My image of Venezuela involved palm trees, Cuban type music, beaches, beautiful girls from “Miss World”, and men who looked like Antonio Banderas – Caracas is far removed from this. Driving in from the airport it looked quite nice, set in a long, green mountainous valley. However having been here 3 days now, apart from the odd glance up at the green mountains I am sorry but I have to sum it up as a bit of a hole! Venezuela appears to be similar to Brazil in that there is a massive gap between rich and poor. We are staying in the wealthy suburb of Altamira, where brand new SUV’s mix with beautifully dressed people and flashy restaurants. The apartment blocks are ugly but are completely gated in by 50ft electronic fences – security is obviously big on the agenda. Our hotel had an armed guard. The largest shopping mall in South America is here, called “SamBil”, a blur of designer labels and roof top restaurants with a waterfall down the front. Whilst the SamBil mini-society enjoys this “temple of consumerism”, a couple of miles down the road most Venezuelans are way too poor to afford any luxuries at all. Much of Caracas’s suburbs are a long sprawl of slums which climb up the sides of the valley around the city. Unemployment is high and gunfights are common, apparently, but you would never know this from being in Altamira or driving in from the airport along the highway where there are hundreds of billboards advertising luxury consumer products. Next to these billboards are long boards with “Say No to contraband and piracy” painted on them and “Contribute to our economy: pay your taxes”. I find this all very interesting: clearly the people of Venezuela aspire to consumerism but according to the President, Chavez, this country is on a path towards socialism. I read in the paper that he said “It’s bad to be rich; you need simply to be useful”. In a desperate bid to close the gap between the rich and the poor here he is urging people to stop worrying about what clothes they are wearing and what cars they drive and donate their personal wealth to the country. Meanwhile downtown Caracas is full of nasty, run down buildings, pollution and endless market stalls. Very strangely, amidst all this chaos there is just one lovely colonial square (Bolivar Plaza)with pristine white buildings, a park and an ornate theatre. You have to wonder if you are in the same city! This is definitely the city where I have felt most threatened so far. Apparently it has one of the highest murder rates in the world. We had been told not to walk round the centre at night but that Altamira is safe. One night we emerged from an internet cafe in an area near the centre and felt people staring at us, or more specifically at our bags. We had to leg it to a taxi and even that is dodgy as many taxis stick a “taxi” sign on top of their car but are fakes and tourists get robbed. So far so good, touch wood, but I did catch a woman with her hand in the front pocket of my bag whilst getting on a very crowded underground train! Thankfully SamBil is very near our hotel, and continuing our “Tour of South America´s shopping Centres” (I think I will be able to write a book about the Shopping Malls of this continent when we get back!) we spent many hours wandering around it. I am always surprised how happy I am to just wander around these massive centres, they are oasis´s in the midst of choatic, dangerous cities. Even though we can´t afford to buy anything I can spend hours just looking at the shiny new shops and marvelling at how clean and modern everything is. The weirdest thing about Caracas is that we haven’t seen a single other foreign tourist since being here. Maybe they are all locked in their hotel rooms too scared to come out!