Just as I had truly fallen into REM sleep, we were startled awake at 2AM by the bus driver who had pulled over and asked Willie to come to the driver's cabin with him. He was literally looking for a good place to drop us on the side of the road. A short while later, the doors opened and we were thrust into the warm night at a military checkpoint. The city of Barquisimeto, our starting point for cycling Venezuela, was somewhere "over there". We tipped our driver as he wished us well. "Good luck!" "Buen suerte!" coming from the other passengers of our luxury bus as we departed.
Before we left Seattle for our trip, many people cautioned us to take care, Colombia is a dangerous country. We found Colombians anything but threatening. When we told Colombians we were heading to Venezuela, many people cautioned us to take care, Venezuela is a dangerous country. As we boarded the bus, we hoped once again the warnings would be unnecessary.
When approaching any country, there's always a slew of unknowns and potential challenges. We heard there is more petty crime, people are unfriendly, drivers don't like bicycles on the roads, the police expect a bribe... in a word, it's unsafe. But when one is literally dropped along the highway at 2 in the morning and only barren concrete building nearby and city lights across some unseen divide, there's simply not much to do except have some faith it will all
The two military personnel watched us put bicycles back together and load our panniers by headlamp. They stopped the regular flow of trucks to allow us to cross the divided four lanes and we parked our bicycles under the watch tower. Welcome to Venezuela!
After 22 hours of mostly wakefulness, I easily agreed to pull out the thermorests and lay down in the open air and elements for a couple hours as we wait for sunrise. No time for moderation now! We snuggled under our fleece blanket while trucks ground their gears to a halt a few meters away, then carried on with the roar of their engines after a quick nod from the patrol. What price would we pay when we woke, I wondered.
Our plan was to get up at 5am, and pedal into the fifth largest city of Venezuela at daybreak. At 5:10 the coffee and arepa (corn cake, this time stuffed with tasty meat) cart arrived and we enjoyed that first cuppa joe in a new country. When we offered to buy the military guards breakfast, we were flatly refused ... so much for needing to bribe the military. Dawn actually came an hour and a half later because of the time change, but who could have slept through all that bustle anyway? As the sky turned pink, we pedaled towards the city center as 18-wheelers brushed past us inches away from us hovering on the white-painted line.
At the first off-ramp, we stopped to tighten some of our bicycle joints that we hastily put together in the middle of the night and discovered our bike tools were missing. Somewhere in our groggy haze we had either left tools or they had been lifted while we slept. Willie jetisonned all his bags and left them with me at the edge of town while he circled back to look. A half an hour ... 45 minutes ... we hadn't gone that far away ... what's wrong? Crazy thoughts creep in when you are abandoned on the side of the road in a foreign country. Crazy thoughts will lead me to do bold things like stop a passing cyclist ... wait, there's a cyclist in Venezuela!?... and communicate with him that my husband has gone to look for a tool for our bicycles but I think the tool is lost and so is my husband. I don't know what this guy can do to help, but I'm looking for any crumb I can get. Just as my new cyclist friend is ready to ride up the road looking for Willie, Willie comes running his bicycle down the offramp towards me.
No tools, but a flat tire to round out our morning. Willie had tried a shortcut which became a wrong way and he ended up running back to me knowing that by this time I would have imagined the worst. Tire fixed, it turns out my bike buddy had connections with a bicycle shop and he lead the way weaving through morning commute traffic to place of work--a print shop. Entering the business, we see trophy after trophy of bicycle races. The print shop owner was an old time racer and we were immediately pulled into the bicycling brotherhood. The old pro had a tool to tighten our frames. We were then escorted to the largest bicycle shop in the area where we sought information and help from locals.
I like to think that we traded in a few tools and got amazing help and kindness in exchange.
Willie spent much of the day working on exchanging dollars on the black market. A tricky business of needing to find a secure source at a good rate. I spent the day hunting down maps since our one map of Venezuela seemed highly inadequate. We had success on both accounts.
It doesn't take long for some place foreign to feel familiar. The trepidation of entering town was long gone by the time we pedaled out the main road heading towards the Andes. We easily reached Guarico and looked up Jose Luis, a cyclist we met in Barquisimeto, who had sketched out a route to Merida for us. He had suggested we call him when we got to his town, and to his surprise, that's just what we did.
A place to stay was another problem though. We had left the coast of Colombia in part because of the busy Semana Santa-Holy Week, but quickly discovered that we would face the same room shortages and closed business challenges no matter where we were. Searching for a room in town, we assembled a full entourage of young cyclists eager to escort us. When not a room was to be had, a cell phone call away confirmed that the kids would show us the way to a finca on top of the hill where we could pitch our tent.
The hill turned out to be a ridiculous incline not fit for these cyclists legs, and I eagerly traded my loaded bike with one young lad who graciously pushed it up the grade. At the top, we found paradise and rewarded our young guides and sherpas with cookies.
Our misfortune of the lost tools had now lead us to a beautiful farm with a view that took our breath away. There in the distance were the mountains we were about to climb. As the sun set, our host, Jorge, arrived and greeted us in perfect English. Jorge had lived in the United States for several years and was a welcome source of information, friendship and insight into Venezuela. We also quickly learned that the next day was a bicycle race that would come through town and end a few kilometers up the mountain road. We were invited to join the support crew at a water stop in the morning and celebrate at the finish line.
Suddenly this country that didn't respect bicyclists was FULL of bicycles. Around 200 racers (2 of them women) climbed the same road we had come the day before. We knew their pain as they panted towards the finish line -- faces tight with concentration, muscles glistening with sweat mixed with mid-morning rain. At the top it was a celebration of bicycles and we were quickly introduced to the gathered crowd and interviewed for television.
Jorge and his family invited us to stay on another night and enjoy a Venezuelan fiesta complete with roasted pig -- slow cooked all day Cuban-style by his brother-in-law. Friends and family gathered, food was shared, along with laughter and music. In just two short days, Venezuela was no longer a country to be cautious of, but one that will live in our memories forever.
Welcome to Venezuela! Adventure in another country begins...
Note, this blog entry was started about a half a life time ago, but the Net went down, we cycled on, and are at long last connected. It's nice to know we were missed these last couple of weeks. There are many stories yet to tell.
Love to you all,
Kat & Willie