February, 2015 - Never has there been a bigger need in my journeys to stay focused than in my upcoming destination. Or is this city's reputation for being "the most dangerous city in the world" perhaps exaggerated? Recalling the disillusioning events on my first night out in Venezuela a few days ago, when I was confronted with a robbery attempt in the much safer city of Merida, it kind of makes sense to remain vigilant, and to apply all the experiences that I have gained while travelling in the last years. In approximately fifteen hours our bus will arrive in Caracas.
Once we are close to our destination, I spot more and more of those colorful edifices that protrude from the hills, looking so inviting at first glance. But the closer we get, the more intimidating they become, as you increasingly perceive just how ill-conditioned many of these neighbourhoods are. Even if I did not know that the highest crime rate in Venezuela is to be found in many of the Barrios, it is not so difficult to guess.
Upon arrival I immediately enter a cab and make sure that I secure my valuables. It takes just a few minutes until I reach the Millenio Hotel on the Autopisca Valle. While checking in, I do not hesitate to talk to the staff members about "Lechuga Verde". As I was guessing, they are familiar with the code word. The deal that they offer sounds even more lucrative than at the border. One of the staff members tells me that he will try to arrange something for me soon. Meanwhile, I should get rid of some of the wads of money somehow. It is getting confusing.
In the afternoon I begin to explore some of the main sights of Venezuela's Capital. The next metro station is just a few blocks away from my hotel. It is situated in front of the University of Caracas, known as a masterpiece of modern architecture. In 2000, it gained recognition as a UNESCO world heritage sight. My first ride on the metro in Venezuela takes me to the Bulevar de Sabana Grande, the main shopping avenue in the city center of Caracas. Out of convenience I left most of my clothes in Colombia. Here I can easily buy clothes and new luggage for dumping prices.
After analyzing the low prices in some of the stores in Sabana Grande, I head to the cable car (teleferico) to reach the top of the Avila mountain, the most outstanding landmark in Caracas. Once I get there, I spend hours just walking and breathing the fresh air, for which this place is known, while looking at the different shades of blue in the sky that impressively expose the transition from the planetary boundary layer to the free atmosphere. The way how the Avila mountain dominates the cityscape of Venezuela's Capital visually demonstrates nature's superiority over man-made structures. How big and strong many buildings looked from down there, standing in stark contrast with the 'weak' and poor Barrios. But now that I look down on Venezuela's capital from the Avila mountain top, I cannot help but think about the hyperbolic term "skyscraper" and how ironic it sounds from up here. How weak and poor even the biggest and most modern buildings look from up here. Distracted by the view on the picturesque town Galipan, I almost forgot what time it is. Soon it will get dark. It is time to get back down. Down to business.
Back in the hotel I am being told to wait for my "customer" at a table in a corner of the restaurant. Meanwhile I look at the prices on the menu, which once again remind me of just how much money I posess, and just how much the "customer" is about to bring with him. The staff members give me a sign. I was expecting to meet a tough looking guy with optically perceivable attributes of a criminal. To my surprise the person who arrives and sits down at the table in front of me is an ordinary woman. She puts a red gift package on the table. The two bunnies on the cover suggest that this is a birthday present for a child. Using some camouflage techniques is maybe not a bad idea. You never know who else might be watching. I have a quick look inside, while the staff member is nervously scanning the environment, wondering if some of the guests in the restaurant are observing us. It seems like the woman has brought the amount of money on which we agreed on, so I hand her the US banknotes, and she thankfully bids farewell, knowing very well that this money will soon be worth three times as much.
According to "The Economist", Caracas is the sixth most expensive city in the world. But when you exchange the dollars in the black market, it is the cheapest big city in the world, at least with respect to the local products and services, whose prices are usually based on the official currency rate. Back in my hotel room I count the banknotes one more time. In the end I am sure that I have received the full amount of 30000 Bolivares. Based on the official rate, this is equivalent to around 4500€. In these days, making big deals is apparently no big deal in Caracas.
But how to deal with the safety issues? As I look out of the window and watch the sun go down, I notice how fast the pedestrian streets have become empty. Recalling the first night out in Merida, I conclude that I should avoid walking in the streets by any means necessary. Of course I will leave my valuables and most of the money in the hotel. There is not much concern that anything could be stolen in here. The owner of the hotel has taken the necessary safety measures for his guests. In the cupboard I find something I first thought to be a microwave, but it is a safe, and it can only be opened by typing the correct password that you have to generate once you put your valuables inside. This is what I do. Now I am ready for my first night out in Caracas.
Just like many locals, the staff members take a lot of care of me, constantly reminding me of the dangers and giving me advice on which places to avoid. Before the cab arrives, I decide to smoke a cigarette in front of the hotel's entrance, but one of the staff members urgently asks me to smoke in the backyard, fearing that I could get mugged. Once I finish smoking in the backyard, the taxi arrives, and I head to the Centro Commercial in San Ignacio, a shopping mall with several bars on the ground floor. Here it seems much safer again, at least as long as you stay near the mall, where people sit, chat, drink and laugh. A sign at the entrance of one the bars reminds the visitors of the code of conduct. Among other things, the sign stresses how tolerance towards other religious groups is being expected here. And of course, just like in almost any other premise in Caracas, the sign serves as a reminder that it is prohibited to carry weapons or ammunition inside. Accordingly, the doorman strictly scans me, before I can enter.
While waiting for my first Mojito, I observe the crowd and listen to the electronic beats, to which many guests rhythmically move their bodies. On this particular night it seems like several women are in attendance who have appeared on the cover of different kinds of magazines before. But tonight nobody epitomizes the mainstream ideal of beauty more than the two ladies that enter the bar a few minutes later, prompting most of the men in the crowd to stop talking. Even the most eyecatching women in this bar tonight seem to be distracted by their presence. Apart from their physical assets and their carefully chosen dresses, the slightest change in their facial expression alone is being observed by the men with high anticipation, like they are waiting for the climax of a hollywood blockbuster. The two show stealers barely speak and stay reserve, but obviously know that they are the 'main attraction' here. And in the rare occasions that they do speak, it seems like many guests try to listen closely to what they are saying. People here are acting like these women could be future participants of the Miss Universe Contest. I would not be surprised if this will be the case.
For some reason I liked this place. So the next nights I visit the same bar. Over time I become a well- received guest. On one night, I greet the doorman and position myself in front of him, ready to get scanned again, until he asks me with a smile what I am doing, welcoming his new amigo without doing any inspections. This night I decide to check another bar on this street as well, which I am only allowed to enter because I just made friends with one of the doormen. He convinces the other doorman to let me go inside. Just like in the previous bar, the prices in this locality are much more expensive than in Merida, while still being very cheap. Although many students in here are privileged to receive money on a SICAD II rate (50 Bolivares = 1$, instead of 6,43 Bolivares only), it is quite obvious that some guests could never afford the many shots and cocktails they buy, if they were not into the paralelo business. The next hours I am curiously observing the people on the dancefloor and try to grasp some words they use.
While most locals are just having a good time with their friends, a few individuals look more serious, like the man who is standing on the bar just a few meters away from me. He barely says anything but clearly signalizes to me that he wants me to keep a low profile, exposing an object underneath his shirt. This time it is not a plastic bottle like in Merida, but a real gun. He is probably not the only person in here who posesses a fire weapon tonight. Alcohol and fire weapons are never a good combination. At least I know that gunfights occur only rarely in the bars. As a matter of fact, this is even one of the safer places at night. But carrying weapons is of course not restricted to the malandros, on the contrary: Most people who carry weapons do so out of protection, and sometimes they also just like to pose around.
A few hours later I stand outside the bar again, looking at the anarchistic streets of Caracas, before I enter the taxi and make my way back to the hotel, where I get ready for the next bus trip. At least at day time, some of the main streets and squares in Venezuela's Capital even felt safer than expected, but this is the problem. In Merida I have experienced first hand how feeling just a little bit too safe can make you vulnerable. While I have sometimes felt tempted to neglect my vigilance, the malandros themselves often keep a low profile and patiently observe their target, waiting for just one moment where the target feels a false sense of security, before appearing out of nowhere to unexpectedly and aggressively mug the victim. I should keep that in mind for the next destination as well, because Brahin, a Palestinian Venezolano, who has been my advisor on safety issues and on Venezuela's currency chaos, has told me that her hometown is not safer. Tomorrow I will head to Maracay and meet Brahin for the first time.
Most Venezolanos who posess a weapon do so out of protection
(this video does not belong to the author)