My Spring Break with Hugo Chavez

Puerto Colombia, Venezuela

Our upcoming trip to Peru is not my first South American “rodeo” (that’s Spanish for rodeo, by the way).

No, I’ve actually been to much more dangerous locales in South America. By myself, in fact.

Puerto Colombia, Venezuela
A much younger, poorer, and more naive, Poe.

It was the spring 2001, in what would be my final year at the University of Texas at Austin. It had been a long seven years as an “nontraditional” ie: older student — beginning with basic classes at the community college (a few of which were actually transferable); many remedial algebra classes that allowed me entry into my one liberal arts math class entitled “Math: Spirit and Use,” which I subsequently failed and had to take again during summer school; and finally, eventually, graduation with a bachelor’s in journalism.

Along the way there had been many, many part-time jobs and other money-making schemes to pay my non-parentally-subsidized bills (including participation in a handful of medical studies that paid very well, possible long-term effects notwithstanding).

To say I was burned out and exhausted is an understatement. By that final year, I—the nontraditional student—was determined to have at least one typical college experience: spring break.

Bullfighting in Venezuela
I love this picture, including the fact that I’m barely in it, but mostly because Jesus is having a rough day as a bullfighter.

Flush with student loans, I walked into the Student Travel Agency on Guadalupe, looking for sundrenched beaches, flowing alcohol in neon colors, and irresponsible behavior on full display. All for under $400.

I asked about Mexico. I was told I was too late. Everything for Mexico was already booked. I inquired about Belize. Nope. More than $400. I queried about Guatemala. Alas, it was beyond my budget AND all the flights were already full.

So, where could I go, I asked my erstwhile STA agent.

After a few minutes of keyboard clacking, she said she had a ticket to Caracas for $386.

“Where is Caracas?”

“Venezuela.”

“What’s it like?”

“I have no idea. I’ve never been.”

“OK. I’ll take it.”

I then went down the street to a Barnes and Noble to buy a guidebook on Venezuela.

Venezuela is actually a very, very beautiful country, particularly the coast line. And when I went in 2001, it wasn’t quite the dictator-ey place that it is now.

bullfight in Maracay, Venezuela
Maybe not dictator-ey, but still pretty violent. A bullfight in Maracay.

For one thing, Hugo Chavez was just starting his second term as president and the relationship between the U.S. and Venezuela was still very much in a “wait and see,” kind of mode. That pretty much ended in late-2001, when Chavez began nationalizing some key industries, particularly oil. Which, of course, ticked off foreign entities who were already operating in Venezuela.

So I actually went to Venezuela at just the right time. I can’t even fathom undertaking such a journey in 2013. Even with my personal bodyguard/human bullet shield-for-life, XFE by my side.

It wasn’t a perfect trip by any means. My Spanish was lackluster even back then, which made arguing over the proper amount I should pay for a death-defying 3 hour bus ride from Caracas to Choroni (answer: you should pay the going rate plus a box of diapers. You will need them since you will crap your pants on the switchbacks and narrow dirt “roads” overlooking cliffs littered with other, not-so-lucky buses.)

A bus in Venezuela
The bus driver blared some very percussion and horn heavy music the entire time. It was explained to me that this was so you couldn’t hear the brakes squealing on every turn.

Also: I did not expect that there wouldn’t be any banks in the tiny seaside town of Puerto Colombia (or anywhere nearby for miles and miles). Since I was terrified of carrying large amounts of cash while travelling alone, I was fully expecting to withdraw money for my stay in PC. Luckily, PC was so incredibly cheap and I had just enough cash on me to make it through the four days at my very inexpensive hostel.

I also, quite expectedly, got severely sunburned on my very first day at the beach in Puerto Colombia and had to retreat into my cooler, yet still unconditioned room. Do I even need to mention that this bare-bones room had no television or other diversions?

For entertainment, I even went hiking in a nearby Henri Pittier State Park (grateful for the shade), but beat a hasty retreat when I got spooked by the scary animal noises. Dora the Explorer, I am not.

The state of my sunburned skin also led to my nickname throughout the tiny town: La Langosta.

Miss Venezuela
La Langosta and Miss Venezuela 2000 Eva Ekvall. Tragically, she died after a two year battle with breast cancer in 2011. She was only 28.

But, I emerged relatively unscathed, perhaps even a bit more travel savvy. I got comfortable talking to other people, and became more open to their help and suggestions. Sure beats treating everyone like they’re out to rip you off. That’s just exhausting.

I also got comfortable with myself, trusting that nothing is insurmountable. You can figure out a bus schedule, including transfers, in another language, even if you’ve never had to do any of those things before.

I learned to laugh at myself a little bit and join others when they’re laughing at the ridiculous redheaded, sunburnt lobster-person walking down the street.

bus rider
Nice cross body ticket holder there, Poe. Just like a local.
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