The terrain reminded me of desert mesa lands covered in grass. It had the broad pillars of rock, presumably made of sterner stuff than the surrounding basins, and the low, crisscrossing creek beds, crowded with trees. The biggest difference was a lush hue of green versus a dusted hue of red. I could make out Roraima in the distance, an imposing slab rising more than 2000 meters from the surrounding lowlands. The remoteness and haze gave it a blue-green tinge.
The tepui, as the mesas were called in the native tongue, slipped from view as we descended into a shallow draw. Shade from the Inga vera trees and cool air lingering about the stream were a welcome respite from the thickening afternoon heat. I squatted beside the running water to replenish my bottle when a black butterfly, trimmed in a brilliant cerulean blue, crossed over my hands. In its erratic, bursting flight, it dipped once upon the water and then lit on a twig beside me. I stared intently at its almost unnatural coloring.
As Mike came up beside me I turned my head in greeting. When I looked back, the butterfly was a distant winking blue in the shadows downstream. Yeah, Mike does look kinda rough, but he's actually not a bad guy, I thought wryly to my little friend.
"This hike is no joke," said Mike.
I thought about that. Other than being a little warm, I really felt no discomfort. I grunted noncommittally and then looked at my wife. If Mike was tired, then she would be too.
She sat about three meters behind us, sprawled against a log with her pack still on. A Hemingway sketch, legs splayed, dust and sweat. I brought her the water. She smiled absently as she took the bottle and drank.
Our guide sat a little apart. He was a short, broad fellow. Broad face, broad shoulders, broad legs. So far he had been rather quiet, yet always pleasant and smiling. I thought it amusing his middle name was Stalin. What tales had the poor Pemón mother been told that would make her identify her offspring with the bloody Soviet dictator?
Partly because I couldn't pronounce his native name and partly for my own amusement I had been addressing him by that name. "Hey Stalin, how many more streams before we reach Roraima?"
"There is Rio Tek and Rio Kukenán about halfway and one riachuelo at camp."
I nodded. His fluency impressed me. According to the agent who set up the trip, Stalin also spoke Spanish, Portuguese, and German equally well. I wondered how much of the $200 Stalin saw from each client. We had met his wife and children earlier that day in Paraitepui. They seemed happy, well-fed, well-clothed. We didn't go in his home but it looked like one of the nicer ones in the village, although it still was only a hut of sticks and thatch with no electricity or plumbing. Was that enough for his efforts?
He gave me his customary smile and I pulled a salted peanut bar from my pack, offering it to him.
I walked back over to my wife and picked up the water bottle, stashing it in my pack. Then I held out a hand, and as she grasped it, I drew her to her feet. Stalin had already moved partway up the trail as I fell in behind him, followed by my wife and Mike.
We trudged on, passing the twin rivers and entering into the final leg of the day's journey. Billowing cumulus dappled the fissured plains, accenting their relief. The rippling grass and shifting shadows gave the illusion of writhing snakes in the middle distance. Equatorial heat blossomed about us. The trees disappeared. Our pace slowed.
As the land sloped up towards Roraima, the grass thinned and gave way to scrub brush. I asked Stalin its name but he either didn't understand me or didn't care to respond. Possibly it was too insignificant to have one. Despite the humidity, we kicked up a red dust that stuck in our hair, on our eyelids, to the backs of our hands, and along our throats. Anywhere there was moisture, it clung obstinately.
Stalin stopped in the trail and turned around. "Two kilometers to camp," he said, looking past me.
I turned around and saw the others quite a ways behind us. We waited for them to come close.
"Hey guys. Take a break in the shade. Stalin and I will head to the site and I'll be back in a few."
Neither had the energy to respond and flopped down by some bushes, in the lee of the sunstream. Stalin leaned forward, tightening his wicker pack's leather straps and sped ahead. The sweat started rolling freely down my face and sides. For the first time that day, my lungs and legs strained. I felt sure that this was a pace Stalin could have maintained all day if he chose. By the time we reached an open space in a thicket of stunted trees, I was thoroughly winded.
I let my pack fall to the ground with a thud and burst of dirt, but I remained standing. I grinned at Stalin, who grinned back, and then I looked at the cliff face near us. It stood a good five-hundred meters tall, pink and black, almost shear. Upon closer scrutiny though, one could see the forested ramp that would bring us to the top. I stared for a minute, listening to the soothing flow of the nearby brook, until Stalin spoke.
"Go back for your friends?"
I hadn't expected his help but was glad for it. "Yes, let's go."
On the return trip, I think we went a little slower and carrying no pack reduced the almost painful stretching of quads. We found them exactly as we had left them in the sparse shade. Stalin and I shouldered their packs and pulled them to their feet.
About halfway back my wife cried out, "Look!"
I looked up in time to see the back half of an anteater disappear behind a bush, not more than two meters away. I had seen them before, in the forests to the west, but always from a distance. Seeing one so close, I was surprised at its size. As it came in and out of view between gaps in the bushes, my wife evidently thought the same as she said, "I didn't realize they were so big."
We reached camp without further incident. Everyone was tired, except maybe Stalin, although his smile came a little less often. The tents were put up in silence and dinner eaten with just our thoughts between us. By the time I crawled into our shelter, my wife was already breathing long and deep. Good idea.
Climbing up the wooded path to the top of Roraima was probably our low point in morale. The day had been heavy and moist from its birth and the ache had all night to take root in our muscles. Despite the thickening vegetation and bright alien blooms that captured my own interest, the fact remained that we were hiking upwards with heavy packs on our shoulders.
There are few humans that don't receive a jolt of elation when they reach a pinnacle and view a sweeping panorama. We were no different, gazing in awe at the crinkled plains below, cool wind bathing us. We were just below the two sentinel rock heads, or so they looked in profile, and after passing them we had our first look at the roof of the Gran Sabana.
Pillared, pocked black rock, and finely grained brown sand spread before us, punctuated here and there by sedges and shrubs. We had heard it was an alien landscape and so it seemed.
After setting up our base camp, I wandered to the east, across the sand to a particularly brazen column of rock. I crawled under the deep awning that curved beneath this metamorphic edifice, staring back out at the browns, blacks, and greens. Until that moment I didn't realize how tense I had been. My shoulders slumped and my torso unclenched.
The sun had almost finished its cycle when I woke up. I took one last look at the deeply hued landscape. There was nowhere else I would rather spend my twenty-second birthday.
When I made it back to camp there was already a substantial blaze going.
"Where you been?" Asked Mike and my wife together.
I smiled sheepishly. "Fell asleep over there," I said, gesturing toward The Temple, as I had dubbed it in my mind.
"Ha ha. You can sleep anywhere, my friend," said Mike.
"I wish I could crap anywhere."
My wife snorted and Mike laughed out loud. After a particularly tasty street burger, that had arguably been worth the price, I purged anything I put into my body for the next three days. Eight days after that, nothing else had come out. But after an early turn-in, my wish was granted in the morning.
I squatted on the rock throne that served for the toilet on the southern end of Roraima. Despite the leaden feeling in my gut, the cool mist-tinged air felt good. My bowels shed their heaviness like packed clay and the overwhelming sense of relief overpowered any pain. As I turned to observe my stool, unfortunately something that had come to be a common occurrence in this foreign land, I couldn't decide what concerned me most about my specimen. On the one hand, the incredible size of the object that had emerged from my innards scared me, but no less than the blood and mucus that coiled through and over it, like the veins of a heart.
Having purposely dropped the colossus on a ledge at the edge of the refuse pit, I grabbed a stick and prodded it into the depths below. I made a mental note to see a doctor when I returned home.
As the day deepened, the mist thickened and our hike that day was pleasant if not prone to sweeping vistas. In fact, it likely made the day more stimulating as the novelty of the bizarre landscape quickly wore off and the play of rock and fog provided some interest. Orange star clusters emerged from the edible Estegalopis in the sodden air. Black quelchii frogs and stick tarantulas, peculiar to this mountain ecosystem, appeared as well.
We capped off our rambling adventures with a dip in the Well of Crystals. The cold water reinvigorated me as I settled onto the quartz bed of our particular pool. Stalin looked on in amusement as Mike and I sat naked with our arms draped over the rock lip as if we were in a backyard hot tub. My wife had gone to a different well to see if the delights were as advertised.
After a couple of minutes, Mike's teeth started chattering. I laughed. "Time to get out?"
"Hell yeah," said Mike, clambering out.
We had no towels so we shucked the water from our bodies best we could and put on our mostly dry clothes. The walk back to camp was brisk and my wife lay down to take a nap while Stalin began another fire.
Mike and I wandered to the western cliff. As the clouds drifted past, allowing brief glimpses of the neighboring Kukenan tepui, I looked down the cliff face to the lush vegetation below. For an irrational, fiercely insistent moment, the desire to leap coursed through me. The impulse passed and I swayed weakly at the edge.
"You okay?" Asked Mike.
"Yeah. I'm going back."
I walked back to the campsite where Stalin had a healthy blaze going. My wife opened an eye when I walked up and then closed it again.
"You guys see anything cool?"
"Nah. Too many clouds."
She nodded and I sat beside her, engaging in that timeless human activity of staring into the flickering firelight. Mike joined us after a bit and in the gathering twilight we ate our dinner of salami, cheese, and Nutella-dipped bread.
As the stars washed in on the ebbing day, the four of us sat content around the crackling flames. I pointed out the constellations I could decipher in this unfamiliar sky. Stalin joined in with his own names, pointing out ones we didn't know. I thought about the indifference of the cosmos to our attempts to group and label the objects around us. I guess it helped give us grounding in the vastness. Some sense of security.
We lapsed into silence again. Bellies full. Warmth rippling over us. All of us nodded in our ring of comfort until one by one we went to our beds.
There was a sense of loss as we made our way down the ramp in the morning. I couldn't quite grasp why I felt that way but there was a piece missing. I felt a little better as the morning mist burned off and the sun came out. I grinned to myself, knowing the sun wouldn't be as welcome if I were headed up the mountain.
We covered the distance back to Rio Tek fairly quickly and decided to take a dip to wash off the smoke and sweat. The rock-channeled ribbon of red ran fast and cold. Stripping to my boxers, I picked a spot where the water had carved a deep bowl in the hard bed. I immersed myself for several seconds and then sat on the sun-hot stone beside the water.
Then I realized why I felt the loss. In a few days I would be immersed in a world of increasing responsibility and attachment to things I just did not believe were important. My ideals and curiosity would likely wither in the crucible of banality. This time would fade as a dream, a vision of surrealism, when it would likely be the most real time of my life. I had chosen the wrong path and could never come back to this.
I sat there in my threadbare boxers. Head to my chest. Sunlight drizzling on my neck. Shoulders slumped. I felt as if I would seep into the rock.
"Feel ok?" My wife asked.
"Wonderful. Probably never better." I smiled at her and got up to gather my things.