Tales of a Venezuelan Expat: Dispatch #2 (Disorder and Progress)
Note: The following takes place between October 2018 and January 2019.
I’m not in control. I’m trusting the currents to guide my ship to safe ports, trusting the process, letting go. I’m learning along the way. The biggest lesson so far has been how to let friends and family help me, how to receive, how to depend on the kindness of strangers. Which is harder than it looks and I haven’t quite mastered. In my defense, my previous experience was limited. I’ve always been a proud, hard-headed, stubborn idiot.
I travel forty straight hours via bus to get to Sao Paulo. Two whole days. It isn’t as excruciating as it sounds, the vehicle is comfortable and I have a lot to think about. And it’s relatively cheap, so I’m happy about that. An old friend invited me and here I am, in an even bigger city which speaks a language I can’t comprehend, still broke. But still on the right side of the law. I left Argentina before my tourist visa expired and got a new one upon entering this country. I’m one of those permanent travelers and, if only I could land a new remote job, I would become a digital nomad.
An old sweet song keeps Venezuela on my mind, always. I haven’t found one person who agrees with me, who supports my thesis that I should go back. They look at me like I’m crazy for even suggesting it. My friend left more than a decade ago and is now in the comfortable position everyone says I will get to if I keep at it, grinding, being a hard-working immigrant.
My first home in Brazil, his apartment, is stylish and oh so clean, compact and narrow, like most recently built housing in the country. All of his furniture and utensils are top shelf, thick, heavy, sharp. He takes me on a tour through the center of the city and it blows my mind, I can’t believe what I’m seeing. The immensity, the diverseness, the contrasts.
Also, the familiarity. Sao Paulo looks like Caracas – the architecture, the materials used, the miscegenation of the people. It’s like waking up in another dimension in which things took a turn for the best and everything is on the right track. The buses arrive on time, there are bikes for rent all over, planes fly above you night and day. It’s expensive, though, really expensive, and homeless people abound. The huge price-tag “everything works” brings with it.
In those first few weeks, I apply for all kinds of remote jobs in the writing field. Apparently, the world doesn’t know who I am. Nobody hires me. I take tests. I write cover-letters. I have close calls. Nothing. As a freelancer I have minor successes; I serve as a beta tester for an app, proofread a white paper and write two or three articles for a content farm. All in all, I make a laughable amount.
The world is dying. Everything is broken.
Açai in Jundiai
Blood is thicker than water. For the second act, I stay with my cousin, her husband, and two incredibly active children. They live in Jundiai, a satellite town two hours from the center of Sao Paulo by train, half of that by car. The summer takes hold and it’s hot as hell. I don’t mind. They have me watching animated movies every night. I don’t mind. I can’t really look for work, spend time isolated on my computer, write. I don’t mind. Instead, I’m establishing a relationship with my five and three-year-old second cousins, building castles with wooden blocks and being the butt of their jokes. I’m reconnecting with my family.
This time around we only speak about our home country indirectly. The adults discuss how worried about our parents we are, how frustrating not being able to really help them is. At the time, no one suspects the blackouts are four months away, hiding behind the corner. A monster of a cause for concern. I tell them about how unnerving I find it that my mom and dad keep pretending everything’s alright, trying to prevent my brother and me from worrying. They share some stories I’m not comfortable revealing, they’re theirs after all. We’re all relieved that our parents have a support system in place. In our family, that generation lives in the country still. Most of us — their children — are spread all over the world.
One good thing about the Venezuelan drama and the outlandish situation life put us in is that our people are everywhere. There are far, far less in Brazil, but still, there are enough that I can speak Spanish all day and suppress the need for Portuguese. I rely too much on that crutch, though. On the streets, I can’t understand a word the Paulistas tell me. They speak too fast, shorten words, cover everything with slang, and they’re not used to outsiders. I should’ve tried harder, though. Portuguese kicked my ass.
Sao Paulo as a labyrinth
My third house in Sao Paulo is in the very center of the city. I agree to watch over two cats while another friend and her roommate are out of town for the December holidays. I’m not a pet person and have never cohabited with those creatures, but I take my chances. I love cats now. They’re out of this world. They seldom bother me and keep me company while I write, which is what I do while alone at last. I also cook every day and walk aimlessly around downtown. I probably waste my time at the center of the maze, but this is what I accomplish: not spending money.
I keep applying for jobs, but with less and less enthusiasm. I decide to switch strategies and focus on writing guest-posts to develop my non-existent CV in English, a language I’d never worked in professionally. My CV in Spanish is in bad shape too, I spent seven years writing a novel and that sacrifice doesn’t translate well on paper. I used to publish articles everywhere-all-the-time when I was a non-hermit person, when printed media existed, when I was in my prime. All of that is irrelevant in the present. Potential employers barely care about yesterday.
I think the tide’s turning when I get a copywriting gig with an advertising agency in Buenos Aires. They need me for my English and specialized knowledge. The client is in Canada and produces hardware for the legal weed industry, perfect match. Ten minutes later I’m in the trenches once again, in the middle of a war I’d forgotten about. Even with the buffer brought by distance, even with the politeness created by unfamiliarity, working for an agency is as much of a nightmare as the last time. I spend two weeks stressed, fighting over e-mail, planning my revenge, trying to get it over with. Later on, I realize they also needed me for my willingness to work through the holidays.
I receive the new year at the Avenida Paulista surrounded by millions of strangers, watching Jorge Ben Jor and Gal Costa tear it up from a giant stage. In the midst of all that joyful chaos, I find a woman I haven’t seen in a decade or two, from my University years, and she gives me a shot of arvejas. In Venezuela, it’s tradition to eat those green beans on the last day of the year to bring money into your life. These particular ones haven’t worked so far, but hey…
Back to Jorge and Gal. The level of artistry and musicianship I witness in the few months I spend in Brazil is outstanding, it’s a shame that the product doesn’t reach the world like it did in the seventies and eighties. I wonder what’s up with that. In any case, the Brazilian market is huge, and the public there supports, adores, and even demands their own music. They know the lyrics by heart and they sing out loud.
A few days later, I go back to Jundiai to paint an apartment while my cousins are vacationing. I make money using my body instead of my brain, which I haven’t done since my first youth. The schedule’s tight so it’s hard work, but enjoyable and rewarding. I drink beer, listen to hip hop and cover the walls white. There’s a ritualistic aspect to the whole experience, it’s purifying and didactic. I come out the other end a better man.
My cousin, her husband, and the kids arrive while Juan Guaidó comes onto the scene. I’d never even heard his name and suddenly he’s the President of my country. Or so he thinks. My hosts are ecstatic, they believe, they have hope. Me, I’ve been burned before. Normally I avoid discussing politics at all costs, but this event’s everywhere, our phones are buzzing, social media is burning, our families can’t message us about anything else. Whenever the subject comes up, I tell them I wished I was as optimistic as they are and work hard on not raining on their parade. They can see it in my face, though; they know I’m a non-believer. Luckily, they’re too busy keeping the faith and don’t really mind my unpatriotic indiscretions. Or so I assume.
Belo Horizonte is burning
In what may prove to be a short-sighted decision, I invest the earned money on a bus ticket to a city in which a music producer I’d never met offers me a beat. I finally record a song in Brazil, huge accomplishment considering I tried to make it happen since day one to no avail. I adapt to my fourth host’s lifestyle and drink every night. He makes three beats on the spot, I write to the last one and record the day before returning to Sao Paulo. I wish I had more time. Belo Horizonte is a mellower city, the food’s fantastic, the nightlife’s on fire and people treat you like a local. I can’t understand their Portuguese either, in any case.
I am back in Sao Paolo and it’s obvious that I’d overstayed my welcome in the city. The person who’s supposed to accommodate me for the night isn’t answering my calls and a storm’s brewing overhead. On this very day, Sao Paolo is turning 465 years old. Danger! I have my computer and everything I own with me and I’m falling asleep on a bench. I make an executive decision, board the train for Jundiai and miss the festivities. Like an idiot. On the very next day, I buy a bus ticket for my next destination. My plan was to stay in Brazil if things worked out for me, if an opportunity presented itself. All in all, it was a great experience I’ll treasure all my life, but not one thing worked. So I leave.