Christmas Day in England – the equivalent of Boxing Day in Venezuela. Boxing Day where I’m from in England is the traditional ‘Uncles vs Nephews’ pub crawl, which starts at the Crown pub at 11am, where us nephews play pool against the uncles, drink pints of Tetleys, and nibble on KP nuts. We move on into town after a couple of hours, trying not to break bones from slipping on the icy streets, and visit pub after pub, and at each pub we’re a man down, until it gets to the final pub, over 12 hours later, and it’s usually me, my brother, and a couple of our uncles left, determined to stay the course. It ends up as a draw at this stage, as the pub closes and all we have left is Medina’s curry shop, which we stumble into hungrily and order half the kitchen, forgetting those 12 pints we’ve had don’t leave much room for curry, samosas and nan breads. You wouldn’t want to wake up next to one of us the next morning.
Of course, in South America, it’s an effortlessly classier affair, and here in Venezuela, a little trip to the 16th Century town of El Hatillo, some 15 km from Caracas, is a popular ‘Boxing Day’ trip, which involves strolling around the lovely sun-drenched cobbled streets, past the colourful colonial houses, ducking in to the occasional bar with a balcony to sit at a table drinking Polar Ice or Sangria and looking down onto the square below (Plaza Bolivar) and the obilgatory statue of the great liberator himself, Simon Bolivar. Wearing sunglasses of course. You could imagine similar scenes being played out in Latin countries the world over. There’s just a coolness about the people that doesn’t need alcohol to be achieved, and the people have a joie de vivre that doesn’t need to involve 10 pints, a kebab and a fight. I’m a huge fan of this culture.
So today was the perfect day out. Vero drove us there, stopping on the way to fill up the tank, which cost less than a bottle of water (petrol is unbelievably cheap here). El Hatillo is situated at the bottom of a small mountain, which is home to a barrio, although this is a ‘good’ barrio, apparently. The green, pink, yellow, blue and red ramshackle houses stacked up almost on top of each other on the hill looked almost like toy houses from a children’s play house, and just as unthreatening, though just as easy to collapse. Despite the poverty, signs of festivities were everywhere in this barrio. Banners emblazoned with ‘Feliz Navidad’ were hung up between houses, some houses had fairly elaborate decorations around them, and there was the odd xmas tree made out of card. People make do with what they have, and make sure they have a good time like the wealthier people do. People making the best of what they have – the human spirit, one so often wasted by those restless souls never satisfied, always setting unobtainable goals for themselves, which means real happiness can never be achieved. We should be happy within our little circles, I thought, and make the best of things around us. The people in the barrios here were proud of their decorations, and rightly so. It’s when one starts comparing one’s lot with another’s, that problems start. We’ve been around long enough to know there will never be equality in the world….we should never lose hope, for to stop hoping and dreaming is to stop living – but we shouldn’t pin our happiness on our hopes and dreams either.
It was crowded, and we had to drive around the car park for a while before we could get a space. Big groups of Chinese people were here, many in their late teens, car doors open, listening to Chinese pop music. There’s a Chinese restaurant here in El Hatillo. I hadn’t noticed such a sizeable Chinese presence last time I came here, but Hugo Chavez is inviting them over in droves and giving them passports as long as they vote for him in the upcoming elections, so I’m told. Of course, it is already apparent that there will be no integration. The Chinese will keep to themselves, and Venezuelans will keep to themselves, unless it means business opportunities. And so will come Chinese ghettos, Chinatowns, and the resentment that sometimes follows – Chinese people work hard and never take holidays, which means they have lots of that stuff that divides people and countries – money. This creates jealousy, and further alienation. Still, it will open up this culture to more influences from the East, and there are as many positive points as negative ones. The next 10 years are going to bring lots of change to this country, of that I’m certain.
Vero and I strolled around the leafy, shaded Plaza Bolivar. There was a real festive atmosphere in the air. Candyfloss sellers were doing a brisk trade, and kids, high on sugar, were running amok all over the place, while the adults talked animatedly. We walked along the narrow, cobbled streets of this colourful little town, past the brightly-painted colonial buildings, some housing little craft shops, others ice-cream parlours or cafes. We stopped for some ice-cream. I saw one of those fantastic Ford Chevrolets. The sun was out. The sky was blue. We stopped in a nice bar for a cold beer. The atmosphere was magical. It was Christmas Day. It was Venezuela….I was happy.
We left before nightfall, and drove back to Caracas via a street called ‘Calle del Hambre’ – hungry street – for a perro caliente with all the trimmings. We retired to bed early, as tomorrow we were heading off for our Andean adventure in chilly Merida. Merry Christmas indeed!