Not sure what it’s like now but, back in the day, downtown Caracas was a no-go area after dark – and not much better in broad daylight. So I saw little point in returning to the city for my last night in Venezuela after a month of backpacking.
I was there at a particularly volatile time and, although a beautiful country, my trip was somewhat marred by a constant, niggling threat of being murdered. But, as with everywhere, there were good and bad people and I’d met both while I was there.
Once misjudging the arrival time of my night bus to Cuidad Bolivar (3am, not 6am) I ended up in the company of a group of street people who had bedded down in the station. Naturally on my guard to begin with, it became apparent they thought of me as one of their own and took me, a be-backpacked stranger, under their wing for a few hours until the sun rose. Good times, good people.
Sauntering into my hotel in Santa Elena de Uairén later in my trip, I found it swarming with police disinterestedly talking to people about the tourist who’d been shot dead in the foyer earlier that day. Bad times, bad people.
Now with just a few hours to kill (sorry, bad timing, bad person) before my early morning flight back home, I opted for a hotel close to the airport instead of risking one final visit to Caracas city centre.
There’s wasn’t much to choose from and I plumped for a budget place recommended in the Lonely Planet. ‘Don’t be put off,’ read their entry, ‘that the rooms are accessed via the basement of a multi-storey car park.’
So I tried not to be. My taxi driver (who, in one final triumph for the lowlife of society, insisted on relieving me of $50 for a $10 journey – it was nearly midnight and he was a giant of a man, so I gave it to him and cut my losses) dropped me outside. Reassured by the LP’s description, I walked confidently into the ugly, concrete building and made my way to the lower ground. With no reception desk in sight, I approached a hut. Surprised only that I was arriving on foot and not by car, the guard on duty didn’t bat an eyelid when I asked for a room, checked me in and presented me with a key. He carried on with the job at hand of raising and lowering the barrier as cars came and went with baffling regularity given the time of night, leaving me to go find room number 9.
In search of a sign pointing to the actual hotel entrance, I wandered deeper and deeper into the basement of the car park, staying close to the centre wall which would ordinarily be nothing more than the spiralling spine of such a building.
Then I began to notice it had doors.
Doors with numbers.
Now before me was a door brandishing the number 9.
Genuinely not believing my key would even fit in the lock, I nonetheless gave it a go. Before I could say, ‘WTF,’ I was entering my room.
It was basic, which is fine – you get what you pay for, and I headed straight for the shower. I noticed it hadn’t been cleaned since its previous occupant; foil wrappers and hair swirled around in a tangled knot in the plughole beneath me.
I spotted a used condom lying flaccidly in the bin.
The floor under my bare feet felt sticky as I tiptoed out of the bathroom. Perching on the bed I noticed pubes and fresh stains and made a mental note to roll out my sleeping bag. With no chair in the room, I located the ‘cleanest’ corner of the bed to sit on and grabbed the remote control.
The tiny TV set was hanging precariously in the corner almost directly above me. High up on the wall, just under the ceiling, it spluttered into life with a bang and a fizz. Of the five stations available, four were showing Chavez’s latest speech, which would typically last several hours without taking breath.
The fifth was showing porn which was, by my reckoning, medium to hard. It certainly wasn’t soft.
Before I knew it I had unwittingly become totally absorbed as I sat occupying the tiniest space on the filthy bed, my neck stiff from craning upwards. The head lights from cars still very much coming and going the other side of my door would glare in through the threadbare curtains on the window as they reversed and parked up just feet away.
I became acutely aware of the unmistakable sounds emanating from my room and muted the set, for fear of anyone outside thinking it was me.
Note I didn’t take this opportunity to change channels or even turn off the TV. No, I resumed my position on the very edge of the bed, trying to avoid having my feet touch the grim floor, ignoring the pain I now had in my neck and carried on watching with the sound down.
I’m not sure how long it took me to have a, ‘if anyone could see me now,’ epiphany, but as soon as I realised the depths I had sunk to, that TV was turned off pretty sharpish I can tell you, accompanied by a lot of disgusted tutting as I remembered quite how disgusted I was.
Mostly with myself.