Arepas con Queso

Arepas con Queso


Again, my alarm does not go off.
This is not a morning I can doze in, catching intermittent details of class on television while dreaming of a real breakfast. Fuck.

I pull on my jeans, which are wearing their way into a thin tubular tapestry of denim, jam my feet into a pair of rank keens and mount the stairs two at a time. I’ve already gotten accustomed to waking up with 360 degrees of water as my vista so when the hillside peeks through the fog I feel as though I am walking into a dream. The vision extends itself: sun disperses the low cloud and the slope’s thousands of painted shacks illuminate like an incendiary Crayola box splayed out before Ra. In the humidity, however, my camera cooperates like a mule on valium. Goddamn electronics.

“Forget it.” I say to myself, and go back to my room to grab my Timbuktu bag.

Escaping the ship is like being birthed. I push myself from the hot and stuffy womb that has protected me and into the unknown. At first, I’m uncertain on my feet, trying to ignore the land sickness I haven’t yet gotten used to. Instead I focus my energies on decided where to go, what to do: an abundance of choices and a scarcity of time.

As I wait for the bus that is supposedly going to take me into Caracas I think how, on the one hand, I am grateful to speak Spanish and, on the other, how this will be the single most unfortunate and ironic place for me to be at this moment in time.

There are a great many people with unfortunate names: Stan Still, Doug Hole, Justin Case. I always hear of these people, but have yet to meet the unfortunate soul who might one day be able to empathize with me. Instead I live my lonely life under the duress of multiple and highly avoidable misfortunes in family titles. My grandfather, christened Herb, must have understood the irony of his name, yet persisted in naming his first son Richard. My father, though he did not know of our presidential future as a child, decided to go by Dick also knowing full well his last name. My mother, older and wiser by the time she met one such Dick, son of one such Herb chose to abandon her last name also aware that her name, Rosalie, lends itself to both Rose and Rosi.

What pray tell could be so bad about Herb, Dick and Rose? The Bush legacy, that’s what. 25 years I have now been the granddaughter of one Herb Bush, the daughter of one Dick Bush and one Rose Bush. As if it weren’t bad enough to be a dorky high school freshman receiving the crank calls: “Can I speak to Dick Bush…snigger, snigger, snigger,” half of those years have left me to be associated with not one, but two presidents. So in addition to the foliage jokes and the constant inquiries, “Hey Leigh, how’s Dick doing today?” I also enjoy a constant barrage of dim-witted cashiers, landlords and airport officials questioning, “So, are you related to the least popular state leader that has ever been in American office?”

“Why no, jackass, I am not.”

As if this weren’t bad enough, please consider the incredible irony of my mother’s maiden name. Now just think for a moment, what could possibly be the most paradoxical title for the other side of my mother’s hard-working, patrilineal-respecting, liberal-minded Hispanic family? No, you nitwit, it’s not Tree, or Sod or Bramble. Born, Rosalie Jo Chavez, my mother made the eternal mistake on April 30th 1976 to marry into the Bush family title. Thanks Mom, I could have been associated with a highly influential communist dictator, but no my name is not only related with a man who says things like “They misunderestimated me,” but I have the additional misfortune of a nominal association with both shrubbery and the vagina. And irony of all ironies, here I am in Venezuela in the heat of our Bush-bashing years, grieving a name no one will ever know.

I don’t have much time to be bitter before a hefty gilape pirate taxi attempts to destroy any chance I have of continuing the pristine Bush lineage. Clearly, cars have more than the right of way here. After waving the guy off I am able to catch my bus, which boasts a giant decal of the Virgin Mary decked out in sparkles. Emerging into the city I ask my way around until I find the metro and then the central bus terminal. My intent for the day is to make it to Rancho Grande, a majestic cloud forest along a cliffside road south of the city of Maracay. I plan to take a hike on my own and perhaps find a nice place to eat along the way. I have come equipped with one full nalgene, a raincoat and perhaps twenty-five dollars (~50,000 bolivares). At this point I’m feeling pretty proud of myself as I navigate my way into an adventure that is costing my other shipmates upwards of a hundred dollars. Of course the day is far from over.

The rhythmic cadence of those advertising their bus-lines dins in the background as we prepare to depart from the station: “CARACACARACARACA.” I hear the crackle of gravel and watch the dust fly up as the bus (my third today) pulls in. This one is a uniquely graffitied school bus that would never pass inspection in the States. In fact, it probably came from the States after flunking one too many CSAPs (IOWA tests for the easterners) for buses. Uncomfortable plastic upholstered chairs are riveted to the floor and matted faux fur lines the ceiling and dashboard only to be topped off by maroon tassel glued along the windshield. As we board the bus music pumps away to the point that I worry about future hearing problems. This is not to mention the odd voiceover that keeps repeating, “Stronger display!” over the Latin remix pop. Sweet.

Rancho Grande is supposed to be on the way to Playon, a beach city about 3 hours from Maracay, which is 2 hours from Caracas, which is 1 hour from La Guaira, which equals 6 hours from my ship. If timing goes well I figure I can get in a good hike and be home just as dark descends and perhaps go out for a drink. I choose a seat next a friendly looking Venezuelan and we begin mounting curb after curb to escape from the bus terminal and into the decaying city. We stop shortly for people to pick up goods from a sidewalk tienda, but the lines are intimidating and I figure I can wait out breakfast until I get into the forest. When the woman returns on the bus she points out that I haven’t purchased anything. I tell her that I am hungry but it is difficult to push and shove with other people because I’m accustomed to the orderly queue process we so take for granted in the U.S.

I chat with the woman on the way up and, since I’m getting better at understanding the dialect, she helps me out quite a bit. Our ascent into the mountains is both terrifying and breathtaking. The bus winds around turns at warp speed with a loud honk, to warn others of our arrival around the one-and-a-half lane switchbacks. I pray that no other large vehicle zings around simultaneously, knowing that we will both tumble over the edge upon collision. Most frightening are the bikers trying to tackle this behemoth of a mountain. We skim past them like the low-flying jet plane in Catch-22, the one that sliced a man, mid torso, leaving his truncated body to flop into the ocean below. Will we even feel their bones squish if one accidentally gets pulled under?

Slowly we rise into the clouds, the scenery leaving me speechless in two languages. Dense tropics stretch for miles on the further side of the bus and I can nearly touch the ledge we hug from my seat. Meanwhile, the woman is telling me that there is nothing around Rancho Grande making me more skeptical about disembarking in this wilderness I know little about. Aside from this, I will have to find a way to catch a bus back, which can be hard as they fill up all the seats when a bus departs from any location.

The men on the bus have agreed to let me off when we reach Rancho Grande, but after we approach and pass several signs for Henri Pittier Park, where the site is located, I wonder if they have forgotten. Knowing that I’m hungry, the Venezuelan woman pulls a coconut bar she has made out of her bag and hands me two mandarins along with it. I am both astonished and famished; I don’t know what to say. The woman, like most helpful citizens I have met, brushes off my immense gratitude as if this type of kindness were akin to handing me a dandelion. Others on the bus frequently turn around to stare at the unique species sitting about halfway back: me. I am the only white person on the bus, and probably the only white person for miles. I feel kind of like a hair in someone’s soup: relatively harmless, but a little disgusting nonetheless.

Suddenly the driver and his compatriot turn around, shouting at each other and the rest of the bus in dialect. At this point the whole bus is discussing what to do with me as we have all neglected me stop.

“Allé,” I say, knowing that there is really no turning back now.
“Cómo?” they don’t understand me.
“¡Allé!” repeats the bus in unison.
“Nothing like drawing more attention to myself,” I think as we continue our hair-raising descent down the mountain.

Now we’re on our way to Playon, more than 6 hours from my ship, which departs tomorrow, with 25$ in my pocket and not a clue where I will spend the night, alone. Not a large sum of money even for Venezuela. People clap their hands when they want the bus to stop. It’s fun to watch others join in the applause when some people’s requests go unrecognized. The woman I’ve met gives me a few instructions on how to get a hotel and where the best beach is then disappears with a clap of the hands like a little Latin American fairy godmother.

Two hours later I disembark the bus and immediately step into a shop to buy a swimsuit. The store employees, who are fascinated by my presence, prod me verbally like a show dog. After commenting on Americans’ conservative dressing style (especially based on my choices) they find me perhaps the most hideous but cheap(er) swimsuit that I can wear for the day and guide me towards an “economical” hotel. I know I have very few bolivares left so I ask if there is somewhere cheaper that I might stay. The girl, about 16, leads me to a grungy edifice surrounded by a wrought iron fence. She convinces the owner that I am her friend and to give me a room for roughly ten American dollars. The “room” is little more than a half-plastered cell with two blocks upon which are filthy foam pads. I can see that the sheet, now a diaphanous gray shroud, had originally featured dainty orange flowers, which have long since faded to hints of outlines only visible on two tattered corners. A light bulb hangs from the ceiling illuminating the fact of this dismal room. I am handed a lock that I must hook through a rusty painted padlock on the door. I make mental terms with my sleeping arrangements and seek the ocean.

As I stroll down the street to take some picture I run into another woman who recognizes me from the bus. The woman, plain but pretty and in her mid-thirties, has also come all this way with little money and no intention of spending the night. Is it prudent to rent a room with this woman, her friend and two children to save some money? The babies are stuffed with soda and candies while we make arrangements with the cell block’s patron. As we discuss he looks at me skeptically.

I see his mind transmitting, “What are you thinking you dumb little American?”

Knowing that I have only $10 left, I mow down my mounting uncertainty and instead hop another bus to the alleged “good” beach. The rusty can pulls itself over the cliff like an aged Godzilla and teal water and white beaches abruptly creep out of the jungle into a remote little paradise resembling a Caribbean Eden. The beach is fine. For the first time I wish I had a buddy with whom to enjoy the waters and divide the stares between. Beach-goers are befuddled by my pale presence but a nice couple offers to watch my things while I take a dip.

Upon my return I meet the two women and two children, and since we don’t have much money, they decide to make arepas. I contribute some juice for the smallest girl to drink, and while the women bargain with the shopkeeper for more cheese, the 9 month old sips sprite from a random man’s straw.

I am just beginning to sense the community Venezuelans feel with each other when, unexpectedly, the patron’s wife from the hotel asks me to come with her and they tell me they are giving me my own room for the night. I’m not certain why they do this, and it makes me feel a little uncomfortable, as if they know something that I don’t. Are these women with their two small children trying to scam me? Have I been an ignorant white American trusting people willy nilly? A man leads me back to the ramshackle building to move my bag into a separate room. My heart pounds like a tympany as I stand, torn between using my manners with these friendly women and exercising the precaution and paranoia the owners have recently stirred in me.

Silently, I gather my things and slip into my personal room, but the women knock on my door, inviting me to make arepas with them. This authentic opportunity for culinary knowledge would pull me out from under a two-ton beluga whale with an elephant on its back. So I make certain my belongings (which consist of almost nothing) are safe and follow the women into the “kitchen.”

A grimy cement floor provides the base of a long room that is lined on one side by a rusty countertop. A few plastic plates rest in a makeshift holder overhead and two pots hang from rusty nails above a sink more corroded than any sewage pipe in the US. From the pipe we can get a small arbitrary spray of water. Soap is nowhere to be seen and I only hope we are going to cook the shit out of anything we make. A refrigerator that seems as though it were fished from a junkyard rests in the corner of the room. I am astounded to find that it works though I wonder about the brown-stained interior and moldy avocado.

Once the pot is filled with water we add the purchased cornflower and one woman digs her hands in softly to mix the squishy dough. She tells me that the dough must be mixed gently but with deliberate care for lumps. Once the mass has reached a good sandcastle-like consistency, she shows me how to shape the meal into balls, which are then flattened with the palms of the hand to form a fat small pancake. She smothers an aging griddle with margarine, the grease of choice, and tosses the arepa on with ease. The stove we are using is no more than an early model camping stove, missing one knob, most of its paint, and half of one side. Still, all that matters is the flame, which stays true and strong as if this were the first day of Hannukah.

While we wait for the arepas to reach a crispy perfection we interrogate each other about life in Venezuela and the States. They are fascinated by me, letting me know that they have never met anyone like me before: meaning they have never talked to an estadounidense. They call a guy off the streets to take a picture with me, which they promise to send over when they get it developed. I try to tell them a story about breaking my cell phone just before leaving on this trip. I explain that many Americans upgrade models, meaning that I might be able to get a second-hand phone from a friend or family member who wants a more modern one. They repeat what I have said inserting “buy” for “get”. When I make it clear that I might be able to get a free phone from someone who does not want her old one, they are incredulous. “She will give you a phone? “ they inquire. The astonishment in their response jars me back into national comparison-making, a huge subject I only wish I could begin to understand.

Three scrawny kittens play in a yellow and blue plastic bag on the floor. I wonder how many will make it past this year. Our conversation also hits the topics of the current president, economic status, the price of my trip around the world, their concern about God deciding to smite my ship on its way across the Atlantic and other such trivial matters. As far as my being given another room, the women see it as a form of protocol, “una norma,” in which the caretaker feels obliged to protect the American. I desperately want to believe these women and feel ashamed for questioning their integrity. Where does such concern come from I wonder: fear, respect, contempt? For now, talking with the women is so mutually exhilarating I again push these thoughts aside. I can even almost disregard the fact that I am being devoured alive by mosquitoes. As the night progresses my arms begin to bubble up like inverted beehives.

While I watch the women do so much with so little I think about how I have learned to love the fusion of old and new. Street vendors sell plastic junk, nail clippers and cell phone accessories from China. For many students this comes as a surprise, these “backwards” people purchasing the same neon pink dustpan from a street vendor in Caracas as we can get in Target. Things no longer seem quaint and untainted. Their lives are piled with as much crap as ours, only the brooms sweep cement floors in houses with sewage systems and not glossed pinewood where central air keeps the ambience at a steady 68 degrees all year round. I love wandering through a village and watching these images clash before my eyes: the Virgin Mary sits next to Tweety Bird in honorary position on the bus windshield, a mother washes clothes outdoors in a bucket using little packets of Tide that Proctor and Gamble vends throughout the region.

Such anomalies are no less true with food. I come from a land where after years of lauding it, we condemn margarine as if it were spawn of the devil himself. Meanwhile Venezuelans are only just reaping the benefits of easily preserved hydrogenated oils. We bring these technologies over to them with pride and abandon all consequences when it turns out that we are wrong. Yet, at the same time, it is because of these innovations that the three of us enjoy an inexpensive and untainted meal with the help of one camp stove flame. There is no easy answer, only observation.

When the arepas are ready they come hot off the skillet and one woman slices them horizontally with a dull knife. They grate the queso guayasán and peel back the tin lid on a little can of a shredded ham-like substance called diablito (little devil). Both are spread across the inside of the arepa which melts the cheese on contact. The first arepa, oozing with queso comes hot off the pan, making my mouth water uncontrollably. The omwn offer me one, which I luckily think to decline so that their daughter may first eat. Soon enough my own turn arrives. The arepa is crisp and salty from the margarine on the outside and a melted soft amalgamation of cheese spice and salt seep from the inside. Without knowing it my yearning palate has again led me to an experience of flavor, culture and connection that I have been craving since the dawn of time. Silently we enjoy our modest and delicious meal, smiling at the joy of communion. After helping to wash dishes under the faucet’s trickle, them women and I bid each other farewell with a hug and a few hopeful words.

The night passes by strangely as I lie alone being consumed by various critters. Sounds from outside make me paranoid and I sleep for half hour blocks at a time. I wake up at dawn while the clouds still hang low over the little town. As I make my long journey back to Caracas the countryside seems silent and nebulous. Still, despite the sleep deprivation, despite the scabs that erupt from each itchy mosquito wound and despite the cockroaches that scramble from the slats in my shoes as I slipped them on in the morning, I am happy. Traveling independently to a jungle-encased, poverty-stricken beach town with less than $25 may have not be the smartest decision for a little white American, but what great things in life come without risk?

When I arrive at the port, many hours later, I have a dollar fifty left in my pocket. La Guaira is a distant call from the azure waters of Playón. Shacks line the hillside; many of them are built on the edge of ledges that have deep abysses used for the deposit of garbage and excrement from the shantytowns. The destitution of these overflow properties makes me again absurdly aware of my position in the world. Still, as the sun shrinks below the mountains and the lights of pilfered electricity come on at dusk, these glowing hovels produce a twinkling blanket across the mountainside: an apparition of a vast ceremony, one of which we are all a part.

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