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Things That Happened to Me During a Year in Venezuela

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I got free healthcare.

The Barrio Adentro healthcare system is probably one of the most successful government missions that started cropping up under Hugo Chavez. Its mandate is pretty simple: provide free, basic healthcare. And it does exactly that. Even as a foreigner, I’ve had the delightfully straight-forward experience of just walking straight in the door, seeing a doctor, receiving everything I need and walking straight out again. No nonsense, no fees, no nothing. In my experience the staff are friendly, approachable and reasonably efficient. The experience is actually vaguely enjoyable.

I lived off dirt cheap food.

The government has two food programmes that sell groceries for small change. Mercal has both fixed shops and roaming markets, while Pdval just has roaming vans that set up shop in poor neighbourhoods for a few hours. Both cut the cost of living dramatically, and are godsends for poor families. However, there are problems. Mercal shops are permanently clogged by massive lines that make them effectively inaccessible for anyone with a day job. Meanwhile, the roaming Pdval and Mercal distributors are inconsistent – they might drop in at your neighbourhood twice one month, and then be MIA for the next six months. Read about my fun experience at a Mercal here.

On top of the food programmes, there are also price controls on basic foodstuffs that all retailers are supposed to abide by. The biggest problem here is that these controls are inconsistently enforced. Stores are always overpricing, and the government’s complaint line rarely answers. Plus, the prices of unregulated goods tend to be astronomical. While living on minimum wage, even a minor luxury like canned tuna has been far beyond my budget for a long time – let alone olive oil or chocolate. The overall picture is of basics costing almost nothing, while everything else is like eating at a theme park. Yet, despite all the problems, it’s easy to eat cheaply and live simply in Venezuela.

I bought lots of stuff made in Venezuela.

If you ever find yourself in a Venezuelan supermarket, check the labels. Almost everything is domestically produced. Same goes for hardware and DIY stores. In fact, almost everything I’ve bought here has ‘hecho en Venezuela’ stamped on it somewhere, excluding clothes and electronics. Of course, the quality varies notably; while even the cheapest coffee sold by Pdval tastes excellent, Venezuelan-made soy sauce appears to just be salt, water and some kind of ink-coloured dye.

I ate some pretty decent ants.

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These Amazonian ants are a serious energy boost.

I heard everyone freely criticising the government, and many approving of it too.

That’s right, in a country where free speech is supposedly non-existent, everyone seems pretty open about criticising the government. If you think it’s just the opposition complaining, you’d be wrong. I’m yet to meet a single Chavista that isn’t willing to criticise the government for something, even if they support the revolution in general. Moreover, Twitter madness aside, criticism and political debate here is normally fairly well informed. Venezuelans are generally far more clued into their politics than we are in the West, and people are more open to sharing their personal views.

I ate this:

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This is Venezuelan barbecue. It’s pretty much a pile of assorted animal parts heaped on top of some light salad. Apparently it’s a popular dish, but I couldn’t help but feel like I’d just eaten somebody’s entire farmyard.

I never got robbed.

Nor did I get stabbed, diced up with a machete or riddled with bullets. I lived in a barrio for a year, went out regularly at night, used public transport, attended protests, often went on camping trips alone and did all sorts of other things that supposedly increase a foreigner’s chances of dying prematurely. Everyone else I know here has a story about being robbed or attacked, but personally I haven’t had a single problem.

I learned that there are tonnes of things people in the West think they need to survive, but really don’t.

Venezuelans made lots of noise.

Whether it’s setting off fire crackers on New Year’s Eve or driving down the barrio at 4am with Gangnam Style on repeat at full blast, many Venezuelans just seem to enjoy making loud noises.

Every restaurant I tried sold the same three meals.

Venezuelans aren’t very adventurous with their food, so restaurants seem to stick with bland meals everyone is comfortable with.

You have a choice between chicken with rice and salad, beef with rice and salad, or fish with rice and salad. Whatever you order, it comes with an identical soup and juice. Don’t bother trying next door, it’s selling the same stuff. In Merida, Chinese food is the most exotic alternative available. Problem is, the Chinese food just looks like Venezuelan food, but served with Chinese-style cutlery (minus chopsticks).

Venezuelans redefined cold for me.

Merida is usually balmy and humid. However, because the city is high in the Venezuelan Andes, it doesn’t get the brute of the tropical heat; unlike the massive open air furnace that is the rest of the country. Viewing Merida as something of a winter wonderland, tourists from the coast and lowlands are easily identifiable by their enormous ski jackets and fluffy beanies they don to brave the sunny, tropical city streets. There is no stranger feeling than sweating it out in 30C heat while the pavement barbecues your feet, and seeing a family dressed as Arctic explorers casually stroll by.

Merida rarely actually gets chilly, but once I heard on the radio that an “incredible cold” was about to descend on the city. By “incredible” they meant the temperature dipped just below 20C.

I drank this:

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This is El Jirajara. If you’re down to your last few bolivars and need a stiff drink, there are plenty of super cheap aguardientes that’ll do the job. El Jirajara happens to be my personal favourite. For well under US$1, you can buy a litre of this stuff. It tastes like fragrant butterscotch mixed with recycled drain cleaner and comes in a plastic bottle. The retro label half glued on at a wonky angle is the cherry on top. Everything about Jirajara’s appearance is indicative of a terrible hangover, and it can certainly deliver on some raging headaches. Mixes great with fresh orange juice.

I watched Transformers with the GNB.

Once I was detained by the National Guard. Somehow, we all ended up watching Transformers. It made no sense, but it was fun. You can read more about it here.

Venezuelans were nice to me.

I hate to stereotype, but almost every Venezuelan I’ve met has been outgoing and friendly. People just seem nice, nothing else to say.

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