The first thing you want to see when you step through customs in a place like Caracas is someone with a sign that says “Brian” or “Brian K” or “Mr. Kluepfel.” Because Caracas is a shady, violent place and you just want to start things off on the right foot. Particularly after two five-hour flights—one from New York to Mexico City, then, after a three-hour wait, another from Mexico City to Simon Bolivar/ Maiquetia International: since Chavez became president 12 years ago, everything standing has been renamed or rechristened with the name “Simon Bolivar.” The dual cult of personality shared by one living person (Chavez) and one dead (Bolivar) is astounding.
But where was I? Waiting for a ride. And nobody has shown up, even after a few ‘make-sure’ emails this week to my friend/travel agent in Caracas. After three hours of changing money at the official rate (more on that later), two cups of very strong black coffee with sugar in a small plastic cup, being constantly harassed by the same guy who wants to change my money *and* give me a taxi ride, I get in touch with my friend’s business partner, who is all apologies. Around 11 a.m., I’m on my smoggy way into downtown Caracas. Raul the taxista tells me to roll down the window to get some fresh air, which turns out to be an admixture of salty hilltop air and diesel—heavy on the diesel.
So, a lunch, a stop at the internet cafe next to the hotel where I find most people are willing to pay 8 to 1 for dollars rather than the 4 to 1 official rate, I take a short nap, and having no watch, wake up in the late afternoon, in time to drink a coffee and head to the Metro station one block away. After all the warnings about Caracas being one of the most violent places in the Americas, rife with crime, kidnappings, and murder, I am taking the Metro to the baseball game—alone.
It’s easy—I buy a round trip ticket from the lady sitting outside the ticket booth for 2 bolivares, and I’m off. Outside the station, graffiti indicating “I (heart) Boobis” speaks to the national fixation on all things mammarian—particularly the silicone variety. in fact the second lead story today, after Wilson Ramos’ kidnapping, is of a Venezuelan beauty queen Diosa Canales, who had to go to Colombia for an emergency procedures on her fake ‘boobis’, which due to medication she was taking were about to explode. You simply can’t make this shit up.
It’s four station stops to Plaza Venezuela, switch for the #1 train, one stop to Ciudad Universitaria. Easy as taking the old D or #4 to Yankee Stadium back in my Bronx days. Follow the guys in baseball jerseys to the big plaza where they’re selling everything from knockoff jerseys to scarves to hats to horns and my preferred stop—the pincho stand, or as I like to call it, meat-on-a-stick. This one has a formal name—el Rincon del Llanero, named for the famed Llanos region where president Chavez is from, a land of rough-hewn cowboy-like characters. I buy the meat-on-a-stick (with sauce, of course), drop a piece on the ground, eat it anyway, tell them I have a strong system, and it’s into the stadium for the game against the Aguilas de Zuila—the Eagles of Zulia, the state bordering Colombia which includes Maracaibo and the biggest lake in South America (for all you geography buffs).
The ticket for a nice seat just to the side of home plate costs 160 bolivares. So now madly calculating at the unofficial rate (8) rather than the official rate I determine that I’ve paid about 20 bucks for a good seat, rather than 40. It feels better that way.
There’s a very old yoda-like figure on the mound, holding two Venezuelan flags in its right hand as the national anthem is played. Just as I’m thinking, who the heck is that old lady, the guy next to me tells me it’s Los Leones’ oldest fan, Jesus Lezama, now 92 years old. Once he turns around I can see the wisp of a goatee around his chin–his nickname is chivita, or the little goat. In honor of his dedication, the Caracas club gives him a new uniform each year with his age as the number—so this season he’s #92. He wanders around the stands, posing for pictures with whoever wants one. In Venezuela, everyone wants their picture taken, and often, so he’s popular.
The dude selling beer in plastic cups—who looks very much like former US national team soccer player Carlos Llamosa– at 6 bolivares a pop is doing brisk business, but there is a caveat. Before he will mark you down on his sheet of cardboard (he tallies up and you pay at the end of the game), he stares down prospective clients and says, “what’s my name?” in some sort of mockery of the famous Ali-Patterson fight. Until the thirsty patrons say “Jose,” their entreaties are ignored. But once respect is established, Jose’s little runner is dispatched with your order, and everyone’s happy.
My first celebrity sighting, after Chivita, is former Major League All Star Antonio “Tony” Armas, a slugger who played alongside Reggie Jackson with the Oakland A’s in the 1980’s. He is a legend in Caracas, and now the hitting coach.
You know what they say in Venezuela when they’re ready to start the game? “Play Ball!” Just like in the U.S. Those two words come over the P.A. system, and we’re ready for the game.