14 November 2006

The Miracle of Maracaibo

At the end of October, my sixty-day Colombia visitor’s visa expired. I had two options for renewal: fill out a bunch of paperwork with a government agency, or leave the country and reenter. Oh a whim, Traci and I chose the more interesting of these options and decided to go to Venezuela for a few days.

We visited Maracaibo, a city on a huge lake in northwestern Venezuela. The majority of Venezuela’s oil passes through Maracaibo, so this city is rich rich rich (especially compared to Barranquilla). With a presidential election coming in December, the city is also full of the pro- and anti-Chavez propaganda of a divided populace (sound familiar to you folks in the States?). Traci and I spent several days acting as tourists, walking through the central market, visiting two (2!) art museums, seeing the plazas and churches and statues you’ll find in any big city, and relaxing by the lake.
After so long in Colombia, we were a little disoriented to find ourselves in Venezuela, where everything – the accents, the money, the taxi systems, the food – seemed familiar but slightly different. It’s challenging to navigate this new environment, and as two blue-eyed female North Americans wondering the streets we felt a bit overwhelmed. How could we enjoy the city while also staying safe?

What amazed me over and over was how the Travel Deities were watching over us throughout the entire trip. When we arrived at the bus station after dark and asked about finding a taxi, the wife of the station owner offered to drive us to our hotel. This turned out to be incredibly fortuitous because it was a holiday and all the hotels were full. In the course of an hour, our new friend Lupe took us to six or seven hotels before we found a room. She also took this opportunity to rail against President Chavez and the state of Venezuela since his election. If we had been in a taxi, it would have been an expensive and worrisome situation.

The second travel blessing occurred when we were hanging out on the sidewalk, trying to figure out how to get to the Plaza Bolivar, which would lead us to an area full of tourist spots. An affable and eager young guy overheard us speaking English and asked if he could practice his conversation skills with us for a few minutes. We couldn’t help but trust him, carrying a Bible under his arm and asking earnest questions about life in the United States. In exchange for the opportunity to talk with native English speakers, he offered to accompany us to the Plaza, choosing the correct bus and then walking the several blocks to the Plaza. Once there, we bought waters, chatted for a few minutes, and then he pointed us toward the market and the museum and went on his way. Without his help, I’m not sure how we would have fared that day.

Our bus for Barranquilla was scheduled to leave Maracaibo at 5:30am. Because everyone warned us that it’s safer to call a taxi company for a ride than to flag down cabs in the streets, we made plans the night before to be picked up at 4:50am. A 5:00am, though, we found ourselves still standing in the dark in front of the hotel with no car in sight. Desperate, we walked toward a busier street, hoping to find a safe, trustworthy driver to take us to the bus station. Much to our amazement, the first taxi to pass was driven by a man who had given us a ride the day before. He works for the cab company that was recommended by a very friendly waiter at a restaurant where we had eaten dinner twice. The very fact that someone who recognized us and who had been friendly with us before found us (in a HUGE city!) and got us to the bus station on time felt like an amazing end to our week of Maracaibo miracles.

The most outrageous and surprising moment of the trip, perhaps, reflects the desperation of two U.S. travelers longing for the comforts of home (that is, non-South-American food), however perverse that decision seems now:

For more photos of Maracaibo, click here.


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Tuesday, November 14, 2006 11:41:00 AM  

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