Luke's South American Diary
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June 1994

6 June 1994

Distrito Federal, Venezuela (Colonia Tovar to Puerto Cruz de Limón)
On my second visit to Colonia Tovar (Julie's first), we decided to vary the trip a little by driving north from the town towards the coast. The day was overcast for a change, and from halfway up the ridge road between Caracas and Colonia Tovar we were lost in thick cloud (as one might expect in a cloud forest), and the dramatic overlooks from the road were just white spaces as though the views had not yet been painted in. Julie was as little impressed with Colonia Tovar as I had been, and we decided that the only way to look on it was as a German Theme Park, and to make the best of the excellent strawberries and cream and fresh vegetables.

From Colonia Tovar the road towards the coast passed even deeper into even lusher cloud forest, where the jungle was dripping with bromeliads and moss (and rain), and glorious mats of wild bizzie-lizzies carpeted the road-side verges. This was apparently coffee country, although we actually saw little eveidence of it, the coffee presumably being deep in the valleys and lost in mist to us. After about 45km of spectacular mountains, the road dead-ended in a small beach and fishing community called Puerto Cruz de Limón, where they obviously did not see too many tourists, least of all gringos. We sat on the beach for a while and watched the local kids and pelicans sharing one of the old fishing boats in the bay.

It was on the way back up to Colonia Tovar that we experienced one of those dramatic tropical events which make living here so exciting. The rain started to lash down and within minutes the deep gutters of the steep, winding road were torrential streams, washing down rocks, branches and other debris before them. Full-scale rivers (which had not been there before) suddenly appeared across our path, reddish-brown water several inches deep cascading across the road and over the edge of the precipitous hillsides. We were safe enough in our four-wheel drive, and able to negotiate the rocks and branches which were being washed onto the road, the main problem being guessing where the edge of the road was in some places, and hoping that no-one came the other way.

Once again it was the contrast which struck us so forcibly, between the power and rawness of Nature which was being exhibited here and the strawberries and cream and stuffed parrots of Colonia Tovar just over the crest of the hill. Dropping down again into the Caracas valley, the remains of a beautiful crimson sunset seemed to hang in the surrounding blackness, somehow way above where we expected the horizon to be. Flooded roads on the way back into town caused long hold-ups (and the usual bizarre shenanigans which seemed to always go with them), and we were rather abruptly dumped back into reality after these near-mystical experiences. The next day we read of homes washed away, ten killed in driving accidents, and thirty killed in the normal weekend violence in the barrios, and the constant contrasts of South America struck us even more forcibly.

20 June 1994Back to top

In the last couple of weeks, things have finally started to move a little, although still at the customary relaxed and erratic pace we are coming to know so well. We were finally able to move into our swish ex-pat style apartment in Lomas de San Román and that has reduced our stress levels somewhat, particularly those of the cat who was beginning to go bananas cooped up in the hotel room. I fitted a cat-flap (an English one I took the precaution of bringing: such things are unknown here), and he now has the run of the extensive communal gardens, and even down to the wild and precipitous hillside below if he is brave enough, as well as our own back garden. We have barricaded out next door's small but aggressive dog, but somehow a very large rabbit still appears in our garden each evening from somewhere or other, and cat and rabbit seem to have struck a pact of non-acknowledgement of each other's presence.

Our stress levels have not been totally reduced by the move, however, because despite all our efforts to ensure that everything was fixed up and working before the contract weas signed, several things still remain to be resolved. For instance, we now have five keys and a remote control for the alarm to carry around, as well as two car keys and another alarm control, and yet another control to open the main gates (which thankfully we can leave in the car). In addition to this there is another bunch of spare keys, plus keys to the maletero, various internal door keys, and another bunch of 22 keys which we have inherited and which do not seem to fit anything. So, unlikely though it may seem, it is nevertheless true that we are still missing some keys: for the lifts, the gym and the swimming pool changing rooms. Security (or at least keys) is at a premium here, although I still think that the Pocket-Stitchers' Union has a vested interest in it all.

We needed to get workmen in to fix the lights and external electric points in the garden, the tumble-dryer which was tumbling but not drying, and the main water heater which was leaking through its electrical terminals and consequently not doing much heating. We are gradually getting things done, but we have realized that the problem is not so much with the contractors themselves, who generally work quite well when they finally do arrive, as with the apartment owners who have been very dillatory in arranging for the contractors to come in the first place. No doubt we will have further wrangles in the future to look forward to.

Nevertheless, it is wonderful to be here. The view is stupendous – of the mountains, of the city in the valley, and of the leafy southern suburbs in which we live – and at night it all changes to a mass of twinkling lights in all directions. Our garden too is very pretty, with cactuses, palms, bourgainvillea, bird-of-paradise flowers, and our very own banana tree, all prettily landscaped and well looked after. Julie has plans to plant more flowers and to experiment with orchid-growing. The only drawback at the moment is that the fountain motor is just too noisy to use (shame, you say!), and maybe we will have to look into insulating the motor somehow.

We now have some furniture, all in rattan and cane, and some more on order, and yet more still to find. We even have a television (just in time for Wimbledon and the World Cup), although the sattelite dish seems to pick up the American channels, such as CNN, HBO and the Disney Channel, better than the local Venezuelan channels. So while our own belongings are no doubt still months away, we can still live in relative comfort, and there is certainly no shortage of space!

Up on our hill (a few hundred metres above the city, which is itself at nearly 1,000m) there is a constant breeze, so that we never need to use the air-conditioning, and indeed in the evenings it can be surprisingly cool. There are always vultures soaring around over the cliff face on which we are perched, and hummingbirds visit the garden regularly. The cat was entranced by the hummingbirds, although they are much too quick for him in his dotage – I saw him once staring at the place where one had been just a few seconds before, and then looking around himself wildly when he realized that it was no longer there. He has ignored them ever since, and contents himself with slapping down moths, and batting around the various creepy-crawly things which abound here. And when it all gets too much for me (providing, that is, I do not have to wait in for some workman or other), I can always amble down to the swimming pool, which seems to be rarely used by anyone else. I am beginning to get very smug – I must watch myself!

28 June 1994Back to top

This last weekend was a four-day one, due to the Battle of Carabobo celebration on the Friday and the fiesta of Sts Peter and Paul on the Monday, and although we did not venture very far afield, we did manage to fit in one or two things of interest.

Curiepe, Venezuela
On Friday, which was also the fiesta of St John, we drove east to the old village of Curiepe in Barlovento, which was originally settled by freed slaves, and which still carries on many of its old customs including, on the feast of St John, a major bonche or piss-up which goes on for two or three days, where everyone gets plastered on the local rum and dances in the streets to the rhythms of the tambores (the local style of drum, originally African, hand-hewn from tree trunks) and the haunting sound of the conch shell.

We were pleasantly surprised that it was not a tourist event at all – we were the only foreign-looking attendees (in fact, we were the only white attendees) – although it seemed to me rather too hot for the frenzied dancing (my excuse). It was all a bit crazy and not quite completely in hand, but very interesting to watch from the sidelines. The town had also been beautifully decorated for the occasion with palm fronds and other leaf and flower arrangements.

It was even worth the sweltering two-hour traffic jam we had to endure on the way there (due to an accident), which in inimitable Venezuelan fashion the locals managed to turn into another excuse for a party. The houses along the traffic queue started impromptu off-sales (whenever there is anything approaching a traffic jam, no matter how isolated the spot, vendors appear out nowhere selling drinks and snacks), and the majority of the motorists proceded to imbibe large quantities of Polar. Incidentally, Polar is something of a national institution here and, although there are other local brands of beer, most of these are also owned by Polar. But when it costs about 20˘ a can in the supermarkets, and anywhere from 20˘ to $1.50 in a bar or restaurant, there is little or no reason to buy relatively expensive imported beer, especially as Polar tastes perfectly good and is invariably served ice-cold (even in some beach shack at the back of beyond).

On Sunday we made a little trip to an old colonial suburb of Caracas called El Hatillo, which is supposedly a conservation area but is essentially a trendy, touristy area of art galleries, handicraft shops and bars. But it does have some quaint old pastel-coloured houses, and the ubiquitous shady Plaza Bolívar, complete with statue of the man himself. It is a very pleasant place for a Sunday stroll, and only twenty minutes from home.

Avila National Park, Caracas, Venezuela (By Jeep)
Monday's big adventure was a drive (as opposed to a walk) up Caracas' very own National Park, the Avila. We had already done a little walking in the Park, and noted how steep all the trails were – the jeep-track we took was no exception. About two-thirds of our route was concrete-paved, and although incredibly steep and especially hair-raising on the descent, it was relatively easy-going. The last third, however, was just as steep but the surface was clay and dirt with pot-holes over 30cm deep in places and with sheer drops over the side.

At the top we found the upper station of the teleférico, or cable car, (which used to run from Caracas to the top and then over the other side down to the Caribbean coast – a spectacular route), and from there we walked a little further to the phallic, cylindrical glass tower of Hotel Humboldt, with its views over Caracas, and in the other direction over the Caribbean and the little farming community of Galipán perched on the mountainside below. However, the French-built teleférico has been out of order for the last ten years, having only ever worked for about nine months, and now sits rusting until it can be privatized. Hotel Humboldt closed for the same reason, and looks like a ghost hotel with carpets, sofas and even flowers laid out as though it had just closed yesterday. Two major potential Venezuelan tourist facilities thus lay gathering dust and accumulating rust for lack of money or imagination.

However, you can still walk, past the sign saying "Do Not Pass: Military Zone", and link up with the huge network of paths within the Park, through cloud forest, composed of bamboo and familiar English indoor pot-plants, and thick with butterflies. The air was cool and fresh and the views spectacular, and all without the heart-stopping walk from the bottom (we just had the heart-stopping drive instead!).

We also stopped off over the weekend at a couple of garden centres and purchased, for what seemed to us to be very little, some small palms and fig trees in Ali Baba pots, and a little more colour for the garden. Julie's project at the moment is to make our bourgainvillea flower like next door's, and my project is to improve the outdoor lighting like next door's – the Caraqueńo version of keeping up with the Jones'.

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