While student teaching in Venezuela, I learned how to have fun with not much money. One of the American teachers had stolen a couple of striped beach towels from an upscale hotel, and she had been sneaking into the hotel pool for years.
“Just carry the towel and act like you belong,” Linda said.
Christy and I took the bus to the hotel, stripped down to our suits (under our clothes), stuffed everything into a bag, and walked in a side gate to the pool.
When the waiter came to our chaise lounges and asked if we wanted to put the drinks on our room charges, we said, “Not today. We’ll just pay cash.”
The pool was pristine, the crowd was rich, and we were living the good life — until we got caught. Someone noticed our bag of clothing, or we didn’t look snooty enough, or we had the good chaise lounges that someone else had their eye on. At any rate, we were escorted off the property our fifth time there.
Then it was back to the public beaches.
Being a blonde in Venezuela in 1977 was a rarity, so Christy got lots of attention. She didn’t have the language, but I did, so we made a good team. She’d get the guys’ attention, I’d ask for directions, and we’d be off to explore another part of the country. We were coming back from somewhere when we encountered a sun-wrinkled man selling cups of fresh strawberries on a curved cobblestone street.
“¿Cuánto cuestan, por favor?” I asked the toothless hombre. How much, please?
“Para Usted, un bolívar,” he said. For you, one bolivar.
Don’t ever buy fresh fresas off the street of a South American country. It’s not that the strawberries are dirty, they just have different microbes that our American digestive systems are not used to.
I got diarrhea, for days.
A month later, Christy planned a weekend for us in a resort with spectacular waterfalls, called Canaima, five degrees north of the equator, near the Brazilian border. The night before, we went with Linda and the other American teachers to a big buffet dinner at a hotel, but this time we were actually invited. The buffet table was laden with fresh fruit, and I steered away from it, remembering the strawberry vendor.
“It’s okay here,” Linda said. ‘It’s an expensive hotel.”
Unfortunately, no one had informed the microbes.
The next day I had major diarrhea, and we had two plane tickets to Canaima.
“I can’t go,” I said. “There’s no bathroom on the plane.”
We were standing on the runway. It was a tiny plane, with rubber band for the engine.
“The tickets aren’t refundable!” Christy said. “Take your Imodium. We’re going.”
The closest experience I’ve ever had to the fire and brimstone of hell was that plane ride. Imagine having diarrhea, no bathroom, and lots of turbulence, for ninety minutes. As we rocked and rolled over the Orinoco river basin, my usual fear of flying was overshadowed by my new fear of pooping my pants.
Why had I ever agreed to ANY of this? After Christy made me put on my swimsuit (with diarrhea!) and made me leave the grass hut to go down to the beach bar, I sat down to order something for my dehydrated self.
“Could I have a Pepto Bismol on the rocks, please?” I wanted to ask.
I wondered what Christy’s super power was. How did she always get me (or anyone) to do all the things she wanted to do?
When I came out of the bar bathroom, I saw it – her irresistible charm. There was my voluptuous roommate in her white bikini, surrounded by ripped guys in Speedos. We’d been there for ten minutes.
“Sue, come meet Javier!” Christy said. “I know him from ISU!”
Seriously, Christy, you’ve run into a guy from Iowa State on the beaches of Canaima, 3200 miles from Ames?
It turns out Javier was Venezuelan, and it was ISU’s spring break. Christy
Later we met a nice older man named Tomás and his niece, Miledy. They offered to lead us under the water falls.
“Don’t slip, or you will die in the undertow,” he said.
As I inched my way over the wet rocks (with diarrhea!), I was too scared to think about having to poo. The thunderous roar of the waterfalls was like nothing I’d experienced in the Midwest.
Later that day, Christy said, “Let’s take a helicopter ride to Angel Falls. Half price for us.”
I looked at the older, good-looking pilot, then looked at Christy, who had used her super powers again, and finally had the guts to say to her, “No. You go ahead.”
I sat down in a lounge chair and slept in the sun between trips to the bathroom.
Two hours later, when they got back, they told me they hadn’t been able to see the falls because of cloud cover. I was relieved that I hadn’t missed my one chance to see the highest water fall in the world because of some South American strawberries. Christy hadn’t seen it either, and for that, I was grateful.
Couldda Wouldda Shouldda
If I would’ve forgone the fruit at the buffet that night, I would’ve gone to Canaima, turned cartwheels on the beach, met Javier, dated him, married him, and returned to Venezuela after we both graduated from ISU. I would’ve seen Angel Falls on our honeymoon, where Christy would be my maid of honor (she would go on to marry the helicopter pilot’s son, whom she would meet at the wedding).