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Ben: Paramo

July 3, 2009

The last week has been tough, although I am not exactly sure why. Perhaps it is that my first class ended, and without classes for a week I feel a little bit of “what am I supposed to do now?” happening. Or maybe it is because many of the friends that I had made just left Venezuela, heading back to their homes in the States. Possibly it is knowing that I am starting a new class, a harder class, in less than a week. Although I got an A in my first class, I still feel like I am not ready to be in Spanish 1003. Or maybe being abroad is starting to catch up with me…I have read that most students who study abroad have an initial high about being someplace new, but then at some point it fades and is replaced by a serious longing for home. Maybe I have just finally hit that point and just need to work through it. Whatever the reason, the important thing to understand is that I have been in a bit of a funk. Is that accepted term? I hadn’t been out of the house for a few days, and was just spending a lot of time lazing around. Studying a little, reading more, sleeping the most. I didn’t feel depressed, just tired. Maybe I really was just recharging, but it was beginning to feel like I really just needed to force myself to get out of the house.

I said that I didn’t have school for almost a week. This is because the new kids arrived on Monday. They will be down here for the last 6 weeks, but nothing really gets started until after a few particulars are taken care of. Tuesday they have an all-day orientation, and then in the afternoon there is a tour of the city. Wednesday is a day trip up into the mountains. Since I came down halfway through the first semester I didn’t get to participate in any of this the first time, and was invited to go now. I really didn’t feel like it, but as I said, I needed to get myself out of the house. Besides, I loved to hike, and the chance to see the Paramo region (which is where the group was headed) was one I knew that I should jump at.

Man-made waterfall at one of our stops.

Man-made waterfall at one of our stops.

So on Wednesday I had an early breakfast, threw a few things into my backpack and headed out the door. I got to VENUSA earlier than I had expected and had about 30 minutes to kill. Well, 30 minutes if we had left on time. Somehow, students from the United States and all of Venezuela have the same understanding of schedules. Although we were supposed to leave at 9, we really didn’t get into the bus until about 9:30, maybe 9:45. I can almost feel several of my friends snickering as I type this, but believe it or not I am aware that my obsessive type-A personality adores sticking to schedules, and that at times like this I need to remind myself that Venezuela (and apparently college students) move at a different pace, but that somehow, it will be alright. So as we finally piled into the bus, I picked out a seat near a window and settled in, quietly chanting to myself “Schedules don’t matter…schedules don’t matter…” Ironically I will probably start to get used to this concept about the time I need to go back to work in the United States were schedules DO matter. Okay, I can hear my friends laughing again. You are all right, I will NEVER get used to that. Schedules are a part of who I am, and so far, this trip was tough for me.

We needed to stop a few times along the way to acclimate to the altitude. Mérida itself is somewhere around 5,500 feet and we would be ascending to over 13,000 in the course of a two hour bus ride. That means that we were gaining altitude to quickly…we needed to take a few 15 minute breaks. So, at each stop, we clambered out and I would scamper off by myself to take pictures. As the 15 minutes was up I would rejoin the group and climb back onto the bus.

The church that Juan Felix Sanchez built.

The church that Juan Felix Sanchez built.

One very interesting stop that we made was at the church built by Juan Felix Sanchez. This church, constructed completely out of field-stones and amazingly with no cement, has become a national symbol of Venezuelan pride. In fact, Juan Felix Sanchez was given an honorary degree in architecture from the University of Los Andes (among many other awards bestowed upon him.) He was an uneducated artist who spent his entire life creating. Carvings, weavings, and finally, at the age of (I believe) 70, he began to build this church way up in the mountains. It is still standing completely intact to this day. In fact, Juan Felix Sanchez is buried inside the church with his wife. It is a symbol of Venezuelan pride because no one ever showed him how to build anything, but his church is an architectural marvel, beautiful both aesthetically and technically.

As we walked through the church (and the small museum next door) the rain began to fall quite hard. The rain, along with a temperature in the upper 40s, made the guide announce that we may not be able to go on the hike unless the weather cleared up. We were going to head up the road for lunch first, but then after that he would decide. This day was not getting better. The hike was the only reason I had come!

The restaurant that we ate at was perfect; perfect for this day, anyway. In the original Indiana Jones movie (Raiders of the Lost Ark) there is a bar in one of the opening scenes; I believe it was in Nepal or Tibet. Inside, the furniture was made out of rough cut lumber, huge slabs that were used as chairs, tables, etc. Every time the door opened, a gust of wind and blowing snow would crash into the bar and the patrons were forced to either crowd closer to the fire, or at the very least to pull their coats up tightly around their necks. Well, this restaurant reminded me of that. The inside was not much warmer than outside, and whenever the door opened the rain and wind swept inside making us all shiver. Actually, the door itself was cleverly rigged with a rope, pulley and a weight that were (in theory) supposed to cause it to close automatically. Only, because of the weather outside, the clever system was losing the battle. The door kept blowing open during stronger gusts, and never fully closed the rest of the time. We were all wet, we were all cold, and we were looking at the very real possibility of having to climb back onto the bus for a two hour return trip with no hike. No one was in a particularly good mood at this point.

I decided to make the most of the situation. Yes, I probably didn’t have a lot in common with any of the kids that had just arrived, but by constantly isolating myself I was never going to find out. So, I saw a guy that had been taking a lot of pictures at the acclimation stops (at least I knew we would have something in common) and I walked up to his table and introduced myself. Suddenly it felt like I was back at work. I smiled, I talked, I listened, and I made friends. It is exactly what a good consultant does at each new client. Within the course of one meal, I knew four guys fairly well, and had been introduced to a number of people at adjoining tables.

I had ordered spaghetti and sauce, along with a coffee. I ordered that because it was the one thing on the menu that I was certain I knew what it was. Interestingly enough, everyone at my table (and as it turns out, just about every new student that came down) spoke Spanish incredibly well. For anyone questioning why they would need to study abroad in Venezuela, the school I am at offers a wide variety of courses, including courses on film, politics, economics, literature, and history. In fact, I wish that I had time to take more classes while I was down here, but I don’t. Anyway, even with their Spanish, there were still a number of unexpected meals that got delivered. For instance, at my table alone, two different guys thought that they had ordered potatoes and meat, but somehow received platanos and cheese. A platano is what we would call a plantain in the States. It is similar to a banana, although typically larger and much sweeter. They are often baked or fried here and served as a meal that I am quite fond of…but when you are expecting meat and potatoes and receive platanos, well…I still think that their Spanish was fine and that the restaurant was either out of potatoes or had a surplus of platanos. In either case, it was an amusing lunch with a lot of conversation, and by the time we got back on the bus things were looking up. Actually, in more ways than one. We were still safely hidden in the cold, moist folds of a cloud, but the rain had stopped, and the guide announced that we would at least go to the lake at the start of the trail and see what the weather was like there.

Lago Negro at about 13,000 feet.

Lago Negro at about 13,000 feet.

The hike started at a place called Lago Negro, or Black Lake. Residing above 13,000 feet meant that there are no trees, but instead there is an eerie landscape made up of rough grasses, scrub brush, and scattered fieldstones. And it was cold. We had been able to see our breath while eating lunch inside the restaurant, but now, huddled near the edge of Lago Negro, everyone was jumping up and down just to stay warm, and with only a few exceptions, we were all from the Midwest. It was cold.

The clouds were so dense that the scenery kept swimming in and out of view. Actually, it looked like one of my drawings, like someone was attempting to utilize a lot of white space. So, you would see a hill in front of you, but then nothing but a solid white beyond it. Or, you might see the trail ahead, for about 100 feet, until it just disappeared from view, not exactly swallowed up in the cloud, but more like it had just never been drawn. My camera clicked repeatedly as my head was spinning at the thought of the endless drawings this hike could produce.

The guide called us all together and explained that the hike we were going to try was all downhill and that the wind would be to our backs the entire time. However, if after 15 minutes it started to rain, we would need to turn back. If we passed that point without rain, then we would finish the hike no matter what. The bus would be waiting for us at the other end of the trail, near another lake called Lago Victoria. So we started.

I could tell that the trail was frequently followed on horseback. This was obvious not only because of the stables at the trail head, but also because of the frequent piles in the middle of the trail that you needed to carefully avoid while hiking.

Although we were three times as high as the hike I had tried earlier in the week, walking downhill was easy. Easy and beautiful. The shrouded landscape kept disappearing and reappearing before us, at times opening up long enough to exhibit amazing vistas that revealed deep valleys below, and at other times closing so completely that the curve in the trail immediately ahead would completely vanish. It wasn’t just like magic…it was magic.

We passed the fifteen minute mark (barely) before the rain started. The rest of the hike was wet and cold, but before long we were back below the tree line which offered a little shelter from the blowing rain. We were fortunate enough to see a deer with her baby, and several times we spooked different groups of horses who were grazing out in the rocky fields. The hike itself probably took about two hours, but it sure didn’t seem like it. Before I knew it, we were piling back into the bus for a long ride back to Mérida. However, not before I took enough photos to kill the battery on my digital camera. I am certain that this hike will show up in my art.

By the time we got back to school I realized that something very interesting had taken place on this trip. For the first three weeks that I had been in Venezuela, I was the “newbie” that didn’t know his way around, was trying frantically to figure things out, and was relying on other students to help show me the ropes. Suddenly, the roles were reversed. Before we got off the bus I had negotiated an exchange rate with the guide, had scheduled a group of us to go hang gliding this weekend, and had also organized a group to go hiking in an attempt to make it up to teleférico station 1. Strange how quickly things can change.

I arrived home in a great mood. I walked in only to be greeted by my family, and we ended up talking for 45 minutes completely in Spanish. I am not sure what happened, but I seemed to gain a little confidence, and that seemed to affect my ability to communicate.

As if someone forgot to draw the rest of the scene.

As if someone forgot to draw the rest of the scene.

The day after the hike I woke up early for my first day of the new class. Since my last class had been in taught in English, I was totally unprepared for my new teacher to speak entirely in Spanish for 6 hours straight. When I got home after class I had intended to sit down, look through my photos from the day before, and then write the blog post. I ended up passing out on my bed, completely exhausted. That night I felt like I could barely speak Spanish with my family at all, a ridiculously stark contrast from the day before. It was as if the class had completely used up all of the Spanish that I was capable of. I wonder if the rest of my stay in Venezuela is going to be like that; one day able to communicate better than expected, followed by days where I will not be able to repeat the astounding feats of communication from the day before. I suppose that is what learning new language is like, but it is tiring. No, actually, it is exhausting.

I find that I am simultaneously excited for more of Venezuela and also longing for home. It is a strange way to feel, almost completely torn. Perhaps the most obscure side effect to this feeling is the way that I perceive time, as it seems to pass by both too quickly and incredibly slowly. I cannot believe I have been here almost 4 weeks! At the exact same moment I cannot believe it has only been 4 weeks and that I still have another 8 to go. How is it possible to feel both of those at the same time?

I suppose it doesn’t matter. I am down here for as long as I am down here. For now, I take it one day at a time, letting the anticipation and excitement of the small adventures carry me through, and then filling the rest of my time by studying, reading, and hanging out with my family. So, tomorrow, hang gliding. I think that will get me through a few days.

Note: There were so many amazing pictures (I actually took over 400) that I just had to post a few more. Scroll down to see a few of them.

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