Peter Nelson’s travels – San Fernando de Atabapo, Venezuela

by Peter Nelson 

Time to move on.  Somewhere, at this point, “the decision” was made to continue upriver, to press on, not to go back the way I had come.  But it wasn’t a conscious decision.  I just walked down to the airport and bought a ticket.  Always forward, never backward, must have been what I was thinking.  This was my first time on a plane since leaving San Andreas.  The Orinoco River above Puerto Ayacucho is not navigable, due to many small waterfalls, so I had to fly.  Strange, though.  Judging from all the villages shown on the few maps I’ve seen, the unnavigable section of the Orinoco is more thickly populated than the navigable portion.  Mind you, that dot on the map with a name beside it might be a memory, rather than an inhabited village.

At any rate, it’s a short and uneventful flight.  It’s also a short and uneventful walk from the airport to the town of San Fernando de Atabapo.  Not only am I not the center of attention (highly unusual), no one pays the slightest bit of attention to me.  In fact, everyone soon disappears.  Is it siesta time?  Anyway, the town’s dusty and empty, but a small concrete building off the main square has an open central patio which is shaded and cool.  Seems to be the local administrative office, has the post office, anyway.  For lack of an alternative plan, I sit down on the steps, pull out Thucydides, who’s still slogging his way through this interminable war, and wait for something to happen.

Nothing does.

The afternoon passes, no one turns up to open any of the offices, there’s hardly a sound in the town.  I’m starting to have vague misgivings.  Why am I here?  More importantly, why is nobody else here?  Eventually I get up, bored with The Endless Peloponnesian War, and walk outside.  Still nobody in sight, but as I wander the streets, I hear some sounds not too far away.

And, presto!  I’m rescued.

I’m discovered, discussed, and escorted to someone’s house for a meal.  Is it a restaurant?  A home for the homeless?  Whatever, the food’s hot and tasty, and Mamacita has a cheery maternal smile.  Then my young Samaritans take me to a vacant hut which turns out to be my home for the next few weeks.  A thatched job, roof and walls, with a hard dirt floor.  Two big rooms, actually furnished with one small bed and a real table!  No chairs, no glass in the windows, which are just rectangles cut out of the thatch, but the doorless doorways are big enough to let in a fair bit of the brilliant sunshine.  At twilight, the town’s generator starts up, so we have electricity until about10:00.  In my humble abode, the only electrical appliance is a single bare light bulb dangling from the shaggy, sagging roof.

As I travelled upstream, the towns got smaller and smaller, and the people got friendlier and friendlier (a coincidence?).  Most often, I was given a hammock in a corner of some family’s hut, or on rare occasions, a room of my own.  But here in San Fernando de Atabapo, I’ve got an entire house to myself.  It’s very humbling in fact to look back on my jungle days and consider how wonderfully everyone treated me, especially considering that even a charitable observer would label my appearance as “suspicious”.  Yet I never had the slightest trouble of any kind, and was continually amazed at the number of people willing to go to considerable inconvenience to help me in every manner possible.  It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that the ordinary people of this world share a common bond of charity and generosity, whatever the political leanings of their ignorant “leaders”.  Get rid of Nixon and Kosygin, and the Cold War would have lasted about as long as a snowflake on a candle.

Plus, look at all the money I’m saving.  The last time I spent as much as a medio (5 ½ cents) was 10 days ago.  I sometimes wonder if money even exists in some of these little places.  I’ve never seen any.

So my life settles down into the local rhythms.  I have two meals a day, both at Mamacita’s.  Never have breakfast.  I sleep, I get up, I walk around until lunchtime.  I eat, I come back to my hut for a read and an afternoon snooze.  I get up, I walk around until suppertime.  Mostly in the village, rarely in the jungle.  If I ever got out of sight of San Fernando, it would be quite easy to get seriously lost.  Every direction looks the same in this flat, totally overgrown, massively-tangled terrain, and you can’t steer by the sun, because these enormous trees are still hogging all the sunlight.  I eat supper, I walk around in the twilight until the generator comes on.  I go back to the hut and read until I fall asleep.

Life in a jungle village.  Not too exciting.

Then one evening, I’m surprised to hear the unmistakeable sounds of a Western movie coming from a large building.  Must be the school.  I walk around it, but before I find an entrance, I bump into Carlos and the gang.  From then on, we’re inseparable.  There’s a younger guy, Carlos’s brother, I think, and of course, Maria, with the dark and flashing eyes.  We walk around, sit on the road (There are a few vehicles in San Fernando, but in my whole time there, I never saw a single vehicle actually moving) and chat, make jokes.  My command of the Spanish language, especially crude slang, improves by leaps and bounds.  Carlos wants to buy my jeans, or have me mail him some from the States.  He tries to give me the money in advance, but I refuse, knowing I’ll never get around to it.  For that matter, who knows when I’ll get back to the States?

A couple of tapirs grunt around behind my hut.  And living near my hut is a toucan, with this brilliantly colored beak which is way too big for his body.  But he swaggers around like a drunken crow, like a clown, like he owns the place.  Maybe he does own it.

My faith in these Theragran-M multi-vitamin pills borders on the religious.  All around me, people catch colds, have digestive disorders, even the natives get sick occasionally, but I walk through it all with senatorial immunity.  As I continue on, going upstream, travel gets trickier.  The rivers get smaller, and the boat traffic on them is much less frequent.  And of course, I don’t have any maps.  But that isn’t much of a handicap since I don’t have a clue where I’m going.