Life Aboard LULU

March 2, 2002 (Exploring Venezula's Innards)
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From the Golfo de Carioco we ambled towards Puerto La Cruz, about 35 miles, stopping at pretty anchorages and exploring the busy mainland beaches. Walking a Venezuelan beach is like tuning your car stereo to Scan—every few feet you’re blasted by someone else’s boom-box selection. And music everywhere in Venezuela is played at decibel levels approaching rock-concert.

Downtown Puerto La Cruz is bustling, the beachfront main drag thronged with strollers and craft vendors at night. Not an appetizing place to anchor. We stayed west of the city, in the ritzy, vaguely Venetian area of EL Morro where million-dollar houses, brightly colored townhouse communities and even a sprawling shopping mall sit along an extensive, manmade system of canals. Restaurants are plentiful, international and expensive; happily, decent sushi made an appearance though vacuuming up $35 worth of sushi at lunch proved even easier than in New York—and I left a lot hungrier.

We enjoyed zooming around the canals in our dinghy, ducking under little walkway bridges and appreciating the interesting homes. Sadly, there are long, barren stretches of blight—gaping window shapes, coarse, unpainted cement and rubble where landscaping and grass might have been. Many projects were abandoned mid-way, the result of building scams and/or the depressed economy.

In a huge, change of pace, in this area we berthed in a marina attached to one of Venezuela’s luxury hotels (their five stars is more or less our tired Ramada). It offered the luxury of fresh towels every day to cruisers, plus the biggest hotel swimming pool I’ve ever seen and a gym, whose doors I did not darken. Since all this costs a boat no more than $15 a day, including electricity, cable TV hookup and phone jack, there were many cruisers who virtually had taken up residency there. There was a congenial group of people from all over, who staged almost continual cocktail parties and potluck dinners. Fun for a while, but not our scene.

Puerto La Cruz was our base, too, for 4 months because it is a safe, convenient spot to leave the boat. We flew home in August, in October and December. In between we explored inland Venezuela.


Our first foray, in early October, took us to Mérida where we studied Spanish and took in the Venezuelan Andes. The mountains are beautiful but not so dramatic as Ecuador’s—they also lack the many colorful indigenous Indians tribes, each of which appears at the sides of roads and on the mountainsides wearing its unique, age-old costumes, even while farming the steep terrain.

Cruisers usually go gaga when they start talking about Mérida, which made me feel we were in for something quaint and colonial, like Cuenca in Ecuador or San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. Not exactly…

Viewed from above, as you land or from its amazing teleférico – the longest and highest cable-car system in the world -- Mérida is like a snake slithering between two Andean peaks. The city itself is almost unrelieved grime, and probably looks even grimier because all its north-south streets -- the calles -- at both ends come to an abrupt dead-end at those shockingly clean, green Andes.

Its whole width can't be more than about a mile and a half. Both the calles and the much longer avenidas -- the body of the snake -- are lined with lots of unattractive squat buildings. These sit side by side and offset from one another -- one a foot or so behind the other, the next thrusting back out, almost like domino chips -- so that the slim sidewalks themselves are always zigging and zagging and forcing you to do the same..

So as you walk -- which is the primary mode of transportation, up and down the hilly streets, you're always bumping into people -- mostly enthusiastic but inattentive University of the Andes students loping around from behind the next hidden building setback. It's a gymkhana of a city plan, if indeed it can be called a plan. Adding to the overall hazard are the lampposts placed along the skinny strips of sidewalks somewhere between curb and building. Sideswiping the problem by stepping into the streets is usually not an option because they’re usually choked with automobile traffic operated by drivers who are usually not watching out for you because they’re busy ogling the natural and surgically altered endowments of the younger, prettier passers-by

But walking is part of the city's real charm -- if not exactly an aesthetic charm then a psychological one. Mérida’s charisma was its people and its ambiance. The college town atmosphere, the frequent student demonstrations in the square, trying to cross clogged streets amid parades of honking cars bearing cheering people and protest placards made the city feel lively, even a bit dangerous to us missed-the-60s old fogeys.

Best, we felt like college students ourselves, as we walked to school amidst all the other University students, stopping for a cafe breakfast, heads buried in course books checking our homework, then walking back home at the end of the day with more homework. 

The Iowa Institute, where we took our Spanish lessons, is owned by a former cruiser, an American woman married to a Venezuelan. The teachers are mostly university instructors Young, appealing, good-looking and playful, they made the classes lively, funny and informal. Each of us had no more than one other student in the class.. We spoke no English, only our halting Spanish, and as the days progressed, we got better and better. We took four hours a day of classes – two in the morning, two in the afternoon, with a long midday break for lunch, when we’d scramble around to cram in lunch and a rush to a cyber café to send email. All of us started and finished at different levels; we helped each other with our homework as we sat with a glass of wine at the kitchen

That kitchen table was also a big part of Mérida’s appeal. And Gioia. Gioia, pronounced, Joy-a, is exactly that, a joy. We stayed in her home, designed by her deceased architect father in the 1960s, in the midst of downtown Mérida. We had two of the spare rooms not devoted to the family, each with its own bathroom.

Gioia is a tour guide and part of the cruiser treasure trove of connections. She is good looking, outgoing, giggly, accommodating and fun to be with. Her 20-year-old daughter, a combination hellion, Valley Girl, divorcée and law student, lives there too. Downstairs in a separate apartment lives her aunt, the 92-year-old Tata, a sort of pixilated version of Everyone’s Favorite Aunt. A slight, immaculate sprig of a woman with an angelic face, a cherubic smile and a cloud of wispy gray hair, she materializes in her housedress and sweater, takes you in her arms and plants a kiss on your face, as if she’s known you all your life. It was our bad luck that we never got to meet Gioia’s mother, who was in Italy for a month, visiting family. Sonri’s charm, good humor and hospitality are also legion among cruisers. Her favorites apparently all return from Mérida having learned to make arepas. Mel, an aficionado of those porridgy items, was truly disappointed. Had she been there, I’m sure Gary and I would have preferred a gnocchi – or better yet Amatraciana sauce -- demonstration

Gioia took us out of town on the weekend, high up in the mountains to enjoy the change of scenery and climate, to see the condors, the snow-capped cliffs and Venezuela’s wonderful frailejones, a bushy plant with multiple yellow flowers that grows over entire mountainsides, turning their faces buttercup yellow from a distance. We stayed in a converted 16th century monastery. It was a wet, freezing -cold night; even with multiple layers of clothing, we shivered uncontrollably and our teeth literally chattered through our giggling, as the four of us sat almost alone in the vaulted dining room parceling out the inn’s sole bottle of white wine drop by drop to make it last.

On the way home the next day, we insisted Gioia round out our Spanish lessons by teaching us the words for every generally-concealed body part, every bodily-function word and scatological expression we could think of. I think this may have been a cruiser first for her. I believe she was also impressed with the fact that she herself couldn’t dredge up one word we hadn’t asked her. We left her with great hugs and kisses after two weeks, promising her we would make it our business to search among the cruiser set for a novio (boyfriend) con un gran pene (bet you can guess), someone who would not want to “cojerla en quattro” (clue: por la puerto detras…Okay, back door) and would siempre give her the choice of whether she preferred to escupe or traja leche. (the old spit or swallow debate rears its ugly head.)

And speaking of language, it was also in Mérida that we learned the words Venezuelans use to get people to smile when taking pictures. If you think about it, obviously it wouldn’t be “Cheese.” We were up 13,685 feet, on the fourth --next to last -- level of the teleférico, the fifth being typically out of order. Everyone was walking breathlessly in the rarefied air, along a cliff edge, when a boisterous family of maybe 12, ages child to grandparents, stopped for a group photo, They arranged themselves in a lopsided pyramid. The talky, jokey uncle and camera bearer stepped front and center, almost backing himself off the mountain face, cocked the camera, checked his composition, rearranged a few people and yelled. “Okay, digame, “Moneeka, Moneeka Leweeeensky!“ If you think of it, far more likely to raise a smile than “Cheese.”

Since no one dropped to her knees, I assume she wasn’t there.

Angel Falls

For the next month, November, we shuttled back and forth between our two favorite places, to Porlamar, where we’d provision, and then to the glorious, utterly deserted Tortuga, 60 nautical miles away – some into the wind, some not -- where we’d eat up all the provisions. An elegant arrangement, if you ask me. (Whoever said that cruisers have to be rational or logical)

In Tortuga we celebrated Thanksgiving with our British Oyster Rally friends, Dennis and Janet on Shilling, Richard and Lisa on Yantina. Having delayed their trip for the festivities, they were ready to rock on up the island chain -- Yantina to Antigua where Richard’s two daughters would visit over Christmas, and Shilling up to Puerto Rico, Cuba and Ft Lauderdale, where they would load the boat onto a transport, and send her to the Pacific Northwest where they plan on cruising for the next year. (Cruisers are a truly adventurous lot.)

Since we’d already gotten them to divert to Tortuga, it only took the sentence “We’re going to Angel Falls in a canoe” and they began salivating to join us, meaning they’d have to move a little faster than planned up the island chain. (A true cruiser is always willing to change his plans when something further, more desolate, more intriguing comes along.)

We had set up a trip with a guide named Mañuel Duarte, whom we’d never met but who, like Gioia, came highly cruiser-vetted. So highly vetted, we’d wired him $700 in cash, to take us up a river 60 miles in a canoe, where we’d spend the next two nights in some kind of a camp, sleep in hammocks and dig ourselves toilets in the woods – or maybe not even get so elaborate as the digging part. Mañuel would cook us our meals on a propane stove – one burner, hardly a recipe for a gourmet getaway. Somehow, I just I knew arepas would be get to be part of the picture. Somewhere in there we’d climb to the highest falls in the world. All this with 60-year-old legs and 60-year-old bodies.

And, all this for $700 —not including bus fare or hotels. (An additional day -- to another location, with hammocks presumably just as comfortable--that someone had mentioned as “fabulous”, not to be missed” was available at an additional maybe $300.)

(Cruiser enthusiasm, accompanied by a few passed-around printed pages of praise -- which no-one ever reads but is comforting to have because you know someone took the time out of his or her boat-maintenance schedule to write it, so whatever it is, it must have been amazing – is also highly infectious. So, with this vague venue to look forward to, note again, that all I had to say was “We’re going to Angel Falls in a canoe” and four people were ready to sign on.

Well, I must report, it was one of the most exciting, exhilarating, remarkable trips we’ve ever taken. Even the hammocks were surprisingly comfortable and pleasantly cocoon-ish once we – I guess literally – got the hang of it. You have to sleep sort of crosswise at about a 60-degree angle rather than along its length, so your back doesn’t mold itself into a comma. It helped that I’d brought a small throw pillow for my head. I know that last sounds not exactly like roughing it, but consider that it was only a throw pillow and not the three full-size pillows I can’t sleep without at home. Mel, too, stuffed one in his duffel when he heard I had.

Speaking of packing – the bane of my every travel experience that usually finds me shuddering in front of my closet on and off for hours  – it’ a cinch for a gig like this. I needed no makeup and no hair dryers (they’ve pretty much fallen by the wayside anyway in this life.) Health and beauty aids were limited to a bar of soap, toothpaste, insect repellant and suntan lotion… and the all-important flashlight for creeping into the woods. I needed a few pair of quick-dry shorts, a couple of tee shirts—which didn’t have to match, either!—a bathing suit or two, a poncho, a long-sleeved shirt and pants to sleep in. And, my sandals. Not even hiking shoes—it turned out the trek to Angel Falls was not scaling a cliff to the top, but rather a thoroughly non-challenging hour’s walk through some dappled woods, followed by a short, steep ascent to a lookout point. There we could see the impressive mile-long drop from the Angel Falls summit to its first landing, from whence it continues, stepping down the mountain, to a series of boulder-strewn waterfall pools. We swam in the deliciously icy water of one of the tributary falls and even nearly under its crashing, thundering tributary wall of water.

Angel Falls, however, was not the most awe-inspiring of the seemingly endless natural wonders we saw on this trip. We were hardly prepared for it—after all we hadn’t really delved into those cruiser reviews, except as to how much wine we should bring. The scenic boredom during the 5-hour bus trip also lulled us into the continued nagging sensation that this might have been a giant mistake. For this was just the beginning. We would leave the bus where the road – literally—ended. To go further into the wild we had chosen, we would have to fly another hour and a half, almost to the border of Brazil, where we would then get into canoes for the rest of our journey.

We stopped thinking about all this because the eight of us got on famously and nearly laughed our lungs out just deciding how many cases (!) of beer we needed for barely 3 days and 2 nights. (I believe seven was the final number: Richard, who drinks only beer, having lobbied so hard and successfully for the last two that we should have had a clue we’d run out…We blamed that, not on him, though, but on Mañuel and the two Pemòn Indian canoemen, Angel and Cordelio.)

Having traversed the bland, empty countryside in a bus the temperature of a Sub-Zero refrigerator, we arrived at the bland Cuidad Bolívar and the clean but bland hotel where we spent the first night. We had a relatively bland meal at the alleged best restaurant in town, whose repercussions, at least on Gary, were not bland. More of that later. In any event Day One was it for bland.

The next morning we flew to Canaima in a pair of five-seater puddle jumpers, with our duffels, wine stash, seven cases of beer and the assorted food supplies Mañuel had rassled up in town. Mañuel, by the way, turned out to be a pleasant, presentable 28-year-old, married to a pureblood Pemòn Indian, with three daughters and a baby on the way. Hearing this, we stopped begrudging him the trip’s cost, especially after Lisa negotiated the entire package, including that extra day, from $1300 a couple to $1,000 (including the seven cases of beer.)


Canaima is a small Pemòn Indian village with an airport and a touristy lodge, whose claim to fame is its magnificent setting and proximity to the Angel Falls. The dirt-road village sits along the Rio Carrao. The river flows downhill from the mountain and is the gateway-- indeed, the only way up--to the falls. The river, broad and flat we could see as we taxied in over it, divides and spills over as a broken line of eight separate ruffly falls, called Sapo Falls that are separated and bordered by vibrant-green foliage. The eight falls join again at the base, forming a large, peaceful, roseate oval lagoon, ringed by the Canaima area’s trademark pink sand. The sand color, like the stone of the mountains, is the result of the tannic acid in large nearby iron-ore deposits.


But the lagoon and Sapo Falls are only part of the almost heart stopping beauty of this terrain – seen from the air it’s dramatic, but absolutely took our breath away time and time again as we chugged up the river by canoe. This area of Venezuela is home to some 117 natural rock formations called tepuis – from the Indian word for table. These are imposing flat-topped mesas, thousands of feet high, which, in some geological event millenniums ago, pushed up from the flat earth like giant tabletops. Their sides are almost straight vertical drops. The rock core beneath them is among the oldest on earth, dating back half a billion years. Having evolved separately over the centuries, with no cross-pollination of any kind, each of their flat tops supports an entirely different ecological environment.


The tepuis, all with solemn, multi-syllabic Indian names that deserve a drumbeat behind them - Waipantepui, Kuruntepui, Auyantepui– preside, really tower, over the landscape like massive prehistoric castles. One of the smaller more whimsical-looking ones, looks like a crooked stovepipe hat; another, a sombrero brim. Still another wears a stern face with a solemn, horizontal slash of a mouth, deep-set eyes, a broad, flat, jutting nose

 They rise far into and even above the clouds. The walls are salmon, pink, beige, caramel, charcoal. Flying close in, we could see rough, pitted walls with deep vertical gashes made by eternal exposure to rains coursing down into their hard surfaces. The horizontal ridges are age striations, representing different eras in their formation.

 The biggest tepui by far is Auyentepui: with a top surface of about 300 square miles, it’s the size of Margarita – Venezuela’s largest island. Imperious, silent, impenetrable, it’s easy to see how primitive—or, even modern -- man might have worshipped its power. Luxuriant hills crawl respectfully up its craggy vertical walls, as if as if awaiting punishment, sanctification or damnation from the mighty granite god. In the brooding, almost mystical hush, any benediction seemed out of the question. Indeed, later I found out that Auyantepui, in Pemòn, means Mountain of the God of Evil.  A deep gorge runs through it center – it is into this gorge, called Cañon del Diablo – The Devil’s Canyon – that Angel Falls crashes down.

A 40-foot dugout canoe took us 60 miles around Auyantepui’s gauged walls and into its heart. Powered by a 50-horsepower Yamaha engine, the canoe was manned by two Pemòns. Luis steered from the stern. At the bow, with his short legs hanging over, sat Cordelio, pushing the nose left and right, using a flat oar about 5-feet long—just a little bit smaller than Cordelio himself. The Indians’ skin is the color and texture of molasses; their flat noses and narrow slanted eyes ride on high outrigger cheekbones amid moon faces.

The river was like six different rivers or more, wide in some spots, narrow in others, breaking into smaller tributaries in others. In some places it ran swift and foamy with rapids, so that we put on our ponchos; in others it was so glacially still, so black and reflective the mountain seemed to plunge deep into an echo of itself. In the shallower areas it was the color of its own muddy brown bottom; while other in other places it was blue as the midday sky, in still others it flashed orange and coppery with tannin.

In some areas, quite deep, it was so shallow and rocky in others we had to get out of the canoe and walk across slippery stones while the Indians and Mañuel steered it through rocks and rapids. In the shallower areas we passed foliage usually submerged -- huge, spongy mounds of greenery, that pale, lettucy color of early spring. Along other runs, we passed fallen trees arranged into huge driftwood sculptures and in still others massive boulders, fallen from the mountaintop, almost blocked our way: a giant stone robin’s egg, a downed bi-plane. One of these fanciful shapes came almost to a point and was perched atop another.

And always, looming above us, around us, in front of us, lit by sunlight or submerged in shadow, the monolith fortress, Auyantepui.

Luis’s concentration was fierce. His eyes rarely strayed from the water, his glance sweeping back and forth across it. The trip up-river took five hours; he must have studied and gauged many thousands of rocks that day. Using the tiller almost like a weapon, he drove the canoe where he wanted it and it seemed mostly the obedient servant of his strong will.

 But in narrow areas, when we went zooming to shore to avoid rocks, Cordelio could barely right us before we might crash. In others Richard—whose ruddy complexion, sharp edged features and spiky crew cut could have been chiseled from the surrounding stone—would jump to the bow, behind Mañuel and Cordelio, and all three would then thrust themselves forward to keep the engine from cracking in half on the rocks.

The canoe crunched, ground, lurched, banged into the bottom. Sometimes it felt like we were in a car stuck in snowdrifts; with the engine racing and whining as we tried to get purchase. We carried four propellers onboard: Good, Not-So-Good, Bad and Very Bad, which Luis changed to fit the rock terrain. We had come at the tail end of rainy season. It hadn’t rained in almost a week and the river had receded considerably. Plus we were actually navigating up it—500 feet higher, in fact -- which made it somewhat of was a logistical nightmare for the uncomplaining Luis. One week later we and would not have been able to go at all

By the time we arrived at our tin-roofed camp, beside a stony riverbank, it was dark and cold. Logistical problems like lack of mosquito netting and a truck breaking down – kept us from embarking when should have, no later than mid-morning. We hit the river almost at 1 PM and had stopped for a scenic riverside lunch and waterfall swim. That last stretch of the trip was scary and would have been scarier still, had we not grown to trust the judgment of the two Indians.

Nonetheless, that river odyssey was a magic stretch of time—for most of us. Gary began feeling poorly as we waited in Canaima for the canoe to be loaded with all our duffels and provisions, (including what was probably by then six cases of beer.) He got progressively—though silently—worse by the hour. Gary hates to complain, so about all I could get from him was a “my stomach’s not happy” and a stoic, “I’ll be fine.” By the time we arrived he was in considerable pain. He dragged himself out of the canoe and onto the small envelope of beach, while we all schlepped the gear out of the canoe, up to the pitch-black concrete-floored camp where Mañuel lit some kerosene lanterns and we began unpacking. Eventually alone, he crept down and found himself a private little patch of river, which, colder but in some ways more refreshing than the woods, became his toilet for the next two days. We figured he’d contracted some kind of food poisoning, probably from the copious quantities of local water he drank at the restaurant. Too bad, it kept him from walking up to the falls.

Viewing the Falls

When to view the falls gets to be a kind of a trade-off. They’re not the widest, but the longest falls in the world, 16 times Niagara’s height. So when we went, after the rainy season, while hardly a trickle, it did not show up at its most majestic. Still the powerful ribbon we did see descends with such force that in the middle of its drop it turns to vapor, then reassembles itself into water for the rest of its trip. It crashes down against a backdrop of rugged pink, gold, and brown canyon -- deeply scarred and chiseled by the water itself at its fullest. From there it continues, stepping down the mountain, to a series of rock-strewn waterfall pools. We swam the deliciously icy water of one of them and even nearly under one of these crashing, thundering, shorter drops, with a stunning view out over the boulders to yet another tepui.

Had we gone during rainy season, as our friends on Asylum and WC Fields did, we would have been drenched most of the time in the canoe and in camp by the almost constant rain. There would probably have been a lot more canoes, daytrippers and overnight tourists along the river than the very few we saw. We might not have been able to get to the viewing ledge because it would have been in the line of collateral water flow. But we probably would have seen the hundreds of smaller falls that come pouring off Auyantepui then. We did get a taste of that, however, in Kavac, along another face of the mammoth tepui, after a torrential waterfall, when we counted 23 of these slender, silvery stripes running down the deep forest green walls of the tepui. Not one of them had been there before the rain.

The falls themselves by the way, are not named for some heavenly cherub, but disappointingly enough for Jimmy Angel, an American bush-pilot and gold prospector who landed his four-seater plane in 1937 on the tepui top. Green, deceptively solid and dense like a well-tended lawn, that terrain proved instead to be — everywhere -- a wet, spongy bog, from which he couldn’t take off. Abandoning the plane, Angel, his wife and two companions hiked for some 11 days back to civilization — and that included descending the almost 3,000-foot vertical drop of the cliff face

The plane remained there until 1970 when it was removed by the air force. We passed it outside the Ciudad Bolívar airport on our way to Canaima. 

Dipping into timelessness and the Indian culture

Except for the planes we flew on and the motor that drove the canoe, this was a foray into timelessness. The landscape shows nothing of the hand of man—it is subject only to the whims and passions, the indifferent assaults and erosion of Nature. The river is essentially unpopulated, but for the thatched huts of a few Indian families and the several tin-roofed, wooden camps like the one where we slept and ate. The canoes are made the way they’ve always been made, by hand, carved out of a single tree. It takes 20 or so Pemòns working about a month to make one; this work goes on high in the mountains and Mañuel said as many times as he’d watched it he was humbled by the logistical dilemmas and the hard work involved in rolling them over logs down the mountain to the river.

We bathed in the river, grasping rocks to keep us from being swept off by the swift current. The woods were indeed our bathroom. Pounding night rains on the tin roof —which boded well for the return trip  -- lulled us, like music, to sleep, the hammocks swinging gently as we learned to make our comfort adjustments soft and gradual.  We were warmed by fire at night, returned from the Falls to 12 whole chickens cooking over a fire on wooden sticks, spitted one on top of another, from their crotches up through their heads. As ugly as this scene looked that’s how delicious they were—moist from being basted with their own fat and juices, skin so crackling and crisp you could almost cut your mouth on it.

The Indians, for the most part, lay in their hammocks in their free time and kept pretty much to themselves, except -- as they got more comfortable with us and accepted our invitations to help themselves—when they crept out for beers. Richard’s seven cases began to look even a somewhat hasty and miserly decision…)

As we sat around at the long plank table after Mañuel’s stew and rice dinner, he spoke about the Pemòn culture. Despite his marriage to one, which was probably resented because they prefer keeping their ancient bloodlines pure, it had taken him a very long time for them to trust him and to commit to taking him up the river as a tour leader.

Luis and Cordelio weren’t particularly working for the money, Mañuel said. They work because that’s what one does, to live a balanced life and to support the good of everyone. They barter and share what they have among themselves and, in fact, have no monetary system. Luis trained for three years as a bowman before being skilled enough to manage the stern. After five years at the stern he would earn himself a canoe, after which he would run a delivery service bringing Indian crafts down from the settlements high up the mountains and trading or selling for food and supplies. Mañuel had deep respect for their customs and spoke as if he saw himself as their apprentice. “hey see what you don’t see; they feel before they see,” he said.

The Indians also have a different concept of marriage than Westerners. They’re under no obligation to be monogamous sexually, but according to Mañuel, men maintain lifelong commitments to their wives and to their children. A man who impregnates someone other than his wife—and it happens all the time, he said--has a moral obligation to be a father in name and in deed to that child. A woman, by the same token, is not stigmatized if she sleeps with another man.

We had a long, hot fireside chat about that. Mañuel thought it was a fine idea, in fact, championed it as morally correct, an expression of human freedom. It had nothing to do with his deep feelings for his wife. In short, like most men, it would be no problem separating his feelings above the belt from what he’s doing below it. Of course, usually when they’re engaging in those activities, their belts are around their knees.)

The four Western women questioned not only the morally right part but also how this actually plays out in real relationships. We didn’t buy the logic that if it were logical, it would then be emotionally acceptable. We didn’t like it one bit.

Mañuel said he’d already had one such relationship. (Why were we not surprised?)

“How had his wife dealt with it?” we asked. (Oh, really, not so good?)

She’d been very upset, he admitted. They’d gone through a “bad time.” (Somehow we felt the bump in the road had been more like one of those boulders in the Carrao.) Her upset superceded her Pemòn heritage. She’d been as jealous as any Western woman about the fact that he’d availed himself of his marital rights.

It was clearly four against one. The Indians didn’t speak English and Western guys sure weren’t about to spoil any post-hammock sure-things by taking up his cause. And Gary, who might have joined in for the sport of the argument, didn’t look like he was ever leaving his hammock—except to drag himself to the river.

We asked Mañuel how he was going to feel when she availed herself of her rights. It turned out she had, maybe year later. (Between pregnancies, I guess.) He looked a little flushed -- and not by the fire either. He hadn’t liked it much either, he had to admit, but was, naturally, stuck having to defend her right to do it. He didn’t look keen about any reruns either. (Looked like, for a while anyway, he might be defending his rights, but he’d be staying home nights.)

Sex on the Tepui doesn’t sound any different than Sex and the City.


The journey downriver was swifter, because we were going with, not against, the current. The dawn scenery was almost more awesome—the highest-most peak of Auyantepui loomed charcoal, brooding, and even as a separate mountain -- a Shangri-la mirage rising mystically out of a patch of blue-gray clouds. The rising sun lit the tepui’s walls ever more brilliantly and, as we chugged down in the quiet, I felt even more alone, if that were possible, in the vast wilderness.

There was still more beauty and excitement to experience the rest of that day. Near the river’s mouth, we alit and walked a good distance over shiny, flat, black rock plates, around a corner, where we were greeted, almost face to face, by one of Sapo’s separate, hundred-foot waterfalls. We walked up to it and -- held back against the rock face by a rope cordon -- behind its slamming curtain of water, getting drenched in the process.

Had we not gone for a third day of excursion and sightseeing, we would have flown back to Ciudad Bolívar. But we had signed on for Kavac—buying lock, stock and barrel, the praises of a cruiser named Ed on a boat called “Doo-Dah.”  For all we knew, Ed was also into rockabilly concerts, roadkill, buttfucking and cold chili spooned out of a can. We knew even less, it turned out, about Kavac, thinking it was some kind of sensational cave.

So, ignorant but bursting with the enthusiasm of this so-far brilliant success of an outing, we said goodbye to Mañuel, Luis and Cordelio, threw our damp suitcases and our damp bodies into the Cessnas again. Passing close by Angel Falls, which appeared almost like a trickle against the vast tepui walls, we flew to Auyantepui’s southeast face. We landed in the midst of barren savannah near our “hotel,” a grouping of 12 or so thatched-roof, adobe huts, imitations of traditional Indian dwellings. Here we had hammocks, but also real showers.

Knowing almost nothing of where we were going, we took off for “Kavac,” whatever that would turn out to be, following Carlos, a burly, heavily-muscled Indian smaller even than Cordelio. Without Mañuel to translate, we were reduced to hand signals and grunts but followed along a dry, pebbly path with a rocky bed below us that carried a small, barely perceptible stream. (Pay attention, this will turn out to be important.)

Walking up now through woods and once again actually into the tepui, we came upon a shady clearing with russet-rock walls and a whirling pool beneath. We were standing on a rock ledge and at Carlos’s nod, we (well, Lisa) jumped, while we tushied ourselves down the ledge into the pool. It began to rain as we then swam up over rocks and through narrow rock walls into and behind a small waterfall feeding the pool. Then we swam back, letting the small rapids send us body-surfing over the rocks back to the pool. Lovely. Very pretty. So we figured that was Kavac. But, as it happened, this was more like a dress rehearsal --  well, actually more an un-dress rehearsal -- or the main event

As we climbed out of the pool, the heavens really opened up and it began to pour. Obviously better informed than we, Carlos opened a convenient plastic bag and we dropped in our cameras. We left the pool area, climbed higher through the woods and came again to a clearing and a series of stepped rocks ending in small cascades and pools.

What I couldn’t yet imagine, but what we were doing was making our way into the taller walls of the tepui, up the ever-widening path of a river, toward its source, which we could not see. From one to the next, with the rain pouring over us, against the flowing—and as the rains increased--onrushing water, we climbed, slipped, crawled over slippery rocks, boulders and ledges, clinging, whenever we could and in whatever ungainly postures we could strike, to tree branches, the muddy, rocky side wall, the slippery rocks themselves. I would not have wanted to be bringing up those rears!  When the floor of rock finally disappeared into a river, Carlos indicated we had to cross, picked up a submerged rope and, hand over hand, pulled himself across.

 We heard it before we saw it—the roar of a big waterfall—and then we entered its space-- with jagged walls now towering over us and a watery path to follow up to it -- the roiling pool this falls crashed down into.

Ahhh, so this was Kavac! The source of all the smaller pools and shelves and river traverses we’d just struggled through. Impressive, to say the least. Not to mention arduous and strenuous…Carlos, whose thick, ropy muscles we now understood better, swam in front of and almost against the wall of falls, to a ledge, where he groped into the water and flashed another rope: “Come and get it!” he might have been saying. But where it led, we had no idea, because as far as we could see, he had reached a dead end against a rock wall.

One by one, we followed.. I wasn’t sure I could make it: the force of the falls was so powerful and swimming across it had been made more treacherous by the torrential – and ongoing -- rain that had come so suddenly and could suck me into its vortex, sending me crashing back down all those levels and rocks.

Somehow Jackie and I found ourselves swimming—rather, thrashing—across together. Nearing the end and turning to the right, where Carlos had disappeared, I looked up—into a stunning surprise. We were entering into a narrow black chasm, an opening in the rock carved by the relentless falling of water over centuries. The spectacular sight, as well as the flow pushing out of the canyon and back into the pool, made it almost impossible for either of to us grab that tantalizing rope. Like two cavorting baby whales, we kept sliding off the nearby boulders and bumping into one another, until Mel, arriving, actually took hold of our two rear ends and shoved both of us forward.

Breathless, giggling, we made contact with the lifeline and, gripping it, tugged ourselves forward and further into this marvel. It was so narrow in places we could almost touch both walls. Though we could hardly imagine anything more breathtaking, we soon rounded a blind corner where the gap widened. Hearing the noise and seeing the sudden light, we looked overhead. There, high above, thunderous water came crashing across the vaulted space. Feeding the falls we had just passed we realized is yet this higher falls. And beyond that, probably another.

THIS was Kavac! Thank you, Ed! The wonder of this unspoiled, untrammeled canyon, this cul-de-sac that our own puny lives had somehow led us to, was transfixing. For a while.

But, then, like all good things and, being a cul-de-sac, it had come to an end. Eventually there was nowhere to go but back. I admit freely to trepidation amid all this untamed ferocity about retracing our route. So much water had fallen in the sudden rains.

But, with no choice, we both turned around, let go and shot back down that narrow chute, carried by the force of the flow, screaming at the top of lungs with the exhilaration of it. All I could think of as the walls sped by us, was that I was Kathleen Turner in the middle of an Indiana Jones movie. And, as for my Indiana, he had by this time rallied, and had only had to drop back once during this adventure to relieve himself. What a relief!

My assessment was correct. Much of our previous path, the rocks we had climbed had disappeared and the strength of the current was fierce. An Indian from the little village showed up along our way with a coil of rope to help us ford some of the more difficult crossings. As we passed out of the woods, the rain just tapering off, we found the dry path we’d ambled along as we entered was now a small river and the stony trickle down the embankment had turned into brisk, wide rapids.

I understood that we had had the great luck to have arrived just in time to be part of that mercurial change, to be at the cusp of danger and to witness, if only slightly, the forces of nature at work. Ten minutes later and even our intrepid guide would have aborted our tour. A half-hour earlier and we’d have seen a quarter of that huge volume of water.

And can you imagine, a national park or scenic site in the United States that would have allowed tourists into this potentially treacherous arena? We wore no life jackets, had signed no waiver, taken out no insurance policies and -- best of all -- there was no lawyer lurking as we exited, waving class-action suit papers in front of our noses.



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