Robert Garside was credited by Guinness World Records as the first person to run around the world, 29,825.817 miles, in six years. I am not even close. I like to walk. In Caracas, I used to walk a lot because I have never had a car. Walking is nice until you have been doing it for two weeks, and your body starts complaining.
My feet are swollen, full of blisters. I look like Big Foot. I am using antibiotic alcohol cream. Sometimes, I wish to walk barefoot, but I think it is a bad idea. My back is another problem. It is hurting me. Somedays, I have back pain just in my low end. Most of the time my whole back hurts. I don’t want to take pain pills. The truth is I don’t have enough money to pay them. Also, I am hungry all the time. Being hungry is not new to me, but it makes this journey harder.
I don’t know where to start this story. I should say the basics.
Simon Bolivar Bridge
I am David, and I am leaving my country, Venezuela, walking. My walking journey is from the border between Colombia and Venezuela to Lima, Peru. I got a bus from Caracas to San Cristobal. San Cristobal is a big town in the border with Colombia. There is a bridge, a big one, where at least three cars can drive together. Years ago, this bridge saw many Colombians moved to my country. Today, the bridge is the protagonists of the story thousands of Venezuelans who are walking to find a new life somewhere else.
We walk in groups. We did not plan it. We never said: “We leave this day at this time.” It just happened. We start walking together as a coincidence. Each of us made the decision to move to another place in our houses. We don’t have money to pay a flight either a bus ticket. We must walk thousands of miles. Why did we choose Simon Bolivar bridge? Because it is the most secure way to walk. There are other roads, but they are insecure. They do not have any police or military checking them. The streets are smaller and desolate. I am not sure if we are afraid of foreign criminals waiting for us or of own criminals. At least, on the Simon Bolivar bridge, we start the journey together.
The border between both countries is open twenty-four hours, but we, Venezuelans, like to start our adventures in the morning when the sun is just an orange line on the horizon. The bridge is full of people. We are like packed. We are too many for the bridge. Cars cannot use the bridge these days because there are several of us. I cannot see all the people who started with me. It is impossible. I only look at some faces, sad faces, and hungry faces. It is funny, an important amount of the people is wearing a baseball cap or t-shirt with Venezuela flag’s colors. We suffer a kind of Stockholm syndrome. We are escaping from Venezuela because Venezuela is hurting, killing us, but we love Venezuela.
I notice an old guy. He must be over sixty years old. He walks alone too. He wears a very used pair of jeans, and a gray t-shirt. His shoes have some holes. I think he won’t have shoes after a couple of days. He is skinny. When was the last time he got some food? I want to help him, but I can’t. I must follow my plan the best I can. It is impossible for me to afford any change.
There many kids. They are with their moms. Actually, I see a lot of moms and just a couple of dads. Kids’ faces show emotion. It is a new adventure for them. They look better fed than the adults. I know people quit their food to help their children. Parents seem tired, and their journey just started.
Three days later, only a few of the people who started with me is on the same route. People got different ways, different destinies, different futures. For example, the old people move slowly; we passed them quick. People with kids have to stop more often because kids get tired, complain and have tantrums. Parents must be picky about where they sleep. I remember a woman with a baby and a 3-year-old boy. The kid was complaining about how hungry he was. The mother was young, maybe 22 years old. I think she was pretty, long brown hair, Caribbean skin color, and big black eyes, but her gaze was lost. Everybody asked her if she needed some help. She only answered “no.” I haven’t seen her since day four. I hope she is ok.
While I am walking, I remember my mom. I promised her to call at least every three days. The first time, I can hardly call my mom because international calls are blocked. The Venezuelan government does not like people talking with their families far away. Disinformation is the weapon of the dictatorial governments.
Thank God! I find a lovely woman, a Colombian woman, who shares with me her cell phone. I use her WhatsApp. My mom cries a lot. I am her youngest son. I wanted her to travel with me, but she has to stay in Caracas helping my sister and my nephews.
I remember the day I told her I was going to move to Peru. We were in our kitchen. My mom was making some arepas. It was the first time in months we could have arepas. Arepas are our bread. We used to eat them at least twice per day, for breakfast and dinner. We filled them with meat, chicken, pork, cheese, eggs, ham, tuna or black beans. The last three years, we barely found one of these ingredients. We either found food at all. The supermarkets were empty, and we need to buy food in the black market. We called them bachaqueros. They sold the food ten and fifteen times more expensive.
Anyway, my mom and I were in the kitchen. Actually, the kitchen, dining room and living room are together. We had a small house. We have a gas kitchen, only two of the four burners are working. The sink was full of dishes; we had not had water for three days. The water was a treasure those days. My mom liked to have our house clean even we were running off of water. Our dinner table was for four chairs. It was funny because we were five or six. We always had a few styles of chairs. We had the same situation with dishes and cutlery. We bought many different styles by the years, so we never had the same five plates or forks.
We did not have a lot of furniture. It was the dinner table, a sofa, a small table for the coach, a TV, and a small library. My mom loved to read and tough us to do it. She read the newspaper every morning.
My mom was cooking. She was wearing an old t-shirt with the logo of her favorite baseball team on it. She looked worried. She tried to hide how concerned she was about everything. I was sitting on the dining table.
“Mom, I need to tell you something Important.”
“Tell me my honey.”
“I have been talking with Daniel. He wants me to go to Peru.”
“Why your brother didn’t tell me anything?” She stopped cooking and sat with me.
“He did not want to stress you out. He thinks I can do more for you from Lima than here.”
My mom did not say anything. She just looked at me. I could see some tears leaving her eyes. I felt horrible. I have been living to make my mom proud of me."
“Mom, I need to go. Since I lost my job, I haven’t had any regular job. The money I get is not enough for us. I am worried about you, my sister and the kids. I need to do something.”
“And, leaving me is the solution?”
“I am not abandoning you. Why don’t you go with me? Daniel will be so happy if you come with us. He always talks about he misses you.”
“David, you know I can’t. I need to stay here with your sister and the kids. She cannot do this alone. She needs me to take care of my grandkids, and make the long lines to get food.”
She went back to the kitchen and finished the arepas. “Please, don’t say a word to your sister. We need to finish this conversation.” We had a real dinner for the first time in months. My mom and I tried to dissimilate her sadness. I decided to enjoy my arepa. It was only one, filled with three small pieces of chicken. Looking my nephews eating so happy showed me I was making the right decision.
We used to be happy. Even though, I lived my life listening to how beautiful Venezuela was in the past. It was a Venezuela I never met. Hugo Chavez became President when I was two-years-old. I don’t know Venezuela without Chavistas. I’ve lived a Venezuela where half of the people liked the government and the other half hated it, where families where separated because of politics, where some media was closed or censured, where people died protesting, where daily dozen of people were killed by criminals, where people got home at seven in the afternoon because they were afraid, where it is normal that people were kidnaped, were people died because they did not have medicines, where people went to vote too many times with some hope that the government took it, and where we did who was worse the police or the criminal.
Even though the craziness, I liked my country. It was a beautiful place. In Caracas, it was always Spring. I dreamed of becoming a computer engineer. However, when I graduated from high school, I had to start working. My family needed my salary. My mom tried to enroll me in a couple of universities, but the cost and the schedules made it impossible.
I used to work in a big company as the delivery courier. It was a good job. People were nice to me, and the company had good offers for young people like me if we wanted to grow in the organization. The building where I worked was fancy, all blue glasses. Inside it was even better. Black marble for the floor and expensive leader furniture in the reception. I had a small office with a computer on the third floor. I was proud of my job.
One day, the president of the company called us in a meeting. He said the company had to move to Mexico. There were too many obstacles for a big company in Venezuela. He said something about sales control, they only can sell with the prices the government established; then, they were lower than the price of the material the company needed to manufacture; lack of equipment, because all of the economic problems our country had, there was no trade; then, there was no material to make new products; problems getting dollars, the government had control with the foreign exchange, and more and more. It wasn’t a big surprise. The last five years, many companies have left Venezuela because of the politic, economic and social issues.
With no job, I worked on everything I got, messenger, cleaning houses, washing dishes in a restaurant, selling chocolates on the streets, cleaning shoes, but I did not make enough money. The other problem was the prices of everything went crazy. One day a pound of past could be Bs. 500 (Bolivar is our currency), and three months after it was Bs. 3,000. We could not afford food. When I left, we only ate once per day. I haven’t eaten meat for over six months. We worked hard for my nephews to eat more than two times per day, but we couldn’t make it every day.
We were a family of five. My father abandoned us when I was six years old. My mom had to take care of the family. My sisters, Diana and Desire, raised me while my mom was working. Desire was the oldest one. She was sweet, patient, responsible and sincere. She was not as pretty as Diana, but she always wore makeup and tight jeans. She only made one mistake, got a smartphone.
Five years ago, she decided to take a call with her smartphone on the street. A bad guy tried to robber her phone. She fought back, and he killed her. She was not the first neither the last victim of the violence. We heard the bullets, but we did not pay attention. We heard gunshots every night. Caracas was in an unnamed war for decades. Our neighbor knocked on the door. He said the bullets were for Desire. We saw her dead on the street. There was not suspect, nobody went to the jail. My sister was another unsolved crime in Caracas. My mom cried for her every night when she thinks we were sleeping.
Diana had better luck. At least, she was alive. Like many teenagers, Diana got pregnant when she was sixteen. My mom got mad, but she supported her all the time. The father never showed up. However, Diana did not learn the lesson. Two years later, she was giving birth to her second child who has a different father. The second guy did better. He met his kid and found an excuse to go away. Then, my sister was a single mom at the age of nineteen.
Daniel, my brother, chose Peru. He left Venezuela two years ago. In that time, he could afford to pay buses ticket. It was easier to exchange Bolivars for dollars. He made the journey in a week. In a month, he found a job, he rented a room, and he initiated a better life there.
My mom and I were back in the kitchen. It was late in the night. We talked in whispers. We did not want to wake up Diana.
“How do you plan to go to Lima?” my mom asked me.
“I think walking is the answer.”
“Walking? Are you crazy? We read yesterday about the nineteen Venezuelans who died frozen in the Colombian mountains. No, I said no. You stay here.”
“Mom, Daniel said I need to hurry up. Peruvians are mad about the number of Venezuelans there, and they want to change the immigration laws.”
“So, I am right.”
“No mom. You know we need the money. It is more what I can do there than I am doing here.”
My mom started crying again. “I need you here. I cannot lose another kid. First, Desire and Daniel, now you.”
“Mom, I promise you nothing is going to happen. I will walk. I will make it. Daniel will help me to get a job. You know for Venezuelans in Peru it is easier to get job permission and residency.”
“But, you just said they don’t want us there.”
“It is not everyone there. But, yes. I don’t understand why Peruvians are so mad. We only want to work. Don’t they watch the news? We are dying; we have no choice.”
“You don’t sound like a twenty-year-old boy.”
“I think in Venezuela we are pushed to be mature sooner.”
“It is crazy. Two decades ago, Venezuela received many immigrants, and we never complained. You never heard me to said we did not like them.”
“You right.” I took my mom's hands and saw her. “My decision is made. I plan to leave in two weeks.”
My brother sent me $200. That is all the money I have for the next two months. I have to walk 2,236 miles to Lima, Peru. I plan to sleep in a hostel every four days. The other three days I have to sleep anywhere like a homeless. Actually, I am homeless. I can’t afford to sleep every day on a bed. Sleeping on the streets have been significant learning. It is not comfortable to sit on a bank, or under a tree, or on the grass and fall asleep. I could not stick an eye for the first three days. By the time, our bodies understand there are no more options. I have a small blanket and pillow with me. They help me a lot.
I’ve walked for a month. I’ve met many people on the road. There are more Venezuelan walkers on the way. The destinations are not the same; some want to go to Ecuador, some stay in Colombia, others go to Peru like me, and others are going to Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay.
Also, I have found Venezuelans who left the country many years ago. They are kind to us. They wait for us, the walkers, on the way and give us some water and food. In one of these stops, I met a woman, Carolina, she has lived in Colombia for the last ten years. She has four kids. She is grateful for her new country for all the opportunities she got.
Carolina is not pretty; however, she is always perfectly combed and make-up. She smiles all the time, and her kids love her. I think it was her maternal instinct which made her offer me to stay in her home for some days. I am a proud person. I don’t like to ask for favors, but I really needed to stay in the same place for a couple of days.
Carolina and family are so lovely to me. I get a bed every night and three meals per day. They have asked me for any money. She talks about how hard it was for her to leave Venezuela, but she sees how everything is worse now. “I remember how thirty years ago Colombians went to Venezuela for a better future. We were the best country in Latin America. Now, we are escaping from the hell. We are no immigrants, we are refugees. I am going to help as many people I can.” Carolina tells me she has helped ten Venezuelans. I am the first one who stays inside the house, but she has given them food, water, money, and medicines.
She works hard. She is all day outside working. I cleaned her house. It was my way to pay her for this favor. My mom is happy I had Carolina in my way. Also, she has talked by phone a couple of times. I took care of her kids. They are good children. Three of them were born in Venezuela; all of them have a Colombian accent. They do not remember my country. It is sad, they only know it as a complicated place where people are dying. I tried to talk to them about how beautiful Venezuela was. I don’t want them to think about my land as a hell.
I have stayed with them for two weeks. It has been a great time. Carolina does not want me to leave. She is worried. It is winter in all the countries I have to walk in.
On the other hand, my brother says I have to hurry because he gets me a job with a friend. They can wait for me for two weeks. I promise Carolina to be careful and write to her as soon as I am with my bother. She gives me some food, clothes, and money for my travel.
I am walking again. It is cold. My plan these days it is to walk at night because it is colder so I can keep my body warm while I am walking. I sleep in the day. I got tired in the day four after Carolina’s house. I am never alone. Anywhere I look there is a Venezuelan walking.
I ask myself many times: Why? Why do we have to live all this chaos? Why can’t I live in my country with my family? Why do we have to be unhappy? What have we done to deserve this? I never find the answer, but I am lucky enough to find angels like Carolina.
I promised myself that I will send her a gift as soon as I get my first salary in Peru.