Collapsing onto a bench a few hours later back in El Pauji, Frederic and I thank Juan and his brother for guiding us.
“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Juan says. “You seemed desperate to see the rainforest.”
“I was,” I say. “I don’t know if I’ll have another chance.”
Juan and his brother shake our hands and walk in the direction of Juan’s house. They turn out of sight as the first drops of rain begin to fall.
“It’s 12:06,” Frederic says. “Our ride back to Santa Elena should arrive any day now.”
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