Several months ago a friend told me he wanted to go to Venezuela. I bought a guide book and started researching the country, deciding that other than the political instability, it would be a nice place to visit. Besides, their obsession over beauty can only be a good thing for a potent male such as myself. So when my friend backed out and I was stuck with two weeks of vacation time that I had to use, I decided to go alone. I withstood the dozen or so kidnapping ‘jokes’ and went down there with a backpack loaded with essentials, including a Frisbee, Clif bars, and electrolyte water (obviously I was counting on getting stranded on the beach with one other person). I wanted to pack some shirts with American writing on it to be easily identified as an exotic import by the women there, but that plan when out the window because I have an aversion to being robbed.
With a two day hotel reservation in Caracas and a general idea of what I want to do, I was ready. On the airplane ride there I sit next to an American who has a Venezuelan wife. He gives me a lot of great tips, including the most important one: do not talk to anyone as you walk through the airport. Sure enough, as I’m making my way out a man in an official uniform asks me if I need any help. I wanted to listen to my American friend, but the gentleman was very official looking. He even pointed out his official uniform and said, “Look, I’m an official.” How can you argue with that? I told him I just need a taxi, and then next thing I know, I’m at a car rental booth being tag-teamed by ‘officials’ asking how many dollars I would like to exchange for local currency. Oops. This initial shadiness that I encountered upon my arrival would prove to be a great foreboding of the rest of my trip.
Caracas is a very rough introduction to South America. The mountains and hillsides that surround the city are covered in shantytowns known as barrios. The traffic is incredibly bad, with a wall of cars and exhaust that seem to last for most of the day. Walking great distances is faster than driving through the city, but not advisable because of the danger. Because gas is priced so low at 20 cents a gallon, driving is encouraged at the expense of public transportation. Most of the cars that clog the city are old heaps of American junk that were previously owned by your parents. The combination of incredible traffic and aged cars produce the worst pollution that I have ever encountered, and constantly breathing in exhaust was a bit too much for this fragile American throat. The only place where you breathe fresh air are the city’s parks, which are numerous and covered in very nice fields of dirt.
The city itself is the result of what happens when you vomit concrete, cars, and people over a wide area. It’s like a very bad game of SimCity where you totally ruined the simulation but can’t start over. Most buildings seem to be abandoned, monuments to a more prosperous past, as people weave through garbage and vendor tables selling every imaginable plastic piece of junk from China. Most of the city has a bazaar type of feel. The garbage and car exhaust smell together produces a very offensive city smell.
I was fascinated by the barrios. “How do people live there”? I wondered. I talked to a wired twenty-something guy who told me more about the barrios.
“Even the cops don’t go in there. Cars can’t fit in through the alleys, only motorcycles, so when the cops go in, the guy riding the bike has one hand on his machine gun. Another cop sits behind him facing the back with a gun. Cops only go in there for the bug guys, like serial killers, because people shoot at the cops. I’ve been in that before with friends who lived there. You walk through as people smoke crack out in the open with their guns next to them.”
“So I’d get robbed if I went there alone,” I said.
“You’d be killed.”
He also didn’t give me much confidence in police enforcement. When a cop sees someone who has lots of money, he tells someone who ends up robbing you while the cop turns his back. The cop then gets a cut.
In terms of per capita murders in South America, Caracas is only second to Medellin, Columbia and Recife, Brazil. Most of the 2,000 murders a year happen in the barrios, which are populated mostly by people from the countryside who looked for opportunity during the city’s boom times. Some barrios are not as dangerous and have a strong sense of community, but they generally are not a place you want to be in. Here in the U.S. we do a great job hiding our poor in ghettos, in the south sides of cities, but in Caracas it’s impossible not to see the huge disparity of living conditions. I think one of the reasons we tolerate poverty here is because we rarely witness it.
The one bright spot of the city is the underground Metro system. It is a mirror image of the DC metro system, made during the oil boom when money went into public projects. It was clean, safe, and reliable, with trains coming ever 5-10 minutes. Even like our Metro, everyone riding it seems unhappy.
I stayed in Las Mercedes, which is one of their most expensive and safe areas. This are is the best that Caracas has to offer, yet it is a dump by American standards. It’s dirty and is lined with crappy restaurants and stores. The bright spot of this area was the very modern pharmacy I bought deodorant at. After a day of exploration, I couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel, a fantasy land paradise in an run-down city. The second day in Caracas I almost stayed in my room instead of venturing out because there is nothing to do.
Caracas sights are lacking and it’s just too dangerous to get comfortable walking around taking pictures. I was constantly paranoid that I was going to get robbed, a more serious concern than my diarrhea paranoia. I took a picture of the capitol building in the historic center, which is a ghetto by our standards, and showed some locals that I met throughout the rest of the trip. I got the same reaction every time: “Wow I’m surprised you were able to take that picture and not get robbed.” I took about 100 photos a day in Italy. In Venezuela I took 35 a day.