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Nothing to Fear?

It is an unfortunate truth that an American who travels in South America will become violently ill, suffering from both explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting. He or she will often perform these acts simultaneously.  Luckily, all bathrooms are equipped with both a toilet and a trashcan (toilet paper cannot be flushed), providing two receptacles for bodily refuse. I suggest one hurls into the garbage; to do the reverse would earn said American the resent of his/her host, hotel custodian, etc.

It was unfortunate, indeed, when it happened to me, although I should have known better than to eat street cart ceviche. No matter how delicious it was – shrimp and octopus and whitefish, marinated in lemon juice with jalapeños and dressed in cilantro – raw fish sitting in the sun is to the digestive system what McDonalds is to the circulatory. I spent the entire day in a sweaty, pale state of purging, never moving more than twenty feet to go to the bathroom or to return to my bed. I survived on Pedialyte, Gatorade, and soda crackers. The next day I had to fly back to the States. Quite a sendoff.

Before I was out of commission, we had planned to spend my last day in Caracas climbing up to Pico Humboldt, a hotel-topped mountain peak directly between Caracas and the Caribbean. But something about tossing my cookies on the public trail didn’t sit with me well, so we stayed home. Humboldt proved to be one of several unfilled boxes on my checklist of “Things to do while in Venezuela” when I left that summer.

So it was that I found myself, at 7:45 a.m. last Saturday, waking up with Claudia to finally make the trek. We awoke earlier than usual because were told the journey would take five or six hours, and it was important to finish before the night settled in. I thought this was because the risk of mugging, kidnapping, etc. increases at night, but Claudia straightened me out: it’s hard to watch your step without light.

It’s strange. Despite the fact that I’ve never been mugged, pick pocketed, or even sneezed on in Venezuela, I’ve read enough to be afraid wherever I go. When we’re driving around at night, part of me feels hijacking and kidnapping is inevitable and wishes we would just get it over with already. Still, the threat (or anxiety) of being mugged was real, so we invited our friend Edward to join us, who in addition to great company also provided security and comfort.

Off we went. We walked and talked our way up a winding, paved road from which I photographed Caracas (image 1). We continued onto a dirt road, which led back to more pavement, all of which led to a guardaparques. Here, we were told that the path to Humboldt was closed on account of the rains that rocked Venezuela in late November, but we soldiered on.

To say the hike was “difficult” would be like calling Montezuma’s Revenge a “stomachache.” I can count on my hands the number of horizontal steps I took, while the rest of the hike was a dedicated vertical climb. We slipped on rocks and vaulted over and ducked under fallen trees, all the while muttering, “Ay, me duele el culo.” You can look that one up.

On our way up we crossed paths with one man, a short, tubby type with hiking poles and no partner. To my surprise, he didn’t assault us; rather, he said that we were half an hour from Humboldt by way of Galipán. Within a few steps we veered from this gentleman’s path. Without a map, our path was determined by none other than spontaneity – at every fork one of us would call out left or right and the other two would follow. Still, twenty minutes and one fall flat-on-my-face moment later, we emerged from the woods around the corner from Paseo Ávila, where we found merengue music, dulce de leche, and the arepera socialista. Signs detailed the difference between a “socialist arepa” and a “commercial arepa,” which I will boil down for you here: socialist arepas cost less. I was curious to try the arepa caraqueña or the arepa indígena, but one look at the line merited the expression, “¡Qué cola!” and we continued on the path towards the peak and, atop the peak, Hotel Humboldt (image 2).

The hotel is a marvel, a cylindrical building atop a mountain between the sea and the city. I can only imagine the view from the top because, for the past 50 years, Hotel Humboldt has been closed. However, the recently expropriated edifice is being remodeled and, according to the government, it should be open in 2012. But they’ve fallen behind schedule; at the end of 2010, the government planned to open the first two floors, or about 10 rooms, yet when we arrived only the lobby was open to the public. What we saw looked like a Caracas of a different age – luscious red carpets, a fireplace big enough to house a bonfire, high ceilings and glass walls – far removed from the graffiti, the stone walls, and the electric fences that fill the city today.

Outside the hotel, every brush against my arm or my backpack warranted a thorough search of all pockets and pouches to ensure all was where it should be. The fear – irrational fear – had followed me up the mountain. Now that I think about it, would somebody really have wanted to steal a peanut butter and jelly sandwich out of my backpack when there were subsidized arepas around the corner?

Starving from our long hike, we headed towards Galipán, a pueblito of about 2,500. Many of the residents there make a living renting out B&Bs that, perched on the north side of the mountain, offer breathtaking views of the Caribbean (image 3). Others own 4x4s and ferry tourists, local and otherwise, along the treacherous road between Caracas and Pico Humboldt. Still others run restaurants or sell candies or handmade goods. But the first sign we saw of this tourist economy were horses carrying their passengers towards the arch and broken fountain that mark this village’s entrance.

Exhausted, we sat down and tried to consume all the energy we had expended. I ordered a cachapa, a sweet corn pancake folded omelet-style and filled with queso blanco, and guayoyo, the typical Venezuelan coffee, a medium-roast brewed thick and consumed in small doses.

We left Galipán via one of the aforementioned 4x4s. It carried us to the cable railway (I like the Spanish better: teleférico) (image 4), which turned our two and a half our hike into a ten-minute slide down the mountain. From there, we drove home and, showered, fell into the hammock for the next few hours. Finally, I felt safe.

The funny thing is, the fear isn’t mine alone. Every conversation I’ve had regarding my trip has followed the same trajectory, the endpoint being, “Don’t worry, I’ll be careful.” Nor does this fear belong strictly to Americans. At the movies in Caracas, a friend told me,  “Next time, Charlie, try to under dress.” And Claudia, the other day, thought a group of motorcycles might’ve been up to no good. I spent the rest of the car ride monitoring every biker in our vicinity.


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