I went to do voluntary work and ended up living with missionaries, first of all in the more affluent city of Puerto Ordaz, neighbouring the poorer shanty town area of San Felix; both running alongside The Orinoco River. Although I lived in Puerto Ordaz, I spent most of my days over in San Felix, where Guyanese immigrants lived in shacks made of corrugated steel sides and roofs, sewage ran from houses into the streets, and people got electrical power by tapping into the local pylon. I once went to watch a DVD with some friends in one such home, and to turn the TV & DVD player on the man of the house nonchalantly walked over to a low hanging junction of wires under the 'living room' ceiling, unwrapped the black tape that held the wires together, took one out and then fed it into the TV & DVD power port.
The country is oil rich so you'd think they'd have no problems with power supply to homes. Not so. Most days I was there there'd be a power cut and water cut of some length. It was the norm. People carried torches (I ended up having one in my handbag) and in the kitchen it was the done thing to have a large plastic bin filled with water for when you couldn't get any from your taps. Although being oil rich, the country is very dependent on hydro-power, so when there is little rain people worry. No rain equals more power cuts and water cuts for energy saving purposes. Petrol was a gift though, just a few pence to fill your tank, literally.
Supermarkets stocked basic stuff, but not as much variety as back home or as you would get just over the border in Brazil. The cost of things in supermarkets wasn't much different to Tesco's for most stuff, which was alarming considering most Venezuelans were on a minimum wage far, far lower than ours. And things were always running out in supermarkets and shops. You'd go down to a local store to try and buy sugar or flour and the shop keeper would just shrug their shoulders; there wasn't any. In the news recently, and from what I've heard from a friend who lives over there, now there is even less on the shelves in the supermarkets, and most shops are empty most of the time. There are queues running round street blocks, of people waiting in line outside shops because they've heard via the grapevine that there's going to be a delivery of something really basic that nobody has. The something arrives. People dive in. It's quickly sold out and then there's nothing again.
During my second trip I lived in "The Kilometres", an area so named because it runs along the road from prison town, Eldorado (where Papillion once did time), all the way down through the lush Gran Sabana to the border of Brazil, and the small settlements along the way are given names based on their distance in kilometres from Eldorado, rather than actual names. I lived at kilometre 46, San Flaviano, with a little indigenous community of Arawak Indians, formerly from Guyana.
Although it was a remote place to live, San Flaviano was lush. I used to step out of the door to see and pick fruit from orange, mango and coconut trees. There were toucans and parrots resting in the branches.
The local school at KM46 was a wooden hut, one room, with broken walls, for a group of kids aged from about 5 to 11. It was just one class for the mixed age group. I took some photos:
This wasn't too far away from kilometre 74, Las Claritas, a town where the gold miners lived, a town where every second building was either a brothel or a bar, a town where people carried guns like in The OK Corral. The 'streets' were red and dusty in dry weather, and dark red and sludgy when it rained.
One day I went with the woman whose house I was staying in to do some shopping in Las Claritas. I was glad because you could get a mobile phone signal there. At KM46 the only signal you could get was on top of the hill behind the house, a short walk past some nasty dogs, and then a total faff where you could just sit in one particular spot to get the signal. Your phone had to be tilted to exactly the right angle and a precise height above the ground, roughly level with your chest if you were sitting down. There was always a queue for the precise spot you had to sit in.
(Queuing for the mobile phone signal spot; Liliana was getting a signal, the other two girls behind her weren't)
Anyway, my landlady had heard there had been a delivery of cheap chicken in Las Claritas. We got a taxi down to KM74 and queued in a line for about an hour and a half just to buy one chicken. Think on that we were queuing outside, in the blistering heat in a country where the temperature doesn't drop below 35 degrees C most of the time, and definitely not in Las Claritas at kilometre 74.
That was then, a few years ago when things were normal. When queuing for a chicken for an hour and a half in the near Amazon heat wasn't such an ordeal. Imagine now? Queuing all day for anything or something, and then nothing? In that heat! There is no wonder the people are out on the streets and burning rubbish in protest. Where will it end, what will happen next?