In the village, the tinsel, fairy lights and coloured balls, the plastic pine trees, crackers and plump, scarlet Father Christmases go up one by one. Children are good for once, blackmailed by the prospect of presents by the bucket.
The streets of El Pauji, a map-prick in the bush of southeastern Venezuela, have been deserted for weeks now. No-one meets in the evenings around the general store, or sits outside on plastic chairs sipping beers. The chickens seem to sense something is afoot. They cluck far from the houses and pick listlessly at dog-ends, eyes peeled.
Out-of-towners start to arrive in the week running up to the 25th. Families of Pemon Indians, who might have walked for days across the patchwork of plains and forests of the Gran Sabana, laden with food from their forest clearings, are re-united. The women prepare litres of kachiri (manioc root gut-rot) for weeks in advance of the “Krismasi” Festival – the “Christmas” of the Anglophile missionaries of earlier this century – and the men do a grand job of drinking it all.
The Brazilians (the border is only a few hours away) roll in too, in cars no-one would think could make it down the 50 miles of suspension-bashing road. Out come the guitars, the bongos and the bottles of rum, the cigarettes and songs, and it’s only three in the afternoon. Where’s the party, they want to know, unaware that they’re it.
Doï¿½a Aura, the village matriarch, likes Christmas. Her assorted offspring come back to the nest and she likes to think her gaudy, bleached decorations outshine everyone else’s. Business is good in her restaurant. She gets a chance to hear news from the Outside, and regales visitors with the local gossip, of which there is plenty. Nothing escapes Doï¿½a Aura. She holds court by the door, barking orders at her youngest daughter, arms folded across her bosom-belly, cackling at her own vulgar jokes. Stray, mangy dogs snoop about hoping for scraps, until a stone in the backside sends them back to their bone-dreams in the shade.
As the 25th approaches, the men start trickling back into the village from the myriad creeks they’ve been panning. The general store becomes a hub of activity. The ancient scales come out of their box and preside over the once-blue table outside. Tambara, who shuffles the shop – ‘runs’ wouldn’t be altogether accurate – tries to keep up with the stream of miners. Arguments break out. Curses are exchanged, tall stories elongated and beer bottles emptied.
The name of Tambara’s store translates as ‘The Fight for the Fiver’. The miners extract hollowed tubes of bamboo from inside their trousers, and delicately decant their gold dust onto the dish. A tense silence rules while all eyes follow the listing, tick-tock motion of the apparatus. Tambara had some electronic scales at some point, but no-one trusted them. The weight finally established, bundles of notes are handed over, more gripes about the price aired, and more beer bought.
Tambara was one of the men who found the second-largest diamond in South American history, the “Barabas” stone. One hundred and fifty four carats of
billion year-old carbon. Tambara and his partners sold it for a pittance, and then the one whose name stuck to the stone’s, Barabas, scarpered with most of the money.
Next door, in his tin sweat box, Jose the Brazilian diamond-buyer is also hard at work. Diamonds are trickier than gold. It’s harder to determine a stone’s quality. Some of the men will have been working alone for weeks, camped deep in the forest. Lonely, scared and hungry. If a buyer then claims there’s a hairline crack in a diamond, just to get the price down, things can get ugly. The nearest National Guard outpost is an hour and a half away, and they have to hitch-hike to get to the scene of a crime. Miners honour a complex verbal code of conduct, but “my gun is bigger than yours” also seems a popular way of settling disagreements.
A schedule of yuletide events slowly takes shape. The local bar, recently equipped with a satellite dish and a dance-floor, is plugging a happy hour till 7. The community hall will host a Bingo Baile, a dancing bingo ball, until the electricity grinds to a halt at 9, or someone donates a generator for the night. The local band isn’t quite sure whether to play at Christmas or on New Year’s Eve. There’s a party at so-and-so’s, bring a bottle. The Brazilians have already run out of food and, worse, alcohol. A trip to town
three hours away is in the pipeline. Their hangovers seem to grow more severe every time I see them. Their afternoons are spent down by the rivers, being pummelled back to Earth by the various waterfalls.
On Christmas Eve, my English friend volunteers under duress to walk the two
mile round-trip to buy the rum. He returns an hour later, walking none-too
steadily despite a remarkable improvement in the fluency of his Spanish, one
bottle clear to the half-way mark. A dented cauldron makes its annual appearance, fruit is sliced, sugar and water added, bottles emptied, and we’re off: caipirinhas all round.
Later we shamble over to a neighbour’s house, draped in sheets as the Wise Kings, singing English carols and bearing gifts. We missed the Happy Hour, and so too the satellite link-up. By then, even the dancing and bingo were looking doubtful, although we did make it into the village eventually.
I don’t remember getting home, but I do recall telling a miner at some point that in my country Christmases were white. “Ha!” he said, producing a nugget from his pocket. “Out here, my friend, they’re golden!”
The golden man? Well, not quite, but certainly the closest I’ll get to El Dorado.