Week 3 – Flying Solo!Monday, 06 November 2006
At the start of week three in Venezuela, our friends from England leave Mérida for a week’s beach holiday before flying home. In a crisis, there’ll be no more opportunity to call fluent English speakers. We are on our own now and the adventure starts in earnest for our family - like a kid whose stabilisers have just been taken off his bike, whose father has taken his hand off the saddle. Scary, yes, but exciting too.
By the time they fly out on Monday afternoon, I have a lot more on my mind than their departure. We rise early, hoping to get on the Sistema Teleférico, the world’s longest cable car ride, before the clouds descend to spoil the stunning views. Unfortunately, like many of our proposed rendez-vous in Venezuela, only one party turns up at the right time, in the right place and properly prepared. In low season, Mondays and Tuesdays are maintenance days for the Teleférico (I’m not sure if this should fill me with confidence or terror – is it well-maintained or on its last legs?). The 12.5km ascent – split over 4 legs – will have to wait for another day. I am blissfully unaware at the time, but a much more exciting and worrying day lays ahead….
DAY 16 – (SON OF) “I DON’T WANT TO DIE”
We’re already in the tourist area of Mérida, surrounded by operators offering trips all over Venezuela as well as activities like climbing, kayaking and paragliding. Pictures of piranhas, anacondas, majestic waterfalls and awesome mountains. Row upon row of safety helmets and life jackets. Coffee shops full of backpackers and new century hippies, filling up on body fuel for the day ahead and swapping stories in several different languages.
We decide to turn disappointment into action by booking a day trip to El Páramo (literally “the high moor”). There are 11 people in our party – our family of six, a Spanish couple, a couple of Australian doctors travelling the world (irresponsible, huh!?) and our “English-speaking” guide, Pedro. Unlike a lot of Venezuelan vehicles, the minibus has four tyres with relatively good tread. The same can’t be said of the spare which is rolled out just before we leave and does a good impression of Bobby Charlton but without the comb-over. We break down at the first official stop, but it behaves well after that.
At nine we leave Mérida, which stands at 1,640m above sea level, rising slowly and steadily through land dominated by farms growing garlic, potatoes and carrots, and a yellow flower called frailejón, one variety of which is used to treat asthma (something Che could have done with in Bolivia near the end). After one more stop to see the stone church in San Rafael de Mucuchiés, we arrive at the Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada beside Laguna Mucujabi at just after one. A beautiful still lake surrounded by imposing mountains, nearly 4,000m above sea level. It’s here that I use possibly the coldest toilet on earth. A shed with no external door, a cubicle with an excuse for a door and a chill wind blowing straight up the Andes (if you’ll excuse the expression).
We’re given a choice of walking or pony trekking to Laguna Negra, about an hour away. Family peer pressure prevails and I end up astride an unfortunate beast which is probably looking forward to the trek about as much as I am. I have no problem with the riding bit, especially as we start on wide level paths at a very slow speed. The problems start when the paths narrow, become steep ascents and descents, some on slippery and uneven stone, and a sharp look to the left shows me exactly how far I could fall. To make matters worse, my pony seems to have no sense of direction and is obsessed with overtaking the others, especially on the single track cliff edge paths. I quickly learn the Spanish words for “go right, not left!” used in a tone which I hope sounds humorous rather than completely terrified.
Soggy from rain and low cloud, finally we arrive at La Laguna Negra where my fear turns to considerable embarrassment. I’m standing next to the Spanish guy, both looking up at the waterfall flowing into the stunningly dark lake. Using the full of extent of my Spanish, I declare loudly, “It is very beautiful!” Unfortunately when I look around the bloke has whipped out his tackle and is relieving himself against a rock. The look on his face suggests he has misinterpreted my comment about the waterfall….
After lunch we go to Pico Aguila (“Eagle Peak”), the highest point of our trip at 4,118m above sea level. Thinking I was going to test my irrational fear of heights in an enclosed cable car, I’m not prepared for the view from the peak. The kids happily clamber over the safety wall and onto an exposed crag for better photo opportunities while I laugh half-heartedly at all the ‘fun’ we’re having. Vertigo and altitude sickness ha ha ha. Historically, the pass by this peak is the one Simon Bolivar crossed before capturing Caracas from the Spaniards.
On the way down, as Pedro’s “special gift to this tour party”, we take an even narrower winding road (one hairpin bend requires a three point turn) before descending into Mérida as night falls. After the day we’ve had, the suicidal overtaking manoeuvres of several Venezuelan drivers suddenly seem tame by comparison. We finish a great day by sharing a meal with Ian & Theresa, the Australian doctors, who are flying on to Peru the following day.
It’s only the next day that my wife and daughter point out that Pedro kept going behind the minibus for a quick swig of some local brew at each stop (and there was me thinking it was just a particularly pungent aftershave). More pictures from El Paramo
DAY 17 – REST, A GOOD MEAL, COOL PEOPLE & HARE KRISHNAS
Late morning (good sleep, no mountain climbing dreams). Good cheap meal at La Abadia, a restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet Guide, on a terrace with a view of the Andes (been there, done that!). In town we meet some cool travellers selling jewellery and hats in a street market and then an English-speaking Hare Krishna from Chile who cheers me up by saying that I don’t have a British accent. Early night.
DAY 18 – DEEP THOUGHTS, THE LAUNDERETTE & CANDLELIT CARDS
Restless night, thinking deep thoughts in shallow sleep. In the morning, we all read the parable of the Good Samaritan and wonder how we can apply it in Mérida in 2006. Mundane jobs like visiting the launderette and checking emails at another ultra-slow internet café. We enjoy receiving personal emails so much that we have vowed to do better in at emailing our friends when they go away, especially overseas. We take one of the teenagers from our block for a meal and return to a flat with two other local kids but no electricity or water. Try to play cards by candlelight but give up, speaking in broken Spanglish and getting another early night.
DAY 19 – HUMBLED BY TRUE HOSPITALITY
Eight of us cram into a small taxi and head to Casa Dorcas, about 20 minutes outside Mérida on the road to El Páramo. I’ll cover this day and the work carried out at Casa Dorcas, a women’s refuge, in a separate article. Enough to say that we arrogantly think we’re going to give something to them and have our ideas turned on their head.
DAY 20 – MEGA-BITES, MANY BANKS AND A SUPERMARKET
Little sleep as my legs itch like crazy from bites taken out of them yesterday and some sort of party going on in the car park of the shopping centre opposite our flat until about 4am. I’m sure there’s street racing taking place on the dual carriageway at night, no doubt inspired by Rapido Y Furioso 3 showing at the local cinema.
Hating the very principle of supermarkets, we go to the local effort, Garzon, as we’re unable to get certain things from local shops and markets (either because of a lack of availability or, more likely, our poor Spanish). Bearing in mind that most Venezuelan people are attractive with dark skin and beautiful black hair, it’s a surprise that the omnipresent Garzon billboards show a light-skinned fair-haired dork, presumably subliminally promising an Americanised or Westernised future. Armed as ever with a dictionary, we’re able to get the missing links and stock up on budget fodder like porridge, pasta and rice. Brainwave – the next UK government should pass legislation making it illegal for Tesco to sell to anybody except visiting foreigners armed with nothing but broken English and a battered dictionary. People who need items marked clearly so that they can check what they are and not end up with the insides of some random animal when they’re only after a bit of tagliatelle.
On the way to the supermarket, I try my card at ATMs at five different banks, getting messages in Spanish varying from polite denial to outright abuse. Only two banks in Mérida accept our cards but the ATMs do have one advantage over the UK ones – you swipe your card and keep it in your hand, it never disappears into the belly of the beast – even if the transaction fails. I’m glad because I can’t imagine trying to explain to some underpaid Venezuelan bank clerk – in very poor Spanish – “Excuse me but your stupid machine has eaten my card, given me no money, abused me in three different languages and if I don’t get it back soon – well, to be honest, guv – I’m totally knackered, up Mérida Creek with no visible means of withdrawing cash”. I’m even gladder that I don’t need to go into one of the banks. Huge queues are the norm and, if there are too many potential customers, the excess are kept outside by a security guard, a bit like the shops in England with signs saying “only two school children at a time”. Highlight of the supermarket trip? Easy. Finding spam in the deli section. Quality!
DAY 21 – YUM YUM MALARIA TABLETS
For our family, for several months (and, to rub salt into the bite, at considerable expense), Saturday night is malaria tablet night. It’s our particular take on the Saturday Night Fever thing. We try to buy some sort of cake to make it easier for the younger ones to ‘enjoy’ the experience.
DAY 22 – SURREAL CHURCH & THE SEARCH FOR WIRELESS INTERNET
Our third visit to the local church where we have a few contacts thanks to our friends from England. The 11 o’clock service starts at about 11.30 and lasts for almost three hours. We’re getting to know more of the people who are very friendly but the whole experience is quite surreal. Having considerable experience of large evangelical charismatic churches in England, the service could easily be an exact replica apart from the language. It’s as though, not content with robbing this continent, North Americans and Europeans are now exporting their culture via style of religion. The experience leaves me reeling, especially when a friend asks me what I think of the church. He obviously means the service but, to me, church is people so I can only answer that I haven’t met many of them yet.
In the afternoon, we go in search of wireless internet, allegedly available at a shopping centre 15 minutes on foot from the church building. It’s actually a three mile walk but we manage to get a cheap lunch, post an article on the site and check TTRP emails. On the way back (uphill), we catch a bus back into town which costs 75p for all six of us. We also get the great news that two of our friends are coming out on 24 November for 10 days. One of them speaks very good Spanish, but until then we’ll carry on flying solo!
This article was prepared to the chill of Bob Marley and the rousing of Billy Bragg.