After I bid Freddy goodbye and jumped off the bus in Barquisimeto, I had it in my naïve little head that I’d be able to get a bus straight away to Mérida, one of Venezuela’s most popular tourist destinations, slap bang in the middle of the high season. My delusions were soon brought crashing down around me when I was advised my several amused looking ticket vendors that the soonest they could do was mañana, and in the evening at that. Bugger. But nothing I could do about it, I was officially stuck in the hole in the ground that it Barquisimeto so I booked my seat and asked for directions to the cheapest hotel in the vicinity and they sent me across the road to a place called Hotel El Peregrino.
Not a terrible place but at BsF$80 per night it was a bit more than I was used to spending although my room did have air conditioning (that sounded like a 747 with a goat stuck in its engine), a television (without access to the only channel in English, AXN) and a bathroom (with a toilet I had to take apart to flush). It also rented double beds by the hour… obviously for people who just wanted a nice sleep before they got their bus… Ahem. Anyway, whatever, I had no other option and checked in before heading out for a wander. I intended to drink a beer, go back to the room and catch up on some computer stuff. Photos, writing etc.
What I ended up doing was finding a large, dirty bar with toilets you could smell from the moon but had cheap beer. A woman and her friend sat down across the room with a guy, it was obvious they were talking about me, and she waved. I raised my hand in acknowledgement and continued staring into space, siping my beer. Next thing, a fresh beer arrived at my table and the fella that delivered it indicated it was from the woman and her friend. Now, I have this thing; I believe that if someone buys you a drink you at least go over and thank them for it, drink it with them before making your excuses and leaving. So over I went. It turned into an amusing couple of hours, neither her nor her friend spoke any English and my Spanish doesn’t extend far beyond obtaining accommodation, transport and food but we communicated, bit by bit. More and more beer kept arriving at the table, she kept on paying, and all plans to do get anything remotely productive done that evening completely went out of the window. Okay, so I was stuck in a shit town for 24 hours, but at least I managed to make a couple of friends.
Barquisimeto bus terminal isn’t the most pleasant place to while away the hours, especially with a bit of a hangover. The town is oppressively hot and dusty and touts constantly shout places names at you and never just the once. They can’t seem to just say, for example, “Valencia?” It’s like they have a stuttering form of Tourettes resulting in a barrage of place names, “ValenciaValenciaValenciaValenciaValencia!” and when you manage to shake your head in bemusement they try the next place, “MaracaiboMaracaiboMaracaiboMaracaiboMaracaibo!” Between that and a quantity of coffee that could flood Holland it’s no wonder I was a jittery mess by the time I boarded my bus which thankfully didn’t have some religious message emblazoned across the front and a depiction of a dying man bleeding from his head on the side like so many of the buses did. It’s no wonder god botherers freak me out, that kinda crap is enough to give you nightmares. Not that I’d be having nightmares on this bus trip on account of the fact any kind of dreaming requires you to be asleep.
So apparently when you spend an entire day sat at a bus station working your way through the terminal’s coffee supply it becomes impossible to sleep on the overnight bus you just spent 9 hours waiting for, by the time I arrived in Mérida I was absolutely bollocksed. I officially renounced the evil that is caffeine and anything that contained it. I got to Posada Alemania and checked in with plans to lie face down on my bed for the foreseeable future. Those plans were scuppered, however, when I bumped into a German couple, Sascha and Claudi, who I’d briefly met in Ciudad Bolivar. They were heading off on a two day tour to check out the Catatumbo Lightning, the very thing I’d come to Mérida to see, and they suggested I sign up to go with them on the same tour.
I was torn. It’d be fun… and I didn’t know when another tour would be leaving… I glanced back towards my bed which I swear was gently calling my name, the soft pillow beckoning me, the sheets begging to be pulled back and wrapped around my exhausted body… Ah fuck it. Sleep is for the weak! More caffeine was needed. I ordered more coffee and handed a wad of cash over to reception to secure my place on the trip.
Our tour guide was a short fella called José. What was it with my guides in Venezuela and their stature? I’m not a tall chick by any means but I’d been at least a head taller than all my guides here. Anyway… off we went. The two Germans, an Italian couple, me and a French Canadian bloke called Simon and the thing about the Catatumbo Lightning, despite the fact the tours run from Mérida, it’s a mission and a half away. Most of the tour is getting there and back but they make the journey interesting and we were a brilliant group if I do say so myself. We stopped at waterfalls and a small village called Jaji, ate lunch by the road side overlooking a gorgeous view and they we were taken to a small coffee plantation to be given an idea of how coffee was made. Oh coffee, I can’t stay mad at you for long.
We hung out for a while sipping on the amazingness that they produced there before we were back on the road towards the river and the hour and a half boat ride to where we’d be staying for the night; A fucking awesome looking village called El Congo Mirador, built on Maracaibo Lake on stilts. Actually we weren’t meant to be staying there but no one had the key for where we were meant to be heading but that suited us, the village was cool and we ended up hanging our hammocks on the porch of a friend of one of the local guides.
Every city, town and village in Venezuela has a Bolívar Square in honour of Simón Bolívar, El Libertador, the guy who lead several South American countries to independence from Spain. Venezuela is even named after him, the full name of the country being the Bolívarian Republic of Venezuela. El Congo is no exception, it has it’s own Plaza Bolívar but its version is built on stilts next to a church. It’s a tiny, wooden effort with some benches and a tattered flag, and if you hang upside down over the side and look underneath it (or maybe just stay in the boat for a similar view that won’t induce dizziness thus lowering chances of ending up in the water) you can see these tiny bubbles. These are something to do with the rotting vegetation etc on the bottom of the lake, they smell like it an all, fabulous for letting one rip and blaming the lake.
Anyway. This lightning which shall henceforth be referred to as the phenomenon on account of the fact that’s what José called it. If you ask him about the lightning he’ll look at you in total confusion before saying, “Ahhh! Yes, the phenomenon!” Plus I just really like the word and it’ll probably be the only chance I’ll get to use it in this blog. So they say the phenomenon differs from normal lightning in that there’s no thunder. It’s silent flashes of light and bolts of lightning, and it’s yellow as opposed to the standard white and when it forks, it forks upwards and not across or down the sky.
It started early on in the night but the cloud obscured the bolts so we just saw flashes. Eventually we settled into our hammocks but I couldn’t sleep even though José said he’d wake us up later. I maybe got 2 hours before I woke up anyway, a storm had started off to the right and it was fucking amazing! José said the phenomenon was to the left with the yellow lightning forking upwards with a “real” storm to the right, immense, white bolts forking across the sky with thunder to accompany it. I honestly didn’t see much of the phenomenon though and all of the photos I got were of the closer storm but fuck it. I love a good storm!
So once again I didn’t sleep, I didn’t want to miss a thing. Even after I climbed back into my hammock I hung over the side, watching the storm rage in the distance and every time I tried to close my eyes, as soon as my eyelids lit up I opened them again, trying to catch another glimpse of both the storm and the phenomenon. The next morning I began the coffee consumption in earnest. I was tired but happy, it was definitely a better way to be kept awake than the previous night methinks.
El Congo Mirador, Lake Maracaibo Venezuela
Stayed at: On some guy’s porch.