I remember the panicked phone call from my mom. It was 2009, and Hubby and I were in Caracas, the world’s most violent city. And while we knew the State Department warned Americans against traveling to parts of Venezuela, we had conveniently neglected to tell her.
But, luckily for us, one of her friends did.
We did our best to reassure my mom. Hubby’s job as a choral conductor has literally taken us around the world, so we’re seasoned travelers. Plus, we were being hosted by Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, one of Latin America’s premier choral ensembles. We were in good hands.
But I’m not gonna lie….. It was intense.
It started the moment we stepped off the plane. Our hosts had been explicit in their warnings. We were not to get into any cab except for the one they hired for us. For the entire trip. Taking a taxi in Caracas is like playing Russian roulette. You might be massively overcharged. Or roughed up a bit. Or robbed blind. Or possibly even murdered.
Once we found our cab we started the drive to Caracas, which can take well over an hour in heavy traffic. Gas is incredibly cheap in Venezuela (when we were there it cost less than $1 to fill a tank), so everyone drives, resulting in heavy air pollution and dangerous traffic. Robbing people sitting in a traffic jam is easier than shooting fish in a barrel.
At our hotel, we were issued more warnings. First, while we were in our room, we were supposed to deadbolt the door, as robberies and kidnappings from hotels weren’t uncommon. And second, we should never go outside when it’s dark. But because Venezuela is equatorial, the sun rises at 6:30 a.m. and sets at 6:30 p.m. Every day, all year long.
As a result, we spent a lot of time in our hotel. Each morning, after sunrise, we walked a couple of blocks to get papayas and cafés con leche for breakfast. These short morning walks were our only unsupervised excursions, and they afforded us a brief glimpse into daily life in Caracas. The street market outside our hotel was a flurry of activity, with vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables, knock-off jewelry and electronics, and second hand clothes. There was even a cage full of live chickens, next to a butchering table, complete with a blood-stained street.
Each evening, we ate non-perishables for dinner in our room, as it was too dark to venture out. We also watched a lot of TV, because, let’s face it, being confined to a small hotel room can get boring. There was one channel in English, and for two weeks straight it aired Big Bang Theory reruns. By the time we left Venezuela, we were (and still are) fully addicted.
An interesting side-effect of being confined to the hotel was getting to spend time with fellow travelers, including a few young athletes playing in a local tennis tournament. And boy, did they have stories. One had all of his belongings stolen from his previous hotel room, and the money and credit cards his parents mailed to him mysteriously never arrived. Another hadn’t paid attention to the warnings about taxis, and the cabbie not only stole all of his things, including his clothes and shoes, but dropped him off in the middle of nowhere, as naked as the day he was born. Most of them decided Venezuela was simply too dangerous, and were leaving for a tournament in Columbia, where it was safer.
Each day, our hosts collected us from the hotel to take us to the university for rehearsal. The drive through the city was shocking….. Countless people sleeping on benches and in the grass…. bathing in park fountains…. and even defecating on sidewalks. And at the same time there were people wearing expensive designer clothing, rushing off to work. I’ve never seen such obvious displays of inequality.
And our time with the choir reinforced these contradictions. Because in the midst of Caracas’ crime, poverty, and chaos, extraordinarily passionate music is being made.
Schola Cantorum is not just a world-class choir. The organization has developed a program for the city’s most vulnerable children, who may not even have access to primary or secondary education. The singers come from a diversity of economic backgrounds, and the choir uses music to encourage social integration.
And they are inspiring. I have never seen so much excitement for art music. It consumed their entire bodies. They just couldn’t sit, or stand, still. It was passionate. Not just for Venezuelan folk music. Classical compositions, too.
We learned later, at an El Sistema youth orchestra concert, that the passion for music extended to the audience. The hall was sold out, and there were even people standing in the aisles. Like the choir, the orchestra performed a diversity of music, with just as much enthusiasm. The audience was so engrossed in the music, they cheered, and clapped, and moved their bodies. It was surreal.
The best part of visiting choirs with Hubbie is this kind of connection with people and their culture. Music is so universal, and so primal, that it can break through all of humanity’s barriers. Friendships are formed, because music can communicate even when language can’t.
Our hosts opened their hearts and homes to us. They introduced us to arepas, yummy cornmeal cakes served with seemingly endless toppings or fillings. They took us to areas of the city that were too dangerous to go alone. They took us on a walk into rain forest.
They also taught us about using money in Venezuela. Normally, we use a credit card when we travel to get the best exchange rate. But in Venezuela it isn’t that simple. Venezuela’s government sets an official exchange rate, which currently is about 10 bolivars per U.S. dollar. But the same dollar buys over 100,000 bolivars on the black market. Thankfully, our hosts warned us in advance to bring dollars for exchange.
Our hosts also kept us safe.
Back in Iowa, once mom learned that Caracas was one of the murder capitals of the world, she started to worry. (And mom is a world-class worrier.) She made the unfortunate mistake of Googling her worst fears, and found them. And more. She learned about express kidnappings, where someone is snatched and taken to an ATM to drain their account, and virtual kidnappings, where someone steals your identity and calls a family member back home to collect ransom money. She discovered the countless ways thieves and kidnappers use to drug their victims, from food and drink to pamphlets laced with disorienting drugs that permeate skin. And the countless pickpocketing and theft scams.
Thus the panicked call. To ease her mind, we decided to set up a phone call, every day at noon. Yes, mom, we’re doing great. Don’t worry.
And then one day…. We forgot to call. We were in rehearsal, engrossed in the music. A couple of hours later someone from the university rushed into the room in a panic. Mom had used her powers of deduction to locate the university number, because she thought someone had taken us.
Oops. Sorry, mom!
I’m glad we didn’t let fear keep us from traveling to Venezuela. We made friends we keep to this day, and have even hosted a few in Massachusetts. They’ve continued to tell us about how the crisis in Venezuela has affected their lives.
So, in the end, nothing happened. We were careful, and we had wonderful hosts. And it was an incredible experience that I’ll never forget.
What about you? Have you traveled to a dangerous city? Leave your experiences in the comments below!