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Venezuela is somewhere I keep forgetting I’ve visited.
It sounds pretty silly – how can you forget you visited a whole country?! Even when somebody asks where I’ve been in South America, I always start my answer with Venezuela and list the rest in anti-clockwise order, but through habit more than through actually remembering it. Then that person will say “Oh, Venezuela?! How was that?” with an intrigue in their voice that indicates they think of Venezuela in the same way they think of North Korea, El Salvador, and even Syria – out of bounds, a war zone and, quite frankly, dangerous. And I’ll answer with the generic “It was nice“.
The truth about Venezuela back when I visited in 2013 is that it was none of the above. Sure, like many Latin American countries you have to exercise a little bit extra caution in some regions, firearms are more socially acceptable in public places than anywhere in Europe, and there are many political issues causing grief for the majority of the population, but it was nice. A little intimidating, but nice.
When I arrived in Simón Bolívar International Airport at half past midnight, my bag was scanned at least 3 times on my way out. The customs officer Maribel was undoubtedly the most terrifying beast of a woman I’ve ever come across! I was almost reduced to tears with her aggressive interrogation of my reasons for visiting the country and why I was arriving so late. The answer? Because that’s when my flight was scheduled, duh! She told me to be careful leaving the airport so late, and not to flag down a taxi.
Luckily, I’d already arranged to stay with a Couchsurfing host in Caracas, who was waiting for me in her dad’s 4×4 in the car park with a friend. Her name was Cristina, and she embraced me as if we’d known each other our whole lives when I awkwardly walked up to the car. Before I’d even had a chance to throw my backpack in the back seat, her friend insisted we make a move. She said her parents will kill her if they found out she was gone.
As we drove the forty-five minutes to Cristina’s stunning house in what seemed to be Caracas’s interpretation of Beverley Hills, she told me that not only were her parents blissfully unaware of the fact she’d taken their car in the middle of the night to drive to the airport, but they also didn’t know she’d offered their home to a stranger. Brilliant. She explained that the drive from their home to the airport was so notoriously dangerous at night (we had to drive through a weird mountain tunnel that went under one of Venezuela’s most deadly favelas) that there’s no way on Earth her dad would willingly let her do it, so it’s best all round if she didn’t tell him.
She then told me that although her mother was fully onboard with the whole Couchsurfing thing, her father was convinced she has such poor judgment that she’d end up unknowingly welcoming the next Charles Manson into their home, and they’d all be murdered in their beds. This amused me slightly, and I promised her there and then in Spanish and English that I was most certainly not Charles Manson.
As we drove away from the airport, I looked up at the favela and found myself in awe at its unassuming beauty.
Favela is a word more commonly used in Brazil, although other South American countries have found themselves adopting it to describe what is officially known to them as barrios. The English term would be slum or shanty town, neither of which I feel comfortable using, based on the ugly images that are most associated with the words. I prefer to use favela, if only for the way it easily rolls off the tongue.
The favela loomed over us, almost threateningly, rectangular buildings stacked haphazardly on top of one another, each painted a different colour to its neighbour. Even in the dead of night music played loud and clear, a different song from each ‘street’, a combination of reggaeton and old-time traditional music. Lights twinkled from above, more in the favela than stars in the sky.
I didn’t take any photos of the favela (or Caracas as a whole), but if you click here, the feature image of this article is the exact place I’m referring to.
It was a strange yet pleasant welcome to Venezuela, this oft-forgotten country well off the typical Gringo Trail. For the whole plane journey over, and the 5 hours I spent in Miami Airport getting ‘randomly selected’ for a drug search four times, I’d been intimidated at the thought of this country which, according to Western media, was plagued with nothing but gun violence, drug gangs, and kidnappings. The FCO warned against all but essential travel to most of the country, and warned against all travel to the Colombia-Venezuela border (which, of course, I had plans of crossing!). With all of this playing over my mind for the 20-hour long journey, I’d started to doubt myself, and why I was coming here.
Was a really tall waterfall really worth risking my life?
As it turns out, Venezuela was my unofficial inauguration on how not to fall into the mindset the media wants you to, to make your own decisions, and to just go with your gut instinct.
I entered the tunnel under the favela looking up, mouth agape at the sheer magnitude of this whole city above me, all of my worries about Venezuela causing an uncomfortable heaviness in my stomach. I exited a whole different person, absolutely buzzing with excitement for what the next three weeks in this incredible country would bring me, barely able to wait to get out there and explore.