Miles traveled: 9,832 (15,823 km)
Majo and I crossed the border into a new country for the 10th time in 5 months. It’s a special sensation crossing into the unknown. You learn to confront life’s necessities, or in our case, the necessities of international travel. Venezuela was a case study with interesting variables that could throw a monkey wrench in your equation at any time. There are basically three main areas you must cover; who, what and where? You never know whom you will encounter along the road, what you are going to eat or where you will end up sleeping.
The first “Who” you must deal with in a new country are the authorities. This can be very intimidating at times, but with 9 previous immigration and border encounters, we felt adequately prepared to face off with Venezuela’s officials. As it turned out, their customs offices were some of the easiest to navigate of the whole journey. Their offices were clean, organized, efficient and most importantly air-conditioned. All of their officials wore uniforms and attended us fairly. There was no cost for the timely processing of our paperwork and an hour later we were handed our 30-day permit to transit the country with our oversized “veggie” suburban. Little did we know that once in the country, our encounters with Venezuela’s many authorities would not be so simple. We had at least 40 police and military encounters in Venezuela between the borders of Paraguachón (Colombia) and Santa Elena (Brazil). This was preposterous in comparison to Colombia, where we had only one such encounter. A regular day of driving was prolonged by 1-2 hours of checkpoints along the way (8 checkpoints x 15 minutes). They randomly checked some and always stopped us! As could be expected this usually involved a bribe attempt. At almost every stop we were told we had committed some new made up infraction. The one exception to these sad demonstrations of the Chavez socialist government was Sargento Garcia. He held us for almost 30 minutes, but not to harass us; he wanted to know if we were revolutionaries. He spoke highly of Hugo Chavez, the universal health care in Venezuela and was well versed in socialist movements throughout Latin America. He was firmly against “Neoliberalismo” and he had plenty of statistics to support his arguments. While serving his country in the military, he proudly mentioned that he was in his sixth year of Law School and would graduate this year. He welcomed us to Venezuela and wished us a wonderful experience in his country and that we take a wonderful impression with us – a successful line we quoted at other harassment checkpoints. We had answers for every question and readily presented our letters of support from the Chilean consulate and the S.F. United Nations Association chapter. We didn’t pay any bribes and weren’t given any tickets! We were triumphant! Of course, being native Spanish speakers helped tremendously.
“Who” also included an important transition in the trip. Majo and I made a tough decision, given new circumstances and variables. Majo is pregnant! We are now three! And as the trip moves into the Amazon we had to face the big three, or tiny three depending on your point of view; three different mosquitoes that carry malaria, yellow fever and dengue; all severe infections that cause severe illnesses. Being pregnant, Majo could no longer get the yellow fever vaccine and we didn’t want to risk anything happening to Majo or our newest family member. Majo would fly to Santiago to be with her mother for month 3 of pregnancy and then later return to meet me in Salvador, Brazil one month later. But not to worry, I wouldn’t be alone; I would continue on with my brother Claudio, who was flying in to Caracas for the second leg of the trip. The transition was complete. Majo was eating well and resting in Chile and Claudio and I were off to face the unknown once again.
The question “What to eat?” was always an issue in Venezuela. Their food, although I’m sure we didn’t have the best, left much to be desired. On the road, the most common options were deep fried arepas (round, palm sized, corn meal biscuits) filled with mystery meat, rice and beans. We usually opted for just rice and beans. In Colombia, arepas were appetizing; here we were unsure how many days the meat had been out, and if flies weren’t buzzing over the food spread, we guessed it was because they were already full.
Whenever we could camp, we happily cooked our own meals. Since options are slim in Venezuela’s supermarkets, we had a steady diet of oatmeal for breakfast and pasta for lunch and dinner, either with a fried egg or tuna fish. Hey don’t be grossed out, it was delicious every time!
The last question “Where to sleep” was always interesting and full of surprises. We stayed at a revolutionary hostel in Caracas, great people but horribly infested with mosquitoes buzzing in our ears. We had a terrible nights sleep and lots of bumps in the morning. Our hosts helped us find a good place to eat – “Look there are panaderias on these two corners, but don’t go there. They are terrible fascists,” they told us. “Walk another block and you’ll find a decent panaderia where they are a little more politically correct.” We followed their instructions and walked by two beautiful panaderias and entered the less attractive third store, where we were well attended and found some great bread and deli meats.
We didn’t last more than one night in Caracas, but it wasn’t just the sleeping conditions that repelled us. What we saw in Caracas helped us understand that while Sargento Garcia was proud of the Cuban doctors in the countries ghettoes, the gap between rich and poor was as great as the canyon in which Caracas is built. Never had we seen such an impoverished population piled on top of one another in the cities vast shantytowns. This was the Tokyo of ghettoes. The streets smelled and were piled with trash. We witnessed the sad faces of drug addicts, extreme poverty, elite shopping malls and overpriced fast food within a city block. It was polluted, congested, grim and too busy. With no friends to visit, there was no reason to stay. We weren’t ready for Caracas and departed towards the coast, fully aware that being able to leave this city was a luxury that not all could afford. We were only left with lasting impressions of some deeper troubles and the beginning of questions we couldn’t finish. Where did all of the oil money go? Wouldn’t it be better to train your own doctors than to import them? How did? Why do? Who…What… We were at a loss of words.
Not knowing where you will sleep also implies visiting some unexpected places. After one really long drive along Venezuela’s Litoral Central (central coast), we got lucky when we turned into a private beach community near Machurucuto. The guards felt sorry for us and decided against better judgment to let us camp for free on the beach, after we promised not to get them into trouble. Claudio and I set up our tent and were too tired to cook; so we each had a piece of bread before crashing. At 5 AM, we woke up to one of the most beautiful sunrises of the whole trip. It was a totally awesome spot, a palm-lined, white sand beach, sitting on the North Atlantic/Caribbean coast, with not a person in sight. The beach seemed almost endless in each direction. What was surprising was that during our drive the day before, there wasn’t a single sign pointing to beach access, even though our map indicated we couldn’t be far away. Sadly, we came to the realization that so much of the coastline and the nicest beaches were inaccessible because they were privatized. Even sadder was that these ‘perfect’ beach communities for the wealthiest of Venezuela were empty. We were surrounded by empty beach homes hoarding the coastline for 10 months of the year, so that it could be exclusively for the pleasure of a few during 2 months of vacationing. This is the contrast of Venezuela socialist ideals – while very popular with many, there are still those who are defiantly against sharing and at every instance you can observe the famous saying – Entre el dicho y el hecho hay mucho trecho. The government is saying one thing to the rest of the world. But what is or isn’t happening in Venezuela, only Venezuelans know.
We said good-bye to the Caribbean and made our way inland to Ciudad Bolivar. All of Venezuela up to this point was unbearably hot with temperatures in the upper 90’s, but Ciudad Bolivar took the cake; it had to be in the 100’s! After looking into some tours, we found out we were too poor to visit the tallest waterfall in the world, Angel Falls. Since you must fly to this exclusive destination and we were $700 short of the asking price, we invested in some much-needed repairs for “El Chaski” and afforded ourselves a different luxury, an air-conditioned hotel room for $30.
The weather here was overwhelming in general. We had never imagined how dry Venezuela was. Hills, mountains and coastlines were all brown and apparently the country was suffering from 3 years of drought. I had imagined a greener, tropical; you know…uhmmm, Caribbean country. To the contrary, this dry, arid country that reminded me of the Middle East, was on fire from border to border. There wasn’t a single day of driving where we didn’t encounter some wildfire, out of control-controlled fire or garbage fire, not to mention the fire blazing from oil refineries throughout the country. Venezuela was on fire! The constant inhalation of smoke and fumes was exhausting. Everyone we asked said that poor culture and education were to blame. Between cigarettes being tossed out of windows and uncontrolled agricultural burns, most people seemed to just accept it as a lost cause and fact of life. The brown, burning and deforested landscapes of Venezuela were sad.
In summary, everything seemed too challenging in Venezuela, especially “who.” Meeting people was tough. Our contacts never worked out and our emails went unresponded. This was bound to happen somewhere; but there was something else we couldn’t explain. It was the first country where no one said “thank you” or “your welcome”. To be attended we had to pester storekeepers or waiters. People didn’t make eye contact and generally people were rude. At first, every encounter was like a stand off in the old west, then after some initial gruffness and hard stares, the ice would be broken and conversation occasionally continued smoothly. We assured ourselves that it was cultural and tried our best not to be offended.
Finally, there was light at the end of the tunnel. La Gran Sabana was Venezuela’s savior. We found some friends, peace, and good food in the oldest mountains on earth. We were in the vast grasslands and Tepuis near the Brazilian border. The Tepuis are amazing rock formations that date back to Gondwana, the time when all the continents were one, and it was marvelous. Claudio and I explored waterfalls and rivers. We also met several friendly families in different Pemón indigenous villages we visited.
When we were ready to cross into Brazil, Venezuela had one more surprise for us. Claudio needed a visa to enter Brazil and the Brazilian consulate was closed for Semana Santa (Easter). We woud have to stay another week in Venezuela. That was the same day we met Manuel, an alternative living architect who had left Caracas decades ago to live closer to the earth, in El Pauji, possibly the most remote area of Venezuela and the last place on the map. Intrigued by our car, he struck up conversation with us and invited us to visit this remote little town. It sounded good and we decided to take him up on his offer.
The dirt road to El Paují, winding along the Brazilian border was long, slow and rough, and we arrived just before sundown. We had barely noticed the small mini market and a couple of scattered houses when Gabriel, pulled up next to us on his bike.
“Where are you staying?” he asked. His big smile and easy attitude caught us off guard. He sported a scraggily faux-hawk and one lone dread hanging out the back of his head and had a good vibe.
“We don’t know yet, but we’ve mostly been sleeping out in the Gran Sabana.” I responded.
We spoke for another few minutes and by the end of our conversation he had convinced us to camp out at “Brisas del Paují,” outside the youth friendly, laid back, cabins he and his friends ran. We met Eliakim, ‘El Nacho’ and Gerardo who along with Gabriel would be our hosts and friends for life. Since we were low on money, we arranged an exchange with our hosts. Claudio and I agreed to help garden, and they agreed to let us camp and show us around.
We had an amazing week in El Paují. We swam in hidden pools, sat on the cliffs of the “Abismo,” an amazing spot overlooking the Amazon jungle from the edge of the Gran Sabana. We laughed, cooked, gardened, ate, and shared stories. We had time to visit Manuel’s eco-village and tour his eco-houses and amazing gravity water pump. Before we knew it, the week had flown by and it was time to head back to Santa Elena for Claudio’s visa. Our new friends left me wanting to return to the one country of the trip I thought I would never visit again. Now I know, there is plenty more to Venezuela than just the surface.
The next chapter in our trans-continental journey – Brazil.