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 and right I was. Through the silence I noticed a strange noise. Little by little it got louder and louder until I could see it too, a 6 seater plane coming in to land. The captain and 5 others descended from the plane. Machine gun soldier made a sign at me, the sign to stay seated and silent. He approached the pilot, chatted awhile and returned smiling from ear to ear. One of the 5 passengers was himself a pilot, there was a spare seat and I could have it, all the way back to Ciudad Bolivar. Halellujah.
The captain introduced himself. I of course shared my Angel Falls story. He checked my ticket and agreed, provided he could find more fuel, we’d return via Angel Falls.
It was time for a celebration. Lunch was needed and the worst tasting cheese sandwich ever bought from the now open bar. The captain meanwhile had a beer.
Refuelled, we were off. The captain and all the others drinking another beer. Of we went in search of Angel Falls. One turn around and that was it. Then the captain noticed my stale bread sandwich “you’ve paid $100 dollars and all you have is stale bread”, a quick manouvre and more fly passes from both sides of the falls ensued. Even the four locals were glued to their windows, savouring every moment of that magnificent wonder. It may not be wide like Iguacu or Niagra or the Zambesi falls, but it is still special, tumbling as it does down into the rain forest.
Flying around Angel Falls we’d been safe, but now heading back to Ciudad Bolivar the pilot landed on a tiny remote airstrip for more fuel and to check on the situation. A second plane came in to land. It looked like it hadn’t been airbourne since the 1930s. On board 3 French sailors desperately trying to return to their ship before it sailed. Their captain gave me an icy pole. I knew I shouldn’t eat ice, I knew about the hazards of food poisoning. Somehow though, this didn’t seem like the time to politely refuse. I ate it.
Flying back to Ciudad Bolivar we flew low, low enough to be below radar, for apparently they were shooting at planes in some places in Venezuela on that day. Plus the pilot’s radio wasn’t working so he resorted to using a kind of walkie talkie. I’m still here, so yes we landed, and we landed safely with no incident at an airport closed to the world.
Out on the road I eventually found a taxi and took it back to my hotel and rejoined the group I was with. They couldn’t believe their eyes when I walked in. As for me, I rued that icy pole, as I was so sick, I ended up sleeping, between bouts of vomiting, on the floor of the shower.
Yes this day 26 years ago is certainly one I will never forget.
As for the revolution, it failed. The leaders I was told escaped by plane to Peru, which is exactly where I was heading in about another month or so.
You can read more about Venezuela and what has happened to it, in Emma Rosen's article published in the first issue of Adventure She, in March 2018. This photograph is from that issue.