Monday, June 10, 2013

The Great Venezuelan Adventure (II)

Following San Cristobal, I took a bus to Mérida, and unsurprisingly, twice in that ride I was questioned by the authorities about my motives to visit Venezuela… because, dear reader, I might very well be a foreign spy. However, as soon as I showed my Spanish passport and spoke with the most polished, rigorous Castilian accent ever conceived, the agent’s tone got a whole lot softer. By the end of the conversation, I struck one decisive, final blow with some ornate sentence including the words “Spanish embassy”, to which the agent because quiet all of the sudden, sheepishly returning my passport and not making eye contact. The crowd in the bus welcomed me back with joyful smiles and plenty of jokes, cheering my triumphant re-entry in the vehicle. Unfortunately, not everything had a happy ending: two other passengers did not make it back, as they were lacking their ID’s.

In Mérida I met Néstor, a passionate fanatic of vintage Detroit iron, from his 1939 Ford to his ’66 Mustang, and his very special ’57 Thunderbird resto-driver. We got talking about Mustangs, and agreed to do business in the future. Two days later, he sent me off to see the next car fanatic, Ezio, in the commercial town of Valera.
Some people call this Instagram, or "vintage". I call it "having dirt on my lens".
A good tease is always better than revealing the whole thing...
My ride for the week: a 1957 Ford Thunderbird. Gas prices? Not to worry!
Gorgeous fins. Can you guess which car these belongs to?
My friend Néstor at the wheel of his babied 1966 Ford Mustang!
The trip to Valera was a mess from beginning to end. The car was a 1970’s burgundy Chevelle with a leaky carburetor and the highest index of body roll known to man. We drove through rain, fog, gravel, potholes, incipient brooks, and pretty much anything in between. Still, the poor thing made it safely, three hours behind schedule. Ezio helped me find a former luxury hotel for $6 a night, where apparently the entire water piping had collapsed. During my stay in Valera, I helped him and his friends assemble the interior of his über-cool Porsche 356 racer. Eight years of work were paying off, one weekend at a time. In Valera I tasted the typical cuajadas and the best pumpkin arepas ever –courtesy of Ezio’s wife. In Valera I also met Aurelio Ferri, a former racecar driver who, at 82, was still working as a Mercedes mechanic. Aurelio greeted me with a grumpy frown and a spirited hand gesture, and showed me his collection of W116, W124 and W126 Mercedes sitting at his shop, as we chatted on how most problems in a Mercedes end up being small, cheap fixes that make people panic. From Valera, I took a 1990’s Mercury Gran Marquis –with air conditioning, this time!– to Maracaibo, the oil capital of Venezuela, to meet Rafael Mirabal, owner of his own museum.

Not the one I rode to Valera, but you can get the general idea. This one actually wasn't half bad.

Venezuela, being such incredibly unsafe country, has more of an "indoor" car scene.
Living history, then and now. Such bad-ass!
An afernoon's worth of work, and its due reward: the car has seats now!

Following instructions over the phone, the taxi driver got me from the terminal to the empty driveway of a heavily walled home. I peeked through the fence and I saw a dusty Cadillac, so I was certainly in the right place. A few minutes later, I saw a Ford Model A in the distance, approaching quickly. Undoubtedly, it was Rafael; a man so cunning and eccentric he had legally declared his own house / restoration shop as a “transportation museum” to make neighbors shut up about the old cars in the property. We struck conversation quickly, and almost instantly we became friends. In his daily driver, the 1929 Model A, we drove to a fancy hotel by the lakeshore in the town’s most exclusive area. My wallet began to shake in fear, but as soon as I inquired at the reception desk, I found the rate for a single room at the five-star resort translated to something like twenty-four dollars. In disbelief, I carded into my room and I found what seemed to be a $150-per-night room. Something was not right. Even the croissant-and-heavy-silverware breakfast buffet seemed way too over the top... what was going on? In addition to the black-market rates for Venezuelan Bolivares to US Dollars (25 to $1, as opposed to the official rate of 6 to $1), I later found out the hotel had been seized by the government. The elevators did not work, the casino had a closing notice for illegal gambling and the carpets were heavily stained, but other than that I could not care less! I ordered a $3 meal via room service and felt like a million bucks about it… until I got food poisoning. Live fast, die young!

Just daily driving the Ford Model A... no flinching while passing cars!
Even mechanics need a playground to keep away from the wrench!
In this historical moment, Rafael was gifted a BLOCK OF WOOD!
Too darn tall for it, but an ear-to-ear grin!
In the good company of Rafael and his son, we all had a blast. We rode the Model A everywhere in Maracaibo, from the infamous “invasiones” (invaded land) to a friend’s Mustang/Camaro workshop. We had tons of pizza, and tons of fun, watching tons of very special cars and motorcycles. On the last day, we drove to the private coach terminal and we waved each other goodbye. And for some strange reason, I shared this bus with a formerly famous Venezuelan singer who was then in his late 70’s. “I was on the same stage with Carlos Gardel at one point… he rode limousines, and here I am riding the bus to Caracas”, he complained. In the meanwhile, somewhere in the shadows, under the surveillance of a broken security camera and very well aware of it, someone was stealing my notebook computer.

My computer is being stolen somewhere while I take this photo. GRRRRR!!!


  1. Good story Miguel ;

    Keep it coming ! .


  2. Great read. Miguel. I now plan to declare my yard a Transportation Museum. Re the mystery car -- the Rocket-style taillamp certainly provides a hint!