The flight to Caracas with Air France was the longest of my life. 12 hours from Singapore to Paris. A 6 hour stopover at Charles de Gaule. Then a 10 hour flight from Paris to Caracas. Air France is a pretty good airline though – a proper airline with aging hostesses who seem to come from a bygone era when air hostessing was a glamorous job every woman wanted, full of decadence in every city, being wined and dined by executives and millionaires. It was James Bond who claimed he’d only ever marry 2 types of women – Japanese women, or air hostesses. The women staffing the Air France flight held their heads high, and every line on their faces told a story of a life full of travel, adventure, and sex in 5 star hotels. They were elegant. They were French.
One of the best things about flying with Air France is the food. Now, for me, French food is always a bit hit and miss, but, when served with champagne as an aperitif, then a small bottle of the finest French wine (maybe) to wash the French bread and Camembert down with, whilst on the way to an exciting new place, it tastes like the most delicious food in the world.
On the first flight I started off on the wrong foot with my flight friend. There was no room for my bag, and the long haired man with the silly chin beard didn’t like it when I tried to move his bag to put mine on the bottom and his on the top. “Don’t move it, it’s fragile” he moaned. I tried another locker. A few coats had been lain down. I tried to move them, out my bag on the bottom, the coats on top. The Singaporeans below piped up “Don’t move. Fragile. Cannot moving” in that impeccable English of theirs. So I tried further up the plane and finally found a locker. I then had to fumble around in my bag to get what I wanted for the flight – book, notepad, pen, lip balm – feeling the eyes of the passengers boring into me. I was finally ready to take my seat, squeezing myself awkwardly past the French man with the chin beard, who looked at me like I was something he’d just scraped off the bottom of his shoe. “Going home for christmas?” I asked cheerily. “Will you move much in the flight? Do you want to move your legs?” He replied, cryptically. “Erm….well, I do like to walk up and down a bit, stretch my legs, you know” I said, hopefully, really wanting to be in that aisle seat he was in right now. “Well, we swap. I am not moving in the whole flight,” he said, dropping the ‘h’ in ‘whole’ as is the manner of the French. And so we swapped seats. Ice broken, we talked and found many things in common – a love of travel and adventure, a dislike of English food – and got on surprisingly well. He worked in oil and gas, and had just finished a project in Bahrain, and was going home for a few weeks before most probably heading to Nigeria for another project. Exciting stuff. And it was true what he had said – he didn’t move the entire flight. Not once did he go to the toilet in 12 hours. I went about 5 times, so weak is my bladder. I envied him – no worries for him on long bus trips when travelling abroad. And so the flight past, the only excitement being the occasional thrill of saying ‘merci’ to an air hostess, and, more daringly, ‘ca va’? I marveled once more how exotic even the French seem, and so close to England too. That European air of sophistication, different fashion, different food, comical accents when trying to speak English…. I wanted to move to France.
The queue at Paris to get through to the gates where I was to catch my flight to Caracas was long and slow-moving. The tannoy bust into life now and again, explaining that “due to a security personnel national strike, flights will be delayed.” Ahh, the French and their bloody strikes. A woman kept coming up and down the line asking where we were going. To every reply, she said, cheerfully, “no problem, you won’t be late, your flight is delayed. It’s OK, no problem.” Fair enough. I got through eventually, and found a cafe to while away a few hours over a cappuccino and a toasted ham and cheese sandwich. At 11am, I caught my flight to Caracas, another Air France flight, which meant the same rubbish TV programmes, some of them 20 years old, including ‘Man’s Best Friend’ about domestic dogs slipping off in the night to roam wild and free and to hunt before returning in the morning and pretending to be domesticated again. I decided to watch a movie this time – Cowboys and Aliens, with Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, which was a fresh genre of sci-fi western. Not bad. I chatted to my new flight friend a lot too, who was Venezuelan. Intriguingly, she worked in Malaga for the football team, and worked closely with the President of the team, a businessman from where else but Qatar. I didn’t ask her exactly what she did, but she’d met a fair few footballers and stars in Spain. She was coming back to Venezuela for the first time in 3 years, and was apprehensive to say the least. Like most Venezuelans, though proud of their country, are keen on revealing the negatives before talking of the positives – and are almost apologetic when doing so. This girl was no exception, and she explained, in an American accent picked up from a year studying in the USA (the academic de rigeur for the well-heeled of Venezuela), that kidnapping was a worrying trend now in Venezuela, and her mum told her almost every week that this person or that person had been kidnapped. She also spoke of her loathing of Hugo Chavez, another sore point for many Venezuelans. If I hadn’t been to Venezuela 2 years before, and seen how wonderful and beautiful it is and how warm the people are, I would have been put right off going to Venezuela and would probably have jumped on a flight to Brazil from Caracas instead without even setting foot in the city. Luckily, I knew that, for all its negatives, Venezuela is an amazing country, rich in natural wonder and culture. I spoke of my plans to visit Merida, and only then did she start exalting Venezuela’s charms. We landed, and I was ready for 6 weeks of adventure and new experiences that would take me through Venezuela, Equador and Colombia.
It took nearly 2 hours to get out of the airport. When I did, tired, I was greeted with a sight that energized me immediately. My girlfriend Veronica was coming towards me, a Latin beauty from Caracas, dressed in a lovely printed white summer dress and high heels, dripping with bracelets and necklaces and charm. A great sight after such a long flight. We got into her truck (well, SUV, but they call them trucks over here), and we headed off to her seaside apartment near the airport for a much needed shower, picking up a few bottles of local Polar beer on the way.
It was like deja-vu, in a good way. The apartment, on the third floor of an old condominium, had seen better days, but was still bright, breezy and comfortable – just the tonic really. Showered, changed and refreshed, Veronica took me to a nice restaurant about a 1 minute drive from the apartment, exactly the same one we’d gone to 2 years before. The waiters were the same too. The views here were of the sea, and the boats dotted in the harbour. It was a nice spot, fresh and bright. The food was mediocre, but it didn’t matter, it was just good to be here in the company of a lovely Venezuelan, glowing in her own country. Back at the apartment, we listened to Latin music and drank sangria, the perfect end to a lovely evening. The adventures were about to begin.