Luke's South American Diary
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February 1996

13 February 1996

Since Julie's parents left, nothing much of world-shaking interest seems to have occurred (not that their visit was exactly "earth-shaking"). I have been working on my next project: a guide to parks and walks in and around Caracas, complete with maps, information on how to get there, etc. The map-making in particular I find fascination (although I am sure my efforts would not bear much scrutiny from Ordnance Survey), and I have been using it as an excuse to re-visit all the walks I have discovered throughout my sojourn here, and to explore all those little side-trails which I had always assumed were just overgrown dead-ends. Actually, most of them are just overgrown dead-ends, but it is the exceptions which makes the effort worthwhile, and even some of the overgrown dead-ends themselves are quite interesting, and give me something of the feeling of a real explorer, fighting my way through briars and head-high grass. It is extraordinary that one can achieve that feeling within the city limits, but if one looks for it (and one certainly has to put some effort into that!) there is still plenty of wilderness left in over-populated Caracas.

Most of the rest of Caracas and Venezuela, and for that matter the rest of Latin America, has been deep in Pope-mania recently as El Papa has been making his first visit to Venezuela in ten years. Among other events he blest a huge, ugly (but at least vaguely interesting) new church in the Llanos town of Guanare, where the statue of the Virgen de Coromoto (to which several miracles have been attributed over the years) is now to reside. A mass at Caracas' military airport purportedly attracted nearly a million attendees, and of course the now obligatory head-patting of the kids from the barrios also took place.

It really has been quite a circus, and fascinating to watch from the side-lines, both in terms of the show which he himself puts on, and of the over-the-top reactions of the normally stolidly irreligious Venezuelans. There were detractors of course, mainly of the view (with which I quite concur) that the millions of dollars spent on his visit would have been better spent directly on the poor and needy. The security alone was phenomenal, with most of the city at a standstill for most of the three days or so he was here, and the almost constant media coverage (very poor quality from the little I saw of it) certainly spread an (admittedly important) event very thinly. I got the impression that almost everyone breathed a sigh of relief when they were allowed to get back to normal, and continue their preparations for Carnaval, so rudely disturbed by his ill-timed visit.

16 February 1996 Back to top

We recently took Elena to a place near where we live called the Baby Gym (an embarrassingly yuppy-ish facility as the name suggests, where rich Venezuelans take their pampered darlings to ensure they develop their motor responses earlier than the pampered darlings next door - cynical, moi?). Actually, it was a very well-organized affair, set in a padded cell of primary colours, with some very pleasant young women who help put babies from various age-groups through what is basically an obstacle course, designed to encourage them to explore their surrounding and learn to walk, as well as other games designed to improve their dexterity, and sing-songs where they bash along, supposedly in time. Elena seemed to love most of the 45-minute session (she was not too sure about the bit where the children had to cower under a huge sheet which the adults were waving around above them - mind you, I was not too sure of the purpose of that one myself), and we were pleased that she did not seem too fazed by the other children there. We decided to sign her up for a session a week, if only so that she gets to meet other kids of the same age (even though she did manage to poke a little girl in the eye within five minutes of arriving).

We were invited to the premiere of a Venezuelan-Canadian joint venture film about Humboldt's and Bomplands's explorations of Venezuela a century ago, which, despite being in French and Spanish, was actually very good, and served as a great advert for the natural beauty of the country. In particular it re-whetted my desire to visit the Amazonas region, of Venezuela, along the Orinoco river, which looked stunning from the film. It seems that there is no way we can take Elena, at least for the foreseeable future, because the anti-malaria treatment is not recommended for small children (and Amazonas is one of the few areas of Venezuela where malaria is still prevalent), but I am considering driving down there while the dry season lasts. Getting there should be something of an adventure in itself, as this is not the USA where one can ring the AAA for detailed information on road conditions: this is Venezuela where different maps show different roads, and it is no means certain whether a particular road will be surfaced or a dirt track, or even whether it will be passable at all.

We are not necessarily coming towards the end of our stay here, but there seems to be an increasing possibility that the bank will want to move its corporate operations in the area from Caracas to Bogotá, because despite increasing social unrest there and the possible impeachment of the president, there is still much more business (and potential business) in Colombia than there ever will be in Venezuela (in the foreseeable future at any rate). We are in two minds about it, partly because of the risk of kidnapping and violence there (even its president recently admitted that it is one of the most dangerous countries in the world), and partly because it is so much colder than here. However, we are having to give it some serious thought anyway, just in case the plan comes to fruition (Julie is the obvious person to open up the new office). Consequently I am becoming more and more conscious of how much more there is to see in Venezuela, although I am loathe to spend too much time away as it does not seem fair on Julie.

21 February 1996 Back to top

Bahía Patanemo, Venezuela
Our last excursion was something of a disaster. We were interested in going down to the coast during Carnaval, just for the experience, which may have been rash in itself, although we did choose a part of the coast which would be less busy than some. We had booked ourselves a room in a promising-sounding posada at Bahía de Patanemo, a beautiful bay with lagoon and mountain back-drop near Puerto Cabello, about three hours from home. The place itself was basically fine, even if the shower was still not working after several complaints (eventually we were shown a trick, which we were never able to repeat for ourselves, whereby if all three taps were turned on to just the right place, cold water somehow, miraculously, appeared).

Part of the problem was that, for an establishment which boldly advertised that they catered for special diets, the food was appalling, and no matter what suggestions we made, it never really improved. The main problem, however, was, predictably enough, Elena. Despite the heat, (or maybe because of it and the coastal humidity), she managed to contract a cold within hours of arriving, could not breathe properly, could not sleep, could not or would not eat, bawled incessantly and generally made life miserable for the rest of our stay. I do not mean to blame her for getting a cold (I am sure even she would not do that deliberately), but we had such a bad night on the Sunday that neither Julie nor I wanted to see her towards the end, and we ended up having an acrimonious row, in which I came as close as I have ever come in 15 years to walking out, and which we both regretted in the morning. Maybe we are just inept parents, or maybe we were just spoilt before, but it is beginning to seem that whenever we try to do anything or go anywhere with Elena, something goes disastrously wrong.

During the few moments of relief, I went for an interesting walk in search of the lagoon, starting off across cracked salt-flats, atmospherically strewn with bleached tree roots like skeletons, through a muddier band where the trees were still white and dead but at least still standing like ghosts, through a section of wet, oozing mud where every step was accompanied by the patter of tiny feet as hundreds of tiny crabs scuttled away, finally arriving at the edge of the lagoon, where the only practical way forward was to scramble across the mangrove roots above the water, in order to obtain even a glimpse of the lagoon beyond. Another time we walked in the sweltering sun along the beach, absolutely thronged with bronzed people wearing G-strings, and sat for a cold beer or two at a beach hut, where we could watch the shenanigans at our leisure - one of the few highlights of the trip.

Naiguatá, Venezuela
On the afternoon of Ash Wednesday, technically the day after the end of Carnaval, I drove down to Naiguatá on the Litoral coast in an attempt to witness the "Burial of the Sardine", a folkloric parade where Carnaval is symbolically laid to rest for another year. From my past experience of such things I did not actually hold out many hopes of finding it, or of it starting anything like on time, but on arriving in the town there was definitely something afoot, and I only had to follow the noise to find out what.

I found a good-sized crowd, composed mainly of young males, most sporting aggressive-looking crew-cuts, and the majority painted from head to foot (or at the very least with painted faces). A float carried a band beating out the distinctive Caribbean-influenced rhythms of coastal Venezuela, and all the bodies were writhing in time (in between drinks). Another float, decorated with tinsel and old gin bottles, carried the fish and a(presumably mock) priest was blessing it, while devils and what looked like cave-men cavorted around it, picking fights and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

As usual I was about the only foreigner there, and I suppose the sight of a gringo with a camera was too much a temptation to pass up: the central core of revellers, led by a huge fat negro, decided that I should join in the fun, so I too was doused with paint and my T-shirt ripped off. I had read that part of the custom was the flinging around of flour and water, but I was not quite ready for paint - oil-based gloss paint at that, with the added bonus of itchy bits of straw and dust. At least after that I was made much more welcome, and people would laugh and joke with me rather than eye me suspiciously, but I was itching unbearably and I could already feel the paint starting to set around my eyes and neck, so I decided to leave them to it and head back while I still could.

An hour-and-a-half later I walked in on a rather shocked Julie and Elena, assuring them that it was red paint and not blood (in the mirror I looked as though I had been hatcheted on the side of the head). I spent about an hour in the shower painfully scrubbing with a nailbrush, but thankfully I did manage to get most of it off without resorting to chemical means, and with help from Julie most of the rest came off over the next day or two. My trousers were a write-off, and my T-shirt was no doubt still being paraded as a trophy back in Naiguatá, but I felt as though I had witnessed something that that few outsiders see, and considered it worth the painful scrub-up.

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