Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

How it happened

4. Spread Your Wings

Planes, strains and automobiles.

We would fly to Venezuela on Friday June 22nd on an early morning flight from Heathrow to Caracas with a quick change in Paris. We were flying with Air France as no British airlines fly to Venezuela. Gary came over to Lisa's house on the evening of the 21st and the three of us set off at 3.30 am on Friday morning on the short 20 minute taxi ride to the airport.

The travel arrangements had taken up as much of my time before leaving as anything musical: well maybe not quite, but problems had arisen when it was decided that Carlos' house in Carora was probably a little too far away from Barquisimeto. It was a car journey of an hour or so but the road was iffy, both in the structural sense and in the somewhat more alarming sense that Venezuelan bandits cruised this road after dark, frequently indulging in their favourite pastime of kidnapping Europeans and Americans before extorting a ransom from their families! This piece of information had been a little slow in emerging from Carlos, along with the fact that his house was currently undergoing repair and wasn't really ready to accommodate four of us. In fairness to Carlos, he had been led to believe by the people undertaking the renovations that his house would be in order before our arrival. Having pressed for this confirmation repeatedly it transpired only a few days before we travelled that the bathroom was not in fact ready to accommodate four people. Hotels were apparently so cheap in Venezuela anyway that this wouldn't seriously impact on the budget, until that is, I was informed that the University had booked us into the Hilton! Terrific - I now found myself being booked into the most expensive hotel in the country!

When I was given this news from Carlos who was our liaison with Venezuela, I remember wondering, How did we go from staying in Carlos' house for free to ending up in the bloody Hilton? In retrospect I don't really think Carlos was aware how serious I was about going. It always seemed a bit of a ludicrous idea to fly half way round the world at short notice to record an album and I think sub-consciously he thought I'd pull out at some point. In fairness, the day he originally spoke to Marco Tulio and the plan looked feasible, we both got very excited and the offer of his house was a natural thing to volunteer. It always becomes more difficult once you get into the logistics. Fortunately, it transpired that the University could command a favourable rate at the Hilton, but still it was an extra cost.

We arrived at terminal 2 to find Carlos already in the long queue awaiting the opening of the check in desk. It would have been conceivable to take all the written musical scores in pdf form on a disk, but we couldn't trust to there being a quality printer to hand in Venezuela. Consequently we opted to take all the sheet music prepared by Gary and his copyist in two suitcases. When I handed this in at the check-in desk I was horrified to find that there was an excess baggage charge of £840! The return flights were around £450.00 each, so I was effectively paying for two extra people. I pleaded and negotiated and finally I had it reduced to £485. Still, not a great start!

Carlos obviously travels extensively and always keeps his Greg Smallman guitar with him on the plane. He has never had any objection from any cabin crew regarding putting the guitar in the overhead luggage. Today would be the first time. As we went to board the plane he was told in no uncertain terms that this was not allowed, even though there didn't seem to be a problem at check-in. The guitar would have to go in the safe hold on the plane. Not wanting to trust the safety of the guitar in these circumstances Carlos pleaded with the cabin crew to allow him to put it in the overhead luggage. Their argument was that the guitar wouldn't fit, and as if to prove their point agreed to take him onto the plane as the first passenger, and let him try and put the guitar in the overhead luggage. Four members of the cabin crew then stood and watched him struggle with the guitar until he finally managed to secure it safely above his seat. Helpful!

We made the uneventful flight to Paris and then went to the appropriate gate for the connecting flight to Caracas. Carlos failed to catch the first connecting bus in the confusing Charles De Gaulle airport as we sprinted through the terminal. Gary, Lisa and I waited anxiously at the boarding gate for 30 mins before he came into view casually strolling towards the gate guitar in hand. Gary spent most of this time making a spirited effort to have us all upgraded to business class which failed fairly miserably. We got on the packed plane and headed for Venezuela.

I had been told that Barquisimeto is three or four hours west of Caracas by car. We had debated before leaving whether we should catch a connecting flight or drive. The University would send a driver to collect us if we chose the latter. The connecting flight could quite easily be four or five hours after we landed, so it seemed that the preferred option was to drive. We could see some of the country rather than roam the inside of the airport terminal.

On arriving in Caracas we were hugely relieved to see the suitcases containing the sheet music arrive on the carousel and we made our way through customs into the terminal to find our driver. As we walked through the busy terminal, Carlos decided it was a good time to change some sterling to Bolivares. Money can be changed in a bank same as in any other country but in Venezuela this is very much a last resort. Black market money exchangers loiter in the airport terminal and Carlos didn't waste much time in tracking one down and exchanging his currency. This feels a bit scary the first time you see or do it. Especially with policemen walking by in fairly close proximity! I soon realised that this was the preferred way to exchange money. During our stay, we would place a phone call to a contact and a gentleman would appear at the hotel within the hour with the cash. It soon became a fairly normal process. I did go with Carlos to a bank in our second week to cash travellers cheques. Despite the bank appearing to be incredibly over staffed with potential Miss World contestants, it took over two hours to cash the cheques, with my life history being handed over in exchange for the Bolivares. Still, we made the most of it and enjoyed the scenery!

We met our driver Pedro who worked for the University and for Marco Tulio in particular. An extremely jovial and pleasant man in his fifties, he spoke no English but became a feature of our trip and as is typical with Venezuelans, bent over backwards to accommodate and drive us wherever and whenever possible. He particularly took a shine to "Miss Lisa" and we all felt secure being driven around the country by Pedro, who we were sure could look after himself, and us, in any sticky situation!

The three or four hour car journey turned into a six hour journey. Not really what was required after a long flight. The change in culture was astonishing. We drove out on the main road from Caracas to Barquisimeto and looked across the city as we climbed up through the hills. A sea of brightly painted houses without roofs or windows stretched as far as the eye could sea, clearly with no electricity, where laundry was frequently dried inside the house with the sun shining straight through where the roof should be. The vehicles on the road were mainly old large vehicles from the United States. Very few vehicles would come close to passing an M.O.T in the U.K. Children played and sold trinkets on the hard shoulder of the dual carriageway and pick-up trucks could be seen with six or seven family members, as well as the pet dog, sitting in the back!

Our journey began in the baking heat of the Friday rush hour, but this soon subsided as we got further into the country, and the cool night air descended. The journey to Barquisimeto was genuinely terrifying. Part of my decision to drive was that I secretly didn't want to risk another flight. Although it's clearly safer to fly than to drive, I always feel that if the car runs out of petrol we still have a hard shoulder. Not so, on a plane! That said I would have happily swapped this car journey for a flight! Most of the journey after dark was spent on a dual carriageway with no central reservation. Trucks, cars and a high number of 4x4's (we were in a jeep) race along the road with no acknowledgement of the speed limit whatsoever. The journey had begun very jovially with Carlos sitting up front with Pedro, and Lisa in the back between me and Gary. We cracked jokes and talked excitedly for the first two or three hours until the darkness fell and the inevitable tiredness set in from such a long journey. Everybody else fell asleep, but I just couldn't close my eyes, choosing instead to keep an eye on the on-coming trucks that hurtled round each bend, seemingly heading straight for us; somehow I felt that we would be safer if I could see the juggernaut slamming into us, rather than it hitting us when I was asleep!

Pedro safely negotiated the road, however, and we made it to the Hilton in Barquisimeto at precisely midnight Venezuelan time. A journey of over 24 hours!

On our first day we would unpack and take it easy until meeting with Marco Tulio and our conductor Tarcisio Barretto on Saturday evening. They were to deliver a shock that could jeopardise the whole project before a single note had been played!

Chapter 1. Dreamers Ball

Carlos Bonell, classical guitar and Queen

Chapter 2. The Miracle

Orchestral Queen and the thought of Venezuela.

Chapter 3. Don't Stop Me Now

Preparation, Arranging and a boost from Dr May.

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