When Hugo Chávez died in 2013, at least ten of my friends called or texted me. It wasn’t to share their condolences, necessarily, but rather because I’m the only person of Venezuelan descent that they know.
My father married my apple-pie American mother in the late 70s after coming to the U.S. to study engineering. We lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I was two years old when they divorced. My father moved back to Caracas where my baby sister and I would visit him for the summers for the decade to follow—summers spent on stunning beaches where we’d dig in the wet sand to collect clams to make soup. My big Venezuelan family pinching my cheeks, declaring, “Que linda.” It felt normal, comfortable—a second home to me.
Then my father moved back to the States for work and our summer visits stopped.
Now, I am a professional traveler. I spend roughly half of the year working abroad as a tour guide, a writer, and a guidebook researcher. When I’m not on the clock, my endless curiosity takes me on personal trips as often as I can manage. I often warn others not to let the news create an inflated sense of peril when choosing where to travel.
“Colombia is so safe! Don’t believe what you’ve read, mom.”
“I’m really not seeing any violent protests in Catalonia, the newspapers are just printing the few instances.”
“The thing I’m most afraid of in Mexico, really, is a stomach virus.”
But here’s the thing: I haven’t been to Venezuela since I was twelve. In the 20 years since my last visit, the country has fallen into political turmoil and unrest, and despite this distance of time and space, being Venezuelan is still such a core part of my identity. I can’t help but feel deep wells of empathy for my countrymen and women. I obsess over reports in English and Spanish and share them on my social channels. I talk about new developments with my friends, family, and perfect strangers. Anyone who asks, “What ethnicity are you?” is in for a longer response than they likely anticipated.
Yet so much of what is going on there currently is beyond my comprehension because it’s a world away from my memories. A childhood spent sprawled on the beach. My father and his wife setting up our blankets and umbrellas, where he sat with a bucket of oysters and hot sauce while my sister and I floated out to sea. Going for lunch at the beachfront grill with its plastic tables in the sand and ordering monstrous fish, fried whole. Always insisting I eat one of the eyes.
The Venezuela I remember was an incredible place for tourism. For nature lovers, the country has a varied landscape with table top mountains, untouched jungles, and Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world. For beach bums there are hundreds of miles of Caribbean coastline. And don’t get me started on the amazing street food.
I remember long weekends on Margarita Island, a popular getaway accessible by a four-hour ferry crossing from the mainland, my sister and I looking out the windows for dolphins until we pulled into the Caribbean oasis with its old amusement park and endless stretches of white sand.
The Venezuela I remember was an incredible place for tourism.
I remember my cousin, five years older than me, who lived in a high-rise building in Caracas, where we ran around and made up games in the elevators (getting in trouble for losing my sister in there once).
I remember my father’s verdant avocado tree with extraordinarily tall branches reaching out in every direction, and the shady, secret spot at its base. In the window of our house, there were always avocado seeds pierced with toothpicks balancing over water-filled glasses, each in various states of sprouting as we experimented in growing a tree from scratch.
I remember outside, my sister and I gathering up the rotting fruit from the ground and hiding behind a low wall—an iguana or two overseeing our exploits—waiting for our neighbors to come take avocados from the tree. I remember hurling the decaying avocados at them to defend our territory, the culprits cursing us as they hurried away (and eventually told my dad). I remember my dad telling us, holding back a laugh, that our neighbors were more than welcome to take from the tree.
Why, then, haven’t I returned to Venezuela?
At the end of each summer, my sister and I would return to the States so sunkissed that my fair-skinned, blonde, and blue-eyed mother joked she could hardly claim us as her own. My friends and classmates gave me the rundown of their adventures and I’d talk about my South American summer as if it were a totally normal way to spend the break. In the fall after the Lion King came out, I tried to understand how everyone at school had seen (and understood) what I surely knew to be the Spanish-language production of El Rey León. I was six.
But I know that things aren’t what they once were. By 1996, just two years after the original Lion King release, inflation rates in Venezuela had reached 100%. In 1999, 66% of the population was living in poverty. The country, which had for so long been the wealthiest in Latin America, was already in decline by the time I began my summer excursions there in the early 90s. The past decade has seen a rapidly failing economy, widespread food and medical shortages, major political and civil unrest, and thus some of the highest crime rates in the world. In 2017, the World Travel and Tourism Council ranked Venezuela second to last in terms of tourist growth. Even Syria was ranked higher.
I want to hold both the beauty and the tragedy together as one.
As an adult, I’ve questioned the rose-colored glasses of my childhood. If I reach far enough into my memories, I can see the hungry people on the streets of Caracas. I do remember an unkempt man without teeth offering to pierce my sister’s ears while walking downtown one day. I wonder now, were our neighbors at the avocado tree in need?
Now, despite nearly giving my mother several heart attacks a year with my travel habits, it’s important to me to visit destinations that have, often unfairly, been branded as unsafe or objectionable. I find that our desperate-for-ratings news cycle tends to make mountains out of molehills. The more I travel, the more I find that people everywhere just want a good life for themselves and their families. This isn’t to say I’m headed into a war zone for my next vacation—but Egypt is on my radar. Iran. Jordan. Lebanon looks absolutely beautiful.
So why, then, haven’t I returned to Venezuela?
It isn’t the unrest or the travel advisories that keep me away. It is, I suppose, the notion that you can never really go home again—combined with a feeling of imposter syndrome. If I haven’t suffered as they’ve suffered, can I claim Venezuela as my own? I’m not afraid of someone kidnapping me off the street as much as I’m afraid of feeling like the place that makes up half of my identity doesn’t belong to me any longer.
I want to hold both the beauty and the tragedy together as one. I want to swim on the beaches of my childhood and eat arepas stuffed with queso fresco, but those memories belong to a seemingly different world. Or do they? It’s all still there—perhaps transformed and tattered. I could still stick my feet in the sand. I could still feel the mists of Angel Falls on my face. The avocado tree may no longer exist, and my adult perceptions are sure to see what my childhood wonder did not, but I think it’s time, soon, to see the country that shaped me. To at least try to go home again—and to hope that they’ll still have me.