Welcome to Venezuela

Buenos Dias! Guten Tage! Hello from Venezuela!

For those whom I haven´t talked to recently; Gretchen and I are down in the far southeast corner of Venezuela for a little over 2 weeks of volunteer work and hiking. This email goes out to my usual travel list, and naturally speak now if you wish to be removed. We found this place, called ¨Peace Villages Foundation¨ with a google search on volunteering in South America. The descriptions were a bit vague, but the people friendly on email, so down we came.

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We left Denver on Thursday, after brushing the previous night´s snow off the car, temperature in the mid-20s. Less than 12 hours later we landed in Caracas at 10pm, 85F and very humid. bit of a thermal shock!
Interestingly, the people from American Airlines were very concerned about my camping stove fuel bottle. I had it filled with water, but it didn´t pass the sniff test, so I rinsed, and re-filled with soap to hide the gasoline smell, and then AA insisted we carry it on, so TSA could deal with us, not them. Great. It will reassure all of you who rely on airport security that my backpack, with aluminum cylinder went straight through the Xray with zero comment. Anyway, back to Caracas: Manfred from Peace Villages had said that our airport pickup was ¨all arranged¨ but nothing more. Sure enough, after we got through customs and into the jam-packed melee which is the Caracas international arrivals terminal (no Senio, no necesito taxi! si estoy seguro!), we found a guy holding a sign with our names. Spanish came in handy immediately as he spoke almost no English. He said it would be $100. Oy?! As the Spanish came back into working order I eventually figured out that for $100, the hotel is paid for, his service is paid for, and the rest of the $$ was converted to Bolivar so we´d have some currency. Fine, dropped at the hotel, which was noisy, but a place to sleep until the flight in the morning. We had reservations on Aeropostal - the main national airline. So we got to the airport at 6 for a 7:10 flight (my bad, thought it was 8:10. oops) and spent a while doing something Venezuelans spend much time doing - standing in lines which do not move. We change to the pre-paid ticket line, at which point I re-read the reservation confirmation which I had made through the Aeropostal website (also all in spanish) and realized that it was not a ticket, but merely a reservation requiring a visit to an Aeropostal office within 72 hours to confirm. Oy. not many of those in Denver.

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So we missed the Aeropostal flight, and immediately went over to Aserca, a local airline, for which there was no line, and a 7:30 flight which we just barely caught. The flight took us to Puerto Ordaz, a big modern city halfway to Santa Elena, our final destination. We spent the day with Wolfgang (so far most of the people we have worked with have been ex-pat German. go figure.), visiting parks, and looking at the Orinoco river (everyone with Enya now stuck in your head raise your hand... I thought so) , where it mixes with another river. The Orinoco is light grey, the other river (Caroni, I think), is almost black. Together they flow side by side, without mixing for many kilometers.

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Then the tough part of the journey began - the overnight bus trip to Santa Elena, leaving around 9pm and taking 10-12 hours. We got seats at least, (some people slept in the aisle) and it was air conditioned, so not toooo bad. But it was all night. And at 1am we woke to a guy in army uniform telling us all to get off with all our luggage for a check point. For an hour we stood in a line (which hardly moved, yes) to get our luggage searched and present passport. To make it a tad more surreal, the guard point had festive blinking Christmas lights wrapped around the support posts for the roof we stood under. I had to unpack my full backpack, and the camp stove took some explaining. Then back on the bus. Next time I woke up, the bus had acquired another 10 people standing in the aisle, and was broken. The driver was running around with a flashlight, pounded on some things on the engine, it seemed to be raining, and after about 20 minutes the bus started again and we headed up switchbacks into the rain. Gretchen slept through it all.

All the people who were standing disappeared around 6am, as it was starting to get light, and around 7am we arrived at....... another damn checkpoint. Where we waited a half hour for the bus ahead of us, and then all got out to stand in lines to be searched. I got special attention this time, got taken into the back room, had my small bag dissected, passport examined, and pockets emptied. In one pocket I had a plastic container with earplugs.

"Que son estos?" Asked the army guy.
¨Para los oyes¨ (for the ears) I told him.
He looks at the container again, and asks, quite reasonably ¨¿Porque hay tres??¨ (why are there three?)

Uh oh, haven´t made it to the destination and I´m in big trouble for having 3 ear plugs
I bluff
Lo Perdi! (I lost one) I tell the guard
He asks why my hands shake, and if I`m nervous I tell him I always shake like that (more or less true, but definitely more shaking after very little sleep for a couple days) Finally I am released. Gretchen had no problems of course

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So we arrive in Santa Elena at 9am, the far southeastern corner of Venezuela, near Brazil in an area known as the ´Gran Sabana´, a high (1000m and higher in elevation, which helps the temperatures and humidity quite a bit) area of rain forest and plains with dramatic mountains rising straight up from the plains. We are staying with Georgio y Claudia (He`s Italian, but keeping with the trend, she is German, as will be our hike trip leader this weekend. they´re everywhere), and Heiko, a volunteer is German. Since Claudia y Giorgio speak German, Spanish, Portuguese, and English, dinner conversations get multi-lingually challenging in a hurry. Our accomodations are pretty nice as far as volunteering goes - we have our own room with bathroom, running water and electricity! The bugs aren`t too bad, and it was delightfully cloudy all day. The locals accused us of bringing ¨the cold north wind¨. Cold my ass, it was a little over 80F today.

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Tomorrow morning we start the work with Manfred. We were supposed to be working on a play ground the first day, but that requires use of his car, which is out of petrol, and so, it turns out, is the town. Petrol is very very cheap in Venezuela, because it is the main (hell, only) export of the country, more than 80% of the GDP. So Brazilians come in to buy petrol - the line at the gas station can easily by 5-8 hours long says Giorgio. mein got. And now the gas station is just plain dry, so tomorrow we`ll be doing some re-forrestation type work, trying to work on patching up some slash-and-burn aftermath. Tuesday we´ll be at the Indian Village working with them to develop eco-tourism type things to try to reduce the slash-and-burn.

much more I could babble about, like the food, which is very good, but with 4 cats resident in the Kitch, bears close scrutiny before eating. But I´m tired, and sorry about all the `quotes, it´s a German keyboard (ja, really)

Ciao! Tshcuss! Adios!

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