Earlier this month I began work as a summer student in the Caracas office of an international law firm. After a generous endorsement from a friend, months of strategically timed emails and lots of luck, I was ecstatic to accept an offer of employment in February. My summer plans were set around the same time as opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was arrested amidst the heaviest demonstrations of discontent since Hugo Chavez’s death last April. Hmmm…
My motivations to embark on this adventure were lit from the same sparks that took me through the Middle East in the winter of 2012/13. Again I am curious to experience the place and people firsthand in order to form my own opinions. Also, local populations whose politics and way of life are scorned by western media tend to be overly welcoming and keen to show visitors the positive sides of their respective country.
Working 5 days a week in an office I knew that my experiences, by design, would be different than during any prior time abroad. Indeed, I could not expect to spend as much time out and about exploring and interacting with locals as I have done on past overseas forays. However I also suspected that a demanding office environment where the language, legal system and office work would be very foreign could be an adventure all on its own.
Setting up a new community in Caracas was never to be easy. And so far it had been a challenge. Shared below is:
Ten observations after two weeks living in Caracas, Venezuela
- The people are super. Already, so many smiles and genuine interactions.
- The potential is spectacular. There is so much evidence around that suggests that Caracas has been, in some ways remains, and could, in the future be, a serious economic and culture hub on the world map.
- Polarization of the classes. Unfortunately I really haven’t been able to dive into this first-hand so far and don’t expect any legitimate opportunity to do so. The fact that I can live here and be largely insulated from the crippling poverty that I know exists in the barrios surrounding the city is testament to how polarized the society is. This structural segregation seems to be at the heart of the local politics. Simplified – if you give handouts to the uneducated poor, they will continue to cast ballots for you. One colleague accounted to me some examples of how the government has prioritized perception over substance when it comes to addressing the woes of widespread poverty. Obvious examples including the building of a state-of-the-art teleferico from the highway up into the slum perched on the hill and distribution of heavily subsidized (sometimes free) microwaves.
- Language is ridiculous – People speak a million miles a minute and rarely articulate words in their entirety. Additionally, Venezuelan slang is completely foreign to me. Although my Spanish was pretty basic upon arrival, I may as well not speak any.
- The protest situation – feels much more real on the ground. Watching the protests on YouTube videos and reading news articles prior to arriving was poor preparation. Guarimbas are the most persistent and visual form of protest. Almost every night garbage is strewn in the streets of Chacao and Altamira municipalities and lit on fire.
- Food shortages – Deodorant, milk, meat. For example, it took me a week to find deodorant in the super market. And no, its not because it was hiding in the produce section or something stupid like that. There is just a straight up shortage. Finally, once I found deodorant, the only type available was lavender scented. Besides this relatively petty inconvenience, basic food staples can be hard to find and people often line up hours just to purchase needed goods. On the flip-side, rum is cheap and of superb quality.
- Traffic is heinous – In particular motorcyclists all have a death wish.
- Twitter is a life-saver. This is how people communicate and organize. Guarimba locations are announced, civilian detentions are profiled. The real-time nature and relatively anonymity of the information are assets in the current situation.
- Security concerns are pervasive – High fences, security cameras, barbed wire and guards could put you in almost any big city in the world; however unlike any other place I have spent time, the locals here are obsessed with security. At first skeptical of its merit, I have quickly come to accept that their concerns are warranted. Crime is one thing, but the current situation in Caracas seems to be characterized best by across-the-board impunity. As a result both the frequency and quantum of hazards is high
- Security threats breed humility. Over time I hope to gain more confidence over what I can and cannot do based on risk. For now, my information is very imperfect and I am being pretty cautious. Examples: I have been going for runs, but in specific places and specific times.
The summer will undoubtedly be challenging, but I am excited to learn!