Camp came to an end for Betsy, and I stayed back working the camp’s challenge education program.
I was in the outskirts of Bloomington, Indiana. The only thing I knew, because I was told so, was to be careful going to town. I really never had the need for it and when I did I would go with a group of people. I guess Martinsville in its glory days was known as a big KKK enclave.
I found that interesting. I knew about the KKK from movies. American TV shows translated into Spanish, such as “The North and the South” or the famous “Roots” and its star Kunta Kinte.
Fortunately I didn’t ever have any issue to deal with; maybe some stares. But being in a small town people probably just knew I wasn’t from there.
At the time I felt like I was still on a passing trip. I know, there is that analogy of life as a journey and all that, but I am talking about that same feeling you get when you are on vacations. You know you are away from home but you know the trip has an end and you’ll be back where you belong; or maybe where you grew up thinking you belong to. You keep thinking about your friends and family. What they are doing. You think about telling them stories of the things you are experiencing. You think of what you left behind as a frozen scene where time has giving up its duties.
But as we all know time is unforgiving. Especially in a country where in any random conversation people quickly surrender to “let’s see what’s gonna happen” or “well, there is nothing we can do about it.” Which really translates into “there is nothing we can do to change the situation.”
As I was starting my physical journey in the United States there was also a mindset journey of some sort happening too. A change. I could feel it.
I look back and I feel like I grew up surrounded by a collective pessimism. An environment that is so antagonistic that thinking of any positive outcome would be unrealistic. Simple daily situations train you to fight and expect the worse. From simple situations like paying the phone bill at the bank line to a college registration, finding a job, road rage, being mugged on the street or an endless list of bureaucratic and corrupt tasks to get anything done.
At camp, every week we would receive different groups from schools, corporations, sororities and fraternities as well as many other private organizations. We would lead these groups through a progression of activities and conversations that would result in personal growth and teamwork dynamics.
Before the season started though we had our training, which consisted in experiencing all the activities that we were to facilitate. This one week training was very thorough. It was not only about facilitating the rope course, canoeing or backpacking trips but it was also about facilitating the conversations among participants.
This was an enlightenment moment for me. Not only was I secluded and away from problems; from Venezuela. But I was realizing that many of the limitations I had in me were just false beliefs that inhabited in my mind. Self imposed limitations and “can’ts”. Maybe the result of a damaging comment from a friend or family member? But I had come to a turning point.I was ready to break off from all those fears and doubts. I was feeling empowered and capable to achieve whatever I wanted.
My graduation ceremony was taking place in December 2002. With plans now of getting married sometime in 2003 I knew I had to go back to Venezuela. More than a protocol and going through the motions it was a special moment to share with my parents.
I was not an easy child growing up. My elementary school was rough and I never let people push me around, which resulted in a fist fight almost every day. My parents received calls from school on regular basis and I remember my mom shedding some tears over this. As a teenager I was not easy to keep on the school track either. I was not easy to keep me away from partying, especially in a country where drinking age is whenever your friends introduce you to any alcoholic drink.
Many times I was rude and everything that now as a parent would not want my own kids to be.
So, I had to get back and share that special moment with my family. They deserved it. I wanted to thank them for all they had done for me. I would not have gotten through even high school if it was not because of my parents. I wanted them to have the satisfaction as parents to see that all the crap they put up with through the years was not fruitless.
Bradford Woods had offered me another contract for the spring and they were willing to extend my visa. However, Betsy and I, knowing now that we were going to get married in 2003 and not wanting to risk anything, took action. We made it down to the courthouse in Charleston Illinois. And like Springsteen would say “no wedding smiles, no walk down the aisle, no flowers, no wedding dress” just an engagement ring. We tied the knot on December 5th. We did it to ensure I could get a work permit by the time we were going to get married in the summer.
So, without much planning I headed back to Venezuela on Dec, 6th. With no even a week in the country the national oil company called up for a general strike paralyzing the oil production and distribution. Lines and lines at the gas stations, the airports shut down, shortages of food due to the lack of food distribution, water and electricity were intermittent. Riots. Marshall law in some places. Living hell! Once again.
Fortunately the graduation ceremony did take place. It was an event full of political tension. Political remarks were made by the Dean during the event ceremony causing political chants and booing in the audience; a fight almost broke up.
At the end, I went up to the stage, received my diploma and walked out concluding a long road of challenges.
At that moment I really cut ties with Venezuela. At least I thought. There was nothing forcing me to come back; except for all my family and friends.
Leaving a country with one the highest homicide rates in the world gives you a wide range of opportunities to just be. When you don’t have to look over your shoulder every ten seconds to make sure no one is following you have time. Spaces in your mind to explore new things, interests or look at life from a different angle.
That summer of 2002, after arriving to camp and settling in I found some of that needed time.
In my suitcase I had also brought with me an engagement ring. It wasn’t a “huge rock.” It was not expensive, but all I could reasonably buy. It also meant a lot. I bought it thinking of what it meant for me and Betsy.A life together.
With no fancy dinner or special place, just the two of us, we got engaged and made an ordinary place special to both of us.
I guess that one of the greatest things about writing down your memories is that it protects them from the effects of time. I am not nearly at an age where my memory will be failing but life just kind takes over and memories fade away; new memories are made and the past becomes more distant.
Last night I started thinking about a particular time when the idea of leaving my country really hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought it was after my camp experience in Martinsville but it was actually right before that, so I will regress a little bit today.
I have mentioned before that after a couple of trips to Europe I was committed to search for a future somewhere else out of Venezuela. I was fed up with many social aspects of Venezuela and opportunities didn’t look very promising. However, I have also mentioned that I do believe that when there is “struggle” it kind of keeps us going; the adversity that makes us wake up every day and put up a fight.
Now, when you remove that struggle or you remove yourself from the struggle you may feel like life loses direction and I was feeling that a little bit as the time approached. Maybe because I knew this time was different.
After I had come back to Venezuela from spending spring break with Betsy it was really a home stretch. I already mentioned all the commotion with school and graduating. But additionally there was also the mental conflict of leaving everything behind. Family, friends, hidden corners of the city that I learned to navigate, places and more places that occupy a place within your memories. You leave everything to settle somewhere else and you have no mental reference, no emotional attachment to anything. You question over and over if you are doing the right thing. Is it worth it to leave everything in order to be with someone? If you have been married, in a relationship or just in love you know that the odds of a relationship working out are, well, odds at best. It is more likely for a relationship not to work than to work.
But in the midst of that kind of fear I just tend to push myself through. As if I was about to get on a roller coaster, I just sit in the car, buckle up and hold on to it with dear life. Besides, I was head over heels with this American girl.
With all that said, there comes the question of how do you pack up your life in a suitcase. You can’t bring it all. Think about it! If you were leaving tomorrow and all you can bring with you is a suitcase, what would you get in there? What would you bring with you?
With the final feeling of “I am not sure when I’ll be back, or back at all” I plunged. Suddenly, things that I always took for granted because you just get used to them became relevant again. I took pictures of them, I visited many places that I used to visit frequently. Nothing fancy necessarily. Maybe a spot where you could see the city, walking down a boulevard, a park, the Metro; even public transportation became a novelty in my last days.
Music that I didn’t even care for in Venezuela I burned it onto CDs because I knew that I am some point I would miss it.
Sold my car. A car that I absolutely love. A Range Rover 1975 that I fixed myself because I could not afford its repairs otherwise.
All sort of other possessions. Bike, spearfishing gear, shoes, clothes… and as I was getting rid of all these material things there was that feeling that I was completely giving up the hopes of ever coming back. I was trading my life there for a life somewhere else.
You leave your country thinking that nothing will change. Everything will remain the same.
On April 11, 2002 I got my last push telling me “get out while you can.” There was a huge protest against the government, where protesters were attempting to reach the presidential palace across the city. As they approached the vicinity of the place snipers shot from high rises several people sending the county in another episode of political turmoil. The armed forces carried on with a coup d’etat and former revolutionary leader Hugo Chavez was kidnapped. From my building I could see airplanes bombing a special force( DISIP) headquarters.
The coup was fruitless and Hugo Chavez was set free. However, this resulted in the imprisonment of different political leaders and a devastating control of foreign currency exchanges, plus more drastic measures imposed by the so call “Revolution.”
I navigated the situation until June and I got out of Venezuela with $800. A suitcase that a friend kindly hammy down to me, many hopes and dreams, few pictures and as many memories I could pack in my head.
All my time left in school after spring break until June had a moment of tension. I had to make sure I could count on three professors for thesis work I was working on.
Our glossary was frowned upon by many other professors because it wasn’t to the level of other topics. Maybe not scholarly enough. One particular professor went as far to say that we should be ashamed of choosing such a mindless subject. He was determined to influence the approval committee, so that we would be rejected and choose something better for the following year.
It’s unfortunate, but you always run into these kind of individuals. The ones that like to be obstacles, to talk people down. The ones that feel greater by diminishing and bringing others down, so they can sit higher on their throne of unhappiness, fears, failed relationships and marriages. You may think he was just doing his job, but this gentleman was truly a piece of work. I still remember his aimless rants during classes…
This didn’t stop us one bit. We finished our glossary right on time, and we have also gotten a lot of people on our side trying to help us out. They were willing to do whatever was necessary to get us through this and understood the opportunities we had ahead of us.
At the beginning of June we defended our Bonsai glossary and is probably until today the only work that was culminated and defended at the end of any student’s final year at our school.
One more step: Back to the embassy for another visa. This time was going to be easy. I was getting again a J-1 visa. Everything was backed up by the camp I was going to, so I wasn’t expecting any particular problems getting it; other than the typical hassles of being at the embassy. Although to be fair, they work quicker and more efficiently than any public office in Venezuela.
Next destination: Martinsville, Indiana.
Spring break came along quick. The trip to the airport is never easy. The lines are insane, and you have to make sure you arrive with enough time to deal with the government’s national guard and their shenanigans. Sometimes the X-ray machines don’t work properly and everything gets delayed.
Luckily, things worked well. I was able to board with my standby ticket and few hour later I had made it to Chicago.
Every time I fly over Chicago I remember that day when I saw the city from above the first time. I chuckle remembering how I wanted to visit it. It looked so inviting, clean, beautiful. I never imagined I was about to start a life on this side of the world. I never imagined I would be living in the northern hemisphere.
This trip in the midst of March was a shock for me though. For the first time I was experiencing Chicago weather. I pondered many times if I really wanted to leave my my all year round summer behind. Could I ever get used to the weather? It seemed to me that people in Chicago were kind of born for it. Maybe it is kind of like learning a language; if you don’t do it early enough in life you can’t get the native like pronunciation?
Days went by quick. Things with Betsy were getting more serious, and we were already talking about life after finishing school that summer.
We were talking about the possibility of me staying for good.
I was again going back back to Venezuela. At most three months and I would have to travel back to the states; as long as I could graduate on time and get a visa again.
When you live in Venezuela you grow up used to expect the unexpected. And although you don’t know what’s coming your way,you know it may not be(very likely) a good thing.
As I am still trying to figure out how in the world can I get to graduate by the summer, sure enough, a big strike was put in motion. Professors and employees at the university have not been paid for a couple of months now and everything was ready to be shut down.
If the problem was not solved shortly my school year was going to be extended past July.
This was a big problem. Betsy had found a position to work with Indiana University’s outdoor center, Bradford Woods, and I had volunteered to work their summer special needs camp.
I needed to get done with school and be there beginning June.
At the same time I tried to save every cent I could. Few odd jobs here and there.
Phone conversations were adding up to my bills but they were needed; that kept me going. Motivated.
I still had money saved up from my experience in Michigan, and a friend of mine was helping me to get a standby ticket for Spring Break. As long as I could get a tourist Visa I was going to visit Betsy for 10 days.
Unfortunately, getting a tourist visa is not an easy task. Especially when you are young, and even worse if you don’t have much money.
Betsy had sent me a written letter, a casual affidavit of sorts, stating that she was basically taking responsibility for me financially; which was like the blind leading the blind because she didn’t really have any money either. WE were both college students.
The embassy of the United States is a place I always avoided. I thought the people working there were extremely arrogant. George W. Bush was President at a time and all the policies towards South America were perceived as arrogant, imperialist, etc. Whereas On the other hand, as a Venezuelan European countries did not require visas for visits under 3 month, so I always preferred Europe instead.
There I was again. Filling out the visa form with questions like “are you a terrorist?” or “have you ever belonged to any Nazi movement?” As if someone would ever answer yes to any of those questions.
After a long day of watching people upset and crying because their visas were denied my turn came.My inerviewer was a girl. Maybe 25 years old. I was wondering if she would interview me in English or Spanish but my uncertainty vanished when she immediately barked, “do you speak English?”
“Yes” I said.
After looking at my passport continuously, looking at all my entries, reading Betsy’s letter, looking at my depleted bank account, and repeating this procedure over and over she goes on a unstoppable rant.
“Look, I can’t give you a visa. You don’t have any strong ties to your country. Nothin here tells me that you will not stay.” I knew where she was going with this.
I was enraged. I wasn’t going to stay. I was being honest with all my paperwork. Not to mention that in order to have this interviewed I had paid over $100.
Before she could finalize her statement I interjected:
“Listen, I have no intention of staying illegally in the United States. I have been to many different countries and I have never overstayed my visa. I am going to visit my girlfriend for few days and I’ll be back. If I really wanted to stay we would just get married and I would get a visa anyways, plus my residency”
She was staring at me. I was just waiting for the knockout punch. All she had to do was to say the very culturally appropriate “I’m sorry.” Which in reality means I don’t give a crap.
Instead she looked at me and again started looking at my passport, letter and documents. She walked back into the behind the scenes of her cubicle. She came back.
She looked perturbed. Bothered.
“Well, listen! I am gonna give you the benefit of the doubt. Don’t mess up. Don’t stay, or you won’t ever get in again.”
She handed out all my documents, and said the passport will be mailed.
I thanked her. I turned around with the feeling of an empty stomach and walked away towards the exit as people were watching and some even mumbling the infamous question: “Was he denied?”