Saturday, February 26, 2011


When we were approaching Venezuela, every person we met thought it was his duty to tell us that Venezuela is very, very dangerous. Bad, bad people live there, and their only goal in life was to rob us, kidnap us or do some other undescribable thing to us.
We decided to press on anyway to see with our own eyes if it was really that bad. Juan Villarino must have heard tales ten times worse when he was planning his trip across Iraq and Afghanistan... What he found was the incredible hospitality of the people instead.
So we, keeping his example in mind, got our passports stamped at the border and stuck our thumbs out just past the military post. 5 minutes later,an owner of a cyber cafe gave us a lift into Sta. Elena. We changed our reales into bolivares on the street (the black market in Venezuela gives you twice the exchange rate than the official banks) and headed to the exit of town. On our way out we passed a gas station. An old pump was standing in the middle of a dirt field, a line of cars waiting to be filled up. We glanced at the display on the pump and then looked again with eyes wide open: 0.048 bolivares a litre? That`s 200 liters for a dollar! Gas is practically free... An image of smiling Chavez looked at us from every wall and lamppost we passed. ¨Until the victory!¨ said the signs below. ¨Build socialism or die!¨ proclaimed a brush-painted slogan on the block walls of a police station.
The weather was unstable as we moved out to our spot. The sun would poke out and hide again behind heavy rolling thunderstorms. It would rain hard for 20 minutes and then the sun would shine again and dry out the ground. Half an hour more,and another rain would pour down. The Gran Savana gave us its usual welcome of heavy mists, rain and shine, all at once.
The first day was a failure. Nobody stopped, and when we went to camp that night, the heaviest rain poured down on us. We woke up a little wet but determined to hitch out today. Indeed, we did hitch a ride. It was not a very long one but still a ride. When Mishico pulled over, she was out for her 4:20pm ride out in the savanna. She invited us to come along, offering to drop us off at the military check point some 20 kms further on. While we were driving, we saw this cool ant-eater on the side of the road. We got out and approached it.The funny mammal would get up on its hind legs and spread out its ¨arms¨ in a defending posture. Very cute. It was obviously a young puppy because we were told that an adult ant-eater can reach a size of a big dog. The one in front of us barely reached 1 foot when it stood on its hind legs. It fell over a few times, loosing its balance. We were lucky its mamma was not around! We observed it for a while and then let it continue on its route. It started raining heavily at that point and Mishico said: ¨why don´t you come back to Sta Elena with me tonight? You can stay at my house a night or two, rest from the road.¨ Well, the offer was generous and we happily accepted. Mishico turned around and we drove back to town. At the entrance, not far from the place where we tried hitching the day before, Mishico pulled into a driveway.¨This is the bar I ran for 7 months¨ she said, ¨but I had no permission to run it, so they finally closed me down a month ago. Damn. I´m in the process of getting all this official crap sorted out.¨ We walked into the empty bar. The clock, strangely enough, showed 4:20 (again!) and we sat behind the empty bar table, listened to loud Bob Dylan records and watched the street traffic. Mishico, it seemed, knew everybody in town. Many a passer-by would stop and ask her ¨so, when do you finally open up?¨
Later on Mishico took us to her place and showed us our room. The next two days we spent in her company, touring the houses of her friends and going for walks.
One of the friends that we visited impressed us deeply, although we are still not sure what was stronger: the personality of Margarita or the crazy view that opened up from her window openings. You see, Margarita was building a huge house on top of the hill. She was working alone and without a slightest idea about what she was doing. Margarita went crazy sometime during the construction, or was it before...? She spoke non-stop for 8 hours about all sort of her construction decisions, workers she hired and neighbours, on whoom she was stealthily advancing her property lines. She chain-smoked and lively gesticulated with a beer can, letting beer fly in all directions.
While Margarita was buzzing in the background, an icredible view opened up to us from her second storey. You had to walk on a plank thrown over some twisty joists and look out of a window opening holding on not to fall, and this is what you could see: Mount Roraima peeked out of the clouds just as the sun was setting. It was far away but still very clear, we could even see the waterfall rushing from the top of the plateau. We took this photo on another day and from a different pointNext morning, we said good-byes to Mishico and her family and went back to the road. This time we advanced a little further, to the bus station that was curiously located welloutside of town. We picked a spot just past it and observed a steady flow of taxis (80% of Sta. Elena vehicles are taxis) drop off passengers there, or just coming by for a ride, looking for customers. So we spent the next 3 days, looking for a truck or a car without the small yellow ¨taxi¨ sticker on the windshield. When the nights fell, we seeked shelter under a traditional palm roof of Señor Castro´s closed down restaurant.On the third day we struck gold. Rafael was taking an empty truck to Caracas. He was in no hurry and had a pleasant disposition. We stopped frequently to drink from the jungle streams, to take a cup of coffe or just to stretch our legs. At the end of the day, Rafael deposited us at a tollbooth outside of Puerto Ordaz. There was a truckstop nearby, with an ample roofed space for the truckers to hang their hammocks! We camped there and hitched a ride to Carupano next morning. This ride was silent, we barely exchanged 10 words with the trucker in the first 3 hours. Then, Anastasia asked: ¨by the way, we never asked what is your name?¨ and instantly, Jose smiled and started chatting. He dropped us off at a small village 20 minutes before Carupano. It was getting late so we decided to camp there. We began going from house to house, asking if we could camp in the backyard. None of the five women we asked said no, but instead said ¨why don´t you ask the next house over? They have a back yard.¨ After a fifth such reply, we went to the gas station with the same question. The owner looked as if he never heard such a request before and offered us to camp right in front of the pumps. ¨There¨ he said,¨you can put your tent there.¨ 10 more minutes were required to carefully explain to him why we do not like to camp out in the open at night, but instead would prefer a more out-of-the-way spot, like around that corner, for example. Eventualy, we reached a consensus with the man and pitched a tent behind a parked truck.
In the morning the ride did not come easy. We were only a short distance away from town, but nobody would stop. Eventually,a man gave us a short lift to the center of the village from where we took a luxurious taxi ride all the way to Carupano. The beaten-up 70s model Caprice Classic took in 5 passengers and there was still room for more. We cruised in comfort, riding with 3 other local people who were taking their usual taxi ride to work in the morning.
Carupano was our first town on the Caribbean coast since a long while and its chaos made us recall Central America. Lots of people on the streets, yelling, selling and buying all sorts of things. We maneuvered our way to the central plaza and sat down to think. We did not know how to get out of town, nor did we see anybody trustworthy whom we could ask for directions. A plaza full of people but no one to ask! Finally,a young mother with a child in her arms sat on the bench near us. She was friendly and explained to us which bus we should get on to get to the exit of town. Half an hour later we were already hitch-hikng on the narrow highway 10, headed for Guiria.
A few more rides took us there. The first one bought us a much-needed beer and the other was a ¨rural transport¨ truck. ¨Gratis, gracias a Chavez!¨ (Free thanks to Chavez) yelled out the driver and we hopped into the back of the revolutionary socialist transport.
When we got to Guiria, it was getting dark. We walked a few blocks and asked at the first house that we liked: ¨could we please camp in your backyard for the night?¨ The lady agreed and even let us stay for as long as we need! Now we are set up with a place to stay and our next task rises tall in front of us: get to Trinidad. It is easier said than done, this is sure. The fact that a carnival is approaching (the festivities commence Monday), does not make our task any easier. We are getting a lot of conflicting information about boats that go there and prices they charge, but one bit is certain: the ferry that leaves once a week charges 120 dollars for the 5 hour traverse, and they would only sell us a two-way ticket. That´s to comply with Trinidad´s immigration request of an onward passage for every foreigner who comes to the island. We are in the process of seeing what other solution can be found, wish us luck!