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

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