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Five Days in Venezuela, December 1999

Night 5: Running the Gauntlet in Caracas

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"Ojo la calle," the young man at the front desk said. He pointed to his eye for emphasis. "Ojo la calle. Peligroso." (Keep an eye out on the street, dangerous)

He had just told me where I could go to find a restaurant. This was his way of saying, maybe I shouldn't go there.

I had misgivings about arriving in Caracas at 8 at night. The bus station, Terminal Bandera, was notoriously "unsafe" as Lonely Planet had put it, and in a bad part of town. Unfortunately I no longer had my LP, and could no longer pull it out and indicate a destination to a cab driver, a fall-back maneuver in a pinch. I had plenty of time to give it some thought on my way in to Caracas on the bus. The music precluded sleep, and the light was too weak for reading. What should I do? I weighed my options. Most favorable was to get out of Caracas by going to Macuto, a resort halfway between Caracas and the airport, recommended by LP as an alternative to hassling with Caracas if a one-night stand were in order. I presumed I could catch a bus to Macuto from the Bandera terminal. However, I had no idea what I'd do in Macuto except find a posada. I'd be arriving there rather late, and if there were no posadas close at hand, I'd have to hope there was a sympatico taxi driver available. A sympatico taxi driver and no thieves. This wasn't an ideal plan, but the only alternative was to find a taxi at the station to take me where in Caracas? I thought, maybe I could tell the driver, Plaza Bolivar, establish a fare that way, and have him stop if I saw a decent hotel en route. There was a hotel at Plaza Bolivar recommended by LP, but I couldn't remember its name exactly. I did remember that it was recommended in part because it had a rooftop restaurant, where you could eat if you didn't want to risk walking in that part of town at night. So from that inkling of its security, Plaza Bolivar didn't seem the best of destinations.

I thought, as the bus pulled into the terminal, this is it. This is the most risky situation I've ever put myself in.

The bus stopped inside the terminal, and there it seemed fairly safe. There was a policeman standing near the bus as we offloaded our bags stored safely in the hold, each exchanged for a baggage claim check. I asked the driver if he knew where the buses to Macuto were, but he said to ask inside. The nearest "inside" was marked "Salida" and I wasn't ready for the street at that point, so I crossed over to the buses loading area and tried to get into a door to the main terminal. The door was locked, but I attracted the attention of a young man with a badge who asked where I wanted to go, and since he looked like he worked there I told him I was trying to find a bus to Macuto.

The fellow launched into a spiel of Spanish from which I gathered that it wasn't straightforward to get a bus to Macuto from there. I wasn't clear exactly what I was being told, but I gathered that there was another terminal for Macuto apart from this one. Meanwhile the guy was motioning me upstairs. I felt pretty vulnerable tagging along up the stairs with my three bags. By then the young man had suggested a taxi and he led me out of the terminal and onto the street where taxis and people milled in seeming chaos. As always, I considered who this guy could be and whether he was handing me over to his compadres on the streets who would get me off on a one-way trip to a slum area at knifepoint, but it seemed he was trying to help. In fact, he confessed to being at a loss at how to help me. He said he wanted to ask someone out there what I should do but he couldn't think of who to ask. We were by then standing next to a half dozen uniformed police men and women, so I felt safe for the moment. Just then a guy came up saying, "Taxi, taxi" and my friend decided to turn to him. After a brief exchange in Spanish I couldn't follow, it was decided I should go with this driver. The fare would be 3000, very reasonable for a ride to Macuto, so I agreed to go, and my guardian returned to his work at the terminal.

So I was led to the service station next to the terminal where this guy's car was being worked on. Suspiciously, it didn't even say taxi on it. At a few words in Spanish the guys there put the hood down, and I was being motioned into the car. Here I was hesitant. This is the kind of guy to watch out for. You think you're out for a taxi ride and it turns out to be a trip to the slums. The modus operandi is for someone to join you in the cab. Instantly weighing my options, robbery vs. someone who understood where I wanted to go and could help, I sized up the guy's face and manner and decided to go with it. I put my bags in the trunk and got in the back seat. People in conversation with the driver were milling about outside the doors and to prevent anyone getting in, I tried to push the door locks down but they wouldn't go. I guess they were controlled from the driver's console.

The driver took off into traffic without anyone else joining us and he headed the way he should be going. I recognized the naked lady on the horse, a salient landmark on the way to the airport. But just up the road, the driver turned off the freeway toward central. Again, could be logical. There could be any number of ways to go to Macuto, including driving the wrong way on the freeway. I got a little nervous when he headed up a ramp and slowly back down the other side. This seemed to be behavior not directed at getting me to Macuto, and I was wary of it. But it became clear what he was doing when he slowed the car and pointed. "There," he said in Spanish. "That's the terminal for Macuto."

So this was a ride across town to the other bus station. No wonder it had been so cheap. Well, not that cheap for a fifteen minute ride, but I gladly paid the 3000 and got out with my bags and set to wandering about the station.

Nothing was very clear at the station. It was dark and it was starting to rain a little. The buses were derelict and seemed to all say Caracas on them, strange since we were in Caracas. I moved from quai to quai (anden to anden). People there soon picked up on the fact that I was trying to get to Macuto, and I was steered toward a bus. But this bus wasn't going to Macuto. I tried to understand the situation. There were no buses going to Macuto that late at night, I was given to understand. I could ride in a taxi. This taxi ... I was shown a red box of a car that had seen better days. Alright I said, how much for this taxi. The driver quoted a price of 15,000 bolivars, the fare for a daytime cab all the way to the airport. He was outside my range now. I was trying to reach Macuto to save money and hassle, but was succeeding on neither count. I told them thanks, but I'd just try and find a hotel locally.

This is where the fun began. I was in a bad part of town, in a town with few good parts, but in an especially bad part of town with a run-down local bus terminal, in the rain, lots of people milling about, none to be trusted. I spotted a hotel up the road. It was called M M and it didn't look very nice. I had to do something though so I headed that way. As I approached I noticed a similar hotel nearby with a gaggle of girls in the doorway and it struck me that these hotels were not interested in long term guests, long term being as long as a whole night. And the street didn't look like it led anywhere better so I turned heel and headed back to the relative safety of the bus station, where at least there were crowds (that was little comfort though, since LP had said if mugged not to expect help from passers-by).

Facing this way I noticed the signs of a couple of hotels across a busy thoroughfare and I thought I'd try them. They had more neon and looked more legit. To get to the thoroughfare I had to traverse a darkened area and skip a few mud puddles. I moved fast with three bags. Then across the road I had to go up a dark side-road to reach the hotel with the most neon. I turned occasionally to see if I was being followed, and I turned to keep an eye on cars approaching from behind, wary of bag snatchers. Soon I had reached the door of the first hotel. Outside it looked pretty shabby but inside the lobby looked ok. Only trouble was the door was bolted. I tapped on the glass to get the attention of the receptionist. Without rising from behind his desk he wagged his finger at me and indicated that the hotel was full. And he wasn't opening the door for anybody.

There was one other hotel around the corner. If that one was full I'd be in deep shit because I'd have nowhere to go in a part of town that was as bad as any I'd ever been in. Outside in the rain people were sifting through masses of trash heaped by the roadside, but at least the door was open and people were going in and out, mainly to and from the bar next door. On the door was written Hotel Peral, one star. I was relieved when the young guy at the desk said he had a room, 9000 bs. With bath I asked? I wasn't going anywhere, I knew, just going through the motions. I even asked to see the room before I would take it.

It was on the 10th floor. The room was fine. It had a bath and a clean matrimonial bed and an a/c and not much else in the way of furniture except a tv and a huge mirror on the wall. Not hard to imagine what that was for. The room also had windows looking out over a great view of rain-spattered Caracas.

I left my bags there and went downstairs to register. That's when I asked where I could get something to eat. There was some discussion in Spanish and the conclusion was I'd have to go back to the side of the street where the bus station was. But that trip, the way I had just come, would be "peligroso," I was told. To eat, or maybe be eaten.

By then it had started to rain heavily, so I had a good excuse not to attempt a second running of the gauntlet. The people at the hotel hanging around near the bar took on the role of big brother for me and tried to think of how I could get food without risking my life. The young guy made a call to see if he could get something delivered but to no avail. Just then a street vendor appeared and explained that he could make me a chicken sandwich. He pulled out his wares and a selection of condiments. He had lukewarm chicken on a bun and tomatoes and avacados on trays. He put these together and squeezed on some sauces, then wrapped it up with cheese sprinkled from a tin. Eating this was my last risk of the day. I expected to be violently ill at some point during the night. Fortunately my room had a bath.

The next part of the story ...
Day 6: The gauntlet widens

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Last updated: December 23, 1999