A fresh start

As many of you know, be it from the news or from what I occasionally post on Twitter, the situation in my home country, Venezuela, is dire. Shortages of food and basic goods, lack of medicine, rationed water and electricity, wages that buy but a fraction of what you need, rampant crime and rocketing inflation have thrust Venezuela into a chaotic spiral that keeps getting worse every day. I had felt the pull of this hectic whirlpool for a while now; where I lived, an 8-story building right near a subway station, only had running water from Sunday to Tuesday. Water service the remaining days was active 45 minutes in the early morning and another 45 minutes at night. I saw my salary  (as a researcher and as a college teacher) dissolve like salt in water. Even if I had money, food shortages prevented me from being able to buy basic things like flour, sugar, toilet paper, soap and other basic goods. New phones, cameras or computers were out of the question, since inflation meant that to buy them I’d have to save up for years without spending a dime.

Still I pushed forward, despite the adversities. For my area of interest, urban biodiversity (particularly insects), Caracas is an incredible place. Over 200 species of insects lived in my building’s garden, a small patch of grass with a few groups of flowers. I recorded over 50 species of birds from my window. Sloths were a common sight, as were geckos, bats and myriad other animals. Interesting bugs to photograph were but a few minutes away. But despite this, the situation was catching up to me, and I reached my tipping point in January.

A bit of backstory: I had already decided to drop out of grad school in early 2016, although “I was forced to by the circumstances” would be a better phrasing. When I started in 2012, my plan for my MSc thesis was to see which insect genera (species if possible) were present in the Caracas Botanical Garden, their distribution and density fluctuations between the rainy and the dry seasons. After 7 months of field work, being mugged twice and seeing another robbery, I decided that a thesis wasn’t worth risking my life, so I sadly abandoned that project. After a small bout of depression (it was a project I had wanted to do since undergrad), I put together another project, on campus, comparing pollination systems between the native forest and the urbanized area, since I wanted to see if there was competition between different species (particularly bees) in the same environments, or simply different species in each area. The main question was how urban landscapes shape and change the structure of pollinator systems when compared to native forests. All was going well, until roughly three weeks before starting field work, when a crime wave hit campus (11 robberies in two weeks) and access to the forest was suspended. This meant I had lost over 2 years in projects I couldn’t finish, and I had no more time left to try again before my graduation deadline. So I had to drop out.

I kept teaching and doing some freelance work the rest of that year. I barely made ends meet (teachers in Venezuela are woefully underpaid, and freelance work is volatile), and each week was an odyssey to find even the most basic items. I eventually gave up eating bread (since flour shortages meant that lines for buying bread were roughly two hours long), coffee was a rare thing to find, meat prices skyrocketed, and by the December I was eating, on average, one large meal and one snack a day.

Fast forward to January 2017. While going down the stairs to a subway station, two men approached me, and one pressed a knife against my back and told me not to move while the other one searched me for my phone. He pressed several times, threatening to kill me if I moved, giving me some pretty deep cuts. When he briefly looked away, I managed to elbow him in the face, push the other one down the stairs, and run away (I’m still not sure how I did that, since my fighting experience consists entirely of imitating the Power Rangers as a kid). Bloodied and paranoid, but still alive and “well”, I decided that while I loved my country, it wasn’t a place where I wanted to live anymore. My adult life was being spent surviving instead of living; hours spent on looking for food, having a self-imposed curfew of 6-7 pm because afterwards the likelihood of getting mugged (or worse) increased greatly, doing financial magic and living on less than 10 dollars a month, having to abandon grad school because I might get killed during field work… the list went on and on.

I dedicated every waking hour to get everything ready for my departure, with Chile as a destination. It had been the first choice for a while (great grad schools, stable economy, same language, lots of endemic wildlife, friends lived there), but I hadn’t reached my tipping point before January. It was a hectic time; moving out, selling what I could to have a bit of money for the trip, and fitting my entire life into just two suitcases, 20 Kg each. Everything came together rather quickly, thankfully, but given the situation the country was in, I had no idea if I would actually be able to reach the airport or leave the country, so I refrained from “going public” with the info until I was sure.

After much tension and anxiety, I landed in Santiago on April 11th. I was greeted by childhood friends who opened up their home to me and took me in, and I will always be grateful for everything they’ve done and are currently doing for me. My next step is finding a steady job, and then hopefully starting my PhD next year.

This past month has been a cornucopia of emotions. Happiness, enthusiasm, fear, anxiety, restlessness, nostalgia, homesickness, sadness, helplessness and at least a dozen more. I left everything behind to start my life over from scratch in a foreign place I had never visited, and that is terrifying. I left a career, friends, family, a relationship, my own place and lots of other things. I’m incredibly fortunate, though, because I’ve had a LOT of support from many different people, and I couldn’t have done this without them.

So here I am now, in another country, filled with hope of a new life while catching glimpses of everyday horror life in Venezuela through text messages or tweets. Midnight attacks by the National Guard on my mom’s apartment complex; friends having to sleep in the hallways because government-backed armed paramilitary groups (the colectivos) firing guns at buildings; having tear gas thrown at friends and family who are at peaceful protests; hearing voice notes from friends (freelance journalists) saying “I turned in an article that wasn’t too good, because I had to write it while the National Guard was firing tear gas canisters at my building and I was focusing more on breathing than on writing”; learning that, on average, one person a day gets killed at the protests (be it from gunshot wounds or tear gas canisters to the chest) or almost getting killed by being run over by a National Guard in an armored vehicle. Each passing day in Venezuela reminds me more and more of 1984 or Zlata’s Diary

So yes, this is a fresh start for me. It’s scary, but the prospect of actually having a life (instead of just surviving) is uplifting. And rest assured, there will be lots of pictures of Chilean bugs from now on.

NOTE: As I was writing this yesterday, I found out (by seeing a picture on Twitter) that a dear friend and colleague, Diego Arellano, was the latest casualty in the protests in Venezuela. With him, the tally is 43 dead in 40 days. He was murdered by a bullet to the chest. Diego was an excellent person, a great herpetologist, and firmly believed that Venezuela deserves better than what it’s currently going through. He is missed by everyone who knew him.

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6 thoughts on “A fresh start

  1. Thank you so much for posting this – People need to know and understand what it’s like to try and survive in a country where the system has fallen apart, and where the things so many take for granted – finishing a degree, buying flour, sleeping one’s own bed – are no longer reliable staples of life. Many good wishes for both you and all those in Venezuela.

  2. So sorry to read this – I’m glad that you’re in a safer place now but how terrible to have to leave your country, my heart goes out to you, and to Venezuela.

  3. Pingback: Recommended reads #104 | Small Pond Science

  4. I wonder why the US won’t provide peacekeeper & reform-promoting help to Venezuela and instead wastes so much resources on less clear endeavors in the Old World.

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