Jul/Aug 2010 Travel

The Mule That Got Away

by Gerard Devlin

La Guiria, Venezuela, 1991

"Don't go there!" We turned onto the shabby main street of La Guiria, a quiet port town at the eastern tip of Venezuela. This is the steamy northern end of the continent, Columbus's first stop on his 3rd voyage (1498), plenty of time for the town to rise and run aground. The port is midway along the Paria Peninsula, on the southern side facing the Gulf of Paria. Sailing due west from Trinidad, it was in this gulf that Cristoforo e amici first beheld the South American continent, exclaiming, "Eureka, we found China!" Of course the flip side of this discovery is an indigenous populace soon to be full of syphilis and lethal euro-bacteria. Survivors could look forward to chained enslavement or a sword in their side—

Paradise tossed.

In the fall of 1991, I was advised several times not to go to this town. There had been a recent spike of armed robberies and buggerous attacks. Foreigners were considered prime fare and high on the must mug list. I had bussed and hitched around much of the continent and felt the worst horrors must be behind me. Besides, I didn't have many bolivars or dollars left to rob. I wanted to visit my friend Marian in Trinidad, flights from Caracas to Port of Spain were expensive, and so hitching on a boat was the only option.

I got out of the colectivo, an unmarked cab that sardines passengers over long distances. This turned out to be one of those hitches that you pay for. I had already ascertained from the other people carrying chickens in the car what fare I should pay, "$5 maximo." I went to the trunk to get my backpack and heard the music of a brass band, a large funeral procession was marching slowly towards us in unbearable heat. The coffin cortege was two blocks away. Our pot bellied driver followed me out and demanded a quadruple rate, twenty. I gave him five dollars and went to grab my bag. He snapped up the five and stood between me and the bag. "Quince mas senor!" He wasn't budging without the other fifteen.

We got into a verbal joust with the pine of brass horns as background accompaniment. One of the chicken bearers got out of the car and clapped angrily to hurry us along, squeezing his flapping fowl in the process. The funeral was on the next block, we were in the middle of the road, surely not, he wouldn't block the mourners' procession? Four pallbearers carried the coffin on a beautiful raft of flowers, close family wept just behind the deceased and at least two hundred followed them in the languorous heat. At the head of this cortege, in front of the band, was an individual dressed in a jet black costume and bat mask. The shaman was performing a slow ritual dance whilst holding a thick, burning branch; it was a vision of the voodoo.

The bereaved were now on our block. I was mortified, eyes were emerging from the shadows to ogle at the stand off. I couldn't believe the driver was prepared to stop a funeral. The brass band were right upon us, they drowned out much of the driver's bellowing. He was shouting obscenities about me and mi familia to the entire street. It is for these moments we become fluent in another tongue. Sweat burst the dam of my skin and sparkled into pools beneath me. I feared that the whole town was about to pulp me and impale me.

The voodoo branch wafted beside us, incense filled the air, the brass section whined, the saddened sobbed, the sun seared—I made a desperate rush for my bag, I pulled it out onto the street. The driver went for my throat, I tripped him backwards into his own trunk and threw another five dollars at him. This was enough to send him back to his steering wheel and let the funeral march resume. I scattered palpitating down an alley.

The small town had a rough, dilapidated, frontier feel. It is the last stop before Trinidad and the Caribbean, a smugglers' waterhole, the kind of town that was built and burned on bribes. I drank ice cold cerveza in a pink café and then made my way to the deserted harbor area. It can be a very rough crossing from here, the straight between Venezuela and Trinidad is called Bocas del Dragon (Dragon's Mouths). It is where the Caribbean waters meet the Atlantic and the estuary outflow of the Orinoco, Venezuela's longest river.

There were a few fishing boats and trawlers in the quiet port. The area was enclosed by a 10 foot chain link fence, but the gate was wide open. I found an official sleeping under a slow fan in a bare office. Half awake, he told me I could hitch out on a boat but I must visit the immigration hut first, but since it was a Saturday I would not find anyone to stamp my passport till Monday. A manana moment, to obey or not to obey?

He was nodding off again as I turned to leave, which I took as permission to wander about and look for a boat. Those flying the Venezuelan flags were delivering fruit to Port of Spain, and were uniformly hostile to my adding to their burden. I saw only one vessel in the port with a different flag, it flew two red triangles either side of a south easterly, diagonal black and white stripe. There seemed to be nobody on board as I got close, and then a voice boomed from the stern, "Hello, marn," followed by a 30 year old, lean, black, six foot five sailor coming around the mast.

"What can I do fo-ya?"

"I'm trying to get to Trinidad."

"Me too!"

He invited me on board to drink rum and bask in the golden hour. He said that they were due to sail shortly and that I should wait around to ask the Captain's permission; he was away up town, but was expected back soon to set sail. After sunset we carried on with the sun in the bottle. The boat had a third crew member who was comatose below deck following a long night and day under bottle and whore.

Stanley was a truly sound man, ultra relaxed and full of warmth and sea shanties. He told me he had sailed the Papa Bank, their sixty foot fishing boat, from Denmark through wild storms in the English Channel. He warned me that Captain Salim was unpredictable, but that he would put a good word in for me. I was optimistic and already felt like I was in Trinidad.

It was 10 pm before the short, bearded, East Indian Captain finally showed up, he was skunk drunk and said he would gladly let me sail with them. I wasn't sure that he could even see me! He warned that a storm was due in later that night and that we should go soon. He then jumped off the boat to creole-kiss a woman waiting by one of the port buildings. I was relieved to have finally found passage and not have to make the long haul back to Caracas.

At the summit of joy a jeep came tearing around the corner and skidded to a halt next to the boat. Two armed soldiers took up position, one at the bow, the other at the stern. A third officer summoned me on shore, "Gringo, ven aca! Passaporte!" He flicked through my passport and shouted insults, "Odio gringos." (I hate gringos). He had clearly found that I had no exit stamp. The Captain came over while his fondle friend waited by the wall. He offered the officer a bribe, who in turn looked over to the woman before refusing the cash. Stanley shook his head and sighed, "I'm sorry, marn."

I was then frog marched into the darkness with an M16 sticking in my back. I was sure that once we got around the corner I was about to receive the local buggering and banditry this town was notorious for. Instead I was prodded to the gate and told, "Adios, cabron." (Goodbye, asshole). I began the long walk down the deserted road of dejection.

Half an hour into the darkness a solitary pick up approached, it slowed and pulled alongside me. I was relieved & surprised to see Captain Salim at the wheel with his mistress? You can still drive? I asked if there was any other way I might be able to sail out of La Guiria? "You need di ride papers, marn. You should ask ma laydee." She introduced herself as Carmona, the head of immigration and flashed a badge to prove it. Salim beckoned me in and she moved over.

I asked Carmona if she could stamp my passport that night. Clearly she could, "todo es posible" she said, but the amount of propina required was far in excess of the $50 that I was offering. Salim dropped her off at her casa of porticoes, then took me on a pub crawl in the town's main square. The bare knuckle bars were all rolling at midnight on a Saturday. My fifty beans furnished enough inebriation that Salim announced raucously, "No worry, marn, the M16s not get in our way." He drank for another couple of hours before remembering that he had a ship to sail.

Responsible citizens should not let someone that scotched drive anywhere, especially through a military check point. I asked him what he was going to say to get me past the soldiers? "They don't scar me, marn, I am fucking di boss!" I presumed in both senses. We pulled over a mile from the check point and he told me to crawl under the oily blankets on the floor of his pick up. He pulled up to the gate and chatted to the guard for an interminable minute. He drove on and told me to stay down, I was quaking. A discovery at this late hour would surely lead to bruise of bone. At the boat he kicked me, "Go on, marn, get out!"

I crawled out of the truck, slid on board and ducked below. I crouched haunted in the blackness under deck. Later I heard Stanley trying to wrest the wheel from Salim, "Lemme take har, marn!" The first relief came when I felt the boat come loose of its moorings and start to sail south. Finally I got the all clear, which came when we were clear of the harbor walls and sailing out into the dark Golfo de Paria. Salim was steering with one hand and swigging a bottle of rum with the other.

The stars burned down all sides of the dome, they felt closer, the horizon was gone, black sea and sky were one. In the west lightening flashed, Stanley warned we could be in for a rough ride when the storm catches up with us. He found a piece of foam for me to crash on below. He said it was only four hours to Trinidad and we should be there early next morning, in time for a fine creole breakfast. The waves were like a cradle, and in their undulation I was a baby fast asleep.

Stanley's forecast caught up with us, I was thrown awake when we hit a huge wave, my body left the floor and rammed into the wooden beams three feet above me. I scrambled up above, the rain was lashing - we were slamming into big rollers. Stan told me to stay below, he was in a soaked dash on deck to secure what he could. I tried to get back to sleep, but each wave lifted me off the foam a few inches, involuntarily aloft. I dry heaved, where will I hurl? I was in a very narrow pocket, like a deep coffin, which I feared was about to fill with puke or worse, ocean.

My next vision was of sunlight pouring into my coffin—Had I died and this was the aftervida, a low grade purgatory where the waiting room is the same space you died in? Just my luck to die in a coffin. Somehow, at the height of the storm I had fallen asleep!? I gofered my head out of the trap door and saw that wee Papa Bank was sailing in calm blue waters. Stanley was at the wheel and bade me good morning with babes, beer and mangos. Okay, not the babes bit, one can but redream.

"We gonna be late, marn. Salim fell asleep at the wheel, we're way off in the ocean."

"I wondered why there was no sign of land. Where's Salim?"

"Me put the sister fucker to bed." He said we were very lucky that Salim had not steered us north into the cliffs of the Peninsula. Janta, the third crew member, was fishing for lunch off the side of the boat.

Stan locked up the wheel, came over and lit a joint. It got very hot in the midday glare. We were on the main drug smuggling route out of South America, Trinidad is the first hop up the islands to Florida. The smugglers boats are faster than the Coast Guard's. Janta told me that the officials are all paid off in La Guiria, the traffickers are royalty back there.

It was mid afternoon before land was sighted. The port was large and busy, we sailed into the part of the harbor crammed with smaller fishing boats and trawlers. Stanley pointed out the immigration hut, he said I should pass behind it because I had no exit stamp from Venezuela. "Don't mention the Papa Bank if ya caught!"

"What will they do to me?"

"They will spit roast yamarn!"

"Jesus, how will I get out of Trinidad if my passport isn't stamped?"

"The same way you left Guiria. You not here brother, leave the way you came, no worries, plenty boats, come back wid Salim next week." Salim and Janta nodded, to reinforce the theme. "Fuck Immigration."

Stanley met me the other side of the clapboard office and showed me the way out. A giant slum surrounded the port, it was a maze of metal and old wooden shacks. "Stay close till we're outta here," he cautioned. Lots of people were out on the streets, music boomed, everyone was very friendly. It had obviously been a while since they'd seen someone that pale with red hair. It was quite a reception. On each corner I heard, "Welcome, white boy!" or "Welcome, red!" or just plain, "Welcome," like the beginning of a song on the longest dirt red carpet.

"This is as far as I go." He shook my hand and pointed towards downtown. He watched me walk away and then I stopped and watched him walk back. Sadness moves in swift when you say goodbye for the last time, especially to a soul like Stanley. I followed the aromas, toward the cafes serving delicious Creole and East Indian food.

The next month passed quickly, I stayed with my friend Marian and her wonderful large family. When people heard my English accent, they would often mention a family member who was "up di Mainland." London was home for many Trinidadians. I heard patois all over, a French Creole that no Francais could rap with. I went to the smaller sister island of Tobago and received instant marriage proposals from women wanting to live up di Mainland. The only low point in my visit was a Reo Speedwagon concert I attended stoned, especially hard on the ears when compared to the marvelous local calypso and reggae.

Funds faded, the time came to return to the port and look for a boat sailing back to La Guiria. In a week I had a flight to catch in Caracas for Miami. I scoured the harbor for two days and couldn't find a single boat going to Venezuela that week. Salim's boat was in the same berth but there was no one on board. On my last night in Port of Spain, I didn't have enough cash to get a room. I decided to go back to the port and crash on a boat. I was told to take a cab down there as it was too dangerous to walk. Too dangerous to drive also, it took several attempts before I could persuade a taxi to run the gauntlet of the ghetto.

The slums had transformed after dark. There were fires in barrels on most corners and packs of youths carrying sticks and wild dogs roamed dirt alleys. The nervous cab driver didn't halt at any of the stop signs and told me unequivocally, "don't come back this way till daybreak!" I found the Papa Bank moored on calm water. I slept soundly on the foam in my coffin, floating on the original womb we all spawned from.

At sunrise, the rooster of last resort crowed. I had no choice but to enter the Lion's den. I took a bus to the airport and charged a flight to Caracas on credit, Miami was too expensive. I checked in for the flight and got in line for the departing immigration and customs check. It was a big risk, all I could hope for was a sleepy immigration officer. The female agent leafed through my passport in the local manner, no hurry. I thought she had waved me through, but she had sent me over for secondary inspection.

Where is your entry stamp?

Isn't it in there?

How did you get in the country? Silence.

I was put into handcuffs and taken to an office which doubled as a cell. Nobody came until I had missed my flight. A tall chap, in his fifties, entered the room. He unlocked my cuffs and gave me a drink of water.

"I'm Peter Croft, Chief of Immigraysharn at di airport." He put my passport down on the bare desk. "One of two things is about to happen to you; you're going to spend the next five days downtown in di Port of Spain jail for drug interrogation, or you're not'

Cold sweat in streams. Since he hadn't elaborated on the second option I presumed a hog whipping was likely. I knew the truth would only lead to more questioning and the presumption that only a drug smuggler takes such a clandestine route into the country.

"I came on a tourist boat from Cumana (Venezuela). It stopped at a beach resort for refreshments. I went off to get an ice cream and when I got back the boat was gone, I was stranded." He laughed. I could see he was a good man, warm inside, and able to find humor in my impending doom.

"My God, marn, I've heard some awful stories in this office, but that is the most ridiculous!"

"It's the truth."

"Then that's the most expensive ice cream you'll ever eat. You leave me no choice but to send you downtown."

"It's the truth, that's what happened."

"When did this happen?"

"Two days ago." At that moment I felt the three week old Reo Speedwagon ticket burn a hole through my jeans into my left buttock. He flicked through the passport.

"You've been to nearly every country on the continent this year. Were you shopping around for the best kilo?"

"No I was just traveling?"

"How did you get around all these countries?"

"I started off on the buses and then I started hitching. The buses had a lot of blowouts, break downs, robberies."

"Robberies, on the buses?"

"Yeah, in Columbia it was the gorillas, in Brazil it was the Police who robbed us."

"Have you ever bought or consumed hard drugs?"


"How old are you?"

"Twenty three."

"How can you afford to spend a year traveling?"

"I graduated last year, worked in a ski resort in Colorado to save the money up."

"What do your parents do?"

"They have a small holiday business, they rent vacation cottages near a national park."

"Can you prove that?" I showed him one of their business cards which had a picture of their farmhouse on it. He looked me in the eye and concluded his interview.

"I don't think we need to send you to the drug tank. You'll be sent back to Caracas. A file will be kept on you here. We cannot give you an exit stamp, since you do not have an entry stamp. I don't know what the Venezuelans will do with you."

He shook my hand. I don't suppose he swallowed the ice cream bit, but at least he got a laugh. I was put on the next Avensa flight. I was so relieved not to have been sent to the Trinidadian anti narcotic squad, that it took half of the seventy minute flight before the alternate horror found space to fester.

I was arriving on an international flight with no stamps from the originating country and no prior exit stamp out of Venezuela. I soaked into my seat, shrinking from Caracas. There is no escape at 30,000 feet. On the ground, the plane door opens directly into the terminal. My pulse was peaking, the homosheepiens herded themselves into the line for Immigration and Customs.

I withdrew from the flock and nervously absorbed the afternoon chaos and filth inside Caracas International Airport. Not everyone on my flight had got in line for Immigration, several were in transit, connecting with other international flights, they simply proceeded to their next gate. I considered this option, I already had my back pack since it was small enough to carry on—no place to buy or change tickets in transit though.

I walked the full length of international arrivals until I arrived at international departures. Unusually, arrivals and departures were on the same level. I wonder if it's possible to walk the wrong way through departures and so evade Immigration and Customs? I wavered considerably between emigration and immigration. The latter option was futile, it led straight to cells.

I waited for a departing crowd to gather by passport control at the emigration gates. When official eyes were down studying documents, I began the long reverse sidle. I slipped through an adjacent, unused gate and emerged on the far side of the wall, at the rear of the line departing. It was a fowl surprise to see there were still another two check points to get past. The next gate was wider, more like a sluice where passengers had to show boarding passes. I mingled with several departing travelers, and salmoned upstream. The final gate was a gift, the officer stepped into a back office and I ducked around the metal detectors.

I was now in front of the Avensa Airlines check in desks. Although I was through the check points, I was not out of the airport, and I wasn't sure if I had been observed on a camera. Thus, rather than rush for the exit de fiesta, I hung around and pretended to be lost. I made slow, sideways steps towards sunshine. I was 50 yards de la entrada when he breathed down my neck. Dread.

A heavy hand slapped down hard on my right shoulder. "Passaporte!" the plain clothes officer demanded sternly. The game was up.

I handed over my passport, and feigned that I didn't understand Spanish. I understood his questions alright, but convinced him that I was a lost gringo sin lingo. "I'm trying to get to Cumana," (a domestic destination). He grabbed someone to translate. Once he found the two month old entry stamp in my passport he became mystified and his questions spluttered to a halt. His aggressive, interrogative manner transformed to that of a tourist guide, he escorted me through the main departure hall, out of the exit and directed me to "el otro terminal."

I sought no shade, I was happy to have the sun burn, waves of relief flowed outward during that long walk to the domestic terminal. I kept a straight face, but inside elation cascaded. Why so high? Strange, because I had gotten away with essentially nothing,

or had the drug mule got away with more than he'll ever tell?


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