‘I went from broke to millionaire’

Written By komlim puldel on Minggu, 12 April 2015 | 23.08

Traveller Will Hatton had bundles of cash in Venezuela. Picture: Will Hatton Source: Supplied

"YOU will be robbed, there's no avoiding that. Just don't fight it or they will kill you."

This was the advice that Will Hatton, a 26-year-old traveller who explores some of the world's least-visited countries on an extreme budget, received when he announced he was going to explore Venezuela.

He tells news.com.au what it's really like in a country with more oil than anywhere else in the world — and the second-highest murder rate. As he quickly discovered, it's also a place that can make the average traveller feel rich.

Locals engage in fiery protests on the streets. Picture: Will Hatton Source: Supplied

The streets of Merida were alive with activity, an aura of menace hung heavily in the air. A blockade glinted in the afternoon sun, and black smoke from burning tyres spiralled into the sky.

"We must go around," my taxi driver said.

He gunned the ancient car into reverse and fled, anxious to be gone before the police arrived with their gas, batons and rubber bullets.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro collected over 10 million signatures from across Venezuela, which he presented at a rally in Caracas, Thursday, calling on US President Barack Obama to withdraw a decree declaring Venezuela a security threat. Speaking after the rally, which was also attended by Bolivian President Evo Morales, Maduro said he believes in better relations between the empire of the United States and a free and sovereign Latin America, but one that is based on respect and non-interference. Maduro will meet US President Barack Obama at the 7th Summit of the Americas in Panama City on Friday, where he plans to present him with the millions of collected signatures.

But civil unrest was everywhere. Gangs of students in red shirts marched towards the city centre, spraying walls with graffiti. Police in urban camouflage stood shoulder to shoulder with the infamous Guardia Nacional (national guard), AKs strapped to their chests. They eyed the protesters suspiciously, ready at any minute to advance upon the hothead who dared aim a firework at their ranks.

My driver swore in Spanish and mounted the kerb. An armoured vehicle of some kind, water cannon at the ready, rolled past us with its siren blazing. We retreated from the noise down side-streets, passing more flimsy barricades as we made our way towards the quieter barrios of the city.

They faced off with the police. Picture: Will Hatton Source: Supplied

I was dropped off near a lush park, the obligatory statue of famous military leader Simon Bolivar, sword at the ready, in the centre. A pair of backpackers strolled past, snacking on empanadas and gulping down steaming black coffee. This was apparently the "touristic centre".

I looked for someone to change some money with, and was pointed towards a nearby shop. I entered and spoke in hushed tones with the lady behind the desk who then began to make calls.

Two hours later a man in a dark suit appeared, firmly clutching a grocery bag. He rushed in and closed the door. A rent-a-thug stood nearby with what looked like a metal chair leg in one hand, watching me carefully.

While there are dangers in Merida, there's no doubt it's a picturesque place. Source: Getty Images

The harassed-looking money changer emptied the bag onto the table. Hundreds of coloured bills spilt across the table. I handed over a single hundred dollar bill and began the laborious task of tying up notes with elastic bands, I had well over 1000 notes to count. I had been in Venezuela just 24 hours and already I was a millionaire here.

For a single US dollar ($1.31) I could buy 12 beers, get a bed for the night, take two taxis or eat in a nice restaurant. I could fill up a car at a local gas-station for 2 bolivars, around 1 US cent.

So much cash, not enough hands. Picture: Will Hatton Source: Supplied

So with wads of cash stuffed down my trousers and in my bag I left the store and checked into a hotel across the road. Then I went back outside, anxious to find out more about what the hell was going on; the sound of sirens, car alarms and fireworks, eerily similar to gunfire, drifted over the city like a haze.

I was surprised to see many Venezuelans going about what appeared to be their normal business. I entered a cafe, an oasis of calm in a city that appeared to be on the brink of revolution. Here I watched a woman with a ludicrous bum implant flirt with a moustachioed waiter with a healthy paunch. He appeared to be punching above his weight.

Across from me sat a gangly man in a chequered shirt, a pair of spectacles dangling from his face. I approached him and in my rudimentary Spanish attempted to ask him what was going on. He answered in English, a promising start. Roberto was preparing to leave the country and keen to share his insights on why he could no longer stay in his homeland.

He says he had no choice. Ten years ago, his father, a university professor, earned around $2000 a month. Today, due to rampant inflation, he earns just $60 a month for the same job. Many Venezuelans earn even less, at the official exchange rate most people can hope to pocket just $20 a month.

Those who have managed to get hold of actual dollars can live like kings and continue to invest their money in more dollars; in Venezuela, the value of dollars only seems to go up week on week.

Will came here for adventure, something he definitely got. Picture: Will Hatton Source: Supplied

"If you have dollars, you can live very well for just $50 a week," he said. "Without dollars, life in Venezuela is too expensive and it's impossible to get basics, even a toilet roll has to be bought on the black market!"

I had come to Venezuela hearing these rumours and had packed accordingly; my bag was stuffed with 12 rolls of toilet paper.

He explained that people are forced to queue for hours to buy essentials like powdered milk, bread and rice. Roberto was tired of queuing, he dreamt of a fully stocked fridge and a brimming medicine cabinet.

"We're importing everything and it's still not enough."

Locals wait in long lines to purchase fuel. Source: Getty Images

Venezuela should be the richest country in all of South America, the country has the largest oil reserves in the world and a full tank of gasoline (around 60 litres) costs just 5 bolivars, about $1. A litre of bottled water on the other hand costs nearly 30 bolivars, over 100 times more than a litre of gasoline.

Roberto says that Venezuela is now importing gasoline, a travesty for a country where oil bubbles freely from the ground.

So what does the future hold for Venezuela?

"Bloodshed, lots of bloodshed."

With plummeting oil prices, rising inflation, increasing shortages and the clamouring voices of a million unheard souls, it's a recipe for disaster.

Roberto cautioned me to be careful, this was no adventure playground, this was a country with one of the highest murder-rates in the world. And he's not the only one — everyone I'd spoken to wanted to know the same thing; after hearing about all the kidnappings, corruption, robberies and murders, why the hell was I here?

Sure, most people wouldn't dream of visiting Venezuela, believing it's not worth the risk. But I hoped against hope that they were wrong, that the dirt-cheap prices and stunning sites would outweigh the risk of danger.

Roraima is a famous -and stunning — mountain in Venezuela. Picture: Will Hatton Source: Supplied

One of the main reasons I came here was for Roraima — the highest table top mountain in the world. I dreamt of climbing it.

So I did. And as I stumped up a slippery path hacked into the jungle it seemed more likely I would break my neck than be robbed at gunpoint. Oozing, sucking mud pulled at my ankles as I struggled upwards, my pack, laden with supplies and camping gear.

This was a far-cry from the endless plains of the Gran Sabana. I had spent the first day hiking through dusty valleys, crossing rumbling rivers and generally just being eaten alive by swarms of pori-pori, horrible biting flies the size of a pinhead.

It was a tricky climb. Picture: Will Hatton Source: Supplied

For five hours I slipped and hauled myself up the path, passing through banks of cloud and under a tumbling waterfall. Mist engulfed me, and visibility was less than 10 metres.

Finally, I reached the summit. I was at last on top of the tabletop mountain that had inspired Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World. Roraima, a magnet for thrillseekers and adventurers, a grave for the ill-prepared.

Another tabletop mountain called Kukenan, a holy place for the indigenous peoples scattered across the plains, appeared through a window in the dancing mist. I had just a few seconds to appreciate the patchwork quilt of purples, oranges, reds and greens making up the mountain-face before it disappeared, devoured by clouds.

There were seemingly never-ending valleys. Picture: Will Hatton Source: Supplied

I spent the next day exploring the tabletop, bathing in a series of freezing pools and admiring valleys filled with crystals, an otherworldly site. Roraima, like Venezuela itself, was not what I had expected. The mountain and the country could both be deadly, but it had taken my breath away.

Seeing crystals everywhere was a sight for sore eyes. Picture: Will Hatton Source: Supplied

It definitely has a commanding appearance. Picture: Will Hatton Source: Supplied

The warmth and generosity I experienced in this wonderful, frustrating, insane and beautiful country had surpassed my wildest dreams. Everywhere, I had been made to feel welcome, at no point had I felt in any real danger, Venezuelans had gone to great lengths to keep me from harm. I had made staunch friends.

Though it's troubles, Venezuela has some beautiful sights. Picture: Will Hatton Source: Supplied

The true Venezuela, like Roraima, is masked. It is impossible to get a full picture, simply snapshots of truth through a fleeting window.

In fact, it rocks. Picture: Will Hatton Source: Supplied

Will Hatton writes about travelling on a budget over at The Broke Backpacker.

It was a trip he'll never forget. Picture: Will Hatton Source: Supplied


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