Monday, September 27, 2010

Lightning without thunder

Somewhere past the mountains that cradle Mérida lies a little pueblito called Puerto Concha, a busy fishing port on the edge of Lake Maracaibo.  We didn’t come here to see the freshwater dolphins (very cool though) or to watch our corpulent guide, Juan, eat the equivalent of two whole chickens at lunch and seriously gross Tia out.  No, we came for the lightning storms.   According to Juan Gordo, the marsh gases around Lake Maracaibo are ignited by the friction of cool mountain air sliding into the savannah heat, creating the unique phenomenon of lightning without thunder.  It occurs all day, about once every 30 seconds, but it’s at night when the skies light up.  Toward dusk, we arrived by boat at the remnants of old Puerto Concha, nothing but a few houses on stilts in the middle of the lake to prepare for the show.  Slowly, at first, the flashes appeared on the darkening horizon and, by the time the sun had completely set, they were dancing across the sky in brilliant arcs and in absolute silence.  Often, the lightning would begin from the ground and shoot upward or wrap itself around in complete circles and fill the sky. 

A  nearby thunderstorm later descended and, while dispelling the meditative quiet, it increased the magnitude of the aerial pyrotechnics as the “real” lightning set off pockets of methane everywhere.  It looked as if the entire firmament might fall away in shards of black glass.  Unfortunately, it didn’t bode well for our hammock space, with nothing but iron bars between it and the choppy lake.  The two Germans were forced to vacate their perch early in the night and I retreated to the kitchen after failing to stem a steady drip running up my leg.  Tia, three feet from me, was blissfully undisturbed.  

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Somos pájaros! (We are birds!)

Mérida is the reputed adventure capital of Venezuela, so it seemed only appropriate that we risk our lives doing something that most people do in their late teens/early 20s, long before one’s sense of mortality sets in. Our choice of poison: parapente. Paragliding. It’s a bit interesting receiving instructions for a sport that has life and death consequences in a language you don’t speak all that well. I made sure that Juan translated the important stuff while still on solid ground: when the tandem guide says “corriendo”, run. Don’t stop even if the ground seems to disappear from below you. Only stop running when he says “sientese.”

Given the language barrier, there wasn’t much time to get nervous. The guide never said something like, “Hey, get ready. We’re going to be the first ones to go and we’ll start running in a couple of minutes.” No. What he said was, “Corriendo!” So, run I did. Pretty soon we were airborne, eagles swooping a few meters away, squawking at us invading their air space. Juan was close behind me (white as a ghost and holding his seat straps so tightly that when we finally reached earth again he had ½ inch grooves in his hands). Our tandem partners knew the local air currents which meant instead of gradually coasting downwards during our flight, we first flew upwards.

I would have gone again right away, but once is probably good enough for someone afraid of heights.

Mérida is also the home of the world’s longest and tallest teleférico (cable car) and an ice cream store in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most flavors. Unfortunately, the teleférico is out of service after two years of political in-fighting (apparently Chavez doesn’t get along with the local representatives and won’t apportion the money), but we did try Heineken ice cream and another flavor called Por Amarte Tanto (which means “because of loving you so much” and tasted like a very pleasant cinnamon). Maybe next time we’re in Mérida, we’ll be braver and actually try some of their ham & cheese or shrimp flavored ice cream…

Friday, September 24, 2010

A little slice of Alemania

Just two hours west of Caracas, we arrived in Germany.  Well, kind of. Colonia Tovar was founded by German settlers in the 19th century and it shows in the Black Forest architecture, the distinctly German look of its inhabitants, the menus full of spätzle, and, frankly, its cleanliness.   Arriving in Colonia Tovar was like arriving at an oasis after traveling for too long in the desert.  Our cabaña had a balcony overlooking the terraced houses, toilets you could actually flush your toilet paper in and, more importantly, no insects or asbestos on the walls.  Basically, it felt like the first “western” place we’d stayed in for quite some time.

We spent the day wandering through stores that sold cuckoo clocks made from Black Forest wood, eating coconut cookies and drinking hot chocolate.  They must want to keep their secret safe, because I couldn’t find a single Colonia Tovar postcard in the entire town.

Our indebtedness to Aldo Tercero keeps stacking up.  Thanks for the recommendation!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Juan is famous!

We hadn’t been in Caracas more than a few hours before a local news station decided to stop Juan (who wouldn’t want to talk to someone with a mustache like that!?) to interview him about Venezuelan politics.  What did he think of the city?  What about Chavez and the people?  Juan rose magnificently to the occasion –  discussing how progressive and modern the city is, how the people seem so involved, how pretty the town squares are.   All that college-level Spanish really paid off.  

Caracas was bustling when we arrived.  Partly this had to do with the droves of people that took to the streets to honor and mourn the loss of Willian Lara, a Venezuelan politician who died the day before we arrived, and partly to do with the fact that parliamentary elections are happening on September 26.  It was really quite impressive to see so many people out involved in the happenings of their country. 

The highlight of our stay in Caracas was the time we spent with Jean Carvaggio (aka Aldo Tercero), someone we met through couchsurfing (thanks Danielle!).  He picked us up near the Altamira metro station and gave us a proper tour of Caracas – the fancy malls where all the upper class hang out, the neighboring village of El Hatillo which has all but been absorbed by Caracas, and finally the 360roof bar on the top floor of the Hotel Altamira Suites.  He was generous with this time, his knowledge and even his wallet and we thoroughly enjoyed seeing Caracas through his eyes.    Needless to say, if we ever settle down somewhere, he has a standing invitation!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

How much does that helicopter ride back down cost?

Following a particularly ambitious urge to give purpose to the extra weight of our outdoor equipment, we signed up for a 6-day trek to the summit of Roraima.  Located just over the Brazilian border, Roraima looms over the Venezuelan savannah like a lithic castle in the air.  Known as a tepui, or a flat-topped mountain, its sheer cliffs drop nearly 2,000m into the churning clouds that encircle it. 

Our companions for the trek were: Stephen, a misanthropic, British cricket coach whose greatest dream is to have a chain of tea shops, Tomas, a well-traveled Slovakian who put us to shame by out-pacing us even with a sprained ankle, Lucy, another Slovakian, who constantly looked as if she were just strolling to the mailbox, and two Czechs who largely kept to themselves.  After two days of hiking over rolling plains through clouds of puri puris (small sandflies that leave bloody bites even through clothes), we reached the base camp and started a grueling climb over the next day, the entire last hour of which was a 65 degree ascent on all fours and through a waterfall.  Alex, our Guyanan guide, and Ray and Romano, our Venezuelan porters, not only carried our tents, food and chocolate (not the kind you eat), but also cooked amazing meals and made sure we didn’t fall in the rivers while crossing them. 

Reaching the summit, we knew it was worth it.  The bedrock and sandstone lay strewn about uselessly like some forgotten moonscape.  Our “hotel” for the next two days was situated beneath a rocky outcropping, ala Planet of the Apes.  Against the ash gray rubble, mini orchids bloomed in bright colors and carnivorous plants, the likes of which don’t exist anywhere else, quietly awaited their insect prey.  Our guides took us to La Ventana (the Window), where we had a perfect view of just how far we’d fall if a gust of wind came along. 

The descent was surprisingly hard.  Arriving back at base camp, our balancing muscles were completely shot and we still had half a day’s hike remaining.  Each wobbly step demanded willpower and we collapsed hopelessly onto the trail a few times asking ourselves why we signed up for this.  We were quite the sight when we got back.  Tia was covered in more than 156 puri puri bites (yes, we counted), we both had numerous, cavernous blisters on our feet and neither of us could walk without limping for days.  It was definitely worth it but, suffice to say, we’re skipping out on the 6-day journey to Ciudad Perdida that Lucy’s doing.

When we got back, we found out that it was Alex’s birthday so the group decided to treat him, Ray and Romano to drinks and Chinese food. Romano brought his 15-year old wife (who also happened to be Ray's sister) and one of their brothers showed up as well.  We started to wonder if the whole village was going to appear for free dinner from the crazy group of gringoes.  Ha.  The night ended with too many beers and lots of meringue dancing.  

Check out Tomas’ photos, which are much better than ours:

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Navigating through the Guianas in taxi collectifs has been a real adventure; there aren’t any public buses, internet sites, or even schedules to speak of and there’s only one main road along the coast.  Leaving Paramaribo, we hopped into an old VW bus at 4am and groggily endured a bumpy, swerving 12 hr. ride to Georgetown, the capital of English-speaking Guyana.  At one point, we were jostled awake when the bus hit something hard and the driver abruptly screeched to a halt, reversed, and pulled over to the side of the road.  From our window, we could see (and smell) the capybara that he had decapitated.  The force of the impact was strong enough that its shiny entrails came spilling out of its neck (intestines really are quite long).  We soon learned that their purpose in coming back was not to check on the poor creature, but to start making dinner plans.  The driver had his boy assistant get out, retrieve the carcass, and put it into the van.  There is no doubt that the carcass would have ended up in the trunk on top of Tia’s backpack had she not jumped out of the van exclaiming, “Um, excuse me, at least let me move my backpack first!”  Instead, it ended up at the feet of some other passengers, half covered with newspapers and plastic bags.  Thank goodness the windows were open.

Little did we know another surprise awaited us in Georgetown: the only road south through the rain forest to Brazil and eventually to Venezuela was impassable.  After visits to three travel agents and a couple of airlines, it became apparent that our only option was a flight to Brazil in five days.  Hmmm, we hadn’t intended to spend more than a day in Georgetown given that every guidebook and travel blog warned that it was incredibly dangerous. 

We inquired about tours to the interior but they were rather expensive, so we slowly resigned ourselves to our fate and began to feel out the city.  During the day we wandered around the bustling center, past open drainage clogged with stagnant water and rotting garbage.  The first grocery store we went to must have been a reclaimed building because every inch of it stank of urine.  We changed hostels after our first night because we were eaten alive by fleas as we slept.  The second night we switched because, after managing to fall asleep to the reggaeton and Indian music playing at full blast outside until 5am, we were awakened by what we thought was an air raid and, instead, turned out to be some jackass sitting on his horn for a full minute (Jerries All Nite Long, indeed).  We ended up spending our days holed up in a nice European style café, not inappropriately named Oasis. 

On the plus side, we met some interesting people.  A group of college-aged American girls doing WorldTeach told us about their travails with the Ministry of Education, flight delays, and cold water bucket baths.  Later, we spent an evening drinking with a British kid barely out of high school who had spent a year teaching English in the interior, an Aussie who quit his job seven years ago and had been traveling the world on his bike, and a twenty-something English couple.  We had noticed the couple a few nights before at a nearby pizza joint and were surprised to learn that they were held up at gunpoint, just a few minutes before we passed along the same road, no more than fifty feet from the hostel.  Our dinners were all eat-in after that.

We won’t be forgetting Georgetown anytime soon but, suffice to say, we’re glad we got out.

Friday, September 10, 2010

City of Brudderly Love?

Crossing from French Guiana to Suriname took no more than 10 minutes.  We got entry and exit stamps from little huts on either side of the river and paid 7 euros for a pirogue (a flat-bottomed wooden boat) to take us across.  Once on the other side, we were assailed by taxi drivers speaking a barely intelligible mix of Dutch, English, and French, peppered with some local dialect we didn't recognize.  Determined not to pay the full fare for a private taxi to Paramaribo, we waited for nearly two hours until our driver could find other passengers.

Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, was a melting pot of European, Indian, African, and Javanese cultures and the billboards and signs were kaledioscopic in their use of the various languages.  The sun beat down upon us as we meandered through the streets, past a cathedral that the Surinamese claim is the largest wooden building in the world and, as an homage to Dutch tolerance, the biggest mosque in the Caribbean sat next to an equally impressive synagogue.  Arriving at the main city square, we felt transported to colonial Philadelphia and weren't surprised to learn later that an American architect designed much of the area.

The highlight of our stay in Paramaribo was the day tour we took of the nearby plantations.  We met our tour guide and boat driver, Wendell and Sateesh, around 9:30am for a morning of dolphin spotting at the confluence of the Commewijne and Suriname rivers.  For lunch, they dropped us off at a dockside restaurant, where Sateesh's family prepared us a delicious roti spread and we met his pet, a golden-pawed monkey that only drinks Coca-Cola.  Hopping back on the boat, we went to visit the New Amsterdam Fort and Wendell masterfully wove a narrative as we walked through the property, talking about the cruelty endured by the plantation slaves -- if a slave burnt a batch of sugar he was thrown into the boiling vat as punishment.  We finished off at Marienburg, an old sugarcane plantation.  We were given a first-hand account of how the plantation once looked by Soekardi, a Javanese man in his 70s who was born in the plantation hospital and spent more than 40 years working there.

To think we found Wendell chilling out in the post office, charging less than our hostel for what was undoubtedly a much more authentic tour, was pretty satisfying.