The Story of a Trip to Venezuela During Its Harshest Times (as a Woman)
The reclusive ramshackle house, perched on the hills that surround Caracas, short of neighbors and access to public transport, was about to collapse onto its inhabitants.
I was coming from Cartagena, after a grueling 30-hour journey, crossing La Guajira — a barren and arid desert in the North of Colombia, a godforsaken region belonging to ancient tribes and placed right alongside the Venezuelan border. All that dusty dry road was packed with human walls placed the whole width of the carriageway, stopping the vehicles and asking for the passing tax. As subject to unwritten but fully agreed laws, drivers stopped and paid the amounts when they were asked to.
”What happens if one refuses to pay?” I drop the question.
”What do you mean? There are quite a few of them. They would wait for you further down the road and vandalize your car,” the answer comes in the tone of someone surprised by my obliviousness.
Crossing the border between Colombia and Venezuela
If God had turned his back to La Guajira, the Government had done just the same with its municipality and had not even taken one glimpse at the city Maicao. Since the Venezuelans flood in waves over the national borders, this over-crossed city — cum enormous bazaar — has seen thousands of beings coming and going, staying and leaving. Maicao has become the place of infinite small businesses, packed with mountains of products — placed one on top of the other — a sultry labyrinth from where Venezuelans buy, at good prices, all that is missing from the shelves of their country. Everything wrapped in a tropical climate; tensions caused by troops of unwanted immigrants; ebullition of hate and even crimes of hatred, here and there.
But this is nothing compared to the anarchy at the frontier, where trucks and vans transport hundreds of families, making use of each and every centimeter. People there travel by hanging onto anything, bearing infants in their arms, up to three in a place where normally only a single person would be safe. Even on top of the cars, and I traveled for hours with the image of some pairs of pendent legs dangling in front of my own eyes, from the other side of the passenger window.
I ask for atoilet. I’m pointed to out a bunch of bricks called ”home” with the statement ”Baño 2000 pesos” at the entrance. I quickly become aware that the official toilet between two countries in the 21st century is nothing other else than a family’s house toilet, reachable by after the passing through their living room where the kids watch television. I step inside convinced that the kids will hear each splash spurt of urine. Mine and all those who afford 2000 pesos (50 cents) to meet for meeting their needs in a civilized manner.
Border guards, either bored, overwhelmed and in solidarity with the Venezuelans, or simply unmotivated and apathetic about complying with the law compliance, allow the border crossing with or without the identity document, whether outdated or not.
The police on the other side of the border, in contrast… hold a very different attitude. They stop us every 10 kilometers and apply a rigorous baggage control. I had been hearing rumors according to which, the same police might ask for the receipt of the valuable items one carries on with them. And who on the Earth travels with the bill of their laptop or camera? The absence of the receipt could lead to confiscation by the same police. Fortunately I had left everything in Cartagena.
What was I doing there?
I chose to head to this country after having met a 28 year old Venezuelan guy who had emigrated to Colombia to make a living from breakdance street performances, on the tourist venues of Cartagena (Colombia). ”The Venezuelan situation” was already a cliche in that part of the world, a constant phrase, always pitifully present on people’s lips, always pronounced with a sort of implied relief: “Luckily it’s them, and not us”.
The huge volume of immigrants has made this topic impossible to avoid, and it was shaping a tsunami’s adrenaline for a obstreperous, dangerously curious, thrill-craving mind like the one I was living with at that time. Hence, led by an unforgivable lack of awareness, I proposed to the Venezuelan that I tag along and he accepted being my host.
How does a favela-house in Caracas look like?
I was to stay in Mendoza’s house and I was to later learn/find out/discover we would squeeze six people in one bedroom (not a big deal, though, I was used to sharing hostel dorms with many more people). Similarly, I subsequently found out that the guy was the father of two little girls of seven years each. How was that possible? To put it mildly, let’s say that during a certain week of his life, the father had a consistent contribution to the perpetuation of the human species.
I was not expecting hot water to be available on his side of the world, and I was aware I had brought soap and toilet paper as presents for the family. But the yell of ecstasy Mama Rosa released at seeing the coffee we had brought, and the child-like way she jubilated on realizing she finally could wash clothes, well… these were things I was not expecting either.
The kitchen, all covered in bare cement, included a pan so old and so spent than not even the trace of its handle was left, a cauldron used for preparing arepas (the typical bread made of corn flour and salt), giant ants acting up and a couple of plastic plates and glasses, insufficient for all the family members; we ate one at a time. The black and dirty dog completed this distressing image by constantly turning the garbage upside down, to the background of scolding screams of Mama Rosa.
No, the toilet could not be flushed. Yes, there was a single bar of soap we were all using, in the sink and in the shower. Shower? Let’s just say that somewhere, behind a door to the outside, between two walls, a certain splash was flowing out of a pipe. Of course, there were days when the water was not coming out, but when it deigned to do so though, it was teaming up with a barrel and a tiny basin and turning that corner into a shower.
The Transport to the Favela and in the Middle of the Capital
The subway of Caracas is a symbol of havoc. Nobody would scan their ticket and nobody would even buy one. There is indeed someone at the ticket office, but solely his body is present. He is on strike. He has grown tired of working for a handful of dollars, so he allows everybody to pass freely. Yet, why does he still come to work? Maybe for those few dollars — he has no other way of obtaining more.
The only public transport that reaches la favela is the school bus, but not even that one is reliable. As for the rest of us, we all settle patiently along the road, tall and small, and begin to hitchhike. Obviously, the chances of success are flimsy when you travel in a group of seven, with kids, yet you can still be lucky enough for a van to stop and do you the favor of taking you along.
It’s even harder if nightfall catches you out and no car is to be found. I remember such a night when we had waited for the last transport for hours, terrified at the slightest noise or shadow, with our rucksack squirreled in the stairwell of a block of flats.
I once stepped into the SUV of a middle-aged, visibly rich couple. She was chock-full of jewelry, caked with makeup, and with her hair coiffed, while he was exuding the air of a businessman. The sisters Mendoza shrank in an attempt to hide their complexes in front of them, and the couple didn’t lift a finger to relieve the tension. They manifested a distant interest toward me due to my Europeanness, but it was crystal clear that my bonds with that down at heel family were of a great mystery for them.
”They seemed rich,” I infer in bafflement. “Are there rich people here as well?”
”Well, yes, those are the Government’s people. If one is involved with the Government here, one lives well-heeled.”
What was then going on with the Government people?
The Mendoza family was cultivating a deep general hatred toward the Government people, as a sort of patriotism blended with impotence.
”This country has them all. We have enough petrol to cover the entire planet, and we are starving here because of the politicians.”
How could things have been different? They hated Maduro and were relentless in saying, over and over again, that the man had crippled the country.
”One cannot buy more than a box of eggs and a bus ticket with one’s salary,” was the sentence I heard time and again, from the mouth of each family member.
Yet, because the president is way too aloof, too unreachable, the Government embodiment among the mortals was Gabriela’s ex-husband. He had left Gabriela for a deep-pocketed American woman, but his daughter, Diana — who was living with the Mendozes — was making him responsible for helping the family with the house restoration. Thus he was still paying them almost daily visits. He was outrageously arrogant toward the condition of his ex-family, and Gabriela was still feeling miserable two years after their divorce, unable to overcome her failed marriage and move forward because…. no new place could be reached without money, and scant work experience while isolated in the favela at 32 years old.
”He was different and was treating me nicely. We were getting along pretty well and loved each other a lot. But he meddled in state business, and backbiters would even accuse him of crime, but I refuse to believe something like that. It was then when our relationship started to crumble, when he got involved in political stuff.”
Gabriela’s humiliation, her mourning for a bygone love, always present in the being of her daughter, were breaking my heart. The well-hidden family resentment for the manifest luxury he lived in (because he was a Government man), even more so.
”Many times he stepped into my room. Didn’t even kiss me, did nothing but strip off my trousers and that was it, just to tell me right after that I inspired loathing in him; that he cannot believe he married someone like me. He keeps asking me how can I live like this, without doing anything with my life. But even so, I need the money he gives me for Diana.”
What drew my attention to the women in Venezuela
Gabriela was unemployed and, as many Venezuelan women, she was not aware that she could be independent. She had been working for a little while before the crisis and got married after, imagining being a happy mother and housewife for the rest of her life. She didn’t want to work for a couple of dollars, so she made do with the infinitesimal amount sent by her ex-husband and her brother from Cartagena.
Gabriela taught me something I will never forget: something that inspired my admiration, that speaks crystal-clearly of how not even the most adverse circumstances can prevent the Venezuelan (and Latinas, in general) women to be soignee.
“Gabriela, why is your brother always making remarks about my pedicure? I mean, what’s the problem if don’t do my pedicure and I walk around barefooted?
“Iulia, the first thing a man pays attention to here is, above everything, the feet.”
“You’re kidding me, I don’t believe that.”
Deciding to convince me of the truth of her words, Gabriela stops the first man passing by and asks:
“Excuse me, Sir. We have a question: what’s the first thing you look at when you meet a woman?”
All that is left to say is that the day after I was booking an appointment at the favela’s beauty salon. For a pedicure.
The poor neighborhood streets were brimming with too-young mothers followed by a handful of dirty kids walking behind them and even dirtier dogs walking behind these last. One could easily spot mothers no older than 14–15 years old, explaining entirely why the father was such an absent unknown figure, someone who left when I was…
Whilst my sympathy was with women in this unfortunate situation, there was another group who inspired nothing but admiration: those who aspire to independence, who thoroughly confront the hostile situation and fight with all their shabby weapons to overcome it. Johanna, one of Gabriela’s sisters, was around 30, had two jobs, a contagious joie de vivre and a wonderful relationship with a good man. Because her earnings at the beauty salon she was working for didn’t exceed 10 dollars per month, she had given up her only day of rest in the week and found a second job. She was an excellent cook, and even more amazing dancer, and, during her outrageously precious free time, she was sprucing and dressing up the hair of all the women and girls of the house. And there were quite a few of them!
Mama Rosa, despite all the things she could be accused of, was the undisputed family pillar. During her entire life, she had given birth to many children fathered by three different men (as an aside, she was single at the moment I met her), and her family was her whole universe. Her raison-d-etre? To keep them together.
Once, she hadn’t had more than two days visiting her son in Cartagena when she already began to go out and sell arepas in the street, for every last penny.
How bad can a dreadful situation be?
I had never before truly comprehend the meaning of the saying if you didn’t see it with your own eyes, you couldn’t imagine it. In the same way, I could not have conjured with my mind how people could wait for more than one and a half hours for a bottle of water in endless queues. Or for two wrinkled bananas and an onion on its last legs.
I could not have envisioned how the water could be completely missing from the shelves of McDonald’s or the coffee from the cafeterias in the central plaza of any capital city. I could not understand how people could waste interminable amounts of time even to step onto a bus. Yet, waiting for that would have been preferable to the moto-taxi experience behind a driver who couldn’t care less about the one-way direction rule. He was all but crushing cars in that mad rush. I was frozen with panic, my face beseeching the end of the race, and just when I was saying to myself that nothing could get worse and only a miracle could take me whole out of there, the driver took his phone out and began to send messages while driving. And this is not even the full version of the story. Before jumping on the motorcycle, Gabriela’s words struck my ears:
“You are taking this one, but don’t drop any word on the way. The man would instantly notice your accent and that you’re not from here and he could kidnap you. See you at home!”
Indeed, I didn’t make a sound the entire journey.
The disgraceful condition of the poor bolivar is the definition of hyperinflation. Eighty bills (of whatever denomination) for the tiniest cup of machine coffee. Stacks of money (although paper would be a more proper word) for a bus ticket and an unacceptable bunch of wastepaper for a box of matches.
If toilet paper and soap could be found in at least one Venezuelan restroom, they would inescapably be seen as evidence of luxury. And the toilets where the water could be flushed (Flushed? Automatically? You mean, not by pouring down a bucket of water?) are scarcer than packets of real coffee (and not toasted corn flour, sold in the guise of coffee).
I had been eating arepas for breakfast, lunch and dinner and only Mama Rosa knows how she was managing to make such little flour, a mere quarter of an onion, just two tomatoes and a tiny morsel of cheese go far enough to feed all twelve of us two arepas each.
”I am sick of eating arepas, I barely even swallow them. It feels like eating sand.” a young girl in the family was mumbling, aware of the uselessness of her indignation.
How has Venezuela got to this point?
How has Venezuela, which only as recently ago as the last century was known as America’s Millionaire or Saudi Venezuela, got into this situation? How is this possible when Venezuela has the biggest oil deposit in the whole world? Could it be precisely for this reason?
Some blame the lack of education of President Maduro who, as a known fact, was the driver of Chavez — the ex-president — before getting involved in Politics. Others blame Chavez, whose strong socialist politics led to tragic consequences. Others, of course, point the finger at the US who, according to some angry Venezuelans, want to steal their oil. These allegations are to be heard from the mouth of Venezuelans, but the actual situation is much more complex and continuously fueled by a high level of corruption, so common in Latin countries.
Personally, I felt the impulse to compare the favelas of Caracas with the rural areas of my country (Romania), enticed by the thought these two must not be as unlike as two different planets. I was wrong. Comparing the two forces one to ignore the psychological impact on a society of experiencing a steep process of deterioration into degradation. A society from which thousands of people leave daily, but not in order to reach the warm embrace of the European Union — like a Romanian, who doesn’t need to to bear the stigma of being labelled an illegal immigrant, or fear that their human rights are not protected by existing laws.
To where do Venezuelans emigrate? Most of them to Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and other similar countries that are not in a position to provide such support.
I also felt the duty to consider the profound love Venezuelans have for their motherland, unlike most Romanians, who have always held the West in high regard, not missing any chance to denigrate their own country when invited to make comparisons. Venezuelans are proud flag-wavers. For them, the Sun does not warm a more beautiful country than their own, just as no dream is sweeter than a life spent close to the family.