With 700 students, hundreds of flights, thousands of miles on the road and many more miles at sea, the perpetual potential for, war, crime, storms and other natural disasters, etc… three times a year, for thirty years, I’m shocked that SAS has the safety record that it does. I say this not to alarm, but to point out that people need to be smart travelers to minimize their risks, and even so, freak accidents do happen. I am convinced that the organization is so well run that I believe the program is as safe as is physically possible.
The potential for a freak accident became pretty evident to the 16 of us (seven dudes, six cuties, and three staff. BTW, I apologize ahead of time for the eminent abuse of the word “cuties” when describing certain – most – ladies in this blog. But I digress.), who flew to the part of Venezuela known as the Gran Sabana, in the Canaima National Park. The park is located in the southern part of the country, where the Amazonian Rain Forest elevates into the Venezuelan Cloud Forest. The region is so big that it takes about two hours by plane to fly over the park.
Within it, there are some of the world’s more striking features, a mixture of Yosemite with Montana with the Amazon, culminating is structures such as Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall. Dubbed “The Lost World” by Arthur Conan Doyle, it is easy to imagine dinosaurs roaming around – if fact, I guess the scene in Jurassic Park where the herd of ostrich-like dinousaurs run the plain was shot in the Gran Sabana portion of the park.
The Gran Sabana is the home of about 4000 Pemon Indians who still live scattered in mud huts around the area. The area was once luscious cloud forest as well, but the Indians, in their tradition of communicating by fire over the centuries, have turned the luscious cloud forest in this particular area into a large, meadowy savannah. This tradition continues (our tour guides described the Pemon as pyromaniacs), and in fact, it is impossible to miss the dozens of brush fires intentionally started at any given point of the day.
The area is desolate and remote, so after flying to the town of Puerto Ordonaz from Caracas, we boarded two seatbelt-less Land Rovers, facing each other in a confined space (interlocked knees), and prepared for our eight-hour bonding experience to the park. Our experienced tour guides, Juan and Arturo, would teach us the lifelong lessons that Venezuelans love Celine Dion and speedos, no matter what kind of shape they are in.
For the most part, the roads were well-paved and relatively new, but there was the frequent pothole that needed to be swerved, as well as the occasional gift the forest leaves on the road.
I haven’t many trees this big in my lifetime, so it was a pretty memorable sight seeing this on the road. The army had arrived and started making room for the cars to pass under, and eventually, enough room was made for cars to pass between the trunk and its massive stump.
Our LandRovers, however, were a little too big to make it through, but we did have 4x4 drive to take full advantage of. So with the help of another truck, we managed to make our way through the very dense jungle, around the tree, and back onto the road. Woohoo!
In the meantime, those of us in the truck have no option but get to know each other, sharing all sorts or memorable stories, each person trying to top the other. I still think my story about splitting my head open on the high-bar tops them all. Anyway, it was as one of those stories was being told that things became pretty memorable.
Just ahead of us, an older gentleman somehow loses control of his blue Honda-ish-looking car and swerves into incoming traffic – us. The swerve is violent enough that it causes the car to go airborne about four feet, do a half-turn as the front of the car catches the bank on the right side of the road, which spins the car like a top at it lands upside down.
All of us in the car are watching the event unfold as this mass of crushed metal comes spinning straight towards us.
But somehow, we slow down enough that the other car misses us by about 15 feet, is spun back in the original lane of traffic, is slammed against the trees on the other side of the road.
We were all sure the man was dead.
Woody, one of the staff members on the trip, was an EMS responder for 13 years and shared several of his gnarliest stories during the first couple hours of the trip. It must have been instinctive on his part – we could almost picture him looking around for his emergency bag as he opened the back door of the truck and ran to the overturned vehicle.
It was quite a sight. All of us were ok – Juan, our driver, was sweating, and people were shaken up a bit. But as things settled down, the driver emerged out of this wreck. Bloody, with a swollen face, but he walked out alive. We got back in our vehicles, relieved that the man was alive, and proceeded for another four hours. The jovial spirit returned in immediately. But the thought that things would have been very different if we had been a second ahead of where we was in the back of everyone’s mind.
The next day we got to experience the Gran Sabana and the surrounding cloud forest. I’ll leave a lot of the story to the pictures, since I’m not sure I can do the place justice in a few paragraphs. But some of the highlights include spending a lot of time in the Pemon Indian Villages (if you’ve never chased an Indian kids in a handstand, you don’t know what you’re missing out), playing wifflball (whiffle? Wiffel? Weiffel? Am I wearing pants? I shouldn’t be.), hiking, swimming, off-roading to remote locations, cliff diving, star-gazing, and eating great Venezuelan food. Instead of recounting it all, just know that I ended up with some 20 new pages in my journal over the four days, and yes, I started a journal on this trip. Sue me. (Also, I decided I will burn a CD/DVD will pictures and caption of the trip and mail it to the Ranch for uploading – it is too expensive and/or time consuming to do it on this trip).
A few more:
Twin Sisters Waterfall.
Fast forward to the last day. The plan was to wake up at 7am, eat breakfast, and get on the road by 8am to make it back to our 6pm flight out of Puerto Ordonaz to Caracas, very far away. No one wants to leave. But we reluctantly get in the cars and psychologically prepare ourselves for a long, long drive. We also knew that there was little wiggle room for making the flight; any more fallen trees and car accidents, and we would have to consider other ways of meeting up with the ship.
Right away we knew things weren’t quite right. At every military stop along this solitary road that connects Brazil with northern Venezuela, they are telling us that the locals were staging a protest and have blocked the road in Las Claritas. We were hopeful that by the time we arrived in town, things would have calmed down and we would be on our way.
That wouldn’t be so; it wasn’t long before we hit the blockade. Turns out that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, of “Pat Robertson wants me dead” fame in the United States, made a very U.S. friendly decision a month ago of prohibiting gold mining from the state that Canaima is located. Mining has been ecologically devastating for the area, dumping thousands of gallons of mercury into the rivers and destroying much of the forest around Las Claritas.
And Las Claritas happens to be a mining town. The army had seized their equipment and the government imposed a quota of 20 liters of gasoline per resident of the town, which apparently prevents them from operating any clandestine machines (BTW, gas in Venezuela is between 20 and 40 cents a gallon).
So the residents of the town had been out of work for over a month and the frustration boiled over in this peaceful protest. They simply took over the road at 5pm the previous day, and were refusing to let anyone through until the government paid attention to them.
We did talk ourselves through the first blockade, but there was no way we were getting through the second one in the same town. We park the cars and start trying to figure out how we were getting out of there. Here were some of the possibilities:
1. Since we were driving reliable four by four vehicles, we looked for ways around the blockade, through the jungle. That idea was squashed when we realized that the forest is pretty freakin’ dense.
2. Cross the blockade by foot and get a taxi on the other side. Much easier said then done. Turns out the nearest cab was a two-hour drive and a several hundred dollar ride away.
3. Get our tour company to send vehicles to the other side of the blockade. This was looking like the most realistic possibility, but it would mean we would miss our flight and find alternative ways to meet up with the ship.
Now, at this point, we want to stay. Despite the fact that there are hundreds of people on the streets, and we were a group of distinct group of American tourists who stood out in every way, shape, and form, we felt safe the entire time. It is easy to sympathize with these people even as they are killing the environment. It is easy for us to criticize their practices from the comfort of our ship, but these people already made an average of $2 a month, and couldn’t do that any longer. This should be my cue to insert a paragraph on the double-edged sword of globalism here, but I have already babbled enough and I’ll save the preaching for later. Anyway, we had such a good time in the park, and we were having such a good time during the protest meeting the locals, that we didn’t want to leave. Besides, if we missed the ship, we would have to fly to Brazil where I could hang out with my family for six days and have a good time with six cuties in Rio before meeting the ship in Salvador and flying to the paradise that is Fernando de Noronha.
So as we debate the alternatives, it is clear we won’t make it back to the ship on time. Cue the dues ex machina (thank you Dunny for your wonderfully googled explanation on the term – even my grandparents are asking me about it.). Everything in Las Claritas was closed, except for the a satellite phone/internet bar, where I was able to do a little blogging. Woody is in constant contact with the ship explaining the situation over the course of three or four hours we are in Las Claritas. Aparently, after looking at the situation, John Tymitz, the dean/CEO of Semester at Sea calls upon option #4:
4. Send the “Team America” rescue plane to take us over the blockade. Enter the puppets.
Yup, at this point, Woody is given instructions to head back to the Gran Sabana, where we “are to find the landing strip in the middle of the park and wait for a plane to pick us up”.
We’re ecstatic now. We had a great time at the protest, we’re going back to the savanah, where we don’t have to ride in a car for seven hours and can spend some more hours blasting U2 from the Rover, playing whiffleball, and hanging out with more Pemon Indians who come to check us out.
Sure enough, an old Russian plane, complete with wet seats and signs in Cyrillic and just big enough for our group, lands in the middle of the Gran Sabana. And for some reason the plane didn’t fly above 3000ft, which means we got a impromptu aerial tour of Canaima that included Angel Falls – which we were not scheduled to see.
We made it back on the ship with less than one hour to spare. I not sure I’m conveying how awesome this was in this non-stop rambling, but I give the trip an A++++++. Coming back to the ship, I try to keep my mouth shut about the experience because I don’t think anyone had a better time than the 16 of us (“Oh, you went to Caracas? Really? So you did some dancing, eh? Me? Oh, I just went to the south of the country. It was ok.”). Venezuela was the place I was least excited to visit on the itinerary (perhaps an 8 out of 10 on the excitement scale), but I can’t wait to go back now. I keep telling myself that this is only the first stop on the trip. And I keep telling myself we should have missed the ship…
Life is good (notice kitty in the bottom right).