This is a story about a once in a life time adventure. A trip to the country of Venezuela searching for the "muy grande pavone" or the fierce granddaddy peacock bass, sport fish of South America.
I have heard for the last several years about fabulous fishing in Venezuela from various friends at church. One friend, John Hastings, has made seven fishing trips to this impoverished country in South America. I have done considerable fishing in my time, but for various reasons, very little in the past few years. I guess my leisure time, like most, goes through cycles. For the last several years I have been in my golf phase. Golf is a wonderful activity. I have enjoyed it especially as it has been a way to spend time as a family. My wife and two of my children have become avid golfers, and we frequent golf courses at home and when on vacation. I have often said that you never have to worry about golf, as it is you against the game. You can do it by yourself if you have to, but it is not much fun as a solo activity. You never have to worry about whether they are "biting." You don't have to travel farther than your nearest course. There is always food and drink handy. Spending the night is not even a consideration. All in all, golf is pretty tame compared to fishing, especially in Venezuela!
John and two other friends had gone to Venezuela in 1987 and had caught a barrel of fish, but their trip had been marred by misadventures. They got into trouble with the "federales" over a dispute with local fishermen. Bill Steadham is an American who lives in Venezuela. His father is a drilling consultant in the oil business, and Bill spent considerable time in Venezuela, both as a child and adult. He had been fishing on the Saio River for more than twenty years that his father had introduced him to as an eight-year-old. On the trip in 1987, his secret place was fished by local people who placed a net across a wide spot in the river that was Bill’s favorite spot to troll for the wily pavone. This did not make him happy, and he and his friend and working companion Jose proceeded to cut the net when the fishermen refused to remove it. Well, the locals reported to the police that a group of gringos had invaded their fishing grounds and cut their net! The police made the group leave and told them never to return to that spot. The next misadventure happened when they ran out of ice. This area on the Sipao is a four-hour drive from the nearest city, Cuidad Bolivar. When you fish in the backcountry, you must take everything in you might need for the time you plan to spend. The first order of business for most fishermen is to keep the beer cold, and this group was no exception. You know about the water in the third world..no one would think of drinking it. The local beer named "Polar." The brewery is owned and operated by the government. I don't know if there is any other brand available, as the only thing I saw was Polar. It is like one of our local brands Pearl Light. It is very light and has almost no alcohol. It can be drunk in great quantity in the heat with almost no effect, not even on the kidneys. Well, the group ran low on ice, and somehow the meat got warm and tainted. Almost everyone who ate the meat became ill, and I have seen pictures of slightly "green" gringos. There was another misadventure due to a nearly lost camera. A member of the group wore short pants fishing and was nearly eaten by the local variety of "noseeums" called hayhines. The federales also stopped the group and made them take every fish out of the coolers to count them. You can possess five pavone per fisherman. They remembered it as an eventful trip, especially the numbers of fish they caught in the secret place. I was told a fish struck nearly every cast, and two eighteen pounders were caught. The world record pavone is 28 pounds.
After several months, the men forgot all the bad things about the trip, and were ready to make plans to go again. Somehow, this gained my interest, especially the fish. John had showed pictures of their trip at one of our house church meetings that caught my eye. One fish, named payara, has teeth like a tiger. They also caught many piranhas whose reputation is known worldwide. I learned you needed to solder the stainless steel rings that held the 4X strong treble hooks to keep them from straightening out by the force of the fish’s strike! Of course, I knew these were purely "fish" stories, but I wanted to find out for myself. To my great surprise and to the surprise of my family and friends, I signed up for the trip. We were to leave on January II, 1988 and spend ten days in Venezuela. This was probably the most venturesome thing this conservative person had ever thought about doing! I was to learn that everything they said was true and then some!
I began to talk more seriously to several of the men who had made the trip before, and were considering going again. I learned of a "compound" that was a concrete pad completely surrounded by a chain link fence. There was a freezer for keeping fish, electric lights, shower water warmed by the sun, and other creature comforts that sounded good for a wilderness camp. I was especially told of cots that provided comfortable sleeping under mosquito netting. The only thing I would have to take was sheets for my bed, and a pillow if I was a softy. Other than my fishing gear, the usual things were necessary. I was specially warned about taking long pants and long sleeve shirts to protect myself from the blazing sun and the pesky bugs.
The fishing gear was something very special. Previous trips had proved that a lure named Hot Spot was particularly good. It is solid plastic and has a rattle inside. A large one-ounce size was necessary, and they usually were a special order, as the standard size stocked by the stores was smaller. Once you had the lure, you must replace the hooks with the 4X strong ones I mentioned before, including soldering the split rings.
About a month before the trip, one of the men who had gone last year decided he was not going back and offered to sell me his lures. I did this eagerly, as I was not looking forward to replacing those hooks! Charlie Maxwell brought me a cardboard box nearly full of lures. They had recommended taking three dozen lure! There are no sporting goods stores to buy replacements in Venezuela! Some of the lures I bought from Charlie looked like they had been ten years. I had heard the stories about the teeth of the fish, and the lures attested something had been biting. There were only twenty lures, but John thought if I carried some other lures with me, twenty Hot Spots would be enough.
One evening John and Charlie helped me look through my collection of lures, most of which had not seen action in ten or fifteen years. The general comment was they were more suited for a fishing museum than for use in Venezuela. I had a lot of hollow plastic lures that would to be bitten in two by the first fish to strike them. I was sure it was another "fish" story.
It was just before Christmas, and I put the word out to my wife that some new fishing lures and other gear I needed would be great things for Santa to bring me. Jane arranged with John and Charlie to do some shopping for me, and they agreed eagerly. It is more fun to spend someone else’s money! I learned my old bass rods were not strong enough. I owned two six foot fiberglass rods that had served me well for years. I began a quest on my own for two new rods.
I usually play golf on Thursday afternoons, but I went shopping instead one fine day. It took all afternoon, and going to every sporting goods store I have ever known about to find what I needed. I needed some light salt-water gear, which were difficult to locate in Dallas. I also took my Garcia Ambassador reels to the local factory service center for cleaning and inspection. I was especially proud of a pair of pliers that I found at one store. They are about ten inches long, and would provide some real distance between me and the teeth of the fish I had heard about. I was ashamed of how much I paid for them, but they proved to be worth every penny of the $35. I also bought some plastic "grabbers" that looked impressive to me.
After Christmas, John made a final review of my purchased and the gifts from Santa, and told me the plastic grabbers. I had purchased were not strong enough, and I returned them. He had bought me some other plastic pliers he thought were better. They were similar to some he had that were made out of aluminum. They proved to be worthless, as they were not stiff enough to hold the struggling fish! I also bought a pair of regular needle nosed pliers for a backup.
I stopped at a camping supply store and bought a collapsible plastic water jug, some tablets to sterilize water, and a real neat collapsible cushion to sit on. I was not looking forward to sitting all day on the hard aluminum boat seat. I looked at a lot of other real neat camping gear, but I was told I didn't need anything else, as all would be provided.
I began talking to another member of the group. Rusty Goin, at church on the day before we were to leave. Rusty had gone last year and was a man of experience. I asked him what he was taking to learn that he was taking a tent! He at that point told me we were not going to camp in the compound where they had been last year, but beside the river. The compound it seemed as several kilometers from the river, including having to make a ferry crossing over a river. This was the first I had heard of this change!
As soon as I got home, I called and talked with John who poo-pooed the tent, as he said the hammocks would be fine. He did mention I would need a drop cloth if it rained! I had a sinking feeling at that moment. At 3:00 PM on Sunday I began to see what luck I might have in finding a tent. On the way home from church I had driven by the camping store I had visited before only to find them closed. I went to one of the chain stores and to my pleasant surprise found them open. At that moment I felt a lot better about the change in the blue laws in our state a few years back. I had always thought Sunday should be a day of rest for everyone.
The store had a small "back packer's" tent that weighed only four pounds and would fit easily into the one suitcase allowed. International travel allows two pieces of luggage. My rod case was my other piece. I also bought a drop cloth, a very thin piece of plastic used to cover things when you paint. It proved to be less than wonderful. As you might expect, I said nothing about my tent and air mattress to the fearless leader John fearing I might suffer some ridicule. I thought I was then prepared to camp in the wilderness of Venezuela.
On the same Sunday before we left, my wife Jane and wife Lee were leaving on their annual ski trip with a group of women from our church. We had carefully timed our fishing trip to coincide with theirs so that we would not have to stay home and batch it as we had done in previous years. That left no wife handy to take us to the airport, as Rusty's wife had to be at work about the same time that our plane was to leave for Houston. I called our good friend Betty Hollon, and she was kind to take us to the airport. You know how good your friend is when she will get up early enough to be at your house by 6:00 AM. Nancy, Rusty's wife brought John and Rusty to my house on her way to work. The only thing left to do was to place Rusty’s fishing rods in my rod case, as he wanted to take an ice chest as his second piece of luggage, in the event we caught the grand-daddy pavone and wanted to bring it back for mounting. That is thinking ahead!
We loaded all our stuff in Betty's car and took off for the airport. We looked like ' Okies' ' with the trunk lid tied down over our bulging suitcases. Our six-foot plus rod cases were inside between the passengers. My suitcase was so heavy I could barely lift it. Fortunately it had built in wheels, so I was able to drag it satisfactorily. I was warned it was usually necessary to carry your own luggage between airplanes in Houston. We were to find out when we left that we were able to check it through to Caracas, and we didn't have to handle it very much beyond the DFW airport.
Our trip to Houston was uneventful. We had a three-hour layover so we went to the Viasa counter to confirm our tickets, and then out to the gate to wait. We did not yet see the other two men we were to meet in Houston, so we stopped at the local pub for refreshment. About a half-hour before flight time, we went out to the gate where we ran into Ron Brooker and his brother Ken. Rusty and Ken immediately recognized each other. They had worked together about ten years ago on the Dallas Police force. Kenneth now was on the Flower Mound force. Rusty is a nineteen-year veteran with the Dallas Police. I had never met either of the Brookers before. Ron was a veteran of previous trips. We learned also that they were cousins of Bill Steadham, the man who lived in Venezuela who was our trip coordinator. Ron is a physician who practices internal medicine in El Paso. He was a jewel, as he spoke considerable Spanish and helped usimmeasurably. I would not advise a trip similar to ours if someone on the trip doesn't speak some Spanish. All the traveling I had done out of this country had been mainly to European areas where you can almost always find someone who can speak English. Not necessarily so in Venezuela. We found very few people in the backcountry that could understand any English, or would not admit it if they could.
We had an uneventful flight aboard a DC 10 to the airport near Caracas. The approach is spectacular. The Andes Mountains are a few miles inland from the coast, and the city of Caracas, about seven million people, is between the sea and the mountains. Viasa impressed me. It was the first time I had received a printed menu of the meal! The meal and cabin service was good. The first thing we did upon arriving in the airport terminal was to exchange some dollars for bolivars, the local currency. The exchange rate in the airport was 30.9 to 1. The only hitch was they would only exchange $100 for each person. That proved to be more than we needed! Things in Venezuela are very inexpensive by United States standards. I wound up spending the equivalent of $67 during the ten days.
While we were waiting in line to exchange our dollars we met Jimmy Nix who was also from Dallas. He is a fly fisherman and was there to create a story about fly-fishing for pavone and tarpon. He had Ernest Hemingway's daughter and her husband with him. He was to fish in Lake Drury as we were. We saw him again in the airport on our return and shared our fish stories. His experiences were a little different from ours. He was on a first class type of trip, where ours was definitely tourist. The local adventure began when we picked up our luggage and passed through customs. We were inundated with young men to ''help" us with our bags. John had warned me about this ahead of time. There were so many of them that each one picked up one piece of our luggage (10 pieces in all), and led us just out side to the taxi stand. We loaded all our gear into two taxies, and then had to tip each man! They were not satisfied with some of our tips, as we at that point were not familiar with the money. I gave each man 20 bolivars, which was I thought just under a dollar and enough for the small amount of work done. They had carried the luggage no more than 50 feet. They expected more! They wanted for us to give them U.S. dollars I suspect. The next hurdle was to figure out how much to pay the taxi driver. John had also warned of that problem. When we arrived at the hotel, we found a sign posted just at the drop off that said the trip to the airport was 120 bolivars. We added 40 bolivars for the luggage and everything seemed OK except the driver would not take a 10 Bolivar bill that had one corner torn. I had seen that bill before in John's billfold back in the states. He had carried it around since his last trip. I was now the proud owned of a torn bill. We later got rid of it another place.
Registration at the hotel was easy. The young man at the desk spoke English and told us he had lived and worked in the states for a couple of years. We explained that we wanted one room with three beds. He indicated it was no problem. We were to find two of the beds were cots. The room was a "suite" and roomy, so there was plenty of space for the cots. We were going to be there for such a short time that we did not try to correct our sleeping arrangements for that night. While we were waiting for Ron and Ken, we went to the bar and had our first Polar of the trip, and my first ever. It was very good, very light and without much taste at all. I am not much of a beer drinker, so I felt relieved. I knew that it would provide most of my fluid intake for the next ten days, so I had better like it! I had three coins in my pocket-two pennies and a dime. I asked my two friends to draw lots for the one real bed, and fortunately I was the winner. I was not looking forward to a cot when there was a lovely bed available for one more night.
By then it was nine o'clock in the evening, and we still had not eaten dinner. We received a tasty lunch on the plane, but we were all hungry. John wanted to go to his favorite eating spot, a restaurant down the coast by the name of Quince Letres. We caught a cab and made arrangements for the cabby to pick us up at eleven thirty. We had a good dinner of onion soup and garlic shrimp, and of course some more Polar. After eating we returned to the hotel where we fell into bed about midnight. John set his alarm clock for four AM, and that came rather quickly. We left the hotel just after five, and had a rapid ride to the airport. Traffic lights in Caracas are only for show. The cabby did slow down at times, but never stopped for a red light. I had noticed this on our ride in from the airport, but it was even more noticeable at five o'clock in the morning when there was very little traffic. The ten-mile ride to the airport took only about twenty minutes!
All the cars in Venezuela seemed to be what we now call full size, and most are old relative to our standards. I learned that you can't import a car into the country unless it is twenty years old. There were many Chevy’s and Fords, as they are assembled in Venezuela. I saw a few compacts, but not very many.
We already had our tickets for the next leg of our trip, to Cuidad Bolivar. There was a long line to check in luggage, as there was no ticket agent at the counter. About six IS an agent finally showed up and we checked our bags. The flight was just less than an hour and the time passed quickly. I had my first cup of cafe' con leche, and it was excellent. It was served in a very tiny plastic cup, of the sort you would use in the states for your individual portion of salad dressing at a cafeteria. Styrofoam has not yet found it's way to Venezuela. It is a little tricky drinking hot coffee from a thin plastic cup. The coffee was very sweet and mostly cream. It tasted more like a hot coffee milk shake than "real" coffee. We were not offered refills, but the flight was short anyway. We were also served arepas, a small cake of fried corn meal. Arepas were frequently served, and is the equivalent to the Mexican tortilla.
The airplane was a Boeing 727 that had seen considerable former service. When we landed, the pilot immediately seemed to apply the air brakes and the wheel brakes and we came to a screeching halt. When the plane turned off the runway, I understood why, as we were at the far end of what was a very short runway. The terminal was small, but relatively new. There was only one gate, and we retrieved our luggage quickly. We were greatly relieved to see our local host's smiling face when we arrived, cowboy hat and all. We met Bill, his wife Daisy, her father Osorio and the two other locals, Jose and Cheche. We were surprised when we saw Daisy and learned that she was going with us!
We loaded our luggage into the waiting four pickups and headed off. Our first stop was the icehouse, where we loaded every ice chest full. While we got ice. Bill and Daisy went to the grocery store and bought our food supplies. We were to be well fed, even though there was not to be much variety. After about an hour, the entire group met and we headed off. We made a stop for gasoline at one of the government run stations, and left town for the Sipao River. We were to stop again for gasoline about two hours later. We stopped and bought gasoline every time we came to a station. I think it was good insurance, as there were no neighborhood stations. Just a short distance out of Ciudad Bolivar we stopped for breakfast. It was a small roadside cafe. I ate two empanada; a very tasty fried pie filled with meat and potatoes. I drank a Pepsi and was amazed I had eaten at such a place. I prayed that the minocycline I was taking would work! My previous experience traveling in Mexico had been very bad. My one and only trip on my honeymoon had been to Aculpuco, and it took me two months to recover from Montezuma's revenge. I had traveled to the Middle East a few years ago, took minocycline and escaped. I hoped it would work again. It proved to be satisfactory, as I ate often and even drank the water in Caracas without any problems. I did sterilize the water I drank while camping with the tablets I bought at home using the collapsing water jug. I was somewhat vindicated when John also drank from my water jug. After three hours we came to a river and had to wait for the ferry. We could see a bridge under construction in the distance. It probably would be several years before it was completed. The ferry was owned and operated by a local businessman, and shuttled vehicles and people back and forth at about hourly intervals. It operated only during the daytime. I wondered what would happen if you needed to cross the river at night for some emergency, but I tried to think positively. While we waited some of our group went to the local eating establishment. There was a dirt floor and the local pig would wander in and look around for any tidbit that might come his way. I had heard stories about this place, and I did not eat there. We had to wait more than an hour for the ferry, but finally got across the river. I now understood why we were going to camp beside the river and not at the compound. That would have taken considerable time and effort to make that trip twice a day, much less loading and unloading our boats and fishing gear each day. A short way beyond the river, we left the pavement and went twenty-eight kilometers on a sandy ' road. ' It was not much more than tire tracks through a pasture. At one point, the pickup in front of us driven by Cheche became stuck in the soft sand. We all piled out and that trip was one of the most exciting car rides I have ever had. There is no ride at six Flags over Texas that could match its excitement. Bill Steadham was in the lead, and Jose who was driving our pickup, was trying to keep up. It seemed like we were going at least 50 MPH at times and leaving behind a cloud of dust. We occasionally could see Bill in the distance, or at least his trail of dust. We finally arrived at our destination about 3:30 in the afternoon, and immediately launched our boats and went fishing.
This part of the Sipao River was a lagoon fed by a rather swift river that was no more than twenty feet wide. The lagoon was reasonably wide in some spots, but almost everywhere your could run the boat up the middle and cast to both banks. There was a lot of fallen timber along the edge that provided the most action. We immediately started trolling, as that had been the most productive in past years. I immediately caught two or three fish, but John didn't get a strike. John started using one of his top water lures, and caught a couple of fish, and I immediately switched to top waters. I casted dozens of times and switched lures to include every top water bait I had brought, and never got a bite. John caught several fish, but nothing very large. Dusk caught us soon, and as we had not set up our camp before hitting the river, we quit fishing and made the short trip back to camp.
I then pulled my tent out and began reading the instructions. I had never seen this type of tent before, and it was a snap. Ron, who had just been through the process with his tent, which was almost identical, assisted me. There were three tents, and amazingly they were of identical construction other than minor variations of color and window placement. My tent had a "moon" window that allowed me to look at one of the most spectacular displays of stars I had ever seen. I wish I had known more about stars, as I had only seen that many stars before in the mountains of Southern New Mexico, where we have a retreat. I was a little concerned what might happen to the moon window during a rain, but I discovered a small canopy in the sack with the tent. The only other opening was the door, and it had zippered flaps. It was pitch dark by the time I got my tent up. I got inside with my suitcase and found my flashlight and began to inflate my air mattress. I passed my pulmonary function test during that process. At one time I had owned a foot operated pump, but couldn’t find it before I left home. I found my air mattress by accident, as I had forgotten I had one. At one time in my life, when the boys were young, we had done some camping. I thought I had given all my gear to the boys a couple of years back when we moved, but I found the air mattress on a high shelf in the back of the garage.
I finally got the mattress inflated and put my sheet on it. I tested it out to find that either my head or my feet would have to be off the end. I placed my pillow and my blanket under my head and seemed set for the night. It had been at least ten years since I had slept on that mattress, and that night was a memorable one. My wife and I had bought a wonderful individually adjustable electric king size bed a few years ago, and had become immediately spoiled to anything less. The small, narrow air mattress was considerably less I tossed and turned all night and it seemed woke up every few minutes. By the time I finished setting up my tent and mattress, the rest of the campers had set up and dinner was ready. The meals consisted of French fried potatoes and beef grilled over an open fire. It was quite good and I ate heartily. After dinner I had one of the other local favorite drinks I had heard about, rum and Chinoto. Chinoto is a soft drink that is like our stateside lemon-lime drink. With rum it was very good. The supplies included a whole case of rum! There were also eight cases of Polar and a couple of cases each of Chinoto and Pepsi. By the time I had finished my drink, I had run out of gas and retired for the night. At first I had trouble going to sleep because of the uncomfortable bed and the heat, but I passed the night without too much trouble.
At supper that night two local dogs and a couple of pigs visited us. There was a house about a quarter mile from our camp occupied by what we supposed was a ranch hand and his family. We fed the dogs some scraps as they looked like they were near starvation. Bill Steadham made the comment that most dogs in Venezuela looked alike. I was to notice this during our trip. Apparently after uncontrolled breeding the cur dogs all do look much the same. They were all about the same size and short hairdo. They all were very thin and looked dejected. Later in the night, I was awakened by a strange noise. It sounded like someone was hitting the side of my tent with an intermittent stream of water. After I waked up enough to realize what was happening, the second dog proceeded to "mark" my tent. Fortunately they missed the door and me!
I heard strange noised during the night that sounded like an old jungle war movie. There were birdcalls that were unfamiliar, water noises, and other strange sounds. I am a Very light sleeper, and every little thing seemed greatly amplified. I could hear a couple of snorers nearby, and was disturbed several times by noise of zippers as someone got out of a tent This was to be even worse the next night--that will come later.
I awoke the next morning to the sound of the gasoline light plant. That meant coffee would soon be ready. I have always been a coffee addict, and I was ready. I put on my clothes and went out. The coffee was good, but again I had to contend with the small thin plastic cups. It took several before I could get satisfied. Breakfast was scrambled eggs and ham. It tasted good, but violated my low cholesterol diet.
After breakfast, we immediately piled into the boats and began fishing. We tried a little of everything and every style lure, but had little activity, and very few fish. I know John and Rusty were disappointed, as they had fond memories of the numbers of fish they had caught last year. We returned for lunch and had only a couple of fish on our stringer, but one was the biggest bass I had ever caught. The fish was caught on top water bait and weighed eleven pounds. The size of the fish was important, as we had all agreed to a wager of 100 bolivars each day to the fisherman with the largest pavone. I had again tried all my lures, and John willingly lent me one of his special home made lures. He and Charlie Maxfield had made twenty or so the year before. It was made of solid cedar and was of particularly strong design. It had a wire through the center of the lure to which all the hooks were attached. It was red and white and floated perfectly upright like a cork when it was still in the water. It proved to be a great fish catcher! After lunch we went out again, but caught very few fish until late in the evening. Then we did well, catching eight or ten nice fish in the back end of a lagoon. There was a lot of structure, and we had a hard time getting the fish out of the underwater trees. We threw several fish back that weighed over four pounds, as we were mainly looking for the big one. John did catch a good fish. We weighed it when we got back to shore and it weighed exactly eleven pounds. We tied for that day, and the bet was canceled.
The experienced fishermen in the group were very disappointed that we had not caught very many fish by previous comparison. We decided to get up early the next morning and fish until 10:30, then break camp and move to our secondary location, Lake Drury. The meal that night was a repeat of the previous one, as was breakfast the following morning. I was to learn the same menu would be for the next seven days! We did eat fish a couple of times. I thought we would never get rid of that beef. It was tasty, but tough as a boot.
The second night had even more strange sounds. I was sure I heard splashing of water like someone was swimming in the river. I also heard the screeching of birds, monkeys and other unknown animals. I learned the splashing was made by the alligators who were after the fish innards that were near the riverbank. The dogs marking my tent did not awaken me. We didn't see them at all the second night.
The next morning we started fishing almost at daylight, but the catching was not much better, and it seemed easy to quit. The prospect of a new place and more fish is always exciting to a fisherman. We returned to camp, packed our gear and loaded up the trucks for the trip out. The ride up the dirt road was much less hazardous than the ride coming in. We had stopped at the small house and picked up two riders, a man and a young boy. I worried about the boy, as he was sitting on the tailgate holding on to the bar of the headache rack. He had not ridden with Jose! He made it without falling out much to my surprise and relief. We were in the lead truck this time and we stopped to allow the others to catch up.
There was a beautiful river with big granite boulders where we had stopped before on the way to the Sipao. Jose pulled over on to the shoulder just short of the bridge, and we immediately heard two hissing sounds, and immediately knew what had happened. We got out of the truck to find both tires on the passenger side flat as pancakes. It seems there had once been a roadside sign that had been cut down, leaving a short piece of angle iron sticking out of the ground about three inches. In a short while, the other trucks showed up, and by taking a spare from one of the other trucks, we were able to change tires and get going again. During the wait, the delay and the temperature enticed Rusty to take a dip in the river, clothes and all. He looked like a drowned rat, but he felt cooler and probably smelled a little better. We had rigged a shower with a small electric pump back at the river, but the water was very cold and ran at a trickle. Jose and John jumped into the river to bathe, but I had seen the teeth on some of the pirhana and heard the alligators, and as it was after dark by the time we got around to a bath, I was not about to jump in that river I After fishing three days on a hot river in the same clothes, you had a distinct odor. I had taken enough shirts to change shirts three times, but I had not gotten around to doing any laundry yet. I am sure we all smelled "different."
As soon as we arrived back in Cuidad Bolivar we went to the local tire dealer and bought Jose two new tires. Bill gave Jose a hard time about the flats, and joked that it was a hard way to get some new tires. Jose felt very badly about the flats and the delay it caused in our schedule. We had agreed to pitch in and buy him the tires. Two tires cost about $70, and split five ways, it wasn't much. We all scattered and went to replenish our supplies for the next few days we would spend on Lake Drury. I asked to go to the grocery store this time, as I had seen the icehouse and had that experience. I piled into the truck with Bill, Daisy, Kenneth and we sought out the grocery store. I had visions of an open market, flies and everything, as I had seen in the Middle East. I surprisingly found a super market, not much different from the one at home, except for the variety. There was plenty of food and other things, but you had limited choices. We looked for some more plates and forks. The only plastic forks we could find were small flimsy things that looked like you would have trouble spearing one bean with them. We did find some more substantial plastic plates that the ones we had been using. Still, there were no Styrofoam cups available, so we bought some more of the thin hard plastic variety. Bill bought a good-looking precooked glazed ham and had it sliced. He also bought some smoked pork chops, neither of which was on my low cholesterol diet. Of course, we resupplied ourselves with potatoes. I was disappointed at the quality of the local vegetables. I envisioned wonderful looking fruits and vegetables because of the temperate climate. Everything looked stunted and not very large by our standards. It seems that the farmers in Venezuela don't have the money for fertilizer, and must depend on rain for water, and it was the dry season. Bill, as he had been laid off as a result of the oil slump, had spent the last year trying to make a living as a vegetable farmer. The rains had been very poor, and the crop likewise. The lettuce and tomatoes looked so bad we didn’t buy any. The only vegetables that looked decent were cucumbers.
We did stop at a stand near the parking lot of the super market and bought some flat hard bread. It looked and tasted a little like cardboard. We bought some white cheese that was very good. I like salty things, and this cheese was very salty. I was a little concerned there was no attempt to keep it refrigerated by the vendor, but I ate it and it had no ill effect. I don't think anyone liked the bread, as it was in camp until we left.
It was about three o'clock in the afternoon by the time we were ready to head out for the Lake. It was supposedly only a two-hour drive, and we wanted to get there before dark. We didn’t make it! It was nearly dusk when we left the pavement and headed toward a town named Nueva Fortuna. I don't have any idea how far we went on a good gravel road, but it took more than an hour. Just near the lake, we crossed a small stream and Bill picked up a twelve-year-old boy who was carrying a stringer of pavone. He hired him on the spot to be our guide. His name was Ventura. Bill took Ventura and his fish into the town a sort distance away so that he could deliver his fish home and tell his mother he was going to be away for a while. He picked up his hammock and returned with Bill to lead us to our camping spot. Not one of us had ever been to this part of the lake before, and Bill didn’t know where to try to camp. As it was dark, we had to depend on Ventura to guide us. After a short trip up another dirt road, we stopped and Ventura led us to the campsite he recommended. All we had to look with was our small flashlights. There was a grove of trees where camping had been done before. The trees had been cut back to allow for several hammocks to be hung. There were several pieces of roofing tied up in a tree that provided a screen for the ' 'bathroom. ' It was only a short way from the edge of the lake. It seemed OK, and we set up the hammocks and tents. As it was so late, and everyone was tired after spending almost all day in the trucks, we ate some ham sandwiches and cheese and went to bed.
I decided this was the night I would try my hand at sleeping in a hammock. I placed my little tent adjacent to a hammock that had been set up to my specifications. The first place did not seem right to Jose, as when I got in the hammock the tree to which it was tied was under great stress. After selecting a stronger tree, Jose was satisfied. I tested it out, and it seemed fine. I was given instructions about how to sleep cross ways on the wide hammock. Amazingly, it seemed by sleeping on the hammock cross ways you took advantage of a bias in the material and you could lie almost flat! Soon after getting settled we began to feel drops of rain! We had heard stories of getting caught in a downpour on a previous trip. John said it had rained so hard the water ran down the hammock ropes, and you got wet in spite of any plastic cover over the hammock. I got up, scrounged around in my suitcase and pulled out the drop cloth I had bought. I pulled it over the hammock and mosquito net. The net was suspended over the hammock on a small string that was reasonably straight. I tied the plastic to the ropes, and tied it under me after I got into the hammock again. The plastic was so flimsy, that if I had not tied it under me it would have taken off like a kite. Fortunately, it never rained more than a sprinkle. Some time in the middle of the night I had to get up to the call of nature. We were all sleeping so close together that I was trying to be quiet and not disturb anyone. I avoided using my flashlight and that was a mistake. As I tried to get back into the hammock that was under the plastic drop cloth that was on top of the mosquito net, somehow my foot got caught in the skirt of the net and as I sat down on the edge of the hammock I went over it and came crashing down on the ground. Unfortunately I discovered when I finally turned on my flash light I had pulled the mosquito net off the string. It was suspended with little loops of material from the string. I could not to see how to restring it in the dark, and I spent the rest of the night in the tent. The next morning, during the daylight, it was easy to rectify by swapping nets with an extra one that was not in use. I took the flimsy plastic drop cloth off, as it had proved to be worthless anyway. I folded it up and put it under my tent as a ground cloth, planning to use the tent if it rained again. If I sleep in a hammock again, I will use a heavy plastic tarp with metal grommets on the edges. John had a green one that worked just fine. The remaining nights were more pleasant and rain free, and sleeping in the hammock worked out fine. I was surprised by how cold I got during the night. I doubt if the temperature ever dropped below the lower seventies, but I got quite cold--enough to shiver. I found that rest of the heat loss was under me, and after I learned to place my blanket under me as well as on top, I slept comfortably. It takes a little practice to arrange a blanket in a hammock. When we first went to bed it was hot, and you wished you didn't have even the mosquito net over you. The best method was to place the blanket beside you for use later in the night. The hammocks did not have anything to hold them open. Most of the hammocks I had seen before had a piece of wood at each end to hold them open. I never saw one like that in Venezuela. I was going to buy one, and looked at several in Caracas on the way back. I was surprised by how expensive they were. Several I looked at were $70.00. I decided it would be easier and probably cheaper to buy one at home, and I wouldn't have to lug it out. My poor suitcase was already heavy enough!
The lake the next morning seemed inviting, but formidable. We made out way out the narrow arm beside our camping spot to the main lake to find a body of water that was very large. It looked like it might be ten miles across to the other side. We had three boats of fishermen and our native ' 'guide' ‘ Ventura. The water was very rough, and we were soon wet. It was hot, so it did not matter. I wished for a softer cushion, as the small aluminum boat bounced across each wave. I had purchased an inflatable cushion that back packers use. It was better than nothing was, but much. Ventura soon had us stop on one of the many small islands that were scattered around the lake. The natives fish from the bank by throwing a hand line. They use a heavy jig with a white feather and what looks like 100-pound test line. They twirl it around like a cowboy would throw a rope. Ventura was quite accurate and efficient. He could throw, let it sink and retrieve faster than I could with my fancy Garcia Ambassadeur. When he caught a fish, he simply hauled it hand over hand to the bank. If you were in the way, look out, as you might have a fish in your face. He would throw them far enough up the bank so there was not much worry about them flopping back into the water. He would sometimes catch two or three fish in short order. If the fish quit biting, he would take very large rocks and throw them into the spot where he had been catching them. I had always tried very hard to be quiet and not disrupt the water or clank around. Ventura disturbed the water with five-pound rocks!
We did not do very well that day. We caught a few fish, some good size--up to eight pounds. We moved often, and seemed to spend most of our time in the boat crossing the lake. We stopped at one island where there were large granite boulders suddenly jutting out of the water. You needed to be part mountain goat to get around, so with my bad knees, I stayed in the boat. We were at least ten miles out in the middle of a lake that was 150 miles from the nearest doctor, and I didn't want to take any chances. Bill and his wife Daisy had to leave just after noon to return home. Bill was to go to Dallas to attend a school related to his new job with Seduce. They took our stringer of fish with them. It was a job for Bill and Jose to lift the stringer. There were probably a dozen fish and some weighted eight pounds.
We fished hard the rest of the afternoon, but didn't catch many more fish. The wind seemed to blow harder. I had made a bad mistake in the shoes that I wore. I had not counted on walking on the rocky shore, so I had worn my camp moccasins with very thin soles. My feet became quite sore, as I am very tender footed anyway. I also had worn no socks, and the top of my right foot was very sun burned.
We were very tired by the time we got back to camp. Jose and Cheche had set up our shower, and it felt good. I got a look in the mirror on the truck, and my face was very burned. This was to prove to cause me some trouble the next day. We had supper of more French fries and the smoked ham we had bought in Cuidad Bolivar. The ham tasted good. I tried some of the flatbread, but it was like eating cardboard. The white cheese was quite tasty. It was very salty, even to my salt loving taste. After supper, we had rum and Chinoto and soon I felt weary. The generator was acting up, and Rusty proceeded to take the carburetor off and much to our pleasant surprise, fixed it rather quickly. It had some dirt in one of the jets. After he got it back together, it ran better than it had all week! We sat around and talked some. I soon became sleepy and headed for my hammock. I decided to try it again. I got all set, and crawled in with my blanket beside me. I had not read my bible for the day, and I used the battery powered reading lamp Jane had bought. It worked very well. I am sure I cast an eerie light under the mosquito net in the hammock. I read for a few minutes, and soon was asleep.
I awakened several times in the night. Each time, I was surprised by the noise of the animals in the nearby trees. Most of the noise came from the birds. There was also considerable insect noise. There were no monkey noises as we had heard along the river. Some time in the middle of the night, I heard Ron call out to the others in Spanish 'los mannes in la launches' ' or something close. He finally roused Jose, Cheche and Osorio. They headed off for the edge of the lake where Ron had heard men's voices. He thought someone was trying to make off with our boats. I heard Osorio make some comment about ' 'mucho dinero. ' They came back soon to report that it was some other fishermen who had arrived and were launching their boats up the lake shore from where ours were pulled up on the beach. The camp soon settled back down for the night. I woke up off and on, but other than getting cold in the early morning, it was uneventful. I made it all night in the hammock!
I can't sleep after it gets daylight, so I was up early. The generator started soon after I got up, and we had coffee in short order. Osorio was working on corn meal cakes. Our other breakfasts had been scrambled eggs and ham. I had heard stories about the corn cakes that were varied. I had just learned before the trip that for the first time in my life my cholesterol was slightly elevated. I was afraid to imagine what it might be after this trip. I think everything I ate was high cholesterol. We would up eating fish only a couple of times.
Johnny was eager to start fishing, and drug us out before breakfast was ready. I was looking forward to the corn cakes, but John assured me they weren't worth eating. The lake was even rougher than it had been the day before. I pleaded with John to let us try to fish the part of the lake that was in the cove where we camped. We had several miles of lake in that arm that was well protected from the wind. We found some islands and tried our Venezuela technique without much luck. We trolled, casted and tried almost all the lures, but no fish. By noon, I was quite discouraged and my sunburn was talking to me. As we were close to camp, I had John drop me off and he and Rusty took off for the other side of the lake.
I went into camp and peeled off my clothes and crawled into the hammock for a nap. I did some more reading and relaxed. I did get a short nap, and felt much better. I could not tell which hurt worse, my face or the top of my right foot. I had only sunscreen, no sun burn medicine. The afternoon seemed to pass quickly. I got quite a bit of reading done, including almost the whole book of Romans. My bible study program for this year involved reading the One-Year Bible New Testament. As it is only a short reading each day, it sometimes chops it up so much it is difficult to see the big picture. It helped to have time to read most of Romans at one time. I also spent some time on my memory work in Drawing Near.
The fishermen began to return. They had caught some fish, but not nearly as many as we had the day before. Ron and Kenny had caught the most, and had one grinnell that weighed about ten pounds. It is a mean looking sucker with a dorsal fin and sharp teeth. They are fun to catch, as they fight hard. Everyone showered and got ready for supper. The food that night was more pork. Bill had bought some good-looking smoked pork chops, and they were tasty. Of course, we had more French fries. We also had some cabbage slaw that John described as the best he had ever tasted. I was afraid to eat any of the slaw, as I had seen Jose prepare it that afternoon. We had a small white-topped table that was used for everything. We made coffee on it, ate from it, stored plates and cups and anything else that came in handy. It was the only table we had! Jose had removed things off the table, and wiped the table off with the large machete he used to chop wood, clean fish, had been wielded by Cheche during the night when we thought someone was trying to steal the boats.
He then used the big knife to chop up the cabbage and onions that were to go into the slaw. He used a plastic grater to grate some carrots that he then mixed along with a large quantity of mayonnaise into the slaw. John raved about it so much I did take a small taste. It was very good! I wished I had not seen it being made. I was particularly impressed by the fact as Jose chopped; he would intermittently scratch his leg with the big knife. Well, so much for being worried about catching something. No one who ate the slaw was any the worse for it the next day. I had been the loser!
After supper, there was some more talk along with the rum and Chinoto. I felt more rested that night because of my half day off and mid afternoon nap. I stayed up a short while and listened to the talk. It was mostly Kenneth and Rusty-telling police ' 'war' ' stories. I did not find it very interesting, and soon was off to my hammock. I was a little wiser and had asked for some direction about how to best use my blanket. John had suggested stretching it out along side me until needed in the night. That worked better. I also put it completely under me, and slept much warmer through those early morning hours. It probably did not get many coolers than 70, but I guess the wind blowing completely around you was responsible for the chilly sleeping conditions. There were no disturbances that night, and I slept well.
The next morning the routine was much the same. The coffee tasted good and was hot. We had eggs again, and some of the pork chops left over from the night before. We took off again, this time John headed straight across the lake without any hesitation. He took us back to a place where he and Rusty had caught some fish the evening before. We fished hard that morning, and caught four or five fish, none of any size. About noon, we stopped on the bank and built a fire and cooked our fish. I had seen a nature film some time in the past about how the Aborigines cooked their game. They would build a fire and throw what ever they had on the coals without cleaning or any thing else. I had always wanted to try it, and I had my chance. I built a fine fire and let the wood burn down to some good coals. The driftwood we used burned very quickly, as it was powder dry. John and Rusty made fillets of the fish they caught, and cooked them in a more conventional way. John left the skin on his fillets, and Rusty took his off. We each had our own theory as how to do it best. I have to admit it was pretty gross looking at the whole fish bubbling on the fire. I turned it over a couple of times, but it became quite charred on the outside, and was difficult to turn without breaking the surface.
After allowing the time I though it would take, I took it off the fire. I used a large flat rock for a plate and used my knife to peel back the burned exterior. The meat was done, but had very little flavor. Some of it was not cooked well, except the tail portion. I am not much of a fish eater anyway, but this was the pits! Rusty had trouble getting his fish out of the fire, as it fell apart. The fish John had cooked with the skin left on worked out best. John put a big slab on a piece of bread, covered the whole thing with mustard, and chowed down. He said it was good and he ate it all. I took his word for it, as I had lost my appetite. I drank another Polar, and was ready to start fishing again. We made sure our fires were out, and took off. We fished several areas that looked good, but did not catch anything. John beached the boat at a likely looking spot and we got out. After crossing a small bar, we came to the other side and found a good-sized bay where there was a lot of structure close to the bank and the water was very shallow. It was the middle of the day, and I would not have thought the area would be productive, but it was the best of our fishing in Lake Drury. We caught ten or twelve fish in about an hour. The largest I caught was a grinnell that weight about eight pounds, and it was in no more than a foot of waters about two feet from shore! The rest of the afternoon was a drag. We tried everything, but nothing seemed to work. After what seemed like forever, Johnny finally decided to go back to camp. It was nearly dark by the time we got home, and we cleared our gear out of the boats completely this time. The last day of the fishing trip is always sad. I wish it had been a gangbuster day to catch, but it had not been.
Supper that night was finally fish. They simply took the big knife and cut the fish up into chunks and fried them. It was not very attractive, but it tasted good. There were more French fries again! The last night in camp was livelier. We all talked, took pictures and had a good time. The shower felt particularly good that evening. It had been hot all day, and it was only after the shower that I felt half way cool. It was a little more trouble showering after dark. Someone had laid a board down on the sand to stand on. It was a balancing act during the day, and truly was one at night. I nearly fell off several times, and dropped the soap more than once. I dug out some fresh clothes and felt almost civilized until I took a look in the mirror.
The next morning we broke camp soon after breakfast, loaded up the boats and our gear and headed back to Cuidad Bolivar. There were several checkpoints again as we left. They checked our drivers this time, but did not ask for our passports or other papers as they had done before. We got back to Cuidad Bolivar about 11:00 AM and learned we could get on a 1:00 PM flight. Our reservation had been for the flight that left at 7:00 PM, and I was dreading having to sit in the airport all day. We had time for some lunch in the airport cafe and then only a short waits for the plane. There were no reserved seats, and there was a rush for the plane. Everyone got a seat, so there was no problem. This time we landed at the national side of the airport, and it was much easier on arrival. We did not have the crowd of men trying to help us with our luggage. We bought tickets this time for our cab fare and went back to our hotel.
We were a little wiser this time in asking for our sleeping arrangement. We specified a double room with two regular beds and one cot. It was not a suite this time, but comfortable. We got to our rooms and immediately began to clean up. There was only one bathroom, but the sink was separate. We each showered and shaved. It took some doing to shave off a week’s growth of beard using a disposable razor, but I finally got it done. I looked and felt much better. After we cleaned up, we went out to look around some. We had been in Caracas only a few hours on the trip down and 'did not have a chance to see many sights. The hotel was very nice and reminded me much of a Miami Beach hotel. There was a lovely pool at the back between the hotel and the ocean. We sat by the pool and drank another Polar. By this time, I had learned to like the stuff! We entered into a conversation with a man from Canada. There were several Canadians there. Most were middle-aged businessmen. It surely was not the jet set!
The beach area behind the hotel was scenic. There were some big rocks, but plenty of sand. I still remember how disappointed I had been in seeing the Rivera where the only sand had been hauled in by the various hotels. There was natural sand in this area. I had wanted to walk up the beach, but each property was separated by a large concrete wall preventing walking very far. We went back through the hotel and up the street a short way to the next hotel, a larger and nicer one. There was a shopping mall, several eating places and a large open bar down stairs. We went to the bar and had another Polar! We looked around in the shops. I bought a T-shirt as a souvenir and also to have a clean shirt. My efforts at doing my laundry left something to be desired. Jane had sent me with little packages of soap in plastic sacks. I had done my laundry in Lake Drury water. I took a large plastic bag I was using as my dirty clothes bag and scooped up some water. The water was murky, and it was difficult to fill the bag without getting sediment from the bottom. The clothes came out wet, but I was not sure how clean. I also had a hard time getting the soap rinsed out, as the water was very soft. All the clothes I had washed were a dingy blue color, especially my white shorts. The new T-shirt felt good. I bought some neat costume earrings for Jane.
We talked about going into Caracas, but decided against it. John and Rusty had done so on their previous trip, and found it to be more slums. It was a long taxi ride, and none of us was very interested. We were getting hungry by this time, and caught a cab back to Quince Letres for another dinner. It was another tasty meal of fresh fish of some sort, more Polar and arepas. We got a good night's sleep on a real bed. Rusty volunteered to sleep on the cot this time. He tried the cot, but was more comfortable with the mattress on the floor. The only place to put it was at the foot of the bed and it was very tight. That would prove to be somewhat hazardous to Rusty's health later. We awoke the next morning refreshed. I showered and shaved again, and this time got an adequate shave. We went over to the adjacent hotel to the ground floor bar where they served a buffet breakfast. There was a wide variety of fruit, cereal, meat, eggs, bread and it was very enjoyable. The variety was especially good, as I was tired of eating the same thing over and over. After breakfast we did some more browsing in the shops. We saw in one window some very skimpy bathing suits. We joked about them about how very little they covered up. The top part was just a little larger than a woman's nipple. The bottom part was enough to cover any hair, but no more. The backside was completely exposed except for a string I know there was no way Jane would wear such, and gave it no more thought. We learned later that Rusty went back that afternoon and bought one for Nancy.
John wanted to go back to Quince Letres for lunch. Rusty had other plans, so we went back to our separate ways. John and I caught a cab and had another seafood lunch and a long talk. The restaurant was very pleasant, and during the daylight we watched ships and small fishing boats from where we sat. After lunch, we returned to our hotel room and sat out on our balcony and read and talked most of the afternoon. Rusty showed up and put on his bathing suit and headed for the beach. I had brought my suit, but I am not a beach person. I was already sunburned from the fishing trip, and I didn't want to add more insult to my present injuries. The afternoon passed very quickly. I tried to take a nap, but was not sleepy. Toward evening we arranged to meet Ron and Ken and we had supper in our hotel. I ate from the menu what was described as the ' ^typical' ‘ Venezuelan meal. It was shredded beef that was very tasty, black beans and rice. It tasted good, but the beans had their usual effect, much to Rusty's chagrin. I mentioned that Rusty had placed his mattress on the floor at the end of the bed. He complained loudly the next day about the result of my Venezuelan meal. He said he expected to see the sheets to be blown off the bed on top of him at any time!
During supper, Ron mentioned he and Ken had stopped at the Viasa office in the adjacent hotel and reconfirmed their return reservations. We had seen the office, but no thought was given to the necessity of reconfirming. We got back to our room and looked at our tickets to find a statement that reconfirmation was necessary on international flights.
By this time. Rusty had decided to call Nancy and see if she could come to Caracas for the weekend. He tried to call her at work, to learn that she had gone to the doctor with a problem with her eye. Rusty recalled she had gotten something her eye before he left. He finally reached Nancy at home later. She called the travel agent to make reservations, and the agent told her the computer had no reservation for any of us for the return trip. By this time, I had panicked. I was not looking forward to spending any more time in Caracas. We got Ron to come to our room and make a phone call to the local airport. He had trouble with the language barrier, but finally got someone who spoke English. There did not seem to be any problem from their perspective. It proved to be a false alarm, as the next morning we checked in at the airport without any problem.
We got up early again, as our plane was to leave at 8:00 AM. We got to the airport by 6:00 AM and checked in. We had to go through customs, which was no problem, when we figured out how to fill out the papers. We found a place to get some coffee and had several cups. We did not get a chance to have breakfast that morning, as we had left too early. We left Rusty behind not knowing if he had a room or not.