Book published 1998 (out-of-print)e-book published May 2011
10 Chapters 11 Maps 263 Pages
It is always the air which offers a first impression. The plane’s pressure seal is released and the close, overused atmosphere of the interior passes out to be replaced by the newness of arrival. Dry, moist, hot or cold air – not just a climatic change but frequently the very essence of a country, will begin to find its way in. That hint of the sea which is always in those of the European seaboard – a trace of Atlantic salt carried on the west wind with the odour of grass and leaves. In North America, it is exhaust fumes, rubber on concrete and a sense of the power of a huge industrial economy. In the tropical Far East, it is a hot, damp smell draping itself around the senses of a new arrival like a musty blanket. In Indonesia, there might be caught a scent of kretik cigarettes; in China, a slight flavour of meat products; in the Middle East, a faint trace of flared gas borne on the hot desert night.
In Venezuela, the warm air smelt of aftershave and perfume. This seemed a good start to my two years based in the capital city of Caracas. I was to be employed on a consultancy contract agreed with one of the three subsidiaries of Petroleas de Venezuela, the state-owned organisation responsible for exploration and production in the (then) third largest petroleum-exporting country in the world. No longer a manager, I was back at being a geological adviser – down-sized, independent and once more dealing with ideas and data rather than operations and people; free of the twenty years of formal career progress that the workings of several large oil and gas companies had demanded.
I was wrong about not having to deal with people. The politics of a large Latin American organisation proved infinitely more complex than those of a British or North American one. But the work itself was not onerous, the demands were not overtaxing and my family did not join me for twelve months. It was – most of the time and when there was no military coup in progress – a friendly, easy-going place. Caracas soon became over familiar, especially as Venezuela’s many holidays started to crop up and left me with nothing much to do. Suddenly, it looked as if an entire calendar of ‘Days’ was to stretch ahead: Independence Day, Labour Day, Army Day, Navy Day, Flag Day and the Day of Indigenous Resistance. It seemed a waste to hang around in one place during the long weekends that most of these offered. Dammit, I was perched on the northern margin of Latin America and a whole continent lay to the south. Furthermore, the islands of the Caribbean and the spine of Central America beckoned invitingly to the north. It was time to use the location; it was time to get away more. As I grew more confident and brazen about it – sometimes, a very long way…….
A book about South America seen via a series of air flights and, country by country, a long drive using a rental car through the sometimes beautiful, sometimes inhospitable but endlessly varied continent of Spanish Latin America. Mexico: land of the Mayans/ the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacan – a sixth-century Hong Kong/ gardens of Cuernavaca / Calendar in stone/ puzzle of Quetzalcoatl. Dominican Republic: dropping in to Hispaniola/bones of Columbus/ a secret policemen. Cuba: a dim view/ Havana/ life on the Malecon/ Che and Fidel/ Cojimar. Venezuela: saucepans and Hugo Chavez/ coup d’etat/ the occasional Jesus/ Venezuelan Andes/ Motilones in the night/ black gold/ cactus and goats. Colombia: Bogota/ dancing nuns/ serial numbers scam/ thoughts from a salt mine/ Cartagena/ whirling dervish. Ecuador: flying with volcanoes/ Peace Corps/ a truck in time/ cloud forest/ Guayaquil/ waterless Pacific/ rubbish in Quito. Peru: Atahualpa’s Revenge/ the Urubamba and the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu/ puzzle in stone/ the Lost City. Bolivia: frosty morning in La Paz/ Altiplano/ National Route One/ Uru Uru and Popoo/ black night/ poncho in the flames/ silver mountain/ an approximate fit. Brazil: Amazon/ Big Country, Big River, Big Fish/ quinine, cocaine, caffeine/ Mr Big/Bello Horizonte/ The Future. Argentina: enemy bangers/ Larder of the Empire/ windfall of Australs/ dropping in to Uruguay/ I’ll Cry for You, Argentina/ New Jerusalem. Chile: The end of South America/ a curious glittering/ Spanish conquistadors of Chile/ midnight stars/ lederhosen in Lakeland/ Plaza de Armes/ plain of the Dead Indian/ Atacama desert/ South American geography/ the Spanish in Latin America.