Thursday, January 26, 2012

Caicara del Orinoco, Venezuela

Dear friends and family,

Our story picks up with our arrival in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela on December 14. The manager of the municipal marina was aghast when she saw that the officials in Punto Fijo had not given us a permiso de estadia, or cruising permit. We could be arrested, our boat confiscated! She urged us to leave immediately for Curacao, a Dutch island 100 miles to the north and the nearest foreign country. To continue with our plans we must then clear back into Venezuela at Puerto La Cruz, where they know how to issue that permit, then return to Puerto Cabello. In other words, we should travel an extra 550 miles, with impossibly long passages, at the wrong time of year, because someone to whom we paid $270 had failed to give us a certain paper! A slimy customs agent then appeared, saying that something might be worked out but it would take months and be very expensive.

Dazed, we sat in a covered seating area where the local sport fishermen socialize. A birthday party for one of them was just starting. They fired up a barbeque and filled coolers with ice and Polar beer. When they realized who we were they voiced admiration and showered us with drinks and food. As in Punto Fijo, the generosity of the people ameliorated the greed and incompetence of the government. One of the attendees, an employee at the Port Captain´s office, said he would help us get the cruising permit.

In the meantime we were stuck in a hellacious marina. The breakwater was insufficient to block the swell, so boats and floating docks surged violently. Neighboring vessels broke loose, became battering rams. We fixed the breakage, bought new docking lines. When the ramp from the dock to the breakwater broke loose a fellow boater donated an old dingy for use as a bridge. The water was polluted with spilled gas and oil. Dogs and seabirds tore through bags of garbage stockpiled along the breakwater. The water system was usually off. The restrooms were unspeakable. All this municipal incompetence had to be squared with the omnipresent billboard propaganda wherein the mayor touted his many fine achievements, with fetching smiles and dynamic gestures.

Puerto Cabello itself seemed to be shredded into different time periods. We were in the historic port district, where the buildings were tall and graceful with finely molded facades, but dilapidated, often in total ruin. Further away the buildings were squatter but in better repair, their residents present, sitting on the curb in front of their old common-wall homes or in one of the little plazas with a statue in the center. There were no drainage facilities, so even slight rains spread puddles across the streets. The architecture along the highway was modern but relatively deserted. There were no other foreign tourists, but temporadistas thronged the downtown beach and public waterfront. The term refers to Venezuelans come to enjoy themselves during the Christmas holidays. For three weeks many businesses were closed, endless beer was consumed, and music blasted day and night from numerous food-and-drink stalls.

We were in the epicenter, with the beach on one side and a sort of carnival strip on the other. We had only to visit a neighboring yacht to join in their party of the moment or exit the marina gates to watch the rides and games of skill and chance. We were grateful for the security post that separated us from the drunken masses, though it couldn’t protect us from the amplified, screaming carnies.

Puerto Cabello wasn’t all bad! The coffee was sold on the streets steaming hot. Fresh fruit and vegetables abounded in the open market. We discovered cachapas, a delicious pancake made from fresh corn. The beer was cheap. The Venezuelans customarily do not finish the last inch or so, giving birth to a new kind of bum, the “beer bum!” He hangs around the liquor store where they sell cups of beer through the bars. When the patrons reach that last inch he holds out his mug and they pour it in. On a weekend afternoon the “beer bum” is cheerful indeed. Except on one evening, when youths engaged in a bottle-throwing fight, we felt secure in our constant wanderings of the hot, dirty streets. Ginny didn´t even carry her “bashing stick.”

The laptop broke so we ordered a new one and other necessities from the States, hoping they would arrive safely. At internet places we worked on new magazine articles and facebooked with friends. Christmas and New Years passed. We got dental work done, bought new shoes, and three times took the hour and a half bus ride to Valencia to see the movie “Tin Tin,” but the showing was always sold out or cancelled. For much of cruising is simply pursuing normal life functions in unfamiliar circumstances, therefore inefficiently and with much frustration! With the frugality that comes naturally to us we walked a lot, compared prices, and avoided taxis.


In performing maintenance on our esteemed Honda 2-horse motor, which at the expense of only fifteen gallons of gas had taken us a thousand miles to windward, we found that she now emitted a horrible screech while running. We took her to a mechanic who allowed us to watch while he took it apart. Saltwater had entered where it was unwelcome. A rusty bearing was the culprit. Fortunately, it was a standard automotive part, easily replaced.

After three weeks of intermittent groveling at the capitania and another $220 contribution to the government (or to corrupt officials, one never knows which), we got our cruising permit. Our next hurdle was easier. Steve had already gone by bus to a town called El Baul and determined that the Rio Cojedes was navigable. Now we found a transporter willing to take us there for the equivalent of $330. To our great joy he pulled us out of the water onto a trailer.

On January 13, 2012 we sat with him in the cab of the truck as he towed Thurston through Valencia. He educated us on national politics, and lamented the ruin and crime rampant in this once-prosperous country. The hills fell behind as we entered the Llanos, the great plains of northern South America. The highway abounded with police and military checkpoints, at which vendors sold coffee. The many potholes also provide entrepreneurial opportunities. From a distance would be seen two or three teenagers with shovels and a little flag, filling or pretending to fill a hole. As we slowed down they dropped their tools and ran alongside with a jar, yelling for tips.

At the town of El Baul our driver backed the trailer into a small river. Thurston was afloat again, now in muddy fresh water. We found a purveyor of purified water in bulk and filled our tanks. Then we pushed off into the moderate current. The banks were tall and thick with willows. The land was farms and forest. When it got dark we tied to a branch on the bank and settled in. The evening was cool, a welcome departure from the hot city nights. A praying mantis alighted on the tiller, facing forward, his little hands at chest height, and rocked sideways back and forth, steady as a metronome. The eyes of a nearby alligator reflected red in our headlamps.

On the second day the Rio Cojedes joined the larger Rio Portuguese. On the fourth day the latter joined the far larger Rio Apure. All flowed southeast gathering frequent tributaries. Steve would begin rowing at sunrise. Ginny would relax a little longer. Lounging in the cabin while underway is a new treat, of which one must take advantage! After a couple hours the east wind got too strong so we motored at low throttle, appreciating the assist from the current. Howler monkeys picked fruits in the tall riverside trees. Smaller, non-howler monkeys sipped from the river and retreated into the foliage on our approach. Alligators slipped into the water. The trees and brush were thick with a bird that resembled a chicken or a pheasant except that it had a mohawk crest and its call was similar to that of a crow. There were kingfishers, pink flamingos, cormorants, cranes, scarlet macaws, emerald parakeets, and numerous other birds for which we lacked names.

But the most dramatic advent was that of the pink dolphins. Steve was used to them from his time on the Meta and Orinoco, but not Ginny. To her they looked prehistoric: blue-grey on top and pink on bottom, with pink and violet blending on their sides, and pronounced bulbs on their foreheads. They were playful like ocean dolphins but slower. Sometimes they breached just enough for a quick breath, other times they leapt clear of the water. They splashed this way and that with their tails. When swimming slowly on the surface they looked like alligators because only a subtle profile showed. As long as we rowed or motored at low speed as many as ten dolphins followed us, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind.

We frequently passed houses on the river bank, some primitive, some substantial. The people were slender with dark skin and black hair. They stood staring as we passed. The men wore cowboy hats or baseball caps. Some emitted a sharp yelp of greeting. The women were rarely to be seen. There were horses, cattle, pigs, chickens. Their boats were of sheet steel, long and thin like a canoe. In the towns people rode mules, horses, and Chinese motorcycles. The air smelled strongly of the local white cheese, an incentive to move on.

After three days we reached San Fernando, capital of the state of Apure. Under a tall bridge men were shoveling sand from steel canoes onto land and from there into trucks for transport. Further down thirty or forty boats were parked gunwale-to-gunwale, sterns riverward, bows on a steep beach littered with stranded water hyacinth. There was much hubbub of loading and unloading, coming and going. We landed among them and explored this metropolis of the plains. We soon located internet shops wherein we worked on keeping our U.S. internet purchases moving toward us. We had a new sail cover made and bought batteries. In a lovely plaza we found a government bookstore where intellectuals gathered. A poet/sculptor offered to get our writings into print if we translated them into Spanish. A historian told of us Simon Bolivar´s doings in Apure during the wars of independence. The store had a selection of Venezuelan literature, nearly free due to a program designed to boost literacy and revolutionary awareness. Steve selected several novels.

After three days San Fernando de Apure had given us all we needed so we continued downriver. It was hot and windy from the wrong direction. The river meandered a lot - for each straight-line mile we traveled 1.6 miles. But compared to the sea the travelling was easy! We averaged forty river miles per day. On January 21 mountains became visible to the southeast: the edge of the Llanos. A gap opened and the Rio Apure, which had seemed so huge, emptied into the Orinoco, a mile or two wide counting the islands in its braided course. Its blue-brown surface surged with upwelling currents. The land was drier now, more barren. The summer had started, and vast areas of sandy bottom were exposed, like deserts with blowing sand. We need to stay close to civilization until our package comes so we followed the Orinoco downstream a few miles to Caicara, a small city on the south bank where Steve spent three weeks in 1992. The friendly personnel at the little naval base are allowing us to keep our boat next to theirs for security. Later we hope to follow the Orinoco upstream to Brazil. We don´t have a good map yet but Ginny is researching how to make a GPS-readable chart using Google Earth.

We close with a homey detail that will put you right aboard with us. The awning is up. We have just eaten dinner. Steve reclines cleaning his teeth in “the throne,” butt on a cushion on the cockpit floor, back to aft bulkhead, facing forward. Ginny, resting from her culinary labors and fullness of belly, lays in bed, head on pillows, heels propped up on the companionway ledge, reading a book on our cell phone (since Steve sat on her Kindle). Steve pastes both toothbrushes, puts Ginny´s between two toes, says, “Toe-jam telegram!” and passes the brush from his toes to Ginny´s toes. She is now obliged to clean her teeth. Otherwise she might not get around to it.

More new photos in our Venezuela album.