Margarita Island, Venezuela is like stepping into the pages of a fairy tale (with a nearby rum distillery). The Caribbean Sea is an impossible blue—like the Crayola Indigo Blue pencil crayon that I coloured so many geography maps with in elementary school.
Avatar was filmed in Venezuela, and the surreal scenes of canyons and gorges with thundering falls spilling out between the time-chiselled rock opened beneath me as the plane glided past Angel Falls. At 3,212 feet, it’s the world’s highest waterfall. Even in the dry season, there is a magnificence to the falls that requires a good head shake.
My original Island itinerary involved nothing more than being prone, sucking back sugary rum drinks in the sun and digesting books at a rate of one per every two and a half days. And I did do that. I ran along the beach each morning in a zen-like trance. I dodged skittling crabs and washed-up jelly fish, my feet finding levitation as my mind became a clean slate. The hills of cacti and brick red earth pulled me to their peaks. I picked my way along the rocky terrain, mesmerized by the mica and how the rock faces turned to gold-flecked beacons in the sun.
The surf curled in and fanned back out in a dramatic pull at the shoreline. My tracks disappeared behind me as the tide crept in. My lungs seemed to hold more air, despite the climbing temperature. I felt like Forrest Gump when he started running and was still going some 100 days later. There was such ease to my stride across the wet sand.
Pelicans passed by me and suddenly hurtled downward to the surface of the water with no grace. Crash landing. Scissortails hitched on thermals and glided effortlessly above me like kites lost to the wind.
I was untethered too. My watch came off upon arrival and I began operating on the dictation of my body. I stared spellbound at the stars that pierced the black night without a timeline. I watched the moon rise and hold its place above the water. Grackles continued to communicate noisily in the palms, chattering and chitting well beyond dusk. Feet up, I drank local white plonk that tasted like horse piss, but the backdrop I found myself bleeding into overcompensated.
Most nights I fell into my King bed sideways before ten. I rose with the sun filtering across the tile floor and the anticipation of another day of self-indulgence. I slept on a King and ate like a Queen. Hot milk, warm arepas (Venezuelan corn cakes), and bananas con queso (with cheese). There were some grumbles about the buffet food, but I am known to voluntarily eat insects and find pleasure in menu oddities (like the Pemon natives hot sauce derived from poisonous bittermelon and ants). The passionfruits provided a tart pow to my mornings, and the slices of cantaloupe and finger bananas were the sweetest I’ve had.
I chose the LTI Costa Caribe Hotel on Margarita Island, mostly on a whim. Years ago I had Margarita on my mind but travel advisories had warned against a viral mosquito disease that caused encephalitis. My recent quick research revealed several cases of food poisoning and rumoured robberies in the hotel lobby. Surely it was all talk. Before my mother had a chance to do her usual intense research on my favoured destination, she offered this: “Don’t get yourself kidnapped down there, those guys want gazillions in ransom.”
I didn’t get myself kidnapped, however, security wagged their fingers at me several times for running in the mountains alone. My only run-in was with a local who earned the handle “My Masturbating Guy.” The first time I happened upon him he was spread eagle on the path, enjoying himself immensely. “Come here, I like you! I LIKE you!” Luckily he also liked himself a lot, as was heard by his moans as I ran far and fast past him. I saw him days later, this time standing up, still pleasuring himself. He paused to wave at me. At least he was a friendly masturbating guy.
Mid-week I poked around the resort store for unique chocolate bars for Dax to critique and tacky postcards for my nearest and dearest. The staff would smile when necessary, but largely acted like I was interrupting them from critical text messaging and nail-filing. Such a contrast to my African experience where vendors bombard you and walk on your heels insisting you buy something. Anything. Here, the Venezuelans couldn’t care less. The bartenders pulled beer, muddled limes and blended coladas, but never went out of their way to engage in small talk. I appreciated this. Only Pedro proposed that I join him on Sunday (when he worked as a taxi driver) to see the “real Margarita.” I was disappointed to learn that I was only seeing the fake Margarita.
I looked at trip options around the local tour operator’s office, finding only Dutch and German translations. This is when Richard approached me and asked if I was thinking of going to Angel Falls. My sister had asked if I would go, and instead of asking myself, “What would Jesus do?” (as most might), I often think, “What would Kiley do?” She would go. Richard’s girlfriend appeared and we were ushered into the climate-controlled office for a debrief on trip options. Angel Falls would be a two day excursion that included a dramatic Angel Falls fly-by, a lagoon cruise on the Morichal Largo to a jungle lodge, piranha fishing, Canaima National Park, walking behind Big Frog falls and seeing the Orinoco River (which Enya paid tribute too in her song “Orinoco Flow.” It’s the one song of hers that doesn’t make me grind my molars to the point of cracking).
I slept on it. It would be another $470 Euros. When I inquired about the current Euro exchange rate, I was quickly brushed off and convinced that it was “good, very good. About one dollar thirty.” My online Visa statement suggested otherwise ($1.47). Still, was I really worrying about spending another $500 bucks to see the tallest waterfall in the world? One of the seven wonders? I felt foolish and immediately booked the Canaima expedition. The agent supplied me with a packing list in German or Dutch, I’m not sure which, but I was to bring 1 kurze hose, feste schuhe, socken, sonnenshutz, REISEPASS!!! And Tashengeld in Landeswhrung.
I was slightly anxious about missing two days of my now cemented routine. Wake with sun, run with sun, arepas, pina coladas somewhere around 11, Water For Elephants with intermissions for cat naps, walking the length of the beach two to three times, my Havianas fracturing piles of shells that looked like tiny sombreros…caipirinhas mid-afternoon (muddled lime, sugar and rum), nap, eating watermelon and pineapple until I had a stomach ache, Polar Ice beer as I made my way to my room to shower the day’s sand and sweat away, a stab at my postcard writing commitment and dinner: empanadas stuffed with chicken and cheese, refritos, grilled Dorado, fatty short ribs, chilli con carne, platanos (fried plantain), oily but crisp tortillas, yucca and blood sausage (I think). Of course they had tamer fare like pasta and a salad bar for the timid…
After dinner I’d while away a good hour just looking at the stars, mentally writing a Five Year Plan. I should clarify that it was a Five Year Travel Plan. The stars and surf whisked me away to Bora Bora, Reykjavik, New Orleans, Madagascar and the Bolivia salt flats.
But first, the Angel Falls. The trip was a frenzy of transportation. Forty minutes to the airport, a 90 minute flight, another 90 minutes through cattle farms and Canadian pines (sent as seedlings from Canada to provide a fast-growing lumber supply) in a way-too-efficiently air-conditioned van, then 2 hours in a boat with Monsieur, our designated Indy 500 boat driver and Pemon native. But, the euphoria that sleeping in the belly of a jungle provides? Worth all those miles.
The jungle was vibrating with flycatchers and cara caras. Toucans and macaws took to the air as snake-necked cormorants raced ahead of our boat. Blue damsels flitted about in lazy, disoriented circles. Howler monkeys barked from the canopies. The lagoon waters, the colour of strong iced tea from tannic acid were as teeming below the surface as the treetops. Our guide deftly scooped a cayman as long as my arm out of the largo after the sun set in the Lagoon of Silence. There were animated stories of electric eels, fat anacondas and famished piranhas.
And this is when I had my Oprah a-ha moment. Whenever I travel, a surge of a-ha suddenly takes over my mind and heart. We were dipping our lines into the river, raw chicken bits threaded onto the hooks. Richard had just snagged a piranha and as I watched our guide neatly pull the hook from the piranhas mouth, it hit me. I was in the Orinoco Delta, in the jungle of Venezuela, piranha fishing. I had sweat in my navel, sun hot on my shoulders and the excited conversation that unfolds with new friendships.
All the things I thought I would focus on with my time away from work didn’t surface. I had honest intentions of developing a solid career transformation plan, but I was stonewalled. Stonewalled by the sheer beauty of Venezuela and preoccupied with absorbing the landscapes, textures and sounds that I had stepped into.
I’ve never minded travelling alone, but I was grateful for the kindness of Tracy and Joe who took me under their wing earlier in the week. As I split the spine of Andrew Westoll’s The Riverbones waiting for my order of a la carte chicken fajitas, Tracy welcomed me to their table. She had noticed that I was by myself, and didn’t think that was right. So, I found myself at their table the very next night drinking swampy wine and exchanging stories with them as they celebrated their fifth anniversary together.
Richard and Tiffany were great company in the jungle too. They had just travelled to Cairo in the fall so our Africa stories ping-ponged across the table as we tasted piranha for the first time. And this is the beauty and essence of travel. We are exposed to circumstances that test our mettle, thin our patience and more often, startle our senses.
As the plane banked towards Angel falls so the passengers on the left could witness the dynamic wonder, I realized that this is where my riches lie: in what I have seen.
The need to see more crawls at my insides, but in a good way.
We returned to Margarita Island in the same fashion that we departed, with visions of piranha teeth and coiling anacondas weaving into our dreams that night.
As my friend Heidi would suggest (after comparing our impressions of Uganda), I am guilty of romanticizing places. I pay little attention to the exasperating flight delays, undercooked meat, cockroaches and cold showers. I shrug at the crappy Internet and endure the wind on the beach that is too bothersome for those who choose the calm of the poolside and Celine Dion on repeat. I see the garbage and ache for the skeletal street dogs. I see the divide of life under a palapa at the resort versus the struggle of world-weary fisherman finding more hope in a sunset than a sunrise. I see all of this, but I try to remember the more vital elements.
When I think of Venezuela it will be the stars. They must have 10,000 more than us in the southern hemisphere. I will think of the vibrato of frogs, crickets and nightjars clicking, whirring and chitting as my body became heavy with sleep at Boral. I will remember the wind whipping off the sea as I stood on the cliffs of Playa Caribe taking yet another photo of the sun slipping into the earth. Yes, it will be the sunsets that I remember.
“Every time you wake up and ask yourself, What good things am I going to do today?, remember that when the sun goes down at sunset, it will take a part of your life with it.” –Indian proverb