During their four days in Venezuela, some students stayed close to the ship or took organized tours of nearby Caracas. Others jumped into the country with open arms and a few crumpled bolivars tucked in their tennis shoes.
They got around using their "Sesame Street"-learned Spanish or a combo of hand gestures and Spanglish. They wore low-slung shorts and knee-high rubber boots, nose rings and mosquito repellent, sunscreen and suntan oil, and layers of sweat.
They traveled in airless illegal cabs, dugout canoes, rickety planes and paragliders on cliff-clinging roads and ochre-colored trails, and through waterfall sprays and choppy waters. They ventured into sticky jungles, secluded islands and shantytowns that light up the hills at night like staggered votive candles.
They were led by machete-packing Mario, who whacked away at medicinal plants that he said cured bug bites; a bearded artist and "truth seeker" shaking a wooden staff that had high-heel shoes carved into it to represent Eve; and Jorge, a renegade driver who steered his dented car not to the central commercial district but places where the voyagers could find what they wanted: pirated CDs and cheap jewelry.
Along the way, they encountered bats in the kitchen of an abandoned hotel, confetti in the air that turned out to be butterflies, tickling tarantulas, a snake handler who lost an index finger to a fer-de-lance, smothering humidity and locals calling out, "Hello, I love you!"
They ate snow cones from street vendors, oatmeal sweetened by cinnamon sticks at campsites, papayas, passion fruit and finger bananas, creamy cheese stuffed into arepas (maize buns) and cachapas (pancakes), and thick slabs of dark chocolate packaged by incremental percentage of cacao: 58%, 61% up to 100%. They drank homemade wine from locals' jugs and fine rum from liquor stores. They danced to the song "Gasolina."
And they learned this from a man who had labored 15 years to create a spiritual rock garden hidden in the hills: "You come here to stop listening to what other people tell you and start listening to yourself."
Next: Six class days, no weekend, then Brazil.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times