The Book: Roadtrip to Zulia…
D and I…despite all charm…are denied entrance to the main oil installation along Lake Maracaibo and told to walk further down the road under the absurd noon day sun, make a right at the stoplight, and then go further down the shadeless road until we reach the administrative building for Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the government oil company.
“YOU MOTHERFUCKER I SEE YOU,” yells Harley. “You look like a Venezuelan, but you are a gringo!”
I am in the mountain village of Snare, trying to meet D back in Barquisimento, a sprawling city six hours west of Caracas in the middle of a rocky desert.
But instead I have been captured.
Harley and his two friends, Simon and Ronaldo, slip sweat bands over my wrists, grab me around the neck, and buy beer for the bus journey down the sloping hills of Lara state.
Wanting to stay clear of the roadtrip-which D and I have planned as a kind of wine and oil expedition-R has gone to stay for a week with a jam cooperative that is part of CECOSESOLA, an umbrella organization of cooperatives in Lara State.
At Harley’s insistence we postpone our journey for a night to party.
He and his friends are kicking up dust as they throw themselves around to Vellanto and Reggaetone in the front yard of his family’s home, a cinderblock building in a small village in the Lara desert.
Harley is twenty-three years old. A member of the Chavez youth organization La Frente Francisco Miranda, he works registering people with Chavez’s new political party, the United Socialist Party.
He introduces us to his mother and younger sisters. Then he connects an old stereo to a massive speaker, and goes to the store and buys a case of Ice beer.
The music is loud.
“What’s going on?” a neighbor says from across a barbed wire fence.
“I have two gringos,” Harely says.
The neighbor and her twenty-one year old daughter come over.
Harley had been in Snare visiting his grandmother and a girlfriend. He claims the girlfriend is one of several.
Harley shows me photos of a son he had with one of the women. He keeps the photos in his wallet and saved on his cell phone.
“The mother took him. I cannot even see my own son. Her father moved them away from here,” he says.
Harley’s mother, Josephina, does not work. I ask where her husband is.
“There,” she says. She points to a photo on the wall, a headshot of a stern man scowling at the camera.
“He was shot twice in front a bank protecting a rich man’s money.”
Harley supports the family. Work is hard to come by. Now, he just became certified to register people for Chavez’s United Socialist Party. He thinks that the job will pay good money.
Watching Harley dance, Josephina says, “Harley and his father are exactly the same.”
She says this with a mixture of sadness and pride.
“MOTHERFUCKER!!!” Harley screams at me every couple of minutes. “MOTHERFUCKER!!!”
He produces a bottle of rum and we do shots. It is now dark. We have been drinking and dancing for hours. Daniel looks half dead. I do not want to see myself.
Finally, Josephina lays out a dusty mattress on the floor of the living room. Ronaldo, Simon, D, and I lay down and sleep.
The next morning Harley is up at five. Before leaving to register people with the United Socialist Party he shows me a hemp bracelet with small blocks painted with the Cuban flag.
The year before he had been sent to Cuba for three months of “training” and had been given the bracelet by a friend there.
He ties the bracelet around my wrist.
“Go to Cuba,” he says.
The next day D and I arrive in Carora, another small town on the way to Zulia. We have been working hard, fascinated by Venezuela, but not having much old fashion college student fun. Today is Daniel’s twenty-third birthday. We decide to visit Carora’s Alta-gracia winery to celebrate.
Carora, however, is not a friendly place.
The problems begin when the fifth hotel follows the example of the others and claims that there are no rooms available.
It seems impossible and probably is, but destroyed by the awful heat, we take a taxi across town to where there are supposedly more hotels.
I am sitting in the front seat. D, with his massive backpack, is looking out the window in the back.
Suddenly, the taxi driver’s face changes. Realizing his brakes have failed and that he is approaching stopped vehicles at too high a speed, he spins the wheel to the right. By inches, the car misses two women and a baby who are crossing the street.
We go up onto the sidewalk. The taxi driver must think that the curb will slow the car. Instead, a tire blows out. We continue down the street at too high a speed, awkwardly on three tires, flapping rubber and rim. After another turn and encounter with the curb, the taxi finally stops.
We get out and quickly leave before the driver can decide to blame us for the accident.
Two tries later, we find a hotel. The newest and most expensive in town, the showers have electronic heating caps that malfunction to the extent that, every time they are turned on or off, a line of blue electricity flies across the top.
The hotels, the taxi, the unsafe showers…by now it seems we should be out of bad luck. But no. When we finally arrive the winery is closed. An enormous SENIAT sticker is on the front gate.
SENIAT is the Venezuelan tax ministry. It has been reconstructed under Chavez and for the first time many businesses are being forced to pay taxes. Businesses that do not pay or only partially pay are shut down until caught up with what they owe.
Our bad luck seems impossible.
D is incredulous. After five months of dealing with the bureaucracy in Venezuela I have recognized the need to not have any expectations, though it is an art I have not yet mastered. Too often it seems that setting out to accomplish something is the surest way not to succeed.
A guard sees us looking through the gate. He tells us that the SENIAT closure will only last until Monday. If we wait a few days, we can taste the wine.
D is celebrating his birthday flustered and confused standing by the side of the road at the beginning of a closed winery’s gravel driveway.
He gathers himself.
It looks like he wishes he was in Cuba, laying on a beach.
Instead we are in Carora, in the middle of the desert.
“It has to be done.”
In an Internet cafe, I read that the town is a “microcosm of popular power.”
The local mayor is letting people take over the local political process through community councils. With regards to the winery, the mayor has cracked down on tax evasion so well that the municipal government has quadrupled its tax base in the last two years.
The SENIAT is becoming stricter. Or simply functional.
We walk through the town. Carora is a large strip of concrete in the middle of the dust and heat. Flies are everywhere. Men sit over beers and suspiciously discuss gringos and the rise of a “Chinese Empire.”
We find a restaurant with air conditioning and sit for hours in the refreshing cold. D tells a story about how in Guatemala he had a witch perform exorcism on him. When he looked at himself in the mirror afterwards his tongue was black. Worriedly, he scrubbed and spat until it was pink again. He remembers scrubbing and spitting for hours
I suggest the black was the result of something he ate rather than exorcism, but he is adamant.
The witch had cured him of something.
D is twenty-three. Two years older than me. So focused on pictures and information, talking to him is sometimes refreshing. Other times, I wonder what weird situations, what witches and black tongues, are headed my way.
We are joined by two women in their early thirties named Alicia and Carmen who we met on the bus from Barquisimeto.
Like Harley, they, also, work registering people with the United Socialist Party. They are not Chavista however. “We are very simple, not political,” Alicia says.
“Carora is very far from Caracas,” Carmen says.
For weeks, D’s desire to sleep with a Venezuelan woman has been a running joke between Raine and I. A fluent Spanish speaker, but very gringo, with long curly brown hair, he gets a lot of attention, but on a tight schedule with his university work, he has not had the time to devote himself to this.
His time in Venezuela running out, he is now getting desperate.
Tonight is his birthday; something has to go right.
Alicia ducks his offer of wine by saying she prefers to drink beer, by the case with her brothers on the street.
I zone D out and talk to Carmen.
She appears to be in her early thirties, is divorced, and lives at home with her parents. When I ask her exact age she says, “Once a woman turns twenty-six she is twenty-six forever.”
She doesn’t think that studying Venezuela or Chavez and his revolution is particularly interesting. She also doesn’t think that D has much of a chance with Alicia. She flips through the photos in her cell phone. There is her mother outside their house…the desert…friends drinking beer…a woman in purple panties covering her breast…
“Who is that?” I ask.
“It is me,” she says.
“Who took it?”
“She did,” Carmen says tilting her head at Alicia.
The way Carmen says this…D’s chance are extremely low.
We spend the next day typing up notes. Around dinner time D calls Alicia and, depressed by her lack of responsiveness, cancels their meeting for the night.
“She sounded a little disappointed,” he says.
Monday finally rolls around and we return to the winery. After ten minutes of waiting we are told that wine tasting is not possible. Remaining calm, D asks to buy a bottle of wine. A woman brings us to sweet smelling tasting room. Bottles of the wine are displayed in glass cabinets.
Daniel inspects the bottles. He selects a bottle and asks to pay for it.
“Yes, but the minimum you can buy is four,” the cashier says.
“What?” Daniel says. “Why can’t I buy just one?”
“The SENIAT. The taxes,” the cashier says.
Finally defeated, we leave Carora.