An Irregular Column
for MRR 308
by Mykel Board
Recap: I'm on the plane leaving Port of Spain, Trinidad for Caracas, Venezuela. My week has been a paradise of spicy food, Stag beer, great new friends, Trini-punk, girls with asses you want to call home, and a kind of English that oozes Jamaican, Indian and African.
It's been my best first week ever in a country I didn't get laid in. Trinidad is a free place. You can drink outside, smoke inside, say hello to street-walking trannie hookers, and never show your ID for anything.
The locals, however, warned me. It's dangerous. There's a high crime rate. I shouldn't show my camera or wallet. Basking in the Caribbean sun, I begin to wonder if the price of freedom (Trinidad is one of the freest countries I've ever visited) is danger.
I don't sleep on my last night in the country. You wouldn't either if half the country were buying you drinks. So, half dead, I board this plane to Caracas. I want to see if Hugo Chavez is as cool as I think he is. He's got the balls to stand up to Bush. He gives money to poor people in New England who can't afford heating oil. The U.S. Press hates him. What's not to like? Right? Yeah, right.
No one's gonna meet me at the airport in Caracas. Johnny, my MySpace punk pal, has to work late. I won't see him until tonight.
Like in Trinidad, I'll do one night in a hotel in Venezuela. That way, I have a touristy address for the immigration man. Then I'll switch to punk rock.
The plane arrives in Caracas about 8:30AM. The flight was 20 minutes-- not enough to fall asleep. I'm so tired I feel like I'm sleep walking.
I pass through immigration and customs.
“Passport... What's your Venezuelan address?... You're a tourist?...” Stamp.... “Next!”
It's suspiciously easy, if commonly unfriendly.
On the way out, I 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.
Uh oh, here it comes. The customs guards on the other side of the door. Just waiting for you to let your breath out. To go to the bathroom to pry the cocaine-filled condom from your asshole. To twist the heel on your shoe and spill the heroin into a plastic bag.
“You speak English?” asks the guard who took my bag.
“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. In case he's a federal agent, trying to catch me playing the black market.
“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 work in stories. It's Writing 101. Look it up!
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?”
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? 47th Street Photo? Oy vey!
You can read about the rest of my adventures with this official. They're posted on the diary blog.
That's the potatoes. The meat of this column is my actual stay in Caracas. I meet Johnny that night. We go to a bar in “El Barrio.” It's supposed to be a dangerous neighborhood, but looks friendly enough to me.
“Is my car okay?” asks Johnny, looking out the bar window to where the car is parked... across the street. “I just want to make sure no one is breaking into the car.”
Johnny tells me that he's going to Columbia. The people are nice there. I can stay at his place if I want to, his brother is there. But I have to leave early, when his brother goes to work. And I can't come back until his brother is home. There is only one key.
You can't use keys as a sign of real danger. They're only perceived danger. Frightened people buy more locks. People may be scared because bad guys lurk on every corner. OR, people may be scared because they think bad guys lurk on every corner. They read it in the papers. See Fox 5 News... America's Most Wanted. It's hard to tell the reality. But it's easy to tell the reality that people are afraid. The more keys, the more fear.
In any case, I decide I'd rather stay in town. With a couch-surfer, actually the family of a couch-surfer ,I met in Trinidad. He said I could stay with his mom and sister in Caracas... in the room he grew up in. The family'll put me up for a week.
Flash forward: I write this in the apartment of my Venezuelan hosts. A middle class place in the center of Caracas. Mom and her daughter. Both bigger than the World Trade Center (used to be). They don't go out. Never get any exorcise except walking from one room to the kitchen. It's dangerous outside. The city is full of criminals. They just stay in and eat. Crime is everywhere, they tell me. Keep a few Bolivars in your pocket and leave your wallet at home. Don't show your camera. Don't show your computer. Don't walk past that street you can see from the window. It's dangerous!
Right now I'm trapped. My host family has 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 keys. Ten keys. Dozens of keys.
To leave the apartment building and complex you need:
1. Key#1 to the apartment door (key necessary from both sides-- enter and leave)
2. Key#2 to the metal gate just outside the door. (key necessary from both sides-- enter and leave)
3. Key#3 to the gate protecting the alcove of 2 apartments on the left side of the elevator. (key necessary from both sides-- enter and leave)
4. An electronic key to call the elevator to your floor. Inside the elevator, you need the same key to push the buttons to move to your chosen floor.
5. The electronic key to leave the building through the main entrance. (key necessary from both sides-- enter and leave)
6. The electronic key to leave the building courtyard... It opens the gate. (key necessary from both sides-- enter and leave)
7. The electronic key to leave the entire apartment complex-- about half a dozen buildings and a small park. (key necessary from both sides-- enter and leave through the main gate)
And if there's a fire? It's all electronic! So much can go wrong with electronics. It's not a simple key in a simple lock. I don't want to think about it.
So my hosts are gone. Not home. I'm trapped. Can't leave. I can't get out the front door, let alone the two gates before the elevator. Okay, I'll just sit here and write. Wait for them to return.
Flashback#1: I walk into a discount luggage shop. I need to buy a bag to carry the punk stuff I pick up from my friends. And a beach towel. Somehow, I lost mine during my one-night stay at the hotel.
Gabriella, the woman, I'm staying with, told me there was a 30% inflation rate in Venezuela.
“You'd better buy today,” she said. “If you buy tomorrow, it'll be a dollar more.”
Only gas is cheap. Cheaper than water. Caracas has five million people and four million cars. You'd drive too if gas were 45 cents a gallon. Whoops, I bet you drive anyway.
Back to the shop. I pick out my towel and bag and head to the cashier. A young salesgirl, who's been following me since I entered the store, follows me to the front.
“That'll be thirty-eight Bolivars,” says the man at the register (in Spanish).
I fish out my money.
“I also need your...” I don't understand the word, but it sounds like secaro.
“I don't understand.” I tell the guy, in Spanish. “My Spanish is not that great.”
“SECARO! SECARO!” shouts the salesgirl, as if by shouting, she could make me understand better.
“MY SPANISH IS NOT THAT GOOD!” I shout back, in English.
They both look at me like I'm dangerous. But I open my wallet, fish out my driver's license, and show it to the cashier. That's the ticket.
So Venezuela becomes the first country I've ever been in that makes you show I.D. to pay cash. And I was in Poland during Commie times!
Back to the present: Still stuck here. What else can I write about? Well, there are posters of Chavez everywhere. Wall posters, most in that cut-out Communist style that Castro used to like.
There are also photos. Every politician wants his photo next to a photo of Chavez. And there's Che. Not quite as many Che posters as Chavez, but it's close.
Chavez tried to change the constitution. He wanted to give himself more power. Take decision-making away from the legislature and put it in his own hands. He rewrote the constitution and put it to the vote. He lost.
Then, like Mayor Bloomberg here in New York, Chavez decided to ignore popular opinion and put in the laws himself. There were immediate protests. They continue to this day. The protester's motto? NO ES NO!
There were petitions. Thousands of people signed, opposing Chavez ignoring the popular vote. Gabriella, my hostess, was one of them.
Soon after signing the petition, she lost her job. She is a petroleum geologist in a country where the government owns the petroleum industry. Because she signed the petition, she can no longer get a government job. She can no longer work at all.
I wonder where she and her mother went. Maybe they went to buy food, a ton of it... since it'll cost a lot more tomorrow.
So I'm thinking. Maybe my idea about Trinidad was only half right. Maybe danger is a necessary by-product of freedom. But not only that. It can also accompany vengeful totalitarianism. Control doesn't mean lack of danger-- or fear. These feelings can co-exists, or maybe MUST co-exist with control.
Maybe I'll talk to Gabriella about it. She's coming now. I can hear the key in the lock.
ENDNOTES: [email subscribers (firstname.lastname@example.org), blog subscribers (mykelsblog.blogspot.com) or website viewers (www.mykelboard.com) will get live links, a few more endnotes and a chance to comment on the column]
-->I went to the right school dept: The National Coalition Against Censorship reports that in 2005, the U.S. Secret Service visited "Axis of Evil: The Secret History of Sin." It was an international exhibition of stamp art at Columbia College in Chicago. (One of my almae matres) Two federal agents took photos of Al Bradtner's "Patriot Act." The art project showed fake 37-cent stamps with a revolver pointed at GWB's head.
Turns out Columbia was the brave school. When the same exhibit was shown at U.W. Green Bay, the chancellor removed Bardtner's work before displaying the exhibition.
-->It only took 'em 600 years dept: In an extreme example of good news-bad news, England has finally removed a law against blasphemy. It is now legal to say "God is an asshole," but it may be illegal to say “Satan is a homo.”
See, the same law that allows blasphemy, makes “free” speech illegal if it "incites hatred against gays." It also makes “free” press illegal if it includes "violent pornography." The law punishes possession, as well as creation of such material. Ouch!
-->Keith Dobson from York PA sent me a bunch of clippings from the local paper. My favorite is about the arrest of Janet Brannon in Delhi Illinois. What was she doing? Tending bar... in the nude. The charge was "public indecency."
Seems, however, that nobody actually complained about her bartending. The cops just discovered it on a "routine check."
I say some cop missed getting a blowjob THAT week.
-->Maybe the bartender shudda been dancing dept: The Iowa state attorney general's office asked the Iowa Supreme Court to review a judge's ruling that nude dancing is a legal "art form."
Seems like the lower court judge ruled that a strip club was protected under a law allowing nudity in relation to art.
I say some judge GOT a blowjob that week.
-->Funny if true dept: I got a postcard from a save-Tibet group. I don't know if its true, but it's so close to THE ONION that I believe it.
According to this postcard, on September 1, 2007, China passed a law that says, "all Tibetan Buddhist teachers, including the Dalai Lama, cannot be reincarnated without the permission of the Chinese government."
Talk about totalitarian! Yowsah!
--> AMNewYork reports that Serita Armstrong, a former Brooklyn traffic agent, has sued the NYPD. Why? Undercover narcotics cops, cuffed, frisked and arrested her because she "blocked their access to crullers and chocolate glazed.”
When she told them she was a traffic cop, they arrested her for “impersonating an officer.” The Brooklyn DA latter dropped all charges against Armstrong. Who knows what happened to the charges against the cops?
-->Not all cops are donut thugs dept: Cook County Sheriff, Tom Dart, ordered his deputies to stop evicting people from foreclosed property.
"Many people we've helped throw out on the street are just renters," he said. "We will no longer be a party to something that's so unjust."
Yeah Tom! This donut's for you!
-->Thanks dept: My pal and Howard Stern look-alike, Stewart Brodian is a DJ on WDIY, an NPR station in Pennsylvania. He loves playing indie music on the air-- especially if you're from PA! So send him CDs, rip one if you don't have one handy. He's at POB 1253, Easton PA 18044.
S tew invited me and my pal Sid Yiddish (the famous shofar-blowing-throat-singer) to his show in October. After what we did, I hope he still has a show in November.
You can go to Mykel's homepage for lots of other interesting, weird stuff.