June 2022, Issue 11 "You drown by not falling into the river but staying submerged in it."
- Paulo Coelho
AMBUSHED IN A BANANA REPUBLIC
By Harper Klay, Shonkinite Founder
7 minute read
A midnight drive returning from Mérida, I found myself thrown into a swamp with a semi-automatic in my face.
My innermost thoughts were a mix of “go ahead, kill me, I could care less… do I follow my impulse to kick this guerrilla twerp in the face,… how the fuck did I get here?!!!!!”
Months earlier on a wintry East Coast night I entered a Tango embrace with a man that looked like a cross between Jesus and a young Cat Stevens. I felt his back muscles, so toned and defined that I became mush. “You are so beautiful” he continually repeated “I’ve seen you here before.” I fell instantly. When he returned to Venezuela he invited me to join him.
Caracas felt different then other parts of the world I had lived. In the sunshine of my first day, we walked across the street only to watch a pick-up piled with people nearly miss a motorcycle. The altercation ended with guns pulled on each other before each sped off in a different direction.
Due to the level of danger I was often cooped up in my boyfriend’s apartment. Regular trips to the grocery store revealed a dysfunctional civilization. One day, the majority of the aisles were filled with whole chickens, the next day bread. One day they wanted my passport for purchases, the next day not.
My Spanish advanced by watching a dubbed Two and a Half Men and the eight channels of state run TV. The famed demagogue in chief, Hugo Chavez, spoke in length with Fidel Castro about America’s weather weapons causing the earthquake in Haiti. A rumored coke habit coupled with the religious practice of Santeria, Chavez bathed in the blood of a white tiger. This ruler changed daylight savings time by a thirty minute difference in defiance to the US. He changed the horse on the flag from facing right to facing left, and stamped their coffee packaging with “Socialismo” aka communism.
I grew bored of the apartment and my boyfriend’s daily wake and bake habit. A Tango workshop in Merida came on the calendar. We prepared a carpool for the ten hour drive. Enter Alberto, a middle aged man sized Miss Piggy, he spoke with arrogance that amounted to nothing other than being the offspring of some high ranking Venezuelan government official. My vitriol for him persists a decade later, as he almost got me killed.
Alberto’s self-centered choices affected our traveling group, but everyone relented to his preferences. Alberto insisted on completing the last day of workshops causing us to drive at night.
At midnight with Alberto driving a fellow dancer’s car, I heard whispers as Alberto swerved the car in an exaggerated fashion. My boyfriend was asleep next to me when pop, the car tire blew. All four Venezuelans went on high alert with a heated debate. Carolina, closest to home and owner of the car insisted that Alberto keep driving on the flat tire, but Alberto, insisted we change the tire. My boyfriend jumped in and said “okay, if we are changing the tire, let’s go now.” He grabbed my handbag, hiding it underneath the front car seat.
My adrenaline surged as I heard artificial birdsong. I removed my passport from my handbag placing it inside my underwear. I removed my great grandmother’s Montana agate ring from my finger and placed it in the back of my mouth. More birdsong erupted as guerrillas surrounded the car pistols pointed at my boyfriend.
A man opened up the back door and shook an unloaded semi-automatic in my face. He reeked of booze and weed. I refused. He threatened me with his weapon, gesturing me to leave the car.
More bright lights, another car’s tire blown. The guerrillas strategy was to throw nails on the road and pop car tires, a routine rob and kill strategy. Tonight was their lucky night as multiple cars broke down.
“Where’s the money, where’s the money?” they yelled. In my boyfriend’s comedic candor he said “what do you think I look like, a bank? We are travelers, we have clothes and a few coins.” His size and stature were threatening to these tiny men as six of them surrounded him. We were then instructed to run across the highway and crouch in a swamp. The guerrillas had more than they could manage.
Their boss man lurched over me, smelling of weed, handling the dispute between his minions. The ruling was to release us, minus our belongings, and told us to run to the car and drive.
Our drive was less than ten minutes to a check point. The guards laughed at how close we were to safety. After we were all safe Alberto pointed to me and asked “Where is your passport?” I saw a flicker of disappointment when my boyfriend told him I had it.
Alberto left us right after that question. I never saw him again. I’ve often wandered if he had something to do with our ambush. The timing, the questioning of my passport, the decision to be a sitting duck.
Back in the apartment our relationship dismantled as fast as it came together. I did not trust my boyfriend to keep me safe. My brother’s suicide, months earlier factored into the choice to escape into this man’s arms and move to Venezuela. It was time to face my own pain.
I returned to the US shortly after although my deep suffering of being lasted years. My time in Venezuela taught me that the only way out of pain is through it. Hugo Chavez died a year after my time in Venezuela and despite the economic potential, the country has deteriorated to a level of annihilation.
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