Luke's South American Diary
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April 1995

6 April 1995

My activities have sunk to an all-time low since returning from my last trip, partly because the baby-in-waiting (and therefore Julie, and therefore me) has not been sleeping well recently, which has left me jaded and exhausted. But I have also been feeling generally apathetic for some time now: I read a lot and listen to music, both of which activities I enjoy immensely, but somehow I still feel vaguely dissatisfied. I am clearly not physically ill, and so I can only think that I am suffering from some form of depression at the thought of the big changes to come.

I have been reading the "baby books", which various well-meaning friends have generously donated (some anonymously!), and despite the fact that we will have help (we have already contracted an experienced nursemaid to start when the baby is born), there is just something about the long-term nature of the commitment, and the magnitude of the responsibility involved, that I find quite overwhelming. Not that I have not considered all of this many times before, and certainly not that I am having cold feet about it - it is just the imminence of the birth, combined I suppose with my tiredness, which is bringing it all home with particular poignancy.

Anyway, that is enough moroseness for now (diaries are supposed to be cathartic, are they not?). It is all probably quite normal in the circumstances and, as everyone (without exception, even the most unlikely of people) tells me that it will be the most uplifting and heart-warming experience of my life, I suppose there must be something to it. My weekends, and a good part of my week-days, are still spent traipsing around baby shops, looking for last minute essentials. With less than a month to go, Julie is probably as huge as she is going to get, and so I have already made a start on the manic photo-taking which will probably characterise the early years of this poor baby's life. This diary too is almost bound to change its nature (indeed it already has), and will probably become more Baby's diary than my own. But if the experience is really to be as seminal as everyone assures me it will be, it will probably be no bad thing to be in the habit and the discipline of recording the happenings and my reactions to them.

Meanwhile, I am obtaining some solace from gradually building up my collection of compact discs. The combination of the wonderful quality of sound (still a revelation to me, despite the rest of the world having discovered it years ago) and lots of leisure time, means that I am actually sitting down and listening to the music, rather than just having it on in the background, and I am discovering so many more depths to music which I thought I already knew well. Most of it is classical at the moment (Stravinsky and Prokofiev in particular are taking a hammering), but I have also been buying up several discs of rock music from the '70's and '80's and reliving periods of my past when music was so important to me (I certainly never thought I would ever buy another Yes or Chick Corea album!). Maybe all this nostalgia and retrospection is just another aspect of my present morbidity, but I do also find it quite liberating and cathartic to be able to listen to all types of music from punk to jazz-rock to folk without a thought for current trends and peer pressure.

I am also making some rather tentative inroads into something which I have always regretted never having learned as a child: chess. I am using a "Chess for Absolute Beginners" book and a rather naff chess computer game I bought for Julie several years ago, although I am finding it quite difficult to think and concentrate after years of brain atrophy. I am quite capable of making the grossest of mistakes, and it is a good thing that the computer tells me when I make an illegal move, as I seem to do it all the time. It does not help that Julie is, or at least was, something of a chess expert, and at the moment at any rate I am too embarrassed by my lack of progress to even think of asking her for help or tuition. At least I can still usually beat her at Dominoes, Trivial Pursuit and IQ, so maybe there is hope for me yet...

17 April 1995 Back to top

Semana Santa has come and gone, and we are still here - still just the two of us. Although at least nominally a Catholic country, Venezuela has been so thoroughly suffused with the effects of the Good Life and the Profit Motive, that it is now the least religious and most Americanized of the Latino countries. Throughout Holy week, as at Christmas and Carnaval, the roads of Caracas are as fast and free-flowing as they must have been when first built, and anyone who has seen newspaper photos of the beaches during Semana Santa knows exactly why (and why we choose to stay at home). At least this year a ban on alcohol sales on the beaches resulted in a hugely reduced incident and accident toll.

Having said that, Easter and Holy Week in general, is still by far the most important religious festival, and many are caught up in the religious frenzy, albeit on a much smaller scale than in many Catholic countries, and certainly without the eccentricities of places like the Philippines. As always in Venezuela, however, the problem is finding out what is happening when. Julie's driver assured her that he would be taking part in at least one Easter procession, but, with typical Venezuelan vagueness, he did not seem able to narrow down just where or when this would be. I made a couple of shots in the dark at likely times and places for processions and failed miserably, and when (on the Thursday) various churches' timetables were published, it was still by no means straight forward as at least two attempts revealed some pretty major discrepancies between the published lists and reality.

However, we did manage to see the Maundy Thursday procession at Chacao (the safest, richest and best-run municipality in Caracas), which was interesting enough for me as I had never seen that kind of spectacle before (where men and women carry heavy statues and floats on their heads and parade through the streets singing), although Julie maintains that the atmosphere was much less emotional and poignant than in the parades she used to see in the south of Spain. On Good Friday, we also managed to catch the procession in Coche, a much poorer and more traditional area on the margins of Caracas, where most of the village turned out to follow the Stations of the Cross through the narrow streets, with local people acting out the parts of Jesus, Pontius Pilate and the rest, and with hymns, songs and prayers on the hoof. A couple of other potential processions were vetoed due to another bout of bad weather, despite people's assurances that Semana Santa is always the hottest week of the year.

On other fronts, we did not even manage to get to any of the International Theatre Festival performances, which have also been going on, because by the time we found out about it, most had already finished and the rest were sold out. Oh for a "What's On Guide" - surely a city of this size merits one? So, all in all, Easter was actually spent in a rather desultory way, largely indoors. Meanwhile, Julie continues swelling, and is now exceedingly fed up.

26 April 1995 Back to top

My current project, (having all but admitted that chess is really much too complicated for my enfeebled mind) is a comprehensive study of world history from the Big Bang to the present day. Well, hardly comprehensive, I suppose, but having just read a novel set during Charlemagne's reign, I realized that I could not for the life of me pinpoint when that might have been, even to within 500 years, and certainly I knew very little about it. So I decided that I needed to patch up my scanty knowledge of non-British history, at least to the extent of scheduling out when it all happened and how it interlinked with other events. I must confess I have been finding it fascinating, and it has become quite obsessive. I have been finding out where all those famous people like Attila the Hun and Ghengis Khan and Frederick the Great fit in, and Trivial Pursuits snippets like the fact that at the time the Vikings were invading Britain, the Chinese were printing their first books!

Venezuela continues to lurch along in its inimitable way: the long-heralded Brady Bonds issue, which was supposed to miraculously drag the country out of its financial mire, has been ruled illegal; the B's 500 a day bonus, which was supposed to help low-paid workers without costing their employers too much in prestaciones and Christmas Pay is also being called illegal and is now far from assured; the perennial border disputes with Colombia are re-surfacing again; the doctors went on strike; etc, etc. And still somehow President Caldera manages to maintain a very healthy (if slightly fading) standing in the polls.

Although recently it seems as though it is not just Venezuela which is going through a bad time: Japan voted ex-comedians to control their two largest cities, and a wacky religious clan poisoned large numbers of people on the Tokyo subway; the New Right in America continue dismantling what little is left of its welfare state and giving tax cuts to the rich, calling it a "Contract With America", and other right-wing nutters blew up hundreds of people in a federal building in Oklahoma (of all places!). Maybe Nostradamus was right, although if enough loonies do enough crazy things in the run-up to the year 2000, maybe they will bring about the end of the world anyway, even if it was not scheduled.

We had the dubious pleasure of attending our first Venezuelan funeral recently. It was no-one we knew (the mother of a work colleague of Julie's), but in Venezuela it seems that funerals are taken very seriously and everyone is invited. Actually we did not make it to the funeral itself - the long, drawn-out paying of respects beforehand was quite enough for us - although after the required condolences it seemed to turn into more of a social occasion. We were struck by the burst of activity and efficiency the death brought about: within a day-and-a-half a funeral and all the trimmings had been arranged, all the relations had flown in from various places around the world, a network of phone calls had contacted everyone who had ever known anyone in the extended family of the deceased (we had made ourselves unpopular by being out of the house without our cellular phone switched on, making us uncontactable for hours - anathema for Venezuelans). If only the same sort of efficiency and energy were shown in other aspects of Venezuelan life!

Cable TV finally arrived at our building recently (the cable company representatives were the first pleasant and effective sales-people we had encountered in Venezuela, but then it is an American company). Anticipating many exhausted evenings at home in the near future, we thought it a good idea and signed up forthwith. The técnicos showed up on the right day, although not everything was quite as straight-forward as promised: we were the first in the building to have it installed, so they ironed out all the unforeseen problems here, as well as a few more which seemed to be idiosyncrasies of our particular apartment (like the fact that they had to replace all the hidden TV cables throughout the apartment, and run a cable around the inside of a lift-shaft - rather breathtaking to watch: none of your EEC safety measures here). But the upshot was that we now had 50 channels of rubbish to watch rather than just 8, a vast improvement as I am sure everyone would agree.

28 April 1995 Back to top

Julie has now reached her due date and still no baby (as she is well tired of telling people), so we are now living on borrowed time. With a nipper imminent and our first year in Venezuela anniversary just around the corner, this is probably a salutary moment to look back on our first year of life in Latin America, although that is by no means as easy as it might seem. Above all, as we keep telling ourselves, this has been the experience of a lifetime, and there is no way that we regret accepting the posting - indeed, on the average, we have very much enjoyed our year here.

However, it has certainly not been all roses, even without the complications of a pregnancy (which, it has to be said, has stood in the way of our complete enjoyment of what Venezuela and South America has to offer). Our impression of the Venezuelan character has not improved much since the early days, and in fact may have deteriorated. Obviously there are exceptions, and we know several, but generally speaking the people seem dour, selfish, ignorant and complaisant, overly concerned with status, and lacking in pride for their country, their city or their job - a damning indictment if ever I heard one. The country as a whole lacks any sort of service mentality or even common courtesy (such as a smile or a "hello" in shops, for instance), it is beset by chronic inefficiency (something which seems to have become quite an obsession with me just recently), and corruption is rife and a way of life.

Set against that, however, the country has a wealth and variety of scenery and nature which makes it a veritable paradise, most of which we have not even touched on yet. Even in Caracas, (not by any means what one would call a pretty city), it is wonderful to watch all the different types of trees as they flower one by one throughout the year, and the changing patterns the clouds make on the mountains. In fact everything here which does not involve people in any way is a delight, which is a rather unfortunate, but not inaccurate, summary. It is difficult to know to what extent I am trying to impose my own values on another culture which has very different values (always a risk), but even looking at it as objectively as possible this summary still does not seem too unfair. What has made life here enjoyable, over and above the frustrations, is partly being able to live in a beautiful apartment, with enough money to do pretty well whatever we want (the benefits of an ex-patriate life-style), partly the weather (which in general is glorious), partly the challenge and the adventure of discovering the good parts of the city and the country, and partly having such easy access to the other countries in South America which themselves have so much potential for the tourist and explorer. With all these pluses, the minuses can be seen in a better perspective as annoyances rather than reasons to leave.

We have not really made that many friends here, although Julie's work-mates have become friends too. Of the closest non-work friends we have made (ex-patriates, almost to a person, mainly from the Canadian Embassy), one couple has already left Caracas and several others are following in a month or two, so we are beginning to feel jinxed. We knew from the start that it would be quite difficult to make friends, especially Venezuelan friends, and that is exactly how it has turned out. This does not really bother me personally too much as I am quite self-sufficient and have a tendency towards the hermit's life anyway, but Julie feels the absence more. We have both to some extent made concessions towards the Venezuelan way of life in that we are more phlegmatic when things go wrong or take forever (as they invariably do), although in some ways we are probably also more abrupt and aggressive than we used to be - this is the expected approach, and the only way to get things done anyway.

We have more or less come to terms (of necessity) with the inconsistencies and contradictions of life in South America, where, in the same city as they are installing Cable TV and everyone seems to walk around talking on their cellular phones, the majority still live in unsanitary, jerry-built hovels and throw their rubbish down the hillside outside their back doors, and the grass verges of the roads are still hacked down by gangs of men with machetes. I have become well used to traffic which behaves like fairground Dodgem cars, and even muck in with the worst of them, something I would have found unimaginable a year ago. But then a year ago, most of what has happened to us in the last year would have been unimaginable...

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