Venezuela

(and Florida, and New York)

June 12 - July 6, 1993

This "Grand Venezuela" trip was our first in South America, and our first of many trips with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT), to our mind the premier birding/nature touring company.  This trip had the added bonus of returning via New York (by way of Florida) to sing with the Mansfield Chamber Singers (Beverly Hills, CA) in a concert at Carnegie Hall!  So three firsts on this trip, at least for Liza - South America, Florida, and New York.

Unfortunately this trip being from 1993, our photographic options were limited...hence only a couple of fuzzy black-and-white photos embedded in the text below.

In the trip journal below, italicized text are Robert's comments, the rest are Liza's.
VENT's description of this trip:

This is our premier Venezuela tour. It visits the broadest cross section of habitats and records by far the greatest number of birds of any Venezuelan tour. Among our traditional destinations are Colonia Tovar, the famed Henry Pittier (Rancho Grande) National Park, the saline lagoons and dry forests of Chichirivichi, the Barquisimeto Desert, a variety of sites in the Mérida Andes and foothills, and two-and-a-half-days at a ranch in the grasslands (llanos), renowned for enormous concentrations of waterbirds and large numbers of easy-to-see birds of all descriptions.  ...you will see perhaps in excess of 500 species, including everything from tiny bejeweled hummingbirds to showy tanagers and bizarre-looking hoatzins.




Saturday, June 12 – Los Angeles to Caracas

Off to Venezuela!  Our day began with a 3:20 am wakeup call from Robert’s mom Claire, wishing us a "Gute Reise".  We got ourselves out the door by 4:30, dropped our company car off at RAND, and met our shuttle at 5:15 (first time a shuttle was ever early picking us up!).  Our United flight left on-time, right at 7:00, a good thing since we have a tight connection to make in Chicago.  Too tight to risk checking baggage, so we each have a full duffle and backpack to carry.

The first leg of the trip has been quiet; we’ve both been listening to our tapes for the Carnegie Hall concert (Faure Requiem, Mozart Magnificat, Vivaldi Magnificat, and Haydn Te Deum).  My stomach shows no signs of settling down, though – I’ve had trip butterflies for a whole week.  Robert and I are trying to guess what the first bird will be (not counting the starling at LAX).  Considering we don’t arrive in Caracas until 10:00 pm, we probably won’t see any birds until the morning; Robert’s guess is a Rufous-crowned Sparrow. My guess is a pigeon. 

Our transfers at Chicago and Miami were uneventful.  In Miami, although we weren’t changing planes, we were nevertheless required to exit and reboard.  More free space on this flight; we have an empty seat between us.  Interestingly (to me) is the fact that most of the Spanish speakers on the flight look very European.  The LACSA flight to Costa Rica, on the other hand, had a distinct [native] Central American air – no surprise, I suppose, considering the stops in Guatemala and Honduras (those countries having a substantial indigenous native population).  Now I’m watching my third United video of the day as we back away from the terminal.  The video uses fancy 3-D modeling of the 757 to walk through the safety procedures; Silicon Graphics did a good job.  At least the video is more interesting than having to watch the stewardesses doing the demonstration with little fake seatbelts, although, you know the people in the video look like they have a lot more legroom than we do.  And the guy in the video portraying the steward has an affected smirk and cocked eyebrow – what a bozo.  C’est la vie.  It’s the last leg of the trip, and our adventure is finally beginning!

Sunday, June 13 – Caracas

Midnight in Caracas.  We’re at the Hotel Avila, approximately 40 minutes from the Bolivar Airport.  First impression is that there are a lot of lights – it seems that every house in the surrounding mountains had a porch light on.  Looked beautiful, but our local guide, Cecilia Herrera of Paradise Expeditions, deflated that notion by informing us they were notoriously bad slums populated mostly by unforunate Colombians.  We briefly met our leader, Steve Hilty, in the lobby, but retired to our rooms almost immediately as we have a 5:00 am (2:00 PDT!) start tomorrow.  There’s a wedding reception at the hotel, so I don’t know how much sleep I’ll really get.  Caracas is at about 3000 ft, it’s 72 degrees and somewhat humid.  We can hear the tree frogs croaking rhythmically outside over the sound of the ceiling fan and the music.

Our birding experiences began in earnest with a 5:00 am pseudo-breakfast at the hotel, after which we loaded up the minibus and headed west toward Colonia Tovar.  We birded "on the road", the cloud forest of the coastal cordillera.  Very reminiscent of Monteverde, Costa Rica, at least for me.  Besides great birds, we also saw huge rhinoceros beetles, approximately 3 inches in length, that can fly!  The beetles have large horns centered on their heads (hence their name), and when they fight each other you can hear the clicks quite clearly.

We birded along the road nearly the entire day, stopping for picnic breakfast (a real one this time) and lunch.  We got up to about 2000 m (6000 ft) before finally winding our way down a very  steep road to La Victoria (past hang gliders and circling Black Vultures, awaiting an easy meal), and onward to the Hotel Pipo in Maracay.  It was a relatively easy birding day, about 50 species, but very tiring considering we only had three hours of sleep last night.  Great tanagers, foliage-gleaners, hummers (including Long-tailed Sylph and Tyrian Metaltail).  Tomorrow we’ll visit Henri Pittier National Park.

As we coursed the Tovar road along the crest of the coastal cordillera, we passed through the German enclave of Colonia Tovar (while Liza snoozed) with its half-timbered structures sporting signs with German names, and Spanish and English come-ons to tourists.  The tight winding roads were no match for the throngs from Caracas that pour in to this popular locale on the weekend.

The cordillera is lush green capped by wispy white clouds and mist.  Just when the forest appears quiet and uneventful, the silence is broken by the call of a reclusive bird like the Gray-breasted Wood-wren or Caracas Tapaculo.  And the search is aided by microphone and tape recorder.  Peering into the forest from the road is like peering into another world.

Monday, June 14 – Parque Nacional Henri Pittier

An early start (5:00 am) was wasted when we had to return to the hotel for our group’s permit to get into Henri Pittier National Park. But we did get to Rancho Grande (a biological research station) within the park by a little after 6:30, and had a fine morning checking out the birds in the area.  Rancho Grande is at about 2000m – low cloud forest – and we had better looks at some familiar tanagers, plus some Blood-eared Parakeets, White-tipped Quetzal, and many others.  The fog spilled along the tree tops while howler monkeys bellowed and crashed through the canopy, and a White Hawk carrying a snake floated past (too short a look!).

We had breakfast and lunch both at Rancho Grande, up on the third floor of the virtually empty structure.  It was built in the 1920’s by Venezuela’s notorious dictator Gomez, and rumor has it that the road from Rancho Grande to Coro (on the coast) was built as Gomez’ escape route (guess he knew he wouldn’t last).  Eventually he was driven out, and the property fell into disrepair; it was finally put to good use much later by William Beebee and other scientists.  The entire facility now is jointly managed by the University of Caracas and Venezuela’s national park system (Inparques).  The view into the canopy from the third floor was reminiscent of Rara Avis in Costa Rica, especially when a heavy rain prevented us and the birds from straying away from the building.  Just as well, considering I had developed the usual blah feeling that comes with lack of sleep and change of eating habits.  I also slipped coming down some rocks near a stream, and cut my hand pretty badly on a door latch in the bathroom (sigh), but none of these items could put a damper on the day.  Had some yummy fresh guava-and-passionfruit juice at lunch; sure hope the water in them was good!

Tuesday, June 15 – Parque Nacional Henri Pittier

Images of Venezuela...red lights are routinely ignored; if nobody is coming in the opposite direction, drivers just barrel through.  Car horns are used a lot, especially on twisty mountain roads.  The calm of the forest was all too frequently shattered by horn blasts warning of their approach – as if you couldn’t hear the roar of the engines, or smell the exhaust to begin with!  A country full of Yubes.  I suppose a certain amount of honking is a necessity, given how the narrow road in HPNP switches back on itself.  The drop-off past the concrete barriers was pretty stomach-wrenching in places on the road up to the left (sorry, no cardinal directions given here) from our hotel in Maracay.  We climbed to about 1700m and were rewarded with a spectacular view of Maracay and the valley (with our hotel very prominent in the foreground); also a lot of fog, but that soon cleared.

We’re also seeing a lot of interesting signs.  Some are pretty standard religious messages – Christo viene, etc.  The most bizarre was Quien sea decapitado ira al cielo  – "he who is decapitated will go to heaven".  It was very neatly printed on a metal sign that had a manufactured look to it; I don’t think I want to know what kind of people are in business producing such signs.  There is lots of graffiti here, too – political messages aside, much appears to be personal ads.  Mario, te amo, blared one wall; En silencio y en secreto, te quiero leered another.  There must be a lot of repressed women running around here if they feel compelled to commit these feelings to block walls.

Today was our last full day in the Maracay area, exploring the cloud forest; to maximize our outdoor time we had a picnic breakfast and lunch in the park.  We saw many good forest birds today, including foliage-gleaners, woodcreepers, woodpeckers, and thrushes.  The weather stayed cool, in the mid-70’s, very pleasant.  Tomorrow we head toward the coast to the Chichiriviche peninsula.

Wednesday, June 16 – Henri Pittier to Chichiriviche

Today was definitely a day of contrasts.  We spent the entire morning (6:00 am - noon) birding in HPNP on the road to Rancho Grande, then later on a semi-slippery forest trail behind the station.  The trail went up and through some beautiful "pre-montane rain forest", exhibiting many of the characteristics we associate with primary rain forest in Costa Rica, but distinguished by being much more open and not quite as damp.

After lunch at Rancho Grande, we headed down the highway to the coast, through valleys with gorgeous green slopes rising up steeply on both sides.  By the time we reached the coast in the state of Falcon, the landscape had changed from ferns and bromiliads to coconut palms and sandy beaches, with Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring overhead.  Soon we were along the lagoons of Chichiriviche, with hundreds and hundreds of American Flamingos marching en masse across the shallow water, and gaudy Scarlet Ibises cruising overhead.  The marshes also turned up spectacular Oriole- and Red-breasted Blackbirds.

By this point in the trip, the personalities of our fellow birders are becoming more noticeable.  Joe is a retired Air Force officer (pilot?) who became interested in birds after leaving the military (talk about lost opportunities).  He looks as if he approaches birding the way the military would approach a conflict – objectives, targets, etc.  Charles is a librarian from Florida who is a bit of a blowhard, but basically very nice.  There are two geology professors from Brown University – Dick (with his wife Ginny), and Jan.  Dick and Ginny are very pleasant.  Jan seems nice enough, but is kind of an active listener on drugs; she employs the most exaggerated body language to convey that you have her full attention.  She also oohs and aahs a lot when someone is talking, and nods like a Jack-in-the-Box.  Her noisy commentary will probably drive some of the shier birds away.

Our Venezuelan guide Cecilia is a nice gal, about 28, I’d say; she studied biology in college.  Our driver Alberto doesn’t speak much English, so our conversations are limited.

And of course, there’s Steve – he’s great, and has a quirky sense of humor.  It’s fun listening to him.  He puts up with all of our bogus identifications, and never gets visibly perturbed, not even when Charles goes into blowhard mode, or Jan starts fawning all over him. 

Thursday, June 17 – Morrocoy to Coro

We left the lovely Hotel Mario in Morrocoy and headed for Morrocoy National Park.   It rained all over our picnic breakfast, but then lightened up, and we had a nice three-hour-or-so walk on the Morrocoy Ridge.  For "dry forest", it was still pretty darn hot and humid, and the black flies were out in force, making it difficult to commune with nature.  :-)

We left Morrocoy around noon and headed for Coro, stopping several times, even backing up on the highway to look at various birds (try that at home!).  Our lunch stop was along a river bank surrounded by flat-topped acacia trees.  Saw a beautiful Yellow Oriole here, and a White-whiskered Spinetail.  Also picked up some local insect life in the form of ticks; Charles was covered with the little devils and had to change clothes completely.  I managed to completely embarrass a little boy playing nude in the river; his mom was nearby washing clothes.  The boy put on his shorts when he saw us approach, but took them off again when he thought we were gone; when I came back alone for a nature stop, he went running for cover.

Now we are ensconced in the Hotel Venezia in Coro for two nights.  Coro’s big claim to fame is that it is Venezuela’s oldest settlement, having been founded in the early 1500’s.  Coro also has the Medanas de Coro (sand dunes) – pretty impressive!  There’s one fellow who probably has lifetime employment attempting to keep the shifting sand off the highway.  The dunes were spectacular, but the wasps and the wind made them a little hard to visit.  The wind was also responsible for me almost losing one of my silver/turquoise earrings (the first of several "missing earring sagas" on this trip).  As I stepped out of the bus, the wind flung my hat forward, knocking the earring out of my ear.  I looked all over for the earring, figuring it had been blown away from where I was standing, but couldn’t see it (a silver earring on gray gravel is not the easiest thing to see).  Charles and Robert helped me look (although Charles kept saying "It is written," a quote from Lawrence of Arabia, apparently...), to no avail.  I had already given up, but for laughs I decided to put the other earring on the ground to see what it would look like against the gravel.  Lo and behold, when I set the earring down, I put it right next to the missing earring!

Wind, missing earrings, and wasps aside, the best thing about the medanas were the gorgeous Troupials atop the tall cacti.  The Troupial, a kind of giant oriole, is the national bird of Venezuela.

Steve told us a story about the Pale-legged Hornero, the national bird of Argentina.  According to sources, the Argentines picked that bird because they fancied the males to be like the Argentine people – hardworking, faithful, and good lovers.  In reality, he says, the birds have none of those qualities; they only work in the rainy season, they’re promiscuous, and the males take off the first chance they get, leaving their mates behind to raise the young.  Another bit of folklore bites the dust!

Friday, June 18 - Coro

Another early morning found us picnicking for breakfast while looking for birds, this time in dry scrub named Los Zulianos a few minutes southeast of Coro.  The midday heat drove us back indoors for a welcome break, and we returned to Los Zulianos at 5:00 pm.  Kind of a slow birding day, but we did see Orinocan Saltator, and Ferruginous Pygmy-owl, not to mention a raucous pair of Laughing Falcons.  The scenery was beautiful desert scrub – flat-topped acacias, cardon cactus, and prickly pear.  Although the prickly pear is apparently a relatively recent inhabitant, taking over once the goats have eaten the underbrush.  Steve calls goats the "scourge of the earth".

Saturday, June 19 – Coro to Mérida

Today was a travel day, but we did have time in the morning to visit Cerro Santa Ana, a very old dormant volcano (our tour geologists estimated it to be in the neighborhood of 10 million years old).  It was somewhat of an adventure finding the trailhead given some of the dubious instructions we had ("it’s right near the church!" ...well, not really).  When we finally did find the right road, the bus could only go so far due to the overhanging tree limbs, so we had to get out and walk – which was an adventure in itself, tramping past goat farms, walking in circles, leaving stone markers to so we could find our way back.  We finally found the trail (after which we realized that one woman that had been calling to us was trying to tell us that we were going the wrong way...!).  The north slope of Cerro Santa Ana is basically a desert scrub environment, more acacia and cardon, and a few typical birds for that habitat, including Vermilion Cardinals, flycatchers, and gnatcatchers.

And giant grasshoppers.  At one point on the trail, we saw what at first glance looked like a big lumbering hummingbird, green with red wings.  It landed in a tree and when we went to take a closer look, it turned out to be a six-inch grasshopper!  I’ve never seen such monsters in my life.  Imagine a plague of locusts with that size of grasshopper eating their way through your fields!

After lunch at the hotel (and one last fresh pineapple drink), we made a mad dash for the airport – seems Cecilia had misread the schedule, and when she called at 12:25 to confirm the flight, she found out that our plane was leaving at 12:35 and not 1:30!  So off we ran, barrelling down the road to the Coro airport (all of 5 minutes away), shepherding our bags through check-in, saying goodbye to our driver Alberto, and scurrying out to the tarmac to climb the steps out to the plane (a DC9, carrier ‘Servivensa’).  We made a quick hop to Barquisimeto, where we lounged around for a few hours talking to Steve and having a drink or two.  He’s really a fascinating person to talk to; has many good stories about the tropics, birds, travel, and so forth.  (He’s hoping to publish a book for "popular" consumption soon on the tropics, which he wants to call "Antbirds Don’t Eat Ants".)  Then onto another plane, this time a 727, for the 45 minutes flight to Mérida in the Andes.  Our flights were ticketed through Avensa, the national airline; I guess Servivensa is the domestic  carrier, while Avensa is really the international carrier.  The tickets are cheap; 2000 Bolivars ($25) for Coro to Barquisimeto, and 3500 Bolivars ($40) for Barquisimeto to Mérida.  Seating is "festival" style (except you don’t get to choose first class), and there is no service; guess the flights are too short for anyone to care, and that is probably one of the reasons the cost is so low.  That and the fact that they don’t keep the planes very clean. 

Writing on the plane (and staring at the Andes right outside the window!) I have a little time to reflect on a few things we’ve noticed thus far.  First of all, Venezuela’s infrastructure seems well developed; the roads are good everywhere we’ve been, the smallest villages have water supplies and electricity, and the water supplies are presumably of an acceptable standard (we’re drinking bottled water, anyway).  But concern for the environment seems lacking; there is a lot of advertising in the towns and cities about putting litter in its place and keeping the towns and countryside clean, yet there is still a lot of trash dumped indiscriminately at roadsides and creekbeds.  And graffiti is everywhere, although it is, more or less, of an artistic nature (even the political sloganeering).  [Golly, I can’t believe how CLOSE the mountains are outside!] 

We’ve seen a number of beautiful homes, but as in Costa Rica, they’re all well-gated, and the windows and doors are heavily barred.  Most people seem to have a relatively low standard of living.  Yet if you watch television, mostly US-based, you’d think everyone lived as we do in Southern California.  The disparity seems a little unreal at times, and kind of makes you wonder what the average Venezuelan thinks about his/her life.

There are police everywhere; every little town has an alcabala stop at the city limits where the Guardia Nacional look you over before letting you pass.  Presumably they like to see everyone’s passports, but so far we’ve been waved through everywhere we’ve gone with hardly a second glance.

We’ve just landed at Mérida – VERY short runway!  You can tell we’re in the mountains.  Wow.

Sunday, June 20 – Mérida

The end of our first full day in this, the northern extension of the Andes, and I’m incredibly tired.  We left our beautiful Hotel Belensate at 4:30 am for the nearly two hour drive towards La Azulita.  We birded the roadside from 2100m elevation down to 1200m.  It rained on us a bit, but nothing we couldn’t handle.

We have a huge beetle in our bathroom, about two inches long, big antennae, and two big yellow spots on his head.  He comes out of a crack in the floorboard and waves his antennae at us.  He seems harmless enough, and is slow-moving, so we’ve decided not to hassle him.  We’ve named him Jorge, our Mérida Mascot.

Monday, June 21 – Mérida

Today was a relatively short birding day; we were out at 6:00 am, and had another picnic breakfast around 7:00 on the Mérida/La Azulita road.  We worked our way up from Mérida to the top of the pass (~2200m).  It was a beautiful day: blue skies, fluffy clouds, wonderful views of the mountains, and some good waterfalls, too.  After a barbecue lunch at the gates to the Universidad de Los Andes forest (a forest with many out-of-place pines and cypress trees), we went into the forest, ignoring both the No se pasa sin autorización sign.

"Do we have permission to go in, or are we ignoring the sign?" I asked Steve.

"I don’t read Spanish," Steve replied with a grin.  "Do you?"

We ducked through the open gate and headed up the grassy trail, along an exposed ridge in the sunlight.  Below us the caretakers started to whistle in annoyance; we weren’t supposed to be there.

"Come on, just ignore those guys," Steve told us.  "We should give ‘em 500 bolivars and tell them to get lost."

Right, I’m thinking; these guys have been clearing underbrush with sickles all morning, and they’re probably not in a mood to mess with stupid tourists.  What would we do if they came after us (besides run)?  As it turns out, they didn’t bother chasing us down; Cecilia said later that they’d "scolded" her, but nothing more.

The forest walk itself was unproductive, except for an Orange-throated Sunangel (for all my anxiety, seems like we could have gotten a few more goodies!).  We came back to the hotel around 4:15 pm.  Ginny and I decided we’d try to shop a little, but none of the men were interested, so Cecilia dropped us off about 3 km away at a Mercado de Artesania, or an Artesans’ Market.  Ginny speaks no Spanish, so I was it!  To my semi-surprise (and relief) I was able to communicate without any problems, and even translate questions and answers for Ginny.  I bought a couple of scarves and a small painted wooden plate, all made by Peruvians living in Merida.  Practically impossible to find anything made by real Venezuelans.  The prices in the market were amazing – beautiful handmade wool sweaters for 2000 Bolivars ($25!), leather goods, rugs – some kitsch, to be sure, but some really nice things, too.  We only shopped for 45 minutes because I was getting nervous about our prospects for getting a taxi – everytime I looked outside, there were fewer and fewer taxis at the line-up.  We got the last taxi available (one that almost didn’t start...), and made it back to the hotel for only 150 Bolivars.  I gave the driver 300, he probably thought I was crazy.  I was just so happy to have made it back to the hotel – my first foray where I really had to use my Spanish, and I survived!

Tuesday, June 22 – Mérida to Santo Domingo

Five things to remember when walking in a rain forest:     

1) Don’t step on roots covered with moss; you’ll undoubtedly fall down.

2) Don’t follow the person ahead of you too closely; you could get whacked in the face with a fern branch or a vine.

3) Watch out for ant swarms and bee hives!

4) Stop every now and then to look UP rather than staring at the trail.  (Ok, the trail can be very interesting, especially when there are humungous land crabs and big tree snails.  But looking up can be quite nice, too.)

5) LISTEN!

We hiked this morning up the Humboldt trail at the La Mucuy entrance to Sierra Nevada National Park.  This trail goes all the way to the top of Pico Bolívar (5000+m), but we only went up from 2100m to 2350m.  The sun was out and the weather was lovely!  but this translated into very low bird activity.  We did, though, see Mérida Sunangels, Collared Incas, Andean Guan, and White-capped Dipper.

After lunch at a restaurant (a novel concept), we wound our way up to the Hotel Los Frailes in Santo Domingo, a small valley at around 3000m.  The hotel is situated where a monastery existed in the 17th century, and the hotel architecture resembles a monastery with the bell towers, arches, courtyard fountains, etc.  Our room itself is very pleasant with a canopied bed, stairs up to a loft containing a table and chair, and the sounds of a running fountain right outside the window.  The views of the mountains from the courtyard are spectacular!  Monks never had it so good.

Dinner time found us having another lively conversation with Steve and Cecilia, after which we went outside (around 8:45) to try to find Band-winged Nightjars.  We stood in the garden trying to get our eyes adjusted to the darkness while Steve readied his tape; he turned it on, and immediately the bird came streaking past us and whammed Robert on the side of the head!

"What was that!?" he said, in some alarm.

"That’s our bird – I think he just crapped on you!" Steve replied.  "Robert, check your head!"

No bird residue of any sort was found on Robert (luckily), but a few minutes later Steve found the bird perched precariously on a small ledge on the bell tower.  We got two very good lucks at him, thanks to Steve’s tracking him with a spotlight) before a rain shower drove us back inside.

Tomorrow we’ll be exploring the páramo, the environment above treeline, going up to about 4200m (13,000 ft or so).  The views of the páramo looked very interesting from the bus today.  Contrary to what you would think, there are trees here above treeline, but they’re nearly all pines that were introduced to try to check the erosion (which resulted from the clearing of the slopes to create farming terraces in the first place).

Wednesday, June 23 – Santo Domingo

The monastery-like setting of Santo Domingo certainly is peaceful (despite the occasional loud-voiced people walking by my open window); it’s very pleasant to have a restful afternoon reading (Michael Crichton’s Travels) and listening to the fountain gurgling outside.  People keep looking in the window as they walk by – perhaps they’re wondering why I’m lying on the bed in the middle of the afternoon.  It’s because I’m recovering from the morning’s excursion to the Pico de Águila at 4118m (13,500 ft). 

As we wound down the twisty, narrow Andean roads, Charles (the librarian from Florida) related to us the results of his recent search of the New York Times index for articles on "bus plunges" (this is what happens when a librarian gets bored...)  He says buses rarely crash, or go off the road; usually they "plunge" off "precipices".  Apparently one of the worst bus plunges in history was in the Andes, where a bus plunged over 600 feet.  Not the cheeriest of thoughts as we drove along!

The páramo environment (technically a tropical alpine grassland) is harsh and beautiful.  The plant life is miniature and finely detailed, if only you’ll stoop down to really look at things.  The clouds roll along and through the valleys; they obscure your view one moment, and are gone the next.  We saw some horses – colts, really – with long bushy manes and thick coats bounding across a spongy meadow.  And the birds are here too – Andean Tit-spinetail, Páramo Pipit, and Páramo Wrens (singing a delightful duet from the highest branch of a shrub, their little orange beaks pointed to the sky).

A woman named Virginia Baldwin ("call me Pat") from Rancho Palos Verdes joined us a few days ago in Mérida.  What a character – she’s not a birder, yet she has $1100 Zeiss 10x40 dialyt binoculars.  She had been in Brazil before joining us, seems she likes to leave California in June to "avoid the fog".  She left her hubby at home.  Pat is very talkative; at first we thought it was because she had been traveling alone, and since she seems to speak no Spanish, she was probably just glad to have English-speaking company.  Soon we decided that she simply likes to talk, to be the center of attention; she doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to what anyone else has to say.  And all she CAN talk about is where she’s been. 

"When I was on the Everest trail..."

"Can you see the Southern Cross?  I saw it last week on the Amazon..."

"Are there rheas here?  I saw them in Argentina..."

"Have you ever climbed Mt. Whitney?  I do every year..."

And on, and on, in a husky Lucille Ball-esque, denture-wearing gumby voice.  She invariably asks you a question, but always one to which she already has the answer, or an experience to relate.

"I was told to visit Malaysia before India..."

"We went swimming on the Rio Negro, they told us not to worry about the piranhas..."

"Have you ever been to the Bristlecomb Pines?"

"It rains non-stop in California from November to the beginning of April!"

We’re not alone; Charles sighed that Pat’s mind is never where she is.  He tries to avoid sitting near her on the bus or at meals.  Last night at dinner, Steve diplomatically said "she sure likes to talk" and added that she’s one of the idle wealthy – someone "with too damn much money who doesn’t know what to do with it.  That’s the kind of people you meet on cruises – they’re full of Pats socializing endlessly over seven-course meals with incredibly trivial conversations.  I can’t stand that stuff!"  I was definitely amused to hear this from Steve; what a job he has, to put up with all sorts of people on these tours!

In the meantime, Pat is becoming an amusement.  Charles rolls his eyes whenever she talks, and I’ve been imitating her.  Jan even is making sarcastic remarks.  We’ll probably all get caught before the trip is over.

Thursday, June 24 – Santo Domingo to Barinas

This morning we were up and out early, leaving the Hotel Los Frailes at 5:00 am.  We drove down to about 1300m to an area known for Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Fruitcrows, and lots of tanagers.  We had a picnic breakfast, started up the road into the valley, and found...a landslide!  The trail was quite impassable; the slide covered the trail and sloped all the way down to the river far below.  Steve was not happy; he said it probably meant the end of this area as a good birding spot.  I overheard his conversation with Cecilia (in Spanish); she found out from a construction worker babysitting some bulldozers that the slide had occurred three months ago, and it hadn’t been cleaned up because nobody was interested.  There was plenty of heavy equipment around but not much being done.  The workman said we could get through; ha!  He led the group down and across a shifty, muddy slope, and up steep rocks to the other side.  I refused to go; it looked really dangerous, and I just knew it would be worse returning.  Robert didn’t look too thrilled either, and opted to stay with me despite my insisting that he should go if he wanted.  Charles climbed about 2/3 of the way up and turned back once Robert decided to stay. 

So the three of us birded the road while all the others went on.  They returned 6-1/2 hours later; during that time the workman and our driver hacked a trail along the top of the slide (we didn’t know because we were down the road, and didn’t understand them when we returned at noon).  And the group didn’t see the trail either and returned the hardway – que lastima!  Sounded as if the group had a rough time, too; several tough stream crossings, rain, heat...ugh.  But they did get the good birds (darn them!).

We’re in Barinas for two nights at the Hotel Bristol.  We’ll finish up our low-Andean birding tomorrow before heading into the lowlands.

( (

A couple of bird facts to note:

+   The House Wren and the American Kestrel are the two widest-ranging birds in the western hemisphere.  They can be found from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego at all elevations.  As Steve said, "they nest along the Amazon and in my backyard in Kansas City!".

+   In general, bug-eating birds are monogamous and sedentary; fruit-eaters tend to be polygamous and move around more.  What does this mean? "No more fruit salads for you, bud!" Steve laughed.

Friday, June 25 – Barinas

At 6:15 we were enjoying breakfast inside the bus near the Barragán river (28km out of Barinas) – inside because of the rain.  Soon the rain let up and we were able to bird along the road beside the river, near a now-mostly-clean dumping site, for about 90 minutes.  Then it started raining harder, so we holed up in the bus for another 45 before heading out again.  We toodled along the road into the low foothills near Altamira, hiking along the road past the numerous coffee trees.  We returned to the Barragán river area in the afternoon.  Among the good birds of the day were Double-toothed Kite (perched at our lunch site), Violaceous Trogon, and Spangled Coquette.  Got a few good birds from our hotel window, too – Orange-chinned Parakeet, Green-rumped Parrotlet, and Striped Wren.  Tomorrow we finally hit the llanos! and leave the Andes behind for good.

We’ve been in Venezuela for two weeks – it seems like longer.  Without television or news I’ve completely lost track of time.

Saturday/Sunday, June 26-27 – Barinas to Hato Cedral

The weather finally (after two weeks) conspired against us, virtually washing out our morning birding before we left the foothills.  We were out around 6:30 but gave up at 9:00 after making sporadic forays from the "safety" of the bus.  "Safety" might be too strong a term considering the bus leaked in the back and all over the luggage compartment; most of the group’s clothes got soaked, although Robert and I seemed to have fared the best.

We were then off for the llanos!  I had a feeling of both anticipation (over the great birds we were sure to see) and dread (heat, mud, insects).  Trying not to worry about it, I settled in to my bus seat for the long drive.

In the high llanos, we stopped at another alcabala manned by the Venezuelan Guardia Nacional.  And as had happened at all the other stops on the trip, we expected to be waved through.

Instead, the motor stopped, and Cecilia got out to talk to the guard while we looked at birds in the trees near the bus.

Cecilia climbed back on board.  "He wants to see our passports," she said.

"What for?" Steve asked.

"I don’t know, he’s being a real asshole."  She went back out with a piece of paper listing our names and passport numbers.  Apparently this wasn’t good enough, because moments later she was back.  "Ok, I really need your passports now."

I fished mine out of my moneybelt, and handed it over, as did Robert.  Pat made some noise about needing to undress to get to her moneybelt; Joe said his was in his suitcase.

"Don’t get them," Steve said quietly, "he won’t know what to do with them anyway.  He won’t even notice that he doesn’t have one for everybody."

Cecilia took the passports out to the guard; after a burst of Spanish that I couldn’t follow, she climbed aboard again.  "Jesus Christ, he wants to search our luggage!  José," she asked the driver, "can you open the back?"

The guard rummaged around in the bags.  Pat made periodic mention about her dirty laundry; Dick and Charles mentioned their bags were locked.  Mine was open, and I didn’t really care if they searched it; all the good stuff was in my backpack on the seat, anyway.  I contemplated taking a photograph of the alcabala or the guards with their automatic rifles, but when I started to lean out the bus window with the camera, I saw an armed guard too near the bus.  Scratch that idea.

"I’ve learned not to mess with authorities," Robert said half-jokingly, and I knew he was thinking about his 1979 Rumanian passport saga, being dragged off the train and stuck in a room while Rumanian police argued over whether his passport was real.  Certainly this situation wasn’t anywhere near that serious.  I didn’t get the feeling that we were in any danger; it was just an inconvenience.  A really tedious inconvenience.

Minutes passed; we watched birds while the luggage thumped in the back.  Steve shook his head.  "They don’t get many tourists in the llanos; he probably hasn’t seen any for months."

Cecilia returned.  "Richard, I need you to open your luggage."

"No problem, here are the keys."

A few more minutes pass.  "Charles," calls Cecilia, "you need to unlock your bag too."  Off goes Charles.

Meanwhile Pat is still fidgeting over not giving up her passport; her voice is getting more and more annoying.  "Don’t worry," Steve says, "he still hasn’t figured it out. These guys are bozos."

Cecilia returns.  "Jan, we can’t open your suitcase."  Off goes Jan, despite her protests that her bag isn’t locked.

"The guy must be a private," remarked Joe, our retired Air Force, former UN Special Forces solider.

Cecilia is on the bus again.  "I’m really sorry everyone, I can’t do anything about this," she apologizes.  We all tell her not to worry.  Steve laughs and says to her, "it’s ok, he doesn’t have all the passports."

"What?!" gasps Cecilia, wide-eyed.

Steve just sits there and grins.

Another car pulls up behind us.  "They’ll have to speed up now," drawls Charles.

No chance; the car behind us is waved around.

Finally, Cecilia is in the aisle with a handful of passports.  "He says we can go now!" she says as she hands them out.  All told, we were there for about 20 minutes.  She smiles at the guard as we pull away; Steve waves, mumbles "asshole", and we’re on our way.

"Yee haw!!" shouts Steve, looking back from a safe distance, clearly pleased that the passport deception succeeded.  "There’s not much you can do with these guys – it’s great to stick it to them in some little way!"  And he kicks back and grins as we rumble down the road.

Shortly after noon, we made it to Hato El Cedral.  We had to leave the tour bus at the entrance because the mud roads on the ranch are impassable unless you have huge tires.  A big truck (similar to our Rara Avis experience in Costa Rica) came out to get us and drove us back to the ranch house area.  Quite pretty here; in the middle of the vast, open ranch sits the ranch house, guest quarters, the kitchen/dining room, and a pool and garden.  We enjoyed lunch in the dining room, then lazed around for a few hours waiting for it to cool off a little before going out birding. 

Out on the muddy roads, the wildlife was astounding: cayman lurking in the shallow water, capybaras plodding through the grass (and occasionally plunging noisily off the side of the road into the water), and birds everywhere!  From the "observation deck" on the truck, one has a 360-degree view of the plains, and they just seem endless, with only an occasional tree to break the landscape.  It’s much like what I’ve imagined Africa would be like.  We stayed out until sunset so that we could look for nightjars on the way back, and with the aid of Steve’s spotlight, we saw quite a few.

Sunday morning it was raining.  It seemed to let up for awhile, so we went out on the truck only to be caught in a heavy shower.  We all got pretty thoroughly soaked, but the temperature was still warm so it didn’t really matter too much.  Back to the ranch for lunch and a siesta, and we’ll head out again at 4:00 for another three or four hours.

Monday, June 28 – Hato El Cedral

That morning after breakfast, we cruised around the ranch in a small powerboat, following the river past the dikes and through floating clouds of water hyacinths.  Iguanas lay draped across tree branches and turtles plopped off logs, while hundreds of egrets swirled around us, agitated by the noise of the motor.  Kingfishers – Ringed, Amazon, and Green – swooped and dived, and pairs of Scarlet Macaw squawked loudly as they flew overhead.  Bizarre Hoatzins and Rufous-vented Chachalacas made a noisy fuss in the trees as we approached.  Cayman eyes peered at us, barely above the water’s surface.

Cayman – a sort of crocodile – sit very quietly.  Sometimes they stay submerged, so that all you see are their eyes, or perhaps the ridge of their nostrils.  Other times you get a glimpse of tail looking like an abandoned tire.  We watched one cayman sit frozen, mouth open; suddenly he lunged for the water, then stopped at the water’s edge, frozen once more.  Did he know we were watching?

"Caught in the act of a thought!" Steve laughed.  "And now he can’t remember what he was going to do."  That’s certainly how it appeared; the cayman didn’t budge.

"That’s right," Charles added.  "Remember this is a creature with the brain the size of a peanut....no, make that a pecan."

"There’s a difference?" I asked.

"Well, a whole pecan is larger than a peanut, unless each peanut represents one lobe of the brain," Robert offered semi-seriously, setting us off on another ridiculous exchange about brain size and intelligence.

Meanwhile, the cayman stays frozen, unblinking, watching us pass.

Nearby in the grass, a huge Jabirú, impressive in flight and at a distance, was even more impressive at close range.  He was carefully picking his way through the hyacinths and grasses, ignoring us.  He stood nearly four feet out of the water, and another foot or so (knee to toe) was submerged; he makes the Wood Storks look tiny!

The good thing about a boat ride is that you’re moving fast enough to discourage the mosquitoes.  We stopped at one point to try out a forest trail, one that Steve is fond of visiting in the dry season.

"This is no place for short sleeve shirts," he commented; "if you have repellent, better use it!"

We dutifully sprayed our sock-over-pants-clad ankles, and our wrists and necks.  I put on my scarf and hat; we both pulled on our rain jackets.  I was already warm, and we hadn’t even left the boat yet!  And the mosquitoes were already thick, landing on my arms and legs, and whining in my ear. 

Robert and I hurried along the trail to catch up with the others, waving our arms a lot to ward off the mosquitoes.  We looked better off than most of our companions; at least the repellent does some good.  Steve ("I never use repellent") was covered with the pests.  And they continued to whine in my ear...I can take a lot of things, but the whine of a mosquito in your ear has got to be one of the most irritating sounds known to man, right up there with fingernails on a chalkboard.  You hear the bug, then you see them, then you realize that you see lots of them.  So you start flapping and waving your arms like some sort of crazed semaphore signalman.  The activity gets you overheated, but you don’t dare unzip your jacket or remove your hat, because you’re desperate to keep all body surfaces covered.  In the meantime, the bugs probe through your socks at your ankles, and zero in on your exposed neck and wrists.  When you’re not waving them away from your head, you’re trying to whack them off your legs.  And your back, well just forget it, you can’t see what’s there anyway, and if you did you’d probably scream.

After about five minutes of this, I’d had enough.  "That’s it!" I announced, and turned back to the boat.  To my surprise, everyone followed; guess they were all waiting for someone else to give up first.  (Glad to be of service.)  I ran into Cecilia on the trail.

"¿Qué pasó?" she asked.

"¡No me gustan los mosquitoes!" I replied, and she laughed.  Soon we were all back on the boat.  Only Ramón, our "captain" (in shorts and short sleeves!) looked unperturbed.  As the boat picked up speed, the insects fell away, and we peeled off our protective layers of clothing.

"Steve," Jan asked, "now, if you were here alone doing field work, gathering data for your book, you would have just forged ahead on that trail?"

"No way, I wouldn’t go in there!" he responded cheerfully.  I tried to swat a lingering mosquito off Charles’ arm; instead of flying off or simply dying quietly, it burst and left a big blood smear on his arm and on my scarf.

"Whose blood is THAT?" he asked.

"Yours, I hope," I answered.  I had seen the mosquito chowing down seconds earlier.  What a mess.

We passed some more forested areas from the safety of the water hyacinths.  "Think there’s a good trail in there?" Steve asked.  "No!" we chorused, and cruised on down the river.

( (

We saw an anaconda today; Ramon spotted him curled up in the marshy grass near the water.  It was hard to tell his size; Ramon said maybe three meters.  His body was very thick. 

The others walked along the road; I stayed on the truck.  At the ranch house, another truck pulled up, and some men got out; one held up a plastic bag.  "Anaconda," he said, and pulled the snake out of the bag.  A baby; only about one meter in length.  I felt the snake’s midsection – it was strong, cool, and a little squishy.  And very strong.  I took a photograph.  Apparently they’re planning on releasing it up along the road somewhere.

( (

thwack

I felt the beetle bash himself against the side of my head.  I take off my hat, flick the very large, disgusting insect off into the road, and put my hat back on.  I check my arms and legs, then sit back, hoping to relax.

thwack

On my leg this time, another big beetle.  I flick it off,  check my arms and legs, and sit back.

thwack

On the side of my head again.  "Robert, would you check my head?"  I ask, tilting towards him.

Robert obligingly brushes off a bug or two.. "All clear!" he says to me.  We’re returning from our last afternoon of birding at Hato El Cedral.  We drove way to the south, down the highway; now that the sun has set, we’re traversing back, looking for nightjars, potoos, and horned screamers in the trees lining the road.  The air is thick with insects; you can see them in the light beam as Steve scans the treetops with the spotlight.

thwack

On my leg again.  I flick it off, trying not to notice how big he is; I make another cursory check of my arms and legs and sit back.

thwack

Christ, there are a lot of bugs.  They’re night insects; we’ve had nothing like this during the day.  Even last night wasn’t so bad...

thwack

Side of the head.  "Robert, check me?" I ask again; he brushes away the beetles, and I lean back again.

I try facing the rear of the truck; maybe if the bugs hit my back, they’ll just bounce off.  I look past the canopy supports on the truck.  Through them I can see the Southern Cross in the sky, not to mention some constellations that I completely do not recognize.  Not surprising; we’re at 7 degrees north, the farthest south I’ve ever been.  We probably saw part of the Southern Cross in Costa Rica, but I don’t remember.

thwack

Sigh.  "Robert..."

He brushes me, pronounces me clear once again, and I hunch over, trying to present a smaller target.  Joe doesn’t seem too bothered; must be that military background.  Probably if you’d been in Beirut and Damascus, and flown on Air Sudan, a few insects wouldn’t seem so bad.

"Great Potoo on the left!" shouts Steve from above.

I stand up and pivot to see the bird in the spotlight.  I get a great view!  Unfortunately, I also get a couple hundred bugs in my mouth.  Shit!  I need to keep my mouth shut when I face forward.

I sit back down.  Soon we’ll be off the highway, I think, on the mud track back to the ranch houses; the vegetation isn’t so thick, so it will be better there.

thwack

This is getting really tiresome.  Another beetle on my head.  If I didn’t have my hat on, they’d all be in my hair...

thwack

"Robert..."

Brush, brush.  "All clear!"

I really am trying to relax, but it’s impossible.  Soon we’ll be off the highway, I think to myself over and over.  The Southern Cross is still shimmering in the sky out the back of the truck.

thwack

This really would be a very enjoyable ride, if not for the thwack damn bugs.  At least they don’t harm you; they just sit on you, wherever they fall.  But I don’t like bugs.  They’re thwack big and ugly.  Actually, I can’t see them too well, I’m just assuming they’re ugly.  I’ve only got the light of a half moon.  The only artificial thwack light is Steve’s spotlight and the truck headlights; beyond that it is pitch dark for miles and thwack miles.  Soon we’ll be off the highway, I think, as I watch the Southern Cross, and hunch down even more.

thwack

Sigh.

Wednesday, June 30 – Caracas to Miami

We returned to Caracas last night, flying on Aeropostal from San Fernando de Apure.  Our accomodations were quite luxurious; we stayed at the Hotel Tamanaco, probably the nicest hotel in Caracas.  Beautiful big room, view of the pool and the city, big fluffy towels in the bathroom – too bad we didn’t have more time here.  Our final dinner with Steve at the hotel was great, too – big steaks, an incredible salad and dessert buffet, rum punch...wunderbar!

An early (well, 9:00 am) flight Wednesday got us to Miami around noon.  After a long wait in customs – the people ahead of us were permanent residents with questionable papers – we got our car and drove to the Doubletree Hotel in Coconut Grove.  Things are expensive here!  A big switch from Venezuela.  No ice machines, no pay phones (you can only make calls from the rip-off phones in the room), and of course, the enforced valet parking at $8 a day ("you know that doesn’t include my tip!" the valet weenie asserted loudly).  Well, it’s good to be back in the US of A anyway.

I called my friend Debbie (left a message) and my sister Lu; my 3 -year-old niece Maureen said plaintively, "Where are you, Teta?   And when are you coming home?"  I miss her!  But we’ll be home soon enough.  We’ll visit the Everglades tomorrow, maybe see Jurassic Park in the afternoon.  Strolled over to Grand Avenue to window shop and to have dinner.  The "Coco Walk" complex there is interesting with its pseudo-Spanish/art deco architecture.  It’s also home to Dan Marino’s Sports Bar and the "Hooters" (yep, you guessed it) restaurant.  Sigh.

July 2 - 6 – New York

We left the open spaces of Florida on the second, flying to New York for our Carnegie Hall gig.  Such a contrast, leaving the natural flatness of the Everglades (with the three foot "pass" on the main road) to the vertical, manmade landscape of NYC.  And so many people; crazy traffic, LOTS of taxis, horns blaring at all hours, aggressive, desperate homeless people.  Despite my initial worries about our being across from Penn Central (United agent in Miami: "So you’re off to the city that never sleeps!"  Me: "God, I hope not!") it’s relatively quiet in our room.  The traffic noise is steady enough to be "white noise" so it’s not bad.  We’re on the eighth (of 18) floors, but when you look out the window all you see are buildings, hardly any sky.

Robert’s mom Claire and aunt Alla are here too, and they are having a ball.  They really seem to love this city and find it exciting.  It just seems big and dirty to me.  London was more exciting to me, and the architecture there was certainly more interesting.

We went to see a show with Claire and Alla last night, "Miss Saigon".  The performances were good, especially the actor playing the "Engineer", desperate to get to America.  But otherwise the show was somewhat of a disappointment – it was basically a retold Madame Butterfly, and 99% of the music was quite forgettable.  I wish we had seen the "Goodbye Girl" with Martin Short and Bernadette Peters instead, or "Guys and Dolls" – but you can’t argue with free tickets!

After the show we piled into a taxi and drove through Times Square before going back to our hotel.  Times Square is impressive – especially the big Coca Cola display (as featured on the PBS series on skyscrapers and construction).

Our rehearsals have been interesting.  We’re in the "skytop" ballroom in this old rundown hotel ("formerly the Hotel Pennsylvania").  We have three conductors – John Rutter, Noel Lovelace, and Hanan Yaqub.  The music text is all Latin, but each conductor has their own ideas as to correct pronunciation, so we have a lot to note and remember.  We’ll only have one rehearsal with the orchestra, and that’s the dress rehearsal in Carnegie Hall Monday afternoon.  The concert is Monday evening.

Rehearsals have been long and tiring, but fun.  Hanan is very serious; I think she is overcompensating because perhaps women conductors don’t get the respect that they should.  Noel is a cheerful North Carolinan with a heavy-duty church music background (organ performance major, is the minister of music at his church); he’s bringing the Haydn Te Deum to life with his joyful interpretation.  Rutter is a Brit, and oh so proper.  Kiki Speidel  (another RANDite in the Mansfield Chamber Singers) and I have been writing down some of his better quotes; too bad we can’t get his accent on paper.  Here’s a few:

(After our first run-through of the Faure Requiem:)  "Yes, right.  Not bad; we have some promising raw material to work with."

(Working with the basses)  "You can’t build a sweet harmony on a sour foundation."

"Nothing is ever simple in music.  Even repeating a note is an elephant trap."

(After another run-through)  " Well, it’s on the trend of improvement.  I think the fashionable phrase is ‘learning curve’.  It means it’s getting better."

(At dress rehearsal)  "As for stage fright...we don’t do that.  Well, all right, so all the great artists of the world have performed here on this very stage.  That’s fine, but they’re not here now."

At Carnegie Hall, we thought it was crowded for the Magnificat and Te Deum.  But  260 or more singers in the chorus for the Requiem were squashed onto the risers.  We were like sardines with sheet music.  It was even worse in the rehearsal room, lining up.

The performance itself is exhilarating, performing with chamber orchestra and soloists arrayed before an audience in this venerable hall.  The energy, the fury in the strings carries the Mozart Magnificat and lifts the Haydn Te Deum to the heavens.  Noel Lovelace’s broad smile communicates this to the chorus. He’s clearly enjoying this to the fullest.

In contrast, John Rutter is intense, thoroughly immersed in the Requiem.  The intensity is restrained like the silent scream in an Eduard Munch paintining.  But it is exquisite with all the harmonic nuances.  The baritone solo "Libera Me" is moving, the tenors soar, and the sopranos provide an ethereal mood at the end.

Following the concert most of the performers went on a midnight cruise of New York harbor.  We floated past the Statue of Liberty, bathed in floodlights; nearby Ellis Island, where my dad arrived in the US.  It’s great to share this experience with Kiki Speidel, Etan McElroy and others in Mansfield.