It’s Valentine’s Day in the States, and tonight Barbara and I have ventured deep into the Venezuelan rainforest. Will this be the night we get engaged?
Barbara has come down to Venezuela from Costa Rica for a ten-day visit. I wanted to fly her in the mission plane to see some of the airstrips I fly into, and to meet some of the missionaries. Earlier today we flew into Tama Tama, the remote jungle headquarters of the New Tribes Mission. Tama Tama sits on the Orinoco River, 600 miles up from the river mouth. We were welcomed with biting gnats, and enervating heat and humidity. Now we have flown farther upriver and landed at the Yanomamo Indian village of Coshilowateri.
Earlier this afternoon, Gary Dawson had pointed to his dugout canoe and asked us, “Wanna go alligator hunting and collect some turtle eggs?”
We said “Yes; of course!” What were we thinking?
The dugout canoe is a cigar-shaped affair made out of a hardwood tree trunk, carefully adzed out and control-burned to leave a hermetic hull of wood with a narrowed prow to help it slip through the water. It weighs several hundred pounds empty. Its thick wooden bottom helps defend against sharp rocks in shallow streams. The Yanomamo propel their dugouts with paddle power, but ours has an outboard motor.
We start our trip with a little sliver of moon, not enough to illuminate our path. The dugout carries us through the night jungle on the wind-wrinkled waters of the Padamo, a twisting tunnel of a river, with 100-foot trees towering on each side. We see no sign of civilized life—no boat docks, no electric lights, and no people. Just the dark, sinuous river. Gary sits at the rear, managing the outboard motor, his sister beside him. He’s about 18, skinny, sandy-haired, wearing just a tee shirt and an old pair of jeans. No shoes. He speaks Yanomamo better than any non-Yanomamo I know, and acts completely at home here on the river. A young Yanomamo boy, Jose, wearing only a G-string and a bit of body paint, sits in the prow searching the blackness ahead for dangerous rocks floating logs, and sandbars. Barbara and I cuddle near the middle where we’re perched on a narrow board wedged between the gunwales. Barbara seems willing to go anywhere with me—is it love?
The sandbars loom up out of the darkness. José says, “Por alli,” pointing toward a promising sandbar. We stop to find some turtle eggs. The eggs look like tiny dinosaur eggs—perfect ellipses. Gary says, “Don’t take ‘em all; leave a few.”
We get back in the dugout and launch. As José shines a powerful flashlight over the water, Gary tells us, “The ‘alligators’ are really caimans—they can grow ten feet long, and are covered with a nobbly skin tougher than leather. Their jaws can crush a large dog in one bite. They’re lying submerged in the river. Look for their red, beady eyes right above water level. They gleam like red reflectors when the flashlight beam hits them.”
Suddenly Jose points out two red reflectors just above the water—unblinking, motionless. Gary cuts the motor, stands up in the boat, and fires his shotgun. The gator thrashes violently, spraying water for 20 feet, agonizing, out of control, and then after a while it lies limp. We paddle over and pull it into the narrow canoe, crimsoning the boat floor. It’s eight feet long, and the powerful tail quivers under our board seat. An hour later Barbara screams and throws her arms around me when the gator opens its toothy jaws in a dying reflex.
Mile after mile, Gary stares into the dark wall of trees. Then we see two white, unblinking eyes staring at us—eyes wide apart. What is it? Gary motions for silence and we cut the motor and paddle the canoe up against the bank. I wonder, What if he botches the shot? Will the eyes jump into the boat? Gary loads a slug into his shotgun, but just as he raises his shotgun, the eyes disappear. He says, “Probably a tigre.”
It’s now midnight, and we’re almost down to where the Padamo empties into the mighty Orinoco, second-largest river in South America. I look back upriver and see a pinpoint of light. We kill the motor and hear the high-pitched drone of another outboard motor. As the light grows brighter, Gary shouts, “It’s my dad. He’s worried we’ve been out so long, and is searching for us along the river.”
Joe Dawson says, “We were kind of worried about you. It’s so dark, and it’s late.” We motor back to Coshilowateri.
Lots of excitement on this Valentines Day, but no engagement—the dugout was too populated and we had no opportunity. The next day Barbara and I will fly to the Parima hills on the Brazilian border where we will overnight in missionary housing, just a few hundred yards from Niayobateri, a Yanomamo village. At 11:00 that evening, Barbara and I will walk out onto the grass airstrip and I will ask her to marry me.