Venezuela Day 1 – the journey, and Caracas

A week off from work.  Whilst colleagues went to various places around Asia for a bit of R+R, I was off to the other side of the world, to an as yet unexplored continent, South America, and to one of it’s most (in)famous countries, Venezuela!  It hadn’t been easy getting away for various reasons, but things had calmed down by the time I set off.  The trip was originally supposed to be cheap….but in the weeks leading up to the trip I realised it wasn’t.  The S$1,600 return ticket was, of course, a steal, but then I had to send a further S$2,500 to a bank in Miami, where it was then transferred to Venezuela and exchanged on the black market for Bolivares, and a lot of them.  My Venezuelan contact, the charming Veronica Valdivieso, had assured me I’d be rich for a week with that kind of money…..which was good, as I was now bordering the poverty line in Singapore….and with a month in Africa coming up in 3 weeks as well……

And so, after sending the money, paying rent, sending money home  etc, I was left with S$1,000, of which I now had only S$605, as I was instructed that I should take ‘around US$350 in cash, just in case’  I changed enough for US$270, and got 40 Euros as well in exchange for S$80.  Bloody expensive!  No matter, I thought, I’m here now, about to embark on the longest voyage of my life…..a 30 hour one in total.  Singapore – Frankfurt.  Frankfurt  – Caracas.  No wonder the South Americans in Singapore hardly ever go home.  Exciting stuff, but bloody exhausting at the same time.  I was going to have a ball though, of that I was sure.

Veronica had arranged the kind of 1-week itinerary that made the exhausting one I’d arranged for Paul’s week in Asia seem like a relaxing pensioners holiday.  Caracas, Los Roques islands in the Caribbean sea(a flight at 6:30am after all night clubbing in Caracas, anyone?), Caracas again, Canaima for 2 nights to see Angel Falls, Caracas for one last night out, Frankfurt for the day, and back to Singapore.  3 continents in 1 week.  Phew.  Good girl, Veronica!  On the plane I thought ‘South America here I come!’

7am Frankfurt Airport.

It was a smooth flight on which I drifted out of a flu-induced sleep.  Typical.  Why do I have to get flu now?  It was lucky I’d overdosed on Panadol Max cold and flu otherwise the scanner would have detected my rising fever.

I’m sitting now on a comfy seat outside the Currency Exchange, sipping a cup of hot water that I poured a lemsip sachet into.  The hot water cost 2 Euros from the Haagan Dazs cafe.  At least they gave me some.  The lady at McDonalds wasn’t as accommodating.

‘Can I have a cup of hot water please?’  ‘No’.  ‘OK, thanks’.

I’m feeling achey and fluey, but my nose has now cleared.  It was cold on the flight, and the thin Lufthansa blanket did little to keep out the chill.

Here I sit now observing the complexities of human beings at Frankfurt airport.  Africans mill around, South Americans, Asians and Europeans….all are here at this airport,  which makes the budget terminal at Changi look like the the First Class Lounge.  It’s pretty grim here.  I’ve got 4 hours to go until my flight.  My aching muscles are aching to be stretched.  I’ll have a coffee and a croissant later.  Give me something to do.  Alone in an airport is a bit crap.  Still, it’s nice to have some time alone.  I like observing Germans in all their stereotypical glory.

I eventually got to my gate – B26, after spending time at McCafe, McDonalds, and McCafe again.  I tried to check out the Venezuelans in the crowd – most of them were.  Some dressed in student clothes – purples, oranges, yellows and greens, colourful colours which seem to be favoured by South Americans.  A troupe of girls and boys, members of a team of some sort, all dressed in matching yellow t-shirts.  A few women of the surgically-enchanced nature.  I’d heard plastic surgery is big over there, where competition is everything… has to be in a country where women outnumber men 7-1.

The flight took around 11 hours. I slept for most of it, catching up on weeks of lack of sleep in Singapore.  I really felt exhausted.  I stayed awake for the Bratwurst, and missed the Australian mushroom sauce special, which was lucky as I’m allergic to a certain kind of mushroom anyway, although only Crystal knows which kind.  My flu feelings were subsiding, luckily, and I felt quite refreshed as the plane came down towards Caracas.  The views as the plane banked left and down to the airstrip was absolutely magnificent.  Emerald green mountains dwarfed the tiny settlements dotted around and crawling up them, like barnacles on a blue whale.  It really looked and felt like I were in a different continent….nothing in Asia looks like this.

I got off the plane and cruised through immigration with just a stamp in the passport.  Out in baggage claim, a few shady hombres asked me if I wanted to change some US dollars into Bolivares.  Didn’t need to.  Vero had done all that for me.  I waited 30 minutes before my bag was pushed through.

Eventually, I walked out of the airport and saw a friendly face waiting for me – Veronica.  It was good to see a friendly, smiling face in this new continent.  We walked out into the sunny car park and hopped into her silver jeep.  Tonight, we were staying in La guaira, which is a 10 minute drive from the airport, and in a more run-down area of Caracas near the sea.  Vero has an apartment here.  We drove into one the tower blocks, parked up in the basement, and went up to her apartment.  Nice.  Bright, breezy and spacious, with a view of the ocean and the boats and small yachts gathered together in the small harbour next to the beach.  It was a pleasant view, and to the back of the apartment you can see the mountains.  This was home for tonight.

I had a welcome shower, threw on a t-shirt and a pair of shorts, and we left to go to the Mini-mart.  We bought some polar cerveca, the local beer, each can interestingly has a picture of a sexy bikini-clad local model – and it’s the dream of models here to be a ‘polar girl’.  We bought a bottle of Veronica’s family namesake wine, Valdivieso rose, and some snacks for the night.  After stocking up, we went to eat in Bubare restaurant.  It was a 10 minute drive up a hill, but was worth it.  Simple and unpretentious, it offered nice views over the hills and the sea.  We ordered arepas, which is a delicious Venezuelan dish of tortilla-like bread, served with lots of cheese to smother on.  It served as a nice, but filling, appetizer, before our main course of Paella came.  the paella was for around 4 people, and Vero and I struggled to finish out first plate.  Still, it was tasty enough.  By now, I was feeling  the effects of travelling 3 continents in 1 day and through God knows how many time zones.  I was so sleepy.  The waiter kept me smiling, however, by trying his best to speak English, and walking away proudly whenever he did so.

After the meal, we went back to the apartment, where I had a 15 minute powernap.  I awoke feeling almost fully charged.  We went downstairs to the grassy area by the pool to meet one of Vero’s friends, Axel, half German, half Venezuelan, who had been living in Germany and was back for a holiday before deciding what to do with his life.  Conversation was painfully slow.  Axel spoke little English, and when he tried to, most of the words were in German.  His head was confused with all the languages going around it.  Then, Vero began to helpfully translate, and a 3-way conversation, albeit a slow one, began.  Axel was friendly and curious to meet an Englishman.  Soon, 2 of his friends came and joined us drinking sangria and rum and coke.  One of them spoke English well, and was half-Italian.  As the drink took effect, he got bolder, asking me what I thought of Venezuelan women. The media-induced stereotype, helped by Miss World and Miss Universe, has created an image that Venezuelan women are the most beautiful in the world.  I haven’t met too many Venezuelan girls though, but would certainly agree that they are beautiful.  There are also many more of them than men.  In Caracas, even the ugly men get a girl apparently, and women are in strong competition with one another, enough to be called as ‘crazy’ by Vero.  ‘It must be difficult for girls to find a guy, with all the competition’ I had ventured over dinner earlier.  ‘It is, it is’, Vero replied, a look of disappointment in her eyes.  I’m sure she has no such problems though.

The half Italian half Venezuelan then asked me what the West’s perception of Venezuela was.  Venezuelans seem quite concerned about how other people perceive them.  I said ‘people think the country is beautiful, the people are beautiful, but they are not sure about the government of Hugo Chavez’.  This then triggered a long rant by everyone against the inconvenience Chavez has caused them, and Venezuela.  One of the other friends who didn’t speak English lamented the decision by Chavez to ban teaching English in Venezuelan schools.  Kids don’t learn English at school here now.  They can’t.  Vero complained about the $2,500 limit imposed on Venezuelan credit card purchases abroad. That’s $2,500 a YEAR.  If Venezuelans wish to spend more, they need to get a credit card from the country they live in, but students overseas can’t do that without a job.  The bolivare is really weak, so a thriving black market is in operation.  The group then agreed that everybody in Venezuela hates Chavez, yet he somehow swept to power in a landslide victory.  The poor like him, however.  80% of Venezuelans are poor, so they vote for him, but even the poor have started to turn against him.  I got a feeling that the well-to-do see him as a threat.  They feel that Chavez’s actions are done to try and alienate the country from US and other Western influences.

We then talked of Los Roques, the beautiful area of islands and Caribbean coastline.  Chevez has promised the poor budget flights to get them there, a place they could only previously dream of going.  I then realised that these affluent Venezuelans I was with were afraid. The rich can’t thrive in Venezuela. Chavez’s appeal lies with the poor, and the 80% will always keep Chavez in power.  ‘People here have small minds – they forget too easily’ warned one of Vero’s friends.  The younger, affluent set here love to moan about Chavez.  He’s dividing a nation into his supporters and his haters.  The people drinking with me were surprisingly open, and I felt quite honoured to be sharing a drink with 4 Venezuelan people.  I also felt quite proud after the following conversation:

The Italian / Venezuela asked me:

“What do you think of the USA?’

I answered:

‘Some people (but not me) in England think they are a bit arrogant and loud.  We don’t like their foreign policy.

‘Really?  I think that about English people’ he replied, matter-of factly.

‘Everyone is entitled to their opinion’ I replied, in a measured tone.

‘But now, having met you, I’ve changed my mind about English people.’ He said, and I felt very proud.  It was a nice thing to say.  I was flying the flag for cultural relations, British Council style

After more drinks and the ever more animated chat, it was time for bed.  A great night.

Author: Neil

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