Tuesday, August 25, 2009

the bitter end

I must tell the truth and admit that I´m writing this entry largely to kill time and stay inside the air conditioned environment of an Internet cafe. You see, I´m unfortunately and unexpectedly having to wait for 9 hours in the bus terminal in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Anyone who has been to this bus station will understand the unfortunate part. The wait is unexpected because I thought I would be passing through here yesterday evening at about 7pm and swiftly getting on to a bus to the north. Instead we arrived today at 11.30am, having been stopped at the Colombian-Venezuelan border for about 16 hours due to blockades. Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's esteemed leader and South America's favourite shit-stirrer has been at it again. He started shooting his mouth off about Colombia in a press conference yesterday, angry about the cosy relationship Colombia is cultivating with his arch enemy, good old Uncle Sam and has threatened to cut all imports from the country. Naturally this stirred tempers in the border regions, where things are constantly tense anyway and the locals decided to set up road blockades (by which I mean random bits of trees strewn across the road, but enough to cause major disruption). So it was a night spent on a freezing bus for me (they jack up the air con really high here) followed by a bus change and a mile walk with my rucksack on my back across the border. Having got back on the bus and arrived in Maracaibo I find out that the only buses to my chosen destination are night buses departing at 10pm so I´m just going to have to suck it up and wait here for the day. Why not leave your bags in a locker and explore the city for the day instead, you say? Well, if it were any other country that´s what I´d do, definitely. Venezuela is a different kettle of fish however.
At the risk of alarming family and friends, Venezuela really isn´t the safest place for a lone female backpacker. It´s dangerous, and expensive; and I don´t which is worse at this point in my trip. Travellers find themselves in a Catch 22 situation here with regards to money and safety. Chavez, in his wisdom changed the country´s currency a couple of years back to the new Bolivar Fuerte. Fair enough. However, he then made the arrogant decision to set his own exchange rate for the currency, valuing is far too highly but locking all banking and business institutions into this exchange rate. The result is a huge black market in cash. If I were to go to the ATM and withdraw money I would get 1/3 of the value that I can get on the black market. The result is people carry money (US dollars mainly) into the country and change the money on the black market when they get here. The longer you stay, the more money you need. Everyone knows you´re carrying a large amount of cash with you and given backpackers are pretty easy to point out (they´re the ones with the er... backpack, stupid) you may as well be wearing a giant target around your neck. Now, this would be all well and fine if you felt that if something did happen, if you were robbed, there was a place to go to report the crime and a trustworthy police force to take a statement and give you a nice form for your insurance company. Not so. The Venezuelan police force are the most corrupt in South America (and the police in South America are very corrupt as a rule). In fact, you are equally as likely to be robbed by a cop as a thief. Taxi drivers too are pretty untrustworthy. Why the hell am I here then, you ask? Well, believe me I tried not to be, but my flight is out of Caracas on Saturday and there was no other way around it. I´m taking precautions and being careful but in general it is all very dodgy. This is the reason why I´m staying put in the bus station.

The time since the last blog entry has had its ups and downs. From Cartagena I went to the beautiful Playa Blanca on one of the Rosario islands and had a blissful few days; sunbathing, sleeping in a hammock, swimming in the tropical waters and eating lobster or fresh fish for dinner every night. From here I headed on to Santa Marta, base from which to do the Ciudad Perdida trek I was so looking forward to. By a very unfortunate coincidence however the reserve where the trail goes through is closed until the end of the month so that indigenous tribes can hold their religious ceremonies. Now I tried to console myself and not take things too personally, but I´m sure this whole "religious ceremonies" thing is one big lie. How long does a religious ceremony take for chrissakes? My theory is that they are harvesting the illegal coca plantations in the reserve and don´t want the gringos to see what´s going on. Anyways, not only did the news leave me bitterly disappointed but with a 6 day hole in my plans which I didn´t really know what to do with. I spent a day in Parque Nacional Tairona, hanging out with a few new mates and enjoying the beautiful beaches strewn with massive boulders. Fate stepped in and decided to fill my time for me, however, by gifting me with an almighty dose of (there´s no way around this) the scuts. I was laid up for 3 days in the hostel in Santa Marta, in 30+ degree heat, on a top bunk, miserable. The first night at about 3am I became convinced that I had swine flu, because my first symptoms were a fever, shivers and aches & pains. Then I decided that it was malaria, definitely malaria, and I was going to die, alone, unloved and with no Mammy to look after me in a shitty hostel in Colombia (I was getting a bit delirious at this point). The next morning the hostel owner told me to cop on, assured me it was just a tummy bug and gave me a course of strong antibiotics to clear it up. It worked. When I had recovered I moved out of Santa Marta to a fishing village turned backpacker hangout called Taganga for a few days change of scenery and some sunshine.

And now Venezuela. I´m aiming to spend tomorrow in a national park 4 hours east of Caracas and then Friday will be getting to the airport for my flight early Friday morning. I´m anticipating not being in a bed until I hit Greystones, Wicklow around about noon on Saturday (thanks for picking me up Annie!). I really should have bought those Valium over the counter in Bolivia.

See ye all very, very soon.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

the final furlong

Just having had a cursory re-read of my last blog entry it has surprised me that a whole month has passed since the two chicas left and I´ve been travelling solo. Surprised because I haven´t really been alone at all in that past month. Whilst everyone reassured me that I would meet people on the road to travel with, I was still worried about being by myself in South America, particularly in Colombia, because of its bad reputation. Paradoxically I´ve felt more safe in Colombia than any of the other countries in the north of the continent. Colombian people are some of the most friendly, open and warm hearted I´ve met. And the majority of people who are travelling in this part of the world are doing it alone which makes it easier to hook up with people and travel together.

My time in Ecuador was short. I was eager to get to Colombia because of the good reports I´d received about the country and also to maximise my time at the beach. The highlight was definitely a one day trek I did in Quilotoa ... a huge volcanic crater with a beautiful turquoise lake in the middle. The trek led past the crater and down an amazingly steep canyon with several precarious river crossings en route, severly testing my bridge paranoia. I keep on testing myself in these vertigo inducing situations, hoping that it will cure me of my fear of heights, but every time is just as hard as the last. In Quito, Ecuadors capital, I climbed to the top of a Basilica... on the outside with the wind whipping around me, and still I´m afraid to cross a pedestrian overpass 10 foot off the ground. Go figure.

In Quito I bumped into a Scottish guy who I´ve now met in four separate countries on the trip. It´s great just randomly meeting people like that, and it´s rarely the people you expect. We checked out two sites dedicated to the equator; the official, rip off one which is about 100ms off and the real deal confirmed by GPS where they do all manner of experiments to prove you´re actually in "Mitad del Mundo" like balancing an egg on the head of a nail and such nonsense.

After all that excitement I headed to Colombia with an English chick who was staying in the same hostel and we travelled together for about a week, stopping off in Cali and Bogota. I have to say much of my time during this period was taken up with my obsession with the Twilight series of books (Annmarie can take the credit) and I´m still carting around two ridiculously large hardback books in my rucksack because I´m too attached to them to leave them behind in a hostel.

Crossing over the border from Ecuador there was a noticeable difference between the two countries. Colombia is definitely alot wealthier with a much bigger African influence also. The cars are newer, the buildings slicker and thankfully, the buses better. Bogota, which I was expecting to be an unsafe dirty capital is actually an awesome town with a really well preserved old town called La Candalaria complete with random bronze statues of men hanging out of buildings. They are obsessed with an artist called Fernando Botero here. He´s a painter and sculptor specialising in really fat people, the majority of whom have squints.. you´ll recognise the stuff from prints in your favourite retro coffee shop http://images.google.com.co/images?hl=es&q=fernando+botero&um=1&ie=UTF-8&ei=Nf-CSqrADuCBtgfd7cDSCg&sa=X&oi=image_result_group&ct=title&resnum=4. They LOVE him here and the guy is super prolific, if a tad repetitive.

After Bogota I headed to Medellin and though intending to stay there for just a few nights I ended up hanging around for six days to check out the local Fiesta de Flores. Yes, a flower festival. Now I didn´t think that a flower festival was going to be a hot event, but then I underestimated the enthusiasm of the Colombian nation for flowers. They got right into it, I mean people came from all round to take pictures of hanging baskets. It was a tad bemusing, but then again any excuse for a party. In fairness the main parade did involve little old men carrying huge, 10 stone, intricate flower arrangements on their backs for miles through the city which you do have to applaud. And also we have a festival devoted to salmon in Mayo so who am I to judge?

At the moment I´m in Cartagena on the northern coast. Have finally reached the beach - yay! I was irrationally excited about dipping my toes into the Caribbean for the first time yesterday. It´s hot here though. Seriously hot. I didn´t realise a person could sweat this much whilst not moving a muscle. Apparently Santa Marta where I´m headed next is even hotter. The joys. The final adventure is going to be one of the things I´ve been looking forward to since planning the trip back last Christmas - a six day hike to Ciudad Perdida, a lost ancient city in the middle of the Colombian jungle. What I´m not looking forward to is the ravaging by mosquitos which is an inevitable accompaniment to the hike. And they love my pasty Irish skin. Shudder.

So, only two weeks left and back to Ireland. See ye at home. Mines a Smithwicks.