A few weeks ago I had to go to Valencia. It was a rainy Monday afternoon and, in my hurry, I managed to lose my headphones plus some cash, but still I went from Guarenas, to Los Dos Caminos, all the way to La Bandera, breaking Rush Hour laws to find a taxi por puesto to get there as fast as possible.
Cab drivers are usually shouting their destinations by the Metro’s entrance, but this time there were none, so I hurried through the wet street down to the terminal itself. “Maracay!” I heard, followed by “Barquisimeto!”, “San Juan!”, “Maracaibo!”. Nobody was going to Valencia.
Except this one guy. 40’s, tall and robust, his orange Columbia shirt was visible half a block away from the terminal. He announced his destination and I immediately approached him. Despite my stupid loss of cash, he gave me such a nice price that I was still able to pay for it as the sole passenger. He’d been waiting for a client since midday and it was already 5:30pm. He was hungry and frankly just wanted to get home.
The car, an old grey Corolla, was clean and obviously cared for. There was none of the usual religious imagery, but a couple of family pictures took the front seat beneath the windshield. We started talking almost as soon as we hit the road.
We got along fast. He introduced himself as Jorge. He was calm and cheerful. Reminded me of my dad. We talked about the family, about principles, about our jobs. I couldn’t help but notice that the road was remarkably clear for rush hour.
I learned that one of his daughters had misused her cellphone for the third and last time. She’d been using it to talk with malandritos in her neighborhood. He’d taken it away. “My wife screams and insults the girls. I consider that a form of violence, and we’ve argued a lot about it. I prefer to sit down with them and listen. Talk to them. See what they need.” But then he added that sometimes they had to learn the lesson.
By the time we got to Maracay, inevitably, we talked about the country.
He presented his view about politics. He didn’t know what to make of the Assembly or Capriles or López, but he hoped for a change of government, fast. He never voted for Chávez but some of his family did. Now they all have to spend hours in long lines, and some of them have complained over beers about the country’s situation. “I don’t get angry when they do that, but I always remind them that they voted for this.” He said the hardest thing is that they now lower their heads and don’t argue anymore, but they still never agree with him.
He confessed that his wife is the one who stands in line to buy food. He’s told her she doesn’t have to do that all the time. Despite steep prices, he uses bachaqueros when necessary, especially because she’d been taking their daughters too, and he doesn’t like it. “Those lines are a fucking mess. I don’t want them there, but sometimes there’s no choice.”
They’ve had to cut portions as well, to stretch their supplies a bit. “We used to buy four, five kilos of meat, and enough chicken for a whole month. Now we had to cut that to maybe half, sometimes less. When we find any at all. I’m a big man and I used to eat a lot, but now I tell her to cut my portions same as everybody else.” The government’s power rationing plan had already kicked off, and he was worried for the food he might lose with no freezer.
We got to Biglow, Valencia’s bus terminal, about an hour and a half after leaving Caracas. Jorge told me where I could get some cash through punto de venta if I needed to. A few minutes later I met another driver, almost bald, in his 30’s. He’d get me to my hotel for half the price I heard from another driver. He said the others amped up the prices and he didn’t agree with that because it was squeezing the clients.
This time it was a white Clío. The car had seen better days on the outside, but as with Jorge’s Corolla, the inside was clean and comfortable. The news rolled on the background, but he quickly turned them off. This time, there was a wooden cross hanging on the rearview mirror and a image of the Virgin near the wheel.
I also struck a conversation with him fast. His name was Jean. He told me he’d had to move a lot and that he’d been living in Valencia for the past five years with his wife. He’d had to serve as driver and guide for businessmen coming to the city and he knew the layout and the hotels pretty well. He recommended me some and told me a few stories about the city. I was happy he approved of my hotel choice.
Then we also talked about family. He said his wife was pregnant. It was a high-risk pregnancy and he had to find a specific medicine for childbirth or both her and the child could die. His concern was palpable. Before he dropped me at my hotel, I gave him the numbers of a local foundation that could help him find the medicine he needed, and he gave me his cellphone, in case I needed a ride the next day.
These conversations got me thinking about what we’re facing and our chances to pull through. In the country with the highest inflation on Earth, with one of the highest crime rates worldwide, with severe shortages of food and medicine, lootings, lynchings and a criminally negligent government bent on staying in power whatever the cost, I keep meeting these people. Honest hard workers who try to do, despite their personal hardships, the best they can for their families and for themselves, who still move on against all odds. People who see the point in kindness and decency.
My lost headphones had been forgotten hours ago. In hindsight, they would’ve been useless anyway. I wouldn’t have missed those talks for anything in this world.