Patria Dearest: Toyota es Toyota

My family is returning to Venezuela for the first time in 8 years. I’m writing a series of blogs about my kids’ first encounter with la patria

We arrived on a Tuesday night. It was dark, save for the scattered white light patches that make the streets look like a creepy office hallway. We didn’t take the “scenic route.” It was, however, a very warm welcome, the song of the Caracas frogs is always the quickest path to reconnecting with home. Margarita (9) and Rosie (12), the pseudonyms they picked to honor their dust-gathering American Girl dolls, were, of course, the central pieces of our arrival. It doesn’t matter how many years go by, you will always look at yourself in the mirror and see the image that you have of yourself in your head, but children are like walking sand clocks. Some of my siblings (we’re five) had gone four years without seeing my kids, and were obviously shocked. We talk on the phone, chat through whatsapp compulsively, and even play Fortnite together (we have a badass family squad), a very active effort to fool the passage of time and the separation. And just like your image in the mirror, with growing children, there’s no getting around it. When you see them—taller, with their own well-defined personalities—all those efforts vanish and you realize just how long it’s been.

As I was drinking my morning coffee the next day, I noticed Margarita staring out the window. My in-laws’ apartment is close to El Avila (“the mountain that decorates our city”), so close that sometimes it feels as if you were in the front row seat of an IMAX theater. Margarita just stood there without saying one word. I just let her take it in. Then, I walked toward her and when she noticed me, she turned, still with her eyes wide open and said: “wow, it’s so big.” In that moment I realized something I hadn’t thought of. Margarita hadn’t been this close to a mountain ever before in her life. Or at least she didn’t remember. We’ve traveled plenty, but lately it’s mostly been to big-flat cities. And living in Florida, well, the closest thing we have to a hill is that huge landfill at Doral. I enjoyed seeing her have this reaction, and those that followed, every time. The rite of passage of every caraqueño. I told her how her great-grandfather opened several hiking routes in the mountain and how the highest water spring in the mountain was named after him.

Their first-encounter with Guacamayas, the possum-sized yellow and blue parrots that have invaded the valley of Caracas was also a joy to watch. Even when these days you can see pictures and videos of parrots flooding Venezuelan social media, this is not something I grew up with. When I was a kid the city of the friendly Guacamayas was the city of the satellite dishes, since many houses and buildings would have car-sized antennas to get a glimpse of HBO, MTV, and TVE. While ruins of some of these antennas remain as a token of a time in which we had the drive to force ourselves into modernity, this landscape still offers some magical moments: you read a tweet about the migration of millions of yellow butterflies, you look out the window and there they are.

Apart from the closeness to nature, they’ve been impressed by the malls. While they aren’t paying much attention to how many (and which) stores are open, the structures themselves have been enough to make an impression. The spaceship shape (Macross-style) of the Millenium mall and the brick office towers of Centro San Ignacio (where mammy and papi met). Also, they visited a couple of bodegonian-style entertainment spots for youths and children… in Margarita’s words:

“Rosie, we’re not in Miami anymore.” 

While Rosie is impatient and wants to be taken to the beach as soon as possible. I’ve been struggling to take my distance and allow her to make her own idea of the city. I constantly try to cheat for the purpose of these posts, by inquiring about her impressions. What do you think of the city, so far? Meh, it’s all right. A teenager’s answer. I feel self-conscious to a point I never thought I would be. I really want them to appreciate it. Not like we’re thinking of moving back—although every day someone else asks if we are. 

When she arrived at my parents’ for the first time, Rosie reconnected quickly with some of her first memories. She went straight for the spots she remembered the most and jumped right into the photo albums. A big part of their trip so far has been spent mining for our old stuff.

Margarita was just a few months old the last time she was there. “I remember some smells, though…” Yeah, right.

I may have underestimated them and the city by thinking this would be like a clash of cultures or the encounter of two worlds. It hasn’t been so yet. They haven’t been comparing the U.S. to Venezuela as I thought they would be or spending time in the details, the cracks, the stuff that has decayed and that we do compare with and look at obsessively. Like the streets or the 30-year-old vehicle fleet that packs them. In fact, at my parents’ they turned my 25-year-old pickup truck into a playground. Margarita thinks it’s the coolest car in the world, she may come out of this trip saying Toyota es Toyota, pana.

It also helps that rain has made the city lush and pompous. On the caraqueño infatuation with the mountain, always remember: When someone from Caracas spaces-out admiring the mountain, we’re not only getting caught in its silhouette and deep forest, we’re also looking at what’s behind it.

Next stop: Venezuela y sus playas.

CODA: A few weeks ago, my Ávila obsession was roasted by a group of friends from different Venezuelan cities. I found myself in a car, riding from Orlando to Miami, with a Maracucho, a Lecherian, and a guy from Ciudad Bolivar (I will not call him a Bolivarian). Mochima, El Puente, Guayana, they all had examples of more impressive landmarks than El Ávila. I agreed with all the examples and showed my appreciation. “Of course,” one of them said, “you caraqueños feel like you own Venezuela…” He was not wrong.

Start here: Patria Dearest