This article originally appeared on Viceland.com

Journalists covering the Gulf Coat oil spill in Venice, Louisiana, like to wax poetic about how the short, patchy strip of oil refineries, fishing marinas, and houses on stilts is at “the end of the world.” These reporters, tapping out their stories from the lobby of the hotel at the Cypress Grove Marina, where the community coffee flows like crude and you can hear voices in a dozen tongues complain about what a craphole this place is, have apparently never been out beyond “the edge,” where Chi Chi Grillo lives.

Chi Chi’s house sits at the far end of a grass-lined wetland waterway in a collection of cobbled-together edifices called “Camp Canal,” population: two. Another dozen or so people use the place as a fishing camp—it’s accessible only by boat—and as one unfortunate BassMasters Classic participant found out, the canal’s strict speed limits are enforced by shotgun.

Chi Chi emigrated from Cuba and settled in Camp Canal after traveling the world for a while. That was 14 years ago. He told us he will never leave, even if his canal fills with oil and everything dies. This is his home. The fact that Hurricane Katrina demolished his previous house and he built another by hand in roughly the same spot without a penny in aid from the government (fed or otherwise) suggests he’s probably serious.

“I would die and burn in hell for this country,” he said, “but it is getting to be a tough place to live.”


Chi Chi’s dogs

When we came upon Chi Chi, he was fooling around with something on one of his boats while his girlfriend watched him from the porch with a beer. A couple of swamp hounds sat in cages at the end of his janky dock and periodic egrets swooped around the property. Chi Chi swung his white-rubber-bootied foot up on the edge of his craft, cocked his weathered face at an indirect angle from the sun, and asked what he could do for us.


Captain Boola

We’d found Chi Chi with the assistance of his friend Captain Boola. “Boola,” whether first, last, or nickname, is the only one he or Chi Chi would give us.

“It’s like Madonna,” he said. “What’s her last name?”

“Ciccone,” I replied. He pretended not to hear me.

Boola was a charter fishing guide until his spring docket was suddenly wiped clean with news of the oil spill. Now he scrapes by giving journalists rides into the wetlands for $400 a trip. Me and my photographer friend had a total of $33, six oranges, and a can of oatmeal between us. Luckily, though, we had an ace in the hole—a charming French foreign correspondent in the hole, to be more precise.

My girlfriend Akasha, our friend Mike, and I had actually taken the trip from New Orleans without the intention of trying to make a story out of it, but when the Washington, DC, bureau chief for Le Figaro pulls up in front of you on a remote stretch of road and asks if you are journalists, it’s hard to reply with anything other than: “Yes, we are journalists.”

Laure Mandeville covered Russia for nearly a decade, including the Second Chechen War. Like many journalists working in Russia, she experienced a healthy dose of intimidation from officials, having to go so far as to store her interview tapes in the French embassy for fear that they’d be stolen or tampered with. Her most controversial reporting dealt with allegations from members of the government that Russian security agents had staged false-flag terror attacks to look as if they were by Chechen rebels in order to give Russia a pretense to attack the rebels inside Chechnya. She also heard Putin’s friend tell her that Putin would have the Chechen president, whom Putin installed, killed if he ever acted up.

When we met her, Laure was hopping out of a dorky gold rental sedan with Tennessee plates asking us if we had seen any oil yet. We, alternatively, were dorking it up in the big white van that once served as the touring vehicle for infamous Salt Lake City punk band Fuck The Informer, parked conveniently in the edge of a marsh. We were taking photos like tourists, but after convincing Laure that we were all on the same mission, we took off in a news caravan to get the scoop from some locals.

What we found was a whole lot of nothing going on. The Coast Guard had shut down the fishing waters, and the sea was too choppy for any but the biggest boats to go out. Fishermen and oil hands sulked around the docks worrying about their livelihoods, all telling us that the “booms” that BP and the federal government had been putting in place to block the oil weren’t working, and were a waste of time and money to boot. Crews of television reporters from around the world scuffled about the parking lot setting up lights and cameras at various dramatic angles, complaining about the fact that the oil hadn’t reached shore yet to give them the doomsday storyline they’d come out to grab.

Laure had told us she had a line on a boat, which seemed like the only real chance for action. She had gotten Captain Boola’s number and was waiting to hear back from him. We stopped into a shrimp wholesale compound to see if we could find anyone to talk to in the meantime.


Tuan’s prize-winning roosters

The guy running the place was named Tuan Nguyen, a 51-year-old Vietnamese immigrant. His wood-paneled office was festooned with painted portraits of his prize-winning roosters, which were tethered to small lean-tos out front. Akasha and Mike tried to photograph the birds while Laure and I talked to Nguyen, but a lady in a golf cart shooed them off because a Chevron facility was in the background, and evidently taking photos of it is “prohibited.”

Nguyen hadn’t done any business in three days, and the coming months were not looking good. He didn’t express the vehemence against BP that I had expected though: “It was an accident,” he shrugged about the spill.

Nguyen’s financial assets—the wholesale business, a house in New Orleans—make him seem a less pitiful character than the hardscrabble shrimp boat crewmen with no GEDs nor a Wal-Mart nearby to go work at, but in fact he might be worse off. He doesn’t have the skills to go work on a rig or a boat, and no one’s going to want a seafood business surrounded by a sea of 10-W30. Halfway through his lament about his lack of a future, Laure’s phone rang: It was Boola. His boat was set to go, and we could board it for $400. I told Laure we didn’t have any budget, and she said not to worry about it.


Oil cleanup ships

By this time, I guess Laure had gathered that we were not “real journalists”—this was not her first rodeo, after all. But we kept her good company, and I provided a helpful service: While her English vocabulary, pronunciation and diction were near perfect, she had a tough time understanding the gumbo’d accents and Waterworld slang of these parts. I speak both the local dialect and the articulate English she’s used to in DC, and thus served as a good translator.


Gator in the wetlands

We boarded the boat with Boola, and he took us around the wetlands. I’m no stranger to postcard nature, having grown up in Wyoming, but the marshes and bayous of the Mississippi Delta are among the most vibrant and beautiful places I’ve explored. Boola took us to talk to Chi Chi, and after a while the conversation turned to a hate-fest against oil companies and the government.

“Obama is a bit better than Bush,” Chi Chi said. “Bush should have been hanged next to Saddam Hussein.”

“Joining a political party is like joining a mafia,” Boola said. “And oil companies take and take, and they never give anything back.”

“They drive up oil prices for ‘lack of supply,’ but can then dump $2 million dollars a day of oil into the Gulf,” Chi Chi concurred.

Boola and Chi Chi put bitchass Idaho libertarians, East Coast Tea Baggers, and trust-fund anarchist squatters to shame. Chi Chi will probably figure out how to strain oil out of fish flesh with a crab net and feed himself, his daughters, his girlfriend and his dogs even if the sea turns black. Boola knows the wetlands so well, he’s probably got a secret cove where he herded enough speckled trout to last a year. These people want nothing to do with government, and have no use for big business. When the revolution comes, I’m sticking with them.

After our trip with Boola, which included a detour to see some gators, we headed back to the marina, ate the last Louisiana shrimp we may for a decade, parted ways with Laure and took the van into town. We found a bar full of hicks and fisherman and some nervous British reporters in the corner. We downed some one-dollar Jell-O shots and Budweiser and listened to Lil’ Wayne blast from the jukebox. We drove back to the marina parking lot, where Akasha went to sleep in the van and Mike and I climbed into the crow’s nest of an unexpecting yacht at the dock. Mike was upset about philosophy or his ex-girlfriend or something, and after convincing him not to jump into the water, and not to steal a broken charcoal grill from another boat, we both bedded down in our mobile news unit and went to sleep. In the morning we cooked oatmeal in the parking lot on a propane stove to the confusion of everyone around us, then decided to drive “to the end of the road.” Though it made for good photos, the water covering the highway caused us some anxiety, so we decided to go back to the marina hotel for some coffee. The turnoff was blocked, though, for Obama’s motorcade, which the president had taken from New Orleans so he could “survey the damage” (though no oil was yet anywhere near Venice). Even after the menacing and stately row of vehicles had flown by, the cops still wouldn’t let us through. We took this as an indicator that it was a good time to go home, so we did.

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