Saturday, February 28, 2009

sand surfing

Medanos de Coro sand dunes 
A full face plant would have been the only way I could have had more sand on my body. A crust of scritchy dust clung to my arms, and my scalp was coated with a crunchy texture. Not that I mind being a little scruffy, but sometime you crave a good dousing with a garden hose.
A few minutes outside the breezy colonial city of Coro, tall cacti stand sentinel just before you reach the wind-combed 100-foot sand dunes called the Médanos de Coro. Drifts of gold sand threaten to reclaim the road, and hastily parked cars get trapped when drivers pull over without noticing unstable ground.
In the late afternoon, families toiled stiffly up steep inclines, sinking calf-deep with each step, their progress loosening a silent cascade that flowed like water. At the top, the ground hardened, and gusts painted your skin and blew surreal patterns into the hillsides. At the apex of one tall dune, two people jumped into a tiny yellow toboggan and flew down towards sea level, screeching like they were riding a runaway roller coaster.
I'd jumped off a bus to wander here, and now I couldn't get any to stop for me. Four or five of the local ambulantes, smartly draped in head coverings, looked concerned and encouraged me to start walking, but with nothing in sight but sand, there didn't seem to be anything to walk to. So I stuck out my thumb, and then watched private cars zoom by alongside the buses.
The vendors called me over to the median strip and one beckoned for me to follow him. Where to? He pointed to a shiny police SUV with tinted windows. Not one to willingly get arrested, I balked, until he explained that they'd offered to give me a lift back to town. The commanding officer took off his sunglasses, pulled out a lined notebook and very studiously took down my name (why didn't I give a fake one?) and country of residence. On the way in, they radioed in that they'd found a stray U.S. tourist named Bay Coe and were delivering her safely to the bus station.

Monday, February 23, 2009

bouncing between beaches

Rancho Grande Biological Station
Carnaval madness has begun, and the bus terminals have been jammed with Venezuelans stampeding to the beach for the puente (long weekend). Everyone totes dainty little daypacks and heaves along big communal coolers.
Northwest of Caracas, sculpted green mountains climb to 6000ft in Henri Pittier, Venezuela's oldest national park. Within the park, the beach towns of Puerto Colombia and El Playón are only 12 miles apart as the pelícano flies, but it costs serious money and a strong stomach to bounce over the ocean between them in an open lancha. Otherwise, the only way to go to both is to suck down a Dramamine and thread through the evil curlicues of asphalt (2 hours one-way) that separately lead to each from Maracay. In the middle, when you reach the respective summits, the heat lifts and you enter silent cloud forest of hearty bromeliads and gargantuan trees carpeted in cascading green vines.
On the 20 mile mountain road from Puerto Colombia to Maracay, the bus driver started the journey by revving up a popular reggaetón song with a catchy chorus that goes "Ven aquí rápido" (come here quickly). Over a route laced with deadly one-lane curves, he kept one hand free to blast the truck horn and made that rickety Blue Bird school bus scream over the pavement. Passengers grabbed their bags and braced themselves against the seats as gravity paddle-balled them from side to side. The faster we went, the louder he amped up the volume, until it reached concert stadium levels. As we zoomed through populated areas, a volley of water balloons shot through open windows.
Partway up the other highway to El Playón is the Rancho Grande Biological Station, a research station for university students, scientists and birdwatchers. The setting is a dilapidated and mildew-saturated hotel that was dreamed up by one of Venezuela's most infamous dictators, Juan Vicente Gomez. After he died in 1935, the workers heaved a sigh of relief and stopped working, abandoning the building to the jungle. The station also lets civilians overnight in an otherwise off limits area, so I sneaked upstairs to poke around until the caretaker appeared and toured me through the living quarters. Before you sleep there, he said, check for scorpions and spiders in the beds.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

purple pinkies

nuestro hotel
The election tally came in over an hour before I arrived in Caracas, with Chávez whipping up 54% of the vote to become candidate-for-life. On the highway into the city, my cab driver texted on his mobile phone, looping between lanes while telling me how crazy Chávez is. I made active listening noises and discreetly groped for the non-existent seat belt buckle in the back seat. We kept passing pickup trucks, the beds brimming with joyful flag-waving Chavistas decked out in red.
People I've talked to seem either ecstatic or disgusted by the election results. The city center is still plastered with "Sí" signs, stickers and graffiti, but the minute you head to a more affluent area, the landscape shifts to stark blue posters that say "No." Talk about framing the issue to your advantage.
I stayed my first night with a friend, in a neighborhood shaded by crimson bougainvillea and tall trees bursting with yellow flowers. It felt tranquil until about 6am, when an aviary worth of birds roosted nearby and raised a ruckus louder than my alarm clock. When I staggered into the kitchen for breakfast, jetlagged, there was even one small specimen flitting inside the kitchen window.
My first impression of Caracas? A dirty traffic-tied metropolis in serious disrepair, but nowhere near as scary as I thought it would be. The people I've chatted with have been super friendly, even if I had trouble understanding what they said when they drop key consonants. Strolling around the center in the daytime, it's easy to think that the crime stats are overblown, but everyone has stories to tell about violent robberies.
On a tightly packed metro car, I was mesmerized by all the purple ink-stained pinkies that identified voters. At home in San Francisco, everyone loves wearing the "I voted" stickers they hand out at the polling places, but I love the appeal of semi-permanent ink.
If you've ever seen a lost dog running down the street panting, with a dazed and frantic look in its eyes, it could have been me at 6pm yesterday on the busy pedestrian street of Sabana Grande. After walking for hours between mirrored love hotels, a lone backpacker shelter and a score of vegetarian restaurants that had already closed (curses!), I was beat. Although my clothes aren't anywhere near as tight as the local women's, I swear I was the only one perspiring. And since I can't just poke along like folks do here, I probably looked a little unbalanced, dodging oncoming pedestrians like I was in a video game. Watch out for those tired gringas - they'll run you down.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Venezuela bound!

Less than 24 hours until I'm on a plane bound for the Murder Capital of the World, more fondly known as Caracas. During my last visit to Venezuela a little over two years ago, President Hugo Chávez was reelected as I was visiting the lush southeasterly section of the country. And in honor of my upcoming visit, there's another big vote scheduled for the day I arrive. (Aw really, you shouldn't have!) But this time around everyone's turning out to decide whether the constitution should abolish term limits so Chávez can continue to run for president after he hits the wall in 2012. Yes, they've already voted on this recently, just in case the scenario sounds a tad familiar.

For the next 7 weeks, I'll be screeching around by freezer-cooled buses through the traveler hotspots of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, updating Lonely Planet's South America guide and smiling sweetly when people tell me what a charmed carefree life I lead. After multiple days/weeks/months of bluffing my way past bored front desk clerks so I can check out rooms, explaining to suspicious shopkeepers why I'm writing down their opening hours and racing across town to get into museums before they close, the charm can feel a little thin.

Here are a few things random items I've squished into my backpack:

  • a SteriPen, which magically kills all water nasties (no more buying overpriced bottled water!)
  • fistfuls of non-recalled granola bars I scavenged after the recent salmonella scare
  • my dive mask, newly tricked out with prescription lenses
  • two pounds of pecans for the friend I'll be visiting in Caracas (supposedly he can't find them there)
  • a groovy-green edition of writings by the 18th century Orinoco River explorer Alexander von Humboldt
This will also be the virgin voyage of my new RFID passport. So if you spy my data while I'm on the road, please give me a friendly shout.