The house, a construction fit for a gnome, typical of the village of El Pauji. Faded and stained photographs lie in front of us on the floor.
“It sounds crazy, but this guy really wanted to kill me,” recalls Nelson, his eyes glazed with memories. “We were so captivated by the Sabana, though, it didn’t seem too odd to use the plane for a while. I never thought we’d end up staying there for as long as we did.”
Nelson tells his story with a broad, cheeky grin on his weathered, handsome face, shaded by the straw hat which rarely leaves his head. He’d fallen in love with Elisabeth, a married woman. When her husband threatened retribution, they fled south to the savannah. On their wanderings they discovered the wreck on the edge of a forest: an old DC-3. Young lovers being young lovers, they made it their home, converting the fuselage. It grew into a meeting place for their artist friends. Over time, news of the “Aeroplane Workshop” and the artists who gathered there spread. There are dreams of a Museum of Landscape, sculpture parks, conventions and competitions, although some would call communicating an anti-mining message in the middle of a gold rush on the silly side of futile.
Nelson passes me other photos, all that’s left of the avion. After he abandoned the fuselage and moved to El Paujï¿½, someone with a blow-torch cut it up for scrap.
“The leaky roof and low ceiling were a pain in the neck anyway,” he admits, grinning. He still does all his cooking outdoors though, come rain or more rain. Old habits, like DC-3’s, die hard in the Sabana.
Live-hards like Nelson’s are not uncommon in El Paujï¿½, lost at the southern edge of the Gran Sabana in Venezuela’s southeast. Its villagers are mostly professionals who turned their backs on the bump and grind of Latin American city life to build basic but ingenious houses and a remarkable community alongside the Pemon Indians.
The story of how I came to know and fall in love with this colourful community is shrouded in words like “destiny” and “fate” or, for the more cynical, attributable to too many readings of The Celestine Prophecy. Not to start with, though. The description of the village in my Lonely Planet guidebook, said something along the lines of “a good place to stay for a few days, friendly locals, lots of walks to waterfalls and beauty spots.” Nothing fateful about that.
But the thing is, I came to Venezuela to find my French girlfriend. I lost touch with her, and, having grown bored of Caracas and worried about my finances, I decided to enjoy what was left of my holiday – alone.
A week later I found myself in El Paujï¿½, with a head full of the sights of the Sabana. Torrential rain storms had dogged and depressed me most of the jeep-bound day, and the parrot in the village’s local cafï¿½ looked prettier than me.
One afternoon I’m lounging near the road, waiting for the sun to set, so I can take yet another photo. I’ve spent the last four days exploring the hills and enjoying the waterfalls and rivers. A jeep makes its way laboriously up the dirt road toward me. I peer into the distance. The car looks vaguely familiar. Behind the wheel, a squat figure with bushy white hair looks like someone I … As the vehicle comes within 50 yards or so, I see agitated movement in the back seat. It lurches to a stop. Dust billows up from all sides. A girl I swear is my girlfriend emerges from the cloud, and in slow motion and Vaseline-vision, runs towards me. Somewhere hidden in the bushes, an accompanying string quartet strikes up.
She says she mentioned the village at some point. I say she never did. And all because of a photo. From that moment on, the impressive plains are magically transformed into haunting patchworks with hues of the richest green, waterfalls metamorphose from natural wonders into gushing torrents brimming with messages only the love-struck can decipher, and dense forests suddenly become auditoria where each bird sings an aria for my delight alone, where every new plant or flower unfolds solely for my benefit and wonder.
Well, that’s it. I’m suckered. Or maybe Sabana-ed.
My quest has not been in vain: my dream has come true. Every night I drift off to sleep under a blanket of twinkling stars, wafted o’er by the warm currents of my happiness and relief. But then the Gran Sabana is a land of myths and dreams: Walter Raleigh’s mad goose chase across the “large, rich and beautiful empyre of Guiana,” Conan Doyle’s fantastical Lost World, those illusive men without heads and the too-tall tales of Lake Manoa and El Dorado. Little green men, big white saucers, lost tribes, giants and ‘energy’ are part of everyday life.
The Renaissance dreams of intoxicating wealth, not unlike my lusty Francophile longings, have also been fulfilled – but the nightmare future generations will suffer for the “greed today, drought tomorrow” gold rush doesn’t bare even thinking. The Gran Sabana may well be littered with gold and diamonds (“the Moon’s tears”, as the Pemon say), as if there had been a hole in God’s pocket as he wandered across this earthly paradise sowing His divine seeds, but that doesn’t comfort the Pemon who lose their land; resuscitate the rivers laden with sediment and mercury; or replace the animals which spiral towards extinction. At first, I thought the sabanero habit of walking around with head stooped, eyes scouring the earth was a sign of depression. In fact, they’re just checking to see if the rains have unearthed a month’s wages. But then, all that glistens is not gold you might tread on.
The area west of El Paujï¿½ is now one of the feverish hearts of the new gold rush which swept over the Amazon and the Orinoco basins in the last decade. Day by day, the veins of greed and destruction burrow their way deeper into the fragile forest. With so much money to be made, there’s little hope of saving this invaluable ecosystem. It would take radical action by the government – that, or a huge world-wide drop in the price of gold.
Although he would rather tend his vegetable patch and rosehip orchard, Paulista has lived by mining most of his life. He spends days down by his river, bent double, digging, panning, and hoping. Once in a while we go together, spinning his weather-beaten wooden pan to the lilt of Brazilian ballads until that fateful moment when the last sand is pushed away and the shiny gold dust lights up our faces. Usually just enough for dinner and a few beers.
Paulista struggled to buy the house which he moved in to, and dreams of making a tourist camp down by the brook which ambles by his house. But there are no land titles and even if there were, Paulista hasn’t two coins to rub together. El Paujï¿½ is the frontier in every sense of the world: no taxes, no police, no law.
Over the last decade the villagers have built a school from scratch. At first, parents taught what they knew to ‘criollo’ and Pemon children alike, and there are now three permanent teachers, a dusty old computer and a leaky roof. To the east of the village, a dancehall which has grown into a center for the community’s cultural activities, dominates a hillside. Also, a casa de la cultura which buys and displays local arts and crafts. Most years they hold a Creator’s Encounter. Here, musicians, artists, dancers, and bohemians converge to exchange ideas and launch projects. All this in what is, frankly, the epicentre of the middle of nowhere.
I’ve been back three times now, irresistibly drawn by some centripetal force to the place where I’m happiest. My French love has since faded like the ink of our letters, though my love for the Sabana, its people and all things bright and beautiful hasn’t dimmed a watt.
You’ll spot me a mile off. Mid-twenties, ragged sun hat, dishevelled clothing, shuffling along, eyes glued to the road. It won’t be the Gran Sabana’s gold I’m chasing. It’ll be that multi-coloured arc thing beyond.