Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Border Crossing Colombia to Venezuela. Monday December 13th, 2010

Venezuela. It was with trepidation and a lot of thought that we added it to our itenerary. Travelwise, it made sense but the politics, Chavez and anti-American sentiment made us wary. We decided that if, at any time, either one of us felt uncomfortable at the border, we would return to Colombia and head south through Ecuador. The worry was for naught. When we arrived at the Colombian border, I stood in a long line at immigration, while Tom went to take care of exiting the RV and Winston. He was done in record time and my line had not budged an inch. There was one man hanging around who had said he could get our exit stamps immediately for $15.00 each. Hmm. I ignored him but we knew we would have at least an hour wait, possibly more. In the past, we have tried not to use tramitadores and work on crossing by ourselves. The main reason being that there is many borders and if you keep using these "helpers" then you never learn the process yourself. Also, border crossings are part of the travel experience. The officials are the first people you meet and it's nice to get a feel for the personality of the country through them. We have found profound patience and lots of smiles go a long way to helping the process. The man came back. $10.00 each. I looked at Tom, "let's do it". "You sure" he said as usually I am more adament than Tom at autononomy. "Unless we want to be here for the next 2 hours, yes". We handed over the money and followed him to the back of the immigration building, where we were told to wait. Tem minutes later he was back and as we walked to the front where our RV was, he showed us the stamp. I looked at Tom in surprise. "Guess what today is?" I literally shriek at him, laughing. Everyone looks. Tom runs the month of December through his head. "The 13th?" he quizzes. "Yep!" I squeal "and we forgot". It is our wedding anniversary. I explain it to the people around us and suddenly everyone is cheering and clapping. "You must kiss her", said one of the crowd. "I didn't even get you a card" Tom told me. Travelling, the days and dates roll together and neither one of us had realized. "Me neither", I commented but I could not stop laughing. To the sound of cheers and handshakes for Tom, hugs for me, we climbed into the RV for the short drive to the Venezuelan side. Surprise #1 - The Officials. We were greeted to smiling, helpful officials and directed to immigration. After filling out a slip of paper for the reasons we were visiting and where we would travel, our passports were stamped. We inquired about Winston. Everyone looked puzzled. The dog is ok and requires no processing. Customs for the RV is a 3 mile drive into the small town of Guarero where we need to look for a large building named SENIAT. The SENIAT building was easy to find and again we were shown where to park. Inside, we were told which window to go to but it was 12:40, lunchtime. At 1pm, a lady came up to us. After some halting Spanish on our part and English on hers, she told us to wait. Five minutes later, a man, who spoke English started asking us some questions and filling out our paperwork. Within 30 minutes he handed us our import permit. "Welcome to Venezuela", he said smiling and shaking our hands. Welcome indeed. As we drove the 60 mile to Maracaibo, we could see the devastation and ravages left behind by the flooding. Water came up to the side of the road, at times even swamping it and on more than one occasion was up past the wheel wells. At every junction, large and small, groups of military personnel stood to direct and assist traffic. We surmised, correctly, that the government had sent the military to help in the cleanup. Surprise #2 - the Military and Federal Policia. At all points, they waved, smiled and as we wound down our windows, directed us to the correct roads to get to Maracaibo with handshakes and good wishes. What about all that hype with Chavez and ill will? about surly officials who do not like Americans? Our RV has California license plates, so it is obvious where we are from and yet they seem kindly disposed towards us and genuinely happy to have us as guests in their country. It takes us 3 hours to complete the 60 mile drive and it is almost 4:30 before we arrive in the city. We need gas. Again, due to the flooding, gas trucks had not been able to reach these areas yet and our RV sucks up the petrol. Surprise #3 - Gas. We pull into a gas station and fill up, Almost 20 gallon. "5 bolivares" said the attendant. 5! We already knew that it was roughly 4 bolivares to a dollar and that gas in Venezuela is amongst the cheapest in the world but $1.25!! Yes, read it and weep. Gas in Venezuela is about 8 cents a gallon. Unbelievable. As we are driving the streets we are looking for likely spots to park for the night. Tom wants to go out for a "nice" meal (read splurge) for our anniversary. We come to an intersection. Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Burger King and also a gas station and a "nice" restaurant. We park in the gas station and as I give Winston a well deserved potty break, Tom goes on a scouting mission. Just as he returns, the manager of the station approaches us. He asks if we have a problem. "No", Tom said, we just need a place to park for the night. Surprise #4 - the people. The restaurant has a large parking lot and the guard has said we can park there. Two issues solved, where to park and where to eat. The restaurant looks like a high end steak house. The manager at the BP station also told us that if it didn't work out, he would open a gated side lot for us to stay. There are 24 hour guards in all spots. At both places, we were greeted with a warm, easy friendliness. We settled the motorhome, fed and walked Winston again and cleaned up for dinner. As we went into the restaurant, we noticed that it was closed. Two private parties, one downstairs, one up. We were disappointed and it must have shown. The manager came up to us and told us to follow him. We squeezed past the cordoned off area and went upstairs. He showed us into the bar/lounge and said he could set us up in there. Perfect. And so we sat and toasted our anniversary and this day with wine, we recalled our misgivings about Venezuela and we were once again glad that we had ignored the hype. They might prove to be true but on this day, we could not have wished for a better first day in a country and Surprise #5 - the food. Excellent, though a little more ezpensive than that gas.

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