Christmas in Caracas – part 1

Christmas for me is a time for family and for friends. For relaxing at the end of a busy year, eating mince pies and reflecting on everything that has passed and looking ahead to new adventures and challenges. For all my previous 27 christmases this has meant being with my parents and at least one of my siblings. However, this year with my parents, brother, sister and I all being in different continents I decided I would stay here in Venezuela and be with my lovely girlfriend Carla. This will be our last year in Venezuela so the plan is to make the most of it.

Venezuela being Venezuela just now it has certainly been a unique experience.

Christmas here kind of creeps up on you as nothing really changes and before you know it it’s christmas eve and you’ve still got all your presents to buy. The seasons do officially change from rainy to dry although this year it has rained a lot and still continues to do so. Anyway, the sun shines just the same and the temperature remains a constant 20 – 30 degrees centigrade, a million miles away from white christmases and endless days of freezing rain that bring in the festive season. Even though there has been lots of ‘lluvia’ since coming back in July the water shortages continue with only 1 hour of water in the morning and 1 in the evening from Wednesday – Sunday. This has meant frequently being washed down the hill from school on my ‘moto’ and having to wait until 8PM for a shower. Some people aren’t convinced that driving around the worlds most dangerous city on a potentially dangerous vehicle is the best idea however for me it is ‘lo maximo’. In a great climate (minus the tropical rain showers) and with horrible congestion weaving in and out of the lines of stationary cars it makes my door to door commute about 7 minutes.

img_0688In front of school with my trusty steed – Loncin 250CC Super Bike

As a race we are incredibly adaptable and Venezuelans seemingly more than most. Since things started heading south about 15 years ago when Hugo Chavez embarking on his dream of ‘socialisma’ the Venezuelan people have been gradually forced into a daily reality that if you asked someone at the dawning of this social experiment they would have thought you were 100% loco!

With school finishing nice and early on the 16th of December the plan was to get away to Margarita for a week. Venezuela’s biggest Caribbean island was once a major tourist destination and had regular flights jetting in from all over the world. With Venezuela’s current difficulties there are now zero international flights coming in, however the beaches are still beautiful, the water is still Caribbean and Carla’s ‘abuela’ has a really nice apartment there. The only issue was that seemingly everyone else in Caracas had the same idea and flights were harder to find than a loaf of bread. All seemed lost until we got a message from a friend who had managed to find flights at the last minute. Be at the airport for 11Am for the 4Pm flight and all would be good. So we threw some shorts and sunscreen into a bag, gave our number 1 taxi drive Juan a call and off we went. Juan had been off the road for the last few months after getting his car robbed at gun point. Somewhat fortunately it had turned up, although without a battery, radio, lights and anything else that could be stripped for value. After begging, borrowing (not stealing) he has managed to get it more or less roadworthy, although without any lights he was restricted to trips in the light of day, fine for us on this occasion. On arrival to the Simon Bolivar national airport we were met by seas of people. A ticket to Margarita costs about 15,000 Bolivares, at the most recent black market $ change this comes in at just under $5 so it’s all pretty affordable even for locals. Getting out of Caracas airport without hitch is a bit like navigating the Bermuda Triangle and predictably things didn’t go to plan.

Although we had a reservation apparently we needed a ticket from the agency. With our friends cousin (the ticket contact) being with almost every other Venezuelan in Panama City and out of contact we put our names at the top of a waiting list and hoped for the best. Surely with our reservation there would be at least two free spots? There was two seats although a persuasive ‘senor’ with a passport with a few ‘cookies’ and another who ‘worked with the airline’ miraculously got bumped ahead of us and we were left arguing the case as Venezolano Air started checking in it’s Maracaibo flight. According to our new friend who was trying to get home to her family in Porlamar for christmas there was a ferry that left form the port of La Guaira which is only minutes from the airport.

Well we were there anyway and going home defeated wouldn’t have been much fun so we went about trying to find a room for the night. First challenge would be getting a taxi. Pretty simple you would imagine at an airport. Oh wait, this is Venezuela. An ‘oficial taxista’ in a white shirt offered his services for 20,000 Bs. – 5,000 more than to get to Margarita. So you are left with the choice of getting taken for a ride (quite literally) or spinning the roulette wheel and jumping in with a complete stranger who has stuck a Taxi sticker inside their clapped out old banger and hoping they weren’t going to rob, kidnap or kill us. We opted for this option, Carla did the talking, I tried to hide my Gringo face and we struck upon Alberto an amiable lad who promised to help us out on our quest in exchange for our last 2,500 Bs, all in 50 Bolivar notes. El Presidente, Nicolas Maduro in his latest masterstroke had decided that what was needed to combat the powers plotting against Venezuela was to pull the largest note from circulation, the 100 Bolivar note (currently worth about $0.02). Venezuelans were given 3 days (the first being a bank holiday) to spend up or bank their bricks of fairly worthless cash. We went for the option A and took a sports bag full of mula to buy a christmas tree. Apparently the going rate was 70,000 so off we went and duly found a nearly symmetrical looking Douglas Fir, at 50,000 it seemed like a steal, although this left us with 20,000 Bs. in soon to be worthless wonga. So with the ‘arbolita’ strapped to the roof of our friends 4×4 we headed for the supermarket to stock up on any non-perishables they might have in stock. It turned out we weren’t the only ones with this plan and 2.5 hours later, still in the queue and the young cashier hand counting thousands of never used notes it seemed that it might be better to use the 200 sheets we had left for origami, or keep it in the closet for when we ran out of toilet roll. It then struck me that how often in my life would I be in this situation? Standing alongside people trading their savings for a trolley of shopping. I took a mental photograph and smiled to myself as the lady in front dug out another two bricks from her hand bag to pay for two packets of spaghetti and some Oreo cookies. As it happened the dark powers that conspire to turn all of Maduro’s masterstrokes into mierda averted the planes carrying the new 500 and 5000 Bolivar notes and so in a U-turn bigger than David Cameron’s ‘Pasty Tax’ he decided that they’d keep the notes after all! It would have been a great Apil’s Fool although not so funny for Venezuelans who had queued for hours to bank their cash. They would now have to queue all over again to get it back out. In one city it was too much for people to take and they rioted, smashing up the city centre and looting businesses. However, this was soon quelled by the powerful army and most just took it in the Venezuelan way, patiently paying for grotesque political failings and adjusting to the latest setback.

img_0720-2Aforementioned tree with new Christmas stocking courtesy of my better half Carla

Anyway suffice to say we did not have much cash and Alberto didn’t have a ‘punto’ card machine fitted in his clapped out old Chevvy. It also didn’t have any AC or suspension and the bottom scraped along the street every time we hit a bump in the road – this was pretty often as as you may have guessed upkeep of roads is not particularly high on the priority list at the moment. Alberto steered clear of what he called ‘Motel Muerto’s’ and duly found us a not too shabby looking joint down by the beach, which with an en-suite and cable TV for 12,500 Bs. (about $4) seemed like like a good deal. Although it turned out to be a love motel that generally charged by the hour Coach Carter was on the TV and the AC worked so we rested up and true to his word Alberto showed up the next morning to take us to the Terminal. By now cashless we made him an online transfer – since we were practically family by now he was happy to take our word on this and we parted on good terms. Even though Venezuelans are going through a unbelievably tough, testing time they are incredibly positive and fun-loving people who continue to amaze me with their reserves of positivity and humanity.

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The port at La Guiara is the biggest in Venezuela and was clearly ready to deal with huge cargo ships, cruise liners and anything else one could expect from a massive modern multi-national shipping centre. However, it was completely deserted on this Saturday morning and the workers sat around reading about how great ‘La Patria’ was working and probably wondering how to get their Bolivares back from the bank and somehow turning them into presents and food for their families at christmas.

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There was however two large queues. The larger of the two was in front of ‘Banco de Venezuela’ where people queued to either put in or take out bricks of Bolivares. The other marginally smaller was for the ‘ConFerry’ office due to open in 30 minutes. Upon speaking to a gentlemen at the front of the line who had slept where he now stood there were no tickets and he brandished a hand-written list spanning four pages of names of people waiting in the hope of getting on that afternoons passage. At this point we decided to cut our losses and with our tails between our legs limped back to Caracas with Juan and his headlight-less car. Juan was a bit tired as with it being a Saturday and his Cedula ending in 04 he had been up since 02:30AM queuing for whatever the government supermarkets might have. He had done quite well and had managed to get himself two kilos of Corn Flour, a bag of rice and couple of packs of spaghetti all at highly subsidised prices. This is the weekly reality for working Venezuelans trying to survive. Get up in the middle of the night and line up for hours on end in the hope of getting enough food to get you and your family through ‘la semana’. Back in our nice if often waterless apartment Carla set about making some Arepas, I popped around the corner to pick up a things to fill these Venezuelan style rolls. Upon entry to the small express style ‘Excelsior Gama Supermercado’ there was a smiling ‘chico’ handing out two tubs of margarine per person. It was my lucky day! I had not seen margarine since before the summer and so i gratefully grabbed my two and set about finding a ripe avocado and few tomatoes. By the time I had prodded the avocados only to find they weren’t ready the cashiers were filling up fast and by the time I made it to the shortest of the lines it seemed everyone and their mother-in law had heard about the tubs of gold being handed out and flocked from far and wide. The queues quickly became ‘cola horrible’ and each person ahead of me was joined by ‘cedula’ wielding friends with their two tubs. 2 hours later I got my fingerprints scanned, gave my phone number, date of birth, star sign, favourite colour and anything else you could think of to the trainee cashier, paid and left, incredibly grateful that this was not something I had to do every day to try and survive. When I recounted this to Juan the next day he looked at me enviously and scolded me for not giving him a call to share in my great fortune.  The Arepas, having been in the oven for 2 hours were the crispiest I have after had, which luckily is just how I like them and with the margarine I was feeling like good, like a Venezuelan, adjusting to the crazy reality that I am now a part of and trying to make the best of it.

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Part 2 coming soon…

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