Luke's South American Diary
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March 1995

10 March 1995

The long gap since the last entry is really due to nothing more than the fact that very little of note has happened recently. The main reason I am making an entry now is more than anything to prove that I am still here.

Although having said that, by plodding along laboriously and playing the system for all it is worth, we are gradually making some progress with our immigration status here. Just today, five weeks after our initial confident application, we finally obtained our transeunte visas. This was after five weeks of phone calls, visits to the DIEX offices every two or three days on average, and the final debacle today, when, having ascertained over the phone that the visas were ready, I went in to collect them, only to be told that we also needed about $50 in fiscal stamps, which on every previous inquiry they had assured me were not needed.

Nothing daunted, I returned home for more money, lined up at the post office to buy the fiscal stamps, (the first line I was in was eventually abandoned after they decided not to open up that particular window after all despite the signs), returned to the DIEX, and finally, almost miraculously, our signed stamped passports (which by then I had assumed to be hopelessly lost somewhere in the "system") were handed over. Easy, eh? Granted the visas both seemed to say "turista", and I was sure that Julie's should have been a work visa, but at that stage I was past caring, and willing to quit while the going was relatively good, in the hope that no-one would ever ask.

Of course having progressed thus far, we now had to start a completely separate application for a cédula, or local identity card. I may be making too much of all this bureaucracy, which is probably a real bore for anyone else to read, but I have developed a sort of morbid fascination for the details of how not to run a country, and I do not want to forget the experience. The overwhelming nature of the general impressions and sensory overload at the start of our stint here in Caracas have now been pretty well assimilated I suppose, (although there is still the odd occurrence which absolutely floors me, even now), and the nitty-gritty details begin to take on more importance. Certainly, I am conscious that what it occurs to me to record in this diary is much more apparently mundane now than at the beginning.

Meanwhile, we have been pregnant, of course, and doing all those things that pregnant people do - buying cribs, going to the clinic, and looking (still unsuccessfully) for a nursemaid. The bank car was finally fixed a couple of days ago (after two-and-a-half months!), and I have been relishing being able to lie in bed a while - any late night combined with those early mornings is enough to wreck me for days (How does everyone else manage it? How did I use to manage it?). I had been spending a bit of time trying to get to grips with the Bank's accounting package, just in case the current admin assistant left in a hurry. She had been not pulling her weight for some time, and it seemed that Julie's warnings were finally beginning to get through her rather thick skin. She is the type that we could imagine pulling some kind of stunt if she was dismissed, and given her privileged knowledge of the Bank's operations, Julie wanted someone else to be able to keep an eye on things. As it turned out the warnings seemed to have worked, and she has been working better of late.

A friend from England, (well, more a friend of a friend, but at this distance one does not really mind), dropped in for a couple of days en route from Trinidad, where she had been doing a University project on the sociology of Carnival (would you believe!?), to Costa Rica, where she will be attending part of a college course (why ever did I choose to do Accountancy at college? - see what I have been missing out on!). She had spent Carnival in Trinidad, and despite having a great time and taking some good photos, she was obviously still somewhat psychologically scarred from what came with it - namely, a mugging, followed by a robbery from her room, and being obliged to stay in grotty, unsanitary and expensive lodgings due to gross over-booking during Carnival week. I think she was really very glad to be able to stay in our relaxed and relatively luxurious apartment for a couple of days.

15 March 1995 Back to top

Step by painful step, we are definitely making progress in our battle against Venezuelan bureaucracy. It turns out that our visas are in fact correct and valid, and within the space of just a few more days we now even have cédulas, albeit temporary ones, which we are supposed to exchange in (would you believe) three months for the real plasticized version, which will finally make us bona fide citizens, after what will have been over a year here. We feel that we have earned a little moral victory in achieving within the space of about a month-and-a-half what the so-called official gestor failed to achieve in over six. Which only proves the power of persistence and of having an axe to grind, as well as probably proving what a lazy inefficient erk the gestor was.

I have been collecting various forms in order to obtain a passport for the baby at our earliest convenience, and various other official documents which it will need. It seems that, although it cannot officially have dual nationality, somehow it can have both a Venezuelan and a British passport. Furniture and clothes for the baby's room are gradually accumulating, we are in negotiations for a nanny/nurse, and we have already begun to see a pediatrician (who seemed quite shocked at our organization and foresight), so things are in full swing, baby-wise. Julie has reached the stage where her navel protrudes somewhat comically (which she hates!), and her back-ache and sleeplessness are starting to get her down not a little (which she also hates!). She is still horribly busy at work, with only six or seven weeks left before the big event, so I am not sure how she is going to get it all settled in time…

I have also been running around trying to collate information for our Venezuelan tax return - a last minute panic as usual, although through no fault of our own. It is easy to see why Venezuela has one of the world's smallest per capita tax bases when one considers that you can offset against tax things like rent paid, telephone, electricity and water bills, house and car insurance, and even car repairs! Only earned income relating to work done in Venezuela is taxable, and so any foreign investment income goes scot-free quite legally, and as only earned income from the date of Julie's original transeunte visa (July 1994) is taxable, her income from May to July 1994 (which happens to include her large relocation bonus) also escapes tax. All this is in addition to low rates, and almost zero policing of evasion and non-payment. Mind you, having said that, there has not been (up until 1995 anyway) any system of deducting notional tax throughout the year either, so we will still be stuffed with a sizeable bill, no doubt.

25 March 1995 Back to top

But, with tax returns filed, cédula in hand (albeit a temporary one), and baby just a few weeks away, it seemed an ideal time to resume my long-postponed exploration of Venezuela. I must confess, it felt very good to be striking out again for pastures new, despite the distinctly unpromising weather. After two or three months of near-perfect weather, the day I chose to drive away was cloudy and dull, and it soon became much worse. I seemed to hop from one rain-storm to another, or maybe I just followed the same one all day, or vice versa. To make matters worse, after two or three months of little or no rain, the roads had also accumulated a layer of oil and grease, which the rain promptly turned into an elongated skid-pan. After a couple of reasonably dramatic but otherwise harmless skids, I soon learned to slow down, and thereafter spent much of the time in four-wheel drive despite the perfectly good black-top roads. Apparently, several other people had forgotten how to drive in rain too, judging by the several accidents I passed.

Sucre, Venezuela (Mochima National Park, Cumaná, Carúpano, Playa Medina, Paria Peninsula)
I was heading east into new territory, along the coast of Anzoátegui state, and through the little old towns of Píritu and Puerto Píritu, which would probably have made more of an impression on me in better weather). The first town of any size I encountered was Barcelona, which has a long history and several colonial remains, including the romantic ruins of the old Casa Fuerte (obviously not fuerte enough!). Despite its size, Barcelona has a pleasant, small town atmosphere, and its narrow streets and white-with-brown-doors color scheme are quite appealing.

Barcelona is now all but joined (by light industry, creeping barrios and miles of high-rise tourist accommodation) to the more modern and totally unmemorable city of Puerto La Cruz. Like Tucacas and Higuerote to the west of Caracas, Puerto La Cruz seems frozen in a tourist boom which never really happened, with hundreds of hotels and apartment blocks in various stages of construction and deterioration. I really cannot believe that there was ever enough demand to fill all those concrete husks, and there is certainly not now. The beach at Puerto La Cruz itself is quite mediocre by Venezuelan standards, but the city has made its name as a tourist resort mainly as a staging post to the white sand beaches of the islands just off the coast, most of which are included within Mochima National Park.

Further east from Puerto La Cruz, the road wound its way through the mountains which reach down to the coast there, giving good views over the islands (despite the weather), although my plan to take the short ferry over to the most accessible island was scuppered when the little road to the ferry inexplicably seemed to peter out without warning or justification. I decided that it was probably better left until a better day anyway, (arguably so would have been the whole trip, especially as the trees which covered the mountains looked so dry and brown and scrubby, whereas presumably towards the end of the rainy season the whole area would be bathed in green).

Despite my new-found legal status, which I had naively thought would preclude all those tedious and embarrassing questions I had had to face in Lara, it seems that I was still missing a carné de circulación, whatever that may be, the lack of which proved quite problematical at one alcabala stop, although, once again, having established that a problem existed the uniforms rapidly became bored and just waved me on with stern warnings. I can imagine the bureaucracy involved in obtaining such a document, and it is very tempting just to ignore it and continue pleading ignorance.

My road continued eastwards, and so therefore did I, past several lovely but rainy beaches, particularly notable among them Playa Arapita and Playa Colorado, the latter named for the almost reddish tinge to the sand in the area. The little side road down to the village of Mochima gave spectacular views over mangrove-lined Mochima Bay, the mainland section of Mochima National Park and actually a series of submerged valleys or fjords, which with the dry-season orange colouring of the grass on the hill-sides reminded me very much of the Scottish lochs and islands. Until, that is, I opened the car door and felt the blast of heat, even on such a cloudy day (I could not imagine how hot it must be on a sunny day!). One advantage of the rain was that it brought out the wonderful smell of the vegetation, a sort of cross between eucalyptus and a strong-smelling aromatic herb (I never did discover exactly what it was that smelt so good).

All along the way, road-side vendors hawked various local specialities: for a few kilometres what looked like fish-fins were being touted, then stalls with hundreds of multi-coloured hanging rag-dolls, then a kind of outdoor oven made from red sandstone slates heaped into a shape like a giant tortoise. It seems that if there is a local speciality, everyone but everyone is out there selling it, although from a marketing perspective you would have thought that they would be better to diversify a little…

Once into the state of Sucre, I finally arrived at the old city of Cumaná in the late afternoon, and decided to stay in a small beach-side hotel just outside the main town. It was nice to be the only one on the beach, and the only one swimming in the tepid sea, but that may have been due to the fact that it was still raining (I was past caring by that time). In fact that evening it rained so hard that the hotel had a black-out for an hour or so, which time I must confess I spent fully dressed, clutching my keys and wallet, and brandishing my umbrella as the best weapon I could lay my hands on in the pitch dark - what has this country done to me? I was moderately amused (in a supercilious, British, "That's Life" sort of a way) by some of the English translations of the hotel regulations, such as: "Mixied company entertainment in the rooms are not allowed if it attempts against morality, good habits or the hotel rules and regulations", and: "Electrical irone, stoves, and other electrical device not authorised by the hotel can be used in the rooms". Having said that, however, it was something of a surprise to find an English translation at all in such an establishment.

By morning the weather had not improved much (although it did later on in the day), and my explorations of Cumaná were carried out in the semi-gloom of early morning. Cumaná has a reasonable claim to be the oldest established city on the South American continent, dating from 1521, although it is actually not as well preserved as others such as Coro. However, it does have an interesting old church from 1637 (although much rebuilt after nine earthquakes), and an old Spanish fort which overlooks the town, as well as a few pleasant squares, fountains and old streets. Its other claim to fame is as the birthplace of General Antonio José de Sucre, hero of the Venezuelan war of Independence and Simón Bolívar's right-hand man.

From Cumaná, I continued east, skirting the Golfo de Cariaco, famous for its fish and the blueness of its water, the latter only gradually becoming apparent as the morning progressed and the clouds thinned a little. At this point I was very nearly commandeered to take a soldier to Carúpano, which actually was on my itinerary, but I manage to convince him that I would have to make several detours en route, and make regular photo stops, all of which was sufficient to deter him. As it happened, I actually missed the turn off for the main detour I had planned, after making a wrong turn in Cariaco, but it did give me more time to better explore the coast towards Carúpano.

One particularly interesting detour was to Playa Escondida, which did indeed prove to be well hidden. The catch of the day had obviously just arrived, and everyone from ages 3 to 93 was out there cleaning, filleting, packing, and whatever else it is that one does to fish. I have rarely seen such frenzied activity in Venezuela, although I did get the distinct impression that when it was all over the village would quickly return to its natural somnolence. I never cease to be amazed at the level of inactivity in rural Venezuela: in every village through which one passes the inhabitants always seem to be sitting around chatting, smoking, or just watching the world go by. Usually the only signs of life are the kids playing on the road, or a dog scratching itself. Far be it from me (of all people!) to criticize this way of life - indeed I rather approve of it in a way, and in those temperatures it seems eminently sensible - it is just that I have never figured out how anyone earns a living, especially as none of them are obviously starving. Another great mystery of the Tropics…

Further on I detoured again to a long and completely deserted beach composed totally of shells, and then to another very pretty double beach separated by a huge rock outcrop sprouting with all kinds of grasses and fronds. Once again there were probably less than ten people on this beach (which stretched for miles) despite the now clear skies and sunshine - these places are certainly well off the beaten track. The next large town was Carúpano (I was glad that I had not had to drag a bored and bemused soldier around all those beaches), which apparently has Venezuela's liveliest Carnaval, although in its post-Carnaval slumber it was far from exciting.

I continued along the coast, the road now climbing and winding through larger mountains, with some splendid cliff-top views and more fishing villages below. At Río Caribe, another town with a long history but now little more than a ramshackle fishing town, I got rather lost, and even after asking directions I was still far from convinced that I was pointing in the right direction. However, the road through the mountains, past farms and cacao plantations, was quite beautiful, so I did not really care too much. The scattered houses and small villages in this area were all beautifully kept - a rare thing in Venezuela - with many flowers and colourful trees to add to their charm. One village in particular (I still do not know its name - at the time I was totally lost) had gone completely overboard, and every house was painted in all the colours of the rainbow, even down to the metal railings. It looked like something out of ToyTown, especially given the tiny houses, but what a pleasant change it made from the usual run-down hovels. Just when I was starting to get worried where I might end up, I came a cross a signpost for a town whose name I recognized, and it turned out that I had been on the right road after all.

My next turn off took me through more glorious scenery, back down towards the coast, and to what must still be one of Venezuela's best-kept secrets. Friends had recommended Playa Medina as our kind of place, but knowing that there were package tours from Caracas I assumed that it had already been over-developed and spoilt beyond redemption. But, after quite a drag over steep dirt roads, I finally arrived and, no, it is still almost perfect. It is set in a secluded cove between rocky headlands and backed by a copra palm plantation, like so many other Venezuelan beaches, but this one is clean and well looked after, with a little thatched bar and a handful of rustic chalets set back discreetly in the palms, and absolutely no naff plastic beach chairs, no encroaching barrios, and no ghetto-blasters pumping out salsa music. Quite charming!

I only stayed long enough for an incredibly cold beer - tempting though it was to linger, I had other ground to cover, and I felt sure that I would be back there soon. I continued ever eastwards to Guiria (as far as the road goes) along the long thin Paria Peninsula, as much as anything just to say that I had been there. The scenery was pleasant but unexciting, especially as the mountains which run the length of the peninsula and which constitute Paria National Park seemed to be totally inaccessible by road, and actually looked very similar to the Avila range much closer to home.

Back-tracking towards civilization, and en route to finding a hotel at Itapa about halfway along the peninsula, I was rather taken aback while filling up with petrol when a young and extremely pretty smiling woman (the same one who had smiled at me earlier when I had passed her getting onto a por puesto in the last village) came and asked me something which at first I did not understand but which I later worked out to be a request to go to Itapa with me. I do not really know if it was a proposition, but it is probably just as well that my Spanish is still so bad and the local accent so strong, as the temptation may have been great. I am at least twelve years out of practice at that sort of thing anyway, and not really in the market for a fling, but my ego took a boost and everything turned out for the best.

I do not know if was just my hormones playing up (although that may have come into it), but the women of Sucre seemed on the whole prettier than anywhere else I have been, even within Venezuela, which has extremely high standards in the first place. Added to that, they are either highly-sexed or at least more forthright about looking people in the eye and smiling. Whether it would be the same were I not apparently single, foreign, rich and driving a relatively expensive car, I would not care to conjecture. The area is so poor and isolated that I could well imagine people being just desperate to get away from back-woods Sucre to the bright lights of Caracas, and I can well imagine not wishing to be born, live and die in the same small, basic, rural village, however pretty Sucre might be to visit.

Itapa is, I suppose, probably a typical medium-sized town of the area, and life there, what little I saw of it, is parochial in the extreme. The main thrust of social life revolves around sitting outside one's little house and chewing the fat with passers-by. The younger generation seem to spend most of the evening endlessly walking or cycling around the streets. At one point a fracas occurred which immediately drew most of the eligible youth of the town, and the bar-tender in the bar where I happened to be wearily rang the local police to deal with it, with an air of carrying out a distasteful but recurrent task. Yes, I can imagine, for all its attractions, wanting to get away from all that.

Itapa's public telephone building obviously decided to close before its advertised closing time, and after a hot restless night, I could still not get through to Julie early the next morning. So I continued on my way back along the Paria Peninsula, turning inland towards the mountains of Monagas. After nearly two hours of driving, I finally found another public phone, an indication of just how rudimentary things are in rural Sucre. I was also having problems locating a recognizable restaurant for breakfast (in the end I gave up, settling instead for an early lunch of stale bread, liquid margerine, soggy cheese and warm soda water, my cool box having given up the unequal battle against the sun some time ago, despite the air-conditioning in the car).

Monagas, Venezuela (Caripe, Cueva del Guácharo National Park)
But the weather was beautiful at last, so I could hardly complain, and the mountains towards Caripe were beautiful too. The vegetation was lush, with Spanish moss draped on all the trees, and an even greater concentration of flowering trees than I had seen so far, making the hillsides look almost like Canada in the Fall. In some villages coffee beans were out drying in the middle of the road, and the traffic was obviously expected to spot them and politely drive round. Caripe itself was pleasant town with a Caracas-like climate at 900m above sea-level, and it s set quite spectacularly in a deep valley between rugged forested mountains. I spent quite some time wandering down a dirt road which did not seem to feature on any of my maps, but the scenery and the orange and purple flowering trees enchanted me. I was obviously the first tourist anyone had seen for some time, everyone turning out to watch me pass, and the children in particular were boggle-eyed when I set about having a picnic down by the riverside. Photography too was obviously a new experience for them and raised many a giggle.

Nearby, in ever more impressive mountain scenery, was the Cueva del Guácharo (Cave of the Oil-birds), my arrival heralded by renewed rain which reached its peak at the mid-point of my walk down a well-marked but steep trail which led down to a pretty waterfall through the lush forest which surrounds the cave. The cave is the best-organized and -administered element of the Venezuelan National Parks system I have come across: it has marked trails, adequate parking, a ticket office, restaurant, multi-lingual guides, information plaques and leaflets - in short, everything which most of the other National Parks lack, a subject on which I had recently been in correspondence with the Parks Service - altogether a model which many other parks could well learn from.

Having waited for a while for others to arrive (entrance to the cave itself is only with a guide), a coach-load of Germans on a day-trip from Margarita did in fact turn up - a mixed blessing, but at least it meant that I did not have to wait too long to visit the cave. It is the largest of the many caves in Venezuela, with over 9km explored so far, and the huge 25m cave mouth is set into a sheer wall of rock and spiked with stalactites and stalagmites As well as the more normal cave formations which we saw on the two-hour tour, the cave is most famous for the guácharos or oil-birds which live deep in the bowels of the cave, venturing out only at night to feed. They are the only birds known to fly in absolute darkness, finding their way with an echo-location system very similar to that of bats. The noise in the cave is prodigious, because in addition to their echoing clicks as they flapped around us, the guide's lantern also startled them into making their loud and extraordinary cry, a cross between an old smoker hawking and water sloshing down a plug-hole - most disconcerting!

By the end of the tour, the rain had at least slowed, although my return journey to Cumaná, through more impressive mountains, was still mainly done in four-wheel drive, for which I was by now very grateful. In places the hanging cloud and mist added to the mysterious atmosphere of the forest and the peaks; in others, it all but obliterated them. The route also took me past a few old colonial churches, in varying states of repair, so I arrived back at Cumaná to repossess Room 3 at the same little hotel feeling as though I had had a very full day (as indeed I had).

The next morning was better weather-wise, and re-tracing my journey out, I was at least able to see some of the coastal scenery in a more flattering light. I even managed to find the little road to the ferry I had missed on the way out, and spent a pleasant hour or so on tiny Isla de Plata, relaxing on its white coral beach and in its clear waters. Predictably enough from what had gone before, the last leg of the journey back into Caracas was through a rain-storm of frightening ferocity, with huge torrents of water running down, and in places directly across, the slick surface of the autopista - a thoroughly unpleasant conclusion to an interesting but mixed trip. Apparently, in Caracas it had rarely stopped raining all week, and there had been several floods, landslides and road accidents, so in that respect at least I had missed nothing.

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