Monday, December 18, 2000. 7 a.m. Sitting at a table in the Ciudad Bolivar airport.

Here I wait. The people I met here yesterday said I should meet my Angel Falls guide, Guillermo, at 7. Of course, these were the same people who told me the town would be dead on a Sunday afternoon. It wasn't -- nor was it totally open, but the warm breeze and brightly-colored birds, not to mention lots of families out for a walk, made it a pleasant place. I look forward to more time in Ciudad Bolivar after the Angel Falls tour. The hotel bed was lumpy, but the price was good and the whole scene felt safer than Caracas.

I sat down at the bar here in the airport -- the only sign of life at this hour -- and ordered a juego de naranja. Right choice. The server pulled out a juicer and squeezed several chilled, fresh oranges into a pail, then poured that into a tall glass. Delicious. I asked him about Guillermo. He works over there; he pointed toward the tour offices. Should be here in half an hour. I'm a little leery about this tour. There are separate tour companies with separate offices, but all seem to sell basically the same three-day Angel Falls trips. It's unclear exactly what the trip includes, other than "all transportation," meals and a place to sleep for two nights.

Monday, December 18, 2000. 10:30 a.m. On a lawn chair, under a straw umbrella, looking out at the waterfalls in Canaima Lagoon, Canaima.

I never found Guillermo. At about 8:30, some people from another tour company informed me that the plane to Canaima was leaving soon. I told them I had reservations with Guillermo's company. They got him on the phone. He said he'd be there in 10 minutes, but I should go ahead and do what this company said. They sold me their trip for $220, and I got on the plane.

At the airport, I met two tourists from London, Andrew and Susan. Nice folks. We sat in the front three seats of the plane. It was a 15-passenger 2-engine plane with Russian cockpit gauges. The flight was about an hour and included a short loop into a canyon, where we saw Angel Falls. The waterfall is so high that it forms no pool at the bottom -- the trickle just dissipates into a mist, leaving the rocks at the bottom damp. I can't wait to see it from a better vantage point than through the window of a plane.

When we landed, we paid an 8,000 Bs. entry fee into Parque Nacional, Laguna de Canaima. An English-speaking guide named Ana welcomed Andrew, Susan and I -- the only English-speaking tourists on our plane. She suggested we visit the beach and return to the airstrip in about two hours for transport to the camp. I followed some signs that said "indigenous crafts" to a gift shop. Outside the shop were five or six pet monkeys, climbing around on trees. I was petrified as one of them approached me, but it would only come so close. Once I determined they were harmless, I was comfortable and enjoyed watching them.

I entered the craft shop and bought a straw hat (for the sun), two painted wooden fish (for my grandmothers) and a map of the park. Next, I walked over to the general store to get sunscreen, the only item, so far, that I forgot to pack from home. Price: 11,000 Bs., nearly as much as my bus ticket. (Since the Bolivar-to-dollar conversion rates are tricky to do in my head, I've been using a Wendy's hamburger as my benchmark. The Big Classic value meal was about 3,000 Bs. in Caracas). I was angry at the high cost of sunscreen, but I paid for it anyway. Either way, I was going to get burned.

Next, I walked to the beach, where I am now. Its relaxing to sit here in the shade. The geography here is amazing. On the plane ride here, we watched huge, flat mountains rise up out of a lake and river valley. Some of these mesetas are visible from this sandy beach, hazy in the distance. This beach abuts the Laguna de Canaima, off the Rio Carrao. One large, thundering waterfall is visible pouring into the lagoon, maybe 1 km away. Several men -- apparently guides -- are working with longboats here at the beach. These narrow, wooden boars have a gas-powered outboard motor and are apparently used for tours. In fact, this whole town, with thatched roofs and dirt roads, apparently exists only for tourists and sort of a park headquarters. The scenery is beautiful, the air is warm and its nice to feel more-or-less pampered.

Monday, December 18, 2000. 6:15 p.m. At the Tuina camp, on the Isla Orquieda, between Canaima and Angel Falls.

Lots of excitement today. I got to know Andrew and Susan better at lunch in Canaima -- chicken and coleslaw provided by the tour company. Perhaps the freshest chicken I've ever had... in the Canaima camp, some chickens ran free on the ground, others roasted on a spit over the fire. Andrew, Susan and I were also joined by a fourth English-speaker, Elmar, an Austrian man. I can't keep pace with Andrew and Elmar's discussions of soccer and European politics, but they seem to welcome me the rare American with some international interests. We all speak less kindly of the Californians, a group of 7-8 girls and one guy who are carrying huge bags and pooled their money to buy three bottles of rum in camp before we left. I introduced myself to them but they are a closed group, and wouldn't open up anymore than to say they were from California and they're all friends from school.

Our group is split up by boat. Ana is our leader; she's from Ciudad Bolivar. We have hopped in and out of four boat rides and three short hikes to reach this island. These boats are the long, green, gas-powered canoes. It's impossible to ride in them without getting wet. No matter. At one point on a hike, Ana invited us for a swim beneath a waterfall. The warm current washed us. The water is tea-colored from the tannin in the plants here. It feels great. The guides spaced the groups apart to make such excursions possible. Scenery was gorgeous from both the trails and the rivers. Egrets, eagles, vultures, with plateaus far off in the distance, and here, tall green Jurassic-looking jungle plants. Now we're all in camp, in an open pavilion filled with perhaps 100 hammocks. I'm still not sure who runs this camp, or this tour, but I'm happy to be here. It feels comfortable to be guided by knowledgeable locals and its fun to be thrown in with an international group.

Dinner is soon and light is fading. In the sky, only Venus shines now, but it looks like we're in for a spectacular night of stars.

Monday, December 18, 2000. 9 a.m. At the Tuina camp, on the Isla Orquieda, between Canaima and Angel Falls.

Dinner was pasta with beef. Good. The group from California drank their some of their rum in a game of Assassin and retired. Elmar went to wash up. Andrew, Susan and I sat at the table trying to name all 50 states and their capitols. Andrew, in a lighthearted way, keeps reminding me how little we Americans know about international matters. Earlier, I'd said to him that this was the first trip I'd been on that didn't involve filling out a huge battery of forms and a few hours of safety instruction. (All I know is that there are no anacondas here, but there are tarantulas.) We didn't even really know where we were going to end up tonight. Happily, all has gone well. Tomorrow, we ride in boats (and push them, apparently, since the water level is low) upstream to the base of Angel Falls.

The guides have built a campfire just outside the pavilion. One of them is trying to lead some Venezuelan campfire songs, but he seems to be the only one who knows the words. The rest just hum and mumble. It sounds soothing. Above, there is a different set of stars than what I'm used to.

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