26 Hours in Guayana

How on earth did I end up camping out overnight on a disgusting, cockroach-infested sidewalk in one of the most dangerous cities in the world?

If you’d told me a couple of months ago that soon I’d find myself laying on a sidewalk at 3 a.m., tossing and turning on the ground like an arepa on a budare, in the 11th most violent city in the world, I would’ve laughed at you. 

And yet here I am.

No, I’m not in line to get the latest iPhone. I just want to buy food.

After living in Spain for a few months to complete my M.A., I came home to Ciudad Guayana, and to a country that had deteriorated beyond imagination.

The first thing one of my neighbors said to me after I came home was “great! Now you can go with us to stand in line!”

I thought she was joking.

Joke’s on me.

The first shock in my re-adaptation is the realization that food queuing now actually starts the day before your government-set shopping day, which in turn depends on the last digit of your government ID (cédula). Often, it starts early on the morning of the day before.

Exactly how early depends on where you’ve decided to queue. My battlefield that Tuesday was a Farmatodo. 

I get there by 8 a.m. to sign myself up on The List. The List is like The One Ring: it rules us all. Not being on The List = no price-controlled supplies for you.

The List is at the command of the biggest bachaquera around our very own line-management entrepreneur — who seems to live under that palm tree in front of the Farmatodo.

That morning sign-up is just the first step. You have to go back every couple of hours or so to avoid being purged from the list.

This means that you waste an entire day just verifying your name has not been taken off the list. You can’t work an eight hour shift. You can’t go to class. You have to check back in around 10:00 AM, then 12:00 PM, then 2:00 PM, then 4:00 PM, then 6:00 PM, and so on.

If you’re lucky enough to have a car with an air conditioner, it’s all much more tolerable. If you don’t, then you have to use the city’s horrible transport system and deal with the city’s infamous climate. Going back and forth in a shabby bus in the 42° C heat is punishing.

Your spot in queue is an investment. You have to tend to it. It’s a good idea to buy a 2 liter Coke bottle, or some Cheetos: sacrificial offerings to the Lady of The List. You need to keep her happy. She has to remember your name.

The biggest cull comes at midnight. You have to get psychologically ready to spend the night there, until the store opens on the day of your approved shopping day. I was number 35.

So begins one of the worst nights of my life.

I’m lying on a dirty sidewalk, cockroaches all around. The smell is horrible: there are no public toilets around and people spend all day queuing there.

It’s eerily quiet. Like all Venezuelan cities, Ciudad Guayana goes into a self-imposed curfew when night falls. And at night it’s cold.

I can’t sleep, so I think about José —not his real name.

José was the son of one of our neighbors. Two or three weeks before I came home, he left his house at 3:00 am to stand at his mandatory cola. He had a baby girl who needed diapers.

An hour or so later, according to witnesses, the GNB (National Guard) arrived, for one of those new “operativos” (crime-fighting raids). Soon, he was in the middle of a free-for-all: some people in the queue pulled out knives. The GNB started shooting and arresting people semi-randomly.

José disappeared. His body was found three days later in some bushes, with three bullet wounds and wearing clothes different from the ones he’d been wearing the last time he was seen. This did not make it onto the news. There’s nothing “new” about it.

Terrified by the realization of what it really means to be queuing in the middle of the night, in one of the most dangerous countries in the world, I allow myself to drown in self-pity for a bit. How did we even reach this point? When did we fall so low? I feel like I’m in a bizarre dream.

Yet I don’t sleep. Not even one minute.

When day breaks, those lucky enough to have cars in their homes will receive the visit of a relative with some breakfast. Others will buy something from the street vendors. Many don’t eat at all.

People in the queue won’t speak to each other unless they are acquaintances. Emotions are running high. Everybody is angry and frustrated. Some voice their frustration out loud, when the GNB is far away.

When Farmatodo finally opens, the guards let people through in groups of ten, to avoid any confusion or coleados. Three groups go in before mine.

Once inside I keep queuing, at least in the air conditioning this time. Some people open a Gatorade or a Platanitos and then leave the empty bottle or package in the shelves.

Finally, at 10:00 AM I am able to pay and trudge home with my treasure: Colgate, mayonnaise and ketchup. 26-hours after the quest had begun the day before.