I spent 19 days in Venezuela when I was 19 years old. Those 19 days were full of life - bursting with so many different emotions and experiences. Some of the hardest days of my life were spent there…but also some of the most thrilling and culturally rich.
I traveled to Venezuela with my fellow Up With People cast mates. There were 150 of us and we represented 26 different countries. We had been together since July touring Canada and The United States, but for many of us this was our first time off the North American continent. Our goal was to promote peace and understanding among nations through our Broadway-style show, our community service, and our host family experiences. It had been 13 years since a cast had toured Venezuela. We were known as Viva La Gente! (Live the People!). Our stay in March of 1996 included five allocations: Valencia (11th -16th), Barquisimeto (16th - 19th), Caracas (19th - 24th), Cuidad Bolivar (24th - 27th), and Porto Ordaz (27th - 30th).
Bienvenidos! Our adventures began in a very unique fashion. We flew from Florida in two huge Venezuelan military cargo planes. We sat side by side along the frame of the plane in orange net-like chairs. Our luggage was put in big strapped-together piles beside us. Everyone wore ear plugs on this noisy, crowded six hour flight. Upon arrival in the country, we were put onto three big busses that drove 80 miles per hour while blasting Venezuelan dance music (Merengue) to our first city, Valencia.
I had the sweetest host family which included Esperanza (the mom), Jorge (the 15 year old brother), and two other brothers ages 13 and 17. Jorge spoke excellent English, but Esperanza did not. I had taken two years of Spanish class in high school so I understood a few things, but I was shy to try to speak. Esperanza constantly asked me if I was “contento” and if all was “sufficiento.” She told me I was “groggy” in the mornings and she reminded me each day to wear my “nametag!” Esperanza made the most delicious fruit juices I have ever tasted in my life! Their home was lovely with a wavy tin roof and decorative bars across the windows (but no glass).
I climbed a small mountain (Cerro Casupo) on my first full day in Venezuela. Jorge carried his Spanish/English dictionary along on our hike. He was very passionate about pronouncing his English words correctly. It was a hot, dry day with March being part of Venezuela’s dry season. Jorge told me that sometimes cows die during the dry season, but that during the rainy season river and lakes overflow.
At the show facility (La Casa Don Bosco) I had my first interaction with street children. There was a mob of shouting children around a few of us. We were all smiles and nods. We said, “si! si!” to the children. Jorge later told us the children had been swearing at us to make fun of us. I was told to be careful of my valuables because these street children were known to steal. Sad. Later, when selling show merchandise at the intermission of our show there were people stealing merchandise and money from me. It was scary being surrounded by a mob of people who knew I was wearing a money belt jammed full of bolivars (dollars). I felt very trapped and claustrophobic!
Drivers in Venezuela were another thing to be wary of! In addition to driving very fast, they also change lanes quickly - sometimes four lanes at a time! Sometimes cars had to throw on their breaks to avoid hitting someone changing lanes who didn’t calculate very well. When passing someone on the freeway, they honk their horn. I felt like it was a miracle to get anywhere safely!
During my time in Venezuela I ate lots of corn, rice, meat, and arrapas. An arrapa is flatbread made from ground maize or cooked flour. Arrapas were usually cut in half and some kind of meat or cheese was put inside. They were very filling. In Venezuela, I also had soup the color of egg yolks that tasted like corn and tuna the color of beef. I had spaghetti noodles with salsa on top and once I had lasagna. I had mashed potatoes, chicken, and carrots & tomato salad for one meal. Apple cake was served for dessert. I drank iced tea, fruit juice, a chocolate drink, guava juice, milk, and lots of bottled water! One morning my host mom gave me a strawberry shake to drink. She pointed to it and said, “weight-less!” I think it was a Slim-Fast drink.
Our first show in Venezuela was unbelievable! It was amazing! I think I now have an inkling what it might have been like to be one of The Beatles. Such enthusiasm, such generosity, such emotion, such screaming! We even had to have security people at each end of the stage. The audience would scream and cheer whenever anyone came on stage and then applaud wildly after every song. If they knew a song or could catch on to a chorus, they belted out the words with such vigor. The entire show was in Spanish and we concluded with two Venezuelan songs. The audience sang along wholeheartedly. They clasped hands and swayed with their arms up in the air. It was beautiful. Talk about chills. We were all beaming and squeezing each others’ hands too. We ended up doing two encores! The audience even knew our theme song, “Viva La Gente” and an old original classic from the beginning of Up With People (in 1965) called, “What Color Is God’s Skin?” I know I was not the only one with tears streaming down my face listening to the audience sing, “De Que Color Es La Piel De Dios….”
Our second show didn’t run quite so smoothly. The power kept going out. There were about 20 Venezuelan military men watching the show and controlling the crowd (we had learned from our first show that we’d need help). Standing on stage with all the uniformed men around us reminded me of the scene from The Sound of Music when the Von Traps are performing at the Vienna Music Festival before their big escape over the mountains.
My impression was that most Venezuelans love to party! In fact, parties often last until three or four in the morning. I attended a couple parties with my host families, but I always left at midnight. In Valencia I went to a Dance Club called “Nuvo.” They had a dress code, so everyone was dressed nicely. There was fancy lighting and special effects and at one point confetti came down from the ceiling. I attended a party in Barquisimeto that was held at the home of my host sister’s friend. Five musicians wearing sombreros arrived and played their trumpets, guitars, and fiddles. It was a live “Mariachi Band” serenading the birthday girl. That was quite the thrilling cultural experience.I really enjoyed my Valencia host family. At one point Jorge asked me who my favorite host family so far in Up With People had been. As I was describing a family from Barrie, Ontario, I mentioned that we had played Uno together. A day or two later Jorge and his family sat down at the table with the Uno cards and asked me to play. So sweet! There was Spanish music playing and we laughed a lot (mostly making fun of my Spanish). Good memory.
When it was time to leave Valencia all the host families gathered at the drop off sight where the busses were. Mothers, fathers, children, and grandparents were all there and many of them were crying and shouting their last goodbyes. People got right up near the windows of our busses and looked in. Once the busses started leaving the people did a clapping cheer that got louder and louder. Then many of them got in their cars and followed behind us, honking their horns and waving madly. There were still cars following us 15 minutes after we departed!
In Barquisimeto, my roommate and I had a nice host mom and two host sisters. Lulu was a university student studying to be a preschool teacher. She told me that on average, it takes about 6 years to get a degree because there are so many strikes at the university! Leibas was the host sister that took us to the party with the Mariachi band. This host family taught us the traditional way to greet one another - with a kiss on the cheek. Everyone kisses everyone except a guy and a guy never kiss each other! Their home was drastically different from the Valencia home. There was nothing fancy about it. The walls were almost completely bare and some of the rooms were separated by just a curtain. Their extremely small kitchen had no door and one could walk right out into their lush, green garden just inches from their stove. There were cockroaches in the shower and cement floors everywhere.
Our Barquisimeto host family had some terrible news while we were staying with them. Their niece died in a car accident. It was such a sad time. It happened on a “free day” when there were no Up With People activities and we were supposed to spend the day with our host families. My roommate and I just stayed in our room and let them grieve. It was a long day.
On the day we had to leave Barquisimeto our host family wanted to give us something. So, Leibas walked over to the wall in the main entryway and took two clay decorative pieces down from their wall and gave one to me and one to my roommate. Then the wall was bare. We were so moved, we were speechless. I keep that treasure in my curio cabinet and look at it often and remember.
Our third stay in Venezuela was in Caracas, the capital city. I came into this noisy, dirty city full of fear and I basically had a nervous breakdown. At the meeting where we usually meet our host families, the team informed us that most of us were hosted alone and that most of us would have to use the Metro to get to our host family’s house. I was one of them. They explained this right after telling us things like, “Never be alone! Never wear jewelry or Nike shoes! Blond girls watch out because these Venezuelan men can’t be trusted!” I lost it. I cried hysterically and could not be consoled. It’s all a big blur, but eventually they gave me a new host family where I was hosted with four roommates (including a staff member). Our host mom (Yoselyn) and two host sisters were there to bring us home. It took two hours using the Metro system to get us to their penthouse apartment. They lived on the top floor of a twelve story building. They had linoleum floors and glass windows. Out on the terrace one could look over all of Caracas. I slept on the floor, but I was just so thankful to feel safe.
Caracas is a big city with lots of poverty. I had never seen anything like it. There was a huge hill that had shack after shack piled close together. Many of these shacks were made of cardboard. Some had tin roofs. It reminded me of Mesa Verde National Park.While in Caracas my roommates and I had quite a unique experience. We got to appear on National Television in a comedy program called, “Caracas Radial.” From what I understand, it is a program similar to America’s “Saturday Night Live” with comedic sketches and repeat characters. Before our appearance we had to get our makeup and hair done. I got bright red lipstick and my hair was huge! The sketch was about an annoying hair dresser who was supposed to give us each a hair cut and massage. We each had to jump up and slap him on the cheek. The show was advertised all over the place and they made a big deal of having guests from “Viva La Gente” on the show. We taped the sketch on a Friday and it appeared on TV the following Monday. About a week later, one of my roommates was approached by someone in the mall who asked her if she was from “Viva La Gente.” She had seen “Caracas Radial” and had recognized her. We were famous! But, it was such a weird experience!
Our Up with People show facility in Caracas was amazing. It could hold 20,000 people. Michael Jackson had performed there recently. There were cameras everywhere as we performed. They aired our show on Venezuelan national television. The audience members ran down to the front of the stage and stood there for the entire two hour show! Again, we felt like rock stars!
Each of my host families wrote a message to me in my host family book. My Spanish-speaking friend, Lili translated them into English for me. I was touched by the words written by my Caracas host family. They wrote, "Dear Jennifer, the moment has come to say goodbye! For some people to meet somebody for such a short period can't represent to be sad to say goodbye, but in such a short time we've been able to discover what a wonderful person you are and you transmit a lot of peace and you are very sweet. God bless you and protect you! Come back whenever you want. I tell you that you are a very sweet girl. We will remember you forever."
Despite these kind words from my Caracas host family, I was relieved when it was time to move on to a new city….a smaller city. We went to Cuidad Bolivar and the majority of us stayed on a military base. We slept in a huge room full of bunk beds and we took showers with the cockroaches. But, we enjoyed sitting around a fire each night and there were mango trees nearby that were perfect for picking. One of my favorite memories from Venezuela was of eating fresh mangos right from the tree. So sweet and delicious!
In Cuidad Bolivar our show facility was on a baseball field! We performed on the outfield and the audience sat in the fenced in stands. They were far away and we couldn’t even see them as we performed. But, during he Venezuelan songs we could see them swaying with their lighters. We heard them singing too - but the sound was delayed.
Cuidad Bolivar went by fast and we were soon on to our last city, Porto Ordaz. My roommate and I had a wonderful host family. Our host dad, Jose spoke English very well. He worked at Banco Del Orinoco, the bank that sponsored our Up With People tour. His wife Maria was very sweet and smiley. They had a three year old daughter named Nathaly who was absolutely delightful! She acted just like a typical three year old…only everything was in Spanish! She played with my slippers and giggled when I let her try them on. She babbled happily. When her mom told her it was time for bed, she plopped her head down on her mommy’s lap and protested. We did a lot of laughing in Porto Ordaz.
This family had enough money for nice clothes and a nice car, but I was surprised by the starkness of their home. We ate Arapas on plastic chairs in their living room with concrete bare walls. Nathaly’s toys were strewn across the concrete floors and it was obvious this mostly-empty room was where a lot of life was lived. I still wonder why it wasn’t more “homey.”
Jose took my roommate and me to Cachamay Park on the Orinoco River. It was lush and green with lots of palm trees. I saw an iguana while we were there. I found Venezuela to be quite beautiful with its mountains and hills and the views of the Caribbean Sea.
I’m really glad I got to visit Venezuela. My husband and I are planning a trip to Puerto Rico in the near future. I wonder if I will see any similarities. I’m thankful to be 20 years older (and wiser) and I’m glad I get to explore with my husband. I look back on Venezuela and I remember the emotions I felt as a 19 year old. So many emotions. But, mostly I remember the kind people….the host family who played Uno with me, the little host sister who tried on my slippers, the host mom who made arapas for us even while grieving, the penthouse family willing to take a fifth guest who had tears of fear running down her face, the host sister who gave me the clay treasure from her wall, the audience members who were so enthusiastic…. How blessed am I to have had these experiences! I’m thankful.