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

No comments: