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.

Theobroma cacao

Theobroma cacao

The local “market” in St. George’s is little more than a Potemkin Village movie set for tourists. We wanted to stock up on raw cacao nibs for the trip (about 10 kilos…more or less 20 lbs.) but the old ladies—with their headscarves and hoop earrings and little woven baskets—at the market wanted 5 EC$ for a tiny little handful. Ridiculous (we are serious cacao consumers, not cruise ship dilettantes looking for souvenirs.)

Kris found a real source of cacao when he was walking across the island…a warehouse in the mountains where they buy, grade, roast and sell the nibs in large quantities, for more realistic prices. Unprocessed cacao nibs were EC$5.00 per pound. We are well-stocked, now. And, as a bonus, walking home with his sack of nibs over his shoulder, he went past a neglected cacao farm, and picked one of the fruit for me to draw. The pulp around the nibs is sweet and also edible, though you have to suck on many of them to get any satisfaction (the pulp’s thin).

By Luisovalles (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Luisovalles (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
What to do with cacao nibs? Roast them (we toss them in a small wok and stir them around over the stove till they start to smell like chocolate) and then shell and crush them to use instead of nuts in baked goods or salads. Crunchy, bitter, and unmistakeably chocolate.

Boil roasted nibs with something (like milk) and then strain to get “chocolate-flavoured anything”. Pound them with honey or condensed milk into a coarse paste (Kris does this, eats it with a spoon. The Barbarian. I’m just jealous because I can’t have condensed milk.)

I grind them up and use like I would any ground spice, in curries or sauces (e.g. the Mexican classic, mole Poblano), with chillies, plantains, chicken…

Or you can try making a basic chocolate at home…there are lots of recipes and ideas on the internet. I quickly found this one (but don’t have cocoa butter, to try it out) and it seems like a good place to start.

Monument of Hope

Hope Monument ParkI came to sit in the park and playground of the Monument to Hope in Bartica, a couple of times. There was never anyone there, it was a good place to be alone and sketch. The monument itself was not very sketchable…a grey granit obelisk, erected in memory of the men and women who died when a boat full of escaped convicts arrived in the town at dark and robbed several of the gold-buying businesses.

The swing set was more interesting, though probably not very exotic. I’ve been having some trouble with this whole “travel sketching” idea, to be honest. Because we have been to some exotic places, I guess I felt that I owe it to my sketchbook to document the unusual, the novel, the never-seen-before. Naturally. When else will I get a chance to see these things? But, sorting through the files on my external drives, I came across this little PDF booklet, Start To Draw Your Life, again, by Michael Nobbs, and felt a twinge of longing for the days when I would draw my running shoes, a coffee cup, a tea strainer…nothing fancy, just getting lost in the drawing…

Because something in me loves the overlooked, ordinary, everyday things about life, and let’s face it, even up a river in a jungle, most days are just ordinary days…when you do the laundry, or sit on deck with a paperback novel, or cook oatmeal for breakfast. And if you did a tally of time spent “having adventures” and time spent doing everyday chores, you’d find that we spend probably 70% of our time just plodding along, doing the countless little things that make up a life. And why not paint that? It is as authentic and legitimate a subject as jungle vines and vernacular architecture.

It’s easier, too, to find a subject and paint it, if it’s around the home. Thing is, I love to do the drawing, I love adding colour. I don’t care what the subject is, in the end, I just love the doing. If I have to wait until I am somewhere unusual, or doing something exciting, before I can pull out my sketchbook, I won’t get to draw and paint as often. And that’s frustrating.

So, I know I’m in Guyana, living in a boat on the river, surrounded by howler monkeys and a dawn chorus of hornbills and parrots, but folks, sometimes my sketchbook posts will feature things from my kitchen, or stuff on my desk. And that’s fine, too.

a secret garden & a weedy patch

Mom's weeds

Something gets lost so well, no one can find it.
So it’s like a stone

Silence goes to sleep under every tree
I was your shadow
I burned your letters but I keep

the ash*

mom's weeds

I’ve had Margaret Atwood’s 1972 novel, Surfacing, in my mind all day. Amazingly, one of the things that I liked most about the book—last read over 8 years ago, so my memory is hazy—is never mentioned in any of the current online reviews of the work. After the protagonist has “gone mad”, and purges herself of humanity’s psychosis by reverting to an animal state, she searches her childhood home—a log cabin on a remote island in Quebec—for “clues” (really guidelines on how to live, how to return from a modern life that has gone awry, how to regain one’s self) that she believes her dead parents have left for her. Whether the clues she “finds” were actually left for her, or she is merely projecting the messages she needs to hear onto random objects in her parents’ home, is beside the point. The discovered oracles function in much the same way that tarot cards do: they are keys that provide her with a means of gaining access or understanding things about her past, her psychological wounds, and what she must do to heal herself. I concede that it really isn’t the focus of the story, though I found it the most wonderfully surreal part.

Mom's weeds

Today I went looking for my mother in this deteriorating house. Not because my own life has gone terribly wrong, but in the hopes of establishing a connection with the individual that she was (and maybe understanding why she had seemed so disappointed, toward the end, by her life?) She was a secretive and somewhat distant person. She spilled a little of herself, here and there, with different people, but no single child, friend, or relative really knew who she was, deep down, nor understood her completely. I remember her as someone who had locks installed on her desk drawers and never let the keys out of her sight; sometimes she used cryptograms to write in her diaries, and locked herself, for hours on end, inside a little room (formerly the housemaid’s) that had been converted into a library and study. I still remember the advice she gave me on relationships when I started living with Kris: She was adamant that “a woman should not tell her husband everything”, that it was “not good for him to know too much”, that “there are some things you should keep just for yourself”, and that it was good to “maintain the ‘feminine mystique’,” —a statement that had me sputtering in disbelief, given that Friedan’s 1963 book of the same name described the feminine mystique as “the widespread unhappiness of women…despite living in material comfort and being married with children.”

Mom's weeds

These days my mother’s drawers are unlocked, her private room lies open, and her many notebooks and journals (mostly made by me) line two shelves in my father’s room. But I wasn’t looking for anything so blatant as her diary entries…I do not trust the written word. I know only too well how journal entries can be inaccurate, fanciful, censored, or composed for an audience (and therefore a performance). The author/narrator/protagonist is far too unreliable. It would be just like my mom to write things with a posthumous readership in mind.

Mom's weeds

Instead, I looked for her actions among the debris of her little room, and found her in 7 or 8 rectangular biscuit tins, each one packed with pressed leaves, flowers, and common weeds, organised by kind, each layer carefully spread upon card and wrapped in a plastic sleeve, or interleaved with sheets of parchment. I recognise my own love of humble weeds in  her patient gathering, pressing and sorting. I remember how she would stop the car along a busy expressway to harvest the weeds growing on the verge, and explore a hill or empty lot in the hopes of finding something different.

On her bookshelf, the pressed weeds were echoed by the silhouette of a fern on the cover of a leather journal. I made this book for her, maybe 10 years ago.

weeds on a journal cover

On the title page she had written: “Things my family should know. January 2012″ I turned the page with some trepidation…what sort of secrets did she have, that she felt the need, two years before her death, to set it down in a journal like this?

The next page was blank. And so were all the other pages in the journal. Even at the end, she could not unclench that secret fist. Mysterious till the last. And that is just so typical of her. I laugh. That old devil, the Feminine Mystique.

And so I have found her, in her unwillingness to be found.

It will have to do…it doesn’t actually bother me all that much. She was an individual, I am an individual; blood is the common thing we shared, there is no need to load that simple connection—a fluke product of two humans meeting, mating—with melodramatic emotional baggage. I do not feel the need to know more than this: that her family was not meant to know more.

I tore the page out of what is now a perfectly good, unused journal. To quote Eckhart Tolle: “I do not have much use for the past.”

My family should know

I, on the other hand, have always been a gabby talker, a blurter of intimate things, a spiller of beans, a revealer of my innermost secrets. I found a box in mom’s drawer, filled to the brim with letters and postcards that I wrote to her, from the different places I’ve visited or lived. I’ve always told her about everything…from dope and crystal meth experiments, to who I was going out with that evening and whether I intended to sleep with him or not. Sometimes she would respond with outrage, but would simmer down again when I asked her whether she’d rather I concealed things from her. Poor mom, what a daughter!

I like the sunny spot in which my rampant, weedy life grows—open to wind and rain, knowing nothing of closets,  skeletons, nor locks on doors (within or without). Anyway, I hate the deadweight of a bunch of keys.

letters to my mother


*excerpted from the very long poem Intimate Letters, by Rosanna Warren

Blumen im Winter…

UntitledEin alter Mann, der lächelt, ist wie Blumen im Winter

(An old man who smiles is like flowers in the winter. -German proverb)

The Charleston Shuffle

Tried to catch dad doing the Charleston Shuffle, but his arms were too fast for my exposure, and vanished!

breakfast mit meinem alten Mann

A display of energy like this is rare from him, these days, but he had perked up considerably after a big breakfast together on the verandah.

breakfast mit meinem alten Mann

Also done by this father-daughter pair on Saturday: swapped files, showed each other our Flickr photos (with background story narration), watched one of the BBC’s Planet Earth DVDs., shared a visit from friend and artist Ace Polintan, had halo-halo ice cream with leche flan on top (decadence), took selfies with the camera’s remote control, and watched the sky for rain.
Frühstück mit meinem alten Mann

Of course, after all this (plus his stunt on the dance floor) he had to take a nana nap. :)

Frühstück mit meinem alten Mann

The Sierra Madre with dad

windswept
My dad, our family friend Mae, and I went driving for the day to the Tanay foothills of the Sierra Madre—the longest mountain range in the Philippines. I tried shooting from the moving car, so as not to disrupt the trip or annoy my father’s driver too much, but didn’t meet with very much success. The shot of these windswept, grass-covered hills was the only one worth keeping. The bare hills are a testament to the locals’ charcoal-making activities for many decades, and the painter John Altomonte responded to my photograph with some lines of poetry, which I will include here because they help make the photograph seem better than it actually is…

Weeping winds, a broken hearted land…
gone the children- the trees, her winged troubadours?

Departure

It’s little I care what path I take,
And where it leads it’s little I care;
But out of this house, lest my heart break,
I must go, and off somewhere.

It’s little I know what’s in my heart,
What’s in my mind it’s little I know,
But there’s that in me must up and start,
And it’s little I care where my feet go.

—from Departure, Edna St. Vincent Millay

20 November 2014