Friday, July 17, 2009

To El Paují

6 April, 2007

We thought getting to El Paují would be a simple move, but not on Good Friday. After breakfast we went round to pay our daily call on Andreas at his workshop, where he seems permanently occupied making chairs, and he advised us to arrange our transport at once. In the sawdust on his workbench he drew us a map to the Gran Café, across from which the Asociacion Civil de Toyoteros de Santa Elena was packing Land Cruisers with passengers and luggage.

No, we wouldn't be ready in time to take a shared vehicle. So we'd pay twice as much to hire our own. We negotiated with four different men with no English among them and strong accents which made their Spanish hard to follow. Finally an older man with grey hair, a bulbous nose and a frown--if there was a boss it was he--took over. I wrote our request in my notebook, and the price, and showed it to him, to avoid misunderstanding.

On our way back we were accosted as usual by the moneychangers at Four Corners, the intersection of Calle Urdaneta and Calle Bolívar. Since last week we've been changing our dollars with the same man, who works out of a small office at the back of an arepa shop. The rate has gradually declined from 3,600 bolívares to the dollar last week to 3,500 two days ago to 3,400 this morning--the dollar keeps falling, he tells us cheerfully, bajo, gesturing with both hands.

After lunch we returned to the Asociacion Civil de Toyoteros, where our driver Ricardo and this morning's grey-haired bossman were affixing a new sticker to the Land Cruiser with a damp sponge. We piled in our bags, put B.--still feeling delicate--in the front passenger seat, and the rest of us perched on narrow ledges in the back cabin of the vehicle. We headed off, south, in the direction of the airstrip.

At the military checkpoint there, a soldier made us pull off the road. We couldn't follow his conversation with Ricardo. We began to fumble for our passports. Ricardo jumped out, came round to the back of the Land Cruiser, opened the door. A young soldier peered in. I put my notebook away. Suddenly a large box of groceries--coffee, sugar, cooking oil--was thrust in, followed by two big plastic sacks of frozen meat, followed by the young soldier. We were giving him a lift.

Private Jamarillo asked if we had cigarettes. We didn't. He asked if we were Spanish. He must have been eighteen or nineteen, with melancholy eyes, sharp crewcut, and a little pout. He told us El Paují was good for taking photos. Then he tried to fall asleep.

Half an hour outside Santa Elena the paved road ended and we were driving on red earth. Every few minutes Ricardo would crash over a bump or rut as if trying to achieve flight. One particularly giant crash sent me almost into O.'s lap and Private Jamarillo almost into his box of groceries. I tried a witticism. "Espero que no hay huevos." He chuckled politely and tried to return to his nap.

Another half hour passed. Then just before El Paují we stopped at another checkpoint, where Private Jamarillo and his rations alighted. An exceedingly stern officer looked at our papers. O. asked to use the baño and chivalrous Private Jamarillo showed her the way. She returned horrified by whatever she found there. B. asked for the baño also. The officer nodded in the direction of the northern horizon, broken by distant tepuis, and laughed. "Señor," he said, "La sabana es muy grande." B. hobbled off into the long grass beside the red road.

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