Excitement in Venezuela!

Excitement in Venezuela!


In the Spring of 1996, I begin to think about a 3rd adventure to Latin America. I am becoming increasingly attracted to this area because I really like interacting with the friendly people and the Spanish and indigenous "Indian" cultures. I enjoy speaking the broken Spanish I know and would like the chance to learn more. The first place I considered was one that is highly regarded in connection with Charles Darwin, the Galapagos Islands. These Islands would be very appealing to me and I definitely wanted to go. However, the though of being cooped up on a small boat with Katey in tow was not very appealing! So, I began to think about another place. I really want to visit southern Argentina and Chile, but this a winter trip, not a summer trip. So, next I considered the remote but intriguing tepuis of Venezuela. These were made famous by Sir Arthur Conan's novel, The Lost World in which he postulated that dinosaurs still exist on the tops of these huge mesas, some hundreds of square miles in area. The only thing I knew about this area was that it was very remote and that it was called The Gran Sabana [great savannah]. I thought that this would be real adventure. I also thought that Katey, who is 15, was brave to go on such a difficult trip. For one thing, we would be flying on smaller planes, which she feared. Katey, though, had done very well hiking through Costa Rica. At this time, of course, I didn't know how difficult this trip to Venezuela would really turn out to be: facing hordes of mosquitos, freezing in curiarias, hiking under a hot sun, and finally working up the courage to walk under a raging river that was ready to sweep you away!

One company sent me a very colorful brochure about travel all over Venezuela. But, when I told them I wanted to concentrate only on The Gran Sabana, I did not receive an enthusiastic response. Next, I went to the Internet and searched on travel companies and Venezuela. I found a Miami-based company called EcoVoyager [EV] and explained that I wanted to reach Angel Falls, and travel through the Sabana, especially concentrating on the tepuis -- I told them that I wanted an adventure, no ordinary tourist trip. They were quite interested in setting up such a trip; Lance Lazrus, the director in Miami, had been to this area several times and has a Venezuelan wife. Despite the fact that I had contacted him rather late in the Spring, he mapped out a suggested itinerary within a couple of days and asked me to comment on it. His route was south from Caracas, towards the industrial city of Puerto Ordaz, then into Canaima National Park [Bolivar State] and the tepuis and savannah area. It would go as far south as Santa Eleana, on the Brazilian border. Then, there would be a flight westward towards the area of the Auyan Tepuis, where Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world, is located. I would reach the falls by boat and hiking. This seemed to be a very adventurous trip to me and I made the decision to go quickly. I had always heard about Angel Falls and figured this had to be interesting. What I did not know was this was going to turn out to be easily the most adventurous trip of my life --- by a wide margin! I realized that this was going to be a difficult trip, however, because my parents' health was failing, and for months, I have been under a lot of stress from trying to care for them, so I needed a break, but I also knew that once I left Atlanta to travel through the back country of Venezuela, there was no coming back, regardless of what happened, so I left with some trepidation.

Author's Notes to Reader:
The journey described here should be not assumed to be a typical trip of any tourist group in Venezuela. I especially indicated to EV that I wanted an unusual adventure, not a typical tourist excursion with N-star hotels and swimming pools. So do not expect to find either the accomodations or transportation described here similar to those demanded by the typical "soft" American tourist. In fact, I did not want this type of trip and would have disappointed with it. I am introducing Spanish phrases here but have no accent marks, so please bear with me! Two large detailed Venezuelan maps in JPEG format may be accessed below. The first map covers the trip from Puerto Ordaz to Santa Elana. The second map depicts the Auyan Tepuis, Canaima Lodge, Angel Falls, and Kavac. A third smaller map shows the Canaima Lodge area. One point on spelling, if your travel enough overseas, you will find variations among spelling of proper names, even in the same country. So do not be surprised if you find the same place spelled slightly differently in two or more instances in this journal! Because I am a statistician at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, I begin this travelog with activities the day prior to departure to provide a frame of reference for the reader. That's enough of these author's notes, now to the meat of the journey . . . !

Venezuelan Maps: [Large JPEG Images]

  • Click for Gran Sabana Map [300+KB]
  • Click for Canaima Area Map[300+KB]
  • Click for Canaima Lodge Map[130KB]

    Friday, June 28, 1996
    Today is a very hectic day, all week I have been working on statistical procedures for the Hepatitis C Virus meta-analysis -- HCV is a sexually transmitted virus that is apparently difficult to transmit so there are no agreed-upon recommendations on prevention. Because the published studies differ widely as to the possibility of infection via different routes, we hope to combine the data from many studies by meta-analysis to learn more about the true possibility of infection from different exposures. Then public health recommendations can be made. Meta- analysis is a statistical procedure to combine numerical results such as risk or odds ratios. Over 100 HCV studies are available, but they report data in different ways, so I am working towards a common measure for all studies this will be the relative risk obtained from a particular study expressed against the risk in the entire population, which is not known well. This ratio is called the standardized risk ratio {SRR}. Its important that I develop the associated math [statistical formulas for variance, etc.] before I leave, because summer interns can work on entering the study data into my meta-analysis spreadsheet while I am away, I do not want this week wasted for them and I am anxious to proceed with the analysis. At 11:00 a.m., SM SP, and ST and I have a conference call where I review my concepts on how to calculate the standardized risk ratios for the studies. I review the basic spreadsheet with these calculations and also, my meta- analysis spreadsheet which will mathematically combine the studies. I ask the SM and SP come to my office at 2:30 so I can show SP how to enter the data into the meta-analysis spreadsheet.

    About 1:00, I call BK and we have a long conversation, which neither of us want to end. We will miss the close friendship that we have developed over the past weeks. Finally, though, we reluctantly say au revoir.

    At 2:30, SM and SP arrive and I explain how to enter the risk ratio data into the meta-analysis spreadsheet. I ask her to do this separately for each risk category, prostitutes, customers of prostitutes, homosexuals, hemophiliacs {PWH}, sexually promiscuous, etc. SP and I enter the data for prostitutes first, obtaining a mean SRR value of 0.6. Earlier, I had done a test and found an SRR of 1.2 for PWH. These SRR numbers are relative to an arbitrary prevalence baseline of 3.0%, so the 0.6 indicates that prostitutes would be less susceptible to HCV, as compared to the overall population. This seems counter-intuitive, so its reasonable that the 3.0% prevalence estimate is too high, perhaps its more like 1.0%. We will need to reconsider this issue when I return.

    I want to leave CDC about 4:30 to do some final packing and checking -- after all, we are going to be in jungle areas far from civilization -- you can't afford not to have a critical item. You need two pairs of glasses, just in case, plenty of insect repellant, plenty of sun screen lotion. Just before 4:30, I get a call from personnel asking me to redo some work for them, so I am delayed by about 30 minutes in a furious last minute effort! Tonight, BK and I send e-mails back and forth in a furious round of communication! I go to bed about midnight.

    Saturday, June 29, 1996
    I sleep well and awake early, then fix pancake mix and hot tea. Then I realize that I have so much pent up energy that I need to run. So, at 7:30, I warm up and run for 50 minutes. Just last Wednesday, I had a heat stroke from running the only time this has ever happened to me. But running in the cool of the morning, I feel much better. After a shower, I feel very euphoric! Later, I have pancakes and blueberry syrup for breakfast. We have a taxi scheduled at 10:30 a.m.; and as usual before a trip, Katey is a bit obstinate to wake! The taxi arrives and we proceed to the Dunwoody MARTA station with an obese female driver who could probably be in a circus! She complains about the Olympics all the way, too much traffic, everyone will take the bus or MARTA, and so on. The train ride is swift, we check the mountain of luggage at the airport and hit the Burger King! While waiting in the terminal "lounge" have always thought this is a terrible misnomer our neighbors Clint and Aieda [from Honduras] show up at 1:30 Clint is accompanying two Latinos who work with him to the flight to Miami. So, everyone says goodbye in Spanish!

    At 1:50 we depart Atlanta and I doze most of the way to Miami. This airport is very crowded, as usual, and it helps you make the transition to the Spanish speaking world. At the E concourse, pandemonium reigns as people crowd together for several flights. Once we finally pass the gate with boarding passes, I find that people are not proceeding on the down escalator, even though it is functional this is because the "automatic" door a few feet beyond is stuck, so people are trapped! If more people come down the escalator, they will be standing on those already there! Finally, an attendant arrivess from the other side of the glass door and opens it so folks can proceed. As we descend, an elderly lady falls behind us causing panic, but she is picked up by other passengers and all is well. The flight from Miami is very smooth. At 8:30 p.m., the Airbus 300 makes a perfect touchdown in Caracas, Venezuela!

    Deplaning, we stand in long lines for customs. The Caracas airport has many perfume and clothing shops. People are stylishly dressed here, I think. After collecting luggage, an EcoVoyager representative is sighted. Three other folks are there who are taking a trip with Eco Voyager, but they are not on our trip; they are going on a more tourist-oriented excursion! A minivan provides transportation over expressways with high bridges and long tunnels to the heart of Caracas and to the Hilton. At check in, a lady asks me about my profession, I explain that I work at CDC, she recoils at the concept of working with HIV, HCV, and sexually transmitted diseases, in general! Apparently, she believes that I am contaminated and slinks away! Everyone goes to dinner at a buffet by the pool. Later, I shoot some excellent video of the night traffic over the wide streets of the city. No one gets to bed before midnight.

    Sunday, June 30, 1996
    After a good night's sleep its time for a breakfast of omelettes, but not before enjoying the view of the vertical city of Caracas. This is the most mountainous city that I have ever seen. Houses are perched precariously on hillsides. In the flat valleys, high rise apartments and offices towers rise dozens of stories. It is quite an incredible place!

    At ~8:30 a.m. the van arrives with Guillermo Zuloaga and the driver, Julio to take all of us back to the Caracas airport for a morning flight to Puerto Ordaz. GZ is somewhat obese, and I worry about his health, but at least he doesn't smoke. Julio does not speak any English. I ask GZ to help me with Spanish as much as possible on the trip and he is really cooperative about translating phrases and signs along the way. However, arriving at the airport at ~9:30, we learn that the flight is delayed because the price of jet fuel has risen and they are awaiting additional passengers! So, GZ banters with us until ~ 1:00 p.m. I keep asking him to translate English to Spanish and practice my poor Spanish with him; he is very tolerant! I realize that we are fortunate to have him on this trip. He tells us a funny story about competition with another travel agency apparently he and his group and a group from another agency were in the same restaurant he sends his bill to the other group and promptly departs, leaving the other company to pay the bill!

    GZ explains that the entire country of Costa Rica would fit inside of Parque Nationale de Canaima, where we are headed. In 1505, Amerigo Vespucci sailed westward down the coast of current Venezuela. There he passes the Lago de Maracaibo, and the Indian village of Sinamaica. The houses in this village are constructed on stilts. This reminds him of the Italian city of Venice, so he names the place, Little Venice, or Venezuela. It strikes me as very funny because this country is so large! In the airport, one notices that most everyone has a cellular phone -- apparently because the land lines are not good. These phones seem to be status symbols, people wear them as conspicuously as possible, not hiding them in pockets or purses but displaying them on their belts and you'll see constantly calling someone. The dress in Caracas is very stylish for both men and women. Men wear open shirts, usually with a Latin flavor, women wear short dresses or skin tight jeans -- many have tatoos on their breasts or their ankles..

    At ~1:00 p.m., an Avensa DC-9 appears and we all head for Puerto Ordaz. However, in a forecast of the flights on this trip, the plane first lands in Barcelona, an unscheduled stop. Finally, landing in Puerto Ordaz, we find an industrial city with surprisingly modern, even avant garde, buildings. Here the main industries are metal ore reduction, aluminum and iron. Puerto Ordaz appears well kept and clean. We drive by a park at the confluence of the Carini and the famous Orinoco rivers. You can read about an interesting journey down the Orinoco in a book by James Redmond, In Trouble Again; I highly recommend reading this instructive and funny description of a long river journey and an eventual rendezvous with the Yanomami Indians. GZ knows that I am a runner and he points out that I can run in the park because our hotel is near one of its entrances. He notes that we were supposed to have taken a boat but that it has rained too much and we can't go. So, even though it is raining hard, I decide to run about 4:00 p.m. read my description Running in Puerto Ordaz for an account of this interesting experience! At 6:30 we leave the Guayana Intercontinental Hotel for an Italian restaurant Fortuna del Oro. They offer a wide variety of seafood including squid and octopus even rabbit! I try the grouper and octopus.

    Monday, 1 July, 1996
    At 7:45 Julio begins the drive across the Rio Carini south towards Upata, famous for quesa, a delicious soft, fresh, cheese made in only a day or two. Quesa is made from bovine milk. The milk is allowed to set until cream rises, then the fluid is poured off, and the solid top is kneaded to remove excess moisture. The resulting mixture is folded and weighed to determine the amount of salt to be added to improve the taste. After adding salt, the mixture is again kneaded and allowed to set for a few hours. Finally, the resulting mixture is cooked. The shape of the quesa reflects its container. Quesa can be cut or peeled in strips like skins from fruits. It must be eaten within a few days, else it may spoil.

    We next pass through rolling country with selvas [forests] on a wide four lane road no potholes like those of Costa Rica! Hills, perhaps 500 feet high, abound. Further south, short Chaearral trees, about ten feet high, have colonized the relatively dry landscape. We stop at a roadside landscape and sample the quesa it has a nice light taste definitely cheese but not strong. El bano [bathroom] is behind the chicken house here!

    Julio drives further south over rolling highways at high speed, el radio blasting both US and Venezuelan musica he slaps the steering wheel of the van keeping time with the musica! This is a very exciting mode of travel! Next we pass Guasipati, a well-kept town with a square el centro con arbors alto. Julio is really enjoying the driving and I remark to GZ that the faster the musica, the faster Julio drives Julio laughs when this is translated! Later we pass a giant fica tree and GZ says that these are sometimes called ninos [children en Espanol] I remark that they should be called grandfathers! Early in the afternoon we stop for gasolina and el bano a el bomba [estacione de gasolina]. Leaving, Julio turns on the AC and we can hear the musica Latina much better! As we pass secopia trees, I remark about the ants that inhabit them. GZ explains that they were imported from India, that they are hollow, and that they are inhabited only by ants and sloths. The ants can't bite the sloths because of their thick fur, which is colonized by green bacteria. He says that they are sick trees, with many bacteria and viruses.

    Passing through the remote countryside, we see what appears to a mirage floating over el rio [river]. Surely a suspension bridge silver in color cannot have been deposited here, can it? GZ explains that in the 1950s this bridge, designed by Eiffel in France, was given to Venezuela, to be erected in an area expected to become an industrial center. Apparently, this area filled that requirement, but the development never happened! So it is now mostly unused, a beautiful apparition en selva.

    In San Isidro we stop for lunch at ~1:30 in a small restaurant shaped like a tent. Its lower walls are stucco and the roof is made of palm leaves, there is a small bar at the back, where the waitresses hang out. Here, everyone but Katey has a mystery meat La Lapa GZ cannot say exactly what this animal is, he seems to convey that it is hunted and this is a mammal, perhaps like a racoon. Later, we find that it is a large rodent. It tastes like pork. This area is populated by gold diggers, who make quick Bolivars [Venezuelan money] and spend it even quicker! The restaurant has one table with about a half-dozen of these men, wearing bandanas, boots, and open shirts. They are very animated, obviously having a good time, and stare at Anne and Katey while drinking their Cerveza Polar. A young couple, the man also a gold digger, and son esposa and muchacho, perhaps dos anos, sit nearby. The nina runs all over the restaurant, and her mother has to continually chase him to keep him from going outside. It becomes comical as the parents cannot eat peacefully, while guarding their child. From time to time, he comes over to visit our table.

    Only a few minutes after departing San Isidro, we enter Parque Nationale de Canaima. We begin climbing mountains and pass the "Rock of the Virgin." This is a huge solid rock perhaps 50-75 feet high and wide, in a roughly square shape but with some scars where the road builders tried to dynamite it so that the road could be straight. The color of the rock is rose and black. Apparently, they gave up, and decided to divert the road around the rock. A legend arose that the Virgin protected the rock, so now a small shine with lighted candles is in a niche nearby, visible from the road. This rock is from the Guyana Shield. We continue to drive mile after mile over mountainous terrain, mostly selva rublada, [cloud forest ]. The roads are steep but excellent. Suddenly, we break out of the selva rublada, and a huge vista opens up you can see for miles, maybe a hundred miles. We have now reached my goal, the Gran Sabana. The Sabana is green, many shades of green, pale to dark, it reminds me of Irish fields, but the meandering rock walls are missing.

    Our destination and lodging for the next two nights is Chivaton, a remote lodge, operated by Pemon Indians. We turn off the excellent paved highway onto an excellent red dirt road, where Julio hardly has to slow down reaching Chivaton will be easy, I conclude, smugly! GZ says that we have only 50 KM to go and I figure we will reach it in perhaps an hour or at worst an hour and a half! As Julio drives ever deeper onto the Sabana, absolutely incredible vistas open, we can begin to see our first tepuis, a partially hidden mesa with a flat top. Although clouds partially obscure the leading vertical point of the tepuis, the sun shines brilliantly through them, creating a picture-perfect scene. It is a scintillating sight! There is little sign of human presence here, other than the red dirt road and an occasional deserted Indian hut of thatched palm and dirt walls. Ahead Julio spots a steep red hill, rising perhaps 50 feet over the terrain. Remarkably, he drives up this promontory, a feat that I find hard to believe surely we cannot climb at this angle! But, after a minute of high suspense, we are on top! From there, you can observe the entire universe, it seems I have never seen anything like this how many miles can you see? I've no idea, is it a hundred, two hundred? Its impossible for me to know, but it is extraordinary. I climb on top of the van to videotape the scene, but no video, no photo can depict this vista. Now, Julio descends the hill carefully, and carries us further until we pass a few signs with unfamiliar names: Aponwao, etc. We are in totally remote Indian country.

    Julio turns off the road following the direction of the sign labeled Chivaton. The red road deteriorates very badly with gullies, even small lagos [lakes]. Our speed slows to a crawl, a turtle's pace, then a snail's pace. Julio must drive very carefully over the gullies, I cannot believe that our tires can absorb this punishment for long surely they will burst like child's balloon any moment! Finally, we see a lodge in the far distance, nestled in a small valley with a stream flowing nearby. Just when I think the road can become no worse, it does. I would like to get out and walk but am afraid to ask perhaps this would upset the macho tendencies of our Latin driver.

    With the lodge now clearly in sight, we reach a turn in the "road" about 100 feet from the stream. Surely we will arrive safely. Then the rear wheels spin suddenly and the back of the van lurches down further and further into the black muck below we are stuck! Exiting the van, I step into the muck and realize that this stuff is quicksand, it seems solid, but under pressure, it gives. One of my feet is sucked in, my shoe comes off and I hop around like a one-footed booby. Katey and Anne laugh at me; then GZ retrieves my shoe. By this time is after 5:00 p.m. An Indian man comes over to look at our situation, then we are examined by a couple of female Indians, one of whom makes animated gestures, offered to help extract us from this mess. I ask if there is a tractor or jeep but get no clear answer, apparently there is a jeep, but there is a question as to its usefulness -- later I understand the reluctance to offer a proper answer. GZ, Julio, the Indian, and I begin to transport large rocks from the stream and place them under the tire to no avail. The mosquitos now discover us [or at least me] but I am so intent in my duty to extract the van that I am unaware of their undivided attention. Later, I am to regret my oversight. We make no progress on getting the van out of the muck; it is becoming dark fast. We find a couple of flashlights to help. It becomes apparent that we must take a different approach; so we take the jack out, and place a large rock just beyond the axel protruding from the wheel. Carefully we raise the body of the van by a foot; then build up the surface below the wheel with substantial heavy river rocks. Julio gingerly takes the wheel and then applies the minutest pressure to the gas pedal. The wheel bites the surface of the rock and the van moves imperceptibly forward, then further, now the left wheel begins spinning and loses traction. We now direct our attention to the other side, which we had completely overlooked. At least the left side has not bogged down, but the van still is lurching to the right. We place rocks under the left side, and try again to no avail. Then, we place rocks under the right side in an attempt to level the van. It nearly 8:00 p.m. and we have not even had dinner -- but the mosquitos have -- they have been feasting on me.

    I begin to wonder if we are even capable of extracting the van from this quagmire. Perhaps we will spend the rest of the entire journey here, perhaps we will become permanent residents of Chivaton, learning the Pemon Indian language slowly. There is no one to help, no phones, no jeep, no tractor, no tow truck and no 1-800 number to call. This, then, is what self-sufficiency is all about. Western man exists in a cultural milieu, connected by a spidery web to dozens, hundreds, and now millions of people with every talent. Here the entire human world is populated by five Indians, three gringos, and two Venezuelan natives. I begin to understand the nature of true independence. If anyone is going to get us out, it will have to be us. If we are ever going to eat, we have to get the van out. If I am going to avoid being eaten alive by fat, hungry mosquitos, I and my male companions must succeed. We redouble our efforts, bringing more rocks to feed the tires. We construct a veritable road of new rocks. Gently, Julio eases the van forward, while the rest of us push the rear of the van as well as we can in the quagmire. By force of human effort we shove the van forward until the wheels reach grass and the rear tires grip the rough surface success is at hand. Now, Julio drives across the stream, the van lurching across the uneven rocks. I pray to many gods that the tires will not burst. Finally a little after 8:10 p.m. the van reaches the lodge! Cheers erupt at last we can eat!

    At 8:30 we have dinner by a dim electric light, it may be the best food in my entire life! The women have prepared a robust split pea sopa and a hearty lasagna. It is a veritable feast by my gastronomic taste. Afterwards, I fall into a deep sleep, but realize that it is cold due to the high altitude. Of course, there is no agua caliente, no electricidad other than a small, bare light bulb, turned off at 10:00 p.m., and no heat there are only vistas of incredible proportions and some the best food I have ever tasted.

    Jay Smith, Atlanta, GA, July, 1996

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