Sunday, March 20, 2011

The End

We spent one more day in Cincinnati in the company of Libby and Bill. This lovely couple gave us a driving tour of the city and took us to an exhibition of the newly discovered artefacts that Cleopatra herself has touched.
Early next morning Bill kindly dropped us off at a rest area on the north side of town. There, we had a long wait. Once again we were sticking the thumb out in the brisk morning air. People smiled, some shook their heads as if to say “No, no, no, are you crazy? I _never_ pick up hitch-hikers”. It was entertaining to watch people’s reactions when they saw us. Many people had the “Krasivo sleva” (Russian for “something beautiful on the left”) syndrome, as we have named it. Here’s how it happens:
Once a driver sees us, he starts checking his blind spot, trying to avoid eye contact with us. Even if there is nothing there, he still repeatedly checks his rear-view mirror or just appears to be very interested by the scenery to his left. He starts looking straight as soon as he passed us. “What hitchhikers? I did not see anybody!”
After three hours of observing the syndrome play out in a million different variations, we finally flagged down a ride. Two elderly sisters coming home from a family reunion in Tennessee were going to Michigan. All their thoughts were about family. There was nothing more they ever talked about.
“Where are you coming from?” they asked us.
“A two-year trip around South America”
“Ah, how interesting... You know, I have two grand-sons, one is three and the other is seven. My sister here has two daughters and one has two kids and the other has three...”
A few hours later, the lady asked us:
“So, how was it, South America? You must have been in Georgia or Louisiana or something?”
She thought we have been travelling in the south of USA!!!
The two sisters dropped us off at a rest-area south of Toledo. We waited until the evening there before a man drove us to another rest-area just north of town. It was actually a Michigan Welcome Centre. It was getting late, so we went a little ways into a thin forest that was just wide enough to block the view of a sub-division from the highway. It took some imagination to pitch a tent as invisibly as possible there. Luckily, some fallen pines made a perfect hiding spot for us. We rolled out our sleeping bags, put on all our warm clothing and crawled in.
In the morning we got a ride pretty quick. A man was on his way to a Detroit Casino. He introduced himself as JJ.
“I’ve spent ten and a half years in jail,” he told us, “that’s where I learned to play cards. I’m on parole now; I’m not allowed to leave the state of Ohio. But fuck it, I really wanna play in this tournament that is happening in Detroit.”
“Cops don`t get along with me and I don`t get along with them” he added.
He drove fast but good, keeping his black sporty car cruising at 80 mph, zigzagging between the slow mini vans and the big trucks that crowded the highway. We arrived to Detroit in half an hour.
“Have a good day!” said JJ and sped off, leaving us under an enormous bridge that span the Detroit river. The structure looked unassailable: vehicles rolled up to the toll booths and effortlessly continued on. We couldn’t do that – no pedestrians were allowed on the bridge. There was another alternative – the Tunnel in the center of the city. We reached it on foot, passing by the early morning empty old industrial buildings of red brick. The sidewalks were so clean even there...
No pedestrians were allowed in the tunnel either. We had to take a $4 bus for the whole minute it took to drive under the river, a sort of a Central American way of taxing the border crossers. A minute spent answering the silly questions of the border guard (“how can you afford to travel for two years?”) and we were on Canadian soil. It was cold. The cold wind got under our sweaters and we shivered.
Windsor is a big place. It took us two hours to locate the library, find on Google Maps where it is we needed to go and then go there.
A take off spot in Windsor is an excellent one. The highway 401 starts there, the speed limit is only 80 and the shoulder is wide. We installed ourselves off the pavement and lifted the thumb for the last time on this trip. Many vehicles did not stop (even though they were all Canadians in there!) but one did. Mark, the Lutheran pastor from Denver, was on his way to check up on a few churches in Toronto. He drove a rental and was happy for the company for the boring drive to “the Big Smoke”. Unlike our previous encounters with religious people, Mark did not try to convert us right away, under the fear of eternal torture and suffering. Instead, we had a very pleasant conversation all the way to Toronto.
“I have nothing to do tonight,” said Mark, “so if you want I can drive you to your parents’ place in Brampton.”
As we were approaching the house, we invited Mark in for a cup of tea. We did not realise it but we must have overstressed the importance of drinking black tea in Russian culture. We talked at length about how important is the “ancient custom” of drinking black tea, with sugar and lemon. We described the simple procedure and Mark nodded:
“Ok, I think I can do this.”
Half an hour later, Mark looked perplexed and confused when George’s mother said,
“and this is the lemon”, offering the plate of lemon slices to him. Mark took one and started squeezing it out with his fingers into the cup.
“Am I doing this right?” asked Mark as lemon juice flowed down his fingers. Everybody laughed and the conversation flowed, the cultural exchange going on full throttle.
Mark had to leave soon and we chatted some more with George’s parents. It was past 11pm when we went to sleep. Inside, out of the frigid spring air, we were warm, sleepy, tired and happy.
Technically, our journey is not over just yet. We still have 600 kms to go to Montreal, but we will not blog about this. Friends to meet in Toronto still, the “normal life” things to figure out, like a place to stay and a job, to mention a few, will take some time.
Well guys, gals, ladies and gentlemen, chicos y chicas, locos y fritas, señoras y señores, thank you for following and supporting us on our journey; thank you for stopping and picking us up on the road; for the kind words and encouragements in moments of doubt and despair; for the wise advises you gave us when we did not know what to do; for travelling and living in the moment alongside us; for telling your story; for sharing food, drink and shelter; for inviting us to your home and sharing a part of your life; we are grateful to all of you.
Best of luck,
Anastasia and George

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Miami – Cincinnati

The airport awoke early, around 5, and we had to cut our sleep short. We waited until the daylight and ventured out. It was chilly. We took a bus downtown, in hopes of getting online in the public library. We got off at the central station and walked one block to the library doors. It was a scary walk. All kinds of crazy people were hanging out at that hour in downtown Miami. Black homeless old men, preachers on the empty street corners, grim-looking white men with tattoos on their faces… As we were walking by a white guy sitting in the flower bed, he got up and took of his shirt. His whole upper body was blue with gangster style tattoos. We looked straight and walked.
The library was not open yet, so we sat outside, watching a peculiar crowd gathering around us, waiting for the doors to open. Bob Dylan songs came to mind. There was a group of men near us and it sounded like they met here every morning, for a long time.
“So, you got a job yet, Bill?”
“No, nothing. I’ll check my facebook now though, you never know, maybe something came up there…”
“Yeah, you never know”
We were experiencing a strong cultural shock – everything was so clean, so perfect, the air was fresh, we understood the locals perfectly… It was a very strange Saturday morning for us.
Finally, the library opened and everybody went in. Many people headed straight for the couches, lied down and fell asleep. We followed the majority to the internet station. Unfortunately, as guests, we were only allowed 15 minutes each. After we explained our nature to the librarians, they probably thought we were just as crazy as most of the visitors at that hour.
“You are gonna do what? Hitchhike to Canada? Oh my God, you are going to die. Do you realize that it is very cold up there? Do you really need to go there?!”
We briefly told them about out trip up to date. Their disbelief quickly changed into a strong desire to help.
Julio the librarian opened Google maps on his computer and plotted a public transit system route to a truckstop outside of Miami. He did a good job and we followed the directions. It was a shock to us that you could do that.
“Do you guys need Internet time?” he asked, “here is an hour, if it is not enough, tell me”.
It looked like it was going to be a busy day: we had to get to the truckstop before sunset, buy food and eat and also buy some warm clothing and rubber boots for the cold temperatures up north.
It was 8 pm when we got off at the end of the line of the seventh public transit bus we took that day. We were loaded with two new sweaters from Goodwill each, and a shiny new pair of rubber boots was attached to each backpack. We had bread and peanut butter for food and we were exhausted. The truck stop was still 5 miles away (about 9 kms). We started walking in its direction when suddenly an ideal camping spot looked straight at us. We waited for cars to pass, then quickly rushed into the bushes and set up our tent not 5 meters away from the road. After a couple of gulps of mediocre Venezuelan rum we fell asleep fast and woke up with the birds chirping in the fresh morning air of North America.
When we approached the truck stop we saw a lot of motorcycles parked at it. It was a weekend motorbike show, and tough looking white men and women were sitting around. Most wore black leather and Confederation flags could be seen in many places. People sipped Coca-Cola and discussed biker stuff. We did not hang around too long there, eager to hitchhike north.
After only 15 minutes, a van pulled over. The passenger window was open and we could see three Hispanic physiognomies smiling at us.
“A donde vas?” (where are you going?)
We got a ride with an illegal bus line servicing illegal immigrants in the US of A. The driver had no license and was living out of his van for the last three years. People would call him and he would drive wherever his customers wanted to go. After we got in, we headed to a trailer park to pick some people up who were headed to Atlanta. 6 short, stubby Guatemalans got in. It took them a while to load their belongings in the back. After a while they succeeded though and we were off.
We dropped off and picked up more people as we zig-zagged around Fort Myers.
The guys were very careful not to attract any attention to themselves. The driver drove 5 miles under the speed limit and when we stopped to refuel people got in and out as fast as they could, always closing the door behind them.
When the night fell, the driver asked us if we can drive.
“I haven’t slept for three nights, I am really tired” he said.
Of course, the least thing we could do to help him was to take over the wheel. We dropped the passengers off at a lonely cabin in the woods of Southern Georgia and then continued empty onto Atlanta. The driver happily snored in the back seat while we took turns driving on the wide and straight highway 75.
As the light drove away the night, our driver woke up and took the wheel. He dropped us off on the outskirts of Atlanta and was off to Colorado to pick up his next clients.
“Thank you so much for driving,” he said,”you have really helped me out. I think I would have crushed tonight if it wasn’t for you”
We took busses across Atlanta pretty much in the same way we did in Miami: bus to library, plot the route, follow directions, walk to the on ramp.
As we were walking, an SUV slowed down and opened a window.
“Heading north?”
“Get in!”
Craig was cool. He was only heading a few miles up the highway, but he invited us into his home to watch some TV. We accepted and watched a documentary on cocaine trafficking and M-19 in Columbia on the Marijuana Channel. Unfortunately, as the story came to the culminating point, Craig had to go, so we had to leave. He was very kind to give us a lift a few exits further up the highway. He dropped us off at a nice forested off-ramp.
It was already late and we did not feel like traveling any further that day. We were falling asleep on our feet.
We walked a little ways away from the highway, climbed a small wooded hill and pitched our camp just behind the top of it. The forest was absolutely beautiful. Pines, oaks and beeches stood silently and the floor was entirely covered by leaves shed the previous autumn. We laid down on the soft blanket of dry rustling leaves and took in the beauty of these stately black trunks. Not a banana palm to be seen.
It rained heavy at night but as it usually happens, as soon as we woke up and we ready to get out of the tent, the rain stopped. We had breakfast and hot Venezuelan coffee in the cold wet misty morning. We put on our new rubber boots and walked to the on-ramp.
Three hours have passed before we got a short ride to a rest area not 10 miles ahead. There, only 30 minutes of waiting before Libby picked us up. She and her husband (in another vehicle) were coming home to Cincinnati from their winter holiday in Mexico. Libby invited us to stay with them for a day, an invitation we surely accepted. So here we are now, sitting in a condominium downtown Cincinnati, typing up the blog. It is cold and rainy outside, but all our things are freshly washed and dryed, we have just had a delicious American breakfast and we are full of eagerness to reach just one more border, into Canada, this time!

Saturday, March 12, 2011


So, the boat to Trinidad did not work out. The carnival was approaching, the festivities were due to start the next day. People told us that Guiria’s carnival is considered one of the best on the whole coast. We had our reservations, though. We had no desire to stay any longer in Guiria to see the carnival. True, we had a good place to stay, but we had absolutely nothing to do in town. We had no access to the house’s bathroom, so performing our daily functions became a real task. We had to plan in advance or wait until the nightfall to… you know. The idle sitting around our tent all day long got very old by day 6, so we made up our minds to move. The most agreeable option, we reasoned, was to fly from Caracas to Miami.
When we told our host Kira that we were leaving, she broke into tears. She really did not want us to leave! She hugged us, we exchanged emails and she hopped on her motorbike and was off.
We started walking to the highway and as we were passing an idling truck we asked the driver if he could give us a lift out of town. He said:
“Sure! Jesus loves you! He is in your heart!”
The day being Sunday, the local Evangelical group was getting together to go to church. We drove around town picking up the believers and then headed out. We were dropped off at a turnoff and quickly flagged down the next ride. A few more quick and short rides got us deposited near a police check point.
For the carnival time the “security” on the roads was increased. In reality, it meant groups of casually dressed men carrying shotguns standing in the middle of the road. Some wore bullet-proof vests while others had nothing but a radio or a pistol. Their main task was to question the passing vehicles:
“Where are you going?”
“Guiria” or “Carupano”, depending on the direction
“Ok, you may pass”
We baked in the hot sun just past the check point and wandered how the men did not get heat strokes: none of them wore a hat!
Soon enough a car stopped with a family inside. An elderly man was behind the wheel and his beautiful young wife (she looked 25 years younger at least) held a year old baby on her knees. The family gave an impression of being well off.
The conversation flowed and soon we learned that Argenis worked for PDVSA (the national oil company that was expropriated by the “revolutionary” government some years ago). He was an important man in the company: the whole Paria peninsula PDVSA operations were under his control.
“I am on duty this weekend, supervising the Guiria division” he shared with us, “that’s why my wife and I here decided to go to Carupano to pick up my mother-in-law. It is nicer to spend the carnival with your family.”
That was an interesting logical connection but we agreed that it was indeed a good idea to spend carnival with the family.
Soon enough, Argenis steered the conversation to politics:
“Do you think it’s a dictatorship here in Venezuela?” he asked straight.
Without pausing for a second for us to reply, he continued:
“No, it is a lie. What is a dictatorship? A dictatorship is when people are killed, when they are treated badly, when there are soldiers on the streets… None of this happens in Venezuela, right?”
We had no desire to argue with such delusions so we agreed, of course, none of these things happen in Venezuela...
“In any case”, Argenis continued, “if it is a dictatorship, I like it. I am a Chavista, you know. I am with the revolution! You see my cap? It is red! That is the color of the revolution…”
We have heard similar words before, if you remember, but in a different setting.
“I always pick up people,” carried on Argenis, “you know why? Because this car that I drive (he lightly tapped the steering wheel of his brand new Toyota sedan) is not really mine! It belongs to the people of Venezuela! So why not share?”
This phrase was spoken as we sped through a very poor village. Hens and people scrambled out of our way. Apparently, the shocking contrast between his shiny ride and the mud walls and tin roofs of the village huts escaped our driver.“And look at the roads here in Venezuela” Argentis was going full throttle by now, “look how many pot holes there are! It’s going to wreck my car! There is so much oil in our country, so much asphalt, but the roads are still as bad as they were before. Why?”
“Obviously, the abundance of the resources is not the problem here…” George carefully suggested.
“Of course not, but I can see no other obstacles to improve the roads!”
“Eeeh… Corrupt… I mean, I have no idea either.”
We drove in silence for some time, each pondering the mystery of bad roads. A cell phone rang. The young wife pulled out three different Blackberries to see which one was ringing.
“Oh, hi mom. Yeah, we are getting close, we’ll see you soon!”
Argenis had just enough time to drop us off on the other side of town. We wished him to spend a pleasant carnival and watched him speed away to pick up his mother-in-law.
By the end of that day we have arrived to Cumana, a good sized city. It was the carnival night and the downtown was blocked off for traffic. Multitudes of people were already gathering along the carnival route and the drinking has begun. The night was falling but we still had no place to sleep. We aimlessly walked through empty city streets when we came up to a fire station.
“Firemen, may be we can camp at a fire station tonight?”
The firemen were friendly but it was “prohibited to camp” on the station territory. Instead, they suggested that we go to the military post and ask there. So we did. A young military commander came to greet us. He said he was really sorry, but the law “prohibits anybody camping on the military territory”. He then suggested we try our luck with the police office further down the road.
“Yeah, right” we thought.
Unexpectedly, the police chief was young, slim and quick. He instantly grasped what it was that we wanted and invited us to camp inside the police station!
Having set up the tent, we went across the street to witness the so-much-talked-about carnival. It was a sad scene. The music was blaring hard, but few people seemed to enjoy their time. The carnival participants dragged by without smiles as if they were out to pick up some groceries. The costumes were a poor imitation of the Brazilian ones. Some were impressive feathery constructions, but more than a half of participants wore every-day t-shirts and shorts. They marched by us, talking on their cell phones and waiting for the whole thing to be over. Having observed the procession for some time, we went to sleep. Or, rather, tried to sleep. As soon as the procession ended, the music got turned up a notch, people kept on drinking and some started to dance. The party lasted until 4 in the morning.
A few quick rides the next day and a long wait before our last ride in South America came about. It was around sunset when Felix and Deborah pulled over for us. A young couple, they were on their way from a beach to Caracas. We enjoyed each others company and the three-hour drive to Caracas went by quickly. Once in the metropolis, they dropped us off at a hotel and we agreed to meet for a beer the next day.
In the morning, a quick visit to an Internet café revealed that one out of our 5 CS requests was accepted by Laura and Luis. We went over to their place and showed up just in time for lunch:)
Laura and Luis are practicing psychologists and are a very cool couple. They fully entrusted us their house from the start: we had the keys, we were free to move around and we could eat as many mangos as fell from the mango tree in the back yard. Luis is a painter as well as a psychologist, and the house is full of his paintings, interesting design ideas and books. We were very happy just to stay inside for the whole time, playing with the dog, reading and just enjoying not moving anywhere.On our last night at their place, Laura gave us a quick talk about one of their projects. Laura and Luis have developed a system called Neurocodex. Laura briefly explained it to us and taught us a few techniques to “get the problems out of your head”. Empowered by this new way of seeing things, we went to sleep.
24 hours later we stepped on the American soil. The airport was quiet – it was 1 in the morning. We pulled out our sleeping bags and slept the rest of the night on the comfortable couches they have all around the Miami International Airport.