Caracas—the City of Flies
The flies of Caracas have taken control of the journalist Luz Mely Reyes’ life. Over the past year a great amount of garbage is seen to litter the neighbourhood where she lives. The inevitable flies follow her around; they have invaded her home and continuously keep pestering her. What do these flies want her? “Why are some insects so annoying?” she wonders.
It all started because of the flies. I woke up one morning, I stepped out of my bedroom for my regular date with El Ávila, and there it was: the 2,200-meter wonder that borders the valley of Caracas. Every time I sleep at home, I look at that mountain the minute I open my eyes. I also send it a kiss from the distance. It is my “good morning” against discouragement.
During the year, that mountain—whose indigenous name is Guaraira Repano—wears various shades of green. If it has rained a lot, it gets a dark tone, like petroleum green. Sometimes it gets so dry that it changes its suit for a pale brown, almost green, one. Sometimes the fire devastates a good portion of its 85 thousand hectares and leaves its dark brown skin bare, like burnt flesh. Some other times, when it rains, clouds cover its summit, as if they were bed sheets. Even if a sunbeam touches it, it produces a hallucinating effect. Nothing, not its skin cut by fire, as if done by a burning knife, nor the scars of so many wounds, make that mountain lose its beauty. Just looking at it brings relief to my soul.
That morning, I went into the living room, stopped to greet the rays of sunshine entering through my window, and got ready for my morning ritual of caressing my beautiful mountain with my gaze. Then, I saw the damn flies. There they were, messing up my date with El Ávila once again.
They were flying around all over the place. I grabbed a towel and started chasing them. They flew towards the window, towards the light, trying to escape. They stumbled into the glass. I saw them trying to flee and started crushing them. For a few minutes, I shot at them with the towel left and right. Some of them escaped my fury, but so much rustle brought back an injury in my shoulder. I knew that, no matter how eager I was to kill them all, I wasn’t going to be able to do it myself, let alone with a towel.
The legend goes that El Ávila, or Guaraira Repano, is a frozen wave. That a goddess was about to punish the first inhabitants of the Caracas valley and, before water destroyed all humanity, the goddess heard the prayers of the natives and turned the tide into some sort of breakwater. There are other versions on the original name, and even its spelling. I’ve known it all my life as El Ávila mountain, a name given to it during the Spanish conquest, but eight years ago, the revolutionary government of Venezuela decided to change its name back to the original one. At that time, and unsolved controversy ensued regarding its spelling: Guaraira Repano, Warayra Repano, Wayra Repano.
That great mountain separates the Caribbean Sea from the capital of Venezuela. It is like a loving wall that, no doubt, has risen as a symbol of Caracas. I used to walk its paths until reaching one of its peaks or run through its firebreak. As time went by, I stopped going up some of its places. That’s why there are no curtains covering my windows, because I love light entering freely and to look at El Ávila, which looks like a different version of a painting every day.
But there are flies in my house now. These are insects that gross me out. Maybe even scare me out. Some would say I have a phobia of them.
When the bugs invaded my house, I remembered how a waiter from a small restaurant where I have lunch sometimes graciously killed several of them just by spinning around an electrical racket.
So, I bought one. I was eager to get home to begin my mission.
I tried to use my exterminating gadget only to discover flies go the opposite side when you’re chasing them, and it is impossible to play tennis with them: there they are, stubborn as usual, bandits, they won’t leave… It is hard to kill them with insecticide in a country where food is scarce; something as toxic as poison for those bugs is not to be mentioned.
My mom had told me, “Leave flies alone; they’ll drive you crazy.”
That phrase was like a spark: “Why are some insects so annoying?” I asked myself.
Disgust, anger, impotence. Flies!
I live in downtown Caracas, a modest urbanization built not so many years ago. Loads of waste have been thrown out on the street in the last year. Sometimes there are homeless people who open the waste bags in search of food; other times it’s stray dogs. Also, the people who clean the city don’t do their collection round. Garbage is burnt in some neighborhoods; in others, they wait patiently for the rain to wash down the waste.
So much filth is the perfect habitat for flies. There is no use for me to not go where they are, because they decided to come to where I am. To my refuge. A cloud of flies has set over my city.
As many in Venezuela, I have created a bubble to protect myself from the hostilities of the outside. I learned how to buy the right amount of food, I stopped using the subway, I avoid walking the streets at night, I ask my foreign friends to get me some medications, mainly for my mother and sister.
I take shelter in that bubble so the attacks that being a journalist entail won’t hit me as hard; I take shelter from the pain of seeing a colleague migrate, when I see another one that needs to silence down, when a public worker takes away the passport from a journalist with no explanations, when men dressed in black take him to make a statement before the security forces with no respect for any law.
When someone tries to poke a hole in my bubble, I know how to defend myself. Sometimes I attack; others, I run. Most of the times, it works. I scare the predator with words, which are like straight arrows. Other times, I take shelter and keep quiet.
That doesn’t work with the flies. They do not care about barriers.
I talked to a specialist about this episode. I wanted to know why I could not tolerate the disgust towards these insects when I have been able to tolerate the smell of thousands of people packed together in a shelter; I have seen people puke their guts out on the streets, I have seen people eat from a garbage can, I have seen boys and girls growing up in the streets. I have told stories of victims of crime, of lynched people, of daily attacks.
The specialist told me he perceives some kind of anguish in me.
I ask myself, “Of what?”
I remain in Venezuela out of my own decision. I have founded an emerging independent media website along with to brave colleagues and a team that is committed to journalism and to Venezuela. In three years, we have received several awards, among them, the Gabriel García Márquez awards. Our website is called Efecto Cocuyo (Firefly Effect). The cocuyois a luminous insect, endemic to the Caribbean. We appeared in 2015, when darkness had already taken over the ecosystem of my country’s mass media, when censorship increased, and self-censorship sealed a few lips. We worked with the people and build ourselves into a platform from which we are able to send out little sparks of light that, together with others, can illuminate a whole nation. A firefly is a romantic insect; at night, you can see its lights twinkle, sometimes as a courtship dance, and other times they flicker and light up to scare a predator.
I know him. But he does not stop me. Not because I am brave, but because I became used to look for the light. To no have curtains over my window. My first day working as a young reporter was in February 14th, 1992, when a Lieutenant-Colone—later a president—staged a coup d’état. That time, my mother begged me not to go out into the streets. I did not listen to her.
My country’s political changes and violence have left a mark on my life as a journalist. However, I don’t think this compares to what happened in 2017, when a group of young journalists was supposed to go into the streets wearing armored helmets, bulletproof vests and gas masks. My son, who is a photo-journalist, was among them.
Every time one of the young men was hurt, captured or murdered, it hurt like it was my own son. However, I have never been able to tell him not to go out into the street. On April of 2017, he was covering a demonstration. It wasn’t even his assignment; he ran into while walking to his office. A National Guard officer hit him in the face. I hadn’t heard anything until they sent me a video. I saw the attacker approaching and deliver a blow into his face. I posted the video on my Twitter account with a brief caption.
That generation of young journalists has been raised in blood and fire. They have seen how others their age have left their lives on the streets, fighting for something they didn’t get to know: freedom. They have lived with the anguish of their parents, who ask where they are at all times; they have abandoned the nightlife on the streets and the bars. Nonetheless, they smile, their hearts vibrate with emotion when covering a story, when showing the abuses, the abuse of power, when telling what the government does not want to be told.
Caracas, my city, protected by El Ávila, has also other symbols. Macaws, for example. They are Amazonian birds that arrived around 20 years ago and have reproduced in the middle of the metropolis despite the recent political disturbances and tear gas. In several areas, the flocks fly around at four in the afternoon. They perform a blue-and-yellow dance in the air while they squawk. There are also noisy parrot and parakeet flocks. Sometimes, while I’m writing, I hear them resting on a skinny tree in front of my window. When they perch on those weak branches, I look up and watch them for a while. Some mornings, they wake me up as if it was group of neighbors talking. At some point, the government propaganda named Caracas as the city of macaws.
Over the last year, another bird has proliferated. They are black and about half a meter tall. In Venezuela they are known as buzzards. They are a kind of American scavenging vulture. I live on the 9th floor of a 10-story building. I have seen the buzzards stop on my building’s roof, and I have heard their cawing in other zones of the city. They perch over high places, looking for something to eat. Luckily, they have never entered my apartment, although they have done so in a colleague’s. The thought of buzzard in my living room terrifies me.
Either way, I have begun closing the windows at home.
Buzzards can’t come in, but flies manage to do it. They do it through any small crack. They perch on the windows’ glass. They prevent me from watching my mountain in quietness; I also have the feeling that they scare the macaws. Each of those disgusting bugs is like a pin poking at my bubble. Sometimes I fear they may burst it. There is no use in preserving my space, in closing my windows, in hitting them with a towel, in using vinegar to shoo them away. Flies don’t care about boundaries.
Luz Mely Reyes is a Venezuelan journalist, co-founder and Director of the independent media website Efecto Cocuyo. She has been awarded the 2018 International Press Freedom Award.