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April 1996

11 April 1996

Florida, USA (again)
After a week in Florida with Elena over Easter we are now in serious need of a proper holiday. We knew it would be a potentially bad idea to even think of travelling over Semana Santa, but that is in fact how things transpired. Julie's parents had rented a house in Florida for them, us, Helen and Iain, Paul and Chris and both their kids, (in fact the whole extended family), and attendance was nigh on compulsory. I had originally booked our flights way back in August 1995 when the trip was first mooted, but I knew enough to confirm and re-confirm the flight several times nearer the date, as Easter week flights in Venezuela have a habit of being mysteriously changed. As it was, we were bumped of our flights (mysteriously as I said) onto an earlier one (requiring a 4am wake-up!), the queues at the airport were horrendous, and we could not get seats together (although we did manage to negotiate this once on board). But we considered ourselves lucky enough that we made Miami on the right day and in one piece (or three pieces should I say), loaded down as we were with various birthday presents for English friends and family, as well as all Elena's gear, and also a few bits and pieces for ourselves.

Elena was once again very well behaved on the journey, and, having arrived at the house in Orlando, there were enough people to make a fuss of her that she remained in good spirits for most of the rest of the holiday. The villa had a heated pool (a necessity for us, as the temperatures were unusually low even for Florida, and therefore much lower than we were now accustomed to), and carpets indoors, which helped Elena's crawling and walking technique no end. We managed to keep to a minimum the number of day-trips to Disney World and such like attractions, and when we did go along the logistics of trying to keep eleven of us together and pleasing everyone were understandably impossible, so we more or less gave up trying and just did what we wanted (which in my case was as little as possible), attempting to stay out of as many arguments as possible.

Our day at Wet'n'Wild was something of a waste of money as there were very few things we could take Elena on, and most of the rest did not really interest us anyway. She had a reasonable time splashing around in the tiny tots area, but it was nothing she could not have done in our own pool, for zero cost and zero hassle. However, she seemed to quite enjoy her day in the Magic Kingdom, where we took her on things like the Carousel (mainly for Julie's benefit actually), and some of the more sedate rides, and of course to meet The Mouse in person, where she managed not to be sick all over him, and posed nicely for the obligatory photo opportunity. We took her back to the villa with a MM balloon which kept her happy for days, and we arranged to go back with Helen and Iain after she was asleep to try some of the more adult rides (we arrived back at 1am, which these days is a very late night for us, and it took us several days to recover!).

We moved on to a second villa later in the week, via Cypress Gardens where Elena was subjected to another Carousel ride and walks around the gardens. The weather had deteriorated still further, and we could be caught in unguarded moments wistfully thinking of what a relaxing, pleasant holiday we could have had in Caracas. Because of sharing a room with Elena, we became progressively more and more tired, waking whenever she so much as turned over in her sleep, and then being unceremoniously woken anyway at around 5am or 5.30am each morning (she never did adjust her body clock for the time difference). Although the villa was fine, the area was a rather bizarre semi-finished housing estate in the middle of nowhere, and other than a trip out to a state park for a boat trip to see alligators in the rain (I would not see them any other way!), we hung around close to home, and worked through our shopping list, with mixed success. Once again we were astounded by the range and choice in the stores and by the low prices. By the end of the week, we had accumulated more luggage than we had arrived with, in particular several large boxes of anticipatory birthday presents for Elena.

We drove back to Miami in the mini-bus affair we had had the foresight to rent, managed a rushed half-hour dash round our favourite bookshop, and repaired to the airport, beginning to buckle under the pressure. Elena, looking very pleased with herself, performed for the airport passers-by with her now competent walking technique, which she had perfected in the last couple of days of the holiday (more photos!). She had also started chattering, babbling and burbling to herself almost constantly, interjected with peremptory shouts which sounded very much like orders (and probably were), and she had developed a most annoying petulant squeal which she could conjure up at any given moment, complete with pained mannerisms - at less than a year old she was already turning into what we used to call "a right little madam".

Almost as expected, our flight reservations turned out to be incorrect (mysteriously!), and it was only by the attentions of a very understanding American Airlines official - one of the few - that we made the flight at all, let alone with seats together. Elena was almost as tired as we were, and after a period of hyper-active babbling and whingeing which usually characterizes her over-tired moments, she slept in Julie's arms for the rest of the flight.

While we were in Florida, we had lent our Caracas apartment and car to a visiting Canadian artist and her family, whom we had met several times during the Venezuelan leg of her South American tour, and with whom, we had struck up an immediate friendship. They were coming to the end of their six month tour, holding exhibitions in as many countries, travelling with their precocious six-year-old and a 15-month-old baby, which rather humbled us. Everything had apparently gone well while we were away, and she left us a present of a painting of the bird-of-paradise flowers in our garden, in addition to the orchid lithographs which we had bought off her anyway.

22 April 1996 Back to top

The water situation through out Caracas had if anything worsened in our absence, with rationing down to an erratic two or three hours a day, and the rains not expected for a month or two. The garden was mainly dead or dying, and the swimming pool a putrid dark green color (apparently exacerbated by an unavailability of chemicals), and we began to think that maybe we had done right after all to go away. One really learns to appreciate the luxury of having water on tap when the taps no longer have any water. When water did finally arrive each day, I ran around desperately unblocking smelly toilets, putting through washing, making a start on two or three days of accumulated dishes, filling up our buckets and containers long since dry, and attempting to revive the garden (one day a humming bird came to bathe in the spray from the hose-pipe, reminding me that a drought is an inconvenience for us, but a potential disaster for many animals and birds). Had we encountered any problems at all in the previous year's dry season we would have invested in an emergency tank for the apartment, but there seemed little point now, especially give the uncertainty as to how long we would be in Caracas.

The papers had been full for some time of the proposed austerity measures, petrol price increases and new taxes to come, and the army and police forces announced themselves ready for any "disturbances" which might arise. When petrol was finally increased (and significantly: by 400% for high grade, and nearly 1,000% for the lowest grade, bringing them almost up to market prices!), other than various student riots, which were considered normal, there was surprisingly no real outcry. It helped that there was a complicated but comprehensive system of public transport subsidies, so that there were no further increases in bus prices (always a sensitive issue), over and above those that had been sneaked through beforehand. A certain amount of panic-buying was going on in preparation for the announcement of the withdrawal of price and currency controls, but generally speaking life went on pretty much as normal (for us at any rate), while Julie prepared for more business trips, while I made preparations for yet another trip to Florida (with my family this time - yes we would have it all to go through again), and while Elena prepared herself for her upcoming first birthday party, a Venezuelan-style piñata.

Elena has turned into something of a thug at Baby Gym, bopping other babies on the head, pinching their toys, and screaming when they (quite reasonably) try to take them back. We consoled ourselves that, according to the books, babies have no concept of sharing or playing together until at least two years of age, but we were nevertheless beginning to receive some disdainful looks from some of the other parents. She is certainly much more independent and willful than any of the other kids there, which, considering she is not yet one, bodes ill for the future (the "terrible twos" does not bear thinking about). Despite regular falls, she is now walking quite confidently, and so is ready to move up into the next class, where she will be one of the smallest, and will hopefully be brought down to earth a little. I must admit, though, it is quite interesting to see how she develops: for instance, she can now easily find her way into a cassette case and trash all that nice brown spaghetti, and even into a CD case (with which even I sometimes have problems), and yet will do things like sit on a cushion and try to lift it.

29 April 1996 Back to top

Incredibly, Elena's first birthday arrived (incredible, that is, that we made it through to see it, not that it happened at all). We held a piñata at the apartment, with the guests being basically Julie's office and their families in order to keep it relatively simple and small-scale (having said that, we still had decorations, caterers and a clown, which is seems is a basic minimum for such events over here). I am sure that Elena had even less of an idea of what was happening than I did, but she seemed to enjoy it regardless, intent as she was on demonstrating to all and sundry her new-found ambulatory prowess. She received another batch of cuddly toys to go with the rest (she now has 28 - I recently took a team photo!).

The piñata itself was bought the previous weekend, and came in the image of a baby Minnie Mouse (to match the birthday cake!), although when I say baby it actually stood well over a metre tall. A piñata is a kind of hollow cardboard doll covered in gaudy frilly crepe paper, and the idea is that is it filled with candies, Christmas-cracker-style presents and naff plastic objects which seem to be produced in huge quantities especially for such occasions (oh, and some more sweets - lots of sweets). It is then hung up, and the kids take turns (under the strict whistle of the clown) to belt it mercilessly with a wooden stick, until it bursts its seams and spills its candy guts all over the floor, at which point mayhem ensues as the kids brazenly claw, fight and grab as many sweets and gew-jaws as possible for their loot sacks. The kids, and the adults for that matter, love it all, and a sort of frenzy came over everyone throughout its duration, which we found fascinating. We tried to explain to the Venezuelans why we found it quite so tasteless, barbaric and gross, but we were met with total incomprehension - culture blindness at its most transparent.

The currency controls and most of the price controls were abandoned at long last, and Venezuela is now technically a free market, although it remains to be seen what effect it will have on its crumbling economy. The exchange rate shot up from US$1 = B's 290 to B's 500 overnight, although it seems to have settled back around B's 465 for now. Prices are increasing rapidly, although we (by which I mean those of us with funds overseas) are still in the honeymoon period where prices have not yet caught up with the new exchange rate, so everything appears cheap to us (even the new increased petrol price has, for us, returned to a distinctly reasonable 12¢ per litre).

The average José on the street, however, is finding things tough, and although the response to date has been very muted (most people seem resigned to it as a necessity this time), the effects have still to bite further. One reads with horror statistics such as the recent ones that 58% of Venezuelan households earn monthly less than B's 25,800 (US$55 now, or US$150 even give the more generous exchange rate of earlier in the year), and 85% earn less than the official poverty level. How will these people cope with an overnight doubling of some basic food prices? Even among the more well-to-do, tens of thousands of Venezuelans are reportedly moving to Miami en masse (maybe a Little Caracas will spring up next to Little Havana).

Another incredible anniversary is also coming up in the next couple of days: our two years in Venezuela, and event which has sneaked up almost without us noticing, and which we are playing down lest we start to feel older than we already do. We seem to have very little time in which to think about it at the moment, with Julie so busy at work (and with a hectic month of business trips scheduled for the month ahead), and me doing overtime looking after Elena while Maritza is away in Colombia for a "family emergency". Given our uncertain position here, I think I may leave my annual resumé for another time, although to be honest it would probably be quite similar to that of this time last, with the added wild card of a baby tottering and burbling through the ruins of the Venezuelan economy.

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