They say Caracas es Caracas, lo resto es montes y culebras—Caracas is Caracas, the rest is just shrubs and snakes. With serpentine highways jack-knifing, double-backing, and clinging to mountainsides before plunging through tunnels that connect the country with the Valley of Caracas, that statement is beautifully obvious. The capital of Venezuela, at once cosmopolitan and ghetto, sits at the northern edge of South America, separated from the Caribbean Sea by the looming green wall of Avila Mountain and ringed by red-bricked, ever-expanding shanties that drape the hillsides.
As the principal city of the largest oil-exporting country outside the Middle East, Caracas combined the flavor and openness of the tropics with the verve and sophistication of a cosmopolis; in the 70s, Air France even ran the Concorde regularly between Caracas and Paris. Its glory days clearly over, I was last in Caracas in 2005, when Hugo Chavez still seemed harmless and funny, with his “Bush, joo are a donkay,” and the comfortable controlled chaos typical of large Latin American cities still seemed intact.
Within the conglomeration of 4.5 million people, freeways course through the valley bordered by countless billboards and high-rises sprout indiscriminately like a real-live version of Sim City. Boisterous, loud, dirty, crowded, and hot, Caracas ain’t pretty. But it’s sexy. And what struck me most about the place was the swift friendliness (and attractiveness…hotties everywhere) of the people; how you can go up to random folks on the street doing random things, and they take you into their world for a few hours, showing you their hobbies and houses, introducing you to their friends and trying to get you drunk, their diverse interests and tastes spanning place and time. One of my friends does flatland x-treme biking while listening to Lou Rawls on MP3!
Politically speaking, I haven’t seen any of the so-called reforms Chavez has put into action to nationalize major corporations and entire industries, fight labor groups (who should be his natural allies), and essentially destroy the middle class, but from what I hear from my friends in the country, things are not going well. I had intended to return over Spring Break to compare the changes I saw, but logistics made that impossible. As much as I love Cuba, I do not believe changing Venezuela into the 2.0 Beta version is the right way to achieve social equality.
Caracas is straight hood, and besides Rio de Janeiro, it’s the only city where I actually felt nervous about my safety; stray bullets are common and crime has exploded. The city, it pains me to say, is on the type of downward slant that takes a place decades to rectify. But on the flip side, you got tan chulos in wifebeaters rolling through the city blasting the latest reggaeton or hip-hop in heavy ’83 Chevy Malibus with their brick-house chicas smacking gum in the passenger seat. The nightspots go crazy with house or salsa til sun-up. There’s ice skating on top of Avila Mountain (outdoor ice skating in the Caribbean!) and baseball outshines soccer as the nation’s pastime. Afro-Latino syncretic religion is strong, as is the obvious African cultural element to the city, from the swagger and slang of Venezuelan Spanish to the proliferation of brown faces on the streets. It’s like Harlem in the early 80s or DC in the 90s, not just ghetto, but also fabulous. There’s something appealing about having your name engraved on your belt buckle when everyone else has, too.
I think the cosmos saved me from a great life disappointment by not allowing me to find a suitable job in the city when I was searching back in 2004. I do love Caracas and would have hated to be forced out of the country when Chavez siezes all foreign-held bank accounts.
To catch some of the true rawness of CCS, look at the first few scenes from the crime drama, Secuestro Express; very much in the vein of New Jack City and City of God. Any time I see images of the city, I remember the rush of being on the edge of anarchy. And I like it, at least in short doses.
And here’s an excellent, admittedly anti-Chavez blog about the goings-on in Caracas.