Greetings from Bonaire! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
We arrived in Bonaire December 20th after spending about 3 weeks cruising Venezuela's off shore islands. The islands were Tortuga (Turtle), Los Roques (The Rocks) and The Aves (The Birds). We had a wonderful time exploring, fishing, snorkeling, relaxing and catching up on some much needed rest after our busy time in Puerto La Cruz. We had planned on cruising with several other boats but as it turned out we needed to order parts for our watermaker and stayed in the marina another week longer. The gang went ahead without us so we traveled those 3 weeks by ourselves, except we did meet a few new folks along the way.
Now that we are in Bonaire we have caught up with everyone. There are about 40 other sailboats moored in the harbor. We celebrated Christmas Eve on a friend's catamaran singing Christmas Carol's and, Christmas night was spent indulging at one of the local buffets! Santa managed a trip down island too but he arrived on a dolphin, as his sleigh and reindeer are not outfitted for this extreme climate!
Bonaire is known as the diving capital of the Caribbean. The waters surrounding Bonaire are a protected marine park and the diving and snorkeling is absolutely outstanding. We plan to stay here through the New Year Celebrations and then look for a window to move onto the next island, which is Curacao. It is only about 30 miles away but the "Christmas Winds" are kicking up a mightily blow at a gusty 20-25 knots making the seas too big to travel on.
We will keep you posted as we move west. Happy 2007 and we wish everyone a Very Prosperous New Year!
|Year Three October 2006 - June 2007||
Until now we have told very few people about our accident at Angel Falls. And, after only two months, we are feeling well and are doing the things we love to do with little to no complications. It was a terrible experience, yet there are some funny things that happened too. So here's our story, with ALL the details as best as we could remember them. Who knows, this one may become a chapter in our book someday!
On October 22, 2006 Sara and I accompanied five other cruising friends on a tour to Angel Falls. Angel Falls is deep in the rainforest in the heart of Venezuela. It is the tallest water fall in the world at over 3000 feet tall.
It was discovered in 1956 by a pilot named Angel, and by Tomas Bernal of Peru, as they flew over the area. Thereafter, Tomas Bernal blazed the trail that leads to Angel Falls as well as many other trails that lead to many lower (and shorter) falls around the village of Canaima, Venezuela. Canaima is an Indian village in the middle of the rainforest without any roads leading to it. Even today it is still only accessible by airplane. Tomas then began taking tourists to visit all of the falls. They included Angel Falls, Canaima Falls, Sapo and Sapito Falls. Although Tomas Bernal passed away when his canoe went over Canaima Falls in the mid 1980's, his family continues to arrange tours out of their travel agency in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela. The Bernal Tour came highly recommended by another cruiser so we decided to purchase our trip package from them.
Our journey started in Puerto La Cruz with a 1:00 pm departure from the bus station downtown. The bus we were supposed to be on had broken down, but we were able to make arrangements with another bus company that was leaving a short time later. The trip hadn't even begun and things were looking a little "iffy". There was just enough time for a beer or two while we waited. The bus was actually very nice with great air conditioning, comfortable reclining seats and lots of legroom for the four-hour bus ride to Ciudad Bolivar. Before we departed a young man came onboard selling beaded bracelets to help support his family. He mentioned something about his children and "zapados" (meaning "shoes" in Spanish) so we all bought bracelets from him. Then en route, we watched a Japanese "shoot-em-up" type movie that had the voices dubbed to English with Spanish subtitles. Talk about multi-cultural!
We arrived in Ciudad Bolivar late that afternoon, and Walter Bernal Jr., age 19, picked us up at the bus terminal and drove us to Hotel Valentino for the night. Walter was very personable, spoke pretty good English and was very helpful. When Walter is working for the family business he studies industrial engineering at the local university. He recommended his favorite spot, "Tony Bar", for dinner just a short walk away with local Venezuelan food. The seven of us went out for dinner and had great food and a very nice time.
October 23, 2006: The next morning at 7:30 am, Walter Jr. and also Walter Sr. his father, (age 45) met us at the hotel. They hailed a really beat up looking cab that was all rusted out and the old cabbie drove us to the very small airport in Ciudad Bolivar. The airport mainly just had small, private planes. The airport security had a metal detector that did not work and the airport security guards opened any carry on bag that had an easy open access. It was as if they had never dealt with Velcro or buckles before, only zippers. I don't know what they were looking for since our friend had his leatherman on his belt the whole time and they didn't care, or didn't notice.
The plane ride was one hour long in a five-seater plane. Bert, one of our friends, got to sit in the co-pilot seat but was told not to touch anything. We sat behind the pilot and Dennis and Jack were behind us. The other two in our group, Grant and Candace, went in a second plane the same size. We were asked to board according to "size" and the pilot picked who should sit where. When all of our duffle bags, camera bags and back packs were piled in behind the last two back seats the tail of the plane made a big "clunk" on the ground which even surprised the pilot.
We had a smooth takeoff and the flight was uneventful. Our pilot read the local newspaper while flying even though the little plane did not have any autopilot! Then he would laugh out loud now and again and we decided since he had his headset on that he was hearing jokes from his buddies back at the tower.
The scenery from the plane was mixed. There was scrubby, prairie type land, solid rainforest thick with trees, and then it opened up to more plateaus and low mountains. There was a very large lake, a huge delta and river, which later on we found out was the Oronoco Delta / River. We also flew over what looked to be an old, abandoned mine. Venezuela is known for their gold and diamond mining.
We arrived in Canaima and met our guide, Getulio (a local Indian from the village) at the "airport" which consisted of an airstrip and an open-air thatched roofed building with picnic tables. Canaima is just a village but you don't really see it as a tourist. We did see a few lodging accommodations within Canaima Park.
From the airport we walked a short distance with our bags to Canaima Park. There we waited for our next means of transportation: a dugout canoe. The fun was just beginning and we took some excellent pictures of Canaima Falls off in the distance. When our canoe arrived we all loaded into the big 24-foot long wooden dugout canoe with a 45hp Yamaha motor, all decked out in our orange life preservers. Our canoe crossed a lagoon, passing close to the falls, and to a private island owned by the Bernal Family.
Dugout Canoes on the Beach at Canaima
Once we arrived at the "Camp" we walked up the trail with our gear and found our accommodations for the first night. It was an open air building with a corrugated metal roof, hammocks lined up and hanging around the perimeter and two long picnic tables in the center dining area. In the yard out in front of the building is where Tomas Bernal is buried and there is a lovely little memorial with small statues and fake flowers. From here the view across the lagoon of Canaima Falls was gorgeous.
Since the Camp had public accommodations you really hope nobody snored! The sleeping bunks were large, comfortable hammocks, but there was one double bed and one twin bed for those less adventurous. You select your hammock for the night and each hammock has bug netting draped over the top to keep any bugs off. We were told to not let your netting touch the floor otherwise the bugs (cockroaches, spiders, beetles, etc...) might crawl up it. The bathrooms were lacking toilet paper and soap and the showers were cold, but at least they had water (but just a pipe in the wall, no shower head). Night lighting was mostly by candle.
The camp staff served lunch around noon and afterwards Getulio took us hiking on the trails. We hiked first to beautiful Sapo Falls, where you get to walk "behind" the falls, then to Sapito Falls, a smaller and less dramatic waterfall. The hike wasn't really hard but some places were steep and rocky or full of tree roots. Getulio called to birds and pointed out flora and fauna species. The giant red ants in particular will bite and make you sick for days! He said they have anaconda and small crocodiles, but we didn't see any.
The first afternoon was quite relaxing and we had a wonderful time hiking with some spectacular views of all the different waterfalls. By the time we arrived back at the camp, two other tour groups (mostly German tourists) had come in and so there were about twenty-five of us all sharing the same sleeping quarters that first night.
Grant & Candace, Jack, Dennis and Sara and I had happy hour sitting underneath some trees out front munching on Cheetos and watching Canaima Falls at sunset. Dinner was served late and afterwards everyone headed for his or her hammocks. Finally, at midnight the candles were blown out. It rained all night long that night and into the early morning the next day. We were definitely in the rainforest!
October 24, 2006: The next morning the rain finally stopped around 9:30 am. It had poured all night long and Canaima Falls were raging. After a good breakfast of ham and eggs, the seven of us broke camp and were taken back across the lagoon to Canaima. We waited a good hour and a half for our guide Getulio (he lives in Canaima), a young Italian couple (who were robbed the night before in Bolivar of one of their backpacks and both of their passports), two guys from the Ukraine and one Spanish speaking man, all who flew in from Bolivar to join our group. We were not sure why we had to wait for these people except that maybe they wanted a full canoe to go up to Angel falls.
Finally, around noon we walked with our gear again a short distance where we loaded into the back of a pick up truck with two long bench seats along each side of the box. The ride to the upper river above Canaima Falls was short but the road was steep, extremely bumpy and was full of ruts, not to mention all the mud and water from previous nights rain. Our truck got stuck and the engine died several times, then the last time it died we had to get out walk the rest of the way to the rivers edge. It seemed we weren't having the best luck at this point, but we were still having fun!
At the rivers edge our canoe was ready and the twelve of us, Getulio, and two drivers all piled into another dugout canoe. This canoe was powered by a 45 hp outboard and was only 16 feet long and we headed out to go up the river. The water was really running fast from the rain and it looked as though the river was twice as full as the day before. Our driver dodged in and out of the rapids a good part of the way up, keeping very close to the shore in many areas. At other times he would have to zigzag across the river back and forth against the current to avoid many shallow rapids. It was quite an exciting trip!
Just one half hour up river we pulled up to a shore and we were dropped off. The rapids on the river for the next mile or two were too treacherous to go up against the current. Getulio lead the way across a barren landscape in the scorching sun until we reached the shore on the other side where our canoe and the two drivers were waiting. We were back on the river again, but another hour later we stopped but this time at a small waterfall in a little cove. We had a shore lunch in the shade of sandwiches and chips that were prepared by Getulio and the drivers. I swam up to the waterfall and crawled up the slippery rocks to get in and behind it. That was fun and the cool water felt great in the hot sun.
After lunch we continued up the river. On the way we were told to keep our hands inside the canoe and sometimes we would need to duck to get under branches or vines along the shore. Sara and I would periodically take our life jackets off but only when the driver nodded that no rapids were ahead. We then used the life jackets to cushion our aching butts! The seats in the canoe were not padded, just raw wood and it was a long four sit! Dennis was smart and brought a boat cushion along with him. We teased him the entire way about stealing it from him or having something "happen" to it.
The scenery on the river was a mixture of rainforest and plateau top mountains (similar to Devil's Tower) but much, much larger and taller. Getulio called them the Table Top Mountains. There must have been close to fifty different waterfalls of all different sizes cascading down from the flat tops of the mountains. At one point we counted twenty-two that we could see all at one time. It was quite spectacular. And as we got closer and closer to Angel Falls, the river narrowed, the rapids ran faster and there were huge boulders the size of buses in the middle of the river.
We finally arrived at 4:30 pm to the shore where the trail leads up to Angel Falls. Earlier we had been told that we would go to the Camp first, and unload and get settled, before hiking the one-hour (each way) challenging path to the overlook of Angel Falls. But rather, since it was so late in the day, (because we waited for the other tourists in Canaima to join our group) they took us right to the trail, and we all got out of the canoe. There wasn't any time to change clothes or get into our bags for anything. We were without bug spray, hats, and hiking shoes.
Daylight was burning and we headed out, with Sara wearing flip-flops and her ankle still swollen from the surgery last June! The entire group quickly got ahead of Sara and I, and we made the entire hike alone on the root covered and rocky trail. Usually it was easy to follow, but sometimes you couldn't see which way to go. At one spot a cloud of flying and biting red bugs attacked us. They stuck to our clothes and got in our hair. Shortly after, we walked through biting ants (we didn't see them until they were all over our feet)! We both sustained numerous bites, which at first hurt and stung, then itched real bad for about fifteen minutes.
As we approached the Angel Falls scenic overlook it became apparent that we would run out of daylight before we got back because it was now 5:20 pm. The rest of our group had already made it to the top but many others from another group had already passed us on their way back down. Sara was getting worried that we would end up hiking back in the dark because she couldn't hike as fast as normal.
At the top of the scenic overlook the wind was blowing about 30 mph and the spray from Angel Falls was getting us wet. There was so much water going over the falls (because of the recent rains) that we really couldn't get many pictures without getting the camera soaked. Because of the 3000-foot drop, the water would vaporize before it reached the bottom. But there was a small lake / pool the base of the falls that you could hike to where you could swim, but with daylight running out and the dangerous water conditions, it wasn't an option.
We turned around and headed back down the trail at 5:30 pm. The thick rainforest didn't let any more daylight in and so we found ourselves with very little light and finally in pitch-blackness after about 20 minutes. Our guide didn't seem too worried and he did wait up for us this time. Once the sun went down it started to pour rain again. Yes, I said rain. We were in the rainforest. We were in the middle of nowhere, in pouring rain, walking on a rocky, root-covered path. Sara had to be extra careful not to hurt her "recently fixed" ankle. None of us wanted to know what was in the now ankle deep water that we waded through! Sometimes you would step in a whole in the water and be up to your shins! Out of the twelve of us, we somehow managed to have three flashlights. With those, we could see enough to walk slowly. Luckily Dennis had a flashlight with him and he walked behind Sara to help her see where to step. Again, biting ants on the return trip attacked me!
The hike back down took just under two hours and it was close to 7:00 pm when we were relieved to finally see one of our drivers approach us from the other direction. We could hear rushing water and knew we were getting close to the canoe landing. With the still pouring rain we loaded back into the canoe. The driver had to go back down river (about 1/4 mile) backwards, since the water was too fast, and the river too narrow, to turn around! It was a very fast, scary ride in the dark to the other shore back down stream where the second Camp was.
We arrived at the Angel Falls Base Camp and were welcomed by a young Venezuelan woman who helped Sara climb up the slippery rocks on the path to get to our accommodations. Again we found more hammocks, one big long picnic table that sat about 20 people, a sand/dirt floor, candles for lighting, and two toilets that were flushed by using a bucket of water dipped into a drum of water and poured down the toilet. There were not any showers or sinks this time, but at least there was some toilet paper. A nice hot shower would have felt pretty good, since we were all soaking wet. But we survived the rainforest adventure, and our spirits rose as we changed into dry sweats and sweatshirts and got warm, had a wonderful grilled chicken dinner, lots of rum (that we all had brought ourselves) and good laughter with everyone. The torrential rain continued most of the night.
Getullio (left) and our drivers
October 25, 2006: The next morning, we rose early at 6:00 am to catch the sunrise and shine on Angel Falls. The view from the Camp was spectacular! The falls changed color during the early morning as the morning sun hit it from different directions. We could hear the water thundering over the mountain and the spray was making a huge cloud of mist about two thirds of the way down the cascade. Getulio said we were lucky to see so much water. It was truly a wonderful sight.
Shortly after breakfast, we loaded up the canoes one last time for the trip home. The river was still raging but this time we were going down stream and the ride was like an amusement park ride. On fast turns the side of the boat dipped under the water and a wave would go over us. There was one wave that totally got Sara in the face. We were laughing! Since the conditions were so rough, we decided to keep our life jackets on for the ride back down. Our driver went full throttle though both slack water and rapids, dodging in and out of boulders that were both above and beneath the water. With the current running over 10 knots in places, we were flying.
As we "flew" down river we went again very much like we did coming up stream. Close to the rivers' edge. I was taking pictures of the rapids as we went through them with our underwater camera. Little did we know, there was a bigger, faster dugout canoe with a 75hp motor and 16 tourists on board coming upstream. I didn't even see the collision about to happen.
As our canoe zigzagged across the river to the shoreline on our left, and we approached a "blind" corner, (a 90 degree angle) on the tree lined river. As we came around the corner, we encountered the other canoe coming upstream. Our driver slowed our canoe and tried to turn to the right. But the driver did not slow and turned his canoe to the left. Before anyone knew, the other boat ran right into us (T-Bone style) just behind the middle of our canoe. The momentum brought the front of the other canoe up on top of our canoe and it slid down sideways the length of our canoe. Our friends Bert, Grant and Candace where sitting about in the middle of the boat and were able to duck as the canoe hull went right over their heads. The other tourists were safe and in front of them. The next two passengers, our friends Dennis and Jack, both got hit right in the face by the hull. Then it kept coming back and Sara and I were next in the last two passenger seats. Sara ducked and I must have had time to duck, but I don't remember. The weight of the bigger canoe was now tipping ours to the left and there was not enough room for the boat to go over us. I was struck on the top and side of my head and it pushed me down to the floor. The same happened to Sara and she had the top layer of skin scraped off the back of her neck where the boat went over her. The boat then sheared off the entire luggage, which was directly behind us, and then hit Getulio and the driver.
I remember standing up after the big canoe passed over us, only to find the water rising in our canoe. We were sinking! Within seconds, the water was past our knees and the current pulled us out of the canoe. I grabbed Sara, who was now screaming because of the pain in her back/shoulder. Thank goodness we both had our life jackets on because now we proceeded to float down river, right through the rapids. We both tried to keep our legs and feet forward to fend off rocks and big boulders in case we were to hit them. People and cargo were floating everywhere. We saw Jack floating face up and he looked unconscious or worse, and there was blood all over his face. The fuel cans from the canoe were pouring gasoline into the water, and we were right in the middle of it.
I don't know how far we floated, or for how long. The canoe that hit us did not sink and no one in that canoe was injured. They immediately started plucking people and gear out of the water. Then within minutes, other canoes appeared on the river and also helped out.
One canoe saw Sara and I and headed our way. I could not swim to the boat, since I had hold of Sara. But, thankfully, the boat came to us. The first attempt to get Sara into the canoe failed because she was in such severe pain when they tried to lift her underneath her arms. With two people onboard pulling, and myself and Grant in the water pushing, we got Sara onboard and onto the floor of a canoe. While doing this, the current grabbed me and pushed me under the canoe. I only remember opening my eyes and seeing that I was underwater and I was really scared. But I popped up on the other side, and was hoisted into the canoe. Then, much to my surprise, I realized I still had our "dry bag" clutched in my hand! It was holding our video camera, digital camera, 35 mm camera, and assorted batteries, etc. I don't remember holding on to it, but it was there and it came out with me and everything appeared to still be dry. Our canoe then joined the other rescuer canoes. But, it was apparent that Sara could not be moved again, so everyone in our boat got off except our guide, Getulio, a driver and me. At this point on the river we were still two hours by water away from Canaima!
For the next two hours we sped our way down the river. As we would come up on rapids, I would alert Sara and count down; "big bumps coming in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 seconds..." She looked forward to the "smooth water" that I would tell her about as we came out of the rapids. I had stuffed a life jacket under her shoulders and her head was resting on a seat on the canoe. She was still in severe pain and every bump hurt. The pain was mainly in her left shoulder blade and back, but at this point we just couldn't be sure of the injuries. She described the pain as volts of electricity running through her back.
We arrived in Canaima and pulled into the spot where the canoes unload. There are not any docks so the canoes just pull the bow on the edge of the river. Someone had called for help ahead of our arrival, but we still sat there waiting for help. While waiting, a tourist (also a doctor) came over to offer some assistance. She gave Sara some pain pills but they never really helped. Finally, a pickup truck arrived with the "doctor" (I think she was a paramedic at best). They did not have a stretcher or backboard, so someone brought a pickup box seat (basically a 2x12 covered with thin foam and vinyl). Our friend Grant, who is an ex-firefighter and paramedic, offered his assistance and thought, by what Sara told him about the pain, was perhaps a broken or fractured scapula. Then four people gathered to lift Sara out of the canoe and onto the board. Once on the board, they carried the board to the pickup box and slid her onto the floor..
From here it was a very long trip back to the airport. As you may recall earlier in the story, this is the road that was so muddy and all washed out two days before. The road was so bumpy, that we went about 1/4 mph all the way back. It was a normally a five minute ride but it took 1 � hours. The driver of the pickup truck and others helping out carefully negotiated the bumps as best as they could. Still every bump resulted in a cry of pain.
The accident made the local Venezuelan newspaper
They took us through the village of Canaima and picked up another "doctor" (an intern, I think) at the small school. He brought a case with drugs and supplies, and began an IV and painkillers on Sara and finally she started to get some relief. Then finally we reached the airport. Now the heat of the day was kicking in and the average is around 92. It was really hot in the back of the pickup with out any shade. Our friend Bert covered Sara's legs with his jacket and another person held an umbrella over her. She had to wait in the pickup box, just off the runway, while everyone figured out what to do next. It was really getting hot. Now the small five-seater plane that was going to fly us out had to be "modified" to accommodate Sara and the board she was on. They took out all of the seats on one side (two plus the copilot seat) and lifted Sara and the board into the plane. It just barely fit. There were no belts or securing, but at least now she was now in the plane, in shade and on the floor. The young Venezuelan doctor/intern went with us in the plane and kept an eye on Sara during the one-hour flight back to Cuidad Bolivar. He administered morphine twice during the flight.
We arrived without incident and the landing was smooth. An ambulance was waiting for us at the airport, as was Walter Jr. our tour guide and also the Venezuelan Guardia, (like our National Guard) all of who had sub machine guns on their backs.
The ambulance personnel managed to get the Sara and the board out of the plane, and then lift her from the board onto the ambulance gurney. But when they went to lift the gurney into the ambulance, which involved lowering the gurney and folding in the legs, the legs would not fold. They started kicking it, which caused screams of pain from Sara with every kick. With the help of the Guardia, they finally got the legs to work and got her in. The ride to the private Clinic was only a couple minutes away. In Venezuela you go to a private clinics if you have money. The hospitals are for the poor.
Once at the Clinic they had the same struggle with the gurney coming out of the ambulance! There, we met Louis and his girlfriend, another tour operator who spoke perfect English, who came to help. We found out later that his tour operated the canoe that hit us. He did all the Spanish translation for us upon entering the clinic.
At the Clinic they had to move Sara from the ambulance gurney to the X ray table. Again she was having tremendous shooting "electricity" pain through her body every time they moved her. I could not stay with her during the X rays, but I did hear the screams as they moved her for the photos. While waiting for the results, they took X rays of me too. My diagnosis was whiplash. This meant that the neck bones were now straight, when they should have a curve. Sara's injury was the same but she also had a fracture in one of the neck vertebra. Both of us were put in neck braces, the Philadelphia brace it was called. But that's not all.... the story continues.
Next, the decision was made to do a CAT scan on her, except that the CAT scan machine was at another facility. Another ambulance was called. Sara was hauled from the X ray table to a gurney, into the ambulance, off the gurney to the CAT scan table, and round trip back. With every move causing intense pain, it was not a good trip.
After the CAT scan, it was back to the Clinic to wait for the results and we were moved to a temporary room. Louis' girlfriend, Maria, helped me get Sara out of her wet, river clothes. Walter Bernal Sr. and his wife Cecilia brought Sara some brand new nightgowns to wear. From the temporary room, Sara got "admitted" and moved to another room (with another set of lifting and moving...this was really getting old). Dr. Munir, who was from Lebanon, and Dr. "Jimmy" Orta, a Venezuelan who studied medicine in New York, took a look at the CAT scan and decided they needed an MRI because they were able to see all the damage done. But guess what? The closest MRI machine was 100 km away in the next town, which is in a different jurisdiction for the ambulance. This meant that getting an ambulance to go from Ciudad Bolivar to the next city was complicated. And, in the meantime, a truck had spilled toxic chemicals close to a school, which injured a bunch of people, and all the ambulances were busy. Net result, we couldn't get an ambulance to transport her until Friday!
October 27, 2006: At 5:30 am Friday morning, the ambulance personnel and our guide, Getulio, arrived at our room. I was now sleeping on a very hard couch in Sara's room. Of course, the ambulance crew was not apprised of her condition, and I had to send them back to the ambulance for a backboard. Anyway, they loaded her (yet again) onto another gurney and into the ambulance. By this point we figured out that if everyone lifted the sheet Sara was lying on and moved her that way it was slightly less painful.
Half way to the next town, there was a "stop" where the ambulance stopped and called for permission to cross into the next jurisdiction. It only took a few minutes, and then we were "allowed" to continue, thank goodness.
Once at the next hospital/clinic, yet another transfer from the gurney to temporary bed, to the MRI table and then the MRI. We were done in no time and we hoped to be on our way back to Ciudad Bolivar soon. After the MRI she was wheeled into the waiting room area. I would not let them move her again, so she laid on the portable metal MRI table while we waited for the ambulance. Then we waited...and waited...and waited. Although they were trying, the Clinic (our doctors) could not get another ambulance to come and pick us up! Getulio was on his cell phone trying, but still after 4 hours, and all of Sara's pain medications having worn off, I went livid. I found someone who spoke English and had them call our clinic to get information on her medications and made arrangements to have some administered to her while we waited. I also found out that there was a "private" ambulance service available, and I had them called to pick us up.
The "private" ambulance arrived an hour later. It was an old hearse with very little medical supplies other than an oxygen tank. It was more like a cross between a taxi and an ambulance, had only a driver and no crew. Of course the driver looked perplexed at how to move Sara from the MRI table to the ambulance gurney! But I enlisted the help of others standing around and we got her on the gurney and into the ambulance. Next stop, the clinic in Ciudad Bolivar.
It is now late in the day on Friday and we finally got Sara settled into her room in the Clinic. She is flat on her back and couldn't turn or sit up. I had to feed her and they had her on liquids only. The pain meds helped, but she was still in a lot of pain. I visited with the other "victims" in our group, who were also brought to the Clinic for care. Dennis and Jack both had severe cuts on their foreheads and a mild concussion. The young Italian man ingested gasoline that spilled into the river and had to have his stomach pumped out. But everyone was in pretty good spirits and they were all getting released in a day or two.
That night, our trauma doctor, Dr. Munir and the neurological surgeon, Dr. "Jimmy" came to discuss the MRI results. They told us a disc in her neck between two vertebrae (the number C4 and C5) was pressuring her spinal cord and causing all the shooting "electrical" pain. Surgery was the ONLY option to be normal again. It required removal of the disc and to replace it with a titanium disc. The incision would about 2 inches in length and would be done in one of the creases in the front of her neck so it would be virtually invisible. Sara was dreading more surgery in Venezuela and more scars. But without hesitation and really our only option, we decided to go through with the surgery.
By this time, the Bernals', along with Dr. Munir and Dr. Jimmy were taking us into their families. Not only did the doctors see us, they would also bring their spouse, children, cousins, girlfriends, friends, etc... Everyone came to see us! We felt very lucky to have new friends and family. Each time they came to see us we would get a kiss on the cheek and a hug. They would stay a long while and try to converse with us as best as possible. Walter Jr. could speak a pretty good English but the rest spoke little to none at all. Sometimes they would even come to just sit in silence while Sara slept. The Bernals' would bring me food about 3 or 4 times a day for the nine days we were in the Clinic. They would frequently even stay and eat in the room with me (Sara was still on liquids only). I've never eaten some much chicken in my life! But the food was good and my Spanish kept getting better and better. When the doctors told us about the necessary surgery, not only was Walter Sr., Cecilia and Walter Jr. there, but also their 18 year old daughter, Maria Lourdes, Walter Sr.'s sister Elva and Dr. Jimmy's 14 year old daughter, Mireya. We really appreciated all the support they gave us.
The nurses that tended to Sara spoke absolutely NO English. But with a lot of hand gestures, my small Spanish dictionary, and lots of patience, we communicated what we needed to, when we needed to. Sara was now a master at describing pain in multiple languages.
The Clinic had a few quirks, even though it was a pretty clean, simple, fourteen- bed care facility. Each day in the Clinic at around 4-5 pm in the afternoon, the electricity would go out. If it went out for any length of time, the air conditioning would go off and wouldn't restart without the nurse coming down with a remote control to restart it. Every two days or so, the water in the clinic (maybe even the entire town) stopped working. Sometimes it would stop for the entire night and other times just for a few hours. But you couldn't shower and there was no flushing of toilets. Then on the day after the surgery, our phone rang in the room. It was the company that sold the titanium disc, wanting to know if we had paid for it yet. They actually asked me to fax them the clinic bill! Anyway, we just told them to call Dr. Jimmy and work it out with him.
October 28, 2006: The next day, Walter Sr. took me to an international telephone to make calls back to the States. With the help of Sara's brother Jim, we were able to make contact with a neurological surgeon in MN and I was able to discuss, somewhat, Sara's case and prognosis. While it was not totally clear, surgery was the best option, given all the pain Sara was in. The procedure was common and the surgeon in MN was familiar with it. I could not get her back to the States, so we had to do the best with what we had. Surgery was scheduled for Sunday morning.
Before the surgery, the financial business came into play. The Bernals' had covered the expenses of our injured friends, and had covered some of our out of pocket expenses (ambulance fees, Cat Scan and MRI, prescriptions, etc.). But the surgery was going to be expensive, (but still much less than in the States) and at least we had insurance. Walter Sr. took me to a phone to call the insurance company and before the surgery I had to prepay. The young receptionist asked for 15 million Bs, which was about $7000 US (the Bolivar or "Bs" is the Venezuelan currency). I used our VISA card and the deposit was made (at an exchange rate of 2145 Bs to the US dollar, when you can get 2750 Bs/dollar on the street!)
October 29, 2006: Surgery occurred on Sunday morning without a hitch. After surgery Sara told me about how the anesthesiologist sang softly to her in Spanish and held her hand while being prepped for surgery. The surgery went well and 4 hours later she was in recovery.
During the remaining days, the pain gradually lessened and everyday Sara was able to walk a little further. We would "practice" taking a strolls down the hallway. We had a surprise visit from 3 German tourists who were passengers of the canoe that hit us. They were worried about us and cared enough to come and see us. Getulio brought his wife, Louis and Maria stopped in again to check on us and the Bernals' were with us every step of the way. We were thankful for all of our new friends but we were also getting excited about getting back to Puerto La Cruz and back on our boat.
By the following Thursday Sara was well enough to leave the Clinic and prepare for the four hour bus ride back to Puerto La Cruz. She was not strong enough to go home yet, so we spent one night at Hotel Valentino again. That afternoon, after getting settled into our hotel room, we had a knock at the door. Walter Jr. brought two cruising friends by to say hello! They were friends we had met last year I Grenada and were just arriving to do the Angel Falls trip themselves. It was great to see some familiar faces! That evening Walter Sr. and Cecilia took us out for dinner. We had a fun time trading on and off with our Spanish/English dictionary. Then the next day, the entire Bernal family took us to lunch before our bus trip back. It was very emotional...but very wonderful. Walter Sr. and Cecilia's 6 children were there ranging in age from 4 to 22. Elva, and Joel, his brother was there, and Joel's girlfriend. They brought us two small Peruvian flutes as a simple gift and treated us like family. We will never forget them.
The Bernal Family
|Year Three October 2006 - June 2007||
All of us at Sapo Falls before the accident
Walter Jr. and his cousin with us the day we were released from the clinic
November 3, 2006: Even though our story should end here, it doesn't. The next adventure was the bus ride back to Puerto La Cruz. The entire Bernal family brought us to the bus station where we said our said good-byes. We hopped on our bus and it was a smooth trip until about 5 km outside the city of Barcelona. Puerto La Cruz was still 45 minutes away. The bus slowed to a stop at a tollbooth, but the transmission went out! A larger truck came and towed the bus off and out of the heavy Friday night traffic. The bus driver said something in Spanish, and next thing we knew everyone was getting off the bus, getting his or her luggage and walking down the highway! We were looking pretty vulnerable in our twin neck braces and not looking anything like a local. Someone told us it was very dangerous to walk down the highway, especially now that the sun was going down. I got enough translation to think he said another bus will take four or more hours to get there and the best thing to do was to find a cab. I found one nice man who spoke about four words of English. I told him where we were going, and he helped us. He was going further on to Cumina, but Puerto La Cruz was in route, so he hailed a cab, negotiated the price, and got us in.
Of course, nothing was easy at this point! The cab we hailed was a beater at best, and only made it half way back to Puerto La Cruz before the engine died in heavy traffic. Sara saw the driver rub two wires together under the dash to try and get it re-started. After pushing it to the side of the road, the young man hailed another cab, and we were off again. By now it was all just a big joke. We were laughing silently to ourselves and crossing our fingers at the same time! But we got to the bus station, and from there we had one more cab ride back to the marina. Of course, I shouldn't have been surprised when the Cab driver didn't know where Bahia Redonda Marina was! But we explained it and finally we arrived about 7:00 pm finally, home at last!
We bee lined it up to the restaurant and surprised everyone who was there. They were all ecstatic to see us, and I finally got a beer after nearly 2 weeks!
For the next three weeks we continued to wear our neck braces in the sweltering heat of the marina. We found out that cruisers from all over the southern Caribbean had heard about the accident and we were now somewhat "famous"! We got to feeling better everyday and went to see a physical therapist who gave us some exercises to do on our own. And, amazingly enough, we are feeling great with very little to no complications! And...we thank our lucky stars everyday!!!
|Year Three October 2006 - June 2007||