Luke's South American Diary
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May 1995

7 May 1995

Birth of Elena (29 April 1995)
The impossible and inconceivable has happened - we now have a sprog (or sproggette, if that is politically correct these days), and so the world has been turned upside down and shaken around somewhat, in case no-one else has noticed. Elena Rose (Elena to you and me) was born at 5.20pm on 29 April 1995 - I know: I was there. For those not interested in the gory details - and, God knows, almost everyone has endured several versions already - please skip 27 pages or so.

Julie, to giver her her due, played it cool to the last. We went shopping on Saturday morning, like any other couple, although one of us was rather fatter than normal (it was not me). After a lunch of egg mayonnaise sandwiches (you are interested in these details, are you not?), I went back to the shops for the things we had forgotten, again as normal, and on returning home at about 3.30pm I found Julie in a rather unusual position on the floor, with what were just about her first contractions. She politely suggested that maybe we might be thinking about a little trip to the clinic, so while I ran around like a headless chicken, Julie collected together her holiday gear (books mainly, from what I could see), and I drove maniacally to the clinic, Julie merrily having contractions all the while.

We checked in through the clinic’s emergency entrance at around 4pm (a remarkably efficient process by Venezuelan standards), and a quick examination revealed a 9cm dilation (that is a technical term for those who know about these things, and will be completely wasted on you others - I have read the books, so I know about these things). At first, Julie would not believe the doctor on the grounds that it was not hurting enough yet!

I was dispatched to do all the admissions administration which, in much more typical Venezuelan fashion, took forever, with the little man laboriously entering everything I had just filled in on the form into a computer with which he was evidently very unfamiliar, answering phone calls in the meantime (very Venezuelan), with me mentioning in passing from time to time that, by the way, actually my wife was having a baby, and could he possibly see his way to getting a damned move on. I then had to go to another department completely to pay the (huge) deposit before they would even think about going any further with the matter in hand.

Meanwhile, upstairs at the business end of things, some strange doctor (at such short notice there was no way that Julie’s proper doctor could be there) was energetically encouraging her to "push, push, here it comes!" and all that, while Julie was impressing everyone with her text-book breathing exercises, and desperately trying to delay the proceedings until I got there. There had been no time for pain-killing injections or any of that sort of nonsense (although, to everyone’s amazement, Julie had already unceremoniously dismissed the hovering anaesthetist - in Venezuela, anything other than a caesarian section is an oddity: to actually want to do it naturally and drug-free is considered evidence of serious derangement).

When I arrived, breathless, in the delivery room, I took up my position cowering behind Julie on the pretext of supporting her back, and Julie set about some serious grunting and groaning, followed by a solitary but quite arresting scream, and a little baby girl shot out (almost literally). While the doctor finished off the yucky bits (including the stitching up of the cut which they had deemed necessary right at the end in order to justify their bill), I tried to concentrate on the nurses slapping around a little blue-and-pink thing which they assured me was my daughter, doing all their weighing (3.5kg, about 7lb 12oz), measuring (50cm, whatever that is in Imperial), APGAR tests (8/10 and 10/10), cleaning up, etc. Julie still maintains that the whole experience was not overwhelmingly painful, even without drugs, so we can only suppose that she was exceedingly lucky with the delivery - certainly an hour-and-a-half from start to finish seemed pretty efficient to say the least.

It still did not quite seem real to me, and I think that both our feelings at the time were centred around relief, rather than the gushings of overwhelming love which one reads about in books. And do not believe people when they tell you that it is a beautiful experience: at best it is pretty bestial, and at worst just a surgical operation. Elena herself was hardly a pin-up, even though she seemed a bit better developed and less bashed around than many naturally-born babies (says the proud father). But she was ours, and that counted for something, I suppose.

After fighting off nurses desperate to feed Elena glucose solution (we had read the books, but they obviously had not, or at least not for twenty years or so), Elena clamped herself to Julie’s chest where she has remained almost ever since, apart from short lapses where she cries inconsolably, or, later, even sleeps. The first couple of days in the clinic (or more particularly the nights) were truly grim. The nurses’ solution to everything was of course simple - give her the glucose (at four in the morning, after three hours of pacing up and down, we were sorely tempted to give in, but managed to not to - the books would have been proud of us!). Having said all that, though, the general standard of care in the clinic was fine, and in many ways probably much superior to what we would have received in England or even Canada (meals excepted - I was constantly being sent off to smuggle in additional supplies, especially as Julie seemed to be ravenous all the time, and vegetarianism is not a major movement in Venezuela).

The cellular phone, which we had bought with this very moment in mind, failed us at this point, as the phone company seemed to have instituted a code system for international calls without telling us, so we could not actually call our parents anyway. I returned home from time to time to phone relations and close friends (who could then phone into the hospital to our cellular, so all was not wasted), pick up those additional food supplies and more baby clothes, and for a break from the incredibly obsessive baby atmosphere which obviously enough pervades the maternity ward of a hospital. We deliberately held back on announcing the news to friends and colleagues in Caracas, as we knew that within hours everyone would be round and the room stacked from floor to ceiling with cloying flower arrangement and partying well-wishers, as were all the other rooms on either side of us - surely the last thing anyone would want after having just given birth. We were all more than happy to leave the hospital after a couple of days for the relative peace and quiet of our own apartment.

On our second day back home, (after two days and two long nights in the hospital), Maritza, the nurse/nanny we had previously signed up, started work, and although she was understandably a little reticent and quiet to start with, she certainly seemed to know her stuff and how to handle a baby confidently and effectively. The nights did not improve much (not that I expected any miraculous improvement), and we were beginning to think that we were doing something wrong if Maritza could get Elena to sleep for two or three hours at a time in the day, when all we could manage at night was half-an-hour or so, although apparently that is not at all uncommon. Having Maritza around to run after the walking mammary glands which Julie had become, freed me up to make some inroads into the prodigious amount of baby admin (and all that that entails in Venezuela, where bureaucracy is one of the things they do best), as well as searching for all the unforeseen baby accoutrements we needed (although actually we had anticipated quite well).

After four or five days, Elena was suckling for an hour and then sleeping for two or three, before starting to whimper for food again. At night, we had reached the luxury of a whole hour of sleep at a time, although there were still long hours of pacing up and down, burping and pacifying to be done. The morning routine of feed, ten-minute sun-bath, wet bath, nappy change, feed, burp, and sleep, became more or less established, and Julie was managing a nap in the afternoon most days. She was having a certain amount of work faxed or sent up to the house each day, and so was able to keep abreast (so to speak) of things in the office without too much effort.

We were learning as we went along, as one does, actually coping not too badly I thought, in our own sweet way. We had all the visitors and flower arrangements we had so cleverly put off while in the hospital, so that the apartment looked like a funeral parlour for a while. The most ridiculous thing was that the arrangements seemed deliberately designed so that they were impossible to water, so obviously all those expensive flowers died within a couple of days, apart from those we succeeded in rescuing or cannibalizing. The cat, surprisingly enough, did not seem excessively put out by all the goings on and, although he made a point of avoiding Elena at close quarters, he also took to spending a lot of time in her room (as of course did we - no coincidence), and all without making a nuisance of himself by jumping up into her crib or any of the other things people had warned us about.

Certainly there is no other news to speak of, as everything has been well and truly subsumed by a certain Elena Rose. If I were to struggle to think of some, I might mention a couple of strange environmental happenings recently. One was a noxious haze which settled over Caracas for a period of a few days, caused by some freak atmospheric conditions. Normally, the constant through breeze down the Caracas valley is enough to blow away all of the pollution which would otherwise undoubtedly rival that of Mexico City or Santiago de Chile. However, the strange conditions of the moment not only dragged in and dumped all sorts of pollution from forest fires many miles away, but then ensured that it just lay there in a brown smog over the city, causing major health problems from those more susceptible (luckily we were above the main problem area, and we still had our cooling, cleansing breeze). The other event, concurrent but unconnected, was a plethora of shooting stars over a period of three days although, because the moon was so full and the reflected light from the smog-covered city so bright, it was actually very difficult to see anything.

20 May 1995 Back to top

Every other day now, Julie and the already indispensable Maritza have been taking Elena in to the office for a couple of hours, so that Julie can attend the odd meeting and catch up on some business, and so far it seems to have been working out well (Julie is conscious of blazing new trails in office procedures, although not for the first time) - Elena usually more or less behaves herself, although luckily the bank offices are quite well sound-proofed anyway. After the staff accustomed themselves to the idea, and, after all the initial cooing and burbling, they were soon even able to get on with some work while Elena was there. My part in all this is to ferry Elena and her entourage back and forth, as (guess what!) the bank’s white car is out of action yet again, and yet more parts are being ordered from Florida. Julie has been expressing milk in case of necessity, something she swore she would never be able to bring herself to do - just another example of how babies change people.

Meanwhile I have continued with the thankless and frustrating task of trying to obtain all the necessary paperwork for Elena, and we now have a birth certificate, and an application for a British passport is well under way. It may not seem much to show for three weeks of phone calls, queuing and hopping from one administrative building to another, but I actually consider myself to have done quite well to achieve as much as I have, and the rest looks tantalizingly achievable. After four visits and several phone calls, I am still waiting for the cheque for the balance of the excessively large deposit we had to pay at the clinic, but even that now looks to be a possibility for later in the week.

Julie’s mother arrived recently for a two week visit to meet the baby and report back, and she seems suitable impressed so far (but wait until we have a really bad night). She came loaded with presents from friends and relations, so we now probably have enough clothes to last her for months, not to mention toys, mobiles, books and many other things. We now have some idea what Christmas will be like from now on, and clearly it will be very difficult to ensure that Elena is not too spoilt and pampered. There is something about babies which brings out the generous aunt or uncle in everyone.

Certainly, on our few trips out and about in Caracas so far, more people have spoken to us in the last few weeks than in the whole of the previous year, as everyone feels obliged to feign interest (or maybe it is genuine?) in Elena’s age and to tell us how pretty she is - which is all very nice, but to a cynic like me it somehow does not have the ring of truth to it: these are really just standard knee-jerk reactions. Venezuelans as a whole are quite potty about babies, if that is not too painful a pun, and even teenage boys seem desperate to chuck her under the chin, and inquire as to her name, which would be considered very strange behaviour in Europe or North America.

Elena has passed her early tests and examinations with flying colours, although our pediatrician is reserving judgement on whether or not her legs are properly attached until our next visit, when it will be easier to tell. Her first of innumerable inoculations and vaccinations raised the roof, and earned her top marks for pulmonary strength. It also became apparent than in her first two weeks she managed to increase her weight by 16%, during a period when most babies actually lose weight, so it seems that we have another glutton in the family.

30 May 1995 Back to top

The sleepless nights continue: even though Julie necessarily gets the worst of it, I am still often up for a couple of hours walking an inconsolable bundle of anguish up and down the apartment. They say it gets better... Julie, amazingly enough, maintains that she is as happy as she has ever been (despite the lack of sleep), which is interesting because she was as worried as I was that she would hate it all (although less certain of it). I know that hormones have some role to play in all this: recently she has been capable of bursting into tears at the slightest excuse (something she used to reserve for very special occasions), even while telling me how happy she is. But hormones are by no means the whole story, and she definitely has a much more special bond with Elena than I ever will.

As for me, I have been trying to remember a grimmer time in my life, and the fact that I have not succeeded probably says more about the happy life I have led so far than about the current depths of my despair. Certainly to say that I am enjoying myself would be a gross exaggeration - I go through many moments of frustration, anger, boredom, depression, you name it, with very few of the compensatory highs that Julie seems to be blessed with. But it would also be an exaggeration to say that life is not worth living at the moment, especially with the help we have available (how anyone brings up a child on their own, and/or in poverty, I will never understand). The honeymoon period, such as it was, is definitely over, though, and I find myself less and less patient with Elena’s crying spells, although of course I still try to help when I can.

I have promised myself, (with Julie’s blessing - see how lucky I am?) another trip away soon. I was originally thinking of wandering through the vast, flat plains of the Venezuelan Llanos, but as the weather has started to break in the last few days, with some rather boring overcast days interspersed with the first of the proper rains of the year, this is probably not a great time to be in the Llanos, as the roads (and everything else) become completely flooded in the rainy season, and everyone apparently switches to boats. So I am now planning an investigatory trip to Margarita, Venezuela’s tourist Mecca, of which we have had very mixed reports (some say it is now over-developed and becoming dangerous; others say that, if you avoid the more touristy places, it still has some of Venezuela’s most beautiful beaches and scenery), so I feel obliged to go and check it out before we subject ourselves to a proverbial family holiday there. That is my excuse, and I am sticking to it.

The bank car is now back in service, and so I am no longer needed for ferrying services to and from the office every day (Elena and Maritza still go in for a few hours at a time, which still seems to be working out well - Elena behaves better in the office than she does at home!). However, I am waiting until Julie’s mother, who is giving us the benefit of her experience and advice whether it is wanted or not, leaves, in order to avoid having to explain how it is that I can go off and leave Julie with a small baby and only a nurse, cleaner, driver and office full of uncles and aunts to look after her. Her visit has not been quite as traumatic as it might have been, although I think that Julie was beginning to get a bit frazzled towards the end.

We have managed to make a few trips out into the real world with Elena, as much as anything to prove that we can, and at some stage she usually starts to howl, but generally it has been a quite positive experience. We have also made sure that we have gone out once or twice on our own, with Maritza baby-sitting, which has also worked out well so far. These are important psychological landmarks for us, especially for Julie, as we do not want to become completely tied down by Elena, as we have seen with some other families. At the weekend, we even went along to the annual fête at the British School in Caracas, which was quite as British and colonial as we had expected, and could easily have been transplanted from a sleepy village in Surrey, although it was pleasant to meet several (British, Canadian and American) friends there.

Another interesting little diversion last week was a trip to a community school in a barrio in the south of Caracas, which basically operates as a kindergarten, school, community and adult education centre, and general focal point for an area which normally would not benefit from any of these facilities. Most of the labour is voluntary, and the scheme seems to be burgeoning, as they are looking to expand their activities, which is where our substantial donation comes in (also to salve our consciences after Julie’s large ex-patriate bonus). We were also able to make various fund-raising suggestions which had not occurred to them (basically, tap the rich foreign companies and embassies). There are lamentably few such organizations in Caracas, and what others there are tend to be run by religious orders of some sort, so we felt good to be able to support such an innovative and effective project.

Yet another trip came about when Julie’s secretary, Teresa, suggested that her son take us on a little tour of his university, Universidad Simón Bolívar, which is on the southern outskirts of Caracas. It is a public university, very science-orientated, but unlike in the other universities its students are chosen on merit, and so many of Venezuela’s brightest hopes go there. It is actually a smart, modern, well-equipped campus set in lovely grounds, and seems a million miles from the rest of Caracas. It is also interesting that on the very day we were there, the students in the larger, inner-city Universidad Central de Venezuela were protesting and rioting, (a common occurrence there), while USB was so quiet and serene that you could almost forget that there were any students there. One of the University’s administrative buildings is a beautifully-preserved colonial hacienda, which we were able to look round, and an interesting aspect is that part of the mandate for its continuing as a university is that it preserves and looks after this lovely old building and the trees, gardens and green spaces of the campus.

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