Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Just the Beginning

Written by Lynn

So we´ve been on the road now for just over a week and I´m getting a bit of grief for slacking on not updating the website. My only excuse is that we´ve been pretty busy travelling. Things got off to a bad start when I realize that there was a mix up in our tickets and that we were due to land in London 45 minutes before we were supposed to leave for Madrid. For those of you who have had to endure the line ups at customs in Heathrow, you know that this is a next to impossible feat. So with a lot of phone calls, untold amounts of stress on my part and a bit more money we rearranged things to leave a day early. The flight from JFK to London on India Airlines was pretty hellish, hot and stuffy and we were crammed in some very small seats in the centre of a huge plane FULL of people. By the time we got to Heathrow we were dying for a bed and a shower and anxious enough for this to pay a premium price for a hotel, blowing our budget out of the water on day 1. But we stayed in a beautiful old mansion in a quaint hamlet called Stanwell, and walked around to see the local church and parks.
The next day, bright and early, we were on the move again, this time off to Madrid, Spain. There we got caught the metro down town and got a room at a nice central hostel. Since we were there by lunch, we had lots of time to walk around and take in the sites, have some excellent coffee while sitting at a cafe and figure out that speaking Spanish was more Gilles´ forte than mine. The people and the buildings in this city are all equally beautiful.

The following day we finally got our plane to Venezuela. Now a slight pause in the story here, because I´m sure that those of you who are paying attention realize that within a span of about 96 hours we hit the following cities - Toronto, New York, London, Madrid, Caracas. And the question we are getting over and over is ¨what the hell............¨ As it turns out, there is a booming trade in round the world trips in the UK as more people there take gap years than those of us in North America. As a result, their travel agents are much more knowledgable and the tickets considerably less expensive. Enough so that it made financial sense for us to do it this way, though in retrospect, it was a tough way to start an exciting journey. We could have spent more time in Europe, but were pretty anxious to get to South America (and there was no way to stay on budget in London and Madrid).

Back to Venezuela. Our plane was delayed from Madrid by 3 hours, though the airline was kind enough to give a great free lunch to everyone who was inconvenienced (oh, if only we had known then how fondly we would remember the excellent roasted chicken.....) and the airport itself is an architectual marvel, so it wasn´t so bad. It did, however, put us in at Caracas well after dark. For those of you who don´t know, Caracas is not the safest place, even in the day. So when we landed, we teamed up with a couple of girls from England so that we could afford a taxi to a down town hotel, which cost a staggering $50US (though we did haggle them down from 150,000 bolivars, about $75US). After such a long day at the airport, in combination with a 9 hour flight, it was pretty much dinner and a beer, then to bed.
The next day, rather than spend any time in Caracas, we had a plan to get out to the beaches along the Eastern coast of Venezuela. A 5 hour bus ride in a beautiful, air conditioned bus with reclining seats (I´m serious here, the buses in Venezuela are completely luxurious) we arrived in Puerto la Cruz, a seaside town. From there it was a 1 hour ride in a ¨por puestos¨(a small, over crowded mini van that costs about $0.50) to the tiny village of Sante Fe where we rented a room on the beach. Here we met a few girls on solo treks through South America, the one girl from Taiwan doing it with no ability to speak Spanish at all (Spanish is key here in Venezuela as almost no one speaks any english. Fortunately Gilles seems to have a bit of a gift with languages and picked up basic communications skills within a few days). We didn´t stay long in Sante Fe for a few reasons. It was a much more dangerous town than we had been led to believe, with lots of muggings and crimes against tourists, but it was also very hot, and kind of boring since it was low season and not much was operating. Instead we went back into Puerto la Cruz where Gilles was in seventh heaven watching the massive demonstrations in support of Hugo Chavez, who is up for re-election December 3, 2006. There was a monster rally with thousands of supporters just outside our hotel on the Saturday night that went until well into the wee hours. We didn´t stay up late as we were planning on getting back onto the bus again the next day to go to a town recommended by one of the other tourists we met called Merida.
Merida is a small university town on the western interior of Venezuela. It is in the mountains and close to the amazon basin. This is where we are now and enjoying it much more than the previous places in Venezuela we visited. A big difference is that in Puerto la Cruz and Sante Fe there is beer being sold 24 hours a day from sidewalks stalls, and it seems most of the men are drinking all day long. The streets in Puerto were covered with trash and you had to be careful walking around in sandals because of the broken glass from everyone tossing beer bottles from their car windows. Merida is clean, though the drivers here are just a free with their horns and car alarms go off at regular intervals all night long. We also managed to finally find a decent restaurant here, which makes us feel all warm and fuzzy towards the town as well. It should be noted that Venezuelan cuisine SUCKS! They eat a lot of something called empanadas here, which are like pasties with a shell made of corn, stuffed with various meats and deep fried. Sounds tasty enough, but we have yet to find any that are edible. We have also been subjected to moldy cheese danishes, over and under cooked arepas (fried corn bread) and burnt toast with rubbery scrambled eggs. It is bad enough that we are actually getting afraid to try something without a recommendation from a local. Happily we are in a hostel with kitchen facilities here in Merida and have been cooking for ourselves.
All in all, probably a little too much travelling without enough activity. Yesterday we took a long hike up into some mountains where we picked bananas and oranges off of the trees to eat, and also booked a tour for Los LLanos, which we are leaving on tomorrow. We will be staying at a local ranch and going on wildlife tours looking for capybaras, birds, alligators and hopefully (I think) even some anacondas. There´s been a promise of fishing for pirrhanas, and some horseback riding, all of which I am really looking forward to.

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