Thursday, 17 December 2015

Venezuela: Killing with kindness

If you're to take your lead from most Western — as well as Colombian — media, going to Venezuela these days without solid reasons is a very risky undertaking. Throw in a hotly contested and potentially era-ending national election, as we just had, and the advice is to give the place a wide, wide berth.
Puente Internacional Simón Bolívar on the Colombian-Venezuelan border is a much quieter border crossing these days compared to just a few months ago ...
This used to be packed with cars on a daily basis ...
Yet having had a pleasurable experience visiting the country in 2013, the constant invites to return from a Caracas-based friend mixed with a curiosity to see if the current situation was as bad as some would have you think, led me to return. Well that and the desire to spice things up a little by venturing, for the first time, into 'dangerous' Caracas with that aforementioned election looming.

It might sound a little devil-may-care, but the fact that my friend would be hosting me in the Venezuelan capital reduced, I figured, the risk factor considerably.

The first major difference from 30 months ago was encountered before actually entering Venezuela. From previous experience, to get the best price for my Colombian pesos to bolivares (or so it used to go anyway), I changed the best part of my cash in Cúcuta.* The amount of notes I got this time for a similar exchange as before was at least 10 times more. Hyperinflation placed right before your eyes. I felt, uneasy to say the least, like a walking cash machine.
With 100 bolivares the biggest note denomination, you need plenty of them for cash transactions in Venezuela right now ...
You need big pockets in Venezuela these days ...

Then at the border itself, the hustle and bustle of what had been the busiest frontier crossing between Colombia and Venezuela has been replaced, for now anyway, by an almost eerie silence. (Puente Internacional Simón Bolívar, as it's known, has been closed to vehicular traffic for months following this year's border dispute.)

For any tourists making the journey either way this is great; it must rate as the least time consuming nation-state crossing in Latin America. In fact, the most inconvenient thing is trying to find the office to get your entry stamp in San Antonio, Venezuela; it's not done right on the border as it is in Colombia.

The lack of human traffic might be good from a personal viewpoint, but for merchants on either side of the divide it's having an adverse effect.**

With the inflation I expected my big bundles of notes to disappear quite quickly. In reality, while everything appears to have an extra zero added to it compared to 2013, the converted pesos seemed to last longer, a good bit longer. In fact, with the almost unfathomable black market exchange rates it turns out I could have got even more bolivares for my pesos. I'll get it right yet.

I'd also prepared myself for the usual heat foreign visitors to Venezuela can expect from the military and police, especially at checkpoints. This time around only once did I have to step off a bus, along with all the other passengers, and have my stuff searched, half-heartedly as it was.

In one lapse, what you might call a testament to the regard I hold Colombian police in, I asked state police in San Cristóbal for directions. Not the best idea. I was escorted to the nearest station where officers went through everything I was carrying. Pleasantly surprising they didn't take any of the wads of cash stashed in my bag.
Some of the views from up in Parque Nacional Warairarepano in Caracas ...
Impressive sights abound around Caracas ...

It does, however, seem a little ironic that the police tell me to be careful after it was them who, without wanting to sensationalise this, semi-interrogated me whilst making jokes about robbing me and calling me rich. They generally made me feel uncomfortable and more at risk — with a smile albeit — when all I'd done was ask for directions. And you couldn't but be bemused by some of the things they asked: 'What's this?' 'Um, bread.' 'What do you have a camera for?' 'Eh, you're asking what now?' It's a case of, as many of the locals will tell you, trusting more those not associated with the upkeep of law and order. Playing the innocent gringo/foreigner doesn't get you far.

To add to this further, a friend of the family I stayed with told me of an incident that happened in a downtown shopping centre the week I was there where two police officers robbed a couple of foreigners of all their belongings in the middle of the day.

No doubt there are decent, trustworthy police and military, but in general it seems the nation's 'protectors' could learn a thing or two from the civilians. The friendliness of the ordinary Venezuelans I dealt with was up there with the best of them. Little things like the bus company employee in San Cristóbal phoning my friend in Caracas to tell her what bus I was on and what station I'd be arriving at. Then when I got to Caracas a stranger lending me his phone to call my friend to say I'd arrived. In some other Latin American countries even friends are reluctant to hand over their phone for a quick call.

My hosts, who live in a part of Caracas where a Western face is seldom seen, were, to say the least, hugely accommodating. It very much felt like a home from home.

The measures you've to take to get around election-day Ley Seca (alcohol prohibition) in Caracas!
Getting round election-day prohibition, Caracas style ...
Yet even though I was staying in a potentially dangerous barrio (you might ask, with reason, where isn't in Caracas), with locals by my side I pretty much felt oblivious to any dangers, dangers that my friends were quick to tell me do exist — gun shot fire was a regular enough sound. Even on election day, passing by fanatical Chavistas (supporters of the current 'socialist revolution'; my host family are not), it felt more like a carnival than a country experiencing political polarisation that is crippling it in many ways.

Tellingly though, I went nowhere without one of my Caraqueño (Caracas natives) friends by my side. For the nine days I was in the city that was fine, but I generally like to wander about places on my own. With my foreign face, I was told that's not the wisest move to make in Caracas. In any case, the tienda-drinking culture you get in Colombia that I enjoy is largely lacking in Caracas' barrios. It's more a style of home drinking or on the street outside your house or nearest tienda.

With political change potentially in the air following the opposition's victory in the parliamentary elections, Venezuela's officialdom might start becoming a little less insecure and seemingly suspicious of all outsiders.

There's a lot of work to be done on that front. For the time being, there's always the friendliness of the locals to fall back on for those willing to visit this beautiful country.

*To get a fair idea of what your pesos are worth against the bolivar on 'street' exchange bureaus, a good web site to check is bolivarcucuta.com. For the street price of dollars and euros versus bolivares, see dollartoday.com.

**Alas, it was far from an efficient border crossing on the Venezuelan side on the return journey; the Christmas rush had begun.

To listen to a radio interview I did on the situation in Venezuela, check out this link: http://bit.ly/22iwq97 (the interview starts about 10 minutes into the play back service, a couple of minutes after the news and sport).
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