When a group of Spanish conquistadors arrived on the northern coast of the South American continent in 1499, they saw natives living in houses on stilts over water. Hence they called this territory Venezuela, meaning "Little Venice". But calling this land Venezuela is a misnomer, for it is a vast country of varied and dramatic landscapes, spread over a territory twice the size of California. Over two weeks, my friends and I would crisscrossed Venezuela via planes, buses, cars and even boats, across deep Amazonian tropical rainforests, boundless savannah plains, mysterious tabletop mountains, fertile green valleys and even the high Andes.
We arrived in a Venezuela full of huge billboards extolling President Hugo Chavez's 21st century Bolivarian Socialist Revolution. State and municipal councils proclaim their support for a dramatic transformation of Venezuelan society in favour of the working class, who according to Chavez, have long been suffering and exploited by the oligarchs. Since coming to power in 1998, the former paratrooper have not only changed the country's official name (from Republic of Venezuela to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela) to proclaim his support for the ideals of Venezuela's founding father, Simon Bolivar, but also its time zone, flag and coat of arms.
Chavez had claimed that time zones were "created by imperialists" and setting clock back by half an hour would allow school children to wake up under natural light. A new star has been added to the flag and arms to pay tribute to Simon Bolivar, and the head of the galloping horse currently on the coat of arms was switched from right to left. Chavez said that his daughter had asked why the horse was galloping with its head tossed backward, instead of facing the future in a natural direction. Based on research, he discovered that the existing horse is an "imperialist horse" designed by a British diplomat, and it was "a horse being reined in, someone is holding him back, they put him looking into the past." So the arms and flag have been changed accordingly so that the horse now inspires the nation to move forward to the future. A sarcastic Venezuelan we met said he would rather the president spend more time increasing everybody's well-being and income levels than changing the country's name, time zone and national symbols. According to a skeptical news report, all these were part of "Chavez's drive to put his mark on every aspect of the country's national identity."
Caracas, federal capital of Venezuela, is located in a fertile valley squeezed between two mountain ranges parallel to the country's Caribbean coast. Venezuela is the fifth largest oil exporter in the world, and its wealth has enabled the country to build a modern motorway network, complete with long tunnels through the many tall mountains that cut across the country. Skyscrapers of blinking lights form the silhouette of this city of 5 million inhabitants. But it is also evident that many in Venezuela has not benefitted from the oil bonanza and some of the lights we saw were those of the many shantytowns surrounding Caracas.
The vast majority of the population lives below poverty level and we found topless hustlers waving at passing cars just opposite the steel-and-glass headquarters of the Venezuelan state petroleum company, PDVSA. Caracas is also the murder capital of the world, well ahead of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Port Moresby. In fact, with 34 murders a day, Venezuela's homicide rate approximates that of war-torn Iraq, which according to the Frontpage Magazine, "the rough equivalent of the lives snuffed out by a typical suicide bombing in Iraq; its population is about the same size as Venezuela's 27 million."
Some analysts say, like Nigeria, Venezuela suffers from the "oil malaise" – the country benefits so much from occasional spike in oil prices that there is little incentive to build other industries. Instead, everything is imported with the easy money that comes with the oil. As we drove through the fashionable neighbourhood of Las Mercedes, I could not help but reflected how American the whole place looked. Huge classy malls, branded boutiques, fast food outlets, huge cars…all the symbols of a mass consumer society.
We had a free day in Caracas, where we explored sites downtown relating to Simon Bolivar, the "Liberator" of not only Venezuela, but also of five other Latin American countries, namely Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, the last of which was named after him. Over a twenty year period, Bolivar defeated the armies of Spain and their supporters, as well as various local warlords, to set up the Gran Colombian federation. He dreamed of establishing an united pan-American state of free republics, but it did not take long before his federation fell apart. The states bickered and fought against each other. Even his native land, Venezuela, seceded from Gran Colombia and declared his persona non grata. He died from tuberculosis, at the age of 37, a bitter and broken man.
It was only years after his death that Bolivar, the legend and demigod, was resurrected. In Venezuela, the heart of every city, town and village has a Plaza Bolivar, and streets, buildings and organizations were named after him. President Chavez brought Bolivarmania to new heights, by proclaiming his ideals the official state ideology and naming the country after him. He nationalized not only PDVSA and major industrial corporations and supermarkets, but sought to distribute wealth among the poor. We visited the National Pantheon where the remains of Bolivar and other Venezuelan national heroes were interred, and admire the impressive array of huge flags of nations liberated by Bolivar. Yet there was another sign that Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution was not proceeding well. Here, a haggled-looking man who spoke good US-accented English tried to persuade us to employ him as a guide. He was a graduate of Oklahoma University but lost his senior engineer job a few years ago. There are few jobs in Venezuela today and many middle-class Venezuelans have emigrated abroad. How sad that dignified people like him had to tout on the streets for uncertain business.
We also visited UCV – Central University of Venezuela. The university complex has an enormous campus planned and built in the 1950s in an exuberant modernist-art deco style, and modern sculptures are scattered through the premises. The whole complex was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 as an outstanding example of Modern Movement in architecture. The concept was perhaps grand and impressive then but the place, regrettably, looked dated and worn out. Rubbish was strewn across the area and paint was peeling off the walls. It was all very well to be inscribed onto this prestigious list but maintenance is often a tougher job.
We proceeded to the city of Ciudad Bolivar in the east on an overnight bus. I found myself sitting beside a Mainland Chinese who was playing a 1990s Andy Lau CD to pass the night. Li, in his late 30s, have been in Venezuela for over 10 years and his thickly-accented Mandarin betrayed his peasant origins in the countryside of Guangdong Province. He thought we were oil engineers from Beijing, given the standard Mandarin we spoke. There have been quite a few in recent years, given the president's close ties with China.
Li first came here to join relatives who had arrived a few years before and set up a flourishing business. He now works for a friend's supermarket in the small city of El Tigre in the jungles of Guayana, eastern Venezuela. He has never gone home since arrival here although he had switched a few jobs. Here, he also met and married a fellow Chinese and has two children who have Venezuelan citizenship. Li said there are Chinese shops and restaurants everywhere in Venezuela, even in the smallest villages – indeed I was to pass quite a few even in indescript dusty town in the remote east of the country. Life is tough, Li insisted. The local police are racist and corrupt, Li said, and they frequently demanded money from Chinese they stopped on the streets.
He was curious why we flew all the way from Singapore to visit Venezuela. Is Angel Falls really worth seeing, he asked. Could you not find something similar elsewhere? To many Chinese who left their homeland for little-known faraway lands, travelling afar was an act of desperation. China, despite its rapid economic growth, does not offer sufficient opportunities for the less educated peasants farming on pathetically small parcels of land, and even what little they own is frequently taken over by corrupt officials and unscrupulous real estate developers out for a quick buck. We should consider ourselves lucky that our ancestors left China much earlier and we come here today as privileged tourists.
At Ciudad Bolivar, where the Liberator regrouped his armies and drafted his grand scheme for the Americas after a major defeat by Spanish forces, we had our first glimpse of the legendary Orinoco River, gateway to the Land of El Dorado. Enya's 1988 sensation, Orinoco Flow, rhymes in my ears, together with mention of places such as Tripoli, Yellow Sea, Bissan, Fiji, Peru, Cebu, Babylon, Bali, Cali, Coral Sea, Khartoum, Islands of the Moon (Comoros), Bissau and Palau:
Let me sail let me sail let the Orinoco Flow
Let me reach let me beach on the shores of Tripoli
Let me sail let me sail let me crash upon your shore
Let me reach, let me beach far beyond the Yellow Sea
Deh deh deh deh deh deh...
Sailaway sailaway sailaway...
We flew on a Cessna 5-seater from Ciudad Bolivar to the remote Peman Indian Village of Canaima, which is also the gateway to the Canaima National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The over-30,000 sq km Canaima National Park contains not only Angel Falls - the world's tallest waterfall at 979m - but also savannah grasslands (known as Gran Sabana), impenetrable Amazonian rain forests and numerous tepuis. The tepuis are mysterious table mountains with their own unique ecosystems and endemic fauna and flora, and they have inspired books and movies such as The Lost World and Jurassic Park.
Was met at Canaima airport by our rather grouchy, uncommunicative Peman guide, Tony, and together with other tourists from Russia, China and the UK, we got onto a truck through a muddy track to a jetty behind one of the smaller falls of Canaima Lagoon. Then, on a motorised Indian boat, we headed for Angel Falls on Rio Churun, passing through initially rolling grasslands flanked in the horizons with awesome tepuys.
Angel Falls lies on the cliffside of Auyantepui ("Mountain of the God of Evil" in the Peman language), the largest of all tepuis. At over 700 sq km, the vertical massifs of Auyantepui are larger than all of Singapore and Rio Churun originates from the heights of the tepui and flows through it. Our boat entered Auyantepui through the appropriately named Canyon del Diablo (Canyon of the Devil). On both sides of the river were dense jungles that rose gradually to the forbidding vertical walls of the Canyon which towered above us. Occasional falls cascade off the misty cliffsides into the jungle canopy, but none of them approaching the grandeur of Angel Falls itself. Heavy rain came and went in the four hour boat ride, not to mention the numerous rapids we rammed through. We were completely drenched by the time we reached Angel Falls.
Then it was a rigorous one hour trek through the tropical jungle to reach the furthest viewpoint you could go. My long-suffering kneecap complained non-stop, not to mention the loud mocking calls from unseen frogs, insects and unknown creatures in the jungle. There you are – the world's tallest fall in front of us.
Night was at a camp on the opposite side of the river from the Falls. We had nice rice and chicken for dinner. On hindsight, I wonder if the food was really tasty, or I was hungry, wet and cold, and that anything warm would have tasted like manna from heaven. The whole place was sandy and dirty, and the mosquitoes' symphony orchestra was playing the whole night long. My camera was wet and began to malfunction. In fact, my camera would not work the whole of next morning. I was relieved when we finally left the camp the next morning.
Back in Canaima, we explored the many scenic waterfalls easily reachable from the Peman village where we stayed. The Jurassic Park was filmed here, with its rolling plains and spectacular tepuis straddled in the surrounding landscape. The Pemans seemed to own many of the tourist businesses here and looked prosperous. The school buildings looked decent, clean and pleasant. There were no beggars that I saw throughout indigenous communities in South America. In fact, we were told that the Pemans are one of the most successful indigenous groups in taking advantage of tourism and benefiting from it.
We noticed that the Chinese tourists had no problem using their China Mobile to speak to people from home, whereas our cell phones and those of the other tourists did not seem to work here in this remote part of Venezuela (though our phones worked in Caracas). Perhaps this tells a lot about the Chinese determination to extend their commercial reach throughout the world, and hence their mobile operators were willing to conclude more exhaustive roaming agreements with operators everywhere.
We flew to Santa Elena on yet another Cessna five-seater. This must be my most frightening flight ever. We left Canaima in bright sunshine but found ourselves flying through three separate storms in the next hour and 20 minutes. Many a time we were flying between the vertical walls of tepuis rising much higher than us, and with just mist, clouds and minimal visibility ahead of us. Below us was the deep dark green canopy of the Amazonian jungle – the sort of impenetrable labyrinth where wreckages of lost planes were discovered only many decades after their crashes.
Wind howled away and rain beat relentlessly against the metal sheets that made this tiny flying machine. There was one occasion when our plane literally stood still in the air, as we were up against winds in the opposite direction. And guess what? We were flown by a young trainee pilot with baby face and buffy hair, who was guided by a much more assuring trainer whom we guessed was his father, given their likeness and his affectionate pat over the younger man's shoulders. Even then, we prayed in silence through the episode. Santa Maria! With much relief, we reached Santa Elena safely…it was clear blue skies there, sunny, fresh and clear, and us totally shaken by the flight! Moments upon landing, the trainer turned and asked, "How was the flight? How did you find the landing?"
We were surprised to discover a new and modern airport at such a remote frontier town like Santa Elena. Our local travel agent had someone to pick us up and we had a brief drive-around this small city. Santa Elena was a busy town with many shops and restaurants, many of which have Chinese owners. In fact, the two most prominent restaurants at Plaza Bolivar are Chinese restaurants, complete with bright red lights and lanterns.
Santa Elena is an obvious beneficiary of a lively border trade. US dollars and Brazilian reales are the main currencies of this trade, and it was here that we got the most Venezuelan bolivars for a dollar. Six to the dollar was the Santa Elena rate, whereas we got only 4.5 on our first day in Venezuela, though most places in Venezuela, as we later came to realize, would do with about 5.5 to 5.8. The official exchange rate is only 2.15, a far cry from the black market rate. Black market rate occurs when governments start to print money to finance projects to spend beyond its means. This means the money isn't worth as much as it asserts. Unless the situation is reversed, it gets worse and worse, as the government begins to institutes even more drastic capital control rules to prevent people from switching to a more stable foreign "hard" currency. More often than not, countries with such capital controls tend to have major corruption issues as well, as officials attempt to profit from the situation by getting hard currency from the state at lower official rates and then selling the foreign currencies in the black market. As the Chavez administration nationalizes an increasing number of businesses, it has to print money to finance such moves, even as oil prices increase. This depresses confidence in the bolivars, which exaggerates the gap between the official and black market rates.
During our stay in Venezuela, we haven't met any Venezuelan with good things to say about Chavez, but this could be because the people we met were mostly the English-speaking elite and middle/upper class who dislike him intensely because these policies were populist and anti-rich in nature. They saw him as egoistic, dictatorial and communistic, and some considered him silly in wasting oil money for his grand projects and schemes to enhance Venezuelan prestige. Many businessmen told me his policies have made business, planning and investment difficult. When we stopped by a gas station in Santa Elena to buy petrol, we encountered a long queue with some form of rationing going on. Some people might even have to use connections to get the petrol they need. When you see this in an oil-producing country, you know something is very wrong with the economy.
The country is full of political billboards and graffiti. They often depict Chavez, Simon Bolivar, the socialist star, Che Guevara and other leftist figures. Many states and cities called themselves "Bolivarian Socialist States" or "Socialist City", which reminded me of Soviet slogans but with a Latin flavour. Even then, one cannot deny that Chavez has the support of many if not majority of the Venezuelans, at least up till recently and perhaps will be for a while. Whatever it is, Venezuela has become a much polarised society.
Frank was our guide in the Gran Sabana region. He was originally from Caracas, came here for an adventure, loved the place and stayed on for over 30 years. He is a 4th generation Lebanese and like most Venezuelans, was constantly going crazy over women. He would always comment whenever we passed a pretty girl. On many occasions, he even stopped to pretend to ask for directions. One cannot fault him, for Venezuela is renowned for having the world's most beautiful women. Over the years, five Venezuelans have won the Miss World competition and the country has many schools dedicated to training girls to produce beauty pageant winners. Venezuela also has a thriving plastic surgery industry and we noticed, even within hours of arrival, that almost every other girl in Caracas has rather huge bosoms. We wonder how many of these were real, or mere artistic masterpieces of the country's plastic surgeons.
Alejandro Stern is a gold and diamond merchant in Santa Elena de Uairen. His office was a small non-descript one storey shop building on a side street of Santa Elena. There was not a lot outside except a sign that spelled his name and address, and another that noted that English is spoken. A bored man in his late 40s sat just outside the door, his pistol partially covered by his jacket.
Frank spoke briefly to the guard, then to the intercom device at the door. There was a window with dark glass on the wall next to the door – the sort that allows the people inside to see those outside but not the other way round. A buzz and then Frank turned the door knob. We got into the small dark room.
A burly, fiftyish man with short white hair sat at a dusty desk with table lamp and piles of papers and a few unfamiliar boxes and devices. This was a strange setting, definitely not the everyday jewelry shop one would expect. The only sign of the trade were a few posters with photos of gold crystals. The décor made it looked like a home office of some sort but the atmosphere resembled that of Hollywood's impression of the office of a mafia chief's accountant.
"Welcome, I am Alejandro Stern. I trade in gold and diamond." He spoke in clear precise English, without any Venezuelan accent. And obviously he also traded stocks and currencies. Stern had a screen on the wall with jumping counters and currency quotes.
As it turned out, Stern was a fourth generation Venezuelan with English roots and had come to Santa Elena more than a decade ago, due to the rich deposits of minerals – specifically gold crystals and diamonds in the plains and jungles of the Gran Sabana. If Venezuela was the legendary land of El Dorado, then Gran Sabana and the greater Guayana region were the crown of EL Dorado. Stern, however, was more interested in gold crystals, rare creations of nature that welded gold into strange shapes. "Only 1% of all gold are in the form of crystals and most of these are found in the Gran Sabana," Stern said. "And I have a fantastic collection that many envy."
Stern showed us a few exhibition catalogues, pointing to selected pages, "I sold them this. I found that. That was mine." Pointing to a framed-up poster with a blown-up shot of a gold crystal almost resembling an exuberant grove of trees, "I sold that to a German dealer and now they are going to display them at the Cologne Gold Show." He pulled his drawer and pulled out a few small plastic bags of tiny golden coloured bits and assorted clear crystals. He waved his magnifying glass over them and showed us the wonders of the world of gold crystals and diamonds. "I can give you a good price if you are interested."
Stern could sense we were not overly keen in gold shopping while on a natural expedition but was nonchalant about it. "Let me show you something more interesting," he smiled. He opened another drawer and took out a strange hard object the size of a bulky SLR camera. "This is a 5 million year old fossilized teeth of a giant shark. This whole region, the Amazon basin, was an inland sea and there were sharks here." He laughed and passed me the stone teeth.
"Show them your gun," Frank said. Stern laughed again and produced a respectable silver magnum from another drawer of his desk. "Santa Elena is a safe place, you know, but this business is a dangerous business. We have to be ready all the time" He placed the pistol on his desk, next to the plastic packs of gold crystals and diamonds.
"That would make a good picture," Frank said.
"Let me add some banknotes. That would be a better composition." Stern said, then roared with laughter. He walked over to a cabinet, took out a bundle of green 20 bolivars notes and placed them on the desk too.
We went snapping away with our cameras. "Hey Alejandro, show them the mafia chief in you." Frank suggested.
Stern grinned and then held the gun in his hand, waving it. Wow, salute the mafia chief!
On a 4WD through dirt roads to explore the areas west of Santa Elena. This is a godforsaken region between the savannah and the jungle parallel to the border with Brazil. There were the occasional Peman village and a few military checkpoints to ensure no Brazilian crossed over to dig for gold but I doubt it would be effective given the remoteness and desolation of the place. We stopped by at a gold dig run by a friend of Frank. These were poor men digging up the jungle in search for gold and other precious metals. They dig wherever they have discovered small black stones which could indicate gold but usually found nothing after digging out massive chunks of earth. They live in primitive shacks and brave mosquitoes and diseases. It is a difficult life. The miner we met said he was very tired, just dug a huge hole for nothing. Across the Amazon and adjoining wilderness, the poor and jobless try their luck in such places, destroying the environment in the process. Unless governments can provide viable job alternatives, there is nothing to stop them from destroying the green lunch of Mother Earth.
We visited the village of El Paoji, famous for its artists but we were not impressed. Run-down, spread out and simplistic art pieces are made by hippies here. We visited a maker of incense who looked like a classic drug-crazed hippie who also offered some backpackers lodging to people who bothered to make the difficult journey here. Apart from making incense in a primitive way from some Amazonian plant, he also grew all sorts of crops to uphold an organic and green way of life. But everything was haphazard and in a small scale.
We had a nice chicken rice meal at a hilltop restaurant near Pauji and then went climbing Wakantepui overlooking the small stream between Venezuela and Brazil. The northern side was the Venezuelan savannah and the other the deep green tropical rain forests of the Brazilian Amazon. What a fantastic view!
We drove back to Santa Elena area, crossed the border into Brazil's Pacaraima town. There were no immigration controls for Pacaraima and Santa Elena. The only red tape was H1N1 health declaration forms to be filled up on the Brazilian side. We shopped at Pacaraima and had Brazilian grilled meat buffet, which was too dry for our liking. We also had some good Venezuelan wine we bought earlier in Santa Elena.
With Frank, we drove across the Gran Sabana. This endless expense of grassland, broken only by mysterious tepuis (table top mountains) reminded me of the borderless horizons of the Mongolian plains, Kazak steppes and Patagonian grasslands. What timeless beauty! The only pity was that the supposedly spectacular view of Mt Roraima, which lies on the border of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana and the main subject of the novel, Lost World, was unfortunately blocked by mist. We could only see vague silhouette of this mountain. We also visited a number of waterfalls, the most unique of which was Jasper Falls. Red jasper stones, so magical and unreal, formed the bottom of the falls and the river that flew through it.
We left the Gran Sabana plateau to enter the tropical jungle lowlands of Guayana, adjacent to the independent English-speaking country of Guyana, 80% of whose territory is claimed by successive Venezuelan governments. This is the legendary land of El Dorado, i.e. "the golden one". An Indian legend spoke about an Indian chief who covered himself with hold dust and then dive into a lake of pure mountain water, in a ritual that was the manifestation of the tribe's wealth and power. This legend had inspired many Spanish conquistadors to trek through difficult mountain and jungle terrain in Colombia and Venezuela in search of this legendary tribe and its king.
Today, a small town of El Dorado sits here where Venezuela's maximum security prison is located. This region, together with the city of El Callao, is a major gold mining region. Venezuela produces 10% of the world's gold. We stopped by an unlicensed cottage mine here – one of the hundreds of impoverished, improvised mines in this region - just next to a state-owned one. We could get down 30 meters into the mine on a rope if we wanted but all three of us thought it was too dangerous. These miners, including a few pretty women, worked in teams. As with the miner we met near the Brazilian border, the work is tough and gold finds are rare and speculative, but the alternative would be hunger.
The jungle began to disappear and we saw more decent shops as we got closer to Ciudad Guayana. We reached Puerto Ordaz, the rich part of Ciudad Guayana around 4pm. Fired by commodity prices and Asia's demand for steel and heavy metals, Ciudad Guayana is growing very fast. Frank said Ciudad Guayana is South America's fastest growing city.
Frank drove us around to see the dam that supplies electricity to Brazil, and the huge malls of the city. The city was full of condominiums and private bungalows. The Orinokin Mall is enormous – over 1km long! Lots of brand names. This is a very American place like the richer suburbs of Caracas. Things were not cheap at the mall. Food was in fact quite expensive. About SG food court prices or more, and service very slow. It took them half an hour to do my grilled chicken rice and it tasted horrible!
We flew 1400km across this country twice the size of California to the student city of Merida in the High Andes, where people wear sweaters, speak in loud tones and mountain-bike to keep fit. From here, we did a foray to Catatumbo region on sea-level Lake Maracaibo to experience the strange phenomena of daily lightning left, right and centre. The lightning of Catatumbo is an unusual natural phenomena caused by the meeting of cold air from the Andes and the hot air of the lake. Lightning would occur throughout the night despite the absence of thunder. Some scattered lightning started to occur around 9:30pm but the impressive phenomena really only took off around 11pm with multiple lightning occurring across the skies, some of which struck horizontally across. It was a pity that the night was cloudy and the lightning occurred all too fast, which meant it was difficult to take any photos without specialized equipment.
Back in Merida, we had dinner at a pizza restaurant where the bored chef got me to be the "apprentice chef" and got Jayson to film me making a full pizza, placed it into the oven and then getting it out to be cut. It was fun but I certainly messed up the pizza a bit and it was actually served to a paying customer, who did not seemed too pleased to be guinea pig to an amateur pizza chef! The Venezuelans sure like to have fun and play with their food! Obviously there is a cultural difference with some parts of the world where professionalism is prized over fun.
Alvin and Jayson flew to Margarita Island while I got onto an overnight bus to Coro, Falcon State on the northwest coast of Venezuela. Coro was the first capital of Spanish Venezuela, before it was eventually moved to Caracas. Its history has bestowed the city with a number of Spanish colonial buildings, many of which are well-preserved.
Today, Coro is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, though I have found its historical core zone rather small and many of the structures within the core have been modified for modern use. I visited a few of the churches (the interior somewhat barer than expected, perhaps the result of many wars and conflicts in the past) and museums within the core colonial zone. The city is located in what is a rather dry coast with huge sand dunes in its northeast suburbs. Even then, it rained in the late afternoon, which turned the city streets into sudden streams of mini flash floods. So I didn't bother about the sand dunes in the suburbs and instead spent time on the internet and watching Chinese CCTV channel (since no English channel was available).
From Coro, I flew back to Caracas to meet Alvin and Jayson. We spent our final night in Venezuela in the resort town of Macuto before flying off – me to Dominican Republic and Alvin and Jayson back to Singapore.