I was in Caracas last week. Almost did not go for the simple reason that it is quite difficult, besides expensive, to find an airline ticket out of Caracas. Venezuela is simply drifting away, further and further apart from the world.
In my case, my trip, more like a saga, began when I found a ticket Caracas-Aruba in Aserca to make a connection to a US airline in Aruba. Plenty of time between the two, Aserca was leaving at 11:30 AM, the other flight leaving at 3:35 PM. Given that the flight to Aruba is 35 to 40 minutes, there should be no problem. On top of that, I had only hand luggage.
Chop half an hour from the time between flights, thanks to now banned Chavista genius Navarro, as I did not take into account (my fault) the half an hour difference between the two countries. I did show up at the airport a three full hours before flight time. Seemed like a good precaution, as Aserca has no line for those without luggage.
Well, when I showed up, there was a huge line for the full flight and all but four passengers were in line in front of me. Fortunately (or maybe I should have worried about it) there was a sign that check-in would close at 9:30 a full two hours before the flight. That meant, that the line would only last one hour.
And it did. With about three minutes to spare.
In the line, I learned a number of things from the ladies ahead of me. For one, they bring their food to Aruba, you know, they told me, food is so much more expensive there. Thus, they bring their food, hiding it under the clothes, so that Aruba customs does not take it away. That happened to me, said a different lady. They also discussed how bringing lots of food is good, more space to bring back the stuff they buy in Aruba, which turns out to be paper products (toilet paper and diapers are favorites), food (not fancy ones, those you can get in Caracas. It’s all the stuff he government controls or imports that they bring back) and cosmetics. Cosmetics, like soap, shampoo and similar things, lest you think that they bring back expensive things like perfume. I also learned you have to stay a full week in Aruba in order to get the full US$ 700 from Cadivi. Better to go to Aruba than Miami, said a third lady, the ticket is cheaper and you get the same amount of money. Besides, I bring my kids, they don’t cost as much and I can ask for US$ 700 for each.
I trust I am not passing bad information, I haven’t checked it. But on how to squeeze the Chavista foreign exchange/travel system, these ladies seemed like true experts.
To my surprise, right before check-in there was a guy that would actually ask you if you were connecting to another flight. I thought I was the only one. How wrong I was. There were people connecting to my flight and to at least four other ones. In fact, looking over his writings on the reservation list (the only thing that was respected all day) about half the flight, including many kids, were making connections to the US and/or Europe. There were twelve connecting to my flight. I should have gotten worried when the agent told me that Aserca was not responsible for any of my expenses if I did not make the connection. I actually expressed confidence that there was plenty of time between flights, to which he answered: “Well, yesterday one passenger did not show up and it took an hour and a half for the National Guard to allow the removal of the baggage belonging to that passenger. The plane left with a three and a half hour delay.”
But I am a lucky devil, no pun intended, so I went to immigration confident that there would be no problem.
We were told to be at the gate at 10:30 AM, so I drifted towards Gate 22 at 10:15 AM not that I expected the flight to leave without me. Gate 22 must be the gate from hell. It is a combination of Venezuelan organizational planning, combined with Venezuelan military organizational planning (A true oxymoron).
You see, when you approach Gate 22, there are two signs: Gate 22 in the back and gate 17 in the front. If you are dumb enough to follow the Gate 22 sign, you reach a corridor, blocked by cardboard. Thus, you have to go back to gate 17. That is Gate 22. Obvious no?
There are no signs in gate 17 ( or 22). Just an escalator going down and stairs coming up. Given that there were four flights waiting to use Gate 22, the upstairs lounge was completely full, since it did not even have capacity for a small commercial jet. Downstairs is different. It is empty, there are seats. But even though you have just passed security once, the chairs in the waiting lounge are blocked and you have to go through the National Guard security in order to get to the lounge and eventually on to the buses to the plane.
A not so pleasant looking Guardsman comes up to me and tells me to go back up until my flight is called. Up the stairs I go, not before he gives me the explanation: Your gate number could be changed (I should have paid more attention at this point), for example, and you would be down here.
Sounds perfectly logical, but I still don’t understand why flights that required a bus, need double security.
I go back up. During the time I was there, I saw some two dozen people go downstairs and then trek back up, including a pregnant lady with two kids.
Order (ha! ha!) was restored when the Aserca people showed up, roughly at the same time as the La Venezolana staff (different flight). This happened about ten minutes after the time we were supposed to be at the gate. Then began the placebo explanations of the Aserca staff. The plane is being filled with gasoline. Next customer up, the plane is in the national terminal. Next customer, if the plane is brought here we will leave from a different gate. (Told you I should have listened!)
As I am getting impatient, a passenger says: “We have to be very patient, this is Venezuela”. I feel like telling her why I don’t want to be patient, but I shut up. About an hour later, we are told the plane is full of gas (Cheers!), but it will be brought over now to the international terminal (Booo!). This means we have to go to Gate 28. (Which is actually Gate 28)
A real gate! No second National Guard check up of our hand luggage. Makes sense, no? Just kidding!
At the gate I meet a lot of fellow “conectees” worried about time. I meet a guy who is connecting to my flight. I tell him I only have hand luggage and have my boarding pass printed. I explain that the airline closes the flight 45 minutes ahead of time, thus, if we are further delayed, he will not make it. He does the check in in his phone. (He is the only other person that made the connection: “Thanks Devil” this guy should say. You are welcome!). There is a family going to San Francisco, a girl to meet her Spanish fiancee in Scotland. A guy who is moving to the US. Another getting his visa soon. Another bought a fish business. And finally, an Arubian/Venezuelan (Doctor, builder, grandfather and tool smuggler into Aruba) who clearly has done this many times and explains at the gate and on board exactly what obstacles you will have in Aruba to make the connection. (Thanks buddy!)
We finally board. A little disorganized, but hey, Germanic compared to everything what went on before. We might yet make it.
As we are sitting on the plane, the Captain apologizes for the delay and says…we will have another delay, because the truck to start the engines is in the National terminal and has to be brought over. (Why did they move the plane then?)
It looks tough now. Very tough.
As we wait, the stewardess asks me to check if my seat has a life saver underneath. It does. Two mechanics come on board and start checking for life savers around my area. They are all there, but there is a report that one was missing. Finally it is determined, that it was the seat of the girl going to Scotland, sitting behind me, that did not have one, it was an empty bag under her seat. How would she know. She is given a life saver to put in the pocket ahead.
To my surprise the two mechanics that boarded the plane to check the life savers, stay on board. I don’t even want to ask why. They are seated in front of me, this must be the safe area of the plane, I tell myself…
We finally move at 1:45 PM Caracas time, which is 2:15 PM Aruba time, my flight is at 3:35 PM. Looks bad.
Flight goes well. I am seated close to the front. I leave the plane and start running. I get to Aruba immigration and the lines are huge, like 50 people deep. The not so considerate gentleman organizing the line tells me to get in any line, he can’t do anything for me. My new friend follows. We ask the people in the next line if we can go ahead of them. they say sure, they are vacationers going to Aruba, we look stressed. We bypass a bunch of people and when I am called, the immigration lady I got is given a pack of eight passports to process ahead of me. “You can stay here, she says”
And then I run. Remembering the instructions by the Aruban/Venezuelan guy on the plane, I exit the terminal, take a left. Then another left to departures. I keep running, O.J. Simpson style (dated joke, last time I did this was in 1977, still recall the analogy). Then I do Aruba immigration and security. I keep running. Then I do US immigration and security. No lines, thanks God. Nice agent.
Then I run more, My plane is at the last gate at the airport. gate 8. I show my boarding pass. Lady says: “Mr. Octavio, I thought you were already on board”. I run, get in the plane, sweating by now, sit down and the stewardess offers me a glass of water and some paper towels (Thanks Veronica!) . She then turns around and closes the door to the plane.
I made it, but I realize that Venezuela is slowly drifting apart form the world. It is further and further away every day in all possible senses: Physically, intellectually and cronologically. And this increasing remoteness is true for both those abroad like me and for those who still live there.
What a tragedy!