Part 5 of my Throwback Thursday series “Witch Doctors, Wine Coolers and Woe”
All the miniature monkeys in the world couldn’t keep me in Venezuela anymore – I was itching to move on. On one of our final nights at Ana’s house I was awoken by a timid knock at the door in the middle of the night. I stumbled out of bed to find Ana’s sister Claudia smiling and waving me downstairs. Paul was snoring away and I saw an opportunity to leave him behind (he was well getting on my nerves by this time) so I followed Claudia to the expansive backyard patio.
There by one of the many palm trees was Ana, her mother and aunt sitting in a quiet circle around a white flower. I joined the group and Ana explained that this was a “Queen of the Night” flower and only bloomed once a year under a full moon.
Almost on cue the moon – bright as day and filling the sky peaked out from behind a scrim of clouds. We sat quietly, reverently, and just looked at this simple but lovely flower. After weeks as their guest I finally felt comfortable here with Ana’s family; welcome, even and this quiet moment in the middle of the night seemed a fitting goodbye.
Two days later Paul and I boarded our first of many busses and headed to Cuidad Bolivar to explore the legendary Angel Falls. I was starting to get the hang of travelling. I liked trying to negotiate with bus drivers and hotel clerks, butchering Spanish and making my way. Paul continued to shrink in my estimation as he revealed himself to be narrow-minded and a bit squeamish about “real” travel. “Eeek flying cockroaches!” (basically a national bird in Venezuela), “Bah no fish and chips on the menu!” (Dude, it’s S O U T H A M E R I C A not Bristol – get over it) “Wah this bed is bumpy and the “shower” is just a pipe that sticks out of the wall and spits cold water at you!” Ok – that actually did suck. But I found it all exhilarating, really. A series of challenges. A social, linguistic and mental puzzle to be solved and overcome.
We finally made it Cuidad Bolivar and began searching for information on flying to Canaima National Park, home of Angel Falls.
Pre- Google this involved walking around and querying bus drivers and locals – trying to find the necessary government building so we could get our permit. It wasn’t looking good. Apparently no one went to Angel Falls without a guide or tour. We were trying to get there on our own because Paul figured we could save money (a huge focus of all of his travel plans) but our lack of Spanish was proving to be a real problem.
Then a stroke of luck! At a local office for tourist permits we came across Uvo, a German national living in Venezuela and operating – you guessed it – tours to the falls! Looking back I realize now that our meeting wasn’t chance. Uvo probably hung out waiting to scoop up clueless tourists on a regular basis but it turned out to be a great opportunity none the less. He took us to his home in Porto Ordaz (yes – we followed a total stranger to his house) where we spent the night amidst jungle ephemera and artwork, drank strong beer and listened to his many tales of the jungle.
Somehow he talked us out of seeing Angel Falls – “too touristy and over- rated” he assured us and instead he booked us the last 2 spots on his special jungle tour. 4 days, 5 waterfalls and an overnight stay in an Indian camp. The next morning we watched as Uvo and Julio (his guide) packed the Land Rover tip to tails with water, food, tents, hammocks you name it. I was instantly drawn to Julio with his calm, masculine grace and ease with manly things like tying knots. He actually reminded me of Tom a little – except all South Americanny.
Since Paul and I had officially abandoned the notion of romantic exploits (a relief, actually) I had begun to miss Tom more and more. But this Julio looked to be a promising distraction.
Finally the Land Rover was ready and Uvo said his goodbyes. Wait. What?! I had mistakenly assumed Uvo was coming with us. “Oh no” he replied. “Julio will take you on your tour – he is a good guy, knows everything. You are in good hands with him.” I liked the sound of being in Julio’s hands so I grabbed my pack and climbed in the Rover. On our way out of the city Julio swung by a nondescript Hostel and collected the rest of our group; Mariss and Walter from Austria and Frank and Krit from East Germany. It was getting all multi-cultural up in here and I was happy.
We headed out of the city proper and bumped out onto dirt roads. Then dirt paths. And finally it seemed we were just cutting a path through grass and meadow for hours and hours. All attempts at “getting to know you” chatter failed as we had our teeth rattled and bones shaken over miles and miles of rough terrain. Finally we arrived at a local “town” the name of which I’ve forgotten. It was on the outskirts of the Gran Sabana and Canaima National Park and it was our first night of the tour.
Julio set about unloading the Rover and I hung in his periphery eager to lend a hand. Paul was so delighted to be with people from Europe he completely forgot about me and instead regaled his new chums with stories of flying cock roaches and how hard it is to find good fish and chips in Venezuela. I helped Julio set up camp and worked myself into a crush-driven lather. We slung hammocks and mosquito netting, lit lamps and set up simple provisions across the large wooden table that dominated the center of the shelter.
Julio hung out for a bit and made sure we were settled and then wandered off into “town” to meet up with friends. As a tour guide for Uvo he did this route every two weeks and knew people in every stop.
We listened to the night close in and the insects and frogs take over. Out came the cards to pass the time with some hearts (do people still travel with cards? I hope so, it’s such a great way to entertain yourself and ease awkward social situations). The night became blacker. And louder. The noise from the bugs and frogs and god knows what else seemed deafening. As the clock ticked later and later we collectively began to look for Julio – our minder and babysitter – to come back and tuck us into our hammocks. We really were a bunch of candy-asses.
Then it happened. One of the eight zillion frogs that had been serenading us finally breached the perimeter of light thrown by our lanterns to partake of the insect buffet that had slowly been forming around us. He was huge and bumpy
and we all screamed like children when he casually hopped up onto the table and ate one of the bugs right in front of us. He must have passed the word telepathically because within minutes the camp area was littered with frogs of enormous size and appetite. It was looking a little Biblical and we were all starting to freak out a bit.
Just as we began nervously organizing a “search party” to find Julio we heard “Go! Get get you devils!” and Julio strode into our circle of light, brandishing a broom and sweeping away the frogs and our irrational fears. He looked a little disgusted with us (who could blame him) then said a quick goodnight, grabbed a blanket and stretched out on top of the Rover – leaving us to navigate our first night in a hammock. As I tried in vain to drape myself with mosquito netting and get comfortable I thought Paul who?
Next Week – Waterfalls, Pongo’s and Longing