One of the few things that my brother, sister and I looked forward to was the ferry ride between Palmarejo and Maracaibo. I think the reason for the excitement it generated when we were young was that it was so different. Sure, we took a launch out fishing on Sundays, but that still did not take away from the anticipation of the ride.

Now, my family lived on the eastern shore of Lake Maracaibo and over the twenty years that I lived in Venezuela, I must have taken at least 50 rides on the ferry.

At one time, Creole would take us to Maracaibo and bring us back on one of their newer launches. It could be an exciting ride, but it was very long and if the weather made the surface of the lake choppy, the ride could be exhausting. Most of the times that we took a launch was when we were going to catch a plane to go on vacation or returning from vacation. But that practice eventually ended and we would have to make the long drive to Palmarejo to catch the ferry.

Then sometime in the early ‘60s an outfit in Cabimas established a high-speed hydrofoil service to and from Maracaibo. Well, that was progress. They built a modern dock in Cabimas with a nice covered passenger building. But you know my memory of the “Fletcha” as it was referred to, was that when I had to use the restroom, I noticed that the Venezuelans who had never utilized a flush toilet in their lives would throw the soiled toilet paper on the floor in a corner of the room. Some things make an impression on you that last a lifetime. The hydrofoil was a real thrill though; as the engines revved up it would gradually lift free of the water and it actually flew through the water on short, stubby wings that remained below the surface of the water. That always amazed me but in the back of my mind was what would happen if it hit a log that had washed out of one of the rivers feeding the lake during rainy season. Never happened.

The opening of the bridge was the beginning of new chapter leaving a quaint way of life buried in early chapters.

But all of those alternative forms of transportation never lessened the quiet thrill I got when I rode the ferry.

The day would begin with a early wakeup call from the folks, “get up, get dressed, brush your teeth and come to breakfast” so, getting dressed was a T-shirt, alpargatas and shorts, a few quick licks with toothbrush and into the kitchen for a quick breakfast of fried platanos, queso blanco and a couple of eggs washed down by a cold glass of KLIM. Then into the jeep and off we would go.

We lived in Tia Juana, Campo Verde, for 13 years so the trip is etched in my memory. Out the gate crossing the cattle guards. The guardia at the gatehouse ignored us. Then out the main gate and left onto Carretera National. Always left from any of the Creole camps except Hollywood. Down the road, past Campo Rojo on the right and then Shell on the left and their tank farm; then Taparita, the small Mene Grande camp; next Ule on the right and then the alcabala which might or might not be manned by the guardia national –“thieves in uniform” my father would say. Further down the road we passed Punto Gordo where the power plant was and the small camp for the employees who worked there.

The next stretch of road ran close to the lake shoreline and tall coconut palms overhung the narrow blacktop road. It would still be comfortable as the sun wasn’t overhead yet and the open sides of the jeep let the air circulate around us. We would then come upon the Creole camps where we had lived many years before with Hollywood on the right and Las Cupolas on the left, past the main entrance to the production area and into Cabimas which was a crowded, dirty, village of cramped small buildings crowded higlypigly against each other. I never liked Cabimas.

Leaving Cabimas was always a relief for me, it meant that we weren’t that far from Palmarejo and the rest of the ride was along uncluttered countryside with the road paralleling the shoreline. The sun is now higher in the sky and the heat is building when we pull into the line of cars and assorted trucks, busses that were waiting to get on to the ferry. Dad and Mom, who had made this trip and untold number of times were not happy about missing the ferry that we could see pulling away from the dock, so Dad got out of the jeep and went to purchase tickets for boarding the ferry. My brother, Bill and sister, Cris and I got out and wandered down to the dock. I liked the ferry dock area with the coconut palms and the nice setting.

Eventually a ferry from Maracaibo arrived and offloaded its cargo of vehicles and walking passengers. We didn’t recognize anyone getting off. Dad, called and we all piled back into the jeep and Dad followed the cars in front of us onto the ferry. As we drove onto the ferry boarding ramp I would wonder what would happen if the ferry accidentally became dislodged from the dock. Probably all of us would die and all my friends would miss me. The ferry held two rows of vehicles on each side with an upper passenger deck accessible via two opposing set of stairs centrally situated between the divided rows of cars.

We all got out of the jeep and worked our way upstairs where we cold watch the ferry load and then pull up the ramp and back out of the dock. Before it pulled out, my brother, sister and I could see where the toilets flushed into the water just above the waterline and the bagre swimming around the discharge looking for tempting morsels. We all hated bagre, the disgusting things.

One of the thrills of riding the ferry was that the best pastelitos in the world could only be had on the ferries. We would all buy as many piping hot pastelitos as we could which we washed down with a Coke or Fanta. I liked Fantas. My father’s usual caution ringing in our ears – “wipe off the mouth of the bottle before you take a drink”. He was always right as the Venezuelan soft drink bottlers did not know about sanitation and a clean handkerchief always, always came away with a brown circle – it wasn’t the residue from the bottle lid cork, I assure you. In spite of the dirt, the best Cokes and Fanta I ever drank were those made in Venezuela.

We would then to the railing overlooking the bow of the ferry and enjoy the breeze that we never experienced back in the camps until the rainy season came. Now the sun was directly overhead and the sun beat down on us and reflected back from the surface of the lake. That’s how Dad ended up with all those skins cancers on his ears and nose that he had to have burned off -- from 31 years of working on the lake.

Anyway, eventually we could look over the side of the ferry and see Leper Island in the distance. (Did you know that the government of Venezuela eventually closed the island and then sent its lepers to a Leper Community in I believe Colombia for treatment. If you saw the Motorcycle Chronicles you will have seen the colony represented in the film.)

Eventually, we arrived at the bustling harbor of Maracaibo, the ferry docked unloaded and Dad drove us to wherever we went that day.

Now returning by ferry was pretty much identical to coming over to Maracaibo with one great big exception and that was the hundreds of people that crowded around the vehicles waiting for the ferry that wanted to sell you anything under the sun – but mostly contraband. It was a fast a furious babble scrabble of mostly men selling: Smuggled American cigarettes, watches, lighters, sunglasses and then there were the Guajira women selling handmade alpargatas with colorful pompoms and woven goods. They would thrust whatever they were selling into your face tossing out prices and if you looked them in the eye, well then, they would follow you to the point they were held back attempting to tempt you to buy from them. If one seemed successful then others would crowd around hoping to make a sale. They would work both sides of the jeep. I can still see images of them swirling around the sides of the jeep, thrusting their hands at us holding whatever they are selling.

As the ferry pulled away from the dock, the din of the crowd faded in the distance. I looked forward to our next trip.

The “Bridge” began a new chapter, colder, less sensual. I don’t think I will read any further.

That’s how I remember it.

 

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