We got married in a coastal town an hour’s drive from Caracas. It used to be quite a fancy resort, or so I’m told, but a massive landslide in 1999 had devastated the area and the heartbreakingly steady decline of Venezuela under Hugo Chavez had led to the Caribe end of La Guaira, with its beaches and surfers and Sheraton hotel, being cut down to size. Rather than bringing the whole country up to the standards of the nice parts, it seemed as if the idea was to make sure everybody lived the same way, and if the poor couldn’t be elevated, then the middle classes would have to lose the perks and comforts they had worked for.
The Sheraton now sat sadly abandoned and dilapidated in front of a yacht marina that had only recently welcomed the status-symbol gin palaces which to some people represent all that is wrong with the world and to the rest of us merely demonstrate that the owners have done well for themselves.
Our wedding festivities took place a couple of miles away in a hilltop hotel that had somehow hung onto its dignity, but the town was no longer a place for a honeymoon. My naïve rambles down to the beach called Los Cocos, a quiet, calm place just yards away from the surfing beach, were dismissed as crazy and potentially suicidal by my wife’s friends and family, who muttered to each other that the bad characters who had drifted down here from the capital had made it dangerous. It is hard for someone who grew up spending every possible hour at the beach to regard anything with sand and water as unsafe, with the obvious exception of sea conditions.
You didn’t hear gunshots in such places – that was restricted to grim, grimy urban areas. But that was what had happened to La Guaira, they told me.
My wife, a born organizer, came up with the answer: a seaside village not too far away that had not been similarly affected. It is called Chuspa and although it wasn’t far away, it was a bit of a drive inland, because there wasn’t a coast road. We set off in a little Chevrolet and after a pleasant, flat section we were soon up in the hills where the banks along the roads were perilously soft as a result of the rainy seasons. Dark red earth caked the edges and spread over the whole surface in parts, so the sensation was one of sliding, trying to keep the wheels in tracks helpfully made by earlier travellers.
Then we came to a bridge over a small river. The bridge was damaged and closed and improvised signs directed us down a slope to a place where the river could be driven through. I got out and walked down to the water to check the depth and try to gauge how solid the bed was. You see people do this sort of thing in films, but when it’s you and your wife’s precious car, not to mention your precious wife, there is no room for macho flippancy.
I tossed a stone in and watched it sink about 18 inches before coming to rest on some pebbles. We decide to give it a go. If I hadn’t been taking my turn to drive at that time anyway, it would have become my turn. Get into the water gently and keep moving, I told myself. If you rush and create waves they will swamp the engine and we’re done for.
Holding our breath, we ploughed quietly through, the river bed mercifully sound, and in half a minute we were back on muddy tarmac, Chuspa-side. Half an hour later we were breezing down the hill to the village, where we had booked a posada, which means you have your own bedroom and bathroom but share the kitchen.
Chuspa looked as if it hadn’t been touched for 20 years. There was nothing new at all – cars, buildings, haircuts, nothing.
The beach was like something out of The Blue Lagoon and it was easy to imagine there had been no other visitors since the Second World War. But there were shops full of cans and bottles and there was fresh fish. In a back room like a motorbike repair shop, a fisherman cut us some fish steaks (barracuda, I think) using a sort of guillotine. You couldn’t cook it properly because the pans were all cheap and lightweight and the fish stuck to the surface, but it was edible.
As we walked into the village and back the locals said hello, sitting outside on indoor furniture, watching the world go by and probably glad that we were providing new, temporary, moving scenery.
In the gift shop we bought dusty old new t-shirts saying I heart Chuspa and we sat on our balcony and drank cheap, half-decent red wine from Chile.
One village, one week, insulated from the 21st century and a country’s decline.