Medregal Village, Venezuela:  August 14-30, 2008

Click on the above thumbnail for a map during this time period

Venezuela Impressions

The cranking battery for our John Deere was original equipment, making it about seven years old.  Just barely got us started when we left El Oculto to come to Medregal Village, and failed to turn the motor over when tested after our arrival.  Spoke with Jean Marc, the proprietor of the Village, about the likelihood of finding a replacement, and he offered to let me ride with him when he went in to the Carupano in order to get the fuel pump repaired for his ailing boat lift.  Interesting trip.  The first part is on the wide dirt road that goes right past the village.  We are now in the "rainy season", and the almost daily rains have created havoc with the surface.  Lotsa pot holes.  Jean Marc, who has been in Venezuela for 15 years, and who has a Venezuelan wife and child, commented wryly on the condition of the road.  Fifth-largest producer of oil, and yet such poor roads.  He said that paving the road had been approved by the appropriate governing body twice, and yet the road is still dirt.  He went in to the Ministry of Transportation to request that it be paved, and was told he should not be complaining.  The records clearly showed that the road is paved, he was told.  Corruption.  No small problem in this country.  Money gets allocated but then disappears into some official's pockets.  How widespread is the problem?  How frustrating?  One indication:  Jean Marc, a native Frenchman raised in one of the oldest democracies of the world, remarked in all seriousness:  "What we need is a Pinoche.  Someone to impose a little discipline."

After about five miles, the road suddenly narrowed to a paved surface.  Jean Marc said:  "Different district."   It had obviously been paved for a long time, and has had no maintenance.  The bushes crowd in on the shoulder and leave only about a lane-and-a-half.  At every low spot the asphalt has disappeared, leaving ugly and deep pot holes.  At several points near bridges the road was covered with water.  In one such hole, a truck had been temporarily abandoned right in the middle of the road after getting stuck.  There was little traffic, no road signs, no posted speed limits, no speed enforcement.  So the practice is to go like a bat out of hell when the road is smooth, and to slow to a crawl when a bad spot is reached.  And by "bat out of hell", I mean full bore pedal-to-the-floor speeding.  By bad spot, I mean the aforementioned pot holes, but also the do-it-yourself speed bumps that local residents install.  Rough concrete humps that stretch across the road and are installed by vigilantes that wish to protect themselves from the crazy speeders.

We passed through the small village of Cariaco, site of the market to which Medregal Village cruisers are bussed once a week, on weeks in which the bus is willing to brave the roads.  (The bus, called por puesto, is actually a covered pickup truck w/ plank seats in the cargo area.)

Pictures taken by Barb on a trip to the Cariaco market:

Muddy pothole and ...

... dry ruts along the road to Cariaco

Interesting trucks along the highway. Note the large water main running along the highway. It sends water over to the island of Margarita.

Market scene in Cariaco ...

... and another

One of many unrefrigerated meat stands in the market ...

... and another

People in the market noticed Barb's flash and insisted on having their pictures taken ...

... and so she did ...

... and did

Wendy (Mustang Sally) was among the shoppers

The por puesta was crowded for the return trip

....but they all managed to squeeze in with their purchases

Unpacking back at Medregal Village

Shortly after Cariaco, Jean Marc and I came upon a toll booth.  Modest fee, and suddenly we were on a modern, smooth, well-maintained highway.  "Private toll road", remarked Jean Marc, obviously contrasting it with what the government could provide.  We had good roads for the rest of the way to Carupano, up along the side of a gorgeous valley that is apparently the landed extension of the Golfo de Curiaco.  All told, the trip took over two hours.

We attended to Jean Marc's pump first, of course, and afterwards asked at the machine shop about possible sources of batteries.  We were directed to a particular location, where it turned out a truck was parked.  Jean Marc described the business as "not quite legal", but could not muster the correct English words to be more specific.  Selling automotive supplies and equipment of various types from the back of the truck.  Seemed very well stocked, with shelves of goods inside the truck, and other items out on a table behind it.  But they didn't have any 8D batteries.  While we were establishing that they didn't have the correct battery, one of the proprietors of the machine shop pulled up and rushed up to the truck to speak with the vendor.  Seemed to be establishing that Jean Marc was a friend, and that I was a friend of Jean Marc, and that we should be given every consideration when it came to pricing.  The vendor made a phone call and determined that the correct battery was in stock at a particular battery and electrical supply store, and gave Jean Marc directions to the establishment.  As we left, we all shook hands.

They did indeed have an 8D battery, and we were soon enough ready to return.  Jean Marc asked if I needed any groceries, and indicated that he could use a few, and so we stopped at a quite well-stocked store.  When I checked out, the young man -- all the checkout men were indeed men -- said something in Spanish.  "Qu?" (what?) , I asked.  He repeated himself.  I asked again.  He repeated again.  I said, "Lo siento, no comprendo."  (I am sorry, I don't understand.)  He gave me a very strange look, rolled his eyes to the heavens, and began ringing up my goods.  Wonder what he said.  On the trip back Jean Marc made several stops to speak with folks. At one such stop, I took the opportunity to run across the road to a small shop.  "Una agua, por favor."  (A water, please.)  He said something in response.  Clearly asking me if I wanted a big or small, but I could not understand him.  "Qu?"  He repeated himself.  I said "Lo siento mucho, pero no comprendo".  (I am very sorry, but I do not understand.)  Wonder what he said.  He pointed to the larger of the two bottles, and I said "S".  He brought me the water and said something in Spanish.  Clearly, the price.  I said "Qu?".  He repeated himself.  I pulled out my wad of money, and made an educated guess, handing him a two-Bolivar note with a questioning look.  He smiled, took the note, and gave me a few coins in change.  Wonder what he said.  (And those, faithful readers, are several illustrations of why Barb and I will soon be in an intensive Spanish language class for two weeks.)

Just as we were leaving the city, Jean Marc cursed.  He had spotted a huge crowd of pedestrians on the road up ahead.  "What do you say when there is a person who has died?", he asked.  "A funeral?", I responded.  "Yes, it is a funeral", he said, slamming his hands on the steering wheel.  Traffic came to a standstill.  Apparently a huge crowd was exiting a church and boarding buses, trucks, cars, and taxis for the long trip west to the cemetery.  And so for an hour or so, we had bumper-to-bumper, start-and-stop, three westbound lanes of traffic spilling over the two marked lanes and appropriating one of the eastbound lanes.  For a time we were directly behind a truck whose cargo area was loaded with young mourners -- mostly male but with a sprinkling of young women.  They had a bottle of rum that was being passed about so that everybody could get an occasional swig.  We alternately passed and were passed by a large bus filled with additional young people.   Ditto for cars filled with families but bearing wreaths on the roof.  Finally, as we passed an intersection near what turned out to be the cemetery, there was a group of maybe one hundred motorcycles, all with youthful riders, all waiting on the side of the road for the funeral procession.  Aha!  I'd be willing to bet that the funeral was for a young man who had been killed in a motorcycle accident.

While we were still in the stop-and-creep stage, we passed along the shoreline of the southern Caribbean.  Steep precipitous cliff, and then a small beach totally filled with shacks built helter-skelter and crowded right up to one another.  Occasional highly-patched electrical lines running from a shack up to the tall power line running along the road.  Obviously squatters down on the beach, and obviously illegal tapping of the power line.  Why doesn't some inspector come along and remove the thieving lines?  Two probable reasons:  no inspectors, and such cheap fees for electrical power that it isn't worth the fuss and bother to remove the lines.  How cheap?  Would you believe 5 Bolivar (about $1.66) per month, flat fee, regardless of consumption, for residential use?  We also learned later that water is even cheaper:  free.  Which explains how Jean Marc can provide free showers for cruisers at anchor beside his "village".  And the cheap rate for electricity partially explains why it so often fails in Venezuela -- where is the income for maintenance?

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In the aftermath of the busy hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005, the insurance companies enlarged the "box" of exclusion for coverage during the months of  July, August, September, and October.  Most companies now have extended the box so far that only Trinidad and certain parts of Venezuela are beyond its boundaries:  former safe havens such as Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire, Grenada, and Tobago are no longer covered for damage by named storms during the above months.  The self-insured and the gamblers continue to use the newly excluded islands, of course, and indeed some even spend the hurricane season in the Bahamas or Dominican Republic or Virgin Islands or St. Martin or Bequia or St Lucia, where there are reasonably protected "hurricane holes", but most cruisers end up going to Chaguaramas, Trinidad, or Puerto la Cruz, Venezuela.  Sitting in one spot for four months can be a bit vexing, and so some cruisers put their boats "on the hard" (ie, take their boats out of the water and put them on stands) and fly "home" for an extended visit, or fly to some non-cruising destination for a totally different experience.  If the "away" period is not too long, then the boat may be left in the water at a marina, with or without the attention of a paid keeper.  Or, for the truly brave, left anchored and unattended in an anchorage.

We spent most of last season's hurricane season either at Chaguaramas, or within easy cruising distance from it.  This year, we decided to come to Venezuela, and that decision has had consequences for our experiences.

After several years of relative quiet, the number of incidents in the southern regions of the Caribbean of burglary, robbery, violence, injury, and even death to cruisers is spiking.  Even before we got here we heard and read informal reports of the dangers in this part of the world, but we tended to discount them.  Very good friends, whom we respect very much, shared our opinion that the warnings were overblown and approaching hysteria.  But as time has gone on, the spike can be seen in the semi-official web-sites that monitor and report on cruiser-related incidents.  And informal discussions among cruisers has convinced us that the problem is much worse than those sites would indicate.  The reason?  Underreporting.  Why aren't all of the incidents reported? There seem to be several reasons.  First, there is deep and pervasive cynicism about the authorities' willingness and/or ability to do anything about a reported incident, and that cynicism seems to spill over to reporting to the monitoring/reporting sites.  Secondly, when the cruiser has resisted, and when that resistance has involved firearms and/or probable injury to a local, there is fear that it would be self-incriminating to report the incident.  Thirdly, some long-term visitors to trouble areas have become so inured to incidents that they just accept them as part of normal life in their area.  For example, we know of a cruiser who has been in the Porlamor anchorage in Margarita, Venezuela, for several years.  He is dismissive of the regular losses of dinghies and dinghy motors in the anchorage, equating them to petty thefts of lawn mowers from garages.  But after  a recent incident in which the police had a gunfight with three armed men walking along a marina dock, killing one of the intruders, a dismissive attitude seems to be increasing difficult to maintain.  Or so it would seem.  We just heard from a cruiser that left there recently that the anchorage in Porlamor is down to about 60 vessels, drastically lower than the 100+ that are usually there at this time of year.  And the Coast Guard has moved their vessel right into the middle of the anchorage, and conducts patrols throughout the night.

Petty crime from garages?  There are certainly many neighborhoods in the North America where thefts from homes and garages are pervasive, but the comparison seems flawed.  Lawn mowers cost several hundred dollars.  Dinghies and dinghy motors cost several thousand.  Lawn mowers can be easily replaced.  In some cruising areas, dinghies and dinghy motors can be extremely difficult to replace.

The standard advice among cruisers in Venezuela is to go beyond the practice of chaining the dinghy to the mother boat at night.  Increasingly, the advice even exceeds the more defensive practice of lifting the dinghy several feet out of the water.  Now, in many locations the advice is to lift the dinghy all the way up onto the deck every night.  And to not leave anything else out on the deck, save the chained dinghy.  Fenders, boat hooks, scuba tanks, extra lines, lifesaving rings -- everything must be brought in or it might disappear.  We know of one cruiser who took these extra precautions, but forgot to bring in his boat hook.  The consequence?  While in Porlamor it disappeared, and he didn't even know he had been boarded.  To return to the garage metaphor, and its inadequacies, the latest precautions now require that not only should the lawn mower be taken into a locked garage, but the lawn furniture and the birdbath and the mailbox also must be taken in every night.  It gets to be a tad tedious.

Medregal Village

So we are anchored off in a small cluster of vessels off Medregal Village, which has been relatively quiet, with only one incident a month or so ago, after years of secure anchoring.  (Cf. here for a previous account of that incident.)  We lock ourselves in at night, and set out a portable motion detector/alarm, and chain and lift the dinghy up several feet, but do not, unlike our practice at more remote anchorages (such as El Oculto) take our dinghy all the way up to the upper deck, or bring into the saloon our deck chairs and table.  Nor our basket of shoes and sandals.  Nor two scuba tanks.

Shortly after we arrived back at Medregal Village, a number of us went for an very-early-morning walk through the brush toward the high hills to the north.  We found the path to be quite overgrown, and turned back after about 3/4 of a mile.  Everyone else retired to their respective vessels, but I -- perhaps inspired by my previous experience with Devi and Hunter -- sharpened my machete, and took it, some water, a file, and my favorite hiking knife (a 60th birthday gift from Norwegian friends Lars Helge and Tove) back out onto the path to do some clearing.  Took much longer than I expected, but I was on my way back down the path toward "home" at about 1 pm when I met a worried Barb who was coming to see if I had been attacked by mad dogs or poisonous snakes or banditos or all three.

Back at the "village" after a morning of bush-whacking

The small circle of cruisers at the village soon fell into a companionable pattern of socializing.  Pot luck every Wednesday night.  Pizza from the wood-fired oven at the home of the Eva and Sven, the Swedish couple with the VHF handle of "Cocobongo".  Lovely people.  I enjoyed speaking Norwegian w/ Eva, and the pizza was outstanding.  Since they have just begun serving, they have no fixed menu and no names for the various combinations.  We ordered the same delicious pizza several times, and so they now have a special called "The Tusen Takk II".  Shrimp and black olives and mushrooms and onions.  My mouth waters just to write the words.

Sven loading his pizza oven

Sven putting together another pizza

Sven and Eva discuss w/ Barb and Michel their respective orders

They are not round, but they are good!

Eva wasn't expecting to have her picture taken

Kylie and Mike (Meggie)

Doug and Wendy (Mustang Sally)

We also had an extra pot luck one night:  a special tapas night.  Gypsy Blues arrived on that same day with our long-awaited replacement winch for our davit.  Lifting the dinghy up to the deck had gotten to be a very noisy and nervous affair.  The bearings screeched, and we worried that they would freeze with the dinghy stuck half-way up. 

Jean Marc was unable to get permission to build the kind of dock that would support a boat lift, and so he uses an alternative.  He has set out with long concrete blocks a submerged path that reaches out far into the water, and he has a lift that just drives out on that path to meet the boat, instead of the boat coming into a dock to meet the lift.  The lift is rated at 25 tons, and there are a number of vessels on the hard to testify that the system works, but vessels that are too heavy might pose a problem when it comes to driving back up the slope to dry land.  In any case, the lift had been suffering from one malady after another for over a month, and the vessels at anchor waiting to be hauled were getting mighty impatient, but no more so than the vessels that had finished their work ashore and were anxious to get back into the water.  The lift was finally restored to a state of sufficient health -- albeit with a hiccup or two -- just before we left, that we were able to take some pictures of one haul-out.

Lift has moved out to deep water to await the vessel to be hauled

Getting the boat into the sling

The lift got this far back up toward shore ...

... when the engine stopped!

While members of the peanut gallery held their breaths ...

... an air leak was found in the diesel line, and functionality was restored

Sunset on the night of our tapas pot luck

Mike (Meggie) at tapas night (note folks wearing pants for protection from mosquitos)...

... and Cheryl and Rene (Gypsy Blues) and Jean Marc ...

... and Kim (Childsplay) and Eva and Michel (Cries 'n Whispers) ...

... and Roland and Kathleen (M'Lady Kathleen) ...

... and Kylie (Meggie) and Wendy and Doug (Mustang Sally)

Oblivious to the foot-kissing, Mike (Childs Play) and Chuck share their own moment of silliness

Chuck finished installing a new winch in the davit just at sunset