At 9:30 a.m. we leave Chivaton lodge en route to Chinak-meru. "Meru" means waterfall in Pemon language, the equivalent word is "Salto" en espanol. No one rides in the van but Julio and GZ escorts him around the dangerous quicksand. Now, after negotiating the worst of the "Chivaton Highway" we turn onto the excellent dirt road. Julio plays a tape of Madonna and we blast our way over the red ribbon, in an exhilarating atmosphere of speed, wind, and noise. As we accelerate towards the Pemon village, occasionally Julio points out the window to a non- existent landmark and causes all of us to look like fools and he laughs. Then I fool him by pointing to a bomba [gasolina de estacione] in this no-man's land — Julio smiles laughs heartily, another cultural link is forged despite language differences. The road begins to become an arroyo, then la lago pecueno [a small lake], just as we reach the Aponwao river and Chinak-meru. The Pemon village consists of the traditional thatched roofs and dirt walls but there are over a dozen houses of various sorts. El Bano is sighted and visited — the fee is 35 Bolivars.
After a few minutes, we board a canoe with a 40 hp motor and proceed towards the falls. We avoid the main course and stay in very shallow water. A Pemon Indian woman is the guide and a man steers the motor. Finally, the side stream we follow narrows and we can go no further by boat. We exit the canoe, led by the woman. I follow her directly, she is perhaps 5 feet, 2 inches, with dark hair, and wears red lipstick. A pair of pants and a sweater constitute her apparel. Her footwear is a thin pair of tennis shoes. She follows the arroyos, setting a fast pace. Her walk seems light, with no effort, head held high, arms swinging side to side. She surveys the terrain, head darting to and fro, she points at things that I cannot even see. She does not slow down but glances rearward occasionally, surveying her group. It is hot and I become somewhat dazed. I am mesmerized by this woman, who walks with seemingly no effort. I begin to wonder who is more knowledgeable, she or I? She could survive in the semi-desert environment, whereas I would perish. But could she survive in mine? It dawns on me that the question pondered is irrelevant, she has her universe, I have mine. But I am envious. What could she and her people teach me about this small world in the course of a month? I decide that it would nice to find out, if feasible. I think afterwards, I would see life differently, probably much differently.
After about 30 minutes we hear the roar of a huge waterfall, the Rio Aponwao is disappearing 300 feet over a cliff. As we proceed the noise is deafening; the water is stained deep brown from the tannic acid. Then we reach the head of the falls and spot the permanent rainbow. This is awe- inspiring stuff. The woman signals that we will descend to the bottom. We hobble down very steep switchback paths in a moist environment. The trail becomes washed out. Here 300 feet below the top of the falls, the crescendo is incredible — you can talk to a person a foot away but you won't be heard! The waterfall creates its own wind — blasting the mists away from the foot of the falls — this is a phenomena that we will witness at every high fall. The green bushes shake in the wind — they are covered in permanent moisture and grow luxurious here. In dry season you can swim here, but not now, the water is a raging torrent and you would be swept away instantly. I snap a couple of pictures in this moist environment and quickly put the camera away. Now for the long climb back up the switchback path. We will certainly be ready for lunch! We stop along the way but finally reach the heat and light of the sabana. There we regroup for a 30 minute walk back to the canoe. Again, I follow the Pemon woman, dark from the sun. Katey is just behind me, blond and fair skinned. She is visibly stressed because she needs water badly but we have none. The Pemon woman apparently does also, she stops at an arroyo and scoops a handful of water up, quenching her thirst. She is at home in her world and can survive with little. Most, but not all of us, in the US are too soft for this life. We need to be more more like the Pemon woman, strong, at ease, and balanced in a less than ideal environment.
About 1:00 p.m., we reach the canoe and head back up the Rio Aponwao to the native village. We have tuna fish sandwiches prepared by Julio. The Indians have caught a long snake and toss it around for amusement, scaring small kids and even some adults. Our goals accomplished, we drive away towards a "mission" where it is said that the tire can be repaired.
Another "problem" surfaces. Our van has dual gas tanks, each holding 15 gallons, we are running out of gas in one, the other is full. However, GZ informs me that the pump on the second tank failed last week and that a part from the US has not arrived. He believes that transfer of gasolina from one tank to the other can be handled by siphoning between the two tanks. Accordingly, Julio stops the van, pulls out the magic transfer device and proceeds to create a vacuum with the only tool available, his lungs. After two to three minutes, he stumbles back into the driver's seat, obviously sick from having ingested gasolina. He takes a large draft of Pepsi cola — and heads back to the hose to try again. GZ exits the van, intent on helping. He tries Julio's tactic to no avail. I exit the van and see the problem immediately. They are trying to siphon from one level to nearly the same level. I don't think this will work and say so. No comprendo. They continue to try — now, we are near having both a sick driver and a sick guide. They find an old Pepsi bottle and try to siphon gasolina into it. That doesn't work so it must be that the hose is not reaching as far into the full tank as they believe. The van now smells like a bomba and if a match were lighted would become a bomb. I grow concerned. GZ announces that we must return to Chivaton, where a "hose of different color" [or at least a different diameter] can be used! We have to abandon the attempt to repair the tire.
So, we head back to Chivaton, arriving in mid afternoon - so its Buenos Tardes time. No, actually it becomes "Miller Time." The guides have hoarded a chest of cerveza, not Polar Cerveza, the best in Venezuela, but Brama Cerveza, a product of inferior quality from Brazil. They seem to claim that this is a "gift" but I don't understand their meaning. So, Julio, GZ, the Pemon man and myself attempt to rid the world of this terrible scourge. Julio opens all the doors of the van, and somehow creates a 1,000 watt stereo system that would serve any concert well! Its very strange, considering the dangling wires! So the afternoon passes in laughter and trilingual joking! The best looking Pemon woman walks by and I ask her to pose between Julio and GZ for a picture — they lock arms around her and I snap the trio of merrymakers!
By 7:30 they have somehow transferred the gasolina and all is well at Chivaton. We have sopa de arupa -- a soup of yellow squash, baked chicken and a salad. For desert there is a type of thin peach pie cut into squares. Following dinner, I think about the 5 Indians at Chivaton. I don't even know how many generations there are. There is a reclusive older woman, 3 younger women, and one man. Possibly the man is married to one of the younger women; he cooks breakfast with one — in the dark.
Wednesday, 3 July, 1996
I arise at 6:00 a.m. and join GZ and Julio who are already up. We walk to the kitchen for cafe con leche. I engage them in several questions about Chivaton. Do they get mail here? GZ says that mail is not trusted in Venezuela. Instead, phones and faxes are used. To make a reservation at Chivaton, the funds must be wired to a bank and a shortwave radio message must be transmitted. After a delicious breakfast, we depart this remote lodge at 7:45 a.m. to continue our southward journey. The fog is thick because of severe rain last night. We are heading towards Santa Elena, 220 KM from Chivaton. We traverse these now-familiar red dirt roads for the last time. The contrast to the green sabana strikes me again. Interestingly, the moist areas are populated with dark green trees, while the drier areas are pale green. Julio is playing fast Venezuelan musica to speed the long drive. Julio works his way over the dirt road, tires taking a tremendous beating from potholes and rocks. Passing a Pemon communidad, I spot a sign "Despacio" [slow] and wonder how one could go fast on this road! By 9:15 we leave the dirt and drive south on the paved highway towards our goal, Santa Elena. This road is perfect, no potholes, no traffic — Julio accelerates and we fly over the misty highway with Venezuelan musica blasting away. Sheer exhilaration again!
Later, we stop at two waterfalls, one is called Salto Kani, Pemon Indians live there in a thatched hut. The other is called Salto Kama, the "Place where the goddess is born" -- or Kama-meru in Pemon language. The latter is especially beautiful. Next, we pull off the road to a location where seven tepuis can be seen, unfortunately it is misting and we can't see them as well as we would like -- regardless it is a spectacular sight. At lunchtime, we stop at a small resort called Soroape, here we swim at a rather serene waterfall. Julio has prepared ham and turkey sandwiches. Katey eats 2.5 of these!
We drive ever southward after lunch, stopping at the Quebrada de Jaspe [stream of jasper]. This proves to be one of the most incredible sights I've ever seen. A waterfall streams over a solid wall of jasper onto a bed of jasper hundreds of feet in length. The water past the waterfall is never more than a couple of inches deep — the "stream" must be 100+ feet wide. The sunlight plays over the sparking water, creating a magical rose colored splendor or light. It is quite unbelievable.
Nearing Santa Elena, the scenery improves even more, the vistas become very picturesque. We stop at overlooks and are awed by the beauty of this amazing Venezuela and the Gran Sabana. Finally, we begin to see houses and realize that we have left Parque Nationale de Canaima. First, we pass through a green valley, then through the streets of the town, and finally we drive out of the town to our lodge, the Ya-koo. This lodge is sighted on a hillside and overlooks the valley below and several tepuis. The green foliage contrasts nicely with the terra cotta lodge. After checking in Julio wants to go back to town to check on his tire, so we go with him and buy some native baskets. Dinner is scheduled at 7:30, tomorrow we fly to Canaima Lodge near Angel Falls. We have a very nice beef stew, no vegetables, though, beets, and pina with lime juice for desert. After dinner, a one-hour tape on the tepuis is played. Its about helicoptering Roraima tepuis and it shows the fantastic shapes at the top, carved by millennia of wind and water. They find tiny orchids there. Interestingly, many plants adapt to the harsh environment by become insectivores. But some ants can apparently survive even in these plants digestive juices. We learn that tepuis means house of the gods. This certainly seems appropriate. GZ explains at dinner that he will leave us tomorrow. I will be sorry to see him go. He whets our appetites by saying that he has been to Angel Falls > 200 times and that each new time is just as exciting as ever — so we are going to see something really spectacular!
Thursday--4th July! US Independence Day!
I take an early walk down the red road, followed by the lodge dog. La tropica selva rises on a hill by the road. Boulders and rocks abound. I reach a small steam and the sounds of birds is loud — I turn on the video just to record their sounds. For breakfast we have an omelette, pina, and ham. Afterwards, we leave Ya-koo and drive through Santa Elena. GZ explains that no one there has glue to fix the flat tire! We drive south through rolling country in a misty rain until we reach the well-marked border with Brasil. There, we surrender our US passports to the authorities while visiting La Linea. We find little activity, GZ admires a knife at a tourist shop but says that he would find it difficult to transport in an airplane so he doesn't buy it. The prices seem high.
We reverse course, collect our passports and head toward the International Airport of Santa Elena. This is an unpreposing structure consisting of a terminal as large as a living room. It also boasts a crowded bar for the pilots and fainthearted passengers. You will find a couple of outdoor restaurants and el bano necessito. GZ is going with us to Canaima, then on the Puerto Ordaz. Julio departs on his white steed, the van with which we are now so familiar, the one with the missing gasoline pump!
After an hour, an Avensa DC-3 arrives, we board and make a smooth take off. We fly over the pale green sabana, sometimes dark from passing clouds or occasional rain forest in moist areas. The rolling sabana is interspersed with table-top tepuis. We fly by tepuis with many waterfalls streaming down the sides, sometimes so many that you can't count them. Then, one of the main the goals of this journey is sighted --- Angel Falls — water streams down and forms delicate clouds of mist, falling slowly thousands of feet. This is one of the most incredible sights in the world! Finally, we begin our descent and a make a powder puff landing in the venerable DC-3.
Exiting the aircraft, we take a minibus to tropical Canaima Park Lodge, where with the help of GZ, we schedule trips over the next three days. GZ enjoys a delicious lunch of tuna fish, baked potatoes, and beets with us — but only after he has convinced the manager that he will send many touristas to the area! Here, No acceptan creditos or Bolivars! Later we say good bye to GZ and take a 30 minute boat ride across el lago, seen from the lodge. The water has a surface coating of white foam, sometimes several inches thick; this white substance on the deep brown water causes me to think of a huge washing machine — with permanently flowing suds, forever waiting for the rinse cycle that never starts. The boats are long and narrow, with powerful outboard motors on back. Approaching the tumultuous falls, the water becomes choppy with 2 feet waves undulating in the breeze. The foam becomes thicker. We do not come too close to the ranging water, perhaps 200-300 feet. The noise is deafening! Finally we head back to the Canaima lodge, nestled in the tropical selva.
At 5:30 I go running by the airport, on the taxiway, constructed of fine red gravel. It is a perfect surface for running — it gives but is very solid and allows good traction. I can see tepuis everywhere, even the falls. I run to the opposite end of the runway, then back to the lodge, a total of 40 minutes.
Katey now reports a daily update on the number of her mosquito bites, it is now about 90, she claims. I know she is keeping a private journal, perhaps she records the numbers there hour by hour, keeping score as in a basketball game. Apparently, the mosquitos are attracted to her fair skin. Anne also has many bits but not nearly as many as Katey. Even GZ has bought an antibiotic cream! I have a few but never really have problems.
Friday, 5 July, Venezuelan Independence Day!
Today, we are scheduled to fly Servivensa to the remote Pemon Indian village of Kavac. Its about a 30 minute flight from Canaima lodge. We were supposed to leave at 9:30 a.m. but the flight is delayed by rain until 10:30 a.m. There are only 7 in our little group. We take off flying by the Auyan tepuis and Angel Falls. Later we pass small streams, each with its line of palm trees. Then, Kavac comes into view, nestled within a group of beautiful tepuis. The houses are typical Pemon style, thatched roofs, mud walls reinforced by strips of wood. The construction is quite substantial and attractive.
We strip to our bathing suits and begin following our pretty guide Allejandro down the well-worn path. She has a tatoo on her right breast and is nicely proportioned. After ~20 minutes we descend down a steep path and arrive at a stream. We cross the stream and find a small waterfall -- Salto Kavaikayan. Then, we follow the stream further and encounter two Pemon Indians. The older Indian appears quite distinguished, he has a peaceful, reassuring presence --- even majestic. One can tell by his demeanor that he is le hombre de la selva. We are asked to leave our cameras for a more difficult journey. We begin to follow a thick rope up the stream in places where the water is deep and the footing is treacherous.
At first, its easy going, the water is only 2-4 feet deep and not moving rapidly. Then we enter a deep pool, most people use the rope to propel themselves across but I swim freely. El agua es muy frio but I acclimate quickly. The Pemon motions us onward towards a high, narrow chasm in the rocks -- the Cueva da Kavac. The noise becomes deafening and the water velocity increases exponentially. You must use the rope to pull yourself against the fast moving current. As we enter the chasm it becomes apparent that you will need to pull on the rope against the current with all of your might, if you are going to make the destination --- whatever that is! The chasm becomes dark and misty and the water velocity increases. Finally, after you think you can take no more, you spot the end of the rope — attached to an iron pin in an impossibly slippery rock that you have to climb if you are ever going to be able to rest! Not only do you have to climb it but you have to fight the current at the same time. I pull myself up this rock carefully and then help others. The Pemon, of course, has long before accomplished this feat! I sit on the rocks and try to stare at the falls but the mist is very obscuring and it doesn't help that it is dark inside. I barely spot a stretch of blue sky. We remain for perhaps 5 minutes, shivering from the cold water — now it is time to reverse the process. I grab the rope to climb down the slippery rocks and jump in. This time I barely use the rope, letting the current carry me downstream rapidly. Following Allejandro and the Pemon, we cross yet another waterfall -- Salto Tabanarampa, then begin our walk out of the selva. During this episode, I was impressed by how well Katey has done through the somewhat terrifying experience of pulling oneself through the Cueva de Kavac. It seemed that the current was trying to tear you away from the rope and bash you into the side of the canyon. So, I was pleased she made it fine! I believe that many teenagers would have given up and begun to cry for their dad or mom, but not Katey!
Crossing the savannah, we reach the village and prepare for lunch. The plates are rectangular wooden blocks, an inch thick. First, we have a salad, then the Pemon brings plates of hot grilled chicken, which has an excellent flavor. Katey said that this was the best chicken she had ever had — I asked that this statement be translated for the Pemon and they swelled visibly! For desert, we had a plump, tasty peeled orange. Everyone walked around the village for a while, I bought a blowgun for 1,200 bolivars. At about 3:00 we boarded the DC-3 and flew back to Canaima. I sat in the 3rd seat of the cockpit.
Jay Smith, Atlanta, GA, July, 1996
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