We happened to be playing basketball at the bottom of the mountain when the protesters first arrived on our street, fighting and setting off fireworks. When we got back, everything appeared normal. Then D told us what had happened. She was shaken up.
I don’t know what I was doing when I heard the bangs, but I went up to the roof to see what was happening. There were some people already up there. At the end of the street were figures with masks half covering their faces. They were trying to get into a residential building, the same building they had tried getting into a few hours earlier. They were attacking the front door, kicking it, shooting fireworks at it, trying to pull the gate off. They were throwing furniture and more fireworks onto the balconies. Fireworks were also going off in the street. People were stood down there, close to each other, away from it, watching. Everybody in the hostel had come up to the roof (which made about eight) and we were all leaning out over the edge. Sway repeated what he’d said to me that morning,
“I think you should go, leave Venezuela, it is not a good place to be”
We had already talked about going, especially if school was closed, everything was closed, again. What was the point in staying? We couldn’t do anything.
But we didn’t know if we COULD leave. We’d heard that the border was closed, closed to stop Colombian paramilitaries and mercenaries coming in and causing more trouble. Buses weren’t going because drivers were afraid. Roads were blocked everywhere.
Where to begin.
I didn’t know.
“Tomorrow, Wednesday”, I told Sway, “WE ARE GONE!”
We had friends next door that were leaving early in the morning. Two Australians were also going with them. They had a sort of plan. We could get a bus to El Vigia from a gas station. After that, we’d get a taxi or bus to the border. Whatever. I doubted it. Still, it was more than I had.
I planned to ask around in the morning for a driver, pay out of our arses for him to take us to the border, but that would mean staying another day or two, and missing the opportunity to leave in a group.
We decided to leave with the others.
We went downstairs where we could still hear it all. Then BANG! Right outside our door.
ARGHH THEY’RE OUTSIDE!
I walked into reception and Sway had barricaded the front door with a heavy wood bench. He told us to hide our passports and money, then he told us not to worry, that we’d be all right. There was a fire escape and other ways out if necessary. He said that he’d knock on our doors if the time came.
The very fact that he was doing these things, saying them
“You think they could get in?”
“Well, if they can get in the building down the street…”
My God, I thought, I’m starring in a fucking movie.
I felt hollowed out, like a chocolate rabbit. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I started packing my bag for something to do. I was simply waiting for morning, morning, not death. I didn’t believe that we could cross the border in a day but I wanted to try. I wanted out. I looked at my watch. It was only 8.30pm.
Every little noise almost killed me. Somebody, something, was setting the dogs off outside. I was terrified and nothing made sense – where were the fucking police? And aren’t THEY supposed to be PROTESTING high crime!
And then it started raining. I lay in the hammock feeling the spray from the rain. It was really coming down. It had gone quiet outside.
All that rain.
It might just have saved us.
We woke at five, and I lay there awake and felt that feeling come back into my stomach.
We checked out and said goodbye to N and D. Us leaving meant that they would be the only guests left in the hostel. S and C were waiting outside. Like luck, a taxi drove out of the darkness a few minutes later. The four of us got in.
We snuck along dark, empty streets, hesitating at every junction before slowly slowly creeping out. In the cab, there was only the driver talking into his radio, trying to find a safe way through, there were the faint voices coming through the radio fuzzy, and there was the quiet sound of tires in the morning air. Driving along the empty streets in the dark, we saw charred remains of roadblocks, piles of garbage. We never did see anybody. Every time the radio crackled to life it was loud as machine-gun fire. We listened to the voices, block by block, until we arrived at the gas station.
There was a bus.
We were inside. But the Australians hadn’t showed! We got off the bus.
WHY ARE WE GETTING OFF THE BUS!?
We got on the next bus with the Australians and made it to El Vigia. From there, we hired two taxis to take us to a town on the border. It was nice. We even stopped for breakfast.
After two weeks we were leaving Venezuela. We’d taken the gamble. It hadn’t worked out. Call it bad timing. You can walk around, make plans, presume things, but how can you plan for MADNESS?
I began to feel sad about running, like I had unfinished business. Maybe we were leaving prematurely and should have gone east…
Then other drivers were signalling to us, and up ahead there was traffic pulled over, a plume of black smoke rising from the road. The road was blocked! There was no way through and it was blocked from behind too! We couldn’t go back. We were trapped.
“But we’ve just come that way!”
Two guys on a motorbike went by carrying tires. Our driver said that he would ask the protesters if we could pass on foot. We sat in the car and waited. He came back.
“They said you can pass”
“Is it dangerous?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“What if there is nothing on the other side!? We’re in the middle of nowhere!”
S and the Australian guy volunteered to walk through and see what was there.
“JESUS, are you sure?”
“We don’t have a choice”
They emptied their pockets and gave their loved ones a look that lingered like two hands slowly separating until just two fingers are touching, one finger from each hand, not wanting to let go or be away. It seemed to me, anyway. I watched them walk toward the black smoke, and the crowd, and I thought, that’s COURAGE. I wish I had courage like that.
I don’t know how long they were gone. Then we spotted them weaving their way back toward us.
“They said we can pass, but there’s nothing on the other side”, the Australian guy told us
“So what do we do?”
“We HAVE to go, we don’t have a choice. As soon as the police get here it’s going to get violent”
We all put our bags on and looked at each other.
I turned to Boxhead, “This is the scariest thing I have ever done”
Then, like refugees, we walked with all our belongings into machine-gun fire, the end of all.
At the front of the blockade, there were men on motorbikes. They spoke to us as we passed
I kept my head down. There was the stink of burnt plastic. Trees had been felled across the road and we had to look for the gaps between branches. A few people were going the other way.
Then I was on the other side, suddenly, clear, alive, what a rush! We walked a little further and found a driver who was willing to take us the rest of the way.
It was the worst car I had seen in Venezuela (which is really saying something), just a rusted heap of junk. The six of us managed to squeeze in and we drove along with the boot open because it wouldn’t close with all our bags in the back and it was hot hot. But there were no further problems. Once we reached Cúcuta we had to cross back over to Venezuela briefly to do the appropriate thing with our passports, but that was easy enough.
The Australians had gone and Boxhead and I had a bus to Bucaramanga. S and C accompanied us to the terminal. We said goodbye and I said thank you for today. They said it was nothing.