I don’t bring up my 2016 expedition to Yanomami territory very often. I just don't like to recall some of unpleasant feelings surrounding everything that happened before, during, and after my trip. To say that it was hard was an understatement. There were obstacles and failures that made me want to to give up at times. However, I learned a lot from that trip that helped shape me into who I am today.
I was working with a colleague to do a project with the Yanomami schoolteachers at Mavaca. It wasn’t my project idea. In fact, I didn't have much of a role at all in developing but I wanted to support it because we, including the Yanomami teachers, were going to document Yanomami mythologies as told by the few elders living around that region. We were going to use those audiovisual materials and incorporate them in the classroom. This was extremely exciting for me because this would provide a direct line to the older shamans of the Mavaca region and build rapport with those communities.
Have you ever had the chance to sit down and record your grandparents retelling stories and life experiences? I had that chance with my grandmother before she passed. It was a rich and awe-inspiring experience. So much history. So many stories. So much wisdom. I wanted to do the same with Yanomami people. My colleague was the expert in the Yanomami language. I was the student. So we set out for an important project meant to preserve ancient Yanomami stories as well as learn the language. I couldn't be more excited.
Just like any other trip, there was much excitement, ambition, and high hopes. It took months of planning, coordinating, and fundraising. When I hopped on the Newark flight to Caracas, I was already exhausted. Upon arriving to Caracas, we immediately felt the effects of the crisis in Venezuela.
There were extreme shortages of food, goods, medicines, water, and electricity. In our apartment, we experienced blackouts and water shutting off for sometimes days. And that left for a smelly, I mean, very smelly bathroom.
There were also shortages of cash currency compounding the destructing effects of the rampant hyperinflation. If you wanted to exchange $200 dollars you needed stacks and stacks of Venezuelan currency. This made purchasing necessary items extremely difficult and dangerous. Without access to an account with a debit card, we had to walk around with backpacks of cash.
I'll never forget when we went food shopping for some basic items like milk, bread, cheese, some crackers, and of course a bottle of rum to help drown out some of the most difficult of days. When it was time to check out, my colleague slumped to take off his back pack and plopped onto the counter. He dished out stacks upon stacks of bills. It looked like an illicit drug deal. Of course, there was a line behind us and I felt all the eyes staring us down. The food would only last for a few days before we had to go shopping again. Sometimes, we decided to go hungry for the night rather than go through the stress of finding cash and go food shopping.
Days into the trip and I was already stressed and even more exhausted.
We finally made our way to Puerto Ayacucho where the weather was atrociously hot. Venezuela was experiencing on of the worst droughts in history, in part, due to the El Niño effect. Additionally, it was a very dangerous city.
The house I was staying at was recently burglarized by armed men. The guy across the street was shot in his home. Minutes after leaving a hardware store, a customer was executed with a bullet in his head right in front of the store in broad daylight! My friend had her cell phone stolen at gunpoint right in front of her house. My other friend was followed as he left work and was robbed at gunpoint in the middle of the street. There are worse stories that I just can't simply share here, or maybe ever.
The list of Venezuelan friends and their acquaintances who have been victimized by violent crime had grown. So, this brought about a great deal of anxiety. Prior to leaving for Venezuela, I had received so many emails and messages with people imploring I do not go because I will get kidnapped. I never felt safe.
I did find solace that I was a traveler, passing through to get to his mom in the Amazon jungle. I feel for the people that live this suffering on a daily basis. I was grateful that my Yanomami family live is so far away from the chaos of this world and is not affected by the crisis. So, I had focused on our mission and getting to Yanomami territory.
Then, I got really sick! I contracted some kind of GI infection causing one of the worst diarrhea I’ve ever had. I became severely dehydrated and lost a lot of weight. I was frail and sickly. Have you ever been dehydrated? Not thirsty, but dehydrated. It is an awful feeling. It affects your cognitive and motor skills and you can hardly think.
One day, I was in the back yard of the home I was staying at, just feeling awful, when I started to black out. I grew very worried and I knew that I needed some water. I stumbled my way to the backdoor to get into the kitchen where there was clean water. You can't drink from the tap. But it was locked! Of course, doors are always locked. You never know when your home could be invaded.
Then, I collapsed onto the ground. I tried to yell for my colleague who was in his room. All I could do was squeak out a raspy, “help…help”. I don’t think it was loud enough to wake up snoozing mouse. Fortunately, I had my cell phone in my pocket.
I set out to text him but I couldn't move my arm. That's how weak I was. I calmed my mind and soul and waited a few minutes to gather enough energy to reach in my side pocket and pull out my phone. Keep in mind, I'm still on the ground. When you’re this dehydrated simple tasks are difficult. I found it nearly impossible to navigate my phone.
I don't know how long it took me but I was finally able to send an SOS to my colleague. Luckily, he was near his phone and immediately came running to the door and found me seemingly lifeless on the ground. He quickly administered a solution of salt and sugar and first aid. Little by little, I revived. Fortunately, I was able to help myself to the toilet. We were all relieved that I came around because the last place you want to go when you're sick is the hospital.
I quote a friend, "the hospital is like a hell. It's a place where you go to die."
After waiting for weeks for approval of our project were hit with devastating new. The "powers to be" ultimately denied our project and my colleague was not allowed to enter Yanomami territory. All that hard work was stopped dead in its track. I think back on it now, and it still make me feel sad. But I know that I can't dwell and the "could haves, the should haves, and the would haves". It was fate. Bu the show had to go on. I needed to go find mom.
I secured a flight to the Upper Orinoco and once I landed, I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. Of course, things were not going to get easier. We were faced with a whole new set of challenges. The El Niño effect made its mark in Yanomami territory. The river was very low and the sun brutal as ever. This made navigation difficult.
I teamed up with my friend, Andrew, who was the motorist, guide, and translator. It took us almost 5 days to reach the trail head that leads to my village. Along the way, I had injured myself when pulling our boat up the Guajaribo rapids.
The current was strong and swift. After trying to unpin our boat against a rock, I lost my footing got swept in the rapids. My right shin struck the side of another rock and I sustained a cut. I didn’t break anything and it wasn't deep, but that cut eventually led to an infection and high fevers.
To add insult to injury, I had sustained 2nd degree burns from prolonged exposure to the sun. Like an amateur, I didn’t pack a single tube of suntan lotion. I had bad blisters on my shoulders and back. It looked like someone had taken a piece of smoldering firewood and seared my skin. That made sleeping in my hammock terribly difficult.
The slightest movement caused excruciating pain. I had to pop Advil PM pills to knock me out. I wasn’t the only thing burning. The Amazon was on fire. It was an eerie sight. On both sides of the river you could see large swaths of land in ashes. Left and right, we saw plumes of smoke spewing out forest.
When we passed Yanomami villages, they were all abandoned. The people had moved inland Fortunately, we did run into a young man who filled us in one some updates. He agreed to trek inland to find my family and tell them of my arrival. We traveled a little further upriver to where to the trail head that leads to my village. I recognized the spot from 2013. I felt excited. I just wanted to tie up my hammock in the shabono, embrace my loved ones, and relax and recuperate. R&R Yanomami style. But that would be too easy right?! When I arrived I was shocked to see the whole village was burned to the ground.
Click here to see a video of that scene: https://youtu.be/5Ci6nAN9uEc?t=723
So, I admit that I was feeling a little down. We retreated to our boat to have lunch while standing in the middle of the Orinoco river. That’s how low it was. Normally, taking a dip in the water cools things down. But even the river was hot and it didn’t give much of a reprieve.
Then, suddenly appeared, one of my family members high up on the river back. Soon after, more showed up and eventually I spotted my mother. I climbed up the riverbank towards her and was flooded with so many emotions. It was like a cornucopia, more like a meat grinder, of emotions.
As I approached I hand an instantaneous burst of anger. Not at her, just at the world. i grabbed mom by the shoulders and yelled out, “Damn it mom! Why do you have to live so f****g far away?!” She looked at me blankly not understanding a word I said.
Then I smiled and was immediately overwhelmed with much joy and happiness. I broke into tears. So did mom. And in that moment, everything felt OK. I was a mess, but I finally felt OK. I thought, this was all worth it. Hard! But worth it.
We made a quick shelter on the riverside and hung out for a few days. Much of my family didn’t make the trip from their village to the riverside but I was happy that my brother did. Ricky, Mom, and I had a great time even if it was short-lived. The good byes were hard. After everything I went through I was sad that I couldn't stay longer. But we didn't have the time or resources to stay longer or trek inland to their other shabono.
As always, I tell her that I will try to come back as soon as I can. I really don't know if she truly understands what it takes for me to visit her. Even after her experiences going through all this with my dad and living in the US for six years. But that's ok. She doesn't have to. I tell her that I will always come back. I just don't know when, but I'll come back.
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