Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Catia de la Mer, Venezuela

Friends: It was a long (nearly twenty miles), gradual climb on the autopista over a ridge of mountains and then a sharp descent into the valley of Caracas, which at over 3,000 feet in elevation was pleasantly temperate. There was a nice wide shoulder that I had to
occasionally share with a slower, struggling truck spewing the most horrid of the noxious fumes of the two-laned promenade of bumper-to-bumper traffic, mostly trucks, converging upon the capital like some military operation. The smell was bad, but even harsher was the sting to my lungs. But worst of all was a half-mile long tunnel on the climb--a veritable death-zone of swirling particulates, as thick as soup. I needed the descent to save my lungs even more than to relieve to my legs.

As I emerged into the sprawl of the metropolis, the traffic was clogged enough that motorists could slow alongside me and bombard me with the usual assortment of questions. One woman held up her cell-phone camera and took a few shots. When I stopped at a gas station to ask
directions to the Plaza Bolivar, the heart of every city here, I was swarmed by an array of people who were pleased to give me assistance. I still had five miles to go, but I was given some helpful
landmarks to guide me. Big city folk were responding to me as enthusiastically as their rural counterparts.

Caracas is spread out mostly on an east-west axis and confined by steep mountainsides all around. I was entering from the south and not sure at which point. If I could spot the twin 53-floor towers, the tallest in the city, that would give me my bearings. But with the city's rolling terrain, it was a while before they revealed themselves, and when they did, I wasn't certain they were them, as one was still under construction. They were on the west end of the city´s largest park, about two miles from the Plaza Bolivar. The park looked forbidding with a high fence around it, like many of the urban parks, and with only a couple of guarded entrances, so they can be well-monitored.

After passing the park I found myself on Avenida Bolivar, a grand boulevard with not an excessive amount of traffic. Two blocks over was the street with my first choice of hotels. There were others in the vicinity I came upon first that I checked on, as the Lonely Planet choices have all been dramatically more expensive than their listed price. A couple of Germans I met in Santa Elena said their budget had been devastated since hotel prices had been three or four times what they had anticipated and they had no alternative but to pay them, unlike me who had the option of camping.

This hotel was no different. Lonely Planet said singles could be had for $4.40. They were now $17. The other hotels I had checked were between ten and twelve dollars, but all full. When I initially asked the price of a room at the Lonely Planet choice, I was told 32,000 Bolivares, but when I paid for it I was told the price was actually 35,000. It was the first of a series of gougings I suffered in the big city. At lunch after I paid 3,000 Bolivars for an empanada and a juice with a 5,000 Bolivar note while sitting at the counter eating it, the counter man busily attended to other customers and forced me to ask for my change.

On two other occasions I had people give me a 500 Bolivar coin among my change when it should have been a 2,000 Bolivar coin, hoping I would think it was a 2,000 Bolivar coin. I was also charged a 20% tax on a meal, the first time that happened. The guy feared I might protest, so he asked me to pay for my meal after I ordered it. When he sprung the 1500 Bolivar tax on
me, I canceled my order and ate elsewhere.

Such are the ways of the big city, a marked contrast to the rest of the country. The people of
Caracas seemed as nice as everyone else, but they were clearly scrounging to get by. The sidewalks in the heart of the city were crammed with people selling anything and everything--sunglasses, watch bands, socket sets, alarm clocks, Oreo cookies, all the latest DVDs
including "Babel," which is playing in the theaters here, underwear, and, most pitiful of all, the occasional few meager piles of over-ripe bananas.

But I could wander about and sit and read without any harassment, even by anyone offering to change money. The only time I was approached by a beggar was when I took a seat in a cathedral dating to 1570. There isn't much business for money-changers, as I saw no other foreigners in my wanderings, even at the several Bolivar memorial sites (the home of his birth, a museum devoted to him, the church of his belated funeral 12 years after his death in Colombia when he was finally returned to Caracas, the church in whose nave his casket resides), nor at the couple of art museums I visited. The Bolivar memorials were inundated by school children, but I had the art museums to myself.

Monuments of Bolivar dominate Caracas, but Chavez has his share too--official and unofficial. After a month here I can't say how genuine all the accolades are, whether he's revered or reviled or even whether he is good or bad for Venezuela. All I can say is that throughout most of Venezuela, its people are in a decent enough mood that they aren't irritated by a cyclist sometimes getting in their way on their highways. And other than in the aberration of the
urban jungle of Caracas, where life seems a matter of survival, the people have expressed universal and unbounded goodwill toward me, the touring cyclist. They have been genuinely thrilled to see such an oddity, perhaps identifying with someone off on an adventure or fulfilling some sort of ambition. They seemed honored to have contact with such a person or that such a person would visit their country. Whatever the reasons may have been, I know I have touched many lives here and momentarily brightened their day, as they have mine. What more can one ask for? Whatever woes may burden these people, they are not severely bowed by them.

As in all my travels, people, not politics, are the issue. As Jack Paar said, paying politicians too
much attention only encourages them. Not once has anyone here asked me about Bush or even alluded to him when they might have after asking my name and learning it was the same as his. That is a marked contrast to France where people are eager to castigate Bush. In 2004 I was continually asked by the French if I was going to do my duty and vote Bush out of office. Nor has anyone here asked me what I thought of Chavez. Sandy, the fine gentleman who offered me lodging one night, was the only person to mention Chavez and his comment was that things were no better now than when he took office eight years ago. His feelings no doubt were stronger, but he didn't care to go beyond that. It could be as in Cuba, where people are reluctant to speak of Castro in fear of the repercussions. Chavez certainly has gone to extremes to make it seem he is widely beloved and his country´s savior. Besides the many billboards there is no graffiti of Viva Chavez and such, as well as his name and face stenciled on blank walls and on the sides of cars and trucks. Castro allowed none of that in Cuba. Che is the only person so acknowledged. Castro had seen the cult of personality in Russia and China and one of his mandates was no billboards or monuments to any living person.

Perhaps, as with Castro, Chavez has given his citizens some self-respect and pride, standing up to the Goliath USA, allowing them to accept their privations. They are nowhere near as extreme as those of the Cubans, who are in severe want of just about everything. The Cubans could accept their sacrifices for a few years, but after decades, not so. Venezuelans can still hold out hope that life will be better under Chavez. Their economy is obviously not doing so well with such a wide disparity in the official and the black market value of its currency and with people forced to survive by selling whatever they can on the sidewalks of their capital city.

As soon as I remounted my bike and headed to the airport, 16 miles away, down along the coast, I was touched by more of the good-will that has been the hallmark of my time here. At first I wasn't so sure my luck had changed when a soldier refused to allow me to continue on the autopista when it began its plunge to the coast, even though there wasn't a great deal of
traffic and there was a nice shoulder. He insisted the road ahead was too dangerous for bicycles.
I pulled out my map and showed him the various autopistas I had already ridden and how far I had come and what mountains I had descended, here and elsewhere, even in the Himalayas. Maybe if I had brought along a copy of the "Reader" article, as some have said I should have for such situations, I might have won him over, but he was a younger, unconciliatory sort who was absolutely adamant. There was a military post nearby. I went in there and talked to an officer. He too said it wasn't safe for bicyclists, but at least he wasn't as hard-headed as the other soldier. He called him in and told him to flag down a truck to take me.

We waited out in the sun for ten minutes as empty pick-up after empty pick-up passed. I just
stood patiently at the road's edge leaning up against my bike. After ten minutes I decided to give him five minutes more before asking if I should stick out my thumb or wave down one of the occasional taxis that passed. But before those five minutes passed, a truck with a larger payload approached and the soldier waved him over. I thought maybe he had been waiting for a
military vehicle or a someone he knew. When I hurried along with him to the truck, he told me to wait while he discussed the matter with the driver. He seemed to agree without much persuasion.

They were right in thinking the road was dangerous for a cyclist, as several miles of it were under construction and there were two lengthy tunnels with no shoulder and unrelenting traffic and some very steep sections. Still, I 've ridden worse and would have gotten down these ten miles faster than it took the truck, since we were at a crawl during the two miles of construction. I could have slipped past the congestion along with all the motorcycles.

The driver was actually going right to the airport. My good fortune continued at the airport as
one of the three possible people I was told to ask for about my bike box was the person
at American Airlines who I initially approached. He was as helpful and considerate as the young man who I left my box with on the night shift. He said he knew about the box and that I would have no problem picking it up the next day when I was due to fly out. I dreaded having to climb back up to Caracas to find a bike shop and a box and tried not to even imagine how that scenario would play out. I was just mighty relieved that I had elected to descend to the coast a day early. I would have been horribly frantic if I had been stopped by that soldier and then forced to wait alongside the road if I had a flight to catch in a few hours. I might have just taken my chances and sped off when he wasn't looking. I was wondering if I could have gotten away with such
a thing as I descended in the truck. About half way down we came to another military checkpoint. I'm sure those soldiers would have been out with rifles drawn if I had made a run for it.

With all seeming obstacles behind me, even confirming that I can remove the pedals from my bike as I will have to do tomorrow so it will fit into the box, I can begin to relax and look forward to my flight and can feel as Waydell said she did in the days after our 200-mile, three-day, mini-tour over Thanksgiving when she said, "I feel as if I've accomplished something." It is how I feel every night in my tent after a day on the bike. And I can begin looking forward to the next journey. It is only two months until Cannes, three-and-half months until the Tour de
France and five months until Telluride. As good as it has been, I know it will only get better.

Later, George

Monday, March 12, 2007

Santa Teresa del Tuy, Venezuela

Friends: As I climbed towards the junglish Guatopo National Park, 60 miles from Caracas, more and more people told me it wasn't safe to bike through it, saying it was full of dangerous animals--pumas and jaguars and poisonous snakes. I had heard similar warnings regarding bears when I biked up the Alaskan Highway from locals who were just trying to scare me. These people, however, were deadly serious. Their fears were as palpable as if they were being sentenced to such an ordeal themselves. I had seen a similar frightful concern when I told people I had been camping along the way in "el campo." "What about the tigers," they'd gasp, "have they left you alone?"

There were three designated campgrounds along the 25-mile road through the park, and hiking trails as well, so the animals couldn't be as predatory as people assumed. Dark caught me a couple miles short of the park's boundary, so I camped in a thicket of towering bamboo, perhaps 50-feet tall. Whenever the wind blew, brushing them against one another, they gave an eerie
creaking sound that ought to have scared away any animal. When the bamboo weren't creaking, I had the music of a nearby gurgling stream to lull me back to sleep. The stream was a rare luxury, allowing me to take a dip under the stars and wash my clothes and cool my water bottles. At 2,000 feet I experienced sub-70 degree temperatures for the first time since leaving La Gran Sabana.

It was an idyllic ending to another superlative day of biking despite the temperatures peaking at a new high--107 degrees. I was off on another lightly traveled road with a stretch of over 50 miles that I feared would be without food or water. I had enough water, but I was hoping for at least one refueling point with some cold fluids. After 13 miles I came to a lonely military check point where the solitary soldier offered me water from his cooler. I downed one bottle
as we chatted.

Occasionally he had to jump up and check on a vehicle, most of whom were startled to see me sitting in the shade and gave a wave. The solider grabbed a large metal bowl when a pickup truck rolled up with a cargo of large plastic barrels. He dipped the bowl into one. When he returned, he offered me some fresh, warm milk. That didn't seem anywhere near as appealing as another bottle-full of cold water. Before making my departure I doused my shirt and head under a faucet. But first I asked if I could have a photo of my benefactor, but that he declined.

Ten miles further on, just as I needed a break from the scalding temperatures, I came upon a small stand along the road with a rusted, sun-bleached coke sign. There was no one tending it, but it contained a cooler. Some nearby kids gave a shout and an older woman came out and sold me a coke, my only choice other than a beer. I needed the shade more than the drink, but some cool, flavored fluid was welcome too. I asked if she sold empanadas or arepas, but all she had were bagged snacks. It only took her a few moments though to reconsider and offer to make me an arepa. The Venezuelans continue to go out of their way to be hospitable. Ten minutes later she returned with a freshly-baked, over-sized corn meal patty with a pile of shredded cheese on the side and four slices of sausage, and she didn't want any payment for it. It was 100 degrees even in the shade, but it hardly mattered.

The generosity and friendliness of the people here is almost unmatched by anywhere I've traveled. Only in Colombia have I been treated better. And there the bicyclist is revered as no place else. Not only was I continually given food and drink and invited into people's homes, I was invited on to radio and television shows as well. Gabriel Marquez, the Nobel prize winning author, early in his career, wrote a biography of the first great Colombian cyclist, a man
so highly regarded that more homes had his picture hanging on their walls than Jesus or the Pope.

The night before last, as I was leaving a mid-sized city just as it was getting dark, a young man on a motorcycle with his girl friend accompanied me for a couple of miles. I was prepared to stay in a motel if I saw one of the cheap trucker ones I´ve encountered on the outskirts of some towns. Here all I came upon were the more expensive fully-barricaded Love Motels with fancy entrances so no one could see whose cars were there. I told the motorcyclist that they were too expensive for me, $20, and that I would just camp. He pulled a 20,000 Bolivare note ($10) out of his shirt pocket, and offered it to me. He couldn't understand why I refused it. That is something that never happened in Colombia, though once in India, a guy who thought I wasn't eating enough and needed to have some meat, offered me ten rupees, about 70 cents.

Yesterday was a Sunday and there were quite a few families out for a drive. Three times at gas stations or cafes where I'd stopped, someone came over and asked to take my picture. After one prolonged conversation with a guy and his girl friend, the service station attendant came over and asked if he could fill my bottle with cold water. It was if the word was out that it was my birthday. The people have been so universally cordial and welcoming that I don't cringe when a soldier or two sits down at my table when I'm eating and wants to have a talk.

Tomorrow I will complete my circuit of the eastern half of the country. It is nice to know that the western half with the Andes awaits me. It will be very tempting to return to give them a visit next winter and then to continue on to Colombia and then to Ecuador and Banos and the Posada del Arte. Ever since I biked through Colombia in 1989 on my way to Tierra del Fuego, I've wanted to return.

Later, George

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Valle de la Pascua, Venezuela

Friends: As I sat in my tent last night after another great day on the bike, a most satisfying 98-miler, eating a dinner of garbanzo beans and tuna, savoring a cold drink of pink grapefruit-strawberry Tang with the temperature still in the 80s, it was hard to think of a better $1.20 I had ever spent than on the 1 1-2 liters of cold water I was blessed to have been able to buy half an hour earlier on the outskirts of Pariaguan.

Five miles after the purchase, as dark was settling in, I slipped through a locked gate with wide enough slots that I didn't have to remove the panniers from my bike. A dirt road led to a construction site that had no signs of recent activity nor remains of any equipment. It was a pleasant contrast to my previous night's campsite in the brush alongside the road. I could have some relative quiet, well away from the road. I had no worries of having to be discreet with my flashlight. I was happy to have resisted the cluster of motels on either side of the city, and glad that I´d been able to stop at a gas station and give myself a fairly good bathing shortly before the water purchase. No complaints whatsoever.

Even well after dark, the thermometer on my watch, that gives temperatures to the tenth of a degree, still registered over 80. But the easterly breeze that propelled me all day had yet to blow itself out, and continued to act like a fan, cooling and drying my sweat. The grapefruit-strawberry Tang, a new discovery, would have tasted great at air temperature, but to have it chilled made every swallow a pleasure to savor and had me wondering how I could be so lucky.

Earlier I had thought the two liters of cold water in a pitcher accompanying my lunch of spaghetti in an air-conditioned Chinese restaurant would easily qualify as my drink of the day, especially since its accompanying spaghetti was heaped so high I couldn't eat it all and had stuffed the left-overs in my Tupperware bowl. All the water and a meal-and-a-half for three dollars put it in strong contention for the meal of the trip.

I could thank a boy on a bike for leading me to the place. He had overheard me ask the owner of a supermarket if there was a Chinese restaurant nearby, as I can generally count on them being air-conditioned and having a pasta dish. Oddly enough, he did not know of one, even though he was Chinese, as are the majority of the supermarket owners. When I returned to my bike, the boy offered to lead me to a Chinese restaurant. It was six blocks away. When we arrived, the boy pointed it out on the opposite side of the street and sped off, not expecting a propina (tip), as frequently happens in third world countries, though not once in Venezuela. The locals aren't accustomed to many travelers or tourists, so there is no battalion of touts preying upon them. The locals are helpful and treat visitors as guests. It has been most refreshing.

I´ve had two stretches of 80 miles between towns the past two days, but on roads with enough traffic that there have been gas station-cafes every 25 miles or so. These way-stations are full of truckers and local cowboys, authentic characters all, who often stop by my table for a few words of curiosity. If I had been traveling the opposite direction, into the wind, the cycling would have been an ordeal rather than the pleasure it has been. It is a rare site to glance at my odometer at the end of the day and to be gliding effortlessly along at 15 mph and have the arrow indicating whether I am above or below my average speed for the day pointing downwards. Such an event usually only occurs in my fantasies. I have closed to within 150 miles of Caracas. If I weren't avoiding the mid-day sun for three hours these days, I'd be in Caracas already. As it is, I'll still be arriving ahead of schedule.

The cycling has been so easy, I have not had to use the small chain ring or two largest rings on my freewheel the past two days, since climbing over the mammoth bridge spanning the Orinco.  I sped past the toll booth alongside a bus. There were some soldiers lingering about, but none reacted. The bridge was four lanes wide and didn't have much traffic, so a bicyclist was not a hazard. I just had to stop and walk across several widely notched metal grooves that would have swallowed my wheels.

The flat terrain ends in about 25 miles, when I'll have a minor mountain range to cross through a junglish national park. There will be more climbing to Caracas. I'm not particularly looking forward to the sprawl of its five million people, 20% of the nation's population, but I will give it a look. If its too much I can just continue on down to the coast and spend my last couple of days on the beach.

Later, George

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Ciudad Boliva, Venezuela

Friends: After 350 familiar miles, doubling back on the only road to and from Santa Elena, I branched off at Upata towards the Raul Leoni Dam, a monstrosity that provides half of Venezuela´s electricity. Only one dam in the world, in Brazil, generates more hydroelectric energy.

I immediately found myself on the least traveled road I've encountered here. I stopped a couple times to ask if I was on the right road. As much as I was enjoying it, it had me worried that it could be a road to nowhere, and did not cross the Rio Caroni, dead-ending at the dam. I had asked every tour operator in Santa Elena if they knew if the road went through and countless others, as my map wasn't clear about it, but none could tell me. Not even in Upata, 60 miles from it, could I receive a definitive answer. There was an intersection at the town of San Antonio, 27 miles from the dam, where I´d have one last chance to find out if I could cross the river at the dam or by pass it.

About half way to San Antonio I stopped along the road to take advantage of a discarded rag to give my chain a thorough cleaning. A rare vehicle came along. The driver stopped to ask if I needed help. It was a pair of police officers in one of the ubiquitous spiffy-new pick-up trucks they patrol in. I quickly grabbed my map to ask about the road ahead. As I approached the truck I had to button up my shirt to protect myself from the frigid air pouring out the truck´s window. The officers assured me I could cross the river. They were as kindly and friendly as all the police and soldiers I´ve encountered.  The only exception was a couple of surly, stern-faced teen-aged soldiers at one check point. They were the only ones to demand to see my passport. One even started going through my gear asking what was in this bag and that until one of his benevolent seniors told him that wasn't necessary.

Even with the news that the road went through, the minimal traffic, just one vehicle every fifteen or twenty minutes, had me concerned. When I arrived at San Antonio I was more than ready for a second, confirming opinion, as well as for a cold drink and some food after 33 miles of not even a road side stand of oranges or mangoes or papayas or melons that had been common elsewhere. There had been only one road-side vendor, and that was someone with a rack of various one-liter bottles of oil. But San Antonio was another bust, not a town, but merely the name of a crossroads, maybe hoping that a town might eventually be built there. There was no evidence that there had even been a town. I didn't even pause, continuing on with hopes of finding some food and drink ahead. At least the quality of the road improved at this intersection, indicating it was a much more significant thoroughfare, and definitely a road to somewhere.

But still no traffic, even in the late afternoon, when people ought to have been getting off work. The only diversion was a trio of kids bathing under a gushing valve in a pipeline of water that ran alongside the road. They were like kids in a city frolicking under the spray of an open fire hydrant. I joined them, sticking my head under for a minute or two, and dousing my limbs with a wet neckerchief.

Five miles from the dam I came to a barricade and a military checkpoint. The soldiers told me it was a secured area and I couldn't continue on. I pretended I didn't understand, pausing to have a drink and munch some nuts, while explaining how far I´d traveled, over 2,000 kilometers in three weeks, and all that I had seen. One of them had been stationed in La Gran Sabana and was impressed that I had biked it. After winning their favor, one decided to call a superior to ask what to do about the "tourista." Rather than letting me ride through, especially with it just 30 minutes until sunset, they decided to send a van to give me a lift through the ten miles of the zona de represa. While we waited they let me fill my water bottle with cold water from their cooler, the first drinkable water I had come upon in 60 miles since leaving Upata. It would be another 30 miles the next morning before I came upon a gas station with food and drink.

It was nearly dark when the van deposited me five miles beyond the dam at a checkpoint clogged with buses and workers coming and going. I biked a couple of miles until I came to a dirt side road. I went down it a quarter of a mile, then set up my tent in some high grass. Not having found any food between Upata and the dam my dinner was my last few scrapes of peanut butter on bread with sliced bananas. My breakfast was the blue energy beans supplied by Quick Release Bike Shop and my last Odwalla energy bar. If it hadn't been a cloudy morning and I hadn't been aided by a tail wind, the 30 miles to food and drink would have seemed much much tortuously longer than they were. Even so, I had no idea when a place with food and drink would turn up. There was an intersection after eleven miles that might possibly have had a service station and cafe, but it didn't. Despite this being the main route to the dam that its hundreds of workers traveled, the terrain was barren and unsettled. There were scruffy trees similar to what I´ve encountered in the Australian outback.

It was another 20 miles from this intersection to the nondescript Ciudad Bolivar, a city of 350,000 on the banks of the mighty Orinoco River. One of the two bridges spanning the river lies a couple miles west of its center. I crossed the other bridge two weeks ago at Ciudad Guyana, a bridge that had just opened at Christmas and was so new it wasn't even on my map. I had anticipated having to take a ferry, so I didn't bother to try to cross the river there, instead continuing on to the bridge that my map showed, adding an extra 40 miles to my day.

I hope this bridge doesn't curse me in a different way. It looks higher and steeper and is said to be a toll bridge. If I have to stop at a toll booth, I fear being told bikes are not allowed to cross it. Once I cross the river it is 400 miles to Caracas. My flight home is a week from today. I need to arrive in Caracas at least a day early to confirm that the American Airlines baggage people kept
my bike box for me. At first they didn't want to, but once again after some stalling, one of the agents turned merciful and said that if I flattened the box it would hardly take up any space and they could keep it in their storage closet. If its not there, then I´ll have a fun time visiting Caracas bike stores trying to find another box.

In the meantime, I have to spend all my bolivares, as I can't change them into dollars. Not having to take a bus nor using a hotel in days and with my black market bonus, I am building up a surplus. I may end up spending them on the tropical flavored Tang imported from Colombia. The customs agents in Miami might find several kilos of colored powder in packets of Tang manufactured in Colombia a bit suspicious. It could be interesting.

Later, George

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

El Calleco, Venezuela

Friends: It is the dry season here, but what with the weather misbehaving everywhere, I´ve had a couple days of not so unwelcome rain. It kept me in my tent until ten a.m. yesterday, allowing my legs a welcome extra recovery time. One of the axioms of the Tour de France is that it is won in bed. Resting well, spending as much time off one´s legs, laying in bed and, if possible, in slumber-land, is as important as eating and racing well.

During my rest day in Santa Elena my legs heaved an emphatic sigh of relief when in mid-afternoon I retreated to bed to read after spending the day walking about and sitting in assorted cafes reading. Putting the legs up makes a considerable difference. The rains so far have been light enough, varying between mist and drizzle, and warm enough, that I haven't needed to bother with my rain gear. The precipitation has been refreshingly cool, as if it were a precisely concocted spray designed by a team of engineers. I am wary though of cooling off too much when I stop if I'm wet. But I've had enough internal heat to dry my clothes as I've sat eating.

I feared severe, sweltering humidity when yesterday´s rain ended early in the afternoon, but enough clouds lingered to keep the temperature below 90 and not so unpleasant. The cycling was further enhanced by not having to concern myself with how far it was to the next tienda along the road offering food and drink. Even if it was 30 or more miles, at least I knew, and I could remember with great fondness whatever particular refreshment it offered--cool and
sweet coconuts for 75 cents, a rich, thick soup, semi-frozen large bottles of water, bollitas (Venezuela's version of tamales molded into a tube, like a sausage), fried bananas... I hadn't fully anticipated returning to these places. I had a fond memory of each of them, and those memories will be even fonder having had a chance to experience them again.

Even knowing how far it was to my next supply point, I was carrying a gallon-and-a-half of water, an additional twelve pounds, plus an extra pound or so of rain water wrapped in my still soaking tent. Some of my gear was also a little damp, as my campsite had a bit of a dip in it allowing water to gather under the tent. Though I haven't been too pressed to find a place to camp each night, Venezuela rates only about a C plus for its quality of camping. Several times I've had to pass my bike through a barbed wire fence to reach a gully or patch of bushes to disappear into. The barbed wire has been so lax and rusty, I have had to be wary of not snapping it as I've stretched it. Only once have I been able to stop before dark, as the majority of my sites have needed the extra cover of darkness to be perfectly secure. When the camping hasn't been in pasture land, its been in junglish terrain, which hasn't allowed penetrating too far from the road.

One night I thought I had no worries whatsoever of anyone stumbling upon my campsite off in the brush, even though I was about 100 feet from the road. But about an hour after dark I heard the sudden explosion of a flat tire and then the limping halt of some vehicle coming to a stop right where I was camped. It was a bus. I heard the voices of women and children. I was shielded enough not to see them, but if anyone wanted to take a leak they might have stumbled upon me. As soon as the bus came to a halt I could hear the clang of tools. The driver was obviously experienced at such matters and had the flat tire repaired in about the time it would have taken me on my bike and before anyone shone a light upon me.

I have been lucky to have had only one flat so far myself, another one of those dastardly inner flats thanks to my rim tape slipping a little and allowing the indentation of the spoke hole to rub a hole in the tube. That happened a couple times in Japan, as well as in France. I am going to have to take further measures to prevent it from happening again. It is my one complaint about this new Trek I have been riding the past two years. My previous rims did not have the recessed spoke holes and did not cause such problems.

With it the dry season, there has been a lot of brush fires along the road, burning back the weeds and clearing the land. That has stymied my camping possibilities from time to time. Even if the fires have burned out, recently charred land isn't suitable for camping. I have had to push on a few times when a prospective spot had been burned in the past few months and had the heavy scent of char. One thing I haven't had to worry about on the road are railroad tracks, as there are none here, other than one track alongside the country's huge dam. Caracas is the only city to have a subway. One of the biggest complaints of a couple of Germans I met in Santa Elena was how hard it was to find postcards. But no one can complain about the cost of the Internet. Rarely has it been more than a dollar an hour and it has been fairly fast and with keyboards that have had no great mysteries, as those in Japan and France.

I´m just ten miles from the town where the auto mechanic revived my filter with his ingenuous solution of wrapping thread around the worn washer. It has been working more than adequately ever since. And miracle of miracles, the missing spare washer turned up a couple days ago in a bag of nuts. How it managed to fall into it, as it had been sealed most of the time, is beyond me.

Later, George

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Las Claritas, Venezuela

Friends: The 25-mile descent off La Gran Sabana to Las Claritas, also known as kilometer 88, will long be remembered as one of my greatest descents of all time. Unlike my last Great Descent, a harrowing, death-defying plummet down Mount Fuji four months ago in a cold rain, this was virtually brake-free, an hour-long romp and joy ride.

Since I had biked up the road six days ago, I knew that its occasional steep pitches weren´t prolonged, nor punctuated by more than a hair-pin turn or two, so I could let 'er rip. I also knew the road was well-maintained and virtually traffic-free, making it my own private race course. Another bonus was thick, high, junglish vegetation that provided a canopy of shade. My euphoria was further enhanced by a couple of cold nectarines that the driver of a tour group slipped me while his tourists were off hiking. I had stopped for a final meal under some shade just before the descent began, near where he was parked. At first he offered me some coffee, which I declined, then some water and then four nectarines from the van's cooler. I broke two of them into segments and put them into my handlebar bag. Whenever the road leveled a bit and I didn't need two hands on the brakes, I'd plop a cool, juicy segment in my mouth. The squirt of flavor was too divine to be real.

And all the while I was reveling, as I had been the previous 120 miles, that I had chosen to retrace my crossing of La Gran Sabana by pedal-power rather than by bus. I knew I could not to otherwise. It would have been a supreme insult to the Sabana and its tepuis to have merely conquered and be done with them. To have bused past them would have been a disgrace when I had a bicycle at my disposal. Their majesty deserved an unfettered communing.

I felt pity for the backpackers in Santa Elena who had all not only bused in, but had chosen to arrive on the night bus, saving themselves a night's lodging and travel during the heat of the day. None of them had even glimpsed a tepui by moonlight. They were all simply going to go off on day-trips in a jeep to have a look. A few were paying $400 for a six-day, five-night outing to Roraima, the mother of all tepuis about 65 miles away.

It is the highest of the 100 or so and one of the biggest with 23 square miles of surface. It also sits at the border of Brazil and Guyana. It is one of the few that are climbable, even though it too was at first deemed impossible to climb by the first Europeans to come upon it in the 1830s. They surmised that the only way to see what lay atop it was to go up in a hot air balloon, though none tried. It wasn't until 50 years later a route was found up it, the same route the tour groups now use. I went around to the various tour operators in Santa Elena and offered to be a fill-in for $200 if they needed to meet their quota of five or six people to put together a group. They all said they'd consider it. I wasn't willing to hang around Santa Elena for more than an extra day, however, waiting to hear.

Santa Elena was the first place I had visited in my two weeks and 900 miles of travel that I encountered fellow travelers. There was the usual conversation wondering what day it was and how much cheaper other places were, such as Bolivia and Ecuador. There were complaints about the litter on the beaches and the energy-sapping bus rides and so forth. And I also learned that there is a thriving black market for dollars, paying 50% more than the official rate. Santa Elena was the first place I had encountered money-changers, as they lurk only where tourists and travelers are. I had ignored them, but went off to verify this bonanza. Fortunately I had some dollars, and was given 3,300 bolivares for a dollar in contrast to the 2,100 of the cash machines. Prices are suddenly cheaper.

When the full moon rose over Santa Elena my first night there, I longed even more to be out in the Sabana in my tent, further convincing me to return via bike rather than bus. It was a joy to return to places familiar and it is a joy looking forward to those over the next 250 miles, especially to the small cafe owners who showed me kindness. I wish I could return to the woman who served me spaghetti yesterday for lunch from her family's pot. I stopped at her house drawn by the chairs and tables on her porch, implying restaurant. Not this time of the year, however, when there are hardly any tourists. But since I caught her at her meal time she was willing to heap some spaghetti into my Tupperware bowl.

I had another great dish of spaghetti upon arriving here in Las Claritas. There is a row of competing restaurants along the road as one enters the town just after the great descent. They all have pots of food out front trying to capture the attention of those passing. I stopped at the one with spaghetti. Then I filled my Tupperware bowl with more for dinner later in my tent. The only negative to the long descent was that it returned me to the ovenish heat of the lowlands. It seemed even worse after the pleasant spell of cool on the Sabana. At least I knew I had an air-conditioned Cyber cafe awaiting me, where I could digest the spaghetti and await the relative cool of evening for a final 90 minutes on the bike then another night in the tent. It is Sunday and the surprisingly fine bakery is closed. At least I have spaghetti to look forward to and an empanada that the friendly cafe-owner tossed in. It is nice to know how far it is to each of my next mini-oases before I reach Upata and branch off to Ciudad Bolivar and the world´s second largest hydro-electric operation.

Later, George

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Santa Elena, Venezuela

Friends: It is a different world up on La Gran Sabana, tranquil and vast and rolling and miles of unfenced knee high grass with a smattering of bushes and an occasional cluster of trees where there is water and every so often, a beyond belief, grand, majestic towering tepui, monumental and otherworldly. When I finally emerged upon La Gan Sabana, after a winding 25-mile climb up through junglish terrain thick with chirping parrots, I expected a table top flat expanse that would provide some respite for my legs. But no, the sandy soiled terrain had eroded over the millenniums into long and steep riffles that made further demands on the legs. At least the leg-breaking hills provided torrid descents of 40 miles per hour and more. All around me for the first few miles were mini-peaks and plateaus, but nothing resembling a tepui.

After about ten miles I saw off in the distance a huge cloud bank hugging what looked like a giant German chocolate cake that had been plopped down from another universe. As I neared and the clouds dissipated, I was truly aghast at the incongruity of the site, sheer cliff walls of a couple thousand feet, a mile or more per side and then a flat top. It was easy to see how Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, was inspired by the description of them to write his ¨Lost World¨ about dinosaurs who continued to inhabit such a place. It was clear that whatever was on them lived in total isolation. And this corner of the world is so isolated the tepuis have barely been explored. Botanists have discovered hundreds of varieties of flora and fauna unique to each particular tepui.

An American pilot by the name of Angels, who was looking for gold, crash landed atop a tepui and discovered a waterfall, which took his name, of thousands of feet, longer than any other on the planet. I was within 50 miles of it, but the only way to reach it is by plane or boat during the rainy season when its river is higher. I saw plenty of other waterfalls along the way and had them all to myself.

The past 150 miles have been virtually traffic free, ever since I left the frontier gold mining town of Las Caritas and began the climb. If Don Jaime, presently of Ecuador, had joined me on this venture, we would no doubt have over-nighted in one of Las Caritas' ramshackle hotels, just to hang out with all the characters lingering in this outpost bursting with energy and flavor, and maybe to pick up a pointer or two on the art of gold mining, since the Don has his nose in the air for some in his region. The 55 miles from El Dorado to Las Claritas had a rich flavor of expectancy. I knew I was heading to the promised land when the wind blew a handful of mangoes off a tree onto the road just as I approached. A bit later a young boy along the road waved an orange at me and when I slowed tossed it.

Now that I have reached the Brazil border at a latitude of five degree north of the equator, I have the dilemma of whether to double back to Caracas by bus or bike. My initial hopes had been to continue on to Brazil and over to the Guyanas, but the $100 visa for Brazil was a bit steep for just a couple of days. Air fare out of the Guyanas was even more prohibitively expensive. There is no border crossing between the Guayanas and Venezuela, even though they hug up against each other for several hundred miles. For over a century, the countries have been at odds with one another over contested territory. The countries do not recognize one another. Not only are there no border crossings between the countries there are not even flights between them.

Though I would be doubling back on roads that I have already ridden for a couple of hundred miles it would allow me a couple more glorious days on La Gran Sabana and a different vantage of its beauty. And I could enjoy two or three more of the Gran Sabana's spectacular sunsets. They have been unlike any other I have encountered. The double-tiered setting, first over the Sabana, then far below on the actual horizon does strange things to the light. One night I was treated to a row of pinkish shafts of light shooting off to the horizon. I will be happy too for some extra time with the short and slender and fine-featured indigenous people who reside in the area. They are refreshingly gentle and kind and welcoming. Plus it would be nice to ride down that steep climb up to the Gran Sabana that started in the rough and tumble mining town of Las Caritas. It is easily the most interesting town I've passed through, full of people who want to be there, all on the make. To some it would appear to be just another hell hole, but unlike true hell-holes, there were no laconic, morose mopes acting as if they were cowering in the corner of some cell. There was a rare life and energy in the place.

As much as I would detest being stuck on a bus rather than out on my bike, the bus has a certain appeal as I consider it in my weakened state. It would be a real luxury, as the first class buses have high-backed comfortable seats with lots of leg room and air-conditioning and cold water and bathrooms. I need to be back in Caracas in two weeks, the exact amount of time it has taken me to get this far, so I may have to do some busing anyway along the way, unless the head winds I battled to get here remain steady and turn into tail winds.

One possibility is to hang out here in Santa Elena, a nice bustling town of 13,000, and gateway to lots of adventure, and go off a week long backpacking trip. There are quite a few tour companies offering such outings. I feared I´d be assaulted by touts, as I've experienced in other similar towns around the world, but there has been none of that here, or even at the one town on the Sabana where I saw several tour groups, one similar to the bunch of demanding, insensitive tourists portrayed in the recent movie¨Babel."

I´m staying at my first Lonely Planet recommended hotel, a gathering place of travelers. As I checked in, a French guy greeted me, saying he too was traveling by bike. He biked over from Colombia after beginning his travels in Mexico, hitch hiking and taking buses. Seeing so many people bicycling in Colombia inspired him to buy a bike and use it as his means of transportation even though he had never traveled by bike before. And he's been loving it. I´m the first touring cyclist he´s encountered.

A Brazilian on a motorcycle stopped me along the road. He was headed in the opposite direction and doubled back to ask me if I had come through Central America, as he was hoping I´d be able to tell him how to get through the Darien Gap, that roadless jungle that separates Colombia from the Panama Canal. I told him that he would probably have to ship his motorcycle around it. I've known of bicyclists who have traveled through it, but they had to put their bikes on canoes much of the way and pay guides to lead them through. It is an adventure, but not a cheap one. I look forward to meeting similar such travelers as I enjoy some R and R here in Santa Elena before deciding what to do next.

Later, George