If you are wise, you will not visit my hometown. Not now, not in a year, not in ten. There are better places to spend your time, cities less likely to swallow you up and bleed you dry. Cities that don't scream with sound of bullets, that don't exhale the soft putrefaction of constant fear. Cities whose highways don't clog like arteries with clumping caravans of the leaving. There are places still worth visiting.
Because I am not wise, I visit my hometown. Constantly. At midnight, in the middle of the day, in the hour of the mosquitoes slivered between dusk and nightfall. Whenever I hear certain chords on a guitar, or the spit and cackle of hot oil in a fryer. Always at gas stations, with their lingering petroleum acridity. Forever when I touch the angry handle of a car door after a broiling summer's day. Eternally when I travel on the highway. On the highway, especially when it gets so long and perfectly straight that it looks infinite and hallucinatory, I travel back to a distant place.
The key fact that belies everything else you might know about Maracaibo is how desperately hot it is. In the summer, when the sun skims off part of the lake, the air pregnant with water feels like the world pressing against your unfortunate back. I distinctly remember feeling like I was drowning, because breathing that air did not feel like breathing at all. In other seasons (I use the term loosely, because the change in seasons in Maracaibo was more like a slide into another kind of hot) the heat transforms. It is dry, it spawns mosquitoes and flies by the billions, it bakes the zinc rooftops of the barrio and the terracotta shingles of the rich alike. Very rarely, it butters the city in golden sunlight, in pure, undistilled summer. Those were good days. Even the iguanas looked like something.
There are iguanas everywhere. They are huge and they are bold. They eat your houseplants, they eat trash off the roads, they explode out of bushes and block sidewalks. Unlike anything else, they seem to draw power from the sun. They bask under it for hours, peering at us perspiring mortals with their ancient eyes.
Oil is our wealth and our bane. We bleed it out of the earth with monumental, elegant syringes and send it out to a world that increasingly looks elsewhere for its food. Ultimately, it made a few of us rich and richer, because here was the beating heart, the carotid of all that liquid gold. What happens when the heart stops?
Bambi was where all the pseudo-European maracuchos, many of them rich off the glut of petroleum, liked to gather. Sparkling vitrines of cakes and cookies lined the cool walls, newspapers from Caracas, New York, and Paris fluttered in their racks, and the air filled slowly with the seductive perfume of coffee. Even then, before the imperialism of Starbucks and the birth of the coffee 'culture' that followed it, there were several expensive espresso hulks gracing the back counter. They drank hot coffee like it was water, in that city, with such flagrant disregard for the heat that they seemed to almost spite it. I didn't care for coffee, few children do, but I remember the airy suspiros (directly translated: "sighs") that they piled high behind the glass, little puffs of nothing colored in pastel shades. They melt in your mouth, there and then suddenly not. I loved them, as I loved the spectacular set of swinging saloon doors, the kind that Clint Eastwood might have arrogantly pushed open, that led to a comparatively underwhelming bathroom. Bambi was one of the few places where the ceiling fans actually worked as they should have, instead of just lazily swirling the same dead air. Bambi closed late last year. It had been robbed, I think.
The lake nestled like a jewel in Maracaibo's sweaty bosom is as green as a grassy American lawn, because of all the algae that floats atop it. It shivers like freshly pulled glass in the violence of the sun but no one swims in it. Not then, and certainly not now. Even now, with little water and even less pride, almost nobody has dipped a toe in there since the Virgin rose out of it in a wooden plank.
Maracaibo has changed. It is uglier now, skinnier, worse. It is almost certainly hotter. If you are wise, you will not visit my hometown. Not now, not in a year, not in ten, not in centuries and centuries because cities like those are condemned to live on only in my nostalgia. Even that fictional Maracaibo slowly fades as my memories fall away and new ones replace them. Perhaps it is for the best. All that nostalgia can't be good for much. But still, when I look up at the sky here, crisp as a new bed sheet, I remember the humid, painted sky, like that of a fresco in a particularly moist basilica at midday mass, that stretched over Maracaibo. When nostalgia grasps at me with its soft claws, when I remember again that primordial place, I can't help but remember its infinite sky. The sky, unlike the water, remains unpolluted.