Ears were somewhat burning as coworkers suspiciously whispered. Eventually, one called me over directing attention to a copy of USA Today. There, buried in a world events sidebar column, was picture of a young woman on her knees with arms lifted upward in surrender while an armed soldier held rifle at steady aim. Background was a haze of smoke and confusion from the streets of Caracas.
There was joking about eventually finding my picture in the paper based on my upcoming trip. I self-assuredly quipped about being the potential photographer who takes and sells a similar shot. Later that weekend, I wasn't as cocksure when the same coworker hurriedly rushed me off to witness a news report about a travel advisory issued by the U.S. government for Americans traveling to Venezuela...two days before departure.
In a nutshell, current president Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998 after obtaining popularity from a failed coup attempt six years earlier for toppling a corrupted government. Once in office, he immediately rewrote the constitution giving himself full power and control over everything like a dictatorship.
Private enterprise began to collapse including banks and the oil industry, the economy began to spiral downward; protests and rioting ensued led by the country's suddenly pinched wealthy and avidly backed by 85% living in poverty. I knew these things long before, but then why go to Venezuela?
Similarities of Familiarities
Monthly promotionals with my Citibank credit card statements, linked to American Airlines, ran the enticing special one too many times - round-trip award flights to Maracaibo for 25,000-miles; a 15K discount. Mileage savings were also offered to Dominican Republic's airports, but I was ready for a change; something different that I'm not sure I found.
There's no denying I'm terribly spoiled, biased when it comes to the Caribbean...which Venezuela wasn't despite their 2813km coast bordering a dirty, angry sea with tides forceful enough to suck the trunks right off your waist! Otherwise, it was a similar cheap adventure, foods/drinks were basically the same, and obsessions with Salsa & Merengue blasting everywhere brought things too close to home in the islands.
Perhaps this won't make any more sense to you than it does me, but I went looking for something different - which is why I didn't particularly care for Venezuela overall because it was too much like the DR...and at the same time, because it wasn't DR.
What I did encounter was kindling hatred towards the U.S. masked behind an element of culture that strives to materialistically emulate everything about us. A poor economy and lack of knowledge or professional know how keeps local proprietors from competing with international investors and transplanted expats which are threatening over-development in catering to once wealthy Venezuelans; biggest segment of the country's tourism which has kept it so inwardly focused.
Again, familiar critical issues but this time more overwhelming than ever before. Never have I been so ready to shed consciousness of responsible travel and put blinders on for simply being able to selfishly enjoy a trip without assuming levels of concern, responsibility for local environs and conditions. It wasn't long before even I was struggling to answer the question everyone else had already asked, "Why Venezuela?"
Against All Odds
Second only to Miami, Venezuela's sequestered wealth and knowledge have given birth to a booming entertainment industry through television productions for the Latin American world. Infamous, trashy Novelas are almost entirely filmed here; significance dictating to the state of daily affairs.
Entering local bars/restaurants regardless of time, at least one television will be tuned into these Spanish soap operas. Whether music is actually turned down to hear what's going on is at the owner's discretion but these days the TV mute-button worked just as well.
Second and third television sets were on channels always broadcasting daily riotings and chaos in Caracas and throughout the country, or tragic aftermath from the train bombing in Madrid, or war in Iraq; potential video clips from hell on earth if watching long.
While it didn't take common sense to know talking politics with a local would be asking for trouble, especially coming from a gringo, these topics crept into too many conversations amongst limited foreigners who found ourselves clinging together for added senses of safety and security.
Whether the season or problems, travelers were at a minimum and solely from Europe. Never before have I been so quick to dodge local experiences in lieu of enjoying time with other travelers; an unspoken, welcomed element all seemed willing to embrace based on situations within country and entire continent.
South America has that reputable unsettled, last frontier-feel of a forbidden outlaw waiting to be called out by the gutsy traveler. Hacienda-styled posadas and buildings looking like transplants from Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid only reinforced this untamed environment.
Green and vulnerable was how I often felt compared to traveling comrades I crossed paths with; people I came to appreciate as "hardcore" sojourners blazing new trails where they knew they often might not be wanted. Two weeks paled in comparison as no one I encountered planned on staying less than three...or at least three months.
One older couple from London's outskirts were on their third consecutive year spending winter gallivanting around South America; something I commented was very admirable since American society is not conducive for allowing such. As they shared tales about adventures through Bolivia, Brazil, Guyana and other countries, Randall and Estelle always reemphasized the message any of us vagabonds are really searching for.
It wasn't about freedom from time, job or other commitments but rather having what you really want out of life. According to them, it was cheaper to come spend UK-winters half the world away. As if to prove sincerity, they'd even both quit their jobs this time, subleased their flat, and were anticipating arrival of family members coming to spend April before all returned in early May.
We randomly were together through two similar destinations which only increased my curiosity; especially after they'd hooked-up with a middle-aged Scottish couple on the same type of escape mission fueled by the same outlook. Neither pair had encountered any types of problems, had anything lost or stolen, and seemed all but oblivious to conditions wherever they'd temporarily chosen to call home. They encouraged those who hadn't been so fortunate.
Alexander, a young man from Slovenia, was on a month-long adventure which immediately started with being driven off in a taxi at Caracas's airport and being robbed at gunpoint. He'd since been mugged again and was enduring quite well hassles of no one willing to accept traveler's checks. For him, Venezuela's adverse conditions were no different than turmoil he was used to growing up with in long-troubled Yugoslavia.
Long-waiting for boat pick-up on one of Morrocoy's cays, I was in good company with a couple of pals living on opposite sides of the border dividing the Czech Republic from Slovakia. Just finishing a 3-day camping stint on the deserted island, these guys were obviously having the times of their lives.
As they began detailing their weeks of explorations, they'd pretty well covered the entire country while experiencing about every kind of travel-related woe and misery along the way. Generously passing around what was left of their bottle of Aniversarío rum, the Martin & Lewis-type duo could only laugh at their misadventures through a leisure they'd once been denied.
Travel was a luxury! Not because of wealth, time or even desire but solely on freedom of opportunity. Both expressed being too young for detailing what life was like growing up when their countries were united under communist rule, but Zdenek recalled youthful anticipation of his family planning to visit relatives in neighboring Hungary.
They waited over three years for visas to be approved; the trip never taken because documents for his sister were denied. You just felt these fun-loving guys were not only globe-trotting for themselves, but also for families and fellow countrymen who'd long been deprived these opportunities.
So Why...or Why Not Venezuela?
Perhaps this was the longest two weeks of travel I'd ever braved, but it certainly wasn't enough to begin exploring all this diverse country offers. It's untamed, wild and waiting beyond anything I was able to accomplish. But even greater than the Venezuelan experience was finding new outlooks on basic concepts of travel inspired by those who shared the passion.
Destination, and conditions found once arriving, were not issues at hand. Learning to take extremely good days with the bad, just as life is in general, was a travel twist needing embraced. It was about opportunity, experience, and being able to cross one more place off that travel Wish List; thankfulness for living another day in a different place a different way.
Would I consider returning? Absolutely, but not before the government and economy have stabilized. But I can promise one thing: the next time I set out looking for something different, I'll be heading back across the pond to Europe!