The fresh sea air failed to rouse me here in La Guaira, but the thought of breakfast at the local panaderia did. Vero and I headed out for a drive around the area. La Guaira is generally poor and characterized by soulless apartment blocks and people loitering on street corners chatting to each other and calling out to passers-by as they have little else to do. Nothing here had changed since I’d last visited. A Marriott Hotel pointed to a brighter future perhaps, but the rest of the area is in neglect. It’s a small town, and it’s appeal is difficult to understand, although Vero assures me that it is very popular with caraquenos (people from Caracas) as a place to have a second home, being close to the sea and some (mediocre) beaches. There are also some good clubs further around the coast, and some quite excellent beaches and more upmarket areas, so perhaps therein lies its appeal.
After breakfast, Vero and I headed back to the apartment, which commands a lovely sea view at one side, mountains on the other, and we headed down to the pool for an hour in a bid to get some colour on my pale face, and for Vero to get even darker than she already is. The sun was trying it’s best to poke it’s head through the clouds, but to no avail. All was quiet. We were the only people down here. 2 years ago, the sun was shining, people were swimming, playing music, drinking, partying. The place now seemed abandoned, the sun replaced by drizzle and dark clouds, the Friday night I’d arrived 2 years ago replaced by the Monday today. It was 11am. Vero and I started on the sangria, which did me no favours being jet-lagged as I was. Then it was time to go to Caracas.
The scenic highway drive past and through mountains dotted with colourful ‘ranchos’ (shanty-town style dwellings) was lovely, and then we arrived in Caracas proper, trucks, vans, hummers and cars that would never pass their MOT in England all sharing the road with hundreds of droning motorbikes zipping around everywhere. They say if you can drive in Caracas you can drive anywhere in the world, and I believed it. Signalling is something done as an afterthought, as cars drift lazily from lane to lane, cutting across each other. Horns are tooted relentlessly, and much latin hand flailing can be seen from the car windows. It’s chaos. We climbed up to the tranquility of Alto Prado, an upper-middle class area where Vero has lived all her life. We drove into the gated neighbourhood, and parked up outside the house.
We were alone for now – Vero’s mum was shopping, her father working. Her mum had prepared a delicious braised beef dish with salsa dressing served with rice and plaintain called Asado. We ate it, then Vero’s mum came back and greeted me warmly before making sure my plate was full again, and my glass was full of chilean white wine she’d brought. Very warm, very hospitable. The dining room we ate in looked like a set from a christmas movie – lovely xmas tree, decorations, xmas-themed cushion covers; and outside there were plastic snowmen and reindeer. Caracas has a lovely climate – it never gets that cold – but it felt cold now – but in a good way – due to all the christmassy things.
After lunch, Vero and I headed out to pick up her friend, Esther, before heading to a shopping mall where there was a Gaita – a traditional Venezuelan xmas fair. At least, that was the idea. Instead, all we saw were a procession of musicians with elf costumes and santa hats, going round and round each floor of the mall. No elaborate stage shows, no traditional xmas fare. Vero’s friend thought it was fantastic, and followed them eagerly, encouraging us to dance. Vero felt embarrassed, and it was true we were the only adults following the procession over several floors. It was still fun though, and we managed to get a photo with Mr and Mrs Claus.
We headed back to Alto Prado, where Vero’s brother Roddy and his wife Grace were, with their new son Santiago. Great name, Santiago. A cool name. I wish I had a name like that. ‘Neil’ doesn’t really have a ring to it at all. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Neil.’ ‘Oh.’ ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Santiago.’ ‘Wow!’ Roddy poured me some local cream-based drink called ponche crema which is a typical xmas drink in Venezuela. Delicious. “Do you want to hold Santiago?” Asked Grace. I laughed sheepishly “ooh, I’m not sure about that, hahaha, maybe….” and Santiago was passed to Vero’s mum instead. I always get nervous when asked to hold a baby. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because I know all eyes will be on me, and I should make bizarre ‘coochy-coo’ sounds to show I’m interacting with the child. Perhaps I’m just awkward. I’m also scared I might drop the baby….I’m not confident in my baby holding skills. Everyone’s told me this is normal ‘at first’, from my brother years ago to Vero now, and you ‘get used to it’. I wanted to hold the child, to get used to it….but today was not going to be the day.
The 4 of us – Roddy, Grace, Vero and I – then jumped in respective vehicles and headed off to a snazzy rooftop bar Roddy and Grace had spoken highly of. There was mandatory valet parking in the basement of this building, and none were happy about it. “Make sure nothing valuable is in the car”, they warned. It was a lovely place, with an indoor and outdoor section, the outdoor the most impressive, with high tables and sofas dotted around the central pool attraction, while the views of Caracas city and the surrounding mountains all around were beautiful. We ordered some cocktails and finger food, and had a good chat. Roddy and Grace had come back from England, where they had studied in Brighton, 6 months ago, and they spoke very highly of the place, and of the politeness of English people, which was refreshing with all the negativity about England going around at the moment.
After a couple of cocktails we headed to one of Vero’s friend’s birthday parties at a cool Thai lounge bar situated in a shopping mall in the glitzy area of Las Mercedes, playground of Caracas’s rich and restless. There were a lot there for the bash, and, though they were patiently speaking Spanish with me, all of them could speak English perfectly with strong American accents, having studied in the US, or through living in the US which half of them seemed to do now. One of them, dressed in purple shirt with off white suit jacket over the top, Miami-vice style, did indeed live in Miami. “You know the good thing about Miami? It works, and it’s got energy. Everything works, streets are clean, things get done….and 80% of the people are Latin, so you’ve got the crazy parties, the energy, but in a place that works and you can walk the streets without getting into trouble.” Now I know the good thing about Miami. The birthday boy himself, Irvin, an amiable chap dressed in jeans, a white shirt, and leather jacket over the top, lives in Atlanta. He was 30 years old today. Roddy and Grace left after a drink, as Roddy had to work the next day, something nobody else in this group seemed to have to do. Here then are the Beverly Hills style jet-setters, young party-crazy caraquenos, with money in their pockets and big status vehicles parked outside. A few 6 foot model types showed up, and were greeted by the group as old friends. They were bought drinks by another caraqueno, who lives in Australia. They were a fun bunch, and very friendly, something seemingly inherent in all Venezuelans. The birthday boy picked up the entire tab, which must have run into thousands of dollars, then we all headed down to the basement to get into various SUVs and head out into the maddening traffic of 2am on a Wednesday morning. Everybody was drunk, and everybody was driving. This is clearly not a problem in Venezuela, and if it is, as Mr Miami told me, a little pay-off to the police is all you need, and you’re free to drive off again. It reminded me of Jakarta, that vigilante feel, almost anything could happen, fun-loving big spending rogues taking full advantage of the environment, careering around the dark streets from party to party as though tonight was the last night on earth. It was fun, there was an air of danger, and being here at this moment felt incredibly liberating.
Las Mercedes was utter chaos. Gridlocked with SUVs, all heading to various clubs at 2am, trying desperately to find parking spaces. An hour of crawling down the streets later, Vero found a parking space on the pavement, and we headed to a club where all her friends were supposed to be. The streets were buzzing with drunk caraquenos, staggering around, the women in tiny skirts and low cut tops revealing hugely inflated breasts – for plastic surgery here is almost a national obsession, and in a place where women outnumber men 7-1, one needs a little extra help sometimes to stay competitive in the dating game. Vero’s friends were outside the club, with about a hundred other people, all trying to get into the club. Bouncers were slow in picking and choosing who would get in. Groups of guys were a definite no-no. Beautiful women had a good chance, as did couples. Me and Vero got ushered in after a short spell, to find a couple of friends just outside the entrance. We’d got through the first barrier, but we couldn’t get through the second one and into the club. There had been a big fight, and they were waiting for everything to calm down before letting anyone else in. Calm down, gentlemen – plenty of women to go around, I thought. We got in eventually. The place was long, narrow, and low-ceilinged, and felt rather cramped. Hard reggaeton blasting from huge speakers meant there would be no conversation from now on – but on this dancefloor conversation wasn’t necessary – body language was all people needed, and the bumping and grinding going on all over the dancefloor was testament to the success of this form of communication. Here, being overtly forward was essential in the mating game, and those shying away at the bar would never get company tonight. The crowd was mainly in their 20s, and drinking hard and partying harder were 2 important things on the agenda, and things all of them were doing very admirably. We left after 5 minutes.
Outside, most of Vero’s friends, mainly guys, were still trying to get into the club in vain, so we all tried another club, just across the street, which had a similar crowd of hopefuls outside. “Cerrado” the bouncer kept saying, but the clubbers stayed, not believing him, or not wanting to believe him. Name-dropping wasn’t helping here. Everybody knew somebody in every club. This is Las Mercedes, and only a tiny percentage of the population in Caracas can afford to party here, and most of these party-goers had grown up together, so they all seemed to know each other. We played the ‘birthday’ card, to which the bouncer replied “Por quattro servicios, ustedas pueden entrar.” ‘Service’ in the clubs here generally means a bottle of whisky or rum, so they wanted us to buy 4 bottles of spirits before letting us in. “Loco…esta es loco!” moaned a few of the group. It was indeed ridiculous. The party was over. Everybody said goodbye to everyone else. Vero and I walked back to her SUV and headed back to the hills of Alto Prado. A disappointing end, then, but, all in all, a great evening.