Luke's South American Diary
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September 1994

1 September 1994

Bogotá, Colombia (first visit)
There I was, only halfway through a short holiday in Colombia, and I had to actually go out and buy some paper to record some of my thoughts before they fade, because it seemed likely that I was experiencing mild sensory overload. The holiday came about at short notice, when Julie had to make three days of business calls in Bogotá and Cali, and we decided to tack on a weekend for a little sight-seeing. Also, because Julie was already booked into a double room in the wonderful 5-star Casa Medina Hotel in Bogotá, I even got to stay there for free. We flew out very early on a Saturday morning, and arrived, already suffering from sleep-deprivation, to face Bogotá at 2,650m above sea-level and our second dose of altitude sickness in as many weeks.

We spent the middle of the day walking around the Old Town of Bogotá, clutching our money once again, although surprisingly it actually felt less oppressive than Quito. Although Quito's Old Town may have been more extensive and a World Heritage site to boot, we both agreed (again unexpectedly – Bogotá seemed full of surprises) that Bogotá actually has more charm, with some beautiful churches and streets of red-roofed houses with painted wooden window-grilles and balconies. The old colonial barrio of La Candelaria seemed almost unchanged, and is a charming (if hilly, at that altitude) area to stroll around. Possibly the highlight of the tourist trail around Bogotá, however, was the Gold Museum, once again unexpectedly for me as I am not normally a great aficionado of museums. It was beautifully presented, and contained the most amazing collection gold ornaments, jewellery and artifacts from Colombia's Indian tribes, along with good information on how gold is made, on the Indians themselves and on the country as a whole. A model museum, thoroughly recommended.

By mid-afternoon, however, the altitude sickness had full grip on us, and we were fading fast. We returned to the hotel, rented a car (which Avis insisted on upgrading, thus costing us more in petrol!), and briefly (when we finally found it) drove along the Avenida Circunvalar, with its views over the city and the green mountains which flank it (an almost identical setting to both Caracas and Quito). By 7.30pm on the Saturday evening I have to confess we were both tucked up in bed.

Villa de Leiva, Colombia (first visit)
Refreshed, after a long sleep in deepest 5-star luxury and a horribly expensive 5-star breakfast, we set off northwards for a Sunday day-trip. The main road led between two mountain ranges, again similar to Quito, although Bogotá's version is less dramatic but prettier, greener and altogether more prosperous-looking – "bucolic" was Julie's word, which seemd to capture it quite well. Our first stop was Tunja, which has a pleasant enough historical centre and a huge main square, although it did seem that everything we wanted to see was closed (either for the day or apparently for good). From there we headed through splendid scenery, with a minor unfruitful detour to look for a small National Park we had read about, to Villa de Leiva, which is everyone's archetype of a South American town.

Villa de Leiva is preserved as a conservation area, although not to the extent that it appears like a museum or in any way false. A funeral procession was underway when we arrived at the main square and the simple white church which dominates one side of it, and it seemed that the whole town had turned out, complete with lamenting mariachi band. The huge main square is cobbled, as are most of the other streets in the town, which makes for some bumpy driving, but lots of character and atmosphere.The houses are white with green wooden shutters and grilles, and massive green double doors, many with small cut-out doors within them, leadinginto flower-decked courtyards. The whole town has the typical red fluted pantile roofs, and the walls, gardens and terraces are all dripping with bourgainvillea, geraniums and other flowers. The whole effect is set off by a back-drop of black brooding mountains. We had a leisurely stroll around, a bit of a shop, a good vegetarian meal (veggy restaurants seem almost as easy to find as in Ecuador, and almost as cheap), and a drink in an arcaded bar in the main square.

We could easily have stayed much longer, but unfortunately we were still three hours from Bogotá. We then made the mistake of trying to jam in a couple of other points of interest in the area before dark: a recently discovered Indian atronomical observatory and ritual site, (which was closed by the time we found it), and an old convent (which we never did find). Having lost our way on the dirt tracks, we ended up in a dead-end village which was not even on our map, and where the whole of the male population seemed to be drunk, and the female population to be long-sufferingly propping up the male. We had to retrace our journey back to Villa de Leiva, and then find our way back to Bogotá in the dark (ill-advised to say the least), but even after the fraught journey home, it had still been a satisfying and interesting day out.

Boyacá & Santander (Sogamosa, Cañon de Chicamocha, Málaga)
Julie started her business calls at breakfast on the Monday, so I took off in the car, with the intention of returning to Bogotá by Tuesday evening, which would give me two whole days to explore further afield. I drove north again, turned right at Tunja instead of left, and found my way up into the mountains above Sogamoso, with ever-expanding views opening up all the way, until over the other side of a mountain I was rewarded with a birds-eye view of the beautiful island-studded Lago de Tota.

Continuing north from Sogamoso and Duitama, I rapidly left civilization behind, and the scenery, aided by the beautiful sunny weather, became more and more breathtaking. The land here, between 2,000m and 3,000m was emerald green and incredibly fertile. The mountains were dotted with small farms, ranging from the prosperous-looking down to thatched huts with tiny sloping plots of land worked by hand and oxen team. There was a much higher percentage of Indian blood in the locals, and with their ponchos, white hats and mules, they looked very much part of the scene. I was starting to attract stares which became more and more marked the further off the beaten track I roamed: clearly not too many gringo tourists make it up to Belén and beyond. Over the brow of the mountain near Santa Rosalita, the scenery abruptly changed from green and pastoral farmland to brown and arid moorland, the high páramo of the Andes, dotted with cactuses and the monumental frailejon flowers, and where agriculture is clearly not a practical option. This part of Boyacá and Santander states is a wild untamed area, stretching on past the horizon, and with few roads and settlements in between.

By Soatá, a basic unprepossessing town in the middle of nowhere, I was also attracting the attention of the large numbers of army officers who seemed to be patrolling the streets there, and although no-one actually stopped me, it occurred to me that this was probably a coca-producing area. The stares, now coming from men, women, children, even dogs, were not exactly hostile, but were certainly not welcoming, and left me feeling quite uncomfortable. A scantily-dressed old crone in a grocery store insisted on holding my hand and pressing my face to her bristly crew-cut, which all added to the rather surreal, nightmare atmosphere.

From Soatá to Capitanejo, the scenery changed again, dominated by the huge arid valley of the Chicamocha, on a scale only comparable in my experience to the Grand Canyon of Arizona, and also with something of its ever-shifting colours. The road, long reduced to a dirt surface by now, snaked its way precipitously down into the bowels of the valley, down what must have been nearly 2,000m to the river below, which was here flanked by coconut and banana groves, quite a shock after the cold, barren moorland of only a couple of hours earlier. As the sun sank below the mountains which now reared up on all sides, I made my way along the river, and up the other side of the valley to the bustling little town of Málaga, where according to my book there was a hotel.

Málaga is a very typical Colombian hill town. Everything seemed to happen on the street – children playing noisily; open-air bars where some pretty serious drinking was well underway by 6.30pm; food being made, sold and eaten; a young lad taking his pig for a walk through the main square; and just an awful lot of standing around talking (probably about me). In the Hotel Principe on the main square, the equivalent of $3 bought me a room for the night, although maybe not one in which Julie, for instance, would consider staying. It had a bed, which took up over three-quarters of the available space, a small bedside table and a mirror – what more does one need? The walls were covered in (presumably) coffee stains, and some other unexplained red ones, but the bed itself appeared clean enough. There were toilet facilities of a sort across the open courtyard where sheets were drying, although as there was no hot water or toilet paper I did not actually make use of them. One or two of the rooms had red lights outside them, but I managed to convince myself that that was probably just someone's idea of trendy decoration.

I had real problems locating the hotel's parking area from the directions given (which turned out to be wrong anyway), so in the end the young manager, his mate and a young girl of six or so who just happened to be hanging around, all piled into the car to show me personally. I was conscious at the time that I should not really have been giving a lift to two unknown young men in an obscure Colombian hill-town, but the young girl gave me some (probably spurious) comfort. I just trusted to luck that the car would still be there in the morning. My evening meal ("without meat or fish") consisted of an unidentifiable brown soup (I was told it was of "potatoes, cheese and things", but it tasted of meat to me), a main dish of rice, potatoes, fried egg, yesterday's spagghetti bolognese (yes, with meat), and some sweet bread pudding, which was served on top of the rice of the main course. Still it was cheap (about $1), and I convinced myself that I was not that hungry anyway.

I felt a little better having been able to ring Julie, (otherwise she would probably worry, and so would I) - good old Hotel Principe would not let me use their telephone, despite my offer to pay well over the odds, so having scouted around I found another hotel which did let me (a slightly more salubrious hotel had I but known about it). When I arrived back at my hotel, the manager was just settling down to sleep on a makeshift bed just inside the main door, and I was not sure whether to be reassured by this or not.

Morning in Málaga appears to strart at around 5.30am to a chorus of crowing cocks, church bells, heavy footsteps, hacking coughs and shouts. After a better night's sleep than I had expected, I was relieved to find the car still there and intact, despite a dollar sign inscribed in the dust on the back window. It was only on seeing Málaga in the daylight that it occurred to me exactly why I had attracted so many stares: there was not a single private car on the streets, just one or two tatty old buses, one or two even tattier old trucks which doubled as buses, and two exceedingly tatty taxis, all them in the main square. So to see a private car was probably quite a rare event, and to see one with just a single occupant almost inconceivable. The dollar sign traced on my window suggests that a private car equates for them with rich foreigner (not unreasonably), or conceivably with a drug-trafficker – either way one can understand a certain amount of resentment. What made it doubly strange to me, though, was the complete absence of this attitude when we had been travelling round Ecuador just recently, which is after all an even poorer country than Colombia. We must have looked pretty strange in some parts of Ecuador (although even that feeling was not so strong), but for them that just made us interesting and an excuse for a chat and to be friendly. I deduced that Colombians are clearly much closer in nature to the grumpy and taciturn Venezuelans than to the simple and open Ecuadorians.

Due to lack of time and warnings from the locals that the roads ahead were even worse than the ones on which I had come, I abandoned plans to go on to the Sierra Nevada de Cocuy, to Pamplona and to Barichara, and, as the day did not look so promising weatherwise, I decided to cut my losses and return ther same way I had come, at a more leisurely pace. Once again I noted that in every town and village, as well as in the intervening countryside, there seemed to be children walking to or from school at any time of day. Maybe they just have flexible school hours, but I did find it rather strange.

Which prompts me to a note on Colombian traffic. As I have mentioned there is actually very little of it on the back-roads, mainly trucks carrying agricultural produce and the odd bus (and often the two are indistinguishable!). But on the main roads through the centre of the country there is clearly much more traffic and, as even the main roads are just one lane in each direction, the trucks in particular tend to cause long queues and hold-ups, especially on hills, and it is obviously the fact of this constant frustration which has led to the development of a maniacal and suicidal tendency amiong the drivers. A blind corner or hill, or a 20-ton truck coming in the opposite direction, are absolutely no obstacle to a Colombian intent on overtaking, and even seem to act as a spur or a challenge to them. Admittedly it can become quite frusatrating being stuck behind a convoy of lorries labouring up a hill and spewing out foul black smoke, but in the last couple of days I have seen some pretty hair-raising antics on the roads.

A favourite tactic is, when overtaking is temporarily deemed impractical, to hover a metre or so from the truck in front, and about halfway across the other side of the road. This effectively stops anyone behind from overtaking – which is very important – and puts you first in line to do any overtaking which is to be done. The fact that on-coming traffic is being pushed onto the hard shoulder (if there is one) is totally irrelevant, and really all part of the fun. In this way, broad knots of traffic build up behind slow-moving trucks on hills, sometimes three abreast, and then when the brow of the hill is finally reached all hell is let loose in a free-for-all race to overtake as many vehicles as possible before the next insurmountable obstacle appears.

It all makes for very stressful driving, especially if you are on the receiving end and in a car whose brakes and acceleration are not necessarily in tip-top shape. Buses, particularly at night, have a disconcerting tendancy to settle a metre behind you with full beams on, presumably in the hope of brow-beating you to pull over. It certainly makes it impossible for you to overtake the slow truck in front as you are effectively blinded. In town, driving is reasonably normal (by Venezuelan standards that is), maybe slightly more aggressive and impatient - it is obviously a point of honour never to let anyone into a queue, no matter how reckless the manoeuvres needed.

On my last day in Colombia, while Julie was braving Cali, I ventured out slightly west of Bogotá, and went for a walk up a steep hillside to an escarpment with rock outcrops reminiscent of the English Peak District (apart from the orchids and cacti growing in profusion there!). The 3,000m altitude made it tough going and the path was not exactly official but, as it was over open ground and I could always see where I heading for and where I was coming from, there was little chance of my getting lost. On my return to the car (which I had had to park on the main road, although quite safely I had thought), I was rather perturbed to see four or five soldiers poking around it, obviously thinking it an abandoned and suspicious vehicle. When I explained that I was just a stupid foreigner going for a walk up a steep hill in the midday sun, they seemed satisfied, if a little uncomprehending, and were really quite pleasant about it all.

The return journey to Bogotá airport was a suitably stressful end to what had actually been quite a stressful and tiring holiday (or a stressful and tiring business trip in Julie's case). Due to major roadworks, illogical one-way streets and no-left-turns, it seemed to prove almost impossible to get on to the main airport road, and we only achieved it in the end by driving straight over and across the central reservation, when we eventually found ourselves on the right road but going in the wrong direction. The woman at the car-hire office at the airport had said that she would wait there until 6pm, and when we arrived at 6.20pm she was luckily still packing up to go, and Julie managed to persuade a security guard to fetch her out of her office, as we did not have time to go through all the strict security checks needed to get into the terminal itself. Suffice to say, we did manage to pay for the car (significantly more expensive than anticipated, because "con kilometraje libre" in the contract was actually modified in the small print to "con 140km libre diariamente", and I had merrily and obliviously done over 1,500km in the four days), and get checked in before our flight actually left. We slumped in an airport burger bar, and ordered a nice cup of tea to celebrate, even remembering to ask for "té con leche fria" as tea made with hot milk never quite tastes right. We received a cup of cold milk with a tea-bag dumped in it, and somehow we were not surprised...

16 September 1994Back to top

Since our Colombia trip, we now have (shock horror) all our belongings from England, computer and everything, so I have spent most of that time typing up reams of notes on scrap paper in some sort of chronological order, and giving it the name "Diary". The unpackers, unlikely though it may seem, arrived on the day they said they would (early, in fact), and everything has been unpacked intact except one chipped cereal bowl, which we thought was pretty good going. We had forgotten, however, just how much stuff we had sent out, and certainly to start with the piles (of books in particular) in the study and spare rooms was a depressing sight. But luckily we have acres of storage space here, and by the time all the clothes had been tidied away, and usless things like overcoats and ski jackets stashed away in top cupboards, things were starting to look a little more ship-shape.

I have even managed to find some bookshelves for the study, and nearly ruptured myself dragging them back in three trips in the Jeep, and so the books are all neatly categorized and alphabeticized in my inimitable fashion. The stereo and computer are hooked up (via a transformer), we have at least some pictures on the walls, and the maletero (junk-room) is full of skis, cat baskets and camping gear, none of which will receive any use, I am sure.

The only disappointment so far is that the multi-system video player, which we felt so clever buying in London so that we could use it anywhere in the world, does not work quite as we had been assured. It works in that we can receive TV broadcasts through it, and even watch Venezuelan videos through it, but apparently (so far at least) we cannot watch British videos. Nor for some reason can we record broadcasts from Venezuelan TV, all of which seems rather inconsistent and unlikely to me, but I think I have tried every conceivable permutation of the switches and cables, still with no joy. But at least it is wonderful to have some music again, and to have enough crockery and saucepans that we do not have to wash up so often.

Then as though to deliberately throw a spanner in the works, real life intruded with the news that our cleaner, Diana, was inexplicably stabbed in the stomach near her home, and is gravely ill in hospital. We went straight to the hospital with the conserje, and although I did not go in (as there seemed to be no parking facilities whatsoever, so that I had to stay with the car), Julie's reports of the hospital - a public one, as opposed to a smart private one, obviously enough - were pretty grim, and Diana apparently looked in a bad way. It was only at this stage that we ascertained that Diana had a husband and a small child, and, recognizing our unspoken and unwritten obligations, we left some money and sent some flowers later (the flowers seemed a little frivolous under the circumstances, but I suppose they could not do any harm at least). The conserje came later asking for any possible help (by which he meant, quite specifically, money) as an operation was necessary and they obviously did not have the funds within the family, and clearly this all came under our aegis as responsible employers.

Julie has been away again, this time in Canada for a couple of weeks for conferences and courses, with apparently very little spare time for visiting friends, so it has been a little quiet and lonely here.I have been filling my time by typing up this diary and my Spanish vocabulary lists, and also editing and albumizing all my English and European photos, which was a pleasant and suitably mindless task.

We managed to complete Julie's relocation expense claim before she left for Canada, so almost the only bureaucratic problem we still have outstanding is the small matter of my visa, which now looks likely to become a more major problem despite all the assurances everyone seemed to give us at first (and which we always considered unduly optimistic). It seems that the options are that either the bank makes me a spurious offer of employment (which, considering my relationship with the Representative, is probably not wise), or I continue here illegally (which is fine until I am stopped at a road check, or want to go abroad), or (the ultimate scarifice!) we get married.

An added complication has arisen when, in her last phone call from Canada, Julie announced that she had done a test, and there seems little doubt that she is pregnant, which has been quite a shock to both of us, and we are still trying to take in all the implications and considerations. I feel, especially bad, because I remember the occasion and it was pretty clearly my fault (I, who am normally so responsible in these things compared to Julie's relatively care-free attitude).

My position at the moment is still the selfish one I have had all along, which is that I really do not want children – mainly on the grounds that they are noisy and messy, and would irrevocably spoil our cushy life-style for the next twenty years or so. Julie, in general (at the moment anyway), does not really want them either, partly for the same reasons, partly because it would potentially interfere with her career, and partly because she is aware that most of the day-to-day onus would fall on me, and she knows my feelings on the matter. But of course, the alternative is abortion, to which Julie does not object in principle, but which would be a major trauma to take on, both physically and mentally. We are marshalling our thoughts at the moment. I am not a happy camper.

19 September 1994Back to top

As expected, Julie's position on abortion seems pretty firm: as much as she does not really want a baby, particularly at the moment, she wants even less the stigma of having aborted a life, even though that "life" can only be about five weeks old now. We are therefore both depressed about it, me especially because in my position I can see no other option but to be supportive and go along with whatever she wants. After all, it would not be me who would have to go through the abortion, (and if it had been, who knows, maybe my attitude towards it would have been different).

I was really quite shocked when Julie suggested that I might just want to walk away from it all – I thought she would have realized that my ties to her were closer than that. She does seem genuinely appreciative of my support, though, which is something. She quite took offence at my suggestion that after the great years of freedom she has give me, maybe it was time for me to take on some responsibilities. She says that I should not go into it seeing it as an obligation, but how else can I see it? I seem to see screaming kids wherever I look now, and am conscious of the fact that my days of freedom to read, go for walks on the spur of the moment, and particularly to travel, are fast ebbing away (it all sounds so melodramatic, the stuff of soap operas, but it is all too real).

With this in mind, or at least at the back of my mind, I have spent parts of the last couple of weeks just driving around some of the wonderful countryside west of Caracas towards Los Teques and south to the autopista, all within 100km of Caracas, but a world away in other respects. There are so many back roads through the mountains, all with spectacular views over distant valleys, and at this time of year the land is so green it almost makes your eyes ache in the sunshine. I would stop from time to time to watch the loping path of the 15cm electric-blue morpho butterflies which abound there, or brightly-coloured lizards scuttling across the road. I drove down dirt tracks which deteriorated into grassy bamboo-arched tunnels the width of the car (and slightly less in parts!), past old coffee haciendas and acres of sugar cane.

I also took the other route across Henri Pittier National park, a paved but very narrow and winding road, down to the untouched colonial town of Choroní, with its pretty blue-and-white church and narrow streets with wooden-shuttered houses. A little further on I found yet another beautiful Caribbean beach in its own isolated bay (unfortunately, on a weekend most of the nearby city of Maracay seems to make for that same beach, and it was too crowded for my liking). Lovely though it was, it all felt a little valedictory and poignant given my depressed state after Julie's announcement, and I am very conscious that I will have to yank myself out of this wistfulness, and try to face the facts in a rather more postive fashion.

Avila, Caracas, Venezuela (El Paraiso)
Yesterday I made another excursion up the Avila and was reminded what a brilliant resource it is to have right on the edge of the city. Once again I went on a Sunday, as people assure me that to go when it is busier reduces the risk of muggings and robbery, a strategy of which I remain less than convinced, especially as I saw so few people anyway. This time I did not head for the summit, but rather for a sort of basin nestled some way below the summit called El Paraiso, a lush jungly area, and source of the stream which forms the pretty waterfall in Parque Los Chorros in Caracas. It was another pretty tough climb, although obviously not as long as to the summit, and I encountered much new wildlife to marvel at: black, yellow and scarlet butterflies among others, bright green birds like miniature parrots, almost completely camouflaged in the bright green foliage around them until they move; birds (which I never actually saw) with a call exactly like a human whistle, even using the normal 12-tone scale we use; extraordinary spherical clusters of bright orange flowers; and the usual bewildering variety of trees. The route back down, although very steep, rocky, slippery and difficult, was through a grassy treeless section, and afforded stunning views of the conical Pico Oriental towering above, and the city of Caracas spread in the valley below.

September seems to me to have been the hottest month yet, and even in our normally cool apartment there have been days when I have just flopped down on the bed, and once even resorted to air-conditioning. Certainly the prospect of driving here without air-conditioning does not appeal at all – see how pampered I have become? I am not sure whether it is a function of the heat during the rainy season, or the fact that I have recently cleaned out the pond and fountain (which had become increasingly unsavoury, especially given that it is too noisy to actually use), but for the first time we have had a problem with mosquitoes, and we are both nursing a number of bites. We also have a fair number of cockroaches, which I have always found disgusting creatures with absolutely no saving graces. I have sprayed something which seems to kill them quite effectively, and which does not appear to have poisoned the cat yet, but I think we may have to resort to fumigation soon.

22 September 1994Back to top

Carabobo, Venezuela (Piedras Pintadas, Valencia, Campo de Carabobo, Morros de San Juan)
I have been continuing with my rather feverish, almost deserate, exploration of the local area. I drove out west (as it seems I always do) along the old road, slower but more interesting than the parallel autopista, through old but run-down La Victoria, and the Bolívar family hacienda at nearby San Mateo. I took a little detour to the Cabrera Peninsula which juts out into Lago de Valencia, and was treated to some pretty views across to the mountains north of the lake, and to throngs of water birds (cormorants, egrets, herons and I am not sure what else) fighting for space in the water and darkening the air with their numbers. I also watched a hawk of some sort catch a snake in the water and sit proudly displaying it on a nearby branch, with apparently no intention of eating it.

From the Lago de Valencia I headed north again into the foothills, through pleasant but not spectacular countryside, asking the way at every junction due to an Ecuadorian absence of signposts. Eventually, however, I did find the Piedras Pintadas ("painted rocks"): ancient, but still largely unexplained petroglyphs of fanciful figures, hands and geometric patterns etched into the sparkly mineral-rich rocks of the area. Apparently, nearby there are also several upright megaliths, equally unexplained, although I never found them. Although technically a National Park, there is absolutely no sign-posting, no information, no wardens and no attempt to preserve the petroglyphs in any way. Probably the only reason they have not been vandalized, as have many of Colombia's petroglyphs, is their relative inaccessibility (and maybe the fact that there are no sign-posts and no-one can find them!).

From there I headed further north on the main autopista to Puerto Cabello, one of Venezuela's main ports, but also a well-preserved old town with brightly-painted houses and wooden balconies. One street in particular, Calle de los Lanceros, must be one of the most photographed and painted in Venezuela. 10km further down the coast was Bahía Patanemo, another of those beautiful bays in which Venezuela's Caribbean coast excels, complete with palm trees, little thatched beach bars, and too much litter, despite the obviously recent addition of a phalanx of bright yellow litter bins along the length of the beach, which remain totally unused and merely serve as eye-sores in addition to the litter.

I headed back inland to Valencia, Venezuela's third city, with its old but rather run-down centre, and booked into a cheap (although not Colombian cheap) hotel for the night. En route I passed Las Trincheras, apparently the second-hottest thermal springs in the world after some in Japan. Despite their location just off the main autopista between one of Venezuela's major cities and one of its main coastal tourist areas, they remain almost totally unknown. Apparently they used to be quite popular last century, but all that remains now is a seedy run-down town with a (very hot) swimming pool, and one dillapidated hotel. Ah, for the chance to develop the Venezuelan tourism industry...

Valencia itself did not strike me as an immediately appealing place, although its important place in Venezuelan history was apparent from some of its fine public buildings. The next morning I visited Campo de Carabobo, one of Venezuela's historical meccas, at least among Venezuelans. Campo de Carabobo was the site of probably the decisive battle in Venezuela's War of Independence, and is now marked by quite an impressive series of monuments and a lovely white marble arch guarded by soldiers in their ceremonial red uniforms which date from Bolívar's day.

I made my way back through the pretty hills south of Lago de Valencia, and then cut across further east towards San Juan de los Morros. The morros (sugar-loaf mountains) rear up over the small town as though pasted in from another landscape.They are huge, craggy monoliths with wooded crests which make an impressive group all together, although it would have been nice to have been able to walk closer to them. I feel sure that in any other country they would be part of a national, or at least a state, park, with trails and interpretative plaques, but this being Venezuela there is of course nothing.

Back home again, the saga of our ex-cleaner (as it seems pretty clear she now is) continues. She has now had several operations on her stab wounds, and although she has come through these quite well it seems that she will not be able to walk for some time due to an injury to her spinal column, and that she will need a wheelchair. Everyone seems to assume that we will be buying this, and of course they were quite right – today I went out and spent over $300 on one – but we are still rather unsure as to exactly how far our responsibility towards her should go. There is clearly no legal responsibility, as we have never had a contract, but we do have some moral responsibility, and have happily contributed towards her operations and now a wheelchair. But will we still be expected to continue contributing when she leaves hospital for convalescence and an undoubtedly long period of therapy? And will we be willing? After buying the wheelchair (for which I did not actually receive thanks as such, but I think that the family is just phlegmatic by nature), I went in to see Diana in her ward, ready after Julie's description for something pretty basic, but I was still not quite expecting the stink of the litter in the dark corridors, and the general air of neglect throughout the whole place. It was much more third-world than I had imagined, and I must confess I did not linger for long.

Meanwhile, another sister, Pastora, has miraculously appeared out of the woodwork, and is now doing our cleaning two days a week. She is a slightly older version of Diana, slightly more loquacious (although more difficult to understand), and so far things seem to be working out well enough. I feel like quite a friend of the family now.

29 September 1994Back to top

Julie arrived back from Canada and New York, although because of "you-know-what" we have been speaking on the phone most nights anyway, interspersed with lots of deep meaningful silences. I invested in some roses to create a favourable impression, and picked up some heliconia from a road-side stall on the way back from my Saturday trip out (about 12ç for a stem well over a metre long).

Barlovento, Venezuela (Beaches, Tacarigua, Clarines)
I had driven east for a change to an area called Barlovento, and visited a couple of pleasant out-of-the-way beaches, but they were so busy at the weekend that I really did not want to stay long. I would have thought that, living as they do by so many wonderful Caribbean beaches, Venezuelans would not have quite the same compulsive interest in sun, sea and sand as, say, the English do, but if anything they seem more obsessed not less, and on a weekend even the most remote beaches are packed out with cool-boxes, g-strings and ghetto-blasters.

A little further south, however, I did discover one beach called Tacarigua which, although admittedly not set in a pretty little bay surrounded by palm trees and mountains as are so many, did at least go on apparently forever, so that at least people could spread out a little. The sea was shallow and bath-temperature, although I made sure to follow everyone else's lead in not venturing out past the relatively murky shallows on the assumption that there were rip-tides and tricky currents. The beach was on a long spit of land, seperating the sea from the Laguna de Tacarigua, which is a nature reserve and national park (although as usual its national park status is so informal as not to be worth much – certainly the surrounding area is in the process of being heavily developed with weekend apartments and time-shares). However, it has to be said that I did see, even on my relatively perfunctory visit, and without the benefit of binoculars (which I had forgotten yet again), a great variety of birds, from hawks to scarlet ibises to herons, which seemed to be thriving on the marsh-lands and canal systems in the area.

While I was out there, I decided to drive a bit further east along the coast, and I passed another similar lagoon seperated from the sea by just a thin sand-spit. It took a while to register with me that the bright pink blob in the middle of the lagoon was actually hundreds of pink flamingoes, and I took a walk through some sludgy, sticky mud to the lake's edge for a closer look. There were also many other wading birds, herons, etc, by the lake edge, and they did not seem to object too much to my tentative approaches, although the flamingoes wisely stayed way out in the centre of the lake. I then carried on even further down the coast, much further than I had originally intended, to the small town of Clarines in Anzoátegui state, which has a very odd-looking old church and a sleepy atmosphere. There was even a group of youths sitting around the cobbled square playing Venezuelan folk songs on their cuatras, where in other towns they would probably be playing baseball or looking for trouble.

On all my recent day trips, I have been very grateful for the existence of arepas and cachapas, which are usually available in every village or town, and often at roadside shacks set up in the middle of nowhere. Criollo food is generally quite meat-orientated and so for a vegetarian an arepa (an incredibly filling fried corn-flour patty, which come with various fillings usually including a choice of different cheeses) or a cachapa (a kind of thick pancake made with fresh sweet-corn, also incredibly filling and usually served with the local queso de mano) is something of a God-send, especially served with fresh fruit juice. I am not sure whether many of these places would pass EEC health regulations (the mixture is usually cooked there and then on an outdoor griddle of dubious cleanliness), but they do not seem to have done me too much damage so far.

It does sometimes seem that since we arrived here, we have lived through one long catalogue of disasters. I am sure that that is an unreasonable resumé, but somehow the bad things seem to linger in ones mind longer than the good. A recent addition to the catalogue is that someone somewhere in Caracas has been using a credit card in our name. It seems that after we cancelled our credit cards when Julie's bag was snatched, the replacement cards never actually arrived, and obviously someone intercepted them. Barclaycard now inform us that, despite the fact that the missing cards should have been cancelled after we realized the problem, transactions amounting to over $5,000 have been notched up in a short time. Presumably the vouchers must have someone else's signature on them and so we should be able to sort it all out, but even so, it is just one more hassle to deal with.

I have still not quite come to terms with the pregnancy bombshell, although it seems that it will probably go ahead by default if for no other better reason. I was wryly amused to notice that "pregnant" in Spanish is "embarazada" – an understatement to say the least. I spoke about it to my friend Gerry, whose judgement I usually trust in most matters, and who has recently had a baby himself (with Nel's help), but as they were deliberately trying for a baby, his attitude to it all was understandably different. His congratulations and enthusiasm, and all the talk of discovering new perspectives, blah, blah, blah, were somehow not what I was expecting, and certainly not what I was looking for, and left me more confused than ever. I am gradually realizing that my position is wholly selfish and insupportable, and also that I could not live with the thought of having pushed Julie into the trauma of an abortion. If she had decided to abort it, the decision would obviously have been hers too, but I am sure that in both our minds (and in the minds of everyone else who knows about the pregnancy) it would still have been essentially my fault. But what a price the alternative will be! No doubt more serious discussions and heart-searching will follow.

Meanwhile, both Helen and Iain and Julie's parents have all booked flights out here at the beginning of November, for one and two weeks respectively, and it seems that Angel Falls is the place that everyone wants to go to, understandably enough I suppose, although I would probably have preferred to use the opportunity to go somewhere else. I will have to look into the feasibility of the canoe trip up to the falls first though, as I am not sure whether the rivers will have enough water at that time of year. I will also have to apply some thought as to what other trips we can make which will be practicable for Julie's mother who is still not in the best of health.

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