Based on all the reading up we’ve been doing on Orishas, I painted an Elegguá spread of pages in my journal.
Kris had bought an Elegguá necklace (two feet long!) and I drew it as the border. Then, I “made” my own 2D version of the orisha. Traditionally, every Santero has to build his own Elegguá—usually just a mound or cone of soil, clay, or cement—using dirt from a crossroads, a cemetery, a prison cell, a bakery, the entrance to a church, and an open field. I made mine from a collage of local newspaper items about traffic lights, obituaries, prison cells, flour shortages, religious events, and cattle ranchers, plus bits and pieces about roads…close enough! Cowrie shells (called caracoles) are used for the eyes, mouth, ears. I painted my caracoles, and stuck them on. I even gave him a paper cigar…
The text around my Elegguá is just a Cuban Santero’s description of the orisha…his powers, his character, his areas of influence, his roles among the other orishas…
Elegguá is the master of pathways and doorways.
He is of the keys and the knots.
It is he that ties, and unties.
He is the beginning and the end of all paths.
He is the sentry of the days and the nights.
He mixes sugar and blood….
Everything is turned upside down, he is playful and sensitive.
Dangerous, like a child, he rescues or kills.
He is also tricky and bloodthirsty….
He is greedy and gluttonous, you win him over by giving him sweets.
He likes whistles, balls, kites, and spinning tops….
He holds the keys to the destinies of man.
So far, Santeriá has been the most interesting new thing we’ve come upon in Venezuela, and the richness of its rituals and paraphernalia have been feeding our creative appetites.
Yemayá (blues and crystal clear beads) is the mother of all Orishas. Her name means “Mother whose children are like the fish”, (referring to her fecundity as the source of all living things.) She is queen of the ocean, patroness of seafarers and fishermen, of pregnant women, and is the spirit of moonlight. Often depicted as a mermaid, I bought these bracelets for my friend, who is a real mermaid…
Changó (or Shangó) is the most ‘popular’ of the orishas. He rules over lightning, thunder, fire, the drums and dance. He is a strong-willed and fiery Orisha, red and white, and loves all the good things of life: dancing, drumming, women, food and wine. He is ocanani with Elegba, meaning they are of one heart. I bought these bracelets for a fiery artist friend of mine, a Leo, a maven of good food, wine, music, books, and art.
Elegba (also Eleggua or Elegguá) is the owner of the roads and doors in this world. The colors red, black, and white are his. In particular, Elegba stands at the crossroads of the human and the divine, as messenger between the two worlds. Nothing can be done in either world without his permission. Elegba is always propitiated before calling any other orisha, as he opens the door between the worlds and opens our roads in life. He is my personal favourite, a trickster god and a child, and I bought his bracelets for myself.
Some of you may remember that I made a new journal for myself last year, when the previous one had filled up, and that I chose to decorate its covers with the colours, symbols, sigils, and incantations of Elegba, because I was about to set off on a huge journey around South America for a few years (we are here, currently) and wanted to honour the Spirit of The Roads, the Opener of Ways.
Kris says I have grossly understated the economic situation in Venezuela in my first post. “Come on, it’s not ‘very, very affordable‘ here…Venezuela is currently recognised as The Cheapest Country in the World, for crissake!”
He’s right, of course. So there you are, it’s even better than I made out. The black market dollar rate is a hundred times the ‘official rate’ artificially set by the government, and the value of paper money here is next to nothing. To pay for a meal for two at a mid-range restaurant, you hand over a wad of 100s about a centimeter thick…Bs1,800.00 or thereabouts. And, for all that, it amounts to something like 3 bucks. Petrol is 7 litres a dollar. Need I say more?
So this is one country where I can afford to keep a sample of each denomination as a keepsake in my journal…a whopping 21 US cents are attached to the page above.
The reason I WANT to keep these bills is that Venezuelan money is beautiful. I love the vertical format, the bright colours, the modern graphic layout, the metallic inks and holographic strip that runs through each bill…they’re gorgeous. I’ve been painting them on postcards and in my sketchbooks…challenging, absorbing, and fun to do. Makes me wish I’d thought to make painted versions of the money we came across in the different countries we’ve been to since the start of this trip.
Kris jokes that I should be painting US $100 bills instead of Bolívares…says they, at least, would be worth all the effort. Especially here, if we can find a money changer who will take watercolour dollars. ;)
It was our penultimate day in Guyana, and I was walking among the stalls inside the public market in Bartica. Glancing to one side, I barely registered a woman sitting in one of the stalls, a large embroidery hoop in her hands. I had gone several metres past when it hit me: she’s embroidering! I turned right around and went back.
Naomi Drakes is 32 years old, a single mom with an 11-year-old son. Her family runs several stalls within the Bartica market; Naomi and her sister run a stall selling haircare products, fashion accessories and, by the looks of it, they do minor alteration work using two sewing machines, as well.
I asked Naomi if she would consent to a short interview and some pictures of herself and her work, and returned the following day with a camera. I tried to shoot a video of the interview, but the gloomy, greenish atmosphere inside the poorly-lit market produced a very poor video, and the ear-splitting roar of the town’s power station, which is next door to the market, drowned out her voice. So I have had to content myself with a few photos and some stills from the video.
I found Naomi to be a confident, articulate, and industrious young woman. On days when business is quiet at the stall, rather than gossip with her neighbours or kill time on her phone, the enterprising lady does her embroidery. Her large pieces (average size of her pieces is about 30 cm. in diameter (a foot) adorn bedroom pillowcases and decorative ‘towels’ (draped over furniture and such, not the kind used to dry things). Her work is popular, and she has quite a lot of orders from locals in Bartica. She leaves her embroidery projects at work, because she knows that if she took them home, she’d want to do nothing else, so clearly she enjoys embroidery.
Her designs come from things she sees in books, or sometimes she might ask a friend who knows how to draw to design something for her. I asked her what her favorite stitch was, but she couldn’t pick one…she knows many, and each one is good for achieving a particular look. She learned embroidery from her mother, but is the only one of her sisters who pursued it seriously. Embroidery floss is expensive in Bartica, so she gets her materials from Georgetown.
How much does she sell her work for? A pair of pillowcases with a matching design, plus all the sewing and ruffles that she adds with her sewing machine, goes for G$ 3,500.00. That’s US$17.50. I was horrified. “And the towels?” I asked… “the towels are G$2,000.00 (US$10.00) each, if I supply all the materials. Apparently, if a customer brings her own fabric for Naomi to embroider, it is cheaper. Each embroidery takes between 5 days and a week to stitch.
I protested that this was much too cheap for the amount of work she puts into each embroidery, but she reasoned that she would be sitting in the market all day, anyway, and a pair of pillow cases brings her an extra, unexpected G$3,500.00 on top of what she earns by running the stall. Fair enough, I suppose.
I bought a pair of her pillow cases. All her other finished work were orders that she couldn’t sell to me, and she had nothing else finished. It being our final day in Guyana (we had already cleared out with immigration, we were departing that evening) I couldn’t wait for her to finish something else. A shame, as I would have loved to conduct subsequent interviews, maybe shoot a video at her home on a Sunday (or at least somewhere with better light, away from the noise of the power station.) Only one of the pillow cases had been sewn up, the other embroidery was on an unfinished piece of fabric. “That’s fine,” I told her, “there’s no way I will use your embroidery as a mere pillow case, anyway! It’s too nice for that!”
I had noticed her broken wooden embroidery hoop, the day before, and so I left her a parting gift of one of my good plastic hoops…just an 8-inch hoop, not quite as big as the 12″ hoop she had been using, but I thought it might help her to tension her fabric better (if you look at the photos of her work, you’ll notice that her fabric is badly puckered and distorted by the tension of her stitches.)
I asked Naomi to write her postal address down for me, and I look forward to corresponding with her when I get back to Australia, maybe send her some embroidery goodies, books and such, because, despite the very different sort of work that we do, I felt such a kinship with this remarkable young woman who, in a money-and-gold-crazed mining town, and with very limited resources, has managed to nurture a serious love for the craft.
It’s never a good idea to have expectations when you travel; we broke this cardinal rule when we sort of allowed ourselves to look forward to the coffee in S. America. So far we have had no luck finding decent, locally-grown arabica beans. Neither Brazil nor Guyana had any decent arabica for sale. Everywhere we went, soft bags of dried-out, burned-tasting, robusta coffee were the norm. Dreadful stuff.
Now we are in Grenada, and the chance of scoring decent arabica are even slimmer here. The supermarkets have precious little in the way of real coffee (Nescafé has invaded all these countries…you even get instant coffee at fancy restaurants!) and what few bags of ground coffee are available are robusta (robusta is a high-yield, low aroma, low-flavour, high-caffeine crop…most countries grow robusta, now, because Nestlé is their main buyer, and Nescafé is made only from robusta).
It’s really disappointing…the local stuff is overpriced, and gives us palpitations, and doesn’t smell or taste like anything but strong dust. In desperation, we bought a tin of Maxwell coffee (the label on the back says “100% coffee”; that’s like buying “100% wine”, the quality could be anything!) but it’s no better than the local stuff, and more expensive to boot.
Hoping and praying that Cuba has better coffee, though we won’t be in Cuba for a long while, yet. Oh, well, I guess it’s time to check out the teas in Grenada…
Kris was going crazy with the rainy weather, too, and didn’t even have me to talk to, once I got into my painting. At last we decided to go exploring the Essequibo River a bit…rain or no, at least the sailing part would give him something physical to do, and we’d have a different foggy grey jungle view to look at…
We headed back down the river, the way we came when we first arrived. We’d seen a wrecked ship along the banks, halfway down, that had fascinated us…the jungle was taking it over, growing over its bridge and filling the cracks in its hull with vines and ferns. So we headed for the same spot, and anchored for two days near the wreck of the ship “Mazaruni”.
Of course, the first thing I did was sketch the ship…once, in pen on brown bag paper, and then a (less successful) watercolour, in a brand new sketchbook that I had bought at the Darwin airport to use up my Aussie dollars, and decided to finally use.
(My first experience with Moleskine watercolour sketchbooks, I have to say I was very disappointed, the paper is crappy, only 20% cotton and with a tendency to bleed a bit. What gets me is that, for the exorbitant price I paid for the thing, I could have bought nearly 2 pads of Arches 100% cotton watercolour paper. Shoot.)
Kris, on the other hand, went exploring in the dinghy…around the ship, and discovered a creek that ran behind it. Up the creek he saw Morpho butterflies (common in Guyana, but magical nonetheless…Vladimir Nabokov collected these iridescent blue butterflies. These days they are being farmed for jewelry and collectors, so the wild population has managed to recover from the past centuries’ mania for naturalist collections) and a large boa constrictor.
We started calling the creek Gabriel’s Creek, after a scene from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, where Jose Arcadio Buendia and his band of men come upon a galleon smothered in jungle, miles away from any sea.
My two recent jungle paintings are available on my Society6 page as art prints, or prints on canvas.