My first four trips out of the country were to a place not often visited for pleasure, Venezuela, one of the most dangerous countries in the world. I am very lucky that these were my first trips because the odds of my going there now are about as low as Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz can get. I was so naïve… I mean, so, soooo naïve. But because of this, I was able to have more fun than a tornado in a trailer park and with very little anxiety. Somehow, I made it out alive and unharmed. Would I visit there today, knowing what I know now? Almost definitely no. Am I glad that I went? Oh hell yes. Ignorance is bliss my friends.
Venezuela is a third world country whose two most popular pastimes are baseball and aggravated murder. It’s a land of unrivaled beauty but also of robbing and shooting tourists for mere pocket change. These aren’t just opportunistic crimes either; these are ‘laying spike strips on the highways, working in teams’ kind of operations. Professional athletes and their families were getting kidnapped on a regular basis for ransom money. My husband saw a dead body. Case in point: It’s probably the last place a 24-year-old girl should travel alone. And yet here I am years later giving you a hefty amount of sarcasm-laced travel advice.
The following are some helpful tips on how to totally nail your first trip abroad (or any trip to Venezuela) along with some useful stuff little ol’ naïve me learned wandering the streets of the country with the second highest murder rate. Let’s begin!
- Unless you don’t like eating, learn at least SOME of the language of the country you will be visiting. I knew zero Spanish before traveling to Venezuela* and didn’t even attempt to learn. You can follow in my footsteps if that sounds like a lot of work to you – no biggie – as long as you don’t like to eat, you’ll be fine. But give it time, you will learn the language as you go once starvation appears imminent.
*I have since gone back to college to pursue a second degree and this time minored in Spanish. I can successfully order food now.
- Maybe you’re adventurous. Maybe you are anticipating the thrill of 100% culture shock. That’s cool. In that case, don’t bother doing any type of research at all into where you will be traveling. That’s what I did and everything turned out juuuuuust fine. I learned everything I needed to know while I was there having my car searched by men with machine guns as tall as I was.
- Go ahead and lower your expectations of any efficiency whatsoever. Especially if you are traveling to Latin America. Maybe it’s the oppressive heat. Maybe it’s the lack of leadership. Maybe it’s laziness. Maybe it’s simply that no one gives a damn. Whatever the case, nothing, and I mean NOTHING, will happen on time, if at all. Be prepared to kill a lot of time and hear a lot of, “¡Mañana, mañana, mañana!” Everything will be done “mañana“.
- As mentioned before, be prepared to kill a lot of time. You can do this by bringing books or magazines to read. Actual books though, not that electronic nonsense. Don’t bring anything that screams, “Here take this! I bet you can get a lot of money for it while my life is worth nothing!”
- Pack a flashlight. You never know when the president of the country is going to shut off your water and power for days at a time in an effort to save a few bucks. Oh, that doesn’t happen in other countries?
- Bring sunscreen! Seriously, that’s just smart traveling.
- Don’t bother bringing a timepiece. While in Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez decided he wanted to change the time. He mandated that all clocks be set back by 30 minutes in what he considered to be “a more fair distribution of the sunrise”. WOW. Chances are you won’t have to deal with this lunacy in other parts of the world, but really, your body is going to be so confused as to what time it is so just go with the flow!
- Leave unnecessary things at home that you can get abroad if you should need. For instance, when you stop at a Venezuelan intersection, you can purchase all the child-sized potty chairs and multi-colored rope nooses you could possibly need. I wish this was a joke. There are so many questions. This is real life, folks.
- Contrary to popular belief, crying at the airport doesn’t get you anywhere. When you find yourself late for a flight or any number of other mishaps (that probably aren’t your fault), just suck it up and deal with it. There is only one kind of person in this world who cannot be reasoned with and that is a TSA agent. It doesn’t matter if your plane is still on the ground at the terminal. It doesn’t matter that your flight doesn’t leave for 30 more minutes. It doesn’t matter that you are crying or that there isn’t another flight to Anzoátegui for three days. The only thing that matters is that there is a Chili’s next to your gate offering all-day two-for-one beers.
- Which brings me to: get to know your airport. You are going to be there a while.
- If you want to stay safe in a dangerous foreign country, then, by all means, exchange your money on the black market in the corner of the Caracas airport with a total stranger. Or use whichever method you want that doesn’t involve criminals. That being said, American money is a highly sought after commodity in Venezuela. In 2007, 1 US Dollar = 2,000 Venezuelan Bolivares**. However, on the black market you could exchange your cash at a rate of 6,000 Bolivares per US Dollar. Cha-ching!
** On January 1st, 2008, Venezuelan Bolivares were changed to Bolivares Fuertes expressed as 1 Bolivar Fuerte = 1,000 Bolivares. I’m sure there was a reason for this but really just remove the comma and the zeros.
- Go shopping. You just got a 6:1 exchange rate. Designer handbags for days!
- Be sure to try the local cuisine. Especially if it is being cooked up in a run-down parking lot in a dangerous neighborhood. The chicken in that sandwich you are eating was probably
killedsacrificed in some sort of cuckoo ceremony less than an hour ago and you may find a bone or two but it’s not to be missed. Oh, and anything fried with cheese inside = muy bueno!
- Don’t forget to eat non-local cuisine as well. I usually advise against eating food of other countries besides the one you are visiting. I prefer to absorb as much of the local culture as possible and don’t want to waste my meals on stuff I can get anywhere else. However, I have been proven wrong many times. One example is that my favorite Italian restaurant (outside of Italy) is L’Ancora located in Puerto la Cruz, Venezuela. The food is amazing, the place is decorated with retro American memorabilia (I don’t get it either), and music videos of Britney Spears, Madonna, and Phil Collins play non-stop on the restaurant’s TVs. The service is top-notch and our favorite waiter was a red-headed Venezuelan named Ringo who has three brothers: John, Paul, and George. You can’t make this stuff up!
- Eat an entire can of Pringles for breakfast. You may find yourself waiting for a plane in an extremely small, undoubtedly questionable airport. This place will probably only have one tiny “restaurant” at which to eat. Don’t take your chances. Hit up the snack/lottery ticket/Trident/key chain/cigarette/newspaper/refrigerator magnet vendor (you know what I’m talking about) and snag a can of cheese Pringles for the flight. Then eat the entire thing because you don’t speak Spanish and therefore haven’t eaten in a week. When you return a few days later you will find that the one and only “restaurant” in the airport has since been closed by the health department. Trust me on this.
- You may want to stock up on alcohol in the event that a government election takes place. The night before an important election, Hugo Chavez ordered that all bars and restaurants close and that alcohol consumption be banned. This stemmed from, I kid you not, his fear that the voting residents would get hammered and forget to wake up and vote. (Unrelated but also should be mentioned: after voting, your pinky finger was dipped in purple ink to let everyone know that you had voted. Or more importantly, so everyone knew who didn’t vote. I’ll let that one simmer for a minute…)
- Don’t eat the oysters. On a remote island off Venezuela’s coast I was approached by a man selling fresh oysters. He was literally picking them off the cliff side and selling them to sunbathers with a squeeze of lime. I declined and, trying some Spanish on for size, accidentally said some rather rude things to him. It’s a good thing I alienated him because I later found out that year was a very dangerous year for Venezuelan oysters, occurrence of Proteus Mirabilis and all along with some fecal contamination. My trip could have gone very differently.
- So you’re adventurous. Good for you – you can just leave your passport in your hotel room and never take it anywhere! You’re just flying from one city to another, never leaving the country so you think you won’t need your passport. Everything is going swimmingly until you get cornered at the airport by yet another large, angry man with an AK-47 and a firm grip. It’s a good thing you didn’t waste time learning Spanish because he is screaming so fast and loud at you that you wouldn’t understand him anyway. However, you probably should have at least read up on current events considering this was during an important election period for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and he believed President Bush (aka “the devil“) had sent Americans to Venezuela to tamper with the voting. Oopsie.
- Keep your eyes closed at all times. As Americans we are accustomed to traffic lights, painted lanes, turn signals (just humor me), stop signs, paved roads, organized intersections at which all motorists adhere to a particular set of driving rules, sidewalks, etc. However, there are many countries where the rule of the road is “every man for himself!” It’s important to maintain an awareness of your surroundings when traveling abroad but really, you will crap your pants if you watch what’s going on outside your window. Road conditions so bad your driver takes you over a median and into oncoming traffic or up on a sidewalk to avoid pot/sinkholes. Eight-lane intersections devoid of functioning traffic lights, just imagine it. Children hanging off the sides of busses because it’s too packed to ride inside. Drivers who keep one hand on the wheel and the other on the horn because that’s how often they use it. No lined streets. All at high rates of speed.
Watch this video: different country, same insanity.
- Staying safe when traveling internationally is a major priority. Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t walk unfamiliar streets at night. Don’t carry your valuables around with you. Walk in the middle of the street. Oh, you haven’t heard that one before? You must not have spent any time in Venezuela. It was advised to walk down the middle of the street rather than the sidewalk (quite shocking really given the local standards of driving, but whatever). This is because murderers, muggers, rapists, what-have-you, will jump down on you from the trees. I mean… really…
- Leave any modesty behind. Believe it or not, America is highly conservative. You will see all the boobies and hear f-bombs all over your TV and that’s not even the half of it. Don’t be shocked to see professional sports mascots bumping and grinding on your children.
- Go to a dance club. Especially if you are in Latin America. There isn’t any more uninhibited fun to be had anywhere on Earth. Learn to dance salsa with locals who probably aren’t trying to mug you. Drink local beer that’s been sitting out in the sun all day. Be prepared to still see a line to get in when you stumble out at 4:00 AM.
- Get accustomed to the smells. If you’ve ever been to New York City, you’re good. Unless you are hiking in the Swiss Alps or downing a liter of beer in a German beer hall, your foreign city is probably going to smell like garbage. Even the beautiful, serene streets of Italy have a month’s worth of trash piled up on the sidewalks. Various other smells to be prepared for: exhaust fumes, dirt, stuff that’s burning, sweat, body odor, urine, and poop. Isn’t traveling fantastic!
- Prepare yourself for what you are going to see at the pool. If you are in Italy, that will be men of all ages in teeny weeny speedos. I was told it was because, “We love our bodies and want to show everyone our bodies.” I also saw a 5-year-old in a Dolce & Gabbana bikini. In Venezuela you will see butt-implants and you will swim alongside iguanas. The equator is so HOT even the iguanas need to cool off, I get it, but don’t be shocked when it poops in the water next to you and then swims away.
All of this being said, traveling abroad is the most fabulous thing you can do for yourself! I would rather experience the trash-smelling, noose-selling, street-meat-eating foreign country over my run-of-the-mill town any day. How else are you going to really appreciate where you live and the rights you have? How else are you really going to understand the struggles of the world that aren’t highlighted on the news? How else are you going to justify eating an entire can of Pringles in one sitting?
By all means, if you haven’t already, leave! Go! Book a ticket and get out there. Explore! There are infinite possibilities once you’ve acquired a passport. Just maybe choose a safer country to visit for your first time, mmm ‘k?
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