At the end of my ten-week student teaching in Venezuela, one of the teachers said that I could interview to come back to teach at Campo Alegre the following year. She said they were always looking for American teachers.
“You can stay with me during the summer,” she said, “until you get your apartment.”
The American school provided housing for its staff. This was back in the 70’s when the American oil companies were in charge, and the oil executives paid high prices for private English schools.
I loved being in South America for three months, but a year-long contract was something else. I was already craving hamburgers and apples, neither of which I’d eaten since I’d arrived there. This was long before NAFTA, and the supermercados didn’t have either of those items.
I was sick of ham and cheese sandwiches and tried to buy raw hamburger one day. A Venezuelan friend told me to ask for ground black pulp from the butcher (pulpa molida negra).
That’s as close as you’ll get to hamburger,” she said.
I spent my weekly allowance on the meat, and it didn’t turn out tasting anything like a Big Mac or Whopper.
Then there was the fruit: guavas, mangos, guanábanas, pomegranates, papayas — anything tropical, but no oranges, apple or pears.
I wanted a crisp bite of an apple, not mushy flesh.
The bananas were plantains (plátanos), so more like the texture of potatoes. Venezuelans fried them, salted them, and made them into thick chips or baked them in the oven.
The hot doughy arepas found in all restaurants were the comfort food of Venezuela. Served with a buttery creamy spread, they were the pre-dinner starch, served the way American restaurants used to put out bread. I gained a lot of weight, thanks to you, arepas!
And then there were the cockroaches, big suckers that came in through the open windows, where they would find dark hide-outs in our shoes, drawers, or behind the toilet. The rule was that if you had to get up and pee, you’d always flip on the light switch first. Otherwise you might hear crunch-crunch under your feet on the way to the bathroom.
And the people — everywhere people! Iowa has more pigs than people (it’s a magnet at the Iowa store). Metropolitan Caracas had people all the time, all the places.
I thought about staying another year for about five minutes. I was looking forward to seeing my family. My grandfather had died in March, and I’d missed his funeral. I missed my occasional boyfriend, my six-month old car, and real trees, not palm trees. Besides, I had my spring and summer planned, to student teach at Dowling High School and then go to Spain to finish my classes for a dual degree.
As the saying goes, you can take the girl out of Iowa, but you can’t take Iowa out of the girl.
Couldda Wouldda Shouldda
If I would’ve stayed in Venezuela, I would’ve become bilingual, and who knows? I might’ve met a Venezuelan and lived there forever. My life would’ve followed a different path, for sure. I would’ve craved burgers and apples all the more and would’ve flown home every holiday just to have some. I would’ve tried to smuggle some back and would’ve been detained at the Caracas airport for several hours. The hamburger would’ve become rancid, even though I would’ve frozen it before putting in my suitcases.