My Venezuela Story by Molly Gavin (guest writer and my daughter)

Many of us are currently glued to the news whether it be TV, social media or news sources to find out what is happening in Caracas, Venezuela where the people have long been suffering through a true economic and social crisis with between 2-3 million people fleeing the country in the past several years.

I have lived in Peru the last three months and every day I come across many Venezuelan refugees who are taking on any job they possibly can in the service industry and selling items on the streets or performing what they can for money. There is a clean-cut Venezuelan man wearing his national flag baseball hat that I often see walking up and down the boardwalk. You can’t miss him because he only has one leg and he walks on his crutches selling cookies out of a bucket for .30 USD. Another sweet young man, Anthony, who delivers water in my neighborhood felt lucky, gracias a dios, to travel home to Venezuela to see his family over the holidays. When he returned, I asked him how it was and he responded “horrible, completely horrible, but at least I saw my family”. Another young delivery boy fell completely in love with my dog, getting down on the ground to play with her saying she reminded him of his dog at home in Venezuela. It is heartbreaking to hear the stories of families with no food, no money, hyperinflation, separated and current living conditions that I could never imagine.

I have been to Venezuela just one time, in Caracas, for a United Nations (UN) meeting in the first year of my career in telecommunications. I was representing a United States technology company based in Southern California but officially was a formal member of the United States government delegation which the US State Department leads. I was so excited to take part in something as esteemed as a UN meeting.

The date was September 11, 2001. I was 24 years old. I had just arrived in Caracas on American Airlines the previous night and one of my first observations was Hugo Chavez lecturing in one of his infamous long speeches on TV in Spanish; honestly, he did yell a lot but it helped me fall asleep. I remember that morning well. I was in the last stages of getting ready for the meeting, curling my hair in the hotel while watching CNN International on television. I watched in shock as the first tower of the World Trade Center was hit by a plane. They kept showing it over and over. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and thought it was an accident. I kept watching. Then the second tower was hit and the news started to become terrifying.

I remember thinking, the conference is starting now… am I just supposed to go downstairs to work or what do I do? I wasn’t sure how to call my family internationally and since I didn’t know what else to do, I went downstairs. I entered the huge hotel conference room set up United Nations style with all the countries represented and listed alphabetically according to their French spelling. I quickly found the United States delegation and the US State Department head of delegation. She was immediately welcoming and comforting to me especially because I was about her daughter’s age. Soon there were a plethora of other nations/ delegates surrounding us, crying themselves, crying with us, trying to understand what was going on but above all trying to console us.

The presiding head of the conference was from Syria and he started off the event somberly with some very nice words and a two-minute prayer and quiet time for the victims in the United States and for the US delegation here in Caracas. I remember thinking aren’t a lot of these countries supposedly enemies of the US? Not in person they weren’t. The US State Department said that the US Embassy was coming to the hotel and setting up a special room in the hotel for all the US delegates so they could brief us on the situation in the US and we would have a place to go if we needed support.

During the lunch hour of the conference all the US representatives went to the special room which was staffed with many Venezuelans who worked at the US Embassy as well as medical staff from Venezuela. I remember how amazingly nice the Venezuelan people working there were to me that day,; they would come up to hug me, to talk to me, to literally offer me a beer (or Xanax) if I needed it to feel better and genuinely showing all the U.S. citizens a lot of love. I remember thinking if there is any place to get stuck now it might as well be here. The people are beautiful, so nice, caring and fun to top it off.

The political and socioeconomic situation had started to deteriorate by that time in Caracas. People warned me not to stray far from the hotel because it could be dangerous and that inflation had already started to hurt the country. Obviously it was not anything like it is today where families had to split up and leave the country to survive. I remember walking by the Presidential office, el Palacio de Miraflores, and hearing that Hugo Chavez acted like a dictator but I really had no idea. I recall nights of being at the hotel bar in a nice garden environment with all the other US delegates and conference colleagues and feeling comradely and support. The music was great, people were amazing dancers and they were just so friendly, nice and welcoming to us. It is not lost on me how privileged I was and am.

I was lucky as I had emailed my boss Gabriela soon after the towers collapsed and she, a Mexican national, schemed to find the best way to get me back home to the US as soon as possible with many of the borders being shut down or flights cancelled. A few days later I flew from Caracas to Panama City, then to Mexico City and finally to Tijuana. When a company representative picked me up at the Tijuana airport and we crossed the border on foot to the US, I was so happy to be back to my family and grieve together for the tragedy that had affected our country. Today, I think about all the Venezuelan (and Central American and Syrian and on and on and on) families who are split up and just trying to find a way to survive with not a lot of love and support like I received in Caracas.   I’m rooting for Guaido and but most of all I’m rooting for the people of Venezuela.  I’m glad that they are center stage right now and pray the international community comes out to help the people and work with Guaido and the legislature to come out to help the people and support a plan that will kickstart the economy so that the people can begin again to find the quality of life that is humane.

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Eating as an Epicurean

My recent visit to Lima, Peru to see my daughter was a delight to say the least.  She scheduled at least one meal a day at an incredible restaurant….some little holes in the wall, others where I was definitely under-dressed.  Out of the seven stops only one did not include the ceviche (raw fish marinated in citrus juices, chili and onions, served with a side of roasted corn and vibrant sweet potatoes ), along with causa (a potato side-dish beautifully presented in a tower usually with avocado and seafood),and well, of course, the Pisco Sour!  This trip I also tried both the lomo saltado ( a delicious stew) and aji de gallina (creamy chicken in tasty sauce). I highly recommend both!

      

CNN, Bloomberg’s, San Pellegrino as well as other travel magazines have all listed Lima as one of the greatest gourmet cities in the world! Due in part to their diverse food crops and seafood as well as the cultural infusion from many other countries,  the plethora of highly trained chefs have created a city with really really good food! P.S. Robert De Niro  was at one of these places the night before us…apparently I sat in the same chair!

   

 

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Bolivia or Bust?

Well, I’m not going to die trying but I feel like I gave it my all and it didn’t happen. It took two attempts to get the visa as I sent in a copy that wasn’t totally complete. That only cost me 10 days, $160 and the postage for 2 return trips for my passport.

As I had already booked a trip to Peru I had intended to fly from Lima to La Paz and then after a day fly to the Salt Flats in Uyuni. I booked and paid for two different flights on Amaszonas and reserved rooms and tours in both cities.

       
“Due to circumstances beyond my control” Peruvian airlines decided to halt all flights into the La Paz airport from Peru. Apparently there was an incident in November of last year when the landing gear collapsed.  Even though no one was injured that ended my quest to add Bolivia to my list of countries for 2019. I am still waiting to see if I get any of that money back.  I am having a great deal of trouble with the company that cancelled on me, partly because I’m having difficulty understanding the process and I don’t have any international phone access.

Lucky for me, my daughter is living in Peru this winter and I will have a place to stay and I’m sure I’ll discover parts of that city that I have not seen in my previous two visits years ago.

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2018 Additions to my Country Count

This year’s 5 “new” countries need a few asterisks because I counted two of them before as I had either spent time in the airport or somehow passed the border without getting a stamp in my passport.

It was 50 some years ago on my first overseas trip when my Icelandic Airlines stopped for refueling in Reykjavik…it was a prop plane!  This past January I did Iceland up properly, with good food and great adventures from snowshoeing to catching the Northern Lights.

    

And I discovered  that of the “two” Mongolias (outer and inner) I had been to the one before that wasn’t really a country, only part of China.

   

Congo was supposed to be one of the five but according to the GPS info on my photo I missed it by over 100 feet.  Although I was told later that in such rural areas the coordinates may not have been correct.

However, Rwanda, Uganda and Senegal were all legit first-timers!

   

 

Iceland*

Mongolia*  inner and outer

Uganda

 

Rwanda

Congo**

Senegal

 

 

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More Misadventures

Even though most of my travels are free from serious hassles I occasionally get caught in one of those quagmires that threaten to ruin one’s trip.  My return flight from Dakar was scheduled for 11PM and check out time from the hotel was noon….usually in this situation I leave my suitcase with the front desk and venture forth on foot for a few hours of exercise and last-minute site checks. Since I had decided to leave my sneakers and most of my clothes behind for the hotel maids, I settled into a comfortable lobby chair and read a book.  An hour before my ride to the airport I received a text from the airline saying my flight was cancelled.  I checked on-line and discovered that there was only one flight a day.  Whoa, panic started fluttering but I knew the tricks or so I thought.

Unfortunately I do not have an international plan on my phone and What’s App was not connecting to Delta or Air France.  I tried Twitter. I tried Messenger. Finally I texted my daughter and gave her my airline info and requested her to call and get me rescheduled.

She happily reported about 30 minutes later that she had secured flights starting 24 hours from now.  She added that she had requested middle seats way in back next to fellow adventurers who had not showered in days.  I smiled in spite of my angst.

         

The last of my clothes…to be worn for 2 days in a row and the view from my new room.

Not knowing if the airline would reimburse me my expenses I tried being frugal.  I inquired at the hotel if they had a room and they happily reported that they had an ocean view with the buffet breakfast for $475.  I almost choked. I replied that the view and food were not necessary and the price dropped to $350.  Unsatisfied, I  inquired if a near-by hotel might be less expensive, explaining in detail my predicament.  The kind manager offered me one at $185.

     

Breakfast on a budget: a roll left over from dinner. It’s tough to feel too badly when you’ve happened upon one of the largest birds ever!!!

Finished another book and survived a trip where all 3 legs were late leaving, late arriving but somehow managed to get me home….just 24 hours late.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Scene in Senegal

What drew me to Senegal was its reputation as the colorful and musical soul of Western Africa. First, a disclaimer, apparently the music and dancing begin around midnight, an hour I rarely experience outside of dreamland. So I cannot speak to that. But the clothing colors, fabrics and design are evident  everywhere scattered among those who choose to dress in Western garb. The Boubou is a long, light and wide garment worn by both men and women although the female cloth is much more vibrant and often accompanied by a head scarf called a moussar that is tied in many fabulous forms. Because I was being respectful I did not sneak any photos of the many beautiful people I encountered. These pictures are attributed to Afroculture.net.

    

Dakar is a city like many in that it has mosques, churches, big buildings both new and old, and of course more than a few futball stadiums.  I was surprised to discover that the national sport is actually wrestling!

   

     

While the roads seem to be in fairly good shape the sidewalks are either non-existent or cracked and dirty. I would not consider it a walkable city.  The corniche has a long boulevard that stretches along the Atlantic on the West side.  Here you will find many hotels, restaurants and the huge African Renaissance monument, symbolizing Africa’s rebirth and commemorating Senegalese independence.

     

The airport is new and at least 30 miles from downtown. As of yet, the only transportation offered are taxis which supposedly are metered (not) but adhere to the posted tariffs (again, not really).  I made sure that the driver agreed to a price before I got in and I paid the extra money for the good toll road which he took upfront; however, I never saw that road.

   

The tour of Goree island was a haunting  expose of the largest slave-trading center from the 15th to the 19th centuries. It has been called the “memory island” as it has preserved the stories and buildings of this horrific time in the joint European, American and African history.

         

This trip I used miles to stay in a fancy hotel, a promise I made to myself after staying in hostels and tents on my last African trip.  The Pullman was in the city proper, abutting the Atlantic ocean and a couple of blocks from the President’s house!

    

 

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It’s All About the Flight!

Delta advertises its service on their new Airbus 350 as “like flying on a cloud.” Really? This I needed to try. Their service from Los Angeles to Shanghai started a few months ago and they offered 3 different classes, all supposed to be superior to the old 747 that they have retired. Often times one can find a great deal on a new route or new service.  I did just that.

    

The 306 seats include two newer additions to Delta.  The first cabin is actually 32 suites where you can close a door for more privacy and a premium economy section offering a leg rest as well as an amenity kit for those 48 seats.  While this plane has at least 100 fewer seats than the 747, it has been calculated that because the plane is lighter and more fuel efficient it will be more profitable.

    

I thought it was difficult to get in and out of that pod and I’m relatively small. With the door closed it was almost claustrophobic.  However, it’s pretty tough to complain when you can stretch out, actually sleep and watch current movies on a much larger screen!

 

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