Monday, September 29, 2008


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.


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.


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


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


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.

Friday, September 12, 2008


OK one last item of the night. One of the most bizarre and amazing things for me is how this country is so jaded on presidential theater. Tonight, I took a cab to meet friends for dinner. The cabbie was freaking out about how the president had just gone into "cadena," which is when the government takes over all airwaves for a special announcement, in order to give a typically lengthy speech in which he talked of the "Yankees of shit" and told them to go "100 times to hell."

I met my friends and we walked to dinner, passing pungent fallen guavas on the sidewalk, arriving at length at a beautiful Moroccan Jewish restaurant under a mango tree. We ate a tasty dinner as did everyone else in the place. I took pictures of a gecko on the wall chasing a junebug bigger than the lizard's body. We talked of the city and art and plazas and makeup and the usual topics. We left and watched lightning over the southern suburbs and one of us played harmonica as we walked and it was a lovely and remarkable evening and there were no loud conversations of politics and no words of worry from any quarter that the president of the country was evidently trying to start a war. While he plays like he is under attack, it felt nothing like Bolivia today, or like the U.S. seven years ago, or, I imagine, like Chile 35 years ago.

The lack of passion among those opposed to Chavez (look! his name shows up at last in this blog!), and among many of his ostensible supporters, is really the shocker to someone coming from the outside after hearing about the supposed revolution. There is "revolution" without revolutionary fervor, or much counterrevolutionary fervor. Most people just want to get home to dinner with the family and can't be bothered to worry so much about far-off concerns like whether the U.S. was behind riots in Bolivia or abstractions like unnamed pitiyanquis.


Dear Readers (all 7,776 (ok, more like the fifth root of that number) of you): Going out of range soon. Will be writing again after seeking out the legendary homeland of the Chigüire Bipolar.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


While Venezuelans eat plenty of cheese, the country seems to be run by an anti-cheese cabal, hell-bent on reducing all of us to ignorance and joylessness in our ingestion of fermented, partially dried, aged bovine secretions. Cheese selection is limited. There are some local white cheeses of various moistures and saltinesses and some decent imitations of cheesy cheese, like an incredibly mild cheddar they call "yellow cheese," and there is mozzarella and provolone and parmesan. Finer stores may have aasdam, which is something like a nice full-bodied swiss. The other day I had a chunk of partly blued cheese and I almost fell out of my teeth, as it was a flavor I hadn't experienced for more than a year.

One thing that is fully unavailable is cheddar. This situation led me, on my last trip to gringolandia, to become a deportable felon: I illegally imported animal products. A 2-pound block of Cabot extra-sharp cheddar. From Costco. It's like 89 cents or something in the States. Here, its value -- especially on a nice slice of German rye with some mustard and good criollo avocadoes -- is without measure.

Finished cheese wasn't all I smuggled. I also got my hands on some veterinary drugs. It turns out that no matter how good this country may be for raising goats, sheep, and other small livestock, the veterinary medicine hasn't quite caught up. Important antibiotics are unavailable. So I hauled in a few courses of medicne for a cheese herd. If you happen to find yourself enjoying any of the Caracas region's excellent artesenal goat cheese in the next year, you may be eating a molecule or few that I carried with me in the suitcase.

Fortunately, for all the fear and the talk about insecurity, Venezuelans are pretty chill when it comes to actually searching bags and rooting out contraband. Both cheese and syringes made it through without incident.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Missing her

It's Miss Venezuela season. By far the most important competitive event of the year here. I'd like to see a survey of how many people can name three contenders for Miss Venezuela, how many can name three gubernatorial candidates and how many can name three of the top batters in the Venezuelan baseball league. I am guessing that the Miss would strut away with it.

I saw a woman tonight with a big gauze pack on top of her nose. Just hanging out, chatting with the doorman at a midrange hotel, meaning that a night costs only about 10 days' earnings for the average Venezuelan, rather than a full month's wages like at the fancy hotel up the block. It reminded me that it's been a while since I saw a nose job bandage. One day I saw three of them on a single walk through the mall.

I got home and there were teenagers practicing dance moves in the lobby of my building. One was giving her bust a hard look in the mirror. It was large, probably fake, and likely quite uncomfortable.

Tis the season.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The zoológico

A large bat just flew through the apartment. It's the third time I've seen one do this. The first one toured the living room once before flying back out where it came in. This one came in the front kitchen window, went straight through to the back sunroom and out. Nice shortcut.


I'm obsessed with making Caracas's sidewalks useable.

This is what it looks like on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night in much of Chacao and Las Mercedes, the only rich-ish neighborhoods that have anything like walkable streets. In fact, this is in El Rosal, which is widely credited as the most walkable part of Caracas. So what is wrong with this picture?

1. Yes, those are cars. Yes, that's a sidewalk. I've been asking the omnipresent parking attendants why they leave cars on the sidewalk and most claim that their business has special permission. When I ask to talk to the owner, the owner is never there. I have been telling police that I think this is bollocks, and that they should do something about it. They generally tell me to talk to a supervisor. I'll let you know how that goes. As is now, you can either walk in the street or walk through here:

2. Above, I said it's a sidewalk. But when you look close you can see that there's no significant change in relief between the street and the sidewalk. If anything, the sidewalk is just a poorly built parking area. Poorly built in the sense that the concrete is cheap -- notice all the cracks. (I recently noticed someone had used wood chips as an aggregate in a sidewalk in Chacao. The wood is gradually disappearing, leaving cavities. It looks kind of cool except that the cavities fill with dirt and grime and the concrete will probably endure much less time thanks to this cheap trick and the lack of engineering inspections.)

3. The lighting just doesn't work for pedestrians. Granted, Chacao is doing something about that. On Francisco de Miranda, the main avenue through that municipality, the city installed two-tier streetlamps with lower lights for peds and higher ones for traffic. Good stuff. Only problem is that the installation took months, during which there was no light at all for a long block of the street. During much of that time sidewalks were also closed for construction, so everyone had to walk in the street behind limp caution tape.

I keep thinking about making flyers to try and rally pedestrians to demand their rights...but further research is needed. I don't even know who we should be making our case to. Like I said, I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Those doctors

You might have heard that Venezuela and Cuba are close these days, with Cuba sending doctors, light bulb installation crews and zoo animals to Venezuela in return for oil. What is less known is that Cuba's decades-old policy of sending doctors all over the world is now being bankrolled, at least in part, by Venezuela.

The picture is of Huachacalla, Bolivia, one of the loneliest towns I've ever visited. It's in the Altiplano, a plateau at about 3,500 meters (12,000 foot) elevation near the Chilean border, where (at least a couple months ago) the pavement of a sparkling new highway abruptly ended along with most taxi and microbus routes from La Paz. It's a place where arrival is easier than departure, as nobody owns a car and there's no traffic on the half-built highway. K and I got a ride in the back of a salt truck that thumped us along for an hour through an increasingly chilly twilight to Sapaya, an even lonelier town. In the nicest, nastiest and only hotel in town, which was built to pretty high standards, there were, in the morning, small brown pellets at the end of the hall, clear evidence that a sheep had been there at some point in the night. Locals gave various estimates of the population, but when they said there were "80 families in the pueblo" they meant that 80 families return to the town for an annual feast day. The full-time population of the living couldn't have exceeded 100. The main reason for either tourist or laborer to go there is Coipasa, site of a ghost town, a lot of salt, and clear evidence that Lonely Planet's writers don't always visit the places they write about.

But I digress. As usual. The picture on the left shows the view downhill past the army barracks. On the right is the view uphill to the town square, where old Aymaras were celebrating Day of the Sea. Someone stopped to chat with us. On learning I lived in Venezuela she said that was a good country, that Venezuela was providing Cuban doctors for this village. This woman must have been at least 50, as she looked 70, and she said it was the first full-time doctor in that town in her life.

I'm sure there are many messed up aspects of the program, known as Barrio Adentro, including corruption and the awesomely low wages of its employees. But hey, when it comes to aid programs, nobody's perfect. We were wandering through one of the poorest regions of one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, a place where many people subsist on potatoes and llama meat squeezed from the thin, sandy soil and thin, dusty air. To stumble onto a Venezuelan-Cuban clinic there felt like we had come around a rock to find a grove of mango trees in full fruit, a morsel of tropical plenitude. It was also a reminder of how everywhere I go, people with the least stuff are the most generous.

Saturday, September 6, 2008


Fear is a controlling aspect of life everywhere, but I've never had fear drilled into me so completely as I have here. When I was 21 and biked across the U.S., every adult asked me, first off, if I had met any "wackos" out there. I eventually decided they were the wackos, letting their lives be governed by fear of wackos rather than pursuing their dreams and living their freedom. But on the other hand, reality can be as bad as the hype. Here are some of the headlines in Caracas's best-selling newspaper, the tabloid Ultimas Noticias, translated for your pleasure:

Page 30
Muggers relieved him of his life and his motorcycle: He arrived with three shots at Clinico, where he died

Shuttle worker perforated in Barcelona

They killed three youths in a house: Merida: The cadavers were discovered by the landlady of the residence where they were renters. One of the fatal victims was four-and-a-half months pregnant.

Page 37
They ambushed a youth to kill him with 4 shots. El Rodeo: The gangs "Toñito" and "Kilo of Bananas"* implicated in the crime.

A run-over indigent died

Page 38
They killed a man in La Trilla

Page 39
They finished off a man in the La Trilla sector: The victim was working as an ironworker in Betania City (yes, this one appears to have merited two stories)

Page 40
Sports. Harmony after dissonance, a gentle touch after torture, the soothing voice of Big Brother following the Two Minutes Hate.

Murder is omnipresent. Since the government doesn't publish crime stats on the Web (or does it? if you know where to find them let me know), here is an article from June that gives some sense of it:

In 1997, Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico, countries with similar social characteristics, had very similar homicide rates, while Colombia and El Salvador amply exceeded them. The former had 19.6 murders per 100,000 residents; 20 per 100,000 in the second case; and 18.4 per 100,000 residents in the case of Mexico.

"Now Mexico cut its index to 14.7, Brazil remains around 20, Colombia also reduced to 37 and Venezuela, taking as a reference the official statistics, has a rate of 45 homicides per 100,000 residents," said Briceño León, who recalled that the survey published by Conarepol in 2007 gave 49, and the last release from [human rights group] Provea referred to 46. Official data from El Salvador say that the index in 2006 was 54 per 100,000 residents.

The resulting fear is omnipresent. It affects the most quotidian decisions, like which trail to hike (go to Sabas Nieves and hike a "secure" overused fire road with 2,000 of my closest friends, or go to a narrow trail through the woods and see more butterflies at the (low but present) risk of being robbed?) where to buy plumbing supplies (pay less in the ghetto or pay more and remain in the zona verde?) What pants to wear on a hot day (long pants and fit in, or shorts and stand out as a non-Venezuelan and risk who-knows what)? Bigger questions like where to live, whether to have children, what career to choose, all are driven overwhelmingly by fear for nearly all my friends.

They recruit. People tell me daily not to ride my bicycle in the city, citing the danger (even as they drive, risking carjackings and robberies by guys on motorcycles). There is a constant pressure to not do any number of (usually fun, interesting) things, because of this supposed danger. It didn't affect me so much at first, but I notice it affecting my reactions to little things. I had a weird cab ride last night, as the cabbie first was willing to chat and agreed to help me with an airport trip in a couple days, but then fell obstinately silent when I asked his name and number so we could arrange that same airport trip. I found myself assuming that he was a robber or rapist or some such thing. It didn't even occur to me til afterward that maybe he was mentally ill and paranoid or maybe he just didn't like me.

*No kidding. "Kilo'e Cambur."

Thursday, September 4, 2008


A couple posts below mention golf courses. Yes, there are golf courses in the middle of Caracas. There is also a military airport, several freeways, a national park, a bunch of non-park forests that wend 10 km uninterrupted by streets, a tremendous military base, a couple spread-out, gated university campuses, and a collection of shopping malls.

These big blocks of land are dedicated to one function -- transportation, defense, shopping. They are fine, in their place, but for those who don't, for example, need to go to the mall or the university or the airport, they are mostly obstructions to urban life, rather than amenities. Since most of the time, most of the people don't need to do any one task, it's best to keep these things either small, like a single city block; or porous, meaning streets go through; or diversified, meaning that the mall might have some offices and housing above the roof; or stashed safely on the edge of the city like a medieval wall, blocking further sprawl.

The best example of this being done right is El Avila National Park and the adjacent Cota Mil freeway, which protect the north side of the city quite well against sprawl. There are no informal "invasions" of land uphill of the Cota Mil, and while there are some invasions of the Avila elsewhere, most remain small, for now. (The only big one is the government's "Socialist City" for which it grabbed 5% of the park and is building an word yet on the urbanism of that place, though if past affordable housing projects are a guide, it will be lousy.) Centro Commercial Ciudad Tamanaco is another effort at mixed-use, with its mix of offices, shopping mall and freeway ramps. Sadly, having three land uses, none of which are active after 9 p.m., isn't enough to create an urban neighborhood. Jane Jacobs recommended at least 7; I don't know if there's a magic number but this isn't it. A couple malls, like Tolon that I mentioned below, fit nicely onto a block without destroying the city. And I can think of one example of a porous mall, San Ignacio, which has a street through the short axis of a long rectangle.

There are a bunch of problems with these single-use districts. They make short trips long. They force everyone -- trucks, buses, cars, pedestrians, bikes, horses -- onto just a couple of streets, which have often been turned into freeways. They reduce the space available for housing, contributing to the city's current pattern of having high-rises as the only type of home that's commercially available. The streets are left to themselves, free of storefronts full of curiosities, the glow of living spaces above, and friends chancing to meet. In short, they are the death of cities.

The government has responded with various ideas, none of which get to the heart of the issue. There is a plan to move the population south, off the coast, to the "Eje Orinoco-Apure," the well-watered band of land from the Andes on the west across to the Orinoco Delta on the Atlantic coast. This is based on the false idea that the city is crowded -- it's not, it's just being inefficiently used. Another idea is to convert the golf courses into housing. This could work wonders if the planning were right, as the Caracas Country Club, in particular, is plopped right in the middle of one of the best potentially walkable areas in the city, abutting Chacaito. There is plenty of shopping and work and mass transport; a bunch more housing could be just the ticket. This project, though, is on hold; some say it's because the homes on the golf course are now occupied by supporters of the government -- and they don't want low-income housing any more than the viejo riche. Perhaps the most hopeful program are the community planning councils, which for once give residents a voice in long-term planning of streets and land use. Still, for these to have the best effect, they need to exist in a matrix of visionary, participatory planning for the whole city. Locals won't usually think about the effect of their plans on the broader city unless forced to.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


A car finally struck me. It was a wonderfully Venezuelan experience. Though if I want to tell the story in a Venezuelan way, I guess I need to say -Se me choquaron -Me golpearon*. "They hit me."

I entered the crosswalk at Av. Francisco de Miranda and Av. Principal de Las Mercedes in Chacaito. This is a six-lane 2-way street with tall office buildings intersecting another street with four lanes in one direction and a little country street (sans sidewalks) on the north side. It's a major intersection, big enough to have a painted crosswalk. Some guy in a pale green (!) sedan, a Mustang or some such, wanted to turn right from eastbount Miranda onto southbound Las Mercedes (click the map to understand. This is right in the middle of the map, south of the golf course.) Like most Venezuelans, he saw me walking the same direction as his car was going, and the other pedestrians in the crosswalk going the other way, and decided to just go, knowing that everyone is looking out for cars and will yield with the grace of merengue dancers avoiding other spinning couples on the dance floor. The rule, generally, is that once the nose of a car is ahead of you, it has right of way. I didn't care. I was in the crosswalk and I have decided that in this respect I'm not going to be culturally relativistic -- cars suck just as much here as they do anywhere else.

At first he let me go, walking along to the right of his car as he edged closer and closer. He nosed ahead of me. I kept walking, and right when I was about to walk around the front right corner of the car, he accelerated while turning, walloping me with his right-side mirror and then knocking my knee with the car's side panel. It was like he just couldn't stand the idea of some other guy taking right of way from him, and he needed to assert his insecurity in whatever way was available.

10 meters more and he was stopped at the back of a line of cars at a long red light. I know what you're wondering, and no, he didn't run over the other drivers for blocking his way. Drivers and pedestrians here respect the power of other cars (and of politicians, businessmen, and pushy bastards on dance floors) quite unduly. There is a willingness to submit to the power of others that I, as a long-time U.S. resident, find kind of pathetic.

As he drove off, some guy near me yelled "Demasiado!", obviously shocked. A couple of women in white told me I should have gotten the license plate and told a cop. I realized I didn't particularly care. I thought about how I coulda keyed the car, or kneed it, both of which I would have done when I was younger and in a country where drivers rarely shoot people for small acts of vandalism. It didn't feel worthwhile. This was one little act of unjust power in a city where these things are rampant. Cops, companies, politicians, and just about every driver will take advantage of any little opening to behave in awesomely antisocial, unfair ways. Drivers always, always cut the line in traffic. And I'm no saint, I use my unjust power at times -- I think about getting searched by security schmucks and how you can wow them by mentioning you have a laptop in your backpack. Suddenly they almost always just let you go on through. And besides, I knew I had won. I didn't submit. I just kept walking. That's all I was trying to do, and I did it. I wasn't even bruised.

Such antisocial behavior was, for me, the biggest shock in arriving in Venezuela, with its banner of socialism. One thing I've found -- most people here are incredibly, over-the-top nice. They will do anything for you. Once you've met their eyes. Before that, there is a substantial minority who will fuck you six ways to Sunday. It is pretty easy to join the "us" side of us and them. But until then, beware.*

* UPDATE 9/5: Pepito, in comments, notes that my Spanish sucks. That is true. This is why all of my generalizations need to be taken with a grain of salt. Also why I refused to write or speak publicly about Venezuela in general for my first year here, despite goading from friends abroad. As is, I edited the first paragraph to have a better Spanish sentence. I changed the last one from extreme overgeneralization to regular overgeneralization.

PS: Welcome, drinkers of Inca Kola News. And thanks, Mr. Rock, for the link. Very kind. You sure have friends in many places. Hello Buenos Aires! Hello Krung Thep! Hello Sinaloa! Hello Lyngssa! Hello Burnaby! It occurs to me that the Blogger comment software is a bit of a pain. If anyone wants to return the salutation, it's very simple.

The End of All Cans

There is recycling in Venezuela, though you wouldn't know it to look at a typical city street corner piled high with trash bags seeping mango juice and stinking of rotten chicken bones. A quick look at the bags shows all the usual recycling suspects: newspaper, office paper; glass bottles in clear, green, brown and blue; cans of aluminum and steel; and plastics of every sort. Not to mention the organic matter than in some cities is now sent to a municipal compost heap.

The recycling happens at the dump. Every dump has its residents, and the biggest -- which I haven't visited yet -- is La Bonanza (yes, the name means what it sounds like), the destination of Caracas's garbage. There, according to a TV report I saw recently, there are more than 1,000 people living in ranchos, homes made of waste material, and going through the trash for valuables.

This is mostly an old story all over the world. It's an important task and it's a job that gives people a living. The problem is that nowadays the existence of that job is evidence of a failed system. They are a scab over a persistent sore as materials leak out of the physical economy -- it's great to have a scab, but it would be better to cure the sore in the first place.

As is now, their job involves tearing open household trash bags and sorting through food scraps cooked in the tropical sun, the dirty toilet paper from the majority of buildings where the stuff can't be flushed and the crumbled styrofoam trays that accompany every block of cheese or pair of apples in most supermarkets, in order to find unwashed steel tuna cans, ant-laden aluminum soft-drink cans, and other valuables. I visited one small dump recently and found 15-year-olds standing around a bonfire of electric cables, burning off the plastic insulation and getting their daily doses of dioxin.

The government has been working on dumps -- on getting more garbage sent there. The first priority has been to cut down on the use of roadside ditches and canyons as informal landfills.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Darkness illuminated

Someone forgot to tell Caracas that it's a city, and not a scattering of villages connected by rural byways. So here it is, 2008, with the lights of humanity shining off the dark side so as to make the place look like it has holes through to the sun, and in Caracas, there are streets as dark as anything in the exurbs.

The Tolon Fashion Mall punctuates the Las Mercedes neighborhood, one of the busiest parts of the city. Just out the door is a 5-way intersection with a big-screen TV billboard and a bustling hot-dog stand. Beyond that are the sapitos: a street with a few well-separated streetlights, so dark it's hard to see the huge wheel-eating openings on the sewer grates, the brightest light coming from up the security post atop the driveway of the abandoned Iraqi embassy. Another few blocks' worth of distance and the lights disappear entirely amid the Valle Arriba Country Club, where the smell of tree growth and mud puts the entire scene back 60 years to when this road, the Old Baruta Highway, was the only route up a jungly year-round river to the outlying villages of Baruta, El Hatillo and points south.

(As I'm writing, a flying cockroach is trying to convince a light bulb in my room that this electrical fixture is actually the moon and hence should be aiding, rather than interrupting, the poor invertebrate's nocturnal navigation.)

The old highway is mostly abandoned now, especially at night, while thousands of cars an hour slide by on a freeway on the other side of a golf green, their sound muffled almost entirely by rows of trees around the river, now a concrete ditch five or six meters deep, stinking of chlorine and waste.

I find the presence of so much darkness refreshing and sweet.