Venezuelan Plankton

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PlanktonI didn’t have time to think about what was happening. It was 7am, way too early for me, and we were already at the airport for the flight out of Venezuela, the flight that would officially make me an ex-pat.

We arrived at the airport four hours early. This was encouraged by my father-in-law who works as an Airport “Transporte Ejecutivo” and knows the ins and outs of the place.  He landed the “dream” job after the government expropriated the land where his car garage stood. They gave him 72 hours to get out, he sold everything “precio de gallina flaca,” bought a van, and never looked back.

He got our suitcases out of the car and hugged his grandchildren, his son, and me goodbye. He said he had another “carrera” to do, he had to go back to Caracas to get another traveler down to the airport. He said he would try to make it back before we entered immigration. He didn’t.

No one was there to send me off. I’m the last of my immediate clan to leave the country. My elder sister left on a scholarship almost a decade ago. My mother, an ex-Pdvsa, tired of the blackballing, searched for greener pastures shortly afterward. My Nana and I stayed. Things were not that bad, and there was hope, there was actual hope for change.

I wish I could say that I said a heartfelt goodbye to my country, full of memories of the good old days. Frankly, I was more preoccupied with herding the seven suitcases, two backpacks, one purse, and two kids on my hands.

Sneakers off, sneakers on, through metal detectors, more waiting, more lines, a curiously nice immigration officer, eat your breakfast, sit at the table, don’t run away, bathroom break 1, bathroom break 2, bathroom break 3, please stay within my eyesight, you’re grounded, please don’t bother the other passengers, board plane, sit down, fight for the window seat, avoid other passenger’s evil eyes, take off.

It was that night, and basically all that first week, snuggled in our inflatable mattresses, that a feeling began to creep in my chest, part guilt, part sadness. I’m pretty sure I can trace my family history on Venezuelan soil back almost 300 years. This country helped my parents  break a cycle of poverty, it gave me the opportunity of a college education, and it saw the birth of my children. I feel a huge debt to it.

But then again, it was also this same country that had kidnapped, mugged, and shot close family and friends. I chose between my “debt” and my family. Family won.

I know that I will no longer be a “complete” Venezuelan; I will start to become this weird hybrid of countries and places, not belonging to any of them.  I feel strangely detached, like uprooted plankton floating in an endless sea of doubt.

I took belonging for granted. That is my biggest regret.

37 COMMENTS

  1. But would you feel the same if your linage is really complex?

    My father was Peruvian and I lived there until I was 11. My mother is American and I have lived here for 24 years. I lived in Venezuela between the ages of 11 and 23, attended bachillerato, the USB topping it with a beautiful Venezuelan wife 🙂 My children hold 3 passports and visit with certain regularity these countries.

    My heart is feels deeply for all these countries, but how much do I owe each? Is there primacy to any? I rack my brain over this.

    My conclusion, I am not Atlas, the world does not weigh on my shoulders and ultimately I am a citizen of where I live and I aspire to live an upright life.

    Be at peace, Audry, your are not Venezuelan Plankton, your are just Plankton.

    • well said my friend, well said…. After reading this I couldn’t contain my emotions, as I left three years ago. My only confort is knowing that we are what we choose to be at every second that passes by, and we shouldn’t be bound by what were, or by what are parents were… keep going to wherever life takes you..

  2. Dear Audrey,

    I understand that feeling very well: the feeling of not being complete, and it will probably follow you all of your life.We change when we move around and adapt to new places, and learn new ways.We become hybrids.

    My family here in the US goes back about 300 years as well, but when I first left the US for a lifetime in Venezuela I wasn’t sad at all -I was terribly excited about my new adventures and so much in love as well .On the other hand I was quite young, and knew that I would always be returning to the US every year for visits.

    When I left Venezuela to return permanently to the US, I was very sad….because somehow I knew that visits would be very infrequent if at all even though it had become very much my home in all aspects.I was leaving most of my lifelong friends, family, the memories of our children growing up, and a beloved home that had been filled with so much happiness and sharing for so many years.Those kinds of memories cannot be remade.I am now too old now to redo my life.

    But being a hybrid isn’t so bad in some ways.You can grow and expand your consciousness and with that you can augment your strength and alternatives.Good luck in all your endeavors and be gentle with yourself.No need for regrets.

  3. Great debut.

    I think this touches the complex issue of Venezuelan identity. Who is Venezuelan? Until recently we were a country of immigrants (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Eastern European, Colombians, Ecuadorians, Argentinians, Peruvians) and have not become a country of migrants (including the children and grandchildren of those many immigrants).

    I too can trace my lineage (through both sides) to the very first Spaniards that arrived in the captaincy general but also (through both sides) I trace it back to German, English and French immigrants arriving at the turn of the century.

    I’m sure my immigrants forefathers were treated as musius (my great-grandfather’s retirement photo refers to him as Mr. Pantin and he spoke spanish with a heavy English accent) but they (and their children) were undeniably Venezuelan – born and raised there.

    I have lived more than half my life outside of Venezuela but I have never felt like anything but Venezuelan. It is the only country that matters to me in any real, deep, personal way – and not just because most of my family is still there. It is a feeling of belonging that is hard to pinpoint.

    I worry about the definition of Venezuelan identity especially in the (much hoped for) transition period. Will the emigres return? Will I? Will we be welcomed back? Will we be treated as egoists? Traitors? Saviors? Will our children want to return to a land they don’t – or barely – know?

    Most of us leave just for a bit. I know when we first left it was only supposed to be for 6 months. It’s now been 17 years and 5 countries and 4 high school graduations and 2 college graduations and 1 master’s program graduation.

    The longer we remain emigres, the deeper our roots will dive elsewhere, and the harder it will be to remain so deeply attached to a sense of identity that pushes us to return.

    I worry.

  4. I just hate the airport, not because it is outdated and dangerous. Its because that’s the goodbye place and the “will this be the last time I see you?” feeling. I am a 2nd generation Venezuelan, my grandfather was born in Italy and he went there right after the WW1. After 30 years and a lot of work he was able to gain a decent life so decided to get back to Italy and enjoy his last few years only to find out he did not belong to Italy anymore. Everything changed, family and friends were dead or away and even the language was different (he was from a very remote region with a dialect) so he felt an alien at his own country. He went back to Venezuela, a place were he was always treated as the musiu but at least had a family to share with. As an immigrant, this is my worst fear. I don’t want to be a citizen of nowhere.

    Once I immigrated finally understood his feelings and how disrespectful we treated others that just spoke with a different accent. Also, it was outside when I really understood why Chavez got there and why they are still in power. Our average politician is a mediocre person that represents the average Venezuelan and the only way we can fix the problem is through an action-consequence cultural change where every bad/illegal action has a punishment.

    Good post by the way, I really liked the way you wrote it. congratulations

  5. GodSpeed.
    Two kids snatched out of the maw of a dying nation,
    more than justifies your action.
    Bless you.

    [This country helped my parents break a cycle of poverty, it gave me the opportunity of a college education, and it saw the birth of my children. I feel a huge debt to it.

    But then again, it was also this same country that had kidnapped, mugged, and shot close family and friends. I chose between my “debt” and my family. Family won.]

  6. Being a weird hybrid of countries is what all humans should aspire to be. We end up forgetting this basic truth and becoming dangerously “endogen”, which is a modern trendy term for being a xenophobic son of a bitch

    • CatharSeamus,

      Not all people who have trouble adapting to different cultures is a son of a bitch.I recommend that you Harry Czechowicz’s book: “INTELIGENCIA MIGRATORIA. ¿ME QUEDO O ME VOY?”

      Also I think it is important to consider the difference between coming from a small country like Venezuela, and coming from a huge, diverse country like the USA.It makes sense that for those coming from the smaller countries that are more homogeneous like Venezuela would have a harder time.

  7. Good post.

    It puts words into my own feelings. I left Venezuela 22 years ago to join my wife who was living in Washington DC at the time. I can trace my Venezuelan roots several generations. Audrey’s description of the experience at the airport describes exactly how I felt. Yet I somehow never manage to leave the place. I am there and … I am not.

  8. love the post, thanks for sharing it.. i was only in venezuela for 6 years of my life… something magical about venezuela that never left my heart.. albeit im chinese venezuelan and now fully american, i can still say 25 years later, and i still gravitate to this country…. sigh… i hope for the best there.. so much potential.. and still cant understand what is going on there… but i guess thats because i havent been there long enough to fully comprehend.

  9. Audrey,
    Primero, me encanta tu foto…yo también trabajo con plankton! Soy limnóloga…
    Segundo, ese sentimiento de no pertenecer va y viene y con los años fuera de Venezuela se hace menos frequente. Lo que espero que no te pase como a mi, después de casi 30 años fuera de Venezuela. Desde hace 10 años, cuando voy no reconozco el país, adoro el Avila, el calor de la gente pero entre tanto caos me siento que no pertenezco…y entonces recuerdo lo que me decía mi mama, gallega de nacimiento después de más de 25 años en Venezuela…ya yo no soy de aquí, ní de allá.

  10. Touching post and well written.
    I have lived 19 of my 34 years in Venezuela (was born in Caracas to a typical Venezuelan middle class family sprouting from too many races and nationalities to list), but also have lived in Argentina, Miami, Michigan and, now, New York. I don’t think living in different places means that you necessarily become “detached” or “incomplete” Venezuelan. I think that you learn to appreciate even more what Venezuela means (its good and bad aspects) the more references you have for comparison and the more you can stand back and have an objective view.

  11. Dear Audrey,
    Nice post.
    I left Venezuela 7 years ago, and is NOW, just NOW that I’ve felt so much sad about it. It is also the time when I’ve seen my parents suffer the most about it. I think it’s because somehow there was a tiny bit of hope between us about coming back someday. And it is now with the crime rage, and scarcity of food, and the lack of values and opportunities in general for a better life there, than that hope just went away. It is also now that I’ve seen that my parents are not only sad about me or my siblings not coming back, but also because of theirselves not being able to visit us as frequently as they have been so far (once/year). It’s the uncertainty about if they’ve ever actually would be able to come and spend some time with my family.
    It’s all so sad 🙁

    But anyway, one of the best things about being an ex-pat is to bring your culture and your history and traditions to integrate them and adapt them to wherever you live now. It’s a nice process, you’ll see!

    Keep the posts coming, the best of luck!

  12. For the first time I feel kind of intrusive posting, but i feel that there might be an elephant in the room. Leaving your country is really tough, I did it myself, but I feel it’s even worse for Venezuelans since the country that you know is being lost, little by little, whether by economic decay or political polarization and how they affect daily life. I’d guess that part of the feeling of not belonging comes from your home country changing, especially if it’s for the worse.

  13. Most Venezuelan emigres today are reluctant emigres, they are emigrating from fear of what life in Venezuela has become and for fear of how bad things will get in the future. They dont look at their new homelands as an improvement over the old country they once knew , but over the new country that is now falling in pieces. To emigrate is a rational decision but not happy decision !! that makes for a big difference in how your look at your native land and how you look at the country (not always very welcoming) where you need to make your new life. !! In time some lose might most of the love they had for their native country , feel its betrayed their memories of it when they were young , dont want to have anything to do with it. !! but most emigres feel their native country pulling hard on their heart strings , calling on them to remember it with nostalgia . We are looking at a different kind of emigration than people from other places know , from that which the forefather of many of those new emigrants knew when they came to Venezuela .!!.Most of the younger generation in my family now lives abroad , they are doing fine , they see themselves as having taken the ‘right’ decision under the circumstances. But im sure that had conditions remained what they were when we, the older generation, were starting our adult lives, all of them would have stayed , they would be sharing their lives with older relatives , they would be living in the country which it was easiest for them to love.!!

  14. I have been out for over 7 years now and still struggle with cultural challenges in my new home town. Mind you cultural nuances and style are tough cookies to break! Thankfully my children are growing up in the culture and their path will be easier that way.

    Venezuela only exists in our memories and that is a good thing. we will cherish the good and somewhat avoid the not so good, and nostalgia will grow stronger. Now, on the always recurring question : would we go back? My answer, very unlikely.

    Plankton! we are.

  15. This month also see me out of the country. I reached some sort of event horizon in my relation with Vzla whilst still there. It just is now not the Vzla I knew previously, the one that I felt so much a part of. The bonds began to unravel as the mayhem grew. The last years made for an ever growing urge to find a way out with at least some sort of job. The last months only increased the sense of doom that was overtaking our lives and when the first opportunity came it was simply a step forward. There will now be new landscapes and cultures to explore. A new beginning, but with the experience that also gives continuity. Leaving my post at the UCV after more than 20 years of activities was heartbreaking. Packing my library and parts of my lab was a poignant task. I delivered my last class savoring every minute, striving to make it my best ever. When the last slide came to past … it hit me. Se acabo. I thanked my students for their attention, said my goodbye, and cried like a baby in front of all. No habia manera. Today a mate from years ago in the USB caving club called to welcome me. When he asked how I felt my response was the great sense of relief to have gotten out of the country, with my wife and daughter. I feel safe. The future will now be for me always something uncertain, but that is fine. We will cope and do good.

  16. I have a lot of compassion, Venezuela is still a wonderful nation, so much to be proud of. But this was all coming, a long time ago; felt it in my bones, something was brewing… I left Caracas in 1974! I was born there, and raised, my family from northern Europe, I was first generation “new Continent”. Moved to Spain, where I stayed 20 years, and now in the U.S.

    At the end I’ve come to realize, a lot of our challenges arise from being over identified with borders, flags, tribes and names. We are so much more than that. The gift that I posses and cherish the most, I still choose to love the land that saw me as a child, the land that made me a man. And I chose to read Caracas Chronicles everyday, read El Universal (and El Pais, the NYT, etc), pray for this beautiful Venezuela, and remain connected to all humankind.

    (I still make arepas.)

  17. Audrey, as someone who overstayed in Venezuela, I’d say you are nekton, as you actively (if painfully) moved forward. It is those of us who stay that are plankton… or dare I say benthos?
    Me myself, I’m feeling oddly ostracod-like lately.

  18. dears audrey, firepigette & co:

    viceversa firepigette i left venezuela last year for love, I left venezuela for USA to be married to my northern irish husband, who himself left his beloved belfast because of the “troubles” with the IRA 30years ago.

    all my daughters have left their country since 1999. one of them was a kidnapping express victim in 2000. none of them have returned except for my father’s funeral. my six grandchildren all live in different countries. i have been a traveling grandma, just like a mary poppins who arrives to visit with my bag full of magical gifts and a spoonful of sugar…
    my daughters have been begging me to leave, but i was stubbornly reluctant until i met my true love…in USA.

    IMO being of “mixed”blood has nothing to do with it. i look totally and absolutely gringa. my father was from romania and arrived here escaping the horrors of fighting in WWII looking for freedom, my mom an andina of italian and dutch direct descent who was brought up in trinidad during the very dark years of gomez. …so the color of the skin or the heritage has nothing to do with the nostalgia, the saudade, the heaviness of the heart and soul that I feel while adapting to my life and mindset of the US. although visiting it has been part of my life constantly. i have studied there at different ages, owned property there. so it’s not new to me. as a temporal place. now i have to embrace it as an “almost” definite one. i have been there for 13 months, happily married, enjoying a beautiful new home. but… part of my heart like the song says… is still in caracas. to my surprise, adapting has been tougher than i expected. i guess peace, quiet, order and a full supermarket is not all i need to feel whole.

    right now i’m writing from my beloved city, enjoying the magnificent view of the avila, biting into the hard and tart duraznos pintones de jarillo that i adore, and enjoying all the varieties of white cheese i get at my favorite farmers market. even retaking my physical/frivolous side up to the high standards of a proper venezuelan lady, nails done, waxing and facials and all the massages i can receive, and which i can only enjoy in U$A once in a blue moon, at best.

    i’m leaving soon, taking with me my favorite things. i feel sad and guilty about “dismantling” my home here at the same time. i would love to enjoy the best of two worlds. but… you see? the issue here, is that my heavy heart is for the cherished memories of the wonderful, magical county i grew up in. the country my daughters grew up in. we share the same memories, at least for our traditions, patinatas, y aguinaldos, luces de bengala y misas de gallo. if they hear us waxing nostalgically about times past, my grandchildren will think we are talking about a foreign fantasyland, a country, a place and a space that will never return. :'(

  19. Thank you all for you kind words and also for sharing your own departure stories, some sad, all hopeful. For all of us who have left, Ithaca by Konstantino Kavafis:

    “Cuando emprendas tu viaje hacia Ítaca
    debes rogar que el viaje sea largo,
    lleno de peripecias, lleno de experiencias.
    No has de temer ni a los lestrigones ni a los cíclopes,
    ni la cólera del airado Poseidón.
    Nunca tales monstruos hallarás en tu ruta
    si tu pensamiento es elevado, si una exquisita
    emoción penetra en tu alma y en tu cuerpo.
    Los lestrigones y los cíclopes
    y el feroz Poseidón no podrán encontrarte
    si tú no los llevas ya dentro, en tu alma,
    si tu alma no los conjura ante ti.
    Debes rogar que el viaje sea largo,
    que sean muchos los días de verano;
    que te vean arribar con gozo, alegremente,
    a puertos que tú antes ignorabas.
    Que puedas detenerte en los mercados de Fenicia,
    y comprar unas bellas mercancías:
    madreperlas, coral, ébano, y ámbar,
    y perfumes placenteros de mil clases.
    Acude a muchas ciudades del Egipto
    para aprender, y aprender de quienes saben.
    Conserva siempre en tu alma la idea de Ítaca:
    llegar allí, he aquí tu destino.
    Mas no hagas con prisas tu camino;
    mejor será que dure muchos años,
    y que llegues, ya viejo, a la pequeña isla,
    rico de cuanto habrás ganado en el camino.
    No has de esperar que Ítaca te enriquezca:
    Ítaca te ha concedido ya un hermoso viaje.
    Sin ellas, jamás habrías partido;
    mas no tiene otra cosa que ofrecerte.
    Y si la encuentras pobre, Ítaca no te ha engañado.
    Y siendo ya tan viejo, con tanta experiencia,
    sin duda sabrás ya qué significan las Ítacas.

  20. El Americano
    Now you can understand how Cubans in Miami feel about the loss of Cuba and their feelings of never going back and the risks that many went through just to leave with only the cloths on their backs.

  21. Thanks for this column…it helps me better understand my lovely bride. She has had a difficult time adapting to life in these United States and often comments on how torn she feels – Husband and child in USA; mother and other family in Venezuela. She is in VZ now and expresses nothing but sadness for the country she loves. To a large extent, the country amd society she loves no longer exists.

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