Into Brasil

We awoke early in Santa Elena de Uairén. While the others were packing up, I went for a walk to try to locate a mechanic. There were none around the hotel, but on my way back, a guy across the street started winking and blowing kisses at me. Santa Elena is an outback miner’s town, and this guy didn’t fit. He had bright red perm’ed hair and was dressed in bright patterned clothes. Not my type at all, but of course I enjoyed the flirting. I smiled back at him, waved, and ducked safely into the hotel.

After packing up, we started looking for a garage where we could get our oil changed. I had also lost a bolt on my catalytic converter, and another was loose in a place which was hard to access, and I wanted to get these things fixed as well.

We found a garage just down the street from the the Hotel Frontera that was able to change our oil and which carried synthetic oil. The garage also provided us with a guardian angel in the form of Guillermo Cardenas, who owned the place. Guillermo speaks English, Spanish, and Portugese, and he was quickly able to set us up with an oil change, car wash, and repairs
for my exhaust system.

While his mechanic was doing this, Guillermo drove us all to the Brasilian border, where he herded us into a room to get the exit stamps in our passports. He then found a different person who put an exit date on the auto visa also in our passport.

Next, Guillermo drove us over to the Brasilian side of the border, where he confirmed that we could get all of the paperwork done to bring our cars into the country. Normally, the border crossing gives auto visas good until Manaus but no further. You need to stop in Boa Vista to get the paperwork to bring the cars further into Brasil. Guillermo explained that we were driving the length of the country, and they agreed to type up the papers necessary to bring the cars further into Brasil.

We returned to the garage, where Guillermo called a friend who is a sort of customs agent. She agreed to do all of the running-around necessary to get our papers from customs for 15,000 Bs. or about US$20 per car. This sounded great to us. She came over, we gave her our paperwork bundles, and off she went.

Next, Guillermo brought us to lunch at a wonderful place called Villa Fairmont. The restaurant is located in a huge thatch pavillion. The waiter is well-dressed and friendly, and the food is delicious. Numerous parrots play in and around the restaurant, sometimes running across the floor if they see someone drop a piece of food.

If you’re passing through Santa Elena, Villa Fairmont is a wonderful place to stay. The rates are currently 24,000 Bs. (US$35) for a single and 28,000 Bs. (US$40) for a double, including breakfast. Located near the corner of Calle Kanavayen and Calle Aponwao, T(088) 9510-22.

Over lunch, Guillermo told us that our impressions of the ladies at the bar last night were accurate. In Santa Elena there are 20 women to every man. Most of the women followed their husbands to Santa Elena. The husbands came to mine for diamonds and gold in the camps surrounding the pueblo.

Gold and diamond miners are paid strictly on commision. If they find a lump of gold, or a rough diamond, they are paid 20% of its value. Unfortunately, it’s possible to go months without finding anything, and this is not uncommon. What keeps men coming to the camps around Santa Elena are stories of the man who finds a $2,000,000 diamond and becomes rich instantly.

The men leave their families in town to go the camps. They promise they’ll return when they have money, and weeks pass. Then months. The nest egg they left with their family runs low. Eventually many of these men leave Santa Elena destitute, and they leave their family behind.

When the money runs out, many of the women turn to selling their only commodity. That explained the many old ladies-of-the-evening we saw at the bar last night, and more disturbingly, explains the many extremely young girls we’ve seen dressed very inappropriately. The whole situation is very sad, and the proportion of women to men will continue to increase as long as men chase gold in Santa Elena.

After lunch, we headed over to the laundromat where we dropped our clothes off the night before. It was supposed to be done at noon, and now it was 2 and only half of the clothing had been washed. Unfortunately, the entire civic water supply of Santa Elena had shut down halfway through the morning. We took what was clean and hoped to wash the rest later.

Then Guillermo drove us into town, where Shay and Tyler wanted to check their email at the only internet café in Santa Elena. While they were inside, a Guillermo flagged down a gentleman on a bicycle. He biked up, opened his fanny back, and pulled out a huge handful of Reals, the currency of Brasil. He was a black market money changer, and we changed almost all of our currency with him. Changing your currency on the street isn’t something I’d recommend, but I trusted Guillermo.

Lastly, we drove our own cars back to the frontier with Brasil. On the way we stopped to fill up with gasoline… our last chance to fill up with the cheapest gas in the world. At the border, our customs agent was waiting with the paperwork. We got entry stamps in our passports, thanked Guillermo profusely, and off we went towards Boa Vista.

We drove into Brasil through wide plains crossed by rivers and small lakes. At one point a herd of horses raced our caravan before splashing into a river. At another point a giant white bird with a black head and a dark red-ruffed neck flew up from a pond as we passed. We later saw an entire flock of these birds… they were startling in their size and beauty.

The plains were covered with scrub and termite mounds 5 feet high. The sky above seemed to cover more than 180 degrees, putting Montana’s to shame. The road was in very good condition, one lane in each direction, smooth, and often laser-straight for long periods of time.

We arrived in Boa Vista at around 6:30pm, about a half-hour after nightfall. As we approached, we passed bicyclist after bicyclist peddling towards town on the highway. None of them used lights. At the outskirts of Boa Vista we stopped for gasoline and directions to the hotel Guillermo had recommended. I filled up with a half-tank which cost me 60 Reals, or roughly US$30. I understood why Venezuelanos drove SUVs and Brasilians drove bicycles.

I asked for directions to the hotel, and one of the men at the gas station offered to lead us there. (Portugese is disconcerting… similar to Spanish, but different enough to cause total communications failure at times.) We got in our cars and followed his VW to the hotel.

We’re at the Aipana Plaza hotel now. It has the nicest rooms I’ve seen since we arrived in South America. Over the next few days we’ll continue south to Manaus, and then we’ll have a few days’ rest while cruising down the Amazon.


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