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

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