Into Venezuela: words have a hard time keeping up

Life is so busy being lived, words have a hard time keeping up. Divine how that happens sometimes. A week ago I was set to enter Venezuela, which seems about a lifetime ago. The bus from Bogotá took 17 hours to the border. It was the longest buss-butt I have ever endured, and over the course of the trip I laughed, cried, and ran through just about every other travel cliché there is. In the end, I made friends with the three guys who took turns driving the buss, throwing it down mountain roads and through pueblitos. A good thing I endeared myself to them, they ended up offering to make me a reservation at the hotel they always stay at in Cucutá, the Colombian border town that was the final destination. At midnight I checked in to a cement square with a TV, toilet, sink, shower (PVC pipe), bed, AND AC for five American dollars.

Up early, showered & out the room. Traditional breakfast of eggs, beans and rice (can never go wrong), walked down the rutted dirt road to the highway, taxi to the Terminal de Pasajeros. Bad rumors had been getting thicker as we had approached the border the day before. Chávez is riled up again and Colombo-Venezuelan relations have once again deteriorated. This time Chávez has a pretty legitimate complaint: last month it was leaked that Colombia has agreed to allow the establishment of five US military bases within its borders. It was a pretty direct flouting of the 1994 Colombian constitution (given that the agreement was made without public scrutiny) and is seen by Colombia’s neighbors as a legitimate threat to their security. You have to understand people have a pretty cynical view of the US military here. History has not left our country in a good light.

So, Chávez is rattling sabers and generally being a pain in my ass this morning. He had previously closed the border to all cargo trucks carrying everything except food, causing a kilometers-long backup on the border highway and chaos in Cucutá. I had received some advice that I would be better off to cross into Venezuela at a much smaller crossing an hour north. So off I went, feeling pretty good about myself, timing and Life in General as I walked through the craziness that accompanies every international border, even at 8:30am.

There’s a single Colombian soldier posted at the bridge. I ask him about an exit stamp from Colombia, and he tells me that the only migration office is back in Cucutá, an hour away. Or, he says, cross and see what they tell you over there, maybe you don’t need one. So off I went, among the motorcycles and women crossing the dull metal of the bridge shoved between the two shores of a lazy tropical river of wide mud. Entering Venezuela I offer myself up to the soldiers on the other side, asking about passport stamps. They are sweaty and look at me only as if I only intend to make them sweat more. They do not want to sweat. But they like to make others sweat more than them, so they themselves feel less sweaty. This is as much as I understand them. They ask  me to unpack my bag, laying out everything on a small table for them. Particular interest in the unopened jar of chunky Jif peanut butter I’m carrying (reaction: disgust). Particular interest in my blackbook, leafing through the pages slowly (reaction: mutual sweatyness).

Moments like this one are something that few writers in the US have experience with. When a soldier is leafing through your notebook, what you have written or are thought to have written can suddenly get you into a lot of trouble. I have the habit of taking travel notes more in English than Spanish for this reason, and usually switch out the names of dictators for less impressive, Anglo equivalents. Fidel is Frank and so on. Words can be as dangerous as bullets (verbo = bala) or, as was pointed out to me later in VZ, as calming as arrows of peace. In the end, a lot of nothing happens. Information about the border stamp? Just continue on, I’m told. So off I go, to wait 40 minutes for the next transport to the next town for the next bus.

Venezuela is the most militarized country I have ever traveled in. Whereas Cuba is an elderly revolution, mostly concerned with reliving its past, both real and imagined, Venezuela is a militant youth with strong ideas and eyes on the future. There are checkpoints about every 300 meters, it seems. As soon as the soldiers see me (and they always see me), we are stopped and everyone is asked for ID. The first two checkpoints are military, and I’m cleared through without and trouble other than sweat on my part. Then, we hit the National Guard checkpoint.

Lots of flipping through my passport. Looking for something. Looking for something that isn’t there. And then my passport isn’t there at all, it’s walking across the highway to the head honcho. Here we go. Could come here plees? I’m asked. Speak Spanish? And now the question: fake ignorance, or talk my way out of it. I of course go for the verbo. Turns out that my passport doesn’t have an entry stamp (!), and I am in Venezuela illegally. But qué pasó with the soldiers telling me to continue on? “Mah, those are just soldiers,” he says, “just like any soldiers in the world, the only thing they know about is war.”

In addition to being militarized, I now learn that VZ is also very corrupt. We dance the classic 1-2 of good cop / sweaty cop, meanwhile the van and all its other passengers wait on the other side of the highway. If I pay a bribe now, I’ll be paying bribes for the rest of my time in this country. No go. The van driver seems reluctant to leave me with the cops, but I reassure him, and off he goes. Eventually the good cop tells me there’s a migration office just down the street from the village we’re in. Back I go.

Same thing in the migra office. Stamp? “We have no stamps here. But please, sir, let us give you the run around while we practice our Englitch upon you. You attend college? Batchelor? Me too.” Fantastic. We’re overeducated with nowhere to go, all of us at once. I invite you to high-five with our respective deplomas, sir.

The batchelor eventually sticks out an arm and stops a car passing by the office. He tells the guy driving to give me a ride back to the border bridge. Back I go.

Six hours from when I was last there, I find myself sitting at la Terminal in Cucutá. It is now 3:30pm and the heat is like Venezuelan diesel fuel: cheap, everywhere, and the locals seem to live on it. Also like the heat are the rumors, which have gotten thicker as the day has gone on. I’m told Chávez has closed the border completely. Or maybe he hasn’t. Or he will. Or there’s a two hour line. Or that diplomas and passports are being smoked like cigars by the Venezuelans. At least that I know not to be true.

In the end, lucky break, I met the right group of guys with the right car for the right price. The right price being five American dollars for what will turn out to be a four hour trip and two stops for migration. The right car is, during this particular day in my life, a maroon Chevy Caprisse that looks like it has dealt with this heat and these rumors everyday since 1985. Off I go, five other men and me, roaring through the swarms of motorcycles and carhorns.

Only a 20 minute wait to get the exit stamp. A brief moments of international limbo, then the entry stamp into VZ is almost instant. I sink lower in my seat with every checkpoint, lots of trunk popping, but we get through OK. Conversation in the Caprisse is interesting. I can tell the driver is a armchair (or driver’s seat) philosopher and political analyst, the kind that holds a diploma from university of Constant Conversation. At one point he says “en este país uno trabaja como negro por intentar vivir como gringo.” In this country one works like a black to try to live like a gringo. He’s a Chavista (pro-Chávez), he says, but only because he’s also an oportunista.

I daze in and out of coherence. We arrive at San Cristóbal as dusk is folding down the hills. I pay the driver his 10,000 pesos, he’s all smiles and solid advice. Just in time: the last buss for Mérida, my destination, leaves in 30. Hand shaking with the men. Off I go. Toilet, call ahead to my friend in Mérida, eat some fried bananas, take another Dramamine, the bus leaves. Six hours of intense air conditioning and a soundtrack dominated by karaoke versions of modern pop hits, as interpreted by keyboards set to sound like Andean pan pipes. Torture by excessive comfort and suave.

Midnight. Mérida. Taxi to the address of my contact, Nestor. En route I realize that I copied his address but not his apartment number. My cellphone died in the Caprisse. The taxi driver plays the young punk at first, then gives in and calls Nestor for me. Nestor does not answer. We try again. Nope. I give the taxista his money and he advises me not to wander too much in this neighborhood.

I convince the doorman at the gate of the apartments to let me charge my cell in his guardshack. I have good reason to believe he is drunk. And! Turns out my Colombian SIM card won’t work here. So I make friends with another, younger, less-drunk guard who calls Nestor again. Nada de Nestor. There are hundreds of apartments here. I have visions of curling up next to the landscaping to sleep.

Then! Phone call! Nestor! Drunk in a bar in the centro! On his way home! “Voy pa’lla!” And there it is, my people. 2am, stretched out on a deflating air mattress in apartment 2-B, Mérida, Venezuela. My first night in the country.

That was just one day, over a week ago.

Words are having a hard time keeping up.