Oct 17, 2017

Our journey there and back again

A rented bus.
We rented this bus to take the youth on a retreat in 2015.

A Venezuelan Facebook friend recently observed that, in 2007, a new car cost about 30,000 bolivares, Today, 30,000 bolivares buys a one kilogram bag of sugar. Such is the magnitude of Venezula's skyrocketing inflation, which is expected to continue.

If we could have predicted this situation, we might not have turned down the offer of a used car back in 2005. A car or light truck would have been useful for transporting people and supplies, but we decided the stated price versus the condition of the vehicle meant it was not such a great deal.

So, for more than decade, we have relied on taxis and buses, sometimes hiring a truck to carry construction materials. Sometimes, the logistics were tricky, but we made due without too much difficulty. Recently, however, the situation has gotten much worse, and the purchase of our own vehicle is far beyond our reach.

It's more complicated than simply costs that double every 17 days, although raising funds to keep up with the inflation is a concern. We also have to cope with limits on how much cash we can withdraw from the bank in one day. You can withdraw a maximum of 10,000 bolivares per day from an ATM machine, regardless of how much you have in your account. If you have time to wait two or three hours to talk to a bank clerk, you may withdraw a maximum of 30,000 bolivares.

One thing we have going in our favor is being able to do most of our financial transactions on-line. Even so, after someone stole the fiber optic cable that provides voice and data communications for La Caramuca, not only were we without telephone and Internet access at the mission, none of the businesses in La Caramuca could accept electronic payments through their point-of-sale devices. We are thankful that landline service has been restored.

Nevertheless, the taxis, buses and trucks for hire alway require cash payment. A bus into Barinas now costs 500 bolivares per person, while taxi fare is 20,000 bolivares. Obviously, the buses are more economical. But taking the bus is very slow, because there are fewer buses in service. Luz Maria had to wait three hours the other day for bus back to La Caramuca from her mother's house in Barinas.

So we have to carefully plan our trips into town, based on amount of time and money that we have available each day. But our worries do not end with the rising cost and declining availablity of public transportation. Let me illustrate by describing our recent trip to Caracas.

Twice a year the Lutheran Church of Venezuela schedules national pastors conferences. There are fewer than 20 ordained pastors in the Lutheran Church of Venezuela, so it's easy to get us all in one room. Maybe we could all stuff into a phone booth, if there still were phone booths around. I missed the last one because on the day that Luz Maria and I were to leave for Caracas, there was a blockade on the highway to Caracas.

Things have quieted down a bit since then, so the first week in October we set out for Caracas. Our bus had mechanical problems once along the way, but otherwise the trip was uneventful. There's not much to say about the pastors conference, either, although some positive action was taken.

On the day we planned to return to La Caramuca, however, we were unable to buy bus tickets. All the bus lines now require that you buy tickets on the day of departure, and on the day of our departure we discovered that none of the bus lines in Caracas would accept electronic payment. They wanted cash, to the tune of 30,000 to 40,000 bolivares per person. By the next day, we were able to come up with the cash, after visitng several banks where Luz Maria and I have accounts (not all of them had any cash for us to withdraw at all).

So we left by bus the following evening. (There are, by the way, only two flights each week out of the Barinas airport, to and from Caracas on Friday and Sunday, so traveling by air is not more convenient and is still more expensive). But that's not the end of our story.

As we were on the way back to Barinas, at about 10 that night, the bus blew a tire and started swerving across the highway, just barely missing oncoming traffic. But that's not what frightened the passengers most. No one thought the blowout was an accident. There have been reports of gangs strewing sharp objects across the highway for just that purpose. When the bus is disabled, the robbers take all the luggage, everyone's wallets, cellphones and other paraphernalia, even shoes and clothing that look expensive.

Fortunately for us, if the blowout was the result of such a trap, the gang was busy elsewhere. The driver, his assistant and two young passengers who agreed to help, were able to replace the tire quite rapidly and we were on our way. However, this shows why travel in Venezuela has become both slower and more risky.

This happened the week after the day on the church calendar dedicated to St. Michael and all angels (September 29), so we remembered Martin Luther's evening prayer:

I thank You, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have graciously kept me this day; and I pray You to forgive me all my sins where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.