Saturday, September 21, 2013

My time in Caracas, Venezuela for FIBA Americas 2013

"You're here just for the Basketball. That's crazy!"
Krendyll, Caracas Local
I backpacked Europe in 2011 and found a basketball experience in each Country I visited. The icing being my month for EuroBasket in hoopsmad Lithuania. Hitting the road again, I figured I'd check out the Americas equivalent. It just happened to be in Venezuela's capital Caracas, a part of South America most travelers skip. Notorious for its high homicide rate, its the type of place so exotic and dangerous that VICE TV spotlighted it - Venezuelan Body Count.

At the frontera of Argentina and Brazil. The hoop and my life in a bag.
I arrived in South America July and spent the first 2 months surveying whether it was wise to continue with the Caracas mission. I got to play streetball in Santiago with Couchsurfers. It was the inaugural gathering for what is now a weekly meeting in Chile's Capital. I hooped in Rosario, Argentina and connected with a Cali-bred Rosarino who was part of a volunteer solidarity group (OroƱo 252) that assembled after the recent gas explosion that rocked the city. I spent the evening with them at a Sports Club and house gathering. As always, Basketball has helped connect me with locals despite the language barrier.
CouchSurfing Santiago - Weekly Basketball meetup
Of all the Countries I've ever visited, Caracas has had the steepest learning curve. They have a parallel market much like Argentina (only more severe) where its in the people's best interests to save in a more stable currency outside their own. Withdrawing from a Cash point in Venezuela gets you only 6 Bolivares (bsf) for every $1USD, whilst trading Cash in the Mercado Negra (Black Market) can get you a whopping 37 Bolivares. Using the trusted McDonald's scale its the difference between a $1.60 Big Mac and a $10 one.

As I didn't bring plenty of $USD and was in a country with no infrastructure for Backpackers. I realised the 2 weeks I had allotted for the duration of the FIBA Americas was biting off more than I could chew. On the first day I spent a quarter of my funds ($45). I paid $31 cash for what seemed like the only hostel in the city. It would be my first lesson - NEVER pay in cash dollars! Due to the rising inflation it'd be like giving away Lebron James rookie cards. As recently as a month ago the Parallel rate for $1USD jumped from 31bsf to 38bsf in just 2 weeks.

Once I realised my dire situation I was in scramble mode. I went to the Government Hotel listed on the official FIBA page to see if I could score free accommodation at their 5 star establishment with trumped up Press credentials (I'm sure I was the only Australian there for the Basketball). I got into the main office and they heard my story, despite convincing them they were the featured habitation on the official webpage, they unfortunately couldn't help and knew nothing of the tournament.

The courts by La Hoyada. I saw more courts in my 2 weeks in Caracas
than I did in 2 months around Chile and Argentina. They were actually occupied too.
Credit: Brian I
Surviving Caracas was a miraculous feat of Miami Game 6 proportions. Putting myself in position but having the right sequence of events work in my favour. A timely assist from newly made friends, poise during clutch time and good old fashioned luck. I did eventually figure the city out, as a local assured me "You'll be fine. People in Caracas are surviving everyday". I found accommodation and a diet that fit into my $8 daily allowance, interestingly as soon as I breathed a sigh of relief I started to get greedy. Once Maslow's 'Hierarchy of needs' was met I started coveting things and wishing I had more. Not unlike Laker fans lamenting their short 2013 playoff run sans Kobe forgetting that they scraped into the Postseason and things could have been unthinkably worse. If only I could get the 76ers' Andrew Bynum tee or the "Sheed" High School jersey I spotted. Ridiculous! Only the day previous I contemplated commuting to the airport each night for sleep and was scavenging around the food court for half finished drinks. With cash from outside you can live like a king, without it you might as well have Monopoly money.

The ballers in Caracas aren't always equipped but they're ready to play
Credit: Brian I
Imagine if everything you ever needed was $2 but you had to live on only $50 a week, this was my reality but one still more fortunate than 2/3 of the population who lived on 3000bsf ($90) a month. The basketball itself cost less than $3 for the cheapest seats. The stadium only getting full during the night schedule when Venezuela were playing. They began offering Courtside seats as General admission to accentuate the sparse crowd for the TV audience. Entry was free on the day Venezuela had a bye, incidentally on this day there was a citywide blackout that postponed the game between the Dominican Republic and Paraguay. The lights dimmed to chants of "Chavez! Chavez!" during the 4th quarter with the Dominican Republic well ahead. Players posed for photos and challenged each other to Half Court H-O-R-S-E as they waited over an hour in darkness.

The Venezuela games were a sight to behold. To watch a Nationalistic Country support their underdog team and to have them perform leagues above their talent was captivating. Frankly I was surprised each time Venezuela put points on the board but they ended up making believers of everyone. My first Vinotinto game was against the Dominican Republic, the Carribeans had just trounced defending Champs Argentina by 19 and Venezuela squeaked by a winless Paraguay team. As would be a signature for all their games, the hosts would build an improbable lead buoyed by its partisan crowd, the closing quarters were nailbiting theatre to see whether the dream would take hold or if reality would assert its natural order. Venezuela hung on by 5.

The partisan and raucous Venezuelan crowd
Credit: @FVBaloncesto
My final Venezuela game was against the Tournaments' form team Puerto Rico. VinoTinto built a lead of 17 which they preserved to end the first 2 quarters. It was slow torture as Puerto Rico fought back led by JJ Barea's poise. The 3rd quarter Venezuela kept them at bay scoring exclusively on treys. Venezuela would cruelly lose by one despite standout player, Donta Smith having 3 chances to ice the game in the dying seconds of Regulation and OT. Venezuela tied with Argentina on Competition points but did not advance to the Semis. As it stood Venezuela's 3 losses came at the hands of the Top 3 Finalists. They sold shirts that said "Si se Puede" (Yes we can) and they certainly lived up to it.

Caracas wasn't without its share of misadventure. On my first day I won a game of 2on2 on a limp, playing some kids after having stepped on a bolt that morning. With the full weight of my backpack, the bolt pierced through my shoe and foot drawing blood. On the closing days I got a run of 3on3 on the Parque Oeste courts where I had my first experience dislocating a finger.

Basketball was the reason I was in Caracas but it was merely a pretext. My game isn't great but my emphasis is on the Social aspect. Putting myself out there, connecting with people through a shared love of the hoops. I'm happy to wing my way through most cities as I find the discovery exhilarating but Caracas I had hyped up in my mind. I had what I can only describe as my first panic attack leading up to my arrival. Having your sights set on something projects a confidence (or stubborness) that can propel you past the doubts. With optimism by my side its always led to great rewards, exotic places and interesting connections. Caracas has far been the grandest ride of my 30 Home Games mission. I had never spent as much or risked so much to find basketball. Caracas is an incredible city with friendly, open people where life truly is an adventure. I was glad to be a part of it.

I didn't survive Caracas, I lived it. If only for 2 weeks.

This post is dedicated to the incredible people that helped me during my two weeks in Caracas: Brian, Krendyll, Mario, Aida and Katryn. 

Other adventures in South America:
Streetball in Santiago, Chile
- My time in Caracas, Venezuela for FIBA Americas 2013
- Finding Basketball on the Frontera of Brazil and Argentina
- Streetball with locals around South America: Christmas Day in Bogota, Colombia 

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