Echoes of the Mazaruni…

Remember my post Shipwrecks and Sand Shoals? A couple of months after the post went up I got an exciting e-mail from 7-year-old Thom (and his mum, Noemie). Based on the sketches and photos in my post, Thom (who tells me he is “really into wrecks”) made a gorgeous drawing of the wreck.

Thom's drawingAnd then he went into 3D and built a Lego version of the shipwreck.

Thom's Lego wreckThom’s a charming young man, one of maybe three people who immediately recognised that the name of our boat, Kehaar, was taken from the book Watership Down by Richard Adams.

Note: In the book, about rabbits, Kehaar is a blunt old seagull who speaks with an Eastern European accent. He is very knowledgeable about the world, and he often confuses the rabbits by talking about things that they do not understand or cannot comprehend, such as bullets and oceans. Kehaar is the reason our boat is painted black and white (or was, at any rate…right now it’s a patchwork of cheap paints found in South Africa, Brazil and, soon, Venezuela).

This is the most rewarding part of blogging, for me…when something I’ve posted resonates with someone else, spurs them to create a reciprocal work, or to look into the matter further. A lot of the time my posts are just the bare bones…I don’t do as much research as I should, or don’t include everything I’ve gathered about the topic because I worry that it will bore readers.

And then someone like Thom comes along, digests what I’ve published, gets busy (at his beautiful table covered in drawings—Love! We should all draw as freely on our tables…) and hands the idea back to me, imbued with a seven-year-old’s magical enthusiasm…fleshed-out, and given dimension. Thom and Noemie even did an internet search of the shipwreck, looking for more information…but found nothing (neither did Kris, who hunted obsessively for any stories about the Mazaruni and what happened to her). And it thrills me so much that I, schmaltzy sponge cake that I am, get teary-eyed.

Thanks for the photos, Thom! I’ll keep my eye out for more wrecks as we go, and be sure to send you whatever I find!

Santería sparklies

Santería braceletsA few days ago, I bought some beaded bracelets from one of the many Santería shops in town. I chose two bracelets, each, in the colours of three of the Orishas:

Yemayá (blues and crystal clear beads) is the mother of all Orishas. Her name means “Mother whose children are like the fish”, (referring to her fecundity as the source of all living things.) She is queen of the ocean, patroness of seafarers and fishermen, of pregnant women, and is the spirit of moonlight. Often depicted as a mermaid, I bought these bracelets for my friend, who is a real mermaid

Changó (or Shangó) is the most ‘popular’ of the orishas. He rules over lightning, thunder, fire, the drums and dance. He is a strong-willed and fiery Orisha, red and white, and loves all the good things of life: dancing, drumming, women, food and wine. He is ocanani with Elegba, meaning they are of one heart. I bought these bracelets for a fiery artist friend of mine, a Leo, a maven of good food, wine, music, books, and art.

Elegba (also Eleggua or Elegguá) is the owner of the roads and doors in this world. The colors red, black, and white are his. In particular, Elegba stands at the crossroads of the human and the divine, as messenger between the two worlds. Nothing can be done in either world without his permission. Elegba is always propitiated before calling any other orisha, as he opens the door between the worlds and opens our roads in life. He is my personal favourite, a trickster god and a child, and I bought his bracelets for myself.

Santería braceletsSome of you may remember that I made a new journal for myself last year, when the previous one had filled up, and that I chose to decorate its covers with the colours, symbols, sigils, and incantations of Elegba, because I was about to set off on a huge journey around South America for a few years (we are here, currently) and wanted to honour the Spirit of The Roads, the Opener of Ways.

Elegba journal

because I’m smitten

vintage camera
The camera, again, this time in watercolours and colored pencil, because I’m smitten (and can’t actually USE it till I get my fat little fingers on some film).

Retina Reflex

Kodak Retina Reflex We made it to the flea market around the corner last Sunday morning. I actually went in search of the black market for hard-to-find essential things, like laundry detergent and bath soap, which are scarce in regular shops because of the shortages and rationing. I figured that wherever there is a shortage of such, someone will have hoarded the stuff and be selling them off for three times what they paid…but no luck. Ninety percent of the stalls were selling secondhand fashion. There were lots and lots of old shoes and clothes, all too small for a big fat gringa like me! Cheap costume jewelry, three-quarters empty bottles of nail polish, battered-looking handbags, and bridesmaid’s gowns. There were plenty of fried food stalls, and people selling cheap, mass-produced stuff, like plastic food containers, from China (brand new). A few stalls did have second stuff that wasn’t fashion-related: boxes of dusty, tangled computer cables, chipped dinnerware sets, dog-eared playing cards, gift sets of tiny perfume bottles (the kind you buy in-flight on planes) being sold off, one 20ml. bottle at a time. Old things. Worthless things. Sad things. Kodak Retina ReflexI didn’t really expect to find a ‘treasure’ at a market like this. The tang of desperation and hard-times filled the air. But there it was. The treasure. A vintage camera, the Kodak Retina Reflex, made in Germany between 1957 and ’58, still in its leather holster, complete with a bakelite flash unit and reflector dish that looks like a pie tin. And it was in working order (well, maybe not the flash unit)!

-¿Cuánto cuesta?
-Dos mil quinientos. (Bs 2,500.00)

Five dollars.

Sold. To the sweaty gringa who looks like she’s just barely managing to hold back a triumphant roar. I’m in love with it. It looks beautiful, it weighs a ton, and I can’t wait to get some film for it someday, if such a thing still exists (not here…not in a country where you can’t even find bath soap easily!)

Some Books in Spanish

bookshop finds

The bookstores here have a very limited range of titles. Importing books would cost too much, and local publishers can only afford to print titles chosen for the moral or educational instruction and improvement of the nation. Still, we found Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, both of whom we always enjoy reading, and then a couple of authors we don’t know at all, but seemed promising. (N.B. Romulo Gallegos, who wrote Doña Barbara, was once President of Venezuela)

Bookstores here don’t have open shelves that you can browse. The books are under glass, or on shelves behind the sales counters, so you sort of have to know what you want, and the attendant will bring the book over to you. Still, they were very helpful, suggesting other writers and giving us a basic idea of what each book was about. Most of these titles were under a dollar, new.

We were told there is a flea market around the corner from the marina where we stay, and that locals sell their second hand books there. Definitely going to look into that…hoping people’s old, personal libraries will yield a more eclectic range of books.

Making money in my spare time

Ciento treinta Bolívares

Kris says I have grossly understated the economic situation in Venezuela in my first post. “Come on, it’s not ‘very, very affordable‘ here…Venezuela is currently recognised as The Cheapest Country in the World, for crissake!”

He’s right, of course. So there you are, it’s even better than I made out. The black market dollar rate is a hundred times the ‘official rate’ artificially set by the government, and the value of paper money here is next to nothing. To pay for a meal for two at a mid-range restaurant, you hand over a wad of 100s about a centimeter thick…Bs1,800.00 or thereabouts. And, for all that, it amounts to something like 3 bucks. Petrol is 7 litres a dollar. Need I say more?

So this is one country where I can afford to keep a sample of each denomination as a keepsake in my journal…a whopping 21 US cents are attached to the page above.

The reason I WANT to keep these bills is that Venezuelan money is beautiful. I love the vertical format, the bright colours, the modern graphic layout, the metallic inks and holographic strip that runs through each bill…they’re gorgeous. I’ve been painting them on postcards and in my sketchbooks…challenging, absorbing, and fun to do. Makes me wish I’d thought to make painted versions of the money we came across in the different countries we’ve been to since the start of this trip.
Veinte y dos BolívaresKris jokes that I should be painting US $100 bills instead of Bolívares…says they, at least, would be worth all the effort. Especially here, if we can find a money changer who will take watercolour dollars. ;)

Iguana hold your hand…

Wanna iguana?This is Iguana iguana (a.k.a. Green iguana, or Common iguana). They’re not always green, but they certainly are common around here. These modern-day dinosaurs are like Venezuela’s version of the wharf rat…by mid-morning, when the sun has warmed the concrete, they come clambering over the tops of the bushes to bask in the heat. There is a mess (that’s the collective noun for iguanas, apparently) of about 40 of these reptiles living in the trees and ornamental plant border between the yacht marina’s restaurant and the wharf to which our boat is tied. The restaurant cooks and the yachties, alike, feed them scraps of vegetable peelings and fruit and, except for one big rottweiler who is let loose inside the workshed at night, they have no predators in the gated compound of this guarded marina, so they are especially fat, healthy, safe, and thriving, just like rats.

They’re so tame, you can walk slowly up to them and they’ll just eye you beadily for a sec before going back to their papaya skins. We never tire of watching them rise up on their stubby legs and scrabbling claws, and walk across the lawn. They crop the grass when there is no fruit in the offing, and so they help the marina save on lawnmowers and labourers. They also love pink frangipani flowers (seems everything loves frangipanis…) What a diet of pretty pink flowers will do for your looks, eh?

Wanna iguana?A couple of the younger, more adventurous ones, have been seen crawling along wharf ropes and coming aboard uninhabited boats. The younger they are, the greener they are…at least around here that seems to be the case. The older ones are grey, but they all have little patches of bright colour: a bit of coral pink, some turquoise blue, bits of orange.
Wanna iguana?Wanna iguana?Iguana iguana (Green Iguana)

Puerto la Cruz

Estamos en Venezuela!

Hemos estado en Venezuela desde hace once dias…
We have been in Venezuela for eleven days…

We have a berth in a marina…the first time, ever, that we’ve tied up alongside other boats at a wharf! It’s a bit like a ghetto…neighbours on either side of us, one boat has two yapping little dogs, and you can hear the other people at night. There’s little privacy on deck, what with the security guards looking down on us from their outposts, and people walking back and forth all day. But it’s very convenient, too: we can step ashore any time we want, go separate ways, no need to row or to wait for each other ashore. There’s good, fast wifi, and a bright, airy restaurant 10 metres away that makes great coffee, fresh fruit shakes, and cheap lunches.

We are going to be here for a while…mainly out of necessity, as we have to sit out the hurricane season somewhere outside of the hurricane belt (and this is the cheapest place to do that), but also because one of the two big goals for this whole trip is to learn Spanish, and we are in a country where it’s spoken, at last! (The other reason is to soak up fresh inspiration…fuel for a few years of creativity when we get back home.)

It’s a good place to be, right now, as a tourist with foreign currency…things are very, very affordable (it is very hard to spend more than $10 a day, here…for that money we have fruit, veggies, bread, pastries, some cheese and salami, several fruit shakes, and sometimes lunch at the marina’s restaurant!) and although many amenities and services are starting to slide with the hyper-inflation, much of the infrastructure and standards that were set up, back in the good ol’ oil boom days, are still around. Enough, at least, to make life here tenable. You can feel the pinch, of course: long lines for bread at the bakeries (and a limit of three loaves per person, per day), very few imported things on the supermarket shelves, a nationwide shortage of toilet paper not too long ago, and now the government has announced that there will be a shortage of beer this August, because they cannot afford the imported hops used by the breweries. Despite the obvious advantages for us, it’s hard not to feel for the poorer people (and for the fate of the country in general) during what must be difficult times for them. We try to spend as much money as we can, here, to compensate for the unreal power of our currency. We take taxis, leave tips, pay to have laundry done, buy knickknacks, eat out, pay others to do things we would normally do ourselves…very unusual for us, we are so tight, but this is one place where we can afford to be more relaxed about splurging, and God knows the locals need every centavo. Who wants to be the sort of travelers who will walk 5 kilometres in the blazing sun to save the 30¢ taxi fare?

It’s not life as we’re used to in the developed West. You don’t make shopping lists or plan menus. Sometimes you cannot have whatever you want, for any amount of money. You buy what shops have, when they have it. When you find something good, you don’t put off buying it until another day, as it may not be there. You grab it when you see it. That said, anything locally produced…vegetables, eggs, meat, fruits, fish, flowers, rum, tobacco, corn & cassava, coconuts, sugar…is plentiful. The fresh produce market—a real market—is bursting with carts and stalls groaning under their loads of good things. The other day we were at the market and the air we were breathing was heavy with the perfume of fresh strawberries…in season, now, and for sale everywhere in giant mounds.

We are glad we kept our own counsel when it came to deciding whether we would “risk” coming to Venezuela or not.

Approaching Puerto la Cruz
Advice from other sailors is extremely important to us as we plan our extended trip…it doesn’t matter so much what is said on the news (which is extremely sensationalist and bigoted), and you can’t rely on history books, statesman’s almanacs, or travel guidebooks…even when they’re just a few months to a year old. You absolutely have to keep your ear to the ground, and gather information as you move: yesterday’s quiet little village with fantastic snorkelling could be tomorrow’s “Bloodbath on the Beach!” headlines, or vice versa, so current knowledge of a place is crucial.

We were told (strangely, only by anglophone sailors: Brits, Canadians, US citizens) to stay away from Venezuela. “Pirates along the coast,” they said. “Thieves and murderers in the cities,” they added. Plus, “The government is unstable, the atmosphere is volatile. There are shortages of essential things…” Hmm. Interestingly, none of these cautious souls had actually been to Venezuela. Advice without pertinent experience is simply scaremongering, and it is worse than useless to a traveler. I’m not saying that you should ignore the warnings; I’m saying, find people who know what they are talking about! Gather several opinions, compare them, study them, weigh the pros and cons, and then decide.
Approaching Puerto la Cruz
When we finally did meet sailors who had just been to Venezuela (German, French, Russian, Spanish…none of them were anglophones), they all said the opposite: “GO! It’s wonderful! The people are nice! Everything is so affordable! We love Venezuela!” They added that yes, there is piracy all along the coast, mostly by poor fishermen gone rogue, and preying on other fishermen. They don’t go further than 5 miles from the shore, because they all use little outboard engines, and that’s all the fuel they can carry. We were assured that certain ports, like Puerto la Cruz, where we are now, are heavily patrolled by the coast guard, because the wealthy people of Venezuela keep their million-dollar yachts in the dozen marinas around here, and take them out on the weekends. We simply had to avoid the coastline, go over the top of Isla Margarita (rather than between the island and the mainland), and then make a beeline for Puerto la Cruz, and we would never see a pirate (nor be seen by pirates).

Venezuela is no more dangerous than many supposedly “civilised” parts of the developed world…every place has its dangerous elements (but also its good people and worthwhile experiences.) For peace of mind, carry less of the pricey, irreplaceable stuff, and detach yourself from your possessions. Most thieves are not intent on killing people…you will not die if you hand over your phone, laptop, or camera. You will be sorely inconvenienced.