“No worries. Where is it you’re off to then?”
“Oh, well I’m going to South America, first stop Venezuela.”
“Wow. On your own? You must be very brave. I’ve only ever been abroad once to Ibiza.”
Waiting in Preston train station and how very lucky I am slaps me in the face and I’ve only left my cosy nest of Blackpool for half an hour. Eccentric as my brothers may feel I am, I know that it is simply opportunity, education and something innate that isn’t precisely quantifiable nor describable that differentiates me from this lovely lass from Burnley.
Well, why finish exploring this little old planet when you have a further few months free before one’s baptism of fire into the proverbial rat race? Why be content with what one has experienced when there is so much more to see, watch and enjoy beyond the realms of our great green lands? No need to be complacent or proud of the extensive range of cultures and peoples one has been lucky enough to encounter and engage with, for there are so very many more witness and learn from.
After a week of much merriment and mirth with a whole bunch of amazing people I simply have not seen enough of lately in t’bridge and Londres, including the amazing invitation to be bridesmaid for my beautiful college wifey along with a couple of the most wonderful girlies (Eek! JoJo is getting hitched...bloody Christians ;) ), I was off on another intrepid adventure. This time, however, this was solo. Nope, not a whiff of a little Samiad in sight, nor a flash of Klo’s botty to keep me company, but on my tod. Another day and another continent to encounter. Yes, Tuesday 11th March, 2009 was the beginning of another Flynnie Winnie venture, again to climes tropical, but of a decidedly different spirit of the Far East Asia of 2008. This five month trip to South and Central America is a fluid exploration of both the lands I travel and the limitations I myself will encounter as a single, solo chica.
So, to Gatwick airport for my flight to Porto, Portugal, where I had to curl up on a nice metal bench for the night whilst awaiting my flight to Caracas, the ‘Massively DANGEROUS’ capital of the oil rich and politically controversial Venezuela. Ahh, one would assume that things wouldn’t go amiss until I’d at least left safe old Europe, but whilst checking in, it seemed that since my return flight was not within the 90 allowance, I needed a visa. BUGGER. How, exactly, was I to obtain such a document whilst in the obscure suburbs of Portugal before my flight was scheduled to leave (i.e. in 1 hour 30m??). I wasn’t that was simple. So, by exchanging my GBP to Euros at an abysmal rate,(take some Euros when you have a connecting flight in the EU) I managed to log onto a computer and book a flight out of Venezuela to Quito, Ecuador, much to my displeasure...I couldn’t afford it nor did I want it! But, a print off was obtained and access to the flight went on smoothly, making it to the TAP Portugal flight in the nick of time. Phew! So, the 8 hour flight began and immediately my ideas of vegetarianism were challenged. Fish or chicken? I prepared myself for having to be somewhat lax with how stringent I would be to keep with my newly revived decision to not eat meat, but maybe it was somewhat foolish to do this before heading to the biggest meat-eating continent on the planet. So, I agreed with myself to avoid it where possible. Blah.
So, Caracas. Basically, since this was to be the first trip I’d ever made to an unknown place where I knew precisely zero people, I thought it would be nice to maybe set up some contacts before I went. And so it was....I became integrated into the social network of what is known as ‘Couch surfing’. Give you a very quick briefing. Couch surfing in a network of people that basically offer strangers a place to crash whilst they are on their travels or holidays or whatever. You have a profile, much like Facebook, and once you have set this up, you can search the city that you are staying in and look for people you think you’d like to stay with. You message back and forth to arrange, then you turn up and stay with them for a night or a few days or whatever you agree. It is utterly wicked!! Annnnnyyyywwaayyysss, back to the journey. I’d arranged to stay at the home of a nice chap called Leo, and he had very kindly enlightened me in our email converse that the city was massively dangerous, especially for a traveller, for, as one can well envisage, you are a bit of a sitting duck with your big pack on your back and all your worldly possessions in your immediate vicinity. Hmm. He also explained that there are currency controls in Venezuela, which didn’t really dawn on me properly until I landed...I knew that you could get a better rate on the ‘black market’ than from the official bank rate (the latter is 2.2 Bolivars to $1 USD, whereas you can get as much as 5.7Bolivares to $1 with the former...almost 3 times as much!), so I felt quite the knowledgeable traveller as I hustled with the dudes in the airport. Just wish I had brought more USDs as Venezuela is expensive if you are using the official rate!!
Adopted by a taxi man, I was ushered into the hot, dusty metropolis with fear gurgling in my gut and plans of escape and fantasises of self-defence scenarios whizzing round my little mind, when I was delivered to the lobby of a 5* hotel where I was to await my host. Sweet! Rather comic having a big old pack and near on two days of non-showering whilst the elite breeze by. Leo arrived and hilariously had assumed I was a bloke (such that I had avoided clarifying in emails – hurrah for the ambiguity that my name engenders!), and soon I was tucked up in an old banger with Leo’s centenary granny and her nurse and was scooted back to Leo’s abode. Ahh, the place was like something from Great Expectations, yet Miss Haversham was Venezuelan and had a little bit more of a shuffle that usually portrayed (granny was in fact called Sophia, which I thought quite becoming), yet the house was indeed a time warp. The colonial style of an educated family of French decent was apparent in the style and quality of furnishings, yet had sadly fallen into disrepair. I was in my element!! Poking (as politely as possible) around the extensive rooms of this dilapidated treasure trove revealed Singer sewing machines, antique hairpins, piles of paintings and boxes of disintegrating books...as well as some wonderful vintage dresses, all feeding into my imaginings of the days past when this was headed by an elegant women of high society. Certainly not what you’d get a snapshot of simply staying in a hostel! So you begin to see the delights of Couch surfing!
So, the next morn, after a traditional style breakfast of juice, arripas (a maize based bread cake thingy) stuffed with cheese (and ham if you like), scrambled egg and onion thingy and lots of tea or coffee, and I was whisked to the bus station to get my ‘Caracassss’ right outta there and was swiftly headed west-bound for Choroni and the beach, Puerto Colombia! (If you were wondering, for no apparent reason, my card was declined so never had to pay for that flight to Quito...hehehe). This little place was set back deep within the ‘Henri Pittier National Park’; a quiet fishing village composed of clusters of brightly coloured, single floor houses, populated with crispy uniformed school children and scatty little pooches. On the connecting bus from Maracay I was lucky enough to stumble across a couple of German lasses on their holidays from their volunteering placement in Bolivia – Marta and Anna. We chipped in for a room altogether which was very nice of them and soaked up the chilled atmosphere...but the place was so quiet and the beach was okay, but nothing overwhelming. Nice to just observe the fishermen loading up their catches of the day and then to munch on it!
But time is money in Venezuela, and the next day we’re back to civilisation and ready for couch surfing experience number two in Maracay! A mysteriously free, boy-racer stylee whizzing return to the city along the winding rounds of the park by night plonked us amongst Abby and her swimmer chums, who were excited to meet us...and then sprung on us that we were off to a party! Looking mightily rough, I, together with t’other travellers arrived in the open-air stairwell of our host’s aunty. A family birthday party! Ahh, little did we know what was to transpire! Politely chatting (or grinning inanely if you can’t speak Spanish, i.e. me) then out of no-where, a whole Mexican style band popped onto the metal stairwell and began to sing to the birthday lady! Wow! Elaborately embroider jackets, sombreros, trumpets, guitars, violins and hip-shaking a-plenty, the whole bunch of us was saturated with the sound of Latino grooves! The aunties were swaying away, particularly loving the old classics, whilst the kiddies wiggled their little bottoms, itching to break out into something more energetic then their restrained space allowed them. AAArrriiibbbbbaaaa!!! Bloody brilliant, to be sure! Then the rum began to flow and the birthday cake brought out, where we all contributed a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ in our native tongues, before the ‘the youngsters’ pumped up the beats in the tiny apartment living room space and grinded our way into the night! Ahh, “You are their new toy” the gorgeous Mariangel commented, as the drunker they got, the braver and more raunchy the dancing became! Goodness, these lads could show you English chappies a thing or two about shaking ya shimmy and my thighs certainly had an unforeseen work out! Beers, post-boogie arripas and chilling at Abby’s house ensued and everyone became more confident and forthcoming with their English...wicked for me, the ignorant little Brit. Ha. Miguel particularly enjoyed saying the ‘F’ word, especially since no-one else seemed to appreciate it. Hmm.
Then to part with the German ladies as they were to hitch a ride to their next destination, whilst I hopped aboard a bus to the UNESCO heritage site, Coro, always bearing west to the Colombian Border. This little place was really quaint, but so quiet! It was somewhat bemusing as I simply was unsure where exactly all the people were! It was founded in 1527, and the colonial area where I was staying was somewhat beautifully maintained, with a stunning lemon church and pretty little plazas that gleamed in the early morning sunlight. A trip to the peninsula just north of the town together with some French travellers was a little disappointing as it was the WINDEST beach in the world...I morphed into the Samiad after an hour! With sand in every orifice the bus was grabbed back and our collective disappointment with Venezuelan food and prices culminated in French style pasta, cheese and bread whipped up in our hostel. These guys were on a holiday for two weeks and were generally disappointed. The best of Venezuela, according to Lonely Planet and much tourist information was nothing more than mediocre according to these guys, and I think Couch surfing is what made Venezuela for me.
So no time to waste, I was off to Maracaibo, the largest city in the west of the country and another couch to be surfed! Paola was amazing! She shouted the cost of my taxi as I’d run out of cash (due to avoiding withdrawing dinario from el banco), sorted us out with a lovely lunch and generally was really sweet. It is here that I met my first Londoner (despite him being of Germanic-Persian descent), and we were to become border-buddies the following day. Andres and I were to venture across the no-man’s land between Venezuela and Colombia early on Tuesday morning, encountering a lovely flat tyre on the way and deeply depleted funds. Without him I would have certainly been screwed on the money front! After the continual police checks at what seemed every 500metres, we finally obtained our stamp, endured the privilege of paying to leave the blinking rubbish ridden country (the attitude to litter is quite outrageous...it is simply a case of dropping whatever wherever, which is a real shame. In some places, it looks as though a gust of wind has carried a bunch of trash from the rubbish heap and belched it across the landscape), and off into Colombia we ventured, passport in hand, ready for a kidnap....or not.