Not many cigarettes are left. It takes longer than expected to find a stall that is selling cigarettes, reminiscent of my stay in Russia, where the government has established a law to reduce smoking among Russians, another measure to boost population growth within the country. Venezuela is confronted with very different problems, and tonight I would get a small taste of just how problematic the situation here really is.
On the streets I spot a man who looks like he knows where to buy cigarettes. So I walk over to him. As he begins to speak, I realize that it is not going to be easy to keep up in conversations with the Venezolanos. I have heard before that the people in Venezuela speak Spanish much faster than the people in Colombia do. Though I barely understand the man, what irritates me much more is the word that I do understand. He is talking about "heroinas". I guess it was my mistake to talk to a stranger in Venezuela on the streets at night, but who would expect that somebody will offer you heroin, when you are only looking for cigarettes? If I had asked him for a lighter, he probably would have pulled a gun on me, I exaggerate in thoughts, and continue walking.
Although my skin color and my rather reserve appearance make it more difficult for locals to notice that I am a foreigner, many signs can give them a clue, even without starting a longer conversation that exposes my lack of Spanish skills. Once I find a stall, for instance, its owner seems quite surprised at my request for a full pack of cigarettes. In Merida it is apparently usual to buy single cigarettes, because most people simply cannot afford full packs. Bearing this in mind, I have to think about how smoking only half of a cigarette before throwing it away, as I have been doing recently, will seem very unusual to the locals as well.
Next stop: A fast food restaurant, where a meal is as "expensive" as a meal on the streets of Bangkok. Recalling the currency problems in Venezuela, it is not surprising to see only a few people in here. While I am waiting for my order, I spot a sign that is to be found in most premises in Venezuela. The sign reminds the Venezolanos that firearms and ammunition are prohibited inside of those premises, while a traveller is much rather being reminded of the fact that carrying fire arms outside is prevalent. I look out of the window at the empty streets of Merida, while Coolio's hit single "Gangsta's Paradise" from the nineties is playing through the loudspeakers. It must have been many years ever since I have heard this song the last time.
A cab takes me to the "El Hoya del Que Que" bar. As I enter and sit down on a stool right in front of the bar, I make sure to keep a low profile. Many people are here tonight. They probably have access to dollars, otherwise how could they afford to be here? "Yo quiero una Cerveza por favor". I ask the barkeeper for a beer. It is so loud that I can barely hear what he is saying, and I am still learning Spanish numbers. He raises two fingers, and then all five. I did hear how he either said "cinqo" (5) or "cinquenta" (50) in the end. He must have said 250 Bolivares, which is still quite cheap (1,25€), albeit due to the paralelo phenomenon I was hoping that a beer costs maximum 100 Bolivares. As I give the barkeeper three 100 notes, he looks at me very confused, giving me back two notes, and additional notes on top of that. Now I look at him even more confused. In this moment, after buying my first beer, I realize that what I have envisioned for months is now coming true. He did not say 250 Bolivares, he said 25 Bolivares. This is less than 15 cents (weeks later only 10 cents, months later only 5 cents). With my jaw wide open I think about how I could drink all night for 2 dollars. A rather scary thought in Venezuela. So in this moment, while people are dancing behind me, I feel less euphoria than concern, thinking about how much money I have with me. Still in shock, I turn around and have a look at all the people, wondering if anybody has noticed my little misunderstanding with the barkeeper. This is so unreal. I could invite everybody in this bar combined without any financial harm. "Power and the money, money and the power, minute after minute, hour after hour". Coolio's song is still in my head.
A few beers and a cocktail later I decide to slow down, walk out of the bar and light up a cigarette. Though I was well informed about "Lechuga Verde" even before exchanging the money in the black market, it is always a difference between knowing something or being aware of something, especially in this case. It still seemed hard to believe that you can get rich so easily. I take another puff and conclude that maybe I have caught enough attention in this bar and should try another place. So I throw away my half-smoked cigarette and have a walk. Coolio's song keeps on haunting me: "You better watch how you're talking, and where you're walking".
On my way to Merida I already saw some individuals who reminded me of Gangsta rap music, such as the dreadlocked girl, who wore a red and white cap, complemented by shoes and a top in the same color, as well as blue baggy jeans, which were originally made famous by American prison inmates after being forced to wear jeans without belts, because the police took the belts away from them to ensure that they do not hang themselves or use the belts as a weapon. Once they were released, the prisoners continued to wear their jeans without belts. No wonder that baggy jeans became trendy as a recognizeable feature of the Gangsta rap fashion. In Venezuela, many people do not wear any belts simply because they are too expensive, whereas buying the easily accessible guns are often seen as a necessary investment for ones safety or, from a Malandro perspective, for successfully robbing people.
While being engrossed in thought, I must have forgotten how secluded the street is, on which I am walking. Merida might be much safer than Caracas, but the man who is standing only a few meters away from me, still looks suspicious enough. The way he looks at me does not really indicate that he is a hospitable person. From the other side of the street I can hear other locals talking. It sounds like they are about to arrive at the small crossroad that is a few meters ahead of me. At least we are not alone. If the man is up to something, the presence of other locals could make him think twice. He does not move from his spot as I continue to head straight, leaving him behind. The other locals arrive at the crossroad. The voices belong to two young men. They walk over to me and ask me for a cigarette. A few seconds later I learn that they want more than just a cigarette. "Tengo una pistola", the smaller one says, a sentence which he supports with sign language to ensure that I understand his message. He points at the frontside of his pants, warning me that he has a gun and that I better show no resistance, do not run, and give them all I have.
But something is strange. All the mugging incidents that I saw on footage previously, had one thing in common. Usually, Malandros mug their victims in a hectical, aggressive and fast way to make sure that the potential victim has no time to think or to come up with something. In such moments, the Malandros tend to pull out their guns and show you in the most visible way that your life is at stake. But these two men slowly creep around like wolves who are about to catch their prey. Why does he not pull out his gun? The guy has no reason to hide it on this empty street. I look down on the front side of his pants. Indeed there is an object in it, but it is not a gun. Instead, he has hidden an empty Coca Cola bottle, trying to make it look like a gun.
Now the whole situation seems much less threatening to me, albeit I am still outnumbered. The money that I have with me is nothing compared to what I can get tomorrow, but I know that I will not give them the money. Even the fake wallet that I have prepared seems too valuable to hand it over to them, although the notes of various countries and the few expired cards in it are worthless. But this is only my first night out in Venezuela and much more can happen in the next weeks, especially in Caracas. It makes sense to keep the fake wallet for a more precarious situation.
Suddenly, the man who seemed suspicious to me in the first place, reappears and joins the two Malandros, positioning himself right next to them. They are in cahoots. At least now I know exactly what to do. I might not be able to fight all of them, but I am confident that I am faster than all of them. Nevertheless a small distraction may help right now, so I act compliable and let them feel like they have won, as I grasp for the money inside my pocket. I feel all the banknotes, but I take only one note that is worth almost nothing and let it fall down. While the banknote is fluttering in the air and the three Malandros try to catch it, I get a small head start, prompting them to play "Catch me if you can".
The Malandros pursue me only for a few seconds and then give up, watching me arrive at the big crossroads, where cab drivers are waiting for the people who walk out of the bar. Another cab pulls up on the street. The driver opens the window, looks at me and asks me if everything is okay. He must have witnessed the attempted mugging. "I'm fine, don't worry", I signalize to him with my thumbs up and subsequently make the reasonable choice to get back to the hotel. Not even 24 hours have passed and I was already confronted with attempted mugging. It demonstrates how the young Venezolanos have indeed been spending most their lives living in the 'Gangsta's Paradise'.
A dawn of a new day. A day, in which I decide to see more of the city in the Andes. Although I intend to stay in Merida only for transit to get prepared for bigger adventures, I enter a tourist office to have a little overview on the tours and activities in Merida. The highest point of Venezuela lies only 15 kilometres away from here. As expected, the cable car in Merida, one of the highest and longest cable cars in the world, remains closed. The reopening will probably be postponed because of the current economic crisis.
Another example of Venezuela's dramatic economic situation is Merida's famous ice cream parlor Heladeria Coromoto. Three months ago it offered 863 different flavors, which had been a world record. Today there is not one flavor left. The receptionist explains to me that the owner has been forced to close the parlor again due to the lack of milk in Venezuela, albeit some reports suggest that it may reopen soon. The Venezuelan government accuses its owner of spreading propaganda, arguing that there are many ice cream parlors in Venezuela who keep doing their business as usual, and dismissing the claim that there is not enough milk to produce ice cream. The owner of Coromoto pointed out that other ice cream parlors use powdered milk, while Coromoto has always been using fresh milk.
"Where is the city center?", I ask the young woman. "This is the city center", she replies. Silence. I look out at the main square. Of course I did not expect a Times Square, but I did assume that Merida's square was bigger. As I walk out of the tourist office, I am amazed to see the name of the square that is written on a sign, along with all the stalls that sell cigarettes. The man who talked about "heroinas" last night never meant to offer heroin to me, but he gave me directions to the Heroine Square, "Las Heroinas Plaza".