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Santa Cruz to Merida

Merida, Venezuela

My short surfing career ended last week as I packed up my sandy tent - which has added a load of weight to my already heavy pack. Lately I've been thinking about what I should ditch to lighten the load, yet everything seems essential. ....well, minus that kilo of yerba (herb for mate) I have. While I was on the Carribean coast I wasn't really keen on making a hot cup o' mate.

Anywho, I hauled my buldging bag from Casa Grande to the highway and stuck my thumb out at oncoming traffic - finally putting my money where my mouth is. ....although, that phrase doesn't really apply to hitchiking, does it? After a short 15 minutes a yellow Jeep stopped. I ran over and threw my bags in the back. Unfortunately they were only going 15 minutes up the road to the small village of Huacachina. The 50 year old lady in shotgun had beautiful eyes behind her giant shades and armpit hair poking out from her white summer dress. She wanted to practice her English, so she spoke to me in English and I replied in Spanish. We chatted this way until their destination just outside Huacachina. I waved the yellow Jeep goodbye as it disappeared on a jungle road.

Not even a minute later a mototaxi stopped and told me to come with him into town. I tried to explain that I was hitchiking, but he insisted on taking me. It took me a while to realise that he wanted to give me a lift to a better spot to get picked up. I felt bad for assuming he wanted me to pay.

In town I saw the yellow Jeep again and chatted with the lady. She asked me if I believe in god. I said no, I believe in love. To her they were one in the same. For me, not so much. Nevertheless, she and her man were done their business in Huacachina and were heading further up the road, so I caught a lift with them as far as they were going. At this point I waited a couple of hours, watching mototaxis, buses and the odd car zip by. No one stopped. Eventually I flagged down a bus to Riohacha, the last town of any size before the border.

I checked into the cheapest hotel I could find and passed out from the heat. My room wasn't far off looking like a jail cell. It was just big enough to fit a bed (without a sheet), fan, toilet, sink, shower and a TV strapped to the ceiling. The toilet-sink-shower combo was separated by a brick wall, probably to keep the smell from the toilet away because there was only running water for a few hours in the morning - and only from the sink. To properly flush your crap down the toilet you needed to fill up a bucket of water. The bucket didn't fit in the sink, so you have to use a bowl to fill up the bucket. The same bowl I used to shower in the mornings. ....well, by shower I really mean rinse the sweat off. In this heat there is no escaping sweating. I imagine the locals accept it because it's simply a part of life. They know no other way.

I really only stopped in Riohacha for one reason - to take out money. Usually it's easier to just take out cash from an ATM after you cross the border, but not in Venezuela. The official exchange rate is incredibly inflated at 2000 Bolivares : 1 USD. The practical exchange rate is 3x better at 6000 Bs : 1 USD, which can only be granted through the black market. Growing up I always imagined the black market to be some giant Arabian market with shifty eyed venders selling anything and everything from nuclear warheads to stolen Picasso paintings to babies (for adoption, slavery or eating - ya know, whatever the customer wants them for). The only thing that matched reality was the shifty eyed vender. At the bus station in Maicao (Colombia's border town) a kid brings you through a few doors until you get to a room with one guy behind a desk. Unlike the Colombian-Ecuadorian border money changers, these guys were legit. Their calculator gave me the rate I wanted and I was on my way.

I took a shared colectivo to Maracaibo with a family of Venezuelans from Caracas. The kid who helped me exchange my money told me the colectivo had AC. He lied. There I was, jam packed with 6 others for supposedly 3 hours in a gigantic rusty station wagon. All cars in Venezuela are giant and most are rusty. I can't justify the rust, but the size is cause it costs only 1 USD to fill up a full tank in a big ass car.

Crossing the actual border was probably the easiest one I've crossed so far. I just had to fill out a photocopied form, recieve a stamp and then was on my way. No x-ray of my bag, no search of my stuff, no nothing. Back in the colectivo, however, the reality of the situation arose. Apparently one of my co-passengers overstayed her visa to Colombia by a few days, so every checkstop we passed gave her a hard time. It wouldn't had been a big deal, except that we passed well over 10 checkstops within the first hour passed the border. Each time she argued with the cops which ended with her bribing them. Eventually our driver - a fat man with a sleazy moustache - said to give him the money and he'd do the bribing. I was happy cause he was much more efficient at it. And the officials didn't even care to look at the rest of our stuff once they had the bribe.

Once all the checkstops passed our car broke down. The driver assured me it was just a little problem. We drove at 10 km/hr for a good 45 minutes before it finally died. At this point our driver flagged down a cab for the family. I had to wait another 15 minutes before he could finally flag down a ride for me. I finished of my journey to Maracaibo in the back of a relatively new Ford pickup - not the ideal entrance into a city that has a reputation for crime and is not safe to go out after 5pm.

The truck dropped me off a few blocks away from the bus station, where I was to wait 8 hours for my night bus to Merida. At the bus station a pregnant girl shared some candy with me. First she asked me where I was from, then how long I've been travelling and finally if I have already had sex on my trip. Funny sequence of questions from a funny girl.

I almost missed my bus to Merida because I forgot to bump my watch forward. Thankfully the grumpy lady who sold me my ticket saw me and ran to the bus with me. She came with me not to show me where the bus was, but to secure me a seat. The first bus we tried was full, as was the second. It's a shame cause they were nice buses. The third bus was rickety as hell, so sure enough it had room.

The old man beside me didn't speak Spanish, he mumbled it. I couldn't understand a single word that guy said the whole trip. He never moved his lips, I think that was his problem. No biggie cause there's no need to chat on a night bus. Instead I tried to sleep while the leaky roof dripped water on my arm every time I started to drift off.

Once on the road we had to stop at 2 different checkstops. Here, not at the border, was my bag first x-rayed. At 2am we pulled into a gas station to fuel up and get some snacks. What looked like a routine stop turned into a 3 hour repair session. I stood outside the rickety bus and watched bus load after bus load of passengers get off and then back on their comfortable buses, then drive off into the darkness.

Finally, as the sun was rising, we all loaded our tired asses back on the bus towards Merida. Of coarse, my bus didn't go to Merida. I needed to catch a city bus for the last 45 minutes of the journey before reaching the beautiful Merida, nestled in the Andes. Beautiful Merida and her cool nights.

permalink written by  ryanmyers on September 14, 2009 from Merida, Venezuela
from the travel blog: Ryan's First Sabbatical
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