July, 2016: In the ensuing days after our first attempt to find my long lost Venezuelan family, I had all but made peace with our failed mission. That was until we were effectively taken hostage over a payment dispute at our hostel in Ciudad Bolivar. Despite the stress the dispute provided the opportunity for a few more days investigation and another visit to El Tigre. It also allowed me to get a more accurate idea of the year granddad died from my mum. Before long we had commandeered a clapped out Nissan taxi, bribed our way through a National Guard roadblock, and were back at the Civil Registry in El Tigre. Courtesy of an early morning phone call to warn him we were coming back, Renny had already dug out the 1988 and 1989 registries so amazingly, within 20 minutes of arriving, he was pealing open this ancient looking book and pointing amongst a page of scrawling but elegant handwriting to where granddad’s name was clearly highlighted. Granddad had been found!
As we read down through the scrawl we learned that my grandfather had died of a heart attack on the 10th September 1987 in the Santa Rosa Clinic in El Tigre. For whatever reason (we still don’t know why) his death wasn’t actually officially reported and recorded until the 5th August 1988. His death was reported by a Venezuelan named Omelia Santiago (aged 34) who had lived at No 15, Peru Street, El Tigre. He had also left behind two daughters, Isabella Santiago (aged 5) and Katrina Santiago (aged 3). Not only had we found granddad but it also looked like there actually was a chance that I had family living just a few blocks away. Standing there on that dusty sidewalk staring down at the death certificate of a man I never knew I was filled by a sense of wonderment at just how small this world is. I also felt a deep satisfaction and contentment knowing that I was doing something for my family that very few people actually get to do. It’s a feeling that is hard to describe and one never to forget.
After making a few certified copies of the death certificate we were keen to go and find Peru street and hopefully some news of my extended family. While we thought the chances of finding Omelia or my aunties were slim, having come this far and unlikely to come this way again for some time, more searching was definitely required. At first I thought we weren’t going to get much more help from Renny but before long he and a colleague had squeezed into our little Nissan and the five of us were off, tearing around the back streets of El Tigre. Any time we saw someone within shouting distance, Renny or his mate were out the window, yelling out to ask if they knew of any Santiagos living nearby. After a few false starts we got the same directions twice and before long we pulled up outside a large green house and started banging on the front gate. At first, a tiny, frail old lady came out closely followed by a striking, slightly younger woman, both of whom wore a cautious yet intrigued look on their faces. What the hell did these gringos want?
‘Hello, I’m an Australian and I’m….’ I didn’t get to finish my sentence as some kind of spark of recognition spread across the younger lady’s face. ‘I knew an Australian once’ she said, ‘his name was Robert Johnson’. I couldn’t believe our luck. ‘Well, Robert Johnson was my grandfather’. The younger lady, Carmilla, was the sister of my grandfather’s partner and the frail old lady their mother. I think for all of us standing there it was such a surreal moment and for a second Carmilla and I just stared at each other, huge grins planted across both our faces.
We said our goodbyes to Renny and his colleague and then were all invited out the back of the house where we sat under the branches of a shady mulberry tree while both Carmilla and I tried to fill in each other’s blanks. Unfortunately, granddad’s partner Omelia had died from cancer three years earlier but their two daughters (Isabella and Katrina) were alive and kicking, both working in El Tigre. They were now in their early 30’s with children of their own and were seemingly doing well with their prospective careers in El Tigre. We all chatted for a while longer before a car pulled up out front and my long lost Auntie Katrina walked into the backyard. At Carmilla’s insistence I greeted her as Auntie (‘Tia’ in spanish) and then we all had a good laugh as we contemplated the incredible thing that was happening and the fact that my auntie was in fact five years younger than me!
For another hour or so, we all sat around while I tried to give a slightly emotional but warm and lovely Katrina as much information as I could about her Australian family. It was deeply satisfying to fill in the gaps for her about a family she had known about for years but whom she had never managed to contact despite visiting the Australian embassy in Caracas in the early 90’s. While we would have liked to stay chatting for the rest of the day, unfortunately we weren’t able to stay much longer as our driver was keen to get on home. So, after a mildly emotional farewell, and promises to return as soon as we could, we took our leave of my new found, half Venezuelan, half Australian family. As we drove back to Ciudad Bolivar I couldn’t believe that what had started out as such a poorly informed and ill prepared search had born such fruit. I couldn’t wait to tell mum…
Since that first surreal afternoon with Katrina quite a lot has happened. Fi and I spent an intense but hugely enjoyable weekend with Katrina, Isabella and my beautiful cousins not to mention meeting their amazing extended family and group of friends. We visited the plain piece of cement covering my grandfathers grave in the El Tigre cemetery and took some photos and a small video to record the occasion. We went back to visit Carmilla and granny and in the blink of an eye had the whole story turned on it’s head as we learnt that in fact only Katrina was my grandfather’s daughter. Isabella’s father was actually an Argentinean who has since been tracked down and with whom Isabella will hopefully be able to contact soon. Katrina has started her Australian citizenship application and despite needing DNA testing to confirm lineage, we’re confident she will be successful. Google translate has allowed Katrina and her Australian siblings to start communicating for the first time in 30 years. In retrospect, surreal doesn’t really do it justice!
The situation in Venezuela continues to worsen meaning both Katrina and Isabella are looking to get them and their families out as soon as possible. Isabella is looking to head to Chile or perhaps Argentina, and Katrina will hopefully be able to join us in Australia. As the twists and turns of this story continues to unfold, the rich tapestry that has been my family’s history is rapidly turning towards an uncertain but none-the-less exciting future.
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.