Tuesday, February 27, 2007

El Dorado, Venezuela

Friends: Until 1972 the road ended here in El Dorado, 200 miles from the border with Brazil. The remaining stretch on to the tepuis was not completed until 1992. It is 55 miles to the "Grand Staircase," a 25-mile climb up to the Gran Sabana and the tepuis and a host of waterfalls, including Angel Falls, the world's longest, that spew from the summits of these plateaus. El Dorado, as the name implies, lies in the heart of gold-mining country. In the 1880s Venezuela was the world's leading gold producer. It still ranks right up there. A mine 70 miles north of here produces three tons a year, and there are countless other small mines scattered all over. There are dozens of tiny stores in this small rustic town advertising they purchase "oro".

I arrived here in time for Oscar Sunday hoping to find a hotel with cable carrying the telecast. No such luck. The few hotels aren't much more than flop houses and none offered television. The water out of the tap is the murkiest I've encountered. I was glad not to have to try to pump it through my filter. I had no idea how clean I was getting my clothes as I washed them. The better hotels offered the option of a/c or fan. A room with a fan for $12, rather than $20 for a squawking air-conditioner, was adequate for me. Even if my cell didn't cool below 80, the overhead fan stirring the air would make this room more comfortable than my tent has been on those nights when I've had to put up the rain fly and cut off all ventilation.

Only once have I had to immediately put on my rain fly when I erected my tent. There have been three nights though that I've been awoken by rain in the middle of the night and had to scramble to stretch it over my tent. Only once have I set up my tent in the rain, forcing me to go to sleep with the rain fly encapsulating me. It was a great relief to wake up in the middle of the night to a starry sky. I shed the fly and let in some fresh air.

I look forward to the cool of the 4,000 foot elevation of the Gran Sabana and bathing under water falls. At least with the minimal humidity, I don't feel excessively grimy. Taking a shower wasn't even my top priority when I checked into my hotel last night. I just wanted to get a good solid meal into myself so it could start digesting and then maybe have another after showering. I was hoping to find a restaurant with a/c, but the two I tried were stuffier inside than out. It was no easier finding a restaurant without a blaring jukebox packed with men at tables full of bottles of beer.

There were more pool halls in town than hotels. The largest gathering anywhere was around a high stakes poker game played on the sidewalk in front of one of the bars. The table was littered with wads of the multi-colored currency. With 2,100 Bolivares to the dollar, there are a lot of zeroes on the bills. I learned early to keep a close eye on the number of zeroes after I inadvertently passed off a 20,000 Bolivare bill as a 2,000 bill. I paid for a 5,000 Bolivare meal with notes of 1,000 and 2,0000 and 20,000. Part of my confusion was that there are two versions of both the 1,000 and 2,000 bills. Fortunately, my mistake was pointed out to me by a kindly small cafe owner.

With all I've been having to buy to drink and the occasional hotel, Venezuela is actually turning out to be more expensive than Japan. Road side food is much cheaper than anything to be found in the grocery stores. Packaged and canned food cost twice as much or more than what they would cost in the US. I've had to use ATMs three times so far, partially because each one I have used has had a limit on the amount I could withdraw. They have each been a challenge and a slightly harrowing experience, requiring several attempts to succeed in extracting money. One of the problems is that they are programmed to disconnect if one hesitates at all in the process. A couple have also needed confirmation of either the last two or first two numbers of my account. I didn't know if they meant my four digit code or my actual account number or social security number. Twice I have given up and sought out a different ATM machine. I do have some American currency to change just in case.

I have come 700 miles in ten days. I am due for a rest day. Now that I am closing in on the Gran Sabana, I can start worrying in earnest about its notorious tiny biting bugs. I brought along several types of repellent to deal with them. Sandy gave me another, a Chinese repellent that had worked for him. The Lonely Planet guide book warns the bugs are ubiquitous. I am always curious what a travel or guide book finds ubiquitous in a region it is describing, as it is usually something unique that isn't commonly encountered elsewhere. It can be an aggravation, such as these bugs, or some item of pleasure or delight. The Lonely Planet book on Venezuela resorted to the word five times, more than usual. Besides the bugs of the Gran Sabana, ubiquitous was used to describe soap operas, arepas and cachapas (types of food) and panaderias (bakeries). It also inferred that capybara and caimans are ubiquitous in certain parts of the country, saying that they weren't ubiquitous in one region. For me I am happy that friendliness is ubiquitous. My only wish would be that ice was as ubiquitous as it was in Thailand.

Later, George

Monday, February 26, 2007

Guasipati, Venezuela

Friends: The only air conditioning I've experienced since leaving Sandy's trailer has been in a couple of Cyber outlets, as Internet cafes are known here. They are a most welcome oasis. It makes a considerable difference in my body temperature and comfort to spend an hour out of the 90-degree heat.

I had an added reason to find an Internet cafe today. I needed to know how much iodine it takes to purify water, as my Katadyn filter, that has faithfully served me for nearly twenty years, stopped pumping this morning, and at a moment when I was out of water out in the middle of nowhere. The water here has been so cloudy it has taken much extra effort to pump the water and it may have worn down the crucial washer. I thought I had a spare, but I can't find it.

When my filter stopped functioning I had five bottles of tap water to purify. If need be I could have risked drinking them. I´ve already picked up some a microbe or two that has disrupted my digestive track, so what difference would a few more make. I had no idea how far it was to the next town and safe drink, as the last one marked on my map two miles back no longer existed. Fortunately, there was cloud cover and it was early enough in the day that the temperature had not climbed into the 90s yet.

The next significant town was 35 miles away. I had come 18 miles already since my 7 a.m. start. I resumed riding at a slightly slower pace so I wouldn't have to breathe so much through my mouth, drying my throat. Still I could feel the dessication setting in. After five miles I came upon a couple of guys digging fence posts. I asked if they had any water, but they didn't. But they said there was a restaurant about three kilometers up the road. It was a miracle little oasis, a recently opened stand by a young husband and wife with their two year old toddler on hand. They didn't even have a table, just two plastic chairs and a five gallon bucket to sit upon under their little awning. They had some home made juice and tamales and bananas and bottled water. So I survived this catastrophe.

My filter is literally my most valuable possession. With the towns fewer and fewer I need it more than ever. The pharmacy in this town didn't have iodine, only chlorine tablets. The local hardware store had a variety of washers, but not a precise match. I was willing to try the most similar. I also stopped at a car repair garage to see if they might have a washer. A clever mechanic wrapped some thread around my old washer, making the fit tighter. That could well work. But I need 100% confidence. I'll just have to carry a lot more purified water in my panniers to go along with the three on my frame.

Chavez ought to devote some of his billions in oil money to improving the country's water. Both Costa Rica and Panama have drinkable tap water. Even Sandy thought it ridiculous that a liter of water cost thirty times as much as a liter of gas. Not having to pump a gallon or more of water a day will save me a lot of effort and time and maybe even some money. Rather than buying a cold soda or juice, I'll buy a large bottle of cold water and do without the flavor. I had been resorting to Tang to make the lukewarm water in my water bottles more palatable. A pack of Tang good for one liter cost thirty cents. The flavoring was a treat as besides the standard orange were a whole variety of exotic flavors unknown back home--various combinations of papaya and mango and strawberry and lemon and others.

Later, George

Friday, February 23, 2007

Upata, Venezuela

Friends: It remains hot in the 90s, but not so humid in the arid interior. I had a pleasant ride for much of yesterday through cattle country to the Orinco River, the third largest in South America. I'm adapting, and not as preoccupied with the next refuge from the searing sun and ovenish temps. Rather than desperately seeking shelter every hour, I've been able to extend my time in the sun to a couple of hours if need be.

The previous three days had been survival-cycling, wringing out the miles in paltry handfuls just trying to get down the road.  It was a matter of surviving insufferable heat one day, battering winds another and low energy levels the third, thanks to the hard efforts of the previous two days, compounded by not sleeping or eating enough my evening with Sandy. I realize not every hour on the bike can be blissful and sublime, so even when I'm suffering, I am not regretting in the least my chosen means of transportation.

That I was looking forward to my breaks more than my time on the bike, was okay, as the more frequent breaks allowed me more opportunity to spread the gospel of the bike. At each stop I have inquisitors and possible converts. I welcome the opportunity to open eyes to what one can accomplish on the bicycle. When people react with disbelief that I have bicycled all the way from Caracas, 500 miles away now, I tell them that is hardly anything. Twenty years ago I biked the entire length of South America, 7,000 miles from Colombia to the Straits of Magellan. That is totally inconceivable to them, but also a great revelation. If someone can do that, anything is possible, even putting a man on the moon.

I have been in energy debt for days now going back to a 107-mile effort to reach Barcelona on my third day, a little early in the trip to be doing so many miles. I hadn't intended on such an effort. Barcelona had been my day's destination for my first hotel and shower and Internet in four nights. According to the mileage signs it should have been only an 85-mile day, but I've quickly learned that the road signs here are very inadequate--in short supply and not always accurate.

By mid-afternoon when I realized I was in for a 100-mile day if I wanted to reach Barcelona, I just cut back on my rest stops. It still turned out to be further than anticipated as the later distance signs to Barcelona weren't to the town center, but from the turn off from the highway, another four or five miles. I arrived just as dark was settling in. It took a while to find a hotel with a vacancy, as the town was packed with Carnival revelers. It was a wild scene featuring hundreds of scantily and spectacularly dressed bright-smiling young women from pre-teens to post-teens all with aspiration to the crown of Miss World one day. Its hard to rest too much when there is so much to be seen.

Very frequently I am asked a question in a new country that I have never been asked before and it becomes a recurring question. In Japan the question was, "What other countries have you traveled in," expressing the Japanese longing to leave their island and see the world. In Eastern Europe last summer the question was, "Did you cross the ocean by boat?" In Bolivia people wanted to know how much my airline ticket cost, thinking it would be something astronomical beyond their wildest imaginings. The question here I am asked that I have never been asked before is, "Are you on an around the world trip?" Venezuelans are surprised that I'd come specifically to see their country, since so few do. Still, they are proud of their tepuis in the Gran Sabana and smile that I've come to visit them. And the people are very vibrant and not downtrodden in the least, as in some Latin American countries. However, they assume I'm just passing through on my way to Brazil, as the road through the tepuis leads to Brazil. I've been assumed to be Brazilian as much as any other nationality.

Each province I have crossed into has been marked by a different Chavez billboard. It frequently features the broad-smiling President embracing the governor of that province. I passed dozens of such billboards as I drove around with Sandy. He is no fan of the President. He says life is no better than it was eight years ago when he was elected president.

As we drove around, Sandy suggested it might be safer for me to ride my bicycle on the opposite side of the road into traffic. That is, unfortunately, the custom of the majority, though not all, of the few cyclists I have encountered. Venezuelans aren't entirely bicycle illiterate, as it hosts a week-long race in January that draws racers from around the world. There was also a Venezuelan is this past year's Tour de France--the smallest rider in the field. He competed for a Belgian team and was considered a threat for the King of the Mountains competition, as he nearly won the Tour of Italy in 2005 with some spectacular climbing efforts. But the fast pace of the Tour de France wore him out and he was not a factor. He lives over in the Andes, on the border with Colombia, where bicycling is king. If the Super Bowl Bears hadn't been keeping me in Chicago through January, I would have liked to have been here a month earlier and started these travels with that bike race.

Later, George

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Maturin, Venezuela

Friends: Empanadas and arepas are the two foods of ubiquity here, available at stands along the road and in plazas and in restaurants. They are both made from corn meal. The empanadas are fried in oil and stuffed with meat or cheese. The arepas are a hard baked bun that are slit and stuffed with all varieties of sandwich makings.

Last night I received a lesson in baking arepas from a 32-year old guy who flagged me down along the road to offer me a bottle of water and then invited me to crash at his place. He lived in a two-bedroom trailer similar to those he services for oil workers. It was bare bones rustic, but air-conditioned. Sandy wasn't the first to stop to have a chat with me, but he was the first with any fluency in English. Five years ago he took a three-month submersion course in Trinidad, a five-hour ferry trip from the eastern tip of Venezuela, the very point that Columbus touched ground in 1498 on his third voyage to the New World and his only landing on the continent.

Sandy and I talked for about 15 minutes along the road shortly after I`d had lunch. It wasn't until several hours later though, when he passed me again on his way home from work and I was within a few miles of his home that he invited me to visit. He lived on the outskirts of Maturin, a city of 300,000, that was my Internet destination for the day. I had no hesitancy in accepting his invitation. It was clear that he was a most sincere, good-hearted fellow. After our first conversation before I could be on my way he said he`d like to give me a gift. He rummaged around in his car for something but couldn't find anything other than a flashlight, which he rightly guessed I had no need of.

An evening with a local was a glorious end to a brutally hard day, fighting a ferocious headwind that had me reduced to eight to eleven mph for most of the day. I would ride an hour and then take an hour to recover from the heat and the wind. I had 70 miles of it. I was lucky there were cafes with some regularity on this stretch through a large oil field. The day before I had stretches of 27 and 25 miles between places of refuge. It had been a day of intense heat, rather than wind. At least the wind brought some cloud cover, so I wasn't being baked as severely as the day before. But I needed a lot more to eat with the effort the wind was requiring. It was strong enough to blow over my loaded bike outside one cafe.

Sandy had no idea how hungry a touring cyclist could be. He offered me drink, but we did not eat dinner until nine pm, well past my bed time of late. I arrived at his trailer in a locked
compound that was his company's base of operations, shortly before five. I sat and drank glass after glass of cold water before taking a cold shower and beginning to nibble on nuts to stave off my hunger. Sandy had no interest in food at that point, so we drove around the city looking for the Internet and doing some shopping and visiting friends. We tried nearly a dozen Internet outlets, but they were either closed or jam-packed with teenagers. Sandy did not want to go into the heart of the city, where we would have had better luck, as it was the final night of Carnaval and he said it would be too raucous and crazy. I'd experienced some of that two nights before in Barcelona, another city of 300,000. All the costumed people was quite a spectacle. The Venezuelan women are renowned for their beauty, having won more Miss World and Miss Universe contests than any other country. Beauty pageants are a national passion. There are schools to train woman for beauty contests. The women participating in the parades were all strutting with great flair in their skimpy and gaudy outfits as if trying to win a contest. I wouldn't have minded seeing Maturin`s version, but was also happy to be off my feet, being chauffeured around, allowing me to recover from another hard day on the bike.

It was almost as challenging to find a store selling eggs as finding the Internet. At least we suceeded
in the eggs. We also stocked up on cheese and ham and bread, so Sandy could send me off with some sandwiches.

Sandy had a bag of corn meal flour to make arepas in his refrigerator and a four-holder apparatus to bake them in, similar to a waffle-maker. He tossed the flour and water and some spices and a dab of sugar into a bowl and after stirring, molded four flour balls that he plopped into the heated up arepa-maker. In less than five minutes we had hard rolls that were easy to slit open. We stuffed them with cheese and fried eggs. Arepas are Sandy's favorite food. Trinidad did not have arepas. He lost 35 pounds during his three months of English-study there. Also to blame was the spiciness of the food. Sandy invited his boss over to join us, well after I was ready to pass out. He only spoke a minimum of English, so didn't linger too long.

Today I turn south, away from the severe easterly wind gusting across the Atlantic extremity of the country. Sandy recently visited the tepuis and was gushing over their magnificence and beauty. I will eventually be climbing, so hopefully the temperatures will moderate. There isn't enough of a moon at this point for night riding, but with the minimum of traffic in the hinterlands, I could attempt it if necessary.

Later, George

Monday, February 19, 2007

Barcelona, Venezuela

Friends: With gas priced at twelve cents a gallon and bus fares similarly nominal, there is no great economic necessity for the bike here in Venezuela. There are, of course, other equally attractive imperatives for the bike that a microscopic few Venezuelans embrace--those with a bent to the practical or a sensitivity to the environment or maintaining their fitness or simply lofting the soul.

A significant number, however, do recognize the bicycle as a means to adventure. No where else have I encountered such continued excitement and exuberance with waves and friendly toots from passing vehicles. Not only am I a curiosity as a touring cyclist, but also as a gringo. I have yet to encounter either since I touched down in Caracas four days ago. I was the lone discernible Anglo on my sparsely filled flight, nor did I notice another Anglo amongst the other flights filtering through customs as I lingered reassembling my bike.

Why Venezuela is overlooked as a travel destination is a mystery, as it boasts loads of
beaches and superlative, one-of-a-kind, attractions, including the world´s longest waterfall and a unique geographical formation called tepuis--table-top sandstone mountains whose plateaus can extend for miles, each boasting flora and fauna not known elsewhere that would have had Darwin more excited than the Galapagos. There are a hundred or more of these off in the southeast corner of the country near Brazil and Guyana. That is where I am headed. A two hundred mile road through this Avenue of Tepuis ought to be a trip unlike any other.

On the opposite side of the country are the Andes. There is a region there that has continual lightning strikes without any thunder, an unexplained phenomenon that is also other-worldly. There is an ice cream shop over there with more than 900 varieties of ice cream, including shrimp, more than any place in the world, according to Guinness. Its not likely I will have time to cover it all, as Venezuela is twice the size of California and I´ve only allowed myself a month.Venezuela also boasts scores of beaches along its 1,750 mile Caribbean coastline. I've followed it for 250 miles heading east from Caracas, the extent of my coastal miles. I'm ready to head inland to the tepuis, 400 miles away.

Nearly half of Venezuela´s 26 million people live within a hundred mile radius of Caracas. It didn't take me long to escape the population density as after 30 miles, the road hugging the coast turned into rugged cliffs with 15% grades and pavement giving way to dirt. Back in 1999 heavy rains created mudslides that killed over 50,000 people less than 20 miles up the coast from Caracus. Caracus is 15 miles inland from the Caribbean at a higher elevation. Rather than climbing up to the city upon arrival, I will save that til the end of my trip.

My eleven hours of transit from Chicago, two hours to Dallas, a four hour lay over, then five hours more to Caracas, didn't get me here until well after dark. It was 11:30 pm when I slipped out of the airport and was immediately pounced upon by a pack of mongrel dogs, who only gave a half-hearted chase. I biked until one a.m. before finding an overgrown vacant lot to disappear into. I had been warned about beach camping this close to the city. Even at the late hour there were guys lingering about seeking some cool from the heat, that would have discouraged me even if I hadn't been warned.

The terrain has ranged from junglish to semi-desert, but the temperatures have been
unrelentingly hot in the 90s. It was a challenge to find camping in the lush jungle, but I chanced upon a mini-clearing among some banana trees one night and also a rare orange orchard on another. There are military checkpoints every ten or fifteen miles. They are more ceremonial than anything. Only once have I even been ordered to stop. It was such a nice experience I wish it happened more often, as the pair of jovial, big-bellied soldiers presented me with a bottle of cold water. They asked where I was from, but didn't demand my passport. Rather than USA, I say I'm from Chicago, home to a couple of a prominent Venezuelan baseball players. Both guys had cellular phones. They immediately started calling friends or officials, I don´t know which, to tell them about a cyclist from Chicago.

With gas so cheap none of the gas stations bother to advertise its price. Its a wonder they charge at all. From 1914, when oil was first discovered here, until 1970, Venezuela was the world's leading oil producer. It has slipped to number four. Its production has wavered from time to time, requiring toll booths on the roads at one point. The toll booths are still there, but unstaffed.

Billboards of President Chavez are even more frequent than the military checkpoints, even more than the Che and Viva la Revolution billboards of Cuba. Many of them have a play on the letter V, combining it with Chavez´s name and Victoria de Venezuela.

Later, George