La Guaira is a sprawling town which lends its name to a long area on the Caribbean coast of Venezuela.
It’s the closest port to the capital, Caracas. The local baseball team is called Los Tiburones – The Sharks – so it is obviously proud of being on the coast. But it is not a pretty sight, nor sound.
We spend the morning at a bank, which is easy to do because they work at an unfathomably slow speed, then cross four lanes of growling, polluting, American-made trucks for lunch outside the fish market at an open-air cafe/restaurant. What’s the word I’m looking for – not quite doghole, but imagine putting tables in between the containers and lorries at Portsmouth docks.
Then the mood changes by courtesy of food. We have a red fish (could be snapper, but most of the fish around here seem to be red) simply fried on the bone and delicious, with a natural strength of flavour that doesn’t need any help from a fancy sauce – just a squeeze of lime if you like. The accompaniment is played by a kind of coleslaw without onion, supported by fried slices of plantain.
Do we enjoy these meals simply because we’re somewhere ‘exotic’, or is this fish really as good as I’m making it sound?
Well, for a start, you wouldn’t find it in an equivalent cheap and cheerful place in the UK – in fact all you would find in such a location in Grimsby is a burger van. There, fish for the masses is either deep-fried in batter or oven-baked in breadcrumbs. If you’re lucky, in a seaside town you might get a mackerel cooked by a chef who has confidence in his ability to bring out the best in the raw material, but it’s a rarity.
As a free starter, by the way, we have a thin, unhealthily grey-looking fish soup which harbours sly, slimy, layabout pieces of vegetables and tastes better than it looks, but don’t expect the fussier members of your party to have any truck with it at all.
There are back street garages in South London more hygienic than some South American fishmongers, and this soup gives the impression of having been prepared from the loot gleaned from the annual sweep-up, boiled and with the detritus strained out through the local good-time girl’s tights. And yet we survive unscathed and live to eat another day.
To visit such a place of preparation is to wonder how you will ever eat fresh fish again, as we find the following week in the remote, romantic seaside village of Chuspa. In the dark, grimy workshop that you can imagine the guy uses to work on his motorbike in the evenings, there is a guillotine-like contraption for making fillets of thick fish. Almost-vertical steel rods (almost clean and almost shiny) stand three feet tall and the snapper, grouper or whatever is placed at the bottom. The operator takes a machete and slams it down, guided by the rods, to separate the fish into one-inch steaks.
We buy a bottle of Chilean merlot with a screw cap rather than a cork, because it stands less chance of being off that way. In a place like this, which is charming in a Second World War film way, reached by broken, mud-scarred roads and involving a tentative drive through a small river because the bridge is out of action, you feel lucky to find such luxuries as wine anyway.
Then it’s back up the hill to the posada – a sort of self-catering guest house where you share the kitchen – to do what you can with a sputtering gas stove and a cheap aluminium pan. Subtlety does not exist in such circumstances: the object is to get the fish cooked and any germs killed, and if it sticks to the pan, that is only to be expected. It becomes fuel, not food, and if there is any pleasure in the eating, that’s a bonus.