The Irish Ministry of Foreign Affairs travel advisory for Venezuela had me paranoid even before I arrived. Particularly since eight lines into this document they mention my destination by name...
"There are also growing concerns about the incidence of violent crime on the island of Margarita. Travellers are advised to exercise particular caution there."
Aside from that I'd heard of an official attending the tournament last year being robbed of everything he had and left on the side of the road in his underpants. Venezuela is ranked in the top five countries in the world... for homocide and kidnapping increased year on year by between 40 - 60 % from 2008 to 2009 (US govt. travel advisory). Generally not necessarily a place you would choose to go to.
To my alarm I was off the plane all of 20 minutes, just after collecting my cumbersome fencing back when one of the warnings I had read began flashing in 30-foot neon letters in my brain.
"The airport itself can be a dangerous place. If approached by an officer purporting to be an airport official,"
I was immediately approached by about seven of them.
"even if they are in uniform and/or present credentials, "
All with official ID and wanting to help me out. One of them eventually negotiated his way to be the one who would take care of me and the others dispersed. Offering to help carry my bags, he said he would accompany me to the domestic terminal and would not take "NO GRACIAS!" for an answer.
"you should try to ensure that you remain in a busy area of the airport and, if possible, check with other airport or airline staff that the officials are genuine."
When I reluctantly found him walking with me in the direction I knew well was the domestic airport I tried to check with a tourist information desk or do something that would get him to give up. He gestured that we needed to take a lift to the domestic airport but there was no way I was getting into a lift with this stranger, particularly a lift I didn't know to where it lead.
Eventually when absolutely refused to go anywhere with him he got a friend of his to translate. I took this oppurtunity to tell him that some Venezuela Esgrima friends of mine were waiting for me in the domestic airport and I didn't need to change any dollars. He immediately lost interest. Chances are he was only looking for a tip and not going to kill me and steal my fencing gear on the black market to illegal Venezeulan bee-keepers but I thought best not to risk it and was glad when he finally got the message.
Aside from that incident which instantly increased my paranoia, I suppose quite luckily, the main challenge (outside of the competition) I faced was boredom. When I reached the domestic terminal an expected 4 hour lay over turned into an 8 hour unexplained delay. Absolutely no explanation was given, even in Spanish but we finally arrived in Margarita around 22.30.
I'd left France at 04.00 Venezuelan time, so I although I had intended on trying to negotiate to paying the hotel in Bolivars (where I could get an black market exchange of 8 to 1) I was far to tired when I reached the hotel and handed over my dollars without discussion.
In a similar vein to my previous travel to the Algeria we were advised not to leave the hotel at all. Paying at all for a hotel of such low standards still wrankles. Photos will follow shortly but aside from the general poor repair of the place you had the issue of thumping Spanish Karaoke until 11pm and then thumping club music until 4am. Luckily I was able to change rooms to a quiet family room at the back of the hotel, sacrificing my sea view for a construction site but only having to tolerate the bad Karaoke and not the techno.
On my first full day on the island, my one excursion to the nearby beach to read a book for about hour lead to serious sunburn on my chest despite having 25+ sun block on and that was the end of hopes of returning to France a slightly darker shade of pale. Perhaps it added extra motivation to avoid through-cuts across my chest during the competition but I don't intend to leave a hot iron on my chest before future competitions to achieve the same effect.
The morning of competition I still had faith that the tournament would have to be conducted in a air conditioned hall. I found myself very much wrong as we pulled up outside a covered dome that was to be the venue. A concrete down covered the basketball arena inside but while the roof did at least protect from the sun that would have made any sort of activity impossible, it did nothing to counteract the overwhelming humidity underneath the dome. Feeble air conditioning added a whirring soundtrack to the competition but with no doors on the venue and indeed a large gap in between the stands and the domed roof it was never going to do anything much.
Even after a light warm-up I was dripping with sweat. My fencing gear didn't feel particuarly comfortable over first degree burns either. But despite the environmental conditions I managed to win four matches in my poule of 7 fencers (including myself). 4 wins from 6 put me through to the last 64 the next day.
15 point matches were even more tiring in the stiffling humidity. I won my L64 match 15 - 13 after leading the match most of the way through against a member of the Japanese squad whose name will forever escape me. In my last 32 match I faced the much trickier proposition of Diego Occhiuzzo of Italy, the fourth member of the Italian squad. Despite what I felt were some decidedly "Maybe it will be just easier to give that to the Italian" calls, the final score was 10 - 15 in the Italians favour.
All in all, I was happy with the result. I feel I performed as well as I could have been expected to in advance and while there is still room to bring through what I've been doing in training to this level of competition, the result is a big confidence booster travelling to New York for the final WC of the season.
After the competition the last couple of days passed without major event... aside from the effects of drinking tap water during the second day of competition as no other water was available... and rubbing after sun on my burns 6 times a day... and being attacked by mosquitos while sitting by the pool in the evening.
So I survived. I still even have 100-odd Bolivars with which to buy a T-shirt to prove the same, if only anyone would take the worthless currency off my hands...
Only one more hour to waste in Trinidad and I'll be on my way to the Big Apple...