1 November 1994
I headed west from Bogotá this time, through green hills and patchwork valleys and through a couple of pretty little towns, before dropping right down on a frightening bendy road from Bogotá at 2,650m to just a couple of hundred metres above sea level into the impressive valley of the Río Magdalena. The Magdalena is a huge brown river which almost cuts Colombia in two north to south, and separates the Andes into the Cordillera Oriental around Bogotá and the Cordillera central around Manizales and Medellín. Although surrounded by high mountains on both sides, it is such a wide flat valley that the scenery actually appears quite gentle from the valley floor. It is good cattle country, and the lush green meadows support herds of white India-style cattle, usually with several cattle egrets pecking on or around them.
Because of its low altitude, it is also seriously hot and, as my little car did not run to air-conditioning, I had adopted the criollo habit of hanging my left arm out of the window to keep cool. However, after a while, I realized that this arm was getting burnt to a crisp, and I ended up having to hold it in an awkward position behind my head in order to avoid any further damage. My first real stop was Honda, not a company town as I had predicted ("honda" means "deep" in Spanish) but a pretty old town on the banks of the Magdalena, with some steep narrow cobbled streets, white houses with wooden balconies, and a pretty Cathedral square. It is also a town of many bridges, spanning the Magdalena and the several minor tributaries which converge there. From Honda I continued north up the Magdalena for a while, crossing the river three times over heavily-guarded bridges, before turning west again into the state of Antioquia.
Now I was climbing again steadily into the Cordillera Central towards Medellín. The main road between Colombia's two largest cities, described on the signposts as the autopista (motorway), was decidedly unimpressive at times, and it would turn into a rutted dirt track for twenty kilometres at a time, or I would be negotiating a section of huge pot-holes, or proceeding gingerly over single track wooden bridges. In places there were land-slides covering the whole road with (presumably temporary) detours through neighbouring fields, where the local kids took great delight in directing traffic. In addition to all this there was the usual hazard of Colombian drivers. The views, however, were spectacular, until I had climbed enough to become lost in the clouds (which at least gave me the opportunity to breath some welcome cool air), and there were hundreds of springs along the roadsides, which the locals tapped with pipes and used the waters to provide a service washing passing cars and trucks.
Entranced by the scenery, I had not realized that it was getting dark, and because of road conditions I had not made as much progress as I had anticipated. Antioquia is not considered a great place to be travelling after dark. However, I pulled in for the night to the town of Marinillo, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it proved to be an enchanting little town, which I would probably have flashed through. I booked into a little white-and-green hostería with a pretty little courtyard inside complete with fountain. The room itself was pretty basic, but it did have a little balcony overlooking the main square, which provided me with hours of people-watching from a safe height.
After a few problems finding a safe place to park for the night (these little towns are just not used to people driving private cars), and a wonderful corn and cheese arepa from a vendor in the main square (yes, I know what it says in the book!), I leaned over the balcony for quite some time just watching the world go by. It was really quite lively in the early evening, with all the pavement cafes in the square full to bursting, and a flurry of comings and goings all around: children, dogs, bikes, horses and carts, and the brightly painted little buses which serve the surrounding towns and villages. An endless parade of teenage girls, arm in arm, marched up and down the streets below me, and more disparate couple and fours of teenage boys who seemed to be doing the same circuit but in reverse, presumably in order to maximize the number of possible encounters with the opposite sex. Later in the evening, the same process continued but with older people and more mixed-sex groups. However, despite the heat of the day, at 2,100m the mountain evening soon became too cold to be standing around, and I turned in.
Unfortunately, the next morning the weather had deteriorated, so I never did see Marinillo at its best. However, I did wander along some of the back roads to some of the other pretty little hill-towns in the region before making my way to Medellín, which almost completely lost in cloud and mist (and probably pollution) by the time I arrived. I had intended by-passing Medellín completely, partly because there did not seem to be much to see from what I had read, and partly for its reputation as a (albeit ex-) drugs capital and one of the most violent cities on the planet. In fact because of various road diversions, I actually ended up wandering right through the centre of the city, without a map and with only a vague idea of how to get to the road I needed to take out of it. I must confess, it did not really feel any more violent than any other large South American city, although I did find myself involuntarily ducking when a car back-fired nearby.
From Medellín, it was back into the mountains in slightly better weather, with the usual mind-blowing vistas to which I was by now becoming quite inured. I followed the Río Cauca, (Colombia's other main river valley which separates the Cordillera Central from the Cordillera Occidental) for some of its length southwards, crossing innumerable tributaries, and passing through vegetation which varied from pine forests to palm and banana trees. I also passed some of Colombia's extensive coffee haciendas, the first time I had really seen coffee growing close up.
After a good breakfast, I took to the dirt roads again, further into Los Nevados National Park and some of Colombia's highest mountains. Once again the scenery was stunning, although snow-capped Nevado del Ruiz (which erupted catastrophically in 1985, leaving a much truncated mountain, peaking at only 5,325m!) did no more than peep briefly and tantalizingly out of the clouds. Jagged pinnacles of rock pierced the cloud and steam around the thermally active area, and all around was high páramo grassland covered with the strange giant frailejon plants, and many other colourful alpine flowers.
The drive back to Bogotá was even more spectacular than the drive out, although I was already becoming quite blasé about all the splendid scenery. Driving through central Colombia basically involves crossing ridge after ridge of mountains. South American roads in general seem to be as likely to follow high ridges or precipitous cliff faces as the more European way of following the valley bottoms, and as often as not they just wind their way straight up and over any obstacle rather than detouring round it. All of this provides a constant succession of views and vistas for the tourist (as well as some rather hair-raising moments), although it does nothing for one's fuel consumption statistics. It also makes for quite slow and tiring driving, especially with the vagaries of the Colombian drivers thrown into the mixture. For this reason I have come to the conclusion that three days or so is quite sufficient for a trip of this sort: enough to be able to travel to some of the more out of the way places but without it all becoming too taxing.
Some of the roads may have been a little too taxing for my poor little car, however, as the next morning it was looking a little down in the mouth and was sporting a flat tyre. The tyre was easily and quickly changed, but on returning it to the airport concession there was no-one to take delivery of it as they had promised. Our flight had already been called and so we just had to leave it there with a little note (it will be interesting to see what they charge us, as we also had to leave the blank signed credit card voucher!). So it was that we made our now customary stressful departure from Bogotá, but the holiday was not yet over as we flew to Cartagena for the long weekend.
Cartagena is a seriously hot place, year round: apparently the only slight alleviation comes in December and January when there is a slightly cooler breeze off the sea. Just a few steps, day or evening, and we were bathed in sweat, and so we opted to spend the whole of the first day at the hotel, and more specifically its swimming pool, in the vain hope that we would become a little accustomed to the heat. The hotel was pleasant enough, although much bigger than the kind of place we are used to, and much more catering to the party-party beach-and-sun crowd, mainly Italians it seemed. The food was basic and expensive and the service poor, but it did have a huge swimming pool and, most essentially, air-conditioning, so that we were actually quite grateful that we had booked there.
The next morning, as early as we could manage, and before it became too hot, we went to explore the Old Town, and as promised it really was a charming place, easily the prettiest town we had seen in South America. Within the sturdy town walls, still largely intact, are narrow old streets with pretty little squares, several old churches and pastel-coloured houses with wooden balconies and flowers everywhere. Almost the whole town within the walls is preserved, and there are no 1960's concrete block to spoil the effect as there so often is (outside the walls, however, is a different story…). Local elections were under way while we were there, and a few areas were cordoned off, but not so as to interfere with our sightseeing. However, soon the lack of shade and the increasing heat sent us scuttling back to our air-conditioned hotel room. We returned to the town in the slightly cooler evening, and the next morning I returned again and explored slightly further afield. But once again an hour was really all I could cope with, and we were almost grateful when it was time to leave and head back to the relative comfort of Caracas.
We returned to more of the soap-opera antics of our conserje's family, in which we seem to be becoming increasingly embroiled. Our cleaner, the second sister of the conserje, (the first having been stabbed in a previous episode as I am sure you will remember), had apparently been breaking a few of the golden rules while we were out of town. Firstly, she had brought along her husband to the apartment while we were away, ostensibly to help - as any ex-pat will tell you, that is a definite no-no, and is often a prelude to key-cutting and break-ins. On another occasion she had apparently even sent another woman in her place to clean, so there had been someone else we had never seen before wandering at will around our apartment. It was actually the conserje's wife who brought all this to our attention, and in such a way that it seemed clear that there was some sort of family quarrel going on. To complicate things further, she was excessively keen to put forward the third daughter (all of 15 years old) as an ideal replacement.
When confronted with the allegations, Pastora at first denied them completely, and then rapidly backtracked when we brought in the conserjes themselves as star witnesses. At this stage we were reduced to sitting back agog, as all sorts of additional allegations were bandied around between them in their double-speed and increasingly agitated Spanish. The up-shot was that it did indeed seem to be true that someone had been in our apartment and, whatever the conserjes' motives, for that reason alone we had to dismiss Pastora there and then, stressing that we would be changing the locks, ensuring that the alarm was always on, etc, etc. However, rather than involve ourselves even further in this family from hell, we are in the process of exploring a couple of alternative options rather than immediately employing another daughter. Meanwhile, the conserjes are all sweetness and light with us and, bizarrely, even offered to sell us a painting or two (we have no intentions of even asking how a caretaker comes to have a selection of paintings to sell for investment purposes, and even less of investing in one).
All of this has also meant that I have been having to relearn how to do housework all over again, especially as, just four days after we returned from Colombia, Julie's mother, father, sister and sister's boyfriend all descended on us (if that does not sound too disparaging), so that for the first time ever all the bedrooms and bathrooms were being used. Typically enough, having expounded at great length about how peaceful and quiet the place was, next door decided to have one of their (infrequent but incredibly noisy) parties, this time complete with fireworks at 12.30am, which in passing also managed to set off our alarm. There were a few bleary eyes in the morning. The next night someone's car alarm went off almost continuously between about 1am and 4am. Even more bleary eyes the following morning.
The main trip the next day was a full-day trip by boat to Salto Angel (Angel Falls) itself, (full-day meaning a 5am start), and we managed to arrange to go out with a boat all to ourselves, along with Ramón, our guide, and a couple of Indian helpers. At that time of year the river was starting to get rather low, but still more or less passable, and we only had to walk around one set of rapids, shooting the others with apparent nonchalance (on the part of the boatman at least - we were all huddled in the bottom of the boat, praying).
After our breakfast stop a little further up-river, the clouds gradually started to clear, and the dramatic views of Auyantepuy seemed to be all around us, especially after we turned off the Río Carrao onto the smaller Churún into the heart of the mountain. When after three hours or so of terrific scenery we arrived at the "base camp", Salto Angel was indeed visible - although the top was still lost in cloud, it was nevertheless an unforgettable sight, and much more impressive than the brief glimpse we had had previously from a plane.
But the best was still to come as (minus a pregnant Julie and her mother who sensibly elected to stay in the hammocks at base camp) we set off hiking up towards the base of the falls. Ramón set a fierce pace and we were soon bathed I sweat again as we ascended, at first quite gradually and then much more steeply, through thick jungle complete with Tarzan-style lianas to swing from, and the going became quite tough over tree roots and rocks. Finally we arrived at a wonderful look-out point over the lower falls, which had bot previously been visible, and which, even without the huge upper falls towering above them, would probably constitute a major tourist attraction in themselves anywhere else in the world.
We continued a bit further, right up to the base of the lower falls, where a pool provided an ideal opportunity for a cold refreshing swim in the turbulent, but not particularly dangerous, waters. Suddenly, as it seemed, all the cloud lifted and there were the highest falls in the world, upper and lower, in all their glory. Floating in the icy cold water, looking up at the falls, which seemed to issue from the top of a sheer rock cliff nearly 1,000m above us, is certainly an experience never to be forgotten. The hour-long hike back down was only bearable because of the prospect of lunch (chicken cooked Indian-style on long wooden stakes for those that wanted it, although they also did the vegetarians proud) and another cold swim in the river, wary of pirañas.
The trip back down-river, however spectacular, was always going to be at best anti-climactic, although it actually turned out quite eventful, even if not necessarily enjoyable. Another of those storms blew up out of nowhere, and soon we were all hunkered down trying to shield ourselves from the cold, pelting rain, as we progressed at high speed down the river. Somehow the boatman managed to negotiate the rapids on the return journey, despite our hardly being able to open our eyes from the force of the rain slamming down on us, nor to bail out the rapidly-filling boat, and he more than earned his tip. By the time we arrived back at Canaima camp, the sun was out and all looked peaceful, except that everything we had taken with us was quite literally wringing wet and steaming in the sun, as though we had just beamed down from another, wetter, planet. By the time we flew back to Caracas the next day, nothing had dried, and our bags were several times heavier than when we arrived. Back home the next day, we all hammered the washing machine and tumble dryer into submission, and did some serious relaxing by the pool.
What we had not anticipated, however, was the number and the ferocity of the mosquitoes there. Apparently, despite being just 200km or so (as the pelican flies) down the coast from Caracas the rainy season in Morrocoy was just beginning as that of Caracas was just ending, and the mosquitoes are at their worst (or best as they would probably think of it) just after the first rains. The only place I can compare it with is the interior of Alaska in the summer, and despite coils, sprays and fans, we were all covered in bites within minutes. So it did not take us long to decide to head off to one of the island beaches to escape the plague of biting insects and the incredibly hot and humid weather in the mangrove forests of the coast (the guest house only accommodated us six, and so we had the boat man at our beck and call).
So - packed with cold drinks, water, ice, salads, cakes, beach towels and snorkelling equipment, all courtesy of Villa Mangrovia - our boatman took us to his recommended beach of the day, where we spent a couple of hours relaxing on the perfect palm-fringed strand, interspersed with regular dips in the shallow blue sea and little forays to explore the coral reefs. Actually, the sea was so shallow and clear, and the reefs so near the beach, that one could actually just wade in and watch the fish without the need for snorkelling equipment. Our boatman picked us up right on time, and took us back through the maze of mangroves and hidden channels, via a bird sanctuary where there were hundreds of huge, black, pterodactyl-like boobies circling and roosting in the trees, and also several frigate birds showing the massive distended scarlet throat pouches they exhibit during the mating season. In comparison, the pelicans (which I would once have considered exotic birds) seemed somewhat dowdy and mundane. Back at the house, the bird-life in the garden was also in full swing, with a cacophony of calls from any number of bird species. If you could stand the mosquitoes, it was very pleasant just to sit on the balcony with a pair of binoculars and watch the extraordinary diversity of birds, and to look out for the huge green iguanas climbing the trees.
The cost of the guest house included all meals and open bar, and we were amazed at the quality of the meals we were treated to that night and the subsequent night. It was a truly gourmet, vegetarian, candle-lit dinner, complete with some surprisingly palatable Venezuelan wine. Our hostess was of Russian extraction, had married an Englishman and moved to Venezuela many years ago, and was fluent in several languages. She obviously took her cooking responsibilities very seriously and (somehow, in that isolated place) managed to find some quite obscure fresh ingredients for her creations. In addition, she home-made much of it, including some wonderful ice-cream flambéed in at least two different liqueurs. It was worth fighting off the mosquitoes in order to benefit from the best cooking we had tasted in Venezuela.
On the journey back to Caracas, we detoured up into the mountains from La Victoria, which is a truly spectacular mountain road and seems to have impressed everyone, although at the time I was more concerned with whether we had enough petrol to get us to Colonia Tovar. But arrive we did, and we filled up with petrol and with fresh mountain-grown vegetables for our evening meal. The next morning we waved goodbye to Helen and Iain, after a real zoo of a check-in (which left them completely frazzled, but, as we old hands assured them, which was actually reasonably normal). I think Julie's mother and father also breathed a secret sigh of relief, as they could now relax a little - for the next few days at least.
|27 November 1994||Back to top|
Julie's parents' second week with us could not have been more different from the hectic first week. On one of the days which Julie was able to take off from work, we all went down to the coast to Ligia's private beach club. Ligia, a work colleague of Julie, insisted on sneaking off and paying for everything, which was obviously a point of honour with her, so we graciously complied, and everyone had a pleasant and relaxing time on the beach, with regular dips in the sea to cool off. On another day we drove out to Guatopo National Park, to at least give them a safe and easy glimpse of the jungles of the interior of Venezuela. But, much of their time was spent relaxing in the apartment or by the pool, with the odd foray into town or to a park for an hour or two's stroll, a shopping spree or just a bit to eat.
One evening was spent most enjoyably when we all (the family and most of Julie's office) went bowling, which seems to be becoming a more or less regular event with us now. Inexplicably, just outside of Caracas, in an obscure and none-too-salubrious satellite town, is a huge 40-lane bowling alley, complete with the latest in computerized scoring, bar and restaurant. Bowling is a great leveler, and everyone had a good time without taking it too seriously, and what is more the bank paid!
On another evening we had a farewell dinner for Emilio and Cristiana, probably our best friends in Caracas, and our only real friends in our building (where we rarely see anyone to make friends with). They are returning to England as Midland Bank are down-sizing their operations in Venezuela, which is possibly a sign on things to come. Having lived here a year or so longer than us, they have been a great source of information on how things are done, and, as Cristiana is just a couple of months more pregnant than Julie, we were also hoping that they could lead us through that process too to some extent. They did, however, leave us a huge package of Venezuelan tourism brochures, and the name of a recommended pediatrician, for which we were grateful.
On most other evenings everyone was in bed by nine o'clock as we all seemed to be a little tired and jaded, for various reasons. Towards the end of their stay tensions were rising somewhat, as the alcohol consumption rose, and as Julie's mother continued trying to give all sorts of unwanted advice on pregnancies and baby-rearing (with the best of intentions, no doubt), and re-iterating threats to come out again for the birth. Julie bravely tried to defuse these without offending too much, and I am sure she is right that the conflict of opinions would be a recipe for disaster, leading to still higher stress levels - the last things she needs at that point. It is embarrassing to admit it, but I think we both breathed a sigh of relief when we had safely delivered them to the airport, after what had been the most stress-laden evening of the whole two weeks.
The next morning was the first day for our new cleaner, our third in as many months ( I have taken to referring to "cleaners", partly because it is less loaded than "maid", and partly because in our case it is anyway more accurate). Avoiding the dreaded conserje family, it worked out very conveniently for all concerned that we inherited Delfina, who had been Emilio and Cristiana's cleaner. She had previously been working five days a week, but still seemed happy enough to take on our three-day-a-week offer (apparently foreigners tend to pay much better than Venezuelans, and the conditions of work are usually much better, so she was understandably keen), and we were more than happy to employ someone heartily recommended by friends. Typically, she is also from Colombia, and she has to take three buses to get here each morning from a very rough area of town. So far, however, things seem to be working out fine, her work is of a higher quality than Pastora's, and she shows more initiative, although we are now very wary of making quick judgements.
The morning after her parents left, Julie was also greeted by a five-person internal audit inspection at the office, who arrived to make her life a misery for a week or so. Despite the fact that she did not have much time to straighten things out for them, the inspection seems to have gone well (considering the state of things when she took over), and in some ways Julie actually welcomed the opportunity to explain some of the restrictions under which she has to operate here, and to get an objective third party to make the recommendations for some of the more unpopular changes which she herself would like to see implemented anyway. We had all the auditors round to dinner, and I took the opportunity to mention what improvements and efficiencies she has already made in the short time since she took over here - the perfect corporate husband, in fact.
Meanwhile, Christmas is well and truly on its way, and, as we suspected, the Venezuelans obviously go to town on the traditions and decorations. Hugely expensive Christmas trees, (imported deep frozen from Canada, believe it or not!) are on sale, and there are no end of road-side stalls selling all manner of naff and tasteless ornaments and decorations. Almost all the shops have their Christmas displays in full swing (some have been since October!), and there is definitely some Christmas spirit in the air, despite the inappropriate weather. Venezuelans receive a two month salary bonus at Christmas, so arguably they have something quite concrete to look forward to, even if they have no religious convictions (and, despite Venezuela being at least notionally a Catholic country, most do not). For logistical reasons we had to get ourselves organized very early this year, so that we could send our Christmas cards, and most of our presents, back to England with Julie's parents, so we are in no position to complain about the early Christmas fever.
In two weeks time my parents arrive for the fortnight straddling Christmas, so we have arranged that they bring out some of those essential items like vegetarian mincemeat and Christmas pudding. All I have to do is to come up with some ideas as to what to do with them for two weeks. I know that they are not coming with expectations of doing anything very special, and would probably be more than happy just to sit around here with us. But, as much as anything else, I think that I will probably be bore if we do not do something. of the problem is that they are not as mobile as they used to be, an they do not really have any interest in theatre or culture or anything of that nature. In addition, they do not speak any Spanish, so the options are necessarily limited. I am sure that we will do (what are rapidly becoming) the usual day-trips, and a certain amount of sitting around the pool, but I think that at least one trip out would be in order, if I can book something at such short notice so close to Christmas.
The weather is continuing very mixed, and two or three days at a time can be cloudy, overcast or rainy, which for here is most unusual. Theoretically, we should by now be well into the dry season, and yet we are experiencing some of the worst weather of the year so far. I do not mean to compare it with bad weather in England, and certainly not with Canada which is apparently already deep under snow, but I do not remember agreeing to this kind of weather when we signed the contract. It is possible that we are suffering some side-effects from Hurricane Gordon which recently ravaged the Caribbean and the East Coast of America. But whatever the reason, I hope it sorts it self out before my parents arrive, or our options will be even more severely limited.
We are also going through a difficult period where various (albeit minor) things seem to be going awry, and it feel a little like the world is conspiring against us. Our new cleaner did not turn up for her third day's work (her pay-day, as it happened), although it is too early to make too much of that, and she no doubt has perfectly good reasons. Julie seems to be losing weight instead of gaining as it says in the book, although in other respects her pregnancy seems to be progressing well enough, and we are not too concerned. We have also been having some minor neighbour problems, although that is possibly more a reflection of what good neighbours we always seem to have had in the past. Our upstairs neighbour, who must be in his late fifties and until very recently has been as quiet as a mouse, has taken to hosting wild parties. Even during those parties which do not go on too late, there is usually so much scraping of wooden chairs on marble floors that it echoes all around our apartment in the quiet of the night, sets my nerves on edge, and (most importantly) even managed to set off our night alarm at one point - presumably a particular screech was at just the right frequency to trigger the glass-break alarm. I delivered a terse but quite polite note asking him to put some rubber or felt under his chairs.
The next evening - I do not know whether in retaliation or not - he surpassed himself with another party which featured relatively little chair-scraping and no alarms, but which started at around 3.30am and continued until about 7am on Sunday morning, and featured some very loud (and very tasteless) music, much shouting and screaming, and what we took to be dancing. I managed to resist turning the garden hose on them, but we are going to have to make some sort of formal complaint and will probably make some enemies in the process. We are worried that, with Christmas coming up, the parties are only going to increase in volume and frequency and, while we do not object to parties per se, we do need to sleep at night (Julie especially), and Venezuelans do not seem to have any idea of public responsibility. Just to rub it in, when we went down to the swimming pool the next morning, we were (quite politely) informed that a children's party was about to take over the whole of the pool area, and would we mind vacating the pool!
Meanwhile, we have taken delivery of the Bank's spare "emergency" computer (supposedly our apartment is the Bank's contingency site in the event of a coup or other emergency, and anyway it would be quite useful later on in Julie's pregnancy and directly afterwards). I have been taking the opportunity to get to know a "real" computer with programs such as Windows, WordPerfect and Lotus. I have to say that it makes my little Amstrad seem a little inadequate, although I have had several years of satisfactory use from it. Julie has also become addicted to one of the games which comes with the PC…