Luke's South American Diary
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May 1997

14 May 1997

Entering into our fourth year in Venezuela, we were well familiar with the May influx of mosquitoes out of nowhere, and the disturbing racket made by the cicadas on heat (which people tell me is supposed to herald the rainy season, although it seems to me that they are no better at predicting it than anyone else).

We recently made a fleeting weekend visit to Bogotá (en famille) to make some early moves towards looking for an apartment there, although no-one told us that Colombian real estate agents do not work weekends, even the top-end ones, so we were only able to see a few. However, that was enough to reassure us that there are several good places out there, (even if they do not have swimming pools!), and certainly one that we saw would serve us well if we could beat them down on price a little (Bogotá apartment prices are supposed to be lower than those of Caracas).

As on previous visits, we all felt perfectly at ease there despite everyone’s concerns on our behalf, and in many ways we were feeling quite positive and excited at the prospect of the move. Different people seemed to give us different advice on how safe or recommendable certain things or places were, so I think we will probably be taking soundings from several people before we do anything at all doubtful, in the vague hope of obtaining some sort of consensus.

Elena’s swimming has progressed to a new level just within the last week (I have been tying to take her more regularly recently, while we still have
Photo: Elena swimming, Caracas, Venezuela. May 1997.
Elena swimming, Caracas, Venezuela. May 1997.
the use of this wonderful facility on our doorstep). Within just a few days of her deciding she would like to try it without armbands, she was doing whole widths of our (admittedly quite small) pool, most of it underwater, and taking air in panicky gasps whenever she surfaces. I was always there nearby to pick her up before she started to get worried and lose her confidence, but she never really reached that point, so I was probably molly-coddling her. Less than a week after her first tentative strokes, Elena was doing lengths, and increasing in confidence daily. It is impressive to see a 2-year-old jump in the deep end without flotation aids, come to the surface, and strike out on her own, especially when I think that I did not swim until probably six or seven years of age, and I remember being quite apprehensive of those school trips to the baths.

Another recent event was Elena’s first appearance on Venezuelan television. We went along as fill-ins for a program on child development which was featuring Baby Gym, and, although not exactly the star, she behaved well and appeared on a few clips in the final version. I, thankfully, managed to avoid appearing at all, except as part of the background audience. Julie had been away in Colombia for a full week looking for new office space, and I was feeling as though I had done a long enough stint of Elena care, and had made arrangements for another trip away. It was getting to the stage where we would almost only see each other at shift changeovers.

Another good reason for a breather (and for an opportunity for Julie to spend more time looking after Elena), was Julie’s recent bombshell that she was keen on the idea of another baby (prefaced by "I know this is probably not the right time to mention it..."). Needless to say, this did not give rise to what could be described as a discussion, as my opinions on the matter have always been, and remain, clear. At a recent dinner party, I managed to elicit a shocked silence by saying that if I could return to that fateful night two years and nine months ago, I would most certainly exercise more restraint. I am not saying (and have never said) that I would want to give her away, but I think that my comment is probably still more or less true (however socially-unacceptable to say so), although I am gradually approaching a sort of emotional break-even point, where the rewards are beginning to outweigh past (and present) frustrations and demands. A sibling, however, is entirely another matter, and remains non-negotiable as far as I am concerned.

31 May 1997 Back to top

Delta Amacuro, Venezuela
So, with our move to Colombia edging ever closer, I made what would probably be my last trip in Venezuela (the only other trip I feel I may have missed out on would have been to climb Monte Roraima in the Gran Sabana, but the likelihood of finding the nine days needed at this stage seemed very slim). It started undramatically with an uneventful long drive to Maturin, capital of Monagas state in eastern Venezuela, and a dreary spot even by provincial Venezuelan standards. I was gradually getting used to travelling with someone who attracted even more stares than me, with his metre-long plaited pony-tail, occasional camp mannerisms and generally vulnerable air. But we got along famously, and Ryan retained his sense of humour through the dire meals in sordid restaurants, and the cheap hotel rooms with cold water and armies of cockroaches.

Luckily, we were nor victimized at any of the police check-points, even though, after three years I still did not have a Venezuelan driving licence (and, now that I had my cédula, no excuse for not having procured one), and Ryan, due to his ambivalent status as the same-sex partner of a Canadian diplomat, had even less of a full set of papers than I did. We finished the second leg of the journey in record time on the good roads, flat and straight as an arrow for as far as the eye could see (and actually much further), and rolled into Tucupita through an impressive mid-morning downpour.

Photo: Cathedral, Tucupita, Delta  Amacuro, Venezuela. May 97.
Cathedral, Tucupita, Delta Amacuro, Venezuela. May 97.
Tucupita is the capital of the Delta Amacuro region (the last Venezuelan state I had to visit), where the huge Orinoco River splits into countless caños, ranging from weed-choked trickles to wide brown channels plied by ocean-going vessels. The town was founded as late as the 1920’s by Capuchin monks eager to convert the ignorant, heathen Warao indians, and they built a huge grey stone cathedral there to assert their dominance over the hostile jungle, the regular floods, and the voracious insects of the area.

70 years later, a pleasant, sweaty little town remains, still dominated by the cathedral, but home to some of the friendliest locals I have met in Venezuela. One old guy treated us to a presentation of his philosophy of life, and whatever jokes he could remember, asking for payment of a half-bottle of the cheapest aguardiente, (which, at around 55¢, I had not the heart to refuse, whatever the morality). Others used their heartiness as an introduction to their ulterior motive of signing us up for over-priced boat tours. But many others were just genuinely friendly, and happy to just chat away to some foreigners, and sometimes to try out their few words of English (it was always initially assumed that we were German, although we did not actually see another tourist, German or otherwise, all the time we were there).

Following a recommendation in one of the guide books, we decided to try to
Photo: Caño, near La Horqueta, Delta  Amacuro, Venezuela. May 97.
Caño, near La Horqueta, Delta Amacuro, Venezuela. May 97.
arrange a trip privately in the small fishing village of La Horqueta, 20km from Tucupita, and the end of the line as regards roads in the Delta. On asking directions in Tucupita, it transpired that the guy we asked happened to be on his way there, and by coincidence happened to run boat tours on the caños. Although we were wary of signing up with the first person we met, he partly charmed and partly steam-rollered us into going along with him.

When we arrived in La Horqueta, however, his brother had apparently absconded with his prized boat, although he and his mother assured us that it was the best boat in La Horqueta (he insisted on taking us to his mother’s house, meeting several of his eleven brothers and sisters, and listening to their high-volume unintelligible conversation). We managed to stop him from forcing his mother to feed us, and we bargained down his price a little, and, knowing it was completely the wrong thing to do, and with the boat still unseen, gave him an advance to buy the gas and food for the trip, just hoping that we would see him again the next day.

Back in Tucupita, we checked out a couple of the more legitimate tour agencies, and actually found one which seemed organised and reliable, and which charged no more than we had just agreed with Quimo (short for Archimedes!) and his young cousin Chandi (short for Alexander!), but by that time we were already committed. We spent the rest of the day in leisurely fashion, already feeling quite at home in Tucupita’s laid-back atmosphere, strolling around the town square and along the riverside walk, and checking out the unexpectedly good modern art collection (mainly local talent) in a small back-street art academy. After dark the streets were alive with cockroaches, but very little else.

The next morning we found out why everyone went to bed early. The blaring radios started at 5.30am, the renovation works downstairs in the hotel at 6am, and by 6.30am when I emerged bleary-eyed, most of the rooms had already been vacated, cleaned and readied for the next night. But, much to our surprise, Quimo was there waiting for us at the jetty at La Horqueta, the boat already packed with supplies, and with a couple of local Indians to whom we were apparently to give a lift back to their village. After the usual battle of wills with the officious Guardia Nacional officers, we were soon heading into the interior of the Delta, on what I was surprised to realize was actually my first real jungle expedition in Venezuela.

We started out on a wide brown caño, lined with mangroves, coconut palms,
Photo: Caño, near La Horqueta, Delta  Amacuro, Venezuela. May 97.
Caño, near La Horqueta, Delta Amacuro, Venezuela. May 97.
and in places choked with water hyacinths, and then later turned off into a maze of smaller and more interesting caños. From time to time we would stop, seemingly on a last second whim, at a small Warao settlement, ostensibly to experience the culture, but actually so that Quimo could shoot the breeze with his buddies (from the rapid-fire talk all we could make out were odd references to boats, engines, prices and women, although at times the often-repeated word coño - as opposed to caño, and I will not translate it here! - was about all we could distinguish in the blur).

The settlements were squalid, muddy, open-sided, thatched huts, with hammocks, kitchen utensils, rusty tools and clothes hung seemingly at random from the rafters, out of the way of the pigs, chickens and mangy dogs which patrolled the slimy packed-mud floor looking for scraps. The women were usually huge, and either cooking or giving suck or both; the men were almost
Photo: Palmitos, Delta  Amacuro, Venezuela. May 97.
Palmitos, Delta Amacuro, Venezuela. May 97.
always lounging around in broken hammocks discussing the price of palmitos; the young boys were invariable naked and playful, the young girls clothed and shy. (Incidentally, palmitos, or hearts of palm, along with some tropical hardwood timber, is about the only industry in the Delta, and the pickers, we found out, receive B's 20 for a length of palm which, with processing would sell for around B's 1,300 in Caracas. To eat fresh and unprocessed, shelled by machete, it is dry and bland, but still with its distinctive, pleasant texture).

Photo: Warao elder, Delta  Amacuro, Venezuela. May 97.
Warao elder, Delta Amacuro, Venezuela. May 97.
Warao communities are extended families rather than villages, and everyone lives communally under one roof. No-one seemed to find it at all strange that we just dropped in on them, with absolutely no formalities whatsoever, whether Quimo knew them or not, for example to shelter from the torrential rainstorms which hit every few hours, and, although we were not exactly made welcome (they are a particularly undemonstrative people), we were tolerated as would be a passing dog. These were not, however, the quaint palafitos or stilt houses which can be found in some of the more touristy areas of the Delta, but the hard face of grinding poverty in which the majority of the remaining Waraos find themselves (although at least they have managed to
Photo: Warao family in dug-out, Delta  Amacuro, Venezuela. May 97.
Warao family in dug-out, Delta Amacuro, Venezuela. May 97.
retain their old ways of life, almost untouched by the 20th Century). Fish soup, pan-baked bread (very good) and various root vegetables seemed to be the staple diet, with river water and coconut milk to wash it down (I learned to eat the coconut "jelly" using a spoon cut by machete from the shell after finishing the tasty milk).

That evening, after a leisurely cruise in a dug-out canoe with a couple of local 7-year-old expert paddlers to look for alligator eyes with our flashlights, we sat and drank rum and watched the stars, all of which sounds quite idyllic, except that at 7pm prompt the mosquitos (which had been suspiciously absent all day) descended on us in force, and we all made a dash for our hammocks.

My mosquito net (actually Elena’s) turned out to be useless for a hammock, and although another was procured for me from the vacationing local school-teacher who’s shack was nearby, and despite all the spray I lavished on myself, I still could not quite keep them at bay. It was actually not as hot and sticky as I had anticipated, but between the mosquitos, the rain-storms, a rather confused cockerel, and the grunts, snores and at times shouts, of all the bodies around us, I ended up with no more than two hours sleep and a bad back. At one point I woke to realise that Chandi was sleeping on the floor underneath my hammock in order to benefit from my large mosquito net (he had spent hours spraying, slapping and cursing, all to no avail).

In the morning when the rain slackened off, we took some photos of the kids,
Photo: Warao children, Delta  Amacuro, Venezuela. May 97.
Warao children, Delta Amacuro, Venezuela. May 97.
and left them with some small gifts (there were absolutely no local crafts to buy, by which we had hoped to contribute to the local economy). We then basically retraced our route with an additional "short-cut" along a winding, narrow and isolated caño, where the boat repeatedly got stuck. But from there it was straight back to La Horqueta and Tucupita, and we were left feeling somewhat cheated, given the money we had paid. Quimo’s unintelligible monologue, and his boorish habits of hawking, spitting and clearing his nose had long ceased to be amusing, and we parted without leaving a tip, and with a certain amount of bad will on both sides. The whole experience had been interesting enough, but not quite what we had anticipated (nor what Quimo had promised).

We were sorry to leave friendly Tucupita, however, even though it was raining yet again the next morning. After only brief detours to the busy fishing village of Barrancas, and a disappointing visit to another recommended village, we headed straight back towards Caracas, through pine plantations and a forest of oil derricks. Rain and drizzle accompanied us almost all the way to Altagracia, where I narrowly avoided running out of petrol on a very isolated road as dusk set in, and where the streets and hotel were infested with thousands of unpleasant jumping black beetles (although I managed to barricade most of them out of my room). Hole though Altagracia was, it was still nice to find something veggy on the menu other than the accustomed Spaghetti Napoli, or the cheese sandwiches which were all that Quimo had provided for our boat trip. After a walk in Guatopo National park the next morning we were back in Caracas by lunchtime.

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