South America: Another New Continent
As the plane banked to the south, the darkness of the Caribbean gave way to a dazzling show of lights that climbed up the mountains near Caracas. Twenty minutes later, I touched down for the first time in my life on the South American continent. I remember the first time I landed in Europe, Asia, Africa and now a new continent, a new country – Venezuela.”Why would anyone want to go to Venezuela?” was my father’s response when I told him I had booked a ticket to one of South America’s northern-most countries. It is his standard response to many of my far flung destinations – Uganda, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guatemala, Honduras …It is not that he doesn’t travel. He is a cruise ship doctor with Holland/America currently on a 104-day voyage around the world. We just travel on different budgets and for different reasons.I was going to Venezuela to visit one of my oldest friends in the world, a woman I have known since pre-school. We don’t know exactly how many years we have known each other, but at least 37.”I’m not sure why you would want to take that kind of risk,” said my father. “The State Department says its not safe. We had dinner with Fagan (a family friend of ours) the other night and he said people are routinely kidnapped and held for ransom.”
It is true. Venezuela is known to be a renegade country by the United States, along with neighboring Colombia, where people (business people or large landholders/farmers/ranchers) are abducted and held for ransom. Tourists share stories about arriving at the airport in Caracas, hailing a taxi cab – only to find the taxi driver is in it for ransom.Best to only use the government-licensed black Ford Explorers.My guard was up, my father’s concerns considered, but now I was stepping off the plane in Caracas and happy to be smelling the soil of another new continent.My friend, Lisa Brody, is a brave woman. If ever you saw the motion picture “Out of Africa,” she is a modern-day Karen Blixen. She bought a 50-acre farm in the western state of Mrida, an hour and 20 minute flight from Caracas. There she has built a beautiful home, where she hosts yoga and meditation workshops and has planted coffee, cacao, fruit, sugarcane and timber trees. A river runs through the farm, which has several pools of hot springs of varying temperatures.
It is no Club Med by any stretch, but a quiet, spiritual place to relax, rejuvenate, hike, bike and soak in the hot springs – not to mention enjoy healthy vegetarian cuisine and wake up to the aroma of farm-grown, organic coffee beans.”Thomas (my given name, which she has always called me), please come. I want you to know my world down here and meet my friends,” she asked me for the fifth straight year since moving to Venezuela in 2000. We see each other a couple of times a year, always in Colorado when she comes back to visit family and friends. “Let me help heal your back (I have been suffering from sciatica for the last year). Take some time out for yourself.”Not only does she teach yoga at varying levels, both at her farm and at a gym in Mrida, she also practices various alternative therapies. So, I tell my father, “I am going to heal myself, both physically and spiritually, and see the world of an old friend.”
Caracas was little more than a layover. I arrived at 10:30 p.m. and left the following morning at 7 a.m. on an internal flight to Mrida – a small shuttle plane with 30 or so passengers. The flight first heads north along the Caribbean coast, then turns inland over the fertile lands of central Venezuela (looking down from the plane, it looked like a colorful tapestry of farm fields stretched out across the belly of the earth), then the final half-hour is above and through the very rugged Sierra Nevada mountain range.Mrida is one of 23 states in Venezuela and is located in the western region of the country. The city of Mrida is situated in a long, narrow valley, and the average elevation is 6,000 feet above sea level. Though similar in elevation to Denver, Mrida is tropical.It is a very mountainous region with Venezuela’s highest peak, Pico Bolivar, towering over the city, which is just over 16,000 feet and snow-capped year-round.The city is centered around the University of Los Andes, and has a population of approximately 700,000.
Compared with places I have been in Africa and Central America, life in Mrida is very sophisticated. A nice airport, a beautiful city of white-washed buildings with red tiled roofs, well-stocked markets, educated people and a functioning economy – although traffic in the narrow valley can be frustrating and a bit harrowing as Latino drivers don’t seem to hold anything back when behind the wheel.In Mrida, Lisa lives in the top flat of a six-floor building with splendid views – and a clear shot of Pico Bolivar. She teaches yoga at a friend’s gym Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays (beginning, intermediate, advanced and even the philosophy of yoga) to a dedicated group of students, and a Tuesday class of children with special needs.On Thursday afternoons or Friday mornings she leaves the city behind and heads to her farm, some 55 kilometers southwest or, what seems like a million miles away and centuries apart in time. The road follows the Chama River down valley some 30 kilometers, but then time begins to stand still as she drives a steep mountain pass to a small village called La Trampa.It is the steepest, narrowest road I have ever been on, and my knuckles were white clutching the door handle. It reminded me of the infamous Tour de France climb up L’Alpe d’Huez. Indeed, the next time we went to the farm, I borrowed a bike from one of Lisa’s friends and felt much more comfortable climbing the pass on two wheels rather than in her 4-wheel drive Landcruiser.Atop the pass is the tiny little town of La Trampa – a cluster of adobe homes surrounding several shops, a school, a government building and a church – which often is shrouded in clouds. From there the road turns from asphalt to a narrow, rocky, mud track and drops precipitously into a valley called La Caa Brava.
Time seems to have stood still in La Caa Brava, where most residents are small farmers, cultivating steep mountain plots in coffee and a variety of fruits and vegetables from pineapples to plantains. Cattle is becoming increasingly popular as well in the rugged valley.Few of the farmers have vehicles, but most have horses or mules they ride up and down the narrow road, which is occasionally washed out by the heavy rains that fall in these cloud forests. Here, Lisa spends her weekends in slow motion, waking up late when there are no workshops, soaking in the hot springs, walking her dogs, making homemade soups and juices, stretching into a comfortable yoga routine and walking her farm with her trusted farm hand, Seor Dacio Escalona – a 70-year-old man that is as devoted to her as Farah Aden was to Karen Blixen in “Out of Africa.” Lisa says, “If I am the soul of the Finca, Seor Dacio is the heart.”Toucans sometimes visit the farm and, in the distance, the chatter of gibbons settle into the valley from their playground of rich forests climbing the steep mountains.
I spent a couple of weeks with Lisa, living in her new world between the farm and her flat in the city, and got to know the cast of characters who have become her friends.I took time out for myself – no need to scramble and see the whole of the country, I knew I would be coming back – so I stretched in the mornings, practiced yoga most every day, had three or four massages (one with hot rocks) and let my body clock slow to a slumber.My sciatica has since subsided, and now I know a new corner of the world – a little piece of Venezuelan paradise.Brad Odekirk can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 232, or at email@example.com.
Venezuela was one of three countries that emerged from the collapse of Grand Colombia in 1830 (the others being Ecuador and Colombia).For most of the first half of the 20th century, Venezuela was ruled by generally benevolent military strongmen, who promoted the oil industry and allowed for some social reforms. Democratically elected governments have held sway since 1959. Current concerns include: an embattled president (Hugo Chavez), a divided military, drug-related conflicts along the Colombian border, increasing internal drug consumption, over-dependence on the petroleum industry with its price fluctuations and irresponsible mining operations that are endangering the rain forest and indigenous peoples.- Capital: Caracas
– Location: Northern South America, bordering the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, between Colombia and Guyana- Area Comparative: Slightly more than twice the size of California- Climate: Tropical; hot, humid, more moderate in highlands- Terrain: Andes Mountains and Maracaibo Lowlands in northwest; central plains (llanos); Guiana Highlands in southeast- Population: 25 million
– Language: Spanish (officially), numerous indigenous dialects- Religion: Roman Catholic, 96 percent; Protestant, 2 percent; other, 2 percent
Like all countries, Venezuela too has a favorite son, and his name is Simon Bolivar. Towns are named after him, universities are named after him, the currency is named after him, even neighboring Bolivia is named after him. He was one of South America’s greatest generals and his victories over the Spaniards won independence for Bolivia, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. He is known as El Liberator and is often called the George Washington of South America.Bolivar was born on July 24, 1783 in Caracas, Venezuela to wealthy Creole parents. They died before he reached his teens, but he inherited a fortune. His guardians saw to it that he received a sophisticated education and sent him to Spain. He traveled throughout much of Europe and admired the accomplishments of Napolean I and the philosophies of Rousseau and Voltaire.When he returned to Venezuela, Bolivar joined a group of patriots that quickly seized Caracas in 1810 and proclaimed independence from Spain. That was only the beginning of his battles against the Spaniards, who he fought on different battlefields and in different countries for the next decade and a half. His accomplishments are remarkable considering that he liberated most of an entire continent with armies never numbering more than 10,000. He was not only a liberator, he was also a great leader.
Though he had great success leading armies and uniting South Americans, Bolivar not only lost his parents at an early age, but also lost his wife to yellow fever shortly after marrying her. His life was cut short at 47, when he died of tuberculosis on December 17, 1830.
* Denver to Houston* Houston to Caracas* Caracas to Mérida- My flight from Denver to Caracas roundtrip was $504 on Continental.- My flight from Caracas to Mérida was $120 roundtrip.- Contact information for yoga getaway or seminar:e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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