Saturday, April 8, 2023

To South America Once More

I want to tell tales of adventure and daring.  I mean, why would I let the truth get in the way of a good story?  I've learned something from reading "Low Life" by Luc Sante.  Start with some indisputable fact and then get colorful.  There are lots of indisputable facts.  Angel Falls in Venezuela is the tallest uninterrupted water fall in the world.  It lies in the Guayana Highlands, a beautiful high mountain jungle fed by tributaries of the Orinoco River.  The fall is isolated and only accessible by more than a day's journey upriver.  You must hire a small plane in Ciudad Bolivar to fly you to the village of Canaima.  There you can hire a boat to ferry you upstream.  

Or that is how it was when I went, anyway.  Who knows?  They are probably flying people in by helicopter for the day now the way they do tourists into Machu Picchu. 

But this was just before the onset of the Great Golden Horde.  

We went there when the "Tourist Industry" was still Howard Johnson and Disneyland, in the main.  But we stood on the precipice of the onslaught of Adventure Tourism, the sort that took you off the beaten path to places without telephones and televisions, where you were thrilled to sleep in huts or tents and eat food prepared for you by the locals.  

By golly, yes. . . we were part of all that.  People heard the colorful tales and saw the slides.  Brando was one of the first into the maw, an architect who wanted to see primitive places where one could act badly for very little money.  Brando was hapless as a guide, however.  He organized trips to exotic places, but poorly.  Everything usually went wrong.  And that is what attracted the throng.  His unofficial motto was, "I'll get you in, and I'll get you out, but what happens in between. . . ."  

I went with Brando to Venezuela at his request.  It was at the last moment.  He had organized a trip to Angel Falls, but there were only two fellows going.  All I had to do was pay for my expenses.  It was too good a deal to pass up. Or so I thought.  I had no time to prepare, really, just enough time to pack my bags and go.  

When we go to Miami, we had a several hour layover.  Brando suggested we take a cab to Calle Ocho and have lunch at the Versailles.  It was only then that I learned of the trouble taking place in Caracas.  I saw the headlines in big print.  The revolution had begun.  

"What the fuck, Brando!" I shouted pointing to the headline.  

"Well. . . if you want to be a pussy, you better stay home."

No wonder nobody had signed up for the trip.  When we got into the cab, our driver was from Venezuela.  He began explaining the situation to us.  

"You didn't see many Venezuelans here in the past," he said.  "When you did, they were poor people who came her to work at menial jobs.  Now it is the rich who are coming.  People are trying to get out with their money while they can.  That's how you know things are bad there.  Really bad."

I was feeling nervous.  I hadn't prepared myself for this.  I had about an hour to "grow a pair" in the vernacular of the time.  

When we got to Caracas, there was shooting in the streets.  You could hear gunfire often in the distance.  We were staying downtown at one of the big Hiltons, so it seemed relatively safe.  Still, when we went to dinner at night, the cabbie wouldn't stop for the lights.  

"We call them putas de la noches," he said.  "Whores of the night.  You don't stop for them.  It is too dangerous.  They use to rob you at gunpoint, but now they just shoot you before they rob you.  It is easier."  

He was talking about the armed gangs that were roaming the streets, of course, and not some malicious band of prostitutes.   When we got to the restaurant where we had made reservations, he told us to wait.  In a minute, a group of men came out of the restaurant through two sets of doors to escort us inside.  It seemed the headlines were true.  It felt like a war zone.

Early the next morning, we went to the airport to fly to Ciudad Bolivar where we would catch a small Cessna to Cainaima.  We sat on stools in the shade on the tarmac there while the pilot prepared the plane.  A short distance away, listless locals sat inside a small lean-to selling Coca-Colas and snacks and various trinkets of the region.  We wandered over to have a look. Then we waited.  And waited.  Something was wrong with the plane.  They were getting us another.  

These guys were like crop dusters, I thought.  I wondered what sort of training or license might be required.  It was probably a simple matter of propina.  You just had to pay an official a substantial sum.  That's pretty much the way most things worked in many of the countries I had been in.  Public officials were not paid very much, so they lived on "tips" up and down the scale.  It was the system.  It was expected.  

After a long delay, a plane arrived and we were instructed to get our things onboard.  Some locals packed our baggage into a compartment and the four of us squeezed inside the small interior.  This would be fun, I thought.  I was kidding myself, of course.  I hate flying in small planes.  The flights are bumpy and my stomach is weak.  Too often, I am overcome with vertigo.  I was hoping not to shit myself or puke in the presence of Brando's clients.  It would do little to inspire confidence.  

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