Title: Of course its my fault... Location: Maracaibo, Venezuela
Having become accomplished scuba divers in only a week - Jacques Cousteau look out, we (royal we this) felt it was time to got some extreme action. 'Go to merida' the guide books exclaimed; 'the extreme sport capital of Venezuela'. Fair enough - so with no further ado off we went...
The bus journey into Venezuela was fairly uneventful, even dull, except for crossing the border leaving Colombia. We had got through all the immigration bits and were safely on the road into Venezuela, when the bus was pulled over and a couple of 'uniforms' got on. I swear it took them three seconds to scan the entire bus and then point at me (sitting right at the back) and signal me get off - using a big gun.
For a moment I thought about questioning why they had picked on me, a respectable 40 year old after all, when there were all sorts of dodgy looking locals to go for. The guns put me off, so did the dog. So off I went to have backpack taken apart by the side of the road. Luckily I wasn't carrying 20 pounds of raw cocaine, a realization the guard probably came to by looking at the cool unconcerned look in my eyes (ha! - change of pants required later) and the fact that the sniffer dog was fast asleep at my feet!
So we arrived in a place called Maracaibo without further molestation. Blimey what a dump. Looks bad to start with, its early evening and everything is closed and locked down tighter than a camels rear part in a sandstorm. Unfortunately we had to stay here the night, and proceeded to try a couple of hotels. Hours later after a lot of pain we ended up in this 'love hotel' (the kind where you usually pay by the hour) in their last room - suite number 5. What a dump. We couldn't get anything to eat as everything was shut, and we had to pay in advance in cash for the room and only had a few pesos left. Oh great... of course as you can imagine I'm really popular by now, of course its my fault.
Next day we got the bus to Merida and on arrival pulled our usual trick of Simon installs himself in bar whilst Caty goes around town looking at hostels until a suitable one is found. Note this only works well in smaller towns for obvious logistical reasons... Anyway only half an hour later Caty returns to the eagerly waiting Shawn (who had only just settled into his first beer) with a big smile, having found a wonderful place which was brand new and not in the guidebooks (always better as this shaves some off the price). Posada Casa Sol, Av 4 entre de calle 15/16 - for those who are using this to research Merida. Decorations fresh out of a style magazine, crisp and keen service, free internet and cool rooms all with private baths. Perfect for us flashpackers.
We were excited to practice our Spanish and plan on taking some immersion classes during our stay.
Merida is a wierd place. There are no proper restaurants, no real focus to the town like a plaza, and people who can be downright surly - and to top it all the Venezuelans don't like wine so don't serve it in restaurants. We ended up eating rubbish food most of the week. Not popular with the gourmet half of this expedition I can tell you, this half being happy with burgers which have the chips inside the buns and blue cheese sauce which is actually blue. Don't they have trading standards here?
The intention though was to do activities - they don't call me 'Extreme Si' for nothing... This was a bit thwarted by the fact that the famous cable car up the mountains that gives you altitude sickness was shut, some of the activities weren't available on the days we wanted, and we got lazy because we weren't eating properly and our hotel bed was nice enough to spend a lot of time in it! The major thing we did do was paragliding. Basically this involves strapping yourself to a bloke who is strapped to a large tablecloth intended for only one and both of you running off a mountain cliff in the hope that there is enough wind to stop you plummeting the 1000m (3300 feet) to a certain death.
This proved to be great fun. Caty was up first, the only instruction you get is to 'keep running no matter what happens' - very reassuring. But it does work and despite a rogue gust of wind giving her a sideways start off she went into the blueyonder... My turn and we wait patiently for the wind to pick up again - my pilot being egged-on by onlookers saying there is plenty of wind - but thankfully he ignores them and waits for the merest gust before shouting 'RUN'! A few seconds later and I'm about forty feet down the cliff still running and wondering is this is the most effective way to get back to sea level when the wind takes us and off we go. A tad unnerving having nothing below dangling shoes for thousands of feet but a fabulous trip - silence and great views.
Our experiences of Venezuela at this point had caused us to have several conversations over what's next. The heat is great for a while but by now had worn a bit thin and we ended up with a shiny new plan of action involving going to Chile and Argentina for the food, Spanish lessons, booze and cooler weather, returning to Venezuela later. This is a big continent...