Saturday, March 10, 2007

Valle de la Pascua, Venezuela

Friends: As I sat in my tent last night after another great day on the bike, a most satisfying 98-miler, eating a dinner of garbanzo beans and tuna, savoring a cold drink of pink grapefruit-strawberry Tang with the temperature still in the 80s, it was hard to think of a better $1.20 I had ever spent than on the 1 1-2 liters of cold water I was blessed to have been able to buy half an hour earlier on the outskirts of Pariaguan.

Five miles after the purchase, as dark was settling in, I slipped through a locked gate with wide enough slots that I didn't have to remove the panniers from my bike. A dirt road led to a construction site that had no signs of recent activity nor remains of any equipment. It was a pleasant contrast to my previous night's campsite in the brush alongside the road. I could have some relative quiet, well away from the road. I had no worries of having to be discreet with my flashlight. I was happy to have resisted the cluster of motels on either side of the city, and glad that I´d been able to stop at a gas station and give myself a fairly good bathing shortly before the water purchase. No complaints whatsoever.

Even well after dark, the thermometer on my watch, that gives temperatures to the tenth of a degree, still registered over 80. But the easterly breeze that propelled me all day had yet to blow itself out, and continued to act like a fan, cooling and drying my sweat. The grapefruit-strawberry Tang, a new discovery, would have tasted great at air temperature, but to have it chilled made every swallow a pleasure to savor and had me wondering how I could be so lucky.

Earlier I had thought the two liters of cold water in a pitcher accompanying my lunch of spaghetti in an air-conditioned Chinese restaurant would easily qualify as my drink of the day, especially since its accompanying spaghetti was heaped so high I couldn't eat it all and had stuffed the left-overs in my Tupperware bowl. All the water and a meal-and-a-half for three dollars put it in strong contention for the meal of the trip.

I could thank a boy on a bike for leading me to the place. He had overheard me ask the owner of a supermarket if there was a Chinese restaurant nearby, as I can generally count on them being air-conditioned and having a pasta dish. Oddly enough, he did not know of one, even though he was Chinese, as are the majority of the supermarket owners. When I returned to my bike, the boy offered to lead me to a Chinese restaurant. It was six blocks away. When we arrived, the boy pointed it out on the opposite side of the street and sped off, not expecting a propina (tip), as frequently happens in third world countries, though not once in Venezuela. The locals aren't accustomed to many travelers or tourists, so there is no battalion of touts preying upon them. The locals are helpful and treat visitors as guests. It has been most refreshing.

I´ve had two stretches of 80 miles between towns the past two days, but on roads with enough traffic that there have been gas station-cafes every 25 miles or so. These way-stations are full of truckers and local cowboys, authentic characters all, who often stop by my table for a few words of curiosity. If I had been traveling the opposite direction, into the wind, the cycling would have been an ordeal rather than the pleasure it has been. It is a rare site to glance at my odometer at the end of the day and to be gliding effortlessly along at 15 mph and have the arrow indicating whether I am above or below my average speed for the day pointing downwards. Such an event usually only occurs in my fantasies. I have closed to within 150 miles of Caracas. If I weren't avoiding the mid-day sun for three hours these days, I'd be in Caracas already. As it is, I'll still be arriving ahead of schedule.

The cycling has been so easy, I have not had to use the small chain ring or two largest rings on my freewheel the past two days, since climbing over the mammoth bridge spanning the Orinco.  I sped past the toll booth alongside a bus. There were some soldiers lingering about, but none reacted. The bridge was four lanes wide and didn't have much traffic, so a bicyclist was not a hazard. I just had to stop and walk across several widely notched metal grooves that would have swallowed my wheels.

The flat terrain ends in about 25 miles, when I'll have a minor mountain range to cross through a junglish national park. There will be more climbing to Caracas. I'm not particularly looking forward to the sprawl of its five million people, 20% of the nation's population, but I will give it a look. If its too much I can just continue on down to the coast and spend my last couple of days on the beach.

Later, George

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