It’s evident that I haven’t engaged with my followers in these recent months. I received many concerned emails and messages. I greatly appreciate the notion that my followers are concerned for my well being. I have to admit that I have been struggling with some personal issues concomitant with my recuperation from my last trip to Venezuela. All in all, I’m alive and well and look forward to getting back into the swing of things.
I had returned from Venezuela late April. This trip had taken so much out of me both physically and emotionally that I needed a few months to lie low and regain my strength. It is no secret that Venezuela is experiencing an economic and political crisis and I got a small taste of it during my recent trip. I won’t get into details of what I had to face. However, I can say that life was very hard due to shortages of basic goods, medicines, electricity, and running water. My heart goes out to all of my Venezuelan friends struggling day in and day out during these hard times.
I started my expedition with anthropologist Dr. Javier Carrera-Rubio. We had put together a wonderful research and field plan to document, transcribe, and translate, and publish oral mythologies and histories from Yanomami elders around the Mavaca region. These texts would be used as learning tools in the existing Yanomami Intercultural schools. This is a project that was received with great enthusiasm from not only the Yanomami themselves, but other agents such as teachers, missionaries, and NGOs. But it soon turned out to be a lot harder than we had anticipated to carry out our mission.
When we landed in Puerto Ayacucho, we experienced some difficulties in gaining access to cash, supplies, and logistical support. Additionally, there was a constant state of fear where we resided since their were a series of shootings, murders, and robbings. Unfortunately, after weeks of meetings and back-and-forth discussions, the bureaucratic powers had prevented Javier from gaining access to the Yanomami territory. Since I had lost so much time and money in the cities, my objectives changed from executing our project to doing whatever I could to see my mom and family. So I and my Yanomami friend, Shero, left for Esmeralda.
From here, I convened with my guide and good friend, Andrew Lee and headed to Cosh. He had explained to me of the extreme shortage of gasoline in the Upper Orinoco and that my trip to my mother’s may be a little more difficult than what we had anticipated. After two long days of searching and begging for gasoline in Esmeralda, we decided to salvage what was left at the base and hope that one of the Catholic missionaries could sell us a couple of tanks. So we packed our boat and invited a Yanomami named Seco to join us.
In addition to the economic crisis, Venezuela was experiencing one of the worst droughts in recent history. So that meant that the river was extremely low making travel difficult and arduous. We were constantly poling and pulling our boat through the sand. To make matters worse, I forgot to pack sun tan lotion! I spent days in the beating equatorial sun. I was afflicted with 2nd degree burns on my shoulders, back, and face. And that made sleeping an absolute nightmare. But we were tough and we stayed true to our mission to get to Irokai-teri. We made a pit stop at Mavaca, a catholic missionary post on the Orinoco river. I explained to the missionaries of the troubles Javier and I faced in the city and that we would have to post pone our project. The one nun had understood completely. In fact, she informed me that all the schools were closed due to lack of food, gasoline, and poor river conditions. I was able to donate the computer system and voice recorder to the schools. So hopefully, it will all be there when we return. The nun and priest were extremely happy of our ambition to do this project among the Yanomami. They had graciously provided us a tank of gas and gave us their blessings as we continued up river to my village.
Andrew was resilient as he maintained his focus and composure serving as the motorist. After three brutal nights we finally made our way to the Guajaribo Rapids. Some Yanomami we had spoken to along the way had insisted that we turned back because it would be impossible to past the rapids at such low levels. But we persisted. At the base of the rapids we assessed the situation and picked a route to pull the boat through. It took all of our strength to inch the boat past rocks and swift moving water. There was one spot where we got into a little bit of trouble. Our boat was pinned against the rock and somebody needed to get to the other side of the boat to pull it away. The only issue is that on the other side of the boat was extremely fast moving water. Seco seemed to have a little trouble so I decided to give it a try.
As soon as I got to the other side of the boat I immediately fell into trouble. The water was so fast that I was swept off my feet. My right leg had struck a rock and left a small gash. The pain was excruciating but I had no time to think about it as I looked up and noticed the boat starting to turn broadside against the rapids! This was bad. If the boat had turned completely broadside we would risk capsizing and losing our boat down the steep drop just a few meters below us. I scrambled to find footing and was finally able to push my back against the boat to straighten it out while Andrew held strong in the back stabilizing it. We got lucky. And we all expressed relief when finally got it straight again.
After a couple of painful hours we finally were able to get the boat through and reloaded with our gear and we pressed on. (Side note: my leg had become infected and I was sick with a fever for a couple of days. Luckily, I had enough antiseptic creams and antibiotics on hand). Every village we passed from here was deserted. Due to the severe drought, many gardens near the riverside were burnt; not yielding crops. So the Yanomami fled inland in search of food. It was bit eerie seeing shabonos with no inhabitants. This made us worry about the Irokai-teri and wondered where they might be.
We spent the night on the river shortly after the rapids. The next day we finally made it to Hasapuwei and discovered there were a few villagers that stayed behind to care for a sick old man who could not make the trek inland. After discussing with a young man, he had agreed to go first thing in the morning to where the Irokai-teri are staying to inform them that I had arrived. We paid him a machete.
So we waited on the river near the trail leading to the Irokai-teri. Around mid day, I looked up and saw my mother and family at the river bank. “Kamiye-ke ya!” I screamed. Meaning, “It is me!” And they replied with “Awei!” I climbed up the river bank and finally greeted my mother. I was overcome with exhaustion, frustration, happiness, and joy. I looked up at mother and said, “Mom! Why do you have to live so damn far away!?” Of course, I was being a bit facetious. We sat next to each other and exchanged hugs and smiles and laughs. I tried to keep my composure but after several minutes I couldn’t hold in any longer. I just started sobbing. And so did mom. And so did everyone else. I had missed her so much. Two long years. Two long years of preparation and saving money. And I never dreamed of how hard this journey was going to be. But I made it. I was with mom once again. And I know that I couldn’t have done this without Andrew. He is like brother to me now and he has given me the best gift of taking me to my Yanomami family.
After our emotional reunion, my family quickly built a temporary structure on the riverside. This is where we would spend our next two nights. Unfortunately, due to shortage of resources and time, and the logistical difficulties, two nights was all the time I had to be with mom. We had a lot of catching up to do. I also distributed the much needed trade goods. I dispersed some pots, fish hooks, some machetes, and clothes. They seemed a bit disappointed that I had brought so little but I don’t think they could completely understand the obstacles I faced in getting down here. Andrew, Seco, and I were so exhausted from our journey that we had spent a great deal of time resting in our hammocks. But that allowed us to talk and discuss certain things. By talk I mean Andrew did all the translation. Let’s not forget that he speaks fluent Yanomami, Spanish, and English. And if it weren’t for him I wouldn’t have been able to communicate thoroughly with my family. However, throughout my stay in Venezuela I was able to increase my Yanomami vocabulary and grammar.
Shortly before it was time to leave, we had a group discussion. My mom told me to not take so long in coming back. She said that I need to bring more trade goods to share with the entire village. My mom and brother also expressed their interest in coming the United States. I will do everything that I can to make that happen. But I will need a lot of help and funding. I know with the help of our friends here at home and abroad will provide assistance in anyway possible. And I feel blessed for it.
There is an idiom in Spanish, “No hay mal que por bien no venga”. Translated literally it means that there is no bad from which good doesn’t come from. It can also mean that every cloud has a silver lining and that one can derive benefit from every bad thing that happens to you. I can say that this expedition was truly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to. But along the way, I was able to build a stronger rapport with the Yanomami…my family. In the face of all the obstacles, this has shown that I will do whatever it takes to be with my family and to help them. During this trip I was able to gain the approval and support of many Yanomami leaders in what The Good Project stands for and the we won’t give up to serve them as they face many struggles.
So here at home, in the U.S., I will pick up the pieces and work on finishing what I started with our project with the schools. So many Yanomami are eager to work with us in providing education and collaboration on protecting their culture, rights, and health. Public health has become a recent focus of mine. Especially as more Yanomami are moving to urban areas. (This is a topic for another time). Some of their needs are very explicit such as protection from illegal gold mining, mercury poisioning, and introduced diseases. While others are more difficult to assess such as long term education programs, implications of increased migration and mobility, and public health training. I worry about the youth and how they identify themselves in their ever increasing complicated world. I pray they never renounce their heritage and stay true to who they are; to always be proud of being a Yanomami and never forget the ways of their ancestors.
In closing, I would like to say that my expedition to the Yanomami would not have been possible without all of your support, donations, and encouragements. Please help The Good Project going and continuing our mission in serving our indigenous brothers and sisters. We will be planning another expedition soon and we would appreciate any donations.
Thank you for reading,
Follow this link to learn more about the work with Yanomami schools: https://jointhegoodproject.com/yanomami-translation-and-transcription-project/
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