El Hilo: Stranded Venezuelans Walking Back From Ecuador During Pandemic : Rough Translation One man's mission to get hundreds of his fellow Venezuelans back home from Ecuador in a pandemic, even if it means walking all 1,300 miles. This story was originally reported for El Hilo, a new podcast from the makers of NPR's Radio Ambulante.

El Hilo: Walking To Venezuela

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You're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. For Mariana Zuniga, a reporter in Caracas, Venezuela, the images that arose in her Twitter feed back in March were disturbingly similar - always some nondescript stretch of highway, in the background maybe mountains, maybe fields. And on the road were streams of young men - sometimes women - walking.

MARIANA ZUNIGA: Well, I think the one that struck me the most was a young lady in the border of the road breastfeeding her child. She was using her luggage as a chair, and she looked exhausted. And you could see, like, a little bit blurry in the background of the picture, other people walking as well.

WARNER: They were walking from Peru and Colombia and Ecuador back home to Venezuela as jobs dried up because of the coronavirus.

ZUNIGA: And it was really weird to me to see these walkers - los caminantes, as we know them - doing this reverse journey.

WARNER: For the last five years, Mariana's been covering Venezuela's economic collapse and the largest modern exodus of people from any Latin American country. Millions of Venezuelans have fled to seek a better life. And now, because of the pandemic, she was watching the return trip. She learned about a large group of people in Ecuador who were just about to go home together, some of whom did not at all seem ready to walk 1,300 miles.

ZUNIGA: There were elders, people with disabilities, pregnant women.

WARNER: There was an 8-year-old child with a heart condition who could not walk long distances.

ZUNIGA: So her mother had to carry her in some sort of stroller...

WARNER: And the leader of this group was a 53-year-old food cart vendor who had promised to leave no one behind.

ORLANDO PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) I firmly believe that I'm not going to let them down. I know that everything's going to be fine. Everything's going to be fine.

ZUNIGA: He said, don't worry; we'll find a way. He was always motivating people.

WARNER: And how did this plan sound to you?

ZUNIGA: Insane - Yeah, I mean, insane. Every time I went to Google Maps and I thought the amount of miles he had to walk, it was crazy.


WARNER: I'm Gregory Warner. This is ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. Mariana first reported this story for El Hilo. It's a new Spanish-language podcast from our NPR colleagues at Radio Ambulante. And it's the story of one man, a former bureaucrat, who decides that he is going to be the one to get hundreds of Venezuelans back safely on this odyssey home and the guy who, just like Odysseus, completely miscalculates how long it's going to take and who's going to be on his side.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) I don't want to fail. I don't want to fail in something as simple as walking.

WARNER: And as we're airing this story, he's still trying to get home to his family. ROUGH TRANSLATION back after this break...


WARNER: We are back with ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. You could say this story begins with a coat of house paint. There's a New Year's tradition in Venezuela to repaint one's house every December. It's a holdover from when Venezuela was one of the richest countries in Latin America. Families had money for these sort of luxuries. Carolina Oropeza (ph) remembers the very first December that they did not have enough money for paint.

CAROLINA OROPEZA: (Speaking Spanish).

WARNER: Her husband, Orlando (ph), took it hard.

OROPEZA: (Speaking Spanish).

WARNER: Orlando Pimentel was a civil servant in Venezuela who had a lot of people working for him. He led an anti-corruption investigation unit. And the work itself could be frustrating. He'd collect all this evidence of corruption. No one would actually go to jail. So instead, Orlando put his creative energy into cooking.

ZUNIGA: He's some sort of foodie. And he loved food.

WARNER: Mariana says he loved not only planning the meals but serving them.

ZUNIGA: He's a person that you would invite to your house for dinner and he ends up taking the apron and taking the knife from you.


ZUNIGA: And you're like, ay, Orlando - yeah - I invited you.

WARNER: The economic crisis in Venezuela had started years before. But by 2016, the signs were obvious. There were shortages of almost everything and massive inflation, which meant that Orlando's salary stayed the same but the money bought less and less.

ZUNIGA: You see your salary becoming salt and water every month. And every week, you go to the supermarket, and prices gets up and up and up.

WARNER: Orlando and Carolina would ask themselves, should he leave and seek opportunity abroad as so many of their friends had done? So many professionals and teachers and other civil servants had gone to Peru or Colombia or Ecuador to find whatever work they could and send money home.

ZUNIGA: It was easy to see that the country was getting empty. Every night when you see out of the window and you see just a couple of lights in the building that is in front of you because the rest of the apartments are closed...

WARNER: Carolina was worried about him leaving. She'd read so many stories about xenophobia.

OROPEZA: (Speaking Spanish).

WARNER: ...A backlash to the flood of Venezuelan job-seekers.

OROPEZA: (Speaking Spanish).

WARNER: Orlando, she says, was not worried about xenophobia. She says he always only saw the good in people. But that was also her worry.

OROPEZA: (Speaking Spanish).

WARNER: He'd pay attention to others before paying attention to himself.

OROPEZA: (Speaking Spanish).

WARNER: Orlando says the reason he stayed so long was because he just loved Venezuela and he truly hoped that things would get better.

MARIANA ZUNIGAS: I think he was kind of resisting. He was coping. He was trying to say, OK, let's try to do this; let's try to find a second job. We call it matar tigres, which is doing a lot of small jobs in order to survive.

WARNER: Does this mean chasing tigers, or what was it?

ZUNIGAS: Yeah, it's - no, killing tigers.

WARNER: Why is it called killing tigers - 'cause it's so hard?

ZUNIGAS: I don't know where the expression comes from because it's not easy to kill a tiger in my opinion.


WARNER: OK - brief tangent here, but we kind of got obsessed with this expression, which at least one origin story traces all the way back to a blockbuster hit jazz tune from 1917 - the "Tiger Rag."


WARNER: It's a really hard song, but it was so popular that musicians were made to play it several times a night. So you'd get phrases like, they still haven't paid me for last month's tiger or I killed the tiger again last night. And from there, at least story goes, came the expression killing a tiger - doing something so hard that you have to do to pay the bills.


WARNER: Orlando's Tiger was selling candies, which he threw himself into. But as fast as he could earn more money, it was worth less and less. So finally, in September of 2019, Orlando sold his belongings to pay for a three-day bus ride to Ecuador. He ended up in the town of El Empalme.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) It's a rural town, a farming community.

WARNER: He starts working as a lumberjack.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) We worked Monday through Friday in the forest, 6:00 in the morning till 6:00, 5:00 in the afternoon. And we even got breakfast, lunch and dinner. Imagine that.


ZUNIGAS: He did mention that it was hard work but it was a good life despite everything - always saying that he could eat whatever he wanted, that every time he could, he cooked Venezuelan dishes for his fellows.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) So starting from Friday, we'd start thinking about what we were going to buy to cook for the whole weekend - any Venezuelan dish I could think of.

(Speaking Spanish).

WARNER: Now he was really killing tigers - logging trees with men half his age but earning enough to send money home and save some more. Then he got another plan. He'd buy a food cart, wheel it around the nearby city of Guayaquil. But Carolina, his wife, was nervous.

OROPEZA: (Speaking Spanish).

WARNER: She was worried that Orlando might be targeted by scam artists or by people angry at Venezuelans seeking work. So she told him to come home now. But in February, Orlando proudly sent her a photo - his new food cart.

ZUNIGAS: Shiny, silver fast food cart in order to prepare burgers and salchipapas, which is something that people eat in Ecuador as a fast food. And then the coronavirus arrives, and everything stops.

WARNER: And what did that mean? What did coronavirus look like in Ecuador?

ZUNIGAS: Well, in Ecuador, it was really difficult especially in Guayaquil, where he lived.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) If you want to know how people live here, it's unbelievable. Every time you go out and look to the sky, you see vultures circling.

ZUNIGAS: Guayaquil became, at that moment, kind of the epicenter of the virus in Latin America. And he specifically told me...

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) When a family member dies in your house, you can't keep the body inside, so you have to take it out to the yard because all the funeral homes are filled. They won't come pick it up because of whatever. It's unbelievable.

(Speaking Spanish).

WARNER: Orlando would record these voice memos and then send them back to Mariana.

ZUNIGAS: I said, listen. I would like you to think of this as an audio diary.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) Hey, Mariana. How are you? Do you know what is the best definition of how I'm doing here? Just like no one is listening to you - like I've been kidnapped.

WARNER: With the country shutting down and everyone stuck inside, there was no one to buy food from his cart. And his money was running out. He started to doubt ever having come to Ecuador in the first place. And then one sleepless night, he goes to Facebook and reads all these posts from other Venezuelans in the same boat - no jobs, far from home, no money to pay the rent and no one to help if they got sick.

ZUNIGAS: Oh, my God - I'm so overwhelmed. Things here are really tough. I really want to go home. It doesn't matter if it's walking.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) And that's how it all started.

WARNER: He helped to launch a group on WhatsApp called Let's Go Back Home - It's Time.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) My phone it's like a psychologist's couch. Every story that you hear - sick people, disabled people, people going hungry, people without a home, desperate people. Everyone is trying to leave. And they're all asking me - Orlando, what do we do?

ZUNIGAS: And if people put their trust on him, he is somebody that won't let them down.

WARNER: There was also a strategy here. If all of them stuck together as a group, he thought, they might have a better shot at getting help. Orlando writes a letter to the Venezuelan president, Nicolas Maduro, asking him to send a humanitarian flight to Guayaquil. Then he writes other politicians and the Ecuadorian government and the U.N. And he tries to start a social media campaign.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) And we haven't gotten any responses at all.

ZUNIGA: But one day - I remember it was the 15 of April. It was a Wednesday when he told me, listen, Mariana, we didn't make it. Like, nobody pay attention to us. So I think we have to walk.

WARNER: Two days later, they set off - 300 people leaving Guayaquil, leaving in groups of about 40 at a time. Orlando has filled his wheelie suitcase with canned tuna and cookies.

ZUNIGA: At the beginning, first, he sounded hopeful.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) Hey, Mariana. How are you? On Friday, at 9:00 in the morning, we left from the Guayaquil bus terminal to start this crazy adventure, hoping that the Ecuadorian government will show sympathy and at least provide us with some buses when they see that people are walking shoulder to shoulder on the highway. That is my hope.

WARNER: Orlando had not given up hope that someone would notice them.

ZUNIGA: Like, they would say, OK, these guys walking in the middle of the road - let's send some buses to help these poor people.

WARNER: In anticipation of this act of kindness, Orlando had ensured that everyone in this group was taking precautions to remain coronavirus-free. He gave people masks to wear and also gloves. Orlando had even gotten hold of a sort of hand pump sprayer, like you use in your garden, and he'd filled it with rubbing alcohol to use as a disinfectant.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) I'm going to send you a picture of what I bought to spray the group. Please don't laugh.

ZUNIGA: Yeah. He knew - we're going to meet a lot of people. We have to make them feel comfortable if they want to approach us and help us.

WARNER: At the end of Day 1, they've made it 16 miles.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) My feet can't take it anymore. It's terrible. And we still have so much left. We haven't even covered 0.1% of the routes. But we just have to keep going.

ZUNIGA: That area of the country - apparently, the weather is really hot.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) You're pulling your suitcase under that scorching sun. In the distance, you see the horizon and how much you have left, how much you still have left.

WARNER: By Day 3, he's not only exhausted; he's furious.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) On April 19, some pseudo-journalist from some unimportant Ecuadorian newspaper called El Comercio published a piece that, intentionally and out of ill will, put two unrelated stories together, thinking that with that, they would do damage to the image of Venezuelans in the eyes of Ecuadorians.

WARNER: A journalist for one of Ecuador's most popular newspapers had written a headline that implied that there were 22 cases of coronavirus among the walkers. But there were 22 cases among Venezuelans in Ecuador, not among Orlando's group.

ZUNIGA: Orlando got really, really mad about it because he said, now people are not going to help us and - people, like, starting to think that they were infected.

WARNER: At some point, it starts to rain, which wouldn't be a big deal except one woman in the group had recently had pneumonia.

ZUNIGA: So she couldn't walk under the rain because she was barely recovering.

WARNER: So Orlando has a decision to make - do they stick together as a group or split up?

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) Well, how are we doing? Hi. How are you, Mariana? Sorry.

WARNER: He's apologizing for forgetting his manners.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) We're doing OK. The group had to split up because some people fell behind, and I didn't want to leave them.

ZUNIGA: Others decided to continue, and he decided to stay with the - I know it sounds awful, but with the weaker group.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) So now there's five of us. The others went ahead and will get to Quito tonight at 9:00.

WARNER: Quito is the capital of Ecuador. It's about 270 miles from where he started the trip, more than a thousand miles to go.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) How am I? Tired. Exhausted. I don't know. I ask myself if all of this is necessary - everything from when I first arrived seven months ago, until now. Thanks for your concern.


WARNER: After six days of walking, Orlando finally arrives in the city of Quito to two pieces of good news. First, his group is quarantined in a shelter - so nicer quarters than they had before, with bunk beds and showers, even stoves to cook with. But the second piece of news is a speech by the Venezuelan president, Nicolas Maduro.



WARNER: He's sending humanitarian flights to wherever Venezuelans are to bring them back home. He says they'll, quote, "hug their families and help build a better Venezuela."


MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

WARNER: Here was the promise of help that Orlando had been waiting for, and none too soon. He and his group were still more than a thousand miles from Venezuela, and the road seemed even more precarious than when he'd begun. In Colombia, walkers were being pelted with rocks and beer cans. In Peru, another group of walkers who were sleeping by the road were run over by a passing truck. And since the borders were closed and people had to cross with smugglers, there were risks of being kidnapped.

OROPEZA: (Speaking Spanish).

WARNER: Carolina, his wife, says she was also relieved to hear about the flights. And then Orlando goes to register on a list at the Venezuelan Consulate.

PIMENTEL: (Speaking Spanish).

WARNER: Seventeen thousand Venezuelans in Quito had signed up to be repatriated by air.

ZUNIGA: Actually, the Venezuelan government did send two flights to Quito.

WARNER: Two flights for 17,000 people. Only two people from Orlando's group made it on board; the rest never had a chance.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) We are here waiting, waiting for the flights to start up again, for them to call us and all that. And we're still in the shelter.

WARNER: Of Orlando's original group of 300, two had flown home, others hung around to see about the flights, but many of the others never even stopped in Quito; they just kept walking, everyone finding their own way, at their own pace, which meant that Orlando's original plan - that they'd stick together, shoulder to shoulder in the road, in hopes that someone would notice them - that seemed more far-fetched. He told Mariana that the gray walls of his shelter started to feel more like a jail cell. And still, day after day, he reassured the group and his wife back home that they'd just get on the next flight; they were almost home.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) What else can I do to calm them down besides asking them to be a little bit more patient, at least until these governments agree on a plan of action for this complicated situation?

WARNER: Part of that complicated situation had to do with the pandemic. The number of cases of coronavirus in Venezuela was rising as more Venezuelans had returned, and the government was openly blaming the spike in cases on them.

ZUNIGA: The government, they were saying that they were biological weapons sent to destroy Venezuela.

WARNER: So even as Orlando's group were counting the days, waiting for their flight home, home was feeling less and less welcoming.

ZUNIGA: Then the Venezuelan Consulate in Quito suddenly announced that those were the only flights.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) They suspended the flight without any explanation - nothing - until further notice. It's really frustrating. I want to be done with this, once and for all. I think what's happening with the flights is a joke. It's the kind of political propaganda that we're used to and sick of. I've seen it all throughout my life, and I've seen it a lot.

WARNER: In his work as a civil servant investigating corruption for the government of Venezuela, Orlando and his team could spend months building a single case, gathering all the evidence of corruption, packaging it up for the prosecution. But time and again, not much ever came of these investigations. This time, he'd organized all these people, identified them, collected them as a group and brought them to Quito. All he'd hoped for from the government was one extra airplane to take them home.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) I think that I failed, and I don't want to. I don't want to fail. I don't want to fail in something as simple as walking - walking and getting home.


WARNER: ROUGH TRANSLATION - back after this break.


WARNER: We are back with ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner.

While Mariana was recording the epic journey of Orlando's way home, she was also reading another epic - a literal epic by the Greek poet Homer about Odysseus, who after fighting the Trojan war heads back home on a trip that's supposed to take a few weeks, but ends up taking 10 years. But as Mariana noticed, that epic does not begin with the story of the war hero trying to find his way home; in fact, Odysseus doesn't even show up properly until Book 5. It begins with the story of his wife and his son at home, trying to keep the throne safe for his return.

Carolina, waiting for Orlando back in Caracas, tells us some nights she was sick with worry, but she vowed to herself never to remind her Odysseus that she told him not to get that food cart and that she told him to come home earlier.

OROPEZA: (Speaking Spanish).

WARNER: Instead, she keeps it positive - no discouraging words.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) She's always sending me photos of the cat that I have over there. His name is Lalo. He's a crazy cat. This is what gives me comfort.

WARNER: She tells him, when you arrive, you're going straight to the shower and then quarantining at home.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) She's already prepared the room with plastic for my quarantine. I mean, yeah, of course, I won't be able to leave or even see my cat for a month.

WARNER: She had the house ready, she said. She'd already got the computer downstairs, where he's going to be staying.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) She's excited. But, yeah, also very worried.

WARNER: And so almost three weeks from when he arrives in Quito, with no new flights on the horizon, Orlando sets off again, now on the road with a smaller group. And this time, he is done waiting for help from the government.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) I was telling the group the other day that we were returning to the same Venezuela we left. But it's really one that's worse - more irresponsible, more broken. Yet here I am, full of energy. And, you know, I'm always pushing ahead with everything I've got and, step by step, to overcome every obstacle in my way. as long as I've got my cat and Carolina by my side, I think I can do this.


ZUNIGA: So they left Quito, and they started walking.

WARNER: Wheeling his suitcase along the road, 130 miles to the border with Colombia.

ZUNIGA: And as expected, the border was closed. So at some point, they did something they never wanted to do, which is paying a coyote to cross through the illegal path.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) Hi, Mariana. How are you? Well, look - this trail was crazy. I almost died of exhaustion and stress. I mean, you go down a mountain, and the path is really slippery. If you fall, you fall in a river. I mean, unbelievable. But I'm now at the station in Ipiales.

WARNER: At Ipiales in Colombia, there are buses running - nothing official, just private buses. But all of the money that the group had they've handed off to the smuggler, and they can't afford the bus fare.

ZUNIGA: So they had to camp there in the bus terminal in Ipiales for 16 days.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) Hi, Mariana. No, I'm still in Ipiales. We have not been able to leave.

WARNER: Meanwhile, he's getting happy messages on that WhatsApp group from people in the original group of 300 who have made it home, including - by the way - the 8-year-old with the heart condition in the stroller; she's also made it back. In fact, of the original group, Orlando is now camping in that bus terminal with just five other people.

ZUNIGA: He introduced me to everybody, and he sent me pictures. Everybody had some kind of a role.

WARNER: The youngest of them is 12 years old. He calls her the singer of the group. She's with her mother, Rosalyn. There's another guy who's a barber. There's a cellphone technician. And, of course, Orlando is the cook, preparing whatever food they can find over an improvised fire. But when people on the WhatsApp group who've already returned home hear that Orlando is stuck behind, they send money for his bus fare. And then he asks them to raise money for everyone in the last of this group, and that's how they finally get back to Venezuela.


ZUNIGA: I asked him if it was hard to say goodbye. And he said, yeah, you don't know how hard it is.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) In regards to the farewell, listen - today has been rough. Rosalyn and her daughter have left, and that impacted me a lot.

WARNER: Orlando began this trip thinking that there was strength in numbers, that they should stick together so a government or an organization would notice them and offer help. And in the end, he wasn't wrong; there was strength in numbers. He just hadn't expected that the help they'd get would be from each other.

ZUNIGA: And yeah, he said that Rosalyn mentioned to him that it's amazing that you started this whole party and now you're the one collecting the cups and piling up the chairs.

PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) It's ironic. I was the one who started this whole thing, and now I'm the last one. It's just kind of amazing.


WARNER: As we go to air with this podcast, Orlando has made it to Caracas, his hometown. But he's confined to a quarantine center 15 minutes from home.

OROPEZA: (Speaking Spanish).

WARNER: Carolina tells us she doesn't just want to see him, and she doesn't want to kiss; all she wants is one hug, to know that he's real.


WARNER: This story was originally reported by Mariana Zuniga for the "El Hilo" podcast from Radio Ambulante Studios. "El Hilo" covers one big news story from Latin America each week. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts at "El Hilo." That's E-L H-I-L-O.

Today's show was produced by Derek Arthur and Tina Antolini. Our editor is Lu Olkowski. Special thanks to Sana Krasikov, Robert Krulwich and Daniel Alarcon. Translation and voiceover work by Elias Gonzalez and Adriana Morga. The ROUGH TRANSLATION executive team is Neal Carruth, Didi Schanche, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann. Mastering by Isaac Rodrigues. John Ellis composed music for our show. Additional Music from Blue Dot Sessions. And the version of the "Tiger Rag" you heard was recorded by Quintette du Hot Club de France, featuring Django Reinhart and Stephane Grapelli.

If you'd like more stories like this in your podcast feed, give us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps other people find the show. And please send us your story ideas. We love to hear from listeners all around the world, including in the United States, because you can have ROUGH TRANSLATION moments wherever you are. So please drop us a line at roughtranslation@npr.org. We're on Twitter at @roughly. I'm Gregory Warner. We're going to take a short summer holiday and set up for our fall season. We'll be back right after Labor Day with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.


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