A Ride With A Gentleman Smuggler
The next day I get up on time for the shuttle. It’s empty. Last night’s party was apparently great, and hangovers have no respect for brain tissue or punctuality. We wait in the hope of catching a few stragglers. I chat with the very thin gentleman in charge while he smokes. Streaks of white hair and glasses give him an academic bent. When I express surprise at his perfect English, he explains that until recently he was a university professor in Venezuela. For most of his adult life, including marriage and children, Caracas has been good to him. But with the worst crisis in Venezuela’s history, he’s now a refugee who’s returned to Peru. And despite speaking four languages, he’s struggling to send food back to his family.
For me a crisis back home is whoops, I forgot to buy milk. In Venezuela they’ve closed the borders. Not to keep refugees out, but to keep them in. Prices increased 800% while the economy shrank by 1/5 AT THE SAME TIME. Starvation is to the point that 75% of the everyone in the country lost 20 lbs. Now imagine the impact on infant mortality (skyrocketing). The Venezuelan Minister of Urban Agriculture has started giving out free rabbits to citizens. In response to the blank look on my face (lapin in a red wine sauce with a dash of thyme is nice and all but huh?) he explains. Rabbits are great at reproducing, so the “Rabbit Plan” would allow families to keep eating the babies to survive. (Venezuelan Government: Eat These Bunnies by Tim Panzarella 9/15/17). WTF???
I’m deliberately not using El Doctor’s name here as he explained to me how to become a Latin American smuggler. His wife is a native Indian of Venezuela (the equivalent of Europe’s gypsies). They are among the only people still allowed to freely cross the border so the doctor wires money to the nearest village in Brazil. His wife cashes out the wire, buys everything she can, and drives it all back across the border. And her kids get to have dinner for one more day.
The smuggling part doesn’t surprise me. When I was a kid we’d pack extra suitcases filled with Levi jeans for our family in Communist Yugoslavia. They’d use it in place of currency. Barter in collapsing economies is more powerful than rapidly depreciating paper aka money.
As the bus pulls out of the hotel parking lot, our guide answers some businessman’s questions in, of course, fluent Italian. He has plenty of time as the shuttle takes 90 minutes to get to the show. The delay doesn’t seem to be a cause of concern to anyone. We are on a laid back Central American schedule.
Day 2 at the Expo starts. If I see one more quinoa producer I’m going to scream. Lots and lots of anti-oxidant white powders in plastic pouches are on display. Too bad I’m not in Columbia, this could be more interesting. As we walk, Maya and I chat a bit. She introduces me to one of her colleagues, a 19-year-old university student named Rodrigo. He is razor thin, tall, tan and has a quiet air about him. Like Maya he works at the show. I find out that their job title is “chaperones” not translators. They’re meant to help with business negotiation, and only translate when no one speaks English.
We have a break between appointments so the three of us scrounge up some chairs and sit for a bit. Rodrigo suffers from the curse of all young people, a hunger for success starved by a drought of experience. And at the other end of the arrow of time, I’m an old man who can’t pass up the opportunity to patronize others.
Turns out Rodrigo has a shot at a scholarship in Taipei to study Chinese. I’ve been there a few times. Both the city and the island people are awesome. The young man then asks a very difficult question – is he missing out on opportunities by staying in school for another three years (vs. quitting school to focus on building up a company that works with Asian importers)?