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

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