Feb 7th, 2020, 07:25 PM

The Daily Challenging Decision of Venezuelans

By Ana Poo-Baiz
Exhausted man lying on the ground as the bus arrives, Image Credit: Unsplash/Davidsonluna
Leave the country by foot or starve to death at home?

Sore feet, dry mouths, rationed food and hundreds of kilometres left. These are the challenges thousands of Venezuelans face everyday when forced to leave the country due to the unbearable economic and humanitarian situation. People reach into their pockets to find useless coins and an old receipt — from a few weeks ago when they bought a tomato and instant coffee from when they got paid their monthly wage of five US dollars. They check their bank accounts only to see that hyperinflation once again turned the money into a fraction of what they had the day before. They search their pantry for the food that will feed their three, four, maybe even five young children, the same ones who survive on five dollars per month. They look up to the ceiling, and pray to God to give them some hope, only to actually see the sky through the existing holes of their aluminium roofs. They can no longer just ask for hope, but for faith; for they just decided to leave the country to a place where the minimum wage will suffice to have a humble home and daily bread and water for their children. 

John Mikel Hurtado, a Venezuelan immigrant,  left in 2018. “Where to start? What to do? What should I bring?” He questioned himself restlessly. In all honesty, how does one prepare to leave the country walking. What do you take? Where do you find strength to leave things behind? Walking may be nice, but walking non-stop for six or more consecutive days is not as nice. When your feet begin to create hardened, dry layers of skin, your stomach no longer rumbles because hunger has become so known to you, when you squint your eyes after every five hundred metres to be able to try and see properly, because mountains don’t have legs or feet to run away so far from you every time you feel you have made progress.

Hurtado made it to Colombia through Cúcuta after eight long days. He struggled every single one of them: “There comes a moment when you begin to question what you’re doing there, how much more time will it take, if it is even worth it to walk with 16 year old shoes, under the burning sun, hungrier and thirstier than ever, because unlike back in the city no one just gives you a cookie or a bag of flour for tortillas - You sweat enough to fill your empty water bottles. To be honest, the one and only thing that gave me the tiniest hope, was seeing my 1 year old son Kender in my arms- stressed, hot and skinny. My wife had passed away due to malnutrition two weeks before I decided to leave. I practically saw both my son and I down the same path and my heart broke for him - he doesn’t deserve any of this - none of us do.” Hurtado weighed 53kg at the beginning of his journey, that number decreased to 46kg when he arrived in Colombia. 

On the sixth day, he sat on the side of the road. His knees were weak, he couldn’t breathe properly, the world seemed to be stealing the air from him and he felt as if everything was conspiring against him. He shared the last bit of bread he had saved with his son and took a deep breath. He exhaled almost every bit of hope he had left inside of him. It was dark. He found a tree and some grass, laid his blanket and fell asleep holding his son in his arms. He woke up to his son eating some mango that another walker gave him; his eyes watered by the kindness. He thanked her, and she answered: “That’s okay, I have a full bag of them.” Mango season is also called ‘free food season’. Sweet ripe mangos grow on trees for months in Venezuela and feed thousands of people. 

Coincidentally, Deyanira Zambrano, my other interviewee, was the kind woman. She had been walking for three days when a bus “appeared miraculously.” She said, “I could swear God came down from heaven to place the bus beside me.” She at first was on her own, but the bus saved her six and a half hours of walking. From then on, Zambrano and John Mikel stayed solidary tied to each other throughout the days to come. 

Deyanira was 20 at the time. Morally banned from school, she began working two mediocre jobs at age 15. One was as a supermarket cashier, and the second as a valet. She was paid with a simple ‘CLAP,’ a bag of 7-10 groceries each month provided by the government which makes people vote for the communist regime — or else they would receive none. She left Venezuela to find a job to be able to send money home to her grandparents, brothers and sisters so that they wouldn’t have to cross the border. She was filled with sadness leaving behind the most important people in her life; parts of her, her life story; but she was more in pain to see both eight and eighty year olds walking alongside her, searching for a better future.  She was thankful her family at least had a double mattress to sleep at in their one piece home. 

The next day was the last, but John Mikel and Deyanira did not know that. Their focus and sole indicator was the infinite horizontal white paint on the pavement that lead the way to success — or well, a step closer to success. John Mikel got sick hours before arriving. He asked Deyanira to take his son if he died or to give him to a caring adoption centre. She felt a world of doubts, pressure and impediments fall on her shoulders. Then little Kender smiled and laughed. It was the first laugh they had both heard in almost a week. Deyanira described it like “a shot of energy”. 

Finally, they made it. 

John Mikel got a job as a waiter. Three months later, he purchased and owned a smartphone with a camera to Video Chat for the first time. Kender is in pre-school at a public school, he eats three times a day. 

Deyanira found people to share living costs with and works as a manicurist by day, and studies law by night. She predicts to have enough money in 2 years to bring her family by bus and provide them with better living conditions. 

Both admitted that leaving their country was one of the hardest things they ever had to do. Every day, more and more Venezuelans are leaving the country. They are no longer categorized as '20-30 year olds' or 'motivated future-seekers', categories now range within occupation, age groups, genders and reasons. They all want to leave, but everyone dreams of going back.