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Notes from the home of the hitchhiker

Through revolution

Mural with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela
From time to time I glanced at the screen of the TV that was playing in the background. No one in the room was actually watching it. A horror movie was on. Yah horror, I thought, I don't really like them, I don't like to be afraid. Suddenly: bang... bang, bang, bang... bang. We all jumped on the floor covering our heads. After a few minutes of total silence José stood up and went outside. When he came back he grabbed his phone saying only one word: "Muerto!" After a minute we were all outside. A dead body was lying on the ground surrounded by a puddle of blood which was reflecting the street lights. Soon all the neighbours were out as well, they all looked worried only at the very beginning. After a while some of them started to make jokes about it. It looked like it was nothing new to them.

'Are you afraid?' Pedro asked me.
'Yeah a bit. I've never seen a shot person before. And it's my second night in Venezuela.'
I was in Carúpano, a city around a hundred kilometres to the west from Guiria, in the house of José and Pedro, Pedro was a cousin of Manuel and Manuel was a guy who gave me the first lift in the South American continent. What an introduction.

The next day I went to discover the town a bit. It didn't have many old buildings, but just like Guiria, it had hundreds of old cars on the streets, most of them from the seventies. Something was strange. Venezuela had the biggest oil reserves in the world and petrol cost less than mineral water, but it looked like getting a new car was either very expensive or not easy. On every corner I was observed by Hugo Chavez staring at me from thousands of posters and murals. Presidential elections were just around the corner. On some murals he was shown in a very military way, sometimes even with a gun in his hand calling his supporters to fight for the ideals of socialism. The atmosphere of the revolution was in the air. At one point I saw a crowd of people gathered near the market. I came closer. Another dead body on the street. Holy shit! What's going on here?

Later on I met Carlos from Couchsurfing.
'When I was a kid we were all chilling out outside, having a great time on the beach till late and so on. Now I'm afraid to take my MP3 out. They don't play with knives, they all have guns and are ready to shoot.'
'But who? And why did it change?'
'Since Chavez and his revolutionary rhetoric the society is even more divided than it used to be. Corruption is massive and this region has loads of drug trafficking. The president is arming militias, so getting a gun is not a problem. It's probably the most dangerous area after Caracas. And Caracas is a red zone.'
After that meeting I started to have a bit of a sharper view of the country, though there were still many questions in my head. I wanted to see other parts of Venezuela, I was going to hitch through this revolution.

From Carúpano I went to Cumaná and I had a lift straight there in just a minute. I told the passenger sitting in front of me, whose name was also Carlos, that I was going to stay with a CS member.
'Couchsurfing? Hey I'm from CS as well! Who are you staying with?'
'Juan? Juan what?' I showed the surname of my host. 'Ha ha, I know him. We'll take you to his flat. He asked me to help two Italian girls who crash at his place, as he doesn't have time. Juan works a lot recently. Girls wanted to go to Mochima National Park, maybe we can go together?'
'Sounds cool.'

Mural with Che Guevara on the street of Carúpano, Venezuela
Mural in Carúpano
The next morning Carlos gave us a lift to the park, but didn't stay with us as he wanted to make some cash. He was working as a taxi driver. Together with Manuela and Francesca we took a little tour around the park on a small boat as it consisted of dozens of islands and inlets. All this area was much drier than the Paria Peninsula. Some of the beaches didn't have any coconut palms and the hills were covered with shrubs and cacti instead of tropical forest. The highlight of Mochima was the possibility to see dolphins and soon we spotted two pods, one probably with calves. The second one made of adults only was coming closer to the boat and we could start the hunting with our cameras. But with the midday, burning sun it wasn't easy.

I stayed in Cumaná for two more days and on the last morning Juan gave me a little tour around the old town. Cumaná, as the oldest town in Venezuela and one of the first European settlements on the continent, had some picturesque areas to see. That was the only time I had a chance to chat with Juan. He was working as a programmer sometimes even for twelve hours a day, even though his flat was open for travellers. Since I arrived in Venezuela I was dealing with the reality completely in Spanish and I was happy it was improving so fast. But sometimes, some issues were blurry in my head, so I was looking forward to meet Natasha, who was teaching English in Puerto la Cruz. That was a chance to understand this country a bit more.

After one lift with three cops who were repeating many times to take care of myself, I ended up in an area called Lechería. Natasha lived there with her daughter in a high apartment block just in front of the beach, with a fantastic view of the islands of Mochima in the east. Her family story was a bit complicated, but that was probably typical in South America. Her father was German and mother from Serbia and as engineers they moved to Venezuela in the late sixties to work for oil companies. That was the golden age in the history of the country. She lived in Caracas for years, but after being attacked in her own apartment and a long recovery she decided to move to Lechería to protect her daughter. Lechería itself was a rich neighbourhood and it was a safe place to live, but this safety was achieved by CCTV, security guards and even electric fences. In Lechería almost everyone was against the Bolivarian* Revolution of Chavez. It was a stronghold of the opposition candidate Capriles Radonski. Every time the electricity was off and somehow it was happening there even a few times a day, I could hear people shouting angrily from windows: 'Chaaaveeez!!!', or 'Viva la Revolución!'

'Do you think Radonski can win?' I asked Natasha.
'Hard to say, the polls don't show the reality. Many people are afraid to say what they really think.'
'Everyone I met was either Chavista or Antichavista.'
'It's easier to say that to a foreigner. You are neutral for them.'
'That's true.'
'So I think he has a chance to win. But I'm afraid what's going to happen after. Chavez has all the army in his hands.'
I imagined tanks on the streets and a coup going on. That would be a disaster, disaster which happened so many times in that continent.

In Lechería I spent a few days, mostly sitting on the balcony and listening to the stories of Natasha's youth, about meanders of Venezuelan history, difficult present and hopes for the future all the time watching the boats and ferries sailing in the bay.

After Puerto la Cruz I started to head southeast towards Maturín, from where I could go along Troncal 10, the only road connecting Venezuela with Brazil. The first ride was with a Colombian couple only a few miles down the road. I was afraid there wouldn't be any good hitching spots on a dual carriageway junction, but Google Maps was wrong, not the first time actually. After that point the road towards Caracas turned into a regular single lane one and there was also an Alcabala, a military checkpoint making it a view that was typical in this country. Alcabalas were probably the safest places for hitchhiking in suburban areas. From there another quick lift brought me to a toll station, which wasn't collecting toll anymore and was changed into another checkpoint.

It took me maybe an hour to get a lift south to the motorway exit for Maturín, where another Alcabala was. When I arrived there, one soldier with a rather stupid look came to me with just one simple question: dollar? When I answered that I have only bolivars he went away. I don't know if he wanted to get some kind of bribe from me, or just exchange money. Venezuelans could officially buy only three hundred dollars per year, which was nothing if they wanted to go abroad. That's why there was a thriving black exchange market. It was helping many travellers to change their foreign currency at a very good rate. Otherwise Venezuela would be quite expensive.

From the motorway exit I was picked up quickly again by a couple going straight to Maturín. The landscape started to change. Along the motorway there were many patches of forest, but the closer we got to Maturín the more flat grassland we had on both sides of the road. It was called Los Llanos simply meaning the plains. It was a land of haciendas - extensive cattle farms and it was contrasted so much with the flare stacks from oil fields seen at a far distance. They looked like dragons trying to burn the sky and that evening they were quite successful, a strip of red sky was floating in the northwest over the peaks of Cordillera de la Costa.

From the city centre I was picked up by Saul from CS, a well built, tall man with large eyes.
'It's Saturday, we have a barbecue in friend's place. Hop in! '
We ended up in a house on the outskirts of the city, with a beautiful garden in the backyard. It was a night of cultural exchange at its best, with the house owners, their grown up kids and their friends. A night full of beers, huge steaks and loads of laugh, especially about my Carúpano experience. Venezuelans seemed to have a great sense of humour.

The next day the mother of Saul welcomed me in Polish, as her daughter lived in Spain and her best friend was a Pole. On Monday morning my host brought me to an Alcabala around ten miles south from the city. A few minutes later I was sitting in another car going straight to Puerto Ordaz, where my next host and his family were already waiting for me. Hitchhiking was so easy in this country, also the response from Couchsurfing was great. People were so welcoming. It contrasted so much with the violence I could hear all around.

The driver was a Syrian guy, who had lived in Venezuela for twelve years. For most of the time he was doing some business over the phone and it was strange to hear Arabic language again, but it was even more strange to see pine forests on both sides of the road for miles and miles. They were grown for timber and biomass and there were many sawmills with villages growing around them on the way.
'Have you seen Orinoco already?'
'No, it's my first time in here.'
'OK, so we'll take the ferry. We could go around, there's a new bridge, but from the ferry you can see the meeting of waters from Orinoco and Caroni.'
'Cool, thanks.'
Orinoco at this point was so wide and deep that there were cargo ships at anchor. It had the colour of coffee with milk, but once we arrived at the other side the colour changed to black. That's where Caroni was flowing into Orinoco. The difference in colour of both rivers was related mainly to the acidity of water. Blackwater rivers such as Caroni are more acidic.

At Puerto Ordaz, which together with San Felix is called Ciudad Guayana, I was picked up by Miguel, who lived in suburbs with his parents and two brothers. Both his parents worked as surveyors for oil and hydroelectric companies. Guri Dam was not too far with the largest electric plant in Venezuela. The following day Miguel, who was just about to graduate from high school, took me to the park near the spectacular Llovizna Falls and it was definitely worth a visit, but beside that this new city didn't have much to offer. After three days of fantastic hospitality with tasty homemade food I decided to head towards La Gran Sabana, a place of unique beauty that everyone was advertising to me.

I was equipped with a very imprecise paper map, as I couldn't find a good one anywhere. Google Maps was showing that there was nearly nothing between Upata and Santa Elena de Uairén and the latter town had only a few streets. A town with thirty thousands inhabitants? Couldn't be true. Google was disappointing me many times in Venezuela and OpenStreetMap**, the quickly developing alternative which I used a lot in Europe, was almost nonexistent here. I was editing it from time to time as it's created by registered users just like Wikipedia, but it wasn't easy while being on the road. I didn't want to hang out in unknown areas with a GPS in my hand. Maybe that was the reason why OSM almost didn't exist in some parts of this country. Maybe it was just too dangerous.

Road Troncal 10 in La Gran Sabana in Venezuela
Road Troncal 10 in La Gran Sabana
I had my first lift in less than an hour. The driver invited me at the end for coffee and pastelito - a kind of puff pastry with different fillings. To the second ride a proper dinner and a frozen mango juice was also included. With two or three more cars I arrived in El Dorado when it was already dark. It was a dirty little town stinking with rotting fruits, but somehow enjoyable. It was founded by gold miners and that's where it got the name from. The hotel room I stayed in consisted of a bed, electric fan, toilet and a fifty litre barrel instead of a shower. At least it was cheap.

To get from El Dorado to Las Claritas took me half a day and it was only eighty kilometres away. Five kilometres farther was a village with a petrol station called by locals KM 88 and I got stuck there till the end of the day. After a night in Las Claritas I quickly came back to 88 and got stuck again. Las Claritas was the last regular town before the border town of Santa Elena. Not much traffic. A few miles up the road was the beginning of Guiana Highlands with the famous Gran Sabana region. It was partially within the territory of Canaima National Park and this land was scarcely populated by indigenous Pemon people.

I finally got a lift at four o'clock with a soldier going to Santa Elena. After around twenty kilometres we reached the top of the highlands made of Precambrian rocks, one of the oldest on Earth. The extreme heat of the jungle was behind us, as the temperature dropped well below thirty degrees. It was so refreshing. A vast savannah was stretching in front of us. Far in the southeast I could see an outline of Roraima and Kukenan, table top mountains called in the Pemon language tepui. Their flat peaks were almost always hidden in clouds. The horizon seemed to be so far away, it felt like being an invader from the future in a tiny time machine skimming across this old land, with clouds like giants, twenty kilometres in height, sent to water the morichales*** in the gardens of gods dwelling in the nearby summits.

When we arrived to Santa Elena it was already dark. I checked my wallet. Forty five bolivars, probably not enough for a hotel. I went to an ATM even though the official exchange rate was so bad. It asked me for the first two digits of my Venezuelan ID. You must be joking! Second ATM, same thing. Third one, same. Fuck, I had no cash!

I went to check what was the cheapest option in a hotel. A dorm cost sixty bolivars. I reminded myself about ten Gibraltarian pounds I still had somewhere in my backpack, but they didn't want to change it. They suggested a tour agency next door.
'Would you change ten pounds?'
'Pounds? No, not really. Why what's wrong?'
'I don't have any cash left. No place to sleep.'
'Do you have a tent?'
'No, but I have a hammock.'
'Come with me.' We went round the corner, the guy opened a squeaky gate and there was a construction site with a roofed area working as a workshop. It had also toilets and showers. 'You can sleep here. The gate is never locked, so you can leave and come back whenever you want.'

Somehow every time I was up against the wall these kinds of situations were just happening. Some would call it destiny. I would rather say I was provoking them. Andreas, a man in his forties whose ancestors came from Germany, was running the tour agency, which was organising treks to Roraima. He was building his new house and the workshop I was staying in was a place to crash for many of his friends.
'What are you doing here?' he asked me.
'Travelling around. I wanna go to El Paují. Many people told me it's a cool spot.'
'I have some friends in there, but most of them are nuts. Almost everyone in there saw UFO.'
'Maybe I can see one as well' I started to joke. 'But where is it exactly, I couldn't find it on any map.' 'Around seventy kilometres to the west from the airport, on the dirt road.'
'Maybe I could map it. '
'Map it?' I explained OSM to Andreas and he was very interested in it. He asked me if I could map Santa Elena a bit. There was no problem to stay in his place for longer if I needed. Why not, I thought.

The next day I took a taxi just behind the border, to the first Brazilian ATM. There was no passport control, maybe because I was in a local taxi. I changed reais to bolivars on the main street of Santa Elena, where many lads were asking around: cambio? cambio? Now I could go to El Paují.

The first lift was with a young boy from Santa Elena who was going to visit his girlfriend and her family in the indigenous village Kinok Pon Paru. We were welcomed by a loud music playing from speakers set under the palm tree roof. Local kids were swimming in a river nearby. Half an hour later the same guy was driving back, but this time in one hand he was holding a plate. 'Here's some lunch for you, you're probably hungry. Bring the plate later to the house over there.' He showed me the wooden building and old lady sitting in front of it. What a tasty surprise. I had a chicken with arepas, flat pancakes made of cornmeal.

To get the next ride I had to wait for hours. It was almost dark when two pickups stopped. I jumped on the back of one filled with furniture, ceramics, plants and suitcases. They were going all the way to El Paují and even further, till the end of the road, where miners lived in the village of Ikabaru. When I arrived at my destination I found out that Lena, my host from CS was not there, but I could stay with her friend Callena, who lived in a separate house usually used by guests. Callena was working for Paulista and Isabel, a Brazilian-Venezuelan couple, who had lived in El Paují with their kids for years. They were running an organic farm and producing incense sticks using Tacamajaca, an Amazonian tree.

Petroglyph near El Paují in southern Venezuela
When I met Isabel the next morning and told her I could make a map of the village, her eyes opened widely. 'We would actually need a map to get government funding.'
'But I would have to use the internet later. You don't have it here, do you?'
'We have, but it's a satellite internet, so it's very slow.'
I was surprised. There was a place called Infocentro, a governmental project providing internet to remote communities. There were eight computers with Linux operating system and everyone could use them for free. Sometimes it was extremely slow, but it was working. In that end of the world! Bolivarian government leading its country towards communism was able to create many great projects called missions. One of them was Infocentro. It probably wouldn't be possible in a wild capitalist reality. There wouldn't be any profit in that.

For the next couple of days I was mapping all the area. First with adults and kids to show them how it works, later alone on a bicycle. For all that time Paulista and Isabel were feeding me with their homegrown food. They were lovable people, very spiritual, but their spirituality was not aggressive, they were not trying to convince others to be like them. And Paulista was a bit crazy about UFOs, asking me again and again if I saw one already. According to him there were plenty of them visiting El Paují. What surprised me was that before a meal they were thanksgiving to God for their president. Of course, in that remote place they lived so far away from all the corruption and crime. They could see governmental missions working in favour of the local community. Most houses in El Paují didn't have proper doors, some didn't even have all four walls, they didn't need them. It was absolutely safe. It was like a little piece of paradise that started as an indigenous village and a stopover for miners. Later, in the seventies the first hippies from Caracas began to settle there. There was a savannah and a tropical forest in the valleys, natural pools like Pozo Esmeralda, where I could swim and have a shower under waterfall. There were also interesting architectural projects where people tried to build from bio and recycled materials. And it was never too hot, nor too cold. I had a chance to discover that piece of paradise thoroughly thanks to my first mapping project which I called Roadside Mapping.

After a week the map was pretty much ready, so I said goodbye to everyone, including Lena who arrived at the end, and I went back to Santa Elena with a pickup I hitched in ten minutes.
'What do you think about El Paují?' Andreas asked me after I came back.
'Brilliant place! Some of them are a bit nuts, but they adorable. Though I was surprised to see they love Chavez so much.'
'They all profit from bolivarian missions. And that's one of the positive things during his rule that he started to support such places and indigenous communities. Nobody remembered about them before. The first time I voted for Chavez as well, but he's crazy and he's going too far. If he wins again he will start the third stage of nationalisation.'
'Which means?'
'After the key industry sectors and retail chains he will push for small companies like mine.'
'Full-blown communism.'
Andreas let me use his laptop, so I started to edit the map of Santa Elena. It was much easier this time as I could use high resolution aerial images donated to OSM by Microsoft. This company probably realised it would never be able to compete with Google Maps and started to support OSM.

After two days I was ready to go south and discover the largest country of the continent - Brazil. But the call of The Great Savannah was stronger. I woke up early in the morning and started to hitch north along Troncal 10 again. Hitching was going like clockwork and I was jumping from one pickup to another, visiting indigenous villages with palm roofed houses, waterfalls and green hilltops. All the time I was accompanied by Mount Roraima with its mysterious top hidden with its secrets behind nearly eternal clouds. In the afternoon of the second day I went to see Quebrada de Jaspe, a stream with a waterfall flowing over the bed made of red jasper. It was very shallow under the waterfall, and walking there was like floating above a bed of red flowers. I took my camera out and some girls started to pose. Their father came to me saying straight away: 'grab a beer!' We had a great chat over a few more beers and later they gave me a lift back to Santa Elena.

In the morning Andreas gave me a T-shirt as a gift.
'My email is printed in the front. If you want to climb Roraima one day let me know in advance, I can organise something cheap. '
'Thanks, I might be back some day.'
I looked at the postcards displayed in his office thinking: one day, who knows, no matter how this revolution finishes, Roraima will be still here.

* Bolivarian - after Simon Bolívar, nineteen century hero, who fought for the independence of South America from Spain.
** OpenStreetMap - free map of the world editable by registered users.
*** Morichal - a grove made of moriche palm, that grows in swamps and wet areas of tropical South America.