Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas and New Years on Isla de Margarita

See it is possible to smile in Venezuela. Gemma and I took a ferry to Isla de Margarita for Christmas and New Years. Its the one place in Venezuela that has the very slightest form of tourism infrastructure.

Luckily we had prebooked an apartment in a four bedroom house for Christmas. It was so nice to finally have our own little hideaway with a fully equipped kitchen, running water at all times of the day, a pool, A/C, and cable TV!

We even managed to turn a potted plant into something of a Christmas tree and put all our presents around it. Gemma and I shared our respective Christmas traditions with each other. My family always puts a clue on our gifts and you have to guess what it is before you open it. In England they have these little wrapped tubes called Christmas crackers. Two people pull each end (kind of like a wishbone on Thanksgiving) and whoever gets the bigger half gets the present inside. I won a beautiful Burger King like crown and neon green eraser on my first pull. Whoo!

The longest white sand beach we´d seen so far on our trip was only a five minute walk from the house. We spent Christmas week either on the beach or at the pool. It was the first time either of us had been in a hot weather location for Christmas and it was really odd. No one had up Christmas decorations and it was pretty hard to tell it was even that time of the year. Not alot of Christmas cheer being spread around Venezuela if you know what I mean.

After our time in the house was up we still had a week left before we flew to Buenos Aires. We had originally planned to venture back to the main land and explore some new towns but had really had enough of that by this point and moved to a less expensive area on the island where we stayed for the remainder of our Venezuelan prision sentence.

We were greated by a really friendly Irish man named Michael. He told us his hostel was different than all the rest because it was more like he had just opened up his family´s home to travelers. We didn´t realize that meant we´d be awoken at 2am to him and his brother in-law in an all out fist fight! I woke up and opened the door of our room to see Michael just getting the crap kicked out of him literally by this other guy. There was a third friend hovering but not intervening so I didn´t bother breaking it up either. Michael picked up a chair and I thought it might get real interesting but instead it was broken up by the friend. Ghetto.

All week we kept hearing about the great Christmas dinner they had prepared the previous week and Michael had invited us to dinner at around 8pm on NYE. We are traveling on a budget so we ate lunch around 2ish and then were waiting patiently for this feast to begin around 8.

We didn´t eat until midnight and this is what was served.

I was looking back through our pictures and saw this one and was like ¨what in the hell is that???!!¨ Then I remembered that was my last meal of 2009. Sweet. The worst part is when we went to check out they tried to charge us 160B´s (thats $32 dollars at 5:1 or $80 at the official exchange rate)! For slop! Either way its pretty expensive for food that you can´t even tell what it was looking at it.

But it was funny watching a little kid whiff about 20 times as he tried to hit this pinata and also seeing how aukward their family dinner was with the brother in-law, wife and Michael all eating at the same table the day after the fight.

Our last day in Venezuela proved to be exciting and terrifying. My mom had sent me my Christmas presents via FedEx because she´s the best and wanted me to have something to open on Christmas day. Well Venezuela being the well oiled machine that it is, my package with a guaranteed delivery date of December 23rd still hadn´t reached me by January 6th. After both my mother and I spent countless hours on the phone with FedEx, and then the Venezuelan courrier they had given my package to for its delivery to Isla de Margarita, we finally got them to ship it back to the FedEx depot in Caracas.

Our bus got into Caracas about three hours before our flight took off. Luckily the depot was close to the bus terminal and I finally had my Christmas presents two weeks later. It was the first time I´d ever opened my Christmas presents in the back of a taxi! Thank you again for everything Mom!

We got to the airport and checked our backpacks and then were told to go pay the exit tax. We didn´t have enough Boliviars left but planned to get out more at the dreadful 2:1 exchange rate out of the ATMs. But the ATMs weren´t working. None of the maybe 10 in the airport would give me any cash. Now its about thirty minutes till takeoff and we aren´t through security. We´re trying to tell the airline our problem and they are telling us if we can´t pay it then we won´t be allowed on the plane.

Gemma was near tears at this point and I was legitamitly freaking out when I found a money exchange office that would give us cash by charging my credit card. They took forever and charged me an additional 8% but honestly it was the best $140 I have ever spent.

We made it through security and onto the plane. I´ve often clapped or cheered when my plane lands but this was the first time I´ve celebrated when the plane took off.

I mentioned this in another post but I´ll write it again because I don´t want to think about it when I write the Buenos Aires post. On our first day in BA we were celebrating the fact that we were out of Venezuela at a bar and I got my small daypack with all my camera gear and passports in it stolen. It sucked but really I always had prepared myself for the eventuality that my bag and/or camera might get stolen. Stuff is replacable, people are not. We´re OK and stronger for having survived our time there.

Ahh Venezuela, How I hope to not think of you again for a very long time. And I´m proud to say that I received one email from a friend telling me they will never go there. Ever. So if I only reached even just one person, I did my job.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Venezuela- a slightly less depressing retrospective

Now that I have told you about all the horrible things that happened to us in Venezuela I can show you some pictures and discuss the good times we had there. We could no longer afford to travel to the south and climb the table top mountains we´d planned on climbing, but we could afford to sit on a beach all day and thats largely what we did for the next four weeks.

Sante Fe is a small crappy little fishing town that doesn´t feel safe to walk around during the day and it is highly advisable not to walk around outside your hostel at night, but it does have beautiful beaches. During the week there were maybe a handful of other locals and tourists on its long stretch of golden sand. During the weekend maybe there was 20 people. It was relaxing and a good place to try and forget about being robbed.

You might see these pictures and think Venezuela can´t be so bad afterall. We often laughed at ourselves when we´d be sitting on these amazing beaches talking about how much we hated being there and wanted to leave. Similar to the times I´d complain about my steak being overcooked at Google.

The thing you have to realize is that when you get up off the beach and turn away from the crystal clear water is that you´re in Venezuela and not some modern first world country. Everytime we wanted to brush our teeth or flush the toilet in Santa Fe we had to ask the hostel owner to turn the water on. Every hotel room we stayed in had cockroaches, even the ¨nicer¨ ones. Buying a ticket for the ferry took us four and a half hours because the computer system went down. The food is bland and the men are disgusting. I´ve gotten used to South American men oggling Gemma. She´s beautiful and fair skinned and much different then the women they see everyday. But in Venezuela they are the worst. And here I thought I wasn´t going to make this a negative post. Ha, moving on.

Venezuela´s sport of choice is baseball. Some Venezuelan students returned from universities in America with baseball bats and gloves in the 1890´s and its been popular ever since. They have a professional league there with ten or so teams. We were in Puerto La Cruz home of the fighting Caribes and decided to go to a game. We bought the cheapest seats in the house (maybe 2 dollars) out in the outfield but when we walked through the gate a nice employee told us our seats were terrible and gave us house tickets behind home plate.

It was alot like attending a minor league game back home. The ballpark was roughly equal in size to Victory Field in Indiana although far less nice. It was Gemma´s first baseball game. They played the same reggaetron music the entire game and the teams mascot got down and dirty with some female fans. In the pic below he´s grabbing this girls head and pushing it down to his thusting pelvis.

Here he is behind another gal gettin low. Pretty comical stuff. They played Take Me Out to the Ball Game during the seventh inning stretch but it was a reggaetron version and no one sang the words except us. They would have to change the words from ¨buy me some peanuts and cracker jacks¨to buy me some arepas and fried doughy things filled with cheese.¨

Here´s the arepa stand.

One really random place we went to in Venezuela was a small German town of 6,000 people called Colonial Tavar. It was settle by Germans in 1843 and remained isolated from the rest of Venezuela until they built a road there in 1960. It was really charming and crazily expensive. There was black forrest architecture everywhere. It was entirely possible to forget that you were in Venezuela because it was so isolated from the other towns and looked exactly like a wealthy little town in Germany. Unfortunately most of our pictures from our time there were on my camera which got stolen in Buenos Aires before I could upload them.

Venezuela - Commited to new social values (and aggrevating me). Yes with Chavez! (side note- I really meant for this to be a more positive post)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Venezuela - Where dreams go to Die

Venezuela. Just typing the word is still a bit difficult. There is a reason I am nearly two months behind on updating the blog about our time in Venezuela, and it has little to do with the crap computers we had available to us there. Although that didn´t help. I wanted so badly to be able to report back about the wonderful times and beautiful places we saw in Venezuela. To be able to say that everyone else just wasn´t as savvy traveler as I and that there was no place that could keep me away. Unfortunately I can not do that. Although I will say at the same time that I most certainly will go back someday.

Venezuela is so corrupt it caused us to got robbed even after we left the country. Not only did we get bribed by the border control officer at the border($20USD), and then robbed by the POLICE on our second day($400USD), we also got robbed on our first day in Buenos Aires, Argentina($2,000USD) because we were at a bar celebrating the fact that we finally escaped Venezuela! Someone stole my daypack right from under our feet which contained my camera with its $600 wide angle lens attached, normal lens, my ipod, my brand new Mr. Jones watch I´d just gotten from my mom for Christmas, and both mine and Gemma´s passport. Because the computers and/or Picasa wouldn´t upload my pics the numerous times I tried in that miserable country, I lost every picture I´d taken in Venezuela. Deep breaths. We didn´t get hurt and stuff is replacable.

Oh and I got pick pocketed for about another $40 on the subway in Caracas. That one just wasn´t that good of a story so I almost forgot about it.

The worst experience was getting robbed by the Police. Everyone told us to stay away from them and even cross over to the other side of the street if you are walking towards them becuase they are so corrupt. Gemma, Keyon and I had just crossed over the border from Colombia into Venezuela and needed to take a long bus ride to get to our first destination. The bus ride was supposed to be about 1o hours but ended up taking closer to 16 because it stopped five times for police checks along the way. They made every single passenger (about 40) take their bags out from under the bus, stand in line and have them inspected. This happened five times mostly along the same stretch of highway. They even ran them through an x-ray machine that was alongside the highway. This delayed our bus so badly that instead of getting into Maracay at 8pm we arrived at 2:30 in the morning.

We walked two blocks to the nearest hotel and as soon as we arrived at the door (which was gated so we couldn´t walk in) a police car pulled around the corner, stopped, and two officers got out and walked straight toward us. Short of running away from them there was nothing we could have done. They motioned us away from the hotel I was trying to get us let into. They started asking us if we smoked, if we had any drugs on us, essentially trying to find a way to extort money from us. Unfortunately for them we had no drugs and were not going to be easy to get money from. I tried my best to stand strong and watch over Gemma to make sure she wasn´t getting frisked unneccesarily or that Keyon wasn´t getting harrassed.

After a good fifteen minutes went by with them finding nothing in our bags the 6´3¨ officer starts waving his gun around and saying alot of stuff in spanish that I didn´t understand. He then pointed at my wallet. I have lost alot of sleep over what I did next but have come to the conclusion that things wouldn´t have turned out any differently had I not handed him my wallet. All our childhood we are taught to respect authority and do what Police officers ask. I wish I hadn´t handed him my wallet but he asked for it and I did. He then took $400 US dollars out of it and handed it back to me. He typed something into his phone and showed it to the other cop (probably ¨I just stole $400 dollars from this punk American, lets go to the Chavez store and buy the biggest¨ editor won´t let me finish that thought) and then they let us go.

I´m actually lucky he didn´t steal all $1100 dollars in my wallet. Why did I have so much money on me you ask? Because Venezuela has a black market exchange rate. Duh. If you take money out of the ATM you get 2 to 1. If you bring dollars into the country and exchange them in the back of chinese owned electronic stores (not kidding) then you get somewhere around 5.5 to 1. And the prices in Venezuela only make sense at 5.5 to 1. If you had to pay for everything at 2 to 1 then it would be as expensive as London. So by stealing $400 dollars from me he actually stole $2200 dollars buying power from us.

This set back pretty much ended our hopes of being able to climb Roraima and see Angel Falls. We had really been looking forward to a six day hike up to the top of the table top mountains that inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle´s book The Lost World. Google Image search Roraima and you´ll see why we were upset.

All this aside, there were some good times. After all Venezuela does have some ridiculously beautiful beaches. Its just when you turn around and realize that Venezuela is behind you when the sun goes down that makes it all a bit depressing. And I´d have even more amazing pictures to show you had Venezuela not gotten my camera stolen. Maybe its a good thing. If you saw some of the beach pictures you might be tempted to go there. Check out this sunset and this cheeseburger:

That cheeseburger was Gemma´s first meat purchase. I´d pushed cheeseburgers and sausage on her in the past but this was the first time she said ¨I´d like a cheeseburger for dinner and I´m gonna buy one.¨ Other people might be sick of reading about this but I´m quite proud of what might be my best sale ever. Convincing a vegetarian of 23 years to crave cheeseburgers! Here´s her first bite.

Below is a meat cart. You get to choose small, medium or gigantic and then the lady just piles the plate with an assortment of heart clogging sausages, meat and intestines. Her customers were not skinny. Nor were most Venezuelans.

Another example of a beautiful beach surrounded my mountains and palm trees. This pic was taken in Puerto Colombia from Gemma´s camera on our first day when it was kinda cloudy, but you can imagine how nice it was with the blue skies we had the next four days.

Keyon got a massage on the beach and continued to try as many local foods and liquors as he could get his hands on. I´m not sure what it is he had in the picture below but I remember it looked awful and tasted worse. But you´ve got to try the mystery wraps at least once to see whats in there.

Every night we had this exact conversation - ¨What do you guys want to do tonight? How about go sit on the wall?¨ That was the only thing to do in this tiny little fishing town once the sun went down. We met a friendly fisherman down by said wall one night and listened to him tell us about his fishing boat and showed him our white boy salsa moves.

Everyday there was a baseball game going on. Baseball, not soccer, is the sport of choice for Venezuelans.

Here is a funny pic of Keyon realizing what kind of alcohol we can afford on our backpacker budget. If you are planning on coming and meeting up with us you´ll have moments like this too when you realize the type of sacrifices we make in order to travel for months on end.

I´m not sure why Gemma put this picture into the blog but in a way it summarizes my thoughts on Venezuela. We´re walking away but smiling about it all and yeah, we´ll be back someday.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Keyon, God Bless him

If you read the last post you saw a couple pictures of our dear friend Keyon and got a small insight into what he added to our adventure. But it just wouldn´t be right for us to leave it at that. Keyon was the only friend out of many that kept his word and actually came out to meet Gemma and I on this trip so far. And for that we shall roast him. ;o) That and he also sent me an email calling me a Loser after the Colts lost the Super Bowl. Way to hit a man when he´s already down.

It is really difficult to coordinate schedules with us as we are constantly moving and changing our plans every few days but Keyon made it work. He flew into Bogota and then took a twenty hour bus up to Cartegena to meet us. What he didn´t do was call or email us when he landed as planned to let us know if he made it from the airport to the bus station in time. He also failed to call us even once during the twenty hour bus ride which stops at least five times along the way. So Gemma and I, like worried parents were starting to freak out when we hadn´t heard from him in 24 hours and especially after his bus was supposed to have gotten into Cartagena four hours earlier. But he finally called us near midnight, met up with us and we celebrated rather than ground him.

We alluded to the funniest ongoing conversation with Keyon in our last post. It had to do with all the things his ex-wife wouldn´t do for him/with him in their marriage. I hope he doesn´t kill me for posting this but its pretty funny stuff and I want to remember it when I´m old.

1) She wouldn´t wash his back for him.
2) He always read her book suggestions (which he claims were horrible) but she´d never read one of his.
3) She wouldn´t cook for him and on the five occasions when she did, she would ask what he wanted and then completely ignore his request and cook what she wanted.

I wish I could go on but Keyon had to cut his trip short to fly back home for a family emergency. Luckily all turned out well. He was with us for a brief period of time in Venezuela and you´ll see him in the next post.

A couple more parting thoughts/shots:
Keyon is a fantastic chef. Be sure to ask him for his three hour salsa recipe. Here is the abbreviated version - buy what you need for salsa then take three hours making it as you normally would. The only thing slower than his salsa recipe is his walking speed. If you need to get somewhere fast, its probably best just to leave Keyon behind.

And last but not least, his Survivor audition video. Enjoy

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Coke, Weed & Speed, Volcanic Mud Baths, Super Mario and Keyon...Whew! Cartagena

Hello Party People,

Its been a long time since our last update but Gemma and I have put in alot of internet cafe time this week and we are getting caught up!

Ahhhh Cartagena. What a wonderful place. When people ask us how long we´ve been traveling (nearly seven months now for me and six months together!) they often want to know where our favorite places were and Cartagena will always be on that list. We absolutely loved it here. It was the first time we stayed anywhere longer than 4 nights (which is crazy but speaks to how much we loved it). We stayed here nearly two weeks.

The first week we were waiting on my good friend Keyon to arrive from California (More on him later). Keyon and I met while working together in London.

Cartagena is on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia and has a very old colonial section of town that is really charming and pleasant to stroll about. We mostly wandered through the beautiful streets soaking up the ambiance and enjoying the sunshine. We also found a statue by our favorite Colombian artist Botero.

We took a boat trip one day through some nearby mangroves which Gemma had never seen before and I´d only been through maybe once before in Costa Rica. Its really wild seeing the roots of trees rise up out of the water before converging on the trunk a few feet above.
In addition to being quite charming, Cartagena also has to be by far the easiest place to buy drugs in the world. I don´t consider myself an expert on the matter but I just can´t imagine it being easier anywhere else. You literally can not go anywhere in this city without being offered you name it and no matter how many times you turn them down they relentlessly follow you and push them on you. One day I was walking to the store to buy some last minute veggies for lunch and had a man following me while yelling at me all the various types of drugs he had for sale. ¨What do you need? What do you need? I´ve got Coke, Weed, Speed, What you need?¨ After trying to ignore his persistant sales pitch I finally turned around to the guy and yelled I need tomatoes, you got any tomatoes?!¨ Its a crazy place full of crazy characters.
Speaking of....Introducing Super Mario:

Super Mario became our friend one night as we were heading out and into the old colonial part of town where most of the nightlife is. Super Mario was another ¨What you need¨kind of character but after we assured him we didn´t need any drugs he offered to show us around to some of the better bars/clubs in town. He was a really funny guy and when I asked him where he learned to speak English so well he told me ¨Around the tree.¨ So if you need a good guide upon your next visit look for Super Mario around the tree outside the gate to the old town.

We had some of the best nights out of our entire trip in Cartagena and having Keyon along with us definitely helped. The kid is hilarious. One of our favorite ongoing conversations with Keyon was all the various things his ex-wife wouldn´t do (see next post). One night when we couldn´t look at any more alcohol we went to see the Twilight movie. Despite Keyon´s warning that the first one was terrible, the trailers showing the wolf and vampire fights roped me in. My God it was the worst movie I´ve ever seen! Are you kidding me with some of those lines? And why are they sooo depressed the entire movie? Biggest regret of the trip so far.

Keyon and I are both big carnivores and were drooling over these huge slabs of meat at the first steakhouse we went to. It should also be noted Gemma is slowly becoming a fellow carnivore who actually suggests we buy sausage at the store for dinner. I´m so proud.
One night we ended up in a bar that had their urinials right in the middle of the bar. I thought about only putting the pic of Keyon up but had to play fair.

Just to give you an idea of how good Cartagena is, the pic below on the beach was taken right outside the hospital. Unfortunately Gemma´s food poisoning from Bolivia came back and we had to visit our second hospital in South America. Keyon and I waited with her for nearly four hours in the hospital but did sneak out a couple times to sit on the beach. The pic below is the sun setting in the ¨hospital waiting room.¨
About an hour and a half outside Cartagena is the 15 meter high Volcan de Lodo El Totumo. It really is a volcano despite it looking a bit more like a large mound of mud. But instead of spewing lava and ash, it spews mud caused by the pressure of gases emited by decaying organic matter underground.
It was a really unique experience. I can´t say I´ve ever had a mud bath in a volcano until now. The mud is really thick and creamy. You can´t stand or walk in it so a worker pushes your feet to glide you on your back to another worker who, for a small tip, gives you a massage. Life is tough sometimes.

Getting out of the mudbath isn´t so easy when you´re dripping wet in mud, and considering I´ve lost all of my beer weight on this trip my swimsuit is a bit loose these days. When I started climbing up the ladder to get out, my swimsuit stayed stuck in the mud and the rest of the bathers were given a clear shot of my backside.

After you climb down the volcano there is a short walk to a lake where for a small tip, Colombian women help you get the mud off. It was a bit of a shock when they started shouting ¨Naked, Naked¨and telling us to take off our swimsuits so they could wash them. Gemma´s lady literally ripped her bikini off without warning and as she was less than five feet away from Keyon and I, it gave her quite a surprise.
Pic below is someone getting a quick rubdown in the shade.

After Keyon had seen most of Cartagena we took him to Taganga for a little rest and relaxation on the beach. He quickly found a spot in the water to listen to his ipod and worry Gemma and I that he´d somehow electricute himself when a wave splashed over his ipod.

The scenery and sunsets there are top notch.
For the next two days we lived off these cheese arepas and Aguila beer.
We got alot of reading done on the beach and rested up before heading off to start our Venezuelan adventure. Did I say adventure, because I meant Nightmare. More to come in the next post.