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The 7th Circle of Hell

Government! Three fourths parasitic and the other fourth stupid fumbling. ~ Robert A. Heinlein

I needed to renew my ID and the prospect of this filled me with a profound sense of dread, 100 times more dread than filling my taxes.

Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy, no explanation needed.

Whenever we have anything to do at the start of the day I have to mentally prepare myself.  I repeat a mantra that goes goes something like, everything will be fine, be patient, try to remain calm, and limit your swearing.  But when we have to go downtown I need a little something extra, like donning a super hero type invisible shield.

I’ve written before about the parking lot effect of commuting in Caracas.  I can not clearly express the insanity of it all, so when we have to go downtown we usually opt for public transit.  I wouldn’t say that it’s the better option, but it’s less stressful for Juan to have to concentrate so hard while listening to my colorful commentary while trying to take over the horn.

Rush hour.  Can you see the organization with traffic going in three directions at the same time?

Rush hour. Can you see the organization with traffic going in three directions at the same time?

After hopping a mini bus (I think I need to write about these soon) and riding the subway we arrive in the center of the city.  Downtown is a world of its own.  Juan’s mom tells me that it used to be beautiful and people would go out of their way to walk in the plazas, shop and have coffee on the terraces. Now, it’s skid row.  People are loud, shifty, untrustworthy, and always trying to hustle their wares. The threat of violence is always present and palpable.  I’m quickly learning to look without watching. The grime is thick and the smell of piss is sharp. It’s a very poor area of the city. People wear years of sorrow and struggle on their faces and show their pride of Chavismo on their shirts. The irony of this is not lost on me. This is where the government office is. I call it the 7th Circle of Hell after Dante’s 7th Circle.

Dante's Inferno

Dante’s Inferno

I would really like to say that government offices here are organized chaos, but sadly I cannot.  They are absolute chaos.  The process went something like this:

Join the already super long line outside of the building. Listen to the people on both sides of us complain.

Wait around an hour to get to the front of the line, only to be told which line I need to go through once inside.

Argue with the “doorman/bouncer” to allow Juan to escort me and be my translator. His answer, no! Juan explains I don’t have a bank account to pay my fees and that he needs to pay on my behalf.

Doorman tells Juan he cannot pay for my fees and I that need a voucher that can only be paid for at a bank. Juan heads to the bank to purchase said voucher.

I go inside and try and find the line that I’m supposed to be in. It’s beyond confusing because there are 3 separate lines that occupy almost all available floor space. My line is making a perimeter around 100 sitting people.  The line is almost a complete rectangle, reaching back to the entrance.

Chaos

Chaos

I don’t want to generalize about all Latinos, but my experience with Venezuelans is that they’re a very loud bunch. The cacophony of raised voices was deafening.

I ask (yell at) the woman in front of me if the seated people are the people ahead of us. Yes, was her response.  I let out a low sigh and mumble dios mio (my god) knowing the day was going to be a long one.

Juan apparently demands to be let through the door (to give me my voucher) and finds me in the immobile queue. Once we start moving we discover that my line is actually two, one for foreigners and the other for Venezuelans. Another hour later, I have my ticket.

My paperwork is whisked away (being checked for something) and returned. I get to keep my ticket. I only had to wait for 35 more people to take their turns before mine.  I was slightly hopeful that time would pass quickly, but my hopes weren’t high.

The queue moves slowly rotating between foreigners and Venezuelans. By 11:30 we noticed that the foreigner’s numbers are no longer being called. So for an hour we waited while a skeleton staff dealt with the Venezuelans. Don’t misunderstand me, there was staff milling about, texting on their phones, talking to each other in small groups, but not working. For some unknown reason, I wasn’t the least bit fazed.  I totally expected this. Ha!  Maybe my mantra worked.

Juan took the opportunity to go out and find a snack.  Work “resumes” and I have about 15 numbers ahead of me. At 1:45 my number is called and I go to the assigned booth.  I sit down and say good afternoon and the guy looks at me like I have 3 heads.  I think he was offended.  Whatever, I maintained my smile. The guy spoke so fast that I understood about 3 words. Thankfully Juan translated.  That done, I get shuffled to another line.

This department was called Supervision. I laughed out loud. Juan says it’s a make shift job.  She essentially printed out a slip telling me the date I was to pick up my ID.  The last guy could have done this. Anyway, the date?  The following day!  I couldn’t believe it.  I thought, wow, it’s all worth the wait if I can have it tomorrow. We leave a little after 2pm.  Not bad, almost 6 hours.

Yes!!!

Yes!!!

The following morning we decided to drive downtown. We know that picking up my ID should take less than an hour.  Traffic?  Beyond horrible.  We have no idea what happened, but whatever it was affected the entire city.  Gridlock like you wouldn’t believe. Sigh. We got close enough that I could walk to the building while Juan  searched for parking. We met, I pushed my way past the “bouncer” (I knew from the previous day that I could get away with it if I asserted myself), entered a new lineup, and waited. While waiting all I could think about was, if it’s too good to be true, then it probably is.  Not 10 minutes later I leave empty-handed.  No ID.

disappointment

Sigh

The bottom line is that I have to return in 20 days.  I guess the woman at the “Supervision” desk had it all wrong.  Not surprising.  We chalked it up to another day of trying to get stuff done in this city of madness.

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I’m a Head Banger

Efficiency is doing better what is already being done.                           ~ Peter F Drucker

Living in a country that is not your own really puts the magnifying glass on one’s character. You get to discover if you’re a Type A or B personality? I’m on the obsessive A side.  What brings you joy? Nature and  food.  Are you an understanding  or compassionate person? Yes, I am. What annoys you? The list is long.  And what would truly push you over the edge? Not much. There are times when I think I should go over to a wall and bang my head, but of course, in the end, the only person I’d be hurting would be myself. What is this magnifying glass showing?  It’s glaringly obvious that I’m impatient.  It’s my Achilles heel. I really appreciate and need efficiency. I crave it like chocolate.  Maybe I was Swedish or Japanese in another life.

People here complain about inefficiency all the time.  It’s a topic of conversation, much like the weather is for Canadians.

DSC03408

A dreary Montreal day.

We really got dumped on last night, didn’t we?

Yea, another 30 cm of the white stuff’s coming.

God, when will winter end?

I don’t know; yesterday was the first day of spring.

Sound familiar?  You can always insert rain for snow if you’re living in Vancouver.

A relatively small line up.

A relatively small line up, inside and out.

In Caracas the conversation goes something like this:

Aarrgghhh, an audible sigh, immediate look of despair, eye rolling commences. Turn to the guy that just came up behind you. The line up for the bank/check out/pharmacy counter is horrendous.

It’s always like this. It doesn’t matter what time of the day you come.

Yea, I know.  Hey, hold my place in line. I’m going to see if the other line is moving faster.

Sure.  If your line is moving faster, I’ll come over.

20 minutes later……… you’ve moved up 3 spots, but look on the bright side, you just made a new friend.

No explanation needed.

No explanation needed.

So yesterday Juan had to go to deposit 2 checks at one bank.  We take our place in line and within seconds, 15 people were standing behind us.  There is one teller open and every 30 seconds someone is going up to the teller to ask for a deposit slip while a client is trying to do their banking.  Yes, you read that right.  It’s 2013 and they’re still using deposit slips.  Here is one of the problems, the bank won’t leave any on the counter because people take them.  Really?! Well of course they take them!!!!  They don’t want to waste their time.  Your banking takes twice as long because of the constant interruptions and of course after you picked up your slip, you have to go to the back of the line to fill the damn thing out.  Head banging commences.

We waited our 25 minutes, I go ahead of Juan to ask for deposit slips (you know for next time). I leave so the guy doesn’t see through our thinly disguised plan.  A couple minutes later I see Juan standing in line for the bank machine.  He tells me the teller will only deposit one check and not the other because it was under a certain amount. WTH?  My second bout of head banging  is in full swing.  Our turn comes up and the machine is temporarily out of service!!  Of course it is. Now I know you’re asking, why didn’t he just use the machine in the first place?  People don’t trust them.  If a check goes missing, the bank has a “it’s not our responsibility” attitude.  It’s risky.

There was another branch on the other side of the mall so we decided to walk over.  Guess what?  That side of the mall was closed and wouldn’t be open for another hour and a half. This head banging session is coming to a close and the head shaking in disbelief starts.

Of course, I always having a running commentary with Juan about using bank cards instead of deposit slips, streamlining procedures at the teller, efficiency, etc.  And although he concurs, I think he’s tired of me pointing out the glaringly obvious.

Here’s a perfect example of inefficiency, if you deposit a check you have to have your photo taken and you need to give your thumb print.  The teller to camera  ratio is about 2 to 1, and it’s required for ALL checks.  So if you deposit 10 checks, that means 10 photos and 10 thumb prints are taken.  All of that takes time. Can you feel the pain?  Oh and talk about Big Brother!  But that’s a whole other post.

Anyway, that was the first of three banks we had to go to yesterday; they went just as smoothly.

Line Up, Queue, Cola…

I have a very sharp tongue, I’m very impatient, and it’s a lifelong struggle. ~ Karen Armstrong

Line up, queue, cola, whatever you call it, it still equates to time wasted.

Life is funny.  It seems like I’m constantly challenged to work on one of my worst qualities, impatience. It rears its ugly head at certain things like waiting for summer to arrive, being super excited to go somewhere (I’m not the road trip kind of gal), or waiting for Juan to find his keys and put on his shoes when we have someplace to be and I’ve been ready for 10 minutes.  So isn’t it a bit ironic that I move to a place where I think they invented line ups?

Line up for the bank.  A great way to start the day.

Line up for the bank. A great way to start the day.

I understand that I’m living in South America and they have different ways of doing things; and I get that Caracas is a very large, somewhat disorganized city, but people here dislike line ups just as much as I do.  Some days are filled with dread because you have more than one thing to do. You constantly have to consider how much time will be spent waiting.

Rush hour.  Can you see the organization with traffic going in three directions at the same time?

No, this isn’t a parking lot.  This is rush hour. Can you see the organized flow of traffic going in three directions at the same time?

It goes something like this: I have to go to the doctor’s office.  Um it’ll take me 45 minutes to an hour to drive there, try to find parking (always a challenge) wait a minimum of 3 hours for a 10 minute appointment, go to the bank, but  try to find parking again, which can be around 20 minutes depending on where the bank is located, wait up to an hour in the bank.  There is no swiping of the debit card here.  Everything is still pretty much paper driven; you know, how it was 20 years ago when you had to fill out the withdrawal or deposit slip, plus your photo is taken and you have to ink your thumb print if you’re cashing cheques.  People are very weary of bank machines and won’t really use them if they’re situated outside of the bank. No matter, there are line ups for those too. Next, get some gas and pick up groceries on the way home.  Four seemingly small errands can take up to 6 hours, not very efficient and incredibly frustrating.  Of course the time will vary slightly depending on the order and the time of day you do your errands.

People waiting to insure their cars.  This line up is two people deep.

People waiting to insure their cars. This line up is two people deep.

Can see my problem? There are even line ups for line ups!  You think I’m joking, but it’s very common for government offices to employ this.  You stand in line for 45 minutes to an hour (seems like the magical number) to get the information of where you’re supposed to go, only to find the right place and wait another hour  for less than five minutes with the person you need to speak with.  Ah, bureaucracy, you got to love it.  Not!

I'm waiting for Juan waiting at the Notary Office.

I’m waiting for Juan waiting at the Notary Office.

Of course all of my Latino students laugh at me. They employ the “Silly Kim, you should know better” conversation.  I’m glad to know that my frustrations are their amusements.  They give me tips like bring a book or magazine; pack some water and something to snack on. These are good, but wouldn’t it be easier if things were just a tiny bit more efficient?

This is not traffic.  This is a line up to get to the gas pump.  It does affect traffic, though.

This is not traffic. This is a line up to get to the gas pump. It does affect traffic, though.

I know complaining doesn’t solve anything, but some days it sure helps to vent a little.  I’m learning to deal with it, but trust me when I say it’s challenging.

Up We Go…..

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books. ~ John Lubbock

This past Sunday I did something I’ve never done before in my life.  I hiked a mountain from bottom to top! No, not the Canaima like in the animation UP, but the Avila.  It’s a beautifully lush mountain range  that divides the city from the sea.

A view of the Avila from my friend's condo.

A view of the Avila from my friend’s condo.

I’m not sure why we accepted the invitation except to say that it was something to do on a Sunday.  We went with Juan’s sister and a few of her friends.  At the beginning of the hike we were told that it had some steep parts, but the overall hike was smooth.  Note to self, consider the source.  The women who told us this are quite experienced hikers.  Having hiked all over the world, this would seem like nothing but a stroll. One thing I learned is this,  what one person considers a smooth easy hike, another person considers a small private hell.  Now not all of it was challenging, but man, there were some parts that I didn’t think I could climb.

We started our journey at around 8 am, and although the start of the hike was laborious  I was excited to be surrounded by the trees and the cool damp air.   I love being in the woods, smelling  the earth, listening to the quietude, and admiring the various colors of brown and green. It shouldn’t have surprised me  that there were a lot of people on the trail, but there were.  Young and old alike took to the sky.

A view of Caracas from the Avila.

A view of Caracas from the Avila.

There were viewpoints, such as the one above, that made me stop and gape with my mouth wide open at the size of Caracas.  This is just a small part of this immense  city.  It’s quite pretty from above, wouldn’t you agree?

One hour quickly turned into two.  I wasn’t really complaining at this point.  I still had a lot of energy and my childlike curiosity kept me well occupied.  A couple of things that I saw, but was unable to get  pictures of, were butterflies and parrots. It seemed like every time I took my phone out to snap a picture, they flitted or flew away.  Sigh

At one point we came across a hill so steep I thought it would have been more effective if I crawled up it.  The hiker beside me was just as discouraged.  Somehow that made me feel better.  At least I wasn’t the only one in pain.

A little treasure.

A little treasure I found on my way. I’m amazed that only the veins remain.

After three hours, I was at the point where I dearly wanted to sleep.  Fortunately for me, we came upon a resting point with a shack.  Thank god!!  I would have walked right past this shack because the window was tightly closed and the door slightly ajar.  Had there not been anyone milling about I would have lost the opportunity to try something delicious.  On the menu (a piece of  paper with three things written on it) was jugo de tomate y mora (tomato and blackberry juice).  I confirmed this with a fellow hiker (Juan was further behind me so I couldn’t question him). Really?  Tomato and blackberry?  I needed to try it!  To say it was refreshingly divine is an understatement!!  Man, oh man, that was surprisingly good. Nope, no picture.  I was too tired to take my phone out of my bag.  But trust me, it’s worth experimenting with.  I think you need to remove the seeds and skin of the tomato and then puree it with the blackberries and some ice.  Super simple!

The other thing I had there was frozen passion fruit juice (one of my favs)!  It was kind of like a freezy in a cup.  I wanted to lay there and eat this all day.  The promise of the upcoming view was hardly tempting.  I was already in my own little heaven.

Juan at the shack.  Can you see the menu?

Juan at the shack. Can you see the menu?

Although my rest was well deserved, I knew better than to stop for a long period of time.  I was actually afraid that my bones and muscles would seize and I wouldn’t make it up or down.  I was promised just one more hour and then I would be rewarded with the most spectacular view.  This last hour was killer.  There were parts on this path that were so narrow that there was yellow “Peligroso” (danger) tape stretched across two thin bamboo trees. One little misstep and I was going down, way down.  I grabbed a few gnarled roots and push myself ahead. The last leg of the hike was a bit cruel.  It was tough and I was tired.  There were no more resting places.  If I stopped, I line of people behind me had to stop because no one would have been able to pass.  Ah, the pressure!

Finally, I made it to the summit.  I wanted to collapse.  My legs were like jelly. I had such a sense of pride and the feeling of accomplishment.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to turn back at certain points. And as cliché as it is, I kept seeing the hike as a metaphor for life.  You know, the ups and downs, the struggles and the triumphs.

Woo Hoo

Woo Hoo

The irony of all of this was that I had seen the spectacular view three years earlier when Juan and I were here last.  The joke was on me!  Ha ha.  We took the cable car up.  But this time around it was more special, somehow I felt like I was more deserving.

My reward.  Galipan, the place where the sea meets the sky.

My reward. Galipan, the place where the sea meets the sky.

There was a woman who came up right after our group.  To say she was inspiring is an understatement.  Her name is Teresa and she’s 81 years old.  YES, 81!!!  Apparently she’s a regular.  Every weekend she does the hike in under 3 hours.  She put me to shame.

Teresa

Teresa on the right, joined us for lunch.

After lunch we all decided it was time to head down.  We took the cable car.  Good thing because I would have had to have been carried.  Heights kind of freak me out.  I’m not sure when I developed this, but it’s a bit unnerving when I’m swinging around in a little car high above the ground.  I had to look way ahead to take the picture.

A view of Caracas from the cable car.

A view of Caracas from the cable car.

When I look at the picture above I really can gauge how far I came.  It was a fantastic day.  As much as I struggled, I know I want to go back and do it again.

The Joy of Simple Things

I am sure that the turtle can teach you a better way than the hare.

the-wise-turtle

This quote is awesome!  What a simple reminder to slow down and enjoy the journey. I love the beach.  I love that I can be lazy.  I love that I don’t have to think about anything.  This weekend we had an opportunity to slip out of this craziness called Caracas and head to the sandy shores.   Like a horse with a carrot dangling in front of its nose, I stayed focused.  I planned and I checked things off of my list: beer, check, sunscreen, check, plantain chips, check, towels, check, cooler, check.  We were set.

We needed to leave early Saturday morning to beat traffic.  How early you ask?  6:30 early.  I know, good thing we’re morning people, right?  Now in reality, the beach isn’t far, but the traffic plays such a crucial role here that a 45 minute drive can take well over 3 hours.  For the most part we were lucky.  There weren’t any accidents and we made record time, just under an hour and a half.

Everyone has the same idea.  Get out of town!

Everyone has the same idea. Get out of town!

After stopping off to get some empanadas and some well needed coffee, we dropped our stuff off at our friend’s condo and were on the beach just before 9.  I understand how people love sunsets on the beach, but I prefer the mornings when the sun isn’t too strong, the beach isn’t crowded and the birds are searching for their breakfast.

The view from our friend's apartment.

The view from our friend’s condo.

Now I’ve been to enough beaches to know to apply sunscreen, but for some stupid reason I almost always forget to put it on one part of my body and at the end of the day I’m left scolding myself.  I carefully applied the cream over my body, paying specific attention to my ankles (the former victims of my negligence).  After waking up from a little snooze.  Yeah, I had a nap…tee hee.  Life is cruel, isn’t it?  Don’t envy me yet. I discovered that unfortunately, this time was no different.  I burnt my knees!  Seriously, how did I miss them?  They’re round, bony little things.  Sigh. I think I need to make a check list for future applications.

Really? Burnt knees?

Really? Burnt knees?

Like a child, I was quickly distracted from my pain when I saw a vendor passing by selling jewelry.  Normally I don’t ask them to come over because I feel bad if I don’t buy anything, but something blue caught my eye and I needed to see what it was.  It was a pretty bracelet.  I asked the guy to see it and he was obliging.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw one with shells and some colored things that looked like little buttons(they turned out to be dyed coconut shell).

Coconut and seashells

Coconut and seashells

Anything natural with texture and color and I’m in.  I think the most precious of art comes from nature or is at least inspired by it.  I disregarded the first and focused all of my attention on the smooth shell creation.  I tried it on and wasn’t at all surprised to find out that it was huge.  I have child sized wrists.  The guy said he could adjust it and sure enough he pulled out some scissors and a lighter.  I put it on a second time, but for some reason I couldn’t figure how to remove it.  He took it off of my wrist and told me that he’d make it better, prettier.

Nature's simple beauty.

Nature’s simple beauty.

After settling in the sand to redesign my bracelet, we offered him something to drink while I keenly watched.  He deftly thread the pieces on the string and tied knots at an amazing speed.  His final design was simpler and indeed prettier than his last.  I get so much joy when I look at it.  I know it sounds weird.  How can something that cost around $5 bring a smile to my lips?   It’s difficult to explain.  I get the same feeling when I’m in the woods staring at the leaves of a tree.  One thing I know for sure is when I wear it I’ll remember him, the beach, the sun, but more importantly, it’ll act as reminder that the the simplest pleasures can be found almost anywhere.

Nature’s High

All great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: Freedom, Justice, Honor, Duty, Mercy, Hope, Smoothies.

Juan’s mom and I made a quick trip to the fruit and veggie market the other day and while we were meandering around we came up a fruit I didn’t recognize.  This is pretty common for me.  There are lots of tropical fruit that I have no idea what they are.  It wasn’t the pear shape that interested me, nor the yellow color, it was the aroma.  Now when I say aroma what I really mean is the drug like effect it had on my senses.  No word of a lie, this fruit has an euphoric effect.

Guayaba or guava in English.  My new love!

Guayaba or guava in English. My new love!

The new focus of my desire is called guayaba, or in English guava.  I’ve tried it  before in a jelly fruit candy.  The smell isn’t the same, but I had a general idea of the taste.  Anyway, for the rest of that morning we drove around with them in the car and all I  kept thinking was, this could be bottled and sold as a natural anti-depressant.  Well I guess eating them is easier than bottling and the nutritional value is outstanding!

The new anti-depressant?

The new anti-depressant?

I decided to make a batido (or a smoothie).  I cut the fruit length wise and cut them into cubes, like I do with mangoes.  This by the way, is the wrong way. Juan’s mom came into the kitchen and told me that I needed to peel the skin like a potato and then cut it into smaller pieces.  I was just going to throw everything into the blender willy nilly, but this is also incorrect.  After cutting the guava and placing it in the blender, you need to add a lot of water and blend on high.

Mashing the pulp.

Mashing the pulp.

The next step is to put the juice through a sieve and mash all the pulp out.  This process also removes  the seeds, which by the way are as hard as little pebbles.

Look at all of those seeds!

Look at all of those seeds!

I also decided to add some papaya. This is something I wish I liked more, but I can’t get over the smell. The color, on the other hand is something that I love!  I put it in smoothies because it’s supposed to be SO good for you.

A bin full of papayas.

A bin full of papayas.

The last thing I put was an apple. I had no idea if this combination would work, but I thought, What the hell?  It won’t be that bad.

The tart component to balance the sweetness.

The tart component to balance the sweetness.

And it wasn’t!  Actually, it kind of tasted like a mild bubble gum.  I think next time I’m going to add passion fruit to my guava juice.  You know, there are a million different possibilities here!

Voila!

Voila!

It’s a miracle, well kind of…

Even the ant has his bite. ~ Turkish Proverb

Two fantastic things have happened this week.  One, we finally bought a car (this is the miracle) and two, we finally made it to the Chacao food market before closing time.  It normally closes before 2 on weekdays, but we went on a Saturday before noon.  This was both good and bad.

Some familiar vegetables.

Some familiar vegetables.

I’ve written before (A Lesson in Patience) about the incredible difficulties of finding a car here in Caracas, so it was with great fortune that a friend of a friend of Juan’s sister was selling one.  Did you get that?  That’s the most trusted way of doing business here.  If you know the person, or they come recommended, the chances of a smooth transaction are high.

I’ve also mentioned that gas here is, for all intents and purposes, free. Let me put it this way, a can of coke is more expensive than a TANK of gas. The subsidization of gas here is, for lack of a better word, strange.  I know every country has their issues, but for a country that has millions upon millions of people living below the poverty line the best it can do is give away gasoline?  Ahhhh, my brain goes in circles considering this here.  I struggle to understand the why’s and how’s of it.  I think I’ll leave it for another day.

gas

Having a car is another piece of the puzzle falling into place.  It’s funny,  Juan and I have always tried to live in cities where we wouldn’t be car dependent.  You know, live in a place where we could easily commute using great public transportation.  Montreal, by the way, was the best to date offering city dwellers and tourists alike the metro (a subway), buses, and the Bixi (a bike rental service where you can rent by the hour or the season). Bixi = bike + taxi.  It’s genius. Fortunately, and unfortunately, a car here means freedom!!  We no longer have to borrow Juan’s mom’s car (I’m pretty sure she loves her renewed freedom) and there is no need to plan; we can just get up and go.  The unfortunate part is that we’re adding to the already overly polluted city.  I guess I feel somewhat better knowing that the car is only a few years old.  The emissions are low, so it assuages my guilt.

Our new car.

Our new car.

We bought the car sight unseen (crazy prospect, isn’t it?), so once it was in our possession Juan wanted to test it on the highway. This was relatively easy seeing how there was a mass exodus out of the city for those wanting to celebrate carnival. I tested it as a passenger, checking the windows, air conditioner, the seats etc.  I remarked that we will never, ever have to use the heater!!  I giggle at this.  Tee hee.  Juan will be the principal driver here for two reasons: one, I’ll never drive in the city (it’d be suicide for me or manslaughter for someone else) and two, it’s a stick shift.  I never learned to drive one.  I’m kind of kicking myself for that, but I learned to drive on my first cross country Canada trip. The huge camper van we had was automatic.  I’ll learn to drive it once we get to the island. It’ll be good fodder for a post.

Anyway, once we finally made it to Chacao (a neighborhood) we needed to find parking.  Parking on the street in Chacao is safe, but Juan wanted to park in the market’s parking lot.  Parking lots here could also be another blog post, needless to say, one needs patience.  Seeing how I don’t have a lot of that, I left Juan to find his way while I went in search of some goodies.

A mountain of papayas!

A mountain of papayas!

Upon entering the market I made a mental note, not to ever go there on a Saturday again or at least come earlier in the morning.  We had planned on the latter, but Juan’s test drive took us a bit further than we had anticipated and into a shady neighborhood,  one I was anxious to get out of.  No pictures were taken there.  I digress.  The market was loud and lively.  This was due in part to a mini carnival parade (percussion section included) making it’s way through the stalls.  I love markets.  I could spend hours looking at every fruit, vegetable, herb, and knick-knack.  Juan, not so much.  So I used this opportunity (of not having him around for 10 minutes) to discover things he’d walk past.

A carnival parade through the market.

A carnival parade through the market.

Not having him around also allows me to practice my Spanish.  I found a store that was just up my alley.  It had teas, and natural products, and really kind people.  I could tell immediately that they would be patient with me, so I asked a lot of questions, even about things I knew the answers to.  I ended up buying some jasmine rice (which is hard to find here), some dried lavender and some pomegranate suckers.  The best find/deal for me were the wooden spoons.  I’m a tactile person.  I love the way things feel.  I have to touch things in order to know them better.  These spoons are so smooth and the colors are so rich. I just stood there and rubbed all of them.  You know, to feel which ones were the best.   The prices were shamelessly low, so of course I had to buy them.

My new collection of wooden spoons.  The long one is going to be used for mixing drinks!

My new collection of wooden spoons. The long one is going to be used for mixing drinks!

After wandering around for a bit, it was time for a little coffee.  Again, the people were super friendly.  While waiting for our order, Juan had me try a little bit of hot sauce that was sitting on the counter.  I love hot sauce. So much so, that I think I must have been Mexican in another life.  This hot sauce was nothing like I have ever tasted!!  It was not just hot and spicy, the flavor was really complex. I mean layers of complexity.  It was phenomenal. My mouth was so happy!  Juan turns to me and says, so do you want to know what’s in the sauce?  I look up to where the bottles were sitting and I could see an ant on the label.  Strangely, I wasn’t disturbed my this.  It was more fascination.  I mean how could something like an ant taste so damn good?!

The ant salsa.  Apparently it is also used as an aphrodisiac, or so they claim!

The spicy ant salsa. It is also used as an aphrodisiac, or so they claim!

The formic acid, the same acid that stings you when it bites, is what gives it flavor.  Of course there is also garlic, pepper and salt added, but it’s the acid that makes this salsa spectacular.  I have a feeling the kind of ant has something to do with it as well.  This particular salsa is made from ants from the Amazon.  I’ve seen them and they’re huge!  Once home, I told a friend about my new culinary discovery and she couldn’t wrap her head around eating bugs.  I understand her squeamishness, but it has opened a new world for me. I can’t wait to use this as a marinade.

A bachaco.  The same ant found in the salsa. Look at the size of it.  It's huge!

A bachaco. The same ant found in the salsa. Look at the size of it. It’s huge!

Buen Provecho!

An Assault on My Senses…….

A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.              ~Moslih Eddin Saadi

Flying into Venezuela is something to behold.  For some reason I forgot about its beauty.  Either that, or the last time we flew here was at night, and, therefore, we couldn’t have seen anything.  How do I describe the mountain ranges here?  Ummm, it’s like a huge green piece of paper was crumpled up into a ball and then laid flat in order to have been made into a gigantic fan.  Maybe it’s best to look at it like the folds of a long pleated skirt.  The deep green is contrasted with the blue sky and turquoise sea.  It’s breathtaking.  The closer you get to Caracas “the skirt” becomes speckled with color.  The color happens to be the barrios or slums. I had contradictory feelings when I saw that. It was beautiful and sad at the same time and then I thought of the contrasting monetary value of waterfront property.

One view of the Avila.

One view of the Avila.

Like most places in North America, waterfront property is worth millions (well at least in Vancouver), and here the poorest of people live precariously on the slopes with the most spectacular view.  You will learn soon enough that Venezuela is all about contradiction.  Now it would have been nice if I had actually taken a picture of this, but I forgot to whip my phone out.  I know, how absent minded, but in my defense I had been traveling for over 24 hours and I was wiped.

Driving from the airport to Caracas was something that I prepared for.  I knew I would be confronted with a view of one of the largest barrios in Caracas.  As soon as you come out of the dark tunnel into the light all you can see are shelters constructed of tin, brick and painted in all colors imaginable. I have to be honest with you; the first time I saw this I cried.  Having lived in Canada for most of my life and having traveled around Europe and North America I was accustomed to seeing homelessness, but I had never seen poverty on such a large scale.  Again, this is contradictory because Venezuela is an oil rich country.  One has to pause for thought.  How can a country as “rich” as this have millions upon millions of people living under the lowest of poverty lines?  I digress.  Arriving on a Sunday helped ease me into Caracas.  There wasn’t “much” traffic and traffic here means absolute chaos with a noise level that is incomparable to anything in Canada.  So, all was well.  We drove through a few neighborhoods and I was impressed with how much was familiar.

Barrios (slums), where are very large portion of the poor population live.

This isn’t the actual barrio I was talking about. This one is on the other side of Caracas, going east.

For some reason I didn’t feel as overwhelmed as I did the first time.  I saw some obvious changes, like timers for stop lights. These things are fantastic!  They allow drivers to know how time is left on the green light and how much time they need to wait on the red light.  Now they aren’t everywhere, but they’re situated where they are most needed.  I think other major cities in the world should adopt such a system.  I think it cuts down on the stress.

The street light timers.  What a perfect idea!

The street light timers. What a perfect idea!

One thing I noticed was the quality of the streets themselves.  I think Montreal had prepared me for the worst.  Anyone who has ever driven a car or ridden a bike in Montreal will know what I’m talking about.  The infrastructure there is atrocious and is inexcusable.  This, of course, is all due to years and years of blatant corruption.  Sadly (or happily, depending on which side you look at), the infrastructure in a “developing country” is a whole lot better.  Sure there are potholes, etc, but nothing like Montreal!

The heat!  I forgot to mention how warm it has been. You would think I would have mentioned this first considering how much I complain about being cold.  I went from –30 degrees to +30 in 24 hours.  My body is adjusting well.  It likes the non-tense position that it stays in for 6 months out of the year.  My vitamin D levels have been topped up and I have some color in my face.  It’s like a rebirth!!

kim-jungle.1

Before I go, I need to talk about food.  It always comes back to that, doesn’t it?  The freshness of food here is out of this world.  We had red snapper for our New Year’s dinner and it was so good.  I can’t emphasis this through words.  I savored every last bite.  The avocados look like they’ve been given some sort of growth hormone, but no; they just naturally grow to this size.  The plantains are as sweet as sugar and last, but not least are the passion fruit or parchitas. Not only are they super cheap, but they have to be at least 4 times the size of what we import in Canada.  I’ve been spoiled.   Juan’s mom makes the best jugo de parchita (passion fruit juice) and I’ve had a glass of it every morning!

lunch-collage

Remind me to tell you about the beach…….

Happy Birthday

With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come. ~                                William Shakespeare

Yesterday my mom was released from the hospital.  It was extra special for her because it was her birthday, but it was an absolute joyous occasion for my family because three weeks ago we didn’t know if she’d live to see this day.

She came home with quiet fanfare. No one greeted her at the house except my parents’ dog Chelsea.  She started barking, whining, and running around in circles at first sight through the curtains.  Once inside, she continued and used the furniture as an obstacle course, running around for the next 5 minutes.  After all of the hoopla, the dog pretty much ignored her for the rest of the day.  Maybe it was her way of telling my mom that she felt abandoned.  I thought it was strange. But isn’t it funny how people say cats are moody?  Huh.

My mom opened gifts and answered phone calls, ate some lunch and eventually had a nap.  I really enjoyed watching her live this day.  She was happy to be in her own surroundings and took pleasure in wearing her clothes (as opposed to the baby blue open back hospital gown), eating food she likes to eat, being able to open the fridge and drink whatever she wanted, and sit in her favorite chair to channel surf.  She was genuinely content.

On the drive home she said, “It’s funny the simple things we miss when we don’t see them” and my dad asked what kind of thing was she referring to and her reply was “traffic”. It sounded funny, but she was right.  Something as simple as the regular route home, the familiarity of it all, is something we can miss.

I can’t even imagine what this birthday would have been like if she hadn’t had such a great team of doctors, nurses and staff. My mind can’t even fathom what we would miss if she were gone. I am so grateful and so happy that she’s alive and at home.

I think this will go down as one of the best birthdays ever!

mom

Happy Birthday

The Stars Aligned

A friend is a present you give yourself.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

Earlier I had said that I would write about the friends in Montreal that have made my life fuller.  I digressed.  I steered off course, but stories are like that, aren’t they?  You start down one path and the story takes you to another, eventually leading you in a completely different direction and then you sit there and ask, “What was I saying? Oh yeah……”

When you live in the city of Montreal, and gauge the distance and time by which metro line to take, it seems like a huge ordeal when a car is required to get to any other part of the island, and even a bigger deal when you have to coordinate a ride with someone else.  Add winter conditions and these are the makings of some serious excuses to not venture out!  Going to a Christmas party that required some planning, knowledge that the house would be filled with kids (not really my forte), falling snow and putting my trust in a young Venezuelan driver (his first Canadian winter) made the meeting of my friend France a real miracle.  The stars aligned that night.

I’m a shy person if I’m in a room full of people I don’t know.  I’m not a mingler, I don’t work the room. I kind of stand close to Juan and ease drop on his conversation or I’m in the kitchen trying to help out the hostess.  This is my coping mechanism, you know, so I don’t feel too much like a wallflower. This particular night’s conversation was boring.  The party was taking place at one of Juan’s professor’s house and the topic had something to do with Wireless Networking. If you’re a geek, it probably would have been stimulating, but computer speak, mixed in with the latest technologies and lingo, plus engineering was more than enough to put me into a coma.  No matter how much I try (which, to be honest, I don’t) this kind of stuff just doesn’t hold my interest.  It’s like a really complicated math class being taught in Mandarin.  Needless to say, I left the room yawning, searching for a drink.

Drink in hand, I found a dimly lit room that called my name.  No screaming children in sight, I entered the sacred space. France was escaping too.  She looked up and said something along the lines of, “I’m not really into this tonight.”  I love this kind of honesty. I think we read each other’s plight, boredom.  We quickly discovered we had a lot in common: age, interests, traveling, etc.  Her husband was one of the “geeks”, another of Juan’s professors and a fellow Latino.  Once you say the words “I have a Latino husband/boyfriend”, the unspoken “uh-huhs” and “I totally know what you mean” and “his family” are written all over your faces, there is an underlying universal acknowledgment of understanding and bonding.  Strange, isn’t?

Our friendship was slow to grow, like ice thawing in the spring.  The winter was definitely a factor in this, plus she and her husband live in the burbs.  Again, it was about logistics. Take a bus, a metro and then a train.  Instead of calling it laziness, I like to think that I economize my energy in winter.  Anyway, we didn’t meet again until early summer.  And after a few BBQs  I knew that we’d be friends for a long time.

France is easy to talk to, we share the same sense of pragmatism, we’re both honest people that don’t put up with a lot of shit, we despise winter, we had very parallel lives in terms of marriage and divorce, plus we both LOVE chocolate.  But I identified with her in a way that I didn’t expect. To be honest, I had never given it any real thought prior to knowing her.  As funny as this is going to sound, it really means something to me.  She’s Canadian.  Now I know some of you are probably thinking, “What’s the big deal?” but there’s something comforting in talking about T.V shows, food, cartoons, music, and all things Canadian with someone who truly get’s it.

Besides all of these things, France is a friend’s friend.  If she knows I’m down, there’s always a comforting word. She really listens, she’s compassionate, sympathetic, and as my mother would say, “She’s the kind of person that would give you the shirt of her back”. She’s fun to be around, she has a great laugh and is just as quick witted as I am.  She plays a mean game of crib and totally gloats if she wins, which, sadly, is most of the time.

Someone once told me that we see ourselves in the people we surround ourselves with.  I see myself reflected in her.  France is sensitive, but more importantly she tries to do all that she can with the best of intentions. And if what Robert Louis Stevenson is true, then I gave myself a very precious gift.  I will miss her.

My “Canadian” friend, France.

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