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

She’s a Weeble that Wobbles

We have discussed my lack of athletic ability more than once in this space and everything I’ve said before holds true- this one is not Sporty Spice. But, as I have also noted in the past, I have a very hard time passing up the opportunity to see what is on the other side of the mountain, across the next river, or around the big bend. These two proclivities do not mesh well together. The second forces me to sign up for all sorts of weird outings, while the first then just turns me into a disaster during said adventures.

Last Wednesday, during my weekly check-in meeting with my boss (I pester her about spousal employment and she tasks me with making sure our newcomers are all getting solid starts in Caracas), we were chatting about Thanksgiving weekend plans and she mentioned that her dad was going to be in town for a visit and that she had chartered a plane to Canaima for the weekend. My response, a very normal one I should think, was “Wow! That sounds amazing.” A prompt reply of, “We’ve got two open seats, want to go?” threw me off my game a bit, but after a (I can only imagine) crazy laugh, I said I’d ask Thad and get back to her ASAP. Of course, I wanted to go and since it was my boss doing the inviting, I knew my leave request would be approved, so it was just a matter of whether Thad could get Friday off on super short notice with a holiday weekend looming in a short-staffed office.

He did.

We went!

Writing is all about using words to eloquently paint a picture for the reader, but I am at a loss for how to describe the scenery at Canaima National Park. Amazing is too pedestrian. Breathtaking is closer to the truth, although my lack of breath could be a byproduct of the sweltering rain forest at 90% humidity and not a wisp of breeze. In alphabetical order, here is what I thought of our trip to Angel Falls and the surrounding area: astonishing, awe-inspiring, gorgeous, grandiose, heart-stopping, impressive, magnificent, stunning, thrilling…the list could go on and on, but you are starting to get the idea.

Getting to Angel Falls takes effort, but I feel like it is Mother Nature’s way of charging a toll for access to such stunning sights. Our day started with a 4AM alarm, fumbling into clothes for the day (I slept in my sports bra figuring that would save me about seven and a half precious seconds in the morning), and stumbling across the courtyard to the outdoor restaurant where our guide (Jose, or “Joe for short” as he liked to say, saving us an entire syllable all day long) forced a bit of bread into us before heading out to find our boats. (Now, I am a morning person and I am almost always starving as soon as I get out of bed. I can easily dig into a bowl of Lucky Charms at 5:30 in the morning, but for some reason the thought of a bit of bread and some hot chocolate at 4:45 roiled my stomach like an electric whisk.)

By 5:30, still in total darkness, we were loaded into a boat (boat might be a bit overkill- it was a long wooden canoe with an outboard motor on the back) and headed up the river in search of the falls. Half an hour later, the sunrise over the water was spectacular and the rays of sunshine were a welcome relief. While the morning wasn’t cold, we were wet from the time we sat down in the boat until the time we changed at the hotel fifteen hours later and damp is almost always chilly. (Jumping ahead to 6:30PM, I was quite thrilled to be met on that same dock by a guy with a thermos full of hot chocolate and a tray of mugs on the other end of this adventure.) Late November is the start of the dry season in Canaima, so the river was low, meaning a couple of required portages throughout the day, but in all honesty, they were a nice break from the (literally) backbreaking wooden benches in the boat.

Hours later, after riding the log plume-esque trip for 120 kilometers up river, we arrived below the base of Angel Falls and looked up the sheer cliff-face to where water starts to plummet over the ledge. After unfolding ourselves from the boat and stretching out as many of the kinks as possible, we made quick pitstops in the forest to take care of some business (remember friends, always squat so the pee goes DOWN the hill- thanks outdoor Idaho time for that important life skill) and then it was onto leg #2 of the trip: hiking.

Going back to where we started this blog entry- I am not sporty. I can sit in a canoe for hours and marvel at the astounding beauty of nature, keeping an eye peeled for parrots and toucans, but hiking is my downfall in life.

Michelle:hiking::Superman:kryptonite.

I just have no stamina for it. I can walk on a flat (or even flatish) path all day long and be as happy as a clam. (What a weird phrase in this context. Now all I can picture is a clam that has creepily grown legs out of his shell and is hiking on a dirt path through a pine forest. I think I may have nightmares tonight…)

As soon as I have to go uphill, it is all over for me. Granted, it is fun for about ten minutes, scrambling over rocks and picking footing through rain forest roots, and then I am over it. Just done. My legs get wiggly, which means I slip and stumble more. I slip and stumble more which means I crack my knee on rocks and end up with an enormous bruise more. I get a huge bruise and maybe blurt out a not very nice word that starts with an “f.” And then I learn that the Venezuelan woman in front of me on the trail, who doesn’t really speak any English, does know the bad words. And somewhere along the way I just want to sit down on a stump and cry. Hypothetically, of course.

But here’s the thing: if I sit down on the stump and wait for the group to pick me up on the return trip, I miss whatever is on the other side of the mountain, across the river, and around the bend. And I can’t skip out on those things. So, I say some naughty words, I rub the bruise on my leg, I mumble and murmur against the guide (who is scaling the hillside like a mountain goat at a trail-runner pace) and then I wipe the sweat from my forehead and take another step. And another. And then another.

Eventually I will make it to the top of the hill, which is the bottom of Angel Falls. I will be last. I am always last. But it doesn’t matter- the view is the same whether you are the guide’s pet (that’s like a teacher’s pet, right?) or the caboose of the team. (This is not entirely accurate. I was not last. Thad was. Not because he is a wimpy hiker like me, but because he always brings up the rear to make sure I don’t get totally left in the dust. Or maybe to make sure I don’t get picked off by a jaguar. Or maybe just to make sure I don’t sit down on the stump and never get up again. Whatever the reason, when we hike, he always waits on me, when he could be that’s guide’s pet at the front of the line. He definitely takes one for the team on these excursions!)

I hear a lot of hikers say that they hate the downhill side of the hike more than heading up. I’m definitely not a member of that camp. Going down definitely uses a different set of muscles, but it also uses a different set of skills, one that I have mastered: gravity. No matter what happens, you are going to be headed in the right direction. Sometimes that will be a graceful assent and at others (more often in my case) it will be a clumsy and erratic slip and slide down the trail, but whether on my feet or on my butt, I’m going to get from point A to point B in record time. (At one point in the day, Thad said I was like a Weeble because “Weebles wobble, but don’t fall down.” Well, I proved that wrong, both when I cracked my knee on the rock headed up and then when I smashed that same knee into a rotting stump on the way back down.)

Covered in dirt and wet from a combination of sweat, waterfall mist, and rain forest condensation, I made it back to the boat loading area and was never so happy to see those torturous wooden benches in our personal log plume ride. We had four hours (and two more portages) ahead of us, but I didn’t care. Give me a broad board to put my bony butt on and I’m ready to head those 120km back to home base. We saw the sun rise over the horizon in the morning and watched it set over the opposite one in the evening, with the splendor of Angel Falls sandwiched in the middle. It was a long day and a painful one in many ways, but those bumps and bruises and bites are worth being able to say that I’ve trekked to Angel Falls and checked a pretty big box off my bucket list in a rather spectacular way.

 

Up (2009)

Carl Fredricksen: [Having arrived above Paradise Falls in South America, miles from where they took off] Don’t worry, I’ll get you down, find a Bus Stop.

[cuts off the strings to some of the balloons, allowing the house to descend down]

Russell: Whoa, that’s s gonna be like a billion transfers to get back to my house…

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Photo credit: T. Ross