Down the Orinoco with my father
June 4, 2014 by Thomas Wictor
My father Edward Wictor was a complete stranger. Since his death on February 23, 2013, he’s become even more of a mystery. Dad wrote three unpublished memoirs that are nearly impossible to read. Like the film Pulp Fiction, they don’t follow a chronological narrative. Instead, they jump around in time and place, they contain almost no dates, and they’re stuffed with technical details on LORAN and the oil industry. I recently began plowing through the memoirs to try and learn who Dad was. This post is about his trips down the Orinoco River in eastern Venezuela.
As I read the memoirs, they compel me to do research. I learned that most pumping units are made by Lufkin Industries. The company put out a bimonthly magazine that described Venezuela during the time Dad worked there. The two issues I found online were full of photos that included people I knew.
Here’s the cover of one issue.
“That’s not funny!”
And now my father’s description of his trips down the Orinoco, complete with his photos. I had to combine narratives from two memoirs and rearrange the parts so that the story has a beginning, middle, and end. The original documents seem designed to confuse, which I’m sure they were.
The Pedernales field is located in the delta area about sixty miles due east of Quirequire, where one of the many streams of the Orinoco River meets the Caribbean. Trinidad lies about forty miles off the mouth of the river. There is no access to this field by road.
There were three ways of getting to Pedernales. One was to fly a scheduled airline service from Maturin down to a town called Tucupita and then hire someone to take you up the river by boat with an outboard motor. The second method was to arrange a drop-off by a cargo flight operated by the Venezuelan government airline. The third way was to hire a contract aircraft employed by Phillips Petroleum if they weren’t using the plane.
Phillips had a camp out in the bush in southern Anzoategui. There were some American families there, so they used a contractor to fly the housewives into Anaco weekly to buy groceries at an American-style supermarket, the only one in eastern Venezuela. It was sometimes possible to charter the aircraft. It was a single-engined Cessna, which did the job. Sure beat hours in an outboard-powered boat, overnighting in Tucupita, and flying to Maturin.
My only concern was that the aircraft might go down in the mangrove swamps, and we would have to walk out a fairly long distance. The waters were full of the usual tropical creatures: electric eels, piranhas, caymans, snakes, etc. No place for a hike if it could be avoided.
The pilot of the Cessna had been trained in the Royal Dutch Air Force and knew his business. He was somewhat exuberant, however. Inbound he’d buzz the strip before he landed. Outbound, after dropping off the passengers, he’d do barrel rolls after takeoff. I don’t know if the aircraft was certified for that, and I was reluctant to ask, because if I browned him off, it was back to the river exit again. At any rate, he never did aerobatics with passengers on board.
The first trip I took down there on the Phillips aircraft, the pilot buzzed the strip to disperse the cows, and then he landed. The man who operated the Pedernales field for Creole was from Martinique. He spoke the local dialect of Spanish with such a thick French accent that I could barely understand him. His job was to open and close off wells, load the tanker that came in periodically from Trinidad to haul off the oil produced, and offload fresh water.
I once overnighted in Pedernales and was offered dinner by the Martiniquais. He cooked us fish, leaving them just as they came from the river. It was bad enough to be stared at by the entrée but even worse to know that all its internal organs were still intact. A unique experience eating it so that I wouldn’t offend the man. After that, I always arranged it so that I would never again have to overnight in Pedernales.
After conducting my business there on this trip, I found that the Phillips aircraft wasn’t available for the return flight. I therefore had to hunt down a local fellow who would make the trip up the river to Tucupita. Oddly enough, I discovered that I knew the man who had the boat. He’d once worked in the Production Department at Tia Juana.
The trip up the river was interesting. As we left Pedernales, we passed what had been Creole’s camp for the locally hired hourly workers. It had long since been shut down. Many of the sheet-metal houses had been stolen. Only the concrete pads on which they had rested remained.
All along the river bank, for some distance, there was a trail of toilets which had been taken from the camp and then abandoned. I couldn’t figure out why they had been taken, since there was no running water or sewers anywhere in this area. These items were useless.
Water traffic in the rivers of Venezuela was not directed or controlled in any manner. There were no marker buoys, lights, or signs of any kind to indicate the location of anything or the water depth. There was simply none of the customary means of regulating water traffic.
The craft was a fourteen-foot aluminum one and had an automatic baling device in its bottom. Partway up the river, there was a problem with the motor, and the owner pulled in to shore to attempt to diagnose the problem. He forgot to close off the baling device, and the boat started filling with water. That was stopped, and after he cleaned the motor’s spark plug, we set off again.
It grew dark as the sun set. The boat had no lights, so the owner navigated the continuous bends in the river by watching the skyline at treetop level. It was pitch black, but he could see the tops of the mangrove trees faintly outlined against the night sky. By doing this he could determine where the bends were and in which direction they turned. We traveled at over thirty miles per hour, with other boats coming from the opposite direction at the same speed. We could hear but not see them as they passed. I hoped they could hear us and steer clear.
Navigating to Tucupita was quite complex because there are untold numbers of streams that flow into the river. I couldn’t understand how the boat operator knew which of these leads to enter, because they all looked alike. Once night fell the problem was even worse, since they weren’t even visible. He must have had eyes like a cat and a remarkable memory to find his way.
When we arrived at Tucupita, I checked into the only hotel. The rooms were about eight feet square, with concrete floors and a shower head in the corner that dripped rusty brown water. Since the area was home to billions of mosquitos and flies, the floor had been sprayed with a mixture of DDT and diesel fuel. The bed was covered with mosquito netting. You couldn’t walk on the floor barefoot, so it took incredible gymnastics to shower without getting your shoes wet or covering them in DDT and diesel oil.
At the hotel restaurant, the paper napkins were gathered up after the guests finished eating. They were then crumpled and tossed in one corner of the room, where there was a tapering pyramid of napkins over six feet tall, representing years of commerce.
That afternoon I took a flight back to Maturin in a World War Two Douglas C-47. It was used to distribute the Caracas daily newspapers to remote communities in eastern Venezuela and could be hired to carry passengers for a modest fee. Though it had several rows of seats along the walls of the fuselage, these were folded up to accommodate freight. Passengers sat on bundles of newspapers.
Before it landed the C-47 made a couple of low passes to disperse the cows from the runway.
Enya’s song “Orinoco Flow” always choked me up, especially the change at 0:34.
Now it’s actually painful to hear. I don’t expect that to last forever. Time is the great healer, and death is the greatest healer of all. But I will say that currently Tim and I are completely unmoored. We can’t process the fact that we have no history. In our early fifties, we’re having to create identities from scratch.
I’ll never be able to put into words how surreal it is.
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