by Randy Turner

I have lived a rather adventurous life, much of which I plan on recording someday in my memoirs. Just 2 years out of college, I formed my own technology company and did business all over the world. Every year I lived in a different location, first Venezuela, then the UK (Bristol and Aberdeen), then France, Germany, Brazil, and finally, a second stint in Venezuela. All together, I was out of the country for almost 8 years, finally moving back to the US in 1994.

During my 2nd stay in Venezuela, I was a "seasoned" world traveler, a la Indiana Jones, or so I thought. I felt I was ready for anything, and given the exchange rate of Venezuelan "bolivars" to the US dollar, I could afford to live the life most Venezuelans could only watch on re-runs of "Dynasty" or "Dallas".

I met, and began dating a girl whose father was British and whose mother was Venezuelan. Carolina spoke both English and Spanish fluently, and was more or less my companion during my 2nd tour of duty in Venezuela. One particular weekend, I was in a very restless mood, and suggested that we take up an adventure. I had heard about a very primitive indian tribe that lived way down the Orinoco river in a "almost" uncharted portion of the jungle, near the border with Columbia. The Indians I had heard about were the real thing - very little exposure to civilization and even less exposure to fashion. Their only contact with the outside had been excursions by adventurous individuals (like myself) who occasionally stopped at their village along a more remote part of the river. All in all, they were supposed to be real "National Geographic" type stuff. At least that was the story I was told by my adventure contact.

Carolina reluctantly agreed to accompany me on my quest and we penciled in the following weekend for the pursuit. Looking back now, I realize that, as confident an adventurer as I thought I was, I was crashing through hitherto unknown boundaries of naive'te with this latest trek. We purchased day-tripper backpacks, maps, a compass, and plenty of water. It was all very spontaneous. In other words, poorly planned. Besides the formal maps we had acquired, I had a "rough sketch" of how to get to the indian village that was provided by my adventure contact Jaime, the concierge at the Hotel InterContinental.

We drove my rental Toyota Landcruiser to the river, where we picked up a tourist cruise that would drop us at a point just a few miles hike from the Indian village. The drop-off point was an isolated, rickety peer jutting out from the bank. The last tour boat left this stop heading back home at 6 PM, which was plenty of time to accomplish the mission.

What was not immediately apparent from the boat, was that the river bank was not really a "bank", but instead, an area of dense swamp, followed by the "real" bank of the river. So we had to trek through a bit of bog and head away from the river for awhile to make it to decent hiking territory. That was the first, in what would be a series of surprises. The first inkling I had that the trip plans might have needed a bit of "tweaking" was the fact that the mosquitos there were as big as my dog, but didn't seem to exhibit the same level of obedience to my commands. On top of that inconvenience, we didn't have any insect repellent. Also, the Orinoco river, and its' tributaries are home to such indigenous creatures as Piranha, and the Anaconda. Anacondas are not like alligators in that you typically don't "happen" upon one when you're hiking. Instead, they like to hang out in trees. Occasionally, when you're walking in remote sections of this region, you can sometimes hear tree branches cracking in series. The bigger Anacondas don't seem to be able to get out of a tree as easily as they slither up the tree. So they kinda start down the tree okay, but they're so long, their rear end basically falls out of the tree behind them; catching branches on the way down. Luckily for me and especially my traveling companion, we didn't have any run-ins with any Anacondas on this trip.

About an hour into the hike, we reached a well-traveled road that we hoped would take us the remainder of the distance to the indian village. After only a few minutes, the road narrowed to a trail about 2 feet wide. I kept asking Carolina who would have cut this path to begin with. It was obviously well traveled, but the Indian village was supposed to be isolated, with little or no outside visitors. It didn't really matter who made the path, it was just very convenient to have a path to walk along after the bog.

After a couple of hours, we stopped at what looked like a clearing where we could sit a minute and knock back some Agua. It was at this rest stop, that I realized we were not alone on the trail. In all directions, a gaggle of squirrel monkeys were closing a circle around us. Apparently, they were interested in the snacks we had in our packs. A squirrel monkey is a very small tree-dwelling monkey. Imagine a squirrel with a monkey head. However, they bite, and carry a fungus that can really ruin your day. So we did our best to ignore them. The clearing where we stopped also looked like it had visitors in the past as well. There were bits of what looked like trash that someone had left. I was starting to get worried that this place wasn't as exclusively remote as I had been told. But still, there was nothing easy about getting here, so it was doubtful that these past visitors were tourists. If you were in this part of the country, you really wanted to be here pretty bad.

My curiosity as to why our trail was so well traveled was about to be satisfied. As we sat there trying to ignore the squirrel monkeys, we could hear something bigger coming through the brush, and whatever creature it was, it was speaking Spanish. Moments later, the squirrel monkeys scattered wildly as two young men, wearing camouflage fatigues appeared, brandishing M-16 machine guns. There are many ways that a "real" man could deal with this sudden situation. I didn't choose any of those ways. The "Indiana Jones" persona that I had assumed when we started out was immediately shelved, and swapped out, instead, for a Barney Fife persona. I chose to defer negotiations to the only one of us who had a complete mastery of Spanish.

Over the course of the next several tense minutes, Carolina informed me as to why the trail was so well-traveled. Apparently, the Venezuelan army had been enlisted to intercept Columbian drug smugglers from bringing all kinds of illegal substances over the border into Venezuela. And the trail we had picked out just happened to be one of the main conduits for the smugglers. The soldiers asked to see some identification and she informed them that I was from the US. I thought I saw a grin come over their faces when they launched into a new line of questioning. They asked to see my passport.

Now you have to understand something about traveling in South America. I was, more or less, a seasoned traveler, and the first thing you learn is the value of your passport. You NEVER carry your passport with you when you're out and about in Venezuela, because if it's lost or stolen, you could find yourself a semi-permanent resident for awhile. In lieu of carrying your passport, "seasoned" travelers would carry a xerox copy of their passport. Because, occasionally, you did need to show "something" with your passport number. So in response to soldier's request for my passport, I whipped out my xerox copy and handed it over. They stared at each other, exchanging odd glances as they examined the copy. Their odd glances evolved into disappointment. And to register their disappointment, they told us that they couldn't quite make out the picture on the xerox copy. It looked clear enough to me, but it didn't really matter how clear it was. It wasn't what they wanted. They could have easily made a couple of hundred dollars US by selling my passport in town, but the smart-ass tourista was making things complicated.

I motioned to Carolina for a "huddle" on the situation. Based on past experience, I informed her that these guys were probably just looking for a score, and that a suitable sum of US dollars would probably do the trick. . I asked her to request if I could speak with the higher ranking guy, alone, since he was doing most of the talking.

I had about $200 in US cash on me, and I started haggling using what little Spanish I had picked up in my travels. I think he respected me for addressing him in his own language and he seemed willing to talk. I could see Carolina was a bit uneasy with my Spanish but I wanted to try and close the deal myself.

After a few minutes of rudimentary Spanish, and a willingness to bargain by the soldier, we came up with a deal. I got the impression he was NOT going to share the fruits of this deal with his subordinate, so we started walking down the path away from the clearing, allowing him to practice his English, and trying to make it look like we were having a harmless conversation. All in all, this incident ended up costing me $150 plus a handmade Hawaiian necklace that I had originally planned on giving to Carolina for her birthday. Not a bad deal considering the circumstances. Later, I was really ticked off at myself for throwing in the necklace, but out in the jungle, with two guys with M-16s, and no witnesses, you have to have your priorities.

After an incident like this, a lot of people would have made a beeline back home immediately, but I was bound and determined, more than ever to see these damn indians.

After hiking another five or six miles, we could barely make out the sound of music coming from somewhere. After scrambling over a small creek, which conveniently supported a log bridge, we came into a clearing with numerous huts and terraced plant life. We had made it. The huts were relatively primitive and the first people we saw were definitely villagers, and as advertised, they were not wearing many clothes, but they were wearing more than I expected. Just past this outer row of huts was obviously the main part of the village, and just beyond that was the river. When we crossed through the first line of huts into the main part of the village, I was hit by an incredible wave of disappointment. On the other side of the compound was a gravel parking lot, with a number of cars, one a Toyota Landcruiser not unlike my rental. Where the hell did those guys come from? Adjacent to the parking lot was some kind of open-air market, selling Indian souvenirs, Coca-Cola, and some type of cloth product. A number of the Indian kids walking around were wearing jeans with "Jordache" and "Calvin Klein" pasted on their butts. One of them had a boombox blaring out the "Pet Shop Boys". Ok, so the jeans they were wearing were probably knock-offs, but they were obviously label-conscious. Worse, besides us, there were other tourists with cameras just walking around the village, snapping pictures and drinking Cokes. They didn't deserve to be here; they hadn't made the trek we had. They had obviously cruised down here in air-conditioned comfort, probably listening to their Frank Sinatra CDs and complaining about their stock portfolios. To say I was disappointed would show my amazing talent for understatement. Another native civilization destroyed by Western-style capitalism. I wonder if they were really happier?

After walking around this "amusement park" for awhile, Carolina could plainly see that I was completely dejected about the whole experience. First off, I had obviously obtained the wrong directions from the concierge. There was obviously a road coming in here from somewhere. Secondly, I was down $150 and had sweated away 10 pounds just to get here. I had boots full of bog and mosquito bites that would probably require a blood transfusion. On top of all that, I was beginning to realize that we were probably not going to make it back to the landing to take the last tour boat back to town. And I didn't want to entertain the thought of running into another military checkpoint, or worse, the Columbians themselves.

At the bank of the river, we found several small boats, two of which had outboard motors. I asked Carolina to inquire if someone could ferry us up river for ten US dollars. After asking several of the Indian kids mulling about, we found an older kid, probably 16, that agreed to help us out. I handed him a ten-dollar bill, and he replied, "No, twenty dollars".

I was miserable. The return trip was thankfully uneventful. When I got back home I cancelled my subscription to National Geographic.