Luke's South American Diary
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October 1994

4 October 1994

Meanwhile, life here in Caracas goes on. Julie is, as ever, very busy at work, and feeling quite tired from it due to her "condition". There is a major international gold industry symposium here at the moment which has necessitated her and my attendance at various functions, ranging from a low-key and quite enjoyable house party, to a rather stuffy speech-making affair (which the Venezuelan President was supposed to attend, but actually sent a stand-in), to a relatively bacchanalian "Noche Venezolana", which featured ridiculous quantities of food (very Venezuelan) and some frenzied dancing to an extremely loud Caribbean-style band (very Venezuelan). As Julie's invitations to these functions come mainly through her Canadian connection (and especially as Canada is a major player in the gold industry), there are usually several Canadians and English-speakers there, which is probably just as well as I am still very self-conscious about my poor Spanish.

Although one would think that I would be well used to it by now, I am still continually amazed and depressed by the inefficiency of this country. Very few things are done on time as promised, and there are very few which do not necessitate a return visit or a complaint of some sort. Three recent examples:

While I do not expect American (or even English) standards of service, the country really does need to get its act together, not just at governmental level, but at everyday street level as much as anything. Julie finds the same frustrating shoddiness with her employees, along with an almost total unabashedness at getting things wrong or at inefficiencies or delays, and a tendancy to fib and cover up rather than admit errors, which she finds particularly annoying. There seems to be very little pride in the country, in the city, or in people's jobs of work, and until there is I do not see things improving much. Were it not for the huge natural resources of the country (oil, gold, and other minerals, as well as its natural beauty which still attracts some tourists despite the drawbacks), it would be in a very sorry state indeed. Aguably it has been the historical cushioning of these resources, particularly the oil, which has led to the arrogance, spoiltness and thoughtlessness which now prevails here. As oil prices continue to slip, an element of bitterness has crept in too to make matters worse, as though people still have difficulty believing that the easy days of the 60's and 70's are no longer here.

11 October 1994Back to top

"The pregnancy" seems to have taken on a life of its own, so to speak, and is proceeding apace. Julie made an appointment to see the only female gyneacologist in Caracas, but walked out within seconds as the staff were so rude and unhelpful, and the hospital was only a few steps removed from the Dickensian horrors of the public hospital in which our ex-cleaner, Diana, was incarcerated. If, for once, we have the money, we may as well at least pick and choose somewhere where she will feel comfortable.

So after the initial non-starter, we (me in my supportive husband rôle) went to another clinic, recommended by another pregnant friend. This seemed much more promising, with all the mod-cons of a North American or European hospital, and prices to match (apparently we are covered by insurance, despite the fact that, through no fault of our own, we have only just received the application forms!). The staff were friendly and quite efficient by Venezuelan standards, the doctor had studied in the States and spoke impeccable English, and the lying-in rooms looked salubrious enough.

A blood test quickly confirmed what we already knew, but we were somewhat taken aback at being shown the little bugger on a monitor, with its little heart pumping away ten to the dozen, even though it was only nine weeks old. This had the predictable profound effect on Julie, who has some rather prejudiced hormones at work on her, although I do not think it did much for me – it looked like an overgrown tadpole, and we would have missed it completely had it not been pointed out to us. With the fact now incontestable, we have officially informed the families, and (also predictably) everyone seems much more pleased than us, except possibly Julie's mother whose first two responses were: "You are getting married, aren't you?" and "You are coming home to have it, aren't you?". It put me in mind of her assertion a few years before (after a few beers, to be fair) that it was selfish of us not to have children because it was her natural right to be a grandmother, which left me completely floored in its infallible logic (especially as she was already a grandmother at the time).

Incidentally, for lovers of soap operas, ex-cleaner Diana is now out of hospital, and staying with her brother (for some obscure reason into which I did not like to pry further) in a barrio with steep steps instead of roads, where her nice new wheelchair will presumably be absolutely useless. The family, however, (which seems to increase in size weekly and now apparently consists of no less than eight siblings), is still asking for money and we have come to the conclusion, probably belatedly, that we are being fleeced, and are now insisting that before we shell out any more money we discuss repayment terms. We are not sure just how mean we ought to feel about this, but it all seemed to be getting out of hand, and Julie at least was man enough to make a stand. We have not heard a peep from them since, and have probably just lost our cat-sitters.

Los Roques National Park, Venezuela
But we have managed to make a trip just recently which quite successfully put such worldly considerations out of our minds completely, at least for a while. This was our long-delayed day-trip to the Los Roques Archipelago National Park, a collection of fairy-tale coral islands half-an-hour's flight off the coast from Caracas. It is a great shame that we could not make the trip while Doreen was here (Lord knows we tried!), because it is a truly special place, and she would have loved it. We could see the islands scattered in the turquoise, cobalt and electric blue sea as our tiny little plane made its descent. The island with the airport, known predictably enough as Gran Roque, is by far the largest (although still tiny) and the only one with any hills, and its grey volcanic rocks could be seen from almost everywhere else we went.

On landing, we transferred to a catamaran and set sail to explore a few of the nearer islands. There were more yachts and boats around than I had expected, (not that it was exactly busy), but apparently the area we were in was the only sector of the Park reserved for tourists, with most of the rest preserved as a nature reserve and virgin land, which seemed a sensible enough compromise. Even the "tourist sector" though is stunningly beautiful, with graduations in the unreal, almost luminous, colours of the sea depending on its depth and its proximity to the blinding white sand beaches, and the coral reefs below.

With the catamaran anchored on one of these beaches, we were at leisure to swim, sunbathe or just stay on the boat where there was unlimited drink and plenty of food. All of our group of ten or so went off with the two guides to explore the nearby reef with provided snorkelling gear and, although it may not be the Great Barrier Reef, the coral formations and the colourful fish hiding within them were fascinating for us neophytes. I had a few problems with leaks in my mask and breathing tube, which did not help much, but it was still a wonderful, and surprisingly tiring, experience. The boat then moved on to a couple of other islands with more of the same glorious surroundings, and by the time we arrived back at Gran Roque for the flight back we were well and truly worn out after all the sun, swimming, eating and drinking. Julie felt wrecked for the rest of the weekend, and her lips were very sunburnt and sore, although I managed to escape quite lightly given the searing sun and lack of shade.

21 October 1994Back to top

October continues like September: very hot, often clouding over in the afternoons, but with little real rainfall. I think that subconsciously I am always waiting for the weather to break and the cold winter to start, but that just never happens here. I expected, before we came, to miss the variation of the seasons, and I suppose that to some extent I do, but give that the season that we are stuck in happens to be summer rather than winter, it does not rankle much, and the novelty has certainly not worn off yet. The heat, especially at this time of year, can become a little oppressive, but in Caracas, at nearly 1,000m above sea level, this is much less of a problem than in the lowland interior of the country or even just 20km away on the coast. It is certainly a real boon to be able to go away for one or two days and rely on the weather being at least reasonable and usually glorious. Compare that with Canada where you could expect about a fifty-fifty chance, or England where a good day at any time of year is an unexpected bonus.

Guatopo National Park, Venezuela (Morros de Macaira)
With this in mind, I had myself another little day-trip recently and - guess what - the weather was glorious. I went back to Guatopo National Park, about two hours south of Caracas, where on my last trip with Doreen the weather had been OK, but pretty murky up in the cloud forest. This time it was perfectly clear throughout, and the views across the rolling forested mountains were stupendous. So I took advantage of it and explored, at least part way, another of the trails. Once again, however, the heat and humidity defeated me, although it may have been better had I known in advance how long the trail was (as usual no information was available). With an early start I was also able to carry on a little further, through to the southern boundary of the National Park in the state of Guárico, past a picture-postcard blue lake, and right down to the edge of the the mountains for at least a quick glimpse of the beginning of the endless flat plains of the Llanos.

As I found I still had some time, I made a little detour to an area tacked onto the southern border of the Park, known at the Morros de Macaira National Monument. These morros, smaller and less impressive than the Morros de San Juan, were approached by reasonable roads through a pretty rural valley, necessitating a stop from time to time for herds of skinny cattle led by real Llanos-style cowboys. Life here is obviously pretty hard compared to the relatively wealthy areas around Caracas: many of the houses are quite literally mud huts, with holes for windows and a pig or two in the back yard. The people I passed were very poorly dressed, with wide-brimmed straw hats against the firece sun, and usually carrying the obligatory machete. At the end of the road was the old town of San Francisco de Macaira, like the proverbial place that time forgot, with all the locals sitting in the shade outside a bar on the main plaza. Most of them gave me some rather puzzled looks as if to say "Now, why would a tourist come all this way up a dead-end road just to see us?".

The road passed close to the sheer limesone walls of the morros, and it seemed such a shame that there were no official trails or paths up them that I decide to strike out on my own anyway on what started out as an old cart trail which looked as though it might lead towards the nearest morro, on the assumption that at least the local kids might have made a path up there over the years. Within minutes I was struggling through two-metre tall bristly grass, and what had been a trail soon disappeared completely. I tried another likely looking path a little further along, determined now to get to the white cliffs looming above me. This path too soon petered out, and I tried to force my way through the increasingly dense jungle, scrambling over huge rocks fallen from the cliff face, hoping against hope that I would be able to remember my way back.

I did succeed in reaching the white cliff (something of a disappointment actually – just an ordinary rock face from up close – I do not know what I had been expecting), but by this time, and certainly by the time I had found my way back, I was covered in scratches from trees and undergrowth, bitten half to death by what I imagine must have been ants of some sort (I still had the scars from these over a week later), and not a little panicky in the eerie half-light of the jungle, echoing with the calls of strange birds and who knows what else (Woozles? Heffalumps?). Thoroughly chastened, and cursing the Venezuelan National Parks Service, I lurched back to the luxury of my air-conditioned jeep to nurse my wounds.

Falcon, Venezuela (Morrocoy, Coro, Los Médanos, Paraguaná Peninsula, Sierra de San Luis, Yacambú)
After a relaxing weekend - when the most taxing thing we did was to have some friends round for a fondue - I headed off again, for a three-day trip to Carabobo state this time, doing what I could to get as much travelling done as possible before it all grinds to a halt, as it most surely will. I drove west from Caracas, past Valencia and Puerto Cabello again, and then continued on new ground into the state of Falcon. Along the coast of Falcon, there is a succession of more or less developed beaches, of which I sampled one or two briefly, and found a mix of idyllic, palm-fringed deserted strands, and squalid litter-strewn dumps – in fact, something of a microcosm of Venezuela. Along most of this coast are kilometre after kilometre of coconut groves backing onto the beaches, crossed from time to time by sluggish brown rivers.

I stopped off briefly at Chichiriviche, within Morrocoy National Park, but knowing that we would be visiting there soon anyway, I did not linger. The National Park basically consists of the coral islands just offshore, but the town itself has quite a pretty beach area, and there were hordes of brightly-coloured little boats waiting to ferry visitors over to the islands, although there seemed to be very few takers while I was there. The little spur road to Chichiriviche also passed through a nature reserve where there were flocks of flamingoes feeding in the shallow lagoon.

Cutting across inland through Falcon revealed a very different face to the state: dry dusty scrubland and desert, with isolated outcrops of hills, reminiscent of Arizona or Nevada. It is also obviously a very poor and undeveloped area, although the blast of heat which hits you when you open the car door goes a long way towards explaining that. But here, as it seems everywhere, a few families manage to scratch a living from the poor sandy soil.

Arriving in the old colonial town of Coro, capital of the state of Falcon, was quite a shock after so much desert, as the town seems to be developing into quite an industrial centre, and the hustle and bustle of city life seemed quite out of place in its desert surroundings, much like the shock of driving into Las Vegas. Coro was one of the very earliest Spanish settlements on the South American continent and, although little remains from the original settlement in 1527, there is a wealth of colonial architecture from the next two centuries. Its old core, around the Cathedral and Calle Zamora, is one of Venezuela's best-preserved colonial towns, with cobbled streets, old pastel-coloured houses with wooden and iron window grilles and wooden balconies.

I booked into a medium-priced hotel in Coro, and made the best of the late afternoon sunshine by driving just a few kilometres north out of town to Los Médanos National Park. The narrow isthmus which leads from Coro across to the Paraguaná Peninsula is covered by ever-shifting médanos, or dunes, up to 30m high and covering an area of about 80 square kilometres. The road across the isthmus is constantly being covered by the wind-blown sand, and I could see the remains of a previous road which had obviously been abandoned completely. The sand hills are big enough and extensive enough to give an impression of being in the middle of a huge sand desert such as the Sahara. Apparently camels can be hired somewhere nearby, but I preferred to tramp across the dunes on foot, although it was incredibly hard work climbing the constantly shitfting hills, two steps up and one back all the time. It also made a suitably atmospheric place from which to watch the watery sunset.

The next day, which turned out more overcast and therefore thankfully a little cooler, I went back across the isthmus to explore the Paraguaná Peninsula. This is an area of about 60km square, even more barren and scrubby than the rest of Falcon. It is completely flat apart from one mountain, Cerro Santa Ana (a National Monument), which rises up dramatically 815m in the dead centre of the peninsula, and around which the oldest settlements are scattered. A constant wind blows across the peninsula, which has the unfortunate effect of blowing litter everywhere, which then snags on the cactuses and thorn bushes which make up the peninsula's vegetation. Thus the impression is of one big garbage dump – the beaches too, such as they are, are also lined with wind-blown litter – so the whole effect is rather off-putting.

The peninsula also seemed even poorer than the rest of Falcon, although Punto Fijo on its west coast is apparently now a thriving oil terminal town, and I spent many a mile wondering how people there made a living. Most of the villages were like ghost towns, with hardly anyone on the streets, even in the late morning. There were, however, many people walking in the middle of nowhere on the desert tracks, and these were presumably the same people who were not in the village. They seemed to spend most of their day walking between A and B, many carrying plastic bags with unknown contents (some sort of fruits and vegetables?) with which they presumably somehow made their living. There were a few skinny goats and even fewer incredibly skinny cows, wild-looking but probably domesticated, but otherwise there seemed to be no visible means of support for the inhabitants, and no real reason for being there. I must confess I found the whole place rather bizarre and perplexing.

From the north coast of Falcon, I headed south (inland) to the welcome greenness and coolness of the Sierra de San Luis, another National Park protecting the limestone mountains around San Luis, and the proliferation of caves and underground rivers within them. Climbing through the mountains was an object lesson in the effects of altitude on vegetation, as I progressed from the cactuses and thorn scrub at the bottom, through a section of eroded badlands with sparse leathery shrubs, through higher levels covered with small spreading trees (many with bright yellow blossoms), up to cooler lusher trees and undergrowth, culminating in full-blown cloud-forest jungle with moss, creepers and spiky crimson flowers.

Almost by accident I happened across a way-marked trail up in the cloud-forest. It was obviously not well-used (the Park apparently receives very few visitors anyway, and few of those would find this trail along an appalling dirt track, miles from anywhere), and they had not progressed as far as numbering the way-markers or providing any information, but it was a pleasure to find any such official trail in a Venezuelan National Park, and I had an enjoyable if ennervating walk through the bromeliad-laden jungle, past deep, seemingly bottomless, caves and sink-holes.

After the isolated hill-town of San Luis, I continued south, up and down ridge after mountain ridge, past mud huts, stared at by everyone I passed as I had not been stared at since my trip to Colombia. At the state boundary between Falcon and Lara, I was stopped for the first time ever at an alcabala or police check point. I have been through literally hundreds of these in Venezuela (most villages have them), and normally the cars just slow down a little (if that), and the bored-looking sentries hardly even look at the cars going through, let alone bother to stop any. However, here they were stopping every single car, searching the vehicle, asking questions, and generally making a real nuisance of themselves (I assumed that it had to do with the recent protests and car-burnings in Lara). I was actually quite impressed with the thoroughness with which they searched the car, (although I could have done without it), but when the questions started things become quite a bit more difficult.

Firstly, they were convinced that my passport stamp had expired, and I think they were probably right although I managed to persuade them that the stamped entry permit I had was still valid and was sufficient to enable me to stay legally for another five months or so. They were not very convinced, but then neither was I. They found various discrepancies in the car documents, which appeared to have been paid for by a bank for which I did not work. Indeed, I seemed to have no visible means of suupport, and having a wife with a different name who worked while I was away travelling and enjoying myself obviously did not hit home as at all convincing. The car documents were in the name of a certain Luke Mastin, whereas my passport was in the nameof a certain Lawrence Mastin. I did not have a carné de circulación (whatever that may have been), and instead of a licence I only had a tatty old booklet called an International Drivers' Licence, which they had obviously never seen before.

It did not look good. The discrepancies and contradictions seemed to be piling up, and they were becoming more and more suspicious of my explanations, and there was some talk of going over to the local police station, (which would have been many kilometres distant), when all of a sudden just seemed to get bored with it all, or possibly they just did not relish the prospect of having to do some real work in following up my claims, and in the end they summarily waved me on, with the Venezuelan equivalent of a slap on the wrist. I breathed a sigh of relief, and gratefully drove on into Lara, a free man and able to book into a small hotel in the state capital, Barquisimeto.

Venezuela's fourth largest city, a large industrial and manufacturing base and a major transportation hub, Barquisimento did not have much to offer the passing tourist, and the surrounding area is harsh and unexciting scrubland and desert, dotted with low, barren, pink and white hills. However, southwest of the city, leading out of the old colonial town of Quibor, is one of the few roads up into the Sierra de Portuguesa, an offshoot of the Andes range. One is quickly transported to a green lush area around the town of Sanare, which dubs itself the "Garden of Lara", and certainly the hills are a patchwork of fields cultivated with everything from sugar cane to potatoes – a pretty sight in the early morning sunlight.

Further into the mountains I found Yacambú National Park, another area of pristine cloud forest, possibly lusher and more jungle-like than any of the others I had visited. Further into the Park, the dead-end road dipped down into a huge valley, with views of the mountains all around. Deep in the bowels of the valley, a major construction project was well under way to build a huge dam and reservoir to flood the valley floor – so much for the power of National Parks in Venezuela. On the return journey out of the Park towards civilization, I gave a lift to one of the Park guards who was returning to his home in Sanare. I sounded off a little to him about how Venezuela's National Parks could be improved and made more accessible without compromising their mandate to protect the environment, although he did not seem too impressed. He thought it very strange that I should want to visit a Park without my family to picnic with, and confirmed that the Park was basically deserted apart from a few weeks over Christmas and Easter, when it was packed to the gills with picnicking Barquisimeto families. He had never met a foreigner before, and when I had to explain that Inglaterra was a country in Europe and not a town in the USA, I began to realize to what extent we were from two completely different worlds.

Heading homewards from Barquisimeto in the heat of the day, I made a brief detour through the major sugar-cane producing area around the small colonial town of Yaritagua in Yaracuy state. The avenues of tall Royal Palms leading to impressive gateways gave a hint of the one-time wealth of the sugar haciendas there. All around were kilometres and kilometres of tall sugar cane, and the men doing the cutting looked like the poorest of the poor in their filthy clothes and cloth hats. A little further east in Yaracuy, around Nirgua, and I was suddenly deep in orange country, with thousands of the small neat little trees dotting the hillsides, and all along the road were identical little stalls selling identical bags of oranges. Further east, towards Valencia, everyone was selling something or other (cheese?) in little white bags, and all had exactly the same selling technique of swinging the bags. It all seemed a little lacking in imagination to me, but it had a been a long hard trip...

24 October 1994Back to top

A couple of recent newspaper articles yielded some quite interesting statistics which may be worth repeating, although just how much faith can be put in Venezuelan newspaper statistics is anyone's guess.

On a slightly brighter note, I find that 10% of Venezuela's land is protected in National Parks (although what kind of protection this affords is problematic at best), and over 60% of it is covered with its original vegetation, that is, untouched by agricultural practices or settlements. I am reliably informed that Venezuela has the Caribbean's longest coastline, the world's highest waterfall, the continent's largest lake, and the world's longest and highest cable car. You can almost forgive the odd human rights abuse here and there!

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