After last week’s ice cream indulgences, it was time for cleansing, moving forward, getting it right. No more giving in to every soft-serve urge: I needed to clean up my life and focus on what matters.
So I went to the beach for a long weekend with my pals Chris and Jess, and new friends Cornelia and Chris (all high school teachers and cool folks). I promised that this would be a monastic weekend, filled only with simple things like sun and sand, or possibly empanadas and fruit, maybe the occasional coca-cola or beer, or, you know, some pizza: treats from Nature herself. I’d straighten up and fly right.
|Starsky and Hutch
in southern syndication
We set out early Friday morning to beat the legendary Caracas traffic, mixing in with brand new SUVs, 1970s guzzlers living a second (or third!) life as semi-reliable taxis, and station wagons whose doors were completely missing and whose wheels wobbled as rust flew in the wind. As we descended out of the mountains, the landscape changed with each kilometer–from low dense forest, to jungly wetlands, to coastal desert mountains covered in cactus and scrub. On the outskirts of Puerto La Cruz, a sprawling oil town, flames burned above black refineries. We stopped for lunch at a roadside quesería, where they served tasty cachapas, sweet corn-dough pancakes served with fresh cheese. This didn’t feel like a violation of my vow of simplicity. Corn? Cheese? People have been eating them for thousands of years. I was still living right.
Our destination, Mochima National Park, is a large protected area of mountains and near-in islands, varying from overgrown and lush, to dry as a bone. Fishing villages and tattered tourist towns line the coast; small settlements of old-time fishermen dot the islands, though no new building is officially permitted.
We settled in at Posada Cristina, a home with guest rooms and a lovely patio with hammocks and a couple of turtles roaming the garden. The charm inside the posada gates belies the ruin beyond: Cristina told us that after the village suffered catastrophic floods several years ago, the government came to build a control reservoir and brought in heavy machinery that damaged the roads. The contractors left the job half-done and never repaired the roads, so now only slow-moving jeeps can safely navigate the town.
Cristina arranged for a short boat ride to a nearby beach, away from the crowded village waterfront. On our little wooden launch, we passed a tiny island with a ruined mansion. It had been built illegally, occupied briefly, then looted and torn down. Concrete walls and a pretty beach are all that remain. Take that, avarice!
|I wants it. I needs it. My Precioussss.|
After a few hours of snorkeling and floating aimlessly in the green bathtub-warm water, we got ready for our scheduled 5:30 pickup. The boy who had driven us out there never showed up, and by 6:00, 15 minutes from sunset, it was looking dire. A drunken Gollum and his sober partner offered to take us back, and after some dithering (we’d already arranged with the boy, and who were we going to pay, and maybe this guy was just too creepy) we decided to hop in their boat. Gollum desperately wanted the precious mask and snorkel and kept trying to talk us into a trade, but it was no deal.
|Drumming for the Virgin|
The next morning, we hopped in another boat (more reliable, we thought, since the two teenagers driving us would stay with us for the whole day) for a tour of the outer islands. First, we stopped in the fishing village of Santa Fe for groceries. They were celebrating the feast of the Virgen del Valle, with a small parade of fishing boats full of drummers, statues of the Virgen, and village folks. The boys waited for us while we navigated the overripe market and pushed aside pelicans celebrating the feast at the fish-cleaning tables and garbage bins.
A forty-minute ride through blue-green channels and around arid islands took us to the first beach, a crescent of clean sand flanked on three sides by rising desert mountains. The water was clearer, cooler, full of coral and schools of fluorescent fish in the shade below the cliffs. The boys then took us to another beach, facing out into the open Caribbean. While we snorkeled or hid from the sun under the low trees, our teenage drivers–best friends, obviously–enjoyed their day at the beach by throwing sand at each other, then pebbles, then rocks they’d heated in a fire. These guys didn’t need an xbox to have fun. I devoted myself to learning their wisdom.
With an hour before sunset, the boys were hunting big sticks to hit each other with, and it seemed like time to go. We returned on the fronts of ocean swells, our now-serious young captain deftly maneuvering the little boat in and out of the troughs.
Cristina made us banana smoothies back at the posada and we rested from the hard day in the hammocks. She urged us not to walk to the town’s only restaurant, but to drive the four blocks instead, as there had been a murder earlier in the day, and who knows what the fallout would be; tourists, she thought, might not be safe walking the torn-up streets. More than just a religious occasion, the feast of the Virgen was an opportunity to get drunk and settle scores. So we drove, and a few minutes after we sat down, we saw her Land Cruiser go by–just checking up.
|Twilight is big here, too.
The trip back to Caracas on Sunday flew by, fueled by four-cent-a-gallon gasoline and several bags of Doritos. We’d expected delays, horrible tie-ups near the city. People had warned us about all-day trips, or waiting three hours on the freeway just a mile from home. Instead, we zoomed through villages and towns, up the hill to the thousand-meter mark where we live. Desert gave way to swamp, then to verdant mountains. The air got cooler and less thick with humidity.
How else could I celebrate our return and my weekend without frozen indulgence? I walked to the market, bought some black beans and rice for the week–and stopped on the corner for a nice chocolate ice cream cone.