Friday, November 8, 2013

Piaroa Shaman at FITVen2013 Says Come Visit Village

You don't meet an authentic Piaroa Shaman every day. Joaquin Marquez and his son Alfredo came to Mérida all the way from Sabanito de Pintao in Amazonas State to take part in the International Tourism Fair,  FITVen2013.

It's hard to imagine the attraction of a tourism fair to an indigenous leader who has spent years trying to preserve the cultural traditions of his people, but Joaquin says he understands the need to integrate into mainstream society, albeit on his terms.

There are about 15,000 Piaroa (Wotuja in their own language) living in the Orinoco-Ventuari region of Venezuela's Amazonas and Bolivar states. Their most sacred monument is the dramatic, tabletop mountain known in Spanish as Cerro Autana, a popular destination for adventure tourists.

For the Piaroa, the Autana is the stump of a giant tree of life that once held all the fruits of the forest. When it was felled a giant flood engulfed the land, creating the world of the Piaroa but connecting them forever to the mythic pre-flood world.

While the majority of Piaroa now wear western clothing and are increasingly part of the cash economy they still hold on to traditional beliefs and customs.

Joaquin and Alfredo are keen to encourage more tourists to visit the village of 62 people that Joaquin founded as a young man.

They want the people of Sabanita de Pintao to benefit from the money they make by selling the beaded knecklaces, carved maracas, shamans stools, woven baskets and dance masks that form part of their culture.

Just 25 minutes by car from Puerto Ayacucho, the capital of Amazonas State, Sabanita de Pintao is on the road to a famous petroglyph carved into a high rock wall known locally as the Piedra Pintada.

Many people who visit the indigenous market in Puerto Ayacucho are struck by the dramatic masks and bark cloth costumes made by the Piaroa, which represent mythical creatures such as the monkey and the peccary, and are used in ritual dances.

If you want to visit an indigenous group that are proud to wear their white cotton guayucos (loincloths) and show you their heritage, then Sabanita de Pintao is a good place to start.

Follow my FITVen2013 trip on Instagram by clicking here:

Check out a video clip of Piaroa kids snacking on Tarantulas:

A Piaroa Creation Myth: Buoka and Wajari, the first men

Friday, November 1, 2013

Venezuela Guide on Instagram - FITVen2013


In October 2013 I was invited to travel around Venezuela on a Press Trip organized by the Tourism Ministry (MinTur) in the run up to the FITVen2013 International Tourism Fair.

As I lost my laptop and camera en route to Venezuela I was forced to improvise. Armed only with an HTC One S mobile phone with an 8 megapixel camera, I decided to document my trip on Instagram.

Through trial and error, I learnt how to get the most out of a single shot and train my eye to find images that would work in a square. The filters I just responded to depending on my mood that day. The feedback on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter has been really encouraging.

I am pleased with the results.

The restrictions of Instagram forced me to be more creative and think carefully before taking each shot, which helped me to see Venezuela in a different way.

I came home with some great new images of Caracas, the islands of Margarita, Coche and Cubagua, rafting in Barinas, paragliding in Mérida and the folk festivals of the Pueblos del Sur, remote villages in the Andean mountains south of Merida.

To see more of my Instagram images follow me at @Venezuelaguide -

Street Theatre: In the area around Plaza el Venezolano and Plaza Bolivar in the centre of Caracas, actors recreate key scenes from Venezuela's history by bringing to life famous characters from the past who tell the story of their time. Here, the dictator Juan Vicente Gomez takes a stroll with Independence hero Francisco de Miranda.  

Whitewater Rafting: On the Rio Acequias in Barinas, adventure tour company Arassari Trek took us on a bumpy, adrenaline-pumping ride down a Grade 3 stretch of foaming rapids. It helps if everybody rows together.

For more details of rafting in Barinas contact Arassari Trek

Remote Andean Villages: Just outside San Jose de Acequias, one of the so-called Pueblos del Sur, we came across this tiny chapel dedicated to San Isidro Labrador, the patron sain of farmers. 

Vibrant Folk Festivals: The Locainas de Santa Rita are gentlemen who dress like ladies for a day during the festivities in honor of San Isidro, as Santa Rita in popular lore is the wife of the saint. As their name suggests, these ladies can get quite "loco" during the festivities held on 21-22 May, and after dancing with their sticks they try to liven up the festive mood by flirting with the men in the crowd.

Paragliding in Merida: Close to the city of Merida is one of the best paragliding spots in Venezuela, a place called Tierra Negra. Jose Albarran of Fanny Tours is one of the pioneers of paragliding in Venezuela and a great pilot for a tandem flight. Known to his friends as "Piojo" (Flea), due to his uncanny ability to scale sheer rock faces, Jose is one of the founders of the paragliding school in the nearby village of Las Gonzales, close to the landing site, where youngsters are being trained to become the paragliding champions of the future. Watch a video of me paragliding with Piojo here

For more details of paragliding in Merida contact Jose at Fanny Tours

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Piaroa kids snack on tarantulas in the jungle

This cute little clip from the BBC's new Human Planet series follows a group of young Piaroa children from Venezuela's Amazonas State as they hunt for spiders to snack on.

These are no ordinary spiders, but the largest spider of all, the fearsome Goliath tarantula (Theraphosa blondi) which can give a nasty nip with its venomous fangs and also protects itself with irritating urticated hairs that it flicks off its abdomen when threatened with attack.

The effect is similar to horse-hair itching powder on the skin, but if breathed into the throat it can cause serious respiratory problems.

The clip was first shown on British TV on 3 February 2011.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Speak like a native - Pemon and Warao basics

A group of young Pemon porters take a rest on the way down from Mount Roraima.

For many travellers to Venezuela the biggest worry language-wise is getting a grasp on enough Spanish phrases to book hotels and buses, order drinks and make friends. But what do you do in the areas of Venezuela where Spanish is not the natural first language of the people who live there?
If you're heading for Canaima to see Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world, or climbing the Lost World tepui of Roraima your guides and boatmen will be from the local indigenous people, the Pemon.
If you visit the Orinoco Delta you'll be fishing for piranhas with men from the Warao tribe or buying baskets and handicrafts from Warao women.
These distinct indigenous cultures deserve our respect. They are after all the original inhabitants of the continent, surviving in these lands for thousands of years before the arrival of Columbus and preserving their language and culture today against all the odds.
From my experience, there is no better way to raise a smile and show respect for Pemon and Warao culture than to learn a few words of the local language. A simple "hello" might not seem like much but you'll soon discover how eager the indigenous people you meet will be to teach you new words and phrases and show you off to their friends and family.
To help visitors learn a few basic words I've created a short glossary to try out on your travels. You won't find anything like this anywhere else on the internet so print it out and take it with you.

Pemon Language Basics
Hello, how are you? - waküperö
Good - wakü
Bad - awarö
Taking leave
Goodbye - airö
Thanks - waküpe-küruman
I like - waküpeman
Friend - upetoy
House - tapüy (as in flat-topped mountain, also spelled tepuy, tepui)
1. Taükin
2. Saküne
3. Seurawöne
4. Sakorörö
5. Taükin - yenna
6. Pona taükin
7. Pona saküne
8. Pona seurawöne
9. Pona sakorörö
10. Saküne yenna

Warao Language Basics
How are you? How's things - Katuketi?
Possible replies
Good - Yakera
Very good - Yakera guito
Ok - Yakera sabuka
Bad - Asida
Taking leave
Goodbye - Omi
1. Isaka
2. Manamo
3. Dijanamo
4. Orabakaya
5. Mojabasi
6. Mojomatana isaka
7. Mojomatana manamo
8. Mojomatana dijamo
9. Mojomatana orabakaya
10. Mojoreko
20. warao isaka (a Warao has ten fingers and ten toes so one Warao = 20)

Warao women sell moriche fibre baskets and wood carvings of local animals from a palafito (house on stilts) in the Orinoco Delta.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

UK explorer learns survival skills from Venezuela's Pemon

Famous UK explorer Ray Mears travels into the Venezuelan jungle to learn some survival skills from the Yekuana and Pemon Indians for a BBC documentary series on bushcraft.

You can find the full documentaries on Youtube but here is my favourite episode, when Ray meets Venezuelan snake expert and naturalist Jesus Rivas and we learn a little more about some of the smaller inhabitants of the rainforest.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Yekuana Games Central to Beliefs - Documentary

This short film produced by Venezuelan videographer Angel Rizo and Francesca Staasch and directed by Enrique Blein Gerstl documents the life and beliefs of the Yekuana people of the Venezuelan rainforest as expressed through their games.

The filmmakers travelled to Santa Maria del Erebato in the Yekuana heartland to discover the games the Yekuana play to express mythic concepts and train the boys in hunting skills.

The narrator describes how the Yekuana, also known as Maquiritare, believe that the jaguar must only ever be killed in self-defence as he was once a man.

The myth states that a lazy man who refused to take part in the heavy labours of his village was cast out and forced to fend for himself, eventually turning to cannibalism, eating his own to survive.

They also believe that powerful shamans can take on the form of a jaguar to kill their enemies, which is very similar to the Pemon's belief in Canaima, an evil spirit that can bring death and often takes jaguar form.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

On the trail of painted ladies in Amazonas

Sometimes it takes so long to get your hands on a coveted object that you can end up with something that only vaguely resembles the treasured thing you originally set your heart on.

That is what happened to me recently, when I finally got my hands on a Hiwi ceramic figurine (below) after 10 years of fruitless searching.

The Hiwi are an indigenous people who live along the Orinoco River and its tributaries near Puerto Ayacucho, where one bank of the mighty river is in Venezuela and the other in Colombia.

They also inhabit the savannahs along Colombia's Meta and Vichada rivers and some groups are found in Venezuela's Apure, Guarico and Bolivar states. There are nearly 15,000 Hiwi in Venezuela and more than twice that in Colombia.

In Spanish their tribal name is rendered as Jivi, or Guajibo (sometimes spelled Guahibo) and they speak a language which was once thought to be Arawakan but is now classed as Independent.

The Hiwi are noted for their skill at making necklaces and decorated baskets and they produce sought-after hammocks from moriche palm (known as "chinchorro" in Venezuela).

But I've always been fascinated by the ceramics, especially the effigy vessels of male and female Hiwi covered in symbolically-important markings.

Few contemporary Venezuelan tribal groups produce elaborate ceramics, so when I chanced upon a slim booklet about Hiwi pottery traditions by a ceramicist called Alfredo Almeida I was intrigued.

Almeida's book was on sale at the past-its-glory-and-a-bit-dusty-but-still-fascinating Monsenor Enzo Ceccarrelli Ethnological Museum in Puerto Ayucucho, the capital of Amazonas State.

As I studied a display of Hiwi ceramics from the museum's collection I was able to compare the originals with Almeida's illustrations of male effigy vessels, which he called "Jivitonuu" and female effigy vessels which he called "Jivitovaa".

It was clear the female figurines in the museum all had the geometrical markings of squares within squares, which Almeida said corresponded to "Ikuli Itanee", the tortoise, used specifically as a design in face painting by Hiwi women.

Almeida had done his research into Hiwi pottery in the 1970s in a tribal community called la Reforma.

Along the way he had met Guillermo Guevara Kukubi who explained that "the history of Hiwi pottery goes back to the very origin and appearance of the first guajibo on Planet Earth.

"As the Jivi have taught us we come from inside the Earth, from a place called Unianato, a place located 5 kilometres west of the Atures rapids on the left side of the Orinoco, today Colombian territory," explained Guevara.

"Each Jivi man who came out of the Earth carried with him an earthenware jar to drink water from. But more than an earthenware jar for practical use, it was also a model for the creation of the varied forms of Jivi pottery that we have today," he wrote.

Guevara says the figures and designs were introduced by Kuvai, or Kuwai, the Hiwi culture hero, who first created the Shaman's prayers and the symbolic designs emerged from them and were passed on to the Hiwi so they could remember the stories of creation and the sacred prayers.

Pressed for time I missed the chance to buy myself some figurines from the Hiwi vendors in the market outside the museum but vowed I would return.

Twenty years later, when I finally got the chance to visit the market again after a tremendous river trip to Cerro Autana, the figurines on sale had changed almost completely. No longer did they have a slight glaze to the pottery or dark designs painted on the surface.

Time had moved on and the Hiwi figurines seemed to have lost touch with their mythical past. They looked slick and slightly generic, objects made to sell to tourists rather than meaningful expressions of Hiwi culture.

I bought one of the figurines anyway, at least to have something to take home.

But the question remains. Are there communities of Hiwi in Venezuela or Colombia still making traditional figurines?

My search is not over yet.