Maracaibo, the City That Won't Give Up

Maracaibo has been getting constant doses of all the Venezuelan disgraces. However, its inhabitants find ways to get along, survive—and even live

Facing entropy, Maracaibo comes up with all sorts of schemes to breathe once again.

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

When the lockdown started in March, I wrote a piece about Maracaibo where I wondered how long could the city endure totally empty streets and a complete shutdown. It turns out the answer is, not that long. If the world was unprepared for a pandemic, a country that wasn’t even prepared for next week was specially vulnerable. People couldn’t stay long without trying to generate income, while trying to preserve good ol’ sanity. That’s why restrictions have been very symbolic for months now, and the lack of mobility has more to do with fuel than with the pandemic.

Everything opens every weekday in Maracaibo, and I mean everything. It’s fun to see the classic fried food vendors every day, selling piezas (empanadas, cheese dumplings, friend pies) with huge, usually handmade signs. You can tell where you are in the city by the prices: I make my rounds on the bike from the middle class to the lower areas, and I see how it changes from “4 pieces for $1”, to 6 pieces, 7, 9… close to downtown, you can find 12 for $1 (the grittier the zone, the cheaper the piece). You can buy empanadas by the bulk with a couple of bucks and sit like you’re in a medieval banquet.

This massive offer of fried food, not to mention bodegas that sell assorted products from houses in the city, might sound quaint and even adorable without context, but the truth is that this is a sign of a crippingly deteriorated economy where lots of citizens have turned to selling of goods, rolling the dice to see if they somehow make it in the market, but most won’t. In a space of no more than 1.2 miles around my house, there are literally 11 places to buy cheese, but it sure doesn’t feel like you’re in any of the French Cheese Regions. 

There’s one thing I enjoy though. Remember when combos were just something you got in McDonald’s? Well, Maracaibo is combo central now. Every store tries to sell everything in combos, usually consisting of articles related to each other (hamburgers, bread, cheese, and soft drinks, for instance). 

But I’ve been mystified by more than one place; sometimes you’ll see things like a combo of Nutella, truck tires and a box of band-aids. Real head scratchers challenging everything you know about logic. I tried to get in touch with Professor Steven Pinker, who teaches a course on Rationality in Harvard to see if he would help me decipher these abstract paintings disguised as combos, but he wouldn’t answer my calls. And by the way, there’s Nutella everywhere. All these weird combos have Nutella. I think the key lies in the Nutella. You can put that last sentence on my grave by the way. 

Making light of some of these situations by no means should masquerade the grim reality of Maracaibo. Like the country itself, this is a city on its knees.

Moving on. Another common occurrence, fueled by the lack of cars on the streets, is people exercising by the hundreds. It’s fun to watch the street parade in 5 de Julio (one of the main avenues in Maracaibo) of people trying to march to a healthier life. Most of them are holding a mask instead of wearing it. Holding a mask in your hands is like using a t-shirt as socks. The turnout is big and the sunsets are beautiful… that’s what I’d say if I were a travel agent.

Students struggle for some sense of normalcy too, which is why the worst internet in the Americas is not the way you want your connection to be described. In spite of the poor (often nonexistent) connection, in spite of constant blackouts, in spite of, well, Venezuela, some students and educators make remarkable efforts to create spaces for education. Webinars and Zoom calls, like Nutella, are here too, and have given a shred of continuity to a process that was far from ideal to begin with. The education system is in a prolonged coma, but the efforts of the participants shouldn’t go without mention. 

There are a couple of things I couldn’t help but notice regarding Zoom calls, I must say. For instance, once I saw the lecturer give his class sitting in a rocking chair. The level of confidence you need to pull that off. I felt like I was in a Zoom call with Mark Twain. Then there was this guy that, during his intervention, stood up and moved from one room of his house to another, making me wonder, “If we were in the conference room of a hotel, could you take the microphone and walk to the lobby like this as a normal way of communicating?” Anyway, I guess that’s where we are now.  

Making light of some of these situations by no means should masquerade the grim reality of Maracaibo. Like the country itself, this is a city on its knees. A good disposition is necessary in order to survive the daily beatings that come with life in Maracaibo. Francisco Toro wrote that Venezuelan exiles “continue to press yesterday’s orthodoxies as though the country remained what it had been the day they left.” I feel like one of those who are still here, trying to pretend that they’re in a country that’s no more, and their struggle isn’t one of nostalgia but of sanity.

I especially see light in the sad eyes of homeless men, asking for a menial odd job here and there, trying to convey in words that they’re still valuable to the world (and even the universe). When I see these pictures of reality, I often sing in my head, “Oh sweet city of my dreams, of speed and skill and schemes. Like Atlantis you just disappeared from view.”