When I awoke we were in President Figueiredo, 100 kilometers north of Manaus. I thanked the couple that had broken my 6 hour streak of waiting back at Manaus’ northern exit. That night I found a waterfall by which I pitched my tent and fell quickly into a dead sleep. Sometimes, doing nothing at all is more tiring than a full day’s laborious work.
For the previous day I had done nothing at all. From terminal 1 I took bus 330 to the crossroads, and at the nearby Petrobras gas station I did nothing but watch a few new bugs crawl around. One bug was a wingless wasp-like creature, black, with two bright orange dots on its back. The other was a moth as big as a fan. Finally, after hours of bad hitchhiking and few cars stopping at the station, the couple had agreed to take me onward. My eyes glazed over the concrete trenches flanking the road, which had swelled into veritable rivers in a sudden downpour. Then I slept.
The mornings and evenings in the Amazon were sticky, and wet. In the evening it was sticky because I was full of sweat after having walked many kilometers to find whatever comfortable spot I had needed to find in order to pitch the tent. In the mornings it was a mixture of the previous day’s transpiration and the morning’s humid mist clinging to everything. It made me feel wretched.
From Presidente Figueiredo, a strange name difficult to remember how to spell, the road was north. It led to Venezuela. I was leaving Brazil, and although my Portuguese was good, it was not to the level I had hoped to bring it–but then, I was glad for it. For Spanish and Portuguese are nearly one and the same, and it only takes a few months of motivated listening to pick one up if already you’re familiar with the other. However, I was half glad to be leaving the language behind, which had by now bastardized my Spanish. Venezuela would put everything right again.
I was gone from the little town in the cab of a big rig soon after purchasing bread and butter for the road. The road, I would consider. I was back on the road. I had an idea of where I was going, but once I made it into Venezuela, all time limits and plans could, at least for a time, be forgotten. That’s the greatest thing about the road, after all–the ultimate freedom; something which is only true when you free yourself from the manacles of knowing your own future. At least for now.
Finally I found the Amazon Rainforest. We were winding along a solitary road through the “Terra Indigena Waimiri Atroari”, an indigenous reserve established after a brutal military dictatorship had forced the construction of the highway. Apparently there had been many skirmishes as the military of the time bulldozed through toward the northern city of Boa Vista, 750 kilometers away. The indians used poison-tipped arrows. The soldiers used automatic rifles.
The reserve had closed at 6pm the previous day, and would again this night, and every night for as long as the autonomous community there had a say. For the indigenous communities justly relented the hateful progress that saw a road built through their lands. And theirs, of course, was only one relatively recent example of the butchering nature of what we in the civilized world so lovingly refer to as “progress”. However, I was glad to see that some concessions had been made, and as we drove through the Waimiri Atroari lands, 125 kilometers of it, signs were displayed in big menacing red letters: “No Photography or Film” and “Prohibited to stop”. Indeed, it was illegal to enter the dense walls of rainforest that hugged the road so closely that their canopies connected to form a roof of foliage above the highway. It was illegal even to stop the vehicle.
Only once did I see some of the reserve’s inhabitants as we sped by a clearing where a government health clinic had been set up. They were dressed in shirts and jeans, but their faces looked somewhat Asiatic, and the color in their faces was lighter, contrasting sharply against the thin and shiny black hair cut precisely into a bowl shape.
I thought about the brief glimpse I had of those few, and wondered how often they went to the city, and if they’d ever seen Brasilia or Sao Paulo. They lived in Brazil, to be sure, but as is the case in every country that is too large, the circumstances of their citizenship is a strange modern conundrum. For there still exist tribes that are cut off. Of human settlements that know nothing about the modern world, Brazil is home to most. But one day, without a doubt, the idea of progress will overcome the idea of preservation, and these tribes will come to learn that they are subjugate to a state of modern humans. I don’t want to imagine the scene, when a government official finally finds access to the tribe, and with a few pieces of paper and map of the world, pointing to Brazil, he says, “you live here, in this country. Brazil”. And there, it is easy to see how the world is made blind by men.
There were beetles the size of a Tsar’s fist, and a number of radiant birds that shot across our vision. Before I knew it, we had emerged from the reserve, passed a few conical thatched-roof huts marking the northern entrance to the indigenous lands, and the trucker was kicking me out at the posto fiscal. I looked back at the reserve. The unmerciful fazendas of unprotected land ran up flush with the tree line of the reserve, which, if anything, demonstrates the absolute necessity to create such reserves.
It was early morning. By mid-afternoon I was still there. I found a tree frog, grey with dark splotches, placid, and stuck to the wood of a sign post. Its moist skin created a seal and at first I had thought I was looking at a light grey moth, but upon closer examination found it to be the frog so popularly associated with the Amazon. I moved it to see that it had an underbelly of reflective orange. Its hands were long and defined, and each fingertip was a deep green that faded into the orange along the finger. A thin black slit made a pupil, surrounded by lemon yellow. I drew him.
By nighttime I was still at the customs post. A light drizzle fell over my skin like playful pinpricks, somewhat tauntingly perhaps. Most truckers had been waiting around several hours for their paperwork to come through. One trucker brought a watermelon from his rig and invited everyone, including me, to feast. Some of them took the opportunity to ask condescending questions, to which I politely replied.
“Why are wandering around, why don’t you settle and start a family?” or “What’s the point of traveling like you do? What’s your mission?”
I said: “I have no mission. I just want to learn, and write.”
Some shrugged, some smiled, and some presented me with shoulders. It’s strange how sometimes truckers can be magnanimous, and sometimes they can be cruel. I wrote in my notebook: People always ask what the motivation for my travel is. No one seems to understand travel for travel. They work: driving a truck, raising a family, perhaps cheating on wives, divorcing, remarrying and starting another family. But all that with making money apparently means you’re doing something. I don’t get it. It’s either that, or you have to excel at some career. Otherwise you’ll always just be a blank sheet. The world is such BS. Or, I uppose, it’s just that some people can’t fathom a life without what they consider to be forward movement.
I smeared butter onto a wall and watched ants surround it. Then I killed a spider and fed it to the ants, who methodically removed its head and legs to carry off to the lair.
When I had considered where to camp, Claudio, one of the truckers I’d already asked, and who said a satellite was watching him, apparently changed his mind about it and decided to take me along. We rode for many hours, and I slept. When I awoke we were at a gas station, where I pitched my tent in the garage and at 4 am continued the journey with Claudio, but I slept. When again I was awake, the 750 kilometers were behind us, and we were in Boa Vista. In the night, we had passed the equator. The Northern Hemisphere: I was home.
Claudio drove off and I began a long, sweaty and arduous walk across the city. I was on the outskirts, which looked just like every other baking city. I glanced at some road signs. “Venezuela”, one said. The other, “Guyana”. For it was from Boa Vista that a long road stretched to the border of the English Commonwealth country of Guyana. Alas, the reminder of my time limit came rushing back to me. If I had had several months to spare, I would take that road, which led all the way to the small country’s capital at Georgetown. From there, a single road connected to its Dutch neighbor Suriname, and further still to the French department of Guyana Francaise. In fact, this single road eventually led all the back into Brazil to the large city of Macapa, just opposite the grand capital of Para state, Belem, at the expansive mouth of the Amazon. Oh well, I thought to myself, perhaps another day.
I took a last meal at the Feira do Productor. Although I enjoy the diversity that comes with Brazilian buffets and caseira meals, I realized only then that, despite the diversity of dishes at every meal, it is roughly the same diversity of dishes in the entire country. (Whereas, to put it into perspective, in Peru you will find dishes in every region that are entirely unique to their locale).
As I neared, after 3 hours, the outskirts of the city, a sizable one after all (interesting, since there is no large urban center between there and Manaus, and still less population north until the great Venezuelan regional capital of Ciudad Guyana), I was stopped by a man who was in the midst of pulling up his zipper. He offered to sell me pot. I smiled and thanked him but refused. 2 minutes later a police truck stopped opposite me, and for a moment I was suspicious of myself. The officer, though, simply called me over, and put into my hands a marmita. And so for one last time, I felt the inescapable generosity of Brazilians. One last marmita, one last hearty meal.
In the river Cauame I bathed and washed away the sweat both from my skin and my clothes. Back on the road it wasn’t long before an army officer picked me up and we sped off toward Venezuela.
“All these cars are bringing back petrol from Venezuela,” he said, pointing to the only traffic coming from the opposite direction. “They can make two thousand reals in one go.”
“It’s not illegal?”
“Sure is. They have to call their contacts to know when the checkpoints aren’t manned. Gas in Venezuela is cheaper than water.”
After Boa Vista, or before it, rather, the jungle ends. In its place are first endless fields of soy, the green dotted with palm trees here and there like strangers loitering confusedly. The views stretch for many kilomters, and the patches of rain in the distance look like destinations on a map. As the road climbs ever further northward, the fields give way to mountainous geography with short trees set among high blades of brown, and seemingly spaced at regular intervals. Among them black bulks of rock sit wantonly like petrified hides. There are terras indigenas nestled in among the hills and bare-faced rock, some of the rock sweating. The landscape made me reminisce of Ireland, and amuse myself at the thought that we were driving through a tropical Ring of Kerry.
“Roraima,” the officer told me. “That’s the name of this state. There are 9 indigenous tribes in the state. And, you know, Mt. Roraima is actually in Brazil.”
I only learned later that I would be entering a part of Venezuela known above all for its tabletop mountains, such as Mt. Roraima. Apparently that mountain is in Brazil, even though the tours are Venezuelan. I sighed at the thought of tourism, and then the land changed again.
We were ascending a suddenly jungled set of switch-backs. The trees were gathered close to the road as if spectating at the vehicles that came so close to their trunks. The floor was populated by a green grass whose piercing color was almost glowing. I looked above and found that the canopy’s complicated collage of flora was even more attractive than in the indigenous reserve the day before. When we finally emerged from the jungle, we were greeted by orderly rows of pine trees in the small border town of Pacaraima.
I was alone again, and considering my situation.
I had about 100 Brazilian reals with me still. The thing that made me hesitate was the knowledge that in Venezuela, the currency is under stern control. Officially, the dollar is worth 4.3 bolivares, as Venezuelan money is called (it is also called real, confusingly). If I were to withdraw money from an ATM in Venezuela, the rate I would get would be 4.3 to 1. However, I had heard it before, and confirmed it from my Venezuelan friend Andres, that there’s a second, clandestine market on the side. It’s called the mercado negro. In it, 1 dollar is actually worth 9 or 10 bolivares. “But be careful,” Andres had warned, “the black market is illegal.”
I had to weigh my options. There was no work online. I wouldn’t bother working anyway, so whatever money I was going to use, I had to withdraw it here, in Brazil, at the border. Before I did so, I found a store where they confirmed that 1 real was worth 4.9 bolivares in the black market, which, in Brazil, was perfectly legal. I found an ATM, and withdrew enough money to tide me over in this lifestyle for about a month and a half, or roughly 100 dollars.
I quietly stamped out of Brazil, whose immigration office and small border town faded behind me. Paralleling the short stretch of road between the two borders were the beginnings of Venezuela’s Gran Sabana, which is exactly what it says: a great savannah. There were no trees. It was mostly high grass and bush-land, as far as I could tell. The hills rolled, as they will, off into the distance. Before me the whole land slowly descended and the road sank from view in the Venezuelan border town of Santa Elena.
Goodbye Portuguese. Hello Spanish. Venezuela. There’s only one person most people think about when they hear the country’s name. Indeed, it was with no undue excitement that the first words that came to my eyes were the very slogan of that so very controversial leader. Hugo Chavez. And there he was! A grand billboard rose up above the road and proclaimed the freedom of entry of most global citizens. And there, below the image of the president, I saw what I would see many times over in the days to come, his slogan; Corazon de mi Patria. “Heart of my homeland,” I murmured to myself. I decided that I didn’t think countries should equate themselves with presidents. I wondered then, what this country, of which the only thing I thought I knew was that it was vehemently anti-American, would be to me.
There was no line for the entry stamp, and I even had to look around inside the empty building for the right room. The woman was smiling. “Welcome to Venezuela,” she said cheerfully. Then a taxi driver called me over and said he’d take me to Santa Elena, 15 kilometers onward. “But I hitchhike,” I protested.
“We’re all huamns,” he said.
“I suppose so,” I replied.
“A helping hand. We help each other here in Venezuela. So, are you a tourist?”
“No,” I said sheepishly. “Kind of.”
“You know, here in the Gran Sabana we have the highest waterfall in the world.”
“Oh yes, Angel Falls,” I said.
He started. “Angel Falls! They call it that, but it had a name before that American pilot died there,” he said contemptuously. “It’s called Salto Chorumeru,” he concluded, a hint of pride lingering in the air when he had settled.
“I always thought it was strange it was called Angel,” I conceded.
Venezuela. Land of gas and oil. Land of Simon Bolivar and land of the longest Caribbean coastline. Land of the new socialism; land, of Hugo Chavez. I decided as soon as I exited the taxi that I would be as objective as my predisposition would allow. What I thought I knew about this country I would dismiss until I could say with truth and conviction that it was true. Moreover, and more importantly, I would suppress my own opinions in order to create a knowledge base. I consider that through me you might have a better glimpse at what Venezuela is, and what it is not. I suppose that’s what much of velabas is all about: knowledge. From one perspective, yes, but much is knowledge all the same. What you know about Venezuela, you know from an international media that would not benefit from the kind of changes Chavez represents. Consider, for a moment, that your media is not free. Consider, if you will, that the news you hear has an opinion. That’s all.
I did not know that Venezuela was in the midst of elections, but it became immediately apparent once I was out of the taxi and walking the streets of Santa Elena. Although, I have to admit, it was hard to find the opposition candidate’s posters.
“Chavez!” Exclaimed the posters attached to street lamps and the banners hung above the traffic. “Corazon de mi Patria.” Chavez, Chavez, Chavez. His face was everywhere, on every street and many times over. It was him smiling looking off somewhere, dressed in army fatigues with a red undershirt. “Corazon de mi Patria!”. The background of the posters was also red. The stencils of the man abounded as well, like so many Che’s. Chavez, Chavez, Chavez.
“We’re going to reelect Chavez on October 7th,” said Marin, the owner of a radio station that was housed in a small room beside an open outdoor stage. I was sitting on the steps of the stage, after having walked through the town, and, tired, approached the two men.
“Where are you from anyway?” the other asked. I told them.
Marin chuckled and looked at his friend. “He’s going to have a hard time here then.”
“No but look he already speaks Spanish well,” the other replied optimistically. “Romance languages, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian.” I heard him say Romanian and was surprised, since most seem to forget that that language is to Italian what Spanish is to Portuguese.
“I supposed,” said Marin. “Well, what do you think of Santa Elena then?” he asked me steadily.
“I don’t know. I haven’t been here long.”
“You have to see the church,” said the other. “It’s that way.”
When I found the cathedral it was already dark, and already a service had begun. The cathedral was also a monastery, and its fine stonework stretched down the street. It was old, but there was no graffiti, and the polished white statues of saints above the arcade seemed to twinkle under the lamps. The serenity of the place was only interrupted by the noise of cars passing by, among whose ranks I noted many of those boat-like gas guzzlers from the 1980s and 1990s that today we seem to associate with gangsters.
Inside the place I get the sense that I’m in some nordic king’s banquet hall. But instead of merry vikings laughing and spilling wine over each other, there is only the off-tune singing of some hidden-away priest for the small congregation. Along the sides of the hall run white flanking arches up to the pulpit, whose display is crowded with the painted saints and gold leaf framing so common in Catholic institutions. Before the alter was an attractive embossed carving of the Last Supper. My eyes passed again to the flanking arcades, among which I could pick out the busts of saints sitting on pedestals but hidden in the shadows. The main hall itself was dazzling, especially for the inset wooden trim grid and steel intersects of the flat ceiling. From it hung three chandeliers of weathered metal, giving the room an aura of medieval sanctity.
I left the mass prematurely to sit on the curb and draw. When the service had ended, a woman who had glanced at me inside came up to me now full of cheer and radiance.
“God bless you,” she said. “Where are you from?”
“Chicago,” I said, but she looked confused. “The United States.”
To my surprise she slumped and released a disheartened sigh. “Oh,” she said. “Well, God bless you anyway.”
It was the first time, anywhere, that I had received such a sad reaction after giving away my home. I did not feel offended. The little patriotism inside me was trying to spark a feeling of righteousness, which I summarily dismissed as inappropriate. I have to learn more about this country, I thought to myself.
I returned to the outdoor stage and waited for a group of kids to finish their soccer game before pitching my tent on the stage. I had heard of the danger of Venezuela, but as anywhere else, I had no fear in such a small town.
The kids were screaming and I watched and lamented that I couldn’t join–they were too good. As I watched them interact with one another, I thought I saw in them their future selves. The small boy in goal will be the tall, lanky and slightly hunched-over friend who never affronts anyone, and who forgets things easily. The one with the backwards hat looks like he’ll always be a sidekick, while the taller kid with the gold chain will be more aggressive in his search for attention, though since he will never truly feel comfortable with his sexuality he’ll not know how to handle it. Then there’s the kid chewing gum–he’ll always seem to be 40 years old, reserved, but hard of spirit. The shirtless one, the kid with the best moves, will be the popular one. Maybe he’ll go pro and the others will be jealous–but the kid in the red shorts will always be by his side, because he needs the feeling of approval. Then, and finally, there’s the kid in pants who isn’t so good with the soccer ball–the classic gangster, the one who will always have the same haircut, and cares to dress well.
In the morning there was a dying moose outside my tent. But then, when I heard it speak into a radio, “he’s not moving. Send the police down here will you?” I emerged.
“Don’t do that,” I said. “I’m leaving.” The man walked away angry.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. It was my first morning in Venezuela. I woke and took in the town. It was a short town, ducked down below the plains of the border in an unlikely place for a small oasis of tropical jungle. But it was. And it was humid. In fact, I’d later learn that the Gran Sabana was full of jungle reminiscent of the rainforest, which grew sparsely but densely in the crevices of connecting hills. I was glad to be where the humidity, at least, was not as invasive as in the deep Amazon. Here, I was rather out of the Amazon. I could sleep cooly.
They were setting up beer kiosks. I had learned that there was going to be a party this night–Friday night. It was the anniversary of the town, apparently. I considered the possibility of staying. Already Marin had agreed to watch my backpack for the night while I wandered and drank, but I wasn’t sure. I thought about it as I walked to the grocery store to buy a few supplies. The place was owned by Chinese merchants, and now that I’ve crossed half of Venezuela I can say with certainty that, like in Argentina, the Chinese merchant class runs all the small to medium-sized grocery stores. I can also say with certainty that Chavez’s posters, and the phrase “Corazon de mi Patria” have saturated not only Santa Elena, but every town and city that I’ve been to.
I decided not to stay in Santa Elena that night. Something told me to leave. I found a touristy hostel, exchanged Bel Canto for a thick volume called Russka, used the bathroom, and soaked up some of the detailed maps they had of the Gran Sabana, which I would be heading into on the road north.
As I was walking out of town I found a long line of cars. They were pulled up alongside the road. Except for a few new models, you could easily feel trapped in a time warp among the gas guzzlers, whose paint was crusted and falling, and whose parts were jerry-rigged together, often with nothing more than tape. I thought it was an interesting feeling I felt when those cars would pass. It was not nostalgia, because I came to age long after those models were antiquated. Nor was it surprise, because in films like the Blues Brothers and series like the old Batman, those cars live on. No; it was distrust. Thanks to a childhood and adolescence of Hollywood, which took to coupling dangerous inner city gangsters with that model of car, my reaction was automatic, uncontrollable, and inwardly embarrassing; those cars made me uneasy. The common practice of installing tinted windows didn’t help at all.
When I reached the front of the line I saw that they were waiting for gas. I wonder to myself privately how the world’s 5th largest producer of petrol can experience lines at gas stations. As it turns out, those lines are everywhere.
I looked back on the town, the short connected buildings following the curve of the street, their plaster failing them, their satellite dishes displayed expectantly atop the roofs. I was back in the Latin America I was used to. Things were not dilapidated; they were simply less orderly than Brazil or Uruguay, for example. The curbs were more often crumbling than not, as were walls and fences. Metal signs were rusted but remained, whether private or announcing government projects. Fruit stands and other food vendors sold in the streets. There were big holes to watch out for in the sidewalk. These things speak of faults in infrastructure, true, but I’ve come to consider the possibility that they have nothing to do with poverty.
I rounded the corner and who should I see there under the shade of a big tree but the Italian couple from Manaus, Matilde and Valero. We greeted amicably. I told them about my night on the stage, and they said they were staying with a family further out of town. They had left the same day as I from Manaus, and had told me that the trucker who brought them to Boa Vista had seen before them and wanted to pick up another hitchhiker at an inopportune spot; me. So it goes.
Now they were hitchhiking back to their host’s place. I decided to walk on further out of town, and they came with me.
“It’s interesting,” said Valero as we passed another gas station and long line of cars, “the ice cream vendors make their money selling to people waiting for gas!”
It was true, and I remarked that it was a good observation, as it is something that is unlikely to occur in other countries.
Eventually we made it to the countryside exit of town, where the urban sprawl stops and the earth retains its face until the horizon. They decided to walk on, and we farewelled with the idea of perhaps running into each other by chance somewhere near the tropical beaches of Cumana. That didn’t happen, and so I had been watching them disappear into memory.
I threw out my thumb. A friend of Cris’ in Manaus had described Venezuela like this: “We’re basically like Brazilians, but in Spanish. And the police are dangerously corrupt. And the cities are quite dangerous.” I soon began to see what he was talking about. Already I had tried to purchase a plate of rice and sauce, and was greeted, instead, with a free, full meal. I took to trying to buy rice for 5 bolivares in the coming days. Officially it equalled about a dollar, but here 5 bolivares buys very little. A plate of food usually comes at 40. In this way, for an outsider, Venezuela can either be one of the cheaper countries to travel in, or one of the more expensive countries. Later, I would learn that the control over the currency exists in order to keep people from buying too many dollars, which apparently is what was happening before, and the country was losing money. I decided to leave it at that, until some further date when perhaps I could understand this economic spindle a little better.
I was flicked off once. Then a car stopped and handed me a cup of coca-cola. Finally, a couple pulled over, and reminded me of another of the things I so missed about the Latin America I was introduced to through Mexico; rides in the back of pick-ups.
We zoomed out and away from Santa Elena, and into the vast Canaima National Park. The entire landscape was bare, the only features the shadows where water had washed away sediment on the green-grass hills. The land was attractive. It’s shape had an abruptness to it that pleased the imagination, for over each hill a new form of the green-grass geography would be laid out, and it seemed unexpected. The road, too, was different. A grey, white-lined winding lane drawn through valley and around slope; it’s a traveler, if ever a road alone could be one. And there those covert forests, tucked away, in between and at the convergence of land masses. I was happy to be in the bed, the cool air like a reprieve from my initial shock at the aggressiveness of the Gran Sabana biting flies, who leave trails of blood and whose bite is hard to detect and then inextricably itchy. The forests passed–the jungles, I should say, like hints or vestiges of the rainforest depending on which direction you’re traveling.
Suddenly in the distance, sometimes fanned by thick cloud cover, I caught glimpses of the tabletop mountains. They stood erect on the horizon, shadows of earthly churros shooting into the sky. I would have to see them closer up, I decided.
We arrived to an indigenous community called San Francisco, or “Sector Waykapurii”. The 4×4 off-road tourist vehicles were lined up, their occupants taking a snack in one of the many kiosks lining the road. But deeper into the community there was nothing touristy. Houses were typically small, with tall rectangular roofs of thatched dried palm leaf. The streets were dirt, and there were no fences. It was not a sunken community like Santa Elena, which was also much larger, but enjoyed a perch on a hill with views in three directions. This small grouping of houses reminded me of Nicaragua’s Pearl Lagoon, and not only for the layout, but for the friendliness of the people.
I found an open-aired covered area, which the residents told me was used for dances, weddings and other special occasions. It began to rain and thunder then, and a group of 10 or so children came skipping into the space to join me. Slowly, and almost secretly, as curious children will do, they approached me, and were suddenly before me, like monkeys, climbing the wall and the supports. They were all very young, and many were biting their fingers, shy to engage the gringo. They had asiatic eyes and black hair, with high cheek bones that clearly set them apart from other countrymen. They spoke amongst themselves.
“What’s that language?” I asked.
One girl responded in Spanish: “Tuyuwapi, it’s the language all the communities in the Gran Sabana speak.”
“It sounds interesting,” I said.
The children giggled, and asked me more questions. They asked for sweets, too, but I had none. I let my eyes glance around, knowing that instead of talking, the kids wanted just to giggle amongst themselves. It didn’t bother me. They were happy, and innocent, and eventually they scurried away yelling goodbye in Spanish, and, I assume, in Tuyuwapi.
In the morning I asked around and eventually found the path I was looking for via a family home where a domesticated Bambi licked my finger as I passed. They told me that it led to the top of a distant hill that I wanted to summit in order to get a good vantage point to draw those tabletop mountains. The hike was not so difficult, wading through high grass that hummed with the traveling of bees, but the biting flies made it challenging to keep cool. I kept my umbrella in front of me, and sung as best I could to frighten off any snakes that might been in the way.
When I came over the crest of the hill, the sight before me was magnificent. There in the distance, much larger than the previous day, were the tabletop mountains. They were a weak blue hue, but sure and stolid as any mountain, despite their distance. They sat on the horizon, their bases hidden by other, closer hills. The juxtaposition seemed to beckon me, but the biting flies kept my mind decided; I would draw and be on my way. The behemoth far to the right must have been Roraima, I decided. To its left was an entity of equal height, but whose flat plane was even more level. It looked like a giant cake sitting there awaiting to be consumed, which, I assumed, wouldn’t be far from the truth, for how else were these mountains formed if not by the slow erosion of their slopes? Further left a skinny thumb jutted into the air, its sides also vertical like its neighbors. And far to the left, another mess of rock hung in the air, sharing a shoulder with another thumb churro. The closest landscape, I assume but do not know personally, would be the Monument National Park back in the States. Before I descended the hill among the scurrying of tiny iguanas, I followed the biggest ant I’d ever seen, hoping to see others. It was an inch long, and glimmering black, but utterly alone.
Before long I was in the back of a pick-up truck. It seemed to me that the land was moving, and I was sitting pleasantly watching it go, like a driving movie. Water was everywhere, and the abrupt land caused it to fall, and here I was getting only glimpses of the falls as we flew like a bat around the curves. We stopped at a gas station, which was packed despite the nearly desolate roads. I suppose that’s the way of things here in Venezuela, for the gas station is always busy. 4x4s were blasting music from their ridiculous sound systems, which took up all the trunk space and obliged them to pack things on the roof. As we filled the tank, I took the opportunity to watch the price. I blinked. I blinked several times, and read the letters beside the numbers again and again to be sure that I wasn’t making things up.
People always ask me how much gas costs in the United States, and honestly, I don’t know. I no longer drive, and I’m not in the United States. However, I usually say 4 dollars a gallon. A gallon, though, is about 2 and a half to 3 liters, and here everything is by the liter. So, I say that gas in the States costs around 1 dollar 50 cents per liter. That would mean 6.5 bolivares per liter, officially, and 14 bolivares if you take into account the dollar’s worth on the black market.
So once I had overcome the shock, and had made sure that the simple math was sound, I realized that the driver had just paid 3 bolivares for 30 liters. That’s 1 bolivar for 10 liters of gasoline. That’s about 6 cents (of the dollar) for a gallon of gasoline. If you should have been skeptical at the phrase “gas in Venezuela is cheaper than water,” then now you should be thinking that the phrase is a ghastly understatement. And now, if we remember the black market, and remember that I changed my money on the black market, then I should like to think that I would be spending, for one gallon of gasoline, no more than the modest price of 3 cents.
Later, I would find out that when Chavez came into office in 1999, he froze the price of gasoline, which was 6 cents a gallon. The price has remained ever since, and Venezuela has the world’s cheapest gas thanks to this government subsidizing.
I tried to pay for my negotiated soup at a restaurant, but the lady dismissed my offer, letting me the soup for free. So it goes.
We had stopped for lunch. We had also left the Gran Sabana behind, and the road now took on a distinct descending rhythm as we left the cool heights for the tropical lows. The two men ate cachapa, which is the Venezuelan version of the Colombian arepa. It’s a patty made of corn flour and water, topped with chunks of cheese and generous slices of meat cooked over a wood fire.
“How do you like our Venezuela?” they asked me.
“I’m meeting good people,” I said.
“You know Simon Bolivar, the liberator of Latin America from the Spanish, was Venezuelan?”
I did know, and any traveler in Venezuela will soon learn that their are two faces and names to be seen everywhere. One is Simon Bolivar, father of Venezuela. The other is Hugo Chavez.
“Is it true that baseball is the national sport?” I asked. I hadn’t seen any diamonds.
“Yes,” they said, and pointed to the television, which was airing a major league game from the states. Alas, I thought, there is a dependency. I mentioned the Chicago Cubs, and we were back on the road.
We passed through several police checkpoints, and though seeing police checkpoints in many Latin American countries is not uncommon, I did not like the way these police looked at me. I took it as a personal measure of solidarity with the people that I, too, became very untrusting of the police. I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw “Ejercitio Bolivariano” written on their shoulder emblems. Indeed, Venezuela is the “Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela”, because, once again, Simon Bolivar is the undisputed champion of the nation. But I laughed anyway, because it made me muse that it was not the Venezuelans but the Bolivians that were policing the state (of course, we have to remember that Bolivia also takes its name from the great liberator).
There are 30 million Venezuelans, and of their army, many of the ranks are charged with guarding the gas stations. It seems, in the smaller towns at least, that every gas station is guarded by the military. I took note of this as we exited one last gas station. I was in the cab now, and the two men were passing beers back and forth. Between drinking on the road and using the word “verga”, I felt that I was transplanted back to Mexico. It was a feeling. Though, I still couldn’t get used to the Venezuelan insistence on using the word “vaina”, which can be used to describe pretty much anything. It’s a noun, like our “shit”, and would be used in a phrase like: “That shit they’re doing at the office is annoying” or “It’s the same shit everywhere you go”.
We stopped once more for coffee, or, as they say here, “negrito”. We had descended through a looping maze of jungle, not unlike the ascent from Boa Vista. We passed a smooth rock outcropping called La Piedra de la Virgen, and on my map I saw that it was roughly the border with neighboring Guyana. I suppose this is the closest I’ll get to that country, I thought. It was hot again once we reached the rambunctious town of KM88–a strange name to say the least.
They let me off at the entrance to the city of Upata. I craned my neck at the sky, which had now turned to a dull silver spread. Behind me, opposite the small pool of filthy water that had settled in a semi’s track, a few people were waiting for a bus, and staring at me. People were staring at me again–how long had it been? They don’t stare so hard in Argentina or Uruguay, or Brazil either. I thought back to Honduras, and those stares like lance jabs to the cheek. And it was not these stares now that made me wince, but the overall atmosphere. Indeed, despite the good intentions of most people, there was and is something off about it here. It is not a new sensation, and surely it is not always one that lasts. But I pondered it for a moment and thought, something about the air here; it’s almost foreboding.
I walked with the eyes to keep me company until I was around the bend and new, younger eyes took up the call from across the street. Buses roared past. It was Saturday, and a few cars packed with families–ah yes, the 5-seater packed with 10–drove by on their way to their Sunday. I found a fire-station and asked if I might camp there, but was denied by a boss who was sure that his boss would not approve, but otherwise yes, gringo, but for now blame my boss. Bureaucracy. It’s a tent. And one night.
The next morning I was awakened early by the shuffling about of the kiosk tenants preparing for the day’s lunch. It was a kiosk owned by Jose, who had generously allowed me to pitch my tent there, and from his house just behind, had brought me a meal of, I should say, the Venezuelan Sloppy Joe. It was a mark of modesty and respect when he had said: “We are at your service.” In later days, I would come to hear this phrase repeated by other benefactors. In my mind, now, Venezuelan hospitality is a thing to be recognized.
At Jose’s invitation I decided to stay with him and his family the whole next day. It was Sunday, after all, and everywhere Sunday is a bad day for traveling. Especially in Latin America, most travelers are families, and here in particular, families travel too many in one car, leaving no space for the vagabond.
Jose was single, around 50 years old, and lived here with his sister, his parents and a whole host of cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. The house was a humble dwelling, and one of typical Latin American decor: always under construction. I’ve said it before, but being new to Venezuela and discovering that it holds true here as well, it’s worth reminding the reader that for many Latin Americans, the family home is an investment, and thus it is constantly being built upon. I was soon to enjoy another of the tropical climate’s facilities that I had once been used to; the bucket shower. I washed a few clothes as well and hung them to dry in the sun, soak in the rain, and dry once more.
“Well, Chael, welcome to our home,” said Jose after we had returned from the market. “This is your home, be at home,” he insisted.
A nephew disappeared and reappeared with a crate filled with beer. He transfered the bottles into a cooler with ice, and the day then began. For even before I would finish one beer, a new one would be placed in front of me. For lunch we ate pollo guisado, and I saw a slight twitch of disappointment in Jose’s face when I said I’d had it in Peru.
“The Peruvians have good food. Ours is not so diverse. A lot of cachapas.”
We drank continuously. This is Sunday. Beer outside with the men of the family, and the women join us in between cooking and washing.
“Drink, drink,” said Jose. “I thought you’d gone this morning. I didn’t mean to oblige you to get up last night.”
Jose had showed up slightly intoxicated but not ridiculous, at around 2 am. He woke me from the tent and then disappeared inside, returning with two small cups of coffee. “Do you drink coffee in Chicago?” He had inquired, and I’d told him that, unlike in Venezuela where coffee was always served with a lot of sugar in a tiny cup, in the States it was served in giant cups or mugs, and you would add sugar as you pleased. “I prefer our way,” he’d said, splattering the words with dizziness. “Here we have a good sense of hospitality. I was drinking with my friend, and I thought, hey, I’m forgetting something–oh yeah! The gringo! So I came back here. You should stay tomorrow.”
So I had stayed, and now we were quite drunk, but not ridiculously so, because the “Polar Light” beer held true to its name; a light lager that was not so different from water. I haven’t seen any other beer brands in the country. Polar Light, like the Chinese merchants, seems to hold a monopoly. Indeed, the popular thing to do is not head to bars, but head to Polar Light kiosks, “licorias”, where you can get all sorts of liquor, but the decoration is purely Polar Light flags and posters.
Jose’s cousin had supplied the missing piece to our front yard latino merriment: the music blasting out of the car.
“Do you know this music?” Jose asked me. The others looked at me. “No? It’s Christmas music!”
I heard salsa. I thought then how relatively it all is, Christmas. I listen to Celtic tunes at Christmas. But even here, where it never snows, the idea of Santa Claus exists, and it always includes chimneys and white landscapes. So it goes, the global Christmas.
Then began the talk about Chavez.
“Who’s going to win the election?” I asked. “Chavez or Radonski?” By now I’d finally picked out the opposition posters; Capriles Radonski. I decided early on that I would not make any opinion of mine too obvious. Despite the good-naturedness of almost everyone I was meeting, that underpinning feeling of forbading kept me keen on remaining objective. I would only sound positive toward the candidate whom my locutor adored.
“Chavez will win,” someone said.
“And who is Capriles Radonski?” I asked truthfully.
“Well, Chavismo is so popular that no opposition group stands a chance. So they joined forces and picked Capriles,” said Jose.
“Actually it’s a strange name. Capriles. Radonski? Is that Polish? It’s certainly not very latino,” I said. I had started to notice the opposition posters. He was a skinny white man in a blue chemise, walking toward the camera with some kind of authority that new candidates always seem to get out of thin air. His phrase was “Hay un Camino / There’s a way” or “Vota por tu futuro” or “Vota por progreso / vote for progress”.
“He doesn’t have a chance,” said a cousin.
“He certainly doesn’t have the same exposure Chavez does–Chavez is everywhere,” I said.
“It’s because the people want him to be in power. He does good things.”
We didn’t speak much about the matter, but in the coming days I would learn more.
Meanwhile Jose pointed out the sparrow-sized yellow canaries with little orange patches on their heads. Behind the house he showed me totuma bulbs. These were big green globes that grew on a tree like warts. They’re not edible, but once cut, sliced open and emptied, then set to dry, they make handy bowls.
“I’ve never seen that car before,” I said, examining the strange coupe.
“It’s Lada. Russian,” the cousin told me.
I thought for a moment. “I don’t know that we have those in the States.”
“Before Chavez, all the cars were Chevy or Ford. Chevy Ford Chevy Ford. They were expensive, but the government gave the American companies the monopolies. Then Chavez opened the market. Actually he also nationalized the oil industry, which was almost completely run by Americans. Now it’s Russians and Swedes and Venezuelans.”
“Lada,” I echoed.
“Yea.” said the cousin, and then, emphatically, “we have Iranian cars too, and Chinese. Indian too.”
Despite America having the image of an open market, I remembered that in certain sectors of the economy we, too, are protective.
Then the brief family feud took place. It happened almost spontaneously, and the yelling didn’t register with me right away. But I shot to attention when I realized I was the reason why Jose was yelling at a nephew of his, who in turn yelled at Jose. I didn’t bother saying anything. It had something to do with the nephew having made lewd signs behind my back to Jose, using me as a joke. I had no idea, and despite their closeness, Jose was exploding at the nephew in my defense. I suppose it could’ve gone on without my knowing and it would be alright, but apparently the last gesture made was the last straw, and not only Jose, but now his mother and sister, were yelling at the nephew.
The yelling, that’s something to notice. People here are slightly louder than elsewhere. Not everyone, but in general, and in the street. Days later, when I’d be in a truck with a man looking for directions, he would yell in, what seemed to me, an octave higher than necessary–and the strangers would reply likewise.
The feud was quickly over, but nephew and uncle remained apart. The beer didn’t help, but in any case there were no more eruptions that night. We ate barbecued steak with salt and the typically Venezuelan flat bread, which is thin, white and crispy, and which accompanies everything. We finished the beer.
Monday morning came without headaches, thankfully, because I was getting back on the road. Jose handed me two pairs of socks. His mother gave me two totuma bowls, one large and carved with the words “Upata, 2012, Jose”, and the other small.
“They’re good for coffee and meals,” she said. I put the big one on my head and the little one I strapped to my chin.
“This way I’ll be careful, like you tell me,” I said.
I thanked the family, and then put my shoes to the pavement.
All over Venezuela, one of the transport options is a pick-up truck whose bed is rigged up with benches, walls and a roof. Otherwise you often see plastic lawn chairs in the beds of pick-ups, where people lounge. Other than that, it’s also common to see men crowding the empty trailers of big rigs. It was a covered pick-up truck that took me freely the hour or so to San Felix, a poor suburb of the regional capital city, Ciudad Guyana.
“Viajando por cola no?” asked one of the men once I’d climbed into the front. There were two. They were seated but I could tell they were both stout, and in their mid 40s.
“Por cola? By tail?” I asked.
“Yeah, traveling por cola / by tail?”
“Oh, I didn’t know that’s how you say it here, por cola.”
The driver grimaced. I was between the two stout figures, one of a darker complexion and longer hair, the other with wide eyes and a very clean cap with two stenciled faces; one was Che, the other Chavez.
“So what do you think of our Chavez’s Venezuela?” the man in the cap asked. I never learned his name.
“I’m being treated quite well,” I said. I told them where I was from when they asked. It always seemed to spark interest, whether negative or positive, in everyone I told it to.
“The United States? Ah ha! Well then you must open your eyes and see that this is not a failed state.” He said this in a collected tone that gave it emphasis. It took me off guard and I said lazily:
“I need to learn all I can.”
“You do!” he boomed. “We are happy here, our comandante has done great things for el pueblo.” El Pueblo literally means “the village”, but here it means “the people”. Although the word has two meanings, it is not random; the fact that in Latin America they use the word that describes populace entities to describe the populace itself is significant. “Pueblo” cannot be city, so the significance is that “the people” places emphasis on small population centers and rural areas. It’s significant, especially since the idea of Marxism, which this is not but to an American it appears as so, begins with the peasantry–the poor–becoming politically aware.
“Actually I don’t know much,” I said.
“What do you know? What is Chavez to America?”
“Well, I’ll tell you, but it’s just what the idea of Chavez is there. I myself have no opinion,” I said, and cleared my throat. “Chavez changed the constitution to stay in power longer. Before that, he had nationalized industry. Between those two things, and the recent pulling out of the court of Human Rights, Americans consider him a threat to their way of life, their system.”
“Ah yes, of course, but the things that he actually does do not reach the ears of the Americans. It’s because the international media want to show Chavez in a bad light. But he has done a lot of good for us.” At this, the man went headlong into a short monologue. “The comandante has taught us to open our minds. Before, no one read, no one voted, no one really cared one way or another. Today, look, we all read. The people vote. The people care about their future and about what the government can do for them. As for the things he has done, it’s the missions that the people love above all. The missions, I mean, are the projects that he pushed through to bring real human rights to the people. Before, there were three hospitals, now hospitals are everywhere. And the clinics. Venezuela has a convenio/contract with other countries. For example, many of the neighborhood health clinics, the missions, he set up, are with the Cubans. They’re called Barrio Adentro. Cuban doctors work with Venezuelan doctors. Because, you know, Cuba has the best Latin American medical school and their doctors travel extensively. Then there are the meals for the extremely poor, Casas de alimentacion. Everything is accounted for, and the free meals for the extreme poor are only available for those who also join missions that help teach micro economics or a trade, like weaving,” he stopped, and took a breath.
“Cuban doctors?” I asked.
“Yes, they come on a program for 4 years, I think, and then go back to Cuba.”
“There are many different kinds of missions that the comandante has set up. Schools used to be hell, and there were only a few universities. Now, schools are free, and they’re available to everyone. Secondary and primary schools give three meals a day. Before no one new how to use computers, but now, there’s a free computer for every pupil. It was a convenio with Portugal, who produced the computers, but now we have a factory here making them. Then there’s, let’s see, ah yes, Podval y Morcal in which we exchange oil for food from Brazil. Because you know we have a lot of oil but not much agriculture. Radonski, what a sucker. He says ‘There’s a Way,’ and we Chavistas say, ‘ Yea, a way to the past’… The right, before Chavez, stole all the money. Chavez revealed that we had 15,000 gas stations in the US that no one knew about. Nowadays we’re accountable!” He was talking about Citgo gas stations.
“Is there maternity leave here?” I asked.
“Of course! Actually, for woman with children there’s a lifelong pension that’s equal to the minimum wage, that is, until they get a job. They get the pension but are required to attend classes, free class I mean, to learn a trade.”
I thought for a moment. “Who makes sure no one’s taking advantage of the system? In my country the fear of socialist structures is that there are freeloaders who leech the system.”
“Yes of course!” he exclaimed. He was eager to share what he knew, that much was clear. Outside we were arriving to San Felix. “The Consejos Comunales are groups of people who oversee that the people who receive money or help are actively trying to get work.”
“You think they work?” I asked.
“They work,” he replied with a nodding head.
I wondered about it all. It all sounded so perfect. It always sounds so perfect. Unfortunately it is difficult to verify anything without a third party, and in the days to come I would hear the other side as well, and what in San Felix I would see to be something positive, with a bit of criticism I would also learn to see the negative. Perhaps this is the kind of seesaw dizziness that turns people into pacific moderates, or that makes someone come to believe that nothing is efficient, and that it’s too impossible to tell what works and what doesn’t, and for whom the way things are are just as good as they’re ever going to get. There are truly too many of us.
Before long we had parked somewhere and I was in the courtyard of their home, managing well enough the curious looks of relatives. I ate a lunch of arepa with avocado and a fried egg, and one of my stout friends squeezed and mixed a perfect lemonade. Then we went to visit the Cubans.
It was one of the clinics of the mission called “Barrio Adentro/Inside Neighborhood”. It was clean, and there weren’t too many people waiting.
“She’s Cuban,” said my friend about one of the white smocks walking down the hall. “And he’s Cuban too,” pointing to another. It felt bizarre for one simple reason: I’m American, and the little voice in my head, which has been nurtured since birth to be proud, reminds me about it: Cubans and Venezuelans are anti-American. It’s the kind of voice that is impractical, that doesn’t care about facts and about first-hand experience. ItÂ´s the voice of patriotism that says “don’t forget where you come from”. Who the hell put it there? It was probably a life of little things from many different influences, from parents to school, from sports to movies and publicity. It’s a little voice that everyone, everywhere, should strive to extinguish, because it is completely and utterly irrational. Of course I ignore it and try to observe the place with an objective eye. I saw doctors, and I saw patients. I found the place to be clean and I saw some equipment. But then, I can’t say any more than that. I don’t know anything about medicine, or about treatment. My friend said they had plenty of drugs, but I didn’t see them, and I didn’t bother to inquire further. Only later would I hear from other Venezuelans about the unacceptable shortages in the hospitals. But still other Venezuelans would tell me that there were no shortages. I can’t say what is true and what is untrue.
I hopped on a crowded, sweaty and reckless bus, which took me across Ciudad Guyana, across Puerto Ordaz, and left me in that city’s industrial district. I thought nothing of it. There were factories towering over the streets whose sidewalks were crowded with blue and white garbage bags, now ripped open and scattered by dogs. Eventually I found the main highway. I tried to buy a plate of rice and sauce, as I will happily do, but instead they gave me, again, a full meal, and charged me nothing. It’s the same unassuming generosity I couldn’t escape from in Brazil, I thought.
A few back of the pick-up rides and a long walk brought me a bit closer to a bridge I had to cross over the Rio Orinoco, the second longest on the continent after the Amazon. At a highway restaurant I asked one man for a ride further on who replied in a heavily accented English, “Hey there, well I would give you a ride see but actually I’m just hangin’ a right a kilometer or so down the road. Hey you know you gotta be careful here. Damn governments.” And the man from Arizona disappeared.
I walked for hours before coming in sight of the 4-year-old Puente Orinoquia, the white-stalked bridge spanning that voluminous body of water that, a few hundred kilometers north, releases into the Caribbean see through a vast marshland delta. In fact, the delta is the only reason why a good coastal road doesn’t connect Venezuela with Guyana. To get to their neighbor, they have to travel first to Boa Vista, Brazil.
At the bridge there were three police officers dressed in navy blue. There was not much traffic, and they called me over to them. It was the same questioning I get everywhere else, but with the added inquiries about dollars. They wanted money. I told them I had none, and after telling a few stories for the occasion, I sealed my image, in their minds, as a penniless vagabond, but conversational all the same. Of the three, I relished interacting with the young, chubby one. He must have been in his late teens or early twenties. He addressed me in tone and manner of false superiority that a badge often incites. He was indignant in his questioning. Condescending is an understatement surely.
“Do you have a house?” he asked.
“Kids, a wife?”
And then, as if I was nothing: “Then what do you have?”
I looked at him, hoping that my eyes appeared to this boy angry. I put my hands on the table where he was sitting and leaned down toward him. His facial expression still held indignation, and I wanted to break it. I said with hidden exaggeration:
“I have knowledge. I’m extremely intelligent. That’s what I have.”
The boy leaned back away from me and looked to the other young cop, and said: “Rudo.” I would’ve smiled to myself in triumph if I wasn’t so close.
Then the boy said, as if our short exchange hadn’t happened, and in a marshall way: “Do you believe in the revolution?”
Ah yes, the revolution. Chavistas called their beliefs part of a revolution, and for them it really is a revolution. This is where I allow myself an opinion. “There is no revolution in my country,” I said.
“Chavez’ revolution.” He was distant, in his own world, and it wouldn’t of mattered what I said anyway.
“I don’t see a revolution,” I said.
The boy cop’s tone was obvious. His was a corruptible soul. Those who believe in absolutes always are; you are either with us or against us. In a smattering of imagining on the spot, I could see this boy as part of some death squad, or doing horrible things in the name of something he never fully understood. It filled me with a rage that I could not express. It was a silent rueing that must have given away something in my face, but the boy was not observant. He was a boy, and boys should not be given badges, because everything’s a game to boys, even the exercise of power.
A pick-up truck took me to the other side of the river, and I found a secluded spot to camp.
In the morning it was another pick-up ride to the saw mill. Everyone’s calling me ‘gringo’ again. Then, waiting at the speed bumps, because here the highways have speed bumps, to which I was once used in other countries and which are ideal for hitchhiking, it was Orlando the trucker.
“Chavez that little pussy, he has ruined the country!” he said.
I had been looking out at the bizarre pine forests, wondering why there were pine farms in this tropical climate. I wonder if they can use palm tree wood? I’d never seen anything built with palm trees, now that I was thinking about it.
“I was a Chavista at the start of things, but everything has gone to hell, the man is mad!” Orlando rumbled.
“I haven’t met anyone anti-Chavez yet,” I offered.
He turned to me and said, “And you won’t find us–we’re hiding.”
“Well, there’s opposition. But there have been plenty of cases of people losing their jobs over their political leanings.”
“Actually, though, I think Chavez will win. He has so much exposure.”
Orlando dismissed what I’d said with a wave of his hand. “It’s because Chavistas are all extremists.”
“The United States used to have good relations with us, you know. Then Chavez kicked out the American oil industry, and half the factories closed. There’s no work. Look at the state of this road! And up ahead there’s a bridge out, and that’s just one. Where are you headed anyway?”
“Cumana,” I said.
“There’s a nice national park there, Mochima. Beautiful beaches. But why Cumana?”
“I read somewhere that it was the first European colony founded on the continent. 1520. I guess thatÂ´s something.”
“Ah. You know, we’re going to pass a town here where Ronald Reagan was born. That’s right! Born right here in Venezuela. His father was a oil baron here. You know, by the way,” he said in sideways way, “Ronald Reagan was the one who condoned the terrorist attack on 9/11.”
I squinted at whatever it was I’d been looking at, avoiding Orlando’s eyes.
“And in America there’s a conspiracy to get rid of Latin Americans. Did you know most all of those who died in those attacks were Latin Americans?”
“I don’t believe so,” I said.
“ItÂ´s true. And the wars in the Middle East, also. Almost all of the American deaths are Latin Americans trying to get citizenship.”
I tried to ignore him for awhile, but then he got excited by some pretty girls beside the road.
“Oh, what gorgeous sauce,” he said. “We have beautiful women here. They all have a price, you know. Look,” he said, handing me a newspaper. It was opened to the personals. “It’s all legal. They’re mostly university girls, fine young catches,” he said. “You just have to call those numbers and you negotiate the price.”
Orlando slowly became ridiculous. But he was a Dr Jekyl and Mr. Hide character, who always surprised me at intervals one way or the other. Hide was a fiendish womanizer who would stop the rig in the middle of the road to call over girls. Hide said things like “you know the apocalypse is coming–it’s because these damn gays are marrying.” Jekyl would say things that sounded more balanced: “Radonski is going to improve our agriculture. You know we buy all our food from abroad? Food is damn expensive. Chavez just either pockets oil money, or he gives it away as gifts to other countries, trying to export his system.”
“Seems to me he should perfect the system in his own country before going international about it,” I added.
“He’s like Saddam Hussein, or Gaddafi,” said Jekyl. “He’s a secret autocrat who wants to be adored. That’s why his face is everywhere. He thinks of himself as the new Simon Bolivar.”
Outside, the scene was mostly high tropical grasses. I didn’t disagree with this last. Seeing Chavez everywhere made me suspicious. The thing that most repels Americans, I believe, is a vocal dictator. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dictator that no one talks about, but the dictators who vocally lash out at America are for Americans prime for the noose. It doesn’t seem to matter that the country might be filled with happy people. But then, it’s hard to tell if everyone’s happy or not.
“I surely am not happy. There’s no money to be made. Look at the state of this road!” he repeated. “And the delinquents, Venezuela used to be a clean, safe place. Now, Caracas is a hell hole and the country is following that path. Look, he can’t even control our prisons!” Venezuela has a reputation for bad prisons. Every year riots leave hundreds dead. “But you know that’s a conspiracy too. He lets prisoners have weapons. And when there’s a scandal, suddenly all the attention swings to the new events at the local prison, where a riot has killed innocent inmates! What bull.”
Sometimes my head hurts, trying to understand. For everything there are two opinions. Orlando is convinced, as are many Radonski supporters, that the government is corrupt, while the Chavistas say the same about the old rightist regime. Always two sides. Where one sees brilliance and aide, the other sees stupidity and waste. Sometimes facts are lost to opinion. Is Venezuela better off than before Chavez? The right says no, the left says yes. The right is always concerned with security, free market practices, foreign investment, and tidiness. The left is always concerned with social rights and freedoms, ethnical business practice and economic regulation. Both sides need money. Both sides want to end poverty; the right thinks the system will eventually solve the problem, and the left wants explicit intervention. It’s all just movement of money. Otherwise, “revolutions” might not happen if people are left a satisfactory bill. Voltaire said that the act of governing is taking money from one class of people and giving it to another. In one way or another, perhaps thatÂ´s it.
At the temporary bridge that had been built where the previous one had been washed out, we were stopped by the army. They said only light vehicles could pass. Orlando was ex-military and called up a general, who cussed out the officer in charge, who eventually let us pass, thinking that the rig weighed only 8 tons. Later, Orlando giggled and showed me that in fact the rig weighed 15. The temporary bridge had a capacity of 9. Although I was glad to be underway again, it struck me as wholly immature to force the crossing. In the leftist part of my mind, I coupled the selfish act with the fact that Orlando is politically right; profit over the well being of others; arrive to the destination on time over considering the impact of downing the bridge for the rest.
There’s one thing I dislike about the “pacifist revolution”. Well, there are a number of things, but above all, I dislike that the hero is army. Chavez was always army. As such, the “revolution”, which I quote because it’s not me calling it a revolution and nor is it me not calling it a revolution, takes on the tone of a war. Everything is a mission. Banners proclaim “Mission Accomplished” for completed, or, as Orlando put it, half-completed projects. Everywhere the Chavistas use words like “vanguard”, “mobilize” and “victory”. It creates a mentality of war, albeit non-violent war, that might have something to do with that underpinning foreboding vibe I feel. Indeed, Chavistas are generally militant in their protection of the movement and of their leader. It might have something to do with why, whenever I see a Radonski poster, it is plastered beside already ripped down ones.
A slight detail that I find regrettable also is the hijacking of the color red. Candidates of the socialist party appear in red everywhere. Everywhere red. If they’re instead in some other color, at least they have the army cap with the emblematic red star proclaiming their loyalty. My handkerchief is red, and when I’m on the side of the road using it to wipe away the sweat, I can’t help but wonder if there are Radonski supporters passing me by because of the red and nothing else.
It has been 14 years since Chavez came to power, which isn’t such a long time when you consider, for example, that French presidents can be elected back to back terms and stay in office for 12 years. I feel late in my analysis, but I can see one other thing that perturbs me about the business. Apart from what good Chavism had done or what bad it has done, I can be clear in certain observable aspects. His is a cult of personality, simply put. The whole country, it seems, is completely saturated in the idea of his “socialist revolution”. Everything is a project of the revolution, from the grand schemes of oil exportation to little things like the name of a new dedicated park space. I bought a small carton of milk, which claimed with a red ribbon “product of socialism.” I feel that such exposure to a calculated publicity campaign, especially from an early age, can be detrimental to the ability to make free choices. I try the best I can to silence the little voice. Sometimes I wonder if my words are products of “free choice” or of that little voice.
“Why’s there so much crime?” I asked Orlando’s opinion. Now we were climbing the coastal mountains, passed the city of Maturin. The national highways have no shoulders, and are instead flanked by encroaching walls of vegetation. This, coupled with the pot holes, and the ridiculous driving I’ve experienced, has convinced me that Venezuela is dangerous in terms of road traffic. But now we were on the topic of delinquency.
“People are desperate,” said Jekyl. “Before, Venezuela was a peaceful place.”
It made me wonder. It was a strange circumstance. It’s no big secret that under rightist governments security in the street is better, because they’re stricter, but usually street crime comes from poverty, and wasn’t Chavez’ revolution alleviating poverty by offering free services? But then, who are the criminals anyway? Are they themselves Chavistas, or are they to the right? Or are they simply disinclined, unmotivated, or uninspired? Or maybe they just want more, which also wouldn’t be surprising. Maybe the idea of clamping down on crime does not go hand in hand with Chavez’ revolution because the revolution is for the poor, and a clamp down would most likely happen in poor communities; it would be hypocrisy. Or maybe, and this would be the absurd and unlikely, the Chavista revolution has made thinking people out of so many, and oftentimes, thinking people think too much. Maybe the criminals are thoughtful.
Whatever the case, insecurity was to be one of the main sticking points in the October elections.
Orlando said that prostitution was legal. He said that many husbands, and sometimes mothers, put their girls on the street to work. I wasn’t inclined to believe him, but as we passed a group of women selling snacks at a speed bump, the gestures exchanged between Orlando and an older woman were unmistakable.
“She says the young girl’s working,” he said. “Ah damn! If only I wasn’t in a hurry.”
We stopped for food at a roadside restaurant filled with other “gondoleros”. Orlando paid. When I returned from the bathroom he was talking about Viagra with the others, who watched him with little expressions of amusement on their face. For Orlando had just pissed in a cup and swallowed it in front of them.
“It cured my diabetes,” he later insisted. Mr. Hide was back, and he added: “Cooking fumes are also dangerous for a man, they increase the feminine hormone, make you gay.”
I was half glad to be away from Orlando when he let me off in Cariaco, a peaceable town with a painted church that looks like something more tuned toward Arabia. I asked for directions, and realized just then that Venezuelans rarely know kilometers or blocks when I specifically ask. It’s just “lllleeeejoos todavia / still far”.
That night I was camped after hacking through that tall, lime green and perpetually wet tropical grass, careful to be well out of sight, and careful of snakes as well. There were more mosquitoes that night than even the time outside Clorinda, Argentina. Without exaggeration, hundreds fluttered about my head.
“Gas Duct Revolution”, stated a poster beside the road highlighting a recent government project to provide free gas. Everything is a revolution,I thought to myself. Outside the town, Rotary International had its yellow and blue wheel. There might be a revolution, but Rotary still owns the monuments at entrances to cities.
A pick-up truck brought me the hour more to Cumana. The road went along the coast. Beside it rested the azul waters of the Caribbean Sea. I was back in the Caribbean.
Cumana was a deception, if I had expected something from the past. It was not breathable. Everything seemed crowded and close together. It doesn’t matter if there are two lanes, the drivers create a third, and suddenly there’s no room to walk. There were few open spaces, and parks seemed tangled in the mess of the urban movement. The streets were packed with market stalls, selling clothes, electronics and snacks. I found only one area with colonial buildings, which were dilapidated anyway. The only respite was when, wetting my back on the walk, I made it to the small castle, Castillo San Antonio, that has watched over the city since the times of the Revolution against the Spanish. So this is the first European settlement in South America, I thought cynically. Looking over the city, I felt saddened by the progress humanity has made. Maybe we have medicine, and our diets can be more varied, and maybe we can deal with more diseases than ever before; however, looking out over the first European settlement on the continent I couldn’t help but feel the displeasure in knowing that all we as humanity are really doing is expanding. Shouldn’t we want to improve our lives, our systems? How is it that in 500 years instead of happy people using technology to live better, we have more stressed people using technology to make ends meet? We’re in a constant struggle with ourselves it seemed to me then, glaring over the loudness of the scene. “Life” is, and always has been, hard. It seems that having greater freedoms doesn’t change that fact.
“Los Bordones, that’s where you want to go,” said a shoe-shiner when I asked where the beaches were.
“Do you know how I get there?”
“Take a bus that says ‘San Luis'” he replied.
“And the buses?”
“Down that way.”
“You know how many blocks, or kilometers.”
The man looked thoughtful. “It’s far.”
When I found the bus and had purchased bread and bananas, and had filled my two water bottles with the intention of staying at the beach for two days, I found the bus and 30 minutes later was outside the city, somewhat. Los Bardones was a white-sand beach. Kiosks selling beer and meals lined the beach under two rows of tall shading palms. There were plenty of people here, bathing on the torrid grains under a relentless Caribbean sun.
Google maps’ satellite imagery had already told me that there was a dirt road beyond the hotels that led to more secluded beaches. One man in a kiosk, when I asked, said not to walk along the beach to reach those lonely places. “It’s very dangerous,” he insisted.
I found the dirt road, coveted, it seemed, by a low-hanging roof of branches and leaves. I started down it. It was indeed lonely. There was trash everywhere. I had a feeling of apprehension as I went along for 2 kilometers and having to ford a small river until a small summit and opening up on the secluded beach I’d seen in the map. I surveyed the beach from my perch. It was a typical white crescent strip, like an earthly moon, the clear waters lapping gently over the incline of the sand. It sat between two rock hills jutting out into the surf, the one I stood upon and another at the opposite tip of the crescent. I knew, from the satellite image, that there were several other crescent beaches beyond this one, and I felt inclined to reach them, for at the bottom of the one upon which I stood, where the road ended, were a few houses.
I came upon a man rearranging chairs. The road had basically faded into his property.
“Hey,” I said.
“Gringo!” he said with surprise as he turned around. The man was in his early thirties, I assumed. He was without his shirt, and I felt weak against his physique. He smiled largely, and his eyes, set rather far apart, glistened emerald as they observed me. I stood there until he said, “What are you up to? Where did you come from?”
“I came down the road from Los Bordones,” I told him.
He looked shocked, almost trepid if I had not known it to be surprise.
“I know it’s dangerous,” I said.
“Dangerous?” he gasped. “It’s not dangerous, it’s really dangerous. You didn’t see anyone?”
“Wow, you’re lucky. Everyone who comes down that road, or down the beach, gets robbed. There are a lot of sketchy people there,” he said with childish intonation. For he was a grown child, a worker, and yes a family man but also a simpleton who laughed at trivial things. I liked him immediately.
“So where are you going?” he asked, his face overly quizzical.
“Trying to get to those beaches beyond that hill,” pointing at the end of the crescent I said this.
“Oh, what to camp? I don’t know. It’s dangerous. Boats go there. You never know what types they are. Can rob you.”
“I at least want to see them,” I said. “Is there a path that goes over to them?”
“Sure sure,” he said. He signaled toward the base, “there’s a thin path right there.”
I squinted. “Well, thanks a lot,” I said.
“You should camp here though,” he contested. “People, we are here, it’s safer. There are the dogs.”
“Thanks, maybe another night,” I said.
I walked down the beach passed a few houses at this end, but further on it was only sand. I snarled slightly at the litter; bottles in the hundreds washed up on the shore from the passing boats. At least, I thought, I found my beach.
The next day I was sitting back at Yann’s house. He had warned me about the further beaches the previous day, and now I was here under a covered area, a group of children gathered and staring at me intently. I wasn’t looking at them. I was looking at the hill that yesterday I had climbed.
Yann came and sat next to me.
“I can see how ridiculous I must have looked to you guys,” I said. I pointed at the summit. “I made it to the top,” I said, “but there was just no way around all those thorns.”
Yann laughed his young laugh. “It’s dangerous. There are snakes. We were watching you.”
It must have looked silly, the gringo loaded down with backpack and bags of food and water, climbing up the hill not on the path Yann had indicated, but instead on a sparsely hacked trail that led over a pair of ravines before disappearing into the impassable bush.
“Those cactus thorns dig into your skin and pop off right there–and they stick!” I exclaimed.
“Those are the worst,” replied Yann.
“And the spiders are bigger than my hand… black and yellow.”
He laughed. The children laughed, too.
“I didn’t see any snakes,” I said.
“Those are the most dangerous. There aren’t many snakes that come to the house, but where you camped last night down the beach there sure are.” He was adamant when he said this. Yann, the children, and also the cousins and the Big Man spoke of snakes as the greatest threats.
The Big Man came over. This was Yann’s brother-in-law, as far as I could tell. He was a bit older than Yann, and the 10 children running around the place were all his. “Snakes!” he yelled. “Gringo’s tasty for the snakes here! Hey, you know. It’s good you didn’t go to that other beach yesterday, safer with gente, people.”
“I suppose so,” I conceded. For I hadn’t made it to the further beach. I had climbed the hill in the wrong direction and it was a disastrous effort that left many holes in my umbrella and my skin. I had sweated to the point of a total soaking, and had even lost the small trail when I’d decided to throw in the towel and turn back. Looking now at the hill, I thought how funny it must have been for the family to watch me walk back and forth and in circles searching for the trail again. They had become concerned, sent two kids to rescue me, who had arrived at the hill just as I was clambering down the last stretch of rock. They had pointed to the real passage to the next beach, an obvious gully. Instead of continuing, I had set up camp among shady trees, stripped and entered the Caribbean Sea with a relief so great it felt godly. I had spent the previous day in my hammock reading in Russka.
Now I was sitting fresh, out of the rain, with Yann. He had showed up at my tent with one of the kids who had been dispatched to rescue me the previous day. We became friends, and at noon, just as dark clouds were setting over us, he came walking down the beach again, this time with a plate of rice and fried fish. I ate and we talked, and Yann said, hey, man, come camp at the house everyone wants to meet you. So it was that, just as the sky broke and pellets of rain began plummeting down, I pulled my pack to my shoulders and grabbed the tent, which we carried in the rain over the 300 meters or so to the house’s outdoor covered area. And now I was looking at the hill.
“Thanks a lot for the meal,” I said. “I was getting tired of my bread and bananas.”
“It’s not a problem” said the Big Man. “This,” he offered, motioning to the empty plate, and gesturing at his chest and mine, “is socialism.”
Later there was a thunderous sound. An army helicopter was passing overhead and the children ran out screaming at it, “Chavez, Chavez, Chavez!”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Chavez announced his candidacy in Cumana today. Maybe that’s him up there.”
I watched the small children, all ten of them, gathered at the water’s edge shouting the name of their president. They were so vacantly enthusiastic that I felt a twinge of disapproval.
“Chavez loves his people,” said the Big Man. He engaged me directly, rubbing his belly from time to time. He was quite a large man.
“I’ve seen a lot,” I said.
“Look,” pointing at his children. “5,000 bolivares for each child. And look,” pointing at the three motors they had in a rack stored after the day’s catch (for they’re fishermen). “These are from Chavez, free.”
We began then to talk about the tax code of the United States compared to that of Venezuela. Here on the beach were a new specimen of annoying biting fly: the dreaded sand fly. These came with the rains especially, and kept you constantly on guard. As we entered our political talk we were slapping ourselves at regular intervals. It was a quirky and ironic addition to the conversation, so that after saying something like, “well, here in Venezuela the poor pay much less tax,” Big Man would slap himself in the face. I replied:
“In the States there are cases where billionaires pay less percentage of their income to tax than the poor,” and SLAP.
The women of the family came down to us from time to time and smiled at me, handing me a cup of coffee or some new plate of food. I ate well with them, lunch and dinner. It was all fish, and there were many different kinds that they’d bring in from their nets. I ate a delicious fish they told me was called “carite”.
“Do you fish every day?” I asked.
“I do,” said Big Man. “We go out in the mornings,” motioning with a round arm to the lanchas anchored in the surf. “Around 4 am.”
“So you make a good catch?”
“Do we ever! Every day. Take the nets to the market in the boat, come back here, relax. 20,000 bolivares for one boat-load sometimes.”
I thought, for a moment, that he was kidding. That was 2,000 dollars. Later, Yann said that they made 1,000,000 bolivares. I remembered that before currency controls to counter inflation, 1 bolivar was actually 1,000, so when Yann told me this I assumed that he meant 1,000 bolivares. That’s still 100 dollars. Every day, that’s 700 dollars a week, and in the month that means 2800 dollars, in black market rates. I looked around the place. I calculated in my head that they had plenty of money. It didn’t surprise, though, that the house and their facilities were in poor shape. They slept in hammocks in a half-constructed building beside a small, stout square brick house of two rooms. The kitchen was an outdoor barbecue. There was no running water, and the lights ran on a generator. I figured the gas for the generator didn’t even figure into the budget since it was so dirt cheap. Mostly they ate rice with fish from the catch, and every morning Big Man would cut up a fair amount of flesh for the day’s meals–to feed 5 or 6 adults and 10 children. I thought still.
“So the kids go to school?” I asked.
“Yes, but they’re on vacation right now. I live in Cumana. Yann lives here, but I come to work every day.”
So there was a second house in Cumana. I considered the expenses.
“The kids are going to go to university as well,” he said. “All education is free under the comandante. The kids, they get free transportation to school, and three meals a day.”
I thought still. So, the expenses included paying wages for the helping cousins and Yann, the expenses of the house in Cumana, but food was relatively taken care of, as were energy needs at the beach house. Health care was free, as was education and several meals for the 10 children. They even received money for the children’s existence, as far as I understood it from Big Man. I thought still.
“After all,” I said. “You and the family live very well.”
“We do!” he exclaimed.
I hadn’t been surprised by the state of the beach home for one reason–it’s not uncommon. Where a gringo might have a standard of livability that makes this home a disaster to behold, many who come from the lower classes in Latin America don’t think twice about it. The middle class is always concerned with material image, this is true, but the lower class is not bothered by such concerns. The little voice in my head wondered why, when in fact they have the means, do they not make the house “more livable”. Why don’t they build windows, or install plumbing? Why not clean up the floor and the surrounds? Why not? In fact this little voice is nothing but a representation of my own standards; “livability” is a relative term. Many in the lower class, who come from humble beginnings in the first place, have been raised outside the capitalist mentality that drives so many in the upper classes to buy more, to constantly improve. When someone grows up in desperate or shaky financial circumstances, they learn to save, and not spend. Perhaps this, after all, is why the Western world, driven by consumerism, is afraid of places where the lower classes are empowered–not spending money is how capitalism ceases to function.
Big Man and Yann were by no means poor, if their earnings were true, if their expenditures low, and if the public spending of the government was really that beneficial. However, to middle class eyes that see the image of a family, then Big Man and Yann seem poor. They live in poor conditions (at least at the beach house–admittedly I never saw their Cumana house). But then, the scale of livability is discriminatory anyway. Who is to say that they need the improvements that my little voice suggested? Why is it that the outside sees their situation and feels just in calling them poor? What’s so wrong with living how they feel comfortable living, why should they feel obliged to conform to the middle class’ standard? Simply, it is because the system presses the matter. Here, however, it does not.
I thought still. There was plenty to think about, and although I put these observations down in my notebook, I also decided to adhere to the idea that there is always too much to think about. One truth is that the children were rather dirty. Inside the house was musty, and the wet conditions around could be considered unhygienic and dangerous for the development of children. Empower the people to feel dignified, fed, and have something of disposable income, by all means; but educate the basic standards of health as well. One of the young girls had a swollen belly, a sign of malnutrition (or alergy, since the other children were physically well). The family drank water from an open tank of still water, a sure way to contract water-borne disease. These small things are unfortunate and unnecessary, but nor is it their fault.
“So you walked here from the hotels?” Big Man asked me.
He leaned back with a look of beguilement on his face, as though his assumptions about such a possibility; gringo down the dangerous road, had only been a ruse. “Lucky guy,” he said.
I glanced at the children, who were again gathered before me staring curiously.
“They’ve never seen a gringo before,” said Big Man.
“They don’t come here?”
“They used to, back before ’98. Now, never. You’re the only backpacker I’ve seen here.”
“Chavez was elected in ’98. He took over the oil companies from the gringos, but he didn’t kick everyone out. There’s still McDonald’s.”
It was true, there were a lot of McDonald’s, albeit the red of their signs had long since faded into that dull pinkish hue.
I liked spending time with the family there at “Playa Los Chivitos”. We watched Spider Man 3 dubbed while digging at fish and eating spaghetti. It was a small TV and the noise of the generator distracted from the conflict of Peter and Mary Jane, but I felt like I was part of the family. Every time something funny happened, everyone looked at me, probably because the amusement on my face pleased them. Their looks rather pleased me.
Before leaving it was one last meal of carite. “To be strong for the day,” said the Big Man.
“Can I help with the collaboration?” I asked. To collaborate in Venezuela means to chip in. Big Man looked concerned.
“This is our hospitality,” he said. “You know, offering me money can be offensive.”
I apologized, and anyway, I knew I shouldn’t have asked… perhaps I asked so that I could write his response, which I had expected. That way, those readers who feel that I should be handing money to everyone who helps me will see that their idea of morality, in these cases, is wrong.
We had a clear blue sky. I climbed into one of the boats, my backpack strapped on, and waved goodbye to the family, 12 of whom had gathered on the beach. One of the cousins was motoring me back to Los Bordones on the stern insistence that the my walking the road had been simple luck–that truly it was too dangerous. I thanked the cousin, who smiled and peeled away into the blue. Back at the highway I began the hitch.
Mochima National Park was beautiful. There were plenty of small towns and hamlets, each with its own dark, rosy, golden swathes of beach. The landscape usually brought us over a high pass along the crystalline waters, looking out and over the collection of islets, islands and mountainous peninsulas that made up the park. The trucker was anti-Chavista. Later, I would learn from some Chavistas, that the political spectrum here is completely dependent on Chavismo, such that you define yourself either as Chavista or anti-Chavista. He’s really part of the country’s identity, I thought.
“Gifts,” said Enrique, the trucker, when I’d suggested that Chavez had many supporters. “That’s how he keeps them. He gives them gifts.”
I thought about Yann’s motors. “Isn’t everyone eligible, though?”
“Supposedly. But the first thing they ask you is which political party you support.”
The little voice, having been nurtured in a society where the government giving things means a poor economy, had already considered the negative results of such intense government spending (Yann’s motors, the Big Man’s free everything). Contrary to the little voice, a human logic says, “hey, jerk, at least these people have their basic human rights met–food, education, health. Doesn’t that count for something? Isn’t that at least worth government spending?” Of course, it is also inextricably linked to the idea of politics. Everything is politics. The campaign is flooding the public sphere with images of the president. His revolution, bedding with the infallible memory of Simon Bolivar himself, is everywhere, and serves as a constant invasion of the mind. It’s not the little voice that is against such tactics–it’s part of the opinion I allow myself. For I despise popular campaigns that use catch phrases and techniques to keep a people constantly under fire from the proverbial political battleships–and a people cannot escape the unrelenting message, and they cannot critique that message from the outside, because it’s too damn hard to get outside it. Is it possible to be impartial? Can actors in our systems not care to be subjective? Unfortunately, no. Americans feel it too. They’re bombarded with the idea of “freedom” and “democracy”, thinking that whatever their government does vis-a-vis the rest of the world must be just. Even when it does something stupid, like Iraq, the people remain transfixed in the discourse of “freedom and democracy”. It is hard to get outside of it. To Americans, those two things are infallible. That is their cage, whose bars are unassailable.
Good. Human rights met. Bad. Less individual freedom. Good and bad? Those are relative too. If there’s one thing I’m slowly coming to believe, it is that human systems will always function in accord with the status quo between the disagreeing parties. One year it’s yes and the next it’s no. There will always be disagreement. There will always be people unhappy with the way things are. There will always be polarization. Only great wars will bring people together, but once they are over, the status quo of disagreement will resume. Despite the forever oscillating shape of human discord and accord, and no matter the system in place, I think at least people should be able to eat, learn and live.
By mid afternoon I was already passed Mochima, passed the large city of Puerto la Cruz, and already beyond the neighboring city of Barcelona. I was riding in the back of another pick-up truck down the 4-lane autopista toward a small beach town called Piritu. They had told me it was a safer bet for camping than the town further on, Clarines.
I arrived to the new part of Piritu, which, like almost everywhere, is uninspiring and chaotic. I walked quickly to the puerto. It had been raining, and part of the road was flooded. I flagged down a pick-up truck, who took me 10 meters to cross the water. This was the shortest hitch I’ve ever had.
There was a big circus tent, and a police substation beside it, right near the beach. I told them I would camp behind the substation on the beach, which, if it did anything at all, it filled a space of concern in my head, nothing more. It was too humid of course, and by the time I had my tent set up I was wet. Mosquitoes buzzed in my ear. I crawled into the tent and fell swiftly to sleep.
For a few hours in the morning, before the sun was high enough and its rays intense enough to render my space uncomfortable, I read in Russka. I ate some bananas. I squinted through the mosquito mesh at the Caribbean Sea whose waves were hammering against the sloping shore of sand. Mochima and its mountainous geography to the east, and the coastal mountain range toward Caracas to the west, and here Piritu in a level plane. I felt surprised that there weren’t huge hotels and condominiums built up here, on such a scenic and ideal strip of coast. But all the better.
I packed and left. My destination was now Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela. I knew there was another bridge that had fallen on the main highway to the city, but there was another, more mountainous route. I ate a meal then walked out of town, resting only in the suddenly pleasant old district. I was in another Plaza Bolivar. Most plazas seem to be Plaza Bolivar in Venezuela. The man, again, is infallible. Time will do that to a hero. All his critics die, as he does, and only his legend remains. He is made into something much greater than he ever was; a symbol, as it were. His detractors are made even worse in the eyes of the nation, with time. Time is horrible to us in life, but can be good to us in death.
The old town of Piritu, founded in 1552, was irresistible. Small level buildings with towering windows enclosed in wooden grates sat shoulder to shoulder along the main street. They were colorful: green, blue, gold, red and rose. It was the kind of thing I had expected in Cumana, but found it here, in the city I had known nothing about. Piritu, founded 32 years after Cumana–it made for a distinguished replacement in my mind.
A trio of soldiers in civilian clothes came then. They found out where I was from and what I was doing and started to call me a pilgrim. “Because you have to see with your eyes that we are happy here, that the people are with the comandante.” And here he pounded his chest. “And I would gladly give my life for the comandante!” The other was also pacing around in front of me, moving the air. “And look,” he said, pointing at a picture of Chavez hugging an old man, “see how he cares for our senior citizens?” Well, I thought, you don’t have to look for for his image. Like many I had already met, these men treated their passion in a militant way–given, they were soldiers, but the aura I enter when speaking with Chavistas, all the more, is decidedly aggressive–it is their revolution, after all, and I suppose the word comes with such connotations. I have not, however, seen anything suggesting repression. But the power with which people proclaim their loyalty to “the revolution” seems so determined that, and this is not a light observation, I can hardly imagine a settled populace were Chavez to lose the election. He’s a character now. He has laced himself into the grand fabric of the country, and put his image beside Bolivar himself. His supporters have taken his cues and propagated the story. How, after all of the coups and changes that the man has gone through, after all the vehemence with which the people have taken up the cause of this “revolution”, are his pledged supporters just going to let it all change with some new, non-revolutionary president? It’s simple, as far as I can tell: they will not. Although, there’s hardly anything to worry about, because another thing that seems clear is that Chavez will win the elections, and not by a slim margin.
The trio disappeared and I made my way to the exit onto the main road. There wasn’t much besides a mechanic’s kiosk, but there was ample room to throw out my thumb. There were plenty of cars, but it was an hour before anyone showed signs of stopping. It was a motorcycle that came toward me, but there were already two men on it. Venezuelans, if I can say one thing for sure, have a sense of fraternity that is hard to find elsewhere, and when it comes to an obvious stranger, they have gone out of their way to greet me. So it was with a smile that I greeted these two men who had come to rob me.
Despite my conviction that it is bad luck that greets the victims of most robberies, secretly I have always day-dreamed of the day I would get robbed, and I would heroically find the opportunity to draw my knife, always faithfully attached to a belt loop, and I would tame the beast with a few slashes and threats to the jugular. I’d then be able to write about it.
But there I stood, my arms limp at my sides as this pair pulled up, almost running me over, and glancing down I saw the silver pistol held firmly and pointing directly at my gut. What went through my head when I saw the gun was not “oh shit, what do I do”, nor did I think about the knife on my belt. Instead, the thing that I thought was “it looks exactly like the DD44 Dostovei from Goldeneye.” Of course it seems now ridiculous that I was thinking about my childhood Nintendo 64 video game, but that’s the thought that greeted this, the first gun pointed at me to threaten my life.
So I had to wait until the man repeated himself to hear him, because my Goldeneye thought had blotted out his first words. But instead, I took a slow step toward them and said something myself:
“Look, here’s what we can do,” I heard myself saying.
“Calm, do it calm. Where are the dollars?” He said, the words seeming to slide out, resting somewhere between a whisper and barely faint. His head shot to and from, watching out for police. Of course there were no police. When are there ever police outside the static checkpoints? Better. I wouldn’t want a shootout.
I started to open the cargo pocket, pulling out the few bolivares I had stored there.
His companion looked down and echoed his big friend with the gun when he said, “No no no no no, the dollars asshole the dollars.”
I ignored the remark and started to open the other cargo pant pocket, knowing already that there were no dollars there. I fingered my notebook.
“Look,” I said. “I’m a traveler. I hitchhike.” I blurted out the words. “I eat bread,” I said.
The gun bearer looked distant. “Dollars we want dollars.”
“I don’t have dollars,” I said.
“The bag,” cackled the companion.
“What’s in the bag man? The bag!”
I looked dumbly at the backpack, but I didn’t move to it. “Dirty clothes,” I said.
The companion was stupid, and said, “just dirty clothes? You better not be lying.”
Then I called myself a vagabundo, and said I’m not a moneyed tourist. I even apologized for not having what they were looking for. I felt like my words were good. I kept talking, muttering, sounding lame. In the midst of “look, I can give you all I have,” and while I was pulling out all the bolivares from my pocket again, the big guy, in a rage of frustration and annoyance waved the gun in the air.
Then they were gone.
I was alone. My belly felt weak. Perhaps the direction of the gun was tiring. But there I was, not shot, and with all my belongings, and all the money I had, still with me. If it was bad luck that brought the men to hold me up in the first place, then it was good luck that got me out of it. But perhaps not; there were plenty of cars passing, and it was broad daylight–shooting me would be stupid, an unnecessary risk. They decided not to risk taking my bag either–that would be obvious. Perhaps they had no choice but to believe my lies. The way they left, however frustrated, seemed to tell me they believed me. So it was with a suppressed sense of triumph–suppressed to as not to incite a twist of fate–that I mused about the 150 dollars and the computer that I had stashed away in my backpack.
At the kiosk I asked the mechanic about the danger of the area, and he was too quick to affirm that, hell, it’s fucking dangerous. I told him I’d been robbed, but didn’t tell him that actually not really. The way he acted, and remembering the way the men on the motorcycle seemed to approach me from afar with a plan to reach me how they did, made me start to consider the possibility that this mechanic was complicit. Perhaps, even, he called his friends to come hold up the gringo, who surely must have dollars, because he’s gringo.
I boarded a bus for 5 bolivares. I felt it was at least important that I change the scene, and so 30 minutes later I was in a populated area of the next town, Clarines.
I brooded. They called me an asshole, I thought. Of all things, it was that they called me an asshole that upset me the most. It was also that they tried me with a gun. A knife is better, I thought, more noble. What a horrible thing, the idea that some piece of shit robber, because he’s not happy that day or because he simply doesn’t like you, can end your life with little more than a contraction of his finger. I suppose, then, it would have been a near-death experience, or death even, if the big guy had pulled the trigger. But no, instead the story of my robbery is only two things: a story of luck, and a story of some damn fine acting.
“I’ve only been here for 10 days,” I said, “doing nothing different, and already I’ve had a gun in my face.”
“Welcome to Venezuela!” said Wilfred. At a police checkpoint, using a bit of my anxiety after the Piritu incident, I convinced them to stop cars and get me a ride to Caracas. I was glad to go with Wilfred. He was amusing.
“You know,” he said. “Here in Piritu and other cities, the murderers and hired hands who take jobs in the capital hide out.”
“What do you mean?”
“Piritu is a small village. The guy who robbed you was probably from Caracas. Maybe he has already killed people.”
“I see. I guess he drew the line with the gringo. I don’t know if it would complicate things for him.”
“Life is cheap in Venezuela. It didn’t used to be like that. Venezuela used to be safe.”
This was the second time I heard this. Later, I would learn where all the violence comes from. For now, suffice it to say that there was total chaos and anarchy in the streets of the cities of Venezuela on February 27th and 28th of 1989, which was brutally suppressed, and from which many agree the delinquency, for some reason, rose. Those terrible days became known as Caracazo. Supposedly 3,000 people were killed. And the legend of its violence lives on in said delinquency.
We passed a small town, and it being Saturday there were teams out on the small baseball diamond.
“I was recruited to the Dodgers once,” he said. ” But that opportunity fell away. People always want me to go into politics, but I don’t have the patience for that. I didn’t get to go to university either, the Guerilla Urbana didn’t let me sign up for classes.”
Wilfred was born in 1953, and he was sure about the state of things. He told me he could speak with me about how screwed up the country was, because other people either don’t understand or are two protective of their comandante.
“Everything’s in shambles. You know, the per capita GDP of this country used to be 13,000 dollars? We have enough income to support a country of 200,000,000! Where is that money? I’ll tell you where it is–with the politicians, with Chavez. We have a kleptocracy here.”
“Isn’t breaking the kleptocracy one of the sworn goals of Chavez’ Boliviaran Revolution?”
“Chavez does other things with the money. He gives it away. He makes all these damn convenios with other countries with his ‘oil diplomacy’.”
“Yeah, and look what we have to live with,” he said, pointing to the road, and in the towns pointing to the dirt areas of gas stations. “Where’s the infrastructure?”
The road was a mess, to be sure. Dominating pot holes made the drive into a rally, and the lack of shoulders made me feel claustrophobic as we shot down the way.
“It’s ridiculous. Radonski will make things better.” I started to think that the right was mostly concerned with functionality of infrastructure and security. I said so.
“What?” he retorted. “The right cares about jobs.”
“You really think Radonski will win?” I asked.
He hesitated. “No. I don’t know. If he does, Chavez won’t leave, that’s guarnteed.” His eyes were fiery then. “There’s going to be a civil war here.”
The next morning I woke between two old rusted-out emergency vehicles. The firemen were kind to have let me camp there, in Charallave. A train and a metro brought me into Caracas. I was greeted by the campaign. “Corazon de mi Patria”. There were tall, aged skyscrapers. There was silence in the Sunday streets. There were stares. So, I thought to myself, this is the most dangerous city on the continent.