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Caracas the Deceiving City (and Other Forms of Pain)

Caracas, Venezuela, viewed from El Avila National Park. PHOTO: GustavoMelero via Wikimedia Commons

This post is the fourth of a series originally published by the author on Medium. Click on the links to read the first , second and third installments.

I cannot put it any other way: I'm afraid of the city where I was born. These are strong, painful words, but it's a sincere expression of my feelings. Caracas scares me, in a deep and distressing way. But I’ve grown used to being afraid, and unfortunately, I'm not the only one. Fear has become an inherent part of the way we experience the city, the way we live, create and build it, both in our minds and in reality. And it hurts to be so afraid of the place where you were born and raised.

Fear is part of this society made of bewildered citizens afraid of what the future might hold. In my case, it has become almost an obsession. I'm afraid of everything, from robbery to an incident in the street that could trigger a dangerous event. An intricate web of small occurrence where the only common factor seems to be my fear of violence. Violence is always there.

My dread of violence is with me whenever I take the bus or subway, when I walk down the street, when I drive down a busy avenue. Because violence in Venezuela is part of daily life, whether we are aware of it or not. It is part of the urban way of life we associate with cities.

I've been writing about Caracas to the point of exhaustion, I've been walking through its streets, camera in hand, trying to overcome my own fear in order to capture what I love most about it. Somehow I can see my own story reflected in its neglected streets and avenues. And yet I continue to endure it, with this feeling of bitter disenchantment that seems almost like a betrayal of my innocence. Because I used to love Caracas very much. My city was my first source of inspiration, and it was through its history that I started perceiving myself as part of it.

We talk a lot about fear in generic terms, but we hardly ever acknowledge it as our own. I think about this as I'm sitting in El Calvario Park, looking down on Caracas, a silent, and in its own way an almost simple city in its chaotic beauty. So remote. Caracas is mine, it is part of my history.  You and I  are united, Caracas, by this vision of the world that we once shared. Is that enough, I wonder, as I lift my camera. I look at you through the viewfinder my lens captures your most hidden treasures and slowly focuses on them. And then it reveals the Caracas of my dreams.

When you live in the second most dangerous city in the world, you always have to consider the possibility of random violence, at any times, anywhere. An invisible, latent identity marker of a country that is broken to pieces. An unhealed wound.

My mother feels uneasy when I talk about these things. During the last few years, we have had arguments and confrontations because of the fear that permeates our lives. You can call it what you like: these arguments come in different shapes and sizes, but they are all triggered by fear. It expresses itself in warnings like, “Don't be late”, “Watch where you go,” “Be careful what you do.” This in spite of the fact that I'm over 30, quite independent, and that I'm generally careful and take care of myself. But for my Mom that's not enough. It will probably never be enough. Because for her, Caracas is more than a city—it represents a threat.

“It's not about taking care of yourself. Caracas is dangerous because it's unpredictable,” she says to me.

“But it's more than that,” I say. “It is about the concept of Caracas as the sum of its troubles and flaws. Caracas is Caracas”.

“That is philosophy,” she says. “Caracas has never been so dangerous or cruel. Earlier…”

“Like how long ago?”

Mom purses her lips. We've had this conversation so many times before that it seems like the same argument over and over again. Mom remembers a Caracas that is no longer there, and that I can't even grasp: a city with lively streets and a radiant nightlife. A modern, advanced and cosmopolitan Caracas, a city seeking to overcome simple problems of urban development.

The Caracas I know is a different city: a tough one, destroyed by indolence, broken by the weight of pain, poverty, and indifference. A city of closed doors and security grills. One that witnesses death and pain on a daily basis. My Caracas, the city I know, is not the same as my Mom's Caracas.

“Caracas is the consequence of this country's history, more than any other region or place in Venezuela,” she tells me. “Caracas started as a dream: Guzmán Blanco dreamed of a beautiful, Frenchified, but at the same time, phony city. Then Pérez Jiménez turned it into a symbol, rebuilt it, placed it inside his concept of how the country should be—that is, organized and under the military rule. Partisans from the political parties “Acción Democrática” and “Copei” have fought for it. Chavismo uses it.”

All this is true, but in spite of the profusion of symbols, ideas, and approaches, Caracas keeps going against all odds. In spite of this constant transformation, the insistence of looking at it as part of history and at the same time as a metaphor for a young, nascent country, Caracas becomes what we want it to be.

Caracas can be this broken and chaotic city, with its old quarter halfway rebuilt and the diverse neighborhoods that grew around it. It might be history itself, a history that considers itself forward-looking and that is retold day after day. But Caracas is also a memory of what it could have been. Of what it will no longer be. My Mom smiles when she tells me the first time she went to Teresa Carreño Theater and how impressed she was by its dimensions and also its importance.

“A world-class theater,” she tells me. “That was the first thing that came to my mind as I ascended in the huge escalator, looking at the place in wonder. The brand new theater, a symbol of “Saudi Venezuela”. There was no other building in the country that could compare to it and I thought: I wonder what awaits us in the future.”

And although I don't say a word, I feel sad. A few months ago I went to Teresa Carreño Theater and it was totally different from my mother's memories. Cracked walls. Tarnished floors. The whole place smelled of decay. Yet for me it retained some of its beauty. Despite the dried-up vegetation, the small signs of deterioration that no one cares to repair. It’s just like Caracas, lots of makeup to hide the wrinkles, its mouth hardened into an expression of pure bitterness. But it's Caracas, and I love it.

“We have no choice but to love Caracas,” says F, a fruit juice seller in front of the Church of Altagracia. I go wandering around there from time to time, trying to rediscover Caracas, to remember how it was even if I did not know the city by then. But F is an optimist: even in these hard times when it's difficult even to get sugar for the juices he sells and the oranges are so expensive he can barely afford them. But he keeps selling fruit juice because it is “good for the heart” and his customers still buy it. Like me. I savor the tartness of freshly-squeezed oranges with an almost childish thrill. It tastes like history, like small miracles in the midst of this city that has stopped believing in anything.

“Sometimes I feel so scared of how hard it is to love this city,” I tell him. My friend shakes his disheveled but venerable head and his wrinkled face breaks into a smile.

“It is easy to be scared. It's quite straightforward—one can be afraid of just about everything. But Caracas is different, it has a sense of identity. There is fear for sure, but there is also the happiness of small things. The smell of the experiences one has had in it. The small hidden treasures.”

How poetic, I think, as I finish my juice. What a wonderful moment, where Caracas becomes almost beautiful with the dome of the church gleaming in the sun and this warm, pleasant feeling of eternal summer. And the smell of the city: pungent, hard, distinctive. The mixture of odors. Leaning against a half-built wall, talking to F, I feel that life goes very fast, and sometimes it can even taste good. I guess that's how my mother remembers Caracas.

But I experience the city in a different way. For me it is the anxiety I feel when I walk its streets. The feeling of having to look constantly over my shoulder. But there is also the El Ávila National Park” a place so dazzling that makes me angry. What a pleasure it is to spend time marveling at the exuberance of its vegetation. How delightful to smile and contemplate its unforgettable green. But even then, it is not enough. Not in the midst of so much anguish, scrambling, and fear.

 

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