Luke's South American Diary
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March 1997

19 March 1997

Deer Valley, Utah, USA
Mere days after our skiing trip to Utah, it had already faded to nothing more than a bad dream . . . Well, maybe I exaggerate, but it was probably not the rest cure we might have anticipated.

It all happened shortly after the best part of a week where Maritza was off sick with an injured foot, which with Julie off on business trips meant that I had Elena duties 24 hours a day. I actually feel I coped relatively well, my strategy being to keep her out of the apartment for as much time as possible in the hope of occupying her mind and wearing out her body, although I had noticed before that she tends (consciously or unconsciously) to behave better in times of crisis (and Daddy coping alone certainly qualifies as a crisis). She was obviously a little confused by the circumstances, insisting that Maritza must have gone to work, and that Mummy had just plain gone.

Insult was added to injury (so to speak) when Maritza hobbled in one morning so that we could spend four hours together waiting in the American Embassy for her hard-fought-for US visa, only to hobble out again at lunch time before a disbelieving Elena. At this she burst into copious and inconsolable tears, and eventually, at the end of my tether, I tried explaining calmly and rationally that Maritza had to rest because she had a poorly foot, and was amazed when Elena, by a combination of words and mime, indicated that she understood completely and immediately stopped crying. Maybe I underestimate her . . .

So we had taken the (for me at any rate) major psychological step of taking Maritza along on holiday with us for the first time - Julie maintained that I always got into such a bad mood over Elena's performances on holidays that I managed to spoil everyone’s' time, and there is probably at least a grain of truth in that - and as Elena had been in reasonably good form in recent weeks, we were understandably optimistic of a restful and enjoyable week's skiing in Utah's "best snow in the world".

Maritza had never been to the USA before, and although she claimed to have flown before it was our impression that she was probably fibbing in order to appear less of a country hick (or however it was that she felt). Either way she seemed to somehow lose all her normal poise and efficiency as soon as we got to the airport. Admittedly Caracas airport is enough to unbalance even the sturdiest equilibrium, and on that morning all the gremlins of hell seemed to be on the loose. The check-in line was longer and slower than we had ever seen (American Airlines, to name names), and it soon became apparent that they had no intention of taking off on time, although of course it would have been unprofessional of them to have informed us. Eventually it transpired that it would inexplicably be leaving two hours later than scheduled, meaning that we (and I imagine a good proportion of the others in the line) had to reschedule all our connections, and by the time veteran air traveler Julie had corrected several of the inept check-in clerk's errors (including an attempt to send our baggage by the original, no longer possible, routing), Maritza's eyes were already starting to glaze.

Having cleared customs and changed flights at the huge and bustling Miami airport, and negotiated a tricky ticket endorsement and change of airlines at Orlando airport (the Caracas clerk had neglected to re-ticket us for the new routing), Maritza was clearly functioning on an automatous level only, and seemed incapable of any initiative whatsoever. Obviously we tried to explain to her what was happening, but I do not think much of it sank in, and we gradually asked less and less of her, as it became clearer to her just what she had let herself in for. It is so easy to take for granted the experience and the tricks we (and especially Julie) have spent years learning - even Elena, at less than two tender years of age, was on her seventh international flight, and Maritza, at 47, had probably strayed little further than the two day bus journey between Caracas and her home town in the deserts of Colombian Guajira.

However, also untypically, Elena started playing up the minute we boarded the first plane, and managed to keep it up for the rest of the day, and even to crank up the level throughout the rest of the holiday. Firstly she started a hunger strike, (which we could have lived with for a week), but secondly she started whining and screaming for little or no reason, which broke even Maritza's patience after a few days. We could all stand round and sagely murmur "aah, the terrible two's", but that did nothing to alleviate the frustration and the stress it caused, and I think we were all ready to slap her one by the end of the week. She showed no interest in playing in the snow whatsoever, which surprised me, and howled irrepressibly at her first sledge ride. The only thing she did seem to enjoy was the exorbitantly expensive sleigh rides she was taken on, reciting "Jingle Bells" and the Alphabet Song ad nauseam.

All of which was something of a shame, as the resort we stayed at was lovely (if expensive), there was oodles of snow, and the weather was perfect clear blue skies and record high temperatures (which meant that towards the end of the week the snow was starting to melt, but not so much as to adversely effect the skiing). After four years' absence we gingerly started skiing the green runs, but soon I was throwing myself headlong down blues in my inimitable only-just-in-control style, and Julie was executing her graceful, text-book snowplough turns. Helen and Iain, who had organised everything perfectly for us as usual, also had a great time, as we skied the slopes of Deer Valley (very civilised and very expensive - tissues at the entrance to all ski lifts) and Brighton (snow-boarders and other riff raff, but very pretty and quite a bit cheaper), and also spent a morning cross-country skiing at Solitude (which I found wonderful, although everyone else seemed to have technique and fitness problems). I even found time for a drive around the area on my own to drink in the beautiful scenery of the snow-bound Wasatch Mountains.

By the end of the week, everyone was physically exhausted from the skiing and mentally battered by Elena's antics, and the inevitable colds and coughs were beginning to make themselves felt (in addition , I was suffering from red-eye from the snow-glare). We flew back to Miami feeling a little too much like long distance runners on the final lap, and checked in at our favourite hotel next door to Miami's best bookstore, with just enough time and energy left to order in a pizza. The super-dooper computer which I had painstakingly ordered to be delivered to the hotel in time for our arrival there, had inexplicably not arrived, despite weeks of notice and several faxes, and seven phone calls to the company the next day were insufficient to find out just why (it would apparently arrive the day after we left for Caracas). So we took advantage of the unexpected free baggage allowance, and raided the Miami stores for additional unnecessary birthday presents for Elena and other odds and ends, before completing the last leg of the journey with few further disasters.

Julie was called away to Canada again the very next day after our return, and I had rashly given Maritza a couple of days off after her marathon stint, so I was back on solo Elena duty. As it turned out Maritza's cold had turned into bronchitis anyway and she was off for the rest of the week, so I had my own marathon to contend with, whilst not feeling 100% myself. Luckily Elena seemed to return more or less to normal when her surroundings became familiar, except for a few notable wobblers to keep me on my toes, (the most memorable being a twenty minute onslaught when I had the audacity to drag her away from the park swings, and we made our slow progress back with Elena alternately clinging to one leg or hanging from the stroller handles, howling like a Banshee all the while, which raised a few eyebrows and a few sniggers). She had also decided not to abandon the hunger strike just yet, and in particular any use of the high chair was strictly prohibited, so mealtimes became something of a battleground and my stress levels peaked at these times. And yet at other times she could be so affectionate and cuddly, or would play quite contentedly and self-sufficiently on her own, or would indulge in her new-found ability to make jokes like pretending to yawn or sneeze, or repeating a particular amusing phrase. I still find childhood (and parenthood) quite bewildering and unfathomable.

31 March 1997 Back to top

Hato Piñero, Llanos, Venezuela (yet again)
Just as things were more or less returning to normal (insofar as there is any longer anything which can be called normal), Julie's father arrived for
Photo: Sunset, Hato Piñero, Cojedes, Venezuela. Mar 97.
Sunset, Hato Piñero, Cojedes, Venezuela. Mar 97.
another flying visit (well, how else was he to get here?). Most of his stay consisted of another trip to Hato Piñero - over Easter week the most sensible thing to do (other than staying at home) is to head as far as possible away from the bedlam of the beaches, so that is just what we did. Elena behaved as well as could be expected under the circumstances (heat, dust, non-child-orientated activities), and certainly all the other guests seemed well impressed with her behaviour. Granted, she did not eat much, but then we have become accustomed to that on trips, and she did insist on waking up at unearthly hours of the morning, but I just used that as an excuse to experience the wonderful clear starry skies and rosy dawns of the Llanos (what is called thinking positive).

The birds and animals on the excursions were as impressive as we remembered
Photo: Lagoon, Hato Piñero, Cojedes, Venezuela. Mar 97.
Lagoon, Hato Piñero, Cojedes, Venezuela. Mar 97.
(a notable addition to our list being several ocelots spotted in the evenings), and we were able to visit a distant part of the ranch where a series of canals and lagoons provided a home to an uncountable number of babas (actually a type of alligator, as I found out, and not caimans as they are usually referred to) and thousands of voracious piraña fish. But even so, I think for me the highlight was still the amazing star show each evening, and I would lie back on the bouncing truck just gazing in awe at the milky way in all its glory. We were lucky that among the other guests were some German and Swiss friends of ours from Caracas, with whom we get along very well, although after a day's bird-watching in the debilitating Llanos heat, we were certainly not upto any late evening socialising (but luckily neither were they).

The five- or six-hour trip there and back was a lot to expect Elena to put up with, but with constant diversion and attention, she did surprisingly well. The outward journey was lengthened unnecessarily by a burst radiator hose, as we were setting off, and the return journey by our embarrassingly running out of petrol just a few kilometres from the next petrol station (luckily some friendly passers-by towed us into town, thus saving us a lot more hitching time). The burst pipe could have happened to anyone, and we were lucky it happened before we left Caracas, but the lack of petrol was really due to my oversight, although no-one complained.

Fate further spat in my direction when, on arriving back, the new computer, which I had painstakingly set up and which had been working fine before the trip, had meanwhile decided not to work for no apparent reason (possibly a power-surge in our absence), and we had to wait for a replacement part to be sent out in the hope that it would rectify the problem. The garden was finally starting to look like the dry season had arrived, and the huge 15 metre cactus "flower" which had grown up over an astonishing few weeks some nine months before, was now teetering at a precarious 30° angle to the vertical. The move to Bogotá, was now apparently very much on again, and Julie could start planning the new office in earnest, although the actual move seemed unlikely to be before August, and we had learned from bitter experience not to hold our breaths in the meantime.

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