This is the last installment of the Bogotá/Caracas trilogy. I’m now back home in Florida, and between getting settled, resting up, seeing friends and family, and fighting with Blogger over video uploads, I’ve slacked up on the blog. Sorry, y’all.
Here’s video of Saturday night’s Brazilian do, with Big G handling the ladies.
As I typically wake up every weekday morning at 6am for school, I woke up late on Sunday: 6:30. Bad idea. As typical of Latin America, even in a capital city of almost five million people, everything within walking distance of the Hotel Harmony was shuttered with metal roll-down barriers. Even McDonald’s was closed; some pancakes would have hit the spot right then and possibly weighed the stomach and eyelids down enough for a quick pre-lunch nap. No dice. I ate a couple of stale ham and cheese pastries at a dusty li’l luncheonette on the corner and straggled back to the room under the increasing heat with day-old clothes, the desire but not the ability to sleep, and a vacuous hole in my social schedule, since no one in the whole damn city was sure to be up before noon.
Around ten, I caught the bus to Latin America’s largest mall, Sambil, thinking that it’d be open, since shopping is Venezuela’s most popular sport after baseball. Wrong. I headed back toward the hotel via Sabana Grande, another bargain basement retail district with bootleg DVDs and knock-off handbags. Some of the stores were just opening, and because of my tremendous shopping fubar in Bogota a few days before, I was in dire need of a couple more shirts and some jeans. All the stores featured t-shirts in Foreign English—”Look Me,” “Red Knorth Crazy,” “Nigth’s Gangsta”—phrases that I couldn’t even remotely pass off as intentionally ungrammatical or witty. For all my love of the varied permutations of vernacular English, I’m a purist when it comes to indecipherable gibberish and my wardrobe. Finally, the mall opened, I had lunch (Wendy’s) and spoke to George on the phone, who was involucrado for most of the day, inspiring me to investigate the prospects for my own afternoon of being involucrado. Involucrado‘s how you want to spend an lazy afternoon in Caracas, trust me.
Later, I hooked up with G and Alaa and Alaa’s brothers for little hookah (me, no) and some political convo: they look at Chavez pragmatically, saying that he’s done many good things in addition to being a major fuck-up (and Alaa is a merchant and businessman, of a class directly opposed to the Venezuelan president) and are resigned to taking the bad with the good. They lamented the increase in street crime and ridiculous cost-of-living increases (renting a room in the capital now costs damn near US$700 a month!) and I lamented the near impossibility of living comfortably in Caracas as a foreign teacher who’d only make about $1400 a month at the most prestigious school. We compared the country to Colombia, their neighbor and my former home, and we acknowledged Colombia’s superior system of education and (truly) stronger governmental institutions, while giving Venezuela the edge in social interaction and open-ness—with the odd exception of Cuba, no other country in Latin America comes as close to Brazil as Venezuela does in terms of genuine warmth and friendliness on all levels, regardless of skin-tone or nationality; I never, ever remember receiving shade of any kind after four trips to the country. After a late night street hot dog (which in Venezuela means keeling over with ketchup, mustard, mayo, lettuce, onions, potato chips, and pineapple sauce), I crashed from the fatigue of two relatively sleepless nights.
Monday meant scrambling for last-minute souvenirs and t-shirts emblazoned with symbols of the city (Indiani, baby), and I had lunch with the fellas before Alaa’s brother, Jamal, offered to take me on his scooter to catch the airport shuttle bus. On the way, we were stopped by CCSPD for riding without helmets. I went “gringo,” pretending that I didn’t understand Spanish and speaking only English (luckily, Jamal had lived in Chicago for a while, so the bit worked). He did get a $200 ticket (sorry, dude), then they let us head on off to the shuttle stop, helmet-free, suitcase, and all. Ghetto fabuloso.
Here’s some raggedy raw footage of the getaway, including some typical tropical driving techniques and my own Spanish commentary (still don’t know how to add music to my movies yet; the theme song would have been “Guaio a Caracas” by Paul and Mark…can anyone help with this?). More photos forthcoming.
Flying to Caracas last Saturday, I sat next to a woman with a facemask who seized into a death cringe every time someone coughed lightly from a speck of dust. It wasn’t until I walked through the airport terminal in Venezuela that I realized the code-red-style measures transport authorities were taking in light of the A1H1400tothe17thpowertimes84≠3.14∞ virus, though the facemasks and surgical gloves worn in South America looked absolutely wimpy next to the full-body toxic waste suits the officials wear in Asian airports.
My good buddy Jorge/George (used interchangeably), who I met on my first trip to the Venezuelan capital in ’04, pressed his friend Alaa to scoop me from the airport in his tiny, dark blue Fiat with opaque, dark-boy window tinting I hadn’t seen since it was outlawed in Florida in the 80s. Three big-ass dudes piled into the thing (I’m 6’1, George is like 6’4, so I got the backseat), and we snaked down the freeway, through tunnels and past hills blanketed with the reddish constructions of the slums—called favelas in Brazil, cerros in Colombia, ranchitos in Venezuela, “the hood” in the States; all the same damn thing. It’s these areas, coupled with the vast and impoverished rural interior, where Chavez gets his support. After all, these are the marginalized people in what had been an up-and-coming capitalist society throughout the 60s and 70s, but as typical of developing countries, never had their basic needs met on a regular basis. I don’t know enough of the history to understand why counter-governmental forces like the guerrillas in Colombia, Nicaragua, or Peru were never formed, but Chavez has taken it upon himself to incite a social revolution, no matter how misguided, unorganized, or self-defeating it might be.
We bouncedrockedskatedrolled over the glistening asphalt path into the forest of concrete and glass towers of this mini-São Paulo, clowning around and snapping photos like this one –
– then dropped off my suitcase at Alaa’s clothing stall in the popular, populated, and poppin’ Chacaito section of town
and hit Burger King for lunch. Damn all y’all…I wanted me some BK and they only just opened in Colombia this month. The plan was to find me a cheap, clean hotel that didn’t have a website (those that did were running at US$107 a night, the JW Marriott clocking in at $329), but that also wasn’t a matador (love motel).
Important side note: money is truly funny in Venezuela, and I don’t mean ha-ha, neither. There are two types of currency, the bolívar and the bolívar fuerte. The fuertes just have the extra three zero’s behind the comma removed (100,000 VEB = 100 VEF). That’s not the foolishness, though. The kicker is the exchange rate, which for me was almost at parity with the Colombian peso (100,000 COP = 120 VEF). But on the street in Barranquilla, a point of departure for many Colombians overland to Venezuela during the tensest times of the conflict and now point of return for home-coming Venekolombians, I got bolívars at three times the official rate. It involved a series of phone calls, dropping off pesos at one place and picking up bolívars at another, but for 630,000 COP I got 1,700 VEF. Cha-ching!
So, after some running around in the Fiat, stopping at in the driveways of various familiares and underground parking garages of various matadors, some of which wouldn’t allow check-in until 10PM, we found the enticingly named Hotel Harmony. At 160 fuertes a night, I slept under frigid air and beneath the worldly sounds of Nat Geo Music in a basic but clean room for $30: a damn steal.
G and A headed off to the store for a bit and once settled, I pretty much did the only thing you can do during the day in Caracas: cruised the mall. Believe me, folks, let Chavez try and change this country into a version of Cuba; that fool would be shot dead. Caraqueños are some shoppin’ mofos and won’t nobody tell them they have to give up their Gucci knock-offs and TGI Friday’s ribs in the name of some stupid social experiment. He might get away with some big industry privatization, but there’s just way too much deep-rooted foreign investment in the country at a level unimaginable in 1950s Cuba when the United Fruit Company was the only game in town. Anyway, looots of hotties, including this young lovely performing Middle Eastern dance at a Lebanese restaurant in the El Recreo mall.
In the evening, I met up with George in Chacaito and we took the Metro (fast, efficient, clean, quiet) out to Xica da Silva’s (SHEE-ka da SILL-va) house so he and Xica could get ready for a night of samba and stripping: George “dances” with a Brazilian samba group that performs for private parties, and there were three engagements that night (in Colombia, people always order mariachis for weddings and birthdays…to me, booty-shaking beats drunken group singing anyday). I went as unofficial group photographer snapping stills of the three garotas, the batucada drummers, and George’s samba-esque gyrations.
Three birthday parties and four hours later, everybody was dead and we scratched the planned night of partying in exchange for some needed (and very short-lived) shut-eye.
Next up: me, at the ass-crack of dawn on a Sunday morning in Caracas.
So, I was blind-sided by a ridiculous amount of paperwork and test grading over the last couple of weeks, which reduced my reading time to nil (my Google Reader account has hit 1,000 unread posts since I last checked it) and my writing time to even less. I’m finishing up four years in Colombia with a mixture of excitement, trepidation, anxiety, regret, relief, and pragmatism, but I’ll explain all that in a later post.
This weekend, I jetted off to Bogotá and Caracas to see and say goodbye to friends that I’ve made in both cities, since it’ll probably be a while before I’m in the region again. Having booked an award ticket on Avianca, I only had 23 hours to spend in Bogotá before popping over to Venezuela for two nights. I’d say out of 72 hours, I only slept about fifteen; had lots of whoring to catch up on.
Here’s the run-down of last Friday:
The perpetual blanket of gray, rainy clouds lifted over the Colombian capital as soon as my plane touched down, as if I had brought the sun with me from the coast. Still, the high-altitude air was chilly to my thinned blood and I had to wrap up as the cab sailed past the new glass mid-rises popping up like mushrooms on the grassy savanna of Bogotá. The place is growing like mad and I was reminded that Colombia is not a poor country, it just has shit-loads of poor people. Still, Bogotá truly does get better each time around…y’all should visit.
I met up with Roberto, my ace boon in Colombia, for some shopping, and being some supastah soap opera actor and model, he was supposed to be hookin’ a brother up with some style tips for my big trip. After a two hours, he had purchased three shirts; I, none. Anyway, after lunch at Gaira Cumbia House, a little bit of the Caribbean in Bogotá, owned by the brother of tropi-pop legend Carlos Vives, I met up with my friend Indira (actress/model) and her Venezuelan husband, Noé (not an actor/model), who just had a little teeny-tiny, expressive, very-well-mannered baby named Maximiliano a few months ago. The lil punkin, whom they said never approaches people, crawled over to me, sat on my lap, and started drinking water out of a cup I was holding, bless ‘is lil ol hart. I was so proud.
Then, after my last granizado de café at Juan Valdez for the foreseeable future, I met up with the whole gang at Gaira again for some kick-ass salsa and some kick-ass sandwiches til 2am.
A couple of restless hours later (the altitude plus the cold air and no heat killed any teensy iota of sleep that I may have liked to have obtained), I was headed back to the airport for my jaunt across the border into Chavezlandia, aka la República Bolivariana de Venezuela.
Gracias Róvel, Indira/Noé/Max/Bruno, PPCCS, Mike, Guillo, Kathy and John, and Super Ratón for helping to wrap up mi Colombian sueño 8500 feet up in the nosebleed section of the Andes.
I don’t know when the hell National Geographic’s world music cable channel, Nat Geo Music, started airing, but from the moment I caught a glimpse this weekend, I’ve been addicted. So long CrackNewsNetwork!
Today, I was all set to welcome the official start of the Atlantic Hurricane Season with a post about my life-long fascination with tropical storms, having grown up in Florida. But in light of Sunday’s disappearance of Air France Flight 447, most notably during inclement weather, I’ve decided to re-post an entry I wrote last year in response to the bombings in Mumbai. I think what I wrote then is very pertinent today.
Originally posted December 3, 2008:
On November 12, 2001, American Airlines Flight 587 from JFK to Santo Domingo crashed in a residential area of Queens, killing all aboard and five on the ground. On October 23, 2006, a fire ripped through a packed city bus in Panama City, Panama, killing eighteen people, mostly women and children. I was reminded of these two events by this post on writer Lara Dunston’s cool travel guide. In the post, Lara talks about her stay at Mumbai’s recently-attacked Taj Mahal Palace Hotel years ago, having lunched and shopped at some of the places that are now the scenes of incalculably inhumane carnage. Having seen people engage each other, going about the banalities of daily life in these places, tragedies like last week’s attacks or the 2001 plane crash or the 2006 bus explosion become much more visceral; you can relate to the people because you’ve seen their faces.
For me, September 11 was an abstract event, seen from Miami on the same TV screens where violent video games and action flicks and cop reality shows parade incessantly. I processed the events cerebrally and intellectually. After all, I was literally a thousand miles away, knew no one who worked in or lived around Lower Manhattan at the time, and had already confirmed the safety of the few friends I did know then living in New York. I was angry and scared and insecure like most people, and I had seen pictures and footage of the victims on the news. Still, I had no real connection to the event because I had no clue of how the towers looked from up-close, how the air smelled, how the doormen or cleaning ladies would smile or snarl at the secretaries as they entered the building just before or just after their bosses. I couldn’t relate.
But I had been on a flight to the Dominican Republic by the time Flight 587 crashed just after take-off three months later. I had been on several, enough to notice a large number of children on every flight heading to the island to visit grandparents, cousins, friends, sometimes involuntarily. The first thing I thought when I heard the news of the crash were cherubic, tanned faces framed by dark Dominican curls, grinning gap-toothed smiles and speaking Noo Yowak-accented Spanglish. A good portion of the people on that flight were kids, I knew instinctively. And that hit me hard.
When I visited Panama over the Christmas holidays back in 2006, the citizenry was still in an uproar about the bus explosion, which occured in the middle of the street right in front of my hotel. The legal mechanisms of the country weren’t moving fast enough to implicate the responsible parties, and old, faulty, “refurbished” American school buses were still being used for public transport in the city. And when the desk clerk at the hotel told me about the explosion, about how all but one of the eighteen people killed were women and children (this is unconfirmed, but I took her at her word), I immediately thought about the legions of plump grandmothers and aunts and church ladies in flowered dresses who would never have the energy and the strength required to scramble out of an inferno. At school and church back home in Florida, there were legions of grandmothers and aunts and church ladies who looked like the ones I saw walking the streets of Panama City, and I had to assume that these were the same types of ladies who burned to death on that bus. I couldn’t shake the image from my mind.
In an age of media desensitization and relative human safety (compared to previous centuries of war and disease and saber-toothed tiger maulings), it’s very easy to live most of your life looking at tragedies on the news and, as pointed out in Hotel Rwanda, say “what a shame” before turning back to your dinner. But you can’t do that as easily when you’ve seen their faces.