Homesick in Caracus

Trip Start Sep 28, 2007
Trip End Jun 25, 2008

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Flag of Venezuela  ,
Friday, November 30, 2007

We had an early flight to Caracas via San Jose (not on the way clearly but all cheaper flights in South America take you on tiki tours.) We bunked down at the airport all evening, looking wistfully through to the shiny  duty free area denied us without a boarding pass.

When we could finally check in at 3.30am the lady at the desk bewildered us with a Spanish monologue of which we understood one word: manaņa (tomorrow). We then had to ask her questions in Spanish to try and work out what was going on:
Us: Can we still go today?
Her: Yes
Us: But there is also a flight tomorrow?
Her: Yes
Us: Is the flight tomorrow
direct to Caracas?
 Her: No.

At that point we all gave up and she processed our flights for us as though there had been no conversation.

Later I realised what I should have asked was, 'has the airline overbooked the flight and do you want volunteers to stay in a swanky hotel for the night on the company and take  the same flights tomorrow?' But my Spanish isn't up for that anyway.

The problem we face is that Spanish speakers seem unable to speak slowly or use simple constructions. The airline lady had asked if we spoke Spanish first, but when we had said only a little, that was a green light for her and she began blabbering as though we were fluent. 

It has been a real eye-opener for me and I aim to do better  when speaking to people who do not know English well from now on. So, the recipe is to slow down, use simple words, put gaps between words and not be afraid to give one-word answers. If one phrase doesn't get understood once or twice, don't just repeat it again, try some different words . Use a smile as a softener not a lot of waffle when the answer is 'no'.  Imagine how confused you would get if you asked for a room in a language you didn't speak much of and the answer was, 'gee, it's very unusual for this time of the year, maybe if you had come yesterday we could've sorted something out, or tomorrow, we have space available tomorrow but tonight, I'm sorry.'

Our second perplexing conversation was when we arrived at Caracas and were being told it was $50US to take a taxi to the centre but $25 for the same official car if we changed money. What?!

Naive as we were, we soon learned about the black market and what creates the situation: the government uses an official cash rate that greatly overvalues the Venezuelan  dollar. Venezuelans can't exchange currency without government permission, so there is a huge black market for foreign currency, especially US dollars.

The official rate is 2150 bolivars for one US dollar, but you can get 5000 bolivars or more on the black market.

As a tourist you are screwed as you will get the puny official rates if you change travelers cheques or use  credit cards, but tour companies or hotels offer trips and rooms in US dollars or bolivars using the black market conversion rate, as that is closer to the true value.

Too bad we found this out when we arrived and didn't have heaps of US cash, despite coming in from Panama where they use it and could have been flush.

All the accounts of how dangerous Caracas is had us scared so we wanted to leave as soon as possible. Not wanting to face the city as it was getting dark, we stayed out near the airport.

We stayed  in an aging hotel next to the ocean with transport to and from the airport included.  Using official rates it was over $100US but would be $45US using black market rates.

It felt like it was built to be quite grand but had failed to be popular, as no other hotels had gone  up around  it to turn the empty industrial area into somewhere people want to stay. It had large barbed wire fences and gates, a jaded bar and restaurant and a half-filled salt water pool of questionable quality (it had what looked like oil sheens, algae and foam.) Mark walked in and straight out, slowed by the lethally slippery tile surface while I did a few more laps careful not to put my head under.

They had lots of staff sitting around doing nothing. They told us it wasn't safe to leave so we felt like we were in a prison. It was such a depressing place.  When we asked about ordering in pizza it was going to cost over $35US. For the first time in over two months I started feeling homesick, plus had my first dose of travelers diarrhoea and a slight fever.


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