l o s r o q u e s

[ 13:43 monday 11 january – isla gran roque, venezuela ]

it only takes half an hour to walk here from the village, squelching through the soft mud which borders the mangrove-fringed lagoons. but nobody comes here. in spite of its proximity to habitation the cove feels marvellously wild.

i’m perched on a heap of bleached coral, shaded from the searing intensity of the sun by a beneficent mangrove. the atlantic rollers have piled dead corals of all kinds into a steep ridge around this small semircular bay. to my left the craggy cactus-speckled mass which forms the backbone of gran roque rises out of the turquoise sea. before me a dozen gulls slowly orbit two guano-covered islets. behind me the mangroves and lagoons stretch to the airstrip at the south-eastern tip of the island. three pelicans bob lazily in the water. every so often one of them rises laboriously into the air before folding its wings back and plummeting into the water to gulp at a fish.

it seems like a lifetime ago that i was bouncing along the road from caracas in the bus on new year’s eve. later that evening adrien and walked down the dual carriageway from playa grande into catia la mar on a hunch we’d find some excitement there. we weren’t disappointed. having dined at a street-corner stall surrounded by soldiers and police we struck off from the main thoroughfare to explore the narrow residential backstreets. each street, barely two metres wide, was lined with small one or two-storey dwellings mostly fronted with yards sporting elaborate nativity scenes. the residents of one street had clubbed together to decorate it with arches of christmas lights along its length. families were sitting on chairs on the street in front of their houses and milling about. children were dressed in their sunday best.

it felt somewhat taboo for us to be there but the atmosphere was friendly. as usual i trusted to smiling and randomly greeting people as a recipe to ward off any trouble. eventually we came out into a larger road running between two big social housing projects. here we came upon an enormous sound system set up in the middle of the street playing salsa. we got some strange looks but after a few minutes were invited to sit at the side of the road with the organisers and buy some beer, to which we happily acceded. this was followed by invitations to purchase marijuana and cocaine which seemed a less good idea so we judiciously declined.

we continued to rove the streets. every few minutes someone would come up to us and warn us it was dangerous for us to be out. the US state department accords caracas the distinction of having the world’s highest murder rate. there are a hundred and fifty killings each week, mostly gun-related. travellers need to keep their wits about them but i’ve been in places which felt a lot more perilous. most of the people we encountered were charming.

at midnight we found ourselves back at the sound system where deafening barrages of fireworks were erupting from the street and from the windows of the apartment buildings. the pop and crackle of the fireworks was accompanied by the sharper report of pistol fire. this was a little disconcerting but the guns we saw were all pointed reassuringly skyward. adrien and i embraced the sweet old fisherman and the cripple with whom we were standing and wished them a happy year. a pair of heavily intoxicated men approached us shouting “venezuela! venezuela! viva chavez!” to which the sensible response was clearly an enthusiastic repetition of the same cries. a little while later we deemed it prudent to slip away and walk back up the road to playa grande before things got wilder.

at five we were awake and on our way to the airport and the creaky dash eight which was to convey us to los roques. the flight only took half an hour but we landed in a different world. the approach took us over the curlicues of white sand and coral with which the archipelago splatters twenty miles of the turquoise caribbean. we landed at the mangrove-fringed airstrip on gran roque just before nine o’clock in the morning on new year’s day under a perfectly clear sky. descending the steps from the plane the airport consisted of one shed functioning as arrivals office and a second shed raised on stilts which served as the control tower.

at this point i still had no idea how i was going to get to the island of rasky (otherwise spelled rasqui) where matias lived, or indeed where in the archipelago it lay. adrien suggested that i should come with him to the yacht and he and his friends could give me a lift. i was glad of the chance to continue traveling with adrien a little longer so i thanked him and accepted. we set off together into the village which was completely deserted. the mounds of empty beer cans in the scruffy square at its centre testified to the previous night’s jollities. we emerged on the main beach, dropped our bags and stood for some minutes without speaking. after caracas the silence was astonishing, mesmerising. nothing but the lap of the small waves and the plop of diving pelicans.

i was given two cups of coffee (and a blessing) by the manageress of guest house that was slowly creaking into life. after an hour or so adrien and i got a lift on a dinghy which took us out to his yacht on the far side of the anchorage where we found his friends soundly asleep. adrien and four of his friends sailed from marseilles last september on a year-long voyage to cross the atlantic and explore the caribbean. for two weeks adrien had been separated from them to spend christmas in new york. like me he’d hoped to reach los roques for new year but had similarly been thwarted, which is how we met at caracas airport. gradually the crew stirred into life. they’d dancing until dawn and struggled back to the yacht only a couple of hours before our arrival. adrien distributed belated christmas presents over coffee.

the chart revealed that rasky was just a short hop to the east of gran roque. once everyone was sufficiently conscious we raised anchor and got underway. within an hour the water beneath us started to shift hue from deep azure to aquamarine as the depth decreased. ahead of us was a miniscule speck of land with a triangular white structure and a green spatter of mangrove. with a thrill i realised i was looking at rasky. when the water became too shallow to proceed we dropped anchor and four of us transferred to the inflatable tender to row ashore. matias knew i was coming but he didn’t know when so i was able to make a gratifyingly dramatic entrance and catch him by surprise. we became friends when we both lived on stromboli. i hadn’t seen him since he moved to venezuela five years ago. i introduced him to my friends and he introduced me to his wife carolina and their nine-month-old baby estaban. adrien and his friends stayed at anchor off rasky overnight then departed the next morning to explore an archipelago a hundred miles westward. i swam out to the yacht as they were preparing to leave to collect a shirt and wish them bon voyage.

i spent the next five days on rasky letting the intense solitude of the island absorb me. it takes about twenty minutes to walk around its circumference. there’s a live coral reef off the eastern side of the island, super-abundant with aquatic life. matias and his family are the only permanent inhabitants. the white triangle i’d seen is their house, an elemental wooden a-frame with one room downstairs and one room upstairs. at its side is a second a-frame house painted black in which are three guest rooms. energy is provided by two wind generators and three solar panels supplemented by a diesel generator which runs in the evening. water is provided by an osmotic desalination system. it is possible to take a fresh water shower for a couple of hours in the evening from a tube in a shed at the back of a house except the wind complicates this blowing the dribble of water hither and thither. it’s best not to touch the walls while showering as this gives an electric shock. between them matias and carolina are responsible for running the guest house, cooking, cleaning, maintaining the equipment, ferrying guests back and forth and bringing all supplies over from gran roque. seven days each week they work from six in the morning until ten at night. they are rewarded with a life of astonishing beauty.

on rasky the dominant element is the wind. it blows ceaselessly from the east and there is no shelter from it. in the absence of other sound its rush is the main thing you hear. day by day it increases and decreases in force but never for a moment does it slacken to stillness. i became transfixed by it, conscious of every variation and nuance. i slept in the upper part of matias’ house with an open window at either end (it rains so rarely there is no need for glass). the wind entered through one and left through the other. i placed my mattress underneath the eastern window where the wind came in. during the night the sheet beneath which i slept was constantly undulating and lifting as eddies of wind whirled around and tugged at it.

the main fauna on the island are hermit crabs, black lizards and mosquitoes. the former, locally called “ladrones”, are exceptional. they are everywhere. the sand is criss-crossed with their zig zag tracks. at any moment half a dozen of them are likely to be roving the house. they wear black and white snail shells, grow to the size of a fist, are scarlet in colour and have one immense purple pincer. when they are disturbed they fold themselves into their shell like a puzzle with the pincer flat over the entrance to the shell and the legs concertinad around it. they can reach almost any point on the exterior of the shell with their sharp-pointed legs as i discovered the first time i picked one up. only by placing a finger immediately above their head and a thumb at the very rear of the shell is it possible to pick one up without molestation. the older ones have extraordinarily powerful pincers, capable i suspect of crushing a child’s finger bone. esteban has already had a couple of run-ins with them.

the black lizards seem to be perpetually shedding their skin which gives them a faintly unhealthy appearance. every time i sat down to read they would creep up and nip my toes which became quite irritating. the mosquitoes meanwhile are monsters. next to those i encountered with kirmo in lapland they’re the most aggressive i’ve encountered anywhere in the world. at twilight a merciless assault commences which continues for several hours. they blithely penetrate cotton and linen. however their reactions seem oddly slow and it’s usually possible to squash them when they bite. but by then the damage is done and a thousand eggs have been fertilised.

finally four days ago i crossed with matias to gran roque and installed myself in a small house he rents here. the contrast was overwhelming. the population is not more than a couple of thousand but after the solitude of rasky it was like arriving in a great metropolis. on adrien’s yacht i met a lively italian girl called martina who is also staying here on gran roque. we got to know each other and in the evenings i’ve enjoyed dining with her and her friends, catered by a substantial roquita matron named philippa whom everyone calls “mamma”. a couple of days ago martina and i resolved to go diving. this was my second experience scuba diving, the first having been in the grenadine islands in 2007. i enjoyed it so much i ended up doing five dives and rather by accident gained my open water diver certification. i was taught by a brazilian speaking alternately italian and spanish then took the exam in english.

in a couple of hours i’ll meet matias at the quay and return once more to rasky. this will be my final night in the islands. tomorrow afternoon i fly back to caracas and the following day to oporto and london. i’ve been recording lots of film using the fish-eye lens mum and dad gave me for christmas and taking plenty of photographs. hopefully there will soon be some visual evidence to share as well as these words.

it’s been a blissful journey. my deepest thanks to matias and carolina for letting me share their life for a moment.

: c :

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