Another Return to Caracas Chronicle

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Caught the red eye to Barcelona. Barcelona, Anzoátegui, that is.

Blood-shot eyes. Mosquitoes big as helicopters, and the wait. That absurd time-bending wait while an immigration officer chats on her phone, one kid cries, the other drools over your shoulder, and you are about to lose your connecting flight. As the immigation officer giggled, a cat nibbled at my shoes. I kicked the damned thing, and the lady focused on her task again. As if they were connected somehow. I’m no cat person. Sorry Cecil.

My wife found some very cheap tickets to fly Avior —I bet many horror stories begin with this same sentence— and spend some days visiting the family back in Caracas. Like many young Venezuelan families we decided to emigrate a little over a year ago and blabla-ávila-blabla-arepa-blabla-ladilla. [This won´t be one of those Venezuelan-self-loathing posts, nor one of those sappy Venezuelan-self-pitty-Cruz-Diez-floor posts. Promise. We’ve lived abroad before. We like to jump around. Maybe we’ll be back in Caracas again. Who knows? Also, I´m not gonna bore you with details of how much Venezuela has changed since February, which was the last time I was here. It’s pointless. The country changes noticeably from day to day for the people that live here.]

I had been at the Barcelona airport before, and remembered that it had a face-lift a few years ago. A little botox here and there and a whole bunch of publicity promising a full-on reconstructive surgery, implants, the works. The posters are still there, but now yellowy and shredded.

Venezuelans are used to chaos, but this was on another level: No one really knew where they were supposed to stand, sit, pee, or run to when their planes were called. The walkways don’t connect to the planes and all the floors look like Greek ruins. And ruins are no tourist attraction on a relatively new building.

***

Monday morning caught me having to spend hours doing the same as every time I come back to Venezuela: Setting up my cellphone for the nth time. For some reason, while in the country, all the services associated to my credit card work perfectly. But as soon as I cross that dreadful yellow line at the Miami airport everything goes to hell. So I was once again at the Movistar office and I found —there too— a very long queue of people waiting to get tickets from a computer which only gave you two options: Client Support or Equipment and Accessory Purchase. This time, apart from reconnecting my old line, I needed a new SIM card so I pressed the first option. Half an hour later I was called.

I forced my best smile, and explained to the clerk what I needed. She told me to wait. And as she was typing something on her computer, I saw an old woman come up to the booth next to me. She asked for a new SIM card, and the girl at the other side of the desk told her: “you need another ticket, I can’t process your request with the Equipment and Accessory Purchase ticket. Sorry.” The lady protested, I protested, other clients on the line protested. But the final answer was: No. The woman went back to the line to get a new ticket that said she had 30 people before her.

My clerk turned back to me and said “sorry, it appears that your line is disconnected and I can’t process the SIM card request if you don’t [bureaucratic queue]. I uttered my disappointment as politely as I could. And as I was turning away she said “hold on.” The whole Movistar system was on and off. But she made a quick call, scribbled something for 5 more minutes on her computer. And my problem was solved.

IMG_0076-1As I stepped outside the Movistar office and started walking back to Chacao, I felt home again. I took in the air, and realized -indeed- that nothing much had changed in the old neighborhood except for the building that used to be the Ministry of Tourism and now looks like Cheverito’s —that cartoon character the government created to fight the war on tourism— secret lair. I flicked that disruptive piece of visual diarrhea, and kept on walking, thinking about those two clerk ladies, and how perhaps both really must be angry about their ever dissolving wages, and how the one that helped me was just naturally competent and nice, and how she deserved way better than being stuck there, and how maybe this woman isn’t alone and perhaps there ‘s a whole sleeper army of competent people Easteregged all over the bureaucratic behemoth just waiting to step forward with a change of the tide.

I got home with my little yingydiyangydi zen story of hope, and my wife tells me John Pate was killed during the night. He was stabbed to death while at home. At home. Just take in what that last word means for a second. Warmth. Lazy Saturdays. Safety.

I met John once. A well mannered, kind man, with a great reputation as a top international lawyer who had fallen in love with Venezuela many years ago. And who was willing to stick around.

At the cost of breaking my promise: After I came to my senses, I thought of the Cruz Diez floor at Maiquetia (damn it!). That fracking floor is the last thing you see when leaving the country. It leaves you with a vintage taste of the modernist, developing country that Venezuela once was, and that feeling stays with you until the day you return. It is, indeed, a beautiful work of art.

And then, I realized that the first thing I saw as we stepped off the plane in Barcelona, which is pretty much the same thing you’d see when arriving to Maiquetia airport, are Chávez’s eyes.

IMG_0077Those voodoo, vigilant (voyeuristic?) eyes staring right back at you. Hiding behind something. Watching the ruins from a safe place. Always there. As if reminding you that in this land there is no break from chaos. No breathing. The grind never stops. And maybe, maybe that’s just how the Comandante would’ve wanted it.

Caught the red-eye to Barcelona, and the Red Eye caught me. Still, it´s not cliché, that which is killing us.

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1 COMMENT

  1. John Pate and his peruvian wife Gertie were good friends to my family.

    I quote from my note to Thomas, his son:

    ==============
    The article in the NY Times reminded me of your Dad’s elegance and the beauty of the country:

    “Friends and co-workers recalled Pate’s calm, patrician demeanor, and his love for Venezuela’s tropical climate.”

    I share with him and probably with you the love for the incredible seductive beauty of Venezuela which makes this ever more painful, something so loved returning such savagery.

  2. Still getting the suitcases through the hole on the wall?
    That fabric roof has to be the worst idea ever, it’s all dirty. And no air conditioning system can cool that oven. The best part is that the Aserca MD-80 can’t park at the gate because it’s too heavy.

  3. “Chávez’s eyes. Those hoodoo vigilant (voyeuristic?) eyes staring right back at you. Hiding behind something. Watching the ruins from a safe place. Always there. As if reminding you that in this land there is no break from chaos. No breathing. The grinder never stops. And maybe, maybe that’s just how the Comandante would’ve wanted it.”

    It’s amazing that it never crossed the minds of those in charge of this prop job that the banners are incredibly creepy. Hello, 1984? Big Brother?

  4. I used to wonder in my very old Roman Catholic thinking what Purgatory would be like. After the last 6 years experiencing Haiti on an almost monthly basis, I decided coming back in the next life as a poor woman or worse, a dog in Haiti, would be an appropriate “Hell” narrative. I used to think VZ , with its potential to overthrow Chavismo, and its overall innate potential, was more like a Purgatory existence/experience – that awful waiting for your “time” in Purgatory to be done/finished. After reading this post, maybe “Purgatory ” would be more fun.

  5. Your descriptive and evocative prose reminded me of Graham Greene in “The Comedians”, a novel about Haiti during the Papa Doc era. Very well written.

  6. Such a tragedy to learn abut John. We crossed paths while I was working in the oil industry in PLC. He loved Venezuela and was also aware of the danger remaining there. Such a shame that the innocent are murdered because of the cesspool that Venezuela has become. Enough said on that topic.

    Loved the comments regarding Barcelona. I have flown in and out of thero at least 100 times. What a joke that they call it an International Airport. I have to relate the following to show the insanity there. Several years ago I was flying out to the US and put my small bottles in a zip lock bag as is the custom in the US. The guy that examines your tickets and passport before heading to the ticket counter asked me what I had in my hand. I explained and he insisted it was against airline regulations to put these in a plastic bag for later placement in my backpack but must be in my checked luggage. Also insisted this was the case in the US. Argued for about 2 minutes and gave up.What an Orwellian different universe I felt I was travelling through.

  7. Disregard for animal life usually goes hand in hand with the lack of empathy for all forms the living. Sometimes when you kick a dog it bites, a cat scratches and plebs vote for Chavez.
    In the main its a Latino thing, me, a very few close family and me again. Destructive by nature, self-destructive in life I suppose.

    • Plebs voting for the galactic mortadela have more to do with decades of hardcore brainwashing at the hands of foreign infiltration agents seeded in the country in the years after the failed invasion from cuba and less with the whole idiocy of “I didn’t like the way he was staring at me that day years ago when I cut him in the street and barked five insults.”

    • Hum….. that doesnt make sense , whoever heard of cats needing babysitting !! besides cats are not babies they are princes and princesses , and very independent , they may graciously allow their subjects to render them some token of adoration , but thats about it . Our current house cat (we ve had dozens) two days ago was kind enough to climb to the roof of a car to reach my wives face and extend his little face to hers to give her a kiss (yes on the mouth) while extending one of his limbs high to gently caress her arm , Such impudent little fellow !!

  8. I just don’t understand this thing about finding the country “increasingly” chaotic. I know that plays well with the narrative that the bad guys in power are destroying the country, little by little. But as far as I can remember, Little Venice had always been chaotic. No change there. Or maybe I am getting old.

    • Life in Venezuela has always been a mix of chaos and order , in a kind of balance that most of us have learned to live with , one does tend to adapt to outside circumsntaces in time , however the chaos component of Venezuelan life has increased exponentially in these last 10 year , so much so that most of us yearn for the old mix we had become accostummed to . it wasnt perfect but it was not as bad as what we have today where for example having a flat tire , a run down battery, a missing car part can spell a catastrophic effect on the comforts of of ones life. the loss of independent transportation, which cannot be remedied by buying an affordable new or used car because they cannot be found.!!

      • I remember my first experiences cashing my check from the CVA in 1968 at the Mercantil y Agrícola in the C. A. D . A of Las Mercedes as a kind of controlled chaos, especially on the 15th and 30th. As I remember, there were about 2 or 3 windows one had to go through with a ticket. I also remember using Molina Viajes and their “gestores” to get anything related to visas or travel done. Explaining the concept of gestores and ” palanca” to incoming ” musiú” was always interesting. One did get used to it, though. When I came back to the States 20 years later, it was hard to get used to the idea of mailing bills in!

  9. I knew John Pate and worked with his wife Gertie at Price Waterhouse. I am stunned, although I probably should not be at this point. It is just so sad.

  10. Sometimes I wonder if Venezuela does not deserve what it’s going through. The hate that Chavez and his successor spew(ed) against their real or perceived opponents is not any different than they way most Venezuelans express their hate toward minority and other groups like Colombians, blacks and especially gays. Karma is a bitch.

  11. Whatever the average venezuelans ‘hatred’ of colombians , or blacks or gays its never been as fierce and widespread as has been the hatred of foreigners and blacks and gays in other communities ,the US itself even if now it tries to cover up these hatreds with sanctimonious self proclaimed effusions of love and tolerance , is still overtly or covertly much steeped in these hatreds.

    In the english language its too common to label as hatred what really amounts to a kind of ligh hearted dismissal or ribbing of people who are different from the norm , in Venezuelan Ive met few people who one could say viscerally hated colombians or negroes or gays , most simply poke fun at people with those distinct identities , sometime they will express somekind of scorn for people who violate certain traditional cultural codes , but for examples of real hatred you have to go north.

    Of course we are starting to learn the delights of playing up the fictitious role of viciously persecuted victims to hype up our moral snobism , that proud sense of self righteous indignation and outrage that enhances ones sense of being morally ‘special’by virtue of being victimized by a cruel and bigotted society.

    • THe Narcissism of differences. STupid dumb fuck Venezuelans just as guilty. 100,000 illegal Venezuelans in South Florida? Yes because we have that many Brazilians illegaly in Broward alone.

  12. Referring to the last few comments, what Venezuela is losing is its civility. In the best of circumstances, civilization is a thin veneer. The human race has had only 6,000 years or so of practice in creating civilization vs. the hundreds of thousands of years living in small bands of barbaric wandering hunter-gatherers. Our genetic heritage and out nature is not so different than our ancient barbarian ancestors. Civilization is not instinctual. It must be built and nurtured. When human beings lose their expectations of fairness and justice from their society they feel that the implied social contract has been broken. In spite of all their training to behave civilly, humans can and will revert to their more barbaric and natural instincts for survival.

    • Thank you Roy for this last excellent comment , civility is indeed key to the judicious ordering of social and political discourse , where it is lacking we revert to half cosmetized forms of barbarism , and where civility is weakened because some important part of the population abandons its use or even comes to scorn it as trivial or silly then the whole fabric of social life can become unravelled . I seem to remeber a Juan Nuno piece titled ‘Etica y Etiqueta´where the point is made .

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