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The International Writers Magazine: Caracas

Ups and Downs in Venezuela
Stephanie Fleming
I struggle through a crowd of people so thick I can’t see what I’m stepping on, as I drag my suitcases behind me.  They are full of Quaker Chewy Granola Bars and Vitamin Water, delicacies in Caracas. 


As the herd moves closer to the exit of the Simon Bolivar International Airport, I spot a short, dark-haired man holding a sign with my name on it and I wave to him. 
“That’s me,” I yell, over the chorus of undistinguishable chatter surrounding me. 
The man points to the sign and then points to me and nods his head.  I join him in the head-nodding.  This will be our method of communication.  I debate whether or not to tell him I speak Spanish, but I am so tired from the five-hour delay on the runway of the Fort Lauderdale airport in a crowded plane, waiting to take off, that I am not sure I still even speak English.
My sister sent the little man to pick me up.  She has been working at the United States Embassy in Caracas for eight months, and was surprised when I wanted to visit.  “It’s not the most glamorous city,” she said. An awkward, ten-second delay followed every sentence of our phone conversation.  I didn’t care where I went as long as it was far away from the sudden emptiness that filled my home. I have only known my sister for two years and this will be the third time I see her.  I was adopted as a baby and after years of searching, I discovered I have a sister.  I had always wanted a sister.  And now I need one more than ever.

People who live in Caracas don’t go to the airport unless they are planning to fly away.  I understand why as I am led out by my driver.  The crowd thickens as we approach the door.  We step over open suitcases with people sitting down in front of them sorting through their stuff.  My driver takes me past the long line of black SUVs and taxis into a small parking lot enclosed by a chain-link fence, and tosses my suitcases into the trunk of a dented white Renault.  He smiles and nods. I squeeze myself into the backseat of the two-door mini-car nearly tripping over the seat belt that leads to the driver’s seat.

As we leave the airport and turn onto the winding highway, I catch a glimpse of the sea that is separated from the city by El Avila, a 9,000 foot high mountain range.  The water below is dark brown and appears thick as mud.  There are no waves.  There are no people at the beach.  Each twist in the highway makes me feel as though we are traveling in circles.  The view that was just on my left is now on my right and before I can absorb it, it is back on my left.  With each turn we end up higher on the mountain.  It feels as though we are going nowhere yet somewhere dark and mysterious. 

The car is hot.  The windows are down but that only allows the dust from the barren landscape to blow in.  That is my life lately, bleak and fraught with gusts of soiled air.  I think about the black SUVs I saw at the airport.  They looked new and comfortable.  Yet, I am in this battered matchbook car.

How do I really know this is my driver?  Maybe he just stole the sign with my name on it from my real driver and is now taking me up the mountain, kidnapping me like the rebels in Columbia shown in the movies I watch far too often.  I have seen nothing on the sides of the road since we left the airport, just dirt and rocks beyond each curve in the road.  Not a single blade of grass.

I realize in that instant that I’d rather be here regardless of how bad it looks than be at home.  The fear and uncertainty I feel now is better than the hole left inside me after the death of my cherished pet.  She was my constant companion for fifteen years, my reason for getting up in the mornings and she had always needed me.  Without Midie, I am lost.  I realize not everyone believes that a dog can be so important and cause such grief when gone.  Fortunately, I know my sister understands.  Her Yorkie, Reci, is in almost every picture Jaime sends me, one of them is her screen saver.  

For many people pets are another family member, usually the favored family member given their knack for unconditional love and their lack of negative emotions.  Being a woman who is close to passing the point in life where having children is still a reasonable option, my dog was like a child to me.  I raised her from a tiny hyper puppy who ate my furniture when I wasn’t looking to an old dog who needed my help just to stand up. 
Even my mother accepted her as family.  “How’s my granddaughter?” she would ask when she called.  “I guess she’s the only one I’ll ever have.”  I picture mom sitting on her couch as she says this with her Shih Tzu, Chelsea, on her lap.  

Every day I looked forward to going home and seeing Midie, her nose popping through the front door as I open it, tail banging against the back wall of the tiny foyer.  Now, there is no where I need to be, no one I need to take care of, no reason to exist.

A sudden dip in the road brings me back to Venezuela. I grasp onto my passport in case I feel the sudden need to dive out of the open passenger window as we slow to follow another twist in the road.  Finally, around that corner I see signs of a city: tall buildings in the distance, gas stations on the corner of approaching intersections, road signs on the edge of the highway with graffiti painted on them.  The first sign we pass pronounces severe fines for littering. At its feet is a bag of garbage, its contents spewing out onto the road.

The road is so jam-packed we are no longer able to move, cars on either side of us, four deep on a two lane highway.  Motorcycles pass through with barely an inch to spare on either side of them.  People walk in the middle of the street selling food, drinks and anything else they pull out of their closets to passing motorists.

caracas Fumes from the leaded gasoline that is the standard in Venezuela pour into the car through the open window.  The hill-sides are lined with makeshift houses that the homeless have built with any sort of material they can get their hands on, mostly cement blocks.  They are stacked upon each other at random, looking as though they will tumble down the hill at any moment picking up more and more concrete cottages along the way. I no longer consider lunging from the car. 

I think of my sister instead and how great it will be to see her and be with family.  Although we haven’t known each other long, we are happy to have each other.  We are getting to know each other and making up for lost time.  It saddens me that we didn’t grow up together and watch each other change through the years.  But I am happy to have her in my life now.  I grew up as an only child and having a sister to turn to gives me a feeling of hope where I would otherwise have nothing.

The car lurches ahead and we begin to weave in and out of lanes as though the white lines are only a suggestion, and I choke on the exhaust.  After what seems an eternity, traffic eases and we head up hill again.  At the top, the road curves sharply and suddenly we are in a different world.  Here, the garbage is in cans that are placed intermittently along the way; drivers stay in their lanes; the houses look professionally built. 

My driver passes a large iron gate and enters a parking lot that leads to a tall brick building.  My sister stands near the front door, the America flag blowing in the wind high above.
© Stephanie Fleming June 2011

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