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.

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