Luke's South American Diary
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December 1994

7 December 1994

Christmas is here with a vengeance, and there are still three weeks to go! Everyone (including, I hate to admit, us) goes absolutely bananas with poinsettias over Christmas in Venezuela, and over half the space in the garden centres is crammed full of them. We also invest in one of the hugely expensive Canadian pine trees I was sniggering about just a week or two ago: my (eminently sensible) suggestion of decorating a cactus or a rubber plant or something was unceremoniously poo-poo'd. Julie has also been spending a significant amount of time and Bank money replacing the incredibly naff office decorations, which were wheeled out and dusted off, with some marginally less naff new ones, all without trampling on too many Venezuelan sensibilities.

The scope of our list of Christmas presents took a quantum leap when we moved to Venezuela - as well as presents for our English family and friends (some of which we have been organized enough to have already sent back to England, and some of which are waiting to go back with my parents when they return just after Christmas), there are many more of what one might call Christmas obligations here: for instance we have to buy a present for all six of the guys who take shifts on the gates to the building; the two gardeners (who come in for an hour or so a week); the whole family of the conserje (who either work in the building or to whom we feel some unspoken obligation to give presents anyway); the self-proclaimed majordomo or supervisor of works in the building (whom we hardly see from one month to the next); the building's electrician (who does very little, but is very friendly in an incomprehensible sort of a way); and of course our cleaner (who has been working for us for all of a month). Some of these we would, I am sure, wanted to give anyway, but there is also a certain protocol involved and forgetting someone's present, as well as being a major faux pas, could also apparently result in certain chores mysteriously not being done (or worse!). Granted, many of the presents are of the standard unit of a bottle of cheap run (any attempt at imagination apparently being frowned upon), but it all adds up. All this is in addition to the standard two-month-pay bonus which everyone receives, so one can see why Christmas is looked forward to with such glee here.

At the Bank, Julie of course has the whole thing all over again with the lift operators and car-park attendants and who knows what else in her office building. It is also the tradition to give all her staff a present, and because this year the office Christmas party will be here in our apartment and will include spouses and children, all the staff's kids too. In addition she has a huge list of presents to clients and business contacts, which Julie is desperately trying to pare down from her predecessor's list, which was, to put it mildly, excessive. All of which she has to do without treading on too many toes - rather her than me! She is also at the same time trying to gradually introduce various changes to the office regime concerning time-keeping, efficiency, documentation procedures, etc, which are necessarily treading on toes, and causing a little bit of friction at this time of peace and goodwill.

We are also considering doing something which, with retrospect and without the bad advice from Julie's predecessor, we should have done before we came out here, namely to get married. Unfortunately, we are not doing it from any romantic notions, or even for the benefit of our impending progeny, but for the rather mundane reason that there does not seem any other way for me to legally stay in the country. I spent most of our three years in Canada effectively as an illegal alien (although we did mange to "regularize" my status towards the end), but my recent experiences at obscure state border crossings have made me feel much less comfortable with the idea here than I was there. Of course, predictably, it is actually a major bureaucratic hassle for us as foreigners to get married here in Venezuela, and it seems that the easiest option is to go to the States to do the deed, and then to register the marriage here in Venezuela (still major hassle, but a slightly easier route).

It seems that we will have to go to Miami sometime in January anyway, to buy maternity clothes in non-Venezuelan sizes and various other things, so we thought that we may as well get married while we are about it. The bureaucracy of posting the banns is already underway, although posting a notice in Venezuela asking for any objections to a British couple marrying in the USA does seem faintly ridiculous (paying $130 for the privilege seems even more ridiculous). It is strange to think that within a few short months I will suddenly become married with a kid after eleven or twelve very happy years of living in proverbial sin.

12 December 1994Back to top

Yesterday was the "office" Christmas party which we hosted right here in our apartment, which obviously bucked the trends a little, but then people are getting used to Julie bucking trends. Even with the paid help of caterers and waiters (which with Venezuela's ridiculously low labour costs is not as profligate as it may sound), and the help of our cleaner Delfina, who is rapidly making herself indispensable, there was still a lot of organizing and preparing to do, although we were pretty much at leisure during the party itself. There were about 25 adults and 12 kids of varying ages, and the party went on between about 2pm and 8pm. Some pretty huge quantities of food and drink were consumed, and it all seemed to go off rather well.

There were a couple of minor disasters in that it did rain at one point, and everyone had to scuttle inside, so that only the bar got a bit wet, and also the stereo blew up after an hour or so, and so we were without music for the rest of the party (I must confess that I was trying to play it especially loud to cause maximum annoyance to our thoughtless upstairs neighbours, so maybe it serves me right - as it turned out they were out all day anyway!). But, nothing daunted, I was mightily impressed when people started singing and dancing themselves, some of it raucous sing-along stuff, mainly led by 36-year-old grandmother Matilde and Ligia (whom I had always taken to be in her mid-40's, but ho turns out to be nearly 60!). We were struck by how different the response would have been at a music-less party in England, and fascinated by how it might have turned out if we had had music.

The other thing I have to admit to being impressed by was the children, who started almost immediately to play with each other and to amuse themselves, with none of that English reserve, timidity or class-consciousness. They were boisterous at times but actually remarkably well-behaved on the whole. It did help that we had also booked a magician to do a few trick, and in fact he ended up working for several hours. At first we w ere a little worried that he was too mild-mannered to cope with the heckling children (one little madam in particular), but basically he just won over both the children and the sceptical adults with some very competent and at time quite impressive magic, and he left as something of a celebrity, and with a healthy tip.

29 December 1994Back to top

The very next day my parents arrived (an event I had never actually expected - not great travellers my parents) for a two-and-a-half week visit, although with the help of Delfina and rarely-used mod-cons like the dishwasher we were still all cleaned up and ready for them. My parents are not exactly movers and shakers, and seemed quite content to spend (literally) hours looking at the view from the garden, pointing things out to each other (losing an eye does not seem to have affected my father at all, and his long-distance vision is just as good as even, as I think he makes a point of proving), and sitting around the pool (although they did not seem so interested in actually using it).

We have made short forays out (to the shops, to the park), and their legs seem to have stood the test, although and longer or more arduous walks are out of the question these days. They even had a relatively painless introduction to the other face of Caracas when a man tried to pick-pocket my father's wallet while walking around the old town, but he was quick enough to retrieve it, without any further consequences - the old town of Caracas is not exactly dangerous, but it is still a favourite spot for petty theft, among all the crowds and bustle. They are in general very appreciative guests, and sometimes exclaim in almost child-like wonder at what seem to us the most ordinary things, which makes us realize how lucky we are to have had such an opportunity to travel and see the world.

Laguna de Tacarigua National Park, Venezuela (Club Miami)
Our main excursion was three days at a place called Club Miami, which is actually much pleasanter and more interesting than its name suggests. Located within Laguna de Tacarigua National Park, about two-and-a-half hours east of Caracas, it is an aging beach resort, apparently popular with the rich and famous in its heyday in the 60's. Set on thirty kilometres of pristine undeveloped beach, and backed by acres of mangroves and the lagoon for which the National Park was established, the small resort is only accessible by a twenty minute boat ride from the nearest small town, and being the only accommodation within the Park it is an ideal isolated retreat. We were the only guests there on the first day, and there were only a couple more on the next two days.

Huge waves crash constantly onto the beach, and so swimming was out of the question, but it was nevertheless quite exhilarating to let the waves crash over us, while trying to remain upright. My parents spent hours just ambling along the beach, paddling, beach-combing, and just looking out from the balcony of their room. All of us had too much sun, especially Julie and myself (as regards sunbathing, I managed to be very sensible for our first six months in Venezuela, but I have now burnt myself twice in the last month), but it was wonderful at the time. The only real draw-back to the place was the quantity of mosquitoes at night, although they were not as bad as at Morrocoy, and we were prepared with sprays and coils.

While staying at Club Miami, we also made a boat excursion into the lagoon towards dusk, to experience the staggering display of birds there as they all returned to their roosts for the night. There were large numbers of herons, pelicans, boobies, cormorants and many others, but the main attraction were the masses of bright red scarlet ibises which all return to the same few trees each evening. They would sail over us in scarlet lines or V-formations before alighting on the trees in ever denser crowds. After a while they all moved from the trees where they were gathering to the adjacent island - apparently they do so each night and no-one knows why. After a while they were joined by an equal number of snowy egrets, appearing like ghosts on their silent approaches in the failing light. Soon the whole mangrove island was a thronging, bickering mass of red and white blobs, a memorable sight indeed.

Almost equally memorable was the journey back to the hotel in almost complete darkness, especially the sections where we had to negotiate narrow channels through the maze of mangrove islands, some scarcely wider than our little boat. Somehow the boatman managed all this with hardly a decrease in speed, and only one or two bounces off the sides of the channels, while we were all crouched in the bottom of the boat trying to avoid the hanging mangrove roots overhead. It was wonderful to arrive back, intact, in time for dinner, secure in the knowledge that there would be no all-night parties, no fireworks and no car-alarms that night, just the constant crashing of waves on the beach.

One minor problem only came to light after we arrived back home, and may actually have been totally unconnected with the trip anyway. Later that evening, my father's top lip started to swell and harden, apparently for no reason at all. Soon the swelling had spread to his bottom lip, and we were worried enough to go down to the nearest emergency clinic, where they administered an anti-histamine shot and prescribed tablets and creams. It seems to have been some sort of allergic reaction, although we were not able to ascertain to what exactly. It seems likely that a number of factors had contributed to it, including too much sun, mosquito bites and eating strange fish. The anti-histamines seems to do the trick however, and to my mother's relief the swelling reduced considerably (since the strange unexplained occurrence of the blood-clot which led to my father going blind in one eye recently, she seems to panic at the slightest problem, always fearing the worst). From our point of view, it was comforting to find out that the local clinic is fast, friendly and reasonably efficient, although a less fraught way of finding out may have been preferable.

Christmas came and went for another year - I must confess I become more Grinch-like every year, but I really cannot get quite as excited over it as some people, and I find the whole thing rather over-rated. Venezuelans, like in many other Catholic countries, make much more of Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), than of Christmas Day itself, so in retrospect we were probably very naïve trying to go out for a nice meal on Christmas Eve, but it was still a rather bizarre experience. Christmas Eve must be one of the biggest nights of the year for restaurants in England and North America, but in Caracas we almost failed to find a single restaurant open, and at six o'clock they were just closing down after the afternoon session and closing down for the day. The streets were emptying rapidly by seven, except for a very heavy police presence which we never quite explained satisfactorily, and we were starting to wonder if we had missed something on the news.

We did eventually manage to find a pizza in one of the large hotels, and to get served before even they closed down at eight. It seems that the Venezuelan tradition of spending Christmas Eve with the family is taken very seriously! What they do instead of going out is to spend the whole evening (upto and beyond twelve o'clock) letting off those hugely-expensive, illegal-but-freely-available, rather-boring-but-incredibly-noisy fireworks, so once again none of us managed much sleep.

Christmas Day itself was also very quiet on the streets, although our only foray out was to take my mother to a poorly-attended church service in Las Mercedes. We followed the very English (and probably Venezuelan too) tradition of spending the morning cooking, and the afternoon eating vastly excessive amounts, slumping to some totally unwanted chocolates and nuts, and eventually resorting to watching mediocre films on television. All quite enjoyable, however. We had an additional guest in a Scottish-Venezuelan woman from Julie's office, who would otherwise have been alone on Christmas Day for the first time ever. She was rather bemused by the vegetarian Christmas dinner (Walnut Pate en Croute, now a firm tradition in Julie's family at least), but I think she had a good time and went home just as bloated and uncomfortable as we were (which is, after all, the goal, is it not?).

My parent's visit drew to a close yesterday, and they seem to have had the proverbial holiday of a lifetime, persisting in lurching between speechlessness and (apparently excessive, but I think still genuinely-felt) exclamations such as "I will remember this view until I die", "It would have been worth the trip just for today" and "I still can't believe we are here". Hearing their reactions has helped me put Venezuela into context a little - it is easy to become blasé about the countryside (which really is quite stunning), and to focus on the short-comings of the system and the people. I was quite surprised, however, to hear them comment on how clean Caracas was, (although, thinking about it, it probably is cleaner than Camden Town and many other parts of London - most of the litter which we complain about here is actually on the road-sides in rural areas, and not in Caracas itself), and overall they found Caracas a very pretty and livable city, which has never really been our impression whatever its good points.

I gave them a copy of the photos I had taken while they were here (as my camera is better than theirs, they are likely to be better photos, and I always take so many that statistically some of them must turn out well), and I finally managed to persuade them that they did not owe us any more money. My mother had field day on her last day here, buying up all sorts of tack from the Sabana Grande as presents - I had often wondered who bought all those gaudy painted mirrors and the luminous figures of saints that are always for sale outside Cathedrals, and now I know. We also loaded them up with presents for family and friends in England, letters to post, etc, so they left with almost as much luggage as they came with. The parting scenes were thankfully relatively subdued and unstressful.

31 December 1994Back to top

Although written in 1995, this entry seems to me to belong to 1994, so I cheated a little and changed the date. The weather finally seems to have sorted itself out, since mid-December there have been a succession of clear bright days, hot in the day-time, and cooling down significantly in the evenings. The cool evenings (apparently unusually cool, down to about 14°C in Caracas and less than 7°C on higher ground like Colonia Tovar) seem to have triggered some species of trees to shed their leaves, which I never thought would happen here, having resigned myself to an almost complete absence of seasons. So we are being treated to some genuinely autumnal weather, with the odd sight of yellowed leaves on the ground in among the tropical luxuriance all around. Amazingly, the locals find this time of year positively cold and have been warning us about it for some time - Julie's driver maintains that it is much too cold to sit around on the beach, although we are finding it just as hot as normal in the daytime, and certainly the sun seems just as strong.

As apparently up to 1 million Caraqueños head en masse to the beaches, or inland to stay with relatives, Caracas is now blissfully free of traffic. It takes Julie just ten minutes to get into work (I am acting as chauffeur while Victor is on holiday and the bank car is being serviced), and stress levels are significantly reduced. If only the traffic were always like this, Caracas would be much easier place to live. The down-side, however, is that nothing is open - and nothing looks likely to open until after the Feast of Kings on 6 January. One has to respect the Venezuelans' serious attitude towards holidays, but in a country which is teetering economically it seems somewhat bizarre to me that the shops are not having sales and desperately trying to earn a few extra bucks.

After our experiences at Christmas, we were a bit clearer about what to expect at New Year, and it turned out that we were right that New Year's Eve was not a going-out-to-restaurants-and-bars night as in much of the rest of the civilized world (even our idea of going to the cinema came to nothing). It is another family occasion, but with the added novelty of fireworks reminiscent of the Blitz or Armageddon. Actually for us the fireworks were something of a disappointment after all the build-up because, as at Christmas, they all packed a huge noise but none of the beautiful visual effect which give fireworks most of their appeal in our view. From our vantage point on our hill, it was very much like watching a war-zone on CNN, with random flashes right across the valley, and booms, crack and whizzes at varying volumes and distance. The concentrated effect of them all may have been quite impressive were it not for the fact that people (and chief among them our next door neighbours) have been making these booms, cracks and whizzes for over a month now, so that we (and one would imagine they too) have become inured and bored by them. The cat, however, seasoned veteran of nine or ten Bonfire Nights and Independence Days in various parts of the world, was absolutely freaked out by the sheer volume of them, and spent the night shuttling between hiding places, under the beds and in various wardrobes which we left open for him.

For our part, we had actually refused a couple of invitations, and had a relatively quiet time in, insofar as that was possible, cooking a nice meal, playing dominoes and drinking Baileys (both firm customs with us now). We were awake at 12 o'clock, but only just, and certainly that was not particularly the highlight of the evening. It is some years now since we have made a big deal of New Year, after many years of attending noisy, drunken and often distinctly unenjoyable parties. The social pressure, in England at any rate, was always to go out, get drunk and pretend to be having a good time. Call us bourgeois, but some of our most enjoyable New Years have been in remote cottages with just a couple of good friends and some good conversation. Maybe we are just old before out time, or maybe we just have the confidence to do what we want, and not what someone else thinks we ought to do. It also occurred to us more than once that our days of being alone together in private are rapidly coming to an end as Julie's pregnancy progresses, and that we should treasure what opportunities are left to us.

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