Monday, 31 October 2011

Keeping my nerve

Venezuela: Caracas

I’m no stranger to the type of sleep that precedes an early morning flight; for several years it was my Sunday night routine. The startled awakenings to check the time, the hazy feeling of gratitude that it’s only 2am and there are still a couple of hours of sleep left, the anxiety dreams of oversleeping and naked security checks, and the sickening sound of the alarm going off that will inevitably be the looped soundtrack for my eventual descent into hell.  I once had a boss whose ringtone was the same as my alarm tone and I involuntarily shivered in discomfort every time his phone rang, which was often.  Anyway, a night of such sleep is often more exhausting than not sleeping at all, a sure fire guarantee for starting the day in a bleak frame of mind.  The rushed five minute shower comes with only the darkest thoughts of the soul as company.  This is a glass that is not even half empty; it’s been dropped onto your foot, smashed, and the shards have severed your Achilles tendon.  Perhaps I’m exaggerating a little, but try doing it every week for five years and then come back to me with your Monday morning half full glass.  If it is half full then it’ll be full with tears, mark my words.

This bleakness nipped at my heels as we checked in at Miami for our flight to Caracas.  It followed me through security as I flicked the robotic compliance switch; queue, boarding pass please, belt off, laptop out, arms up, scan, retrieve belongings, no I don’t mind if you take a look in my bag, thank you, play hunt the gate in the shopping mall.  It sat on my shoulders as we taxied onto the runway, shot through the clouds, and cruised over the Caribbean Sea.  It was only after an hour into the flight that the bleakness began to lift, that I began to shake my pre-conditioned Pavlov’s dog reaction to a disturbed sleep and an early morning airport routine.  Hang on, my subconscious said, you’re not going to work, you haven’t just said goodbye to your wife for another week, she’s right next to you, and you’re still on holiday.  So cheer up dickhead. So cheer up I did, and as the plane began its descent into Caracas I was approaching excitement, albeit an excitement cut with nervousness.

Regular readers will recognise at least part of the cause of my nervousness; a complete lack of preparation.  We’d failed to achieve even the most simple of preparations by not booking a room for when we arrived; dispirited as we were by the high accommodation prices in oil-rich Caracas.  I’d shot off a speculative email late the previous night to a hotel near the airport to enquire about a room in the naïve and lazy mode of sod it, we’ll figure it out when we get there, time for a crap night’s sleep. But, you know what, we got lucky.  As we stood outside the arrivals hall trying to look cool, urbane, and not daft (a difficult trick if you’re me) in order to deter the rat-like mass of touts and ne’er-do-wells a hotel bus pulled up.  Not just any hotel, but the hotel I’d speculatively emailed the previous night.  Reservacione? the driver enquired as I confidently started throwing our luggage onto the bus.  Si, si, I replied, trying hard to give off the impression that ‘of course we have a reservation’ rather than the more accurate impression of ‘well, I emailed them, and frankly your guess is as good as mine as to whether we actually have a room reserved, so let us just cadge a free ride and see what happens eh amigo’.  They did have a room as it turned out, and later that evening I received a confirmation email from the hotel informing me that they were looking forward to greeting us; a nice if somewhat belated touch. 

There were two other causes of nervousness however, one temporary, the other rather more enduring.  The temporary one first - Caracas is famed for being dangerous, a den of vipers that will rob, extort, and kidnap you then, if you’re lucky, spit you back out onto the street shaken, poorer, but still alive.  I’d read a little about Caracas from internet articles and two particular commentaries stuck out.  One chap on Trip Advisor had broken the mould of ridiculously overstated, poorly written and exclamation mark heavy reviewing (BEST. PLACE. EVER!!!!) in favour of the following nugget of advice: If you're thinking of going to Caracas then I suggest you’d be better served by going to your nearest metropolis, sitting on the pavement next to its busiest thoroughfare, taking off your shoe and repeatedly hitting yourself around the head with it.  It’ll be more fun. An article in The Guardian, whilst not as amusing as our Trip Advisor correspondent, cheerfully dropped this line into an otherwise positive report on Venezuela: Caracas is widely considered to be the most dangerous capital city in the world, outside of Baghdad.  So this is where I’d like to report, macho war correspondent style, that it’s all nonsense, that Caracas is a pussycat.  This is what I’d like to do.  But I can’t, on account of the fact that we took the cowardly option and steered clear of the city completely, staying in Catimar instead, 30 km north of the city centre.  So, we’d flown into the airport servicing a dangerous city, jumped onto a complimentary hotel bus that took us further away from the city, checked into our room, and locked the door.  A Pulitzer Prize is surely on the cards to recognise this act of brave and incisive investigative reportage.  The temporary cause of nervousness was, at least, dealt with swiftly.

The more enduring cause of nervousness still tugs at my belly now, 10 days after we arrived in South America for what will be the final leg of our yearlong round the world trip.  It is this: I can’t speak Spanish.  I’m embarrassed, even a little ashamed, by this.  Shame aside, I’m even more concerned that it will be a major stumbling block for our travels, something that will cause not just difficulty in the basic everyday interactions of eating, finding a place to stay, and getting to the right place, but more fundamentally it will also insulate us from interactions with the other people.  Ay caramba! 

I spent a year studying Spanish when I was fourteen and remember hardly a word.  I don’t put this down to the oft-mentioned lamentable standard of language tuition in the UK, nor do I solely conclude that it is my own lack of aptitude for learning languages that is holding me back.  No, I blame it on a pair of suspenders.  That’s right, black suspenders that attached to the lacy top of a pair of sheer black stockings, the ivory skin above peeking out through the thigh high slit down an otherwise respectable skirt.  My Spanish teacher at school was, I’m guessing, mid to late twenties and pretty if not classically beautiful.  Of course, to a class of pubescent boys who are controlled exclusively by the twin forces of hormones and their nether regions she was a goddess.  I’ll call her Miss Titillation-Tease in order to both protect her innocence and assuage my fear that she may one day Google herself, read this, and simultaneously vomit and call the police.  

Miss Titillation-Tease would often conduct her classes from a position sat on her desk at the front of the class, the top of the desk causing the slit on the side of her skirt to ride up her thigh, revealing two square inches of stocking-ed thigh.  Or, to put it differently, reveal a vista of heaven to twenty schoolboys.  If you listened carefully as her skirt rose up her thigh you could hear the click click click of mental photographs being taken and locked away nice and securely in what was commonly referred to as our ‘wank-banks’.  Reflecting on it now I wonder if she had any idea of what impact she was having on the adolescent mind, whether she thought the undivided attention she received was the happy result of a conscientious class and an engaging teaching style.  Not having a pair of stockings and suspenders in my wardrobe means I’m not really qualified to pontificate on why one would choose to wear them, or how they would make the wearer feel.  But I have read the odd issue of Cosmopolitan in my time, and occasionally been forced to sit through an episode of Sex and the City, and from this extensive and faultless research I can only conclude that Miss Titillation-Tease knew exactly what she was doing and, dare I say it, maybe got off on it a little bit.  Who can blame her?  Everyone needs something to relieve the tedium of the working day, that’s why Facebook was invented.  But one thing is certain; the temporary charms of a milky thigh have had a longer term impact on my Spanish skills, an impact that I now have to face up to.

So we’re booking a crash course in Spanish fundamentals.  With a man.  If he turns up in stockings and suspenders then, frankly, I’m giving up and will spend the next three months pretending I’m deaf and dumb.  The latter part should be easy enough.

Useful stuff

I’ve decided, given the large number of folks who seem to visit this blog in hope of finding some useful information and who no doubt leave feeling cheated, to include a few notes at the end of each post that could be defined as ‘useful’.  Moreover, if you’ve got this far down you’ll have got through the claptrap above, and a reward for this is surely the least one should expect.  Here goes…

Venezuela and Money

  • Bring cash, lots of it.  Specifically, US dollars.  The money situation in Venezuela is an almighty pain in the arse.  Firstly, there's two exchange rates, an official one and a black market one.  The black market rate is approximately a third to double the official rate, so do that.  It hovered around 7.5-8.2 bolivars to the dollar when we were there, but this changes.  Most posadas will change US dollars.  Just make sure you have enough.
  • Complicating this is the fact that ATMs rarely work for foreign cards.  Users are required to enter a two-digit security code after the PIN number.  Try '00'.  This won't work in all ATMs, but does, I'm reliably informed, work in some.  You'll get the official exchange rate for ATM transactions which brings me back to my first point: bring cash, lots of it.
  • As a general rule Venezuela is cheaper than the US, Australia and Europe, but more expensive than Asia.
  • Carrying lots of cash obviously has its risks, especially when you arrive at Caracas airport, so take a look at some security tips, from a previous post.  

  • As mentioned, we didn't bother going into the centre, and should you choose to do the same thing then Hotel Catimar is close to the airport and offers a free shuttle to avoid you taking those occasionally dodgy airport taxis.
  • Alternatively, arrange to go direct to your destination with your guesthouse, who will be able to help you out.  In other words, do as I say, not as I do, and be a bit organised.

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