Merida. Vero had been planning this trip for ages. It’s a paradisiacal place, in the Andes, full of spectacular scenery, waterfalls, rivers, lakes, and a whole host of adventure sports to try. We were supposed to meet a group of people to go with at 7:30am to make a nice early start. We were joining a convey, as one of Vero’s best mates, Ali, was coming too, along with 15 members of her family. Of course, when you have 15 people to control, things take much longer. Vero’s father Senor Eduardo had been running around all morning making sure we and the car were properly prepared. Warm clothes were bundled in the back of the car, some of them so thick you’d think we were going to the North Pole for a few days, not the cool mountain retreat of Merida. At one point, Senor Eduardo asked me to follow him out to the garage. He kept going on about being prepared for a flat tyre, and I thought for one minute I was going to have to demonstrate how to change a wheel – something I’ve never learned to do as the last time I drove a car I was 18. Fortunately, he just wanted help looking for a car jack. Perhaps he thought I knew how to change a tyre. I don’t even know how to change a lightbulb. When we found a jack, I handled it confidently, looking it up and down with a grim face before nodding my approval. Senor Eduardo seemed happy. He warned us to keep the windows down and turn off the heating when driving at high altitude. We were warned. We were prepared. Packed and ready to leave Caracas for a few days.
We went to the panaderia for an hour as Ali’s family were delayed. We met them later in another cafe and were almost ready to leave 3 hours after our original departure time. I imagine this must be what they mean by ‘Latin Time’. The family was led by Senor Tomas, Ali’s dad, a real outdoors man, dressed in Indiana Jones garbs, a man’s man….more Indiana Jones than Harrison Ford could ever be. I relaxed. If anyone could change a wheel, it was Senor Tomas. The family were really friendly, and everyone was looking forward to the adventure. After stocking up on water, snacks, and sangria, Vero, Ali and I hopped into Vero’s jeep to begin the 8 hour drive to Barinas, where we would be staying the night in a farmhouse belonging to a member of Ali’s family, before heading on to Merida the next day.
The drive on the highways to Barinas was certainly scenic, and eventful – wrong turns, interesting stop-overs for arepas in wild west style service stations, huge traffic jams, car wrecks at the side of the road from earlier crashes. The fact that we were all drinking sangria made it all the more colourful. Venezuela’s highways are very busy, thanks in no small part to Hugo Chavez’s idea to remove all toll booths so anyone, regardless of social status, can afford to drive anywhere they wish to in the quickest way possible. The idea is nice for sure….it levels the playing field, lets everyone enjoy the same privileges for once. Of course, with no money being collected, the state of the road in places is none too good, and in parts has fallen into disrepair, which has irked many Venezuelans. Despite the heat, Senor Tomas kept his brown leather jacket and Indiana Jones hat on throughout. You wouldn’t mess with Senor Tomas. He lead the way, and he decided where and when to stop, and for how long, and his authority was unquestioned. He’d driven this route a hundred times – no-one had more experience in dealing with this difficult drive to Merida.
It was nearly nightfall when we arrived in Barinas, and we drove into a gated area full of fields and trees, and dotted with exclusive houses. We came to a huge farmhouse, with a lovely garden, where we would be stopping that night, 6 to a room. Vero and I wanted to go and get some booze to drink with Ali and her brother, but Senor Tomas was having none of it. The area, he claimed, was full of FARC people (Barinas is quite near the Colombian border, and Guillermo Torres, a top commander of FARC, was arrested there in June that year), and it was very dangerous at night. We decided not to chance it, and had a coffee in the farmhouse instead, strong and black, as it had to be when brewed by Senor Tomas. Though a latte man myself, I wanted to ‘man up’, and drank the strong black stuff with a smile. The kids of the family were loving the farmhouse, and buzzing around all over the place. A huge dog was being spoilt by everyone, and was clearly enjoying the attention. Ali, Vero and I went to sit in the garden where we chatted about the stars, about the beauty of Merida, and about this place, the house where Ali grew up. Her childhood sounded like something from an Enid Blyton novel – The Children of Cherry Tree farm or the sequel – the Children of Willow Farm – a childhood of nature, play, discovery and happiness. I wonder what the South American version of Tammylan the Wildman would be like. What a great place to grow up. I thought I had a cool garden with our 1 apple tree I used to climb. Nothing compared to this. Soon we joined the rest of the family, and Senor Tomas showed us some of his travel pictures. As soon as the family knew I could understand and speak some Spanish, they were away, asking me all sorts of questions, and proudly speaking of Venezuela as a place of huge variety. A place with ‘deserts, rainforests, forests, mountain ranges, tropical beaches and some lovely old colonial cities,’ as they proudly boasted, before going on to grumble about Chavez and the state of the economy, in typical Venezuelan fashion. Then Senor Tomas went inside for a moment and emerged wearing a bedouin headscarf from his time in Jordan – for he is a well-travelled man who no doubt goes on many a secret archeological ‘field trip’ to obtain things like the Ark of the Convent – and it was a big hit with everyone. With his tanned and weather beaten skin, his grey stubble and sparkling eyes, he could have passed for a nomadic Arab of the desert right there under the balmy Barinas sky.
It had been a long day and a long drive, and there was still a 4 hour drive to go the next day, so we crashed on a sofa in the living room, as the fans in the bedrooms weren’t working. Around 8 of us slept here on the floor roughing it, and another 8 or so in a couple of other rooms around the huge old house, the stone walls full of memorabilia from an older and grander time. It had been an exciting and busy day, and we slept to the sound of nature all around which battled with the sound of the whirring of the fans, and their soft battle of which there was no victor lulled us quickly to sleep.