The way to Angel Falls is not by river but overland, of course. At approximately the same time, various boats were beached and we began a fairly long climb on a trail over rocks and boulders until, finally, we got a view of the world's highest falls. It is beautiful, of course, as was almost everything leading up to it, images from King Kong and other old adventure movies swirling around, me half expecting to be confronted by some strange and savagely mysterious jungle tribe. Fay Wray would be captured and staked, half her clothing torn away as Brando and I made plans for her rescue. I mean, it was a long march to the bottom of the falls. I had plenty of time.
But when we arrived, there were only tribes of tourists who had made it up before we did. Some sat on the boulders taking in the scene while others frolicked in the pools below. And as always, as in any quest, the journey is the thing. How long does one simply sit in wonder looking at the desired object knowing the journey home will be just as long but lacking in the anticipated surprises of the way in?
Here, one of the intrepid Americans sits in full combat gear, expensive camera between his legs, admiring the view. Explorer extraordinaire.
And so, after days of travel to our destination, we spent an hour at the foot of the falls before we made the long trek back to the boat then back to the camp where we picked up our gear and turned homeward down the widening river, back to the placid villages that dotted the shoreline.
And that is when the real adventure began. Back in Caracas, the revolution was still in force, the rebels eventually ousting the current regime. When we cabbed from the airport to our rooms at the Hilton, we could often hear gunfire in the distance. Columbia, once the jewel of South American culture, had already been overrun by rebels and Venezuela, rich and beautiful, became the garden spot of the region.
"Venezuela has produced more Miss Universe winners than any other country in the world," Brando touted, and it was true that Venezuela had a burgeoning beauty culture. At the time, I believe, the best plastic surgeons in the world were practicing there. Now, after the trip upriver and back, Brando was ready for a little fun.
We were staying near the university and the famous opera house, the Teatro Municipal.
"It is the most acoustically perfect room ever designed," Brando, the architect, exclaimed. We were in town for a few days (and nights). Our two traveling companions had headed home after the river, so we were now on our own. We would tour the abundant museums and galleries viewing both modern and primitive art. We would eat and drink in outdoor cafes and luxurious restaurants, and we would buy tickets for the famous Russian Folk Ballet at the Teatro Municipal.
For the most part, at least during the day, Caracas seemed safe in the main boulevards downtown. I walked around with my camera without fear, snapping pictures of the city and its people.
I took a photo of this little girl, then she took one of me. I don't think she had ever used a camera before, but I like the reciprocal nature of the two images together.
Nights, however, were a different thing. Cabs speeded through the empty streets surrounding the boulevards as we made our way to dinner. Doors were opened quickly, then locked and bolted as we were seated with the other diners. There was solemnity in the air.
After dinner, Brando wanted to go to the World's Most Famous Brothel. I'd heard him talk about it for years. "The bouncers are as big as linebackers and wear tuxedoes," Brando said. It was not a whorehouse to hear him tell it but a respectable place full of rich businessmen. You can doubt me in this, and most of you will, I am sure, but. . . I didn't want to go, but I didn't want to leave Brando on his own, either, and so we cabbed to a residential area on the outskirts of the city.
The place was big, and the bouncers did wear tuxes. There was a room with a long bar and another with tables and couches. Men sat with women dressed in lingerie, and Brando, cock of the walk that he was, paraded to a low slung couch where we sat with a couple of the women. We talked in Spanish and English, my Spanish really terrible and their English a little better. Brando was much more fluent in Spanish, so that is where most of the conversation went. I was fascinated by the sociology of it all. Sure, sure, you think I kid, but the women were mostly Columbians who had fled the revolution there to come to what had been a safe and prosperous place. It was all sex and money. As they talked, I watched the room. A man would choose a woman and she would go upstairs, I assumed, to a room for their assignation. The man would be handed a a towel and a condom by one of the men in tuxedos and would proceed up another set of stair. Not much later, first the man and then the woman would come back down the stairs, he usually leaving, she looking for the next client.
Brando suggested we move to the bar, so we left the two women he had been talking to and took two stools in the other room. Immediately, of course, two women approached us. Brando pulled himself up to full height and told me to buy them drinks. I smiled stupidly at the woman on my arm and chatted with her in my awful Spanish. At some point she asked me if I would like to go upstairs.
"Lo siento, no," I said, no soy para las chicas." I was trying to get her to understand that I didn't want a girl, but she stepped back in surprise.
"Mariposa?!?" she exclaimed asking me if I were gay.
"No, no. . . ha. . . . "
I turned to Brando and asked, "How do you say 'watch' in Spanish?"
"Yo aqui. . . uh. . . yo aquí ver a mi amigo," I stuttered unsure, pointing to my eyes and then to Brando. The woman looked stunned. I was trying to tell her that I was looking after my friend, but what she heard was that I just wanted to watch Brando possibly make love to a woman. I just shook my head and laughed.
She asked me if we had a room, and I told her we did, that we were staying at the Hilton downtown. She said that she would like to come there with us.
"Gratis," she said.
I turned to Brando and said, "This woman said she wants to have sex with me for free."
This threw Brando into a rage. "Bullshit," he said. "You're stupid. She's fucking with you." He seemed really angry.
Now our glasses were empty, so I asked, "Are you going upstairs with her?"
"No," he said "let's get out of here," and so I settled up the tab as we said goodbye to our new girlfriends and stepped out into the night.
Just down the darkened road there looked to be a festival of some kind, lights strung from poles overhead. It was a late night outdoor cafe.
"Let's go over there for a minute," Brando said. "I'm hungry," and he turned immediately to go.
Brando was always hungry. I had no idea where I was, so I followed him down the street and under the lights where he settled into a chair at a wooden table. A waitress came over, and we ordered some food and a couple Polars. I was tired and feeling pretty unsure of things. The cafe was definitely not upscale. We were two obvious gringos among "the people" in a land of revolution. Active imagination as I have, I thought, "I've seen this movie before." I just wanted to eat and get back to the hotel. It was late, the middle of the night, and even this place was closing.
But Brando, as always, was making a show. He liked for people to know he was there. And he was drunk. Two men walked by arm in arm with a pretty woman in a red dress between them. Brando, with hardly a moment's thought, reached out and slapped her on the ass as she went by. Holy shit, holy shit! My mind was racing. We would be killed. What the fuck. . . what the fuck.
But the woman said nothing. She simply looked over her shoulder and smiled. It was unbelievable. But this was Brando.
I stood up from the table.
"I'm done. I'll see you back at the hotel," I said and started walking up the hill to the street.
"Wait. . . wait, godamnit. . . ."
"No. I'm done."
"I DON'T HAVE ANY MONEY," he shouted.
Fuck. Of course. Of course you don't. M-o-t-h-e-r-f-u-c-k-e-r!
I turned and slowly walked back to the table. I sat down and waited for the waitress to return so I could pay, but Brando ordered another meal. It was typical. It was how he lived, what he did. I settled back into my chair as the lights began to go out.
After dinner number two--or three if you count the one from earlier--we trudged back up to the street to get a cab. There was a shady looking car with what looked like a tin can glued to the top of it. Brando began to hail it.
'Uh-uh. I'm not getting in that thing. Let's walk back to the whorehouse and get a real cab."
"Aw Jesus Christ. . . you're such a pussy."
But we did. Brando gave the cabbie the address. A few blocks later, however, he was telling the cab driver to stop. There was a woman walking up the street alone. Brando rolled down the window and called her over. As they chatted, the cabbie started laughing.
"What's funny?" I asked him.
"That's not a woman," he chuckled.
Oh, man. . . perfect.
"Don't say anything, O.K.? Whatever you do, don't tell him."
I guess this was sort of a perfect ending to the night.