Sunday, December 17, 2000. 10 a.m. At a gas station somewhere between Caracas and Puerto La Cruz.

This rest stop on the bus trip couldn't have come too soon. The bus has caused me terrible motion sickness, and I have thrown up twice in its bathroom. This bus is what's know as an ejecutivo, basically a luxury bus. It has windows, but they are covered with purple curtains velcroed together. This keeps the bus cool and dark, but removes any chance to view the scenery. It also causes me to be car sick, unable to keep my eyes on the horizon. Its good to be out in the open air at this gas station. I bought a 1 1/2 liter of water. In addition to a lunch counter, this highway stop has a few vendors wandering about. One was selling jars of what appeared to be peppers. Actually, they're calamaria: squid. Another was selling big shrimp-like crustaceans, only with claws, cooked. It is hot, and the sun here feels more direct than anyplace I've ever been. Luckily, there's plenty of shade here.

I believe I was nearly robbed again this morning on my way to the bus station in Caracas. I had to leave my hotel shortly before sunrise to make it to the bus terminal by 7:30. At the Petare Metro stop, waiting for a por puesto to Terminal de Oriente, three men walked toward me, nodding to each other, pointing at me, circling, gradually getting closer to me each time. I was scared because there were three of them. I clutched my bag and wallet and gave them a glare. Incredibly, they backed off. Still, they continued to peer at me from a distance, perched like vultures waiting for their prey to weaken. Despite the presence of several other people at the stop, I was relieved when the por puesto finally arrived and I could leave Petare behind.

So far on this luxury bus, we've watched "Las Adventuras de Jim West" ("Wild Wild West") and "Murder at the White House" ("Murder at 1600"). Both American movies were shown in English with Spanish subtitles. I slept for about an hour, and hope more sleep will be my salvation. I estimate I'll have to endure another 7 hours on this bus.

Sunday, December 17, 2000. 6:30 p.m. Sitting on a park bench next to the Rio Orinoco, Ciudad Bolivar.

I'm lucky to be here, not just in the cosmic sense, but thanks to sheer, roll-of-the-dice good luck today. I continued to be sick for most of the bus ride, vomiting three times. Worse, I got to enjoy no scenery whatsoever because of the window curtains. (It is forbidden, apparently, to open the curtains, as no one else on my bus did.)

At about 3:30 p.m., the bus made its third stop. I got out to rest and asked the driver when we would be in Ciudad Bolivar. He gave me a strange look. Goose bumps. Was I on the wrong bus? Two people who spoke a little English overheard my conversation and informed me that we were in Ciudad Bolivar. Already? I couldn't believe it. Perhaps there was some misunderstanding in language. I asked several other people in the station. , they said. This is Ciudad Bolivar. Had I not asked, I would have continued riding to God-knows-where.

I've noticed the streets here are emptying out as it gets dark, so I'm going to return to my hotel and continue writing there.

This hotel room -- in the Hotel Union -- is tiny, clean, cheap and air-conditioned. It feels good to take off my boots. After Angel Falls, I will begin wearing my other pair of socks. Yay!

After today's nauseating bus ride, it was good to rest on a bench at the Ciudad Bolivar station. It was also all I could really do, since I wasn't sure where to go next. The maps in the books were useless without there being visible signs labeling the streets. The local buses all said either "Peru Ave" or "Pepsi via Ave Español," neither of which matched anything on the maps. There were taxis, but I wasn't sure where to ask to go. I rested for about 30 minutes in the shade, reading the guidebooks, thinking. I decided the airport would be a good place to start -- there were information desks there. It took five minutes by cab. The airport looked deserted from the outside, apart from a guard wearing a beret and carrying a large gun. I found a man inside and asked about "Salto Angel," figuring he might lead me to my tour company. He led me to a man who spoke English, but worked for another company.

This man first offered me a lower price for his Angel Falls tour, but I told him I'd already paid for mine and that I was more interested in a place to stay for the night. He brought me into his office, which made me a bit uncomfortable, still spooked from my robbery attempts. His Spanish-speaking boss was in there, too. They could radio Pete for me, a German man who owned a farm and could rent me a hammock for the night. There would be other tourists there. I said I wanted to see the city first, then I'd think about it. Both men seemed pleased with that response. They were also curious about my guidebooks and I let them briefly look at the books: Lonely Planet Venezuela and Brandt Venezuela. The English-speaking man said he'd met the Lonely Planet author -- a good guy, accurate. I agreed, the book has been accurate so far. I left the airport and took a taxi to Paseo Orinoco, described in the books as a hangout for American tourists. It's a lovely stretch of road along the river, with hotels, restaurants and shoe stores.

I walked into the Hotel Italia lobby and asked for a habitación. A stocky, bald man introduced himself to me. "Name's Jack," he said. "U.S. Marines." He rolled up his sleeve to show me a tattoo of an anchor and the letters U.S.M.A. He was the first American I'd seen in two days. He advised me that all the rooms in the Italia were full and it wasn't all that nice anyway. He directed me to the Hotel Union -- after trying to sell me an Angel Falls package for less that what I said I'd paid. (I actually haven't paid yet -- I put in reservations for a $280 three-day trip. Jack said he'd do it for $200. I'll try to talk the price down tomorrow, but I'm reluctant to switch companies. Besides, after spending more than $800 on a plane ticket from the U.S., $80 seems like papitas -- small potatoes.)

I checked into the Hotel Union, where I am now, and went out to use the ATM and get lunch. To my delight, my Visa ATM card works here, and I withdrew 40,000 Bs. (about U.S.$65). This hotel costs 8,000 Bs. My dinner -- a delicious "super club" chicken sandwich and a Coca Cola from the Italia's lunch counter -- cost 2,300. Bus fare back to Caracas will be about 13,000. In Ciudad Bolivar, I saw two other groups of light-skinned tourists, but not at a distance from which I could make conversation. One couple about my age -- also carrying a Lonely Planet book -- was eating at the Italia. Another trio of guys was lugging their backpacks from hotel to hotel in search of a room.

Tomorrow should be smooth sailing. At 7 a.m. at the airport, I turn over $280 and the responsibilities of leading me around for the next three days.

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