Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The quest for codeine

Isa’s cough wasn’t going away, no matter how much cough syrup we threw at it. By the fourth day of a constant dry cough that wouldn’t let her sleep, we finally got a doctor on the job. We walked out of the clinic with a battery of anti-inflammatories, anti-biotics, and a cough suppressant called Codelasa. Trouble was pharmacies seemed to be just plain fresh out of that last remedy, which I started to suspect was the proverbial good stuff.

The first four letters should have tipped me off. Codelasa is the real deal. The medication that inspired a Beavis and Butthead episode about teenagers using cough medicine to get high.

Codelasa is codeine. And nobody had it.

Isa hadn’t slept in three days and was starting to lose it, increasingly feeling the urge to tear her own throat out.

It wasn’t until we got to the fourth pharmacy that someone explained why we weren’t finding this stuff. The prescription said Codelasa in tablet form, but the tablet form had been discontinued years earlier. The same medication was available in liquid form, but the pharmacy couldn’t sell that one to me. The controls on codeine were such that whatever they dispense had to exactly match the prescription.


I did a double take. An exact prescription required in Venezuela?

I spent enough time here to know that this was really weird. Controls on just about anything were trifling and easily overcome. Drunk driving fines can be erased for $100. Airport baggage handlers can renew a passport on a dime for $200. Doctors rewrite medical reports to get things paid for by insurance.

I used to joke around with people that in Caracas you could walk into a pharmacy and ask for valium and they’d hand it to you over the counter. I went in to one to find out if it was true. The attendant glared at me for a couple seconds, and finally said “What? Fifty milligrams or a hundred milligrams?” Turns out it wasn’t a joke. (Never much of a drugstore cowboy, I didn’t actually buy it.)

Maybe it’s a change, or maybe it’s just codeine, but the usual grab bag of Venezuela tricks wasn’t working. We went back to the clinic, got the doctor to change the prescription to say Codelasa in liquid. Another half hour later Isa had the bottle in hand. Hallelujah.

I’m glad to see Venezuela’s taking this stuff a bit more seriously, just lousy luck of the draw that it had to start happening while my wife was suffering the worst coughing fits of her life. You spend long enough in a place like Venezuela and the charm of being in a place with no rules starts to wear off. Once you start to realize that it sucks when nobody stops at stoplights, gets anywhere on time or does anything by the book. You start to see how societies corrode, how lives are compromised, how people die unnecessarily.

I’ll never forget a conversation with my friend Nestor about exactly this. Sure, he said, recognizing my boring North American institutionalist approach to getting things right. “But you have to admit,” he pointed out, “this anarchy is fun.”

His words rang through my head during our four-hour quest for cough suppressant, as I remembered the virtues of a system that does things the wrong way.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Venezuela’s explosive Christmas cheer

Ah, it’s that time of the year again. Exploding ear drums, cracked windows and constantly tripping car alarms. Christmas celebration is never complete in this country without “fireworks” that are often more accurately described as “explosives.” Happy holidays!

Imagine the juvenile obsession with fireworks that grips America in late June and early July, but without any of the rules about what can’t be set off where. It’s that adolescent instinct to find the most dangerous possible way to have fun, without a cranky adult coming along to tell everyone to cut it out and go home. Vendors on just about every corner, with no permit or license, are selling fireworks to adults, kids, teenagers, or anyone that can pay for them. And it’s not like in the United States people want the brightest colors and craziest designs that Chinese fireworks makers can come up. Here it’s just the bang. And it hurts the ear drums. It really does.

My mother-in-law’s neighbor Lenin a few years back into a competition with the guys on the block to see who could set off the loudest firecracker. That cracked the car window of a cousin who was parked on the block. He was pissed, and didn’t come back for a few days. Everyone thought the whole incident was really funny. Just about everyone.

“Eso siempre me ha parecido una diversion medio guevona,” said Isa’s uncle Freddy, commenting on what dumb way that was to have fun.

I remember the first December in Venezuela, 12 years ago, when I came to go backpacking with my brother. We went with some friends to a “patinata” outside of Caracas, where kids rode skateboards down a very steep hill, while sitting down or lying down. And the kids spiced up the event by sprinkling the place really loud firecrackers that had cute names like the matasuegra (mother-in-law-killer) or the tumbarancho (shack destroyer) which after 9/11 was dubbed the bin Laden. We pretty quickly learned to look around us every minute or so to make sure one of those things didn’t go off behind us, because it really did impair the hearing. An hour into the fun some kids decided to put an entire stack of them on top of a nearby transformer. They all went off at the same time, knocking out power on the entire block. We fled the scene of the crime.

“Go to a clinic right now and what you’ll find are kids with burned fingers,” one nurse told me at a party one December. Every year stories of explosions and fires and fireworks warehouses start popping up in the news. Then they go away, and come back again the next December.

A little over a week and the firecrackers get put away until next year. As usual, 2011 will end with a bang.