To El Dorado and Beyond

I slept great last night, and even felt a little cool towards morning.

We ate an incredible breakfast at the restaurant… scrambled eggs and cheese and the most amazingly great arepas I’ve ever had. They were served with a butter that should be a controlled substance.

Arepas are wonderful. They’re filling, tasty, and probably fairly healthy, providing you don’t slather them with butter. They’re simply patties of corn meal grilled on both sides. Roadside restaurants slice them open and fill them with all sorts of things, including grilled chicken.

We drove south, circling around Ciudad Bolivar and then heading northeast towards Ciudad Guyana. Just before entering Ciudad Guyana, we turned south on Highway 10.

Just south of Upata we were pulled over at an army checkpoint. A soldier asked me for the paperwork for my car, and then for my passport and drivers’ license. I kept expecting him to ask for a bribe, or to search my car and steal things, but this didn’t happen. Instead he asked me if I could give a ride to a señora standing by the side of the road. I told him that we were only going to El Dorado, and he didn’t seem to think this was a problem. I thought that I hadn’t made myself understood, so I sent him to speak with Jeanne.

After a brief exchange, we learned that the señora was going to El Callao, and we agreed to have her ride along in Jeanne’s car. She got on board, and we drove south. Her name was Lucy, and she had lost her home in the mudslides in La Guaira last December. She didn’t have money for the bus, and was making her way to El Callao. It’s illegal to hitchhike in Venezuela, but the National Guard will try to find rides for folks.

The Venezuelan interior south of Upata is beautiful rolling country. The road shoots straight across the countryside, then makes a turn, and heads straight cross country again. For the most part, the pavement is in good shape. It’s a wonderful drive.

We stopped for lunch/dinner at a roadside restaurant just north of Tumeremo. These places are all very rustic, with tables and chairs under a shading roof, and without walls so that the air can circulate freely. This one had chickens and a dirt floor, for an extra added touch of ambiance.

Three pots were cooking over wood fires.

I ordered a calchapa con queso. A calchapa is a sort of pancake made from corn, and tastes just like creamed corn. (In one corner of the restaurant was a pile of ears of corn, destined for calchepas.) It’s served with a chunk of cheese inside, and is both filling and tasty.

The restaurateur was very eager to please, and brought Jeanne, Shay, and Tyler a pot roast and some fried pork to taste. He also brought us some nata (a soft buttery cheese) and some yucca to taste. Everything was great. There was a jar of pickled hot peppers on the table, and
I ate some with my calchapa. Zowie! These peppers were not only the first really spicy thing I’d had since arriving in Venezuela, they were also some of the spiciest peppers I’d ever had. They were great!

Young Capybara

As we were preparing to leave, the owner went into his house and came out with an animal the size of a puppy. He explained that this critter wandered around the house and would eat anything. Eventually it grew to be 4-5 feet long and 2-3 feet high, and then they would kill and eat it. He told us that the meat was the best in the world. I was looking at the largest rodent in the world, the capybara. It was cute, but also looked amazingly stupid.

We were shooting for a camp called La Montañita which was supposed to be in the vicinity of El Dorado. When we reached El Dorado, I asked for directions, and they told me that it was about a half hours south on the highway. It was 5pm, and we drove on.

We learned about La Montañita through an excellent book we found in Mérida. It’s titled “Elizabeth Kline’s Guide to Camps, Posadas & Cabins in Venezuela“, and it is just what it sounds like. It’s recent, bilingual, and seems fairly accurate. If you’re traveling to Venezuela, try to find this book on Amazon or in your local book store. (ISSN: 1315-9879) If you can’t find it, try writing to the author directly at the e-mail address (email hidden in RSS feeds).

Driving through the jungle

The road south from El Dorado is through jungle. The road cuts through the jungle, which fights back, reaching in from both sides. There is no breakdown lane, and it’s often necessary to move towards the center of the road to avoid a reaching tree branch. Overhead, the trees come together to form a tunnel.

Keeping the forest from invading takes work, and we passed several crews of men standing just off the road in the forest. Each held a machete, and they would walk down the road, hacking at branches which invaded too far into the right-of-way.

We often passed swatches of jungle that were burning. Burning is the easiest way to clear a patch of forest to build a home and farm, and alongside the road is the easiest place to live. I’d heard the statistics… 1000 acres of rainforest are destroyed every day, or something like that. Here it was happening before my eyes.

People down here are poor, and it’s hard to fault them for trying to set up a farm and make a living. It’s also hard to explain to people that they shouldn’t clear land, because it’s bothering their rich neighbors to the north. The best solution is to teach people how to coexist with nature.

Programs to do that have been set up, but they’re small and the problem is big.

The camp was much more than 1/2 hour down the road. As we drove south, it got dark. I was driving in front, and I’d call out hazards as I saw them. Cars would come down the road at us without headlights. Occasionally there was a big pothole that needed avoiding.

People would appear on the side of the road as my headlights swept over them. A boy was standing by the side of the road wearing only underwear, bathing in a spring. An old man walked down the road, leaning on a twisted cane. Three men stood and watched me pass, each holding a machete.

We arrived at the camp 15 minutes after dark, and pulled in. A young girl asked us to park on the lawn. Lightning bugs flashed on and off from the jungle around the clearing. There is no electric or phone lines here, and everything was dark.

Once we got settled, our host showed us how to take a bath. A Coca-Cola cooler behind the house collected rainwater. We could scoop this into a pail, bring it into one of the bathrooms, and ladle it over our heads. After getting wet, we could soap up and then rinse with more water.

I took a bath almost immediately. The water was warm, and the bath was refreshing. The moon overhead is full, and we sit around talking for a while before going to bed.

Today was a bit of a milestone. For the first time, I’m closer to Ushuaia than to my home in San Francisco. I’m not sure how to feel about this. I feel some accomplishment, but I also feel a deep longing for my boyfriend. I spoke to him on the satellite phone tonight, and it only made me miss him more.

I’ll see him in late November, but that seems so far away. I’ve already been away from Dan for over a month, the longest we’ve ever been apart. It sounds trite, but I really do feel like a part of me is missing.


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