I read from my favorite novel: “Distract— to disturb or trouble greatly in mind; beset:”
This taxi driver is in fear for his life, and probably our’s too for that matter. It is a standard reorientation, one hour off the plane and we’re back in the heart of where we live. We have been gone for a month and this nation is making sure we have not forgotten its charms.
American Airlines drops us off in Aruba because the internationals aren’t flying in or out of Venezuela (a while back) due to insoluble currency exchange disagreements and assorted complexities. After three weeks in the Rockies and a few days on the beach, we check our baggage at Queen Beatrix International at Oranjestad and wait for the commuter.
This time the airline is only one hour late in departure but we applaud for the delay is far shorter than expected…we’ve waited 6 hours for these over-worked and poorly equipped companies when they might have only one functional airship on the line to cover three far-flung routes. We do not get any of the usual entry visa immigration forms on the plane but the attendants serve us a thorough ebola-esque health questionnaire to fill out en route. No, we are perfectly healthy. No, we haven’t been in Africa recently nor do we know anyone who has been.
Forty minutes out from Aruba we descend, get level, skim the coast line and touch down on the pitted concrete runway of Simon Bolivar International in Maiquetia just meters south of the Caribbean and about 30 km north of Caracas. The forms are gathered by public health workers as we deplane. Even without entry visas passport control is a cakewalk.
Our usual taxi driver, a neighbor, is unavailable so he sends his friend to get us…a newer taxi, but still the generic small white, cramped, econo-Toyota, or econo-Chevy. It is 5 p.m. when we leave the airport, rush hour across the globe, so our man suggests that we take a short cut via the Old Road, Camino Viejo, the original road, that has run since antiquity through passes in the precipitous Coastal Range from the sea to Los Teques where we live. The mid-50s completion of the multi-lane, multi-tunnel autopista, Caracas to Maiquetia on the coast, transformed the route into the “old road.” But this is the time of day when the narrow tunnels into and through the city clog into bottlenecks of fumes, delays and frustrations. The driver tells us that El Viejo is a safe route while the sun is still in the sky. Marianthi and I, knowing the 5 p.m. autopista, agree though we’re dubious. I know those who would not take El Viejo in the best of high noon conditions. It is narrow, winding and poorly maintained and occasionally features impromptu, boothless, stations where unemployed men exact tolls for passage through a barrio.
The wide streets through the industrial districts of Maiquetia above the airport are free of traffic and swift but when we reach the narrow El Viejo as it rises into the highlands things are slow and pinched and finally we come to a full standstill first in a haphazard commercial stretch through a shadowy barrio. Here women cut hair and do nails in what was once the entry way to their house or the house of a cousin. And where dish detergent, beer and orange juice, chicharones and fried pastalitos stuffed with dry white cheese, or ham and cheese, or shredded chicken, shredded beef, or pulled pork are sold through slits in barred doors like food being served in the lock-down cell pods of a prison. We wait 15 minutes for things to move but they don’t. We are beginning to be uncomfortable, more and more.
It is dark by now, and though normal civilians, school kids and housewives and workers coming home are still on the street their ranks are thinning in the darkness and the motorizados are starting to fly like nocturnal hornets, screaming with voices or horns past all of our stalled cars, back and forth, flaunting their mobility.
Eventually an unseen vehicle ahead leaves the procession and we idle forward a car length. In this manner, three or four times, we edge out of the barrio and into what the driver says is a slaughter house district. Broad, dark concrete buildings nudge up to the curbing on both sides of the road. I can barely make out a great tree overhanging the pavement ahead when the motorizados flash underneath. The driver calls in about the stoppage on his cell phone and gets no reply. He keeps looking here and there as if he is cornered, craning to see ahead, he is as they used to write, “sore beset.” This is not where any of our three want to be because we all know the stories; highway robbery, homicide. It only takes two armed motorizados and one dormant car. And we are dormant and there is darkness with big suitcases under the hatch in the back, one in a rear seat, two fair haired passengers who are obviously not Criollo—the privileged ethnicity of the barrios. We tell him it would be for the best if we return to Maiquetia. He agrees but there is no place to turn around, trapped between two other vehicles, no side streets, no driveways, only a road barely wide enough for two cars to pass. Then on the far edge of our vista a car jiggles back and forth six or eight pinched repetitions into an acute U-turn down hill, passes us and quits the situation. And then another a few cars ahead follows the first leaving us room to maneuver our escape…silent relaxation.
Soon the driver hears via his cell phone that the stoppage is because the people in a barrio a few hundred meters up the road are blocking passage, probably with burning tires, because they had not had any electricity in their homes for days and we could have been there deep into the night. We do not know until later how frightened the driver has become, we believe far more so than the two of us.
The short-cut through Camino Viejo is a bust but the tunnels through Caracas are almost entirely clear by now. The usual jams that are always there to be navigated no matter the hour remain but feel negligible. We cut off from the Autopista del Oeste onto the old Carretera Panamericana and mount the switchbacks up into Los Altos Mirandinos (the Miranda Highlands) and we are home by 7 p.m.
Felino the Ocicat I rescued from abandonment as a barely weanable kitten three years ago, is ecstatic when he comes back from his hunt through the jungle below the house and can hardly contain himself. He curls between us on the bed and sleeps the sleep of a righteous cat. And then we sleep late and righteous ourselves. Later we clean up the incidentals and gifts that filter down into the bottom of the luggage and are found only at the end of a month-long expedition. The new stuff that we bring in finds a near-reasonable space to occupy in the casita.
And on first going out I spot a slick little black snake, 10 inches long, trying to wiggle under the door into an adjoining neighbor’s place. It has a small wound on its side and Marianthi suspects it is another cat’s homecoming gift to us that for no fault of its own has been misdirected. I slip a fireplace shovel underneath it and gently flick it back into the tall grass below the house.
And so I guess that we are home.
This is what the novel says is the most common usage of the word: “Distract— to draw away or divert, as the mind or attention.”
There always hangs a story on a shortage in this land—auto battery shortage is in fashion now and thus things are running late today, I can’t even stop to read my email. Yesterday the distraction; our battery died when we’re going out to the everyday errands. Because the tenants are early to work and they were all gone and we all live behind walls and a gate where few are allowed entry our ride laid there dead for a day, the errands diverted to today.
This morning is still dark when Juan gives us a jump start off a spare battery he keeps somewhere in this cornucopias black behemoth that reads Land Rover on its grill. I keep our ride running, do coffee, refresh the pony tail, and then we spin down the switch backs almost a kilometer to the little commercial center on the narrow valley floor. This is where a mysterious, basement, rarely open auto shop just started selling batteries at the regime’s ”regulated” price–around 6,000Bs in the national currency. And that means lining up and taking a chance that the shop has our battery. We get there a little after six and we’re #23. There are places for food and coffee close by so our immediate needs are taken care of along with the others in the line and where the guy who’s #6 on the list says he’s been there since 4:15. They start bringing in cars, three at a time, at about 8:20. Marianthi stops one of the workers shortly thereafter and asks if they have a battery for our ride. He says no. So we book out for the alternative that Juan said might have what we need. His directions to the place in the bowel of Los Teques are Venezuelan directions—impressionistic at best, which is the most you can expect for Los Teques. In the late ‘50s Marianthi, a student in the leading nun’s school, strolled around this place, a village then, to the cinema, the ice cream shops, to the first grand shopping center, now it’s a maniacal labyrinth that no longer resembles anything she recalls: crammed traffic and pedestrian chaos, arbitrarily foreshortened streets that are void of all signage, the bolonaros kiosks vending pirated DVDs, and jewelry and nylon thongs, and hardware that fell off the back of a truck, kiosks that turn two lane streets into one-and-a-half lane streets, crowding the sidewalks to become all too cramped, one-body-per-passage crevasses. And there’s the noise, deafening sambas, lumbering, un-muffled buses and their diesel fumes, and the suicidal motorezados careening toward every rent in this roiling fabric like bats on crank. And there is the heat unalleviated by the constant trade wind currents that cool the hills above the little city. This is the bowel of Los Teques and my fascination with its anarchy, bodies, faces, sweat, eyes, fueled by a steady drip of adrenaline, always teeters on the edge of delighted laughter.
Sure, the directions are a little vague, but after one false positive we wander around and backtrack some more and find the place. Its hidden away in a cavernous car park that dead-ends an alley. Dark, randomly perforated and torn tin roofing hangs two stories above the haphazard concrete floor. A fraction of the parked inhabitants look trashed well beyond further service and seem on permanent display. The rest are straight in their slots and two or three men wander around among them. The cave is too dark and too long to see the men’s details. One is always on alert for the Law for the Law is always alert for fresh money and one’s head should always be below the parapets.
We creep along and finally off to the side is the battery place that isn’t a battery place at all but appears to offer nothing more than smoked cellophane window tinting and car sound systems. Still the woman who runs the place has two new batteries that she pulls out from way back in the corner behind the counter. If Juan had not called her and said to be on the look-out for us this would not have been a battery place. Of her two offerings, one doesn’t fit at all and the other works out reasonably well. She has to call in from the street two teenage players in baggy polyester work-outs to make the switch. She provides half of the tools needed, I provide the other half and a little of the work. It isn’t exactly the right battery, it fits a little too snugly in the space provided and one anchor has to stay loose, but it’s powerful and can’t scoot around on its platform, and it has a one year guarantee, and we pay almost four times more for it than we would have paid for a non-existent “regulated” battery, though that included a generous tip to the two in polyester who struggled to put it in. And then we wander around and backtrack some more for awhile until we find the street out of Los Teques that has us skirting three quarters of the way around the city, through the industrialized neighborhood called El Tambor to return us to where we drove into the whole insanity awhile back. And we squirm through an ad hoc bus terminal in a side street and dart out onto the Carretera Panamericana, the Panamerican Highway, that used to run through here to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, but no more because the civil war in Guatemala cut it forever in two. Then we twist back up the switchbacks to the house and have a rest and manage the lives of a couple of cats, or they manage ours, and we drive off to the errands that had been diverted away yesterday—get fistfuls of perpetually devalued cash to see us through the weekend, a bottle of cough medicine, some DVDs (because the recently crippled internet hasn’t the consistency to stream Netflix), some gin and tonic, and energy drinks, some pet food, and some gasoline (a fraction of a U.S. penny for a quarter of a tank).
Piece of cake.
And the fires die.
Bad guess, worse judgement—kitchen morning, bread dough’s rising, and I’m streaming potatoes for next week’s supply of breakfast home fries and heating water for the washing of our late night dishes…in these latitudes why hot water in the kitchen? There are three thick and wide smoked pork chops—chuletas ahumadas—thawing to be charcoal grilled for lunch and eaten with half an auyamita (aka winter squash in places where there is winter) that I will bake with the bread.
And then the fires die, we are out of propane. It was to be next week that we were to re-supply.
Marianthi is resting, recovering from walking pneumonia. I bring the news. She says, “I’m getting dressed.”
I say, “Me too.”
Its not far, the yard where Venezuela’s state petroleum company, PDV, sells propane in the kind of bombonitas that can be carried around by hand. The gates are open early mornings (meaning who knows when) until noon. During the week the line, la cola, the queue, is five minutes long on the outside. But this is Saturday, a notorious day at PDV Propano Comunal. The conventional wisdom says on a Saturday get there early, go at 7…but then the gates might not open until 9 so why the rush…it is like everything else in this benighted little nation…a crap shoot with bad odds. No matter the time of arrival there is still a cola, in a country of colas, colas for diapers and tampons and condoms, and colas for cooking oil and colas for the staple of all staples, fine ground white corn meal called Arina Pan. (It is a new occupation, standing in a cola for six hours for your ration of kilo-sized bags of Arina Pan that you can re-sell on a street corner in your barrio for twice what you paid. Unemployment is on the decrease.)
Marianthi says, “You aren’t going there by yourself,” and she’s saying in code, “That’s where gringos don’t go alone.”
I load our two empty bombonitas in the camioneta which is the generic name for a pickup or an SUV or a mini-SUV like ours. It is 9 a.m. and we are expecting a long morning. We haul across the turn-around overpass on the Panamericana and dodge into the side street, the narrow block-long calle that also serves as a crowded, impromptu bus terminal that tee’s into the street that leads to the PDV yard. The cola stretches full left to right from our perspective and from our perspective there is no place to park. The street looks like an ant farm magnified, people with bombonitas on their shoulders, carried in arms, hauled along side as one would haul the ball on the end of one’s chain. Motorcycles and scooters loaded are dodging cars, defying traffic, defying death as only motorezados can. Buses wallow through smoking diesel smoke. Two wispy pre-teen girls, stick figures, struggle along with one bombonita between them.
I turn right toward the end of the cola, toward the yard where I buy steel, a bad road coming steep up from an industrial district. At the end of the cola Marianthi jumps out and joins it. I head down the street and park indifferently where no one should park, grab the bombonitas and catch up to her. The cola has grown by maybe 10 in those few minutes. But at least the line is moving. A tiny aging woman in cute embroidered jeans, her face like drawn leather, is in front of us. Marianthi figures that she might be an inch over half my height. When Marianthi sees a plastic bombonita in the care of one of our predecessors in space the little woman tells us that they are muy pelegroso, very dangerous, plastic is not to be trusted around propane. Cars, buses and camionetas and motorezados and pedestrians, loaded dollies and pull-carts, clog the street as we push along, bombonitas everywhere. The cola is flowing, stopping, flowing again. People in front see friends in back and call them forward. “Chamo! Aqui, aqui!”
Half way between where we joined the cola and the gates a tall man in a brown sweater, 12 people ahead turns around and yells at me, “Pequenas, va a la puerta!” (Little ones go to the gate.) Our bombonitas are pequenas though I have no idea why…perhaps it is the emitting orifice or just the red lettering on the side, but the point is they are minority bombonitas and are treated differently than the regular. The tiny woman grabs her pequena, cuts out of the line and hurries down the hill to the yard. Marianthi and I follow. A woman from PDV comes up close on my left and urges me to hurry. She’s telling others in the cola to grab their pequenas and come but she is worried because there are too many people. At the gate I hand the keeper 30Bs and he lets us in. Off to the side of the yard a man on one end of a broad rack of bombonitas pulls out two full replacements for us and we are away.
I set the bombonitas down across the calle, Marianthi stands guard above them. I hurry back up to the camioneta, flip a U turn in a usually hellish intersection that is unusually quiet this morning, snake through the stacked up traffic at the yard’s entryway, flip another U and pull up again through the crush in the middle of the street beside Marianthi. A colorful bus hits its brakes inches behind. A woman in the car I am blocking in front yells “Senor…!” I get out, Marianthi gets in. I have two inches of clearance between me and the bus to open the rear door and load up the bombonitas that now full weigh at least 50 lb. apiece. I wonder how the aging little woman ahead of us handled hers that must have weighed two-thirds what she does. I scramble behind the wheel and ease out into the congestion and shrug my shoulders in apology for the woman I was blocking in front…”What else can you do..?” She acknowledges, “…what else can you do.”
We pull out of the side street onto the Panamericana toward home at 9:29 a.m….a miracle for timing and luck.
At home our friend, Mariela in New Orleans sends us a twitter photo of a cola in Los Teques, “700 people lined up for propane.” Marianthi writes back, “That was our cola.”
Again from the text: Distract— to provide a pleasant diversion for; amuse.
Guillermo is a Venezuelan media personality who goes by the single name, Canache. He is Guillermo Canache and he rents a sweet little apartment at the bottom of our steps. He’s lived in the USA and speaks reasonably good English. Guillermo is the Morning Man on one of the most listened to FM venues in Caracas and he is a certifiable genius and the type of professional showmen who can turn one line of casual conversation into an ad-lib five minute comedy monologue. He does standup, and he produces revues that play the theater clubs and he’s a standard feature on Caracas talk TV and he’s the entertainment face for Venezuela’s largest food and drink producer. Guillermo is fashionably, subtly, bearded, a bit overweight and he spends most of the time in pain for he has outgrown some titanium replacement parts in a leg and replacements of replacements are prohibitively costly here these days.
Guillermo calls me “My Old Gringo” when we meet at our door or in our little parking patio and we exchange handshakes, back-slaps and hugs and I listen to how the state of this sorry little nation, this slow-mo mudslide into perdition, and the state of our sorry little species, drives him into continual despair. I know he has a pain in his heart more profound than that in his leg. But, he says when I ask the other day, things are going to get better.
“You are my mentor,” he tells me, “and I know, I really know, that one of these days I am going to wake up and realize that today I am just like My Old Gringo. I will know that the world is turning to shit and I could fucking care.”
Today is Nochebuena, Christmas Eve, and we have a few needs, the list is short, chicken breasts and peas for the traditional Ensalada de Gallina tomorrow, eggs, a bombonita full of propane, an upgrade to the liquor supply, dishwashing liquid. We weave through the traffic into the turn-around overpass and pull into the lot for Oh Que Carne, the finest meat market for kilometers. Inside is a tight compression of human bodies. We get a number way down the list. People rub past each other sideways in the over-populated passageways. There are aguinaldos de navidad musica (the lyrics say “…the old hen is so tough…) over two TVs and from somewhere a radio narrative about the crowd in this place. It is a full out samba scooting celebration to a coming holiday. Strangers smile at one another in a cautious land where this is rare, there are stranger’s hands on the shoulders of strangers. Colas inch along. No way are we getting two fresh chicken breasts and be out of here before noon when the propane concession shuts down. On the grocery side Marianthi finds the eggs and then frozen peas imported from Texas and I find a frozen bag of non-fresh, flesh-stuff marked Gallinas (great big tough old hens that have died in the service of the egg trade) and Pollos that are what we used to call “fryers” in the North American days of fried chicken dinners. Marianthi also grabs a bottle of espumante for the evening toasts and a bottle of seasoning. The check-out chica says today is ley seca, the dry law day…no liquor sold Nochebuena and sets the espumante aside. A tiny old woman with a wrinkled face and a Santa Claus cap comes around, squeezes through the throng with a tray of baguette slices and tartar sauce for sampling. On Summer Saturdays while people are lined up for the mixed grill combos this place puts together, Oh Que Carne serves beer in the same way to those who wait. But today is ley seca and soon the woman in the Santa cap comes around again with a tray of sweet hot coffee in plastic shot glasses. The check-out chica tells Marianthi how people are trying to bribe her into smuggling liquor out with their meat orders but she won’t relent because there is a federal cop always edging his way around through the mass of us looking for miscreants and bribes. I can see his tan shirt and its epaulets as he mingles. And then he goes out right in front of the two of us and starts up on his cell phone in the parking lot. We pull out toward the Panamericana.
“We’ll try Avelino, he always has soap and maybe he won’t be watched. ” And en route we get our propane amongst a tiny crowd made of what dead Brit in-laws once said…”All life is here.” And it is true for there is one great, infectious pulse of life as we gather at the gate for our fuel.
Avelino has a tiny bodega (in the U.S., corner neighborhood market). Avelino’s wife is a sometimes student of Marianthi’s yoga and once Marianthi saved him from what he thought was a fatal muscle spasm in his neck. He couldn’t move his head.
No, there is no dish washing detergent anywhere to be found in the land…dilute the laundry soap…it is all the same. Yes he can sell us some sangria. And rum? He says, name the brand. I say “Cacique.’ And he says, “For you, I can do this.” Avelino does some slight of hand below the counter and tells us to get this bag into the car. Fast.
So our needs this Christmas Eve are met. We have been where all life is here.
It is not alluded to in my favorite biography, but I have cobbled together a vague definition of the subject at hand:
Distractions are the way the instincts indicates to the common pilgrim what is truly important in their lives as opposed to what that pilgrim wants to believe. It is a matter of those instincts engaging with the Flux to get down to the true attentions. When one is synchromeshed into the Flux, profoundly absorbed in the creation of a poem or a sculpture or rebuilding a Porsche engine or making love, one is integrated and there are no distractions, distraction receptors are squelched. But once one loosens the integration and settles for the less than totally fascinating then the instincts are open to fix on selected stray elements in the immediate environment to show the pilgrim that their life right now is neither that broad nor that deep though it could be if one paid enough attention to one fine thing or another.
It seems to work on a sliding scale.