When I enter the country the officer on duty who did not exceed 20 years old, reviewed one of my saddlebags thoroughly, even the food I carried. he asked me if I had dollars or if I was carrying any drugs, although the border problem of Venezuela is not what goes in but what comes out of the country.
It was August and in those days the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was given the night border closure with Colombia to combat smuggling. According to the news during 2014 it had seized 21,000 tons of food, which exceeded the seized during the 2013 and that feed 700,000 people for a month. It also exceeded on 500% the fuel seizure on the same year: 40 million liters of gasoline.
I entered Venezuela by one of the poorest areas of the country: the Guajira, where everything is a vast semidesert scrub with temperatures that can exceed 45 ° C. As in Colombia in this area there is water scarcity, so the trucks to supply arrive every four days. The brave men that inhabit the area are the Wayu, the largest tribe in Venezuela characterized by driving 8 cylinder classic American 70s cars. Up to Maracaibo this vehicles predominates and circulates as if they were race cars on a bad road that has no shoulder, risking the life of any cyclist.
Around noon I stopped at a food stall, where I met Carlos who worked in the smuggling business. He told the me that every day he made one or two trips between the capital of Zulia state and a town near the border where he downloaded 160 liters of gasoline. “Smuggling is a major cause of scarcity and shortages in the country, but this is not carried out by the main routes but by hundreds of secondary roads between the two borders, through the payment of bribes to officials guarding the border territory”.
During those days, 400 illegal access paths known as Trochas were identified in a stretch of 350 kilometers of the Colombian-Venezuelan border extending over 2000 km. The Bolivarian country that has the largest oil reserves, has the cheapest gasoline in the world. At the time of my visit to fill the tank of a car cost 3.5 bolivars. And what 3,5Bs costs in Venezuela? A candy. According to the change of the parallel dollar, 1 usd tank filled an average car 23 times.
My first stop was San Rafael del Moján where I stay in the cheapest hotel, 2.5 US dollars a room, or the equivalent of 57 candy or fuel tanks, which is the same. The hotel was completely empty, not even an employee lived there, a neighbor catered it. But at least it was guarded by three stunted and wild dogs tied tightly that hardly just gave me free space to get in. Wanting to be friendly, at night I prepared my dinner and shared with them, but it was not worth it. My room was spacious and had air conditioning but could not regulate, or I freeze or die of heat. He also had a private bathroom and a double bed, although there was no water or blankets. That night I did not sleep well, so when I arrived at noon to Maracaibo I thought about staying in another hotel.
But in the capital of Zulia state most of the hotels are to have sex and charged per hour. I didn’t found a hotel to let me in before 5 pm, and the one that do so, wouldn’t let me in with the bike. I also discussed with a man who sold me an orange juice and other one because I put the bike in his shadow. They were crude and rude men. For two hours I look up at a map, but with no luck. The city seemed chaotic, dirty and messy; a hell. The temperature exceeded 40ºC So I went back to the road hoping to advance and get into the mountains.
Ciudad Ojeda was the next stop. There I stay at a hotel for the equivalent of 90 candies. I left the bike and I walked out to buy food, escorted by a security guard at the hotel: “It is very dangerous here, often steal and sometimes even killed to steal” said the man who insisted on accompanying me. That night I cooked rice with tuna, a classic dinner of the route, and finally went to bed after 117 km, I was shattered. But first I had to deal with the air conditioning, it was all or nothing again.
In the morning I started pedaling with the sunrise but I was disoriented and got lost. I ask for information to 3cyclist who passed me but they were very focused on their pedaling and they not even looked at me. Enraged, I yelled at the latest “fag” and I was surprised, it worked. The man slowed down, informed me and went away, as if he was in a race. Damn, I was pedaling backwards. Later, in the right direction I asked again and was advised to take a shortcut, but when I took it, a car stops and the driver warned me, that on that way I may be steal . “Shit where I am” I asked myself again and again, while traveling in Venezuela. In this country there are no signs that mark the way to go, neither maps nor km. Wanting to eat something, I stopped at a fruit stand to buy bananas, and order two, the owner asks me in an aggressive tone: what? Do you want me to give them away? I said it, people around are rough and tough. In the afternoon, as I pedaled Via Trujillo-Zulia, I stopped at a store to buy food, it looks like a jail, it was all barred. It was the only store that I had seen in hours. The couple who attended was cleaning.
– A Bag of rice, please -I told in a friendly tone.
– We are closed mutter the women.
– I’m an Argentine traveler and I’m pedaling towards Mérida, I need to buy some food, please sell me rice, I insisted.
– We have no Rice said the man.
– Well then paste
– Nor have said the woman.
– Well, whatever you have, you can sell me?
– Its closed and the manager is not in , answered she.
I preferred to count up to 10 before discussing with that couple, because I did not believed anything. The store was overflowing with merchandise and in a desolate area like that, is not possible there may be someone in charge. I was denied 4 times a campsite that night and therefore had no choice but to keep pedaling in the dark, although to do so in this country is stupid, not only because of the violence but for the way they drive. Finally I prayed to heaven and clung to the mantra that always accompanies me.
At the crossroads of Agua Viva, and 132 km traveled, I accepted the offer of the police: to stop a Van and ask them to take me the 10 miles left to Dividide. Finally there I dined in a restaurant and I stayed at a hotel where the air conditioner sounded like a washing machine. It costs the most expensive of all, the equivalent of 157 fuel tanks. The room was on the first floor, so I had to make four trips to bring my bike and all my luggage. Then I had to sleep with winter clothes and blanket, because the air conditioning could not regulate and without it the room was like an oven. It was 12:30 am when I asked the guys who played in the door of my room to please go elsewhere. I went to bed and grabbed the book Prabhupada, the perfection of yoga, I was exhausted. “Tomorrow will be another day”, I thought.
In Merida Mountains
From the state of Trujillo the road began to rise and everything changed. The weather was cooler, greener landscapes with all kinds of crops and different people. Tito, Leonardo, Balmore, Henry and Goyo, were some of the men who accompanied me on the road, and also who opened their homes and paid a hotel for me so I can rest.
The Sierra Nevada of Mérida has the Bolivar Peak, the highest mountain in Venezuela, and the route passes through the 4200 mt. I was short of breathand, the rain and wind make it harder pedaling and low temperatures freezes your fingers and toes. And with 3000 mt moors still continued my route to Bailadores and The Grita but there appeared Armando and Richard that teaches me about the Venezuelan hospitality.
In Merida there were great hearded people like Neudi and William that received me like if I were their family.
During my stay in Mérida I found great travelers, as Paul Luna, who was back to Argentina after traveling by motorcycle to Alaska for nearly three years. Also with Sergio Salinas and Seba Quiroga who come hitchhiking from Tijuana, Mexico and to whom I met 3 times in the last year of travel. They, like travelers with limited resources, took the Miracle Mission, a health plan conducted jointly by the governments of Cuba and Venezuela with No cost. Seba got made 5 cavities by a dentist, while Sergio eye was operated by a problem that came carrying a long time.
I chose to travel to Venezuela not to know its beaches and tourist attractions, that at this stage of the journey, there are few places that impress me, but to listen to people. While passing by, some looking at me as a foreigner shouted me, viva la revolution! But I wondered what happened in Venezuela before the revolution. My Venezuelan friends explained it to me:
“Venezuela has always been a democratic country, but as we were moving through the 70s and 80s the country plunged ever deeper into poverty. Sponsored by the IMF, the social, political and economic measures imposed by the government of Carlos Andres Perez, originated in 1989 a wave of violence known as the Caracazo. External debt, freeing prices, rising gasoline shortages, the release rate of the bolivar and the increase in utility tariffs were some of the ingredients of a popular bomb exploded with lowered of hills and a popular rebellion that left indelible scars. Overwhelmed by looting, the government declared a curfew, militarized major cities and crushed the protests with excessive violence. According to official figures, there were thousands of dead, wounded and missing, which caused strong discontent within the Armed Forces. In 1992, Hugo Chavez led a military commander an attempted coup to overthrow the government of Carlos Andres Perez. Despite being welcomed by the population, the coup failed and Chavez was arrested and sentenced to prison. After his release, Chavez left the army and entered fully into the political struggle. In 1998 he was elected president with a socialist and revolutionary project. Initially Chavez’s ideas were very good and many Venezuelans returned to hope. There were improvements in education, illiteracy was eradicated, increased the number of outpatient clinics, hospitals, and the level of unemployment and extreme poverty declined. But unfortunately as the years went by the objectives that have been raised have been distorted and that has led to high levels of corruption. And this goes from bad to worse”.
Also during my travel in Venezuela I met someone who pay monthly the equivalent of U$D 2 for a mortgage loan because the loan was acquired at the beginning of the Chavez government for 20 years and despite the devaluation of the local currency the fee payable never has had a fit.
Being in homes of people who received me, I noticed that in the bathroom most had no toilet paper, because it is difficult to get. This lack also reaches other basic personal hygiene products such as soap, deodorant, acetone, shampoo and cotton among others.
“The government in Venezuela also subsidizes many basic foods such as bread flour, oil and milk”, a friend told me, “but to get them, you have to stand in long lines, sometimes 1, 2, 3 or even 4 hours. There are families who do not have time or do not bear the lines while others are engaged in the purchase of many products as they can and to resale, which in most cases reaches 4 or 5 times the value of the product. And so it is with everything, even with the battery for a car, although to get it you it should go to queuing the night before. Venezuela is the country of the lines” he complained.
Currently shortages and smuggling has caused rationing thats why at supermarkets ask for your identification document to register who and how many products you buy ; also someone who buys a pack of oatmeal, one of rice and four bananas, like me.
Surely if Venezuelans don´t take advance the country would be much better. But they justify themselves by saying: “we have to survive”
Thanks also to all those anonymous Venezuelans who crossed my path and lend me a hand.