Tengo No Cash

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Maracaibo, Venezuela
La Chinita

Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Chiquinquirá

Refracted through the prism of Spanish, the name “Venezuela” comes from the original Italian explorers’ recollection of their homeland upon seeing the stilted native lodgings along the coastal waterways of this stretch of the new world, dubbing it “little Venice.” Unfortunately, the lofty romantic visions that name might call to mind aren’t borne out today as the beaches are largely unusable due to pollution. Aruba is just off the coast, a pristine resort island worthy of a Beach Boys tune, yet Venezuela can boast no tourism cachet to speak of. And I know from my days of playing SimCity that waterfront property fetches high dollar and attracts wealthy recreational pursuits, but the sprawling Lake Maracaibo – the largest in South America if it weren’t actually a bay – is a spaghetti bowl of pipes running beneath the surface and plagued with leaks, sewage, industrial runoff, physical trash, and an insurmountable duckweed infestation.

Maiquetia

Coupled with a topography that ranges from Andean mountains in the northwest to Amazonian rainforests in the southeast – producing some of the best chocolate, best coffee, and the largest proven oil reserves in the world – Venezuela should be the veritable Utopia that Columbus described it as to Isabella and Ferdinand, but decades of mismanagement have left the country wanting. But hope twinkles in the eyes of its indefatigably optimistic citizens.

I’ll leave these pernicious socio-economic issues to more capable geo-political bodies than I, focusing instead on my own personal experiences and more quotidian concerns. You may have seen Venezuelan president Maduro in the news recently after his government appropriated control of the country’s electronics stores in an attempt to curb rampant inflation. The official exchange rate is pegged at 6.3 Bolivares to 1 US Dollar, but the black market rate is more like 50 or 60:1, and the reality of prices on the streets reflects this latter state of affairs. So when Maduro slashed prices on electronics like televisions and refrigerators to comport with a stronger Bolivar, the ensuing shopping frenzy had to be quelled by the national guard. If you’re a tourist, however, using a credit card at the official exchange rate, you’re gonna have a bad time. Nobody wants to be the guy paying the equivalent of $10 US for a 60B beer when everyone else is paying $1.

Thus I found myself mostly confined to the hotel until I could come up with some cheap cash for exploration. I made a point of asking the Venezuelans we were working with about the most authentic or characteristic dishes they thought I should try while in the country. The first response seemed always to be a version of a dish common in Caribbean nations, like ropa vieja in Cuba, or bandeja paisa in Colombia, in this case known as pabellón, sometimes appended with criollo. The basic components always include shredded meat, white rice, black beans, and plantains, then in many cases also including additional sausage, bacon, avocado, even a fried egg. I actually did have an amazing example of this in the white tablecloth restaurant at my hotel, but I was also interested in what sounded more like the late night street dishes (comida callejeraI find so appealing when traveling. I didn’t wait until I was stumbling through the streets of Caracas though, discovering how vanquished the appetite of any borracho would be upon sitting down for a late lunch in Maracaibo.

Patacon & Arepa Cabimera

The recurring number two on the list after pabellón was the patacón, or patacón Maracucho, the latter demonym slang for the people and dialect of Maracaibo. The Maracuchos are fiercely independent, and the larger state of Zulia never really supported Chavez and his socialist party, so the patacón serves as an excellent representation of this city in the western part of the country, eaten as our hosts discussed politics and hopes for the upcoming local elections. In actuality, patacón usually refers to a sort of pancake made of fried plantains, but the enterprising Maracuchos use the plantains in place of buns for a deliciously imposing sandwich. Take shredded beef, soft white cheese (queso palmita), lettuce, tomato, a seasoned, spicy mayo and sandwich it all between two discs of fried plantains to hit each note of a euphonous street food symphony: something sweet, something savory, and of course, something fried.

Arepas are another common dish in Venezuela, and are familiar to many Houstonians, consisting of fried or grilled patties of ground maize or flour usually stuffed with cheese or any number of other ingredients. But we were after no simple arepa, we were after the arepa Cabimera, named for the town of Cabimas just across the Gen. Rafael Urdaneta bridge from Maracaibo. An arepa forms the base but only a small percentage of the heaping final product. Cut into quarters, the arepa is covered with ham, cheese, shredded beef, chicken, and pork (in the fully loaded version), hard boiled eggs, spicy mayo and picante sauce. I could just picture late night boozehounds contentedly walking down the street with plastic spork and a disposable paper food tray of this recuperative, though questionably salubrious, mound of grub. Between this and the patacón, I felt as though I probably had enough caloric reserves to run a marathon but was instead more likely to take a nap.

It’s tough to run a profitable business in a socialist system with rampant inflation and a government that can change prices and exchange rates on a whim, so even comparatively high end restaurants leave something to be desired, like the apparently thrice-baked heat lamp potato and desiccated sirloin I had at a well-known steakhouse. Many former colonial nations have a history of viewing European cuisine as somehow inherently superior, but comida tipica with its indigenous pedigree and creole hybridization has become a source of national pride, and it’s no wonder the locals recommended it first and foremost. I’m looking forward to future Venezuelan explorations – with perhaps a bit more cash.

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