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Guest: Maracaibo, Venezuela

the skyline of downtown Maracaibo, Venezuela
With a population of 2,225,000, Maracaibo is Venezuela's second largest city.
Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Dirty Harry in Maracaibo
By Frank Mazer

he gun he was pointing at me was big barreled. I had just entered my apartment complex in Maracaibo, Venezuela, through the back entrance. Through two iron gates requiring two different keys. Past the 10 foot high wall intentionally littered with broken bottles on top of it to stop those inclined to climb. It was night time. It was dark, except for reflections of lights from nearby buildings. Fences with razor wire were everywhere around us, meant to keep intruders out. Now, in this moment, I was the intruder and I was seeing the gun. The holder was angry.

I came around the corner and startled him. The armed guard for the building saw a dark figure appear suddenly from around the corner and he immediately went for his gun. I had visions of the tiny paragraph in a newspaper back in the states telling of the mistaken identity shooting of the American in Maracaibo. The thought also occurred to me that he could easily be using the gun for other reasons. Perhaps, as I had been warned could happen, he had decided it was more lucrative to discard his job as a guard and now he’d earn more through a kidnapping of a “wealthy” foreigner? My heart pounded. The adrenalin flowed. The gun grew darker and larger. It looked like something “Dirty Harry” had wielded. I stood frozen - in tropical Maracaibo.

location map of Maracaibo
Maracaibo on the top let hand corner. Map courtesy of Google.com.

Maracaibo was once a thriving oil capital for foreign corporations. It remains an oil center. Not so cosmopolitan. Modern buildings grace parts of the downtown. Steak houses are interspersed with the local flavor of small dance clubs in far less modern edifices. The city sits on a large, beautiful blue bay lined in places by the condos of those who are “better off” economically. I have not been in one of these. I was fortunate to be provided with a small, old apartment by my employer. At this time the city had become known as the most dangerous city in Venezuela. This may have been some sort of distinction akin to being the most gluttonous banker on Wall Street. Kidnappings of foreigners for ransom abounded. Unfortunately, recent word was out that ransom paid or not, the victims were often returned in a dead state.

bridge across Lake Maracaibo
Photo courtesy of Venezuela Tourism

On the other hand, the friendliness of many of the local folks abounded in many of the local small corner shops. Most were happy to speak to me about their cousins in the states in a combo of English and Spanish. They especially enjoyed talking baseball. Hugo Chavez was not a topic of conversation. It was clear that many saw him as caring for the poor and standing up for his country. The other half saw it differently. It was their country, their people and my chosen responsibility to remain quiet. The authorities never bothered me. They seemed to welcome me with a wry smile. Perhaps, in their mind, they were thinking …“stupid American – keep your eyes open.”

houses along edge of Lake Maracaibo
Photo courtesy of Google.com.

Upon arrival I’d heard the tales. Such as the story of the young American employee, dressed “down”, with frayed shorts and holy t-shirt, who approached the local corner shop one day, passed the old, sick homeless fellow on the pavement and then suddenly found a knife at his throat held by the same old fellow who whisked him into a thundering 1960'a American vehicle driven by some young fellows. He was a lucky one. He kicked out the window a few miles down the road and leapt to safety at 50 mph while skidding on the pavement. A cell phone call to the employer led to his rescue. A call to the police would have been an exercise in futility. Whether Wall Street or rutted street in a favela of Venezuela, it seemed the authorities were not interested in taking any action against out of control thieves. I could only chuckle at the parallels. A thief by any other name. And so I told myself to be vigilant as I walked any local sidewalk.

floating church, Maracaibo
Maracaibo's floating church. Photo courtesy of Google.com.

Presently, in the night, outside the apartment, facing the gun, I fumbled, in my mind, for some appropriate words to say in Spanish. Adrenalin caused a speech block. Or it just put me in touch with how pathetic my grasp of the Spanish language was. I created the masterpiece of “hola, como estas?” It occurred to me that this may allow him, in this darkness, to recognize me as a resident he knows. Hopefully this was a good thing. Perhaps he’d recall my sharing fruit, coffee, sandwiches previously. Or he’d be resentful of my crumbs.

It worked. He looked intently at me for a moment. A moment which seemed to last a month. Then he shared a “hola” and a nod. He pointed “Dirty Harry” to the side and he turned around to stare into the darkness. For the moment, I was on my way to the door of my apartment. Still wondering what he was considering, I walked past him and he watched me intently.

In my mind I wondered about the terrible poverty he had known. I unlocked two more gates leading to my door. That night, I lay on the mattress with a busy mind, frequent sounds of the loud popping backfires of old vehicles, creating a rhythm in the night.

Or were they really the sound of autos backfiring…?

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FEEDBACK FOR PATTI

I enjoy your newsletters -and particularly Patti Nickell's article about the 'Pudding Club' in the Cotswold's. An old friend of mine is taking a holiday there this year and plans to try their Jam Roly Poly and Spotted Dick - amongst many!

--- John & Maggie - UK

FEEDBACK FOR JULIO

The way I read this article, you stayed at the "Breeze and Waves". Do you have any pictures of the cottages, and would you recommend to some first time visitors to Caramoan?

--- Richard Simons, Stockton, CA

Hi Richard,

Breeze and Waves was still under construction when I stayed there in Feb. 2010. It should be finished by now. You can see pictures of the resort on this page. We got to stay in one of the small cottages in the picture. I'll recommend it to budget travelers but you might want to look at other options. We chose it because of its location right by the beach. You can try other resorts in the Caramoan town proper (you have to get a ride to get to the beach and the jump-off point to go island-hopping but it's a relatively short distance). There are also two higher end resorts located on a cove and very near the islands: Gota Village Resort (unfortunately there is something wrong with their website right now) and its twin resort Hunongan Cove. Caramoan is a relatively new tourism development so resorts are just now being built.

You can go to this site for a good list of choices for accommodations in Caramoan.

I should add that it might be good to go to Caramoan (and almost anywhere in the Philippines) during the dry season from December to May. June to November are the typhoon months and sometimes typhoons will still come during early December.

Julio

* * * * *

Hi, I'm planning to go to Caramoan this coming May. Would you know the number of Breeze and Waves Cottages? Thanks!

--- Ann, Manila, Philippines

Hi Ann,

Breeze and Waves' phone number is 0908-2911072. Look for Freddie. Hope you have a grand time at Caramoan!

Julio

FEEDBACK FOR WENDY

For Nature's Playground: The South Island of New Zealand

Hi Wendy,

In winter, Heritage Heights Apts. now offers free shuttle service to and from Queenstown 24/7 to guests without cars. We own a 7-passenger 4-wd Toyota Highlander used specifically to taxi guests up and down the hill during winter months. We also run advance purchase winter promotions which include a 4-wd rental.

If any of your readers head over this direction, I will enjoy extending Heritage Heights hospitality!!

Cheers

--- Ailey, Owner, Queenstown, NZ

* * * * *

New Zealand text and pix top drawer! Almost as good as making the trip. ( but one still wants to. . . ) Full of useful detail. Only trouble with the website: It's tough figuring out which feedback goes with which article, and the more there are, the tougher it gets!

--- Ken W., Camarillo CA

Thanks Ken..."álmost" is right, you really have to experience the South Island firsthand. Granted this piece is long, but still all I can think about is how much I left out! I agree abut the relevancy factor re the feedback--it can be confusing...sometimes I have a "Wait a minute...what?" moment myself.

Thanks for writing,

Wendy

* * * * *

Okay Wendy, from now on whenever you book your travel, please reserve space for me. I will carry your luggage, bring you cold drinks, massage your shoulders, and change the film in your camera (oops, I guess you don't have to do that anymore). Wonderful ideas and recommendations. Can you get to New Zealand from Boston in less than a week?

--- Carl A., South Easton, MA

Ha ha ha Carl, you're quite the comedian! But you'd be surprised how short that flight feels. I suspect Qantas isn't the only airline who's figured out that 3 movies, 2 full meals, lots of snacks and a complimentary travel pack (eye mask, warm socks and neck pillow) equals a quiet, well-behaved cabin. It really isn't bad. Just fly direct--pick the shortest flight w/ no lengthy layovers and you'll be fine. Re: signing on as my Super Sherpa...why not? I think you know I seldom travel in anything less than Party mode. There's just that pesky background check...

Thanks for writing,

Wendy

For Excellence Riviera Cancun:

Wendy, I truly enjoyed your info especially since we leave in a week to celebrate my 50th Birthday. Was it necessary to make reservations at the restaurants? Was there a dress code for the restaurants? What would you recommend not missing while there? Was the spa experience worth it? Did you travel away from the resort while there? Thanks,

--- Kim P. Fuquay, Varina, NC

Hi Kim.

Sorry for the delay in responding...you had heavy competition with the holidays. Reservations at Excellence restaurants are not necessary and you will not find a wait. The dress code is basically no bathing suits and flip-flops...with a decided a mix of atmospheres. Mostly the open-air beachside spots are super casual, the rest slightly more formal. Truly, as long as you are clothed, I don't think you'd be turned away anywhere, though most people seemed to enjoy dressing up at night...I suspect more for their own pleasure than any sense of decorum.

The spa experience was worth it, though my favorite part wasn't the actual massage. The precursor was a 45 min. or so rotation from sauna to a series of (kind of wild) water jets which was very different and very cool, not just for women. In its' entirety, and with the serenity of the beach/champagne/strawberries, it was memorable.

We did not travel away from the hotel this trip, but the hotel is very helpful in arranging day excursions to fit your desires and you do not have to book these until you arrive.

Have a great time!

--- Wendy

FEEDBACK FOR NINO

I enjoyed Nino's contribution, since we all read about the frightening terrorist attack. Having travelled somewhat through India years ago, I am continually impressed with this country and the gentle spiritual aspects of this nation. Some day I look forward to going back. Nino has encouraged me. Thank you!

--- Yoka Y., Westlake Village, CA

FEEDBACK FOR RUSH & CHUCK

Dear Mr.s/counselors Brown and Koro,

Thank you for a very informed and succinct article on motorcycle accidents and the law. It inspired me to think about getting a motorcycle, but not have an accident. But, if I do I am now well informed with the basics of what to do providing I do not perish in the accident. Any tips about that too?

--- Unnamed

Dear Rush and Chuck,

I wish I had read your article before our camping trip the Friday prior to President's Day.

My wife and I were in a car accident on our way to a camp ground. We were "rear-ended" and the impact caused our car to crash into the car in front of us. The contents of the truck that we were riding scattered onto several lanes. It's a miracle our two dogs decided to stay inside the car. My wife and I were shaken up badly but despite the mess, I was still able to walk out of the car. I got the license plate of the driver in front of me but, to my surprise, after reviewing the little damage on his car, he then sped off. I didn't know you could do that! The driver who hit me from behind gave me his information and then he too left the scene without saying good 'bye. When the police arrived all I had to go by was the little information I had jotted down which I hope was truthful. What if it was bogus? What if I had written the plate number incorrectly? How would that affect my insurance? What if we were unconscious, who would have written down all that information?

I do have one suggestion if you are injured in an accident. The police asked if my wife wanted an ambulance to bring her to the hospital but we declined the offer. I remembered when I rode an ambulance years ago that it was not a comfortable ride. I was strapped to the stretcher and there were all sorts of medical equipment dangling noisily above me. As long as you are able, it is a more relaxful ride inside a car. Besides, isn't there a fee for ambulance service?

--- Dave S. of Pasadena, CA



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