Archive for the 'Venezuela' Category

Not Watching the World Cup

Watching the finals, four years ago in Merida

Four years ago. Cement and humidity. Rattling bus ride, stomach-sick and backpack-heavy, up and over, along the coast and back in again. Everything laced in car exhaust and heat, the smoke off cooking meat, the horn blows of “Hips Don’t Lie”—and the crackle of television sets, shoulders hunched around the static glow.

I’ll admit that I didn’t really know what the World Cup was before the last one. Cause I’m American and we’re generally not aware of things outside our own culture (as captured by this Simpsons episode). But four years ago, I got a crash course: I was traveling during the entire duration of the World Cup. I didn’t know shit about the game, and kindly fellow travelers tried repeatedly to educate me, but it was pretty much a loss. What got to me, though, was the way the World Cup consumed the places I was in, and completely took over daily life.

It started slowly. During the first rounds, just a couple dudes holed up in the kitchen of the youth hostel on drizzly Bogota afternoons. They made a list of all participating countries, along with offensive, politically incorrect nicknames they invented with their apparent oddles of free time (the only one I can remember is “Portugal: Little Brazil”).

As I snaked through the murderous mountains, bus break downs and military checkpoints, the intensity of the World Cup gathered speed. By the time I got to the sweltering, smoggy Caribbean coast, it was in full swing: TVs pulled out onto the Santa Marta street corners, men on folding cars, kids crosslegged, staring transfixed. Colombia wasn’t even in the games. It didn’t seem to matter.

I’ve heard reasons for why soccer isn’t big in the US, and why football (American football) is—basically, that football is tailor-made for commercial breaks and thus commercialization, while soccer’s lengthy sets make it untelevisable, in the American sense. It seemed like a plausible explanation. “I must say, it’s rather nice,” the British girl told me, leaning in and soft-voiced, “to have this one huge thing that America isn’t really a part of.”

I was in Merida, Venezuela for the final game. It was like Super Bowl Sunday times ten—you couldn’t really do anything else but watch the game. So I hung out at my hostel and pretended to follow along.

We went out for a walk after the end of the game, to survey the goings on. The city was transformed into a Venezuelan sideshow: a choke of traffic, horns and revving engines, kids hanging entire torsos out of the windows of moving vehicles, everyone chanting: “Italia! Italia!” I could only imagine what it must have been like in Italy.

The energy of it, the global ecstatic energy, felt like an addictive, consuming and altogether foreign thing. Was this what was going on while Americans were busy tailgating and spending $6 for a Budweiser? The raw emotion of it reminded me of a Sherman Alexie poem I’d read years ago:

On TV, more soccer riots in Europe.
There would be riots in American stadiums
during our particular games
if the people who had reason to riot
could pay the price for admission.

Like anything, like any time you travel and are surrounded by some awesome and immersive cultural force, you want to feel a part of it. But there’s always that little twinge, that hint, a prickle in the back of your neck, that you’re separate, somehow apart from—that you don’t really understand, not deeply enough, and that you’ll always be a little on the outside.

Do you ever play that game with yourself?—“the next time this happens, I wonder where I’ll be.” Four years older, but not where I supposed: still in the US, still waiting tables, still scraping money together here and there for little trips. Not the life I expected, or the one I even wanted, but the one I’ve ended up in: arrived in, disoriented and unsure, a noisy bus station on the smog-choked side of town.

So I didn’t join in the fuss this time around. I didn’t watch the games or pretend to follow along, didn’t ride the train out to Civic Center on Sunday to sit on the grass and squint at a big projection screen. I didn’t tweet my predictions or try to seem more international than I was really was by feigning interest (ahem, covered quite nicely here).

I let it pass quietly, peripherally—like a party going on in the apartment downstairs, when you look around the dim light of your bedroom and sigh. You put in some ear plugs and let the noise fade, feeling the foam expand as you fall asleep. In the morning, life returns to normal, and you try not to think about where you’ll be for the next one, in another four years.

Top Three Travel Secrets: A Chain Letter for Travel Bloggers

It reads as ominously as a middle school chain letter. Except, in the end, failure to perpetuate the chain isn’t sworn to result in untimely death or spinsterhood (which are more or less the same thing when you’re 12). Rather, in this chain, compliance results in access to a treasure trove of travelers’ secrets. And probably some new friends.

I was hit by two writers in the TripBase Blog Tag, spreading through the travel blogosphere like hot gossip around a lunch table. Or a dirty note during Math class, light-up sneakers in a mean game of duck-duck-goose. (The analogies could go on forever.) The idea is you write a post about your top three travel secrets: out-of-the-way towns, little-known restaurants, unheard-of hotels—“hidden gems” that lay glittering in the dimness of obscurity. Until now, that is.

Aside from amassing an ass-kicking list of previously unknown spots around the world, the other objective of the TripBase Blog Tag is to be build community and get folks involved. I can get down with that. In addition to the awesome ladies that tagged me—Stephanie from Twenty-Something Travel and Abbie from Miles of Abbie—I’ve already discovered some new writers on the TripBase list of bloggers tagged so far. (Best blog names? Dirtbag Writer and Snarky Tofu. Fuck yeah.) My hunch: the final list won’t just expose travel secrets, but also some bad-ass writers I hadn’t encountered yet.

They say you’re only as sick as your secrets. Here’s to travel health:

End of the hike: waterfall into the Pacific

#1 Palomarin Hike, Marin County, California

My work friend had been telling me about “the secret hike” for months. Huddled over our staff meals in the cramped bus station, she made rope-swinging into the clear lake, and the coastal waterfall at the trail’s end, sound like a dream. Or at least a damn good fantasy.

We finally coordinated a day off together in August and headed up to Marin to the Palomarin Hike. We grabbed sandwiches and drove up past Stinson Beach to tackle the 11-mile hike. And I gotta say, it was just as killer as she’d described.

The hike starts through rather typical dusty California coastal terrain, taking you past sweeping Pacific vistas us locals have grown accustomed to. After about 45 minutes, the foliage and trees thicken, and you eventually get to Bass Lake, a frigid-water lake that’s biggest draw is an old-school rope swing. You could while away hours here, but, seeing as though it was August in the Bay Area and foggy as hell, we were too cold to partake. We continued on, and ended up at the trail’s end, where a waterfall tumbles into an isolated coastal cove.

The good news: the hike, although long, is gentle and not too strenuous. Which means just about anyone could do it—including my smoke-a-pack-a-day friend and me, who was then recovering from swine flu (yes, really).

The bad news: the Palomarin Hike is a total word-of-mouth Bay Area secret. As is the way with Marinites, locals don’t want outsiders to know about their secrets or have access to them (see also: why BART doesn’t run to Marin). Locals take down street signs and signposts, meaning that you’ve pretty much gotta go with someone who’s been there. So if you’re headed to the Bay soon, just hit me up; I’ll take you.


#2 Legzira Plage, Atlantic Coast, Morocco

Okay, if you’ve been following this blog for a bit, you’ve already heard me gush about the most deserted and beautiful beach I’ve ever been to: Legzira Plage, Morocco.

Talk about tucked-away: from Tiznit, take an hour bus ride, hop off at the faded roadside sign, and hike down 20 minutes. It’ll really just be you, a couple stray tourists, some fisherman and their donkeys—and the sandstone arches that dive red earth into blue water.

Among the handful of pink building that cascade down the cliff into the main beach, there’s two hotels that offer relatively cheap rooms. I went high-class and got one with my own shower, squat toilet (doin’ big things), and a window that opened onto the ocean view—for under $20.

Another bonus is the Moroccan street harassment factor, and the fact that Legzira Plage doesn’t have one. After a couple weeks of solo backpacking, sweating in long sleeves and fending off the barrage of “bonjour”s, it felt pretty damn sweet to strip down to my bikini and wave-hop in peace.

Kids on their way to school

#3 El Congo, Venezuela

The story goes that, when Europeans first arrived in what is now Venezuela, they came to the Lake Maracaibo villages, perched on stilts amid the marshes and water. Watching the village folks traverse the “streets” in handmade rafts reminded the Europeans of Venice—and they dubbed the place Venezuela.

El Congo, Venezuela is the most other-worldly places I’ve ever been. It’s only reachable by boat, a 30-minute ride through the hazy flat expanse of water, and you’ve gotta book a tour to get there. But surprisingly, the town isn’t the main draw of the tour. The Catatumbo Lightning phenomenon is what draws most people—mysterious, thunderless lightning that occurs almost nightly in the skies over Lake Maracaibo.

The road to Los Llanos was flooded when I was in Merida, so I opted to take the Catatumbo tour in its place. I hadn’t heard of El Congo, but it ended up being the highlight of the tour (the lightning didn’t really happen that night). The town had everything—a school, a fire station, a convenience store, even a Plaza Bolivar—all erected on stilts. Rumor had it there were a couple old folks still living in the town who’d only ever stepped foot for dry land to bury relatives.

It wasn’t an untouched Eden: El Congo was extremely isolated, making inbreeding a huge problem, and the town was quite poor. Sanitation was a major issue, with most refuse and human waste going directly into the water. Owning an actual boat was a sign of privilege. The less well-to-do had to construct their own floatation devices—this girl tied a piece of wood to some leftover styrofoam, dug a stick down into the mushy lakebed, and propelled herself along that way.

The thing that really bummed me out were the poor yapping dogs chained to the “front porch” of some of the houses. So much for getting a walk, little buddy. But hands down, El Congo was the most unusual place I’ve ever traveled to—and so far off the beaten path, there wasn’t a path at all.

So that’s my top three, scrawled not-so-jaggedly into the margins of a wrinkled note. Now to fold it up and shove it into another sweaty, unsuspecting palm. This could get good…

Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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