Jan/Feb 2009 Travel

Tracks of the Tenderfoot

by William Reese Hamilton

Years back, we were visiting ancient Anasazi ruins in the Four Corners area—places like Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, Betatakin, Aztec and Canyon de Chelly.

At Chaco Canyon, a park ranger told me that if I climbed up the cliff behind the crescent of Pueblo Bonito I could make out the remnants of an unexcavated outlier community. That set me off. Climbing up through the large boulders was not that hard. At the top, looking north, I spotted a single small mound on the horizon and hurried across the flat expanse toward it, ignoring the rest of the landscape. Of course, when I got to it, there really wasn't that much for a novice to see—just a pile of rocks and earth. But I spent the better part of an hour rummaging through the scattered pottery shards of pots made centuries before, studying elemental designs on broken clay, all the while thinking about a Tewa Indian I had met at Walpi, that magical old village set high on the Hopi First Mesa. He had been decorating his new pots with just such designs discovered on shards in ancient ruins.

It must have been around noon when I had my fill and decided to head back. But the sun was at its zenith and I suddenly saw I hadn't the slightest idea which direction I had come from. Turning in a slow circle, trying to pick up some telltale sign, I felt like any silly tenderfoot lost in the middle of a wide flat plain. No gas station, no strip mall, not even a tree or a bush for bearings. If I started walking, I asked myself, would I be going toward Pueblo Bonito or away from it?

Then I began to study the maze of footprints in the dust around the site. Most of them were old enough to be half-erased by the high desert winds. They didn't come from one direction or mark any clear path. But they showed me the way. I took a few steps, looked down at the marks my sneakers had left and saw the tracks were not only newer than the others, they were distinctly mine. My size. My tread. And I followed them out of there.

Of course, to anyone used to spending time in the wilderness, what I had seized upon was pretty elemental. A simple way to get to where you came from. But its significance didn't end there for me. Tracks have become one of those unfounded reassurances, like a home, a family, a life's work, a tombstone. Some miniscule vestige of where we've been, who we are. And now, spending time alone on dirt paths and mountain trails, I take special pleasure in noticing the many signs left along the way, by a burro, a snake, a barefoot man, my own sandals. Particularly my own sandals. For even though I know how transitory these tracks are, I somehow get the feeling that they will be there to show me the way home.

Today I am walking in the dust of Choroní. Things are changing fast here, as if the ground beneath my feet has lost its permanence. I've just had my hair cut at the Peluquería de America, next to La Ballena's ranchito in La Invasión. America is Ching's wife. And since Ching is a friend who worked with us for over a year building our house, I decided to give her little barbershop a try. Her peluquería might be viewed by some as a bit primitive—just a little concrete box with a couple of windows and a barber chair—but she gives me the best cut I've had in some time. It makes me feel cleaner, fresher, somehow newer—ready for a walk.

"Gracias, America," I say. "The best haircut in Choroní."

"A sus ordenes," she says. The little girl in the plastic chair, her hair set in freshly twined cornrows, looks up at us and smiles in agreement.

"I think I'll come back again soon."

"Hasta pronto."

La Invasión has grown a lot since I first came here looking for La Ballena, and it is now sectioned off into three distinct districts. America's shop is in Valle Santa Clara, hacienda land that was invaded, then bought by the government and legitimized. Houses are built along dirt streets with cement sidewalks running straight up toward the mountain. They are a mix of bamboo and concrete. Some have dirt floors, others cement. Roofs are tin. Here and there you find a mango tree, but usually it's banana, plantain, and yuca, with a rare papaya thrown in. Stray dogs, cats and chickens look for shade under cars and trucks. There are a couple of bodegas selling malta and soda pop, Pampers and soap, and always a lotería, because you're never too poor to invest in luck. All in all, Santa Clara is a pretty settled community, definitely the prestige location of the three.

I have to go to the bottom of Santa Clara to make my way up the single meandering road through Cumbe. In this second invaded hacienda, the lots and houses are smaller and stacked tightly together with no street access to most of them, without even the limited care that went into Santa Clara. I have to wedge myself sideways to get between some of them.

Nelson, our gardener, picked up a piece of land here, even though he has his little Posada Nelson in downtown Puerto Colombia. On it he built a one-room, split-bamboo shack for his woman, Ingrid. Since the posada is his mother's house, Ingrid worries that she will be someday left with nothing. Nelson doesn't spend much time here, but I catch him out back today in a sad little stand of banana trees, chopping at some thin wisps of grass with a machete. He stands on the hillock above me as I climb the rutted road.

"Hola, chamo," I call out. He squints down at me through sweat-soaked eyes.

"Epa, Señor Bill."

"What happened to those cambures?" I ask. Someone has definitely been hacking at the poor banana trees.

"I was waiting for the fruit to ripen," he says, "but just when they were getting ready, someone stole the bunch."

"Nice neighbors."

"Ladrones. They are not from here. All we have now are thieves."

"Cumbe is growing fast, Nelson."

"Sí. They are clearing ground over there now." He points to the west, along a dirt path, past a line of squalid shacks. "Right up to the mountain."

"Soon La Invasión will be bigger than Choroní and Puerto Colombia combined."

"You know what they found over there?" he asks. "More than weeds. Una pelota. A big metal ball. Big and heavy. Así." He shows me the size with his hands. Something like ten inches wide.

"That big? Was it iron?"

"Bronze, I think." I don't have to give it much thought. Heavy metal balls mean one thing.

"With a chain?"

"Mira, they think maybe the chain was cut off," he says. The last time they used ball and chain around here was in the Twenties and Thirties, when political prisoners of Juan Vicente Gomez were building the road over the mountain from Maracay.

"No bones?" I ask. Nelson smiles.

"I think maybe he got away. Maybe his children are living here now."

"Well, he left something solid behind. More than most of us can say." I look down at my footprints in the dust. "Hasta luego, Nelson." And I move on up the valley.

The hodge-podge of Cumbe is depressing, but even that doesn't prepare me for what I encounter in the third hacienda, Parnaso. This was once the home of the nineteenth century poet, Maitín, a man wrapped in the classics. He was so entranced with this lush stretch of valley that he named it for the mountainous home of the Greek gods. In one of his poems, he tells us how sweet it is to lie in the shade of a great spreading ceiba, the tree the Maya named the Tree of Life, The Axis of the World.

"Cuan dulce es reposar bajo la sombra
De la ceiba ramosa y extendida."

I have heard this hacienda was once a treasure, one of the most beautiful of the valley, but the house has long since crumbled back into the ground. And the family that once owned the land has multiplied into around two hundred heirs. Because Venezuela doesn't apply primogeniture to rights of inheritance, every member had a say in how that land could be used. Some wished to preserve it and farm it, others to sell it for quick cash, still others could have cared less. So it sat. Until a woman, the daughter of a former servant, claimed it as hers.

"It was promised to my father by the owners," she told the sympathetic populist judge in Maracay, even though she had no papers to prove it. And as soon as she won the case, she chopped the beautiful land into tiny plots and sold it off.

I walk the narrow path through a great expanse of burnt ground, almost all the trees cleared, way back to the mountain. Not a ceiba in sight. Each tiny plot has been marked off by a string of barbed wire. Instead of Maitín and his Greek gods, I find a skinny woman alone in this gray pit, seated on a rock.

"Why are you here?" she asks me, squinting at me suspiciously.

"Walking," I answer. I have never seen her before, but her greeting isn't offered very pleasantly. "Walking is what I like to do."

"Do you have land here?" She obviously takes me for an alien.

"I walk on the camino real," I tell her, because I know I have as much right on this path as she. "And you live here?"

"This is mine," she says, as if accusing me of trespassing. I look at her hunk of burnt soil, 15 by 15 meters. "Where I will build my house."

"You will have many neighbors."

"I will have my own ranchito." She swells with pride.

"That is good then." And I walk up the ashen path toward La Loma, thinking how pleasant a ranchito can be when it is set off by itself in the forest, and how sad it will look here, packed in among many others. Slash and burn in a great swath.

I feel the sudden need to be away from people, a desire to pass into the mountains. And so I hike up to La Loma. There to the right, three kilometers from our house and just past a bar with a very official-looking bolas criollas court, a paved road rises steeply up the mountain with a string of homes on either side.

"If you follow this road about two kilometers you will come to the abandoned Hotel Santa Barbara," I have been told. "The dream of Perez Jimenez." So I begin the climb toward the dream. After less than half a kilometer, the housing disappears and the paved road dead-ends at a gate. From then on, if you're driving, take a Jeep.

The gate is open, the overgrown dirt path bends to the left under low shade trees, beckoning. I have my blue walking stick, mi palo azul, and I am alone. What could be more enchanting? True, the machete is a more macho tool, but mi palo azul is perfect for keeping spider webs from draping themselves across my face and thorny branches from scratching out my eyes. I climb with it held before me like a cross against vampires. Mi palo azul is really just a broomstick I painted royal blue, but it has claimed the lives of a few macao, the big venomous snakes that invade our yard.

The road to Santa Barbara is rarely traveled these days and from time to time it almost disappears in the thick undergrowth. Birds fly up suddenly from dark recesses in a mad flutter of wings. Close by they remain invisible. It is only when they have burst from cover and are already far away that I can see them—large blacks with gold beaks and underbellies, flashes of bright green and blue, streaks of brilliant yellow against the shadows and sky. Once in a clearing, the magical sight of two hummingbirds mating on the ground, a tiny male servicing a much larger female, who stands on her tiptoes, beating her shining wings in ecstasy.

The road winds back and forth across the mountain, always climbing, so I get no real sense of how far I've walked, but after an hour I know I've gone a lot farther than the estimated two kilometers. Still there's no sign of a building. Gradually the road rises out of the underbrush and low scrub into a stand of much larger trees—mijao mainly, a tree the Spanish planted to provide shade for their cacao. Then out of nowhere, I'm overwhelmed by the sudden rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee. It's so strong, I expect to see steam rising from a pot over someone's campfire. But when I search, I can find no source for the smell. An illusion perhaps, the whiff of a long forgotten coffee farm. Your head can do strange things when you're alone in the wild.

Up the trail, the first break in the trees opens dramatically out onto a broad expanse of the valley below. There to the left is the cemetery with the mountain beyond and the old hacienda just below. And there is Valle Santa Clara, its hot tin roofs glinting harshly in the early afternoon light. To the right, Choroní lies serenely under classic red tile roofs, its narrow shaded streets barely visible, the main road winding away from it down the river toward Puerto Colombia. There, above the malecón and the little fleet of fishing boats, the steep promontory rises to the bleached statue of Christ on his plaster cross against a blue wash of sea beyond.

I hear a loud rustling of leaves in the trees above. The big branches swing back, as if released from a heavy load. Then I see them, first one, then another, then the whole large family of gray monkeys. For the next twenty minutes, I forget the hotel of Perez Jimenez and watch them swinging freely, leaping from tree to tree along the dark canopy. Big ones, young ones, sometimes staring back at me from behind tree trunks and branches, but more often playing their wild airborne games, seemingly oblivious of the earth-bound human below.

But where is Santa Barbara? My watch tells me I've been wandering up here for well over two hours. Perhaps this is the wrong road after all and I'm really on my way to the next valley of Aroa. The road begins to descend out of the big trees and away from the sea. Then, just as I've begun to believe I've embarked on a fool's errand, I come upon it, around a mild sloping curve—the stark, three-storied, concrete remains of a dictator's dream, rising out of a jungle that is very intent on reclaiming its old space.

A path leads toward steps rising to the ground floor. There must have been a glass wall here, for now it is completely open on all sides. Greeting me on the white marble floor is a handsomely etched art deco horse, its reins taut, pulling a nude maiden on a cloud, her long hair flowing behind as if she were waterskiing. If she were in a chariot, she could be Phaeton's sister about to fall to earth. Whoever she was supposed to be, she is now the last remnant of elegance left in what was meant to be a luxury tourist hotel.

Marcos Perez Jimenez was an army colonel who anointed himself president of Venezuela in the early Fifties and ruled with a heavy hand, investing a great part of the national treasury in his personal dream for the country. He was mad for highways and tourist attractions. On top of Mount Avila in Caracas, he built the Humboldt Hotel and a teleférico to carry you up to it. In Mérida, he constructed the longest teleférico in the world up to Pico Espejo, where you can look across at Pico Bolivar, the highest peak in Venezuela, taller than any mountain in Western Europe. Years after his ouster, living the good life in Madrid, the dictator still insisted his vision for the country was the right one. And it's not that hard to find Venezuelans who agree with him.

To the rear of the hotel, a flying disc of a veranda rises like an errant Frisbee from the lobby, perhaps the stage where a band once played or a dais for the bar crowd. I can only guess which space was for the lounge or the restaurant or the check-in counter. It has all been stripped bare. As soon as the news of Perez Jimenez's fall hit the area, the people were up here having a field day, hauling away the furnishings, pulling out the plumbing and smashing the glass walls of Santa Barbara. Even the pornographic graffiti on the walls has a mean, desolate look. I feel as if I have entered a pillaged shipwreck or a ravaged tomb. Then I hear a voice.

"Hola," it calls out. "¿Quién está abajo?" Another illusion? No, it's too strong, too persistent. I go outside, glancing quickly across the three stories above the ground floor. The rooms at the end of each floor have large balconies, and on the highest balcony, a man stands in the shadows. Now he leans over the railing into the light. "Bienvenido, señor," he yells, spreading his arms in welcome. "Por favor, come up. Come up and visit with me."

"Gracias, me voy," I call back and start up the broad stairs to the left of the entrance. I take my time, walking slowly through each floor and its eight rooms, studying the views. Below, the once civilized bougainvillea grows wild among jungle creepers and brush. It won't be long now before this building is completely covered by tropic growth, home to monkeys and a few vagrants like me.

On the top floor, a dark old man is waiting, greeting me with a broad grin, a few missing teeth, matted gray hair, a week's stubble, old faded jeans, stained shirt and dusty bare feet. He looks friendly enough.

"Where is your machete?" he asks. "You need protection here."

"I have mi palo," I answer, holding up my broomstick.

"You can meet bad people on this road."

"Monkeys perhaps. You are the first human I've seen."

"Yes, it's true. I have not had visitors this week."

"You live here?" I ask.

"Ven, ven. See my home." His name is Alberto Guzmán, and even though he has not bathed for some time, he treats me like a gentleman, with none of the mean suspicion I received from the woman below. He has taken over the best suite in the hotel, with a spectacular view. "Look at that vista," he says proudly, with a sweep of his hand across the panorama. From here the whole valley has been erased by tall trees, their tops framing the promontory far below, as if it were an isolated island, surrounded by a misty blue sea. Jewel-like. Glowing.

"You chose well," I tell him. "Definitely the best room in the house."

"And look at that swimming pool down there. It is so big it even has an island in the middle."

"It's big enough to be called a lake. But it's so green it looks like you can walk on it."

"The water is not good now. A deer fell into it years ago and drowned."

"But it must have been wonderful once."

"They planned a teleférico here also," he says. "A grand plan. It was going to carry the patrons down to the sea."

In the larger room of the suite, Alberto has set up his dining room and kitchen, building his wood fire on the bare concrete floor. But his meals look meager. A couple of platanos, a half-consumed can of beans and rice.

"Did you make coffee today?" I ask out of the blue.

"Claro. Cafe is necessary."

"I think perhaps I smelled your coffee, far down the mountain."

"If you want, I can make some for you."

"No, but thank you. The scent of it was enough." Next door Alberto has made his bed. He brought sand from below for his mattress, molding a space for his body and covering it with a cloth. He seems quite proud of it. "Nice," I acknowledge. "But do you always live here at the hotel?"

"I come here when I need to refresh myself. I live in Maracay now, in a place that is all cement, with few trees." I recall my own long walks in that city along Avenida Constitución, where people live in small concrete boxes with no shade. "I grew up in Santa Barbara before there was a hotel," Alberto tells me. "The village here had plenty of people then. We had conucos with platano, mango, cambur, yuca, ocumo—everything you need. And we had goats for milk. Come, I'll show you."

He takes me out past some abandoned cabañas, along a narrow path through tall trees with thick undergrowth. After a few hundred meters, we come to a clearing under a huge mango tree.

"Here is where my uncle lived. And over there, where it is thick with bushes now, stood our ranchito."

"How many were you?"

"I had three brothers and five sisters. And many cousins. I think perhaps I will make my canuco here soon and plant platano and yuca again. That way I will not have to bring food with me."

"And water?" I ask. Alberto takes me further up the mountain to where a small stream slides over dark rocks. He clears away some dead leaves to show me a sandy bottom where I can dip in my hands and cool my face. "You must have felt like a king here," I say. "Como un rey."

"A king?" he laughs. "We were poor, señor, muy pobres. When they sent me to sell our milk down in Choroní, the people there treated me like I was one of the animals."

"I meant what it was like to live here as a boy, apart, with all this around you."

"Yes, you are right. It is special here. I can see that now that I'm old and away from it. It makes me feel new to be here, clean, like this." He cups the water in his hands.

Here with Alberto, it is not so hard to share his yearning. Aren't I here in part because of nostalgia for my youth in the tropics, where existence seemed not just warmer, but brighter, riper, more colorful? There is something romantic about this shabby old man's need to revisit his lost village and spend nights alone with the ghosts of his past. Toward dusk, heading back down the mountain, I find myself searching out his faint footprints among the newer tracks my sandals have made.


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