VENEZUELA 2002: Isla Margarita

Ciudad Bolivar for the fourth time was particularly mellow - and quick. After getting back to the city, I merely spent a quiet night chatting a bit with Martin. By morning I was already on the bus north to Puerto La Cruz, now with the loose intention of heading east to Rio Caribe. Somewhere en route I got to talking with an Italian-turned-English guy on the bus, one who I had coincidentally seen but not spoken to at Posada Amor Patrio, who was pretty funny to chat with. Soon I found myself opting to go with him to Isla Margarita - another option I had been considering - with the attractive situation of being able to split costs while checking out the island. Plus I liked the idea of spontaneously changing plans.

Having seen some of the beaches of Mochima National Park near Santa Fe, I guessed that I might be seeing some of the same by Rio Caribe if not further to the east (where I had consistently heard they were better, if not great). So Isla Margarita it was. Well, almost not. We ran into some difficulty in the ferry terminal in Puerta Cruz: It seemed likely that the ferry wouldn't be running due to the windy weather. That luckily turned out to be a false alarm, so off we went at 6 p.m. after all. As for the so-called stunning passage through the islands of Parque Mochima, there wasn't really much for us to see as the sun was going down. At least the boat - a hydrofoil - was quite nice and modern, so we made it to the island in two hours without incident.

At the dock, we had some fun haggling with a taxi driver as we hijacked the cab of two Swiss guys almost underway to split the price. There was some bitching and moaning from the driver, but we were soon in Porlamar - the only city on Isla Margarita - in about half an hour. We ended up in the hotel the driver recommended (confirming that he got a commission, but not caring) - that was good enough for the first night. We had plans to go to a smaller town the next day, and the room itself wasn't much besides. There was air conditioning for the first time on my trip, yes, but there also the issue of battling two humongous cockroaches (for which Daniele ultimately got the honors). After that excitement, though, we went out for a local dinner of black beans and plantains, unremarkable except that 1) black beans and plantains were called caraotas and tajadas in Venezuela, and 2) a bucket of water (we hoped it was clean) was dumped on us moments after leaving the hotel. Ahhhhh - the last dregs of carnival!

In the morning, not much happened...except that I dropped my debit card on the sidewalk and didn't find it for a half-hour - even after I had ransacked the room! It was truly unbelievable that it was just lying there in the open when I went back outside, especially with so many people walking about! After that, though, there was nothing much else of note as we next took a por puesto bus through the hills and small towns of Margarita for a little under an hour to arrive at Juangriego. We hoped that this (mostly) fishing village on the north side of the island would offer something a bit more rustic, Venezuelan, or... something!

Instead Juangriego was nothing special, even if quaint and quiet enough. The recommended hotel of a Dutch guy was full, as it turned out - but it helped that I didn't care for the attitude of the smirking owner, either. So we ended up taking residence at a hotel a couple of blocks away in the back of a duty-free shopping mall. Which brings up a side note: Shopping apparently was something of a passion on Isla Margarita, yet apparently all of the shop owners were in cahoots with each other and equally branding some products (or allowing it) illegally. On the other hand, and only in modest defense of such illegality, I could at least find peanut butter for the first time I looked!

The next day we headed back into Porlamar for a day trip, primarily to check out the beach Caracola. The sun beat down pretty well on this nice if uncrowded beach. Moreover, due to flood conditions (I guessed), there was a little buffer zone between the beach and hotels - also nice. Quite long, too. For Daniele, however, this was a prime (and apparently well-known) opportunity for cruising - I found out on the bus into the city that he was gay (I hadn't immediately guessed, but wasn't exactly surprised, either). But that amounted to zilch for him. For me, it was just a windy-if-pleasant place to read and walk the beach. Eventually, after an uneventful day in the sun, we made our way back through town, ate some more caraotas (of course), then headed back to Juangriego.

The next day, we caught a taxi to the "action" beach of Playa El Agua. This was also a very long beach, but much more appealing than Caracola. And certainly there were a lot of people on the beach. Plus there were many restaurants and stands to grab an empanada or cold coconut (very refreshing!). I went for a number of swims, greatly enjoying this water that didn't seem so salty, felt clean, and had nice waves (if an undertow).

We also met an American that Daniele had met in Ciudad Bolivar - Bruce - and he ended up giving us a ride back to Juangriego, which was cool. For a while I thought Bruce was gay, too, but I was mistaken. This only came up because Daniele had been giving me the lowdown on his "cup of tea" - balding, fat guys - and I thought that he had pegged Bruce as one of them. It was funny trying to see how Daniele had "typed" him as gay, which all turned out to be a misunderstanding on my part as to who Daniele had even been talking about. Daniele was interesting just in general to hang out with, pleasantly not particularly effeminate (which I've always found off-putting, never quite able to shake the feel that it's fake) even if he did actually fit some stereotypes such as searching out cruising sites and bath houses. Along with Marianne in Santa Elena, he was one of the more interesting people on the trip I had met.

That same night, though, turned out a bit interesting in an altogether different manner: I was verbally interrogated, battered on politics by an ex-pat German in the restaurant I had come to like the most in Juangriego (especially for their fruit juices). Even though I generally agreed with his politics, I was put on a back-pedaling defensive the entire time as he sat down next to me within moments of realizing I was American. He launched into a blazing critique of U.S. and Venezuelan politics. Eventually his generalizations got to be too much - and voracious, to boot - so I finally had to tell him off. It's often worth reminding people that the U.S. is a country of hundreds of millions of souls - one size could never fit all. And certainly a German should appreciate this if anyone, especially with all the unfair and all-too-casual use of the word "Nazi".

I did, however, gain a little more insight into Chávez, things which made him out to not be as bad as I had thought. Indeed, there are a lot of mixed feelings all around about the Venezuelan leader. His long-windedness, in addition to his desire to change the constitution to his favor, often overshadowed the good things he had done with health care and education. For example, parents before had to pay to send their kids even to elementary school. My antagonize also clued me in a little on what was going on in Juangriego that I would not have otherwise have figured out, such as the fact that the locals and the ex-pat Lebanese who ran the duty-free shops were at odds with each other. One man even had his entire shop fire-bombed the night before our argument. Which I suppose shows that you just never know when a heated political discussion is going to flare up, or where it's going to go.

The next day Daniele left town to head back to London as I did a loop of the western side of the island with Bruce, who had rented a car. An amiable guy, he nevertheless was sometimes either too ingratiating or trying too hard to be cool - things easy to ignore while he was being so friendly and generous of his time (and car). The western side of the island was entirely unremarkable, however, so we ended up making a loop of it pretty quick. There wasn't much to stop for, and the one town we went through didn't exactly welcome us with open arms. Obviously we were the dreaded strangers who had come into their midst and didn't belong.

One thing worthwhile that we did in the loop was take a tour by boat through the mangroves in the center of the island. They are entirely fed from one small passage coming from the Caribbean, to the south. A number of birds, plus oysters growing on the dense mangrove roots, were the attractions. While nothing outstanding, this was plenty pleasant enough. In the middle of the tour, too, we stopped at a seemingly unending beach spanning the middle of the island. This was absolutely loaded with shells and gave a sharp perspective of the two sides of the island. The area in general reminded me of the mangrove areas in the Florida Keys, but with a mountain backdrop.

My last full day on Margarita was fully uneventful. I just played some trumpet, extracted money and got a haircut in Porlamar, then prepared for the plane the next day to Merida. Another political strike was planned for that day, commemorating a massacre that occurred under the old government in 1989, but this turned out not to be a problem. So Margarita would wholly remain a pleasant diversion of sun, beaches, mixed fruit drinks, and nice sunsets at Juangriego's fort (minus the kids mechanically reciting history for money). Plus caraotas and tajadas, of course. In the process Isla Margarita had proven that some things certainly were good in Venezuela, but you just had to look for them. (And it is worth noting that one should start with the coffee and fantastic fruit juices.)

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