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Revolution and food poisoning

On this day 26 years ago, I dare not take many photographs. For to photograph where I was, on that day, could have led me into quite some trouble. For on this day 26 years ago, I was in Venezuela when the country’s air force launched a coup d’etat. Ultimately it failed, but what was it like to be there on that day as a backpacker?

Here’s my story as translated from my diary, which I kept in Welsh.

Sat outside Ciudad Bolivar’s airport I was told “there is a problem in Caracas”. I presumed it was a problem with a plane, that there might be a delay with my scenic flight to see Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall. Perhaps that’s why I was being led to a bigger plane with several locals and their various goods, not suitcases, but goods. Perhaps that’s why the plane was so full one man sat down the back on top of some goods, perhaps that’s why several small children sat on a parent’s lap, perhaps that’s why there were goods strewn all through the plane and perhaps why I, the only non local, was sat next to the pilot. Perhaps this airbourne ‘bus’ service into the Venezuelan Amazon doubled up as a sightseeing flight?

As we approached Canaima airport I’m sure I heard the pilot radio “May day, May day”. Nothing appeared to be wrong with the plane, so why those words?

We landed, we taxied. The locals disembarked. The captain turned to me “get off the plane”. “But I’m meant to be going to Angel Falls”. “Get off the plane”. There was something in his tone of voice.

I obeyed and followed him to the terminal, which was actually more of a bar with a few benches underneath a palmed leafed roof. There sat two soldiers and a tour guide. One of them told me “there has been a revolution and the President is out of power”. Pow, wow, bang. What on earth was I meant to think or say in response to that? “But I’m meant to be going to Angel Falls.”

It was 8.30am by now. The pilot promised to return for me at 11.30am and take me then. So off I strolled to the resort of Canaima. I breakfasted; I exchanged some more money for if this was going to be a full on revolution, I wanted cash on me, not just travellers cheques; and I and walked around the souvenir shops. In one of them the manager listened intently to the radio, then informed me that there was no danger to visitors like me, or to normal people. Still, I was in the Amazon, alone, albeit in a rather comfortable resort. But the people I was travelling with were all back in Ciudad Bolivar. What on earth would they be thinking? I needed to get back to Ciudad Bolivar.

By 10.30 I was back at the airport’s palm leaf roof top terminal / bar. This time there was just me and the two soldiers. They came over, he with the revolver sat opposite me, he with the machine gun sat next to me. Thank goodness it was the machine gun’s butt, not muzzle that was pointed in my direction.

Pleasantries over, conversation getting deeper, I pulled out my phrase book. After all, I wasn’t used to hearing Spanish of the kind “I want to move to Wales with you”, “what do you think of Venezuelan discos”, “what do you think of Venezuelan men” or “I like your eyes and want to swap eyes with you”. I was rather relieved when they eventually tired of this line of conversation and updated me on the revolution’s progress.

Apparently this was the second revolution of the year, the first having been led by Hugo Chavez of the army (yes you’re right, after a spell in jail he later became the democratically elected leader of Venezuela). They disliked the current President and even though they were army, rejoiced that the air force was trying to take control of the country. But, since the air force was involved, it was too dangerous for any planes to fly today.

Too dangerous. I’d been on a plane today and now I was stranded in the Amazon, after the pilot had to do a “May day” plea on the radio. Perhaps that’s why he made the plea, so he could land without being shot at.

Putting my phrase book to use I explained my predicament to revolver and machine gun. They suggested I leave the airport, that there was no point in my hanging around.

More tourists arrived, one had perfect English and Spanish. They had their own plane ready to fly to Caracas, but they too were stuck. No one was moving. They kindly offered to help me saying, if I needed help, to come to us. A very kind offer given the circumstances.

By now it was 1.30pm and I’d given up all hope of my pilot returning. Lean, my age, revolver soldier had gone to lunch and been replaced by an older soldier with a substantial paunch. He kept away from me and machine gun soldier joined him. Finally I was free of the cringing chat up lines. Instead I sat there alone, in the quiet.

What was it about me, then a 26 year old recently qualified lawyer, that gave me the confidence to hold my ground, to stay where I was? Somehow I knew I simply had to stay there and wait. Wait I did a