L’IL LULU GOES ASTRAY
Yes, there was a next calamity, though not one doled out by Nature or distributed democratically. This one was ours alone. As it involved no threat to life or lamb chop, we took it in good stride. Also on the bright side, it also didn’t happen in Trinidad, which, despite all grousing, I honestly liked too much to have yet another grudge against.
Dallying with tropical storm Joyce had set us back another week. Anxious to resume the cruising life of fewer people and more gentle days -- and for long stretches rather than short interludes -- we sailed out of Trinidad on October 6 to explore the offshore Venezuelan islands.
Within hours the unhurried pace of sailing had worked its magic, allowing me to drift easily into a quieter inner space, that place where the recent past melts away and the next moment is the only destination that counts. In two days, we found ourselves 95 miles west, settled amid a miniscule group of six islands named Los Testigos -- the Witnesses – though just about all there is to witness is glorious green water, strips of oyster white beaches and a few palm trees. There’s not a food store for 40 miles; about all that exists there of civilization’s familiar riot of services is a church and a school. Five of the six islets are virtually uninhabited; most of the area’s 160 residents live simple lives on the largest, Isla Iguana, primarily manning simple, wood fishing boats with powerful dual Yamaha engines. The name “Witnesses” complements an almost eerie quality of silence. Part of that atmosphere, of course, is the tiny population, but the other missing ingredient, I later realized, was the noisy gaiety of children playing along the beaches. That further emptiness I’d felt but which hadn’t quite registered was this complete absence of children. Sadly, we recently learned, almost all of them died last year when a meningitis epidemic swept through the islands.
Thirty of the 160 people are the slim-hipped, coffee-skinned young men of the Guardacostas de los Testigos -- the Coast Guard – who do double duty as the Armada de Venezuela: even, I suppose, triple duty, now that they are now virtually the entirety of Testigan youth – and a solemn, serious, rifle-bearing youth, indeed. You meet them when you climb up to announce your arrival, to a reception area that looks like a blue cupcake at the top of an otherwise barren, rusty-colored hill. The flat little rotunda itself does triple duty: Armada office, Guardacostas interview room and Enfermeria – a one-room operatory with not a medicine cabinet in sight and a desk that functions, I’m guessing, as an examining table.
Since there’s no dinghy dock in the small, choppy harbor, you tie up as best you can to a few steel pilings, jump off into the warm, knee-deep water and onto the beach. If it’s afternoon, the fisherman gathered in groups cleaning their nets or just slurping cervezas will flash friendly smiles, wave and silently witness your clumsy trek up the deeply ridged, mud-packed hill.
Because there is no immigration officer, vessels are there more or less at the sufferance of the Guardacostas. The Venezuelan government allows a maximum stay of only two days, but the Guardacostas are only too happy to look very handsome and important, then look the other way: especially if you bring them some beer or candy bars -- and as long as you promise to tell them when you leave. Otherwise their written list of arrivals and departures would look unmilitaristically incomplete.
Further along the ridge, 20 some-odd homes – large bungalows really, that resemble double-size camp-bunks – form a jagged, unpaved sort of Main Street. Most are painted white with contrast trim, creating a determinedly civilized atmosphere that says people care around here despite their awesome isolation.
We anchored Lulu and Feisty as far from other boats as we could, in an almost deserted cove. Off the bow, a tiny islet, ringed by a chalk-white beach. On it stands one lone, weatherbeaten and uninhabited shack that gets Buckingham Palace-worthy protection from a sturdy (if misguided) stand of palm trees. The water was blissfully aquamarine, that tropical tone we’d just about forgotten in the midst of Trinidad’s murky brown harbor. Beyond this undulant welcome mat, the rowdy waves of the Eastern Caribbean and, beyond that, more endless blue ocean This spot was a snapshot of the last outpost of civilization. It seemed almost trite to get out my camera, though of course I did..
We had traveled some 4,000 miles, in a few days less than a year, just to sit still here. A strong, cool wind blew, making the intense almost suffocating equatorial heat hardly noticeable.
Jackie and Mel fished on the way and caught two plump tunas, each around 10 pounds, and that’s before the Tall Fisherman Story. Just hours from capture, these Albacores were bright pink, resolutely un-Starkist -- sushi quality, really, though we turned fraidy-cat and barbecued them. Next time…
We’re traveling the Venezuelan islands with Caribbean 1500 friends Sandy and Tom, on Vauntcourier, which means the first boat in a Viking fleet. It suits them well: the boat is fast and light, while they are fair and blonde. The Vaunts (or Vances, as Gary calls them, vance being a yiddishism meaning “rascal,” which suits not one bit their chiseled Nordic good looks, their resolute Protestant reserve, their broad amber-waves-of-grain Midwestern inflections and their aura of friendly down-home decency) anyway, the Vances also caught a tuna and a mahi-mahi. Meanwhile, my captain and I remain rodless and lure-less but thankful we have friends who think nothing of schpritzing Vodka into the gills of some poor tea-totalling Charley Tuna so that he dies instantly and presumably happier than most, then slitting him from stem to stern, all the while bloodying up their decks while ours remain sun-bleached blonde from stem to stern.
Sandy concocted an impromptu cole slaw; the six of us gathered on Feisty to toast the prolific catch and dig into our Fisherman Plate Specials. Sandy’s exemplary slaw (secret ingredient, Miracle Whip, and, along with potato salad, your bedrock Specialities de la Maison Goyishe) has since sent Jackie into a frenzy of shopping for one of those “dices-as-it-slices-as-it-shreds-as-it-grates” QVC items that are no longer part of our daily reality. Just another thing she’ll have the equipment for, but won’t make. This is one of our Specialities de la Maison Jewishe – having the stuff but never cooking. More on that later.
On our second night in Los Testigos Gary and I spent a quiet evening alone. We grilled some lamb chops, washed the dishes and were back up on deck by 9:30. The few other boats around us had doused their interior lights, leaving only the small, steadfast anchor lights at the tops of masts. It was easy to feel alone, yet entirely safe, on earth.
The winds were clocking 15 knots and more. A seven-eighths moon lit the sky slate blue, the humps of the surrounding islands indigo and tinted the strip of beach a pale phosphorescent blue. The ebony water surrounding us glimmered with shards of moonlight and winking starlight. Though a gauzy cloud layer hid many of the stars, it left us enough to feel the presence of distant friends.
“Let’s sleep out here,” I suggested.
We dragged out our never-used deck mattresses and lay down to watch the planetarium show above, feeling like our own kids – the intrepid camper/biker Strutin branch. The wind blew cool and strong, but the boat barely rocked, Despite the inflexible closed-cell foam mattress, I slept fine, covered in a light cotton spread, awakening three or four times to be greeted by familiar constellations the shifting cloud blanket had revealed.
I opened my eyes for the day at 6 AM to incandescent coral and gold clouds floating over the tiny deserted island. A spectacular welcome to the new day, which we spent like two happy slugs, dozing, reading, hardly stirring, shedding any last tense feelings of too-much civilization. Snorkeling, snooping around in the dinghy would come later, when we’d finally drunk enough of solitude.
Unfortunately, when we finally had enough solitude, we had no dinghy.
Doozy makes her final getaway
Our dinghy had either slipped away from some very tight knots or she was stolen. Of course, it was our fault. We had been amply warned about theft and larceny in Venezuela – in fact, the four of us had debated for a very long time whether to go there at all. We’d heard horror stories from some of our cruiser neighbors in Trinidad, veterans of unpleasant to dangerous experiences there – from petty theft to credit-card scams to middle-of-the-night boardings. But others had plied this territory for months, with no unpleasant incidents at all. These people announced they felt as safe – or even safer – than in the northeastern Caribbean.
The lure of Venezuela is the quiet, the birds, the natural beauty of one-palm islands with long stretches of deserted beaches; and in the larger, more populated islands, experiencing an entirely different culture, music, food and – at long last – even a different language.
Weighing all the information we’d gotten from other cruisers and from Mel’s Venezuelan cousins, all of whom advised avoiding the mainland, we’d decided the outlying islands would be relatively safe, as long as we traveled with other boats and were never completely alone in an anchorage.
In Testigos somehow, along with all the sunshine and moonlight, we apparently soaked up the idea that we didn’t need to lock the dinghy when we went over to Feisty for dinner on our third night there. After a few bottles of wine, downed with enough music and laughter to drown out a stealthy arrival and the simple untying of a line, we came up on deck and discovered Doozy was gone – which is utterly crippling in this lifestyle, because you simply can’t get anywhere. We were doubly upset because despite our checkered history with her -- of attempted getaways or suicides -- and despite the countless tee shirts and shorts she’d bled her royal blue hull onto, we had just refurbished her – adding new not-blue trim panels, spiffy red ropes and replacement seat cushions. And re-christened her “L’il Lulu.” We’d really gotten attached to her and she looked better than new.
But, as we’ve mulled this incident over, there was something else operating. Beyond the simplicity of Los Testigos, the apparent openness of the people and their isolation from the rest of the country, all of which helped us exempt this area from the list of danger zones, was something about the way people looked at us. We saw in their eyes a straightforwardness and a guilelessness. Missing was a kind of hustler cunning our antennae were attuned to from watching some of the shrewdest Trinidadians assess how much they could soak us for, how much they could get away with or how little they’d have to work.
Despite our minimal experience there, it seemed in this sleepy community where everyone knows everyone else – most likely for decades – that the simple codes of decency and honor would not be transgressed. Moreover, on a practical note, in a community so small an unusual dinghy, sporting a 40-horsepower engine would be hard to hide.
On the other hand, as one Venezuelan fisherman we met said, "A 40-horsepower Yamaha has muchos amigos in Venezuela.” It would be easy for a fishing boat to come silently aside, spread a huge net and drop the motor straight into it. Still, ours was wired in with cables, impossible to remove quickly – unless someone simply took the dinghy, later slashing it into strips and discarding it.
We’d have been prepared for that probability elsewhere in Venezuela, where the official Presidential policy toward possessions – announced frequently on national television – is, “If you see someone with two of something and you have none, find a way to get it.” Extending that philosophy to “If I have none and he has one, he doesn’t deserve it, I do,” requires very little more fraying of moral fiber.
Apparently what’s changed in Venezuela in recent years is the government of that President, Hugo Chavez, as well as last year’s almost biblical rains, torrents bringing catastrophic mudslides, which buried some 30, 000 to 50,000 people along with countless homes and stranded hundreds of thousands for months.
When he first took office Chavez, who is considered by many Venezuelans to be a madman, suggested that people with two homes give one to someone less fortunate. As a result, on the island of Margarita, a weekend playground of the wealthy, a sort of high-rise Venezuelan Hamptons with casinos, second residences have been taken over by squatters. Absentee owners get no redress from the courts; abandoned buildings and unfinished construction projects are everywhere..
Under Chavez’ beneficent, silent approval, corruption is
rampant and lawlessness reigns: the Venezuelan crime rate is now 6th in the
world, with 25 violent deaths per 100,000, compared to a world average of 9.06.
During our first weekend in the country, 60 people died violently, primarily in
gang warfare and in 26 shootouts with the police. Apparently these are not
Of course, we didn’t know this until we’d moved on to Venezuelan “civilization,” to Margarita, where we read an English-language, local newspaper. We also met one couple who, walking into town, found themselves in the midst of a bloody West Side Story-like gang fight, complete with knives and broken Coke bottles. They weren’t the targets, but that, along with the gantlet of mudpies they had to dinghy back to their boat through, thrown by young kids swimming along the shore, didn’t endear them to the safer-in-numbers harbor of Porlamar.
Sometimes safety is merely the luck of the draw. We live in a violent world and, while it’s foolish to put ourselves in obvious danger, we’ve chosen to sojourn in foreign places and prefer that it be among the common people, not just the super-rich. So we’ve got to take our chances. Brooklyn and Manhattan were probably fine training grounds – at least in terms of giving us some perspective and a degree of fearlessness that keeps us cautious but still exploring, rather than at home, paralyzed and regretful.
Meanwhile, Los Testigos – the Witnesses – may have witnessed, but they surely couldn’t testify. Some big part of me still believes that our impressions and assumptions of the Testigans’ honesty were well grounded. There was the local residents’ wide-eyed disbelief that a dinghy would be stolen in their midst. Someone said it had been some five years, someone else said seven, since such an event had taken place. Then, too, I was questioned carefully by the Armada/Guardacostas commander, slight, dark and Boy Scouty in his uniform of khaki shorts and shirt, but with penetrating, unblinking, unsweetened-chocolate-brown eyes he kept riveted on mine. It was clear he thought if there were a culprit, it was much more likely one of our own yacht neighbors. And then there was the summation of one local -- that “El Comandador de Los Testigos would pull out his gun -– inmediatamente -- and shoot anyone under his authority who would steal so much as a grain of rice.” Boy Scout, my foot.
Of course, all these impressions could be mere wishful thinking -- utterly naïve and simply a product of the kind of sanguine, shallow, muddled liberal hopefulness that is the subject of Gary/Rush diatribes: Poverty breeds corruption and a 40-horsepower Yamaha was too overpowering a temptation for someone to resist.
While I have no grasp at all of Venezuelan history, Dennis, a hardworking Margaritan chandlery owner, told us, “This economy has always been run from the top down. Whenever more money was needed, they just opened the oil faucet.” Such venality and concentration of power and riches has to have created rigid stratification and the kind of have/have-not nation that is ripe for crime, unrest, misery and a President who invites his people to steal. “Since Chavez,” says Dennis, “large businesses, particularly on the mainland, are closing their doors and fleeing.” That, of course, won’t make the population any more well off. Unlike a big corporation, however, Dennis can’t afford to walk away from a thriving business and lose all he’s built. He, like many, remembers when the unit of currency, the Bolivar, compared to the dollar, was 3 to 1; today it is almost 700 to 1.
On the other hand, Chavez would naturally appear certifiable to business owners and to upper-class members, who stand to lose from his policies. But if you’re poor or jobless or homeless, he’s more likely a hero and his Marxist/Communist stance would gladden, not sadden, your heart.
It’s also possible that nothing has changed in Venezuela, that there’s some kind of ingrained national character operating, one described to us as typically South American by Rod Gibbon, the owner of a Trinidadian woodworking shop. Rod’s ex-wife was born into a wealthy Venezuelan family and Rod led a physically cushy but mentally trying life working for his father-in-law, whom he depicted as an entirely unethical cutthroat. The immorality so disturbed him that eventually Rod called his father-in-law corrupt, which summarily sundered his ties to the family. Naming a dishonest man dishonest became, ironically, an insult to his honor, you see.
But to Rod, thin-faced and lean, with a back as straight as his principles, it wasn’t his father-in-law that encapsulated the pervasive corruption he experienced in Venezuela – it was his wife’s sister’s brand of treachery. When their grandfather died, she secretly tore a page out of his financial log, the one that wiped away her own daughter’s debt, but at the same time robbed her own sisters and brothers of their inheritances. Discovered and confronted, she shrugged and said, “What the eye doesn’t see the heart can’t feel.”
But are other cultures so different? Have we not heard such stories everywhere? Could we expect to leave a wallet on a bench in Grand Central Station and find it there two hours later? Can Americans rank themselves on a higher plane, with our stock-market greed, with the kind of addiction to glitter, worship of money and success that the country seems obsessed by? Does the concept of sharing the wealth or not stealing from “The Other,” whomever he may be, exist anywhere? Perhaps in primitive cultures or in tiny, off-the-beaten-track pockets of the world where the attitude of village-as-family may still prevail. Or there too have standards been leveled and simple morality eradicated by the globalization of television and movies?
This cruiser’s concerns
As part of our a separate, privileged, highly mobile set, with concerns of our own -- albeit by comparison, frivolous concerns -- we never see into what’s goes on around us very deeply. Involved and set apart for a million cultural happenstances, it’s difficult to stay conscious or focused with any constancy on something outside our daily routine or circle of understanding. Plus, as transients, we have no real social responsibility. In Trinidad, where cruisers park themselves for entire seasons, and sometimes even for years, yachties have forged some closer relationships and, in Chaguaramas, sponsor monthly collections of food and clothes for the poor. We’ve since learned that several doctor/cruisers who’ve been beguiled by the many charms of Los Testigos have become regular contributors of medical supplies.
But, for the most part, we are outsiders who touch the area only peripherally, with our purchases, and we’re generally in the position of being served. The poor-but-happy aura suits the purposes of those who serve us and is more palatable to us than dealing with the feelings raised by some of the sad cases and ugly truths. For what, really, in the few months they’ve hired him, can, for example, Mel and Jackie do for Chris, their regular Trini day worker who, with six children to feed, earns around $30 a day? Still, those are, by comparison, a prince’s wages for unskilled labor in Trinidad. Raising them significantly would not only single-handedly upset the established wage structure, it would also incur the wrath of fellow cruisers and the boatyard employers. Maybe that’s exactly what’s needed, but who has the courage? Or, for that matter, the pocketbook? It’s only the low cost of labor that enables us to have this kind of grunt work done for us rather than, as we have been all along, doing it ourselves. In that sense, we provide necessary employment and put dinner on Chris’s children’s’ plates.
All this thinking about the dinghy’s disappearance, along with a recent personal experience, made me aware that we frequently don’t interact enough, or maybe in quite the right way -- that too many of us appear too often as high-horse intruders and not enough as just-some-other human beings. About a month ago we attended a private party, a birthday pig-roast for our Trini taxi driver/mentor/friend/ Cosmos, which was thrown at a local marina’s bar. Gary and I had brought a bottle of wine for Cosmos. Since there was no bartender, we opened it to share. When he arrived, I said, “I know this is isn’t quite proper, but could you spare some ice for this? I promise I’ll make it up to you by drinking yours when we finish.”
The man was quite obviously flabbergasted. When I asked why, he told me no yachtie had ever said anything like that to him, that instead they acted as if his ice was their ice, as if they owned everything on their horizon. Obviously we, as a group, need to temper what would appear under the best of circumstances to be arrogant good luck, but all too often is easily interpreted as mere presumptive arrogance. We need to be more socially self-aware and more consciously considerate.
Rescue at Sea
An event of just this morning illustrates just that kind of compassionate interaction.
I should stop here and mention that, at the very instant I am writing this, we are traveling between Margarita and Tortuga, running side by side about a quarter of a mile off to Feisty’s port: in sailboat distances, the equivalent of being joined at the hip. We are making our way through what is surely heaven: an uncharacteristically flat, slate blue sea, a glorious baby blue sky, with Sistine Chapel-quality clouds ahead and in back of us. It’s Sunday and even the wind itself is taking a siesta.
We were listening to the weather, when Susan and Pete, owners of La Boatique, one of the American boats we run into fairly frequently, broke in to announce they had been, for the past hour, circling a Pampatar fishing boat in distress: trying, thusfar unsuccessfully, to get their engine started. The fishing boat’s electronics, hence radio, were out and they’d been stranded since 7PM last night.
Now this in itself was an act of charity that went beyond preconceived notions of danger. One of the typical ruses of pirates in these waters is to wave apparent flags of distress, and when a hapless innocent slows down his sailboat, to suddenly zoom over in a secreted Donzi and take possession. The pirated boat, looking like an above-suspicion pleasure yacht, is then used for drug-running operations.
La Boatique had considered this possibility, they told us later, but, seeing a young boy aboard -- still no guarantee of harmlessness in areas where such takeovers often occur -- but watching the fishing boat tossing wildly and apparently slowly taking on water, Susan and Pete opted to trust their instincts. They stopped. Pete got in his dinghy with a few tools and a battery charger, and was off to try solving their problem.
Susan, via single sideband radio, then asked if someone back in Margarita would initiate locating a rescue boat. Chris and Jim, back on Wind Spirit, jumped in to offer that assistance. I noted from the coordinates given that we were nearby, in fact, when we looked out, could see them ahead. I interrupted to see what we could do; if, perhaps, Gary could help fix their motor. Pete, on VHF with us aboard the fishing boat, said he was fairly certain it was not immediately repairable. He’d gotten their radio working and thought, but wasn’t sure, from the inadequate hand signals at his disposal, that the men on board might have succeeded on their own in arranging for a tow boat. He needed help communicating in Spanish to confirm this.
I leapt to my Spanish dictionaries and came up with the sentence, delivered back over the radio, “Un otro barco estaré venir a ayudarle?” Bingo! The fishermen understood this communication and responded, “Si! Si!”
On our separate boats, we were all smiles.
At about this moment Jackie, whose radio had been off and who hates, even more than I, to be left out, chimed in to say she’d just found out about the distress and could she help. Gary suggested that she come over with a plate of hors d’oeuvres.
Hablar-ing in Español
Speaking of Spanish and our Los Testigos loss, L’il Lulu’s disappearance had at least this benefit: it served to jump-start my good intentions of dragging out my hoary high-school Spanish and spending some time adding to it. In Los Testigos, it became my job to communicate on the radio and in person with the Guardacostas, only one of whom – Maestre Diaz Teneo – spoke any English. Too bad he was not the one who answered when I’d cobbled together, after an hour or so of poring over my Berlitz’s and assorted Diccionarios, the question, “Hay algun que habla Inglès?” – anyone around there speak a little English? I also had at the ready, scribbled all over my yellow pad, some broken version of every sentence I thought I might need to explain our plight, starting with the tricky one that would announce L’il Lulu’s disappearance to the authorities:
“Quiero denuciar que ayer noche nuestra lancha (wrong – the operative word for dinghy, I now know is “barcito,” small boat, and I’d probably be announcing we’d merely missed lunch.) ha disaparacido (verb tense almost definitely wrong) o, tal vez (or, maybe,) han robado. (I worried a lot about this last, whether it was impolite to make this suggestion that it had been stolen, if indeed I was actually saying that, and not naming, instead, some Venezuelan fish stew.)
The entire time I was working on the “Hay algun que habla Inglès” sentence, I was recalling a time 37 years ago when Barry and I were in Italy and he had to go to the bank or the post office (he’ll remember exactly which when I guess wrong here and, I’m sure, and report back to me.) I was going to be somewhere else – now that’s the thing I really can’t remember. What could I have been doing at 21 years of age all by myself in Rome? The only thing that comes to mind is having a fitting on an Emilio Pucci dress, which, at that moment in American fashion, was the Lilly Pulitzer of the basic little shift, and which, I have to report, I did not succeed in actually buying, as my callow gullibility resulted in the purchase of a scamster’s (expensive) knock-off. Be that as it may, since I was only five years away from my freshman year’s Italian course, I was still able to remember “Lei parla inglese?” Barry and I practiced this all morning, after which he betook himself to the post office, practicing the sentence over and over as he waited on the long line. But when he got to the counter, all he could remember was, “Inglese?” -- to which the haughty clerk responded, “No, sir, I’m Italian but I’ll do my best to speak English.” That, as far as I know, may have been Barry’s last foray into parla-ing in any foreign language.
Anyway, back in Los Testigos, when I needed to report our plight, we were dinghy-less and a long way from “town”, so I tried the radio first. I flipped out my “Guardacostas de Los Testigos, Guardacostas de Los Testigos (a tongue-twister if ever there was one) and when I was pretty sure someone had answered me, jumped in with my “Hay algun” sentence.” Unfortunately whoever answered told me “No,” and that I should switch to another channel, which is the accepted radio etiquette. Unfortunately I had no idea what number frequency he’d barked out and then betook himself to. When I later found him he was speaking at over 11 knots a minute, so I had no clue what he was saying. Nor had I thought to make ready the request to slow down: “Habla muy despacio por favor.”
In typical style, I’d gone on to prepare several more complicated locutions I was sure I’d need: Like, having raised the specter of a theft, maybe I’d need to throw a positive light on the situation, “Con algo de suerte algun estaré encantrarlo.” – With a little luck, maybe someone will find it.” But before that rosy bromide, I’d have to fess up about the fact that, no, we hadn’t locked her up when we went over to our friend’s sailboat, Feisty: “No cerramos con llave quando visitamos a Feisty, nos amigos en un otro barco de vela (barco de vela, I later discovered is the formal word for sailboat, the word now in use being “velero.” My best diccionario was apparently printed around the time of Columbus.
But my inability to ask the Coast Guard cadet to speak slower closed out this and other elegant sentences I’d labored over. Now we’d have to borrow Mel’s dinghy and make our Coast Guard report in person. When we did, I was questioned twice; once by Maestre Diaz Teneo in his very passable English, and a second time by his highly suspicious Commandante, with Diaz Teneo as translator.
It was in that second interview that I got to use my Feisty sentence, which unexpectedly served not to describe our whereabouts on the night in question but instead to immediately throw Jackie and Mel into the category of potential perpetrators. El Commandante had an investigation to pursue – an opportunity presented to him not often in Los Testigos -- so I think he may, in his zeal, deliberately overlooked the point that we were actually aboard Feisty during the event and had these two shifty characters in our line of sight the entire time.
Frankly, I thought he was well on his way to dragging them in for questioning, until I was able to explain that, No, they were very good friends, in fact, we’d been traveling with them almost a year, so why would they wait to take our dinghy in this of all places – a crimeless area under his jurisdiction, no less. Only then did El Commandante abandon his plan to haul them into his little blue cupcake of a headquarters, bound in shackles and chains (an outfit I knew Jackie would hate, although she would have been ready for the mugshots, having just gotten a terrific haircut and a decent color job before we left Trinidad.)
Instead he insisted on having everybody’s email address, even including Mel’s relatives on the mainland, who I’d unfortunately brought up in my own zeal to answer every one of his silly questions. (Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I don’t think he could envision the reality that we actually have email onboard.) We parted good friends and I was relieved of only one, not all, of my Spanish-English grammar books by Diaz Teneo…Guess I should’ve traveled a little heavier – like with a keg of beer.
Now the reason, I am sure, that we did not succeed in getting a copy of the Commandante’s official report faxed to us in Porlamar or even delivered by local fishing boat, is that he is still putting the last flourishes on it. This may in fact occupy his time for the next few months – unless someone is caught whom he can shoot.
The report of L’il Lulu’s disappearance went out to all local Guardacostas and to all cruisers on the Safety and Security Net. She has not been seen anywhere, so we’re filing our insurance claims and occupied much of our time in Porlamar with getting another one. This time we’re going with a 25-horsepower motor – unusable for fisherman, or even for parts. The dinghy itself, made on the Venezuelan mainland, will be there in Porlamar when we return. No one, save us (and we’re obviously crazy) is happy that we succeeded in ordering her with a blue bottom and trim!
(Not exactly) Waisting Away in Margaritaville
The delights of Porlamar were not its tall buildings, for sure, and not the many giant, Costco-sized supermarkets – even though they do have butchers on staff custom-cutting sides of beef – but, to be sure, they were, primarily, food-related: Right in the anchorage were two super-casual, open-air local restaurants – the kind we haven’t experienced since Thailand when Gary and I, always intrepid in the food arena, ate from of any pots or grill along the streets that struck our fancy. But there in Porlamar we didn’t have to put up with the ensuing diarrhea: of course we didn’t get the concomitant weight loss either.
From little more than a concrete hamburger stand, with myriad spices and bottles of sauces stuffed along the counter and lining the back wall, from steaming battered aluminum pots and a small griddle, Jackie and staff create some awesome dishes: morning breakfasts of perfect bacon and fluffy eggs; calamari and chicken, both coated and fried in an ambitious but not over-aggressively seasoned crust; Chicken Parmigiano that could go any Napolitano chef better, if indeed any self-respecting Italian maestro di cucina would stoop to preparing Chicken Parmigiano; a velvety Red Thai Curry Chicken, which doesn’t suffer from being overly spicy nor overly sweet but partakes of both qualities.
We didn’t stay long enough to sample all of Jackie’s platas but we did cover a lot of the culinary terrain at La Totuma del Pescador. (Presumably the Spanish/English lexicon I was invited to leave with Maestre Diaz Teneo in Los Testigos would have yielded up the meaning of “totuma,” but I’m guessing it translates as something like The Fisherman’s Shack.) “Attended by Chamaco,” reads the short, white-paper English menu, a quaint bit of literal translation that I imagine means Chamaco is the owner.
Pescadores as it’s known to everyone, is on the beach, set amid a picture perfect clump of palm trees. You pull up in your dinghy, if you happen to have one. Wiry men in bathing trunks rush up to help you, using both hands – meaning one hand isn’t outstretched waiting for the tip. Yes, you tip, but you’re not made to feel it’s a requirement. They help you drag the dinghy up the beach and find you one or two of the ancient, chipped blue square tables, some of which rock on their uneven legs, some of which don’t, but all at just slightly different heights. You sit on small square, backless blue stools, digging your feet into the soft-as-talcum white sand and feeling it pour silkily through your toes.
Pescadores itself is a mini complex. At one edge stands a man surrounded by fairly unattractive, stained yellow plastic buckets from which he retrieves fistfuls of freshly harvested oysters, shucking them on a scarred wooden table and sending them over amid piles of lime wedges. Not far from him is a young man inside the center of a large square table. Stacked around him, depending on the time of day are -- at noon, chest-high piles, at 4PM closing, a dribbly lineup -- of fresh melons, pineapples, bananas, papaya, oranges and passion fruit. At the ready are two or three blenders but the Jugo-man rarely uses more than one at a time, regardless of the backlog of orders for two-, three-, or four-ingredient jugos – juices.
Far back under the trees is the “restaurant” itself – two wooden boxcars, placed next to each other, each one a red and white homage to Coca Cola. One – the kitchen itself -- is boarded and logo-ed up down to a sliver of a pass-through, from which the meals issue forth. The other is the bar, from behind which reigns a beefy, mustachioed, multi-stomached man who favors horizontal red-striped knit shirts, though they don’t exactly favor him. No doubt, he is Chamaco. He sits impassively in a head-down, forearms-on-the-table, newspaper-reading stance, clearly not your convivial, back-slapping sort of proprietor. With much the same unbudging passivity has he apparently refused, it’s years now, to accede to – I can’t imagine whose – requests that he also serve chicken.
And why should he, I figure he feels, when through that sliver of space in the boxcar comes some of the sweetest, freshest, crispiest-skinned pan-fried fish on the planet. They are pargo – snapper -- or something called atún – tuna, supposedly, but it tastes more like a baby bluefish might, slightly less oily and fishy but ever so sweet.
Some afternoons I rated Chamaco even a little higher than his closest peers – the now-defunct 18 Elizabeth Street in New York’s Chinatown, with its Pan-Fried Flounder, whose every crunchy fin-frill and tiny exterior bone was entirely eater-friendly. And -- in Astoria, Queens -- Elias, whose grilled, snow-shoe-sized, whole Red Snappers, Striped Basses and St Peter’s fish have an equally well-, though very differently, seasoned, edible skin that is just a teeny bit more oily. Of course, in my book, the fact that Elias’ fish are bigger does count for something. Though, always a resourceful eater,I have actually spent upwards of 45 minutes working over a Pescadores fish – sucking on the bones, teasing out meat from the forehead, downing just about every part but its eyes.
Should Chamaco by chance have run out of pargo or atún, there’s a reasonable back-up, the more common “catalana,” which are even smaller, but you do get two, making the whole meal a totally exhausting endeavor.
All this magnificence costs 2,800B ($4) --or 3,500B ($5) for pargo or atún -- and comes accompanied by coleslaw, rice, slices of avocado, fried plantain and a plateful of arepas, which are flat, pale little pancakes that taste like glued porridge if you hate them, grits if you’re of the Southern persuasion or if they happen to strike your fancy. Jackie and Mel, both of whom would probably adore cardboard if you told them it was vegetarian, promptly fell in love with them. Mel was even willing to trot out his normally only grudgingly doled-out Spanish and ask for “mas, mas, mas” of them.
I did have one problem with Pescadores – the result of its pequeño-sized fish. A pet peeve became particularly odious and, even more, personally punitive – because operating full tilt and in most fulsome fashion was that familiar pro-male custom of always giving the bigger fish – or thicker steak – to the guy.
I’ve been railing for years about this discriminatory convention, which is practiced everywhere, but even more pronouncedly in macho cultures like Latin America. I say even more pronouncedly because no matter what I did I couldn’t get a fish anywhere near the size of Mel’s. (Mel’s not Gary’s, since Gary, now in un-Burger territory, had to try extra hard to get his daily dose of cholesterol -- he always ordered the deep-fried filets of fish.)
See, in English-speaking countries, when I remember I’m going to get zapped by it again, (sometimes I’m so busy figuring out if I’ve ordered the right wine or I’m downing the first glass of it, that I forget) I usually say to the waiter, “I want the biggest one you’ve got,” if I’m the only one having that entrée. Or, “Tell the chef I want the Husband-Sized Veal Chop.” If I’m not the only one and at least one of us is male, then I say, “When you bring out the steaks, I want the one you plan on giving him.” When that doesn’t happen (and it never does) if I’m lucky and it’s Gary who gets the bigger one, he usually indulges me by passing me his, since he’s learned I’m going to dig into it anyway.
When the four fish were brought to us, I was, of course, beserk. Worse, my limited vocabulary consigned me to complaints only: I stabbed a finger at mine, the smallest, and whined, “No es grande, es pequeño.”
“Oh, no, señora,
es gra-ande,” chanted the waiter, as if I was not only a woman, but a blind
woman as well. Though it was our final Pescadores lunch, I refused to give up
the fight, knowing we’d be back in a few short weeks to pick up our dinghy. So
at the end of the meal, I gathered up all four fish heads, lined them up across
the table -- an incontrovertable
visual, I thought -- and called over the waiter. “Pequeño, pequeño, pequeño,
por las mujeres,” I said, pointing to the 3 ladies’ fish. “GRANDE, por el
señor.” What could he say? He
flashed me his toothiest smile, which was like peering into a plate of arepas
that would have made Mel a happy man.
I’d like to think after my little object lesson that next time will be
different, but I know the only way I’ll win is if I order the fried filets and
Gary orders the pargo -- and then we’ll swap. Of course, that deception may
only work once. Plus, given the difference in their relative sizes, Mel
will still get the bigger one…
James Beardless and Julia Childless
We found it difficult to leave Porlamar not only because of these two favorite cantinas, but also because of the provisioning, yet another of our expensive Waterloos. For at least three days running, the six of us planned on leaving around noon, but then we’d trot off to the supermarket for that extra item we might be missing – something prosaic like mayo or that ever-elusive head of romaine lettuce. We’d travel back and forth in un-airconditioned taxis – hole-ridden rust buckets, really -- which, no doubt, because of the crime rate lack handles to open the windows.
We’d return around 1PM, so exhausted and stinky from the experience, that we’d simply have to reward ourselves with lunch at one of the two restaurrants -- and there would go the day. The supermarkets are so vast, scooters would help in traversing them; stocked to their gills with happy delicacies that just kept jumping into our carts. The wine shelves seem to go on for miles: they’re duty free and most cost around $2 to $3, so we kept having to buy the cheap French and Italian, the even cheaper Portuguese and Chilean. As the cart piled higher with bottles, I stopped to give thanks they didn’t also stock an Abyssinian selection.
We do finally find the room. (I am exaggerating here; Gary and I actually are blessed with so much storage space even I, pursuing excess in every form – always -- can’t fill it). But our stores are tucked so deep under sofas and floorboards, so far from the occasional viewing that invariably we keep buying the same item over and over again. I am particularly overstocked on Ritz Crackers, which do, I report from experience, go stale even in their deceptively protective looking waxed-paper sleeves. And rices – white, brown, long-grain, wild, basmati, arborio, sushi, even Uncle Ben’s – plus, the exotic boxed variety – Near East, Spanish and Indian pilafs of every description (though Gary and I never, ever eat rice, even if it’s served to us in restaurants). And why, I wonder every time I pass a bottle, do I continually buy capers, those sour little rabbit-turdy pellets that I use only in one recipe – Chicken Marbella – which I last made almost a year ago, for New Year’s Eve dinner?
Jackie, on the other hand, must have 35 varieties of vegetarian chili in cans and in freeze-dry envelope mixes and is currently hoarding, I’d guess, the contents (fortunately all shrunk to semi-managable size by onboard vacuum-packing) of no less than 12 cereal-sized boxes of their all-purpose breakfast/lunch fall-back item -- Kashi Good-Friends, (In the silence of our bedroom Gary and I have been known to refer to them as the Good-Fiends.) I don’t know what will happen to poor Feisty’s storage plan, if it can be called that at all, when Mel decides to search out an array of Arepas mix.
You would think we actually cook! It’s a group joke – and this is among the larger group of cruisers whose wakes we’ve crossed this year -- that Jackie and I are in the process of assembling the largest collection of galley recipes the world has ever seen. We talk endlessly with other women about them; beg for the ingredient list of every hors d’oeuvre that passes under our noses, every banana bread that gets so much as alluded to.
We besieged our friend Amelia, the charter-boat cook, whom we’ve knicknamed The One-Burner Wonder, for the hardwon specialties she coaxed out of her partially working stove. We’ve illegally downloaded Master Chef software belonging to our Cordon Bleu friends, Susan and Bob, along with every one of their 30-ingredient concoctions, though in this context I admit (because I’ll be called on it) that we have never actually tasted anything either Amelia, Susan or Bob have made. Except maybe -- Jackie will correct me if I’m wrong -- popcorn.
Between us we’ve got some 15 recipes for pizza crust, plus boxed pizza-dough mix, yellow disks of frozen pizza dough and I’ve had -- since Tortola last November -- a bottle of Cantadina Pizza-Squeeze Sauce using up valuable refrigerator real estate. I also insisted on buying – in St. Lucia in May -- two 12” pizza baking trays and even – at Bed, Bath & Beyond, in February -- a ceramic pizza stone that was 3-inches too big for my tiny oven. Jackie is currently transcribing into her computer two of Sandy Vance’s more petite cookbooks – confining herself to, I am sure, only the vegetarian recipes, which will then force me to root around them for the meatier ones.
Our friend Walt on Blue Moon continually emails to see if we’ve turned over that new leaf (I think of it as lettuce leaf, though I know he means have we stopped eating at restaurants and started cooking onboard.) In my defense I often bring up the fact that my stove came with an impossible-to-polish stainless steel stovetop that tarnishes when I even boil water, much less think of skillet-frying hamburgers with all the attendant flying oil bubbles. I’m also blessed with an oven that shoots up to 500 as soon as I turn it on and never ratchets downward. It’s propane – called a Force-10 – and largely a marine stove. I have no idea why it was called Force 10, though in my head it’s aptly named because it’s taken a year of crusing to force 10 meals out of it.
might get away better with all these excuses if we stopped collecting recipes
like madwomen, while our most elaborate dinner is mostly Yoshida-marinated
Barbecued Chicken and my most ballyhooed specialty is Balsamic Vinegar Dressing.
(Maybe, considering my culinary output, this boat, not Walt’s, should have
been called Blue Moon…)
this justification doesn’t fool wiser heads, those who know I once concocted a
weekend trip -- on the recommendation of Calvin Trillin, someone I’d only read
but never shared a cheesesteak with -- to Kansas City, just to sample the
restaurants, of all things. Anyone who will do this in the name of junk-food,
sampling, in 24 hours, the brisket barbeque, ribs, fried chicken, hamburgers,
french fries, donuts and cheesesteaks at 18 different dives – is a die-hard
restaurant-goer and no Julia Childs-wannabee at all.
In truth, I occasionally really enjoy cooking – it’s just I can’t eat find the time to do it – retirement is much too busy a preoccupation, while resturants keep proliferating at an alarming rate..