"I have a mango tree ... This tree is currently saving my life, but might also get me killed soon."
That's Busteq. He's a middle-class Venezuelan who lives in a nice neighborhood. In short, he's a lot like many of you, except his country (which has more oil than any other nation on earth) saw its currency go tits-up when gas got super cheap last year. This, combined with almost comical levels of government corruption, has brought their civilization to the brink of collapse.
We're barely exaggerating there. Venezuela is now facing the kind of food shortages that mean Busteq and his neighbors are essentially living through the first five minutes of a zombie apocalypse movie. At that time, Busteq probably didn't give much thought to his two mango trees -- the same as how you don't spend much time thinking about whether your windows can keep out the undead.
But the accouterments of modern civilization fell away piece by piece, beginning with marauding gangs of criminals. "They took everyone's phone, so no one carries a phone anymore." Then, wild animals started appearing. "People abandon[ed] their pets because they could not feed them ... starting first with exotic pets, like [monkeys], then everyone starts dumping their dogs near that park. If you go today to that park, you can find around 30 dogs that were just left there. They formed a pack. A swarm of dogs ... 30-40 dogs. The people around the community are taking care of the dogs [now], but at some point, it will probably spiral out of control."
Some might say the "packs of dogs" stage is when things are already out of control. This is a particularly bad sign because there's not a wide gap between "people can't feed dogs" and "people can't feed people" -- food riots weren't far behind. Busteq, a middle-class guy, estimates he lost 10 pounds in a few months. He would've lost much more if not for those two mango trees. One's in his front yard, near the street, while the other's in the back.
Somehow, in a country with more oil than a Saudi king, this is what wealth looks like.
The mangoes on Busteq's trees are essentially worth infinity Venezuelan dollars, because during the worst of it earlier this summer, you couldn't buy food. "I'm not talking about the poor people; I'm talking about middle-class people starving to death. It's happened to me somewhat. And I live in the capital. So I am having the easiest time of them all."
When the cash in your wallet becomes worthless, the ability to grow (or steal) food is basically the only thing that matters.
That and fridge space. Fridge space always matters.
Next came the beggars. "At first, the people knocked ... they come and they beg ... 'I haven't eaten in a while. If you could share some mango with us?' ... and you could gladly give them some, because by that point, it wasn't as bad as it would be around a month later."
Busteq took to stocking his freezer with the best mangoes and giving away the bad ones to the needy. But as the crisis worsened, "starved, desperate people started roaming the neighborhood." The first of those people to try to steal Busteq's mangoes was "a guy with his daughter. He jumped my wall. And he climbed it and stood on top ... It was not a wall built for keeping intruders away. He starts taking the fruit directly from the tree."
Much like anticipating that a tree will save your life, no one expects that the wall around their house needs barbed wire until it's too late.
The would-be fruit thief was caught by Busteq's mom, who shouted bloody murder until the daughter, terrified that her dad was about to be shot, begged him to leave. The next mango raid was more successful. Teenagers crafted a crude mango-stealing tool ("basically a stick with a rope at the end") and purloined many of the fruit. Another thief decided that the best mangoes were probably in Busteq's house and tried to break in. He was stopped by a neighbor and their local security guard.
"At that point, I am basically starving to death. My food consists of mostly mangoes. And at six in the [evening], I get in line for bread. This bread will cost me half a dollar, and that's what my food for the day will be."
The Photographer/Wikimedia Commons
It's not like you can just pop down to the grocery store anymore.
This, Busteq explained, is when the more professional criminals got into the mango game (stealing cars and iPhones isn't as lucrative when you're starving). They planned an Oceans 11-style fruit heist, and it worked. "So one day, a truck comes in carrying around five people. These five people get down off the truck, they climb my wall and begin shaking my tree. And they take every single mango left from that tree. And they drop them into the truck and take them away."
Busteq was lucky, in that he had the second mango tree in his backyard, not vulnerable to this kind of drive-by harvest and out of sight of starving strangers roaming around looking for something, anything, to eat. This, however, meant they would descend on the homes of other fruit tree owners in the neighborhood.
Who could've guessed a carelessly discarded fruit pit would one day need to be defended like the fucking Alamo.
"One of the neighbors realized there are like seven people in the yard of his house and comes out screaming. In the meantime, the guard of this [neighborhood] notices ... and decides it's not his fucking problem, and he runs. So the women begin screaming, and several neighbors come out, including myself. So one person had like an airsoft gun, and he begins flying around pretending it's a real gun. And he says something like, 'What the fuck's going on?' Acting all brave, trying to scare the people stealing mangoes."
It worked that time, but the guys with real guns weren't far behind. "Another neighbor two blocks away still has his mangoes. He tells me his two children were downstairs playing with a computer, and two guys on a bike came in. One points his gun and says, 'Open up the door, we want the mangoes!' ... The children try to run, and the guy shouts from the back, "Who do you think is faster, the bullets or you?'"
That incident ended without a loss of life, thankfully. And over the last month or so, Busteq's personal financial situation has improved somewhat ("The country is going down faster [than] ever," he adds). The mango season's just ended for this year, and the banditry with it, but Busteq is well aware that next mango season will bring the bandits back, hungrier and perhaps more violent than before. So he's armed himself:
"Harvest at your own risk."
Never forget that no matter who you are or where you live, you're never that far away from having to defend your dwindling food with a crossbow.
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