December 21, 2007

Hairpin Curve, Redefined

La Cordillera de la Costa cuts through the northern part of Venezuela, separating Caracas and other cities from the sea and reaching 2700 meters at its high point. Climbing and descending the Cordillera (considered to be an extension of the Andes) to the sea, you cross at least four different ecological zones: semi-arid deciduous woods, subtropical rainforest, cloudforest, and arid coastal scrub, all in a time of about two hours by car.

The road from Maracay winds north through Henri Pittier National Park. Despite its small size, it is home to 43% of Venezuela´s bird population, and 7% of the world´s bird species, as well as to a host of other animals and countless--many probably uncatalogued--species of plants.

It is a steep ascent on a one-lane road, switchbacking continuously and tightly to the pass, then descending in the same fashion. From the outskirts of Maracay, there are no signs of inhabitation, just dense forest as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by the road that is perched on the steep hillside. And even the road seems barely able to co-exist with the jungle: huge groves of 5" diameter bamboo grow on what shoulder there is, bending under their own weight, creating an archway over the road, stems hacked back here and there to keep it under control. Pavement cracks, giving into the strength of tree roots and the force of water in the drainages. In every drainage of size, there is evidence of previous washout or landslides, successfully carving away at man´s attempt to tame and civilize.

Being on the road to Choroni made me think of a statistic a friend once told me. If civilization as we know it were to end, it would only take about 50 years for nature to reclaim her roadways: plants would re-colonize, tree and shrub roots cracking the pavement, inviting smaller plants to grow in the space. It all seems possible in a place like the rainforest; indeed, there is an abundance of life here, larger than we might ever realize.

Climbing up, up, up in the big baby blue painted Bluebird schoolbus, I was seated in a row of ladies in the very back of the bus. I felt strangely comforted by their presence, a warmth seemed to envelope me, the only foreigner on the bus, and I felt safe. And it turned out to be a good thing: I was completely ignorant to what lie ahead, the guidebook said nothing about the road we were setting out on.

The engine roared and groaned, churning as it pulled the bus up the road, curve after curve, the driver laying on the horn on every corner to warn oncoming traffic of our approach. It was loud and bellowing, like a train´s horn, impossible to ignore. On more than one curve, the driver had to back up and then go forward around the curve: we were just too long to make it on the first go. It was like nothing I have ever seen. Maui´s road to Hana or Glacier Park´s Going to the Sun Highway ain´t got nothing on Venezuela´s Road to Choroni!

It grew dark somwhere near the top of the pass. I could see the lights of Maracay, at the bottom of the steep drainage we had just traveled up. Thinking the worst was over, I let myself relax for a brief moment. Until the back end of the bus swung around yet another hairpin curve. Turns out the road is equally, if not more so, windy on the way down to the coast.

One of the ladies I was sitting next to had lugged an enormous mattress onto the bus, placing it in the aisle pretty much smack in front of me. There was more than one moment when I felt somewhat comforted knowing that I might have a soft landing if the driver overshot one of the gazillion hairpin curves.

Slowly the bus emptied as we descended down the mountain to the coast. I wanted to ask all of these people what they did, here in this seemingly isolated and remote community. Did they farm? I couldn't tell in the dark. I wasn't sure, but if I had to venture a guess, I would say that, like so many I had met here, they eeked out a living in whatever way they could.

It was two weeks until the Election. Signs plastered every vertical surface in Caracas and Maracay, for or against Chavez. But not in Choroni. Choroni, the tranquil beach town seemed far removed from the political--and even the social--quagmire in the rest of the country. Catering to tourists, countless hotels, restaurants, and retail shops seemed to thrive. The mood in Choroni was light and laid back. Laughter could be heard in the streets, the comical Venezuelan sense of humor and way with words reverberating, enveloping and inspiring me to talk to as many locals as possible. Entertained by the slang, I set out to learn as much of it as I could.

When I left for Venezuela, more than one of my level-headed friends questioned my judgement. Knowing Venezuela only for its politics, corruption, crazy President (yes, we all know what he thinks of our own president) and oil, people were pretty certain that as an American I would probably be a prime target for robbery and kidnapping. "And how is that different from being an American in any other country?", I would quip, sarcastically. In the moment, humor deflected the fear, but I have to admit, deep down I really was nervous to go there alone.

But like going anywhere, if you open your mind you won't be alone. If you smile and make an effort to connect with people, you'll almost always feel like you are safe. Sure there are bad apples, you just have to watch your back and use good judgement.

The arepas in Choroni were delightful. I have to admit that upon introduction, arepas were something I could live without. It is a somewhat bland white corn disk that is fried (in butter), split open and filled with a variety of ingredients: ham, cheese, sausage, mushrooms to name a few. Many Venezuelans eat arepas at every meal, making it by far the most popular national food. By the end of my trip, I had found the arepa to be quite agreeable. Cheap, and fast, it makes a perfect traveller's meal.

And they taste pretty good with a beer. Polar, the national brew, is served ice cold. The bottles are small, so they don't have time to get warm. Perfect for a lightweight like me! As much as Venezuelans love their beer, they love whiskey even more. They consume as much whiskey as the Irish per capita. A group of college kids showed up at Skydive Venezuela as part of a class project. Besides interviewing us (me in English so they could practice), they proceeded to imbibe numerous bottles of whiskey that evening, mixed with Coca-Cola (the other national beverage). It was my last night at the drop zone in Higuerote.

Choroni was settled 385 years ago, 2 km inland from the sea, for protection from the pirates that ravaged the coastline. Puerto Columbia lies north of Choroni, the original port serving the area. Now it is a backpacker's mecca, full of hip restaurants, posadas, and young crowds. Playa Grande lies to the east, a 10 minute walk from town.

Playa Grande, big and empty.

One of the many fishing boats in Puerto Colombia

Other more secluded beaches are accessible by boat, which can be hired for $30 or so roundtrip, the fare split among passengers. A few can also be reached by trail from Choroni.

I decided that I wanted to see the Road to Choroni in the daylight this time, so I caught the first bus I could up the mountain. In classical Latin American fashion, both the timetable for the bus, and the clarity of where the bus stop was actually located was sketchy at best. In typical American fashion, I found myself pacing, wondering if I was waiting in the right spot, on the right street. Asking a local for help didn't really help to clarify matters, which was my cue to take the lead of the residents of Choroni and just chill out. Really, could I possibly miss the groaning engine and bellowing horn of that giant blue bus?

I sat in the back, but not amongst the group of ladies this time. Instead, my co-passenger was a nine year old girl who boarded the bus about 3 miles outside of Choroni. She held in her tiny arms an enormous birthday cake with yellow and sky blue icing. It nearly dwarfed her as it balanced precariously on her lap. It was for her brother and she was taking it to school where there would be a fiesta for him. I kept smiling at her, and she hid behind thick, black hair: she was my polar opposite. I couldn't have been more different to her in outward appearance, really to anyone on that bus.

But instead of feeling out of place and uncomfortable and retreating to my iPod, I met the stares with eyes full of curiosity and admiration. In some strange way, I felt connected and like I could see a common tie between us, as people, the human race. That we are not so different; regardless of appearance or heritage, social class or culture, we are all striving for the same things in life, all wanting to fulfill the same basic needs. I felt such energy from everyone on that bus, it was invigorating. I had this strange sense that all the layers that hide our true, loving and kind selves had been peeled away, like the layers of an onion. I felt that I was in a place where I could be open and unaffected by society's pretenses, by pressures and expectations. For the first time ever travelling in Latin America, I was unashamed of where I came from because in that brief moment, the disparities no longer existed. We were all just people, living and breathing humans all here for the same purpose.

The road snaked south up the steep slope, back to Maracay, and my mind was quieted and contented by the amazing rainforest view out of the Bluebird's window. The little girl with the cake has disembarked long ago, and I was left to stare and observe on my own.

Knowing what lie ahead of me, on this adventure, for the winter, and for the rest of my days to come, I felt open to possibility and was instilled with a newfound faith and confidence--both in myself and in the world. Without a doubt in my mind, I would survive this bus journey on this crazy road, and the madness of Caracas. I would be safe skydiving, and I would try to recognize and live by the lessons it could teach me--just as all things in life have the potential to do. If we are open to it, even the smallest things can show us something new. Even this old creaky bus barreling down a backroad in the jungle brought me a level understanding I hadn't previously known.

Indeed, it is often the seemingly insignificant experiences that have the ability to repair, reshape, and ultimately redefine our point of view and freshen our perspective, like this simple trip to the coast did for me. I stepped off the bus in Maracay feeling alive and I reveled in the satisfaction of knowing that, for now, I was definitely travelling down the right road.


alexis said...

lovely post. i believe the world would be a better place if we focused on our commonalities instead of on our differences.

Val said...

Thanks Alexis. I couldn't agree more!