Beautiful and deadly. And I am not talking about some sexy spy character. Those two words describe one of the most dangerous cities in the world right now: Caracas.
When I first visited the city, I was 17 years old and eager to go and explore it. Beautiful eucalyptus scented mountains to go hiking with friends, free movies at national cinematheques, a bus connection to be at the beach in less than 40 minutes as well as the glorious Central University, because I was here to study after all. At the same time though, I got robbed several times, occasionally at gunpoint, I walked through streets filled with piles of garbage, I pushed and got squeezed into a hot and crowded subway system and hated the noise. Most cities share these awful “qualities.” How can we love and hate them at the same time?
People, Crime, Guns, and Humor
Venezuelans are chévere. In English, that would simply translate to “nice,” but we have taken the word to a whole new level. It means to dance and laugh to get rid of stress; it also means not taking things too seriously. The word chévere is our own Hakuna Matata. Chévere means to joke about being robbed just a few minutes after it happened.
A friend of mine, for example, was waiting for the bus in front of her home with another lady next to her, when she suddenly felt somebody hugging her tight. She quickly figured out that it had to be a thief because nobody she knows would hug her like that in the middle of the street.
The thief whispered into her ear “give me your cell phone, or I’ll shoot you” and pushed a gun into her stomach. She looked down and realized it was a toy gun — and got mad! She fought him, yelled and pushed him over until he hit her and ran away. That was at noon, at a bus stop, the lady next to her barely noticed it and therefore did nothing. An awful way to start your working day, right? Think again. It was a victory! She did not get robbed, and she told me “how did he dare to try to rob me with a toy gun!” “Where does he think I come from?” And we laughed out loud, tears of joy and excitement running down our faces because it was true. The same criminal city that raised him had raised her; we have all been breastfed by mother Carachaos.
The Ávila Mountain
Mother Carachaos has a more gentle face, a face she shows to all tourists, and that is available to locals 24/7 as well. If you, my dear foreign reader, ever come to Caracas and don’t visit the Avila Mountain, it is better you pretend you were never here.
The Avila separates Caracas from the Caribbean Sea, and the best part is that you could walk the Avila in the morning and be on the beach to watch the sunset the same day. People from Caracas feel a close connection to this mountain; painters have devoted themselves to paint it all the time, and tears follow every single forest fire during our dry season. At the same time, there are dark stories that surround the mountain; people go missing, and criminals search for hiding spots among the trees and creeks. How can crime stain even the purest gifts from nature?
Streets or Battlefields?
Caracas’ streets are usually crowded; people are walking by fast as if they are being followed (some of us think we are being followed). There are no rules on the streets, we don’t even have a word for jaywalking, it is normal behavior, and you have to try to dance your way through cars and other obstacles to get to your destination.
But now streets have an added barrier: protests. I got off the subway and walked the street among people that started to protest, a truck had left a pile of garbage in the middle of the avenue to be burnt, and some people were using masks and hoods to hide from the cameras.
I had to work two blocks from that place; I reached my destination, prayed, thanked God and proceeded to work. People are angry, and every day they show it through street protests, most of them have a terrible violent ending since the police and guards have received orders to shoot first and ask questions later. Almagro handed a 60-page long document to the OEA reporting about the crisis in Venezuela; one whole chapter is about how civilians are being tortured by the police once they are caught protesting. Protesting is no longer a right here; it is an extreme sport designed for the fittest.
A New Generation for Caracas
It seems to me that, as the Venezuelan novelist Hector Torres wrote in one of his books about the daily lives of Caraqueños, Caracas bites you. It leaves a violent mark on your skin that cannot be erased. At some point in your life, you are going to feel the Caribbean in your blood and the violent push of this city flowing through your veins. Many friends abroad have already felt it, they are not used to follow the rules, and they believe everything will be forgiven just because they are chévere. Carachaos follows you, even abroad.
This year my little sister is going to study at the university; she is 17 just like I was when I first came here. I fear she might not find the city I fell in love with. She might have to gather the pieces of a broken Caracas and create her own version of this Heaven’s branch, but I know that in the end, she will love the city, hate the bites, and survive the chaos. Because in the end, we are still chévere.
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