|Jul/Aug 2007 Spotlight|
When we are invited to caravan to the Amazonas with Ricardo and Eva Villá, we jump at the chance. Blindly. Little do we know.
Correct me if I'm wrong -- weren't caravans invented for the protection of the individual by the group? I have this clear vision of long lines of camels trudging in concert across Arabian sands.
But the Gallego--not a bad joke this time, but the real thing--sees things differently. He and his wife have invited themselves along at the last minute and want to show us all that they are the natural-born leaders of this expedition, predestined to race out front in their Jeep Cherokee and wait for lowly stragglers a hundred kilometers or so in advance. Perhaps they do not believe three vehicles a caravan makes.
Ricardo is much too nice to be an effective wagon master. Besides, he is busy entertaining guests, Pedro and Montserrat, the owners of a restaurant near Barcelona who spend a month each year at Ricardo's little bed and breakfast here in Choroní. Like us, these Catalans have never been to the edge of Venezuela's untamed wilderness and are bright-eyed with the adventure. They're with Ricardo in his white Chevy Blazer, leading us up the dark mountain to Maracay at four-thirty in the morning.
Eva is riding with Marisol and me in our little Volkswagen Gol. We've put a pillow in the back and she stretches out as luxuriously as if she were on Mercedes-Benz leather. We putt along happily at the rear of the procession, listening to Vivaldi.
But just before Maracay things take a turn. The Gallego decides Ricardo's pace is too slow for his Jeep and accelerates past the Blazer into the lead. The two race down Avenida las Delicias as if it were their private drag strip.
I beep my horn as we pull off at a traffic light and stop at an agreed-upon bank to pick up some efectivo. We are sure they see us, but they peel out when the light turns and we lose contact. We get our cash in less than two minutes and set out after them.
Urged on by Eva, I race as fast as our little Gol will allow, passing trucks along the winding road down to San Juan de los Morros, then off at a gallup through Ortiz and across the open land to El Sombrero. We ask at the gas station if they have seen a Jeep and a Blazer. They aren't sure. Maybe.
"Maybe we should call your house," Mari suggests.
"No, no, that will only upset the Ya-Ya." That's Catalan for grandmother and what everyone calls Ricardo's mother. Besides Eva knows Ricardo. "He's up ahead of us for sure," she insists. "Ricardo's always speeding ahead, believe me. He's going as fast as he can to get down to the Amazonas. Ricardo and that crazy Gallego."
So we chase Ricardo's phantom out across the Llanos--that broad, seemingly endless flatland where Venezuela raises most of its cattle, a plain of low scrub, scraggly grass and few people. Ahead, up the sun-drenched road, cattle appear through waves of heat, then a single red-shirted vaquero trotting his horse along the shoulder, rounding up strays, moving his herd. The old Vaughan Monroe record of "Ghost Riders in the Sky" runs aimlessly through my head.
"Chasing that devil herd across the endless sky," I sing out. Eva looks at me as if I've gone mad. Fortunately, for Mari's peace of mind, she's asleep.
After Chaguaramas, the road becomes a mine field, filled with enough potholes to make the worst street in the Bronx feel like silk. We try to maintain speed, but potholes appear in numbers too numerous to count, to the left, then the right, then all the way across. A big recreation vehicle sweeps up behind us, speeds past and disappears into the horizon. Like a mirage. Then it's a void. Miles without a gas station, a house, a car, a cow. And after the little town of Santa Rita it gets serious.
"Huecos, Bill!" Eva cries and I dodge left, avoiding a sudden line of deep holes. "Huecos, Bill!" Marisol warns and I streak right to miss the next group. "Huecos, Bill!" from the front passenger seat. "Huecos, Bill!" from over my shoulder. I fully expect someone to cry out, "Zeroes at twelve o'clock high." But pilot, navigator, and ball-turret gunner are all asleep at the switch when I fake right at the next hole, then dodge left past a crater, and run headlong into a ten-foot-wide swimming pool.
The dread sound of a flapping flat tire and the sight of someone's hubcap racing ahead of us down the embankment into a swamp. "Huecos Bill" has met his match on a god-forsaken stretch of road somewhere in the Venezuelan badlands and now has to get to work jacking his little Gol up and changing into a spare. Well, we've had practice. This is our fifth flat since June. But this one comes with a bent rim too. We limp slowly and carefully the rest of the way into Cabruta amid a growing chorus of "Huecos, Bill!"
When we get to Cabruta, the ferry is just about to pull out. "Let's catch it," Eva urges. "Ricardo's on the other side by now." But cooler heads prevail.
"Let's wait for the next one," Marisol decides. And sure enough, within a half-hour, like a rat chasing its tail, the rest of the caravan comes down the road and finds its missing Gol. It turns out they had been waiting for us in Maracay, but in the wrong place. When we didn't show, they went back to look for us. And they spent the next hour and a half searching every bank in the city.
"Did you have fun on that road?" Ricardo asks when we finally meet. The Gallego and his wife look at us as if we were to blame for their delay.
"Have you ever heard of the tortoise and the hare?" I ask.
"But what slowed you down?" the Gallego asks sarcastically.
"Huecos," we sing out in unison.