VENEZUELA 2002: Ciudad Bolivar and going up the Río Caura

To get the journey to Ciudad Bolivar started, we'd first employ a carrito with a Venezuelan couple. That'd serve to earn us a 1-1|2 hour drive, accomplished at breakneck speed through the hot plains of Venezuela - and proving the necessity of an ancient American beast-car the size of a small house. Should the hull get breached in an accident, however, we'd have to learn to make do without seatbelts. Perhaps only out of spite, this hulk nevertheless delivered us to the banks of the Orinoco River again. There we took a car ferry to cross the great river, only just before being deposited at a bus terminal on the other side to complete the journey to Ciudad Bolivar.

Conveniently, we were immediately hustled onto a bus that was leaving four this second and final step necessitating two-plus hours. Happily, too, the bus air-conditioning couldn't keep up - so we'd enjoy a bearable temperature. Thus, undoubtedly in compensation, we almost lost Bryony at a scheduled stop - it was now her turn with a stomach attack. In a belated scramble, Lorena hopped off the bus looking for her - Bryony had told no one she was getting off - as I was left alone with Hattie and the bus slowly rolled out of the terminal. This was really not my preferred method for becoming an adoptive father, I mused.

Fortunately I wouldn't be one for long: Bryony eventually ran out of the terminal holding her stomach, and all was well again. Not that I was ready for fatherhood, anyway. The rest of the ensuing trip proved vastly more uneventful and, upon arriving at Ciudad Bolivar, we caught a cab to a recommended posada right on the main square. Arriving to find only one room available, I found myself immediately denied a desired break from Hattie's whiny and spoiled nonsense but oh well - I agreed to share the room with the girls. With my hosteling options otherwise few in this case, such would have to be my welcome Ciudad Bolivar, supposedly the best jumping off point for all tourism in Venezuela.

Immediately taking those options as my new theme, I right away started making connections for a Río Caura trip. Promoted by the owner as an experience that only he provided, an interesting motorized canoe odyssey of several days, per the usual there weren't enough people at this point. Soon there would be, luckily, but in the meantime I'd enjoy the pleasures of a place with a handy kitchen and a true hostel-like atmosphere - my first in Venezuela. (One thing about Latin America had been the lack of kitchens to use. This was a direct consequence of using so many cheap hotel rooms.) The rooftop hammock area, prime for catching any passing breezes for heat relief, provided the icing on this hostel cake: Set!

Now I immediately took to talking up Martin the owner/manager, his wife Yourlensi, and their child, Julia. All were very hospitable, and I took advantage of this down time and willing victims to teach the card game from the previous year's trip - Du Bon - to Yourlensi and Lorena. I also shortly found myself popping out some tunes on the horn, in particular for Martin and Julia: How great it was when the trumpet was invited to the show! In response, too, Martin mentioned that he would put me in contact with some local musicians. This all sounded good.

It also helped immeasurably that the hostel itself was the kind of simultaneously homey and stylish place that made me want to stay awhile. Its front-facing living room-like area, with a balcony overlooking the main plaza, was of particular appeal. Its space had been converted to something of an altar to jazz and cuban music, my favorite musics! Pictures of the stars of yesterday in both adorned the walls in great number, atmosphere-lending objects to help ease my settling into a hammock with my horn in hand. This was so comfortable that I found myself spending the entire second day there, taking full advantage of this inspiration for some transcribing and practicing. I soon introduced my favorite Cuban ensemble via some cassette tapes I had brought (Cubanismo!) to the faithful. No conversions were necessary among this lot, however, as the wall had already well attested.

Outside the hostel, all the while available at its literal footstep, lay the heart of the city. Starting with the plaza itself, the entire district had a pleasant colonial charm to it. This was true even as the restored section was limited to a several block wide area. More importantly, the proper topping was found in a welcoming restaurant of the former colonial masters, Spain, that came with an admirable paella. Yes, Ciudad Bolivar quickly was turning into a comfortable fit.

Thus passed an enjoyable first few days in Posada Amor Patrio. I relished the friendly ambience of Martin and Yourlenis' home, especially as their plucky (an understatement) daughter, the 4-year-old Julia, had taken an immediate liking to me and my trumpet. I had fun teasing with her for hours. Remarkably more precocious than even Hattie, she was better behaved to make for all the difference necessary. For her part, I concluded that this must seem a charmed life - constantly meeting new people, almost all by and large ready to lavish attention on her. What does any child want more than attention?

Outside of the balcony-music-shrine room, I also found that a great amount of time was necessarily spent in the central communal area. This was the prime spot for drinking rum and chit-chatting with whoever was passing through, especially as they had to pass the table by and really had no choice. This choke point alone provided the true hostel atmosphere that I had been lacking on the trip. For all the brightly painted colonial old town, the Paseo Orinoco riverwalk, and the small shopping district, there wasn't much better to do in town than hang with fellow travelers and exchange information we each had been amassing about Venezuela.

The posada meanwhile continued to prove itself a lucky circumstance as far as the trumpet was concerned. I was routinely requested to blast away whenever I pulled the trumpet from its case and reached for a mute that would be soon shoved away. That helped for me to manage to get some real practicing in. I was able to work on some transcriptions in that magical balcony, only pausing intermittently at my small table to let my eyes move to the open railing overlooking the main square's latest activity. No one seemed to mind putting up with my use of the hostel's tape deck to repeatedly go over a few Armstrong solos I was interested in learning. No doubt it helped as well that I had brought a few other mixed tapes of excellent Cuban music to be enjoyed by all (and which would be copied a few times before I left).

Such was the life at the posada as I waited for the required numbers to allow the Río Caura trip to form. Although after only a day or so we had the quorum of four to make it a go, to get the price down to something more amenable we needed six. This presented an obstacle, as it turned out - a couple of times we thought we had the necessary six, only to find someone had skipped town or gotten sick. It finally got to the point that I ventured out of the hostel with a Swiss guy on the eve of the trip (which we now had made a go regardless) to make the rounds of the local tourist hotels. We hoped to scare up the final necessary price-breaking person but would find no such luck, all the drama coming to naught and leaving just the five of us. So filling out the group with me would be a French couple (Nicola and Anne, my steady rum- and pastisse-drinking partners at the choke-point booze table), a Pole named Marcin, and a German named Gerd. Our Venezuelan crew of guides would consist of a jeep driver, a boat man (Domingo), and Claudio the guide. They'd hopefully be sufficient to obviate the need of a town-wide search for pith helmets.

Off we went and... well, the journey to the Rio Caura was completely uneventful, even if it took a bit. We stopped at a cushy posada in the outskirts of Ciudad Bolivar to pick up Gerd, then continued for several hours across a generally flat countryside of thin, stumpy forest. What wasn't logged already looked to be so soon. The occasional, then eventually ubiquitous, fires in the countryside kept things marginally interesting, anyway.

Finally we made a major stop for lunch in the middle of nowhere, at a large restaurant simultaneously hosting some kind of agricultural convention. A few heads turned our way - what the hell were several gringos doing all the way out HERE?, bemused looks said - but otherwise rapturous attention was paid to the blast-level lecture coming from the sound system. From this outpost we would finally leg the last bit to the river through dense jungle. Certainly we at least had acquired the stink and sweat of adventure, we joked. At the river, some of us went for a swim in the long interim as the motor was fetched. For this we were rewarded by getting nibbled by innumerable, wee fishies.

As for the chosen vehicle of conveyance, our boat would turn out to be a large canoe made from a single tree. This was reminiscent of the Amazon trip I had taken years before in Ecuador, on the Shiripuno tributary. We'd learn later that there were four types of trees used for this, all from deep in the jungle, and all requiring a fair amount of work by hand to accomplish. At its rear was an outboard motor, slapped on in defiance of tradition, surely, but saving us about a week or month of travel time.

When all was ready, we clambered aboard to head upriver. Having consumed so much of the day already, this first leg would only be a light start through mostly calm waters for about an hour. That'd get us to our first night's camp, a site consisting of a small beach on an eddy formed by the ubiquitously large rocks found throughout the Río Caura. In the calm waters of the eddy resided also a host of little fish, all easily seen although mostly small in size. The most notable species had a bright orange tail, but all nibbled us equally as one whenever we set foot in the water. This, of course, was something we couldn't help but do since the eddy/cove was great for swimming. Our pool was only only limited by the boundary of the main current, about 40-50 meters away and threatening to take take any venturers far downstream.

Up from the beach were a couple of huts, one for hammocks and the other for cooking and eating. Hammocks were quickly strung up from the hut roof, using the main post as a spindle and each complete with a fine mosquito net. A number of us next took test runs, jumping into the hammocks to assure ourselves that the rigging would hold to pass the night without an unexpected drop. To the relatively unitiated there was always that nagging fear that came with the gap between an exposed body and a hard floor. With matters of state and swim now settled, then, we almost immediately took a small excursion to a Yekuana family's hut downstream.

At the house, something of a mini compound on a small island in the stream, was found a number of birds. These were loosely kept as pets, but a respectable collection of dead tarantulas had a display as well to show some of the other local occupants that could be otherwise available. The birds were the more interesting, naturally, being alive and all, and this was particularly true with a huge red macaw and a number of turkey-ish birds seen walking around the grounds. These latter fowls were actually more colorful than turkeys - and tougher, too. Literally: one attacked me when I tried to take his picture by the boat. Swinging my knapsack at him wasn't enough, either, not to stop the flurry of claws that left some deep - though only at the EDGE of bloody - lines on my back. Ow!

But it was a little green parrot that was perhaps the most interesting of all. It stole the show with its grab-bag of sounds, all squawked at full volume. Most funny was its imitation of a child's laughter, a sound which we were able to regularly procure by tempting and fooling it into protesting utterance. Finally, after a languorous while spent hanging around at the house, taking photos, checking out lizards, and generally bumming around the compound in search of what else we could roust, we headed back to camp for the evening.

A Brit-Aussie couple pulled up later to join us, surprisingly, outfitted with their own motorized tree trunk and belying the words of Martin that he was the only one who knew the ins and outs of the area. Their small touring party consisting only of themselves and a guide, however, and they didn't necessarily plan on going much further. We nevertheless all soon set to the business of making friends, all made the easier over a cozy little dinner of local fish. Rum was broken out and taken care of quickly, too, much in keeping with the beers we had been consuming since just about right after launching. As had been the case in the Orinoco Delta, the boatman and guide were more than ready to pound brews that had probably been all been paid for by us. But no one particularly cared as Claudio told some jokes and we eventually drifted off to the hammocks.

Once again I got to experience that life in a hammock - for me - was not all that it had been cracked up to be. I found it very comfortable for a short nap, sure, but overnight it felt a bit cool temperature-wise - with no heat sump below to adhese to - and it was hard to find a sufficiently comfortable position to totally zonk for longer than an hour or two. For some reason I had to get up three times each night to pee in royal quantity, creating a running theory in the process that related the slung position to squeezing the bjeezus out of my bladder. As for the mosquito nets, they covered each of us quite well. But it turned out that they were largely unneeded for the Río Caura. The dark, tannic water supposedly formed a natural barrier for them wanting to breed within some tens of meters from it. Perfect.

The next day proved to be a big boating day: Asses would be put to the test! We spent the first few hours of the day fighting the current, plowing through many small rapids, each providing bumpy tests for our rears albeit under an otherwise welcome sun. Lunch, at a gorgeous river beach, would pause that - so we thankfully all got out and swam. I further took this as an opportunity to get some exercise and fight my sloth which had been building throughout my time in Venezuela. I did a penance of perhaps 500 freestyle strokes, a nice change from the various non-aerobic occurrences of yoga I'd managed to date.

After lunch some troubles began with the motor, though, to dryly rain on our little parade of sun and fun. First it began to sputter, only before beginning to cut repeatedly. This required us to stop a number of times in the middle of the river, with Domingo periodically cutting the motor's operation to try and fix it. This ultimately didn't solve the problem, so we eventually had to drift off to the side of the river. There all of us got out as Domingo and Claudio set completely to work on it. They'd occasionally rip away at the cord; the motor clung to a fitful life yet. Us excess weight, i.e. the passengers, could only throw rocks into the river and admire the beautiful area in exchange - a fortunate distraction to the task at hand. We finally were told to get back in - we'd head further upstream, just as far as the first village where we could rent another motor.

Which we did, marginally under power. Upon arriving at this first village, children immediately came from out of nowhere to take a gander at us. Apparently this Yekuana encampment didn't get many tourists stopping there - like any. Then, while Claudio successfully bargained for a (weak) backup motor, us tourists went up to the main open area of the village with this horde of children to accompany us. For the most part we were next ignored as some of the kids took to playing soccer. As for the adults in the area, occasionally we'd be looked at askew - but no one approached us. Although there was undoubtedly not a friendly feel to this, it wasn't necessarily unfriendly, either. "UN-welcomed" would not have been termed far off.

Finally we took a spare motor down to the boat and headed out again under the original motor's power. In this course of events we had lost a lot of time, however, entailing that the last couple of hours to our camp destination would be done in the dark. This wasn't pleasant (read scary): We had been viewing sizable obstacles in the river all along the way until the present. Now we couldn't see them. And, with a half moon obscured by clouds, dark was truly d-ARK in a river loaded with such big, canoe-breaking rocks.

Topping our enhanced concern was our lack of any safety equipment. Domingo only had a weak headlamp to find the way - yikes! - but somehow seemed up to the task. Thankfully he knew the river well, and we finally made it to the main camp, to the so-called playon (big beach). During this stressful night sojourn we had only at times seen all of two flickering lights in the distance, plus some vague outlines of hills. How this had been enough to find our way we'd never know, but our relief was palpable in that we had indeed made it.

Now arrived at our coveted destination, we couldn't see much. But since we were all filthy, we also didn't CARE about much, either. All we could think of was going down to the river. A day sweating in the sun had made everyone eager to get naked, soon diving into the river as one to clean up while Claudio and Domingo made our dinner and set up the hammocks. If ever there was proof that it was nice to be the paying tourist, this was it! Again Claudio and Domingo would serve up a meal mostly based on rice, pasta, or bread, and always with some veggies and meat thrown in. As per the usual on these trips, I avoided meat but occasionally still ended up eating some.

We nevertheless had established a pattern for the trip that had felt comfortable enough: a) ride in boat b) make idle conversation and c) take advantage of - but also avoid - the sun. Some gentle rains had come and gone, never long nor cold enough to be a bother. Most importantly, the bird wildlife was as plentiful as advertised in the forms of cormorants, herons, macaws, ducks, a to-be-named-someday little white/black bird, bright yellow finch-like birdies, ibises, vultures, toucans and even another black/white bird which I at least thought was a toucan. Turtles and river dolphins rounded out the mix.

As for the waters, they had proven generally calm, if always with serious undercurrents near each of the many small rapids. Though each rapid traversal was always felt, the boat was just large enough to cut right through them each time. The wake formed rarely was large enough to enter the boat, but when it did it wasn't unpleasant - not when the river was so nice and warm.The river was fantastically refreshing for swimming; The never-ending views of banks, rocks, trees and fauna were consistently mesmerizing on numerous levels of lushness. And, to frame all of this naturaleza, the river's edge was also the edge of a dense jungle. This made for a steady wall of green under a sky of blue.

So now we had made it to our big destination by boat, this playon. Truth be told, it WAS a worthy destination. A massive beach with palm trees, two rapids dumped down to it in spectacular fashion. One barreled through a walled canyon; the other tumbled in a fashion show of grand steps. To swim in the river beyond them was never less than refreshing; Virtually no one else was ever around, either. Why, someone should cart some tourists in! Oh.

Meanwhile we found that a small French family was staying at this large beach for a few months. They had been working on connecting on some level with the tribal village found a short hike above and into the jungle. But otherwise it was just the local Yekuana and us interlopers (the British couple was long gone). The encampment on the playon thus chiefly existed for us tourists, consisting of a number of huts for cooking and sleeping and all rather large with their palm roofs and palm beams. Rather surprisingly to me, everything was neat and orderly. This contrasted strongly with what I had seen when among the Warao. This then would be our home for two days, a place from which we'd execute a few hikes in different directions when not otherwise just enjoying the beauty of the area. To a person we all agreed that, if we had known up front how spectacular this location would be, we would have opted for more time in the trip to stay there even longer.

On the third day I also met a friend of the French family, Elise, who was also staying with the family for a period of time and hanging out in the village a lot. Interesting to talk with, she was not the - oh, you know - typical attractive knockout one expected to find at the end of the line in the jungle. Wow. Naturally she had a boyfriend back home - OF COURSE - but I'd later determine that Claudio was her local squeeze as much as she was his to his wife back wherever. Before I'd figure out all of these prurient details, though, I'd take my turn circling her like a buzzard while the others went out fishing. When one finds the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the natural inclination is to take it - right? Right.

The first night at the playon found us drinking quite a lot before crashing, perhaps in relief of making it to our destination after our engine problems - not to mention the dark. And, perhaps in honor of this heart of darkness, Gerd managed to plow himself under quite successfully. Soon he was having Kurtz-like moments off by himself, muttering while laughing and catching lizards in the bathroom. He'd go on to have long and loud conversations with himself all night. Pretty funny stuff - the rest of us could only be jealous until the point at which he started to get sick.

But I was by then enjoying all of the people in our group, truth be told. The French couple, Nicola and Anne, had by then long proved to be both easy-going and Frenchmen capable of not running from a dreaded American. No doubt this was aided immeasurably by us three equally making fun by taking the piss out of America in the era of George Bush. Coca-cola endlessly formed a ready punchline to any comment.

Equally as well-read and intelligent as us others imagined ourselves to be, our Polish friend Marcin was nevertheless more serious and studious about this journey. Not that he couldn't be fun as well, but he took a far greater interest in the local culture - to the point of taking a prodigious number of notes at all times. While this detail-orienting spoke to his profession of engineering, he HAD also promised a friend back home an article about his trip. We still thought about hiding his notebook when it came time to drink.

As a counterpoint to Marcin, Claudio took on the role of casanova. Certainly this was vastly true within his head, but there was more than a smidgen of reality to it that couldn't be ignored: Not only did he have the graces of Elise at the beach, but he also reported himself to have a girlfriend in one town (with whom he had a daughter) and a wife in another. He relished in the fact that rules meant nothing in Venezuela, a common refrain for him in all arguments - even as it often contradicted other views he held about responsibility and the like (which he avowed himself to be in favor of at his core).

Our boatman Domingo was more quiet. He was taciturn as a rule, in that indigenous native way, but not without a ready laugh, either. After that long early night spent watching him navigate in the dark, we all would readily concede that he was justifiably knowledgable about navigating the river. He thus had earned his obvious assuredness of manner. It'd only be over time that we'd learn that he was probably the true casanova - he apparently had a girl in every encampment, quietly and quickly disappearing each time our craft touched shore at another encampment.

Gerd rounded out our bunch, a stereotypical German in every sense. A know-it-all who loved an unending course of beer, in spite of his idiosyncrasies - and his never-quite-latent anger with how the world was out to get or was taking advantage of Germany - we all took him for a good guy. He was fun to have around in spite of his best efforts at growling and grouchiness. He also served as a counterweight of sorts to the libertine Frenchies, not to mention the locals and whatever I might be termed.

On our second day at the playon we made a hike to Para Falls, promoted as a highlight of the trip. This consisted of a few hours of hiking in the jungle, including some steep ascents, to reach the falls. This was an awfully humid affair; it wasn't long before we could squeegee our shirts for a backup water supply. The falls had better be worth it, a few among us grumbled more than once. I swore in blood to never reveal the names, so I won't mention any French people or a German here.

For the effort we continued to take in a substantial number of birds, plus beautiful flowers and colorful insects. Some things, I came to believe, were constant in all the jungles of South America! This, however, didn't include one beetle I spied on the way out of camp: It was absolutely huge and looked like a rhino! Covering a good part of my palm, it was absolutely amazing to behold. On the heels of that highlight came a wormlike creature, one which was metamorphosing into a butterfly before our eyes while stuck to a tree, plus there was the so-called 24-hour ant, so named because of its poison. Many new and cacophonous sounds surrounded all of this maelstrom of animal-dom, calls emitted from anything from monkeys to birds to crickets. Mother Nature was literally shouting at times.

On the hike we also paused midway at an artisan's hut, where we hoped to learn a little about the local indigenous culture. There we saw cassave being made, the rock hard, plain-ish bread made from poison yuca. Thus first the poison had to be squeezed out in a basket-like device. Only then could the remainder be shaved, smashed into powder, then finally sprinkled over a large steel plate over an open fire. Then it was stirred endlessly to avoid burning its bottom.

While that absorbing demonstration was in process, we also received a bonus display of a rodent being cooked over an adjacent open fire. Wondering if it was the delicacy cuy, I found out that it wasn't at all. Just another member of the rat family finding its way to a stomach near us. Frankly, though, it looked nasty - even if none of us was given the chance to fairly give it a go.

Also near the hut were various beautiful birds in captivity, a recurring theme we had all noticed by now. The hut was the home of a man and the two women we encountered there, the younger of the women a girl from deep in the forest who had been given to this family from another tribe. Now THAT was indeed a place and a life out of time and place for us westerners. Otherwise the house sat in the middle of large plantation, far more typical.

We eventually left these hosts behind, though, and, after some hiking, we made it to Para Falls. And they truly WERE beautiful. Wow! Not that we completely surprised: The thundering had been within earshot long before we gathered in our our first eyeful of the spectacle. Thus similar if smaller than Iguazu in many ways, this display also came via a river shelf that dropped away. Several loud and gushing falls dealt with the mess, all before recollecting the scattering waters back to a river which resumed its course as if nothing had happened. We initially viewed them from the top, scrambling over rocks to get different views. Then later we went for a swim, right near to where the water tumbled most violently over the edge. A little bit of danger seemed the proper way to pay our respects.

That's not to say we were COMPLETELY crazy: Going to the bottom was ruled out as the river was high. So we went to a nearby Yekuana encampment as a form of consolation after we'd had our fill of oohs, aahs, and pictures. At this nearby village we checked out a number of huts from the inside to exit the sun's insults; With my horn's case readily visible I later splayed some tunes by request. That is I was requested to play, like, ANYTHING: The locals cared not a whit for specific tunes, far more curious as to what odd sounds might come out of a trumpet.

While still putzing about the development, we also saw some unusual lizards of bright green in back and brown up front. Stunning to take in, they each looked like a sales-pitch: two lizards, two lizards, two lizards in one! But just as interesting was noting the Yekuana's use of solar power to load a battery. This allowed them to have a radio and contact with the outside world, for what I had no idea as the place was remote to get to. This was something I had likewise seen in a few other indigenous places by this time, impressing me with the forward thinking of such a government-provided system. It served as a marginal emergency measure, probably more symbolic than useful.

After enjoying the falls and environs for a few hours, we backtracked down the same trail on which we had come. Again we stopped at the artisan's place, by then a very good thing as my feet were a bit sore from doing the hike in sandals. Foolish only in retrospect, with the heat they had felt a genius stroke to start the day. On this second pausing, with more time on our hands and no distracting objective of a promised waterfall, a number of us bought some of the basket-like goods on display. These were of uniformly high quality, and even Claudio got into the action when he bargained for, and eventually got, a substantial statue. He'd have to figure out how to cart it home later - it was that big.

Soon we were headed down to the playon again with our goodies. On one of the steeper descents, we passed a single-file chain of local children. They were carting up heavy, large cartons of canned soft drinks and liquid fuel in jugs. With our difference goods in tow, this seemed an odd cultural exchange - but each group likely thought that it had gotten the better of the trade between civilizations. Whatever the reality, when we gained the beach again we immediately returned to our now-established program of swimming, bathing, eating and drinking in or near the river.

The fourth morning I decided on a short hike by myself. Wondering about the thundering sound to one side of our encampment, I quickly scrambled over the rocks to sidle alongside one of the nearer rapids to practice my horn at full volume. The falls would drown out anything I produced, allowing for complete freedom to blast and err alike. I had noticed that my lip had been weakening from lack of use since Ciudad Bolivar; I felt that I had to increase the drilling to maintain its flexibility. Playing so many tunes for people was all well and good, but the base was eroding without proper technical studies.

After getting back and eating breakfast, all of us headed off together for another shorter hike. This one provided us with a commanding view of the area, one where you could see for kilometers and take in broad swaths of the river and the surrounding jungle. We then continued for a longer return, emerging over a surprising, lunar rock landscape, with Claudio and Elise stopping us to explain various things we had seen in the jungle. Then, as we headed down, half a dozen or more Yekuana kids were again seen heading up with unbelievable loads of gasoline and even school desks on their backs. Some of them used reed/straw baskets to hold their loads, some wieghing upwards of 80 kilos. Wow. I sure felt lucky to not be born to such tasking, but I held off on chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A." Aloud, anyway.

When we got back we shortly took to packing up - the time had come to return to civilization or whatever it could be termed a facsimile thereof. We resumed our neglected boat positions for a couple of hours (with more rain this time), eventually stopping at a beach to eat. Next we continued on to the village where the motor had been rented. Apparently the entire village was drunk this time - Claudio was glad to get out of there as soon as possible. He got hassled almost immediately after setting foot on shore, violent threats only increasing each minute he was in their belligerent presence.

While Claudio was taking care of that business, a young girl had came over to us others still sitting out in the canoe. She looked perhaps twelve, but was trying to breast feed a baby. This situation would be normally nothing doing to any and all of us in terms of its propriety (breast feeding in public), but it seemed that she was barely developed enough herself to have a child of her own. It didn't make much sense to any of us, even in knowing that the indigenous regularly had kids early. Then again, I recalled the married Warao boy of 16 whom I had met in the Orinoco Delta, already a father. But this seemed even weirder. Not being able to mask my curiosity any longer, I asked her if the kid was hers, and she said no. Whew! I then asked her for her age and she said 9. This didn't properly explain the attempted breast-feeding, of course, but at least now it could be written it off as a imitated dry run.

We left the village behind when Claudio returned in a hurry and indicated that we should make haste away. He didn't feel confident that trouble wouldn't make its way toward us by boat regardless, not with the surly attitude of the drunken local population. Thus we made good time downstream now, running the engine at full to return to the main village we had previously passed by in the lower Río Caura. Here we were to get another guided tour, trouble officially left behind now on the hallowed grounds of the chief.

Unfortunately it'll be a little while before he walk them again with his usual king of the jungle swagger: The chief (cacique) had injured his foot with a machete. So it'd be his daughter and Claudio showing us around the plantation carved out of jungle instead. Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be as expected, with areas used for growing papaya, pineapple, and other things. But the main planting was for the staple poison yuca, needed for making the local "bread", cassave. (The other yuca - the non-poisonous one - is the one I and most people would be familiar with.) Then, moving from the crop area into the forest, we were next shown a variety of useful ways for harvesting the wilder side of nature.

This picked things up a bit on the interest scale. First we were shown a rubber tree, for example, which "bled" white and was very sticky. Next came a tree from which they got their weaving bark material, followed by another with a bark that made a varnish-like resin. Still another tree was handy for quinine (an anti-malarial), another for colds, and yet another for roof-making fibers (including the leaves attached to it). Beyond those was one with palm leaves far larger than any of us (for fanning the cacique?), then one with flowers of edible blue bulbs, plus a tree that housed a great deal of drinkable water when cut. Jeezers, what else could these trees provide?

Plenty. The litany continued with a tree whose bark was used for rolling cigarettes, then another with a resin which was concentrated for both hallucinations or to tip arrows for shooting monkeys without killing them. (A more primitive tribe in the area - the so-called monkey-eaters - relied on this extract heavily because they didn't preserve meats with salt like this one did. Necessity was the mother of making do when no salt was to be had, as they hadn't.) Such a flood of jungled and jangled information was actually too much to process, certainly coming as it did in such a nonstop delivery of tidbits, but we also learned that the plantation went through a slash-and-burn cycle, too. Farming the jungle took many forms was all I'd be able to retain in the end.

After the jungle tour things settled down into a quiet night. Then the next morning was similarly uneventful, with only the dawning realization that this much-too-short trip was nearing its end. So, after an improvised breakfast, we leisurely returned to the launch point - where we were snapped awake in finding a coral snake in the boat's belly. Apparently quite deadly, it gave Domingo a hell of a shock when he saw it next to him! A few funny moments ensued before and after he had a handle on the thing, all of which eventually devolved - as it naturally had to - into a tourist picture session. Finally we pitched the snake and successfully cleared the ad hoc dock with no one bitten or worse for the wear.

Only a short cruise remained to get us back to our initial launch point, where I played the horn to serenade and then swim with the others as we waited for our first fetch vehicle to arrive. When it did, we loaded up, walked through a nearby village a bit, then got picked up by the jeep (while we had been tooling around the village, the jeep had been doing such exciting things as returning the motor and other items we didn't feel much like sticking around for). Those details covered, we absolutely roared with furious speed in getting back. Fortunately, however, I had picked up some local rum in town. This allowed us to be proper goofs in short order from the back the vehicle, oblivious and able to ignore all the near-wrecks likely occuring for the entire return.

On the way into the heart of Ciudad Bolivar, we lost Gerd and Marcin before even hitting the town proper, Gerd pushing off to the German posada in the outskirts and Marcin getting dumped at the bus terminal respectively. This would leave only Nicola, Anne and I to continue hanging out and reminiscing about or just-completed highlight reel. That'd last for only another day or so at Posada Patrio Amor while we figured out what to do. For my part I'd take this as a last-time-for-now opportunity to do some yoga and final note transcriptions in the balcony's music-shrine space. I jotted down Armstrong's solo on When Its Sleepy Time Down South, happily blasting away as the notes fell under the fingers properly.

This wouldn't stop the posada's spoiled imp, cute little Julia, from eventually rooting me out to precociously demanded much of my time. But that was welcome, as was meeting Fido, the actual owner of the posada (not Martin, who thought it was). He was the patron behind the hostel's inspired decor, particularly the Cuban influence in the balcony room. He immediately glommed onto my playing the trumpet, soon getting the next door school of music director and trumpet master over to talk to me.

A short chat next led to my going over with Nicola to the city's school of music, conveniently located only a few doors away. Throughout the edifice were various students practicing stringed instruments, seemingly from every nook and cranny. Shortly after entering the grand building, I was given a tour of the school's current and future grounds, great plans in making for a budding conservatory. Construction was already underway, too, to rehabilitate a mansion a block away from the posada and the plaza Bolivar to house it.

Soon I was asked to play for some students. Simple enough, I figured - sure! But what ended up happening was something a bit more than I'd guessed: The entire school was turned out - all the teachers, too - to watch. Thus, as perhaps one hundred students and teachers were arranged to sit in a semi-circle about me, I put my rump to the stage I was backed into. The trumpet master shortly sat alongside me, as did some of the older students - who immediately launched into a tune of local stylings.

The main course, however, was me. I was shortly cajoled into playing Somewhere Over the Rainbow along with some students, but unfortunately this didn't go so well (to me) with my trumpet being so hard to tune. No one seemed to particularly notice. I then did what I thought was a better job, explaining the trumpet in Spanish and then playing solo tunes that I hoped they would know. A few old-school, cartoon-themed diddies were great hits, as was an Armstrong-inspired All of Me. I finished the impromptu concert with a requested and rowdy When the Saints Go Marching In, with everyone clapping along as I let 'er rip. That was the most fun, alone making the entire outing worthwhile.

Nicola meanwhile shot some pics as afterward I was asked for autographs. That was indeed quite a treat. One girl, named Genesis, apparently had developed an insta-crush on me, I soon discovered. I had found myself suspiciously making out a few autographs for her name, each brought by a different friend of hers. When I finally asked the latest boy doing so, he told me that she was too shy to ask herself - very cute! That helped to cap this unexpected and pleasant event, one not entirely bad for the ego in its success. From it, too, I'd doubtless be less reticent about doing such a "show" or demonstration back at home or elsewhere.

With that hoopla my first crack at Ciudad Bolivar would be coming to an end: I decided to move on, going along with Anne and Nicola that night to Santa Elena on the Brazilian border. Río Caribe - our chosen bus line - was quickly chosen as the best bus company doing the trip; we'd shortly find our bus to be the newest of the coldest imaginable such vehicles. Sigh. And there'd be more: Concurrent with that joy, our driver seemed to be doing time trials for the Indy 500 on the long road to Santa Elena. A suitably scary, hellish experience of a dozen hours, I didn't get much sleep while waiting for us to careen off of the road. Onward or downward, there'd be no stopping this thing.

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