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

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