AND THE WINNER
true what the travel posters say— Venezuela is the best-kept secret in
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Approaching Playa Yaque by boat, I thought I
saw two giant cobras poised to do the bidding of some hidden snake
charmer. Closer in, I could see there were two quirky trees, occupying
the very center of an otherwise empty swath of soft, silken beach. They
are the beach’s and the island’s distinguishing topographical
feature. Almost identical in height, they’re spindly and --relative to
palm-tree longevity—young, with shortish fronds radiating out into
twin spiky headdresses. Suckers sent down by the leftmost one had
blossomed out in a thicket of fronds, creating a sort of bouffant about
its trunk, so I designated it the female. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder,
eternal sentries, it looked like (as long as nobody was looking) these
two unchaperoned teenagers had engaged a bit of hanky-panky because just
starting to shoot up beside them is a tiny sapling.
nothing except relax for four days. For the first 24 hours the wind, as
if bored by its long, lonely trip clear across a hemisphere, seemed
anxious to perform. With no apparent memory of its origins as mere
breeze, it put on a ferocious show of strength for us, demonstrating a
fine repertoire of shrieks, howls, groans, rumbles. The fact that all
this bluster was a performance to a virtually empty theater--an audience
consisting of us and two other boats--somewhat undercut the energetic
demonstration of its prowess. (Besides, we already know who’s the boss
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
—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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
(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.
I say, unsure.
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
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
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.
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
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.)
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!