Trip to Merida and Barinas, Venezuela

This trip was an epic adventure...I flew into Caracas on July 2nd for a quick weekend in Venezuela. The first thing that I was lucky to find out was that there are two airports in Caracas - the International and the National. (Actually, the airports are about 40 min. from the city...but I digress). I just happened to make the acquaintance of a person on the plane who was meeting a Venezuelan at the airpor. They helped me get to the other airport, get a "reservation" to Merida, and generally gave me an overview of how the airlines worked there. Unfortunately, they do not work with the same system in the States.

The system in most Central and South American countries works as follows: First you make a reservation in the reservation line (or by calling), then you wait in a line to pay for your ticket if you get a seat, then you stand in another line to check in.  NOT very efficient. My problem was that I had no reservation - no ticket. Thus I was on a waiting list at three different airlines. After waiting several hours (I had to wait until after the people had reservations picked up their tickets), I was approached by a man who asked me if I was on the waiting list. I said "Yes" and he said, "No problem..my friend and I can get you on a flight!" (In Spanish, of course.)

The problem really ended up being these two guys. At first, being the naive person that I was, I thought that they were just being nice. After they helped me obtain a seat on a flight, one of them ran to the other line with my luggage to check my bag (recall the other line?). At that moment I panicked...was he going to check an extra bag of drugs or some other illegal package? So I ran after him and saw him check my bag...and only my bag.  It didn't take long after that, though, to find out what the scam was about.

As we were walking towards the entrance to the gates one of the guys said that he had to pay an "import tax" for me. I said,"Oh?!?" He replied,"Yes, a hundred dollars U.S." At that moment I was a little panicked as he was holding my ticket. So I asked to see the ticket, he gave it to me and then said that we need to walk to the end of the terminal. At that point I looked for a security guy (they're never around when you need them) and told him that the entrance to the gates was right here. After trying to guilt me into giving him $100, I ended up giving him $10 (6000 Bs), turned around and went right through security...and was terribly relieved!

Getting on the plane was easy enough...the interesting thing about it was that the plane was a decrepit ex-Soviet plane. I was a little worried that it might not make it off the ground! Fourtunately there was no problem. The mountains were beautiful. When I arrived in Merida, it was a bit chilly. I took a bus (more like an old hotel tram - it only cost 16 cents!) from the airport to the street where the river rafting company was. I arrived just in time to listen to the briefing and meet my fellow rafters: 2 Brits, 3 Germans, 1 Israeli, and 1 Kiwi (our guide Wuz). It was a bit funny in that the only rafters who spoke any Spanish were myself and one of the Germans. (Our guide, despite his having roughed it through Columbia and Venezuela, knew almost no Spanish).

That night I had dinner with the two Brits, Joe and Jenny, and was able to find a posada (guesthouse) for 6000 Bs ($10). There was no hot water, but the bed was comfortable. The next morning at 6 am we met. There was a beautiful view of the valley with wispy clouds floating silently in the morning light. It was amazing. A few hours later, after driving through some very windy mountain roads, we stopped for a quick breakfast which consisted of "cafe grande" - a South American expresso that would put hair on your chest - and a pastry made of wheat with a center of "queso de mano" or hand-made cheese. The cheese was much like a mozzarella and very tasty.

After a few more hours of driving we finally made it to Barinas. It had been raining most of the late morning, but we were undaunted. I would have liked to biked from Barinas to the farmhouse where we were going to be staying, but the rain was a bit much. Instead, we got to the road leading up the hill to the farmhouse and got to do some serious mountain biking. I was caked with mud by the end of it, but I was also exhilarated. (This farmhouse was primitive - it barely had running water, the "kitchen" was outside, and there were pigs, chickens, and a monkey running loose). By then it was about 2:30pm and we needed to get to the head waters for our first day of rafting. We ended up horseback riding and were able to experience river rafting, kayaking, and tubing down rapids. (The tubing was by far the scariest of the three as you have no control!).
It was amazing...while I was tubing it started to rain lightly through the mists. The scene was better than I could have imagined! That night we ate and drank (did I mention that a beer in the airport was 83 cents?) and had a wonderful time swapping jokes and anecdotes from around the world. It was interesting to find out what was funny in one language or culture wasn't all that funny in another! At one point the power went out and it was VERY dark. Thank goodness someone had the sense to bring a flashlight and candles.

That night we slept outside in hammocks on a covered porch. It was COLD! But then, what would you expect when you're sleeping in the Andes? After a fairly sleepless night, we awoke to a rooster...only the rooster was crowing well before the sun was up! (I could have killed it!) After a hearty breakfast, we left for the headwaters for the second rafting trip. We had to hike the raft down a very steep (and muddy) canyon. And then we were off!

The rapids were class 3 and 4, so we had a marvelous time. It was when took a break that the accident occurred.  We had stopped for some granola and chocolate when our guide tied the raft to a 15m dead tree sitting atop the small cliff that we were under. It was a neat spot where you could swim or climb the rocks. It was just fate that I was the only one left in the raft when the tree fell. It hit the back of my head and pinned me into the raft. When the guys got the tree off of me, I thought for a split second that I was fine. My leg hurt, but I didn't see any blood, so I thought I was okay. But then I saw my ankle and, to be concise, it was facing an unnatural direction.

It was then that I went into shock. My companions fashioned a splint for me out of a life jacket and a tree limb - I'm not sure if it did any good, but what else could they do? Unfortunately we weren't at a spot where we could get out, so we had to go down two more rapids (Very painful!). There was a truck that was supposed to be there for us, but it had gone ahead. So the guide and one of the rafters found a local who had a hammock. They hooked it on one of the bamboo poles that we had and hauled me out of the canyon. It was very much like a scene in the movies.

After the grueling trek, we waited for someone to come by. We weren't very hopeful as this was the mountains and, well, the road is a bit rocky. About 20 minutes later a truck came by and our guide tried to stop them by yelling,"Pale! Emergencia!", but they just stared and drove on. Luck was on our side, though, when another truck came by a few minutes later. All told, it was about four hours before I got to a doctor. He gave me lots of morphine (which didn't help until he gave me enough to pass out for 5 minutes) and straightened out my foot as seen here (Warning, this is for the brave of heart!) Needless to say, my ankle was dislocated and my leg broken in two places. For the x-ray of my plate and screws, click here.

From there I was put on another truck and taken to a hospital.  By the time we got there, it was 12 hours from the time of the accident. For the first six of those, I experienced the WORST pain I have ever felt...it was very similar to the worst part of being induced for childbirth...only then I could yell for the anesthesia!

Through all of this, Joe and Jenny were great. They stayed by my side, held my hand, and gave me comfort. I was very lucky to have met them. Wuz was also wonderful. I know he felt very bady about the accident. (As a side note, Joe and Jenny, after getting to bed around 2am, were awakened at 4am as their posada caught fire. I can only hope the rest of their time in Venezuela was better!) The next day I flew back to the States. Needless to say, it was the most interesting 4th of July I've ever had! And, although I did have a very bad accident, I was very lucky to have such wonderful people around me. I can't wait to go back again!