Sunday, February 24, 2008
Mostly just took it easy while we were there. I suppose that is what one does in the Caribbean. Much like in Cartagena, some of the beaches were full of locals trying to sell things. Hard to get any peace with those people around. At one point a fat local woman started to rub my back in an attempt to get me to pay her for a massage; luckily I know how to get rid of these people...I told her I didn't have a cent in my pockets and she ran off like I'd tried to set her on fire or something. Went out into the the water and got sucked pretty far out into the ocean by the undertow...could've been dangerous for a poor swimmer but I managed. Not going to see lifeguards or warning signs down here.
On our last day we rented a car and drove over to Yaque Beach on the south part of the island. It's a famous wind and kite surfing beach. The kite surfing looked pretty cool...apparently you can learn for pretty cheap there. They were having a competition so we got to see quite a few practitioners. Lots of Europeans about.
When we checked out of the hotel we took a look at the bill and questioned what the $1 "KIDS" charge was. We were informed it was a 'voluntary' donation to a charity for kids that's automatically added to the bill. I told them to remove it and the guy looked at me like I was crazy. I guess maybe I'm hard-hearted...or maybe it's just that I don't like people sneaking charges onto my bill to fund organizations that I know nothing about....
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Luckily, my friend had a friend of a friend down here in Caracas so she and her friend showed us around on our first day here in Venezuela. Took us to the cable car that went up into the clouds. Got to see the only ice rink in the country up there. The cable car had reopened recently after years of closure due to an accident. Was happy to see the new cables were quite a bit thicker than the older ones that broke.
Caracas has quite developed infrastructure. Plenty of nice smooth roads and highways...although this doesn´t really help you get where you are going since there are so many cars. Traffic is really bad...probably as bad as I have seen it, and we apparently missed the real rush hour traffic. And they have a really nice metro system...but then when you are going to give away gas people are probably going to drive.
Got to see all the monuments...didn´t have any problems taking a walk through the Congress building where Chavez does his rants. But when I tried to take a picture of the building where Chavez works I whistled at by a soldier with his rifle. You´ll see quite a bit of security down here...often soldiers with military equipment (to include not just automatic rifles but things like tanks and armored personnel carriers are occasionally seem in front of government buildings) will be on guard duty. Saw plenty of plenty of poor, older Chavez supporters in the main plaza, the Plaza Bolivar, which is located quite near Mr. Bolivar´s birthhome. Bolivar is like a god here in Venezuela. He´s quite well known as the Libertador (Liberator) throughout Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia for his efforts to throw off the Spanish yoke back in the early 1800´s but Venezuela takes his worship to a new level : the name of the currency, the name of their brand of economy (Bolivarian socialism), murals of him on walls everywhere, and Chavez invoking his name all the time in speeches...and I thought they worshiped Che in Argentina.
Had heard about shortages in the grocery stores due to Chavez´s interfering in the marketplace, but haven´t gotten to see any of that first hand. The local newspapers do have some surprisingly harsh critiques of the government. I wasn´t sure how much of a free press existed down here these days, but they seem to be able to say what they want. Whether they´ll get a decent government in the near future is a tougher question...I reckon with oil closing over $100 today Chavez will manage to have enough revenue to continue the handouts and stay in power for awhile longer. I'll give Chavez credit for trying to help the poor, but I have to think nationalizing not just the oil but many other businesses is not going to work out well in the end.
Sunday, February 17, 2008
...got off to a bit of a rough start here in Caracas since our flight was 3 hours late. We left the gate late as many people (including ourselves) were late getting onto the plane since security was horribly backed up. Security seemed a pretty disorganized mess with metal detectors not functioning and travelers forming their own lines to jump the other lines.
But we finally left the gate about 40 minutes late. Proceeded to taxi around on the runway for about an hour. The pilot seemed to enjoy doing brake checks as he kept slamming them on every few minutes for no apparent reason. Finally, the jerk came over the intercom to tell us that since we had taxied for so long we now had to return to the gate to refuel. Hard to believe that they would burn enough fuel taxiing to have to refuel...the theory of the Scandinavian fellow next to me was that they had left the tanks as empty as possible in order to show up in Ven with little extra fuel...gas being riduculously cheap here (costs about $1.50 to fill the tank of the average car here...and that is at the official rate). That same guy yelled out in English at one of the flight attendants calling him a piece of shit as the flight attendant tried to move his garment bag a little further beneath the seat. It is funny how you will say things in a language that is not your native tongue things that you would never say in your own language...I have experienced this myself, although in an entirely different context... He was pretty angry though, maybe he would have said that anyway.
At any rate, it was amusing seeing how angry he kept getting...people would have their phones ring for awhile before answering and he would get flustered. People starting singing in the back of aircraft and that pissed him off. Oh, and the little beep noise that they make when they hit the ´fasten seat belts´ button kept going off repeatedly like a damn slot machine that just hit jackpot. He loved that. So did I. As we were dying of thirst waiting for takeoff the flight attendant yanked the curtains shut right in front of him leaving the curtain on his foot (we were in the front row of coach) and then immediately after we hear what sounds like a party going on first class. Felt like a Seinfeld episode. Gotta love the dichotomy between the serious Western businessman and the locals singing and laughing during the delay.Yes, Avianca, they run a tight ship...as we finally touched down we could hear the sound of dishes breaking in first class.
Well, the money exchange worked out fine. It was a little sketchy swapping out hundreds of dollars in an underground parking garage, but thankfully my judgment of character was not off. Felt like a drug deal counting stacks of money in a back room. Luckily, the new currency is so new (new as of the start of the year) that the counterfeiters have not had the chance to perfect their wares yet...so that was not a concern.
Venezuela actually seems to have plenty of coin money. And plenty of money around to make change. This is not always the case down here. In Argentina there is a serious shortage of coin money. I cannot tell you how many times I had to buy a chocolate bar or gum or something just to get change for the bus. And oftentimes the shop owners would not sell to me unless I had exact change or bought an even peso amount because they had no coin money either. Buying things actually became something of an art form in order to hang onto my coin money. I always bought enough subway tickets to make an even peso amount because this enabled me to stand in the line that does not have coin money for change. If you wanted coin change returned you were waiting 5 extra minutes to buy.
In Peru nobody has any money at all. At least not easily accessible. You buy something like a lunch for the equivalent of $7 (this would be for two people at a decent place...Peru is cheap) and give them the equivalent of a $10 note and they will not have change readily available for that. They will get it...after about 10 minutes of scrounging.
Saturday, February 16, 2008
Money is quite an interesting topic here in Venezuela. The official exchange rate is about 2 Bolivares to the dollar. That is the rate you will get with your ATM card, credit card, or if you go to the money exchange joints. But on the street people will pay 4 to 1 or more for dollars. It is technically illegal to exchange dollars in this manner (aint it great when government gets in the way?) but does not seemed to be enforced (shockingly). I first swapped out $20 at 3 to 1 at the airport with some scammer. Knew I would regret that later but wanted to have some local money to pay the cab driver. Ended up paying the cabbie in dollars anyway as the rate he gave was about 4 to 1 (150 bolivars or the $35 that I payed him...obviously did not realize ahead of time that he would take dollars...and yes, cabs are expensive here, which seems very odd since gas is basically free (another great idea from the government...and I thought ours was bad)...you should see the traffic...more on that later). I am going to use him tomorrow to swap out a couple hundred at 4.7 to one. No worries, I will find a safe spot to do the transaction. All this was a little confusing at first (the fact that they recently knocked 3 zeros off the currency adds to the confusion since both new and old bolivares are still used) but I am getting used to it now. Obviously, the idea is to bring as many dollars into the country as you are going to need and leave your debit and credit cards in the hotel. Knew this ahead of time and brought a good number of dollars. Hope I brought enough as it would pain be deeply to have to use my ATM card to get more cash since I would essentially be getting half the value. The country is pretty expensive at the official rate, but reasonably cheap at the unofficial rate.
Seems like there ought to be a way to take advantage of this ridiculousness but I have not thought it through well enough yet to figure out how I would do it.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
I´m really very impressed with Bogota after one day. Clean streets and beautiful scenery with the mountains and foothills. Quite a nice surprise. Yes, I suppose you could say it´s a little dangerous with 114 murders in January, but like any big city if you stay in the nicer areas things are safe. And this city does have 7 million people so that murder rate is not sky-high. Colombia has upped security spending quite a bit in recent years...and we´ve seen first-hand the results of the increased security presence as the soldiers and policemen are quite conspicuous around town. At midnight 15 military-looking policemen walked into the bar we were in. They searched everyone, looked at some ID´s and left. Motorcyclists have to wear a neon orange vest with their license place number printed on the back.
Probably the most pleasant surprise has been the friendliness of the people...every person we´ve talked to has been helpful and open - from the cable car man (amazing views of the city from the top of the mountains nearby as well as beautiful gardens and old buildings up there), to the taxi drivers (surprisingly for a city of this size public transport in the form of trains and subways is not really existent), to the college student who approached us to give directions when we looked a little lost as we cut through campus, to the security guard who let us into the bullfighting stadium just to take a few pictures. Ah, and the Spanish here is very comprehensible, though I wouldn´t recommend coming down here without speaking some Spanish as English is limited. Seems to be an inverse relationship between the number of tourists (very few we´ve seen here) and the friendliness of the people. Anyway, the weather is beautiful this time of year too, although nights are chilly at 2600 meters.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
This was an earlier entry that I decided to leave out. Changed my mind.
So Cartagena, Colombia...let´s see... The bars down here...well, first of all the girls are something else. Cartagena, being on the Caribbean, has a nice mix of races and ethnicities, more so than many of the other countries further south which are a bit more homogenous.
Anyway, my buddy was looking for a bar with some local girls so the locals we asked pointed us to Dolce Vita and Isis. I am not in the market for any of this type of stuff at all, but can´t refuse to help a friend a little bit. Wasn´t sure what to expect at first, but when you open the door and enter and the girl to guy ratio is about 3:1 and the women are all super-hot you know something is different. That and the 60 year-old American guy sitting in the corner with a 22 year-old let you know that cash is changing hands.
They don´t really approach you and bother you, which is nice in a way. You´re not getting pestered to buy drinks or anything really. But if you happen to make eye contact with one of them you can expect them to hold it steadily and in a manner that nice girls just don´t do.
Apparently, the local regular girls here in Cartagena don´t go in bars...bars are exclusively for pros. From the picture I posted above the place seems innocuous enough, but I reckon for anyone who knows a bit about ancient religions, gods, and goddesses you might get a clue from the name Isis that there´s more than meets the eye. We, however, had no idea.
Little bit rougher crowd here in Cartagena for sure. More harassment to buy stuff than I´m accustomed to. And the beggars here tend to be middle aged, healthy looking men that ask for money in a more intimidating rather than begging manner. In Peru the beggars tended to beg...and were young women with babies, elderly, cripples, etc. I asked the cab driver upon arrival if it were possible to change m0ney on the street for a better exchange rate than at the bank. He simply told me...¨ If I were you I would keep my eye on my money....¨ I didn´t probe him any further after that but we were stopped yesterday by two Americans from California who´d been swindled out of $90 trying to change money with these scammers. I guess they pulled a little distraction scheme and 210,000 pesos turned into 21,000. Initially, you´re surprised two intelligent looking individuals would let that happen, but these thieves down here are good at what they do. Oh well, they were from California...they can afford it.
Old town Cartagena is beautiful though. The town is nearly 500 years old. All kinds of history here. The colorful old buildings, fountain-filled plazas, and tight little streets are a sight to see. There´s an old stone and concrete wall surrounding the city that took the Spanish 200 years to build. Apparently, the got sick of pirates, especially English ones, coming around to sack the city and steal the gold the Spanish were transiting through here after they plundered it down in Peru. There´s a beautiful outdoor bar built on top of the old wall...the owners gave it the exceedingly distinguished name of...La Casa de Cerveza...The Beer House.
The beach is ok. It does have the distinction for me of being the first beach from which I entered the Caribbean...though filled with people pestering you to buy stuff you don´t want. Much like the rest of the city. Funny, when you actually need someone to get you something, like in a restaurant or bar, the person never seems to be there.
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Had my flight out of Lima yesterday. Had a layover in PAnama City. Panama City looked pretty impressive from the air. Hadn´t expected to see all those tall buildings, and the propaganda I read in the airport sparked my interest a bit. Apparently anyone can become a Panamanian if they have about 200K to buy a house or CD in the country. And I like those low taxes. I think I may come back to Panama to check it out for a few days.
Airport was full of stores selling electronics and liquor. Nice prices too. But only one restaurant in the gate area...didn´t appeal to me so I had a dinner of Doritos and Snickers. Was nice to find the regular flavor Doritos though...hadn´t seen that in awhile...now if I could only find some peanut butter....
Airport also had flights to Cuba and the loudspeaker was only used very sparingly to make announcements. When the flight was ready to go, the guy at the gate just called out to everyone and we all got on. Flight even left 10 minutes early. All in all a pleasant two hour layover in Panama.
Spent my last week in Peru in Lima. Didn´t do or see a whole lot so I guess I´ll return to one of my favorite topics...driving customs, to fill some space.
On the whole, the driving in Peru is not that bad. They do use the horn quite a bit. The taxis especially like to beep the horn at you to let you know they are there and willing. They´ll do it repeatedly in an attempt to grind you into submitting to a taxi ride. They see a guy like me and they come out from all over in an attempt to provide the taxi service. I´ve had them lined up waiting on main roads...so much so that I can´t get across the street (which is what I really want, not a taxi ride). Peruvians will tend to make 3 lanes where there are 2 and make left turns from the right lane of a 4 lane road, but overall fairly law abiding they are. They religiously stop for red lights and rarely block intersections.
My friend and I got pulled over the other night because her taillights were out. She lacks not only insurance but also a driver´s license. (She´s only been driving 3 years so what´s the rush to obtain a license?) Well, she talked for a minute with the police officer and eventually he asked her, ¨Do you want me to help you out with this?¨ She then promptly gave him the equivalent of $3 and off we drove. If only it were that easy where I come from...but then I guess I´m actually glad we enforce our laws...just not the laws I don´t like.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Been back here in Lima for awhile now, although the flight the other day was delayed significantly. Spent hours in the airport chatting with a young couple from California who had had a terrible time with their travel agent. Lies, overcharges, general disorganization. They didn´t speak any Spanish though which I think can hurt you down here, although my Spanish even after a few months barely seems any help sometimes. Anyway, based on what they told me and after my own difficulties I would recommend the would-be traveler maintain a healthy skepticism of the capabilities and motivations of travel agents down here. Unfortunately, to do the Inca Trail you have to use a guide and book in advance so many people end up using agents. I´m sure there are plenty of good ones....
So Lima has become like a second home. No real reason to be here...other than the fact that I met someone here who I very much enjoy spending time with....
Headed off to Colombia on Saturday. After that it´ll be Venezuela for a stretch. It'll be nice to get back on the road again.
Thinking back on MP, I have to say it was one of the highlights of my travels this past year and I´ve seen quite a bit by now. I just really enjoyed sitting up there on the bluffs, eating my apple and looking at it. Kind of hard to explain I guess. I think part of what helped me enjoy it more was my energy level was really good after hiking for a few days prior and working out for a couple weeks ahead of time. This enabled me to do the hikes in the MP area and scramble around MP without really getting tired. You´ll see quite a few older folk sweating and panting up there, but they manage.