Torococo, Venezuela 5 Feb 01
These events occurred during a paragliding trip made with three friends, prior to traveling solo to South America by motorcycle. First published in Paragliding magazine, June 2001.

There are a lot of reasons why I like to paraglide--and flying is only one of them. More important to me is being outside, enjoying the camaraderie of my fellow pilots, and the myriad ways in which the sport introduces you to new people.

On a recent trip to Venezuela, our guides took us to a remote and rarely flown site known as Torococo: a forested, mound-like ridge overlooking a large, subtropical flatland. Upon disembarking from the truck we discovered a low-angle launch, covered with tall, spiny weeds that was infested with ticks. Dave quickly decided that it wasn’t worth it, “given the thermals weren’t particularly well developed.” Mark volunteered to try and launch first, so Chaffee and I were right behind him. Remarkably, after a long and awkward running thrash, we all made it off successfully.
Photograph originally published in Paragliding magazine, June 2001.
Barely airborne, after nearly clipping a small tree at the lip, I proceeded to sink like a stone. The gradual slope and lack of any significant lift left me no option but to land almost immediately in a tiny schoolyard not far below the launch. Fortunately, the dirt patch they called a soccer field was producing, and I rose back up to the cheers of the kids just let out for recess.

For a while I was able to stay aloft over a series of small, forested bowls just beyond the school. Nursing random pockets of lift, but unable to gain any significant altitude, I began to consider my landing options. Much beyond my range was the planned LZ (landing zone) in a grassy farmer’s field. I could see it, but I sure wasn’t going to make it. Below me was an impenetrable canopy of mature trees. My best bet was therefore to squeak my way along one of the low ridges that spilled off the bowl, and land in a narrow clearing cut into the jungle from a small farm below.

Had the conditions been windy, this would have been madness, as the bowling-alley-like clearing was just wide enough to accommodate the width of my wing. Though the branches were still, and the slope not too steep, the air close to the ground was unexpectedly hot, humid and buoyant. I was forced to pull big ears to reach the ground before being strained through a now visible, barbed-wire fence.

Mark was having better luck, saw me land, and radioed that it looked as though I could follow a dirt double-track down past a farm then on out to the road. In the time that it took me to fold up, my wing was covered with ticks. I proceeded downhill where I had to cross over the fence that I had just avoided. It was a good thing I landed short; Venezuelan barbed wire is particularly nasty. I then followed a creek that ran down towards a primitive dirt road.

Cautiously approaching a small farmstead, I gathered a handful of stones to ward off the family’s
perros (dogs). Near the house, I was stopped by a labyrinth of barbed wire fences, too rickety to climb over, and too tall to hop. The dogs were emaciated, posing no danger, so I dropped my ammo. Fortunately, a little girl stooped over a small plastic tub was washing dishes in the yard. I called out to her from behind the first fence, “Buenos días!” Startled, she dropped the dishes, fell backwards, looked up and said, “Que?”

No doubt she was wondering what planet I was from. I burst upon her remote home from a direction that no one travels. I had funny skin and hair, a radio and camera on my chest, an altimeter watch, fancy sunglasses and boots, and a huge backpack. I repeated my greeting to allay her fears, and told her that I was trying to reach the road.

As her trepidation waned, her brilliant smile overtook her otherwise dirty face. Before crossing the first fence I learned that her name was Jen, she was 7, and she had never seen a
gringo before. She wore a brown blouse with a Mickey logo on the front, she was shoeless and thin, but happy.


Soon she came forward to guide me through the maze, showing me which “gates” to open and which ones to avoid. Scruffy chickens pecked about, while a couple of earnest pigs bluffed me long enough to make me wish I had held on to those stones a little longer.

As we approached her thatched-roof, adobe-block house she ran ahead to call out to her mother. There was no glass, screens or doors. Black soot rose above the window through which also wafted the muted sound of a battery-powered radio. With no electricity or running water, they subsisted on what nature provided and their farm produced.

Kids were everywhere, soon followed by their mother who scurried from the house not sure what she would find. She too was barefoot, missing most of her teeth, and breast feeding her youngest son. She seemed stunned to see me, but not anxious. In fact, after the initial shock wore off, everyone’s curiosity took over.

They peppered me with questions in Spanish: “What are you doing here? Are you lost? Why do you talk funny? What is all that stuff?” I explained in the best Espanol I could muster that I had jumped off the mountain behind them, and that I had flown down to their pasture with the airplane that was in my backpack. From the puzzled looks on their faces I might as well have said,
“take me to your leader.”

After visiting for a while and learning more about each other I reaffirmed my joy of foreign travel. People are people, wherever you go. They have equal aspirations and fears, and all laugh and cry the same. This family was materially destitute--the monetary value of my paraphernalia was worth more than they will ever see--but rich in kindness and strong in spirit.

I coyly asked if I could take their photograph. Though they had never had it taken before, mom quickly agreed and gathered her brood. I snapped one picture, smiled, and headed down the path.

Climbing over one last fence before reaching the road I looked back towards my new friends who were all waving goodbye. They were almost out of earshot when I looked up and yelled:
“Mira! Mira! Mi amigo esta arriba en el cielo (Look! Look! My friend is up in the sky)!" Dave had decided to launch after all, and to their utter amazement, as he soared over their house on his way to the LZ, he unwittingly corroborated my tale.

Copyright © 2001 • No reproduction of any kind without prior written permission