Home, in five senses

1. “Señores pasajeros, bienvenidos al Aeropuerto Internacional La Chinita de Maracaibo.”

I’m flying home for five days of family events. As I am leaving the plane, I brace myself for the heat, the chaos, the paranoia surrounding crime … en fin, the Venezuelan-ness.

But the first thing that hits me is the sound.

As soon as I leave the plane, I hear a car alarm going off. On the tarmac. In the airport.

Could it be possible that they are stealing a car in the next gate?

The familiar sound of the car alarm tells me I’m home. Nee-naa, nee-naa… followed by a crescendo horn, an unbearable ripple, and three other tones. You’ve heard it a million times, but if you live outside of Venezuela, it’s been a while since the sounds assaulted you.

As we wait for immigration, the alarm continues to howl, but it is deafened by the noise from the queue. The fact that 130 of us are crammed into a tiny hallway with short ceilings and the air conditioning at full blast while everyone talks at full volume creates a deafening echo that can only mean … I’m home.

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2. Breakfast on special occasions in my house means one thing only: deep-fried stuff.

Courtesy of reaching middle age, I’ve decided to have grapefruit for breakfast every day. You know those people that say they like grapefruit? They’re liars.

Well, no grapefruits for breakfast in my house, partly because in Venezuela you can’t find the darn things. Today, it’s pastelitos y tequeños for breakfast.

No matter how many empanadas I try in different parts of the world, nothing beats chewing through deep-fried, golden-colored corn dough. Crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside, and after you’re done with the dough, Venezuelan white cheese or the explosive flavor of carne mechada await you.

Breakfast of champions.

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3. I hadn’t seen Miraflores in a long time. As we’re driving up from Maiquetía into Caracas, our driver decides to take the Baralt and the Cota Mil to avoid traffic. We drive by Hugo Chávez’s house, in all its red and pink glory.

Miraflores Palace is not a particularly impressive building. Built in the late XIXth Century by one of our many caudillos (one who, coincidentally, came out of Parapara!), the building’s main claim to fame is the outsized role it plays in our collective consciousness.

As most colonial buildings in Venezuela, this one was intended to be white with red tile roofs. Hugo Chávez has decided not only to paint the columns crimson red, but worst of all, the walls are now a shade of pink that would not look out of place in a Katy Perry video.

Red and pink go together as well as Christianity and Marxism.

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4. We arrive at my aunt’s house and an immediate, familiar scent assaults me: we’re having tajadas for lunch.

Around the world, people cook more or less the same. The smells are the usual: onion, garlic, salt, and other spices make up the daily staple pretty much everywhere. But there is something distinctive about the sweet, fruity, yet salty smell of ripe plantain bananas being deep-fried in vegetable oil.

The smell triggers the taste buds: caraotas negras on white rice, batido de guayaba, carne mechada, ají dulce, bienmesabe. A full meal.

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5. Have you ever noticed how Venezuelans don’t kiss on the cheek when they first meet someone of the opposite sex? A common social norm is that, when you’re introduced, you shake the person’s hand, and when you say goodbye … that is when you give them a peck on the cheek.

It’s not just any peck on the cheek, mind you. The key is to put cheek against cheek and kiss the air. Foreigners who try to follow the rule end up planting their lips on your cheeks when greeting you. Every time that happens, I feel like asking: “So, why do you think it’s your lips that are supposed to go on my cheek and not the other way around?”

It’s one of those ungraspable details that will forever elude them, because setting them right would simply be too awkward.

So you just let it fly.

Handshake when introduced, kiss when saying goodbye … and it all comes naturally, as if I’d never left.

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