By the time that I was finally faced with an armed man demanding money, I laughed; it had been that kind of day.
Up early to drive 650kms south from Puerto Ordaz to the border town of Santa Elena de Uairen, we set off in a reasonably jolly mood, tempered slightly by the effects a lovely bar in which beer costs 50c per bottle.
The drive south was interesting, to a point, and from time to time. Latin America is not ridden with historical towns and monuments; rural Venezuela is a pretty hard scrabble place, with low-lying towns busy with nail shops, automotive repairs, tattoo parlours, coffee hang-outs and the other necessities of day-to-day life. The countryside is beautiful; the towns are functional.
We passed south through town after town, passing El Callão, a gold mining town famous only as the supposed residence of Henri Charrière, or Papillon, after his escape from the French penal system.
From there we headed into the Canaima National Park, although it has to be said that roads through jungles offer little idea of what they have to offer beyond the first ten feet of deep and myriad greens. We did see, however, dozens of muddy 4WD vehicles, a testament to the parks attractions, and an indication of much to be explored, but we drove on.
Stopping only to fill with gas, and this proved a little more difficult than one might have thought. Long lines at gas stations, and some with no fuel for sale was a little odd for this oil-rich country. However, when we found out that to fill our Hyundai Santa Fe with 60 litres of fuel cost 5 Bolivars, we realized why.
Bear in mind that there are 600 Bolivars to the dollar; 5 of them represents less than one cent. To fill a tank; yes, this is not a misprint. A bottle of wine, however, costs about 13,000 bolivars, and even a litre of water set me back 250 of these peculiar Venezuelan Bolivars.
And so we continued; all the while cognizant of the dangers of travelling through the “Wild and Lawless Venezuelan Savannah”; well, it was a bit of a let down on that side, and perhaps the fifteen military checkpoints that we passed through had something to do with it. It seemed safe, and unless one ran out of gas, very interesting indeed.
We were expecting to see clusters of young women walking delicately after surgery, a new specialisation apparently of the doctors of Puerto Ordaz is the reshaping of Brazilian bottoms,but to no avail, perhaps because it was Sunday
It was, in fact, the last of these military checks that proved difficult. We were singled out to empty our suitcases in the sun, and then replace our non-sinister clothes and “personal effects”. Clearly not satisfied, our young soldier called another young soldier who led me quietly into a dark room.
On the wooden table lay about seventy tubes of Colgate toothpaste and an equal number of bottles of powder; I could see what these chaps were up against.
I emptied my pockets; he counted my money; he looked at my passports and credit cards and told me to put them all back in my pocket. And it was at this moment, that the young, gun-toting Private C. Jiminez indicated that my expedient departure would be eased with a payment of “say, one dollar”.
Gun or no gun, I couldn’t help laughing, and gave the poor bugger five. I have been shaken down by professionals at borders, the TransDniestran / Ukrainian border still brings me to a shudder, but this poor lad was clearly in the preliminary learning stages. Still giggling,
I told my compadre Dick about the soldiers’ form, and sent him in. In a fit if remorse, possibly prompted by my writing down his name and that of the battalion, the novice Jiminez came quickly out and pressed the fiver back in my hand, waving us away to the border, and our next adventure.
We bought our driver, a fine chap called Alfonso lunch before we parted, and paid our bill to him; fortunately the 90,000 Bolivars (remember, 5 for 60 litres of gas) could be paid in dollars at a rather advantageous rate; given that the largest denomination of Bolivars is 100, 90,000 would have required a brick of the things.
The Venezuelan / Brazilian border is OK. I like land borders; I like the no-man’s land between the frontier posts and the sense of thrill as one passes through.
It has to be said, though, that while the Venezuelans seem to have been building infrastructure at a whopping rate while they were flush with oil money and revolutionary fervor, this construction stopped at the immigration booth which is a trailer that allows three folks at a time to be processed.
Never mind, we were, and plodded up the hill to the Brazilians; by now, adept at jumping queues through wither linguistic challenge or otherwise, we found ourselves tumbling out of the Brazilian building and into Brazil. Obviously.
Finding a cab to take us on the rest of the journey, the next 230 kms to Boa Vista proved to be a little harder than we thought, and eventually we settled on a rather old vehicle that in the end didn’t quite make it.
Forty minutes from Boa Vista the alternator died, and we were stopped at the side of a dark but moderately busy highway. Fortunately, he could find some patchy cell coverage some two hundred metres from the van, and within an hour, another car came and finished of the journey.