INTRO: A QUICK GLANCE AT THE PEOPLE, LAND AND SEA; FULL SPEED AHEAD AND NO WINDOWS; THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN MAKES A POETIC DEATH-BED
It was a dream-turned-reality from which I could not awake. Every day was a unique and surreal experience – it was like being in a roller-coaster that took me high up as often as it plunged me downwards. There was madness in all directions, and I constantly had the feeling that at any point something could happen – be it an unforeseen trip to the beach, a drunken all-nighter at the Local Bar, or a political protest overtaking the streets. And it is this volatility that made the experience unforgettable and something to be woven into the quilts of time immemorial.
The everyday life of Venezuelans seems, to me, to be lived in a constant kind of tension and movement, except on Sundays, when after three or four in the afternoon most streets look like ghosts-towns because everything closes. According to what I was told, this is due to something called La Ley Seca (the dry law), which forbids any booze being sold on Sundays and most commercial activity ends extremely early. As always, however, the reality is different, and knowing how to look you can find what you need at any-time, anywhere. In any case, the whole Chavez Phenomenon, for better or worse, has created a transcending energy that has everyone on their toes and ready to give this or that opinion, about anything! It’s easy to get narrowed into a political debate, but it won’t always end nicely. However, despite the obvious political tension, there is also a pulsating alertness in every Venezuelan: No time for the slow-walker, no time for the car fumbling with the signal lights! You hurry to cross and avoid the old, blue Chevy speeding down the curve, or the barrage of motorcycle-taxis cutting-off the Chevy…Learning to cross the streets is perhaps one of the first things you have to learn as soon as you get there – that and how to get otra cerveza, if you are not a Spanish-speaker.
It was these kinds of small details that made the trip interesting and exhilarating. Every-day life was a curious and fantastic high-speed experiment.
I remember the first day that I decided to move around Barquisimeto alone, without the help of Gabo, the kid with whom I ended up bunking (him and his family) for about two weeks before I found my own apartment. By this time I had already been warned about what areas not to visit because of the danger and at what time to avoid going out altogether (around nighttime, so between 7 and 9 pm, it was advised that I not travel alone, and that if I must, that I do so by marked taxi only). By this time I had also ridden in the taxis and carreritas – larger dilapidated station wagons painted a faint and rusting blue or green and running on fumes and good will. There could be up to seven or eight people jammed in there, sometimes having to leave the trunk doors wide open so that the people could fit a little more comfortably – and I use that term very loosely. I had also ridden in the rutas – buses just about one and a half times’ the size of a large van, in the same pitiful condition the carreritas were in, and jammed to the very balls nine of out 10 times.
Riding these beasts is quite an experience for anyone who has never been in a Latin American country, or in any poor country around the world, for that matter. I’m not one of those people, but even I had to get used to it. If you sit at the back you will surely be breathing in fumes that will leave you disorientated by the time you get out; and that is if you manage to muddle through the sea of sweaty and noisy people that sway from side to side as the ruta violently avoids traffic jams by cutting in through wedges between cars and motorcycles that the regular, cautious and prudent motorist of even the smallest vehicle would avoid at once to wait instead for a clear and safe opening. The movements are brisk and violent, but even the oldest Venezuelan grandmother gracefully sways her body with the car without the remotest effort, all the while talking to whomever is beside her about this or that, whether they know each other or not. Even sitting down is an ordeal because you are so close to each other, that you can feel the fucking bowel movements of the fool in front of you holding on to the bars above him…Venezuela is, among the Latin American countries which are already known for their beautiful women, one of the most prestigious for having women that to us, regular folk, seem like they were chiselled directly by the hand of god; having them rub up against you isn’t the problem…the problem comes when the sweaty, 200+pound mastodon keeps shifting around and trying to get himself comfortable in the one place he is sure to sweat the most, perhaps develop a rash…But nothing, not even the looming possibility of being mugged, beats the candor and freedom that a bus ride is in Venezuela, with every window opened wide, the warm but powerful breeze hitting your dampen face and neck while in the background the bus dances to the beat of the streets, the constant chattering of the people, and the booming Latin music blasting out of the radio all the way up front but audible even at the back. (Almost everyone I met, Leftist, Rightist and the odd one that didn’t give a shit about politics, told me that mugging is a very real issue, but their accounts of the frequency and real level of danger all differed. Those who were against Chavez painted a picture of a Sodom or Gomorrah – I remember one day one of the kids I was traveling with quickly told the rest of the group and myself, who was lost in the scenery outside my window, to quickly get out of the bus; once outside he told us that he had seen that one of the two kids that had gotten inside the bus was wearing a gun under his belt, which became barely visible as he sat down. At the moment I was alarmed and relieved that we had escaped an ugly situation. But in retrospect, after everything I can now say I know or at least have a better, more personal understanding of, I wouldn’t put it far past them to have told me something like that to scare me and try to convince me of the hell they said they lived through because of the president; but I just don’t know either way.)
Anyway, the first time that I traveled alone was therefore obviously quite an experience, almost as exhilarating and frightening as the first day of junior high or high-school, when the voice hasn’t quite fully developed and the acne hasn’t fully cleared, but despite all the odds you are hell-bent on leaving your goddamn mark. I had all my directions and numbers to contact in case of an emergency written down and tucked safely, as was the copy of my passport and money. I had a breakfast of arepas, a very traditional flour-based tortilla that Venezuelans seem to eat almost as frequently as they breathe. They were good but never my favourite out of the plethora of dishes that the best doñas, family-restaurants and sidewalk vendors had to offer. And unless they were fully stuffed with some kind of cheese, rice, meat, vegetable or all of the above, they weren’t that filling either. So I topped it off with a couple of beers and a smoke and went on my way to the corner to grab the carrerita whose number I now forget. Well, there isn’t much to be said about the experience itself; it was not much different than what I finished describing in detail above, but for the fact that it was the first time I went alone. It isn’t a big deal to the experienced traveller, and though I consider myself having some personal world experience to back my talk and walk, the first time that you get in the back of a taxi with only two working doors that have to be violently pushed open from the inside while the driver fumbles with the clutch to keep the car going, your very first thought isn’t comfort or safety. Though later, as you zoom at 130 km per hour down the highway with the back doors wide open at the top and bottom, your legs hanging outside and the car behind you coming so close before he switches lanes that you can almost touch; the music in the ambience so alive that you couldn’t believe it is 7 in the morning and that the sun could be this bright; the individuals in the car talking among themselves and including you in the conversation despite the fact that no one knows each other; the driver tapping his arm to the music and joining the conversation from time to time, if not with opinions then with obscene and hilarious jokes that relax the political tension behind the radio messages from the President or the Opposition parties interrupting the music; with the range of mountains adorning the side…With all this going on, you just tend to forget you are in a foreign country, supposedly at the whim of the criminal, one of which could be sitting beside you and you just…Let Go…
Work was work and will always be work anywhere in the world. Other than over-stringent rules – most of which were broken daily – and occasional run-ins with the directors for a few minor infractions, work was enjoyable. So I did it with enthusiasm where it mattered, but at certain points every emotion ceases, and sometimes it was hard to draw more enthusiasm from a dry well.
Teaching English takes a real teacher – or teaching anything, for that matter. Someone who has a real gift for it, who has the patience and the charisma to get through to young and sometimes obtuse minds, and I wasn’t one of those persons. I enjoyed many of my conversations with the students. It was refreshing to see many people put in their hardest efforts to learn another language, something which I dare not do. People of all ages, genders and professions – from young secondary students to Business men and women and absolutely everything in between – showed off their skills admirably…Yet, the job was simply far better done and enjoyed by other Profesores, both Venezuelan and interns alike, who seemed to have a better grasp on things of this matter and who seemed to excel at it. At first, almost with a cynical idealism, I was determined to get through to all these people, particularly because they were being duped, in my opinion, into paying ridiculous amounts of money for their kids or themselves to learn English, and they did it happily and on time because it was a private enterprise and therefore had to be efficient and worth it. When I came across the first stubborn minds I did not weaken in faith; I was resolute in getting through. I tried being as approachable as possible, as direct and articulate, and when I did not know the best way to explain something, I asked one of the better teachers. But alas, sometimes you need a bulldozer to crack open a peanut, and I refused to learn to drive one. I quickly found out that I did not have the patience to try to teach something to somebody who either doesn’t want to learn or simply cannot understand quickly; the same cynicism (or naiveté?), I believe, that fueled me at the beginning burned me out. So I learned teaching is not my thing and that if these people couldn’t learn – especially if they didn’t want to learn – then I wasn’t going to lose sleep over it, and that’s when I began having more fun at work, enjoying every second I wasn’t in those small rooms that looked like the interrogation rooms in the movies, with mirrors and everything. It would damage my reputation to go into detail regarding how I and the other Professionals enjoyed that free time…but imagination was always a better thing than reality…
The time away from work, however, the few hours we had to ourselves, were far better spent. No snow-blizzards like the one roaring outside my window [when I originally wrote this] stopped you from going to a party here or there, at this or that person’s house, in this or that park, at absolutely anytime and with no specific half-life. I met young minds like mine from all over the place, and a certain special thanks go to all those special ones who listened to more than I actually said, and who know who they are. Some of my most memorable and perhaps even criminal memories are of the many wild nights that were spent in hazy dances of Friendship and Lust, fueled by strong drink, powerful marijuana and an intoxicating sense of Freedom that left everyone feeling vulnerable and trapped in a state of Trust – in a Trance you could not shake yourself awake from…at least until the Music finally stopped. It seemed like the world was literally a phone call or a Facebook message away, always ready to enjoy Rum, Noise and an invisible but pervading Energy that seemed to emanate from the intestines of the City and inebriate everyone. These were definitely places to let loose and lose control – if only for as long as the moon stayed bright.
But there is so much more to Venezuela than its wonderful parties and invigorated and wild youth. There is a world to explore in this vast and mountainous land. Everything from the morning walks to work, stopping to eat Empanadas at any kiosk or small establishment, to trips to the beach early in the morning and back before the Sun hid as you enjoyed that last trace of a fiery and melancholic sky, to trips that took all night and half the next day, through mountains and valleys and dilapidated towns, to arrive at a place that looks like a postcard…every action and any opportunity sparked flames in all directions and you had a feeling that Freedom was something tangible, something to be held and clutched into Gold, or to see Glowing in the Night-Sky…
One of the most beautiful places I visited was a great canvas of golden sand as far as your eyes could stretch your imagination, only interrupted sporadically by what a dear friend told me was something she’d never seen in other deserts that she’d visited in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt – shrubs and small trees propping up from within the sand like slender fingers. Now this was a real desert: we walked a good hour or so into the bowels of the sandy oasis with no way of anticipating the end. There were huge sand hills erected like breasts of a Giant Golden Goddess lying naked on the ground, and every time we reached the top of we rejoiced as if we were discoverers…but there were many goddesses. About 45 minutes (North?) of the desert was a beach called Pedicora (pedicoda?). The water was a deep blue and amazingly tepid, and the sand white as paper. The Caribbean Sea, at that very moment and under that very Sun, became, to me, a monument to the Freedom and Fear I simultaneously felt; its seemingly endless waters were menacing but inviting, and I would not have cared if I had made a bed at the bottom of the Ocean for the rest of my days.