OVER THE VENEZUELAN
Note: This is the second in a series of articles
by Mr. Layton relating his experiences in Venezuela.
The first appeared in the December, 1940 issue.
During my stay in Venezuela
it was my good fortune to visit the Andean mountain
country. For company I had a Venezuelan-Englishman
educated in the U. S., Albert Carstens, whose knowledge
of the language and customs contributed largely to
the success of the trip.
Leaving Maracaibo just
before noon by amphibian plane, we flew almost directly
south and in a little less than two hours landed at
a little airport in a mountain valley some 25 miles
from the city of San Cristobal. A car was waiting to
take us into town, and after an overnight stop there
we traveled roughly northeast over the Trans-Andean
Highway for two days by station-wagon and bus to Mototan,
making overnight stops at Mérida and Valera
en route. A modern gasoline-propelled rail car at Mototan
carried us to the lake port of La Ceiba where we caught
a diesel passenger boat to Maracaibo.
The Andean mountain
country is entirely different from the low, hot, humid
territory bordering Lake Maracaibo. The climate is
invigorating, the cities and towns are clean and attractive;
even the people are much different. Averaging lighter
in color than the lake-country peons, they are mainly
Indian and Spanish-Indian. Their craftsmanship is apparent
in the attractive wrought iron balconies and ornate
doors of the houses, the hand-made furniture displayed
in the shops, and the saddleries with their nicely
done leatherwork. They are much more courteous and
helpful toward foreigners and do not seem to resent
their presence as is the case in other localities.
Lacking accurate information,
I judge the elevations of San Cristobal and Mérida
at about 5000 feet. Both attractive cities, they are
ringed with mountains which are obscured by clouds
morning and evening. In December the weather was pleasantly
warm during the day, but a coat was required after
Most of the hotels along
the route of the Trans-Andean Highway were built some
twenty years ago, soon after the highway was completed.
Although travel has increased tremendously, hotel accommodations
have not been expanded, and consequently rooms are
hard to locate. In San Cristobal we put up at a rather
obscure, side-street hostelry which was
typical of the smaller places.
With its front wall against the sidewalk, the front
door led through a hallway to the large central patio,
the middle of which was open to the sky, and which
served as lobby, dining hall, and what-have-you.
guests' sleeping rooms occupied the four patio walls.
with kitchen and living quarters for the staff further
back. Our sleeping room was some ten feet wide by fifteen
feet deep with a fourteen-foot ceiling. The ten-foot-high
narrow doorway, equipped with the usual double doors,
opened on the patio, as did the single window. Furniture
consisted of two steel single cots with thin mattresses,
a dresser, a tiny crackedmirror, porcelain washbowl
and pitcher set, and a thunder-mug.
single 20-watt electric lamp high in the air was usable
only at night, since the power lines in these mountain
towns are energized only during the evening and early
no plumbing in the individual rooms, there were four
modern lavatory fixtures at various points on the inner
wall of the patio, so that while we were eating breakfast
next morning, other guests were washing and shaving
virtually in the "dining room '. A single toilet
and bath room was available for all the guests. About
10 X l5 feet, it was floored with glazed tile and equipped
with lavatory, shower and modern flush toilet. The
typically Venezuelan toilet paper disposal system was
included, which consists of a box or paper carton on
the floor beside the “growler” into which
the used toilet paper is dropped. This system had its
origin in the older days when the sewer piping as first
installed was much too small and would clog with paper.
Since its replacement with new and larger piping, signs
have been posted in most of the hotels requesting that
toilet paper be thrown into the hoppers, but the force
of years of habit is apparently too strong, and the
box is always well occupied. Or, in the event that
no box is provided, they throw it on the floor.
food served to us at San Cristobal, although typically
Venezuelan, was better than the average obtained during
the remainder of the trip. Dinner consisted of soup,
author in front of San Cristobal's uncomplet-ed
Andean farm-ing area on steep alluvial
salad, fried chicken, a green vegetable. the ever-present
boiled white rice, white bread and butter, fresh
milk or coffee, and some sort of pudding which I
didn't eat. The butter, as was the case throughout
the mountain region, was unsalted, but could hardly
he termed “sweet” since if not entirely
rancid, it was fairly ripe. The tomatoes were bright
red, as they should be, and with good flavor. Because
the native tomatoes served frequently at the company
mess halls in the oil fields were never red, but
only green to pink, I showed such pleasure at the
sight ofthe bright red fruit that the proprietress
shortly showed up with a whole platterful. We really
put them away.
NO GUARD RAILS ON ROAD
The highway between
San Cristobal and Mérida was an almost continuous
series of switchbacks. We zigged up one side of a mountain
range and zagged down the other; followed a stream
along a valley floor for a short distance; then repeated
the climb and descent. The road was dirt or gravel,
hard, and surprisingly smooth, and we frequently passed
maintenance crews at work. We even saw a tractor or
two pulling road machines. Over most of the route two
cars can pass easily, but there are many narrow places
and the many sharp turns must he taken slowly and carefully.
There are no guard rails nor road signs of any kind,
unless the occasional roadside crosses are interpreted
as warning signs.
Whenever a person dies
by violence in Venezuela, it is customary to erect
at least a cross and frequently a tiny shrine at the
site of the tragedy; and this tradition applies to
automobile accidents as well as to knifings, etc. Occasionally
our driver would call our attention to a cross at the
edge of the road where it skirted a cliff with the
remark, “Juan went over there with a bus
last month,” or some similar observance
calculated to set our minds at ease.
Our driver was apparently
entirely capable - at least he got us to Mérida.
He should have been, since he drove a regular run between
San Cristobal and Caracas, a four-day trip each way.
But it was at least a couple of hours after we started
before I was able to relax, since my impression was
that he was taking all the hairpin bends, uphill or
down, at a speed just barely short of the sliding point.
In addition, he had never been told of the advantage
in using second or low on down grades - all he used
was brakes. So about every 50 miles we pulled up for
a brake adjustment job, generally at a farmhouse or
tiny village where we all drank coffee while waiting.
Except at the ancient walled Spanish fortress town
of La Grita, where he decided on a more or less complete
brake overhaul. When we saw him taking off wheels and
drums. we found a little hotel and had lunch. This
conveyance, a '38 or '39 Dodge station wagon,
had two horns. the original equipment electric device
and one of the inevitable rubber bulb contraptions.
the electric horn was out of order during the first
part of the day's run it was necessary to keep pumping
the “hooter,” which
made driving largely a one-hand affair. However,
we never quite hit anyone on the turns.
Arriving in Mérida
about 7:30 p.m., after thirteen hours on the road,
we found both the "better" hotels full, but
finally located accommodations in an obscure pension
which offered a single room with four steel cots. Since
there were four passengers, consisting of a minor government
official, a stray American steel salesman, my partner
and myself, and it was the last room, we all shared
it. Not until we had been asleep for a short while
did we discover that the beds were populated and the
remainder of the night was anything but pleasant. The
Venezuelan official, however, didn't seem to mind -
he probably knew in advance what to expect.
The city of Mérida,
besides being the capital of the State of Mérida,
is also the cultural center of the Andean region, and
boasts an institution of higher learning, the University
of Mérida, which offers courses in liberal arts,
pharmacy, law and perhaps others. The main plaza, flanked
by the University, the Cathedral, State government
building and business houses, has a large equestrian
statue of Simon Bolivar, the national hero.
CAESAR AIDS A BOTTLENECK
There is a story about
these statues. Every town has at least one plaza, and
at its center is a Bolivar memorial. The small villages
have busts, while the larger places have full-length
figures or imposing statues such as Mérida's.
But it seems that things were not always thus. As the
time approached to celebrate the centennial of Bolivar's
birth a few years ago, many communities realized that
they had neglected to acquire even a bust of the Libertador.
Orders were immediately placed, I believe in Europe,
and of course the statue-makers were swamped, since
the time was short. Then one of the statue purveyors
had a brilliant idea: Bolivar resembles Caesar. Captions
on the many stock busts of Caesar were changed, the
busts were shipped and erected in the plazas, the centennial
was celebrated and everyone was satisfied.
Mérida has a
beautiful setting. It is built atop a long ridge, with
a stream in the deep canyon on each side, and is completely
surrounded by mountains whose tops are seldom visible
through the clouds. The mountains, however, are not
heavily timbered, and they are checker-boarded with
cultivated fields, for the hardy mountain Indians have
for generations farmed these rocky slopes almost as
high as they can climb. The farmers carry on their
operations in the age-old traditions of their forbears.The
ox is the
all-wooden plows used by Andean Indians.
boat at La Ceiba.
from Mucuchies toward Valera.
pit where oxen tramp out grain and wind blows chaff
draft animal and beast of burden of the rural population.
and is even frequently ridden to town. An occasional
tough, wiry mountain pony is seen, and there are
a few burros; but oxen do the plowing, threshing
and other chores. The typical plow is all of wood
and of ancient design. Harvested grain is thrown
on the stone floor of a circular stone-walled threshing
pit where the oxen are driven around on it until
the grain is stamped out. Then on a windy day the
farmer tosses the grain into the air so the chaff
can he blown away.
The stony ground of
the hillside farms may or may not be fertilized, but
I understand that its productivity is poor. None of
these farms is terraced, and since there is little
or no evidence of serious erosion, the rainfall cannot
be heavy. In some of the valleys, however, the soil
appears rich enough, and it would seem that these areas
could be developed into the vegetable gardens of Venezuela;
but from what I could learn, the Indians raise only
the traditional crops of corn, wheat, beans and a few
The typical farmhouse
is stone-walled, dirt-floored. thatch-roofed, and has
no chimney. Smoke from the wood or charcoal fire just
seeps out through the roof. Cooking is done on an iron-topped,
rock-sided stove built into one corner of a very dark
SERAPES IMPORTED FROM ENGLAND
In this high country
many mountain Indians carry or wear the typical Andean
poncho-like blanket, or serape: dark blue or black
on one side and brilliant scarlet on the other, and
about half an inch thick. However, in Venezuela they
are not hand-woven, but are imported from England and
sell for some $20.00 each. These mountains have been
populated and farmed for generations; and unlike our
Western mountains, it would seem impossible to find
solitude, at least along the Highway. Around almost
every turn there is a farm house, a tiny village, or
someone walking or riding along.
Every town along the
Trans-Andean has a central transportation office where
passage may be engaged in private car, station wagon,
bus, or even as passenger in a truck. Our station wagon
having gone toward Caracas, in Merida we purchased
bus tickets in the evening, gave our names and hotel,
and were told we would be picked up at 6:00 a.m. the
next morning. At 5:00 a.m. the bus driver woke us up
and left, presumably to arouse his other passengers.
He was back before six, with no other passengers, and
we climbed aboard, to spend the next hour riding
around with him attempting to pry his other fares
out of bed, hurry their breakfast, or whatnot. After
finally collecting them all and counting noses repeatedly
to make sure. he took off for Valera.
Mérida was no
exception to the rule that every Andean town of any
consequence has a government military checking station
at its edge. A chain across the road stopped us, and
a soldier leisurely examined the passenger list, with
particular emphasis on identification of foreigners.
For a couple of hours
or more out of Mérida we climbed, via switchbacks,
until we reached Mucuchies, a very small town. It had
been growing colder as we climbed, and since the bus
had no windows, we were more than glad to take advantage
of a short stop and drink several cups of the most
delicious coffee I ever tasted. Just beyond Mucuchies
we crossed the top of the pass. Here the Eagle of the
Andes, at 14,000 feet altitude, looks down on passing
traffic, and of course the Americans always take his
picture, much to the suppressed amusement of the native
passengers. There was no snow, even in December, but
a brisk wind made us wish for more clothes. Light snow
occasionally falls at this altitude, but usually doesn't
The rest of the trip
to Valera, which was reached about 4:00 p.m., was all
down hill, Following switchbacks at first, the road
later took a winding course down a valley as the temperature
climbed gradually. We passed plantations of platanos
and coffee, coffee-drying yards, tobacco hung in bundles
on front porches, and finally fields of sugar cane
and a few cane mills.
TRAFFIC OFFICERS NEEDED
an incident occurred which is typical of the average
Venezuelan bus-driver. While traversing a narrow, relatively
straight stretch of road cut into the side of a hill,
with a stream bed below us, we met another vehicle,
an old converted bus loaded heavily with burlap hags
of some-thing-or-other. Both buses had passed turn-outs
while in sight of each other, but neither stopped until
within a few feet of a collision, each in the middle
of the road. Our driver, of course, went through his
routine of playing on all his four horns; but when
that did no good both drivers got out and stood in
the road shouting and gesticulating at each other.
Getting nowhere, each got back in and appeared to he
preparing for a nap behind the wheel. Time seems to
mean nothing to the Venezuelan peon, and it began
elan peon, and it began to look as though we were
stuck there, within a few miles of Valera, at least
until one driver weakened and backed up. Within a
few minutes, however, another bus pulled up behinds
ours and an Army officer disembarked to locate the
trouble. He ordered the bus-truck backed up some
50 yards to the nearest turnout, which the driver
finally did after much grumbling; and we proceeded
on our way.
We found nothing notable
in Valera. A low-country town, there was much negro
blood evident, and for the most part it was hot, dirty
and smelly as most of Maracaibo. We stayed at a hotel
which had originally been German but was now Venezuelan
in all but name. The food left considerable to be desired,
but at least our sleep was undisturbed.
The next morning, early,
we boarded another bus and after about 30 minutes arrived
in Mototan, a small village which is the inland terminus
of the German-owned narrow-gauge railway line to La
Ceiba on Lake Maracaibo. The trip was made via modern
and almost new gasoline passenger car, and since we
had purchased first-class tickets, we were able to
sit in the front section which occupied about a third
of the car's length. The rear second-class
section was jammed with peons, most of them bound
for one of the several villages at which we stopped
en route. The trip was down hill most of the way,
we did much coasting, and at every stop the car was
surrounded with ragged muchachos carrying trays of “dulces” -
sweets - for sale. We confined our purchases to bottled
Coca Cola, which appears to be available everywhere.
run to La Ceiba took 2½ hours. The schedule
called for the twin-screw diesel passenger boat “Trujillo” to
be waiting for us for the trip to Maracaibo, and
our railroad tickets included the boat trip, since
the boat is owned and operated by the same German
company. But the “Trujillo” wasn't
there, and we could not learn when it was expected.
So we whiled away the time as best we could, in spite
of the extreme heat, the flies, dirt and smells.
No oranges were available so we again fell back on
warm Coca Cola and equally warm beer. About an hour
and a half later the “Trujillo” showed
up - in tow. She had broken down a few miles out,
and we had visions of an enforced overnight stay
in La Ceiba, with accommodations of the poorest sort
imaginable. However, the breakdown apparently wasn't
serious, for we were able to take off about half
an hour later, just before noon.
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