Soaked Socks

Hiking in socks is a thing.

Who knew?

The powers-that-be (really, the guides who do this multiple times a week and have a much better understanding of the trek conditions that I do) suggested shoeless as the way to go. I am paying good money (really, it is good money, as I paid in USD from my American account and not bolivars from my Venezuelan one) for their wisdom, so crazy as it may be, an adventure in socks seemed like the perfect way to kick off the weekend.

Have a little faith.

We defied death and made it to Canaima National Park in our mosquito of an airplane, bypassing the normal overnight stop needed to get to the wilderness. This extra bit of time afforded to us by taking the private plane let us go on an adventure almost as soon as we set (socked) foot in the small town that is the gateway to Angel Falls.

After dropping our bags in our hotel room and giving the hammock outside a quick try, we met up with Joe (you know, Jose from this blog entry) and headed out, uncertain of our destination. All we were told was to wear swimsuits and socks- we would be leaving out shoes behind.

Those are slightly odd instructions, but not ones that I gave a whole lot of extra thought to. We quickly changed, ate a fast meal, and hopped in our first boat of the weekend.

It was a short paddle across the river to a set of six waterfalls (less when the water is higher and they merge into one another) that were our destination for the afternoon. Pulling up to the base of one, we were told to ditch the shoes and come ashore, as we would be hiking in socks for the afternoon! (Man, I am glad I had on cheap $2 socks from Old Navy. Jumping ahead a few hours, those socks went directly into the trash bin back at the hotel. They were not made for the rocks and roots and rivers of Venezuela! It was a worthwhile tradeoff.)

We headed up a trail that while quite steep, was short and not too painful. (The next day, I would have given most anything to have that first trail back!) With a single pathway ahead of us, we followed it up and over a ridge, quickly finding ourselves BEHIND a waterfall! Standing there with massive amounts of water thundering down just mere feet away, our own stocking feet standing in puddles made from the heavy mist (it was more than a mist but less than the falls itself- like a steady, never-ending rain) was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (We had many of those over that quick three-day weekend.)

The word magical conjures up the idea of unicorns and rainbows and fairies, but that really was not far off from the feeling of standing behind the waterfall, removed from the world, transported to another, more enchanted place. It would not have been a huge surprise to see a unicorn grazing on the moss of the falls or a fairy flutter through the mist. There were definitely rainbows! Everywhere we turned, the light was bending into colorful arcs and swaths as the water-soaked air swirled around us.

While I could have stayed in that hypnotizing cavern forever, after a dip in the falls to “wash away the city” we headed up the path to the top of the falls. Because it is the start of the dry season in Canaima, we were able to get up over the ridge and look down on the waterfalls and river below, a panorama of the space that was incredible to take in. I stood on a rock with water flowing around me on both sides, over the edge into the waterfall we had just been standing behind, and down into the river where it foamed up into a roiling rage before settling in to be the calm river below.

Blinded by the sun heading towards the horizon, we had one last stop on our afternoon outing. After an easy climb back down the rocks, we made a tight turn away from the original waterfall and headed down a narrow, steep path. Once again, mostly rocks and roots, my socks took a beating. (It was at this point that I noticed the first hole and realized that my cute polka-dot socks were on their last adventure.) This last path emptied us into a tea-colored chest-high pool churning with the water from the falls above.

What is one to do but wade on in?

While the guide waited with his trusty companion (Ra, his Rottweiler, was with us much of the weekend), Thad and I headed on in, fighting against the current to stand beneath the thunder of the falls. (Joe insisted that there was no possible way for us to be washed over the edge of the falls, even though we were still al level up from the river. He promised that the boulders made a complete wall between the ledge and us. I believed this about 90%, but still kept a leery 10% skepticism and clung to rocks as much as possible.)

In general, I am a fan of a strong stream of water in the shower and this was a perfect massage of water beating down from above. (Don’t get me started on my dislike of those “rainfall” shower heads that have become popular in the last decade. I do not like them. Yes, it is a lovely and soft experience, but I want the dirt sandblasted off of me in the shower! And those gentle rainfall ones are terrible at getting the shampoo out of my hair. I need more power than that. Water pressure, please!)

Tired and ready to wrap up the day, I was happy to see our boat at the bottom of the last waterfall. Getting to where we were currently standing was quite a steep downward climb, so I wasn’t super thrilled at the prospect of doing that again, uphill, and still in socks, but alas, it is the way of hiking- wherever you go down, you must go back up. (Am I the only one who spends the entire downward hike thinking about how I’m going to have to come back up each and every step?) Today was my lucky (?) day though! Just as I was mentally gearing myself up for the return journey, Joe announced that we were going down instead- down the rock edge of the waterfall.

You know, that place that there is no trail and is not meant for humans (in socks!) to descend.

Following closely on Joe’s heels, trying to use his exact same path, over the edge of the rocks I went. It was mostly me skootching on my rear end, trying to stretch my legs as far as they would go to make connection with the next slightly-horizontal surface. With everything wet and mossy, it was just a matter of trying to make the slide from rock to rock as graceful and undramatic as possible. (I only cracked my knee once this time around, and no not-so-friendly words fell out of my mouth, although they did cross my mind a few times.) Finally, my socked feet hit solid (although pebbly) ground and into the boat I clambered, thankful to be in one piece, with nothing more serious that a few knee scrapes and a pounding heart.

I’ve done my fair share of hiking, but this was definitely a first for me. Leave the shoes behind. Venture out in socks. It’s the traveler’s version of dancing in the rain.

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Photo credit: T. Ross

The Mosquito Ride

At dinner the other night, we were talking about airplane rides (not an uncommon topic when you get a crew of Foreign Service folks together-usually it amounts to complaints about seating assignments and which airports have the best lounges) and a colleague mentioned that he preferred small planes to big ones because the way he figures it, if we each have our designated “time to go,” it is MUCH more likely that someone on a flight of 300 will have their number called up than someone on a flight of twenty. Usually I would say I tend to prefer the bigger planes that take turbulence a bit better, but this definitely gave me a new possibly perspective! I feel like there are still some logical loopholes to be sorted, but now I will never get on another big plane (you know, like this coming Saturday!) without closely inspecting my fellow passengers to see who might be the downfall (literally!) of us all.

There were definitely super low chances of this being an issue last weekend when we flew to Canaima National Park, the home of Angel Falls. I have flown on some small planes before- to the Maldives, to the Arctic Circle in Iceland, and even the planes in and out of Boise are not large by any stretch of the imagination, but we took small to a completely new level on this last trip. Mosquito-sized is not an exaggerated description. Our plane had six seats- two for the pilots (I was very happy to see redundancy there!) and then four passenger seats. As I crawled into the back row of the aircraft, it did not feel much different from clambering into the backseat of a two-door sedan- other than the sedan probably has more legroom.

Flying internationally really does not bother me much at all. I like to settle in to my window seat, put on my plane socks (yes, I carry plane socks- my feet FREEZE on airplanes), pull up my hood, wrap a blanket (or two if I can finagle an extra) around myself (do you see a theme here?) and settle in with my book. My decade of teaching middle school gave me a champion bladder, so I can often go hours upon hours without stirring from my little cocoon in the corner. I love the idea of having nothing but time to read in front of me and I am the best window seat-rider because I never pester the other passengers to get up. I can usually wait until there is an opening to go take care of business.

Casual and cool was not my bearing last weekend.

Take offs in the mosquito (I’ll no longer refer to it as a plane- it barely counts!) were actually better than I had anticipated, because it was amazing to watch the city go from being a hustle and bustle of (struggling) economy to being miniatures that look as if they belong to a model train set. But, as soon as I lost the fascinating visuals, reality set it. I did not at all like being above the clouds, where all there was to see was white fluff and blankness through the front window. It did not help that going through clouds can be slightly bumpy and while I am sure the bumps were minimal at best, to me each dip of the plane wing felt like we were going down, headed for a crash in no-man’s-land that may never be found. I tried to keep my cool, but inside I was a knot of nerves! (I blame this initial hour of total clenching for the fact that when we landed in Bolivar City two hours later, I had to pee worse than I have ever had to go in my entire life. That giant teacher-bladder may go the distance, but it does not have staying power against nervous spasms!)

Landings were fantastic, not because they were the smoothest touchdowns ever (they weren’t), but because it meant I was back on solid land and could breathe again and unclench every muscle in my body.

I thought I would be able to get in some good reading time when we were above the clouds, but my brain just did not want to focus on the written word. Logic did not win out the day. For some reason, I was much more comfortable just doing nothing, keeping my focus on the plane and every movement of it, rather than giving way to the world of Los Angeles’ library as depicted in Susan Orlean’s newest publication, The Library Book. I think a part of me believed I possessed The Force and was keeping the plane aloft by sheer personal determination! (Side note: I finished The Library Book a few days ago. It is the perfect holiday gift for the bookish friend in your life! Check out the review here.)

Regardless of my flying issues, which really are minimal when I am in a plane sized for adult human beings, that little mosquito did provide one of the most AMAZING flights I have ever been on in my life.

On Sunday morning, after our Saturday trek to Angel Falls and back, we were ready to squeeze into our humble transportation and head back to Caracas, but wanted to do a flyby of the falls first. When the flyby was discussed, I imagined swinging fifteen minutes out of our way (yes, that fourteen-hour trek the day before was a mere fifteen-minute detour up the river) and then heading towards Bolivar City- our refueling point.

I was wrong.

More than wrong.

The pilot that hopped in the front seat on Sunday morning was not the main one from Friday, but our “regular” guy was in the co-pilot position, so I figured we were just taking this other guy back to Bolivar or Caracas. Not such a crazy thought.

I was wrong.

More than wrong.

I am pretty sure the new captain works at Canaima part-time, when he is not employed by Hollywood as a stunt pilot.

Really, it is probably best that I had no idea what was coming my way.

What I thought was a quick trip up the river to see the falls from a different angle looked something like this:

-Skim up the river, below the tree line, banking heavily to the right so that we could get photos of the smaller waterfalls just beyond the airport

-Continue up the river, still below the tree line, buzzing a boat of tourists headed on the trip we did the day before (much to their delight- there were lots of hoots and hollers from below- hopefully full of mirth and not pure terror!)

-Fly fifteen minutes until Angel Falls is in sight, skimming by the edge of the waterfall and then looping back so the opposite side of the plane got a similarly death-defying view of the sheer cliff-face

-Circle about again, this time over the lip of the falls (On Saturday, I asked our guide to tell me what was at the top- no need to ask that question again!) to see the crazy, craggily rock formation that make the shelf of the plateau

-Not ready to head to Bolivar just yet, make another loop to skim over the surface of the plateau, low enough that it felt like we were driving, which make going off the edge feel as if our car was cruising over a cliff, rather than just a plane continuing on a straight path (this moment took my breath away!)

-Finally, wanting to give one last heart attack to his American passengers, our dear pilot decided to shoot the gap between two VERY close cliff-faces, a space that from my position just behind the wings looked like mere feet of clearance on each side

At times, we banked so hard in our turns that I worried about the latches on the plane doors. I am not sure my tightly cinched lap belt was up to the task if the door flew open under my weight!

When I wasn’t clutching my metaphorical pearls in fear, I had to laugh, as each crazy maneuver was followed by our pilot turning back with a huge grin on his face, giving is the thumbs up, as thrilled as he could be with his Sunday morning flight. That old saying about finding a job you love…? This guy has definitely never worked a day in his life!

As the plane settled back onto the runway and came to a stop outside the hut that served as the Canaima National Park airport (still not the smallest we have ever been to!), I must admit to feeling a bit sad that our crazy plane ride was over. I spent most of it terrified, with adrenaline pounding through my veins, but the flight was the most spectacular that I have ever been on and even with my blood pressure still well-above normal, I was already missing the thrill.  (With that said, I think it would take a bit of peer pressure to get me back up there a second time. Saturday morning cartoons taught me that “knowing is half the battle” and now that I am in the know about what an “Angel Falls flyby” means, I might make the logical decision to opt to stay on the ground!)

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Photo credit: T. Ross