June, 2016: Twelve years ago on my first trip to Latin America I learned that my grandfather on mum’s side ended his days in Venezuela. According to mum, granddad died in the middle of Venezuela at some point in the 80’s. While I never knew him, his disappearance conjured up all kinds of questions. Why the hell did he end up in Venezuela? Where did he live? Was there a chance he was still alive? Is my blood still running in the veins of some long lost relative? Lots of exotic theories formed in my mind. We were given many reasons NOT to go to Venezuela. Even so, finding the answers to this 30+ year old family mystery was reason enough to cross ‘la linea’. This is the story of tracking down the final days of my grandfather…
Granddad was a Warrant Officer in the Australian Airforce and saw active service during World War 2. After the war he married my grandmother and together they had five daughters (including mum) and one son. In 1974 he took his leave of Australia and headed overseas looking for adventure and work in the oil industry. He spent time in Europe and the Middle East staying only in sporadic correspondence with the family. His two youngest daughters spent christmas 1976 with him traveling together from Athens to London. At some point in 1982 the correspondence stopped and no one heard from him again until the late 1980’s. Sadly, the only news was his eldest daughter receiving notification from the Australian government that her father had died in a town called El Tigre in Venezuela.
Fast forward nearly 30 years and Fi and I had been in Venezuela for a little under two weeks. After some outstanding trekking in the country’s south east we had made our way north to Ciudad Bolivar with the intention of heading to Angel Falls. We also had the vain hope that we might be able to learn something about granddad. I had been conducting fruitless searches of the internet. I’d also been questioning any Venezuelan we met about the best way to track down someone I knew virtually nothing about. I’d Facebook stalked every Venezuelan carrying granddad’s name I could find, and emailed the Venezuelan government both to no avail. Finally we got somewhat of a lead when the owner of our hostel in Ciudad Bolivar told us that if he did indeed die in Venezuela, his death would have been recorded on the Civil Registry. At first I tried the registry office in Ciudad Bolivar but as El Tigre was in another state they said we would have to go the local office there.
The next day we hired a car and driver. After 2 hours driving through arid scrublands we arrived at the El Tigre Civil Registry. Unfortunately we arrived to find it closed due to reduced public sector working hours implemented as an electricity saving measure. Thankfully there were still a few people at the office including a lawyer named Ranny who seemed to take pity on the pasty gringo standing on tippy-toes outside his window. Even as I listened to my own story I thought it sounded a bit ridiculous. At that point, I didn’t even know the year he died.
After some persistence, Ranny had me write down granddad’s full name and date of birth, plus my best guess at the year he died (1984 was in my head) and then disappeared into his office. An hour or so of waiting later, Renny again appeared at his window with the news that granddad definitely hadn’t died in 1984. Unfortunately Paulo also didn’t have time for further searching. These days Venezuela has an electronic civil registry but for years everything was recorded in big old exercise books with records written free hand and organised by year. While Renny had done me a favour by looking through the 1984 registry on his day off, he didn’t have enough time to expand his search and with that it appeared our search was over. I knew we had a very slim chance of success but as we drove back to Ciudad Bolivar empty handed I couldn’t help but feel disappointed and annoyed at myself for not having done more investigation up front.
*NOTE: Please note that to maintain a little discretion I’ve changed some of the above names. The sequence of events is faithful to what happened.