field notes: Venezuela
It was evening when I got the call from the pilot, “Be at the airport at 6 o’clock tomorrow morning. I’ve got one seat left.” This was the call I had been hoping for for weeks at that point! I didn’t have much to pack: a bit of camera gear, some clothes, and a toothbrush.
I was living in Venezuela at the time, trying to document some of the tribal culture in the Amazonian region of the country. Access into the jungle was the trick. The military went in and out; there were also private companies that had a handful of small planes, if you were brave you could buy passage on one of those. The problem was that most of these companies did not have a very good record for maintaining their planes. If you have ever flown over the Amazon jungle you realize very quickly that there are very few places to safely put down a small plane that has engine trouble.
This pilot worked with the only company I would trust my life with, a small faith-based organization working in the region that I knew took care of their equipment. I had flown with this pilot before and knew him well enough to trust his skills, which were excellent.
There was one condition to my proffered seat on that plane... I was told there was no guarantee of when I might get out of the jungle (it could be anywhere between 2 days or 2 weeks), and the plane would probably end up in a town three quarters way across the jungle, meaning I would have to acquire other means of transport home. This was beginning to feel like a Walter Mitty story. Nevertheless, I had very few options to reach the remote location for which I was headed, so I packed my bag and set my alarm for early the next morning.
The flight took us away from town, where the landscape quickly turned to a never ending sea of green. The jungle is an extraordinary place! There is so much life in it (much of which would gladly take yours), but from up here all I could see was a carpet of bright green broccoli. We had several stops that day, but we ended up on a tiny grass runway not much longer than a football field, only a few hundred kilometers from the Brazilian border.
Did I mention that the village that we were to spend a few days in is home to one of the fiercest people groups in the Amazon? In the Yanomami world, even today, it is not uncommon for a village’s fighting men to gather, slather themselves in war-paint, shoot a bunch of drugs up their noses, and then run off to the next village to kill, plunder, and steal a few women. The typical village is comprised of a few large, round houses, massive enclosures that have a large open area in the middle. There is a semblance of a roof that rings the structure so that there is protection from the elements but the center of this “house” can be fifty meters across. With this design there are only one or two openings in the outer wall. This provides relative safety from raiding parties that might come from neighboring villages, and provides a place for communal ceremonies in the center space.
I was able to sit with the leaders and hear their stories. One sat in a low hammock made from thin strips of tree bark; around him the other men squatted low on the hard dirt floor or leaned against one of the poles holding up the thatch roof. I watched the surreal scene play out in front of my camera as the smoke wafted around us. I heard shuffling and giggling behind me and turned to see that I was surrounded by children all vying for a spot that allowed them a view of the back of my camera. Seeing the scene in this way was something very new for these kids, so they sat keeping me company.
On a different day I watched a small trading party push through the thick green curtain that was the edge of the jungle next to the grass air strip. They had come dressed in their finest, the paint glistened on their faces and bodies in fierce but random patterns, they even had their hair done just for the occasion. (They had some kind of sticky stuff smeared into their hair and then had added bird down, which made their hair white and fluffy while their faces looked rather intimidating.) It was quite a sight to see them parading out of the jungle with their weapons in hand (for protection and not for violence on this occasion).
I spent several days in this village before we left for another location. It was the last time I would be in this area of the Amazon. As we climbed back into the small plane there were handshakes, smiles and and plenty of slaps on my back. The stories and the faces of these people are forever locked in my mind.
My plane ride ended in a small town on the Colombian border called Puerto Ayacucho. This was the epitome of an Amazonian frontier town. Dusty streets, feral animals and noisy chaotic traffic were everywhere. Markets overflow into the streets living little room for the traffic which is crawly noisily by the stalls. The military have a presence on random corners with their mix-matched camo uniforms and automatic weapons slung across their chests. It feels a bit like a scene out of a movie and Indiana Jones is just about to walk onto the set. I must have gotten there just before they called “Action!”
I managed to get a seat on the night bus that was headed back across the country so I only had a few hours to spare. There was just enough time for some street food (I’m not totally sure what was in there) and a lukewarm soda from the vender down the street enjoyed under the shade of a scraggly tree next to the bus stop. Fourteen hours on the bus driving on roads that are scary enough during the day let alone in the middle of the night, and I was back home with my wife and two kids. I had the chance to get out into the jungle a few more times to talk to other people groups.
No other trip was as memorable as this one but all were exciting. We drove the narrow roads that worked their way up the majestic Andes mountains, we watched giant river otters playing in the clear water of a jungle river, we went spearfishing for peacock bass in the Orinoco while trying to avoid the water snakes, we snorkeled off the northern coast in the warmer waters of the Caribbean Sea, and on the list of adventures go.
Life is truly one giant adventure...