Originally we’d planned to break up our volunteering with a two week trip to Venezuela. Its border is just a few hours from Santa Marta, the chance for new passport stamps is hard to ignore, plus, we were looking forward to observing the legacy of Hugo Chavez. Chavez’s image was probably the main one we associated with Venezuela. We wanted to see the quirks of an economy he had run (arguably into the ground).
Deciding to go to Venezuela
What we didn’t understand from afar is that Venezuela isn’t just a kind of quaint socialist experiment that’s managed to keep itself tourist friendly (like, say, Cuba). In fact it’s really dangerous. It ranks number four on the most murderous countries in the world, and on average last year there were four violent protests against the government each day. To add to this, a renewed and widespread protest movement against the government coincided with our planned trip. We’ll write about this specifically soon.
We were lucky to get a much clearer picture after we arrived in Colombia. We talked with other travelers, and we crowdsourced advice from friends-of-friend Venezuelans on facebook which was very useful. Some said not to go. Others said there was nothing to worry about. Everyone told us to be very careful: don’t speak English on the streets, don’t show your camera, and never your dollars…
Our decision was pretty finely balanced, but in the end we decided to go. We count ourselves as reasonably savvy travelers. We scaled down our trip from a planned two week tour to a four day surgical strike to a safe area: enough to get a taste, but only a taste, of how crazy things were over the border.
Crossing the border
We were still feeling nervous as we boarded our direct bus from Santa Marta to Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second biggest city. Our luggage was thoroughly searched by Colombian security before we boarded. Contraband trafficking across the border is a major problem, and is heavily policed.Our first challenge was actually getting in to Venezuela. Our research on traveler forums revealed the border guards weren’t super excited about letting fascist, capitalist swine in to their country. Americans in particular, but also Canadians, Brits and Aussies were frequently (but seemingly randomly) subject to demands for extra documentation.
We didn’t have the written hotel reservation, letter of invitation, or return ticket that the guards might ask for. We were betting they’d think New Zealand was some quaint part of continental Europe, not the axis of capitalist evil. On that front we were lucky. We were given a tourist visa without a second look. But not until after the border post inexplicably closed without notice for about an hour for what we assume was a dinner break.
We anticipated we might need to wait a similar amount of time at customs. Our bus was late, and we weren’t looking forward to a later than expected arrival in Maraciabo’s dark outskirts. We’d also been reliably informed that customs officers frequently helped themselves to tourist possessions when searching.
When Fiona asked the bus driver whether we’d have to wait long at customs he said it would depend. It depended on whether he could raise enough from a whip around of passengers to bribe the customs officers to let us through un-searched. On the advice of Venezuelan passengers, we were happy to contribute. I was reminded of a public administration class where we looked at the factors that make the most fertile ground for corruption: individual discretion and distance from authority structures. Border officials are a case in point.
It was dark by the time we headed off into Venezuela. The feeling of foreboding was stronger than when arriving at Christchurch airport. There was no life on the streets as there is in Colombia: it’s too dangerous after dark. Danger came up in conversation with the bus passengers we befriended like the weather might at home.
The bus driver had chosen a Tom Hanks movie about pirates storming a container ship as our entertainment. It probably wasn’t the most soothing choice for the 80km of highway that gets more than its fair share of kidnappings and where Western governments discourage foreign travel. As well as contraband, the border is frequented by FARC, a Colombian rebel group that is at least tacitly supported by the Venezuelan government.
At least the bus drivers had the good manners to turn the volume down when we regularly had to stop so the bus could be searched by military. We arrived in Maracaibo unscathed, but still unsettled about our few days in Venezuela.