Friday, March 18, 2011

Arriving in Caracas…

Presidente de la República Bolivariana de Vene...

Image by ¡Que comunismo! via Flickr

In my travels through South America, the refrain that I heard in Sao Paolo and in Bogota was “the city is like any other city. There are some areas you go to that are safe. Some are dangerous. Just be smart. Maybe it makes sense to not go around alone at night and you’ll be fine.”

Caracas was different.

Pretty much I everyone I spoke to about Caracas said…”It’s dangerous. You probably shouldn’t leave your hotel unless you are with someone you know.

Don’t take a cab. Arrange for rides.”

So, I did.

My usual travel philosophy is “Make sure I go out and do something unique to that city so that I don’t just stay in the hotel.”

In Caracas, I suspended that rule. My activity consisted of “hiring a private driver and car (via an approved service through Microsoft) and going from the airport to the hotel…all the while, looking out the window.)

So that’s what I did.

Now, when you arrive in Venezuela, you see the beautiful beaches, the beautiful mountains, the equatorial climate and it looks nice.

The airport is clean and modern.

But, then you see it.

Everywhere…and I mean EVERYWHERE, you start seeing signs for “Independencia y Revolucion” and “Socialists Grande” or something to that effect.

The propaganda machine is in full effect.

But, just because you say something doesn’t make it true.

Once you clear immigration, get your bags, and go through customs, there’s a small area with some railings behind which stand family members and car service pick up people holding signs with names.

I wasn’t going to leave that area until I found my guy (which I did quickly, fortunately).

Now, here’s the strange part…no fewer than 4 different security guards in that restricted area came up to me and said “Cambio?" wishing to exchange dollars on the black market.

Now, even if I was going to get the rate of the century, I certainly wasn’t going to do it in the open of the airport with a security guard.

And, for all I know, I would exchange it on the black market and then the guy would promptly turn me over to the police.

No, thanks, I’ll pay the official rate…kind of like a bribe, I suppose.

And, once my driver (Miguel—really nice family guy) took my bags and escorted me out to the parking lot, another 4 people asked “Cambio?”

I wasn’t getting the distinct “lipstick on a pig” feeling in this place.

The car, a generic Chevrolet with tinted windows (I guess to protect the anonymity of the gringo inside), was fine. The driver was great and friendly. We made light conversation.

Of course, my usual topic is the political situation and economics, but I shied away from that this time around.

As you drive into and through this city of 7 million, you can’t help but notice the contrasts (not between rich and poor like in other S. American countries-though I’m sure that exists), but between the propaganda proclaiming how great everything is and the raw fact that the city is just really dirty.

You’ll see the occasional sign of wealth, a DirectTV satellite dish, a Mercedes, a fancy apartment building with not only high walls, but electrified wiring on top of it, but for the most part, everything is just plain falling apart.

The buildings look like they haven’t been renovated since, I don’t know, 1975…the slums (and there are many of them) are just a mess. Even the central business district which has a few “semi-modern” buildings is just dirty. The windows haven’t been washed and are covered in grime. Like the whole place needs a shower.

It’s not that there is trash everywhere…some parts yes, but nothing obscene. It’s just that entropy has set in.

The cars are rusting, held together by string and wire, and Bolivar’s image is all over the place.

A few times, I heard a siren and thought “usually, I know the siren isn’t coming for me. Now, I’m worried that a corrupt cop might just pull me over.”

I was excited to meet the Microsoft folks. They had intimated to me that not everyone buys into the philosophy here.

But, as I rode through the streets, I thought “WHAT am I doing here? It’s at odds with everything I believe.”

I get to the hotel. Nice, friendly, clean, western. Everyone had told me that the hotel was my safe reservoir.

The bellboy, a very nice guy named Guillermo, helped me with my bags. I had no Venezuelan Bolivars with me. I said, “I’ll change some money later and find you.”

To which he said, “Oh, you need to change money? I can help you with that.”

More on Caracas coming soon…

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