I wanted to write about the most romantic places to go in each country I’ve been to. I was excited to design my website with a special “Destinations” section and to include a blog post about Venezuela under “South America”. However, going there was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.
There are plenty of articles which highlight the romantic beauty of this country. Venezuela has breathtaking views, rich history and culture, stunning beaches, gorgeous mountains, and Angel Falls, the “World’s Highest Uninterrupted Waterfall” which is over 3,000 feet. At one time, this was a rich country that many chose for their honeymoon destination.
But not anymore.
Normally, I cannot stand when people insist that people should avoid certain countries as being “too dangerous”, especially when they specify that they’re too dangerous for women to visit. Drives me crazy.
I’ve been to Morocco, Mexico, and Egypt. I’ve also lived in Nigeria, Egypt, and Jamaica. And it’s true that I have been annoyed by the harassment I have encountered by men in these places. The constant flirtation and come-ons, and the assumption that all Western women are promiscuous are extremely frustrating. But, I felt as safe as I do in NYC, or anywhere else.
But not in Venezuela.
I admit that I did not do any research, nor did I pay attention to the news, and I was pretty clueless about the political situation in Venezuela before I went.
And a mistake that could have gotten me robbed, kidnapped, arrested, or even murdered. It’s a mistake I have not made again since my trip to what is now considered the most violent country in the world.
Most of the time I plan far in advance before I travel. It takes me awhile to save up money to travel, and during that time I tend to read guidebooks, travel blogs and magazines about a country. I watch Youtube videos about these destinations. And sometimes go to used bookstores or travel agents for books and free brochures and pamphlets which I cut up to make vision collages in order to manifest my dream trips. (Sorry.)
But in 2008 I’d never watched Youtube, I wasn’t really on Facebook then, I was rarely online (except to do online dating) and I didn’t watch the news much. So when I unexpectedly took a trip to Trinidad, I was thrilled to learn that I could take a short ferry ride to visit Venezuela; completely unaware of Hugo Chávez’s hatred of The United States.
The country’s then-president had called President Bush “The Devil,” had accused the US government of organizing a coup attempt against him and his social revolution, and had ordered the US ambassador to leave Venezuela within 72 hours.
All this occurred a day or two before I naively bought my ticket and hopped on a boat by myself to visit a country I had no visa for, with absolutely no idea where I was going or what I would do when I arrived.
I knew the ferry would return to Trinidad later that day, but I figured I would play it by ear and check out the small village near the dock, and if I liked it, I would stay a few days before returning back to the island. Since it was a short journey, I just had a small bag with a few outfits, and I’d left my carry-on at my hotel in Trini.
On the ferry, there were mostly Venezuelans, Trinidadians, and there was one Nigerian businessman who I had a nice conversation with. Emmanuel went back and forth between the two countries and was excited to be going home to his wife who was a citizen of Venezuela. He told me he spoke fluent Spanish, and he would show me around town when we arrived since very few locals spoke English.
We talked about our mutual love for Nigeria, and the challenges of being married to people from different cultures, and he shared the story of how he met his wife and had fallen in love with her even though he did not speak Spanish at the time and they could barely communicate.
When we arrived at the port, Emmanuel hailed a taxi for us and we went into the small town that was close by. As we drove past the narrow side streets, I was surprised to see such poverty. I’d assumed Venezuela was a wealthy country, and it had been, but there had been a severe economic decline, and things were only going to get much, much worse in the coming years.
The driver dropped us in front of Emmanuel’s favorite restaurant, but first, he brought me across the street to change money. I saw a few shops that I wanted to check out, so I changed enough to go shopping with, and we went back to the restaurant.
I was glad Emmanuel was with me because my Spanish was extremely limited to the few words I’d learned in high school.
As we ordered lunch I half listened to him tell me about his import-export business as I noticed the handsome, tall man standing by the counter. He stared back at me as I ate, so I smiled, hoping he might come over to speak to me and not think that I was on a date with the man sitting across from me. I’d noticed him before we entered the restaurant because he had been standing outside then, but since he was in uniform and appeared to be a military police officer who was on duty, I didn’t expect him to approach me. Now that he had come inside and was watching me I wondered if maybe he found me attractive, too. I silently nicknamed him Santiago the Soldier and enjoyed the fantasy I acted out in my mind.
I turned my attention to the food, and to Emmanuel.
“Would you like to meet my wife? She will be meeting me here later when she finishes work.”
“Of course!” I said and smiled as he bragged about what an excellent cook she was.
“What is this called?” I pointed to our food.
“Pabellon Criollo. It is the national dish of Venezuela, and this is fried plantain.” It was a simple plate of black beans and rice with some sort of beef, and egg. I found it bland compared to the food I’d been eating in Trinidad, but I wanted to be polite, so I said, “Mmm, delicious.”
Just then I noticed that the captain of the ferry had also chosen this restaurant for lunch and was sitting in the far corner with several other shipmates. He smiled and nodded as he took off his cap and began to eat.
I looked over at the Santiago the sexy officer once again. I ignored the black gun he held, unsure whether it was a rifle or a machine gun, but I pushed my unease aside and tried to catch his eye again. He no longer wore his dark sunglasses and I could see that his eyes were light brown, with long, dark lashes. His uniform was a bit small, accentuating his muscular physique, making me wonder what it would be like to have him hold me. Kiss me. Maybe even to-
Just then another gendarmerie entered and spoke to his partner. He too had a gun, and his finger appeared to be on the trigger, poised and ready to shoot someone. I shivered and looked back at my fantasy man, but he simply stared once again. Slowly, it dawned on me that he had not been looking at me because he was interested in me, but as if I were a suspect in a crime, although I couldn’t imagine what for.
Emmanuel’s back was to the men, so he was unaware of the men watching us. As we finished our meals, he suggested I might want to pretend that I was Canadian should anyone ask.
“What do you mean? Why would I do that?” I asked, but before he could answer the waiter approached us and we paid our bill. As we left the cafe, the two military officers followed us. When we stepped outside, I was shocked to see a large group of men in uniform. They quickly surrounded me and began shouting in Spanish. As they yelled, a few more officers joined them and the group got larger.
“What are they saying?” I asked Emmanuel, terrified. Several of the men raised their guns, pointing them at me. The man I’d named Santiago moved closer, unsmiling, with his gun close to my face. I blinked several times, unable to breathe.
“They want to know if you’re American. I told them you are not, but they’re demanding you give them your passport.” Emmanuel looked afraid for me.
Every time I travel I have a ritual that I do that has made me feel slightly safer. I put my money, my passport, my phone, and my lipstick in my bra. I know that sounds like a lot of things, but let’s just say, I had an ample bust and there was plenty of room. I’ve almost lost money by doing this, but at least it isn’t in a purse or someplace a thief could easily pickpocket me. I always felt that I was a bit paranoid to do this, but I’d almost been robbed a few times, so I did it anyway. This was one time when I was so glad that I did.
I understood a little of what they were saying. My family mostly speaks Spanish, and while I am far from fluent, I knew what they wanted. And I knew instinctively that it was imperative that they didn’t find out that I was American.
By this point, there were about 30 soldiers surrounding us, and Emmanuel was attempting to calm them down to no avail. I felt the tip of Sebastion’s rifle touch my cheek, and in spite of the hot day, the metal felt cold. The man I’d momentarily fantasized about seemed angry, furious almost, but I had no idea why. Later I would learn that President Chavez had told Bush two days before that he wanted “All Americans out of Venezuela within 48 hours, or else…”
I was paralyzed. I stood there, watching the curious crowd of onlookers grow larger as the men yelled and Emmanuel tried to appease them. Just then, the ferry captain came outside and saw the commotion. He joined Emmanuel in an effort to help me, and as he spoke to the men, I saw Emmanuel trying to speak to me with his eyes. I turned a little and saw the same driver that had taken us from the ferry to the town. I knew Emmanuel was trying to signal to me to leave, but I was frozen.
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t breathe.
I stood there, absolutely terrified as they began shouting. I wasn’t sure if they were hoping for a bribe, or whether I would be arrested. I had no idea why I was being detained, but I was scared. Earlier the weather had seemed perfect, but now I could feel the sweat from my pores drenching my body.
At that moment, the ferry captain silently mouthed one word to me; run.
Terrified, I didn’t stop to think.
I ran. I ran as fast as I could across the street to where the taxi driver sat waiting.
“Al ferry, rapido, rapido!” I cried. “Por favor, al ferry!”
I could barely breathe as the driver sped away from the scene. I was shocked that he had been willing to take me, but too stunned to wonder why he had complied and whether he had been afraid of the men as well. The drive that had taken less than 20 minutes earlier seemed as if it were hours before we arrived back at the port, and I was too afraid to look back to see if we’d been followed.
I have no idea why the soldiers didn’t chase me. I suppose the ferry captain backed up my story that I was Canadian. Perhaps they would not have shot me. But somehow I was able to race to the ferry, giving the driver an enormous tip, just as the ferry was leaving the dock to return to Trinidad.
I later learned that there had been warnings in 2008 on the US Department of State’s website, urging Americans to be aware of the dangers of Venezuela, saying that there were,
” instances in which elements of the security forces acted independently of government authority,” and the “The following human rights problems were reported: unlawful killings; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; a corrupt, inefficient, and politicized judicial system characterized by trial delays, impunity, and violations of due process; official intimidation and attacks on the independent media; discrimination based on political grounds; widespread corruption at all levels of government; violence against women; trafficking in persons; and restrictions on workers’ right of association.”
Today, if you Google travel to Venezuela, it’s amazing that so many travel blogs and articles mention the beauty of the country for tourists and as a perfect honeymoon destination. Obviously, they have not updated the articles in years, because things have gotten much, much worse since Chavez’s death in 2013.
The country is running out of food, and people are starving and dying of malnutrition. They wait in line for hours to be able to buy the most basic, meager amounts of staple foods. The International Monetary Fund estimates that prices in Venezuela will increase more than 700 percent this year. Protests are deadly. Hospitals are filled with sick people but have very little medicine or supplies. Over 80% of the population has lost over 20lbs in the last year. In the last few years, low oil prices and government regulations on currency have produced huge shortages of those basic items — including food and medicine — and caused the world’s highest inflation, and according to a CNN report, prices could rise an astounding 2,000% next year. Malaria and a shortage of water have added to the desperate circumstances. And of course, because of the chaos and desperation, violence has increased. People are robbed, kidnapped and murdered. The latest government travel advisories are here.
This is one of the few countries that I strongly advise you not to visit. Perhaps one day that will change, but for now, I suggest that you do not go to Venezuela until things change.
Sadly, I do not see that happening anytime soon, so for now, all we can do is pray for the people that were not able to feel their homes to seek asylum someplace else.
Have you ever had a frightening experience while traveling?
Have you been to any countries people consider dangerous?
Are you from, or have you lived in Venezuela? What is it like?