Sunday, November 24, 1996
Today was the day for my much-anticipated drive to Caracas, a scenic two-hour drive from Valencia. I couldn't visit this country without seeing the capital, after all. We got up very early because we planned to return the rental car to Maracay in the afternoon.
We met up with three of my companion's cousins, young men ages 18-21, at a HUGE shopping mall called CCCT in downtown Caracas. After browsing around this very upscale and very expensive place for a bit, The five of us went bowling. None of us did very well.
Downtown Caracas from CCCT
Later we drove to my companion's uncle's house. He lives in a gated community not far from the city center. Nearly all of the balconies in this neighborhood of high-rise condos were adorned with colorful gardens. This was in stark contrast to the nearby hillside barrios built up with masonry shacks so thick you can't see the ground between them. My companion's uncle spoke some English, and we had a brief but interesting chat over a glass of Scotch.
A view of one of the better neighborhoods.
My companion doesn't like Caracas. She says it is too dangerous. I'm sure it's no Mayberry, but in many respects it seemed like a fairly nice city. I didn't feel I was in any more danger there than I have felt strolling through Atlanta or Miami. Maybe one day there isn't enough to make a judgment call like that, but I just didn't see it - at least downtown.
One of the barrios of Caracas
Caracas definitely does have its share of poverty, and it is quite evident from almost anywhere in the city. The hillsides are packed with makeshift shelters with little or no services. We didn't get a close look, but I wondered if it was even possible to drive through those barrios. The structures seemed to be built so close together, if not on top of each other. I guesed that many were only accessible on foot.
I was supposed to return the car by 5:00, so we headed back toward Maracay in the afternoon. On the way, we stopped at a gas station so I could relieve myself. I deliberately parked far away from the pumps in an attempt to avoid unsolicited road service, but when I returned there were several attendants gathered around the car trying to convince my companion that we had major car problems. They apparently assumed that she didn't know the condensation from the air conditioning caused the puddle under us, and told her we were overheating. Despite her protests, they were adding water and oil when I returned. I couldn't get away without giving them $2.
We arrived in Maracay early enough to visit the park we had been unsuccessful in reaching the other day, but we only had a few minutes there. Aside from the the heavily-armed police, it was very pleasant. Actually, the police were easily persueded. (We didn't even have to "tip" them!) My companion talked them into letting us in after official closing hours, and even got them to agree to let me enter with my camera, as long as I agreed not to use it. This seemed odd, after all it was just a park and not a military installation.
The park was not much more than a wooded area with a stream running through it. It was, I admit, pretty nice compared to others I had seen so far in Venezuela. Groups of teenagers were splashing about in the deeper pools of the stream, and I didn't see any place where we could squeze in. The cops finally blew their whistles and ran us all out.
I'm not fluent in Spanish, but when my companion gave the bum in the parking lot a wad of notes that totaled about twenty cents, I assumed it was in thanks for not stealing or vandalizing the car while we were out. (This was a public parking lot, after all.)
When we arrived at Budget, we found that they closed at 3:00 pm on Sunday. We would have a car for another day.
A security guard from the shopping center came by while we were at Budget and told us about a restaurant across the street that had a nice all-you-can-eat salad bar for $1. He said he would watch the car for us. My companion gave him a tip for this information. It is customary to tip damn near everybody for damn near anything in Venezuela. The food was good, though, and I experimented with some vegetables that I did not know existed.
When we got back to Valencia, my companion picked up a package from her house that she had to ship and dropped it off at Biglow. She knew of another nice outdoor bar nearby, so we sat and watched Venezuelan baseball on TV over a few beers.
Baseball in this country is interesting. There are only about seven teams in the league, and each usually has a couple of former major-leaguers from the USA. They are the only players who make more than a few dollars per game. Advertising during the game is different. Rather than commercials, they show ads in the lower right of the screen. The really weird thing is that many players have corporate logos right on their uniform; Polar, Goodyear, and other things that have nothing to do with baseball. I understand that MLB in The States is considering similar promotions.