Ode to the country in my memory

“From Cotiza To Petare”. Caracas by Teresita Cerdeira. Buy this print here.

I’m closing in on a year and a half of American life, and there is no leaving my “Venezuelanism” behind. It’s not just that it is impossible to live in Florida and not find another expatriate around –heck, the two workers ripping the wall on my apartment to fix it as I write this are Venezuelans– nor that I keep a healthy Twitter feed made up almost exclusively of my countrymen. It’s because I’m hanging on to it with both hands and a couple of teeth.

Crazy, I know. I mean, you already moved here, why would you want to hang on to something that just isn’t there anymore. This is something that many people have told me. Y. –it’s not enough to just call her “GF” anymore– works with a lady that refuses to say she’s Venezuelan to anyone. Some have even gone so far as telling me that, once they’ve established themselves abroad, they’re giving up their Venezuelan citizenship.

I can understand that. I truly do. Being a Venezuelan nowadays is one of the hardest things. Joanna Hausmann showed it ever so eloquently in her latest video. “You feel like you’re on a tight rope (…) with a sumo wrestler on the other end, and you don’t wanna fall, but you kinda do wanna fall…” Being a Venezuelan, be it that you’re living abroad or still at home, is a constant challenge in keeping your sanity. Heck, your sense of humor. It’s dealing not only with the craziness of the country –the blackouts, the crime, the scarcity, the general despair– from within or without, it’s dealing with the assholes that benefit from it, the tools that try to minimize it, the jerks that don’t care about it even as they call you their friend, and the well-meaning souls that don’t understand and to whom you try to explain for the umpteenth time –because you don’t want to feel so lonely on this, because loneliness feels like the slow lane to madness.

Except I truly don’t want to stop being Venezuelan. I don’t want to let go. Venezuela is more than just my country, my other home, my origin story. It’s my identity, my good side. It’s a whole lot of good things surrounded by bad things that sometimes stain them, like soot coming off an industrial chimney, but eventually find themselves clean again as they toss and tumble inside my memories.

Venezuela is Caracas, the capital, where I lived and grew up most of my life. It was walking through the Sabana Grande Boulevard, looking for an arcade where I could kill a few hours, or that cool Metallica or GnR T-shirt, plus an obscure CD that you could show off like a hidden treasure, while avoiding the myriads of street peddlers that tried to sell you everything from belts to notebooks to used books –which you of course bought. They were all right as long as they didn’t take up every single space (which they did) and you could avoid being robbed (which I could). It was watching those 50s-era signs that were taken away, an effort to erase a city’s memory, but were forever there.

Caracas was Los Palos Grandes, the one place for which I would have traded my childhood neighborhood, if only to say I lived the life of a sybarite. It was its every restaurant at every corner, a café in every block, a bookstore everywhere. It was its closeness to our Avila mountain to the north, and Francisco de Miranda Park (Parque del Este for everyone else) to the south, made it an urban sandwich between the best greenness the capital offered.

Caracas was downtown, even though it was rough to move there and even rougher to remember. Powerful buildings filled with powerful men were dotted on the outside by the poorest, the downtrodden, the strugglers. There was hatred in the “Hot Corner” where the “glories” of the Revolution were screamed out to anyone who heard it, whether they wanted to or not, right next to the love of a young couple who snuck in a midday kiss, or families who came to see the resident sloth, surrounded by the inky black squirrels, a miniature parallel to the city around them, all at the shadow if the statue of the man who basically made Venezuela possible. It was the National Pantheon, where said man laid forever, as well as others who gave their own to make our country what it is, bad and good. It was tiny crevasses where you could find the best juices, the best chicha, the best “alternative” clothes. It was so much history –Congress, the Cathedral, the House of Culture– before men came who, again, wanted to erase that history.

Caracas was going up to our mountain, El Avila. “The painters, the palettes, how many a poet’s pen, how many eyes found a moment of solace”, the song said.

Caracas was also the starting point for so many trips. Quick ones to La Guaira, my closest beaches. The trip through those first tunnels. The mountainside pock-marked with shacks, making sure poverty is a constant reminder. The first time you see the ocean, jumping up and down. The boulevards. The beach vendors. Stopping for ice and a hot empanada breakfast. That first dip in cold Caribbean waters, hoping to drain problems away. The parade of beautiful bodies for all tastes, the beers, the pastelitos, the other beers. The long drive home, hoping quietly that you can beat the traffic and the marauders that might do you harm, or the eternal wait for the bus ride home which feels like a cross-country trip through bandit country.

And Venezuela still is so much more. I just didn’t live through enough of it.

My love-at-first-sight moment with Maracaibo, Venezuela’s “coldest city”, because you need air conditioning everywhere to fight the almost constant 90ºF temperatures, filled with what could be the funniest, warmest people in the country.

My quick but memorable trips to Valencia and Maracay that felt like going to a next door’s neighbor. The gardens, the beaches, the friends, the lovers. The pastures filled with cows, and oxen, and buffaloes. The lusciousness of Henry Pittier National Park. The absolute spectacle that is Morrocoy, a group of islets and islands that spread across the Aragua coast like peaches on a tree. The field that commemorates the Battle of Carabobo, where independence was finally won. The birthplace of one of the world’s best rum, where you can also play paintball or ride the country’s last working steam locomotive.

Venezuela is also the Pearl of the Caribbean, Margarita Island. Two weeks of family and not-so-family vacation. The cheap liquor, thanks to the words “free port”. The casinos and night life. Again, the beautiful bodies, from all over the country and the world. The miles of beautiful beaches. The coconut shakes, the cachapas. The best empanadas in the country, in the middle of a market full of offers and hagglers. Breathtaking mangrove canals. It’s visiting a fishing village just to see the salt of the earth, but part of the sea. It’s seeing the colors of people who have lived the island life and just began to learn how to treat tourists.

Venezuela is the Andes, with tiny and beautiful little villages all across the highland moors, with our own breed of dog, big, hardy floofs called Mucuchies. The kindest people on the planet, too quick to offer some coffee for the cold while they get ready to ride their mules. Venezuela is also desert, in the Dunes of Coro (Médanos), a vast sand extension that makes you expect a Sphinx rise from within, a few minutes away from even more gorgeous beaches. Venezuela is also land of cowboys, the llaneros, men’s men, one with the wilderness that surrounds them, filled with the legends of dead murderers and murdered women. And Venezuela is also the deepest jungles, surrounding the Orinoco river, second only to the Amazon in the continent, “winding like a snake” right through the middle of our beautiful country. And of course, the world’s tallest waterfall, named after an American pilot who crashed there who shared a last name with the angels, leaving this piece of heaven on our land.

Venezuela is all that. Or rather it was. Almost none of what I have described is true anymore, given the current situation. But above all, Venezuela is us. And that has not changed us. Our sense of humor, our dreams of grandeur that sometimes come. Our women and men, our pages, our voices. Venezuela is now one of the biggest countries in the world, because there are Venezuelans all over the world. The United States, Colombia, Spain, Canada, Italy, Peru, Germany, Australia, Japan, even Eritrea and Siberia. There are very few countries that haven’t heard the word “Venezuela”, and although it comes from heartbreak, I’m sure we try and say it with a smile.

I write these words and I wonder when will I see my country again, and under what circumstances. A joyous one, like a new baby. Or a sad one. Or just… one. I wonder if I will ever be able to stand at the foot of Angel Falls, or bathe in the waters of Los Roques. And as I feel what the Portuguese call saudade creep into me –a sad happiness, as it was once described to me, or a fond melancholy– I say it doesn’t matter.

I am Venezuelan, and proud of it.

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