6 June 1994
On arrival, after a long but otherwise uneventful flight from England, we meekly followed everyone else into the hot and bustling terminal. Having just registered the rather daunting queues ahead of us, we were a little taken aback by a smart young lady holding up a card with Julie’s name on it. Surprise No 1: this "gestor" proceeded to lead us around all the queues and out through a side-exit. As meekly as ever, we yielded up our passports to this woman we had never seen before (but who had greeted us as though she had known us all our lives), and after some rather histrionic and, to us, totally baffling gesticulations, and some of the obligatory backside-slapping, she brought our passports back to us miraculously signed and stamped, no questions asked. We later learned that this service was widely available for VIP’s and others willing to fork out all of $20, and in fact the airport itself apparently offers an "official" service, whereby you can avoid all the legalities and bureaucracy completely, completely free – provided you know the right people!
So, safely through the queues, bags collected (apparently miraculously intact), we were now desperately fending off several more or less official-looking porters who were trying to drag our bags away to some unknown fate, whilst trying to explain the cat’s documents to another plain-clothes official (or un-official – we never really knew), who in the end seemed to get bored with the whole thing and just waved us through, a response we were to come to know so well during our sojourn in Venezuela. Julie suggested I leave a tip for the porter, but in my panic and confusion I tipped the gestor, which turned out to be a major faux pas. Then it was out into the hot, soupy, late-afternoon Caribbean air, where we were met by anther man, also exceedingly smart (at least compared to our own bedraggled and dillapidated state), who ushered us into a gleaming white Mitsubishi limousine. In the air-conditioned coccoon of the car, we finally allowed ourselves to breathe out and close our gaping mouths, and then to drink in the realization that we had survived the ordeal, and were now in the competent hands of Julie’s very own chauffeur, on our way through the green coastal mountains to the fabled city of Caracas. The adventure (the real adventure, that is) was about to begin.
On a good day it is half-an-hour’s drive from the airport into Caracas – a good day being not at a weekend (when most of Caracas’ population heads for the Caribbean coast) and not when it is raining (when the cheap, slick road surface turns into a free-style skating rink). We had arrived at the beginning of May, and therefore before the rainy season, but unfortunately at a weekend, so we had plenty of time in which to amuse ourselves watching the pick-up trucks full to overflowing with beach-party types, and the over-loaded jeeps blaring out incessant salsa rhythms and (quite literally) rocking to the beat. Once through the toll station, the queues subsided a little, and we watched in fascination as the arid coastal mountains passed by our tinted windows, and the precarious shanty towns (or barrios) began to give way to apartment blocks, and finally to the concrete-and-glass office towers of a modern, thriving international city. Within just a few minutes we had passed from the steamy coast, through wild uninhabited mountains, to abject squalor, to conspicuous cosmopolitan wealth: the quintessential inconsistency of South America.
We (or rather Julie – my Spanish is still almost non-existent) managed to bribe and sweet-talk our hotel into accepting the cat against their rules, "just for a couple of days", already feeling like old hands in the corruption business. I was finding the thick Caribbean accent almost incomprehensible, and my two or three weeks of "Spanish for Beginners" seemed distinctly insufficient. Luckily Julie’s degree-level Spanish (although having accumulated ten years of rust) proved upto the task. I found the almost complete absence of "s"s in their pronunciation, and their sheer velocity of delivery, very difficult to cope with, and was desperately hoping that I would get attuned to it in time.
|10 May 1994||Back to top|
The incumbent from whom Julie is taking over her job as Regional Representative is an old-school, permanent-ex-pat type, who had spent the last fifteen years in that job, and who had become well and truly ensconced in the lifestyle and trappings of the executive ex-patriate life. He always wears an immaculate three-piece suit despite the 30ºC heat, and carries a horn-handled umbrella throughout the dry season, although in most other respects he has become more Latino than the Latinos. He is taking a more or less voluntary retirement, and is "going native", retiring with his Peruvian wife to his huge penthouse apartment in one of the more affluent suburbs of Caracas.
Although he is one of the most charming and personable individuals imaginable, and seems well-known by everyone worth knowing in Caracas, he seems not to have been one to let work interfere too much with his social and personal life. However, as he is keen to retire sooner rather than later, he has arranged a punishing schedule of calls for poor jet-lagged Julie, starting at 8am on the morning after we arrived, and continuing at a rate of eight a day! He is then dragging her around Colombia, Ecuador and Peru (which countries Julie will also be covering), handing over his accounts in double-quick time, and making a year’s worth of calls within a week. Julie then has to go directly to an intensive Latin-American conference in Toronto for a week. It is at times like this that I am sincerely glad that I managed to kick the rat-race habit at a relatively early age, as I know that I could never cope with those kinds of stresss levels.
The net effect to me of all this is that I will be spending the first two-and-a-half weeks of our stay in Venezuela on my own, while Julie is racing around the Americas more than earning her money. The prospect is daunting, mainly because of the language (which is still very much a barrier to me), but it is also quite exciting to be loose in a very foreign and largely incomprehensible city.
But at the same time, the streets are nothing if not lively, and this more than makes up for the chaos and dirt that we northerners find so difficult to stomach. There is certainly none of the sterility of North American streets. Street vendors line the pavements, selling fruit, toys, shoe-shines, watches, and a whole variety of more or less useful every-day items. There are even men walking up and down the snarled-up motorways which crawl through town, selling two-metre inflatable hammers and lollipops, strange fruits, newspapers, electric extension leads and feather dusters, and often all of these at once. It is strange to think that someone can make a living selling trolls on a busy autopista. The pavements are uneven and full of large holes, as are the roads, but for a Northern European there is something of a thrill from just walking around and being a part of all this bustle and activity. It is easy to sound stuffy and negative when describing this kind of place, but its attractions, if somewhat less concrete than its horrors, are just as real.
Caracas cannot be considered an immediately pretty city by any stretch of the imagination, although its setting, in a wide valley between the forest-clad Avila range to the north (National Park land, rising up to 2,600m from the 900m valley floor) and the hills and mountains which stretch away to the south, is most certainly impressive and dramatic. There are some parks, even if not many, and many of the residential districts are tree-lined so that from a distance the city looks quite green, although in fact it mainly consists of concrete blocks tied together by a sprawling and baffling road and motorway system, and the impression at ground level is very much of a proverbial concrete jungle dumped in the mist of the real jungle.
Some of the old Spanish colonial buildings remain, although many have been destroyed by earthquakes over the years, and even more thoughtlessly built over during the heady days after the discovery of oil. What little remains, mainly around the Plaza Bolívar in the old colonial heart of the city, is actually quite well maintained now and much of it is preserved for public use as museums. One can still find here the cool, shady squares, fountains and palm trees, and the white and terracotta Spanish-style architecture which is more the tourist image of South America. Most of what does remain is in some way or other connected with the local-boy-made-good Simón Bolívar, liberator of most of South America from Spanish rule, and now revered throughout the continent (and especially in Venezuela) as something of a demi-god.
|16 May 1994||Back to top|
So at first I spent my time trying to find my way around, locating the stores which sell such necessities of life as tofu, humus, cat litter and electric kettles, and attempting to make head or tail of the language, all of which sounds very easy and straight-forward, but all of which seems to take forever here (if in fact they prove to be possible at all). I eventually found, with a little help, a four-wheel drive Jeep Cherokee, and put down an immediate deposit when I did find one as they and their equivalents seemed to be in very short supply, despite the number one sees driving around. I checked out several furniture stores looking for cane and rattan furniture, which seems to be the best value and fits our idea of how a tropical apartment should be furnished. In addition to all this, I also feel obliged to make use of the hotel’s swimming pool, which hardly anyone else seems to use, and of the glorious hot weather.
The people in Julie’s office have been very friendly and helpful in all this. I have the impression of being treated as a sort of office pet whenever I go there but, as this means that everyone always seems pleased to see me and to practice their English on me, this is fine by me, and I encourage it. I have never felt quite so ineffectual and out of my depth on any previous move, and I am very conscious of floundering around at times, mainly because of the language difficulty, but also because a surprising number of things work quite differently here. So I am more than happy to have someone of whom to ask those stupid questions and to make enquiries for me, and I am deliberately cultivating the image of being somewhat dumb but good-hearted as it seems the most efficient and least stressful way of getting things done, at least at the moment.
Certainly other members of the office are finding it very strange to have Julie as a boss: a woman, a tall red-headed woman at that, younger than all but one of her staff, talking to them in good but distinctly non-Latin American Spanish, using the informal "you", making her own tea, sitting in the front of the chauffeur-driven car, and professing to be something called a vegetarian. Then, to add insult to injury, she has in tow a cat, and this rather strange man to whom she is not even legally married, who has problems remembering to shave, and who does not seem to understand how even the simplest things work in a civilized country. Oh, yes, I can understand their point of view entirely. I think they will also have a bit of a shock when Julie returns to the office and starts rationalizing their systems, imposing accounting controls and other such novelties, and generally giving them lots of unaccustomed work to do. I imagine that a few sparks will start to fly.
But hopefully, by that time we will be safely ensconced in our luxuriously-appointed, maid-serviced, 24-hour-securitized, four-bedroom, five-bathroom apartment, with its garden and swimming pool, in the leafy suburbs overlooking Caracas, which it appears is what ex-pats here are expected to live in (and we do not want to rock the boat too much, after all...). We were more than a little taken aback by the huge sums of money the bank seemed willing to pay for our accommodation: top-end accommodation in Caracas is reasonably expensive, but we were not expecting to live in quite such profligate luxury. It will take me some time to come to terms with it, I am sure, and, having been the proverbial "home-maker" for some years now (and also coming from an English working-class background), I am still rather uncomfortable with the idea of a maid, something which other ex-pats here seem to consider a very normal and necessary part of everyday life. At the moment, I am resolved not to have the intrusion of a live-in maid at least, and I am reserving judgement on the idea of a daily.
However, before we can move in to the apartment in which we are interested (which I can assure you is one of the smaller ones we looked at, having only three bedroom and four bathrooms – what do they do with all those bathrooms?), we have to endure that other great South American invention, the mañana syndrome. The dictionary definition of "mañana"over here is not "tomorrow" but "probably at some unspecified time later in the week, if we get round to it, and if we do not have to do that other job for those other people we told mañana". Now, I will happily adjust to the idea that things may not work very efficiently here, and so may take longer, but I find it difficult to accept that people will happily say that something will be ready "tomorrow" on five or six consecutive days, rather than saying that it may be ready in a week’s time if everything goes to plan. That is what we used to call "lying", and I find it very frustrating, especially when it involves repeatedly trailing out to the the apartment to verify that, no, the alarm still has not been fitted despite firm assurances and promises that it had. I am sure that with time I will adjust to this too, and learn to say that, yes, I will come over to check it "mañana".
You could be forgiven for thinking that Venezuela, and Caracas in particular, and at the present time in particular, is a somewhat dodgy place to be moving to. The good old days of high oil-prices ended in the mid-1980’s, and all the troubled waters which the oil used to smooth over are starting to rise threateningly. The financial sector is facing crisis after crisis, with inflation well over 50%, the bolivar plummetting against the dollar from 115 to 170 in just over a month (apparently as lately as the mid-1980’s the exchange rate was $1 = B’s 4!), and parallel and black markets are thriving. The usual corruption scandals continue to be unearthed, despite the new Caldera government’s anti-corruption election ticket.
Caracas has grown, within the circumscribed limits of its valley, to a population of well over 6 million much faster than its infrastructure could hope to keep up, hence the increasing problems of shanty towns, traffic congestion, water shortages and unpredictable electricity and telephone services. Prices are starting to lead to student riots and often violent clashes with the security forces involving water cannons, tear gas, and all the trappings of a police state, and have led to murmurings of more widespread civil unrest and even coups (the last coup attempt was in 1992, and was quickly put down by the military which that time at least remained loyal to the government).
Much of this is so typical of our Northern, media-generated impression of life in Latin America, (based on events in Chile, Colombia, Nicaragua, etc), that it does not seem at all strange, however depressing it may be. What is different is to be actually living there and having to consider all the potential repercussions. However, as ex-pats swanning around in luxury and preferencial treatment, most of what we see on the news seems so very remote from our daily life that is difficult to remember that we are living in the same country.
In the meantime, there is an increasingly limited number of useful things I can be doing in order to justify my existence here in this smart hotel. I watch a lot of television, as I have convinced myself that this is good practice for my Spanish. A good portion of Venezuelan television is taken up with the steamy local soap operas, or telenovelas, which apparently are also very popular throughout South America and in several European countries. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to tell which is which, as most scenes of most telenovelas seem to involve someone in floods of tears, and all the characters are in the upper 0.1% of the most beautiful people on earth. The films on television are mainly American and dubbed (badly, as even I can tell, with maldicción replacing almost all of the swear words), and mainly extremely violent (I assume that there is no controversy here about "copy-cat" violence as in Europe and North America). TV news is parrochial to say the least, although CNN is available on cable, which if only marginally less parrochial is at least American parrochial, which puts a slightly different slant on things.
American Major League and local baseball is very popular here, which is fine by me. Soccer seems to be limited to the Portuguese League for some obscure reason, which is frankly terrible, and it is no surprise that the Venezuelans do not like soccer if this is all they see of it. The commentary is just as bad, almost completely monotone, except when, every thirty seconds or so, an advertising logo appears on the screen, and the commentators change to their exaggerated advertising voices to read the jingle or slogan, completely regardless of any action which may be occurring – most bizarre.
But there I go complaining again, or worse, being patronising. I am still at the stage where I compare everything to some (probably ill-remembered) standard "back home". Speaking of which I must tell you about the women here. As a corporate husband in all but the legalities, I can assure you that the only experience I have on which to base these observations is from walking around Caracas with my mouth open, but even this is enough to convince me that beauty is taken very seriously here, as is the cult of the body and how to show as much of it as possible within the (ample) bounds of what is considered acceptable. This involves skin-tight short skirts and jeans, push-up bras and lots of make up. The result appears to us a little slatternly (shall we say?), but it has to be said that the raw material is really very impressive, apparently reflected by Venezuela's constantly impressive showings in the international beauty contests (which are still considered prime entertainment here - I understand that there is no known tradition of political correctness here in South America).
Clothing is also very important, usually more garish, frilly and low-cut than in Europe or North America, but a large proportion of income is spent on clothing and make-up, and people manage to leave even the poorest barrios looking perfectly groomed and impeccably clean. Even among the poorer sections of the male population it is very easy to feel under-dressed, and clothing in general is more formal, with shiny shoes in particular being a prerequisite. You can usually tell the gringos by their T-shirts or even (Heaven forbid!) the shorts - the African colonial concept of "dress shorts" never made it this far despite the similarity in climate. Appreciating that we have to make at least some concessions to local culture, I tend to reserve my normal scruffy jeans and T-shirt attire for the hotel room, dusting off a shirt and trousers for my forays into the real world outside.
The first rain in the two weeks since we arrived hit last night, and lived up to my idea of a tropical rain-storm. Substantially more rain fell in about an hour (to the accompaniment of the obligatory thunder and lightning) than in a week of London drizzle. As it was the first rainfall heralding the beginning of the rainy season, it was also something of an event in itself, and brought people to their windows to watch it (several also brought all their house plants out onto their balconies for a good dousing!). However, while it may have been a coup de theâtre for some, and helped to alleviate the water supply problem to some extent, such a downpour can be a potential disaster in the barrios where upto 40% of the houses have inadequate or no foundations, and risk being washed down the hillsides to which they cling so precariously.
The cat was singularly unimpressed with the rain outside, preferring to add to the huge amounts of hair I have to clear up each day. Despite the air-conditioned room his body seems to know it is in the tropics and has accordingly triggered the molting mechanism. I re-read the guide books the other day, and established that it actually gets slightly hotter during the impending rainy season, not cooler as I had originally thought, which could prove interesting as it is already into the 30°C's, and is presumably significantly more down on the coast. Walking around the city can be quite debilitating and draining, although I fondly imagine that to some extent at least I will become accustomed to it in time.
I also managed to pick a Sunday for this trip, which happens to be when everyone else in Caracas heads for the city's parks, those, that is, who do not head for the beaches. But having climbed past the picnic sites at lower elevations in the Park, there were few other idiots venturing further up the slopes. Sunday is very much recreation day, (even the motorway which separates the National Park from the rest of the city is closed to traffic on Sunday mornings and given over to cyclists, roller-skaters and joggers), which makes for great people-watching for us gringos. Caraqueños are serious picnickers, as can be seen from the amount of litter covering the environs of every picnic site, and the noise levels issuing from them. The parks are strewn with bodies, cavorting couples, family groups, soccer and baseball games, and the ice-cream and cold drink vendors who also flock there to make a brisk trade.
For a city which is supposed to be desperately strapped for cash, there is a surprising amount of free music and free shows (particularly for children) in the parks and public buildings. Also all the museums are free, and we were quite taken aback that an orchestral concert we attended in the beautiful Teatro Teresa Carreño was also free, programme and all. Granted, it was just a youth orchestra, and they did things to Pergolesi's "Stabat Mater" which do not bear remembering, but it all seemed to us to be just another element of the dichotomy between the run-down third-world dump which is one face of Caracas, and the civilized first-world pretensions of the city, which co-exist here side by side wherever you look.
Gradually, some of the local customs and procedures are making themselves apparent to us. That poorly-dressed man suspiciously walking up and down the row of parked cars is actually in some way looking after them while the owners are in the theatre, and he expects a small tip for this service (indeed, in some obscure way, it does actually feel comforting). And, yes, you do just hand over your car keys to that other man with the home-made badge so that he can park your car while you are in the restaurant (otherwise you will spend all evening finding a parking spot, and have to walk a kilometre back to the restaurant) - small tip please. And those guys hanging precariously onto the back of that lorry full of huge glass bottles are delivering and collecting mineral water containers, because anyone who can afford not to would certainly not drink the tap water. All these things, and many others, which seem so baffling at first, gradually become quite normal and obvious, and all that remains is that little thrill at becoming just a little bit more integrated into a very foreign culture.
|31 May 1994||Back to top|
A month into our adventure and we are still living in a hotel - the "mañana syndrome" is working overtime in the preparation of our apartment. They now, eventually, have the alarm fitted, as requested some weeks ago, and as promised daily. However, when we went to check it and the other things which had needed fixing, we found that some things had been fixed, others had not, and still other things which used to work now needed fixing, most importantly the telephone (there is apparently a huge queue for telephone installations, which is why we originally insisted on a working telephone line in the apartment). There are ways around the problem, as there always are here, and Julie now has a high-up contact in the telephone company, so hopefully we will be able to circumvent the problem. The lease contract document also seems to change weekly, sometimes in accordance with what was agreed between us, and sometimes with seemingly random insertions and deletions.
But we are gradually learning to maintain a certain level of sang-froid and dignity in the face of these frustrating and sometimes bizarre developments. In other matters too we are also developing thicker skins of necessity, and events which just a month ago would have driven us up the wall, now merely merit a shrug. One such example is litter, which is just endemic, and another is the attitude towards driving which, as we begin to explore a little more, is becoming ever more central. The habit of not indicating could just be put down to laziness, and there is certainly an element of that involved. But add to that other common practices such as changing lanes by wandering across (whether there is a space or not) whilst flapping an arm out of the window, and an astounding ability to jump queues with complete impunity, it became clear that the overriding basis for most driving practices is a total lack of what we Brits would call "public-spiritedness", or just plain thoughtfulness and respect. The mind-set here, almost without exception, is "looking out for No 1", "Devil take the hindmost", "I'm alright Jack", and this extends from driving to picnicking to running a company or the country (where the constant corruption scandals are just another facet of the same problem). But it seems equally clear that this will probably never change, so we must learn to live with it, although hopefully without becoming so inured that we start to take on those characteristics and values ourselves. We will always be foreigners here, but we may as well be thought of as "those weird but nice gringos".
Another strange attitude we have encountered is the absolute addiction to cellular phones. It seems like we are almost the only people without one, and I must confess I intend to keep it that way. One can go into a restaurant and see a table of four people of which three are talking on their cellulars (we are convinced that they are talking to each other). The rudeness of even thinking of taking a phone into a restaurant, let alone answering it, obviously does not even register here. We have been in theatre performances before now where someone's cellular has rung, and the owner has coolly proceeded to answer it - absolute mind-boggling ignorance. Certainly the percentage of people negotiating Caracas' scary traffic with one hand, (using the other for the more important business of holding a phone and looking impressive) is quite frightening. And I am sure that that is the sole reason for the habit - Venezuelans are obsessed with looking good and appearing popular.
If, however, you are willing to drive a little further (two hours or so) along the spectacular dirt road between cactus- and jungle-covered mountains and precipitous cliffs, one quickly leaves the party crowd behind, and pass through small Caribbean villages where life has changed little for quite some time. Here the beaches are wild and beautiful, fringed by palms and sea-grape trees, and often cut through by a warm shallow river (which makes for safer bathing than the crashing waves of the Caribbean itself, although at least a paddle to feel the force of the swell is obligatory). Sitting on these beaches, such as Todasana, La Sabana or Chuspa on the Litoral, deserted apart from a few locals even at a weekend, with a cold beer from the local bar, is much more my idea of what a Caribbean beach should be like.