Drawing of a Kitchenette in Caracas, Venezuela

Caracas

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There are many types of bananas in the Caribbean. I take to the Manzano bananas, which are stout and thick. Unfortunately, in the United States you will find that Cavendish bananas have a monopoly in the market, and that you will be hard-pressed to find other varieties like the red banana or the plantain. Despite the image of plenty in the US, it is merely an image of quantity, and though the truth is that the markets lack diversity of produce, we don’t know it and so we remain blind. I suppose this is one way that my writing is affecting those to whom this knowledge is new; now you know.

I bit a chunk of manzano banana. It slid down my throat and I thought about the efficiency afforded by lubrication. A strange thought, but it entered my head all the same; perhaps it was a way to isolate, or cushion myself from the stares.

I was a white peg in the board among a market scene of Caracas, the shaky Venezuelan capital city at the center of Hugo Chavez’ Revolucion Bolivariana, which is an inescapable coupling regardless of topic. The sky was splotched here and there with the wispy grey of cloud, but through windows shone their brighter cousins’ whiteness where the sun was blazing. I stared at the sky, wondering about lubrication, when it broke, and the rain came suddenly and cumbersome. I retreated below a parasol with a few others, our pant legs soaked by splatter. It ended abruptly, and just as soon the market scene was buzzing with life once more. Pirated DVD vendors sold their fare between butchers and farmers, and the cachapa vendors were busy at their stalls. As I walked, at regular intervals it seemed there was someone with an old granny roller cart lugging thermoses filled with coffee and selling the overly sweetened drink in small plastic cups. The produce vendors’ kiosks were filled with Cavendish and manzano bananas, apples selling at 20 bolivars for 5, green pears, earth-coated yucca, then packets of chopped carrots and pumpkin. When I walked, I realized that there was no order to the walking, so that the path resembled what a joint American-British highway might look like.

La Hoya, Caracas' Market travel sketch.

A travel sketch in Caracas, Venezuela, of the La Hoya market.

 

Above the vibrations of the market I stared off and allowed my eyes to climb the backdrop of hill and Barrio, the Venezuelan term for the same thing meant by Argentina’s villa or Brazil’s favela; a group of spontaneous, unorganized and ramshackle buildings at previously unoccupied land near a large city. The buildings made the slope look vertical, and craggy. They formed a complicated collage, whose outward facing iridescent walls displayed red, green, maroon, orange, yellow, and blue, like the aspect of a Magic Eye painting. The air was cool.

I later came to the Miraflores Palace, the president’s turf. I stopped and looked at it for a while, the army-clad red-beret presidential guardsmen glancing in my direction as I stood, I then realized, somewhat awkwardly. I walked on, down a gently sloping street to Avenida Urdaneta, the main thoroughfare of Caracas, along which in later days I would discover impeccably clean and well-guarded historical sites like the charming colonial central Plaza Bolivar (again, all plazas seem to be Plaza Bolivar here), a peach-colored church fronted by a angel impaling a demon, and the plain concrete slabs siding buildings at the Parque Central Complex. There was no intimacy in their appearance. Instead they seemed dull and post-apocalyptic, the kind of buildings that send shivers clawing along your vertebrae.

Caracas. The fact that the city’s expansion was blocked by a mountain range just north of the center (Mt. Avila) reminded me of Bogota, another capital city whose expansion is contained by similar geography. Caracas is smaller, with 3.5 million people to Bogota’s 8 million. But the two are similar in another, morbid sense. They are considered two of the most dangerous cities in the world. Caracas, though, far outdoes its counterpart in this respect.

The murder capital of the world. Caracas, where statistics are never clear as to how many people are actually killed because there are simply too many. I knew this before arriving that dismal Sunday morning, greeted by the metal gates of closed shops, and only finding activity when I happened upon the market scene. I knew that Venezuela was “dangerous”, and I knew that Caracas was described by many as a hell, including my fellow traveler Andres, from the House of No Ends. But I wanted to see what I could, despite the warnings of the night and the day.

Based on generally agreed-upon statistics, there is one murder every half hour in Caracas. That means a higher accumulated rate than in Baghdad, Mogodishu and Ciudad Juarez, three cities that are immediately recognizable for various reasons. But Caracas isn’t a city trying to pull itself out of the ashes after a long occupation, like Baghdad. Nor is it a city that was ruled by rogue warlords and completely lacking in government bodies, like Mogadishu. And although drug trafficking is a problem, it is far from being considered a key transit point for the grand majority of drugs entering the largest consumer country in the world, like Ciudad Juarez, which is also currently a battleground between powerful cartels. Despite all this, Caracas’ reputation makes it statistically more dangerous than all three. It is by far the most dangerous city in Latin America, and the fact that the streets are empty by 8 o’clock is not coincidental.

“Danger” of course is a relative term. Here, there is capitalism, there are modern malls, there are mansions and pleasant parks, organized public transportation and orderly community centers, hospitals, etc. My white face in Mogadishu, for example, makes that city more dangerous for me, intuitively. Perhaps Baghdad might also be more dangerous for me. However, if I’m nothing more than a statistic without aesthetic description, walking around in Caracas is surely the best way to get killed.

Violent crime mostly happens at night, but daytime incidents are on the rise in Caracas. In a city like Bogota, there were plenty of areas deemed quite safe, like those districts to the north of the center. In Caracas it’s different.

“Pretty much, after 11pm if you walk around, you’re going to get robbed,” Pilo had said. He was the Venezuelan at the house in Manaus. I’ve heard this opinion echoed several times, and this time by Caracas residents themselves.

“I’ve been robbed 2 times,” said Eduardo. “Just here at the front door. You have to be careful walking around here; it’s not a safe neighborhood.”

“Me too,” said his Honduran friend, who, when I said I was from the states, put up a wall of apathy toward me. “I’ve been robbed 3 times. All in the center.”

Eduardo was the only CS to reply to my message; out of 10 or so that I had sent. For many who use CS, it’s only their male hopes to bed a stranger. Eduardo, however, replied simply: “Come over. Here’s my number.”

Now it is one week since I arrived in Caracas. I have not been robbed, but I have only walked around at night in one part of the city, Chacao. I’ve done a fair share of walking, however, and I have heard plenty of warnings not to go that way because, “the barrio is up there.” I’m a curious person, but whether it’s because I know I’m going home, or if it’s because of the gun that threatened me in Piritu, I am now too cautious for the reckless side of me to bring a daunting and desperate story to these pages.

 


 

Eduardo’s eyes were narrowed, his brow furled. He had lived in Argentina, and I thought I could hear that accent in his voice, but perhaps it was just his tone and mannerisms that made me decide that if an Argentinean meshed with a Spaniard, we’d get him. He leveled his words meticulously and sometimes shrugged at my responses as if I knew nothing.

“Capitalism only came after feudalism,” he said. “And many believe, like me, that socialism is the natural next step.” His manner of engaging was often intimidating, especially in low light when his dark brown eyes would meld into the pupil. Sometimes he was curt. Sometimes when he had a thought there was no stopping him.

“I actually believe that it is possible to be impartial because–”

“–No,” he inserted rapidly. “You cannot be impartial. Everything is politics, and you can’t get out of it. It’s like saying you can get out of existence. Objectivity is an acute impossibility.”

I smiled into my lap. “I don’t think so,” I started.

“For me it’s incontrovertible. Everything is politics.”

I had his roommates’ bed for the 7 days I hung around the house. He lived in an area called San Bernardino, north of the center. There were barrios everywhere. His was a middle class house attached to that of his father, but just around the corner the idea of gentrification was bluntly rebuffed. The gated homes were flanked by suddenly thin alleyways that snaked through two story buildings obviously thought up on the go. To an outsider who has only heard the horror stories of this city, those thin alleys that disappeared into their own shadows echoed my own premonitions.

One day, I cooked eggs in a basket for Eduardo, and we sat at the round table under a weak light and encompassed by ecru walls on two sides. Most of the furniture was old, wrapped in canvas of floral patterns and quite uncomfortable to sit on.

“I hope you don’t mind my asking you something about the city,” I said.

“Sure,” he replied. “This is exceptional, by the way,” he added.

“Thank my mom.” I put my fork down. “Why is it that Caracas is so dangerous?”

Eduardo looked up. “It’s complicated,” he said finitely. For a moment I thought that was the end of the conversation. Eduardo often would not respond to questions or comments that I’d offer up. I couldn’t tell if it was because his social upbringing was different altogether, or if he simply didn’t like me.

“Caracazo,” he said, returning to the food. His fork finally found the center, and sliced into the yoke like a deathblow, spilling its contents onto the plate.

“What’s that?” I asked truthfully.

“You don’t know what Caracazo is?” he asked with diluted astonishment.

“Couldn’t say,” I replied.

“Ok.” He seemed to have to resolve himself to the simple gringo. “Caracazo refers to the popular uprising that happened in 1989.”

He was looking at me. “I was three,” I offered.

“Ok I’ll explain.” He righted himself. “There were many problems before 1989. Mainly it had to do with the fact that a liberal candidate ran under the more leftist presidential ticket and won. So basically all his rhetoric was for the power, but he had no intention of following leftist political agendas. The country was in trouble. Before, Venezuela had a better standard of living, but after the oil crisis, prices plummeted and Venezuelans had to adapt to a poorer lifestyle. Right? Well, when this new president, Perez, came to power, he did a few things that triggered the riots. First, he signed onto an IMF Structural Adjustment Program, which are basically meant to “solve” national economic problems by making the country attractive to foreign investors–which means things like lower wages, less government spending, more privatization, etc. Soon thereafter, the prices of buses were tripled, and that same day, spontaneous riots exploded in the city, and in many cities in the country. The government was on the verge of losing control, and so all liberties were temporarily revoked, a curfew installed, and soldiers released into the streets with strict orders that allowed them immunity in deadly engagements. Upwards of 3,000 people were killed in two days as the government tried to find ringleaders that never existed.

“It was on that day in February 1989 that violence started in Caracas,” said Eduardo, “and it just never stopped.”

In fact, violent crime in Caracas has only risen. Perhaps it has something to do with the new aggressive atmosphere of military interventions and social and economic turmoil that plagued the country from that day until 2002. Where did it all begin?

“Where did it begin?” asked Eduardo, who was rather surprised that I hadn’t understood. “Huevon, it began with that repression, man.”

Later, Eduardo would tell me that he loved the revolution, if for nothing else than it was a form of movement, that it allowed him a justifiable feeling of urgency to change society.

“The revolution began then, and hasn’t stopped,” he said. “Three years later, in 1992, Chavez attempted a military coup against Perez. It didn’t work; he got trapped in the Military museum in Caracas. But his group took over most other big cities. So he appeared on television to give an order for his comrades to surrender. But he used it to basically tell the people that the fight wasn’t over. He became a hero over night! Instead of dressing as Simon Bolivar at carnival, the people were dressing as Chavez, who they had never heard of before! Man, he represented a military solution to all the repression they felt from Perez.”

“What happened then?” I asked.

“Man! He tried again in 1994 from prison, this time with the navy and air force.”

“Didn’t work?”

“Didn’t work. But he became even more popular.”

“And then?”

“There was an amnesty and he was released. Then there were the elections of ’98, and he ran, and man he won! That was when the revolution really took hold, and he started on a path to socialism, which we didn’t have before.”

As I sat there munched on toast and egg whites, I looked over Eduardo carefully. He had a thick beard, curly and black but well-trimmed. His hair was slightly disheveled, but orderly in a peculiar way, like a wave. I thought about his enthusiasm for the revolution and wondered about his circumstances. If the revolution began in 1998, he has been in it his whole adult life.

“So he’s been in power since then?”

“Except for the coup d’etat in 2002. He was ousted by an American-backed coup for two days. Man that’s why you hear all the time about Chavez attacking private news channels, because the news channels weren’t reporting about the huge popular uprising in Caracas once the people found out about the coup. They did everything they could to smother the public eye, they all supported the coup. But it was the poor in the barrios who found out and showed up outside the presidential palace in the thousands. And there were loyal army units, the presidential guard, etc. They stormed the palace and captured the ring leaders of the coup, and Chavez, who’d been flown off somewhere, was reinstated.”

“I see why he doesn’t like the private news channels,” I said. “But isn’t it strange that he tried to undermine a democratically-elected president in 1992?”

“But huevon, that president was a fraud; he acted counter to his campaign promises. And he was a fucking repressive dictator, who killed those 3,000 people.”

“I see,” I said.

“It was a big controversy that America was involved in the 2002 coup against Chavez. Maybe not directly. But even the old US president Carter said the US was probably involved. It was Bush, in any case.”

I thought about this for a minute, and decided that it was most likely the case. “American interests,” I said. “We’re isolationists not in practice but in mentality. It doesn’t matter what’s good for the rest of the world, only what’s good for US. Americans. American citizens.”

“That’s only one problem with America,” Eduardo said. He listed off a few other things, things that I already knew and expected. I tried to articulate why a socialist revolution would never be something popular in the United States. I couldn’t. I couldn’t figure out how to put my instinctual understanding of American identity into words.

“At least,” I said, “it has a lot to do with our rhetoric and politics, which are extremely stringent in the sense that a few misplaced words and your career is over. It’s like a subliminal safety against any radical ideas that stray too far from the accepted idea of what America is. Unfortunately, socialism is one of the trigger words that ignites cries of Hail Mary and accusations of anti-America.”

One of the main causes of the high crime rate is impunity. I read that 90% of murder cases go unsolved, and are rarely even investigated. I wondered about less serious crimes, and unreported ones. Then I read that the judicial system has become more polarized, that many independent judges are no more, and that instead many in the system are aligned with the government. I suppose this went along with Eduardo’s insistence that impartiality is impossible. How convenient, then, that it’s his ideology that has the reins of the judiciary, if indeed that is the case.

They say the murder rate has triple since Chavez took office. It makes me ponder whether high crime rates could really be linked to Chavez’ government. No doubt the history of the country in the last two decades is fraught with conflict, but the same violence occurred in many other Latin American countries which has since subsided for the most part–why, then, not in Venezuela? Is it something intrinsic? Does it really have to do with the idea of the revolution? Are there people raised in a bubble where violence makes sense? Are there that many family feuds? Is life so cheap?

I read that the violence had become so commonplace in Caracas that the issue had been somehow swept under the table until a tabloid, El Nacional, published an issue fronted by a full page picture of 10 bodies dumped in a morgue awaited attention on a single day. Chavez’ critics lambasted his government for issuing a court order that restricted further publications of such images, prompting opponents to claim that the government didn’t consider fighting crime a priority. To sound somewhat partisan for a moment, I should say that an atmosphere of violence at least prepares a population for the day a revolution touted as pacific becomes violent. On the other hand, I took my information from a New York Times article, which was cunningly covert about the way it tried to appear objective while tying the violence inextricably not to the government, but to Chavez himself–and the poor bastards who’ll read that article and think nothing of it have one more reason to hate Chavez without really knowing anything.

Another day I walked into the center, and then circled around those apocalyptic buildings to come upon a sight that would repeat itself in other parts of the city. They were military tents. The tents had been set up as free services to the people. I decided I liked the idea, it made sense. Military doctors are probably bored much of the time during peace. Taxes pay their salary, so why shouldn’t they be put to work for the people? Then again, a serious drawback of this kind of socialism, which ignores all concern for aesthetic, is that it renders the public sphere bland, or in this case, populated by the military. The pure capitalist and consumerist society is instead flooded by a dizzying tsunami of advertisements, also unpleasant to the eye. Whether it’s seeing the military all over the place with Chavez’ face and nationalistic slogans, or seeing branding hijack human values everywhere you look, the truth in both cases is that the regular person is left without much choice of impartiality. Our surroundings are going to influence us whether we like it or not.

Drawing of Caracas Medical Tents

A drawing of Caracas medical tents.

 

It was when I’d rounded a corner and entered the main square, Plaza Bolivar, that I started to realize where my eyes were wandering much of the time, which presented another staple of the Venezuelan diet: eye candy. I enjoyed the smooth reflective surface of the gray granite slabs that made up the plaza, in the middle of which was the hero himself; Simon Bolivar, high on his horse rearing up before the lesser men at the base of his pedestal. Overhead the sky was blotted out by branches reaching out to meet their neighbors, a few palms below them to remind us we’re in the tropics. All around were red Chavez campaign tents, and the guards blowing their whistles when kids would mount Simon’s pedestal were dressed like revolutionaries with their red berets. The buildings surrounding the plaza included the cathedral, which was coated in radiant white, and except for a few unfortunate additions, the rest of the edifices were convincingly colonial.

Sketching a Simon Bolívar Statue in Caracas

Almost all central plazas in Venezuela were called Simón Bolívar.

 

The eye candy was something else. It was breasts. Everywhere, perfect breasts. Sometimes they looked out of place, but they were always rounded in the way you could expect to see them in the movies and in magazines. That idea of beauty that is singed into our common understanding, that single facet that renders all else lesser-than or even ugly. But as we are all products of our environments, it is hard to change what your eye is naturally attracted to. Sometimes, maybe that reason enough to trust the art critics when they say this or that is art when you disagree–maybe they’ve thought about it more and have overcome their cultural bias. When it comes to boobs, I have yet to overcome that bias, and as such, Caracas kept my eyes busy.

“What do you define as right and left?” asked Eduardo one day when he had taken a break from working and I had started talking about the American elections. I later told him that I thought he was an ambitious learner, which he did not take as a compliment and we changed the subject. Now I responded:

“The right is usually fiscal conservatism; they don’t want any government spending or regulation on trade, but they love to create laws that invade personal decision making. For me, I think the right is basically a political leaning that couples the idea of freedom with free market principles.”

“And the left?”

“The left is more concerned with the social well-being I think. It doesn’t believe that sole faith in free markets will better society. So there’s more government. It’s intuitively a more progressive side, as the word ‘conservatism’ implies,” I said.

“Here’s the right and the left doesn’t exist. Here, everything is Chavismo. You’re either for it or against it. It’s because the revolution is a part of the country now. But a more profound politic has to do with property. It’s either pro-private property or pro-communal property.”

“That’s Marx,” I said.

“It is. But that’s the general pattern. Socialism is the natural way to go after too much capitalism, that breaks itself.”

Although I am no proponent of the status quo of capitalism, I couldn’t help but consider all the failed states that have implemented communism (another trigger term in American politics that is unfortunate, because instead of debate and consideration we get partisan politics that thrash out at any affront against what they see as anti-America. We’re very stupid, actually).

“Under communism, Russia was the closest to equality that human society ever came,” he added.

I didn’t bother expanding that conversation, and I don’t know why. I was thinking about boobs, perhaps. Later, I managed to share some input.

“Your socialism here sees equality as more important, and American culture sees freedom as more important. However warped those terms in each country are, that’s the way of it.”

“America sees equality as linked with economics,” said Eduardo. “Everyone has the same opportunity to buy stuff. Capitalism. It needs a radical change.”

I shrugged. Sometimes I could only sigh after such a conversation. Always, it’s a sigh. I hate the simplicity of humanity. For all our complexities, we are simple, dumb creatures. I hate how we place ourselves in linear patterns. The right and the left. Everything falls into the right and the left. Perhaps if we could unlock the other 90% of our dormant brains we could be creatures of spherical thought. It’s unfortunate in any case that we are so confrontational in everything, that instead of thinking, we already know, and use what we already know to attack people we disagree with. We’re so stupid. There’s too much to consider. How we’re brought up, what kinds of things we’re exposed to from music to images, our language and the history of our language, our geography, our climate, our culture, what’s acceptable and what’s not, our chemistry and biology, our physical state, how the cosmos plays a part… damn it everything! Arguments are useless, after all, and any argument we do have is meaningless outside its containment, outside the context in which it occurred. Our minds are incapable of considering all of these things at once, and even those special few super humans with lightning minds are at least limited by language, which is the most inhibiting thing of all; that point-of-view gun in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would be a useful tool.

Drawing of a Kitchenette in Caracas, Venezuela

This is a drawing of the kitchen in the house where I stayed in Caracas, Venezuela. They were Chavistas, revolutionaries in their own words.

 

Eduardo said everything is politics. I feel sad for people trapped in their fields. Politics, economics, government, psychology, physiques, what have you… they are worlds apart from artists, for example. Instead of seeing art and recognizing the human feelings the piece is meant to elicit, the rigid man of his beloved systems and logical explanations will find a way to make the piece about his field, and not about something that is to them always defined in some way by their jargon. It might no longer matter about the piece itself, but about why, how, or thanks to what that the artist created such a thing. And the art, therefore, is completely overshadowed.

Caracas mirrors the rest of the country in another danger. Yes, unfortunately I continue down the road of talking about the dangers of Caracas, perhaps inadvertently forming your first or newest opinion about the city–in that case I urge you to go for yourself, because it is never my intention to denounce a place as unvisitable.

The new danger, however, is hard to avoid. It’s the damn motorcycles. The cars might be reckless at times, ignoring red lights, but if cars ignore them, motorcycles are completely oblivious to them. They careen in between cars, and threaten the pedestrian who, thanks to a general lack of understanding of yellow lights, has to wade through the blockage at every intersection. The motorcyclists, and there are many more than cars, seem to consider themselves immune. I asked and Eduardo confirmed that there are many, many motorcycle deaths each year. Between that and the murder rate, if this wasn’t a Latin American country where women are fertile and babies are collected, their population might be in virtual decline.

Sketching Old Cars in Venezuela

Gas in Venezuela was cheaper than water. Old cars were well-kempt by their owners, and I enjoyed sketching these. 

 

Living in a back room on the first floor of Eduardo’s house was Pastora. I ran into her the second day I stayed alone in the house.

“Oh hello!” she exclaimed. She made strange movements–nervous arms making nervous gestures. “Hi how are you?”

“I’m fine.”

“You are from the United States? I speak English. I am from Trinidad.” He eyes were bright, and her forehead reflective. Her wide nose began a general descent, a receding face whose lips came next, followed by a chin set back near the skin of her neck. She was a Trinidadian of African heritage, and a devout Christian. She wore the kind of simply, stiff dresses that I’d expect of an early American pilgrim. She spoke in rapid succession about all the daily chores she was about:

“I told Eduardo that I would clean the dishes, but sometimes he cleans them, and so today I started on the floor, do you see? I washed the kitchen floor already, you must have been upstairs, and now I’m cooking up soup–the healthiest thing I can.”

Trinidad and Tobago, the two-island country, lies just off the coast of Venezuela east of the Cariaco Peninsula. This is also the closest I’ll get to the island nation of Aruba.

They were all fake.

All of them. Gofredo told me. He said, “it’s common here in Caracas. It’s cultural now.” It was like Medellin. All of the perfection wasn’t really perfection at all, it was silicone. Damn the man.

It was August 30th, and I had posted to a message board that I wanted to watch a competition on television, but that at Eduardo’s there was none. Gofredo said come on over you can watch it here.

I met Gofredo in Chacao. He dressed well. He was calm, but conversational. I noted that his hair was especially neat. I already knew he was gay from his message, when he had allowed me to know by inputting it into a suggestion that he’d be a good judge for the competition. I had replied saying that although I am not gay I could be a good judge as well. And that was how the awkwardness between a gay man and a straight man is overcome before a meeting.

“This is the safest neighborhood in the city,” he said.

It had to be. It was also where all the high-end shops were, and the top hotels. It was the most expensive part of the city.

“I want to be close to things, you know? In cheaper areas you don’t have the same vibe.”

I was at Gofredo’s to watch the Miss Venezuela 2012 competition.

I do not watch beauty pageants usually, but I was aware that many of the Miss Universes came from Venezuela. The only other country that has more Miss Universes is the United States, where the pageant is headquartered.

There was a healthy smattering of pomp and glittering surfaces on the stage. I was sitting with Gofredo, and his married housemates, who he called, affectionately, his parents.

“They have too much make-up,” I said.

“Of course!” said the girl, “it’s a beauty pageant. It’s not really about beauty anymore. Or at least, it’s not about natural beauty.”

“I like the dancers better than the contestants,” I said. “Are all of those boobs fake?”

“Most of them. It’s popular here.”

“Gofredo told me.”

The section of the competition where they ask the contestants’ questions was of course the best part. Anyone who watches the pageant critically and discusses the good plays and the bad ones must surely resign themselves to neutrality when it comes to the questions. These girls are ridiculously nervous, which exacerbates their stupidity. One girl, when asked “how would you promote Venezuela abroad?” replied, “We have beautiful women.” And she repeated that in several different ways.

They invited me to dinner, traditional Venezuelan arepas with cheese. The arepas were thick discs of flour dough patties, which we would cut up, smear margarine over, and stuff in any of a number of different fresh cheeses.

Afterward we laughed at videos of ridiculous pageant contestants answering–or not answering and rather butchering–questions.

“Ah yes,” said Gofredo, “well, Kosovo is a newer country–they haven’t quite developed their Misses.”

“My father worked hard and bought three apartments for his children. This one is mine,” said the girl. “We had to kick out one of the roommates, who wasn’t paying. It’s a real problem in this country.” I cringed a bit at the vibe of entitlement she gave off, especially since I despise the argument of working hard to be able to have more…does the minimum wage worker work any less? He’ll never be able to afford three apartments.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“People are feeling that they can get things handed to them. They feel that they’re entitled to a place to live even when they’re renting from a private person. The law makes it really hard to kick families out of apartments, for instance. There are cases that they just stay. How do you suppose that makes the owners feel? What if they need the money?”

“I suppose. My friend said politics here depend on private property,” I said quizzically.

“Yes. And private property is being invaded here in Venezuela with this Chavez lunatic. Socialism. We like the missions, but the invasion of privacy is ridiculous. You know, the pageant before was held in a huge stadium. When floods destroyed some houses, which were built in dangerous areas anyway, the government put them in the auditorium, a private building. They’ve been there ever since, the government won’t kick them out. And they’ve had years.”

“I see.”

“And another case is right downtown, in skyscraper that was under construction. One day the president appeared on TV and told people to occupy abandoned or stall projects. He told the people those places are theirs. You know what happened?”

“Huh?”

“They invaded the whole building, and stayed. But the building doesn’t have any services. It’s dirty, it’s not meant for living, there’s no electricity, gas, water. It’s a haven for crime. Once, when the police tried to evict the people, the criminals among them lined children up and shot at police from behind them. It was on national television.”

I ended up sleeping at their apartment that night. They were afraid I’d be mugged if I left at around 9:30. The next day Gofredo and I walked across Parque Francisco Miranda, whose name had been changed by Chavez himself from Parque del Este. I wondered how the public might react if Obama changed Central Park to Washington Park. Blue and yellow birds flocked across the sky, and stout Ceiba trees poked out from the hegemony of foliage from time to time.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “The inflation. Prices go up and my salary stays the same. I want to be able to save, but I can’t.”

He spoke of things, mostly. He told me he’d vote Radonski. I couldn’t help but see patterns, once more, in the right and the left. His is an individualistic desire to accumulate. People on the left talk of moral obligations to society as a whole, and they talk about equality. Radonski supporters want freedom to have financial mobility. The clash of socialism and capitalism, so easily discernible from one another, becomes complicated in today’s world where every society is a mixture of the two, including the United States’. Eduardo would later speak to me about creating better values in society, where people consider all views in order to decide how they feel. His is a discourse of moral and ethical growth, a betterment of the mind. He seems to believe socialism is the way to do this. Pure socialism, I fear, is just as dangerous as pure capitalism. It will destroy the best parts of society.

I cannot feel one way or the other. I feel that a modest accumulation of material things is ok, as long as it is sustainable. For this, I should be one to believe in a cap on monetary riches, a fiercely anti-American suggestion if we let trigger words control our discussions. Unfortunately I believe in the slow process, whereby humans eventually learn and correct their excesses, wherein a law is not needed for such a cap, thanks to a change in mentality. Perhaps it’s utopian to have faith that that will happen. If anything, humans have become even more materialistic over the ages. Or, at least more humans have become materialistic.

A working class will always be around until the day we develop full robotic automation. If by that time the system of consumerism is still as strong as today, then the millions of financially-empowered workers will increase consumption 10-fold and the planet will be swiftly raked of resources, and will be the fault of everyone.

“I like Couchsurfing, because it has nothing to do with money,” said Gofredo.

“Hitchhiking is like that,” I offered. “Actually that’s basically what I strive to live for–true relationships outside of money. Money changes the way people treat you and you them.”

We said goodbye on the other side of the park and I circled around. There was a replica of Francisco Miranda’s Leander ship, and then the monkey pen whose occupants snuck up on the keeper and slapped his ass, who then turned a hose on the little creatures to ward them off.

I sat at a picnic table to write. I wrote about the horrible conflict of private property, which can be disastrous for either party, landowner or occupier. The landowner who has his small vacation home on the beach but to which he rarely goes, and when finally he does it’s occupied. Or the poor peasant who found empty land and over the years built a house, only to lose it one day to man who shows up with police and a piece of paper that says anything on that land is his. My mind began to hurt.

It is difficult to have an opinion when both sides are right, and both sides are wrong. How stupid we are, with our sides. Socrates is loved by many for his philosophies, but his most important teaching came when he said, “the only thing of which I’m sure is that I know nothing.”

I lifted my head from the pages where my words were written tiny, so as to fill a page efficiently. The thought passed rapidly into my mind, that we have bombs big enough to destroy all of this. What a catastrophe. But then, one day an asteroid or super nova will destroy it all anyway. I sighed.

Maybe the idea of being in a revolution, which feels urgent and as though you’re moving, for them, ends up mattering more than the revolution’s principles. Colombia’s FARC rebels seem like a good example.

The Caracas metro is clean. Classical music plays on the speakers. There are fake boobs everywhere, and after the Miss Venezuela pageant, I noticed them all the more. I boarded a train and zoomed off to the Museo de Bellas Artes.

 


 

Thoughts in the Bellas Arts Museum

 

The museums were free, as they should be. The very first exhibit of art is an extensive collection of pieces depicting revolutionary themes and the struggle of the worker. Some massacres were depicted, which I have no mind for, since both sides of humanity, because we’re always on sides, commit atrocities.

Staring at the pieces of art, I thought back to Gofredo and his desire to make more money, to have more mobility. To him, I think, freedom means purchasing power. To one of these revolutionaries, their idea of freedom is entirely different. They don’t understand each other. They can’t understand each other.

In any case, we must always remember our contexts growing up. And we must travel. We must see our familiar world from the outside in order to know how to critique it. Otherwise it’s just a cage.

I came to a glorified painting of Lenin and the hammer and sickle. I frowned. How could people continue to praise that specific example of socialism? It became a dictatorial communism that tried to completely destroy cultural diversity. Its idea of equality was so literal that it made a society that was, apart from being oppressive and dystopic, boring. It completely suppressed human nature, and in the process killed millions.

I wonder, looking at this art, if I can ever truly enter the rat race, now that my mind spends so much time thinking about why it exists. I suppose I’ll have to be an academic, and I suppose I’ll never be rich.

There was a whole section of cultures of Venezuela. I found the part about the typical Venezuelan “Jacopo” music. It involves a harp, maracas, large hollowed-out log drums called tambores, a cuatro guitar so named for its 4 strings, and the singer. There is also dance. The singer or singers improvised while the dancing, initiated by the woman, is meant to represent a horse in the savannahs of the region known as the llanos.

There were, in every section, panels about “the future” of these cultures, mostly citing the strange, paradoxical solution to their preservation being tourism. So, the only way a local culture survives is if it can make itself attractive to outside, foreign cultures. But even the pictures on display give hints at the disappearing trend of smaller cultures. Old people are the retainers of their culture, while the young falter. I wouldn’t be surprised if people only tried to learn about their own cultures when they’re already old and in that psychological phase of reflecting on their life and wondering what it is they’re leaving behind. But the picture, as they speak, speaks so many words: there the young peasant whipping the buffalo, a Yankees cap on his head. If small cultures can succeed in preserving themselves, they will not succeed in propagating. Humans are trend setters after all, and there are only so many that are recognizable on a global scale. Everything else is just “weird”.

It bugs me that everything is socialism, socialism, socialism. It’s forced even harder than capitalism. Is that because it’s naturally a less attractive option? You’re damn right. Most people care about their own well-being, and in the globalized world, well-being means accumulation of wealth and things. Both systems, I believe, are naturally hegemonic. Couple that with increasing global telecommunications, and you can bet that these cultures, now praised in the museum, will be receding into history.

I for one would be worried if my culture shared space in a museum with disappearing ones. As I walked around and learned a thing or two about Venezuelan communities, I wondered if it was unfortunate that I hadn’t come across any. Most of my experiences seem confined to the popular, globalized culture in each country. Perhaps all the better–it is the nature of living, despite having infinite choices, that you follow one path after all. I take what comes, and if that involves a lesser-known cultural encounter, then wonderful, if not, it’s all the same to me.

I came to the Amazonian tribe display and cocked my head at a small straw that split into two tubes at one end. I realized this was what Andres had been telling me about a year ago in the House in Lima, yopo. It’s a flower powder that shamans snort threw that double tube into their nostrils and hallucinate madly for a spell. For a spell.

I think that to preserve a culture we should leave them alone. We should just visit them in museums. So it goes.

Across the plaza in front of the museum was the science museum.

To the right, large American mammals. To the left, large African mammals, all stuffed. On the second floor, the juice to get my mind rolling.

It was filled with exhibits explaining government projects, from technological innovations to community initiatives. I began in the room dedicated to telecommunications.

“Infocentros” are free internet places dotted around the country that are dedicated to providing free access to information. Then there are the MTT “Mesas Tecnicas de Telecomunicaciones”, which, actually, I thought were just like the infocentros but with printers. I read a bit more into the Canaima Project, that created a simple, cheap and free laptop for pupils. Apparently, now all the hardware and software is developed in Venezuela. The idea is technological sovereignty and independence. This was echoed in the next rooms.

In the room across the hall were displayed a number of inventions that had won state-sponsored competitions. The purpose, which is grandly elaborated on an information panel greeting you, is to break off from the dependence of Venezuela on other countries for their industrial and technological needs.

As I browsed the room, I realized that these inventions already exist, and that they have for many years, and that now they are, in other countries, far advanced. I felt a twinge of regret at the necessity countries feel to gain such a thing as technological independence. Aliens, if they ever come to observe us, will probably laugh and think our “countries” are peculiar. I sigh and realize that with the global economic system as it is, it makes sense to seek domestic alternatives to expensive imports. Damn you, economics.

On the national front, and seeing that everything on the second floor is accredited to the socialist government (the opposition is not socialist), I thought how strange it would be for a museum exhibition of inventions in the US to be claimed by the Republicans. It made me shiver for a moment. In any case, it is becoming clear that the dialogue of socialism by this government has entered every crack of society. America is simple. We might have two parties that are polarized, but they seem content to fight within one single ideology.

Did you know Venezuela sent a satellite up into space? Well, it was China who sent it up, but the Venezuelans were part of the whole process, and now wholly control it. The satellite, unsurprisingly, is called Simon Bolivar–man, they’re in serious need of some more heroes. But there it is, up there, looking down on Venezuela, protecting the world’s greatest oil reserves over there in the untapped Orinoco basin, or just helping out telecommunications for 16 years. I learned about this in the next section of the museum.

I also browsed the dark room displaying pictures and descriptions of celestial bodies. Schoolchildren and older high schoolers were paraded through the room, and whether it had to do with the time limit their teachers gave them, or the darkness of the space, or their lack of interest, no one was reading anything. They admired the photos though.

I learned that Subaru is Japanese for Pleiades, which makes sense of their logo now, so many years beyond my car enthusiast days. I also learned that the closest galaxy to our own, Andromeda, would be visible to us if not for our inferior eyes, and it would be three times the size of the moon.

The short tour through the planets had a section on the ethnoastronomy of certain Venezuelan cultures. I wondered if the Alder in Chicago would have such a section.

Before leaving the museum, I hung around in the area dedicated entirely to snakes, and with specimens coiled tightly preserved in glass jars. There were even long strands of shed anaconda skin.

 


 

I realize the inconsistency of this post. Sometimes it’s narrative, sometimes it’s bloggy telling. This last is something to be ashamed of, I admit. It reminds me of my earlier posts, when I didn’t have a computer, and so I hadn’t the time to write patiently. Alas, the computer is now dead. Blame the humidity of the Amazon. I did. Or perhaps my energy is running out because it’s late and I still have to pack for the road tomorrow, post this thing and then cook dinner. Or maybe I’m just tired. I’m ready to leave Caracas, despite not having gotten to know it well. I need the mountains, the fresh air, the rain and the cold. So I’m off, then, through the wide plains of the llano, beyond unseen adventures that won’t happen in the Amazon, and into the great valleys, ravines and over the ridges into the Andes Mountains once more.

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