Jul/Aug 2009 Travel

Saturday Morning Cartoons

by William Reese Hamilton

Photo by William Reese Hamilton

This is about how I fell off the mountain and into a Tom & Jerry cartoon.

I can see this mountain from our front porch. Over the hibiscus and the bougainvillea, past the bananas and the palm trees, through the branches of the great mijao. It's a handsome part of our landscape, rising out of the river where the fishermen keep their boats, dominating Puerto Colombia, Playa Grande and the long valley of Choroní. Way down the coast, you can see it and guide your boat by it.

"The view from the top must be something," I say to no one in particular. "Better even than from the mountain over the cemetery."

"But, remember, you've been falling," Marisol answers absently from her book. "A lot."

"You make it sound like a disease."

"Once with Alfredo up in the mountains by the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto."

"Yes, but that could happen to anybody, anytime. I was climbing over the waterfall and my feet just slipped on the moss. I only fell maybe ten feet between two rocks."

"And then twice with Rafael and Raquel when you took them to Aroa."

"I thought it was a good time to get used to my new glasses. But with these multifocals you can't see your feet right."

"Raquel said you almost went over the cliff."

"Well, I didn't."

When I look up at the mountain from the malecón, sometimes I see small figures up there, people climbing to the wooden cross. There is probably a path through the cactus, I think, and every kid in town must have gone up at some point. I wonder if you can see the buildings of Hacienda Playa Grande from there, the great hacienda whose lands run from the mountains all the way to the sea. The one with the thick forest of coconut palms.

It is really three mountains stuck together. And they are not all that big. Not mountain-climber mountains. In fact, the Welsh would most likely call them hills. The first has the white plaster Cristo at its summit, with floodlights and stairs leading up from the river. The second has the red-and-white lighthouse, warning ships away from the rocky cliffs at night. Finally there is this tall one, a sugarloaf rising suddenly out of the others. Its great wooden cross is new, built after the old one was hit by lightning.

After a few beers, I ask Ruedi if he would like to climb up there with me. It is just five o'clock and the light looks right for some handsome photographs of Playa Grande. Ruedi is a gamer. He will go anywhere as long as you don't make him wear shoes. He likes to feel the ground under his feet. I'm still a tenderfoot and sandles suit me fine.

Just past the bridge over the river, we cut back along the bank toward the sea. The ground is riddled with crab holes and the palms lean far out over the river. The fishermen lay their nets out here to dry. To the right, the steps rise easily back and forth up the first slope. At the cement landing for the crucifix, we look down at the river and the red tile roofs of Puerto Colombia. Out at sea, the last fishing boats are heading in with the day's catch.

At the back of the landing, we hop a stone wall and head up another slope through the cactus. There is a fork to the right, but the path to the lighthouse looks better traveled and the more natural way to the tallest mountain. From the lighthouse, the path descends precipitously along a rocky cliff some forty or fifty yards above the sea. The view is intoxicating, but we barely stop, hurrying on to catch the late afternoon light before it fades.

It is now suddenly real climbing, the narrow path switching back and forth, losing itself among the rocks and cactus. At least, it's real for me. For Ruedi, who spent his youth scurrying up and down every mountain in Switzerland like some Teutonic Spiderman, it's just a slight incline. Fortunately, there are things to grab onto; unfortunately, most are spiny and grab back. But we finally break through the last scrub to the top and the beautiful panorama. Ruedi, Swiss that he is, has put a clock on it and tells me it took us just thirty minutes. So we can now reckon how long we have before nightfall.

The view is well worth this and even more difficult ascents. To the west the sun has just turned the sea into hot metal under a thick smoky haze. Puerto Colombia lies in miniature, cradled by the mountains. I find our house peeking out from behind the trees, where not long before I stood looking back at the mountain. And there, up the road, stand the abominations they had the nerve to call Villas Turisticas. The buildings look bad enough from the street, little two-storied pastel affairs crowded in behind a high wall. But this aerial view reveals something even worse.

"My God, Ruedi, look at that."

"Yes, it looks like a factory."

"Or a slum in the making. Certainly nothing to do with villas. Not even room to breathe."

"Who would build such a thing here?"

"The same Spanish consortium that buys and sells our town's fish. The real question is, who will buy such a thing?"

"And that huge ugly slab of cement for the new bus stop. They must be expecting Choroní to be crowded with tourists."

"There was a beautiful forest there not long ago, full of giant cedros and mijaos."

I turn and look east at Playa Grande, a much happier sight. It draws me to the rim of the cliff. I aim my camera. Thick stands of coconut palms crowd the golden beach. The light is perfect. No haze away from the sun. Crisp white waves etched on the blue tide.

I search the dense forest up along the river to the south, looking for the hacienda. For a long time I see nothing but trees. Finally a break, what appear to be white walls. But it's all too far, too vague. Yet that must be it. Near the ford in the river where the great metal gates are always locked. If I really want to see this hacienda, I guess I'll just have to trespass some day.

But the sun is dropping into the sea and in the tropics night falls hard behind sunset. We decide to start back down. I wouldn't like navigating this trail without a flashlight. And it's always a bit harder going down off a mountain than coming up. The trail hangs out over the sea far below. Cactus juts out across our path. Stones and branches which made the ascent easier are suddenly more of a hindrance.

Yet once we're off the sugarloaf, the path levels into a gentler descent. We come to a fork in the trail I hadn't noticed climbing up.

"Let's try this one to the left. It might be quicker," I say. Instead of going by the sea it proceeds down the other side, leveling off even more along a steep precipice. And it is here, lulled into a false sense of security, that I make my misstep.

I am looking out at the dramatic view as I walk. Perhaps it is the concrete shell of Santa Barbara I spy far off across the valley, high up among the trees. Perhaps it is that last shimmering light of dusk. But suddenly I have stumbled over a rock and am leaning off into space. It's wonderful how the mind slows such events down. Here to my right, just below me, is a small bush. I grab at it. And it rewards me in two ways. First, and perhaps most important, it saves my life. Second, it allows me to perform something I have never been able to do well, even in my youth.

This little bush is my axis for a perfect front flip. I do not have the film to prove it, but I guarantee that even Greg Luganis on a good day could not have scored higher on this dive. The take-off is perhaps a little questionable, but the dive is textbook and the landing spectacular.

It is, in fact, so spectacular that it could never be captured on film, but only in a Saturday morning cartoon. For I have dropped directly onto a tuna—one of those classic comic-strip cactuses. And it sticks me like velcro to the side of the mountain. I hang there, looking down at the valley floor, extremely glad to have joined ranks with Tom, Jerry, Bugs and the Road Runner, dangling on the edge of a sheer precipice and at the same time receiving a healthy dose of acupuncture. I feel my body to make sure nothing is broken. And indeed everything moves. I'm a bit suspicious that nothing even hurts. I turn, find my foothold, take the proffered hand of Ruedi and climb out of my cartoon world, back among the living.

Even as I am limping back down the trail to civilization, looking as if I've just been attacked by a pack of ferocious neighborhood cats, even as Ruedi is telling me his sorry vision of having to haul the body of an old man down the mountain to his wife, even as Marisol is pulling the last needles out of my back with tweezers, I am giving thanks to that little bush and that mighty cactus.

Now, lest you think old men should stay on level ground and eschew the higher adventure, let me relate another event. Mari and I are having a late breakfast in a Caracas fast-food joint. Coffee, scrambled eggs and very dry toast. A ho-hum affair, if I ever saw one. But suddenly the dry toast does not swallow, stays lodged in my throat. There is not enough coffee left in my cup to help me. I rise, trying to cough it up or get to water. I see the look of panic on Mari's face as she watches my complexion turn from blue to black. She tries to get behind me for a Heimlich Maneuver, but I am on a raised dais above her and she can't get a proper hold. I'm wondering how you say, "Heimlich Maneuver" in Spanish.

"Heimlich!" she screams to the restaurant at large. The waiter stares back at us in shock, paralyzed. This is not going to gain his restaurant any stars. The man behind the counter appears not to notice. But the big man at the table behind us responds, grabbing me in a mighty bear hug and squeezing so hard, he lifts me involuntarily a full foot off the ground and pops the dried toast from my throat like a champagne cork.

Embarrassed, I ask for water. I will probably now continue to ask for water. Marisol thanks the man profusely, but I am too humbled to say a word.

Now I ask you, which event brought me closer to the end and which would have been the better way to go? Well, at least I got some nice photos from the mountain.


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