Sunday, 31 March 2013

Border Cross- Mérida, Venezuela to Santa Marta, Colombia by bus

The death of Chavez, for many Venezuelans, was not just the death of their political leader. It was the death of a saviour, a saint, a goddamn God unto himself. Every square in every city was made into a shrine in his honour. Every shop, bar or club that served alcohol was instructed to close for a mourning period of 12 days as a sign of a respect. Loud music was not permitted. Parties were not permitted. The Police were watching. 

Chavez polarised the country; those who worshipped him, and those who hated him. The lists of those who voted for which party became open information. If you voted for the opposition, suddenly you found that nobody was willing to offer you work. Your child's scholarship was mysteriously revoked. Opportunities dissolved. And now suddenly that man was dead (or at the least, was now declared as dead. There are many who claim that he was brain-dead since December, and it was only now that they unhooked the machines and announced it, giving the party enough time to prepare for the resulting elections.) 
Whilst there were no reports of turmoil or disruptions, the country was strained. It was probably not the best time for a young, blonde, white girl to head off by herself on the 24 hour journey across the border to Colombia. Especially as the Vice President (now leader of the party) claimed that the Americans were the cause of Chavez's cancer:  a merciless, intentional and planned enemy attack. No, I'm not quite sure how that works either.

But hey, there you had me, after 11 weeks of a relatively sheltered existence of Spanish lessons and travelling, I was by myself again. And more than slightly nervous. But as other blogs on the internet helped me in planning my journey here it is for you: how to get from Venezuela to the Caribbean coast of Colombia by bus.

Merida to Maracaibo

The first leg of the journey is the 10 hour overnight bus journey from Merida to Maracaibo. Tickets need to be bought on the day of travel, in the morning. I headed to the bus terminal at about 8.30am to get my ticket, and went to kiosk for Techira Merida, which I was told had the best buses. 115bfs (about $5) got me a ticket for the bus which left at 9.30pm. I succeeded in speaking to the man behind the desk in Spanish and not only did he understand me, but I understood him. It was a magic moment.

12 hours later I was waiting in the bus terminal, after wandering around in slight confusion and having to go back to pay the 4bf departure tax. I was Miss Paranoid, clutching onto my various bags, and very aware of the fact that I was the only white person in the entire place. The bus driver came over whilst I was waiting and began to chat to me, sympathetic to my broken spanish. It became time to load the bags into the bus and he said something I didn't understand, shook his head and took my bag from me. Panicked, I rushed after him, remembering guide books warning me not to let go of my bag, that if you got help from anyone at the bus terminal they would expect to be tipped..... And then he smiled and handed me my bus ticket and the label for my bag, gesturing again in Spanish. It wasn't until I boarded the bus that it clicked. He had been trying to say that he would take my bag and do my ticket first to ensure that I would have the best seat on the double decker bus- top and front- with a stunning view out the windows. I felt acutely embarrassed for my rudeness towards him.

Feeling slightly mollified I settled into my seat and got out my sleeping bag- the bus was luxury with wide comfortable seats that fully reclined- but like all South American buses they were overzealous with the air conditioning. Getting cosy, an elderly man came to sit in the seat next to me, and we had a pleasant conversation in Span-glish about what I was doing here and where he was from. He explained he was ill and was going to see his doctor in Maracaibo, and apologised for the fact that he was coughing. The coughing would have been fine, but unfortunately he also smelt. And snored. Loudly. It was a long long journey, especially considering the death of my iPod on the slopes of Roraima.

However, I felt completely and utterly safe. The bus stopped a couple of times so we could go and buy things, and several people came up to me and asked what on earth I was doing here. I had a drink bought, some snacks offered, and the people seemed genuinely delighted when I told them the places I had been in Venezuela, and how beautiful I thought it was.

Maracaibo- Maicao

Several sleepless hours later I arrived into the bus station at Maracaibo. There is a bus that goes directly from there to Santa Marta, but the Merida bus arrives after that one leaves. And in any case, it departs from a part of the town that you really don't want to be in at 5am.

The other option is to take a por puesto from Maraciabo over the border to Maicao, in Colombia. These are big, old fashioned American style taxis that leave whenever they can't squeeze any more people into them. Descending bleary eyed from the bus I was bombarded by people shouting different locations at me, and after locating my bag I wandered to the other side of the terminal until I heard somebody shouting Maicou! Colombia! For 250bfs ($14) I found myself jammed in the back of a taxi between a middle aged Colombian lady, and a mother and baby (who in true South American style promptly began breast feeding). Squeezed into the front seat was a young Venezuelan guy, and another middle aged lady.

Mother and baby next to me

The Colombian lady next to me immediately began to chat to me in Spanish, to offer me snacks, and to make sure I was okay. I told her that I was heading to Santa Marta, and needed to change the rest of my Venezuelan bolivars to Colombian pesos at some point. She told me that she would "be my mother" and not leave me until she saw me safely on the bus, and that she knew somewhere safe to change my money- that you shouldn't trust the numerous guys who offer money changing on the border.

The conversation in the taxi swiftly turned to the troubles in Venezuela, with my new Colombian mother frequently patting my knee and telling me not to worry, you will be in Colombia soon and out of here. She travels over the border frequently to get materials for clothes, as it is cheaper in Venezuela, and she also takes US dollars over to sell. Everybody began to exclaim when I told how in the 3 months since I had been there, inflation had risen by almost 150%. The official rate for the bolivar against the dollar rose from 4 to 6, whilst the black market rate jumped from 10 to 25. Much head shaking and rapid spanish ensued, and the conversation then turned to Chavez, discussions that I probably would have struggled to follow even in English.

Along the road, we were stopped at at least 5 military checkpoints where they checked over our passports, gave a cursory look in the boot of car, and waved us on. I explained to the woman that I needed to make sure I got my exit stamp in my passport to Venezuela, and she told me it was no problem. Which, thanks to her, it wasn't. Without her, it would have been a nightmare.

Rapid Spanish and the lady tells me I need to get out 25bfs ($1.50). Seeing that the other people who need a stamp are doing the same, I do so. The lady then grabs my passport and money and hands it to the driver, who sprints off in the direction of a kiosk at the side of the road. Jammed into the middle seat, I have no option but to watch my passport disappear out of sight, my mind jumping to scenarios where I have to battle my way to the British Embassy in Caracas to get a new one.
Donde estas mi passporte!!!!
It luckily returns within a few minutes, and is handed to me by the lady, who gives me a bemused look. It doesn't have the exit stamp, but a slip which says that I have paid the departure tax. Well ok. That's step one.

Step two, we arrive at a building in the middle of nowhere with a long line of people, stretching back a long way. The queue to get the stamp would take at least 3 hours, and the sun was beating down on us. My Colombian mother sighs, and disappears round the back of the building for a few minutes, returning with a man in a uniform. She tells me and the other lady to get out 50bfs ($3) and to give it, along with my passport to the man. All the time she is looking round furtively to check that nobody is watching. Reluctant to let my passport out of my sight again, I eventually hand it over when I see that she and the other lady are also doing so. Our passports are whisked out of sight, only to return 5 minutes later and handed back to the lady behind the cover of a large tree. The exit stamp is inside, and we make our way back, stepping round the lines of hot, sweaty and impatient people. My Spanish teacher always joked that you could get anything done for 50bfs in Venezuela. I now know that to be true.

We walked for about 3 minutes over the border to Colombia, with the lady grinning and shouting to me exuberantly that I was safe now, that I would see how everything was better even just two meters over the border sign. And to be honest, it was. I strolled into the Colombian immigration building to get my stamp for 90 days in Colombia, and the man behind the desk grinned and clutched his heart in fake surprise at seeing a white face (he told me). He chatted and smiled and gave me the stamp without trouble, and we waited outside for our taxi to meet us. While waiting, the money changers came and stood around me, all wanting to say something in English (unfortunately primarily restricted to "baby!" "beautiful!" "hello!")

What was more interesting was the trucks that began to pass us from Colombia, into Venezuela. They were full of cows. A line of cow trucks, almost as far as the eye could see, passing over the border. I wish I could have got a picture but my camera was dead and my iphone hidden. Why these trucks? Chavez's socialistic regime resulted in the successful farms in the centre of the country being repossessed by government officers and given to other people, who knew nothing about farming. They began to fail. But, hey, that doesn't matter, the government said. Who needs to produce stuff when you have oil? Almost everything is now imported, including milk and meat from Colombia. Hence the lines and lines of cow trucks. My Colombian mother again shook her head and muttered something about how happy she was to be back over the border. We climbed back into our taxi and arrived in Maicao.

Maicao- Santa Marta

Maicao bus terminal in a chaos of people trying to sell you things, take your bags, get you in a taxi. The Colombian lady grasped me by the elbow, and told the man who was trying to sell me a ticket to Santa Marta to fuck off when she found out that he worked for another bus company. No, she said, you must get your ticket from Bus Brassilia, they are the best. She first took me a exchange bureau where I changed my money for an excellent rate. She then helped me to buy my bus ticket (27000 pesos, $15. Damn Colombian bus prices!) and told the driver in strict Spanish to let me off at Santa Marta and put me in a safe taxi to my hostel in Taganaga. She then turned to me, kissed me on both cheeks and wished me a safe journey. Completely grateful and completely clueless on how to show my gratitude I offered her some chocolate chip cookies. I think she appreciated the thought.

Settled on the bus, a man came on board which a huge gun, smiled, and took a picture of each and every person seated on the bus. Bizarre.

4 rather uneventful hours later I found myself in Santa Marta, and the driver, good to his word, got me into a taxi to Taganaga. Exhausted, I collapsed into a hammock at my hostel and awaited the arrival of my brother from England.

Total cost of travel: $37.
Alternative option, flight:  $600. (high season, ugh).
Money saved: $563
Experience gained: too much to quantify
Faith in humanity: Strengthened once again. Kindness is still alive in the world!

One adventure was over. The next were to come! Hasta luego.

Sunset at Taganga Beach