We’re back in the Bay Area but will continue to post some blogs/writing that we didn’t post while in South America. So keep an eye out for new updates!
-Jake and Caitlin
We’re back in the Bay Area but will continue to post some blogs/writing that we didn’t post while in South America. So keep an eye out for new updates!
-Jake and Caitlin
In many ways my two weeks spent living in the Catia district of Caracas were uneventful and solitary, spent exploring Caracas and studying Spanish. That is, while I was staying with good friends, I slept and cooked alone on the second floor of the small house, in an apartment formerly used as a school but currently in hiatus, sandwiched between the households of our friend Corina, her husband Herman and their two year old daughter Catalina on the top floor– and the residence of Corina’s sister, brother-in-law, father, and three nephews Gabriel, Israel and Rafael on the first floor. Perhaps solitary is not the right word, considering my surroundings. My feelings of solitude stemmed not from isolation but rather more from my unease at being implored by my hosts to keep a strict 8 pm curfew for my own safety. Just that small loss of independence made the walls of the apartment feel as though they were closing in around me. But by making that tiny sacrifice I was able to experience a reality of Venezuela that I couldn’t possibly hope to understand as a tourist.
Catia is one of the largest neighborhoods in Caracas, something you feel immediately if you spend any time there, which is saying something considering how large the rest of Caracas feels. It is historically working class, home to many immigrants to Venezuela as well, primarily from Lebanon and Italy. The U.S. distinctions between working class, poor, and ghetto neighborhoods are probably not quite as nuanced as they are in Latin America. While in no way considered a barrio in Venezuela, Catia might find itself categorized as a ghetto back in the States. The dozens of now infamous decrepit highrise apartment buildings may not help matters. Because of its proximity to the Miraflores presidential palace, after the coup attempt in 2002, Catia was the epicenter of organizing people to march towards the palace, demanding the return of Chavez. Now it is a hotbed of activism in the region and a major area of support for Chavez and his social programs. Catia TV is the first public TV station in Venezuela dedicated to social justice and giving a voice to the marginalized. Needless to say the people of Catia are excited and involved in the political process. At the same time, the neighborhood is in shambles. Some roads are only semi-paved, and there is rubble and trash everywhere. Scattered between houses and apartment buildings are liquor stores and auto repair shops, and not much else. An occasional panaderia or arepa shop. There is, however, a giant central market in Catia every day where you can find just about anything you could want or need (bootleg DVDs!).
It is safe to say that I stood out as a bright-eyed, pasty-skinned, blonde kid roaming the neighborhood. People took it in stride for the most part, though. It wasn’t until the day I was leaving, walking with a fellow gringo, that a man ran up, and with genuine concern, asked if we were lost and looking for the American Embassy (which is on completely the opposite side of town). Venezuelans have tended to assume I’m American or German. He was shocked when I told him we were staying with friends in the neighborhood and he told us to watch our backs. Otherwise everyone I met in the neighborhood was friendly and truly interested in how on earth I found myself there. Most often my generic but genuine response that I wanted to see how the real population of Venezuela lives sparked a political conversation. I was constantly amazed at people’s interchangeable levels of knowledge/commitment/involvement/support for the current government. But I was hoping to cut through the Chavez hysteria and get some specific examples.
Fortunately, Gabriel, Corinna’s 16-year-old nephew was on summer vacation. He offered to take me around town and also introduce me to various folks in the neighborhood. As it turned out, Gabriel knew essentially everyone in the neighborhood, and just walking around with him, I met dozens of families. Thanks to Gabriel, by the end of my two weeks in Catia, I was recognizing faces and the enormity of the neighborhood was no longer overwhelming. For 16-years-old, Gabriel showed amazing maturity. He had just finished at the military academy and was heading back to public high school. We spoke about everything, from the importance of education to the sense of community in Catia and the darker side of this—that many people only knew their houses, the corner, and people they drink beers with, to alcoholism, teenage pregnancy (he claimed he knew an 11-year-old with two kids, although I’m not even sure that’s physically possible) and to the fact that Chavez is giving dignity to the people of these neighborhoods. Gabriel was hoping to study languages so he could eventually travel. It was clear where this came from. Both his aunt and uncle had traveled to the U.S. and lived in the Bay Area (thus my connection). His mom was a teacher, probably part of the reason he already valued education at such an early age. Gabriel’s mom explained why her family avidly supported Chavez in terms so simple I could have kissed her. “The opposition offers nothing. Why would I support them?” She went on to explain that she has seen both schools she works at improving, particularly the public school, since Chavez came into power. In Venezuela teachers often work in two schools, along with doctors who frequently work in two clinics, public and private. For example, Gabriel’s mother worked in a public school in the morning and then a private school in the afternoon because otherwise her salary at the public school wouldn’t make ends meet. Doctors regularly worked in a similar way, I was told.
She witnessed Catia improving in many ways under Chavez. The public schools which had nothing before now had more teachers, computers, even a physical education program. There was also now a clinic and hospital near their house where before there was a prison. Finally I had found someone who could steer clear of rhetoric and supported the government because of clear examples that affected her and her family directly. Ideology had nothing to do with it, or if it did she kept it to herself. She wanted a better life for her and her family and Chavez offered improvements whereas before she was not even included in the political process. Punto. No pero, sin embargo, imperialismo or any other ways of complicating a beautifully simple argument. Regardless of enthusiastic support by activists and denial by the middle and upper classes, here was living proof that the lives of the underprivileged were really improving, poco a poco, under the current government.
Despite my oppressive 8 pm curfew, to my surprise one evening no one in the family screamed or tackled me, in fact no one seemed to notice, when Gabriel invited me to hang out with the neighborhood kids and I accepted. That is, I went out after 8 (oh no!) only to hang out in the street (whyyy??) with a group of kids ranging in ages from about 7 to 16 (death-wish). I still don’t really understand why such young kids were left free to wander the streets at night while most nights I strained to peek out my barred windows in hopes of seeing first hand the danger that confined me indoors. These kids, mostly cousins or siblings of Gabriel’s girlfriend were fearless. They played around in the dark, decrepit streets of Catia like I imagined white children from my parent’s generation did throughout the suburbs of America in the 50’s. Neighborhood kids hauling around the Red Radio Flyer and going on daily adventures (though probably not at night) was commonplace back then. Now parents in the U.S. won’t even let their kids walk to school alone. I had sort of assumed that this was a worldwide phenomenon, so to see seven-year-olds playing tag at ten o’clock at night in a neighborhood deemed too dangerous for me to even walk around in past sundown made me feel a little silly.
The Catia gang may have lacked the Red Flyer, but they certainly didn’t lack a sense of adventure. The group started with about five and grew to about twelve throughout the evening, as more and more cousins seemed to appear. We eventually left our hangout under a dim lamp post in search of…more cousins. Following Gabriel, we headed for another part of Catia. I played crossing guard for the kids while they carelessly dashed across the freeway. Passing countless darkened auto repair shops, I tagged along with the group until we reached the house of another cousin. In a tiny two-room house behind a repair shop, I was introduced to three cousins, mom, dad, and grandma who all apparently lived in this tiny space. Though they didn’t seem particularly interested, I felt it necessary to explain who I was and why I was hanging out with this group teenagers and preteens. While I’m quite certain I was the only gringo to have stepped foot in their house, the family acted very natural, like this was a normal occurrence or that I too lived on the other side of the freeway. Once the new cousins were recruited, the group decided to head back for the lamp post. So we crossed back over the freeway, past the heaps of rubble and trash to the comfort of the dim flickering lamp post. We chatted for a while longer, which mostly consisted of the younger kids asking me questions about popular pop songs from High School Musical, before everyone decided to call it a night right before midnight. Just like that. No parents dragging their kids inside or yelling for them to get off the street. The kids knew. It was bedtime.
I enjoy a little adventure as much as the next man. At the same time I consider myself relatively sensible. So when friends here in La Paz started telling us about an extreme adventure tour in bicycle down the subtlely named Death Road (Carretera de la Muerte) an hour outside of the city, I didn’t exactly jump at the opportunity. It seemed like a tourist gimmick, something Bolivians would never even consider while white tourists might plan their whole trip around it. Not to mention every tour agency in town (and there are hundreds, primarily on one street) sells the exact same trip with varying prices and quality of equipment. Caitlin wasn’t too thrilled about the prospect of an all-day downhill mountain biking tour starting in the mountains and ending in the jungle, passing through the “world’s most dangerous road”. The road received this prestigious title when it was revealed that more people died in car accidents on this road each year than anywhere else in the world. That is, until they built a new road a few years ago for car traffic and the old road became somewhat of a tourist novelty. Despite the now minimal car congestion, the road kept “death” in its name for good reason. We heard stories of tourists losing control of their bikes and flying over the edge of the steep cliffs or of plowing into passing trucks. Needless to say we were warned. So when recounting the following story about “almost” dying on the “death road”, one common reaction is, “well, what did you expect?” This, in spite of the fact that thousands of tourists do the trip every year without any problems and in spite of the fact that our experience occurred on the drive home. After the trip had ended. The “almost dying” story, in my mind, seems a bit like the “one that got away” fishing story. The climax is killed before the tale even begins. If you’re badly injured then that’s a horribly different story. That’s your climax. But if you walk away from near death with hardly a scratch, it can be confusing. “Wait, so you didn’t die?” “But you did not catch the fish?” People might feel like you wasted twenty minutes of their time telling a story with no ending. To avoid any of this confusion let me just say: we did not die.
Our hesitance to do the trip eventually gave way to our Bolivian friends insistence that we do it. Here the age old saying, “you get what you pay for” becomes relevant. We were not interested in paying a lot of money to do the trip. As far as we could tell, tour agencies offered the trip for anywhere from 30 to 60 dollars. Sixty dollars got you the world famous New Zealander-owned Gravity Tours, a name we couldn’t avoid hearing from gringos in La Paz while 30 bucks got you the same trip with a little less prestige and a lot more risk. At the time all I thought was “same trip half the price!” I’d have to be a sucker not to do it. Nonetheless we did a little research and settled on one of the 30 dollar agencies, a company that a friend of a friend had actually recommended. Still, being the cheapskates we are, before booking the trip we talked the agency into dropping the price if we skipped the otherwise included breakfast and lunch. 210 bolivianos per person. Not bad.
We showed up at the agency in the morning to find a huge 15 seater Dodge van waiting for us along with the manager/driver, two young guides, two Canadians, and a group of about eight young Irish men and women. The trip itself was a lot less noteworthy than what followed afterwards so I’ll make it easy and give some highlights in short declarative sentences.
–We had some hilarious banter with the Irish. The mountain bikes had disc brakes but were not well maintained. It was raining for the first half of the ride. We started at 12,000 feet in the mountains and ended in a jungle valley. The scenery was incredible. The road dropped off into sheer cliffs hundreds of feet down. One Irish kid almost went over the edge. Another’s brakes went out. I went really fast. Caitlin, not so much. It was all downhill. At the bottom we celebrated, next to a group from Gravity Tours. Great trip, half the price. In Coroico we went to a hotel. We took showers, ate lunch, and went swimming. It was hot.
It was at this point that the real “extreme” adventure began. We all crammed back into the van, still in swim trunks and flip flops, and began the 3 hour drive through the mountains back to La Paz. It started off innocently enough. Everyone was in high spirits and the Irish girls kept the group busy by telling geography riddles. We continued to joke and laugh through our first pit stop, a flat tire that the guides quickly changed on the side of the road. A half hour later we stopped for gas and soon after the problems started. The van had chugged along beautifully up to that point but suddenly, as the incline had increased and we had climbed higher into the mountains, its age started to show. The van was no doubt from the eighties but appeared well maintained. The van sputtered to a halt on the shoulder of the road and the driver and the guides did their best mechanic impersonation, trying to find the problem. Finding nothing, we started along again, sputtering and lurching, but still moving uphill. To me, it sounded like a problem with the clutch, like the driver just couldn’t find the right gear. We continued to joke in the back about how long it would take to get back to La Paz or if we ever would. We continued like this for maybe twenty minutes until the driver decided to try something else. These old vans have an access panel that you can take off from the inside and access the engine. It’s located right about where the radio is in a normal car, between the steering wheel and the glove compartment, beneath the dashboard. The guides took the panel off to see if they could see the problem. To us tourists in the back this was hysterical. Classic South American auto repair. While it struck the gringos as unusual at best, that our van was puttering along with an open panel revealing the engine, the Bolivians were unfazed. But they also didn’t find the problem.
We flagged down another van with a bike rack charging up the hill to see if they could help us. The other driver checked it out but seemed uncertain as to what was actually the problem. He gave us a water bottle full of gas and suggested we try putting it directly into the engine. This, I inferred afterwards because I didn’t actually hear the conversation. Half the group was outside stretching their legs while the other half sat in the van. We were high in the mountains now and as the sun got lower so did the temperature. Shorts and flip flops now seemed pretty silly. Before leaving, the two Canadians hopped in the other van because they had a bus to catch and were afraid of missing it in our dead van. This is significant for two reasons: one, they were sitting in the first row of seats in the van; and two, their backpacks were blocking the sliding door. It was at this moment that we realized that the sliding door had some sort of child safety mechanism and it was impossible to open from the inside, something we all noted but secretly prayed would not become an issue.
Our driver put the panel back on and we continued for maybe 5 minutes without problems before the lurching and sputtering started up again. The guides decided to take back off the panel, and we all just shook our heads in the back. The situation was becoming less comical and more irritating. We could actually see sparks in the engine from our seats in the back. The guides started pouring gas directly into the engine, hoping it just needed to catch. The gas wasn’t helping. We pulled to the side once again and while the guides worked with the engine, the two Irish girls waited outside. They were clearly upset and let everyone know that they felt unsafe. After a few minutes, the driver assured them that the van was fixed and yelled at them to get back in. Reluctantly, the girls went back to their seats.
It was at this point I remember thinking to myself, “what if something does happen?” None of the windows opened more than just a crack at the bottom. Even though the door wouldn’t open from the inside, it really was the only way out. I envisioned myself jumping over seats and out the window. I convinced myself I could do it. Caitlin and I were seated in the second-to-last row. We all sat in silence in the van. The sun had just gone down and it was dark. Everyone just wanted to be back in La Paz, not watching our guides pour gasoline directly into the van engine from the passenger seat of this death trap. Had we really paid money for this?, I remember wondering.
And then it happened. The van was lurching again and the driver pulled over to the shoulder yet another time. He turned off the ignition and instantaneously, with the “whoosh” sound a gas stove makes when it is finally lit, a fire ball shot out of the open engine panel and completely engulfed the van. I remember hearing screaming, the van felt like an echo chamber for the screams and yells of 13 people. But the rest is a little hazy. They say that adrenaline takes over in a situation like that but I never realized just how out of body, out of your own control that would feel. Time stopped. We could have been hours, minutes, seconds trapped in the van. And then I blinked and I was outside, shivering, watching the van in flames. From what I can piece together with the help of Caitlin and the Irish, the van was on fire for a few minutes (it didn’t explode but we were all sure it would) and everyone escaped in about thirty seconds, maybe a minute. After the initial “Backdraft”-esque fire bomb I have a clear image in my mind of the two guides and driver on fire, trying to put themselves out. I remember because I remember thinking “why don’t they get out? What is taking so long?” I watched the fire creep closer and closer to the back of the van, ducking behind a seat as I waited for someone to get the door open. When they finally did, I managed to leap through the fire and stumble out the side door. I was fully expecting to catch on fire so it was a complete surprise to find that only my hair was burned and I had no need to roll on the ground. It never occurred to me to consider getting out another way. I think when I fantasized minutes before the fire my escape I convinced myself the door was the only way. Thus, I was confused and in disbelief to see Caitlin and others appear from the opposite side of the van as we all ran from the flames, expecting to see an explosion.
Caitlin escaped in an entirely different, more exciting and much more painful way. After the fire bomb she leapt into the last row of seats, right into the lap of an Irish guy named Rob. He later reported that she yelled, “I’m going to die!” and started banging on the back window with her fists, trying to break the glass. Rob must have been thinking more clearly and, seeing the futility in Caitlin’s punching, he flipped onto his back and started kicking the window. Despite wearing flip flops, he managed to kick out the glass after three tries, a point his buddies later teased him about (c’mon man, it took you 3 tries!), and he then followed his legs out the window. Caitlin immediately followed him and did a headfirst superman dive out after. She hit the ground hard and must have absorbed most of the broken glass because the other two guys who followed her out the window hardly had a scratch, including one without shoes.
By some divine intervention a group of Canadian evangelical missionaries were on a motorcycle tour and happened to be right behind us on the road. 3 motorcycles, 1 SUV, 5 guys who spoke perfect English, and they took immediate action. It was surreal. One second, fire. Another second, running from an impending explosion. And the next, a group of motorcyclists speaking English with American accents taking out medical kits and examining Caitlin’s wounds with the headlights of their motorcycles, on a deserted Bolivian road in the Andes. It turned out two of the missionaries were trained EMTs and they worked like professional doctors, immediately wrapping Caitlin in a blanket, rubbing her shoulders, asking her questions and meticulously removing glass from her hands, side, feet and legs. They cleaned her wounds and set to work on Rob. He discovered that in breaking the window he had sliced his thigh pretty badly on the glass. Considering what had happened, the injuries weren’t bad. Only from jumping out the window barefoot.
The driver and the guides seemed to be in shock. The strange only got stranger. An ambulance passed by (amazing response time for the U.S., no less Bolivia!), slowed down to check out the burning van. . . .and then continued up the road. No one could believe it. We were all standing in the freezing cold in shorts and sandals watching our ride to the hospital fade in the distance. The fire in the van eventually went out on its own, without an explosion. Everyone managed to save their backpacks and clothes. The missionaries determined that both Rob and Caitlin needed to go immediately to the hospital for stitches. The group dissolved. Most people hitched rides but the missionaries offered to give Caitlin and me a ride to the hospital. We all agreed with our van driver to meet at the hospital in La Paz. The missionaries broke every negative stereotype of evangelicals we have in the U.S. They were young, liberal, smart, funny (a motorcycle gang, for God’s sake). Essentially everything I thought evangelicals weren’t. They left us in a cab in La Paz and vowed to stay in touch (they did). No one else from our group showed up at the hospital. Caitlin got twelve stitches in her hand, foot and side and I could hear her screaming and crying from the waiting room. The ER admitted her immediately, treated her right away, gave her painkillers, cleaned and stitched her up, and in the end we paid 10 dollars, not including the prescriptions.
Over the next couple of days, we pieced together the events of the night and went to check on our new Irish friends and the folks from the agency. Rob, it turned out, had not gone to the hospital because he had decided to go back to his hostal and get really drunk instead. When I saw him the next evening he still hadn’t been to the ER and was afraid his cut was starting to heal. Sure enough, doctors had to reopen the wound before they stitched it up. I discovered that Jay, an enormous Irishman who was sitting in the front row had used the access panel as a shield from the fire. He knew the door wouldn’t open from the inside so he headbutted the window and opened it enough so that he could reach his hand out and open it from the outside. The two Irish girls had anticipated the fire and jumped out with their bags packed and ready to go. One girl had a burn on her arm from the melted ceiling and the other had holes in her rain jacket. One Irish guy leapt from the second row all the way to the back and jumped out the window while another managed to get out the door from all the way in the back. He later joked (he was from Northern Ireland) that he was so used to car bombs that when the van didn’t blow he didn’t know what to do. Everyone was upset and blamed the driver/manager for the accident.
I went back to the agency the next day to see if I could get an apology and our medical bills reimbursed. The girl working was more shaken up than I was and said that the driver and one guide were still in the hospital. This would later turn out to be a lie. She paid the one medical bill and said I should come back and talk with the manager about what to do next. The next day she gave the Irish group 3000 bolivanos between 5 of them and they signed a form saying they wouldn’t pursue the matter legally. They were all leaving town so to them it didn’t matter. Our situation was a little different in that Caitlin couldn’t walk. At all. The accident would put her on crutches for the next three weeks and the situation only got more complicated. The agency refused to pay our expenses (the manager eventually claimed that there were only chispas (sparks) no fire and we were forced to get a lawyer. Being thrust into the middle of the Bolivian legal system was almost worse than the accident. But this is another story entirely. (To be continued)
In the words of Irish Rob, “This gives a whole new meaning to ‘get the hell out of Dodge’!”
Backpacks full of ham, cheese, bread, and various other less noteworthy backpacking equipment, the four of us set out for Pico Pan de Azucàr in the Venezuelan Andes. Angelik (French girl), Ivan (Greek guy), Caitlin and I (silly Americans). We left from the town of La Culata, hiking into Parque Nacional Sierra La Culata, with the goal of summiting Pico Pan de Azucàr at 4700 meters. The ascent began quickly. The first steep climb sucked the air out of my lungs and slowed down the girls significantly, but eventually I found my rhythm and continued the hike uphill with only minor difficulty. The landscape was spectacular and our solitude was interrupted only when we passed a large group of firemen from Mêrida in training and a trio of local cow herders having lunch. We decided to join the herders in their lunch break at a primitive shelter known as El Refugio. As I scarfed down my ham and cheese sandwich, I watched in horror as Caitlin, after smelling the cheese and making the gagging face, fed hers to the herders dogs and Ivan followed suit. I was comforted by the fact that Angelik gobbled down her entire sandwich, commenting that it reminded her of the cheese in France. We marched on to our campsite at the base of the peak, passing through a green fertile valley filled with wild horses as we followed a small stream. We arrived at the basecamp and found the small stream connected to a waterfall rushing down from the mountain wall. The temperature began to drop rapidly and we quickly set up our tents. I had spent the last leg of the hike after lunch farting up a storm so I took this opportunity to relieve myself behind a rock. It didn’t help. My stomach began to cramp up violently and we all decided it might be best to rest before we started cooking dinner. When I lay down I found I had a headache to go along with the stomach cramps. A nap seemed like the best solution and I drifted to sleep with Caitlin at my side. I awoke to find Caitlin yelling at one of the wild horses who had decided our food was up for grabs. The horse managed to rip through the plastic and eat one of our packages of nasty cheese, before Caitlin scared it off. While the others started to prepare dinner, I lay in the tent, unable to shake my headache. Eventually it got too painful to bear. I stumbled out of the tent and doubled over, vomiting the remnants of my sandwich. Unsure whether it was the sandwich or the altitude I tried unsuccessfully to eat some pasta. After three bites of pasta and two sips of tea, I threw up again. This time, thanks to the detective skills of Ivan, we discovered I was only ralphing up bread. By this point the temperature had dropped to what could only be somewhere between 0 and 5 degrees celsius. I curled upin my sleeping bag wearing almost every layer of clothing I had brought and still shivering. Using a nalgene filled with hot water to soothe and warm my belly, I spent the night tossing and turning.
I awoke weak and groggy, having slept maybe a couple hours in total. But the nausea was gone and more signs were pointing toward food poisoning, not altitude sickness. Maybe a combination of the two. “Bad cheese, when eaten at a certain altitude causes explosive diarrhea and vomiting”, I imagined myself explaining to friends and family back home. In any case, though still feeling weak, I felt I should try and summit the peak. After all I had come all this way. We left our packs at the bottom, bringing only water and warm clothes with us, but as we started climbing I felt I was still weighed down by my pack. Ascending the steep climb to the base of the peak, I struggled to take deep breathes and felt like a walking zombie. Hoping to shorten the climb, Ivan led us through a steep canyon off the trail. We passed through forests of frailejons, an odd cactus-like plant that could grow taller than people and grew only at high elevations. It felt like we were passing through a Martian jungle, a scene right out of Red Planet. Eventually we reached a plateau and realized that our shortcut had set us up for a half mile vertical climb to reach the ridge of the peak. Angelik was having terrible stomach cramps at this point, saying she also felt on the verge of throwing up, and was sure she couldn’t go on. We decided that we would meet back on the ridge.
The climb felt like a ninety degree incline, and the sand-like terrain did not help matters. It felt like we were marching up a vertical sand dune. I reached the ridge, out of breathe, but in awe of the landscape. It was clear where the peak’s name, Pan de Azucâr, had come from. The other side of the ridge was a soft, sandy mountain like a mound of sugar. I looked back down to see the red speck of Angelik collapsed on the side of the mountain. The remaining hike to the peak was not difficult and required just a little climbing over jagged rocks. Most disconcerting was just the feeling of being completely exposed on the ridge, like the wind could blow us down either side of the mountain at any moment. Like most backpacking trips, the big payoff was the breathtaking view from the peak and the feeling that we were completely alone for miles. Photos never do spectacular views like this in the mountains justice and words really can’t either. As I gazed between jagged mountain peaks in the distance, lakes, and valleys, the struggle to make it here faded in my memory and seemed inconsequential. This feeling has always drawn me back to the mountains and back-country again and again: the feeling of discovering a lost landscape. A moment in time where nature seems to be showing off her beauty just for my friends and I. I tipped my cap to her and we started our descent. We savored the fruits of our labor for all of fifteen minutes before time and the wind told us it was time to go. The weather was starting to turn sour and by the time we reached Angelik and the ridge my hands were numb from the cold. Getting down the peak was actually trickier than getting up, although watching Ivan run down so as not to lose his momentum, you never would have guessed it. Angelik admitted that she was having diarrhea the same color as the cheese from the day before. I wondered if the horse from the previous evening was having the same problem. On our hike back she had to stop twice more and we all agreed that it must have been the cheese. Angelik and I were the only ones (besides the horse) who had eaten it and the only ones who got sick. While this may be a convenient way of blaming food and not altitude, it seems the most logical in my mind. We hiked along tired, but in good spirits, planning our verbal assault on the supermarket that sold us the funky cheese (in the end we settled on warning the cashier). All and all, despite the best efforts of the alti-cheese, 75 percent of the group defeated Pico Pan de Azucàr. That’s no “A” but, hey, at least we passed.
I have recently learned of a phenomenon amongst male travelers that, while in no way new or surprising, involved a level of detail I was not prepared for. In what can only be described as one of the more surreal conversations I’ve had in recent memory, two Canadian travelers explained their real motivation for traveling the world: collecting flags.
Let me preface this with a little background, set the mood so to speak. I was in a small fishing town in Colombia with my then current travel buddy Keefe. This town of Taganga was completely run over with gringo backpackers, something we weren’t exactly prepared for. Venezuela may have prepared me for a number of things, but because of its lack of foreign tourists, it certainly did not hint at the hordes of backpackers following the gringo route through South America. Colombia was my first stop outside of Venezuela and its Caribbean coast was quite a surprise. I went from studying Spanish, trying to stay afloat in Venezuela to translating and negotiating boat prices for clueless backpackers in a mere 24 hours. Thus, three days after crossing the border from Venezuela to Colombia, Keefe and I found ourselves eating dinner with two Canadian travelers, Rob and Mike. Rob was 31 and was actually living in London, about to start business school. Mike (26) had been traveling the world for the last 4 years and was now working as a travel guide writer in Central and South America. The conversation turned to flagging when Mike casually mentioned he’d gotten his Colombian flag a long time ago. It was like he’d given Rob their fraternity handshake. Rob’s eyes lit up and he explained in graphic detail how he’d gotten his Colombian flag the week before. It was only then I understood that collecting flags had nothing to do with traveling but with sleeping with women from as many countries as possible. It turns out the rules are simple. The goal is to get as many flags as possible by sleeping with women before (one presumes) old age or death. They both agreed that you can’t pay and can’t sleep with men. A small debate ensued about the question of quantity versus quality but it was agreed that quality was important. This set Mike off. He eagerly told us about a friend of his known in their social circle as “The Legend”. “The Legend” is from New Zealand but Mike met him living in Thailand. While only in his late twenties, Mike told us “The Legend” had collected 43 flags up to the last time he had talked to him. As Mike started to explain the number is most certainly higher now, Rob interrupted to say he had 37 flags. “Wow, really?”, Mike said. You could see the admiration in his eyes. “I only have 17 but you’ve got 5 years on me”, Mike defended himself, visibly embarrassed. Keefe and I kept quiet. I remembered a different flag game I had played with friends in 5th grade where we compared all the states we had been to in the U.S. and competed to see who had the most. There were some disturbing similarities between the two “games”.
Mike continued with stories about “The Legend” who he also described as a “prolific shagger”. You can’t make this stuff up. Mike told us of a night in Thailand where “The Legend” went home with a lady-boy from a club because “you don’t have to work for it and you get way better blow-jobs”. Another night “The Legend” spent the evening with a hideous girl because he found out she was from Turkmenistan. Although “The Legend” was seeming more desperate and persistent than legendary from these stories, the tales helped segway the two travelers into various discussions about which flags are most difficult to obtain, which countries have the ugliest and prettiest girls, gringo hunters, and of course, craziest places to have sex. Mike thought he had the story of the meal when he bragged he had had sex in a Buddhist temple in Thailand, but Rob topped him again with a boast that he had taken a girl’s anal virginity in a Polish convent. Rob had a thing for Eastern Europeans while Mike preferred the Colombians. They both agreed that North Americans were the ugliest women.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Mike said. “You can always find beautiful women in any city. The question is how many.” According to these two world travelers the numbers are not good in North America. Rob postulated that it all came back to how ugly English women are. The Vikings stole all the beautiful women from England (explaining why Northern Europeans and Scandinavians are so good looking), leaving a country full of plain-janes. These beastly Brits brought ugliness with them to North America and it stuck. Mike started to say something about racial mixing, caught himself, and thought better of it. While at first the promise of a discussion about the purity of race made me cringe, I eventually found Rob’s historical explanation amusing.
When the two flaggers inevitably found themselves debating whether Mongolians are hot, I couldn´t help but imagine a pair of Mongolian women debating the ugliness of Canadians. For the record, Mike looks like a poor man´s Adam Sandler, and Rob could easily be a sit-in for an anonymous frat guy at Michigan State. The guys traded a few more stories about gringo hunters (local women who deliberately go after gringo travelers- apparently very common in Colombia) before Mike got so excited he laid it all out.
“Travel writing just pays for my real passion, which is sleeping with women.” Rob clearly had the same passion. And they certainly didn’t lack conviction or foresight. They took their passions seriously.
There are probably numerous conclusions one could draw from this conversation, societal flaws it highlights, but I will save my judgements for the inevitable venereal diseases that will draw their own conclusions of these guys. Really the conversation highlights the numerous single male travelers we met in Colombia in particular, but really all over South America, who have made it painfully clear in the first two minutes of conversation that they are not traveling so much as looking for women. This may be the lighter side of sex tourism in south America, steering away from child prostitution and instead focusing on consensual flag collecting. Could be worse, but it also could be much, much better.
· “Venezuela is the country where you can live comfortably and work the least.”
-Brazilian store owner in Puerto Colombia when asked why he had moved to Venezuela and was living in a small beach town.
· “Chavez is the master of the universe.”
-Local fisherman in Puerto Colombia not hiding his love for Chavez at the local fisherman´s consejo comunal. Chavez has implemented regulations protecting local fisherman by prohibiting commercial fisherman from fishing in local waters.
· After hiking the Camino de los Españoles near Coro with Eric, we stayed in a small posada at the end of the trail. We walked into town in search of food and found instead a local rodeo event called toros coleados. Hundreds of people, many coming from out of town drank themselves silly while enjoying one of the most bizarre events I have ever seen. I can’t say I’ve ever been to the rodeo in the U.S. so its possible this is an integral part of American rodeo as well but I doubt it. The competition works like this: four cowboys mount horses and wait at the end of a 400 hundred meter enclosed pen for a bull to be released through a little door. The object of the competition is to trip the bull by yanking its tail and throwing it to the ground. However you only score points when all four hoofs come off the ground. You can imagine the mayhem that ensues from such a simple yet insane task. The crowd, meanwhile, depending on how many beers they’ve had, try to get as close to the action without being mauled. People sit on the fence or jump in the pen and follow the bull and horses from end to end of the pen. When the round ends, the drunkest of the crowd take it upon themselves to rope up the bull and bring it to its cage outside the pen. Techniques include screaming at the bull, throwing beer cans at it, whipping it with a stick, grabbing its horns, yanking its tail, etc. The process can be painfully slow and predictable. The bull takes the abuse up to a certain point where someone pushes him over the edge and he goes berserk, trying to maul everyone and everything near him. He then calms down and the process starts over. People were very passionate, especially as inebriation levels rose. Tempers flared. Fights broke out over missed calls, points awarded to the wrong cowboy, a missed tail takedown. There was even one woman competetor, spicing up an event that would otherwise have appeared to be an all boys club. All the while an announcer adds excitement to the spectacle, shouting “Toro, toro, toro!”, and things like “El toro dice que no!” Eventually the power went out (luckily while the bulls were locked up) and despite organizers making it clear that the rodeo would continue, we had had enough. No serious injuries, only a few tears and a lot of emotion.
· On our way to Ciudad Bolivar from Valencia we left our bags in the office of the bus company at the terminal and killed time in the local mall. When we came back to the office, no one was there but the lights were still on. Suddenly, a guy with a big broom ran over. “A la orden” (at your service). He stuck the broom, brush first, in through the tiny cashiers window. We had no idea what he was doing. It seemed like he was just putting the broom back in the office. He didn’t drop the broom though. As he stood there shaking the broom in the direction of the door we realized he was trying to reach the door handle from the inside. He eventually succeeded and we grabbed our bags, content in knowing that that broom kept our bags safe. High tech Venezuelan security in the bus terminal.
· Rumor or truth? At this point I could definitely believe it.
“In some small pueblitos (towns) near Merida, there are bridges painted blue for the opposition and red for Chávez, and many campesinos will only cross one of the bridges.”
-As told to us by Angelik, a French friend who was working with the local communities. In reality we’ve found that almost all campesinos and farmers we’ve met have supported the government but Merida is the base of the opposition, so who knows?
·The other day I went to visit our friend Corina in her office in Caracas, accompanied by her nephew Gabriel and his girlfriend. She works on the ninth floor of a large office buildng. When we arrived only one of the three elevators was working. We waited as other people got off the elevator at their various floors. When we reached the ninth floor, the elevator door started to open, but instead the left side of the door slipped off its track and just kind of fell backwards, leaving a gap at the top between the two doors and a sliver of space at the bottom. Elevators are weird places to begin with, forced awkward social interaction and when something goes wrong nobody knows what to do. This was no different. Everyone just glanced at the other passengers out of the corner of their eyes and stared at the door. Finally, Gabriel spoke up and announced this was our stop. We tried opening the doors wider to no avail and eventually maneuvered ourselves out of the elevator through the crack. I looked back in to see a group of women preparing to climb out themselves, and then, on closer inspection, a giant whale of a man standing in the back. I envisioned the fire department coming with the jaws of life to get this guy out. Instead, once the women had exited, Signor Balooga wedged himself into the gap between the doors, and after a little struggle aligned his back on one side and his belly on the other. With one quick, smooth pelvic thrust he slammed his gut into the broken door. Immediately the door shot back and opened wide, still off its track but open. He cooly strolled out and began to climb the stairs. Here I had imagined an embarassed sweaty gordo panicking and he instead acted like the elevator repair man. I could only shake my head and smile.
· Last Sunday Caracas celebrated Dia de Los Niños. I accompanied our friends Corina and Herman as they took their one year old daughter Catalina to the botanical garden. Their nephews Gabriel and Israel came along as wel. It was a fun day spent mostly following Catalina as she wandered around. On our way back to the house we passed by the Sabana Grande Boulevard. As we approached the boulevard we sat in traffic and watched the hordes of people swarming the streets. Suddenly, out of nowhere, one guy comes sprinting around the corner, clearly shaken up. He continues running past our car, down the street, followed by a family, and then a group of young teenagers, and then another family, three women, and soon the whole block was filled with people running as fast as they could away from the direction we were heading. As terrified and worried as everyone looked, no one seemed to know what was going on or why they were running. From the drivers side window, Herman asked people why they were sprinting away and between “no sé”s, someone admitted they heard someone had a gun. Again, no one seemed to have actually seen anything themselves. But in any case the racing crowd increased, whizzing past our stopped car. I couldn’t see where they were all heading, just away from the main boulevard. I turned my head forward just in time to see the driver in the car in front of us jump out of his car and sprint full speed into a garage close by. Now I got nervous. Maybe he saw something we couldn’t. I cautiously got out of the car and walked to the boulevard to see if we could fiure out what was going on. Before we could really see anything, Herman beckoned us back to the car. By now people had reduced their speed to a fast walk, constantly glancing over their shoulders back at the boulevard. Herman sat on his horn, not realizing that the driver from the car in front had taken off. We waited 10 minutes with no sign of the guy, now feeling trapped if something was actually going on. Just as Herman got out of the car to go look for a police officer or call a tow truck, the guy appeared out of the shadows of the garage and hopped back in his car. He was really shaken up and refused to drive on to the boulevard, so eventually we convinced him to pull over so we could pass by. Herman was visibly pissed by now, just trying to drive out of the “danger zone” but refusing to turn around. He was convinced that nothing had actually happened and explained to us that there is a group in Caracas that performs these stunts where they get large crowds of people hysterical that someone has a gun and take off running. He compared it to a stampede of animals, where the animals have no idea why they are running, just that they are scared. The analogy seemd appropritae in this case. But I couldn’t help but wonder if, in fact, caraqueños or Venezuelans have more to be afraid off. There is certainly a history of violance in the country, and depending on who you talk to, things are only getting worse today. Security, or insecurity rather, is the most pressing concern of Venezuelans today. Maybe this human stampede was just a by product of the hysterical paranoia around violence, warranted but non sensical, in this country. I know, I for one, felt like the threat was real, whereas in San Francisco, I may have viewed a similar situation with more skepticism. When we finally passed the Sabana Grande Boulevard, the street was packed as usual, with no sign of danger or that someone with a gun had passed through for that matter. We drove on to the house and moments later had forgotten the incident altogethr. The world returned from hysteria just as quickly as it left.
At the end of August we stayed in Cuenca, Ecuador for a week. We´d heard great things and sure enough it was a quaint, old colonial town with all the buildings beautifully kept. Aparently many people, particularly men, have moved from Cuenca to the U.S. to find work. This means that a lot of money has been sent back to families in Cuenca, which has created a large middle-class. It was surprising to find big, new houses sprawling out from the city into suburbs that looked like ones you might see in Orinda, California. The city center was relaxed and we felt safe walking around at night, which since leaving Caracas I have now appreciated on a whole new level.
Cajas National Park is only an hour outside cuenca and has about 5 main backpacking trails through spectacular mountiains. We did a backpacking trip there for 3 days and it was amazing. Incredible mountians, lakes and waterfalls. An unbelieveable landscape. The bus dropped us at the ranger station on the side of the road, which was almost at 4000 meters (12,000ft). Since we were starting our hike later than we had hoped we were glad to feel reassured by the rangers that the trails would be clearly marked, it was only a 3 hour hike to our first night´s campground, etc. Jake thought about switching the trail we´d chosen because it sounded almost too easy. But by the time we arrived where we would camp the first night we were both relieved he hadn´t pushed for a more difficult hike.
Nothing about what the rangers said, except that the trail technically existed, was true. Of course this has tended to be a trend in. It´s a different culture, not restrained by punctuality, or a false sense that accurate information will be provided when you ask people for it. I can´t say it´s any better or worse than what we´re used to, although I can say it means everything takes more time and you must put your creativity to use more often (coming up with alternatives, finding your own way, etc.). Silly we were to think that National Park Rangers would be any different, though the issue of safety seems to be big reason to try to give information with at least a bit more accuracy.
We were told to walk along the highway for 3 kilometers where we´d find our trailhead. We had a topographical map and assumed that meant we were fine. Later we would realize the free topographical map the park provided wasn´t quite as detailed as we´d hoped. It took us about 2 or 3 hours to find the correct trailhead, after first taking a trail that had a HUGE sign in front of it that read “Lago Largo,” the lake we were headed towards. Unfortunately this trail ultimately lead nowhere. When we returned we walked right past the real trailhead since the ony sign it had was a “Do not enter” one. Luckily we hitchhiked back with someone who dropped us off at the trailhead where the misleading sign was placed, assuring us that it was the trail we wanted. We took a leap of faith, figuring that the locals must know the area well. Sure enough he was right.
Needless to say we had quite an adventure constantly losing the path and having to recreate one until we found it again. It had rained the day before we went so a lot of the path was flooded with water. We spent the majority of the time dodging sinking mud and puddles of water by trying to find small, hard mounds of grass to step on, which were scattered throughout the swampy crossings. It was surely more exciting than your normal, well defined path. Thank god I had brought my compass! Otherwise we would have had a little trouble.
Our first night was zero degrees celcius (32 degrees F) and below. The next morning we awoke to a beautiful clear day, the sun melting the white ice that had covered everything during the night. As we packed up to leave, just as we would the next day, we figured that day´s hike would be far easier than the day before. But somehow it only managed to get more difficult. Our second day consisted of us navigating our own path with the compass, looking every so often to see if we might be passing the lakes that were drawn on our map. Constantly checking in with one another, our comments were more or less like this: “Look, this lake kinda has the same shape as the one on the map.” “Is that the trail or an animal path?” “I can´t tell if this lake is too small to be on this map or…” “The trail must continue just over there.”
Our third day, which we were positive would be the easiest, ended up being possibly the most difficult hike either of us have ever done. Not so much for distance or extreme uphill challenges, but actually the oposite. First we had to wrap around a huge lake, which had the most sketchy trails along side of it, part of which was through a forest. We found ourselves climbing over and under fallen trees, tree branches, and massive roots, hanging on for dear life. The trail was narrow and hung over the lake. At one point Jake placed his foot on what looked like solid ground but fell through shrub and almost fell in! I just kept thinking how glad I am that I´m a very capable person. Otherwise, I would have been screwed. I know a lot of people who would have been too scared to do the hike. The rangers didn´t really warn us that we´d be going on such a difficult hike. It was like a path you would create yourself with a topographical map, just blazing your own trail, except it WAS the trail. Very bizzare. But very adventurous.
The final stretch was an old Incan trail that traversed down from somwhere close to 4000 meters to between 2000 and 3000 meters. We descended between three and four thousand feet into a beautiful green canyon, sliding on our butts trying not to fall down slippery rocks, walking through a creek, etc. All we knew was it was better to be going down. That was for sure. And it was topped off by my first ever encounter with a plant similar to stinging nettle. Man did that hurt! The whole hike wasn´t too long, probably between 18 km and 22 km (11 – 13 miles). All in all it was definitely a challenge but one of the most beautiful landscapes we´ve hiked through.