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Kat Marriner : April 21st, 2008

Homeward Bound

I have never been so happy to see a Mariner’s game on television. M’s verses the A’s, but the teams weren’t so important. What was important is that we were together, safe and comfortable. Hours before when we tried to settle down for the afternoon siesta, Willie was too agitated to sleep. He hadn’t slept much the night before and had been uncharacteristically sluggish on the ride up the steep canyon between Bucaramanga and San Gil. For the first time in memory, I played the cheerleader, waiting for him to catch up with me every couple of kilometers.Unable to sleep and growing constriction in his chest, we left our hotel and found a couple of computers with internet access at the florist shop around the corner. While I read some emails and looked at news headlines, Willie read about chloroquine overdosing and he grew pale. Shaking, white with a thin glisten of sweat he said he wanted to get to a doctor… fast. Helping him out the door, and back to our hotel, we asked Oscar–out hotel clerk extraordinaire– for help. We explained to him that Willie thought he had malarial fever in Bucaramanga and was self-medicating. He was now clearly not well and needed medical attention. Willie feared he had over-medicated, which in this case could be very serious.

Oscar didn’t hesitate a moment. He called another staff member to cover for him and he escorted us to the local clinic. Willie, by this time, was unstable and clearly shaken. For him, the walk was a long green mile, for Oscar and me it was about 6 minutes until we entered the clinic reception. Oscar explained Willie’s condition to the reception and after a brief questioning about international health insurance (which we don’t have since we barely have domestic health insurance) and a deposit of 100 thousand pesos, we were let into the hall waiting for the examining doctor. Second in line, Willie sat, barely able to speak. That ten minutes or so was an eternity and only once inside the examination room could Willie look at me and say that he didn’t want to die. Shaken to his core, I could only hold him and tell him I loved him and that he was getting help in time. I believed with all my heart that Willie was going to be fine and could only hope my confidence could give him comfort.

We told the doctor about the fevers and showed him the malarial drugs and antibiotics Willie was taking. We told him that two week prior to the fever, we had visited Los Llanos (the savanna plains of Venezuela) on a 4 day jeep tour … the most likely place to come in contact with malarial mosquitos. When we explained the bicycle ride the day before, there was a look that spoke volumes. Malaria parasites multiply in the liver and then affect red blood cells, robbing them of oxygen. After a quick blood pressure check and few other simple tests, Willie was lead to the “Sala do Observation” and laid down on one of the 4 beds in the main hall. A kid with a broken arm waiting to be wrapped looked on and winced as the I.V. needle was inserted into his hand. Scared and nervous the first hour, his pale color and weakened body drew looks of concern from a mother sitting in the chair across from me. Only stroking his hair and holding his hand seemed to comfort him a bit.

Another hour past, other patients came and went. With growing calm and better looking skin tone, Willie took in interest in the dripping bag. Slowly drip, drip, dripping into him. Couldn’t it go faster? Is it going down at all? Is that bubble in the line getting in the way? The nurse assured us it was dripping as it should. Patience. Another hour and the bag was near empty. Willie, was ready to sit up — ready to walk outside and away from his nightmare. I got the nurses attention again as the empty IV started to bleed backward into the line. Take it out and let us go. But no. She brought another bag, per doctor’s orders. Another bag, meant another few hours and Willie finally slept. I read my notebook and re-lived each day of the journey. Forced myself to remember places and people where details were sketchy in order to stay awake as night closed /br /At last, the second bag was nearing empty. By then all the other patience had been released or moved to other rooms. I saw the nurse leave for the night, not really sure if we would be staying for another round. At last a young doctor arrived with results from Willie’s blood test. From what we could understand, the test couldn’t show if Willie had malaria since it only registers when active. The doctor seemed to indicate that the medication Willie took was correct for one of the 4 types of malaria, and without a blood test while the parasite was active, he couldn’t confirm malaria or the treatment. There were concerns though with some levels in his blood, so the doctor released Willie with instructions to stop of medication and to return to the clinic in one week for another blood test. The final bill … 135,000 pesos, or $70.

It was a pleasant, cool night by the time we left the clinic. We talked the short distance back to the hotel, where Oscar the day clerk and given the night clerk the details to look after us. Secure in our tidy room with fan and television, we flipped on the TV and found the Mariner’s game. The M’s won that evening, and so did San Gil cast it’s spell on us and we decided we had found a place to stay awhile. It’s an easy place to linger and we were ready for a vacation instead of an adventure. Each day we visited what we think is Colombia’s most beautiful and well-used town squares. The 350 year old trees gave ample shade for reading books, sipping tinto coffees from strolling vendors, and enjoying a shaved ice with sweet mora (blackberry) syrup and a squeeze of lime. Locals shared a bench, couples strolled by, children played and we soaked it all in.

Oscar at the hotel proved to be helpful beyond medical emergencies. He showed us to perfect breakfast and lunch spots, then a place for a spa-treatment massage and haircut. Next he pointed me to the best optical shop in town where I splurged on two new pair of glasses. Every day he sends us to new places and suggests day trips and sights to see.

celebrated Willie growing stronger and breathing easier by riding to a picture-perfect 300 year old village on the high plateau 22kms from town. It was sheer pleasure to ride free of baggage and return the end of the day to our room and balcony overlooking red tiled roofs of San Gil.

Mostly we just hung out and found ourselves happy as puppies to just be together. Our top floor balcony was the perfect place for a nightly cocktail and it was high time to enjoy a Scotch for a change from cool beer or rum. Daily I went back to the same avocado street vender for perfect avocados to make a salad with tomatoes and lime and spicy salsa. By the time we left, she was giving me more avocados than we could eat … but somehow we managed.

We lingered in San Gil until the next exam at the clinic, and one week later, all levels were normal again.

By now, we are enjoying playing tourist instead of adventure cyclists. We’re healthy, well rested, a few pounds lighter and a few hairs grayer, and we’re ready to come home.

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Kat Marriner : April 14th, 2008

See Ya Later

Clean, well-rested, solid breakfast and a bright but cool morning, we pedaled uphill out of Pamplona. The traffic was lighter, the roadways cleaner, the faces more eager to greet us — but something was missing. We had 70K more to pedal before summiting the last high pass over 10,000 feet. After an hour of climbing, I figured it out. My heart wasn’t into it.

On every bicycle trip, there comes a point when I wish to god I could just make it stop. Usually I rant and rage internally and most likely take that anger out on Mr Extreme who seems never to tire of the effort and the sweat of the adventure. There was a climb in Turkey with a headwind that nearly blew us over — I stormed and stomped on the side of the road in angry defeat until we found an old gravel pit to camp in and continue in the morning. There was the day in Macedonia when the rough, rocky road had kicked my bicycle out from under me for the last time and I declared I wasn’t going to take it any more … but I kept going. And there was the time in Laos when the monotony of climbing rolling hills day after day after day wore me down and ripped into my spirit, but we continued on together after I had a good cry on the side of the road.

All those times and many more, I fought the urge to just pack it in, hail the next passing vehicle and say ” See ya later.” That desire to take the easy road isn’t all that easy though. Thumbing a ride also meant going it alone with my limited language abilities and negotiating my way to a safe place, finding a hotel, getting myself some food, and figuring out how to let Willie know where to find me when he eventually arrived in town a day later. The prospect of doing just that quite likely kept me from ever actually flagging down a vehicle … until now.

Mr Extreme is often talking adventure, and at that moment the grind of pedaling up the mountain wasn’t an adventure — it wasn’t facing a fear but battling the nemesis of mental collapse. If an adventure requires facing a fear, then heading off on my own was by far the riskier option for me. Perhaps the decision was made easier for me when it came as quiet acceptance that “this is not where I want to be right now” as opposed to the blame and guilt felt with previous challenges. Not only did I not want to do the climb, but I didn’t want to ruin the day for Willie by my petty suffering. So that was it. I decided to take the bus and meet him in Bucaramanga. With his support, we flagged the first mini-bus, put my bike in the back, grabbed a quick kiss and waved goodbye as the bus left Willie on the side of the road.

Fear is all about the anticipation of the unknown, and the adventure begins with that first leap of faith. Once enroute aboard the gleaming white mini-bus with the action movie playing, I had time to relax into my new state of alone-ness. We stopped for a lunch stop and the driver with an easy smile helped me get my lunch and joined me at my table. His young friends, brother and sister, going to the universities in Cucuta and Pamplona joined us and soon I was telling all about our bike trip through Colombia and Venezuela. Even with my minimal language skills, I was being understood! Sitting at the outdoor cafe, the air was cold and we all shivered while eating our soup. The looked on amazed as I revealed wearing 5 layers of clothes and still wanted a cup of cafe con leche to warm me up. They laughed when I told them I called my husband Señor Extremo and me Señoritra Moderada. He would never take the bus — they would never imagine bicycling over Alto de Berlin.

The road was spectacular and pangs of “missing something” would strike when I saw the vista of mountain tops poking above the clouds. The top opened up to a vast “paramo” or open plateau of stark and striking beauty. Winding down the mountain on the other side was a different challenge. Fortunately I carry motion-sickness pills for such an event, but I soon discovered that other travelers did not. A sharp cry for a “bolsita” from a woman in the back proved that the bus company supplied sturdy plastic bags with the company logo for such emergencies. Two other young women deftly applied makeup for the fiercely winding last 45 minutes of the journey while I kept my vision, laser-locked, on the road ahead.

Arriving in the city of a half million people, the driver left me off just blocks from a hotel listed in my travel guide. I found it easily and took a room with a fan and hot shower. I wandered the street market, found an internet cafe to email Willie the name and directions to the hotel, and sat down to a lasagna dinner all by myself. So much for adventure — it all went smoothly as I fell asleep after watching Queer Eye, Top Design and the end of Brokeback Mountain on the television. The easy road really was easy.

A crack of lightening and roar of thunder woke me from solid sleep just after midnight. If it’s storming here, what’s it doing at the top of the mountain where Willie is no doubt camped alone? Is he shivering in the cold and wet? I had gone to bed hoping he was having some kind of adventure and now I was afraid for him. The descent would be much colder than the /br /Noon the next day a call on the phone from the receptionist informed me my husband had arrived. I raced down the stairs to throw my arms around him and he stepped back. Still wearing several layers of clothes and an ear-warmer in 80 degree weather. His teeth chattered when he said don’t kiss me I’ve got the flu. We carried his bags upstairs, put him in the shower, wrapped him in blankets and sleeping bag and put him to sleep. Only Mr Extreme could have found the will to finish the last 20-plus kilometers of the climb and then suffer the 50k coasting downhill while shivering in his boots.

Not the adventure he imagined … and it never is. Not quite the same danger I imagined either. Willie’s temp spiked and the sheets were soaked with sweat. After telling me this started the moment he pitched his tent the afternoon the day before, we suspected malaria.

Hours later, the fever reduced but still present, the chills and sweat continued. A quick internet search while he slept convinced me to seek help immediately. The concierge at the upscale hotel I had to go to find an internet cafe open on Sunday evening told me to take him to the Clinic and he called us a taxi. Did I have a credit card he asked as I departed? I nodded and he said good, they’ll take care of you then.

I don’t know what we expected, but when the taxi dropped us off across town at the all-night clinic, one glance inside the room overflowing with human suffering told us we’d still be waiting to get help in the morning. The 24-hour pharmacy was just across the street and going straight for treatment seemed the better option than waiting for diagnosis. A packet of pills later, we grabbed the next taxi back to the hotel where I wrapped Willie in blankets again and put him to bed.

A fretful night passed. Would the fever go down? How long should we wait for improvement? How do I find a doctor if he needs one? The project manager in me, opened the books, made notes, developed a plan for morning. Willie had his own plan though. He smiled when he woke, shook off the last of the chills and took a hot shower. A couple more hours and his temp was down to normal. He sits beside me now — right were he belongs.

Kat Marriner : April 9th, 2008

Si´ or No

Yes or No. Those simple words were plastered, posted, painted, scratched onto walls, roads, billboards, shacks, signposts, you name it, throughout Venezuela. Rarely was a whole town or village in the “Yes/Si” camp or the “No” camp. Clearly the issue divided the country. Other signs simply urged people to Vote.

The issue dividing Venezuela was a package of reforms proposed by Hugo Chavez. It was a long list of reforms, and by the propaganda we read across our travels, anything he touched was considered a “revolution”. The vote the world, and much of Venezuela, paid attention to was changing the term limits for the president, and therefore allowing Chavez to remain in power indefinitely.

The YES vote was clearly the organized and funded opinion. The signs were most often red spray-painted stencils of a cartoon bubble with only “Si!” inside. Some towns would have enormous billboards extolling the wisdom of the Chavez revolution. Signs of support were no doubt painted in broad daylight, while the opposition was more like graffiti. It screamed out where it could, or whispered when it needed. A large NO would be painted on the street or a small NO on the back of the stop sign. The NO was not organized or well-funded and most likely unknown who was behind the NO.

For my own YES or NO vote, I tried to wait until I had given the country a fair shake. After traveling nearly a month through, albeit a small portion of this vast country, I am thrilled to say we are back in Colombia. Not only would my vote be NO against Chavez reform package (and for the record, the people of Venezuela voted NO back in January), but I also have to vote NO for a country that I want to return to. Not all countries are created equal, nor can I appreciate and enjoy all countries the same.

Individuals we met across the board were warm, friendly, helpful — from the gal who served us a coffee with a free refill while sharing her take on the current political situation, to the fellow cyclist (in his truck) who stopped us along our last climb to say how excited and happy he was to see is in his country — we had very positive personal encounters. When it wasn’t personal though, when we were simply cycling down the road, in busy towns or lonely by-ways, more often our smiles were met with blank looks, turned down mouths or avoided eyes. It got so I sought out smiles and rewarded them with extra enthusiasm. I tried to coax waves from construction workers or school kids who would stop and look but rarely respond. Sometimes it felt like work.

In contrast, we cycled across the border today into Cucuta and once again strangers pulled up alongside us on the road and said “Beinvenidos – Welcome!” and wanted to know where we are from. Smiles come easily from store clerks and internet attendants.

More than the people of Venezuela being a bit “closed” as a traveler we met politely put it, Venezuela for me also has a feeling of repression and lack of pride. Pride in their country, their product, their service, their homes, their business. It’s very difficult for me to find something of quality or beauty that is man-made. The nature, the mountains, birds, flowers are stunning, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a building or handicraft or even a meal that was above par. What can I say except Venezuela offers more toilet seats and napkins than Venezuela … that those two banal things come to mind speak volumes.

When we were first dropped on the side of the road at the military checkpoint, the increased level of traffic was immediately apparent. We hoped it was a product of a busy highway, but we quite often found traffic heavy even on smaller roads. Gasoline is extraordinarily cheap in Venezuela, making it possible for anyone who can scrape together a vehicle, literally, to drive anywhere and everywhere. It is cheaper to buy a tank a gas and drive across the country from Merida to Caracus than it is to buy a beer or a simple cup of coffee. A slew of 1970s made-in-the-USA cars fill the roads and roadside stalls supply oil and lubricants that these cars burn at an astounding rate. Many are held together with rust and a prayer and we can always, always hear them coming, making vehicle exhaust and noise pollution a part of every day life in Venezuela, and making more difficult for this cyclist to enjoy.

Our guidebook also warns that litter is a way of life in Venezuela … and it is. From the first day to the last, the roadsides were trashed with bottles and wrappers, doll parts and oil cans, construction scraps and dirty old hats. Worse is the whiff of something decaying in the weeds and it’s better not to look. Town squares were littered with the days discards of cups, bottles and paper bags. Passengers would toss the remains of lunch on-the-go out the window. For these two travelers, the constant assault to our senses was disheartening. Mr Extreme is the Trash Czar back in his neighborhood, so you can imagine that we always carried a plastic bag for our garbage and tied it on the back rack until we found a garbage can. Of course, that garbage can was most likely dumped over a cliff somewhere down the road. I know this happens in all countries. It happens more in developing countries and impoverished countries without infrastructure to “manage the waste”. The difference for me from some other countries was the amount of garbage dumped from mountain tops to river drainages. We came to think of the Venezuelan tourist motto as ” Looks Better at a Distance”. Close up brings a tear to the Native American eye.

I’m curious to see if Colombia holds up to our memories of lighter traffic, cleaner roadways and friendlier faces. So far so good, be we are soon to start the next leg of the journey back to Bogota on main roads instead of unpaved, back-country tracks.

As I look back on our time in Venezuela, I’d like to remember the best of our time there. We were able to wild camp high in the mountains, and my heart is most full when we’re stuffed in our little tent cooking soup and eating cookies. There’s a peace that comes in that solitude and comfort in the familiar or creating our own sense of “home”. Camping isn’t as easy or comfortable in Colombia when FARC forces are still a possibility.

Venezuela also gave me epic climbs followed by glorious, sinuous downhills. Twisting and turning down a mountainside is worth the effort of climbing up the other side. Venezuela offered me the kind of downhill that lifts my spirit and requires only a touch of the breaks now and then. Those sweet descents watching the panarama unfold as we glided gently down the valleys will linger a long, long time in my memory of extraordinary roads traveled.