Monday, December 28, 2015

Holiday Adventures

"The contents of this [blog] are personal and do not reflect any position of the US government or the Peace Corps."

I called the Roraima Tour company to ensure everything was in order for my hike over Easter break. Hike-Venezuela's Andreas was great to work with. Quick responses and thorough with his planning. I was excited to work and trek with him. The problem was I didn't let him know I was a US citizen until this past week. Apparently earlier this year, Venezuela has required US citizens to get a visa as opposed to just a tourist card(like in Suriname). Their website suggested not making any plans within 4 months of applying as there is a good chance it won't be processed before then. Andreas concurred that it did often take that long. I had already purchased my bus ticket to Brazil(this is the only way to get to Venezuela from Guyana because of a long-standing and ongoing border dispute). In a moment of impulsivity, I called up the bus company and transferred the trip to this week thinking I could at least do a trip to Brazil during Christmas break.

The timing couldn't have been worse. My US debit card had just expired(Kenny is bringing down the new one when I see her in Barbados), but my Guyana bank assured me that I could use the debit card in Brazil. To clarify, I went to the bank, stood in the exceptionally long lines just to ask. So I had some funds but not as much as I'd like for a trip to another country. Throw in the huge masses of ride  people traveling over the holidays with huge amounts of gifts, my traveling without a map or a real plan of where I was going and add in an 18 hour overland bus just to get to the Brazilian border and an adventure is sure to ensue. And it certainly did.

You know you are in the midst of an adventure when you'd rather be in front of a fireplace curled up with a good book.

The bus trip wasn't even the start of the trip because I had to get to the bus from New Amsterdam which is always interesting. Shared taxis cost $7,50 and depart whenever the car is full. Usually that means there are four passengers. However this day there were six passengers as a woman had her two children on our laps. That's right our laps. They were sitting on her legs but sprawling their legs across onto me who was stuck in the middle. Lucky me. I didn't even have to pay more for this great experience. My legs were totally asleep by the time I got to Georgetown. But before we get there we have to drop off each passenger one by one, which is a nice feature personally but an annoyance if you happen to be the last one dropped off which always seems to be the case. This means that this 1:20 trip usually takes at least two hours despite reckless driving where at least 5 pedestrians and twice as many livestock almost lose their lives. And this day I was riding with a driver who apparently had never been to Georgetown before because he needed directions to each stop. This became a problem when it came to my turn to be dropped off because I had only been to the bus company once and did so walking. Finally after driving down several one way streets the wrong way, we made it there. Now the bus trip starts...

Well, the packing at least. I didn't bring my phone with me which means I didn't have a camera so I am going to request that you try to really imagine this bus. So lets start with the basics. It's a 12 passenger van with the  last row taken out. In it's place is what appears to be Christmas presents for every single person living in Lethem and the surrounding towns. It is so packed that the spaces under the seats have all been stuffed,every crevice crammed and things all packed and jammed. There is no daylight coming from the back window. I can say with all honesty, that this guy who packed this was a pro. Probably a very good Tetras player. Is there such thing as Tetras anymore? Okay anyway, let's move to the outside.

On the roof is the Christmas presents for most of Northern Brazil. The luggage on the roof is stacked so high that it looks like someone wanted to climb directly to heaven to celebrate with Jesus up there. Without hyperbole though, the roof luggage at least doubled the height of the van(minus the wheels). The porter had to climb onto the roof just to reach the roof to strap it all down.

Okay so let's move inside again now. Because we, the passengers, have to fit in here too. In the front seat we have the driver and the porter and one unlucky guy sandwiched between them. The middle seat is raised a bit above the rest and with every bump(and this road has plenty) he hits his head. IF YOU ARE PUT IN THIS SITUATION: Opt out. Take another bus. It looked miserable. Obviously if you're petite, it may not be quite an issue. Alright moving to the second row. Four passengers. Yet again, children apparently don't get counted when delegating seating allotment. This girl looked to be around 10 too so it wasn't like she was tiny. So the four are crammed into a bench seat that is not terribly comfortable sitting three. Wall to shoulder to shoulder to shoulder to shoulder to wall. Luckily I am not in that row. In fact, I am in the primo spot. Back left seat. In addition to about 2 inches of extra legroom, it has about 6 inches of space to the right between my seat and the bench seats next to me. This allows me to put my backpack in that space. Oh, I forgot to mention: everyone else has their personal luggage on their laps. For 18 hours! And I was complaining about a 4 year old's legs for 2...

Finally we are off! Well not so fast. Within 5 minutes of driving, the driver stops at a gas station cum restaurant and comes back 10 minutes later with what looks to be a 100 piece fried chicken box. Okay so that is clearly a hyperbole and I don't want you to get the impression that he bought it for all of us to share. It was probably 20 pieces and he was NOT sharing. Well except for the wafting of fried food smells for the next 30 miles. But we don't make it that far because we stop again 15 minutes later to fuel up. Why we didn't stop at the first place I will never know but the prices were the same. Then another 20-25 minutes we stop for a bathroom break. So in the course of an hour we have driven about 10 miles. But now we are off for real!

If you have ever been to Guyana(or I hear some Caribbean countries-none of the ones I've been to-boy do I love Aruba), there seems to be a need to blast music at full capacity well mixing it in such a way that it becomes something close to pure cacophony. Sirens, horns(car horns NOT musical ones), and other totally inappropriate musical accouterments rip a pop song to shreds which is made even worse by the DJ(radio not Grand Master Flash) yelling indiscriminate nonsense over and over. Why am I telling you this? Well because every taxi or bus ride I have taken in Guyana, blasts this "music" and I had steeled myself with the expectation that this would be happening again on this trip for 18 straight hours. And for the first hour it was like that, but then(I think to weak broadcast signal) I was saved and he put on a pretty good mix at a reasonable noise volume. Quiet enough in fact that I was able to listen to Adam Ezra on my CD player(yes I have a discman-so what? I didn't know whether I would have any reliable source of electricity/music so Kenny was good enough to think ahead and got me that- A life saver). Haven't heard of Adam Ezra? You should look him up. I love every song that he has. Well that's not true. There's two songs that I don't like all that much but other than that, I like them all:)
So good music and an adequate amount of personal space. It soon occurred to me that this was not going to be 18 hours of driving. My brother and I had just done 18 hours of driving when we brought my car down to Atlanta for him to use right before I left for Guyana and this is a different kind of traveling. First of all, it's a hurry up and wait game. Hurry up through a minefield of Volkswagen sized potholes. Luckily(or unluckily) the road is fairly wide so the driver was swerve back and forth across the road to try to find the least bumpy section. Not sure if whipping my head side to side is any better for my brain than up and down, but at least he thought so. From the amount of doing it, you'd think he was getting paid by the mile which he probably at least doubled.

This  mad dash to get to the Essiquebo River is purely to get in as many hours of sleep before the 6am ferry opens. Witnessing the cluster of ferrying and how few buses can be transported per trip, you definitely wanna be on that first one. So we got to a little road side parking area about half a mile from the the river's edge around 2am after having made two more stops along the way for bathroom and drink breaks. The driver hurriedly throw up a hammock, while some passengers went to the all night bar nearby and I slept somewhat in my seat. Then at 4:30a our driver springs out of his hammock, calls all the passengers back to the van and then we pile in and drive to the river's edge. We then spend the next 1 1/2 hours waiting, first in line for the ferry. By 7a we are back to driving.

The sun had risen and it was amazing the transformation of the scenery. The night before we were in the rainforest. So much so that I was yelled at not to go off the road to pee because of all the critters lurching there. Even from my vantage point on the road, I spotted a bunch of monkeys. This next morning, the forest was gone and in its place was the Savannah. High grass and huge ant hills as far as the eye could see. And intermittent Ameri-Indian villages and that was about it until we got to Lethem which is a spread out little town.

I didn't waste much time in Lethem as I had wanted to get going into Brazil, so I got a taxi(NOTE: taxis in Lethem have far less competition than those in Georgetown or New Amsterdam and thus charge significantly more for example it cost me the same amount to get to the Brazilian border as to get from NA to Georgetown). So if you're doing this trip, definitely plan on increased taxi expenses and have the taxi wait for you while you're in immigration. And that's a bit of a nuisance. You go to the Guyana customs then drive across the bridge and have to do it again with the Brazilian side. Those are two separate taxi fares but the distance is just long enough that it's probably worth it. That being said, when I got to the Brazilian side and the only taxi was going to charge me 50 Real to go 5km to the bus station(Rodavaria), I opted for the walk.

Side Note: As I mentioned above my US debit card had expired so this wouldn't have otherwise been an issue, but if you don't have a debit card that gives you a good transaction rate, I'm not sure how to otherwise prevent getting ripped off on the exchange rate of Guyanese(or US dollars for that matter) to Brazilian Reals. I had checked before leaving and the rate was 50 GY to 1 R, but the only guy selling them wanted 65. I was able to haggle down to 60 but he really did have me in a bind. But I exchanged only enough to get me to Boa Vista, dinner and the first night's hotel stay thinking I'd withdraw more with my Guyana debit card.

Okay, so after having walked the 5 kilometers I got to Bon Fim. Not before almost walking right by it. I really mistook it for one of those roadside truck stops. Nope that's the town of Bon Fim. From Bon Fim to Boa Vista there are 4 busses each day(7a, 10a, 2p and 4:30p). I got to Bon Fim at 11 so had three hours to kill(which, if you are familiar with mindfulness, is an awful way to view life. Wouldn't it be better to be in every moment and experience every experience rather than to kill time? Isn't time the most important thing any of us have?) Okay anyway. I ended up not having to existentially determine whether I was killing or using those hours because I got picked up by a taxi driver. He had just dropped off a car-full of people and was heading back to Boa Vista. Since he was going there anyway, he was willing to charge the same as I would have paid by taking the bus. And I got there substantially earlier. Which was good because I then spent the next 2 hours walking aimlessly totally lost.

How did I get there? Well that goes back to rushing and poor planning. I focused on Manaus which is where I planned on going after the one night in Boa Vista and had gotten directions etc for there. Completely neglected to do so for Boa Vista. I think I have been spoiled by taxi drivers dropping me off wherever I want that when I was dropped off at the bus station, I was at a loss. And this was made worse by the total and utter lack of any one speaking English. Nao was the common refrain to Fala Ingles as well as onde esta rua abracaba or voce tem um mapa da cidade? Now I realize that I probably butchered each and every one of those expressions as I am apt to do in any language but usually I will get some kind-hearted individual who can at least point me in the right direction. No such luck. So my logical next step? Knowing that the hotel was 1.5 kilometers from the bus station, I decided to walk what I assumed was that distance in one direction and if I didn't come across it, I cross over a couple streets and walk back(doubling my chances of finding it each lap). The problem with this is that the city center fans out in a neat organized series of straight roads and all you have to do is walk down any of them and you'll eventually get to the center. But I wasn't coming from the city center but instead 1.5 kilometers outside of it so my plan spiraled out of control quickly and within 4-5 kilometers of aimless walking, I had gotten myself utterly lost. And it was getting nerve wracking since even the hotels I stopped in didn't have receptionists who spoke English or had any idea where my hotel was located.

Now in reality this wasn't a HUGE issue. I could always just stay at another hotel, but this would mean being charged for two hotels(neither of which were expensive by US standards but expensive enough on a PC shoestring budget). But I was starting to really consider this option. Luckily right about then, I happened upon a taxi driver parked on the side of the road. While he didn't speak English, he did know the location and for the same price I paid for the 1 1/2 hour ride from Bon Fim to Boa Vista he took me the mile to my hotel.

I arrive in at the Hotel Colonial to find there is no receptionist and the hotel looks like it's undergoing some serious renovations. By this time, I am crashing pretty hard, having only slept 1 1/2 hours at most in the last two days. I just wanted to go take a nap. Finally a maid spotted me and in my portu-spanglish and a lot of pantomiming, I made it known that I had a reservation and wanted my room. Unfortunately, she didn't have the ability to get me into my room so she made numerous phone calls trying to get a hold of the front desk. I dozed(duermo) on the lobby couch for probably close to an hour(uma hora) before someone came(chega) to give me my keys( minhas chaves). By this point I figured I better get dinner before I slept. I went first to an ATM to withdraw more cash. And lo and behold, my card doesn't work. Not yet panicking I go to a second and then a third and I realize that I am now limited to the money that I had exchanged, begrudgingly, at the border. Certainly not enough to make it to Manaus. Well I guess enough to get to Manuas but not enough to do the Amazon river boat trip that I had planned once there.

So my trip to Brazil ended pre-maturely in the town of Boa Vista, which actually, despite what I have seen written about it, actually a pretty nice town. There were plenty of good places to eat and everyone seemed nice. It was just bad timing to be there during Christmas because the whole city shuts down so Christmas day was like a ghost town. Luckily, I understood the receptionist enough to make out nao voce come amanha, voce tem comida hoje(or something like that), which I took, correctly to mean that I couldn't eat tomorrow so I better stock up today which I did. Peanut butter sandwiches and an entire sheath of cookies plus a few skopps was my Christmas lunch and dinner.

The next morning, I decided to head back to Guyana where I could take out more money and maybe explore Lethem a bit. I am glad I did. I stayed at the Savannah Inn for $20 a night and if I wanted to be frugal could have been cheaper but I opted for an en-suite room. Which is kind of ridiculous since I had an en-hotel room since I was the only guest staying there. I didn't mind, I used my time to explore the town and did some pretty nice runs in the Ameri-Indian villages. One day I set out to run to the base of the Kanuku mountains which looked to be about 5-7 miles away. I got to what appeared to be the base of them only to be turned back by the town elder(I'm assuming that's who he was), who told me I needed formal paperwork to hike them and technically I was breaking the law just by running on their land. But he was friendly about it and allowed me to run back.

Lethem is interesting in that it is surrounded by really cool nature with potential for fun adventure based activities but doesn't seem like much goes on in that manner. It seems like most people that come there do so for the big box stores that look like they sprang out of nowhere. All of them sell ripoff designer clothes and products very reminiscent of Shanghai's markets. It's amazing that being surrounded by all of these very inexpensive products that are usually so expensive makes you want to buy things you don't need. I found myself on a few occasions when heading out for a meal, stopping and almost convincing myself I needed a new Dolce and Gabbana dress shirt or Rolex watch. Yeah like I need either of those. But apparently other people do since that's all that anyone in town seemed to be doing.

Before succumbing to the siren call of consumerism, I boarded the bus back to Georgetown thinking I knew what to expect. To quote Urinetown: [with Guyana] the only thing to expect is the unexpected.

This ride home was nothing like the way there. Apparently the gift giving only goes one way, this time with almost no one with more than a backpack. Which made room for that back row of seats to be put back in making way for 4 more passengers. And while I was so happy with my spot when it was the back row, now as the second to back row that little space between passengers next to me that I so coveted became the only egress for everyone behind me. Meaning, every time anyone behind me had to get out, I had to finagle my backpack which was crammed in there out and get out myself. Not a huge deal but definitely something to consider after hyping it up as the best seat in the house. Which at least on this ride was also the most slanted. Probably due to the fact that it wasn't supported by the seats to its right, over time to had slanted to the right so every turn the driver took had me grasping at the row in front of me to keep from sliding off. Oh yeah, there are, of course, no seat belts.

The other difference with this trip was that, even though we left at the same time, we arrived at the river crossing substantially earlier, like 10p earlier. Meaning that we now had 8 hours before the river crossing. Which for everyone well prepared meant a good night's sleep in the hammocks that they brought. Having no such hammock, I resorted to trying to sleep in the mini-bus. Which didn't work out great since my legs hung out about 2 feet from the end. I did get a few hours of sleep eventually but what this also meant was that we now had the majority of the drive still to do the next day. I didn't realize when they say 18-24 hours they meant depending on the direction you are traveling. So if you're going back from Lethem to Georgetown, definitely bring a hammock and plan on a longer day.

And so that how I spent my Christmas vacation. Hope everyone's was wonderful.

Until next time,


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