Week 24 - Merida (Ven) to Boa Vista (Brazil)

Trip Start Aug 01, 2007
Trip End Dec 19, 2008

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Where I stayed
Hotel Tachira
Canaima Base Camp

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Jan 11th - On a bus from Merida to Canaima

Really not liking these long bus rides. Daytime it's ok because you can peer out the window and marvel at the landscape but at night you can't see shit and you're leaving your life in the hands of the driver.

The bus was fairly empty and me grabbing the front left seat I tried the oldest trick in the book. Around midnight I curled up across all 2 seats pretending to sleep. Of course this was foiled at 4am when a load of people got on and a girl shook me awake (or so she thought).

During the numerous stops I chatted to a solo travelling Japanese fella who's been cycling from Alaska down to Argentina for 4 years! (fair play). He had to catch a bus to Merida because two English guys had nicked his money and passport in Canaima (thieving toe rags...I actually apologised in defence of the English). He's now got another 4 years to cycle back via the west of South America and the East coast of the US.

Apart from sore bum cheeks and a dodgy back the 22 hour bus ride went fairly quickly and at 7pm I arrived in Ciudad Bolivar. This is the main place to book tours to the famous Angel Falls. Even the cab driver tried to sell me a tour to the falls.

Got a fairly cheap hotel (Hotel Tachira at 75,000 Bolivars) close to the airport so I could go straight on a tour tomorrow morning. I immediately collapsed on the bed in a sleep induced coma.

Jan 12th - Ciudad Bolivar

I was supposed to get to the airport at 7am as all the tours leave at 8am but instead woke up really annoyed with myself at 9.30am. I went to the airport anyway and booked the tour for tomorrow instead. Because I didn't bring enough Dollars the tour will cost me the sickening $450 instead of $200 (Bejesus!).

Had the whole day to waste in Ciudad so walked around the town (absolutely nothing to do here) and the only meaningful thing I did today was walk along the Orinoco (too filthy to swim). About 50 years ago my Dad in his youth and serving in the Norwegian Merchant Navy had also sailed on this river.

Had a bit of bad news today..ok, well it was really shitty news actually. The online company I use and pay to store all my high resolution travel photos, videos and copies of my travel documents had decided to go bust and disappear without telling anyone. In a panicked rage and despair at the loss of 6 months of photos from New York To Venezuela I spent all night trying to get them back again. I hit the jackpot late at night and managed to get everything back, all 4 gigabytes (bypasses the main site which was down) and uploaded most to a new company (reliable apparently...phew).

Jan 13th - Ciudad Bolivar to Canaima

Sweet Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Woke up late again this morning at 7.30 and with no time for any morning ablutions I dashed to the airport just as the plane was about to leave.

I say plane in the broadest sense. Not your everyday plane but a 4 seater plane that looked like it had just been glued together from a boxed kit. Sitting in the back seat it felt like there was only a thin layer of cushion between me and the ground and take off was a wobbly affair of bouncing a few times and finally with a sigh from everyone it took off. The pilot obviously being an expert decided to start texting his girlfriend using his hands and piloted with his knees. This was at the precise moment that the plane bounced into a huge black cloud...visibility was zero. Of course everyone was thinking the same as me...why can't you bloody wait till we touchdown in an hour you pleb. The plane wobbled allot so he saw sense and stopped.

The hour and seven minute flight was both frightening for me but at the same time exciting and the views were amazing (rain forest, rivers lagoons, waterfalls...). Everyone's prayers were answered and our text happy pilot took us down with a judder and a hop.

After a 30 minute wait me and a group of about 7 people were whisked off to the Canaima base camp (a big house with no walls and a lot of hammocks). After waterproofing our luggage with black bin liners we all hopped into a dugout canoe with outboard motor.

The 5 hour boat ride up the Rio Churun was bum cheek crunching but the views were astonishing. Rain forests either side and in the distance flat topped mountains with waterfalls flowing. Some mountains had about 6 waterfalls flowing from one side.

Eventually arrived at the sleeping base for Angel Falls (a hut with more hammocks) and as it was getting dark there was no time to see the falls properly so we hung about, chatted and had some dinner (included). Had a really nice group of people on this tour (An old Venetian fella who has a stall in ST Marks square selling souvenirs, a funny Lithuanian couple, 2 mean and moody Italians who didn't speak English, a middle aged Peruvian couple and an old couple from Argentina (got on really well with them and have been promised a tour and somewhere to stay in Buenos Aires when I get there...same goes for Venice and Lithuania).

Now, I having a brown belt in hammock sleeping and having notched up 38 hours of hammock time it was my duty to show everyone the angle sleeping trick which I was taught by the hammock master in Tayrona National Park. The Italians didn't have faith in my advice so ended up getting no sleep during the night (I'm not going to say anything).

Still, it was quite chilly and everyone had a bit of trouble sleeping. Just as everyone seemed to drop off in unison at around 2.30am there was an almighty scream and everyone jumped out of their hammocks asking what the noise was. It seems the Lithuanian fella was acting the goat and decided to tickle his sleeping girlfriend with some grass on the way to the toilet. She thought it was a spider or snake crawling on her face. Nobody thought it was funny at the time but in the morning we all laughed about it.

Jan 14th - Angel Falls

At the un-godly hour of 5.30am Isabelle (our tour guide) woke us up and without time for a swift coffee or wash we all marched for an hour to see the falls. As I beheld the mighty Angel Falls I couldn't help being a bit disappointed in them. It was more of a thin sliver of water rather than gushing. The fact that its dry season at the moment doesn't help, apparently in July it's almost 14 times wider. Ah well, it was still amazing to see it.

200 photos later and back to the camp for a slap up breakfast and then straight onto the bum breaking boat. As we were going downriver it was a much more exciting ride, sometimes dropping into some white-water rapids (small ones) but always going fast. A few times we nearly tipped the boat but were saved by the skills of the paddle man. Maybe not a good idea to fall in here as there are stories of tourist hungry piranha and alligators.

As always near tropical rivers a debate was started regarding the truth of the existence of cringe worthy Penis Hook Worm. The same one that if a fella pisses in the water this thing, following the trail of Ammonia swims up your jap's eye, hooks itself onto the inside and starts eating away from the inside out (shiver). Needless to say we had no volunteers to prove or disprove the theory.

Back at Canaima base camp and after a hearty lunch it was time for some more waterfall action. We walked for about an hour and saw some stunning falls (more impressive than Angel Falls in my eyes). Some of them were classics where you could walk behind and see a wall of crashing water (couldn't hear anything but the falls behind there). Got totally soaked running around behind them (the 3 falls were Salto Sapito, Salto El Sapo and Salto Hacha).

Jan 15th - Canaima

Just talking about politics for a second. The current president, socialist, tourist hater and American hater Mr Chavez decided in all his wisdom that instead of putting the national time back or forward by 1 hour he would try something different...hmmm, why not just put it back 30 minutes, yeah that'll make people think we're different. Still don't know why, but that’s what was done. I think it’s the only country that has a half hour time difference (I might be wrong?).

Last day at Canaima today and the morning was spent lounging around in hammocks, swapping addresses and going for a swim in the lagoon nearby (Jigger infested sand apparently but I still went for it).

At 11am when the flight was due to leave and after all going to the airport one of us had to stay behind until 2pm (no space). Everyone else was in pairs so I decided to stay (there was also a free lunch in it for me so no biggie).

At 2pm the dreaded flight time arrived. I studied the pilot and realised he had a broken finger with a brace on it. Asking him if he was ok to fly like that he just laughed and said yes. "But how are you going to text whilst flying?" I asked him (he didn't get that one..my Spanish wasn't good enough).

Back at Ciudad Bolivar and after nearly kissing the runway when I scrambled out of the plane the realisation that I had no money dawned on me. Ok, no biggie I thought, I'll just get the minimum needed for the night bus I was planning to catch tonight using a cash machine. Hopping into a taxi and after trying 5 different machines it was looking hopeless. Asking the cab driver how much the fare was, he said 40,000 Bolivars (stupid amount). My last hope was the bus terminal. So I went there and asked all the ticket sellers if I can pay by credit card. Of course they all laughed at me. This was the first time I've nearly lost it and felt like lamping someone during this trip. To make things worse the cab driver was following me and kept asking for the money and a stupid bloke was also following me trying to sell me a tour to the Angel Falls. I nearly went Postal with my Swiss Army Knife. Thankfully a kind woman at a desk gave me a cash advance on my card and all was well. I bought her a big bottle of Coke for her troubles.

At 6pm I caught the night bus to the Venezuelan border town of Santa Elena, close to Brazil. The journey was pretty dire, being woken up every 2 hours of trying to sleep by military searches on the bus. The soldiers would come on the bus, stand in front of me and click their fingers at me (well irritating..especially after just trying to get some kip). There were 5 searches in all (one where everyone had to walk off the bus with all our luggage I had to unpack my whole pack and re pack it..took 20 minutes). Eventually I arrived in Santa Elena.

Jan 16th - Santa Elena (Venezuela) to Boa Vista (Brazil)

At 6.30am I walked into town and got a shared taxi to the border ($2.50). While I was waiting for the Venezuelan border to open I pondered my time in Venezuela. I've got mixed feelings about the place..it's a pretty rough place but with quite a lot to see (mountains, beaches, jungle, beautiful girls. I don't like to generalise but I didn't find the people particularly friendly and didn't feel particularly safe in the towns (mind you, I only visited two of the main places (Merida and Canaima)). Although it's not one of my favourite countries I'm still a bit sad to leave.

And so after 4 hours of queuing at immigration a slightly newer chapter opens in my travels. I feel like I'm starting all over again as I talk to Brazilians crossing the border and don't understand a single word they're saying. The Spanish I'd painstakingly learned in the last 5 months (and gotten quite good at) was kind of irrelevant now. Ok, there are some slight similarities with Portuguese but not that much. I'm hoping that some Brazilians speak or understand Spanish. So armed with the solid foundation of knowing one word in Portuguese (Obrigado...thanks) I entered Brazil.

Apart from the language the Brazilians generally look lighter in skin colour than their Venezuelan cousins (they also look cooler).

A quick stop at the bank to get some Brazilian Reals and then a 3 hour bus ride later and I was in Boa Vista. The plan was to stay here at least for today so I could call my Mum on her birthday and also see if I can book an Amazon trip from here instead of the touristy Manaus.

Well, both plans backfired. I hunted high and low for an internet place where I could use Skype to call my Mum on her big day but couldn't find any with a decent connection. Eventually managed to use my mobile for a brief call. Also searched for some tour operators but the only few I could find didn't have enough tourists in town to justify a trip. Looks like I'll have to head to Manaus for some Amazon trekking after all.

Checked into a cheap hotel (had a huuuuge room for $12) and then walked around town. Not really much going on here but it’s quite a nice place with wide, tree lined streets. Tired from the bus ride and the scorching heat here (everything closes between 2 and 4pm because of the heat) I headed back to my base and did some blog updates and sifter through my millions of photos of Angel Falls.

Jan 17th - Boa Vista to Manaus

Slightly disappointed that I couldn't find a tour operator that could take me to the less touristy part of the Amazon I tried again (no luck again). Apparently the rain forest around these parts is more diverse (ah well).

For lunch I headed to a local restaurant and sat down. After twiddling my thumbs for 10 minutes and finally realising it was self service I experienced my first pay per kilo meal. After topping up a plate with some great grub a girl then weighs it and you pay per weight (genius).

Later on I finally managed to post the postcards and Xmas cards I'd been lugging around with me since Costa Rica. God bless the Brazil postal service.

After a siesta it was time to head for the bus terminal. Bought a ticket for the 6pm (12 hour) overnight bus to Manaus ($40...Holy shit...I heard travel was pricey here but....).

While I was waiting for my bus I got chatting to Elvis, an old fella who sells ice creams from a fridge on wheels who told me his life story. He'd lived in the US illegally for the last 14 years with his wife and 3 kids. One day his best friend sat him down and told him he had something to tell him about his wife. Bringing out his mobile he showed him a video of his wife and told him for the last 10 years she had been actively involved in making online porn and as well as that was selling her services to the local church (including its minister)(poor fella..and no, I didnīt ask him for proof). So he decided to leave the US and came back to Brazil to start a new life. Regretting his decision now he is trying to get back again. Apparently he used to earn $4000 a month as a cleaner in the US whereas here he gets $200 a month selling ice creams. Not that good considering his rent is $40, food $70 and bills $45.

Elvis seemed like a nice bloke and he didn't want anything from me except someone to talk to about his life but after listening to him for an hour and totally exhausted from hearing his troubles I jumped on the 6pm bus. Preparing myself for another monster bus ride of 12 hours I curled up in 2 seats praying that nobody had booked the seat next to me. Two hours later and after numerous pokes in the face I was woken up and sadly lost my VIP seating arrangement and resigned myself to not getting much sleep tonight. The last 2 entries are in fact being written after a night’s sleep deprivation (I now know what the fella in Bravo two Zero felt like...well, kinda)

The plan for the next week is 2 or 3 days on a jungle trip to the Amazon forest (trekking, piranha fishing, canoeing) then catch a 3 day boat ride down the Amazon river to a coastal town called Belem. Then as quickly as possible (fly or bus it) head to Fortuleza for some beach action. From there I'm flying down to Rio, putting on my Salsa shoes and will be revelling in the carnival for my birthday.

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