Tuesday, October 23, 2007

My dad's story from the jungle...

My parents are living in Venezuela for two years while my mom teaches at a private school in Caracas. This is part of the retirement "deal" they made with each other: My mom agreed to settle down at Edisto Island only on the condition that my Dad would first accompany her on an extended sojourn abroad. This has made for an interesting family dynamic, captured in the following account of their recent trip into the Amazonian part of Venezuela. The story will be most appreciated by those who know my folks, but should have some general interest, as well.

Adventure in the Orinoco Delta
By Johnny Douglass

Our adventure began with an all night bus ride to Ciudad Bolivar at the edge of the Orinoco Delta. We took an "executive bus". If that was an executive bus, I'm glad we didn't take the chicken bus. This bus had very comfy seats that reclined nicely but it was a little rough around the edges in other ways. For example the bathroom had no window and no functioning light. The toilet seat was obviously designed by women because there was no way to retain the seat ring up for standing water-makers. I had to stand on one foot and use the other knee to hold it up. It was sort of hard to balance on one foot while the bus was careening around curves and still hit the mark…in total black velvet darkness, but I suspect it is a good exercise for the elderly to maintain coordination and balance.

Other than urination time the bus ride was pure bliss until the air conditioning broke down out about two thirds of the way there, but I'm getting ahead of myself. We began with a nice on-board American movie with the English audio replaced with dubbed in Spanish. The plot involved a sort of Rambo-type guy. He was an ex-Ranger sniper, engaged by bad guys in the government to go around shooting people from a great distance with a big rifle that made all their blood splash out from a single hit. Anyway, that was over when the air conditioning died. Since this was an executive bus, the windows wouldn't open. Soon the windows which had been fogging up on the outside from the cold interior were fogging up on the inside from the sweltering heat and sweating bodies.

We arrived in Ciudad Bolivar about two hours early at 3:45 AM (a Venezuelan miracle). I think the bus driver kept the pedal to the metal to get us to our destination before we died of heat stroke and dehydration like those poor illegal guest workers that unscrupulous operators smuggle into the US locked up in the back of truck vans. We phoned Peter, the posada owner/operator (a posada is a small resort that can range from something like a bed and breakfast to something like scout camp) , who cracked a few jokes about it being the middle of the night, but he came out to fetch us. On the way back to the posada he cracked a few more jokes about the fact that his posada was at the end of a horrid dirt road through a couple of barrios (slums). His jokes, which in his German accent he called "chokes" always ended with a laugh of "heh heh heh" that sounded like Eddy Murphy's laugh in his Saturday Night Live Mr. Rogers spoof.

The posada was surrounded by a tall cyclone fence and guarded by 13 gentle but very woofy dogs. Venezuelan dogs tend to be much like Venezuelan people, products of very mixed ancestry, noisy, very affectionate and sociable. The dog barking started a rooster crowing contest from all the rural barrios within about a kilometer radius. Since it was so early our bungalows were not ready but Peter kindly let us repose in the hammock house. In the Venezuelan outback a hammock house is an inexpensive accommodation where young adventurers or other low income tourists and cheapskates sleep. It consists of an open sided shelter with a tin or grass roof and lots of hammocks with mosquito nets hanging around from the posts and beams. This hammock house was quite deluxe and actually had a couple of bunk beds among the hammocks. We chose the bunk beds.

When day broke we discovered our posada had a small swimming pool and a small zoo enclosing several ordinary animals and some less ordinary ones. They ranged from chickens and turkeys to monkeys, a peccary, a deer, and an agouti. I immediately made friends with one nice monkey who stuck her arms through the cyclone fence to inspect my hands. I was having a bit of an eczema problem on some of my fingers which worried her. She tried to groom off the little bits of peeling skin while making joyful cooing sounds. Then Catherine approached and she bared her teeth and lunged at her in rage. Later Peter informed me this female monkey was able to distinguish between human males and females. He said she did not like any woman intruding in her space when she was enjoying attention from a man, "Heh heh heh". At my age I'm glad to know there are still at least some female primates who are attracted to me.

I don't know if it was female or male, but I soon made another friend. A free flying but obviously tame parrot landed under my reclining lawn chair. It climbed up with beak and feet to have a better look at me and seemed to find me very unusual. I offered my hand and it climbed on and immediately began trying to disassemble my watch. Before I realized it could do so, it had removed the little aspirin tablet-size compass from my watch band and held it in its mouth. I protested but I could not get it back. At that point Peter wandered up to see how his guests were doing. I protested that his parrot was about to swallow my compass. He said, "Vell din he is never lost and can always fly home to where he started from. Heh heh heh. Chust a choke."

I was afraid to stick my finger in the parrot's sharp beak to try and retrieve the compass so I just wrote it off. Eventually he climbed up on my shoulder. I thought it rather quaint and felt like saying, "Look at me; I'm a pirate". Ultimately he started making himself obnoxious by nibbling my ear. When I would turn my head to make him stop, he would try to nibble my lip. If I tried to brush him off, he would just grip down harder with his talons. Now I know why Caribbean pirates had parrots on their shoulders. It wasn't for style or image. They just landed there and they couldn't get them off. At long last, it tired of me, spit out my compass, and went off to bother others.

Our adventure was made very nice by our travel companions, Dennis and Rosemary Pace. They are a pair of long legged career expatriate teachers in their late 50's. Bostonian Dennis is distinguished by his Romanesque schnoz which lets him pass for an Arab or an Italian (which he is) or anything else exotic. He is also a great conversationalist and comfortable with anyone and everyone. Canadian Rosemary is distinguished by her big brown eyes, curiosity, kindness, and eagerness to engage socially with all those around her.

There's a lot to worry about when you travel in Venezuela. Among the four of us we managed to spread the worry so that each person worried about that which he/she worries best. I worried that some of our vital gear, bank cards, or travel papers would be lost or stolen and also that we would be late for one of our travel connections. Catherine worried that there might be something to do or see that we would miss. Dennis worried about how the international securities market and the Red Sox were doing. Rosemary worried about someone getting bit by an animal and whether the rest of us had connected all the dots in our respective planning and operations roles.

Getting bit by an animal is a pretty important worry in the Orinoco delta. Beaks, fangs, sharp teeth, and blood sucking arthropods abound. Surprisingly the ubiquitous mosquito was not as prevalent as we had feared, especially in the day time. However there were other invisible biting things that may have been akin to chiggers or no-see-ums that raised red itching bumps that are sticking with us longer than mosquito bites do. I think I collected most of these lying around in the shade in my swimsuit the last day.

Back to the script. We did a few hours in Ciudad Bolivar on the day of our arrival and we took a long ride provided by a neighbor of Peter's to visit Puerto Ordaz on our second day at the posada. Ciudad Bolivar is ancient, historical, and fairly scruffy in most but not all places. Puerto Ordaz is larger and more wealthy (although wealth is a relative thing). It's a fairly new city. The high point for me was visiting a great city park below a big hydroelectric dam. The park was full of little water channels and water falls, ponds full of fish, and woods full of wildlife including a sloth, a huge woodpecker, and an agouti.

Our driver Amador was a character. He seemed to know everyone in town. He had cheery remarks for all his friends and strangers too. While driving he had friendly horn toots for his friends and all pretty girls as well as old fat ones. He also had toots of support to disabled people in wheel chairs and just about anyone that caught his attention. In Venezuela, when in doubt, toot. Amador turned into a helpful guide. He slowed down his Spanish, was good at spotting wildlife, and showed us neat places in the park.

At the posada life was idyllic. Our bungalows were simple, charming, and sufficient. They were inspired by the local Indian houses, round (hexagonal to be precise) with a palm thatched roof, cement floor, and a real bathroom with hanging beads for a door. Each couple had a bungalow. Our door lock was hard to operate but we discovered that we could easily just open the windows, which had no latches, and step in.

Although the bungalows were perfect, all four of us had to share a room on the second day because we had altered our plans late in the process and the bungalows were all booked on that one day. That didn't portend a big problem although Rosemary warned us that Dennis sometimes screamed in his sleep. I figured that probably meant about once every other leap year. The shared room was an increment more modern than the bungalows. It had a window unit air conditioner, and a bathroom with a door, one double bed and three singles. All was well until shortly after lights out when Rosemary heard the sound of water running and checked the bathroom. She alerted us that the toilet tank was overflowing and a lot of water was on the floor. I got up to see and discovered about an inch of water on the lowest part of the floor near our bed. Suddenly it was lights on and all hands on deck to rescue our bags, shoes, and clothing on the floor from the rising flood. Never mind that we were all in our tropical weather minimalist under-dainties. We had an emergency to deal with. Of course the toilet tank had no shutoff valve in the water supply line. I finally managed to stop the flow by using a plastic coat hanger to prop the tank float thingamajig up to the highest position.

With the toilet flood stopped we all fell into a peaceful sleep, peaceful that is until, "Eyowwww" a blood curdling scream like the first word in James Brown's famous song, I Feel Good pierced the night. Yep, Dennis had screamed. I was afraid he had discovered five-inch scorpions in his bed but it was only a nightmare. Rosemary dashed over to tuck him in again and he apologized, explaining that he'd had a bad dream. The rest of the night truly was restful until 5:30 AM when our alarm rang and we roused ourselves for the next stage of our adventure.

For the next stage, we were driven to another posada in cahoots with the first to begin our wilderness experience in earnest. It was just on the edge of the tiny delta town of Piacoa. There's not much to keep Piacoa on the map except fishing, a little small scale cattle farming, and I forgot the third thing. Houses are mostly little shanties of tin, mud, clay, and cinderblocks surrounded by bare earth yards with barefoot kids and chickens pecking around everywhere. Ourselves and a few other mostly German tourists were the only gringos in town. I worried that we would be targets of much attention if not some Chavista hostility but the people seemed to take us in stride just as they did the town drunk lying on the dirt with his bottle, hollering and singing by the boat docks. That's probably because the French posada owner is a local lifetime resident and always has a handful of gringo tourists in town.

Oh, did I refer to the boat docks? I meant shade tree and mud bank. The fishing boats and the few supply boats are all less than six feet in beam and probably not more than 25 feet long. The fishing catch was interesting, usually a small number of large fish of varying species mostly unfamiliar to me. There were many species of catfish. Most were huge, bizarre, and looked more like Columbia River sturgeon than South Carolina catfish.

So much for the modest marina, now on to the delta. Roger (Roget), the operator of our posada and Gekko tours was a very fine and knowledgeable fellow. Though born in France, he came to Venezuela with his family at the age of two. He spoke no French but got along very well in Spanish, English, and German. Best of all for Dennis, he had a TV in his quarters where he could tune in the Red Sox. Roger obviously loved the delta. He took us great distances through wide and narrow channels in his 11 passenger open tour boat. It was a heavy low long narrow fiberglass boat with a 75 HP outboard. It did very well at a fast pace in the choppy open water as well as when scraping over fallen logs in weed choked narrow channels. The delta is peaceful, beautiful, vast, and populated by diverse and abundant wildlife and a sparse handful of subsistence folks who live off the fish, a tiny garden patch, a cow, and a couple of chickens.

Roger obviously knew the delta like the back of his hand and loved it very much. In all we took five boat trips in various directions into the delta over our three days there. By eye or ear Roger could detect interesting wildlife long before any tourists in the boat detected anything. I cannot describe every interesting plant or animal but here are a few highlights. Several giant black blobs high in trees were identified as nests of various termites or species of bees. Most disturbing were killer bee nests. Roger told us if you harmed one, it would release a scent that would draw all its compatriots in a murderous rage. He told of a friend's dog that had snapped one and was stung to death by a vengeful swarm. Yuckers!

We visited one narrow dead end channel in a jungle area where Roger said electric eels hung out. He had once poked one with a green bamboo pole and got the shock of his life. My web research says they can stun or kill their prey and hapless would-be predators with as much as 600 volts. We didn't see any ourselves but hearing about them was good enough. I hadn't brought my insulated electrician's boots.

During our first day outing, we were cruising quite briskly as we backed out of a winding channel when a big scary fish jumped in right next to Rosemary. The size of a nice rainbow trout, it was something else with snapping jaws and vicious looking long teeth. I was impressed with how nimbly Rosemary exited the venue for a more forward position in the boat. I think Roger called it an eagle fish but the only web hits I got from that were fish eagles.

Later that day we stopped at a mud bank near a shanty where some children were playing near the water. We pulled up next to them and fished for piranha with hand lines. The fish were biting voraciously per their reputation but they were quite agile at grabbing the chunks of fish we used for bait without getting hooked. Catherine snagged a small one but only Roger regularly landed big ones. Their teeth looked vicious.

Roger began thrashing the water with his machete to attract more piranhas when there was a mysterious hum from above. "Killer Bees; watch out!", he shouted.

Watch out? Like where the heck do we to go? Jump in the water? I don't think so. Never before have I felt more like between a rock and a hard place.

On our last day in the boat we entered a so called lake on an island but it was connected by water to the flowing delta channels surrounding it. There were great expanses of grasses and weeds with lots of aquatic birds and swimming cows, which one German tourist in the boat called wasserk├╝hes. The high point of that trip (or low point depending upon your perspective) occured while Roger was getting the outboard engine disentangled from a mass of weeds. Suddently a snake appeared in the boat. Rosemary again exited the venue with impressive agility. Roger pronounced it a highly venomous Bushmaster and took care to whack it senseless before holding it up to show us. At risk of diminishing the impact of the story, I must confess it was a rather small juvenile. According to a web site, however, juveniles are also deadly.

Here is a rundown of the wild animals we saw in the Orinoco: numerous howler monkeys, a coatimundi, an agouti, a sloth, a mouse (big deal), tons of lizards, a bushmaster snake, pink river dolphins (only their bellies are pinkish), a variety of fish (many weird looking or armed with frightful teeth), clouds of butterflies, dragonflies, dead caimans, water chickens, various heron species, kingfishers, black vultures, parrots, woodpeckers, eagles, osprey, and miscellaneous raptors, water fowl, chicken-like fowl, and smaller forest birds. Though we saw trees filled with tarantula webs, there were no visible tarantulas.

After Piacoa we returned to our first Posada for a couple of relaxing days of reading near the pool. We took one more trip into Ciudad Bolivar to visit one of Simon Bolivar's brief residences and a nice modern art museum featuring the work of famous Venezuelan constructivist artist, Jesus Soto.

Our departure was a little unnerving. The posada owner approached to tell me my check had bounced. This put me in a panic. Catherine had either been on a recent secret shopping spree or scurrilous rascals had stolen my identity and drained my account. It turns out that it was just the stupid bank feeling that the check was too wrinkly or that the ink color was not suitable.

Peter got a local guy in an ancient Chevy Malibu jalopy to take us back to the bus station. Getting on the bus was a bit nerve-wracking since they seemed to be saying our tickets were no good. The others with better Spanish finally figured out that the tickets were fine; we just had to go to a poorly marked kiosk and buy a special little tax stamp to staple to our tickets. This bus actually had a light in the bathroom and the air conditioning held on for the whole trip.

In the final analysis, our adventure was great. I will try to somehow get pictures on our web site from which I am currently being blocked (I think) by the firewall on the wireless router that I'm tuned to in Dennis' apartment. Only a few items of clothing and an inexpensive wrist watch were lost. In spite of the teeth, claws, beaks, and electric animals, the only bloodshed we witnessed was when one of the Irish tourists accidentally stuck her finger in the fan she was using to dry her swimsuit top. I'm ready to relive the experience – mentally- over Cuba libres, cheese, and nuts. Heh heh heh.


IndianWildlifeClub said...

A very Interesting story!

James Douglass said...

Thanks, indianwildlifeclub. My father is definitely a good storyteller.

I also enjoyed looking at your blog and learning about the natural history of a very different part of the world.

Erik said...

So awesome. Especially knowing your dad.

garityann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
garityann said...

I found your blog after searching for any mention of Caracas. My family and I are moving to Caracas in January and we have really enjoyed "traveling" there through the internet. My kids LOVED the picture of your father and the parrot and after seeing that they got really excited about moving to Venezuela! (they've been a little apprehensive about the move) We actually live north of you (in Fredericksburg) while my parents live West of you (Williamsburg) and my bro-in-law is a grad of W&M (2002 I think?) By any chance does your mother teach at ECA? That is where my boys will be going...you never know, it's a pretty small world! Thanks for the great read, I hope your dad is writing a lot of his experiences down, he's great at it!

James Douglass said...


Small world indeed. Yes, my mother teaches at Escuela Campo Allegre where your kids will be going. She's the librarian. It seems to be a wonderful school with a good community of families, and is in a (relatively) safe neighborhood. Your kids will probably love Venezuela, but it may be a bit of a culture shock for you, as it was for me when I visited last Christmas. I wrote about it in an earlier blog (link).


garityann said...

You paint a vivid picture with your experience in Caracas. I actually grew up in Brazil (where my mother was mugged 5 times in Rio) and Lima, Peru (where terroists and police held a shootout outside our home after the terrorists bombed the Brazilian Embassy the next street over) so I hope it won't be too much of a culture shock (although I went through culture shock moving from Virginia to Colorado back in the late 90's so I was happy to get back east, you never know where culture shock will hit.) My husband lived in Panama and Costa Rica for a few years in the early 90s while on his (LDS) mission. I'm sure the transition will be a little rough at first but I am excited to get back to South America (I'm quite the red blooded American patriot though, don't get me wrong, the US is my home). Chavez has me a little freaked (on several levels) but if crap hits the fan we will have to leave and then I'll be ticked. My 2 older boys "live" in the library at school (both budding entomologists or some sort of -ologists if they continue on this path) so I'm sure they will see your mom lots! My youngest son still eats bugs and books so we tend to keep him away from them. I'll look forward to meeting your mom and dad in a few months! I hope for a decent expat community, sometimes you are lucky other times you aren't. I'm just tagging along with my husband (he'll be with the embassy) but I'm looking forward to the horticultural experience that promises to be INTENSE!(botany...that would be my passion or phytology if you want to keep with the house full of "-ology nerds" theme).