Sunday, August 24, 2008

La Linea

Yesterday I explored a part of Caracas I had never been to, La Linea in Petare. Explored is such a great word -- it's just like Colombus "exploring" these places where there are already millions of people. But that's what it felt like, anyway. Starting out at the central roundabout of Petare (a packed shopping area with little stores, street vendors on every square inch of sidewalk and quite a bit of the street as well, and tens of thousands of people walking through) there are little shopping streets going downhill in a couple directions. The one I knew before goes back to the Metro station, and I was in no rush so I took a different one. Following the crowds I went into a little street barely bigger than a hallway where old men waited in line for the beer store and young women lined up to get into a Mercal government-run discount supermarket in the back of another store. Continuing on I could see gaps between the buildings showing that this gradually widening pedestrian street was following the Rio Guaire, the year-round river that is now jailed in a concrete trench for most of its trip through the city.

The concrete street had little shops on either side on the ground floor of homes. Typical was a stand selling gum and frozen plastic tubes of sugar-water for about 300, 400 bolivar debiles (30 or 40 of the current bolivar cents, or about a dime in U.S. or Canadian money) under a little awning in the front of a lady's home. Her name was Belkis, a common enough Venezuelan name. Her daughter was Bisbel, a combination of her parents' names - also a common Venezuelan thing to do. They lived up a set of stairs with a rusty railing in this beige-painted house and went out on Saturday to collect a few bucks. Couldn't make more than $5 on the day even if they sell everything, but it's also a chance to see friends and meet new people, so why not.

Downhill from the street was the river, gradually breaking out of its channel. I could see a sandy beach on the other side of the river, the Macaracuay side, the first beach I've ever seen on that river. The uphill side of the street was a precipitous incline made of some mixture of buildings, retaining walls and exposed loosely consolidated sedimentary rock. I saw one retaining wall made of shotcrete and rock bolts that looked like it would hold up through a lot, even if the rock bolts were already rusty and were thinner than my pinkie. The depressing thing was the wall made of corrugated steel, the kind used to line trenches. That kind of steel is very strong but in this case the individual pieces weren't tall enough, so someone welded other ones above. I'll get a picture next time. It's a bit hard to describe but the point is that this welding was only on the street side, not on the hill side, and was very superficial, rather than being done with the kind of massive welding rig you normally use to connect sheets of 3/8-inch-thick structural steel. So the upper elements were already distended out, breaking off from the ones below. They are certain to fall before the hill gives way. A good early warning system but a dangerous one, and one that wastes expensive steel.

The homes on the uphill side were equally chimboso (Venezuelan for cheesy) but were at the same time miracles of engineering just for staying up. They climbed up this crumbly hillside at an almost 45 degree angle, at times cantilevered out 30, 40 feet, supported by 10-inch pilings going down 20, 30 feet. In a seismic zone. With multistory homes up above, sometimes 4 stories. Pretty amazing. I want to meet the engineers. They are geniuses at improvisation with limited and cheesy materials.

Walking out of the commercial section the street stayed quiet, with just a few buses and motorcycles. I saw a guy walking his moto down a set of stairs from the next neighborhood up the hill (according to Google Maps, which has finally posted some Venezuela street names, that next street up is also La is the next...) and I saw another guy pushing/motoring up a very steep staircase out from under a house. Looking down through you could see he came from a little neighborhood in the back yard that gets out to the street through these stairs. It's a medieval level of complexity in a modernist city.

Onward the street traces the river downstream more and more. I saw a few other people walking, mostly quiet. There were peeping birds. Motors in the distance. Between the homes on the uphill side, even back in the commercial part there were patches of sugar cane and vines and banana (cambur!) trees, and getting further out the Venezuelan countryside was clear: hills ahead covered in absolute greenery interrupted only by a quarry, hills at 10 o'clock mostly green but for a couple fancy high rises, and then what's that, one of the homes on the river had a horse. A horse!

Eventually I saw a camioneta (small bus) that had stopped to change its destination signs. End of the line. I got on and took it back to Petare's center. It continued on to Altamira, Chacao, Bellas Artes, and Silencio: terra cognita.

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