Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Ghetto Fabuloso -or- Where I've Been: Caracas

They say Caracas es Caracas, lo resto es montes y culebras—Caracas is Caracas, the rest is just shrubs and snakes. With serpentine highways jack-knifing, double-backing, and clinging to mountainsides before plunging through tunnels that connect the country with the Valley of Caracas, that statement is beautifully obvious. The capital of Venezuela, at once cosmopolitan and ghetto, sits at the northern edge of South America, separated from the Caribbean Sea by the looming green wall of Avila Mountain and ringed by red-bricked, ever-expanding shanties that drape the hillsides.

As the principal city of the largest oil-exporting country outside the Middle East, Caracas combined the flavor and openness of the tropics with the verve and sophistication of a cosmopolis; in the 70s, Air France even ran the Concorde regularly between Caracas and Paris. Its glory days clearly over, I was last in Caracas in 2005, when Hugo Chavez still seemed harmless and funny, with his "Bush, joo are a donkay," and the comfortable controlled chaos typical of large Latin American cities still seemed intact.

Within the conglomeration of 4.5 million people, freeways course through the valley bordered by countless billboards and high-rises sprout indiscriminately like a real-live version of Sim City. Boisterous, loud, dirty, crowded, and hot, Caracas ain't pretty. But it's sexy. And what struck me most about the place was the swift friendliness (and attractiveness...hotties everywhere) of the people; how you can go up to random folks on the street doing random things, and they take you into their world for a few hours, showing you their hobbies and houses, introducing you to their friends and trying to get you drunk, their diverse interests and tastes spanning place and time. One of my friends does flatland x-treme biking while listening to Lou Rawls on MP3!

Politically speaking, I haven't seen any of the so-called reforms Chavez has put into action to nationalize major corporations and entire industries, fight labor groups (who should be his natural allies), and essentially destroy the middle class, but from what I hear from my friends in the country, things are not going well. I had intended to return over Spring Break to compare the changes I saw, but logistics made that impossible. As much as I love Cuba, I do not believe changing Venezuela into the 2.0 Beta version is the right way to achieve social equality.

Caracas is straight hood, and besides Rio de Janeiro, it's the only city where I actually felt nervous about my safety; stray bullets are common and crime has exploded. The city, it pains me to say, is on the type of downward slant that takes a place decades to rectify. But on the flip side, you got tan chulos in wifebeaters rolling through the city blasting the latest reggaeton or hip-hop in heavy '83 Chevy Malibus with their brick-house chicas smacking gum in the passenger seat. The nightspots go crazy with house or salsa til sun-up. There's ice skating on top of Avila Mountain (outdoor ice skating in the Caribbean!) and baseball outshines soccer as the nation's pastime. Afro-Latino syncretic religion is strong, as is the obvious African cultural element to the city, from the swagger and slang of Venezuelan Spanish to the proliferation of brown faces on the streets. It's like Harlem in the early 80s or DC in the 90s, not just ghetto, but also fabulous. There's something appealing about having your name engraved on your belt buckle when everyone else has, too.

I think the cosmos saved me from a great life disappointment by not allowing me to find a suitable job in the city when I was searching back in 2004. I do love Caracas and would have hated to be forced out of the country when Chavez siezes all foreign-held bank accounts.

To catch some of the true rawness of CCS, look at the first few scenes from the crime drama, Secuestro Express; very much in the vein of New Jack City and City of God. Any time I see images of the city, I remember the rush of being on the edge of anarchy. And I like it, at least in short doses.

And here's an excellent, admittedly anti-Chavez blog about the goings-on in Caracas.

Fly Brother
welcomes your views. If this post hit the spot, please comment below and/or click


Random_Personette said...

Great Post.Glad you've decided on a timetable for your posts.Your blog makes me happy.Now I can plan my life/reading/internet shopping and general procrastination around it.LOL.

I've always wanted to go to Venezuela (Caracas),sounds hella interesting, although from the amount of travel/personal blogs I read,you're the only one who has had anything nice to say about the place!For example...

See what I mean?

Ali la Loca said...

Awesome post. I really would love to visit Caracas. I made it to the Gran Sabana, via Brasil, on a road trip back in 1999 and was fascinated by what I saw along the way.

I appreciate what you said about Chavez's social revolution strategy. All of my Venezuelan friends bitterly criticize the measures he has taken, to the point where many have gone into exile outside the country.

I find it interesting that still, among a liberal-left portion of Americans (and others, to be fair), in particular in academia, there is great admiration for Chavez and his anti-imperial, nationalistic policies. How can you even begin to judge the impact certain policies have on a population if you haven't been there to witness the reality first-hand?

That's why I appreciate so much the viewpoints of people who *have* been on the ground, even if I might not agree with said perspectives. Thanks for sharing!

workhard said...

Would love to visit caracas.. Really are there stray bullets in Rio?

Meridian Homes

SDG said...

Fantastic post. I love the visual styling of your words. I feel as if I'm there. New Jack City is definitely apropos for the opening sequence of the film.

Fly Brother said...

Ladies, thanks a lot for your compliments! I've been thinking hard about Caracas after writing the post. Seriously, a few years ago, the place was hood, but it was vibrant and folks found ways to be happy: you could imagine kids cooling off under an opened fire hydrant or a group of girls jumping double-dutch (you see the pics of the boys ballin on the court). Now, it's just Boyz N Da Hood.

Random Personette: I think part of the reason my experiences in Caracas have been different than others (including dude who wrote the whole "Nuke Caracas" post) is because of my phenotype; I've never been harassed by police as a foreigner there because I don't look like a foreigner. Why would they think I had any cash when I'm a brown-skinned, Latin-looking dude in t-shirt and jeans like a million other Venezuelan brothers? I guess, also because of that, I was able to make so many friends easily.

I also think their posts/comments speak to a sense of entitlement that certain American travelers have that I'll have to talk about in a later post.

Ali: I hear you! I was one of those in the ivory tower of academia in Chavez's amen corner when he first hit the scene, when I think he embodied needed change. Since then, as described to me by in day-to-day snippets of life experience, he's become ridiculously oppressive, as the cost of living has skyrocketed (Colombians are returning home after decades of better wages and better opportunities), and staples like rice, eggs, and meat disappear from the stores. Regardless of one's political stance, that kind of instability precedes the downfall of a society, and I'm not looking forward to watching the train wreck. If I could be the benevolent dictator of any country, it would be Venezuela.

Workhard: I was referring to the stray bullets in Caracas, but yes, Rio definitely has its share. That was why I felt nervous in the city; not because of being mugged or anything, but of being caught in an open-street shoot-out between a gang and the police. Caracas ain't no joke.

SDG: Why is it that certain gangsta movies make you want to visit the place despite the danger? I would have loved to see Scotty kick Nino's ass out on the street.

Fly Girl said...

Well, this sounds like the Caracas that I've heard about. Straight ghetto fab. I've also heard about the reality of day to day living and Chavez has not made it easy. No joke indeed.

A Cuban In London said...

'They say Caracas es Caracas, lo resto es montes y culebras—'

Change 'montes y culebras' for 'areas verdes' (green areas) and that's our motto in Havana. Welcome to Latin anarchy, my friend! We never do things in half, we do things in more than one and a half :-)!

Brilliant post.

Greetings from London.

Joia said...

Ahhh Venezuela!! I went 10 years ago, right before Chavez was elected and before I really paid attention to all things international. My 15-year old self had an amazing time trekkin through El Avila, yachting around Los Roques, lunching in El Hatillo, and hitting the beaches of Puerto La Cruz. To this day, I am still amazed by the beauty of these people...just mind-boggling. Awesome post! Thanks for sharing! :)

Fly Brother said...

Fly Girl: Dude has screwed things up royally, and as Cubano says rightly, mis Latinos do everything with great gusto, for better or for worse.

Cubano: I'm living the anarchy, my brother. Colombia is it's own special head case, as is Brazil...yet I can't seem to leave the region. ;-)

Joia: How come the only other Venezuela fans I know out there are sistas? You are, like, the sixth black female I know who's given props to the VZLA. To me, that's a very positive endorsement. I'll definitely concede that the place has plenty of good-looking cats, so I can see why the ladies would enjoy it.

Thanks for commenting, folk.