I wrote this article a couple days before being robbed in Manizales, Colombia. Still, nothing changes and this post is still valid. But it has taken on a new meaning for me.
After visiting Venezuela, many people have asked me how it was. But it’s not like a “how was it” question. It’s like a “how did you survive” question.
It’s a bit late, but I think this story of two extremes perfectly summarizes Venezuela and even all of Latin America to some extent.
When I was in Caracas, on one of my sightseeing days I decided to check out the national theater. While in El Salvador, I had the good fortune of going into the national theater and seeing some musicians practicing.
I took the metro to Bellas Artes. My friend told me that this was kind of the unofficial border between where it was safe and where it was unsafe. He recommended I check it out since the art museum is there and it’s generally a pretty area of the city.
I arrived and checked out the art museum (just the outside.. I am not a big fan of art) and the other nice buildings in the area. I asked someone where the national theater is and they said I could get there by walking straight down the road I was on.
I passed a metro station, then another.. Pretty soon I was two metro stations into what my friend said was a dangerous part of the city. Partly conditioned by this warning and partly uncomfortable by the poverty and shady characters I kept on noticing, I decided it was probably a good time to turn around and forget about the national theater.
Upset that I was giving up at 10am, I went into a coffee bar to have some coffee and rest since I had been walking uphill in the heat. I went in, had some coffee, and felt better about my decision to give up and head back to the safe part of the city.
When I was paying at the cash register on my way out, I asked the cashier if the national theater was close. If I was just around the corner from it, it would be a bit silly to give up at this point.
Within five seconds, it became the topic of discussion for the six other men in this small, living room-sized bar. They explained that it was several more streets up the hill and then a few to the left. And that it was unsafe to go there by foot..
My first savior explained I could catch a bus on the corner that would take me up the hill and I could ask the bus driver to drop me off at the theater, or as close to it as possible.
My second savior said it was better just to take a taxi. It’s not far away so it won’t be expensive, and it’s safer. He would help me catch one and negotiate a price so I don’t get ripped off and charged the 25-50% Gringo surcharge.
My third savior offered to drive me there himself in his car.
In the end, I still decided to turn around and caught the metro close by. But for me this story beautifully illustrates so much about Venezuela and Latin America.
Given the bad security situation in so many countries in Latin America, everything is based on trust. Call a friend a cabron in Mexico or a marica in Colombia or a coño in Venezuela and it’s social proof you are good friends. Call a stranger one of these words in the respective countries and you might be inviting a fist in your face.
This idea of confidence is deeply embedded. I often approach random people on the street when I feel it’s a safe situation, or inside a store when I feel it’s unsafe, and ask for directions or help or whatever. On the street, people often have their guard up. They might not stop if I approach them, or they might start walking when I do address them. It’s embedded and they do it out of concern for their safety.
But meet the same person as the guest of a friend on Christmas Eve and the guard comes down and you can talk heart to heart, soul to soul.
The point is that there is always some embedded anxiety about people you don’t know and what their motive is. I am not suggesting that people are walking around with butterflies in their stomach. It’s just something embedded within that they probably don’t even realize exists.
I am on the bus from Bogota to Manizales right now as I write this and the same thing happened. The bus stopped at a restaurant which is normal on long-haul rides. I got off the bus and asked a lady standing there if we were stopping for lunch. It was possible, though not likely, they stopped to let passengers off and they’d keep going. Instantly, the lady looked down to see her purse since she put it on the ground in front of her. Disarmed that I’m not a robber, she answered my question with a smile.
In Latin America I have found some of the nicest people who would go completely out of their way to prevent you from experiencing one second of hardship or frustration. I have also found some of the rudest and coldest people I’ve ever met.
I think my story in the coffee bar in Venezuela illustrates this perfectly. As a patron drinking my coffee, I was a random person, potentially a “bad guy”, etc. Once it became clear I was not only not a threat, but I needed help and was a visitor, my three saviors appeared after the cashier offered it up as the topic of discussion for the next couple minutes. Confidence, in some way, had been achieved and I got to see the best of Latin culture at work.
I saw the same thing in Guatemala City when the nicest guy there completely went out of his way to help me since the city is dangerous, as I found out later when someone tried to rob me. It was too early to realize all this though.
The rest of South America may change my opinion. It may be different from what I’ve seen so far. But maybe I can change as well and figure out ways to bring out the best of Latin culture in the people I meet. [Note: I wrote this two days before getting robbed again. What I wrote here still holds true, though as a future post will illustrate, this second robbery did affect me in a way I didn’t realize and helped me see in a different way why so little confidence exists among people.]