Luke's South American Diary
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September 1995

1 September 1995

I never cease to be astounded at the consummate mastery of the novels of Toni Morrison. I have just finished another of hers - the first she wrote and the last of hers I have read - and I cannot but help be impressed by the quantum leap between the standard of her writing and that of many other authors I have read recently, and even more so between her writing and a pedestrian piece of reporting such as this. There was an interesting Afterword to her book "The Bluest Eye", in which she explained some of the thinking behind the book's first sentence, an apparently simple statement in a black child's colloquial English, but behind which there was obviously a world of thought, and which effectively set the tone and the scene for the whole of the rest of the novel. And this was the first novel of an inexperienced and unknown black woman in the 1960's! It certainly put things into perspective a little, and made me wonder if I should put more thought into what I write (not that this diary has any pretensions to literary merit), or maybe even take up my early attempts at poetry, which have now lain fallow for some ten years or more.

Having exorcised some of my feelings of inadequacy, I can return to my mundane workaday (or rather no-work-a-day!) musings. Julie has spent the last few days in Colombia on a business trip, and although Maritza has, as usual, borne the brunt of Elena's high-energy approach to life, I have been doing the night-shift on my own, including the grim grouchy period in the early evening. Julie has made concerned phone calls each evening for detailed updates, but it has actually not been as gruelling or as depressing as I had expected, although I still do not think that I could keep it up for very long, as the two wake-up calls combined with the very early morning have been wreaking havoc with my normal higher-than-average sleep requirements. However, there is, I suppose, a certain sense of pride in having coped "on my own" for a short period at least.

A small glimpse at some possible hurdles to come were afforded to us recently, when Maritza phoned from a police station early one morning to say that she would be late in, as it had turned out that her 17-year-old daughter (under-age for marriage in Venezuela) had eloped and no-one knew where she was for a day or two. Maritza seemed remarkably low-key about it all, almost unconcerned (although I am sure that in reality she was extremely anxious) - I can just imagine our own reaction in similar circumstances! On another occasion recently, Delfina the cleaner did not arrive, and it transpired that she had been in prison, apparently because she was caught without her cédula de indentidad (for which the penalty is technically 72 hours in prison, but Delfina was let off with 24), the first time I have ever heard of this being enforced, (but then she is of Colombian origin, and Colombians in Venezuela are still very much second class citizens).

My attempts to expand my repertoire of Caracas walks after my recent discoveries have met with some resistance. I found the start of what looked like quite a pleasant walk across some waste ground not too far from home (the approach was past a big sign marked "Propriedad Privada", for which my Spanish momentarily failed me). I could see another path in the distance which could have made a nice round trip but, typically, there was no path in between. Nothing daunted, I strode off through the waist-high grass, and managed to negotiate with difficulty the smaller two of the three ravines which separated the two trials, but the third beat me. It was only on retracing my steps (with even more difficulty) that I realized that my arms and legs were covered in blood and scratches from the sharp and thorny vegetation, and were starting to smart horribly with the sweat.

Lacerated by not defeated, I tried another trail which looked as though it may link up with the one I had been trying to reach before. It led me down an incredibly steep incline into a small valley of pristine jungle in the middle of suburban Caracas, complete with stream cascading over rock, and hundreds of butterflies and birds. Unfortunately the approach was enough to rule out anyone of less than medium fitness, and the path out was just as steep and completely overgrown with thorny bushes. Once again it occurred to me that, in any other large city, such an area would have been designated a park (rather than a wasteland between building sites), with accessible trails and steps and picnic tables by the steam. Caracas, on the other hand, hides the entrances and positively erects barricades across the paths - one has to hope that all the birds and butterflies appreciate this, but the down-side is that the area will almost certainly soon become part of the encroaching smart suburbs of Los Samanes and La Bonita.

On other days I did manage to locate two semi-developed parks just outside of Caracas, one of which had several reasonable trails in the woods surrounding a reservoir, and the other which was more geared up to picnics and children's sports, but which did also harbour a huge number of butterflies (I spotted 15 different species in the first as many minutes, and several more thereafter, including some very delicate ones with translucent wings, and the huge Blue Morpho with its loping flight and luminescent colouring).

11 September 1995 Back to top

After literally years of prevarication, the government finally saw their way to increasing Venezuela's ridiculously low domestic fuel prices. The last time they seriously considered it, in 1992, there were riots and an attempted coup, so what they did this time was more than double the price of high-grade petrol, substantially increase the medium grade, and actually decrease the price of the lowest grade, so that public transport and the poor were not hit - a reasonably obvious ploy, and one which surely cannot have taken several years in the gestation. It means that Venezuela still has the cheapest petrol in the world, (the highest grade is now about 8¢ a litre, and the lowest grade still an incredible 3¢ a litre), but at least the huge subsidies it has always forked out on selling petrol at less than cost price will be reduced somewhat, and, so far at any rate, no riots. Cynics would point out that the IMF made petrol price increases a necessary pre-condition for re-structuring Venezuela's debt at the end of the month (interest on foreign debt is set to absorb 40% of next year's national budget). On other fronts, President Caldera and his cronies are making zero progress on improving the economy, and (at last!) his approval rating is falling (to 38% from 72% only six months ago, with economic policies cited as the main reason for the change).

It is salutary to reflect that after Julie's four-day business trip to Colombia last week, she has just doubled the banks exposure in that country, and has been receiving phone call after phone call from Colombians asking to do more business, to the extent that she has been unable to deal with it all. In contrast, the only Venezuelan deal she has presented recently was rejected out of hand as too risky. If it were not for the bank's sixty-odd year presence in Venezuela, and the private banking side of the business (there are still many hugely rich individuals here), there would really be no justification for maintaining the office here and not in Colombia. In addition to this increased workload, a change-round in personnel, the arrival of a trainee from Canada and the prospect of various holidays in September and October, have all meant that Julie has once again been extremely busy, and back to working weekends.

27 September 1995 Back to top

A couple of back-to-back visits recently have kept me busy: Julie's father was here for a week, followed by English friends Kate and Jim for a week after their two week cycling trip around Cuba, (which sounded very interesting but not my idea of fun).

Choroní, Venezuela (Chuao, beaches)
Julie's father arrived with suitcases full of new clothes for Elena from all and sundry in England, and was very helpful with Elena throughout his stay, seeming to genuinely enjoy taking her off our hands from time to time. The main trip we did while he was here was three days in a basic but pleasant old colonial posada in the main square of the pretty old village of Choroní, which we had visited before but never stayed at. We were again lucky in being the only guests, and they coped quite well with the vegetarian food and screaming baby (although actually Elena seemed not too put out by the heat and the upset to her routine). We spent some time on the lovely local beach, Playa Grande, and also made the steep, hot, half-hour trek to another much more isolated beach, where it promptly started to rain, although we were past caring by then as everyone was wringing with sweat anyway. We took advantage of the break in the fierce sun to walk back, arriving inn the nick of time before a real deluge began. In the heat of the afternoon, I took refuge in the pretty bamboo-lined river which ran down the back of the posada, which in contrast to the warm sea was incredibly cold, running straight down from the green mountains of Henri Pittier National Park.

On our last day we took a short boat trip (Elena took up her usual supine boat position, covered over with cloths against the sun, and did her best to sleep despite the huge white-knuckle lurches of the boat). The coast was beautiful, with isolated palm-fringed beaches and rocky promontories, backed by green mountains stretching as far as the eye could see into the interior. We landed at a cove to the east of Choroní, and set off walking from the beach to the old village of Chuao. The going was easy enough on the old road through the shady cacao and banana plantations which once made Chuao world famous for its very high quality cacao. Like most other things, this once world-renowned resource was left to run down when oil was discovered, although some cacao is still grown there. To shade Elena from the brutal sun, one of us would carry her, while another would walk behind with our beach umbrella, to the vast amusement of the locals, and our own consciousness of looking like something out of "A Passage to India".

The town itself was something of a disappointment after the beautiful hour-and-a-half walk, although at least we found a bar and summarily demolished several cold drinks. We had found out that there was some basic transport, and we were relying on it to take us back down to the beach in time for our boat back. However, it seemed that all the potential drivers were either not in town or on an extended lunch-break somewhere, and we were starting to have visions of being abandoned in Chuao with an increasingly irritable Elena and a dwindling supply of milk. Eventually we found a tractor which was willing to take us down on his metal trailer for the price of a beer, and somehow Elena managed to sleep all the way through the incredibly bumpy trip, and the equally bumpy boat ride back to relative civilization.

After a welcome cold shower, we set off back up the steep winding road through Henri Pittier National Park, which soon turned into a river as a torrential rain-storm overtook us, and visibility up in the clouds was reduced to just a few metres. I think we were all worn out by the time we arrived home, but at least Elena had not actually prevented us from going off and doing interesting things (although it must be said she sure made things much more difficult).

El Litoral, Venezuela (La Sabana)
When Kate and Jim arrived, they were too worn out and full of their eye-opening Cuba trip to want to do or see much, and were happy for the most part to relax and just take a cursory look at Caracas. We had, however, already booked three days away at a rather wacky sounding place at La Sabana on the Litoral coast just a couple of hours from Caracas. It had the advantage of having advertised gourmet vegetarian meals, and so indeed they turned out, many of them Indian-influenced and served with wonderful fresh fruit and vegetable juices spiked with aloe to detoxify the system. The posada was run by a moderately famous sculptress and her husband, who had established a farm raising aloe vera and other medicinal herbs, and who also provided massages and other more obscure treatments for their guests. It was altogether very un-Venezuelan, although most of their clientele were obviously foreign (once again we were the sole guests at the time).

We actually passed up the treatments in favour of visits to nearby beaches, and a short trip for a swim in a beautiful mountain river, where we were also shown how to prepare aloe and to smear the oily, green, jelly-like insides all over ourselves. But the food was good, and the accommodation was in a pretty colonial-style house, surrounded by the sounds of the birds, insects and frogs of the coastal forest, and (considering it had been very much a shot in the dark) we were quite pleased with the way it all turned out. Jim spent hours sketching, Kate read most of the books she did not have time for in Cuba, and we handed Elena back and forth between us in an attempt to quieten her newly discovered ability to squeal. Elena had by this time perfected turning over at will, and was starting to crawl much more efficiently, which meant that we had to watch her like hawks, except for the few occasions on which she deigned to sleep.

Back in Caracas, we impressed Kate and Jim with some of the bizarre exhibitions at the National Art Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary Art, where we talked to a rather self-indulgent young Venezuelan woman who exhibited fake pictures of her mutilated body over the Internet from New York, although I think that by the end we were all hankering for some good, honest, old-fashioned paintings.

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