The stream of people leads to what looks like a very convincing grocery store. I join the line in doubt, reassured only by a backpack that I recognize from the bus. The woman at the other end handles my passport quickly and points to the office at the top of the hill, staring blankly at my confusion and my jokes about tomatoes (at least I managed to confuse her too). A few steps and 4 hours later I’m in no-man’s territory: the space between Costa Rica and Panama.
My first official moves in the land of the Canal are closely followed by Orlando, a massive dude that would make Mike Tyson’s teeth tremble. His deep and loud voice delivers all sorts of friendly advice, which is both super sketchy and incredibly helpful. He guides me and a Spanish couple through more grocery store stamps and taxes before offering a ride to Almirante, where the three of us need to catch our next buses. I’m secretly reassured by being the least foreign of the three as we get in the car and start moving.
Turns out Orlando is a sweetheart. I plan on asking all sorts of questions about his country, but seconds after the car is started he raises the volume of the stereo to blinding levels. After the initial blast of insanely loud island rhythms, I start to recognize familiar melodies tucked under his out of tune singing. These are all Caribbean versions of romantic ballads. Promises of eternal love and sunshine dance around steel pans and reggae beats just before they’re crushed under Orlando’s stomping vocal chords. This guy has heard this more than once and he’s not afraid to show it.
As I theorize about what happened the woman that introduced him to this music and then broke his heart, I start to notice what will become familiar over the next couple weeks: Panamanian’s friendliness is only topped by HOW HORRIBLY THEY DRIVE. Our car cruises wavy roads like there’s no tomorrow, honking and waving at everyone we come across. It’s like if Speed Racer had become the mayor of this town.
I resist at first, but at some point I let go and embrace the near-death experience. Sights blur. We’re past the speed of sound, which is great because Orlando’s singing disintegrates before it can reach my ears. Right before I start to experience time traveling, a white bus appears in front of us. “That’s the one you need to take”, I manage to understand. We cut in front of it, drivers yell the usual nasty greetings at each other, and before I notice I’m sitting in a different vehicle watching the frightened Spaniards dissolve into the light.
I finally have time to think. Borders are strange, interesting places.
I’m sitting on one of the many grass fields that cover the UCV, Venezuela’s largest and most famous university. Some of the brightest and most influential minds of the country have come out of “the house that conquers shadows”, as they call it. UNESCO even named it a World Heritage Site – truly an amazing place. Inside its massive campus you’ll find admirable buildings, stunning theaters and also the cheapest printing services in town, which is why I came. After I was done with my errand I sat down to have some coffee.
Gustavo sits next to me. We exchange a couple jokes about the weather, universal ice breaker. As the words go on his talking strikes me as oddly familiar. What do you do? I ask. “I want to become the next president of Venezuela. I want to be the next Chávez”. Oh, that was it.
Riding on my recent Nicaraguan success, we start talking politics. He’s only 22 years old but already knows a lot – way more than what I’ve heard from most of those who I’m supposed to think like. He’s genuinely curious about my life in the US, and I’m just pleased that I can talk to a Chavista without being yelled at. Things have definitely changed.
We exchange a lot of words. He opens up, makes jokes, and tells me what he wants to do. This is amazing. His theories about violence, his social concern, his sad acknowledgements of corruption; this guy has put a lot of thought into this.
After a while, an outbreak of sincerity makes me say I never liked his idol and that I’m happy we can talk like human beings in spite of that. His face changes.
I’ve crossed the border.
Is there money in the US?
It’s not safe there, right?
There’s no work there, right?
Living is expensive there, right?
You’re rich, right? You must be.
Sharing stops. My questions about violence are dodged with weird assumptions about Germans, WWII and Neo-Nazis in NY. Where does this come from? Have you been there? I ask. I haven’t, but I read, he says before he leaves.
I guess not all has changed, I think while I naively stop at a red light. Incessant honking brigs me back. God, I’m such a gringo now!
Coming to terms with “voluntary exile” is a strange thing. Venezuela’s socioeconomic climate defies both logic and the time-space continuum; things get weird really fast and after two years of absence there’s a feeling of being a tourist in my own country. But I have changed too. Overpriced bad coffee, obsessive measuring of everything and things making some sort of sense have become habitual for me, and that was hard to face as well. Going back has been a chance to reconsider what to keep from each place and what to finally let go. And for that I’m truly grateful.
I can’t help but think about those who leave in much harder conditions than I did, or those who feel away at home and have no choice. I think about borders today. About how stupid they seem.
Identity, after all, are just the habits we haven’t questioned yet.