In Venezuela, strangers are often objectively intimidating. At best, their political views articulated by slogans on t-shirts are so aggressively antagonistic to yours that an outburst of insults from a passer-by comes as no surprise. At worst, they want something you have and will go to extreme lengths to get it. It might be your money, it might be your phone, it might be your hair (at least, according to the Huff Post). It might be that one carton of milk that was left on the supermarket shelf and that is now in your hands. In an atmosphere of intense currency control, supply falls drastically shy of demand with items such as coffee, sugar, flour and toilet paper (insert lolz here) frequently notable for their absence. Here, the squabble over basic goods is more serious than a silent glare over the last hummus in the late night Co-Op (a friend recently confessed her “panic” when almost obliged by a sense of morality to give her pot to a disappointed customer who had found the spread section empty). In supermarkets, the fight for rationed foodstuffs can and often does end in fisticuffs among ripped cardboard boxes and broken crates. Anecdotes are told with relish about old aged pensioners thrown to the floor by crowds that stampede down the dairy aisle or scramble over elusive cartons of eggs. Elbows at the ready, chivalry and altruism have fallen hard.
It’s no secret that scarcity induces selfishness. Commentators that put this down to national culture or lack thereof are forgetting the force of primal instinct. In times of hardship, the dog-eat-dog mentality overrides the civilized psyche, no matter nationality or class. As an admittedly hot-tempered Celt, I am possibly not the best litmus test for this hypothesis. Still, my fieriness has flared off the chartered scale more than once when faced with a forty-minute queue to get cash out of the ATM (with high rates of inflation, the maximum daily withdrawal rate lasts all of, um, a day) or an hour and six full trains before finding a me-sized space on the stifling metro. My long-suffering partner – Venezuelan (sucks to be him) – sadly tends to bear the brunt of my anger as the face of a place I love and hate in equal measure. That his country is populated by incompetence is an accusation I have thrown about all too lightly in moments of fury. Otherwise, I share the wrath with strangers too. On bad days, faced with blind rage at the dysfunction of society, I while away mornings spent in line dreaming up indiscriminate fantasies of torture for the pushers-in: today’s one-legged queue jumper lost the other nethermost limb in a drawn-out ritual involving a blunt hacksaw and some sandpaper. With a glazed look on my dull eyes, I become that slightly unhinged stranger that everyone loves to watch snap.
On good days, however, I have a brief mental exercise that I use to flip the situation three sixty, with varying degrees of success. Inspired by Blanche DuBois, it is this: 1) I pick a place. 2) I pick a time. 3) I recall the occasions on which I have depended on the kindness of strangers in a country so different to my own. I try to conjure the conversations and the looks and the feelings of gratitude induced by people I do not know. I remember when an ex-soldier paid for my bus ticket after my card was eaten by the machine. I remember when a pair of brothers drove me home through late night, unsafe Caracas after my booked taxi didn’t show. I remember being comforted in tears by a lady twice my age after another goodbye harder than the last. I remember when unknown friends of friends have put me up for days, gladly and with gusto. I remember countless cooked dinners, words of care and academic advice, gestures of warmth and moments of affection; those who have helped me with bags, those who have given up seats, those who have offered remedies in times of sickness. I remember the help of librarians, archivists, writers and critics, without whom my research would stagnate. 4) I count to ten. 5) I breathe, smile at the person behind, and take a small step as we shuffle past mournfully empty shelves.