I currently have a few weeks off and was very keen to go to Venezuela to find out what is actually happening in the country, as opposed to what I imagine are exaggerated news reports. Having already crossed the Colombia-Venezuela border in Cucuta, I decided to head north this time, to Maicao in La Guajira.
Having heard that Maicao was home to a number of people of Arab descent and the second largest mosque in South America, I set off with wildly misconceived notions of a town where there was all the lamb you could shake a stick at, hundreds of men who looked just like my dad wearing dishdashas and a strange fixation with shiny shirts.
However, at first I was slightly disappointed to find a small Colombian town focused on commerce and selling knock-off Venezuelan goods. You can get anything you could wish for here, all at ridiculous prices. If I had more space in my bag (or a car) I would certainly have been returning with gallons of Venezuelan petrol.
As time went by, though, I began to notice little things that, despite the fact that I was in a slightly sleazy and menacing town, made me feel at home. Many of the shop names are Arabic, every now and again I would even see some Arabic writing, lots of Middle Eastern faces would pass me by, the hotel had several Arabic TV channels and on a couple of occasions I even heard people talking Arabic. The icing on the cake, however, was when I discovered ‘El Cedro’, a small restaurant run by a Lebanese man who had only been in Colombia for three years, so was still very much Lebanese. As the Venezuelans were making it difficult for me to get into their country I had to spend more time than I would have liked in Maicao, but his falafel and lahmacun numbed the pain somewhat.
Perhaps my favourite moment was when I was sitting in his restaurant, eating the best kofta I had eaten in years engulfed in the surreal sound of the call to prayer echoing over blaring vallenato rhythms from the shop next door. This was truly a unique experience that I never imagined I would live through. For Maicao is a phenomenal juxtaposition of a seedy frontier town (with all the trimmings of cheap products and love motels) and a religious hotspot, with a light smattering of wayuu culture thrown in for fun.
I would suggest, however, that you do not arrive after dark. When the electronics shops close, the unlit and empty streets can seem threatening and dangerous. In fact, I arrived at about 11 at night and ended up staying in the first place I could find just to get off the streets. Brothel.
And as for the mosque, I have to say I was more than a little disappointed. I actually thought I must have gone to the wrong mosque when I found it, as it is smaller than pretty much every mosque in England. Hidden down some back streets, tucked between some houses, it was far from impressive. In any case, it was interesting to see a mosque in a small Colombian frontier town. And any city that has awesome shawarma on tap is alright by me…