Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Do We Have To?

I am not ready to leave.  Last year, when we left Tahiti after two weeks, I was more than ready to leave.  I would have left earlier, as beautiful and charming as it was.  

We were talking to a tour operator on the beach this morning after we'd taken our final stroll along Playa Del Agua and I felt a sudden pang in my chest at the thought of not being able to spend the day under a beach umbrella with a "coca-lite" clutched in my hand and a paperback flipped open in my lap. I think it has to do with the people.  Many of the homes and business are run down and sometimes it's frustrating to see the garbage lining the roads and piled up on the beaches. It's frustrating to see because Venezuela is such a rich country but the current government doesn't want to pass the wealth on to the people. It's a complicated situation that you can't really make clear in a brief blog, but despite this, there's something about the friendliness of the Venezuelans themselves that  makes me want to stay.  

Even though I couldn't understand them  most of the time, they were always kind and welcoming.  Once they heard my husband was born in Venezuela, it was like they were old friends.  I was particularly touched this morning when we were leaving one store filled with of a combination of tacky tourist souveneirs and beautiful handmade hammocks, carvings and cuatros.  As we headed out the door the owner called us back and told us to each pick three tiny polished stones out of a large wooden bowl.  

He gave me a big smile as two of my stones were the same and he told me their meaning as my husband translated for me.  The stones I'd pulled out meant that I had two angels and I was a beautiful person on the inside. (I had to put on my shades quickly when I thought about the potential of one being my mom and the other being the baby I miscarried 26 years ago tomorrow). The three my husband pulled out told him that he was a kind man, had a good soul and someday would have a lot of money, so much he wouldn't know what to do with it.  We laughed about it and the cynic in me thought he probably said the same thing to everyone, but the fact remains, it was still a kind thing to do.  He didn't ask us for money or a donation and he could have let us leave the store without saying anything.  It made a memorable and touching moment for our last day on the island. 

Here's a few shots I took on our final day in Margarita.

Our trusty steed.  We'd used about 3/4 of a tank of gas and it cost us about 4 Bs to fill it up.  That's the equivalent of 50 cents.  Not 50 cents a litre....50 cents for 3/4 of a tank.  

One last dip in the ocean.

 Cleaning oysters to sell to tourists on the beach...glad I don't like oysters.

A frigate bird.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Travel Day

For a while I was beginning to think our trip to Venezuela was more like a tour of airports than a vacation.  From the time we arrived on January 17th, until we landed in Porlamar Margarita this afternoon, we'd been on eleven different flights.  I can't say eleven different planes because we took the same plane with Angel for three different flights.   It's been a lot of air time and a lot of time waiting in airports, but when I look back on the photos I've posted here over the past two weeks, it's been a pretty amazing trip.  I'm grateful to my husband for his planning, his patience, and his translation skills.

There's still two flight left to get us back to our home sweet home, but I think it's been worth it.

The airport in Porlamar

A plane coming towards the runway at Los Roques

Coming in for a landing at Ciudad BolĂ­var Airport

 Landing at the Canaima Airport - this was the only one that made me feel nervous.

Arriving in Margarita

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Thirty Two Years Later

When we made our plans to visit Venezuela for my husband's fiftieth birthday we had no intention of returning to El Pao, the small American camp  where he grew up.  We were discouraged from visiting by a number of people, particularly my father-in-law.  "You can't go home again," he quoted.  He insisted my husband would find it depressing and would regret it.

When we met up with Cesar, my husband's childhood friend, he suggest we go to El Pao on our last day in Puerto Ordaz.  It was less than an hour's drive away and afterwards we could have lunch in San Felix, visit Llovizna Falls on the Caroni River (the river my niece was named after) as well as the nearby Dam and Museum.  "We'll bring a towel for Mikey," he said.

Cesar and my husband infront of the house he grew up in.

The mine where his father worked has grown over considerably

The school is one of the few things that has been maintained over the years.  The town was certainly run down and overgrown, but no worse than many other places we visited in Venezuela. 

The following pictures were taken at a beautiful 200 hectare park in Puerto Ordaz called Parque La Llovinza.  It's located not far from the point where the Caroni and Orinoco rivers merge (♪ sail away, sail away, sail away ♪ )

My husband, Cesar's wife Gira and their oldest son Cesar Jr. 
who'll be moving to Toronto in August to learn English.

Below are some interior shots at the Macagua Dam and Musuem.  It's a beautiful building with art galleries and informational displays on the history and future of hydroelectric dams in Venezuela.

for my neice...

Saturday, January 28, 2012

We Shall Return!

We had only arranged to spend one night at Waku Lodge and as much as we would have loved to stay it turned out to be a good decision as it rained on and off the most of this morning.  We walked around the property, taking pictures and returned to the reception area with our books.  As my husband speaks fluent Spanish he was able to have a long discussion with Isaac who was waiting for the next group to arrive.

A charter group arrived and registered while we read our books.  I watched with much anticipation as one woman broke off from the group and walked in the direction of the view.  She stopped suddenly and turned back to her friends.  The look on her face was one of wonder and joy.  Oh how I wish I'd had my camera at the ready.  I'm sure her face mirrored the awe I had displayed yesterday and I think both of us would have enjoyed being able to look back on that special moment.  

We left shortly after lunch and Angel said he had been given permission to give us a reduced rate and fly us over to have a look at Angel Falls, named after Johnny Angel who landed his plane near the site where water flows 3,000 feet over a tepuy, making it the tallest falls in the world.  Johnny was unable to take off from the soft ground at the top of the tepuy, so he and his passengers had to climb down the treacherous cliffs and hike the 11 kms to civilization.

Normally it would be easy to see the falls at this time of year,  though they wouldn't be that spectacular because we were in the dry season.  Unfortunately it had been unseasonably wet through January and though the water was flowing at an impressive rate, the resultant clouds made it too difficult to get close to the falls without putting our lives in danger.  

Though I was a little disappointed I was relieved as well.  I was sitting in the co-pilot seat and we'd been flying blind through rain and cloud for the few minutes before Angel had banked the plane and headed away from our original destination.  Though Angel had a GPS in front of him that showed every river, canyon and tepuy, I still had the uneasy feeling that we were heading towards the solid rock face of a tepuy we'd recently passed and prayed silently for him to drop below the cloud cover, which he soon did.

I satisfied my photographic urges and distracted myself from the urge to flick the red switch on the dash in front of me, by taking a few shots through the dirty blurry windows of the plane.  I've tried to clean them up a bit so you can see what we saw.

Not sure which falls this is, but it's not Angel Falls.  Angel Falls doesn't originate from a river, the water comes from rainfall from the clouds surrounding the tepuy.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Canaima, the Lost World

When Pixar made the movie "Up" the animators could have drawn anything they wanted to represent  Paradise Falls and the Lost World that Carl, the grouchy protagonist, longed to visit.  Instead they used Canaima National Park as their source, a 3,500,000 hectare, beautiful lush jungle with amazing waterfalls, and giant mesas or tepuis, located in a south east corner of Venezuela.

We had hoped to visit Canaima when we started making plans for our vacation.  We just couldn't seem to make it work and had given up on it by the time we left.  When we arrived in Puerto Ordaz to visit my husband's friend Cesar, he informed us he had a pilot friend aptly named Angel, who would see to it that we got a chance to visit one of the most beautiful places in Venezuela, if not the world, and stay at the best lodge in the park.

I have to say I felt like a VIP as Angel met us at the entrance to the airport looking quite dashing in his uniform and dark aviator glasses.  He took our bags and strode through the busy airport arranging for our boarding passes and ushering us through security to our gate.  We waited patiently for the rest of the passengers to join us.  I was embarrassed when one of the staff rushed over to us apologizing for the delay saying they'd had some trouble with the other three passengers - perhaps she thought we were VIP's too.  

Angel told us he would take us to Waku Lodge and we could have a look around.  He encouraged us to look at the other places that were available and make our own decision - no pressure.  "There are other lodges," he said with smile, "but only one is the best."

I don't know if this picture does it justice, but when I walked through the reception area of the lodge and looked towards the water, I saw this view before me.  It's beauty took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes.  I turned to my husband and said with a laugh.  "We're staying here."

Later that afternoon, accompanied by our native guide Isaac and a dozen or so tourist like ourselves, we took a boat to the shore, on the far left in the photo above.  We climbed a  steep  stairway made of tall square rocks and walked along a flat rock ledge behind that raging water.  It was phenomenal.

We continued on our hike climbing up the rocky edge on the other side of the falls, through the jungle and over volcanic rock.  We walked carefully across the top of another waterfall and had a swim in dark water that varied from the colour of amber rum to lightly steeped tea due to its high mineral content.  It was the strangest sensation...feeling both cold and comfortable at the same time.  We walked behind a second waterfall, not quite as spectacular as the first,  and looked over incredible vistas with massive tepuis rising out of lush forest floors.

We returned to the boat and headed back to the lodge making one last stop in front of three palm trees growing out of the water, about forty feet from the shore.  Isaac told us they were 250 years old.  We walked out to the trees for a photo op, marveling at the tall slender trunks that stretched almost 100 feet in the air topped by tufts of green.  

It was one of one of the most amazing experiences of my life and the tour ended perfectly with the sky glowing pink as we pulled into shore.

After dinner there was more to come as we were treated to a concert by five students from the Canaima Youth Orchestra.  Chavez may have some strange ideas, but his focus on culture and music is one step in the right direction.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Island Time

You always hear about "island time" when you go to the Caribbean.  People complain about having to wait in line for things, flights are often delayed, and stores never open on time. After ten days of our vacation which included five very smooth flights on and off two islands, we hadn't experienced anything like that... until today.  Our preferred breakfast place seemed closed for the day, the internet cafe wouldn't be open for several hours and we visited three different travel agents, returning to two of them because "[they'd] be back soon", before we could find one where there was someone who could book us on a flight to Puerto Ordaz on the mainland...the place where my husband would meet up with his childhood best friend.  

Our original flights were no longer available and our plans to leave tomorrow and return Sunday evening were thrown out the window.  (For some reason my husband didn't think we'd have any trouble booking the day before.) We ended up booking a flight for this evening and a return flight for Monday afternoon, which was a bit of a drag since we were heading back to Canada on Tuesday.  And we couldn't get direct flights from Margarita to Puerto Ordaz.  We'd have to fly to Caracas first, then Puerto, and do the reverse on the way back.  It seemed like it would be a shame to come all this way and not visit Cesar so we decided to go for it.

We poked around the Avenida Playa Del Agua for the rest of the day, spent a little time on the beach and arranged for our favourite taxi driver, Carlos, to take us to the airport for our 8:30 flight to Caracas.

 A typical breakfast - eggs, queso de mano and arepas.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Drama Queen for a Day

I have a tendency to be drawn towards the dramatic. Because of this, I've always assumed that if I ever found myself in a disaster or life threatening situation I'd go off the deep end.  I'd be the one flapping my hands and yelling, "We're all gonna die!" until someone slapped my face and shouted, "Get a hold of yourself!"  I'm pleased to say that it turns out I was wrong about that.

After yesterday's catamaran trip,  I was quite burnt despite the 60 spf sunscreen and valiant attempts to stay in the shade. When I looked at my red face in the bathroom mirror this morning I said,"I think the best place for me today will be in the house with a wet towel over my head." My husband was scheduled to go diving in Los Frailes this morning and I was scheduled join him, but I would snorkel rather than dive.  

I assured him that I'd be fine at home and would enjoy some time to relax and catch up on laundry.  At 8:30 my husband departed in a muddy red van, looking forward to trying out his new regulator and BCD.  I turned the TV on for background noise and discovered the National Geographic channel was in English with Spanish subtitles.  I wandered around picking up books, and the paraphernalia of travel  scattered around the main floor.

Outside on the shaded deck I read for a bit,  scribbled in my journal and ate some lunch.  As I climbed the stairs to collect dirty clothes and strip the bed I felt tired and it was a little hard to breathe so I gave myself a little zap of insulin from my pump, since I sometimes feel that way when my blood glucose level is high.  My glucometer was downstairs, and I planned to test myself when I got back down, and make the necessary adjustments.  Of course that thought left my mind once I began stuffing dirty clothes and sheets into the  washing machine, trying to make sense of the Spanish control panel that resembled the dashboard of an airplane.  

Through the window I could see the sun was now in a good spot for me to take some photos of the pool area and I played photographer until I felt the sun prickling my skin.  I returned to the safety of the deck.  I sat at the table scrolling through my photos and out of the corner of my eye, caught a glimpse of the door.  Something was wrong with this picture.  Why was the door shut?  I felt my heart sink. Though there was a handle on the outside, there was nothing to press or turn to open the latch and we'd been warned that if you shut it, you'd be locked out.

"No, no, no," I mumbled as I rushed over and pulled on the metal handle.  The door didn't budge.  I said a bad word.  Out loud.  Accent on loud.  How could I be so stupid?   

I walked around the house to the front door, hoping I hadn't locked it behind my husband. I certainly didn't need to, the house was surrounded on all sides by a wall a good ten feet high, and the only way out was two heavy, locked metal doors; one for people the other for cars.

Still, I didn't really expect the door to open and it didn't.  OK, the side door that led from the carport. Even less likely...still it was worth a try....but  no luck there.  My eyes scanned the windows thinking if I really needed to, I could break one.  Would that set off the alarm?  No dummy, the alarm's not set because you're in the house.  I had also forgotten the fact that there were heavy iron bars on the inside of all the windows, but with the glare of the sun I couldn't see them on this side of the house.

I noticed I was sweating and wondered if it was just the heat or if my body was flushed from anxiety or adrenaline.  I returned to the back of the house.  I was beginning to worry a little, but not for the reasons you might think.  It was 12:30 and my husband was due back before 3:30.  Three hours was a long time to be out in the scorching heat and there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a good 30 degrees with the humidity, but there was lots of shade and a pool to cool off in, and lord knows I'd drunk a lot of chlorinated water in my time.  Dehydration was not going to be a problem.

But I needed to get back in the house.  Even if I could climb over the wall (unlikely with my frozen shoulder and the weakness in my hands and arm) and borrow a neighbour's phone to contact the property manager, he only spoke German and Spanish.  Perhaps the French "Oh secour!" and "vienez ici!" were close enough to get the message across - but for now the point was moot.

You might think boredom was going to be my biggest challenge.   I'm an avid napper and a nice two hour nap would eat up a lot of time, but napping was the last thing I wanted to do in this situation. I needed to be at the main entrance to the property when my husband got home, so I could tell him to make sure the van didn't leave allowing him to hitch a ride down the hill to the property manager's house. The only keys we had, for every door in the place, were inside the villa.  We'd only been given one set. Would my husband remember which house the manager lived in?  And would the manager be home?

I looked at the kitchen window.  Just this morning we had commented on the ledge below the window meant for passing drinks and food out to the people on the deck.  "The plates would have to be pretty narrow to get through the bars," I'd joked.

"The bars can be slid across from the inside."

I pulled a chair over to the window, slid the glass open and reached for the latch holding the sliding bars together.  A heavy padlock held it shut.  I looked longingly at the cupboard door where the bread was, far out of reach.  Below me in the sink, well within my reach, the rind of a lime mocked me with an evil green grin. I tried a couple of other windows with the same result...locked.  I knew it was highly unlikely I'd get in that way, but you never know until you try. 

I returned to the front of the the house, hoping for inspiration of some sort. "Don't panic,"  I reminded myself.  My mind searched out my favourite psychological thrillers, where the protagonists find themselves in dire straights.  Jessie Burlingame made a bloody escape from her handcuffs after two days without food and water in Gerald's Game.  Paul Sheldon was held captive tortured for weeks but eventually escaped the crazy lady in Misery.  Nine year old Trish McFarland was able to maintain her sanity and survive for days wandering around in the woods in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.  Surely I could survive three hours locked out of a villa in Margarita.

There's a very important difference between me and those characters however.  They didn't have type 1 diabetes.  Unless you are a type one diabetic, or related to one, you probably won't understand my concern, so here's the deal.  I am a type one diabetic, one who had recently given herself a bolus of insulin from her pump and had no idea what her blood sugar level was at.  It could be on it's way up, which was actually not a bad thing in this situation.  It takes quite a while to go into a diabetic coma from high blood sugar.  You'd need to have little or no insulin going into you at all, and you'd need to be eating high carb food over a number of days for this to happen.  It's not fun to have high blood sugar, you have to pee a lot and you're thirsty all the time,  and you just feel...uncomfortable...but you're not going to die after three or four hours of it.  

The challenge of the Type 1 is this:  you don't have a functioning pancreas with insulin so your body can't process glucose.  Your brain (and other organs) need glucose to function, so you can't just give up carbs to fix the problem.  You have to take artificial insulin through injections or a pump.   You determine how much insulin you take by calculating how many carbs you are going to eat, when you're going to eat them and how much exercise you plan to get.  These things can change after you've given your insulin, and sometimes your hormones and liver also like to mix it up a bit by occasionally dumping some glucose into your system.  So there's some juggling involved.

If you have an excess of insulin in your body then you have an insulin, or hypoglycemic reaction.  Your blood sugar drops, you get cranky, you get tired, your skin gets clammy, you begin to slur your words, become uncoordinated and sometimes anxious or belligerent.  It's very much like being drunk, which makes sense because alcohol impedes your brain's ability to metabolize glucose.  The difference between the drunk and the diabetic is that eventually if the diabetic doesn't get any glucose, they loose consciousness, have a brain seizure and die.  This could certainly happen within a three hour period.

Just last week, after I'd given my husband the look that says You are driving me crazy, he mimed giving himself an injection and suggested that one way for me to bump him off would be to overdose him with insulin.

"Naw," I responded, "They'd be able to figure that out in an autopsy.  I think you'd have to give an awful lot of insulin for it to work on a nondiabetic."
"Would it hurt?" he asked
"Dieing from hypoglycemia?" I asked.  He nodded.
"I don't think so.  You'd just start to feel a bit drunk and get all uncoordinated, and you'd fall asleep eventually and not wake up...remember the 3 a.m. ambulance ride to the hospital about eighteen years ago?"

My groaning had woken him up and when he tried to rouse me, he found me drenched in sweat and unresponsive.  When I regained consiousness in the hospital my nightgown had a big spill of orange juice down the front where he'd tried to pour some into my mouth, but I was too out of it.  I can only imagine how worried he must have been.

That's why I had no intention of napping and that's why I was afraid that when my husband returned from scuba diving, I might be lying near the gate, unconscious (or worse), and while he shouted for me to come let him in, the van that had dropped him off would be driving down the hill, far away from us, leaving us alone in the boonies with my husband trying to climb over the ten foot wall to see why I wasn't answering the door.

I tilted my head towards the palm trees.  Ok, not the backyard ones pictured here, but there were some around front...much shorter...with coconuts, and I wondered if I could get one down.  Its milk and meat were certainly sweet enough to keep my blood sugar from falling.  There were a few coconuts lying around on the ground and I tried throwing them onto the flagstone path to get them to break but I just couldn't throw them hard enough.  I walked over to the garden shed and saw a machete embedded in one of the support posts.  I remembered Norbert our host in Rangiroa last year, swinging away at freshly picked coconut between his feet.  I wasn't sure if I wanted to risk chopping myself in the foot and bleeding to death.  Perhaps I could be super careful.  I'm a fairly linear, logical thinker and decided to make sure I really couldn't get into the house before I attempted a coconut massacre.  That linear thinking also kept me from realizing I should probably disconnect my pump as an added precaution, though I'm sure I would have thought of it once all hope of entering the villa was extinguished.

What I did realize was that I'd been exerting a lot of energy and this might not be the best thing.  I needed to try to find a way to get in the house.  My eyes followed the flagstone path beneath my feet as I headed around back once again. Is this seriously how my life is going to end? I wondered. Am I going to die from a hypoglycemic reaction while on a winter vacation?  Would I become a candidate for one of those Darwin Awards, where they honour people (posthumously) who died as a result of stupidity?  What a shame I had already procreated and passed on my stupidity genes.   I stopped walking for a moment and took a deep breath.  If this is it, why do I feel so calm? Shouldn't I feel a sense of doom and overwhelming anxiety? 

I've always believed in trusting my intuition; sometimes I call it my angels, sometimes I call it "the still small voice".  I quieted my thoughts and searched myself for the feeling that this was the end.  It wasn't there.

Ok then, there's got to be a way in...but how?  I quieted my brain again and watched a tiny yellow butterfly bob and spiral it's way across my path.  I felt myself drawn along the path again, towards the back door, not really knowing what I was going to do until I grabbed the handle and pulled as on it hard as I could.  I felt the door move a little, and saw the curve of the latch pulling out of the plate.  Not daring to let go, I gave one more tug and the door pulled free, swinging wide and hitching into the magnet against the side wall.

I was momentarily stunned but regained my composure and entered the house feeling relief, gratitude and adrenaline course through my body.  I was overwhelmed by an urge to thank someone, but who? My eyes were drawn to the TV where a brilliant orange butterfly filled the screen.  I smiled and  returned to the open door, eyes scanning the bougainvillea for a glimpse of yellow wings.  It wasn't long before I found them.  I was surprised to hear a quaver in my voice as I called out "Thank you Mom!"

My mom had a fondness for butterflies.  She had a number of broaches, cards and butterfly oriented collections.  Since her death last summer whenever I see a butterfly, I feel that whatever I might be worrying about will turn out fine.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Coche Island

When we got up this morning at 7 a.m. it was pouring rain and at 7:50 when our ride didn't show up, we figured our trip to Coche Island on the catamaran Mamale had been cancelled.  We poured ourselves another cuppa and sat on the deck, planning to head into town around 8:30 to pick up our refund.

Despite the downpour, we heard a honk at 8:30 and rushed out the front door to join our fellow tourists for the hour drive to the marina.  It poured all the way there but stopped when we got off the bus.  It was still very grey but by the time we got a few miles from shore the skies were blue and we were slathering on the sunscreen.

Our crew kept us well entertained and lubricated with lots of rum punch.  There are a number of incriminating photos of hubby and I doing our turn dancing with various head gear.  They are truly awful.  They are so bad I want to post them so you can see just how bad they are, but they are truly bad!  We stopped at a small reef on the way to the island to do a little snorkelling as you can see above.  

The underwater photo and the three above it were taken by the onboard photographer Jhon Ruiz as were the two below.  I don't know the couple in the last photo though I do know they were from Argentina as was everyone else on board other than the crew.  It's such a sweet photo I had to share.