Even before the economic crash which brought shortages of everyday items, one rather surprising feature of Venezuelan life was their willingness to queue. British people always think we’re the only people on the planet who do this, but out there they form orderly queues for buses, underground trains and banks.
That is where the orderliness finishes with buses, though. There don’t seem to be timetables or signs indicating bus stops – people just know that if you stand in a certain place a certain bus will pick you up. At the start of the journey they don’t leave at a particular time, just when they are full. I must admit that at peak times in Caracas, when the lines of people go back 200 yards, I was known to lurk near the front of the queues for two routes, both of which would get me home, and drift between the two so that I became a familiar figure and then shuffle onto whichever arrived first. In the evenings they make up the prices as they go along, but I found that if you called their bluff and hand over the usual fare without showing them up they would usually accept it.
The vehicles themselves are often old and dilapidated, but they get you there and your expectations change out here anyway – the smell of burning engine oil might be slightly alarming, but it’s not the smell of a burning bus.
The queuing business is similar in the Metro – they have lines painted on the platform that encourage you to form snakes, but the thing is so busy much of the time that I would either breeze into a gap and casually peer up the tunnel as if looking for a train, then hang around there, or make a late run into space. It’s dog eat dog when the train arrives, anyway, with the women among the worst offenders, barging with unnecessary force into crowded carriages, safe in the knowledge that nobody is going to punch them because they are just defenceless females. The UK still has a few overcompensating women, punishing today’s men for the sins of their fathers, but out there it seems like they’ve only just finished burning their bras.
That, in fact, will never happen there, because the women like to flaunt what they’ve got. They are very proud of the fact that Venezuela has produced more Miss Worlds than any other country, and they still do well in the competition’s successor, Miss Universe. Incidentally, they call a winner of one of these competitions ‘a Miss’.
Rumour has it that many of the spectacular cleavages are surgically-enhanced, but be that as it may, the feminine scenery is tremendous. It doesn’t stop some of them behaving like graduates of the Holloway Prison School of Charm, but maybe it’s better to be assaulted by psychopathic sisters rather than psychopathic brothers.
There is even a Miss who not long ago was a mayor of part of Caracas and is tipped to be a future president. However, the country will first have to bring to an end the Chavez/Maduro years, and although a million telescopes are trained on the horizon, there is no real sign of that particular ship coming in yet.
As for the banks, it’s all a matter of incompetence. You can be in there for literally hours waiting to accomplish a simple task such as paying in a cheque.
And speaking of incompetence, after six months I was still hopeless at Spanish. I could read the newspaper and understand most of it, write in Spanish and even speak it a bit in a halting, laboured way, but when they started talking I got hardly a word. In a strange way this helped me as an English teacher, because I now recognise that blank look in some of my students’ eyes when I ask them a simple question. I was routinely humiliated by bus drivers and shop assistants who felt superior to this clever-dick gringo because they could speak the language and I couldn’t.
Phrase books and elementary Spanish courses? Forget it. In their world when you walk into a cafe the waiter says ‘What would you like?’ and you say ‘A white coffee, please. ‘ In reality he says ‘Gorblimey guvnor I’ve got a bleeding sesame seed stuck between me teeth wotcha want then?’ and you stand there with your mouth open.
In my defence, I must point out that many Venezuelans speak Spanish as if they never went to school. It’s all sloppy pronunciation and slang, and they are particularly reluctant to use consonants, so that when you’re listening for the underground train driver to announce the next station as Parque Carabobo, he gabbles something like Ar-eh Ara o-o and everyone but the foreigner understands. I’ll get it in the end.
They tell me Caracas is one of the most dangerous cities in the world and that you’re safer in Afghanistan than walking the streets as I did. Everybody seems to know someone who was robbed at knifepoint or even kidnapped. Well, all I can say is that I never saw any trouble. I tried to steer clear of the areas people say are best avoided, but as one of them was the place where my bus left from, it was a question of keeping a low profile. Don’t advertise the fact that you have a laptop in your bag, and don’t bring your wallet out and flash the cash – sound advice anywhere.