Wednesday, December 20, 2000. 2 p.m. Canaima air strip.

We've been hanging around in Canaima all morning, after we were told our plane was to leave at 11. Now the target departure time is 3:30 p.m. There's no hurry, but it would have been better to know what to expect.

Last night featured another campfire next to our hammocks. This was a bother for the weary trying to sleep, but I found it pleasant. The guides played some traditional Venezuelan songs, as well as trying to abide the tipsy Californians' requests for American pop songs. Some common ground was reached in "Feliz Navidad." The musicians played a cuatro (a four-string guitar like a ukulele), a Horner accordion, a charrasca (a percussion instrument made from a hollowed-out fruit with ridges carved into it) and a small metal drum.

They played again this morning, as we were on the boats heading back downstream to Canaima. This time we were back on a larger boat, with more people. On the way, we saw a toucan fly over. Oddly enough, the guides passed around a roll of fruit Mentos for us to chew on while we rode and listened to music. Since the boat ride, we've been killing time in Canaima. Population includes about 2,500 native people. There are three different tribes. I think they include the Karina, Makuniama and Guajira. Not sure if that's accuate.

Susan and I visited the Majunaima gift shop, and I bought some more crafts as Christmas presents. I found a Guajira maraca for Gerritt, a toucan ornament for Dad and a ceramic frog (painted by the finest ceramics painter in Latin America, the shopkeeper informed me) for mom, among other items. I did some wandering through some of the village areas, along dirt roads and past straw houses. The self-sufficiency here amazes me. Some villagers work for the tour companies as river guides. Others make items to sell in gift shops. Many farm or fish. The entire town apparently gets more crowded with tourists in the summer, or wet season. Our company led 40 tourists to the falls yesterday. At peak, they'd lead 150. We asked Gustavo, one of the tourists from Caracas, if the natives earn money for leading the tours that they can put in a bank. It doesn't work that way, since most of them are not "registered" -- no birth certificates or other documentation.

Despite being the most remote place I've ever been, this town has some modern infrastructure as a result of the airstrip. Cell phones work here. The craft shops take Visa cards. A 2-year-old hydroelectric power plant has given the town its first constant power supply. There are two pay phones, but one is a pay cell phone. Not sure about the other.

Susan, Andrew and I went for a swim in the lagoon earlier today. The water is comfortable, but the current is strong. This makes it difficult to swim out to the sandy islands that appear when the water level is low. Some of the local children were playing ball in the sand. They'd evidently made it out to the islands earlier, judging from the sandcastles visible there.

Wednesday, December 20, 2000. 5 p.m. Hotel Union, Ciudad Bolivar.

Same hotel, different room. This one has a fan, but no AC. (Neither room had a phone or hot water.) The old woman at the hotel counter recognized me from Sunday night. "¿Tienes habitaciones?" I asked. "Para tú, siempre," she said. For you, always. This time, she lowered the price to 6,000 Bs. This gesture is made even more comforting after my encounter with Guillermo in the airport today. Remember Guillermo? By e-mail, he said he would be my tour guide for $280, but never showed up at the airport, and told me by phone to pay the other company. Incredibly, his assistant found me at the airport. He wanted $60 from me, since the other company had only charged $220 to lead the trip on his behalf. I ended up giving him $40. I made it clear I was pleased with the tour, but angry that he'd have the nerve to ask for more money. Guillermo did tell me that my tour was the last 3-day tour of the season to make it to Angel Falls. Tours that left yesterday and today wouldn't make it because the water level was too low to go by boat anymore. (There are other Angel Falls expeditions that run as eight-day treks on foot.) These two developments underscore a point for wintertime Angel Falls travelers: Do NOT make reservations in advance.

I'm meeting Susan and Andrew along the Paseo for dinner at 7:30. This town is much livelier tonight than it was Sunday. The streets are jammed with cars. My taxi on the way here had not a horn, but a siren. From my small hotel room, I can hear two different kinds of music blaring, people laughing in the streets, cars beeping and firecrackers. But how nice to have a bed and a whole room to spread out in!

Wednesday, December 20, 2000. 9 p.m. Hotel Union, Ciudad Bolivar.

Tonight, I enjoyed drinks and dinner with Andrew and Susan in Ciudad Bolivar. We had a few Polars, a cheap Venezuelan beer, under an open-air pavilion next to the Rio Orinoco, which was a bit too hot and with music a bit too loud, but otherwise quite nice. Dinner was at Tasca La Playa, a restaurant where we ordered seafood items at random and drank Bhrama, another beer. After a lively conversation about things British and American, we returned to our hotels. A delightful evening with good people.

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