Monday, October 6, 2008

It's as bad as they say

I went to Puerto la Cruz for a couple days not long ago. Getting there was an adventure worthy of its own post (Dear Managers of the Metro: Please learn to operate a subway system. Love, Hedgehog.) that ended with me sharing a cab to a hotel at 11 p.m. with a pretty, petite Latina from the States -- call her Doris -- who was visiting Venezuela for the first time. She had been traveling 20 hours and was beat. One of the only questions she managed to ask was, "So is this place as scary as they say?"

As you know if you've ever looked at this blorg, my answer was no. There are problems but it's not as bad as they say.

I spent two days out there, with the only remarkable part being an iguana that was well above 4 feet long, wandering around.

At the airport, leaving, I ran into Doris again. That was odd, because she was supposed to be visiting for four days, and only two had passed. She seemed shook up. I asked her if everything was ok, and she said no. That her visit was awful. The only hint she would give me was to say "It is as bad as they say."

We talked more later -- our flights ended up arriving in Caracas at the same time, and we shared another cab as she sought out a hotel -- and she told me that right after she arrived in Puerto la Cruz, after now 21 hours of travel, she was waiting outside her friend's house talking on a phone in his car, and someone grabbed her by the hair, pulled her out of the car, grabbed her ring, her bracelets, and her phone. Her screaming brought neighbors out of their homes and the guy ran off. It sort of spoiled her trip, what with not being able to sleep and just being upset all the time, so she left.

It reminded me of the other friend who was once outside his boyfriend's house while his better half ran in "just for a minute." My pal was out with the car and a couple kids in the back seat. Four people came up with guns and demanded the car. Fortunately they let him take the kids out first.

And the friend who was kidnapped for a half a day before most of her attackers left her in her car with only one guy guarding her, gun to her head as she lay on the floor. Suddenly he was surprised by various guns pointed at him and she was able to leave: police, who had followed the car with aid of a homing device in the trunk, moved in to free her.

And for all of the utter horror of all of this, all three of those stories involve people who got off alive, and even with most of their property intact, in part because of their own privileges. The daily paper is a litany of miseries about people in the slums, who routinely lose their kids to various forms of gunfire, stabbing, muggings, hit and run, you name it. The bodies, after a weekend in Caracas or Puerto la Cruz or Maracaibo, can end up piled up like cordwood in unrefrigerated morgues and police SUVs.

None of which would be so bad if the police and court system worked. With rare exceptions like my kidnapped friend, it doesn't. Many cities pay their cops something close to the (far from living wage) minimum wage, starting at about $7,000 a year (at the official exchange rate, which is about the same buying power as $3,500), even as they spend $100,000 apiece on Toyota 4x4s to make the cops look tough. Few murders are even investigated. The fear, against which I am constantly arguing, is not insane.


mgrace said...

I, too, have always wondered about the reports of violence in Venezuela (and other countries) and the reality of it. Thanks for your honest assessment.
I think I tend to underplay problems in the countries I'm in, just because the truly nasty stuff hasn't happened to me. But it does exist, and one needs to watch one's butt carefully.
The only problem I've had this year was an attempted mugging in Lima, in which I freaked out and scared three teenagers away.
The only ever time before that was getting kidnapped in a taxi 13 years ago in Mexico City after getting busted by the police for peeing in the street, and then, after the thugs released me (thank god I didn't have my ATM card on me) I was mugged twice on the way home, walking through slums in my party clothes.
Ah, youth.

Joel said...

I think the episodes described in your post and in mgrace's comment show that one big key is awareness. If you are wearing or carrying symbols of wealth in a wealth-deprived area... Luck and timing and other things play their parts, too.

So, in my opinion, as someone who has been attacked while traveling, but only when told to let down my guard as that location is "safe": It's all a matter of the specifics. It's not as bad "as they say," since THEY always talk about the worst, but the worst is as bad as they say.

It isn't a great idea, though, to make everyone scared of everyone without qualification.