Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Land of Grace

The Repúlica Bolivariana de Venezuela. Wrapped up in petrol-politics, socialist agendas and shocking inflation, only 1% of travellers to South America come here. Peru is romanticised for Maccu Piccu, Brazil for Carnival; Venezuela's international reputation swirls around oil, the highest murder rate in the world, and the aggressive political style of Chávez (a socialist saint or a brainwashing oil baron, depending on whom you ask).

But behind the political hyperbole is a country of stunning natural beauty; relatively unspoilt and completely uncommercialised. Our base camp is in the north of the country, on the longest stretch of Caribbean coastline in the world. We've camped in Caripe in the North; the 'garden of Venezuela' hiking to stunning waterfalls in the mountains, exploring the longest cave in South America, and visiting cocoa and coffee plantations. After a brief 2 day changeover at the camp, we travelled into the East, to kayak through the Orinoco Delta. This area of Venezuela has only opened to tourists in the last 20 years, and has been home to the Waroe Indians ('water people') for over 30,000 years. There are several tour companies that run boat trips around the delta, but we are the only group to travel as the Waroes do, by kayak and canoe. This meant that they could show us waterways narrow and shallow enough only for us, and we could glide along silently watching for parrots, monkeys and river dolphins.

Orinoco Delta

Susnet as we glide towards our third camp in the Delta

´Our´ beach

A week ago I and a 3 others travelled to the South, where lies the highest waterfall in the world; Salto Angel. You can get there only from Canaima, a vaillage inhabited by the Pemon Indians and accessed only by foot, or small planes. There are no cars in the village, and it is surronded by dense jungle. Apart from when you walk to the beach, which looks like the classic white sand and gentle waves you imagine when you think of the Caribbean. Except we are several thousand miles inland. The white sand borders a lake, which is filled by a vast waterfall. Behind the waterfall is another wonder of the South of Venezeuala; tepuis, flat topped mountains. On Sunday we are returning to this area, ´La Gran Sabanna´ to undertake the 6 day hike to the top of Roraima, the oldest mountain on planet earth. The summit was unexplored until a hundred or so years ago when explorars finally made their way to the top- there they found a lost ecosystem completely different and completely unchanged by the natural events at sea level. This mountain was the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle´s ´The Lost World´, where dinosaurs roamed on the top of these table top mountains. I can´t wait.

Flat topped mountain

Canaima waterfall

Soon I will finally travel West, to get my first peak of the Andes in the adventure sports capital Mérida, and to take the short hop over to Columbia, one step further in my South American adventure.

Venezuela will undoubtably be the country in which I will have spend the longest time (almost 3 months) in this continent, and my impressions are a strange amalgamation of emotions.
Awe, pity, confusion, anger, sympathy, envy.

I have never before travelled to a country in which there operates at least three exchange rates; the official one (regulated by the government at a obscenely expensive rate) the official black market rate (discovered by accessing a secret website unlocked by certain keywords) and the rate which you can realistically expect to get from shopkeepers or people on the street.
Why does there exist a black market? Simple. Venezuelans are unable to keep their savings in banks, as the rate of inflation is such that it becomes worthless there almost immediately. Instead, to keep their money secure, they must purchase dollars or real estate. However, a recent law has passed decreeing each citizin must own only one house. Moreover, a Venezuelan resident is only entitled to change $300 through the government, once a year. No other countries will accept the Venezuelan bolivar. Imagine wanting to take a holiday to Europe. How far will $300 take you? Nowhere.

If I go into town by myself, I can guarantee that I will be the only white person, and will walk to a chorus of catcalls, shouts of 'gringa!', and car horns. And then those same people will lean forward with a keen interest and ask me if I like their country, why I am here, what it is like in England. What is regarded at home as obscenity is meant here as a genuine gesture of admiration. Gringa is not meant as derogatory, instead to insult is to show affection. Our Spanish teacher regularly greets his friend as "¡Gordo!" (fat man!), he gets a "¡hola jirafe!" (Hey giraffe!) in return.

There are regular shortages of things here, from the luxuries such a sugar to the banal such as toilet paper. The government ensures that these shortages remain in places such as the coast rather than Caracas; cities can rebel, villages cannot.

Why are there shortages? Venezuela is a rich country. It has gold, it has minerals, and it has a fuck load of oil. It has more than enough to sustain its people, and more besides. Unfortuately, with a load of oil there comes a load of corruption. During a trip into town, I will see a dozen or so posters and graffitis informing me that this bridge was built by Chavez, that I should vote for Chavez, that the way forward is with Chavez.

Vamos con Chavez, ´We go with Chavez´

Chavez is the socialist president who has been in power here for 14 years. In that time the country has declined into the entity that the international recognises it as, dangerous, corrupt, poor. And yet over 50% of the people here think that he is a saint. A clever leader, he gives people the things they need in the shrotterm, and it tricks them into thinking he is doing something for them, when in fact long term projects would be benefital. This is a complicated point and I am running out of time on the internet cafe, but it is interesting.
Read about it.