More often than not, this column is about ways to avoid hassles, thefts, slowdowns, poor service, filthy hotel rooms and dangerous encounters.
But there’s one trip I took years ago that featured all of the above — a major theft; a hotel room that was beyond filthy at a location that was advertised as a resort but was more an oilman’s port; roads marked with graves and populated by vultures; a ferry that wasn’t just late, but a full day late; tense showdowns with the locals; sleeping in cars; and a full sprint to the airport.
Yet somehow this trip is remembered as a highlight of my travels, a perfect case of a bad trip turning good.
I’d been too busy to think about traveling, and found myself the week before Christmas discussing going somewhere, anywhere warm for New Year’s. At the time, I was living in New York City, so we opened up the Village Voice to the travel section to find a bucket shop offering deals to someplace warm.
Eight days/seven nights’ air and hotel at some hot new up-and-coming resort Puerto de Nada Bueno (not its real name, obviously) for about $400 each — done. Inevitably, the bucket shops seem to be in the Empire State Building; I took the subway down to pick up and pay for the tickets, and we were set.
The outbound flight left at 6:15 a.m. on December 26; whew. I was a bit of a novice traveler in those days, or at least had never had a bad experience. As a result, I packed my camera in my checked baggage. Bad call. Our bags were literally ransacked. We lost our running shoes, fins for my surfboard, all the camera equipment and more. The total replacement cost came to nearly $1,000, which the airline promised to reimburse without argument, since there was no disputing the theft — our bags were delivered to baggage claim still half open.
We arrived at the hotel after dark, and found that the only thing that was up-and-coming about this place was the plumbing, and that was before we even used the toilet. (Well, there was another thing that was up-and-coming: the hotel itself, which was still under construction.) We reported the mess, which spilled out across the floor of the entire loo from a raised throne, and took a walk.
The Next Mess
The stars were bright and full, and we lay down in the sand by the water to stare skyward. Looking out to sea, we noticed lots of lights on the horizon, and wondered what was out there. We gave the hotel enough time to clean the place up, then headed back to the room.
As we walked in, my traveling companion said, “Hey, what’s all over your back?” She then looked down at her feet and saw more of the same. We were covered with a tar-like black goop. You might call it black gold, Texas tea … I call it an oil spill. As we learned the next morning, the lights on the horizon were oil derricks.
Rinse, Repeat, Run Away
We took showers, attempted to clean our clothes with baby oil, ate some snacks we had with us and got ready for sleep. We soon learned that the plumbers hadn’t done such a good job in the loo. We called the manager, who said there were no other rooms since the hotel was still under construction. It was decided — we were out of there, and we were gone by first light with no word to the hotel manager. The room was paid for, and we had no plan, so we kept the room as a home base and potential crash pad.
We rented a sturdy car from a local car dealership, a brown hot-rod-ish cruiser that looked like no other rental car I’ve ever seen, and started driving. I had a surfboard along, so we looked at a map and headed generally toward an anvil-shaped peninsula in northeastern Venezuela in search of waves and relaxation.
Mixed amid moments of stunning beauty and wonder, troubles kept coming.
Roads were poorly maintained, torturously curving and lined with flowers marking old wrecks, piles of metal (the wrecks themselves) and gargantuan buzzards on the lookout for new wrecks. To get behind a bus was to spend miles and miles, perhaps an hour or two, going 15 miles an hour in a slipstream of diesel fumes.
Still, we managed to enjoy ourselves, as you’ll read below, forging from one unexpected encounter after another a truly free-form trip that was much more than we had hoped for.
The day before our flight was to leave, we started thinking about how to get back to the airport. We had originally planned to drive back the way we came, but knew it would be nearly impossible given the road conditions. I made some inquiries along the road, heard rumors of an auto ferry and, 24 hours before our flight was to leave, pulled into a small town across the water from Cumana.
Surely enough, we found the rumored ferry and parked in the back of a long line of cars, motorcycles, scooters and large trucks, hoping there would be room for us.
The scheduled ferry departure time came and went with no sign of a boat of any kind. Soon, a truck pulled out of the line and drove away. A couple of cars did the same. We moved up each time another car left the queue.
Soon, it was a mass exodus. An hour later, we were alone at the front of the line, the only car left waiting.
The next ferry was due mid-afternoon. We got a repeat performance. A long line of cars showed up behind us; a long line of cars disappeared.
Finally, when yet another batch of cars for the ferry came and went, I walked over to some locals to ask what was going on.
“Hey gringo,” I was greeted. We had met almost no one who spoke English, so in Spanish, I asked, “Isn’t being a gringo a bad thing?” They looked me straight in the eye and replied that yes, it was. “But you don’t even know me; why call me a bad name?”
One of the group stepped forward and said, “You and I are equal, the same.” I wasn’t sure if he was accepting me, or challenging me on whether I thought myself better. I wasn’t completely sure what was going on, but I knew that there was tension in the air, and that my reply would make a difference. Whatever he meant, it was easy enough — I agreed with him; we were the same.
“Si. Igual, lo mismo,” I replied.
This was the right answer. Without further comment, the entire group simultaneously explained that, if the ferry on the other side is not full, they will not leave Cumana, and so never show up on this side. However, he assured me, the first ferry will always run, and that if I was there at 6 a.m. the next day, the ferry would be there.
I explained our situation, that our flight left that day at noon, and that we did not have enough time, etc. He said simply, “Stay another day.” Everyone laughed. He had a point.
Then he told us about the party.
We walked around town, lounged on the hood of the car, sat through yet one more ferry no-show, and sure enough, at the appointed hour, music began pouring out of a giant tin warehouse nearby. People must have traveled to this party for hundreds of miles, because there were thousands in attendance, and this town held about 300 people.
The band was astounding, worthy of a record contract, and the dancing was of a standard I had never seen. It was so good as to be intimidating; we mostly took it all in, chatted with our new friends and listened to the band play one relentless, blistering, incredibly musical 90-minute set after another.
The Mad Rush to the Airport
We slept in the car — we could find no lodging in the tiny town — and the ferry arrived soon after first light. The rest of the day was beyond hectic; by noon, we had to take the ferry, check out of the hotel and check in for the plane. We made it, but only thanks to the fact that it left a couple hours late. Even then, we were in full sprint to the plane, I checked my surfboard at the gate and we fell into our seats soaked in sweat.
The Perfect Vacation? Absolutely
We endured what many travelers would consider hardship, but in many ways, those seven days were perfect — beautiful, surprising, scary, affecting, stunning — very much the sort of travel that changes you. We ventured to parts of Venezuela that are all but ignored in the guidebooks, and met the real people of the country. We ate lunch on the beach in lean-to’s under cliffs with the fisherman who lived in them. We danced on New Year’s Eve with a group of folks who moved like they should be in Stomp! I pulled out my surfboard to ride tiny rollers sneaking into a protected bay, and instantly there were dozens of kids in their underwear riding plywood, picnic benches, boxtops, you name it.
For our troubles, we drank the most “vigorous” coffee I had ever put to my lips (save for the stuff I make here in my office).
We accepted invitations into what appeared to be rowhouses in poverty-stricken locales, but when you entered the front door, opened onto lush vegetable gardens complete with fountains, native birds, music, merriment and astounding hospitality.
We survived a New Year’s Eve celebration that featured only generic, store-bought fireworks, but was louder and more ecstatic than any million-dollar display I’ve seen.
We ditched the car for a day and came up with some scooters for about $5 each; these took us places very, very few gringos had ever seen.
Had that toilet been working, or that particular patch of beach been a little cleaner, we might never have ventured out into the country so aggressively. Something in the human spirit likes a little trouble, and traveling is one sure way to find it!