During a quick chat from the Houston airport, I received some sage advice from my wife; take everything one day at a time and things will start getting better. I married a very smart girl, and at that point it was exactly what I needed to hear. Especially since I still had more than half of a very long journey ahead of me.
Little things started to go my way the moment I got on the plane to Caracas. I found my seat and there was a woman sitting in it. Now I normally like to have a window seat, but I saw that she was taking her shoes off… this meant that I was free to take my shoes off, and I knew that would help me relax a little. So I sat down in one of the other two seats. We smiled at each other, and then both began to look expectantly towards the front of the plane. Boarding was almost complete, and although most of the flight was filled, there was still an empty seat between us. It was almost five long minutes before the cabin door was sealed shut, and we both breathed a slightly less than discreet sigh of relief; the extra seat was ours!
With the seating arrangements out of the way, and with my shoes off, I leaned over to ask the woman next to me if she spoke English. She did not. However, between the two of us we were able to discuss briefly who we were, where we lived, and why we were going to Caracas; one of us was headed home while I was leaving mine.
A sleepless flight, a small bite to eat, and we were on the ground in Caracas. Now, the directions I received on checking in for the Santa Barbera flight to El Vigia did not mention the gentlemen that I met immediatley on the other side of the door into the National Airport. I was immediately accosted. “Where are you going señor?” “Welcome to Venezuela señor!” I tried to reject their services, but what can I say, they were very good at their jobs. Before I knew what was happening I was being quickly whisked away by a team of two, one tall skinny guy with a great smile, and his portly counter part who reminded me of a Venezuelan version of someone out of the Sopranos. I think the large wad of bills that he carried helped make that association… or it could have been the tinted sunglasses and the fact that he never smiled.
I had to show them my ticket to explain where I was going, and from the moment I did that it was all that I could do to hang on to an edge of it! The tall skinny guy grabbed the paper and walked away, me clinging nervously to my only proof that I had a reserved seat of the flight to El Vigia, and I have to say that I was not overly reassured by his constant assurances that “it will be okay, I work here!” I am fairly certain that he did not.
When all was said and done, these gentleman helped me get my ticket from the Santa Barbera counter, helped me get my bag checked, helped me over to pay exit taxes, and exchanged money with me for higher than the “official rate.” Now, this of course all comes for a price: 100,000 Bolivares. Based on the exchange rate I had just received from the mafioso, that meant about $35. Yes, I know that I got taken… to some extent. But in hindsight I am glad that they were there. Their services really did help me. The price is exorbitant, but it basically erradicated (well, at least expidited) a very stressful situation. I had been in Venezuela less than 30 minutes and I could already tell that things worked very differently here. With smiling faces, as much as the mafioso could smile, that sent me on my way with cries of “Enjoy Venezuela!” I of course needed to remind skinny that I had paid him 100,000 B. for his services, but that he had also grabbed the change from the tax counter. With a good natured grin he immediately handed me the change. I laughed and went on my way.
Now, the 11 hour layover seemed ridicuously daunting. The flight had landed before 5 am, and by 6:30 I was sitting in the terminal trying to kill time. There was a T.V. hanging over one of the gates, but I realized incredibly quickly that it only played the same 4 music videos over and over, with something like 8 different commericials randomly interspersed. Definitely not enough to kill 11 hours.
I started to look for the other student who was supposed to be arriving in Mérida at the same time. I have heard that his name is Benjamin Kline. Every time I saw a single twenty-something guy seated at the gate with a bored or distraught look on his face, I was certain that was him. Of course, every time I had gathered up enough courage to go over and introduce myself, a traveling companion would sit down next to him. I felt like I was waiting to meet a blind date. I have still not met him.
The 11 hours eventually passed, and except for a last minute gate change, I boarded the plane to El Vigia without incident.
Here is where the real adventure begins… Read the rest of this entry ?