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.

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

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.

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