The Gulf War broke out the night I left for Venezuela, but I was not annoyed because I believed travelling in war time would be dangerous. Rather it was because I’d been following the Persian Gulf story for months, consuming everything I could find about it in the newspapers or on TV. I had become a news addict, and now—just when things were getting really interesting—I was faced with a cold-turkey withdrawal. I doubted that CNN or Time Magazine would be available in Venezuela, and even if they were they would most certainly not be in English.
I was also on a very limited budget for this trip. I’d already consumed my travel funds for the year a few months earlier in the Yucatan peninsula so I would have to watch every penny. Yet oddly enough I was travelling First Class. The ticket, a reward for frequent flying on Continental, was free. So as I counted my pennies I would at least be relaxing in opulence.
The reason I was going to Venezuela was because Daniela Salvadori, an Italian woman, was also going there. One might consider that reason enough but actually Dani had lived with my family for eight years as a foreign student and I and my other siblings considered her a sister. Many years later she was now married and living in California with her husband Bob and twenty year old daughter Catia. Daniela’s Italian parents had for decades lived in Maracay, Venezuela, and she and her family were going to visit them. I’d been invited to join.
The nature of the free ticket had required that the trip be expanded slightly. The closest Continental Airlines flies to Venezuela is the island of Aruba (Netherland Antilles), which is just off the coast. Airfares between Aruba and Caracas are surprisingly low: a round trip can be had for only $89. For the benefit of my hosts Dilvo and Dina Salvadori, it was important—Daniela explained—for me to arrive in Caracas and depart from Caracas at approximately the same time as she. Coordinating schedules presented no problem for the return leg, but on the way there the best Continental could do was get me to Aruba a full three days early.
Now one might consider this no great hardship. Aruba is one of the rising-stars of Caribbean tourism and a forced stay of three days could be viewed as a blessing. In fact as a recently-certified scuba diver I could well imagine how those days might be spent. But in the course of the planning things became more complicated. Aruba is famous for its white sand beaches. In fact the whole island is one continuous beach. While this makes it wonderful for sun-bathers it makes it a nightmare for scuba divers. Where there is sand there is no coral and where there is no coral there are no fish. Among divers Aruba is considered a wasteland. Yet not so far away is the island of Bonaire, third in the Netherland Antilles chain with Aruba at the western end and Curacao in the middle. Unlike Aruba, Bonaire has no sand beaches, only coral reefs. So while sunbathers avoid it like the plague Bonaire is considered one of the three best dive locations in the entire Caribbean. (The two others being Cozumel and the Cayman Islands.)
When further research demonstrated that changing my ticket to allow a stop in Bonaire on the way to Venezuela would not increase the cost, the trip began to fall together neatly. I would fly Continental from Denver to Aruba, with a change of planes in Newark. (Yes, Newark.) The Denver flight left at one in the morning on a Thursday, and the Aruba flight arrived at 4:30 in the afternoon of the same day. My travel agent had explained that I would have to stay over one night in Aruba before proceeding on to Bonaire at 7:00 the next morning. I would therefore have most of Friday in Bonaire, all day Saturday, and would catch a 3:00 p.m. flight to Caracas on Sunday. I would arrive in Caracas precisely twenty minutes after Daniela.
Just after midnight on January 17th I sat in the front row of the first class cabin while Continental’s flight 454 prepared for departure. The seal made by the jetway around the airplane’s hatch was not complete, and a freezing wind managed to slip through, finding myself its easiest target. As I huddled under three blankets awaiting the moment when the door would be closed, I reflected on the likelihood that in 24 hours I would be sweltering in a tropical climate and remembering that cold wind fondly. This provided a certain intellectual comfort at least.
I also reflected on the fact that I had no hotel reservations for either my one night in Aruba, or my two nights in Bonaire. I am accustomed to travelling with no hotel reservations, but January is the high season in the Caribbean. Hotels would likely be expensive, and vacancies few. I had friends who had recently returned from Bonaire, and I asked them for advice. They mentioned three hotels on the island: The Sonesta (hi-end), Captain Don’s (easy diving right off the beach), and (low end) the Divi Flamingo Resort. I asked for a rough idea on nightly rates, and they weren’t much help on this because they always obtained a “package.” Six nights at Captain Don’s, for example, came to $1200, but that included some meals and some diving. Being more a follower of the “Europe on $25 a day” approach to travelling, that $1200 number seemed to have too many zeroes on it. Perhaps the low-end Divi Flamingo would be my speed, but any hotel with the word “resort” in it sounded expensive. And Bonaire is considered the undiscovered “inexpensive” destination. The hotel rates in Aruba, I was assured, would be considerably higher and vacancies fewer. Well if worst came to worst perhaps I could camp on the beach. I adjusted my pillow in the large first class seat and tried to sleep as the plane took off for Newark.
Some hours later I was seated in the identical seat on a different plane as Continental’s long range Boeing 737, lifted into the skies above Newark and headed south. After a few mimosas had been served in the first class cabin I began talking to the young woman seated next to me.
“So, have you ever been to Aruba before?”
“Oh yes, many times. I go there on business.”
“What sort of business does one do in Aruba?”
“Well, I work for the Sonesta hotels. We’re having a big sales meeting in Aruba this weekend. I’m responsible for putting it on.”
I remembered the Sonesta was the “high-end” hotel on Bonaire.
“I knew there was a Sonesta in Bonaire,” I commented, “but I didn’t know there were others. Is it a chain?”
“Very much so. There are Sonesta’s all over the world. We have one in Jerusalem, several in Asia, quite a few in Europe, and of course lots in the Caribbean.”
“And what do you do for the company, if I may ask?”
“Well, actually I run the company.”
“You’re the head of the whole chain?”
“More or less. My father’s the founder and president, but he’s pretty much retired now. I do all the work.”
I should have realized that, travelling in first class, my seat-mate was not likely to be a chambermaid.
This became even more obvious when we were joined in our conversation by the friendly gentleman behind us who was standing in the aisle looking for others to talk to. It became obvious he was a lawyer.
“So what kind of law do you practice?” I asked.
“Oh, lots of things. I specialize in divorce and child custody cases. Do you remember the Baby M trial?”
“Well, I was the attorney for Mary Beth Whitehead, the natural mother.”
He went on to mention one of his colleagues who was handling Ivana Trump’s divorce settlement.
“He really screwed that up,” he explained, and proceeded to point out some tactical mistakes that had been made in the trial.
This was too much.
“Hey!” I wanted to shout. “I’m not impressed with you guys! I’m the head of an international telecommunications company! I have just as much right to be here in first class as any of you other hotshots!” But I held my tongue. That international telecommunications company only had four employees, and the cost of a first class seat to Aruba probably equalled my firm’s annual travel budget.
The pilot’s voice boomed out over the cabin speakers.
“Ladies and gentleman, if you’ll look down below us you’ll see the country of Haiti.”
Haiti! Few places on earth are more exotic than Haiti, the voodoo capital of the world. I stared at the island intently but all I could see were jungle-capped green mountains. From 35,000 feet there was no evidence of Baron Samedi and his chicken-blood death rituals.
A short while later we landed at Aruba. I studied the shoreline as we approached and all I could see were endless sand beaches. True to its reputation there was no coral anywhere.
In the Netherland Antilles there are two official languages: Dutch, obviously, and Papiemento, which is a mixture of Dutch, Spanish, English, French, and Latin. I was also assured that English was spoken widely. At the emigration desk the official asked where I would be staying in Aruba. That had been one of the lines to fill out on the emigration card, but as I had no idea where I would be staying I’d left it blank.
“I don’t know yet,” I responded. Possibly I was the first American tourist ever to arrive from the U.S. without a hotel reservation in Aruba, for he looked at me oddly and then shook his head.
“I will hold your passport,” he decided, “until you have chosen a hotel. There is a tourist bureau in the airport that will help you.” He waved me on through.
I was incensed! Couldn’t a person arrive in Aruba and where they stayed would be there own business! I didn’t want to choose a hotel because I was hoping my travel agent was wrong, and there would be a flight yet today that would take me to Bonaire. If so that would simplify things considerably.
I mingled out in the airport for a few minutes and then returned to the passport official.
“I’m staying at the Sonesta,” I lied. He looked me over suspiciously. It was quite obvious that in my worn out jeans, sneakers, and backpack luggage I was not the typical Sonesta customer. But he stamped my passport and let me through.
There were dozens of airline counters, most of them for airlines I’d never heard of. Air Aruba had a flight to Bonaire leaving at seven the next morning. That was my reservation.
But right next to Avensa was an airline called “ALM — Antillean Airlines.” That looked promising. Sure enough, they could get me to Bonaire that night, if I was willing to change planes in Curacao. And I certainly was. I’d been regretting the fact that I would not be able to set foot on Curacao in my visit to the Netherland Antilles and now that could be remedied. It required 45 minutes of manipulations among several offices in the airport to convert my Air Aruba ticket into two ALM tickets: one to Curacao and the other from Curacao to Bonaire. But in the end the thing was done, and at no additional charge.
A few hours later I nervously approached the immigration desk on Curacao. There were two lines: one for transients (which I was), and one for those planning to stay in Curacao. I knew from experience that if I behaved myself and meekly followed the transients I would not get my passport stamped with a Curacao stamp, which was unthinkable. So I chose the non-transient line and when it was my turn the official asked where I was staying. I was tempted to say “The Sonesta” guessing that there might be one, but instead I blurted out the truth:
“I’m not staying here overnight. I’m leaving in a few hours for Bonaire.”
“Ah! You’re in the wrong line. You must go that way.” He motioned towards the transient line.
“But I want to get my passport stamped!” I pleaded.
“No, not for transients. You must go in that other line.”
Fortunately I had succeeded in making friends with an elderly couple directly behind me and they were sympathetic to my plight. The man stepped up to the official and said:
“Now see here! This man wants his passport stamped! Stamp his passport!”
Several others in the line murmured angry approval.
“C’mon, stamp his passport!”
“What’s the big deal man? The guy just wants a stamp. Stamp his passport!”
This was probably the closest thing to a political revolt in Curacao since the Dutch wrestled the island from the English in the 19th century.
Seeing he was outnumbered the official murmured angrily in Papiemento, stamped my passport, and made a few notations with his pen.
I thanked my co-conspirators and now willingly went off to join the transients. But as I waited for my next flight I glanced at the hard-won Curacao stamp. I was outraged! The passport official had won after all. Scribbled across the beautiful Curacao engraving was the handwritten word “souvenir.” That, of course, made the whole thing worthless.
As soon as we were airborne the pilot announced that our flying time to Bonaire would be 12 minutes. And true to his words he immediately began a descent. I hadn’t realized how close the two islands were. It was now ten thirty p.m,, and for the third time that day I approached the immigration counter. I dreaded what I knew would be the first question.
“Where are you staying on Bonaire?”
“I don’t know yet. Any suggestions?”
This official was more friendly than his counterparts on Aruba or Curacao. He handed me a tourist flyer with some hotel listings, and then pointed to a public phone on the far wall.
“When you find a hotel, you can let me know,” he said. But he didn’t retain my passport.
I hadn’t intended to begin my hotel search so late at night but I had no choice. The least expensive hotel advertised in the flyer was called “Caribe Inn” with “off season” rates of $49 per night. No mention was made of their high-season rates. The small ad also seemed to indicate that the Caribe Inn was 100% oriented towards diving, unlike–was the implication–some of the other fancy places in town. And the other hotels seemed to start about twice the price.
I had obtained some Netherland Antilles “guilders” in Curacao, so I had the right change to use the phone and I guessed that anyone at a hotel in Bonaire would speak English. I dialed the number. There was nothing. The phone was obviously broken. Another official was passing within earshot and I explained my predicament.
“I’m trying to find a hotel, but the phone seems to be broken.”
He pointed out a security guard on the other side of the airport, and indicated he could help me.
The security guard was a huge black man dressed in an imposing uniform. I approached him meekly and stated my request.
“We try my phone!” he responded with a wide, white-toothed grin. He patted me on the shoulder and maneuvered me over to his raised dais.
“What hotel you want?”
I showed him the ad for the Caribe Inn. He tried the number.
“Busy.” He said. We waited a few minutes and tried again. Still busy. I didn’t want to abuse the man’s time. I could try a different hotel, but the Caribe Inn sure looked like the place to stay. We tried one more time and got through. He handed me the phone.
“Do you have any vacancy for tonight?” I asked
“How many nights?”
“Just a minute, let me check.”
She came back on the line in a few minutes.
“Well, we have a room but it won’t be ready until tomorrow night. I’m afraid we can’t help you right now.”
This was devastating news. I had convinced myself that the only hotel I could afford on the whole island was the Caribe Inn, and it was now after 11:00 at night. How long would the security guard remain friendly as I worked my way through the phone book? I was determined not to give up.
“What’s wrong with the room now?” I asked.
“Well, it’s just been repainted, so it smells like paint, and we haven’t had time to put the curtains back up yet.”
This was sounding better and better. Maybe I could get it at a reduced rate.
“Actually,” I said, “I’ve always loved the smell of new paint. And I’ve been on airplanes for more than 24 hours. I’d really like the room, and I certainly don’t care about curtains.”
She finally gave in. I took a cab the two miles to the hotel.
The formal name of the hotel is “Bruce Bowker’s Carib Inn,” and as I strolled into the patioed foyer at 11:30 it was Bruce himself who met me. Bruce is an expatriated American who had bought a house on Bonaire ten years ago and has been slowly converting it to a dive center/hotel ever since. The Caribe Inn thus consists of no more than a dozen inter-linked one-story bungalows, with a small but neat pool in the middle. A pathway leads from the pool down to a private dock at the shore about 50 yards away.
The room was magnificent. It was simple, with a bare tile-floor and certainly not decorated in any way. But it had two beds, a small kitchenette, air conditioning, a full bath, and best of all:cable TV. Bruce gave me the room for the off-season rate of $49, since it had no curtains.
“How’s the war going?” I asked as he was getting me situated.
“The Iraqi’s have hit Israel with a missile,” he reported glumly. Now it looks like Israel’s going to retaliate, and the whole things going to break wide open.”
But at least I would have access to CNN for three days. In fact, tired as I was, I turned on the TV and watched the news steadily for almost an hour. No heroin addict has ever appreciated their fix as much as I did the TV that night.
I was up early the next morning, but not early enough to make the first boat dive, which left the dock at 8:00. I found Bruce in the dive shop, and proceeded to question him on a number of details that needed arranging.
For breakfast, in fact for any of my meals, he mentioned that there was a small grocery store a few blocks down the road. To call the U.S., which I needed to do, he explained that it could only be done from the telephone building located in town. It was about a thirty minute walk. And then we proceeded to discuss diving. I could rent the equipment I needed for a modest fee, and could make as many dives as I wished right off the pier. Apparently a spectacular coral “wall” began just a few hundred yards off the shore. The Caribe Inn provided two boat-dive trips per day, at a cost of $15.00 each. It all sounded incredibly inexpensive compared to diving in Australia or Cozumel (my only two previous dive trips). Bruce also explained that frequently solo divers like myself would dive without a buddy, which violates most of what is taught in dive manuals, but Bruce seemed to think it not unreasonable.
“Bonaire diving is about the safest and simplest anywhere in the world,” he explained. “There are no currents, no problems with surf, no kelp to get caught in, clear water, and just great diving. If you know what you’re doing, you won’t get into trouble.”
I hiked to the grocery store and purchased a two-day supply of food. My little kitchenette was not equipped with a refrigerator, so it was no easy to decide what to buy. I finally settled on two loaves of fresh, round bread, a jar of jam, peanut butter, spaghetti and sauce, instant coffee, four cans of sardines (I love sardines), and a six pack of beer. The only beer I ever saw for sale in the Netherland Antilles is the Dutch beer Amstel. It was nice to find it available at a domestic price.
After a breakfast of bread, jam, and sardines I hiked into town, found the phone building, and called home. From what I had seen of it so far, the town of Kralendijk, capital of Bonaire, was a very quiet, provincial little place. I saw only natives (generally black) walking around the few streets, and no apparent tourists at all. This was certainly not the stereotypical Caribbean island, awash in Americans. I guessed the temperature to be about 85, the sky was clear, and the humidity–while extreme by the standards of Colorado wintertime–was not oppressive. A pleasant and steady wind was blowing.
Back at the Caribe Inn I prepared my first solo dive. I hauled all my equipment: weight belt, fins, snorkel, face mask, wet suit, backpack, airtank, and regulator down to the pier. This took several minutes and I saw no other guests. Presumably they were out on the morning boat dive. One old grizzled gardener, black as coal, watched me expressionlessly as I struggled into my wet suit, arranged my regulator on the airtank, strapped the airtank onto the back pack, and performed other maneuvers which I’m sure he had witnessed many times. Finally I was ready to don my airtank itself. This is something that one’s buddy always helps with. But since I had no buddy, I had to figure out how to do it alone. I tried sitting down and reaching back with my arms. The airtank fell over with a crash. I tried to put one arm through, and then kind of throw the airtank around to my other arm. That didn’t work either. Several minutes went by and I was beginning to perspire in the hot sun. The old gardener just kept watching me, as if he’d lived so long that no sight on God’s earth could possibly surprise him, certainly not this one. Finally I managed it, got the various straps adjusted properly, stepped into my fins, pulled down my face mask, and walked to the end of the pier.
Bruce had explained that one could enter the water either by doing a “giant stride” off the pier, or by entering from the beach. Nothing is harder than entering the water from a rocky beach, wearing full dive equipment, so I chose the pier.
“You might just touch bottom as you jump in,” he warned.
Giant Stride entries were one of the ones practiced heavily when I took my scuba classes back in Colorado. I recalled how, if you brought your legs together, and pushed downwards with your arms as you hit the water, you could actually keep your head above the water. On the other hand a more conservative approach is to hold your regulator with one hand, and your face mask with the other, so that neither will be pulled loose by the shock.
I decided to use my hands to hold my equipment, not cushion the fall. Sure enough, my fins did just touch the bottom as I jumped in. Everything seemed to be working, so I headed out away from the shore, my fins propelling me forward as I held to a depth of about five feet. The first thing I came upon was a huge anchor, the kind that would have held a big sailing vessel in the prior century. I inspected it, but it did not hold my attention for long. Twenty yards further on I discovered a chair, made of wrought iron metal, the kind that might be placed on a veranda. It was sitting on the seabed under about 25 feet of water. I was tempted to sit ;in it, but then decided it was just the kind of thing to get an airhose tangled around, so I kept going.
I came to the coral wall, which dropped off at about a 45 degree angle. “Watch your depth gage carefully,” Bruce had warned. “It’s real easy to find yourself 100 feet down without even realizing it.” As I wandered back and forth and up and down the coral wall I was glad of the advice. I was keeping a constant eye on my depth gage and sure enough, the coral was so voluptuous, and so easy to become mesmerized by, that it was very difficult to maintain a constant depth level. Nonetheless I kept myself above 60 feet, and terminated the dive after thirty minutes. Back at the shore I now had to get myself out of the water, and the only way to do that was through the rocky beach. I had never done a shore dive , and had no real experience with how one exits the surf with fins and full scuba gear. I swam in as close as possible under the water, about five yards from shore, and then tried to drag myself farther in. That didn’t work. I tried standing up but the first wave knocked me over. Getting more and more frustrated, I finally just crawled in on my hands and knees, getting rolled several times in the process, and having my facemask dislodged twice.
This embarrassing performance was made no easier to bear when I realized that the old gardener had been watching my every move, starring expressionlessly as always. I was tempted to throw him into the surf and see how he fared with his rake and his hoe, but I didn’t.
Back in my room I ate sardines and watched CNN’s Bernie Shaw tell how he had escaped from Iraq.
At 1:30 p.m. I pulled myself away from the TV and hauled my equipment down to the dive boat. Patricia, the divemaster, took us out to the far side of the tiny island called “Klein Bonaire,” which in Dutch means “little Bonaire”, visible about five miles offshore from the hotel. The others on the boat were all Americans, most of them couples. Patricia was with a student, and so again there was no obvious person to be my buddy, but no one seemed to care, least of all the dive master herself.
“You can tag along with my student and me, if you want,” she said. “But you certainly don’t have to.”
The laid-backness of this Bonaire diving was unnerving. I remembered my previous boat dives in Tasmania and on the Yucatan coast. The militant dive masters had always given a formal speech before each dive.
“OK, listen up! We’re going to go down to the seafloor which is 50 feet. We’re going to stay there until I’m certain everyone’s with us. Then we’re going to proceed single file over the wall, which starts at about sixty feet. We should hit that about ten minutes into the dive. We’ll go down the wall to 90’, stay there for ten minutes, and then head back to the top of the wall. I want everyone at the top of the wall at 0900. We’ll do a decompression stop at 15 feet for five minutes. Then we head for the surface. Everyone understand? Everyone got their buddy? OK, lets synchronize our watches. Bill, you go first.” …And so forth.
I watched somewhat apprehensively as the other divers prepared their ;equipment. Then, without notice, one of them just rolled backwards off the boat. A few minutes later someone else followed. There was obviously going to be no structure to this dive at all. I held onto my face mask and rolled off backwards into the water myself. As I had been taught I came immediately to the surface, checked my air supply, and made an “OK” motion by putting my fist on my head, for the benefit of the dive master and others who would be concerned. But no one even was looking at me, or probably would have cared if they had been. After about fifteen minutes of exploring the coral by myself I was getting lonely so I want off in search of Patricia and her student. I found them shortly, and she waved in acknowledgement. Patricia then proceeded to show her student and me a number of strange and interesting animals hidden in the reef that I would never have seen on my own, as they appeared to be part of the reef itself.
Back in the boat, and as we were bounding over the waves at full speed towards the hotel dock I began talking to some of the other divers. Ed and Sue, a young couple from Massachusetts, were trying to work up the courage to do a night dive from shore. They welcomed my suggestion that I go with them. A young man on the other side of the boat, Schuyler, volunteered to come along as well.
At 8:30 I had finished my spaghetti and sardine dinner and was hauling my equipment down to the dock for the third time that day, but now everything was pitch black. Ed and Schuyler were already there wrestling with their own gear. Sue had chickened out. One of the other divers from the boat had handsomely offered me the use of his elaborate and expensive dive light so at least I would be well-equipped.
Ed and Schuyler seemed determined to enter from the beach, so I followed them the best I could. Again there was no particular dive plan, except the one in my mind. The one in my mind was: stay close to Bob and Schyuler.
It is difficult to describe how utterly black a night dive is. As soon as one descends from the surface it is as if you had gone into a sealed room and turned off the light. You quite literally cannot see the hand in front of your face. Each of us now turned on our dive lights, and suddenly long spears of light appeared in the blackness. I could not see the other divers, I could only see their lights. Schuyler had an underwater compass so he led as we headed out to the reef wall. This was the same territory I’d explored that morning, a fact which I found comforting. At night you only see the piece of the coral which you are illuminating with your dive light, but the colors in coral appear bright in direct proportion to the amount of light being shown on them. And so one of the most exciting things about a night dive is watching the coral explode into color as you pass over it. Among the wildlife on the reef that night was the largest moray eel I’ve ever seen. He had come a full yard out of his hole, and looked twice as thick as my arm. We studied each other silently for awhile, and then I swam off, giving his rows of saber-like teeth a wide berth.
Our depth was approximately 45 feet and we had been down twenty five minutes when my dive light went off. I jiggled the switch and knocked it with my hand a few times. It came back on. Then it went off permanently.
I wasn’t sure how scared I should be. One of the things you are taught in scuba training is not to panic when something like this happens. I tried to calmly evaluate my situation. On the one hand I now couldn’t see anything except the lights of the other two divers. That meant I couldn’t see my depth and air-supply gages, or even my watch. It also meant it would be tricky navigating back to the hotel because I might literally swim directly into a wall of coral by accident, even if I were heading in the right direction. On the other hand I could see the other divers, and I could stay close to them if I wished. Or I could surface carefully, judging my rate of ascent by guesswork, and on the surface I could see the shore and swim to the shore.
The other two divers hadn’t realized what had happened, they were still swimming around inquisitively shining their lights at the coral. I decided I could not stay with them. Without being able to see my air supply and depth it was just too dangerous. Yet I couldn’t leave them unannounced.
I swam over to Schuyler and touched him on the shoulder. He looked up, and with hand signals I showed him my problem. Then I indicated I was going to head back to shore. He asked, with his hands, if I wanted him to accompany me, but I declined his offer and we waved goodbye. But before I left I used his light to read my airsupply, depth gage, and his compass. I got a rough bearing back to the shore, ascended to what I guessed was a level well above any coral, and then started flutter kicking with my fins thru the blackness. Above me I could see the surface, with a pale sheen of moonlight upon it, so I was not entirely without reference. And then I happened to look back in the direction of my fins and what I saw was astonishing.
My fins were enveloped with beautiful, dazzling points of light! I hadn’t seen it earlier because the dive lights had blinded me. But with other light sources removed the phosphorescence of the tropical water was now generating a spectacular light show. I stopped swimming, so amazed was I with the phenomenon. I tried moving my arm rapidly thru the water and a thousand points of light burst off it. I tried moving both my arms, and the effect was doubled. Then I tried kicking with my fins slightly and was rewarded with an even bigger show.
Pleased as I was, I knew I still needed to get back to shore. Needing another bearing I allowed myself to ascend slowly to the surface. When my head broke above the waves I could see the lights of the Carib Inn only 200 yards away. I dropped back under and continued my journey, every few minutes peeking out from the waves to make sure I was headed in the proper direction.
Finally I arrived, and with no less difficulty than before I stumbled through the surf, removed my equipment, and waited for the others. After awhile I could see their dive lights approaching and soon they too were on dry land.
“Bummer about the light, man,” said Schuyler.
“Yeah, well, no big deal.” I tried to sound like losing my light on a night dive was a fairly common occurrence. I changed the subject.
“How do you guys enter and exit the surf so easily with your gear on?” I asked.
“The trick,” said Schuyler, “is to not put your fins on until the water is about up to your shoulders. And when you get out, take your fins off at that same point.” I tried that later and it worked. I asked the other question in my mind.
“And how do you get your backpack on so easily, without a buddy?”
Schuyler showed me another trick. He positioned the backpack in a certain way in front of him, put his arms through the thing more or less backwards, and then flipped the whole contraption over his head. It fell neatly into place.
“Live and learn!” I exclaimed, very impressed.
“Yeah, just make sure you never do that on a boat dive,” he cautioned. “The dive master will kill you.”
“On a crowded boat you’ll probably knock at least two other divers into the water with that maneuver!”
Back in my room I caught up on CNN’s war reports and then went to bed, very happy to be in bed.
We returned from the morning dive at 10:30 a.m. and an awful task awaited me: the dive tables. Never a big fan of mathematics, the dive tables had been my nemesis during scuba instruction, and I’d been grateful that I’d never had to use them in real life. But after so many dives in such a short period of time, and with three more planned for the day, I was building up lots of nitrogen in my blood. Exactly how much nitrogen, how deep I could go on subsequent dives, how long I could stay down, and what decompression stops would be necessary on the way back up is what the dive tables would tell me.
Hmmm. Did I even have a dive table? There was one in my Jeppeson Sport Diver Manual back home, but that was back home. Ah! Here was one in the back of my dive log book that I’d purchased in Australia. I set to work with a paper and pencil. Right away I realized something was wrong. This dive table was in meters! Well, I could convert if I had to. Then I realized something else was wrong. This dive table didn’t look anything like the dive table I’d been taught to use. This was some kind of wierd south-of-the-equator “new math” dive table. Probably it wouldn’t even work in the northern hemisphere, or if it did it would have to be read backwards, or upside down or something.
Obviously I needed help, and help was at hand. Schuyler and I had decided to room together to save money. Schuyler, who was an early-twenties California surfer type, had been a professional scuba diver in Boston harbor for three years. He had already shown me how to properly exit the surf, and how to flip my airtank on over my head. He could probably run the dive tables in his sleep.
I pulled Schuyler away from the CNN war report and he studied the strange Australian charts in the back of my logbook. Finally he pronounced his verdict.
“I can’t figure these out at all.”
“I guess I need to get hold of a regular dive table, huh?”
“What you need to get hold of is a dive computer. No one uses dive tables anymore!”
“A dive computer? What’s a dive computer?” I envisioned an Apple II portable with the underwater option. It sounded cumbersome.
Schuyler showed me his dive computer. It was a little instrument that strapped to his wrist, and had digital LCD readouts for depth, time, and other data. He explained that a dive computer simply stayed with you for your whole vacation. It noted how deep you were, how long, any decompression stops you made, your “surface interval”, and even whether or not you were at high altitude or in an airplane. It noticed everything, and continuously displayed the data that could otherwise only be obtained by tedious work with the dive tables. And it was much more accurate. Using dive tables, for example, if you dive to 95 feet, and then after a few minutes go to 25 feet, and stay there for half an hour, the dive tables require you to compute the entire dive at 95 feet. The computer, on the other hand, knows exactly how long you were at each depth. There was only one problem with a dive computer: it cost $300.
And a computer actually wouldn’t help me for this last day of diving. I had already done one dive which the computer wouldn’t be aware of. That would make all the subsequent readings incorrect. The Caribe Inn dive shop did offer for sale a very nice set of dive tables printed firmly on an industrial-strength piece of white plastic, the whole thing about four by eight inches. It cost $12, which seemed excessive for a piece of white plastic, but then I remembered how the U.S. Navy had devised the dive tables in the first place: They had sent divers down to different depths, had them come up at different times, and then noticed which ones got the bends. So maybe $12 was a fair price for the same information.
Equipped with proper dive tables I set to work back in my room to make the necessary computations. But a horrible truth emerged. Even with the proper dive tables I had forgotten how to work them. I called Schuyler over and the same horrible truth emerged for him.
“Actually, I haven’t used one of these for years…” he admitted.
With my $12 investment seemingly down the drain, Schuyler and I walked back to the dive shop and asked for help. Kathy, a petite blonde dive instructor, was manning the store. At the Caribe Inn, all three dive instructors were petite blondes, which was vaguely insulting to those of us working on our Lloyd Bridges ‘macho diver’ image. Kathy worked through the computations with incredible speed, and announced her verdict: because of my four hour “surface interval” all the nitrogen was gone from my body and I was essentially starting fresh on my subsequent dives.
“When’s your flight tomorrow?” she asked.
“It leaves at 3:00 p.m.. I figured I could do several more dives today, and still observe the 12 hour prohibition period before diving.”
“Well, you’re right. That would comply with the rules. But you may not know that they’re beginning to wonder if the rules are strict enough. There have been reports of divers getting the bends on airplanes even when theoretically they shouldn’t be.”
This was sobering information, especially when added to some news I’d learned from Schuyler: one of the Caribe Inn guests had apparently done something wrong three days earlier and had to be taken by ambulance to the decompression chamber in Kralendijk. I decided it was time to ease off on my Lloyd Bridges image. After the next dive, at Klein Bonaire, I turned in my rental gear and called it quits.
With scuba diving over for this trip, I turned my attention to something really dangerous: a motorbike. It was a forty-five minute walk to the beauty parlor at the far side of town which—I had been told—was the only place in Bonaire that rented motorbikes. I felt odd walking into a room filled with the smells of hairspray and conditioner and asking to rent a motorcycle, but the tall blonde woman rinsed shampoo off her hands, apologized to her customer for the interruption, and asked me, in a heavy Dutch accent, to please follow her around to the back. In a few minutes I was flying through the streets of Kralendijk on a little 90cc Suzuki.
Renting a motorbike on a tropical island and getting hurt has become a tradition for me. Several years ago my wife and I had rented a similar contraption on New Providence island in the Bahamas. I’d stubbed my toe badly making too tight a turn. Six months ago I’d rented a motorbike in Cozumel and had been hit by a taxi cab.
There was no question of showing the motorbike proper respect. I was terrified of the thing. But they were so darn much fun! I tried to acclimate myself to the vehicle with a cursory tour of town, and then parked it back at the Carib Inn. I joined Schuyler and several others out on the veranda as we watched the sun go down and discussed where to eat. Those in the know suggested the Blue Parrot, which had an open buffet down at the shoreline. The Blue Parrot was several miles away and Schuyler held on for his life as I drove the Suzuki through the nighttime streets of Bonaire.
The Blue Parrot was everything one hopes to find for an evening meal in the Caribbean: open air seating, a beautiful view over the ocean, island delicacies set out in unlimited fashion, a good cocktail waitress, and musicians playing guitars and steel drums. But as a full moon rose over the water I couldn’t help thinking that while Schuyler was pleasant enough company the whole thing was kind of wasted without my wife being there.
As it came time to leave I handed the keys to Schuyler, who was the designated driver for the evening. Schuyler had once owned a Harley-Davidson and had no trouble with the motorbike.
That night even though I couldn’t go night diving I could try something else that Kathy had suggested: night snorkeling! Night snorkeling combines most of the bad with none of the good. Others having realized this already, I set out alone in the inky blackness. Being forced to stay more or less at the surface there was no question of getting lost, but there was also no question of trying to see coral. The coral started 40 feet down, and my rented dive light couldn’t penetrate to that depth. But I did find something equally worthwhile to do. I simply turned off the dive light and played with the fiery phosphorescence in the water for half an hour. Looking into the depths and seeing the pinpoints of light fly off in all directions from my fins, I fancied myself a latter day Zeus flinging stars about in the heavens.
The next morning I set off on my Suzuki to explore the island. Bonaire has one tenth of the population of Aruba living in twice the territory. There are essentially two “highways” on Bonaire. One heads north and loops around the top of the island before returning to Kralendijk. The other does the same thing to the south. Bonaire is famous not only among divers but also among wildlife aficionados due to it being one of the few places on earth where flamingoes breed naturally. I am used to thinking of flamingoes as near mythical beasts, most often rendered in ceramic or plaster-of-paris and set as decoration on someone’s yard. The thought that there might actually be wild flamingoes flying around Bonaire was unsettling. Kind of like if someone said: Oh yes, here on Curacao we have quite a few unicorns…
The pink tourist flyer that had helped me find a hotel also informed me that the flamingoes were generally up north, not down south, so that was the route I chose. As I put-putted past Kralendijk the highway thinned to single lane rough-asphalt. The topography of the island was low hills and the vegetation was cactus. I’d never seen so much cactus. There was pipe cactus (the kind you find in Arizona), and fan cactus, and dozens of unfamiliar cactuses. Here again one could witness the ingenuity of man. Faced with no other building material all fences in Bonaire’s countryside are made from cactus. The worn-out shells of the tall pipe-cactuses are stacked vertically in long rows and held together by tightly bound twine. I could see no way to get past them and I’m sure whatever animals lived inside had reached the same conclusion.
But in general there was little sign of human habitation in Bonaire’s desolate “outback”. That explained why, after thirty minutes of travelling, I had not seen a single other vehicle on this very curvy narrow road. Nonetheless I had been carefully slowing down at each turn, sounding my horn to warn oncoming drivers, and hugging the right side of the highway. While I suspected I would survive if a car did come upon me from the other direction it would only be due to the thinness of my motorbike. I could not imagine two full size vehicles not crashing into each other. Several kilometers farther on I discovered both how Bonaire handled that problem, and also why I had so far met no other cars. The highway, according to a sign I had just passed, was a one way street! Apparently the entire 60 kilometer northern loop could only be driven clockwise! That was certainly an inspired solution to the problem of too narrow a road. I wondered if other countries had ever thought of it.
At the northernmost tip of the circuit I came upon the flamingoes, or rather, the flamingo. The endless cactus fields had given way partially to an area of beautiful lakes and low shrubs. The hills had become noticeably higher. This was the “alpine region” of Bonaire, according to the pink brochure. And just ahead, standing like a ceramic statue in a little inland lagoon, was a real flamingo! I shifted my motorbike into its highest gear so as to minimize the noise, and approached cautiously. The flamingo appeared to be interested in fishing, for it was studying the water intently, and occasionally it’s long pink beak would be thrust under the surface. It did seem to be standing on one leg, and with the other bent, as it had been so often portrayed. I took several pictures, stared at it for awhile, and then decided I’d had my fill of flamingo-watching. The beasts just stand there and stare at the water. Perhaps the ceramic version is sufficient after all. A few hundred yards further on I discovered a whole fleet of flamingoes—nearly a hundred—but as they were a bit off in the distance and all engaged in the same activity as the single flamingo I did not trouble myself about them and continued on down the highway.
Generally every Caribbean island has a windward side (to the east) and a leeward side (to the west.) I was now travelling south on Bonaire’s windward side and I could see the massive Atlantic swells crashing into the volcanic cliffs. A sign pointed to “Prehistoric Indian Cave Etchings.” That reminded me of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Too many adjectives for one noun. But I detoured down a side road to check it out. Sure enough, a large limestone cavern had apparently collapsed, exposing a section with Prehistoric Indian Etchings on it. Hmm. I took a picture on the grounds that I probably wouldn’t be seeing any other Bonairean Prehistoric Indian Cave Etchings for some time.
As I was maneuvering back to the main highway I came suddenly upon a fork in the road, my foot missed as it tried to hit the back tire brake and in desperation I squeezed hard on the front tire brake lever. The front wheel pivoted sideways, the motorbike crashed to the ground, and I slid off thru the gravel.
Damn! Damn! Damn! I was absolutely furious with myself. This was out and out pilot error. My own stupidity had caused me to have yet another accident on a motorbike on a tropical island. I was three for three. I looked myself over. I was bleeding from several minor scrapes. I picked the motorbike up and started it with no difficulty. No injuries to the bike at least. I’d brought my first-aid kit along and set about patching myself with band-aids. In a few minutes I was on the road again, my body intact but my dignity shattered.
After returning to the Caribe Inn I had only a few minutes to shower and change clothes for the flight to Venezuela. Schuyler and I shared a cab since his plane (to the island of Anguilla) was leaving just shortly before mine. The cab driver was apparently quite used to commiserating with American tourists as they finished their one week vacation and headed back to some cold northern city.
“So,” he kidded, “I guess in a few hours you two will be back in the snow and the ice, huh?”
“I doubt it,” said Schuyler. “I’m going to Anguilla.”
“I’m going to Venezuela,” I said. “Not much snow there this time of year. Or any time of year actually.”
“I see,” said the cab driver, utterly deflated. I was pleased to have broken his stereotype of all American tourists spending precisely one week on Bonaire and then returning North like so many lemmings.
But my own complacency was punctured when I arrived at the airport. After sending Schuyler off to Anguilla I discovered that my flight to Caracas had been rescheduled to leave four hours later! The Avensa ticket counter was not even manned. Only a thin photocopied notice (in Spanish) informed me of the change, and I had to borrow one of the ticket agents from Air Aruba to help me translate it.
There are times when a four hour delay is not all that serious. This was not one of those times. Daniela and her whole family were expecting to meet my plane at 2:45 p.m.. She knew my flight number. If the flight were simply four hours “late,” she would no doubt be informed of this by Avensa in Caracas, and—frustrating as it might be—she would still manage to meet me when I arrived. But apparently what had happened was that the actual schedule had been changed. Flight 454 wouldn’t show as late in Caracas, it would show as on time. Daniela might therefore decide that I was totally confused on my arrival time, or my flight number, or my day of arrival, or perhaps all three. That being the conclusion, she might very understandably not chose to wait around the Caracas airport for four hours for a flight that I probably wasn’t on in the first place. She would leave with her family for Maracay–two hours away. And I would arrive in Caracas at night speaking not a word of Spanish, without even the phone number of Daniela’s parents, and with no way to get word to anyone ahead of time.
And there was absolutely nothing I could do. I tried to look at the situation from an Islamic point of view: “If Allah wishes them to be there when you arrive they will be there. If Allah wishes them not to be there when you arrive they will not be there. It is in the hands of Allah.”
That helped a little. I reached into my pack to pull out my paperback novel “Roots”, prepared to get quite a bit of reading done in four hours, when I was hit with yet another piece of bad luck: I had apparently left the book back at the Caribe Inn! In fact, I remembered exactly where I had left it—by the table on the veranda.
I was just far enough into the book to have become hooked, and I knew I would not be able to find a replacement copy in the airport gift shop. Yet I would be damned before I would spend ten dollars for a taxi back to the hotel, and another ten on the return, just to reclaim a five dollar paperback. I looked at my watch. A full four hours to go. I knew what I had to do. Setting my backpack behind the airline counter, with my name and flight number on it, I set out under the hot sun to walk the three miles back to the hotel. The exercise wouldn’t hurt, and how else does one kill four hours?
Twenty minutes into the hike I began to have doubts. My sandals were starting to chafe, and the hot sun was beating down mercilessly under a cloudless sky. I was dressed in very lightweight clothing, but I had no hat, no sunscreen, and perhaps most serious, no water. Walking a few miles down the road on a warm day hadn’t seem to pose any danger when I’d first considered it. Now I realized I had been foolish. In the dead of winter I would not walk three miles down the road in Colorado without proper protection, yet that is exactly what I was doing here on a tropical “desert island.”
I could almost feel the water flowing out of my body into the hot air, and my arms and legs were seemingly turning redder with sunburn at each step. Thirst was soon a bigger enemy than the heat itself. When finally I arrived at the Caribe Inn on the outskirts of town it seemed I had returned to paradise. Newly-arrived guests were sitting in the shade on the veranda enjoying the afternoon breezes. I reclaimed my book from the table, and sat down to rest, striking up a minor conversation. All three of the newcomers were drinking from icy bottles of Amstel, and it was torture to watch them. There is no bar, or cafe, or even a place to obtain a bottle of soda at the Caribe Inn. I could have bummed an Amstel, but I wasn’t quite desperate enough to beg. The tiny grocery store a few blocks away was closed on Sunday. I went up to the fresh water hose that the divers use for rinsing off their gear, and drank steadily for five minutes. Bonaire’s fresh water is excellent, coming entirely from underground wells. After a few more minutes of rest I set off again for the airport. When I arrived my feet were bleeding from the chafing of the sandals, and I was nearing exhaustion from the heat. It seemed like a lot of work to reclaim one paperback novel but at least I now had the novel.
I spent the remaining hour in the bar replenishing my body with liquids and food. I overheard an American woman talking to her companions.
“Oh yes, I went diving this morning. I didn’t go below 45 feet and I made sure there was at least a two hour interval between the dive and my flight time. You know in two hours all the nitrogen is removed from your body…”
I wasn’t sure where she had gotten that piece of erroneous information, and I certainly hoped for her sake that her plane didn’t lose its pressurization before she got back on the ground, but of one thing I was certain: After three hours in the hot sun, any nitrogen remaining in my body had long since evaporated!
An old World War II-vintage DC-4 landed and taxied over to the gate, it’s ancient piston-driven propellors rattling and whirling as they wound down to a stop. The airplane turned and my heart sank when I saw the insignia: Avensa Airlines. My flight to Caracas, such as it was, had arrived.
Contrary to my expectations the DC-4 actually did manage to make it up into the skies one more time, and as the sun set behind us it headed east towards South America and the coast of Venezuela. My travels through the Netherland Antilles had accustomed me to tiny airports, each barely more than a couple of Quonset huts nailed together, and I was surprised at the sheer size of Caracas’s Simon Bolivar International Airfield, awash in floodlights as we taxied up to the gate. Slipping in almost under the wings of huge and modern 767’s and DC-10’s, we de-planed from our tiny 40-year old aircraft directly onto the tarmac, and were escorted by an official up several flights of stairs to the gate itself. As we emerged through the door into the airport I scanned the crowd desperately, praying to see Daniela’s smiling face. But it was not there.
Then I remembered that this was an international flight, and I would have to go through customs before there was even the possibility of meeting someone. The passport agent didn’t concern himself with details of my personal life this time, such as where I would be staying in Venezuela (although I almost would have preferred he had, being not quite sure myself where I might end up that night). He solemnly took out his large stamp and crashed it irreverently against my passport, waving me on to customs.
Customs, at Simon Bolivar, is based on the lottery system. As you approach the customs agents you are directed to press a large red button on the wall. If the light above it turns green, you are free to go and no one checks your luggage. If it turns red you are subjected to everything but a total body search. I don’t know what the odds are with the light, and perhaps the odds themselves change from time to time, but it seems a very sensible procedure. Anyone braving the gauntlet must assume the light might turn red, even if it probably won’t. I cannot imagine even the most sophisticated international criminal being willing to trust so completely to a matter of chance.
When I pressed the button a green light came on and I thankfully allowed myself to be whisked thru. On the other side of the doorway was Daniela.
“Well,” she said, after a big hug, “if you hadn’t been on this flight we would have left!”
“I bet you know this airport as well as I know the one in Bonaire!” I replied.
Daniela’s brother Paulino, and his son Juan Carlos had stayed behind with the second car to drive us to Maracay. The other members of the party had left hours earlier. Daniela, having been on airplanes for 24 hours, fell asleep immediately as Paulino worked the Dodge sedan out of the airport traffic and onto the highway. As the two Venezuelans spoke no English, and I no Spanish, I was left by default to gaze out over first the slums, and then the tall white buildings of downtown Caracas. The countryside was very mountainous, and to reach Maracay we had to pass through these mountains. This was accomplished via a network of half a dozen long tunnels. The traffic was heavy, even this late, for it was Sunday night and a large share of the population was returning from weekend activities.
I fell asleep in one of the tunnels and woke up as we were turning into a driveway in an apparent residential area. There were many trees about, and all the houses on the little cul de sac had massive iron gates. One of these was now opening, and Paulino pulled the Dodge into what in America we would call a carport: an open-air shelter, more or less surrounded by the house itself which was made of white stucco and seemed very large. It’s architecture was almost cubical, with straight lines and flat roofs. No houses would be built like this in Colorado, for the snow build-up would crush them. But no snow had ever fallen on Maracay, nor—being located just ten degrees north of the equator—ever would.
My Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary had had this to say about the town of Maracay:
“City, Capital of Aragua State, northern Venezuela, 50 miles West Southwest of Caracas, population 255,134; altitude 1500 feet; center of Venezuelan cattle industry, produces meat products, coffee, paper, textiles, chemicals, gas wells, sugar refineries; developed under dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gomez (1908-35) when it was the effective capital of Venezuela.”
It was nearing 11 p.m. as we struggled with our luggage through the class doors opening onto a little foyer, and here were Dina and Dilvo Salvadori, smiling and greeting us. Dilvo I had met once, in 1965, and I had no mental picture of him. But when I saw him he looked exactly the same as he had 26 years ago, or so it seemed. Dina I had never met, but she certainly fit my notion of what she would look like: dignified, graceful, elderly, fairly short like her daughter—and so very warm and friendly.
In the bustle of arriving I had a chance to glance around the house a bit. The rooms were large and open, with higher ceilings than what would be considered normal in America, lending it the gracious and relaxed feeling appropriate to a tropical climate. Several sliding glass doors appeared to open onto various patios— perhaps I would come to know these better in the next few days. To the left of the foyer a formal living room opened up. A wide area leading to the kitchen was used as a dining room. The kitchen itself was quite large, and seemed to have all the normal appliances one would expect in America.
The pots, however, told another story. These were cooking pots of the old school, and they had a seriousness to them that went far beyond the phrase “industrial strength.” These pots were the Platonic ideal of cooking pots: thick, strong, shorn of any adornment, made from base metals, and forged by elemental forces. They were clean, but ancient blackened grease had been baked onto them perhaps over a two thousand year descent—mother to daughter—from the time of the Romans. In short they were the cooking pots of an Italian.
I looked forward to seeing them in action.
It was too late at night for a full tour, and most of the others were already asleep. We shared a glass of wine in the family room, which was to the right of the foyer, and then prepared for bed ourselves. I had been assigned to Dilvo’s radio room which contained an entire wall of electronics and opposite that a little settee which had been made up into a bed. The only decoration was a large map of the world, and of course where there is a large map of the world no other decoration is needed.
My daily routine on Bonaire had come to revolve around when the dive boat left the dock, but in Maracay there was no structure. One got up when one wished, which is to say when one was no longer tired. This was a novel experience and took some getting used to. The first morning—before I had acclimated to the schedule—I got up at 6:00 a.m. and allowed myself to be drawn into the kitchen by the exquisite smell of freshly-brewed South American coffee. Dina, who had been out with Dilvo for an hour of early morning exercise-walking, was there working away on the coffee.
In the western hemisphere, below about the 25th parallel, coffee is brewed in tiny quantities. I’m not sure why this is so, perhaps it’s because the coffee is richer—more intense—and larger amounts are not needed. Or perhaps it’s because full-size coffee pots have never been discovered south of the 25th parallel. Whatever the reason, Dina was now trying to produce a sufficient quantity of coffee for a house full of Type-A North Americans. And her only tool was a miniature cast-iron coffee pot that heated-up the water over the stove and then somehow forced it down through the coffee grounds in one cataclysmic event. I believe this is what is called “espresso” coffee. Approximately four thimbulfulls of finished product were produced in each effort.
Dina would take these thimbulfulls, pour them into a large thermos, and then fill up her tiny coffee pot and repeat the process. As various of us drifted into the kitchen, we would pour our coffee from this thermos. Of course the cups themselves were scaled down versions of the real thing, each being no more than a fourth their proper size, and because of this the thermos was not emptied at a rate faster than what Dina could keep up with. But this changed after a few days when Bob Broenen discovered a cache of full size cups, and Dina’s thermos began to be emptied in just two servings. By the end of the week the petite coffee maker was approaching melt-down.
Regardless, my first taste of Dina’s coffee was an emotional event, akin perhaps to what the Christians call being born again. I recalled that Venezuela was a primary coffee producing country, and I had no doubt that this coffee had been picked that morning by Juan Valdez himself, and carried down from the mountain slopes on the back of his trusty donkey, directly to the Salvadori kitchen.
When she wasn’t making coffee, Dina was making bread. When one makes bread in America (about once every five years, just to prove it can be done), they tend to make complicated bread: raisin bread, cheese bread, whole-wheat bread, and the like. Dina stuck to the fundamentals: she produced light, fluffy, delicious white bread, the kind you buy at a boulangerie on the left bank in Paris.
Oddly, none of us ever actually saw Dina cooking this bread. It would simply be there the next morning, wrapped in tight little plastic bags and hung from hooks above the breakfast table, still warm. Several theories emerged. Some believed she awoke early each morning and began baking the bread at about 4 a.m.. Another school held that she never went to bed at all, but started baking the minute everyone else was asleep, continuing until daylight. This theory better explained the quantity of bread produced. Others, less charitable, were certain it was all a trick and she was actually buying the bread from a professional bakery in the neighborhood, although none of us could ever quite locate this bakery.
It goes without saying that the world’s best coffee nicely complements the world’s most delicious bread, and while Dina would try to push more complete breakfasts on us each morning, we always demurred in favor of the simplicity of the bread and coffee combination.
On this first morning, Dina and I were alone in the kitchen and she decided to use the time to teach me Spanish. There is no language I wish to learn more than Spanish. Many, perhaps most, Americans speak only English, and when they travel to other parts of the world they spread the stereotype of the self-centered, uncultured Yankee. Having learned french at an early age, I always fancied myself of a higher social order. In my travels around Europe and North Africa almost anyone I needed to talk to would speak either English or French, and hence I could get by.
But more and more frequently I was finding myself in Latin America, where no one has ever heard of French. There are parts of the world where it is no great sin to not speak the native tongue. Few Americans visiting Kenya speak Swahili, for example, and even fewer who visit Afghanistan speak Pushtu. No one thinks less of them for it. But many Americans, especially those who travel to Latin America, have learned some measure of Spanish. In fact, if an American knows a second language, it is almost certain to be Spanish.
By not knowing any Spanish, in this part of the world, I had become the uncultured Yankee I despised, and I was determined to correct the situation. Actually I wasn’t entirely without a foundation. I could count to three in Spanish. I knew that restrooms were called “servicios.” And I could roll “buenas dias” off my tongue with the best of them. Dina now set about to teach me the rest.
Because Spanish is so much like English and French, I found it not too difficult to understand Dina when she spoke slowly and deliberately, using fingers to point out appropriate nouns. The problem was in responding. Every time I tried, the words just came out in French. I have heard other dual-lingual people mention this phenomena. If you know two languages, one native and one foreign, you tend to have only two tracks in your head. When you try to speak a third tongue your mind just slips into the “foreign” track and the language that you know comes out.
There were moments, however, when I would slip into french out of vengeance. Dina was very patient and kind, yet their were times the huge onslaught of new, unrecognizable sounds became too much and it seemed I would suffocate under the weight of them. Then I would lash back angrily with a long french tirade, to prove that even if I couldn’t respond in Spanish, I could at least understand and respond intelligently in some foreign language.
Dina would smile, take it in stride, and answer—infuriatingly—in french, just to show she was unruffled. Dina had a graduate degree in linguistics and could probably have responded just as easily in Swedish, Hebrew, or Navajo.
As I was eating bread, drinking coffee, and learning Spanish an attractive young woman walked in, wearing a bathrobe and with her hair nicely made up. This, of course, was Catia, Daniela’s daughter. I had not seen Catia since she was six weeks old, so was not surprised that I didn’t recognize her.
“Good morning,” I said. “You’re Catia, aren’t you!”
“No, I’m Bethany.”
“Who’s Bethany?” I was perplexed.
“I’m Bob’s daughter!”
Oh, that’s right. I’d forgotten. Bob Broenen’s daughter had come with them to South America. I tried to make amends by serving her bread and coffee which, considering the bread and coffee, was like giving her roses and chocolates. I was quickly forgiven.
Another attractive girl walked in, similarly attired, but I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again.
“Who are you?” I demanded.
I served her bread and coffee too.
Eventually Daniela and Bob were up and we began to make plans for our first day in Venezuela.
“We’re going to the beach,” said Catia. “I can’t wait to get to the beach.”
A beach in Venezuela? I pulled up a map of South America in my mind. Venezuela was bordered on the north by the Caribbean Sea. Maybe there was a beach.
“Catia, have you been to Venezuela before?” I asked.
“Are you kidding? I’ve come here every six months for almost my whole life!”
She was twenty years old, so that would make quite a few times.
“This is like my second home,” she added.
This was true, I discovered. For many years Daniela’s career in marketing had required her to travel extensively throughout South America. At such times she would bring little Catia to stay with her grandparents in Maracay. Bethany, by contrast, had never been outside of the United States.
I had once been told that anyone who visits the Salvadoris in Venezuela must come prepared to go wild boar hunting in the mountains with Dilvo, because hunting wild boar is Dilvo’s passion. So I had been disappointed to learn that the length of our stay was too short to permit wild boar hunting, although I’m sure the wild boars were not disappointed.
With boar hunting off the agenda, and with two California girls along, the next best choice did seem to be a Caribbean beach.
Before that expedition could begin Bob Broenen and I decided we needed to get some dollars changed into the Venezuelan currency: Bolivars (pronounced “Bo-lee-var-es”). By the time you get all four syllables of that word lined up and properly discharged, you’ve forgotten what it was you were buying. So Dani and Bob called them simply “B’s,” as in “That costs 1,000 Bees.” To convert Bees to Dollars you drop two of the zeroes and double what’s left. So 1000 bees equals $20.
Simon Bolivar himself is of course the hero of the whole continent. It was Bolivar who led the many revolts that wrested South America away from the Spanish, and created countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, etc. Yet Venezuela seems particularly fond of Simon, having named their international airport, their currency, and most of their streets, highways, and towns after him. Statues and paintings of Simon Bolivar are found everywhere in Venezuela. He is there George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln rolled into one.
Bob and I now climbed into Dilvo’s venerable and beautifully-maintained Toyota Land Cruiser and headed for downtown Maracay in search of Bees. From the back seat I had a chance to get my first good view of a South American city. Steep hills—mountains almost—surrounded and even intruded upon Maracay. These were not the deep green rain-forest hills one might expect from having seen photographs of Venezuela and Columbia, but Dilvo assured me that this was only because it was the dry season.
“It is the most amazing thing, when the rains come,” he explained. “It rains and rains for days and then the sun comes out, and in just a few hours the hills go from light brown to deep green. It’s really something to see.”
Maracay reminded me of Barcelona: a big, industrial, no-nonsense place, but sprinkled with beautiful Spanish architecture here and there, and decorated with elegant Spanish-style parks or “plazas”. Yet sadly, much of the architecture was simply that of convenience: ugly, uninspired one or two story structures just thrown together with white or colored stucco, and further debased with New York style graffiti. Spray-paint has become very popular in Venezuela, and I felt sorry for a government that probably would need to meet other priorities before it could give grafitti-fighting much attention.
Another difference between Maracay and Barcelona was in the size of the cars. Barcelona cars are generally tiny European models, while in Venezuela I saw mostly big, fat, ugly American varieties. The driving, on the other hand, was more European than U.S., which is to say there is no “lane consciousness” such as we understand it north of the border, and traffic lights are more advisory than mandatory.
“There’s only one way to handle getting through an intersection in Venezuela,” explained Dilvo. “You just step on the gas, throw your hands in the air, and say ‘wo-wo-wo-wo-wo!’ until you’re past. Usually it works.”
This “wo-wo-wo” sound bore a striking resemblance to the “oy-oy-oy” noise you make in Lapland when you want a reindeer to pull your sled faster, and I wondered if Thor Heyerdahl might ever be able to prove a link between the two cultures. In any event Dilvo’s driving was up to the challenge, and he brought us to a little shopping center in the heart of the city which contained a travel agency. Apparently this was where we would change our currency.
Dilvo handled the transaction for us, but even with his command of the language it seemed to be an amazingly difficult process to simply exchange dollars for Bolivars. Countless forms had to be filled out, passports examined, immigration cards inspected, and many questions answered. Finally the deed was done and we were equipped with a couple of hundred dollars in Venezuelan currency, or, put another way, billions of bees.
Back at the house we found Bethany and Catia waiting impatiently. Daniela had opted to spend the day with her parents, so it was just Bob, me, and the two girls who would be driving north to the Caribbean in Dilvo’s Land Cruiser. As we prepared to climb in Bethany and Catia volunteered to sit in the back.
“We’ll be the back seat bimbos!” said Catia, thinking she was making a joke. But the name stuck, and for the rest of the week Bob and I always addressed them as the back seat bimbos, to their growing fury.
Despite it’s paragraph of information about Maracay, my geographical dictionary had neglected to mention that the city houses half a dozen air force and army bases. By consequence it is heavily militaristic, with armed guards manning checkpoints at all the highways leading in and out of town. Dilvo had insisted that none of us leave the house—for any reason—without carrying our passport and immigration card. “If you’re stopped, and have no identity papers, you could end up in jail,” he had explained. This seemed incredible in any country short of Cuba or Albania, but we followed his advice. As we reached the outskirts of town we were in fact stopped at a military checkpoint. One of the young guards, carrying an automatic rifle, came over and peered in but when he saw our back-seat bimbos he smiled and waved us through. It’s well known that back-seat bimbos are not a security threat.
Almost immediately the little two-lane blacktop began a nearly endless series of hairpin turns as it rose sharply into the forested mountains. From close up it became obvious that these mountains were in fact not covered with brush, but with jungle. Huge, gnarly tree trunks wound their way into the sky. Tarzan-like vines hung, dripping, from their upper branches. An infinity of banana, coca, and breadfruit leaves combined to provide an overhanging canopy that kept the entire road in shade. Brightly colored birds flew about, and other, nameless creatures kept up a constant banter of screeching and chirping. This was the kind of place where one would expect to see Michael Douglas step out from behind a tree with an automatic shotgun in one hand and a machete in the other.
The Land Cruiser crept higher and higher, with each turn becoming narrower and steeper than the last, until finally we crested a pass of sorts and began our descent to the coast. It required a full two hours to arrive at the little town of Ocumare (Oh-ku-mahr-ay), and as we drove through its streets it seemed likely that we were the first gasoline powered vehicle to reach it. Goats were being herded down the street by a barefoot boy. A wagon was being pulled by a donkey. Dark, weathered, Inca-like faces peered suspiciously at us from behind huge sombreros.
“Welcome to the third world,” said Bob.
The road continued through Ocumare, crested another small pass, and then—spread out before us—was the deep blue of the Caribbean Sea. We had come to an overlook and below was a magnificent cove, with endless sand beaches, ocean waves, swaying palm trees, and even a high-rise hotel. This was the pocket-resort of “Cata” (Kah-tah). Certainly no one spoke English in Cata. At the beach itself we discovered a delapidated open-air cafe where several dark and grizzled men lounged at the bar, one of whom seemed willing if not eager to take our order.
Bob spoke just the right level of Spanish to get into trouble. He made it known that we were interested in lunch, and as we chose a bare wooden table near the door the waiter brought over menus that were indecipherable. They were in Spanish, of course, but they seemed to describe dishes that had no American counterpart. We recognized the word “pescoe” meaning fish, and “carne” meaning meat but everything else on the page was outside our collective vocabulary.
Bethany was undaunted, and couldn’t believe that any restaurant south of the border (the U.S. border) wouldn’t have recognizable food.
“Tacos? Enchiladas? Burritos?” she asked the waiter. He looked at her as if she were describing food from another planet. We learned quickly that Mexican food stops at about the Panama Canal, and no one in Venezuela had ever heard of a Taco or an Enchilada. So we choose some things at random from the menu, but when they arrived we were not much better off in our understanding. One of the items on my plate appeared to be a banana, sliced in half, but it had been boiled, and it tasted like a turnip. On Catia’s plate was something that had been folded up inside a baked leaf. Bethany’s food had been cooked inside some kind of dough-like object, shaped like a pita sandwich.
It was delicious so we didn’t worry too much about what it was, and lunch for everyone came to only a few hundred bees.
We’d been enjoying the sand and the waves for an hour or so when a man came down the beach carrying a bag of coconuts. For twenty bees he would take one of these, whack its top off with a machete, and give it to you with a straw. Inside, of course, was delicious coconut milk. Whatever we’d had for lunch, this was the ideal desert.
But the most amazing thing about this beach was that such a beautiful spot should remain so undiscovered. The sand was shaped into a perfect mile-long crescent. Gentle waves broke against it, just right for body-surfing. Palm trees provided shade for precisely half the width of the sand, leaving the other half available for those who wished to sun. Mountains rose up on all sides, except towards the sea itself. And the sand was the “air-conditioned” type for which Cancun is famous: pure, fine, and utterly white, so it does not burn your feet as you walk across it. Yet on this entire beach–from end to end–there were no more than twenty five people, which is to say it was all but deserted. I thought of the crowded beaches of many of the Caribbean islands and wondered how long it would be before Venezuela began developing its tourism industry. But I didn’t think about it too hard. Instead I arranged myself under a palm tree, closed my eyes, and took a nap.
We were back in Maracay by six p.m. where efforts were underway to prepare dinner for a dozen people. There were the five of us from the U.S., of course. Plus Dina and Dilvo. And Paulino, his wife Carmen, and their two children Juan Carlos and Monica. Juan Carlos was a very serious young man who spoke no English but effected a quiet dignity that was rare and refreshing in a 12 year old. Monica was fourteen, and a delightful little bundle of energy. She, also, spoke no English but every time I looked at her she seemed to be smiling and enthusiastic—about life in general it seemed.
I had now more of a chance to explore the house, and its size continued to astound me. The downstairs was in effect a complete house on its own, with three bedrooms. The second story, accessed via an attractive outside staircase off the carport, led to two complete upstairs apartments: one, a two-bedroom, housed Paulino and his family. The other was a guest house. There could be no doubt that when I brought my family of five back down to Venezuela to hunt wild boar there would be plenty of room for us…
A yard of sorts surrounded the house, and this yard in turn was bordered by an eight-foot high wall of masonry, topped with broken glass to keep out intruders. Living within were two large friendly bulldogs. Friendly to us at least. About half of this yard was grass, and the other half was tiled with flagstone, converting that portion into an attractive outdoor patio.
An entire ping-pong table had been laid out elegantly for dining, and on a nearby built-in grill Paulino was cooking steaks. I wondered if steak was considered a Venezuelan food and then remembered that Maracay was in the heart of the country’s cattle industry.
Also invited to dinner was Hernando, one of Dilvo’s best friends, and a retired colonel in the Venezuelan air force. Hernando, we had been told, owned his own plane, and was going to fly Dani, Bob, the back seat bimbos and me down to Angel Falls—highest waterfall in the world—the day after next, providing we chipped in for fuel. I sat next to Hernando during dinner and was grateful that he spoke English sufficiently to converse—although just barely.
“So what kind of a plane do you have?” I asked. Being a former pilot myself, I was desperately interested.
“A Cessna!” he said proudly. That didn’t exactly narrow it down. Cessna produces one fourth of all private planes.
“What kind of Cessna?” I persisted.
“Single engine Cessna!”
This was like pulling teeth.
“What kind of single engine Cessna?”
“Cessna 206,” he finally confessed. Now we were getting somewhere.
“I used to fly a Cessna 206!” I said, eagerly.
“You’re a pilot?”
“Well, I used to be. Years ago.”
“And you flew a 206?”
“I have about thirty hours in a 206. Nice plane.”
“Yes, wonderful plane.”
We would have spoken further but others intruded on the conversation and we were forced to drift apart. It was all I could do to go to sleep that night, being so excited about the trip. Seeing Angel Falls would be pleasant, of course. But of equal interest to me would be flying once more in a Cessna 206. How long had it been? Fifteen, sixteen years? I couldn’t wait.
But I did have to wait a full day, and it was agreed we would spend that day at the Casa Italia. The Casa Italia is a very elegant club in Maracay for residents of Italian descent. I would have guessed that Dilvo and Dina were the only Italians living in Maracay, if not all of Venezuela, but apparently this was not so. “Many Italians came after the war,” Dilvo explained.
Centerpiece of the Casa Italia is a gigantic, beautiful pool, and Bethany and Catia agreed that if we couldn’t go to the beach at Cata, hanging out at this beautiful pool was a good second best. It was only two blocks from the house.
Now as far as I’m concerned Bethany and Catia can hold their own in any swimsuit competition, and their next-to-nothing bikinis certainly stole the show at the beach in Cata. But as I looked around the pool at the Casa Italia, I was forced to admit that their bikinis were in fact quite dull and conservative. I mean, their bikinis actually covered up parts of their bodies. The swimsuits being warn by the Casa Italia women could have doubled for dental floss. Extra thin dental floss.
I tried to use the time to read my novel Roots, about blacks suffering on 19th century plantations in Virginia. But it was difficult to concentrate on the storyline.
Hernando had asked us to be at the airport by 6:00 a.m. the following morning so we could get an early start on our flight to Angel Falls. The airport was actually an air force base but Hernando, perhaps because he was a retired colonel, was allowed to keep his airplane there. As we pushed back the Cessna 206 and Hernando set about his pre-flight check, I was wondering what the chances were that I would be allowed to sit up front, in the co-pilot’s seat. I considered myself something of a “fifth wheel” among Dani and Bob’s family, and would not have been surprised if I’d been delegated to a rear seat befitting my status. On the other hand as I tried to assess the situation from a technical “weight and balance” standpoint, it seemed to make the most sense to put the girls in the far back, Dani and Bob in the middle (wouldn’t they want to sit together?), and me in the front. That would simply be the best way to load the plane.
And this proved to be the case. After a few words with the pilot, Daniela explained to me that I would be sitting up front, and I was so excited I almost gave her a hug. But I tried to act non-plussed, as if where I sat made no difference. Of course the reason I wanted to sit up front was so I could fly the plane. Virtually every small-plane pilot in the world routinely turns the controls over to his front-seat passenger during the flight—even if only for a few moments. Sometimes a passenger will refuse to touch the controls, which is fine. But usually they enjoy the novelty of it. If they do poorly, the pilot gets an ego boost. If they do well, the pilot gets to relax and let someone else fly the plane for awhile.
As we climbed in and Hernando started up the engine, I glanced voraciously over the instruments. Yup, they were all there, just as I’d left them sixteen years ago dual nav-coms, ADF, DME, radar transponder, and even a two-axis auto-pilot. It had everything necessary—more than was necessary—to fly safely under IFR conditions. I pointed to the one real luxury item on board: the auto-pilot.
“Nice!” I said to Hernando.
He shook his head and pointed to the device. “Mickey Mouse,” he said, indicating it never worked right. After familiarizing myself with the panel I was confident that I was ready to take over the aircraft whenever Hernando chose to offer me the controls. He knew I’d once flown a Cessna 206. Conceivably, in his position, if I’d had such a passenger I might have offered to let them taxi the plane out to the runway and even perform the takeoff. But I was not especially surprised when Hernando showed no inclination to do this. I was an unknown quantity, the language barrier was not helped by the noise of the engine, and after all this was an air force base. I could wait.
We lifted off into the early morning sun, and for the first time I could really see Maracay in its entirety. The downtown white skyscrapers with the sharp hills rising above reminded me a little of the skyline of Honolulu. Just to the south of the city was a large lake, and beyond that was another range of mountains.
It was these that we would need to cross, for we were heading in an east-southeast direction. Hernando handed me a “sectional,” the standard aviation chart for flying visually, as opposed to on instruments. Having learned most of my flying in Iowa I was accustomed to sectional charts showing places like Des Moines, Mason City, and—perhaps near the exotic edges—the Mississippi river. As I glanced over this sectional the first thing I saw were the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. Moving down I came upon the countries of Guyana and Suriname. Near the bottom was a big heavy line that said Venezuela on one side, Brazil on the other. My pulse quickened.
In other respects the chart contained all the customary information. The familiar “omni” navigational beacons were shown, surrounded by their bright compass roses and magnetic bearings. Non-directional radio beacons were of course shown in red, along with their appropriate frequencies. Controlled airfields were in blue, uncontrolled were in brown. Terminal control areas were, predictably, clustered around the major cities like Caracas. It was all coming back to me.
Hernando explained our route. We were heading directly for Bolivar City (Ciudad de Bolivar), near the Guyana border, where we would land and refuel. From there we would head due South following the Caroni river, to the town of Canaima. Before landing at Canaima we would fly east of the Auyan Tepui, and that is where we would find Angel Falls.
The tepuis of Venezuela are famous, I had discovered before leaving the states. The May ‘89 National Geographic carried a feature article on them under the name “Venezuela’s Islands in Time.” Tepui derives from an Indian name meaning “mountain.” In fact, the tepuis are gigantic buttes, or mesas, with flat tops and absolutely sheer sides. Covered in cloud and rain for half the year, they are nonetheless visible in the dry season, and are considered geologically unique in the world. Because of their height, the flatness of their tops, and the steepness of their sides, each one has become its own eco-system, with its own plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world, or on no other tepui. It was Venezuela’s tepuis that were the inspiration and setting for Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World,” a land where dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures still survived. I doubted we would see any dinosaurs as we flew amongst the tepuis but I’d brought plenty of film just in case.
Now, as we leveled off at 5,500 feet, I took it upon myself to be the navigator for the flight. I knew, of course, that Hernando had flown all over Venezuela for years, and could probably have taken us to any spot in the country by memory. But I tried to ignore that. I tried to pretend that on this trip everything would depend on my navigation.
There are three types of navigation that can be done from an airplane: radio navigation, pilotage, and dead reckoning. Radio navigation, where you use the various aircraft instruments to determine your location, is the easiest and probably the most accurate. But it’s good practice not to rely on radio navigation. Instruments can break. Dead reckoning is the hardest and the most inacurate. Dead reckoning is where you say “I’ve been flying due east at 150 miles per hour for 30 minutes, and I’ve been fighting a wind out of the east north east of approximately 15 miles per hour, so I must be right—here.” Dead reckoning works quite well for sailboats in the open ocean but it’s nearly worthless for airplanes. There are simply too many variables and things happen too quickly.
Pilotage, on the other hand, is both accurate and fun. Pilotage is where you look out the window and try to figure out where you are based on what you see. You can see a lot from an airplane window: railroad tracks, towns, highways, lakes, and rivers. Usually you can see enough of these things to determine on the chart where you must be.
With Hernando’s permission I drew light pencil lines on the chart to represent our flight path. From these I could see exactly what rivers, lakes, and towns we should cross, and where we should cross them. The first town was coming up now, off to the right. Yes, here it was on the chart, the town of Cagua. I motioned to Hernando and pointed down. “Cagua?” I said.
“No, not Cagua.” He showed me a different town on the chart. “La Victoria,” he explained.
Well, OK, so I’d been close. An extremely large lake should now be visible directly ahead. I scanned the horizon. Where was it? I asked Hernando.
“Lago there,” he pointed. Far in the distance there might or might not have been a slight darkening in the ground coloration.
“Oh, OK.” I was starting to get a better sense of scale and distance now, but it didn’t help my ego that Hernando was obviously able to name every river, lake, and town in the whole country from memory.
Well, to heck with pilotage. Time for some radio navigation. I was on thin ice here. I couldn’t very well just start working the nav-coms, ADF, and DME without Hernando’s permission. He had Nav-com 1 tuned to 118.9, which was obviously Bolivar City, and we were on magnetic bearing 275. That was fine as far as it went but there was much more that could be done.
I pointed to the DME.
“118.9?” I said, essentially asking permission to tune the DME to Bolivar. Hernando shrugged.
“Too far,” he said.
I took this as permission and flipped the DME to 118.9. Sure enough, it couldn’t lock onto the signal. I opened the chart up a little. Directly to the north was an Omni station at Los Teques that should be almost 90 degrees off our flight path: perfect for a cross bearing. According to the chart it’s frequency was 120.6. I pointed to Nav-Com 2, then at the Omni station on the chart, and raised my eyebrows. It was easier amid the noise and the heavily-accented English to use gestures wherever possible.
Hernando shook his head. “Broken,” he said. He didn’t mean the VOR receiver in the plane. He meant the ground station.
Sympathizing with my desire to play with the radio navigation, Hernando pointed to the ADF (automatic direction finder), and then chose one of the many non-directional beacons near our flight path. He set the ADF on the proper frequency and got a good signal. The needle swung towards the station. That gave me a cross bearing, and of course it matched what we already knew from pilotage was our position on the chart. I tried the DME again. Still no signal.
Well, this navigating was fun but it was so obviously unnecessary given the pilot’s knowledge of the area that I began to get bored with it. When was he going to let me fly the plane? That’s what I really wanted to do. Heck, the main reason I’d been playing with the navigational instruments and trying to plot our course so precisely was to prove to him I knew what I was doing. Here we were at cruising altitude, a long flight ahead of us, and not a care in the world. Didn’t he know that at this point in the flight the pilot is almost required to let the passenger fly the plane? Apparently not. Hernando was leaning back in relaxed fashion, only two fingers on the controls, whistling a tune. Well, maybe he’d loosen up a bit after our first refueling stop. I couldn’t quite bring myself to out-and-out ask him. One’s not supposed to have to ask! I reached under my seat and pulled out the National Geographic article on the Venezuela tepuis. It would be another forty minutes, at least, before we began the descent to Bolivar city.
I finished the article half an hour later and picked up the chart again. The broad plains we had been flying over were now giving way to jungle, and through this jungle flowed an absolutely massive river: the Orinoco.
Fans of Tin-tin, the young French comic book adventure hero, know that Tin-tin’s travels always take him to the most remote corners of the earth, places like the Congo, Tibet, and the deserts of Tunisia. One of his finest adventures was “L’Oreille Casse” (the broken ear). Tin-tin was on the trail of some international jewel thieves, a mission which led him far into the jungles of South America and by dugout canoe up a river to the land of a ferocious indian tribe which hunted with curare-tipped blow guns and ate white men for breakfast. The name of the river? The Orinoco. And now here it was just off our right wing-tip. No doubt about it, this was getting interesting.
Our descent took us directly across the Orinoco and we landed at Bolivar City’s airfield against a good ten knot headwind. There seemed little difference between this small airport and others of its kind in the U.S. Inside we found a little cafe, and even a souvenir shop. On one wall was a painting of Simon Bolivar. On another was a large map, which I studied with interest. We were less than an hour’s flying time from either Trinidad or Guyana. And when we reached Canaima we would be less than 100 miles from the Amazon river basin, and Brazil.
The plane was refueled and we headed south, picking up the Caroni river as it branched off from the Orinoco. Soon we were flying over completely desolate rain forest which stretched away indefinitely in all directions. I glanced nervously at the engine-instruments, glad to see that all the readings were O.K. This wasn’t the kind of place where one wants an engine to quit.
The clear sky of early morning had given way to a scattering of cumulus at 6,000 feet, the flight was getting bumpy, but we were still climbing. I asked Hernando if he was going to fly above them, or stay below.
“Stay below, of course!”
“Why of course?”
“We can’t fly above the clouds! That’s IFR. We’re flying VFR.”
Well, perhaps. The clouds didn’t seem quite so close together that flying above them would constitute IFR flight. Of course what typically happened was you got above the clouds, flying VFR, and then the clouds closed in and you couldn’t get back down.
But that hardly seemed a problem in this case. Hernando, who used to fly air force jets, was certainly instrument rated. And the Cessna 206 was obviously outfitted for instrument flying. You can change to IFR if you need to, even on a VFR flight. I decided to press the point.
“Why do you care? You fly this plane IFR sometimes don’t you?”
“This plane! Of course not!” He seemed scandalized.
“Why not? It’s fully equipped.”
“You can’t fly private planes IFR! Except maybe business jets, or large twins like Beechcraft King Air’s, maybe.”
This simply wasn’t true.
“I’ve flown Cessna 206’s IFR,” I said. I’ve flown Cessna 150’s IFR! Look at this cockpit. It’s fully IFR equipped! I don’t understand why you can’t fly this plane IFR?”
Hernando grinned. “Ah,” he said. “Maybe in America, but not in Venezuela. Too many of the navigation beacons don’t work. Like Los Teques. To be sure of your navigation you have to fly at least 20,000 feet. That way you’ll almost always be able to find something that works. Otherwise, too dangerous!”
Well, that explained it. If you couldn’t trust the navigation beacons then you obviously couldn’t fly IFR.
Half an hour later we saw our first Tepui. It was a massive shape on the distant horizon, and I would have missed it entirely if Hernando had not pointed it out.
“Tepui!” he said, and I nodded. Soon the tepuis could be seen everywhere, although many rose up into cloud cover that obscured their tops. That’s where the dinosaurs are hiding, I thought to myself. Under those clouds.
Angel Falls, according to the National Geographic article, was on the Northeast side of the “Auyan Tepui,” which I could see now just to the left of the Caroni river. Hernando pushed the controls forward and the Cessna began a descent from 6,000 feet. Things were happening quickly. Coming up directly ahead was the town of Canaima, just east of the river. Another river, almost certainly carrying the waters of Angel Falls, flowed out from around the Auyan Tepui and into the Caroni. Just as it was passing the town this river cascaded over a tremendous falls: not long and thin like Angel, but broad like Niagra. The town of Canaima seemed to be little more than a few buildings clustered around a paved airstrip, but we didn’t have time to look more closely for Hernando was now flying the plane up a Tepui-studded valley, right at Tepui-top level. He nosed down still farther and banked slightly to the right. The huge face of the Auyan Tepui was now right beside the aircraft.
As we curved even further around we came suddenly upon an entire cliff face with a dozen waterfalls shooting off of it—from the top of the tepui all the way to the bottom: a thousand feet at least.
“This is the dry season!” said Hernando over the roar of the plane’s engine. “In the rainy season it is a solid wall of water pouring off the tepui!”
“Which one’s Angel Falls?” I asked.
“That one!” he said, pointing to one of the many streams of water. More of the Tepui was coming into view, opening up a vista of still more waterfalls. “No wait,” he said. “That one, that one there, that’s Angel Falls. Or maybe it’s that one over there!”
At every Angel Falls prospect each passenger took half a dozen photographs, so whichever one was the real thing it wasn’t going to escape. But maybe it didn’t matter. It was not the height of any particular waterfall that was spectacular, it was the panorama of so many of them right together cascading off this incredibly steep mountain.
“Uh, Hernando, we are going to turn I assume,” said Bob nervously. I looked up to see, directly ahead, another Tepui on a collision course with the Cessna. “Don’t worry!” Hernando smiled, and banked the plane steeply to the left in a 180 degree turn. We were ready to make our second pass over Angel Falls. This time Hernando had no difficulty selecting the real thing from its imposters, and we all took more pictures, just to make sure we hadn’t missed it on the first pass. I kept my eye on the rim of the Tepui hoping to spot a Stegasaurus trying to hide, but they were too quick.
Emerging back out of the Tepui valley Hernando went through his landing checklist and entered the pattern for the Canaima airstrip on a downwind leg. As he was turning onto final approach I saw something I almost couldn’t believe. The wind sock at the end of the runway was blowing the wrong way! We were landing downwind! There must be some mistake. Probably I was reading the wind-sock backwards, they are kind of confusing. But no, it was pointing the same direction we were flying. The wind was directly behind us, and it wasn’t just a light breeze. The windsock was pointing straight out!
This was incredibly dangerous. I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen, but it would not have surprised me if the airplane were to flip over on its back as it touched down. I was glad the other passengers didn’t realize the predicament. We were a dozen yards over the asphalt when sure enough the plane began see-sawing up and down, refusing to flare-out properly. I was absolutely terrified. If we were going to flip, this is when it would happen.
Hernando smiled, kept a calm hand on the controls, and said “wo-wo-wo-wo-wo!” The Cessna settled to the ground. Hernando immediately hit the brakes, retracted the flaps and pushed forward on the controls: three actions which glued the plane to the runway. As we slowed to a normal taxi speed I considered what, if anything, I should say. Finally I just blurted it out.
“Hernando, that windsock looked like it was blowing the same way we landed.” That was the charitable way of putting it.
We were now nearing the ramp at the far end of the runway. Hernando smiled again and pointed to the windsock we were approaching.
It was blowing the other way!
“That’s impossible!” I said. How could the wind be coming from the south at one end, and from the north at the other? One thing was certain. I’d misjudged the pilot. Given that both directions were downwind he’d done a brilliant job of landing the plane.
“It’s because of the Tepui!” he explained. “The wind comes around it from both directions, and hits the Canaima runway from both ends. Very dangerous!”
You can say that again. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Canaima is not much more than an airstrip and a collection of thatch huts. It’s raison d’etre is its proximity to the highest waterfall in the world. You can’t see Angel Falls from Canaima, but you can see the almost equally impressive Ucaima Falls as the Carrao River pours into the Caroni. An embryonic tourist industry has developed at Canaima. There are little lake-front cabins, a nice open-air restaurant under a large thatched roof, colorful parrots wandering about, and of course a souvenir shop—set somewhat off by itself in the jungle. The town is also the jumping off point for excursions to Angel Falls itself. There is the four day journey by dugout canoe. (I desperately wanted to sign up, but doubted the others would wait that long.) There is the 30 minute helicopter tour, but that would be the same view as we’d had from the Cessna, and anyway it probably cost billions of Bees.
After lunch at the thatch-roof restaurant we made the required pilgrimage to the souvenir shop. It was half souvenirs, half groceries. Among the souvenirs we found various native things carved out of wood, such as blow guns, bow and arrow sets, war masks, spears, and the like. Daniela commented to the owner that these same things were available in Bolivar City, but at nearly twice the price.
“Ah! That’s because they are made around here, by the indians,” he explained proudly. The ones in Bolivar City, they come from the indians at Canaima!”
I bought a blow gun and a Canaima T-shirt, and we headed back to the plane. Off in the distance I saw an Avensa Airlines Boeing 727 approaching on its downwind leg, and thought no more about it except to take note that apparently Avensa did have planes built after World War II. A few moments later I was startled by a huge roar, and the 727 flew off overhead. Hernando pointed to it, turned to me, and smiled knowingly.
“He aborted the landing!”
“He aborted the landing. He couldn’t land with these winds. Winds at Canaima, very dangerous!”
My respect for Hernando increased. He’d landed the 206 in winds that were too much even for a large jetliner. Soon we were all back aboard the Cessna and beginning our takeoff roll. Hernando chose to takeoff in the opposite direction from which we’d landed. It was six of one, half dozen of the other.
I turned my attention to the navigation. So far we had completed two legs of a triangle. Now we were ready for the the long diagonal leg back to Maracay. We crossed the Caroni river for the last time, heading Northwest, and immediately we were over trackless jungle. This didn’t look like Iowa. There were no roads, no train tracks, no towns sprinkled about. There were a few little streams snaking around here and there. The chart showed them, and I tried to plot our position based on their curves and position, but I didn’t have much luck. There were dozens of these tiny rivers all flowing every which way. Trying to navigate by them was impossible.
There wasn’t much radio navigation available either. Hernando had locked the ADF onto Valle De La Pascua, which was the closest point of civilization, and that’s about all there was to do. I looked out the window and studied the jungle for awhile. We had left the Tepui’s behind, and this country undulated without conviction, rising up into no points of importance and easing away into no great valleys. Everyone in the back seats had gone to sleep. Hernando had one hand draped carelessly over the controls and he was whistling his tune again. Things weren’t going to get any more uneventful.
“Hernando,” I asked bravely. “Can I fly the plane?”
He looked up, startled.
“You?” he said, unbelievingly.
In for a penny, in for a pound.
He digested this unprecedented idea, and finally shrugged his shoulders. He pointed to the directional gyro.
“Here!” he said, making sure I was aware of our 295 degree heading. Then he pointed to the ADF. “Here!” he said, making sure I was aware of the radio navigation fix we were following.
Fair enough. He didn’t point to the third relevant instrument, the altimeter, but I’d been watching that closely. To pass your private pilot flight test you have to be able to fly a particular course while holding your altitude plus or minus 100 feet. To pass your commercial test, you have to hold your altitude plus or minus 25 feet. Since we’d left Maracay Hernando had been holding his altitude within a range of about 300 feet. Nothing wrong with that of course. No one was taking a flight test.
But he’d been so unchivalrous about letting me fly the plane that I was determined to hold our altitude to commercial standards, and as for the heading, well, that gyro compass wasn’t going to move a single degree.
I grasped the controls gently but firmly. Of course this wasn’t quite fair, I realized. I was in the right seat. Flying an airplane from the right seat is like writing with your left hand. The altimeter needle began to climb above the 5,000 foot mark. No problem. I eased it back down. Whoops. A little too much. I brought us back up. The trick, of course, was to make these little adjustments in a way that no passenger could feel them. Flying precisely also means flying smoothly.
After about ten minutes, with the altimeter still within it’s 50 foot range and the gyro compass locked on 295, I glanced over at Hernando. He wasn’t even paying attention! A fly had gotten loose in the cockpit and he was trying to kill it with his hands. After his reluctance to give me the controls I at least expected him to be scowling critically, waiting to pounce on my first mistake, and being disappointed in his wait.
Hmmm. I glanced at my watch. Fifteen minutes. Whoever first said that the most boring thing in the world is flying an airplane cross country must have been crossing the Venezuelan rain forest at the time. This was horribly frustrating. My first time at the controls of a single-engine Cessna in 16 years, and all I could do was fly straight and level! Kind of like being handed the keys to a Porsche and being told you have to keep it in first gear.
I wanted to roll into a 60 degree bank. I wanted to push the throttle to the wall and do a chandelle, or a lazy eight. I wanted to practice stall recovery, and do some gentle spirals or, best of all, find a deserted airstrip and practice cross-wind touch and goes. It wasn’t even any fun to hold a precise altitude if no one was watching! Hernando was still after the fly, still whistling his little tune, still looking every direction but at the impressive readings on the altimeter.
I couldn’t believe that less than thirty minutes ago I’d been desperate to fly the plane. Careful what you wish for, I thought. You might get it. I glanced back and saw, enviously, that the others were still asleep. It would sure be nice to join them. Hmmm. How far to Maracay? Another two hours?
Hernando was having no luck with the fly.
“Hernando,” I volunteered. “You take the plane, I’ll get the fly!” I grabbed the sectional chart, rolled it up, and smacked the bug against the window. Hernando smiled a big smile, and applauded. But he kept his hands on the controls, and I made no move to take them back. I was thrilled to be just a passenger again.
An hour after taking off from Canaima we could see a broad dark line crossing from left to right near the horizon. We were coming up again on the Orinoco river. Our route of flight was going to take us across a massive S-curve in this river, and soon we were directly above it. From 5,000 feet the Orinoco looked as big as the Mississippi, maybe even a mile wide. And I discovered later that this very S curve we were flying over, approximately 200 miles west of Bolivar City, is very visible even on world maps.
After the S curve we begin seeing little towns or jungle settlements , and here and there a long thin line that would prove to be a road on closer inspection. Up ahead I could see something flicker bright orange, but could make nothing of it until we were closer. It was fire. Acres and acres of the rain forest were being burned. Here and there one could see evidence of earlier burnings, where large tracks had been carved out of the jungle for planting and cultivation. This was fascinating. The environmentalists in the U.S. are always talking about the destruction of the rainforests in South America, and here it was actually happening. And it wasn’t in just one place. Over the next thirty minutes I saw at least a dozen fires at various points on the horizon.
“Stop!” I wanted to yell down to them. “That’s the world’s oxygen supply you’re burning up!”
I asked Hernando about it.
“No, they’re not burning the rainforests,” he said. “They’re just burning brush, they do it every year.”
I didn’t press the point. They were obviously burning the rain forests. And they were obviously planting crops in the areas they’d cleared. I could see it! Apparently the arsonists had a good PR company representing them in Venezuela.
I was distracted from this depressing line of thought by our fuel gages. We were down to a quarter tank in each wing. It was a long way to Maracay. I asked Hernando if he thought we could make it.
“No,” he said. “Our tailwind has died down. We’ll have to land at Valle de La Pascua.” Thirty minutes later we taxied up to the little general aviation airport at Pascua, and got out to stretch our legs.
“Ola!” one of the gasoline attendants said when he saw Hernando. They greeted each other warmly. Hernando had also seemed to be well known in Bolivar City. As an Air Force colonel I guessed he was probably a minor legend in Venezuelan aviation circles.
Catia was holding her ear in pain. Something hadn’t gone right on our last descent and the air pressure hadn’t cleared. Hernando asked the attendant for help and he went in side the airport, emerging a few minutes later with a little bottle of anesthetic to spray in her ear. That seemed to do the trick.
Now we were airborne again, and preparing to cross the mountain range south of Maracay. The sun was nearing the horizon, and a soft orange light was cast over the hills, creating a beautiful latticework of shadows and ridges. A large lake, possibly man made, was directly below us, and Hernando pointed to a dam near its eastern edge.
“Biggest hydro-electric dam in the world,” he said, and it looked it.
Soon we were beginning our descent over Maracay, and with the last rays of the sun our wheels touched down at the airbase and we taxied over to the hangar.
As we climbed into the back of Dilvo’s land cruiser the images of the day were still dancing in my head: Venezuelan airbases, huge man-made lakes, limitless plains, jungle-capped mountains, wide somnolent rivers, Tepuis reaching into the clouds, endless streams of water cascading from incredible heights, grass covered huts in the jungle, orange flames devouring the rainforests, and a black altimeter gage that stayed within 25 feet of its mark. One thing was certain: I was going to be too wound up to sleep tonight.
Or maybe I would sleep very well.
There were three days remaining before we returned to the states, and we spent them re-doing some of the things we’d already done, relaxing at the house, and spending time with the family.
We returned to the beach at Cata on Thursday,this time with Daniela, and she guided us to a delightful place where a little jungle stream made its way through the sand and joined with the ocean. I tried snorkeling in this river, but I had become paranoid from stories of piranhas and crocodiles. At one point I turned my head slightly and almost jumped out of my skin. A large crocodile was staring at me right in the face, only inches a way. It turned out to be a sunken log.
On Friday we went back to Casa Italia, and that night Dani’s other brother, Bimbo, and his family joined the group for dinner. The food served at the Salvadori residence surpassed even my high expectations. Dina alternated between Venezuelan and Italian cuisine. One night we had roast venison from a deer which Dilvo had shot. On one bite I discovered several pieces of shot from the original shell.
We had also sampled dishes entirely unfamiliar to me, such as roast pork slices and corn meal baked in some kind of leaf, and fruits that have no North American counterpart. One large green plant was cut open and Dani carved off pieces of it for each of us. It tasted like a vanilla shake. But there were also the traditional Italian meals: spaghetti, ravioli, and lasagna. Dina makes all of her own pasta, including the ravioli itself. She had interesting little kitchen instruments to help her in this. The ravioli-maker was a steel mold, reminiscent of a waffle iron, onto which she laid the pasta pieces. After the first layer came the filling, and after that came a second layer of pasta. A little cookie-cutter mechanism was then employed to slice out the individual squares of ravioli.
During the evenings Dilvo and I often played with his radio equipment. He would turn to some frequency, grab the mike, and say:
“Venezuela calling. Venezuela calling CQ. CQ. CQ. CQ. YV4AU calling CQ. This is YV4AU in Venezuela calling CQ”
Always someone would answer. Once it was an operator in Sweden, then someone in Romania, finally a person on Long Island New York who Dilvo let me talk to. The man lived near Quogue, where I’d once shared a summer house, and I was able to discuss the attributes of the community’s local tennis court with the man on the other end. Certainly when I’d left for Venezuela I’d had no idea that while there I would be talking to someone about the tennis courts in Quogue. It was one more reminder of how much trivia the brain carries around.
Dilvo also showed me his shoe-box full of CQ cards, which are pre-printed postcards from different Ham radio operators around the world, giving the address, call sign, and usually a photograph or drawing or something germane to the locale. It was possible that I was more interested in these cards than were most people Dilvo tried to show them to, for he leafed thru them quickly, as if expecting me to get bored. He would say, “Ah, here’s one from Burma,” and toss it back into the pile. I would grab it quickly and say “Where in Burma?”
“Ah, Fiji Islands…”
“Where in the Fiji Islands?”
…and so forth. An hour later when we finished with the shoe box, he told me he used to have several suitcases full of the cards, but finally threw them all away, saving only one or two from each country.
On Saturday we went shopping in Maracay. Everyone needed to buy some things for friends back home. I bought a T-shirt for each of my two children, and then remembered I had three children! Fortunately they had a tiny Venezuela t-shirt just right for Alex.
In the afternoon I played blow-darts with Monica, and Jennifer, Jennifer being Leah’s daughter who now lives in Caracas. We set up a cardboard box with a target on it and spent the afternoon shooting poison darts at the box. The gun was surprisingly accurate, and the darts could fly quite a ways across the yard and still penetrate the heavy cardboard. If they really had been tipped with curare the box would have died quickly.
In the evening I played ping-pong with the Monica, Jennifer, and Juan-Carlos, and for the first time, I felt like I was carrying on a conversation in Spanish.
“Quanto a quanto?” I would ask.
“Tres a quatro!” Monica would answer.
Granted, no complex philosophical concepts were being debated, but it was a conversation of sorts, and it was all in Spanish. Even though Juan Carlos won the tournament I felt triumphant because of my growing language fluency. Dina would have been proud.
We left for the airport at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, so again I was not able to see Caracas except in the dark and it looked much the same as it had seven days earlier: tall white buildings, interspersed with sprawling slum houses which clung to their mountainsides in disarray.
My flight was scheduled to leave for Aruba at 2:00 p.m., and from there I would pick up my return flight to the states on Continental. Daniela and her party were to leave Caracas at 9:30 that morning, so it seemed inevitably that I would come to know the airport well during the hours after the others had left. I wasn’t scared of the thought this time, though, since now I could speak Spanish.
After all, I could ask anyone in the airport:
“Quanto a quanto?” (This was superbowl Sunday, so that might be a useful phrase.)
Or I could say:
“Curvas Pelagrossa?” (Asking if any dangerous curves were nearby. I’d learned that from road signs on the Cata highway.)
“Jamon y quesa” (to obtain a ham and cheese sandwich.)
But the airport Gods were kinder to me this time. I discovered that my airline to Aruba, Aeropostale, had a 9:00 a.m. flight I could just make. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that an eight hour layover could be spent better on the beach in Aruba than on a bench in Caracas. I bid goodbye to Daniela and Bob, Catia and Bethany, and finally Dina and Dilvo, and then rushed to my gate. The DC-9 roared off the runway, and headed northwest to the island of Aruba, less than thirty minutes away. The jungle-capped green mountains rising over Caracas were aglow in the early-morning sunlight, yet it did not look exotic to me anymore. This was where Dina and Dilva lived, along with Jennifer, Monica, Juan-Carlos, Bimbo, Carmen, Paulino, and Hernando. In other words, this was where my friends lived and Venezuela would now always be like a second home.
Even Aruba seemed curiously familiar as I walked through the airport where I had once had to lie about staying at the Sonesta Hotel in order to get my passport stamped. This time I didn’t care. I’d already collected an Aruba stamp. A second one would be excessive. But I did have eight hours to kill before my next flight. Aruba is not a large island, and I had seen the rows of resort hotels begin less than a mile from the runway. It would obviously be ridiculous to spend the time waiting on a bench when one of the world’s greatest beaches was so close. I walked out to the street and hailed the nearest cab.
“Where to?” he asked, English being the assumed language near the airport.
“I have eight hours to kill, and I figured I should spend them at the beach in front of one of the hotels. Which one would you recommend.?
“The finest beach in all Aruba is in front of the Holiday Inn.”
So he took me to the Holiday Inn. Actually as we drove from the airport all the hotels seemed to look quite a bit alike: high rise resort-style, with bellman out front in white gloves ready to pamper newly-arriving guests. Everywhere new high-rise hotels were under construction, hundreds of tourist were clogging the sidewalk, and traffic was jammed up at each intersection. The contrast with Bonaire was striking. I checked my pack at the Holiday Inn’s luggage desk, saving only a small bag containing my swim suit and snorkeling gear. Finding a nearby restroom I changed into this more suitable attire, and headed out towards the water.
Well, if this was the finest beach in Aruba, I wasn’t too impressed. There was no surf. Tepid, lifeless water lapped against the sand. The beach itself was only about fifteen yards wide, from the water to the sidewalk by the hotel. Granted, half this width was graced by beautiful palm trees, which fluttered pleasantly in the tropical breeze. But most shocking was the crush of people. Unattractive, white bodies, belonging to tourists who spoke in New Jersey accents, had taken up every square foot of space. They lay sprawled on towels in the sand, or on rented lounge chairs, and baked slowly, no doubt aspiring to return to the Northeast with golden tans. I thought of the beautiful, limitless beach at Cata, with long gentle waves breaking against it, and high mountainous jungle rising above it. For a moment I experienced an emotion almost akin to homesickness.
Well, perhaps the snorkeling would be good. I slipped on my face mask, and fins, and flutter-kicked out from the beach. But in the water things were even worse. The sand bottom extended for hundreds of yards out and the water was infuriatingly murky. Even if visibility had been good there would have been nothing to see. Where there is no coral, there are no fish. I gave up snorkeling and went for a walk down the beach. Quite an entertainment industry had developed here. There were stands for windsurfer rental, scuba lessons, waterskiing…
Ah, here was something interesting. An unloved little sunfish sailboat lying upside down. I walked over to the nearest concession and asked them if it was available for rental.
“You want to rent the sunfish?”
I got the impression I was the first person ever to ask. Windsurfers were darting back and forth just off shore, and they were obviously the craft of choice for the athletic set. Everyone else was baking in the sun.
“Yes, how much is it?”
The price was very reasonable, only ten dollars for two hours. A windsurfer was thirty dollars an hour. But the attendant was reluctant.
“Do you know how to sail it?” he asked skeptically.
“Yes, I know how to sail it.”
He wasn’t convinced. He glanced over at a nearby flag, which was straight out and flapping violently.
“Wind very strong right now,” he said. “Very difficult to sail a sunfish in this wind. Are you sure you can handle it?”
“Yes, I can handle a sunfish.”
“You see, we have many people who come here, and they say they know how to sail, and they get into trouble. Especially with this kind of wind…”
I was tempted to say I’d been sailing sunfishes since I was eight years old, that for five years I’d owned a Cal 27 on Long Island, that I crewed on J-24 races in the summer, that I’d once sailed a forty-one foot yawl across the Gulf of Mexico in a gale, and that I could handle a goddammed sunfish! But instead I just smiled and said again, “Yes, I can handle a sunfish.”
Against his better judgement he agreed to rent me the little sailboat, After rigging up the sail, rudder, and centerboard, he helped me push it off into the water. The wind was blowing from directly offshore, and a whole fleet of larger boats and sailing yachts were anchored just off the beach, providing a tricky obstacle course right from the beginning. Nonetheless I managed to tack upwind, and avoid the anchored vessels, just as I’d promised I could do. But now the sunfish was hit with the full force of the wind, and it took off like a speedboat.
A sunfish can hold up to three people, and is probably happiest with two. With only myself on board it wasn’t sufficiently ballasted for the amount of wind. And the wind itself was proving very gusty, and prone to change directions 90 degrees in random bursts. In many ways a larger sailboat is easier, because it has more hardware. This little sunfish had no winches, no jam cleats, or even sufficient blocks and tackle to help on the mainsheet. Perhaps worst of all, it had no tiller extender, which made it very difficult to lean out to windward and still hold the tiller properly. And with this wind, I was needing to lean out to windward continuously.
In short, I realized I was going to have my hands full keeping the craft from capsizing. Now I’ve never flipped a sailboat in my life. For me, the interplay between wind direction, boat heading, angle of heel, ballast, and sail position are so ;intuitive and second nature that I’ve always thought I could no more flip a sailboat than I could walk into a tree with my eyes open. It was simply too easy to keep a sailboat from flipping.
But now I was having to re-evaluate that. The lack of a tiller extender was making things very, very difficult. And the wind was absolutely determined to knock this sunfish upside down. Several times I found myself having to completely drop both the tiller and the mainsheet, and crawl violently to windward so that my body weight would stop the boat from flipping. At these times the wind would be so frustrated it would try to rip the sails to pieces, which it would come near to doing while I managed to get the craft back under control. Then it would shoot off again like a thing possessed, threatening to bury its nose in the waves at every opportunity. I glanced down at my right hand and saw that it was actually bleeding. Bleeding! From holding the mainsheet of a sunfish! This was getting embarrassing. I began to wonder if the man back at the concession stand had been right to be skeptical of my ability. I was becoming skeptical myself.
Nonetheless, like a rodeo rider on a bull I was managing to stay on for the ride. I tacked far off shore, and then turned and roared back in with the wind. Windsurfers were racing past from all directions at astonishing speeds but I wasn’t going much slower myself. After proving to my satisfaction that I could in fact sail the boat anywhere I wished, and return, I decided I’d had enough. I’d been out less than thirty minutes but the idea of doing this for 2 hours was appalling.
Of course just when I was ready to head back to the beach the wind changed, and now was coming from the beach. This meant I would have to tack against it, past all the anchored motorboats, just to return to where I’d started. Well, I could do that. Ten minutes later I was only a dozen yards from my destination when suddenly another gust of wind hit. The boat heeled far over, and yet again I was forced to release the tiller and mainsheet, and climb to the high side to keep from flipping.
But this time things didn’t go as planned. Despite the fact that the sail was flapping free, the rudder was turning us into the wind, and all 180 pounds of my body weight were positioned squarely on the windward rail, the boat kept tipping! Oh my God! With my soul crying in anguish I realized that for the first time in my life I was going to be responsible for flipping a sailboat! Never again would I be able to tell my wife that I had never flipped a sailboat, and hence she shouldn’t worry about sailing with me. Never again could I maintain, in conversations with sailors, that only a fool would flip a sailboat. And worst of all, I knew with utter clarity that the concession man was somewhere nearby, watching with a knowing smile. This was going to be so humiliating.
All these thoughts happened in an instant, and then in the next instant I was in the water, the sailboat more or less upside down beside me. The unthinkable had happened. Well, there was too much to be done now to wallow in regret. I set about fixing the mess. I was close enough to shore that I could jut touch the bottom, which helped immensely. Getting the right leverage, I pushed up and over, in a motion designed to flip the boat back upright. But suddenly my leg brushed up against something strange in the water, and the boat itself refused to budge.
Then I understood. I hadn’t flipped the sailboat. I had crashed the sailboat! The sunfish’s centerboard had smashed into an underwater cable that was anchoring a nearby pier to the shore. This was an entirely different matter! This didn’t count! My ego restored, I maneuvered the boat away from the cable, and got it upright with no difficulty. Rather than sail it further I simply walked the sunfish up to the beach, and pulled it out of the water and onto the sand. Looking about, I was further delighted to realize that the concessionaire was no where in sight. He’d missed the whole thing.
Well, that was certainly enough excitement for the day. I reclaimed my bag and walked a short distance through the trees to the Holiday Inn pool. A dive in the fresh water rinsed off the salt, and I spent the remainder of my eight hours sitting under a palm tree reading my novel. That, after all, is what one is supposed to do on Aruba.
When it was time to return to the airport, I asked the concierge if there was a limousine or bus that would be less expensive than a cab. One large bus was loading passengers at that moment, and it seemed doubtful it could have any destination other than the airport.
“How did you arrive?” I was asked, which seemed an irrelevant question.
“I arrived by cab.”
“Then you must return by cab.”
Wierd island. Why should I return by cab if there was a bus right out front?
I reclaimed my pack and went out to the bus, where a young islander was loading passengers and luggage.
“Is this bus going to the airport?” I asked.
“Can I go on it?”
“Well, do you have the little yellow ticket?”
Ah, now I understood. These buses were obviously for shuttling people back and forth who were on some sort of package deal: airfare, hotel, food, transportation to the airport—all for one price. If you weren’t part of the “package” you couldn’t take the bus. You had to use the higher-priced cabs. But I wasn’t going to fall for it.
“Look,” I said. “I don’t have a ticket. Couldn’t I just pay you—like five bucks?”
When all else fails, try bribery.
He looked uncertain, glanced around, and then nodded OK. I reached into my pocket to hand him a five dollar bill but he shook his head violently. “Not now, at the airport!”
When we arrived at the airport I noticed everyone was handing him their yellow tickets as they disembarked. When it was my turn I simply handed him a $5 bill which must have looked like a tip to anyone watching.
“Thank you!” he said.
Now it was my turn to glance around nervously. Less than eight hours on Aruba and already I’d committed a crime. At least the powerful taxi lobby would see it that way.
I snuck into the airport and took my place gratefully in the line for Continental Airlines. I was eager to relax blissfully in my first class seat to Denver.
And that, I knew, was certain proof that it was time to return home.