I was on the plane headed to Caracas, Venezuela from Madrid.
My heart fluttered, as the magnitude of my adventure was starting to sink in.
I couldn’t hear anyone on the plane speaking English as we began to leave the runway.
Furthermore, my family thought I’d be just fine this time around.
After all, from backing around the world at 18 to interrailing through Europe – what challenge would South America be?
It was my first stop that scared me the most.
Caracas, Venezuela in 2004 had one of the highest murder, kidnapping and robbery rates in the world. It was considered to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
That was what made it different from any other place I’d been to before this.
My Spanish was rusty, to say the least, and the hostel that I was staying at looked to be one of the cheapest places I could stay in town.
‘Where are you going man?’ said a man next to me.
By some miracle, I happened to be sitting next to two guys who had been in London to collect some parts for cars they were transporting (apparently it was cheaper this way somehow) – and were happy to speak with me.
As we rolled up into Caracas – they offered to drop me off at my hostel – they were unfamiliar with the address.
By the time we landed, it was already 10 pm; and even at the airport things felt hostile.
The mood in this city felt different to what I was used to; it felt gritty and tense.
I bundled into Jose and Frank’s car, and we shot off down the highway.
As we drove they pointed out the barrios to me – the city slums even the police didn’t dare patrol. These areas had their own worlds and own laws and it was like they were cut off from the rest of the world.
As we pulled up to the hostel I was meant to be staying at, things got seedier still. It was a relatively quiet street with lots of darkness outside.
However, some activity there was and it all seemed to be centred around the hostel I was staying in.
And that’s when I remembered my mistake.
Daniela has always chastised me for having the income too well – finding the time to write 52k words – but then not having the presence of mind to spend on things like trains and private accommodation.
I’ll still catch the Easybus or National Express or Terravision and stay in 6/8-bed hostels instead of actually staying in nicer places.
It was moments like these – where I walked in with the mentality that every penny counted that this had come from.
And with that mindset – I had obviously booked a place to say that was considered by the
Lonely Planet is somewhat unsavoury.
This hostel had neon lights that it had become known for. We turned a corner onto the road of the hostel and could see it almost signalling us in the dark night sky.
My vision narrowed, heart raced as we pulled quickly closer.
The hostel had guests, or the guests had a hostel, I couldn’t tell. Outside the hostel there stood a sinewy figure with something that looked partway between a cigarette and weed in his hand; but it was neither.
He slowly swayed from side to side rhythmically to a rhythm that was all of his own; as if he heard the music play to this single-standing audience.
Nothing could disturb him apart from the stick he held perilously in his right hand near his forehead whilst his elbows remained bent as if it was part prayer.
Prayer for what?
It really looked like prayer.
Jose caught my wondrous look.
‘He’s smoking cocaine bro’
‘I didn’t know you could smoke cocaine?’
‘Freebase cocaine you can. It’s cheaper to get out here. Gives you a more potent high’
I would look it up later and read ‘Freebase cocaine is essentially the “base” form of the drug – the drug in its solid form.’ It’s almost 100% pure cocaine.
They dropped me off at the hostel and I asked them to wait whilst I quickly stole in to check if…well it was open for business.
There was another man sitting smoking at the reception in the glumly lit space, and he casually looked across at me.
‘Hola que tal!’ I almost chortled.
He didn’t say a word back but just nodded up as if to ask ‘what do you want?’
‘Tengo una reserva para una habitación. Mi nombre es Deepak Shukla’
‘Ah si!’ His eyes lit up as if somehow that changed everything.
‘Mis maletas están en el auto, estaré en lo cierto’
I turned around to go and grab my bags and noticed the other two people around our freebase friend.
There was a woman silently standing next to him in an almost catatonic state; again looking bedraggled and sinewy.
She would come to life only to smoke and then resume her glazed state.
On the other side of the hostel, there was a man sitting down in a more familiar position. A homeless man of some sort who looked back at me knowingly into the darkness.
As I said my goodbye’ I went and was told that the hostel upstairs was full, but they had a room at the back.
All the other rooms could be rented by the hour.
As I walked through the hostel it then dawned upon where I was.
I could hear the stain-filled moans, bed banging and movement from within the room.
The bottom floor gave locals direct access to the rooms where you could find prostitutes who were payable by the hour for maximal returns.
The narrow corridor seemed to close tighter in on me as I tried to calmly walk to my room.
I shut the door quietly behind me and immediately sat down on the bed.
It was a stain-spent mattress within a wooden frame and a small bedside table and a lamp that I had for company; with a bible inside the table.
It felt like I needed it as I made a move for my phone to turn it on and see if I could find any signal.
I found none.
Slowly, preciously and precisely I unpacked my prized possessions as their status now became.
My wallet, my money hidden throughout my pack; and my passport.
And this was my first day in South America and a full-on adventure would ultimately await me.
From getting bundled into the back of a van by police officers trying to extort Tom and me (my Swiss friend I met at this same hostel); to staying beyond my visa deadline in Peru to never being allowed back to the country again to scootering around with a police officer and being asked to wait in his living room whilst he showered and left his gun on the table.
Anyway, that’s all for this one. If you’d like to hear more please just respond and I’ll follow up with more on my South American adventure.