Suddenly, several canoes [curiaras] are spotted, tied to trees inhabiting this surreal, watery selva. The canoes are long and sleek, each probably constructed from a single log. Each canoe can hold about one dozen people. A powerful 48 HP outboard engine hangs off the back of each boat. There is no question that these things have one purpose — speed — not creature comfort — later, we are to find out why. We pull out into the dark swamp slowly and quickly find the Rio Carrao, then, the engine throttles are maxed out. The curiaras leap forward, a 5 foot spray lifts from the bow, wetting everyone inside, especially on turns. The word dry does not apply, you are either wet, or considerably wetter than you were a minute ago. And you are cold, now I see why Jessica has brought the sweater and parka along! Occasionally, we approach a rapids, and then learn that our driver is a daredevil! He will not let any boat in front of him, his motto is "Last to leave, first to arrive." And, he proves himself eminently capable of this task every time we get out of the curiaras and start again. He just does not intend to be last — ever! He is dark- skinned and sits on the side of the curiara, impassive, a definable expression never appears on his face. He appears of Indonesian extraction, to me, but this can't be so.
When you hit a rapids, huge waves of agua muy frio are thrown over the gunwales of the canoe — thus you and your gear are drenched over and over again. Cameras must be kept in plastic bags. We run flat out for about an hour and Jessica is trying to tell us over the roar of the powerful engine that huge rapids are ahead -- what are we supposed to do, now? We pull in to shore, exit the canoes, and wait. Soon, out of the mists a green mechanical beast appears, a John Deere tractor! This is about as likely as seeing an elephant. What is a tractor doing dozens of miles from nowhere. We then see the cars being pulled by the tractor. So now it is apparent that we will let the curiara drivers work their way through the rapids sans passengers, while we ride a tractor! How odd! All this time we have proceeded in dim light, but as we motor our way over the sabana, aided by John Deere, the sun begins to rise and illuminate the lower parts of the tepuis -- the upper portions are still shrouded in clouds. Still you can see little on the river because of fog and low clouds. We re-board the curiaras, and blast up the river again for an indeterminable time.
Finally, near 9:00 a.m., our stoical driver turns left and we pull into The Orchid Lodge, a great institution -- especially if you would like breakfast after a freezing and wet boat ride. The lodge consists of low buildings, hammocks, el bano, a deer, and a few screaming birds. Breakfast consists of day-old ham and cheese sandwiches, but more importantly, mucho cafe con leche. But under these conditions what could one expect. I find the table where Katey is seated, recognize a couple of people, and say, "What happened, you guys didn't get the ham and omelettes?" This produces considerable moans and laughs, even on this damp and cold morning! We begin again, and soon cut right into a much narrower channel [Canon de Churun] with many large rocks and lots of rapids. Again, our driver leaves absolutely last, but much to his credit, he blasts past all of the early birds until he is in the lead again. We begin to cheer when he passes another boat, this is fun! Now, the giant tepuis become ever more visible, their surrealistic tops with weird shapes unfold slowly from their protectors, the fluffy clouds. The scenery is just unbelievable! As the steam narrows, we have less maneuvering room, our driver bursts past huge boulders by inches. He seemingly makes the boat float over the shallow stream, sometimes lifting the engine to clear the propeller over the rocks. I wonder how he can accomplish this, he must have driven this steam dozens, hundreds of times to obtain this kind of knowledge. Finally, we see that the stream becomes very shallow and we spot a longhouse with a fire. We exit here and discard all goods that are not absolutely necessary for the ascent to AF.
No problema, si, senor? Not at all, provided you can walk on rocks, roots, and fallen trees, avoid the inch long ants, and not slow down. You can not image this "path." One never sees soil, only the inanimate impediments to progress. Initially, the path is fairly level, then it begins to climb crazily up the mountain. We pass a huge tree split asunder. What caused this, lightening, an unknown beast of the jungle, desperate for fodder, who knows? Regardless, the foot-long ants abound the fallen tree, waiting for one of our group to fall and be devoured. We begin to hear a huge roar, even feel some wind, the path becomes nearly vertical and you must grip tree trunks and whatever is available to pull yourself up the side of the mountain. ALL OF A SUDDEN, you look up 3,000 feet, you see a small patch of blue sky, and a magnificent cascade of water falling the entire distance. The water falls so far that it turns into cloudy mists, like ice cream balls, slowly rotating and descending the side of the Auyan tepuis. Es muy bonita! Es beyond description! God, what a beautiful sight — never in your life. Words are inadequate, and so on. And, Katey has made the hike in fine shape!
We had arrived at AF some six hours after leaving Canaima Lodge, but by air it was only 15-20 minutes in an ancient DC-3, which could make 100-130 MPH! At the secondary base, there was a pool of agua muy frio, and many people wanted to cool down after the long hike. But, if we had just stepped off the curiarias, no one would have gone in! Interesting! So, we stripped to our bathing suits and entered the frigid waters. The guides made sure we did not venture beyond about 20 feet from the shore of the pool because the water was so rapid. So, we cooled down, took thousands of pictures and muy video, and marveled at the height of the falls. We were fortunate because the falls were completely clear, all the way to the top. Of course, we could have been very unlucky, because we were there in the rainy season when clouds could have obscured most of the view. If you go in the dry season — no clouds, little water — if you go during rainy season — possible clouds, mucho water. There is no completely ideal season to view AF. We remained perhaps an hour, time has no meaning in a place such as this, you never even consider a watch. After the swim I joked with Jessica about continuing on to the top of AF! She said that it can be done, but that it was very dangerous.
Reluctantly, our group began the descent over the difficult "path" back to the curiarias. On the way back, I bantered with an exchange student and her tutor from Caracas. The exchange student had taken a course in French but wanted to learn Spanish, so I suppose this was why she had come to Venezuela. The three of us spoke back and forth in mixed English, Spanish, and French all the way back, so that made the hiking much more pleasant! We kept making up phrases, such as "Bonjour, Senora!" Or "Buenos Dias, Madame." This would have confused anyone!
Finally, sometime before the longhouse came into view, we could smell the scent of roasting meat. We were famished and increased our pace! I fantasied about roast pig and thick and juicy porterhouse steaks. Reaching the cleared area, however, I noted that the drivers were roasting dozens of chickens on long poles. The poles were stuck in the ground at 45 degree angles to place the meat over the fire. Each pole had at least a half-dozen birds on it! This had to be the best meal on earth, considering what we had been through so far today. [author's note — and we didn't yet realize what was to come!] The boatmen stripped the birds from the poles and tossed them on a rickety table of uneven, fat soaked, boards — this table would have fallen over at the slightest push but it served its purpose! The meat had been cut into halves, legs, and breasts. The amount of chicken consumed was phenomenal -- everyone was ravenous! I had four pieces myself and Katey thinks that she ate two entire chickens!
At 1:00 we boarded our curiarias to return to the lodge, or so we thought. At this point we did not know that the most terrifying and exciting event of the day was hours ahead! Our driver, as usual was last to depart, but he had a faster engine, more courage, less fear, was a better qualified driver, and he had a hell of a lot more fun, I think, but you would never realize it from his expression! Regardless, we had now gotten into the mood for cheering whenever we saw a boat ahead. We tried to figure what his strategy would be for passing that next boat. Usually he would pull behind it slowly, then stay near the middle of its wake. When a turn in the rio or rapids was signed, he would make his move, usually cutting closer to the offending boulder or to the shallows than the other driver. We missed boulders by inches and seemed to fly over the shallows where other drivers feared to go! And we applauded after each conquest! How you can be freezing cold, drenched, holding on for dear life, and yet having so much fun is a mystery!
During the long ride back to Canaima, it began raining, low clouds set in, and it became very cold because we were soaked and exposed to so much wind. I shivered badly, we stopped at The Orchid Lodge for hot chocolate. I felt better after the warm drink, but after about 15 minutes, we were back on the rio, to face the wind and the spray again — in other words — to become re- frozen! We blasted over the rio at maximum speed through the rain. Now Jessica, as we rode the tractor, revealed that we would visit another waterfall, I was a little dismayed, I just wanted to get back for a hot shower! I mean good grief, we had just visited the highest waterfall in the world, couldn't we skip the puny one she must have been considering? Maybe she just wanted us to suffer more. Maybe we had ruined her day and she was trying to get back at us. Katey remarked that she never wanted to see another waterfall in her life! As we rode the cars pulled by the John Deere, Jessica continued "Not only are you going to see this waterfall, you are going behind it. This will be a little terrifying, but we will all be holding hands. Don't look at the water. Look only at the path and the person in front of you. You don't have to go but if you do this will one of the most exhilarating experiences of your life." Well, Katey was going to have to do this, completely on her own because she was in another group! I hoped that her tour leader was not scaring her!
The latter observation was the understatement of the century, as we were to learn shortly. We re-boarded our curiaras and continued down river towards the Salto El Sapo [Frog]. Shortly, we began to hear a great roar and the entire river which was hundreds of yards wide completely disappeared in a huge mist. We beached the curiarias, and climbed out. Jessica communicated that we had to leave everything behind, "You are going to get wet." How could we get any wetter than wet -- not to mention freezing wet? She said, "Trust me you will get wetter, trust me, you will make it through, hold hands tightly, don't look at the water over your head." We began the walk to the falls, through a stagnant stream 1-2 feet deep. Every now and then, we would encounter a deeper hole and someone would nearly disappear! Jessica was dismayed and kept saying she had warned us, cuidado! Then, the path descended over large rocks until it reached a point just below the top of the falls. It meandered closer and closer to the edge of the crescendo and the brown, watery, abyss, finally flattening a bit.
Jessica asked us to remove everything not essential, glasses, cameras, contact lens. Only wear a bathing suit and hiking boots. Final instructions were repeated: "You don't have to go if you are scared. Hold hands tightly. Stay as close as possible to the inside wall. Don't look at the water just over your head. Above all do not let yourself fall towards the wall of water." Jessica led, the tutor was next, then me, then the rest of our small group. We began to pass under the falls, it was dark and slippery, on one side was the solid rock supporting the horizontal river, on the other side -- 2 to 3 feet away -- was a torrent of agua moving nearly vertically down at who knows what speed. Certainly, FAST! Regardless, I could not help but stare at the wall of water, mesmerized at the raging cascade, ready to pull you over the side into the abyss perhaps a hundred feet below and then dash you against the rocks. The inside wall was your salvation, you wanted to attach yourself to it, you wanted to become a part of it. You wanted the world's most powerful glue. As we continued further, Jessica stopped, someone was yelling for help behind me -- what could have gone wrong? Jessica reversed direction to help, she let go of the tutor's hand, while I still held the other. Jessica passed directly in front of me, I could see her being pulled relentlessly and hopelessly into the wall of fast-moving water. I tried to hug the inside wall even closer to help — then I lost my balance and footing on the slick path of rocks and fell backwards. The next thing that I realized was that my head had bounced off a rock. I clearly had the impression that my head was like a basketball bouncing on a floor. My shoulders then stuck a protruding rock under my feet. And, finally, I lay still, stunned. As I recovered, I felt a big lump on my head, which began to ache. Jessica, Anne, and the tutor looked me over but I recovered and told them I was going on.
We continued ahead, Jessica stopped, then said "The worst is yet to come, hold hands very tightly, keep moving, don't stop, don't panic." Ahead, we could see that the "path" was covered with a wall of falling water. In fact, you could not even see the path. It was a little terrifying. With Jessica leading, we started reluctantly. Water poured from above directly on our heads and our shoulders. You could not even see a foot ahead, you were being pounded by gallons and gallons of agua frio. You held hands tightly and moved forward blindly. This continued for perhaps 50 feet, then we reached a relatively free area. But the falling water did not let up. We entered yet a worse section. The intensity of the falling water was so great that it seemed to want to squeeze you into the path — you were going to become another rock — were the rocks on the path only petrified tourists, pounded by millions of gallons of El Sapo agua?
At last, we were out of the falling water, the path climbed, and reached the other side of the river. There on the river bank, we gathered our thoughts and stared in disbelief at the river we had just passed under. It seemed impossible to have walked under this thunderous, raging waterfall — an entire river — and not a small river, at that. We found that Katey had made it across in the next group -- bravo! I don't think that most teenage boys would have done it! After resting 10 minutes, Jessica signaled that it was time to go. "The return will be much easier," she said. We were to try something a little different now. Several groups that had made it across would all try the return together. A long line of people joined hands in front of me. I was in the lead and was trying to catch the other line, but I couldn't move fast enough to catch them since I was holding hands with my group. I started towards the wall of water, there was some yelling, and Jessica came over, and grabbed my hand to take the lead! After taking the beating yet again, we exited the side we began from. I was so wet that I didn't even put on my t-shirt, just keeping my bathing suit only. We started back toward the curiaras, and again, someone fell in a hole! Jessica screamed that this was a "disaster." She checked my head a couple of times — I was bleeding but felt O.K.
Now, we re-boarded our familiar boats and sped back to the swamp. This time, though we could see where we had departed from eons ago. As we drove through the swamp towards Canaima Lodge, our path skirted the river. Any mistakes and the vehicles and their passengers would have been swept away — and we didn't even realize that in the morning darkness -- how fortunate!
At 6:30, we arrived at the Lodge, over 13 hours after we had left that morning. It had been a day to remember for a lifetime! No problema sleeping tonight!
Sunday, 7 July, 1996
Leaving Canaima was difficult, we had been through so many exciting experiences there, that you just wanted to remain and drink it all in before having to depart. But we had a noon flight to Caracas, so there was no choice. There was enough time, however, for a flyover of Angel Falls. It seemed incredible that we were to fly to it in only 15-20 minutes, but that it took 5+ hours to reach it yesterday! I was the last to board the Servivensa DC-3 and was able to sit again in the 3rd seat of the cockpit. Before taking off, I studied the cockpit carefully. The plane had missing instrument panels, missing covers, shredded sound proofing. Did the Wright Bros fly this thing? This plane had no modern instruments like the DC-3 we flew from Santa Eleana to Canaima. It had one purpose: to go back and forth to AF, so it did not need these improvements. We flew at a maximum altitude of about 3,000 feet, just below the bottoms of the clouds. These clouds hovered below the tops of the tepuis. So the last thing the pilots wanted to do was to enter the clouds! We wove past two or three tepuis, then the pilot made a sharp right, and pointed out AF to me. It was a magical site. The entire falls was visible, all 3,000 feet of it. Yet to either side of the falls, it was cloudy! So, AF was creating its own mini weather pattern, just for the touristas! Neat! AF is so beautiful, that you wanted to stop the plane and stare for a few minutes, but of course, you can't — so your view changes constantly. The pilots flew a circle in front of the falls twice so everyone could get a good view on both sides of the plane. Then we skirted the tepuis back to the Canaima airport and made a perfect landing!
I asked Katey to take my picture in front of the DC-3 after landing, while she was doing this, the "train" left and we had to walk all the way back to the Lodge, they did not stop "the train" at the terminal! We arrived at the lodge, stayed only about 10 minutes, then were asked to walk back to the terminal, which we had just walked from! I was afraid that this trip to the terminal was to be in vain, surely the plane would be hours late — how could we eat, if the plane was hours late — they don't accept credit cards or money in the Canaima Lodge dining area! Miraculously, at 11:30, an Avensa 727 flies over the airport — note that I said 727, not DC-3! Then, it disappears. Everyone looks skyward, listens for roars of jet engines. No noise, no plane is visible. We are disheartened. Then, suddenly, a roaring noise is heard and the 727 lands! Joy in the terminal!
Everyone boarded quickly, wet boots, wet t-shirts, wet bathing suits, etc, plus souvenirs. Flying north, we gained altitude quickly, the pilots were anxious to escape the tepuis. We passed over oxbow rivers, meandering their way through the green Venezuelan countryside. The colors of the river water changed from brown to green, even in the same channel. Sometimes the water was brown in the middle of the channel and pale green on the sides. So, I figured algae must growing in the slower currents. Finally, we were out of the flat sabana and began to see low mountains and the sea. We had arrived at the northern coast of Venezuela. We made a long turn to the left, passed over the populated coast, and our landing gear descended, just as our plane did. The shades of green seemed to vary infinitely. At 12:45 p.m., we touched down in Caracas! At this point however, there is a problem with this narrative. We had actually not landed in Caracas, as stated! We had really landed far east of Caracas in Carupano! A little after 1:00, we took off and flew westward towards Caracas — or so we hoped! Again, we landed at an unknown spot — this time called Porlamar, another coastal city, in fact a resort. Here, I could see few buildings, only sand dunes. At ~2:00 we took off again, hopefully for Caracas! Perhaps we would land in Barcelona, again, after all we were familiar with this place! The problem was, I was growing ever more hungry! The flight attendants made announcements en Espanol, possibly in English, at one point I thought they were warning against pickpockets! Just after taking off from Porlamar, the hombre behind me received a call on his cellular telephone! A few minutes later, I decided to visit el bano, There, a sign was displayed in English, "Please do not put glass or metal objects into the toilet." Accordingly, the toilet was completely full of paper and overflowing, so people had taken the sign quite literally!
About 2:40, a coastal city comes into view, but what city? Apparently, Caracas, which means food! Joy in Venezuela!
Post deplaning, we grab our luggage and find the EcoVoyager driver to take us to the Caracas Hilton. Unfortunately, the traffic is extremely heavy following the 5th of July, Venezuelan Independence Day. I speak to Arturo on the cell phone and inform him that we have had nothing to eat since 7:30 a.m. He volunteers to pay our lunch and then to take us to dinner at 7:30 p.m. We don't arrive at the Hilton until 4:00 because of the horrendous traffic -- the driver tries several detours to evade it. Then we head to a hearty lunch of roast beef and soup. Katey devours all the bread in the restaurant, while waiting for her sopa de tomato!
Later, while waiting for Arturo, our host, I reflect that it is hard to believe that we started in this same place, a week ago, nearly the same rooms, in fact, traversed incredibly rough terrain to arrive at Chivaton and the Gran Sabana. The difference between Chivaton and the Caracas Hilton is striking in the extreme. Its hard to believe that they are on the same planet. Which is better? For comfort, the answer is obvious. But for excitement and natural scenery, the answer is also obvious. So, if people vote with their money and their dollars [Bolivars] then I suppose they are voting for comfort over excitement. There are a few of us who vote the other way, however, including myself. Sure, it is nice to have AC and agua caliente. But the remote terrain, the friendly people, and the isolation make Chivaton infinitely more interesting as compared to the Hilton. So, for sheer joy, Chivaton wins, for an artificial environment, the Hilton wins. In this world, I conclude happily, there is room for both! And thankfully, there are a few Chivaton's around for those of us who are adventurous and who seek the remote areas of this beautiful, diverse, and wondrous planet.
At 7:40 p.m. Arturo arrives to take us to dinner. He is a handsome man with sharp Latin features. He has taken English lessons and studied business administration in Boston. I reckon that because EcoVoyager was founded in Boston, that this is how Arturo connected with them. Arturo takes us to a Spanish restaurant, "Escamilla de Diablo." They specialize in beef and sausage, served with different sauces. We all decide to have beef tenderloin and a mixed salad. The latter comes with hearts of palm and artichokes. We order a bottle of Chilean vino roja, and we give Katey her first glass of wine. This brings my thoughts back to what GZ said earlier: there is no drinking age in Venezuela — any kid can purchase alcoholic beverages. He said that by this approach, they remove the mystery of drinking, and that they have few teenage drinking problems in his country. So they do not hide the forbidden fruit, they display it, they let kids partake of it little by little. So they remove the enigma, the temptation, and the challenge. Kids don't have to be secretive to sample the forbidden fruit in Venezuela like they do in the US. So how can our society be so naive as to miss this fundamental point? Its a good question. The beef tenderloin, the salad, the yucca, and the wine are all excellent — wish we had this restaurant in Atlanta!
As the trip nears its end, my mind occasionally drifts back to CDC and statistics. What was I working on before I left for Venezuela? But I'm not quite ready yet to concede my mind to civilization. I had rather think of the Pemon Indians, impassive, proud, and regal, moving effortlessly through the selva and the sabana. They are exquisitely equipped to survive in their environment. I think of returning to Venezuela, maybe to live with the Pemon for a week, or a month. I consider the vast cultural differences between their world, isolated, with a few families, and ours, highly interconnected, with millions of linking "neurons." Then I have an interesting thought, suppose the modern technology of the Internet could connect their world and ours. Would this be desirable? The Pemon have a very different language from ours, theirs is supposed to be extremely difficult to learn. So perhaps the difficulty is an advantage, else, their culture might be assimilated, losing their individuality forever. I conclude that it is better to partially separate their culture and thereby preserve its most important qualities. Venezuela has done an outstanding job of this, much better than we in the US have done, for certain. In Venezuela, the natives have not been moved to desolate venues with no means of support. Instead, they serve a very useful and rewarding role and are apparently treated well.
In the rainy season on the sabana, stars are difficult to observe. Nights are cloudy, occasionally, though, a few stars are visible. At Chivaton, I gazed at several stars and considered that perhaps the vast cultural differences we see here on earth now could truly be puny as compared to those out there. Perhaps in the future our successors may observe some of these differences and consider those we see today as trivial. And, I wonder, will the Pemon, the Yanomami, the Cherokee, and the Aboriginal cultures survive to such a distant time, not yet realized?
July 8, 1996
At 6:00 a.m. 8 July, 1996, we depart the Caracas Hilton, fight the early morning traffic through the expressway tunnels and arrive at the airport at about 7:00 a.m. for an 8:30 a.m. flight to Miami on American Airlines. After paying the 8,000 Bolivars tax per person, checking luggage, undergoing several inspections for passports, and going through two security gates, we reach the plane at 8:10. The airbus 300 lifts off promptly at 8:30 and we pass over the mountainous city of Caracas. Then we turn seaward towards Florida and the USA.
But we leave wonderful people and a beautiful country behind, hopefully not forever!
Completed July 12, 1996
Jay Smith, Atlanta, GA, July, 1996