Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Day 2: Money, Venezuelan Style; Nudity; Duct Tape

Slept well, alarm went off at 9:30, two hours earlier than I´m used to, but I didn´t want to miss free buffet breakfast which only lasts until 10:00.

1) Menu- fresh fruit: pineapple, watermelon, cantelope, and an as yet unamed fruit with deep red color like raw meat. Last fruit was some kind of melon and had a smokey flavor.- fresh juices: passion fruit (had black things swimming around in it that were either seeds or parasites.- milk, yogurt and cereal (I decided not to chance dairy products on first day)
2) "the crowd"Only other diners were a Polish couple (Marek and Ella) who had been living in London for a while. They had stayed here several times before.Turns out the hotel a total of about 6 guests. This is their low season.

Good news: there´d be no wild parties.
Bad news: there´d be no wild parties.

Marek and Ella gave me the low down:- where to get best rate on money changing. (official bank rate was 2150 bolivars per dollar. going street rate was 3400 bolivars per dollar. they said a local minimart paid 3800 per dollar. Before leaving on my trip, the Wall Street Journal had published an article about inflation and the black market in Venezuela.)- Illness and disease
*Him: following a hurricane, local beach was flooded with contaminated water. He went windsurfing and contracted a nasty ear infection. He took antibiotics he brought and it cleared up in a few days.
*Her: the had some kind of miscellaneous stomach problem. From the way she blushed when he mentioned it, I´m guessing she had gassy, fragrant diahrea. They suspected it was from a langustino dish at one of few clean-looking restaurants and only night spot on the beach. I would be eating there that night.

The Money Exchange

After breakfast, I went to the minimart, also known as a bodega. It was slightly seedy, poorly lit, small with packed shelves. Kind of similar to what you could find in my neighborhood in Somerville.

In the store, there was an innocent looking 20-something woman behind the counter, a large thug-like guy mopping the store, and another guy in the back talking to him. There were a few customers buying stuff. I went to a rack filled with American junk food, Mars bars, Cheese Doodles, Almond Joys. I studied the shelf intently waiting for the other customers to leave.
When the coast was clear, I went to counter and said in my best Spanish accent "Change money?"
She said: "How much?"
"100 US dollars"
"How many bills?"
She entered something into a handheld calculator and then showed it to me: 3800. I nodded ok. She said "wait few minutes."
I went back to the Mars bars.In a few minutes she gives me a nod and waives me over to the unused side of her checkout counter. Then she rummaged around under the change draw in her cash register. She counted out some bills and the recounted them into my hand: 380,000 bolivars. I recounted and gave her the 100 bill and threw the bolivars into a plastic bag I was carrying. I bolted from the store and didn´t look back. I imagine this is what it is like to buy crack in the Bronx.
*Side note: I booked the Venezuelan windsurfing portion of my trip through a US company called Vela in Oregon. In my trip confirmation letter, they said specifically that the staff in Venezuela prefers to be paid in US dollars.
*Another side note: in Spanish, "million" means "thousand." So the big joke is that everyone in Venezuela is a millionaire. Supposedly, next year the government will change the currency to eliminate all the extra zeros. Instead of using a 50,000 bolivar bill, they´ll have just a 50 bolivar bill.
*Last side note in the section: restaurants add 10% to your bill for service.

First Day Windsurfing

I show up to the windsurfing center. It´s on a nice beach with tiki bars and beach chairs all around. At first glance it seems to a happening scene. Lots of people drinking and wearing skimpy bathing suits. On closer inspection, I realize that most of them are married and have several unruly kids running around throwing sand at each other. Parents have drunk themselves numb and it´s only 11:00. Though bathing suits are pretty skimpy, no one is topless. (hanging out of biki tops, yes, but no nudity.) Only nudity: One little boy is running around naked.)

At the windsurfing center, I´m very flattered that they know my name and are expecting me. My swelled head is quickly deflated when it turns out that I am the only customer at the windsurfing center. Vela travel agent neglected to tell me that this was low season, meaning that this is low wind season and anyone with any sense waits till November. When I booked the trip in July and asked how many people would be down here, the agent said there would be some but that it wasn´t fully booked.

Still, the staff is helpful, the wind is strong (15 to 20 knots, which is plent for me). I ask if they have suggestions on how to avoid hand and finger blisters, the bane of all windsurfers. (I already use Michael Jackson style gloves the finger tips cut off.) Staff suggests using the gloves and applying duct tape to exposed part of fingers for protection. Full gloves apparently put a lot stress on your forearms and would cost 60,000 bolivars, are about $16, which is more than I want to spend. Luckily, I brought duct tape with me and I can mooch off the windsurfing club´s supply.

Dinner at a pizze joint, not the place on the beach, spaghetti bolognese and world´s smallest beer, 30,000 bolivars or about $8 with tip.