the inside scoop…

4 March, 2008

Well here goes, my first attempt at blogging… unfortunately I don’t have the literary prowess or humour of my husband, so instead I will stick to the serious stuff.

As you all may have heard by now, Venezuela and Equador have sent troops to the border of Colombia. These news story may not have had too much meaning for me a few months ago, but as we had visited Colombia and Venezuela just a week ago, there was a special significance for us.

My impressions of Colombia and specifically Bogota were very positive. Each person that we spoke to during our visit was optimistic, proud of its government actions in responding to FARC, improving education, and building infrastructure in Bogota. The city was clean, working toward building public transport, improving security, yet there was an overhang of fear generated by what FARC may do. By all accounts, FARC started off 50 years ago as an organisation committed to a socialist agenda, but it appears to have lost its way.

Instead it has become an organisation built on drug money, bombings and kidnaps. A true “terrorist” organisation, as opposed to the oft quoted American definition of “terrorism” which somehow always relates to oil supply. FARC continues to torment the Colombian citizens as they try earnestly to improve their standard of living. Colombia has a democratically elected government that is attempting to stabilise the country. Governments before had taken the softly, softly approach to FARC but to no avail. So this government decided to bravely take the tough stance and eliminate them.

You would think that neighbouring countries may indeed support the efforts of a government in this situation. Alas, this is not the case. It appears Mr Chavez has a wider agenda. To see Caracas as it currently is, is a tragedy. Litter, crime, graffiti, abandoned houses and people struggling without supplies such as milk, sugar, and a currency that deteriorates daily … They have a president who EACH day talks randomly for up to 5 hours live on radio and TV stations. When oil is at its highest ever price, it appears there is no public investment of these monies. Instead, he is only interested in becoming the next Latin American Bolivar. He gives money to Equador, Argentina and other Latin American nations to buy their servitude… and in turn, to serve his own power hungry ambitions.

I truly hope that Colombia has the will power to ignore these taunts from Venezuela and that other Latin American nations do not fall fecklessly to the offerings of Chavez. It is a continent made up of many great nations, with huge potential, I sincerely hope this is not the start of something that can only end in tragedy.

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A lovely weekend in a land where petrol is cheaper than water…

26 February, 2008

After only two days in Caracas, we knew we couldn’t spend a weekend in the city (it’s not that exciting or safe) and our hotel, like many in Caracas was just a shambles… more things didnt work than did work, and the place seemed to be running out of food…. Aparently due to the loss of value of the Bolivar Fuerte (or strong bolivar – the currency of Venezuela is named in honour of the great south american leader Simon Boliviar, and just in case you were wondering the country named after him uses the Boliviano as its currency) . Sorry i ramble, back to rapid currency devaluation, so the currency has lost at 30% of its value in the last year due to rampant inflation, so things are getting to expensive to buy, so businesses have just stopped buying stuff – like ingredients for food on the menu for example! But more on the Venezuelan black market later….

At least our hotel looked good:

Hotel Tamanaca, Caracas

Hotel Tamanac

So our initial plan to fly out to the island of Los Roques, but this cunning plan was quashed by the fact that in late January one of the two planes that services the island ‘got lost’ with its 35 passengers and 3 crew onboard, to date it’s still ‘lost’ though they have ‘found’ the body of the co-pilot. Poor beggars, it hasn’t been a good start to year for Venezuelan air travel, with another plane crashing while we were there killing 46 people flying out of a town high in the Andes.

So that was enough of a sign from the travel gods that this was probably not the best place to have a weekend involving a flight in a small plane, so instead we headed west of Caracas to a tiny little town called Puerto Colombia:

Porto Colombia, Venezuela

Porto Colombias main street

The town is at the end of a very very very very windy mountain road, the road is so windy they have a race up it every year, running or cycling, the road up has 360 corners on the upward drive, and climbs well over 1800 metres, from just near the equator warmth at the bottom, to nice and chilly at the top. Of course the road is rough and ready, often only one lane – especially it appeared around the blind corners, so all the cars, motorbikes, buses, tractors and trucks that drive the road spend the whole time honking, reversing or just barging their way through, exciting if somewhat scary stuff!

Road to Puerto colombia, Venezeula

The road up through the mist

So we stayed at a beautiful little hacienda just on the edge of town, the hacienda was a converted cocoa plantation house, really cool, olde worlde rustic, with a great swimming pool, and a little restaurant/bar serving fresh seafood straight off the boats.

Hammocks outside room

Must have a hammock to live here, my kind of lifestyle

The town itself was tiny and crazy, the oldest port in Venezuela, with just a couple of streets of old Spanish style houses and lots of little restaurants and bars, I imagine it is like Port Douglas (in QLD) was like before the resorts and developers arrived. I think the two taxi-buses that service the town and nearby Choroni pretty well sum the place up:

Puerto Colombia to Choroni Taxi

Thomas the tank engine – taxi

Puerto Colombia to Choroni Taxi number two

Postman pat post van – taxi

Local fishing boats were used to ferry sun seekers to the nearby beaches for a day of sun and surf, so on the Saturday morning we took got a 15 minute boat ride – no life vest, so safety briefing, just get in, sit down, and shut up, the waves were massive, each boat that made it out of the harbour without capsizing was accompanied by a cheers from the onlookers on the harbour, scary stuff, but the boat trip was definitely worth it, the beach was great, we were finally on the Caribbean!!!

Puerto Colombia harbour

The harbour – on Sunday morning, much calmer than Saturday!

The beach we went too had no land access, but like all the beaches along this coast, it was still full service – a family lived on the beach where they had built a little kitchen and bar – perfect for us, so we spent the day taking dips in the warm water, drinking ice cold beers and we had a cracking lunch with a german family we got talking too, fresh fish straight from the ocean grilled, with fried plantain (a kind of banana – but for cooking) and salad – the perfect meal for a beach, and only US$5 each including the beers!

After a relaxing day we headed back into town for another swim, some more ice cold beers – the only problem with their beers is the normal bottle is only 225mls, a mere nip of beer for people used to drinking a good English pint!

So Sunday we packed up and headed back to Caracas, a journey which had taken 5 hours on Friday, luckily it only took 2.5 hours on Sunday, we got talking to our driver and i asked him why everyone drove 4x4s in Venezuela, where as in Brazil and Colombia people just drove small hatch backs. He explained that petrol was cheap as chips in Venezuela thanks to the wonderful President Chavez, it was currently about US$10 for him to fill up his Toyota Landcruiser, but as he regarded this as still too expensive he usually bought his fuel on the black market, so to fill the 90 litre tank usually cost him US$2 – that’s US$0.02 a litre…. cheaper than a litre of bottled water, you can imagine his horror when we explained we were paying nearly a £1 a litre in England….

Ohh welll back to work..

also thanks for the correction info on the Chavez post, Chavez was infact a military leader, not a union official prior to becoming el presidente – must have got my south american dictators mixed up for a moment!


venezuela – an unequal distribution of good looks and oil money….

21 February, 2008

So, we are safe in sound in crazy Caracas, not much to say about the city so far. Initial impressions are that the airport was brand new and very flash and 1st worldy – but as soon as we stepped through into the arrivals hall, it rapidly took a very 3rd world feel, we were swarmed by ‘gentlemen’ offering all sorts of services, taxi rides, money changing, hotel bookings, i am sure i could have got an albino goat if i had just hung around long enough.

The airport in Caracas is right at sea level and the city is at 1,000 metres, so to get to the city its a fast and steady 1km climb straight up the mountain to get to the city. It was a bridge on this infamous motorway which just before christmas last year wibbled and wobbled and just fell down, turning a speedy ½ motorway drive into the city into a 4-6 hour wild west tour through the back roads and slums of Caracas to get to the airport. It caused chaos, a massive increase in carjacking and robberies, but as you can imagine it’s not that quick a thing to build a new motorway bridge over a large ravine half way up a mountain!

So Caracas and Venezuela is one of the most ‘interesting’ countries in South America at the moment, for those of you who like me are not up on your Venezuelan politics, here is my understanding of it in brief. Venezuela, as well as having many beauty queens also has the most oil and natural gas of any country in South America, so with oil at US$100 a barrel the country is officially rolling in it. Ummmm… unfortunately its also full of really poor people and really rich people, but heh its South America, you wouldn’t want it equally distributed would you?

As i have previously noted, Venezuela has also won more Miss Universe competitions than any othe country, but i have to say, that doesnt mean tha all the ladies we meet are 6 foot 2 inches with a passionate interest in plastic surgery and world peace, it appears that good looks, like oil money is also somewhat unequally spread around here!

So the country is run by the infamous President Chavez. He is an ex union leader who got democratically elected as president, then there was a coup that only lasted one day where he was ousted and now he is back again, causing his own brand of south American chaos. He was recently in the news for calling the King of Spain a Fascist – the point is not that the royal family aren’t or at least weren’t fascists, it’s just that it’s not the done thing to say that to a King… then he ‘nationalised’ a large Exxon/Mobile refinery because he didn’t think they were paying enough tax, called for the formation of a formal Anti-USA-League-Of-Nations, threatened to stop shipping oil to the USA, proposed a two tier pricing model for oil, allowing poor countries to buy it at just $20 a barrel, bailed out Argentina when they falling behind on their loans to The West, bailed out Cuba when they were running out of cash for their treasury, paid Cuba to send doctors to other South American countries to help out their health care systems, and lots of other crazy capers. Don’t get me wrong he aint no Robin Hood doing only good, he also tacitly supports the Colombian cocaine industry by not stopping them across his borders (and onto the USA), he also has declared that the FARC rebels in Colombia are not terrorists responsible for killing 100,000s of people – they are just misunderstood…. he isn’t quite sane, but he is at least entertaining.

The big problem down here is that historically national leaders in South America don’t really help each other out, they just kinda pick away at each other, so he is stirring up some real trouble by becoming something of a self appointed Latin American spokesman, and one that is totally left leaning, keen to lend money and support where required without the strings and rules of the IMF and world bank. He is also severely diminishing the influence that the USA has down here with the poorer countries, so he is now convinced that he will be assassinated or a victim of a coup led by the USA – as if they didn’t have enough on their plates at the moment.

So what that means for Venezuela at the moment is that the country is in pretty much total chaos, the President who could be spending the oil money to restore just Venezuela to its former glory, is instead splashing it all around Latin America and not really achieving a great deal, the currency is taking a real battering as he baits the USA and the oil companies and the country is paralized by strikes – the local fire brigade today got an 80% pay rise, but they said that it still wouldnt help, because only 3 of their ambulance are currently working, so they are still going to have ferry patients to hospital in fire engines, but on the good side, President Chavez does have his own weekly tv show – now theres an idea I think could really catch on…

Right that’s enough politics for today… time to go down to the pool for a beer!