Surrounded by irregularly stacked houses made mostly of reddish-orange cinder blocks topped with makeshift roofs, the more affluent areas of Caracas are always reminded that poverty is just a breath away. With creatively wired electricity, these houses, known as ranchos, twinkle like stars, and their orange glow greeted my arrival to Venezuela in 2001. Though it was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen, I was too scared to appreciate it at the time.
Within three days of landing at Maiquetía airport, I was told by most never to visit these barrios, and I was given a lengthy list of foods I needed to try. The warnings and suggestions were repeated to me several times daily for at least three months. “Go to The Sambil,” they recommended, the upscale mall where most people just walked around, and some rich people shopped. At all costs, however, I should avoid a trip to Petare, one of the poorest barrios. That, they said, was like wishing for rape or death. So, naturally, the first person I dated in Venezuela was from Petare.
Starting with trespassing on cranberry bogs when I was nine, and progressing to the selection of banned books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover for high school essays, this dating choice was right in keeping with my young personality—quietly rebellious, always with an eye for the exact envelope that needed to be pushed. I hadn’t gone all the way to Venezuela just to play it safe.
My new boyfriend was an adult student of the school I worked at, and a bouncer for one of the nicer clubs of Caracas that we frequently visited. He was roughly two and a half times my size, at least eight years older, and looked, to me, a lot like Benicio Del Toro. An inexperienced dater in a foreign land, I was smitten and fell harder than I should have. I hit the town on our dates clad in my new tight pants bought on the streets of Chacao, often ditching underwear, because that lycra-based wardrobe didn’t allow the slightest room for such nonsense. Having grown up in conservative Massachusetts where people are not nearly as liberal as they purport themselves to be, I felt free, and maybe even bordered on unhinged once or thrice. Bikinis, new clothes, older boyfriend, no underwear and, sometimes, no bra; it was as thrilling as it sounds. Those who know me well know I once had a panic attack in a pair of Spanx, and thus have strong feelings about constrictive undergarments. This was true liberation for me.
I lived alongside all of the capital’s embassies in an area called Los Naranjos. It was a gorgeous neighborhood, and the apartment was sleek, modern, and fancy; I had to go through two gates and three doors just to get in. Given the height of the main gate, I sensed that armed revolution was always a possibility, and the people in my apartment complex wanted no part of that proletarian struggle. My boyfriend only came once to our apartment, and was clearly uncomfortable when he did. Maybe the gates felt confining, or perhaps the stark contrast between his place and mine was downright revolting. That that contrast that can be seen as soon as your plane lands, is probably more infuriating when inspected from the comfort of a leather couch in the heavily gated apartment of a 23-year-old young woman from the states who could be rescued if things got bad, with a quick call to the embassy down the street. Maybe that’s just me being, you know, a sensitive snowflake.
I’m not sure how long we lasted, or what brought it to an end, he was always jealous of any other man who talked to me, and made that known. Having enjoyed years of dateless freedom, I was having none of that, and I made that known too. He met my parents when they visited, just showing up at the hotel where we were staying. It was weird, and come to think of it, that was probably what brought it to a head, and then to an end. No matter the spark, I put up with no man’s shit and still don’t. Always an eye for the envelope.
The months flew by, and it wasn’t long until a Halloween party led to relationship number two. This time, I fell three times as hard and hurt myself in the process. He was the only Venezuelan I ever met that didn’t like to dance, and was careful not to show emotion, making it difficult to weather the more challenging moments of our relationship. He was good, kind, decent, and never jealous. But withholding emotion is not something I could do, no matter how hard I tried. And I did try. At that point, the money we expats were making monthly was not quite making it. Friends began scraping leftovers from one another’s plates into a general container to save for the next day. We were neither poor nor rich, but rum was still cheaper than water, and there were still parties to be had at Quinta Arizona, home to many of the boys from the states I had befriended, and loved like brothers.
These were the young men who reined me in when I was a little too crazy, and lit a fire under my ass when I became a touch too domestic. Each with their own distinct personality, they could have made the most perfect boy band. I had never been friends with males before, and through their friendship, I figured out exactly who I was. I was unafraid to tell them when they were being assholes, and regularly relied on their humor to get me through the rough break-ups. Who knew that arepas, endless cafecitos, Cuba Libres, and dancing to Juan Luis Guerra could mend a broken heart? Somehow, they did.
In February of 2002, just before the botched and unsuccessful removal of Chávez, I got notification that a package had been delivered for me at one of the post offices in Caracas. It was around Valentine’s Day, I was still upset over the recent break-up, and I wanted that care package from my mom more than anything. I took a day off of work, and made plans to travel to a part of Caracas called 26 de Julio, named after Fidel Castro’s revolutionary movement in Cuba. As soon as I arrived, a man pulled over on his obnoxiously loud scooter, dismounted, pulled out his penis, and urinated right in front of me. I searched my brain for that list of places I was told not to visit and wondered if this were one of them. I later found out it was. “Ay, fuiste a 26 de Julio sola?!?” my Venezuelan friend asked with equal parts shock and amusement. I was so completely unaware, all the time. It was better that way, it really was.
I shuffled past the dirty old man, trying not to notice his demonstration of a golden shower, and moved on to the post office with a renewed sense of urgency to get this errand done. I approached the barred window, presented my notice, and was asked where my customs agent was. “Un agente aduanal?” I responded “Por qué necesito un agente aduanal?” My Spanish was pretty good at this point, and I had the linguistic balls to argue. Apparently, because the package was from another country, I needed to bring “un agente aduanal” with me to get it released. Furious, I ranted in Spanish at the man behind the bars until, with a grin, he reached into the package and slid a few skimpy pairs of red underwear my way. “Y las galletas?” I asked. The bastard wouldn’t let the cookies go, not without an agent. “Que disfrutes las galletas” You enjoy cookies! I yelled as I shook my fistful of red undies. I told him, I sure did.
With images of the urinating scooter man, and the creepy post office worker replaying in my mind, I cried on the way back to my apartment. These were the kinds of things that happened in Venezuela, and they were becoming less and less charming. That little piece from home was all I wanted and it was being held for ransom. In April, after Chávez had a forced weekend away from being head of state, the country became more divided than ever. Friends began to drift in different directions, and I began to miss my family more than ever. After a solo trip through the Andes Mountains (more on that later), I packed up my things, and moved back to my own little town that October. The chill of winter was just beginning to descend, and I was no longer the person that I was when I had left. Every fiber of my being had been altered in a year and a half, and I begrudgingly re-acclimated to life where things were less visceral, more bland. I missed Venezuela and my friends who were more like family to me now. It was painful.
It didn’t take long for OCD to sneak up, and take hold in the fertile soil of my readjustment to life in the states. The fears that I always had somehow grew into the monsters I fight today. I got rid of those tight pants from Chacao in exchange for sweater vests that I paired with starchy shirts and worked in an immigration law firm thinking that one day I would be a lawyer. Ha! A bright light in the midst of all this was meeting my husband who loved me despite my burgeoning quirks. Love at first sight, maybe, but the trial and error of it all is what has made us partners for life. I’m jealous of his ability to be a calmer, better person than I. He has helped me arrive to who I am today, and supports me with every step I take, every word I write. That’s not always easy, I’m sure.
This week I watched magnolia blossoms burst into life in front of our home. The scent of burning leaves is everywhere, an earthy smell that always reminds me of Venezuela. This hesitant spring will soon evolve into a busy, muggy summer, and make many of us long for the cold solace of winter yet again, however painful we know it is. We New Englanders, gluttons for both joy and punishment. I can’t fully grasp what is happening in Venezuela today; all that I am sure of is that it is a country that once rose, and now stumbles to find its way. The ranchos still twinkle at night, and many friends have left the country in search of a better life, many who now long for the place they once called home, as I once longed for mine. They will get there, I think, I believe.
Somewhere in Venezuela, the red and pink trinkets that accompanied the cookies of that package sit in someone’s bedroom; the package I abandoned to a Venezuela I had no power to contend with. I can still hear the sound of coquí frogs at night, whispering their nocturnal flirtations in my ears. Co-KEE, co-KEE, co-KEE. I hope they are still whispering that peaceful song to those who remain in spite of it all. That sound is part of my soul, as are you, my friends, my Venezuela.