Into Venezuela (and off 'to see a man about a dog')
Well, I made it to Venezuela – without needing a visa, and without the hassle at the border that I had been led to believe I was going to encounter. This was a great relief as it wasn’t just the annoying man in Divanga who warned me how notorious the guys at the Colombia/Venezuela crossing can be. Many people had told me that they love to give a good grilling to those trying to pass from one country through to the other.
However, as it turns out, they just took a cursory glance at my passport, asked me what I did for a living, and let me through. That’s not to say the border wasn’t intimidating, though. Along with the other passengers on my bus from Santa Marta on Tuesday afternoon, I was marched into a sterile looking reception room practically wallpapered inside with mugshots of FARC rebels (and details of the many millions of pesos that were being offered in rewards for their capture) at the small border town of Maicau. The place was heavily policed by boys with big guns who all looked about 14 (a bit like mini ‘Action Men’ in their army fatigues), and whose fresh-faced and youthful appearances didn’t fill me with confidence about how well equipped they were to handle weapons almost the same size as them! They weren’t half as scary as the guys inside behind the counters, though - these blokes being the most humourless and fierce looking officials I’ve seen in a while. Still, as I mentioned, they flagged me through pretty rapidly, and weren’t as fearsome as they initially seemed. Perhaps the fuss about doing a land crossing from Colombia to Venezuela is another of those things that gets exaggerated in travellers’ legends.
In spite of having crossed the first hurdle of getting here, I have to say that other challenges have confronted me since I arrived in this new country (‘economic challenges’, let’s just say, - and I’ll come on to them). I find myself a bit perplexed by Venezuela, and am not quite sure what to make of it yet. I’ve had some good times since I arrived here two days ago, though, and I’ve received some great hospitality thanks to the Couchsurfing community in Maracaibo – which was the first place I landed in. In tonight’s entry I’ll try to capture in words and pictures some of my experiences since Tuesday…
First of all, when I arrived in Maracaibo, a lovely Venezuelan Couchsurfing guy called Luis picked me up from the bus station and took me out, along with another Venezuelan girl called Liliana, for an ‘arepa’ (arepas are a speciality here as well – although heavier and denser than the ones in Colombia - and a typical filling of ‘reina pepiada’, or chicken with mayonnaise, capers and avocados, is very tasty). I had initially contacted Liliana through the Couchsurfing website about a week ago, to ask her if she could put me up overnight in Maracaibo. It turned out it wasn’t possible for her to actually provide accommodation, but she put me in touch with Luis, who in turn put me in touch with Susan – a Canadian/Northern Irish teacher living in in the city, whose flat I eventually stayed in.
Seeing as Susan was at the gym when I actually arrived, Luis and Liliana looked after me initially, and made me feel incredibly welcome. In fact, they persuaded me to stay an extra night – saying that they had organised a bit of a Couchsurfing ‘get-together’ the following evening. This was sort of in honour of my arrival, although, as I came to discover, the ‘Couchsurfers of Maracaibo’ are a really friendly and sociable bunch, who get together quite often, and share hosting responsibilities whenever visitors arrive. They explained to me that Maracaibo, which is situated next to the biggest lake in South America, and which rests upon incredibly profitable oil reserves (a lot of the money there is linked to petrol-related industry), isn’t much of a conventional tourist destination. For this reason they like to show the people who turn up in the city (mainly people like me – travelling to or from Colombia) a good time. I’m certainly glad I fell in with them as they really bought to life a city that my ‘Rough Guide’ only afforded a paltry paragraph, and that I was thinking was merely going to be a ‘stopover’ during my travels in Venezuela.
Staying with Susan was a blessing in many senses. Firstly, her flat was lovely – and, rather than just kipping on her couch, I was given my own double bed in her spare room, complete with an en-suite bathroom. Bliss! On top of this, Susan was very savvy and, having been working in a local school as a Chemistry teacher for the past 6 months or so (in an English speaking school for children from quite wealthy families it seems – rather like Simon and Stuart in El Salvador), she had sussed out how to get by in the local area. One of the things she thankfully tipped me off about before I arrived was money, telling me (as I had heard from a couple of other people as well), to bring cash dollars to change into Bolivares (Venezuela’s currency) on the black market, rather than getting money out of an ATM or using an official ‘casa de cambio’.
I had better not go into too much detail about this as it’s not really legal (although everyone does it), and it is a kind of political issue. However… Seeing as Chavez has pegged the ‘official’ exchange rate for the dollar so that prices for visitors are astronomically high (really crazy – a snack like the arepa that Luis bought me costing about $10 or £7), a lot of people in the know sell dollars on the sly at much better rates. Most Venezuelans know someone (or, if not, someone who knows someone) who will buy cash dollars for double, sometimes treble the official rate, thus allowing you to get much more for your money. It works favourably both ways, apparently, as wealthier Venezuelans are always after cash dollars for their shopping trips or holidays in the States, and are prepared to pay over the official odds for them. The deal also allows people selling dollars to get a rate reflective of the way things are priced in Venezuela (for everyday things are priced up to the ‘black market rate’ as opposed to the official one).
It’s kind of confusing, and I’m not an economist, nor do I want to try to politically analyse the situation (it seems pretty skewed, but I’m going to stay out of it). Luis says that salaries in Venezuela are generally good and that most Venezuelans don’t notice the high prices. Susan begs to differ, though, and says that she has seen the price of groceries soar recently, without her salary matching the gross inflation. For me, as someone travelling in the country on the pound for a brief period of time, things initially didn’t look very rosy! However, thankfully, to cut a long story short, someone knew someone who managed to do a bit of a deal for me, buying some US dollars I had for a preferable rate. It took a while to get everything sorted, though, and it was only today, after a good bit of wheeling and dealing on my behalf by my new friends, that I was finally able to pick up an envelope containing what I hope is enough Bolivares to see me through my time here. I’m going to have to be quite frugal and financially careful this week, though, as, if this doesn’t last, and I have to get money out of an ATM, everything will effectively more than double in price. It’s a bit of a pain to say the least…
So yesterday morning, after Susan had left for work, I have to admit I felt a little frustrated. Without any money, and with the internet down in her building (I had hoped to do some travel planning and Skyping - but Venezuelan cyber issues were conspiring against me), there wasn’t much for me to do except for wander around the neighbourhood, popping in and out of shops and supermarkets, feeling anxious about how I would get by in a country where (at the official rate of exchange) a small tub of ice-cream costs about £18!
I felt in a much better mood come the afternoon, though, when I met up with Liliana and she took me out on a bit of a tour around her city. I was surprised at how attractive a lot of it was, having been led to believe that Maracaibo was pretty much all urban sprawl. There were some lovely old churches and statues, and walking around the lake in the late afternoon sun was very pleasant.
Perhaps the most fun aspect of the afternoon, though, was being introduced to ‘por puestos’ – a form of transport somewhere between a bus and a taxi that is used by most inner-city Venezuelans as a means of getting around. Basically, guys in old, incredibly battered Chevrolets (and other big 70s style US cars) cruise up and down the main streets in Venezuelan cities, picking up passengers for a small fare and dropping them off where they wish. Some of the cars were unbelievable and seriously looked like they were going to fall to bits! However, they seem to serve their purpose, and get you where you want to go more quickly than a bus, and more economically than a taxi.
That evening, with some emergency Bolivares that I eventually got out of an ATM, I bought some apples and flour and did my usual Couchsurfing thing of making apple crumble for my hostess. I think this went down well with Susan and her teaching friend, Hannah, who also joined us for dinner. Susan, who has lived and worked in the Far East as well, knocked up a delicious stir-fry with noodles for main course – and that made a nice change from arepas and rice (even though I do like that kind of stuff a lot now).
Later that night we met up with Luis, Liliana and another Couchsurfer and headed off to the local bar they usually hang out in. The thing to order, again, seemed to be rum and coke, and we shared a big bottle between five of us. Needless to say my head felt a bit sore this morning – I keep hoping that rum will start to agree with me more, but sadly it never seems to! Nevermind…
So I’m now en-route to Coro – an apparently pretty colonial town next to the beach and (bizarrely) the desert up on Venezuela’s northern coast. Then I think it will be a few nights in mountainous Merida (near the Andes) before moving on to Brazil as soon as I can. Let’s see how those Bolivares stretch though…