A year in Venezuela: my personal journey through a neutral zone

by Mr. Sheehy

In August of 2000 I left New Hampshire for good. It’s a poor phrase, of course, because I did not feel a compelling need to leave the place, and in that sense I did not think of it as good that I was leaving. But I would not return, and it appears I never will return, for more than short vacations. I wish I’d written a poem about the place, but I would not have had the skill at the time to write a poem to justify the experience, and in truth I still do not possess that skill. But if I did, I suspect I would want my poem to evoke the same qualities as a few photographs I took there, while hiking. I’d want to evoke the age, the depth, and the layers I’d experienced and known, likely through the imagery of the woods, where so many layers and moist depths make them impenetrable without a trail.

New Hampshire Trail

That poem rests unwritten, but I wouldn’t call it an ending unresolved; just unexpressed. I moved on to Chicago, a different place, and another place I wish I’d captured more memorably in words. I may have tried, but nothing fit, nothing lasted. Instead I have pictures of friends and a wealth of memories, especially of walking suburban streets with my future wife. Not so many endings there as new beginnings.

And then to South Dakota. I recall vividly driving with my fiancé south of Rapid City, on Hwy 79, though at the time, to me, it was a nameless road with industry alongside it. Fifteen minutes and a couple crests of hills behind us, we pulled onto a side road and parked her father’s car. Have I ever seen so much sky? Realized the diversity of the terrain? Above me, behind me, beside me: stars. More stars than I’d ever seen, though I’d experienced the pitch black of an unpopulated area. Before me, in the foremost section of the dome, a thunderstorm raged. But the distance muted it, and the grandiose dome miniaturized it; not that it minimized its power, but the dome and its grandiosity seemed to assert its own power via comparison. For me, this was something new – a breadth substituting for the depth I had known. If the ending of New Hampshire had been in doubt, this sky affirmed it. And it opened its own beginning.

A year later, to Caracas, Venezuela, where the population is so unknown that estimates differ by millions. Four million? Five million? Either way, it’s millions more than I’d ever known, and I found myself there for 10 months. While there, in this new place, during those hours in our 5th story apartment, with its three bedrooms and large living room, the odd neighbor who stared at us as we washed dishes, and the most uncomfortable sofa and chair I have experienced to date, I wrote, or at least attempted to write, a story. I never completed that bit of fiction, but I found the exercise helpful, and understood its contemplative nature:

What if in the next 10 months I were to write a story? A short story, of course, about a young man leaving the US to find himself in a South American country. It could be autobiography, but not really. Setting-wise, make it an autobiography. Mind-wise, character-wise, it would be better to reach into the experiences of the past to find something there that one might write about.

It’s interesting to me how transparent I was, how eagerly I captured my experience of transitioning to this new culture. New not only because it was the first time I’d used a passport, but because it was a city, a massive metropolitan area, and I didn’t speak the language. This small town-New Hampshire man, educated in the suburbs of Chicago and transplanted to the Great Plains, had just plopped into the city, South American style. Even today, the opening of this story rekindles my experience:

Josh knew he wasn’t in Wyoming as soon as he stepped through the plane’s door. The humidity seeped through every crevasse in his clothing and surrounded him before he had taken two steps. It felt surprisingly good to breathe that thick air after spending most of the day in the artificial confines of jets. The air conditioning took over quickly, though, as he walked down the jetway to the gate.

As he came through the gate’s door, he peered about suspiciously and gripped his bag by his hip. Though no one sat in the waiting area, he had read that pick-pocketing and theft were rampant at the Caracas airport, and he was not going to begin his life here as a victim. He felt a little silly, though, when he realized he was protecting himself from the people who had been on the plane with him. They hadn’t stolen his bag in Miami, why would they steal it now?

Walking down the airport’s aged concourse, he gained some confidence by reading the signs. High school was a long time ago, but if he could pick up the old phrases as easily as he had been interpreting the airport’s instructions, fluency would follow before long. “Salida”: he knew what that meant even without seeing it posted above the emergency exits.

He moved through customs in minutes, and the lady in blue directed him through to the swarm of cabbies waiting outside the airport doors. Though dark and 9pm, Josh squinted at the faces like he had stepped from a dungeon into the desert. He strained to recognize a face, but saw only a blur of nagging men who reached for his suitcases and spoke in quick bursts of foreign tongue. One man grabbed the handle Josh held and, pointing towards a row of official looking Ford Explorers, tried to tug it away from him.

“No. Please, I have a ride.” Josh tugged his bag back to himself and realized by the man’s frustrated face that English was now useless. He repeated himself anyway, because it felt polite, “I have a ride.” Fighting through the offers and urgings, Josh made his way through the cabbies to wait at the curb. As he arrived, he remembered how to say sorry in Spanish.

. . .

Josh smirked and turned his gaze to the passing cityscape. In Chicago, he sometimes wondered whether anyone actually lived in the city. All he seemed to see were endless streets of office buildings, hotels, restaurants, and retailers. But this place looked different. He saw no distinguished skyline on the way in, just a massive growth of high rise apartment buildings. Endless streams of shacks and one or two story homes plastered the hills about the city, as if Josh were looking into a tightly packed box. Each item had been strategically placed to allow the most to fit inside. Then a new item was forced in, and another stacked on top, and eventually, many smaller items were thrown in and smashed to fit, because there was only the one box. How many people had they packed into the box? Josh contemplated the numbers as he sunk comfortably into the seat. He allowed his vision to blur out of focus and noticed that the sky was the only feature not covered with lights.

This character, Josh, finds himself in Caracas without a full understanding of why he’s there. He has a plan, my narrator asserts at one point, but “even he did not understand what it was.” I knew full well I was writing a type of autobiography with my story – write what is true, for if I don’t believe it, who would? The wonder of it to me now is how well it captures what I never really articulated elsewhere.

The passage reeks of new beginnings that haven’t begun – unsure areas in between, where we feel “the walls for a light switch” (Collins) and wonder if the prior ending was one which we should have closed. It is tempting to look at travel or a moving experience and declare it a beginning or an ending – it has the definitiveness about it that creates an attractive bookmark for a chronology, but the story of Josh, as well as my fuller experience, reveals clearly that during most of my time in Venezuela I resided in a neutral zone of transition, a time where portions of my life were ending and others were beginning, and I was not yet aware of which was which. I was not even aware of the fullness of which was which for another year after returning to the United States, but in retrospect, I find the seeds of my new beginning planted clearly in Caracas.

And so when I look at my story and my character, Josh, I read especially his tentativeness in the airport and in his new culture. I knew that tentativeness so well that I wrote it into the story a few times. It’s the unknown, the idea that he has no idea how to conduct himself or to react to the new situation, and though the impulse to come had been genuine, he was not so confident about actually performing the act. He knew nothing and though overseas travel appears to be the most independent act a person can make, once there he realized how fully dependent he was. Did I know that feeling well – for a year, I relied upon my wife for all public communication. It took months before I possessed the courage to buy a cup of coffee without her assistance, and even after I knew I could buy it, I never did. It was so much easier to rely upon Kiersten:

Josh . . . stepped into the most ordinary bakery he had ever seen. It did not hold a wealth of baked treats and cakes; it was more of a practical bakery, and immediately Josh could see that its charm was that it was nothing special. He stared at the assortment of cookies and croissant sandwiches until a voice broke his trance.

“Bueno dia!” the man behind the counter smiled, and Josh grinned nervously at him, fearful that he would have to enter into a conversation.

“Buenos dias,” he replied, and his eyes searched frantically for Mrs. Carey. He spotted her a few feet away and threw a nod to the man behind the counter before migrating to her side. He felt like a young child, hiding nervously behind his mother until she is ready to rescue him from his awkwardness. Mrs. Carey, though, was not ready to rescue him. She was talking to a woman who had been leaving as they were coming in, and they were talking so fast, in Spanish, that Josh did not understand a word of the conversation. With nothing to do while he waited, he struggled to look comfortable, but his glance kept going to the man behind the pastry case. Watching him make coffee, Josh almost forgot himself and his own discomfort. The man seemed nice; he might not even mind if Josh tried some of that elementary Spanish on him. But the man broke Josh’s confidence by looking up, and Josh instinctively looked away, pretending that it was only by chance that he had been looking at that moment. Feeling even more stupid than before, Josh stared instead at his feet, knowing there was no chance that he would have to speak to them in Spanish.

“Sorry, Josh,” Mrs. Carey had finished. “Do you want me to order, then?” He looked at her with gratitude and nodded.

What was he doing here? He knew he could not answer the question, but the circumstances forced it to mind. Like a three year old, he was currently hiding from a store clerk in a land he did not understand, counting on a woman he barely knew to protect him. Protect him from what, though?

I am amused to remember explaining why it was always so difficult to engage panaderia workers in conversation. The moment I said hello and began to order coffee, they would delight in the attempt at conversation and break script, breaking my confidence in the exchange and casting me back to my silence. I learned that the universal language is a smile not because a smile is so powerful, but because it was the easiest way to communicate.

Before we left for Venezuela, our sending agency, The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM), prepared us thoroughly for the experience – for the culture, for the culture shock, for the missionary’s experience. As part of our preparation we wrote a list of expectations, and I recall writing that I expected to be pick-pocketed at least once and that I expected to learn a passable amount of Spanish. I was trying to set my expectations at a reasonable level, knowing that unmet expectations were a large source of disappointment for travelers of any kind. Even with my “low” expectations, I had to adjust them after we arrived. A few months into the year, I came to the conclusion that my main duty and intention in coming to Venezuela was to serve the missionary community by teaching (I was teaching high school English at a missionary school), and if I was to meet that foremost expectation, I would have to discard others, like learning to speak Spanish. This was not easy; in a sense, my pride had built the hopeful expectation that I’d be one of those people who picked up a surprising amount of language simply by living in a country where it is spoken. In our preparation, I wrote that I wanted to learn a passable amount of Spanish, but in truth, I wanted to exceed that expectation. I wanted to excel. But the people who pick up a language this way were interacting with Spanish speakers more than 10 hours a week; they did not have a primary goal that competed with the learning a language. They were not teaching in their native tongue five different high school courses for the first time. So, out of necessity, I let that expectation die, creating maybe for the first time an actual ending – an ending of my preconceived notions about what I’d become while in Venezuela.

Of course, that was not the only notion I carried that may have been mistaken, nor the first ending that encountered its official point of closure during my amoeba-like middle zone. Another conversation we had at TEAM during our preparation for the trip concerned what we were leaving, and what we might miss while living in another country. I admitted that I had thoroughly enjoyed my job in South Dakota – I was a radio announcer and producer – and was a bit sad to see it end. Privately, to myself and to my wife, I admitted that I did not intend to close my career in radio, and that when we returned to the United States, I would reassume chasing my radio dreams. I considered our time a hiatus, not an ending.

Of course, that assumes that I knew God’s plan better than he, because what I discovered a year later was that the ending had occurred, and I had yet to admit it. After ending my notions of language acquisition and devoting myself more solidly to the task of teaching, I encountered a substantial level of success in the classroom. That is, I discovered that a thorough level of preparation made for awfully smooth teaching, and when it was smooth, it was fun. Additionally, I had never thought of myself as a youth-worker kind of guy; I knew I could teach, but I wasn’t interested in building camp-counselor style relationships with kids. What I found, however, was that the smooth teaching also allowed for the fostering of deep relationships with students – teacher relationships, not camp-counselor ones. And when a pair of dorm parents had to leave the country for personal reasons, my wife and I willingly accepted the duties and moved in to become the substitute parents of four high school students and a ten-year old. Slowly, I had taken on more involvement with teenagers than your normal aspiring radio announcer, though I still hadn’t dropped the radio dream. What I didn’t see was the overlapping of an ending I hadn’t let go and a beginning that had not fully materialized.

The materializing of that newest beginning did not come, ironically enough, until the last days of our time in Venezuela, further proof that the year found me mostly in a neutral zone of transition. In one of the most personal and moving moments I have experienced, I discovered my new beginning and ushered in an ending, though I did not act on it officially for another few months. It happened at an awards banquet we’d hosted for the students on one of the last days of school – the kind where students receive awards from each teacher, and where teachers who will not return the following year get recognized. The transition in and out of a missionary school is substantial, and there were a number of us teachers who were recognized and thanked. The applause for each teacher was loving and grateful, and each of us was presented with a coffee mug with the insignia of the school printed on it. The surprise, the moment, came when they called out my name, because it wasn’t the same applause I’d heard before. It was a bit more than warm. The kids stood up and screamed like I was their best friend and teacher, like if they cheered loud enough and long enough, I wouldn’t go, and they didn’t want me to go. I did not expect such a response – I had never aimed to be the popular teacher, and I knew I had a lot of growing left if I was to become a great one, but these students cheered like I’d done something special. I shook the hand of the school’s director as he handed me a mug and whispered, “I don’t think they want you to go.” I still choke up when I relive that moment in my head.

I don’t allow myself to glory in that moment. It’s not a moment of arrogant pride for me, more a moment of humble gratitude and recognition – recognition that they saw something in me I hadn’t allowed myself to see, and that I was blessed enough to be informed by such an outpouring that I am a teacher, and that though not perfect, I am a good enough at it to make a difference in some people’s lives. That moment ended any remnant radio dream and staked a solid beginning like no other I’ve experienced. To date I still drink out of that mug and think to myself, “This mug means I’m a teacher.”