December 16, 2007
As soon as I got up this morning, I tried to figure out how to change my dollars into bolivares on the black market (this is technically illegal, but everyone's doing it nowadays). I quickly learned that in Venezuela, the most often used word is "no."
"Do you know where the black market is?"
"Do you know where the bus station is?"
(If I'm on fifth street) "Do you know where sixth street is?"
Everywhere else I've gone in South America, people will make up a lie rather than admit that they don't know something, but in Venezuela, even if the people know the correct answer, they would rather not waste the oxygen required to tell me a complete sentence. "NO NO NO" was all anyone said.
I finally got someone to mention an actual location to me, so I figured it'd be a good place to start. I took a taxi there, but soon found out that it was a shopping mall, not a district of the city like I had thought. The mall turned out to be very modern and clean unlike the rest of the city, and there were indeed banks in the mall that would change my money, but at a rate of only 1900/dollar, which was even worse than the official rate.
I finally pulled enough teeth out of the bank teller's mouth that she suggested downtown as a potential location of the black market. I had to ask a security guard where downtown was, and he looked at me like I was five years old because obviously everyone else he had ever met in his life knew the answer. So the people here won't throw the tourists a bone for their unavoidable ignorance either. Downtown was crowded with people selling everything imaginable on the streets except bolivares. Once again nobody would talk to me, and my trip turned out to be a complete waste of time. It's strange that I went from the country with the nicest, most welcoming people (Colombia) to the one with the meanest (Venezuela) in just a few short hours.
Despite knowing about the black market discrepancy before entering Venezuela, I underestimated its importance. I figured the prices would be the same as in Colombia because the currencies have the same official exchange rate, but today I learned that most of the prices in Venezuela have been driven up to the black market exchange rate. For example, a cheap hotel in Colombia costs 10,000 pesos ($5), so according to the official exchange rate, the same hotel should cost 10,000 bolivares ($5) in Venezuela. However, the cheapest place I could find was 40,000 bolivares, which would be $20 according to the official rate, or about $8 by the black market. If you're reading this from the US, $20 might seem cheap for a hotel, but it's ridiculously expensive in a country like Venezuela. So to make a long story short, changing money on the black market doesn't make things dirt cheap like I thought it would; it just serves to bring you back to even. Therefore, it is essential to enter Venezuela with enough dollars for your entire stay there, and change all of your money on the black market. Except, after searching all day, I realized that the black market didn't exist in San Cristobal.
I barely had enough bolivares to go to my next destination of San Fernando de Apure, so I figured I'd take my chances and head there in search of that city's black market. The only good thing money-wise about Venezuela is that gasoline only costs forty-eight bolivars per liter, or about three American cents per gallon. Because of this, a bus ride of ten hours only costs 30,000 bolivares, whereas the aforementioned cheap hotel would cost 40,000, so if you're just looking for a secure place to sleep, it's actually cheaper to ride around on buses all night than to stay put.
The only problem with leaving the city was once again the military. As soon as my bus was out of San Cristobal, we got stopped at a military post. Just like yesterday, a guy checked everyone's ID and told me to come with him as soon as he saw my passport. Except unlike yesterday, this guy searched through my entire backpack and managed to find something wrong with everything of mine. Here's how the conversation went:
"Where are you from?" (This is a highly ambiguous question when asked in Spanish, De donde vienes?, and I can never figure out how to answer it.)
"The United States."
"No, I mean where are you coming from today?"
(Takes out my camera.) "What's this?"
"Let me see your pictures."
"I don't have any."
(That would take awhile to explain fully.) "I already downloaded them."
"I think you're lying to me."
(Continues searching and pulls out my drugs.) "So tell me, why do you have these pills?"
"They're antibiotics." (For the extreme vomiting and diarrhea I suffered from last week.)
"Liar! You cut them up and sniff them don't you?"
"No." (But go ahead and shove them up your ass for all I care.)
(Takes me into a room that's not visible from the street.) "Lift up your shirt." (Again with the abs of steel!) "Now lift up your pant legs. Now lower your pants." (Luckily I was wearing underwear.) "What's that?"
"My money belt."
"Let me see it." (Hold the phone. Now we have a situation. Nobody has ever looked at my money belt in two years in South America, and it will be very easy for him to rob me now.)
"A traveler's check, I can cash it in case of an emergency."
"Why is it worth so much?"
(Because you're such a moron that you don't even know the difference between a serial number and the check's printed value.) "It's only worth $100." (Yes, he actually thought I had a check for like $100 billion.)
"What are these?"
"My bank cards."
"Why do you have so many?"
(Another long story, but even so, three is not a lot.) "One old debit card, one new debit card, one credit card."
(Starts counting my cash.) "Why do you have $431 with you?" (Luckily he didn't find it all.)
(I didn't even answer that one. Isn't it obvious that I would need some cash to spend on the toilet economy that their idiotic president Chavez created?)
(Finds my leftover money from Colombia.) "Why do you have Colombian money with you?"
(Again that was obvious given that I was still practically on the Colombian border, and he must've seen the Colombian stamps in my passport.) "Because I came from there two days ago."
"Why did you lie to me? You said you weren't in Colombia. You said you started in San Cristobal." (Yeah right, like I took a direct flight from the US to that shitty little city. Again, the ambiguous de donde vienes resurfaces.)
"I never said that and you know it."
"And what do you do for a living?"
"Student." (Actually, that is a lie, but it probably sounds better than saying that I'm semi-retired at the age of twenty-nine.)
"Liar! What are you doing in Venezuela?"
"Liar! Why are you alone?"
(Because nobody wants to come to your fucked up country anymore.) "There's not many backpackers here. Maybe I'll meet people in Ciudad Bolivar."
"You're lying to me! Why are you really here?"
"Leave me alone, I told you I a tourist."
"Alright, now put that money away before you get robbed and blame it on me."
(I count my money in front of him before putting it back in my belt. Surprisingly, none of it is missing. I go through my backpack one more time to make sure he hasn't taken anything. The last thing this asshole needs is a bribe. He notices a lipstick tube sitting on the table and asks if it's mine.)
"No that's for women."
(He gives me a slight chuckle, I turn my back and walk away.)
When the military harassed me yesterday, I thought they were just busting my balls because I had just come from Colombia. (Colombia and Venezuela are practically at war with each other right now but I don't think it will happen because the Venezuelan government wouldn't know its ass from a hole in the ground.) But today's royal treatment makes me think that it will be the norm here. I just don't get it. I was in Venezuela for a week last year and didn't have to deal with any of this nonsense (the exchange rate problem or the military). Could the country really have disintegrated that quickly?
Still, I had no choice but to continue on my overnight bus, and by morning, I had already made it halfway across the country. I didn't want to turn back just yet. But I realized that it was time to hide my money better and to make a beeline for the more touristy parts of the country. Otherwise, my next bus ride could be much worse.