Even more crackers now…

I keep reminding myself that I DID come for the adventure of it all… And that I wanted to see how people live in Venezuela… And that’s certainly what I got. I guess I secretly hoped that it would be slightly less of a bumpy ride than it has been.

Anyway, I came back to Caracas on the 23rd and got to experience my traditional Venezuelan Christmas… It was actually pretty low key, but nice. I got invited to Yordano’s place to spend Christmas with his friends and family. We just ate the traditional foods: hallacas, pan de jamon, potato salad … and of course plenty of rum and music. I must have had more rum than I thought, because most of my photos from the night were extremely out of focus! Here are a couple that survived: Hallacas wrapped in leaves from Plantain trees and the Ham bread.

The night was interesting too in that I got to see the “other” side of Caracas, or at least one of the “other” sides. When I first got to Caracas I was raving about how nice it is. Lonely Planet doesn’t know what it’s talking about, I thought!! People were quick to point out that I was staying in a very affluent area and that other parts of Caracas not like the cozy and comfortable Los Palos Grandes. They weren’t wrong. Although most of Caracas and Venezuela looks quite shabby and deteriorated, once you step out of the east part of Caracas, the deterioration and shabbiness gets a whole lot worse. The shanty towns and “bad bits” aren’t confined to certain areas either. You can be in a relatively OKish place, then quickly go round the corner and you descend into a kind of scary post apocalyptic world. Yordano’s area is like that. It’s about ten minutes walk from Plaza Bolivar and the downtown area, which looks relatively ok. The area beyond Plaza Bolivar toward his place, isn’t beautiful but not THAT bad either, by Latin American standards. However, crossing the road from his place is stepping into a post-apocalyptic hell hole. It’s scary.

It’s also not far from “El Helicoide” and could be easily seen from the living room window. The Helicoide was an ambitious building project that started in the fifties but was never completed. It was like an architectural sculpture designed to be a giant commercial space and shopping mall with a road that goes around it spiralling upwards. It was intended to have shops, exhibition areas, discos and even a helipad but was eventually abandoned before completion. It’s had various uses in it’s time but is now used as a prison. It currently houses various political prisoners, the leader of the opposition being one of them.  You can see part of it in this picture…

I’m staying in Santa Eduvigis this time, just a couple of minutes walk from Los Palos Grandes. It’s a beautiful place with amazing views to all of Caracas.  

It doesn’t rate quite as high on the convenience factor though in so much as there isn’t anything directly outside the front door, unlike in the other place. The problem with Caracas is that once the sun goes down, EVERYWHERE is a no-go zone. The nearest restaurant is only one block away, quite literally only a two or three minute walk, but once the sun goes down, it’s taxi only… Even to go only one block!

Taxi drivers are funny lot. I got a cab from the hotel next door the other day… I think the cab drivers there get paid a regular wage rather than on a “per trip” basis so aren’t overly enthusiastic, to say the least. Actually, the words “enthusiasm” and “Venezuelan service” don’t generally belong in the same sentence, but this guy was over the top. He was really annoyed that he had to go out at night and insisted that I give him directions on how to get there. I pointed out that he was the taxi driver, not me and he was a local, not me. He didn’t care and it was a very stressful trip.

Other than, it’s just been the usual money issues, dealing with banks everyday and trying to get cash.I caved in today and went and changed some dollars at the official extortionate rate of 672 bolivars to the dollar at the government Italcambio office. It was the only way I could get enough cash. After the whole fiasco with recalling the 100 bolivar notes, the ones that I got today were obviously newly printed and never used. They’re just pumping more worthless cash into the economy.  

It’s been a good ride, but I’m ready to get off now.

Under House Arrest

I’ve never really been a “five star resort” kind of a guy… I travel to experience life in different parts of the world, to see a different culture and how people live in different parts of the world. So, whatever the experience, whether it’s good or bad, it’s interesting for me. I came Venezuela because I really like Venezuelan people but I wanted to see for myself if the economic, social and political situation is as bad as the media makes out. It’s been an interesting week in Caracas and I got to see what I wanted, but now I’m ready to move on!

As far as the economic crisis goes, for Venezuelans, it sucks the big one! As a foreign visitor with dollars though, and staying in Los Palos Grandes, it’s kind of a case of “Crisis? What crisis?” My timing couldn’t have been any better… The president had just flooded the economy with freshly printed cash, thereby causing the bolivar to nosedive… Changing at 4000 to 1 as I did, I made a killing. Everything is CHEAP! Changing at the official rate would make Caracas quite an expensive city, not outlandishly so, but it wouldn’t really represent very good value for money. There are no obvious shortages in Los Palos Grandes either. It’s pretty much business as usual and you can get more-or-less everything you need. Most transactions are done by EFTPOS so you don’t really need to carry wheel barrow loads of cash with you. The only thing is that the EFTPOS terminals are slow and paying by cash is slow, so there are often long lines at counters. This was the payment for a meal (just one plate of food) at the restaurant downstairs the other night:

I’m trying to use up my cash so I don’t have to lug it on the plane tomorrow. I have been noticing the inflation… I use the “ham and cheese pastel” inflation index measure. I have two of these for brunch everyday:

The first day , the pastels were 900 bolivars each. The next day, they were 1000 bolivars each. Then 1200, and yesterday they were already 1500 bolivars a piece. Prices will continue to go up until they align more closely to the parallel exchange rate. Then the president will print some more money and the cycle will repeat. For those will dollars, it’s not an issue but for people like Senõra Liza it sucks. She’s a full time university lecturer and earns just 50 000 bolivars a month. You do the math.  This arepa cost 5500 bolivars…

The bigger problem here is the security situation, or rather the INSECURITY situation. Everyone has a story to tell you about being mugged at gun point and the warnings from everyone have made me absolutely paranoid. There’s a default curfew in the city. No-one is on the streets after dark and even in the daytime, I’ve been too scared to venture out of the relative safety of Los Palos Grandes. Of course it’s better to be safe than sorry, but I feel a bit like I’m under house arrest. I’m too scarred to go anywhere. I wanted to go out sightseeing the other day… Everyone is extremely cautious and worried about my safety so Yordano arranged with the father of Senõra Margarethe (who was “the dealer”) to take me around to see some sights in the safety of his big black SUV. It was extremely kind of him but the reality is that most of the sights we saw were just of traffic, congested Caracas highways and shopping malls because those were safe.

Anyway, yesterday I thought I can’t bear this anymore… I decided to take the bull by the horns and I escaped from Los Palos Grandes! I went down to Altamira station and caught the metro to Capitolio, the “downtown” of Caracas. Caracas gets such a bad rap. Even Lonely Planet says, “A sprawling metropolis choked with traffic, Caracas incites no instant love affairs. The political and cultural capital of Venezuela is densely overpopulated and hectic with a solid dose of crime and pollution. Few sections of the city are pedestrian friendly and most are downright dangerous”. Safety aside, I think it’s one of the nicer Latin American cities I’ve been to, and downtown Caracas doesn’t really look any more dodgy than downtown anywhere else on the continent.  

Anyway, I caught the train to Capitolio to see some of the sights there. I was walking up the road from the station to Plaza Bolivar, and just here…

Two of the ugliest, nastiest, fattest and rudest policeman pounced on me from behind and proceeded to shout and point “Gringo! Gringo! Gringo! Gringo!” at me. The tone was ferocious… Kind of the way you would shout the “C” word at someone who did something REALLY BAD to you. I was quite startled and taken aback… I whimpered back at them, “NO SOY GRINGO! NO SOY GRINGO!” I was scarred though, because the biggest criminals here are the police. They grabbed my bag and made me empty it out and went through everything. They read my passport like it was novel. Eventually they found nothing in my bag worth stealing so they gave it back to me. But then it got bizarre… One of the officers starts barking and pointing at me again, but this time he was saying “Donald Trump! Donald Trump!” … He then screwed up his face, stared me in the eye and interrogated me, “Are you family of Donald Trump?” It’s like there are only kinds of people in this world: Latinos or family of Donald Trump.  

Of course I answered “no” and pointed out that I actually live a very long way away from him. Satisfied that I was in no way related to Donald Trump, he continued his interrogation. “Did you vote for Donald Trump?” “What is your opinion of Donald Trump?” I wasn’t quite sure what the right answer to that question was, but I figured it probably wasn’t the best time to pull out my “Hillary For Prison” T-shirt and start chanting “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!” So, I rather timidly answered “él es loco”, hoping that that was the answer they were looking for. They laughed and let me go after that.

A bit shaken by that incident, I hot-footed it back to Capitolio metro station and retreated to the cozy safety of Los Palos Grandes and called up someone to chaperone me around town. As I said, I think Caracas is a nice city. Admittedly there isn’t a lot of Spanish Colonial architecture and most of the “modern” architecture is a bit dated and run down,… but the setting… ABSOLUTELY STUNNING!!!

La Asamblea Nacional and Plaza Bolivar…

Parque El Calvario and the view from there…

Paseo de Los Proceres…

Going Crackers in Caracas

I’ve been in Caracas for about three and a half days now…Not that I count down the days on a holiday but it’s been an extremely intense time, teetering on the verge of tears all the time and all the voices in my head going off! You know, the ones that keep saying “You f***ing idiot… What the hell are you doing?” I’m really looking forward to slowing down and starting the real holiday, if that is in fact possible in Venezuela.
Flying is invariably always worse than you anticipate. By the time you factor in getting to the airport, checking in, transit times, flying times, getting out the other side, it all adds up! What seemed like a relatively easy flight to Caracas from São Paulo ended up being a gruelling 16 hours. Flying into Caracas was a little weird. The airport was fairly deserted of planes. My Avianca flight was the only non-Venezuelan aircraft in the field and the arrivals hall was pretty empty. The bonus is that you get through immigration and customs pretty fast! There were quite a few sideways glances in the arrivals hall and the immigration officer seemed a little surprised that a foreigner was here on holiday. With a puzzled look on her face, she kept asking me, “You’re here for what? Tourism????? Five weeks???” She didn’t even know if I needed a visa… She asked me!

My friend Yordano met me at the airport.  

Everyone was terribly concerned that as an obviously non-Venezuelan person I would not get out of Maiquetia alive…. So he came out to the airport to meet me so I wouldn’t have to deal with any of the “abusers” (as he likes to call them, referring to customs officers and cab drivers) on my own. Yordano used to have a job in a bank, but the pay was so low that he couldn’t justify the time spent working there, so he quit and so now he has a lot of free time on his hands…. Lucky for me! We got a cab and he took me to meet the lovely Liza to get me settled in Los Palos Grandes and try to get all the money business sorted out. The trip from the airport was full on, particularly with very little sleep: a non-stop barrage of dos and don’ts for Caracas (mostly don’ts though). The locals really instil fear into you, which is a good thing, but makes you feel very on edge all the time. Caraquenõs speak like “verbal diarrhoea on speed”. People who are not used to dealing with people who don’t speak their language or who have never been in a country where they are forced to speak a second language, simply don’t understand the concept of “please speak slowly and clearly”. Although I speak some Spanish, everything I learnt seems almost useless in Caracas. They drop so many letters from words … It’s taking a while to get my head around it! I’m permanently being introduced as “Mati Koki”… “Are you tired” becomes “ta cansado” instead of “estas cansado”… The other day we got a “chi” (chip) for my phone… I should be very careful of my “lato” (laptop)… And don’t wear cho (shorts) to the club. WECO (welcome) A CARACA!!

Caracas gets a very bad rap. I personally like ugly cities anyway… The people are generally nicer because they have to try harder. Beautiful cities = horrible people. Just look at Barcelona…. What a nightmare dealing with those Catalans! I admit so far I have seem very little of the city, only the drive from the airport and a bit of walking around Los Palos Grandes, Altamira, La Castellana (the so-called “best parts”) and a bit of the downtown. So far, I think it’s not that bad, at least by Latin American standards. Caracas had it’s boom time in the 70’s and the architecture reflects that. Around Altamira, it’s very attractive. Other parts of the city are kind of run down. The setting is absolutely stunning … It lies in a valley surrounded by hills and mountains. Admittedly most of the hills are covered in shanty towns. It’s very green and you can always hear birds chirping.

After three days of trying, I finally managed to open a Venezuela bank account, changed US$200 in cash at a rate of 4100 bolivars to the dollar… AND got 220 000 bolivars in cash!!! I deserve a gold medal at the Black Market Olympics!

Anyway, we made a call to a lady who Yordano only refers to only as “La Gorda” (the fat one) and she put us on to “the dealers”, Margarethe and Pedro. The whole day (Wednesday) was spent hanging around waiting for Margarethe. You know how it is with Latinos… First she was supposed to come over to my place at 11.30 am…. Then it was 12.30 … 12.30 became 4.30 … But in the end she couldn’t make it at all and so we were instructed to meet her at 7 pm at Parque Carabobo metro station to do the deal. We met her at the station, in rush hour, in the pouring rain, surrounded by extremely dodgy looking people and went into some dirty corner next to a trash room, all huddled around very closely and did our secret business. It felt like the equivalent of shooting up heroin in Pitt Street Mall.

The bolivar is free fall. When we negotiated the deal, it was at 4100. Already one hour later it was at 4200 and in the evening when we met her and did the deal, it was at 4600!!!!!

The whole of Thursday was spent running around doing banking. I’m a bit sick and to be honest, the whole thing is a bit of a blur. I don’t know how Yordano did it. I just followed instructions, signed and did my thumb prints… But he called his friends at the bank and then the next thing I know, I have an account. It is otherwise impossible for tourists to open an account here.

One of the many aspects of the economic crisis here is that there isn’t enough cash to go around. The largest denomination note is only 100 bolivars, which is now worth about 2.5 cents!! The government hasn’t actually had enough money to print more money, so cash is being rationed. The daily withdrawal limit is only 10 000 bolivars. There are huge queues at banks everywhere. People use debit cards for most transactions, but for some things you absolutely DO NEED cash.

I don’t know how Yordano did it, but we took about an hour bus ride out to a place called Los Teques. I just remember from one of the first episodes of Banged Up Abroad, when those two British guys ended up in prison in Venezuela, it was in Los Teques! We went to visit a friend of his who works in a MAKRO supermarket there. Again, the whole thing is a bit of a blur, I just did what I was told… I don’t know what he did, but we shook a few hands and the next thing I know is that I have a bag of 220 000 bolivars worth of cash!

It’s been a week and a half or being solidly on the go and now I’m paying the price… I’ve got a cold! Back to bed today I think. And just some assorted snaps…

Plaza Francia, Altamira.

My street in Los Palos Grandes

“La Estancia” in Altamira

A view of “downtown” with the “Tower of David” building (the world’s only vertical shanty town)

Teresa Carrenõ Theatre

Hillside shanty town (one of many!)