Walking on Water by Steve Dominey
Trip Start Feb 22, 2007
27Trip End Aug 22, 2007
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Needless to say, when we arrived in Merida, witnessing the Catatumbo lightning was at the top of our to-do list.
However, we were running out of American currency to trade on the black market and once we did, we`d have to take money out of bank machines at a rate of 2,100 bolivares for every dollar, compared with 3,600 bolivares for each dollar on the black market. So, we had to go cheap.
We turned down a pricier trip from Arassari Trekking, where we´d visit the stilted village of El Congo, apparently the best spot to witness the lightning. Arassari´s tour sounder better, but so what, we saved 260,000 bolivares ($72 US black market).
Besides, while in Peru, we already saw a tribe that lives on a lake. They used buoyant plants to construct these floating islands that they perched their houses on top of. Sounds pretty cool, and it was, but the whole excursion just seemed like an excuse to sell us handicrafts. Way too touristy. So, this time we`ll stick to seeing the lightning, thanks.
The jeep ride from Merida to Lake Maracaibo is a long, all day process, but something we know we won´t have to do again and something we know will be completely worth it once it gets dark.
To pass the time, I decide to pry some information out of our tour guide Ingrid.
¨Does it look like a good day to see lightning?¨
¨Yes, I think so.¨
¨Will those clouds be a problem?¨
The whole day`s like this. I try to get information from Ingrid, but with every question, I get rebuffed, redirected or rewarded with a useless answer. I have to find out if we´re seeing lightning. It`s the only reason we even went on this excursion, which the agency also dressed up with the promise of birds, monkeys and crocodiles.
Me: ¨How many of these trips have you done?¨
Ingrid: ¨To Catatumbo, maybe four or five.¨
Me: ¨And how often do you see the lightning?¨
Ingrid: ¨Maybe 50% of the time.¨
Okay, now I´m worried. Why is no one else worried by this stat? Sara`s putting on an optimistic front to counteract my usual pessimism, but the others on the tour (a Danish girl and two German lesbians) don´t seem bothered in the least.
After the jeep ride that just won´t end, finally does just that, we all hop in a boat. Our driver, Omar, takes us to his stilted house on the lake. It`s in a neighbourhood of about seven or eight such houses, but this is clearly not a village. Omar doesn´t even live in his, he just makes money taking tourists here.
And for a stilted house, a place that´s literally on stilts in the middle of the lake, it`s quite nice. We`ve definitely stayed in worse places over the past 6 months. It has a clean bathroom, tiled floors and Sara`s favourite, hammocks to sleep in. Not that we´ll be doing much sleeping, we have a date with lightning. We just have to wait for nightfall.
Me: ¨Wait a minute, is that a full moon?¨
Me: ¨Won´t that be a problem, it not being that dark and all?¨
C´mon, a full moon. It only happens one day a month and we´re unlucky enough for it to be tonight. Again though, I appear to be the only person sweating it. Besides, Omar and Ingrid tell me the lightning doesn´t usually occur until the middle of the night (2am) and they´d wake everyone up if it did.
So, we´d have to play the waiting game. But the waiting doesn´t last long. Around 11pm, while playing cards with the others, Omar informs us that the lightning has started.
Sara and I immediately run outside to observe this once in a lifetime experience.
Sara: ¨Is that it?¨
Me: ¨I think so.¨
Sara: ¨Where is everyone anyway?¨
They're finishing their card game. Are you shitting me, no wonder they weren´t concerned about the lightning earlier, they´d rather play crazy eights. And the worst part is, they aren´t missing anything. The lightning is sporadic at best, doesn`t illuminate the sky and seems miles away, hidden behind clouds.
Finally, Ingrid comes out to join us.
¨Is this it?¨ I ask.
¨Is it usually better than this?¨
Arghh. I just want to know if we should feel unlucky because there´s a full moon, it´s cloudy and the lightning is underwhelming, or lucky because at least we´re seeing a phenomenon that occurs nowhere else on earth.
Let´s try this again:
¨How would you rank this on a scale of 1 to 10?¨
¨A five, hey?¨
¨Some people don´t even get to see it.¨
¨Did you hear that Sara, 50% of people don`t even get to see it. This happens nowhere else on earth!¨
And sure enough, instead of being disappointed, we actually start cheering on the lightning like a pair of sad lightning groupies, sitting alone on the deck while the others continue to play cards.
And in the absence of thick cartoon-like lightning bolts, our expectations get lower, leading us to say things along the lines of: ¨That one lit up the clouds really well,¨ or ¨That`s been the third flash in the last 10 minutes, awesome!!¨
While continuing to gaze hopefully at the sky, we`re startled by a splash behind us.
¨Someone went to the bathroom,¨ I reply.
¨No, it wouldn`t just go in the water.¨
¨We`re in the middle of the lake in a stilted house, where do you think it goes?¨
¨Why go through the charade of having a bathroom and toilet then, why not just a hole?¨
(We hear the same splash. Sara shakes her head, feeling deceived).
Ingrid again joins us on the deck and in a rare moment of honesty for a tour guide on an inferior tour, tells us the lightning´s better at the village of El Congo. Knowing we blew this one, Sara and I nod our heads in understanding. However, unaware of our blunder, Ingrid continues to rub the mistake in our faces.
She starts describing El Congo, making it sound almost magical.
In the middle of a lake, three hours by boat to the closest town, a community of 2,500 people live on stilts, some spending their entire lives there, never once seeing the rest of Venezuela, not even putting a foot on solid earth.
And by the way Ingrid describes it, they don´t need to. These people have a church, a plaza, shops and even a school.
Me: ¨A school? What does this school teach?
Ingrid: ¨I don´t know, like a normal school?¨
Sara: ¨Geography? This is a lake, we are here, Venezuela is 3 hours that way, subject finished.¨
Me: ¨History? This village was built many, many years ago. In 1996, Luis caught a big fish in over there, subject finished.¨
Intrigued, I beg Ingrid to tell me more.
¨Well, they have cows there.¨
¨Cows!!! On stilts?¨
¨Yeah, I even bought some cheese.¨
¨How was it?¨
¨It was good, they do it nice there.¨
What? Now I`m completely blown away. Not only do these people have cows pasteurizing in the backyards of their stilted houses, but they're making nice cheese? How do they do anything nice there, they´re on stilts for Christ´s sake.
And what are these cows thinking, exactly? Years go by, they´re eating grass by the mountains and suddenly, bam, they`re surrounded by water on some kind of farm animal Alcatraz.
Noticing that we´re bummed out about not being able to see the village, Ingrid tries to cheer us up, telling us that our tour´s much better than the last one she did.
Apparently, nobody in the group could sleep because the guy in the stilted house next door was playing loud music all night. Unbelievable. Imagine, moving to a middle of a peaceful lake, only to have some asshole move next door and host jamming parties all night. You´re left shaking your fist at him from across the lake, ¨I said turn that music down goddammit!¨
Then, I notice another problem with lake life.
Me: ¨Who built their house first,¨ pointing at the place directly in front of us, obscuring some of the lightning, ¨Omar or that guy?¨
Ingrid: (just laughs)
But I want an answer.
While Sara and I were in the Bolivian jungle, our guide woke us up early to take us to the perfect spot to watch the sunrise. A group of us, just parked on the water, enjoying nature as we waited. It was peaceful, monkeys and birds stirred in the trees, our cameras were primed for amazing photos, when out of nowhere, another group´s boat entered the picture.
We were all watching it, wondering just what their driver was doing exactly, getting closer and closer until finally, he pulled his boat directly in front of ours, completely blocking our sunrise. I mean, we could practically reach out and touch the other boat. And it wasn´t like the lake was small, he could´ve parked anywhere.
Our guide just shook his head, muttering ¨estupido,¨ before calmly moving our boat back, then pulling it right in front of theirs. It was hilarious. I kept waiting for the other driver to do it right back, I mean, it could´ve went on forever, or at least until the sun rose I guess.
Anyway, that´s what the stilted house in front of Omar´s reminded me of. Say you`re Omar, your great-great-great grandfather built a house with prime lightning viewing location and then someone rolls into the neighbourhood and builds their house right in front of yours. You`re looking on, powerless, as this stilted house mansion is being erected right in front of you.
"Hey Omar, I´m thinking about putting in a second garage," or "Yo, Omar, do you think these stilts will support a third floor?"
After chatting a bit longer, we eventually give up, retiring to our hammocks for the night. But we were both pretty silent the next day. Sara craved the lightning bolts we saw pictured at the tour agency and I couldn´t stop thinking about El Congo.
Do they have a mayor, police officers, how about a local coffee shop where everyone gossips about who banged who last night. Leaf Rapids had one of those.
¨I have to see this village,¨ I told Sara. ¨I haven´t even been there and I have enough material write a book!¨
Sara: ¨I´m sure it´s not as glamourous as it sounds.¨
Me: ¨You know, I could move there for a year, immerse myself in their lives and voila, my first novel, Walking on Water by Steve Dominey.¨
Sara: ¨You´re not moving there, don´t be ridiculous.¨
Me: ¨It´s a catchy title though, you gotta admit.¨
So, after another long jeep ride back to Merida, Sara and I do what days ago would´ve seemed unfathomable. We go to a Venezuelan bank machine, take out 1,000,000 bolivares -- at a rate of 2100 bolivares to $1 US, that´s almost $500, with black market cash, it wouldn´t even be $300 -- and book the more expensive Arassari Catatumbo lightning tour, the one we were to cheap to pay for the first time. It costs the two of of us 800,000 bolivares (Arassari gave us a deal out of pity), not to mention the 640,000 bolivares we paid for the first tour and another whole day in a friggin´ jeep. I know, ouch.
Midway through the long van ride (we upgraded from a jeep), we stop for lunch. And as Cesar takes our orders, I wonder where else on earth would a respected frog expert and environmental conservationist be taking my lunch order.
¨Hey frog boy, I wanted a Coke, not a Pepsi, hop back there and get it right this time!¨
The situation´s absurd, but then again, we´re on our way to a stilted village.
On this trip, we´re accompanied by six other tourists, two of which can´t get it through their head that the lightning they´re hoping to see doesn´t actually touch the ground. These Scots are also having a hard time figuring out why Sara and I are doing the tour for a second time. I begin to wonder the same until Cesar tells us a little history on the village.
Apparently, Christopher Columbus sailed by it on his way to mistakingly discovering America in 1492. After seeing the natives living on water, he called it ¨Little Venice,¨ a title that eventually became the name of the country of Venezuela.
When laying eyes on Little Venice for the first time, I feel overwhelmed, almost overjoyed . Sara and I are in a separate boat from the rest of our group, so we ask our driver for an advanced screening of the town.
There are pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and just like the rest of Venezuela, ¨Vote for Chavez¨ signs spray painted all over town.
Kids are even playing soccer on a stilted field. When they notice us, they start yelling out for candy. While we stupidly forgot to bring treats, we have a bag of Chips´Ahoy cookies on us. I hold the bag up, saying (in spanish) to the large pack of kids, ¨This is for everyone, you must share.¨
When we return to camp, the others are gone, apparently jealous of our impromptu tour. Still feeling the rush from the cookie-thing, I think it`ll be fun to join some other kids for a swim in the town. But, the water has to be dirty right?
No? Our boat driver informs us that it´s not dirty, it´s actually really clean. He even puts a glass beer bottle in the lake, filling it with crystal clear water as proof.
Convinced, I hop in, racing kids from stilted house to stilted house. Witnessing what a great time I´m having, Sara decides to join me. She changes into her bathing suit and is about to take the plunge when Cesar and the rest of our group pull up in their boat.
¨Don´t get in that water!!!¨ Cesar yells.
Then he notices me, joyously popping out from under the surface.
¨Ughh, that water´s disgusting, I wouldn´t be in it if I were you. Get out right now!¨
I´m still not sure if our driver thought the water was clean or if he was just screwing with me, but from the reactions of others at the cabin, I can only assume I´m lucky to be alive.
One group member informs me that Cesar just finished telling them that the last guide got a rash from swimming in the water, right before they all pulled up and saw me bathing in it.
And one of the workers at our cabin asked me three different times if I had taken a shower yet.
Needless to say, I scrubbed vigourously. I haven´t spent that much time in the shower since I was 12, if you know what I mean. And if you´re curious, the water I showered with came from a well they drilled in the ground. Although, that would be pretty funny if they were still just screwing with me.
So, while these people don´t touch ground for their entire lives, they´re actually buried in it when they die. I think we just broke the irony scale.
Curious about the smell, I ask the conservationist where the villagers put their garbage. ¨I don´t want to think about it,¨ he snaps, ¨it´s just going to make me angry.¨
But instead of getting angry, Cesar transforms himself into Doc Frog. Sitting on the front of the boat, he cups his hands over his ears and asks for silence. What he hears is much different from what the rest of us hear.
For instance, Sara and I overhear the Scottish couple.
Scottish guy: ¨Do you think the area around here is just full of giant holes from the lightning?¨
Sara: ¨The lightning doesn´t actually touch the ground, remember?¨
Scottish girl: ¨Well, you´d think they could build something in the sky to catch the lightning´s heat and you know, transform it into electricity.¨
Catch the heat? What? Where am I?
He tells the driver right, then left, over here, over there, covering a huge piece of real estate until finally honing in on his frog. Jumping off the bow of the boat into the weedy water, he grabs his next frog before climbing back aboard soaking wet.
This guy´s crazy. I wonder what I´ll get him to order me for lunch tomorrow?
While returning from the frog hunt, I see something I´m surprised I didn´t notice sooner.
Me: ¨Is that a full moon? What the (beep). I swear it was full 2 days ago.¨
Cesar: ¨Ooh, that´s not good.¨
After again seeing some piss-poor lightning, Sara and I head to bed, or in this case, our hammocks. Tossing and turning while thinking about just how unfair life is, I see a bright flash in the sky. Then another. There´s hope.
I go out to the deck and soon, we´re all out there, except an Austrian couple, who like the people in my last group, just don´t give a rat`s ass.
But there is thunder (although not in unison with the lightning) and rain, so does what we`re witnessing even count?
My conclusion: I don´t give a damn, it`s cool and more than worth returning for.
The scottish couple´s conclusion:
Girl: ¨Because it´s stormy, does that mean the lightning could hit us now?¨
Guy: ¨Yeah, I wouldn´t want to be holding a golf club out here.¨
Well, the lightning was mostly worth coming back for and I did sleep well that night. Oh, wait a minute, no I didn´t.
Did I mention they have electricity in El Congo? Apparently, an abundance of it. Everyone left their porch lights on all night. The place was glowing. And if that wasn´t hard enough to sleep through, as soon as daylight arrived, the roosters started crowing. I´m not kidding. It was like living on a farm.
Except for the cows. The only cows we saw were on nearby land, none were actually spotted on stilts. So much for my debut book Walking on Water, but you gotta admit, it´s a catchy title.
I was almost taken in by the clear water in the beer bottle. I thought, being a village, maybe El Congo had a more sophisticated system to deal with their waste than flushing their crap straight into the water. I was wrong. While I was a mere seconds from getting in, at least I didn't actually swim in the crap.
While unlucky Steve was in the shower, I gave the kids our typical Canada stickers and pins. Five minutes later, they were back asking for more, saying things like "I dropped them as I was swimming" and "I have a friend in that stilted house over there". So, I gave them more. When they came back the third time, I said no and asked to take a photo of them with their Canadian pins. They were enthralled with the digital camera (you would be too, if you lived in a village on the water in the middle of nowhere). They asked that I take individual photos of them. Here are the results.