AFAR chose a destination at random—by literally spinning a globe—and sent Frank Viviano on a spontaneous journey to Venezuela.
The day before I flew to Caracas I’d heard that Hermann Mejía was back home after several years in New York. A born and bred caraqueño, Hermann is a veteran cartoonist at Mad magazine, the bible of ironic truths. A perfect source in a country I had never visited before.
I called him shortly after I checked in to the Hotel Avila on Monday evening, then went to the bar and ate a hamburger that must have weighed two pounds. I spent the entire night listening to the crackle of small firearms in the barrios that spilled over the surrounding hills. Googling at 2 a.m., I discovered that Caracas has the highest homicide rate on Earth, a stunning two dozen times the figure for the gun-crazed United States.
Hermann picked me up Tuesday morning with his wife, Elisa Hevia, a puppeteer. “You must be nuts to stay in this neighborhood,” he said. Over lunch, I related a cryptic exchange I’d had in the taxi from the airport. The key to understanding Venezuela, the driver had said, “is that everything is mixed together.” Hermann laughed and said, “The first time I went to the States, art directors were totally confused by my portfolio. ‘What are you, exactly?’ they’d say. I’d been a sculptor some of the time, a commercial illustrator or semi-surrealist painter a lot of the time, and a caricaturist most of the time. I had no idea that artists in other countries specialize. Wow! Nobody specializes here.”
There was a word for it, said Elisa, who added that Hermann also designs postage stamps. “We call it todero, a mixture of the words torero and todos, like a guy who is a bullfighter but also does everything else: todos. All Venezuelans are toderos.”
After lunch, Hermann and I went off to meet his cousin Joey. He had shoulders and biceps the size of a California governor’s, and looked like someone who ate a dozen Hotel Avila hamburgers daily. It was obvious, if unspoken, that Joey was to provide muscle during a walk through downtown Caracas. When I asked what he did for a living, Hermann said, “You know, a little of this and a little of that. Right now he sells toys.” We moved at a rapid but irregular pace, on the reasonable premise, I supposed, that a moving target is harder to hit. Hermann casually mentioned that he had been held up at gunpoint in Caracas at least four times.
The city center, a capital of the global oil industry, was a combination of Berlin in 1945 and Berlin in 2009. On alternating blocks, new skyscrapers rose alongside shambolic work sites where other, unfinished skyscrapers, some of them no more than ranks of iron girders, had been completely abandoned. It was unsettling, as though Caracas itself had been mugged. In a country governed by the autocratic Hugo Chávez—effectively president for life, who can pay for any civic improvement he wants with the annual take from 800 million barrels of exported crude—the scene was inconceivable. But so was the fact that 12,557 Venezuelans were murdered in 2006.
One of our few actual stops was a boutique that sold a weird array of statues, including depictions of notorious armed robbers, a famous physician in a natty three-piece suit and derby, and what I took to be the more conventional Virgin Mary. Not quite, Hermann informed me. Like the doctor and the thieves, this particular effigy of Mary was a fetish idol in the practice of Venezuelan Santería. “Almost everybody believes in it,” he said.
“But I thought Venezuela was overwhelmingly Catholic,” I said. “Of course it is!” Hermann exclaimed. “That’s why Mary is in both the churches and the Santería shops.” In Caracas, even the mother of God is a todera.
On Wednesday morning I headed for Mérida, a city in the country’s Andean highlands 320 miles southwest of Caracas. Its chief claim to fame, according to another Venezuelan friend, is that it “tries to be legal.” That was enough for me after two sleepless nights in Caracas.
Flying over a dazzling landscape of seacoast, inland jungle, and vast rolling plains, I continued pondering the cabbie’s allusions to mixing. Its demographic effects were obvious in the faces you saw in the Venezuelan streets. In 2000, according to the latest national census, 67 percent of the population was officially of mixed-race origin. Today, that figure likely tops 70 percent. Venezuela is a cultural and genetic stew that first united indigenous Amazonians with Afro-Caribbeans and Spanish conquistadors and has since added infusions of Italians, Portuguese, Lebanese, and Chinese.
There’s no arguing with the physical results. From the barrio slums, where el béisbol sandlots are dream factories, the country has sent more than 200 players to the major leagues. Meanwhile, since 1955, Venezuelan women have won an unrivaled 16 titles as Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss Earth, or Miss International. They are heirs to the fabled Maria Lionza, a folkloric Amazonian earth goddess with decidedly un-Amazonian green eyes. Often pictured on the back of a tapir—a native mammal that suggests, todero-like, a blend of pig, horse, and rhinoceros—she is another central figure in Venezuelan Santería and a paragon of national beauty.
By midnight on my second day in Mérida, three passersby had stopped me to warn that the zipper on my shoulder bag was broken. Mérida was a carefree pedestrian’s paradise. Yet as much as lawless Caracas, Mérida was toderoville, slowed to the beat of its own peaceful rhythms.
Almost everyone I talked to—bartenders and hotel clerks, waiters and schoolteachers, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers—was a currency trader on the side. They were eager to exchange Venezuelan bolívares (appropriately nicknamed bs) for dollars on an informal “parallel” market so independent that the chasm between the official rate and the informal reality was also the difference between one of the most expensive destinations on the planet and one of the cheapest. On my arrival, I’d run out of cash and had to pay for a dinner of salad, indifferent sautéed chicken, and two beers with a credit card. At the government-set 2.1 bolívares to the buck, the meal cost $63. Today, resupplied with “parallel” bs by a fruit vendor, I treated myself in an elegant colonial mansion to soup, sirloin steak, three vegetables, dessert, and a drink for $3.39.
Later I sat with my newest acquaintance, Davíd Puentes, in a café with background music that wandered disconcertingly through hip-hop, salsa, and techno to the string concertos of Antonio Vivaldi. Davíd was a trained gourmet chef who quadrupled as tour guide, interpreter, and hotel administrator. Nothing surprised me anymore.
We discussed plans for a trip into the high Andes. Davíd was understandably reluctant to drive. Nearly 3,000 Venezuelans meet their maker each year on the nation’s devil-may-care roads. The taxi driver who had ferried me to Mérida from El Vigia Airport, an hour and a half away, had, every 10 minutes, made the sign of the cross and kissed a small crucifix that hung from his mirror.
Davíd’s brother, Luis, was behind the wheel of their father’s Fiat when it parked at my hotel on Friday at 8 a.m. A crucifix hung from the mirror. At noon, we were still in Mérida, following a side trip to Luis’s favorite diner 10 miles south, where we sampled arepas, which in the spirit of toderismo are both the national breakfast and the national snack. They are usually composed of corn flour but sometimes of wheat flour, each of which Luis called “typical,” and, depending on the cook’s whim, are “typically” deep-fried, pan-sautéed, steamed, or baked and then (also “typically”) stuffed with meat or cheese or vegetables.
Afterward, we had returned to the town center and waited another hour for Marisol Méndez to join us. She was Luis’s former girlfriend. (Although by the end of a day marked by long, passionate arguments and countless cell phone calls to friends, they will have concluded that she may be his future girlfriend, too. “As soon as they both decide on a career,” Davíd explained. I despaired for them.) It was late afternoon when we finally reached a spectacular pass at just over 13,000 feet, where I was immediately felled by altitude sickness. Luis drove us back to Mérida, and I packed my bags, still puzzling over the logic of toderismo.
From the window on my return flight, an older logic unfolded 30,000 feet below, stretching as far as the eye could see. Venezuela’s gargantuan expanse of virgin wilderness is a living Darwinian laboratory, home to an astonishing 8,000 species of animals. Among them are, I read in a book purchased in Mérida, 1,200 different birds, including a couple dozen varieties of hawk; a reptile population that boasts five species of caiman, a relation of the alligator; and the mind-boggling anaconda, a snake that can grow to more than 30 feet in length. A single square mile of the country’s rain forest shelters 50,000 different varieties of insects.
Looking down in wonder, I suddenly realized that toderismo was an echo, in its peculiar way, of this fantastic biodiversity. In a nation of 26.8 million citizens, there were 26.8 million wildly unstable definitions of “typical Venezuelan.” Half a millennium after Christopher Columbus visited Venezuela, his and Maria Lionza’s metaphoric progeny remained unsettled in their identity—every individual a unique endemic species. Toderos.