I wanted to exchange money, as did many of my fellow passengers, but there were no money changers on the border and the banks and bureau de change in the town were closed. But that was no problem for us as our hosts would accept Brazilian Reals and US Dollars in preference to their own currency, Venezuelan Bolívars, but we had nothing to spend them on other than beer and spirits in the bar, and so we had a party.
Gareth was up early and drove Spongebob back to the border for Customs and paper documentation, stamps and authorities, etc. Whilst he sorted out the truck, we had time to walk around the town, trying to change some money to no effect. Eventually, we found a man who knew a man, as they say, and as we walked back, a car drew up alongside us and escorted us back to our hostel.
Changing money outside of the official system is illegal, so there was a bit of caution to be exercised, but the economy is in such dire straits that everyone wants foreign currency. We exchanged our foreign currency at the black-market rate — 3,500 Bolívars to a single US dollar — and the biggest bank notes that they had were 100 Bolívars, so it was thirty-five notes for each dollar.
We ended up with literally wads or bricks of cash… so much that each of us would need another bag to carry our cash. We had been warned not to use our debit or credit cards for security reasons, so we had to use cash. The official exchange rate is vastly different from the black-market rate… something like 200 Bolívars to a US dollar…not 3,500. I got an even better rate as I was changing Brazilian Reals and got the equivalent of 3,800. And I got so many bundles of notes that I was an instant millionaire!
The time to leave Santa Elena came and went. We were still at the hostel, Posada Los Pinos in Santa Elena, just fifteen kilometres over the border, waiting for Gareth to return from the border with Spongebob. The plan was to leave at nine a.m., but we still didn’t have the right stamps on our papers. Apparently, according to the border personnel, the last time that the truck had left Venezuela the border was closed, and whilst the truck had got special permission from the tourist ministry to cross the closed border, the exit procedure had not been completed correctly. Therefore, we would have to wait to get another special permission to leave Santa Elena and progress further into the country — and have the right papers to get through the numerous roadblocks ahead of us.
Lunchtime arrived and Gareth had still not returned with the correct papers. Even if we had the correct papers, we had lost so much time that it was not worth setting out so late in the day, so we decided to stay another night. It was a great place to be stranded. It had a bar that was open all day, a swimming pool, a water slide, beautiful grounds and gardens and three friendly guard dogs for the animal lovers amongst us. They accepted us as ‘friendly’, but whenever a non-guest approached the front gate, they all charged over to the entrance, jumping up against the gate and barking loudly.
I went out to a local kilo restaurant. There was a selection of buffet-style vegetable dishes on offer. The meats were being cooked over a barbecue and the chef would periodically cut a few slices off the joint and place them on a hot plate for customers to help themselves. I took my plate to the till and put it on a pair of scales, ordered a drink, paid the cashier and sat at a table overlooking the road but in the shade.
In order to pay the bill, I had to hand over a large wad of notes. The notes were tied up in bundles and held together by elastic bands. I handed over a few bricks and peeled off a handful of notes. The loose notes were counted, but the bricks were just placed on a shelf under the counter and not counted. I was surprised, but it was common practice not to count elasticated bundles as everyone assumed that they were correct and it would have taken ages to count each bundle. Some places had note-counting machines, but some of the notes were so grubby that the machine often got the count wrong, so despite the technology, sometimes it was ineffective.
I wandered up the main street, but there wasn’t much to see. It would only be later that I discovered that there was a whole central section of town up another road and around a corner… all I saw here were a few local shops, a couple of restaurants and a few supermarkets; something of everything, but it wasn’t the main centre. I was self-conscious about walking around town with a plastic carrier bag full of bricks of notes. However, I was not alone. I saw several other people along the street with plastic bags with the tell-tale shapes of bricks of notes distorting the bottom of the bag.
What was fascinating for me were the number of old large gas-guzzling American cars from the 1950s and 1960s. They seemed to be everywhere, but none were in good condition. They were old, rusty, battered and took up huge amounts of room on the kerbside. They were hugely inefficient and the mileage per litre must have been bad. However, the petrol price was heavily subsidised and it was cheaper to buy petrol than water, so fuel consumption when choosing your vehicle of choice was not a high priority.
Several of them didn’t move from the kerb during the time that I was in town. And as we walked back to the hostel late at night, some of the cars had a whole family inside, fast asleep. Despite Venezuela’s great potential oil wealth, there is a lot of poverty.
One thing that doesn’t cost much is fuel.
We left Posada Gran Sabana after a filling breakfast of ham, cheese and doughy rolls. Outside of the hotel is a petrol station and there was a queue to fill up. They had had a delivery earlier that morning and the station was open for everyone. There is a form of rationing as the time of the delivery is known and when it is all gone, that is that until the next scheduled delivery.
I had noticed that when César had filled up earlier, he had handed over a 100 Bolívar note and turned and walked away, not waiting for any change. I checked on the price and discovered that it is 1 Bolívar a litre. It is so cheap they ought to give it away. Using an exchange rate of 3,500 Bolívar to a US Dollar, and I haven’t made a mistake, I could fill up my petrol tank at home for 70 Bolívar, the equivalent of less than two US cents, less than two pence. No wonder the economy is in chaos — but there was wide popular support for the previous president, President Hugo Chávez, and not surprising if he gave away petrol, gas and electricity.
I noticed that most drivers just handed over a note and didn’t wait for any change, giving the petrol pump attendant a tip for his efforts. Besides, so much loose change in coins would be required every day and there was not enough in the whole country, so people were familiar with the reality and worked around it.