Reise, Viaje, Travel…It’s Great Anyway You Say It

When taking a trip into the mountains outside Caracas, the assumption is you will see some gorgeous forest, probably some fantastic tropical birds, and maybe some fertile farmland as you get beyond the borders of the city. You would not be wrong on any of these fronts. However, the prospect of lederhosen and greased pole climbing and polka dancing probably would not show up on that same travel checklist.

And yet…

Sometimes travel is all about timing and you never know when you might stumble across a hidden gem on the road. This last weekend was a long one so we decided to use it as a chance to get out of Caracas and see a bit more of the country. (It is hard here. I have never lived in a country for so long and seen so little of it. Usually, by three-months in, we have been all over the place, but for multiple reasons, getting out and about in Venezuela is a challenge.) We planned to go to a town that is a favorite of embassy folks- Colonia Tovar. This little oddity is about two hours outside of the city (only about 30 miles on the map, so that tells you what the road up the mountainside is like!) so it makes a nice overnight stay. Colonia Tovar is a “German town” and it is a well-deserved moniker. Visitors who make it up the winding (and pitted) road to the top of the mountain are greeted with a picturesque view that looks straight out of Bavaria. Everything from the buildings to the main church square to the menus full of bratwurst scream that you have accidentally crossed the Atlantic and ended up not only in a different country, but a different continent!

Colonia Tovar is small. We walked the downtown circuit in half an hour or so, but just the fact that I walked the downtown circuit (and would have felt comfortable doing so solo) was a nice respite in and of itself. We get to stroll very little in Caracas (again, for a variety of safety and security related reasons) and it felt good to just set out from our cute little bungalow and wander town. Of course, as a tourist destination, (I think “destination” might be a bit grandiose at the point, but there was a time in Venezuela’s heyday where this little town was THE place to go on the weekend for a resort spa and change of scenery), the main streets had lots of little “stuff” stores on them and no one loves “stuff store” wandering more than I do! I often feel no real need to buy souvenirs or trinkets when we travel (I have this blog and Thad’s photos to jog my memory), but I do love to look. If there are six stores along a street, all selling the same sets of wooden wall hangings, ceramic coffee sets, and slightly creepy rag dolls, I will still go in EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. You just never know when there might be a treasure lurking behind the kitschy home décor, kitchen non-essentials, and nightmare-inducing toys. And while I didn’t find anything that I had any desire to take home with me, I did enjoy just having the opportunity to potentially spend money! (We actually did buy a hammock that Thad carried around town bindle-style, but it was as a favor for another embassy family. That one purchase- made in dollars, not bolivares- was the extent of our weekend shopping, other than food.)

Speaking of taking things home, I actually did find one thing that I very briefly contemplated taking home: a little (okay, big) friendly street dog. Now, don’t get me wrong. As much as I love animals, there is no way I am going to touch a mangy dog eating trash on the side of the road, but this guy was clean and obviously living the high life on leftover German sausages. He was reddish-brown, longhaired, and quite well behaved. Not able to pass him by, I spent some time petting him and chatting him up as Thad paid our breakfast arepa bill on Monday morning. Knowing that it was time to part ways, I said goodbye to my new buddy and headed up the road to check out the couple of street vendors selling fresh fruits and veggies before we loaded up to head back to Caracas. (We were hoping to find some chicken or eggs, both of which have once again become quite scarce in the city, but that was a no-go. We walked away with two containers of berries and a bag of salchichas.) A few minutes up the road, Thad tapped me on the shoulder and gestured over his own.

Guess who was on our hook?

Yup! My new friend Fido.

Apparently, a couple of pets and a few kind words have the same power as a formal pet adoption. This poor dog followed us all over town and almost back to our cabanas before we were able to shake him. I felt terrible; I am pretty sure he thought he had found his forever home! What he did not realize was that adding a pet to our nomadic family would cost me thousands of dollars each move and as much as I love them, that kind of money to ship an animal is just crazy-talk. (Lots of Foreign Service officers and families to just this every two to three years and I do not fault them for it one bit. But, for us, I can’t justify those kinds of dollars every move cycle. Although, throw a corgi into the mix and you would probably have me sold.)

Unfortunately, I do not get to write about Venezuela travel as much as I would like but hopefully those posts will increase in number once our car arrives and gets plated by the MFA. This country has some spectacular places to visit and we want to see them all before our two years here are up. (It is amazing how quickly two years at a post flies by when you are trying to book trips to all the highlights of that country. The same thing happened to us in China and Malaysia. There are just not enough vacation days to see an entire region in a mere twenty-four months!) Until we have wheels and achieve maximum (limited) mobility, I will have to be content with what I can get in the area and keep an eye to future travel opportunities, both inside and outside Venezuela’s borders.

 

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Photo credit: T.Ross

My Porpoise in Life

As a nervous swimmer, I wasn’t entirely sure that I was not going to drown, but it didn’t matter. I quickly determined that donning a pair of flippers and hopping into a cove with dolphins was worth the risk. You could have upped the ante on that one and I probably (okay, let’s be honest, definitely!) would have made the same choice.

You see, I’m a pretty responsible person. I got my first job at sixteen, working at ShopKo in the lawn and garden department and then transferring to jewelry when the season ended. I went to college at seventeen, study abroad in the Dominican Republic at eighteen, and then married at nineteen. I had my first middle school classroom by the time I was twenty-one, owned a house at twenty-two, and started my first master’s degree at twenty-three. Needless to say, I’ve never been one to shy away from the responsible choice.

Unless, it comes to animals.

Dangle the possibility of touching an animal, or better yet hanging out/playing with almost anything in the fauna world and the possibility of poor choices rises dramatically. (Okay, in my book, there are a good number of creepy-crawlies that don’t earn the label of “animal” and are absolutely not a part of this equation. No spiders. No snakes [although snakes HAVE unwillingly happened].)

Most of the time, my animal encounters are in safe and organized arenas, but they don’t have to be. If I can get close to it, I will. When we were in Perth a few years ago, we went to Rottnest Island, home of the absolutely adorable quokka. These crazy little creatures are just wild around the island and when we stopped to hole up in the shadow of a bush after a brutal bike ride, we found friends who also were using the same shrub-shade. Knowing that I was famished from the heat, I figured these guys were as well, so I shared my water bottle with them. Yes, I let the marsupials drink from the same bottle I was using. I am sure there are no diseases or possibly problems with a bit of a saliva swap. We’re all friends here!

A couple of weeks ago when we took a little trip out of Caracas to Curacao, animals were the top of my to-do list. (Animals, followed closely by cheese shopping. Luckily, both boxes were checked.)

I’d done a bit of online research before (basically avoiding working on things I should be doing) and found a small aquarium in Willemstad. The aquarium itself didn’t seem like much to write home about (and in proved not to be in person), but their handful of flamingos and a few random fish tanks were not the main draw. Instead, it was DOLPHINS! (As cool as fish can be, mammals always win out over fishes.) The aquarium website offered up a couple of dolphin options, including one where the participants stood on a platform in the water, but that didn’t seem nearly engaged enough for me. Instead, I opted for the one where you don a pair of fins and bail into the cove with the dolphins for an hour of chillaxing.

As a non-proficient swimmer, I was a bit nervous about this choice. I tread water okay in a pool, but that has very finite edges and bottom and I know what is around me. In elementary school, I took years of swim lessons, first at the local city pool and then private lessons when I repeatedly flunked out of the public sector. (Those initial ones were the ones when parents signed me up for the first two weeks of June at the 8AM slot, in Idaho. That is not outdoor pool weather! I blame the early-stage hypothermia for my failures.) When it comes to oceans, I am even less confident in my abilities and am pretty much always convinced something is touching me. (It doesn’t help that when I was getting my SCUBA certification, on the first open water dive, we got caught in a super strong current and even the dive master had a terrible time getting back to shore and had to call the dive off. I was pretty sure I was never going to make it back to the beach and the Tioman Island vista would be the last thing I glimpsed on this earth!)

With survival in question, I grabbed my flippers and headed for the dock. Not even possible drowning was going to keep me away from those dolphins.

Facing death by the sea was worth it for an hour with my new dolphin buddies.

Luckily, my giant flippers were quite proficient at keeping my head above the water. (I was surprised at how terrible a swimmer one could be with the help of flippers. This is key to keep in mind for future oceanic excursions!) I spent the next hour swimming, dancing, having water fights, and just generally hanging out with my new BFFs. The younger of the dolphins was just like a big, slick puppy. It didn’t take more than about one stroke down his side and he’d flip over on his back to get a tummy rub. The first time he did it I was afraid I had broken my dolphin! (You break it, you buy it, right?)

Unfortunately, I did not get to take my dolphin home with me at the end of the day. That would have been the best door prize ever! It doesn’t matter though, because I spent the morning swimming with dolphins in a cove on Curacao. There’s not much there to complain about. Caracas might not always be the easiest gig I’ve ever had, but experiences like this one make it worth the frustrations of not being able to find sandwich bread, my car still being in Miami three months after getting in Venezuela, or trying to figure out how the bolivars that I transferred last week are now worth a fraction of their previous value.

At the end of the day, none of it matters.

Dolphins.

 

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