Thursday, March 26, 2009

crispy in the caribbean

Close to wrapping up the Venezuela-a-go-go-GO! tour, I'm on a speck of an island called Gran Roque, where the so-called streets are crunchy pale sand and the only auto seems to be a garbage truck. About half of the 1500 or so inhabitants walk around without shoes.
Like most visitors here, I spent part of the day on one of the archipelago's many islets. Some are only a few cartwheels across, treeless slabs of sand in danger of being swallowed up by the aquamarine Caribbean. Most have no shade, so as a Very Pale Person, I made sure to rent a big beach umbrella. I read while panting black chameleons took turns climbing onto my stinky leather sandals, and I swear that no more than a toenail protruded from that spot without 50 SPF or protective clothing.
Sun protection has been one of the sacred pillars of my life, and some of my earliest girlhood memories involve full body sunscreen greasings and being commanded to swim in a t-shirt. In adulthood, my closet boasts a magnificent collection of dorky brimmed hats, and still I wear a shirt in the water. So how the heck did I get cooked today?
The sun can bring you to your knees in the tropics, but now people tell me that the creamy white sand of Los Roques is incredibly reflective. Limping back to my posada after realizing the damage, I found a family kind enough to hack off a branch of aloe, which I've been reapplying every half hour. But it still feels like my legs are being ironed, and my final day here will be spent cowering indoors until dusk.
Besides the rocky hills capped by an abandoned lighthouse, my favorite thing on Gran Roque has been how well the locals entertain themselves. In the evenings, there's a game of lotería on one skinny street, a game akin to Bingo with an image-only board of vivid caricatures that resemble tarot cards. Players cover the board with coins, and someone calls out the spaces. Knife! Ladder! Avocado! I also saw kids shooting marbles, a trio of young women pitching bolas (like bocce ball), and a lusty soccer match. No doubt there's a hidden youth subculture engrossed in video game shootouts, but it seems almost anachronistic to see an entire community playing outside.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

stepping out in Río Caribe

Work it, girl
I've had a grueling itinerary for the last few weeks, and most days I can't remember where I woke up in the morning. When I finally reached the Caribbean coast in a smallish town called Río Caribe, I just wanted to melt and be rebuilt, but without ankles adorned with itchy bug bites, the glowing Rudolph nose and the two outfits perpetually crusted with dried sweat.
After a moment of catatonia in a posada hammock, I pried myself away at sunset to do a quick recon of the beach promenade. Most towns I've visited tend to lock up and head home by dark, but there was salsa pulsing from the oceanside plaza and a few dozen people jumping around in spandex pants and dampened t-shirts. I chatted up two women sitting nearby, who explained that the local government sponsored a nightly exercise class, and they encouraged me to participate.
Raise your hand if the last aerobics class you took was in the 80s. But I plopped down my daypack and joined the back row. There seem to be hunky Cubanos working everywhere in Venezuela, and naturally, the rubber band leading the class was one too. Though I went limp after half an hour, the locals - mostly women, plus one very energetic toddler - continued on, doing nonstop drills in the tropics without the benefit of air conditioning.
If you've done any traveling in the developing world, you probably have a contribution to what I call the motorbike chronicles - the extreme and incredulous sightings of ingenuity mixed with cheap personal transportation. Like a family of four pressed like panini onto a moped, with a 1-year-old dangling off the front and a month's worth of rice bulging over the rear fender. Today I witnessed my favorite so far: while holding on with one hand, a passenger balanced a partially sliced sheet cake in the other. The hot pink dessert must have been the size of a large pizza. I watched the bike jostle over potholes and through a low rain trench, but it looked like they had it down. Wow.
I must have been sending out special motorcycle signals to the universe. After asking for directions in a shop a bit later, one of the gray-haired men I'd spoken to had second thoughts about the quality of his instructions and tracked me down a block away to give me a quick lift on his motorcycle.

Monday, March 16, 2009

the enchanted life of a budget travel writer

The enchanted life of a budget travel writer
A cockroach-colored floor is a scary sight. Especially when you open the dank windowless bathroom of a cheap hotel room and the place comes alive with critters. I don't want to be a wimp, but one roach was so big that I thought it would bench press my shoe if I tried to squash it. The bathroom door will remain closed until I can stop thinking about the Steven King movie Creepshow where hordes of roaches consume someone alive. Strange bumps are emanating from behind the door, and I can imagine a hearty colectivo of cucarachas, the gargantuan and the itsy bitsy, all linking legs to rush the door. And after a 10-hour bus ride, I really really want to wash my face.
A trio of high school girls tracked me down a half block from the public library here in Puerto Ayacucho, hoping I spoke English. We sat down together for about half an hour, and I translated a passage on how to do mouth to mouth resuscitation. After a few minutes, a half dozen of their friends had crowded 'round, and we took turns sounding out funny English words that don't sound anything like they would in Spanish. I'm on a mission to teach Spanish-speakers how to pronounce "th" (stick out your tongue!) so my name doesn't get mangled so badly.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

real cowboys play harps

A very protective crocodile
In the belly of Venezuela is the Llanos, the land of grazing humpbacked cattle and spirited joropo music. Never heard of joropo? Imagine a syrupy ballad sung by earnest cowboys who pluck harps while accompanied by little four-string guitars called cuatros. When I boarded the bus that took me to the far-as-you-can-see flatlands of the Llanos, the driver's CD collection started to sound like a mix tape of drunkards yodeling like cats at 3am. It's a little hard on the ears at first, but after a while I kinda liked it.
I've been out of internet-land for a bit, but a while back I spent two days on the plains getting some R&R at the Hato El Frio, a huge private ranch with a biological station supported by an ecotourism project. Though thousands of cows wander over what seems like a bazillion acres, it's also a wildlife refuge that's more impressive and concentrated with animals than any zoo. In the rainy season, the parched region I encountered transforms to a wetland of biblical proportions.
I lucked out and was the only visitor at the hato, so I got to ramble around in a 4x4 with my own private guide. We talked a lot. About why hardly any Americans visit Venezuela, our favorite places to swim, Hugo Chávez (naturally), and the coolest animals we've ever seen in the wild.
With his experienced eye, I saw scores of amazing animals that would have just blended in otherwise. Tiny ground owls with ostrich-like legs, a young anteater sleeping in a spiky ceiba tree, the gentle side to side s-tracks of an anaconda, and my favorite back story, a black and white bird the locals call "the police." Like a speed trap, they stay silent until you're right on top of them and then they scream like sirens.
The entire earth seemed to be full of living things. In the shrinking watering holes, thousands of adorable snub-nosed capybaras splashed in the mud, looking like 3- to 4-foot-long hippo wannabes. Trees boughs bore huge pustules of termites. Scores of caimans held their pointed mouths open like wax figures until they got nervous and barreled into the water. Beefy mosaic-colored iguanas munched on grass and then ran like maniacs when we got within a few feet. And birds called scarlet ibises were the color of red lollipops, making me swoon when they spread their wings against the pale blue sky.
Every time we passed a sandy mound, my guide would point out the shells of turtle eggs that had been dug up and sucked out by raptors, so we stopped to poke around a bit when we came upon an undisturbed potential nesting area. Carefully walking, we spotted our first Orinoco crocodile in the water. It was a good 5 to 6 feet long, and it was lurking about 10 feet out before it suddenly sprang out of the water and sprinted up the beach in what seemed like one second. Yes, she had eggs here as well, and she wasn't messing around. We definitely got the picture.

Friday, March 6, 2009

from the teleférico to the treetops

Aerial walkway
In the city of Mérida, the world's longest, highest, and coolest-sounding gondola climbs the Andes to 13,270ft over almost eight miles. It's a highlight of Venezuela, and when I arrived it was completely closed, indefinitely. Damn. I knew it would be a touchy subject at the tourist office, and when I inquired about when it would be fixed and reopened, the representative almost banged his head bloody against the desk. Politics, pure politics, he said sotto voce. All the decision makers are in Caracas and we can't get an answer out of them.
With time ticking away before I had to move on, I taxied to the botanical garden. On weekends, they open a naturalist boot camp where you can frolic on an aerial playground in the upper canopy of tall trees. At least I'd be able to get off the ground somehow.
Bound and belayed in a climbing harness, the first challenge is to scale the round bamboo steps of a loose rope ladder dangling 40ft feet from a tree. Big feet are not helpful here. Once you reach a platform in high tree trunk, the next trial is to cross the planks of a slack and teetering rope bridge, positioning yourself exactly in the middle of each step so the whole structure doesn't skew away. At the end, you scramble like a spider to ascend a duct-taped (gulp!) net and then clamp in and do a Tarzan yell as a zip line ferries you to the next tree.
I was doing fine until I saw the next stage, a stroll across a barely taut rope, with only limp parallel lines for balance. Although I would be tied in, my knees began to quiver. My brain flashed to the movie Man on Wire about a fanatical acrobat who snuck in and rigged a line across the Twin Towers and then tightrope walked between them. But thinking too much can be toxic. Egged on by a cloud of mosquitoes salivating around my arms, I put my trust in the equipment and tiptoed across.
Flying down a final zip line to the ground, I successfully avoided the bulls-eye tree at the end and reunited with terra firma. I love Mérida.