Gastronomy, Ornithology, and Machine Guns
Despite my unlimited resources of that elusive virtue, "patience", I've reached my limit with my computer. Hence this latest blog update will not include any photos, which, sadly, were really good.
Yesterday, I returned from a week in Venezuela with my most intrepid adventurous friend Lori. Lori has lived all over the world: Singapore, um San Diego, Venezuela, and is soon moving to Tokyo. She was making a mockery of "touring" travel way back when I first moved to Singapore and was booking weekend "tours" to every touristy place I could find on a map. While I was being force-fed jade at the ubiquitous jade markets in Anywhere, Asia, she was talking to blind fortune tellers in Burma, or diving off the coast of Anywhere, Asia. Once I came to my senses about how to travel, she and I ventured together.
I flew to Caracas to meet Lori and some of her other friends for a weekend in the western countryside. We'd planned to spend three days bird-watching, something I'd never done before and never had any burning desire to do, and hiking. We did both, and so much more.
After a lucky encounter at the domestic airport in Caracas where the power went back on (this makes sense if you've ever been to a place where the power sometimes goes out, and for long periods of time), we headed for Merida near the Colombian border. Only the most experienced pilots in Venezuela are able to fly this route; the plane pretty much drops out of the sky as you begin your descent into the small mountainous town.
Six of us met our guide, who drove us in a zebra-painted van (wouldn't the pics be nice right about now?) to the mouth of a long, winding lake. We bought cold beers, hopped in a motorboat, and set sail to our evening accommodations, which was a house propped up on stilts, sitting in the middle of the lake. We grilled local steaks, and when I say "we", I am referring to most of us lounging on the tiny pier with a rum-and-Coke in hand, watching someone else do the grilling. Once it got dark, we hopped back in the boat (yes, with rum-and-Cokes), and set out into the inky black night, whirring quietly through the water, to observe the sleeping parrots, egrets, and monkeys. Suddenly, our guide dropped flat onto the front of the boat, reached into the water, and pulled out a miniature alligator. "Crikey!" he proclaimed, in perfect Steve Irwin fashion, "look at the size of those teeth!" And so we did, at a comfortable distance of course.
The next morning we rose at dawn, ate the saltiest substance I've ever eaten before, other than salt, and set sail again in hopes of seeing the rare birds our guide had promised. Without any further adieu, we saw one of the world's rarest birds, the screaming chauna. Now I'm not sure why this bird is so rare, but I can tell you this. Ornithologists from around the world seek out this bird. One orno in particular came to the very place in which we were boating, met with the very same guide with whom we were traveling, saw this screamer chauna on his first morning out, and promptly left. It was all he needed to see. It's supposedly that amazing. Now I say "supposedly" because really the only birds I'm impressed with are the ones that are served with some sort of foie gras, but I have to admit this was pretty exciting.
The following day, we hiked into what is called the Andean Cloud Forest. Jodi and I finished our hike earlier than the others, so we began to chat with the locals. Jodi's Spanish is perfect, so we set about asking them about Chavez and Bush. They laughed, answered a few questions (which you'll find the answers to in my upcoming article for the Independent in Canada), and offered us beers. We snapped some photos, watched the kids play "beisbol", and relaxed with the backdrop of the vast countryside. It was an unforgettable moment.
All too soon, we were back in Caracas. Not to disappoint me, Lori suggested a gastronomic tour of her city. I quickly obliged. We started out unhealthy but tasty, coasted into unhealthy and un-tasty, and finished gourmet. First course was "cachapas", a fried corn pancake filled with fresh handmade white cheese. To drink, a "mora" or blackberry, smoothie. Very tasty. Next up "chocolates picantes" and hot chocolate with pound cake. Chocolates picantes are pieces of chocolate with fiery red peppers in the chocolate cream center. Divine. Then, and I gulp as I write, "perros calientes". This is where the photo would be worth a thousand words. Instead, I'll try to list the ingredients, as many as I can anyway: hot dog (wet, under-cooked, and wrinkly), soggy bun, mayo, ketchup, creamy white-ish guacamole, lettuce, cole slaw, salsa, hot sauce, pink sauce, some other sauce...and...drum roll...potato chips. Sure, you're chuckling at this now, but you wouldn't be chuckling if you were an American in a country where the government hates Americans, and you've told the errm "chefs" at this roadside stall that you're writing a food article on Venezuela. No, you'd be inhaling that dog! In the name of diplomacy, my friends, I inhaled that dog. Well, as much as I could, then I politely asked for a to-go container and plopped the remainder in the trash. That night Jodi cooked a feast of salmon, cous cous, and a chocolate tart. To say the least, it cleansed the palate of the lingering hot dog aftertaste.
Saying goodbye was not easy, especially when I hadn't met Chavez, or any one of the people in his government that I'd hoped to meet. Instead, I opted to drive in an unmarked taxi to the Presidential Palace and take photos. Only photos of Chavez's white house were not allowed. So, I flirted with the guards (what's not to like about a man with a machine gun?) while, unbeknownst to them, I snapped photos. I don't know if they caught on or not, but they did ask me out. That's when the machine gun becomes a little less intriguing. In any case, it's a shame I can't post these pics, or I'd not have had to write these thousand words.