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A Day on the Wild Coast

Life is like a dry gully in the desert. Nothing happens for long dull periods of drought. Then suddenly alarm bells are ringing , the sky is falling and a torrent comes barreling down the gully – everything at once.

Take, for instance, the day on the coast of Venezuela. This area used to be known as " The Wild Coast" in the 16th and 17th centuries, and sometimes you wonder …

By midnight, the last heat of the day had finally leached out of the coastal massif. Cool air fell from the heights and flowed into the wide open hatches, soothing the sleepers til, in the early hours before dawn, they fumbled for a sheet and sank gratefully back
into oblivion.

I, on the other hand, slept only fitfully because nearby a radio blared from another boat. It had been on all night, playing manic salsa and, after midnight, love songs of loss sung by lugubrious fishermen. In the wee hours, patriotic music, marches and worse. As I tossed and turned, I vowed to deal with that, firmly, before another night passed. When I rose it was still night but overhead in the sky the changing of the celestial guard had begun.

The coastline here is precipitous, from Carenero to Puerto Cabello, a hundred mile wall of mountains forming a bulwark against the sea. This outermost spur of the Andes towers upwards to 9000 feet and from far out at sea it appears as a stunning wall of jungle, still the realm of jaguars and anacondas, untouched save for clusters of tiny high rises at its base and white cumulus crowning its peaks.

In a few places, rivers tumbling down from the heights have scoured out a channel and over the millennia have deposited a narrow shelf of sand where boats can find good holding for their anchors. There is where towns have sprung up, traffic in old days being mostly conducted on the sea. La Guaira is the chiefest of these, and the port for Caracas.

La Guaira is an attractive town, with much of its colonial heritage intact, but it is best visited early in the day. The heat that has been absorbed by roofs and thick masonry walls starts radiating it back. Then La Guaira's populace broils between the fire in the sky and the smoldering lip of land. Elsewhere mountains offer shelter for part of the day but not at La Guaira. There, the mountains hold the town's feet to the fire.

After taking my wife and child to the airport, I had business in the shipping office. Yachts were treated like big ships, subject to numerous forms to be filled out in triplicate. Neither computers nor the Reduction of Paperwork Act held any sway here in the bowels of bureaucracy. The bureaucrat was pleasant enough as he produced a form that had to be filled out in triplicate and stamped by a separate office that had sole charge of such forms. He told me it would cost five dollars for the typist.

She wore a button popping blouse and toreador pants that looked like she'd been dipped naked in a vat of spandex. Her face was thick with white chalk, her lipstick like fire-engine red gelcoat, her eyes as black as obsidian – and as hard.

When she finished typing, she gave the carriage a flourish so that it banged its return. She tapped the three copies with carbons on the desk to get them exactly aligned. I noticed the rest of the office staff watching intently. Bold as brass, she handed me the papers and demanded her fee: "Cinquenta dolares," $50 US, and quickly grew testy when I looked over the copies and asked if there were some mistake in the price.

"Cinquento dolares, cinquento, cinquento … " She kept repeating, eyes darting about furiously, clearly impatient with this cheap gringo. So I ostentatiously returned the forms to her desk and said I had been told "cinco dolares." She tossed her head in disbelief and brusquely scrawled on a piece of paper in large bold characters, FIFTY DOLLARS!, so that even such illiterates as myself could read it.

When I opened the door a wave of heat hit me. I once more worked my way through the streets to the office of the previous authority, who didn't appear surprised to see me, and when I made my complaint he wasted no time getting on the phone and poured a torrent of Spanish into the receiver.

A thunder cloud rode her brow when next I entered the room. She slapped the paperwork loudly on her desk scraped her chair and disappeared into the bano. I retrieved my forms, put down the equivalent of $5 in Bolivars, and left.

By now siesta was in full swing and all the shops closed save for restaurants and bars which were bustling. One establishment had an attractive display of ripe melons resting on beds of crushed ice. That crushed ice called to me of cold fruit and cold beer. Beyond the melons was a narrow room, a full-length counter to one side and the other lined with a row of booths. Coming in off the street, the door opened on a stairway behind which was the first booth. It was the one seat available that wasn't a bar stool. So I ordered a smoothie and hearts of palm salad.

I was just digging in to my lunch when a hubbub erupted just outside the door, a tide of shouts and curses and stomping feet moving into the restaurant. It was a fight! Soon I could see the two protagonists, one a tough, old black guy dressed in shabby torn clothes that revealed a physique that was wiry and still well cut. His face was seamed and battered and spoke of fights and penury – a few of his teeth were missing. He was cursing a streak and straining violently against the arms of his friends who were pulling him back and yelling at him to stop.

His opponent, a white boy, about 30, looked like a fop who'd never gotten his hands dirty. He was unusually pasty looking with rosy cheeks and an elaborate pompadour. He was holding up his fists but dubiously, as if he knew that the old man would carve him a new orifice given half a chance. Perhaps a long-standing grievance, or as little as an accidental bump on the street and an exchange of words, had set the old guy off. He clearly had been drinking and was perhaps not all there.

Gradually the two groups separated with much bad-mouthing, and the old guy's threats rang. The white guy returned to his place behind the long counter at the cash register, picked up the phone and started an aggrieved recital of the wrongs done him, presumably to the police because it wasn't long before an officer walked into the long narrow room, took out a notebook and started writing things down.

All returned to normal; a buzz of satisfaction emanated from customers eating their lunch. Then a shot rang out – loud – and shattered glass tinkled on the floor. Instantly, every soul in the crowded establishment disappeared, as if teleported, through the door at the back of the room.

Everybody, that is, except me.

I was sitting frozen in my booth under the staircase, wondering what I should do. I was absolutely dumbfounded that people could move that fast. It was like an athletic event they had trained for.

The gunman couldn't see me, but if he came into the room and saw me crouched in the shadows he might spook. Maybe I should call out to let him know I was there? Another shot dissuaded me, and there was the sound of a thud, a sickening wet thud, like a man collapsing and striking his head on the hard tile.

If I ran for the door would those within open it up for me? They might think I was the shootist. A third shot pumped out, followed by a shouted curse I couldn't understand and a cackle of triumphant laughter. I held my breath.

Then silence.

A minute passed so quietly I could hear the clock ticking. A truck backfired and someone was calling from the street. I stayed put until finally the door at the back of the room opened a cautious crack, an eye appeared in the crack, followed by a head with a uniformed hat. It was the cop. He carefully reconnoitered before he opened the door wide and the people flooded out of the storeroom. It must have been hot in there.

Patrons crowded around the window display, the melons lay on the sidewalk, split open. People stood around gazing at the carnage with the same somber look one sees in newspaper photos of bystanders around a corpse left in the street. Spilt cantaloupe seeds eerily resembled a cracked head oozing brains.

Yet the day wasn't over yet. While waiting for the bus I noticed the wind had radically changed direction. Local knowledge did warn that two or three days in a year the wind might come out of the west. It was an anomaly, nonetheless one that might sink my dinghy.

The wind was increasing steadily. Where it had just barely moved the flags on a nearby pole, now the flags were crackling. I had just bought a new outboard for the dinghy, and it was securely attached. However the dinghy, held by a stern anchor, could quite easily be swamped by a west wind.

The closer the bus came down the coastal highway the clearer it became that my dinghy was doomed. I ran the rest of the way from the bus to the dinghy dock, dreading what I'd find.

A scene of industry and triumph ruled on that dock. Boat boys had hauled most of the dinghies up on the dock, and their outboards had been placed upside down in a barrel of fresh water to flush out the salt.

My own outboard was running smooth. The scene was self-explanatory.

"Who do I have to thank?" I asked. "It's me, sir, Jesus Carlos Ayala," spoke up a young man. "I'm your neighbor … on the boat," he pointed.

"The one with the radio that plays all night?"

"Yes!" he beamed. "Do you like our Latin music?"

"Of course I do … Wilfredo … Tito Puente."

"Can you hear it good? I think it is low on batteries. Very expensive, the good batteries …"

To my credit, I hesitated only slightly before handing him a $20 bill. "This'll buy you some Duracells."

"Yes … Duracell. They last a long time!" He pocketed the note happily and waved to me as I shoved off, "Tonight! Mucha Musica!"

After spending most of his life in, on and by the sea, Peter Muilenburg wrote "Adrift on a Sea of Blue Light." www.SailBreath.com

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