You could say that my palms had encountered a whole new level of sweating as I boarded the luxurious bus that would take me out of South America’s second most notorious country, into its most dangerous.
Despite careful hours of planning, money-changing, money-hiding and conversations with my Couchsurfing host across the border, Venezuela was the country that still held the most mystery for me in South America. Not many people seem to travel there, let alone across it, let alone solo, and the country is barely what you could call geared for tourism. Very few hostels operate there, even in the nail-biting capital, Caracas, and outside the major cities people do tend to look at you as if you’ve just walked into their house on Christmas Day and kicked over the tree. The reception is pretty chilly, to say the least.
My bus was direct to the Colombian border town of Maicao and would only take me that far. From the bus terminal onwards it was every man for himself, jostling for a position in the curiously functioning Carritos por Puesto, a sort of passenger-shared taxi to an agreed destination. The carritos, like most other vehicles in Venezuela, have been maintained purely from the inside. The chassis of each one bears the scars of forty plus years of mental Latin driving, with a few human-shaped dents distinguishable in every bumper.
Well aware of the fact that I had to approach a black market seller to change $150USD of the $1000USD cash that I was carrying wasn’t easing my nerves. Just as I was considering my options, a round-bellied Colombian boarded the bus selling yucca con carne, a thin piece of fried meat with a dry semi-fried piece of yucca root. “How much?”, I enquired, pulling out two crisp 1000 peso notes. “Siete mil!”, shouted the gentleman, proudly displaying all three of his teeth in a wide-I’ve got you gringo-smile. “Seven thousand!”, I exclaimed, “What is this? Some sort of gringo tax?!”. He gave a deep belly laugh, rattling the lid of his huge pot, looked me square in the eyes, and simply said, “Si!”.
Having paid thrice the price for a potential dose of three day’s hard bathroom labour, I turned back to the money problem. I found the most trustworthy (or weakest, least likely to shoot me) looking old lady on the bus and politely asked if she would mind helping me make the illegal transaction when we arrived in Maicao. She nodded and turned back to her phone. I sat back and simply prayed that she wasn’t texting her gangster mob to tell them she had just snagged another dumb, rich gringo.
As with every single person I’ve trusted on this adventure, the old dear turned out to be a legend. Not only did she help me swap my $USD for two kilos of colourful Bolivar Fuertes at a top notch black market-rate, she even directed me to a trustworthy border crossing carrito. I immediately deposited karma into her account.
The other Venezuelans in the carrito weren’t quite as pleased to see me. The corrupt Guardia Nacional police cause enough problems for locals, let alone mochila-swinging tourists, at the border, sometimes subjecting them and their possessions to multiple stops, searches and questioning in order to bribe cash. Although getting my Aussie passport stamped produced no problems, the post-border stops could become tiresome.
Thankfully, and inexplicably according to other accounts I’ve heard of the crossing, there weren’t any dramas. Square-headed military personnel gazed into every window on seven separate occasions, checking identification, opening the trunk, closing it, opening it again, but not deciding at any point to search inside the bags or passengers.
My Couchsurfing host, Walter, had given me precise directions to his permaculture hostel on Isla Zapara, roughly two hours from the Venezuelan mainland. It wasn’t until my carrito dropped me off at the halfway point until I realised just how remote this place was. I stood on the roadside in the disastrously impoverished town Sinamaica, suddenly realising that I was possibly in the most dangerous situation I’d ever been in. Zero evidence of police presence (who are not necessarily your friend anyway) cominbed with, literally, truckloads of glaring locals rolling past, was doing nothing to calm my nerves. I had to do something, fast.
Having suddenly become the subject of a mob of locals taking photos of me with their mobile phones, I realised I could use my new found fame to my advantage. “If someone finds a carrito that will take me to the port, they can have a photo with me!”, I declared. Suddenly I had twenty extra hands helping me flag a ride down.
Forty Facebook profile pictures and one carrito later, I approached the port. Dusk wasn’t far away and with no accommodation options in sight, the need for a boat to Isla Zapara was getting desperate. The first thirty minutes breezed by as I asked everyone at the port the same question and they each gave me the same answer: no more boats tonight. The sun dropped down behind the horizon as the last boat pulled in to the dock.
“Please, where are you going?”
“Isla San Carlos.”
“Can you take me to Zapara?”
At this stage I had no other option. Ignoring his response, I pushed my bag onto the boat and climbed down into a seat. Anywhere would be better than here. Anywhere.
Darkness fell completely and the boat cruised out into the open ocean as the passengers eyed me suspiciously. I bargained for a ride to Isla Zapara with little luck, before playing my final draw card. Enter Legend number two: the lady who let me call Walter from her cellphone. Some angry Spanish was exchanged between my host and the boat driver, who finally relented and agreed to take me to the far end of the island for a few extra Bolivars.
The boat emptied of the other passengers and we cruised out once again into the great unknown. And that’s when the most wonderful thing happened. The second mate scrambled under the prow and dragged out two of the most enormous disco speakers I have ever seen. Summoning electricity from god knows where, he plugged in the speakers and two pulsing neon-blue lights and started blasting Venezuelan-dance-techno-godknowswhat across the vastness, drowning out the roaring motor behind us as we hurtled through the darkness, a pulsing blue speck on the ocean.
With my hair and beard blown almost clean off my head and face, we rumbled into a makeshift port an hour later, barely rousing a half-naked fisherman from his nets. I passed over a wad of notes, thanked my DJ/driver, and sat ashore awaiting the motorbike that Walter had promised to send. I made small talk with the fisherman and his children, but was too exhausted to make an effort at anything past the standard questions and answers.
Ten hours after leaving Taganga, I’d made it to Venezuela. I hadn’t been robbed, kidnapped, stabbed, shot or killed; just heavily photographed and made subject to a little hearing loss. Keep an eye out for the next post from Isla Zapara. Until then…