Monday, May 21, 2007

last ride

It turns out biking without panniers is way easier. For our last stage we dropped the bags at our hostel and headed up the northern slope of the Merida valley. When we topped out we found ourselves out of the jungle, riding along a snakey road through the Andes. We saw mountains covered in those big soft cloud banks you always see in hot air ballooning documentaries, a guy on a scooter who used to live in Yonkers with forgotten English, and each other. After eating peanuts we turned around and whizzed back to town. Bull went to fast and ended up in a ditch and everyone sang songs. We can´t wait to play with everybody when we get back.

Reaching the Coast

Roundhouse kick!

Some days we do not bike at all. Sometimes we just put on dirty bike gloves and pretend to be tired and watch tv. And then I do photoshoots of dorky boys in spandex watching tv. You could join us next time.

Gran Sabana

Here some pics from the Gran Sabana near the Venezuelan/Brazilian border. This was probably some of our best riding in Venezuela - flat roads, big crazy looking tepuis and waterfalls everywhere. Plus Venezuela is nuts about Gatorade, a special treat after the poison water of Bolivia. Remember in Willa Cather books when the well got poisoned and everybody got sick and Ma and Pa had stay up all night nursing their fevered little ones? That is what Bolivia feels like all the time. But Venezuelan water has been pretty good so far; check out this sweet waterfall made completely out of jasper. Wow, beautiful!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Wind and waves

After an extra night stuck in San Felix as the result of a broken hub we took off for the north and the last 400km of our journey to the coast. However, try as we might to escape the un-endearing urban sprawl of that great city, we couldn´t. Kilometer after kilometer we were cozily wedged up next to 18 wheelers as our bikes teetered on the narrow shoulder. Eventually the highway dead-ended on a river, at which point we boarded a free ferry loaded with an unusually high number of crazies, even by south american free ferry standards. After shooing away a couple of 3 card monte hustlers, some beggars, and one man who was determined lob spanish gibberish at us for the duration of the ride we had a group huddle and came to the unanimous decision that it would be a wise decision to try to hitchhike the next 160 km to Maturin, so an not to tempt fate, which had been especially generous to us up to that point. As we got off the ferry a good samaritan with a truck offered to take us to the point where passing trucks picked up hitchhikers. When we arrived it was the early afternoon and we plopped down beside the liquor store / gas station (a unique Venezulan institution that says a lot about the prevailing sentiment towards drinking and driving) and waited for a ride. We were surrounded by kilometers of pine tree farms in every direction. People often stopped, not to offer us a ride, but to tell us how incredibly dangerous this part of Venezuela was. They often stuck their thumb up while extending their index finger, so as to emphasize the expression "muchas pistolas." Needless to say, we were thrilled. One hour turned into three and four and the falling sun created an ominous crimson sky over the tall stands of pine trees. Still no ride. We stopped a passing police truck and asked if there was anyway we could sleep at the police station that night. The police obliged and, as it was almost dark, gave us an escort to the station where we crashed hard in the sweltering heat and woke up right at dawn to make the journey toward Maturin. Less than a dozen kilometers after the police station the road opened up to a wide, luxurious shoulder, the traffic lessened and we completed the remaining 130 km by 2:30 that afternoon. An air conditioned hotel room and a schmorgosborg of delicious chinese food followed soon thereafter.

The next day was mostly the same Venezuelan crap. Flat road, road kill, broken glass, the acrid smell of burning garbage mixed with the acrid smell burning grassland, 95 degrees, 95% humidity, but as evening approached the road gained some curves and climbed into the mountains. The scorched expanse surrounding the road turned into amber fields encompassed by verdant peaks. We camped at a gorgeous lake and ate animal shaped pastas for dinner.

The next morning we saddled up and faced the 30km climb to cueva del guacharo, which is one of the world´s largest caves filled with some 15,000 guacharo, or oilbirds. They are the only nocturnal, fruit-eating species of bird and they use echolocation, aided by the help of audible clicks, to find their way in the dark caves in which they roost. Along the way we stopped at a few strawberry and cream shops and engorged ourselves on this regional delicacy.

We took a long lunch in the town of Caripe and made it to the cave just after the last tour where we learned that the cave would be closed to visitors for the next two days. Nonetheless, we still got to watch the birds make their nightly exit from the cave to forage.

I (Harris) woke up at 4:30 to the sound of the birds returning to roost. I made my way quietly to the entrance of the cave to see the birds pouring back into the cave´s mouth. Steping over the limp chain guarding the entrance I turned on my head lamp. I made it about two steps in before making a hasty retreat. There is something especially unnerving about entering a strange, behemoth cave, alone and under the cover of night. Of course Freud would have a thing or two to say about this, but I think the squawking birds flying low over my head were a major contributing factor to my unease, I later found out that they do not take kindly to light in their roost. I made another approach into the cave and took four hearty steps before jettisoning out again. The third try was the charm; holding my hand over my head lamp so that it shone only a sliver of light I walked the kilometer long tourist path into the cave to see massive stalactites and stalagmites, oilbirds, and cave mice darting in front of my path. But to tell the truth, it was dark, and I saw only shadows of those things.

We got out of camp before seven and by eleven the atlantic lay before us. I had envisioned us jumping off our bikes as we got to the ocean: running into the warm water jubilant, snapping pictures, splashing water, pumping our fists in the air in victory. Of course it was not quite like that. There was no ocean access and our day´s goal, Cumana, still lay more than 40km away. The ocean breeze barely tempered the mid-day heat and soon the quiet road coming down from the mountains was turned into a boiling coastal thruway with trucks careening past us at incredible speeds. We made it to the city by the late afternoon, dehydrated and very tired of hecklers who had hurled insults, sexual advances, and all manner of drunken gibberish at us all day. We celebrated with a few beers before passing out at ten and planned to make our way to the backpacker´s town of Santa De the next afternoon for a few days of r and r.

An hour before taking off, the owner of the hostel came to talk to me with a grave face.
"You are going to Santa Fe this afternoon?" he asked
"Sure are," I replied, "I hear it´s relaxing-"
He cut me off with broken english, "Do not go. For your lives. It is no joke."
It turned out that there was a non-trivial amount of civil unrest there, somehow related to a drug war, and that biking through there, never mind staying there would be especially unwise, not that any us of were all that excited to bike to Caracas along that busy highway anyway.

There is that haiku about the flexible reed lasting longer in the storm. We booked a ferry for the tropical island of Isla margarita for the next morning and by that evening we were eating seafood on the north side of the island and watching the sunset over the water. We hung out at the town of juan griego for a couple of days and then Ben, Thea and I took off to the other side of the island for the windsurfing capital of south america, El Yaque, while Matt did a circumlocution of the island and promised to meet up with us in a day.

None of us lasted more than two days windsurfing, as the muscles necessary for that sport are exactly the same muscles that had atrophied while biking. However, we did get a good arm work out carrying cases of beer from the nearby minimart and some cardio looking for the remote to the DVD player (Luckily, the air conditioner remote had its own wall mount). In the evenings we had dinner with a pair of swedes we had met on the first night, told stories, and played yatzee and other assorted games. In the day time we worked through an ardours schedule of sleeping in, going to the beach, watching movies, and eating. Oh, this is why people go on vacation, we realized. However, our thighs started to twitch with agitated impatience and after four nights, we had to go.

We are now back on the coast. Tomorrow we take a bus to Merida, a city in the mountains of western Venezuela where we will hopefully have a few more days of thigh expanding experiences before heading back home to the good ol´ US of A.

So close,

Team CP

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Venezuela rapido

Venezuela is fast, fast, fast. Got into Santa Elena on the border, had a beer with Ben´s cousin, traded some currency on the Venezuelan black market to avoid artifical inflation by the Venezuelan government, saw some tepuis (huge plateaus rising out of beautiful grassland) and then go, go, go. We´ve been moving through the searing hot landscape like cheetas, and now we´re in San Felix with only 400km to go. If you ever win a contest to come to San Felix, politely decline. Riddle: What do you get when you mix 5 parts urban decay with 1 part mall? (Hint: I´m writing from it right now.) From here on out we´re riding with our heads in front of our handle bars, mouths agape, so we can taste the sea salt on the tips of our tongues.

Team CP