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Arepas, Sancocho and Cerveza: a Lament for Venezuela

Hugh & Heather Bacon

Argonauta I
Beneteau 440
April 23rd, 2019

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” (Heraclitus, 544 b.c.)

Heraclitus was right…the stream has changed and so have you. Recent reports from Venezuela would deter the most intrepid from wanting to return here. When Argonauta I was obliged to interrupt her journey for eight months in 1998 in Puerto La Cruz (PLC), Venezuela, life there was dodgy but livable. In fact, I have very positive memories of that time in what was even then a complex and troubled country.

Venezuela was once a go-to hurricane hole for cruisers in the Caribbean. It was recommended as a good, economical place to have the ubiquitous boat work done. This proved fortuitous when my Skipper discovered that our four year old Beneteau Oceanis 440 had osmosis. That was, indeed, a Black Monday and required several cuba libre cocktails! The Skipper supervised the remediation and has written his own account of this show-stopping experience.

Grinding and peeling.

We took the boat to Bahia Redonda, a gathering place for Caribbean cruisers and, despite the setback, I was in my glory; as a novice sailor, with a history of seasickness and black thoughts, I was ecstatic to reach a marina with a swimming pool, unlimited hot water and the social stimulus of other cruisers. But I also wanted to experience the cultural life of the country and practice my Spanish conversation, first encouraged when I was young and single in Spain and refreshed in an immersion course before leaving Mexico. So, once the boat was safely up on the hard, we rented an apartment across the canal from Bahia Redonda (too many mishaps on the ladder and bathroom limitations to live aboard while on the hard). I swam in the marina pool, brought nourishment to my Skipper, who was supervising the boat repair, explored the local town, practiced Spanish and planned travel experiences.

In my journal (circa 1998) I wrote:

“The flamboyant trees are in full bloom now. They look wonderful among the pastel houses on our fantasy island alongside the canal.  They look ironically out of place among the rancheros, squalid shacks high on the hillside.

I ride the bus back and forth to town every day.  It wends its way along muddy streets dotted with potholes where semi-naked children play.  I can see inside the simple homes, constructed of cement, plywood or only corrugated tin. Most floors are of concrete, not earth, but when a flash rainstorm tries the limits of inadequate drainage systems, black water flows out the doors.  At every corner people get on the bus: labourers carrying lunch bags, mothers with tiny children, school kids in white blouses and blue pants.  They are all immaculate; emerging from the simple homes redolent of shampoo and good soap, shirts freshly pressed, little heads beribboned.

There are two Venezuelas, people tell me. Pueblo Viejo is a series of pastel canal houses designed to look like some fantasy Mediterranean village.  There are towers and bridges and turrets and quite redundant chimneys.  The buildings are ivy-covered: Hibiscus, bougainvillea, flamboyants bloom. The residences are on a series of islands named Hydra, Corfu, Ithaca. To reach ours we navigate along the Canal of Corinth, go under the Bridge of Sighs and park our dinghy alongside the swimming pool.  Each island has its own pool and because these are weekend places mine is virtually empty from Monday to Friday. An army of employees keep the pool pristine, the gardens manicured.  They patrol in trucks and remove small bags from garbage bins disguised as flower pots three or four times daily. Large sailboats and power boats are docked outside many doors.  Mercedes and BMWs enter the parking lots on Fridays or holidays.”

Pueblo Viejo pool and patio.

I lived and functioned with joy at PLC. I took a communal taxi or bus to town. The locals recognized me and I never felt threatened. I could wander through the colorful market, buying fresh vegetables and finding wonderful local cheeses. At a designer butcher store, I would sit on a stool and supervise as the butcher rolled out a generous hunk of beef, chopped and ground it into the portion of hamburger I wanted. Lomito is excellent tenderloin but, at about $2 a pound, even it was out of reach for the average local.

I was offered a job teaching English at a small language school for $3 an hour (enough for 2 cervezas or one ice cream). The school did not have a curriculum or materials so I created practical dialogues for my students who were dealing with tourists in restaurants and hotels: What is an arepa? Do you accept credit cards? Where is the washroom?…

Most cruisers make great efforts to participate in local culture. For a $25 donation, an enterprising young Venezuelan woman invited cruisers  to visit her home and learn about local foods. Her husband showed us how to prepare strange local root vegetables and she made sancocho, a soup ‘to raise the dead’. She showed us the traditional way to make arepas, the small tortilla-like crepes that can be stuffed with a variety of fillings. They are made with corn boiled in lye to soften it, or with the corn mix available in shops. On the streets of PLC there were vendors selling Batidos, smoothies made with fresh fruit, such as guava and papaya, water and sugar. It is said that the mandatory wedding present is a blender so the couple can always have this refreshing drink.

Batidos stand.

I seem to remember Venezuela with rose coloured glasses. However, for perspective, even in our upscale gated community, all was not first class. In 1998, there were regular shortages. One day the water was off, on another the gas. In the stores there would be no chicken, no sugar or no oil. At the marina, stories of robberies, armed boardings and attacks were common. One day the cruisers all gathered to welcome two boats that had been anchored at a deserted bay. A robber had tried to steal a dinghy so the skipper fired a flare and the robber fired a gun. The wife had screamed over the radio and other sailors had gone to assist. We all awaited their arrival with trepidation. The skipper was injured but alive. The family had two small children with them. They flew back to Canada shortly thereafter.

I read the newspaper daily to improve my Spanish comprehension. The back page always featured the Murder of the Day; usually labeled “domestic” or “settling of accounts”. One day the front page had a photo and headline that translated as: MORGUE EMPTY TODAY! Unfortunately, there was a reluctant occupant the following day when a homeless, Indigenous person was hit on the head while asleep in the market during the night. It was necessary to take measures to protect oneself.

Stephen Leacock, our Canadian humorist said, “When I go into a bank I get rattled”. He could not have imagined the process in Venezuela, where everything had to be paid in cash. It involved long lineups, phone calls to North America, photos and finally a teller who put a huge stash of Bolivars on the counter. Without counting, I would scoop them into a large bag and rather than take a taxi in front of the bank, I would stick a loaf of bread and a bunch of parsley in the top of the bag and walk home, stopping at a sidewalk café with our rent money, or payment for land travel, beside me. Recent news reports have shown the stack of currency in our photo to be about the cost of a cup of coffee!

Bolivars.

Grocery shelves, once limited are now bare. In the 1990s, family members had to provide food and bed linens for hospital patients, and in 2019, Venezuelans say they must also take their own scalpel! Yachties try to give something back to the countries they visit. In Mexico, Operation Smile came to Puerto La Cruz with its crew of dentists and specialists. We volunteered to assist mothers and children in the long lineup. Many people had walked for days, carrying little ones with serious deformities. The surgeons worked miracles; before and after photos were heartwarming. But it was heartbreaking to see those who had to be turned away because the daily limit was 200 cases. In nearby Bahia Redonda, there was a Chili contest to raise funds for the charity. For a small admission fee, people could sample and vote on the various Chili dishes. I balanced my way around a boat missing floorboards (off the hard but still at the marina) to cook 10 pounds of Chili (in tropical heat!). In a romantic “aside”,  a nurse who had volunteered with Operation Smile around the world met a “singlehander” at one of the marina social events; she was fascinated by the “Romantic Yachting Life”, joined him on his boat and went on to, perhaps, live happily ever after!

My life in Venezuela was a balance between weekly potluck meals at the Marina, dynamic interactions with other women, spontaneous happy hours, and my days in town, where I taught, shopped, visited schools, and chatted with friendly locals. My husband was anxious to continue the voyage. Argonauta I was finally restored to our satisfaction. Hugh had found skilled workers and had been closely involved in organizing the repair. With timing always crucial – the weather window, the optimal time to transit the Canal, even coordination with fellow cruisers – the day of departure loomed. As we headed out to sea, I began to weep; once again I was leaving a short-lived but supportive community where I had found a role of my own.

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