|Jan/Feb 2010 Travel
Maybe it's the sound of the name. Or the myths and rumors that come with it. But Cambalache has been resting at the back of my mind for a long time. Waiting. Somewhere up there in the mountains, beyond the places most people care to go.
A swap, a trade, an exchange. That's what cambalache means. It seems a strange name and no one seems to know where it came from.
"They say slaves used to escape to Cambalache," someone tells me. "They say they've found escaped criminals hiding up there. Está muy lejos, very far."
Perhaps. But even one as gullible as this gringo takes such news with a grain of salt. The mountains are full of legends. Some are based on something solid like a petroglyph or a cave. Others seem woven out of thin air, like La Fuente de los Niños Riendo, The Spring of the Laughing Children.
They say when you climb up through the cloud forest out of Chuao toward Cepe, you sometimes hear children laughing. People passing this way, alone among the thick vegetation, are drawn off the narrow path, searching for hours for the source of the laughter. But they never find children, only a hidden spring of clear, icy water, gurgling up from beneath the undergrowth.
And Cambalache remains just such distant chatter, something vague set aside for the future, until one Friday I'm talking to Julio Blanco, the man who comes by once a week to vacuum the pool and balance the chemicals. Because Venezuela teems with Blancos, everyone calls Julio, "Cangrejo," the Crab. Unlike most nicknames, Julio has no idea where this one came from. His father was a Cangrejo, and his grandfather before him. Somebody in the family must have walked backward or shuffled sideways. But Julio is not at all crab-like—a pleasant, uncomplicated man in his late forties, with bright eyes and a small brush mustache. His wiry hair is just now going gray. He drinks a little too much beer and has grown a round pot above his shorts, but that's not unusual here where just about everybody goes through the day with a bottle of Polar in his hand. We sit and talk over coffee in the morning or a few Polarcitas in the afternoon. So it is quite natural we should get around to it eventually.
"Do you know Cambalache?" I ask.
"Know it?" He lets out a delightful burst of laughter. "I was born there."
"How long since you've been back?"
"Mira." He mulls it over awhile, figures with his fingers. "Twenty-four, maybe twenty-five years." He smiles broadly, remembering the place of his childhood. "Maybe more."
"But you have family there?"
"No, just old friends now."
"You want to go up with me?" I ask. He doesn't even have to think about it.
"Seguro." He rolls his eyes and smiles. "Cambalache." His sudden enthusiasm is infectious. I wonder why he hasn't gone before. What a stroke of luck, I'm thinking. It's so much better to go with someone who knows the place.
"How about the week after next?"
"Bien, Tuesday a week."
Now that the trip seems a reality, I start firming up a plan. I've heard about a trail to San Pablo from farther down in the valley. San Pablo is the jumping-off point for Cambalache. So I ask Emanuel, a young Swiss who guides European tourists through the mountains.
"Do you know the trail to San Pablo from La Sabaneta?" I ask.
"It's a nice route for my older hikers." He leans obnoxiously on the word "older," caresses it with a thin smile, obviously including me among the decrepit, and I find myself taking sudden exception to his slightly Teutonic accent, bleached crewcut, black sideburns and diamond-studded left earlobe. "Más suave. Not so steep, you know."
"But how long does it take?" I ask. "In your professional opinion."
"Not long," he shrugs. "A nice little stroll." I have not yet learned not to trust anyone under thirty.
By seven in the morning on Tuesday, Julio and I have dropped among the boulders behind the abandoned electric plant, crossed the log bridge to Hacienda La Sabaneta and are hiking the path along the upper bank of the Choroní River. I have my palo azul and a backpack with hammock, change of clothes, canteen and bottle of rum. Julio has a bag with a couple of sheets, spaghetti, cans of tuna and some bread.
And at first the sandy trail does seem gentle enough, aside from the swarms of bachacos—those large, ferocious ants that can chop down a good sized bush overnight and are now coursing like a black river down our path. We hop over them, sprint through them, shake them off, but they still manage to get in under our sandal straps and bite with enough force to set us dancing. Their mandibles are large enough to draw blood.
"Coño!" we shout, hopping around as if we were on hot coals. "Coño'e su madre!"
After a quarter-hour, the trail breaks away from the river and follows a barbed-wire fence through thick forest. Then suddenly we break into a very large field, newly planted with cacao and plátano.
There, because of the recent clearing and planting, the trail becomes hard to follow and finally disappears altogether into marshy ground. We waste a half-hour searching along the tree line to the south, then finally backtrack and pick up a branch that heads east, seemingly out of our way. But we can tell from burro droppings that it's well traveled, so we follow it and soon start climbing up a steep ridge. Up and up and yet again up. Through tall grass, bushes and then thickening forest.
So much for professional guidance. Two hours later, panting and sweated through, we arrive at San Pablo, cursing that lying young Swiss. I should have trusted my instincts. And gotten in better shape. A nice little stroll, indeed. If you like your strolls vertical.
San Pablo was once a thriving little community, but now only the trapiche survives, and a single tumbledown colonial house under a sagging tin roof, with boarded windows and in crying need of another coat of lime. The trapiche is the largest working sugar mill in the valley, but nobody wishes to stay here overnight.
"Espiritus, fantasmas," they say. "Ghosts."
Willie, the Irishman who owns Hacienda El Tesoro, told me some young campesinos tried to sleep in the house one night and ended up scared out of their wits. Things moved in the dark. There were strange noises. "Nunca más!" they vowed.
"Who's the ghost supposed to be?" I asked Willie.
"I'm not sure, but I think it's a young girl who died up there."
"You don't believe that stuff do you? Let's go up there some night with a Ouija board and a bottle of rum."
"Yes, that might be a lark, though I think finding a Ouija board in Choroní might be asking a bit."
In front of the house, under a gnarled tree, stands a small tomb. It's built with old crumbling bricks and the mortar looks a little worse for wear.
"Do you know about the young girl who died here?" I ask Julio.
"Sí, she was about my age when I lived in Cambalache. Una culebra, a snake. It fell out of a tree on her and bit her."
"And this is her tomb? It doesn't seem like much of a reason to go around haunting a place and scaring people."
Two men are working under the large tin roof of the trapiche, grinding sugarcane in a large noisy press, squeezing syrup into a vat. From this they will mold the papelónes, or sugar loafs. We throw down our packs and lean against the concrete wall, resting. It's cool under the roof, surrounded by trees in the shadow of the mountain.
"Epa, Julio," the men cry out over the banging machinery. They ask about Puerto Colombia and chat about mutual friends. Happy to have a minute's rest, I pull out my canteen and they watch me as I drink the still cool water.
"Quieres más?" they ask politely. "There's water here if you need more."
"No, thanks, I have enough."
"Where are you going?"
"How far from here?"
"Three hours, four poco a poco, little by little."
"I'm definitely going poco a poco," I say. "Do you live here?" They look at me with surprise.
"Yes, at the house."
"Nunca. Never after sundown."
"Because of ghosts?" They look down at the ground. "Is it that little girl?"
"No sé," the older answers, looking at Julio.
"Maybe el dueño," the younger says finally.
"The one who owned El Tesoro when there were slaves here. He was very hard."
"Sí, I heard that story," the older says. "The slaves made a cross. It was a beautiful cross. They wanted to celebrate Cruz de Mayo, the holy day. But el dueño was hard, he made them work."
"He buried the cross so they couldn't use it," the younger adds. "But then, when they were working here at the trapiche, el dueño fell into the machinery and died."
"Maybe he was pushed," Julio suggests and they all laugh.
"So they dug up the cross and celebrated the holy day," the younger says with a toss of the head. "Now, every few years people come up here at Cruz de Mayo and dig up the cross again. It's a tradition."
"Now that's a good ghost story," I say. "Do you believe it?"
"No sé," the older repeats.
"Nunca se sabe," the other says.
What at first is a sandy path up a gentle rise into the forest soon becomes a steep, eroded trail, where the best footholds come from large stones and tree roots. I'm glad I have my palo azul to help me up the high steps. This is not unlike the trail I've been on to Chuao by way of La Sesiva and Sinamaica—deeply eroded by centuries of use and rain, surrounded by thick forest that shuts out the sky. But this one is definitely steeper, constantly switching back and forth up the side of the mountain. Julio, on younger legs, soon forges ahead and then out of sight, so our only contact is by an occasional distant yelp. Then after about an hour I come up along a cliff and find him sitting on a large boulder, waiting for me. I drop my pack, pull out my canteen and join him. Even though it's cool in the shade of the overhanging trees, my shirt is sopping.
"Fuerte," I say. "Tough."
"One has to accustom himself."
"And take a break once in a while. How often did you do this trail when you were a kid?"
"Three, four times a month."
"That will get you used to it."
Then we're off again and soon I'm once again by myself, mounting those giant steps on short legs, cursing my age and lack of conditioning. After another hour, I come to a conuco, where a campesino has cleared a space in the forest and planted plátanos. From here I can look out far down the curve of the valley, where Choroní is now little more than a speck before the misty blue of the sea. What a view—all cool shadows under the trees, but out there burning with light. I sit down wearily on a fallen tree. I have to admit that I'm fagged. For a moment, I even consider hanging my hammock right here along the trail and letting Julio go on alone.
But after a short rest, if not as good as new, I'm at least good enough to climb on. I give out a yell to Julio, but hear no reply. Yes, I'm alone and truly beat, but I have to smile. How many people pay some city gym a handsome fee to get such pleasure from pain?
Another hour passes before I finally reach the notch at the top of the mountain where several trails meet, and there at this dusty intersection, in front of a little roadside shrine, I see Julio's pack. I drop mine beside it and look across the path, where steep wooden stairs rise to a small chapel, surrounded by a neat line of tall bushes. There at the top of the stairs, Julio sits talking with a small dark man I can just make out in the shadowy light.
"Hola," Julio calls out.
"How long have you been waiting?"
"About twenty minutes. Where have you been?"
"Come up. This is my friend Jesus, who takes care of the chapel."
"Buenas tardes," I say, because it is in fact now just past noon. "Your chapel is very beautiful, Jesus."
"Yes, everyone tells me so," he says proudly. "Many come up here from the valley for Cruz de Mayo. You see our cross." On a small altar covered with plastic flowers and a whole array of little plaster saints, the cross stands a full meter high on a stepped pedestal within a niche of shiny tiles—bright white and elaborately carved, set with ruby-red glass and draped with pink cloth. It radiates, even in the shadows, the center of a grand fiesta.
Cruz de Mayo is similar to Thanksgiving, but here people pray for the year to come as well as give thanks for the past. Altars are decorated with all the food they ask for—cacao, plátano, ocumo, a bag of flour, a sugar loaf, a breadfruit, even a bottle of aguardiente.
"They pray for aguardiente?" I ask.
"Seguro. Everybody brings his blessed bottle of aguardiente," Jesus says with a smile. "If you go down this trail the morning after Cruz de Mayo, you will stumble on all the unconscious muchachos who drank too much of their aguardiente before they arrived. Entiendes? Praying too hard."
"Carajo, that trail's tough enough without aguardiente," I say, and then getting back to the problem at hand, "How much longer to Cambalache?"
"Muy poco. Twenty minutes, half-hour."
A short distance from the chapel, we drop behind a huge boulder and start what I'm pleased to believe will be a gentle descent. But I'm mistaken. Soon we begin to climb again and a half-hour later Cambalache is still nowhere in sight. Then just as I'm thinking this could go on forever, we turn a curve and are looking down out of the forest onto the long valley of Chuao. A hot dry breeze greets us from the ocean far below.
"This is called La Esperanza de Chuao," Julio tells me with reverence. "It is called that because when the escaping slaves looked out on this view, they saw their first hope of freedom." I can well imagine the joy they must have felt, since I'm pretty happy just to be near the end of my climb. But in fact it is not quite over. We must still ascend another twenty minutes through more forest, past a high waterfall and along a deep ravine before we come to the first dilapidated ranchito. And another ten minutes before the trail rises to the central house of this tiny village.
"Julito!" a small dark woman cries out from above. And people suddenly appear from all directions. Along with chickens and doves, turkeys and ducks, a couple of cats. Geese squawk and hiss from a nearby pen. A parrot whistles from the porch. A black and white hound barks and wags his tail. Far up the hill a donkey brays, goats bleat. "Epa, Julio," they all shout in greeting, embracing him warmly. I feel like I'm witnessing the return of the prodigal. Names and faces come at me too fast to remember.
"This is el Llanero Antonio, from the plains. And his wife, Luisa. The little boy is Alejandro. That's Bertilio and his two nephews, Jacobo y Manuel. Here's José, el cazador, the hunter."
"Mucho gusto, señores. Encantado, señora."
"You look tired," Luisa says. "I'll get some water. Sit down, sit down at the table, in the shade. Julito, it's so good to see you. Dios mio, how long?"
The table is behind a rail along a porch in front of the small house. The floor is dirt, the walls are split bamboo, the roof is tin. It is as basic a home as anyone might live in—two rooms for sleeping and a small covered space for a kitchen. The toilet is across the path. No electricity, no running water, yet somehow a pleasant place, neatly kept and surrounded by a great green space with a grand view of the valley and sea beyond.
Before we can thank her for the water, Luisa has placed lunch in front of us—macaroni, vegetables, a watery sauce.
"Buen provecho," Antonio says.
It's nothing that will shake up the world of haute cuisine, but topped off with a delicious cup of homegrown coffee, it's more than good enough to take the edge off our appetites. I'm suddenly embarrassed, because I have thought they had already eaten and only now realize they've been waiting for us to eat before sitting down to their own lunch.
"Perdóname," I apologize, flushing. "Lo siento, qué bruto."
"No, no, señor," Luisa says softly. "We have more than enough." And while the men sit down around us and start to eat, she still hangs back, waiting to serve. We present her with the bread we have brought. Julio gives her the spaghetti and tuna. I take our dishes into the kitchen, looking for a place to wash them. A wood fire is going, but there is no sink. Julio, noticing my confusion, takes me to a place down the path. There, in a slight depression, paved with flat stones and surrounded by a rock ledge, water flows through a bamboo tube from a stream up the mountain. On the ledge are a plastic tub and bars of soap for washing dishes and clothes and taking baths. The clear, cool mountain water is pure enough to drink and plentiful enough to quickly fill the bucket for flushing the seatless, tankless porcelain toilet in the little shack across the path.
When everyone has eaten and the table has been cleared, Julio goes into one of the rooms to sleep. I crawl into a nylon chinchoro hung next to the table and immediately start to drift off into my siesta.
"That man really looks tired," I hear one of boys say to Luisa.
"Verdad," she answers, and then I am asleep.
Refreshed by an hour's nap, I wake to find Luisa teaching the little seven-year-old Alejandro. He rattles off his ABC's like a pro. Then it's on to his additions and subtractions.
"Is he their grandson?" I ask Julio.
"No, he's from Choroní. His mother didn't want him, so Antonio and Luisa are bringing him up."
"Good kid. Lucky too."
"They take good care of him."
The men have all gone off to work, so Julio and I head down the path toward the river. Two hundred meters from the house, we come to a place fronted by what looks like a tall, wide box hedge. It is in reality the same hibiscus that grows wild along our property line, but so scrupulously trimmed, so perfectly squared, there is not even room for a red blossom. Behind it is another humble little hut, which could be the twin of Antonio's. A young man comes up the path, smiling.
He invites us in for another cup of wonderful coffee. I know Umberto's brother Juan, who works in construction in the valley. But Umberto lives here alone. He is taking a break before returning to his conuco to plant and dig among his plátano, ñame and ocumo.
After another couple of hundred meters, we come to a third house with great stacks of wood in the yard and a large, beautifully kept garden below. The young man in the yard eyes us suspiciously.
"Tu papá está aqui?" Julio asks.
"Casimiro!" Julio calls out. And an older, balding man with a trim of white hair appears in the doorway with a machete and a large bunch of plátano.
"Your son doesn't remember me."
"It's been a very long time. He was a baby when you left."
We sit with him while he cuts the plátano into smaller bunches and stuffs them into a large gunnysack for market. Julio has a lot to tell him about his brothers and sisters.
"I heard about your father," Casimiro says. "But I couldn't get down to the funeral."
"He was very old and sick. He suffered very much."
Suddenly it occurs to me that this older man has been here in this place longer than anyone.
"Disculpe, señor. But perhaps you can tell me something about the name, Cambalache. Where does it come from?" He gives me a knowing smile.
"Bien. Nobody is sure, of course. It's only what you hear. But many have asked this question. Why Cambalache? A trade? Of what?"
"I heard that maybe someone swapped his house up here for a conuco down the mountain," Julio says. "Or for a burro, a cow, something like that."
"I heard that too," Casimiro says. "But I don't believe it. What they traded here wasn't cosas, things. It was information. Los esclavos, the slaves who came up from Chuao and Choroní knew things, you see. When was the owner away? How many new slaves? When were the Dutch coming in from Curaçao to trade? Which slaves wanted to leave? And they traded what they knew for other information. Where could they escape from here? What trails could they take? When was it safe?"
So Cambalache was once a stop on the Venezuelan version of the Underground Railroad, I'm thinking, directing African slaves off to places where there were no masters. And whether this explanation is exactly correct or not, it's the best I've heard.
Another twenty minutes down the hill, we reach a place where a stream tumbles from high caves to a pool carved into the rocks, then spills over into another pool before it falls again and disappears into the rain forest. We wade in the shallow pool and splash water on our hot faces.
"You must have loved this place when you were a kid," I say.
"Seguro. This is the Chuao River."
"The source must be near here?" I say, comparing this stream's size with the broad river I've seen running through the town of Chuao below.
"No, it starts way up on the other side of the mountain, then curves around to this side."
Sitting on a rock in the middle of the stream, I point to where a path runs off into the forest on the other side.
"Where does that go?"
"Down to Chuao."
"Four, five hours, maybe."
"Someday we'll take it, OK?"
"Someday," Julio says. "But not today."
When we get back to the house, night is falling fast and little Alejandro is herding the goats down the hill to the path in front of the house. Two large bucks are already tethered by the outhouse and Alejandro now ties the first nanny tightly to a post for milking. Antonio squats beside her, grabbing her hind leg with one hand and milking with the other hand into a small bowl. She doesn't give much.
As a boy in New Jersey I milked Saanens and Toggenburgs, which gave much more, perhaps because we milked them twice a day. Goats in Venezuela are mainly grade goats with much smaller udders. Like all Llaneros, Antonio sings sweetly to the nanny as he milks her. These songs, well known throughout the country, flow like stream of consciousness from the milker, in his communion with the animal. The moon is rising over the eastern ridge into a sharp clean sky full of stars, and Antonio sings about the moon and the dark trees and the sweetness of the milk she is offering him. Everyone is quiet, listening to the song and the insects of the night. This also is a kind of cambalache.
When the milking is finished, small kerosene lamps are lit and we sit down to supper. Luisa has not only made a meal of Julio's tuna and spaghetti, but added pieces of freshly killed chicken. Antonio breaks off some bread and brings the plates to the table. As he sets each down before us, he says the same thing.
"Aquí hay algo muy malo. Here is something very bad."
It's a kind of litany of the poor, knowing we will all eat our meal with relish. When the coffee comes out, we drink it with the goat's milk. I present Antonio with the bottle of rum. He thanks me and begins pouring it into a small tin cup. He offers it first to Julio, who downs it in a single gulp, then to Bertilio and José. When he fills the cup for me, I offer it to Luisa, but no, she doesn't drink. So I sip the rum and pass it back to Antonio when I'm done. And so round and round the bottle goes.
Bertilio's nephews bring the bucks out in front of the house—two large, black and white creatures with strong horns—and we watch as they rise up on their hind legs and spring forward, over and over again, butting heads with a resounding "crack." This is the evening's chief entertainment, and I have to admit it beats a lot of what I've seen lately on Direct TV.
Now we go down, one-by-one, to bathe under the bamboo pipe. With darkness, a chill has descended rapidly over the mountains. I change into sweatpants, socks and a long-sleeved shirt, take down the loosely strung chinchoro on the porch and hang my thicker, closely woven hammock. As the men settle into a game of dominos, I climb in to sleep. There in the dim light, to the murmur of voices, the soft clatter of dominos and the ring of the tin cup on the table, I drift off.
I can never sleep more than two hours at a time in a hammock. When I wake, it's to a deep darkness and vast silence. Everyone else is sleeping inside, away from the mountain chill. I discover Julio has very kindly placed one of his sheets over me and I burrow under it to keep warm. I change my position, but I don't drift off right away. I lie in my little cocoon thinking of Cambalache and the life of simplicity and hard labor, where the only history is passed on by word of mouth, naturally distilled into the large conflicts of legend. Such myths can't take in the subtle grays of everyday life. They need the cruel master, the devout slave, the constant search for the Promised Land of freedom and plenty, the stark symbols of sword, cross and star. Could we go back to it, forsake our intricate education system, medical insurance and stock exchange, accept our limitations in a small isolated place where dominos and butting bucks suffice for entertainment? For thousands of years people lived like this, with a few animals in a faraway place. I could gladly give up the TV and perhaps the car, but not the music and the books. I am forever changed, for better or worse.
I wake again to a dawn of thick mountain mist and the sound of a cock crowing. Luisa is sweeping the dirt floor. Tom Turkey struts back and forth along the path, puffing up his chest and rattling his heavy feathers. It's still very early, but Bertilio and his nephews have already brought three mules and a burro down from the upper field and are saddling them. One of the mules is a male, and the joke of the morning seems to be the way he sniffs the two females and grimaces with lust, shaking his head and baring his teeth in a kind of lewd horse laugh.
Over our morning coffee, cheese and arepas, we watch them load the two female mules and burro for the weekly descent to the main road at Paraparo, where a truck will pick up their produce for the free market in Maracay. The female mules can haul much more weight than the male. Each will take about 50 kilos (well over a hundred pounds) with a steady confidence and at a rapid pace down that treacherous mountain trail where a simple misstep could mean a broken leg. The burro will carry far less and the young macho mule will return unburdened to his life of ease and prurient thoughts in the upper pasture.
Little Alejandro has brought three ducks down from the pen to have their feet tied for a ride to market on the burro and Antonio teaches him how to hold the wings so they won't hurt themselves. The nephews lift heavy bundles of produce and distribute the weight evenly before tying them fast to the mules' saddles. Then, with a peremptory farewell, Bertilio, nephews, mules and burro are off at a fast trot down the mountain.
The sun begins to break through the clouds, but the weight of impending rain remains, and soon Antonio goes off to work in his conuco. Before we leave, Luisa asks Julio for a favor. Another boy lived with them for a number of years, but before he left for the valley, they had had words and he has never returned. She wants Julio to tell him that she holds no grudge and hopes he will come up to see them again. It's a nice reminder that not all is peaches and cream even in Cambalache.
As we leave, it is just starting to drizzle. We pass a young man going up the mountain to hunt lapa or deer. He's dark and bare to his jeans, with a string of white animal teeth around his neck, a tattoo of the devil on his arm, a machete in his hand and a rifle slung over his shoulder.
"Buenos días," I greet him. He grunts without looking at us and goes on. Down the road, I fill my canteen at a cold spring, but it is rain rather than thirst that has us concerned. By the time we reach the chapel, it is beginning to come down in earnest. And within another half-hour it has turned into a true mountain torrent, a palo de agua.
At first the roots and large stones provide us with some footing, but the earth is dissolving into thick mud under our feet, so that in many places the trail becomes a slick jungle slide, un tobogan de la selva. We are no longer descending by our own volition, but by the pull of gravity and lack of tierra firme, falling on our duffs, covered with mud. Paul Simon is in my head, singing happily,
"Slip slidin' away, slip slidin' away,
You know the nearer your destination,
The more you're slip slidin' away."
Are you laughing at us or with us, Paul? I'm just damn glad I'm not climbing up this mountain today. And so it is that we slip and slide down past San Pablo and the trapiche and on into Hacienda El Tesoro, home of my Irish friend Willie. His huge gray mastiffs greet us at the gate, growling and barking, so I shout up the hill.
"Hey, Willie. Damn it, Willie! Where are you?"
"Hello, señores, where have you been?"
"Cambalache, and we could use some beer."
"Come in, come in. You look as if you could use a bath as well."
Willie has guests, one of which is that no-account young Swiss, who is just now looking me over with a supercilious grin on his face.
"How did you like the climb to Cambalache?" he asks, with just a tinge of disrespect in his voice.
"Stroll in the park," I reply.