Margarita's Other Side -December 6, 2001
"Isla de Margarita off the Northeast coast of Venezuela is a holiday island. Its superb beaches and steady winds make it an international destination for serious wind surfers and not-so-serious sun worshippers. Its duty free shops draw wealthy Venezuelans from the mainland. Secure anchorages attract cruisers transiting the Caribbean coast of South America.
The principal city Porlamar, where we're anchored, has two distinct areas. There's a forest of high rise buildings expanding eastward from the city core along trendy shopping streets. Chic jewellery stores and designer clothing shops line Avenida Santiago Marino and Avenida 4 de Mayo, the two most elegant and expensive retail precincts. The historic centre of the city, however, is several blocks to the west, around the tree-shaded Plaza Bolivar (virtually every Venezuelan city has a central square named after Simon Bolivar, the country's liberator or "El Libertador"). The two pedestrian streets extending south from the square trade mostly in affordable clothing and don't cater as much to tourists.
Although your first impression may be that Margarita is consumer-crazed, we've discovered another side to the island. Our first inkling that the entire population is not engaged in either selling or buying luxury goods and services occurred early one morning shortly after our arrival. We awoke to the noise of a droning outboard engine punctuated by rhythmic drumming. Looking across the bay in the soft light of dawn, we spied several "peneros" - high prowed wood fishing boats - weaving among the sailboats at anchor. They circled slowly, laying out long nets in the relatively shallow water. Once a crescent of floats was established, they motored back and forth across the mouth of the net with the crew banging wood sticks against the gunwales. The noise drove fish into the nets, which were then hauled on board by hand.
We got to experience more of Margarita's other side last Sunday when we went for a walk with our friend Gordon. Gordon is a retired Canadian teacher who has lived in Porlamar for the past eight years. We first met him at Jak's, a waterside bar and restaurant that's popular among the cruisers in the anchorage. Eileen has been performing weekly at Jak's. After her show last Friday, Gordon invited us to join him on his regular Sunday hike to Pampatar, a fishing port 4 miles Northeast of Porlamar along the coast.
Gordon has a very civilized approach to hiking. After half an hour in the hot Margarita sun, we stopped at a modest bar surrounded by beached peneros. We ordered ice-cold "Polars", Venezuela's most popular beer. We paid fishermen's prices - 200 Bolivars a bottle, or less than US 30 cents. You can easily pay three times that much in the glitzy bars in town and still think you're getting a bargain compared to North American prices. Before we reached Pampatar harbour, we made two more hydration stops. By the familiar greetings we received at each bar, it was obvious that Gordon had a well established route.
It was lunch time when we arrived in Pampatar. The beach was lined with small restaurants, their tables set in the sand out front. The place was packed, but not with pink-skinned gringos or elite Venezuelans in designer swim wear. Sunday is the only day off for most working Venezuelans. Local families crammed the Pampatar beach. Small children played in the sand. A bunch of kids were flying kites. Adults chatted amiably with each other in the shade of umbrellas and palm trees. Young teens in their fathers' peneros prowled just offshore, trying to catch the attention of bikini-clad "chicas", who studiously looked the other way.
We ordered fish and chips at Gordon's favourite eatery and watched the "real" population of Margarita relax and play. When the rising tide lapped at our ankles and our chairs began to sink slowly into the wet sand, we knew it was time to return home. The next day, we probably wouldn't see the people with whom we shared the beach. The other side of Margarita would be at home or in school or hard at work.