It was time to leave Tobago and money was tight as usual. The plan was to go to Venezuela, and that meant via Trinidad. The boat from Scarborough to Port-of-Spain costs next to nothing and if you don’t mind getting up at the crack of dawn, it’s quite a pleasant trip. So that’s what I did. It was always a slightly strange feeling, because I had been on the vessel before on the other side of the Atlantic, when it ran between the Channel Islands, England and France.
The first time I got on it in Tobago I just thought, “I know where the restaurant is, where the bar is and where the toilets are. Weird.”
I had checked out the options for Trinidad-Venezuela and they consisted of a very expensive flight or a ferry from Chaguaramas to some little town in the middle of nowhere. It was cheap, and even cheaper if you paid for a day trip and just didn’t come back. The girl on the phone assured me that wouldn’t be a problem, but it seemed unlikely to me. What about Immigration? Wouldn’t the Venezuelan authorities have spotted this loophole by now?
On the other hand, the country was in a mess and people were trying to get out, not in.
After a night in a cheap hotel I took a taxi to Chaguaramas and the driver helped me with my two suitcases, backpack and guitar.
The girl in the ticket office, who might well have been the one on the phone, reassured me that the day-trip idea would work.
“With two suitcases and a guitar?” I protested.
“They won’t notice,” she said.
The ferry came in and it was like a little party boat, with a dance floor and small, high, round, chrome-rimmed tables bolted to the floor, each with four stools similarly rooted. In Guernsey we call it a booze and cruise: it’s a floating party that just gets you out on the ocean wave, maybe to a smaller island for dinner, then back.
This one wasn’t full of revelers, though. Just a week before Christmas, it was heaving with Venezuelan women going home after earning a living doing who-knows-what in Trinidad.
All the seats were occupied, or that’s what the women indicated when I tried to sit amongst them. I didn’t believe them, but it’s hard to argue in a foreign language with a group of brassy, hard-as-nails sex workers who want to spend the voyage lying down. I hung around, perched uncomfortably on the solitary vacant stool.
As time went on they took pity on me and I was permitted to sit in the middle, surrounded by rough, savoury-smelling but not unattractive hard cases. It was like a women’s prison summer outing. Some were probably very nice and not so tough if you got them individually, but here they were a gang, and this was real life, not a 1950s American film featuring a tart with a heart.
After two hours of this, a wave of excitement swept through the gathering as we approached land and I joined a queue to disembark. Then a small party of Immigration officials came aboard and set up a makeshift desk at one end. The queues reshaped to face them and we stood like that for 20 minutes while rumours spread that it was some kind of health certification.
Then the officials, who looked as though they had been handed a uniform each and told to go on the boat and do something – anything – stood up, moved to the other end and sat down again. We duly turned in their direction and gradually the line began to move and passports were glanced at and stamped.
My Cell Block H friends were nowhere to be seen, perhaps knowing better than the uniforms what did and didn’t need to be done.
All my worldly goods and my day-return ticket went unnoticed as I stumbled onto Venezuelan soil. All that remained was to find a taxi, since all of the waiting ones had been spirited away by the women.
It’s the sort of set-up the government must know about and tolerate. Sometimes, though, it pays not to ask questions.