When I was kid, Venezuela seemed to be my family’s preferred travel destination. The reason was simple. My grandparents and several aunts and uncles lived in Caracas. Though Peruvian, they ended up there the way many Latin American families end up somewhere: because of political, social and economic upheaval. At the time, Venezuela was somewhat immune the internal strife, hyper-inflation, extreme political corruption and generalized violence that ravaged Peru on a daily basis.
My, how the tables have turned.
While my father’s career kept us moving from one continent to the other, all these journeys were extended and mandatory and usually filled with heartbreak. Venezuela, instead, was a bona fide trip-for-fun. And that made all the difference. Whether as a pit stop between international moves or as a summer tradition, going to Caracas was a joyous occasion. For a while, it felt like I was there every other year. These constant pilgrimages stopped around the time I was 11. I don’t know if there was any specific reason for it. But I do know why we never took them up again and it has everything to do with the long decline that the Venezuelan nation has faced.
Our upcoming episode is about summer vacations and their influence on our love of travel. Venezuela has, therefore, been on my mind quite a bit. But my idea of it is locked in a specific period of stability that the country hasn’t seen in years. My family tells me of the changes they’ve witnessed, but it’s as if they’re describing a place I’ve never even set foot on. So, to keep a record of the Venezuela that lives in my head, here is a list of random memories from my many childhood vacations there:
- Helping out at my aunt’s toy store, “Regalía” by bagging purchases and applying sticker prices on new merchandise.
- Being told I could pick out anything from the toy store as payment.
- Waiting outside my aunt and uncle’s bedroom door with my younger cousins while the older cousins got to watch scary movies.
- Being allowed to be part of their movie night as long as they were watching something that wouldn’t give us nightmares like Back To The Future or Indiana Jones.
- Having arepas for breakfast and trying to stock up on them since my Tía Lili was notorious for not caring if there were as any food in the house.
- Realizing with a few of my cousins that toothpaste tasted great, bingeing on it, and then feeling sick the rest of the night. If you want to know the reason behind such a boneheaded move, see item #5.
- Refusing to eat locro, the sole Peruvian dish that can be described as vile, even if it meant I would go to sleep with no dinner.
- Being told I could only have Boleros, my favorite Venezuelan chocolate, if I finished my plate of locro. Crying silently as I did what I was told and pondered about the sacrifices one must make to achieve what they want.
- Going horseback riding with Tío Mañito and my cousins. Being terrified that the horse would start galloping uncontrollably.
- Seeing my Tío Mañito slap our horses’ butts so they would start galloping uncontrollably. Returning home covered in mud.
- Learning how to play Solitaire, Crazy Eights, Gin Rummy, Hearts, Black Jack and an assortment of other card games. This is also known as being indoctrinated into the family’s favorite vice, gambling, from the tender age of 7.
- Playing all those games with all my cousins at once, usually taking an eternity and an entire mock trial to determine a winner.
- Trying to climb the huge hill that bordered my aunt’s backyard. Being told that snakes sometimes hid in the foliage. Trying desperately to run back down.
- Heading to Río Chico, a seaside town about two hours away from Caracas. Otherwise known as paradise, since my aunt’s condo had a pool. A pool!
- Going on a speedboat. Going on jet skis. Falling on actual skis.
- Having my two front teeth knocked out by a rogue kick board. They sunk into the watery depths of the pool.
- Watching as my cousins diligently and patiently dive into the pool for a whole week in search of my missing teeth. It was of the utmost urgency that they be found for Ratoncito Pérez (our version of the tooth fairy) would not give me money otherwise.
- Seeing my cousin Luis Manuel holding my front teeth in triumph. The Ratoncito Pérez giving me TWENTY whole dollars.
- Going out for pizza and having it be ruined by the presence of corn. Who ever thought corn was a good pizza topping?
- Surprisingly, all Venezuelans think corn is a good pizza topping.
- Walking along the beach in search of mussels. My Tía Lili showing me how to open up the shell and slurp the briny insides in one go. Trying it despite my hesitations. Loving every inch of the morsel. Pure bliss as I realize the shore is full of them and are there for the taking.
The last time I tried to go to Venezuela was for a cousin’s wedding. The plane ticket was about $4000 round-trip and the TSA warned that they could not guarantee the safety of our flight.