Venezuela: First Stop on Sony's World Tour
Around the World in 100 Days, by Ship
Editor's note: Videographer Sonja Stark has embarked on a world tour aboard the MV Explorer to make a documentary about Semester At Sea, a program of the Institute for Shipboard Education. She writes:
"For almost 12 years I've had a steady paycheck, health benefits, Christmas bonuses, seniority, a company car and several weeks of vacation. But three weeks ago I said goodbye to all of that, including family, friends and a mortgage payment and hello to traveling around the world. A perfectly stable world swapped for 100 days in 10 countries: Venezuela, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, India, Myanmar, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Japan, and Hawaii.
It sounds crazy but here's the rational: it's all free! Well, not really. In exchange for room and board, I have to shoot a 2-hour documentary about 700 students soul-searching through 12 countries. How hard could that be? (A lot harder than you think!)
The program is called Semester at Sea, an onboard educational curriculum sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh (as of 2005). Faculty, staff, students and crew cohabitate for three months aboard a ship called the MV Explorer, the fastest passenger vessel in the world, designed specifically for student life and learning opportunities.
As they say - a chance of a lifetime! What kind of "Gonomad" would I be if I said no to that?
After each country, I'll report in with a small summary about the people and places I experienced. It should be interesting... provided I don't get any of those ugly illnesses everyone keeps warning me about - malaria, typhoid, yellow fever, hepatitis, meningitis, etc, etc, etc...."
First Stop: Venezuela
Venezuela is a land of superlatives. I just experienced the tallest waterfalls in the world (Angel Falls), the longest tunnel in the country (Boqueron tunnel) and the world's best cacao beans, also known as chocolate.
Sadly, though, increasing economic desperation in the capital City of Caracas is the first impression you'll see driving into Venezuela. Terracotta slums or shanties called ranchos flank the overpopulated slopes of the Andes Mountains that surround the city.
In 1999, Avila Mountain, one of the highest in the country, experienced horrific mudslides that killed over 80,000 people in neighborhoods called barrios. The devastation is still visible and many businesses and property owners have yet to be compensated.
One of my tour guides described how he fought to keep his sister and her kids alive that day but sadly failed. Poverty is everywhere and many people blame President Hugo Chavez for corruption and nepotism. His programs boast reform for the poor and restoring law and order, but many locals say that his words have proven to be rhetoric. It's hard to gauge who is right.
The city streets of the Las Mercedes district, in downtown Caracus, are like tentacles that wind themselves around moderately priced restaurants, Catholic churches, lush centros or plazas, and stone monuments. Despite the delicious traditional Spanish cuisine and friendly folk, in two days, I'm ready to escape all the noise, fumes and litter. I decide Angel Falls and Canaima is the best place to experience nature.
Angel Falls is the 8th greatest wonder of the world and its vaulting beauty is best seen from a 19-seater turbo prop plane. The aerial video footage I shot will likely be one of the best highlights of a documentary I'm producing.
Angel Falls was discovered by a maverick ex-Canadian Air Force pilot named Jimmy Angel. He crashed his bush plane near the falls in the 1937 while searching for gold.
Visitors can backpack the verdant jungles to see the falls from the ground but be aware it's an arduous trek rife with mosquitos and small midges. The plane circles Angel Falls and surrounding tepuys or table-top plateaus and starts its descent into Canaima National Park.
Thrill and excitement quickly turns to confusion and frustration. My professional video camera had been denied access at the Pantheon National House and National Museum in Caracus so I'm not surprised when authorities question my presence in the exclusive UNESCO world heritage site.
But try as I might to convince them of my benign intentions, they still manage to confiscate my professional Betacam. This, of course, angers and embarrasses me but only until another tourist offers me his smaller consumer-quality camera for documenting. The quality isn't as good but at least it's something.
It doesn't make any sense that one camera should be allowed over another and I blame it on the sensitive political climate between America and Venezuela right now. Later I'm told that even Steven Spielberg had problems wanting to shoot Jurassic Park here so that mitigates my crisis.
My folly is long forgotten as soon as I step foot into the plush comforts of my cottage cabin at Waku Lodge. Waku Lodge has about 15 posadas topped with thatch roofs, swinging hammocks and marble facilities. There are howler monkeys that roam freely and enjoy burrowing in my hair and singing in my ear.
Plush Comforts, Indescribable Beauty
The area is a haven for canoe trips across the Carrao River into the pink lagoons that face that El Hacha Falls. This vantage point offers the best photography when the waterfalls are running at their highest (June-December). My guide hikes us up a mountain pass into a swath of savannah and ancient mesa mountains.
Wild orchids are growing everywhere - the official flower of Venezuela. There are panoramic views of indescribable beauty here. I long to stay longer but my guide assures me that what's ahead trumps anything I've ever experienced. He's right.
The Lost World Under El Hacha Falls
A narrow pathway underneath, let me repeat that - underneath - the waterfalls turns out to be the thrill of a lifetime. Rushing waters in all directions at decibels louder than LAX airport smash down on bedrock below. At one end of the falls, the energy and speed of the water is harnessed for electricity for a community of 1,000 local inhabitants.
My tour guide, Miguel Canepa of Canaima Tours shares his plans for a mountain bike rental shop and excursions up and around the area. If you're there in 2006, look for the name of his pending business, "Trails of the Lost World." He adopted the name from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's adventure novel set in Canaima.
Bring several pairs of extra sneakers, bandages and bug repellent because you will get wet, you will slip and you will get eaten by bugs. Malaria medication is a nice precaution but not absolutely necessary.
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