Wingin’ it in Venezuela

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Improvisational travel is challenging, exhilarating and the ultimate expression of freedom because one can go where, when and with whom one chooses on a daily basis. It’s also exciting because it varies — sometimes wildly — from its more predictable counterparts: cruises and professionally organized tours with their frequently inflexible itineraries.

But such travel is not for everyone. Sometimes surprises are happily serendipitous, sometimes they’re edgy and provocative, but often they’re mixed bags with a little more “adventure” than one bargains for. Such was the case on my February ’06 visit to Venezuela.

Arrangements on the fly

Why Venezuela? It’s a country of great natural beauty. There is also the sophistication and renowned nightlife of Caracas and the many resorts on Isla de Margarita, Venezuela’s premier Caribbean tourist destination. Farther off the beaten path is Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall, dropping water from nearly a kilometer above. Not far away is Mount Roraima, a massive tabletop mountain with flora and fauna unlike any elsewhere on Earth and the basis for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World.”

But it was the Orinoco River delta, with its endless rainforests, unique wildlife and the Warao indigenous people, that was my intended destination.

My first stop was Trinidad & Tobago to meet friends, but I wasn’t sure how to get from Trinidad to Venezuela or, being a single guy, how to book an Orinoco tour, as the bigger tour operators only provide group tours. So I decided to wing it.

The night I landed in Port of Spain, Trinidad, I started asking questions about how to get from Trinidad to Venezuela, just a few miles across the Boca de Serpiente straits.

I’ve found that local inquiry usually yields more timely and accurate information than that derived from distant travel agents or the Internet. In this case, I discovered that I could take a ferry from Port of Spain to Guiria, Venezuela, which departed and returned each Wednesday.

This would give me one week to accomplish the Orinoco experience I was looking for. But it would mean cutting time pretty close, since my flight home was to depart the following Thursday morning.

The journey begins
Although the trip to Guiria was a relatively short 3½ hours, the ferry left a little late and Venezuelan Customs took a couple of hours to process us. Rather than deal with cabbies, I walked the kilometer into the center of town. My immediate goals were to change money and find transportation to Tucupita. The bus had already left for Tucupita, so I was stuck with losing a day and spending the night in Guiria, a hardscrabble little blue-collar port pueblo with little going for it from a traveler’s standpoint.

I quickly learned that almost no one spoke English. Venezuelan Spanish is fast and staccato, and they frequently drop the “s” from the end of a word — and sometimes the final syllable. The locals I encountered were loud and raucous in their dealings with each another, but they were invariably kind and helpful toward me.

I learned that one U.S. dollar could be traded for 2,400 bolivares. I converted $300. In a small town where considerable poverty was evident, the man behind the counter (a pharmacy, not a bank) handed me a wad of 720,000 bolivares. Another 150 bucks and I would have been a millionaire in a place where such a distinction could be hazardous to one’s health.

Thursday
I boarded the bus the next morning at 4:30. I was the only foreigner on it. As darkness gave way to dawn, I admired Venezuela’s jungly topography.

After about five hours, the bus finally stopped next to a vacant field with a couple of ramshackle empanada stands on it. The field was littered with empanada papers and other trash. When I asked for a trash can, the bus driver looked at me funny and told me to throw it on the ground like everybody else.

I refused and finally found a cardboard box with a few pieces of trash in it where I deposited my wrapper. As I walked back, I could see the bus driver motioning toward me and laughing with some other passengers.

Trash was a visual problem throughout the Venezuela I saw. Although rich in petroleum and natural beauty, including some of the most beautiful women in the world (four Miss Universes), the country has urgent problems that need to be addressed. Poverty, inflation and basic infrastructure, such as sewage disposal, trash pickup and road construction, all require attention.

Halfway there
We finally rolled into Maturín a couple of hours later, an industrial city about halfway between Guiria and Tucupita. I immediately asked about another bus to Tucupita and was told that it had already left. I was afraid of losing another day — one day less that I could experience the Orinoco — but at the back of the bus terminal I saw some banners with dilapidated taxis parked beneath them. One banner read “Tucupita.”

These taxis run every hour between major cities. Unlike the buses, they don’t stop, not for anything.

I squeezed into the back of a cab with two women and soon we were whipping down the street. The taxi was fully equipped — vice-grip pliers to operate the windows, plastic guitar with crosses hanging from where the rearview mirror had been and a little icon of a man in a white coat decorating the dashboard. The taxi wasn’t burdened by useless extra equipment — no springs in the seats or chassis, no seatbelts and no speedometer to distract the driver.

I could discern from the blur that was the passing scenery that this driver knew how to drive really fast. While the bus had taken over seven hours to get us halfway to Tucupita, the taxi driver made the second half of the trip in three.

When I got out at the terminal in Tucupita, I was feeling pretty cocky. I had made it. My Lonely Planet handbook pointed me in the direction of Hotel Amacuro near the center of town’s Plaza Bolívar.

I decided to eat for the first time that day, then hang out in front of the hotel, known as a point of contact for travelers wanting tours of the Orinoco who were willing to be approached by piratas (pirates), local entrepreneurs familiar with the area’s remote swamps and tributaries and with the boats to reach them.

My guidebook described them as highly variable in terms of their capabilities, boats and facilities, but I was willing to take a chance because it was late in the day and my time was limited. I returned to the front of the hotel by dusk, but no one approached me and I saw no other foreigners.

Friday
About 7 a.m., someone knocked on my hotel door. When I opened it, two locals stood there. “¿Quiere va al Orinoco?” They were piratas, soliciting me for a tour.

They gave me a dog-eared portfolio full of testimonials from other tourists they said had gone with them. Only one, written by a pair of feral Aus­sies, was written in English.

I told them that I wanted to check other possibilities but to meet me back at the hotel in a couple of hours. I’d have an answer for them then.

My search for other tour operators was futile. None of the established businesses was open. I did manage to go to the home of one operator who told me that he wouldn’t even consider a tour for fewer than four people. Did I want to wait a few days to join a larger group if one materialized? No other piratas approached me.
When I returned to my hotel, my piratas were waiting for me.

We cut a deal for 500,000 bolivares ($208), all expenses included: guided tours, a boat, all the food I could eat (“comida muy sabrosa” — “real tasty food”) and full accommodations from Friday afternoon until the final tour on Monday before returning.

My guidebook said to be sure to see the boat before cutting the deal. Antonio, the guide, said I couldn’t see the boat because his brother was bringing it. I would be staying with Antonio’s family, a half-Warao Indian clan.

After checking with a couple of people at Hotel Amacuro who told me that Antonio was known to them to take foreigners on tours and, more importantly, bring them back, I gave him 200,000 bolivares for provisions, with the promise of 100,000 more when I was on board en route and the remainder when we returned. This was pricey, for these parts, but this was a one-man tour.

I told him I would meet him in one hour, after lunch at Mi Tasca, the finest restaurant I ran into during my whole trip. The filet mignon, salad, hot bread with herb butter, French fries, dessert and a couple of beers ($8, including tip) would be the last good meal I’d have in several days.

When I returned, Antonio was nowhere to be seen. During the time I waited for him, my confidence in him getting shaky, I wrote a note to the hotel manager telling him that I was going on a tour with Antonio and if I didn’t return Monday to call the cops and my daughter.

Antonio showed up about an hour late.

Setting out
“Hay problemas con el motor, pero las problemas son muy pequeño,” he said. He had to get a part from his brother’s house. I threw my backpack in the back of a taxi and off we went to his brother’s.

Another hour passed. Brother finally showed up with a part and we were off to the river. Dark clouds gathered overhead. Brother ran down to the boat and started wrestling with the motor, trying to install the part.

The boat looked barely river worthy. It was about 15 feet, a homemade wooden rowboat with a motor on the back of it. The first drops of rain were starting to fall.

“Umm, there’s no top,” I said. “What about protection from the rain?”

I thought he said he had “voldez” for me; maybe that was local slang for “slickers.”

But being half deaf can bring cruel surprises. What he said was “bolsas,” the Spanish word for “bags.” He handed me two garbage bags, one for me and one for my backpack.

We drifted halfway out onto the Orinoco before the motor started. During our trip, the motor worked most of the time. The boat leaked all of the time. But we were on our way.

About 10 minutes into the trip, the rain started coming down pretty hard. I punched arm and head holes in my bolsa and lowered my head into the downpour.

Plowing into the torrents was like being in front of a high-velocity Hollywood wind machine while somebody trained a fire hose on me. I got soaked to the bone, but Antonio, bagless, took it like a man, even pointing out some red monkeys perched in trees between downpours. But mostly during the 3-hour trip, it rained.

We reached his family compound, about 60 miles up the Orinoco, at nightfall. Mama, papa, sisters, brothers and assorted kids were there to greet us.

A meal to remember
As night descended, so did the mosquitoes. Mama fixed dinner consisting of about two pounds of pasta with some kind of bony meat, maybe capybara. Seated alone at the table with Antonio — there weren’t any other chairs — I noticed that he was eating with his fingers and wiping them on his trousers. I got some pretty strange looks when I asked for a fork and a napkin.

Mama handed me a fork handle first, with her fingers on the prongs. I wondered where those fingers had been before they had hold of my fork. I was told there were no napkins.

When I reached for the semi­leavened bread that accompanied the meal, I reached through a cloud of mosquitoes that enveloped my head and upper body. I had doused myself in Jungle Juice, repellent extraordinaire, but the family spent the evening swatting themselves in the face and getting bitten anyhow. One had to be quick in getting the bread back to mouth level before the mosquitoes and other bugs covered it.

The family had a generator that powered a few dim lightbulbs and a TV. After dinner they watched a violent American action movie with Samuel Jackson in the role of a commando. I was shown my bedroom, a windowless room with a grubby concrete floor and a hammock stretched across it, attached to a wall where a horse had apparently been tethered at one time.

Saturday
After a breakfast of fried fish and rice, I asked where the bathroom was. I wanted to shower since I couldn’t risk infection by jumping into the river with a severe cut I had received surfing in Tobago. Shower?

“No hay,” replied Antonio nonchalantly.

Okay, what about a toilet. And paper?

“No hay.”

I was on my own.

We set out to see Orinoco vistas. Having the small boat was an advantage because we could penetrate some of the smaller channels and stop where and when we wanted to.

Daniel, the other Warao guide who accompanied us, was a master of the forest, going in with a machete and coming out with a variety of strange fruits of the forest. They patiently explained what to peel, what to eat, what to discard.

Piranha fishing was unlike any other I had ever tried. Usually a fisherman tries to be as quiet as possible so as not to scare the fish. When one fishes for piranha, one beats the water with the pole. The splashing attracts them. We used chicken parts for bait on small hooks with wire leaders.

I saw critters I had never seen before: grayish pink dolphins; perros de agua (water dogs), creatures that looked like seals except that they had legs and hung out in packs along the shores (Antonio told me that they ate fish and could be vicious if cornered); snakes asleep in trees; monkeys, and birds of every description and color, including flocks of squawky parrots that numbered in the hundreds if not the thousands.

The watering hole
That evening, quite a few local men visited the compound. Papa had opened a small bodega next to the main house from which he sold a few staples such as canned milk and flour. But his big sellers were beer and cheap rum.

By the time I had eaten my piranha through the evening’s cloud of mosquitoes, 15 to 20 locals were stumbling around, some falling down and passing out, only to revive and start drinking again.

One boatload coasted in from the darkness with one man teetering as he stood in the bow with a bow line. He was supposed to jump onto shore and secure the boat. He wasn’t even close when he jumped about three meters out, landing in the water fully clothed. The boat almost ran over him. He swam to shore, then ordered a bottle of rum.

The stumblers were checking me out and giving me more attention than I wanted. After declining several offers of pulls from the rum bottles — I needed my senses — I went into my room and read. My clothes were sticking to me, and my hammock was less comfortable the second night. Barnyard animals clucked, quacked and cock-a-doodled through the night.

Sunday
Sunday’s tour was even better than Saturday’s — lots of critters, and Antonio was making an effort to expose me to more fruits of the forest since I wasn’t eating much at the family compound. Although I considered leaving that afternoon, I decided against it because I didn’t want Antonio to lose face in front of his family. Later events would prove this to be a bad decision.

That evening, even more local men showed up. Some had stayed over from Saturday night, going through cycles of passing out, waking up, getting drunk again and passing out. On this night Antonio joined them.
As the night wore on, they played the same Spanish-language song over and over again, all of them joining in on the chorus louder each time the CD was played. As the only foreigner, I was receiving stares and offers of rum.

I retired to my room about 10 p.m., having seen enough and feeling pretty uncomfortable. They partied all night.

Monday
By morning I was more than ready to leave. I hadn’t been able to sleep at all. Antonio looked pretty hungover when I walked out of my room. He motioned for me to sit down for my final breakfast, pinkish scrambled eggs with spam-like chunks.

After breakfast I noticed that mama and papa had disappeared. So had the other women and girls. Only Antonio and his brothers remained in the room. He looked right at me: with all the food I had eaten and the great tours, he would need more money before we returned to Tucupita. He began citing reasons why he thought he deserved more money. His brothers, meanwhile, pressed in a little closer around me.

Although I understood him, I also understood what he was trying to do. I looked at him quizzically and told him I didn’t understand what he was saying. He repeated it, using different words, more loudly. I shrugged my shoulders, “No entiendo” (“I don’t understand”).

He raised his voice and became more animated. He was getting frustrated. Then he fell silent for just a moment, looking at his brothers. A crafty little half smile crept across his face. Did I have money?
I didn’t know whether his question meant did I have money to pay him what I had agreed to pay him in Tucupita or did I have money on me. Either way, I didn’t like the question. I stood up abruptly, startling his two brothers, who gave me some space.

“¡Si quiere hablar, hablamos en Tucupita!” (“If you want to talk, we can talk in Tucupita!”), I said, my voice rising with emphasis.

I turned and walked out of the room, turning back once telling him, “Vamanos ahorita” (“Let’s go right now”).

Formulating a plan
While I stood outside, I heard a heated discussion between Antonio and his brothers. One of the borrachos from the previous night approached me and asked for a cigarette. I told him I didn’t smoke. He then asked me if I would give him a regalito (little gift) and buy him a pack of smokes.

“No,” I said.

The other men loitering around the bodega were checking me out pretty good. I started formulating a Plan B in case Antonio decided to press his demands for more money, which I couldn’t give him because that would have led to bigger problems.

I couldn’t run into the forest. It was too hostile an environment, and all these guys knew it better than me and would be able to easily run me down. So my Plan B was to run and jump into the river — the same river from which I had been catching piranha the last couple of days — and try to swim out to the boating lanes where I might have a chance of flagging down a passing boatman. I’d rather deal with the river piranhas than the ones I was dealing with on shore. I knew Plan B wasn’t a good plan, but it was all I had.

“Tu puede darme el dinero para los cigarillos” (“You can give me money for the cigarettes”), said the borracho, looking directly at me with bloodshot eyes.

“No,” I said again.

Antonio suddenly emerged from his house and motioned for me to put my gear in his boat. I put my backpack in his boat and sat down, waiting for him. As his brothers stood silently in the entryway, he climbed aboard, struggled briefly starting the motor and, before I could release the huge sigh of relief within me, we were on our way to Tucupita.

Halfway there, he stopped and bought beers, asking me if I wanted any. I declined. When we reached Tucupita, I insisted that he accompany me to Hotel Amacuro where, once inside, I paid him the remainder of what I owed him. Afterward, he halfheartedly invited me to go out on the town that evening with him and have a few drinks. Not a chance!

Tuesday
After catching an early-morning taxi to Maturín, I learned that the main road to Guiria had been blocked by a mudslide. There would be a long detour via minibus to a little burg named Carúpano.

My guidebook indicated that there was a nice little hotel there called La Colina, situated on a knoll overlooking the Caribbean and with a picture-postcard view of the pueblo from the patio. I could spend the night there or I could catch a late taxi to a dreadful little hotel in Guiria. Easy decision.

I sat on the patio of La Colina drinking Soleras (Venezuela beer), surrounded by vases of antheriums, admiring the killer view and reading all of the ecology posters on the wall next to the kitchen.
For $35, my ultraclean room was equipped with a Caribbean view, a firm bed, hot water, potable water and cable TV with English-language channels (the first English I had heard in five days). Breakfast was included. I ate a scrumptious seafood supper as the sun slid down into the Caribbean.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. The ferry was late, but it got me to the other side. After a quiet night in Port of Spain, I was on my flight back home as planned.

Still willing to wing it?
Would I do improvisational travel again? Sure. I’ve already got a trip planned to Eastern Europe, where I have a general itinerary loosely sandwiched between two flights. But I sure as hell will be much more careful in the future before I take any more improvisational trips to edgy third-world places.

I remain a believer that what we do and how we respond to life’s vicissitudes define who we are, and that all experiences, including negative ones, contribute to and embellish our personal journeys. I’m lucky to have had the experiences to which I’ve been exposed and look forward to the ones which lie ahead.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

Improvisational travel is challenging, exhilarating and the ultimate expression of freedom because one can go where, when and with whom one chooses on a daily basis. It’s also exciting because it varies — sometimes wildly — from its more predictable counterparts: cruises and professionally organized tours with their frequently inflexible itineraries.

But such travel is not for everyone. Sometimes surprises are happily serendipitous, sometimes they’re edgy and provocative, but often they’re mixed bags with a little more “adventure” than one bargains for. Such was the case on my February ’06 visit to Venezuela.

Arrangements on the fly

Why Venezuela? It’s a country of great natural beauty. There is also the sophistication and renowned nightlife of Caracas and the many resorts on Isla de Margarita, Venezuela’s premier Caribbean tourist destination. Farther off the beaten path is Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall, dropping water from nearly a kilometer above. Not far away is Mount Roraima, a massive tabletop mountain with flora and fauna unlike any elsewhere on Earth and the basis for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World.”

But it was the Orinoco River delta, with its endless rainforests, unique wildlife and the Warao indigenous people, that was my intended destination.

My first stop was Trinidad & Tobago to meet friends, but I wasn’t sure how to get from Trinidad to Venezuela or, being a single guy, how to book an Orinoco tour, as the bigger tour operators only provide group tours. So I decided to wing it.

The night I landed in Port of Spain, Trinidad, I started asking questions about how to get from Trinidad to Venezuela, just a few miles across the Boca de Serpiente straits.

I’ve found that local inquiry usually yields more timely and accurate information than that derived from distant travel agents or the Internet. In this case, I discovered that I could take a ferry from Port of Spain to Guiria, Venezuela, which departed and returned each Wednesday.

This would give me one week to accomplish the Orinoco experience I was looking for. But it would mean cutting time pretty close, since my flight home was to depart the following Thursday morning.

The journey begins
Although the trip to Guiria was a relatively short 3½ hours, the ferry left a little late and Venezuelan Customs took a couple of hours to process us. Rather than deal with cabbies, I walked the kilometer into the center of town. My immediate goals were to change money and find transportation to Tucupita. The bus had already left for Tucupita, so I was stuck with losing a day and spending the night in Guiria, a hardscrabble little blue-collar port pueblo with little going for it from a traveler’s standpoint.

I quickly learned that almost no one spoke English. Venezuelan Spanish is fast and staccato, and they frequently drop the “s” from the end of a word — and sometimes the final syllable. The locals I encountered were loud and raucous in their dealings with each another, but they were invariably kind and helpful toward me.

I learned that one U.S. dollar could be traded for 2,400 bolivares. I converted $300. In a small town where considerable poverty was evident, the man behind the counter (a pharmacy, not a bank) handed me a wad of 720,000 bolivares. Another 150 bucks and I would have been a millionaire in a place where such a distinction could be hazardous to one’s health.

Thursday
I boarded the bus the next morning at 4:30. I was the only foreigner on it. As darkness gave way to dawn, I admired Venezuela’s jungly topography.

After about five hours, the bus finally stopped next to a vacant field with a couple of ramshackle empanada stands on it. The field was littered with empanada papers and other trash. When I asked for a trash can, the bus driver looked at me funny and told me to throw it on the ground like everybody else.

I refused and finally found a cardboard box with a few pieces of trash in it where I deposited my wrapper. As I walked back, I could see the bus driver motioning toward me and laughing with some other passengers.

Trash was a visual problem throughout the Venezuela I saw. Although rich in petroleum and natural beauty, including some of the most beautiful women in the world (four Miss Universes), the country has urgent problems that need to be addressed. Poverty, inflation and basic infrastructure, such as sewage disposal, trash pickup and road construction, all require attention.

Halfway there
We finally rolled into Maturín a couple of hours later, an industrial city about halfway between Guiria and Tucupita. I immediately asked about another bus to Tucupita and was told that it had already left. I was afraid of losing another day — one day less that I could experience the Orinoco — but at the back of the bus terminal I saw some banners with dilapidated taxis parked beneath them. One banner read “Tucupita.”

These taxis run every hour between major cities. Unlike the buses, they don’t stop, not for anything.

I squeezed into the back of a cab with two women and soon we were whipping down the street. The taxi was fully equipped — vice-grip pliers to operate the windows, plastic guitar with crosses hanging from where the rearview mirror had been and a little icon of a man in a white coat decorating the dashboard. The taxi wasn’t burdened by useless extra equipment — no springs in the seats or chassis, no seatbelts and no speedometer to distract the driver.

I could discern from the blur that was the passing scenery that this driver knew how to drive really fast. While the bus had taken over seven hours to get us halfway to Tucupita, the taxi driver made the second half of the trip in three.

When I got out at the terminal in Tucupita, I was feeling pretty cocky. I had made it. My Lonely Planet handbook pointed me in the direction of Hotel Amacuro near the center of town’s Plaza Bolívar.

I decided to eat for the first time that day, then hang out in front of the hotel, known as a point of contact for travelers wanting tours of the Orinoco who were willing to be approached by piratas (pirates), local entrepreneurs familiar with the area’s remote swamps and tributaries and with the boats to reach them.

My guidebook described them as highly variable in terms of their capabilities, boats and facilities, but I was willing to take a chance because it was late in the day and my time was limited. I returned to the front of the hotel by dusk, but no one approached me and I saw no other foreigners.

Friday
About 7 a.m., someone knocked on my hotel door. When I opened it, two locals stood there. “¿Quiere va al Orinoco?” They were piratas, soliciting me for a tour.

They gave me a dog-eared portfolio full of testimonials from other tourists they said had gone with them. Only one, written by a pair of feral Aus­sies, was written in English.

I told them that I wanted to check other possibilities but to meet me back at the hotel in a couple of hours. I’d have an answer for them then.

My search for other tour operators was futile. None of the established businesses was open. I did manage to go to the home of one operator who told me that he wouldn’t even consider a tour for fewer than four people. Did I want to wait a few days to join a larger group if one materialized? No other piratas approached me.
When I returned to my hotel, my piratas were waiting for me.

We cut a deal for 500,000 bolivares ($208), all expenses included: guided tours, a boat, all the food I could eat (“comida muy sabrosa” — “real tasty food”) and full accommodations from Friday afternoon until the final tour on Monday before returning.

My guidebook said to be sure to see the boat before cutting the deal. Antonio, the guide, said I couldn’t see the boat because his brother was bringing it. I would be staying with Antonio’s family, a half-Warao Indian clan.

After checking with a couple of people at Hotel Amacuro who told me that Antonio was known to them to take foreigners on tours and, more importantly, bring them back, I gave him 200,000 bolivares for provisions, with the promise of 100,000 more when I was on board en route and the remainder when we returned. This was pricey, for these parts, but this was a one-man tour.

I told him I would meet him in one hour, after lunch at Mi Tasca, the finest restaurant I ran into during my whole trip. The filet mignon, salad, hot bread with herb butter, French fries, dessert and a couple of beers ($8, including tip) would be the last good meal I’d have in several days.

When I returned, Antonio was nowhere to be seen. During the time I waited for him, my confidence in him getting shaky, I wrote a note to the hotel manager telling him that I was going on a tour with Antonio and if I didn’t return Monday to call the cops and my daughter.

Antonio showed up about an hour late.

Setting out
“Hay problemas con el motor, pero las problemas son muy pequeño,” he said. He had to get a part from his brother’s house. I threw my backpack in the back of a taxi and off we went to his brother’s.

Another hour passed. Brother finally showed up with a part and we were off to the river. Dark clouds gathered overhead. Brother ran down to the boat and started wrestling with the motor, trying to install the part.

The boat looked barely river worthy. It was about 15 feet, a homemade wooden rowboat with a motor on the back of it. The first drops of rain were starting to fall.

“Umm, there’s no top,” I said. “What about protection from the rain?”

I thought he said he had “voldez” for me; maybe that was local slang for “slickers.”

But being half deaf can bring cruel surprises. What he said was “bolsas,” the Spanish word for “bags.” He handed me two garbage bags, one for me and one for my backpack.

We drifted halfway out onto the Orinoco before the motor started. During our trip, the motor worked most of the time. The boat leaked all of the time. But we were on our way.

About 10 minutes into the trip, the rain started coming down pretty hard. I punched arm and head holes in my bolsa and lowered my head into the downpour.

Plowing into the torrents was like being in front of a high-velocity Hollywood wind machine while somebody trained a fire hose on me. I got soaked to the bone, but Antonio, bagless, took it like a man, even pointing out some red monkeys perched in trees between downpours. But mostly during the 3-hour trip, it rained.

We reached his family compound, about 60 miles up the Orinoco, at nightfall. Mama, papa, sisters, brothers and assorted kids were there to greet us.

A meal to remember
As night descended, so did the mosquitoes. Mama fixed dinner consisting of about two pounds of pasta with some kind of bony meat, maybe capybara. Seated alone at the table with Antonio — there weren’t any other chairs — I noticed that he was eating with his fingers and wiping them on his trousers. I got some pretty strange looks when I asked for a fork and a napkin.

Mama handed me a fork handle first, with her fingers on the prongs. I wondered where those fingers had been before they had hold of my fork. I was told there were no napkins.

When I reached for the semi­leavened bread that accompanied the meal, I reached through a cloud of mosquitoes that enveloped my head and upper body. I had doused myself in Jungle Juice, repellent extraordinaire, but the family spent the evening swatting themselves in the face and getting bitten anyhow. One had to be quick in getting the bread back to mouth level before the mosquitoes and other bugs covered it.

The family had a generator that powered a few dim lightbulbs and a TV. After dinner they watched a violent American action movie with Samuel Jackson in the role of a commando. I was shown my bedroom, a windowless room with a grubby concrete floor and a hammock stretched across it, attached to a wall where a horse had apparently been tethered at one time.

Saturday
After a breakfast of fried fish and rice, I asked where the bathroom was. I wanted to shower since I couldn’t risk infection by jumping into the river with a severe cut I had received surfing in Tobago. Shower?

“No hay,” replied Antonio nonchalantly.

Okay, what about a toilet. And paper?

“No hay.”

I was on my own.

We set out to see Orinoco vistas. Having the small boat was an advantage because we could penetrate some of the smaller channels and stop where and when we wanted to.

Daniel, the other Warao guide who accompanied us, was a master of the forest, going in with a machete and coming out with a variety of strange fruits of the forest. They patiently explained what to peel, what to eat, what to discard.

Piranha fishing was unlike any other I had ever tried. Usually a fisherman tries to be as quiet as possible so as not to scare the fish. When one fishes for piranha, one beats the water with the pole. The splashing attracts them. We used chicken parts for bait on small hooks with wire leaders.

I saw critters I had never seen before: grayish pink dolphins; perros de agua (water dogs), creatures that looked like seals except that they had legs and hung out in packs along the shores (Antonio told me that they ate fish and could be vicious if cornered); snakes asleep in trees; monkeys, and birds of every description and color, including flocks of squawky parrots that numbered in the hundreds if not the thousands.

The watering hole
That evening, quite a few local men visited the compound. Papa had opened a small bodega next to the main house from which he sold a few staples such as canned milk and flour. But his big sellers were beer and cheap rum.

By the time I had eaten my piranha through the evening’s cloud of mosquitoes, 15 to 20 locals were stumbling around, some falling down and passing out, only to revive and start drinking again.

One boatload coasted in from the darkness with one man teetering as he stood in the bow with a bow line. He was supposed to jump onto shore and secure the boat. He wasn’t even close when he jumped about three meters out, landing in the water fully clothed. The boat almost ran over him. He swam to shore, then ordered a bottle of rum.

The stumblers were checking me out and giving me more attention than I wanted. After declining several offers of pulls from the rum bottles — I needed my senses — I went into my room and read. My clothes were sticking to me, and my hammock was less comfortable the second night. Barnyard animals clucked, quacked and cock-a-doodled through the night.

Sunday
Sunday’s tour was even better than Saturday’s — lots of critters, and Antonio was making an effort to expose me to more fruits of the forest since I wasn’t eating much at the family compound. Although I considered leaving that afternoon, I decided against it because I didn’t want Antonio to lose face in front of his family. Later events would prove this to be a bad decision.

That evening, even more local men showed up. Some had stayed over from Saturday night, going through cycles of passing out, waking up, getting drunk again and passing out. On this night Antonio joined them.
As the night wore on, they played the same Spanish-language song over and over again, all of them joining in on the chorus louder each time the CD was played. As the only foreigner, I was receiving stares and offers of rum.

I retired to my room about 10 p.m., having seen enough and feeling pretty uncomfortable. They partied all night.

Monday
By morning I was more than ready to leave. I hadn’t been able to sleep at all. Antonio looked pretty hungover when I walked out of my room. He motioned for me to sit down for my final breakfast, pinkish scrambled eggs with spam-like chunks.

After breakfast I noticed that mama and papa had disappeared. So had the other women and girls. Only Antonio and his brothers remained in the room. He looked right at me: with all the food I had eaten and the great tours, he would need more money before we returned to Tucupita. He began citing reasons why he thought he deserved more money. His brothers, meanwhile, pressed in a little closer around me.

Although I understood him, I also understood what he was trying to do. I looked at him quizzically and told him I didn’t understand what he was saying. He repeated it, using different words, more loudly. I shrugged my shoulders, “No entiendo” (“I don’t understand”).

He raised his voice and became more animated. He was getting frustrated. Then he fell silent for just a moment, looking at his brothers. A crafty little half smile crept across his face. Did I have money?
I didn’t know whether his question meant did I have money to pay him what I had agreed to pay him in Tucupita or did I have money on me. Either way, I didn’t like the question. I stood up abruptly, startling his two brothers, who gave me some space.

“¡Si quiere hablar, hablamos en Tucupita!” (“If you want to talk, we can talk in Tucupita!”), I said, my voice rising with emphasis.

I turned and walked out of the room, turning back once telling him, “Vamanos ahorita” (“Let’s go right now”).

Formulating a plan
While I stood outside, I heard a heated discussion between Antonio and his brothers. One of the borrachos from the previous night approached me and asked for a cigarette. I told him I didn’t smoke. He then asked me if I would give him a regalito (little gift) and buy him a pack of smokes.

“No,” I said.

The other men loitering around the bodega were checking me out pretty good. I started formulating a Plan B in case Antonio decided to press his demands for more money, which I couldn’t give him because that would have led to bigger problems.

I couldn’t run into the forest. It was too hostile an environment, and all these guys knew it better than me and would be able to easily run me down. So my Plan B was to run and jump into the river — the same river from which I had been catching piranha the last couple of days — and try to swim out to the boating lanes where I might have a chance of flagging down a passing boatman. I’d rather deal with the river piranhas than the ones I was dealing with on shore. I knew Plan B wasn’t a good plan, but it was all I had.

“Tu puede darme el dinero para los cigarillos” (“You can give me money for the cigarettes”), said the borracho, looking directly at me with bloodshot eyes.

“No,” I said again.

Antonio suddenly emerged from his house and motioned for me to put my gear in his boat. I put my backpack in his boat and sat down, waiting for him. As his brothers stood silently in the entryway, he climbed aboard, struggled briefly starting the motor and, before I could release the huge sigh of relief within me, we were on our way to Tucupita.

Halfway there, he stopped and bought beers, asking me if I wanted any. I declined. When we reached Tucupita, I insisted that he accompany me to Hotel Amacuro where, once inside, I paid him the remainder of what I owed him. Afterward, he halfheartedly invited me to go out on the town that evening with him and have a few drinks. Not a chance!

Tuesday
After catching an early-morning taxi to Maturín, I learned that the main road to Guiria had been blocked by a mudslide. There would be a long detour via minibus to a little burg named Carúpano.

My guidebook indicated that there was a nice little hotel there called La Colina, situated on a knoll overlooking the Caribbean and with a picture-postcard view of the pueblo from the patio. I could spend the night there or I could catch a late taxi to a dreadful little hotel in Guiria. Easy decision.

I sat on the patio of La Colina drinking Soleras (Venezuela beer), surrounded by vases of antheriums, admiring the killer view and reading all of the ecology posters on the wall next to the kitchen.
For $35, my ultraclean room was equipped with a Caribbean view, a firm bed, hot water, potable water and cable TV with English-language channels (the first English I had heard in five days). Breakfast was included. I ate a scrumptious seafood supper as the sun slid down into the Caribbean.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. The ferry was late, but it got me to the other side. After a quiet night in Port of Spain, I was on my flight back home as planned.

Still willing to wing it?
Would I do improvisational travel again? Sure. I’ve already got a trip planned to Eastern Europe, where I have a general itinerary loosely sandwiched between two flights. But I sure as hell will be much more careful in the future before I take any more improvisational trips to edgy third-world places.

I remain a believer that what we do and how we respond to life’s vicissitudes define who we are, and that all experiences, including negative ones, contribute to and embellish our personal journeys. I’m lucky to have had the experiences to which I’ve been exposed and look forward to the ones which lie ahead.