On July 1, 2006 at 17:00 hours, the day finally came to depart Grenada and thus say goodbye to the Archipelago of the Eastern Caribbean.
We set sail to the southwest, ultimately headed for the mainland of South America! This passage was particularly “exciting” compared to our Caribbean adventures so far, mostly because it required us to sail through the most controversial and potentially dangerous waters we have plotted a course through to date.
Why was it different, you ask? Well, although the odds were statistically very minimal, there was nonetheless a true possibility of actually being confronted by honest-to-goodness gun-toting Pirates!
PREFACE: RUMINATIONS AND REFLECTIONS PRIOR TO ENTERING VENEZUELAN WATERS
We knew that this leg of our offshore travels would not be another little Eastern Caribbean cookie-cutter island-hop, the likes of which we had become so comfortable with. On the contrary, the trip to Venezuela took quite a bit of new thought and new preparation.
In fact, it had been a long time since Melissa and I ruminated so much over a passage and it was not since preparing for the seven day “I-65” offshore trip from Ft. Lauderdale to the British Virgin Islands that we waded through, and digested so much, pre-passage information.
And for the first time in our cruising adventures, topics like seamanship, heavy weather tactics, and sea conditions were the very least of our worries. Instead, we found ourselves keenly focused almost exclusively on concerns about crime and personal safety. We were bombarded with a staggering volume of negative information about Venezuela and its coastal waters and had to digest it all before heading out.
Thus, to appreciate our situation, we have provided an introduction regarding the concerns that we faced.
Growing Concerns About Venezuela
By the time we reached Grenada in June of 2006, we were considerably nervous about Venezuela’s seemingly venomous anti-USA politics. Even worse, we were intensely cognizant of all the latest reports of increased crime and piracy in Venezuela's waters.
Regardless, we would have to make a move in that direction. The hurricane season choices were either Trinidad or Venezuela. After Hurricane Ivan devastated Grenada, insurance companies did not offer the option of staying in Grenada anymore and our yacht insurance policy, with Jackline Insurance, required us to be below 10 degrees 50 Minutes North Latitude from July 1 through October 31.
Even so, some Cruisers with similar insurance policies were so disheartened by crime reports from both Trinidad and Venezuela that they decided to stay in Grenada anyway. They simply planned to “run for it” and head south if a hurricane approached. That’s a pretty “ballsy” plan when you think about it. Illness, injury, boat breakdowns, local weather or any number of things could prevent a fast getaway! And then there’s Murphy’s Law too.
We had made plans a year in advance to head to Venezuela for hurricane season. Our ultimate destination: the Bahia Redonda Marina located in/near the “El Morro” marina complex at Puerto La Cruz, which is located on the northern coast of the South America.
Puerto la Cruz is smack-dab in the middle of the coastline of Venezuela and it has enjoyed a stellar reputation as a great hurricane avoidance destination for several decades. During the 60’, 70’s and 80’s it was a “cheap paradise” according to long-term experienced Cruisers we talked to. Back then there were no sensational safety and security concerns to speak of and the political climate was calm.
Once we got to Grenada, it was time to study the charts and begin making a passage plan. It was most sensible to make the trip from Grenada to Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, in two hops.
First, we would do an overnight and half-day passage from Grenada to Venezuela’s largest offshore island, Isla de Margarita, a very large island and one of Venezuela’s most popular vacation destinations. Affluent folks from the mainland visit Margarita by high-speed ferry and shop at huge malls and enjoy the beaches on the north shore.
The plan for the next leg of the trip, after Margarita, was to leave very early and make a daylight trip from Margarita to Puerto La Cruz, avoiding any nighttime travel near the Venezuelan mainland.
Before we go any further, let’s all review a map and get oriented:
Melissa and I had already paid Bahia Redonda Marina in advance for four months and reserved a slip. Hyperinflation is “wildfire” swift in Venezuela and when we made our initial reservations, Bahia Redonda would not guarantee the price of a slip for more than a month unless we paid for several months in-full and up-front. Also, there was an additional cash discount available if we paid cash in full. Venezuelans are frenzied in their desire to obtain U.S. Dollars, a much more stable currency than their hyperinflation-plagued Bolivars.
So, six months prior to the 2006 hurricane season, we had already paid for July through October 2006 at a rate of only $500.00 per month, and that included water and unlimited electricity to run our 30,000 BTU’s of air conditioning! A boat slip costs more than that per week in snobby South Florida marinas, so dollar-wise it was a great deal on its face and worth plunking down the dough. The method of payment: wire transfer of US dollars to the marina's bank account in Puerto Rico, not Venezuela!
You can take a quick look at the Bahia Redonda Marina here:
Despite our $2,000.00 deposit being on the line, as we cruised south in the Eastern Caribbean, we occasionally considered canceling our Venezuela plans because we continued receiving reports that anti-U.S.A. rhetoric there was reaching fever pitch. And it seemed that Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, was ramping-up to be one of the wildest Latin American podium-pounders since Noriega.
We kept tabs on various sources and here are a few of the web sites we monitored to keep an eye on unfolding Venezuelan news:
In addition to the unstable political climate in Venezuela, we learned of a serious crime committed against an Austrian cruiser who was peacefully anchored at a small island just offshore from our destination of Puerto La Cruz! He was anchored all alone (and apparently that turned out to be a BIG mistake). His boat was boarded by Pirates and he was shot in the gut during the robbery. He was “lucky” and survived (sans a kidney).
It was considerate that the Venezuelan government paid for his medical expenses, but that did not at all diminish the damage done to Venezuela’s already deteriorating reputation as a formerly “safe” cruising destination.
In addition, other reported incidents of Venezuelan piracy were unfolding (as well as some crimes that simply go unreported). Thus, we knew that the situation was a little more troubling than the under-reported statistics suggested.
A perusal of the Cruisers’ Safety and Security Network demonstrated to us that there had already been alarming crimes committed against Cruisers in Venezuela, in all locales, including the so-called “resort areas” and “safe” anchorages like Porlamar at the resort island of Margarita.
Here are just a few descriptions of past crimes against Cruisers in Venezuelan waters between 2003 and 2006:
1. Crimes at Venezuela ’s Offshore islands, including the resort island of Margarita:
VESSEL BOARDED BY MEN ARMED W/ MACHETES, VICTIM REQUIRED MANY STITCHES & CAST ON LEFT HAND & ARM, HOSPITALIZED OVERNIGHT
AT 2130, VESSEL BOARDED BY SEVERAL ARMED MEN; TIED UP CREW, HIT CAPTAIN WITH RIFLE, CAPTAIN UNTIED HIMSELF & FLED
ABOUT 3 AM VESSEL BOARDED BY 3 YOUNG MEN, ALSO TRIED TO GET DINGHY, MEN SCARED OFF BY ALARM AND FLARE
ABOUT MIDNIGHT , VESSEL BOARDED BY 4 ARMED MEN, CREW TIED UP, BOAT LOOTED
FAMILY WITH 2 CHILDREN, VESSEL BOARDED BY 5 ARMED MEN, LOOTED BOAT
VESSEL BOARDED BY 2 MEN ARMED WITH KNIVES & GUNS, TOOK MONEY, VIDEOS, RADIOS, 17 FT DINGHY AND 40 HP O/B, DIVE EQUIPMENT
VESSEL BOARDED; 2 MEN W/ GUNS TOOK 150,000 BOLIVARS. 3RD MAN WAITED IN PIROGUE, FIRED 1 SHOT WHEN LEAVING
2. Crimes on the Coast of the Venezuela Mainland:
VESSEL BOARDED BY SIX MASKED ARMED MEN WHO BEAT UP CREW & RANSACKED BOAT
ANCHORED, VESSEL BOARDED BY 6 MEN, HELD GUN TO 2 YR OLD CHILD (emphasis added), RANSACKED BOAT
MID AFTERNOON VESSEL BOARDED BY 3 MEN, 1 ARMED WITH 357 REVOLVER, TOOK OUTBOARD ENGINE, DIVE GEAR, 500,000 BOLIVARS
LEAVING MOCHIMA MID DAY VESSEL ACCOSTED BY THREE MEN IN PIROGUE NAMED ATLANTIS, ARMED WITH GUN AND MACHETE, GUN FIRED IN AIR
VESSEL BOARDED; CAPTAIN & 3 MEN SCUFFLED; ANOTHER WAITED IN PIROGUE; CAPTAIN HIT WITH FRYING PAN, LOST TEETH
EARLY EVE, VESSEL BOARDED; 4 MEN W/ GUNS TIED UP CREW, TOOK $7000 CASH & $10,000 WORTH OF STUFF
NOON , 5 ARMED MEN BOARDED VESSEL, SINGLEHANDER SHOT IN BELLY, HOSPITALIZED IN PUERTO LA CRUZ, LOST KIDNEY DURING
YARD OWNER & WIFE DRIVING INTO GATE AT YARD SHOT THRU WINDSHIELD, TWO MEN IN CUSTODY TERMED A "HIT" (Note: both were murdered and this happened just days before we departed Grenada).
3. On the high seas in Venezuela ’s Territorial Waters:
9AM IN-ROUTE- FROM UNION ISLAND in the GRENADINES to MARGARITA, VENEZUELA, A HIGH SPEED BOAT w/SEVERAL MEN, VESSEL BOARDED, SHOTS FIRED, CAPTAIN KILLED, SURVIVING CREW TOOK BOAT TO LOS TESTIGOS WITH VENEZUEALAN COAST GUARD ESCORT
IMPORTANT NOTE: The above reports were blocked and copied directly from the Safety and Security Net on or about March 2007. Curiously, the Safety and Security Net has changed web site addresses and has a new format now and some of the crimes delineated above no longer appear on their new lists. Thus, one must conclude that the crime reports therein are merely representative of some crimes and the site is unreliable as a source to determine the actual number of crimes. Apparently, the actual number of crimes significantly exceeds the ones reported by the Safety and Security Net web site.
Nonetheless, here are the current links to the Security Net reports on Venezuela where you can see crime reports as they stand today:
A. Offshore Islands of Venezuela
B. Coastal areas of Venezuela
Despite the fact that your actual odds of being a victim are extremely low, there is something especially unsettling about the thought of crime being committed by perpetrators boarding our personal boat.
First and foremost, if we become a target, there is nowhere to run and we are isolated, even in a crowded anchorage. There are no viable 911-type emergency options. Let’s face it, other Cruisers cannot (and really should not) physically come to your aid until after an incident of Piracy is over.
And even if you carry firearms “out here” you are still extremely vulnerable. Despite being a good Cajun who grew up hunting and fishing, I decided not to carry actual firearms for several reasons. There is no way a 12 gauge shotgun on a 7 knot sailboat will win against five guys with automatic weapons on a fast powerboat – that only happens in Hollywood. Get caught with a gun that you were supposed to turn into Customs and you will do more jail time than the robber you stood down with the gun. Declare the gun and turn it over to Customs and you are unarmed anyway.
Also, pulling a shotgun against four or five armed Pirates in a fast boat will make you a sitting duck, much more likely to be shot or killed instead of perhaps getting roughed-up and robbed only. And it does not matter what kind of superior firepower you think you have. A well placed shot from an enemy's BB gun can leave you blind with a patch on your eye, despite the fact that you were shooting back with a rocket propelled grenade launcher. David and Goliath, and all that. Plus, gun fights are never predictable, nor is the performance of the firearms themselves, especially after living under the bunk in a salt air environment.
Lest we forget, famous New Zealand yachtsman Peter Blake was shot to death while anchored off the Brazilian coast on December 7, 2001 , Blake was killed by a band of young pirates. Critics have argued that Blake’s shooting can be attributed to his escalation of an armed robbery into a “firefight” by resisting the robbers with a rifle (which jammed during the close quarters firefight).
But all of that does not mean we are wholly defenseless. We are prepared to defend ourselves within reason.
Regardless, there is a very wide range of strong opinion amongst Cruisers on the subject of Piracy (a very small handful will even argue that none of these bad Caribbean crimes even happened at all – their denial fervor being much akin to lunatics who claim the Holocaust did not happen).
Most even-minded Cruisers, however, say about crime: “Well, big deal – so what if a handful of crimes have occurred against Cruisers in the Caribbean. Crime is everywhere these days; somebody gets murdered in New Orleans every single day, so what’s the big deal; why be so worried?”
But while such an Alfred E. Neuman “What, me worry?" stance surely makes a for a great go-anywhere-do-anything "fat, dumb and happy" plan, it might not be a perfectly realistic plan when examined under strict scrutiny, as we shall see.
Then there is yet another group of Cruisers with an even more defiant mindset. They appear to create their vision of reality within the strict confines of “hear, see, and speak no evil” (we call this "Three Monkey Disease” in the trial law business – it is a virus that can spread like wildfire amongst witnesses).
I overheard a “Three Monkey” Cruiser in the Virgin Islands adamantly, no -- defiantly telling people that Venezuela is “perfectly safe” and that the “bad rap” Venezuela gets is complete horseshit. Those types of Cruisers visit all the dangerous anchorages and ignore all the statistics.
I kept my mouth shut. There are only a few subjects that, in the Cruising Society, are sure to cause conflict and controversy in the precise manner that the subject of maintaining one’s own motorcycle caused intellectual friction in Robert Pirsig’s epic novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
The touchiest Cruiser subjects of all are both Crime and Racism against Cruisers. Racism is a known minefield, of course. But it was surprising to discover that Crime would be the same. It really comes down to Classic versus Romantic modes of thought and analysis (both of which were creatively illuminated in Pirsig’s unique novel).
To refresh your memory, here is an excerpt from Pirsig’s writings regarding these two forms of understanding:
“A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance. If you were to show an engine or a mechanical drawing or electronic schematic to a romantic it is unlikely he would see much of interest in it. It has no appeal because the reality he sees is its surface. Dull, complex lists of names, lines and numbers. Nothing interesting. But if you were to show that same blueprint or schematic to a classical person he might look at it and become fascinated by it because he sees that within the lines and shapes and symbols is a tremendous richness of underlying form.
The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than fact predominate. ‘Art’ when it is opposed to ‘Science’ is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience.”
Pirsig goes on to set forth that while these modes of understanding are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and a person can at times be either a classic or romantic in their attempts at understanding, it is nonetheless a certainty that two people operating in opposite modes of understanding cannot be in agreement when analyzing the same so-called “facts.” It is simply impossible for their different modes of understanding to lead them to identical conclusions in the end.
So, when two Cruisers get together for a chat it can be dicey if one is more-classic and one more-romantic in their understandings. Subjects like Crime and Racism cannot be comfortably discussed, period.
Of course, neither the classic nor romantic is wrong. They just honestly and genuinely understand things differently and feel differently as a result. Against that backdrop, let’s continue with the "slippery-slope" topic of Crime on Cruisers.
And so, while the odds of being a crime victim while cruising are very low, it still is not “perfectly safe” in Venezuela by any wild stretch of the imagination. Think about it. Amongst the reported crimes above (which are but a small sampling), in one instance the Pirates held a gun to a two year old child while they ransacked the boat. No matter how small the odds, can anybody say with straight face that any such a place is “perfectly safe?”
There are a few Cruisers who are so fiercely “romantic” in their process of understanding that they will seemingly commit outright intellectual dishonesty in order to avoid/deny any realization that could possibly mar the appearance of a perfect Cruising Life: their romantic, appearance-driven view of the world selectively sees only beautiful, kind, nice people where one can “buy the World a Coke, and keep it company.”
So where does all that leave us on the subject of Crime on Cruisers?
I’ve tried to “understand” the Crime issue as best I can by employing what I consider an “ambidextrous” effort that wholly embraces both romantic and classic modes of analysis. All successful trial lawyers have quickly learned that both classic and romantic modes of thinking are essential and must be mastered lest your client’s only “winning” argument be overlooked.
Of course, it’s fabulous when the applicable, classic underlying forms of structured law and/or facts render a perfectly superior argument for your client (that can be ever-so-lightly gilded with a tasteful, low-key romantic presentation at trial).
Conversely, however, when both the law and the facts are squarely against your client, then a case must built upon the often rickety foundation of romantic emotion alone. You must devise intuitive reasons as to why the outcome of the case should fly into the face of seemingly applicable structured law, or at least be distinguished from other cases governed thereby.
No matter how eloquent or creative the result, in the end these purely “romantic” legal arguments always sound pretty whiny in the end: “Well, Judge; I know the law is against my client, but it just ain’t right!”
Juries buy romantic arguments sometimes. Early in their careers, however, most Judges become immune to romantic creativity in the courtroom and will not allow you to waste too much of their time on it. But as an advocate, you do what you can, of course. The old lawyers’ credo is: if the facts of the case are against you, then pound the law! If the law of the case is against you, then pound the facts! However, if both the facts and the law are both squarely against you, then pound the table!
But, I digress. The point is that I have run the “Caribbean Crime against Cruisers” issue through all modes of understanding I can devise in my particular reality and I still steadfastly maintain that there is irrefutable justification for at least some legitimate concern.
For one thing, in my 51 years of life (45 of which were spent boating in Gulf Coast waters and lakes in the U.S.A.), I have never heard of an inhabited recreational pleasure boat anchored out, or under way, being boarded by men, armed or otherwise, who committed violent crimes such as rapes, beatings or shootings against persons on board.
I have posted inquiries on sailing-related internet chat boards that are perused world-wide and no one has been able to relate one single incident of any inhabited pleasure boat in the U.S.A. coastal waters or inland lakes being boarded by a gang of armed robbers (Pirates), ever.
And most-certainly, there has never been an armed boarding by corrupt officers in uniform who committed armed robbery (there was at least one case like that in Venezuela as of late).
In Law School we studied criminal cases about typical fights and a few murders between offshore oil rig workers on crew boats, all of whom had a personal “beef” against each other.
There have been a few U.S.A. reports of invited guests and/or people “test-driving” yachts and then turning on the owners on the high seas. In California, one couple was murdered and their boat stolen by persons they invited on board.
And then there is the 1974 murder and boat theft we all know about. Affluent Mac and Muff Graham found themselves dead and their fine yacht gone after encountering the poor and desperate hippies Buck Walker and Jennifer Jenkins at the remote island of Palmyra in the Pacific. Walker was convicted of murder and Jenkins (represented by criminal defense trial genius Vincent Bugliosi) was acquitted, all as was dramatized in Bugliosi’s subsequent novel And The Sea Will Tell.
Perhaps I will get a new U.S.A. Piracy report in response to this trip report, but the reality I currently understand indicates I will not.
So, against the backdrop of all that, let’s get back to the “Big City Murder” analogy and take it for a ride and see where it leads us.
Ok, sure: a drug dealer (or an innocent drive-by victim bystander in the hood), gets shot in the New Orleans Housing Projects everyday. But in reality that is a wholly different statistical occurrence than an act of Piracy on persons aboard a cruising yacht in the Caribbean.
New Orleans “proper” had a population of roughly half a million prior to Hurricane Katrina. The entire metropolitan area had about half a million more. So, your chances of being shot on any given day were one or two in a million (and you could reduce that to pretty much zero by simply not frequenting or traversing “crack town” housing projects).
In stark contrast, you can be anchored in the so-called “safe” anchorage of Porlamar at the island of Margarita, Venezuela, and you will be in the company of anywhere between 50 and 100 boats. So, within a known “target field” for Pirates, your odds are 1 in 50 or 1 in 100.
At small Caribbean islands like Dominica, there will be less than 30 boats in an anchorage with you. If you have even the slightest bit of horse-sense, you realize instantly that if a crime of Piracy is committed tonight, there is a 1 in 20 chance it will be YOU.
Trust me, it is a new experience to look around as the sun sets and realize that even in an anchorage with a few other boats around, in reality you are alone.
Moreover, it does not take high-brow calculus to instantly realize that if a crime is committed in the anchorage tonight these odds are astronomically worse than any you have ever faced before.
There is one other problem that also makes the sensation of the threat Caribbean crime much more intense than what we are used to back home: a total absence of any crime prevention efforts by local authorities. No police patrols or crime deterrence efforts are undertaken at all in any way shape or form by police in the Eastern Caribbean or Venezuela. Efforts to address crime have been historically limited to post-occurrence investigation at best, often yielding no relief at all to the victims.
I have read that St. Lucia is trying to begin patrols at Rodney Bay where a shockingly brutal beating and rape occurred aboard an anchored yacht last year, but such patrols will be a first (if the patrols actually happen – knowing West Indian attitudes as I do now, I have my doubts). Boatboys in Dominica try and patrol the anchorage, but that is a far cry from government concern/action.
All that said, however, there is one, huge, massive factor that tremendously decreases your odds of ever being the victim of crime. Unlike New Orleans, serious crimes of Piracy in the Caribbean do not happen every single day, or even every single month.
In fact, there were less than a dozen truly grisly crimes like rapes and shootings last year in the Caribbean. But that must be viewed against the fact that these few serious crimes mark a shift in statistics altogether. As stated in earlier trip reports, the Eastern Caribbean and Venezuela have seen a new chapter in crime unfold wherein bodily harm is now a component. Crimes are no longer restricted to dinghy thefts and stolen wallets and cameras, etc. So, the shootings and rapes seemingly open a new statistical field altogether.
But numbers are very, very slippery.
It was Mark Twain who aptly put it: “There are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics!” I think that quote was eventually cooked-down to the also familiar: “figures lie and liars figure.”
The statistics, studied alone in a vacuum, are not scary at all, almost to the point of suggesting that the issue of Crime on Cruisers is unworthy of any worry whatsoever. But, the contours of emotion that all these facts and circumstances rest upon cannot be ignored and the issue of Piracy proved very unsettling despite purely mathematical assurances.
All that said, let's shift to a more romantic viewpoint. If you want to become absolutely frightened, peruse the U.S. State Department’s travel web site on Venezuela – it is just plain terrifying.
Here are excerpts from the U.S. State Department’s assessment of travel safety in Venezuela:
Violent crime in Venezuela has spiked in recent months. The country has the highest per-capita murder rate in the world. Armed robberies take place in broad daylight . . . including areas generally presumed safe and frequented by tourists. Well armed criminal gangs operate with impunity, often setting up fake police checkpoints.
Kidnapping is a particularly serious problem, with more than 1,000 reported during the past year alone. There have been several high profile kidnappings that have resulted in murder, including the killings of three minor Canadian brothers, a wealthy Italo-Venezuelan businessman, and the daughter of a senior Venezuelan military commander.
Investigation of all crime is haphazard and ineffective. In the case of high-profile killings, the authorities quickly round up suspects, but rarely produce evidence linking these individuals to the crime. Only a very small percentage of criminals are tried and convicted.
Virtually all murders go unsolved. The poor neighborhoods that cover the hills around Caracas are very dangerous. These areas are seldom patrolled by police and should be avoided.
Many criminals are armed with guns or knives and will use force. Jewelry attracts the attention of thieves. Travelers are advised to leave jewelry items, especially expensive-looking wristwatches, at home. Gangs of thieves will often surround their victims and use a chokehold to disable them, even in crowded market areas where there is little or no police presence.
"Express kidnappings," in which victims are seized in an attempt to get quick cash in exchange for their release, are a problem. Kidnapping of U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals, from homes, hotels, unauthorized taxis and the airport terminal has occurred. U.S. citizens should be alert to their surroundings and take necessary precautions.
Police responsiveness and effectiveness in Venezuela varies drastically. U.S. travelers have reported robberies and other crimes committed against them by individuals wearing uniforms and purporting to be police officers or National Guard members.
Maiquetia Airport, the international airport serving Caracas, is dangerous and corruption is rampant. Concerns include personal property theft, muggings, and “express kidnappings” in which individuals are taken to make purchases or to withdraw as much money as possible from ATMs, often at gunpoint.
The Embassy has received multiple, credible reports that individuals with what appear to be official uniforms or other credentials are involved in facilitating or perpetrating these crimes.
For this reason, American citizen travelers should be wary of all strangers, even those in official uniform or carrying official identification. There are also known drug trafficking groups working from the airport. Travelers should not accept packages from any persons and should keep their luggage with them at all times.
All Americans are encouraged to carry as little U.S. currency on them as possible upon entering Venezuela. Due to the poor security situation, the Embassy does not recommend changing money at the international airport. Visitors should bring a major credit card, but should be aware of widespread pilfering of credit card data to make unauthorized transactions.
Travelers’ checks are not recommended as they are honored in only a few locations. There are ATM machines throughout Venezuela, but travelers should be careful to use those only in well-lit public places. ATM data has also been hacked and used to make unauthorized withdrawals from user’s accounts.
Cross-border violence, kidnapping, drug trafficking, smuggling, and cattle-rustling occur frequently in areas along the 1,000-mile border between Venezuela and Colombia. Some kidnap victims have been released after ransom payments, while others have been murdered.
In many cases, Colombian terrorists are suspected. Colombia 's National Liberation Army (ELN) have had a long history of kidnapping for ransom, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are active in the kidnapping trade.
Common criminals are also increasingly involved in kidnappings, either dealing with victim's families directly or selling the victim to terrorist groups. In-country travel by U.S. Embassy employees, both official and private, within a 50-mile area along the entire Venezuela/Colombia border, is prohibited.
The State Department warns American citizens not to travel within a 50-mile area along the entire Venezuela/Colombia border. U.S. citizens who elect to visit areas along the border region with Colombia against this warning, apart from the Colombian terrorist threat, could encounter Venezuelan military-controlled areas and may be subject to search and arrest.
Harassment of U.S. citizens by pro-government groups, Venezuelan airport authorities, and some segments of the police occurs but is quite limited. However, Venezuela’s most senior leaders, including President Chavez, regularly express anti-American sentiment. The Venezuelan government’s rhetoric of hate directed against the U.S. government, as well as American culture and institutions, is slowly affecting attitudes in what used to be one of the most pro-American countries in the hemisphere.
U.S. citizens traveling or residing in Venezuela are advised to take common-sense precautions and avoid large gatherings and demonstrations, no matter where they occur.
The growing number of incidents of piracy off the coast of Venezuela are of increasing concern. Some of these incidents have been especially violent, including the severe beating of a U.S. citizen in 2002, the fatal shooting of an Italian citizen in January 2004, and a machete attack on a U.S. citizen in 2005. U.S. citizen yachters should exercise a heightened level of caution in Venezuelan waters. The U.S. Coast Guard’s flyer outlining safety precautions for yachters in around Venezuela can be found on the Embassy’s web site.
You can peruse the entire State Department web site at:
Well, anyway . . . . WOW!!!! Doesn’t Venezuela sound alluring, warm and welcoming?!
At first blush, it makes the idea of sailing through the northeast quadrant of a cat-four hurricane sound like a much more responsible survival plan!
Long before reaching Grenada, perhaps while we were still in Dominica, I e-mailed the U.S. State Department link to various Cruisers who had voiced an interest in heading to Venezuela. The gist of my mailing was: “I want to ‘Buddy-Boat’ in a fleet in light of all of this serious information.” I was hoping to plan ahead and obtain itineraries to determine if we could organize a Venezuela-bound fleet for safety and security purposes.
I was surprised when I got no response at all from any of the six or so boats I wrote. Two weeks later, while ashore in the Iles de Saintes, I saw one of the crews I had written and asked if they got the email. They said yes, but that after they read the State Department link, they were no longer going to Venezuela!
So much for my fleet-organization skills!
Then, yet another layer of apprehension was superimposed just days before our planned departure for Venezuela. We learned that there was a double murder at the Bahia Redonda Boat Yard, directly adjacent to the Bahia Redonda Marina where we planned to stay for four months! The owner of the Bahia Redonda Boat Yard, and his wife, were both shot to death “execution-style” when driving into the facility one morning.
Here is a link to the story:
I reacted by sending an e-mail to the Bahia Redonda Marina, voicing extreme concern and indicating that “money was not an issue” and that a complete forfeiture of $2,000.00 was not worth risking our personal safety over.
I made it clear that I wanted “a straight answer, and now” on whether we could expect to be reasonably “safe” in Venezuela by any wild stretch of the imagination, especially considering we are supposedly hated as U.S. citizens, etc.
Also, in a professional way, I made it crystal clear that it would definitely not be in anyone’s best interest to entice me to Venezuela with a disingenuous response.
The marina’s General Manager, Carlos Vasquez, was very quick, thorough and straightforward in his response. He assured us that the marina is safe by U.S.A. standards. Moreover, that Puerto La Cruz had a population of over 400,000 and that their crime rates in this “resort vacation area” of Venezuela were no worse than those of any major metropolitan areas in the U.S.A.
I sensed that Mr. Vasquez’s response was genuine, especially considering the fact that he promised in writing that if I was not completely satisfied with the marina upon arrival he would immediately refund my entire $2,000.00 U.S Dollars, in U.S. cash money on the spot, and with no hard feelings at all.
So what does all this mean? What can be gleaned from this rather dismal and depressing introduction in this trip report? How does it help you experience and appreciate the Cruising Life we live? Well, for starters, how about the fact that “Living the Dream” out here and Cruising full-time is not always Easy Street!
The bottom line: prior to leaving Grenada and heading south to avoid being at risk from hurricanes, we had a “wild sea” of frightening information crashing around in our heads. Nonetheless, we took a deep breath, raised sails, and set a course to Venezuela, South America, to finally see about all this for ourselves and forge our own reality, come what may.
When it came time to weigh anchor, only one other vessel was departing Grenada within our time frame. As a “fleet” of only two, Indigo Moon set sail in the company of Wayfinder, a magnificent 47 foot Nordhavn Motor Trawler with new friends Mike and Sarah Wise (and their three small dogs – “The Girls”) aboard. We both weighed anchors and set a course from Grenada’s True Blue Bay to Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, South America.
UNDERWAY AT LAST: CRUISING TO VENEZUELA FOR HURRICANE SEASON
Passage From Grenada To Isla de Margarita
Our departure was timed at sunset and we made the passage overnight, arriving at Isle de Margarita mid-morning the next day.
It was the first time we ever “Buddy Boated” on a passage with a trawler-type motor yacht. But, as they say, desperate times call for desperate measures! Hey, I’m talking about them accommodating us, not visa versa! We joked around a lot about it, though, and I informed my other catamaran friends (who were hanging back in Grenada and waiting on boat parts), that I had finally stepped up several rungs on the “Cruising Social Ladder” and was now proud to report that I was hanging around with “Trawler Trash.”
Mike and Sarah Wise are so full of fun, mischief and good humor that we became fast friends and truly enjoyed the time we spent together. They are extra-special folks!
We were fortunate. The steady trade winds and following seas propelled Indigo Moon under sail at the exact same speed that Wayfinder made while cruising under engine power. So, it worked out perfectly and it was an absolute pleasure to make this passage with Wayfinder.
Moreover, finally heading west of south, the trade winds were abaft of our port beam and we enjoyed the finest of sailing angles and an extraordinarily comfortable ride and dry decks while doing 8 knots!
As we got deeper and deeper into Venezuelan waters that first night, though, we became more and more concerned about various targets we picked up on radar – although unlikely, small boats could truly mean Pirates.
Close to midnight, we overtook a small vessel. At about a mile away, the vessel acted very erratically as we slowly overtook it. It was not displaying proper navigation lights. I kept VHF contact with Wayfinder on a “secret” channel so that we would not attract undue attention. We scanned 16 to listen to hailings between other vessels, but never spoke on it.
We both used our radar systems to check and double-check the course and speed of various targets. Even though the “Pirate factor” was very low, it was still surprisingly stressful.
We managed to overtake the “mystery” vessel at a distance of about a mile north of my starboard beam without incident. After it was over, my best guess is that the target was a poorly-lit sailboat, making erratic course changes because its skipper was probably terrified of us bearing down on him while on a near-parallel course!
At about 2 a.m., I was busy outside at the helm adjusting sails and keeping things in trim and decided to hail Wayfinder (located about 2 miles south and directly off my port beam) to check in and break the boredom. Through the binoculars, I gazed at her running lights rising and falling smoothly in the easy seas.
Sara was on watch and answered my hail. I indicated that I had been trimming sails and handling lines and watching stars in between continually studying the radar and adjusting for wind conditions. She answered that she wasn’t doing anything except petting the dogs and playing Solitaire card games on the laptop computer.
Thus: the difference between standing watch on a 38 foot sailboat vs. a 47 foot luxury trawler. To put things in perspective, the helm station of Wayfinder looks a whole lot like the helm of the Starship Enterprise, except Wayfinder is a lot fancier and has twice the gadgets and control panels!
Sara and I chatted briefly on our “secret” VHF channel and then started discussing the lights we were starting to see on a hillside on the horizon to the northwest and ahead of us. I looked at charts and saw no island. I switched out to 24 mile range on the radar and sure enough there was a big rectangular ship-like target there, but it was way too big and with too many lights to be a ship, right?
It was a supertanker doing upwards of 18 knots and headed to Venezuela for a fill-up. By far, it is the largest commercial vessel I’ve ever seen on the high seas. Sara and I jabbered on the VHF and simply could not believe the size and speed of the ship. We gave it a wide berth as it zipped across our bows.
As dawn broke, we had already passed the remote fishing islands named the Los Testigos (The Witnesses). By mid-morning we were making landfall at Isla de Margarita. Mike had already arranged slip reservations for both Indigo Moon and Wayfinder at Marina Margarita, where we would have security, shore power, and easy access to shore-side activities and shopping.
Neither of us wanted to anchor in the unsecured anchorage at Porlamar where many crimes have occurred. We felt best to start out in a secure marina and then gain up-to-date information on the current crime situation before taking chances elsewhere.
Isla De Margarita, Venezuela
As we neared Margarita, it was fun to listen to the Spanish VHF chatter of nearby vessels, although I could understand virtually nothing of what was being said! Were they talking about fishing or were they discussing whether or not they should attack us?!
Despite our worries, everything went smoothly for us in the end and we were thankful. We arrived in Margarita without incident and were able to exhale a little bit. Had we not read a mountain of negative information, this passage would have appeared absolutely safe by all outward appearances and, as the saying goes, ignorance would have been bliss.
Once at the marina, we had to use our anchor to stand off the concrete wall. After dropping anchor, we backed in and tied the stern to the wall. Like “patting our heads and rubbing our tummies" at the same time, we had to simultaneously drop anchor (at the bow) and let out 100 feet of chain while also backing up to the seawall and managing the dock lines (at the stern). And, of course, we had a cross wind and had to back into a tight spot between two boats already there!
Luckily, Lane, the owner of a neighboring boat,
, helped us tremendously as we wrested fenders and lines and we all dealt with the fact that there were no main dock cleats on shore! We had to tie up to large chains anchored to huge concrete blocks.
Our good luck continued. “Lane” spoke fluent Spanish and knew where to go to exchange money. Also, he translated for us with the dockmaster who spoke absolutely no English, but was waiting impatiently on the seawall as we tied up in the searing 11:00 a.m. sun.
Even better, Lane knew someone who could come and help us check in with Customs and Immigrations. Venezuela is not a “Cruiser-friendly” destination in terms of Customs and Immigration. I say that because you simply can’t check-in yourself. You have to hire an agent to handle the paperwork. You can’t risk trying it yourself and having any deficiencies in your paper work or your vessel can be impounded!
Anyway, we were already catching a little flack before we even backed into the seawall. The dockmaster was irritated, waving his hands and shouting something at me in Spanish as
's stern approached the seawall.
Turns out, the dock master was adamant that we raise the Venezuelan courtesy flag before we even tied up! We had no idea, but you must fly a Venezuelan courtesy flag at all times in Venezuelan waters, even before you check in (or you can receive a stiff fine).
Everywhere else in the world that we know of, you raise a solid yellow quarantine “Q” flag when arriving at a new country and then you check in with Customs. Only after checking-in do you lower the “Q” flag and raise the courtesy flag of the country you are visiting (and that is optional -- it's just a courtesy and thus named as such). Turns out, however, that Venezuelans are so fiercely patriotic that they require that their flag up on your spreaders at all times no matter what.
There are no docks and no slips at Marina Margarita -- just a menacing, solid concrete seawall adjacent to a long, dusty dirt road that follows the seawall as it bends around the outer peninsula of the harbor. No fuel and no services are available. Truthfully, it’s not a “marina” by any stretch of the imagination.
They do have security guards and shore power and a protected harbor, so that is certainly better than nothing. But our only access to so-called “potable” water was from a big tank truck that would pass a hose out to the boat and pump water directly into the boat's water tanks (including quarter-sized bits of green-scum at no additional charge).
We had to go find/buy garden hose, clamps and water filters at a hardware store to jury-rig a filter system to keep the wads of scum out of our tanks. We also dumped precisely measured amounts of bleach in the tanks and then used the water for showers only. Only bottled water is safe for drinking in Venezuela and we were not willing to run our water maker in the polluted harbor.
Also, without a gangplank to access Indigo Moon’s stern we simply pulled hard on the stern lines to get the boat close to the seawall and then jumped! One time Melissa didn’t quite make it off the boat and wound up crouched with her feet on the corner edge of the seawall and her body precariously out over the water at a 45 degree angle. She had to hang on to the dock lines for dear life until I grabbed her and pulled her the rest of the way up (backpack and all). There is no EPA here in Venezuela . Let’s just say that falling into the waters of Margarita Marina would be a very, very nasty fate.
There is no anti-pollution awareness at all in Venezuela . Venezuelans are oblivious to trash. Trash and oil is in the water and trash is everywhere on the ground it seems.
I did not go to a fuel dock in Margarita, but my friend Chuck Hill aboard Lagoon 410 Maker’s Match did and later told me that when he first arrived at the fuel dock, the fuel hose, nozzle and all, was hanging off the dock and the nozzle itself was underwater. The fuel attendant came out, pulled the hose and nozzle up out of the sea, turned on the pump, and then shot a gallon or so of diesel into the sea and tapped the nozzle on the dock to clear it of the seawater. If you did that in Ft. Lauderdale , you’d serve a long sentence in a Federal Prison!
We managed a week of gymnastic leaps from the boat to the seawall and visa versa, but it was not that safe and we would have hated falling into the scary-looking water in the harbor. In short order, it was beginning to dawn on us that we had arrived squarely in the Third World .
About 6 acres near the marina is said to be owned by Donald Trump who originally planned to build a beauty pageant complex here, but he abandoned all such plans when the political situation turned sour. Many buildings here are shells that were never finished.
It is eerie, because from offshore Margarita looks well-developed and modern. But as we got closer and closer, it was apparent that most of the high-rise buildings are poorly maintained and many are simply abandoned shells. It all had a Beirut-esq feel to it that was haunting.
As the days passed, we became much more relaxed and felt a lot safer than we ever thought possible after reading all the terrible press about Venezuelan crime.
Our Spanish skills are pitiful at best, but the locals we met were very friendly and patient with us. The marina was “safe” and there were no reports of problems in the main anchorage at Porlamar while we were there. A VHF Cruisers’ Network was broadcast every morning and updated folks about various topics. No one had any trouble at all during the week and a half we stayed there.
Always on the lookout for unusual and interesting places to live after this Cruising Life is over, we were very happy to meet Steve and Jennifer Sorensen. They have moored their huge motor yacht Cleared for Takeoff at Marina Margarita and they are also refurbishing a condominium in a nearby high rise. Steve is a retired Military Pilot, having flown just about everything that U.S. Marines take to the sky. They were are in the process of “putting down roots” and making a new life for themselves in Margarita, Venezuela.
Mike and Sarah Wise aboard Wayfinder enjoyed meeting them too, and Steve and Jennifer were nice enough to give us a tour of some of the island’s best attractions. So let’s get going on a look around Isla de Margarita!
Before we get into our road trip, let’s review a little history to better appreciate this destination.
Isla de Margarita - Historical Significance
The original inhabitants of Isla de Margarita were Guaiqueri Indians. They inhabited the island long before it was “discovered” by Spanish Conquistadores in 1498. Margarita was quickly settled by the Spanish in the 1500’s, taking advantage of the island’s rich soil and temperate climate.
So beautiful, the island was named "La Margarita", or “The Pearl” in English. Predictably, like most Indians in the New World, the Guaiqueri Indians did not retain their standing and the Spaniards overran them in every way – from disease to persecution and everything in between.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Pirates ran rampant throughout the Caribbean and Margarita saw its fair share of Pirate generated conflict. Margarita was an easy target in the Caribbean, and the island had to defend its shores with fortresses.
Spain ruled until the dawn of the 1800’s. Liberation from Spain was won in 1811 and Margarita became the first free province of the Spanish domain.
La Asunción is the capital of the island of Margarita. The city's church, La Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, is said to be the oldest cathedral in Venezuela. Also, the capital’s fort, Castillo de Santa Rosa, overlooks the cathedral from a mountain side nearby.
The Catillo de Santa Rosa is most famous fort because a prominent Icon of Venezuelan Liberation was once imprisoned there: Luisa C de Arismendi, the daughter of Domingo Cáceres and Carmen Diaz .
Luisa’s father, a Commander in the developing Republic, was killed and her brother was later captured and assassinated by the Royalists in the town of Ocumare in 1814. Thereafter, Luisa attempted to flee Margarita with the rest of her family. She did not escape and instead was detained by the Spanish authorities and held for the purpose of extortion: to try and stop her husband Arismendi from continuing a war campaign and Republican efforts against the Royal Spanish forces.
Despite her detention, Luisa refused to cooperate, and likewise her husband refused to cease and desist in his revolutionary efforts. Spanish authorities were wholly unsuccessful in their attempt to break Luisa at Margarita, despite that fact that she remained imprisoned in the Santa Rosa fortress for quite some time.
Adding to the intense sensationalism of her incarceration, she delivered a baby while being held captive and the child died at or shortly after birth. And remember, all of this occurred within a predominately Roman Catholic Spanish society. The loss of a newborn baby due to wrongful incarceration is just about as bad a scenario as one could invent to mortify and galvanize the Venezuelan Roman Catholic society against Spain.
Ultimately, Luisa was transferred from her Santa Rosa cell to a fort on the coast of Margarita at Pampatar, and she was shipped to Spain in 1816. Upon her arrival in Spain, she was detained and tortured even further, all in an attempt to force her to relinquish her Republican ideals.
The most spectacularly compelling fact of this entire saga: Luisa was only sixteen years old when she was taken captive!
Though merely a child, she never abandoned her Republican idealology. Ultimately, Luisa stood-down the Spaniards in their homeland and she was released a couple of years later, returning to Venezuela in 1818. To this day, her legacy stands for the ideals of freedom and sovereignty in the Americas. After her return to South America she lived in Caracas on the mainland of Venezuela until her death in 1866. She is a true heroine of Venezuelan history.
As we had already anticipated, it did not take long to learn that Latin America is of much greater historical significance, with a tremendously greater breadth and depth of culture and historical character than any of the tiny islands of the Eastern Caribbean archipelago.
Let’s take a look:
After spending a nice visit in downtown La Asunción, we returned to our cars and drove a short distance farther up the mountain to Castillo de Santa Rosa, the fort where Luisa was held captive.
The visit at the fort was very thought-provoking. It is hard to imagine a sixteen year-old woman being jailed, losing a baby, being transported across the Atlantic to Spain and tortured still, only to withstand the whole ordeal without breaking and then returning triumphantly back across the Atlantic to Venezuela. She surely deserves every ounce of her immortal place in South American history.
Isla de Margarita - Beaches in the north shore
Ok, so where to next on our road trip? Well, how about the north shore where beachgoers enjoy Playa del Aqua!
During our meal in the photo above, a beautiful little Venezuelan girl of about eight years of age came by selling costume jewelry and shells. I can't explain why I was so utterly stupid as to not take her picture. I was so mesmerized the thought never crossed my mind, I guess. She was politely showing us her wares when all of a sudden she spotted Melissa's sea turtle earrings. The little girl's eyes brightened and she reached up to Melissa's neck and caressed one of the earrings with a priceless smile on her face. It would have been a National Geographic quality photo, but alas I missed it.
So we've had a little look around. Let's turn our attention to doing business in Venezuela.
Venezuela, an Economist's "bad trip"
We learned many things about Venezuela while in Margarita. For one thing, we learned how to exchange money, trading our U.S. Dollars for Venezuelan Bolivars.
It was interesting to re-learn who Simon Bolivar is and why he is so historically important that money is named after him! Basically, he is the most-famous General in South American history, born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1783.
In 1810, he joined a group of locals who declared independence from Spain. By 1819, he led military efforts that resulted in the defeat of the Spanish Army and the liberation of Colombia (which actually included the territories of Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela at that time). By 1825, he was dictator of Peru and, obviously, the country of Bolivia is named after him.
Simon Bolivar is precisely the South American parallel of our own George Washington. While our forefathers fought English domination and persecution, South America’s forefathers fought Spanish domination and persecution.
Against the backdrop of all that, it is predictable that Simon Bolivar’s image would grace Venezuelan currency, just like George Washington’s image graces U.S.A. currency.
I would have said that Washington graces American currency, but one of the first things you learn in Venezuela is that is they are Americans too -- we are all from the Americas! So, using the plain term “American” is not sufficient. We are known as North Americans (Norte Americanos), to Venezuelans.
Anyway, regarding currency, Venezuelans went a step further and didn’t just put Simon Bolivar’s image on their notes, they also named their dollars Bolivars as well. In contrast, we don’t have “ Washingtons” to spend here in the U.S.A.
Ok, so what better segue than that to shift gears here and explain how we exchanged money in Venezuela!
There were “hawkers” on Margarita street corners offering bad exchange rates. But our marina “next door neighbor”, Lane aboard Lady Divina, saved me from the scam-artists and took me to a back-room “cambio” (which is Spanish for “change” or “exchange”) where I could get the best rate.
Lane and I made the mid-morning stroll across the large vacant lots adjacent to the marina, already baking in the blazing hot sun. The marina is surrounded by these large lots vacant lots, all of which have “cow trails” across them from foot traffic. On the other side of the lots, there is a street with shops near the Hilton Hotel complex. Restaurants, rental car companies and a little one-story “U shaped” mall are located there. As we walked though the mall, we came upon one space that had no signs. There was no way to know that a business was even operating there.
There was a small, featureless front room that could be seen through the plate-glass storefront. A couple of guys were hanging around in folding chairs and watching sports on a t.v. mounted on the wall (soccer, predictably).
Upon closer inspection, I noticed a two-way mirror in the middle of the back wall, with a single doorway through that interior wall that went into a back room.
With no more than a casual “Hola” and a wave, Lane walked right by the guys out front and I followed as we went through the door to the back room without ever slowing down. Obviously, the guys out front knew Lane.
As soon as we reached the “inner sanctum” a gregarious, all-smiles thin-build Latin American gentleman rose from behind a desk. He was smartly dressed and sported a pencil-thin moustache that complimented his sharp features. I reached out and he eagerly shook my hand while breaking into rapid-fire greetings: “Hola, Mi Amigo, Como Esta? Mucho Gusto, Mucho Gusto.”
I was a bit surprised and retorted with a rather slow-drawl “Hello” not even knowing enough Spanish yet to say Mui Bien! Y tu? (very good, and you?)
No matter. Lane immediately broke into Spanish and explained that I wanted to exchange $500.00 U.S. Dollars. The gentleman, all too familiar with exchanging money for Cruising Gringo’s like me, didn’t waste time on words he knew I would not understand. He quickly wrote down the figures on paper and showed it to me with a smile: $500.00 = 1,250,000 Bolivars. “Si?; Okay Senor?”, he asked.
The exchange rate: 2,500 Bolivars for each U.S. Dollar. I said: “Yes, Si. Gracias, Senor.” This garnered another quick smile from the gentleman, who was obviously amused and delighted by a Cajun attempting rudimentary Spanish.
I produced five one hundred dollar bills and fanned them out on the desk. The gentleman instantly picked them up and with one hand folded the bills neatly and tucked them into his top shirt pocket. While so doing, he simultaneously turned and grabbed a big briefcase from the floor and opened it in his lap. It was full of money in huge, rubber-band-bound bricks of various large bills.
Geez! This whole scene now looked exactly like the big drug deals we’ve all seen in films like Scarface.
Things moved quickly. I have never seen someone count so much money so fast! In a snap, he counted and handed over a pile of neatly bound bundles of money that made me an instant Millionaire.
I felt I had to count it to make sure the guy didn’t think I was a stupid Gringo, right? Hey this is business. I really needed to count it, right? Isn’t that just good business practice? Wouldn’t you count it?
Boy, let me tell you. That was the wrong move if I wanted to look smart!
First off, I’ve never had the pleasure of trying to count over a million dollars before. It takes quite a long time for the novice, plus it is harder when counting wholly unfamiliar currency in several different denominational notes.
It was not a fair fight! All he had to do was count five measly one hundred dollar bills. I had to count a stack of cash that looked like the week’s Mafia “skim” from a Las Vegas Casino count room!
Ten seconds into my efforts, I instantly realized my counting would be too slow, and two seconds after that I became very self-conscious and three seconds later my mind went into neutral gear and I lost count all together. I felt like both Lane and the Cambio-master were watching me like I was a four-year-old trying to complete a “Playskool” puzzle.
One second later, though, I recovered mentally enough to simply keep a straight face and speed up my now fallacious efforts. I buzzed through the bricks of cash. I quickly concluded my efforts with a confident nod of approval!
After another quick round of handshakes and a few “Adios Amigos” and a "Ciao" we were out of there. Although I didn’t have the faintest idea at the time, I in fact walked out with the correct amount: 1,250,000 Bolivars in my pocket, as confirmed by a careful count back at Indigo Moon where I could be pathetically slow in the privacy of my own home!
I made a few more trips to that Cambio and it was very easy and comfortable. In no time I was able to accurately count Bolivars quickly. All it took was a little practice and a familiarity with the various denominations of the notes.
All joking aside about counting all that money, there was a bigger concern. I always feared being attacked on the street immediately upon leaving the Cambio. Everybody within sight knew I was a Gringo emerging with a pocket full of new money; the question was not “if” but only “how much!”
But nobody ever came near. Maybe they could tell by looking at me that I was very alert and had a rigging knife tucked in one hand and a small can of pepper spray tucked in the other! Anyway, it was rather unnerving, but nothing even slightly suspicious ever happened to me.
Also, there were a few armed guards around here and there in the shopping complex. They use single-shot break-barrel sawed-off 12 gauge shotguns. The guards have long holsters on their belts, wearing the shotguns like a six shooter in the old west. It’s impressive. Also, it’s a better deterrent in that it’s much easier to hit something with a sawed off shotgun than a pistol, and all the Bad Boys know that.
SIDEBAR: Economic Troubles and the Rise in Crime in Venezuela
According to experts, crime has spiked in Venezuela and is remaining at that alarming level. Severe poverty levels play a part in the dismal crime statistics. Just to put things in perspective, my used 15 H.P Yamaha outboard engine on Indigo Moon’s dinghy is worth a year’s pay to a Venezuelan! That outboard motor costs $2,500 brand-new and is worth maybe $1,000 bucks on a good day!
In the last two decades, critical poverty has increased threefold in Venezuela and poverty in general has more than doubled. In Latin America, only Nicaragua, Haiti and Guyana have experienced a worse economic performance than Venezuela in the last 20 years.
Three decades ago, Venezuela's per capita income was higher than that of Japan. Twenty years ago, it was roughly that of Spain. Up until 1980, Venezuela was the world's fastest growing economy in the 20th century, and locals will tell you that things were very prosperous in the early 80’s.
Today, Venezuela’s per capita income has plummeted: in real terms it has fallen all the way back to what it was in 1962. I was told by locals that only a coupe of decades ago, the exchange rate was closer to 10 Bolivars per U.S. Dollar, instead of 2,500 (and now, amazingly,4,000 in mid-2007 as this report is posted).
Things may never get better. The economy of Venezuela has always been volatile with hyper-inflation rates as high as 35% annually as recently as 2002!
And while Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez, may be many things, Alan Greenspan he ain’t!
A couple of months ago he baffled learned economists around the world by proposing that he has “The Answer” to Venezuelan inflation! It is a simple, two step process, according to Chavez.
First, he will remove three zeros from the denomination of existing Bolivar notes. For example, that will reduce a 50,000 Bolivar note to only 50 Bolivars! Poof! Abracadabra! With what is tantamount to an illegitimate distant-cousin of a stock split, he’ll make all those huge numbers at grocery store cash registers go away. Something that used to cost 50,000 Bolivars will now cost only 50.
Second, just to make sure that pesky old inflation is stamped out for good, Chavez also plans to issue a new, one Bolivar note that will be worth 1,000 old Bolivars! It will be called the “Bolivar Fuerte” as in “Strong Bolivar.” This move looks a lot like an illegitimate distant-cousin of what could be analogized as an issuance of preferred shares of stock that exceed the maximum number of a corporation’s authorized shares.
But who cares, right? Cool! It will only take 2.5 Strong Bolivars to buy a U.S. Dollar! (OK, now 4 Strong Bolivars by the time you read this, but that still sounds so much better than 4,000, right?!).
So, for Chavez it is simple: erase three zeros off the past and add three zeros to the future. Presto! No more economic troubles for Venezuela.
I know everyone is now asking themselves: “Why didn’t I think of that!” Chavez is a genius. Somebody call the U.S. Congress! Tell them to simply take a big eraser and knock twelve zeros of the National Debt and all our troubles will be solved! They could do it live on CNN – it would be awesome!
All irresistible sarcasm aside, it is impossible to invent a more galactic demonstration of shocking ignorance on a grand scale.
There is much to be studied on the subject of Venezuela’s economy and there are various, diverse opinions about why that country is so politically and economically troubled. The main offenders are alleged to be: corruption; a lack of skilled leadership; a lack of any real emphasis on basic education; a failure to diversify away from being an “oil only” economy; and a complete inability to institute effective government agencies.
Also, much more so than its contemporary Latin American countries, Venezuela has a long history of truly phenomenal economic disparity between an amazingly small, concentrated number of super-wealthy vs. an overwhelming majority of critically impoverished.
All of that is heartbreaking from a human rights standpoint and during our time in Venezuela we came to adore its people who are quick to laugh, always willing to help, fiercely proud of their country despite its political and economic ills, and a people who are spectacularly beautiful both inside and out.
The trouble is that both their educational opportunities and political choices are severely limited. Thus, the people of Venezuela have little hope of a government that will effectively improve the economy and human rights on any real world level.
Supporters of the current political system will argue that Venezuela is a true democracy and that Chavez’s rule is simply part of a healthy democratic process. A perusal of learned writings concerning the effects of extreme poverty on democracies, however, plainly proves otherwise. According to scholars on the subject, the “one man one vote” democratic model simply does not work when wealth is super-concentrated in only a handful of voters.
All I can say is this: I am a big fan of the general population of Venezuela and I hope and pray that by some miracle of fate that the future turns brighter for these beautiful people.
End of Sidebar
Now, back to views of Margarita!
In stark contrast to some of the run-down areas near the Marina Margarita, there was a very well-kept Hilton Resort on the shore just east of where the marina was located. We enjoyed sneaking over to the Hilton Resort. We went over and “crashed” the pool a couple of times and we were amazed at the extensive outdoor area that consisted of acres of numerous interconnected pools, water slides, and perfectly landscaped grounds. It was very nice by any standard.
We also enjoyed several visits to the SAMBIL mall which is almost as big and well-stocked with merchandise as any mall in the U.S.A. We browsed the shops and ate in a few of the restaurants, all the while enjoying the refreshing air conditioning. One of our favorite shops was a gourmet store of sorts, stocking cheeses, breads, wines and CANDY!!!! We found later that the ability to buy anything besides the few brands of candy sold in mainland Venezuela is quite a treat.
Gasoline is so cheap (18 cents a gallon), that a ten minute cab ride from the marina to the mall was only two dollars for both of us! So, it was very easy to go to the mall as much as we wanted to and we had not seen anything like SAMBIL mall since leaving Ft. Lauderdale.
We also had fun trying to speak Spanish and as time went on, we got a little bit better at it. The nice thing about attempting Spanish is that it is appreciated and our mistakes were humorous to the locals. This was a nice contrast to the French, for example, who are impatient and quick to offer pure disdain in response to those of us who fumble attempts at a language new to us. I always say that attempting French is the equivalent of “a high-wire act without a net.” I’ll never forget the grocery store clerk in St. Pierre, Martinique, who loudly groaned with absolute disgust at my attempt of only one French word: “Merci.”
Spanish, on the other hand, was a no-risk and fun endeavor. On our way to the SAMBIL mall one day we passed a very sizeable stadium that was obviously abandoned and crumbling, well on its way to returning to the earth from whence it came. I asked our driver what the stadium used to be for. He kept saying “duck track”; “for the “ducks!” I answered with a questioning expression and flapping my arms and saying “quack - quack - quack?” He laughed: “No, No, Senor! It is DUCKS; woof – woof – woof.”
We all laughed and I taught him to say DOG instead of duck so that he could explain to the next visitors that it used to be a Dog Racing establishment where gambling took place. But, like many businesses in Margarita, the “duck track” closed and will probably never reopen in light of the dismal economic and political climate in Venezuela.
There are stark contrasts as you travel through the modern metropolitan areas of Margarita. A majority of abandoned or decaying hulks like the “duck track” sit next to only a handful of well-kept high rises. It looks so very strange by U.S.A. standards. It was sad to see that the majority of buildings were in disrepair. Only a few were anything that could be remotely considered truly “nice” and it seemed that an unfinished (and or gutted) shell of a high rise was always within sight as we traveled the metropolitan areas.
On a whole other negative note, damn if I didn’t manage to get a bad intestinal bug in Margarita, just like in St. Martin.
Both Sara Wise on Wayfinder and I wound up ill, taking Cipro antibiotics (the atomic bomb of antibiotics). Although it was not quite as bad as what I endured in St. Martin, I ran a low-grade fever and endured severe intestinal distress for a day and a half.
I got ill a few hours after eating a good portion of a huge steak that I should have just refused when it arrived at the restaurant table. I had no idea beforehand that Venezuelans do not age beef at all and prefer to cook it extremely rare.
The tough steak was about one-and-a-half inches thick and was absolutely raw for a good inch in the middle. In addition, it was served on a wooden cutting board that was well-worn and deeply-grooved with previous knife marks. The cutting board ran red with so much blood it all overflowed on the table. I tried to be brave and ate much of it, but that was a mistake;I should have “cut and run!”
Even after that experience, during the several months we stayed in Venezuela, I could never get a steak cooked to medium-rare. No matter how much I insisted “No Rojo! No Rojo!” the bright red, cold-blood-oozing center was always there.
So, many little lessons were learned up-front in Margarita, some easy – some hard.
The best thing about Margarita was that the people were friendly, we felt perfectly safe (albeit while keeping our “street smarts” amped-up 100%), and it appeared that all our terrible fears about visiting Venezuela were unfounded.
Only one scary episode unfolded while we were in Margarita, but it had nothing to do with crime. As described earlier, we had to drop anchor and back stern to the seawall, known as Med-Moor style of docking (a phrase coined because that particular docking technique is the norm in the overcrowded Mediterranean in order to squeeze more boats together at seawalls).
While Med Moored, the only thing that keeps your vessel off the seawall is your anchor and if the anchor drags you fall back and hit the seawall.
One night at about 1:30 a.m. a big squall came through Marina Margarita and blew 25 to 35 knots directly at the port beams of all the boats we were Med Moored with.
Here is a picture to refresh your memory as to the configuration of boats:
We were down on the bunk snoozing away and were awakened by the noise of high wind in the rigging. I went out on deck and adjusted lines and checked things out. By the way, just in case you didn’t know this, it is always best when possible to cleat the loose end of deck lines to the boat. That way you can ease or tighten lines in the middle of the night without having to jump to the dock/seawall in your pajamas.
I thought things would be ok and went back below. Two minutes later there was a big gust of wind followed by a BANG right behind our heads, as if someone hit the transom with a 2x12!
Jesus! We ran up on deck, saw that the boat was rotating clockwise in the heavy, port beam-to winds, and I instantly deduced that the anchor was not holding us off well enough.
I shouted for Lane to come up on Lady Divina’s decks. He jumped out of his bunk and was instantly up on deck. He threw me a breast line from his upwind position to try and help, but it was not enough. The starboard transom was still only two inches from the seawall.
There was no way to untie and leave. Had we tried to do so, we would have been blown instantly and violently into the monohull Queenie on our starboard side.
Damn it! We’re trapped!
I cranked the engines and put both of them in forward and powered slowly off the seawall. This caused an initial geyser of prop-thrust water to spray up wildly between the transoms and the seawall and Melissa barely missed a face full of Marina Margarita water whilst looking down at the transom and relating distances to me at the helm. Geez!
After a minute of finding a “happy medium” between drifting back in heavy gusts versus trying to pull all the cleats off the boat, everything settled in and we were under power and safe from any further intercourse with the seawall.
Once things were stabilized to my satisfaction, I ran forward and cranked in five to ten feet on the anchor windlass to tighten the chain some, but it just wasn't getting tight like it should. The anchor was simply not holding and that was that!
All this time, I got pelted with stinging, heavy rain. All I had on was my boxer shorts. With heavy gusts of wind, the situation was still precarious to the point I could not risk leaving the deck for an instant. Melissa brought me up a foul weather jacket, but it wasn’t cold and I was already soaked.
In the end we were lucky and only tapped the seawall that one, first time. It did absolutely no damage at all to the boat, thank goodness. But for our instant action, however, things would have turned out very, very badly.
After the squall passed, things went dead-calm again. I went forward and tried to winch in on the anchor chain a little more, but my now-extensive anchoring experience told me that the anchor was fouled and that every foot of chain I pulled up just reduced what little holding ability was still available (by the mere weight of chain and anchor lying freely on the bottom).
The next morning, all things were still calm. I was able to winch in the anchor. It turned out that Queenie to our starboard side had dropped her anchor at an angle well across our bows. Obviously, they were not able to back straight in when they moored prior to our arrival. When I raised my anchor, the monohull’s anchor was hooked neatly on mine!
Ok, what should we do now?! Well, we had to find a way to get our anchor and 100 feet of chain back out into the harbor (and Queenie’s too – they were not on board), and it was obvious that we had to untie, head out, drop the anchor and accomplish a complete “redo” – a giant pain in the ass!
While trying to get my courage up for the inevitable, I stood on the bow and looked at the tangle of anchors while mumbling profanity-laced opinions regarding Med Mooring.
Just as I was about to leave the foredeck and break the bad news to Melissa, two young Brits came by the front of the boat in a small Boston Whaler with a 40 h.p. outboard. They saw what was going on and pulled up close.
With big grins, they shook their heads. They were Big Boys, tattooed and body-pierced to the max, and explained in sharp British accent that they were deckhands on a big power yacht farther down the wall.
I lamented my fate and then came their quick response: “No worries, Mate! We’ve done this before!”
Dig this: before I even knew what they had in mind, they pulled up under Indigo Moon’s crossbeam and unhooked the Queenie’s 45 pound anchor from mine. While one held the anchor down on the Boston Whaler’s foredeck, the other throttled up in reverse and headed out. They pulled about 150 feet of chain taught and dumped the anchor out in the harbor.
Then, they pulled back under my anchor and I hit the down button on the electric windlass and dumped 100 feet of chain and anchor into the Boston Whaler. They backed out, letting the chain payout over the gunwale. When it all pulled taught, they dumped my anchor as well.
To do this required positively tremendous feats of super-human strength on their part. Really, I’d have bet a lot of money that what they did would not even be possible considering the combined weight of the anchors and chains, but these guys were the “real deal.”
Anyway, after they dumped my 35 pound Delta anchor overboard, I winched in on the anchor chain and the anchor set hard and fast and we were in business. We have anchored hundreds and hundreds of times in all types of bottom conditions and our Delta anchor dragged on only two occasions. Both times it was fouled with debris and it was not the anchor’s fault (with the other boat’s anchor this time and with a fish trap and rope one other time when we were in the Florida Keys).
The Brit deckhands were headed out fishing when they diverted their attention to helping me. I asked what they wanted for helping me out and they asked for some sodas to take fishing. I gave them four cold sodas, a whole pack of Milky Way candy bars, and twenty dollars for beers later. Nice guys.
The whole episode is a good illustration of what the camaraderie of Cruising is all about. It is also a good example of what life on a boat is often like. The next time you roll over and go back to sleep in your cozy bed after being briefly awakened by whipping winds and rain and/or a midnight thunderclap, remember that on a boat you do not have that luxury. On a boat, on any given stormy night, you will be outside in your boxers engaged in full scale battle on a grand scale with fearsome Mother Nature coming at you for all she’s worth!
All in all, Margarita was quite a Venezuelan “training ground” and we learned many new things and lessons while there. The experience was an excellent primer for our arrival at the mainland of Venezuela.
The time finally came for us to depart Margarita and head to the South American mainland proper. All hands on Indigo Moon and Wayfinder began studying weather charts and plotting and planning a passage from Isla de Margarita to Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela.
We identified a wonderfully calm day coming our way and readied for a 4 o’clock a.m. departure on that date. We had to hire the same agent to drive to Pampatar and handle the paperwork to check us out. Unfortunately, we could not just check into Venezuela and then go wherever. Instead, the outer islands required check-in and check-out, and the mainland required a separate check-in and out. Not Cruiser friendly!
Also, we could not leave in the wee hours of the morning from a Med Moor position. Departing the seawall requires an “all hands on deck” effort by all boats to fend off from neighboring vessels in close proximity. So, we managed to get checked out and away from the seawall before dark. We negotiated with the marina and obtained permission to anchor in the harbor of the marina so that we would be safe until our pre-dawn departure.
All went well and the weather really laid down for us as we anchored and hit the sack.
The alarm clock went off at 04:00 and I immediately went topside to ready the boat for sea.
I was surprised to hear loud music wafting out over the glass-smooth waters of the harbor. We were anchored about 150 feet from the seawall opposite the marina and I looked in that direction to see three cars, with doors open, parked at the edge of the seawall. There were a dozen or so teenagers standing around and listening to music and drinking and smoking and "partying." Not such an unusual scene at 4 a.m. on a Wednesday, I guess.
In fact, it looked exactly like the parking lot scene at the Lake Pontchartrain seawall in Mandeville, Louisiana, where gangs of north-shore affluent teenagers come at night to smoke, drink, rev engines, burn rubber, listen to music and do precisely whatever it is their parents have specifically forbidden them to do.
So, it seems teenagers are the same everywhere and Margarita is no exception. What was truly bizarre, though, was the music that blared out over the harbor as I climbed up on the bimini top and opened the sailbag, readied the main halyard, removed instrument covers, cranked engines, fired-up the electronics and then raised the mainsail. The music was not Salsa, not Latin, and not Caribbean, but 1980’s Top-40 “Big Hair” Rock!
Take My Breath Away, the hit song performed by the band Berlin and made famous in the movie Top Gun was blaring from the shore as I came up on deck. While tending to various chores, the 80’s rock continued with hit songs such as Pat Benatar’s Love is a Battlefield, and Brian Adams’ I Need Somebody.
I took the picture below, knowing it would not come out well, but wanting to make sure I remembered just how odd it was to discover that particular music to be the choice of Venezuelan teens on a mid-week all-nighter binge party.
In the end, it was just one more piece of the puzzle for me. After seeing the malls in Margarita (complete with a McDonalds) and seeing many U.S.A. products for sale including clothes and electronics, it was pretty clear. While Venezuela’s socialist-minded and Castro protégé, Hugo Chavez, may hate all things U.S. and have quasi-communist aspirations as President, the Venezuelan people themselves are undeniably capitalists at heart and simply can’t get enough of the U.S.A. and capitalist materialism.
And so, as the 80’s Rock continued, I winched up the mainsail in the very light air. Once the main was up, Melissa powered us slowly forward as I raised and secured the anchor. Wayfinder had “bugged out” just ahead of us and we were both on our way out of the harbor without a hitch, all while Tina Turner’s hit song What’s Love Got to Do With It faded away proportionally to the distance we were gaining from the seawall party.
Out of the Harbor and underway, we were happy to be on the move again; next stop: Bahia Redonda Marina in Puerto la Cruz, Venezuela.
ARRIVING IN PUERTO LA CRUZ AT VENEZUELA'S MAINLAND
The sun rose over the calmest seas we had seen in months. As it turns out, it was wasted energy to raise the mainsail and there was not a breath of wind. Out here cruising and making offshore passages, however, you learn to never complain about conditions being too calm. Any break Neptune affords us we accept gratefully.
As we motored along, I could not get Brian Adam’s tune out of my head “I need Somebody. . . Hey what about you!” . . . and I recalled how I used to carry a tune in my head all day after the radio alarm clock went off to send me on my way to another day of practicing law in Baton Rouge. It was a “crap shoot” as to what tune followed me around all day. Sometimes it was funny. I’d be sitting in Court waiting the docket to be called and might have Clapton’s “I shot the Sheriff” running through my head.
I just happen to like Brian Adams’ tunes well enough and thus was content as the sunrise wowed us. I started running the water maker so as to have two full tanks of chlorine-free pristine water to use for flushing out the water maker every two weeks while sitting idle in the Bahia Redonda Marina.
If the water maker is not run, the system has to be flushed out every so often to prevent stagnant-water bacterial-growth on the membranes. Dock water can contain chlorine: Enemy Number One for water maker membranes. So, I wanted plenty of trustworthy water to use for flushing only: we would shower with dock water and drink bottled water.
Here are some shots of our offshore sunrise in Venezuelan waters:
As the morning went on, I noticed that the skies were very hazy. Also, the water was no longer the mesmerizing indigo blue that we were so spoiled by in the Eastern Caribbean. Surprisingly, the sea color was turning more to a gun-metal blue-grey. Also, there was more and more garbage in the water as we got nearer to the coast.
Oddly, it reminded me greatly of the steely-grey trash-laden waters we encountered offshore of New Jersey and New York on our offshore passage from Norfolk, Virginia, to New Bedford, Massachusetts two years ago (where we even saw medical waste like I.V. Bags and Hypodermics floating sixty miles offshore).
But there were beautiful sights too. One thing that was very interesting: the solid rock islands offshore along the Venezuelan coast were geological wonders. The strata and formations were quite different than what we had seen before in the Eastern Caribbean. It looked like a geologist’s dream to me and it seemed logical that this would be an oil rich area as well.
By midday, the skies got cloudier and the air got hazier. But hey! It was still very calm and we were not complaining.
As we neared the “home stretch” a large pod of dolphins came to call.
As we neared the coast, I kept hearing this deep rumbling in the mountains. I could see some sort of mining operation on a mountainside east of Puerto la Cruz and I kept telling Melissa that they must be blasting, but I could not see any dust clouds or visual evidence thereof.
Well, it wasn’t blasting or mining. It had been so long since we had encountered a big thunderstorm that I guess I forgot that one could be a possibility. Nearing a huge continent in the blazing mid-afternoon summer sun meant a nice, convectional thunderstorm was rolling down the mountains to the sea and our arrival in Puerto la Cruz was in pouring rain, limited visibility and foul weather gear!
We tried hailing Bahia Redonda Marina on VHF but they would not answer. So, we slowly worked our way into the channel and beyond, entering the marina and motoring around looking at boats and possible spaces to moor, all while spinning Indigo Moon around like a ballerina in the various dead-ends of the marina.
As soon as the rain let up, a small boat came along side and directed us to a space. It is a Med Moor system, but a much better setup than the nightmarish one at Marina Margarita.
First, there are numerous moorings out in the channel that are used to tie the bows of boats off too, eliminating the anchor dragging/tangling risks we endured at Marina Margarita.
Second, the docks are not solid seawalls down to the water. Instead, the docks are wide concrete platforms up on pilings and the water is deep and continues so underneath the dock. Thus, there is no seawall at the waterline for the stern of the boat to run into like it did at Marina Margarita.
In no time we were tied up with shore power on and all of our air conditioners humming at full force. Basically, we ran the air conditioning 24/7 for the entire time we were there. Being close to the equator in the summer means heat! It was so hot and humid that by 9:00 a.m. you simply could not stand in the sun for more than five minutes without it completely soaking your shirt.
We were in the company of about 150 other cruising boats from many counties, but it seemed that the majority of boats were from various U.S. ports.
Here is a quick look at the marina area:
The Bahia Redonda Marina complex is big, gated, and has guard towers and guard shacks at the gates.
Indigo Moon’s spot was almost all the way down the outside wall of the marina. A very long and large rip rap peninsula reaches out into the bay and wraps around the marina. On the inside of this huge levee of boulders, a road runs the entire length of the seawall, culminating at the end of the peninsula at a fuel dock facility (not owned or operated by the marina, but by PDVSA – the government owned oil company of Venezuela).
Being docked so far out on the wall resulted in a quarter-mile walk to the heart of the marina where the swimming pool, marina office, little convenience store and the restaurant were located. It did not take long for us to break out the bicycles due to the long walks in searing heat.
Also, just inland from the marina office in an adjacent building, numerous other small businesses operated along a walkway that traversed about 75 yards between the marina office and a parking lot. Shops included travel agents, very small chandleries with severely limited inventories, import and shipping agents, travel agents, canvas and upholstery shops, electronics shops and a laundry service.
That sounds like a lot going on, doesn’t it? The little shops, however, all had a feel of either not quite being open for business yet, or of going out of business – hardly anything for sale and a rather disheveled appearance of articles presented for sale, like yard sales.
Before exploring Puerto la Cruz much further, though, we must attend to getting checked in with Customs and Immigration and also getting The Moon installed at her slip and ready for a long tenure at the dock.
GETTING ESTABLISHED FOR MARINA LIFE IN PUERTO LA CRUZ
So first things first: we had to check in with Customs and Immigration and so we took all our papers to one of the on-site travel agencies. We dropped off all our paperwork (and handed over our Passports too – kind of scary), so that they could take our paperwork around to the various governmental offices and obtain all the necessary papers and permits and have everything ready for pick up the next day (later in the story, we will find out that having perfectly executed paperwork, and giving a copy to the marina office is very important).
In addition to getting legally checked in, we also needed to construct a gangplank (“pasarela” in Spanish). We knew at the outset that we would not take it with us when we left, so we didn’t want anything fancy, just a plain-old rough 2x12 with a little modification.
Within the first two days of our arrival, we learned a little bit about how things are done in Puerto La Cruz. In the mornings, six days a week, on VHF Channel 72 there is a Cruisers’ Network that is hosted daily by a revolving cast of five or so volunteers; some were live aboard Cruisers in the marina, but many were local business people who cater to Cruisers.
Various segments are presented on the Cruisers’ Net program: a formal introduction where the ‘El Capitan of the Port is thanked for allowing Cruisers to even have the net; a call for any medical or security emergencies within the last 24 hours; a weather report; and, then announcements by local businesses, including announcements by taxi drivers who cater to Cruisers, vying for business.
All the taxi drivers have VHF radios in their cars and all of them monitor VHF Channel 72.
Our first morning there, after the Cruisers’ Net, we were able to contact taxi driver Arnaldo Añez who took us into downtown Puerto La Cruz in his little red Toyota car to buy a 2"x12" plank.
It had to be milled. We were told to come back later in the day, which we did. I forked over 25 dollars U.S. and Arnaldo and I strapped this big, heavy 12 foot long plank to the roof racks on his car with two threadbare bungie cords. We lumbered along through the Barrios and back to the marina. Much to my disbelief, we did it without losing the plank once! Two taxi rides and an all day wait to get one piece of standard lumber. Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore!
Turns out that there was a faster, cheaper, newer lumber yard, available, but I had no way of knowing about it. Arnaldo took me to an old lumber facility that had operated in old downtown Puerto La Cruz forever. It did not take long to learn that the various Taxi drivers were all different and seemed to live on "different planets" when it came to local knowledge about where to find various supplies. In fact, the term “local knowledge” often seemed an oxymoron.
Anyway, as I rode with Arnaldo on the gangplank acquisition trips, I continually pointed at billboards, spray-painted graffiti, and anything and everything written in Spanish and tried to pronounce it. And I asked Arnaldo what everything meant. Arnaldo’s English is pretty good and he humored me gracefully.
Once back at the marina with the new pasarela, I got out my angle grinder and rounded all the sharp edges of the plank and cut off a foot or so and scabbed it onto the bottom of what would be the “dock-end” so that as the boat moved back and forth in winds and up and down in tides, the patch of board scabbed on it would serve as a sacrificial “wear plate” of wood to grind away on the concrete dock.
Next, I drilled holes in the corners of the “boat end” of the board and then ran ropes through so that the gangplank could be tied securely to cleats on the boat. Finally, I used a piece of rubber matting on the deck under the boat end of the board to keep it from marking Indigo Moon’s deck.
Ok, we are all set up -- I thought.
But then one more task became immediately apparent: RAT DEFENSE!
Yes, it did not take long to see that many vessels had “rat guards” on their dock lines and once Melissa got wind of the rat threat, she wanted instant action (as all girls do when it comes to things like that).
I had already studied all the various contraptions other Cruisers had put into place: plastic plates holed in the middle and slit to the center to be slipped on the lines with the slit duct-taped shut thereafter; one gallon, round water bottles with a hole drilled in the bottom so that dock lines can be run through the bottom and out through the neck of the bottle, allegedly creating a rotating surface that a rat can’t traverse without losing its balance and falling off on either side.
In the end, I did not opt for placing any rat guards on the lines at all. Instead, I simply placed blue tape (Scotch’s allegedly removable masking tape that will actually cook on the fiberglass if left more than a few days) over the engine compartment vents – the only entrance to below-decks.
All the other hatches were closed all the time while the air conditioners ran continuously. Then, to insure a good night’s sleep for Melissa, I had to bring the heavy gangplank aboard every night and then put it back out every morning. All part of the “Cruiser’s fitness program” as it were. I changed out the blue tape every few days so it didn’t cook onto the boat’s finish too badly.
Oh, and as to air conditioning, let me just point out that it is NOT optional this far south. Melissa and I were lucky to have a catamaran equipped “to the hilt” with 30,000 BTU’s of AC in three units. We were already set up to survive comfortably. Those boats without air conditioning quickly bought household window units upon their arrival and placed them outside on deck on blocks of wood adjacent to a hatch and then fabricated a wooden “doghouse” or tent to direct cool air into their boat.
As you might imagine, there was an active market for used window unit air conditioners as boats came and went, with Cruisers buying units upon their arrival and then selling units to other Cruisers when they departed. Only a few people braved the South American summer without air conditioning. They managed by spending ALL DAY at the swimming pool and under the shade trees, then sleeping with fans and open hatches at night. I honestly don’t know how in the world they withstood it!
Anyway, it did not take but a couple of days to be “legal” and checked in with Customs and Immigration, have a gangplank to safely access the boat, have rat countermeasures in place, and be plugged-in with the AC running.
And so, it is time to get into the groove of marina life at Bahia Redonda and branch out into Puerto La Cruz!
LIFE AND TIMES IN A SOUTH AMERICAN MARINA
It was a first in our Cruising experiences: living in a marina 24/7 for several months and staying tied up in one spot. With Hurricanes Katrina and Ivan fresh in all our minds, like many others we decided to head well below the hurricane belt and stay there despite the fact that marina life was not something we looked forward to.
Living in a marina is very different than on-the-move Cruising. We learned a lot about what a “marina society” is like. Also, being in one spot for so long, we learned quite a bit about Venezuelans and their country. And needless to say, Indigo Moon profited greatly as I took on major improvement and maintenance projects the scope of which can only be accomplished in port.
The most straightforward way to give you a feel for our Puerto La Cruz and Venezuela experience is to break things down into manageable categories. So here goes!
I. The Marina area, Puerto La Cruz, and the Jungles above
Let’s get oriented.
First off, Bahia Redonda Marina is located directly adjacent to a neighborhood of severe poverty that was either safe or absolutely treacherous depending on the classic vs. romantic basic mindset of the fellow Cruiser you talked to (see discussion of various crime in the beginning of this trip-log).
During the day, Cruisers would depart the guarded gates of Bahia Redonda and walk east along the shoreline of the bay and traverse the shoreline of the Barrios (technically meaning any urban district or quarter in a Spanish-speaking country, but in reality used to indicate a very poor neighborhood, much like the terms hood or ghetto ).
Cruisers of varying “courage” ventured out on foot into the Barrios to eat at small, sparsely-equipped beachfront restaurants like the “Chicken Shack” where you can eat very cheap meals (where you basically get what you pay for). Let’s just say that a quick look at the restaurant made it clear that there is no Health Department inspecting these places.
Melissa and I were not interested in risking additional bouts with intestinal parasites and/or getting mugged to save money by eating at the Chicken Shack. Some Cruisers, though, are frantic in their search for that wholly elusive dream of a destination where the living is “free and easy” (with “free” being the primary focus). They will pull what I consider “stunts” just to try and arrive at a monthly budget that will impress their suit-clad, SUV driving, second-mortgaged, clock-punching, working-stiff peers back home.
During our stay in Puerto La Cruz, several Cruisers got more and more confident about the Barrios, proclaiming that it was “perfectly safe” (there are those romantic, optimistic words again) to go to the Barrios and to the Chicken Shack where, according to one Cruiser, they serve “hand-grenade chicken” suggesting the chicken has been blown up instead of cut up in that the pieces you are served are not identifiable at all and never look the same,
Just when the Chicken Shack was getting really popular with the “optimists”, there was a gunfight there and a local got shot!
Unbelievably, most of the Cruisers who frequented the Chicken Shack proclaimed: “the shooting was between locals and had nothing to do with us; the place is still perfectly safe!”
This bizarre “Chicken Shack is still safe” response is akin to the psychological phenomenon referred to by psychology scholars as: “When Prophecy Fails.” In a freshman psychology class, we examined the behavior of a fanatical group who was certain that Space Aliens would land on a certain date. Flyers and signs and various propaganda were churned out feverishly and distributed fanatically by the Group, informing the public of the upcoming Alien landing.
Predictably, when “The Big Day” finally came, no Aliens landed. Unpredictably, however, the fanatics did not abandon their beliefs in the least. Instead, they selected a new Alien Arrival Date and then redoubled their efforts, promoting the new event with even greater zeal.
Many Cruisers are surprisingly like that in their thinking. Once they have decided that something or somewhere is “safe” or “cool” or “beautiful” or “cheap” they will not be convinced otherwise regardless of glaring facts to the contrary. In fact, for some Cruisers, “cheap” is the only thing necessary for a place to be safe, cool and beautiful and they will perform spectacular mental gymnastics to justify outcomes of opinion that square with and support their pronouncements.
Ok, that’s enough about the intriguing workings of the inner-minds of Cruisers. Let’s get back to life in Puerto La Cruz.
Aside from cheap meals and cheap “thrills” at the Chicken Shack, there was one other reason to venture out into the Barrios on foot. On Saturday mornings there is an open air seafood and produce market that takes place a few blocks past the Chicken Shack.
A dozen or so Cruisers would meet inside the gates of Bahia Redonda at 9:00 a.m. on Saturdays and then walk over en masse and do some shopping at the open air market. We went a couple of times to experience it, but it left a lot to be desired from a sanitation standpoint and we preferred to take a air-conditioned taxi and do our shopping at the large, relatively modern supermarkets in Puerto La Cruz’s shopping center named Plaza Mayor and meat markets such as La Cava (“The Cooler”).
Here are some photos of the Saturday morning market in the Barrios:
In the photo above, note the jars of seafood: a mix of room-temperature clams, oysters and various spices. Just before taking this photo, I watched the gentleman behind the counter casually lift, open and smell the contents of one of the jars. His head jerked back in an uncontrolled reflex motion and he grimaced. But, he managed to straighten his face quickly, casually close the jar and slide it back out onto the counter for sale.
I bought a few pounds of shrimp. They were BIG, maybe ten or twelve count and didn’t smell too bad at the time of sale (as if you can smell anything in the iceless fish market).
Once back to the boat, I pealed and cleaned the shrimp and could not get past the fact that the ammonia smell was not coming off them no matter how thorough the wash job. Being from Louisiana, I am, like all other good Cajuns, a seafood expert in the “does this smell ok to you?” department. The shrimp had obviously just barely “turned the corner” and I chunked them into the trash can. That was the end of the open air market trips.
Ultimately, the trips to the market proved dangerous. It was reported that a few months after we departed Puerto la Cruz, on December 4, 2006, a group of lady cruisers was robbed at gunpoint while walking to the Saturday fish market, just as we did.
On another note altogether, while in Venezuela I did not take the usual plethora of photographs. We were not in a “vacation destination” per se, and the locals here were not accustomed to silly tourists pointing cameras at everything and everybody. Also, standing around on busy city streets and brandishing a new camera was against the general advice that in order to avoid street crime you need to blend in with the locals as much as possible.
When going into town, we wore jeans and inconspicuous attire. Venezuelan men don’t wear shorts as a rule and even though the heat index is well over 100 degrees, long pants (blue jeans in particular) are the norm. In fact, you can’t even go some places with shorts on – like medical complexes. To a Venezuelan, it would be like showing up for a doctor’s appointment in your pajamas or a Speedo.
Also, in the “taking photographs department”, soon after we arrived in Venezuela, there were reports of a U.S. Citizen arrested as a Spy! According to published reports, she was a pretty woman from the U.S.A. who was “taking lots of photographs” and therefore was detained and was surely a Spy.
And so, although I was absolutely safe regarding any allegations of being pretty, the “taking lots of pictures” part seemed risky, especially regarding the photographing of people. I think the language barrier played a part in my photo-reluctance as well, as did the extreme poverty of some of the people.
As I looked at some of them, I could not help getting a strong feeling in my gut that it would be an insult for me to stand and point a camera at them without any introduction or preface to indicate where my heart is.
Furthermore, it would have been downright stupid to photograph the shotgun-toting “troops” at road blocks on the main highways of Puerto La Cruz. Nothing good could come from that! I asked one of the taxi drivers early on about the roadblocks: ‘What are they looking for?”, I asked. His response: “Their lunch money.”
They look for a reason to stop somebody and obtain a “fine” that will probably be used to buy their own lunch. Some roadblocks looked like they were being conducted by young gang members more so than government officials.
Walking from the marina through the barrios to the Saturday Open Market, I took this one surreptitious shot as I strolled along with my arms hanging down and swinging naturally, and thus the tilted shot:
While walking through the barrios, shoeless children in filthy clothes (often just underwear) played in the dirt streets. Many of the structures were more fitting for housing lawnmowers or garden equipment and resembled the sheds that are “out back” behind rural homes in the U.S.A.
And while walking through the barrios of this oil-rich country called Venezuela, I asked myself how anyone with a soul could not be moved to tears. I felt extreme sensations of compassion for the poor here: guilt that Melissa and I are so spectacularly wealthy in comparison; outrage that any affluent government could let these conditions persist; and, while looking at a young boy playing, I surely wondered what my life would have been like if I had started out as him.
As we walked further, I also reflected on how extremely spoiled we are in the U.S.A. and how we enjoy a standard of living that is grotesquely comfortable and easy.
While I ruminated about all that, I looked toward the doorway of what was more “hut” than “house” and therein, on a plastic bucket, sat a man in his thirties. He was bouncing a two-year old on his knee. He gingerly took hold of her arm and helped her wave at us. The most important thing I saw was not the rags they wore, or the dirt floor, or the man’s missing teeth, but instead the most apparent thing was that the man was so very proud and happy and so was his smiling baby girl.
It was unmistakable that he did not resent us in the least. Rather, he beamed with a big smile, and several “Buenos Dias” were exchanged between us as he encouraged his beautiful little girl to wave at us Gringos (of course we smiled and zealously waved back). A prouder Papa does not exist on this planet.
That simple fifteen-second exchange spoke volumes to me.
First, it was quite surprising to see Pure Joy spring forth from someone in such deplorable living conditions. I was reminded that material poverty and emotional poverty are not automatically coincidental. Despite the billions of dollars that Madison Avenue spends on convincing us otherwise, it really is true that happiness is not for sale at the Lexus dealership, nor the Rolex store, nor Best Buy, etc.
Second, after that experience (and many others), we found that while the vast majority of the people of Venezuela may be critically poor, they were not at all bitter toward us. On the contrary, Venezuelans are quick to laugh, have wonderful hearts and very active senses of humor. Thus, they are wealthy in many ways that simply can’t be bought with money.
So, it seems Venezuela is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Eastern Caribbean where many of the West Indians we encountered live in generally better conditions than the poor Venezuelans, but are nonetheless bitterly unhappy and outwardly resentful toward Cruisers passing through.
I have no answer for the extreme difference in attitudes. But the result was the exact opposite of what I expected. I thought West Indians in the Eastern Caribbean would be very friendly and that the Venezuelans would demonize us as hated U.S.A. citizens (considering all of the anti-U.S.A. rhetoric by Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez).
Turns out, after getting to know a few Venezuelans, I can report that we have not met a more-friendly, funny, happy bunch of folks since leaving South Louisiana (where you will find some of the friendliest and funniest people on earth).
Regarding the unhappy attitudes of West Indians, Melissa pointed out to me a concept that might lend explanation. She learned of it, in all things, one of Greg Isles murder mystery novels. In one part of his writings, Isles poses the question as to why post-slavery Africans seem to have had so much trouble competing, assimilating and succeeding as a race in the New World when compared to other races that immigrated to the New World and faced the same tough obstacles, yet prospered.
According to the theory highlighted in Isle’s novel, all other races voluntarily came to the New World and brought their cultures and religions with them. Their homeland identities and beliefs remained intact, and while they forged their success in the New World they never lost the emotional foundation provided by their original cultures and religions.
As for African West Indians (descendants of Africans slaves who were brought to the Eastern Caribbean) and many African Americans, however, their forefathers were not allowed to practice their religions, nor retain their cultural identities. They had their core identities obliterated by force – literally beaten out of them. No other race of people arrived in the New World under such horrific and heinous circumstances, and without any solid multi-generational foundation of culture and religion.
Nonetheless, it was Abraham Lincoln who once said that people are “about as happy as they decide to be” and I guess that sums it up for me, regardless of what terrible injustices may have been visited upon them.
In general, and quite simply put against the backdrop of Abraham Lincoln’s quip, it was our experience that the comparatively prosperous West Indians decided to be generally less happy and the relatively poorer Venezuelans decided to be generally more happy.
Here are a few more shots of the barrios area near the marina:
Our Marina was located in the “El Morro” complex, a large coastal development that includes several marinas, a system of canals, and numerous mansions and condo developments in various stages of either construction or decomposition, depending on where you look.
Our marina was located on the edge of that huge complex and to go anywhere we had to take a taxi or walk miles through the barrios. Cabs were very inexpensive, though, and we opted for cabs. Gas is only 17 cents a gallon.
Many taxi drivers catered primarily to Cruisers and served the marina complex.
The “Godfather” of this service industry is “Charlie Alpha” (real name Carlos Gonzales). Charlie Alpha provided tours into the mountains, tours around the city, and he could help you find anything and everything (including where the best products and prices are).
In addition to helping Cruisers, he imports heavy earthmoving equipment into Venezuela. Further, he is in the process of developing properties in the mountains above Puerto La Cruz.
If ever there was a “mover and shaker” it’s Charlie Alpha! With many irons in the fire, he is The Man in and around the marinas at Puerto La Cruz.
Carlos has a Charlie Alpha web site where you can see a photo of him and his beautiful new bride (who is a lawyer working for the government) and also peruse the services he offers at:
Carlos is a great guy and helped us tremendously. At one point he attended LSU in his past and speaks perfect English, so he was really great to have around when translation was needed.
As part of Charlie Alpha’s services, he offers a free tour of the area to all newly arriving Cruisers. Here are some of the things we saw while driving around on one of his tours of the area:
Carlos explained to us that every town/city has a statue of Simon Bolivar and that the grandiosity and posture of any given statue reflects the importance of the city. In the photo above, Bolivar is on foot – meaning the town is not very important. In a more important city, Bolivar will be on horseback. In a very powerful city, the horse will be rearing up, etc. In the most important cities, the horse will be rearing up and Bolivar will have his sword drawn as if he is initiating a battle charge.
Old Puerto La Cruz is on the shore and eastward of our marina. Following the shoreline west of the El Morro complex, there are various, relatively modern sections of the Puerto La Cruz. The shoreline finally wraps north around the bay and culminates with a small bridge of land that connects the mainland to a mountain peninsula where resorts are located on the shores. The top of the mountain peninsula is not developed, but a road provides access to the very peak and views of Puerto la Cruz.
We enjoyed many sights during our introductory tour with Charlie Alpha, and he provided us with a plethora of information we would never have received otherwise.
Along with six other Cruisers, we subsequently booked a tour with Charlie Alpha to visit the Los Altos mountain village and areas south of Puerto La Cruz. The population in the rural areas is interesting and diverse. Jungle residents include artists, coffee plantation owners, and a geologist and his wife who raise Macaws.
Here is a look:
The coffee plants are so intermingled with lush jungle vegetation that you would not know that the area is a plantation. Nonetheless, the mountainsides were covered with coffee plants.
The above picture also reminds me of how friendly Venezuelans are. Initially, while getting ready to take this shot, the plantation owner was not in the frame. But she noticed an ugly, brown branch in the field of view and ran up to remove the branch!
I told Charlie Alpha to ask the lady to stay where she was after removing the branch and that I wanted her to be in the photo. She was a little shy, but I could sense that she was pleased to be asked to be in the photo. I can’t articulate it any better than to simply say her behavior exuded a wonderfully warm mix of pride, honest friendship, happiness and grace.
These were the times that I was just plain angry with myself that I could not speak fluent Spanish. It would have been so cool to engage in a rapid-fire Spanish colloquy with her!
We bought several tins of coffee while we were there and very much enjoyed learning about the coffee operation. After a thorough inspection of the coffee plantation, we were off to a totally new area near where Charlie Alpha and his wife have a home of their own.
Nearby, a retired couple has a gated estate high in the mountains where they raise and take in colorful Macaw parrots. Incidentally, they and also had an apartment for rent and a used car for sale.
The gentleman of the house is a geologist who spent his career in oil-rich Venezuela, but lost his job (along with thousands of others) when Hugo Chavez took office.
Hmmm. . . . ok, it was a very interesting place alright, but at this stop it dawned on me that Charlie Alpha’s tours had a dual purpose: sure, he was showing us around, but he was also bringing potential “Cruiser customers” to a select group of his jungle neighbors who would never had made contact with us Cruisers otherwise.
Lets take a look at a fabulous, exotic jungle estate:
After that, it was on to a restaurant in the mountains very near Charlie Alpha’s house where we enjoyed traditional Venezuelan dishes that were very tasty. After a nice rest and a good meal, we visited Charlie Alpha’s home (where we met his wife, son and six German Shepard dogs).
We then continued on our tour to visit various other artists. First stop: a potter.
We had a great day and made other visits to a metal shop and another home where ornamental gift boxes and stationary paper were made from recycled papers. It was quite unexpected to see so many different artisans scattered through the mountain jungles.
Charlie Alpha was a prince of a guy and showed us a good time, returning us to the marina at sunset.
In addition to touring by land, we ventured out in dinghies one day to see the canals of the Puerto La Cruz area.
Melissa and I had not used our dinghy in Venezuela so far. In fact, we had not even taken the outboard off Indigo Moon’s stern railing where it had been stowed for the crossing from Grenada to Margarita.
It really was not necessary to use the dinghy, plus the Marine Police and Coast Guard officers in the area had a reputation for harassing Cruisers in dinghies, requiring “dinghy drivers’ licenses” (which do not exist) or else cooking-up other faux violations in hope of prying a fine (a.k.a. bribe and lunch money) from the accused.
The word was out on this practice long before we arrived in Puerto La Cruz and many Cruisers manufactured phony dingy licenses and waited to be asked for one, expecting to confound the corrupt cops by producing the impossible. We never heard of anyone getting harassed during our stay, but a lot of folks were ready for action!
One day our friends Chuck and Terri from Lagoon 410 Maker’s Match came and picked us up in their dinghy and gave us a tour of the canals. Also, Howard and Suzanne Clarke from Lagoon 410 Leadership came along in their dinghy too (with baby Sam aboard too).
Here’s a look at what Venezuelans call their “ Venice”:
Directly across the street for the Caribbean Mall, several upscale restaurants provided some of the best food we found in Puerto La Cruz. During lunch, truly rich Venezuelans frequented these eateries.
Plaza Mayor is the main shopping center we visited for groceries, pharmaceuticals, magazines, and most important of all: ice cream! Many Cruisers would take their dinghies to go shop (about a 20 minute ride in the no-wake zone canals), but it was HOT in the South American sun and we preferred to take air-conditioned taxis that would bring us and our loads of groceries directly and safely from Plaza Mayor to Indigo Moon for about five dollars.
During our dinghy tour with Chuck and Terri we landed at the seawall behind the Plaza Mayor Shopping Center and did a little shopping and ate lunch.
That concludes our initial look around the Puerto La Cruz area. But seeing the sights is only a portion of the story. In the next section, we’ll talk about what it was like to live in Bahia Redonda Marina for several months.
II. Marina Life compared to Cruising Life: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
I already knew that weekend Marina Societies are very different than “on the move” Cruising Societies. But still I had no idea what it would actually be like to be part of a hybrid scene where a Cruising Society is “serving time” in a weekend marina-type setting during hurricane season.
I have by nature never been a “joiner” and, although we have lots of friends, we like the ebb and flow of loosely socializing when we want to, all while on the move. In a marina long term, folks start making rules, seeking to control others, and it starts to feel like you are again living in a community with an evil-eyed Homeowners’ Association Board of Directors watching every move (it takes one to know one; I was the President of our Homeowners’ Association in Baton Rouge for awhile).
I often joke that Cruisers can be a paradoxical bunch: “Hey, let’s buy a boat and sail away to remote islands and get away from it all. We’ll finally be free at last! And I know what! When we get out to the remote islands, let’s organize all the Cruisers and form a club. We’ll elect Officers and draft a Constitution and By-laws!”
It’s like the old joke: “Anarchist Club meeting tonight at 7:00 p.m.; on the Agenda: election of Officers and drafting of a Mission Statement.”
The Bahia Redonda Marina where we were docked had the largest population of live aboard Cruisers, and the number of floating boats there far surpassed that of other marinas in the El Morro area (there were neighboring boat yards, however, with very large numbers of stored boats on the hard).
As to the live aboard boats in Bahia Redonda, there were a few boats from the U.S.A. that had been there for several years and had never moved. As you might have guessed, this resulted in a politically powerful group of Cruisers who basically “governed” the marina, or at least spoke for all of us.
A gentleman named Bob, on the Trawler Pipe Dream, was undoubtedly the unofficial “Mayor” of the marina. He and his wife are probably in their late sixties and had been living at the same dock for a few years. Bob (and a few of his disciples) were zealous both in helping Cruisers and also in closely monitoring and controlling things in his “precinct” as well.
For example, I can remember hailing Chuck Hill aboard Maker’s Match on the VHF one morning. After making contact, we switched to a working channel for a “private” conversation (of course, you can bet that several “lurkers” will follow you to that channel and eavesdrop – hey, that’s entertainment).
Lurking and eavesdropping is one thing, but it is unheard of for a stranger to jump into the conversation and just start transmitting without introduction or following VHF hailing protocol to “break” into the conversation.
Well, Chuck and I were discussing something I can’t even remember, when, all of a sudden and without any proper VHF hailing procedures whatsoever, Bob on Pipe Dream simply cut-in on our conversation and began “schooling” us on the issue we were discussing.
Please don’t misconstrue the point of this story. I’m not knocking Bob – his big heart is in the right place and he was always trying to help. I am, however, just pointing out how weird it gets in a socially-compartmentalized live-aboard marina. New norms must be identified accepted and conformed to if you want to be happy. As usual, no matter how wacky or aggravating things are, it’s best to “go along” if you want to “get along.”
To his credit, Bob spent a lot of time trying to improve things around the marina. One problem was the unreliable wireless internet signal. It became a HUGE issue as bored, marina-bound Cruisers tried to access the internet and pass the time. In addition to other things, “Mayor” Bob is a HAM radio and electronics junkie. On the Cruisers’ Net in the morning, Bob took quite a bit of air time zealously promoting his administration of HAM radio license testing services.
Anyway, Bob claimed he owned some type of equipment and/or computer software that he alleged could track wireless internet service usage and its status.
During the first few weeks we were in the marina, the wireless system crashed daily, and sometimes hourly. It was not uncommon for Bob’s voice to spontaneously spring up on the VHF to vehemently announce on Channel 72 that a “yet to be identified” Cruiser was “stealing” the WiFi signal and running huge programs, thereby causing the WiFi system to crash.
Then, Bob would make assurances that the phantom perpetrator’s acts were being tracked and that the offender would be pinpointed and found out very soon. Also, that, in so many words, there would be Hell to pay once he was caught by Bob.
Bob even organized a Cruisers’ WiFi seminar hosted by Bob and the local “WiFi Guy.” Curiously, the WiFi Guy who managed the wireless system at Bahia Redonda did not focus at all on a phantom using up bandwidth, but instead explained how and why we Cruisers were the problem and how we were all doing things wrong to cause the WiFi to crash.
None of anything that Bob or the WiFi Guy said made any sense. The more Melissa and I listened, the more it all became clear that they didn’t have a clue as to what the problem really was.
In the end, that was exactly the case. There was no gluttonous WiFi thief stealing all the bandwidth. Nor were the Cruisers doing anything wrong. Instead, the entire problem stemmed from the fact that the marina was trying to get away with using a ludicrously cheap wireless router that was barely adequate for home use. The WiFi Guy was trying to serve 100 to 150 boats with it!
In the marina’s defense, the system was installed by none other than a know-it-all Cruiser who passed through last season and was long gone. So, the marina was duped and in the end an inadequate system resulted and was left to be managed by a WiFi guy who did not have the expertise to readily discern that it was the pitiful hardware that was not capable of serving the Cruisers and not visa versa.
The way the router worked, it would only let 40 users on and would kick off the first user when the fortieth signed on. But, before that simple problem was detected, we all spent a month in suspense while Bob chased a ghost and fumed on the VHF. Basically, the WiFi internet scandal was elevated to seriousness of investigating the Lindberg kidnappings, or finding out who shot J.F.K! It was pretty funny in the end, although admittedly frustrating at times.
The WiFi debacle illustrates the lack of technical expertise and the unavailability of first-rate equipment in third-world settings like Venezuela. Forget the instant same-day troubleshooting we spoiled brats are used to in the U.S.A. By what we are used to, you would figure that once the problem was identified, a new router would be installed within a few days and a new, competent “WiFi Guy” would be hired.
But the same router and WiFi Guy were still employed two months later when we finally left Bahia Redonda and I would bet nothing has changed to date.
The WiFi debacle also illustrates how demanding Cruisers can be once tied up in a marina. Before arriving in Venezuela, we were all happy, no we were elated, if we were simply safe, secure and in one piece when we arrived at a new anchorage. But after arriving and finding ourselves in a very safe environment, that wasn’t good enough and very soon we Cruisers demanded perfect, uninterrupted hi-speed internet on the boat 24/7 (something none of us had for the last six months while traveling down-island and seemed to be able to live perfectly without).
Speaking of being spoiled, the cable television was an utter disappointment too in Venezuela. In the U.S.A., cable television means at least 60 basic channels (even if there is nothing worth watching). When we initially perused the Bahia Redonda web site, we saw they had cable t.v. We were excited, especially considering we would be “holed up” there for months during hurricane season. We had visions of channel surfing all our favorite cable channels and napping in the air conditioning.
That’s not quite what happened. At Bahia Redonda, cable television means a very snowy signal and only about eight channels. BBC News and the Discovery Channel were about all that were valuable. And when the power failed, the cable t.v. receiver in the marina office would default to Spanish and it would take a few days for someone to reset it to English (usually a Cruiser, not marina staff).
And forget about anything being fixed on the weekends. If WiFi or Cable went out on Friday afternoon, it would usually be Monday (or more like Tuesday), before it was up and running again.
All in all, while living a “marina life” it was easy to get sucked back into the stress of expecting things: water, power, air conditioning, cable television and internet. It was becoming clearer and clearer that we were happier when we were out of touch in remote anchorages with no external support at all, quietly reading books and watching DVD’s and expecting no services (or instructions and admonitions either) from the outside world.
As stated earlier, the Cruisers’ Net was broadcast on VHF Channel 72, six mornings a week. It starts every morning with a big introduction that acknowledges that the program is allowed for 15 minutes only and occurs only because of the generous permission granted by the Port Captain.
In all honesty, it was the worst Cruisers’ Network I’ve ever heard because nobody was allowed to share information during the Net. For example, if I asked where stainless steel work could be done, the moderator would say: “Ok, if anybody knows this, call Indigo Moon after the net.”
No questions were ever answered on the Net. The excuse for not providing on-air answers was the 15 minute time limit. But, frustratingly, much of the 15 minutes was spent on kissing the Port Captain’s butt, and then listening to Bob’s HAM radio testing announcements and an almost global weather forecast. By the time all the taxi drivers chimed in and the local merchants puffed their wares, the 15 minutes was up.
This is a complete departure from Cruisers’ Net protocol. On all other Nets we’ve enjoyed from the Bahamas to St. Martin (and even in Margarita), the main priority is answering Cruisers’ questions during the Net.
Also, moderators are usually chosen to host the Net because they have lots of local knowledge and can answer 90% of the normal Cruiser questions immediately on the air and during the Net (and if they can’t, then they ask right then and there if any of the other listeners have an answer). That way, everybody can enjoy the benefit of all information.
None of that was ever done in Puerto La Cruz. Instead, more than anything else, the Net seemed a “Bully Pulpit” for the powers that be. Very little information was offered regarding actual questions from Cruisers, and what little that did emanated after the Net and independent conversations would ensue concurrently on many different VHF channels. There was no way to concurrently hear the conversations. Very frustrating if you decided it mattered at all (sometimes there was no substitute for simply turning off the VHF radio and deciding that none of it mattered, because it really didn’t when you think about it).
I brought this to Charlie Alpha’s attention one day and he said that all of that had been commented on long, long ago, and by many people over the years, and most of them were a lot smarter and much better-looking than me. According to Charlie Alpha, “City Hall” was unconcerned about these types of suggestions and found the Cruisers’ Net to be just fine as is. So that was disappointing.
Another disappointment was the food at the restaurant located in our marina. It is owned by a very pretty lady whom we liked very much, but we simply could not stand to eat there. We tried three times (about once a month), but the food was plainly unacceptable and the restaurant was usually empty at dinner hour except for a few folks having a “liquid” supper.
Every now and then, the owner would “drum up” a party night of some sort featuring some special entrée designed to introduce Cruisers to locale cuisine. We heard reports that the food was awful then too. We were told that much of the trouble stemmed from not enough help in the kitchen, and not enough fresh food inventories to really maintain the diverse menu that was attempted.
It always mystified me, though: over one hundred boats to serve and a captive audience! All she had to do was make a really great U.S.A. cheeseburger and fries and a fortune could have been made (off me alone).
Despite the poor food, though, we enjoyed a couple of get-togethers with other Cruisers and enjoyed chatting with the owner now and then.
I convey all these things here not to be negative or to hurt any feelings, but simply to paint a fair picture of our marina life in Venezuela. It is simply even-handed reporting.
In the end, none of these small aggravations amounted to anything worth fretting over. Any marina anywhere is going to have its own set of problems. No place is perfect, and Bahia Redonda is a great place, no an amazing place considering it is based in a troubled third-world country.
And so, aside from little annoyances, marina life was a pretty doggone good and it was an interesting contrast and break from our being continually on the move for one and a half years prior.
On the good side of things, the marina security was effective and we felt safe. We had absolutely no security problems at all during our stay. The docks were nicely landscaped and rivaled the nicest surroundings you would ever find in a Ft. Lauderdale marina.
There is a very nice swimming pool within the complex and Melissa, along with a few other Cruisers, enjoyed water aerobics each morning at 8:00 a.m. Also, we enjoyed afternoon swims and poolside get-togethers with friends both old and new.
A super-feisty Brit named Anne ran a small Mini Mart at the marina and we could get fresh bread and basics there daily. She was a lot of fun with a scalpel-sharp wit – you had to be "on top of your game" if you want to “rattle sabers” with her!
For big shopping and other errands we took taxis with our usual drivers like Arnaldo, Andreas and Leo, all of whom would take us just about anywhere and shop along with us and translate as needed.
Taxi drivers were a main feature of marina life. In previous reports I spoke of taxi driver Arnaldo Añez. He’s a great guy and former motocross motorcycle Champion of Venezuela in the 70’s. While riding around with Arnaldo, we chattered about everything all “gearheads” everywhere like to talk about – our favorite chase scenes in movies like Bullitt and Vanishing Point and the French Connection; plus, what car or truck was featured the day before on the Discovery Channel’s “gearhead” television programs like Overhaulin’ or Rides.
And then there was taxi driver Leopoldo “Leo” Sanchez who is one of a kind because he learned to speak English from watching cartoons, no kidding. It was hilarious to hear his wild timing and severely-exaggerated pronunciations, but after an hour of riding around with Leo you start to feel like you’ve been subjected to the Cartoon Network at full volume and it just might give you a bad headache if you are not up for it!
The taxi drivers will take you anywhere and translate and help negotiate shopping prices, etc., for just 15,000 Bolivars per hour ($6.00 U.S). Gasoline is virtually free here, making drivingly amazingly cheap for the taxis. It takes the equivalent of about $3.00 fill up a car -- yes folks, Three Dollars! Bottled water, at $1.50/gal., is tremendously more expensive than gas. Considering beer is about eighteen cents a can and gas is seventeen cents a gallon, as weird as it sounds there is no cheaper place on earth to drink and drive than Venezuela.
Another unique facet of Bahia Redonda marina life was the laundry service routine. You dropped off your laundry and when your clothes were ready for pickup, the laundry would call on VHF 72! At some certain moment everyday in the late afternoon, the radio would come alive with “laundry calls.”
It was funny, because the lady at the laundry did not make a general announcement covering all the boats such as: “The following boats have laundry ready: yada yada. . . .”
Instead, there was a long set of rapid-fire transmissions wherein each boat got an individual announcement: “Indigo Moon, Indigo Moon. . . . . LAUNDRY! ”; Maker’s Match, Maker’s Match. . . . LAUNDRY!; Evensong, Evensong. . . . LAUNDRY!; Blue Marine, Blue Marine. . . LAUNDRY!, etc., etc. It went on and on for several minutes and was interestingly eccentric, not to mention you soon knew which Cruisers valued clean clothes.
Virtually all routines of daily life had evolved into a weird amalgam of both shore-side life and boating life.
Changing money at the marina was very easy. Persons interested in buying U.S Dollars could be located through the taxi drivers and it was customary for such persons to drive right into the marina and pull up by your boat. I would get into their vehicle and make the exchange right there and walk ten paces back to the boat.
We had plenty of fun with all our friends both old a new.
One afternoon we had a Lagoon catamaran “Boat Show”, but it was just amongst us Lagoon owners. There were five Lagoon cats in Bahia Redonda: three Lagoon 410’s Makers Match, Leadership and Blue Marine; and, two Lagoon 380’s Allways Sunday and Indigo Moon.
It was a great idea that Todd on Blue Marine came up with. Not only did we share our respective experiences in customizing and maintaining our boats, but it forced us all to do a good spring cleaning in preparation for the show.
Here are a few pics of marina life:
The Mini Mart was quite fun. On display in the store is a map of the marina’s cats that live there and are fed by a few of the Cruisers. Each cat has a specific territory to patrol against rats! When Cruisers get tied up in a marina for months or longer, they have lots of time on their hands. Someone took the time to make a fantastic chart of all the marina cats, including photos and names and where their respective territories are! Our “rat patrol” cat was named “Mustachio” for his black mustache! Other names included the likes of Psycho, Chico, Felix, and Garfield.
Although the cats were doing their best, rats still appeared now and then. One night I saw a rat do a triple back flip with a twist as he jumped over one of the rat guards on a neighboring boat. The rat landed squarely on the line and kept on running past the rat guard. So, my decision to simply tape all vents and possible entrance points was a better option that the rat guards and by so doing I was able to keep any “rat parties” restricted to upper decks only.
On a wholly different note, one thing that was uncomfortable to watch was the senior groundskeeper of the marina in his dirty, threadbare, dark-blue worker's jumpsuit meticulously going through all of the dock trash cans every morning. Critical poverty calls for drastic actions.
Nothing of the slightest utility was passed over. He opened every bag and touched every individual piece of garbage and studied it carefully. It was heartbreaking. Melissa and I actually began thinking about what and how we threw things away so as to try and make it easier on the groundskeeper while sifting through the trash.
I can get really angry really fast when I think about the co-existence of extreme, critical poverty and mega-oil money in Venezuela. It is unforgivable, and if there is a Hell. . . .
Anyway, nothing goes to waste in Venezuela and they still fix things as opposed to disposing of things. I had three sets of propellers on board (one pair on the engines, the original set of props that were worn out, and a third set that turned out to be the wrong pitch). I’d been keeping all of them for spares, but decided I needed to dispose of the original worn-out props and that all I needed was one spare set.
As an experiment, early one morning at dawn I laid the props on the ground by the trash can nearest to our boat to see who would pick them up and how long it would take for the props to be scooped up. Within three minutes, the dockmaster’s assistant, Edgar, whizzed by on a bicycle, grinned, and snatched up the props up “on the fly.”
I envisioned the props headed for a machine shop to be reconditioned with new bushings and to thereafter enter a new service life. Instead, I was surprised to see the props painted gold and used as ornaments in some of the hedgerows of trees along the dock! I got to looking around and apparently Edgar maintains a “ Golden Garden” of nautical items like old anchors and props and such!
So, while Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, Indigo Moon left her props in Puerto La Cruz!
I would be remiss if one final negative facet of our Venezuelan “marina life” was not reported: Gossip!
Boats came and went during the months we spent in Puerto La Cruz and not everyone spent the whole hurricane season in the marina. Crews often opted to spend more time at the outer islands like Bonaire, Tortuga, the Los Roques and the like.
Our friends Chuck and Terri on Lagoon 410 Maker’s Match showed up in Bahia Redonda about a month after we got there. It was not long before they had enough of marina life and after a month or so they split for the out islands of Venezuela and on to Bonaire.
I still had boat projects to do and we stayed a bit longer, hoping to reach Bonaire a few weeks later. So, we said “see you later” to Chuck and Terri.
One Monday evening a week or so after Chuck and Terri headed out, Melissa and I were returning from dinner. As we walked in the twilight down the docks toward Indigo Moon, a couple stopped us and said: “Hey, you guys “knew” Maker’s Match, right?” I responded: What the Hell do you mean by “knew”!
They went on to tell us that Chuck Hill had a heart attack and was dead and that it happened out in the remote Venezuelan islands named the Los Roques. Melissa and I stopped breathing!
I asked how this news reached the marina and they related that Charlie Alpha (a very credible source), received the information by radio. The story had spread like wildfire that evening at the Cruisers’ Monday-night potluck BBQ and word of Chuck’s death was well known by the time Melissa and I returned to the marina from eating out.
We were in shock and walked down and told the Lucia family aboard the 48 foot custom catamaran Serendipity. Jeff and Pam Lucia, and their three daughters Jillian, Marci and Rachel had spent an entire hurricane season with Chuck and Terri at Luperon in the Dominican Republic and they are close friends. The Lucias were equally shocked. None of us slept that night.
I sent three emails to mutual friends to alert them, and we also sent an email to Terri expressing shock, grief and a desire to lend support immediately.
Our minds raced all night. All I could think of was how crazy all of this sounded and how I simply had to find Maker’s Match and help Terri. I figured that I could charter a fast offshore powerboat in the morning to head to the outer islands and find Maker’s Match no matter what! The thought of Terri all alone under those circumstances was tantamount to a Cruiser’s very-worst nightmare come true.
The next morning, at first light, I called Charlie Alpha on his private cell phone and woke him up. I asked about the particulars of what he had heard regarding Chuck Hill’s death. He had heard NOTHING! The rumor that Chuck’s death was reported by Charlie Alpha was a complete fabrication!
Ok, now I was both intensely upset and severely pissed off! I waited and paced and waited and paced until the time came for the VHF Cruisers’ Net at 07:45. I told Melissa that I was commandeering the Net and that if any of the “City Officials” or the “Procedure Police” got in my way that I would walk down the docks and grab them by their throats!
As soon as the introduction and kiss-up to the Port Capitan was complete, I broke in immediately. My voice was cracking from the stress of trying to keep calm when I really wanted to scream. I related the gossip we had heard of Chuck Hill’s death and I announced that the news was NOT credibly reported by Charlie Alpha and that Charlie Alpha knew nothing of it.
I went on to demand that I WANTED TO KNOW RIGHT HERE AND NOW on the radio and without further delay who knew the exact source of the rumor, and who I needed to talk to get to the bottom of all this immediately!
It was amazing. A radio silence ensued that went on for an unusual amount of time. You could have “cut it with a knife” as they say.
Well Great! Now I was truly fighting mad! Scores of Cruisers were at the pot-luck BBQ; all of them drinking beer and effortlessly discussing Chuck’s death ad nauseam while simultaneously “kicking dirt on him” and partying, but now all of a sudden nobody knew anything! The radio was absolutely silent! Nobody would “fess up.”
Though nobody had answers on the air, I had an impact. After the Net, Cruisers immediately rallied. Within fifteen minutes, the yacht Mañana was able to reach Maker’s Match by SSB radio and Chuck Hill answered the call personally.
He was not dead. He said he might be in Heaven, though, considering the breathtaking view of the Aves. Also, Terri was sitting there talking to him so he thought it unlikely that he was actually dead!
JESUS! We all let out a breath we had been holding for about 12 hours! By the end of the day the mystery was unraveled by various “City Investigators.”
Anatomy of a rumor: the Dockmaster, Potter, was sitting in the Marina office that Monday morning when a phone call came in to the secretary. An elderly man on the big motor yacht Making Memories (not Maker’s Match) had a heart attack. The motor yacht was bound for Bahia Redonda and it is a repeat customer yacht from several prior seasons. Potter overheard this information from the secretary.
Potter immediately went out into the marina and announced to anybody and everybody that Chuck on Maker’s Match had a heart attack and was dead.
The investigators who solved this mystery knew Potter well enough to confront him about how egregious and reckless his actions were. Potter was wholly unapologetic, would not acknowledge he did anything wrong at all, and he blew it off and didn’t see what the problem was.
All this was conveyed to me. I swear, it took a good thirty minutes for me to finally “let it go.” Even at a supposedly mature 50 years old and officer of the Court, it took all my inner strength to convince myself that nothing good at all could possibly come from administering “a good old-fashioned country ass-whipping” to Potter.
It was hard to resist, but I managed to be a “grown up” and forget it. After all, Chuck was fine and that is all that mattered.
By mid-morning, we met up with Pam and Jeff Lucia and the kids. Pam was still spontaneously bursting into tears even after we knew Chuck was alive. And as for the people on the dock who knew Chuck, and whom initially told us he was dead: we saw them waiting for a cab and laughing and joking. I said: “Hey, you guys must have heard that Chuck Hill is ok, right?” They said: “Gee, no we didn’t hear that; that’s nice,” and they went seamlessly back to laughing and enjoying their morning.
I was talking to a lady on one of our neighboring boats the next day about it all and she was laughing about the radio silence on the Cruisers’ Net when I demanded information. She said: “Well, Buddy, I don’t blame anybody for not speaking up. There was this little edge to your voice that indicated that speaking up might be hazardous to one’s health!”
We laughed about that and the tension eased further.
Bottom line: but for getting this sorted out, who knows how long that rumor would have percolated. I joke with Chuck now and tell him that if he ever thinks he’s dead to call me, I’m the man for the job and I’ll sort it out!
And so, our three months of marina life in Puerto La Cruz was loaded with many experiences on many levels. In the end I can report that marina life in general is not for us, but it was very valuable for us to experience it and find out what it is really like.
Bahia Redonda is a very nice facility and we were impressed with the Manager, Carlos Vasquez. He walked the docks every evening, inspecting the grounds and making sure the landscaping was perfectly maintained and the docks were clean. Also, true to his word, when Melissa and I decided to leave a month early, he refunded the entire unused portion of our deposit in cash U.S. Dollars, no questions asked. Further, we were not charged for WiFi due to the intermittent service.
This type of service is as good as it gets in any marina worldwide. I can tell you stories of bad behavior by marina management in the U.S.A. and the Bahamas that would make you hair curl.
In sum, our stay at Bahia Redonda was a very memorable and educational experience and we are glad we had the opportunity to go there at least once.
III. The Virgin of the Valley and Various Puerto La Cruz Festivals
Our Lady of the Valley (the Virgin of the Valley) is the Matron Saint of the Venezuelan coastal area. Venezuela is predominantly Roman Catholic. The faith of the islanders and the coastal region is centered upon the Virgin of the Valley: protector of the coast, the Venezuelan Navy, and the fishermen. This incarnation of the Virgin Mary is honored with festivities on September 8 each year as Venezuelan maritime men pray for their continued protection on the high seas.
On September 8 during our stay, fireworks were continual night and day, all weekend long. Fishing boats were decorated and the entire Puerto La Cruz area became transformed as the Virgin of the Valley was honored with parades, parties, ceremonies and services. Much like during Louisiana ’s Mardi Gras, the coastal area of Venezuela went all out.
Other, smaller celebrations were also numerous, such as the Fisherman’s Parade and Festival at downtown Puerto La Cruz in August.
I felt right at home, considering south Louisiana is predominantly Roman Catholic and that Cajuns participate in precisely the same type of religious-based holidays; these celebrations are a way of life in Louisiana too.
Here are a few pictures of the fisherman’s celebration in Puerto La Cruz:
A closer look at the little surfboard pendants provides a glimpse into the many facets of Venezuelan culture. So what’s “Pop Culture Cool” in Venezuela, you ask? Well, Garfield the Cat and Mickey Mouse share equal billing along with the image of “El Che” who is actually General Che Guevara, the Argentine-born Marxist Revolutionary who led Castro’s military in the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
It is definitely thought-provoking to see Walt Disney characters sharing space with El Che. It is an unlikely coexistence of capitalist and socialist icons.
Here’s a look:
We enjoyed the fishermen’s festival and got a nice taste of Puerto La Cruz culture.
IV. Health Concerns and Health Services
As soon as we arrived in Venezuela, Melissa and I both received vaccinations for yellow fever and measles. These shots were arranged by Charlie Alpha. Local health organizations offered the vaccinations as a free service to Cruisers.
It wasn’t just a good idea. We had to have these vaccinations to be able to clear Customs and leave Venezuela! Nurses actually brought vaccine to the marina and Cruisers lined up to get the shots right there. It was a great service put together by Charlie Alpha.
By the time we arrived in Puerto La Cruz, I felt fine and was over my last bout with the digestive illness in Margarita. But Melissa was not feeling well. She had a persistent low-grade nausea that would not go away no matter what we tried. At first we thought it was a reaction to the vaccine shots. But, it lasted too long to be that.
We were lucky, because a young Venezuelan physician, Dr. Carlos Salavarria Echegaray, kept a small part-time office at the marina. He only came around a couple of times a week, but he spoke decent English and was dedicated to helping the Cruising community. Also, he was an expert in tropical diseases and intestinal parasites. A fine gentleman.
After examining Melissa, he suggested that both of us undergo testing for intestinal parasites, so we did. Turns out both of us had picked up parasites called Cryptosporidium and Cyclosporasis somewhere along the line during our down-island third-world culinary adventures.
Melissa and I followed a regiment of antibiotics and tested again. The treatment was successful, but Melissa took a several weeks to feel one-hundred-percent again.
Our Doctor explained that the intestinal parasite rate is as high as seventy percent in the rural villages of Venezuela. I had no symptoms at all, but was glad to get a clean bill of health nonetheless.
It is perhaps not what you would expect, but Venezuela has excellent and extremely affordable health care available. Melissa got a full physical while there and it cost her less than $200.00 which included a one hour consolation with the physician, chest x-ray, echocardiogram, complete blood work and a bone density test.
We also obtained dental check ups at a fraction of the cost of U.S. services. Doctor Marta Martinez, a very pretty lady dentist, took care of us. She was just barely over five feet tall and spoke just enough English to get by with us. Her office equipment was very clean and modern, and she adhered to all safety standards. She did excellent work.
As far as we could see, there is no shortage of top-rate medical care in Venezuela, just a lack of money for the majority of ultra-poor citizens to fully access the services.
One thing that I noticed while visiting various doctors' offices was the use of amazingly ornate baby baskets to transport newborns for checkups, etc. Every one of the babies was carried in a spectacularly festooned baby basket, and usually with three generations of the baby’s maternal line in tow. The various baby baskets were intricately decorated with lace and bows and ribbons of silk in the appropriate colors of pink or blue.
I’m telling you, you’ve never seen anything so fancy in all your life! I enjoyed seeing the mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers so happy, and it was neat to see babies showered with so much precious attention and love. In Venezuela, things still move slowly enough for such indulgences.
In sum, we were very impressed with the health care and the medical facilities available to the “rich” citizens in Puerto La Cruz. But, other things were not as fine.
V. Oh Where, Oh Where has my Cheeseburger gone
Food in Venezuela required a bit of an adjustment. For one thing, it is impossible to find a truly good cheeseburger. Out of desperation, we tried a McDonald’s in Margarita and a Wendy’s at Plaza Mayor in Puerto La Cruz, but both were worse than the usual we are used to (if you can imagine that). And forget ordering a cheeseburger at a restaurant.
For example, a cheeseburger at the restaurant in our marina was comprised of a meatloaf-type patty of meat cooked to hockey-puck dryness and loaded with a radioactive level of garlic. Eat one of those, and you’ll keep eating it for a day or two while the half-life of the garlic runs its course.
It took a while to find a few restaurants that we really liked and trusted to cook healthy food. La Anchora across from the Caribbean Mall prepared good pizza and shrimp and pasta dishes. Pollos el Ray (The King of Chickens) was a favorite – there is a nice big, causal dining room and whole chickens are baked in a large rotisserie oven visible behind the main counter. Good cole slaw and French fries and other side-orders compliment the very tasty chicken. We also, liked the Lighthouse Restaurant located at a nearby marina that was within a quick, safe walk from Bahia Redonda. Lomito (beef filet mignon), baked fish, and other dishes were pretty good and the staff was great.
It took us a while to get our “innards” healed up and get acclimated to the food, but we finally reached equilibrium and felt pretty good for a while.
We bought meat from a meat market named “La Cava” (The Cooler). They don’t age beef in Venezuela. Filet mignon (“Lomito”) for the grill was cheap, but curiously very bland because it had not been aged. And ground beef was so lean it didn’t stick together well enough to even make hamburgers.
After experimenting, we came to the conclusion that Stroganoff was the answer and it was the best dish to be concocted with the lean beef filets. We were able to get chicken too and cooked a lot of it on the grill.
In all honesty, we found a way to get by, but the food was never as good as we hoped.
VI. SCUBA Diving on a new level
Ok, so in short order we were all getting “marina fever” and bored being in one place. Some folks took the trip inland to see Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world. We heard reports of what the trip was like and just could not quite part with $800.00 to make a grueling three-day camping trip of it.
One thing I was game for was SCUBA diving in the Mochima National Park Islands located just offshore from Puerto La Cruz. Steve O’Connor, on catamaran Evensong, came up with the idea and Chuck and Terri from Maker’s Match and Howard from Leadership agreed to go too. But luckily Melissa said “no thanks” because she still wasn’t feeling well.
Ok, so the Dive Shop picked the five of us up at the marina docks and took us to their base of operations where we paid about 50 bucks each for a two tank dive trip. Although there were signs indicating they were a PADI approved dive organization, they did not even check our Dive Certification Cards (they did not require any proof that any of us were certified to dive).
We loaded up in an open boat with three or four other divers who had just completed a course and were going out for their first open water dive.
When we got to the first dive site, the divemaster told us to “have a good dive and watch out for the fishermen.” He then turned his attention to his students and the five of us Gringos pretty much did our own thing.
As we hit the water, I watched a fishing boat come in close and start dragging snag hook rigs! GREAT! Also, the water temperature was 72 degrees. It was freezing! How can this be? We are just offshore from a sizzling coastline where it is over 95 degrees with a heat index of 110 degrees, but the water was cold as could be. Ocean currents were at play.
Those same currents brought silt and debris that made visibility awful! I could not see more than twenty feet at best.
So, it’s cold, I can’t see, and there are fishermen trying to snag us. Not fun!
We managed the first dive and took a break for lunch (provided) and then made another dive. This one was colder still. At one point, Steve O’Conner and I were standing on the bottom at about 50 feet with our arms wrapped around ourselves and shivering.
Steve reached out for my dive slate (a small etch-a-sketch-type thing you can write on while underwater) and he wrote: THIS SUCKS!
I laughed so hard I almost spit my regulator out! Howard and I then made our way around the edge of a reef at about 40 feet deep and it was just too cold. We made the divers’ “cupped hands” signal for “where is the boat” and it was “off to the races” as we covered the distance back to the boat in record time.
I can’t remember who said it, but the consensus was: “Gee, how lucky we are! We got the two worst dives of our life out of the way in just one day.”
Howard is a PADI licensed dive instructor and he was so offended by the lack of proper procedure that he reported the dive operation’s shortcomings to PADI.
And so, diving was no longer on the list of things to do in Puerto La Cruz.
VII. Bicycling Adventures
While at Bahia Redonda, Melissa and I were able to do a good bit of bicycling for exercise. Steve O’Connor on Evensong has a nice mountain bike and we made several rides together.
Also, we met a really neat couple a few boats down from us who also had bikes: Mike and Kim aboard 42 foot monohull Ka’imi. When we arrived at the marina, Mike and Kim were already there. I noticed their bikes on the dock. The sea air had done a number on the chains and sprockets.
I did not take long for me to break out a spray can of Corrosion X (a lubricant and protectorant that is so good makes WD-40 look like the stone wheel of such products). In short order the rust was gone, the chains and sprockets were “good as new” and we were in business.
We would all go riding very early in the morning, before the sun got up too high.
So here’s the drill: we would depart the marina’s gate and ride a half mile inland on the main boulevard that eventually turns ninety degrees and intersects with a main road a mile further. At the turn, there is a dirt/mud pot-holed road about 100 yards long that cuts through a barrios and terminates at one of the canals entering perpendicularly into the El Morro complex.
From there, you take a “ferry” comprised of a 35 foot open wooden panga fishing boat. We would throw our bikes on our shoulders and make the jump into the boat.
Once on the other side of the canal, we were in a much better area where a four lane boulevard soon reached the beach and followed the shoreline all the way out to the mountain at El Morro point.
Basically, the bike ride was wonderful as soon as you got across the canal, but dicey through the barrios. We went so early in the morning that there was little activity on the way out of the barrios, but by the time we would return, the dirt road on the barrios side would be very busy with pedestrians headed to the ferry and off to work on the “prosperous” side of the canal.
It was a nice ride because we were good and warmed-up by the time we reached the mountain at El Morro point and were ready to climb it as such. The grade was just enough to make it without giving up.
It was surprising to see many Venezuelans enjoying the same ride. There were scores of serious cycling enthusiast with the colorful “skins” outfits, racing helmets, racing shoes and expensive bikes. Not what you would have expected.
Once at the top of the El Morro point, the view was great and we could catch our breath and then turn around and head back to the marina.
On one of our rides, it was just Melissa, Steve and me. On the way back to and close the ferry, I looked back and noticed Steve was missing. We waited at the ferry dock and within a couple of minutes, Steve rolled in ok, but skinned up here and there!
What the Hell happened?
Steve: “Well, I let this car out into traffic and began following it. I was going pretty fast and following pretty close and all of a sudden, from under the car in front of me, a street drain appeared and it didn’t have a grate on it! In the blink of an eye, my front wheel dove in and over the handlebars I went!”
Other than that accident, there were no other incidences during our cycling adventures.
We had a lot of fun riding with Mike and Kim too and it was good to get some real cardio exercise for a change.
As for traversing the barrios on bikes, we were admonished by some of the taxi drivers for so doing. We carried pepper spray. A few of the taxi drivers said they would NEVER go down that dirt road. It was probably to our benefit that we never established a routine and our rides were far a few between enough to prevent the organization of a planned ambush.
Of course, we stood out like a sore thumb anyway. I remember riding with Charlie Alpha in his SUV one day – we had gone into the city for a part or something. At some certain moment, knowing me well enough by then to comfortably just be himself at all times, Charlie laughed loudly and pointed: “Look, Buddy! Cruisers on bikes!”
Four blocks ahead of us there was a couple riding bikes, coming toward us on the shoulder. They were in a part of the city where nobody rides bikes and they were so out of character with the surroundings that it was comical: short pants; milky white legs reflecting the sun; goofy, open-mouthed confused looks as they tried to take in their surroundings and pedal at the same time; and, Cruiser clothes that might as well have been “prison orange” they stood out so much against the locals who were sharing the busy street with them.
Both Charlie Alpha and I laughed very hard. I got it!
And so, Melissa and I also made a few appearances as “Cruisers on bikes” but at least we had all the cycling gear to look a little bit more “hip” and we rode in the right locale so as to blend in with cycling locals who were also getting endorphin fixes.
VIII. Hurricane Season: A Time for Maintenance
Long before arriving in Venezuela, I had planned to use much of our marina time to complete large boat projects. All the way back in Ft. Lauderdale, I had purchased rolls of blue Sunbrella canvas fabric, zippers, grommets and all the raw materials to make proper canvas sunshades for the Moon and hauled those raw materials for a couple of thousand miles. In the tropics, sunshades are not just a good idea – you simply must have them or burn up.
Also, I knew that varnish work and buffing and waxing would be necessary and that other unpredicted projects would crop up on our way down island, one of which required the refurbishing of our anchor windlass.
First, as to the sewing projects, I constructed three huge panels that provided shade over the trampoline and the coachroof/salon. I also, made three sheer panels to cover the sides of the cockpit.
Without sunshades, in the heat of mid-day Venezuelan summer sun, my laser temperature-gun showed that the interior ceiling of the main salon was 86 degrees (and that was with all the air conditioners running and an inside salon air temperature of 74 degrees).
After covering the boat with sunshades (it took two weeks to complete the shades) the ceiling temperature fell to 76 degrees and stress on the air conditioning was relieved greatly.
Also, in addition to the sunshades, I removed the cockpit bimini top and replaced all the zippers, including the ones on the dodger (plastic windshield that zips in) and repaired all stressed areas.
It was way too hot to do any of this work outside, so the salon of Indigo Moon was converted into a sail loft for a few weeks while I sewed and sewed and sewed. I was determined to complete everything – every conceivable sewing project.
So, I made a full set of both sheer and solid drapes for the back doors and windows of the salon (these were nice to have while tied stern-to the seawall in a crowded marina where dock-walkers peer into all the boats without drapes).
And while I was at it, why not sew new curtains for all the portholes and hatches -- the fabric Lagoon used didn’t match anything else in the boat.
Finally, I created clever cockpit items like a helm-caddy with various pockets to hold binoculars, bottled water, MP3 player, canned drinks, sailing gloves and all those other items that have never had a “proper home” while underway.
I also, made a little sleeve that is tied to the bimini frame above the helm and it holds an air horn.
All told, I added up the sewing jobs and with our Sailrite sewing machine I produced approximately 130 yards of stitching! The sewing machine performed perfectly and the finished products came out great.
After sewing myself silly for those weeks, I ended the sewing phase of maintenance by completely cleaning and lubricating the sewing machine and then stored it deep within the boat so that it would be a giant pain to get it out again, thus ending the sewing season for good.
With the sewing done, it was time to re-varnish all the woodwork in the cockpit. So, I stripped all the pieces to bare wood, sanded all surfaces to a fine-furniture finish and applied one coat of varnish each day for ten days. It is so hot in Venezuela, the varnish had to be applied before 8:30 a.m. or it would not flow nicely (and that is with the maximum amount of Interlux 333 thinner already mixed in).
I guess it came out nicely, because fellow Cruisers stopped to “ooh and ah” as the project progressed, many wanting to know my techniques for such a great-looking job.
Well, there’s more work to do. The coachroof and surfaces of the deck where there is no non-skid were overdue for a buffing/waxing job. So, I spent two solid days with the buffer. It was a great move to buy a commercial Makita buffer back in the states. I have seen folks try and wax catamarans by hand and it is a killer. Although still far from easy, the Makita buffer and 3M Fiberglass Restorer and Wax renders a showroom result that lasts a year in the tropics.
All the while, Melissa worked tirelessly at polishing Indigo Moon’s stainless steel.
And other unanticipated jobs were completed too. One I had not planned on came to fruition due to information I received a few weeks earlier in an email from Chris Wild aboard sistership Lagoon 380 Wildcat.
Chris wrote to ask if my electric anchor windlass had pulled off its mount and crashed into the anchor locker yet! YIKES! My answer was, well, NO! That has not happened!
It turns out that the entire casing of the anchor windlass in made of aluminum. The sturdy bracket frame it mounts to in the anchor locker is stainless steel. When two dissimilar metals are mated, the softer metal (aluminum in this example), will corrode and slowly disintegrate due to electrolysis.
Anchor windlasses endure extreme pressures, lifting the chain and anchor from the bottom and absorbing additional loads from the moving boat as well. Moreover, when an anchor gets snagged, the windless will be severely tested as extreme loads come to bear while pulling up on an immovable anchor.
During just such a brutal anchor-raising episode, Wildcat’s windlass broke free from its mount and the weight of the chain and anchor yanked the windless off its mounting and into the front of the anchor locker where it wedged!
So what happened? Why did it fail? The problem occurred because of the mating of the dissimilar metals. Again, the stainless steel mounting plate to which the aluminum windlass was bolted is a stronger metal for corrosion purposes.
The continual drenching of salt water from the anchor chain and the electrolysis and corrosion of the dissimilar metals caused the windless’ bottom mounting plate to corrode, erode and fail, ultimately cracking and pulling free.
Of course, all this corrosion occurs underneath the base of the windless and is not visible or else Chris Wild would have caught it earlier. And, but for Chris’ generosity in sharing that information, the same thing would have happened to me.
There is no better place to tackle such a job than in a marina where the anchor is not needed and fabrication services are available. I pulled the windless and inspected it. The stainless steel bolts were corroded into the aluminum windless case and had to be wrung off to free the windlass.
Also, I had to disconnect the wiring that runs out of the bottom of the windless through a watertight hose and into a bulkhead and then a junction box under the sofa in the main salon where electrical connections are made to two solenoids that switch the windlass’ electric motor in different directions to either pull in or let out on the anchor chain.
Sure enough, I had plenty of corrosion going on and there were stress cracks and deformations around the bolt holes, indicating it was only a matter of time before a complete failure.
So, it was time to re-engineer in the Third World. Here’s what I did:
The aluminum base plate is very light. In fact, I can’t imagine how it ever survived the first time an anchor was raised with it! The bolts that screwed into it have been ground flat here, they could not be removed they were so corroded.
The plan: I’ll get a new plate custom made out of heavy stainless steel and will provide the old plate to a machine shop as a template. Also, I’ll reverse the fastening design and have bolts drop down through the plate with their heads welded onto the inside surface of the plate (you can’t put a wrench on the bolt heads once the bottom plate is screwed back onto the windlass’ casing).
By doing this, the bolts and nuts will all be stainless and eliminate corrosion, and the nuts will be exposed and easily bathed in anti-seizing compounds to prevent future problems in the event servicing of the windlass requires its removal.
I called The Man, Charlie Alpha, for advice and he took me over to a machine shop at a nearby marina and translated. I was ready, though, and had already looked up Spanish words and written them down; words such as stainless being “inoxidable” (does not oxidize) and the windlass’ casing being a “carcasa” (as in a carcass), and plate being a “Placa” etc. My Spanish is Tarzan-like: “Me need stainless plate.”
My Spanish was not needed beyond “Como Esta” and “Mucho Gusto,” though, because Charlie Alpha did all the talking while I stood by and listened, all while looking around the super-rudimentary little outdoor shop.
As Charlie continued speaking, I watched a couple of workers wrestle with metal works in process on a concrete slab. I could not imagine them being able to produce a new plate that would be acceptable. But, I thought about how I managed to rebuild a 327 Chevy engine in a gravel parking lot back in 1975 and the shop workers looked like a pretty tenacious and ingenious crew.
Bottom line, considering the tools and conditions of the shop, they did a fantastic job and produced a very heavy, high quality base plate for a total price of $50.00 U.S. – this would easily be a $200.00 to $300.00 part in Ft. Lauderdale!
The plate did not fit perfectly at first. One edge needed to be ground a little so that the plate would countersink into the windlass casing, and one bolt hole was a little off. I was able to dress the edges of the plate with my DeWalt angle grinder and ever-so-slightly elongate one bolt hole with my drill and we were in business!
Here’s what I did to put it all back together:
Ok, now we still have a dissimilar metal problem, because the casing is still aluminum and the new plate is stainless. So, I’ll try and insulate things as best I can when reassembling the windlass.
Again, note that the old bottom plate was configured so that bolts screwed into it. I reversed that design and have bolts drop down from inside with their heads welded to the inside of the plate so that the windlass now has studs and there are no internal threads to corrode, etc.
I have every confidence that the windlass’ transmission and motor will live out their designed lifetimes and we will not ever have the “flying windlass” problem.
Many other boat tasks were completed in Venezuela. And, of course, as the boat work continued, we learned more and more about the country we were in. So, let’s shift our focus back to learning more about the attributes of Venezuela and it’s people.
IX. Venezuela: it’s a Beautiful thing
There is no mystery as to why Venezuela wins so many beauty contests. With natural complexions that are the shade of a perfect Coppertone tan, and with pleasing features, sixty percent of Venezuelans are Mestizo (mixed white and Amerindian). Twenty-nine percent are white descendants of Spanish, Italian, German, and Portuguese. Eight percent have African ancestry added to the mix.
A high percentage of the women are stunningly attractive. There is a beauty parlor on every corner. Women even go to the salons daily to pay to get their hair straightened!
Here is a fitting description that I found on the internet:
"It comes as no surprise that Venezuela is the country with the biggest number of international beauty awards: five Miss Worlds and four Miss Universes, among dozens of other victories that no-one even counts anymore. For Venezuelan women being beautiful is not only desirable; it’s rather an engagement, a duty, even a responsibility. They dress up for daily life in the manner that women in other countries dress up for a big party or as Hollywood stars do. They have developed a particular sensuality and charm, inherited from their Spanish, Indian and African roots, as well as from other cultures that have converged in Venezuela with millions of immigrants from all over the globe all along our history. They have harvested the seductiveness of women from all cultures. It gives colors and physical traits of an astounding variety as well as unexpected styles and attitudes."
Melissa and I also found out that cosmetic surgery is not “hush-hush” in Venezuela like it is in the U.S.A. On the contrary, a Venezuelan husband giving a tour of his home would have no qualms about pointing to his wife and proudly delineating all of her cosmetic surgeries, as casually as someone would show you their new 42 inch flat-screen plasma television!
In fact, breast implants are a very common high school graduation gift and an excerpt from a 2005 article in USA Today indicates that 15 year olds often have breast implant surgery:
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — For Yohana Bernal, the decision to have her breasts enlarged was an easy one. After all, most of her friends had already done it, and the 22-year-old felt that being small-breasted in Venezuela carried a bigger stigma than plastic surgery. "I see it as something normal. It's like putting highlights in your hair," said the petite brunette. In Venezuela, beauty isn't necessarily something you're born with — it's a pursuit that has evolved into an industry, a national obsession, a staple of daily life. Beauty salons and spas outnumber drugstores in Caracas telephone listings; women unabashedly apply full makeup in packed subways; teenagers are known to get breast implants as their traditional "quinceanera" coming-of-age gift at age 15; Venezuelans consistently place among the finalists in the Miss Universe pageant. . .
Ok, so all you Guys are asking; where are the photos, Buddy?!
There are countless reasons as to why I can not produce even one single photo of the beautiful women of Venezuela. First of all, Duh! I’m married! So get real! There is no way a married man can go around chasing beautiful women with a camera in hand. Nothing good can come from that, no matter how initially agreeable everyone might be in the name of so-called journalism.
Then there is the fact that cameras are not a daily feature of street life in Venezuela and it is not acceptable to start photographing strangers (lest you become a Spy - remember?). And then there’s that “Spanish language thing” and my Tarzan-like attempts at it. None of that afforded a foundation for gracefully surviving awkward photo situations. So, you’ll have to take my word for it: Venezuelan women are absolute stunners!
Of course, you can visit the Miss Venezuela web site and look around there if you like. Here a link:
X. Venezuela : Politics, Policies and Predictions
As far a Venezuela in general goes, we are very happy that we visited the country, but we probably won’t return for a long-term visit to the mainland in the foreseeable future. With Chavez still in office, the political and economic climate can only get worse from our perspective, and it has from what we hear.
We just passed through the offshore islands of the Los Roques again and that was fine.
But the mainland is a different story. Just last month I saw on the news that Chavez has shut down a Venezuelan television channel that routinely opposes him ( Caracas riots were erupting over the situation). His reelection has emboldened him even further and Socialism is coming on full bore. I also heard that a graduating journalism class in Caracas all put black tape over their mouths during the graduation ceremony. There is tension building in Venezuela.
It is automatic that the unprecedented crime rate will reach higher and higher levels as the economy continues to spin wildly out of control.
Also, “hot off the press” is the news that a Cruiser was attacked inside the Bahia Redonda Marina complex where we all thought we were so safe last year! The attack was savage enough that a Cruiser required outpatient surgery.
It is not that surprising, I guess. Unsettling things like the Chicken Shack Shootings were already developing while we were still there last year and the Venezuelan economy is getting worse every day.
And Cruisers rights are not important to the Venezuelan government anyway. As pointed out in prior trip reports, the State within which the Bahia Redonda Marina is located, Anzoategui, saw fit to institute and uphold a ban on the direct sale of diesel fuel to all foreign vessels. The law took effect two days prior to our arrival (timing is everything, you know!). The fuel dock was 75 yards from our boat, but we could not buy diesel.
The legislation was allegedly designed to prevent foreign ships from buying thousands of gallons of fuel at super-low Venezuelan prices and then selling it elsewhere in the Caribbean for a profit, etc.
The problem for us is that the new legislation doesn’t make any exception whatsoever for foreign recreational vessels. Thus, the bizarre result: in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela’s self-professed “world class” El Morro seaside marina and resort complex there are hundreds of foreign yachts that can’t buy diesel fuel at the fuel docks.
The officials will say that is not true – you CAN buy fuel. You just have to go through an insane process and get pre-approval for the one sale. You must fill out paperwork and visit several State offices. Then, you pre-pay for the fuel by wire-transfer between banks (at the international price for fuel set by the commodities market on that specific day).
We only needed 40 gallons of fuel. At the international price of a dollar or so a gallon, that’s maybe 40 or 50 Dollars! Can you imagine spending all day in taxicabs and filling out reams of paperwork and then asking your bank to wire $40.00 to Venezuela to get 40 gallons of fuel?
You hear rumors about other things too. One is that Hugo Chavez plans to take over this whole Puerto La Cruz El Morro complex to use as a military naval base, and it would be a fine one.
Other things happened as well.
One afternoon I was inside the air conditioning of the main salon of Indigo Moon while taking a break from my waxing and buffing project outside on deck. With the new, shear draperies drawn, and the sunshades covering the boat, it makes a nice, cool “cave” within which I could retreat periodically and cool down from the scorching summer sun. I could see outside without anyone seeing in.
I was watching Pesca Mortal (Deadliest Catch – a reality show about Alaskan crab fishing) on the Discovery Channel on the flat screen in the salon when my peripheral vision caught some movement on the dock behind Indigo Moon.
A chill ran up my spine when I looked out and saw a dozen or so armed militiamen crowing the dock directly behind our boat!
Red berets, camouflage uniforms, polished jack boots, machine guns, and very stern faces – the works!
Also in their troop were obvious plain-clothes officials with credentials dangling from tethers hanging around their necks, plus a photographer too.
I peered out to see that the catamaran right next to us was swarming with troops who were placing yellow tape around its lifelines and sealing the companionway door to the salon with an official sticker of some sort.
The dockmaster, Potter, and a few of the marina personnel were following from a distance and watching silently with very worried looks on their faces.
My heart raced a bit while I watched all this, not knowing the reason for the impoundment and wondering if we were next. This could be “it.”
In the end, about a dozen boats in the marina got impounded. The reason: the troops allegedly reviewed all the paperwork at the marina’s office and seized all boats with deficiencies in their Cruising Permits. So, it pays to have a professional agency handle the check-in procedure with Customs.
With the new fuel laws and the first-ever (we were told) impounding of boats in the marina on that scale, it is not good for business. Venezuela’s reputation as a great hurricane-free Cruising destination is slowly being destroyed.
And while these incidents were unsettling, it was the marina’s response to the incidents that was most illuminating as to how bad things really are now in Venezuela.
The marinas themselves were not opposing the new, oppressive fuel laws. Instead, the marina management conferred with “Mayor” Bob on Pipe Dream and they asked him to generate a letter from the Cruisers to be signed as a petition of sorts and then forwarded to the Governor.
On the Cruisers’ Net, Bob promoted a big meeting at the marina’s restaurant, claiming it would be an open forum where we could all discuss “all the current problems” (which we all knew to include the bad WiFi, Chicken Shack shootings, bad cable t.v., fuel laws, dinghy harassment, etc.). Allegedly we would be able to ask questions and receive updates from the owners of the marina as to what was being done about all the problems we were experiencing.
At the meeting, it became instantly clear that there would be no “discussion” about all the problems. Instead, it was a fait accompli. We were all assembled so that Bob could read the already prepared letter to the Governor and get our signatures. None of the marina owners showed up.
During that meeting, I asked a fellow Cruiser seated next to me (who had been in Bahia Redonda a long time and knew the politics), why all the Marinas in the area were not attacking the law directly – why are they depending on a Cruisers’ ineffective, whiney, complaint letter? Why aren’t the Marinas hiring lawyers to write real, legally articulate demand letters and/or file suit about the new fuel laws, etc? What the Hell is going on?!
I was told, in hushed voice, that the Marinas can’t complain to the Government due to fear of severe retaliation.
Boy that pissed me off! That type of limit on free speech became more obvious the longer we were in Venezuela.
At LSU law school, one of my famous Constitutional Law Professors, Paul Baier, had a simple test for deciding what is unconstitutional: “If it makes you want to vomit, it’s unconstitutional!” And it was utterly nauseating for me as a lawyer to be surrounded by Venezuelans who have been politically intimidated into keeping their mouths shut and rolling over as their economic livelihoods evaporate!
Many people will (as you might have guessed, Three Monkey Disease victims) vehemently argue that Chavez’s Venezuela is still a Democracy that has open elections and is not anything like a Dictatorship.
I’m not a political ideology expert by any stretch of the imagination. But I know this: if you can’t speak freely, publicly, and openly about political problems and publicly oppose government policies that adversely affect you, then you do not live in a Democracy. And by that standard, Venezuela has turned a corner long ago and is heading directly toward something that smells an awful lot like a dictator-run socialist state.
My experiences in Venezuela rekindled my pride in the amazing level of freedom of speech that we all enjoy in the U.S.A. (and often take for granted). Don’t get me wrong, we still absolutely love the Venezuelan people. But, with Chavez at the helm, things can only get worse for visiting Gringos in the years to come. More important: who knows whether or not policies that currently pose inconveniences to Cruisers will turn into policies that result in worse.
Some of my fellow Cruisers laughed at me when I expressed concerns about such things as the possibility of actual political detention during our visit. But, are such fears wholly unfounded? Remember! Chavez is the same guy who thinks adding and subtracting zeros from currency will cure inflation. If he is crazy enough to think that, well . . . ? And after all, Chavez’s mentor and idol is Castro, and Chavez is fond of Castro’s methods.
And lest we forget, in addition to the the pretty woman Spy taking pictures for the U.S.A., a team of over thirty legitimate medical people were detained by Chavez a few months ago, all ridiculously suspected of being politically subversive to Chavez’s interests (all false allegations and the epitome of Castor-type behavior).
So, despite whatever the “Coke and a smile” crowd might tell you otherwise, a visit to Venezuela does in fact pose heightened risks that are on the increase.
XI. Hugo Chavez: Savior of the Poor
Let’s look a little closer at President Chavez. How did he get elected? How does a liberal Democracy (that will supposedly operate to protect liberties, minorities, and the poor) hold legitimate elections and then vote someone in with known socialist and dictatorial aspirations that can only diminish civil liberties in the end?
How can such a “wolf” wear the “sheep’s clothes” of Democracy and win elections, all while already in power and concurrently dismantling the separation of powers and changing the structure of Venezuela’s Judiciary and Constitution to support an unprecedented centralization of power within his Executive Office?
As you know, Chavez spoke at the U.N. on Sept 20, 2006, and referred to President Bush as the Devil and went on to proclaim that “the smell of sulfur” was still at the U.N. podium where the “Dubya” had spoken the day before.
Just to illustrate how all that plays out on the streets here in Venezuela, we were riding with a taxi driver the day after Chavez’s U.N. remarks and I asked him if he heard about Chavez’s “sulfur and Devil” insult to Bush.
He burst out laughing and said: “Oh yes – people all over Puerto La Cruz have been sniffing at each other all morning, each claiming that the other smells like sulfur.” He thought it was very funny and the Venezuelans were all getting a kick out of it.
I told our driver that Bush probably ate red beans and rice and it was not sulfur at all. Our driver laughed until he cried. During our stay, there seemed to be no “common man” transfer of Chavez’s hate toward us visiting Gringos, just playful antics and honest laughs between us about our respective Presidents (both of whom supply ample fodder for jokes); humor completely sans hatred.
Then as our driver continued in laughter, he told us Chavez claims to have proof that the U.S. sends robots to the moon to look for oil. He was laughing so hard he was having trouble driving. He knows it all B.S. -- but it is very funny to him.
He also agreed that Chavez calling Bush the Devil at the U.N. was unprofessional and not productive, but hey, who cares . . . it was very, very funny!
We asked him if he was going to vote for Chavez. He said "Oh yes, Chavez does many things for the poor people all over the world.”
Melissa and I listened as he related a bizarre tale to exemplify the “good” Chavez does: “Our President has helped bring the poor people of the world together with oil. For example, there are only Black people in the Bronx of New York. Just to the north across the boarder of the Bronx, there is Maine, where only the Indians live. The Black people and the Indian people have always hated one another since the beginning of time. But, they are both a very poor people and both of them were too poor to afford heating oil for the winter. President Chavez sent very cheap heating oil to both the Black people of the Bronx and the Indian people of Maine. It brought the Blacks and Indians together as friends now, all because of our oil and the good that Chavez does for the poor people of the world.”
That is the kind of wildly insane propaganda that Chavez floats out into the streets, and “Everyman” Venezuelans actually believe it! Of course, what could we say except: “Gee, that’s really something, alright.”
As crazy as some of the propaganda is, though, there are in fact true stories of Chavez helping the poor of Venezuela on unprecedented levels. Thus, not all of the stories of his helping the poor are complete fabrications. Chavez has in fact done more for the poor of Venezuela than any of his predecessors and therein rests his brilliance as a politician.
While conducting research for this trip report, I came across a news story about 240 people who actually lived for decades on the trash dump at the Island of Margarita. Not close to, mind you, but actually at the dump.
Here is a link to the story:
The story includes the following excerpts about what things were like living on the dump and how President Chavez saved these people and delivered them to a new housing project:
Each day they competed for pieces of scrap copper or aluminum, used clothing or leftover food from the resorts . . .
They made their shacks from scrap wood, tin and cardboard. With pieces of cloth they dressed their families. Children were born in this rotten environment and learned how to earn a living from a very young age; fighting over the garbage with scavenger birds and rodents. . .
The liquor, marijuana and crack helped them fend off their sorrows and fear of the thugs that often come to steal the little they had at gunpoint . . .
Gregorio Millan’s eyes still water when he recalls his children shivering under the cold rain, covered with cardboard and plastic bags. “I felt so bad seeing them and not being able to do anything about it. An adult can take it, but they were just beginning life” . . .
When it rained “I would quickly look for plastic to put around my small children and then wait for the rain to stop,” said Minerva Suarez, who lived 29 of her 50 years at the dump. “I lived the good times and the bad there. I arrived pregnant with my second child and had four more” . . .
The parasites, diarrhea and scabies were ever-present. “The kids were always sick,” recalls Ramon Antonio Marin. . .
“The day when they told us to gather our things, that we were coming here [to a new housing project], I felt young again,” tells Gregorio. “Our dreams came true. President Chavez changed our life, he gave us hope, and for that reason we hope he is as happy as we are today,” adds Magali.
From their nearby estates, the rich were against sharing space with the group of people who lived at the garbage dump, and threatened to sell their properties. One former dump resident stated “The [rich neighbors] said if the government brought us to these homes they would leave, [but] they fell through their cloud, because President Chavez loves the poor.”
And so who can deny that President Chavez loves the poor?! It’s hard to argue against that assertion when things are put into context by the story of the Margarita Dump. Sure, you can argue that removing 240 people from a life at the dump is a pretty low threshold for attaining Sainthood. Big deal, anybody with even minimal humanitarian concern would do that -- even a Rat, right?
But, is that true? These hundreds of people were abandoned at the dump with no hope and no help for decades prior to Chavez’s Administration. If you view Chavez’s actions in this particular case against the backdrop of previous Venezuelan Administrations, then it is only fair to conclude that he has in fact done unprecedented things to aid the Venezuelan poor, albeit by the unforgivably low standards of a country that still has huge oil income and at the same time suffers the highest poverty level in Latin America.
Like most things in life, there is no simple answer. Chavez is as complex and complicated as the country he leads, but it is quite clear that he has brilliantly won the hearts of the poor, all at a bargain-basement price.
XII. Last impressions of Venezuela: Louisiana parallels
As I spent more and more time on the Venezuelan mainland, I started to feel a very strong connection and it took a while for me to identify where it was coming from. Despite the language barrier and not being able to readily assimilate into Venezuelan culture, I felt a strong connection that effortlessly transcended our differences.
While I looked inward to try and identify my unexpected affinity for Venezuela, I began noting more and more Venezuelan attributes that seemed all too familiar. In fact, once it dawned on me to simply compare South Louisiana to Venezuela outright, the picture was startlingly clear.
Like Venezuela, Louisiana is an oil-rich oil-dependent regime.
Like Venezuela, Louisiana has failed to economically diversify beyond its oil and chemical industry income.
Like Venezuela, Louisiana has a high rate of poverty compared to other states.
Like Venezuela, South Louisiana is predominantly Roman Catholic and the image of the Virgin Mary is a familiar feature everywhere – most good Cajuns have a statue of Her in their flower beds.
Like Venezuela, Louisiana has an infamous history of political corruption.
Like Venezuela, many corrupt Louisiana politicians have been loved anyway, and despite their widely-known corruption, many have been re-elected by an adoring constituency comprised of favored cronies and the ignorant poor.
For example, Venezuela’s President Chavez and Louisiana’s former Governor Edwin Edwards are cut from the same cloth.
Former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards is without a doubt one of the most charismatic politicians of all time, anywhere and by any standard.
Edwards’ charisma and quit-wit were the perfect camouflage for his ever-plotting steel-trap mind. His infamous quotes include: “The only way I can get into trouble is being caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl.” And, after being kissed on the cheek by a Catholic Sister in full black and white robes, he quipped: “That’s very nice, Sister, but don’t let me get in the habit!”
Venezuela’s President Chavez is the Latin American equivalent of Edwin Edwards: charismatic, brash, confident, and ribald in his speeches; Chavez garners the support of poor Venezuelans with outlandish grandstanding and humor. He was re-elected last year to another six year term and is adored by the ignorant and the poor.
Both Edwards and Chavez were born into Roman Catholic families in poor rural areas.
And, both Edwards and Chavez have served time in prison. Edwards is still serving time in a federal prison on federal corruption charges. Chavez served time in prison after a failed coup attempt in February of 1992. Chavez was released from prison in 1994 and rose to popularity thereafter and was elected President in 1998.
Thus, Louisianans and Venezuelans obviously have the same taste in politicians, irrespective of any differences in political ideologies.
Like Venezuela, charismatic as they may be, Louisiana’s political officials are often not the best and the brightest when it comes to managerial expertise (see: The mismanagement of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco will not seek another term. But, New Orleans’ Mayor Ray Nagen has, unbelievably, been reflected despite the fact that he utterly failed to lead New Orleans and actually hid on the 24th floor of the Hyatt for a few days after the Katrina disaster).
Like Venezuela, Louisiana is viewed by the outside world (and many other U.S. States), as a corrupt Third World Country in and of itself.
Like Venezuela, Louisiana has comparatively failed to prioritize and fund education and Louisiana ranks 44 out of 50 states in education, and Louisiana also has a very high illiteracy rate.
Like Venezuela, Louisiana has heavy Spanish roots and influences in addition to its better publicized French influences.
More important to me than any of that, though, is the fact that both Venezuelans and Louisianans are some of the happiest, funniest, friendliest people you’ll ever meet.
Both Louisianans and Venezuelans demonstrate a fantastic zeal for living, an admirable love of life and family and a fierce pride and loyalty to their heritage. Both are devout in their deep religious beliefs. And they hold tight to a sense of humor that is unflagging in the face of whatever hardship of the day is looming.
Anyway, as time went on in Venezuela, a profound connection was developing within me and I could see myself being perfectly happy as a Latin American Venezuelan in another life, although I would admittedly prefer to still be a professional attorney in that different life, and not one of the poor souls born at the Margarita City Dump.
One of our taxi drivers, Andreas, regaled me with engaging stories about his father who spent his life as a Puerto La Cruz lawyer (“Abogado” in Spanish). Andreas beamed with pride while relating how his father (now deceased), was a legendary champion of the poor in the Puerto La Cruz area, often providing legal advice and services for no payment at all. I liked that.
It strikes me at this juncture that, just like my love for Louisiana, it is simply not possible to explain my affinity for Venezuela. Too many strong emotions meet head-on. So, it is here that I will give up on further comment. All I can really say is that Venezuela possesses an amazing natural beauty and it is a country with a rich history and culture that resonated deep within me. It left a strong imprint. I will always pray that its beautiful people be delivered from critical poverty and enjoy a better standard of life. I wish them all the best.
DEPARTURE FROM PUERTO LA CRUZ
The time had come. We were ready to move on from Puerto La Cruz. When preparing for our departure, I found myself very conflicted. I could not wait to leave the marina and sail into clean water again. Also, familiarity breeds contempt, and I was very excited about leaving the marina life and all its shortcomings behind.
Concurrently, however, I was very sad because there was so much more to learn about the people on the other side of those marina gates that we hid behind.
I vowed to take Spanish lessons when we arrived, but instead I spent most all of my time working insanely hard on boat projects. I was very disappointed with myself on that note.
Our travel agent at the marina handled our check out and all paperwork was produced by late afternoon. We were departing a month early and received a full U.S. cash refund of all unused marina fees. Also, we made sure the marina guards knew we were paid-up in full and checked out, and planned to leave before first-light (and thus were not avoiding any fees, nor sneaking out in darkness).
We still had a tidy sum of Venezuelan money “in stock” and rather than exchange it back to U.S. Dollars, we donated every bit of it to the Fund Amigos program that provides medical services and surgery to poor children with cleft palates and other physical disfigurements.
I sold my “pasarela” gangplank to a catamaran down the way for twenty dollars.
All business was finished and we were ready to untie in the early morning darkness.
So, where are we headed now, you ask? To the remote, uninhabited Venezuelan island of Tortuga! In the same fashion we arrived, we departed Venezuela’s mainland in a “fleet” of only two.
Our “inbound fleet” friends Mike and Sara on the trawler Wayfinder were long gone and quickly got their fill of Puerto La Cruz, especially considering they were planning on buying 2,500 gallons of cheap fuel only to be “slapped hard in the face” with new, expensive fuel regulations that were instituted only two days prior to our arrival at Puerto La Cruz.
By the time Melissa and I departed Puerto la Cruz, Wayfinder was already in Columbia and raving via e-mail, and I mean absolutely raving about how awesome, safe and pleasing it is in the capitol city of Cartagena.
Thus, in the now-familiar dance called “Cruising,” it was again time for us to “change partners.” The 48 foot Catamaran Serendipity, with the wonderful Lucia family aboard was ready to move on with us.
Melissa and I had become close friends with the Lucias during our stay at Bahia Redonda. We looked forward to Cruising with them and we set out together on a western voyage through the outer islands of Venezuela and on to Bonaire, a world- renowned SCUBA diving destination.
Let me take this opportunity to introduce our new “running buddies” the Lucia family from catamaran Serendipity:
As always, the sorrow of leaving an unusual destination like Venezuela’s mainland is handed off to, and then overcome by, the excitement of looking toward the horizon with the same vibrant anticipation that kids feel on Christmas Morning.
So get ready for the next report. Lots of fabulous pictures and you simply will not believe the Cruising lifestyle we enjoyed in the western outer islands off the coast of Venezuela. We had no way of knowing it beforehand, but we were about to spend a priceless month of life that most-closely resembled Everyman’s actual vision of the Cruising Dream.
So stay tuned. You don’t dare miss this next edition that leaves politics and problems behind and turns all attention back to life underway and exploring pristine, remote reefs and beaches that the majority of Cruisers never even get to see.
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