The following story is an excerpt from the chapter Shaman of Warren’s book My Dad, Napoleon and Me, currently in rewrite.
Location: Venezuela’s Amazonas State, 1991
Dad: “The quicker you make up your mind, the better you are.”
Mr. Hill: “You have a brain and mind of your own. USE IT, and reach your own decisions.”
The crack of the billiard balls on the green felt tables at Erick’s Billiards was heard over the music, clinking beer bottles and noisy crowd as I pushed open the glass door. I had attempted to play pool when I was in the corps, but there was always some guy wanting to take your money. A soft layer of blue smoke hung below the pool table lights, like artificial smoke in a bad play. I was there on an invitation from a university professor, a strange place to meet for an appointment.
One of my collectors had told me about the expedition because the word was out I went on adventures. Raising my hand to join this adventure was a decision I had made on the barest of facts. The expedition was scheduled to go to Southern Venezuela’s Amazonas State with a group of men and women of science. They were to explore the indigenous people’s encampments along the Orinoco River on the Venezuelan and Colombian border.
The pool hall meeting was called by the professor in charge of leading the expedition. My job would be as the artist: to sketch and paint in watercolor, reproducing the native art that had been painted on ceilings and walls of the sheltered caves in the region thousands of years ago.
A rather tall, slender man wearing a weathered safari hat with protruding locks of curly brown hair, dressed in Khaki pants and a long-sleeved-rolled-up white shirt, turned around from “breaking” and stuck out his hand. He smiled like a used car salesman on a Saturday morning who had spotted his first customer. “Hi, I am Gibbs Milliken and this is James Bollmeyer, photographer, and you must be Warren, the artist.” I replied, “Yes sir, that’s right.”
“James you’re stripes,” Gibbs yelled and James took the cube of red chalk, inserted the tip of his stick, twisted like he had done it hundreds of times, all the time sizing up his next position of play.
I found a spot out of the way of the sticks, ordered a beer and managed to look like wall paper. Their game finished, the three of us retired to a booth, ordered another round and started the discussion of the trip being planned. Gibbs had been taking trips into the Amazonian jungle for several years. He also spoke Spanish and many words of the native tribes we would visit. Our specific scientific goals were to photograph, chart and map the locations of archaeological interest such as cave paintings and burials. Individually, according to our own interest, we could collect artifacts, specimens, record, and photograph.
From a well-worn leather pouch tied with straps, the professor pulled out a stack of stapled pages which he pushed toward me. The dossier contained all my answers, maps, descriptions, required gear and conditions of our foray into the jungle. My dad said,“Get the facts before you act.”Dad would have been satisfied. I had all the facts in my hand as the meeting ended. Gibbs told us enough stories to satisfy our questions and curiosity. I drove home eager to read the details of the pending trip.
Since the age of nine, I had been fascinated by pictures and stories of primitive people. The decision to go on this expedition was really made when I was lying on the floor reading the National Geographic by the light of Mrs. Williams’ fish aquarium. I wanted to observe men who were still killing game for food with bow and arrow or blowgun. This decision was easy because I would see firsthand humans living in a Stone Age society. I was excited.
Our destination required a layover at the Houston Intercontinental Airport until the entire team could be assembled from all over the United States. James and I had become acquainted on our flight from Austin. As others arrived, introductions were made and we recognized each other from the brief description of each team member on the paperwork we had received. There was an anthropologist, videographer, sociologist, archaeologist, zoologist, cultural anthropologist, photographer, medical doctor, crazy professor and several additional “ologist” with enough initials before and after each name to start our own university.
We passed the time in the lounge becoming acquainted and, wow, what an interesting group of individuals. The youngest member was over 31 and the group of eleven men and four women had very different backgrounds. Learning about each other was going to be as exciting as the jungle.
Our group arrived in Caracas, Venezuela, had dinner,settled back, enjoying the lights and setting sun when I asked James how he decided to be on the expedition. He said, “Warren, you won’t believe this, but I was driving my small truck when a drunk in a big Lincoln came over a hill and caught me square in my truck’s grill work. I was injured and taken to the hospital, bandaged up, and given a few pills. My friend Amy picked me up and took me back to her apartment.
I was complaining because I couldn’t work, probably would lose my job and my truck was totaled, plus I had a hell of a headache. My arm was in a sling. She interrupted and asked me, “Well, what do you want to do?” A flip answer popped out, “I want to go to the jungle and take photographs.” She responded “Okay! If that’s what you want to do, tell that to everyone you meet.”
James continued, “The following Saturday was free pool night at Erick’s Billiards so I went, walked in and found an empty table. This guy in a safari hat asked me to play for drinks. I told him I was a little handicapped with my arm in a sling. We talked and he asked me what I was up to and what I wanted to do. I hesitated and said “A girlfriend told me to tell everyone I met what I wanted to do. Ok! Here goes, I want to go to the jungle and take photographs.” The safari hat man’s jaw dropped, he stared at me and responded by inviting me to his home the next day to see his collection of artifacts from the jungle.
The next day, when I arrived, he opened the door holding the phone. He was talking to the photographer who had just resigned from the trip to Venezuela. We were standing in his living room. Gibbs was still on the phone when he told whoever on the other end of the line “never mind I have my photographer right here” and hung up. He disappeared and came back with a black duffel bag and carefully dumped the bag of its contents, all kinds of photographic gear, in the middle of the table and now, here I am.”I said, “James, that’s an incredible story!”
The next morning I was up early, dressed in my required khaki, including backpack and carrying my portable folding watercolor easel. We were headed toward our two engine plane looking like something out of a1940’s black and white Casablanca movie set. The group climbed aboard, ducked and took their seats. We were flying to the southern town of Puerto Ayacucho in the jungles of Southern Venezuela on the Colombian border, divided by the Orinoco River.
Our accommodations the first evening were better than any of us expected and exactly what we expected the rest of the trip. The first night was orientation and meeting our guides and checking the gear. The next morning, four covered vehicles, Range Rover types, were loaded on top, strapped down on the sides. Piled in between our feet were an assortment of food, collection boxes, sample kits, artist easel, packs, gas cans, water and a few cases of beer. This was enough equipment for 18 people to live and work for three weeks in the jungle.
We left mid-morning looking like a movie expedition from a 1930s movie, searching for King Solomon’s Mines. After lunch, our small paved road became an even smaller dirt road. We stopped and bought gas in a frontier gas station, a real outpost. I saw my first natives: a young couple so very small. They were completely unconcerned that she was bare breasted and nursing a tiny baby in a net bag slung over her shoulder.
We drove to our base camp by way of a dirt trail with rocks and holes; a road would be much too flattering of a description. Gibbs was an enthusiastic guide, rather chatty. He felt it was his duty to explain everything, whether you thought it interesting or not.
Camp was a clearing on the edge of the banks of the Orinoco River composed of your basic concrete buildings with corrugated metal roofs, a generator for a few light bulbs for the kitchen and mess hall. Bathing and washing of clothes would be done in the clear Orinoco River. We were warned about the Piranha fish, so I kept my underwear on when I took my “scrub-up soak” in the river. We were instructed to take a flashlight if we got up in the night due to the fer-de-lance or, as commonly known, the one-step snake. Once you’re bitten, you’re only allowed one more step and you’re dead.
Our huts were round and about twenty-five feet in diameter, with a tall center pole where we tied our hammocks. They were open all the way around allowing the inside space to cool. It looked like a plumber’s friend, with a long skinny top. One of the huts became the drinking and partying hut and, after the first night, several hut changes were made voluntarily. We were all going to know each other more than we cared to before we broke camp in three weeks.
In the morning we left camp, drove a couple of miles, then took a right turn off the road into the tall grass, avoiding the obvious termite skyscrapers that protruded above the grass. We were heading toward a bubble-shaped, black granite mountain. When we arrived Gibbs was in high gear explaining what we were seeing: the largest pictograph discovered in South America. The ancient natives had found a way to hold onto ropes and use hammer stones to peck the large designs into the granite to a depth of three or four inches. Their designs could be seen for some distance down the valley. I sat in the Range Rover driver’s seat, propped my drawing pad on the steering wheel and used binoculars to see more details as I drew. The first design was 150 feet long, an abstract snake design in a sharp zig-zag line.
At the end of the first day we discovered a cave, the remains of a bark burial. In a bark burial trees trunks are stripped of their bark about six inches wide and six or seven feet in length and the bark is carefully placed around the body, which is then tied and laid in a burial cave. We climbed a small mountain to scout the next day’s adventure. By the time we pulled into camp, my rear end felt like a paddle ball from all the jolts on the hard seat. I scrambled out, found my hammock, grabbed my towel, soap, clean clothes and headed for the river.
The water was refreshing and clear enough to see the bottom. I scrubbed down, remembering the Piranha threat and only dipped into the river, fearing for my family jewels. Lying down on a smooth river-tossed log to dry, I reflected on our day’s adventure. Staring into a clear blue sky, with the sound of the wide river making gurgling noises, the peaceful scene was broken by the loud shrieks of a pair of beautiful Macaw parrots flying low overhead. The day had been a real Indiana Jones experience, discovering a bark burial in a shelter cave, driving for miles through the tall grass dodging the termite mounds, seeing rock art perhaps thousands of years old, and bathing in the Orinoco River.
Zipping up my mosquito net to keep the jungle out I was in my own world with my flashlight, sketchbook and pen, protected from the outside, feeling snug as a bug in my hammock. I sketched for a few minutes then clicked off my flashlight. My cocoon mates were talking quietly as sleep was definitely on the schedule. In the movies, the jungle is an assortment of frogs, insects, and animal sounds, but here in the dark of our large thatched hut on the banks of the Orinoco River, the night was eerily quiet, except for the snoring of the humans hanging in their hammocks.
We had mountains, forest and caves to explore. The routine of exploring and camping took on a rhythm and the Range Rovers became home during the day. I looked forward to my hammock each night. The morning of the fourth day, we climbed a black lichen-covered granite mountain which curved steeply to the bottom like the side of a whale.
Near the top of the mountain, we entered a shelter cave with a flat ceiling, a hundred feet across at the entrance and about 30 or 40 feet deep. The entrance offered a panoramic view of the valley, a distant horizon without fences, communication towers, bill boards or roads; only the native village tucked into the greenery near the river, hundreds of feet below our vantage point.
Sliding my pack off and leaning my easel against a table size rock, I pulled out my canteen and gulped several swigs of water as I took in the amazing view of the black smoked ceiling with multiple paintings in white, black, yellow and red ocher. The water slid down my throat as I grasped the magnitude of the native style Sistine ceiling. I stood in silence.
Above me was a life-size deer with its head turned as if sensing the hunter somewhere in the distance, and a fish, a stylized Piranha. The rock ceiling was right out of a Noah’s ark pop up kid’s book with sniffing armadillos, fearful deer, colorful birds, fish, skittish monkeys and more of the same, yielding stories of hunting, painted perhaps thousands of years ago. Their stories in paint, protected from the elements, were still expressing the prowess of the hunter and the artist who honored them, and I was the artist this day to honor the long past artists from another time.
Taking a break before I started drawing, I looked toward the back of the shelter cave. On a natural rock shelf, I could see something white: the top of a human skull inside one of the rolls of bark, it was like a taco. It was not unkind or weird, only the thought: a human wrapped in bark like a taco. It was more interesting than anything else. I sketched, did two full sheets of watercolors depicting about one square meter of the ceiling. I selected different animals, birds and fish to capture the abstract design of how these native artists interpreted their world.
Picasso would have enjoyed the world of abstracted animals. There were no human beings represented in all the paintings. Perhaps these images were symbols of survival and hunting magic. Man was behind the painting not in front, he did not need to be represented.
When we descended the mountain, we had to use ropes to rappel off the steep sides of the granite monolith. We were like kids playing in the vacant lot looking for treasure. Everywhere we looked we could find something interesting to investigate.
One day I approached the entrance of a cave we had discovered, confident that nothing had entered or exited in the last couple of days due to the number of cone-shaped ant lion (doodlebug) traps in the fine dust of the entrance. Flashlight in one hand and .38 pistol in the other, I proceeded to crawl slowly when, all of a sudden, I heard shouts and cries behind me from the other members of the team. James had been behind me and he disappeared to the right. I scrambled out, took three steps to the left and found a foot wide space going around a narrow rock shelf. I had no idea what had happened. The boulders I had inched myself around blocked any sound from my teammates, I couldn’t hear a thing. Inching along the foot wide path of solid rock, the drop down getting more precarious, I decided to slide down on my bottom and crawl through the tangle of tree limbs to the bottom of the mountain. I walked a good distance to the other side where the vehicles were parked. There was the majority of the team, with red welts on all exposed body parts. It seemed the cave that James and I had crawled into was under a giant hornets’ nest. The entire hive of tiny hornets attacked the team that was behind us. James and I escaped without one sting. Leaving the hornet cave that afternoon and never returning has kept me wondering what treasures we left behind.
Next week we will continue the story of Shaman, focusing on his trip to several Amazonian villages.