Today is 21 December - the shortest day of the year. This doesnīt mean much when at 4 degrees latitude. It did rain quite a bit which is "unusual" during the "dry season", but I tend to have that effect on weather. (I went to Joshua Tree and it rained). In any case, weīve been through a couple days of exploring and volunteering and generally enjoying Venezuela. The volunteering bit was a tad more complicated than we realized before arrival. Thereīs 2 ex-pat German groups here, Manfred with whom we had original contact, and Giorgio and Claudia, who are working with the Indian village and running the hostel. So we live with G&C, and work with Manfred M-W-F, and in the Indian village Tues and Thurs. In between thereīs lots of gossip, some Spanish, some German, and cheap Venezuelan beer which comes in these cute little 0.22L bottles. I think the theory is that the bottles would get warm before being fully consumed if they were made any larger. At least theyīre only about 35 cents each.
A short explanation of internet access: I can use the computer here at the hostel, but the bandwidth is maybe 14.4 on a reallly good day (satellite phone). So I write these long winded things and then send them out. I can usually drink two beers in the time that takes. But to actually read email we need to go to the internet Cafe downtown, which has a very reasonable data rate, and a pretty good latte as well. Thatīs a 40 minute walk each way, or a shorter bike down, and a walk-bike back depending on level of darkness, so doesnīt happen too often. we were going to head into Sta Elena tonight, but wussed on account of the rains. On the one hand, itīs nice and quiet here (well, sorta, when the neighbors arenīt letting us enjoy their music choice of the evening), but itīs pretty hard to run into the big village for some local flavor, internet, or snacks.
We've learned a lot about politics since arrival. On the local level, we have the natives Vs. the Indians, who are trying to break off a corner of Brasil, Guyana, and Venezeula (including Sta. Elena) for their own nation. Fat chance, but thatīs the general attitude. On the national level, thereīs lots of fun with Presidente Chavez, who is moving closer and closer to Dictador Chavez. This has prompted a number of interesting developments on the economics front in the last few years, hereīs a few:
Anyway, signs now point more towards dictatorship, and some recent, somewhat amusing developments include pro-government propaganda printed on all the bags of flour and pasta we buy here (all imported by state run businesses, so they can print away). The long lines at the check points on the bus are another recent development, as is the currency exchange. Officially, and only officially, the exchange rate is 1920 VB to the $ (VB = Venezuelan Bolivar). This was FIXED to the US$ a year or two ago. However, the VB has been dropping even faster than the $US (which is really saying something these days), so that on the black market (which didnīt even exist a year ago) the rate is now 2350-2550 VB to the $, depending on how good you are at negotiating. One stays away from the banks and ATMs and credit cards because youīll just get the official rate that way. No problem since the ATMs we tried in Puerto Ordaz took 20 minutes of standing in line each, but didnīt take our ATM cards.
Local politics with the Indians weīve learned about through water and electricity; two things which donīt mix well but both can teach a lesson in a hurry. Manfred owns a house on a few acres and has big dreams of opening a day care for disabled kids (of whom there are a lot, statistically speaking, due to the inbreeding), and also of re-planting the Savanah above his house to restore it to forrest. All the houses around here, Mandred included, pull water from a stream which runs year round. It tastes a tad foul, but is, weīve been told, safe to drink. We havenīt bothered with the Iodine, and so far so good. The other day, we followed the pipes up into the woods, and up the stream until they ended, randomly stuck in a small pool in the stream, under a rock and with a small filter over the end. Very simple. Also very exposed. The Indians claim to own the source of the stream, and use that to their advantage when there are disputes. Getting back to Manfred; he needed to grow a lot of seedlings in a protected environment before transplanting to the Savanah and the full power of the sun down here (and it donīt fool around at all, lemme tellya). Rather than buy lots of plastic and build a greenhouse he reasoned that by cleaning out the forrest floor next to his house, they plants could grow in shade. A reasonable proposal, although he did cut down and clear out a lot of the fast growing soft wood in the process. The Indians disagreed and slashed the hell out of his water pipe. This all happened just before our arrival, so that C&G had to run off a couple times to "neighborhood committee meetings", an idea I found amusing because it conjures up images of mostly retired suburbanites on power trips writing neighborhood rules to keep anyone from hanging out unsightly lingerie or something equally inane. Apparently the situation really isnīt any better here. So much for the simple, quiet, country life. Anyway, having cleaned the forrest nicely, the neighbors basically told him to put it all back, which weīre helping with at times. not a great feeling of accomplishment there.
More about the area weīre in called "La Gran Sabana", which is more or less "the big grass land", and itīs a mixture of rain forrest and grassy praire. Daily now we see smoke from small grass fires. The excuses the Indians provide for such fires range from needing to burn the grass to prepare the soil for crops, to keeping the snakes down. So the grasses burn, and usually a little bit of forrest as well, and not much gets a chance to grow back. Manfred, among others, suspects that this whole area was forrest a few hundred years ago, and the grassland is purely man made. It is an irony of the rain forrest that the soil is phenomenally poor. This is pretty well known, but I have a much better appreciation for it now, having been digging in the stuff. Itīs almost like tundra in some ways - drive across it, and it does not grow back. Drive across a few times to wear in tire tracks, and the next major rain (uh, tomorrow) will erode ruts through the clay and sandstone 6 ft deep (really. walked over some of them today). The soil here is not made for agriculture, or supporting much of anything. There are no chickens because there is nothing natural for them to eat, which on the bright side, is fantastic for being able to sleep past 4am! Slash-and-burn apparently was never a particularly sustainable way of living off the land, and like everything else gets worse with population.
So one project is finding ways for the local Indians to live without slash-n-burn. The idea is to promote eco-tourism, under the theory that if the Indians realize that tourists only want to see nice pretty rain forrests, they wonīt burn them down. But based on todayīs experience, Iīm skeptical. For one thing, another improvement project for the village is making a clean water source, either by digging a well ( the first attempt turned up pretty nasty water), or piping (heh, the irony) water down from a stream. Thereīs a nice stream which runs around the village, so whatīs the deal? well, apparently 2nd century sanitation sense of taking the drinking water from the upstream part, and using the downstream part for washing /toilet hasnīt penetrated here yet. The Cuban doctor who visited the village was amazed (and appalled) by the parasites he found. So anyway, if they canīt figure out that much for their own health, expecting them to break a centuries old habbit of lighting everything on fire before planting things just for a few tourists seems rather optimistic. For that matter, driving tourists in will be hell on the road, and the village life. And really, from what weīve seen, the Indians here arenīt doing so badly. They sell a few things for money, but can support themselves quite well enough without, and mostly use the money to drink anyway. A dirty stereotype I know, but weīve been promised the sight of many drunk indians wandering vaguely homeward after selling their wares at market on Fridays. Weīll see. and maybe we will this week since apparently our guide for the weekend was pissed off by Heiko (the German volunteer), and has taken another job. Weīll have to look for another guide in the morning. We canīt hike without a guide, both for lacking of knowledge (and there are no maps, real trails etc.) and because itīs Indian land which requires use of guide/porter.
well thatīs much more than any of you really wanted to know, and the pouri-pouri (gnat like insects from hell which bite frequently leaving red dots that swell and itch) are eating my feet so time for some socks.
hasta el internet connectivo proximo, y Feliz Navidad!
P.S. In case anyone remembers far enough back to wonder about the electricity, the story there is much like the water pipes. Venezuela has done one thing very well, and that is produce over 80% of all electricity by hydro power which they consume and sell the extra to Brazil. Energy is VERY cheap here - both petrol and electrical. Anyway, the hydro lines were run from the damn we saw in Puerto Ordaz down to here and on into Brazil about 3 years ago. They run straight across the Gran Sabana, much to the rage of the Indians, UNESCO, National Geographic, and a number of other such agencies since the area is a national park, and world protected wilderness area. The Indians, in usual form, cut down a number of the power poles to show their general displeasure. The positive side is that now the power company, to "make ammends" is open to proposals for general improvements to the Indian life, so G&C plan to apply for one of those pretty soon. They stop well short of providing free power to the Indian villages however.