Confessions of an expat – You think YOU’VE got troubles

Every country appears to be struggling at the moment. It seems that nobody has any money, and yet there are guests in the expensive hotels and customers in the restaurants, so somebody must be doing all right.

As a Brit abroad, and currently in a country where things are really taking a dive, it is interesting to hear friends in the UK talking about how bad things are there.

shops
Not open for business: things look grim in the UK

When I lived in England six years ago it was apparent that things were on the slide, not least with the number of charity shops, pound shops and boarded-up shops up and down the High Streets.

Now from those parts all we hear about is political trouble, with the Brexit vote having had an unexpected effect on the major political parties. David Cameron resigns, but doesn’t leave immediately, just as the country has resigned from the EU but has yet to start packing its bags.

Then the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, faces a mutiny and a vote of no confidence by his fellow Labour politicians, although the public apparently doesn’t agree and wants to give him and his left wing idealism a chance against the reviled Tory party.

A British politician is gunned down in the street and the nation is shocked; and quite rightly so, as people of every political stripe can agree. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in the UK. Even in trigger-happy USA, politicians seem to be safer than schoolchildren in that respect.

And yet both those countries are like Utopia compared with two in which I have a vested interested: Venezuela and Suriname. Venezuela because that is where my wife is from, where her family still lives, and Suriname because that is where she and I are. And what we are living through is very much like the decline of her homeland.

Both countries have large oil reserves. Venezuela’s are huge, and they have been harvesting and selling it for many years, so they can’t just blame the slump in oil prices for the downturn in their fortunes. The rot had set in long before that. And this is a country that not so long ago was arguably the most sophisticated in South America.

VZ queue
Boxing Day sale? No, just a queue for basic household items in Venezuela

Suriname’s oil bonanza happened relatively recently, so it is tempting to think it is something the country has up its sleeve for when the market improves. But what if it doesn’t improve?

In Venezuela the electricity, internet and water are on and off, and there are shortages of even the most basic of commodities, from toilet paper and sanitary towels to the corn flour used to make the staple dish, the arepa. The problem is that so many things are imported, and that means paying for them in a currency that is far stronger than the bolivar.

In Suriname the writing has been on the wall for years, but this year it finally happened: the exchange rate went crazy in a bad way. So if you’re paid in the local currency, Surinamese dollars (SRD), the number of US dollars you can get in exchange is much lower and getting lower literally every day.

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The rainy season in Suriname has been getting rainier

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the whole business here is that it has happened before, and those who have seen it before will calmly tell you that this is nothing: it’s going to get worse.

Meanwhile, as income falls, so prices rise. A couple of heads of broccoli that used to cost perhaps 12 SRD has been up as far as almost 30 in some places, as supermarkets see what they can get away with and reluctantly bring it back down when the customers put it back on the shelf rather than in their basket.

A bottle of nothing-special  wine that six months ago was around 20SRD is now pushing 40.

You find yourself hunting for bargains. You spot something in one shop that is either a kind gesture by the management, or more likely a token  good deal to get you to spread the word that this place can save you some money. Or perhaps whoever did the pricing has got it wrong – and can get it wrong on other things too.

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The price of water in Suriname has gone up faster than the flooding level in the capital, Paramaribo

You don’t go out for dinner anymore. Most of the locals never did anyway, and now you, with your fancy foreign income and your decadent foreign ways, have been given a dose of reality.

And what do the restaurateurs do? They raise their prices. They have to, because if they were operating at only a respectable profit before, the increased cost of the food and drink and everything else would mean they would be running at a loss.

Electricity, gas and water prices all doubled at a stroke, and all government departments with the ability to get money from the public jumped on the bandwagon.

You would do it yourself – any of us would. It is simple economics.

And outside, to add insult to injury, the rainy season dumped an extra-big deluge on the whole country.

It’s a spiral that has dragged countries down before and it will happen again.

The pound fell dramatically after the Brexit result, but everyone is hoping that was a knee-jerk reaction and that normal service will be resumed in due course.

We all think our problems are  legitimate causes for concern, and of course it doesn’t actually help to know there are people wore off than ourselves. But there are, UK people, there most certainly are.

 

 

 

Confessions of an expat – A transatlantic bum

plane snow

It was a long time ago. 1983 perhaps, and my first adventure outside the British Isles. My girlfriend’s father had moved from South London to New York. Long Island, to be precise. Her mother had gone to Toronto, although the public message was that there was nothing wrong with their marriage. They had both chosen to cross the Atlantic, but had settled in cities 500 miles apart.

I wasn’t privy to the real story, because they didn’t like me. I was a bum, a semi-professional musician working for a chain of wine shops while doing whatever gigs my band could find in south west London. I’d better give the girl a name (but not her real one): Mandy.  Her father was a journalist, successful to the extent of having been the editor of a national newspaper. Now he wanted to be a novelist, and had opted for the relative solitude of a house way out on the island in a quiet town.

Then his beloved daughter had announced that she wanted to move there too, to try a career in the film business, which she had been doing in England. And she wanted to bring the bum with her, because he was her first love and he wanted to try being a rock star in the US. Fathers of daughters being the suckers they are, he went along with it, and so it was that I arrived with his precious offspring in freezing January. It was snowing in London when I left (Mandy had gone there for Christmas), but nothing like it was doing on Long Island. The little town was on the coast, and the water in the harbour was frozen.

The reception at JFK was pretty icy too: my first experience of US immigration officers. I had chosen a line with a female officer at the end of it, banking on my youthful charm to smooth my passage, but my smile and friendly words bounced off her like acorns off an ice sculpture. She let me in, though. There was no reason why she shouldn’t. British, no criminal record, fit and healthy: who wouldn’t have wanted me in their country?

Mandy had use of her mother’s car, so I was spared a trip with a snarling Cyril (not his real name either) as I discovered that Long Island was not one big affluent, beach-oriented idyll, but had real people with little money living there too.

The snarling didn’t start when we reached the house, even. The old man and I were civil to each other.

To be honest, the present me wouldn’t have liked the then me either. I wasn’t cocky exactly, but nor was I humble. They could take me or leave me, and it didn’t really occur to me that I was in Cyril’s house because he allowed me to be there and had no obligation to let me stay. Notice all the personal pronouns in that sentence? Me me me.  Ah well, Mandy was happy and she was the buffer between me and reality.

At that time, a British passport included mention of one’s occupation, and mine said songwriter. It was true, in that I wrote songs and took it seriously. I didn’t earn money from them as such, but they provided the material the band gave people at our pub gigs. I wasn’t going to put “shop assistant” on my passport – that was just temporary.

The first thing I had to do was buy an acoustic guitar, so one day we headed into the city and I found a guitar shop in Times Square. That still sounds good, the Times Square part. The guitar was okay, a Yamaha, but I put electric guitar strings on it, because they are thinner and easier to bend, and I was used to playing an electric. As a result, the tone wasn’t exactly rich, but it sounded like a guitar and was comfortable to play.

The days went by in a pleasant haze. I would sometimes go jogging in the snow in perfect peace until I rounded the corner by the harbour and the locals observed my leaden footsteps. “Run!” they used to quip – well, they thought that was a quip.

sag harbor

We would go for trips in the car and I remember the first time I saw a football pitch in America. A soccer field, they would probably call it, and in those days football was a real minority sport. It wasn’t on TV and I decided that if I stayed, I would have to get into baseball, because a sports fan has to have a sport to follow, and American football seemed like such a numbskull’s game, while ice hockey had no charm. It was indoors, for a start, as was basketball, and at least baseball took place under the sun and you could improvise a game with a few friends and a minimum of equipment.

In the evenings I would work my way through a big plastic bottle of something called Hearty Burgundy, which was cheap red wine and if anything brought out the snarl that was waiting behind Cyril’s blank exterior, that was it. But I couldn’t afford to drink what he did: good imported stuff from France.

It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. The money ran out and  we lifted the burden from Cyril and took it north to his wife.

 

Next Tuesday: a Greyhound bus, Niagara Falls and Toronto.

 

 

Confessions of an expat – Venezuela through the back door

guiria 2

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.

guiria
Like most places, Guiria doesn’t feel like the center of the world, but it’s a gateway to part of it

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.

 

Confessions of an expat – Caracas and queues

Even before the economic crash which brought shortages of everyday items, one rather surprising feature of Venezuelan life was their willingness to queue. British people always think we’re the only people on the planet who do this, but out there they form orderly queues for buses, underground trains and banks.

caracas
Even when you eventually get on a bus there’s no guarantee you’re going anywhere

That is where the orderliness finishes with buses, though. There don’t seem to be timetables or signs indicating bus stops – people just know that if you stand in a certain place a certain bus will pick you up. At the start of the journey they don’t leave at a particular time, just when they are full. I must admit that at peak times in Caracas, when the lines of people go back 200 yards, I was known to lurk near the front of the queues for two routes, both of which would get me home, and drift between the two so that I became a familiar figure and then shuffle onto whichever arrived first. In the evenings they make up the prices as they go along, but I found that if you called their bluff and hand over the usual fare without showing them up they would usually accept it.

The vehicles themselves are often old and dilapidated, but they get you there and your expectations change out here anyway – the smell of burning engine oil might be slightly alarming, but it’s not the smell of a burning bus.

The queuing business is similar in the Metro – they have lines painted on the platform that encourage you to form snakes, but the thing is so busy much of the time that I would either breeze into a gap and casually peer up the tunnel as if looking for a train, then hang around there, or make a late run into space. It’s dog eat dog when the train arrives, anyway, with the women among the worst offenders, barging with unnecessary force into crowded carriages, safe in the knowledge that nobody is going to punch them because they are just defenceless females. The UK still has a few overcompensating women, punishing today’s men for the sins of their fathers, but out there it seems like they’ve only just finished burning their bras.

That, in fact, will never happen there, because the women like to flaunt what they’ve got. They are very proud of the fact that Venezuela has produced more Miss Worlds than any other country, and they still do well in the competition’s successor, Miss Universe. Incidentally, they call a winner of one of these competitions ‘a Miss’.

miss v
Top export: Venezuela has produced more ‘Misses’ than any other country

Rumour has it that many of the spectacular cleavages are surgically-enhanced, but be that as it may, the feminine scenery is tremendous. It doesn’t stop some of them behaving like graduates of the Holloway Prison School of Charm, but maybe it’s better to be assaulted by psychopathic sisters rather than psychopathic brothers.

There is even a Miss who not long ago was a mayor of part of Caracas and is tipped to be a future president. However, the country will first have to bring to an end the Chavez/Maduro years, and although a million telescopes are trained on the horizon, there is no real sign of that particular ship coming in yet.

As for the banks, it’s all a matter of incompetence. You can be in there for literally hours waiting to accomplish a simple task such as paying in a cheque.

caracas 2
Boys will be boys, but this is real life, not a film

And speaking of incompetence, after six months I was still hopeless at Spanish. I could read the newspaper and understand most of it, write in Spanish and even speak it a bit in a halting, laboured way, but when they started talking I got hardly a word. In a strange way this helped me as an English teacher, because I now recognise that blank look in some of my students’ eyes when I ask them a simple question. I was routinely humiliated by bus drivers and shop assistants who felt superior to this clever-dick gringo because they could speak the language and I couldn’t.

Phrase books and elementary Spanish courses? Forget it. In their world when you walk into a cafe the waiter says ‘What would you like?’ and you say ‘A white coffee, please. ‘ In reality he says ‘Gorblimey guvnor I’ve got a bleeding sesame seed stuck between me teeth wotcha want then?’ and you stand there with your mouth open.

In my defence, I must point out that many Venezuelans speak Spanish as if they never went to school. It’s all sloppy pronunciation and slang, and they are particularly reluctant to use consonants, so that when you’re listening for the underground train driver to announce the next station as Parque Carabobo, he gabbles something like Ar-eh Ara o-o and everyone but the foreigner understands. I’ll get it in the end.

They tell me Caracas is one of the most dangerous cities in the world and that you’re safer in Afghanistan than walking the streets as I did. Everybody seems to know someone who was robbed at knifepoint or even kidnapped. Well, all I can say is that I never saw any trouble. I tried to steer clear of the areas people say are best avoided, but as one of them was the place where my bus left from, it was a question of keeping a low profile. Don’t advertise the fact that you have a laptop in your bag, and don’t bring your wallet out and flash the cash – sound advice anywhere.

 

 

Confessions of an Expat – What exactly are the West Indies?

barbados
This is most people’s idea of the West Indies

 

The idiot’s guide to the Caribbean

A recent brief trip to Barbados started me thinking about the whole Caribbean area and how it sees itself, as opposed to how the rest of the world sees it.

The UK thinks there is this group of islands called the West Indies.

It’s all Christopher Columbus’s fault. He was trying to get from Spain to south Asia, but ended up in the Caribbean. Easy mistake to make. Just fail to turn left when you come out of the Mediterranean and you are heading across the Atlantic ocean, bound for the wrong continent.

Columbus would have been better off going overland, as it happens, but he wasn’t to know that, so he did his best and, when he found land and didn’t know where the hell he was, he assumed he wasn’t far away from his desired destination. If he was looking for clues from the local population, he may have noticed something Asian about the eyes of the Native Americans.

“Anyway, we were looking for the Indies [i.e. something to do with India] and we’ve found a place with vaguely Asian-looking people so let’s call it the West Indies. Strayed a bit there, Mr Navigator. Pull your socks up – but we can’t be far away.”

Nowadays, some people refer to south Asia as the East Indies, which also helps to disguise Columbus’s enormous miscalculation. He hadn’t even found north or south America, as it happens. But none of these places had names, anyway, so he could call them what he liked.

Some 400 years later, the English, having muscled in on the ‘New World’ and given the locals everything from organized sport and commerce to fancy foreign diseases, started playing cricket against the West Indies, and that was the British perception up to the middle of the 20th century. Cricket is the only sport in which the Caribbean nations compete as a group and under the name West indies. Usain Bolt comes not from a generalized WI but the highly specific Jamaica.

(It should be understood that England is part of Great Britain (and if you add Northern Ireland, it’s the United Kingdom), and therefore British can mean English, although it can equally indicate Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people.)

After the Second World War they ran out of bus drivers in London and, the British population having been depleted by casualties, someone had the brilliant idea of bringing some West Indians, mainly Jamaicans, over to help out. Global integration was on its way (although it has been a frustratingly slow and antagonistic process).

But xenophobia (in both directions, mind you) is by the by. Air travel suddenly made it possible for the British to visit the tropics on holiday.

Americans have a different story to tell, but all I really know about that is that they call the Caribbean nations ‘the islands’ in a rather proprietorial way.

For us Brits, we couldn’t get enough of the sun, sea and sand. Not that we don’t have our own, but unfortunately the thermostat is stuck on a low temperature for most of the year.

What we knew from cricket was that in the “West Indies” there was Barbados, there was Trinidad and there was Guyana. Yes, Guyana. Well known (to cricket fans only) players such as Basil Butcher, Lance Gibbs and Rohan Kanhai were all part of the West Indies team that toured England in the mid 60s, and then came Clive Lloyd. All Guyanese. All playing for the Windies. And therefore Guyana must be an island in the Caribbean, right?

Wrong, actually. It’s a country in South America. Pardon one’s ignorance. And anyway, Guyana, along with Suriname, doesn’t consider itself part of South America as much as part of the Caribbean.

Culture was on its way, too. Bob Marley gave the world a kind of music that would be loved everywhere.

marley
Memorial for the man who put the jam in Jamaica

There was a hit pop song in the UK in the early 70s, complete with faux-Caribbean accent,  that went ‘Oh, I’m going to Barbidas, blah blah blah, oh, lots of pretty palm trees… in the sunny Caribbean sea.’ It was a catchy tune and the British music-buying public are susceptible to a bit of holiday daydreaming a la Y Viva Espana.

Now Barbados is known by some as Little England, and from my brief  visit I can confirm that there is certainly a lot of British influence – and the people I met were not sullenly resentful of white people, which sadly can be the case in other islands.

So the British perception was that the West Indies was Barbados, Trinidad, Guyana and Jamaica.

Then came the ultimate Caribbean cricketing hero, Viv Richards, and we heard of Antigua, because that’s where he is from. And people started getting married on the beach in St Lucia. And there was Grenada, the spice island. The Caribbean map was taking shape.

guyana
The Caribbean is the blue bit, so any of the green bits that touch it can – and do – call themselves part of the Caribbean.

But that’s where it stopped for most people. We knew about the Bahamas, but we didn’t necessarily know where they were. Tobago? Never heard of it. Curacao? Somewhere in China. Aruba and Bonaire? Figments of your imagination, old son (although the Dutch know where they are, because they made the most impact there in colonial times). Antilles, Windward islands, Leeward islands? You’re just trying to confuse me.

Guadeloupe? No, that’s a kind of melon. Cuba? Off the coast of Russia, mate. St Kitts and Nevis? That’s a home for stray animals in south London.

 

Confessions of an Expat – Honeymoon in Chuspa

chuspa 3

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.

chuspa
Good old days: Venezuela was once the jewel in the crown of South America

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.

chuspa 2
Half-hearted attempts were made to restore the hotel, but it came to symbolise the end of the good times

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.

Confessions of an Expat – a table in the car park

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.

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It may once have looked exotic, but it’s a port. What do you expect, palm trees?

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.

harbour car park
Stick a few plastic tables and chairs out there and bingo! An open-air restaurant

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.

fish
Raw materials sometimes look better than end results

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.

 

Confessions of an Expat – in a Venezuelan bog

Foreign country, language barrier, someone else’s house. What could possibly go wrong?

A visit to a friend’s home for lunch. With other commitments, we get there about 3.30 and I am feeling very rough after the previous evening’s quiet night in turned into a party. So when we arrive at Antonio’s place I am not the most scintillating company. And since I still can’t speak Spanish there is a danger of sinking into an incommunicative stupor.

After half an hour I feel a visit to the sanitary facilities might make me feel better. Locate the little room and venture in with a strange feeling of impending doom. Sit down and check for traps.

The old no-paper ploy. Nothing on the toilet roll holder, but loads in the cupboard under the basin. Okay, cracked it – and then find the real stash balanced on the towel rail.

Physical symptoms alleviated, attempt to flush the thing. No response, not even a gurgle. Take the lid off the cistern and find it’s bone dry. Lift ballcock and still nothing happens. Must be turned off at the stopcock for some reason.

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One could, of course, sit here all afternoon and say nothing. Smile and suffer. That’s the English way.

Grope around the pipes and find a tap, which mercifully is not jammed like every other stopcock in the world. Turn it on, hoping it’s not turned off because it floods the place when open. It fills the cistern in a flash, I pull the handle (like the cord arrangement on an outboard engine) and it does the trick.

Turn off the stopcock, realising that this passes the problem on to the next visitor, but with my grasp of the language what am I going to do? Beg them for a dictionary? Demonstrate like you would in charades? No, it’s every man for himself.

Wash hands and re-enter the living room, where Antonio has produced a sort of electric griddle and plonked a 12-inch joint of beef on it. Surely he’s not going to try to cook it on this.

But he is. Browns it down one flank, then turns it over. Have a bit of common sense, mate: this is only going to cook the edges.

The elegant young lady of the room, a friend of one of the nephews, heads for the bathroom and I wrestle momentarily with a gallant urge to help her, before deciding against it for the reasons listed above.

While I watch Antonio do his stuff she disappears, then comes back five minutes later, unflustered.

Antonio takes a carving knife and makes slices thinner than steaks but thicker than for a roast dinner, cooks them quickly and cuts them into the sort of fingers the Chinese go in for. It seems I underestimated you, Mr Bond.

Other family members appear unbidden and grill sausages, make salads and do something with what looks eventually like dry, overcooked potatoes but is in fact cassava. The salad is iceberg lettuce, beefsteak tomatoes, onion and palmitos (palm hearts in brine, tasting a bit like asparagus – very refreshing and go down a treat). More beer? No th… okay then, very kind of you.

Chichiriviche (1)
Faint, disorientated smile, pink eyes, leaning back in chair. It’s the weather: too hot.

And so to evening, fending off the beers, accepting a lemon-flavoured rum in a shot glass. To paraphrase Percy Garriss, the mine-owner in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, ‘You’ve got to relax, got to get used to Venezuelan ways.’ Mind you, he got shot by Bolivian bandits shortly afterwards, perhaps dreaming of halcyon days spent in potentially embarrassing bathroom incidents.