Thursday, December 6, 2012
Venezuela's historic and very unique tradition of masked devil dancing, known as the Diablos Danzantes, which takes place in some 14 towns and villages each year to celebrate the Catholic Feast of Corpus Christi, has been chosen by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for inclusion in its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.
The other six traditions chosen included: a chanted form of oral poetry practiced by the Bedouin of Oman; the Fiesta de Patios in Cordova, Spain, which preserves traditional songs and dance; the Mesir Macunu festival in Turkey, which commemorates the recovery of the mother of Suleiman the magnificent from a disease; the elaborate process of creating Romanian Horezu ceramics; and the practise of falconry in Austria and Hungary.
The decision to include Venezuela's foremost folk tradition on its list came after a week-long meeting of the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Committee at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.
The UN-body hopes that by highlighting disappearing traditions in this way it can help prevent them from fading into extinction and protect the world’s intangible cultural heritage for future generations.
The spectacular masked dancing festivals celebrated in Venezuela on the moveable feast of Corpus Christi (the 9th Thursday after Holy Thursday) continue a centuries-old tradition brought from Spain.
In the country's sugar and cacao plantations, where large numbers of slaves were brought from Africa to sweat for Spanish masters in the fields and forests, the masked dances took on a special significance.
They represented an inversion of the usual power relationship between master and slave, when men with masks to hide their faces took over the town and made mischief without fear of retribution. It was also the one day when a group usually barred from entering the church during Sunday mass could express its defiance and rejection of the status quo.
Nowadays, people dance as a way of requesting a favour from God, to help a sick family member or to resolve a difficult situation for the family. The men who have asked for this intervention are called "promeseros" ("pledgers") because they make a solemn pledge to dance in the festivities every year for a certain number of years or for life, known as "pagando promesa" ("paying the pledge").
The devil dancing begins the day before Corpus Christi with a meeting of the Devil Dancer's Confraternity, private dances and blessing ceremonies with holy water, scapulars, amulets and prayers to protect the men and boys who are about to dance from any spiritual harm.
From sunrise the devils parade through town, dancing around to the sound of cuatro (four-stringed guitar like a ukelele) and maracas, and causing mischief, mayhem and general devilment. About midday, the masked devils gather in front of the church, led by the chief devil and his whip-wielding capataz (overseer). In front of the gathered crowds, they make a mock attack on the church that is repelled by the priest holding aloft the consecrated hosts of the eucharist.
Three times the devils attack and three times they are repelled. Finally, with good having triumphed over evil the devils prostrate themselves before the host. With their masks now removed, the devils continue to dance through the streets and the party begins in earnest.
The most celebrated devil dancers are in San Francisco de Yare, which is close to Caracas in the Valles del Tuy. Dressing from head to foot in red, the Yare devils carry maracas and wear multicolored horned masks made from papier mache.
In the coastal cacao plantation of Chuao, famous for its high-quality cocoa beans, isolation has helped preserve many early elements of devil dancing, including costumes made of colored rags and black and white masks rooted in African traditions.
The Dancing Devils of Yare in Literature
How the Dancing Devils of Yare Got Their Distinctive Red Costumes
Short Documentary on the Dancing Devils of Chuao
Friday, October 26, 2012
Venezuelans will be lighting a candle today for the country's most popular folk saint, Dr Jose Gregorio Hernandez, who was born on 26 October 1846 in the small Andean pueblo of Isnotú, Trujillo State.
The good doctor spent his short lifetime helping the poor and performing miracles until he was tragically killed on 26 June 1919, run down on the corner of Amadores and Uparal in Caracas by one of the first cars in the city.
Since then, millions of Venezuelans have prayed to a small statue of Jose Gregorio Hernandez, or carried a printed image of him to help overcome illness or bad health for themselves or family members.
His tomb in the church of La Candelaria, Caracas, and his birthplace in Isnotú are popular places of pilgrimage, especially by the sick and infirm seeking a miracle cure.
The many claims of miraculous healing attributed to Jose Gregorio Hernandez over the years led Pope John Paul II to declare him "venerable" in 1986 - an important step on the road to sainthood.
But devotion to "El Medico de Los Pobres" (The Doctor of the Poor) or "El Siervo de Dios" (The Servant of God), as he is known, extends beyond the Catholic Church.
Statues, prints and scapularies of Jose Gregorio Hernandez - depicted in a black suit and hat with a Charlie Chaplin moustache, or in a doctor's white coat.- are sold outside and inside some churches.
You can also find them in stores known as perfumerías (literally perfume shops), which sell a dizzying array of soaps for washing away bad luck and love potions to make you irresistible, alongside shelves of statues of saints and characters from the Cult of Maria Lionza.
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Culture Smart! Venezuela - My new book about Venezuelan culture, language, history, music, jokes, business etiquette and travel comes out a few days before the presidential election.
Can't believe it's here. Can't wait to do the update already.
To purchase on Amazon.co.uk click here:
Sunday, May 27, 2012
By Russell Maddicks
A British expedition led by UK climber Leo Houlding has made the first successful ascent of the east face of Venezuela's Cerro Autana - a remote, flat-topped tepuy mountain in the Amazonas region that is considered sacred by the local Piaroa people.
The higher 700m South West Face of Autana was climbed by Jose Pereyra and John Arran in 2002.
The 2012 team was sponsored by Berghaus and made up of British climbers Houlding and Jason Pickles, US speed climber Sean "Stanley" Leary, award-winning climber and filmmaker Alastair Lee, and local climbers Yupi Rangel and Alejandro Lamus.
They scaled Cerro Autana's east face between 28 January and 5 February 2012 and named their route The Yopo Wall (400m, E6 6b, A1).
A spectacular high-definition movie of the expedition shot by Lee will be released as a movie and DVD in August 2012, including: footage of a ceremony with a Piaroa shaman involving psychotropic "yopo" snuff to bless the venture; extreme trekking through the forest, the arduous climb; and the five nights the team spent in the magnificent caves that cut right through the centre of the mountain.
This is quite a remarkable feat and something many other climbers have tried and failed to do in the past, mainly because it is illegal to climb Venezuela's tepuis.
Houlding and his team not only had to battle blood-sucking insects and other rainforest perils before they climbed Autana's sheer walls, they also had to sneak in all their climbing and filming equipment and pay a considerable sum of money to a local Piaroa group to allow them the privilege of being the first up the east face.
They chose this route because it is remote from the other Piaroa communities in the area and offered less chance of the climbers being discovered by the authorities and the expedition being stopped.
That payment - reportedly some $10,000 - has angered local climbers, who say that by paying so much to the Piaroa, Houlding's well-sponsored foreign team have put the mountain out of reach for others.
Adolfo Madinabeita, a pioneer in Venezuela of tepuy clmbing, claims that when he approached the same Piaroa group in February 2012 to climb Autana they told him they would not allow him access to the mountain for less than $20,000, making the total cost of any expedition just too expensive for him to undertake.
The spat has generated so much heat in local climbing circles in Venezuela that Houlding has released an open letter explaining why his team took the decision to pay such a large sum to climb Autana.
Letter from Leo Houlding to Adolfo Madinabeitia
We are very sorry to hear that the Piaroa Indian community asked for such an expensive fee and that you were again unable to climb Autana.
As I told you at the Mendi film festival in Vitoria in December, when they asked us for $10,000 we too almost changed our plans to climb Acopan or Amuri where the local Pemon Indians are more accommodating to climbers and trips are cheaper. However as you said to me over dinner if they were to open a trail, provide boat transfers, accommodation and food in the village, equipment portering services, guiding and general expedition support then it is not only a fee for permission it is a total cost for all services. As you are somebody for whom I have great respect, I am also sorry that you are so upset that you have felt it necessary to attack our expedition publicly without contacting our mutual Venezuelan friend Yupi or myself first to find out the facts.
Please allow me to present to you some more information about our expedition.
As you know climbing all Tepuis is illegal in Venezuela. After Yupi climbed Salto Angels last year with a Brazilian team they were arrested and much of their gear was confiscated.
Autana is recognised and protected as a national monument further increasing the illegality of climbing it and increasing the chance of getting caught.
Climbing Autana is further complicated by it's geographical location in the State of Amazonas close to the Columbian border.
Columbian FARC and ELN have been found hiding in Amazonas. Oil and gas pipe lines have been blown up and massive arms shipments have been discovered.
Combined with the illicit smuggling of cheap Venezuelan petrol to Columbia and Columbian Cocaine to Venezuela, the state of Amazonas has a heavy and visible military presence with many road blocks and general increased security checks everywhere. This greatly complicates getting to Autana with big wall climbing gear, especially for Gringos as all the military officers know climbing Autana is not allowed.
Obtaining official permission to climb Autana is impossible. Obtaining the local Piaroa Indians permission and support is complicated, expensive and not guaranteed, as you know from your unsuccessful attempt 3 years ago.
Unpaid fees from an unsuccessful Russian expedition in 2007 greatly exaggerated an already fragile situation.
The Piaroa are suspicous of outsiders and not interested in allowing people to climb their sacred peak.
At the beginning of December Venezuelan climbers Yupi and Alejo went to meet the community taking gifts of food, medicine and tools and explained to them our intentions.
They set up a small cinema with a laptop computer and showed the whole village our film The Asgard Project, which the Indians loved.
They told them we wanted to climb only for adventure, about our link with Jose Luis Pereyra who they remembered and that we wanted to make a film like the one they had just seen.
They made friends with the villagers and their leader, Juan Pablo and convinced them that we could be trusted.
The community decided they would be willing help but said it would be difficult, complicated, risky for them and expensive for us.
They would not agree to let us climb the west face as we wanted because it could be seen by the other communities. (especially head torches at night)
If they found out we were there we would have to pay all 6 communities the same fee.
However the East face cannot be seen by any communities they would allow us to climb there as long as we promised to keep our presence secret until we had left.
They knew climbing Autana is illegal and that they would be breaking the law. Government officials and military checks would have to avoided or bribed.
We would have to smuggle all of our equipment and supplies in at least a week before we arrived. We would then travel as tourists.
They would transport it at night via secret river ports, open a trail and porter all our gear to the East face in secret.
They made a list of all the things they wanted in exchange for their support. The list included tools, agricultural seed, medicine and other goods to be equally distributed to every family in the small community.
The cash equivalent came to US$10,000 and they wanted it all in advance. They were not open to any negotiations.
When we first met Juan Pablo and Alberto in Puerto Ayacucho out of respect for their Piaroa beliefs we undertook a Yopo ceremony with their Shaman to seek blessing and spiritual permission to climb their sacred Tepuy.
It was an extremely powerful, terrifying and amazing hallucinogenic experience, more memorable than any of the climbing on our route, The Yopo wall. The Shaman was happy our intentions were pure and our new Indian friends were more trusting and close to us following the ceremony and our journey it their beliefs.
The Piaroa are a fascinating culture of tolerance, peace and fairness.
We taught Alberto how to jummar and brought him 200m up the wall to camp with us in the amazing Cuveo Autana.
The first Piaroa ever to climb to the sacred cave. (the others went by helicopter or astral projection).
We did have some problems with communication, planning and their portering.
They only carried small loads and would arrive on the wrong day or take things to the wrong place.
On the way out we had to two loads ourselves as most the Indians would not come back as they had heard a Jaguar in the area of which they are terrified.
However we left on very good terms with the whole village turning out to see us off and warm, respectful friendships established.
We knew you were planning to go right after us. Yupi even mentioned he may go with you.
I thought the Indians would probably charge you much less than us as we had already done so much work establishing good relations with them.
We had already paid them to open a trail, they had tested the secret access plan and you were only 2 people compared to our 7.
However I think that they felt that it was too difficult and risky for them to help two foreigners they don't know or trust.
Your accusation that we paid extra to stop them allowing you access is ridiculous and offensive.
This can only be explained by your frustration at us succeeding where you did not and some personal resentment towards sponsored climbers and high production value adventure film?
In all the Piaroa community provided our expedition with about 100 man-days of work including six 10 hours boat journeys and many 20+ hour days.
They were an essential part of the joy and success of our adventure and in retrospect I think what we paid reflected the effort and risk they invested.
We are not concerned with a price per meter as you suggest. For us Autana, Tepuys and expeditions are about more than just rock climbing.
Nobody is allowed to climb Autana. Not Sponsored Gringo's, Middle class Venezuelan's or Spanish legend's.
We have not established an unreasonable price closing Autana to local climbers as you suggest.
It was already closed to everyone. There is no fair price. It is illegal. Climbers are not welcome and nobody climbs there.
That is why Acopan is so popular and Autana has only been climbed 3 times ever and not for 10 years.
We have opened the dialog for negotiations and have shown the Piaroa that some outsiders are honest and trust worthy.
It is for the Piaroa community to decide who they will help and what it will cost, not the Venezuelan climbers, not me and not you.
Better than to accuse and argue about what is a fair bribe to pay somebody to break the law on your behalf is to try to change these pointless laws for every bodies benefit.
There is some progress in Caracas and the Venezuelan climbing community with the support of people like you, me and Desnivel perhaps we can encourage the Venezuelan government to review it's stance on Tepuy climbing? Then fair prices can be established for fair, legitimate work not the illegal smuggling of outsiders into sacred, off limits areas.
We drilled no holes in Autana and left nothing but our rappel stations.
We respected the Piaroa traditions and helped them to buy medicine and tools to the benefit of their poor community.
We have done no harm to anybody and will hopefully bring entertainment and inspiration to many with our film - Autana.
We feel completely comfortable ethically and morally with our actions.
Congratulations on your new route on Acopan and good luck with your future expeditions.
From the Yopo Wall, Autana team.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
The 2012 Carnival has already kicked off in El Callao with beauty contests and calypso competitions but the big processions start Saturday 18 February - Tuesday 21 February, and end on Ash Wednesday with the start of Lent.
El Callao - A Calypso, Caribbean Carnival in the South of Venezuela
Venezuela is a country of countless parties, fiestas and dances, from individual celebrations of local patron saints to the gaitas and parrandas of Zulia state at Christmas, the Dancing Devils of Yare and Chuao during the Feast of Corpus Christi and the African drum dancing in honour of Saint John the Baptist on 24 June.
One small town that beats them all is El Callao, a centre for gold mining in Bolivar State that comes alive every year for four days during carnival to the vibrant sounds of calypso and soca and the copious consumption of rum, beer and aguardiente (fire water).
With over a 150 years of history, the El Callao carnival celebrates cultural traditions brought to Venezuela by French and English-speaking Caribbeans - including many Trinidadians - drawn to El Callao by a gold rush in 1853 that saw the town become the leading gold producer in the world. Gold production peaked by about 1885 and by the end of the century the big seams were played out and the town slipped back into obscurity.
Nowadays, it's hard to imagine this tiny, ramshackle town of tin roofs and small gold shops was once the source of so much wealth, but during carnival the population of 39,000 swells to four times that number and you get a sense of what the glory days were like.
The carnival in El Callao has a colourful cast of characters who accompany the comparsas (floats with a sound system and a themed crowd of dancers).
Las Madamas are women wearing colourful 19th century dresses and turbans from the French Caribbean.
The Medio Pintos are boys and men covered in tar or paint or any other black sludgy stuff they can get their hands on. The idea is that you give them a coin called a "medio" (1 Bolivar Fuerte will do these days) or they paint you with sludge and comes from the phrase "medio o te pinto".
The Diablos are men and boys in spiky devil masks who keep the crowds back from the comparsas along the carnival route by using their short latigos (whips).
This year the Callao carnival is dedicated to Cleotilde Stapleton de Billings (1911-2009), a singer and famous madama, who did so much to popularize the folk culture and calypso traditions of El Callao with her musical group Yuruari.
The El Callao carnival of 2012 will be celebrated from 18-21 February.
Thursday, December 29, 2011
Russell Maddicks, author of the Bradt Guide to Venezuela, will give an illustrated talk about travelling in Venezuela at the Telegraph Adventure Travel Show at Olympia, London, on 28 January.
Saturday 28 January 2012
Time : 12:00 till 12:45
Where : Theatre 4, Olympia (Kensington)
Venezuela: Wildlife Wonderful. Russell Maddicks.
One of the 17 most megadiverse countries in the world, Venezuela, perched at the top of South America, is hot, tropical and home to Caribbean beaches, dense rainforests, high Andean valleys, mysterious table-top tepui mountains, and seasonally-flooded plains that are literally teeming with birds, beasts and creepy-crawlies. From the anacondas, capybaras and crocodiles of Los Llanos, to the jaguars, monkeys and tarantulas of the jungle, a well-planned trip to this fascinating country can reap rich rewards for wildlife watchers. Russell Maddicks, author of the Bradt Guide to Venezuela, has been adventuring in Venezuela for more than 20 years. In his talk he will give practical tips on how to minimize your impact on these fragile environments, travel responsibly, and give something back to the local communities you stay with.
Special Discount Tickets
Tickets to The Telegraph Adventure Travel Show cost £10 on the door, but you can get them for £6 (a £4 discount) if you quote "RUSSELLMADDICKS" when booking online at www.adventureshow.com or when calling 0871 230 7159 (calls cost 10p per minute plus network extras).
For full details of the Telegraph Adventure Travel Show click here.
Friday, December 16, 2011
This amazing footage from the BBC series Life shows how a hopless pebble toad uses a remarkable escape strategy when faced with a predator, in this case a tarantula spider.
But have David Attenborough and the BBC wildlife team got their names wrong this time?
The toad is identified in the programme notes as Oreophrynella nigra, commonly known as the Kukenan bush toad (sapito del Kukenan).
But if it was filmed on Roraima then it is more likely to be the endemic Roraima bush toad, Oreophrynella quelchii.
These knobbly, jet black toads are about an inch in length and are often mistaken for small black stones by hikers to the summit of Roraima.
A species older than the dinosaurs, they can remain still for hours, preferring to wait for the rain to wash them somewhere else.