(Bloomberg) -- Editor’s Note: There are few places as chaotic or dangerous as Venezuela. “Life in Caracas” is a new series of short stories that seeks to capture the surreal quality of living in a land in total disarray.
On the afternoon of Nov. 19, 2017, I walked off the plane at the Caracas international airport, strolled through immigration, picked up my bags and officially became part of what has to be an absurdly tiny group: Venezuelans who — voluntarily — move back home.
It was an odd feeling. And I had plenty of misgivings. But I am a journalist and had long felt the urge to cover the tragedy unfolding in my native country.
When I reached my mother in Bogota to tell her my plans, she cried. My father, a more stoic sort, took it a bit better but was still perplexed. At least my grandmother Olga was pleased. At 92, she remains in Caracas, in the same little apartment in the hills.
I visit her frequently now. It’s one of the best parts of being back home. And yet, even in her comforting presence, I am hit with the same nagging sensation that seems to follow me wherever I go in the city: a feeling of emptiness, of living in a land that was left behind.
It’s nothing she says, of course. It’s the pictures, scores and scores of them, placed neatly everywhere, of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There are 35 of us. And only five — counting me — live in Venezuela. The rest are scattered far and wide: Gisela moved to Seattle; Anabella to Bogota; Ana Sofía to Lima; Guayo to Madrid; Valentina to Calgary; Lucía to Panamá City; Carlos Vicente to Atlanta.
This feeling of abandonment is a powerful thing here. It struck me the moment I got off the plane that day in November. The baggage claim area was dead quiet. The customs checkpoint was a breeze. Long gone were the rowdy, chaotic scenes that I remember from my childhood travels.
On the ride from the airport up into the city, my eyes scanned the landscape for my old haunts: the Italian ice cream shop near my high school, the university soccer stadium, the hospital where I was born. All were now covered in a thick layer of neglect. The walls were filthy and covered in graffiti; the paint was faded.
A few weeks ago, I took a stroll through the Lido shopping mall in eastern Caracas. It was a modern and sparkling facility back in its heyday, a couple of decades ago. Always crowded. Now, I found store upon store shuttered. Those that were open were empty. The employees sat slumped deep in chairs in the hallways and passed the time texting.
Lido had been something of a hangout for me and my friends. We’d go the movies there. A ticket used to cost 20 bolivars. Today, it'll set you back 100,000 bolivars.
A handful of these old friends are still here. They talk a lot about joining the exodus. This can create awkward moments between us. Like the recent night out, when we all decided to raise our glasses as my friends shouted out with joy how their escape plans were advancing: One was getting close to scoring a Spanish passport, clink; another was about to move to Chile, clink; another had secured a visa to study in Houston, clink.
And then all eyes turned to me. There were some uncomfortable laughs and sideways glances before we decided that, yes, we would toast to this, too — to the one who voluntarily came home. Clink.
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