It was just short of 240km from Santa Elena to Boa Vista, and about the only thing between the two was the town of Cem, named because it’s 100km short of Boa Vista. With a drop down to sea level, I figured that I’d get there if I left early. The plan, as usual, didn’t go as expected. I’d slept on Odin’s floor the night before, and we went back to the gastronomical street to get breakfast – my last arepas. We parted ways after that, and, after spending my last spare bolivares in a local shop was off to the border.
It felt strange going to the border, because I was saying goodbye to Spanish. Since entering Mexico in April 2012, I’ve grown accustomed, and possibly even fairly competent, at using it to communicate. It was time to start speaking Portuguese (with a short hop through the Guyanas where I’d be hearing English, Dutch and French) and my first conversation in it made me realise just how far I have to go. It’s similar enough to Spanish, that I can throw words out and get my point across, but my ears are going to take a while to get used to it.
There was about 1km between leaving Venezuela and entering Brazil. I got my last Bolivares changed to Brazilian Reals (2 Brazilian Reals is about 1 USD) and stopped to take a picture of my bike between a Brazilian and Venezuelan flag. It involved going up a set of steep stairs, but thankfully there were a group of 3 people there who offered me a hand. Angela, Pedro and Reynel were on a trip to the border from Caracas and after helping me carry the bike up and taking the photo, they invited me to eat at a typical Brazilian restaurant in the border town.
It was a bit too early in the day to get the absolute max out of a buffet restaurant, but I did my best. Brazilian restaurants are famous for having a guy walking round with a variety of long skewers filled with meat and they give you whatever part you want. The one that I’d been to a few times in Japan was fast with the sausages, but a bit slow with the good beef, but this place had none of that. Service was very fast and the food was delicious.
After lunch, and a little bit of shopping where I picked up a Brazilian flag, and said my final adios for a while. I’d gone past the Federales without stamping in, something that seems so easy to do, so had to go back so I’d legally be in Brazil. It was frustrating going back to confusing stares at simple questions like the immigration officers asked me, and they even resorted to English at one point to ask me how long I’d be there. When I left, I ran across Odin again. He had gotten a minibus to withdraw money and was thinking of heading out for food, but I definitely couldn’t handle another lunch and I needed to get going.
The road descended to sea level with a few short punishing climbs to break it up. It was hot and humid in the afternoon sun as I pushed along through fairly non-descript open plains. This was ranch country, and it was in fact a rancher, called Gustavo, who stopped to speak to me about an hour before it got dark. He offered me a lift, and I said sure why not. Leaving late had meant that getting to Cem was going to be a challenge, and I wanted to make sure I got through this part of Brazil in 3 days, to use as few of the 180 days I’m allowed in the country as possible. Brazil is probably going to be the first country where the visa I have isn’t going to allow me as much time as I want. Tourists are restricted to 180 days in the 12 month period after first entering the country, and with a country as large as Brazil that is going to be too little and so need creative border hopping, especially if I want to go to both carnival and the world cup.
Gustavo is a rancher who was going from checking on his cattle to his rice farm. He had seen me riding, and thought it would be difficult for me to get to town before it got dark. He was right and so I was very happy to accept the ride. He was a very patient man, and spoke slowly and clearly so with only a bit of questioning I could understand. While he lived up in the Roraima area, he was originally from near the border with Uruguay and had done the drive down there. It takes 5-6 days, but that’s mainly because there’s a long road of poor quality heading south from Manaus. It costs about the same as flying, but he just really loves to drive and so when he has the time does it. When I told him that I had a tent, he asked if I preferred town or rivers. When I told him rivers, he said he’d drop me off at his ranch which was a couple of km before a big river where there was a restaurant that I could camp at.
The restaurant was only open on the weekends, but I had some left overs from the buffet for dinner. There were some locals hanging out, fishing, but we didn’t do much more than greet each other. There was a covered area, and I set my tent up there, glad to have the roof when a dark cloud emptied itself during the night.
I was up early as always, to get to Boa Vista. It was about another 80km, and of course there was a headwind meaning it took until around about 11am to make it. I hopped into a supermarket, and was impressed to see some very full shelves with everything. The prices weren’t that low, but I’m hoping that improves in other parts which are more accessible. To get anything to Boa Vista, it has to arrive in Belem, get shipped for a week up the Amazon to Manaus and then driven 600km up a road. The hope is that the Lethem-Linden road which I’ll be riding in Guyana gets paved and then that provides port access via Georgetown.
I made it to the house of Doris, James’ mum, and she was very surprised to see not only me, but a picture of her son. We spent a couple of hours talking over a plate of food, but instead of staying I decided to head out. I wasn’t sure exactly where I’d be able to stop, but it was still 130km to the border with Guyana and that’d be a long day with the expected strong headwind.
I made it across the river that Boa Vista sits on and got to a petrol station. They’re well loved by travellers across Brazil as people go such long distances that they often have things like free showers. I can definitely see myself staying at lots during my 6 months. Unfortunately this one didn’t have a shower, but I was pointed to an open covered area where I could put my things, and as there weren’t any mosquitoes I just put my mat down on the floor to sleep. I was using the chance to charge all my electronics, and so stayed up quite late. I was just doing some last minute cleaning before resting my head, when I was waved over by a group of 4 men who had drunk 30 cans of beer between themselves. They offered me a beer and so we stood round communicating to some extent. It was a lovely experience, because up to then not a single Brazilian had done the normal greeting from the side of the street. 3 beers later, they were ready to go home, and I was definitely ready to sleep.
It was a long 110km ride into a headwind to the border. There were next to no shops or even shade and the day dragged on. It wasn’t until about 70km in that I could take a break when I spotted a bar. I walked to the covered area, leant my bike against a pillar and laid on the floor. Someone came out and said that of course I could take a nap. An hour later, the clouds had got darker and just after heading out there was a ridiculous downpour. It continued for half an hour and I was thoroughly drenched.
15km before Bomfin, I stopped to get some water and an overpriced snack. A group of domestic travellers in their 60s turned up and bought some coconuts, and just before they left saw my bike. They all wanted to take pictures with me, and before they left bought me a coconut for the payment. It’s almost like a photo tax!
I got to the border just before the immigration office closed at 6pm. In Brazil, the Federal Police work as immigration and the 3 officers there were incredibly friendly, stamping me out as their last task for the day. On the Guyanese side, the office was looking closed, but there was an officer who gave me the form I needed, and my 90 day visa.
In Guyana they drive on the left side of the road, so you go over a tunnel/bridge combination after getting stamped in. It was already dark, and nearly everything seemed to be closed. I headed to the banks, but the cash machines didn’t work in either one. I had been in contact with Joe & Christine, Warmshowers hosts who live near Georgetown, but have an outdoor shop in Lethem, which is managed by Chris & Rebecca. I went over there, but it was closed and I didn’t know what to do.Looking back, I could have found out where they lived pretty easily, but that didn’t come to mind. My first thought was to find the police station, and so I followed my GPS. There seemed to have been a blackout as there wasn’t a light in town and everyone had gone inside.
I got to the police station, stood by the fence and shouted hello. An officer came out with a pistol very visible on his hip, told me to approach and I started my normally very successful routine to ask for a place to stay. He went back to the main building where I heard him say “Some white boy outside saying about a tent” to which his superior officer told him “Tell him we no orphanage. You hear? Not orphanage!” I guess the officer realised how dickish that would sound and just told me that they couldn’t help me.
I walked around for a few more minutes, until I saw a house with a light on. Well, the motorbike in front of the house had its light on, but that was more than any other place in town. There was Ricardo, his wife and their two or three-year old daughter. I walked up and, probably looking quite pitiful, explained how I’d just crossed the border, how the cash machines weren’t working and if it would be at all possible to put my tent up. Ricardo and his wife talked together for a couple of minutes, and said that it was OK. I was delighted, a safe place to stay, and knew that in the morning I’d have a place over at The Outdoor Store. I set up my tent and Ricardo and family went to bed. About 30 minutes later, he came outside and gave me a few chocolates. People are wonderful.
Downtown Boa Vista