The Vilisar Times

The life and times of Ronald and Kathleen and our voyages aboard S/V Vilisar, a 34.5-foot wooden Wm-Atkin-designed sailing cutter launched in Victoria, BC, Canada, in 1974. Since we moved aboard in 2001 Vilisar has been to Alaska, British Columbia, California, Mexico, The Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

‘Casa Venamor’, La Guardia, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Toughing it out in 85-degree winters

Our quiet life as caretakers at Casa Venamor is occasionally interrupted by mini-events. Two days in a row last week, for example, our normally blue skies are blocked out by huge though only mildly threatening cumulo-nimbus clouds that have been building up all day over the mountains on the mainland. In late afternoon they move out over the sea and Isla de Margarita to throw some warm rain at us for about half and hour. Then they dissipate and the blue sky returns, the courtyard where we spend so much of our time at the house is left steaming, the clay roof tiles, the palms and the other plants dripping. The drains are not very effective. Hoping to forestall mosquito breeding, I spend some time sweeping rainwater toward the one or two drains that function. Following those two muggy tropical days the weather has turned wintry, the breezes last most of the day and evening from the east or northeast indicating that the NE Trades have set in and we are in deepest winter. The weather probs are for daily 85 degrees Fahrenheit and winds of 5-10 knots. At lunchtime it feels hot out on the street and, coming back from our morning work at the internet café and we are glad to have our light lunch and climb into our hammocks for a siesta. Toughing it out!

The iron grills on all the windows and doors and the high brick wall around the courtyard enclose the house. The individual rooms have doors that close and lock if you want that. But otherwise much of the actual house is really covered patio. This is fine when it comes to having the Caribbean breezes blow through but it also means that mice and cats and get in. I assume they are mice anyway since what I have seen so far are grey streaks only. I here them behind the stove, though. I put out some pellets behind the oven and now we near nothing. I was worried about the cats getting the pellets but I do not think they can get in behind. Hope not.

Some mall animal has left its calling card every night the front door. Not sure what it is but it has not come in through the front door since it is shuttered at night. After cleaning the mess up a couple of mornings only to find it again the next day, I spread caliente (hot sauce) on and around the spot. There were tracks in it the next day but that was the last of the scat. Hope it stays gone.

Kathleen has adopted the many plants in the courtyard. Under her careful ministrations they have all greened up. Though they appeared dead some of them have now got new leaves and one even put forth a couple of small white flowers. Even the two short palm trees have freshened up and put out new spears that are now opening quickly into palm fronds. They spread their shade over the red-tiled courtyard and against the whitewashed wall. This courtyard could be a sensation if plants are used right. The bougainvillea bushes needs pruning, I think, if they are to get more blossoms, and I see in my imagination several clumps of jasmine that would spread their perfumes around at night.

We are getting to know the village a bit better. Our predecessors, David and Estela left last week for Lima, Peru, so we are now on our own. We are already known a bit in the village and people respond to our greetings. ‘Bueno Dia!’ they reply to our ‘Buenos Dias!’ Like the coastal people in Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador, they seem also here to drop their S’s. They never seem to say, ‘Hóla’ so I have stooped being so familiar.

The neighbours are easy to greet because they are not hidden away behind air-conditioned doors or living out on their wooden decks in fenced-off yards. They sit out under the trees in the street or on their front steps in the shade if it is during the day or just anywhere if it is after dark. The men tend to be a little more standoffish than the women. Old people, men and women, sit outside watching the world go by during the day. At night there are more people about. We hear lots of voices of kids until well after about 2100. Lots of people on bicycles, usually with someone, another kid or a girlfriend, on the crossbar. There are cars around – frequently monstrosities from the 1980’s with big, V8 engines and Hollywood mufflers. These cars are antiques now and getting parts must be a job. When a big Chevrolet or Oldsmobile passes under our walls we are never sure if it might not be a large lorry. It is usually the booming speakers that go with it that is the give-away. The noise is all the louder because it is otherwise very quiet. After 2100 the village seems to quiet down and go to bed.

The house is very large. It was once a barn, I think, and then a school until it was finally professionally renovated as a house. At some point I may post some pictures but that will require a camera. I am hoping that Kathleen will be able to get a preiswert digital model that is relatively waterproof when she goes to Germany in January and February. That will be too late for this gig but maybe her Dad will be bringing his camera when he comes in December. He does great photos.

Our Spanish is getting no better because we are not using it much. We would like to get to know more locals but the language is still a barrier. It seems the only Spanish-language school is in Porlamar or San Juan Gregio, which means complicated travel each day. Commuting! However, we met a young man named Engly Gabriel Alfonso at the internet café. It came about when I leaned back in the chair I was sitting in, the leg collapsed and I was unceremoniously dumped on by back. Engly leapt to the rescue. He is in his early twenties, I imagine, extremely open and friendly and works in the early morning and late afternoon at the airport. His English is very good and he teaches it to school kids here in La Guardia. We are going to hire him to give us two hours of Spanish each afternoon starting as soon as we can arrange it. We’ll try it for a week and see how we like each other.

Today in the internet café – this seems to be an unofficial meeting place! - we also met a Danish couple (we met them without falling on our faces or backs). We immediately invited them for a beer this evening. They have a place here in the village though they are leaving for Europe soon and returning in January. We can exchange some life histories tonight and pick up tips about the village. They live right on the beach near the rock jetty. As I suspected, Soen says the real place to buy fish here is direct from the fishermen. Just go down to the boats in the morning. But the fish is not all that cheap: 12,000 Bolivars (approx. $6) for a five or six-pound bonito. But, on the other hand, it will easily feed four people with its tuna-like fillets and I can freeze part for later. I am looking forward to this!

This may be a small village but the Danish couple does not know Jens, the German guy at the other end of the beach.


This may give you a few laughs.

3-year-old Reese: "Our Father, Who does art in heaven, Harold is His name. Amen."

A little boy was overheard praying: "Lord, if you can't make me a better boy, don't worry about it. I'm having a real good time like I am."

After the christening of his baby brother in church, Jason sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car. His father asked him three times what was wrong. Finally, the boy replied, "That preacher said he wanted us brought up in a Christian home, and I wanted to stay with you guys."

I had been teaching my three-year old daughter, Caitlin, the Lord's Prayer for several evenings at bedtime. She would repeat after me the lines from the prayer. Finally, she decided to go solo. I listened with pride as she carefully enunciated each word, right up to the end of the prayer: "Lead us not into temptation," she prayed, "but deliver us from E-mail.

One particular four-year-old prayed, "And forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets."

A Sunday school teacher asked her children as they were on the way to church service, "And why is it necessary to be quiet in church?" One bright little girl replied, "Because people are sleeping."

Six-year-old Angie and her four-year-old brother, Joel, were sitting together in church. Joel giggled, sang, and talked out loud. Finally, his big sister had had enough. "You're not supposed to talk out loud in church." "Why? Who's going to stop me?" Joel asked. Angie pointed to the back of the church and said, "See those two men standing by the door? They're hushers."

A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons, Kevin 5, and Ryan 3. The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson. "If Jesus were sitting here, He would say, 'Let my brother have the first pancake, I can wait.' Kevin turned to his younger brother and said, "Ryan, you be Jesus!"

A father was at the beach with his children when the four-year-old son ran up to him, grabbed his hand, and led him to the shore where a seagull lay dead in the sand. "Daddy, what happened to him?" the son asked. "He died and went to Heaven," the Dad replied. The boy thought a moment and then said, "Did God throw him back down?"

A wife invited some people to dinner. At the table, she turned to their six-year-old daughter and said, "Would you like to say the blessing?" "I wouldn't know what to say," the girl replied. "Just say what you hear Mommy say," the wife answered. The daughter bowed her head and said, "Lord, why on earth did I invite all these people to dinner?"

And if you don't send this to at least 8 people --- who cares?

Friday, November 10, 2006

La Guardia, Isla Margarita, Friday, November 10, 2006

Getting settled in Venezuela

We are still getting sorted out here. La Guardia, where we are staying, is quite a way away from the touristy bits or even a supermarket. Things are pretty quiet here and this posed a problem for our predecessors as caretakers, David and Estela. There is no doubt that we are a bit isolated without transportation to Porlamar, the island’s main town and commercial centre. As cruisers we are fairly used to the quiet life, but we shall have to see just how bearable or unbearable it is here.

In their mid-30’s, David and Estela are Virginians though Estela is of part-Mexican descent. She is very beautiful and has a wonderful warm singing voice. David is a bass player and is in love with Latin American music. It is great to here them practising together. When they leave here next week after our handover period they will be heading back to Lima, Peru. They love that city and the cool musicians they have met there. Eventually, however, they will be heading back to small-town Virginia where they want to build an ecologically friendly house, start a family and found a cultural centre to build up the relationships with Latin-American musicians.

Although he favours terms like ‘cool’, ‘dude’ and ‘groovy’, David especially is both very aware politically and able to articulate his thoughts precisely. Both before and after the midterm elections in the USA earlier this week, we spent a lot of time after dinner in the balmy evenings or over morning coffee in hot political discussions, alternatively worrying that the elections were going to be stolen, that the voters had still not got how bad the monster they created in 2000 really was, or that the Democrats and Republicans were too much alike. The horror with which David and Estela (and indeed Kathleen too) have watched while their country has sunk to naked and unprovoked aggression abroad and the curtailment of political and civil liberties at home has been very difficult and frustrating for them. Apparently it got too much for a lot of other Americans too. (More on the topic below.)

One day we rented a little car from Jens, the resident German, an ex-yachty who has swallowed the anchor and now lives alone in a small house nearby. He picks up money by fishing and doing odd jobs. We spent the first few hours driving out to the arid and relatively empty western end of Isla Margarita before swinging back along the coast to spend a few hours at a mid-island beach (fabulous warm water of a lovely green colour). Two large sailboats passed by on the near horizon before disappearing around the point to San Juan Gregio (St John the Grey?), one of the attractive small harbours scattered around the island. It felt a little strange for us to be watching them from the shore!

We then made a swing by Playa del Agua, at the northeastern tip of the island, the main tourist beach (not crowded and very, very nice). We ended the trip with a frenetic visit to SIGO, a big-box retail operation near Porlamar. Horridly crowded around rush hour (rush hour!), American-level prices despite the duty-free status of the island and definitely a lot more dear than Ecuador.

Some observations about Venezuela and President Chavez

From what we have seen of Venezuela so far, - i.e., Caracas Airport and Isla Margarita, so not very much yet – it definitely looks more prosperous than Ecuador. Visually, of course, although there are mountains they are nothing like the Andes and the coastal areas are nothing like as tropical as Ecuador’s banana coast. There are also very few indigenous people around and there is a very strong African influence. Lots of pretty girls!

Gasoline is so cheap (20 cents a gallon) that all the taxis are monster 1980’s US-built barges. Cheap fuel is, I think, one way that the Chavez government spreads the oil wealth around (there are lots of other ways too.) This is totally comprehensible, of course; Ecuador does some of the same by pegging the price of diesel at about US$ 1.03 per gallon everywhere in the country. And it is also great to see the broad spectrum of the people get some direct benefits from the black gold.

Still, petroleum remains a finite resource both for Venezuela and the world, and making fuel so cheap only encourages wastage and pollution through those big cars, SUV’s, inefficient air-conditioners and appliances, etc.

Perhaps the fact that the wastage here is not greater is because, for one, despite cheap fuel only a still relatively-small percentage of the population actually own things like cars, air conditioners and appliances. The country is not as poor as Ecuador but definitely not as rich as the USA, Canada or Western Europe. Moreover, for whatever reason there seem to be a lot of intermittent power outages at least here on the island.

David and Estela (who speak Spanish well) confirm our impressions formed eaarlier that President Chavez is very popular and will certainly be re-elected in another election landslide in early-December. He got 60 percent of the popular vote the last time and may do even better this time around. For Venezolanos, Chavez is neither the mad man or the clown that he is sometimes painted as in the foreign press. He is a real person and the voters believe he is working on their behalf. He actually spends a lot of time on TV making the voters aware of the problems and selling his solutions. It is government-owned TV and I have no idea at all what the viewer ratings are. But David says Chavez is really impressive when he gets out his charts and his pointer and starts explaining things in un-patronising and entertaining detail, something that America politicians, for example, pointedly cannot or do not do (hard to imagine a commercial station giving any politician except perhaps occasionally the president any reasonable amount of air time.)

Americans (and Canadians, Europeans and other Latin American leaders) will have to get used to the fact that Chavez is popular, that he has been honestly and popularly mandated, that, until the USA ends its dependence upon imported oil (15 percent of USA oil imports come from here), the USA in fact needs Venezuela more than Venezuela needs the USA, and that Chavez is likely to be around for quite a while. The USA would be wise to mend fence. To demonize Chavez the way the USA has done with Fidel Castro for fifty years, a man who is popular across Latin America, is very short-sighted. Not that American foreign policy has been governed by anything much more than ignorance and arrogance lo these many decades! Is it likely to change?

Results USA midterm elections

For those of us who have been praying for the nightmare to end in the USA, for an end to the antideluvians’ hold on Congress and the pre-cambrians’ grip on the White House, the results of the mid-term Congressional elections come as rain in the desert. How long has it taken to even begin to learn that the ideas the neo-conservatives brought with them do not work.

The voters may have come to the realization that, internationally at least, they have failed. America is now seen as an arrogant bully abroad. Inside six years and remaining true to the principles of the Strategy for a New America Century, George W. Bush has increased the rate of international tension, the spread of nuclear weapons and the level of suspicion abroad and at home of any and indeed now of every American initiative in the world. The word is now a much more dangerous place – because of American aggression and the blowback from that aggression.

At home in the USA, the citizenry is slowly becoming aware – why has this taken so long? – that as their empire expands they are losing not only whatever respect they once had abroad but whatever civil and political rights they were born with. To top it off, as George & Co. wastes the economic patrimony, domestic society becomes not only more uncivil, more dictatorial, it is also becoming more polarized economically as the rich get richer and the poor increase in number. This began, of course, under previous presidents (both Democratic and Republican) but has received a strong kick from the Bush II administration and Republican Congress.

It is frequently stated that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. Perhaps that is one way to view Tuesday’s results. Certainly the Democratic politicians have been very, very slow to wake up and to provide an alternative. Too many Democrat Congressmen and Senators voted for the war, voted for the Patriot Acts, voted for the tax cuts, voted for torture; i.e., the whole neo-conservative agenda. Some are even spinning the election results as a vote for moderation when clearly the voters voted against the war and voted for the politicians who were outspoken.

Leadership can be rewarded. The Democrats should articulate a progressive social contract and they will find they have everybody but the selfish-rich and the corporations behind them. Just give a lead and finish the job! Send the liars packing. Listen to the voters and speak truth!

I am not a big fan of the Conservative (Steven Harper) Government in Ottawa. But I liked what happened when the Finance Minister closed a big tax loophole for Canadian corporations and the wealthy. I think they had found a way to shelter wealth and earnings in a quasi-trust or tax-free charitable foundation. It was clearly a dodge. The Finance Minister got rid of the loophole and said (more or less as follows), “Oh, come on! Everyone knows we have bills to pay, we have programmes that have to be financed. Everyone has to pay their fair share!”

That seems like almost too much common sense coming from a politician. But there you are! Maybe there were two political miracles this week!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Tuesday, 07 November 2006 (Election Day in the USA)

After spending several very interesting but tiring days in and near Riobamba, Ecuador, (around Mt. Chimborazo) with our friend Gerardo Chacon, and, with him, traveling by pickup truck high up into the Andes to visit economic development projects that he has initiated and furthered, we reluctantly leave Ecuador for six months. (The Andean projects will be the subject of a longer article I am preparing so will not write much here.)

Arriving in plenty of time for our Caracas flight about Santa Barbara Airline, we are surprised to find that we are first going to fly to Guayaquil. It appears that they do not have available in Quito a pilot qualified to fly over the Andes. So the plane has been left in Guayaquil. All Caracas passengers like ourselves are shunted onto a domestic TAME flight down to the coast and where we eventually join a Caracas flight.

That aside, however, the trip is unexceptional, the high point being seeing the major Andean peaks sticking out of broken cloud. What a stark contrast however between eating airline snacks and drinking red wine while hopping smoothly, efficiently and cleanly around various South-American airports and our travel by long-distance bus from Bahia de Caraquez through the coastal-banana plantations or up through the mountain passes to Quito or Riobamba at over 3,000 metres. Even starker the contrast to the ‘camonietta’ ride over washboard roads and through high-altitude banks of rain clouds up to well over 4,000 metres (above the tree line) with Gerardo to the tiny, poverty-stricken indigenous villages.

While shuffling around the airports we meet Luis José Iturriaga, who is Business Development Officer for Coldwell Banker, the US-based real-estate company. He travels all over Latin America setting up franchises and the like. Very likeable, friendly and cheerful man and informative not only about life and politics here but very helpful as well to get us through the airport at Caracas and onto an overbooked flight to Isla Margarita. We would probably still be sitting at Caracas and paying for hotel rooms but for Luis.

We had been seeing a lot of residential building in Ecuadorian cities, and Luis was able to tell us what has been driving this building boom. First, emigrant workers are sending money home to their families in Ecuador from Spain and the USA. Remittances are now the largest source of foreign exchange (after petroleum) for Ecuador. A lot of the money is going into building large and, in my opinion, mostly very gauche mansions for when the Ecuadorian worker finally comes home and gathers his family about him. The houses are built in stages so there will be a lot of raw buildings around for some years to come.

The second main driving force is the America baby-boomers. The retirement buck can be stretched a lot farther in Ecuador or elsewhere in South America. Many retired persons who would have trouble living on their retirement nest-egg in the USA can not only build a large house here but can also even afford a housekeeper. In countries like Venezuela the health care is not only affordable, it is totally free.

Finally landed at modern Palomar Airport on Isla Margarita, we negotiate for a night taxi ride to La Guardia. All the taxis seem to be huge gas-guzzlers from the 1980s. This is not remarkable when you consider that gasoline cost about 20 cents a gallon! We had already been burned in changing money at the Caracas Airport. You get a much better rate by changing dollars with one of the flying dealers at the terminals. But you have to watch that they do not palm a twenty-dollar bill or two while the trade is taking place and you are a little distracted. We think that happened to us. So, although we got a much better rate – 2500 Bolivars per dollar instead of the official Bs. 2150 - we also think we were ripped off for twenty dollars.

With this experience in mind we are on the qui-vive at Palomar. The first car in the taxi rank does not have a taxi sign on top and I refuse to take him. The next guy is hesitant about jumping the queue until I insist. I forget to negotiate the price before I get inside and we are moving. He starts at twenty-five dollars and we wind up at twenty. Later we hear that that is a pretty good rate for a night taxi to La Guardia.

Arriving at Casa Venamor we find it barred and shuttered up tight though with an outside light burning. The village streets are empty. The air is warm and soft if, after the Pacific coast, slightly muggy. We wonder if, since it is still only mid-evening, David and Estela, the American couple who have been staying at the house till now, might be out somewhere. After a bit of door-pounding, however, we hear a voice, bolts being withdrawn and doors being opened. They welcome us warmly into the house.

We keep them up until late drinking beer and exchanging stories to get acquainted. Then about midnight, tired and stiff from our days of travel, we fall into the comfortable beds at the top of the house with the fan and the air conditioner blowing away like a flight of helicopters. We hardly hear them.