Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Speedy trials

One of those mindfucks I am referring to in the title of the blog is that this country, on paper, is really amazing. Guess what I just found out. While the "right to a speedy trial" may have been first codified in the U.S. Bill of Rights, in Venezuela you have a right to an arraignment within 12 hours, even on the weekend. That means criminal court judges, some of whom even earn enough to stop living with their parents, have to work every second weekend processing arrestees. Having known many people in the U.S. who spent all weekend in the tank after some minor incident on Friday evening, this is the kind of basic civil rights that makes a country seem civilized.

What makes this a mindfuck?

Things like this.
Venezuela’s prisons are among the most violent and dangerous in the world...

Above and beyond the harsh conditions and the continuous risk to life, "what prisoners resent most are the procedural delays that keep them warehoused without justice having been served in their case," Marianela Sánchez, a lawyer at OVP, told IPS.

According to Venezuelan law, no one may be detained for more than two years without being sentenced. "But the justice system gets around this by deferment of procedures, a legal ruse that brings back the bad old days.
Ah, speedy trials.

Love and peace and hope, already!

I can't leave that negative, violent, irritated post up at the top of the page forever! I needed a quick break there, but I guess I'll write again. Either here or elsewhere; feel free to leave a comment or write to me if you want to find out if I have am writing elsewhere.

Monday, October 6, 2008

It's as bad as they say

I went to Puerto la Cruz for a couple days not long ago. Getting there was an adventure worthy of its own post (Dear Managers of the Metro: Please learn to operate a subway system. Love, Hedgehog.) that ended with me sharing a cab to a hotel at 11 p.m. with a pretty, petite Latina from the States -- call her Doris -- who was visiting Venezuela for the first time. She had been traveling 20 hours and was beat. One of the only questions she managed to ask was, "So is this place as scary as they say?"

As you know if you've ever looked at this blorg, my answer was no. There are problems but it's not as bad as they say.

I spent two days out there, with the only remarkable part being an iguana that was well above 4 feet long, wandering around.

At the airport, leaving, I ran into Doris again. That was odd, because she was supposed to be visiting for four days, and only two had passed. She seemed shook up. I asked her if everything was ok, and she said no. That her visit was awful. The only hint she would give me was to say "It is as bad as they say."

We talked more later -- our flights ended up arriving in Caracas at the same time, and we shared another cab as she sought out a hotel -- and she told me that right after she arrived in Puerto la Cruz, after now 21 hours of travel, she was waiting outside her friend's house talking on a phone in his car, and someone grabbed her by the hair, pulled her out of the car, grabbed her ring, her bracelets, and her phone. Her screaming brought neighbors out of their homes and the guy ran off. It sort of spoiled her trip, what with not being able to sleep and just being upset all the time, so she left.

It reminded me of the other friend who was once outside his boyfriend's house while his better half ran in "just for a minute." My pal was out with the car and a couple kids in the back seat. Four people came up with guns and demanded the car. Fortunately they let him take the kids out first.

And the friend who was kidnapped for a half a day before most of her attackers left her in her car with only one guy guarding her, gun to her head as she lay on the floor. Suddenly he was surprised by various guns pointed at him and she was able to leave: police, who had followed the car with aid of a homing device in the trunk, moved in to free her.

And for all of the utter horror of all of this, all three of those stories involve people who got off alive, and even with most of their property intact, in part because of their own privileges. The daily paper is a litany of miseries about people in the slums, who routinely lose their kids to various forms of gunfire, stabbing, muggings, hit and run, you name it. The bodies, after a weekend in Caracas or Puerto la Cruz or Maracaibo, can end up piled up like cordwood in unrefrigerated morgues and police SUVs.

None of which would be so bad if the police and court system worked. With rare exceptions like my kidnapped friend, it doesn't. Many cities pay their cops something close to the (far from living wage) minimum wage, starting at about $7,000 a year (at the official exchange rate, which is about the same buying power as $3,500), even as they spend $100,000 apiece on Toyota 4x4s to make the cops look tough. Few murders are even investigated. The fear, against which I am constantly arguing, is not insane.

No, not kidnapped

I just hid the blog for a minute. It's back. With sloths.

video

That's a baby sloth eating. Eventually the grown-up sloth eats a bit too. They were going fast. They probably suspected that they, and we, were about to be hit by a tremendous thunderstorm. Must suck to be a sloth in a thunderstorm.

While we're at it, here, also in Parque Generalísimo Francisco de Miranda (No Longer Known as Parque del Este), is an iguana. It knew I was coming and wisely hid behind a chain link fence where it was safe from my driving skills.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Visitor

Look who came over to visit!


That's a real live sapito. In a regular drinking glass.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Gringo discount!

Poor Otto. He laments that his 97-year tenure in peerless Peru isn't enough to gain him cheap tickets on LAN Airlines because they automatically charge more for those with "gringo credit cards." Well I don't know about credit cards any more, but this is a great chance for me to inform you all how to fly to Venezuela for about half of list price. It only works if you have some dollars or Euros, a relatively wealthy friend in Venezuela, and some money in your bank account.

Let's say you want to visit here from New York for Thanksgiving. Mmm, guacharaca instead of turkey! American Airlines says "Holy cow, an economy class ticket will set you back $968.70! You sure you wouldn't rather just buy a nice TV and watch Venezuela from a distance?" To which you say "Don't worry pal. Just give me a reservation number." And she says "OK!" And you call your pal in Caracas and say, hey pal, you got VEF2,082.71 you can spot me?" Your friend says, "Sure, just wire me $473.34 and we're cuadrado." And you say "Deal! God I love currency controls!"

Your friend goes to the bank and pulls out 2,083 bolivars -- 2.15 for every dollar of ticket price, an exchange rate set by federal law in Venezuela. Goes to the American Airlines ticket counter, conveniently located wherever you find the globetrotting rich, and buys the ticket.

Then you wire $473 to your friend's U.S. dollar bank account -- something many if not most rich Venezuelans have. She is happy to have those dollars, as the exchange rate you just gave her was 4.4 to the dollar. According to our trusty Internet, she would have had to buy them at 4.5 on the open market.

Why does she want dollars so badly? Unlike bolivars, greenbacks lose their buying power at a single-digit rate. For her, Venezuela's inflation rate means that 2,000 bolivars now will be worth about 1,700 a year from now, even if she has them in a savings account at the mandatory minimum 15% interest. And regardless of disappearing value, there is the issue of imports -- if she or her pals want to import anything from perfume to airplane lubricant, they need dollars, which come slowly if at all from the central bank. Hence their willingness to pay 4.5 for a dollar that at the central bank costs 2.15.

The best part is that you can get off the plane, visit the beach for a day, and then take another equally discounted trip to anywhere you want. Like, say, Peru. As long as Venezuela is on the itinerary, this scam is legal. Sure beats Otto's lament!

When Venezuelans ask me how I like it here, it's always hard, because I want to empathize with whatever hardships they are facing, even while my life here is very good. My quality of life in this insanely expensive city is thanks in large part to this currency-conversion weirdness. My sense of comfort and ease here contrasts with the stress felt by most of my friends.

Hoops II

Caracas fails again in its attempt to terrify gringos. BRING IT ON, CARACAS. What does it take? Do we need to start waving the stars and bars or something? We went to El Silencio and started to assemble hoops. The rain beat the living bedryness out of us and we hid under an arcade in one of the area's many lovely housing blocks. We practiced hoops. Various little kids showed up and tried. One or two left with new hoops. Awwww. We kept trying to make hoops. The PVC tubes we had gotten at the nearby hardware store wasn't quite up to snuff. I just learned today there are three major suppliers of PVC electric conduit in Venezuela. The good stuff, apparently comes from Brazil. Come on Pequiven! Give us something we can hoop with. We want to support the home team!

The rain stopped. We went back to the plaza. We hooped. Cristian, a guy from the blocks showed up and made friends. Assam, guy from India who spoke no Spanish, was walking by and stopped, an open can of Polar Ice beer in his hand. He couldn't hoop to save his life but he played frisbee for a while with us and then left. A group of six females aged four to 70 showed up. The oldest was by far the best hooper. People who had never tried hooping learned to hoop, including those who thought they had just come to take pictures. Hooray for hoop. Sorry, Caracas, if you want to be scary eek run away, you will have to try again.

PS: Well after dark, I went out onto a street corner and hooped some more. No one seemed to notice me.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Speaking of Bourbon

This is supposedly the whiskiest non-whisky-producing country in the Americas. And it's supposedly right up there with Spain and a couple other European hot spots among the top whisky drinking nations on our planet. And when you go to a bar and ask for a Manhattan, the waiter will look at you like you just ordered Paris. If you happen to find a bartender who has heard of a Manhattan you still won't get one. Not for lack of Angostura bitters, which is made in nearby Trinidad and named for the site of today's Puerto Ordaz Ciudad Bolivar. Not for lack of a maraschino cherry nor for shortage of sweet vermouth. It's a lack of bourbon.

WTF?

How can a country that sends 1.4 million barrels a day of oil to the southeastern U.S. and Virgin Islands not receive in return a single bottle of Old Crow? How is it that Jack Daniels sells for 180 Bs ($70) a bottle? There is something very odd going on.

It wouldn't be a problem if you could just grab a nice bottle of Islay single-malt scotch and forget about it. But that's just as tough. It's Something Special, Johnny Walker, and a host of other not-quite-gourmet scotches that make everybody go pitter patter.

The good news: I've become a connoisseur of juice! The raspberries of the Andes are literally something to write home about. Must drink more jugo de mora. Nispera is cool. 3-in-1, beet carrot orange, is tasty. And passion fruit pulp should always have a home in the fridge. Cocktail recipes involving these new friends will follow someday.

Other blogs

I don't have a proper blogroll because this is supposed to be a bit of a cyberspace deadend. But I should once in a while let you know about amazing other finds on the Intertubes. So:

David Rees has a blog! A real live blog! This guy's like Hugo Chavez with a sense of humor instead of a will to power. They say the same thing about the U.S. financial meltdown, but David Rees says it more funny. And less wordy. And, conveniently, in "English". You have never heard of him because he never touts himself even though you may, wisely, have read GET YOUR WAR ON, perhaps because you were one of the several people who received that book from me as a winter holiday present 72 years ago when the Global War On Terror was young. Now his name has appeared in the most important blog in the history of blogdom and you have lost your excuse. Read him.

The Chiguire Bipolar is better than most cups of coffee. Oh, did I mention? We saw exactly zero chiguires on our trip to the Gran Sabana.

Inca Kola News claims to make good coffee. I haven't tried it, but the author is full of insight on some topics, and even when I totally disagree I still enjoy his good proper Queen's English bile that's as hard to find as bourbon around here. He also has exquisite taste in blergs.

Caracas Chronicles has yet to tout its coffee-preparation expertise, but it sometimes captures what I like to call our local "mindfucks" quite nicely. As here. And here.

My worldview has been helpfully informed by A Tiny Revolution. Also by the Flickr group Tropical Entomology.

There are many more but most are similar to these. Hopefully at least one of these is something you haven't seen before and can find useful.

Cars still kill everything


My first road kill. I believe this is an Iguana iguana. Here's a page of scholarship about why they get killed on roads, and another about road kills generally. Neither get into immediate causes -- some schmuck hits the clutch and slams the brakes, and the brake pedal just makes the engine roar because they were the kind of brakes called "gas." I probably shouldn't have been driving while on pills that say "do not drive or operate heavy machinery" in the warning label, and probably just shouldn't be driving. Next time let's go by bike.

Onward to the usual blah blah commentary. It was the cars that first told me this wasn't, and won't soon be, a socialist country. Socialism, for me, is all about being considerate to others, treating the whole world like family, sharing alike. Driving here is all about intimidation and momentum. South American generally dominates the ranks of the highest road death rates. Rather than try to bring that figure down, most people seem to think they are going to avoid problems by refusing to stop for anything. After all you wouldn't want to be carjacked. Hence, tonight I almost became road kill myself in a crosswalk. The driver eventually realized I wasn't going to magically vaporize, nor was I (with my bicycle and five hula hoops) going to carjack them, and the car stopped and let me pass.

Before socialism, you need social. I don't fully know where to start on that.

Hoops!

The best thing happening in my little corner of Caracas is Ser Urbano, a Spanish acronym for Fun People With Facial Hair or Tattoos Make Fools of Themselves in the Plaza. Today we'll have a hula-hoop party in Plaza O'Leary (pronounced plasa ole-EH-ahree) in El Silencio. I have been knocking over furniture, computers and glasses of water in both office and home as I attempt to practice for this. I have a feeling it will be a while before we are full-on Bay Area Hoopers (and truly, I can do without the self-consciously "creative" rave baloney), but I also have high hopes for the local talent, given the abs and rhythm sense that come from dancing salsa.



Digressing...Speaking of hidden talents, I didn't mention that my house-guest and traveling companion to the Gran Sabana took a frisbee to the jungle. The most amazing thing was when he pulled it out on our hike out, after we had to cross a log bridge that descended deeper and deeper into the storm-swollen river, and our Pémon guide, Ricardo, had taken a little swim. I was getting ready to brave the current by jumping in when my guest hucked me the the disc. I retreived it from the river and threw to Ricardo. He caught it perfectly and threw a perfect throw. It went from there. He had much better aim than I, even with my 25 years more experience with the toy. In the village of Kavanayen, 6-year-old girls were throwing spot-on tosses within minutes. Pretty amazing.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Tapirs

Live in the jungle. We didn't see any. They are shy. We saw their footprints. That's the closest I will probably ever be to a wild tapir.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Back

I came back from vacation with various souveniers, including:
-Relaxed mind
-Crystals from a coal bed
-Insect photos
-Insect bites
-A massive infection on my knee

I have gotten over the bad stuff and am ready to write again. Anyone who wants to see a photo of my knee from this morning can click here. On my screen that's a bit less than life-sized. It no longer hurts and the infection is going the way of the harlequin frog (that is, it will appear to be extinct even as it hides in nooks and crannies) thanks to my friend Dr. Pfizer. The insect pictures will be up soon.

I guess the most remarkable lesson from a week in the oilfields and steamy jungles is the same lesson I keep learning here and it's one that may get a bit dull for all three regular readers of this blerg: quit fearing.

In our first day on the road, my gringo (as in speaks very little Spanish tall curly-haired big-nosed frisbee geek) friend and I:
-Drove in Venezuela
-Talked to drunken Chavista oilworkers
-Used several ATMs at night
-Entered an oilfield with two drilling rigs in use
-Slept there without asking anyone


Drilling rig in San Joaquin oilfield, early morning Sept. 14

On their own, any one of these make many of my Venezuelan friends freak out with nervousness. And that's before I tell them about
-Meeting the poor homesteaders in the oilfields, and accepting their offered cup of ill-boiled coffee
-Hiking with one (Rafael) over a barbed-wire fence, where he argued with the shotgun-toting oil company guard
-Looking for giant snakes in a pond
-Climbing a ladder to the top of an oil well's "Christmas tree" to pose for a photo
-Examining the oil residue atop a wastewater pond

This is all the first 24 hours, and these are all things that are against the rules. Some are against the law, but most just violate the kind of keep-your-head-down good sense that permeates life in Caracas. Of course, nothing happened. This day of adventuring opened neither the door to perdition nor to salvation. But it did open doors of experience, and for that I'm glad to be free. For a country with such a power-mad bureaucracy in Caracas, it's amazing how little the police state intrudes on everyday life. It also helps, even today, to be a pale-skinned gringo in a nice rental car. The "down with the man" mentality that perfuses the States is almost completely absent here except in rhetoric. There is a nearly complete willingness to accept white privilege and wealth privilege.