Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sapito del día

We keep a towel under the front of the fridge to soak up the water that seeps out of parts unknown. I grabbed it today to wipe up another spill and to then wash it. But inside a fold in the towel I found one of those little sapitos. It jumped when touched, but then died. I tossed it outside.

My roommate showed me a weird blob on her bathroom window that was about 4 cm across. A wasp about 2 cm long showed up with a blob of something in its mouth, attached it to the bigger blob, and rubbed it onto the window by vibrating its forehead at a speed that made a high-pitched sound -- based on the tone and my friendly tone generator I'm guessing its head was moving around 600 times a second. I knocked down the blob and found it was made entirely of clay. OK not entirely. Inside you could see little holes into chambers, apparently filled with eggs. I broke it open. They weren't eggs -- a bunch of spiders fell out! About 20 dead spiders in 4 chambers.

I didn't post on Thursday or Friday because I was off in the city of Puerto Ordaz, on the Orinoco River. They grow cashews near there. I bought a bag of them and left them in my backpack when I got home yesterday. Today I remembered them and went to the backpack. There was a line of pale powder across the outside of the pack. Uh-oh, I thought. Inside I found that sure enough, ants had gotten into the cashews. Tiny ants, never more than 2 mm long and maybe .3 mm across. I used a colander to shake them, and the mass of powder they had chewed off the cashews, out of the bag. They must have taken away several nuts worth of food by the time I caught them.

Speaking of ants, the cleaning lady followed a trail of ants to my old Mac. Found that it was filled with ants. Which explains why the motherboard died. And here I was thinking it was the result of a lightning strike.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Transport for Caracas

Ken Livingstone was here today, rubbing salt in my wound.

As mayor of London, Livingstone made a very odd deal: Cheap diesel from Venezuela for his city's bus system in return for providing cheap(er) bus fares for the poor of London, pro-Venezuela propaganda on London buses, and urban planning assistance for Caracas. This deal was a foil for all sorts of political types: People said Chavez was nuts to give aid to a country as rich as England, that Livingstone was nuts to help out a guy like Chavez, that this was a brilliant move combining socialist policies from rich and poor, that the whole thing was hogwash. Yawn. For me, any effort to enhance the livability of Caracas is worthy of attention, no matter the political weirdness behind it.

Sadly, it wasn't to be.

Transport for London, the transit agency, supposedly send some people here and set up a little office. Half the diesel fuel, about $7 million worth, did make it to London. But for all the talk, we will never, Livingstone said, never see any report from the planners. That project is over, he said. Instead he will offer a bit of advice himself, with the goal of making this a "first-world city in a first-world country in 20 years." (The Spanish translator initially translated first-world as "first-class"; "first-world" isn't a popular aspiration for Chavistas. It's like telling a hipster that he could be in wearing a nice suit in 20 years.)

So, even though no one will give me $15 million in funding, maybe I should offer a few thoughts. It seems to me that the most central problem in Caracas is the lack of street life. Most streets are dead from dawn to dark, and the rest from dark to dawn. The busiest streets tend to be those connecting Metro stops to nearby shopping malls or major employers. (For some reason the stops never seem to be exactly adjacent to the most important destinations.) The lack of human presence is an auto-alimentación: a positive feedback loop. (Positive in the cybernetic sense, not the value sense.) The lack of people makes it easier for miscreants to prey on the few who are there, to leave piles of trash in the sidewalk, to park on the sidewalk, to design buildings with curb cuts across the sidewalk, and worst of all to eliminate the sidewalk completely. I'll post some pictures soon of the most depressing lack-of-sidewalks situations, but suffice to say they are manifold. (Was that pretentious enough phrasing for you?)

Happily, we have a role model for some aspects of this just 1,000 km away. Colombia's capital, Bogotá, was rescued with incredible haste -- a three-year mayoral term was enough to turn it from a fatalistic deathtrap into an optimistic deathtrap with many more bicycles. In one term, a mayor fixed a host of my biggest pet peeves: He brought back sidewalks that had been caved out to make unpermitted parking spaces, created a real car-free day, and made a citywide bus rapid transit system. Perhaps instead of Mr. Livingstone with his 20-year timetable, we could use a visit from Sr. Peñalosa?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

What I can hear

I'm not kidding about the frogs. There is a persistent two-toned peeping from what sounds like dozens but is probably just a few frogs outside. They no longer keep me awake. I can hear a low-pitched hum rising and then transforming into white noise and then a new low-pitched hum and finally a rumble as a motorcycle drives up from the avenue, 500 meters down the hill, up the street wet with irrigation water, past the gate at the base of this street and up past my building to some higher, fancier-still highrise on this silent cul de sac. I hear popping sounds like machines turning off, from the laundry room, but no one has been here to run the laundry machines all day. I hear a heavy steel door closing on some other floor of the building -- there are many heavy doors, each with a cheesy aluminum key. I need to open at least four locks to get into my apartment from the street. I hear a car alarm - woodawoodawoo. woodawoodawoo. woodawoodawoo. And it's gone. Voices from a building up the hill. The night is windless as usually and sound carries out from a building, across the broad horseshoe of this street, across the little park in the middle of the horseshoe with its broad acacia tree and sleeping families of guacharacas, and in through the bars on the wide-open, screen-free windows.

This city has somewhere between 3 million and 6 million people, depending on who is counting. And to hear both barrio-dwellers and the top politicians speak, you would think that we are packed in together like a mail-order box of cockroaches. And yet the vast majority of the city's land area is like this: lengthy uninterrupted cloud forests, quiet winding streets trickling with the water from lawns and escaped sewage, parrots and egrets flying by. The city could bear many more people, or could give a much more comfortable life to the majority of the population that lives in barrios.

Monday, August 25, 2008

About the title bar

The title bar may well change. For now, it has a small version of this (click for hi-res version). These are, across the top and then across the bottom:

Beautiful fat people at the beach. Many Venezuelans are fat. This may be because they drive so much: gasoline at 10 cents a gallon warps the entire culture, so even many of those without cars don't walk. That link shows a graph of obesity in Venezuela and next-door-neighbor Colombia, which has similar demographics and climate but pricier gasoline. And the U.S., just for good measure. (Tell you what deserves a post all its own: the weird excess obesity among Venezuelan men. More on gender ratios, real and peceived, someday.)

A red fly. The invertebrates here are something to see.

An ambulance owned and operated by Petroleos de Venezuela SA, the oil company that runs just about everything you see in Venezuela. It's like Water and Power in Tank Girl. Except goofier.

A home in the barrio La Naya, near my house. Looking out from that balcony, these people can see into the olympic pool at the Italo-Venezelano Club. Because life is fair.

Sabana Grande, in Caracas, seen in the evening from Plaza Venezuela. Cars going fast. Grafitti on the wall says "Viva Raul Reyes," the Colombian guerrilla leader who was killed when Colombia sent troops into Ecuador and blew up a camp. Note the modernist urban planning. Behind that wall I think they are building a new subway line.

Across the bottom, left to right:
One of the cooperatives that collects and pays for almost all the country's cacao production.

A Lacoste alligator logo on a red shirt worn by a Chavista commentator on TV. I get a kick out of the many red Polo, Lacoste and other brand-name shirts one can see on Venezolana de Television, the state news channel. And yes, that jacket cost as much as the monthly income of the median Venezuelan.

A barrio (poor neighborhood built by its residents, often without securing title to the land first) in the state of Vargas, where some 20,000 people were killed in mudslides almost nine years ago. Lacking alternatives, residents have rebuilt some of the barrios there, many in the same deadly steep-sided canyons atop unconsolidated sand and gravel.

A beetle. That bamboo stalk it's eating is as thick as a finger. The beasties fly around like slow-moving hummingbirds. But are 4 inches long. Did I mention the invertebrates?

Bolivares fuertes, the Venezuelan currency. Visitors find it odd to be somewhere that ATMs are hard to find, hard to use, and a waste of money (because of the overvalued currency). They sometimes find pleasure in having (what looks like) so much cash.

El Arabito

The most mind-warping aspect of Venezuela today is the disconnect between government rhetoric and life in the streets. This country's leaders include some of the most eloquent opponents of the U.S. dollar as the world's reserve currency. Using the dollar costs those who hold the currency, as the money has crashed out over recent years, and it costs the world by propping up the U.S. economy, enabling the violent, destructive politicians to remain violent and destructive, less vulnerable to the economic effects of global approbation.

And if there is one audience you'd expect to be receptive to this message, it would be the country's Arab population. If there's a part of the world that has been screwed up by codependence on the dollar, it's the Middle East, where undemocratic governments have held power with U.S. aid in return for effectively dollarized economies. Aside from the unpleasantness of living in authoritarian police states like Saudi Arabia, there is the inflationary aspect of living in a place where most goods are bought in Euros but most income is in dollars. Currency exchange alone accounts for massive inflation in recent years.

But no. This dollar was far from alone. And it was on the floor at El Arabito, an Arab restaurant and bar in the Sabana Grande neighborhood, at about 2 in the morning, to reward a couple belly dancers who were more like strippers, going from table to table showing their hotness to the men and trying to get tips stuck in their bras and skirts.


Very, very odd.

PS: I know I said I wouldn't talk about politics or economics. This is a blog about tree frogs. I lied. I am going to write about various particularly Venezuelan mindfucks, too.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

La Linea

Yesterday I explored a part of Caracas I had never been to, La Linea in Petare. Explored is such a great word -- it's just like Colombus "exploring" these places where there are already millions of people. But that's what it felt like, anyway. Starting out at the central roundabout of Petare (a packed shopping area with little stores, street vendors on every square inch of sidewalk and quite a bit of the street as well, and tens of thousands of people walking through) there are little shopping streets going downhill in a couple directions. The one I knew before goes back to the Metro station, and I was in no rush so I took a different one. Following the crowds I went into a little street barely bigger than a hallway where old men waited in line for the beer store and young women lined up to get into a Mercal government-run discount supermarket in the back of another store. Continuing on I could see gaps between the buildings showing that this gradually widening pedestrian street was following the Rio Guaire, the year-round river that is now jailed in a concrete trench for most of its trip through the city.

The concrete street had little shops on either side on the ground floor of homes. Typical was a stand selling gum and frozen plastic tubes of sugar-water for about 300, 400 bolivar debiles (30 or 40 of the current bolivar cents, or about a dime in U.S. or Canadian money) under a little awning in the front of a lady's home. Her name was Belkis, a common enough Venezuelan name. Her daughter was Bisbel, a combination of her parents' names - also a common Venezuelan thing to do. They lived up a set of stairs with a rusty railing in this beige-painted house and went out on Saturday to collect a few bucks. Couldn't make more than $5 on the day even if they sell everything, but it's also a chance to see friends and meet new people, so why not.

Downhill from the street was the river, gradually breaking out of its channel. I could see a sandy beach on the other side of the river, the Macaracuay side, the first beach I've ever seen on that river. The uphill side of the street was a precipitous incline made of some mixture of buildings, retaining walls and exposed loosely consolidated sedimentary rock. I saw one retaining wall made of shotcrete and rock bolts that looked like it would hold up through a lot, even if the rock bolts were already rusty and were thinner than my pinkie. The depressing thing was the wall made of corrugated steel, the kind used to line trenches. That kind of steel is very strong but in this case the individual pieces weren't tall enough, so someone welded other ones above. I'll get a picture next time. It's a bit hard to describe but the point is that this welding was only on the street side, not on the hill side, and was very superficial, rather than being done with the kind of massive welding rig you normally use to connect sheets of 3/8-inch-thick structural steel. So the upper elements were already distended out, breaking off from the ones below. They are certain to fall before the hill gives way. A good early warning system but a dangerous one, and one that wastes expensive steel.

The homes on the uphill side were equally chimboso (Venezuelan for cheesy) but were at the same time miracles of engineering just for staying up. They climbed up this crumbly hillside at an almost 45 degree angle, at times cantilevered out 30, 40 feet, supported by 10-inch pilings going down 20, 30 feet. In a seismic zone. With multistory homes up above, sometimes 4 stories. Pretty amazing. I want to meet the engineers. They are geniuses at improvisation with limited and cheesy materials.

Walking out of the commercial section the street stayed quiet, with just a few buses and motorcycles. I saw a guy walking his moto down a set of stairs from the next neighborhood up the hill (according to Google Maps, which has finally posted some Venezuela street names, that next street up is also La is the next...) and I saw another guy pushing/motoring up a very steep staircase out from under a house. Looking down through you could see he came from a little neighborhood in the back yard that gets out to the street through these stairs. It's a medieval level of complexity in a modernist city.

Onward the street traces the river downstream more and more. I saw a few other people walking, mostly quiet. There were peeping birds. Motors in the distance. Between the homes on the uphill side, even back in the commercial part there were patches of sugar cane and vines and banana (cambur!) trees, and getting further out the Venezuelan countryside was clear: hills ahead covered in absolute greenery interrupted only by a quarry, hills at 10 o'clock mostly green but for a couple fancy high rises, and then what's that, one of the homes on the river had a horse. A horse!

Eventually I saw a camioneta (small bus) that had stopped to change its destination signs. End of the line. I got on and took it back to Petare's center. It continued on to Altamira, Chacao, Bellas Artes, and Silencio: terra cognita.

Sapitos de la noche

Welcome to yet another mostly English-language blog about life in Venezuela. Just what you've been waiting for!

If you want to know about politics and economics, you've probably come to the wrong place. There are people who know more Venezuelan political history than I ever will and there are those who can intuitively grasp structured notes. But somehow none of these people ever write about the peeping frogs that brighten the sounds of night from the headwaters of the Rio Guaire southwest of Caracas, across the mountains that enclose the city on south and north, and then out the other side as the river and freeway tumble down to the hot coast.

If you don't hear the tree frogs, I don't think the rest can make sense.