When we return to our hometown after a prolonged tour of duty, we suddenly feel like a lingering emptiness has been filled, bringing the peace we longed for. Specific parts of town trigger your memory more in the beginning as we reabsorb the surrounding ambience, such as the streets you used take to school, the place you worked and eventually, building a snowball of flashbacks down memory lane. Depending on how long ago it was since you had last been there, you remember the buildings but they don’t quite look the same anymore. The once photographic memory resembles more a faded Polaroid picture. Nature has taken over what used to be pristine gardens, colours of things don’t match what you remembered and even buildings themselves appear to have dipped into a depression lamenting your absence. The city thought you would never return. Other buildings look booming and radiant almost as if to prove the point that “the grass really is greener on the other side”. Life moved on while you were gone and the pieces making that mental jigsaw of a place don’t seem to fit as naturally as they once did.
|Maman and I in Caracas|
On Easter 1998 - a festivity commonly referred to down South as Holy Week due to long observed duration of the holiday, reflecting the predominant Roman Catholic faith – Dad, Maman and I hopped on a plane for Caracas as part of a now routine evacuation. Maman had managed to track down our Venezuelan family friends before actually making the trip, the Marquez, who had returned there following their posting in Quito, Ecuador. Nine years after we left, we were back! This was their home base, much like Ottawa was ours. They warned us before coming - as any good friend would - that perhaps we should avoid making this trip, primarily because Caracas had undergone a face lift gone bad performed by an unlicensed political surgeon. Things hadn’t changed much. This South American oil sheik was making mad money selling off its precious natural resources through the oil cartel to an enslaved consumer relying on a limited international market. Nevertheless, the petroleum tycoon had not channelled the revenue to provide for the country’s poorest still living in similar or worse conditions from our heyday. As a matter of fact, the major change was that an already high crime continued its trend upward at an alarming rate. We were well aware of the potential dangers at hand, knowing it hadn’t been the safest place while living there, but it was a chance we could not pass up to be reunited with our Venezuelan family. Usually the odds are slightly better if you have someone on the inside.
Jhonny and Juan Alberto had come to greet us at Maiquetia Airport, a place we had often frequented during our 1986-1989 posting. Going through the terminal, everything I was seeing was going through my internal mental processor, sorting out images to pair them up with existing saved data from the old days. I had a sense of homecoming and I was genuinely pleased. Juan and I loaded the suitcases into the trunk in the airport parking lot, where I noticed a circular perforation in the rear driver’s side of his father’s vintage, lime green Mercedes. On the road into Caracas from La Guaira, I questioned the origin of the aforementioned hole and was explained rather colourfully that some ruffian shot a pistol at his car a few times and only one bullet actually hit his vehicle. We all wondered if the aggression was warranted or not. As he shared his explanation, no one felt his story increased our self-awareness of probable security threats. Our reaction to his monologue was the understanding that this was more like a curious everyday happening. He always had a gift of story telling due to his easy going attitude about many aspects in his life which made any difficult circumstance sound funny. I can’t honestly say, especially to those following this blog from its inception, that nothing of this sort had happened to us. When living a normal life under these types of circumstances, you become somewhat desensitized and find humour in these situations. It makes everything that much easier. You really can’t do anything to change the negative realities out there and sometimes, instead of being powerless, a good chuckle or giggle helps bury the worry temporarily. Otherwise, you may end up locking yourself the closet of your choice hiding from life, but that does more harm than good for your personal long-term mental health.
It was great to see the beautiful landmarks of Caracas, visiting the Teresa Carreno Theatre, the Fine Arts Museum, the Archeology Museum, Plaza Bolivar and the National Capitol, the seat of government. These were exactly as I remembered them. I cannot forget to mention revisiting the extensive highway network of Caracas as well. These were spectacular concrete monsters with intersections bearing their own nicknames, such as the octopus and the centipede, due to their many layers of traffic feeds and wild curves. Things were as busy as ever once you hit the streets. The roadways still seemed to be dominated by the motorcycle snaking through gridlock. The major change I noticed was the number of Wendy’s burger joints and that struck me as odd. Most South American cities had primarily Burger Kings at most and Pizza Huts – most of these had great playgrounds for kids – and MacDonald’s seemed to enter the local markets shortly before our departure. This Golden Arch syndrome was a very weird coincidence indeed. In the 80s and 90s, I had not seen a single Wendy’s outside of North America. We even had dinner the night we arrived at a Hoolihan’s. This was a reasonable establishment on US soil yet they are usually jazzed up for South American markets, much like Tony Roma’s and TGI Friday’s. Our other meals reconnected us to our times in Venezuela through the tasty Venezuelan arepas, tequeñones and the pabellón criollo. When travelling the world, allow yourself to experience new things to develop your wonderful pallet – a true genetic gift from our maker – and you will not be disappointed. There is a real world of flavours out there. The company of the Marquez and the ever-present laughter made our meals so much more pleasurable. Good food is meant to be enjoyed with good company.
|The Bickfords and the Marquez reunited|
This return to Caracas was unlike any other experience I had ever lived so far. Every major urban centre we had been posted to was routinely for a period of three years. During this time, I became part of the city, absorbing its culture, knowing various shortcuts and all the ins and outs – I had an exceptional sense of direction as a kid and was often able to serve as my father’s GPS to avoid traffic jams on our way from A to B – and breathed the same sweet air as every other citizen. In a certain way, it was like I earned my place in each of these magnificent cities. However, after each three year posting, we always packed our bags knowing the high probability that we would never return, leaving these settlements in the annals of our personal history. This trip had broken with that established pattern. It was curious that, no matter how many years had come and gone, my place among the people of Caracas was waiting for me in some shape or form. I somehow belonged to the life energy fueling the city’s organism. I continued to identify with my fellow ‘caraqueños’ as if I had come home. Home was becoming harder to define. I wondered if this would also apply to Brasilia and Santiago should I ever go back, as I continued to possess a strong affinity to both places, even though I had lost all ties with the people I knew there. Venezuela would be forever in my being.