Week 6 – We’re All Going To Die!!!Monday, 20 November 2006
The ongoing South American misadventures of our intrepid family of six, this week featuring some good news from England, some stolen cash, mild hypothermia, a partially-naked dinner with a couple of delightfully liberal North Americans, the jeep rides of impending doom, further lessons in Venezuelan timekeeping and redpillboy walking about like a slightly deranged ape (no change there, then)……
DAY 37 – GOOD NEWS FROM HOME
Oldest son and I tried out new resolution to eat a good breakfast, a moderate lunch and a light evening meal by going to Doña Flor, a local arepa house, for what the menu called an “American Breakfast”. Two fried eggs, three skinny rashers of streaky bacon, a slab of local cheese, two pieces of toast, a decent cup of coffee and a fresh frothy orange juice. Told the manageress that it was sabroso (delicious) but that, with respect, it was definitely an English breakfast (as the American version would probably have been served with onion rings, a T-bone steak, half a dozen waffles, maple syrup, an offer to join the National Rifle Association and a competition asking people to name at least one non-oil-producing country outside the United States).
Visited Arassari Trek to confirm our re-arranged trip to Los Nevados and revisited the site of my accident. When I saw how rusty the metal box was, I was very thankful I’d had a new tetanus jab and realised why the doctor had poked about inside my head so much! Rang England and relieved to find out Mum’s latest scan shows no signs of any further cancer since the removal of part of one lung earlier in the year. Then spent a few minutes trying to get her onto the website before realising that a) she has a dial up service and b) she was on the phone to me. D’oh! Further English lessons for my friend Daniel and then discovered by email that our friends’ daughter was recovering from malaria contracted in Mozambique. Vowed to complain less about our Saturday tablet ritual. Pasta, cards, early night.
DAY 38 – A CAR TRIP TO LA CULATA WITHOUT A STITCH ON
Went to hospital at 8am to get my five stitches removed. Three came out easily, one caused a few more problems and the last one needed a good old-fashioned tug. Sore but relieved. Back at Doña Flor by 9am in time to try out a local breakfast, determined to eat local food. An arepa (wheat pitta) with crema de leche (sour butter), caraotas (black beans), carne mechada (shredded strands of meat), queso blanco (shredded white cheese), coffee (universal drug) and jugo de mora (fresh blackberry juice). Good, cheap and filling but could it ever replace the Great British fry-up?!
Picked up at 12.30 by our friends José and Mily with their children, Sinai & Haciel. Plans went slightly awry as the town we were due to visit, El Valle, was closed! Plenty of photo opportunities, however, as we drove up into beautiful mountain country, reaching La Culata, where we met farmers, friendly calves, macho bullocks and what our youngest son described as “the cutest dog in the world”. Some boys as young as about 12 were working on the farm. Secondary education is not compulsory in Venezuela but parents strongly encourage their kids to get educated so that they can “be something when they grow up”. Farm work is combined with school work to create a busy life for many young people in rural areas. Unlike the miserable, heavily-made-up, middle-class shop assistants in town, these young people were not afraid to smile and welcome us to their country.
On the way down, we stopped to buy some local produce (peach jam, caramel sauce and coconut & pineapple marmalade) and, at the next stop, Mily went to buy some other local delicacy but came back to the car screaming and with a large dog in hot pursuit. A short break to allow the overheating brakes to recover before returning to town in a frantic pursuit of some impermeables (waterproofs) for our trip the following day. We visited a series of mainly Chinese budget stores featuring tacky Christmas decorations, homicidal fireworks and decidedly unattractive waterproof coats. We were to become very thankful for the coats but they did make our family look like a bunch of escapees from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Our friends had been so kind driving us wherever we wanted – including the town centre in rush hour (the hour in which no-one is able to rush) – but their job wasn’t over yet. On arriving back at the flat, we discovered that my wife’s handbag was missing and realised it had been left in the first store we’d visited in town. Then came the awful realisation that it contained cash, a passport, a debit card and our camera. Rushed back, praying at high speed, to find the shop closed. Managed to track down the owners in the flat above and recovered the handbag, intact and with all the contents except the cash (about £40). Very relieved.
Journals, shower, budget meal (rice & beans), packing, bed. Slept lightly thinking about the upcoming trip, but might not have slept at all if I’d known what lay ahead…..
DAY 39 – A PHYSICALLY & EMOTIONALLY EXHAUSTING DAY
Up at 6.20, porridge for breakfast, left at 7. Arrived at Arassari Trek at 7.30 where we got hot coffee and juice, and met our English-speaking guide, Gina, who was to share two extraordinary days with us. She’s a 24-year-old French Canadian from Montreal, now living in Mérida with her boyfriend’s family. The trip was sold as two days and one night, including a trip up the Teleférico (cable car), a five-hour mule trek, a night in a typical Andean village and a jeep ride back to Mérida. Looking back, I wondered why I’d let us all in for a five-hour mule trek when we’d struggled with a nine-hour flight in a modern airplane. Ah, hindsight, such a wonderful and mistimed gift.
suspended hundreds of feet above the ground in a swaying metal box by what looked to me like a very long piece of dental floss
The agency hadn’t told us we’d need all of our passports so there was a quick round trip by cab to collect them. Meanwhile we started buying Mérida ‘beanies’ for the colder weather ahead. Finally, we boarded the world’s longest cable car, the Teleférico, built by a French company in 1958, and spread across four stages. It’s 12.5km long (7.5 miles) and rises from the base station of Barinitas at 1,577m above sea level (5,172 ft) to Pico Espejo (Mirror Peak) at 4,765m (15,633ft). Stages one, two and three are La Montaña at 2,436m (7,990ft), La Aguada at 3,452m (11,323ft) and Loma Redonda at 4,045m (13,271ft).
These technical particulars were lost on me as I watched us rise, suspended hundreds of feet above the ground in a swaying metal box by what looked to me like a very long piece of dental floss. Every so often we’d pass a supporting pylon and the car would lurch over before dropping several feet. Mmmm, just loved those moments! For the ascent to the first stage the view was quite clear, but then, disappointingly, the cloud closed in and we had limited visibility. At stage one we bought a big bag of crisps which inflated between stages two and three, exploding shortly after arrival.
At the top, a huge statue of the Virgen de las Nieves (the Virgin of the Snows), patron saint of mountaineers, greeted us with open arms. It was freezing cold and I thought, with no disrespect intended, that at that height and temperature, most people probably would be virgens. We completed our set of Mérida ‘beanies’ and gloves, and descended to the third stage where we were to collect our mules. Here we saw a Venezuelan lady wearing white trousers and huge black stilettos (surely she’d got the wrong ‘bus’ that morning) and met “Ace”, a Japanese guy who’s travelled around a lot of Latin America, taking pictures for a book about the poor to show Japanese children how others live. As we had to wait for some of our mules, we went back into the building, made incredibly quick visits to more of the world’s coldest toilets, had very welcome hot drinks and made up some sandwiches for a scheduled but ill-fated half-way stop.
Remembering our experiences in El Páramo (see Week Three – Flying Solo!), our oldest son and I decided to walk the nine miles to Los Nevados. Gina warned us that it was a very hard walk but we stubbornly insisted, so we set off with five on mules, four on foot (including two local guides, aged about 19 and 13) and one mule carrying the bags. As we left Loma Redonda at about 1.15, we had no idea what lay ahead. If only we had known…..
The mules forged ahead up some very steep inclines as the light rain became heavier and more persistent. I was soon well behind the main party and began to struggle with the steep and rugged terrain. At this stage, my legs were fine but my lungs were feeling the strain. I took regular breaks and caught up with our oldest son who’d stopped to wait for me. We might have scared some of the other tourists at stage three with our full-length bright blue waterproof coats, but we began to appreciate them at that point. After about forty minutes, we began to descend. This was a huge relief to my lungs, but we soon found that this was much, much harder on our legs, especially with the rough, rocky ground becoming wetter by the minute.
the animal staggered and almost dashed my head against a nearby rock
Further on, we caught up with our daughter who, having felt sick, had dismounted and thrown up at the side of the path. A bit further on, one of the guides offered me a mule to ride. I tried for about two minutes then dismounted for two reasons, one selfish, one unselfish. It was obvious that the animals were not built to carry people of my generous size and on one steep, slippery descent, the animal staggered and almost dashed my head against a nearby rock. For both our sakes, I started walking again. Our oldest son got back on his mule shortly afterwards (he told me later that his mule had fallen over just before he dismounted, a scary experience for him, but evidence also that the mule needed a lighter burden), leaving two of us walking together.
It was here that the day started taking a big turn for the worse. The torrential rain had turned much of the narrow path into a mini-river and I held my daughter’s hand as we stumbled over dangerous, uneven rocks and splashed through mud and rain. There were only a couple of short stretches of flat over the whole nine miles. At several points, my daughter became distressed and told me that she couldn’t go on or that she couldn’t make it. It was then that I felt terrible for bringing my family here and useless because I couldn’t carry my 11-year-old daughter as –with my lungs and legs feeling the pressure - I was afraid that I would take her over the edge with me.
I kept talking (something I can always do), trying to encourage her with all of those classic lines like “keep going, one step at a time, and we’ll reach our destination” and “at times like these, it’s always helpful to remember people who are worse off than us”. She said she couldn’t make it and that my second suggestion just made her feel worse, but we struggled on, stopping only briefly when I took a brave / foolish toilet break.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, we caught up with the main party, only to find our youngest son crying and shivering on his mule, telling me that he couldn’t feel his legs. He dismounted and my daughter was a star as she encouraged him and urged him on, completely forgetting her own woes in the process. It was clear that our son was in the early stages of hypothermia. Reluctantly and with much urging from me, Gina and his Mum, he was persuaded to take off all of the clothes above his waist, put on Gina’s dry jumper and one of the adult waterproof coats.
It was clear that our son was in the early stages of hypothermia
If it wasn’t for the dire circumstances we found ourselves in, he would have looked comical, trudging along a muddy mountain path in a coat at least a foot too long for him. We all encouraged him to keep going on foot as this would give him more chance of warming up. He slipped over once, but was on his feet straightaway and bravely plodded on. My wife and other sons also got off their mules and we all walked together. When asked how far it was to Los Nevados, Gina wisely lied, telling us it was about an hour. We pressed on and began to warm up slightly, but the next danger was complacency because we still had a long way to go and the daylight hours were running out. I took my soaking gloves off and felt pins and needles in my left hand, making me think immediately of frostbite and amputation. I kept clenching my hands and bending my arms, legs and toes, encouraging the others to do likewise.
We began to make the long descent into Los Nevados, but, if anything, the way got harder as we were walking on soft, wet clay. Several of us took unplanned slides downhill, often ending in nasty bruises. We’d look for occasional stones which could give some grip to prevent further injury. Just as we thought we’d got over any panics, Gina – who had been a kind and wonderful guide in every other respect – began telling two of our children about the creatures to be found lurking in that night’s accommodation - scorpions (it’s ok, their stings aren’t fatal, they just give you a nasty fever) and centipedes (not normal ones, these ones have really huge vicious teeth). She then pointed to the rock at the side of the path, telling us it was petrified wood. I felt like telling her that the wood wasn’t the only thing petrified around there…
Gina told us we were fifteen minutes from the village and, shortly afterwards, she pressed ahead with the mules, the guides and our two youngest children as one of the guides needed to be in Los Nevados very soon. This left four of us sliding slowly towards our destination, keeping a watchful eye on the low cloud and the imminent approach of night. The rain had finally stopped but we were aware that night up there - devoid of any artificial light - would be very, very dark. Not very helpful with huge drops down the cliff edge only a few slippery feet away. We reached a fork in the path which had us worried until we saw the arrow on the floor, made up of a few sticks laid by the advance party. Phew. Now was not the time for wrong turns.
Gradually, and after a lot longer than Gina’s fifteen minutes, we started to come across a few isolated buildings, one with a scruffy sign offering beer (bizarrely, written in English) and, sadly, a Coca-Cola sign. Then we met a group of four eight-year-olds, climbing in the opposite direction, dressed in school uniform, after a day at the school in Los Nevados. Again, these children were happy to give us big smiles and have their photo taken, proving that it’s not those with the most possessions who are the happiest in the world.
The free market, pro-big business, pro-US Manuel Rosales has little to offer this hard-working rural community
Finally, we entered the 400-year-old town of Los Nevados, some five hours after we’d left Loma Redonda. The town is at 2,700m (8,856ft) and has a total population of less than 150. Never have I been so happy to see civilisation. Even here, there were pro-Chávez posters on the houses and car stickers on the few vehicles. The free market, pro-big business, pro-US Manuel Rosales has little to offer this hard-working rural community. A couple told us which way the gringo woman with two gringo kids had gone and we gingerly descended the steep main street. The wet cobbles offered little grip to boots caked in wet clay and we must have looked a strange sight to the bemused villagers. After one unsuccessful effort to track down the rest of the party, our oldest son remembered that the name of our posada (bed & breakfast) was the Bella Vista (“Beautiful View”) and we were directed to the small plaza at the end of the street. Reunited with Gina and our two youngest, we gratefully entered our home for the night.
Under normal conditions, I would have described the posada as basic, but right then it was heaven. The kids had a room with two bunk beds and we had the “matrimonial room” (although neither of us were thinking about any ‘matrimonials’ at the time, despite the cute heart-shaped mirror on the wall). Soon the kids were out of their wet clothes and wrapped up in huge warm Andean blankets, and we were sipping boiling hot lemongrass tea. How we laughed as, unpacking our soaking bags, we came across our suncream and sunglasses. Our room had a large stone bed, an ensuite bathroom and a view across the Andes. Let me explain “ensuite bathroom”. At the foot of our bed there was a small room (no door) with a toilet which flushed black water, a plastic bin for the toilet paper, a basin leaking brown water and a shower that might make someone dirtier than when they started. All of this went unnoticed at the time as our youngest son was suffering from altitude sickness (headache, bellyache and nausea) and had thrown up a couple of times already.
"do we look like Republicans!?”
We’d met an American couple who’d arrived a couple of hours before us and they advised us all to get as much water down as possible, even if it meant throwing it back up or being in the loo all night. A little investigation revealed that they were not big fans of Mr Bush (“do we look like Republicans!?”), but it was their kindness to us as a family rather than common political ground which helped us become good friends in a very short time. One of the local women brought us dry clothes to buy and then another kind woman brought us dry jogging trousers, sweatshirts, trainers and sandals. We took anything which almost fitted – we were in no position to worry about style…
At just after seven we went up to another building for dinner and a right sorry bunch we looked. A mixture of underwear, blankets, bare feet and badly-fitting clothes in which – under normal circumstances - we wouldn’t have been seen dead. Oh yes, and six bad hair days, but we were just glad to be dry, warm and about to be fed. Bowls of steaming potato, garlic and vegetable soup followed by beefsteak, potato, vegetable fritter and salad, all washed down with fresh juice and loads of mineral water. It all tasted so good! We had a great time with the Americans – Harrison and Michaela – and Gina, recalling our day and finding much common ground in discussions of UK and US politics, environmentalism, organic food and some of the over-the-top religious North Americans. Harrison is a real estate agent for environmentally-friendly property (much of which he helps to plan or design) and Michaela is a yoga teacher.
Went to bed shortly after nine, but ended up with the whole family plus Gina playing cards on our bed, winning toffees, and comparing aches and pains. Our youngest son stayed in our bed and our daughter shared a room with Gina, but it was to be a very disturbed night with no less than fifteen interruptions to our much-awaited sleep. People fell out of bed, went to the loo, felt sick, couldn’t sleep, cracked shins against stone beds, a big spider turned up, the kids moved around to share beds, but in the end we all got a little rest. I kept waking up at the point in my dream where I disappeared to an untimely death over the edge of a very steep Andean cliff. At one point, my wife and I just burst out laughing at the absurdity of our situation and the constant interruptions to our sleep. At least the tears were from laughter. Also, quite randomly, I couldn’t get the lyrics of a certain Billy Bragg song out of my head, especially the line, “a nuclear submarine sinks off the coast of Sweden”. Told you it was random.
DAY 40 – TRUSTING COMPLETE STRANGERS
I woke shortly after seven and went outside to be met by the most beautiful views of majestic mountains adorned with small soft wisps of cloud. Of course I think our world has a creator (however he or she did it), but I prefer to enjoy it than argue about it. We’d been told that breakfast was at eight and that our jeep would leave for Mérida thirty minutes later, so I was keen to drink in the beauty and try to capture some of it on film. Everyone woke up – which was a positive – and we enjoyed hot black coffee, fresh melon juice and arepas with homemade blackberry jam or scrambled eggs. Finding out that the jeep was now due at eleven, some headed into town for shopping and photography. I started to write down the events of the previous day in my journal and noticed that there were vultures circling overhead. Did they know something we didn’t?!
We were trusting that the driver knew the road and that he could tell the difference between first and reverse when hovering at the edge of a cliff
We finally left Los Nevados at just before one, over four hours late, munching on smoked cheese empanadas, freshly-cooked by one of the women in the village. The Toyota jeep had a passenger seat and benches either side in the back. On the way we picked up an old lady who claimed to be going to the doctors in Mérida, a claim which later appeared to be false. For over an hour we drove almost entirely along the edge of the mountain on very narrow dirt and rock tracks, occasionally treated to a short stretch of recently-concreted road. There were several alarming hairpin bends, some of which required a three-point turn. On one, the gears slipped and there was a collective intake of breath. We were trusting that the driver knew the road and that he could tell the difference between first and reverse when hovering at the edge of a cliff. At two, we arrived in Mosnanda where we had to change jeeps because of roadworks (ironic, eh?), the freshly-laid cement not allowing us to pass without taking a several thousand metre vertical detour.
Finding out that our jeep had left at one and wouldn’t be back until at least four, we settled into the café which was presumably enjoying extra custom thanks to the roadworks. We were in the village for three and a half hours, amusing ourselves with cards, orange & carrot juice, arepas, noughts & crosses in the dust with a stick and visits to the village toilet (low concrete lintel on which I cracked my head again, no cistern, large gap in the door for scenic views and a tap and a big bucket for flushing). The kids played with the local kids. The Americans and English gave them their cards which were gratefully received (hoping in retrospect that we’re not the cause of a huge pan-Andean juvenile gambling boom).
Four o’clock came and went with no sign of the promised jeep. It started to rain and the sun disappeared (exiting with a couple of exquisite rainbows). I imagined a late drive down the mountain in the dark on wet slippery tracks or a night in the village tormented by the cold and nasty insects – I didn’t want to be an Andean Insect Restaurant. The builders laughed at the idea that our jeep driver was coming back that day and offered us a lift in their vehicles (one of which was an open-backed pickup). In the end we accepted their kind offer and left the village shortly after five thirty. The kids asked if they’d see us again soon. My heart said, “we’d love to”, but my brain screamed, “not bloody likely”. I love community but I hate heights!
Most of our family got in a covered jeep but our two oldest sons chose to ride with Harrison in the back of the pickup, protected by waterproofs and a tarpaulin. We headed off at the head of the mini-convoy. At no point in the next two hours did our driver, “Jimmy”, have both hands on the steering wheel. He changed CDs, used his mobile, wiped the windscreen and pulled himself partly out of the window, presumably to enable him to see the road ahead (at some points, low cloud limited visibility to a few feet and I just assumed there was rock on our right and at least some solid ground to the left). Our youngest son slept. I didn’t.
You’re driving on a narrow, wet mountain pass in a 4x4 vehicle and you see a small hole in the track. Do you a) use the vehicle’s purpose-built suspension to ‘ride’ the bump or b) lurch suddenly to the left to avoid the hole, taking six people to within six slippery inches of certain death? Oh well, I presumed Jimmy knew best! Behind us, the Intrepid Three were having the ride of their lives, a ride improved by the fact that the metal floor was heating up nicely, thank you very much. Do I let my bum go up in flames or do I jump and hope for the best? At least these 4x4s were getting appropriate use, not being driven by Mummy through the streets of Kensington to pick up Nigel and Arabella from their posh prep school so they wouldn’t be late for their horse-riding lessons…..
Eventually we drove onto ‘proper roads’ and saw the lights of Mérida. We were dropped off at our flat just before eight, arranging to return our borrowed clothes to Arassari Trek and to meet our new American friends for some food the following evening. I hobbled down the steps to our building and realised that the experiences of the last two days had made me appreciate our flat even more. Had I really once thought that it was basic? Spoilt middle-class git!
We all agreed that, despite the challenges of the last two days, we were glad we’d made – and completed – the trip. I was thoroughly proud of my wonderful family. The younger children had kept going when they thought they couldn’t, the older ones had come of age, showing great encouragement and leadership. My wife had been the wonderful Mum she’s always been. I just had some doubts about myself. If only I’d been able to carry the kids when they were struggling, if only I’d taken them for two weeks in Bognor…….
DAY 41 – RED PILL APE AND A MEAL WITH FRIENDS
My calves and thighs, which had ached the previous day, now made it impossible for me to walk without looking like a very old man or, worse still, an aged ape. Bless our kids who thought this was very funny and were working on some oh so funny impressions. I was even pushing myself up from the bed using my knuckles! We made visits to the internet café to check the website and recent emails, and to the launderette to wash our dirty wet clothes (having removed most of the bulk filth first).
In the afternoon, Harrison and Michaela came to the flat and copied their photos onto a CD via our laptop while we showered and made one more trip to the launderette. In the evening, we went for a meal at the Páramo Grill. Later, as we said goodbye, I was amazed to think that we had only known this lovely couple for just over 48 hours but were seriously considering visiting them in Charlottesville, Virginia, next year. More immediate issues then raised their head as we noticed that the ‘dry season’ was being demonstrably interrupted. We all ran / ape-walked the shortish distance to our flat and got home soaked through again. Bed. Sweet, soft bed.
DAY 42 – A BED PARTY, A PALACE WIN, A BILINGUAL GOD & DIARRHOEA
Still awake at three in the morning thanks to a very loud sound system over the road. We sat up in bed and joined in the dancing, if only with our upper bodies. We’re laughing a lot in bed these days and it’s not what you’re thinking. You’ve got to laugh at these things you can’t change (or ask friends to bring earplugs when they arrive from England in less than a week). Shopping trip to replace some of the shoes left rotting in a bin somewhere in the Andes, long session sending emails to friends back home, shocked to discover Palace had won a game (ok, it was only 2-0 at home to Barnsley).
In the afternoon, we visited an English-speaking family who are in a similar position as us, wanting to take the next big step in life but not yet knowing what it is. They’ve worked with the poor in Honduras and Equatorial Guinea, and find it hard living in a middle-class town. They told us more about some of the work the local church is doing among the poor and invited us to visit a couple of places to see for ourselves, an offer we are keen to accept at the earliest opportunity. We prayed together in English and Spanish, showing great faith that God is (at least) bilingual.
Another early night but two of us suffering from severe diarrhoea, possibly caused by tap water in a juice drink we’d had earlier in the day. At least we’re not up in a remote Andean village…..
DAY 43 - GOOD REST AND BAD TV
Caught up on lots of sleep, read, did some writing. Watched Wigan v Villa on TV. Laughed at hideous Spanish-speaking shopping channels. Saw a Venezuelan horse racing programme hosted by two blokes who were the spitting image of the hecklers from the balcony in the Muppet Show – didn’t understand many words, but still almost wet ourselves laughing. Checked out that Billy Bragg lyric. Hobbled about like a primate in the early stages of recuperation. Ate takeaway pizza and chips (so much for those resolutions!) Bed. Tomorrow is day 44, halfway through our Venezuelan adventure. 44 days to go or, as Gina would say, about fifteen minutes.
This article was prepared to a soundtrack of Milburn, the morning stillness of the Andes, Bruce Cockburn, loud sound systems playing bad music, Billy Bragg (obviously) and the silent but ominous stares of half a dozen vultures. Smile and wave, boys, smile and wave…….