Archive for July, 2006

A reminder: Coral Reefs are in Danger

Thursday, July 27th, 2006

   While biking along the Caribbean coast, Tom and I stopped in a small town of Santa Fe to relax and enjoy some snorkeling. Below the surface, we found an amazing variety of fish and marine life – blue fish, yellow-striped fish, long and skinny fish, ugly fish, many many tiny fish, a school of squids, an octopus, strange flower-like underwater plants, sea urchins, and many others (such as the large fish with the white shirt in the bottom right photo).

Looking down on the reef
Marine life

   The basis of this underwater ecosystem are the coral reefs. As I explained in an earlier post, these coral reefs are in great danger from climate change. Higher carbon dioxide concentrations will make the oceans more acidic, damaging reefs, and higher temperatures will likely kill many reefs. The reef on the left below is ‘bleached’ or dead, something that happens when water temperatures get too high. The reef on the right below is healthy. Unchecked global warming will turn more and more reefs into the dead bleached reef shown on the left.

A 'bleached' reef (it's dead)
A healthy reef

Biking with Tom from Caracas to the Orinoco

Wednesday, July 26th, 2006

   For a week and a half of riding out of Caracas, I was joined by my friend Tom Hunt. Tom, a former college roommate, introduced me to bike touring, and it was great for us to reunite and ride across Venezuela. Although I meet more locals traveling alone, biking with a friend is more fun, and I joked that I was ‘on vacation’ while he was here. The photos below should give you a good idea of the week and half we spent traveling east along the coast before heading south and inland to the Orinoco River (see map).

Tom on low-traffic coastal highway
Bikes on Beach, Puerto Piruto
Oil Refinery and Tom
Oil and Gas pipelines
Overlooking the Caribbean
Beach Sunset in Santa Fe
Look! Dolphins!
Snorkling makes you look funny
Marine Life
Bomberos of Cumana
Tour de Venezuela
Climbing coast mountains between Cumana and Maturin
The llanos - Venezuela's great plains
We camped next to Gegorio's house
Fishermen in the Orinoco River

To see a group of chidren yelling ‘gringo! gringo!’ click on the video on the left below.

Young children yelling 'Gringo! Gringo!'

To see me swing a machete, click below.

I learn how to use a machete at Gregorio's house

To see us crossing the Rio Orinoco, the world’s fourth largest river, click on the video below.

Crossing the Rio Orinoco - the world's fourth largest river

The 1999 Floods in Venezuela

Tuesday, July 18th, 2006

   In 1999, it rained for half a month straight and Caracas and surrounding states were severely flooded. It is estimated that 30,000 people died as flood waters swept away houses along rivers and landslides destroyed the houses built on hillsides.

   Most of these houses were houses of the poor – the ‘shantytowns’ that rise up the hillsides and line the river banks. In Caracas, I was amazed at how the sides of the valley were packed with houses of the poor. Below are some photos I took from afar (I did not explorer these areas, as I was told they were not safe!)

Slums rising up around Caracas
Slums, MacDonalds
Traffif and slums in background

   Floods like the 1999 disaster may become more common as the earth warms – many models predict that there will be more heavy rain storms. Cleary, people should build stronger homes in less vunerable areas. But, when the floods do come, it is those who are least able to adapt who will suffer the most.

Caracas, Cars, and Venezuelan Politics

Saturday, July 15th, 2006
Front page of El Nacional, Venezuela's second biggest newspaper
Colegio Sta. Teresa in Caracas

   I arrived in Caracas in the back of a pickup, and immediately biked across town to Tierra Viva, an environmental group that supports different sustainable development projects around the country. With their help, I visited a school, was interviewed by a radio station, and appeared on the front page of El Nacional.

Lots of traffic Caracas

   Crossing the city by bike, I was amazed at the traffic. I have never passed so many cars so easily on my bike. I biked one section of town in 20 minutes in what someone told me it would take 40 minutes in a car. Watch the videos below (especially on the left) to get a sense of traffic in the city.

   The city does have a metro, which I took once and had my wallet stolen. At 3pm on a weekday, the metro cars were so packed with people that there was not space to move, and I literally could not move while someone took my wallet out of my pocket (lost only cash).

Rush hour traffic in Caracas
On the bike, stuck in traffic
An interview with a stopped car

   The city is in a scenic valley, has a pleasant climate (it is at 3,000 feet), and plenty of trees. But the quality of life – and yes, energy efficiency – of the city could be dramatically improved if the transportation system were changed.

Caracas sits in a valley at about 3,000 feet

   While in Caracas, I also continued to learn more about Venezuela’s political system. Here is a brief account of what people have told me: In the first half of the 20th century, Venezuela had a series of dictators. In the second half of the century, a two-party democracy was established. Most people complain about how this was run, and a number say that the two parties were more corrupt than the dictators beforehand. In 1992, Hugo Chavez, the current president and a former military man, attempted a coup, but failed, took responsibility, and was put in jail. A few years later, he was pardoned, and in 1998 he was elected president from a third party. With the people’s support, he had the constitution rewritten, and, in the elections that followed, the government was filled with almost all Chavez supporters.

   Chavez, a ‘21st century socialst,’ has done some amazing things, including using oil money to support social programs for the poor, including far improved health care and education for the poorest. He has also picked fights with the U.S., packed the supreme court, and appears to have almost absolute control over the country (and especially its oil wealth). Nearly every middle or upper class person that I talk to does not like Chavez – they worry that he has too much power and that he is scaring away investment that is needed to grow the economy. On the other hand, most poor people that I talk to say Chavez’s programs have helped their lives considerably. His current power, however, seems well tied to oil revenues – over half the government revenue is from oil money, and oil prices are currently very high.

   The last day in town, a good friend of mine, Tom Hunt, flew into Caracas to bike with me for the following two weeks. We spent a Saturday walking around the capital, where we visited the Natural History museum (they had an exhibit on global warming!), and then watched an anti-Chavez demonstration before packing up to leave town.

Tom Hunt examines the Global Warming Exibit at the Natural History museum
March to protest President Chavez
Singing the Venezuelan National Amthem, protesting the government

Bike Hitching to Caracas and Venezuelan Oil

Wednesday, July 12th, 2006

   I crossed the Venezuela border, climbing into the Andes again and to the town of San Cristobal, where I stayed at the fire station for the night. Crossing into Venezuela, I was immediately struck by the number of cars – Venezuela has the world’s 7th largest oil reserves, and it uses this oil wealth to keep gas prices low. Gas costs 15 cents a gallon, and the cities are full of cars, many of which are old U.S. cars with poor gas mileage.

Bomberos de San Cristobol
There are lots of cars in Venezuela

   Oil is a huge part of the Venezuelan economy, and I have entered the country with a very simple question: is this oil wealth good or bad for the people of Venezuela?

   Because I had lost a week of travel to being sick, I could no longer make it to Caracas on time to meet a friend who was flying into town. Promising myself that I would use this method of travel only for traveling north to Caracas, I stuck out my thumb and hoped for friendly trucks.

The only way to get to Caracas on time
Hitchiking is faster than biking
Another ride

   Half biking and half hitching, I traveled north to northern Lago Maracaibo (see map), where I spent 3 days biking around the northern edge of the lake. The shallow lake, which is connected to the sea and thus not a true lake, is covered by thousands of oil wells, and the area produces a million barrels of oil a day. I camped one night next to a family that lives in a small community with oil rigs off shore. The father of the family worked on the oil rig, yet the rest of the people in the town, which was very poor, lived off of fishing. The man, of course, said that oil was good for the country, and also cited a series of new government programs that use the oil wealth to provide the village with health care and education.

A common occurance: a family feeds me, and then stands around and watches me eat
Shrimp fishermen and oil rigs

   As often happens in these small towns, a family feeds me and then stands around staring at me.

   Continuing on, I biked to the city of Maracaibo, where I was interviewed by the local paper (La Panorama) and stayed with the Bomberos. I continued to be struck by how central the car is to Venezuelan society, and how much space in the cities is taken by car traffic.

Basilica in Maracaibo and bicycle
Bomberos de Maracaibo
Lots of old U.S. cars are in Venezuela because gas is so cheap here

   My final day around Lake Maracaibo, I biked along the northeast edge, where many oil rigs could be seen offshore. The cities along the shore were not pleasant places, and I was stopped once while biking down a street because I was told that I would get robbed. So much oil had been extracted from the ground that the city Ciudad Ojeda has actually sunk 6 meters and a levy had to be built to keep out the lake water. I spent the night with two engineers who work in the oil industry and had seen me in the newspaper.

Oil Field in lake Maracaibo
Ciudad Ojeda

   The couple (who also pointed out that oil companies can help sequester carbon) have drilled for oil in many places around the world and were adamant that it is bad for a place to discover oil. ‘I have seen villages in Africa where the people abandon their farming to work in oil, and then when the oil field dries up, they are unable to return to their old work.’ The city where they currently worked, Ciudad Ojeda, was a very unpleasant place – oil wealth apparently gives little incentive to invest in education or local infrastructure.


   From Lake Maracaibo, I hitched along the coast to Punto Fijo, where Venezuela’s largest oil refinery is located. I tried to ask the guard questions about the refinery, but he yelled at me to go away, as all information was confidential, and he also told me not to take any pictures. From the people I talked to while hitchhiking to the refinery, most said that the oil did not help Venezuela at all, which was interesting. One man, a carpenter, complained ‘before the refinery was built, the locals drank, smoke, and womanized. Now they have money, so they drink, smoke, and womanize more. You can’t just have money – you need to educate people.’

   After six days of half hitching and half biking, I arrived in Caracas. Hitching with a bike turned out to be very easy – I caught 17 different rides, and my longest wait was 45 minutes. To be sure, my method was foolproof – bike to the tool booth, show the police the newspaper article about my trip, and ask them to help me ask drivers of pickup trucks. But, even on the open road, my average wait was only 20 minutes.