|Apr/May 2009 Travel|
This is about four men and a pizza joint in downtown Puerto Colombia, Venezuela. It features a couple of dupes, a pimp and a low-level swindler. The kind of people you might find in big cities and small towns anywhere in the world. But this is not anywhere. It's a place where you can still fish your food from the sea, sleep on gorgeous beaches, knock coconuts and breadfruit out of the trees, plant bananas on someone else's land and then reap the harvest all for yourself. A spot where there is no glass in the windows and hummingbirds often fly in for a visit. No wonder people tend to forget that even in the Garden of Eden you can run into a snake in the grass.
The building in which our pizza joint is housed is a colorful colonial affair, painted fresh coral and lime green with a touch of lavender across its base. Its four doors are high and narrow, opening out onto the main street of town, down by the malecón. Close enough so on quiet nights you can sit at a table and hear the surf pound against the sea wall. It was once the village drugstore and market and is owned by a man named Eduardo Blanco.
Señor Blanco is an important man of commerce in our village. His hardware store, Materiales Eduardo, is an open patch of packed earth with a half-roof, surrounded by a hodgepodge of tin and bamboo, selling everything from bricks to onions. Eduardo holds court there in the shadows behind the high, dusty counter, wearing his white baseball cap, tinted glasses, tight white shirt and trousers cinched up under his belly. He is said to have fathered thirty-odd children by an assortment of women. But his siring days are past. On the sunlit street, Eduardo and I always exchange smiles and a friendly "Buenos dias," but I never feel altogether comfortable chatting with him when he is in the shadows behind the counter. I like to see a man's eyes.
A friend fills me in on a little history. Years ago, before the government built the malecón, the old homes fronted onto a rocky public beach. When Eduardo Blanco learned about plans to construct the wall and promenade, he busied himself planting trees along the shore. Not stately shade or beautiful flowering trees, but scraggly, gnarled little things one might find in an abandoned field. Was this some puny exercise in civic pride? People wondered. Likely they had not thought of the peculiar Venezuelan law which allows that if a man plants a tree on public land, and that if that tree stands for such and such a time, it becomes his property and if anyone wishes to cut it down, that man must be paid. At least, this was the basis for Señor Blanco's demented little scheme. However, when the government went ahead with the park, they did not, as he had surmised, cut down his little monstrosities. They told him, no, they liked his trees just fine and would leave them where he had planted them. The trees still stand, gray and twisted and almost leafless. Sordid reminders of Eduardo's greed.
"But, no, I find this story just too incredible," I say.
"Yes. Ugly on such a stupid level," my friend agrees. "Like those people who are right now trying to invade the land around our beach to build their ranchitos."
Manny the Belgian began renting Eduardo's building for his pizza restaurant some six to eight years ago. He's a bohemian with long graying hair, a beautiful wife young enough to be his daughter, and a reputation for doing things on a shoestring, catch as catch can. Because his father happens to be an officer at Robin Hood, the largest producer of wheat flour in Venezuela, Manny was able to get his pizza ovens for free. All he had to do was name his shop "Robin Hood Pizza" and use the company logo.
But restaurateurs can sometimes run themselves into debt and find themselves cash-poor just before those big festival days when the greatest profits can be made. Manny pleaded such a case to his friend and confidant, Alfred Kuntz. Perhaps it was Manny's winning smile. Or his lovely wife. Perhaps it was Alfred's penchant for pizza. But, whatever the reason, Alfred did in fact lend Manny a sizable amount to keep Robin Hood afloat.
"Alfredo" or "Señor Alfredo," as Alfred is called by almost everyone, is a big, balding Bavarian who came here to get away from the stresses of the civilized world. Or so he says. But relaxing does not seem to be in his nature. It's not enough for him to run his Hostal Selva Negra, a bargain-basement flophouse for young European back-packers. He can't help getting himself more and more deeply involved in local business. When I first met him, he was rebuilding a large house in the village for a friend from Switzerland. Then he was leading the merchants in their battle against an abusive tax increase levied by the Mayor of Maracay. Whenever I ask him how it's going, he frowns, shakes his head and answers, "Mucho trabajo."
But even though people may harbor doubts about Alfred's business judgment, no one has any question about his generosity. He has a very big, soft heart.
Some years back, his wife Isolde returned to Germany to visit her family. There she met a dashing Austrian and called Alfred to let him know that she had met the love of her life and their marriage of umpty-ump years was now terminated. At the same time he learned she had been dipping deeply and secretly into his savings account.
But then the fates struck her. Hard. She came down with multiple sclerosis. And when her dashing Austrian heard the news, he dashed out of her life. Bereft, she called Alfred back and told him the whole sad story. He simply answered, "Then come home." He named their home "Isolde." He built her a swimming pool and various exercise contraptions to retard the advance of her illness. At least once a week, he still takes her down the road in her wheelchair for a night out at a restaurant. He even adopted a little macho howler monkey to keep her company, an ugly little monster that—I discovered one night when I went to their house for drinks—doesn't like sharing Isolde with other men. He screamed what I'm sure were curses at me whenever I was too close to her.
Perhaps it was Alfred's innate generosity that led to his lending Manny all that money. And, at least on the surface, the investment seemed to be paying off. Robin Hood Pizza was doing quite well. Manny had spruced up the place with his colorful mix of paints. In the evenings the open doorways showed off nice lively crowds, especially on weekends. Good music and appetizing odors drifted out into the tropic night. The pizzas proved tasty and the salads ample. Still, somehow there was never quite enough profit for Manny to pay Alfred back.
Then the Belgian made his big mistake. He gave an interview to The Miami Herald, the lone gringo newspaper selling here on the street. He told a reporter that paradise was not quite as it might appear, this was not a great place to do business, the people were slow to work and didn't seem to care much about quality or keeping their town looking nice. As you might imagine, this did not win him a lot of friends. When the interview appeared, replete with beautiful photographs of our village, Manny ran for cover and Robin Hood Pizza lost the lion's share of its customers. He put his restaurant on the market, looking for a quick sale so he could make a new life for himself in the Andes. Alfred, afraid he might lose his investment, persuaded a friend to buy Robin Hood and retained twenty percent of the business as repayment for his loan.
Señor Alfredo seemed suddenly to blossom. Running the Robin Hood was exciting and new. Repainting the interior. Overhauling the menu. Making sure the staff was always pleasant and efficient. I saw him there late in the evenings or putting busily around town on his little motor scooter in the morning, his cap pulled down over his ears. A happy man. A man rejuvenated. He was making things right. He could make things even better. But this was when he hired Oswaldo Reyes' daughter Julia to manage the restaurant.
"You know this Oswaldo Reyes?" my friend asks.
"You mean the nice old fellow who lives near the river?"
"I mean the man who owns more real estate in Puerto Colombia than God." He points out some land Oswaldo has just sold off to an engineer who is now building fifteen little shacks for tourists near our house. "Like any other guy after a buck."
"Everyone tells me how simpático he is."
"Take a good look. He's always glancing over his shoulder."
"What do you mean?"
"The man's got a past."
"Well, anyone that old has a past."
"I mean, a past. He used to run one of the poorest sections in Caracas. Slum lord. Pimp. His place was up a long flight of stairs on a dead-end street. Always posted armed bodyguards down there, night and day."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Why is his daughter now managing Robin Hood?"
"Maybe she likes pizza," I say.
It is now the time of Carnaval, that hyped-up week of revelry before Lent, when our Mayor of Maracay works hard at making Puerto Colombia a Coney Island for the constituents of her fair city. She spends the citizens' good tax bolivars on the most visible displays of largesse she can imagine, hiring bands to play on the malecón and Playa Grande, building new public baths and a new monumental bridge across the river. 100,000 bolivars here, 100,000 bolivars there. All given to us by our Alcaldesa Estela Rocco de Asuaje. At least, that's what the omnipresent banners are claiming. Oh well, it's an election year.
Then Coca-Cola gets into the act with one of the most egregious campaigns ever witnessed in these parts. Not content with the usual abasto signs and billboards, the local representatives of that great American institution decide to paint Venezuela red. A tidal wave of scarlet across the country's favorite vacation spots. Coca-Cola red, not to be confused with Señor Presidente Chavez's revolutionary Fifth Republic red. In Choroní that means taking every poor little refreshment stand, grocery store, restaurant and bar they can pay off and covering them entirely in pintura roja, with great white and black logos sprawled from roof to ground across their fronts. It's the kind of raw, brutish display that makes any responsible gringo shrink with shame. For it is not the local representatives who are decried, but the large, overbearing presence to the north.
This sends a few people here into real action against Coke. A letter appears damning their campaign in a Caracas newspaper. A travel writer speaks out against them on TV. Someone in an important position at a powerful corporation calls the head of the parks. The Henri Pittier National Park has been violated. The Governor of Aragua and the Mayor of Maracay quickly promise action. Coca-Cola has now to repaint every building it has defiled with a coat of pure white.
My friend stands in front of Eduardo Blanco's ramshackle excuse for a hardware store and laughs out loud. Out of civic pride, he once personally pleaded with Eduardo to let him paint the ugly walls of his shop, but he was summarily rebuffed.
"I can afford to pay for my own paint jobs," Eduardo said proudly.
And how! His store was the first and most obvious Coca-Cola violation in all of Choroní, standing as it does right at the entrance to Puerto Colombia. It was painted so Coke-red, you couldn't even see the stop sign at the crossroad. For this monumental corporate statement, Coke paid him enough to handle his electric bills for a year. Now they have to paint it all over again—white.
"You can't beat that," my friend says. "They paid him to let them paint his place. Twice."
In the battle of the giants and the revelry of Carnaval, people scarcely notice that Robin Hood Pizza has ceased operation. It stands dark and silent at night, its lime green doors and windows shuttered.
"What happened?" I ask my friend.
"Never buy a business unless you've a signed lease with the landlord," he says.
"You mean ..."
"When you deal with Eduardo Blanco, bring a lawyer. Whenever Alfred asked him about the new lease, Eduardo told him there was plenty of time, not to worry. Then he rented the place out on the sly to Oswaldo Reyes. So Oswaldo's daughter can now really run the place."
"What do you think Oswaldo gave him to double-cross Alfred?"
"We'll never get the straight answer between those two thieves."
"But what about all that equipment Alfred and his friend bought with the business? The ovens. The tables. The pots. The flatware."
"Alfred and his friend went in there and tore it all out. Every last plate, cup, nail and screw. Oswaldo and his daughter are leasing an empty shell."
"So when do the knives and pistols come out?" I ask, thinking of the famous Latin temper.
"No, no. Don't believe it. They'll just lick their wounds. And life in Puerto Colombia will go on about the same as ever."
Things usually work out this way here. Rages subside. Wounds heal. Old grievances are forgotten and reputations mended. People go to the beach.