While in the U.S. Navy I did have occasion to visit the city of Santiago de Leon de Caracas, or as we know it in our country, Caracas, Venezuela.
Pride makes a strange meal
It was the spring of 1984 and I was an air traffic controller aboard the USS America. We were participating in “Exercise Ocean Venture” in the Caribbean Sea in preparation for our departure across the Atlantic for duty in the Mediterranean Sea and beyond.
This phase of the big exercise was over and we were scheduled to go to Cartagena, Columbia for a port visit. At least we were, until just a few hours before we dropped anchor. It was a purposeful ruse; there were groups who wanted to cause us trouble waiting for us in Cartagena and we needed to fool them.
I knew that we didn’t want to have a repeat of what happened in Greece in 1982 where 10,000 members of their communist party met us at the port city of Piraeus. That was a very ugly and dangerous time for both the American military crew, and the local Greek citizens who were just trying to make a living.
Along with a few other members of the CATCC (Carrier Air Traffic Control Center) crew, I had decided to risk the local bus trip through the mountains from the port of La Guaira to Caracas. It was only seven miles or so, but had been known to have bandit problems, (or so our Lieutenant claimed). There was also the concern about being able to catch the right bus coming back, which was always a concern in any port visit.
Being the only person in the group who had any knowledge of South America at all, I was looked at as the “local expert” and questioned on the dangers.
My first caution to them (knowing this group as well as I did) was to tell them, “ALL of the hookers in Caracas have diseases!” After visiting the port of Mombasa, Kenya in 1983, and witnessing one of our own lose his manly bits to disease, you would think that they would listen to advice. Would hearing it from me make a difference to them? Probably not, they had their “sailor image” to live up to.
I had also warned my friends to heed the well published, “don’t drink the water” instructions, taking it further telling them to not drink any water that wasn’t from a bottle opened in front of them. It was common practice in many areas to “refill and serve” bottles of water from the local tap. This gave the illusion to tourists that they were drinking purified water, while saving the vendor money.
I stressed to them that it was vitally important to stay out of the water, be it swimming, wading, crossing, or splashing. The local rivers and streams were known to harbor blood parasites and they were serious business. You couldn’t see them, or feel them, but within twenty-four hours or so they would make their presence known in most unpleasant ways.
The waters were also rumored to host a tiny fish called the “toothpick fish” or more properly candiru. This tiny fish is well known to the indigenous people of the Amazon Basin (farther south) and you do not want to be introduced to it. If you want to know more about it, just search for “candiru” and I promise that you will have your legs crossed by the time you finish reading.
Today the area has efficient buses and even a subway in the city. At the time of our visit in 1984 everything was perpetually under construction, (according to the locals.) Many of the projects were started in 1983 and with the usual politics and conflicts delaying progress; it took years to finish them.
The motorway (similar in appearance to USA Interstates) from Guairá to Caracas had multiple lanes for traffic, but at that time (due to construction) only one lane each way was open for business.
Our bus was barely a step up from the rural “chicken bus” that you see in movies (and is a very real thing, I have ridden them.) Fortunately we didn’t have to share our seats with livestock on that trip, but it was still a smelly experience. I don’t think the bus had been cleaned in a long time.
Because we had learned our lessons the hard way in other countries, we questioned the bus driver before we got off, about the where and when to catch a return bus.
We got the Venezuelan version of a definite maybe, “Quiza.” Which translated meant, perhaps. OK, so “maybe” we could find a bus back, and maybe we could catch a cab. Quiza indeed!
Not letting minor details stop you is something I learned early on in my travels. We scattered out across the city with a plan to meet back at the location where we “debarked” (got off the bus), at a set hour. We did have enough experience in wandering about in strange places to always travel in pairs or more. There truly is safety in numbers, it isn’t just a saying.
My amigo and I set off for the Las Mercedes district, known for its shops and galleries and the newly constructed Paseo Las Mercedes shopping mall. That’s right, a shopping mall, American capitalism had invaded Caracas!
We walked for hours up and down city streets, talking with those people who easily recognized us as Americans and were willing to speak English to us. We both spoke a bit of Spanish, but I was very hesitant to give up my “edge” by making it known that I understood their words. It had served me well all over the world to operate this way. My companion on the other hand, was sure that he knew a lot more Spanish than he actually did.
Along the way we picked up an “escort” of sorts, two gentlemen in dark suits (in 90F+ heat) who stayed well back, but went everywhere that we went. They also spoke to everyone that we did. Given my former life in the army, this made alarm bells go off for me. I found myself looking for exits and things to use as weapons everywhere we went.
My buddy Frank was oblivious to our “tail” and far more interested in trying the local beer. I knew that the local government “suits” (government and/or police) at least had sense enough to wear light colored clothing and hats. So that begged the question, “Who were these clowns?”
There is much more to tell about this adventure than I can put in a short daily blog, so I will cut to the title event and perhaps if there is sufficient interest I will write a longer, more complete version.
We were hungry and in search of a meal, preferably one that we could sit down to enjoy and had reasonable expectations of being safe to consume. To that I end I suggested the restaurant inside a big hotel that served international guests, the Intercontinental.
Our dining attire was a bit “understated” shall we say, being blue jeans and sneakers. At least we had button up collared shirts on, which helped soften the look “a little”. I was just glad that we were not there at evening meal time.
Americans feel that they can go anywhere looking like they just stepped off of the ball field, or the beach and that should be good enough. The common gringo attitude being, “Hey, you want my money, or what?” Never mind, it would take too long to explain.
The gentleman who greeted and seated us was tre elegant! He was the Maitre d’, and superbly dressed in a tuxedo with not a speck of dust on it, and not a hair on his head out of place. His manners were impeccable, and his accent barely perceptible as he spoke perfect American English (there is a difference) to us as he held our chairs and handed us menus.
Frank never heard a word that either of us said as he was lost in his own world, gawking at the décolletage of a beautiful woman seated at the next table. Our host deftly maneuvered himself around to hand Frank his menu and blocked the view, as much for the young lady’s comfort as to bring my companion back to earth.
I ordered two bottles of agua con gas (carbonated water) for us to drink, as it was apparent that Frank had had enough beer already. The menu had different sections with different languages in it, the primary being Spanish, as that was the majority of their clientele’s language.
My friend took my ordering of the water in that way, (agua con gas) as a requirement for speaking Spanish, and proceeded to ONLY speak his version of the language. A version which I am afraid would make his teacher want to issue a retroactive failing grade. I was embarrassed, but a little stuck too. So I ordered a carne dish and smiled my apology to the waiter as Frank took over.
I looked around at the fabulous decor when Frank was speaking, really trying to look anywhere but at the waiter to hide my embarrassment. That was, until I heard the word anguila spoken as my friend read it off of the menu. “Medallones de Anguila“, the waiter read back questioningly, and Frank nodded his silly head like a bobble-head doll.
I asked Frank if he was sure that he knew what he had ordered. He loudly said, “Hell yeah, Steak!” Frank then pointed to the listing under “Pescado“, which generally meant fish, but also related to other things from the sea which are caught and served. I debated trying to point out that beef steak entries would not be found listed under a seafood or fish heading, but it just didn’t seem worth the effort at that point.
A few minutes more and the Maitre d’ came to our table and speaking in beautiful English (one of the seven languages that he spoke fluently), asked us again if my friend knew what he ordered, as he did not want us to be unhappy with our meal. Frank puffed up like a peacock and got indignant at the idea, asking if our host thought that we were ignorant and could only speak “American.” The gentleman, obviously never one to get ruffled smiled graciously and said, “As you wish senor,” and walked away.
And so it was a far greater surprise for Frank than it was for me, when his plate of eels (anguila) arrived, on fire and being escorted by the Maitre d’, along with most of the other waiters, and a couple of guests who had heard about the order and wanted to see what happened.
With great ceremony the creatures were expertly beheaded, split in half lengthwise, and served onto a plate of noodles in front of my, to use a British slang term, “gob smacked” friend. His mouth was completely opened as if in a scream that wouldn’t quite come out, and his eyes were fixed in that “deer-in-the-headlights” stare. My world for a camera!
Being an American and never willing to admit defeat in any circumstance, my friend took up knife and fork and stabbed a piece of anguila and cut off a big chunk and plopped it in his mouth like he meant to do this all along.
The crowd around us cheered him on and walked away to go back to what they were doing. Frank chewed that piece of eel for a few minutes and finally got it swallowed. His eyes told the story that his mouth would not.
I ate my quite excellent meal in silence, and tried not to look at the ghastly eel mess on my dining companion’s plate. After letting Frank push his meal around the plate for a while I asked him if he was ready to go. The boy nearly turned his chair over in his haste to depart.
We paid the bill, which was very little money by American standards (less than two meals at McDonald’s.) I also left a generous tip on the table which is seldom done there I am told (not the custom), and we left the building. Around the very first corner that we turned my friend lost his lunch in an alley, and a lot of beer with it. Ah, the joys of traveling with sailors!
I guess anguila didn’t agree with him.
We have all heard the saying that it is tough to swallow your pride.
It appears that pride truly does make for a strange meal and is very tough to swallow, and apparently, it’s even harder to keep down.
The return trip to our rendezvous point was largely uneventful and mostly required dragging a now lethargic Frank along by the jacket. He “decorated” the bus floor with more foul smelling eel and beer on the way back to port, just to add to the ambiance. I truly felt sorry for whoever had to clean that bus, assuming that they ever did so.
There were other things about that trip that could be written, but that would require a “reader’s request” to get me to tell the rest of the story. The tale about being too proud to admit that you don’t know something has been told.