Leigh Anne Stein
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Arrival In Merida

January 22, 2010 @ 8:43 AM | Permalink
Getting There
The trip to this semester’s residence took a total of two days. Leaving from Charleston, it started with a short flight along the eastern coast to Miami. A flight I almost missed, but I’m glad I didn’t. (Don’t trust the check-in desk attendants when it comes to information about delays, especially the imaginary ones.) I’ve flown a multitude of times, but I can’t say I’ve ever passed over an ocean during daylight hours. Fortunately, I stayed awake and ended up mesmerized by the picture I was witnessing through the airplane window. I’d fly that route over and over again just to catch the view another time. The blues of the sky and ocean blended seamlessly. I couldn’t pick out the horizon for over an hour and was left seeing the view as one plane of existence without an end on the ground or in the sky. Looking out was comparable to what I imagine floating without gravity while peering into a glass of Caribbean blue water would be like. I’m making the prediction that there will be paintings in my future which include this view.
I landed in Miami about 2 hours later and met some of the students attending the VEN-USA program. We had an excited, slightly anxiety ridden evening repacking suitcases, getting dinner at a Mexican place near the hotel, and just introducing everybody to everybody else.
This was officially the end of travel leg one. At 2:30 the next morning, travel leg two began. All the materials emailed by the program directors forcefully reminded the receiver that airline policy for our international flight from Miami to Caracas, Venezuela required check-in to be completed 4 HOURS prior to departure. Well, many of the students departed at 7 so we logically arrived in the airport by 2:40 to check in by 3. We walked to the counters… and at this point realized the check-in desks didn’t open until 4. Airline policy…psshhht. At least sitting on the floor with a mountain of suitcases and a 30 person group wasn’t a lonely experience.
We checked in, went through security, found our gate and the real adventure started. I don’t understand this, but I’d like to make an observation… Why is it that on international flights with other countries’ airlines there are always lots of extra comforts missing from US carriers? For example, this flight was only 3 hours long, less than from Minneapolis to Miami, yet all the passengers were served a breakfast, given pillows and blankets, and had personal headphones and television screens complete with over 30 movies to choose from planted right in the back of the seat in front of them. Excessive? Probably. Am I complaining? Nope. (Besides, I paid so much for that ticket, I better get free juice!)
“Senores pasajeros, bienvenidos a Caracas, Venezuela.”
Our first views of Caracas were the mountains visible during landing, but it only got better when the plane doors opened and a steamy 80 degree temperature filtered into the cabin. Winter, you have been banished from my mind!
The Caracas airport is much less frightening than most people have come to believe. Yes, it is true that the city itself is not a safe place to be, but the airport, like most others, is located outside of the city and is like its own little world. We landed, exited the plane, and transferred our luggage to our new airline while checking in with the next flight. They say time moves slower in South America, and of course this is true in airports as well. Check-in took approximately 2 hours, while the attendants had us weigh all our bags, tag them, check us in, chat a little, call the pilots and tell them they’ll be switching to a bigger plane than usual (Who overpacked? Me?), chat a little more, print out our tickets, and finally hand out the bills for airport taxes. Yes, that’s right, airport and luggage taxes and fees are charged every time you fly. First you check in, then you take your ticket to another line, wait some more, and pay the tax before going through security. Somewhere around this time, you should also exchange US dollars into Bolivares because you will have no way of getting cash after security.
Exchanging money in Venezuela happens one of two ways…legally or illegally. Legally, you can go to an exchange booth and change your US dollars at the official rate. You can also use an ATM to take out Bolivares at the official rate, provided that your debit card works in the Venezuelan ATMs. Illegally, you can exchange your US cash with a Venezuelan for a higher rate than the official one. Venezuelans have a really hard time getting US dollars because of all the political bad-feeling between the two countries. The amount of US dollars they can take out of the bank is limited each year, and they can’t exchange Bolivares in the US. SO, this is where the parallel market comes into play. If you know someone you can trust, you can exchange your US dollars with him for a rate anywhere from 3-7 times higher than the official one. For example, some students exchanged money in an Italcambio and received the official 2.6 exchange rate. Other students on the program waited for our guide to take us to a friend, and were given an exchange rate over 5. I’ll let you decide what you think I did.
Still Getting There
Our Miami flight arrived in Caracas around noon, but our next flight to Mérida left sometime around 5. I don’t have a clue when it actually flew out because clocks seem to be an abnormality around here. It was a small flight, and a short flight, mostly through the clouds. I wish I could tell you more, but I slept with my face plastered against the window and woke up right before landing.
 It felt great to get off the plane and walk on the tiny runway into the airport at El Vigia. I can’t emphasize enough how odd it is to be living in 75 degree weather during January. It’s GREAT.
El Vigia is a small town near Mérida with a safer airstrip than Mérida. Because the cities are all in the mountains, fog can be a problem for planes trying to land. We flew to El Vigia because it was a more visible airport. By this point, my energy level was pretty much the pits. Excited or not, my agenda was sleep, sleep, sleep. I couldn’t wait to get to my new home and find my bed. The materials our program director had emailed to us mentioned that the bus ride from El Vigia to Mérida would be short. Well, if 2 hours is short…ok, but my butt doesn’t agree. Haha.
Sleep wasn’t allowed on the bus ride to Mérida, but I guess I had a 4th wind in me, because I managed to exit the steps without falling on my face when we finally arrived at VENUSA. It was dark and late, but it was great to finally meet my host mother Evelina, or as she says, “her new Mamá in Venezuela.”
Our power was out at home when we arrived, this time in a taxi, and the warm water was broken, but I’ll tell you what, after 24 hours of travel, I was just glad to be in my new home and on the way to a shower and a bed.

Welcome to Venezuela! 


Posted on 2/04/2010 by

Leigh Anne Stein

Leigh Anne Stein

PS: Here are some pictures from my first few days in Merida. We students at VENUSA took a tour around the city after an unavoidable orientation session. http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=135435&id=508054791&l=dc8bdf59d9

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PS: Here are some pictures from my first few days in Merida. We students at VENUSA took a tour around the city after an unavoidable orientation session. http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=135435&id=508054791&l=dc8bdf59d9

Leigh Anne Stein on Arrival In Merida 2010-02-04

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