Out of Venezuela: Going great guns in Caracas - but bring some air-freshener

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The Independent Online
CARACAS - 'At night, Caracas is a never-ending adventure', said the traditional 'Do not remove' tourist's guide in my hotel-room. 'Everyone who comes to the Venezuelan capital leaves with at least one tale of its night-life to tell.' Well, quite. If they live to tell the tale. What the book understandably neglects to mention is that it is not wise to venture through much of the Venezuelan capital, night or day. Scores of people are killed here weekly, around 50 on an average weekend, in cold-blooded violence that usually appears to be simply for violence's sake.

Barrios (areas) called The Slaughterhouse and The Cemetery were named after their most prominent sites. But the names have become horrifically apt. During my stay, a gang called The Seventies opened fire with machine-guns in The Cemetery barrio, killing a young man and badly wounding an eight-year- old girl, among others.

A couple of weeks earlier, two young men with automatic weapons shot eight people, several of them young children, in The Slaughterhouse district. No one is quite sure why, other than that the gangs tend to stake out their patches as a dog will urinate around its zone.

Even the city centre is not safe. One wonders whether an incident that took place a few years ago, related to me by an English businessman who witnessed it, could still happen nowadays. It was New Year's Eve on the Plaza Altamira. My friend watched three young Scotsmen, dressed in their kilts for Hogmanay, strolling across the square when half a dozen locals began whistling at them, mocking their costume and implying they were transvestites.

'The three Scots didn't say a word. They turned around and strolled slowly towards the local group,' my friend related. 'The latter were obviously ready for the usual bout of insults, maybe a bit of pushing and shoving. But the Scots didn't know the local rules of engagement. They laid into the local guys with fists, heads and feet until the Venezuelans fled and the three Scottish lads strolled on as though it had been just a minor irritant.'

Nowadays, weapons have proliferated. Visitors are advised not to carry valuables but, if challenged, to hand them over. Refusal often means death. Gangs will often go for backpackers, knowing they will have all their valuables on them.

A stroll around Caracas brings a reminder that British troops, from the then British Legion, are still regarded as heroes here. It dates back to the Spanish colonies' wars of independence in the early 19th century. Although Britain formally stayed neutral, many Scots, English and Irish soldiers fought with the local insurgents against the Spanish.

You may hear a local here talk of the Plaza Oliari. Get there and you'll see that was the Spanish pronunication of the Plaza O'Leary, an Irish soldier who fought alongside the South American independence hero Simon Bolivar, who was born in Caracas. Some of the battles in which the British Legion fought proved crucial in turning the tide against the Spanish.

Another point missing from the hotel- room tourist's guide is that Caracas, according to a recent survey, is perhaps the most urinated-upon world capital. The Diario de Caracas recently noted that the city stinks of urine and said the problem was a lack of public toilets, and bad education. Mothers allowed their children to pee in the streets and they grew up with the habit, the paper said. Caracas is also surely the city with the highest per capita ownership of mobile phones. The middle classes, businessmen or mums with their children, carry them openly. At a small bar in my hotel recently, there were three men on mobile phones at the same time, ignoring (or impressing?) their lady friends. Locals say it was the poor quality of the Venezuelan phone system that has led the two private cellular-phone companies to make a killing.

Oddly enough, unlike in many other capitals, Caracas's underground railway is the cleanest and perhaps the safest place to be. For Caraquenos, it became a kind of symbol of progress, of what Venezuelans can do if they put their minds to it. It has become almost a sacred place. 'It's like going into a different world,' my English friend noted. 'People change their attitude in the metro. They're more respectful; they keep it clean. Some women even dress up in their Sunday best just to take it.'

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