Saturday, June 14, 2008

Delta Amacuro News and Views (5)

Pedernales, or the limits of a revolution

Pedernales sits at the end of Caño Mànamo where the murky waters of the Orinoco meet the muddied waters of the Ocean. All is flat, all is wide, all is far. For some of us, sensible to remote spots on Atlas that make us dream, Pedernales is almost magical, of that edge of the world magic.

Pedernales means "field of stones". There are not many stones there, but there used to be reefs hundreds of thousand of years ago far into the Ocean. The river one day reached and surrounded them with mud flats. Pedernales was named as such because they are the only rocky outcrops of the whole delta, and they offer the only place where houses can be built on ground. But not even that much, as the few rocky island are barely big enough, one for an airstrip, another for nothing except a rustic hotel and the largest one, at the strategic point, big enough for a Coast Guard station and a very few hundred souls.

Pedernales can only collect rain water and fish whatever swims in front. There is a single truck in Pedernales to carry the heavy loads that reach the pier as all must come from outside, probably even water (1). But that is OK, the streets can be gaily painted as only bikes can risk damaging the locals creations. (2)

And yet Pedernales could have been rich. Asphalt was found in the area and exploited in the XIX century. The Manamo was important enough a river road that Pedernales could have benefited from its privileged position, the one where the pilots would come on board to sail the liquid mud up to Tucupita. There they could seek oil in the first half of the XX century, or most of the timber that built cities like Cumana. All cruised in front of Pedernales.

But nothing came of it and Pedernales has remained a forgotten village, truly at the edge of the world. Still, it has failed to become miserable because PDVSA is there and because the coast guard has a nice and modern compound on what is perhaps the only tiny hill of the Delta. Just across the river there is a PDVSA set up, which by itself justifies the maintenance of the airstrip used for their own needs. But what a waste! There is huge gas torch that has been burning perhaps for decades while most of the Manamo lacks electricity. That gas is not even used to boil sea water to collect its dew, it is just a strange beacon that entertains folks seeking a fresh breeze on the river boardwalk at night.

Pedernales is a rather cheerful place. After all the climate is not unhealthy. True, it is humid, warm, but not unhealthy as the tides wash up all and the sea breeze reaches it. Three streets run through it with perhaps a dozen cross ones. It sits mostly on an isthmus between the Coast Guard hill and the swampy area. Its church is strangely attractive, in a naive way, paradoxically the only thing blue when one is surrounded by such brown water, and a gray sky.

Walking through Pedernales I quickly realized that it might a great laboratory to study how far the tentacles of the chavista experiment could reach. After all, it is as remote as possible, without roads to reach it, without regular flights, only boats from Guiria, Trinidad or Tucupita. And all depends from the state as only fisherman and artisans for the rare tourist would make a relatively independent living. Besides, Delta Amacuro is one of the three top vote getters for chavismo in percentage. And there was that fabulous PSUV house, so boldly presenting itself.

But our first surprise was to notice that if chavismo is strong there, it is certainly not overwhelming. Yes, for sure the PSUV house was for all to see and government posters where everywhere. But yet the old COPEI house was still up and was still showing that it had occasional activity, if anything to put posters for the NO.

Pedernales is reasonably clean and reasonably well kept if rather poor. Traditions have survived and even though chavista Venezuela has reached it, tradition is to be seen. These two Warao women were coming back from the market carrying a morocoy, a land turtle, of considerable size if you ask me. I did not talk to them but I talked to another one, a "criollo" woman, who was also carrying an even bigger live animal. They had just arrived that day and apparently it was a major event. The beasts will be settled in their backyard for a few days and fed it plenty. Then they will be killed to do a soup of sorts. I did not ask for the recipe.

But this picture also speaks on different levels. The Warao girls were well fed, well dressed, and yet they walked barefoot. The criollos you might see on other shots all wore shoes. The two cultures have still a long way to go to mix even if both enjoy morocoy sancocho, and even if both shop at the local and lone market.

That was that, the market. Inside only a stand that sold fish and a few vegetables and some dry goods. The fruits were sold on the left. All comes at high tide when the water reaches the market dock. And yet it was still better furnished than the competition: the Mercal located within the evangelical church. It is important to note that the Evangelical community in Venezuela is divided, congregations either support fervently the government or oppose it bitterly. Since I am not a religious person I cannot bother trying to understand the why of each, but it is still an observation worth noting.

At any rate, I visited that Mercal and it was rather bare. Oh, they did have a few things, laundry detergent, some canned stuff, even a fridge with some cold juices inside. But the fresh produce was at the water side market, morocoyes and all. By the way, you can also observe that some of the houses of Pedernales look like little villas, and all are equally fortified against thieves even though I am at a loss to imagine where they could go and hide their loot. Enough money to build small villas makes it there, somehow.

Chavismo has certainly taken root in Pedernales and many folks are not afraid of flaunting their preferences. We entered in what looked like the lone cafe of the island, placed next to a culture ministry sponsored joint that claimed to rent DVD. It was not open that early morning, but the owner did welcome us anyway. The place was pleasant though already quite warm, but there was no running water and no coffee could be offered. We had to settle later for the lone general store of the island where we gratefully found cold Gatorade to recover from our explorations.

We also saw that chavismo penetrates in the most unsuspecting ways. For example this "boutique", funded courtesy of some governmental grant, and paced deep inside the village. I suppose that location is not really an issue there: no one lives more than half a dozen small blocks from anywhere and thus the woman just needs to seat there, take care of her kids and wait for some one who at some point will have to show up, if anything to chat a bit. I doubt that she makes any money out of this venture, or if she will ever do. The little grant she gets will always be enough to cover her deficit. She is happy, and I can understand that.

But chavismo has also brought modernity in the form of the Cuban clinic, a massive construction for the place, and one without much windows, generically made, an A.C. compound where unless you go in as a patient there is little you will know about. The picture includes the Cuban medic, bored, watching the street go by from garage step.

I did ask a little bit about the Cubans there. Apparently they mostly keep to themselves most of the time, and they even have their own diner place, half a block away, el "comedor de los cubanos". That is, they manage the biggest construction of the village outside of the governmental installations, and they have the biggest eatery of the place, with an upper story, all nicely decorated with all sorts of political mementos, least we forgot what is the other reason they are here, besides offering health care. I could not figure out their numbers but at least judging for the tables at that spot, together with their Venezuelan handlers we are talking of a least a dozen guys.

In a way I understand why the exclusive eatery (next to a sort of bar by the way) : what could the Cubans ever discuss with the locals whose culture is so obviously still bon enfant, so removed from Cuba? Because in spite of ten years of social division, just as SD managed to take the red shirted guy above, I had absolutely no problem to have this lovely daycare center pose for a picture as they were crossing the street for some reason. And no, the red shirt was not political, it was just to make sure that the kids were seen from afar.

Here you have it, the beauty of Venezuela, where criollo and Warao kids mix as nothing, as they have always done since independence.

But not all Warao kids were at school that day. Walking toward the shrimp factories we reached a seedier side of town and we came across this laundry scene, directly on the street. What you see there is a Warao family that got enough money to buy a washing machine, a luxury in the Delta since only Pedernales seems to have enough electricity and water to allow for washing machines. Elsewhere in the Delta I was struck by the amount of laundry scenes done directly inside Caño Manamo.

The Styrofoam of the package has been kept and children always been children turned it into a mini pool where three of them manage to soak. There is no sewer and when the wash is done, it runs to the street.

And there this other family who a little bit further could not afford a washer but did their laundry on the side walk as usual...

So you have it here, with the good and the bad, the limits of the bolivarian revolution. Some are lifted up, but too many are still left behind, even if they have now a South Korea made cheap washer. Propaganda and gifts are not enough to make a real difference. Customs and religion are still everyday to be seen.

And yet the will to try exists, such as that woman opening a boutique or this guy who advertises on the main pier his "posada" for the errand tourist to stay at, with the blessing of Jesus. It is a cooperative, probably set with governmental credits, probably full of good intentions, plenty of will and love. But can it succeed? Why should tourist come to visit when the low tide reveals to you the sorry spectacle below? Certainly, we cannot expect a beach where mud goes up and down twice a day, but surely the tourism office could pick up the worse of the trash and paint with a fresher coat the edge of the concrete walk.

Again as it has always been done in Venezuela oil history: little grants to gain votes, little grants that are doomed to fail because the surroundings are not helping, are not taken care of.

And still I loved every minute I was in Pedernales. In my magical dreams I was not expecting anything but the feel to have gone as far as I could. I found more. Every detail spoke to me. Every corner had something that moved me, such as this strange add of someone selling a computer.

I was wondering if any of the inhabitants remembered when steamers sailed in front, if their parents lived there then, if they told them tall tales and if that is what makes them happy today. Or if I was the only one stupid enough to think about those things.

Or perhaps they are happy because they are at the end of things, and their peace cannot be disturbed by any political hurricane, any change in society, because they cannot even own a car if they could afford it, and because well, they do not even need a bike...

--- --- --- --- --- --- ---

1) The paradox of Perdernales is that even though it is at the end of one of the second flow of the Americas, the tides make the water unusable.

2) Click on pictures to enlarge them.

-The end-


  1. Thank you for this nicely written article and the photos to accompany it. I'm a Trinidadian citizen, and I'd like to visit and experience this place someday.

  2. Anonymous2:48 AM

    Great writing,we as T&T citizens know so little about this town that is only 7 miles away from us,this article has prompt to make arrangements to visit,thank you.

  3. Anonymous2:20 AM

    Thanks for this article, I'm a Canadian travelling to every country in South America, and Venezuela is my final country. Pedernales will be my first stop of this greatly anticipated part of my journey. Looking forward to seeing the town, as well as the rest of the country.

  4. My sister discovered this today and sent me the link! When my Dad drilled for Esso Oil we lived in Pedernales and went to the one room school there for Americans back in early 1950's. Enjoyed your stories! We landed there in a sea plane and were left on a raft as a storm was rolling in. My Dad was suppose to meet us in a speed boat, but had an emergency in the oil field. He sent a man to apologize to Mom and bring us to the landing. Ginny in Dallas

    1. I am delighted that these many years about writing this I can still find an appreciative public. You made my day. Thanks.


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