Monthly Archives: January 2008

That Old Football Injury

January 19-20, 2008
Days 843-844

I decided to stick around Santa Marta to watch the Packers game, and what a waste that turned out to be. Not only did they lose, but I sustained an injury to my hand when I was cheering and it came into contact with a spinning metal ceiling fan. The fan was so mangled, it barely rotated anymore and I had to spend several minutes pounding the kinks out of its blades. My hand was left bloodied and bruised, but nothing was broken. I learned my lesson from my scuba diving course. You're always supposed to put your hand up when ascending to the surface because "it's better to lose a hand than a head." I put that advice to good use today.

There wasn't much else to report from Santa Marta other than that it was time to go. The heat there was unbearable, hitting 38 C (100 F) every day. The heat drained me of my energy, causing me to sleep almost all day until a small amount of relief came at night. I was in the area over two weeks, yet never experienced even a drop of rain to cool things off. I don't know how people can live in a climate like that.

A Park Called Tayrona

January 16-18, 2008
Days 840-842

Picture of man.

A plantain man.

After finishing my scuba diving coursework, I needed a few days to relax. I went with Samantha, a girl from Bogotá who was on vacation visiting her brother in Santa Marta, to Tayrona National Park. It was only an hour from Santa Marta, but only had a few dozen vacationing Colombians, compared with the thousands around the city. The park was beautiful and the beaches were endless, giving a perfect, relaxed atmosphere. And for once, I was able to walk barefoot through the sand and not worry about getting a shard of broken glass embedded in my foot. It was unlike anywhere else I had seen on the Caribbean coast.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Diving Lessons

January 9-15, 2008
Days 833-839

Picture of me.

Me under the water.

I started my PADI open water diving course with Gretel, an Australian who had been traveling for the last seven years, doing various jobs around the world. Teaching English in Japan and Ecuador, doing office work in Canada and England, and being a dive instructor in Honduras were all experiences she spoke fondly of. She had spent a total of five months in Taganga as a dive instructor, so she must have liked it.

Before my first dive, I had a lot of studying to do. The workbook I was given was filled with boring-but-necessary stuff about diving like how strong the water pressure is at different depths, how a diver can affect his/her buoyancy, and the constantly-stressed message that you can never hold your breath underwater. The book showed an example of a balloon being filled with air at a deep depth, then ascending to the surface, and expanding until it exploded. Then it said to imagine that the balloon was your lungs. Enough said.

When I went to my first lesson, I had to watch some videos that reemphasized everything I had already read and immediately put me to sleep. The funny thing I did remember from the videos was the constant reminder that the dives I would be doing would be in a swimming pool. That's strange, I didn't remember seeing a pool at the dive shop.

After the videos, Gretel and I loaded all of our equipment onto a pontoon boat with a bunch of other people going out diving for the day and headed along the coast for twenty minutes to our dive site. I put on my equipment, filled my BCD (an inflatable life jacket) with air, and jumped into the water. Gretel pointed where we were going and I tested my regulator (the thing you breath from) to feel what it was like before going under the water. When we were both ready, we let the air out of our lungs and our BCDs and began sinking. It was a creepy, yet exciting feeling.

Gretel grabbed my hand and led me to the bottom, only about five meters down. I had to do a bunch of exercises like take my mask off and swim around with it in my hand, take my regulator out and continue exhaling, and turn my air supply off and use Gretel's spare regulator. If one person runs out of air while diving, it's not like the movies where you have to pass the regulator back and forth. Instead, everyone has a spare, so two people can breath simultaneously from the same tank. After completing all of the tests, we went for a swim and got down to fifteen meters (fifty feet). The weightless feeling, being able to breath underwater, and the entirely new world I was experiencing were all amazing, but I was too focused on the pressure building up in my ears and not running out of air to appreciate it.

Picture of sea.

A good place to learn to dive.

We did five more dives after that, most of which involved a few tests to start, followed by half an hour or more of swimming around and looking at stuff. Coral was everywhere, as were the colorful tropical fish. We saw a few eels every dive, lurking behind the rocks in search of prey. At one point we saw a barracuda, a rare find for these waters. Every dive was interesting, and the more I dove, the more I got used to the environment. By the end of the course, I was able to hover upside down with my nose inches above the ground to look at something. I was hooked.

Once my open water course was done, I decided that I'd love to dive some more, and learning in the ocean was much better than in a pool, so I stayed for the advanced course as well. There wasn't so much studying this time, and our main objectives were doing a deep dive (to 30 meters/100 feet), a navigational dive using a compass, a buoyancy control dive, a photography dive, and a night dive. The deep dive had me a bit on edge, but I didn't experience nitrogen narcosis I was hoping for. The photography dive was fun because I was able to use an underwater camera and go nuts photographing everything I could. But my favorite was the night dive. There were lots of animals like lobsters and starfish that never were out during the day. I could only see a small amount of stuff at a time with my spotlight so I was able to take in more detail than I was during the day. On top of that was simply the thrill of going underwater at night, something people wouldn't normally think of doing. We also did some fun dives during the day, looking at whatever seemed interesting at the bottom of the sea.

Now I have done thirteen dives and am certified to go to forty meters depth and basically do everything you'd do on a normal recreational dive. I can feel Central America beckoning me to use these new skills in her waters.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Crowded but Fun

January 5-8, 2008
Days 829-832

Picture of Taganga.

The main beach in Taganga.

Santa Marta was full. It was high season, so Colombians and foreigners alike were vacationing in the sun. I couldn't find any hotels with vacancies, so I slept in the hallway of a hostel for the first two nights. There wasn't a lot of touristy stuff to see in Santa Marta, and it wasn't the cleanest city, but the fun atmosphere was a great change of pace from Venezuela. People were drinking, listening to music, and dancing in the streets all day, every day, and I felt entirely welcome to join them.

The beaches in Santa Marta weren't very pleasant, so I took a short trip to Taganga, a small fishing village just north of the city. There I found several beaches that were cleaner, but still overcrowded. The other thing I found in Taganga were a bunch of scuba diving shops offering cheap lessons. I decided it would be a nice place to learn and signed up.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Socialism At Its Finest

January 4, 2008
Day 828

There were no buses going to the border with Colombia, so I shared a taxi with a Venezuelan family on vacation. The taxi was a 1974 Chevy Malibu beast that immediately put the song "Stick Shifts and Safety Belts" into my head. The driver and the dad got to talking about gasoline, and when the dad said it cost 4500 bolivares (90 cents) to fill the tank in his new Volkswagen, the driver remarked how nice it must be to spend half as much money on gas as he did. So just like taxes, no matter how low gas prices go, people still complain about them.

On the way to the border, there were seven police checkpoints, sometimes within three minutes of each other. Only one guy searched my bag, and it was of the quick, "I've got better things to do than mess with this gringo" variety. Another annoyance happened when we waited in line for half an hour to pay a toll to cross a bridge. Other cars kept jumping ahead in line, much like people here do when they're not in vehicles, and my driver had to make sure his bumper was practically touching the car in front of us to protect his position. But the worst thing was that because of the country's falling economy, the toll price was only six cents. Even by Venezuelan standards, we probably wasted more in gas waiting in line than the toll cost. The crazy toll booth and having to show my passport nonstop made a ride that should have taken less than an hour (look at a map and you'll see what I mean) take four.

The line to get stamped out of the country wasn't long, but it ended up taking over an hour because there was only one person stamping passports. Thousands of people crossed that border daily, yet the Venezuelan government felt the need to employ twenty people at the border to stand around and do nothing, but only one to stamp passports. It was socialism at its finest.

When I finally was officially out of Venezuela, I walked across the border to the Colombian side and saw that the line was even longer. Judging by how slow things were moving, I figured it could take three more hours to get through. I got lucky, though, because the dad from my taxi had been saving my spot and was near the front. It quickly became apparent that an angry mob mentality was in effect because every five minutes someone tried to skip to the front and practically got their head torn off. People were giving me lots of stares, so I laid low as best as someone who's 6'3" in a land of midgets could while the dad fended for me. An American I had just met in line at the Venezuelan side started talking to me and the jeers from the crowd were immediate. The dad gave me a look that said "I'm protecting you, not him," and when an official opened the door, he darted through shortly before the crowd could execute him. Later he told me he had never seen anything like that debacle, even in his travels through Africa.

I wanted to go to Santa Marta, but because the passport stamping line was taking so long, I had to wait in a bus for two hours for more passengers to show up. I left Maracaibo as early in the morning as I could, but I still didn't get to Santa Marta until late at night. So after three days of straight travel, I was finally back somewhere I could relax. I had to make the quick journey because my cash was running low, and if you don't have dollars in Venezuela, it's more expensive than Europe.

Almost Out

January 2-3, 2008
Days 826-827

Now that New Year's Day had come and gone, it was finally time to start heading out of Venezuela. While waiting in line to board the ferry to the mainland, several kids were swimming near us and begging for people to throw coins to them. Occasionally someone would oblige and the kids would all go diving after the money. They had no pockets, so they stowed the coins in their mouths. Venezuela's money had taken such a nosedive, however, that the biggest coin was only worth ten cents, and most of the coins actually being thrown into the water were worth far less. I found it a disgusting display of the have's having a bit of fun at the have-nots' expense, in the same way one would throw bread crumbs to the pigeons in a park for a bit of entertainment.

The ferry was more expensive than the speed boat I had taken to the island, meaning that its patrons had a bit of money. Consequently, the people actually waited in line rather than pushing and shoving their way to the front the way they normally would. In fact, the ferry left right on time and was the only experience I had in all of Venezuela that felt somewhat organized. Back in Puerto La Cruz, I got an overnight bus to Valencia, followed by another bus the next day to Maracaibo. Unfortunately, Venezuela had cities called "Maracaibo" and "Maracay" near each other, so it was difficult to convince the ticket vendors that I actually wanted to go to the former, despite the latter's supposed importance.

I arrived in Maracaibo late in the afternoon and could have tried to get another bus to the Colombian border right away, but didn't want to risk the crossing at night. There was a hotel perfectly located next to the bus station, and when the lady at the desk asked how much time I wanted, I said “Just one night." While she was writing down my information, I sneaked a peak at the registry and saw that everyone who had come there before me only paid half as much as I did. I complained, but the lady at the desk told me that they had only paid for one hour. So it was one of "those" places. Still, it was cheap, clean, and you couldn't beat that location, so I stayed there and got a decent night's sleep on my last night in Venezuela.

Drowning My Sorrows with Twenty-Cent Beer

December 29, 2007-January 1, 2008
Days 822-825

I took the hotel owner's advice and took a boat before dusk to Isla Margarita. The trip was a little rough, and a girl puked onto the floor before she could access a plastic bag, and it immediately ran directly under my backpack. Otherwise, the trip went fine, and by the time I got to the island, the line for the boats was at least three hours long, so I was glad to have gotten an early start.

I started in Porlamar, the main city on the island. Despite being located on a tropical island where thousands of people took their vacations every year, it was not a pleasant place. Huge piles of garbage were everywhere in the streets, and the few garbage cans were only half full. Venezuela was by far the dirtiest country I had ever visited. There's garbage on the streets in every country in South America, but only in Venezuela do the people there actually live like wild animals.

Shortly after it got dark, I walked around a bit, but everything was closed and there were only a few lowlifes on the streets. The night scene in every city in Venezuela reminded me of a cross between Mad Max, Night of the Living Dead, and that scene from Back to the Future II where they accidentally go to the alternative 1985. The guy at the hotel warned me not to go out anymore or I would be murdered. So much for having a nice vacation to ring in the new year.

Later I went to the creatively named Playa el Agua (The Water Beach), the most popular beach on the northern part of the island. It didn't compare with the beaches in northern Brazil, but it was much nicer than anywhere else I had been in Venezuela nonetheless. The weather was hot and sunny, there were plenty of shady palm trees, and lots of people to hang out with.

The best part of Isla Margarita was the cheap alcohol. Being in a duty-free zone, Margarita was mainly famous amongst Venezuelans for cheap deals on electronics, but I didn't have enough cash left to look into it. However, when beer is twenty cents per bottle, a bottle of cheap rum costs $1.50, and a bottle of six-year scotch goes for $9, you can't go wrong. Indeed, Isla Margarita did have a lot to offer to ring in the new year properly.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Another Nasty Place

December 28, 2007
Day 821

I wanted to go to nearby Corumba today, but I couldn't find any buses going there despite its close proximity. I think I've already mentioned enough how unpleasant the Venezuelan people are, so suffice it to say that I got the first eastbound bus out of town that I could find but it still took two hours to leave the bus station, making for yet another long day in the unrelenting heat of the Caribbean.

Once again, I didn't get to my destination of Carupano until dusk. Only then did I find out that the bus actually passed through Corumba on the way there, but I couldn't tell from my map beforehand that that was the route we would be taking. But that didn't really matter because different people had told me that both places were nice, so I just picked one and went to it.

My hotel owner was the first person I encountered in Venezuela who not only knew what he was talking about, but was also willing to share some information with me. Unfortunately, the prognosis was bleak. Once again, despite being located on a peninsula on the Caribbean, Carupano didn't have any nice beaches and was a boring town to hang out in, but still somehow managed to be far too dangerous to go walking around at night. "This is Venezuela," was his explanation for the dangerous streets. He practically forbade me to leave the hotel without calling a cab first, so I decided to stay in my room because everything closed at 6:00 anyway.

The owner mentioned Puerto La Cruz as a nice place to go, but I had just come from there, and it sucked. The other place he recommended me to visit was Isla Margarita, a large island nearby which was normally a vacation destination for the wealthy people of Caracas. I had heard the island was expensive and I was running low on cash (and as discussed previously, 60% of my money would evaporate instantly if I withdrew it from an ATM), but I just wanted to find somewhere nice to go for New Year's, and Isla Margarita seemed like my only decent option remaining. I'll head there in the morning.

Slow Buses and Sewage Beaches

December 26-27, 2007
Days 819-820

I had a bus ride northbound that took way too long to go the short distance to the coast. The roads were actually in better condition in Venezuela than in most countries in South America, but a combination of a lack of any semblance of organization at the bus stations, tollbooths, police checkpoints, speed bumps, and broken glass causing flat tires meant that it was impossible to drive more than ten minutes without stopping. Despite my best efforts to leave Ciudad Bolivar early this morning, I didn't get to Puerto La Cruz until dusk.

Puerto La Cruz was located on the Caribbean Coast, so I figured I should stay one day to check out the beach. It looked like a nice place at night, but I soon found out that the city's above-ground sewage system emptied directly into the ocean, making the water unswimmable. In fact, I only had to walk around for a little while to realize that the entire city smelled of festering shit. That was too bad because the natural setting was nice enough to make Puerto La Cruz a tourism destination for foreigners, if only the Venezuelans could clean up their act.

My Shortest Layover Ever

December 23-25, 2007
Days 816-818

My flight back to La Paragua started out just like the one to Canaima. One Venezuelan guy was in the back seat, and I was the co-pilot. The plane was much older than the first one, but that didn't bother me at first. I knew the flight was going to take thirty minutes, but after fifteen, I noticed that one of the gages indicated that we were descending at a steep five degrees. The trees and river below us started getting bigger and bigger, and I started to panic that something was wrong. My heart was pounding, my palms were getting sweaty, and just as I was about to start screaming at the pilot, we turned a corner, and suddenly there was a strip of dirt in front of us. Before I knew it we were on the ground and the guy in the back left the plane and paid the pilot 100,000 bolivares ($20). The pilot shouted in the direction of the three houses that the village consisted of if anyone wanted to go with him, but there were no takers. We had a short one-minute layover, then took off again. It was fine that we landed in the middle of nowhere, but I sure wish the pilot would have told me about that beforehand.

I went to the same hostel as last time in Ciudad Bolivar. Not much was happening in town, but I figured I might as well stay there for Christmas because it was already late on the 23rd. Sure enough, everything in the city was closed for two days and it got very boring.

But a lot of other backpackers showed up and I spent a lot of time getting to know them. There were the two Irish friends who wanted to come to Venezuela from Guyana, but found out that there were no border crossings because Venezuela laid claim to about half of Guyana's territory (I think Chavez just wants Venezuela to look like an elephant). They ended up taking a rickety old boat through the ocean where they were sure they were going to sink and were praying the entire time. When they got into Venezuela, one of the military guards found out that they were hiding in the back of a truck and demanded a large bribe as soon as his boss went to sleep. They didn't have enough money for the bribe, so they ran for it, jumped into the first taxi they could find, and made a beeline for Ciudad Bolivar. When I last saw them they were about to try to head to Brazil, but they didn't have the necessary passport stamps from Guyana or Venezuela because of the illegal transfer. I have no idea how things worked out. The craziest part of that story was that they could've come to Venezuela legally via Brazil in less time than the illegal boat/taxi ordeal took. At least they had a lot of adventure in them.

I also got to meet an American Vietnam veteran who was too mentally screwed up when he came home from the war to hold down a job. He's been a loner most of his adult life, but started traveling a few years ago and found that it helped him socialize a lot better. It was a really sad story, but at least he found a makeshift support group with all the backpackers he'd been meeting.

There were also some Slovaks (the first ones I'd met) living in Germany, some Germans living in Canada, a well-traveled Italian woman who spoke perfect English, Spanish, and French, a Chilean who had smoked enough weed in his life to put a permanent smile on his face, and a old German woman who smoked, drank, and used drugs, but that was understandable considering she was a widow and had barely survived the Tsunami in southern India exactly three years ago. A few other random world travelers rounded out the rowdy bunch at the hostel. There wasn't much excitement around town, but it was still an interesting Christmas.