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

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