Friday, 18 January 2013

Viva la vida!

The sun rises here at 6 in the morning, and sets at 6 in the evening, 365 days a year. I wake in the mornings to sunlight streaming through the mosquito nets around our room, to early morning traffic, the strangled crowing of cockerels and the twang of Latino music spreading through the village, as each household determines to both start and end the day with a party.

I'm staying on the Caribbean coastline of Venezuela in the north, at a village called Playa Colorada, enrolled with a language school called 'The Travelling Classroom', which incorporates intensive Spanish classes with adventure sports and expeditions around the country. So far, our days have been spent scuba diving, hiking, meringue dancing, sea kayaking and of course, a 4 hour Spanish lesson. The scenery is breathtaking. Sandy beaches, turquoise seas, rainforests and mountains encircle the camp. And yet, rubbed up against the natural beauty, there is the smell of petrol, the beer bottles on the beach, and everywhere the stray dogs scrounging for food; some pregnant, some with three legs, all near to death.

From working with beautiful, healthy huskies in the pristine North, with its clean lakes, untouched forests, vast stillness and castigating attitudes to littering, I couldn't have come to somewhere that is more different. Not only is my body trying to adjust (minus 35 to plus 35...) but my mind as well.

Venezuela seems to be a country of dynamic contrasts. The bright white shirts of the school children set against the dust of dirt roads. Paying 3bsfs (5p) to fill up a full tank of petrol, and paying 20bsfs for a bottle of water. It is too dangerous to leave our camp at night, and yet every local I have spoken to has fallen over themselves in their efforts to be friendly, kind and generous; every morning as I walk past the local shop I get a free treat "por la gringa rubia!!" Amidst the grime, the corruption, the poverty, this country strikes me as being more of a living breathing entity than anywhere else I have been, it is alive in itself. The meringue, the salsa, the laughter on every corner, the complete unashamedness in doing whatever you want to do whatever anyone may think, the yearly Christmas competition to paint your house the brightest colour, speeding along a narrow coastal road on a rattling old bus with people hanging out the doors and music on full volume it all just screams of colour, vitality, life.
Viva la vida!

Walking through the village
From the hilltop over our village
Diving in Mochimo National park

The price of petrol here...... utter madness

Thursday, 3 January 2013

The Great Miami Airport Debacle

Hola! I won't spend this post raving on about how amazing Miami was as that's not only kind of obvious but really kind of boring; it's much more fun to read about the things that have gone wrong (and way more useful as well!!) Suffice to say re: Miami I had an incredible couchsurfing host who not only lived in a beautiful apartment with a rooftop pool (!!) but was also one of the most generous and kind people I'd ever met. Fast forward chilling at the beach, visiting the Everglades national park, holding Snappy the alligator, checking out the artsy design district of midtown Miami and spending New Year's Eve drinking champagne on the beach watching the fireworks and the 'orange drop' (Miami Florida's take on the famous New York apple drop in Times Square) and you have me at Miami airport, facing number one of my string of bad luck.

Lining up to check my bag in for my flight to Caracas, Venezuela I reach into my rucksack to get out my flight reservation only to remember with a sinking feeling the image of my trusty blue dolphin travel folder sitting innocently on the counter of my couchsurfing host's kitchen.... along with important documents, passport photocopies and $150 inside it...

Panicked phone call to my host Eileen, and the lifesaver that she is 20 minutes later she came speeding back to the airport (in her beautiful Mercedes....) to meet a very apologetic and embarrassed Clare. Dolphin folder safely back in bag. Lined up for bad luck number 2.

Okay, so the Venezualan visa system is that British citizens are allowed to enter the country for 90 days on a tourist visa, as long as you fill in a landing card on arrival and have proof that you are going to be leaving the country in the form of a return or onward flight. I did a little research to see if this meant that I actually had to book a flight out of Venezuela before entering the country, and was assured by the Lonely planet forums (as well as by my language company) that they never asked to see it. Which suited me as I have no idea yet what date I want to leave Venezuela and where I want to go to next- probably a bus to Columbia- but I wanted to see what the other people doing my language programme had planned. Besides, I thought the flight I have booked from Rio back to London would be enough- what more proof do you need that I'm going to be leaving Venezuela than a flight back to London from Brazil?! The answer, according to the US/ Venezuelan officials is... more. Not even hostel reservations in Columbia was enough- they wanted an actual bus, plane or cruise ticket booked for exiting the country; and they wouldn't let me board the plane until I got one. The check in desk closing and the flight departure time drawing nearer I had about 20 minutes to sort something out otherwise the flight would leave without me. The lines at the ticket desks were too long, the wifi on my phone wasn't connecting and I had that crazy panic feeling rushing up inside me. The kindly Miami air manager let me into his office to use his Internet and I madly searched for a flight from Caracas to Bogota in Columbia, not having time to figure out how to book bus tickets online. Which is a real bitch as flights in South America are stupidly expensive and I suddenly found myself $600 poorer, running to the gate and catching my flight in the nick of time.
(I've requested a cancellation and refund for the ticket but I have no idea whether I'll get the money back.... People I've spoken to here think maybe this was just the USA being....well, the USA and that travel from one South American country to another they're not as picky but, well, I don't know if I'd take that risk anymore!)

Feeling so very inadequate with my lack of Spanish I settled into the flight, trying to relax but stressing about the money I had just spent and about the stupidly short connection time I had at Caracas airport for my next flight to Barcelona, Venezuela. The flight was slightly late to land and I poised myself by the door, first person off, immigration was a breeze and I was feeling like yes, I can make this flight And....then I had to wait 20 minutes to see which carousel our bags were coming through on. And then another 20 minutes for the carousel to start moving. And then it stopped. And then finally, after about another 20 minutes my bag appeared and I had 40 minutes to pass through customs, sprint to the domestic airport and check in before the flight left. I've never ran so hard in my life!! (And with an 18kg backpack on your back in 30 degree mugginess believe me it's bloody hard work...) Sweat streaming off me I reached the gate, gasped out Barcelona, and was promptly told the gate had closed. "Por favor..!!"

Luckily, they simply put me on the next flight which was 7am the next morning at no extra cost, and I started chatting to a lovely Venezuelan family who were in the same situation. They insisted I come and stay in a hotel with them which I happily accepted, I didn't like the idea of staying overnight in one of the world's notoriously dangerous airports and it was so useful to have some local knowledge and Spanish to help me out. So things turned out okay with me in a nice hotel room with a hot shower and wifi- the family were going to pay for me but I felt so bad I gave them some US dollars to pay for it but they told me the local exchange rate. People have the wrong idea that Venezuela is an expensive country, and it is if you go by the official, tourist exchange rate which is about 4 bolivars to a $. However, there is also a black market, and the local exchange rate which is what anyone visiting here should use, and that's about 15 bolivars to a $.... a huge difference.

So from there things started to go more smoothly, several last minute gate changes at the airport conflicting with the screens and waiting an hour for luggage ("this is Venezuela!!") I arrived at my base camp for the next 11 weeks- Playa Colarada on the Caribbean Sea. Very remote, I can't get any phone signal anywhere (if you've texted I'm not ignoring!) and the nearest place I can get Internet is a town a 45 minute bus journey away, and just wifi at the moment so no pictures yet :( Scuba diving and Spanish lessons start tomorrow and for the moment it's just time to chill and meet everybody else.
It's beautiful and I'm determined to be the best spanish student the world has ever seen- maybe if I can talk like a local the mosquitos will leave me alone?!?!