My brief and inglorious stay in Venezuela.
Venezuela, July 1999
A cabbie warned us that our beach was the worst on the island.
He was right.
It was littered with beer cans, food wrappers, and French people in banana hammocks. A sewage pipe intersected the south end of the beach, draining enough mystery sludge into the water that it stung your eyes when you swam. It was crowded with poor Venezuelan locals who guzzled back-to-back Polar beers from coolers, plastic bags with ice, and local vendors. You could barely find a spot of sand not covered with a cheap blanket and a drunken family inhabiting it. When they turned their heads left to see what was worth stealing on their neighbor’s blanket, the neighbor on their right reached over and stole their beer. Naked toddlers ran around unattended, peeing all over the place as their parents made out shamelessly. On any given blanket you had a 17.5% chance of seeing a Venezuelan titty pop out, or worse. When they got up and brushed off the sand and stumbled to the bus stop, their only goal was to go home with some beer and approximately the same number of kids they came with.
Scrawny teenagers raced scrawnier horses up and down the beach at furious speeds. They rode bareback, hugging the horses with their bare feet and clinging to the mane with one hand, the other hand used to whip the poor beast mercilessly. Everyone cheered as they raced.
One kid got thrown from his horse when it stumbled in the sand and took a bad digger. I know Shane and I could have gone to the nicer beach and sat around with the pale tourists flopping around like sea otters, but what the hell was the fun in that? We wanted local. It was no postcard, but it wasn’t terrible for the ass-end of paradise.
We took out the Frisbee and found some real estate to throw it back and forth. Everywhere we went the Frisbee came with us — it was the perfect way to amuse ourselves at any beach or public park, or even in the parking lot while waiting for the bus, and chasing after it and leaping into the air to catch it gave us a great workout. Throwing the Frisbee around also provided a perfect opportunity to meet people. Most places we went, people had never even seen a Frisbee before, and kids always loved it and grouped around us, wanting a turn. If we saw a group of hot girls we wanted to spit game at, we’d just throw the Frisbee in their direction. Either it landed near them, in which case we’d run up and collect it and chat a bit, or it would hit one of them squarely in the face and cause a nosebleed, in which case we’d get to spend more time with them manufacturing sincere apologies that it had been a complete accident, and offering to take them out to dinner to make amends. That was a win-win the way I saw it. Our Frisbee was yellow with a big smiley face on it, and we must have thrown that thing an hour or two every day. We always held it up in pictures to show where we were and yes, that we were still smiling, like a hostage holding up that day’s newspaper.
And that is how we met our strange new amigo, a chatty guy around our age who walked by and asked if he could throw the Frisbee with us. After flopping it around unsuccessfully for five minutes he suggested that we have a drink with him and his friends instead and led us to a grove of trees. Several obviously unemployed fellows stood about, and a pregnant lady in a bikini sprawled out nearby on a tree stump. He introduced us to his brother, a sketchy bastard who was skinny and balding yet covered with thick body hair, like he was a little too far left on the evolutionary chart that showed man’s progress to get his knuckles off the ground and walk upright. To make matters worse, he was sweating like a whore in church. I tried to push Shane toward him and stand closer to the pregnant chick.
They were drinking from a bottle of anise, a strong local firewater liquor, and filled little plastic cups and urged us to drink round after round, while yelling enthusiastically in Spanish about things I didn’t understand and didn’t care to. They refilled our cups and insisted we drink more with them since we were their new best friends. The stuff burned my esophagus on the way down and hit me between the eyes instantly. The hairy brother couldn’t wait for the formalities of pouring it into cups, so he started drinking straight out of the bottle. He was a real kook, screaming because he was half deaf in one ear from the time a stick of dynamite misfired near him in a mining accident. I tried to stay on the side of his bad ear so he wouldn’t want to converse with me, but he still badgered me with anecdotes about his days working on civil engineering projects while he was in the military. I made it very clear to the brothers that I didn’t speak Spanish, but they ignored this fact and continued to catch me up on everything that had occurred in their lives over the last 25 years. The more I protested that I had no idea what they were saying, shamelessly pointing to Shane to divert their attention, the closer they got and the louder they yelled.
Someone didn’t smell right. The hairy brother drank more and became animated, trying to headlock me. He waved his arms around like a gorilla, his eyes bloodshot and unable to focus, and tried to hug me with his dripping man-sweater. I stiff-armed him but did it subtly, trying not to be rude so he wouldn’t turn on us and cut our heads off with a machete.
The only thing that seemed to calm these bad-breath bandits was Queen. Yes, Queen the band. A transistor radio sat on the beach next to them, antennae erect to pick up the only station on the island, and when a Queen song came on they went crazy. They loved rock and roll music, they said, and Queen was, of course, the best band ever. Really? I never got that memo. They wanted us to sing along and they wouldn’t take no for an answer. It was either that or do more shots, so right there on the beach Shane and I belted out our best rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Will Rock You,” and “We Are the Champions.” We had to make up most of the lyrics, repeat choruses, and switch songs mid verse, but it seemed to soothe these savage beasts a little. The brother tried to clap along and stamp his feet to the beat, but the shrapnel in his head most have stricken him tone deaf as well. But as long as I kept singing, he relinquished his headlock on me. I didn’t want it to end, so Shane and I went into repeat mode, mixing up the songs and singing chorus after chorus. They tried to keep up and sing along, to what I have no idea, and I didn’t want to risk injury or a breach in my hygiene policy by stopping them.
“We swill, we swill, watch you!” they howled. Clap, clap.
“Key swill, key gill, wash you!” Drink, drink. Clap, clap. Everyone within earshot stared at them, embarrassed that these men had been appointed the drunken ambassadors of their country.
“Key argyle clampions my friend!” Dynamite Head soloed. I made eye contact with Shane to communicate our breakaway. We told them that we’d had a great time but it was getting late and we had to go. They protested. Sorry fellas, we have somewhere to be, we pleaded. They wanted to come with us. They wanted more drink, more Queen, more girls. More? Where the hell were the girls that we were supposedly enjoying now? We were finally excused after taking three more shots and promising to meet them in the same spot in an hour. An orgy of handshaking, hugs, missed high-fives, and vows that we were hermanos (brothers) ensued. We walked down the beach quickly, without looking back, and ran the second we couldn’t hear Queen anymore. Shane thought that they were trying to take a crack at us, but I thought they were just blitzed out of their minds and overly friendly. When I got back to the hotel, I took a shower with extra soap and collapsed on the bed, passing put instantly from anise and sun.
When I woke up I was in a fog, confused about where I was and how I got there. That vertigo was becoming common, because on our trip so far we’d been in a different cheap hotel, or on a flight, bus, or train every third day. I got my bearings by looking at the hotel stationery. We were at the Blue Iguana in Isla Margarita in Venezuela.
That’s right — how the hell could I forget? As I eased into wakefulness I thought about our journey so far. It had been a wild ride — only a few weeks ago I had been so innocent and carefree until everything went wrong. It had started with the rat-hole King’s Inn, quite possibly the worst hotel on earth, infested with rats, hookers, and shadowy guests who paid by the hour. After two hellish weeks there we had finally plotted our escape, booking flights to Brazil. We arrived at the airport extra early, eager and bright-eyed to depart the country, only to get turned back because our travel visas weren’t valid. Back to the King’s Inn. The next day we found the Brazilian embassy and fought our way to the front of the line to apply for our visas. The paperwork would take a few days, but our escape seemed imminent save one item: we needed medical certifications that we’d been immunized for yellow fever.
I had already had every immunization known to man before I left the United States; my shoulders were like pincushions over a three-week period at the Yale medical clinic. But Shane still needed his, so the next day we grabbed a taxi and headed out to try and find a medical clinic where he could get his shot quickly. Our driver took us all over the city, but every clinic or doctor’s office was either closed or they couldn’t fit him in for an appointment until the next week. Finally, the driver said he knew of a free medical clinic that would do it, but it was in a rough barrio and gonna be a crapshoot whether we got out safely or not. He took us deep into a shit-hole hood where young thugs hung out in the middle of the street blocking cars — he said the police wouldn’t even go there. He pulled onto the curb in front of the medical clinic and told Shane that they had to run in together and get out quickly so they wouldn’t be robbed or mugged or worse. He told me to stay in the back of the taxi with the doors locked and not to let anyone in, no matter what. He pulled something from under his seat and placed it on the back seat next to me with a newspaper over it, and then they sprinted into the building. I locked the doors from the inside and pulled back the newspaper; it was a huge butcher’s knife he’d left me to fight off any carjackers. Damn, this was getting heavy.
They came running out twenty minutes later, just as the locals were starting to circle and discuss how to dispose of my body once they stole the car. We got back to the embassy, but even with his medical card it would take almost a week to process the visa paperwork. There was no way in hell I was staying at the King’s Inn that long, so we hopped the first flight we could to Isla Margarita, a resort island off of Venezuela’s northern coast where rich people from the mainland and poor island folks partied.
The island was a welcome break from dirty, polluted Caracas and the King’s Inn. Our first night there we went downtown to check out a crowded strip of bars. Shane noticed several girls walking together up ahead of us. He was mesmerized by a tall, super-fly chica in their pack so we followed them for a while, trying not to be obvious by hiding behind trees and pretending to read newspapers when they turned around.
We were tailing them when they stopped abruptly for one of them to answer her cell phone. Shane and I couldn’t hit the brakes in time, so we bumped into the back of them at full speed. Since it was obvious that we were going to follow them around all night like lost puppy dogs without introducing ourselves, one of the girls took pity on us and said hello. Shane talked to his tall girl and I chatted with her younger sister, who spoke surprisingly good English. It turned out that three of the girls were the president’s nieces and their family was at Isla Margarita for their summer vacation. Back in 1999 not many people had heard of the Venezuelan president, but pretty soon people started paying attention to the name Hugo Chavez in international news as he grew increasingly antagonistic toward the United States, positioning himself as the new Fidel Castro. I suspect that the girls were really in Isla Margarita for security reasons, because President Chavez was on shaky political ground in his own country when he illegally extended his term limits and quelled a political revolt by physically locking his congress out of the capitol. The girls were staying at the best hotel on the island and always had security officers hanging around. They were digging us, so we made a date to take them out to ice cream later, and then it was time for the Ciao Line.
What’s the Ciao Line, you ask? In Latin American countries when you greet someone or say goodbye, no matter whether you’ve just met them or been exchanging bodily fluids with them for years, you kiss them on the cheek. Sounds painless, right? But the president’s nieces and their friends traveled in packs, like over-populated coyotes. I should have applied Chapstick when I saw them coming. When they got up to leave, I stood still with my lips puckered, doing that fake little half-hug where you stick your butt out so your private parts have no chance of accidentally touching, and said ciao to each of them. One by one, they moved down the line and did the cheek kiss and said ciao, like a gringo conveyor belt.
We kicked it with Chavez’s nieces for a few more days. For some reason I can’t fathom, whether she just had awful taste in me or I was being set me up for a political kidnapping, the niece I was hanging out with took a real shine to me. There was no denying that she was beautiful, and I would have loved to properly date her, buddying up with “Uncle Hugo” and the presidential family and consummating my love for her with frequent relations, but that just wasn’t going to happen because of the toothpaste all over my man-junk. I should probably explain.
Shane was our official trip doctor. Granted, there were only two of us, so the options were limited, but I couldn’t even pass ninth grade biology, so the choice was obvious. Of course, he had no formal medical training but he was a pharmaceutical salesman, so that was good enough for me. Plus, he had a grab bag of pills in his toilet bag, so I could steal a random handful and wash them down with a beer whenever needed.
In Isla Margarita I developed a rash all over my man-junk region. Now, to be very clear, it turned out to be nothing — just a bad heat rash — but I’d never had something like that before, so I was freaking out. I pride myself on being as clean as the board of health, and I knew I definitely contracted it during my time at the King’s Inn. I bought a huge bottle of rubbing alcohol to wash myself down completely whenever I even touched a local, but it quickly broke in my backpack and doused all of my possessions, making me smell like a senior center on cleaning day.
I’d been trying to self-medicate for a few days, but the rash just wasn’t going away. I remembered when I was a teenager and I got a pimple, people would tell me to put toothpaste on it at night before I went to bed and it would dry up by morning. I thought the same theory might apply here, so I slathered toothpaste all over my man-junk every morning and night. I had gone through three tubes of Aquafresh but it wasn’t working so far — although I did enjoy the minty tingle. Finally, I started to panic and couldn’t take it anymore. I booked an appointment with the trip doctor (Shane) to look at it and give me his professional opinion and hopefully some drugs to clear it up; nothing is sacred when you’re traveling around the world with someone for a year.
We were crashing the breakfast buffet at the Marriot for the fourth morning in a row, our ritual of taking advantage of the hotel’s amenities without actually staying there. No matter what country we were in there was always an ultra-modern and sparkling Marriot somewhere in town. They didn’t seem to notice when we walked in like we were VIP guests and helped ourselves to some free coffee and breakfast, read the newspaper sprawled out in comfy chairs in their lobby, lounged by their pool, and even took our time using their majestic marbled bathrooms. After a few hours we’d leave the Marriot and retreat to our shit-hole hotel down the street, feeling refreshed. So Shane and I snuck into the Marriot bathroom for my doctor’s appointment. It was embarrassing, but I reminded myself that he was a medical professional (sort of), so I dropped my trousers and he examined me right there in the Marriot bathroom stall. He looked for a second and then said, “Hmmm ... I’m not sure. It may be something.”
Yeah thanks, I could have told you that. We waited until the coast was clear to come out of the bathroom stall so no one would get the wrong idea. But needless to say, I was excluded from having any relations with the president of Venezuela’s niece because of my toothpaste. Ohhhh, if only Uncle Hugo knew.
After a long weekend on the island, we felt the calling to go back to Caracas to check on our visas. After more boxing out in line, we were told that it would be one more day. No problem. To pass the time, we hired an old taxi driver to drive us all around the city and show us the attractions — including a glimpse of the bad neighborhoods to see how the common person lived. He was hesitant, and we had to urge him again and again to drive us into these barrios. “This doesn’t look so bad,” we said to ourselves, as I snapped a couple photos of the scenery. When we turned up this one street the driver whipped the car around instantly and sped off in the other direction, tires screeching. When we questioned him why he abruptly drove off he only said, “Ladrones,” which means “thieves.” We thought he was crazy and just being paranoid, but found out otherwise pretty quickly.
It took a minute for my heart to stop jumping. Our driver explained that they were gang members who controlled the barrio’s drug trade with violence, robbery, and intimidation. He said that they had knives and guns and they weren’t afraid to use them. So when they saw a taxi cab in their neighborhood (which never happens) and a white guy pulling out a nice camera (which also never happens), they decided to jack us.
We must have looked as conspicuous as if a helicopter landed in the middle of your street and Donald Trump got out. The driver turned his face around and showed us a big scar that led from his cheek to the side of his mouth. He told us that he’d been carjacked before in his taxi and the robbers pulled a pistol and shot him at close range. The bullet ripped through the side of his mouth and exited his cheek.
Our luck was changing, and indeed the next morning our shiny new visas were ready for us at the Brazilian embassy. We boarded a plane the following morning with our fingers crossed, hoping we were leaving behind the Dynamite-Head brother ad-libbing Queen songs, Hugo Chavez and his nieces, toothpaste on my man-junk, high-speed chases with ladrones, cab drivers with bullet scars, the Ciao Line, the Dantean hell of the King’s Inn, and butcher knives in back seats forever. But we did remember to pack the Frisbee, just in case we wanted to hit someone else in the head, which was really just our way of saying hello.