FOREWORD: The following Caracas description was taken from a recent e-mail to a friend. Throughout this blog I’m trying to stay true to myself and my audience by writing what I see, how I see it. What is not mentioned in the description is the warmth and generosity I’ve received from all Venezuelans since my first step into their country. Despite Caracas’ obvious problems, I’m having an incredibly eye-opening and exciting time with the Venezuelans who have been kind enough to show me their capital, a city with which I’ve already become fascinated and am quickly beginning to adore.
I know you’re curious about Venezuela so I’ll try to paint a picture: I’m in Caracas now, and the city feels like its pulsating with history. My first thought upon entering the city center: this is a tropical Buenos Aires, despite the fact I’ve never been to Argentina. It’s surreal to arrive to a new city and feel as if you’ve already walked its streets. The residential neighborhoods with arched trees providing sidewalk shade, the corner stores with produce in wooden crates, the Spanish tiles, the graffitied white walls all felt strangely familiar. I suppose if you stare at enough photos of a place, as I’ve done with countless magazines, websites, and cheesy desktop travel calendars that highlight South America, you become one with its intricacies, its superficial soul. Fast forward to my Couchsurfer host’s home. I’m in a modern apartment building just a few metro stops from downtown, my laptop resting on the iron bars normally reserved for potted plants and drying clothes to take advantage of a faint wireless signal floating in the air. With an off-balance keystroke my computer would slip to its doom, a dusty concrete plaza with a few skinny trees 19th floors below. Facing south there are two streets within view: one curves downhill toward the north facing residential neighborhood full of shopping malls, European bakeries, parks, pedestrians, and others who simply refuse to stay indoors on a perfectly sunny day; the other street, which is more like a minor highway, divides this cluster of tall condo buildings from the mountains that jag in and out of Caracas. As the crow flies directly across from my window, literally hanging from the hillside, is a community (barrio) of red brick and scrap metal houses.
A large fire burns yellow at the bottom of an eroded cliff where people hurl their garbage—sanitation services don’t reach people who, according to tax and property records, don’t officially exist. These same make-shift communities lined the highway from the far east side of the city where I entered by bus, the sight triggering chemical reactions I interpreted as compassion and fear. From the very beginning I knew all was not well in Caracas. The contrast between rich and poor has produced a silent fear that is not only a tolerated but accepted part of life, because what else is there to do but keep living? Less than three blocks away from where I sit extreme poverty is just part of the scenery. Last night from my slanted bedroom window I could hear kitchen pots bang in the darkness and dog barks in the distance. The lamplight glow was not a far away romantic twinkle, it cast the shadows of those seemingly forgotten by society but not by president Chavez. Officially, I’d like to retract my previous smart-ass comments about all the socialist propaganda I’ve seen thus far. (As it turns out, the city of Cumana where I spent my initial days in Venezuela is majority Chavista; here in Caracas the political discussion seems more balanced).
The city’s endless shanty towns, skyscrapers with hair product billboards and Pepsi crowns, shacks stacked Lego-like on top of each other, mansions with high walls and barbwire that attempt to block out reality have made me realize I’m much too young and far removed and privileged to pass judgement on the centuries of political maneuvering that produced this explosive society, much less the people trying to salvage sanity from history’s wreckage. (An older gentleman told me last night he believes the country to be on the brink of civil war, pointing toward the hills: “They would all rush down if one of the many attempts on Chavez’s life were successful”). Of course, the very framework of society doesn’t explode, or at least hasn’t yet. Life goes on. Break. Fast forward. It’s now night, no stars, just the hillside lamp lights and dog barks in the distance. Today I walked around Caracas for the first time, popping out of the metro to see select sites. The contrasts continue to amaze. The downtown area around Plaza Bolivar is clean, Disney Land clean, and apparently safe due to the recent police campaign to crackdown on crime. The old Spanish colonial architecture is well preserved but it’s almost impossible to imagine Spanish colonizers once occupied the buildings, prayed in the elaborately decorated churches, and strolled the plazas with the modern mirror-plated skyscrapers looming overhead. A city originally founded on 24 city blocks now supports a buldging seven million citizens. Would the Spaniards have continued down the same path if they could have envisioned this megatropolis? The answer is really not important. Life goes on. And this social experiment fascinates me just the same.
Posted by: standing_baba | June 18, 2009
Caracas, I Accept You for What You Are (Part I)