Saturday, August 11, 2007


I'm back home after a whistle-stop tour of Venezuela during the week. It's nice to be back to more "reasonable" temperatures where I can walk 100 metres without sweating heavily. Unlike Niall, I had the sense to take shorts with me, but when you are walking around in a suit during work-time, the heat is stifling.

First was Caracas. I've touched on it already: a chaotic pile of roads, concrete, heat, and confusion. It was interesting to see, especially with a local guide (my company's Venezuelan representative), but I can't say that there seemed like a lot to attract the tourist. This was summed up by the reaction to my comment that the large park opposite the hotel looked nice: "yes, it's lovely. But don't go in, it's too dangerous". The city had a lovely location, and an awesome approach through the hills from the airport, but it felt to me that it is a place where you would stop for a night on your way to one of the Caribbean resorts that attract most of the tourists to the country. It's a big city though, at 5 million and still growing rapidly.

Politics was everywhere in Caracas, and the rest of Venezuela; political murals and slogans were seen wherever there was a wall with no commercial advertising. In the UK, and most other "first world" countries, we are used to politics of subtlety, of nuance, of slightly different policies. Here it was politics in the raw: you are for Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution, or you are against him. And if you are against him, life can be difficult. I'm not going to attempt to analyse the politics, as I would surely look silly, and some of the stuff that I have heard is very one-sided. It was, however, apparent that politics had entered every area of life and the country: the purpose of our visit was to meet with the national oil company, PDVSA (the second-largest in the world behind Saudi Aramco), which had become very politicised in recent years. I got the impression there that non-support for Chavez should not be open, and that if it was your career could be curtailed.

We mustn't forget that it is a developing country, though, and that Chavez has had a positive impact on the growth of his country into a power in the region. Despite the new-found wealth (fuelled by the high oil price), it was still obviously a long way behind the "developed West" in terms of infrastructure and facilities. The occasionally-shambolic atmosphere can be charming though, and (like Malaysia) it is interesting to see a country in the process of development: new buildings and building sites everywhere, the clash of old and new, rampant commercialism, and the optimistic nature of the people. The skyscraper in the picture to the left was symptomatic of the current state of the country: this is the tallest building in the country, and housed some government departments. In 2004, a fire broke out which the authorities were not able to control or even put out. They had to let it burn, and it took out most of the building, leaving behind a shell. If they had had the infrastructure to deal with the fire, it may have been put out, but instead they are having to outlay huge amounts of money to rebuild and repair the symbolic building.

And so to Puerto la Cruz. Joined onto the city of Barcelona, this city in the east (in the vicinity of Margarita and Trinidad) is both a Caribbean tourist resort and the location of the main PDVSA building. This was much more like what I was expecting from a Caribbean Latin-American country: low-rise buildings; shacks near the beach; battered old American cars; cool Spanish music with trumpets; sea, beach, beer, and heat. We spent a couple of pleasant days in Puerto la Cruz, had a couple of good meetings, saw some lovely sunsets, paddled in the Caribbean, and ate some nice seafood.

Venezuelan food was interesting. There was a distinct lack of spice, surprising for the Caribbean, which was made up for by almost everything having what to western tastes was an extreme amount of salt. I do like to season well and properly when I cook (something lots of people are afraid to do in this strange world of health scares and different diet advice every other day), but one or two of the dishes that I ate were, unfortunately, slightly spoiled by the salt. Otherwise, the food was pleasant: seafood and meat with fried and boiled plantain, yucca, and other local specialities. The influence of Spain was (unsurprisingly) everywhere, but many other food cultures were present as well. The American influence dominated, through McD, KFC, Domino's, and Papa John's; also present was sushi (which seems to be turning into the world's favourite food), which I had a couple of times and was very nice. The alcoholic drinks were your bog standard "local beer" that you will find anywhere in the world, but I did enjoy the fact that, rather incongruously for an equatorial country, the most popular beer was called Polar and featured a polar bear as its logo.

The final stop on our trip was Maracaibo, the large oil town on the shores of South America's largest lake, also called Maracaibo. This is where it really all started for Venezuela: in the 1920s coffee was their main export; overnight, after the discovery of massive oil fields beneath the lake, oil was suddenly bringing the country 10 times more money than coffee. I don't actually have very much to say about the place, as I was only there for 15 hours or so. What did strike me was the heat: it was hot, very hot. The hotel was nice as well...

So that was Venezuela. despite the positive and negative sides that I have mentioned, one thing stood out throughout: the people were friendly, welcoming, hospitable and polite. The country is clearly a racial melting-pot, and (in the middle and lower classes at least) there seemed to be a genuine respect and warmth between all people, whether they be a cleaner or an oil executive. The language barrier was much larger than I expected: fluent English was very rare, and even at a huge international company like PDVSA only a few people spoke good English. It's likely that I will return, and if so I will have to learn some more Spanish if I am going to manage to do anything properly.

My favourite moment of the trip came during a conversation with the husband of our Venezuelan representative over a beer, which showed that there are two sides to every historical story. Talking about Venezuelan history, he mentioned the "famous English pirate" Sir Walter Raleigh. That's not exactly what we hear in history here, is it?

Back to life in Scotland then, with only my Venezuelan coffee and chocolate as souvenirs. Those and a few mosquito bites on my legs: hopefully I haven't returned with malaria as a bonus gift...

There are more pictures on my flickr pages.

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Blogger Jenny said...

a.) I think you're right - sushi does appear to be the world's current food of choice. I, however, hate it.

b.) The polar bear beer reminds me of LOST.

10:05 pm  

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