It's year ten of the REVOLUTION. Venezuela's oil riches are vanishing, and el presidente's "Yankee devil" rhetoric has created the world's most hostile environment for Homo turisticus. PATRICK SYMMES goes looking for adventure, and comes back with a tale that will haunt him forever.
Fishing VenezuelaWorking the
VenezuelaA crab fisherman
I’LL ADMIT THERE ARE MOMENTS, even on the mainland. The climate in Caracas is nearly ideal. People love to crowd the traditional bars, called tascas, to eat peanuts, chat with strangers, and cheer on their baseball teams. Venezuelans rank themselves among the happiest people on the planet.
But somehow it all looks better from a distance. For the nicest view of this country, you have to retreat all the way to Los Roques, the islands 70 miles offshore. The water is azure, full of bonefish, dotted with dive-bombing pelicans, rimmed with powdery white beaches. The Caribbean is so clear out there that when I hooked a four-foot wahoo a menacing, gray-striped creature, the largest fish I’ve ever caught I could see it twisting and thrashing 35 feet down, a tinfoil glitter in the featureless depths.
Everything on Los Roques is imported, except the sunshine and the fish. In Gran Roque, the only town, the streets are made of sand. An old landing craft called the Normandía sputters in every few days with the whiskey, beef, toys, and statues of the Virgin Mary ordered by the village’s 1,500 people. If the Normandía shows up bearing only frozen strawberries, then every daiquiri served on the island that week will be a strawberry daiquiri. At the beach bars, your table comes with a sleeping dog underneath and fishing boats pulled up on all sides.
Even in Gran Roque, however, there is revolution. The old high school got renovated a few years ago, thanks to el presidente, Hugo Chávez. Now the people on Los Roques nearly all wear red caps or T-shirts not just red, but the red-red of the revolution, rojo rojito. When a boatful of young fishermen, all in rojito caps and T-shirts, comes zooming by, they deliberately cut in close, scattering the bonefish, running over your fly line, laughing as they do it. Bonefishing is for the oligarchs, not the people.
So eventually you must return to that other country, to the real Venezuela. The flights from the islands return to only one place: Caracas, and reality.
IN THEORY, THERE IS A LOT TO LOVE IN VENEZUELA. It’s the only place on earth where a chain of 15,000-foot peaks runs to the sea the Andes with beaches, and mountain towns with tropical warmth. The fishing is great, from those Caribbean wahoo to the toothy peacock bass in the jungle interior. A full fifth of Venezuela is untapped wilderness, and huge grasslands stretch across the interior toward the tepuis, flat-topped mountains full of biological oddities and punctured by the oldest caves in the world. Before my trip took a nasty detour, I was hoping to reach Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall, at 3,212 feet.
But getting out to that wild Venezuela on your own is not easy. Venezuelans don’t like to get dirty. There is no pioneer history here, no conquering of the wilderness. Ninety percent of the population lives in cities or towns. The country’s favorite preoccupations are premium Scotch, plastic surgery, and beauty contests. (Venezuela has produced ten Miss Worlds and Miss Universes, more than any other country.) I met a groaning backpacker who’d been guided up Roraima the 9,094-foot tepui that inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World stories which meant a week of bad food, leaky tents, and vanishing porters. As one American in Caracas told me, ecotourism requires “swimming upstream the whole way.” Indeed, it took six days of bureaucratic wrangling just to get my plane ticket to Los Roques.
I skipped the wilderness and embarked on a tour of that other landscape, the political terrain of an oil country whose magic was being ground down by realism. In 1992, Chávez, an army lieutenant colonel, was arrested for trying to overthrow Venezuela’s corrupt democracy; he emerged from jail a populist hero, won the presidency in a landslide in 1998, and has been reelected easily twice more. Venezuela is now deep into year ten of what Chávez calls his Bolívarian revolution, after South America’s great 19th-century liberator, Simón Bolívar. Armed with oil revenues, he has been on a quest to undo the centuries of exclusion and decades of corruption that have made Venezuela, the world’s fifth-biggest exporter of oil, into the failed society of South America. To a polarized and wounded populace he has applied a poultice of Marxist central-planning and patronage schemes. He is paying thousands of Cuban doctors to work in the worst slums. He has spent lavishly $20 billion in three years on subsidized groceries and education for the deprived, and I myself watched old ladies line up for free medical care.
That’s Chávez at his best. At his worst, he has appointed brothers to top posts, and he has poured verbal gasoline on every fire in the country. He’s turned a blind eye to growing corruption and constant economic chaos. The inrush of oil dollars pushed inflation to 28 percent in 2008, and currency controls have created an absurd exchange rate where a Leones del Caracas baseball jersey costs $200 via credit card and less than half that in bolívares fuertes exchanged on a seedy black market. The official murder rate in Caracas is 26 times that of New York City, and kidnappings have increased sevenfold since he came to power. The local specialty is the secuestro express. As portrayed in a 2005 film by that name, these “express kidnappings” are a rapid tour through ATM machines and terror, with your husk sold back to your parents on Monday.
Americans do go to Venezuela, usually to pump oil, sometimes to catch fish, and occasionally (we saw you, Sean Penn) to pal around with Hugo himself. But Chávez is a natural demagogue who never misses a chance to goad “the empire,” as he calls the United States. (At the United Nations in 2006, he famously claimed to smell sulfur in the air the lingering odor of the “devil” George W. Bush, who was widely believed to have been behind a coup attempt in 2002.) But with worldwide oil prices crashing to one-third their highs and a Chicago community organizer moving into the White House, I was expecting at least a little love when I arrived in mid-November. In two weeks in Venezuela, I thought I would somehow measure the strange distance between our two countries close trading partners, bitter enemies. We share baseball and the culture of the shopping mall, which should have been enough.
This was too smart by half. Typical travel warnings for Venezuela include enough don’ts and don’t-even-considers to intimidate anyone: Don’t show up on schedule; don’t carry all your money in one place; don’t go to central-Caracas neighborhoods like La Candelaria or Sabana Grande by night; don’t walk anywhere at night; and don’t go down side streets “at any time of day.” Don’t hire cabs in the streets; don’t leave your doors unlocked at red lights; and don’t accept drinks, which may be laced with hypnotic burundanga, a potent derivative of belladonna and a precursor to rape and robbery. Don’t dress in anything fancy. Don’t travel with your passport, or without a copy of it.
So before boarding a plane for Caracas, I removed my wedding ring, my watch, and my wallet. I put on a quartz watch and a tin ring. I pulled a smooth leather folder from the closet, an old wallet of my father’s. In one pocket I stuffed a wad of fake money, hundreds of thousands of pesos in an antique Bolivian currency that had been out of circulation since the mid-1980s hoping the word BOLIVIANOS printed on those bills would be close enough to “bolívares” to fool any would-be robbers. In the other pocket, I added a few pieces of plastic, for razzle dazzle. I hadn’t handled that wallet since my father died, in 1990. The brown cowhide was still smooth and oily from his touch.
To the don’ts for Venezuela, let me add two more. First, don’t ask too much of the country if you plan to see Angel Falls and catch bonefish and dance salsa with happy revolutionaries, Venezuela will break your itinerary and your heart.
Second, don’t stand by the side of the road at night, counting the seconds until the boy with the gun walks away. Don’t count the seconds, or you’ll be counting them for the rest of your life.
SCARED YET? THEN DO what the oilmen and Italian tourists do, which is skip Caracas. Many visitors sleep 22 miles away at the airport, which has six major hotels and possibly the best black-market exchange rate (baggage handlers offer nearly five bolívares fuertes to the dollar). In the domestic terminal, I met a British lawyer, Mitwa Bavisi. She’d come overland from Colombia and followed advice to stay near the airport, visiting the city only once, on a bus, for a quick look.
“I’m glad I saw this,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m from London. I’m used to order.”
You’re a long way from Gatwick, girl. What lies up that highway is one of the world’s great slum cities. Caracas is shaped like an outstretched hand; in the palm are skyscrapers and government centers and affluent neighborhoods, from Nelson Rockefeller’s old estate on the edge of the 1940s downtown to five-story malls in the wealthy east. Around the southern and western fringes, rows of steep hills divide the slums into fingers: close to half of the 4.5 million Caraceños live in “informal housing” along riverbeds and up slopes, everything bedecked in laundry and mud. This human kaleidoscope contrasts sharply with the city’s north edge, which is dominated by an inhumanly severe green mountain, ávila, covered with frangipani up to 7,000 feet, a parkland so steep that there is not one invading shack.
I arrived just before the elections in which Venezuelans chose their governors and mayors, and the whole country was convulsed by red-versus-blue political rallies. By national law, all campaigning is suspended two days before the vote and so is the sale of alcohol. A few days into my visit, it was my last shot at both, but as I ran for the door I realized I was suffering from a catastrophic wardrobe malfunction: too many blue shirts. Blue turns out to be the “I hate Chávez” color, the uniform of the opposition, a loose assortment of businessmen, rightists, students, and civil-rights activists.
Part of me hoped that Chávez, who bombs around the country unannounced, would crash the rally I was headed for in lofty Altamira, at the higher, richer eastern end of town. I’d already been absorbing his personality cult of Big Brother billboards, and one night I’d watch him free-associate on television denouncing the “fascists” and “racists” who opposed him, and then segue into movie reviews, advising the nation that 300, the story of the Spartans at Thermopylae, was “a tremendous film, tremendous.”
The dictator’s whims have become diktat. He once broached a plan for “floating cities” in the Caribbean, and more recently promised a 5,000-mile pipeline across the Amazon. He has rumbled about war against Holland over the sovereignty of Aruba. He has changed his country’s name (adding “Bolivarian” to “Republic of Venezuela”). He’s changed the currency (from bolívares to bolívares fuertes), the coat of arms (now the horse faces left), the flag (one more star), and even the clocks, which now run half an hour ahead of Washington, as they did until 1965. (“It doesn’t matter to me that they call me crazy,” he said in 2007. ) He’s forced opposition television stations off public airwaves and ordered radio stations to play Venezuelan music half the time, which may be totally unrelated to the fact that he himself just released a folk song “El Corrido de la Caballeria,” “The Ballad of the Cavalry” that he sometimes sings at rallies.
Chávez didn’t appear at Altamira. Instead we got a socialist-themed dance party for 5,000. Waving a camera and an old press pass, I talked my way onstage, where a braided rapper named Kameroon was finishing a song about Che Guevara.
“One, two, three,” he called out, “who’s a revolutionary?” Five thousand hands shot up in a cheer.
“One, two, three,” he continued, “who’s a traitor?” Laughter. Not one hand went up.
“One, two, three, who’s a Chavista?” Five thousand hands.
“One, two, three, who’s a Yankee?”
One hand shot up. I couldn’t help it.
The stage crew stared at me Did he just raise his hand? but nobody else seemed to notice. I was standing behind Kameroon, in plain sight, under spotlights. The crowd, fixated on the distant enemy, couldn’t see a blazing-white patrón right here. It reminded me of the way Chávez simply dismissed Barack Obama. The new president was a fraud, his election “arranged in advance” by Bush and the corporate elite, Chávez explained on TV that same night. When I walked through the crowd, people clutched their beer cans nervously and backed away.
After the rally, I walked uphill to an arepa joint, where I had the classic Venezuelan sandwich pernil, the sweetest pork, inside a sliced corn cake and then strolled up to a gated and guarded hotel tower. On the roof was one of the better bars in Caracas, the aptly named 360 Roof Bar, where hammocks swing from hooks in the ceiling and the breezes, cool and scented by the night-blooming frangipani, come flooding in.
When I sat up, slightly, in my hammock on the 19th floor, I could peer right into Petaré, a slum of a million people rolling up the hills to the east.
LIKE BATTING AVERAGES, INCOME INEQUALITY is measured on a scale that goes from one to a thousand. According to this “Gini coefficient,” tracked by the World Bank, Venezuela doesn’t do too badly: .482, just eight percentage points behind the United States. In the 1950s and again in the ’70s, oil booms drove huge infrastructure projects and industrialization, and a middle class appeared. But the oil wealth always evaporates, and by 2003, before petroleum prices shot up again, four out of ten residents survived on less than $2 a day. Chávez has reduced poverty slightly, but oil remains Venezuela’s lifeline and its curse “the devil’s excrement,” as Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, the Venezuelan founder of OPEC, put it.
Two-thirds of the nation’s output comes from beneath Lake Maracaibo, in the western province of Zulia. The lake is actually a placid gulf, 5,000 square miles of brackish water that joins the Caribbean at a peninsula called Paraguaná. Explorers found the lake rimmed with palafitos, waterfront shanties on stilts, and thus gave Venezuela its name, “Little Venice.” The 1904 Joseph Conrad novel Nostromo is also set here or, rather, on the Golfo Placido, in an eerily similar republic called Costaguana. But Conrad nailed Venezuela, from the war between classes to the way treasure can seduce both the rulers and the ruled, spreading inequality and fueling revolution. Conrad wrote about a fictional silver mine; what history has come up with is $91 billion a year in oil exports. Maracaibo City is the Houston in this equation, where the town plaza is cornered by Domino’s, Hooters, and Burger King and all directions refer to the closest “CC,” or centro comercial, the great shopping malls that define urban life for Venezuelans. Downtown, a ribeye cost $60. In my hotel the $50 lunch buffet was recycled from the breakfast buffet.
American baseball players were crowded around the steam tables anyway. Six or seven of them had come here to escape the even worse inland city, Maracáy, where they live. They played for the Tigres de Aragua in Venezuela’s big leagues. Venezuelans shine in the U.S. majors, but Americans are recruited here as well, typically six or seven per team. They played 60 or 70 games a season, an infielder told me, and the paycheck was better than on Triple-A clubs in the U.S. But they weren’t happy. They couldn’t get used to the bottle rockets that were fired onto the field at every game. They’d lost everything they owned when the truck carrying their luggage was hijacked, and at one game the clubhouse was cleaned out by armed men while the Tigres were on the field. “I’m ready to go home,” the American infielder said.
I’d flown to Maracaibo on a similarly benighted career move to investigate the lake and the oil industry. Up to 70 percent of Venezuela’s oil income never appears in national budgets and is disbursed secretly by Chávez through patronage networks and his state oil company, PDVSA. And now, after loudly demanding that the big multinational companies either leave or pay higher taxes, he’s quietly negotiating. Chevron, Total, and Royal Dutch/Shell are all here increasing production that Venezuela cannot. Americans on the ball field, Americans on the oil field.
My first plan for seeing the oil industry involved Jorge Hinestroza, a mild, liver-spotted professor of ecology at the University of Zulia, who knew fishermen who could take us out on the lake. “I’m an ecologist,” Jorge said when we met in a café beside the dirty shore of Lake Maracaibo. “A very rare definition in Venezuela. It doesn’t exist. In Venezuela, an environmentalist is someone who likes flowers, birds, and vegetarianism.”
One year before claiming to smell the devil, Chávez had improbably grabbed the mantle of global environmentalism, telling the world that American consumer capitalism was “insane” and “suicidal,” and specifically denouncing U.S. gas consumption as unethical for “warming our planet even more.”
“This,” Jorge snorted, “from the government that has done more than anyone to make it a world of cars.” Gasoline is almost free here about 40 cents a gallon which enables the poor to keep their rusted muscle cars rumbling down the roads, and the rich to import the hundreds of thousands of SUVs that choke Caracas to a standstill. The government had “put a few solar panels in a park,” Jorge said, but in any conflicts with the environment, oil won. Secrecy obscured everything. In 2004, when Jorge applied to study an invasion of duckweed on the lake, he was told that the government would launch its own investigation, a shoddy report he denounced as superficial.
As we left the café, Jorge turned his nose up toward the sky. “Smell that?” he asked. “Petrochemicals.”
I noticed that the front bumper of his car was smashed in, but Jorge waved away my concern. It was just a crash. Accidents happen.
IT HELPS, IN THE COUNTRY with South America’s highest murder rate, to occupy your mind with elaborate planning. Start with someone like Jorge, a well-connected local who can guide you around. Scout the riskiest places the day before, learning the towns, the streets and highways, the gaps in cell-phone coverage, the position of the oil refineries, and the disposition of the “oil police,” or PCP, who guard them. Blend in by taking por puestos, the cavernous cruisers that serve as collective taxis in Venezuela. Grab a 1982 Chevy Malibu full of women and children for a ride along the far side of the lake.
Plan A will be visiting the lake tomorrow, election day, with Jorge. But plans go wrong sometimes. Have a Plan B: Hire a uniformed driver in Maracaibo, tell him where you’re going, swap phone numbers, and pass the details for Plans A and B on to someone else by e-mail. Do all this just in case Plan A falls through.
And since even two things can go wrong, also write down the phone number of the Chevy Malibu driver. His name is Romulo, and he will be Plan C, the backup to your backup to your plan. Just in case Jorge the environmentalist doesn’t show.
Jorge doesn’t show. He cancels that night, due to a funeral.
Not that you notice, but a cascade of failures has now begun.
LAKE MARACAIBO is too broad to see across 75 miles at its widest but shallow. The deepest point is the channel dredged for the oil tankers that drift quietly past Maracaibo City with a treasure as dangerous as Conrad’s cargo of stolen silver.
Near Ciudad Ojeda, in the weed-choked Canyo del O (Shell designated the channels with letters), a fisherman I hired the day before was waiting. He was a rough, bare-chested guy named Amerigo, with a yellow wooden boat identical to the others in his fishing cooperative. My goal was simply to look for leaks, or any signs of a water crisis.
Just before the fisherman and I headed out at dusk, my driver the uniformed Plan B backup guy announced that he hadn’t voted yet. It was election day. He’d vote and be back in 40 minutes. It’s hard to say no to a voter. I nodded and got in the boat, and we started down the dirty canal.
Failure number two.
As soon as we entered the lake, I saw a steel forest growing on the water: I had to stop counting oil jacks at 70, only because new wells, platforms, pumping stations, pipelines, pylons, crew stations, and abandoned production derricks were appearing on the horizon faster than I could add them up. Oil was first pumped commercially here in 1914, and American companies began large-scale pumping in 1922. There are now more than 6,000 well jacks on the lake’s surface, and 26,000 miles of pipe hidden on the shallow bottom below, whisking away the heavy crude.
Pumping out oil requires pumping huge volumes of water as well. In my anticlimactic tour, I saw no evidence of oil spills, but at one point Amerigo had to steer a wide path around a giant boil, an upsurge of what looked like tens of thousands of gallons of water a second. “Broken pipe,” Amerigo said. It had been there, forcing water toward the surface, for years.
Jorge Hinestroza had observed hundreds of oil leaks on the lake. Some were deliberate: pipes opened by supervisors in the oil workers’ union during a strike against Chávez in 2002. But accidental leaks are also routine, Jorge said, and neither kind is fixed quickly. Still, the ecosystem has largely survived this abuse, thanks to the gifts of nature: Tides carry some of Lake Maracaibo into the sea twice a day, and four huge rivers sweep out oil pollution. Even at dusk the water remained clear enough to see duckweed floating six feet down, and it is true, as Chávez boasts, that the lake produces a large, though shrinking, shrimp crop. Amerigo and his colleagues were fishermen, after all; by dangling long lines with salted chicken heads, they caught crabs right next to the oil wells.
With Amerigo’s resigned acceptance, I boarded a series of untended oil platforms, climbed up steel ladders, and snooped fruitlessly for socialist scandal, looking exactly like the gringo saboteur the oil police watch for. They should be watching for pirates instead. Fishermen have been shot for their outboard motors, and Amerigo himself was robbed by men who took the motor, yes, but also his boat, throwing him in to swim for it. He blamed men from “over there, the other side of the lake,” much as Conrad’s journalist, Decoud, was warned to stay away from the far shore, where the fishermen “would cut your throat promptly for the sake of your gold watch.”
At last the tropics burst forth in their splendor, a great streak of orange light falling across the water, the sun setting behind cumulonimbus towers. The night skies here are famous for their lightning (cold Andean breezes meet warm, wet lake air, shedding ions), but instead a silent, humid blackness closed in, the lake water absorbing any stray photons. That darkness seals the fate of Conrad’s characters. His hero, Nostromo, collides with an unseen boat in these waters, losing everything in a flash. The antihero, a dilettante journalist from abroad, gets a bullet in the chest.
THERE WAS NO SIGN of the taxi driver when Amerigo and I sputtered back to shore, and no answer when I called him. The roads were blocked by election chaos.
So I called Romulo, the backup to the backup to the plan. He was out there in his Malibu somewhere and answered on the first try. “Patricio,” he said, “where are y “
The signal went dead. I tried him again, and again, and again. Amerigo grew tired of slapping mosquitoes and, afraid of crime, locked up the fishermen’s shed and closed the gate. After 15 minutes, he walked me to the road: a few silent, shuttered shops, a single streetlight, stray dogs, plumes of exhaust. Some boys were goofing under a streetlight, swatting at imaginary baseballs with their hands, laughing. People had lit a bonfire in the road and a rocket exploded somewhere, to celebrate the elections. “Viva la revolución,” Amerigo said. Then he walked off, a shirtless man with nothing in his hands.
Even I knew what was going to happen next. I took the memory card out of my camera. I put a single note 50 bolívares fuertes, almost $10 at the black-market rate in the cargo pocket of my pants. I was alone, so when I saw some people waiting at an intersection I walked up to join them.
There was the standard Venezuelan car crash. Men and women got out and looked at the fender in a quiet stupor. I thought I was safer, surrounded by cars, with six or seven people standing there, but that’s exactly when one of the baseball kids walked up, said something, and tried to shake my hand.
YOU SHOULD REFUSE to shake that hand, if possible. I advise you to back away slowly, apologizing, and say anything at all that comes to mind, like I’m sorry, I’ve got to catch this taxi, I’m just getting a taxi, you know how it is these days. Gain seven feet on him, and three more seconds.
Not that this will be enough. The kid, who is at once tall, strong, skinny, and smiling, looks at the ground, summoning a speech. Do-do-do, he says, and then do you, do you, and then he stops. He gets it out on the third try: Do you know how to run?
He lifts up his shirt and shows you the gun.
Don’t make any fast movements. Just breathe.
When he asks for the money I’m hungry, he says plainly, I have to eat, give me your money just keep breathing. Nod yes. Say yes.
Say, I’ll get my money out now. Move slowly. Get the wallet out and give him the money.
But give him the fake money first. Buy three more seconds. That’s all the fake Bolivian currency is for: un engaño to buy a pause, a little distance. Use those precious seconds to remember that no money, real or fake, is worth a life. Give him the fake money, yes, hundreds of thousands in greasy, dark bills. And then, before he can inspect them carefully, hand over the real money, too. The real money is worth about $70; it is money he will like crisp green bills in the new “strong” currency, bolívares fuertes. Each of these is worth a thousand of the dirty old “weak” bolívares still in occasional circulation among the poor. He thinks he is holding hundreds of thousands of those.
Keep the Jedi mind tricks coming, even though they won’t save you. Hand him the “credit card,” a cutout from an REI Visa ad. Hand him your membership card from Divers Alert Network. Hold the wallet open, so that he sees nothing but a scrap of folded paper.
Try not to look at the scrap of paper, a photocopy of your passport. Try not to do what I did at this moment, which is say to the kid, May I keep my identification?
Meaning, if you touch the old man’s wallet we’re both going to die right here.
That’s fine, he will say. And, after long seconds more, Now you can run.
WALK. FLIGHT EXCITES predators. Put the wallet in your pocket and walk up the road.
Try not to look behind you, to see if the kid is indeed heading in the other direction. Don’t count the seconds. And don’t run.
Eventually I did get a cab. I still had my camera (small enough that he didn’t notice it), my memory card, my 50 bolívar bill, and my life. We drove for only a few minutes before we were stopped by a knot of traffic hundreds of celebrating Chavistas, blocking the streets, waving red flags, blasting car radios, and dancing salsa. There weren’t any results yet, but true Venezuelans, they just know they’re going to win. Venezuela has one of the most collectivist cultures in the world, where the highest value is conformism, the agreement of everyone. No dissent can exist. The crowd called on us to blow our horn; the driver dutifully honked, amping the mood. In fact, the Chavistas had lost here in Zulia, and opposition candidates had taken some of the largest municipalities in the country, including most of Caracas, and governorships in the three most populous provinces. Chávez was still in charge, however, and everyone in Venezuela is always right about everything, so we applauded and honked.
I dug out the 50 and paid the driver, and he left me at an intersection in Cabimas, the first town. After a little negotiation, I got a real taxi here, and an hour later I was back in Maracaibo City. Here the streets were full of armed troops, and opposition people waving blue flags. We honked and applauded them, too.
In my hotel room, I locked the door, put the chain on it, and took a shower. There was nothing to drink. Even the minibar had been emptied, due to the election-day dry law.
I went down to the casino adjoining the hotel, where they confiscated my copy of Nostromo. (“Nothing in the hands,” the señorita at the metal detector explained.) In the smoky den of gamblers, I spotted the American baseball players at the blackjack table, waving in futility at the waitresses.
If you don’t gamble, and there’s no liquor, you might sit in your room and watch the lights of the tankers pass by in the night. Venezuela sells more than 1.2 million barrels a day to the U. S., almost 10 percent of what is in your tank. It is Chávez who keeps you warm at night, who lights your house, who sends you on your commute. The pusher man and the addict always hate each other.
Viva la revolución.
WATCH OUT NOW. Like an earthquake, a crime sends aftershocks through your life. In six days you can pass from grief to rage to sobbing tears in a restaurant and then end up on Los Roques, refusing to wear shoes or sunscreen, fishing by day and the dry law ends! drinking strawberry daiquiris with the London barrister by night. You might go on shopping sprees or dance up and down like an idiot or fly home and hold your son and kiss your wife.
But watch out. You will see the gun again. You will see it for days, weeks, and decades to come. A cheap, chrome-plated .45-caliber pistol, chipped and battered from years of use. You will remember the hammer and the trigger and the grip. You will wake up at night looking at the uneven cross-hatching on that white plastic grip as it pokes out of the boy’s waistline. In your long nights you will see that it is an old slum pistol. Sold from hand to hand. How many crimes has it seen?
How many still to come?
So be careful, in your days and weeks and decades. It’s just as easy to lose things on the way up as on the way down.
Now, in my last days in the country, I was doing whatever I could to dodge its crooked kismet. Instead of taking a taxi 22 miles up the highway from the airport when I got back from Los Roques, I grabbed a por puesto along the coast. Out on the gray Caribbean was a 550-foot-long shadow the Russian missile cruiser Peter the Great, invited here to rattle America’s cage. Like many of Chávez’s grand ambitions, it floated just offshore.
In a dingy town, I switched to a sightseeing jeep, which runs holidaymakers up the back side of Mount Ávila. Since we were alone there were no sightseers on a rainy day I’d made sure to get an introduction from the other taxi driver, to get names and be seen together. Leaving a trail of bread crumbs. But after half an hour of friendly chatter, I took out my camera one of those don’ts in Venezuela and the mood abruptly changed. The driver couldn’t keep his eyes off it.
“How much does that cost?”
I told him the price.
“I could rob you,” he replied.
Just give him the camera, part of me said. If he pulls a gun, just hand him the camera. It isn’t worth it.
But my hands were giving their own reply. I planted my pen in my palm: You can drive it through an eye socket that way. Ready, ready, be ready, grab the gun, fold his elbow back, one shot through the head
The driver quietly dropped me at a wire fence in a thick mist. We’d reached the top of Mount Ávila. There’s a tram, the teleferico, that runs from here down into Caracas, a 5,000-foot descent. As the car drops, your ears pop and you pass through silent cloudforest, over blooms of orange flowers, out of the rain and down toward the city.
Little skyscrapers appear, and then the first thing you hear is the sirens, waka-waka, like the soundtrack to a seventies film. You can pick out Rockefeller’s estate from the days of promise, the distant slums of the present, the great shopping malls of dreams.
As you drop lower, you hear the first car horns. Then the motorcycles. Then the rumbling muscle cars. The tram swoops right over the highway, and now you hear it all the chorus. Incredibly loud and dangerously close.