Jul/Aug 2007 Spotlight

Hunting the Whale

by William Reese Hamilton

Photography by William Reese Hamilton

It starts innocently enough.

I'm riding with our friend Elizabeth in her second-hand Brazilian-made Volkswagen Gol on the autopista between Caracas and Maracay. She's taking me to Choroní. We're riding along at a nice pace, but I notice she's still in fourth gear.

"Shouldn't you shift into fifth?" I ask. I'm naturally interested since Marisol and I have just bought a Gol ourselves.

"It won't go into fifth just now."

"Just now?"

"Sometimes it becomes difficult."


An hour down the road, when we stop for gas, she asks me to take over the driving. I'm happy to. I've been looking forward to trying the Gol out along the narrow, winding road up the mountain through the rainforest, up into the clouds, then steeply down toward the sea. But when I get in to drive, I find I can't shift into reverse. Now it's Elizabeth's turn to question my driving ability and for me to shrug off my apparent ineptness. Besides, since there's enough room for me to maneuver around the car in front of me, I think little of it. I just shift into first and we're off. Down through Maracay and out along the great avenue of Las Delicias, then up the sudden climb through the thickening tropic growth.

This road was built in the Twenties. Most of it by the political prisoners of General Juan Vicente Gómez, the infamous dictator who stamped his image on Venezuela deeper than any man since Simón Bolivar. For over thirty years he ran the country like his private hacienda, doing just as he pleased. A man need only disagree to become his lifelong enemy. And such men hacked this route out of mountain rock and thick virgin jungle over 50 kilometers of impossible terrain to the seaside colonial village of Choroní.

Up until the Seventies it was still dirt (or slick mud after a good rain) and those who wished Choroní to remain the way they had always known it, resented its finally being paved. It made access easier and brought outsiders who would never have thought to come in the old days. But even paved it is challenge enough for me, often narrowing to a single lane as it snakes around sharp ravines on its steep climb. Cars suddenly appear with no warning and careen by. So all the way up I'm leaning on the horn at every blind curve. Still I have to brake suddenly again and again, then jam the car into first. That is until we lose first.

I've just come to a quick standstill as the old blue bus from Choroní to Maracay confronts me head-on over a precipice. I'm forced to ease slowly and carefully backward down the mountain to a point where he can pass. But now, when I put the car into first gear to resume the climb, nothing happens. Fortunately, we still have second and I can just get us going upward again with a pitiful groan from the straining engine. If I can just keep a little forward momentum, I'm thinking. But just before we reach the crest, I have to stop again.

This time, hobbling along in second, I come to a particularly nasty curve, where the road has narrowed into a single lane up against the sharp overhang. I'm honking like crazy, but hearing no reply, I keep going. Then, just as I'm turning into the bend, a big 4-wheeler appears with no warning, and we both slam on our brakes and skid to a stop.

"Carajo, Pendejo!" Elizabeth swears at the driver in her best street Spanish. She's naturally furious that he did not obey the unwritten law of this road. Not to honk could mean injury or death.

"Pendejo, tu," he yells back.

"Pendejo" is a particularly apt word for this confrontation. It's used to mean something like "you stupid little twit," but the literal translation is "pubic hair." And ever since this time we always refer to this particular hairpin in the road as the "pendejo curve." However, more to the point, I now discover I'm without second gear as well. All we have left is third and fourth. I can see Elizabeth is really worried. My concern is just getting us off the mountain, but hers is far deeper.

Elizabeth only recently owned a beautiful Chevy Blazer which she loved like family but had to sell to keep herself afloat in Venezuela's spiraling inflation. The Blazer's sale would get her enough money to make it through the year and a Volkswagen would be good cheap transportation in the pinch. At least, that was her logic of the moment. But what would this transmission problem do to her pocketbook? I try my best to reassure her. My opinion (which is about as expert in this instance as a kindergartner's) is that she might just be low on transmission fluid. In any event, now that we're on the downhill slope of the mountain, it's best to let the car keep rolling into Choroní, where we can undoubtedly get some mechanic to help us.

"Se puede," Elizabeth mumbles to herself, then, "Espero," crossing her fingers and saying a little prayer. We drift downward for what seem endless kilometers, through great banks of fern and immense stands of bamboo, so dense they blot out the sky. The curves and cliffs are just as dangerous, but now the lack of four gears out of six is our more pressing problem. By the time we finally pass through the beautiful old colonial streets of Choroní, around the little Plaza Bolivar and three-hundred-year-old church, dusk is falling. We say a couple of devout Ave Marias and limp on to Elizabeth's house in Pantojera for a couple of very cold beers--Polarcitas are, after all, very small. We agree that we've had enough adventure for one day and can for now just kick back in her garden and wait until mañana for car repairs. Besides, mañana we'll just stick a can of transmission fluid in the car and she'll be like new.

But mañana is just the beginning of our real adventure. When we go to the only gas station in Choroní, we're told, yes, they have transmission fluid, but, no, they can't (or won't) put it in for us. Perhaps, the young man who runs the cauchero down the road will do it.

"I thought a caucho was a tire," I say to Elizabeth.

"Yes, but he does many things besides fix tires. Brakes, mufflers, whatever."

And, yes, the young man at the cauchero will be glad to put in the transmission fluid for us, only he does not have the right tools for opening the transmission.

"Who has these tools," we ask.

"Only La Ballena," he says.

"La Ballena?" I ask Elizabeth.

"The Whale."

"And where can we find La Ballena?" we ask.

"Maybe at his house. Maybe in Puerto Colombia at the place of El Gallo. Quien sabe?"

"El Gallo?" I ask.

"The Rooster," Elizabeth says. "He's the head of the fishermen in Puerto Colombia. No one can sell his fish without the OK of El Gallo. Let's go there. It's closer than La Ballena's house."

We do not find La Ballena at El Gallo's. But his son Quique is there, a handsome, slender, cocoa-skinned kid of about sixteen.

"Can you put the transmission fluid in for us?" we ask.

"Oh, yes," Quique smiles. He has a wonderful easy smile. "But La Ballena has the llave. I need it to open the transmission."

"When can you get it?"

"Mañana, en la mañana. I will come to your house."

"You know where I live?" asks Elizabeth.

"Oh, yes." Everyone knows where everybody lives in Choroní. Everyone but us. So we breathe a great sigh of relief and walk home.

But Quique fails to show up mañana en la mañana, so we have to strike out once again in search of La Ballena. This time we head for his house, a little ranchito across the river and up toward a great mountain to the west.

It's in a site of hovels called Invasión. Once all of Choroní was owned by ten great haciendas which ran cacao plantations. Choroní and neighboring Chuao then produced the finest chocolate in all the world, and the hacienda owners who grew rich off the produce and lived the good life in Caracas were called the Gran Cacao. But when oil took over as the easy way to riches, most of the Gran Cacao left their great land holdings to nature. The homes crumbled. The land grew over. Gradually descendants of the slaves who had worked the plantations moved in. Invasión is just the latest example of sqatters' rights. Fifteen years ago Camping started the same way. Now it has become an almost respectable barrio in the once under-populated region between Choroní and Puerto Colombia.

We trudge a kilometer up the rutted dirt road in the noon sun. La Ballena's ranchito is a squalid tin and plywood affair crowded in among the others. Banana trees. Chickens scratching the hard ground. A few flea-bitten dogs searching for shade. Men are working together paving a real street.

"Y La Ballena?" we ask his wife. She was obviously once a beautiful woman. Even now, gray-haired and beaten-up by a very hard life, she's still handsome. She smiles at us, showing us some dark gaps in her once lovely white teeth.

"The fishermen came this morning to get help for their truck."

"Then he is really here today."

"Sí. Yesterday he took our boy to play in the Little League game in Maracay."

"But Quique was here in Choroní yesterday."

"No, the little one. They lost and the poor boy was crying. He's not used to losing at ball. It's good La Ballena was with him."

"But today he is at El Gallo's?"

"Creo que sí."

Once again we head down to Puerto Colombia in search of the elusive La Ballena, but this time we take the car, limping along in third. At El Gallo's, they tell us the truck La Ballena is working on is blue and that he is only a few streets away at the little plazita, near the Malecón.

So we head for the park that runs along the sea wall. Behind the shade trees the fishermen's boats dance on a blazing sea, but there is no sign of the fishermen's blue truck or La Ballena. Not at the Malecón or by the church or at the great dusty field where the buses unload and pick up passengers for Maracay.

We decide to try once again at La Ballena's ranchito across the river from Choroní. We drive along the river, where children are swimming and women are beating the day's wash against large gray boulders by the bridge. Along the narrow streets past the old pastel houses of Choroní.

Then just as we're about to turn sharply back across the narrow bridge at the far end of town, we see him in the last plazita of bare earth, under the tall trees, beside the battered blue truck of the fishermen. Two men are bent down, studying something at the truck's front end. We are at once certain the older is La Ballena, even though neither of us has ever set eyes on him before. He is tall and dark, wearing low-slung blue shorts. An immense man. His back bends forward in a wonderfully grand form of lordosis, specially crafted to complement his huge brown belly. We recognize him here as surely as if we had found him rising majestically from the sea or sadly beached at low tide on Playa Grande. Beside him, young Quique looks up at us and smiles. Elizabeth doesn't say anything about his not showing up this morning. Instead she speaks to La Ballena.

"We have trouble with the transmission. Perhaps we need oil. Can you put it in?" He looks at me when he speaks, because I am the man. And only men could know such things about automobiles. Perhaps he can't sense just how elemental my Spanish is.

"Of course. You have the aceite?"


"Well, get the aceite and we shall see."

So Elizabeth and I limp back in her car to the gas station and buy two liters of transmission fluid. When we get back, La Ballena barely looks at us. He just takes the car keys, gets into the Gol, shoves the seat back to make room for his great belly and then asks, "El problema?"

"We have no first, second or reverse," we say simultaneously. To which he answers by shifting easily into first and gliding forward as if he were driving the Gol new from the showroom. He smiles as he would at little children.

"Works fine," he says. We're at a complete loss. Like getting to the doctor and having your symptoms disappear.

"OK," Elizabeth growls. "Try reverse."

Thank God, even La Ballena is stumped with reverse. And we can smile the relaxed smile of the vindicated. Yes, the car is broken, but at least La Ballena knows we aren't idiots. And he is now ready to operate. He tells Quique to jack up the front end so he can get to work. But the jack proves inadequate. When La Ballena tries to slide under to get at the transmission, he finds his belly won't fit.

Does this daunt the great man? No way. He simply drives the Gol up onto a large rock, using the natural terrain as his hydraulic jack. Then he disappears under the car, belly and all. While he operates, we hike over to Choroní's finest and only taverna and buy a couple of icy cold Polarcitas. Polar dominates the Venezuelan beer market and very cleverly sells its product in little brown bottles called "Polarcitas." This way the beer goes down quickly, staying deliciously cold throughout.

We wander back across the lush little Plaza Bolivar and up the quiet street. There's not much happening in Choroní today. A few friends have stopped by to watch La Ballena at work. They ask his opinion about the Gol, the fishermen's blue truck and other problem machines. We sit on a wall, sip our Polars and wait.

After a half hour or so, La Ballena emerges like a priest with a metal cross in his hands.

"Míra esta," he says with distaste for bad craftsmanship.

"What is it?" we ask. Once again, he addresses us as he might his lessers. He explains that this is the cruz, the llave, at the heart of the gear shift, and that it is broken in two.

Now Elizabeth is really in mourning. Where the hell is one to get a new cruz here in Choroní? We get another Polar and settle back down on the wall. Things look very glum for Elizabeth. The shadows are starting to lengthen into late afternoon. Worse yet, we discover La Ballena has disappeared again. Another half hour passes. Then just as we're about to give up and walk home, La Ballena reappears at the bridge to Invasión, the repaired cruz in his hand. While we were bemoaning our fate, he had walked the kilometer to his house, welded the broken part together, and then walked back.

"Will it get us to Caracas?" Elizabeth asks. Now La Ballena is really beside himself.

"I welded this," he says proudly. "This is for life."

In another half hour the part is back in the car and La Ballena has run the Gol up the mountain and back to test it out.

"Gracias," Elizabeth tells him as he hands her the keys to the now functional Gol. "Y cuanto es?" she asks, expecting bad news.

"Twenty thousand," he answers.

"Bolivares?" I ask. "For everything?"

"Sí." With Venezuela's generous exchange rate, that's ten bucks American. Ten bucks for two hours work and a new lease on life. On the way back in the car, Elizabeth informs me that she might just pray tonight to the saints.

"If I were you," I tell her, "I would be praying at the altar of La Ballena."


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