Life Aboard LULU

Feb 21, 2002 (And The Winner Is .. Venezuela)
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 It’s true what the travel posters say— Venezuela is the best-kept secret in the Caribbean.

 Of course, the only place we ever see such posters are in Venezuelan travel agents’ offices. So it’s a case of case of preaching to the converted. Considering her many virtues, the anemic travel business is a real shame for this country, which boasts great people; fresh--if not remarkable—food; an extremely favorable exchange rate; cheap Chilean wines; excellent and inexpensive rums; an extraordinarily varied landscape--plus unfailingly temperate weather to enjoy all this in. A further boon: travelers are also not victims of her crepuscular economy, constipated bureaucracy or current governmental stalemate.

Since so many cruisers are afraid of the country’s bandito reputation, we encounter few other boats spoiling either the scenery or the peace of the anchorages. This bandito rap is deserved in mainland coves but not particularly in the outer islands or along the more inaccessible coastline.

 In eight months, we’ve sailed most of Venezuela’s islands and many of her ports. We’ve also spent some time inland, traveling on buses, flying in inexpensive puddle-jumpers and even chugging 120 miles in an outboard-equipped dugout canoe. She is blessed with soaring mountains; dramatic waterfalls; almost unfathomable miles of unspoiled beach; idiosyncratic, flat-topped desert mesas – even her many poor, dusty pueblos have a clean, friendly charm.about them.

Vistas aside, it amazes me that my favorite Caribbean place could possibly be one whose food is so lackluster. Yes, there is the fresh-caught fish and plump langoustines, excellently grilled, at myriad seaside rincons. And we really like the national beers: Polar, Solera, Regional, Brahma. Too bad, though: the indigenous cuisine revolves not around complex flavors, subtle gravies or hearty sauces but rather around incendiary pepper sauces with unfamiliar ingredients suspended in them, inauspiciously contained in the cloudy, much-handled and entirely unlabeled condiment bottles that are plunked next to the salt wherever you go. Bread is not likely to be a crackling baguette, but rather a bland plate of arepas. The arepa is a mushy, bland corn-flour disk, which is slit open and stuffed with all manner of ingredients—cheese, eggs, ham, salami, shredded beef, chicken, even shrimp.

 The arepa plays a starring role in the Venezuelan breakfast, and frequently even the Venezuelan lunch: it bookends their interpretation of the Egg McMuffin, it’s the second ingredient in the grilled cheese sandwich, sometimes it even appears in the hamburguesa. Arepas are about the size and shape, and sometimes even color, of the English Muffin, but that’s where the similarity ends. Arepas are awful—unless, I suppose, you’ve never tasted an English Muffin. I’m not even comparing them to a New York City bagel either.

 (The arepa has ruined just about every tuna and egg salad lunch we serve onboard, because its inexplicable popularity and universality has no doubt kept the Thomas Company from marketing its estimable English Muffins in Venezuelan markets. With a snappy advertising campaign, surely there’s an English-Muffin killing to be made down here. We’re hoping to see more complete bread departments in Bonaire, Curaçao and Colombia.

 More complicated Venezuelan meals are varieties of the basic arepa stuffings, with arepas on the side. The national dish is pabellón -- the Venezuelan incarnation of your basic diner Blue Plate special: rice, beans, a meat, chicken or fish, a scoop of cole slaw or salad and a fried plantain. Almost everywhere, around $4.00. Sometimes you get boiled yuca (pronounced yuck-a, and believe me, entirely apt) or some other mysterious root vegetable. Yuca and its cousins taste about as good as unseasoned styrofoam and they could easily be used in the manufacture of bulletproof vests. We regularly run into mountains of these hairy, pachydermous, espresso colored torpedoes, some as long as your forearm, in supermarket produce sections--where brown, not green, predominates. I never would have believed a head of broccoli could look so much like a wizened coconut. Finding a plain old baking potato down here is as exciting as coming across a Fabergé egg in a garage sale.

 For any variety in your restaurant diet, you’ve got to try the mostly so-so Italian and mostly ho-hum Chinese restaurants. In some areas Middle-Eastern food is fairly popular and authentic. They call it Comidas de Araby, though recent world events may make that appellation less appetizing.

 So it’s definitely not the food that so endears me to Venezuela. No, it’s the people we’ve met everywhere. They are among the warmest strangers we’ve ever encountered. They’re also among the best looking. Their polyglot ancestries, the racially mixed gene pool they share has produced sometimes strikingly beautiful but almost always second-glance-worthy faces and a Sherwin-Williams array of skin tones. Their skins range from pale porcelain to inky ebony, with midtones of buff, honey, copper, mahogany, milk chocolate and espresso brown. People are regularly lumped into elaborate categories and subcategories based on skin color resulting from hereditary blood mixes -- without apparent prejudice or organized battalions of placard bearers marching on the congress. Can you imagine what kind of cause célèbre might ensue if we in the States had an appellation similar to the “Salto Atras” -- literally a “jump back”— referring to a person whose skin is darker than his parents?

That matter-of-factness, lack of ceremony or pompousness about skin color is typical. But more, there’s a lightness of spirit, a genuineness, a welcoming quality we have felt nowhere else in the Caribbean.

 People hurl themselves into life, into parties, into music, dancing, and fiestas. It must relate to their relative youth: 67 percent of the population is under 30; 39 percent under 14. Only 6 percent is over 60. That, plus an innate optimism and the warm Latin temperament, make for muchas sonrisas -- lots of smiles -- wherever you go. It’s just easy to be living here, despite the language differences. In fact, trying to speak to most everyone in their native tongue has made it especially fun.

 The women are quick to return, but not necessarily initiate, a greeting. The men are unfailingly outgoing and helpful.  Take my recent experience at a Puerto La Cruz clinic: I had dropped in for a simple blood test at the Clinica para las Mujeres. Such a comprehensive women’s medical center, which would be unusual except in Caracas or cities like Puerto La Cruz with a more upscale population component—places where the wealthy vacation or keep second residences. It was 8:30 AM and the clinic was already crowded with waiting patients. I had no appointment and no doctor.

 Now, after so many months of working hard at learning the language, my restaurant Spanish is near perfect; my social Spanish is pretty good but my medical vocabulary pretty much couldn’t get me an aspirin. Besides that, of all Spanish-speaking peoples, Venezuelans have been documented the hardest understand: not only do they speak rapid-fire and staccato, they also drop all their “s’s” and chop their words off like excess fat on a lamb chop.

No one out front spoke English. A woman passing by did—she might have been a doctor; she might have been a lab technician; she might have had a backlog of patients waiting or tests to do. Nonetheles, she stopped to find out my problem.

 You need a doctor to prescribe a lab test,” she explained. “But, wait, I will see what I can do.”

 Within minutes, out came Dr. Vivas.

 “Call me Camilo,” he said as he sat me down in his office. Except for his more exalted professional status, he was typically Venezuelan. Nice looking. Smiling. Playful. Polite. Generous.  And caring. A cancer surgeon, not an internist, he’d interrupted his regular office hours to help solve my problem. He took a history, prescribed a blood test. And he wanted to talk to me. Venezuelans wherever you meet them, regardless of their economic or social status want to break through the language barrier to find out how we like their country. Clearly they love and take great pride in it. Almost no one fails to express sadness and feelings of solidarity with us about the tragedy of 9/11.

 Camilo wrote me a prescription for the test I needed and told me to see him on the day I came to pick up the results.

 “What number do I call for an appointment?” I asked.

 “Just call my cell…I will see you whenever you come,” he said handing me his card. He never even charged me.

 Hey, doesn’t your doctor do the same?

 The same evening a travel agent personally delivered plane tickets to us at 9:30 PM -- at a restaurant, no less. He didn’t know what we looked like and he probably didn’t make more than $4, if that, on our $60 tickets.

 Just like New York, no?

 Everyone here starts a conversation or transaction with an “Hola” or a “Buenas;” people hardly everi fail to say “por favor” or “gracias.” Guys sanding and polishing and painting boats under the broiling sun in 90-degree heat, covered in hooded sweatshirts or wearing makeshift cardboard hats, unfailingly look up to smile and greet us. In Porlamar, Angel, the mestizo dockboy, wearing his rubber flip-flops and straw coolie hat – helped us land our dinghy, toted our garbage and toiled down the dock with our cases of wine -- almost always pumps Gary’s hand and calls him “mi amigo.”  Arturo, the twinkling waiter at Jak’s Place loves to tease me, play little jokes on me and typically greets me whenever we return to Porlamar with a grand smile, a huge hug and a booming “Lulu!”  Arturo has a wife and a two-year-old and probably couldn’t afford to take them to the nexpensive restaurant he works in. Yet people like Arturo and Angel are always “bien, bien,” and they seem to mean it.

 The realities are quite otherwise:

 Most of the population is poor. Losing a bunch of coins in a vending machine can have consequences on the quality of dinner. Jobs pay little and are at a premium. In 1997, according to government statistics, 90.5 percent of the population was living below the poverty level, 68 percent in extreme poverty. The rich, on the other hand are wildly, outrageously rich---the oil and beer barons, the mass merchants and those at the top of the graft pipeline. We saw some of their opulent homes along the beaches of Margarita or the canals of Puerto La Cruz as we dinghied past. Most are just vacation mansions. In Los Roques on a holiday weekend, I counted 22 luxury motor yachts—80 to 140 feet—just in one small anchorage. Little more industry of consequence has been developed here; non-petroleum natural resources remain under-exploited. People still look to oil make fortunes at oil. It’s the status occupation.


Margarita and Blanquilla

Enough said about the sad economy; there’s still a whole remarkably beautiful country to rave about.

 Our first visit to Venezuela last October only whetted our appetite. We arrived with FEISTY in mid-June after an overnight sail from Grenada, to spend the entire hurricane season. We raced to the island of Margarita, to Porlamar, to provision and wine-up the boats.

 Margarita is the largest of Venezuela’s 72 islands, one of the country’s most popular vacation spots, largely because of its stunning beaches, one after another, where a pounding surf separates from pale aqua water and hurtles to shore in scallop after scallop of white-fringed waves, waves so powerful they appear to steam -- a wilder surf than we’ve seen down here.

On island tours, we visited old forts, Colonial buildings, battle sites, driving past parched mountain villages and architecturally inventive condominium communities.

 After filling our bellies with Jak’s good food and stuffing every spare extra drawer, cabinet and empty bilge pocket with $3 bottles of duty-free Chilean wine, we took off to Blanquilla, 90 miles from the Venezuelan mainland

 Blanquilla is a 10-square mile island about as thick as a ham sandwich, virtually unpopulated, and buffeted by wind arriving unobstructed from Africa

 The next two days we got off the boat only to visit each other for dinner. On our final day -- designated the “busy” day – we planned on checking out the guidebook-touted snorkeling. We got canceled by cloud cover and had to make do with a walk along a gravelly dirt road amidst brush and small cacti. It likely led to the sole building in town—a second-rank Coast Guard Station -- but we decided we’d exercised far too much and went home to toast one last sunset. 

We then sailed back to Margarita, to Robledal, a small fishing village along a pleasant but unremarkable strip of beach, quite typical of many poorer towns and villages. The small homes are simple one-story concrete boxes, all with dirt yards. Behind the open doors are family pictures in elaborately carved plastic frames; close relatives and more distant ancestors always share their wall space with images of Jesus and the Virgin. In some homes we saw beds, in many there are only hammocks, which consume less physical and budgetary space.

 In response to our Spanglish-with-hand-signals query about garbage facilities, the proprietress of a one-room bodega gave us to understand we could leave our five trash bags for pickup with her one. Her simple inventory was not much more than several kinds of bread, flour, eggs, ketchup, some cleaning items. The town was sparse, unpretentious, neat. At a miniscule panaderia -- bread store – the owner refused to sell us her remaining six loaves. They were “viejo” – old. Return at 1PM, she told us. We were impressed that in the midst of the poverty, there is honor. Four hefty, fresh breads cost us 700 bolivars -- $1.00.

 People gathered outside along the dusty, parched streets on this Sunday morning wore faded housedresses, worn pants, mismatched prints, lounged on plastic chairs or crouched on the stoops, staring openly at the four of us gringos. Mainly they were viejos – small and sun-dried with large gaps where teeth belong. The young children tagged along, asking questions and not quite getting why we couldn’t answer.

 We passed the raised concrete town square, with backless poured concrete benches, the Spartan church from which issued unfamiliar hymns. Several hand painted signs on the sides of buildings were still out there wishing us a Happy Millennium.

 In the nearby lagoon of Boca del Rio, we hired a guide who skippered us through convoluted miles of shady interconnected mangrove “canals, ” some with romantic names like Tunnel of Kisses and Canal of Lovers. The tour brought us eventually to Playa Restinga, a ribbon of white beach that stretches for an incredible 10 miles. There we were besieged by vendors selling “genuine” Cubaguan pearls—unremitting consumer that I am, I succumbed to a strand of gray ones -- but just because they were pretty and not because I bought the lie: Cubagua’s rich oyster beds were stripped bare of all their fabulous treasure troves of pearls 500 years ago.



What remains on the small island of Cubagua, which once boasted the first European city in South America, is a row of 19 fisherman’s shacks, occupied only on weekends or fiesta days, except for two, where a pair of threadbare women live full time--alone with their seven or eight children -- while their husbands go off to ply the fishing trade. The shacks are constructed of anything from concrete to found boards and lidded with pieced-together tin roofs. Instead of shrubs or flowering bushes, in front are barrels of all sorts, housing, we imagine, their fishing nets and trash.

 When cruisers dinghy in to walk on the treeless beach, the women meet them, requesting milk for their children. Similarly, at remote fishing camps like those on Tortuga the men want “C” batteries for boom boxes or rum or cigarettes and are willing to trade for fish or lobster. Gary and I, having inherited none of the money-lender or merchant genes of our forebears, are usually too tongue-tied to barter or just simply glad to contribute something of our good fortune. Jackie on the other hand loves the sport of negotiating a taxi driver down by 500 bolivars—70 cents. It’s what you’re supposed to do around here. Me, I’d rather play darts—and be the dartboard.

 We’re in Cubagua freqently because it’s a convenient overnight anchorage on the way into or out of Porlamar. Later on in the season, one mystical mid-November night, we were there before a crossing to Tortuga. We got up at 3 AM to lie on deck under an otherwise Blackglama sky and watch the platinum-blond streaks of the Leonoid meteor shower criss-crossing overhead like phosphorescent skywriting. Though it was theoretically possible to see some 2,000 of them, we were happy with maybe 200.

 We were also in Cubagua on Sunday morning September 9, for the annual Festival of the Virgen del Valle, the patron saint of Margarita and all Venezuelan sailors and fisherman. Every fishing village, every Venezuelan navy boat has its replica of the Virgen.

Depending on whom you talk to, the actual, original woodcarving of the Virgin Mary was either found by an indigenous Guaiqueri Indian in a mountain cave or it was ordered by the weatlhy Cubaguan populace from Spain and showed up in Cubagua in 1531.

 On Christmas Day, 1541, a tidal wave destroyed most of Cubagua. Legend has it that the statue was found two weeks later, floating in water—miraculously intact. She was relocated to El Valle, high in Margarita’s mountains, where most Cubaguans had fled. Today she still resides in El Valle, in a wonderful pink and white neo-Gothic church. Intricate and fabulous capes of pearl, gold thread and lace have been made for the three-foot statue over the centuries, making her the best-dressed Barbie doll ever. These priceless robes hang in a museum next door, which also displays hundreds of elaborate carved plaques—testaments to the Virgen’s power and benificence -- along with scores of sports trophies and a mind-boggling collection of gold -- tons of it-- in the form of medals, coins, rings and carvings. All this treasure has been left by the untold scores of supplicants who come seeking blessings, miracles -- and winning soccer scores.

 The annual festival of the Virgen in Cubagua, billed as an 8 AM event, played out in typical Venezuelan tempo. By 10:45, figuring we’d mis-translated the date, three boats of us cruisers were ready to move on. Then, suddenly, miles out, the fixed northern horizon erupted into a band of froth Soon it further defined itself into a cavalry of individual boats galloping toward us. Twenty minutes later about 100 boats passed the unofficial entrance to the harbor – a menacing-looking, black-rusted hulk of a partially sunken ferry about a mile offshore. They paraded in, a live band trumpeting from one of the lead boats, boom boxes from the others providing accompaniment.

 Many were the distinctively Venezuelan canopied fishing boats called tres puntas-- large trawlers hand-made locally to unvarying, centuries-old design specifications. Inside they’re equipped with giant refrigerators, which freeze the catch brought in by the roving fishermen. Others were individual “peñeros” —the high-prowed, colorful, outboard-motored wooden skiffs from which single or small groups of fishermen fish or cast nets. Every boat was dangerously overloaded with fishermen, their wives, children, cousins, uncles, aunts, all of whom began splashing into the shallow water and onto the beach, swelling the sparse weekend population to a cast of many hundreds.

 Brought to Cubagua that day from Cumana, encased in a wood and glass vitrine, was a replica of the revered Virgen del Valle, with a serene, painted wood face. She was placed on a makeshift table altar, flanked by vases of flowers, outside the one-room church. In honor of the day, the church, hardly more than a box with a peaked roof and a tiny entrance, had been repainted, from last year’s pink to a gray and royal blue. The rest of the “town” was festooned in red Brahma beer pennants and hundreds of red and green balloons. After a short prayer ceremony beseeching the Virgen for her continued blessings on the fishermen, she was moved to a makeshift tent. There the celebrants engaged in downing plates of pabellón and beer, as well as jubilant dancing all afternoon. For our part, we roamed among them, enjoying the dancers and the mood, occasionally shaking hands, taking pictures, grinning at the kids and trying to converse with some of the mothers.


Golfo de Carioco

In mid-July we also jumped off from Cubagua bound for the marvelous Golfo de Carioco. This gulf, 35 miles long and about 8 miles wide, is dotted with small villages on its north and south coasts and blessed with scenery varying from palmy beaches and loamy hills to barren stretches of rocky desert coastline.

 The winds in the area are quirky. Early morning is still as the eye of a hurricane. The sleepy breeze feels like it could be made by a passing bird or two. By midmorning the air begins to stir and by early afternoon the wind blows steadily anywhere from 20 to 30 knots. Sometimes it continues gusting well into the night, but mostly it subsides gradually until it’s breathing in sweet, desultory little puffs.

 The seas after 12 Noon can be steep and choppy. This is an area you avoid entering after 11 AM – it’s not perilous but, we’d heard from the first-hand reports of ill-informed or simply nonchalant sailors, it’s damned uncomfortable sailing.

 We anchored first in Puerto Real, a miniscule fishing village of some 200 people. The local peñeros lying on the beach or lolling at anchor were well tended and neatly painted – not so surprising, since they are someone’s, maybe even a whole family’s, prize possession. Orange, blue or green fishing nets laced with the yellow cones that keep them afloat were piled outside the shoreline fishing shacks.

 Up the small hill is a dirt-road village. The women come out all day to fling pails of water, to tamp down the earthen streets, hoping to keep the swirling red dust from the hills from flying into their sparse living rooms. Every concrete or wood house seemed to put forth its best effort at individuality or even a modest attempt at grandeur – a wrought iron gate, a polished brass door, a painted portico. Otherwise the only village décor or splotch of color is the hand-washed laundry swaying on clothing lines everywhere. The one-room stucco church, which also pays homage to the Virgen del Valle, stands alone on a hillock overlooking the water, the road up marked by thin wood poles painted royal blue. Past the school, the village itself deadends into a lovely view of the open cove, which is somewhat marred by a cracked concrete basketball court for the kids.

 The villagers were friendly. One day a local family of four approached LULU in a skiff, waving and shouting above the din of the wind and their motor. They asked, as if it was the most natural request in the world, if they could come aboard and take pictures with the children.

 Sure, I nodded, whereupon they all scampered eagerly and unself-consciously aboard. We gave the two young daughters candy as they climbed off and we think they offered to return the favor if we stopped by their house.

Lulu at Laguna Grande (Click to Enlarge)After two days we motored a few miles east, into Laguna Grande, an immense, amoeba-shaped bay about 3 miles long and 2 miles wide, its shores indented by a multitude of lovely, entirely private coves. The topography is more Wild West mesa than tropical. An array of colorful hills – from pale tangerine to deep burnt sienna --plunge uninterrupted down to the water, creating a striking contrast of oranges and aquamarines. The whole scene is happily accented by the occasional gumdrop island of pine-colored mangroves and nesting birds.

 The nights were spectacular in an entirely different way. With virtually no surrounding villages, they were almost pitch black. In one corner of the sky, beyond the mountains, the sparse lights of distant Cumana and the faraway stars above dimly lit our small circular anchorage. The mountains loomed black, the sky above them charcoal gray, the anthracite water shimmying gently as the apparently exhausted wind riffled through it. I wanted to keep myself from breathing for fear of changing anything, disturbing even so much as a passing eel.

 This was the idyllic anchorage where Gary learned to SERD—Sit, Eat Read, Drink. We stayed for several days before moving eastward down the gulf and dropping the hook in front of any inviting cove, with nothing much to do but watch the fishermen and dinghy around the still, green water looking for birds. At sunset we took in the grand vistas of mountains on either side, Venezuela’s continent-sized clouds and the sun throwing a pinky-yellow boulevard across water now turned powder blue by the oncoming dusk.


El Muelle de Carioco

At this point, FEISTY left us, bound for another of the Stateside weddings they attended last summer. We carried on to the end of the Golfo’s villages, to La Muelle de Carioco, in the company of Ariadne -- Roger and Helen, a couple we’d recently met. La Muelle, which means wharf, was, in fact, little more than the dock and a main street about two blocks long, its shoulders littered with papers, beer bottles, candy wrappers. In some places, the side of the road is the only Venezuelan trash removal system. 

 As we walked, all the local kids greeted us yelling, “Hola,” or “Hello,” in their best English. They became as tongue-tied as I do after my first  “Hola”. But I keep trying to speak everywhere and had fun with a very cute man with an effusive personality, the owner of the village “supermarket.” He carries this inventory: small bottles of Clorox, some Pinesol, corn flour, wheat flour, sugar, rice, coffee and about 50 other sundry products. His five unemployed amigos hang out with him all day, as he kibitzes with the odd cruiser who probably pass by, oh, I’d say, about every three weeks, if that.

 Does he have cebollas? (onions), I ask.

 Resounding “No!”  And shocked, as if I’ve asked for a kilo of white truffles.

 Does he have tomates? “No!” I don’t even ask about ajo, garlic.

 But everything he does have, he gives me to understand – with a Popeye flex of his muscles – “es bueno por la fuerza!”  -- good for the strength. I like him so much I think about buying a bottle of Clorox and downing it.

 As far as the onions and tomatoes I need, everyone I ask points vaguely in front of us  – “Allá – there, it means, but more than that I don’t understand

 We are also looking for a spot of lunch. We walk a long ways out of “town,” to the gas station, where our five-year-old cruising guidebook tells us they serve “comidas.”  A prominent sign announces us they still do, but the mujer in charge says, no, followed by a voluble explanation in her native tongue. I don’t understand the words, but since she’s indicating the larger world around her with a big scowl, I reason that means “they” told her they’d eat her food but after she bothered to make it, “they” didn’t. The possibility that “they” didn’t like her cooking is apparently out of the question.

 In addition to the tomatoes, the onions and the lunch, Roger, Helen and I are looking for some mode of transportation to take us to the Guáchero Cave, somewhere nearby, we think. This monumental cave, one of the world’s largest, is home to some 18,000 oil birds, whatever they are. Gary has no interest in being around 18,000 feathery, winged things especially when they’re directly over his bald head, easily within hailing distance.

 We ask about taking the por puesto (Venezuela’s version of the Dollar Bus, only it costs about 25 cents) to Caripe. From the answers we get, we can’t be sure whether the bus runs and takes three hours or it runs every three hours.

 Suddenly, a tall, burly guy materializes and begins romancing us. He has a taxi, he says. OR maybe he just owns a car and is willing to make an instant career change. My ear for Spanish just doesn’t operate at 30 miles an hour. “Mas demasiado, mas despacio,” I beg. But no matter how I try, what gestures I make, I can’t get him to slow down.

 We begin negotiating his price down from $100, trying for $60, which would still be an outrageous rate in Venezuela for three hours of even a brain surgeon’s time. He, on the other hand, gives us to understand such a price would be like taking Christmas gifts from his muchachos.

 We suggest he doesn’t have to show us all of Venezuela at that price -- just go to the Cave, wait for us and take us back. Somehow the three of us have become dogmatically committed to getting to this cave and getting crapped on.

 He’s genial and waves his hands like an Italian and, since a halfway-decent rug seller could probably get me to buy something for more than the asking price, I’m almost instantly willing to cave in on the price for getting to the cave. Besides I’m much more interested in lunch – the gas station having failed us. I can see he knows all this and he knows how to parlay the information. He tells me  – waving down the road – there’s a chicken place there. He’s willing to drive us there, if we can just come to terms about the cave outing.

 We settle on $75 for the round trip, which all the nearby shills assure me is mucho barato – cheap, very cheap. Everyone is clapping everyone’s back and it appears someone (probably not us) has just clinched the most brilliant deal since the Dutch stole Manhattan from the Indians.

 So now that the price is settled, and he probably doesn't have to work for another month, he’s taking us to the neighborhood’s “mas mejor” (best) restaurant, which serves -- he’s very excited about this -- much more than the pollo joint down the road – they’ve got carne, (meat) and pescado (fish) and pollo. 

 Ten minutes later we arrive: the place looks just exactly like the other gas station, the restaurant a mere lean-to attached to a truck-stop, but there are at least two or three tables filled with local guys hunched over plates, so you know it’s okay. The owner stands behind a glass counter no bigger than a boudoir table, offering us some plates of fried looking stuff – all the same color in but in different shapes.

 Our companions Roger and Helen, who have been dubious all along, now look positively nauseous and ready to leave. They look like they’d rather settle for the Clorox bottle back in town. Now, in a more entrepreneurial environment than Venezuela, this particular proprietor might have been Ray Kroc. He sees he’s about to lose his crowd, and he carefully studies the group. I’m the only one with my nose to the counter, so he offers me a taste of something.  Delicious!

 (But then, I was sure it would be, being an inveterate sampler of road food – even on the grimy back streets of Bangkok, where I ate from every vendor with something strange but smelling good on a grill or bubbling in a pot -- even the guy who was serving some kind of soup in a plastic bag. On that trip Gary and I spent roughly equal time eating and eliminating. We were sick as dogs half the time, but we came home entirely sated and six pounds lighter. Now that’s a diet!)

 I shared my free sample, a bit of fabulously seasoned pan-fried fish, all around. Everyone else is now willing to stay. The owner informs me it’s mero, which is grouper.

He’s a steam engine of a man, small but powerful. He’s got shortest legs I’ve ever seen on any adult human, but he moves at panther speed. Almost before our asses hit the plastic chairs (the cost of opening a restaurant anywhere in the world was cut in thirds by the invention of the white molded plastic chair, I believe) then he appears with a glass of yellow something with chunks of stuff floating in it, which he presents to me – I’m the ringer, the point man, the swing vote -- with the merchandising instincts of Stanley Marcus, he knows I’ll taste anything.

 Since it’s offered in a jelly glass, it could be anything from a milk shake to a rum drink, but it turns out to be some kind of clear fish chowder. It’s wonderful. No sooner do I pass it around than he’s sold two full bowls -- grande bowls. Still, not satisfied that he’s presented the soup in its best light – even though we’ve already ordered it – he takes the glass, grabs a lime and squeezes it into the soup.

 “Sí?” I say, unsure.

 “Sí,” he answers emphatically.

 Yes, it now tastes even a little better. He runs to put the order in – or for all I know to cook it. Immediately, the hot arepas arrive -- he’s got about five teenaged boys who come running with the standard merchandise – but he likes to deliver new items himself. The soup comes, and “El Padron” chugs over. From the table next door, he grabs a giant bottle of liquid with more stuff floating in it  -- now this I KNOW is the hot, hot, hot sauce and I start protecting my bowl.

 “No,” he insists, “es correcto” – and he splashes in a tiny dash. And lo, it is even more perfect.

 Next he rushes over with a thick, giant yellow pancake hanging from his chunky hands like he’s going to hang it on a clothesline. He tears off a piece and hands me this warm, sweet confection – it’s “mais,” he tells me – corn – and sure enough there are crispy kernels of corn suspended in it. Clearly, I’m loving the new item on this informal “tasting menu.” He’s got himself another sale.

 He rushes back with a yellow tub of -- he swears it’s mantequilla – butter -- but I’m sure it’s soft margarine.  He insists I slather it on the warm dough. By now I would eat marinated blood sausage out of this man’s palm. Bingo, it’s even better.

 He is not only a merchandiser, he’s the Paloma Picasso of accessorizing his own food. When I start telling him, in my best Spanish, his restaurant is “el mas mejor en…” and stop to retrieve the next Spanish phrase, he finishes it for me—“el mas mejor en el MONDE!”  he trumpets, spreading his short arms wide as they go. It may be the fastest meal we’ve ever eaten, but it is certainly one of the best, maybe not en el monde, but certainly in Venezuela.

 One of the greasy teenagers cleans the table – with a dirty washcloth he scrapes the crumbs off the part of the table he can easily reach – the rest remains for later, mañana, next year, whatever. He sweeps them into his hand and as he walks off, tosses the crumbs high over his shoulder; like Johnny Dawson going for the slam-dunk. The washcloth he shakes out onto the floor as he walks back to get our coffee. El Padron is not yet the Martha Stewart of entertaining.

 We only think we’re finished -- he’s back with something wrapped in tinfoil; he tears off a piece lovingly, almost conspiratorially, and hands it to the Official Group Taster. It’s an even less appealing way to serve than the corn bread was,  but I’m now used to his ways. It’s really a gift—he gives me to understand he hasn’t got any more – it’s left over from someone’s (I didn’t have the language to find out who’s) cumpleaños – birthday party.

 If I could have adopted this guy as my honorary grandfather, I would have.  The restaurant has no name, only a location, and the twinkling owner, his name is Primo. Exactly right.

 As for Roger, well he’s not sure what’s hit him – between Primo and the Strutins he hasn’t seen this much off-the-beaten-path eating in a lifetime. He keeps shaking his head, as if he’s in the wrong movie. Helen, however, is clearly enjoying it.  Helen, I find out later, has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro—just “’cause it was there,” not because she’s an avid climber. I’m a little bit jealous. I could only climb the Kilimanjaro if it looked like a noodle pudding.


The Guáchero Cave

The next morning Gary dinghied the three of us to shore, me armed with makeshift guano shields -- knee-high rubber foul-weather boots and my Absolut/Kate Spade came-in-the-mail hooded vinyl poncho. He planned on digging into any one of many boat projects and was more than content, not only to avoid the screeching, excreting birds, but to enjoy a rare private day.

 The cave was a fascinating but almost entirely unappealing excursion. I’d never worn those boots in three years of cruising but by the end of the day they’d proved themselves the fashion accessory I couldn’t have done without, and Kate Spade was Absolut-ly streaked with stuff I preferred not to analyze. The cave floor was covered, inches deep, in these shiny, round, crunchy red pellets. Every step made me cringe and before long whatever they were had crammed themselves solid into every groove of my rubber boot sole. Fortunately the guide spoke so little English I couldn’t ask if they were shit or just shinola. I decided to believe they were the seeds of the mysterious fruits oil birds gather on their night forays and spit out after digesting. Because that’s how oil birds live, apparently. Not that much is known about them, despite how talkative they are. They are blind nocturnal and herbivorous (which made me grateful, because I spent a lot of time in the pitch dark with them.)

 All 18,000 of them exit the cave at 7 PM in search of food, minus the few who are too weak, too sick or too little, who fall somewhere near the cave’s entrance so you actually have to see the poor dying or dead things or step over hopefully not on, them on your way in. They apparently eat on the fly out there, barely taking time to digest, or they collect food, like squirrels, hoarding their cache for the next day in their beaks until they return at about 4 AM.

 Oil birds find way in the night or in the utter darkness of the cave, where all light disappears about 1,300 feet in from the entrance, by the echo of the sounds they make while clacking their beaks. So, when there are 18,000 of them in one space -- even if it’s one of the largest caves in the world – essentially you could say that they never shut up. And trust me, there are no Enrico Carusos or Barbara Streisands among them. Guáchero, in Spanish, means one who sobs or laments and, with one bird apparently prompting another, they are world-class whiners, so that the sounds they make as they roost some 60 feet above you in the dark, curdle your nerves and make you nostalgic for the most annoying of your long-gone two-year-olds. Jewish mothers pale in the complaint department by comparison.

 Though you also only sense the birds by the din and don’t see too many of them, except the fallen, they’re also pretty ugly: homely, mousy, little brown hens with quivering bodies and jittery feathers. Their name, oil birds, derives from the fact that the young birds were once hunted and rendered for their enormous fat content, so while you’re traipsing through the cave hating them, you can also be reminded of your runaway HDL count or the diet you ought to be on.

Fortunately, the birds only inhabit the cave’s first chamber; the cave itself is 8-miles long, though human visitors only walk about an hour’s worth in. Eventually, just about when your nerves are strained beyond Prozac’s ability to pacify them, you move out of the Tippi Hedron Chamber and—gratefully--on to the Hall of Silence, named, aptly for the sudden and beneficent quiet when you leave the birds. They can’t pass through the narrow bottleneck that somehow the guide insists you can. Of course, you shouldn’t be too relieved by the silence, because you will have to pass again hrough the mournful cawing as you exit.

 This Hall area is fed by an underground river, which accounts for the dramatic stalagmites and stalactites, some better than five- or six-feet tall. And the muddy floor. Once again, fortunately, I didn’t read the guidebook until we returned, nor did I quite get the National Park guide’s drift, so I was mercifully ignorant of the fact that the guácheros share their home with other “cave-adapted” creatures:” fearless smooth-furred rats,” for example, not to mention “unpigmented crickets with very long antennae, spiders, millipedes, centipedes, mice, crabs and fish.”  And though the birds can’t make it through the eye-of-the-needle-entry to the Hall of Silence, bats “unable to manage a peaceful co-existence” with the birds—or presumably other living, breathing species—can and have taken roost there. I think this guidebook may have been written by Carlos the Jackal.

 When we finally emerged into the bright sunlight, we had about 20 minutes worth of scrubbing in front of a row of faucets, removing the accumulated mud and red pellets from our footgear and trying not to make hand-contact with them. There was also a garbage receptacle for my poncho. Absolut, if you’re listening, it was a promotion well worth repeating. 

 Our chariot awaited and, what with his previous success in the restaurant-picking department   our driver, whose name I neglected to record, felt confident in stopping at another open-air roadside kitchen. Here we—even Roger--dove without hesitation into the soup and the fried chicken. As long as it wasn’t red, round, shiny, crunchy.


Enjoying quality alone time

When we returned to the village, I hailed Gary on our walkie-talkies, expecting to find him well rested after myriad mini-naps in the cockpit. If anything, he was more exhausted than any of us. I watched, mystified, from the wharf as down LULU’s swim platform and into the dinghy rushed two Venezuelan youths, Gary following behind. One took the wheel and in they zoomed to fetch us. “Buenos tardes, Senora Lulu,” they greeted me, like their long-lost best friend. Gary’s eyes rolled heavenward and as soon as he could sidle up to me, we exchanged -- strike that, we hissed -- greetings: “Get rid of these kids, would you!” from him to me and “What the fuck is going on!?!” from me to him.

 Apparently, the carnival had come to town in the form of a sailboat named LULU, skippered by a grandfather named Gary missing his nientos (grandchildren). Almost from the moment Roger, Helen and l left him, Gary was besieged by groups of local kids rowing out in their family’s peñeros.

 Probably, I’d sealed his fate for him the night before, when several boatloads of curious kids came circling around us at dusk. These kids had major sticking power because there’s not much else in the way of amusement for them in the village. Since Nintendo, Harry Potter and Pokemon are not part of their vocabulary, they were happy just to stare and point at the boat, trade opinions among themselves, signal their approval to us and venture their questions as to whether we were English, French or German. (That we were Americans seemed really to shock them.)

 After we’d exhausted our limited inventory of mutually stimulating conversational material and since further waving and grinning was getting awkward, I’d decided the best way to send them on their way might be to feed them. So I tossed them mini-Snickers bars from Gary’s private stash. That only brought a reprimand from Gary -- and several boatloads more to deal with. Observing the ages — not to mention the body language—of several obvious boyfriend-girlfriend combinations, I told myself we were doing our good deed for Venezuela by forestalling some pre-teen pregnancies that night.

 Obviously, the buzz went out and Gary was first on the village kids’ To-Do lists the next day. The first boatload arrived, waving and jabbering, about 8 AM – two older boys about 15 and two younger about 8. Gary felt they were not only polite, they—and in particular one of the 8-year-olds--had “happy personalities.” And, trust me, Gary is always a sucker for anything that can be described using the word “happy.” (This is surely the reason his favorite New York burger is Happy Burger, on Broadway and 110th. Probably almost as appealing to him is the fact that a Happy Burger drips enough grease to start a Jiffy Lube.)

 In addition to their pleasing personalities, Gary decided spending some time with Pedro Luis Carlos Luis (the elders) Luis Miguel and Miguel Jesus (the youngers) might be good opportunity not only to exercise his atrophied name-recollection muscles but to practice his Spanish with people who would expect a level of Spanish-language sophistication that he might actually be able to deliver. He invited the foursome on deck, to their utter joy and amazement.  With the help of all our Spanish dictionaries and primers – supplemented by some energetic pointing – the Spanish /English lessons went nicely for a while. But when Gary’s interest flagged, (“I was never a good student” is one of his mantras), he found he couldn’t get them to go. (Gary also frequently suffers because he just can’t deal with hurting people’s feelings.)

 Since he’d been able to translate quite nicely their appreciation of our brightly striped rubber dinghy and since he thought it would provide a grand finale to their morning’s activity, he suggested taking them for a dinghy ride. It went the other way: first, they took him  for a ride—zooming around with the throttle full-out (Jesus, his favorite 8-year-old, showed great aptitude for making small circles at scary speeds). And second, the boys were in no way ready to be done with their social call. The only thing that came to Gary’s rescue was that on returning, there was a line-up of peñeros, each with its group of patiently waiting kids, all possessed of “happy personalities” and equally pleasant, well mannered ways of not taking No for an answer.

They put Gary’s own happy personality to quite a stress test well into the afternoon, and his sunny disposition was clearly showing alarming signs of strain when I returned. I believe what contributed most was the return of Pedro Luis and Carlos Luis (both called Luis, as most Venezuelans tend to be called by their middle, not their given, names.) They came with a token of appreciation – which token probably doubled as a clever strategy for getting to see LULU’s interior. All previous attempts – which amounted to urgent hand-signals signifying they had to urinate—had produced only clear return signals from Gary -- pointing overboard.

 They came bearing a gray, multi-tentacled, completely unfamiliar sea creature, reeking overpoweringly of (possibly rancid) fish. And, reported Gary, having succumbed to the boys’ entreaties that he taste it—it was the fishiest thing he’d ever tasted, far beyond his anchovy-happy, sardine-happy palate. Nonetheless, and sensing his distaste for it, they insisted that with proper preparation it would an unimaginable delicacy. Their recipe involved toothpicking the tentacles together to create a visually appealing (to them, visually creepy to us) clamshell effect, soaking it in two baths of fresh, warm water for 15-minute cycles, presumably to dispel some its foul-smelling fishiness, after which it could be seasoned (probably with the official country-wide equivalent of the French fines herbs—La Comadre Adobo Completo—a more ingrediented version of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, which is actually quite good, and which Gary likes to say I’ve laid in a 50-gallon drum of). After all this, they would fry the awful thing.

 They’d succeeded in getting below-decks to complete steps one and two, so that when we returned to the boat, I found in the galley, on my countertop and floating in one of my favorite bowls, this horrid, slimy, looking abomination, whose smell I cannot report on, since, luckily, I knew enough to stop breathing when I approached it. No Thai street-food magician, no Primo “El Padron,” the Master Chef of El Muelle de Carioco, not even Nozawa, the mercurial, irascible and undisputed Sushi King of Los Angeles whose ethereal, impromptu handroll creations one refuses at the risk of certain—and no doubt lifetime—banishment from his tiny, strip-center storefront restaurant…No, not any one, or for that matter, not even all of these tempters could get me to sample that floating, fishy abomination.

 Being more Spanish adept, plus being not nearly so polite as Gary, but without being impolite, I had the two Luis’s out of our boat and into theirs in record (my kind of record, not theirs) time. I also had LULU out of El Muelle, and re-anchored elsewhere, in time never to have to make good on my promise to cook the damn thing -- and in time for a peaceful—and entirely child-less -- sunset bottle of wine.

 Salud to you all!





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