Sunday 24th December, 2006

Peter Quentrall-Thomas
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Meeting my host family

Let me wish all the Guardian readers Feliz Navidad, as today is Christmas Eve. While my “learning Spanish in Caracas” story goes on for several weeks, as you read this I should be in the depths of Illinois, up to my neck in snow, celebrating Christmas, God and a certain Venezuelan airline willing.

But back to the story.

Once in Caracas, Ricardo showed me the location of my school right in the heart of the city at Plaza Venezuela, and then took me to meet my host family who lives on the outskirts of the city at Palo Verde.

And what a lovely warm welcome they gave me! The father Felito owns a body repair shop and garage; the mother Ceverina is a retired physics teacher, and the son Felix is a 15-year-old child prodigy violinist.

Plus, they have a miniature Doberman Pincer called Mimi, who is a bundle of energy. Luckily, Felix spoke some English, otherwise they would have wondered what sort of lodger they had taken on if I replied “Dos cervesas por favor” to everything they asked me.

They have a lovely apartment on the fourth floor of one of the hundreds of tower blocks that make up Caracas, and while the bedrooms are small, I have my own bathroom and shower and a set of keys, so I can come and go as I please.

I hadn’t been in their home more than ten minutes before Ceverina served a wonderful spaghetti dish with pasta that had a mild pepper sauce built in. Delicioso!!

Then it was into the “carro” and off through traffic that makes Trini drivers look like angels, to downtown Caracas to the tiny studio of a violin professor for Felix to have his last lesson before he gives a concert on Monday.

What was amazing was there were eight other teenagers there, all of whom play the violin and all of whom make a full-time living in Caracas playing with various orchestras and bands.

I can’t think of one violinist earning a full-time living in Trinidad. Even panmen struggle.

What does that tell us about our so-called love of art and culture?

With Felix’s lesson complete, we headed to an incredible five-storey shopping mall called Sambil, on Avenue Liberatador, with people like peas!

Now, your boy suffers badly from vertigo, so by the time we were on the fifth glass-sided escalator looking over the handrail at a 600-foot drop, it was all I could do to keep my legs from buckling under me.

The last time I had a bad attack of vertigo was at Machu Picchu. I seem to remember JP suggested I give him my credit card and pin number before I looked over.

But I made it to the top floor, as our destination was the roof of the mall. That’s right; they cleverly built the sloping roof of the mall in the shape of an amphitheatre, with a stage and sound system all out in the open under the stars.

What a perfect setting for a wonderful free concert by the Fundacion Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil de Chacao, directed by Florentino Mendoza (who has played in Trinidad with Nancy Jackman. Small world, eh?) These children played their hearts out for us with Christmas Carols and classical songs of every description. Magic under the stars.

On the journey back to our

“casa,” we had a glimpse of the other side of Caracas, as we saw gangs of young Chavez supporters dressed in red T-shirts and carrying nasty-looking sticks roaming the streets. And this was just the first day!

It’s Sunday, and I slept like a dead, thanks to all those cervesas and music under the stars.

Mind you, when you live in an area of high-rise apartments, there is a lot of coming and going, with cars starting, people talking and children laughing.

This goes on until about 1 am and then starts up again before 6, even on a Sunday.

After a great breakfast of freshly-made arepas, eaten with spicy ham and cheese, all washed down with an incredibly-strong, sweet black coffee, we head into Caracas, once more, to go to church.

Now I am so rarely in church that I always worry that it will be struck by lightning if I visit, but I took the congregation’s life in my hands and found myself in a wonderful building that was a beautiful mixture of raw concrete and amazing stained windows.

Any where else in the world it would be a cathedral, but here, the Roman Catholic Temple Parroquial San Juan Bosco, in the Caracas suburb of Altamera, is just a plain parish church.

At one end there was a beautiful 20-foot high sculpture of Jesus on the cross, only there was no cross, and he was suspended in front of another marvellous mural.

Throughout the service, people were coming and going, and the dress code seemed non-existent. There were young women in very revealing tops, and one of the guys doing the collections was even dressed in shorts!

Having secured our place in heaven for another week, we went to another very upscale mall called Plaza de Americas, in a wealthy suburb south of Caracas.

More people like peas. I don’t think these people have homes, boy!

More local Venezuelan food was consumed at a packed food court before we headed home in time to have a nap before dinner!

I know I’m going to sleep well again tonight!

(Next week) The first day of school)

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