by Peter Nelson
Caracas is where Virginia, Fernando’s older sister lives, and I’ve been using her address for mail since I left Costa Rica. Virginia lives in one of these massive concrete high-rise apartment blocks, so I have to push the buzzer and try to explain who I am in my badly-accented Spanish, through a fuzzy intercom system. But, bless her, she understands, even though she wasn’t expecting me.
Upstairs, it’s a houseful. Cousins and cousins of cousins, etc. Obviously, there’s no place for me to sleep, but Virginia insists that I come there for all my meals. Okay. A very sympatico bunch. We go to the park, wander through the neighborhood, do slow-paced touristy-type things like that. A leisurely and familial break from the rigors of the road. Really enjoy her kids, a girl about 8 and a boy of 6. Virginia’s husband, Andres, is interested in my meager fund of travel stories. After supper, almost every night, he and I go down to the street where the locals hang out on the bare ground (a park with no plants?), and I tell amusing stories in English. After every sentence, the others say in unison, “Que dice, que dice?” And Andres translates.
A pleasant interlude, a good place to pause, especially since I haven’t the slightest idea where I’m going from here. Andres suggests I take a trip to the jungle. Since he has contacts all over the country, he writes a short card to a business associate in Ciudad Bolivar, a major port on the Orinoco River. OK, why not?
A couple of good rides get me all the way to Ciudad Bolivar before dark. Nice-sized town, perched right on the edge of the jungle. I get the usual small cheap room in a big cheap hotel, and hit the streets after supper. Looks like my kind of town. Nice friendly mind-your-own-business sort of place. A bustling port, so they’re quite used to foreigners. Most people don’t give me a second glance. Which is pretty refreshing after months of being the center of attention everywhere I go.
To orient myself (and to hear some English), I decide to take in a movie. Might even improve my Spanish, courtesy of the sub-titles. I buy the cheapest ticket and head for the entrance. But the usher won’t let me in! He tries to explain things, patiently, patiently, but I can’t understand him. What’s the problem? Finally, he takes me by the arm and guides me around the building to a side entrance. The cheap seats have a different entrance. Once inside, I can see why they’re so cheap. There’s no roof over them! And after an all-day downpour, the plain wooden benches are a trifle damp.
Well, not as if my clothes haven’t been wet before. I settle down to watch the movie, a B-grade quasi-foreign pretentious thriller called Road to Salina. Not well-acted or well-plotted. Not very good at all, in fact, but there are some nice visuals courtesy of Mimsy Farmer, who seems to take her clothes off every time there’s a pause in the action. The producers didn’t bother with many sub-titles, figuring that the plot is so childish that anyone can understand it, and everyone’s watching the girl anyway. Any old port after a storm, so I duck into the washroom after the show, so I can watch it again without the inconvenience of being asked to buy another ticket.
A couple of days of getting the feel of the place, and it’s time to take care of business. So I track down Señor Hidalgo in his office, and hand him Andres’s card. Typically of my attitude towards the whole jungle epic to come, I hadn’t even looked at what Andres had written on that card. He’d said something to me about a river trip, so I was expecting a day trip down (or up) the Orinoco or something. (Little did I know that I was heading into the Amazon jungle for almost four months!)
Anyway, Señor Hidalgo is most obliging. He tells me to get my stuff and be down at the river dock at 8 the next morning. Sounds good. So I pack up, and then go out to enjoy my last night in Ciudad Bolivar. After four days of nothing much to do and no one to talk to, the imagination tends to get a tad hyperactive. As a result, the old town has acquired the patina of the rugged frontier, the last outpost of civilization. And what do you do on your last night in civilization? You get a drink!
So I head to a middle-class, cleaner sort of bar to splurge. And this Japanese type comes over. I thought all Japanese students learned English in school, but not Yukio. So we speak Spanish to each other. He’s pretty sympatico, and invites me up to some friends’ house. They turn out to be well-travelled, cultured, local-art-collecting polyglots. Native spears mounted on the walls next to Modigliani posters, that sort of thing. We talk of the cinema, of the culture, of the world situation. Apparently. Although this couple is fluent in English, we speak Spanish so Yukio can understand. My Spanish is strictly of the street-level variety, so when people are discussing complicated political events, I’m pretty much tuned out of the conversation.
Yukio offers to put me up. Too bad I just met him on my last night in town. Could’ve saved four days’ hotel rent, but c’est la guerre. Can’t change plans now. I’m a creature of inertia, caught up in the acceleration of events. At 8 AM, me and my battered backpack are waiting on the dock.