Republica Petrolifera de Venezuela
The essence of adventure is in the spirit.
Crossing into the northern Brazilian state of Roraima marks the finishing point of my month long trip through Venezuela, a country that two months ago I had not even considered going to. But then as fate would dictate, the universe had a say in that matter and that’s where I have wound up. Now I am glad to have had this experience, after all, this country strikes me as one of the most bizarre onto the verge of peculiar of what the American continent has offered up to me thus far. Its facts are out there in the open. It boasts the largest waterfall in the world, some of the richest biodiversity on the planet. The tall snow capped Andes lie only a few hundred kilometres from the lush-green tropical savannah lands, which is adjacent to the beginnings of the Amazon rainforest. Then one cannot leave unrecognised its gorgeous Caribbean coastal beaches, teeming with all the elements of the Afro-Caribbean. Diverse blues as far as the eye can see, colourful small boats docked in harbours and in the backdrop; palm trees and green rain-forested mountains. The soundtrack to this visual sensation lies in the soft continual murmur of the waves, the calypso jazz rhythms and chatter of its laid back locals. Venezuela’s socialist image abroad stands in stark contradiction with its internal realities. The Caracas slum, Petare, is the largest on the continent. It is home to almost half a million people in the hills next to the capitals densely populated eastern valley. Venezuela has the greatest percentage of its residents living in slum conditions of any other Latin American nation. Needless to say, violent crime, with the highest murder rates in the world, is not so much of a rampant social problem but a culturally accepted reality. Chavez himself legitimises the hungry petty criminals, “No importa si se roban, si se roban para comer” “It doesn’t matter if they rob you, if it’s for something to eat.” So it seems that Venezuela’s socialism must be given adjectives to be made sense of. Its construction must also be considered in the national political context, the forces that created it, the long history of political polarisation. Only then can one accept that socialism does not mean, correlate to nor create a nation of socialists.
Things now get complicated. The national currency, the bolivar fuerte (strong Bolivar) replaced the humble Bolivar. Besieged by runaway inflation, the new currency is now completely regulated and controlled by the government. The official rate is artificially set by the government which has resulted in the creation of a black market for the currency. It is one of two currencies in the world that has two rates, with the black market value at times triple that of the official. This is a country where you can fill a tank of petrol on 80 cents yet where a litre bottle of water is double that price and where a kilo of bananas will cost you almost three times that. A country so laden with oil, currently at 7-8% of total world production, that continuing with current extraction levels, it is able to serve the level of present global oil thirst for another 150 years, on the existing supply. Tapping into the sulphur oil deposits in what is dubbed locally as the Guyana Strip (La Franja de Guyana) in the countries south east will substantially boost national output. So much oil yet the fields are left barren of produce, where most fresh vegetables and fruit have to be imported. Apples and pears among the common ‘fruits’ imported from the US and sold by street vendors to my surprise. All the doctors as well as many other trained professionals are skilled migrants from Cuba or Brazil. A country where the majority of the population remain unskilled, making a living beyond or outside the oil sector presents a tougher set of circumstances which propels many to the mercy of government handouts. The question of the one resource economy then seems to appear not as a blessing but a curse and subsidised petrol appear as a cheap gimmick.
Venezuelans make up one of the continent’s most ethnically diverse populations, the mixing of many races forms a distinct social make-up. It seems no one has escaped the vibrant merging of European, African and Indian ancestry. Indeed I felt like the only white person riding the Caracas metro at any given time. The tendency for the whites to be privileged and blacks to be disadvantaged, a paradigm prominent in countries such as Brazil and Colombia that both contain the same racial ingredients, can truly be said to have dissipated here. The contrasts that do exist; the violence alongside the generosity and warmth of the people, the cool climes of the Andes to the sweaty savannah, is the essential element that strikes at me the most.
The issue of security is still unfortunately one of the real detractors from visiting this country. That said, nothing dangerous or violent occurred to me whilst I was there. I did in many places however, feel it. Later these feelings were reinforced by never ending commentaries from locals. Life here is cheap; indeed carrying a gun in your car or on your person is a mainstay when setting foot in public. From the beginning I bore it in mind. On arrival at the airport, I remained ready for scams, trick tactics and dodgy exchanges of fake currency. I walked directly to the bus terminal. I managed to change ten euros, achieving only 3 more bolivares above the official rate. I know I’ve been ripped off but its ten euros, and I’m terribly tired, I just want to be rid of airports. A failure in communication meant that I was probably going to miss the agreed meeting time prearranged with Ivan, the key for tonight’s safe accommodation. Waiting around in this five star hotel at eleven pm, an hour after our agreed meeting time had landed me in a tricky predicament. It only dawned on me after hotel management alongside security took me aside to ask what my vagabond/clandestine dirty backpacks were doing in their crystal clean lobby and for how long would they be gracing their presence. Time to start thinking about plan B. Accommodation here is costly, I only have a handful of euros to get me through the country and I won’t be spending it on one expensive night here. At this point, I am so tired I could sleep anywhere. Walking around for alternative lodgings at this hour of the night is ambitiously seeking trouble. I meet two young-er-ish looking guys inside the hotel lobby, I ask whether I can use their Internet and shortly we depart on the predictable road of Latin chatter. Travel, socialism, pictures of a pretty female/girl friend, his cousins new breast implants, and the result of amazing tits (hardly surprising) then, across the hotel lobby, clusters of pretty girls passing – yes, they are pretty – and then finally we came to the inevitable ‘what to do’ about my current predicament. Without asking them but already having implied it, they confirm that I can’t stay in their hotel room. It was paid for by the government and they don’t want to lose their jobs. A fair excuse, I suppose. They genuinely want to me help me so we start scouting around the hotel grounds for what is a petty scant offering of tranquil sleeping spots. At last a grassy knoll in a dark corner is located, both outside the view of the security guards and the street yet, disaster – manure bags are adjacent and they really do reek. All other alternatives inside the hotel grounds are also fruitless. Finally they suggest and promise me the street pedestrian overpass that leads from the hotel to the cultural centre is probably the only -and perhaps the safest- place one could sleep. The looks on their faces are far from convincing, regardless of what words were coming out their mouths. Either way, the options on the table are few, and I’m dead tired. I set my stuff up, sleeping in such a way that my head was firmly planted on top of my bag that inside contained my euros and the all important passport. I set myself up in a way that keeps me out of eye-shot from pedestrians on the street below. I now try and doze off and let go of those vivid thoughts of waking up with a pistol to my head. Just after briefly passing out, I am woken up startled by the same two chamos (guys). They have brought food which, while still remaining startled, I gratefully accept. Now I feel like I’m being treated like a bum, their faces reveal pity. I’ve eaten my first arepa, yet I’m way too tired to enjoy it and promptly pass out for a few hours.
Having made it through the night and sorted myself out of with cash and contacts, I am able to start getting organised. Not even a few days in the country and it seems difficult to avoid the topic of Chavez. This is an election year in Venezuela, hardly periodical when they occur every six years. I preferred to stay out of the conversations and review the evidence for myself. Walking around, it seems that all the billboards are owned by the government, they all speak of the ‘hechos en socialismo’ or the achievements in socialism. It seems that there is a national costume for the locally labelled ‘Chavistas’, red baseball caps and shirts for those that adhere to the politics of Chavismo and his agenda of anti-imperialism and revolution para siempre? The ‘publicly’ organised political rallies for Chavez seem to be very organised. Walking one day around the down town area of Bellas Artes near the National Gallery I came across a rally, replete with Chavez paraphernalia for sale: badges and t-shirts. His image on these t-shirts is reproduced like an appropriation of a haloed Jesus or of the socialist warrior Che Guevara. Singers sang songs based on Chavez achievements; rally cries included the popular ‘Gringo go home’. The Yankee themed red baseball caps and shirts paradoxically blazon the supporters in the audience, otherwise its guerrilla jumpsuits with red or black military berets and badges. The military connection is interesting, they are the chief backers of Chavez, the same people that supported his coup-d’etat attempts for instalment in the 90’s and for that, continue to receive ongoing royalties for such support in all corners of the country.
After I while, and it did take a while, I noted a similarity between Australia and Venezuela, alcoholism by way of rum. I also notice similar restrictions on liquor sales, penalties for drinking on the street and propaganda warning against drink driver behaviour. What seemed strange was having a ban on liquor sales during the Carnival period, supposedly the time when liquor sales would be in demand for festivities. Carnival itself here seemed much more geared towards the family, and the festivities revolving around childish activities such as running around all day spraying foam on people in public. The music carnival celebrations are apparently in smaller coastal villages yet still nothing comparable to the celebrations in neighbouring Brazil.
My experiences hitching on the roadsides proved to also be a very bi-polar affair. Sometimes it was a four minute wait, beautiful weather, fun chats, food included with money offered. Then there were times where either at toll gates or petrol stations it seemed that people were rude, unhelpful, waiting for hours, being stopped by police all the while it down-poured, the torrential rain drenching all my stuff. All of these experiences strengthen my resolve. My favourite ride came after my worst one. I had been picked up by drunken farmers. I ride in the back of their pickup on the way out of Caracas after a wait of god knows how long in the stifling heat, my face heavily sunburnt. During the ride, I feared for the worst, I had said my prayers thinking this thing was doomed to be wrapped around a pole. Luckily that wasn’t the case. However, when I asked them if I could have two bananas that were rotting in their crate of mixed produce at the end of the ride, I was denied. All this combined with being dropped off in what hitch-hikers would call the middle of nowhere. After walking over a long curvy descending bridge, with no shoulder for anything to stop in, I remain calm and still confident all the while cars zoom past me at varying velocities. Then a truck stops. Without question he grabs my bags, asks me where I’m off to and now I’m eating a meal, chilling to Janis Joplin, Neil Young and Simon & Garfunkle. It’s these tough experiences that are required to appreciate the reward which follows.
This last week, my final week in the country was spent in a small indigenous village that doubles as a colony of hippies off the beaten track in Pauji, hours west on a dirt road through rainforest and green wilderness west of Santa Elena. Here one could be anywhere, the absence of all things that remind of us time and the society in which we live in are replaced with the connecting features of nature, fresh air, farms, waterfalls, waterholes, dirt roads and the inevitable bonds produced in small communities worldwide. But this isn’t anywhere; this country has produced a great amount of personal growth and made me into a tougher shoe-string traveller. So I feel eternally grateful for those experiences and the marks it has left upon me. Engagement with that which is there is what makes us tougher as humans; it increases our ability to deal with and understand the broad horizontal perspective of humanity. Now having left Venezuela, I anticipate a future visit. It has been an interesting place to land in the continent, yet an appropriately fresh, invigorating and renewing one.