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How I Found Myself Hiding From the Venezuelan Military

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The bus driver shouted over his shoulder that this was as close as he could get. We were at a roadblock manned by around a dozen bored looking soldiers. The stadium was a five minute walk down the road. I climbed out of the bus and into the morning heat. Salsa music blasting from the radio was reduced to a baritone thumping when I shut the door, and the bus groaned as it did an oblong U-turn. Nobody even paid me any attention as I passed through the low barricades, and started making my way towards the stadium.

I was heading to the offices of the Venezuelan government’s immigration and civil registry department, SAIME. For some reason I’m yet to figure out, the SAIME offices in Merida just happen to be located in a sports stadium. This was my second visit to these oddly placed offices that week to apply for a cedula (a Venezuelan ID card). It’s a pretty simple process, and saves carrying a passport around. Unfortunately, the list of requirements changed.

Twice.

First, I downloaded a list of documents required to apply for the cedula from SAIME’s website. However, when I arrived at the front desk, I was given a new list, with a whole bunch of extra random items needed for the application (such as four yellow envelopes). Then, after an hour and a half I was able to speak to an immigration official, who gave me a third list of requirements. This third list demanded four copies of yet another document I hadn’t even thought of bringing along.

When I returned to the offices a few days later, I was adamant that I wasn’t going to leave empty handed. However, shortly after passing those barricades I encountered my first hurdle.

The photocopy shop opposite SAIME was closed, presumably for the same reason that there were so many soldiers around. Near the stadium an international tourism festival was taking place. That day access happened to be restricted to festival workers and corporate visitors.

Luckily, I was able to get directions from someone for another photocopy shop about a ten minute walk away. On the way I passed back through another checkpoint. En route to the copy shop, I crossed paths with a jubilant woman wearing a flowing, multicoloured African style dress. She was singing church hymns like a one-woman choir on cocaine. When we passed, she leaned over and- with a flourish of her hands- gave me some kind of blessing.

The day really started to get strange when I tried to get back through the barricade.

“No pase!” An incredibly small soldier shouted at me when I tried to casually walk back through.

Surprised, I tried to explain that I’d just come from inside only a few minutes earlier, but was cut off by yet another shout of “no pase!”

I again tried to put my situation into words, but in frustration my Spanish just seemed to evaporate. As my explanation descended from a carefully constructed speech to spluttering mess of badly conjugated verbs, the tiny soldier’s glowering scowl turned into a sneer. A rumbling, gurgling noise started hissing from between his clenched teeth.

“Ggghhrrrr, nnnnnnnnnNNNNN….”

I leaned closer in curiosity.

“mmmmnnnnnNNOOOOOPA-SE! NO PASE!”

Swearing in surprise, I bounced back a few feet. In the shadow of his oversized helmet, the soldier’s eyeballs looked like they were about to explode out of his face. Standing at attention, he looked like he was trying to choke his machine gun; his knuckles turning white against the black steel.

Conscious of the fact that I was betraying my personal pledge to succeed in my mission, I forced my unwilling body into a tactical retreat.

I was heading back around to the checkpoint I had used earlier in the morning when I noticed another barricade, and decided to try my luck.

As I approached, I noticed that the soldiers seemed distracted. Then I heard shrieks. They sounded familiar. After a moment, the wailing screeching formed into words.

It was a hymn.

Then another noise became audible. Looking over my shoulder, I saw a truck coming down the road towards me and the checkpoint. I slowed my pace, and casually fell in beside the truck. It slowed down as it reached the barricades, and I slowed my pace further still, pressing myself against the vehicle’s flank. The rear-view mirror shone in the morning sun, and I suddenly realised how badly executed this plan was. I could hear the soldiers chatting on the other side of the truck. I stayed quiet, and managed to swallow the temptation to start humming “Danger Zone”.

But I kept walking, and soon the were behind me. A shot of sweet, tasty, egotistic satisfaction washed over me when I realised I’d just outsmarted the grumpy mini-soldier by ninja-ing past his comrades.

A few hundred metres down the road, I ran into a second checkpoint, manned by two festival workers. They asked me what I was doing; I grinned stupidly in response.

“…You’re working at the festival?” One of them asked me in Spanish.

I caught myself as I was about to launch into my explanation about getting my ID card from SAIME. Gulping down honesty, I responded with “…yes”.

“Yes…I am. I’m with an Australian group. Here for the festival. Yup!” I tried to sound convincing.

They looked at each other, slightly surprised. Ironically, they asked for ID.

Instead, I showed them some random document in English I had brought along for my cedula application. I tried to explain it was the only paperwork my boss had given me, and that I was running really late and need to get through.

Then I held my breath.

They seemed a little unsure of what to do with me. “Why else would this guy be here?” I think I heard one ask the other.

A few minutes later I was outside the SAIME offices.

Which were closed due to the festival.

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