Photo credit: W. Penny
Photo credit: W. Penny
The last two weeks have been interesting, to say the least. (That sentence is a strong competitor for “understatement of the year 2019.”) I almost typed that I’ve started this post multiple times in the last fourteen days, but that isn’t actually true. I’ve thought about starting this post, but have never gotten beyond pondering it in the shower that has endless hot water, or on my newly re-instituted walks past the White House on my way to work, or as I wander the aisles of CVS, fully aware that they are more groceries available in a single corner drug store in downtown Washington D.C. than there were in the supermarkets I frequented in Caracas.
So yes, the last two weeks have been full of changes- normally something that gets top billing at In Search of the End of the Sidewalk. And yet, my faithful readers (all 7.5 of you!) have heard nary a peep out of me- even the book reviews have been sporadic and off-schedule. Why? Because processing takes time. Because heartache is hard to put onto paper (or a screen). And because there is no way to explain what it feels like to be given 72 hours to pack up your life and to say goodbye to friends and colleagues and not be sure if you will ever see them again.
For me, that meant working a really long day, being so busy I didn’t even realize I hadn’t taken a trip to the little diplomats’ room in over ten hours- thank you middle school teacher bladder! I was holding it together well as long as I was fielding questions, sorting plans, and thinking about what needed to be done to get everyone on those planes. That all fell apart for me at about 4:50PM. I looked down at the clock on my computer and realized that the goodbye was coming soon- very soon. Updating spreadsheets made blurry by watering eyes, I staved off the inevitable for as long as possible. But denial can only last so long. Five o’clock is usually a great time of day, but not that Thursday afternoon. When Gerard, my CLO administrative assistant got up to go, I fell apart. I’m not sure we even actually said goodbye. A long and tight hug, followed by a second hug said it all for us. Tears flowed. He hid his behind sunglasses and I did the awkward hand-flap thing, neither of us able to pretend this was anything less than goodbye.
All of these things take a toll and while writing is therapeutic, blank space is as well. (I was going to make a clever Taylor Swift reference here, as I do enjoy some terrible pop music in my life, but then I realized that the chorus lyrics of “So it’s gonna be forever/Or it’s gonna go down in flames/You can tell me when it’s over/If the high was worth the pain” are really more fitting with the political side of Venezuela, a topic I’m going to steer away from as much as possible in this forum. I’m not going to talk about what may or may not be forever in Venezuela, what may or may not go down in flames in Caracas and whether or not it is worth the pain. I’ll have that conversation all day long in person, but not here. Not now. So, Taylor, my dear, no cheeky 1989 album references for me tonight.)
With a fortnight plus-plus behind me and most of the craziness starting to get under control, it seems like now is a good time to talk about our ordered departure. But how do I do that without getting into the politics? That’s a tough line to walk, but the best answer is to do it through an equally powerful “p” word- people.
People are what made it hard to leave Caracas and people are what made leaving possible.
The folks on the ground in Venezuela were amazing. Our GSO team (these are the officers and local staff who deal with our housing, our cars, our travel, etc.) was more prepared that I could have imagined with seats booked on American Airlines for the entire crew of departing personnel and families in a matter of hours. At the same time, they negotiated with American Airlines to allow us all extra bags (AA said three per person, but when we got to the airport, there was no counting or weighing- if you brought it to the counter, it got tagged and put on the plane- amazing customer service!) and to make sure the airline was prepared for the large number of pets that would be evacuating with the community. The actual arrangements to get everyone out of Venezuela in a safe and secure and expeditious manner was a massive amount of work and the GSO team at post was professional, but also deeply caring as they helped sort a variety of individual arrangements.
While GSO was on the phone with the airlines, the HR shop was cutting orders, not just to DC, but a variety of safe-haven locations both inside and outside the United States. This is a daunting task, one that requires hours of manpower and yet I never saw the team waiver- staying as late as necessary to make sure that people were ready to fly in a matter of hours.
And I can’t say enough fantastic things about our security team either. Quiet leadership and professionalism were the names of the game for the office on that Thursday of controlled chaos. While some of them had their own families to help prepare for the evacuation, they continued to make arrangements for our secure departure from the country we collectively called home. As they were in and out of my office that last morning and afternoon, it was a constant discussion about how to lessen the trauma of the next few days. One of the most amazing things that came out of the departure from Caracas was the help that our team in Caracas was able to secure with their colleagues in Miami. When we reached Miami with the first set of evacuees ( ½ came out on Friday and the other ½ on Saturday) we were met at the doors of the plane by a couple of field agents who told us to gather at the top of the ramp with the other agents. When we had the entire embassy crew together, these men carried babies, pushed strollers, opened passport control lines for our officers and diplomatic families, pushed us through security screening, and provided escorts to our onward gates. Amazing isn’t strong enough of a word for this group of agents. Astonishing. Astounding. Remarkable. All of these are fair adjectives. It wasn’t that we couldn’t have gone through passport control like we normally do. We definitely could have helped one another with babies and strollers and luggage. We could have stood in line to redo security checks and we definitely could have wandered the airport to find our gates. We had time. But, to have someone standing there, welcoming us home with smiles was special. We were emotionally spent. The goodbyes that morning in Caracas were tough- they were heartbreaking and many of us felt as if we were abandoning our coworkers and employees in a time of crisis. To have someone, just for a few minutes, take over and say “we’ve got you” meant the world. They were strangers to us, but we are all part of a bigger USG team looking out for the best interests of this nation. We didn’t need to know them beyond that for them to take us under their wings and provide much needed support. We are one team. And they had our backs in a really special way.
To top it off, when we arrived in Washington DC at the end of a day that felt endless, we were greeted once again by smiling faces. The previous CLO and a few former-Caracas State Department workers were in the terminal with signs and smiles and cheers and hugs and a few tears as well. (Also, not to be discounted, they had water and homemade cookies!) The people who were there were part of the crew that went on ordered departure back in 2017, so they got it in a way no one else could. They knew what our last 48 hours had been like- no need to rehash it or explain why tears and smiles went hand in hand.
This whole thing started with politics- politics that I feel deeply connected to and have strong personal opinions about. But in my two weeks of processing, I realize it is the people who have stepped up to make a difficult situation a bit easier, a bit smoother, a bit more humane. I can’t begin to compare my hardships with those of the average Venezuelan, but difficult times aren’t about comparing one set of pain with another- they are about being resilient in your own place at your own time and it has been the people around me who have helped to create a soft landing after what felt a bit like jumping without a parachute. It is those people who made me feel like I am ready to hop back on that plane and jump again. And again. And again, if necessary.
Living in Caracas was not always easy and at times it was frustrating beyond belief, but these people (and many others) make me want to be on the next flight back there. They make me want to be back at work alongside strong and compassionate colleagues and friends. And they make me believe that the political fight for democracy is worth all of this and more.
U.S. Embassy Caracas (photo credit: P. Branco)
Purchase This is Cuba here
Photo credit: P. Branco
Photo credit: T. Ross
Photo credit: W. Penny (Caracas)
Hiking in socks is a thing.
The powers-that-be (really, the guides who do this multiple times a week and have a much better understanding of the trek conditions that I do) suggested shoeless as the way to go. I am paying good money (really, it is good money, as I paid in USD from my American account and not bolivars from my Venezuelan one) for their wisdom, so crazy as it may be, an adventure in socks seemed like the perfect way to kick off the weekend.
Have a little faith.
We defied death and made it to Canaima National Park in our mosquito of an airplane, bypassing the normal overnight stop needed to get to the wilderness. This extra bit of time afforded to us by taking the private plane let us go on an adventure almost as soon as we set (socked) foot in the small town that is the gateway to Angel Falls.
After dropping our bags in our hotel room and giving the hammock outside a quick try, we met up with Joe (you know, Jose from this blog entry) and headed out, uncertain of our destination. All we were told was to wear swimsuits and socks- we would be leaving out shoes behind.
Those are slightly odd instructions, but not ones that I gave a whole lot of extra thought to. We quickly changed, ate a fast meal, and hopped in our first boat of the weekend.
It was a short paddle across the river to a set of six waterfalls (less when the water is higher and they merge into one another) that were our destination for the afternoon. Pulling up to the base of one, we were told to ditch the shoes and come ashore, as we would be hiking in socks for the afternoon! (Man, I am glad I had on cheap $2 socks from Old Navy. Jumping ahead a few hours, those socks went directly into the trash bin back at the hotel. They were not made for the rocks and roots and rivers of Venezuela! It was a worthwhile tradeoff.)
We headed up a trail that while quite steep, was short and not too painful. (The next day, I would have given most anything to have that first trail back!) With a single pathway ahead of us, we followed it up and over a ridge, quickly finding ourselves BEHIND a waterfall! Standing there with massive amounts of water thundering down just mere feet away, our own stocking feet standing in puddles made from the heavy mist (it was more than a mist but less than the falls itself- like a steady, never-ending rain) was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (We had many of those over that quick three-day weekend.)
The word magical conjures up the idea of unicorns and rainbows and fairies, but that really was not far off from the feeling of standing behind the waterfall, removed from the world, transported to another, more enchanted place. It would not have been a huge surprise to see a unicorn grazing on the moss of the falls or a fairy flutter through the mist. There were definitely rainbows! Everywhere we turned, the light was bending into colorful arcs and swaths as the water-soaked air swirled around us.
While I could have stayed in that hypnotizing cavern forever, after a dip in the falls to “wash away the city” we headed up the path to the top of the falls. Because it is the start of the dry season in Canaima, we were able to get up over the ridge and look down on the waterfalls and river below, a panorama of the space that was incredible to take in. I stood on a rock with water flowing around me on both sides, over the edge into the waterfall we had just been standing behind, and down into the river where it foamed up into a roiling rage before settling in to be the calm river below.
Blinded by the sun heading towards the horizon, we had one last stop on our afternoon outing. After an easy climb back down the rocks, we made a tight turn away from the original waterfall and headed down a narrow, steep path. Once again, mostly rocks and roots, my socks took a beating. (It was at this point that I noticed the first hole and realized that my cute polka-dot socks were on their last adventure.) This last path emptied us into a tea-colored chest-high pool churning with the water from the falls above.
What is one to do but wade on in?
While the guide waited with his trusty companion (Ra, his Rottweiler, was with us much of the weekend), Thad and I headed on in, fighting against the current to stand beneath the thunder of the falls. (Joe insisted that there was no possible way for us to be washed over the edge of the falls, even though we were still al level up from the river. He promised that the boulders made a complete wall between the ledge and us. I believed this about 90%, but still kept a leery 10% skepticism and clung to rocks as much as possible.)
In general, I am a fan of a strong stream of water in the shower and this was a perfect massage of water beating down from above. (Don’t get me started on my dislike of those “rainfall” shower heads that have become popular in the last decade. I do not like them. Yes, it is a lovely and soft experience, but I want the dirt sandblasted off of me in the shower! And those gentle rainfall ones are terrible at getting the shampoo out of my hair. I need more power than that. Water pressure, please!)
Tired and ready to wrap up the day, I was happy to see our boat at the bottom of the last waterfall. Getting to where we were currently standing was quite a steep downward climb, so I wasn’t super thrilled at the prospect of doing that again, uphill, and still in socks, but alas, it is the way of hiking- wherever you go down, you must go back up. (Am I the only one who spends the entire downward hike thinking about how I’m going to have to come back up each and every step?) Today was my lucky (?) day though! Just as I was mentally gearing myself up for the return journey, Joe announced that we were going down instead- down the rock edge of the waterfall.
You know, that place that there is no trail and is not meant for humans (in socks!) to descend.
Following closely on Joe’s heels, trying to use his exact same path, over the edge of the rocks I went. It was mostly me skootching on my rear end, trying to stretch my legs as far as they would go to make connection with the next slightly-horizontal surface. With everything wet and mossy, it was just a matter of trying to make the slide from rock to rock as graceful and undramatic as possible. (I only cracked my knee once this time around, and no not-so-friendly words fell out of my mouth, although they did cross my mind a few times.) Finally, my socked feet hit solid (although pebbly) ground and into the boat I clambered, thankful to be in one piece, with nothing more serious that a few knee scrapes and a pounding heart.
I’ve done my fair share of hiking, but this was definitely a first for me. Leave the shoes behind. Venture out in socks. It’s the traveler’s version of dancing in the rain.
Photo credit: T. Ross