LETTER TO A STRANGER: CARACAS, VENEZUELA
BY LUCAS MANN
On the back of your motorcycle, I clung to you, ducking in the hopes that the police wouldn’t see my exposed hair. You wore a fake red leather jacket that felt sticky on my hands, and a black helmet—your only helmet, you said, because you never had passengers. The sky was ash, the air hot and thick even as it rushed into my face. The city—a city I would never see again—crept up the hillsides around us.
We met in a DHL in northern Caracas. The sun was setting, which I had been told by everyone should be my cue to get off the streets, but I’d just spent the last of my Bolivars on a Kit-Kat bar. My remaining cash—the exact amount I’d been told would cover a cab to the airport the next morning—was locked in a hotel safe eight miles away. I’d been in Venezuela for a month on a small grant to write about baseball players, the application for which gently exaggerated my Spanish-speaking abilities. You had no reason to know any of this, of course.
You had no reason to know, either, that I’m not an adventurous traveler by nature. That I am afraid of heights and speed and change of most kinds. That I’d been having a rougher-than-usual year. That the night before I left for Venezuela I had driven around by myself in a panic, finally stopping at a mall to watch The Hangover Part II in an empty theater, weeping and hyperventilating, wondering if there was any way to refund nonrefundable tickets.
There wasn’t, and so I went, and instead of danger I found the type of kindness cities seem to reserve for visitors. In an alley at midnight, a cab driver exchanged my American dollars at the fair black-market rate, shook my hand, and wished me well. In a little city called Tinaquillo, a family took me in for weeks. The mother made me arepas every morning; her daughter dropped me wherever I needed to be dropped on her way to work. At a baseball academy in the jungle, women who labored in the kitchens snuck me water bottles to take back to the bare room where I was crashing, so I wouldn’t dehydrate in the June heat. And finally, back in Caracas, a bevy of strangers guided me through your city; telling me where not to go, showing me when it was time to turn around.
I’m ashamed to say that I had begun to do that thing that travelers do. I’d started a narrative in my mind, every life that had contacted mine becoming an extra detail in a story about how I had been transformed in the unlikeliest of places. In a far-off land full of violence and poverty— Chávez weak and cancerous in Cuba, churning unease on every news channel and in every coffee-shop argument, machine-gunned military boys at seemingly arbitrary checkpoints on the highway—kind faces lined up to remind me about the good in the world.
You became the last kind face. You had a usual end-of-the-day delivery route, taking packages from satellite shops to a shipping center south of the city. I was beginning to unravel at the DHL service desk as the clerk told me, again, that this branch was closing for the weekend, that she had to go home to make dinner, that it wasn’t her problem what happened to me when she left. I said I’d walk home if she gave me a map, and then she giggled, ran a long, painted fingernail along her neck and said, “No walking.” There was a tiny space on the seat of your bike, between you and the swollen parcel bag bungeed to your back fender. It was big enough for a person.
We were together an hour. You had deadlines, so you drove quickly—to another small DHL shop, to the shipping center on the outskirts of the city, back to my hotel. I wish I remembered more about the ride: It should be the climax, the most exciting part of this story. But really, a city at night is a city at night. And wind in your hair is wind in your hair. We knifed between honking, bumper-to-bumper cars. Lights flickered on the mountainsides like blinking eyes.
You dropped me off at the side of the highway near the center of the city. You gestured that my hotel was just above the embankment, and you were late, so you’d take me no farther. You handed me a business card, like I might ever have a use for it again.
The drive was nothing. It was how we got from one place to another. You wouldn’t bother to talk about it, I’m sure. I do talk about it, though, this moment when I was just a stowaway. I talk about it like it was something miraculous, but it never sounds as miraculous as it felt. And always sooner than I expected, I’m at the end of the story.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lucas Mann is the author of Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere and Lord Fear: A Memoir. His essays have been published in Guernica, Slate, BuzzFeed, TriQuarterly, and The Kenyon Review, among others. He lives in Providence, RI, and teaches at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.