CHAPTER 1: DECISIONS TO FLEE AND ALCOHOLIC TENDENCIES TEND TO MIX; LIGHTNING AND THUNDER AND STEEL BIRDS; TOUGH LESSONS ARE LEARNED QUICKER IN LATIN-AMERICA
In my experience, there is almost nothing more exhilarating for a young adventurer than traveling to a new country on his own. The seasoned traveler, as with most things in life, gets accustomed to this, so they may disagree…But I suspect that even they, despite the numerous lands they’ve conquered, will always feel that tingling sensation in the pit of their stomachs as they board a fantastic machine which they know will fly them to new and far-away lands… maybe not always new, but certainly always far from whatever refuge they might call “home.” It is the very nature of traveling that in itself already is different, exciting, hectic…You wave goodbye to people you know and usually love; you run around the airport with a bag on every limb while holding the passport tightly in your mouth; you worry about your luggage constantly, or at least until the mean-looking guard that looks like a goddamn club bouncer, or like Bruno – the brute that works for a pig-feeding gangster in some violent movie you once saw – chooses you for a “random” full Body Check for apparently no reason at all; you wait for hours on end for your flight eating $8 dollar eggs and washing it down with a $9 beer. From that point forward, I guess it depends on many factors like your age, whatever romantic, professional or other type of relationship you may find yourself in, personal finances and a slew of other things. But in the end, as you walk down the tarmac, pass the stewardess welcoming you and demanding a boarding pass, and stumble through narrow lanes looking for your seat among tight clusters of confused-looking people, the reality that you are about to soar through the open skies and over vast oceans towards a New World in a Steel Bird designed by fallible men just like yourself hits you , and you can’t help but allow the Adrenaline to wash over you like a bucket of freezing water hitting naked skin in the middle of the Arctic. Then it all seems to climax – quite literally – when you look outside the window and find yourself slicing through a sea of clouds some 30,000 feet-high at more than 470 km per hour…at least that is the way I feel whenever I fly. And going to Venezuela was no different.
The decision to flee to that country had come somewhat rashly and during a hectic few months in my life which were antagonized by failed relationships, a dismal professional future and a rather dangerous alcohol-consumption-pattern — a trifecta of disappointment and turmoil that seemed to come together all at once. About three or four months prior, my girlfriend of four years had decided that she’d had enough and called it quits. To be completely honest, problems had been brewing for a few months before that, manifesting themselves in the typical way relationships heading down the crapper do – less calls, less need to be around each other, more arguments over stupider things, etc., etc. So we decided to go to Cuba. We didn’t go to forget our troubles, because I think we pretty much ignored them the entire time, despite how obvious they were. We just wanted to have a vacation together – perhaps subconsciously anticipating the end – and since I was adamant about Cuba (for personal reasons), we chose the enchanted Island. But, in retrospect, I believe that it was that trip that was the culminating event. No relationship – I’ve come to believe – that is already on the rocks has the slimmest chance of surviving if the parties take a trip together; it’s just way too much time for them to spend together alone, usually around alcohol, with no family or friends to deter them from killing each other. In the end, even if you don’t fight, the obvious tension is only boiling in the background like a teapot ready to go off, while you put on a brave face so as to not to embarrass each other in front of your new trip buddies…but eventually it will boil and the steamer will make you go deaf. And that’s just what happened. After a couple of months since our return to Toronto, the wonderful saga that had begun in a sunny summer day during a history class in a high-school four years back, ended just as quickly one cold evening in her bedroom. We had just finished rolling around her sheets one last time – quite passionately and savagely, even with a hint of violence – perhaps instinctively, because just as we ended, even before we finished cleansing each other’s sweat off one another, we began arguing, and before we knew it, the edifice had crumbled.
Compounded onto this terrible situation was a debilitating bout of unemployment – which hasn’t entirely let up – and which obviously had an impact on my already tattered nerves. I mean, a man can only take so much rejection, romantic or otherwise. At first, I’ll admit, I wasn’t running full-speed ahead to the job-bank; but it didn’t take long to realize that even those who were trying hard were being left behind, university degrees and all. After searching and applying for so many jobs that most of my days would be spent writing cover letters and making half-a-minute phone calls ending in “not at the moment” or, in the best of cases, in an apologetic, “…but go ahead and email us your resume anyway,” I realized that these were times of war, and that I had better bust in the scene kicking, punching, biting and clawing if I had to, lest self-preservation should fail too. Simultaneously, and almost unbeknownst to myself and to most people around me, my alcohol consumption had gotten so out of hand that most events, parties and social gatherings would go by with no trace in my memory. I mean, I know I attended them and that I even acted decently…most of the time. I’d have to be reminded of this, of course, by the people I was with the following day: why we were where we were, or, more generally, what had happened. For the most part, I was told, I would be ok – for a drunk and given the setting, but even then, they’d say, I was dangerously pushing some boundaries. What’s more, I had begun conjuring images in my brain of the violent retribution I would cast against all those bastards who refused to hire me. I was convinced it was due to political reasons – that the swine knew what a young journalist with fire in his belly is capable of, and that they were afraid of it; that they did not want their own incompetence and collusion with ineptitude and corruption made public by a young reporter wanting to hold the whole diseased world by the balls while demanding answers. So, amid these converging assaults on my psyche, it became evident to me that what I needed to do was to get away…to Flee…to leave the whole fucking thing behind in search of a New World of Possibilities…or at least to go somewhere where the booze was cheap enough.
And so the search for countries to visit began. But it wasn’t hard to arrive at Venezuela. Because despite the fact that I was battling very real Monsters – and that I was being both aided and poisoned by alcohol, vengeance and bitterness – I was also solidifying my political views and personality, and as a result everything that had to do with socialism and capitalism – and with Politics in general – had begun to take an important role in my every-day life. I had already visited Cuba, and though it was only a seven-day stretch, I had gathered some good information through thorough and extensive conversations with practically anybody I could find, from bartenders and custodians at hotels to shopkeepers and pedestrians on the street; so going there again would have been a lost opportunity to see and learn about a new place. (As a matter of fact, that was one of the things that strained our relationship while in Cuba: On more than one occasion, I had found it infinitely more interesting to continue my conversation with the bartender regarding life in the Socialist Island while sipping on all-you-can-drink-rum until 5 am rather than playing crazy eights with my girlfriend and a group of Spaniards, Italians and Canadians that we had met at the beach. Though she was much better at keeping her composure and limiting her violent outbursts than I was, she complained quite lively, on more than one occasion, and reminded me that “she was there too”). But I knew I wanted to visit a Latin American country, feeling the need to reconnect with my roots. I would have gone to the Motherland – Ecuador – where Socialist President Correa is also doing amazing things, which family members either living there or in the exterior but frequently visiting, constantly corroborate; but unfortunately there was no job that I could find there through AIESEC, an international agency that places young travelers in different internships across the world — at least none that interested me. But as soon as I saw that Venezuela was an option, I knew I had to end up there, if for nothing else, to find out, once and for all, just how beautiful the women were…and, of course, to personally put to the test this supposed “Dictatorship” the Western Media kept (and keeps) hollering about like desperate sirens looking for lost sea-men. Fortunately, the agency was hurting for English Teachers, for there was a backlog of jobs that had not been filled from a while back for whatever reason – most likely due to lack of organization, which I would unfortunately come to find out was rampant with those goddamn kids. (Later on I also found out that the staff members that work in AIESEC would receive some kind of stipend for every new “contract” they could secure – at least that’s what I understood from what they told me. The stipend was to be put into a pool that was to have various purposes. Among them was giving financial support to interns who, in almost every conceivable possibility, would end up needing it. But many times there were problems accessing this pool of money for one or another shady reason. I suspect this stipend, on top of the need for teachers, was also behind the very rash acceptance of my application). In any event, the T’s were crossed and I’s were dotted – and more alcohol consumed – and before I knew it, I was buying my ticket to Caracas, Venezuela for the 28th of September, 2011.
As we crossed through a particularly dense cluster of clouds, the reality of the situation dawned on me. Actually, it had begun to dawn on me as I waved goodbye to my parents and brother at the gates and awkwardly made my way through the various checkpoints with what I now know would be way too much baggage to take for a three or even six month period; it continued dawning on me as I ordered a plate of greasy breakfast food for nearly 10 dollars and almost just as quickly threw it back up; but the most real ‘Point of No Return’ dawned on me as the fantastic Steel Bird zoomed forward on the runway and then began pointing its nose upwards, rushing all the limbs and all the blood in my body backwards into the seat as we gradually lost sight of the airport and the streets, until all we could see was just the general outline of the landscape, en route to a country I had never been to and with not even my cell-phone to accompany me (I really forget why I didn’t take it; I think I was afraid of roaming charges). In my previous adventures I had always traveled with my girlfriend, who naturally helped cushion the great blow that being alone in a new country for the first time represents. But this time there was nobody traveling with me. But this not only failed to worry me – it in fact was one of the main things that excited me…And at that altitude, the compounded effect was one of utter ecstasy, completely oblivious to the series of events both wonderful and terrible that would transpire over the next few months.
My first connection was in Huston, Texas, after a two-and-a-half-hour stretch from Toronto’s Pearson Airport. I arrived there sometime in the afternoon, but my connecting flight wasn’t until around 1 or 2 a.m., so I made my way through the colossal airport with my lap-top bag and a carry-on full of some clothes and books, and found somewhere to eat and have a beer, which I knew would be ridiculously expensive, but with five or six hours to wait, I figured I could spare some cash. Before I realized the first couple of hours had passed, however, I was already finishing my 6th or 7th beer and was about $90 lighter. I would have kept drinking, but I just didn’t know if the money I had would be enough to hold me over in Venezuela until my job started paying me – I wasn’t even sure that I wasn’t already under budget – so I decided against it and stumbled to the seat nearest to the gate to wait for the plane, where I met a Mexican man who said he was an engineer traveling to Caracas for the installation of a turbine in some energy plant. He wore a cowboy hat and boots and a denim shirt and jeans, and in the state of mind I was in, he looked just like some kind of Oil Tycoon, and I expected him to yell a “yee-haw” and swing his hat against his knee at any moment, blasting gun-shots from a nickle-plated gun like some cartoon-character…but he never did. I also thought of taking out my notebook to jot some notes down regarding our conversation, which had turned to something about private vs. public management of business, but I was too tired and too buzzed to pretend to care enough, particularly since I was sure I would get the chance again in Venezuela.
We arrived in Caracas after a grueling 5 – 6 hour flight through a turbulent night-sky that kept violently exploding into flashes of lightning and thunderous roars. Nevertheless, at that speed and altitude, a ray of lightning and its accompanying thunder are very special things to see and hear. It’s almost as if someone were slowing the entire scene down to take a picture and then…FLASH!…What was Dark as coal one second explodes into a White-Orange Fluorescent Instant the next, which seems to linger like a Ray of Insight…the entire machine shakes violently and for as long as that moment lingers, the clouds outside the window resemble an Electric Ocean. The whole scene seems to capture a moment of Clarity – of Freedom and of Truth – inside Chaos and Violence…It’s really quite a thing to see. It fills you full of Fear and Excitement, like the first time a beautiful girl lets you slide her underwear down her bare legs and you feel your heart pounding in your ears, knowing exactly what’s going to happen, yet not really knowing at all. Yes, the entire scene is feral and orgasmic…surreal. Then, everything goes dark and quiet again; so calm that a rhythmic drumming coming from within your chest seems to take over the entire cabin, though no one else seems to hear it. At that point, the eerie calmness seems like that moment when you wake up after a slight bout of dreaming where you are falling; when you open your eyes just as you throw your arms and legs about violently, but realize you’re all alone in the dark. The entire flight went like that, moving in and out of those two states: the orgasmic chaos outside the window and the paralytic stillness inside when it was over, at least until I fell asleep, soothed by the rocking of the plane. I met the Mexican man again the following morning after getting off the plane, and after I was duped out of 50 Bolivares Fuertes (BS) for every kg the bag was over. I can’t remember the exact number of Kgs I was over, or how much I paid now, but I remember that it was quite a bit so that I had to make change. Unaware of the double exchange rate and feeling queasy from the beers last night and lack of food and sleep, I went to the first House of Exchange and did the deed (really there is only one official exchange rate, but the black market is quite prominent in this sector). Just as soon as I stepped away from the window a couple of American tourists enjoying their Golden Years strolling through Caracas in white cargo shorts and straw hats, told me that I had been duped; that, had I looked around just a little bit, I could have found someone who would have bought my dollars for at least twice what I had just gotten. I guess they may have been trying to be nice, but I failed to see the humour in having waited for me to exchange the money before sharing that information, given that I saw them walking around there seconds before and that they had seen me approach the exchange window. In any event, I was in no mood for more disappointments this early, so I thanked them dryly (for their useless information) and went on my way to pay my fines. It was while taking our belts, shoes and other metallic objects off to pass through the security check once more to board the plane going to Barquisimeto that I met the Mexican man again. I told him what had happened and he gave me the same run-around as the American couple as he let out a big laugh – a mixture of incredulity and pity. Then we chatted some more as we took our possessions and moved on. The time was around 7:00 a.m., and the next flight was scheduled for 8 a.m., so we decided to go have some breakfast at a little place that stood directly in front of the boarding tarmac.
However, here we received our first taste of what unfortunately has come to be known as an unofficial Latin-American Tradition – the tardiness and informality with which most events are treated. Within about twenty minutes, a message came on saying that the plane would not be arriving until 8:30. Fine,I thought, no big deal. Then a second one came on about 15 minutes later moving that time to 9 a.m. At 9, as a mob was starting to form around the young, attractive stewardess with lost eyes standing by the tarmac, a third message came on saying 10 o’clock. This would continue to happen two or three more times – each time riling up the mob more and more , causing outbursts like “what the fuck…here comes another hour wait!” and “who the hell do they think they are?!? People have places to get to!” I was genuinely angry, but for some reason this didn’t really seem to faze me. Perhaps it was because I knew what would happen within about 45 minutes from the time the plane got there and we boarded; or perhaps it was because I was just so tired; or perhaps it had to do with the fact that the Mexican man had kindly decided to pay for my breakfast after hearing how I had been taken by the thugs in the Exchange House. In any case, when the plane finally got there around noon, I calmly boarded the plane and wished the man good luck with his enterprise and looked for my seat.
I kept my eyes open just long enough to see the roads disappear behind the clouds, and then I dozed off for about an hour. I woke up as I felt the tires hitting the ground at Jacinto Lara International Airport in Barquisimeto. When I stepped outside I took a deep sigh, relieved to have finally arrived and having gotten that long and arduous trip over and done with. Then I took another one – longer this time – as I thought (in a mix of Panic and Excitement) about everything that was to come…Particularly about what the hell the people that were supposed to meet me looked like.