Tag Archive | expat

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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The Heroic March

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage                         ~ Anais Nin

This quote is dear to me. There have been times when I’ve said it over and over in my head to push myself in making decisions. It’s kind of like a mantra, if you will.  And it really makes sense if you think about it.  If you have little or no courage your life will shrivel like fruit left to dry in the sun, but if you have some courage your life will expand in all directions. Living life to the fullest is kind of the point, isn’t it?

Last week was one of those weeks where I reflected heavily on courage. You see there is a presidential election coming this Sunday and last week the leader of the opposition was in Caracas to speak to the people.  Now some of you are thinking, so what?  That happens all of the time, all over the world. First let me preface by saying that I’m not a fan of politics, but unfortunately living here means I cannot escape it.  It permeates everything.  It’s like air; you simply cannot avoid breathing it in.

The man with the vision, Capriles.

The man with the vision, Capriles.

This particular election is important because for the first time in almost 15 years there is the possibility of a man becoming president, a man who has the foresight to see the huge potential of Venezuela, a man who wants to end the farce that is known as Chavez’s Social Revolution, a man who really, in all honesty, wants to end poverty and suffering of his people. Capriles is intelligent. He doesn’t want a communist country. He doesn’t want to give gifts in the form of hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil daily to countries such as Cuba. He wants Venezuela to produce its own food, he wants a safer country and he wants to do it all democratically, not by force, not by cheating, not by dividing Venezuelans down the middle, not by inducing fear, not by paying people to support him, not by murder or by kidnapping and, most importantly, not by denying millions of people their basic human rights.

On our way to hear Capriles speak.

On our way to hear Capriles speak.

Anyway, I digress. Let me get back  on track. There was a march called The Heroic March in support of Capriles and Juan really wanted me to go with him, but the problem is/was I have a fear of large crowds.  I get panicky about not finding an escape route, or being trampled on. Another legitimate  concern I had was the possibility of violence.  There are A LOT of guns in this city, so many that there are signs in almost every public space prohibiting them. There are also millions of people (Chavistas = Chavez supporters. It’s kind of a misnomer now that Chavez is dead, but the name has stuck) who don’t approve of the opposition and some who have absolutely no fear about committing violent acts, not just at election time, but pretty much all of the time.  Ah Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this particular post, you’ll have to understand why I kind of failed to mention this part. Just know that we really do live in a safe part of the city and we’ll be moving soon. Caracas is one of the most violent cities in the world, making it the most violent in South America. In 2011 there was on average 53 murders per day, although I think this figure is low considering that many murders aren’t reported.  So yea, I was scared.

An all too common sign here in Caracas.

An all too common sign here in Caracas.

The thing is this march, this election, and Capriles are history in the making! I’m living in a historic time.  A time where both sides (some Chavistas and non-Chavistas alike)  want change, want to live in a safe country, want food (food/product shortages of the basics such as flour, chicken, oil and toilet paper), want electricity (lots of power failures), want solid infrastructure, want and end to corruption.  This march essentially would bring all of these people and ideas together for the common good of everyone. Did I really want to miss out on that?  Did I want to miss out on the incredible energy and the immense amount of hope?  No! So what did we do?  We compromised.  I’d go to the march and walk among the crowd and if I felt worried, claustrophobic or down right scared, we’d stop.

In a poorer part of the march we saw the juxtaposition of support.

In a poorer part of the march we saw the juxtaposition of support.

Of the 12 km we walked, I felt scared only twice.  Once when we were walking down a narrow street and there were some Chavistas protesting on top of a building.  My vivid imagination got the better of me (I was thinking of snipers) and we moved from the center of the crowd  towards the wall. And the second was when the line of people entered into a tunnel. We rerouted ourselves up a hill and across a street.

The tunnel we chose not to go through.

The tunnel we chose not to go through.

This march was energizing.  People were singing, laughing, and dancing. There wasn’t any violence and the times when the crowds encountered Chavistas, there were innocent displays of beckoning for them to join our side.

Chavistas showing their support for Maduro.

Chavistas showing their support for Maduro.

So what really came from the march? Approximately, 800 000 people joined together to make one of the largest political statements in Venezuelan history, violence free.  What did I learn?  I learned that a lot of people’s lives expanded that day because they had courage to fight for their cause.  This isn’t even my country, let alone countrymen, and I can’t tell you or even describe the amount of pride I have, especially in a country where the election process is so rigged, where fraud is rampant, and fear is sky high.  They have courage to believe in a man they know can make a positive difference to all Venezuelans despite the odds stacked up against him.  If I hadn’t gone, I would never had the chance to participate in something so large!  Have a look at the aerial view of the march.

It was 34 degrees that day.  We went through a few bottles of water.

It was 34 degrees that day. We went through a few bottles of water.

As I write this I’m getting news snippets from Juan: another murder, a kidnapping, the government has closed the Colombian boarders so thousands of Venezuelans can’t return to their country to vote…..and on and on it goes.  Nobody really knows what will happen this Sunday. I just hope that all Venezuelans will have to courage to face and deal with the result, for good or bad.

If you’d like further reading on the situation here in Venezuela, check out these blogs. Daniel Duquenal tells it like it is and Caracas Chronicles is really well versed on the subject of all things Caracas.

Arepas

So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being. ~ Franz Kafka

I remember when I first started dating Juan we met some of his friends at a Jazz fest and they started talking about traveling throughout South America.  One particular woman was so excited about the arepas in Venezuela that she was salivating.  Me?  Well I was instantly put off by the name.  A-repa.

Juan's mom's arepas.

Juan’s mom’s arepas.

Less than a year later I was in the land of arepa.  You’re probably asking yourself, what exactly is an arepa? I thought it might be time for a little explanation seeing how it’s part of my blog name. It’s made from a finely ground corn flour, shaped into puffy disks and can be eaten with just about anything, at any time. The easiest way for me to put it into context would be to say it’s as important to Venezuelans as bread is to the rest of us. Think of it as their equivalent to the sandwich, albeit the savory kind.  Most arepas are filled with cheese, shredded beef, plantains, beans, avocado or a mixture of all the above.

Juan's mom makes arepas with lightning speed! Once I've tried to round out one, she's on her 10th.

Juan’s mom makes arepas at lightning speed! By the time I’ve tried to round out one, she’s on her 10th.

Once here, I was excited to try it.  I mean it would be part of my daily diet and the possibilities sounded endless. I tried it and much to everyone’s surprise, didn’t like it.  Juan’s mom just couldn’t wrap her head around the reason why.  I don’t know, there was something about the texture I didn’t like; it was soft and spongy.  That  was it, I didn’t eat another one for the remainder of my time here.  It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s kind of like going to Asia and never eating noodles. Well all of that changed  2 years later when I’m sitting at a friend’s place (in Montreal) and her brother in law sets down a huge basket of arepas to accompany the best tasting cilantro garlic chicken I’ve ever tasted in my life.  These little corn discs were crunchy on the outside and a little doughy on the inside.  Good thing for second chances because the little arepa was redeemed!  Oh the irony.

They don't skimp on the cheese here. This cost about $3.00

They don’t skimp on the cheese here. This cost about $3.00

Areperas (arepa restaurants) here are like Subways or MacDonald’s. There is one on every corner and they’re cheap! They’re the go to meal/snack. They’re also something that you eat and it keeps you full until your next meal.  I can only ever eat one; that’s how filling they are.  My favorite is filled with the humble avocado.

The rich, creamy texture of the avocado is perfect for the crunchy arepa.

The rich, creamy texture of the avocado is perfect for the crunchy arepa.

If you live in a multicultural city, you can find “harina pan” and make your own. If Just follow the directions on the bag and your dough will be perfect. Well almost, you need to add a bit of salt. Juan’s mom, like all good mom cooks, doesn’t measure anything.  So until you’re a pro, I’d stick with the instructions.

Harina pan translates as bread flour.  This is the only brand in Venezuela.

Harina pan translates as bread flour. This is the only brand in Venezuela.

After making the pucks, the best thing to do is to fry it on both sides in a tiny bit of oil until crispy and then put them in a warm oven. Having made these for over 70 years, Juan’s mom taps them to know if they’re done. Apparently if they sound hallow, they’re cooked. To be on the safe side, I’d say bake them for about 10 minutes. Experiment with fillings and enjoy something new.

Juan likes his fluffy and I like mine flat.

Juan likes his fluffy and I like mine flat.

And if you are lucky enough to live in Montreal, check out La Arepera du Plateau.  My friend’s brother in law opened his own family run Arepera with huge success.  I can tell you first hand that the food is authentic and the arepas are fantastic.  Buen provecho!

Photo courtesy of Arepera du Plateau.

Photo courtesy of Arepera du Plateau.

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.

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!

Sunday in Caracas

Sunday is the golden clasp that binds together the volume of the week.  ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Something strange happens here on Sundays, people slow down.  It’s like they take a deep breath before the start of a new week or perhaps they have no energy from the week that has passed and just decide to go with it and relax.  This doesn’t mean they stay at home and don’t do anything, on the contrary.  It appears that everyone heads outdoors to spend time with family and friends.

View of the Avila from Parque El Este.

View of the Avila from Parque El Este.

Two fantastic places to do this are Parque El Este and the Avila National Park. Both, conveniently enough, are located in the city.  Because everyone has the same idea, there are some serious lines to get into and out of Parque El Este.  It’s a super crowded place on the weekend.  Every group imaginable is there from yoga, tai chi, some sword fighting group, I even saw a wellness group where people were laughing so hard it was contagious.  There are, of course, the walkers, the joggers, and basketball, volleyball and baseball players along with kids in strollers.  Everyone is trying to get the most of the fresh air and their one truly free day.

A wandering turtle.  I think it was lost.

Turtle

There are kiosks of toys for kids, people pressing fresh orange juice, or serving chicha ( a semi-thick rice drink, not to my liking), there are even canteens selling empanadas and taquenos (I’ll write more about those when I have pictures of the good stuff!).

A 2 foot long wandering iguana.

A 2 foot long wandering iguana.

Parque EL Este is not a zoo even though it has some crocs, lots of turtles, a couple of monkeys, a few otters, and the odd large iguana running around.  I particularly like watching the monkeys, but I love watching other people react, or not, to animals, especially children.  People connect to nature differently than how they connect with people.  In some ways it gives me hope.

Taking a sip of water.

Taking a sip of water.

I’m all about stopping and smelling the roses.  Seriously, I think Juan gets tired of me picking up random things like seeds, or fruit from a tree, or feeling the texture of bark on a tree.

Hura Crepitan seed.

Hura Crepitan seed.

Take the Hura Crepitan seed for example.  It stopped me in my tracks. It’s a big, hard seed which, when whole, kind of looks like a small brown pumpkin. Juan told me that people here make jewelry, key chains, or even art with them.

Can you spot the dolphin?

Can you spot the dolphin?

The tree is also referred to as the Dolphin tree because when you turn one part of the seed a certain way it looks like a dolphin.  I think I’m going to try and make something out of mine.  By the way, the trunk has thorns like a rose.  Crazy, right?

Hura Crepitan Jewelry

Hura Crepitan Jewelry
Picture courtesy of http://www.angelfire.com

Anyway, I like details; I like that I can think about shapes, forms, the how and the why of things.  It gets my mind working and it calms me down.  Nature is awesome!

Pink Bloom

Pink Bloom

After visiting Parque El Este we headed over to the Avila National Park for a little hike.  The Avila is the mountain range that dominates all of Caracas. It’s a large dark green curtain of a mountain.  It’s beautiful.

The beginning of our hike was, you guessed it, crowded.  People with dogs, bikes and kids crammed the entrance.  A few minutes later we were in our own little world.  We went off of the beaten track onto a small trail.

A whole lot of roots.

A whole lot of roots.

The silence was most welcoming.  It was hard to believe that solitude could be had in such a noisy city.  I love this mountain for this reason.  The air was pure, so clean.  Caracas, unfortunately has no real air quality control, so cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles pollute in such a careless way that it breaks my heart.  Huge black clouds of exhaust are everywhere.

Twisted trunk.

Twisted trunk.

Whenever we walk around for any length of time my nose and throat burn. It’s that bad.  So the Avila really is the lung of the city.  All I can say is thank god trees turn carbon dioxide into oxygen!  If not, we’d all be dead from poisoning.

I call this the Pimple tree.

I call this the Pimple tree.

Walking through the Avila provided me with a great experience to discover new Nature.  I saw trees and leaves that I had never seen before.

I call this the Face tree.

I call this the Face tree.

It gave me a chance to unwind, be at peace and reconnect with the most basic of things: silence, light, shadows, chirping birds and the sound of water pushing its way through rocks.

A little nest.

A little nest.

All in all, it was a fantastic way to spend a Sunday. So if you ever find yourself in Caracas and need a break, head to the parks!

I love the contrast of the green and yellow of this grasshopper!

I love the contrast of the green and yellow of this grasshopper!

A Cornucopia of Fruit

Taste every fruit of every tree in the garden at least once. It is an insult to creation not to experience it fully.  Temperance is wickedness.  ~ Stephen Fry

I really was an explorer the first time I was here.  In fact, I still am.  There is food that I have never heard of or seen, never mind tasted.  Guanabana, is a good example of this.  Guanabana, known in English as sour sop, is reportedly the super cancer fighter of fruit.  Even the food that I’m well acquainted with tastes differently.  It’s all about freshness.  There is nothing as sweet as a mango from the tropics.  When food has to travel 3000 miles, something surely will be lacking.  Whether it be flavor, color or shelf life, the essentials are gone.

fruit-salad

A mountain of fruit salad.

Guanabana, it's on my list of fruit to try.

Guanabana (aka sour sop), it’s on my list of fruit to try.

For three years I kept hold of memories of a fresh juice kiosk in a mall here. I longed for this place like an old friend.  There would be times when I’d say to Juan, “Ah, remember the fruit juice place?  Remember the variety? I wish we could just have a……”  High on my list of priorities, we went a few days after I arrived.  I found out that the place is called Chucha.

Fresh fruit for batidos. Batidos are essentially smoothies.

Fresh fruit for batidos. Batidos are essentially smoothies.

The third best part (the first being freshness, the second being variety) of batidos, as they’re called here, is that they’re  super cheap.  The average price for a glass and a half  is around $2.50.  Trust me, if I lived closer to the mall, I’d go everyday just to try one of each.

And the selection continues.

And the selection continues.

The shelves are lined with, you guessed it, fruit.  You won’t find  powdered protein or wheat germ on the menu, just good old fashion fruit. And that’s just the way I like it.

One of my faves, passion fruit.

One of my faves, passion fruit.

Passion fruit juice.

Passion fruit juice.

My choice that day was mango.  It was absolutely divine!

My mango batido.  Yummy

My mango batido. Yummy

There are shortages of certain kinds of food in this country, but fruit isn’t one of them. There seems to be an abundant supply.

cocos

Chucha’s also has a sandwich counter and a full menu including empandas, fish and criollo (the national dish made of shredded beef, black beans, plantains, rice and arepas).  Stopping by Chucha’s is the highlight of my trip to the mall.  It’s kind of like my reward for having to fight the traffic and, of course, going to the mall in the first place.

How would you like to try this oven roasted ham sandwich?

How would you like to try this oven roasted ham sandwich?

Well, it’s definitely my intention to try as much tropical fruit (and various other forms of food) while I’m here.  Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to let you know what I discover.

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