One night in Incheon

This is only my second time flying on Asiana Airlines and second time passing through Incheon. The first time was 14 years earlier in 2004 and proved to be so traumatizing that I vowed never to return to the Korean peninsula ever again.

 
Let me first take you back to 2004 when a couple of young, happy-go-lucky chappies landed in Seoul on a stopover from Tokyo to Sydney. I was living in Tokyo at the time and flying back home for a holiday with my friend Shinya. My choice of flying Asiana back then, like today, was purely financial: It was the cheapest airline flying that route. Nevertheless, I decided to embrace this opportunity to stopover in Seoul and have my first experience of Korean culture. I booked a hotel in Myeongdong online. Everything was set and so off we went.

 
After a short flight to Incheon and then a bus ride into the city, we arrived at our hotel in Myeongdong, the so-called “Shibuya” of Seoul. No doubt a lot has changed in 14 years, but back then, clearly the person who drew the Shibuya comparison was using strong hallucinogenic drugs. Like the rest of Seoul, it didn’t have immediate aesthetic appeal. Unphased by our grim surroundings however, we proceeded to check in to the hotel, only to be greeted by the three hotel receptionists from hell, who had obviously misunderstood “hospitality” industry for “hostility” industry. They were clearly not as enthused by our presence in their hotel as we were about our holiday and embarked on a thirty minute passive aggressive dialogue (emphasis on the word “aggressive”) about why we wouldn’t be happy in their hotel. They obviously did not want us there, but didn’t have the courage to straight out say it. Although we did manage to stay at their hotel in the end, the damage had been done and I was scarred for life. As far as I was concerned, all Koreans were horrible. The final nail was hammered in the coffin of Korean hope when some years later I was working for a Korean employer who managed to cheat me and all the other staff while playing the victim himself.
Fast forward to 2018: I’m flying Sydney to Istanbul on Asiana Airlines with a one night stopover at the Best Western Premier Hotel Incheon Airport. A lot was riding on this: this was to be a return to the past and an undoing of the past. It was up to the Best Western Incheon to right the wrongs of their Myeondong predecessors.

 
The flight on Asiana Airlines was fine and we arrived at Incheon at about 8 pm after a ten hour flight. Five minutes in a shuttle bus later, I arrived at my hotel, the Best Western Premier Incheon. Much to my surprise (and relief) I was greeted at reception by extremely friendly, smiling and welcoming hotel staff who this time had clearly received the memo about “hospitality not hostility”. The room was comfortable, the shower was hot, the Wi-Fi was strong … and the staff were pleasant! Wow… winning!

 
After a good night’s rest, I got up, had breakfast, hopped back on the shuttle bus and arrived back at Incheon airport. I proceeded to the baggage drop-off area only to become alarmed by the realisation that I had left my suitcase on the bus. Despite all the yoga that I do, it didn’t count for a thing in this moment and I rapidly went into meltdown and turned into a hysterical screaming maniac. I ran out to the street but couldn’t see my beautiful purple case anywhere. I jumped in the first taxi and went straight back to the hotel. I raced into reception and in blurted out, “I left my case on the bus and now it’s gone… I can’t find it anywhere!!! Help me!!” Sensing my panic and desperation, the two hotel receptionists mobilized into action like two superheroes, Batman and Robin. Robin got straight onto his mobile phone and started calling all the shuttle bus drivers while Batman whisked me out the back to the Batmobile and we zoomed back to the airport. We located the shuttle bus in question but shockingly, there was purple bag in the luggage hold. Back into the Batmobile and after a sweaty 15 minute loop around Incheon, we managed to locate the purple beauty on the side of the road. Thank God it was Korea because in Europe or the Americas, an unattended bag outside an airport would have brought in the federal police and the bomb squad. Thankfully though, the Koreans weren’t concerned. Suitcase in hand, I expressed my gratitude to Batman and I was ready for the next leg of the journey: Non-stop to Istanbul!

Choroni and Chuao

Seeing in the new year in Caracas was like Christmas… It was nice but pretty low key. Isaias, who I met in Pampatar, came to Caracas from after spending Christmas in Cumana and we saw in the new year together. It was “Spag Bol” and red wine for dinner followed by watching the fireworks go off in the shanty towns on hills from my balcony in Santa Eduvigis. I assumed they were all fireworks, but there could have been some gun shots in there as well. I had planned to go to Plaza Francia for the countdown. Apparently with the crisis now it’s greatly reduced. Even though it was supposedly “safe”, hanging out on the streets of Caracas at midnight didn’t have a lot of appeal so the balcony was fine. And watching fireworks in the barrios was a truly Caraqueño experience.

Actually, I have to admit there were a few days in Caracas during that time when I was secretly counting down the days till it was time to go home. When you first get to Caracas, after everything you’ve read, you’re like “Wow, it’s really not THAT bad! What are they on about… This is OK!” And it’s true… While nothing in Caracas or Venezuela is THAT bad, the problem is that nothing is actually THAT good either. Every individual thing is not that bad but all the little annoyances just kind of add up and after a while get under your skin. People are justifiably tense and unhappy and being surrounded by such negativity gets under your skin too after a while. I knew all of this beforehand but I guess I thought I was a bit tougher nd wouldn’t take so much of it on board. And… To top it all off… I was robbed three times in Caracas during this time! Fortunately it was more of a “swindle” than a mugging so that was good… And it wasnt a lot of money either, but didn’t exactly help to cement my relationship with the city and its inhabitants.

Fortunately though… The whole trip ended on high note. I spent the last week from Monday to Friday in Choroni, a little “pueblo” on the coast within Henri Pittier National Park. From all the beaches I saw in Venezuela, Playa Grande in Choroni was without doubt the most beautiful. Truly postcard stuff. Henri Pittier National Park is stunning as well and in order to get to Choroni, you have to drive through the forest, up the mountain and then down it, along a very narrow winding road. This being Venezuela and not Australia, the road is essentially a series of hairpin bends, in parts only one car wide and with no barrier or fence on the sides of the road.


With buses, cars and motorbikes all sharing the road, there were a couple of crashes.  


Can you imagine if it happened in Australia? All motorbikes and buses would be banned. But in non-Australian parts of the world, people move on with their lives.

The only negative about the drive to Choroni was that we were stopped twice by police on the road and searched. My bags got the “fine tooth comb” treatment and the driver’s paperwork was carefully scrutinised. Supposedly the police are just doing their jobs… They’re looking out for people smuggling food and stuff or whose documents aren’t in order. Everything was fine, they let us go and didn’t try to extract any bribes or plant drugs. Nevertheless, Venezuelan police are scary and even though it was only a few minutes, my heart was pounding.

Because it was just after new year, Choroni was pumping… There’s not much to do except go to the beach, eat, drink and hang out at the Malecon at night and drink moe. Our posada was a little far from the Malecon. Although the distance itself wasn’t an issue, walking along the dark road at night was a BIG issue. Venezuela is the land of “constantly look over your shoulder”. The last stretch of road just before the posada had no lights at all. It was pitch black. Isaias took his shirt off for the walk back because he thought it made him look more like a thug and therefore a less likely target for a mugging. I don’t know if it was thanks to that, but anyway, we didn’t get mugged.


We made a side trip to Chuao, a fifteen minute boat road along the coast and just a little further along Henri Pittier National Park. Chuao is allegedly home to the best cacao in the world. That is, cacao the fruit and not any chocolate products that they produce there. Apparently the quality of the flavour is the best all the best chocolate companies in the world come to Chuao to buy their cacao beans. The “pueblo” of Chuao is very pretty… The only thing is that it truly is a very poor pueblo and for the people who live there, there is virtually nothing to do. You can just see people sitting around unhappily waiting for “something”… And for me this gave the place a rather menacing edge. We didn’t stay long.

Even more crackers now…

I keep reminding myself that I DID come for the adventure of it all… And that I wanted to see how people live in Venezuela… And that’s certainly what I got. I guess I secretly hoped that it would be slightly less of a bumpy ride than it has been.

Anyway, I came back to Caracas on the 23rd and got to experience my traditional Venezuelan Christmas… It was actually pretty low key, but nice. I got invited to Yordano’s place to spend Christmas with his friends and family. We just ate the traditional foods: hallacas, pan de jamon, potato salad … and of course plenty of rum and music. I must have had more rum than I thought, because most of my photos from the night were extremely out of focus! Here are a couple that survived: Hallacas wrapped in leaves from Plantain trees and the Ham bread.


The night was interesting too in that I got to see the “other” side of Caracas, or at least one of the “other” sides. When I first got to Caracas I was raving about how nice it is. Lonely Planet doesn’t know what it’s talking about, I thought!! People were quick to point out that I was staying in a very affluent area and that other parts of Caracas not like the cozy and comfortable Los Palos Grandes. They weren’t wrong. Although most of Caracas and Venezuela looks quite shabby and deteriorated, once you step out of the east part of Caracas, the deterioration and shabbiness gets a whole lot worse. The shanty towns and “bad bits” aren’t confined to certain areas either. You can be in a relatively OKish place, then quickly go round the corner and you descend into a kind of scary post apocalyptic world. Yordano’s area is like that. It’s about ten minutes walk from Plaza Bolivar and the downtown area, which looks relatively ok. The area beyond Plaza Bolivar toward his place, isn’t beautiful but not THAT bad either, by Latin American standards. However, crossing the road from his place is stepping into a post-apocalyptic hell hole. It’s scary.


It’s also not far from “El Helicoide” and could be easily seen from the living room window. The Helicoide was an ambitious building project that started in the fifties but was never completed. It was like an architectural sculpture designed to be a giant commercial space and shopping mall with a road that goes around it spiralling upwards. It was intended to have shops, exhibition areas, discos and even a helipad but was eventually abandoned before completion. It’s had various uses in it’s time but is now used as a prison. It currently houses various political prisoners, the leader of the opposition being one of them.  You can see part of it in this picture…


I’m staying in Santa Eduvigis this time, just a couple of minutes walk from Los Palos Grandes. It’s a beautiful place with amazing views to all of Caracas.  


It doesn’t rate quite as high on the convenience factor though in so much as there isn’t anything directly outside the front door, unlike in the other place. The problem with Caracas is that once the sun goes down, EVERYWHERE is a no-go zone. The nearest restaurant is only one block away, quite literally only a two or three minute walk, but once the sun goes down, it’s taxi only… Even to go only one block!

Taxi drivers are funny lot. I got a cab from the hotel next door the other day… I think the cab drivers there get paid a regular wage rather than on a “per trip” basis so aren’t overly enthusiastic, to say the least. Actually, the words “enthusiasm” and “Venezuelan service” don’t generally belong in the same sentence, but this guy was over the top. He was really annoyed that he had to go out at night and insisted that I give him directions on how to get there. I pointed out that he was the taxi driver, not me and he was a local, not me. He didn’t care and it was a very stressful trip.

Other than, it’s just been the usual money issues, dealing with banks everyday and trying to get cash.I caved in today and went and changed some dollars at the official extortionate rate of 672 bolivars to the dollar at the government Italcambio office. It was the only way I could get enough cash. After the whole fiasco with recalling the 100 bolivar notes, the ones that I got today were obviously newly printed and never used. They’re just pumping more worthless cash into the economy.  

It’s been a good ride, but I’m ready to get off now.

Morrocoy National Park

After I wrote that last post, I immediately regretted it! I had just arrived in Chichiriviche and was feeling soooo tired and soooo sick. All I needed was a couple of days rest and recovery, which I got, and now I’m feeling a hundred times better. The whole point of enduring the mosquito ridden dump that is Chichiriviche, is to enjoy the magic of Parque Nacional Morrocoy. Morrocoy is absolutely the perfect place to chill out. It’s kind of Gilligan’s Island out on the cays. Pretty much the only thing there is, is fish and coconuts and youre stranded on the cay until your boat comes to collect you. I spent only two days there and went to two different cays: Cayo de los Pescadores and Cayo Sal. There are a whole lot more and you could easily spend days going to all of them.

Two days in Morrocoy was great, but I kind of overestimated my ability to sit on a beach and do nothing. I had originally booked seven days but quickly realised that that was insane. The funny thing is that I never go to the beach in Sydney at all and haven’t been in years, yet somehow I thought in Venezuela I’d want to sit on a beach for seven days straight. It’s always the same with the clothes too… I have a ton of clothes that I don’t wear but I always bring them along on my trip, just in case this is the time that I start to wear them again… I’m soooooooo “just in case”.

The best part of going to Morrocoy, and generally going to the beach in Venezuela, is the whole Venezuelan beach culture. You get your friends, you load up your esky with ice, rum, coke, beer, you get your music and you really have fun on the beach. You get completely smashed, you blast your music at Mardi Gras level… And no-one complains and no police come to arrest you or kick you off the beach. Then you get in a taxi to go home, completely drunk and still drinking, covered in sand… Not only does the taxi driver not mind, but he joins for a drink. This I like.

Anyway, two days in Morrocoy was more than enough and somehow the Venezuelan Christmas spirit took hold of me and I decided that I wanted to be among friends and eat traditional Venezuelan food (hallacas) after all. I was lucky that I was able to get transport back to Caracas. David, the guy that brought me to Chichiriviche was also able to take me back but only at 8 pm last night, after he had spent the whole day driving around. I’m generally not a nervous passenger, but… 

The drive to Caracas is about four hours. That’s four hours if you drive like a racing car driver. A good fifty percent of the road to Caracas is PITCH BLACK. You can’t see anything! Fortunately, there were very few other cars on the road. David sat on 120 km/h pretty much the whole way, with one hand on the wheel and with the other, texting and making calls. Not just quick 30 second texts, but he was texting for like ten minutes at a time. In order to ensure he wouldn’t fall asleep, he kept both windows open. The night wasn’t exactly warm to begin with and with the wind chill factor, it felt like about minus 70. All I could do was suck on a bottle of rum all the way to Caracas. I had planned to sleep on the way there, but felt that it was probably wiser if I kept an eye on him. Anyway, we arrived safely and in one piece and all was fine.

Here are some snaps from my two days in Morrocoy National Park.

Chilling in Chichiriviche

I just arrived in Chichiriviche this morning. I was hoping to spend a week having some alone time and just chilling but it seems that my chilling will instead be replaced with just having the chills (as in cold sweats). I’ve got some kind of flu. I hope it’s not Zika. I’m worried that I created bad karma with those jokes I made about Zika babies heads and it’s now coming back to haunt me.

Anyway, I can definitely use the “alone” time. As interesting and wonderful as the experiences of the last four weeks have been, the stresses and strains of it all are starting to take their toll. So much so that in the last few days in Punta Ballena, I was pretty much in permanent melt down mode. Ever since the 29th of November, I’ve been in a never-ending 24 hour a day Spanish Conversation class. In other Spanish speaking countries, I spent a lot more time by myself and also met other English speakers, so I didn’t feel the strain of it too much. Here in Venezuela, I’ve been with people for the most part of every day. Being around people in itself is exhausting and often the people haven’t really been from my “tribe”, so to speak. I’ve been very reliant on people who are not always so reliable. I’ve had the worst cough. I’ve been hobbling around on foot since jumping over the iron gate. I’ve spent the best part of two weeks running around the house filling up buckets and trying to find drinking water… AND THEN… To top it all off, the madness of this currency fiasco. Nicolas Maduro gave everyone 72 hours to get rid of their 100 bolivar notes, which they did and then he changed his mind. Now there’s no cash and the entire country is screwed.

It all came to a head last Sunday at Playa Parguito. A French Canadian woman by the name of Sylvie copped the brunt of my melt down. A couple of us decided to go to Playa Parguito. I wanted to see that beach anyway but the added bonus was that a bar there, creatively called “Beach Bar”, allowed it’s customers to swipe their debit cards at the bar in order to pay for the taxi home. Remember no-one has any cash any more. I needed to engage in more dollar criminality and Karen, the black market money dealer, was going to be there. So it seemed like a perfect plan. Karen, despite being French, is reasonably nice but she was with a about five other people who were French Canadians. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never liked French Canadians… English speaking Canadians yes, French Canadians no. If ever you’ve ever seen an interview with Celine Dion, to me, she comes across as a bit self important and egotistical and thinks she’s way more interesting than she actually is. These people were basically a bunch of Celine Dions, equally boring and unattractive but without the musical talent. Then another group of friends showed up… So we were three different groups but all hanging out together. It was one of those weird situations where the group didn’t really gel. There was no reason to be all one group but no-one wanted to be the one to suggest all doing our own thing.


A couple of the French Canadians, Sylvia and Mario, dominated the group. Mario is totally Celine Dion. He is extremely egotistical, constantly talks about himself, craves attention and bizarrely thinks he’s really funny and interesting. Sylvie is just your classic drunken, dumb, fat bitch. Unfortunately, I suffer fools terribly badly… I can fake interest for maybe five minutes but then it REALLY shows on my face. Sylvie and Mario though, are the type of people where everyone can be sitting around them, heads tilted back, eyes glazed over and swallowing their tongues but they still don’t get the message.

Finally it was time to go home. We supposedly had arranged a lift with another guy but he mysteriously disappeared. And then, the next thing I know is, I’m in a car with the two guys I came with, and Mario and Sylvie, headed off to Mario’s place. Suddenly, Sylvie turns around and bellows out “Why you don’t smile? What is wrong wiz you? I sink people who don’t smile is because zey don’t have good sex…”. And so it went on and on and on. Finally I suggested that the reason I wasn’t smiling may have something to do with the company I found myself in. The narcissistic Mario heard that, turned around and immediately threatened to throw me out of the car. I got scarred because not only were we in the middle of nowhere, we were in the middle of dangerous nowhere with no cash and no cabs. Scarred I’d be turfed out, I now was forced to suck up to the narcissist and the fat bitch. Once we got to Mario’s, she wouldn’t leave me alone… She just kept talking and talking and talking. As well as being drunk, she was now extremely stoned… So you can imagine what it was like trying to endure her.

I, by the grace of God, discovered a secret stash of 100 bolivar notes so we were able now to get a taxi and escape the clutches of the two French Canadians. We get in the cab and all of a sudden Sylvie gets in too and wants a lift home. Still, she wouldn’t stop. She was yabbering and bellowing on and on and on… But I had had enough by this time and let Sylvie know. I can’t remember everything I shouted at her but it included “Shut the fuck up. We’ve had enough of you”… Eventually Sylvie got out of the cab and all was fine. One of the things I love about Venezuela is that you can have a screaming match inside a cab and the taxi driver doesn’t even flinch. He just kept on driving. In Sydney, you’d be kicked out and the police called.

So yes, I kind of had mixed feelings about leaving the island. Sad in some ways but I also breathed a bit of a sigh of relief. I flew into Caracas last night and spent the night in Catia La Mar just close to the airport. My forty minute flight again turned into an eight hour ordeal. I was at the front of the check in queue but still the wait was over an hour long. Then the plane was delayed for over three hours. I arranged for a guy to come and pick me up and I was so paranoid that he’d leave and I’d be stuck in Maiquetia on my own in the dark, that I texted him every step of the way. I texted him when I landed and ten minutes later he texts me and asks me what is taking me so long. I’ve been here for three weeks and I’ve realised everything is SLOOOOOOOW. Yet a person who has lived here all his life is surprised that I wasn’t out the door ten minutes after the plane touched down.

As I said, I arrived in Chichiriviche this morning… Chichiriviche is really only a gateway town. It exists only because of Morrocoy National Park and as such, there isn’t really a lot here. I knew this and had kind of accepted it in my head. Nevertheless, I did have a bit of shock when I arrived. I know I’m sick and grumpy, but I’m just going to call a spade a spade here. It’s a dump. And a dodgy, dirty dump at that too. The mosquitoes here are the most vicious blood thirsty monsters you’ve ever encountered. The only mosquito repellant they had here effective enough was to burn jars of petrol that gave of big black fumes. Yeah we got rid of the mosquitoes for a while but the petrol fumes weren’t fun.

Anyway, I’ll have a look at Morrocoy National Park tomorrow. I might feel better about it. Otherwise I might head back to Caracas early. I walked down to the sea this afternoon and this sign kind of summed it up for me…

Getting rid of money… and other issues

Out of the blue, the government of Nicolas Maduro decreed on Monday that after Wednesday 100 bolivar notes, which up to now are the largest denomination banknote, will no longer be legal tender. New higher denomination bank notes are being introduced, although the exact date is still not known. There really is no logic behind this. The government has put out it’s own propaganda as to why this is happening, something along the lines of “The United States is stealing the banknotes and hiding them in Eastern Europe” Mind you, after everything that has come out of WikiLeaks recently about Hillary Clinton and the US, this theory is not really that far-fetched.  

Anyway, whatever the reason for the banning of the 100 bolivar note, there has been a mad scramble across the country to get rid of them. You can either try to spend them or you can deposit them in your bank account. You can imagine what the banks look like at the moment with absolutely the entire population going to the bank on the same day… It’s worse than an Apple store on the day of the release of a new iPhone. So, naturally, I opted for the “spending” option. The reality for me is that even if I lose all the money, it doesn’t make any difference. I’m just in it for the sport of it, but for Venezuelan people it’s yet another insult on top of many injuries. Fortunately though, the government allowed an slight extension. You could use the notes in shops until Friday and you have next week to deposit them in banks.

Baby, I don’t need dollar bills to have fun tonight… I love cheap thrills! Baby, I don’t need dollar bills to have fun tonight… I love cheap thrills! That’s kind of been my theme song of this week as I’ve gone on a mission to get rid of all my 100 bs notes. It’s interesting that the abbreviation for bolivar is “BS” as in “bullshit” … Because the daily withdrawal limit had been capped at 10 000 bs, Yordano went to great pains to stock pile me with cash. I’ve been using it pretty sparingly so I wouldn’t run out. As a result, I still had a lot left. And, let’s just say… This week, I’ve been having a REALLY good time!! It’s such a buzz too, to be able to shout anyone drinks, meals or whatever. I managed to get rid of all but about 14 000.


It’s funny how quickly you adjust to prices and how slowly old habits die. When I arrived in Caracas, I really lucked out an managed to changed my dollars at 4100 to 1 (the black market rate is now 2500 to 1), which has made everything absurdly cheap. Yet over the last few days, even when I’m desperate to spend my money, I still find myself haggling over prices. The other night we took a cab up to Playa Parguito, to engage in some more “dollar criminality”, as Nicolas Maduro refers to it. It’s about a thirty minute drive from La Caranta to Playa Parguito. Initially, the driver quoted us 4000 bolivars for the one-way trip, which after my windfall in Caracas makes that less than US$1. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to try and bargain him down to 3000… About 70 US cents. We finally settled on a price of 6500 bolivars to drive us there, wait while we do the deal, and then to drive us back. That’s about US$1.50 and yet I wondered if I had been too extravagant.

I ran into a bit of a sticky situation on Thursday night. I had to give someone some money but they refused to accept my 100 bolivar notes. Even though it wasn’t Friday yet, many people and shops had already stopped accepting them. There are no new notes available yet. If you want to pay in cash you have to use 20 bolivar notes or 50 bolivar notes. Most transactions are done by either direct debit, or transferring a payment from one person’s account to another. The direct debit for me isn’t a problem but I don’t have the app on my phone to make a person to person transfer. So I was stuck. As bizarre as it seems, the only thing he would accept as payment was gambling chips from the Casino Del Sol in Porlamar.


After driving around for two hours trying to trade my now useless banknotes in every disco, bar or shop for … hmmm… well, anything really, we admitted defeat and decided that the Casino Del Sol was our only option. We soon arrived and entered the gambling room. The whole place basically looks like the opening scene of the next episode of Banged Up Abroad. We felt a little uncomfortable just buying the chips and then walking out so we played a half-assed round of Black Jack and then left. I think I’m more adventurous than a lot of people but even still, I spent most of the time in the casino thinking to myself, “What the f*** am I doing??!!!” Anyway, we got our chips and made our payment. Everything was fine and we went home.

And in other news this week, I managed to get locked out of my maximum security fortress. Last Sunday, I was at the beach all day and arrived back at Punta Ballena at about 9 pm and couldn’t get in! The security guy at the gate was either unconscious, dead or had just packed up and gone home. There’s no buzzer or intercom either… So, after screaming and shouting for a few minutes, the only option I had was to jump over the fence.  

Considering this is maximum security, it’s a pretty easy gate to jump over. There are no spikes or barbed wire on top and there’s a horizontal bar that goes across the middle so it’s very easy to get a footing. I had had a few rums, so climbing up was very easy… I thought my jump down the other side went smoothly as well until I woke up the next morning and found I had two toes swollen bigger than a Zika baby’s head and a floor covered in blood. So it turns out, it wasn’t quite the smooth operation I had thought. Hobbled and completely cashless, I am now well and truly under house arrest.

Venezuelan people are truly amazing people. I don’t know if it’s out of a sense of duty or out of a sense of pity but people here have been so incredibly kind, helpful and friendly towards me. Without their help I think I would’ve been eaten alive. Having no cash now means that I can’t take a taxi anywhere. A few people have offered to ferry me around in their cars when I need to go somewhere. There’s a real sense of camaraderie here… Perhaps having a common enemy (i.e the government) helps to bond people. Whatever it is, I’m a fan!

Island Life

I arrived here in Pamapatar on Tuesday. It’s been four days now and I’m slowly adjusting to island life while experiencing more of the realities of Venezuelan daily life. Adjusting is a whole lot easier at home when I eat well, sleep well and do yoga… I haven’t exactly been a role model of healthy living here…. Combine that with the general stress of travelling plus the added stress of travelling in Venezuela and you have me having melt down moments…  

Taking flights always works out longer than you think. Caracas to Porlamar is only a forty minute flight but ended up taking up pretty much the whole day. On top of all the usual stuff like getting to the airport, checking in and so on, the flight was delayed by about an hour and a half. The owner of this apartment, Senõr Folco, who lives in Miami, had arranged for a guy named Luis to come and pick me up, for a payment of course. Supposedly Luis did come, but because the flight was delayed he didn’t want to hang around so he left. It wasn’t a big deal. I could still get a taxi on my own and get to the apartment ok, but it was just a bit of a stupid situation as I spent about 30 minutes running around the airport in Porlamar looking for Luis. Pretty much every flight here since the beginning of the aviation industry in Venezuela has been delayed… I find it a bit odd that a local Venezuelan who has lived here all his life didn’t consider that and used it as an excuse.

One of the factors in choosing this place was that it had Wi-Fi INSIDE the apartment itself. A lot of places that I researched only had Wi-Fi in the foyer area on the ground floor. As it turns out “Wi-Fi inside the apartment” means hanging out over the edge of the balcony and extending your arm as far as you can and pointing your iPhone in the direction of the lobby. Then, if you’re lucky and the weather is fine, you may catch a faint signal. I contacted Senõr Folco and expressed my dismay at 1. being stood up by Luis and 2. being misled about the internet. Senõr Folco’s response? This is Venezuela. People have it a lot worse than you. Get over it. Well, yes of course that’s true… And I’m not that inflexible that I can’t adjust. But. That’s not the freakin’ point!!!! Is it?? I had a bit of a moment with Senõr Folco… Let’s just say that it would have been easier to talk down a hired hit man than talk me down… In the end though, I really couldn’t be bothered arguing so … I built a bridge and got over it!

Things were kind of easier in Caracas. Caracas is the “golden child” of Venezuela. Whatever shortages and issues there are, Caracas tends to get spared the worst of it. Supposedly water is rationed in Caracas but I never noticed it. Staying in Los Palos Grandes meant that food and services were plentiful and everything was within a safe and convenient walking distance.

It’s a different story here in La Caranta, Pampatar. La Caranta, and in particular this building, are considered to be one of the best places to live on the island. It’s very cozy! The location at the end of the road, right out on the edge of cliff is spectacular, and the view out to the ocean takes your breath away. Plus, they have 24 hour a day maximum security. However, it comes at a bit of a price. It’s pretty isolated and cut off from everything. There is absolutely NOTHING close by. Plus, given the security situation, you can’t just go off for leisurely strolls down the road. So, I’m feeling even more like I’m under house arrest!  


Water here is rationed… And I mean seriously rationed. It’s kind of weird because it’s rainy season and it rains a lot every day but still, water is rationed. And… a bottle of water costs about ten times the price of a full tank of petrol!! Anyway, the water goes on and off at different times every day. They do tell you in advance though. There is a reserve water tank but this needs to be filled manually, obviously when the town water is “on”. Once you get your head around the whole system and as long as you keep on top of it, it’s fine. But until you do, it’s a bit annoying. Murphy’s Law applies here…. The time that you find out that water is rationed and there is absolutely no water in the house or in the reserve tank is the time when you’ve just done the biggest, stinkiest, most disgusting poo of your life and there are guests in your house. I had to go begging the neighbour for a pale of water in order to sort out this issue.


The biggest nuisance in Venezuela (for a foreign tourist at least) is just the insecurity. You really take it for granted living in Australia, having the freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want, with your valuables in hand and in any state or condition. The chances of anything bad happening are pretty slim. Different story here in Venezuela. Apparently it’s better here on the island than in Caracas but still the streets are eerily deserted after dark and people constantly warn you not to go anywhere. As a result, I’ve become a kind of meteorologist while being holed up like Rapunzel in my Punta Ballena castle, endlessly studying cloud formations!


And just a couple more snaps from my island life…

 

Under House Arrest

I’ve never really been a “five star resort” kind of a guy… I travel to experience life in different parts of the world, to see a different culture and how people live in different parts of the world. So, whatever the experience, whether it’s good or bad, it’s interesting for me. I came Venezuela because I really like Venezuelan people but I wanted to see for myself if the economic, social and political situation is as bad as the media makes out. It’s been an interesting week in Caracas and I got to see what I wanted, but now I’m ready to move on!

As far as the economic crisis goes, for Venezuelans, it sucks the big one! As a foreign visitor with dollars though, and staying in Los Palos Grandes, it’s kind of a case of “Crisis? What crisis?” My timing couldn’t have been any better… The president had just flooded the economy with freshly printed cash, thereby causing the bolivar to nosedive… Changing at 4000 to 1 as I did, I made a killing. Everything is CHEAP! Changing at the official rate would make Caracas quite an expensive city, not outlandishly so, but it wouldn’t really represent very good value for money. There are no obvious shortages in Los Palos Grandes either. It’s pretty much business as usual and you can get more-or-less everything you need. Most transactions are done by EFTPOS so you don’t really need to carry wheel barrow loads of cash with you. The only thing is that the EFTPOS terminals are slow and paying by cash is slow, so there are often long lines at counters. This was the payment for a meal (just one plate of food) at the restaurant downstairs the other night:

I’m trying to use up my cash so I don’t have to lug it on the plane tomorrow. I have been noticing the inflation… I use the “ham and cheese pastel” inflation index measure. I have two of these for brunch everyday:


The first day , the pastels were 900 bolivars each. The next day, they were 1000 bolivars each. Then 1200, and yesterday they were already 1500 bolivars a piece. Prices will continue to go up until they align more closely to the parallel exchange rate. Then the president will print some more money and the cycle will repeat. For those will dollars, it’s not an issue but for people like Senõra Liza it sucks. She’s a full time university lecturer and earns just 50 000 bolivars a month. You do the math.  This arepa cost 5500 bolivars…


The bigger problem here is the security situation, or rather the INSECURITY situation. Everyone has a story to tell you about being mugged at gun point and the warnings from everyone have made me absolutely paranoid. There’s a default curfew in the city. No-one is on the streets after dark and even in the daytime, I’ve been too scared to venture out of the relative safety of Los Palos Grandes. Of course it’s better to be safe than sorry, but I feel a bit like I’m under house arrest. I’m too scarred to go anywhere. I wanted to go out sightseeing the other day… Everyone is extremely cautious and worried about my safety so Yordano arranged with the father of Senõra Margarethe (who was “the dealer”) to take me around to see some sights in the safety of his big black SUV. It was extremely kind of him but the reality is that most of the sights we saw were just of traffic, congested Caracas highways and shopping malls because those were safe.

Anyway, yesterday I thought I can’t bear this anymore… I decided to take the bull by the horns and I escaped from Los Palos Grandes! I went down to Altamira station and caught the metro to Capitolio, the “downtown” of Caracas. Caracas gets such a bad rap. Even Lonely Planet says, “A sprawling metropolis choked with traffic, Caracas incites no instant love affairs. The political and cultural capital of Venezuela is densely overpopulated and hectic with a solid dose of crime and pollution. Few sections of the city are pedestrian friendly and most are downright dangerous”. Safety aside, I think it’s one of the nicer Latin American cities I’ve been to, and downtown Caracas doesn’t really look any more dodgy than downtown anywhere else on the continent.  

Anyway, I caught the train to Capitolio to see some of the sights there. I was walking up the road from the station to Plaza Bolivar, and just here…


Two of the ugliest, nastiest, fattest and rudest policeman pounced on me from behind and proceeded to shout and point “Gringo! Gringo! Gringo! Gringo!” at me. The tone was ferocious… Kind of the way you would shout the “C” word at someone who did something REALLY BAD to you. I was quite startled and taken aback… I whimpered back at them, “NO SOY GRINGO! NO SOY GRINGO!” I was scarred though, because the biggest criminals here are the police. They grabbed my bag and made me empty it out and went through everything. They read my passport like it was novel. Eventually they found nothing in my bag worth stealing so they gave it back to me. But then it got bizarre… One of the officers starts barking and pointing at me again, but this time he was saying “Donald Trump! Donald Trump!” … He then screwed up his face, stared me in the eye and interrogated me, “Are you family of Donald Trump?” It’s like there are only kinds of people in this world: Latinos or family of Donald Trump.  

Of course I answered “no” and pointed out that I actually live a very long way away from him. Satisfied that I was in no way related to Donald Trump, he continued his interrogation. “Did you vote for Donald Trump?” “What is your opinion of Donald Trump?” I wasn’t quite sure what the right answer to that question was, but I figured it probably wasn’t the best time to pull out my “Hillary For Prison” T-shirt and start chanting “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!” So, I rather timidly answered “él es loco”, hoping that that was the answer they were looking for. They laughed and let me go after that.

A bit shaken by that incident, I hot-footed it back to Capitolio metro station and retreated to the cozy safety of Los Palos Grandes and called up someone to chaperone me around town. As I said, I think Caracas is a nice city. Admittedly there isn’t a lot of Spanish Colonial architecture and most of the “modern” architecture is a bit dated and run down,… but the setting… ABSOLUTELY STUNNING!!!

La Asamblea Nacional and Plaza Bolivar…


Parque El Calvario and the view from there…


Paseo de Los Proceres…

Going Crackers in Caracas

I’ve been in Caracas for about three and a half days now…Not that I count down the days on a holiday but it’s been an extremely intense time, teetering on the verge of tears all the time and all the voices in my head going off! You know, the ones that keep saying “You f***ing idiot… What the hell are you doing?” I’m really looking forward to slowing down and starting the real holiday, if that is in fact possible in Venezuela.
Flying is invariably always worse than you anticipate. By the time you factor in getting to the airport, checking in, transit times, flying times, getting out the other side, it all adds up! What seemed like a relatively easy flight to Caracas from São Paulo ended up being a gruelling 16 hours. Flying into Caracas was a little weird. The airport was fairly deserted of planes. My Avianca flight was the only non-Venezuelan aircraft in the field and the arrivals hall was pretty empty. The bonus is that you get through immigration and customs pretty fast! There were quite a few sideways glances in the arrivals hall and the immigration officer seemed a little surprised that a foreigner was here on holiday. With a puzzled look on her face, she kept asking me, “You’re here for what? Tourism????? Five weeks???” She didn’t even know if I needed a visa… She asked me!

My friend Yordano met me at the airport.  


Everyone was terribly concerned that as an obviously non-Venezuelan person I would not get out of Maiquetia alive…. So he came out to the airport to meet me so I wouldn’t have to deal with any of the “abusers” (as he likes to call them, referring to customs officers and cab drivers) on my own. Yordano used to have a job in a bank, but the pay was so low that he couldn’t justify the time spent working there, so he quit and so now he has a lot of free time on his hands…. Lucky for me! We got a cab and he took me to meet the lovely Liza to get me settled in Los Palos Grandes and try to get all the money business sorted out. The trip from the airport was full on, particularly with very little sleep: a non-stop barrage of dos and don’ts for Caracas (mostly don’ts though). The locals really instil fear into you, which is a good thing, but makes you feel very on edge all the time. Caraquenõs speak like “verbal diarrhoea on speed”. People who are not used to dealing with people who don’t speak their language or who have never been in a country where they are forced to speak a second language, simply don’t understand the concept of “please speak slowly and clearly”. Although I speak some Spanish, everything I learnt seems almost useless in Caracas. They drop so many letters from words … It’s taking a while to get my head around it! I’m permanently being introduced as “Mati Koki”… “Are you tired” becomes “ta cansado” instead of “estas cansado”… The other day we got a “chi” (chip) for my phone… I should be very careful of my “lato” (laptop)… And don’t wear cho (shorts) to the club. WECO (welcome) A CARACA!!

Caracas gets a very bad rap. I personally like ugly cities anyway… The people are generally nicer because they have to try harder. Beautiful cities = horrible people. Just look at Barcelona…. What a nightmare dealing with those Catalans! I admit so far I have seem very little of the city, only the drive from the airport and a bit of walking around Los Palos Grandes, Altamira, La Castellana (the so-called “best parts”) and a bit of the downtown. So far, I think it’s not that bad, at least by Latin American standards. Caracas had it’s boom time in the 70’s and the architecture reflects that. Around Altamira, it’s very attractive. Other parts of the city are kind of run down. The setting is absolutely stunning … It lies in a valley surrounded by hills and mountains. Admittedly most of the hills are covered in shanty towns. It’s very green and you can always hear birds chirping.

After three days of trying, I finally managed to open a Venezuela bank account, changed US$200 in cash at a rate of 4100 bolivars to the dollar… AND got 220 000 bolivars in cash!!! I deserve a gold medal at the Black Market Olympics!

Anyway, we made a call to a lady who Yordano only refers to only as “La Gorda” (the fat one) and she put us on to “the dealers”, Margarethe and Pedro. The whole day (Wednesday) was spent hanging around waiting for Margarethe. You know how it is with Latinos… First she was supposed to come over to my place at 11.30 am…. Then it was 12.30 … 12.30 became 4.30 … But in the end she couldn’t make it at all and so we were instructed to meet her at 7 pm at Parque Carabobo metro station to do the deal. We met her at the station, in rush hour, in the pouring rain, surrounded by extremely dodgy looking people and went into some dirty corner next to a trash room, all huddled around very closely and did our secret business. It felt like the equivalent of shooting up heroin in Pitt Street Mall.

The bolivar is free fall. When we negotiated the deal, it was at 4100. Already one hour later it was at 4200 and in the evening when we met her and did the deal, it was at 4600!!!!!

The whole of Thursday was spent running around doing banking. I’m a bit sick and to be honest, the whole thing is a bit of a blur. I don’t know how Yordano did it. I just followed instructions, signed and did my thumb prints… But he called his friends at the bank and then the next thing I know, I have an account. It is otherwise impossible for tourists to open an account here.

One of the many aspects of the economic crisis here is that there isn’t enough cash to go around. The largest denomination note is only 100 bolivars, which is now worth about 2.5 cents!! The government hasn’t actually had enough money to print more money, so cash is being rationed. The daily withdrawal limit is only 10 000 bolivars. There are huge queues at banks everywhere. People use debit cards for most transactions, but for some things you absolutely DO NEED cash.

I don’t know how Yordano did it, but we took about an hour bus ride out to a place called Los Teques. I just remember from one of the first episodes of Banged Up Abroad, when those two British guys ended up in prison in Venezuela, it was in Los Teques! We went to visit a friend of his who works in a MAKRO supermarket there. Again, the whole thing is a bit of a blur, I just did what I was told… I don’t know what he did, but we shook a few hands and the next thing I know is that I have a bag of 220 000 bolivars worth of cash!


It’s been a week and a half or being solidly on the go and now I’m paying the price… I’ve got a cold! Back to bed today I think. And just some assorted snaps…

Plaza Francia, Altamira.


My street in Los Palos Grandes


“La Estancia” in Altamira


A view of “downtown” with the “Tower of David” building (the world’s only vertical shanty town)


Teresa Carrenõ Theatre


Hillside shanty town (one of many!)

Getting mugged in São Paulo

I’m generally quite a negative person, but when it comes to going on some little adventure somewhere, I’m the eternal optimist! It’s always a case of, “It can’t possibly be as bad as they say… They must be exaggerating” and “I’ll be fine… I can do it. Nothing will happen to me”. It’s this attitude combined with a little naivety that makes me think having a holiday in Caracas is a good idea; I can walk around downtown São Paulo at 1.30 am completely drunk while using my mobile phone and nothing will happen… But perhaps the craziest and most naive idea I had was that I would come to Brazil and do Bikram Yoga. In the biggest city in the Americas??? Home of the caipirinha??? I never stood a chance.
The reality of travelling to Venezuela is slowly starting to sink in: hyperinflation, a currency devaluing by the second, high crime rates, no food and NO CASH! I’m not worried about the food so much. If I lose a few kilos, I’ll be happy. The cash situation has me more concerned. The latest news is that Liza seems to think some banks have a special debit card kinda thing that they give out to tourists… That would be good so fingers crossed. If I can do it all above board, it’ll save me a couple of golden handshakes. Anyway, all will be revealed tomorrow so stay tuned.

The part about me not doing Bikram yoga and walking around downtown São Paulo at 1.30 am kind of go hand in hand so let me start at the beginning. I will say first though, in my defence, that initially the problem was simply jet lag. After that, however, other factors may have played a part.

During my time here in São Paulo, I’m renting a room from a guy called Marcio. After the disaster in Hong Kong renting a room from that Italian psychopath, I swore I would never share again… But since I don’t speak any Portuguese and this is a big city, I thought it might be a good idea to have an English speaking local. And basically, it has been a good idea. My radar for ferreting out freaks and weirdos has improved dramatically since Hong Kong. Marcio has been incredibly nice…. The perfect host! When I arrived on the first night, he opened the door with eyes half closed and the apartment smelling of incense … I had that one worked out in a second! Yes, that’s right… It seems that there has been a resurgence of potheads in my life. I will say though that living with a pothead is far easier than working with one. He’s very laid back, which is what you want a flatmate to be.

The next night, we went out to a little bar called Igrejinha (little church) complete with a neon crucifix hung over the counter. You just know that a bar that takes it’s imagery from the Catholic church is going to be nothing but a hotbed of sins… And I was right! I started off the night at 10 pm with a mojito, and made it back to the apartment around 7 am…. And well, I’ll let you fill in the blanks. But no, pedophilia was not involved. The great thing about travelling in non-Australian countries is that drinks are the real deal: highball glass filled mostly with alcohol and just a little splash of mixer to give it colour.  


Predictably, Friday was a complete write off.

Saturday was a good day. I started off the day with a little smidge of sightseeing in the morning. São Paulo is not exactly the kind of place for leisurely sightseeing strolls. Nonetheless, I power strolled down to Liberdade, São Paulo’s Japanese neighbourhood. You know the kind… The one with Korean sushi shops and Korean grocery stores! I didn’t hang around too long. It looks just like the rest of São Paulo, except with a few lantern-style street lights hanging over the roads. On the way back, I stopped for a while in Praça da Se, considered to be the central point of São Paulo. It’s an attractive and leafy place. While I was there, there was a little “tribe” of dancers out the front of the cathedral who were “dancing for Jesus”. At the end of the performance, one of the dancers came and handed me a post-it note and invited me to write down my sins and hang it on the cross. I admired his optimism, that all my sins could be written on one post-it note. A whole pad of post-it notes would have been optimistic… But one??


Next on the agenda was lunch with the lovely Gabriela Rocha. It’s always an amazing thing to be in another part of the world and see a familiar face. For lunch it was a truly delicious family sized mouceca and family sized caipirinhas. I’m blaming the jet lag here because usually I’m stronger than this but I had one caipirinha and I was wiped out. Mind you, one drink here is equivalent to about 17 Australian drinks.


I was in no shape to go clubbing on that night (jet lag and caipirinhas) but the good thing in São Paulo is that you can go to bed on a Saturday night, wake up on Sunday morning at 5 am, have a caipirinha for breakfast and still go out! Something I had never done before, but it was good!

Let’s cut this long story short… I was mugged. Not satisfied with spending 14 hours in this club, once it closed I thought I’d move on to the “after-the-after-party” party. I knew the next club was near my place, somewhere on the other side of the Praça da Republica but I didn’t know exactly where. So at 1.30 am, while completely drunk, I thought it would be a REALLY good idea to ask the taxi driver to drop me off in a dark plaza in downtown São Paulo, alone, connect to the Wi-Fi and take out my mobile phone and check Google maps. The muggers must have been rolling on the floor laughing when they saw me. The most stupid thing is that once I did that, I decided I didn’t want to go the club after all and I would just go home. I live very close to the praça but the problem with São Paulo is that absolutely every corner and every block of road looks exactly the same, especially in the dark when you’re drunk. So, it was a little difficult to orientate myself and work out on which side of the praça was my street. Suddenly out of the darkness a guy appears and offers to help with directions. And guess what?? I told him the street I was looking for!! I walked right into that one, didn’t I?!! I knew it was trouble straight away though, so I started walking really fast… He kept saying “why are you walking so fast?” But the faster I walked, he just kept up with me. Anyway, wham, bam, thank you ma’am, next thing I’m down a dark street and another guy shows up… Guy number 1 puts his arm around me and hugs me really hard. I straight away gave him my cash and the other guy asked for my phone. I handed it over no questions asked and thank God they ran away after that. I had a credit card and passport as well.

I know you all just read that and are thinking “You f***ing idiot”. And I am, because I’m smarter than that. I don’t care about the phone or cash, I’m just angry with myself that I was so stupid and walked into that easily avoidable trap. You just don’t do that in Latin American cities. It makes me realise I really need to lift my game if I’m to survive Venezuela.