Luke's South American Diary
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June 1995

11 June 1995

Whatever the circumstances, and however grim the night before may have been (and it was!), I still managed to feel a little guilty about going away and leaving Julie to cope with the night shift (and, even worse, the evening shift) alone. As Elena had not done what the Venezuelans quaintly call "poo-poo" for about three days before I left, she had been playing up somewhat (who would not?), especially in the evenings. But Julie insisted that it would do me good (with which I could not help but agree), and maintained that she herself did not feel the same need to get away, and in fact being separated from Elena for any significant time would actually seriously upset her - those hormones!

While talking it over with Julie, I had to admit that I still did not really feel anything which could be described as love towards Elena. I am sure I should not be putting this in writing for future generations to hold over me, but I still have stronger feelings for the cat than I do for Elena, and however that may make me psychologically unbalanced or something, it is nevertheless the truth. I am working on the assumption that when she starts to do something other than eat, sleep and cry, I will start to feel more paternal feelings, and that love will somehow miraculously develop, but it really has not started yet.

Margarita Island, Venezuela (beaches, Pampatar, Asunción, Juan Griego, Cerro El Copey National Park)
Consequently, it was with a rather embarrassing feeling of liberation that I stole out of the door early one morning for a few days exploring Margarita Island. The initial journey there was unexciting (covering old ground), and the only mitigating experience on the four-hour ferry trip was the sighting of several playful dolphins along the way. The ferry also passed the island of Cubagua, site of the earliest settlement in Venezuela, and now just a ruin. It was not difficult to see why, however, as Cubagua is a small flat pancake of desert with not a tree in sight, and no hills or water source or indeed any of those things one usually associates with early settlements. I would have thought it doomed from the start, so why they chose Cubagua over Margarita just a few kilometres away, I will never know - apparently Cubagua did have a good supply of pearls, but then so did Margarita.

Margarita itself is really just a big cactus garden, albeit surrounded by some beautiful beaches and punctuated by some interesting-looking hills which rise out of the desert right up to the levels of lush cloud forest. Although highly developed by Venezuelan standards (indeed it is really the only part of Venezuela developed for tourists to any extent), it was not as nastily developed as I had anticipated, although I deliberately skirted Porlamar, the island's largest city and centre for the Duty Free trade which is Margarita's other commercial mainstay.

I made straight for nearby Pampatar, which is on a much more manageable scale, with a nice old fort on the shore, and some pretty colonial houses and church. Although the development in Pampatar is quite visible, it has still not managed to spoil the quaint old town, where I booked into a pleasant, basic hotel near the beach. It is essentially an unpretentious fishing town (even after dark, men were out fishing with hand-held lines from the beach and the flotilla of moored boats). Like most "ordinary" places in South America, the houses have an open door policy in the evenings, (although most people like to sit out on the street anyway), giving a glimpse of the spartan conditions within - a few plastic chairs, a table, some religious statuary, the odd hammock, and very little else (other than a lot of noise).

There was not an obvious foreign presence in Pampatar, but even in the little beach-front tasca the menu had an English translation. People seemed better-natured than Venezuelans in general, so maybe there at least Venezuela has learned some lessons about customer service, presumably through having to deal with foreigners. There was even an armed guard (at least I assumed he was a guard!) patrolling the beach in the evening, so perhaps they have also learned that foreigners like to feel that they can walk on a beach without expecting a mugger around every palm tree. The whole place had quite a civilized and comfortable feel to it, which I was not really expecting, although without having sacrificed much of its authenticity. However, as I was to find, of the developed parts of Margarita, Pampatar had achieved possibly the best mix of preservation and change.

By the end of the next day, I was somewhat "beached out" as our American friends would probably have it. Margarita is small enough to get around quite comfortably in a day, but it does have an awful lot of beaches, and I managed to see most of them during that day (and to try a few of them out!). I set off, under rather overcast skies, up the east coast from Pampatar, detouring to various beaches en route. By the third beach the sun had forced its way through, and it proceeded to get hotter and hotter, until by midday it was almost too hot for my tender sensibilities (and tender skin). The sun did help to make the beaches more appealing, though: a Caribbean beach without sun can look as dreary as a European one.

I suppose I had gone to Margarita filled with pre-conceptions, and I had been looking forward to lambasting it for being over-developed, over-rated, over-priced and overly dirty. But my day of visiting beaches, which after all is what Margarita does best, really did not substantiate any of these expectations, and I was actually left with quite positive impressions. Some of the beaches were rather ordinary (by Venezuelan standards, that is), and Playa Guacuco, Playa Cardón and Playa El Tirana probably all fall into this category (was it coincidence that I saw all these before the sun broke through?), although the fishing boats and all the associated activity at Cardón and El Tirano made for some interesting people-watching. The famous view of Cerro Guayamuri with the fishing boats of El Tirano in the foreground is still there, although a huge, half-built hotel meant that a little creative framing and angling is needed nowadays for the photo.

The next beach, El Parguito, was not even on my map, but was very pretty with some good walking over the headland of Punta Cabo Blanco to El Tirano (something which Venezuelan beaches often lack). Next was Playa El Agua, the largest, most famous and most popular beach on the island, and it is truly huge (wide and long), although rather desert-like and soulless for that reason. It is quite heavily developed along most of its length with restaurants and resort-style hotels, although not as tastelessly as I had imagined, so if you like a beach holiday with "things to do", you could probably do much worse than Playa El Agua. As far as I am concerned, it is anyway much better that everyone crowds onto Playa El Agua and Porlamar, leaving the rest of the island in relative peace for people like me, although excellent roads throughout the island have already opened up even some of the more isolated beaches to the hordes. In the deepest off-season, none of the beaches I visited were at all busy, Playa El Agua included, although I could see that during Christmas, Carnaval, Easter Week and the summer school holiday period, the whole island would be a very different proposition, and best left well alone.

A short hop from El Agua was the pretty bay of Manzanillo, all but deserted apart from a few local fishermen mending their nets. I find it very strange that people (by which I mainly mean Venezuelans) prefer to huddle together on Playa El Agua, rather than go the extra 5km to a quiet secluded strand like Playa Manzanillo, but there is no accounting for tastes - least of all mine. A beautiful paved road (not on my map either) snaked over the northern headland to the much less frequented north-western coast of Margarita, although it too is starting to show signs of having been very much discovered. Small deserted beaches like Guayacán, Pedro Gonzales and Playa La Cruz now rub shoulders with huge (and admittedly impressive) developments like the Isla Bonita hotel complex, with its vast grounds and golf-courses.

I continued straight onto Juan Griego where I had planned to overnight, although as it was just lunch-time when I arrived (the island was obviously even smaller than I had thought) I headed straight off to some more nearby beaches. Playa La Galera was pleasant enough, but nearby Playa Caribe I thought quite exceptional. Another walk over the headland from the wide stretches of white sand at Playa Caribe took me to an absolutely deserted beach (I never did find out its name), where I could not resist another dip in the sea, despite the high sun. After a quick look-in at the none-too-impressive Spanish fort at La Galera over-looking the wide Juan Griego Bay, I decided to detour a bit further west along the coast, completely undeveloped here, to La Guardia and the beginning of the 18km long beach composed entirely of shells which links the two parts of the islands. I drove quite some way along it (passing all of two people), but as I was soon to be parallelling it on the new road to the other part of the island, there did not seem much point in going too far, and it was too hot to linger for long.

Back in Juan Griego, I finally found somewhere to stay (barely adequate, and not at all the place where I had planned to stay, which appeared to have disappeared off the face of the island), and set about exploring the town a little. It did not have the charm of Pampatar, but was quite lively and agreeable enough, with a reasonable beach. It was still much more a fishing town than a resort, and I watched some lads hauling several boat-loads of huge fish into the sheds (grouper? tarpon? I know nothing about fish). The bay is justifiably famous for its sunsets, and I was handsomely obliged, before returning to wash off several layers of accumulated, and then falling gratefully into my (extremely bouncy and noisy) bed.

The next day passed with hardly a beach to be seen, and paradoxically this was the day I managed to get seriously sunburned. I fell into the old trap of thinking that if it was cloudy one would not burn - take it from me, one does! I was heading inland from Juan Griego, through the old town of Santa Ana, with its old white-washed church with its unusual outdoor steps upto the bell tower (apparently a Margarita speciality), and then up into the hills in the centre of the island. The next main town was La Asunción, Margarita's capital and one of South America's oldest cities. Its impressive cathedral was built in 1570, and set the pattern for most colonial churches in Venezuela. The town itself is sleepy and tiny compared to modern Porlamar (or even Juan Griego), despite its historical significance. On the hill overlooking La Asunción is the Castillo de Santa Rosa, quite impressive compared to La Galera, but still very basic compared to European castles. What it did have, however, was splendid views over La Asunción and most of the rest of the island.

From La Asunción it was just a short, if steep, ride up into the mountains to the entrance to Cerro El Copey National Park, which actually covers most of the volcanic central massif of Margarita. I decided to walk up to the top, despite there being a perfectly good road, and I was vindicated by the sightings of several humming-birds and other birds, as well as several varieties of ground orchids and a wealth of other flowers I would not otherwise have seen. It also provided me with more exercise than I had received in quite some time. The walk started at a level where the hot desert of Margarita had already given way to much lusher vegetation, and it continued through impressive and unexpected cloud-forest jungle up to the stunted shrubs above, where the haunting mist moved in and out with astonishing rapidity. When the mist was "out", sensational views opened up over the green valley of Espiritu Santo and the conurbation of Porlamar on one side, and the hills and coast of Juan Griego on the other. I barely made it back to the car before a torrential downpour arrived, and the weather, as well as the road, went downhill from there onwards.

I stopped off briefly to ogle at the incredibly naff pink wedding cake of a church at El Valle del Espiritu Santo, where the Virgen del Valle is housed - the spiritual centre of Margarita, and an important place of pilgrimage for the Margariteños and the devout of all Venezuela. El Valle was the original capital of Margarita, founded in 1529, but it shows little of its early glory, and is now filled with litter and tacky souvenir stalls.

After this disappointment, I made haste across to the other side of the island, past the Tetas de Maria Guevara (which do bear a passing resemblance to breasts, although I cannot vouch for the lady in question), and across the bridge onto the Macanao Peninsula and a whole different world. The road around the peninsula is quite a recent development, and the settlements it links are dirt-poor ramshackle fishing villages. I only saw one beach worthy of the name (and that not marked on any map), which immediately pinpointed the reason for the difference between Macanao and the rest of Margarita. The spine of mountains along the centre of the peninsula are rugged and jagged, and only one poor road to the non-descript town of San Francisco makes any attempt to penetrate them. During my circuit of the peninsula, I was plagued by a flotilla of open-topped jeeps ferrying Dutch and German tourists for a whirlwind look at the other side of Margarita before returning them to their resort hotels at Playa El Agua and Porlamar (it is easy to be supercilious, and I do so love to do it).

I rounded off the day with another disappointment: a boat trip through Laguna de la Restinga National Park, a mangrove lagoon apparently rich in birdlife, although it seemed that only the pelicans were willing to put up with the noise of the high-speed launches, and I am sure that no self-respecting bird would live in a place where the passages through the labyrinth of mangroves are labelled "Tunnel of Love", "Lovers' Way", etc. Ah well, it seems that Margarita has learned some good lessons and some bad ones, and the upshot is that if you pick and choose your places (and I now have a much better idea of what those places are) you could well be forgiven for thinking Margarita the paradise many people seem to consider it, but you certainly have to be selective. Pampatar being about the only place I had found reliably friendly accommodation, I returned there for another night to muse on Venezuelan inconsistency.

However, it was the next morning, my last on the island, which gave the final colours to my opinion of Margarita. Having already started the day badly by twisting my ankle quite badly on a rocky beach, I made the mistake of finally going into Porlamar, as I had plenty of time before my ferry left, with the intention of picking up a few presents (Margarita is a tax haven, and Porlamar has by far the best selection of shops). Unfortunately I was pulled up by probably the only zealous traffic cop in the whole of Venezuela, ostensibly for driving the wrong way down a one-way street. I did point out that there were no signs to suggest that a clear two-way street should suddenly turn into a one-way street, but he was in no mood to be distracted by such technicalities, and promptly issued me with a ticket.

The ticket was only for about $3, but the catch was that I had first to go to La Asunción, find the Ministry of Transport there, so that they could issue me with the quintuplicate form for paying the fine, which I then had to take to the Banco Unión in Los Robles (as opposed to any of the local banks in either La Asunción or Porlamar), then return to La Asunción so that they could issue me with another form declaring the fine paid. I then had to return to the centre of Porlamar during rush hour, look for the same cop somewhere in the busy Plaza Bolívar, all in order to get back my driving licence, which he had previously confiscated as a "guarantee". I was pretty sure that I was expected to offer the policeman a bribe rather than go through all that palaver, but I am glad I did not give him the satisfaction.

All this meant that I then had to shoot straight off to catch the ferry, now in a foul temper and driving like a maniac. The Margarita ferry terminal is squalid to say the least, and I found little there to take back as presents, although I did buy myself a cheap watch to replace the one which had given up the ghost that very inauspicious morning (later, it started working again, to add insult to injury). The four-hour drive back from Puerto La Cruz dragged interminably, especially as I was twice billeted army officers (who like fast air-conditioned jeeps to get around, but cannot afford them), and I arrived back home exhausted, and with very mixed opinions of Margarita.

14 June 1995 Back to top

Apparently, while I had been away, Elena had been all sweetness and light, smiling and cooing at all and sundry, and I was starting to get the impression that she could sense me and my discomfort in the same way that dogs can supposedly smell fear. Having said that, however, she has been much improved, as even I will admit. She now spends much more time awake, and although she needs almost constant walking around and talking to in order to fend off screaming fits, she is definitely more appealing now. Our nurse, Maritza, continues to be a God-send, and is indefatigable in walking Elena around, singing a never-ending repertoire of improvised songs, and chattering away in a special high-pitched voice which Elena seems to love. Julie is already starting to worry that Elena will relate to Maritza more than to her, especially when she stops breast-feeding and starts working longer and more normal hours at the office.

I have continued in my quest to obtain a Venezuelan passport for you-know-who, and yesterday, on my fourth attempt, and after a three-hour wait in a very bad-tempered queue, I came the closest yet. But not quite close enough, as they were now saying that Julie had to be there in person to sign the document. It is certainly an experience, although by no means an edifying one, to be among a thronging mass of Venezuelans such as one finds in the DIEX offices applying for passports. They are not great queuers by nature, and if anything goes wrong, which in my limited experience it invariably does, the ensuing row can be fascinating if approached in the right frame of mind. I have witnessed several full-blown arguments in those queues, mainly among the women, some of which have come to blows.

There are invariably hangers-on near the front of the queues who tend to push their way in at some opportune moment of confusion, or shout a question out of turn (there is never any information desk as such for general queries) which causes a great uproar in the queue behind. Sometimes the service windows close unaccountably, which also causes great consternation (understandably, after a wait of two to three hours). One time in particular, all the windows suddenly and inexplicably closed, and people were left milling around like lost souls, or met in secretive clumps to discuss their grievances. From time to time a window or door would open and a head pop out, and literally thirty or so people would clamour around shouting out their claims, and then the head would disappear leaving stunned looks all round. Presumably Eastern Europe in the 20's operated in similar way because many of the scenes are disconcertingly reminiscent of Kafka's stories.

20 June 1995 Back to top

It is strange how wary I am about mentioning my true feelings about fatherhood: there seems to be so much taboo and sacred-cow-ism involved. Ever since I first mentioned the possibility of a baby to people, everyone has positively gushed with enthusiasm, and it is very difficult to sour the atmosphere with a "Well, actually...". My sister Doreen has been the only one who has been on the same wavelength as me, and is one of the few other people who will admit to not liking children. I am still encountering the same problem to some extent when people ask me how I am and how Elena is: there is a certain expected response, and when I answer (quite mildly considering), that I am not really enjoying it at all and that Elena cries a lot, you can follow the wave of shock as it spreads over people's expressions (actually it can be quite amusing...). It is usually easier just to lie.

So, Dear Diary, I can say here with all honesty that, so far at least, I am not enjoying fatherhood at all. Elena seems to me to cry more than many babies in my (admittedly limited) experience, usually for no apparent reason, which tends to be categorised as colic for want of a better explanation. I am not saying that I ever expected a perfect baby who never cries: I am getting exactly what I expected. Julie and Maritza, both partisan if for different reasons, rarely admit this, although Maritza did once agree that Elena was awake more and fed more often than most babies. I quite understand that crying is a baby's only method of communication at this stage - what I dislike is the assumption that if I say I am not enjoying it (and surely no-one can enjoy a baby's crying, no matter how partisan they may be) I am complaining unreasonably, and somehow not being fair to Elena.

Still, I try to do my share of walking around holding a howling baby, which tends to be worst between about 5.30pm and 8pm (just after Maritza leaves - coincidence? I think not), and Julie and I have only had one major argument so far, which I still maintain was unwarranted. We have more or less come to the conclusion that any of the normal techniques for burping a baby are wasted on Elena, and we just wait for her to do it in her own time (although it is more likely to come in the form of farts or the odd sneeze anyway!). We have identified a few household items which seem to be good for distracting her from crying for a few valuable minutes at a time, including the jungle frieze in her room (good for eliciting farts), her "Baby Gym", certain pictures (though not others), the washing machine or dryer, and mirrors (although only on certain days of the week). The most effective method however is doing step exercises (wearing certain shoes for the essential sound effects), which may be doing us some good too, but it can be rather wearing in the middle of the night.

For those that are interested, she is still only doing her "poo-poo" every three or four days, which probably contributes to her discomfort and her inclination to cry, as does her constant wind. She has started to smile a little bit more - an artless, gummy affair - and this is quite cute, especially after so much bawling, although it still does not induce the same kind of rapture in me as it seems to in other people. I keep thinking that the cat manages to be cute almost all the time, without all the attendant miseries and responsibilities, but maybe this is in some way a spurious argument. This is one of the few times in my life I can think of where I do not actually look forward to the next day, which is a rather sad, if self-pitying, state of affairs.

Physically Elena seems quite well developed: she can hold her head up for as long as she wants, and enjoys standing up (with support). Her motor responses are a little unpredictable as yet - she does reach for and grasp things, but is often not very successful. She seems to be able to follow things with her eyes, although they do still go haywire from time to time. Again all these developments are heralded as little miracles, although, as everyone goes through these stages, I find it hard to see them as that special. I imagine that she will start crawling and walking early which will add a whole new dimension to our experience!

We have been gradually becoming more typically ex-patriate in our habits of late (since Elena, basically), even to the extent of "going down the club", which in our case is the expensive and reasonably exclusive Valle Arriba Golf Club. Julie has had the Bank's share in the club in her name since we arrived, but as neither of us play golf and have never been great lovers of the neo-Colonial club mentality we never actually even visited it until Elena was born. It was only then that we realized that it was a convenient and quite pleasant place for a walk in a bit of greenery, and the swimming pool is unpretentious, informal and open-air. This last weekend, we even accepted an invitation from friends who also have a small child to another nearby club, a very "family" affair.

My "Potted History of the World" has been succeeded by a "Potted History of Philosophy", where I am trying to distil the incredibly wordy doctrines of the world's major philosophical thinkers into more bite-sized and assimilable chunks. Some of it I still find very difficult to follow (some of the vagaries of Hegel and Bertrand Russell seem deliberately couched in impenetrable complexities), and some seems merely trite and naive (such as Stoicism, and most of the various justifications for believing in God), but some I find magically profound in its simplicity and logic. Interestingly I tend to take a naturally cynically line on most matters (as may be apparent!), but maybe that is just me copping out. I have found both of these projects quite edifying, because although it is necessary to read up all the detail first, what I am left with is a manageable volume - almost like an exam swot-list - which I fondly imagine impregnates itself more readily in my mind and gives some sort of overview. Maybe I will extend the series into other disciplines - watch this space!

29 June 1995 Back to top

Finally we have obtained a Venezuelan passport for Elena, although after all those visits the final product was hardly impressive: they seemed to have run out of passport books (on a permanent basis) and had realized that it was much easier and cheaper to issue everyone with a sheet of paper, marked "Provisional Passport", and just write in the details by hand. So with these details, including a description of Elena's face as officially "round", and an empty space where her thumb-print was supposed to go, they merely slapped on an already dog-eared photo, and called it a passport. Still, apparently, it is official, so Elena now has a complete set of papers within only two months of her birth, which I would say is a pretty mean feat.

Meanwhile, much of the local news has been taken up with a horrendous occurrence, which happened just a couple of kilometres from our house, so we are hoping it is not quite horrendous enough to make the international news or our parents will be panicking. Apparently a robbery went wrong and, after hostages were taken, hundreds of police were drafted in and the whole thing got a bit out of hand, resulting in the police storming the hi-jackers, shooting four of them along with one of the hostages and several policemen. What has made it all quite so high-profile is the fact that the whole thing was captured on video (including some horrific scenes of the police dragging blood-stained bodies down the road), and it has raised all sorts of debate about press freedom, police methods, etc - all laudable stuff although I am not sure that the motives behind it are necessarily so laudable. It also occurred to me that worse things must happen every day in the barrios with only a weekly body count being reported on the back page of Monday's "El Universal": part of the shock in which Caracas seems to be is due to the fact that all this took place in a wealthy "safe" suburb.

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