One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.

For the past decade, I’ve had this recurring nightmare.

It involves concrete apartment structures hundreds and hundreds of stories tall and one city block wide. I’m usually stuck on one of the top floors, which are so high in the sky that small communities complete with little stores and schools have been established up there. Rickety walkways strung from windows connect the buildings so the tenants don’t have to make the journey down and back up hundreds of flights of stairs to get to another building, and the only splash of color in this scene comes from laundry strung out and drying in the wind.

What inspired this nightmare?

Two nights spent in Caracas, Venezuela well over a decade ago.

Two nights spent in Caracas, Venezuela well over a decade ago inspired a nightmare.

When plans to attend a dear college friend’s wedding (he a good Catholic boy from Wisconsin, she a sprightly petite Venezuelan girl) in Merida, Venezuela were cancelled due to an oil strike that brought Venezuela to a standstill, we made plans to use our plane ticket before our credit expired (we were way too poor at the time to ever let that happen). So together with another couple, my now-husband and I ignored the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory and made our way down to Venezuela.

Once there, we had to spend one night Caracas before we could board a small puddle jumper to Margarita Island and that experience has haunted me ever since.

But Margarita Island - and a week at the beach - was the final destination.

But Margarita Island – and a week at the beach – was the final destination.

To understand the allure of Margarita Island, simply look at a map. Located quite close to Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba and Grenada, Margarita Island is well known for its amazing year-round weather. And it’s cheap. Beer for less than $1US, hotel rooms for US$15 per night and all-day service on the beach costs less than US$20.  For poor just-out-of-college travelers like us, this was exactly what we needed; warm weather, the beach and cheap food and drink.

But even a decade ago the island had an eerie feeling that is difficult to put into words. Like any tropical island, the outward vibe was calm and relaxed. But there was something sinister underneath. In the haze of warm weather, ocean air and cheap Polar beer, I remember plastic bags lilting in the breeze, having escaped from the island dump, pit bulls roaming the beach, and even the standard third-world country safety measure of broken glass atop concrete security walls that enclosed most posadas seemed more ominous here.

Too much time has passed for me to be able to offer any advice on how to best navigate Caracas or offer tips on the best places to eat on Margarita Island. My only thoughts include sadness for a country that should by all accounts be great. Blessed with oil, a rich and colorful culture and a mind-blowing amount of natural diversity including the tallest waterfall in the world, the mountains of Merida and of course the pristine Caribbean beaches, Venezuela should be a great country. But it’s in shambles.

“One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.”

This quote by Rita Mae Brown offers the best perspective on my experience traveling in Venezuela. While the memories are not all good (and for the record they are not all bad either), they have been the key to a vast amount of happiness in my life. A few short months after this trip I was given then opportunity of a lifetime to head up marketing for a major tourist board, an opportunity that led me down a very rewarding path building a career in the travel industry. In accepting this position I was marketing travel to a country that was under Travel Warning by the U.S. Government, a decision that I was only bold enough to make after my experience in Venezuela.

Traveling to a country where things aren’t always picture perfect makes “danger” tangible.

And in most cases it's not as bad as one might think when looking at the situation from afar.

And in most cases it’s not as bad as one might think when looking at the situation from afar.

So yes, one of the keys to happiness most certainly is a bad memory.

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