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Wednesday, November 27, 2002
Through the Llanos and into the Andes

By now, we've caught on. The heavy, doughy pastries are just the way the Venezuelans like them. So we decided just to get used to it. This morning, we sat in a little coffee shop and ate while watching a shopkeeper across the street put together his fake Christmas tress for sale.

Today we saw the most dramatic changes in landscape and, I believe, what makes this country so beautiful. The morning began as we drove through Los Llanos, or- the plains. They stretch for as far as the eye can see: the color of butter, with clusters of green trees and even palms poking up like goal posts all alone in the end zone. The cattle here are white- and against the soft backdrop, they appear painted there as if on a flat theatre set. As we sped along the highway, mountains started to burgeon to one side, covered in lush green. And then, before we knew it- we were climbing steeply into the Andes.

The road was narrow and wet, and wound tightly against the mountainside. Though as I write that word to describe it, "mountains" it doesn't seem to fit at all. For one thing, I think of mountains as sloping. This seemed more like sheer wall. But not with dirt and shrubs as I think of it. They were covered in vines, and ferns, and vegetation so dense I don't know how one could walk through it. And all along the road, houses clung precariously to the cliffs. Children ran freely out of their brightly painted doors. I couldn't help but wonder how their mothers don't go mad with worry. One false step, and your baby would be gone in the blink of an eye!

And finally, it seemed we reached some level of plateau, where the landscape became more flat and dry. Wildflowers grew along rolling hills of shrubs. Little towns were sprinkled about. We stopped for lunch and the air had grown brisk enough for jeans. While we ate, men were in a patio next door: one chopping calabash gourds with a machete, and the other scooping out the seeds. It was a treat to have delicious smoked cheese soup, arepas, and coffee.

We arrived in Merida to find it a relatively big city, even by our standards. The streets were busy and traffic was at a standstill. The buildings had that packed-in, close-together feeling like San Francisco. We found the posada another cruiser had recommended- Posada Montana- and as luck would have it they had space two rooms available for the equivalent of $14US dollars a night. The facilities themselves were charming, with ceramic tile floors, wrought iron rails, and ferns filtering sunlight into the middle atrium. Our rooms were on the second floor overlooking the reception desk, situated across the hall from each other. Next door to us, we had a reading room, or more of a sun porch really. Large windows stood open to the bustling street below, and to one side- the Andes rose above the city. We could see the Teleferico gondola wires disappearing over the peaks. After getting settled in, we met Pam and Steve on the little porch for a glass of wine before hitting the streets to look for a spot for dinner.

We settled on a Mexican restaurant just two blocks away. The food was absolutely excellent. All four of us are native Californians, and so we'd been dying for a Mexican food fix for ages. We stuffed ourselves to our heart's content. The meal ended up costing us about $12US each- for appetizers, our main course, desert, and drinks.

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