Tag Archives: venezuela

The Unfaithful Wife

“Her husband cut her leg off, but her relatives say she’s to blame.” Wally calls at 9 a.m. on our short-wave radio. He lives near the Yanomamo village of Niayobateri, 360 miles deep into the Venezuelan jungle. “Juanita was messing around with another man and her husband cut her leg off and we can’t stop the bleeding from the bloody stump. Can you come pick her up and take her to Puerto Ayacucho hospital?”

I drive our green Chevrolet pickup truck the five miles through the humid, enervating heat to Puerto Ayacucho airport and prepare the Cessna 185 for the trip. Amazing airplane, with its oversize tires for unpaved airstrips and modified wings and ailerons for short-field landings. I strap in, hear the engine growl when I plunge the throttle to full open, and smell the exhaust from the 300 hp engine. We roll a short distance, spring into the air and climb to 10,000 feet.

The eternal jungle rolls by underneath, an endless, green field of broccoli-like trees, some 100 feet high, broken only by the occasional small savannah and ribboned with two major rivers – the Ventuari, and the mighty Orinoco that empties into the Atlantic 600 miles to the east. The steady drone of the engine calms me. Nothing to do now for a couple hours except fight complacency and sleepiness. I wonder about the woman’s condition. Has she bled to death? Is she in great pain?

We overfly Isla Ratón where the Salesian Catholics have a mission. Pass the mouth of the Ventuari, where semi-abandoned Santa Barbara sits with its long but untended airstrip. Pass Tama Tama airstrip, headquarters of the New Tribes Mission. Now we’re above unbroken jungle looking for Parima, a small airstrip that nestles among low-lying hills near the Brazilian border. Circling above the airstrip, I see the Yanomamo roundhouse, and a group of people standing in front of the rectangular houses built by the missionaries.

The big tires skim the six-inch grass as we roll to a stop and taxi up to the houses. I open the side window and inhale the cooler air. Wally and Marg Jank are waiting with the patient, who lies on a stretcher.

Wally translates the loud chatter of the Yanomamo women standing around. “I wonder if she’ll die…? She’s so young… Her husband was really mad… How terrible he cut her leg off…! Serves her right for messing around with that other guy; I wonder what her husband will do to him…?” And sundry other helpful comments. The Yanomamo live in scattered shobonos of about 50 people each. Venezuelan healthcare does not extend to this remote location, and neither does law and order. The men frequently wage war on neighboring villages. The people go completely naked. The men expect their wives to obey them and to quickly accede to their demands.

We load the injured woman, into the plane and secure her stretcher. Marg has dressed her in a blouse and skirt, and Wally has decided to accompany her. Marg speaks a prayer over her and we’re off for the long flight back. The afternoon cumulus buildups threaten as we dodge among thundershowers. Suddenly we plunge into a dark cloud and begin flying on instruments. A couple times bright lightning flashes and the plane is tossed around by powerful updrafts. Flying blind for a while, I hope to break out soon because we need those glimpses of the Orinoco River to keep us on course. Finally we land in Puerto Ayacucho and drive straight to the tiny hospital where I leave Wally and Juanita.

When Wally stops by our house the next day, I ask, “How’s the patient?”

“She seems to be doing okay, but she’s flirting with the male nurses. Seems she just can’t learn her lesson. I feel sorry for her, though.”

After a week, we fly her home to Niayobateri where she is received with joy by her relatives and even by her husband, who apparently thinks she’ll now be completely faithful. Is all now forgiven?

Valentines Alligator Hunt

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.