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

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