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Gum On My Shirt

Monday, August 29th, 2005

27 August 2005 (Saturday) – Mérida to San Cristobal, Venezuela

After breakfast, I hopped onto the local bus to get to the bus terminal. I made inquiries for buses to San Cristobal and found one leaving at 10am. It was 9am then, and I was apparently the first to sign up for the trip. I sat on the bench, reading, until the bus slowly filled up and got ready to leave at around 10+am. Then, we seemed to be waiting for someone else as the bus sat there near the exit, ready to leave but yet not leaving.

Finally, someone opened the door and hopped in. Hey, I know this guy! I waved to him, “Hey, Richard!!!” Yep, it was German-Richard whom I met in Caracas last week. Strange to see him here. I thought he would be travelling much faster than I as he had only 2 months to make it from Caracas, Venezuela to La Paz, Bolivia, while I intend to make the same trip in 3 to 4 months.

The bus stopped for a snack-break at around mid-day. It was only then that I discovered that someone had left a piece of gum on the back of my seat!!!! ARGGHHH!!!!!! So, now, my Wallace and Gromit T-shirt had sticky gross gum stains all over the back, and my jacket, both inside and outside, was ruined as well! Horrors!!!!

I was really mad! I mean, I know I am always the butt of chewing gum jokes whenever people learn that I am from Singapore. But I am proud to say that I am GLAD Singapore banned the import of gums for the past 10 years. What use does chewing gum serve anyway? It only dirties the streets and ruins clothes and shoes. This person put the gum here on purpose, NOT BELOW the seat in an attempt to dispose it, but AT THE BACK of the seat in an attempt to cause damage. My blood was absolutely boiling when I discovered the mess and continued to boil for the rest of the ride.

All the way to San Cristobal, I tried my best to remove the sticky stains. Not very successful. I wondered if a lavanderia could remove them.

Anyway, when we arrived in San Cristóbal, Richard got ready to hop on another bus straight to Bogotá. Gee… I was a little nervous when I thought of crossing the Venezuelan-Colombian border by myself. So, now with Richard around, in a way, I could cross the border with him. But I had an obligation to stay a night in San Cristobal. So, I could only bid farewell to Richard and wish him well, perhaps, we would meet each other later in the trip.

I came to San Cristobal because, way, way back in Manaus, my guide for the jungle trip whom I had named Jorge, was from Venezuela. And, being very helpful, he had given me various names and contacts here. However, he later told me I could not go to his sister’s place as she was travelling in Europe, and I later changed my mind about going to Choroni where his mistress was, and I did not contact his sister-in-law in Mérida because I sensed bad blood between them, and I figured it was unwise for me to impose on her… And his final contact was his ex-business partner living in San Cristobal. He is Juan, and he apparently owned an organic cacao farm. Jorge had seemed very keen that I should meet his ex-business partner. Frankly, I was interested as well to visit an organic cacao farm.

I had contacted Juan back in Mérida, but he told me he was in Valencia then, and MIGHT return to San Cristobal on Sunday, 28 August. As San Cristobal was enroute to Colombia, I decided to come here, stay a night, contact him tomorrow, and see how things go. Perhaps I could visit his farm and stay overnight at his place.

If not for this, gosh… there was absolutely no reason to stay in San Cristobal. It feels like a very horrible city. It did not feel safe, it felt like a frontier town, although it was not really at the border. It was dirty, noisy and a mess. The 2 hotels I walked to turned out to be half-demolished or closed buildings. I finally found another one. It was a tad expensive for me, but the lady at the counter insisted that this was a ‘family’ hotel. Hahaa, she seemed to suggest that any hotels cheaper than this were used by prostitutes. Guess I was better off here.

Los Nevados

Saturday, August 27th, 2005

25 August 2005 (Thursday) – 26 August 2005 (Friday) – Los Nevados, Venezuela

I had heard that the Los Nevados excursion is an interesting trip to take from Mérida and apparently, one could go by yourself, without a tour agency. Thank goodness. Let’s try…

There are several options of doing the trip. I figured I would take the cable-car up to the 4th station Loma Redonda, located at around 4045m above sea level, and walk for 5-6 hours to Los Nevados, at 2700m. Then, the next day, I would take a jeep back to Mérida.

However, at the tour agency (which I had booked my excursion with the other day) where I stopped to buy a woolly cap, I learnt from the guy there that all tickets for the cable-car were sold out. Sold out??!! It was barely 8am, I was incredulous.

As a matter of fact, he had just finished explaining to 2 Dutch guys ahead of me that they ought to take the jeep up to Los Nevados instead and do the hike the other way, with mules as this time, it would be uphill all the way to 4045m. So, he hurriedly brought me to join the 2 Dutch guys to share the jeep up. The Dutch guys, Bas and Dennis, were as surprised as I was about the tickets being sold out at this time. After they were told by the ticket-seller, they spotted a cable-car going up with only 2 persons. Go figure…

Anyway, there was also a Spanish middle-aged lady waiting with us and when it looked like there was no one else joining, the jeep driver left with the 4 of us. The jeep climbed through very rough bumpy roads, winding up and up the mountains. The view down at the valley was, needless to say, spectacular. At some valleys, there were actually rather modern-looking apartment buildings. Wow, impressive.

The road was very rough, we were being rocked back and forth ruthlessly. When we stopped for a pee-break, Bas, who had turned deathly pale, threw up all his breakfast. Poor dear.

On the ride up to Los Nevados

Through the Looking Grass...

After a few hours, we started to have opposite traffic, which was tricky to negotiate as the road was very narrow, mostly suitable just for 1 jeep. But somehow, they always manage to find a spot to back up to and slide through with barely an inch to spare, exchanging greetings along the way even.

Ooo! Tight traffic along the mountain road!

We reached Los Nevados after about 4 hours. Los Nevados is a pretty little town, with a striking white church, seemingly jutting out of the mountain’s edge. And this town has just 1 street. Bas, Dennis and I found a posada that sits right at the top of the town with a magnificent view, dinner and breakfast included, for 15,000 bolivares. The Spanish lady, Paloma, preferred something more luxurious and stayed at another posada. But this town, being so tiny, we ran into her right after.

Los Nevados, the tiny town perched on the edge of a mountain

We were hungry, and there was only 1 cafetín (small restaurant) in this town and which had only 1 item available – soup, arepa and some cheese. As we settled down, the elderly guy then ordered his daughter to start cooking the soup. Well, we had all the time in the world to wait, of course… for, what else could we do here. The food arrived about 2 hours later.

Bas, Dennis and Paloma, enjoying warm cups of coffee

We spent the afternoon sitting out in the sun and chatting and later, I popped over to Paloma’s posada which had hammocks hanging out at the courtyard. She got me permission to lie on the hammock. Wow, from the courtyard, there was a fantastic view of the mountains down below. What a place to hang a hammock! And what luck I have to be lying here in the hammock!!! This is my belated birthday present indeed. Yesterday did not go too great for me, all wet and cold and no condors, but today, today is such a gorgeous and blue day, with pleasant sunshine and superb views – an absolutely perfect day in the mountains.

I lay there til the wind got too cold and I had to scamper off to get my sweater. After dinner, Bas, Dennis and I went back to the cafetín for some hot drinks. The Dutch guys could not speak Spanish, but I was able to converse with the elderly guy running the cafetín, asking about his family and how life is like here. I have always tried to imagine being born and living in a town with just a couple of streets. I can’t imagine it, I’m sorry, I belong to the city.

He has a farm about 40 mins’ walk from the town. Although the town of Los Nevados has just 1 street, Los Nevados actually included a wide area of mountains where there are many outlying farms. He grows maize, wheat, potatoes, mostly for their own consumption and occasionally, for sale. I asked if he goes to Mérida often. He said, about once in two or three months, as it cost too much to go there by jeep. He preferred to stay here in Los Nevados as it is very peaceful. It is indeed. How many children do you have?, I asked. 14.  What???  14!?!!! Goodness! I asked if there is television here. He replied, within the last few years, there was. But before, no. That was why he has so many children! Hahahaaa….

Oh, it is great to be able to just sit and chit-chat a little with the locals, getting to know them a bit. I have been polishing up my Spanish since I crossed into Venezuela and I look forward to improving it further.

That night, we kept seeing flashes of light that illuminated from behind the mountains. How bizarre!! What were they? They looked like lightenings, but there was no sound and the weather was perfect. And they were not really flashes across the sky but just huge lights that came from behind the mountains. We tried to ask the posada guy. He explained these are shooting stars and that they happen all the time. What? Shooting stars? Some shooting stars!! I was not convinced of what they were but they were surely very interesting and very memorable to me.

The next day, after breakfast, we were ready to head off. The posada guy arranged 4 mules for us. 3 for Bas, Dennis and I and 1 mule for a Venezuelan middle-aged guy who was heading the same way. Paloma would take the jeep back. She had told us yesterday that she had seen the mule-trails up in the mountains and they looked positively scary! Gosh, I recalled Maqroll again. As I had explained during my Amazon River trip, Maqroll had damn scary adventures from the Amazon to the Andes. And I recalled a scene where the mules that he was driving fell down the edge of the mountains!! Also, the last book I read was about war in the Brazilian jungles. Again, more horrendous descriptions of mules falling off or whatever.

Starting our 4-hour mule ride up to 4,100m

Ahem… I looked at the mules nervously. I had asked if the route was safe and they assured me it was. I asked for the most tranquilo mule, the guide said they were all the same. OK, here we go. 4 hours on the mules.

Breathtaking surrounding mountains

Bas’s mule was all white, named Palomo (dove), Dennis’ mule was dark brown, named Conejo (rabbit) and my mule, of a lighter shade of brown, was named Carita (little face) because he had a white patch on his face. The other mule ridden by the Venezuelan, in a shade of chestnut brown, was named Lucero.

We started off the journey on a gentle slope along the mountain sides. I looked up ahead of us and saw trails up the sides of the mountains in front of us. I asked the guide if that was our route. Yep, and it was not long after before we were right on the part of the trail that I had spotted earlier. The journey was slowish, but it allowed me to peacefully absorb and appreciate the view all around me. That is, if our mules were not fighting!

I soon found out that Carita and Conejo were buddies. Carita was fine if Conejo walked in front of him or right by him. In fact, Carita seemed to enjoy squeezing right at the back of Conejo, to his left sometimes and then, to his right. As a result, my pants were often used to wipe Conejo’s ass. Great.

But if Palomo tried to overtake Carita, Carita would stab Palomo in the face. There! Buzz off! If Palomo was already right in front, in other words, in front of Conejo, Carita could not care less. But Carita positively detests Lucero and would not let Lucero anywhere near him at all. If Lucero appeared anywhere within his vision, he would find ways and means to get up ahead of Lucero, cutting him off or knocking his head at Lucero or whatever. Gosh, his temper!

And I had asked for the most tranquilo one.

Sometimes, these ‘fights’ to get in front or knock each other off, occurred at the very edge of the trail. Other times, the mules raced up fiercely to get up ahead of one another, scaring the shit out of me. I held on with all my might as I seemed to be half-falling off Carita most of the time.

The last part of the journey must be the toughest for the mules. They had to climb up a switchback of stony rocks, up and up, until we were above the clouds. Often, they stopped and panted heavily and the guide would make little noises to urge them on. Poor dears.

We finally arrived at Alto de La Cruz, a pass with a huge cross. To bless the hikers, I hope and not because a lot of people had died here. From there, we looked down at a snakey path and could see the Loma Redonda station which was the 4th cable-car station. Of course, a few minutes later, the clouds came and engulfed the station totally. We disembarked from the mules and bid farewells to our guide. We had taken 4 hours exactly.  Then, we walked slowly down to the station.

Finally, the fourth cable-car station Loma Redonda came into view

Isolated crater lake near Loma Redonda station

The 4th station was at 4045m above sea level. Very high, but still, there was one more station, Pico Espejo at 4765m. I knew we would not be able to see anything but we just had to do it, to go all the way to the highest cable-car station in the world. We bought the tickets and took the cable-car. Wow, indeed, we saw the cable’car lines disappear into nothingness.

At Pico Espejo, there was an announcement that one should descend within 45 minutes as there was not enough space up there, and also usually, people would feel awful after this time frame.

The peak totally enshrouded in clouds

When I got off the cable-car, I felt like I was floating. I asked Dennis and Bas if the station was rocking to and fro. Nope. Oh no, but I could not keep my legs steady. Anyway, I just walked very slowly to the peak outside where there was a statue of Virgin Mary. The rest of the view was totally in the clouds. Some people got down to the mountains and started throwing snow-balls at one another. I went down for a bit, but was too weak to seriously pack snow-balls. Bas hit Dennis and me a few times. I barely made an attempt at revenge. After a while, Dennis was also not feeling well and we queued to go down. Indeed, it took me a total of 45 minutes before feeling outright horrible. I could barely stand, I felt like vomitting, I could not keep my head up. There was no solution except descent.

Freezing at the peak of 4,700m with Dennis

I was in no shape for a snow fight but not these people

At Loma Redonda 4045m, I felt slightly better but the ground was still swaying under me. One teenage girl vomitted in the cable-car. Poor dear. By La Aguada at 3452m, I was fine and could talk again. The descent from La Aguada to La Montaña at 2436m was nearly 1000m. What a hair-raising ride! And then, from La Montaña back to Mérida, we had 2 buskers on board, singing traditional and apparently very funny songs to the delights of the Venezuelan tourists. It took us more than 2 hours in total to descend from Pico Espejo.

Heading down towards Mérida

Wow, what an amazingly memorable trip this was! My butt was very sore, but the whole adventure was truly worth it.

Pico El Aguila

Friday, August 26th, 2005
24 August 2005 (Wednesday) - Mérida, Venezuela Today is Jorge Luis Borges' birthday. Today is Yasser Arafat's birthday. Today is Paulo Coelho's birthday. Today is Steve Guttenburg's birthday. Today is Stephen Fry's birthday. Today is my birthday. And I woke up to a ... [Continue reading this entry]

The Taste of Eternal Love

Friday, August 26th, 2005
23 August 2005 (Thursday) - Mérida, Venezuela I did not sleep a wink last night. Not because I was freezing cold. No, I was in my fleece jacket as I was rather prepared. But the elderly couple behind me could not stop ... [Continue reading this entry]

The Long Wait

Wednesday, August 24th, 2005
22 August 2005 (Monday) - Tucacas to Valencia to Merida, Venezuela When I reached the highway to try and catch a local bus back to Valencia, I was shocked at the huge crowd waiting there, lugging their luggage and their babies. ... [Continue reading this entry]

Parque Nacional Morrocoy

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2005
21 August 2005 (Sunday) - Parque Nacional Morrocoy, Venezuela Parque Nacional Morrocoy is a series of mangrove islands with amazing-looking beaches. The water is calm, clear and very warm, all characteristics of Caribbean waters. There are some corals and ... [Continue reading this entry]

¡Hola china!

Monday, August 22nd, 2005
20 August 2005 (Saturday) - Caracas to Valencia to Tucacas, Venezuela Although Venezuela is in South America, it is in the northern hemisphere. That is why now in August, it is the summer vacation and everyone is on holidays! ... [Continue reading this entry]

Ready To Leave Caracas

Monday, August 22nd, 2005
19 August 2005 (Friday) - Caracas, Venezuela There really isn't much left to do in Caracas. I think the reason I am still here is perhaps due to inertia, as I was pretty comfortable where I was staying and I really ... [Continue reading this entry]

Play It Again, Sam

Friday, August 19th, 2005
18 August 2005 (Thursday) - Caracas, Venezuela Before I came to Caracas, I had written to a handful of people asking for accommodation. Besides the great couple I am staying with, Rafael and Rosa, I also received a reply from a ... [Continue reading this entry]

What About Caracas?

Thursday, August 18th, 2005
17 August 2005 (Wednesday) - Caracas, Venezuela What about Caracas, indeed? I really have to admit, I had absolutely zero idea about this city before I came. So, I was really delighted these past few days to make little discoveries about ... [Continue reading this entry]