Karl, the facially scarred East German barman, had three teeth missing, and a grin full of mischief. Four days into an epic adventure up the tributaries of the Orinoco Delta, I am convinced he is mixing more than just rum into my stiff Cuba Libres. I had been warned that after a couple nights sleeping in a hammock wrapped inside a mosquito net, this high up in the northern Venezuelan jungle, chancing upon a remote lodge with a well stocked bar could lead to some vicious tropical jungle juju. Defined as: Taking the barman on the speedboat to view the sunset, and ultimately, diving into a river widely known to contain flesh-chewing piranhas. No sooner had we entered the water, than a rare pink dolphin leaped into the air, her skin glistening with all the colours of the rainbow. OK, I don’t know if it was a female dolphin, but only a pink lady could look that beautiful. According to the indigenous Warao Indians, seeing a pink dolphin is a sign of immense luck. This explains why I am able to climb back on board, at loss for words from the experience, but fortunately with all digits in place.
With teeth like razors and skin like barbwire, piranhas have the sunny disposition of a Filipino death squad. Sharks may be the grunt soldiers of aquatic terror, but South American piranhas are riverside hit men, shredding their prey with efficient ferocity. Found within rivers from Argentina to Colombia, they hunt in large packs, sending out scouts to locate the prey before initiating a feeding frenzy characterized by a scene of boiling water. Kayaking through piranha infested waters along the Orinoco sounds more like an adventure tourism sales plug than a reality, until my Warao guide Pina hands me a stick, some gut wire, and a crudely fashioned hook. Rather alarmingly, all I need to do is splash my stick on the water surface to attract the beasties, and within seconds, my bait has vanished. The combination of heat, storms of mosquitoes, and inhuman humidity make me want to dive into the river, but the combination of bloodthirsty carnivorous piranhas make me want to stay on shore more. Although they only grow to 2ft long, nature has equipped piranhas with deadly tools, from interlocked teeth to excellent hearing and unparalleled teamwork. Each fish takes a mighty munch and instantly moves out of the way for his pal. Theodore Roosevelt, on an expedition to Brazil in 1913, described a horrifying scene of a cow being attacked and stripped to the bone in minutes.
Eat me? Eat you! I am determined to catch a piranha, both as a challenge, and to reaffirm my place in the food chain. With dark clouds of mosquitoes raining down on my neck and a skinny loyal Warao dog at my side, I persist, constantly replacing the bait that seems to vanish seconds once it hits the water. Finally, I tug up at the right time, and a small, sharp, and thoroughly bemused piranha is on my hook. A hot makeshift grill, a dash of strong lime, some trusty Tabasco (I always travel with a bottle), and I have to confess: piranha is a tasty, albeit bony fish. It’s not enough to quench a major hunger, but at least you’re on the right side of the fork.
Cut to: The following day. For hours, a torrential downpour dumps its moist guilt on our twin-engine open-roof speedboat. I’m excited at the prospect of sleeping on a real bed tonight in a rustic shack so much more attractive than another wrapped up buggy night in a hammock. Large tapirs are running up and down the wooden boardwalks in this remote jungle lodge, while banana-beaked toucans and chirpy macaws rest on the tables at the bar. Drinks flow. Hey, lets go watch the sunset at the congruence of three tributaries! Hey, let’s bring our sketchy free pouring barman along! Swimming with piranha: a good idea at the time. Of course, the local Warao swim, drink and bathe in the same waters, and in truth have more problems with rabid vampire bats than bloodthirsty piranhas. For piranhas tend to attack weak fish first, and healthy humans last. Still, how big a thrill is a jungle adventure in the Orinoco Delta? As big as a piranha’s appetite.
Originally published on Sympatico.ca
Crawling along at the speed of a meat grinder, tensions flaring, congestion worse than chronic nasal flu. What can you say about gridlock? Its sheer waste of time is enough to make you sell your car and take the bus, except the bus is crammed with people, and its stuck in traffic too.
Fortunately, there is some solace, a soothing balm to comfort you the next time you find yourself in a traffic nightmare. Simply put: No matter how bad it gets, at least you don’t have to put up with the daily chaos in the cities below:
Sao Paulo, Brazil
Together with 20 million people living in greater Sao Paulo, comes the fact that there are nearly 8 million cars on the road. Every time I take a taxi from the airport, I’m boggled by the gridlock, and the deft manoeuvres drivers will perform to get out of them. Sao Paulo holds the world record for the worst traffic jam, when it was reported in May 2008 that over a quarter of all streets within the city were completely backed up. The wealthy elite has found a solution however. Sao Paulo holds the largest fleet of helicopters in the world.
Anyone who has visited Cairo will tell you about the pyramids, but first they’ll tell you about the traffic. It runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and operates according to local rules of madness that include few street lights, no-lane roundabouts, and on-the-fly rules and customs. For example: If you do see a green light, it’s a mistake to believe it means “go”. The same with stopping for “red”. Locals say the trick is to make use of every space you can see, stopping only if that space is already filled, by say, a donkey cart. Somehow it works, but I pity the North American tourist who rents a car and dares to enter the fray.
Los Angeles, USA
Compared to Cairo, it's easier to navigate the vast highways of LA, although during rush hour, don’t plan on driving much. Such is the state of LA traffic, it often becomes a character in movies and TV shows, and the internet is rife with Youtube clips of people losing their marbles behind the wheel. According the American Highway Users Alliance, the US-101 highway, intersecting with the I-405, is the worst bottleneck highway in the United States, with 318,000 cars passing through daily, resulting in an estimated 27 million hours of annual delay. I don’t know how they figured that out exactly, but I’ve been stuck on the 101 and the 405, and if I can’t claim back those lost hours of my life, I guess nobody can either.
I defer to my notes, recorded on arrival in Mumbai for the first time. “Taxi driver has severe tic. Keeps snapping his head and twitching violently. Car is small and rusted. Narrowly avoid collision with cow, bus, three children, dog, motorbike, rickshaw, and a one-legged beggar – all at first intersection. Unbelievable chaos. Driver might have rigor mortis. See and feel: deep potholes, police, magazine sellers, scooters transporting family of five, trucks with loose butane tanks hanging out the back, flea markets with real fleas, holy men, bicycles, random trees in the tarmac, garbage, babies. Too much stimulation. Close eyes. Pray for safe arrival."
Traffic and the pollution it spawns were major challenges for organizers of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. They tried an odd-even scheme to clear roads of the city’s notorious traffic – rotating which cars were permitted to drive according to their license plate numbers. Crafty locals switched up cars or even bought a second car just to get around it. Locals could finally see what a blue sky looked like from their bumper-to-bumper transits, but the restrictions did not work over the long term - Beijing's air pollution continues to plague the city.
While the price of gas continues to rise the world over, in Venezuela, a litre will cost you pennies. As the world's 5th largest exporter, Venezuela has some of the cheapest gas around. But the government hasn’t offered the infrastructure to handle the subsequent explosion in car ownership, as vehicles cram onto shoddy highways and line up on potholed side streets. Road rage and violent shootouts have become common enough for the state to issue psychological advice on how to deal with the gridlock. These include reading a book, listening to music, and keeping your gun holstered.
12 million people call Bangkok home, and they all seemed to want to go to exactly to the same place I did. It didn’t take me long to forego the charms of a three-wheeled tuk-tuk for a blissfully air-conditioned and far less noisy taxi. Besides, neither tuk-tuk nor taxi was going anywhere fast, and sitting back in the taxi, I didn’t have to chew exhaust fumes and shower in sweat. It’s easy enough to get around Bangkok mind you, if you’re not in too big a rush. Just avoid rush hour, which unfortunately extends into most of the day.
Levelled by bombs during World War II, greater Tokyo evolved without much urban planning, sprawling out from the city centre into the world’s most populous metro, housing an incredible 35 million people. Even with the most extensive urban subway in the world to service it, the result is incredible road congestion, with few bypasses or highways to funnel drivers in and out the city. The Tokyo Traffic Control centre works 24 hours a day and has the power to manage traffic lights, working with typical Japanese efficiency to limit traffic jams using some 17,000 vehicle detectors. Still, the traffic remains fierce, so it’s best to navigate the spaghetti-lines of the subway below.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.