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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?”

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