Official Blog of the Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Studying Abroad in Venezuela – Interview with Gillian Losh

What is your major and year in school?  What are you professional aspirations?

I’m a journalism major, and I’m graduating in May 2012 when I get back from Venezuela. I’m going to be looking for a job in communications or public relations after graduation, and then in a few years I plan to go to business school and get my MBA.

How did you decide to study-abroad in Venezuela?  Where are you living in Venezuela?

I’m living in Merida, which is in the Andes Mountains in the southwest portion of the country. I decided to study in Venezuela for a variety of non-interesting reasons, but mostly I wanted the chance to study in South America in a non-university setting. I’m attending a school called VENUSA, which offers English classes to Venezuelans and subject classes in Spanish to Americans. I’ve studied during the previous three summers in Central America (Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras) and I was looking for a longer stay in a Spanish-speaking country that was a little different than where I’ve been before.

What is the most difficult thing to get used to while living in Venezuela?

To be honest, my Spanish is most frustrating. In my experience, language study feels so inconsistent—you can have days when you feel like communicating is no problem, then you have days when it feels like you’ve never spoken a word of Spanish, ever, and you can’t communicate the simplest things. Other than the communication aspect, sometimes life here feels more inefficient than I’m used to, and sometimes that can be because of communication issues as well. Stores aren’t open every day or all day, and business hours are whenever storeowners feel like it. This past weekend I was stranded in a city near the coast (Valencia) because there was no morning bus, even though a bus company employee had told me there would be. Then I missed my morning class getting back to Merida because my bus unexpectedly stopped in El Vigia, a town two hours away from Merida. I still don’t know how I would have figured that out before I bought the bus ticket, or how other people on the bus knew about the alternate schedule.

What aspect of your life in Venezuela is most exciting or fun?

I love making Venezuelan friends, and I love feeling more and more comfortable in Merida. I love spending my weekends with ‘half-and-half’ English and Spanish speakers, and I love learning Venezuelan slang. Mostly, I love feeling my Spanish getting better, like how sometimes it’s so effortless to use different tenses and the fact that my vocabulary is getting better every day.

What is your impression of Venezuelans and more specifically, Venezuelans in the city where you are living?

Initially, my impressions of Venezuela were mixed. Venezuela is a wealthy country in comparison with the rest of Latin America, mostly due to the oil industry. Merida specifically is much wealthier than the rest of the country and at first it felt foreign to my conception of Latin America, which comes from my experience in much poorer Central American countries. The longer I’m here, however, and the more chances I have to travel outside of Merida, the more my impressions are changing. Offhand, I’d say Venezuela is a country of vast differences. Merida is a colder mountain town, but there are also the coastal towns, the plains, the southern regions where the indigenous people live, and Caracas, the enormous and intimidating capital city, with barrios clinging to the mountains around it filled with poverty and crime. Venezuelans in Merida are pretty laid back, but then again most Latin Americans move at a slower pace. Meridenas here say the people in Caracas move fast, but I’m sure in comparison to US standards it’s also pretty relaxed. Overall, I think Venezuela has such a negative reputation in the US that people expect Venezuelans to be hostile to foreigners, but that’s not the case. Most Venezuelans in Merida are friendly and open-minded.

What have you learned so far about the Venezuelan political system and/or economy?

The political system in Venezuela is pretty ‘all-encompassing’ in terms of daily life. The influence of President Hugo Chavez is pretty visible everywhere you go. Most groceries have ‘hecho en socialismo,’ (made in a socialist system) stamped on them. There’s a pretty thriving black market for American dollars here, which is due to a somewhat complicated consequence of political decisions whereby Venezuelan families can only legally have a certain small amount of US dollars at any one time. For this reason, Venezuelans trade with Americans if they want to travel to the US or other countries because the Venezuelan ‘Bolivar Fuerte’ doesn’t have a strong exchange rate. Two weeks ago was the first opposition primary election ever and the weeks leading up to it were pretty intense. My friends and I were coming home from dancing one night and got caught in a traffic jam caused by Chavistas driving around in trucks spray painting walls with ‘Chavez 2012.’ Right now Chavez is back in Cuba getting treated for cancer, which he had previously said he was completely cured of, and I think the elections in October could get pretty dicey. I try to buy the paper every day here, and in the Pico Bolivar, one of the more tabloid-y papers, they always have at least one section devoted to whatever happened on the national TV
channel the night before, which is where Chavez gives speeches and announcements and has musical guests and events every night. It’s a pretty vast difference from politics in the US, although the polarization between the opposition and the Chavistas is similarly fierce to Democrats and Republicans.

Would you go back to Venezuela to live or work there?

I’ve actually been giving this a lot of thought, because when I go home I’m going to be looking for jobs and I could potentially look for work in a Spanish-speaking country. In Venezuela, I think it would be very difficult to work as a US citizen. Foreign-owned businesses don’t seem to have the easiest time. Right now I’m also yearning slightly for a world where I am easily understood and daily life is slightly less of a struggle. Two months from now I might be completely in love with Venezuela and never want to leave. For now, I can say I would definitely visit again, especially because of all the wonderful friends I’m making.

Have you had time to travel in Venezuela?  If so, what other places have you visited? What was your favorite and why?

So far, I’ve been to Los Llanos, which are the plains in the middle of the country and are often compared to the African Serengeti. That was definitely my favorite place so far. I love the country culture, and the wildlife that are teeming everywhere—specifically the capybara, my new favorite animal. One night a bunch of locals came and played typical llanera music and we danced the jiropo, the typical dance in Los Llanos. I think it also reminded me more of what I’m used to in Central America, with the heat and the dust and the country towns. I’ve also been to the beach at Chichiriviche, which is a town with a handful of beautiful island cays that you boat out to and spend the day on, as well as Valencia and El Vigia, which I saw briefly through the lens of catching buses and traveling through while I was on my way to other destinations.

Was it difficult to make Venezuelan friends?

Since the school I’m studying at also offers English classes to Venezuelans, there are always a bunch of Venezuelans hanging around and everyone knows each other. Americans are also somewhat of a novelty here – most white travelers are European whereas ‘gringos’ from the US are a little more rare – so we sometimes cause a scene wherever we go. In general, everybody has been very friendly, especially in Merida, mostly because it’s a college town (La Universidad de los Andes is here and people come from all over Venezuela to attend) and most of the people you meet are young students. Outside of Merida, most people are willing to chat as soon as they see you speak Spanish and are pretty patient with you.

What do you think you will miss most about Venezuela once you are back in the US?

I’ll miss being able to travel on the weekends. I love visiting other parts of the country, and every weekend feels like a vacation. I’ll miss all the wonderful friends I’m making. In the past, when I’ve come back from Central America the silence is always pretty jarring, even though I didn’t like it when I was there. It’s not something I love in Merida either, all the car horns and loud engines and did I mention the car horns? But you also get acclimated to it and I’m sure when I go home I’ll need a few days to get used to the quiet of my neighborhood and town. I’ll also miss the laid-back schedule. If things are running late, or you can’t get somewhere exactly on time, I don’t panic here the same way I do in the US. I’m super punctual in my real life, but here I’m not as worried about always rushing to the next activity. However, the more I travel and spend time away from home, the more I miss my wonderful family and my home.

How are your classes?

My classes all in Spanish—History of Venezuela, Spanish American Civilizations, Business Spanish and Advanced Communication—but they’re not as rigorous academically as UW-Madison. It gives me more time to focus on my Spanish and communication outside the classroom though, and time to travel without being bogged down with homework, so I’m not complaining.