Suburban Macondo

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Dirty dancing

Alfonso puts his left hand out and cups the air. His right hand finds its way to my left hip. "Now," he says, closing his eyes, "just feel me."

Brooke is standing five feet away in our living room. I can't see her--my eyes are closed, too--but while I stand a foot away from a grown man, one hand holding his, the other on his hip, I know she's about to keel over in a laughing fit.

The music starts. Siéntelo. I am pushed backwards, one-two, one-two, and then jerked forward. Relájate. Sideways now, right-left, right-left. No mires abajo. Forward with my left foot, back with my right foot. One-two-three, one-two-three.

I open my eyes.

"Could you feel it?" he asks, turning off the music.

"Yeah, totally," I respond. "I mean, I think so."

I wasn't certain about much last night, our first dance class with a 30-something contemporary dancer who lives here in Merida. Brooke had proposed the lessons for my birthday (whatever happened to non-participatory gifts?), and finally, two months later, here we were, just starting. I was excited, if not more than a bit nervous. I'd been well versed in the time-honored, white male bar dance--the head nod and simultaneous beer sip, likely passed down from the Vikings, or maybe the Germans--and wasn't sure if I was ready to cross over into Latino rhythms. Somehow, all those Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony jokes would come back to haunt me.

When the class started Alfonso asked us how much experience we had dancing salsa or merengue. We got the idea that he wanted him to show us what we knew, so we went with the always-safe "nada". He started us with a homily about Latino dance, about the amazing feeling of a simple rhythm in your feet--the downward, African-based beat--moving throughout your body as if impelled by the music.

We then joined hands and together kept the beat in a circle. I don-t know; after six years of playing trumpet, I don't have a problem keeping a beat. That much I've learned. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say I have rhythm, but ...

Even writing about dancing is awkward.

Anyway, the beat thing isn't my problem. I understand the one-two of my feet and the eight-beat bars. My problem is being Latino enough, loose enough, to pull off merengue or salsa.

"Don't dance like a soldier," Alfonso told me. "Let the music take you along. Let it invade you."

I knew I should have had a drink or two or six before class.

The most interesting part of the class, though, was the interaction between Brooke and me. Dancing with her has always been sort of an adventure; her idea of following is doing so until she feels the leader is incompetent, which, in my case, occurs about three seconds after starting, and then taking the reins. This woman just takes charge.

Thus, a dance class in which I am being taught to lead runs counter to our characters. Brooke can be incredibly straight-forward and single-minded when she wants something. I am more indecisive and passive. Itís not exactly Bush vs. Kerry, but you get the picture.

As you can imagine, not speaking Spanish when we first arrived here was torture for her, if only because she had to depend on me more than sheíd ever wanted.
Asking me to lead, then, and asking her to let me make decisions for the two of us, was a big step. Not surprisingly, we had to stop more than once because Brooke had started to drag me around our living room floor. There will be more classes.

The class lasted just an hour, but we were both a bit tired at the end of it. We have some music to practice before Alfonso's next visit, and we look forward to learning more. I have no delusions about my potential: I don't expect to turn heads at Hoyo del Queque, but I do hope that Brooke and I can go to a salsa place in New York and make our gringo friends think we know what we're doing.

And then there's always the intrinsic value of doing something different with your partner, of trying new things and learning new ways to communicate. After Alfonso left, Brooke and I sat, recapping the class, and she smiled.

"I'm so excited! This will tell us so much about our relationship!"

We still have so much to learn.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Club Jóvenes del Futuro

Since the end of January, when our friend Jessie left for Guatemala, Brooke and I had been in charge of an after-school youth club that Jessie started a year ago as part of her Fulbright project. The idea started out as a way to give middle-school girls an after-school activity and at the same time give them a space to talk about adolescent issues like sexuality, peer pressure, nutrition, drugs, etc., but it quickly included boys once Jessie realized that they needed that sort of education, too.

Brooke had been working with the club before Jessie's departure, even before she spoke much Spanish. She would teach art to the club, and she first would write out her entire lesson plan in Spanish and then basically read it to the class. It went without a hitch, and we figured we'd have no problems taking over for Jessie while she worked as an anti-AIDS street performer in Central America.

Well, our final club was Friday. Just one student, a shy, painfully quiet seventh-grader named María, came to the club, even though Jessie was back in town. It was the second week in a row María was the only one there. As the four of us sat outside the school, munching on cinnamon cookies and drinking orange soda, Brooke and I were left to wonder how the club went from 15-20 students to just one in three months.

We knew from our first post-Jessie meeting, which only half the club attended, that it would be hard to keep the group, as it was, together. I went to the school one morning and recruited, going from class to class with an adviser named Yoly (our alleged contact at the school; she gave us the keys to a room one day and never contacted us again) trying to drum up support and pick up some new members. Two new kids, a brother and a sister, came to the next meeting, but only the boy came back.

We tried to keep the clubs interesting and fun for the kids. If Brooke sometimes struggled to communicate with the kids, I struggled to prepare for the club and connect with the kids. Still, we did good things. We talked about racism in Venezuela and the rest of the world and used a translated "I Have a Dream" speech to explain MLK and the civil rights movement. We talked about communities and drew our own conceptual maps of our mental and physical spaces. We cut out a bunch of newspaper and magazine advertisements and talked about body image and the unrealistic goals advertisers set for society.

All of these ideas were well received, and we had a steady following of about seven or eight students. Then we decided, near the end of February, to challenge the club to do something for the community. At the beginning of the month the Mocotíes Valley in the western part of the state had been ravaged by flooding, and people all over the country were collecting money, food and clothing for the relief effort. In the United States, this would be a perfect time for a group like Key Club to step in and help at the collection centers or in the affected communities, babysitting or helping to rebuild or whatever. Here in Venzuela, though, there is no sense of community service, especially not for middle-school kids.

So after a club in which we talked about doing something, the kids decided to go to their town's collection center that Sunday to help out in whatever way they could. After we talked with the center's director and even the mayor, Brooke and I were assured they would have something to do. Twenty minutes later, one of the workers explained to us that they would love it if Brooke and I helped, but they really didn't want the kids around. "You know how kids are," she told us. "They're just going to run around and get in our way. You understand."

Well, we didn't. The kids, sadly, did. Adolescents are just in the way here in Venezuela; they aren't valued and they aren't given any sort of real responsibility. They aren't really punished, either; during our last club "meeting" there were kids painting the school, and María told us that if a student were failing a class all he or she would have to do was help paint the school during one weekend and he or she would pass. Oh, and they had a party for the painters, too. A great lesson, really.

We tried, though, to rally our kids around this cause, to get them to plan service activities outside of the government-sanctioned activities. Over the course of two meetings we brainstormed, planned and voted on activities that we could do, including a school soccer tournament fund-raiser and a puppet show for the displaced children of the valley. The kids wanted to prove to the adults that they could help. At the end of that second meeting, after we had planned out everything, Brooke and I urged the kids to go out and start preparing outside of the club. They would have to talk to teachers; they would have to get sponsors; they would have to find people to donate balls and make lemonade to sell.

At our next scheduled meeting, no one came. They were dodging us, and could you blame them? They didn't know how to go about doing the things we'd asked of them, and we didn't want to do it for them. If they wanted to help, they'd have to do the work. It was a tough situation for us, but we just didn't understand that they needed more than a push. There's a reason older Venezuelans don't engage in community service: There's nothing in it for them. We needed to show these kids the intrinsic value of helping someone so that they would want to do it in the future, so that they could understand how to do it in the future. Instead, we pushed them into the pool and told them to meet us in the deep end.

The club sort of deteriorated from there. We had a couple of good clubs, but we missed two meetings when we were in Colombia. During that time, someone from the funding organization led the clubs, and no one came the second week. When we returned, no one came again. The next week, we made the 45-minute trip to Ejido again, this time to find the school locked. There had been a teacher's strike, and no one had bothered to call us.

The week after that, only María showed up. Brooke and I were so sick and tired of it, of the lack of support in the school, of the kids' disinterest in the club, in our own inability to keep Jessie's momentum going, that we hung out for 25 minutes and left. When we asked María what we could do to get kids to come, she said: "Well, tell them Jessie's coming next week. That should do it." Ouch.

Well, we talked to Yoly, and she told us she’d tell the kids that Jessie was back in town. Unfortunately, it was Young Hoodlum Painting Day at the school, and no one was coming in just to go to the club. Except María, again. So we sat outside with her and talked about her recently dipping grades (a competitive smart kid, her average dropped a point on the 1-20 scale), about her English (limited to "My name is María" and "How are you?") and about the unjust way in which bad students were allowed to erase their bad study habits and avoid failing.

When we walked back to the Mérida bus afterwards, she asked us when we’d be back. "That's it, María," I said. "We can't come back anymore." I explained our trip to Cuba and about having to write an article after returning. She looked back. "So you're not coming back at all? Brooke neither?" No, sorry. "Oh." She hugged us, smiled her mousy little smile, and walked away. At least one of them cared.

Time to make the arepas ...

We were so naïve. Nine months ago, when Brooke and I would imagine our trip to Venezuela, we conjured up a country full of fascinating national and regional cuisines. We thought about the country’s incredible geographical diversity—hundreds of miles of coastline, rain forests, high mountains, fertile plains—and we expected tropical fruits and fresh vegetables complementing an array of fish and meat plates in a sort of gastronomic heaven. We envisioned simple yet delicious street food and a gourmet blend of Caribbean and South American staples in the expensive restaurants.

The only thing we worried about was the welfare of our stomachs, not the cravings of our taste buds. It all seemed so inviting, so succulent, so Discovery Travel & Living that we couldn’t wait to get to Mérida and start eating.

That now seems like a long time ago. Instead of bountiful and delicious, the Venezuelan menu has proved to be limited, insufficient, lacking and inconsistent. It’s great to pay the equivalent of $2 for fresh juice, soup and a full plate of food, but not so great when the food is atrocious, or something you don’t eat, or the same thing you ate yesterday, the day before, and three times last week. Thus, we’ve eaten more tacos than arepas, more pizza than chacapas, more pasta than pabellón.

It’s not like all the food here is terrible. The meat is hormone-free. The fact that we can get fresh produce—pineapples, mangos, passion fruit, guava, avocados, etc.—at the weekly Soto Rosa market is incredible. The fact that we leave the market with two backpacks full of food for about $8 blows my mind. Everything natural in Venezuela, whether it be fruit or waterfalls, is amazing. It’s just the manmade stuff, architecture and chow included, that’s lacking.

That said, here’s a quick run-through of the highs and lows of Venezuelan cuisine. Who knows? You might be here some day, sitting in a restaurant, wondering what pizca andina possibly could be. It ain’t in your dictionary, I’ll tell you that much.

Arepas: The culinary petroleum of Venezuela; without it, the country would die. Arepas are basically Venezuelan sandwiches, but thicker and heartier. They come in two varieties: corn and wheat. The corn ones are fried and often filled with everything from mini hot dogs to chicken salad to tuna to avocado to fried eggs. Rarely does a Venezuelan resist the temptation to throw some sort of condiment—mayonnaise or hot sauce—on top for good measure. The wheat arepas, popular here in the Andes, are often served as a light dinner with hot chocolate and shredded smoked cheese. They are not cut open and filled with anything; instead, they look a bit like an English muffin (sans nooks and crannies) crossed with flat bread. (Incidentally, while Venezuelans eat arepas at least three times a week, Brooke and I could not figure out how to make them for eight months. We couldn’t get the dough right; we told some friends after an English class, and they taught us in minutes. “What I want to know,” said our friend Verónica, “is what you’ve been eating for all this time!”

Cachapas: A distant cousin of the arepa, the cachapa is a sweet cornmeal pancake that is often filled with cheese and ham and folded like an omelet. They can be quite good, and the salt from the cheese mixes with the sugary cornmeal. We’ve made them ate home, but they’re best at the food stands at the market.

Pastelitos: Oh, pastelitos. These are like empanadas, which are also omnipresent, but generally smaller and sometimes filled with interesting things like leeks and ricotta. Mostly, they’re stuffed with cheese or cheese and ham. Again, throw on mayo and/or hot sauce. Stuff mouth. Rinse. Repeat.

Pasteles: A larger version of pastelitos, often sold in bakeries. Remember what I said about a limited diet? Well, if you could walk into a Venezuelan panadería you’d see what I mean. In the case are dozens of beautiful little pastries, all with different shapes, designs and sizes. One looks like it might be filled with guava, another with plum, another with ricotta, another with chocolate. But this is Venezuela. They are all filled with ham and cheese. All of them.

Pastelotes: The biggest version of the triumvirate. Limited, like I said.

Sancocho: We haven’t had much sancocho in Venezuela, but we did go to a sancocho festival in Cartagena. It’s a stew of whatever’s in the kitchen. It could be all fish and prawns and potatoes; it could be meat and onions and bones. You never know. Inconsistent in every way.

Carne fría: If you ever have the pleasure of going to a birthday party or religious ceremony in Venezuela in which food will be served, do not eat the mystery meat. Carne fría, or “cold meat”, has no specific name. No one knows what’s in this stuff. All that’s missing is a lunch lady with a hairy mole on her chin and tight elastic-waist pants serving up this crap. It’s tough, and cold, and served under a goopy, yucky sauce. That’s all you need to know.

Trucha: Every restaurant in the Venezuelan Andes serves trucha, or trout, and every place serves it in one of four or five ways: grilled, in garlic sauce, in garlic sauce with lime juice, covered in mushrooms and in a cheese sauce. Each way, the little trout comes out split down the middle, bones intact, with its tiny fishy eyes staring up at you. The cheek meat barely covers one of your fork’s tines.

Pabellón criollo: This translates to Creole shield, as in family seal, and it has an interesting back story. The plate comprises chopped meat, plain rice and black beans, and it represents the racial history of the country: The meat is brown (indigenous people), the rice is white (the Spanish) and the beans are black (African slaves). Sometimes it’s served with avocado and tajadas, or fried sweet plantains. No word on whom the green or yellow would represent.

Pizza: Wait, this isn’t Venezuelan? Then why are there pizza places on every block? Could it be that the food here isn’t that good? Nah. Didn’t think so.

Pizca andina: This is another Andean favorite. It’s a milk-based soup with cilantro, potatoes and, most importantly, a whole poached egg. When preparing the soup, the egg is thrown in at the last minute, and the soup is served as soon as it becomes solid.

Torta tres leches: My favorite Venezuelan food. As its name implies, tres leches is a cake drowned in three types of sweet milk/cream. It is spongy and sweet and strange, but I love it. Brooke bought me a whole cake for my birthday for a party we were planning, but then she fell ill and we had to cancel the whole thing. The cake, though, had to be eaten. It was supposed to fill like 10 people, but I ate it all in two days. Dee-lish.

Maybe it doesn’t sound that bad. We’re just sick of it all, though. That’s why we ate cauliflower and potato curry tonight. That’s why we ask our friends to bring us jars of peanut butter when they come to visit. And that’s why we continue to eat the sushi at a restaurant here called La Mamma: We know it isn’t that good, and we know that the rest of the menu consists of pizza and pasta dishes, and we know it’s expensive, but at least it’s different.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Not exactly Canal and Broadway

Less than a week ago, our friends Lisa and Susie came to visit us from New York for the week. They would be our last visitors for a couple of months, and we were excited at the chance to share our space and our lives with American friends once again. But there was one difference between their visit and those of our other gringo friends that made us feel a bit uneasy: Lisa and Susie are both Korean-American, which meant they would face the full brunt of Venezuelan parochialism, homogeneity and ignorance. Welcome to Mérida, ladies!

It’s not that Venezuela started out homogeneous. According to our World Book Encyclopedia, the country is typical of the Caribbean in that it has had three distinct racial groups: Numerous Indian tribes lived in what is now Venezuela before the 1500's, when Spain colonized the area. The Spanish conquered many of the Indian tribes. They also imported black slaves from Africa. Many of the Indians, Spaniards, and blacks intermarried. Today, about two-thirds of Venezuela's people are of mixed ancestry. People of unmixed white, black, or Indian ancestry make up the rest of the country’s population.

In terms of immigration, World Book doesn't have much to add: After 1945, and especially in the 1950's, many Europeans and Colombians moved to Venezuela to seek jobs. Most of the Europeans came from Spain, Italy, and Portugal. Many Colombians entered Venezuela illegally in the 1970's and early 1980's.

So most of the country has a mixed-race ancestry. Sure, there is a bit of racism between those who consider themselves of pure Spanish blood (read: those Venezuelans who are very light skinned) and those who are darker skinned, but if the biggest immigration to report are the equally mixed-race Colombians, well, it seems to me that Venezuela is fairly homogeneous.

Interestingly enough, though, there have been Chinese restaurants and/or Eastern Asian general stores in nearly every city and town we've been to in Venezuela, all of them run by employees of Asian descent. How they got here is a mystery; maybe some worked in the oil fields years ago during the petrol expansion here, maybe others had come to South America and just stopped when a business opportunity opened up for them. Who knows? What is certain is that you rarely see an Asian person outside of the chinos, as the general stores are called. In the streets? Every once in a while. At the movies, or at a bar? Never.

And really, you can't blame them. The same brown-skinned Venezuelan who tells you that racism is a rich, light-skinned problem will turn around and pull the corners of his or her eyes to make them sufficiently "Chinese" when talking about Eastern Asian people. In fact, that's common: Rarely does the average Venezuelan talk about an Asian person without pulling at their lids. For example, "Your friends who are coming are Chinese?" (Eyelid pull.) No, they're Korean-American. "But they're like this, right?" (Extended eyelid pull.) Ugh, whatever. "That's what I thought, like this." (Embarrassingly long extended eyelid pull.) But it gets worse. Brooke used to teach English to a young Venezuelan boy, and his father, who had lived in England and is currently there working as an intern, once said to us: "I hate Chinese food. You know why? It's dirty. And the people, too. You know what I call them? Chino cochino."

It translates two ways, neither of which is nice: filthy Chinese, or Chinese swine. At least he thought it was funny.

Another thing is that all Eastern Asians here are Chinese. It doesn't matter if their countries were at some point oppressed by the Chinese; to Venezuelans, all Asians are Chinese. When I tried to explain the absurdity to this to some of my friends by making the point that they would be highly offended if I referred to them as my Mexican or (gasp!) Colombian friends (even though they speak the same language as Mexicans and Colombians and have similar post-colonial heritages), they still didn't get it, and almost denied the amazing cultural and linguistic diversity of Asia.

So it was into this environment that Lisa and Susie bravely stepped. I imagine that people of Asian descent face quite a bit of racism in most of the world outside of Asia, but the gawking and absurd comments from our friends' week in Mérida were pretty shocking, at least to Brooke and me. First of all, they were stared at everywhere they went. Two Asian women wearing American-looking clothing, walking around in the centro? If they had 10 limbs and were wearing nothing but body paint they would've drawn less attention. Secondly, everywhere we went some guy would drive by in a car and yell out something like, "China!" Thanks for that. Next time I'm in a car and I drive by a bunch of Latinos, I think I'll yell "Uruguay!", just for shits and giggles. Thirdly, any Luis or José that walked by thought it was his right to not only gawk but also grab and say things like, "Ah, china buena" or worse yet, make pidgin-sounding kung-fu movie sounds. A great way to pick up girls, guys.

Lisa and Susie were great, though. They ignored the most idiotic of comments, and Susie even told off a 13-year-old boy on the cable car ride down from Pico Bolívar. I don't know if I could do it, but then again, both of them had to deal with insufferable Italian men while studying abroad. If you can survive that, you probably can survive anything.

The most interesting point they made came in reference to Brooke's similar complaints of being singled out by men here, particularly when she's drawing in this or that plaza, for being a blond foreigner. "The thing is," Susie said, "being blond is a more respected exoticism here. People dye their hair blond here. Being Asian is exotic, but less respected than being American or European, and so we are less respected."

We'd hoped to teach our after-school group of middle-schoolers about stereotypes and prejudice last week, and Lisa and Susie were going to come help. As if the country were conspiring against our best intentions, the school was closed due to a teacher’s strike. Change happens slowly here.

The one pleasant surprise of the week was that our friends, thank God, made no ridiculously out-of-line comments to Lisa and Susie. That doesn't mean, though, they weren't thinking it. After the two of them left for New York, a friend asked me, "Did people pull back their eyelids when they saw your friends in the street?"

Yes, I replied.

"Hmm," the friend replied. "Have you ever asked them--I don't know the answer myself--but have you ever asked them if they can't see as well as us?"

Now why would I ask them that?

"Well, it's just that when I pull my lids out like that, I can't see much at all," the friend replied, smiling. "I just figured it must be hard for them to see."

The encyclopedia tells us that Venezuela has "an open society" with regard to race and ethnicity. Open, I suppose, as long as you look the same as everyone else.

Thursday, May 05, 2005


Word of the week: flojo (lazy)

For my Spanish class last Tuesday I had to write an essay about Venezuelans. Rocío wanted me to tell her about her countrymen and women: Who are they, what are they like, and how have my perceptions, as a foreigner, changed in the last seven months?

I probably could have cobbled together bits and pieces from old blogs to give her a somewhat complete answer. And to a certain extent, I did. Remember when I complained about how loud this place was? That was in there. Or about machismo and all its trappings in Venezuelan culture? Obviously, that made an appearance. But after giving it some fresh thought, there was one characteristic that somehow has evaded the blog: la flojera venezolana, or Venezuelan laziness.

Okay, okay. I know I poked fun of our grandparents’ opinions of Latin Americans (and their view of them, on the whole, as lazy people) in a blog months ago. And I write about my flojo friends and this flojo country a bit uneasily, if only because I still don’t necessarily believe it. Thing is, Venezuelans sure do, and they love trying to convince me that they are, in fact, lazy.

Example No. 1: In our cab ride from the Colombian border town of Cúcuta to Venezuela’s San Cristóbal, our taxi stops in tollbooth traffic. Some guy walks up and sprays the windshield with some goopy green stuff and proceeds to clean off the windshield. Our chavista cabbie says nothing until the job is done and he has paid the guy a couple hundred bolívares. He then turns and remarks, “People here are just so lazy.” He shakes his head. “Everyone just wants to live the easy life and beg. Whatever happened to getting a job?”

Example No. 2: David, Brooke’s first Spanish instructor, is eating tacos for lunch with us in our apartment and decides to tell us about Latin Americans. “It’s well known,” he starts, “that certain peoples have certain characteristics. Mexicans, for example, eat a lot. There are a lot of prostitutes in Perú. Colombians can sell anything to anyone at any time. And Venezuelans, well, we’re lazy. We are who we are.”

Example No. 3: In a column in one of the national newspapers, a Venezuelan writer named Nelson Bocaranda Sardi explains his country’s overall condition with regard to facilismo, or the art of taking the easy route: “Corruption and gambling are key to attaining easy money. Credit cards are the lifejackets that keep them afloat. They don’t save. They spend their salaries before receiving it.” The message? No one wants to work, even in planning his or her own financial futures.

Why do many Venezuelans—both supporters and opponents of Hugo Chávez, mind you—believe they live amongst a bunch of idlers? A lot of it, I think, has to do with Chávez and his political divisiveness. Whether you love him or hate him, Chávez has empowered the poor through a slew of varyingly effective social programs. These programs, called las misiones, range in scope from literacy programs to technical job training. Along with the classes come small checks; chavistas say the money is well earned, while la oposición says the programs are loaded with people who care only about getting a work-free check once a month.

The other problem might be Venezuela’s golden egg, oil. Ever since the black gold was discovered under Lake Maracaibo in the 1910s, the country has had no other substantive export. Venezuela lived and died with oil. By the late ’20s, the country was the world’s leading exporter, and the country soon turned away from agriculture and put all of its eggs in the petrol basket. While the money rarely trickled down to the poor folks in the cities or the country, plenty of people working for oil companies, or in auxiliary industries, got rich quickly. For a particular cadre of Venezuelans, weekend shopping sprees in Miami and degrees from foreign universities were not uncommon. This concentrated wealth became part of a national consciousness, and spawned a national conundrum: How can a country with so much oil money have so much poverty? I can’t help wonder if the poor ever thought to themselves, “The rich have screwed me at every turn, and the government steals as much as they can, so when and if somebody does throw me a line, you’re damn right I’ll hold on as long as I can.”

At least that seems to be part of what’s going on today. Venezuela sees its flashy past in the rearview mirror these days now that its one-horse economy has taken hit after hit in the world oil market. Following the national strike several years ago, Chávez fired everyone at the country’s largest oil company, PDVSA, and nationalized it. Now PDVSA, which sells its oil in the States through Texaco, is paying for the social programs. The anti-Chávez crowd calls it is a waste of money and crass political pandering, while pro-Chávez groups applaud the misiones as an appropriate and long-overdue allocation of national oil revenue. Obviously, the split between rich and poor—both financial and ideological—is as wide as ever before. And when people are sick of complaining about or standing up for Chávez, the conversation turns back to their flojo countrymen.

I still don’t know if I buy it, though. Can laziness really be a national characteristic? It might just be an acquired trait, though: Considering this is the just fifth WOTW in seven months of blogging, I just might be the laziest person I know here in Venezuela.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Bike for education

In days my buddy Greg will begin a several-month cross-country bike tour to raise money for the American Heart Association and Carolina Covenant, a program at UNC-Chapel Hill that provides debt-free financial aid to students whose families are at or below the poverty line.

This is Adventure No. 2 in Greg’s big list of Future Adventures. Last year, he hiked the Appalachian Trail and had the beard and the body odor to prove it. This year, he’s biking solo for several weeks from Seattle to San Francisco, then meeting up with his friend Brian and a group of high schoolers. The two of them are leading the whippersnappers through the Rockies, across the Great Plains, over the Appalachians and down to the flats of Norfolk, Va. All in all, the trip will take them a few months, but it should lead to tons of stories and a world of experience for the young impressionable ones.

If you’re so inclined, give a bit of money to Greg and Gang. If not because of the two worthy causes, then because they prove there are people out there who don’t need 9-to-5s, fast-tracks and college-prep summers to be happy or successful or real. And besides, your support might go a long way to encouraging Adventure No. 3, whatever that might be.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Proudly, sadly half-bright

Dear Fulbright Commission members:

It is with great regret that I write this letter to you. After five months of investigating Venezuelan baseball, exploring the country up and down and intensely immersing myself in a cultural and personal search, I write to you to resign from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program effective immediately, March 15, 2005.

It has been six weeks since the Fulbright program suspended my funding halfway through my grant period. I’ve gone through the spectrum, red to violet, livid to sullen, indignant to resigned, searching for an adequate emotional and intellectual response. The second I think I’ve grasped it all and can clearly see where I am and where I’m going, everything changes and I spin back away into indecision and doubt. The trip to Cartagena, then, was the ultimate way to let all of these emotions crash into one another over and over again. The trip had been originally booked to attend the Andean Fulbright conference, but when we couldn’t refund our tickets after receiving the committee’s decision, we were stuck going the same weekend as the conference. We were stuck going to a place where there would be other real-life, still-funded Fulbrighters walking about, the government paying for their transportation, their five-star hotel and their bottles of Águila beer.

The experience afforded to me by the State Department and IIE was truly an amazing one. My experiences here in Mérida thoroughly have changed me as an investigator and as an individual, and I am grateful for the funding that I have received during the past five months.

I alternately dreaded and anticipated interaction with other Fulbrighters. They’d be there from all over the Andes, from Bolivia to Venezuela, and I knew we’d run into some of them at one point or another. Maybe on the group tour. Maybe at dinner. Maybe after the conference, at the beach. It was bound to happen.

However, the same changes that so excited me and pushed me to think outside of the sports journalism box are the same changes that ultimately led to the suspension of my grant.

I didn’t know what I’d tell them. I was sure the other Fulbrighter here in Venezuela, who is in grad school studying frogs, would explain to them what had happened. I was sure they’d come into any conversation with a fixed set of ideas about me and about my project(s). I was sure they’d judge me as I explained myself, checking to see if I’d really merited funding in the first place.

But I tried not to worry about it. Who knew if we’d actually run into anyone, particularly with the grantees holed up in their posh hotel for lectures during most of the week. Besides, we’d be seeing Cartagena our way, in backpacker hostels and small, crowded restaurants, not in a resort in the most expensive part of the city. We’d be mixing it up in the middle of it all while they stayed out on the edges, safe. I told myself this, but after spending half a night killing cockroaches at Hostal Doral, I wondered what I had been thinking when I decided to go to Fulbright with a new project proposal.

After living in Mérida for a while, I began to realize that sports journalism was not for me. I began to think of other career options and interests, and men’s studies, which I had plunged into at the end of my collegiate career, came to the fore. Although the project I proposed to you seems to be a far cry from a journalistic project on baseball, it was not that big of a jump for someone who spent much of his time reading men’s studies theory and working at a national sports magazine.

During the first week of our trip, when we were exploring Cartagena’s balconies and forts and horse-drawn carriages and shooing away flies and vendors at Playa Blanca, we didn’t see one Fulbrighter. Not one. And so no explanations were needed. It was kind of nice.

Soon enough, though, we met a couple of them. The first one came in Taganga, a small fishing village four hours east of Cartagena. She was a journalist studying internal displacement in Colombia. She was very academic. And she knew all about me.

“You’re famous, you know,” she told me. I didn’t, but I had a hunch.

The experience was a good one. I imagine that most people with grants like to talk about themselves and their projects, if only because they get so used to doing it in their home countries (Why am I here? Well, I got this grant from the government to …). So she talked a lot about her project. She told me about the amazing Fulbright commission in Colombia, which works out of the embassy in Bogotá but which provides support to grantees whenever they need it. People to help when you’re unsure of yourself! That would’ve been nice. When I got to Venezuela, I didn’t understand that the people at the embassy were my only contacts. When I re-proposed my project on Andean masculinity, I didn’t even forward them the e-mail.

And while I did not and do not agree with the evaluations made by the committee regarding my re-proposal—particularly with regard to the way those evaluations were expressed to me by the Embassy’s Bill Ancker—I now understand that the grant has much more to do with the project proposed, not with the scholar proposing it.

I guess it was the faceless nature of the program that bothered me. There were two Fulbrighters here, but it seemed like they didn’t want to deal with us at all. You’d think that in a country that carries constant travel warnings the embassy would want to keep tabs on the government-funded scholars in the country. Then again, maybe not. That would mean getting to know them, contacting them often, actually working at something.

Soon we moved on from Taganga to Parque Nacional Tayrona, a beautiful coastal area filled with rocky, tumultuous beaches, ruins and all sorts of jungle animals. There we met one more Fulbrighter, a fiction writer working in Cusco, Peru, home of the Inca empire. She was working on a historical novel about Inca women sacrificed by their own people. Intense stuff. Anyway, she and her husband had both heard a lot about me at the conference, and my suspension had started a bunch of conversations about the actual goal of the program—was it cultural exchange, as Fulbright advertises, or was it project funding?

More interesting, though, was the discussion they had about the increased politicization of the program. Apparently, the Fulbright was not administered by the State Department until several years ago. Now that it is, who’s to say that they don’t want to keep a small number of Fulbrighters in Venezuela, a country whose president once called Bush a “prick” on national television? And who’s to say that changing your project from one the embassy and state department really liked wouldn’t affect how they judged your new proposal? (As I was told by the immortal Bill Ancker, the embassy was working hard to accentuate the positive interactions between Venezuela and the United States, and baseball was the one thing the countries had in common. "We really liked the baseball project.")

As Bill told me on the phone Monday, “Unfortunately, we have to evaluate you on paper.” On paper, my project apparently did not stand up to the rigorous standards of the Fulbright program.

In some ways, I was probably better off not knowing what other Fulbrighters felt. This writer, Rebecca, spent a lot of time with us in Tayrona, and it was refreshing to mull over our frustrations with the program, conversations that made me realize that I hadn’t had much of a connection to anybody during my grant period in Venezuela. I had been a freelance grantee, far from the embassy and lacking guidance throughout one period in my life in which it would have been really helpful. Having an academic community, or at least a support system, around me certainly would have helped. Knowing the people in the embassy trusted me and were interested in my personal growth would have been nice, too.

But in the future I urge you as a committee to stand behind the hundreds of researchers, reporters, artists and writers who earn Fulbright grants every year. We are driven, successful and thoughtful people who want to work and study and understand the cultures in which we are living. At times, we even change our minds about what it is we want to be researching, reporting or creating. Remember that you chose us scholars and thinkers not only for our projects, which are often fascinating and eye-opening, but also for our personalities, our past experiences, and our dreams. Trust that we, as dedicated grantees, will make the right decisions with regard to our career goals and interests.

By the time we left Tayrona, the Fulbright experience had taken on a whole new meaning for me. In some ways, I came to understand that when I applied for the grant, back in Fall 2003, I was the perfect candidate. I had been successful in my field, I had in-country contacts, and I had an interesting, multi-faceted project that would inform one culture about the other. (And it was a project about baseball.) But by the time I received the grant, in the late spring of 2004, I was not nearly as good a candidate. I was starting to think about a fiction-writing career, or an academic one, and sports journalism didn’t interest me nearly as much as it once had. Of course, Fulbright never knew this.

And most importantly, get to know us. Don’t wait until regional conferences—get out and meet the people you are funding. If you do that, I’m sure this program won’t be solely about proposals and check-signing, but rather about people and the amazing visions they aspire to understand.

I hope to leave it all behind now, to move forward with my writing and my individual studies. I hope to forget about the frustrations of these past six months, about the indecision I’ve suffered through since last summer. I hope to do what I want to do, what I need to do. And I hope that at some point, Fulbright understands that they could have handled my situation differently, and better.

Because, in the end, not every decision should be made on paper.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Manuel from Santana

Brooke was sitting off to my right, getting a massage under a thatched hut on Playa Blanca. The exchange went kind of like this.

“Beautiful here, no?” The dark-skinned man was standing in front of me, a fanny pack around his waist.

“Sure is.” I didn’t want to encourage him too much. I just wanted quiet.

“Where are you from? You look like you have Latino roots.”

“I don’t.”

“Where are you from?”

“The United States.” I was looking past him as I spoke.

“Good people, Americans. Them and Italians actually buy stuff here. Germans, they don’t buy anything. Nothing. A bottle of water and that’s it. No jewelry, no nothing. And they get mad at us for selling.” He shook his head at the thought and settled onto his haunches, squatting.

We were staying at Campamento Wittenberg, a makeshift group of shacks with hammocks run by a Frenchman named Gilbert. His Colombian wife, Ana, told us that there were 280 vendors working Playa Blanca at any given time.

“Oh, yeah?” This guy wanted to talk. I had nowhere to go. I might as well let him.

“My name is Manuel.”


“What do you think, Ian?” He pulled out a thick tangle of necklaces from his pouch.
“I’ve got tiger’s eye, Asian star, pearl …”

He faded out. The necklaces came one at a time, slowly. He ignored my disinterest and went through half of his pack. Finally, I’d had enough.

“Sorry, buddy. I don’t wear necklaces. I don’t have any money to buy one, either.”
“Okay.” He sat there, thumbing through his necklaces. A pause.

“You two married?” He looked at Brooke.


“You have kids?”


“I’ve got two. One’s three, the other’s turning two this week. Two boys.” He smiled.

Ana told us that many of the vendors’ children stop going to school in 1st or 2nd grade. She said they don’t want to go, and the parents don’t make them.

“What are there names?”

“Jacobo and Jacondo. They’re different names.”

“Where did those names come from?”

“From a book. One time, I met an Italian guy whose name was Jacobo, and he bought from me because my son had his same name.”

“I have nine siblings, too. They live all over the place, now that Mom died. Two live in Panamá, even. Families fall apart when mothers die.”

“ ”

More thumbing through the necklaces.

“Where do you live?” I needed to ask him something. He wasn’t going to leave.

“In Santana, a village on the other side of the island. It’s a two-hour walk to the beach. Four hours each day.”

Ana told us that basically the entire village of Santana works on Playa Blanca. Although some walk, there is a special bus just for villagers that costs 1,000 pesos each way.

“That’s a lot of walking. Is the business here that good?”


“Do you sell enough?”

“Not really. Sometimes my wife and I don’t have enough to eat. Sometimes we sit down for dinner to nothing.”

Ana, a brown-skinned woman, told us the morenos, as black people are known in Colombia, don’t like to work or learn to improve themselves. She said the vendors spend all their money gambling dominoes and drinking rum.

“It’s hard here, huh?”


He has all of the necklaces on his wrist.

“You don’t want a necklace? Five thousand pesitos.”

“No, sorry.”

“ ”

“Why is that all you guys sell the same things?”

“That’s all there is to sell. We get them in Santana.”

“Is there competition?”

“Sure, but it’s friendly. I don’t want to kill anyone over 5,000 pesos.”

“It must be hard. Most tourists don’t come here hoping to shop. They just want to come to a quiet beach, and then there are 50 guys trying to sell them stuff.”

“I know the tourists want to relax. We have to make a living.”

“But maybe if you changed your tactics—have a table on the beach instead of harassing the people who come …”

“ ”

“It’s just that not everyone wants to buy.”

“But they have money, and we don’t.”

I couldn’t keep this up much longer.

“Do you leave the island much?”

“I don’t have the chance to, hardly ever. You sure you don’t want this one? It’s real pearl, from the river.”

It was plastic, I think.

“No, thanks. Sorry.”

“You don’t want even one? Not as a keepsake of Playa Blanca?”

“No, thanks. Sorry.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

He got up, looked down the beach, and spied a boat entering the bay. He starting walking toward it down the shore, and I lay back, tired.