November 8, 2006

On the Carribbean Side of Things

Though I´ve only been gone a week, I have a lot of stories to tell and have been taking copious amounts of notes. Venezuela has a lot to offer, including beaches on the Carribbean--my first visit ever to these seas.
Higuerote is about 1.5 hours east of Caracas, Venezuela's capital city and hub of business and just about everything else. For the most part, Caracas seemed nice enough; not too huge and sprawling due to topographic limitations. It lies in a valley in the coastal mountains, the highest peak around 2800 meters. A gondola runs from the city up to a high point on the ridge of green that lies due north of town, separating it from the Carribean. The ride is slow. Hovering over a dense jungle canopy, the suspended cage feels a bit claustrophic, vulnerable. At the high point of the gondola, where we were furthest from the tree tops and the anacondas and whatever else lie beneath, my friend Gustavo (Rifle [Reef-lay], nickname because he looks EXACTLY like an argentinian soccer player named Rifle) couldn't resist sussing out the possibility of jumping out of the gondala with a BASE jumping parachute on his back. Height: high enough. Landing zone: nada. Rescue potential: never. So that idea was out.
The summit of La Avila was beautiful. A bit developed, but what do you expect that close to a huge city. Even so, it was nice to look at the Carribbean to the north, city to the south. I was disappointed for the lack of access to hiking trails; surely there were tons, but we couldn't find anything but a road. I had jetlag anyway, so it wasn't the end of the world. Before going to the gondola, we had stopped by the Skydive Venezuela kiosk at the HUGE shopping center, and the woman staffing the booth, a Puerto Rican women named Maricarmen, had told us it would be cold up there: "te vas a congelar" (you are going to freeze). We were both sweating and laughing our asses off; I don't think she had probably EVER experienced cold.
One day in Caracas probably wasn't enough. Or maybe it was, depending on your point of view. That evening, my second in Venezuela, we left for the Drop Zone at the airport in Higuerote. The drive was long, lots of traffic on a Friday night. I was still recovering from 2 sleepless nights getting here, so I drifted in and out of sleep, waking and preferring not to see the road and huge trucks and cars coming at us so fast, happily closing my eyes in the back seat of Luis' jeep. Nobody drives crazier that Latin Americans: never in a hurry until they get behind the wheel. After all, it took us 5 hours to eat and get ready to go to Higuerote. "Unos minutos" (a few minutes) at Luis' house preparing for the trip turned into 2.5 hours. Not sure exactly what Luis was doing, besides packing a parachute in the living room. Rifle and I were entertained by Luis' mama. The discussion turned political; how could it not in Caracas one month before presidential elections? I felt a)ignorant of the Venezuelan political situation, and b) as always, somewhat ashamed to be an American. I have to say, there was some finger pointing going on because of the US's International, shall I say, 'behavior'. It was interesting to talk to Luis' Mama, a highly educated and affluent woman.
Once in Higuerote, arriving with only one near death incident, I was bowled over by the suffocating heat and humidity. It is situated right on the coast, beautiful. Frogs and toads, birds everywhere. Everything is lush and green; the landing zone soft and grassy, like a big park. And big. I am used to landing a parachute on the beach, having to navigate the obstacle course of Palapas, life guard towers, dogs, kids. Or in Cuautla in a tiny, hard as cement landing area where the soil is so dry, it is cracked, baked and the air is thin due to elevation so you come in fast and hard. Well I did anyway.
It was wonderful to be in the company of skydivers again. It feels somehow like home, even though I am hardly a skydiver. The vibe is just so good, easy and laid back, but there is so much passion for what they do. Everyone who works at the zone lives it, 24/7. It's pretty inspiring. Maybe not necessarily to be a full time enthusiast, or professional, but to find something you love so much you are willing to live in a dorm and own nothing but parachutes and cameras.
We jump out of the plane backwards. It is some kind of Russian thing with the exit in back, always open. As my friend Tris said, "It's a bit like diving into a pool doncha think?". Can't argue that. It was a bit scary, after not having jumped in a year and a half. Rifle was with me though, and it went really well. Freefall was amazing; I smiled the whole time, with him just hanging onto me with a pinky in case something should happen, although wanting to let me fly alone a couple of times, and giving me the thumbs up, saying "De Pinga (venezuelan for "Muy Bien")" more than once.
The weekends here are the busiest, with tandems and students taking the course to go solo. During the week there wasn't much happening so we ended up checking out the Carribean side of things, looking for clean beaches and respite from the oppressive heat. And now, being Friday, I think I could be missing out on jumps right now...don't want to miss the plane, unless it's the Cessna.
Unfortunately I don't have photos yet. I'll add them later.

Blue Malibu

Buses are hard to come by in Higuerote, so we usually travel by taxi. Gas in Venezuela is cheaper than drinking water ($2.00 to fill your tank) which makes the price of driving a car, and thus hiring a taxi, really inexpensive.
Because there was nothing going on at the drop zone today, we decided to try to find a clean beach to escape the oppresive heat. After some inquiries, we found out that there is a nice beach to the west of Higuerote, on the other side of the prominant point outside of town. To get there you have to take a taxi, then get on a little boat because there are no roads into the jungle that surrounds the beach. Sounded perfect, so we called up the Higuerote Taxi service from the DZ and waited for the ride to turn up. It was a big blue car, an old and worn Blue Malibu.
Cruising along, dodging kids, dogs, trucks, we were three: An Argentinian, a frenchman, and a gringa. Interesting combination for sure, the makings of a bad joke, the classic tri-national kind where something stupid is happening and one of the three turns out to be the dumbest of the lot. Puerto Frances, about which our Frances received some razzing, wasn´t a very long drive, even with a stop at the bakery for some breakfast, so before we knew it we were out of Higuerote cruising at breakneck speed along a windy jungle road.

Puerto Frances offered none of the excellent cheese and bread we were hoping for, but it was tranquilo and felt safe. We hoped to hire our boat there to ride to the other cleaner and less populated beach we could see off in the distance. Finding the dueƱo of the boat company (or the elder of the tribe as Gustavo the Argentinian called him)wasn´t hard. He was seated in the shade in a plastic lawn chair, belly big and full, hanging out of his t-shirt, looking as though he was waiting for something to happen: waiting for something and nothing, not bothered by much and certainly in no hurry to go anywhere at all.
And so the joke starts about now: frenchman, argentinian and a gringa are stuck in a small coastal village with nowhere to go because the boat couldn´t leave for the beach without 10 people on board. Unless we wanted to pay $25 apiece for the ride, which none of us were willing to do. After some time bargaining, we were able to get the price down a bit, but not enough. We decided to walk down the beach and see what it might have to offer. It was dirty, polluted, trash everywhere, nowhere you would like to spend the day.
After some time considering our options, and seeing that there were basically only two, we decided to talk with the elder again and accept his price. It was that or go back to Higuerote...and do what???
Finding the man again was easy, he hadn't moved an inch. We said ok, we would just pay the whole ticket if he could take us now. But he said no, 'el mar se pone mal' (the sea is getting bad)and refused to sail in those conditions; personally I couldn't see what he was talking about, but then again I am not a sea person. And so our minds were made up for us: back to Higuerote, which meant calling the taxi to come for us because no one was coming or going to Puerto Frances. We could wait for hours for a ride, maybe days.
Waiting for the taxi, the frenchman (ok his name is Juan) climbed a tree; I looked at plants growing among the trash alongside the road. Rifle sat on the side of the road swatting mosquitos, hoping they weren't carrying Dengue fever or something worse. We talked with a local man, waiting at the bus stop indefinitely for the colectivo to come. "When?", we asked. "Quien sabe?", he replied. So we offered him a ride in our taxi.
Once in the taxi, we decided to try going to a different beach that we saw along the way. Might as well, we were dying in the heat. Over the blaring music, we could sort of make out what the driver told us about having to take a boat to this other beach from a marina close to Higuerote. We stopped, the venezuelan got out; he would be the only one in this story who would make it where he wanted to be.
Arriving the marina, we were sent on a wild goose chase to find the right dock, with boats headed to Buche, our new goal. Just as we pulled up, a boat was leaving. Seeing us, the captain turned around and came back for us, and we quickly loaded the boat, "una lancha china (pronounced Chee-nuh)" our cabbie called it (a chinese boat, who knows what made it more chinese than any other boat) and sailed off to our new and hopefully cleaner retreat.
The ride was nice. Calm waters, the sea apparently hadn´t become too bad yet. As we rounded the point, we could see La Buche in the distance, and it looked ok. Coming closer, I started to feel like perhaps the joke really was on us, because as Rifle said so eloquently, it was "una mierda (a shithole)". And was it ever. The water was dirty, as a river ran into the sea right next to the beach. There were some beach front businesses, all boarded up apart from one, tired and dingy. It looked like no one ever came to Buche, and I was starting to think maybe I shouldn´t even get out of this Chinese boat.
But we did. Ultimately, we were thirsty. And hot, but honestly there was no way I was going to dip even a toe in that messy water: as Rifle put it, "you put your hand in whole, pull it out and it is just bones". Enough said.
The captain said he´d be back at 4:00. It was 11:30.
So we trundled away from the dock, me looking wistfully at the departing lancha, knowing we were screwed. But, keeping a positive attitude, I thought that there must be something we could do to entertain ourselves. Rifle was probably right when he said after 4 or 5 beers, this place might starting looking pretty nice; I couldn´t disagree, but also couldn´t bring myself to start drinking that early in the day, even out of sheer desperation.
There were other people on the "beach". A few random people, some with kids and grandma joining the joining the party. One family had even brought an inflatable pool with them, filled it with sea water and used it to corral the kids, keeping them out of trouble. In front of the restaurant (and I mean IN FRONT, feet up on the counter where you place your order), an obnoxious couple that had started the beer goggles solution, sucking down beers one after the other. The woman talked loudly on her cell phone, a cigarette in her hand. It was all very entertaining, but I was dying in the heat and needed shade. Away from this slihgtly dysfunctional beach scene.
We headed to a closed restaurant distant from the others. Rifle and Juan tried to take naps. I had heaps of energy, so I annoyingly reported the time every few minutes, which didn´t do much to alleviate the thought that we were stranded on a desert island, just like Gilligan and the gang. Then I started doing yoga on the sand. Juan said we could film it with his camera and maybe we could make a DVD: "Yoga in Paradise with Val", and make millions.
And so there we were, a Frenchman, an Argentinian, and a Gringa, stranded on a desert island. How much time could we waste here, doing nothing? Well, we could eat. A fishing boat had just pulled up, with the catch of the day in a 5 gallon bucket. So we went to the only open restaurant. I wasn´t hungry but I did drink a beer, as it was now 2:00, a more acceptable hour to start drinking. Rifle ordered shrimp, for $25,000 Bolivares (about $11.00 US), hoping they would be big and plentiful at that price. Either way, they were fresh. Juan ordered seafood soup, and I was put on patrol duty to watch for the Lancha china, in case enough people had showed up at the marina to warrant another journey over. There was no way the boat would be leaving without us.
Sure as Murphy´s Law would dictate, right when the eating had begun and we were finally doing something to distract ourselves, I saw a boat rounding the bend. Yep, that´s the China, I reported to the boys. Juan had just started eating a huge bowl of fish soup and Rifle´s wasn´t even done yet. I ran to the dock to hold the boat, while Rifle inquired about to go orders. I had my doubts on that one; either way, I was getting on that boat, without or without my multinational compadres.
The captain asked me if had paid, obviously thinking that I was one of the passengers just arriving. I explained that we wanted to leave early, and asked if he could wait for my friends for 5 minutes. He looked at me like I was crazy, probably wondering why on earth I would want to leave already. I said nothing in defense.
Finally Rifle and Juan came trotting down the beach toward the dock, Rifle carrying a to-go bag, and Juan carrying his bowl of soup on a plate. Apparently the restaurant agreed to let him take the dishes if the captain could bring them back on the next trip, which he reluctantly agreed to do.
And so we set sail. I felt like I was getting out of jail, even though I knew it hadn´t really been that terrible. Not my idea of a tropical paradise on the Carribean, but it could have been worse. We could have been stuck there until 4:00, roasting in the sweltering heat.
Juan and Rifle enjoyed their lunch on the bench of the boat, seated on the floor. As it turns out, Rifle´s shrimp were tiny and few, but delicious. He turned to me and said ¨Me rompio las pelotas (they broke my balls)", meaning he had been cheated. I looked at him amd thought to myself that actually we had all been cheated today, headed back to Higuerote, las pelotas having been busted in a big way. They asked me what we should do next, and I suggested we go to the hotel pool and cool off.
Four taxi rides, and one boat ride later, we were back where we started, enjoying the pure chlorinated waters of the Barlovento Hotel pool...tropical paradise, indeed.