01.08.2010 - 07.02.2011
Looking out the window of the airplane, my first impression of Venezuela is one of stunning, rugged, green mountains cascading into gorgeous, indigo water, stretching as far as the eye can see. Welcome to the Caribbean!
My next impression is Mr. Toad's Wild Ride through the ramshackles of suburban/rural Venezuela. Many of the roads lack defined lanes, but who really cares, no one uses them anyway! Our trusty Jeep nonchalantly swerves into oncoming traffic to pass slower cars, and don't worry about bothering to slow – nevermind stop - for red lights. I am only mildly concerned for my life. Buildings gradually progress from run-down, brightly colored concrete structures (as is common in Mexican border towns) crowded on top of each other with iron bars protecting every entrance, to lush forest dotted by open concrete blocks and wooden shacks. The road narrows to a two lane highway tracing the coastline. Trash adorns the sides of the roads and the smell of diesel is omnipresent, punctuated occasionally by the scent of rotting trash or smoke. Chickens and emaciated, mangy stray dogs are nearly as plentiful as the litter, as they pick through the piles of trash in search of a meal or curl up for a nap at the side of the road. We pass by a few dogs lying dead in the street.
After an hour of adrenaline over-dose, we arrive in Playa Colorada, the village I am to live in for the next two and a half months. We pass the transit control building, attended by a handful of uniformed men ostentatiously bearing large rifles, and turn a corner past two brightly colored liquor stores plastered with advertisements for local beers, as well as the corner bodega. All of these are about the size of the walk-in closet I left behind in San Diego, ominously decked with iron bars for doors and windows, and radiate a certain air of filth that naturally associates with rural areas located in hot locations. We continue up a gargantuan pothole posing as a road, turn another corner onto a dirt road in no better condition than the last, and arrive at Jakera, the posada (hostel) that is to be my home for the next ten weeks.
The the exterior is reasonably attractive, but my eyes drift to the barbed wire garnishing the perimeter. I am shown to my bedroom, “The Bird Cage,” which is constructed from a wooden frame, a tin roof, and enclosed only by mosquito netting. I am the first to arrive from my group, so I have the good fortune of first choice from the dozen or so hammocks crowded into the room. The camp is quite nice for what it is: entirely open air, possessing three bed“rooms” similar to the Bird Cage, as well as an open loft with more hammocks, a handful of small “private” rooms with bunkbeds, and a good-sized, outdoor common area/dinning room. There is also a cute little pond near the common area, which apparently serves as a mosquito trap (we could use a few more...). The camp seems well maintained and only moderately dirty - as is necessitated by the environment (any beach town tends to seem a bit dirty, then add to it the fact that we're in a hot, humid, rural environment). There are five flushing toilets (just don't flush the TP!), an ozone filter for drinking water, and seven cold showers, which are fed by large barrels of river water that is delivered via truck once a week. We have electricity, but it is common for Chavez to randomly shut the power off for a few hours at a time or for power boxes to explode, often taking a couple of days to repair. I am immediately greeted by a very friendly mutt and spot two well-bred German shepherds wandering the camp, which makes me feel slightly more at ease. Later I discover a young orange tabby kitten calling Jakera home, as well.
The posada is nicely situated, nestled between green hills and possessing a clear view and two minute walk down to the beach. Ocean swims and short hikes into the hills are common pre-breakfast morning activities. On the beach the water is stunningly clear and remarkably glassy, due to the protective cove that we reside in, as well as the numerous small cays dotting the horizon. The view is truly spectacular, though the dozens of starving stray dogs wandering the beach bring the mood down a bit. 500 feet from Jakera's gate is a small call center, my life saver for the first couple of weeks, and beyond that the bodega with a few essentials – candy, chips, soda, and cereal - and the two liquor stores with the true Venezuelan essentials. Internet is less convenient, requiring an hour bus ride – which is only slightly less exciting than my jeep-ride from the airport - to the nearest proper town, Puerto La Cruz.
Puerto La Cruz is slightly overwhelming upon one's first – or tenth - visit. People, cars, dogs, cats, trash, and aromas crowd the streets. Large holes filled with dirty rain water and sewage are common obstacles that one must constantly be on the lookout for. Crossing streets is exciting, as traffic is heavy and traffic laws do not exist. We are warned that theft is common, so vigilance is a necessity, as is avoiding attracting attention. But don't worry, the thieves are generally relatively harmless. One girl experienced an attempted robbery in which, upon discovering that her pockets were empty, her would-be assailant apologized and walked away. I always wear jeans and a t-shirt – despite the low 90's temperature and 100% humidity – to fit in with the locals and never carry anything that I'm not willing to loose. Not to mention my trusty money belt. Speaking of money, US Dollars are very handy to have in Venezuela. Though not generally accepted on their own, the official exchange rate is about 4.5 Bolivares Fuerte to the US Dollar. Not bad. But the UNofficial exchange rate on the black market is about 8.2 Bfs to the dollar. Now we're talkin.
Puerto La Cruz also happens to be the location of the nearest proper super market to Playa Colorada – the Limpiotodo. And by “proper super market,” I mean that they carry packaged snacks, canned goods, toiletries, cleaning supplies, ice cream, juice, and maybe butter, if you're really lucky (Chavez keeps butter under-supplied, so margarine is much easier to come by). Oh, AND they have real chocolate, which is surprisingly difficult to find in Venezuela (I'm guessing because it just melts...). There are definitely no fresh foods and forget milk (if you'd trust it, anyway). However, half a dozen blocks away is an enormous open air market.
If Puerto La Cruz is “slightly overwhelming,” the market is likely to induce a heart attack. Vendors crowd together, selling much the same goods and all very loudly competing for your attention and business. Young children perpetually tug at your arms, trying to sell you larger blue plastic bags in which to store the small green bags that the vendors sell your produce. The market is divided into sections, including clothing, produce, meats/cheese, and seafood. The sea food section smells strongly and is packed with boxes of fish that induce SeaWorld flashbacks, as well as various mollusks, butchered sharks, and large sting rays with sizable cookie-cutter holes punched out of their centers.
Puerto La Cruz is also the place to go to find numerous stores selling goods from one of a limited collection of themes: shoes, clothing (brightly colored and much too small, as is the style), sunglasses, or junk jewelry. Schwarma is the draw of nearly every restaurant, though if you look you can find pizza, Chinese (though the reliability of the meat is apparently questionable), and, of course, a McDonald's. This is the typical fashion for Venezuela. As you drive down the highway, you can distinguish each village that you pass through by the goods that are displayed on the side of the road. Each village has a unique theme and will feature a number of carts or shops standing side-by-side, selling identical merchandise. It really makes no sense to me. You would think it would be much more profitable for each stand to sell something different, but that's not the way it works around here...
A twenty minute cab ride up the coast from Paseo Colon, the main area of Puerto La Cruz, is Lecheria, the most Westernized part of Venezuela that I have yet to encounter. Large houses - still brightly colored in the South American style - sit on waterways with impressive yachts moored just outside. Lecheria is home to Plaza Mayor, a nearly American-class shopping mall. The shops are still quite small in size, as as is the trend throughout the country, but the quality is considerably improved and many brands can be recognized from the States. Here your eatery options are more diverse (including fantastic gelato) and McDonald's is joined by Wendy's and Burger King.
Even in Plaza Mayor, however, along with the rest of Venezuela, customer service does not exist. It is not uncommon to wait at a counter while the attendants sit right in front of you horsing around or gossiping until they're ready to serve you and I frequently find myself being blatantly supervised as I shop, presumably to ensure that I do not steal anything. Also featured in Plaza Mayor is a truly proper supermarket. Here you can indeed find fresh food – produce, meat, cheese – and a much great selection of the rest.
Lecheria is also home to the first genuine cocktails that I have discovered in the country. Throughout Venezuela bars serve light beer, “cubalibre” (dark rum and coke), and maybe caipirinna (light rum, sugar, and lime juice), if they're feeling classy. Wine is possible to find, but less common and of poor quality. For someone who is not a fan of light beer and does not care for soda, I find myself drinking very rarely.
Such is the environment that I find myself suddenly immersed in for six months of my life... A natural paradise at odds with human filth.