I should be afraid. I’m afraid of spiders scurrying across the floor. I’m afraid of leaving the oven on in my apartment. I’m afraid of being pushed on stage during Karaoke Night. Certainly I should be afraid of these camouflage-clad Venezuelan soldiers shouting at me. But I’m not afraid. I’m just mad.
Well, that’s dumb, you may be thinking. Yeah, you’re right. It is dumb. Everything about this day has been dumb. Dumb that I woke up at 3 am to spend nine hours on a cramped flight (middle seat) to Caracas and three hours in their dumb Migration line only to be hauled away by these two just as I was about to get through. Dumb that they’re telling me over and over that I need another form for my camera when I spent the last six months harassing the Venezuelan embassy for approval on every possible visa and document a journalist would need. Dumb that I lived on ramen, sold my car, temped, waited tables and baby-sat for the past two years so I could afford to travel here. And really dumb that I thought freelancing in a crisis-ridden country would be the best way to start my journalism career instead of getting a real job as a production assistant like all my friends.
I fold my arms and glower at the two soldiers from a lone folding chair set up in the middle of an otherwise bare office. One has strikingly green eyes and the other a finely chiseled jawline, both which I could have appreciated under different circumstances.
“You must present Form 2430,” Green Eyes insists for the zillionth time.
“I TOLD you. The Embassy never mentioned that form. We went over every single thing twenty times. I have three letters from the news agencies hiring me. I have a visa. I have Form 220A, 320C AND 2710. Call the woman from the Embassy! Her name is Valentina! I guarantee she’ll remember m.” I feel my voice starting to squeak as it often does when I cross into hysteria.
“You’re going to have to go back. Get on a plane and go back to your country. You cannot enter,” says Green Eyes.
“NO!!” I jump out of my chair and wave my arms at them. Jawline moves toward me, hands on his rifle.
“Sientate!” he barks. I sit. Glaring. We’ve been going 'round and 'round in the same conversation for the past hour.
“I’m not going back.”
Green Eyes looks at Jawline and starts spewing out rapid-fire Spanish well beyond my Babbel course comprehension, but I catch puta sprinkled through it and get the gist.
They turn and leave the room, slamming the door.
I wait for a moment, but hear nothing, see nothing. I sidle out of the chair and over to the door, half expecting Jawline to drop through the ceiling and shout at me to sit down again. I test the knob and am surprised to see that it turns. I’m going to get out of here. “With what? They have your backpack, your camera, even your passport,” says that niggling voice in my head. I brush it aside. I’ll figure it out.
But then I hear footsteps and I scramble back to my chair. I expect to see Jawline and Green Eyes, but this time it’s two burly men in grey suits. Each one grabs me by an arm. They drag me out of the chair and force my hands behind my back and into handcuffs.
“Seriously? God, you must really want this form,” I say, unsuccessfully trying to squirm away from them.
“You know what you did,” says one of them.
“Actually, I have no idea,” I say, but they don’t seem to care as they shepherd me down the hall and into another room, just like the first.
They dump me into an identical chair, ignoring my Spainglish sputtering, and disappear.
Only then do I see that they left another camouflaged soldier behind, facing me, blocking the door. This one is skinny and can’t be much older than I am. His red beret sits precariously on his head. I’m about to launch into another rant, when I notice this one is pursing his lips in an attempt not to smile, but there is merriment in his eyes.
“What’s your problem? You think this is funny?” I spit out at him.
He breaks into a grin.
“Yeah, kind of,” he says in a flawless English, which momentarily distracts me.
“English!” I blurt.
“Yeah, my dad’s American. Mom, Venezuelan. I lived in Miami until I was 8.”
I want to know how he ended up back in Caracas, but I have more immediate problems to solve and I start babbling.
“What is going on here? They’re on my case about some form, but I got every single required document and Green Eyes took my passport then those guys in suits and now this – “ I say shaking my hands so that the handcuffs jangle.
Miami peers at me. “Green Eyes?” he asks. I feel my face redden.
“Oh, never mind. Just tell me – how do I get out of here?”
“Chica, all they want is money,” he says, shaking his head and laughing again.
“What? What do you mean?”
“A bribe, girl. I mean a bribe. There is no other form. Just offer to pay them a fee or something. How do you not know that?”
I feel stupid and insulted all at once.
“How am I supposed to know that?”
He shrugs. “Everyone knows.”
My mind flashes back to the stacks of articles and travel guides about Venezuela my worried mother had compiled for me. Articles and guides I’d carelessly waved off with an “I’ll figure it out when I get there.” Perhaps, I acknowledge now, Mom had been right. Perhaps there was something about bribes in those piles. Perhaps, I wouldn’t be in this fix now if I’d looked through them. I sigh and look at Miami.
“What was up with those suit guys? And these?” I jangle the handcuffs again.
“You pissed them off – they’re just messing with you, trying to scare you.”
If I could have crossed my arms, I would have.
“I’m not giving them any damn money,” I say.
“Then you’re in for a hell of a long night,” Miami says.
“Why didn’t they just ASK for it? Why put me through all this?”
The smile is gone from Miami’s face and he’s looking at me like I’m a cockroach.
“You know what’s going on in this country, don’t you? The inflation, the lines, the shortages. People are starving – they don’t have food, they don’t even have medicine. But they still have their pride. Especially these guys – the Guardia Nacional – they don’t have much else. Come on, gringa. Get over yourself.”
Now I FEEL like a cockroach.
“What about you?” I ask.
He shrugs again. “I told you. My dad is American. He runs a company. I’m fine.”
“Well, that’s good,” I say, feeling awkward. “Soooo, what do I do?”
“When they come back, tell them you didn’t realize there was a fee. Ask how much. Then pay up.”
And that’s what I do. Within 15 minutes, Green Eyes and Jawline escort me back to Migration and I’m released into the airport with my stamped passport, my camera and my backpack. My checked luggage is long gone.
I head toward the exit, scanning the floor for Miami. I’m hoping for a wink or a smile, but I don’t see him anywhere.
I’m outside the airport now facing a long line of taxis and shouting drivers. I have a vague memory of Mom thrusting some article about Caracas airport taxis at me and saying I should learn about the right and wrong taxis because choosing wrong one could end in a robbery or kidnapping. But the article had gone straight into the pile with all the others, shoved into my closet. I shift my backpack on my shoulder, smile at a driver and hope I’ve chosen wisely.