Before arriving in Venezuela, I heard enough bad things to make me reconsider what I was going there for. Only a month before Chavez won a very controversial election (think Bush-Gore election of 2000), Venezuela was one of the countries on the State Departments list of places not to travel to, and the airports were an area to avoid due to recent terrorist related activates. My ship was scheduled to arrive in La Guaira only four days after leaving Brazil. Warnings were broadcasted along the PA systems and during pre-port meetings. “Don’t talk politics to anyone”, “after 9pm cars don’t stop for anyone; it’s to dangerous,” and “under no circumstances never venture near the favelas.” On top of that came the ‘what not to do list’ which included; Caracas, the highway, the airport, any taxi, near the ocean where pirates lurk, to any tourist area, or anywhere in the shipyard where we were docked…this greatly limited my options for even leaving the ship.
When I arrived, I was determined to avoid Caracas like the plague. My first day, I was given the opportunity to teach English at a school in the middle of Caracas. I battle the idea for hours and almost turned back when I saw an Interpol car only a few hundred yards from my ship. I was about to break at least 30 of the 752 things on the list of ‘what not to do’; I got a taxi and set off to find the school. My group negotiated the taxi fare for a mini-van that looked like it came out of the war and took off on a 2 ½ hour ride from La Guaira to Caracas; this is where my reeducation began. Along every road, bridge, wall, or any surface for that matter I saw graffiti; not the average “T-dwag wuz here”, but passionate statements made for and against the current political direction of the country. After 45 minutes of avoiding the topic of politics we couldn’t help ourselves; we asked about the graffiti. This set the driver off onto a 2 hour speech about Chavez, his intentions, his victories for the people, the American backed rebels who were causing the resistance against the current presidency, the election, but most passionately how Chavez was a the pillar that kept Venezuela strong; that he was the breath, the pulse, the heartbeat of the country. His statements weren’t attacking us, but more of a plea for us to hear what Chavez had done for Venezuela. As we pulled up to the curve in Caracas our driver reassured us that he wasn’t a political man; his friends were much more passionate then he, and he rarely followed the news.
When the taxi stopped, I was apprehensive about getting out, but my group wasn’t turning back. I took a deep breath, held my bag tight, and stepped out of the car.
We found the school after a few wrong turns. Once inside, we were greeted by an employee of the school and were assigned to a classroom. Three of us quietly entered the room and sat in the back. We were in an advanced class, where we got to observe the students. At the end of the class the teacher asked them if they could go anywhere in the world where would they go and why? They all had different answers, but one group talked about how they wouldn’t go to New York because it is twice the size of Caracas and much more dangerous. I was surprised that they thought this. I was constantly warned about Caracas, “the murder capital of the world”, and my mind started to turn.
After the class was over we asked the teacher about this. She was born in Venezuela and spent many years in Texas. She said the difference was that in the US people kill because they are crazy, but in Caracas people kill because they are hungry. This stuck with me all day.
Several people in the group decided to stay for another class. The second room that I was in was with children who were around 10 years old. They were excited to interact with us and even wanted to play a game of win, lose, or draw. These kids were bright and vibrant, and so happy.
After leaving, I was overwhelmed by the experience. I realized that my fears were preventing me from experiencing the beauty of this country. Venezuela’s is truly a diamond in the rough for traveler who seeks adventure not through how many beaches they visit, but through the eyes of the people who occupy the land. The story of the country is found everywhere. The streets of the city are filled with the words of the people both supporting and bashing their political stance, Simon Bolivar, aka El Liberator, a well educated leader who was born in Caracas who worked to free South America from Spain, is celebrated through out the country, and the kindness and openness of the people can be found in the outside the city as locals open their doors for tourists to use a bathroom, eat, or just to sit and share stories. Venezuela is also and ecotraveler’s Mecca. Rain forests, famed waterfalls, and 1,800 miles of coastline form the country. 1,300 species of birds, 30,000 recorded species of flowering plants, as well as monkeys, caimans, jaguars, and anteaters call Venezuela home. Fifteen percent of the country is set aside to make 43 national parks some of which are so preserved that they can only be reached by plane.
Looking back I realize that my fear, my misconceptions, my ignorance almost made me miss out on seeing what Venezuela had to offer.