It’s a beautiful day in Mérida. It’s supposed to be the rainy season, but today is clear with an occasional fair-weather cloud. The peaks surrounding the city are all visible, including the immense Pico Bolívar, Venezuela’s highest peak at 5,007 meters or 16,422 feet. Today the lines of the Teleférico glow in the sunlight, leading the eye up and up and higher still to Pico Espejo, craggy and covered in snow. It would be a good day to ascend, but I have Spanish class at 10:30.
The mountainsides transform smoothly from deep green at the level of Mérida to a darker green and finally to black. At the very tops, the black is thinly coated with white, giving the appearance of black-veined marble. There are few houses on the hillsides because there are few roads. Anyone building up there would need to haul their building supplies up on their backs. This is a major reason why hillside housing in Latin America is primarily reserved for the poor and desperate.
As I walk to class, old women watch me go by from the rooftops. They lean over the parapets looking like life-sized kitchen witches, gnarled and brown and kind. From the tops of nearby churches, angels watch over the populace, perfect and white and aloof.
During the day there isn’t much traffic in the streets. Folks generally stay indoors, out of the sun. From 12-2, most of the city shuts down for siesta and almuerzo (lunch). At around 5pm, the people of Mérida emerge to mingle in the squares and internet cafés. Muchachos rollerblade and skateboard, doing many of the same stunts performed by kids in the U.S. Old men tell stories in doorways.
Walking around the streets of Venezuela, you see a lot of beefy off-road vehicles. The car of choice seems to be the Toyota Land Cruiser, with the American classic Jeep coming in second. Every sort of off-road vehicle is represented, however, including pseudo-off-road vehicles such as modern American SUVs.
Originally I thought this reflected the poor state of the roads. Lately I’ve been thinking it’s simply a guy thing. Many of these vehicles are more tricked out than is practical, and some of them approach parody. I saw a vehicle in Caracas with a dozen 20 liter gas tanks filling the roof rack. Many of these cars have Hi-Lift jacks, winches, huge beefy tires, and all sorts of stickers for off-road accessory companies.
I called Dan last night from the corner of the Plaza de Milla. As I spoke to him, a scruffy yellow dog set down beside me and started licking itself. Thinking of the flea bites Jeanne and Shay had recently received on their ankles, I moved as far away as the telephone cord would allow. A few moments later, I noticed a small rat feeding on food scraps in the street. A little later, the dog’s ears perked up as it noticed the rat. It slowly stepped out into the street and stuck its nose out, and took a sniff. The rat responded by squeaking and jumping at the dog, bouncing off the top of its head. The dog jumped back, and the rat charged, again jumping onto the dog. After the second attack the canine retreated to the curb.
The rodent’s victory was short-lived, however. Within a few minutes a rough-looking caballero (cowboy) walked down the street. He spotted the rat and altered his course slightly so that one heel landed directly on the unfortunate animal’s head. Having defeated his opponent, he kicked the body out of sight under the curb.
That rat was pretty tough, though. Just as I was finishing my conversation with Dan, I saw it wobbling back into the street. It looked a little unsteady, but it found some food and continued it’s dinner. I hoped for its sake that the cowboys were all in bars.
Last night we ate at Restaurante La Abadia (The Abbey), located at 17-45 Avenida 3, between Calles 17 and 18. This restaurant is located in a beautiful old building decorated with modern (and whimsical) renditions of saints. The waiters (all in their 20’s and beautiful) wear maroon hooded monk’s shirts. It’s definitely a high-end restaurant, and pricey by Mérida standards.
I ordered the Sopa de Cebolla, which was the best I’ve had since arriving (and I’ve eaten a lot.) Sopa de Cebolla in Latin America is similar to it’s french cousin, but is made with chicken stock, which I consider an improvement. The onions in this soup had an amazing smokey taste. As a second course I ate the Ensalada “El Nombre de la Rosa” (The Name of the Rose). It had tomatoes, hearts of palm, avocado, lettuce, and black olives. The dressing was a balsamic vinaigrette and the entire salad was covered with toasted sesame seeds. It was a very good even by San Francisco standards for salads.
Tyler and Jeanne ordered the “Fajitas Gringas”, which were only somewhat like the fajitas currently popular in the States. The plate consisted of grilled meats served around a bowl of papas fritas (french fries.) The only other accompaniment was a small portion of guacamole. Much simpler than fajitas in the States, and Jeanne and Tyler both polished off their plates.