Monday, January 14, 2013

Traffic and Bubble Hopping

I rode the bus with Lilly and Sophia this morning.  The school bus picks them at the entrance to our building, and drops them well within the gates of the school building.  We don't have our car yet, and so I just rode along on the bus both Friday and this morning, making sure they got to school with confidence.

The bus got a bit rowdy this morning, no doubt partly because of the length of the trip.  On Friday, from stepping on the bus at our door to stepping off the bus in the school took less than 20 minutes.  This morning, the same ride took an hour.  The children arrived at the school 15 minutes late.


I keep hearing that traffic is crazy in Caracas, and that normally quick rides can easily quadruple in length due to traffic.  I'll admit - this didn't make much sense to me until this morning.  We rode through the neighborhood at a normal pace, down the hill quickly and normally, and then we came to a stop at the bottom of the hill.  You could say that this is where our neighborhood meets the city - and today, the city had traffic.

I wish I had brought my camera.  The intersection we faced had three roads entering and exiting it before it even reached the stoplight, which brought three more corners.  We were trying to turn left before the stoplight.  It seems that everyone else wanted to go the same direction, and pushed themselves into position.  No one could cross the intersection, it was so full of cars pushed helter-skelter against each other.  And certainly no one could have gotten out once they were in.  We sat in roughly the same place - said intersection - for over half an hour.

This first exposure to Caracas traffic enlightened me to many aspects of Caracas.

1st - just how difficult it can be to get around.
We did not face such traffic on Friday, and arrived nearly 45 minutes earlier.

2nd - the infrastructure challenge.
Caracas is lovely, with a few narrow streets winding up and around green hills.  Folks park on either side of the winding streets, and once you're in you've got no choice but to keep going forward. 
I understand this extends to major roads as well - they may be 3 and 4 lanes in straight lines, but there are apparently very few of them, and so travelers are left with no alternate route.

3rd - the popularity of carjacking, and how dangerous driving can be.
I've heard that a busy intersection can be one of the most dangerous places in Caracas, and a place where any driver needs to be fully alert.  At some point this morning, our bus reached the point where we could not turn around and retreat from our road.  If we had seen someone coming with a gun, we would have been sitting ducks.  We have been advised to have our windows tinted and never to roll them down.  And to be fully on our guard at all red lights and busy intersections.

It further makes me realize that we live in a bit of a bubble, on our hill above the city.  Drew explained to me this weekend that we spend our Caracas existence bubble hopping.  Within our homes, with our doors locked and our alarms set, we are safe or green in a safe little bubble.  Within the embassy and the school, we are also green in a safe little bubble.  When we go to our favorite stores and restaurants, when we walk around our neighborhood during the day, when we go to the mall nearby we are in yellow - not the bubble, so be on your guard, but probably fairly safe.  Don't wear headphones; don't wear fancy jewelry or carry an expensive purse; pay attention to the people around you;  but you're fairly safe. 

Everything else is red - NOT SAFE.  Everything else includes most of the city of Caracas.  Everything else includes anywhere after dark (with the exception of our green little bubbles).  Everything else includes traffic snarls and red lights.

As I was writing this, I googled "crime caracas" to get you some statistics, and high on the google results was the Venezuela 2012 Crime and Safety Report published by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security.  Even with all of the data I've received, its still a pretty daunting read. 

  • since 2010, Caracas has been the city with the highest murder rate in the world - above any city in Afghanistan, Iraq or any war zone, and with a national murder rate higher than that of Mexico but with only one-quarter the population;
  • home invasions are common, involve many heavily armed individuals, target wealthy neighborhoods and have taken place in buildings where U.S. Embassy personnel reside;
  • traffic jams are common in Caracas, and easily exploited by criminals who will rob multiple cars and then get away quickly by motorcycle.  Cases of armed robbery have increased, have taken place on the streets near the embassy, and can result in death if the victim does not comply.  But good news: they generally target 4-wheel drive vehicles, and we drive a family car;
  • kidnappings are a growing industry in Venezuela, with criminals forcing victims to withdraw all of the money from their bank accounts, or keeping them for up to 48 hours while their family pulls together a ransom of as much as $50,000.
  • and just to keep things fun, the threat of political violence remains an ever-present possibility, where even peaceful protects and rallies can quickly deteriorate into violence without warning;
  • and then there are the environmental hazards.  Caracas is in an earthquake zone, and the region is overdue for a serious earthquake.
Alright, I think I've freaked you out enough.  In fact, I'm feeling pretty happy to hole up in my house for the rest of the week.  But people who love us, rest assured that we have many precautions around us to keep us safe.  And also keep us in your prayers.  Please.

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