The Kidnapping Express

In August of 2005, Director, Jonathan Jakubowicz came out with a film entitled Secuestro Express. In English, it is translated as Kidnapping Express, and was nominated for both a British Independent Film Award, and the Golden Trailer Awards. It was filled with action and adventure and unique camera angles. The main plot followed the experience of a wealthy young couple that was carjacked one evening and then held for ransom. At this point, it probably sounds like your typical Denzil Washington film—the type of action-packed thriller that hits the box office every few month in the United States. But it wasn’t. This film differed in two very important ways. The first was that it opened with a statistic stating that every sixty minutes, another person is kidnapped and held for ransom somewhere in South America. Only thirty percent of these victims actually survive. The second—well, you can probably guess the second. The second way it differed, for me and for everyone who lived in Venezuela at that time, was that it took place in Caracas.

Secuestro Express was a major topic of conversation one afternoon at the Optimal English office. Cara, Trevor, Matt, and I were all in between visiting clients and were gathered around the break table eating lunch while our bosses were hard at work in their cubicles. They were in the process of getting the Venezuelan branch of Coca Cola to sign on as a client—something the P.R. girls had been working towards for months. Cara quietly mentioned that Maru, one of the P.R. girls, told her she hated driving alone at night in Caracas because she was always afraid of getting car-jacked. Maru owned a nice SUV, which made her a primary target, so her strategy was to drive as fast as she could and avoid the routes with stop signs and traffic lights because those were the places where problems could arise. As Cara said this, I looked over at Maru, who was typing at her keyboard, and I felt incredibly saddened.

Matt mentioned that one of the bigger controversies surrounding the film was the way it portrayed the Venezuelan police officers.

“Well, they are corrupt little bastards,” Trevor added. “You heard about the ex-Optimal English employee who was mugged by the police?”

He wadded his paper lunch bag into a ball and got up to throw it in the trashcan. I watched him walk back over to our table with a mischievous grin and then lean in close to whisper, “They don’t want us to know about it, but it’s true.” He gestured over at our bosses to indicate who “they” was.

“Is he serious?” I asked, looking to Matt and Cara, hoping that their faces would give me a clue as to whether or not I should believe him.

“Yeah,” Matt said, “but the guy was walking home drunk by himself at two in the morning. You just don’t do that.”

“That’s not the point!” I said. “They are police. You’re supposed to be able to trust them—that’s why we have them, that’s what they do. They protect us, not rob us.”

Matt smiled. “I’m sure they’re not all like that,” he said, gently. “Just don’t do stupid things like walk alone late at night, and you’ll be fine.”

I liked Matt. One time, a group of us had decided to take a weekend trip to a beach town that was about a four-hour drive from Caracas. We ended up having a crazy bus-ride from hell that was hot and crowded and seemed that it would never end. The whole bus seemed to actually veer from side to side, and none of the Venezuelan people would stay seated. They were constantly shouting and laughing and getting up to talk to friends in different rows. It was one of the strangest experiences I have ever had. Half way through the trip, Matt offered to let me listen to his ipod because he wanted me to hear a song by an indie band called Arcade Fire. It happened to be one of my favorite songs, and he was surprised that I had even heard of the group.

“They’re from Canada, you know,” he said proudly. Matt was from Canada too, as you can probably guess.

“I do know that,” I said, taking the white earphones he was handing me. I turned on the song, “Rebellion (Lies),” closed my eyes, and let the music transport me to another time and place far away from this crazy bus.

“Have you actually seen Secuestro Express?” I asked Matt, back in the office.

“No, I haven’t,” he answered. “What are you doing tonight? You wanna go?”

It was still playing in theatres, and this whole conversation was making me morbidly fascinated. I knew watching the movie would likely worsen my fears and perhaps, open my eyes to more things I was better off not knowing—just as we would all be better off driving by a car accident, rather than staring at the mashed up vehicles on the side of the road, straining our eyes to see the injured bodies being loaded onto the stretchers, and trying to take in every piece of shattered glass littering the pavement. It’s not as though it makes our day any brighter by peering into the mess. And yet, we look anyway. Every single time.

“Absolutely,” I said, “let’s go.”

Later that evening, as I was reapplying my make-up and waiting for Matt to come pick me up, it occurred to me that I was getting ready for what could possibly be a date. In the world of male/female relationships, when a girl and a guy went to see a movie together—alone—on a Friday night, it was generally considered a date. This is a fact that also captured the attention of Carla, my 19-year-old Venezuelan roommate. She spoke mostly Spanish with little bits of broken English, and would sometimes stamp her foot in frustration when neither of us could understand each other.

When I told her I was going to the movies with Matt, whom she had met a few times before, she literally started batting her eyelids and said, “Ooooooh, Matt! Es tu novio?” (Is he your boyfriend?)

“No, no novio,” I said.

Carla had a habit of changing outfits about five times a day, and she was currently on outfit change number four. As we talked, she was in the process of rifling through her closet and pulling out various tank tops. She set down the yellow top in her hand and looked at me with a pouty expression. “But he is so beautiful!” she exclaimed, dragging out the first syllable in the word beautiful so that it sounded more like “booo-ti-ful.”

I laughed. She did have a point—sometimes I was attracted to Matt, and other times I was convinced that he and I would make better friends than anything else.

“Matt is just my friend,” I told her, speaking slowly and clearly, but secretly thinking to myself that if this was a date, I suppose I would be okay with it.

After the movie, Matt and I sat out on the balcony of his apartment, chatting about Venezuelan politics and drinking Polar—the Venezuelan version of Budweiser. Rather than avoiding and fearing the lower class, Matt wanted to volunteer in the barrios. He wanted to form relationships with the people who lived there, to learn about their way of life and to pass out food. He insisted that they were “just people, like everyone else,” and they weren’t nearly as harmful and threatening as all of our upper-class friends imagined them to be. Many of us at the office liked to attribute Matt’s stoic optimism to his Canadian nationality. We teased him about being the friendly, idealistic Canadian who wanted to remain neutral, advocating for peace between both sides. The more he spoke, the more confused I became. Was all of this fear of the lower class really necessary, or were we simply creating a Matrix-like situation where nothing was real, and everything was just the product of our own crazy imaginations?

Later that week, I was scheduled to give an English lesson at Banco de Venezuela, which was right near the capitol building and the presidential palace. It was in an area of town called Capitolio. When my roommate, Carla, asked where I was going, I told her Capitolio, and watched the fear slowly spread across her face.

“No,” she shook her head. “No go there. The people is very bad.”

“Pero, necessito trabajar,” I told her. “I must go to work in Capitolio.”

She sighed and looked at my silver, heart-shaped necklace. “Okay, No jewelry,” she said. She pointed directly at it, and then at the watch on my wrist, and repeated the words.

“Okay,” I agreed, “no jewelry.” I fumbled my fingers behind my neck, trying to find the clasp to unfasten my necklace, and then promptly slid the watch off my wrist. As I was leaving, I took a quick look at my jewelryless self in the mirror and felt an overwhelming sense of defeat.

Riding to work on the metro that day, I created my own little imagined rebellion—an experiment of sorts. I envisioned myself walking through the streets of Caracas with the fake Louis Vuitton purse that my friend Sara had picked up for me when she and her grandma were on a cruise through Southeast Asia. Sara had bought me a knock-off on the streets of Vietnam, and it looked exactly like the purse Jessica Simpson had been carrying in the 2004 season of The Newlyweds. After Jessica Simpson started toting it around town, the popularity of this specific purse skyrocketed. It was worth over $1,000 and there was a one-year waiting list just to buy one.

In my imaginary rebellion, I slung that purse over my shoulder and paraded around the streets proudly. And then I took out a fake digital camera and not only shot a bunch of photos, but also started waving it around for all the world to see. What if I actually did that? I thought. What if I conducted that little experiment in reality? Would I get mugged, would I get kidnapped, or would nothing happen at all?

There was so much fear here. Fear in Maru, as she sped through the city streets praying for green lights. Fear in Carla, as she strategically avoided certain parts of town and left her jewelry at home. Fear in my co-workers, as all the rumors started to spread and we had to decide what to make of them. Fear was in the coffee I drank and the air that I breathed and it was weighing me down—making me heavy.

The English lesson at Banco de Venezuela went well. Every time I stepped into an office I felt safe and secure. The atmosphere was bright and clean and happy. Some of the CEOs had secretaries who would bring me cappuccinos, and I would generally encounter a group of adult students who were eager to learn. The second I stepped out of the office, however, I felt instantly assaulted by the reality of where I was. The fear began to creep back in again.

I rode the metro home from Capitolio, tightly clutching my purse and feeling acutely aware of my naked left wrist that usually had a watch on it. I looked out the glass windows of the metro and saw the reflection of many faces staring back at me. I was the token blonde girl with light skin and blue eyes. I was a mystery to them, and I knew it. They wondered how I got here and what I was doing. It was obvious that I didn’t belong.

When I rode the escalator up from the lower depths of the metro station, my cell phone started to beep. I was approaching street level, and was back in the reception zone. There were two text messages from Cara and Matt, both telling me that everyone was going out for cheap Chinese food and drinks. I exited the metro station and walked past a Venezuelan man who was standing behind a juice cart. He started hissing at me in a very typical, Venezuelan way. It was their culture’s way of getting each other’s attention, and the way men liked to show appreciation for women. I was generally used to it, but it still sometimes creeped me out. I focused my eyes on a single spot in the distance, and kept on walking.

When I finally reached my apartment, the light was on in Carla’s room, but the door was closed. I thought about knocking on it, but remembered what a hassle it would be to try and communicate in broken Spanglish. I thought about joining my co-workers for cheap Chinese food, but didn’t have the energy to go back out there again—to brace the stares and the hissing and the paranoia of walking anywhere now that it was getting dark. Instead, I put my stuff on the floor, sat down on my bed, and finally let the tears flow that I had been holding in all week long.

I want to go home, I thought.

I was supposed to stay for eight months, and it had barely even been one. Could I really handle seven more months of this? The thought made me want to cry harder, but I didn’t want Carla to hear and be worried, so I laid my head down on my pillow and let it absorb the brunt of all the fears and sadness and confusion that was swirling around inside me.