Penélope Cruz in espadrilles, carrying a red tote, and wearing hoops in the 1992 Spanish film "Jamón, Jamón."
When I was detained for my "petty crime," I was sitting on a packed bus, heading south from Caracas to Ciudad Guayana, which is some nine hours south of the Venezuelan capital over land.
I was working as a bilingual journalist at The Daily Journal, and was on my way to interview an executive who was overseeing the development of several metallurgical companies. My editor had asked me to write a series of feature stories about heavy-metal mining, and how the industry fit into the future of oil-rich Venezuela. At the time, Ciudad Guayana, which sits at the confluence of the Orinoco and Caroní rivers, was held up as a shining example of Venezuelan progress.
The details I remember about that trip are funny. I was wearing one of those sleeveless New Wave sheath dresses that were popular in the 1980s, matching, striped espadrilles, and large, white hoop earrings.
OK. In retrospect, maybe my outfit was a bit flashy, form-fitting and matchy-matchy, but, back then, I had youthful curves to show off, and I was living in the tropics, where everyone was body-conscious.
All I carried was a plastic red tote that held my wallet with my Venezuelan identity card and several hundred Bolívares in cash; a Nikon camera; a tape recorder; several cassette tapes and reporter’s notebooks; and a few pens. My sunglasses sat on my head. Obviously, in tech time, it was eons before the advent of gadgets that make reporters' jobs easier today: the Internet, digital recorders and cameras, Facebook, Twitter, and Google apps, laptops, iPods, iPhones, and iPads. It was an era when most of the world lived off the grid, and when things happened to you, you could wait for hours, days, and even months to tell your story.
A few hours earlier, I had kissed my English anthropologist boyfriend goodbye wistfully, feeling sad that we’d be separated for several days as I worked on assignment. But I was also looking forward to being on my own for awhile, getting out of Caracas, and seeing a few old friends who lived in "the interior," where I had resided for six years.
The bus departed from Caracas uneventfully, though I did notice that it seemed to be bursting at the seams with women. In fact, the only men on the bus were the portly driver, who smoked and swayed through traffic, and a quiet man sitting next to me, wearing aviator sunglasses, a canvas jacket and a Lacoste polo shirt.
As we made our way to the main coastal highway that would drive us east along the Caribbean toward Barcelona before veering south, I noticed that the women on the bus were young and gregarious, and talked excitedly about their trip to Ciudad Guayana, and points south, near the Brazilian border. As we settled into the trip, the quiet man next to me began talking to me, and immediately noticed my accent. The eye tricks the mind, and because I look Latina, Latin Americans inevitably try to place my accent when they hear me speak Spanish.
“Where are you from?” he asked immediately.
I gave him my standard response. “Guess.”
“No,” I blurted, laughing at the absurdity that South Americans actually entertained the idea that I was from Japan, and not the United States. I have almond-shaped eyes, but I don't look Asian.
“Soy gringa,” I teased. “I’m American.”
On cue, his eyes widened, he looked me up and down, and shook his head in confusion. You see, Latin Americans (at least back in the 1980s) are as myopic in their stereotypes of U.S. citizens as Americans are of them. Because of the images perpetuated by Hollywood, Latin Americans believe all Americans are tall, blond and blue-eyed. They can’t wrap their brains around the notion of someone being Latino and American.
Soon, the man’s questions took on a sense of urgency: Why are you on this bus today? Where are you going? What will you do when you get there? Where did you buy your ticket? Who dropped you off?
I had been living in Venezuela for eight years, and was used to the overt friendliness and inquisitiveness of Venezuelans. By then, I had shed the “personal space” shield ingrained in all of us in the United States, whether we recognize it or not. I had gone native, and his probing questions didn’t bother me as much as they might bother me now that I have returned to American life, where such questions are considered rude.
I told him I was a journalist on my way to an interview, and he seemed surprised by my answer. Again, he looked me up and down. Then he leaned in closer and whispered, “I’m a police detective,” as he opened his coat quickly and flashed a badge. I don't remember a sidearm.
“Everyone on this bus is a prostitute," he said, adding politely, "except for you, of course.”
“They are heading to the gold-mining camps near the border. If the bus stops, just do as you are told," he told me conspiratorially.
I don’t remember much else about our conversation after that revelation. I remember turning around and glancing at the women around me, and wondering how the detective knew about them. Who had arranged their trip? How much money did they expect to make? How often did they make the trip south to provide lonely gold miners with company when they weren't toiling in open-pit mines that looked like something out of Dante's Inferno on the edge of the Amazon?
A few hours later, our bus rolled into Ciudad Bolívar, just a few hours away from our final destination. We drove over the city’s iconic Puente Angostura, a suspension bridge that spans the Orinoco River, and came to a stop at a road check. We were all ordered to exit. I grabbed my wallet, but left my tote with everything else in it.
As I stepped off the bus, an armed guard ordered me to put my hands on my head, and line up with all of the other “ladies” standing near the bridge. I put my wallet on the ground between my feet, and complied with his orders. As I stood there, with my fingers laced on my head, my espadrilled feet spread wide, I watched as the other women filed out of the bus and followed suit, grumbling the entire way.
With our hands on our heads, our elbows akimbo, and our feet spread apart, we looked like a chain of paper women stretched wide.
Through the windows, I saw one of the women rifling through my tote, her face grimacing in disgust as she rejected my tape recorder, notepads and other journalist’s accoutrements one by one. She stepped off the bus in a hurry, casting disparaging glances my way. Back in Colorado, we called those looks from other girls “crusties.”
The guard went down the line checking each woman’s identification, ordering some of the women to step aside. I can only imagine that they were being arrested for high crimes and misdemeanors of the shady kind.
Along with several of the other women, I was allowed to get back on the bus to complete my journey. I had dodged what would have been my only arrest of any kind, petty or not, anywhere.
A few hours later, I made it to Ciudad Guayana, where I completed my assignment, and my friends teased me about “the gringa reporter who almost got arrested for prostitution on the Orinoco.”
Years later, I got thrown out of a Denver pub for "soliciting" while I tried to interview the general manager of the Denver Nuggets while he had lunch. Another time a court administrator threatened to have me arrested for trying to use a court telephone to phone in a verdict.
A neighbor slammed a door in my face as I tried to interview her on the first anniversary of JonBenét Ramsey's death; and a clutch of fellow reporters nearly crushed me as I kneeled in the snow, nearly nine months pregnant, at a media briefing outside a federal post office during a hostage standoff.
It hasn't always been easy being a girl reporter, but it's been interesting. Well, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.