Luke's South American Diary
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July 1996

4 July 1996

With the car in the garage needing major repairs to the front axle in addition to the normal service (it seems that every time I go off exploring on dirt tracks, something major needs fixing on the Jeep), I have been feeling somewhat stranded up here in our eyrie. In between negotiating a new car insurance (another huge outlay), I have spent a lot of time tootling around on the computer, where I have discovered programming using Lotus macros by a process of trial and error, and am gradually building up a program which compares the life-spans of major composers (in table form and graphically) with important events in the fields of political, artistic, philosophical and scientific history, as well as in English and foreign literature. I have also taken up squash again (after a break of over ten years), which is something of a shock to the system, especially as my physical activity recently has shrivelled almost to nothing.

One recent event which proved interesting, if a little bizarre, was the Canada Day celebrations organized by the Canadian Embassy here. In addition to the normal lunch-time booze-up, there was also an evening party held on a NATO warship down on the coast at La Guaira, which was something of a first for me. Five ships from the different NATO member-countries were in dock after training activities in the region, and the Canadians used this as an opportunity for a party. In actual fact, the party was on the German ship, although from talking to the sailors, everyone is in an almost constant state of secondment to different ships, which are therefore basically common property. The evening was interesting enough, although we sneaked out when the provocative dancing started, (especially given the drunken state of many of the sailors by this time, and the distinctly unsalubrious nature of the dock area which we would have to risk on the way back).

20 July 1996 Back to top

My plans to visit the Gran Sabana area of Venezuela went on hold when, just a few days before I was to go, I heard reports on the radio news of unprecedented rains in the area, such that the Orinoco and several other rivers in the area were ready to burst their banks. That, together with the thought of what such rain would have done to some of the roads there, was enough to persuade me that then was not the most auspicious time to be going. However, I am determined that it will not end up as one of those things I never got around to, as it has always been high up on my list (indeed, it surprises me - and others - that I still have not been). Not that the weather has been much better in Caracas - it has rained pretty well every day, and sometimes all day. Even the Venezuelans seem to agree that their much-vaunted weather is well and truly up the spout (or down the drain may be nearer the point), and it seems to be one of the worst rainy seasons in recent years. There have been newspaper reports almost daily of landslides in some of the poorer and more precarious barrios. The only upside is that the hills and mountains are all cloaked in a mantle of dazzling green.

Fascinating statistics time: A recent poll showed that 70% of Venezuelan men are unfaithful to their partners (35% are found out!), and that although most Venezuelan women dream about being unfaithful, they never actually fulfill these dreams. Which, it occurs to me, begs the question of who the men find to be unfaithful with...

Elena went to a party recently at the Baby Gym, where everyone (as usual) thought she was a boy (no earrings, you see), and remarked how tremenda she was (a word which has connotations of lively, full of energy and mischievous, as well as just plain tremendous). She certainly had a wonderful time, beaming at total strangers and then acting coy, racing around, bouncing and jumping with sheer joy, and performing her current favourite crowd-pleaser of jumping up and down and then falling over backwards. The latter has developed from the "Three little monkeys jumping on a bed" song, and she only has to hear the word "monkey" - or "monito" in Spanish - before she hares off to our bedroom.

She continually surprises us with her comprehension, and we are going to have to start being quite careful what we say, as she learns extremely quickly. On hearing a nursery rhyme, she will now run and fetch the correct book and the rhyme in it, which, at less than fifteen months, we were quite impressed with. She can associate many pictures and words with toys she has (even though, for instance, a cow is brown in one book and black and white in another, and the black and white horse in a third book looks nothing like the brown horse in her model farm - life is quite confusing when you come to think of it). She will even make what seem to be quantum leaps of understanding at times, and it will take us quite some time to work out how she made the connection. She is much more willing to try to repeat words now, although they usually come out without their endings ("ba", "bo" and bu" for "bath", "ball" and "book", for example, can be somewhat confusing, but it is surprising how much we are able to understand her, with practice and a certain amount of benefit of the doubt). Winston has taken over her cardboard-box house, (without a fight), and Elena's favourite toys now are balls of any description, stacking pots and the rocking horse. In moments where she has been suspiciously quiet for too long, she can often be found standing on the back-rest of the futon in her room, clicking her tongue gently at the three small kittens who have taken up residence outside her bedroom window.

31 July 1996 Back to top

Julie's last trip to Colombia was basically a fact-finding mission in order to make a recommendation as to whether or not the bank (and therefore us) should relocate to Bogotá. She brought back a booklet produced by the Canadian Embassy there on personal security in Bogotá, which is full of interesting statistics like the murder rate of approximately 20 a day, and the fact that Bogotá hospitals treat around 2,000 scopolamine victims each month, about one in three of the patients in the emergency room at any one time (scopolamine is a drug which criminals use to incapacitate a victim, either by spiking a drink, spraying in the face or blowing it in drug or cigarette form).

Other than that, most of the recommendations are common sense, and generally what we observe in Caracas, although maybe on a heightened level. Until we get there (and it is looking increasingly likely that we will be there by the end of the year), it is difficult to know whether the recommendations some ex-pats have made such as armed drivers, no travelling outside the city, taking a different route to work every day, etc, are overkill or not. It was ominous that one American ex-pat she met had been recently held up at gun-point, and he had sent his wife and kids to live in Caracas for safety!

Either way I am sure it will be an interesting experience (character-building, as they say), although I am glad that I have already done a certain amount of travelling in some of the dodgier parts of Colombia at a time before things became quite so bad, as by the sounds of it I may not have much of an opportunity when we are there. Having said that, I recently had a letter from my young English friend who was travelling through South America for a year or so, and he seems to have managed to visit several of the pre-Colombian sites of Colombia usually regarded as no-go areas these days, and was only robbed once, just as he was leaving the country.

Having reached the milestones of 80cm and 10kg, Elena is now on size 4 nappies, which is just as well as Huggies Ultratrim Size 3's seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth (at least as regards Caracas): Size 4's, if extremely expensive, are at least available. She is also currently perfecting her "maximum-annoyance whine", which is really very effective, and she knows it. I recently took her along with a friend to a playgroup organised by the Recent Arrivals Club. There were probably 15 people there (of which I was of course the only male), mainly English (as most of the American women return en masse to the States for most of the summer for some obscure reason). Elena loved it, and I surprised myself (and Julie) by thoroughly enjoying it myself - nothing to do with being the only male, it was just a pleasant relaxed atmosphere and a chance to meet some interesting people - it occurred to me that maybe I should have done this sort of thing a long time ago.

Elena is now obsessed (and I use the word advisedly) by Barney, a purple dinosaur with a whiney voice all of his own. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) we only have one Barney video, which we made the mistake of buying in Miami, and it is dull. Worse than dull, it is cringe-makingly saccharine, and unbearably politically correct, with all the songs about good manners and sharing, and the four (racially-mixed, of course) goody-goody kids it features are just so inhumanly pleasant, it sets your teeth on edge. Not that I have turned fascist overnight, and I am sure it is all jolly educational and all that, but it is just too over-the-top to be real. Elena, however, is hooked - she will watch the whole thirty-minute tape without so much as breaking eye-contact with Barney (yes, this is Elena, who normally has the attention span of a cricket), and knows it well enough to say "bubble" thirty seconds before the bubbles arrive, and prompts with her duck impression just before the song which mentions ducks. We now quite understand why desperate parents plant their hyperactive kids in from of the TV, although so far we only give in when the chant of "Barney, Barney, Barney" becomes unbearable, and Elena is banging the remote controls on the table. We have put out an urgent request for Sesame Street videos (anything!) in order to try and retain what is left of our sanity.

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