Venezuela 2010: Days 1 and 2

Note: This is the first in a series of posts I will put up for a trip to Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama that I took last summer. These posts come from emails sent during the trip.

Good morning from Caracas, where the time is curiously half an hour behind east coast time!
 
Greg and I arrived Monday afternoon after a pretty smooth trip, other than when we first got to Dulles and Copa told him they had somehow cancelled his reservation! The woman checking me in hilariously handed Greg a phone and said “hopefully someone will pick up and help you.” (Truly in the nicest way possible…) At that point, we had about half an hour before the flight started boarding. They finally sorted it out literally at the last minute, and we raced through security and straight onto the flight to Pamana City.
 
I have to take this opportunity to say that I love foreign airlines. Reasons:
1. They don’t charge for checked bags.
2. They serve meals or real snacks on all flights.
3. The male flight attendants are usually young and attractive.
4. I am not necessarily assumed to be American. (None of the flight attendants Monday thought I was. Win.)
 
We arrived in Panama City and had time to find an ATM (to withdraw US dollars) and buy some water before getting on our flight to Venezuela. I think it is safe to say that there were no other Americans in that airport, and definitely not any on our flight to Caracas. I finally managed to fall asleep for a while on that flight and woke up just in time to fill out customs forms.
 
As we prepared to disembark, I reminded myself to be vigilant in the airport, having read the State Department’s scary description of activities there. We found it surprisingly unintimidating. After getting through customs, we exited into the large arrival area and looked in vain for the friend of a Model UN colleague of mine, so we changed some dollars for bolivares (at an unsurprisingly horrendous exchange rate) and hopped into one of the official airport cabs (very important).
 
The 25-minute drive from the airport was interesting but uneventful. We drove past quite a few members of the military standing on the side of the road holding large rifles in an ironically non-threatening way. Every few hundred yards we passed a mural in honor of Simón Bolívar or socialism; someone here has clearly taken the money and time to paint the national pride everywhere. Even boulders on the side of the road were painted to be Venezuelan flags.
 
Caracas is situated in a valley surrounded by small, Ireland-green mountains. The foothills around the city host the most extensive shantytowns I’ve ever seen: it’s unclear how any of the structures are standing or supported, but they look like hundreds of brightly colored boxes stacked on top of one another on the hillside. From a distance, the array of colors makes them beautiful; up close, they are evidence of the overwhelming poverty gripping the country and helping Chávez to appeal to the masses.
 
We arrived at our hotel and discovered that I had chosen quite a nice one in interest of safety. It has a beautiful pool (which we visited yesterday) and a whole host of restaurants and other services. The major point of interest in our room is the Magic Bidet built into the toilet. Greg and I decided this was worth experimenting with and discovered that the bidet spout will launch projectiles of water across the room… so we’re staying away.
 
Per the recommendation of another Venezuelan friend of mine, we hopped into a cab Monday night and went in search of a steak restaurant in a swankier area of the city near our hotel. After some uncertainty on the part of our driver, we arrived at Restaurante Alto only to find that we were too early to eat dinner. Because the skies threatened rain and we were hungry, we set off by foot in search of something else. We ultimately ended up at a cafe (perhaps the Caracas equivalent of Au Bon Pain?) that was surprisingly crowded with young caraqueños – I would have expected a place that didn’t serve alcohol to be less crowded. I got a squid and shrimp wrap that was delicious, and we sat outside under an awning while rain poured down.
 
Apparently, rain causes some problems in Caracas. We needed to find a cab to get back to our hotel and decided that the best way to do that would be to walk to the nearest hotel and get one there. The kind doorman explained that there wouldn’t be anymore taxis until the rain stopped – the rain is too disruptive to the already bad traffic. We decided to wait in the open air lobby of the hotel and listen to the symphony of insects chirping outside.
 
Eventually, we got a taxi and made it back to our hotel, where I managed to watch about 20 minutes of “Toy Story 2” in Spanish before succombing to sleep (five hours total over the past 48 hours meant I was lame and going to bed at 9:00).

Yesterday we got up and saw that it was still pretty cloudy, so we decided to save our trip to the top of the mountain for today (it’s sunnier!) and head into the city to see some of the museums and other historic sites. We started in the Plaza Bolívar and encountered some sort of ceremony or rally that was going on – I had a fairly hard time understanding what the speakers were saying but caught references to socialism and revolution, which appear to be the buzzwords here. From the plaza we took a lap around a few blocks and eventually stopped for some breakfast. We joined the older Venezuelan men in a cafe who were watching the World Cup while sipping their cafe and munching on their cheese pastries. I loved my cafe con leche – it was a very small plastic cup with just the right amount of caffeine for my fairly caffeine-intolerant system. 🙂
 
From there we walked past numerous zapaterías (shoe stores – I was in heaven) as we walked north to see the Panteón Nacional, which is where Simón Bolívar is buried. We decided to sit and watch a military exercise of some sort rather than go inside. Tomorrow is the anniversary of Bolívar’s defeat of the Spanish army, so it’s a pretty big deal. We listened to the singing of the national anthem and watched as the troops practiced folding a huge Venezuelan flag (it took a while).
 
After that we walked back toward the plaza in search of the Museo Histórico del Poder Popular (Historic Museum of the Power of the People), which was founded by Chávez as a means of celebrating socialism and hating the United States. We asked a bunch of different people, who indicated that the museum existed but were unable to tell us how to get there. We gave up after half an hour… but at least I spoke a lot of Spanish. Speaking of which, no one here speaks English. I LOVE it. I’ve discovered that being a Spanish teacher did in fact make me a better Spanish speaker… all of that time teaching my Spanish 2 students how to give directions has come in handy for me here! Some people are easier to understand than others, but I’ve fortunately always to make myself understood very easily. It’s great fun!
 
We walked east on a major street and stopped to go through an outdoor book market, where we saw everything from Twilight in Spanish to multiple copies of the Lesbian Kama Sutra… who knew? We also happened upon an area where old men were sitting and playing chess, so we sat down and played a game ourselves. Greg defeated me (not surprising).
 
After that we continued walking and found a place to sample the token Venezuelan food, arepas. These are like stuffed corn pancakes, and they NEED to exist in the United States. I  got one stuffed with some sort of meat that was absolutely delicious. We watched more of the World Cup (France vs. South Africa) and then headed east in search of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo. It took some more asking around, but we found it eventually and got to see a ton of Picasso sketches. We also left notes on a wall that was covered with notes of various sorts from Venezuelans. (There was no explanation of the wall, so we just left messages of our enjoyment of Caracas.)
 
We decided after that to head back to the hotel for some pool time – we’d walked quite a bit, and there really isn’t a ton of stuff to see in Caracas. I got through half a book while standing in the cool pool water and enjoying the sun, which had finally broken through the clouds.
 
Later in the evening, we watched some of “the Mummy Returns” in Spanish before hopping in a cab to go to a restaurant nearby that was recommended by my Lonely Planet book. Mokambo proved to have DELICIOUS food – I got a mixed seafood grill that included squid, octopus, shrimp, and chorizo.
 
This morning, now that the sun is shining, we are preparing to head off to take a cable car to the top of one of the mountains to check out the view of Caracas and that national park up there. After that, the plan is to go shopping. I simply can’t pass all of those shoe stores without buying at least one pair! I also need to drink a small beer – in Venezuela, they make all beers in smaller bottles because they want to make sure you can consume all of it while it’s still cold. This is good news for me because I’m a pretty slow beer drinker.
 
Tomorrow we leave for Cartagena in the afternoon. I’m very excited to get to Colombia and will write again from there!

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