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.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Thursday, 19 April 2007

After delivering Jens, Barbara and two Swiss guests to the ferry at Punta de Piedras on Tuesday, we use Jens’s car to run some errands today. A shopping trip to SIGO (ugly) has been rather long overdue, we pick up my new visa and drive on to the garden centre in La Asunción to pick up 21 bags of potting soil to fill up all the new planters we have on the patio. We still have to hit Playa el Agua in the faint hope that the flash memory we left sticking in a computer at a cyber-café there last week might not have walked off with subsequent customer.

Given that the weather is perfect (it’s always perfect here) and that Kathleen has not seen much of the island, we decide to take a side trip and have lunch at Playa Cuacuco (between Pampatar and el Agua). Cuacuco has nothing like the tourist activity that Playa el Agua has, Margarita’s best-known beach. Cuacuco is also very shallow for quite a long way out and so, although there is lots of wave activity, you are still in shallow waters and there is no surge at all, which for some people can be a little intimidating. It’s just a nice cosy, clean and safe beach with a local atmosphere and a few cheery little beach restaurants amongst coconut palms.

After ordering a fish lunch we are approached by Walter, a young Columbian who is one of the pearl sellers on this beach. Every beach and tourist focal point on Margarita is busy with sellers of pearls and other jewellery. Kathleen doesn’t really like shopping of any sort and trying to select jewellery is an agony. But, because the prices are so attractive (a fresh-water pearl choker runs at about $15, longer ones correspondingly dearer), we decide to stock up a little for Christmas and birthdays in the family. Pearl fishing Margarita style.

The other day, Jens and Barbara bought some medium sized pearl chains and had them tied together to make quite long chains. Jens also had two small white pearl bracelets made for his little girls. The pearl seller will went off, sat down somewhere and rearranged the pearls on ths spot.

As always, if you get involved with the sellers, you can enjoy the experience and they can always find something to fit your taste. The prices are all about the same whichever seller you decide to deal with. Of course, you can haggle. I reckon if you are getting real pearls, even if low quality ones, how much haggling do you need to do if it’s only going to cost you $15? But, on the other hand, you have to play the game a bit just for form’s sake and to show some respect for the merchant.

Walter and I dicker. We are buying several chokers and he quotes me the sum of the individual prices. I scoff politely and make a reasonable but not aggressive counter-offer. He doesn’t want to budge so I turn the tables on him. “OK, then! Give me your best take-it-or-leave-it price,” I tell him. Now he’s the one with the dilemma. If he gets it wrong he might lose the sale. He rubs his chin and mentally calculates. Of course, it would have been better to start with this approach because my offer price is still on the table. He is not going to be stupid enough to go below that. But he will have to come down a bit.

Sure enough, he names a price and the deal is done. He pulls a zip-lock-type bag from his backpack and the merchandise is packaged and delivered. Just at that moment, the waitress brings our lunch of fried red snapper (pargo) and catalina. Walter withdraws to the little group of young sellers under the palms no doubt to brag about his deal.

After a swim, we take a slow scenic drive up the beach road from Cuacuco to Playa el Agua. We make a brief stop at the cyber-café where the manager had been keeping the flash memory for us. We putter along the coast road some more until we reached the Dunes, that otherworldly hotel and time-share complex along the coast. Kathleen had never been there either. So we pop in there to check out the book exchange (mostly just beach junk) and to have a free drink at the beach bar (if you go there, just drive up to the entrance barrier like you belong there and they will normally just open the gate. They don’t charge for drinks and cocktails at the beach bar.) The guests are mostly English and Continental Europeans. I listen to one loud and outgoing Brit but, beyond recognising that he was speaking in Thames Estuary Speak, I am almost completely unable to decipher what he had to say. How about that! Spanish is now easier for me than Cockney!

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Pickup trucks have been going around for several days announcing that there will be a mercado on Plaza Bolívar today, i.e. at the plaza between us and the parish church. Last night somebody was setting up marquises as shade and a erecting a sound system as well. While the padre is still in the middle of morning mass around 0830 the sound system ius turned on full blast to entertain the line-up of people around the plaza for cheap staple food. People, mostly but not exclusively women and children, are already lined up around the square. The priest gets through the rest of the mass as quickly as he can.

This is part of Chávez’s Misione to the hungry. Organisers in red Chavista t-shirts or from Municipalio Diáz (our local municipality’s name) sell rice, oil, corn floor, sugar, canned goods, and even chicken at vastly reduced prices. There doesn’t seem to be any ID necessary and no one seems to be assuring that no hoarding is going on. First come, first served. It is probably better just to get the foodstuffs distributed and not to worry too much about controls. On the other hand, I do not see people like Chilo or Gustavo in line: there is nobody in line who is as down and out as those guys: they are often reduced to begging for change or food. Maybe they can’t even get themselves organised or maybe they don’t want to be seen as a man in line with women for food. But I do see several 6 or 7-member families (women and children only) leaving the plaza, each with a standard plastic shopping bag with food in it. More staff is unloading wheel chairs, walking frames and similar items to be handed out later.


La Guardia, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, 15 April 2007

Carol, our landlady, has just left today after a ten-day visit. In addition to having a vacation from her therapist job up in Portland, Oregon, she wanted to get the house ready for the new tenants. The latest news is that we are leaving here about 21 May for Ecuador. A retired couple named Stuart and Diane have rented the place for initially one year and will move down from new Mexico at the beginning of June.

Carol, who is a non-stop worker, was putting things into shape. Not even the heavy head and chest cold that I passed on to her seemed to slow her down really. One of the house improvements was the purchase of a good used automatic washing machine. It is tock-tocking away in the utility room off the patio as I write. For some reason, the water pipes to the utility room do not work. But it is a cinch to run the garden hose over from the tap next to the outdoor shower. What a convenience!

Carol got a number of things repaired and we made a monumental trip to the garden centre to buy more pots and plants for the patio. (Here's a picture of St. Carol of the Flowers seated in the back seat of the car and surrounded by plants.) We still need to buy more potting earth (the earth around here is pure sand) and to fill up the unglazed, hand-made earthenware pots that she bought with Jens up in the hills at La Cercado, the pottery village. They were no more expensive than machine-made pots but look so much more interesting. By the time we leave here we won’t want to abandon our “garden”.

La Guardia, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, April 14, 2007

A hot, windless and sleepy Saturday afternoon. Sitting and snoozing inside our walled patio, I can hear the sounds of the village around us. I am now able easily to differentiate the newer cars, mostly silent, from the big old 1980s models, rumbling and often noisy because their mufflers are gone. The old stake trucks when they go by are deafening.

On weekends there are more hawkers driving around the village streets. They each have a particular call. The plantano seller (i.e. cooking bananas) has a tinny-sounding bullhorn and you can hear him wending his way towards you calling, “Plantenos, Plantenos, Plantenos, Amarillos” really quickly and over and over again. Sometimes he will carry on a little conversation with people on the street using his microphone so everybody gets to hear what he has to say. His wife and one or two children are on the back of the truck. They are a very poor, darkly tanned and somewhat rough lot to look at but are always friendly.

At some point a truck goes through the length of the village blowing its horn. It’s the propane lorry. If you need propane that is your signal to put you tank out on the pavement. He will make a sweep back to exchange a full one for your empty. A 20-pound tank costs about Bs. 4,000 (about a U.S. dollar). If you didn’t hear the truck horn on the first pass, you’ll soon hear the crashing metallic clanking of empty tanks being thrown up onto the metal bed of the truck. Still time to rush out for a refill. Another truck goes through calling out something that turns out to be “Aluminio! Aluminio! Aluminio!” They’re collecting aluminium cans.

Since Easter there has been a regular chink-chink sound coming from the church square. When I check it out I find stone masons using hand chisels and hammers to widen cracks that have appeared in the walls of the one-story parish church. One of the men tells me that, although the paint is still in good condition, the sun and the salt air have opened up cracks in the plaster that are now being filled. Later the church will be repainted. Churches everywhere in Venezuela look in very good shape. They always have a fresh coat of paint. I know that the Catholic hierarchy was initially very opposed to Chávez. With the changing of the guard in Venezuela including the leading bishops, however, and perhaps rather more diplomacy on the part of the Chávez government, the church is looking more kindly on Socialism for the 21st Century. I have seen renovation works over at Valle de Espiritu Santa, the island’s pilgrimage church in the hills, that is being paid for by the provincial government.

Then you hear the chicha sellers. One of them has a rather new four-wheel beach-buggy that he rides while towing his chicha trolley. Chicha is a sweet rice and milk-based drink (rice, milk, sugar and vanilla) that in my humble opinion tastes disgustingly sweet. The whole time he is driving around town, the first chichi man toots his rubber-ball horn like Clarabell on The Howdy Doody Show. The second seller, on the other hand, has a recording of some European children’s song. The tape, however, is really worn out and the sound system is very bad. On weekdays you always hear the chicha men around noon when the junior school down the street is letting out. They station themselves outside hoping that mothers picking up their kiddies will give them a treat. A lot of them do. On weekends chicha men head for the beaches.

I have written elsewhere that village life in La Guardia, is very out-of-doors. You hear the children in the park or on the way to and from the beach after school in the late afternoon and evenings. You hear the neighbours calling out to each other. There are always people of all ages around between sunup and 2200. Señor Oswaldo’s ancient father, in his eighties and, though a trifle feeble, now miraculously healed after his abdominal-cancer operation, sits up under the shade trees for several hours every afternoon and evening. He is usually joined by somebody. When I go out for bread in the morning or head over to the cyber-cafe, there are always two old men, next-door neighbours, sitting on folding chairs in front of their houses opposite the church and the square. They are only a foot or two apart so they can chat and make comments on the passing scene. But each keeps to his own property. I always wave to the elders and greet them with a Buenos dias, Buenas tarde or Buenas noche whenever I walk by. Sometimes I call out “Óla ”. They always wave back and say “Bueenooooo” in that local dialect that stretches the vowels and drops all the S’s. Sometimes they say “Hepela!”, which is local and close to meaning “Hi”, I think.

On weekend afternoons the beach is usually filled with families and kids. We don’t have a fancy beach here like Playa el Agua or Playa el Caribe. No restaurants and bars here. It’s definitely bring your own beer. But the kids seem to be having a good time anyway, the boys turning cartwheels in the sand to impress the girls or all of them swimming out to the anchored fishing peñeros and diving off them again. Sometimes a pickup game of baseball gets started in the sand. They stay out all day when they can. Almost nobody wears a hat here except perhaps labourers who are in the sun all day. Men don’t seem to go bald here either and you have to be pretty old to be grey or white. The kids just get darker and darker from being outside all day. Although they marry young and age quickly from having a poor diet and, in the case of women, from having many children, when they are young they are a beautiful people and the children all seem to be gorgeous.

In between noisy cars or trucks there are minutes of silence when the various birds that come into our garden make their presence known. I don’t know all their names but we get lots of humming birds. They love the blossoms on the aloe verde and the bougainvillea. There are some lovely dove-like birds that live in the perfectly formed date palm next to the house and that sing wonderfully for much of the day. There are jet black birds with yellow eyes and there are yellow breasted birds of various sizes. Although they have never landed in the patio, in the early morning and at sunset several parrots fly chattering loudly around the house. I think they live in one of the big mango trees over near the beach.

Early afternoons, the music at the beer bar down the street strikes up. Over Easter, the government banned sales of alcoholic beverages on Easter Weekend. Clever boots like ourselves stocked up in advance. But the bars were closed and our street was much quieter at night. I swear the bar only has three CDs and we have been hearing them in the distance now for five months. Someone told me that the ban on alcohol sales reduced the death rate on the highways during Semana Santa by half.

Around sundown Luiz, the Chicken Man, opens up his fried chicken place just over the wall from us. If you are hungry even the smell of the grease is attractive. Go out there about 2100 and all the tables set out in the evening darkness around the dark-blue shack will be full of neighbours enjoying their meal of chicken, coleslaw and arepas, the local white-corn, unleavened bread and washed down with a Polar Light, the local beer. The people are quiet but you can hear the low conversational voices over the wall.

If Socialism for the 21st Century actually achieves its announced goals, which are to increase the material well-being of poor Venezuelans and to turn Venezula into a modern, rich country, books will be written about the old life in La Guardia and other fishing villages. They will be books like Akenfield, Ronald Blythe’s oral history of Suffolk farming villages in the 1950’s just as the old manual and mixed farming was disappearing to be replaced by large monoculture industrial farms with lots of heavy equipment, petroleum-based fertilisers, fungicides and the like and, of course, lots of E.U. subsidies. The villages are now emptied out of local rural life and have become at best rural dormitories for city workers. Here o Margarita, if you go to the big up-market shopping malls like Sambil at the other end of the island, it is indistinguishable from any American, European or Canadian shopping mall. The food court has large pictures of the traditional open wooden fishing peñeros that are actually anchored off our beach in their dozens but which have largely disappeared at the well-to-do end of the island. The kids will only know about fishermen from old photos. The living at that end of the island is anyway carefully segregated by economic and social class, the better off and the foreign tourists ensconced behind walls and gates and security guards. They have nothing to do with the real Venezuela. It’s really Newmarket-upon-Caribbean or suburban Los Angeles but with more walls.

Monday, April 16, 2007


If you, like me, are almost speechless at the disaster that is occurring in the United States of America as ell as in the Middle East, you need to read this article by Lee Iacocca.