Chapter 27: Venezuela.
Monday, August 23
I woke up just before 6am. Most of my belongings were damp. Even my nail clippers were rusted. I collected my guitar from reception and began the difficult trek back to Canaveral. It took a good hour. The track was almost impassable after all the rain. I was soaked through with sweat, gasping for breath and caked in mud when I arrived at Canaveral. A young woman was setting up her craft stall for the day and I stopped to ask about transport to the park entrance. A motorcyclist stopped and used his mobile phone then told me a moto or a minibus was on its way. Another bike went past with a pillion passenger waving frantically at me. It was Claudia, beaming a big smile and a buenos dias amigo (good morning my friend)! She was on her way to start another orange squashing shift. A minibus with three other passengers, a French couple and an American guy, arrived. We were on our way back into civilisation. I hadn’t seen a motor car for seven days and the noise of constant traffic on the main road past El Zaino was a shock to the system. I pondered whether I could catch a bus from there to Maicao and the Venezuelan border rather than return to Santa Marta and presumably come back along the same road. I asked at the roadside cafe while enjoying a refreshing juice. Soon after, a bus came screaming around the bend and screeched to a sudden halt. The driver’s assistant told me to rush as he grabbed all my bags and threw them into the underneath compartment. The old charabanc had a clammy feel inside and tired looking passengers fell back into their slumber. I reckoned I had just enough funds to get me to the border, but this bus ride alone cost 20 pesos. My rucksack contained my wallet, but at the next stop the assistant retrieved it and I paid up. Now, let this be a warning to fellow travellers. A later episode of fraudulent transactions took place on my account, and this bus journey could have been where it stemmed from. We travelled further at high speed, stopped to pick up a large group of lively college students brandishing all the latest gadgets, and reached Maicao in the early afternoon. Travellers were warned that Maicao wasn’t the safest of towns. We eventually reached the terminal where a line of collectivo taxis awaited passengers. One of the drivers approached me and pointed to an old Chevrolet which would take me to Paraguachon, and then a further two hours to Maracaibo in Venezuela. There were two young lads sitting in the front with the driver, an Anthony Hopkins-lookalike with his raised head and screwed up, concentrating expression. Another man walked up to me and asked for the fare. I then joined a young woman and her two boys sat in the back of the huge car. There were no headrests, which allowed us a clear view of the road ahead. The driver asked where I was from as the two young boys stared back at me. “Ah, Gales,” he repeated, nodded and glanced a knowing look to everyone in the car. At the exit point, officials asked me several questions about my stay and then stamped my passport. Troops were still gathering on both sides of the border as tensions continued to be strained between Colombia and Venezuela. Entry formalities were quite bizarre. I waited in a queue and then approached the blacked out front of an office where I could hear several different voices. I caught some of the questions as my passport disappeared through the gap in the counter. Playing it straight and being honest kept matters simple and I replied periodista (journalist) to a question about my profession. After a short time, a booming voice declared, “Welcome to the land of the people and President Chavez. Have a good day!” prompting many laughs in the office. A hand appeared, clutching my passport, with a finger pointing to the entry stamp. I couldn’t see them but they could see me in my Billy Bragg Tour of Wales t-shirt marking the 25th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike. I gathered all was well. Being a British citizen had its advantages. I didn’t have to pay any visa entry fees in South America but border crossings were rife with opportunists and corrupt officials taking bribes and planting evidence. The taxi driver tooted and waved me over. He and the passengers were all smiling and welcoming me back as we sped off. There were so many potholes on the road it looked like bomb damage. The driver weaved all along the route to avoid them and the oncoming traffic. Sunk in the deep back seat, I viewed a landscape of litter strewn roadsides, small mountains of empty plastic bottles, and the continuous oil pipeline to Maracaibo. We arrived there within two hours despite a couple more stops and searches. Maracaibo is Venezuela’s second-largest city and its oil industry’s nerve centre. I could have stayed there and taken a rest but overnight buses reduce accommodation costs. I was keen to see the lightning without thunder phenomenon near the mouth of the Rio Catatumbo at Lago de Maracaibo though. Merida was a recommended base for such tours. At the bus terminal, a young woman called me over to her desk and asked if I needed help. She promptly exchanged my pesos for bolivars and arranged a bus ticket with the company she was acting on behalf of. There were others offering Merida-bound buses for slightly less but I felt reassured with the one I’d chosen. In a new country, the priorities were safety and reaching the destinations. I didn’t want to stay too long in Venezuela but I hoped to find out a way to the Angel Falls. After a chicken meal in a friendly terminal cafe I lodged myself inside an internet room where local baseball fans were leaping about and shouting the latest scores from the USA as we all tried to keep warm in the extremely cold air conditioning. It was a very busy and noisy terminal. The bus was ready to depart at 10.30pm. There were tearful scenes on-board as a young mother tried to calm down her screaming toddler as they waved goodbye to the disconsolate looking father stood outside on the platform. I witnessed many similar scenes at bus stations across South America, especially at the long-distance terminals. We got held up by further checks on passenger names and numbers at the terminal gate but hit the road an hour later.
Tuesday, August 24
Travellers to Venezuela must do their homework and prepare. Social and political tensions were really high when I visited. Economic conditions were becoming more fragile. Banks teetered on the edge and there was high inflation and the inevitable dual currency with a rabid black market. It was a shock to the system and a massive wake-up call after an idyllic few weeks on the Colombian north coast. I slept for a few hours on the bus and woke up to a majestic daybreak in the cloudy, forested north eastern Andes. It all started in quite a genteel manner when I arrived in Merida. I checked the next bus connections for Ciudad Bolivar and, at the time, thought little about the large queues lined up around the terminal for buses to Caracas. I took a taxi and marvelled at the sudden contrast from the hot and rather aggressive landscape of Monday. We were surrounded by clean streets, large trees and rolling hills as the driver slipped in a CD of classical music. Posada Suiza was full. The driver stayed with me as I knocked on the neighbouring door of Posada Alemania. There were spaces but I was asked to wait in the foyer because the receptionist hadn’t arrived. An elderly man was steadily fixing new light fittings around the courtyard and giving the place a laid-back, refined and family feel. The receptionist offered me a single room at 100,000 Bolivars for one night. I settled up and booked a further two nights in a dormitory. Then I ventured out to look for breakfast and withdraw some cash. Problems with my bank card soon arose. Banco Mercantile rejected it, as did Banco de Venezuela and Banesco. I became frantic with worry, exasperated by tiredness. After returning to Banco Mercantile, where I waited an hour for my number to be called out, a bank clerk tried my card in a machine but without any success. He decided my card was faulty, saying the magnetic strip wasn’t being recognised. I had nothing else apart from this debit card, so I phoned Barclays. The line cut out twice. Then I was transferred to a call centre in Mumbai, India. I was totally lost, shattered and close to tears. What made me fall into such despair so quickly? I had to stop this crumbling defeatism very quickly so I returned to the hostel where the young manageress called Naivy listened to my situation. She was frank and firm about the matter but occupied with sorting out tour schedules. I had to stay calm. Naivy then explained my other options. The hostel family had cash wire transfer facilities set up because there were many other travellers in similar predicaments like mine. They also offered almost double the rate of exchange to that of the banks. But the time it took for a wire to come through really unsettled me. My already tight schedule was being squeezed into impossibility. I relayed the situation in an email to my sister who immediately got on the case. Luckily, Joanna was on school holidays and had some spare time. The wire would take five working days. Later emails revealed the bank wouldn’t accept a request through my sister nor my mother to start a wire from my account. I was stuck and experiencing a bad sort of day. Perhaps I should have rested as soon as I arrived in the morning. My eagerness steered me into a brick wall which left me mentally battered and bruised. I was so wound up and increasingly snappy. I had $30 left, which at the hostel’s black market rates, equated to about 230,000 Bolivars. It just about gave me enough for two days accommodation and food. I took lunch and then slept for the afternoon, which helped. I called Mam from an internet cafe phone booth. Our conversation really eased my worries and I felt reassured that we’d work something out. I really wasn’t sure whether I’d nominated Mam as a third party authorisation but I remembered speaking to Barclays back in January about travel arrangements and accessing cash. I took a shower and returned to bed and fell into a deep sleep.
Wednesday, August 25
The guest house offered a decent looking breakfast. Ham, eggs, cheese, fresh coffee and mango juice. Now, this was a far better start to the day. I reflected on a lesson hastily learnt. Always check the economic situation in Venezuela, or any other country for that matter, not just the political. US dollars were the quickest way to exchange cash. They were readily welcomed by all Venezuelans, but carrying a large wad of notes could be quite risky. Pre-arranging a cash wire transfer was another option. After breakfast I visited the cathedral, lit a candle and whispered a prayer while sat on a bench in front of the altar. My introduction to Venezuela certainly jolted me out of my Colombian coast reverie. I’d previously read a little about long term poverty in Venezuela. So much petrol wealth, somehow, failed to filter deeper into society. The petrol poured out of Venezuela and so many imports flowed back in to fuel domestic consumption. There was no self-reliant or creative drive in the economy, just an over-reliance on fossil fuels. Strange clouds banked up above Merida and let out their aggression in a huge storm over the higher hills and valleys. Merida reminded me of a cleaner version of Patagonia’s El Bolson. I moved into the biggest dormitory and took a lower bed. I visited the Banco de Venezuela, to try and arrange a transfer from my UK account, but they couldn’t prompt the transaction. What could I do next, apart from taking to the road in a land I wasn’t so sure about? There were reports of volatility throughout the country. Caracas had, in the previous year, been the murder capital of the world. There were so many military checkpoints. The Lonely Planet described the police as being less than trustworthy and reckoned President Hugo Chavez was whipping up a national paranoia about foreign spies. But to be honest, weren’t the travel experts whipping up fear about the internal affairs of a deeply split country? And, was it that deeply divided? I had to admit there was a tension. People either loved Chavez and his left leaning politics, or they hated him. The business community, especially the powerful corporations, hated him. Here was a man who, when seeing his fellow people being murdered by the state, turned the army against the oppressive rulers. The problem, years later, became that of Chavez’s questionable treatment of political opponents and his undignified relationship with big business. Attempts to reverse decades of social decline were met with a cold response from the people with money. There needed to be far more cooperation to get the domestic economy rolling along in Venezuela. All the ingredients were there. The people I’d already met were beautiful, caring, good-natured characters and the landscape had an abundance of natural beauty and resources. Good news came from home when my sister Joanna emailed to say Mam was offering to help. I had the guest house owner’s Santander bank details in Asturias, Northern Spain to arrange a cash wire. Joanna emailed back to say Mam was offering to carry out a cash wire transfer from her account. I carefully typed out the details and Joanna promised to get on the case straight away. Mam was helping me out big time. I promised to pay her back as quickly as possible. Naivy offered little response when I told her I could arrange a transfer. It seemed like she was handing out those little bank detail paper slips every day. She told me it would take at least three working days. I took my mind away and went out and walked down to the Teleferico terminal. The Teleferico was the world’s highest and longest cable car system. It drew in many visitors to Merida. I visited Merida after hearing the great descriptions about the town’s outdoor pursuits and its friendly and sociable reputation for being La Ciudad de los Caballeros (The City of Gentlemen). An embarrassed looking lady informed me that the cable car had been out of action for two years. I asked why and, when it would reopen. The lady replied that there were mechanical faults and it all represented the malfunctioning state of Venezuela!
Thursday, August 26
Another good rest eased my nerves. I asked Naivy how much £200 would be in Bolivars, to which she replied that 200 Euros would roughly equate to 1,800,000 Bolivars. I had Euro coins to exchange but she could only accept notes. The dormitory bed cost 36,000 Bolivars a night and I had no money left for food, so Naivy promised to talk to the owner to lend me 200,000. There was an increasing sense of feeling trapped. I went away and read for a while, then ventured out to an internet cafe. There was good news from my sister and Mam regarding the cash wire. A confirmation document was attached to an email. I later showed it to the hostel owner but he pointed out that there was no bank signature on it. All the hostel hassle then the internet cafe’s slow computers were grinding me down. I felt a sharp pain in my side, it was a flare up of shingles. I really wanted to shake out of this state and went back out to buy some shaving cream, razors and deodorant. I later freshened up, put my sandals on and strolled around the hostel courtyard before writing away long into the evening. There was a cold atmosphere in the hostel. I wasn’t alone in being made to feel most unwelcome. It was totally different to all the places I’d stayed in across South America. The owner was more focussed on the tour operations and geared up the staff in the same way. They viewed the guests as a slight distraction, never showing much concern. Sweet and soothing sounds of the French language later drifted about in the courtyard as night descended. The melodic conversations calmed me down and I soon fell asleep.
Friday, August 27
After another fine sleep I wandered into the courtyard for breakfast. There was a guy sitting at the opposite end of the long table. I went over to introduce myself after a silent interlude where I almost meditated and gathered my thoughts together for the day ahead. He was Simon from Stuttgart, Germany. Simon was on a six-week break over the summer holidays. He was starting as a full-time English teacher in September. We had a good chat. He assured me I wasn’t being stupid to have not brought enough dollars into the country. Simon also found Venezuela to be a different experience. He took a more philosophical approach to the challenges he’d faced thus far, including being held up at knife point in a Caracas bus station in the middle of the day! He said it was very scary but they were young lads and he quickly reacted by just turning around and walking away, and nothing further happened. We agreed there was a current of disagreement flowing through the country and based it all on a lack of trust. But Simon assured me the people he’d met so far had been tremendously generous to him. We agreed to hook up for the day. I checked my emails and Joanna had sent the wire transfer document complete with signature, but I decided to let it go for the day and venture out of the claustrophobic atmosphere. Simon was a decent guitar player, as I discovered later. He played some of his English language songs and I played my Welsh song called Gwybodaeth (Knowledge) and told Simon about its success in an Eisteddfod for Welsh Learners competition. Our music must have lightened the atmosphere somewhat as the elder gentleman of the family came into the dormitory and listened. He smiled and applauded us. I looked up to him, expressing thanks. I just wanted peace not coldness. There needed to be more trust. Simon and I ventured along the Viaducto Campo Elias over the Rio Albarregas. Crossing the bridge we saw the bizarre sight of a load of dumped police vehicles close to the river’s edge. We ambled on down Avenidas Las Americas to the Mercado Principal. We expected a more authentic place but found a rather commercial arcade. It certainly wasn’t trashy but the craft shops sold lots of ornaments. The food in the cafe was quite pricey. We returned to the hostel and found a cheaper lunch along the way. Simon had met some local women during a night out. He received a message on his mobile phone asking him to meet up with them. However, according to Simon, the locals were notoriously bad time keepers. Indeed, we all met up hours later than the intended time back in the hostel courtyard. We enjoyed some beers and tried to plan a trek for the following day. I gathered how much these youngsters wanted to leave Venezuela but I couldn’t clearly grasp the reasons why. They just wanted to be elsewhere and certainly didn’t want to live where they were. It was quite sad to hear such sentiment. There were lots of complaints about the burdens of bureaucracy. Many youngsters from middle-class families wanted to taste life in Europe, either on a university degree course, travelling or working. I just listened and seemed to hear the ‘grass is greener on the other side’ type of talk. What with the economic problems in Greece and Spain, was it really sensible to transfer one’s whole life to the other side of the world? I fully understood the desire for living in, travelling and learning about new countries, and I wanted to know more about the deep issues with Hugo Chavez’s presidency. I didn’t know enough and everybody I asked never seemed to give a straight answer. Inflation continued to run at high levels and there was a massive black market in currency exchange for Euros and US dollars. Citizens could only withdraw a maximum of 1,000,000 Bolivars each day. Lower chamber elections were approaching in Venezuela and the opposition parties decided to lift their boycott and take part. There was guaranteed to be wider representation again. Chavez had had total control for the past few years by all accounts. The evening rain became heavier. It had been a much better day though, thanks to the good company, but I settled in my mind that I wouldn’t join the trek as I wanted to remain close by to a computer and keep in touch with my sister. I was in a more positive frame of mind to continue writing. I drank another beer and also worked out how much time it would take to reach the Brazilian border. But the critical issue remained. When would the cash wire reach the hostel owner’s bank account? Would he even bother telling me when it arrived? Venezuela seemed to be all about trust, and the apparent lack of it.
Saturday, August 28
My camera’s picture card reader started messing up again. The lovely people at Sonido International CA helped me out. They dismissed the card reader as a bit of junk but told me to try a good internet cafe next door where there was a man who could really help. He guided me to a gadget shop further down Avenida 3 Independencia. A kind couple in the gadget shop struggled to get their computer to read the card. They eventually succeeded and copied my pictures onto a disc. They reckoned the attachment for the micro SD card was faulty. So, I returned to Sonido after lunch where a helpful guy, who spoke some English, sorted out my requirements. I bought a new Iogear card reader, micro SD socket included, for 125,000 Bolivars and received a free Olympus attachment for the micro SD card. I was nearing the completion of my Colombia write-up and needed just a couple more photographs to attach and send through to Daily Post Wales. It took me several hours to accomplish the task but at least my Spanish language skills were put to good use! To cool down and relax, I later visited the Heladeria Coromoto. It held the Guinness Book of Records title for the largest number of ice cream flavours in the world. There were 900 different types all listed on a large wall. A distinguished looking gentleman seated behind the counter was signing autographs and acknowledging the customers, mainly a big crowd of teenagers. The place was packed but I soon found my way to the front and chose a rice and coconut flavoured ice cream. It tasted really nice. Later at the guest house a guy called Flo, from Dusseldorf, Germany arrived in my room. He could tell there was a cloud hanging over me. My shingles had cleared somewhat but everything seemed delayed in Merida. The people were frustrated or resigned in their outlook. It was quite contagious. Simon had been for a different kind of retreat with his new Venezuelan friends and a French guy who was also staying in our dormitory. They returned during the evening. Simon had stomach pains and wasn’t feeling at all well. The retreat wasn’t what he’d expected and the storms over Merida were even worse where he’d been staying. Simon was in a bit of a race against time and needed to be in Caracas on Wednesday to catch his flight home to Germany for a friend’s wedding on Saturday. We chatted away over a couple of beers. Simon was a really good sort, a generous, liberal spirit who shared a happy enthusiasm for life.
Sunday, August 29
It was a lovely, sunny morning. Out in the courtyard and into the shade I sat with a lovely couple from Stuttgart, Rebecca and Henri. There was a fresh feel to the day and I went off around the town taking some photographs. The Sunday streets were quiet and Merida chilled. From the Parque Las Heroinas to the Plaza Bolivar there were great views. The panoramic vista from Parque de Las Cinco Republicas was simply breathtaking. Many shops were closed but I found an internet cafe before rejoining Simon, Rebecca and Henri for an exciting afternoon at the football. We took a taxi to the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano de Merida, making our way through the wealthy neighbourhoods, all protected with expensive electric fencing and security gates. Government billboard posters were everywhere on the main route to and from Merida’s centre. They extolled the virtues of being a good citizen from cradle to grave. The stadium had a 42,000 capacity and was built as one of the venues for the 2007 Copa America. It was a very modern, impressive structure. The two sides were covered, leaving the ends behind the goals and athletics track open to the elements. It was all nestled neatly in a stunning rural location within the city’s southern outskirts. We queued up and shared some good-natured banter with Estudiantes de Merida supporters eager to see their side put one over on the visitors from Caracas, Atletico Venezuela. We paid just 25,000 Bolivars (about £3) to sit in any seat we liked in the main stand with all the home supporters. There were about 5,000 spectators inside the ground when the game kicked off. About two coach loads of Atletico fans were behind one goal with many of their banners and scarves draped over the seats and barriers. They had a small band, with drums and whistles, trying to whip up the support and they succeeded in goading the home crowd to deliver the first of many renditions of E….E….E….Estudiantes. The tannoy announcer got up to speed and started playing the same beating tune at various points throughout the game! At five minutes to four the weightlifting contest between the home team players ceased. Both teams re-emerged, followed by the refereeing officials protected by riot police brandishing big shields. Then it all went solemn for three minutes as the spectators and all participants turned towards the far side of the pitch and sang the Venezuelan National Anthem. The small crowd made plenty of noise, and a good-humoured one, especially when the home side took complete control in the first half an hour. There were good individual skills on display. The first home goal came courtesy of a goalkeeping error, the second a tap in and the third, built on some fluent passing and moving, was a great team goal. Atletico hit the crossbar twice in the latter stages of the first half. The interval provided further entertainment as the local radio station’s outside broadcasting team conducted a competition to see which supporters could shout the longest gooooaaaalllll! A young lad in a Manchester United shirt had the biggest lungs of the lot. He was rewarded with Venezuelan and Spanish national football shirts. There were loads of supporters in replica United, Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich shirts. The happy atmosphere grew in the second half as the home supporters were treated to the best goal of the match to make the final score 4-0 to Estudiantes de Merida. There were peculiarities from beginning to end, with not one advertising board around the field of play and then, once we came down and out of the dark, spiralling exit onto a side street, a herd of cows suddenly appeared and went on the rampage. A few vehicles were bumped but the beasts quickly and safely disappeared from view, and luckily, no one was hurt. We ran to escape the congestion and found some lads in a random pick-up truck who invited us to jump into the back trailer. We picked up a home supporter called Williem. While we made the swift journey back up town Williem poured out phrases of philosophy and reckoned if we all gave away some of our salary we’d get four times as much money back in the long run. We jumped out from the back and the others went to try out the big ice cream parlour, not before Williem asked us all for money and he hopped off for a few more beers. Walking up Avenida 3 I spotted him once again, shouting drunken words at another man across the street. It was an enjoyable evening in Venezuela at long last, watching top league football, players warming up with a weightlifting contest, referees entering the pitch shielded by riot police and cows going on the rampage outside the stadium after the game. A bit different to your usual English football match experience!
Monday, August 30
Others were also feeling the lack of warmth at the hostel. We were talking to an extremely pleasant lad from Marseilles who had been on a long trek arranged by the guest house. He was there to collect his bags and politely asked if he could go into the communal kitchen to make a cup of tea. “You are no longer a guest, so no way!” replied an insulted looking Naivy. Simon was speechless with surprise. Why were these hosts being so indifferent? At long last, Mam’s £200 arrived as the owner sat in reception looking stern faced as a group of new visitors entered. Naivy seemed to have too many things on the go all at once. There was multi-tasking and then there was being overloaded with someone else’s work. Anyway, despite the constant interruptions, she accurately calculated the exchange for me. I had 1,100,000 Bolivars remaining to reach the Brazilian border. Naivy happened to ask where I was going next. I told her my plans and she exclaimed that I need not go to Valencia to travel to Ciudad Bolivar as there were plenty of buses direct to Barinas, six hours away to the south east, where regular night-time buses then went on to Ciudad Bolivar. I was elated as it cut out a thousand kilometres of my journey to reach the Brazilian border. I emailed my Colombia article to Daily Post Wales then had lunch with Simon. He was concerned about reports of there being no bus tickets left for Caracas. People had to purchase their tickets on the day of travel. That explained the large terminal queue so early in the morning when I arrived in Merida. However, there was another way for Simon. He could travel with me to Barinas and from there up to Caracas. It would take him longer but bus seat spaces were almost guaranteed. We returned from lunch but the hosts were having theirs and would not be disturbed by Simon wanting to collect his luggage from the reception office. We eventually got going and took a taxi. A Barinas-bound bus was just leaving when we arrived at the terminal but another one soon began filling up with more passengers. It was an hourly service. I was looking forward to putting an episode of interruptions, delays, malfunctions and misinformation behind me. As the bus veered out of Merida I was thinking about home. It was the August Bank Holiday and my thoughts turned to Brian, my godfather, who had been rushed to Walton Hospital in Liverpool. I needed to phone home for an update. Simon and I seemed to be the only Europeans on the bus. We talked a lot about music as the radio played constant South American popular tunes and folklorica classics. There were regular songs by the highly successful Mexican band called Mana. They sounded alright. Simon loved them. Mana weren’t only big in the Spanish speaking world but also in parts of Europe and Australia. They’ve been described as the most influential Spanish-language rock band of all time. Simon wasn’t so keen on folk music but I loved some of the stuff being played, especially the wild and dramatic Mexican tunes. Simon spent a few months in Mexico in 2008 and fell in love with a Mexican girl. Our bus climbed ever higher into the misty mountains and we witnessed some quite stunning scenery and old, remote villages dotted here and there. Down beyond the high passes, groups of young ramblers boarded the bus. It was dark by the time we reached Barinas. The terminal was hot and chaotic as people rushed with their heavy belongings in between tightly parked buses. Within moments Simon was in luck with a space on a nearby bus to Caracas. I, meanwhile, struggled to see any bus for Ciudad Bolivar. I helped Simon get on board his bus. We embraced, wished each other good luck and then I went into the terminal building to enquire further. I quickly gathered there were no spaces left on the buses that night, and, according to one stern faced lady behind a counter, there were none till Saturday. I turned my attention to another kiosk where the ticket operators expressed apologies. My face dropped but I quickly composed myself and earnestly explained that I really needed to get to Brazil for family reasons. Then Simon appeared again and helped me with the Spanish negotiations. The staff behind the counter muttered to each other and told me to stick around as there was always a possibility of passengers cancelling their trip or just not turning up. I briefly thought about staying in a Barinas hotel but decided to wait it out, if not for a bus space at midnight, then for a front of the queue position the next morning for a following night’s journey. So, I found myself in another situation. I just didn’t feel easy with all my stuff either. Perhaps I was carrying too much. In the terminal shop, a young lad approached and spoke to me in broken English. I immediately responded and realised he was a good one. His name was Daniel and we got talking. His brother and his friends joined us. They were all with Daniel’s mother who was carefully watching me from her bench seat. They were a family of evangelists. Daniel, Jason and Frances were determined to lift my spirits and reassured me I’d be getting on a bus at midnight. They were also travelling to Ciudad Bolivar. The mother came to sit with us. I showed them my guitar. We played some tunes together and I conversed in Spanish, as Simon urged me to do before he had to get back on his bus. As the hour approached we waited outside on the platform. The young ones were saying no preoccupado (no worries). When a bus did eventually arrive at 1am, Daniel disappeared and shortly afterwards reappeared and called me over. The bus driver told me to stand aside as he checked in the final few passengers. There were no spaces, interjected the terminal clerk, but the driver nodded to Daniel to keep me at one side. When the clerk went back inside the terminal, the driver quickly asked me for 150,000 Bolivars. I thanked Daniel enormously and presented him with my Wales bobble hat as a memento. On board the double-decker bus I soon realised there were no seats available as some of the passengers teasingly reminded me, so I was left to take as much of the aisle space as I wanted. The driver of the Expresos Los Llanos Occidente bus then told me to stick around the bottom of the steps behind the driver’s door, near to the toilet and out of view when passing the military and police checkpoints.
Tuesday, August 31
An interior alarm kept going off on the top deck throughout the first part of the journey. The passengers became annoyed. A big chap came down the stairs and asked me to knock on the driver’s door to grab his attention. I already had, so he tried as well, unsuccessfully. He introduced himself. His name was Max. He stayed with me for a while and we chatted. Max had a North American father and spoke good English. He was a devout Catholic and spoke with great spirit about a convention he’d spent the weekend at. I later managed to sleep for a while, thanks to my inflatable neck cushion, but at 7am a passenger was dropped off and there was space on the lower deck at the back. Most people were sleeping. More spaces became available and I sat next to a young man called Jonathan. His wife and young daughter were sitting on the opposite seat. They were extremely friendly. Jonathan offered me a sandwich but I declined as an early hour nausea and tiredness overwhelmed. At Valle de La Pascua we had a lunch stop and other buses arrived. In amongst the disembarking crowds I spotted a Welsh bobble hat and Daniel’s big smile! He rushed over to greet me and ask how I was! Later, back on the bus, an attractive young woman seated in front of me was getting off at El Tigre. She suddenly turned around to say a happy goodbye and wished me good luck on the rest of my travels. I was in a few tight spots in Venezuela but lots of similar friendly exchanges confirmed my belief that there’s an innate goodness out there. Our natural progression to become warmer human beings is still happening! The happier conversations on the bus really lifted my spirits. It was mid afternoon. The bus crossed over the Rio Orinoco, and Ciudad Bolivar came into view. Another Expresos Los Llanos bus was leaving at 6.30pm for the Gran Sabana border town of Santa Elena De Uairen. I paid 97,000 Bolivars for my ticket then had time to eat a late afternoon meal and check my emails. Like so many bus terminals, Ciudad Bolivar’s was a non-descript traffic island. They bore little reflection on the town or city they were in. They were often hectic places in South America and certainly not for the faint-hearted. In the hectic air of people smells mingling with burning meat and cigar smoke, I craved for the air conditioned interior of a bus. We experienced a slow start but there were people on the bus who weren’t meant to be there and the driver’s assistant escorted them off before we set off properly for Ciudad Guayana.
Wednesday, September 1
It was a night of frequent patrol stops on a journey due south to Santa Elena. I was on the top deck, near the front, sitting on the left. Whenever the bus came to a slowing stop we all knew what was happening next. Five times we were stopped on a 12 hour journey which became 14. My neck cushion helped me to sink into intermittent sleeps. An overhead compartment shutter kept opening and rattling away so I found some paper to wedge it tightly shut. On the second to last checkpoint a military guy came onto the bus shouting for everybody to wake up, exit the bus and form two queues of men and women. These scenarios always chilled me to the bone. Everybody’s expressions sank. There was little chatter, just a quiet reserved hope that it would all move along quite quickly and we’d be off again in a matter of minutes. However, on this particular stop the baggage compartment was emptied and we were all told to retrieve our bags. When my turn came to empty my belongings the lead officer checked my passport and told me to step aside. I was taken into a nearby station where I had to strip down to my underpants and be searched. I felt cold despite the night being warm and clammy. Anything could have happened. I was really keen to reach Brazil now. From my passport the officers could see I’d travelled some distance in a short time and possibly ask why I wasn’t staying around. It all passed without incident though and the soldiers immediately relaxed their manner and expressed gratitude for my patience. The lead officer walked up to me and firmly shook my hand, wished me luck and said “Goodbye Sir, have a good morning.” The sun rose over the high, grassy plains of the Gran Sabana (Great Savanna). The high plateau included the massive table mountain of Roraima, part of the lost world of Venezuela. It looked an absolutely stunning part of the world, but another stop and search occurred which lasted another half an hour. When we reached Santa Elena at about 9am I felt a great psychological weight lifting from me as I carried my belongings into the terminal. It was the final month of my trip. Venezuela had tested my resolve. I was mentally unprepared for the country but also fascinated and intrigued. I remained in the terminal for a short while and sat with one of the other bus passengers while eating a light breakfast. His name was Steffan, originally from France, but living out in French Guyana for the last four years. He’d been on a trekking adventure for the week and was heading back north east. The early morning sun was already baking the ground. I asked for travel advice in the terminal’s tourism office, where guided trips to the region included ones deep into the Parque Nacional Canaima and Angel Falls (Salto Angel), the world’s highest waterfall at 979 metres, 16 times higher than Niagara Falls. It was Venezuela’s number one tourist attraction and I’d seriously considered visiting it until the hold-up in Merida. It wasn’t an easy place to get to and the costs were high though. Within half an hour, I took a taxi to the border for 50,000 Bolivars. We were stopped and my bags were searched again. The driver then took me to where I thought was the exit point but it turned out to be a small bus terminal. I told him I needed to go through immigration, so he drove me back the two kilometres where my passport was stamped, and I didn’t have to pay the infrequent tax for leaving Venezuela. We reached the Brazil entry point. A stern looking policeman took care of formalities and asked me how long I wanted to stay in Brazil. I replied not more than a month. I then presented my yellow fever card which he barely acknowledged. However, they could turn back travellers who were without the card. The driver then asked for another 10,000 Bolivars. I happily gave it to him as this was another free entry into a new country. A collectivo taxi driver had space for one more. I exchanged my Bolivars for Reais (R$) and off we went on a three hour journey down the smoother Route 174 to Boa Vista. I’d made it through a tiresome 24 hours and now, underneath the hot sun, I was moving on through the ever dramatic countryside. The passengers were speaking Portuguese and I smiled about this latest communication challenge. Rodoviaria (bus terminal) was the first word I needed to remember apart from the greeting formalities. Eucatar had an overnight bus leaving at 6pm. The ticket cost 100 R$ and left me with no cash. The terminal was undergoing major refurbishment and the cash machines weren’t operating so I asked for directions to the nearest bank. There was a Banco do Brasil branch and a HSBC kiosk across the road. A huge queue formed outside the bank and armed guards were doing something in the HSBC kiosk. I thought about going further into the town. The dusty streets were desolate so I turned back. The HSBC refused to accept my card, with a message flashing up about the magnetic strip. My heart sank and I began to wonder if my card was indeed falling to bits. After waiting an hour in the Banco do Brasil queue, I finally stepped up to the machine. It worked the third time of trying and I managed to withdraw 400 R$. It was a massive relief but I really needed to contact my bank back at home. In the terminal bathroom I freshened up and changed into clean clothes. The cool Eucatur bus left the mud yard station bang on 6pm. The half-empty bus took to the open road with a stunning sunset over the western plains promising good nights and days ahead in Brazil.