Showing posts with label Venezuela. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Venezuela. Show all posts

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Venezuela to Brazil; of roads, towns and shakedowns

By the time that I was finally faced with an armed man demanding money, I laughed; it had been that kind of day.

Up early to drive 650kms south from Puerto Ordaz to the border town of Santa Elena de Uairen, we set off in a reasonably jolly mood, tempered slightly by the effects a lovely bar in which beer costs 50c per bottle.

Las Cristas
The drive south was interesting, to a point, and from time to time. Latin America is not ridden with historical towns and monuments; rural Venezuela is a pretty hard scrabble place, with low-lying towns busy with nail shops, automotive repairs, tattoo parlours, coffee hang-outs and the other necessities of day-to-day life. The countryside is beautiful; the towns are functional.

We passed south through town after town, passing El Callão, a gold mining town famous only as the supposed residence of Henri Charrière, or Papillon, after his escape from the French penal system.

From there we headed into the Canaima National Park, although it has to be said that roads through jungles offer little idea of what they have to offer beyond the first ten feet of deep and myriad greens. We did see, however, dozens of muddy 4WD vehicles, a testament to the parks attractions, and an indication of much to be explored, but we drove on.

Stopping only to fill with gas, and this proved a little more difficult than one might have thought. Long lines at gas stations, and some with no fuel for sale was a little odd for this oil-rich country. However, when we found out that to fill our Hyundai Santa Fe with 60 litres of fuel cost 5 Bolivars, we realized why.  

The Gas Stop
Dick and Alfonso
Bear in mind that there are 600 Bolivars to the dollar; 5 of them represents less than one cent. To fill a tank; yes, this is not a misprint. A bottle of wine, however, costs about 13,000 bolivars, and even a litre of water set me back 250 of these peculiar Venezuelan Bolivars.

And so we continued; all the while cognizant of the dangers of travelling through the “Wild and Lawless Venezuelan Savannah”; well, it was a bit of a let down on that side, and perhaps the fifteen military checkpoints that we passed through had something to do with it. It seemed safe, and unless one ran out of gas, very interesting indeed. We were expecting to see clusters of young women walking delicately after surgery, a new specialisation apparently of the doctors of Puerto Ordaz is the reshaping of Brazilian bottoms, but to no avail, perhaps because it was Sunday

It was, in fact, the last of these military checks that proved difficult. We were singled out to empty our suitcases in the sun, and then replace our non-sinister clothes and “personal effects”.  Clearly not satisfied, our young soldier called another young soldier who led me quietly into a dark room. On the wooden table lay about seventy tubes of Colgate toothpaste and an equal number of bottles of powder; I could see what these chaps were up against.

The Savannah, with a Tepuy in the background
I emptied my pockets; he counted my money; he looked at my passports and credit cards and told me to put them all back in my pocket. And it was at this moment, that the young, gun-toting Private C. Jiminez indicated that my expedient departure would be eased with a payment of "say, one dollar".

Gun or no gun, I couldn’t help laughing, and gave the poor bugger five. I have been shaken down by professionals at borders, the TransDniestran / Ukrainian border still brings me to a shudder, but this poor lad was clearly in the preliminary learning stages. Still giggling, I told my compadre Dick about the soldiers’ form, and sent him in. In a fit if remorse, possibly prompted by my writing down his name and that of the battalion, the novice Jiminez came quickly out and pressed the fiver back in my hand, waving us away to the border, and our next adventure.

We bought our driver, a fine chap called Alfonso lunch before we parted, and paid our bill to him; fortunately the 90,000 Bolivars (remember, 5 for 60 litres of gas) could be paid in dollars at a rather advantageous rate; given that the largest denomination of Bolivars is 100, 90,000 would have required a brick of the things.

The choice is yours
The Venezuelan / Brazilian border is OK. I like land borders; I like the no-man’s land between the frontier posts and the sense of thrill as one passes through. It has to be said, though, that while the Venezuelans seem to have been building infrastructure at a whopping rate while they were flush with oil money and revolutionary fervor, this construction stopped at the immigration booth which is a trailer that allows three folks at a time to be processed.

Never mind, we were, and plodded up the hill to the Brazilians; by now, adept at jumping queues through wither linguistic challenge or otherwise, we found ourselves tumbling out of the Brazilian building and into Brazil. Obviously.

The soon-to-be-late taxi

Finding a cab to take us on the rest of the journey, the next 230 kms to Boa Vista proved to be a little harder than we thought, and eventually we settled on a rather old vehicle that in the end didn’t quite make it.

Forty minutes from Boa Vista the alternator died, and we were stopped at the side of a dark but moderately busy highway. Fortunately, he could find some patchy cell coverage some two hundred metres from the van, and within an hour, another car came and finished of the journey.

A long day, but really rather interesting.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Of Panama, Bolivars and COPA: Days one and two of the Gondwanaland Redux expedition

Here’s the thing.

When one is a points junkie like me, travel routings become secondary to the availability of the elusive redemption seats. Coupled with my interests in travelling to some rather unusual places, this has put me on an odd route or two.

I wanted to go to the Rupununi savannah in southern Guyana. Doesn’t everybody? It is a pristine land, well off the beaten track, and awkward to reach. Deciding against the obvious, flying to Georgetown and then flying south, I opted to fly first to Caracas, then to Puerto Ordaz (where I sit at this very moment), and tomorrow continuing by road to the Brazilian border (nine bumpy hours), and into Boa Vista, the capital of Brazil’s remote province of Roraima. From there, it is only a few hours up the river to the Guyaneseborder at Lethem.

The first stage was to get to Caracas.

I chose to use COPA, the airline of Panama, who fly from Chicago (among several other north American gateways) to their hub at Panama and thence to Caracas. And what a pleasant surprise the flight was; a brand new Boeing 737-800, with ample legroom in both business and economy, terrific flight crew and good in-flight service. It is amazing how low our expectations of airline service have become, and how little it takes to have us marveling.

Their hub, Tocumen Airport in Panama City, was an eye-opener. COPA operates 105 aircraft to seventy-one destinations in thirty-one countries; who knew. Their hub is a terrific transit point, and their fleet and scheduling allows one-stop connectivity between North, South, Central Americas and the Caribbean.

Our layover, seven hours, a function of reward seat availability rather than choice, was too long. Not really long enough to go into the city, as we were warned that the traffic on the return journey could have us gridlocked for a couple of hours; so we hung around, tired of the shops and eventually headed to Caracas.

We had prepaid a room at the curiously named, but very good Eurobuilding Hotel through our travel agency; however, when we arrived at 0100, we were advised that the payment of $80 had not gone through and that we would have to pay $149. Clearly, this displeased me, and at my most truculent, said “No”; I tried to call the reservation company who handled the booking, but being the middle of the night, I was on hold for an hour. Eventually, the poor girl at the check-in gave us rooms and said we should figure out payment in the morning; this was good, because once one gives in and pays, the money is gone.

In the morning, a delightful manager said that if the prepayment had been made that was good, but she didn’t see any reason to charge us again. So, I shall scour my credit card bills and see what happened. If anything.

But the story doesn’t end there.

She asked where we were going, and once I had outlined the itinerary she seemed to be genuinely worried. Suggestions like keeping money in my shoe, and hiding my iPhone as I wandered through the local bus stations seemed both sensible and unnerving.

Within an hour or so, she called to say that she had arranged for a car and driver from their sister property in Puerto Ordaz to drive us to the border; the nine-hour run would cost us 90,000 Bolivars, a good introduction to the Black Market.

Officially this would have been US$750. Unofficially, buying Bolivars "On the Black", the cost was US$150. An introduction to currency madness unseen (by me) since the Fall of the Wall. Taking her advice to heart, we were met by the driver at the airport, and advised that it was too late to set off tonight, but that we could stay at the Eurobuilding Hotel. We were driven there; far from town the hotel rose like a phoenix from the scrub, and delightful it is; a five-star property, all marble and fountains, and priced accordingly.

Well, remembering the advice about changing money, the 25,000 Bolivar per night room dropped immediately from $150 to $40/night, with a rather pleasant chap who was also checking in providing the exchange.

Needless to say, the restaurant and bar prices look attractive. The fact that the largest Venezuelan banknote is for 100 Bolivars is inconvenient, and the wad we have to pay off the driver’s 90,000 tomorrow will be spectacular.

Hopefully, the drive will be as well.