Flying to Caracas last Saturday, I sat next to a woman with a facemask who seized into a death cringe every time someone coughed lightly from a speck of dust. It wasn’t until I walked through the airport terminal in Venezuela that I realized the code-red-style measures transport authorities were taking in light of the A1H1400tothe17thpowertimes84≠3.14∞ virus, though the facemasks and surgical gloves worn in South America looked absolutely wimpy next to the full-body toxic waste suits the officials wear in Asian airports.
My good buddy Jorge/George (used interchangeably), who I met on my first trip to the Venezuelan capital in ’04, pressed his friend Alaa to scoop me from the airport in his tiny, dark blue Fiat with opaque, dark-boy window tinting I hadn’t seen since it was outlawed in Florida in the 80s. Three big-ass dudes piled into the thing (I’m 6’1, George is like 6’4, so I got the backseat), and we snaked down the freeway, through tunnels and past hills blanketed with the reddish constructions of the slums—called favelas in Brazil, cerros in Colombia, ranchitos in Venezuela, “the hood” in the States; all the same damn thing. It’s these areas, coupled with the vast and impoverished rural interior, where Chavez gets his support. After all, these are the marginalized people in what had been an up-and-coming capitalist society throughout the 60s and 70s, but as typical of developing countries, never had their basic needs met on a regular basis. I don’t know enough of the history to understand why counter-governmental forces like the guerrillas in Colombia, Nicaragua, or Peru were never formed, but Chavez has taken it upon himself to incite a social revolution, no matter how misguided, unorganized, or self-defeating it might be.
We bouncedrockedskatedrolled over the glistening asphalt path into the forest of concrete and glass towers of this mini-São Paulo, clowning around and snapping photos like this one (Grams pimpin’ the Z28 with Gramps ridin’ bitch), then dropped off my suitcase at Alaa’s clothing stall in the popular, populated, and poppin’ Chacaito section of town and hit Burger King for lunch. Damn all y’all…I wanted me some BK and they only just opened in Colombia this month. The plan was to find me a cheap, clean hotel that didn’t have a website (those that did were running at US$107 a night, the JW Marriott clocking in at $329), but that also wasn’t a matador (love motel).
Important side note: money is truly funny in Venezuela, and I don’t mean ha-ha, neither. There are two types of currency, the bolívar and the bolívar fuerte. The fuertes just have the extra three zero’s behind the comma removed (100,000 VEB = 100 VEF). That’s not the foolishness, though. The kicker is the exchange rate, which for me was almost at parity with the Colombian peso (100,000 COP = 120 VEF). But on the street in Barranquilla, a point of departure for many Colombians overland to Venezuela during the tensest times of the conflict and now point of return for home-coming Venekolombians, I got bolívars at three times the official rate. It involved a series of phone calls, dropping off pesos at one place and picking up bolívars at another, but for 630,000 COP I got 1,700 VEF. Cha-ching!
So, after some running around in the Fiat, stopping at in the driveways of various familiares and underground parking garages of various matadors, some of which wouldn’t allow check-in until 10PM, we found the enticingly named Hotel Harmony. At 160 fuertes a night, I slept under frigid air and beneath the worldly sounds of Nat Geo Music in a basic but clean room for $30: a damn steal.
G and A headed off to the store for a bit and once settled, I pretty much did the only thing you can do during the day in Caracas: cruised the mall. Believe me, folks, let Chavez try and change this country into a version of Cuba; that fool would be shot dead. Caraqueños are some shoppin’ mofos and won’t nobody tell them they have to give up their Gucci knock-offs and TGI Friday’s ribs in the name of some stupid social experiment. He might get away with some big industry privatization, but there’s just way too much deep-rooted foreign investment in the country at a level unimaginable in 1950s Cuba when the United Fruit Company was the only game in town. Anyway, looots of hotties, including this young lovely performing Middle Eastern dance at a Lebanese restaurant in the El Recreo mall.
In the evening, I met up with George in Chacaito and we took the Metro (fast, efficient, clean, quiet) out to Xica da Silva’s (SHEE-ka da SILL-va) house so he and Xica could get ready for a night of samba and stripping: George “dances” with a Brazilian samba group that performs for private parties, and there were three engagements that night (in Colombia, people always order mariachis for weddings and birthdays…to me, booty-shaking beats drunken group singing anyday). I went as unofficial group photographer snapping stills of the three garotas, the batucada drummers, and George’s samba-esque gyrations. Three birthday parties and four hours later, everybody was dead and we scratched the planned night of partying in exchange for some needed (and very short-lived) shut-eye.
Next up: me, at the ass-crack of dawn on a Sunday morning in Caracas.
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