Venezuela; November 1992.
How big is your backpack? That is a question with profound philosophical implications. That is a question that addresses the fundamental relationship between you, as a human, and the ecosystem of the planet earth that you inhabit. How big is your backpack?
For my first ever trip to Central and South America in 1992-93, I had the biggest and fullest and heaviest backpack in the history of backpacking. It was a little insane. I had camping gear with tent, sleeping mat and a cook stove; I had guidebooks, reading books and notebooks; I had medical supplies and toiletries; I had clothes for all kinds of climates and I even had games. Somewhere in the bottom of my bag there was probably even a kitchen sink full of dirty dishes… I remember having to really heave it to get it up and on my shoulders. Once I got it up there, I could walk with it okay because I was used to hiking in the Adirondacks with full camping gear but I must have looked pretty ridiculous stumbling around Latin American cities with a mountain of things stacked on my shoulders. Getting it on and off the roofs of local buses and minibuses or into small luggage compartments was always a serious challenge often requiring assistance from two or three strong young locals. By the time I got to Venezuela, I was also very aware of the burden my extra big backpack imposed on my fellow public transport travelers. It was starting to feel like an existential ball and chain… As the years went by, I learned through experience that most of what you need is available where you go so I began to travel with less and less. Somewhere along the line, traveling with as little as possible became kind of a personal philosophy or belief system. By the time I got to 2008, I was traveling Africa with little more than a daypack. Indeed, that belief system found it’s way into my stay at home and not travel time as well. Less is more to the very core. Own nothing share everything. Happy the man who can sleep naked on a bed of grass and want for nothing… Oh yeah. That’s what I’m talking about. The realization of the obvious that contradicts the generally accepted story. But all that is later, much later. When I was stranded in Macuto, Venezuela by the revolution I had no such crazy radical beliefs. I was simply a lost lawyer on sabbatical with a very big backpack…
When I checked out of my hotel in the morning, I found Pierre waiting for me at reception. Apparently, he stayed there as well the night before and had just checked out ahead of me. The first thing he did upon seeing me was scoff at the size of my big backpack. “You Americans and your stuff.” He said. “Can you ever have enough? It is crazy.”
“But I am traveling for six months,” I said defensively, “and I like to hike and camp.”
“And I’m traveling for three months,” he said as he arrogantly swung his little shoulder bag to and fro. “And I like to surf and scuba.”
“Yeah right,” I said, “and your scuba gear fits in your purse.”
“I can rent gear when I want it so this little bag is all I need when I move from place to place.” He twirled his shoulder bag in a show off move. “Come, bring your house and let’s go. They wait for us outside.
Parked in the road in front of the hotel was a collectivo/minibus that was packed full of people. Gaya and Stuart were on board and they waived us over. Somehow or other, there were two empty seats that we could squeeze into but finding a place for my backpack was another story. At first the driver’s assistant tried to push it into the luggage compartment behind the back seat but it wouldn’t fit. Then the driver had to get out and help the assistant hoist it up on to the roof and strap it on. The process took a while and Pierre glanced at me with his condescending smirk the whole time. That’s right, I was the asshole privileged American with tons of shit who needed extra help and thereby delayed everyone’s crowded uncomfortable journey even longer. Then, I felt like I had to tip the driver and his assistant extra for their hard work but the act of tipping them only amplified my self conscious image as the privileged American getting waited upon by locals. Just call me super Gringo with a capital G.
The minivan travelled on mostly dirt roads but I really couldn’t see well because I was crammed inside like a sardine with several bodies separating me from the window. It took a lot longer than I expected. Almost an hour to go twenty kilometers? How can that be? Perhaps it only seemed a real long time because I was so uncomfortable. They stopped at a couple other places to let passengers off before us so the vehicle was half empty by the time we got there.
No matter, we did eventually arrive at our destination and unload ourselves from the uncomfortable transport.
Welcome to Paradise. We were dropped at the intersection of two dirt roads in front of a small little general store. There was no sign actually welcoming me to a real place called paradise but that was the sensation that washed over my soul. Across the dirt road from us was ocean and a perfect beach of white sand that hugged a wide cove of Caribbean blue waters. Nice big waves tumbled towards me splashing glittering foam into the midday light. It looked like an image from a travel magazine. I turned around to look behind me and saw that the other dirt road went perpendicular from the beach straight back into fairly dense jungle with rising small mountains in the background. “Wow. This is nice. Where is the Cabana?
“From here we have to walk,” said Gaya, “but first we should get some supplies.”
The grocery store was small but well stocked with fresh fish, fruit and a surprising amount of easy to make international instant foods (pasta and rice with msg sauces). There was also a small bakery attached that sold really good empanadas and really bad coffee. I bought myself a bag of empanadas and chipped in 15 bucks to Gaya for dinner and breakfast supplies and a couple bottles of rum. I also bought a newspaper on the way out the door.
The walk to the cabana was a bit longer than I expected and the cabana was not on the ocean. Pierre helped Gaya with the groceries and they led the way as Stuart and I followed behind with our backpacks. We took the perpendicular road up about fifty meters into the jungle and then turned right onto a footpath. From there it was another 150 meters of walking uphill through jungle to reach the cabana. It was not at all like what I envisioned when I left Macuto in the morning but it was still amazing. Very Eden like with fruit trees, flowers and thick dense green shrubbery. The sound of a stream or creek was flowing nearby. But we certainly could not see, hear or smell the ocean. It was definitely not a beach front cabana…
No matter, it was a very nice place to stay for the very reasonable price of fifteen dollars a person. There were three bedrooms, a bathroom with shower and a well-equipped kitchen.
Stuart and Gaya took the biggest room while Pierre and I had a mental tug of war over the other two. Ultimately, I agreed to take the small shitty room to demonstrate that I was not a greedy gringo American who wanted everything for himself. Fortunately, the cabana also had a very cool outdoor courtyard/jungle garden area with a picnic table, a couple of hammocks and an amazing outdoor shower to help with the jungle heat. So I left my big backpack in my tiny bedroom but spent most of my time in one of the garden hammocks.
We arrived in the early afternoon and Gaya went right to work demonstrating her skills as a gracious hostess and all around party professional. After putting away the groceries, she went out in the garden to gather a few coconuts that had fallen from the trees into the garden. She then used a machete to transform those coconuts into cups. I was more than a little impressed by her incredible display of big blade virtuosity. Indeed, it kind of turned me on… Seriously, before Gaya did her little thing with the machete, I was not at all attracted to her. She was probably about my age, maybe a little older, but way too big and buxom for my taste. She was also very black. My internal vision of the Venezuelan beauty queen was the bikini clad, olive skinned Latina, not a machete wielding matron from Africa. I actually thought it was strange that Stuart acted like she was his hot and sexy girlfriend. She was very nice and boisterous and helpful… But hot and sexy she was not… Until she started wielding a machete. And then I was like wow, oh my, would you look at that. Stuart old boy… You sure are the man.
So she turned the coconuts into cups and filled them up with fresh pineapple, rum and coconut juice and handed a cup to each of us. She then pulled out a small transistor radio from a cabinet and set it up on the picnic table in the garden. I commandeered one hammock and Pierre laid claim to the other while Stuart and Gaya sat at the picnic table where Gaya had placed a bowl of fruit and bag of empanadas. Gaya tuned the radio to a station from Caracas that played a mix of American rock and roll, reggae, and Latin pop. Every half hour or so, they had a ten minute news break with updates about the “golpe.” The updates were in Spanish so neither Stuart nor I understood much so we had to rely mostly on translations from Gaya and Pierre. Gaya’s English was not so good and Pierre’s translations were questionable because of his overt political slant but all in all it made for interesting conversation as we all hung out in the garden courtyard drinking rum and having fun. We would talk, laugh and watch Gaya get up and dance around the yard for songs she liked as she tried to convince the skinny little nerdy Englishman to dance with her. Stuart sat at the picnic table sipping from his coconut shaking his head no. Pierre and I shouted encouragement from our hammocks but he wouldn’t budge. It was a comical scene to watch and be a part of. But then, the news break would happen and we would all fall silent and listen intently. I remember focusing my brain until it hurt trying to understand what the fast talking newscaster was saying about the golpe.
Sometime in the late afternoon, Stuart suggested we all go for a walk down to the beach. Maybe have a swim. Gaya, the incredibly gracious hostess said no because she wanted to stay at the cabana to prepare a feast of an evening meal to celebrate our first night in paradise. Pierre declined as well. He wanted to nap in the hammock to recover from his jet lag. But I wanted to go. We promised to be back for dinner just after sunset.
I remember facing the money belt/beach dilemma when I went back to my room to change into my swim shorts and get my beach bag. If I was going to be staying at this cabana for a whole week, I had to figure out what I was going to do with my money belt and passport while I was here. Obviously, there was no safe at reception and I didn’t want to keep it on my person all the time. Assuming I could trust Pierre and Gaya, my room in the cabana was very safe as long as they were there. But I just met them yesterday. It really is a pain to have a money belt on the beach. They certainly didn’t seem untrustworthy. What did my gut say? I stuffed my money belt into the bottom of my big backpack in the corner of my tiny room and headed to the beach feeling free.
The way to the beach was easy to find. Just follow the main footpath downhill to where it tees at the dirt road. Go left and follow the road to the sand and water. We walked single file on the footpath with Stuart in the lead but when we reached the road we evened up to side by side.
“So what do you think of Gaya?” He said.
“Well,” I said, “she’s very good with a machete.”
He laughed. “Yeah, that’s for sure. She’s good at a lot of things.”
“I can only imagine,” I said, shaking my head as I tried not to visualize.
“That’s not what I mean,” he said, “but yeah, she is good at that too. But she’s also good at lots of other things… amazing in fact. I really like her. And I’m afraid I misspoke about her when we were talking the other day.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“I think I gave you the impression that she was some kind of whore or prostitute. I talked about her in an improper way. She is not like that at all. She’s more like a girlfriend. I really respect her and I want you to know that because I want you to respect her too.
“No worries,” I said, “I respect any woman that wields a machete like she does. I thought she was a room broker you were dating not some hooker. I think she is nice and fun. Though I have no plan to move in on your action. I’m just glad you guys invited me to come stay here. This place is incredible.” As I made this statement we reached the white sands before the ocean and the view before us put an exclamation mark on my words.
“I’m happy you came along,” he added as we stopped walking to take in the view, “and Pierre too. Gaya is lots of fun but the two of us alone on a romantic honeymoon would be awkward. She is the kind of bird that thrives on a social atmosphere. All of us here together is very much better.”
“And cheaper too,” I said. “Wow. Look at those waves. Makes me want to dive right in.”
“Do you think it’s safe,” he said. “What if there is undertow? You know, rip tide?”
I looked up and down the beach for other people swimming. Our end of the beach was fairly empty with just an old couple sitting under a big beach umbrella and a small group of six teenage boys playing soccer. Down towards the middle of the beach there were a few sunbathers and a couple people splashing in the water by the shoreline. The far other end of the beach looked kind of busy with picnickers, sunbathers and swimmers. There even appeared to be a roped off area with lifeguards there and a few small buildings in the background. It looked like it might be some type of private resort. We walked across the sand away from the soccer players to the middle section and laid out our towels and beach bags near the shoreline.”What do you suppose all that is,” said Stuart as he looked towards the far end.
“Looks like some sort of private resort,” I said.
“It’s probably safer to swim near a lifeguard. Maybe rip tides here.”
“I doubt it,” I answered, “this is a public beach, if it was dangerous there would be warning signs. And look at those people right there.” I pointed to a couple frolicking in the waves a short distance away and then I sat down on my towel.
“I’ll bet there’s some nice birds down there by the lifeguard,” said Stuart. “Birds in bikinis on the beach. What could be better?” He sat down next to me
“Are you saying we should move our stuff all the way down to the other end?”
“Not now,” he said, “here is fine for now. But I would like to check it out sometime. Maybe even today before we go back.”
“I’m good with that plan,” I said. “A little sun and splash here for a while and then a stroll down the beach at sunset to check out the scene.
Swimming in the ocean there was incredible. Big waves tossed my buoyant body about like a rag doll. It was exhilarating. It was glorious. I ran forward in the shallow water and leapt into the curling whitecaps of foam. I informed Stuart that there was no riptide and no danger so he was willing to make the plunge after me. We couldn’t swim at the same time though because Stuart had his wallet with him and he didn’t want to leave it untended in the sand. So we took turns swimming and sunbathing. I read a chapter in one of my books and Stuart dozed in the afternoon sun.
Soaked, salted and baked, we packed up our beach bags and set out on our stroll down the shoreline towards the more crowded far end of the beach. As we got closer it appeared like our initial guess was correct. There was a roped off swimming area with a life guard that was not exactly packed full but was significantly more populated than our section of beach. There were at least fifty or so people scattered about in small groups around the sand and there was also a cluster of luxury cabanas just back from the beach. It appeared as if this section of beach was part of some resort and I wondered if all of the beach goers were guests. Stuart and I pretended like we were looking for shells and stones at the water’s edge as we walked along but we were really scoping out the beach for beautiful young ladies. Holy smokes… We were outrageously, incredibly, miraculously surprised….
“Do you see what I see?” said Stuart as he stopped to pick up a shell and show it to me
“That depends,” I said “are you talking about those two super hot chicas on the green blanket just to our left or those three super hot chicas on towels by the red and white umbrella straight ahead.
“Birds in bikinis, birds in shorts. Birds, birds and more birds,” he said. “We seem to have stumbled upon a flock.”
As healthy young men in our late twenties, it was a little like walking into a sex fantasy. There were a few normal looking humans on the beach… elders, perhaps, or guardian/chaperones sitting here and there or strolling about. But mostly, it was just beautiful young ladies in bikinis… lots of them. And no young men to go with them. It had to be a special organization, or school or club. That’s it; it was the super hot ladies of Venezuela club and we just accidentally walked into it…. But alas, fantasies don’t usually come true. Real life has complications
“Let’s keep walking.. and looking at shells,” I said, “but I sort of have a feeling that we are not supposed to be here.”
“It’s a free beach ,” said Stuart. “There were no signs or barriers to block our entry. Just because there’s a flock of birds doesn’t mean we can’t be here.”
“Let’s just be inconspicuous,” I said. “Watch the shells and the shoreline. Try not to look at the ladies. Oh my god… Do you see those two over there in the beach chairs. Wow.”
“The blue blanket,” he said. “Four of them. Beauties. Here stop look at this shell.” He stopped, leaned over and picked up a shell.
Of course our little shell game wasn’t fooling anyone. No doubt the chicas were checking us out just as we were checking them. They pretended to not notice us… the two strange white dudes who were trespassing on their beach. And we pretended not to notice them… An extraordinarily high concentration of super sexy beautiful young ladies assembled on a small stretch of beach. To my 27 year old self, it seemed like the entire beach was pulsating with sexual energy. I could feel it in the air… taste it in the wind. I had an urge to prance about and show off my masculine virility. I wanted to strut and howl… But I didn’t. Instead, I looked at Stuart’s shell and waited for the great weight of reality to crash through my fantasy.
I saw them walking across the sand out of the corner of my eye and turned my head away hoping to not see them. Authority was coming to enforce the law. Two guys in uniforms, not sure what kind of uniform but official looking enough, approached us. They were unarmed and not aggressive but they wanted to know what we were doing on la playa privada. They didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Spanish but we did our best to apologize and say we didn’t know it was privada. We acted out the part of the goofy confused tourists who wandered into the wrong place. The two uniformed guys escorted us down the beach to a point about fifty meters past where the water was roped off for swimming. They drew a line in the sand there and pointed to a sign that was posted a short distance from the water. We honestly hadn’t noticed the sign on the way down. Oh well. Sorry. The other side of the line was playa publico this side was playa privada. Okay then, from now on, we won’t cross the line
As Stuart and I headed back down the beach the sun fell closer and closer to the horizon. We were on the north coast of Venezuela on the western side of a jut in the shoreline. As such, the sun seemed to be sinking into the ocean just off shore straight ahead of us. We were walking into the sunset.
“Tomorrow,” said Stuart, “we should set up our towels right next to the line. Maybe some of the birds will do a beach stroll.
“I’m all for that,” I said, “that was unreal… incredible. Too many to count. Do you think they will still be there tomorrow?
“I sure hope so,” he said, “I wonder who they are?”
“Models on a beach fashion shoot,” I suggested
“Good guess,” said Stuart, “but too many birds for models and no blokes with cameras. I would guess something educational… Students from university… A weekend educational retreat on a subject that only women are interested in. Feminism or something like that.”
“You think they were feminists taking a break from a conference to sunbathe? Really? No way.”
“Sure,” he said, “why not?”
“Feminists don’t sun bathe in bikinis,” I said. “If it’s gotta be an educational gathering, I’d bet on beauty school.”
“Whoever they are,” said Stuart, “I would like to get to know them better.”
We turned left away from the water just as the sun disappeared beneath the waves. It only took us ten minutes to walk from there uphill to the cabana. When we returned, Pierre was out cold asleep in the hammock and Gaya was cooking up a storm in the kitchen. The entire cabana smelled like a delicious combination of Caribbean spices and my hunger instincts responded enthusiastically.
“Welcome home my darlings,” said Gaya, “you are just in time. Wake up Pierre and take a seat at table. I hope you are ready to eat.”
To be continued…