Venezuela Odyssey (2006-01-18 to 2006-01-27)
On Jan 18 I flew to Venezuela via Miami. As soon as I reached the
boarding gate in Boston, I got a surprise: Tania was waiting for me
there. "What are you doing here?" I asked her. She had left
for the airport early that morning to fly to Bogota via New York and
Miami (this was how we corrected the mistake of initially getting her
tickets from the wrong city). But her flight to New York had been
canceled, so they rerouted her direct to Miami on the same flight I was
We managed to get adjacent seats. It was a pleasant experience until we realized that the flight was hours late, and it looked like we would both miss our connections.
As soon as we got out of the plane, I looked for ground staff to deal with connecting flights, and saw there were none. My flight to Caracas was delayed so much that I could still get on it, but Tania had to stay overnight in Miami.
When my flight arrived in Caracas, airport staff were waiting to collect me and a few others. We were supposed to sleep that night in the airport's VIP lounge--a peculiar idea, since that lounge is a large sitting room, not meant or designed for sleeping.
None of the surfaces were soft enough for me to sleep on, but that was no problem; I inflated my air mattress. Noise came in through the hallway, and the presence of other people sleeping in the same room, even though they were 40 feet away, made me feel a little uneasy, so I fell asleep only at 3am. I was not allowed to sleep for very long, because at around 7:20am I was awakened and told that I had a flight to Valera soon and I should go immediately to the domestic terminal to check in.
The main thing that happened in Valera, aside from my speech, is that I came down with a cold. When I arrived in Venezuela, I had already passed several nights with insufficient sleep, and I continued to miss sleep while there. By the second day in Valera my throat was getting sore. I tried to make myself sleep a lot that night, but didn't entirely succeed. It took me over three weeks to get over the cold.
The trip through the mountains from Valera to Barinas was four hours by car, at night, so we did not see the mountains.
The rector of the university welcomed me to the speech in Barinas, so I hope he will heed the point that schools of all levels have a duty to teach only free software, so that they build a society of people accustomed to freedom, rather than inculcating permanent dependence on non-free software. (See http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/schools.html.)
After my speech in Barinas was done, we drove back part way towards Valera to visit the mountains in the daytime.
The next day we were driven from Barinas to Caracas with a stop in Acarigua, where I gave a short speech because my cold was interfering with my voice. We proceeded to Caracas by way of Valencia, where there are so many Chinese immigrants that there is good Chinese food. One of Octavio's free software enthusiast friends is Chinese, and he gave me some very nice jasmine tea; I asked him to tell us where to find the best Chinese restaurant in Valencia. It was pretty good, because of its Chinese clientele--parts of the menu were written only in Chinese. I treated the driver to dinner, because it would have been a shame if he were excluded and besides, his participation meant we could try more dishes. He delivered me to the Caracas Hilton, which I've stayed in enough to become familiar with certain inconveniences, around midnight.
The most amazing thing about this road trip was the number of police controls. Every 40 km or so we passed places which were set up as barriers for police to make the traffic stop. At most of these places the police did not actually seem to be paying attention, and traffic did not actually stop; but once they checked the driver's papers, and once they made us all get out to be checked. I asked the police, "Of what am I suspected?" They said, "Nothing, this is just routine." I refused to accept that reassurance. "When you suspect someone of a crime, of course you have to investigate. But questioning people when you don't suspect them, that is absurd!" I did not refuse to obey their demands, but I firmly denied the legitimacy of what they were doing. They seemed to find this somewhat disconcerting.
Octavio thought I must be crazy to speak my mind, but I told him that hardly anyone could be in a safer position to criticize them than I. I figured I had enough contacts (after all, I've even met the president) that they'd regret it if they really harrassed me, and that gave me a duty to speak up. If not me, who?
In Caracas I mentioned this to the head of a government agency. He told me that he had once been arrested by the same police because he wouldn't pay a bribe, and the police did not care that he was a high official, though eventually others in the government did rescue him. He said that police force has been meddlesome, corrupt, and useless for as long as anyone can remember, and that the government is now considering the simple solution of abolishing the force.
It took about four hours to drive to Caracas from Acarigua. It would have taken even longer to reach Caracas from the airport of Caracas, because a viaduct collapsed a few months ago and now supports just one lane of traffic. The collapse was due to improper construction, decades ago; recently, engineers warned that the viaduct might collapse, but nothing was done until that actually occurred. (This resembles the attitude that humanity is taking towards the possible collapse of the Greenland ice cap.) Now they are planning to build a new viaduct.
My main speech in Caracas was intended to be associated with the World Social Forum, but it was held in a ministry not near the rest of the forum, and the audience was not very large. However, a government organization that promotes free software had a tent near the WSF area, and held continuous free software activites, with a considerable number of people coming by. I gave a speech for them too.
On my last full day in Caracas, Tania arrived, looking for clients for her free software support company. She had come by bus from Bogota, with a large group of people on their way from Colombia and other countries further south. All had been delayed just inside the Venezuelan border, because the buses that were supposed to bring them to Caracas never arrived. Tania had enough money to buy a commercial bus ticket to finish the journey; most of the others were simply stuck. I don't know whether they ever reached Caracas.
My next destination after Caracas was Merida, in Yucatan, Mexico. I had found that the most convenient way to go there from Caracas was to take a Mexicana flight that left in the afternoon, and spend the night in Mexico City. However, the people who arranged the tickets chose to send me there on Continental via Houston, Texas, which implied a 5 hour layover and an extra examination by the US Committee for Public Safety (i.e., Department of Homeland Security). When I found out, I asked if they could change the tickets, but they said it was too late. I had to fly out at 10am, and I would arrive in Yucatan 12 hours later.
Even if the viaduct had been intact, I would have had to wake up in Caracas at 5am to go to the airport for that flight. No way! I arranged to spend the previous night in a hotel near the airport. People said it would take up to four hours to reach the airport, so I planned to leave Caracas at 6pm and be asleep by 11. But I didn't manage to get out that early--there were people wanting to see me at the last minute, etc. At around 7pm I was buying some lentil soup and roast chicken to eat in the taxi, and then my friends went to find a taxi for me. It wasn't easy to find one willing to go to the airport, and it cost a lot more than we had been told to expect. The taxi had to wait for about three hours without moving; it had no air conditioning, and I needed to open the taxi door to cool off, but it was not safe to have the computer out with even the window open. The container of lentil soup had been crushed and it had all leaked onto the seat.
Once we started moving, we made good time on a small road that goes over the mountains and then down at the coast. The view must be spectacular by day.
I checked into the hotel at 12:20am, and tried to go to sleep quickly with the help of some melatonin. They advised me that I should get to the airport around 7am, even though that might seem overcautious, because there were sometimes long delays. I arrived at the Continental desk shortly after 7am, only to be told that I had a reservation but my ticket was void. They could not explain why, but they invited me to buy another ticket, which would have been ridiculously expensive.
There is no place in or near the airport where I can do a mail transfer, or call to a cell phone, which meant I would find it nearly impossible to contact anyone I knew. If I could not depart that morning, I would have to spend 5 hours getting back to Caracas, arriving there just in time to return to the airport for the night.
Then a possibility occurred to me. What if my request to change to Mexicana had been implemented without telling me? That could explain the void ticket.
I went to the Mexicana desk, having to face various obstacles to find and reach it, and told the agent I wondered if they had me booked on their afternoon flight to Mexico. The agent told me they did not have an afternoon flight (why had people told me that there was one?), only the morning flight that would leave in half an hour. So I said, just in case, please see if you have any reservations for me. The agent told me that I had a seat their morning flight. Wonder of wonders, he allowed me to check in, 30 minutes before departure time. Soon I was on my way to Mexico, without going through the US, and it was going to take only 7 hours for me to reach Merida.
I think I won't return to Caracas until the viaduct is replaced.