Off to Caracas, Venezuela

Published 6:00 am Sunday, December 13, 2015

By Joanne Wilkinson

Home and Abroad

When I was a teenager I developed a fascination for seeing the world. My goal was to visit every single country in the world and to meet people from as many different cultures as I could.

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I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher, so it seemed ideal to combine the two goals of traveling and teaching. Most overseas jobs required two years of teaching, so I was lucky to get a job in the Buffalo Public School System. I taught there for two years and also went to summer school and night school to get my Master’s Degree in Education.

To find a job, I bought a book called “Teaching Jobs Overseas.” The book was really useful as it listed schools all over the world, and described the curriculum and the type of school.

My criteria when applying to a school was that the country had to sound exotic, and it was even better if I did not know where the place was and had to look it up on a map. I applied to Nepal, Madagascar, Bolivia, Peru, Bhutan, Ghana and about 20 other weird sounding places. All of my applications were done by mail as this all happened way before the Internet or email had been invented.

Somehow I got the job

A few schools wrote back expressing an interest, but the school in Venezuela actually wrote to say that the principal would come to the Buffalo Airport and interview me. To prepare for this important interview I had my long hair cut to my shoulders, and made the huge mistake of getting a permanent. The perm backfired and my hair went skyward into a Marge Simpson disaster. On the day I met the principal it was really windy so I had to hold onto the huge tangled mass on top of my head to control it as I blew through the airport doors.  Despite my extremely odd hairstyle and my nervousness, I was offered a job to teach fourth grade. I was delighted.

I was told that I could bring two suitcases with me as well as two large cardboard boxes. I was going to be placed in a furnished apartment, but would need sheets, towels, a pillow, and of course, my teaching materials. I loaded up the two suitcases with clothes and chocolate (I did not know if I could buy chocolate in Caracas). The cardboard boxes were filled with all the other necessities.

I flew from Buffalo to New York City where I had to get a visa at the Venezuelan Embassy. All went smoothly and the next day I found myself on a plane going through Miami to Caracas. When we are young (I was 23), we do not seem to have any fear of the unknown. Not for one minute did I feel nervous or think about the things that could go wrong.

I was met at the airport by the principal and his wife. The airport is on the coast, and Caracas itself is located on the other side of a mountain range in a beautiful valley.

They drove me to my apartment, which was in a high rise, and I was on the top floor. My roommate, Judy, was also a fourth-grade teacher who had already been at the school for a few years. We ended up becoming very good friends, and sharing many adventures together.

Chili or popcorn for dinner

The apartment had gorgeous views over the valley. At night we could sit on our little balcony and see the lights of Caracas all around us. The view in the daytime was beautiful too. We did not have any air conditioning in the apartment and we did not need it. Caracas is about 3,000 feet above sea level, and we always had a breeze coming through the open windows of our apartment. There were no bugs either, I guess because we were up high enough. All of the teachers lived in the same apartment block so there was always someone to go to for help or just to talk.

Neither Judy nor I cooked very much, but Judy made chili, which we had almost every week, and she also made wonderful apple pie. I made good popcorn and always had some chocolate ice cream in the freezer so we did not starve. Going out to eat was very inexpensive and the food was excellent.

Just at the corner of our street there was a small restaurant that specialized in steaks cooked over an open fire accompanied by fresh avocado salads. A meal cost $3.

A big supermarket called Cada was right around the corner from the apartment and my first trip there was an experience as I did not know Spanish and had to buy things based on the photos on the labels. I did manage to find the most delicious chocolates in a small bag and became addicted to them.

I realized that learning Spanish was a priority so I signed up for night school classes. Listening to Venezuelan TV helped me learn some words too. I remember watching the TV show “Dallas” dubbed in Spanish, which sounded so odd.

Soon it was time for the first day of school, which I will tell you about the next time I write.

Joanne Wilkinson is an Oxford resident and can be reached at