I spent the last week in Merida, staying with Dr B´s brother, A. I´d heard a lot about him from 2-3 Venezuelan friends of mine and was keen to see him and his lifestyle. It was quite an amazing experience.
A is about 36, lives alone in a small house in a remote village outside the city of Merida. His house has spectacular views of the Andes, a small stream running through his front yard, no hot water, no heating and no form of transport. The only way to get to his village is to take a bus or hitch-hike and then a short uphill walk. He´s recently started a master´s degree in mathematics at the University of the Andes, and lives on very little money as I found out. He also doesn´t speak any English either (barely a few words).
I reached Merida early in the morning and called him from the bus terminal. Realised immediately that it was impossible to communicate with him. Thankfully, I´ve been carrying a Spanish for travellers book, and have been reading through it for about a week. Took a bus to the centre of the town, memorised some lines and called him again. Somehow we managed to agree on Plaza Bolivar at 11.
He showed up on time and immediately took me on a walk through the city pointing out all kinds of places. At each point I had to ask him to speak slowly, consult my book, and then talk back. He´s lived around Merida most of his life and knows the city inside out, and also about half the town. Every 5 minutes, someone would stop to talk, wave or shout at him. I was still a bit groggy after a long bus ride, so we stopped at a great fish restaurant for lunch. Merida was even cheaper than Caracas and it´s nice to be able to order food without asking about the price. After lunch, we hitched a ride in a jeep, and went through a long walk through a few villages, stopping at a couple of houses along the way. Being introduced as a friend from India in such a remote place, made me feel like a celebrity. Reached his house in the evening, and I immediately collapsed on a hammock on his porch and dozed off, listening to the sound of the stream and staring in between at the amazing mountain views.
The next 3-4 days were spent hiking. A had spent a lot of time in his 20s as a trekking guide, and knows every trail and mountain. The first day, a friend of his joined us, and the 3 of us hitched rides on various trucks and jeeps to end up at some hot springs. It took a while to get there and apart from a few locals, it was just us. Spent at least 4-5 hours soaking in the hot springs, sipping some fresh juice we´d carried, with a great view of the Andes. The sun was very harsh and strong, so I got pretty badly sunburnt, as I´d laughed at the sunblock they were using. Left the springs around 4 in the evening and explored some of the small villages in the area. Again, A knew a lot of people and we just simply walked into different houses without knocking on doors. At each place the 3 of us went, we were offered food and tea and it was quite astonishing to see how backward the living conditions were in these places.
Spent the next 2 days on a camping trip and I realised how 3 months in Paris had made me very unfit. It was even worse to be accompanied by a former trekking guide who knows everything so well. Somehow managed to chug up to the base of Pico Sucre, and camped there for the night. It got cold at night, and I was quite stiff after all the walking and it wasn´t the most comfortable night. But seeing the night sky and the sunrise in the morning made the whole trek worth it.
Decided against climbing the peak as it was too windy and I didn´t want to push myself too much. Took a different route on the way back and stopped at another hot spring along the way to ease the stiffness. Got back to his place around 5 and then headed straight for a farewell party for a friend of his who was leaving for Caracas. It was supposed to be just a few drinks and a quicky goodbye, but there was no way anybody was going to let A leave early. He´s remarkably popular and though he´s about 10 years older than most of his student friends, he behaves as if he´s younger than them. Even though nobody could speak English clearly, it was fun to communicate through my Spanish book. I think I learned more Spanish in the last 6 days than I ever tried in the last few years.
The last day was reserved for the most spectacular ride that I´ve ever been on. The Teleferica, which is the longest and highest cable car in the world. It was breathtaking and it starts from about 3000m in Merida and goes up to about 4500m in about an hour, with a couple of stops. It was the closest I´ve felt to flying, especially as I sat like a kid in the front row with my nose pressed against the windows. It´s a remarkable feat of engineering and the views one gets of the Andes and the neighbouring valleys and towns are incredible. (I think I used too many superlatives in the last paragraph)
I took the night bus back to Caracas, and had a slightly awkward experience. Was woken up in the middle of the night and asked for my ID. Showed my passport and was then told to come out of the bus. Even though I told them in broken Spanish that I was just a tourist, they insisted on searching me and my backpack thoroughly and asking about where I was going and what I did. The whole bus was held up for about 30 minutes, and it was a bit embarrassing to be interrogated in front of the entire bus. I don´t know why they were doing it to me, but I acted as if I didn´t care. They let me off soon, but the bus driver winked at me and said ¨"Sorry, that´s what Chavez is doing these days."
I took loads of pictures and a short video at the back of a truck. Will try uploading them soon once I can figure out how to connect my laptop. Am off to Guiria tonight, and then to Trinidad by a ferry on Wednesday, so hopefully my next post will be from Trinidad.