Friday, April 19, 2013

Memories of Caracas, 1945

I wasn't even sure where Caracas was or what country it was in when we went to join my father.  He had gone to supervise the construction of a dam about thirty miles from Caracas.  A day or two after I graduated from high school my mother and I had the furniture packed and sent to Pennsylvania and we took off from Washington's National airport bound for Venezuela. I was very reluctant to go.  This was my tenth move and I was again leaving behind friends and familiar surroundings and going into the unknown. This move was really the unknown.

We boarded a Pan American flight which was indeed the equivalent of a milk run.  There were stops at Raleigh-Durham, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Miami; Camaguey, Cuba, Port au Prince, Haiti; Kingston, Jamaica; Aruba and, finally, Maiquetia in Venezuela. 

I shall always remember the stop in Jamaica.  The takeoffs and landings made my ears pop and ache and, on this particular landing, we encountered some air pockets that made the plane buck and weave.  When we landed my ears hurt and my stomach was queasy.  We had a rest top here and we walked gratefully across the tarmac to a Quonset hut which was the airport terminal.  A brisk, smiling woman came to greet us and said "Welcome to Jamaica.  Please come in and have a rum punch, courtesy of the Jamaican rum industry."  I sipped it grateful for the friendly British and my stomach seemed to quiet down.

My father met us at Maiquetia looking tanned and fit.  He had a company car driven by a nice looking Venezuelan named Jose.  We loaded the baggage and were soon on our way.  I was impressed with the few Spanish phrases my father managed and was determined to learn it myself.

The trip up the mountain road to Caracas was a blur of first impressions.  There was the breathtaking view of the Caribbean behind us as we wound up the heavily travelled road.  There were loaded buses coming down toward the sea at breakneck speed, trucks decorated with garlands on the hood and names like "My Girlfriend" or "The Champion" written on the fenders.  I saw new trees and flowers, flocks of sea birds and the occasional vulture. Every so often we passed crosses near a heap of stones with flowers draped on them.  I was told that these spots marked fatal automobile accidents.  I was sobered by this but not so the other drivers.  Speed seemed to be of the essence.

We entered the outskirts of Caracas and I could see cloud-tipped mountains on either side of the city.  There were red tile roofs and church spires and small shops all interspersed on the narrow streets.  We passed through the main plaza, the heart of the town, with its home of Simon Bolivar and two beautiful old churches on three sides of the square.  Everywhere were people, walking, shopping, getting in and out of the open streetcars, and no one seemed in a hurry.  Jose seemed to navigate the traffic with no trouble.  We left the heart of the town and drove down a wide avenue past a block of striking mahogany trees and stopped, finally, at a small hotel called the Ambassador, run by a friendly German couple.

It felt good to get out of a moving vehicle and walk for a change.  I was immediately aware of the exciting strangeness of it all.  The sights, sounds and smells were all different.  The air was clear and clean and the sky was a blazing blue, mountains sharp in the distance.  There had been a shower before we arrived and the spicy smell of ozone, rotting leaves, flowers, kerosene and cooking assailed me.  Would I ever get to know this place?

The hosts greeted us cordially and showed us our rooms.  They were accompanied by their four-year-old daughter, Heidi, who spoke English with us easily.  I later learned that she spoke German and Spanish just as easily.  I was overwhelmed.  Only four and she could do that!  I felt useless.

The two weeks that we stayed at the Ambassador introduced me to Venezuela at first hand.  We learned how to get into town, saw the shops, admired the 18 carat cochano gold jewelry native to Venezuela, found that orchids were very common and that they cost less than apples which had to be imported from the United States.

We found out that there was no twilight.  Day ended and night fell.  I saw all kinds of native people, black, brown, white and all shades in between plus all the Americans and Europeans living there.  I celebrated my eighteenth birthday the week after my arrival and received a bracelet made from Bolivares, the silver money of the country.  I also got a small bottle of Chanel #5, very cheap in Venezuela, and finally a small silver lighter to celebrate my coming of age in smoking.  The only thing holding me back now was learning the language.  That and friends.  In due time we got an apartment, I learned survival Spanish and I made some friends.  It was just the beginning of my love affair with Caracas.

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