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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Girls and politics: Venezuela

Click on the picture below to see my VZ pix


Wed, Sept 10th Los Samanes

P. Que hace un pes cuando esta aburrido?
R. Nada

It doesn't translate well. It's a pun. Something like:

Q. What does a fish do when its bored?
A. Nada (nada means NOTHING and it means IT SWIMS. Get it?)

What does Mykel do? He writes... no pun.

I write because I can. Because in New York, I have no time. In Caracas (Los Samanes, actually), I only have time. Right now I sit on the floor of Johnny's suburban apartment. A baby is screaming in the hall. Sol, Johnny's girlfriend is taking a shower. Jezabel, Johnny's daughter is IM-ing on her dad's computer. Clothes drying in the sun block most of the sunlight from the window.

Yesterday was supposed beach day. Finally, a trip to a Venezuelan beach. Something I've missed.

We set out late yesterday (Sunday) because of a Saturday night drinking binge I hope I'll describe later. And then, it rained. I saw a church.

I'm at Johnny's place now, listening to the Spanish version of The Cartoon Network. The dubbed voices are a horrible falsetto, as irritating as the neighbors' baby. It's 5:19 PM. My last day in this spot. (I move to the hotel tomorrow. Close to the airport... nightly fee same price as a cab.)

The hotel, Catimar, where I've got a reservation has one internet review. Here it is:

Anyway, we decided to try Catimar for the return
and it was a disaster. They weren't waiting for us
at the airport as agreed. I had to call the hotel
and they arrived 30 min after. When we arrived at
the hotel, four guys with guns were robbing the hotel
at the reception desk. They locked the chauffeur in a
closet, the receptionist was sitting on the floor with
the arms in his head. They didn't hurt anyone but took
our purse where we had all our passports. The hotel
owner was helpful and took me to the police station.
However, I missed my flight the next day and had to stay
from Thursday to Tuesday at Caracas to get new passports
and visas.

Sounds good, huh?

Actually, I haven't written much about Caracas itself, its character or the character of the people. And of course, the two questions everyone has about Venezuela:

1.What about Chavez?
2.Are the girls as pretty as their reputation?

Second question first, it's easier:

While there are some knockouts, it's not most of them. Unlike San Paolo, or Chiang Mai, where your neck dislocates itself on a constant swivel of female beauty, Caracas doesn't make it. In fact, it's one of the few countries (Denmark, is another) where the men are better looking than the women. Check out the photos in this blog. Below are another couple of random people in the crowd. What do you think?

Yeah, there was one girl. (There's always ONE SOMEONE, isn't there?) I just saw her from a distance, at a punk show. A goddess. Never talked to her, but here's her picture:

But this hornifying punkette was a real minority among the female population of Venezuela.

The majority, well, you wouldn't notice 'em in a crowd. Trinidad has 'em beat by a mile... er... kilometer. The girls there... hubba hubba!

Next: we get to the CHAVEZ question. That one's tougher.

I came to Venezuela expecting to like Hugo Chavez. Here is a guy brave enough to call BUSH, the great Satan. He said the U.S. uses “terrorism to fight terrorism.”

He gave free oil to the poor in New England, built hospitals in Nicaragua, had the balls to hug Fidel. What more could you want? Well, it's not so easy.

From what I see, there are two points of view here. One group of people hate the guy. They detest him. Like the world feels about George W.

Inflation is almost 30%. There are hundreds of thousands of poor. I see them at night, pulling open garbage bags in the street, gobbling down what's inside. Rotting fruit. Putrid meat.

I see the barrios. Huge apartment complexes, falling apart. Pieces of concrete tumbling to the ground. How do they live, these people? They breed crime like stagnant water breeds mosquitoes.

Here, a big mac costs $10. This in a country where the minimum wage is about $2 an hour.

The daughter in the family I stay with in Caracas says:.

“The people are easily fooled,” she says. “Chavez makes big promises and people keep believing him. The only answer to Chavez is...”

She makes a fist, then extends the thumb and forefinger, “POW!”

Her position is easy to understand, or at least her feelings.

Besides the awful conditions in the place, she has a personal grudge.

A few years ago, there was a petition. A public letter against some of the more repressive aspects of the Chavez government. She signed that letter. Ever since, she's been denied employment in the government sector. The government controls the oil industry. Her profession? Petroleum Geologist. Long time no work.

There's more: Chavez proposed constitutional changes. They would have given him almost imperial power. He could make laws by decree, overrule the legislature, all kinds of nasty stuff.

The voters rejected the changes. They may like Chavez, but they don't want to make him king. Chavez said he'd accept the will of the people, but later mandated administrative laws that have the same effect as the vetoed constitutional change.

People are outraged.

“NO IS NO!” they say.

I go to a protest against the new laws. Six years ago, anti-Chavez protesters were shot. It wasn't only the police who fired the weapons. Videos show pro-Chavez politicians, including a county executive, lying on their stomachs, firing into the unarmed crowd.

Today's protest is non-violent, though you can see the armed soldiers and plainclothes cops on the periphery of the crowd. Here are some photos:

Chavez has modeled himself on Castro, even down to the artwork on his posters. You see those posters everywhere. Supporting candidates of his party. On propaganda builboards. On cut-out-stencil styles billboards, only red and white, that were so popular among socialists in the 70s.

Here are a few:

Flash ahead:

I meet my first Chavez supporter in the countryside. Near a corn farm, in a state called Portuguese. (I don't know why. They speak Spanish, just like everybody else.)

The uncle of my couch-surfer host, he doesn't mention Chavez by name, but talks about “great change is coming to the world, just like it came to Venezuela..”

He's optimistic about the changing governments of Latin America, and their increasingly leftist tilt.

People are ready for change,” he tells me. “Even in America, there will be change. The world is ready for it.”

I shake my head, “No change will come to America, I say, then quote a Trini friend, “America will never elect a black man president. America is a racist country to its core... from its foundation. That won't change.”

[Aside: The general feeling in Venezuela is that Obama will win the election. In Trinidad people believe, as my friend said: America will never elect a black man president.

I am, of course, an Obama supporter. If America doesn't take this chance to reject its racist past, there won't be another chance for a very long time. Every vote NOT for Obama is a racist vote. That man will be the first Democrat I've voted for since George McGovern.

But, I also have no faith in America. Racism is as ingrained in American culture as football. Americans would just as soon vote for a black man as miss the Superbowl. There'll be all kinds of excuses. All kinds of “it's not race, it's the man.” But we know the reality. The Trinis are right. End of Aside]

My second Chavez supporter is a punk rock film maker. He makes documentaries, mostly about poor people. He sees Chavez as a complicated guy.

Chavez has, he agrees, a meglomaniacal streak, especially in his willingness to ignore the popular vote.

But, Chavez has also done a lot of good, he says. Free schooling through high school. Free medical care. An expanded clinic system. Keeping the price of gas to about 15 cents a gallon. State support (medical, financial and social) for people with AIDS.

(That's about $1.00 for 19 liters)

More poor have access to government services than every before. The government guarantees working people 20 paid vacation days a year. Plus sick days. Plus unemployment insurance. Chavez, he says, is not perfect. But he has done a lot of good.

So, opinion, as far as I can see it, goes from hate to luke warm approval. I meet NO fanatical supporters, but that doesn't mean there aren't any. My guess is, there are. Just not in the circles I hang in.

As for me, I'm disappointed. I expected all good. It's not all good.

My opinion has shifted. It's at least more complex than I thought at first. But isn't that the way of the world?

Oh yeah, the rest of the story of my first day... Nope, let it lie. The shit continued... and continued.


Monday, September 08, 2008

The $300 Nap: Part III

Friday, Sept. 5 Caracas:

(Reminder: all dialog/texts in italic, were spoken/written in Spanish.)

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
--American Proverb

“Excuse me, sir,” I ask the clerk. “I'm presently traveling the road to hell. I feel pretty close, and I've got a ton of good intentions. I need to buy an instruction book.”

He looks puzzled.

“I need to know exactly where to place each good intention,” I tell him. “The layout. You know? I don't want to make a road to hell like the roads here. I have the materials. I'm sure I'm headed in the right direction. I only need to know how to build it.”

“Our roads have potholes,” he says. “Our roads have so much traffic, it takes an hour to go a block. Our roads have two lanes with traffic going both ways in each lane. Our roads have construction with no markings. You think you can build that?”

“How 'bout if I leave you the good intentions? I ask him. “And you show me the way back to where I started?

He shakes his head
As I write this, I'm in El Parque D'el Este, actually more in the center of Caracas than in the East. I sit under a palm tree. Slowly, little black ants crawling over my filthy body eat the tasty parts. According to the clock in the corner of the computer, it's 10:12 AM . I've been up for about 4 hours.

It's relatively peaceful here. If not for the insect bites, one could fall asleep.

But that's a switch..

This morning, I arrived back in Caracas at 7:30AM. After a 6 hour bus ride from Basquesimeto. Before that, 2 more busrides-- from the countryside. I slept about 3 hours on the bus. Too much AC, seats not quite comfortable enough, my stomach acting up. The days before are another story. One yet to be written or read.

Right now, I'm full of sweat and country dirt. There was no shower where I've been. Only mosquitoes and strange fruit.

Right now, my mouth tastes like dirt. No water to brush my teeth in. Only something so polluted only paramecium can live in it. Me too.

I'm exhausted. My few hours of sleep on the bus. That's it.

Now, the plan is to go back to the Carillo family where I've been staying. Take a shower. Nap a few hours. Get up around 5. Then meet Johnny, back from Columbia, Finally, move back to a place somewhat punker.

Meanwhile, I can't wait to get to the jail I've been staying in: the family of a couch-surfing friend. Mom, and daughter. I wrote about them. You need a key to blow your nose in their place. But they're great people. I'm part of the family. They cook for me, give me my own room. Wifi. Anything I want.

Mom is chronically something. Some disease. Makes her weak. She never leaves home. Anytime I arrive is okay. She's always there to let me in: Come to the gate. Open all the locks. Poke the e-keys into the elevator sensor.

It'd be rude to arrive too early. Show up at my door at 7:30 and I'd be more pissed off than a New York cab driver.. Last night I texted the daughter. Told her I'd be in at 7:30, but will wait until 9 to show up.

Nope. Mom had to go to the doctor. Appointment's at 8. Won't be back until 11.

“OK,” I text back, “I'll come at noon. How's that?”

“Fine,” she says. “See you then.”

What to do from 7:30 to noon? Have coffee? Better not. My stomach hasn't been good. Go to the to park? Read? Write? Sounds good.

I can make notes in my little notebook. (I ditched the computer for the trip to Barquisimeto. It was giving me a backache. (Did Ahab have a backache from his albatross?))

At 7:30, I walk from the bus station to the park. I walk into the park.

Hey!” comes a voice behind me. I ignore it.

HEY!” comes the voice again, now in all capital letters.

I turn.

A man in uniform comes; touches me on the elbow.

“What do you want?” he asks.

“I want to go into the park?” I tell him.

“The park opens at 9,” he says.

[ASIDE: Later I find out this was The Park of The Arts, not The Park of the East. But I didn't know it then.]

Kill another hour. Can I risk a cup of coffee? Inside a café, I order a big Negro. (Un Negro Grande.)

Venezuelan café coffee is served in little plastic cups, without handles. A pequeňo is about the size of a pen cap. A grande is like the cup on a bottle of Nyquil. Sit and I drink it slowly, pulling out my borrowed copy of a Le Carré spy novel to kill time.

[Aside 2: I don't like spy novels. But it's all I've got, and even a daughter is better than nothing. Especially when I need to kill time. I spend MOST of my time in Venezuela killing time. I kill it. I torture it. I murder it. I cut it into little pieces, boil it in its own blood and eat it for dinner.]

I last at the café until 8:30. Then it's off, slowly, ever so slowly, to the park. I arrive just about 9 and walk in. I kill more time. I write. I read. I have a donut... uh oh? We'll see what that does to my stomach.

As I eat the donut, I suddenly remember the family. They cook for me. Always, something special. They go out of their way for me to give me a taste of local. But mostly I can't eat it. Just not my taste, and especially now. I can't eat anything.

It's 11AM, I text the daughter.

I'll be there at noon. I know how kind you are and always want to do things for me. But please don't prepare any food. My stomach has been bad these days. I really can't eat anything.

It's not long before I receive a text in response.

Mykel, we're still at the doctor. We won't be back by noon. Sorry. You'd better make it 2 to be sure.

I'll die. Or at least go to sleep. Under this palm tree. I need a real bed, and a real shower, and a real sink to brush my teeth in. I haven't done any of those things in days. But right now, I'll sleep. Nothing kills time like a nap. Close your eyes it's 11AM. Open them and it's ... 11:15.

I throw a grenade into another 5 hours. Makes sure the time is good and dead. Then I appear at the family gate at 2PM. Finally, a shower and a real nap.

Yeah, right.

“Hi Mykel,” says Mom. “Welcome back... I'm sorry to tell you we have no water. They are repairing the pipes. They're always repairing the pipes.”

“Can I go somewhere and kill myself?” I don't ask.

“That's okay,” I do say. “I just need to take a nap. I'm meeting my friend and moving back to his place this evening, about 7.”

Then, I notice the man in the house. An older man, slightly older than Mom. I guess this is Dad. I haven't met him yet. He's just out of the hospital. Something with his heart.

He introduces himself to me. He speaks a little English. About as much as my Spanish. He asks me about my trip. We talk about Venezuela in general. He asks me if I've been to Avila. I tell him I don't know what Avila is. He walks me to the window and shows me a huge mountain in the North.

“It's Avila,” he says. “It is what separates Caracas from the sea. Have you been there?”

“I expect there's a beach on the other side,” I say. He nods.

I think about my previous mountain trek, I'm not about to go alone on another one. At least not alone.

“You want to go?” he asks. “I will go with you tomorrow. We can meet and then hike through the mountain.”

That doesn't sound like a bad idea. If I'm with a local, a mountain hike might be interesting. An adventure with someone. Sure beats killing time by myself. He's such a nice guy. Means well. Wants to help me. The only problem would be... he is recovering from a heart attack. It would be like pet-sitting for someone and the cat dies.

“I'd love to go,” I tell him. “I'm staying with my friend in Los Samanas tonight. But I have nothing to do during the day tomorrow. I need to check with my friend first. If he's working, I'll spend the day on the hike. I need it.”

His face brightens with the joy of being able to escort someone through a land he really loves. As for me, I'm delighted. Time actually DOING something, exploring. Trees, flowers, little animals. Birds, conversation with someone older and probably wiser than me. Yowsah!

After that I nap until about 5:30. I text Johnny that I'm getting ready to meet him at 7 as we had planned.

How's 6:30? He texts back.

Shit! I'm up and out. Fast. Good bye kisses. Through gates. Lock-after-lock. Out to the Metro (subway) and waiting for Johnny at 6:30, at the appointed spot. At 7:45, he shows up.

“Cola,” he says. That's Venezuelan slang for TRAFFIC.

In an hour or so we get to Johnny's place. (Nice guy, I'll tell you more about him later.) I tell him about my poor stomach. He makes me a plate of plane spaghetti, no sauce. Perfect.

Then comes the phonecall.

“Mykel,” says Dad, “I'm sorry to tell you I can't go to Avila with you tomorrow. I have to stay home. Fix some things around the house. Take care. You understand.”

I nod into the phone. We say our hasta luegos. Maybe Mom talked him out of it.

“Okay,” I think. “I'll have an apartment to myself tomorrow. At least for a little while. I can use Johnny's broadband to post some internet pix. I can take a shower, there. Brush my teeth. Do what I'd do in the privacy of my own apartment. Then I can go for a leisurely walk. Sit in a café, over a big Negro. Read. Mosey on into town. Not the hike I was hoping for, but not so bad.
I fall asleep on the hard wood floor.

At 6:30 AM there's a voice somewhere in the dreamtorn abyss.

“Mykel, get up. It's time to get up. We have to leave now.”

“Huh,” I moan, my tongue not yet prepared for Spanish. “Can't I sleep until a little later?”

I only have one key,” says Johnny. “I can't lock up if you're here.”

“But we did it last time,” I whine. “Why can't I just shut the gate behind me? It locks automatically.”

“It's not secure enough,” says Johnny. “If you stay, I'll have to return to lock up after you.”

I roll over in bed. “Fine,” I say, “I'll call you when I leave.”

“It takes an hour each way,” he says. “Cola. Cola. That's two hours out of my day to lock up after you.”

“Okay, okay,” I tell him. “I'll come. Just give me ten minutes.”

He nods, then watches me dress.

I walk into the bathroom. I can hear him pacing outside. I relieve myself, brush my teeth, and nothing more. Then BANG! We're into the car and off to Caracas. He lets me off at the subway and I go to the park. This time with my computer.

Ok, now where were we? Oh yeah:


Recap: Exhausted, I'm barely aware of the light before being captured by an airport official on the take. He's brought me to get a local SIM card for my phone. I hand the salesman my passport to register my new number. The salesman installs the new chip. Then my captor bullies me into an expensive cab ride into town, the cab driver carefully chosen by the airport official.

At the hotel, they tell me the room won't be ready until 1. It's 9AM. I need to kill 4 hours before I can check in. I'll register now and take a walk.

The hotel costs $100 a night... I need to sleep more than anything and it's the cheapest I could find on the internet. My cellphone with the new chip rings. Who has this number? Only the phone company.

“Señor Mykel Board?” comes the vaguely familiar voice on the other end.

“Si?” I say.

“Mister Mykel. Where are you?” says the voice.

“I'm in Caracas,” I answer, “at the hotel. Who is this?”

“Don't worry. Your passport is safe,” says the voice. “I have it here at the counter. At the Digital counter, at the airport. When will you come to pick it up?”

“Can I take a bus to the airport?” I ask the desk clerk, the only helpful man in Venezuela, (and he speaks English!) .

“There is a way,” he says. “But it's difficult. You need to take a Metro to (I forget the stop), then transfer. It takes much time.”

“I don't have time,” I tell him, and explain the problem.

“Maybe I can help,” he says, going out of his way for me. “The fare is usually 150 Bolivars (about $75). I will see if I can find a driver who will go and come back for 200 Bolivars.”

I follow the guy out, and listen as he talks with the cab drivers waiting outside. There is much shaking of heads. Then one guy, sort of Italian-looking, with a big black mustache, nods. I follow him to his car 1970-something car. Could be a Buick. Fender crunched, bumper barely hanging on. I get into his “cab.” And we're off.

“You go into the airport,” he tells me. “I will circle until you come back. Wait for me, okay?”

He's a sincere, well-meaning guy. He's helping me out. Of course, I agree, and tell him I'll pay the first 100 when we get there so he can be sure I won't run away. Instead of reassuring him, I've made him more anxious.

“You will wait for me,” he says, more like a plea than a command. “I'm going to come back. To circle. You will wait for me.”

“Don't worry,” I tell him, “I will wait.”

He lets me off at the terminal. I run inside. Now, if I can only find the place I bought the chip. The phone sales booth. I know it's upstairs.

For some reason, I suddenly develop a fear that Ill run into my original captor. What if he sees me back here so soon? Will he grab me again? Force me into another expensive cab? It's one of my few fears here, that is unjustified.

First task: Find the phone stall. I know it was upstairs. Near the sliding glass doors. The entrance to hell. Ok, here are the doors. First I went to this ATM, it didn't work. Then...
I retrace my steps. ATM. ATM bank. Change money location. I come to the big curving hallway.

There it is. I remember the guy at the counter. I wave to him. He looks at me blankly.

“I'm Mykel Board,” I tell him. “I think you have my passport.”

He nods like he's disappointed. Should I give him a reward? This day has already cost me $200 and I still have to get back to Caracas. Sorry, bub, all you get is a thank you to match your expression.

I pick up the passport, run downstairs to look for my driver. There he is, anxiously searching the crowd like he's convinced I'm going to skip out on him.

I wave to him. He waves to me and pulls the cab up to the curb. I get in, and we head off for the ride back to Caracas. In the middle of the impossibly heavy traffic to town, the cab breaks down.

More next time...

Monday, September 01, 2008

The $300 Nap: Part II

The smell of rotting garbage fills my nose. I feel slightly nauseous, like you might feel when you read American polical news.

My chest and belly itch from peeling skin and more mosquito bites than skin surface. Venezuelan food... what's the technical term... sucks. Imagine if everything were served on under-baked gritty Thomas's English muffins. Your choice of fillings: sour cheese, tasting like Elmer's glue, or carne mecharne... pulled meat barely spiced with something a combination of honey and Heinz catsup.

It's not that the diet is unvaried. There's lots of choice. You have the bland arepas. The too sweet, pancake-like cachapa:

With your choice of fillings, all equally nauseating. There are tons of other local dishes... all bad.

I'm a pretty adventurous eater. There's not much I don't down with gusto. Snake, guinea pig, piranha. You name it. I've eaten it.

But right now, my appetite is on the corner of Bleecker and Houston St. Left home to lighten the load.

The trouble is, my host mom, cooks me breakfast. Two arepas every morning. One cheese. One meat. This morning, I had to sneak half the meat one with me into the bathroom. Down the toilet. I grunted a bit to camouflage the move. I just couldn't bear it.

I wonder if I'll lose weight here, eating 1 meal a day. Maybe I'll gain weight, since I'm not getting any exercise other than walking with my computer.


I continue the next day. September 1. Labor Day in theU.S.

I sit and write, trapped. My host family is gone to I donno where. Because of security here you need a key to get in and out. A key... what am I talking about? Five. Ten. Dozens.

To leave the apartment building and complex you need:

  1. A key to the apartment door (key necessary from both sides-- enter and leave)

  2. A key to the metal gate just outside the door. (key necessary from both sides-- enter and leave)

  1. A key to the gate protecting the alcove of 2 apartments on the left side of the elevator. (key necessary from both sides-- enter and leave)

  2. An electronic key to in order to operate the elevator

The key
<--- The elevator panel -->

5.An electronic key to leave the building through the main entrance. (key necessary from both sides-- enter and leave)

6. An electronic key to leave the building grounds... It opens the outside gate. (key necessary from both sides-- enter and leave)
7. An electronic key to leave the entire apartment complex. (key necessary from both sides-- enter and leave)
And if there's a fire? I don't want to think about it. It's all electronic! So many things can go wrong with electronics. It's not a simple key in a simple lock. I don't want to think about it.

[Note for non-writers: The two lines above are called foreshadowing. They are strategically placed so that when something happens later, the reader is prepared, or at least has some kind of reference. An oh-yeah-he-mentioned-that-before-now-I-get-it.]

So my hosts are gone. Not home. I'm trapped. Can't leave. They gave me an e-key. It's not enough. I can't get out of the front door, let alone the two gates before the elevator. Okay, I'll just sit here and write. Wait for them to return.

Back to the chronology. Where were we?

Ah yes, going through the glass doors.

SHORT RECAP: I leave Trinidad for Venezuela on three hours sleep. I made an internet reservation for one night in a Caracas hotel. I need the sleep – and I need something to tell immigration. I can't say I'm going to crash on the sofa at the punk house, can I?

Before I leave the Caracas airport, I plan to do four things.

  1. Eat lunch.

  2. Buy an English-Spanish dictionary (I have so many at home! Forgetting to bring one is like forgetting to bring water on a mountain hike!)

  3. Change a little money at the official rate. Probably by using an ATM. The rest, I'll change with the punk rockers in town.

      [ASIDE: I don't remember the details. But there's a section in Catch 22 where a character buys eggs for $3, sells them for $2 and makes a profit. I think about it as I hear the details of the Venezuelan black market.

Here's how it works: If an American changes money at a bank, she gets from 1.95 to 2.1

Bolivars to a U.S. dollar. If she changes it on the black market, she gets 3 Bolivars to a U.S.

dollar. If Venezuelans want to buy dollars, they go to the bank and pay 2.15 Bolivars for one


Here's the problem: How do the black marketeers make money? They pay MORE for

illegal dollars than they'd pay legally at the bank. Where's the profit?

Leave your guess as a comment here, and I'll reveal the answer in my next blog entry. ]

  1. Buy a SIMS chip for my cellphone, so I can make local calls at lower prices.

After taking care of one through four, I plan to take the bus to the subway in the city, and walk to the hotel.

The plane arrives in Caracas about 8:30AM. I pass through immigration and customs. It's suspiciously easy, if commonly unfriendly. On the way out, I have to walk through a large sliding glass panel. On the other side of the panel are two uniformed men.

One points to me. The other takes my back pack, which I am now rolling.

“You speak English?” he asks.

I nod.

“Where are you going?” he says.

“I'm going to my hotel,” I tell him. “Hotel La Floreta.”

He leads the way, away from the sliding panel. Carrying my bag. Tight grip.

“I want to get money from the bank. From a machine.” I tell him, pegging him for a customs agent, trying to entrap me.

“The machines only give you 1.95 Bolivars for each dollar,” he says. “I give you three por un dollar.”

“I'd rather go to a machine,” I tell him.

He shrugs and grabs my bag tighter.

“Follow me,” he says.

We walk. We walk to the right. To the left. Around in circles. To an isolated machine. He gestures. I go to the machine and insert my card. It spits it back at me.

“It no work,” he says. “We try more.”

We walk. We go downstairs. Across a huge lobby, to a gaggle of machines. He gestures. I walk up to a machine and insert my card. The machine spits it back at me. Another in the same gaggle. Same result. A third. This one works... as all third tries should work.

I withdraw about $100 in Bolivars. Then, I go back to the guy with my bag.

“Ok,” he says. “Now we go to taxi to hotel.”

“I want to take the bus,” I tell him. “I don't want to take a taxi.”

“No buses,” he says. “You go by taxi. 150 Bolivars (about $75).”

“I can't pay 150 Bolivars,” I tell him.

“You change money with me,” he tells me. “I make cheaper. Look,” he pinches his uniform and holds it out from his body. “I am officièl. From the airport. All is okay. Okay?”

Yeah right.

Exhausted, bleary minded, I fish $50 out of my wallet. I give it to him. He counts it and then reaches into his pocket. He gives me 150 Bolivars, counting them carefully into my hand.

“I give you discount taxi,” he says. “For you, 120 Bolivars. I ask my friend.”

For you 120 Bolivars? Where am I? At 47th Street Photo? Oy vey!

“I don't want to leave yet,” I whine. “I want to buy a dictionary. Un diccionario.”

“No hay bookstore in el airport,” he tells me. “You go Caracas. Hay muchos bookstores en Caracas.”

He grabs my bag and starts walking purposefully toward the exit.

“Wait! Espera por favor!” I yell at his back. “I need to buy a SIMS chip for my telephone.”

I close my eyes for the 0.4 seconds it should take him to tell me I can't buy a SIMS chip in the airport but there are muchos good SIMS chip stores in Caracas. He doesn't tell me that.

“At your service,” he says quickly changing directions, like a soldier in a military parade.

We walk. We go upstairs. Across from the big glass panels, around a huge curving alcove. To a little window marked DIGITAL.

“Aqui,” he says, gesturing toward the window, “se sell SIMS.”

I walk up to the window and ask for a SIMS chip. For the first time, I need to use all the Spanish at my disposal. I'm not well disposed.

[NOTE: from here on, things spoken in Spanish appear in English using italics. That way, the non-Spanish speakers can understand... and my Spanish will appear perfect, rather than the broken- grammar Spanish I actually speak.]

I'd like to buy a SIMS chip,” I tell the young man behind the counter.

Show me your phone,” he says.

It will work,” I assure him. “I've used it all over the world.”

“Show me your phone,” he says again.

I give it to him. He opens it, removes the SIMS chip, puts in a new one and tests it.

It will work,” he tells me.

That's what I said, asshole,” I don't tell him.

He fills out the forms and asks for my passport. I hand it to him without bothering to ask why. I just need some sleep. I'll pay for a taxi. Just let me lie down. Close my eyes. Drift off to... to...

And your address in Venezuela?” says the guy.

I give him the hotel name and address.

That'll be twenty Bolivars,” he says.

Having bought a SIMS chip in Trinidad, I know the routine. The initial payment is only for the tiny computer chip. If you actually want to USE it, you have to load it up. That costs more.

How much is one call?” I ask.

It's different,” he says. “The time you call. The city. The day. Where you call from, Messages. All different. I can't tell you how much.

“Can't you let me sleep?” I don't ask. “Right here. On the floor. Can't you protect me from airport officials? Just for an hour. Let me lie down. A quick nap. I'll be right as a rain forest.”

What I do say is, “Okay. Put 30 Bolivars on the chip.”

He does some things on the computer. I hand him some money. He hands me my phone and a small envelope with the new number written on it.

“Now we go to the taxi,” says the airport guard, pulling my bag along. I run behind him, drifting in and out of a moving sleep.

I vaguely hear his voice through the sleepfog. “120 Bolivars. It's not much. It's far. Caracas is very lejos from the aeropuerto.”

We walk. Around the alcove. Downstairs, through an outside corridor. It's hot. Really hot. Humid. The air as thick as pudding. Briefly, we return inside, then back out to a row of taxis. My captor scouts them.

In a few seconds... minutes?... hours? He finds what he's looking for. A rundown Chevy, circa 1975. Peeling paint. Fenders bent into art.

He waves to the driver. The driver gets out and my jailer talks to him.

I hear Hotel La Floresta, 120 Bolivars. The driver does not smirk. Instead, he opens the back door. The airport official throws in my backpack. I put my computer bag on the floor next to it, and the bottle of duty free rum next to that. Then I climb in next to the driver. He's a very serious-looking blond man, about 40. He wears a crewcut, and dark sunglasses. Looks CIA. We're off.

He drives looking straight ahead. Not a word. Silent like the mafia driver who takes you to the alley where the bullet enters the back of your head. Silent like the general, cigar gripped in his teeth, leads his troops into the valley of death. Silent like the Venezuelan cab driver, dodging traffic like a matador dodges the bull, carries you to your own matador. I fall asleep in the car.

A sudden stop awakens me. Where am I? Have I been kidnapped?

I thought it was in Columbia... or Brazil they kidnap people. This is Venezuela. The new socialism. Oh yeah, I'm at the hotel. Three hours plus 10 minutes of sleep.

I fish out 120 of the 150 Bolivars the airport pirate changed for me. These, I hand to the driver and walk into the hotel. It's a narrow affair, with a small front desk, and a passageway to a larger lobby/open restaurant. I look at the clock on my cellphone. It's 9:30AM.

At the desk sits a man dressed in an old-fashioned bellboy uniform. Green with a bunch of white curlicues. He looks elegant. Like an old-time Latino actor. Square face, thin mustache. A hand-kisser.

I'm too tired to speak English, let alone Spanish.

“Do you English can speak?” I ask the deskclerk.

“Yes,” he says, “how can I help you?”

I give him my name. Tell him I made an internet reservation.

He puts my name in the computer.

“Sorry,” he says, “you don't have a reservation.”

“Of course I do,” I tell him, “I got an email confirmation.”

“Do you have the number?” he asks.

“It's in my computadora.” I tell him.

He suggests I go into the lobby and find it, then he can research the reservation. I go into the lobby, take out my laptop, look for the email message. It's nowhere. Fuck! Maybe I didn't download it. Maybe it's sitting in my Gmail account. Eating up bytes with all the ads for Viagra and imitation Swiss watches.

I try connecting to the internet. I can't. There's WiFi service, but it needs a password. I walk to the front and the elegant clerk gives me the password.

Eventually, I connect. There is no confirmation.

“I can no find it!” I cry to the clerk. “I haven't no sleep. Please, help me.”

He smiles and bows slightly. He types a few things into the computer.

“I can give you a room for only one night,” he says.

“That's great!” I say, remembering that the next night I move to Johnny's. “I only need one night. All I need is a nap. A few hours.”

“The cost is 190 Bolivar a night,” he says.

That's nearly $100!! Plus what I paid to get from the airport. Almost $200 in just a few hours! Fuck it. I need sleep. Every greasy, sweaty polluted pour in my body is calling out for sleep. I hand the guy a credit card.

“Do you need my passport?” I ask him.

“Not yet,” he says. “Later, when you go to your room.”

“I need to go now,” I tell him.

“Your room is not ready yet,” he says. “Come back at one o'clock. It will be ready.”

I think I'm going to die. More than three hours. What am I going to do for more than three hours? Walk in circles? Play Spider solitaire?

Suddenly my phone rings. My cellphone. I've never used it. No one has the number except the guy who sold it to me? Who could be calling?

I answer it.

“Señor Mykel Board?” comes the vaguely familiar voice on the other end.

“Si?” I say.

Mister Mykel. Where are you?” says the voice.

I'm in Caracas,” I answer, “at the hotel. Who is this?

“Don't worry. Your passport is safe,” says the voice. “I have it here at the counter. At the Digital counter, at the airport. When will you come to pick it up?”