Friday, December 15, 2000. 6:20 p.m. On an airport shuttle bus, between Maiquetía and Caracas.

My first glimpse of South America was a chiseled, charcoal hillside visible through the tiny airplane windows. I've never seen such impressive terrain so close to the sea. The trip through the airport was simple and uneventful. I had to fill out a carbon paper customs form on the airplane. A copy of it stayed with a customs officer in the airport, who then waved me right through. I also said goodbye to Isabel, a friendly woman who sat next to me on the plane. She served as a fitting ambassador to her country. I was reluctant to start conversation with anyone on the plane because my Spanish is so bad, but Isabel very patiently listened to me fumble with her language to tell my story: An American journalism student traveling alone on a 9-day vacation. She had been visiting Boston. I told her I was from Pennsylvania, to which she replied "Ah, New Orleans?" By the end of the flight, she'd written her address and phone number and said I could visit her home anytime. If was, of course, only a nice gesture -- she knew my travels would take me nowhere near Barquieimeto, where she lives. I helped her carry her bags through the airport and we wished each other a Merry Christmas with a hug.

After that, I was able to quickly leave the airport, having no bags to claim. (I'm carrying everything I have with me in a bookbag on my back.) An English-speaking woman at the information desk helpfully pointed me to a bus that will take me to the Caracas Metro, which the guidebooks say is about 30 km from the airport. The bus cost 2000 Bolivars -- Venezuelan currency I purchased with my credit card at a money exchange during my layover at the Miami airport. The bus is a cushy shuttle-van bus with no air conditioning but large open windows. The driver is playing soft, acoustic Spanish-language music... sort of like a Venezuelan James Taylor. The bus pulled away quickly, and the smell of traffic and the warm wind in my hair raised my spirits. I made it. Not yet, of course... I still need to reach the Metro (at the Gato Negro, or "black cat" station) and take the subway to the hotel where I reservations. It will be dark by then, but the Metro is supposed to be fairly safe, and my hotel is close to a stop.

As this bus has slowed in heavy traffic, it gives me a chance to recall some of my first impressions coming in. The hills that started off as hazy silhouettes grew alive as the plane came in lower to the ground. Cut into steep, green hillsides are tiny brown and tan specs, houses. They're packed tightly together, linked by dirt paths. As the plane followed the coast, the hillside shacks grew more dense. Then, a power plant appeared. A modern hotel. Office buildings. A warehouse with a big Pepsi logo painted on the side. And then the airport. Along the way, I've seen several ghostly shells of buildings -- large concrete grids, that seem either unfinished or in the process of being dismantled. Difficult to tell which. Traffic here could pass for any congested U.S. city, only sprinkled with a few makes of small cars that don't appear in the U.S. There are also these maniac scooter drivers who weave in and out of the heavy traffic. And, walking between the lanes, street vendors selling roses.

It's night now, and I finish writing by street lamps as we continue to sit in traffic.

Friday, December 15, 2000. 8:45 p.m. Hotel Tampa, Caracas.

Ahh... A bed! I'm in the Hotel Tampa, a fine hotel in the Sabana Grande section of Caracas. This place is expensive (US$75/night), but apparently not nearly as costly as American hotel chains here. It took me a few awkward and roundabout phrases to check in, which involved me signing a blank credit card statement to be filled in later... something that seemed like standard protocol.

I tried to act cautiously today, simply because this is a strange and big city, all in Spanish, of course. I began to understand the limitations my Spanish skills while listening to people speak Spanish in the Miami airport.

The bus ride from the Maiquetía airport is one I will not forget. A wide highway snakes around and through those steep coastal mountains between here and the airport. After two tunnels, our van emerged at the top of a hill, giving an expansive view of Caracas at night. For miles, pinpoints of lights blanket the hills, giving a stellar outline of the terrain. These small shacks carved into the hills seem to surround the city. Many of them seem to be extremely poor residential areas; others look well kept and in some cases commercialized. The airport shuttle pushed through the bad traffic here, along a wide crowded street of open markets. It stopped at Gato Negro, where I got off and promptly bought a Metro card. I have been intentionally moving briskly as if I know where I'm going because I fear being robbed. Musn't look like a target.

The Metro operates the same way as the one in Washington, D.C., a comfort. I bought an orange ticket good for ten rides and took the Metro directly to the Plaza Venezuela stop. I sat next to an old man holding a rolling pin and a casserole dish.

Once I returned to the street surface at Plaza Venezuela, my plan fell apart. I had carefully drawn a street map on a scrap of paper to make it easy for me to find this hotel. Little did I know the streets here are unmarked. I began circling the block, looking for clues. A few directional signs helped me get my bearings. After a few minutes in the street, I began to relax. I had wandered into a lively market on a wide brick street. Vendors there sold cheap electronics, underwear, shirts, but also crafts. There were small children everywhere. A street band played rhythmic music. I followed someone dressed as Santa, and fathers called out "Ho ho ho!" to him has he walked past. I bought nothing here, but by the time I reached the end of the street market, I had figured out where I was and quickly found my hotel.

There is much to do tomorrow. After breakfast, I want to explore the city further. I also need to find the bus station and buy a ticket to Ciudad Bolivar for Sunday. Once that task is complete, I plan to ride the metro to the capitol building and Plaza Bolivar.

Friday, December 15, 2000. 8:45 p.m. Hotel Tampa, Caracas.

I was just enjoying some Wheat Things and peanut butter when I turn on the TV and -- hey! -- it's the Penn State vs. Minnesota Big Ten volleyball game on ESPN, in Spanish of course.

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