Luke's South American Diary
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July 1994

1 July 1994

I have been rattling out letters these last few days, passing on first impressions, new phone numbers, etc, to the "folks back home". I have always resisted in the past, but I am wondering whether regular word-processed letters might not be much easier, given that I am writing more or less the same things to everyone anyway, so they are hardly personalized even if they are hand-written (which just serves to make them more difficult to read). Still, as I write this, my computer is still far away in storage in England until we can resolve our visa situation here.

Speaking of which, Julie's visa is apparently dangerously close be being ready, unlikely though it may seem, and all she has to do now is to go out of the country to sign some forms, (ridiculous but true). However, at least we will not have to go back to England to do so – we can do it much more cheaply in Miami, as well as stocking up on clothes and electrical goods not available or prohibitively expensive here, and have a rest from having to speak Spanish too, which is still costing me a lot of effort. Despite assurances, I do not believe that they have even made a start on my visa, although Jaqui in the office seems to be able to keep extending my tourist visa without too much difficulty (I do not even ask how).

However, although it all sounds quite straight-forward, finding a couple of days in which Julie can take time off is not so simple. Venezuela has, in the last couple of weeks imposed price and exchange controls, and suspended some constitutional guarentees of civil liberties, ostensibly in order to enforce those controls if necessary. President Caldera has appeared on television openly using phrases like the "mafia" of bankers bleeding the country dry, etc. In true Venezuelan style, the emergency measures were issued with the proviso that further announcements would be made subsequently about how the controls would be implemented, thus giving them a little time in which to start thinking about little practicalities like that. The exchange controls in particular have made Julie's job even more frantic than before, in addition to her continuing staff problems, annual budget preparation, etc, etc. So she is spending an inordinate amount of time on administration rather than going out looking for business which is theoretically what she came here to do, what she enjoys doing, and what she is best at.

Along with the government's emergency measures have come rumours of a potential coup (rumours only at the moment), which could make life very interesting, although in some ways the price controls should actually reduce the likelihood of a coup, as the rampant inflation which Venezuela has been experiencing recently (10% in June alone) is the most likely trigger for widespread public unrest. There is some evidence that at least one previous coup attempt was actually engineered by Venezuelan financiers in order to make a proverbial killing on the money markets during the period of destabilization – another little insight into the murky depths of the Venezuelan psyche. Some of the culprits at that time were brought to justice, but some inexplicably seem to be still at large, presumably hard at work planning their next jolly wheeze.

It is a little difficult to gauge the effects of all this. Most day to day things seem so cheap to us anyway that we would never notice if the price of an orange went up from the equivalent of 3¢ to 4¢, or an eggplant from 10¢ to 13¢. But I suppose the difference between a banana costing 4¢ and one costing 6¢ (yes, these are real prices!) could mount up quite significantly for a family of six living on the breadline in some dive of a barrio. Certainly Julie's driver (who lives in a barrio, but is by no means the poorest of the poor) is finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet, and is now asking for his overtime pay every two days instead of every weeks – just an example of the hand-to-mouth lives people here lead.

The price of petrol seems to us, as outsiders, the perfect example of a potential revenue source. A litre of petrol still costs less than B's 6 (about 3¢ per litre at the current best estimate of what the exchange rate might be if there were such a thing), so that a tank-full would knock you back less than $1.50, which seems to us ridiculous and unjustifiable. But I can also see that increasing the price of petrol could be a potential minefield as the use of a car is considered something of a sacred right and, with the problems of public transport, arguably a necessity in Caracas. Just the threat of a price increase triggered one of the coup attempts earlier this decade, so: what to do, what to do? Clearly in retrospect it should have been increased gradually over an extended period, but that is little comfort now that the chicken that laid the golden eggs has come home to roost (to horribly mix metaphors).

We have finally met a couple of neighbours (ours is not the friendliest of apartment blocks, we have decided), almost the only other people in the whole building who also use the swimming pool, and who should they turn out to be but English-educated and English-based Italians. The husband is in an almost identical position to Julie as the representative here with Midland Bank and, as the business community here is relatively tight-knit, it did not come as too much of a surprise that they had actually already met in meetings. So they can compare notes as the banking crisis (and that is what we have, despite the President's reluctance to admit it) deepens. His wife is therefore in some ways in a similar position to me as the non-working spouse, except that she is pregnant and I am not.

They are a very pleasant couple and, having been here a year or so longer than us, can give us a few tips on how things work (or not, as the case may be). One of their tips in particular was to invest in an emergency water tank for the apartment, as the building (along with most of the rest of Caracas) will almost certainly have water restrictions in the dry season. We had our suspicions that this would be the case, despite the real estate agent's predictable assurances to the contrary, but we are not over-reacting just yet as the dry season is not scheduled to even start until October or November.

7 July 1994Back to top

Venezuela's Independence Day was celebrated a couple of days ago, coincidentally the day after America's, and the President was on television (on all the channels, and at great length) exhorting the populace to remember their great history, to think positive, and generally not to get in the way of whatever he may decide to do. We also had to watch him (live, on all the channels and at very great length) shake hands with every Ambassador, trade delegate and visiting dignatory who had the misfortune or bad planning to find themselves in Venezuela on Independence Day. It did not make for great TV, I can assure you.

Despite being a Bank Holiday, Julie was hard at work preparing for a visit from her big boss in Canada later today. I can understand that he would be rather anxious to see the situation here at first hand, but his timing is not great for Julie, who is already snowed under (or whatever the tropical equivalent would be – "swamped" I suppose) with work. However, our trip to Miami is booked for next weekend, come what may, and after all the bureaucracy and shopping we hope to still have a little time for relaxing and maybe a quick trip to the Everglades and some time on a beach. It all sound positively tame, but I think the break from Venezuela may prove a holiday in itself.

It will also be our first time away from the cat since we arrived here. He has sort of settled, but is still rather nervous. His recent noctural face-offs with a large, aggressive and vociferous ginger tom will presumably have to come to blows before they are resolved, so we are already saving for the vet's bills, as with every previous move we have made.

I asked the conserjes in my still very halting Spanish, whether they would mind feeding him when we go away from time to time. Despite my carefully-scripted openings, there were a few things said which I did not quite catch (probably along the lines of "Are you serious? You really want me to go in each day and feed a cat?"), so I said that I would go back with a note of instructions on how to feed a cat, so that there would be no chance of confusion. I think they were even more bemused at this, especially when I suggested that they read it to make sure they could understand the instructions. The daughter was duly sent for (she is only about 14 but is considered the educated one in the family, as indeed she is), and the whole family sat around concentrating earnestly while the note was read aloud and I hopped around in embarrassment. I am sure I have provided some entertainment for them, and no doubt a family story will be handed down about the nutty Englishman and the cat letter. Still, I have long since stopped worrying about the remnants of my pride, and have reached the stage where, if it gets the job done, anything (mime included) goes.

We have also bitten the bullet and made enquiries about employing a maid. As these things tend to work here, the conserje just happens to have a sister who just happens to be looking for cleaning work, and, yes, three days a week is just what she is looking for. I am sure we are going into this in a very naive way, having no previous experience of such things and, although we are asking for proof of address and immigration status (as we have read in books) I think her references are probably going to be the fact that she is the conserje's sister (or at least we are told she is...).

I have taken the precaution of buying a small safe for our few possessions of any value (including an embarrassing stock of dollars we are supposed to keep as an emergency measure in the event of a coup, etc). From talking to friends it seems to be par for the course that the odd little-used and inexpensive items tend to walk at first (a certain amount of this is considered a perk of the job apparently), and if successful this can graduate onto more valuable items, so I felt that we should err on the side of caution and lock valuables out of the way of temptation. Frankly, you can hardly blame them – the temptations and the differences in life-style staring them in the eye are so obvious.

People tell me not to make a big deal of having a maid, as it is perfectly normal here, and to look at the fact that we are providing someone with a pretty good job who did not have one before. Either way, it will no doubt take some getting used to. The infringement on privacy issue still bothers me a little, and I am still very unsure about how to talk to and treat a maid (to always use the formal "you" for a start is going to feel very strange and will probably go by the board very early on). I have a suspicion that I will probably find every excuse to leave the house while she is here in order to reduce the discomfort levels, at least to start with. However, the prospect of not having to do the ironing and sweeping out the dust which constantly blows through the place, will surely be recompense enough. The money is yet to be decided, but clearly it will be peanuts to us, probably to an embarrassing extent.

So the transformation into the corporate man-of-leisure continues apace. I felt positively miffed the other day at having to do some DIY in installing the safe, and in mending a small leak in one of the bathrooms!

19 July 1994Back to top

With my sister visiting soon, I have been writing to her to try to calm her (perfectly reasonable) fears regarding her very tight connection in New York, and then the chaos she will encounter on arriving in Caracas. I actually think that she is very brave to be going through with it all, especially as she has not travelled that much and does not speak a word of Spanish. Her long-espoused desire to visit Venezuela (dating from well before we had any idea we would be coming here) seems able to outweigh any potential problems getting here may present. We will of course set her up with a gestor at the airport, although in some ways that may freak her out even more than not doing so.

I hope by then that the weather will have improved a little: the last week or two has seen increasing cloud cover and often quite persistent rain, not the flash storms quickly followed by clearing which we were led to believe were the norm here in the rainy season. I have been assuring my sister that the weather is still lovely, but maybe Caracas does not have the perfect climate of which the Caraqueños always boast (or maybe this is merely an aberration).

Florida, USA
It seems especially harsh having just returned from four days in Florida, where the weather was hot, dry and sunny, although to be honest it was actually too hot, with temperatures well into the mid-30º's and the humidity high, which made even walking around hard work. The trip was a good one though, including a day and a night in the Everglades and a canoe trip which made us quite nostalgic for our time in Canada, despite the very different surroundings. We did some serious shopping in Miami, and managed to tick off most of the items on our list. Even the Venezuelan Embassy in Miami came through for us, and with a minimum of hassle Julie now has her transeunte visa, and we also have a signed certificado del uso which means that finally we will be able to send for our belongings (which are currently accumulating storage charges in England) although it will still be a good month before we actually receive them. It was really rather pleasant to be in Florida, where everything works, everything is straight-forward and civilized and, although quite a large majority of the people on the street seemed to be Spanish-speakers, most people could at least speak English if needed. We did however have the rather bizarre experience of having to speak Spanish to a waiter in a Middle Eastern restaurant in Miami Beach because he could not understand our English!

Also, Julie enjoyed the somewhat unaccustomed luxury of taking time off so much that she has vowed to be strict with herself and make sure she always takes here allotted vacation time (somehow she still has thirty days to take in the remainder of this year!) – it is funny, but I never had that problem when I was working! So as well as a few days while my sister is over here (we have four days in Canaima already booked, and various possible day-trips in prospect), we have been talking of maybe a week in Ecuador in August and somewhere else in Venezuela in September. She has to be in Canada for a course in September, but I persuaded her to return to Venezuela for a holiday rather than tacking on some time in Canada (much as I like Canada). Her sister will probably be visiting us from New York in October or November, so that seemed like a good excuse for another trip to somwhere else (possibly to Morrocoy National Park, and maybe even Canaima again). The possibilities are endless, and I am in my element poring over maps and guide books, and planning trips here, there and everywhere.

Considering that Venezuela is the only country in South America where baseball is more popular than soccer, World Cup fever has taken hold with a vengeance. It is virtually impossible to find a restaurant or a store (or even an office, so I understand) which does not have a game blaring out. It does not help that the commentary is in true Latino style: loud and distorted, highly and unapologetically biassed towards anything even vaguely South American, totally lacking in analysis, and peppered with ten-second "gooooooooaaaaaaaalllllllll!!!!!!!"s. After any South American win, (which effectively means a Brazilian win), it is also wise to stay indoors and listen to the fireworks and honking horns from a safe distance.The revellers are usually well-drunk and tend to leave a trail of devastation on the roads, as (this being Venezuela) they insist on doing their revelling in their cars.

So, aware of all this, what did we do on the day of the final (a day which we chose to spend on the beach, as it happened), but get caught up in the most almighty celebration after Brazil had beaten Italy. We really should have known better than to be travelling back home at six or so in the evening, because the whole of the centre of Caracas, including the autopistas, and apparently centred around the Las Mercedes district which we have to pass through on our way home, was just one big party. During the two hours it took us to progress our last two or three kilometres, the traffic was mainly at a complete standstill, horns blaring, and the occupants (drivers and all) hung out of their windows and danced in the street to ear-splitting salsa music.

From the motorway bridge above Avenida Principal de Las Mercedes all one could see were gyrating bodies dressed in yellow and green, and the odd car hopelessly stranded in the midst of it all. On another day I think we would have appreciated it more, but we were hungry and tired after too much sun, and we became more and more irritable as the revellers (very few of whom seemed to be older than twenty, and even fewer of whom were sober) continued to block our way. Eventually we managed to find a long alternative route home, feeling like old party-poopers, and thanking God that Venezuela itself had not qualified.

El Litoral West, Venezuela (Chichiriviche, back road to Colonia Tovar)
The irony was that we had actually had a wonderful day, exploring the Caribbean coast to the west of Caracas airport for a change. Like the coast to the east, the early stages were very built-up and run-down and the balnearios, although not as busy, did not look too enticing. But further long the road deteriorated to a dirt track through the arid, cactus-strewn coastal hills with tantalizing glimpses of the sea. The first beach we decided to stop at, Puerto Carayaca, was mainly occupied by a few surfers, who obviously did not want to watch the World Cup either. The sea was a little rough - a problems along most of the Caribbean coast of Venezuela - but not too rough to swim in, and certainly by no means cold, although we were disappointed not to find that little beach cafe where we had imagined eating a wonderful vegetarian lunch...

So we moved on to another small town called Chichiriviche, with a beach as pretty as its name. The town was basic, but (maybe it was just the tropical vegetation) somehow looked prosperous despite its isolation and apparent lack of industry. There were a few local kids (those without televisions, I imagine), especially in the bath-temperature river which crossed the beach, a few scuba divers further out, and a small flotilla of brightly-painted fishing boats, but again we were the only outsiders there. There were beach bars where we could get cold beers, (even if not that veggy lunch, which was fast fading even in our imagination), the swimming was wonderful, and we could clamber over the volcanic cliffs at one end of the beach to where crabs literally swarmed over the rocks, and a blow-hole sprayed surf way up into the air.

But the climax of the day was unexpectedly the drive home, especially the section on a dirt track up into the mountains towards Colonia Tovar. The views were spectacular, and the vegetation changed as we climbed from scrubby cactuses to lush cloud-forest jungle, strewn with creepers. There were swarms of yellow and orange butterflies, birds flashing bright yellow tails, and at one particularly beautiful spot, where the road forded a small river which we had already forded several times before, masses of large white orchids were growing out of the boulder-strewn stream. After all this beauty and stillness, it seemed a shame to have to drive back into the maelstrom of Caracas on World Cup Final day, and that is just what it turned out to be.

Our maid, incidentally called Diana, has started work and things seem fine so far, despite all my trepidation. The trepidation has been scaled down to a little awkwardness, and even that is fast disappearing as the luxury of having washed, ironed and neatly-folded clothes takes effect. I am sure we are paying over the odds, as I think I was supposed to start bargaining when her daily charge was first mentioned, but I have never been much good at that sort of thing, and for the amounts involved I really did not have the heart.

Diana is all of five-feet-nothing and petite, and takes two camionetas to arrive here at 8am from her tower block in a working class district in the centre of Caracas. I drove past the area out of interest and, although it seemed poor, it was certainly much superior to some of the ramshackle barrios in more marginal areas of the city. She is Colombian, as are most domestic and low-paid workers in Venezuela, and I am not sure if she has a family or not (she seems very young, but then people start families incredibly early here). Maybe I will subject her to some more of my still excruciating Spanish, as I need all the practice I can get, and as she is Colombian and not Venezuelan she speaks realtively clearly.

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