Wednesday, December 2, 2009
What goes up must go down!
Hola, buen dia! So after riding high for some time now, I was bound to be grounded again. It seems that this is always true in this trip & in life, you can't stay high forever. This trip is always like a roller coaster ride but has mainly been me at the top just enjoying the adrenaline and fun. I've been gone almost 11 months now and it's pretty crazy to think that I haven't had many bad things happen to me, specifically haven't been robbed (not including payoffs to cops, military & customs). But the thing is with good times or bad times is how you react to it and feel about it is just something in your head. So my trip started from Colombia and deciding I would go to Venezuela and spend maybe a week or so there. I had a friend flying into Caracas so I had a mission to get myself there so we could then go out & travel. I started off leaving San Gil Colombia which was hard to leave with all the fun adventure activities to be had & nice people. So I waited until the last possible minute to get on a bus to the border which was supposed to be 7 hours long & then cross into Venezuela via collectivo and then get on an overnight bus to Caracas which would have been another 14 hours on the bus. So I left in the morning and the 7 hour bus ride through crazy switchbacks in the Andes & an even crazier bus driver somehow managed to take 10 hours. Which landed me at the border at around 9pm and from what I read the last bus left at 7pm. Sooo my backup plan is to just get a hostel room and go a day late. Border towns are hectic & hot around here when I get out a guy tells me there is another bus at another town further away & that he could take me there. I wasn't sure about the money exchange situation and I heard some about what happens in Venezuela with US dollars but I didn't have any US dollars. So I was changing money & not fully aware of all the scamming going on & so I wasn't moving or deciding fast. The rates I was getting made the taxi ride & bus far seem really expensive compared to any other latin country. But I wanted to get to this bus & just arrive rather than dealing with the alternative so I changed my money & took this taxi guys word on this bus. "Confiame, te ayudo" is what kept coming out of my taxi drivers mouth when talking about the bus in the town an hour away. Then he stopped to pee on the side of the room & went into the store & came back with a 6 pack of beer to accompany him for the ride. Night time, switch back mountain roads & beer are a good mix. Getting into Venezuela was an immediate change from Colombia, it was almost like crossing into northern Baja from San Diego. Venezuela is immediately in your face & the border patrols are giving me strange looks & suspicious questions to why in the world would I be in Venezuela. Apparently the political climate is fairly hot towards the USA. But they give me the stamp in & I'm back in the car with the driver & on my way to survive this ride & get on this bus. We show up at 11pm, he still repeating the line above as he sees my doubts and then he drops me off outside of the bus terminal. I've over paid for the ride & run off to catch the "bus" that wasn't there & the night guards at the bus terminal let me know that there hadn't been a bus here for a while. And now I'm standing in the street, taxi gone, after 11pm in Venezuela with my 2 back packs and not in a friendly neighborhood. And because of some of the money exchange debacle at the border, I didn't get much money and though I had enough to get my taxi ride & bus ticket with a few Bolivares left over for some food & then I'd get more money in Caracas. Well the taxi from the bus station charges me a bit because it's late & he knows I'm stranded and then I get to the hotel & I don't have enough money to stay there. So I opt to search for an ATM. There is one near by & in all latin countries I have had no problem pulling out money from an ATM however this one has an additional question about a number I don't know what it's talking about & I can't get money. meanwhile it's midnight, everyone (taxi, hotel guy) has said it's "peligrosisimo" here....really dangerous. And I have a drunk guy trying to get too close to my transaction because his bank card isn't working either. I flag down a cab & ask him to take to another atm, it's just getting later & I just want to get in a room & call it a day. But we go to 5 different ATM's before I am able to get out money. The cabbie came up to help and tried to check out my PIN number & then attempted to "hang on" to my card. I got that back & got back to the hotel which was way overpriced for my exchange rate & now the cabbie wants way to much money because he's taken me around & now seen me with a pocket full of money. He also offers me a hooker or brothel he can take me to. I fight away from another bad deal, frustrated & get to sleep. The next day I can't seem to get anything done right, finding internet to give Andrea & heads up that I wouldn't be at the hostel I said I'd be at proved to be tough to find. Even though I was in a big city. And the friendliness was just not there, asking people for help just wasn't like it's been in all the spots I've been in. So I find a bus to Caracas which will get me there early on Thanksgiving morning. It's a doubledecker bus, nice seats, too much A/C and horrible C grade movies in Spanish. All is fine, I'm sleeping and then we're woken up & told everyone off the bus with your ID. No problem, I'm off & as soon as the military see my USA passport then tell me to get my things from below the bus & go to this trailer. Everyone else gets to get back on & wait for me. I'm brought into a private trailer room & made to first declare how much money in each denomination I have and then pull all of it out & put it for him to count. Stern questioning about what I'm doing in Venezuela, what drugs I have or do, and again what money I'm carrying. I'm then made to strip completely nude so he can assure I have no drugs & then pull everything out of my bags "rapido" onto the floor. Suspicious about me because I have no job yet am traveling, the money doesn't add up. But he let me go eventually & I don't know what or if he took some money but I got away. The bus had been waiting, everyone is staring on my return as I'm the only gringo on the bus and we're off. I sleep, restless with bad dreams and awake to Caracas at 6am. Thanksgiving morning. I decide I'm going to try to find the subway & figure that system out rather than drop more money I don't really have on a taxi ride. So I trudge my things out of the bus terminal, hit the streets ask some unfriendly people where the metro is and eventually find it. It's clean & simple to figure out, I have one change to make & I'm there. The first ride is tough as I have a big pack on my back & a smaller one on the front and the car is jammed full so I'm having to bump everyone to get in & out. I get out, find my transfer and wait in a somewhat orderly line to load and this time I have one back in my hand & the other on. I guess my good luck, comfort in these foreign nations or laziness all kicked in because I felt my wallet in my pocket & thought about the fact that I normally wear my shorts with zippers to close the pockets but this time I wasn't. I'm off 2 long sleepless days of traveling by bus, 23 hours worth of bus time. I do nothing, the door to the train opens, people pile out, a guy grabs my bag to yank it on, I pull back & get pushed around jump on and that guy jumps off. The door shuts, I know right away. my wallet has been picked. So mad at myself at this point. My drivers license, my ATM card, credit card & cash. Not that much cash really but the ATM card & a drivers license are both essential for my trip. Stunned angry at being gotten by that action & then the train ride is over. I find my way to the hostel where my Austrian amiga has already landed and begin calling bank institutions and such. We decide we'll give Venezuela a shot even though it is so far really expensive and my day had been pretty crappy. We catch a bus to a town near the Caribbean and a national park, plan on taking another bus in the morning. However after getting a cab ride to town, we walk around with our back packs to no avail at finding even a remotely affordable place to stay & we're walking, at dark, in a sketchy neighborhood where everyone is just staring at us. Then the rain comes, we still have no place to stay. After some attempts at using the public pay phone to call the bus line & find out about buses to the border of Colombia we just decide to head back to the bus station & hope for a bus. There was a bus, we were just about out of local currency so we sat & ate our crackers and avocado while waiting for another bus. I had some time to reflect on what thanksgiving would have been like at home and for sure missed the idea of spending that time with loved ones & their amazing food! However bad my day was though, I still felt pretty fortunate. I, thankfully, was traveling with Andrea who was willing to help me with money until I could figure out how to get money. Another overnight bus and we arrive to a town called maracaibo which is still like 2 hours from the border of Colombia. We are waiting for the cheapest options so we have a car that will take us but they have to wait for 3 more people. The cars in this particular part of the world are funny, they're all 70's maybe early 80's american big Caprice's or something large & really ghetto. For instance my driver didn't use a key to start the car, he had it rigged up with some wires below. Entire inside torn to pieces, windows don't roll up. The funny thing was there were a million of these same, old, horrible, hoopty, almost non-driveable cars. It was like a junkyard from the states make to somehow work again. Two hours later, penniless in bolivares, we make it to Colombia with no more crackers, money, nada. But I have some pesos from colombia so we're able to get yet another bus for another 4 hour ride to Santa Marta from which we made it to the beach town of Taganga. So thankful to arrive, lay in my hammock, pay 10 dollars or less for the room with an ocean few & just decompress from the madness of the past 4 days. Taganga was planned on my travel route as a destination to take scuba courses as they're some of the cheapest courses in the world. However, getting cash isn't something I can do easily so at the beginning I just enjoy some slow days around here trying to figure out ways to get money or transfer money electronically to Andrea which to do so to foreign nations presents a bigger hurdle. We manage to figure that out, she loans me money as I transfer it online & I'm temporarily back in business. Then we start our dive course. We've now done 6 dives in 3 days, as deep as 90ft which I'm told by another experienced diver was a little dangerous since we didn't know what we're doing and my equipment failed me so I had no air & had to share my way up. It was a bit scary really & my instructors didn't believe me that my equipment was a problem and I didn't have all the underwater hand signals down enough to communicate as you can't talk that entire time. I eventually ran out of air, much much quicker than anyone else and finally I got a breathable mouth piece connected to my guides tank. In the end seeing the underwater world was cool experience & I'm glad I finally got to give it a try. With all the ups & downs, the ups still far outweigh the downs and I'm very thankful to still be on this amazing adventure learning a language, cultures & more about myself. And though Venezuela wasn't great, I did have one magic moment when a guy jumped on a bus to sell something that actually caught my interest - a natural remedy to dissolve kidney stones that comes with ingredients translated to english "Cat's Claw" or "lions tooth" but so far it seems to be stirring something up in me so maybe it will all have been worth it as this fixes my ever nagging problem. Saludos!