Sunday, 6 November 2011

Black Dolphin makes a splash

Venezuela: Puerto Columbia, Barinas, Los Llanos and Merida

“Elena es alegre con bonita cabella.  Ian es gordo”, explained our new Spanish tutor, Fluvio, in order to illustrate both the ‘to be’ Spanish verbs and the new adjectives we were learning.  “Helen is, er, cheerful” I attempted to translate back, “with beautiful hair, and Ian is, um, er, I’m sorry what is gordo”?  “Gordo means fat Ian”.  “Oh, OK, so Helen is cheerful with beautiful hair and I am fat, I see”.  Had this explanation not been said with an irascible twinkle in Fluvio’s eye I might have concluded that this was less of a language class and more of a hard-core, take no prisoners, the truth sometimes hurts fatty, version of Weight Watchers.  Holding my stomach in for the rest of the class we continued with the verbs and adjectives and then all adjourned to a local bar for pizza and beer.  Fluvio and I shared a large pizza.  I let him have the final slice.

Keen-eyed readers of my previous post will be keen to know if Fluvio did, indeed, turn up for our first lesson in stockings and suspenders, thereby permanently consigning my Spanish language ambitions into a grubby little box marked ‘don’t bother, too weird’.  He didn’t.  What we got instead was a delightful, diminutive and dramatic young man, born to be an actor first and a teacher close second.  Fluvio has the most surprising accent on account of the three years he spent living in the UK, an accent that morphs mid-sentence between the places he lived; from Liverpool to Newcastle to Cardiff to Bath and finally to London, all shot through with a soft Latin American warmth and a rolling of the r’s. 

For us this educational arrangement has been perfect; a few hours of private lessons in our makeshift classroom on the open air terrace of our posada (guesthouse) in Merida, south-west Venezuela.   The vista of the Andes mountains is off to our right, and a steady stream of other travellers pop by and do their best not to giggle as we ride roughshod over the subtleties of Spanish grammar and pronunciation.  Despite this, the lessons seem to be working.  Up to a point anyway.  Yesterday I confidently, and very politely, purchased two bus tickets from a swarthy chap in the Merida bus terminal (la terminal de autobuses, linguistics fans).  That’s the point we’re up to.  The rest of what passes for a conversation is still beyond me, not least because I have virtually no idea of what people are saying to me in return.  A crinkled brow and a speculative ‘si?’ tends to be what my interlocutor gets by way of a response.  Perhaps this is why I received a raised eyebrow from our ticket friend, clearly expressing his surprise that these gringos actually wanted to be near the toilet on a long distance bus.

Merida has been our home for the last week, a stop longer than we’d usually make, but one which has not only given us the opportunity to mangle the Spanish language, but also to consolidate some friendships we’d begun to make on a trip to Los Llanos.  Los Llanos is a wildlife rich area of protected flatlands in the south east corner of Venezuela, and we were on a four day trip with five other folk, all European, all utterly charming, crammed together in the back of old but dependable Toyota Land Cruiser.  Helen and I had joined the rest of the group in the city of Barinas which we’d travelled to from the seaside town of Puerto Columbia on Venezuela’s northern Caribbean coast.   And when I say ‘travelled’ what I really mean, at least for the first part of the trip, is ‘catapulted at warp speed over mountain roads in the back of a taxi’. 

Sitting in the back of the taxi, being rocked from side to side as the driver took sharp turn after sharp turn, there were three things going through my mind, excluding the obvious ‘new-pants-required’ fear.  Firstly, there was envy of the driver’s advanced vision for surely, surely, nobody would drive that fast through thick fog, head stuck out of the window to overcome the heavy tint on his windscreen, unless they were gifted with vision superpowers.  Secondly, I was thinking back to a day I had spent rally driving and, in particular, to the lap I did with the professional driver, on a closed course that he knew like the back of his gloved hand.  Now, the rally driver drove fast, that’s his job, but the taxi driver, I’m convinced, was driving faster. On a mountain.  That was covered in fog. And had big drops down into the valley.  Finally, the driver had eschewed the traditionally fluffy dice on his rear view mirror, opting instead for a sticker that sat across the centre of the mirror that read ‘Speed King’.  Well, quite.

You know the end to this particularly story however, given that communication from beyond the grave isn’t yet possible (it’s what the genius Steve Jobs was working on apparently, perhaps still is).  We arrived safely, if shaken and stirred, and after an overnight bus ride found ourselves at Barinas’ bus terminal at three o’clock in the morning.  Our rendezvous with the rest of the group wasn’t until noon, so we presented ourselves at the steel gated reception desk of a so-called ‘love motel’ outside the bus station.  Another strained conversation in Spanish, another raised eyebrow from the receptionist (‘a couple checking in at 3am, with huge rucksacks; must be their kinky toolkit’), and we had our palace for the night.  Now, there were many things that went through my mind when I opened the room door, but ‘love’ wasn’t one of them.  Foremost in my mind were the scenes in CSI when the glamorous team pass an ultraviolet light over a hotel room’s bed-sheets, give each other knowing looks as purple blobs appear, and say ‘well, at least he went out with a bang’.  The bed we were about to sleep in would, I’m quite certain, appear under the glow of the CSI kit as one giant purple blob.  A picture of this room would be a good accompaniment to the definition of ‘seedy’ in the dictionary.  On the plus side, if it turns out that Helen conceived in this dingy hole in dingy Barinas we would at least have a clear candidate for a boy’s name; Barry.  Or Grimy.  Barry’s probably better.  Just.

Rising in the morning, and after a shower from which I emerged feeling even dirtier than I did when I went in, I decided to shave my head.  It seemed like the type of thing one should do in a seedy anonymous motel.  Like we were on the run from the cops whilst we tried to clear our names from a government conspiracy, and needed to disguise our identity until we had proof, proof god-damnit, that it was the vice-president whodunit and that ‘this thing’ went higher than anyone would ever believe.  Suitably disguised we met with our temporary traveller companions (“should we give them our real names Helen’? “We’re not really on the run Ian, now remember to be friendly to the nice people darling”, she replied).  It wasn’t, as it transpired, difficult to be friendly to these people as they were, indeed, nice.  Two Germans, one Dane, one Swiss, and a fellow Brit, we made up an EU Summit of travellers.  The group were incredibly accommodating to our lack of Spanish skills (and lack of German, Danish and Swiss German skills for that matter), and were happy to shift between languages to make us feel included.  Of course, we felt ashamed and embarrassed, and not for the first time I marvelled at the infinitely superior language skills of our mainland European cousins.  I worked in the Netherlands for over three years, in a very cosmopolitan environment where the business language was English, and I never stopped being amazed that my European colleagues could engage in complex and occasionally sensitive discussions with a fluency and incisiveness that made a mockery of it being in their second, or sometimes third, language.  Of course, sooner or later we’ll all have to learn Mandarin as the global balance of power shifts east.  But I’ll be living in a cave eating lichen and talking to myself by that time anyway so for now I’ll just stick to the point-of-need Spanish.

Language shame aside we spent four great days in the Los Llanos area, sleeping in hammocks, spotting caimans and capybaras (or moomins as I preferred to call them), piranha fishing, horse riding and white water rafting.  On a boat trip through the backwaters on the third day we were circled by pink dolphins, the freshwater cousins of the ‘thanks Noel, swimming with dolphins was a dream come true’ grey variety, who were, and don’t tell them I said this, a bit uglier than their grey counterparts, with bunched up snouts and squinty blind eyes that were redundant in the murky underwater world of echolocation.  Having been told in no uncertain terms at the commencement of the ride that we should keep our hands inside the boat (piranhas; whole cow; three minutes was the gist of this warning) it was a surprise, to say the least, when one of the local guides, a cheerful and chubby chap, dove off the boat into the water, seemingly apropos of nothing.  To the laughs and shouts of the other guides (“that’s why we call him Black Dolphin! Swim, Black Dolphin, swim! Ha ha ha”) he emerged, shivering, from the murky water clutching a river turtle, its little fleshy snorkel nose giving away its location to Black Dolphin, a hunter-gatherer of distinction.

The trip was time well spent, affording us the opportunity not only to venture into the Venezuelan hinterland but also to re-engage with other travellers, something we’d missed during our time in the States.  I now just need to get rid of that rash I picked up in the love motel, and we’re laughing.

Helen loungin' in the luurve motel.  Class.
Rooftop wildlife spotting in Los Llanos with Marc (centre)
Where's Tonto?
Black Dolphin displays his catch
With Fluvio (L), Spanish teacher extraordinaire

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…

Puerto Columbia

  • We stayed at Casa Luna, run by the ludicrously helpful Claudia.  A double room with air-con cost us about 18 euros.
  • Claudia will change money at a decent (black market) rate and also has a paypal account she accepts transfers into
Night bus from Maracay to Barinas
  •  We took a taxi from Puerto Columbia to Maracay then hopped on a night bus to Barinas.  It took approx. 6 hours and cost 100 bolivars each. 
  • Night buses are famously air-conditioned to the max.  I liked this, far preferring feeling cold to hot.  Take some warm stuff if you feel the cold.

  • Motel Sierra Nevada opposite the bus station is the name of the place I refer to above.  It’s not available on as far as I can make out.
Los Llanos

  • We did a four day, three night tour with a Merida based company called Gravity Tours, run by the helpful Gustavo.  It cost us 140 euros each including everything except obvious stuff like booze.
  • Sleeping diagonally on a hammock is easier than (trying) to sleep straight.
  • Take bug spray.
  • We stayed at a fantastic place called Posada La Montana.  It has a beautiful atrium full of greenery, comfortable rooms and a decent restaurant attached.  Double room was 180 bolivars per night.
  • We bought our tickets for the night bus from Merida to Maracaibo at the station in the morning of our departure date, with a bus company called Merida Express.  You can probably risk just turning up and buying a ticket, but as it was a weekend we opted otherwise.  The ticket was 90 bolivars.  You need to buy a 4 bolivar departure token from a small desk inside the terminal before boarding the bus.  We didn’t, had a confusing discussion with the collector, and had to dive off and grab one before the bus left.
  • We went on a one day canyoning trip, again with Gravity Tours.  Canyoning, in this instance, is scrambling up a canyon and then abseiling back down through the waterfalls.  It was great, but overpriced at $55 USD per person for what was, in effect, a two hour activity.      

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