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.

Sunday around St. George’s 5

Sunday around St. George's
Okay, that’s it for St. George, bet you’re relieved. These posts have been scheduled to post automatically, every few days, because I don’t get an internet connection all that often. By the time you read this post, we will probably have been in Venezuela a couple of weeks. Wish I could post things as they happen, but well, that’s life on a boat, I guess, the news will always be a little bit old by the time I can get it to you.
Sunday around St. George's
Sunday around St. George's
Sunday around St. George's
Sunday around St. George's

Sunday around St. George’s 4

Fort St. George
Penultimate St. George’s Town post, I think…bear with me, I did walk around for four hours by myself. So I got a bit snap-happy. These are taken around the Fort St. George, high on a hill overlooking The Carenage.
Fort St. George
Fort St. George
Fort St. George
Fort St. George

Spinning old rope into gold : : Mr. Jacob

Mr. Jacob spins rope into goldTook a shortcut to the beach from the supermarket through the L’Anse aux Pines park, and spotted Mr. Jacob, sitting with his back against a disused shop, stitching something. Drawn like a bee to honey by anyone plying a needle, I went over and got to talking to him.

Mr. Jacob isn’t from Grenada, he hails from some other Caribbean island, but he moves around between the different islands a lot, doing his work, collecting old rope, and selling his handmade baskets and bags to the wealthy tourists on the beaches. He stays at a boarding house in the town, walks every morning to his little spot next to the park’s entrance, and sits there till sundown, making his baskets.

Mr. Jacob spins rope into gold

He first started making his unique, original bowls from recycled rope 20 years ago. Before that, he was a fisherman, but a problem with his ankles (swollen and covered in sores) forced him to stop and find other work. I love that he looked around his original fishing environment, and found a way to use what he had in a new, beautiful, creative way.Mr. Jacob spins rope into gold

Like Naomi Drakes from Guyana, Mr. Jacob puts a lot of unbelievable work into his handmade baskets. He chops frayed nylon rope into short, 1-inch lengths, and then sandwiches the stuff between two layers of invisible, fine fishing net, and stitches through everything, working his way over the surface, until he has a kind of “felt” mat, pushed and molded by hand into a bowl or bag shape. Using this bowl as his ‘canvas’, he then couches down simple designs using lengths of thicker rope, or thin, spread-out layers of brightly coloured fibres, using a needle he made from an umbrella spoke, and ‘thread’ from yet another length of untwisted nylon rope.

Mr. Jacob spins rope into gold

 

Mr. Jacob spins rope into gold

Unlike Naomi Drakes, however, Mr. Jacob knows the value of his work, and makes a decent living from the sales of his baskets and bags. No doubt this is because he has access to a bigger market with more spending power (all the tourists between Grenada and the British Virgin Islands, basically) and because there are shops and galleries that also carry his work. Any one of the large fruit bowls in the photo above costs a little more than US$100, which I think is a fair price for the two days it takes him to make one.

Mr. Jacob spins rope into gold

What is lovely about him , though, is that he is not at all pushy with his work. He’ll sit and stitch while he answers questions from curious passerby…never forcing his work on anyone, but never backing down on his price, either. He knows that what he makes is unique, that nobody else in the Caribbean makes these baskets, and he believes that the right person will come along and claim each one, in time.

Mr. Jacob spins rope into gold

I didn’t pretend to be a potential buyer. I told him that we live on a boat, that we are traveling on a shoestring and that, much as I love his work, I cannot justify so much money for a fruit basket or bag…a hundred dollars buys us food for many, many days! He dropped the sales talk right away, and Kris and I had many lovely conversations with him about history and politics. I dropped in to see him whenever we went to the supermarket. If I bought a cardboard plate of Oil down from one of the vendors on the beach, I always got one for him, too, and we would eat together, drink the locally made tamarind juice, and chat about rope colours and his design ideas.

Far from lonely, Mr. Jacob’s corner is a magnet for smart people, and I often find him with company. He’s very well-read, well-traveled, cheerful, and because he knows how to listen and isn’t pompous, a lot of smart people hang around to talk to him. Some of the most stimulating conversations that Kris and I have had were with people hanging around Mr. Jacob.

Mr. Jacob spins rope into gold

If you are interested in getting hold of something he’s made, Mr. Jacob can be reached by snail mail, but don’t be surprised if you don’t hear back from him for many months…he moves around the West Indies, stays at boarding houses or with friends on the different islands of the Caribbean, it may be a while before he gets back to read his mail in Bequia (pronounced Bek-way).

Mr. Jacob Scott
Bequia,
St. Vincent & The Grenadines,

West Indies

We are leaving today (I write this on the 17th of July) and I have had these same photos printed for him in town, so he can show his work to people when he doesn’t have many finished pieces on hand. I’ll be going to see him in an hour, to give him the photos and say goodbye. We leave for Venezuela tomorrow, the 18th of July.