Awoke on a sofa bed covered in tiny foam balls, which I vaguely remembered seeing spill from a bean bag after stomping on it in a polar beer induced attack caused a split. Sunlight was streaming through the windows, and I could hear the sound of the sea, and of people playing in the swimming pool. I opened the balcony door and stepped out to a view of the ocean. I’d love to wake up to such a sight everyday.
Vero was busy phoning friends, checking the current political climate in Caracas. Today there was scheduled to be a huge anti-government protest, which could mean huge traffic jams due to street closures, and possible violence. Eventually, she found out that the protest march would be on a different route to the one she intended on taking to Caracas, so we had the all clear to go! I put on a white shirt and some shorts, over knee-length to try and avoid looking like a ‘gringo’ (American), but undoubtedly failing. I put on my sunglasses, and we were ready to go!
The drive to Caracas took around 90 minutes, as we encountered some traffic on the way. We passed through mountains where thousands of Caracas’ poor dwell, and on to the city. Some fantastically old cars, including colourful Dodge Dukes of Hazard style taxis cut in, peeped their horns and crawled towards their destination, the occupants smoking cigarettes and rubbing stubbled chins, elbows hanging out of the window nonchalantly, crucifixes hanging from their rear view mirrors. It was all wonderfully chaotic, with watersellers in the middle of the street in the baking heat….it was all very colourful and chaotic and mad….very much how I imagined South America to be.
And so we were now in Caracas proper. The capital spreads along a high plateau that’s partitioned from the sea by towering green mountains, with loads of skyscrapers sticking up randomly everywhere. It’s set in a long narrow valley, about 20km from west to east. It’s a dramatic sight when you’re in the hills looking down. The climate is eternally agreeable – Caracas enjoys an ‘eternal summer’, without the humidity of Singapore. Lovely weather. No wonder people are so happy here. ‘Caraquenos’ (people living in Caracas) can enjoy walking through the steep wooded slopes of Parque National El Avila, with miles of walking trails through scented forests to escape the fast-paced life, relentless traffic, trash and noise of the city.
We didn’t go to ‘town’, the city centre. Vero said it was too dangerous, full of criminals and people who would stop at nothing to out a gun to your head and demand your money. And this was during the day! Caracas has a bad reputation, and is seen by some as a crime-ridden and violent city. Brighouse can be violent after the pubs shut on a Friday night, and I was in the company of a Caraquena anyway, so I felt pretty safe in Vero’s big jeep. Instead of hitting the centre, we stayed in the high-class area of Las Mercedes, and went for lunch at El budare del este restaurant. It was a dimly-lit and very local place, with a classic stereotypical South American waiter, gruff of voice and big of stature, all gestures and emotion. He looked hot and tired as he took our order, impatient at this gringo in his midst….a real hombre, bristling with machismo. A TV set blared loudly on a wall, but nobody was really paying attention. We ordered arepas – one with chicken and avocado, the other with shredded beef and cheese. We also ordered cachapas, a slightly sweet pancake-like dish served with cheese. It was all delicious, the I wasn’t overly-keen on the locals’ favourite of avocado and chicken. Washed it all down with a glass of orange juice.
After, we got back in the car, which was parked around the back. A large man guided us out, his sole job, and got 2,000 Bolivares for his trouble. We drove to a mall, a dingy collection of food and coffee stalls and salons full of ladies getting themselves pampered before the night out. Vero needed to get her Bolivares credits for the year – a yearly cash payout for those going abroad of only $500. Unfortunately, the bank was closed, so she couldn’t get the money. We had a coffee instead, and then I remembered it was my Mum’s birthday in 5 days, so we went to a bookshop to buy a card which was written in Spanish, a nice change from my usual naff cards. To post this card, however, was such a big deal I wish I’d never bothered. We went to MRW post, a private express postal firm. I wondered if they had a national postal service in Venezuela. They must do. I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t just buy a simple stamp and post a letter. Vero didn’t know anything about a postal service, she usually uses DHL of Fed-ex, so we went private. I had an idea of putting some Venezuelan currency in the card to send to my Mum, but this apparently wasn’t allowed. To post it, I needed to give them my passport, which they photocopied, my address, my signature…..and my thumb print! I needed to fill in 4 separate forms, and pay $15 for the privilege! I felt like I was a criminal…..but I found the funny side. The lack of efficiency amused me. Things were easier even in Jakarta! Finally, was delivered by express mail. My Mum wasn’t in when it reached England. They didn’t just pop it through the letterbox. My mum needed to go to the post office in person, sign for it, and produce identification. She didn’t get to see her card until 3 days after her birthday, so I’d wasted my time! Still, it’s the thought that counts!
After the drama at MRW post, Vero and I drove up towards her family home, in the hills of Alto Prado. The views on the way up were spectacular, and I could see the whole of Caracas nestling between the mountains. The houses in this exclusive area were more like fortresses, most had thick bars on the windows and wrought iron gates, 10 feet high to keep out the riff-raff. Talk about an us-and-them attitude! The area is lovely, a kind of Beverly Hills, away from the chaos of the city. We reached Vero’s house – a lovely and spacious detached 2-floor place with a nice garden, steep and leading up to the forests behind. I met Vero’s parents, Eduardo and Ligia. They were both extremely pleasant and hospitable, and tried very hard to speak to me in English. Eduardo sports a brilliant bristling grey moustache and hair, and has a wiry frame. He gesticulates wildly in the manner of Latin people, and I found him very warm and personable. Vero’s Mum is glamorous and beautiful, and looks much younger than she really is – she reminds me of my Mum, dyed blonde hair and youthful take on life. On the spot, Eduardo decided to have a BBQ. Family were quickly rounded up, and a number of Vero’s friends came, including Vicky, Natalia, Alehandra, Anne-Sophia, Bernadette, Jorge and Albarro. All were very friendly and tried to talk to me. They were all curious about me, and I about them….it’s great meeting people from different cultures. After some drinks and food, expertly barbequed by Eduardo, everyone piled into huge jeeps that all the affluent people drive around here, and we set off to party in the exclusive Las Mercedes area.
Like a gang of well-heeled socialites, we cruised down in jeeps, and they were valet parked as we went to the bars. The first stop was Madero. Jorge and I were the only men among 15 people – and I found myself surrounded by beautiful and friendly Venezuelans. ‘Is this normal?’ I asked Natalia. ‘I don’t see groups of men, only large groups of girls.’ Natalia told me about the ratio of women to men in Venezuela, and I understood. The second club was Sawu – the ‘Attica’ or ‘Sam and Daves’ of Caracas. The place to be. It was dark, and the music was a mix of salsa, merengue and hip-hop. The club got really busy. It seemed that everyone could dance merengue and salsa perfectly….I was impressed, and tried too, but just ended up looking like an Englishman who can’t dance. Which I am. Vero kindly taught me some simple merengue steps, and suddenly I was the merengue king, full of confidence twirling Vero around on the dancefloor like I’d been dancing for years. The mojitos and tequila were going down a dream and I was in Caracas in Venezuela in South America and having the time of my life. We left at 3:30am….but the night wasn’t over by a long shot, and soon it became day….