Hitchhiking out of Caracas
Take the blue line 3 in the direction of ‘La Rinconada’, and debark at ‘Mercado’. Walk to the highway, and follow it south to the gas station. Ask for rides to Maracay.
Among the swollen ranks of palms were set tents and hammocks in the dozens, shrugging away the threat of sand and its efficiency in finding its way, like air and water, into everything. Night had already overcome us, the beach goers, so I set up my tent and quickly made friends with a group of students from Merida and another of artisans, mostly from Argentina. We drank rum and coke, and played a sort of badminton. From the darkness came the sounds of roaring waves.
In the morning the students were gone, and the artisans were disinterested or high, so I left them to their vice and instead strolled to the edge of the palms’ shadows to take in the broad expanse of beach. Soon I would meet the Colombian portrait artist, but first I had a sea to wade into.
I had to sprint across the blistering sand, which had already been rendered by the sun. When I reached the shore my toes instinctively dug into the now dark-toned grains. My chest heaved as I took in the breeze that had swept over the Caribbean Sea to become brackish. To my left was Choroni’s large peninsular hill. To my right, at the far end where this crescent band of beach came to an end, another hill point. Before me were the interlacing rows of radiant color water that could beckon even the fieriest. I stepped into the crystal surf and my feet were suddenly whiter than before. A few more steps and my knees glowed as well through the moving window of green glass. Then I dove into the oncoming slope of a mountainous wave, washing clear my mind. I was floating and being pushed and stolen away however the water saw fit. Where before there were clashing thoughts of socialism and consumerism, violence and whether being an only child or a middle child or youngest or oldest has anything to do with it, now there was only peace. What simplicity, what meditative tranquility to be submerged here, suspended in this deafening silent percussion of another world. The placid warmth washed out the ideas, and it washed out the confusion of ideas, and it washed it all away at least for while I stayed down, in timelessness that only an absent world can afford. It was briny and different, until I surfaced again. I plummet down another wave and spot standing women who disappear in the surf and then again they find their air laughing and hoping no one caught sight of an escaped nipple–but they didn’t notice the sharp-eyed and curious gringo. I linger in the water, flanked by others but entirely oblivious. I spit out water. I squint at the blurred air above the sand.
It’s always pick-up trucks. From Caracas to Maracay, from Maracay to Choroni. Up over the coastal hills along a one-lane road that cuts curves like folds in a cake’s frosting trim; through green, through rock and barely missing the other cars, we went. There was bamboo growing in thick bunches–a solid building material, and when the cool pass was passed, and we were suddenly descended into the heat once more, this time of the coast, the lonely road ended abruptly when we were all at once encompassed by the white plaster walls and Spanish clay tile roofs of Choroni’s proper. We rounded the forested plaza, the quaint church, the quaint everything, and careened along, shadowing a small creek whose banks’ bamboo stalks touched overhead to create a dense tunnel that was only sparsely penetrated by sun beams. When the name had changed to Puerto Colombia the pick-up drove off and I was walking amongst the maze of streets. Colonial times, if this time capsule of a town offers an insight, were pleasant times as far as architecture and the public sphere were concerned. Back then there were no advertisements. Now, there were few advertisements, but all the same I felt attacked when I’d see one as I rounded a corner; Coca-Cola destructing my imagining living in older times. (Burma is becoming democratic. Coca-cola is leading the consumerist bandwagon. All that’s left is North Korea).
Older times! Are we getting smarter, or are we becoming more incompetent? Is our new technology making us better humans? What the hell is ‘better’, anyway? There’s much more to distract us now than in the times when Choroni had only inhabitants, the scenery, perhaps a few wooden toys, and their work in the sea. Our world is so much more complicated than the worlds of the past, and I wonder, as I always wonder, whether we’re better off for it. Surely our decisions have always been informed by our history and our surroundings. More global communication means more information to process in order to have a decision in the first place, but with so much shit like the coupling of morals and emotions with products (in which we are all inundated), the devastating propagation of misinformation by an ignorant many, and the general lack of interest in anything that doesn’t fit a 21st century attention span, I feel disenfranchised if liberty to opinion is the right in question.
So it goes.
The students that I met at the beach later that night were at the seafront plaza, which was built behind a seawall and beside where the mouth of a thin river spilled out to a whole host of small fishing vessels crowded together. It was around the hill that rose from here, along a lane of bamboo shacks selling food and beach ware, that I had come across the town’s Playa Grande. Locals had told me not to bother with the beach on the other side of the seafront plaza, warning me of mad lunatics and thieves. I had spotted those students, but only met them later, at their tents.
When the next day they were gone, and after my swim in the Caribbean Sea, I was back in my hammock, swinging, drawing my fingers along the fringe of the fabric and thinking of faraway places, because maybe it’s the swinging that puts you into such a type of contemplation. Choroni was a split second decision. One last beach. One last Caribbean sunburn. One final agony in the scorching temperature, to remind me of my limits or to dance around them happily.
“They’re good. They’re small, but they’re good. But why so small?”
“I’m a minimalist in everything. Even food, I think,” I replied.
“If you sold your drawings in the street you could make up for the costs of bigger paper,” said Nelson.
“Sure, but I don’t really want to sell. I feel like I sell part of my soul when I do.”
Nelson was nodding up and down heavily. “I know. I can’t draw anymore unless it’s to sell.”
“Then again,” I offered, “all the greats sold their drawings. It’s art, but it’s also a living.”
“Thanks for the meal, by the way,” he said.
“Not a problem. I owe a lot to karma,” I said.
Of course it was karma to quote, because karma is all the whole goodness racked up in your own personal archives of deeds done and received, and blasted, I owe a hell of a lot if anyone has been paying any attention. It was just a meal, like a coin tossed in the beggar’s cup that makes you feel like you earn your puffy salary, but hopefully one day I won’t be a pig and stop there.
“I’m hungry again. I have some Dorado that I gave to the head lady at the campsite where I am. I bet she’ll cook those up.” Nelson shouldered his canvas bag, and tucked the overflowing pad of paper under his arm. He showed me his drawings–of Dali, of Warhol, of Chavez. They were so heavily contrasted in thick dark charcoal and a wetting technique against white pulp, that they seemed to enter a third dimension. They bounced under his arm.
“How old are you, if you’ve been working as a portrait artist for 12 years like you said?” I asked as we made our way between colorful facades of short connected homes.
“32,” he replied. “I know what you’re going to say, I get it a lot.”
“You don’t look 32.”
The dorado was actually already cooked when we made it down the dusty road to Nelson’s campsite. Cutting into it, and the steam rising through the slit shadows of white meat and into my nostrils, filled me with a joy for gastronomy. The taste: exquisite. The scent: odorless or at least free of fishy; it’s a strange thing that we hate fish meat if it tastes of fish.
“You should buy yourself a tent, and a sleeping bag,” I said. Nelson had pointed to where he slept. It was a bench. He had a sheet.
“I don’t want to carry much,” he replied back. “Ideally I go with only my materials.”
“I wish it could be so for me too. But my tent is like my house, my little personal space. Man, humans seem to need a certain level of privacy.”
“Yea, well. I’ve been traveling for only 4 months.”
“Not bad. But unfortunately, if you want more freedom, you need more gear.”
Nelson chuckled and said: “the Venezuelans might not agree with such a consumerist thought.”
“Bah! There’s consumerism and consumerism. We’ve always consumed, it’s just that more recently it has become a culture. Well, let’s drop it.”
When the slow hulk of the woman’s man dragged himself into the doorway in a state afforded him by a crack hit, and his glazed-over eyes showed his wandering in some other plane of thought, but fixed on us all the same, we moved our conversation the few blocks back to the seafront plaza. There we came across Argentinean artisans setting up their stands. Nelson knew them, and introduced me.
“Man, they’re the ones who lost all their gear,” he told me.
“They camped on that beach over there, left their stuff and it all got robbed except for their materials.”
“That beach? Too bad. I heard it was dangerous.”
The shirt that the people at Santarem’s museum gave me, and the shirt that I found on the side of the highway in Anapolis, I gave to the taller of the Argentineans. He was thankful, then cut the collars and sleeves to make the shirts fit.
Beyond the seawall, the moon shown its light shimmering over the black water, there to compete upon the waves with the luster of orange lamps. I was sitting with Nelson, who displayed his drawings and waited for someone to show interest, at which point he’d jump to his feet and rattle off prices and times like a seasoned auctioneer. The night was warm, humid and vibrating. There in the plaza the scene was unrolling as it will in familial night scenes here and elsewhere, in America, in Europe, everywhere where popcorn in the street is sold, and children run around with other children while their parents grimace, while couples lose themselves in each others’ arms feeling that one-love feeling that reverberates as echoes in the space of our minds–never alone, never alone.
Social media and its real-time features. People turning free speech into one word. Menstruating women swimming in the Amazon River. Damn these things.
This rain had the sound of slapping a whale thousands of times a second, and the wetting result of such an endeavor. It came in sheets slanted sideways, whistling a steadily rasping chorus that ended in numberless taps against everything. On the ground, muddied instantly, cockroaches and centipedes the size of straws scurried from their burrows into the rain cover of my soiled backpack. There were no roofs. There was a gas station across from the highway, but the road has magically transformed into class 2 rapids. Everything was painted in a ominous yellowish hue, a storm hue and the hue of a million premonitions.
It stopped as quickly as it had begun. When the river vanished and the road reappeared, like a rabbit, I crossed to the gas station. Rain, like sand and too much heat, reminds a man of the diversity of his feelings that he might experience in one day. Already I had returned to Maracay over the single jungle lane with a woman who needed company. Her husband from Belarus, she having lived in the Soviet Union. And although the subsidies in Venezuela are fine, she said, there are tractor graveyards because the government thinks it more economical to buy new equipment when it breaks than to train farmers in their repairing.
A bus out of Maracay, and it was still sunny. A ride with two women west to Valencia and still sunny. A bus out of Valencia, and I emerged into the heart of a downpour. Now the river had dried and I was at the gas station, without luck, so it was a wait, and then a trucker suggesting that I’d be robbed standing there, so get in. He let me at another bus stop, and the next bus released me at the final gas station south of Valencia. Wet. Chilly. Disheartened. So it was a surprise when I didn’t need to ask.
“Hacia donde vas?” asked a very, very large man tucked behind the wheel of his car and the seat as though forced.
“Barinas,” I replied. “Voy a Merida… I’m going to Merida.”
“I can take you as far as Acarigua.”
His niece was Karla, and he was Carlos. We ate dough cheese tubes called taquenos. We drank Coca-Cola. We spoke Chavez. Beside the road I saw government-subsidized arepa restaurants. I saw free government-funded swimming pools called “Agua Blanca”. It didn’t bother me. Everyone deserves access to fun in a world where we know how much fun is to be had–leave the rich to their playgrounds.
Karla was 19 with a 4 year old.”I receive 5,500 bolos a month,” she said. “And they’re going to build me a house.” My ears tingled, calmed–that instinctual American reaction because our liberty is singed into our psyches as something especially individual, something where government isn’t supposed to help, and those who it does will not work, will only leech. It is something that is true for few people.
The sun retired behind an echelon of cloud film, and it was night again. Acarigua is a medium sized city far off from the coastal mountains, at the beginning of the endless plains called los llanos. The plains have a culture unto themselves; they’re the home of Venezuelan cowboys and joropo music, and their soil’s richness makes them principle in the rather low-key agricultural projects of the country.
Here I was, a peg standing alone in the night, staring up at a building from the drive. Carlos and Karla gone, the moon obscured behind the humid mists of evening, I picked at my earlobe and stared up at the bright red emblem: Cuerpo de Bomberos de Acarigua.
Firemen. They said it themselves 5 minutes later: “yes, of course you can stay here. We are public servants.”
“I’m glad,” I said. “I enjoy the company of firemen–different mentality and all. I wouldn’t stay with police if I had the choice.” I was on my favorite topic when it comes to firemen and policemen–that policemen are naturally a different class of person altogether.
I met the boss, a captain who looked almost the same as the lieutenant. Everyone was curious.
“How many firemen are you?” I asked.
“We’re 60, but 15 for the night shift.”
They showed me the grounds. Ivan was the most curious, and the most engaging.
“Come here look at this fire engine. What do these labels say? They’re all in English.”
I translated a few things like “pressure valve” and “empty tank”. The engine was an old American model, its cherry red gloss still reflecting the light points of the dangling garage bulbs. A few other firemen, a sergeant and another lieutenant, brought me to the dorm room, where I stashed my things and they set out some sheets. Ivan giggled as he showed me pictures on his cell phone of his girlfriend giving him head. He was 25 and told me he spoke Chinese. I’m 25 and told him I spoke French. Later, after a shower session that saw Ivan and I wandering around the second floor stark naked and Ivan calling to his female colleagues about the white assed gringo, I went along to a gathering of all present. The same female compatriots were smiling when Ivan connected us with his eyes and provocative eyebrows. They fed me arepas and soda, and spoke together such that I couldn’t follow. Venezuelan uses more slang than any other Spanish that I’ve come across. Fluent my ass, I thought.
Several times the engine shot out into the street sirens blazing, disappearing into the night to return later with stories of something different.
“How’s the life of a fireman?” I asked Ivan.
We were watching a dubbed Steven Segal movie, which, at the Cuerpo de Bomberos in Acarigua, Venezuela, is sacred. My eyes fell and only the sirens woke me and motivated my feet to carry me upstairs to the dorm and a long night’s rest, but only after barely avoiding the hole in the floor where three golden poles would bring the firemen directly to their suits down below. I should be glad that drink is against the rules.
They all called me papa, all Venezuelans do. Que paso viejo? they say. Older women call me “amor” or “corazon”. They are so sweet. I was so tired.
From Barinas, the road climbed through a seemingly endless set of switchbacks crowded with construction crews repairing the earth where landslides had taken out the road. I thought to all the abandoned gas stations I’d seen, where bundles of grass will always find the crevice through which to reclaim its territory. Grass will even seed roofs, and so will trees. Humanity’s is a constant struggle to co-opt nature or to better it, keep it out, sanitize it and make it obedient to our projects and needs. The gas stations now abandoned, where progress dried up, where big business spat on the ground and walked away, show the extent of natural retribution. It will come first from the saliva of commercialism, but with rain it will subsist and make everything hairy and disorganized. And that disorganization is nature’s organization, to which we remain steadfastly oblivious.
“Damn these political people,” said the man who had decided I could come along with him to Merida. “Blocking the road. Radonski flyers.”
“Not the derrumbes, landslides?”
“Same thing as far as I’m concerned,” he said as we inched passed a group of yellow t-shirt waving the pamphlets in the air.
From the Acarigua fire station, where the chief had forced 30 bolivars into my hand after breakfast with the crew, it was a bus and a quick ride to Guarane, then a truck, and now this man, leaving behind us the llanos, climbing the Andes. How many times? When was the last time? The Andes Mountains, again!
When he had stopped to wash his windshield I decided that the basic effects of San Pedro are best simulated by the receding suds of soap on glass–that movement that makes something inanimate look more alive than a blood-pumped pit bull. Oh, sometimes I miss taking San Pedro in Peru.
We didn’t speak much, not because the waterfalls and 45 degree slopes were so distracting, but because he simply didn’t speak much. We passed houses built just alongside the road. Their plaster was often crumbling, revealing that oh-so-common brick and mortar construction that you see in the valleys and in the cities of all Latin America. Plumbing and electrical are buried in the walls, so that when there’s a problem that must be fixed, the plaster is broken and chipped away down to the pipe or wire, the repair made, and the plaster never replaced, so that there remains a gaping hole in the wall. It doesn’t matter for the functionality, but the aesthetic is gone until someone who doesn’t care about expenditure fills it up again. So the land is filled with brick and mortar and plaster houses, whose repairs are made at the expense of aesthetic cohesion that no one seems to care about. Perhaps I’m discovering my own standards, and it’s frustrating because I know it doesn’t matter at all. The realist versus the idealist. The bureaucrat versus the revolutionary. The guy who’s curious whether this pattern of construction can serve as a metaphor for Latin American systems in general versus the guy who says it’s just a fact of life in places where money is scarce.
These hills and hairpins brought us into the clouds, where the trees stopped growing and instead the medicinal plant fraile popped up and spread out over the pass’ land like flayed furry light green artichokes. Their tentacles standing ready to bloom, looking somewhat alien, somewhat innocent and anxious for something to happen up there in the sky.
On the descent into the rich valleys approaching Venezuela’s celebrity city of Merida, the places where pine tree gathered beside geometrical shapes of harvests of different colors bade welcome travelers on the winding road through the Paramo. The hills were mountains now, some craggy in the distance–Pico Bolivar, the country’s highest peak sparsely patched in winter’s gauze, especially prominent on the nearby horizon. Interspliced slopes of these giants, like the giants of Medellin, made for a depth of field that was impossibly inspiring.
“The darker fields are strawberries, but they also grow a lot of potatoes here,” the man said, breaking the silence. “Look, fresas con crema, strawberries with cream, that’s a regional desert.”
The window was open as we came through one of the many Andean villages, and just beside the road the community had gathered to harvest a field of garlic, taking the plants by their tassels to whip the dirt loose against the ground, and the air was made delicious by the freed aroma. The scent took me to thousands of kitchens and thousands of dishes that all depend on the onion and the clove of garlic, a pinch of salt and a bit of sugar. I must have been hungry.
I purchased bread, tomatoes, cheese and ham at a small shop when we had pulled into the tiny hill village of Mucuraba. The earthen Spanish tiles gleamed like reveries in the last remnants of the sun’s light. Colonial buildings like the narrow pareds of Choroni were also here. Quaint everything. Damn that word; a scapegoat for a writer, to be sure.
I had decided to camp somewhere in this town, not wanting to disturb my friend’s family in Merida at the late hour that we’d be arriving. So I marched up the hill, past the soccer field and up along a ridge through a tick-filled forest. I decided then that this was a different world altogether than the world of the Venezuelan coast. A world of cool air and pinecones, of mountainside crops and expansive vistas. In the high places of the continent, there’s a marked tranquility that doesn’t exist elsewhere. It’s a calmness that a traveler might come to equate with the coolness that he feels on arrival. The heights of Latin America, where identities are more peaceable than the coast or jungle. If machismo should be a factor of violence, so then should altitude, because it is by no mere coincidence that Merida and the Andean regions are among the safest in the country.
With my mind once more on the move, I let it rest. Goodnight to the mountains, the small Mucuruba. Goodnight also to the stars. Tomorrow the city of Merida, and consternation to once more delve into the seriousness of humanity’s games.