the Trail of the Tyrant
Copyright 2013 by Evan L. Balkan
“When I saw the vessel with full sails
sailing away, I felt like one born again. I gave thanks to God for
having saved me from the clutches of the monster. I did not even mind
being poor and destitute. I found the island and its town
So said a Captain Altamirano, recalling the
departure in 1561 of Lope de Aguirre from Margarita Island.
was standing on a spot much like the
one where I stand now, on the peak of Cerro Copey, before a sweeping
view to the sea, the distant glitter of Porlamar hanging like a
parasite on the edge of the earth. Amidst the squawks of brightly
plumaged birds, I throw rocks at hanging mangoes until one falls into
my hands. Eating it this way feels like something suspiciously close
to paradise. But this isn’t paradise; it’s
come here to find Lope de Aguirre, and he’s proving elusive,
something far away. But that is Venezuela, too, a mysterious land of
autocratic leaders, an official position of enmity against my home
country, and a weary population that roots for Spain during the World
Cup not out of any linguistic solidarity, but rather because of some
odd wistfulness for the days before independence. As one local puts
it, here in the 200th
year since the violent break from the mother country:
would be better off if our king was in Madrid, and not in
Asunción, the sleepy colonial capital of Margarita,
buildings stretching in a straight line from the shaded Plaza
Bolívar, with the requisite
statue of the Liberator decked with flowers. Astride
the Plaza Bolívar is Nuestra Senora de la
Venezuela’s second oldest church, begun in the 1570s. Across
the plaza from the church is the Casa de Cultura, where the
only statue of Aguirre resides. Bronzed, Lope stands roughly seven
feet tall and stares ahead somewhat benignly from beneath a plumed
helmet. He’s arrayed from tip to toe in armor. In his left
he holds a scroll, perhaps his famous letter to King Philip II
denouncing him. The right hand grips only the hilt of a sword. The
blade has long been missing, a victim of vandals when he stood in a
more public place in front of the Municipal Palace.
see Aguirre, I tentatively reach out my hands to touch him, awaiting
a sharp reprimand. But this is Margarita Island, and rules, where
they exist, seem merely suggestions. Soon, I’m running my
fingers all over him, even caressing the beard. I’ve
spent the past sixteen months writing a book about Lope de Aguirre,
and now, touching the only statue of him on the planet, it has the
feeling of pilgrimage, of holy reunion, of something so monumental
that I fight back tears.
have a noon appointment the next day with Carlos
Stohr. He lives on a street typical of the area around Playa El Agua:
a gorgeous posada or hotel, gleaming and polished, ringed with razor
wire, occupying a space next to open lots filled with mounds of
garbage, grazing goats, and skeletal cows. Nearby are residential
houses, each a squat one-storey structure with a satellite TV dish.
Invariably, a car as old as I sits out front, a monument to ingenuity
or despair, or perhaps some combination. Often, the car is running,
emitting black smoke and pumping American tunes from the 80s:
as if these songs and these cars come here for resurrection –
Lionel Ritchie and a Toyota Cressida; Earth, Wind, and Fire and a
knock on the metal grating and Carlos lets me in. As he opens the
door, he looks at his watch.
“Am I early?” I ask.
shrugs and changes the time. Carlos is a Czech national who speaks
thirteen languages, is married to a Danish woman, and has lived on
Margarita Island for more than 50 years. He’s a few days shy
birthday, but he still looks vigorous, his hair retaining deep black
patches. His shoulders are broad and while he moves with a slight
limp, he is constant action: turning down the radio, flitting about
his papers, disappearing behind a curtain to the back of the house
and emerging with a small Venezuelan guitar.
Carlos is an accomplished artist, named an
official graphic chronicler by the Venezuelan Chronicler’s
Association. His paintings of island folk life line the walls of the
posada where I’m staying. He is also a historian and radio
host. Surrounded by thousands of sketches and watercolors –
the walls, in piles on half a dozen small desks, on the floor, on top
of a TV that looks like it hasn’t been used in decades
Carlos strums the high-pitched guitar and sings a bawdy tune about
the local ladies of the night.
“Welcome, Evan” he says, shaking my
hand. His grip is strong and sure, evidenced by the straight lines
and surety in his artwork. “You want to know about El
nod; El Tirano, “The Tyrant,” is
the name Aguirre is best known for on Margarita Island.
Understandable: he unleashed mayhem on this island so complete that
it’s comparable today only to the crazed driving on
roads or to the street crime in Caracas.
a few miles from Carlos’s house is the
town of Paraguachí, which in the native Guaiqueri language
roughly translates as “place of abundant lobsters.”
lobsters are still here, but the Guaiqueri are long gone, decimated
centuries ago by the Spanish whose descendants renamed
as Puerto Fermin after one of their independence fighters. But in
honor of Aguirre’s having landed here in 1561, the town is
called El Tirano and the beach, Playa El Tirano. I’ll be
heading there after my visit with Carlos.
We settle in on swivel chairs. I’ve
forgotten to bring water and he hasn’t offered any. And
hot. Carlos starts by trying to define the Latin character.
are different,” he says about he and I. He, the European.
the ancestor of Europeans.
Carlos struggles through a definition of the
Latin man, what makes him tick. His introduction is peppered with
positives: “nice, compassionate, full of life.” But
lands where he clearly doesn’t want to. For lack of a better
word, he declares, the Latins are “lazy.”
really is a better word, but he doesn’t
use his English very often, he tells me. And while I think his
English is perfect, he flips through a tattered Spanish-English
dictionary as we talk, offering synonyms that have lost their general
usage decades ago.
Carlos struggles through, trying desperately to
define exactly what it is. I watch as a droplet of sweat works its
way from his forehead, weaving a path through the forest of his
substantial eyebrows. It hangs precipitously for a moment before
dripping to the desk and curling the edge of one of his sketches. I
watch in a haze, the room starting to spin. “Not lazy,
he says, flipping through the dictionary, one yellowed page losing
its grip on the spine and fluttering to the floor. “Not
industrial,” he says.
he tries to peg it down, offering a series of Spanish words
unfamiliar with, it occurs to me that it’s all rather simple:
it’s not laziness. It’s lethargy, and
it’s just so fucking hot. Carlos can offer all the parables
wants about the Latin man who lies in his hammock while the mangos
drop around him. Of course he fails to make marmalade; it’s
damned hot to work.
cue, Carlos declares that he needs a nap; he suggests we meet
tomorrow for lunch with Pedro Bellorin,
the man who co-hosts the radio show with him.
escape the suffocating heat of the house and
retire to a hammock strung out on the balcony of my posada. Whenever
I’m in the tropics, I’m drawn to hammocks,
I’ll get one the moment I’m home. But I never do;
not the same. Hammocks seem to require not only debilitating heat,
but the peculiar sound of wind-whipped palm fronds, scraping together
like cardboard, and the eerie, guttural calls of liquid-throated
birds of paradise. I find myself sometimes in the dead of winter at
home playing the tape of the yellow-rumped cacique I recorded in the
Peruvian Amazon. But it’s not the same as being there
it’s never the same.
But I am here now. And I’m finding
Venezuela impenetrable, dreamlike. It began with dire warnings from
the Venezuelan next to me on the flight from the States: “Do
not visit Simon Bolívar’s house,” he
not take the subway. Do not go to the colonial center. It embarrasses
me; Caracas is my home. But even I do not walk the streets
When we landed in Caracas, he shook my hand: “Welcome to
Venezuela,” he said. “Now, you should head to
blanket of midday heat, the fluidity of
dissipating time, the echo of Carlos playing his guitar, the peculiar
stillness of midday, the scurry of lizard legs on the periphery.
all something I can’t quite catch up to, and it conspires to
knock me out.
I awake, I have only an hour of daylight left
to check out Playa El Tirano.
It is 449 years to the day Aguirre
and his band
of revolutionaries landed on this very spot. On an expedition after
the mythical city of El Dorado, Aguirre orchestrated the murder of
expedition leader Pedro de Ursúa in the early morning hours
New Years’ Day, 1561, installing the puppet kingling don
Fernando de Guzmán and declaring his denaturalization from
in the darkness, fever, hostility, and pestilence of the Amazonian
jungle, Aguirre launched a revolution. Playing puppet master to
Guzmán, Aguirre eventually tired of his ineffectual
and carried out Guzmán’s murder as well. Declaring
himself the new “Prince
of Tierra Firme
and of Peru, and Governor of Chile,” he soon added another
moniker, one which would lend itself to the title of a 1972 Werner
Herzog biopic, “The Wrath of God.”
nine months of slogging through the jungle,
down the Amazon, the Japurá, northeast into the
Negro, east to the watery maze of the Cassaquiari Canal, they picked
up the Orinoco, where I will be in a few days, out into the Amacuro
Delta south of Trinidad, where the Caribbean and the Atlantic meet.
More than a year after the expedition set out
from Peru, the men – ragged, tired, wasted, near starvation
landed on Margarita Island. In the forty days that followed, Aguirre
and his band so thoroughly terrorized the island that the name of
Aguirre sent shudders through northern Venezuela for centuries after.
Joaquin Salazar Franco, in his 1999 book, Myths
and Beliefs of the Margaritans,
relates the lingering mythology: Still not finished paying penance
for his crimes, the Tirano Aguirre walks the night, causing a din by
dragging chains and accompanied by the howls of his victims. One can
see him in several forms, but no one dares to look directly at him
for fear Aguirre will attach himself to the observer. He can appear
“as a ball of fire across the sky . . . or on the sea surface
hitting the woodwork of the boats.”
Tirano is today a pleasant crescent cove, dotted with brightly
colored fishing boats and speckled with pelicans.
The townsfolk are no longer shuddering at Aguirre’s name;
Carlos lamented that many people in El Tirano don’t even know
where the name comes from. (They’re certainly not
profiting off it, like Transylvanian towns do with their Vlad the
those who do know about Aguirre, there are still many who view him as
The Tyrant, the homicidal maniac the chroniclers presented in their
reports in the 16th
century to the judges in Santo Domingo, all the while exculpating
themselves for their initial complicity in his revolt.
was cunning, fickle, and
treacherous. He never kept a promise. He was a lecher, a glutton, and
a drunkard. He never spoke well of anybody, not even his own
friends,” one of the chroniclers wrote. Another offered:
was the worst man to exist since Judas. One of his regular vices
was to commend his soul and person to the devil. There was not a
single vice that could not be found in this person.”
yet this man, who crafted a ranting letter of
opprobrium to be delivered directly to the king of Spain, became a
hero to others. Simon Bolívar, the Great Liberator and
of Venezuela, called Aguirre’s letter, “The first
declaration of independence in the Americas.” Latin American
novelists, suspicious of official histories, have rewritten his story
to absolve him of his crimes. In this version, to which I admit
sympathy, Aguirre’s murder of his own daughter, Elvira, is a
loving act, committed to spare her the inevitable rape and torture
for being the offspring of a traitor to the Crown.
pick my way along the beach, letting the soft
lap of waves snake around my toes. On the breakwater to my right
stands a large whitewashed cross, bedecked with ungainly black
vultures and standing sentinel over the spot where the Aguirre statue
originally stood in the 1950s. I try to imagine him landing here. But
it’s next to impossible, what with a road behind me, the din
competing radios, a house on the hill above the cove, the inevitable
Dish TV bowl sprouting from the roof.
often find myself pulled between two basic
beliefs: that life should be better than it is, and that when it
appears better, it’s really worse. Back in the hammock,
darkness having descended, I’m struck with the feeling that
missing out on something. Against my better instincts, I wander out
in the direction of the beach and what I know are a few bars there.
Brushing past a toothless hag offering me a massage (her emphasis on
the first syllable: “MA-ssage”), I screw up my
and enter a bar, trying to figure out a way to insert myself into
someone else’s good time.
it’s off-season, and the place is empty.
Still, I imagine the scene is the same as it will be in a few weeks,
when Venezuelans will descend en masse during summer holiday: a
bowtied bartender twirls cocktail shakers and bottles, under the arm,
around the chest and back, pouring with one hand while the other
expertly slices through wedges of tropical fruit, all the while his
eyes trained straight ahead, on an admiring German couple and me. I
stare intently at his fingers, which I’m sure will soon be
reposing next to a lime wedge or a papaya, separated from their
joints. Of course, this doesn’t happen; his act has been
to perfection. But the bartender’s mimetic display has the
of a pantomime. It’s the same show he puts on for a packed
house, despite the fact that there are only three of us.
familiar old feeling comes back to me: I see
the bartender’s performance and I feel the falseness of it,
even the desperation, and yet I can’t help feeling envy at
German couple, who have by now quit watching the bartender and are
instead nuzzling their noses like Eskimos. I head out.
For a fleeting moment, even the faux intimacy of
a “MA-ssage” is attractive.
decent sleep is impossible – there are
myriad noises throughout the night: incessant barking dogs, driving
rain, blaring radios (bone-rattling, filling-loosening music). Once,
I think it’s morning, only to discover it’s only 2
But the noises soon subside, and I can steal a few hours of rest. But
by dawn, which comes very early in the Tropics, a new set of noises:
the shocking alarm of roosters, followed by the solemn lowing of
cows, the inane bleat of goats. By 7 o’clock, the fish
with their microphones are wailing, announcing the catch of the day,
followed down the street by a parade of dogs. (It seems that every
other dog on Margarita Island has teats so swollen they’re
dragging on the ground. Assuming that gender distribution in canines
is roughly equivalent to that of humans, it means every female canine
on Margarita Island is or has recently been pregnant).
11 A.M., Carlos is outside waiting for me, half
an hour late. He drives a 1970 Ford Fairlane that looks like
held together by duct tape, chewing gum, and Elmer’s glue.
There’s no seat belt in the front passenger seat. Horrified
that he’ll insist on driving, I delicately suggest that
take us to the restaurant to meet Pedro.
no,” he says, waving me off.
“This car is far too dangerous.”
meant my rental car,” I say,
pointing to my Renault Twingo, which I’ve earlier in the day
filled up with gas at 4 cents a gallon. He seems thrilled.
on Margarita Island is an act of faith.
Just the day before, while heading up the north coast to Juangriego,
through a series of small towns, each with vaguely threatening men
lining and filling the streets, I took a sweeping curve to see
someone screaming at me and traveling at least 80 mph in my lane to
avoid a crater in his own. He swerved home at the last moment. I
glanced back in tension and shock, and when I looked again at the
road in front of me, I slammed on my brakes just in time to avoid
smacking into a bull. It was a study in anatomy – the bones
muscle all working in concert, the thinness of the animal, its skin
draped over its rib cage, revealing all the internal mechanisms. The
bull stopped, stilled except for a circular working of its lower jaw.
We stared at each other for a moment, its black eyes seeming to offer
reproach or appeal, before a young kid gave it a thwack on its
posterior and it loped across the road.
a restaurant in El Tirano, Pedro is already
waiting for us. Handsome and distinguished looking, he appears to be
in his early 60s. He’s also something of a local celebrity,
apparently: host of the popular radio talk show, a onetime city
councilman, the most respected historian on the island. I notice a
couple seated behind us turns to look when Carlos introduces us and
announces Pedro’s full name.
heat is something alive and enveloping; we
down several bottles of water and await the house specialty, lobster
swimming in a spicy orange broth with peppers and onions and some
tropical intermingling of spices I can’t identify, and which
nearly takes my head off. Pedro manages to look cool somehow, but the
sweat pours off me. No matter; the food is delicious, the beer and
water flow, and Carlos and Pedro exchange beautiful, rapid-fire
Spanish before Carlos translates the answers to my questions.
when I ask what I most want to know –
what these men themselves think of Aguirre: was he a freedom fighter,
a revolutionary in the mold of Bolívar, or was he, as
will have it, an unmitigated villain – all I get are
I ask again, to make sure the question is clear, but still no clear
answers. I think to insist; why would such a question be so
impolitic? Are people listening in? Listening for the wrong answer?
The king is in Caracas, over the sea and coastal mountains.
the questions are soon subsumed by an apparent confusion over the
bill. It’s 520 bolivars, about four times what Carlos had
earlier assured me it would be. I had insisted on paying, and
about 200 bolivars short. It’s still a bargain at around $70,
but it does mean that in a torrent of apologies and a near tripping
over my chair, I have to back away and drive back to my posada for
the extra cash, all under the suspicious eyes of the owner,
Elise, and a bemused look on Pedro’s face. Aguirre has taken
back seat to cold, hard commerce.
does get on – it has been four and a half centuries, after
Margarita Island is the sort of
place that leaves
a lot of people feeling ambivalent about their vacation choice
much of this depends upon your nationality. For Venezuelans,
great, a national birthright, like virtually free gasoline. Folks
escaping the tension and madness of Caracas can choose from a slew of
domestic airlines that more or less keep their posted promises.
a quick 35 minute flight from the capital – beckoning with
its glorious beaches, warm waters, and duty-free shopping.
if you’re a North American, you can
feel deceived by the slick tourist campaigns, which of course fail to
show the mounds of garbage that speckle every street on the island.
Margarita can be an absolute horror show to a fastidious Northern
European coming from a place where one can eat off the streets. In
Porlamar, the largest city, the high-rise, semi-luxury hotels ringing
the sea offer hotel windows which mirror the pictures – white
sand beaches, clear blue Caribbean waters, speckles of faraway
islands on cloudless days. But woe to the person who turns from that
window and heads in the other direction, into Porlamar proper, choked
with traffic, crime, and desperation. These aren’t
great times for Venezuela, and despite the promises of escape, this
is still Venezuela.
escape, even here, is possible. On the west
side of Margarita Island is the Macanao Peninsula, a semi-desolate
area of scrub desert with a mountainous interior. Diminutive fishing
villages, several at the end of dirt paths through the cacti, dot the
blue Caribbean coast, white sand and palm trees thrown in the
bargain. It’s a beautiful place if you can get past the piles
of garbage and dead dogs lining the road.
Intent on doing just that, I pull off to the
side, engage the car’s two security devices, and head off
toward the water. Picking my way through a maze of cacti and
discarded detritus, I brush past the last curve and find the wide sea
before me. It’s an unruffled mirror, disturbed only when
of pelicans swoop down in search of a meal. Walking along the coast,
I’m aware that I’m on a well trod path, though I
one. But up the hill rising to my left I spot a fisherman’s
shrine, a tattered and faded Venezuelan flag stretching its silken
frayed threads toward a crude little cross, etched with,
Cruz.” Below me is a beach of perfect sea shells –
and pink homes polished by sun and surf. I run my fingers through and
listen to them clink. I’m conscious of a heavy feeling that
trespassing: how can such sublimity not be off limits to strangers
no one shoos me away – there is no
reprimand, no admonishment, no rusted sign I choose to ignore telling
me I shouldn’t be here. No, this world is mine. But the man
I’ve come to see, at least his ghost, resides on the other
of the island. Aguirre never came to this side.
I cross the bridge through the mangroves back
to the east side of Margarita, a cadre of Venezuelan police wielding
AK-47s waves me to the side of the road. The first policeman, a young
smiling guy, asks for my passport. I tell him it’s in my
He calls over an older gentleman, the commandant, obviously, who asks
again for the passport. “Hotel,” I shrug, and hand
rental agreement and Maryland driver’s license, which he
at with complete perplexity from behind red-rimmed and glassy eyes.
“Pais?” he asks. “United
States,” I say.
“Estados Unidos,” waiting for retribution. He eyes
watch; I suspect I’ll soon be parting with it.
he says. “Pero es un error.”
my watch is off by half an hour. But
I’ve functioned for days this way, meeting appointments, even
making flights. He checks the car and my bags, but not my body, claps
me on the shoulder, and waves me on. The lesson, I assume, is that if
you’re going to smuggle drugs on the west side of Margarita
Island, put them in your pockets. The other lesson: here, time is
I rejoin the southern highway, I pull off at
Punta Piedras. It is here, in 1561, when it was called Puerto de
Piedras, that the Provincial Montesinos, fresh off his meeting with
Aguirre defectors and taking a break from evangelizing the natives,
laid up his ship and contemplated an attack on the Tyrant. He
eventually thought better of it, opting instead to alert the
authorities along the mainland coast, an act either of prudence or
cowardice that later earned him official enmity for not engaging
There’s a lovely church in Punta Piedras,
plus a sprinkling of shops and restaurants, with the streets
radiating from the central plaza, each lined by attached, one-storey
residences. Activity is confined mostly to the blocks south, on the
water, where the ferry terminals stand: it is here where you can get
to the mainland much cheaper than flying. But Aguirre isn’t
darkness coming on quickly, I join the throngs on the highway and
weave like a tyrant through the roads until I pull off west of
Porlamar and start a slow climb into the hills, reaching the town of
El Valle del
Espiritu Santo at the tail end of a rainstorm. El Valle, as the name
implies, sits cradled between green rippling hills, as if set down by
a divine hand. The town serves as Margarita Island’s
center. My lack of belief notwithstanding, I must admit that serenity
pervades the place. Perhaps it’s the suffused light of dusk,
distended by a steamy drizzle, like a giant hand has rung out the
last of a sponge in the sky. Perhaps the prohibition on automobiles
in the town center. Perhaps the gloriously beautiful gingerbread
Church of the
Virgin of El Valle, dedicated to the patron saint of eastern
Perhaps the nearby Sanctuary of the Virgin,
containing thousands of holy pieces left by visiting supplicants. Or
maybe the grotto just off the plaza, with its ceramic blessed Virgin
Mary, a little Lourdes but without the sad terror of the afflicted
burdening its corners with their desperate pleas. The church stands
on a plaza that is a checkerboard of brick and stone, soft colors
that make it feel as if you’ve landed in someone’s
The sun has become a faint suggestion in the
western sky, but the clouds have ceased their spitting. I walk
through the courtyard pulled by soft prayer echoing from the open
church doors. I peek inside and see a young girl – perhaps
twelve or thirteen – intoning into a microphone. She is what
twelve or thirteen should be, but rarely seems to be anymore: a last
hold upon innocence, a rare burst of loveliness uncorrupted by
experience – a world of possibility unto herself. But what
self-possession! True, she doesn’t look up to meet the gaze
her audience, but there is no blush upon the neck and cheek, no
rising of blood that says she’s aware that a couple hundred
people have their eyes upon her.
is going on?” I ask one of the
pilgrims who’s emerging from the maze of tents offering
“Confirmation,” the pilgrim answers,
a pretty lace shawl wrapped around her head. She wears a lacy dress
also, and suddenly it is I who becomes self-conscious, in my damp
shorts and t-shirt. I duck out, into a world that is now still and at
rest, the soft lights of night twinkling on, a hundred dinners
waiting for the arrivals from the church, the townspeople who have
come to bear witness and rejoice. They will soon retire to their
homes, and I will be shut out. It’s not that they can smell
insufficient piety. It’s not a lack of hospitality;
just that their homes are here, and mine is two thousand miles away.
During my time on Margarita, there are three
scheduled power outages. The official explanation is maintenance, but
“that is a lie,” several locals assure me. Caracas
taking energy from Margarita, which is otherwise self-sustaining, and
siphoning it off to the mainland.
great English explorer Henry Morton Stanley is
supposed to have said upon hearing Big Ben, as he lay dying in
London, “So that is Time!” The impending power
set for 8 o’clock, has taken me back to a land with Time,
from a place where events seem to unfold on their own, without regard
to time or schedule.
lay in my hammock, lazy swings contributing to my inability to take
it all in. It’s as if Venezuela is out there, just beyond my
reach. Aguirre is there, too, haunting the hinterlands, knocking
against boats, dragging chains, appearing in the form of flames
issuing from the earth. I still have places to visit, towns that were
here when Aguirre landed, though physical remnants of the 16th
century are long gone. I’ll have one more visit with Carlos
Pedro, but I’m beginning to suspect that Aguirre will remain
phantom, a man who has haunted me for a year and a half, one to whom
I have dedicated 90,000 words, and what feels like as many hours. I
have found a publisher for my book; Aguirre will see the light of
day. But he’ll remain slippery, a contradictory figure for a
contradictory land – a paradise with a black side.
then, with a punctuality totally unbefitting
Venezuela, the power goes off precisely at 8 P.M.
Margarita Island goes dark.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher