Jul/Aug 2007 Spotlight

A Small Town on Dark Waters

by William Reese Hamilton

Photography by William Reese Hamilton

The first week, I wonder why I've come. And by the second week, I'm planning my getaway.

I've flown by six-seat air taxi into Maroa, a remote Venezuelan port on the Guainia River, whose dark waters flow into Río Negro and on down to the mighty Amazon. In invierno (their winter) heavy downpours surge the Guainia into flood stage, swamping whole sections of Maroa. In verano (their summer) the river shrinks to a shallow creek, narrowing enough so a good arm could chuck a rock across to Colombia. Since there are no roads from here to civilization, and a small plane or a boat are the only access, verano isolates Maroa. Not many people come. And more importantly, not much in the way of fuel or food.

Without drums of diesel fuel, the electric power plant shuts down. No light, no water, no refrigeration. I'm OK with heat, but I do like a cold beer and a shower. In the summer, Maroans collect the scanty potable rainwater from their roofs, bathe in the river's dark waters and flush their toilets (be they so lucky) with a bucket. Without refrigeration, the meat, foul and fish are served freshly killed, heavily salted, or more likely, spoiled. Usually in a rancid stew.

One day, as I'm wandering Maroa's sun-scarred streets, day-dreaming of an icy sherbet, my reverie is interrupted by a high-pitched voice shouting in protest from Maroa's Casa Cultural, a voice I at first take to be female but soon discover belongs to a small, wiry man named Rafael Carasquel, the President of Maroa's Consejo Comunal. There's a pretty good crowd in the Casa Cultural, all decked out in the red T-shirts of Presidente Hugo Chávez's Quinta Republica, and Señor Carasquel is working them into a modulated state of frenzy. Before I know it, that crowd, chanting now, bursts from the hall, on the march, and I'm being swept along in this sea of red. The big, dark woman beside me has a photo of a pre-presidential Chávez on her T-shirt, spread across her ample breast. He's rigged out in full military gear topped off with his emblematic red beret, and he looks damn mad, like he wants to shoot a dog or burn a bush. Stretched across her back, the shirt reads, "Patria o Muerte," in big letters.

"Fuera con Nilvio!" she's barking out in a guttural basso that makes me damn glad Nilvio isn't my name.

Then I spot the local padre, an Italian Salesian brother, sauntering along in his broad-brimmed straw hat and sandals like any peasant on a Sunday stroll, and I ask him, "Is this what they call Venezuelan Socialism in action?"

"We are marching to the electric power plant," he answers with just the hint of un-Christian rancor in his voice.

"If this is Socialism, shouldn't someone be informing the government of your problem?"

"The mayor has flown to Caracas. While she is away, Señor Carasquel is our government."

"But he's leading the protest," I note.

"It is a community action," he huffs.

The gates to the plant swing open and the angry crowd sweeps in. Protest placards with neatly printed messages appear magically along the chain link fence. "Fuera el jefe de planta!" "Jamás!" "El pueblo unido pide el destitución del jefe de planta Maroa! Ya!" "Bota Nilvio Camico!" It appears all their frustration is being centered on this one man, Nilvio Camico, who is apparently the local head of the electric company.

"Close the gates," I hear Rafael tell a uniformed member of the Guardia Nacional. "We don't want anyone to leave." He then springs agilely and dramatically above the sea of local citizens onto a 200-liter drum of diesel fuel and begins his eloquent delivery.

"This is not the plant of Elecentro, the electric company. Don't let anyone tell you so." He shakes his fist to the loud cheers of the protesters. "This is our plant. The power plant of the citizens of Maroa. And it must be put in order. Now." I find out later that Rafael was once a thespian with the theater group in Puerto Ayacucho. He must have learned that to work well, a speech should be kept short and delivered with energy. He lays it out for us with sincere fervor--although a bit high-pitched for my taste--and is followed by more calls for Nilvio Camico's head.

Rafael then invites a few of Maroa's leading citizens capable of higher understanding--police chief, head of the Guardia, school official, padre--into the inner sanctum of the power plant (I slip in unnoticed behind a couple of high-level organizers of next week's Fiesta del Archangel Gabriel). And here in this mysterious sanctuary, with great fanfare and just a bit of political obeisance, we are shown the great yellow Caterpillar generators.

The favorite campaign line of the Fifth Republic is "Con Chávez, manda el pueblo" or "With Chávez, the people command." But when one chants and waves placards (which I guess in someone's mind constitutes "commanding"), one usually has an audience around--the media, a government official or a company representative. I have to wonder who this protest is for, since I'm the only one here with a camera to record the event. It surely isn't Nilvio Camico, who has been, I learn, in Puerto Ayacucho getting the parts and the engineer to fix the generators. I also learn that drums of diesel fuel have already been arriving along the rising Río Atabapo to the little port of Yevita, a two-hour drive from Maroa along a jungle logging trail. All events timed, just perhaps, to give Rafael Carasquel a boost in next year's mayoral election.

But the hows and whys of this event soon become less important when the great annual Feast of San Gabriel begins, for that is when the lights come back on, the water flows, the beer is served chilled and life in town turns into an eleven-day binge. This particular fiesta, which apparently came long ago up the Río Negro to Maroa from Brazil, runs from April 15 through the 25th. San Gabriel's day, which celebrates the archangel's announcing to the Virgin Mary that she was pregnant, falls just nine months before Christmas on the liturgical calendar. But Maroa's festival has some more primal mysteries mixed into it.

It starts with a group of men and boys, accompanied by accordian, drum, cuatro and bottles of high-octane Venezuelan aguardiente, descending deep into the woods below the airstrip to search out the right trees to cut for the two "Mastros." Once felled and trimmed of their branches, each of the two trees measures about the length and weight of a telephone pole. Just before four o'clock on the 15th, each Mastro is shouldered by some 15 men and hauled the two kilometers up to the Plaza Bolivar, where it is wrapped tightly with sugar cane, bananas and pineapples, topped with a banner and wooden dove and hoisted erect, one at each corner of Maroa's Casa Cultural. Then there is the usual procession of the patron saint through town, followed by the blessing of the Mastros by the padre.

"Bien," I say to the priest, "I understand that the Mastro is symbolic of the Tree of Life, but why are there two?"

"Symmetry," he answers with the mysterious logic of the church.

"And why at night do they bring out that black ox mannequin with the three men inside? And why do they parade it around those bonfires?"

"The black ox stands for evil. Notice how the children run in fear of his blackness, his lolling red tongue and fiery eyes. The fire is to cleanse his black soul."

This dark mix of Christian and pagan symbolism is all fascinating, but what the citizens of Maroa seem really interested in is the wild orgy of food, drink and music that spills out of the Casa Cultural. At eight each night, the local band revs up the amps and the fiesta committee starts handing out bottles of firewater. Lines of women comb the crowd, dispensing quick shots of aguardiente to the adults and tossing showers of candy into the street for the scampering crowds of kids. And up on the stage stands Puma, our chief of police--sharp black pants, red satin shirt, wide grin and flushed face, belting out a charged mix of Llanero and Salsa. Whenever he sees me enter the hall to take pictures, he calls out, "Tío Bill," in greeting, "Epa, Tío." The frenzied drinking and dancing spins on into the wee morning hours.

The Indians here are mainly Baniva and Carripaca, and when one of them offers his bottle, I'm obliged to take a swig. But, of course, there is never just one, but whole tribes crowding in from small jungle outposts to dance and sing, and most particularly to drink. So the bottles never stop moving throughout the night until on my morning walks, I find a number of bodies sprawled out along the sidewalks and benches and across Plaza Bolivar, senseless to the bright light of another day.

On one such morning, I decide to stop by the police station to visit with Puma. He's been up there singing and dancing all night, and now I find him sleeping semi-nude, with a towel wrapped around him, in a hammock strung under a little palm hut in the middle of the station patio. I'm about to leave him in peace, when a man and woman enter from the street, yelling that some man Puma put in the holding cell last night should be let free. The police chief starts out of his hammock, holding his towel around him with one hand, grabbing his night stick with the other, dazed, with less than two-hours sleep.

"You arrested my husband this morning," the woman accuses him.

"Sí," Puma answers, a little sheepishly, still not quite awake.

"There was no reason," the man accuses. "He wasn't the only drunk out there."

"No, but he was the one fighting."

"You do this because we are Colombians," the woman says.

"Why didn't you arrest the other man?" the man puts in.

"Your husband wasn't just drunk and fighting," Puma explains, "He pulled a knife."

"Who says?" the man asks.

"I saw it. That's why I arrested him." The police chief obviously feels vulnerable, standing there with just a towel around him.

"Well, he's not drunk now. So you can let him out."

"The law says he must stay here for 48 hours," Puma explains patiently.

"You police are always against us," the woman whines.

"There is no justice here," the man yells.

But Puma isn't listening. He has gone into a back room. When he charges out a few minutes later, he is a changed man, dressed in his black combat boots and blue police uniform with gold stripes. He has even washed his face and slicked back his hair.

"You will leave the station now," he commands them with new-found authority.

"We will wait for justice," the man says, trying to stand his ground.

"You have insulted the official police of Venezuela," Puma counters. "Leave now or I will arrest you too." And with that he backs them out of his building, shuts the door and gives me a wink.

"Entonces, Tío, how was your night?"

"I believe it was calmer than yours, Puma."

Even as the Guainia rises with approaching winter, we continue to bathe in its black waters and play our dysfunctional brand of baseball on a small river island. The night before I leave, after the Mastros have been chopped down, the Archangel Gabriel has been retired to his rightful niche and Maroa has once again fallen back into its semi-comatose state, we are still trying to pitch and hit the water-logged ball, our little island already covered by the rising tide, water up to our knees.

My last day, on my way down to the airstrip, I find a small bodega and stop in for a final cold beer. The man beside me is chatting with the proprietor.

"And how goes the planta, Nilvio?" he asks.

"It's fine now that fuel has come."

"Are you the famous Nilvio Camico?" I ask.

"The same."

"They were saying bad things about you the other day."

"Sí." Nilvio smiles. "The same thing happens every year. The river dries up, the fuel runs out, the plant has to shut down. Someone is just making politics, that's all."

"You won't lose your job?" I ask.

"No problem." He dismisses it with the wave of his hand. "The electric company knows I'm doing my job. But look out there on the river. What do you see?"

"I see a boat, a long bongo."

"And what's it carrying?"

"I count eight 200-liter drums."

"And where's it going?"

"It's crossing over to Colombia."

"Let me explain," Nilvio says. "Each drum of gasoline is worth about 200,000 bolivars. Add another 100,000 for transportation down the river. So, say, 300,000. But over there, the Colombians will pay one million for it."

I let out a low whistle. "That's a nice profit."

"And next verano, when all their fuel is gone?" Nilvio smiles again. "They'll all be crying over the plant having to shut down again."

So long, Maroa. Adios. That third week made all the difference.


Previous Piece Next Piece