Venezuela Vignettes
After our Venezuela trip, students wrote about one of their experiences...

On Poking Children
By Amelia Jenkins

Floating down the Orinoco (Ok, so it was only a tributary) we spent a night in hammocks in the jungle. The next day, after our hike, we found we'd moved. All our belongings had been brought to a new location in a village. Some said this was because a mammoth spider friend frightened our guide. But being the easy-going traveler that I am (for better or worse), I never bothered to follow through on the validity of this. All I was concerned with was that I had all my stuff, and a dry, safe place to sleep.

Our first interaction with the people in the village had come that morning on our way up the river for more swimming, sightseeing, and a hike. We'd pawed over handcrafted baskets and other goods they sold to tourists. Each item's price tag (a piece of tape) bore the name of the individual who'd made it.

I selected a couple items pretty quickly, and oohed and ahhed over others. But I was distracted by a gaggle of little kids weaving in and out of our legs staring at us with precocious curiosity. Now, I am not one of those people who find children cute based only on the merit of being children. Someone isn't inherently cute just because they haven't been alive as long as I have. I don't even particularly like them any more than I like my peers or elders. That said, I do have some natural instinct to poke them. They just seem more approachable than adults do. I never know how to respond to the woman in the bathroom who asks how I'm enjoying the show. And I'm nervous about the guy in the bar who's trying to say something dumb but it's too noisy to understand him. But a child is easy to figure. You poke it; it will giggle and run away, hoping you will chase it. So I poked some children and they giggled and ran away, hoping I would chase them. So I did.

Everyone always says: "No matter where you go people are all exactly the same." But that's not true. Oh sure, at the root of it we all want the same things: security, love, oxygen; but the way people interact and their day-to-day life varies tremendously. The people that really don't vary are the smaller ones. Whether they are the color of a sugar cube and dressed in BabyGap, or the color of a coffee bean, wearing naught but a dingy pair of panties, children just want to be poked and chased.

One of my favorite memories of the trip was running around an exotic village, playing just like I do here.

Busing in Venezuela
By Michael Maas

Having grown up in Juneau, I had never experienced the joy of long-distance bus travel before my trip to Venezuela. And what an introduction it was! Our fearless leader, Rick Bellagh, calculated at the end of the trip that we had spent nearly a week of our time in Venezuela in buses.

Our first trip was a nine-hour overnight ride. After waiting on the loading docks of the terminal while they found us an operable bus (the original one was broken) we headed off into the night, half dead from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Being a CDL holder having only driven in Juneau, I was at first impressed with our driver's skill. However, I soon realized that skill is not the prime requisite for driving buses in Venezuela: absolute fearlessness is much more useful. There are few observed traffic laws out on the open highway. We probably spent 50% of the trip on the wrong side of the yellow line passing anything ahead of us that dared to go slower than absolute full throttle.

The whole night was spent in that awful mode in which you can't quite sleep but you can't quite stay awake. We'd continually hit potholes and I'd wake up thinking we were being bombed, or the driver would start to fall asleep and crank up the radio. At the end of the trip we looked like we'd all been coated in butter, and the humidity inside the bus was probably about 190%. (I'm not sure how that's possible, but it sure felt like we accomplished it.)

There are two types of bus service in Venezuela: normal and "executive." That first trip was the "normal" service, so you can imagine we wanted to try the "executive" service for our next long trip. It was (supposedly) much more luxurious, with wide seats that recline, TVs, a bathroom, and air conditioning. Sounds great, right? Well, you have to take into account what I call the First Law of Venezuelans and Technology.

This law basically states that in Venezuela, if a technology exists it must be used, and used at its full capacity. There is no in between! So the air conditioning was not simply set to cool off the passengers: it was cranked up. By an hour into the trip, the temperature inside the bus was probably 45° F. And there was no escape to be had in sleep, for as soon as we got underway the driver put on a movie, of course at top volume. (They couldn't even pick a good movie, it was some low-budget cheese-fest out of 1980 Hollywood.) It was, once again, a long night...

Real Life Rollercoaster
By Oksana Kadachigova

Do you like roller coasters? I surely do enjoy the roller coaster rides at the entertainment parks, when I know that all of them passed the safety regulations and know that I am not going to take a face dive from the highest point of the "devil eight." Now imagine a vertical zigzag that climbs all the way to the top of the mountain that can be barely seen from the car window. There are now guaranties that you will make it all the way up in one peace. All that you can rely on is a crazy driver and the breaks of the old beat up land cruiser sounding like it would never make another mile.

It was at the end of the second week of our trip in Venezuela. Our group decided that we were not going to stay in Mérida for New Years day. We were worried that New Years in the city might be quite dangerous due to all the fire works. Venezuelans have an extreme love of fire works, petard, and the loud noise and fire in general. The fear of burns and hearing damaged drew us to the next adventure.

We decided to go to Pueblo Nuevo a small town somewhere in the mountains near Mérida. Spoiled with good roads we had no idea what we were getting into. In the early morning of December 31st we found a car that would take us there. It was an old, very old land cruiser with bunch of junk in the back. There was carton box, stereo, and not quit but almost full size mirror. The seats were two benches on the both sides. Nine people from our group squeezed into this car. Jason took the front seat and Amber, Bill, Arlo, Mike, Amelia, Joe, Ricardo, and I set in a back. The driver told us that he is not going anywhere till the car is full. Full?! Well, he is right we thought there was a space left between the drive' seat and Jason's seat. The peace of our minds did not last long the next thing we know is two big guys trying to fit in the back with us. To this day I have no idea how they managed to fit in and keep that door closed on the way up with all of us leaning on it. The woman that was with those two guys took the middle front seat. This was the start of our real life roller coaster ride.

We were going down the hill until we reached the bridge across the some type of the canyon with the drying out river at the bottom. After crossing the bridge somebody looked up and said "Look at the zigzag on the that step hill. Can you even imagine driving that road?" Of course the next thing we know, it is the road to Pueblo Nuevo.

As we drove up the vegetation changed from the jungle to a mix of bush, cacti and moors. The car was making tired, crying noses and it sounded like it would never make it all the way up. Each turn had a vertical drop down hillside and it was getting worse as we were making our way up. It was a very narrow road with no room for two cars to get around each other. The giant bridge at the base looked small and unreal now. By the time we made two thirds of the way we passed around four or five memorial stands for people who got killed in the car accidents on this road. We were all feeling little nervous.

Amber was making verbal and facial comments on each turn. It was funny and I could not resist taking a picture. Somebody asked "Amber show your scared face again." "I don't know how…" Amber tried to reply but another turn came up and the camera made click sound.

We made all the way up without any problems just afraid of our own fears. Pueblo Nuevo turned out to be a nice small town with friendly, interesting people.

Dance Partner
By Christine Krejca

Crashing a party--showing up at obvious festivities to which one was not invited--has never been an experience of mine until this evening. This activity always struck me as a bit rude; why would I want to go to a party where I didn't know a single soul? Of course, these contemplations have previously been well removed from the context in which crashing a party could actually occur. In context, it seems perfectly legitimate for my fellow gringos and I to walk down the beach a few hundred feet away and investigate the source of the thunderous music. We muster a number of tanned-but still white-accomplices with sufficient curiosity to check it out. The music grows in volume and intensity as we near the end of the beach, and I hurriedly swig the remains of my drink with the awareness that I won't want any part of it once the dancing ensues.

We discover that the Latin tunes are being pumped out of a concrete structure without a roof. The floor-if there is one-is completely covered in sand. We casually waltz in with an air of normality-every Venezuelan eye looking us over from head to foot. The music continues to blare, but I'm sure nearly all dialogue has ceased as we undergo inspection. The sides are lined with wallflowers-those who prefer to listen or chat-some in beach chairs and others standing, leaning into conversations. Half the distance of the beach away, the music was thunderous.

Here, it's deafening. It quickly becomes obvious to me that excessive communication will cost me the usual register of my voice. I'll be able to sing Crash Test Dummies' tunes with ease by the end of the night. I chat with several people, but I'm really here to dance. A couple position themselves in the center of the "room" to shuffle in the sand, and I take this catalyst as my cue. I choose a woman seated near the entrance. Her wide dark eyes stare at the dancers as if all she might need is a bit of encouragement.

"¿Le gustaría bailar?" I scream to her, offering my hand. Even over the din of the music I hear someone cackling, I think it's Rick. The woman indicates that she couldn't hear me.

"¡Le gustaría bailar!" I scream again, certain she wouldn't refuse, and almost daring to tug her hand. A wave of amazement sweeps her face and changes suddenly to muted embarrassment. She shakes her head vigorously from side to side. Undaunted, I turn to her companion and voicelessly ask her, with raised eyebrows, a nod of my head, and an outstretched hand, the same question. She forces a frown and shakes her head. I progress down the line of seated Venezuelans without an iota of shame, asking if anyone would like to dance. A similar disinterest pervades nearly the entire row. Thinking I may have to dance alone, the end of the line brings me to a grinning and shirtless guy not much older than me.

"Amigo," I request, "Ven. Baile conmigo, por favor." He consents without hesitation and we awkwardly flail on the sand.

Searching for the American Experience in Venezuela
By Amber Lee

It was like flying into Seattle for a shopping spree except you had the option to speak to store attendants in Spanish.

We had flown into Caracas the night before, smooshed our jet-lagged bodies into a Ford Econoline van, and sought out an inexpensive hotel near the business district of the city. We slept restlessly on thinly cushioned mattresses and were awoken by the sounds that a person might find his or herself waking to in any other city. In the morning, we stepped tentatively into the shower, expecting to be covered in icy cold water that normally pours from showers in Latin American countries and were surprised with warm water.

We were confused.

Nevertheless, we gathered in the downstairs lobby of the hotel and began to make plans for the day, which consisted of pairing up in small groups and wandering aimlessly through the city. My group chose to wander down the street to the right and another group chose to wander down the street to the left.

A grumbling belly alerted me to my need for food and I began to see the signs-McDonalds, Burger King, Papa Johns Pizza.

"Are you sure we came to Venezuela," I asked another in the group. "Are you sure we didn't just circle around a bit and land in Miami again."

The question grew larger as we began to see a large shopping mall looming on the horizon. A 12-foot tall Statue of Liberty welcomed us into four stories of all-American shopping, complete with a food court and an arcade on the top floor.

I began searching through the stores for the differences between the American shopping malls and this Venezuelan shopping center. I was looking for the odd brands or the bartering, and I came up empty-handed. I bought a Nike hat on my credit card and road the escalator up to the food court. I stood in line at Burger King and ordered a chicken sandwich, fries and cola. I dumped my garbage into a container that was shaped like a United States mailbox. Then I played the Adams Family pinball game until it was about time for us to all meet again at the hotel.

There were others waiting in the hotel lobby when I got there. Like me, they guiltily held little plastic bags full of things they didn't really need but were unable to purchase in Alaska.

Waiting for the rest of the group to gather, I leaned my head back in the green vinyl chair and shut my eyes. Off in the distance I believe I heard the quiet sound of a chicken and my heart felt a little lighter.

Hender and the Cemetery
By Joseph Sears

As the sun set behind the mountains, the three of us descended toward the village. Hender our local guide led the march down the hill. He had been telling Ricardo and myself tales of his friends and generally clowning around the entire way down the mountain. We had already had quite a few small adventures: a dip in a waterfall and a hike across a pre-Hispanic wall. I was exhausted and had difficulty understanding Hender's Spanish. But the gist of the tale was about a practical joke he played on a friend. At the end of the tale we paused to break into laughter. We had reached the cobblestone road near the end of the village. To our right a long, tall wall ran alongside the road. Hender noticed me looking at it and grinned mischievously.

"Do you like scary stories?" He asked then winked. "Do you want to see the cemetery?"

Ricardo and I exchanged a quick glance and grinned. Hender led us passed a locked gate, and we crept along the wall until finally reached the opposite corner. Hender grinned at us, pointed up, and then without a word (unusual for him) scrambled over the wall. Rick and I followed closely.

At the top of the wall, I paused a moment to survey the yard. I couldn't see very far in the darkness. Within my site was a crazy jumble of shapes and shadows. The ground was rough, not flat as I expected. This corner was fairly high but it sloped steeply so that the graves just a few feet away were a foot or two lower. There were crosses everywhere. Some ornate, others plain, some gleamed even in the poor light shining as though freshly carved that very day, others were split and crumbling, or tilted at crazy angles. Here and there were eerie lights that flickered in the gloom; at a nearby grave I could see a candle hanging in a small container.

I was jolted from my observation by Hender and Ricardo moving off through the graves. I quickly leapt to the ground, nearly twisting my ankle as I rushed to keep up with them. My steps were light. There was hardly anyplace to stand much less walk and I twisted and turned in vein to avoid stepping on the graves, but there was hardly a foot of earth unused. Hender suffered no such hesitations. He stepped quickly leading the way straight through the maze. He stepped across graves and hopped over crosses with his normal carefree stride.

Soon we had completed a circuit of the yard. Tombs and monuments were barely visible in the moonlight that now shone. Throughout all Hender spoke only in whisper and he quickly ushered us out of the yard. Again we scrambled up and over the wall.

I stood a moment gazing at the lights of the town ahead. Behind, I could feel the darkness of the yard. I nearly shrieked as a hand grabbed the back of my neck! The panic was short-lived. Relief flooded through me as I heard Hender giggling.

By Rick Bellagh

We arrived in Choroní late after yet again a full day of braving the roads, ready to find a room to throw our stuff down in and a bed to throw ourselves down on. The driver took us right to the place we had randomly picked out to regroup, and I found out from the diminutive night guard that yes, some Alaskan students had come by, but decided to move on when they found out a room was 120 dollars a night. "¿Y le dijeron adónde iban a parar ?" I asked, trying to ascertain our next move. The watchman replied that he thought they were going to the posada just down the way in Puerto Colombia, across from the police stand. Fine, lets just get there already. We found the place quickly and when the owner told us that they only had Italians and nacionales, we decided that we could find them tomorrow. "Can we get a room for five?" The next morning I dressed for the beach and got going early. Trying to be ever the responsible leader, I fought off the urge to run to the beach and instead turned inland, back to Choroní. We had chosen an alternate meeting place, a small hotel called Ríomar right off the plaza Bolivar. The sun was already hot though it was still quite early, so I was glad that most of the way was shaded by huge bamboo groves next to the river.

Each town in Venezuela, regardless of size or importance, has a central square named after its favorite son and liberator Simon Bolivar. World over, though, he is probably best known for his dying words of despair "I have ploughed the ocean," referring to the futility of his struggle to unite South America under one flag. Even Gran Colombia (the governmental union of Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela that Bolivar created) only lasted a decade before falling back to its constituent pieces. Yet he is glorified by Venezuelans as the liberator who brought people together to throw off Spanish oppression, and his likeness is painted and sculpted in conspicuous places all over the country. The highest mountain in Venezuela is crowned with his statue and named in his honor. Even the monetary unit is called the Bolivar. But I wasn't to understand the reverence bestowed on his memory until this sunny morning.

I was just approaching the tree-shaded plaza Bolivar when I overtook a middle-aged woman walking home with two loaves of bread. I casually asked her if she knew where Ríomar hotel was. We walked on together for a few steps before she acknowledged that yes, she knew the place. "I'm going that way, I'll take you there. Its just on the other side of Plaza Bolivar."

We got to the plaza and she suggested that we cross through, but then gave me the motherly once-over and diverted to go around the small square instead of through it. "You can't go through the plaza Bolivar dressed like that."


The human brain has the uncanny and uncontrollable habit of working almost without pause to justify or explain any discrepancy it perceives. Often it doesn't have all the information it needs and therefore must keep little files of unexplainable information. And then suddenly, when the last piece of data is stumbled upon, the brain gets a sudden Flash! where everything makes sense.

My mind now retrieved all of the images of Bolivar that I had come across and frantically started putting them in place. First: A few weeks earlier in the city of Valencia, taking cover from the noonday sun in the crowded plaza Bolivar, an older lady passed by our hacky circle and muttered under her breath "Oh, so now we're even doing sports in the plaza." Other people had been watching us from the benches of the perimeter, but that was nothing new. I didn't feel the same disdain from them, though, as from the grumpy lady. Hmm, curious comment. My brain created a file.

Next: What of the other plazas? There was the plaza in Santa Fe, which was neither centrally located nor particularly well kept, almost like an obligatory afterthought. The one in Caracas, where ice cream vendors would approach you on the perimeter but would not enter the plaza. The conspicuous lack of shoeshine boys there. The tourist who told the story of getting yelled at for sitting on the pedestal of the statue of Bolivar. The huge portraits of The Liberator painted on cinderblock walls around the country, each with its wise quote from the Savior. I mean Liberator.

That's it! The respect that Venezuelans show Bolivar felt very similar to the respect that Mexicans have for Jesus. In fact, the only other time I was denied admission anywhere because of my attire was to the cathedral in the Zócalo of Mexico City. (I was wearing shorts, and Jesus would have none of that.) And wasn't Jesus seen as the liberator of the Jews in his time? The flash! comparison felt strangely apt, though the philosophies of these two great men are far from similar. Venezuelans are looking for liberation again, not from Spain this time, but rather liberation from corruption, from poverty, from oppressive institutions like the International Monetary Fund and from foreign governments like our own that want to control them and bury them in what we dubiously call American culture. It is like they are waiting for the second coming of Bolivar.

In these times when change is so necessary and revolution less and less viable, people have to somehow come together to create a way to overcome the problems globalization is bringing in its fast growing wake. The populist president Hugo Chavez is invoking the spirit of Bolivar to promote unity amongst the countries of South America. This would be true respect for the vision of Bolivar. However, some would say he is a typical politician, trying to attach himself to the reverence of the people for Bolivar, maybe even to the point of subliminally touting himself as the reincarnation. If the Venezuelan people buy this, and if this truly is business as usual in Latin America, it is an extreme abuse of the popular vision of Bolivar.

Rallying around a popular historical figure is certainly one way of coming together, although historically volatile. I don't know where respect becomes worship, but I suspect that social pressure or rules made to revere such a figure as Bolivar is somewhere in the fuzzy zone between the two.