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

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