Venezuela part 1 - Bites, Boats and Border patrols
Sep 30, 2005
As we prepared to leave the bright lights and awesome architecture of Manhattan behind, we considered it a judicious move to briefly phone the airline and confirm our flights to Caracas. As it turned out, this proved to be both a stressfull and fortuitous conversation, as we were informed that we had not been confirmed seats on either of our two flights. A lengthy conversation ensued as Dunc smarmed, conversed and navigated the airline check in system resulting in us not only being sorted on our Caracas flights, but on all our subsequent flights up until New Zealand.
We had previously decided that spending the night at JFK airport was the way do go due to the horrendusly early time we were flying out the following morning so as soon as the phone went down, we grabbed our bags and headed to the subway. The journey did not go smoothly.
First mishap to befall us happened when, at the last minute, Dunc realised we were about to miss our airport subway stop and in the subsequent dash off the train, Vickies bag became ensnared in the vice like grip of the sliding doors, catapaulting her onto the platform in a flurry of flailing limbs and cursing. With the prospect of the train driving off with her bag in the doors looming, Dunc promptly wedged himself between them and managed to force them open just enough to free it before the train departed. As Vickie picked herself off and surveyed her damaged limbs, she lightheartedly commented that "We've had two bad things happen now, we're probably due another one to make three"
Safely ensconsed at JFK airport, we partook of some dinner and book shopping, before entering into something of a debate with Vickie wanting a fleece blanket for the night ahead and Dunc extremely reluctant to part with $17 for it. Within 30mins, Vickie was wrapped up nice and cozy in her brand new green fleece blanket, and Dunc was sulking over a diet coke.
We managed to find the only 24 hour location in the whole of the airport, an unassuming little baguette shop, and promptly spent the next 4 hours nursing a cup of tea and a diet coke, in the belief that we really should be paying customers if we were going to be spending the next few hours attempting to sleep on their sofas.
Dawn eventually broke, and we shuffled our tired limbs over to the check in area and took our place first in the queue. At this juncture, we couldn't help but notice a very sickly looking hispanic chap meandering around the area, pausing only to empty his stomach contents into the nearest toilet, bin or any other recepticle within reach. The realisation soon dawned on us that this man was almost certainly going to be on the same flight as us. Our sleep deprived brains then began to conjure up any number of nasty questions. "What ailment does this fellow have exactly?", "Can you catch it via airplane air conditioning?" and more importantly "Why is this bloke persisting in filling up the bins instead of walking 5 yards to the toilet?". Soon enough, we boarded the flight and were relieved to find that we weren't uncomfortably close to "Chundering Jack" as he was now unaffectionately monikored.
As our flight was late arriving in San Juan, we had to dash crazily across the terminal for our connecting flight to Caracas, making it in the nick of time and gasping to ourselves as we took our seats. As it turned out, we needn't have bothered as we were informed on the in flight tannoy by the captain that some helpful construction worker had dumped a lorry load of boulders at the end of the only runway in San Juan, then gone home for the day. Two hours passed before we could leave, with the captain regularly uttering such helpful nuggets of information as "We've got no idea what size the rocks are", "We can't get an answer on when they'll be moved" and "Sorry folks, we've got no idea whats going on with these damn rocks". We were still marvelling at the inefficiency of carribean transport as the plane eventually took to the skies
We were not really in the best condition to be arriving at the chaos that is Caracas airport, frayed as we were by our journey. Sure enough, no sooner had we cleared customs, got our bags and arrived groundside than we were accosted by an enthusiastic glass-eyed gentlemen, who scattergunned some rapid Spanish at us while repeatedly pointing at the badge on his arm. It soon dawned on us that this chap wasn't official at all, but was taking us to see a friend of his who could "change some money" for us. We decided discretion was the better part of valour, and snuck off to the taxi rank while he wasn't looking.
Dunc had been practising exactly how to order a taxi to where we wanted to go for most of the flight, and confidently strode into the rank before flagging down the nearest official cab and boldly asking how much it would cost. The driver cocked his head quizzically, like a curious dog, before firing back some Spanish of such rapidity, that Dunc immediately spun around, desperately looking for Vickie to step in and interpret, which she duely did.
As the taxi wound its way through the madcap streets towards our destination, the driver merrily chatted away with Vickie on such conversational gems as "Can you salsa?", "Where did you learn Spanish?" and "Do you need a taxi to take you back to the airport?". He then whacked a salsa cd in the player, before winding the volume up and giving us an auditory feast of traditional Venezuelan musak.
During the journey, we began to pass a number of sprawling "Barrios" or "Ghettos", which streched up the hillsides like some kind of climbing plant. The driver kindly informed us that we really didn't want to be going into those parts of town as it was highly unsafe. To be honest, we didn't need the advice as the stark poverty and hardship in those rundown parts of town would knock almost anything the western world could offer into a cocked hat. We sat, staring in awed silence for the rest of the journey at the new world we had entered.
We eventually pulled up in the insane urban madness that is Venezuela's premier city, Caracas, and checked into our hotel. We decided to do a touch of exploration, but tiredness soon overcame us and our meandering only got us as far as a McDonalds. Unconcerned and unrepentent at our complete cultural capitulation, we settled in for a McMeal, before returning to the hotel to crash.
18 hours later, we awoke to the bright sun beating down on the bustling Caracas streets, and hit the town with much greater gusto. We headed for a local market and shopping centre in search of a couple of items of clothing for Vickie, and the baseball caps that we had been singularly foiled in our attempts to purchase in New York. During the afternoon, we began to notice some interesting quirks about the place. Firstly everyone speaks in an incredibly rapid fashion, even for Latin America. Secondly, Venezuelan women seem to take an unnatural interest in their personal apperance and are always impeccibly dressed and covered in make-up. Beauty saloons adorn every street corner and are always packed to the rafters. Apparently Venezuela is the comestic surgery capital of the world. We began to idly wonder exactly what all these women did for a living, but hunger soon pushed such thoughts from our mind as we passed a cafe and settled down for some lunch and people watching.
Later that evening, we met up with the rest of our tour party. Or at least, most of it, as one of our party had been having a complete travel nightmare with bags being lost, planes being re-directed and stuff generally going horribly wrong. Our party consisted of Sonia, a bubbly, slightly insane but very entertaining Durham lass, Roisin, a quiet, thoughtful and highly flirtatious Dubliner, Alison, a short, feisty Mackem lass and Luis, our vertically challanged but very articulate and friendly tour leader. Dunc casually remarked on his being the only man in the tour party apart from the leader, and that he'd probably end up with plenty of other peoples meals to finish off.
We were briefed over dinner on some of the essentialls of the trip, and one piece of advice particually piqued Dunc and Vickie's attention. As it turns out, Latin American sewage systems are not designed to cope with paper being flushed down them, as it has a nasty tendancy to block them up. We furtively glanced at each other... sure enough, we had inadvertidly given our toliet some digestion trouble, and any further attempts to flush would as likely lead to some severe flooding, covering our hotel room in all sorts of nastiness. We concluded that it was best not to mention this, and would keep our heads down as we checked out the following morning.
After the dinner briefing, we got our first taste of life as a gringo in Caracas, as our waiters had attempted to add a significant amount to our bill, hopefully without us noticing. It took several minutes and some classicially latin protestations from our tour leader to clear the situation up. Consider us forewarned.
Canaima National park
An early start beckoned us on the following morning, with the decidedly unappealling prospect of a 9 hour coach ride ahead to Ciudad Bolivar, our jumping off point for the Angel falls adventure. However, any doubts we had soon subsided as we stepped onto possibly the most luxurious coach either of us had ever been on. Very comfy reclining seats, foot rests, movies and air con. "Sorted" we both thought in unison.
During the journey, we busied ourselves by studying and attempting to decipher the local paper. We managed to ascertain that the Venezuelan Premier, one Hugo Chavez, had been providing quite the spectacle at a recent UN meeting in New York, and had been spending most of his time flicking political bogies at George "Dubya" Bush. We found his ability to effortlessly wind up the American Bible belt highly amusing, and giggled our way to our destination.
After arriving at the bus terminal, it was time to jump in a taxi to take us to our hotel. It soon became clear to us that there doesn't appear to be any sort of rules of the road in Venezuela, and right of way seems to be dictated by a combination of whomever is moving fastest and feeling bravest. With our eyes nailed shut for the entire journey, we were more than a touch relieved to arrive at our hotel in one piece.
After dinner, it was early to bed and early to rise as we had to catch an early flight from the airport into Canaima National Park, as the only access to the park is by light aircraft. Vickie was most apprehensive about travelling in an plane only slightly larger than the mosquitos that had been taking chunks out of her since our arrival This sense of nervousness wasn't eased by the fact that, during our flight, several bits of the cabin began to fall off, before being replaced by a grinning pilot once he'd fished them out of his lap.
Decanting at Canaima airport which, to be frank, was a thatch roofed hut with a driveway beside it, we made our way to our lodge before unloading our large bags and packing as much stuff as we could muster into our day packs to be used during our camp out at Angel Falls.
Wandering through the village of Canaima towards our boat, we stumbled across the stunning Canaima lagoon beach. Vickie swiftly fell in love with this picture postcard beach, with its sugar white sand and statuesque palm trees. Canaima had set a high standard for future beaches in our travels to follow.
To get to our camp required a 4 hour upstream boat ride so with that in mind, we boarded our motorised canoe. An impressive vessel only slightly larger than a kit kat chunky yet still able to hold 12 people plus bags for the bumpy journey ahead. During the ride, our driver managed to negotiate us through some intimidating rapids with all the calm nonchalance of someone on his morning commute to work, with us whooping and cheering all the way there. The trip was fairly hard on the boat though, and we had to stop twice. The first time was due to us running aground on some rocks, which prompted our guide to jump into the shoulder deep water to help manouver the boat through. At this moment, it suddenly dawned on Dunc that he was the only male left in the boat, and unless it could be freed soon, he would probably have to join the guide in the river. Fortunately, it was freed in the nick of time to cheers from the party, and we were on our way once more.
The next forced stop was slightly more surreal, as the driver decided the propeller wasn't suitable for the stretch of water ahead, and promptly pulled the boat to the bank before cooly removing the propeller and clubbing it with a handy rock he'd just found, much to the bemusement of everyone on board. Mechanical engineering classes over, he re-attached the "fixed" propeller and we continued negotiating our way upstream. As we neared Angel falls, we began to travel alongside the Ayuan Tepuy (Tepuy literally meaning "Flat top mountain") and were treated to some spectacular scenery. We really could get a sense of what Conan Doyle was talking about in his book "The lost world".
We pulled up to camp directly opposite Angel falls and disembarked on slightly rubbery legs. However, the view was nothing short of mind blowing, as we could see the enormous falls towering above 1km towards the sky. We took some time to drink in this view while our hammocks were being set up and dinner was being prepared.
All too soon, night decended, and the bugs came out. At this point, can we just head into a literary side subject for a brief moment. Whether you are talking about the Mosquitos in Canaima, the large ugly black biting flies in the Orinoco Delta or the "Jejenes" - a particularly bothersome and persistant biting gnat from the Gran Sabana affectionally known locally as "The plague" - Venezuelan biting insects have a ferocity quite unlike anything we'd seen before. For the sake of brevity, we decided to group all these monsters into one category. LABs. LABs standing for Little Annoying Bastards. We had genuinely believed that, armed with our array of repellants, sprays, tablets and creams, that we would be able to fend these little fiends off, but it was not to be. It was open warfare. Humans chemicals against bugs natural resistance, and we got our butts handed to us comprehensively.
The following morning, we were up at the crack of dawn as it was time to trek up to get up close and personal with the falls. Unfortunately this neccessitated several hours of slipping, scrambling and swearing our way up the side of a mountain to reach our goal. Dunc in particular found this irritating, and let out an impressive barrage of obsenities just prior to our first checkpoint when he stumbled on a tree root and nearly pitched off the side of the trail into the Jungle.
Nontheless, the hard work was definitely worth it as we were greeted with an absolutely incredible view of the falls and their mighty progress through the Tepuy. Before too long, it was time to continue up to our second viewpoint, 800m up the side of the Tepuy. This neccessitated yet more scrambling, but our resolve was hardened when we were met by a morbidly obese American gentlemen coming the other way, sweating profusely and joking to us that if we didn't hurry up, they'd turn the taps off on the falls.
Getting to the second viewpoint though, was a most rewarding experience as the view from here dwarfed the magnificience of our previous stop. We looked out upon a true lost world and could do nothing but stare, drink in the scenery and whisper to each other about how simply breathtaking it all was. We wanted to stay there all day, but it was time to scramble down partway for a swim in a pool at the falls. All we could say was that we'd reached possibly the most beautiful swimming spot in the world as we were framed by the falls on one side, and the view over Canaima on the other..... we couldn't get enough of the place
Another trek back down the hill, and we were back onto the boat for the return to our lodge. An overnight thunderstorm had swollen the river considerably, allowing us to really get the hammer down and traverse the river at twice the speed we had managed coming upstream. Despite this white knuckle ride, it was clear that exhaustion was catching us up as Vickie somehow managed to doze off for a few minutes, an act which impressed Dunc immensly.
On the way back, we stopped at a couple more waterfalls, and got to walk underneath one of them. The walk was more than a little treacharous, and the ferocity of the falls nearly battered us into the water on more than one occasion. We decided against the last waterfall as we were shattered and so made our way back to the lodge, before collapsing into bed in bits.
It was time to catch our plane over to the Brazilan border town of Santa Elena the following morning but, needless to say, the flight was delayed. We busied ourselves at a local souvenier shop and were more than a little surprised to find they had a number of semi-tame monkeys roaming free in the trees nearby. Vickie immediately fell in love with one cheeky chap and announced, after feeding it watermelon, that we really wanted one as a pet. Dunc decided to remain silent on the matter.
Eventually, we boarded our flight to Santa Elena, which was to be the jump off point for our Gran Sabana adventure. Vickies already fragile flying mood was further blackened by a member of our party accidentally pointing out the wreckage of another plane at the bottom of the runway just as we flew over it. Vickie blanched at the sight and remained ashen-faced for the remainder of the journey.
Fortunately, Dunc neglected to mention to her the fact that the fuel guage was below zero for the bulk of the trip, and at several points dropped low enough to disappear from view altogether. He also wisely kept silent on the fact that the choppiness of the flight could be at least in part attributed to the pilot regularly dozing off before waking with a start and realising where he was before contiuning to fly the plane.
Somehow, we landed safely and were on our way once more, but not before being stopped by one of the multitude of gun-toting Venezuelan border patrols that operate in this part of the country, demanding to see our bags and passports. Duly intimidated, we meekly complied and were allowed to continue on our way.
Santa Elena was a very pleasant little town on the border of Brazil that had a real sense of relaxation hanging over it. If you likened cities to physical movement, then wheras Caracas would be all arm waving and wide eyed shouting, Santa Elena would be much more of a cheeky smile, a shrug of the shoulders and a "Meh" sound.
Our domcile for this part of our trip was the charming Cabanas Friedenau, run by Richard, a mountainous man of Germainic decent. The whole place did indeed have a very un Latino feel of efficiency about it, and everything appeared to run with a degree of teutonic smoothness. Our first excursion was to be across the border into Brazil for a spot of browsing in a local market. This would have been a very pleasant experience but for the fact that the border police appeared to take something of a dislike for Dunc and, unsatisfied with his passport, spent a good 15 mins vigerously questioning him and demanding more Id. Dunc responded the only way he knew how.... multiple shoulder shrugs and repeatedly declaring "No entiendo......" (I don't understand). Eventually, the guard tired of beating his head against this particular gringo wall, and he relented to let us pass.
It was time to do some serious offroading into the vast rolling grassland wilderness that is the Gran Sabana. We spent day one heading towards a former hippy commune to check out some secluded waterfall swimming spots. However, stop number one was to Richards parents to deliver their groceries. This surreal act took us into the heart of nowhere, where their house stood atop a crest in the grasslands. The isolation of their home confused us slightly, until we were invited in for a drink and a chat. They truly did have a wonderful retirement as their home was spacious, comfortable, welcoming and secluded. They didn't even need walls but instead used mosquito nets to frame their house. The peace of the area was a clear indication as to why they had chosen to see out their years there, and we spent an entertaining hour conversing with them in a broken combination of English, Spanish and German.
Continuing into the wilderness, our driver, a very grinny chap called Carlos, took us over some very testing terrain which slung us about the back of the 4x4 in a most undignified manner, a fact which seemed to amuse him greatly and spur him on to even more dexterous and uncomfortable driving feats. Lunch at a hippy commune followed, before we embarked on an afternoon trek to the top of a small Tepuy to see where the ecological border between Venezuela and Brazil ensued. One sweaty and bug-ridden walk later, we arrived at the summit to be greeted by yet another spectacular view, as we observed the grasslands of the Sabana melt into the vast leafy expanse of the Brazilian rainforest. Once again, we were getting a taste of what mother nature is all about.
A final waterfall swim later, and it was time to head back, but not before running into our 4th border patrol of the last two days. Again, the sweaty pre-pubesent jobsworths demanded documentation before peering very closely at the pictures contained within, before barking a name out and waiting for a response. The only thing preventing us from laughing in their over fastidious and acne-ridden faces was the fact that they were holding some very substantial automatic weapons which, in some cases, were almost as big as the scowling young lads cradling them. Documents checked, all clear, away we went again. Border patrols and general document checking appears to be quite the pastime in Venezuela, and each one we passed was an interesting if slightly fear-filled experience with officials of varying levels of anal retention and boredom quizzing us thoroughly to ensure we weren't a rag tag band of crazed European drug runners, intent on destroying their fair national parks with our toxic drug fumes.
Safely back at our Cabanas after a long day, we settled down to snack on our dinner, whilst the local LABs settled down to once more snack on us. Another trip into the Sabana awaited us in the morning, as we headed north along the only tarmac road traversing this vast terrain. Our guide this time was a very chatty and chirpy local called Daniel, who, not 5 minutes after us entering the 4x4, dragged out his encyclopedic collection of early 1980's American crap rock ballads while all the time enthralling us with useful trivia tit bits regarding the various artists.
Before we go into detail on the days activities, we have to pause briefly to mention Richards impressive display of wildlife at the Cabanas. He gleefully took us on a brief tour of his "mini zoo", introducing us to his pets consisting of two horses (one tame, one still wild), a couple of dogs and, more impressively, a small wild pig and male tapir. Dunc's supposed knowledge of the natural world was cruelly exposed when he spectacularly misdiagnosed said pig and male tapir as a mother tapir and her baby. Fortunately, he redeemed this clanger with a fine episode of "Pig Tickling" that the miniature swine seemed to greatly appreciate, while Vickie busied herself with chatting to and petting the rather charming tapir, who seemed to be rather loving the attention
Queen, UB40, the Eagles and a local Bob Dylan-equse artist all featured heavily in this eclectic mix, which kept us nicely grinning into our chests as we set off into the wilderness. We made regular stops on our journey, pausing to marvel at several mammoth Tepuys, each of which appeared to have an interesting local Indian legend behind it. One of the more interesting legends referred to a Tepuy that bore a resemblance to an enormous sleeping Indian who, it has been said, will wake up and crush anyone who attempts to take the land from the indiginous. Dunc briefly considered that this imposing chap could find a lucrative career in nightclub bouncing or loan sharking should the inclination take him, rather than the more altruistic task he'd set himself for the past few millennia.
On the way back from another waterfall swim, Daniel suddenly stamped on the breaks and jumped out of the car, only to return with a maniacal grin and a substantial Rhino Beetle in his chunky hands. After we'd peeled ourselves up off the floor of the vehicle following his impromptu emergency stop, we stared excitedly at this new addition to our party. Daniel then decided to impress us by launching the beetle high into the air screaming "Watch it fly, watch it fly!". The beetle rose. And fell. And hit the ground hard. Howls of laughter burst from the van and a sheepish looking Daniel returned to the drivers seat apologising to us.
At lunch, we discovered quite the local delicacy, in the form of nothing less than Termite Juice. Interestingly, this is a form of salsa, using actual Termites as a base to add a level of flavour and acidity. Daniel and Luis hungrily tucked into the sauce, while the rest of us eyed it rather more suspiciously. Eventually, the challenge of manhood became too much for Dunc, and he proceeded to splash it all over the rice on his place - making sure not to pour any actual Termites out in the process - before tentatively trying some. It had a unique and not unpleasant flavour, but the prospect of so many bugs in a jar got too much, and he neglected to add any more after his first tasting.
A final waterfall swim stop followed, but by this time we were becoming quite the scenery snobs, with a nonchalante attitude akin to "Well, if its not beautiful enough to make us fall to our knees and cry, we're just not interested thank you". We didn't stay long before Daniel dropped us off at our bus stop to await the overnight bus due to take us to our next adventure, the depths of the Orinoco Delta and the Carribean coast.