Whether I was brave, stupid, complacent, or just careless with a drink is a matter of opinion, all of which I have held at some point. I had been in Merida for a month, and guess I had begun to feel safe and at ease in the now familiar surroundings of the small, friendly, student city. As far as I was concerned I had stared down the barrel of Venezuela’s “dangerous” reputation and it had blinked first. I had proved to myself and the world that the stories were mere Chinese whispers or journalistic exaggerations and that one could quite safely disbelieve the hype. I was, in all honesty, certain that Venezuela was safe.
My complacent, foolish, bravery was manifest in all of my actions on that night. Firstly in carrying my phone with me despite the fact I didn’t even have an operational sim card or any desire whatsoever to take nightclub selfies, and then in walking right past the row of waiting, $0.50 taxi’s that always queued outside Biroska. But most of all in taking the quiet, dangerous, Avenida 2 that ran parallel to “New Town”; the city’s notorious, no-go barrio.
Is backpacking Venezuela safe? The answer is yes… if you avoid certain areas.
Of course, I wasn’t even vaguely conscious of my foolhardiness at the time as I was absorbed in conversation with my partner in crime for the evening, Overflow. In the magic of intoxication (mine on Rum and the night, his on a drug called Overflow) we were busy discussing space & time, rhythm and rhyme, and inevitably the girls of Venezuela, none of whom either of us had managed to convince to escort us home that evening (otherwise I would have treated us all to a taxi). I had been hanging with Overflow for the past few weeks, and from him, I had learned a great deal about vegan recipes, Rastafari culture, and all things way too chic. We must have cut quite a sight strolling around Merida together, me with my “English face” and Britpop swagger, and he with his flamboyant home-made clothes and dreadlocks tied up beneath his turban. I liked to think we must have appeared as Robin Hood and Asim returning from the Crusades, and how apt that we were in a land that for the past 15 years had firmly dedicated itself to the cause of wealth re-distribution.
Whispers in the shadows…
As we headed up the infamous Avenida 2 (we still didn’t realise just quite how infamous it was for at least another 10 minutes or so) Overflow interrupted our conversation with a calm, controlled but evidently concerned, “Dude, these guys have being following us for like the last 2 blocks,” at which point I chanced a sly glance around at two shadowy spectres maybe 20 metres or so behind us. Whether too full of the milk of human kindness or just too swollen with Venezuela’s cheap rum, I downplayed his concerns as paranoia. “No man, they’re just two guys headed home the same as us”. Another block or so further up the long, steep, straight road the street lights and occupied buildings receded into ever darkening streets, shut up shops, and derelict buildings; in short nobody around to hear you scream. At this point, I felt tense and my stomach knot. “Let’s take a right on the next block and run,” Overflow suggested. I nodded in agreement. But it was too late, the distance between us had now closed and I could hear footsteps rapping against the pavement as if to match the beating of my racing heart that was now pounding against my chest. At this point, Overflow deployed his first line of defence. He began shouting an unintelligible, creole monologue, angrily ranting at the sky in a hyperbolic Rasta accent borrowed from his childhood in Jamaica, as if channelling the raging spirit of a deranged Yardy screaming furiously into some abyss. I was impressed. He had stepped into character instantaneously, his crazed eyes threatened a dangerous madness and bulged as he screamed. Even I was scared despite the fact that I knew the guy and knew it was just an act!
And it worked. Well, to an extent it worked as the duo both headed towards me. They were kids, 16, 17, or 18 at a push, clearly thin and malnourished beneath loose hooded tops. The opportunity for flight had passed. “Donde eres?” (Where are you from?) the taller of the two probed in a pretty vain masquerade of friendliness. “La Inglaterra” I deadpanned back maintaining firm eye contact determined to betray no fear or intimidation. Then the other grabbed for my necklace (a cheap rosary purchased in Colombia and assured to grant me protection…) and tore it from my neck. As it shattered to pieces, his partner brandished a knife – a black rounded handle of maybe 3 inches, and a thin pointed blade of maybe 3 more. As he menaced it towards me adrenaline set burning through my veins, and I swore it almost seared the skin from within. I could hardly even form the words in my mind let alone get them through my quivering lips, “Tranquilla!” (Take it easy) I suggested. They continued advancing towards me, encircling me, the second man now holding a bottle up ready to bring it down. “So I’m actually being robbed in Venezuela…this is how it feels eh?” was somewhat curiously my only thought. “TU TELEFONO!” they demanded. I reached into my pocket and handed my phone over. Then, “TU DINERO! at which point I handed over my wallet. Satisfied with this bounty they turned around and hastened back down the road.
The chase is on…
To concede a cliché, it had all happened so quickly. I found myself backed up against a doorway some 15 metres from where the invasion had commenced. Somehow amidst the adrenaline rush, I had unconsciously back peddled away from the weapons as the survival instinct kicked in. “Dude do you wanna get your stuff back?!” Overflow suggested. By now his rage was genuine, and I have to say pretty fucking inspiring, so I escalated my own to match him. “Fuck yeah!” We sprinted down the road after our assailants. They heard our footsteps and made a quick glance around before running themselves, clearly taken by some surprise. “AARRRGGH YOU FUCKERS!” we screamed after them as we sped back down the Avenida.
As our pursuit continued, one of them threw my wallet back, and I crouched to scoop it up from the floor, hardly even slowing my pace. The cash had gone, but it was only 500 or so Bolivars ($3 dollars at the time), and my cards were all there. Overflow and I are both pretty quick, but these kids were lean, desperate, and had a 20 metre head start. We were gaining ground slowly but were in luck as a beat up taxi shuffled up beside us. “Get in!” the driver gestured clearly all too familiar with the aftermath of street crime, and perhaps happy to support a venture at some long overdue vigilante justice. We jumped inside and perched on the once proud, plush back seats, now looking sorry and wretched with the material falling off.
Each of us held onto a rusty metal door latch, praying it wouldn’t break off as had happened in Venezuelan taxi’s before, ready to leap out the cab and on to the villains as soon as we got up beside them. The kids were quick, but they were no match for a grunting but stubbornly functional 30 year old American engine fuelled by free petrol and righteous anger. In no time we were on them. We were now so close we could have swerved onto the pavement and taken their legs from beneath them had the driver been so inclined (and had I not just had my cash stripped I could have offered him 100 Bolivars to do just that).
The taxi slowed and we dived out but it was too late, they had taken a right, cut through the gate and descended down the steps into the barrio that squatted sadly in the valley right in the heart of Merida city. “We can’t go in there man” I stated. Overflow didn’t even need to vocalise his agreement. As we stood there catching our breath and cursing our timing as much as cursing the little fuckers who had just robbed me, a figure emerged from the shadows around the gate, a wraith of a man, perhaps in his early 40’s but evidently burdened by the years. He was thin with long arms, his clothes hanging around him being somehow too big for him. In fact, even his own body seemed to not quite fit him. He was cross-eyed, and though he was tall his back was bent and crooked. His whole being suggested a lifetime of hardship.
“What have they taken?” he enquired. Overflow’s Spanish was better than mine so he took the lead. As their conversation continued, I scanned the area noticing further shapes shuffling in the shadows around the barrio entrance. It became clear that they were effectively the elder statesmen of the ghetto and laid down the law (or rather their law) in the absence of any police presence down there. They offered to broker the return of my phone for 500 Bolivars. As my cash had been taken this would mean returning back to our posada, peeling another 500 from the brick wall of Bolivars I had hidden in my room, and returning. The whole notion, whilst economically tempting, felt dangerous and foolish. By this point, I was well and truly sober (a brisk robbery and consequent pursuit does wonders to bring one around), and not liking the idea. My instincts for danger had returned and I did not trust the guy at all and trusted less the 4 or 5 ghouls still haunting shadows.
One of them emerged and approached us as if naturally responding to some unspoken command from his master. He was young, he looked fit and healthy, and gave the impression of having seen the inside of a jail. He joined the conversation which I was still struggling to understand, and showed Overflow his phone, directing him towards to a photograph. It then became clear what was being said; “Don’t do anything foolish like bring the Police because we don’t use knives; we use guns, and here is a picture of me with my gun”.
We intimated that we would consider their offer, and headed away checking every block to make sure we were not being followed. We were home 20 minutes later, and 30 minutes later I was asleep. The next day in my journal I simply recorded “Got robbed last night! Another box ticked on the great South American adventure”. Since arriving in Merida locals had consistently offered vague advice such as “be careful” without actually articulating what this meant in practice, so it was some annoyance when every one of them now retrospectively clarified this and stated the now all too damn obvious fact that, “Oh you should NEVER walk up Avenida 2 after dark!”
When I tell people in England this story they seem more freaked out than I was, their eyes widen in disbelief and shock. “Oh I wouldn’t fancy going to Venezuela,” they say totally disregarding the abundance of positive things I had also told them about the country. I guess you can’t put a price on the brilliant, life affirming experiences I had there, whereas it’s easy to quantify the loss of a $100 phone, so that trumps it for most people. For me, I can understand what happened, and therefore I can deal with it. The theft was economically motivated whether by greed or by a genuine need. It was nothing personal; all they wanted was my phone and money, a flake of my perceived wealth as a westerner.
No, instead I’m far more frightened by the mindless violence I see in English towns and cities every weekend, where people hate you and want to hurt you because of your hair, because of the way you dress, the way you speak, or just because you happen to be there. A week after returning home I lost another smartphone (my 3rd in 6 months) after it was broken in a fight I got into with some drunk who attacked me at a cash point for reasons I could never quite work out. A few weeks later my wallet fell out of my trouser pockets (the pockets just are not fit for purpose Topman…) in a nightclub. The wallet was promptly handed in, but my relief and my rejoice in humanity was short lived when I realised the £40 cash had gone, stolen not by a starving desperado from a ghetto, but by a reveller who could evidently afford to frequent a joint where a G & T costs £8. So don’t let this put any of you off visiting Venezuela because although when I return to Venezuela I will be more careful, I will be sure to return.