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Five Days in Venezuela, December 1999

Day 7: Escape to Valencia and Aruba

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In the morning I awoke with the dawn as I had the day before. It was still raining but the traffic was busy in the square below. I got dressed and went downstairs to ask hopefully if I could get a taxi to the airport. The same guy who was so helpful the day before was at reception and made the call for me, but I could see from his face he was much less optimistic than I was. I think he went through motions just to show that he was doing what he could. He matter-of-factly reported back that no, the airport was still inaccessible. I told him I would check across the street at the bus station. It was so early he had to pull back the grills barring the door for me. On my way over to the station I accosted a taxi driver stopped at the signal with a passenger in back just to get his take: yep, road to Maqueitia still shut off. At the bus depot for Makuto, the story was the same. No buses because the road was closed. But today, no invitation to check back later.

I went back upstairs to my room and prepared for a foray to the Hilton (all my valuables about my person, watch and wallet in front pockets, rain poncho helpfully concealing my bulky fanny pack). This is when I discovered that the metro stations were closed, so I had to walk the five blocks again. It wasn't a bad walk, about 20 minutes, except that there were more streets barricaded than the day before, and the mud was still solid in the dip in the street before the Hilton. As I maneuvered through the muck I caught the unmistakable smell of a marijuana cigarette being blown somewhere in the shadows of the closed metro entrance. A crowd was gathered at a bridge under which water was racing. In the water below the bridge, overturned, wheels in the air, were three large 4x4 vehicles that had washed down from somewhere. Everyone on the bridge who saw that knew that they were dealing here with more than the usual rain shower.

At the Hilton I went to the concierge desk. The people there were very helpful. They typed into their computers as they told me that Valencia airport was being used as an alternative to Caracas and they thought that my airline, BWIA, might have flights from there in conjunction with ALM, their partner airline company. They tried to call the airport in Valencia for me to find out what could be done but eventually they wrote down the phone numbers for me and said that I could place the calls myself. You just have to keep calling the numbers, they said. Where can I place these calls, I asked somewhat naively. From your room of course, they said. Ah, but I'm not staying at this hotel, I admitted. Oh, you're not? Their services sort of ended there. But all I wanted to know, I said, was how a person like me could best deal with this situation. I really had nowhere else to go, no one to speak English to, no one to tell me for example that Valencia was being used as an alternative airport. So what should I do? "Go to Valencia," the lady said. "Go to the airport there. I think it will rain here for the next five days. Maiquetia won't reopen before then. At least in Valencia you can leave, if not today, maybe tomorrow." It was obvious. That was all there was to do.

There happened to be a man standing near the concierge desk who could help me, a man who had a car and could drive me to Valencia for $100, US. I told them no thanks, I'd catch a bus.

It occurred to me that I had better get some more Bolivars. At the reception desk, the clerk took my $100 bill but at the point when he asked my room number he informed me that he could only change money for hotel guests. Then he said he would change $50. "Look," I said, "there's an emergency." His response was very Venezuelan. You could see the layers of regulation peel off him as he said, "Don't worry about it, sir," and fished around in his cash drawer for 6170 Bolivars. The country had no infrastructure to deal with national calamity, but the people had resources within. It was obvious on TV, the pictures of people mobilizing to help those affected by the floods. The people were doing what they could in a grave situation. If you could cut through the bureaucracy and get the attention of any Venezuelan, you had a friend for the moment.

I walked back to my hotel where my bags were packed and ready to go and tried to get a cab to come for me to take me back to Bandera Terminal where the buses left for Valencia. But the taxi company refused to send a cab there because it was impossible to get through due to the rains, they said. At this, the receptionist and I just looked at each other. This was getting ridiculous. There was plenty of traffic outside having no problem negotiating the puddles of water in the busy thoroughfare.

I went upstairs and got my bags but had to walk down the ten flights because I couldn't summon an elevator. At the bottom I found the receptionist trying to unjam the elevator doors with a screwdriver. They had been working earlier, but this was Venezuela, and if something can go wrong ... Emerging from the stairwell, it struck me as a scene from Mr. Bean, the oddly incongruous occurrence (elevator doesn't come as expected), the reason for the occurrence becoming apparent in some subtly mimed manner as the plot unfolds. This would be a parting recollection of Caracas.

On the streets the comedy turned drama. Here it was dangerous but necessary to rely on strangers. Anyone could get a beat-up 40 year-old American car with wheels that barely turned and call it a cab. I managed to get such a taxi to pull over from me from between a wall of buses. The driver was an old man in dark glasses in his 60's, with a stubble, and he pumped the pedals with sandaled feet. He tried to make conversation with me on the way to Bandera but I couldn't follow. Eventually I broke the ice with some remark about the rain, and then he went on about disasters to strike Caracas, how this hillside here had fallen one year, how a gas factory had blown up another. His small talk reassured me that I wasn't being taken for a ride in the slums, always a possibility with these barely marked cabs, where no one knows where you are, and it's hard to tell where you're going, and you drive through areas that look like slums almost anywhere in Caracas. Probably I've never really seen a slum in Caracas.

Bandera Terminal was busy at that hour of the morning but non-threatening. There was an informacion desk inside the terminal where I was directed downstairs to the buses for Valencia. To get there I had to walk through a security checkpoint, again reassuring. I took the escalator down where there were people directing passengers onto buses assembly line style. I easily got a seat on a bus to Valencia, and was on my way in 20 minutes. I dozed on the way, my arm over my bags in the seat beside me. I kept coming awake to check the zippers on my bags, but no one bothered me. Vendors got on the bus from time to time selling hot food, but I didn't feel like eating. That morning I had had a single orange. Driving through the mountains the sun was shining and the temperature was perfect. I was oddly comfortable considering the circumstances. I saw on a roadsign that Valencia was 155 km. I was there by noon at the terminal surrounded by the wood spires of the fantasy land that had apparently been someone's brainstorm to attract custom to Valencia, but now the plywood was rotting in the rain, the paint was peeling, and amusement park rides were rusting.

A few meters from the bus there was a line of cabs. The price of a ride to the airport from there was 3000, about $5, the same as the price of a ride from my hotel to Bandera Terminal. The cost of the bus had been less than half that. There were plenty of ways to throw away money in a country like Venezuela, and I could see where the prospect of a taxi from the Hilton to Valencia airport might appeal to a businessman with a briefcase who wouldn't want to hassle with Bandera Terminal, but I had reached Valencia airport in about the same time as it would have taken me to go there directly for $100.

Outside the airport the sun was shining incongruously. The mountains loomed green on the horizon, and the country of Venezuela looked invitingly charming. Inside the terminal, thousands of people had crowded into a hopelessly overwhelmed facility all cramming to get out of there.

It was pandemonium, so many people and their bags crammed into a small hall with barely enough room to squeeze by. But somehow the people were cooperative, unpanicked. They had formed an aisle where people could move single file, making way for others coming the other way, sometimes with bags overhead. There were ticket sellers on the left, working it appeared in the Venezuelan manner, on again off again, not being particularly forthcoming with information, ignoring the press of people in general, yet occasionally responding to a question hurled from the crowd, then paying attention, sometimes helping. On the right were the check-in counters with lines of people so thick that they and their bags took up all the space in the center of the hall, but preserving just enough order so that if you needed a line, they could tell you where it was.

Not knowing where to begin, I saw an information counter. Incredibly I got someone's attention there, and this person even summoned someone who could speak English. Not a lot of English-speaking people were working at that airport. Fortunately there were enough bilinguals in the crowd that those not fluent in Spanish could generally get interpretations of explanations they couldn't understand, assuming they were lucky enough to engage an agent for a moment. Despite the calamitous situation, people were characteristically helpful.

The lady at the information desk was hopeful. She said that my airline, BWIA, didn't operate there, but the people at ALM were there and had a plane going to Curacao, and they would help me. So not knowing what else to do, I squeezed my way to a part of the ticket counter marked ALM. There was no one at the booth at the time, but there were other customers there holding ALM tickets, and there was nothing to do anyhow but wait there. I had pole position right at the center of the counter, so if someone turned up ...

I was soon joined by a pleasant young Dutch couple with a story. They had landed at Maiquetia on the day the airport closed. Planes apparently had landed but the passengers had a bit of bad news on arrival. For the same reason I couldn't get to the airport, they couldn't get out of it. They had been there for two days without food they said. Eventually all the stranded passengers were put on board a plane and flown to Valencia. What a start to their Venezuelan holiday!

(I had been thinking the day the calamity started, if only I had taken that cab to Makuto, perhaps I could have got out on schedule that morning rather than being cut off from the airport. No! If I'd gone to Makuto I'd have been trapped there, no way back to Caracas, and no way to get into the airport, which was closed. I might have somehow missed evacuation in that case.)

That's not all. They then went to the bus station I had just come from and paid 11,000 bs for two tickets on a bus they said didn't exist. They didn't speak any Spanish at all, and I imagine the bus was simply delayed for some reason, or had some complication due to the rains, or perhaps they were scammed, but they had got fed up by that point and returned to the airport to try to fly to Curacao and spend their holiday there. While we were all waiting, all being us and the other passengers whose lives intersected in this moment of duress, people whose faces you somehow remember, and when you saw them again down the road, you said hi, how are you coming on YOUR travel arrangements, and so on ... what was I talking about? This couple had an advantage of one being able to leave the line while the other waited, so the girl went out for ham and cheese sandwiches and the guy shared his with me. I hadn't had anything to eat but an orange that day. I had a little water with me. Somehow I didn't need to piss all that badly. I was very appreciative of the food, because it's not easy standing and waiting while guarding bags you can feel but can't see for the press of the people around.

After an hour, a pair of people from ALM showed up. They took their time getting ready, counting cash, making phone calls, and not saying a word to all the people. But one of them would answer questions when asked and actually looked at the person he was talking to. I got him to take my ticket and look at it. Unfortunately it got handed back at me. There was a loud American there who had phoned his travel agent back in the states and told him, "Listen, get me outta here!" and the agent in the states had made a booking ... unheard of! And so this guy was actually getting a ticket on the 9 p.m. flight to Curacao made out for him. Tickets were a bit over a hundred dollars to places like Curacao and Aruba, and people were handing over the cash. But this loud American was loud in Spanish. So I got him to find out the reason my ticket was being returned (my Spanish is good in restaurants, hotels, and bus stations; it's not quite up to the nuances of air travel). It had restrictions on it, he found out. I wasn't going to be able to use it. There was no BWIA agent at that airport to endorse it anyway. The loud American was also able to determine for us that as soon as the 2:30 flight cleared they would start taking bookings for the next one. The next one appeared to be 9:30 that night, but it later developed they were laying on flights as they were able to get planes. That's why they wouldn't make reservations for us. Some people had already managed to make bookings, somehow, and like the American who'd used his agent in the states, getting tickets. For the rest of us, it was first come first served, no reservations possible.

Some time during the wait for the next flight, while the agents had again vanished from the booth, the Dutch people, easily fed up, decided to return to the open road. They announced they were taking a taxi to Coro and that they were going to take a small plane to Curacao from there. I never saw them again. But when I did manage to fly out over the coast and saw from the plane the flooding there, I doubted if those guys would be able to get as far as Coro, on the northern coast. You never know though.

I did meet a couple of Germans who had been evacuated from Chichinvichi, on the coast halfway between Caracas and Coro. They had been flown out in army helicopters. They said they had had to leave their packs behind and could bring only what they could carry as hand baggage on a plane. I talked with these guys later in Aruba. They had no idea about Aruba and were noticeably taken aback by how expensive it was going to be to rent a place there, ten times what they would have been paying in Venezuela.

I also met a couple of nice black ladies from Aruba. They were also able to work in pairs. They had found that the next airline over had flights to Aruba and were actually writing out tickets. A lot of people traveling in groups of 2 or 3 were able to work the counters like that, but I could be in only one place at once. The ALM guys were just coming back to farm out places for the next plane. Having experienced their methods already I didn't have much faith in them, though it could have been that it was almost my turn, and I could have wound up in Curacao. I'll always wonder, since it sounded like an interesting place to go, but I decide to try for a place on Acerca to Aruba and left my place in the queue. At the next booth over they put my name on a piece of paper pretty quickly, and next thing I knew they were writing me out a ticket and handing it over. I managed to pay for it with all the Bolivars I had on me plus $15. This was a good thing, because I was carrying too many Bolivars on the assumption that I could easily change them back at Maiquetia airport, but at Valencia airport I never saw a change office, and if there was one it was probably so crowded with people that that's why I couldn't see it. One curious thing was, my ticket didn't mention a flight number, and they people who wrote out my ticket didn't know when the flight would depart exactly.

They did assure me that it would be that day. Until then I hadn't really expected to get out at all that day. I had been at the airport for 4 hours. That doesn't seem like such a long time now, but considering that the first 3 and a half hours I was expecting to be there indefinitely, it seemed like an eternity at the time.

Once I had my ticket I had to find the queue for the Acerca check-in for Aruba. This is where I was surprised that with so many people crowded there, people were actually able to point me to the correct line. Then to my continued amazement, they were calling for Aruba passengers to get their bags to the front immediately. I handed mine over straight away. That was fast. My bags were heading for the plane and I was saying good bye to the loud American standing at the Curacao check-in at 4 in the afternoon, still waiting patiently to put his bags on the 9 p.m. flight he'd booked through his travel agent in the states.

Next hurdle was the incredible queue of people, hundreds of them, waiting in the International immigration line. This line didn't seem to be moving at all. I was so concerned that I'd miss my flight at this snail's pace that I started jumping the queue, and no one seemed to mind. Finally, they started calling for Aruba passengers on the Domestic side of the line where immigration officers waited to service us specially. This put me through security and into the gate area where another mass of people mingled, but as I went off in search of a bathroom (finally) someone whistled me back. "Aruba passengers this way," he said. I walked straight to the gate and found myself on the tarmac heading for the stairway of the nearest plane.

It was incredible how it worked out in the end. My guess is that Acerca were somehow able to get the planes to Valencia, and were running them like buses at Bandera terminal, just filling them up and sending them off, then bringing them back again. It was only an hour's hop over to Aruba from Caracas.

The only problem now was that this was depositing a huge number of refugees from Venezuela on Aruba's shores, so that the feeling of well-being would be short-lived. But at least in Aruba there were functioning reservation systems, so it was in that respect a step up. Oward bookings however would prove to be hard to come by, and the saga was by no means over for me or all these other people.

Meanwhile, CNN reports some days later that up to 5000 people have already lost their lives in the flooding that's paralyzed Venezuela, and that banks and government offices have been closed for a week. Later same day, the figure was given as high as 10,000. Next morning, Dec 21, CNN reports that the government of Venezuela is now claiming death tolls of 15,000.

The next part of the story ...

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Last updated: December 23, 1999