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

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