Caracas: home of eternal spring and impenetrable traffic

"Ah, Caracas!"m -- Disc jockey. "Fabulous city of Caracas."m

-- Travel agent. "It is the Paris of South America."m

-- Friend.

When I stepped out of the plane that brough me from a cold November in New York, the heat at Venezuela's Mariquetia airport almost knocked me down. There could be no doubt that I had come close to the equator. My expectations, fueled by friends and travel agents, took off with all the excitement and confusion over bags and customs, the rapid Spanish, and then the drive away from the Venezuelan coast up into the mountains. We were going to the valley where the capital of Venezuela had been founded in 1567 by a Spanish conquistador, the City of Caracas, named after the long ago resident tribe of Indians. When Caracas finally emerged, spread out in that valley, it was a shock -- a profile of skyscrapers pierced by superhighways that gave way to office buildings, condominiums, luxury hotels, and enormous shopping centers, all of it laced with impenetrable traffic.

Caracas is a large Spanish speaking urban area and the traffic is "fabulous." Superhighways, directed right through the middle of the city, arch over cross streets and down again like the tracks in a fun house ride, but four-lane tracks with cars bumper to bumper. The wide Avenidos are traffic jammed, side streets blocked, intersections paralyzed, pedestrians choked by fumes, and everywhere a new building is going up or old ones are crumbling into the street while they are being torn down.

Old Caracas is hard to find in this new Caracas. There are tours to visit historical landmarks: Plaza Bolivar; the Panteon Nacional which holds Bolivar's ashes; Miraflores, the presidential palace; Quinta Arauco, a museum with things from the colonial period. Back on the tour bus the historical landmarks seem dwarfed, incidental to the city itself; it is like a morning visit to see elephants at the zoo. There seems to be so little between that old Spanish conquistador and today.

One trip that is said to be a "must" goes to the funicular that rises to the top of Pico Avila, 7,020 feet above sea level. On a clear day the view of the surrounding mountains and the city below is spectacular, and the fact of height is intensely felt as you swing along upwards in the cable car and drop back down the same way. Other tour trips go to the race track, to the botanical gardens, to night clubs.

Then there is shopping. If Paris means shopping, Caracas might well claim to be the Paris of South America. Gucci, Givenchy, high fashion and jewels, are all there in shops at the downtown luxury hotels (particularly in and around the Caracas Hilton), and along the three or four levels of the vast concrete Parque Central, almost a city itself, one shop follows another. A Venezuelan lady may go directly to Paris for her haute couture, but the market is here in this oil rich country.

Many Venezuelans appear to be middle class by US standards, but they follow the style of the jet set -- Paris for art, night life and fashion, and New York City for more of the same. They often own an apartment in Miami and perhaps New York. Art is investment, clothing and style are an obsession with the women. Americans and other foreigners living in Venezuela have taken on this life-style.

I met US lawyers, management personnel, engineers, and academics who had come for the job opportunities and the high pay. They complained about the way things don't work, servants, traffic, prices, the government, theft, even the role of women, and they disparaged Venezuelan cultural efforts -- the symphony, theater, dance and art -- as second rate, making comparisons with New York and Paris.But they stay here because they can have their cake and eat it in Caracas.

Things don't work well. Sometimes it takes hours to put through a telephone call. Why is a mystery.When I was visiting, the water went off in one of the city's large supply tanks so we had faucet water for washing up only from 8 to 9 in the morning and 5 to 9 in the evening, no hot water, and no toilets to be flushed until those water hours. The explanations, all different, made it nuclear what had happened. I noticed that the fountains downtown were all running nicely and I watched shopkeepers and some poor people fill their buckets and carry away their water supply from these public fountains. Then suddenly the water was back again.

Everything in Caracas is expensive. Merchandise for sale in the street shops or in new shopping centers is abundantly plastic and usually an America import or the product of an American industry set up in Venezuela, owned and run by a Caraqueno (who might be Cuban or Hungarian). The products of mass production are even in the markets and they are not cheap. Ever popular US style jeans cost much more than those in the states. They are worn tight, flaring at the bottoms. The new and readymade seem to be widespread; Venezuelan folk art, or Indian handcrafts, are hard to find. Often a store with folk art leans heavily on a stock of ponchos and weaving from Colombia.

The very modern Museum of Modern Art is in the center of the business section in the very modern Parque Central, the giant complex of offices, residences, restaurants, and stores. Victor Vasarely had a one man show in this museum when I was there. I found some small galleries in various shopping and business centers. A few of these small galleries had modern collections, several had expensive originals from Europe, and most exhibited traditional landscapes and seascapes by local artists.

The Museum de Bellas Artes is an old fashioned marble building. Its collection begins with the first Venezuelan (or Spanish) artists, an historical collection, and ends with a room or two exhibiting work by well known contemporary South American painters and sculptors. The museum is surrounded by a small garden and faces another old fashioned building, the Museo de Ciencias Naturales; together they make an island bound by a concrete network of streets and superhighways. This island, with its sampling of the past and of the natural world, is a good respite for someone walking in hot and hazardous downtown Caracas.

When I left what is called Venezuela's "upswing" -- that part of the city spreading out over the valley floor -- and walked up the slope passing apartment buildings, schools, grocers and druggists, houses and bakeries, on the way to my hotel, I could finally enjoy the beautiful climate. I felt the "eternal spring" described in all the guide books.The Hotel Avila, where I stayed, is not a new hotel and it is Spanish in style, with a large garden and outdoor swimming pool, chandeliers, mirrored lobbies, and dining both inside and near the pool in wicker chairs under big umbrellas. Every room has a balcony. The hallways outside the rooms are open to the garden and in the morning I watched birds fly down to peck crumbs from the room service breakfast trays. Those breakfast trays fitted with silver services and pink cloth napkins seemed to me a legacy from that old conquistador. Often the napkins were worn but well mended which may say something about the costs of labor compared to the cost of goods.

After sundown some friends drove with me along the highway (like a beltway) further up the mountain beyond the Hotel Avila. The nighttime view of Caracas was a marvel. Under that great dark night sky of the "eternal spring," city lights covered the whole valley as far as I could see and hundreds of soft yellow lights flickered from the mountains on the other side of the city. It was beautiful, worthy of "Ah, Caracas!"

In the daylight I discovered that those soft mountainside lights came from the ranchos. The ranchos seem to grow out of the slopes, shacks dug into the earth, with tin roofs, bricks, and boards painted pink and blue and turquoise. Thousands of people have used that terrain for homes that may defy gravity but fit into the mountainside in a way that does not defy the landscape. This large uncounted population of poor people has created a landscape that, seen from a distance, is one of the most beautiful in Caracas. It is a shock to think how many thousands live in this poverty beyond the reach of any possible census count.

Businessmen told me that they have a constant labor shortage which necessitates importing workers from Colombia. They have problems with rapid turnover; they say that the government-mandated severance pay makes it attractive for a worker to leave his job and get another one later. Businessmen are frustrated if their production depends on some imported parts. Those parts can be stuck on shipboard out in the harbor for months simply because there is not enough docking space. They are frustrated because the demand for goods is so high and they can't keep up with it. On one hand they must struggle with inefficient, status conscious government bureaus, on the other hand they are relieved that they have political stability.

Servants are also imported from Colombia and sometimes from Central America. Everyone seems to have a servant; even those who live in apartments seem to have room for one. How far down in the middle class this goes I don't know, but many women do not cook or clean and need help with their children (there are no baby sitters); maintaining their appearance seems to fill a large part of their time. The process of getting and keeping a good servant is a major point of conversation.

A Frenchman would say that it bears no comparison, but eating in Caracas is like eating in Paris because the food is so extremely good everywhere. Fresh baked breads from the bakeries; fine cheeses and fruits from the grocers; in small restaurants and cafes -- delicious egg, pancake, and chicken dishes, and custards; restaurants with French, Arabic, Hungarian, Spanish, or Italian menus and Venezuelan criollo dishes (the hallaca, sancocho, mondongo, pabellon), excellent Venezuelan meat and seafood. Whether you chose an elegant place of someplace around the corner doesn't matter; it is good everywhere.

For someone from a cold climate the fresh fruit is extraordinary. It is as if every kind of fruit is miraculously in season at the same time. This miracle includes tropical fruits, pineapple, papayas, mangos. Melons, strawberries, oranges -- the same full array -- is used to make icy fresh fruit drinks called batidos.

The arepa seemed to me a star among criollo specialties. It is a small round hot crusty roll of cornmeal that may be filled with ham, cheese, chicken -- many different fillings or combinations are possible in the open restaurants specializing in arepa. My favorite was an arepa with black beans and soft white cheese, with a cold melon batido alongside.

Caracas is perhaps so "fabulous" because of Venezuela's prosperity, a success story city in progress, a great rapid growing center nurtured by oil, and if it is the Paris of South America, it is a Paris that seems without history, born today.

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