Suburban Macondo

Monday, November 29, 2004


I had gone the entire day avoiding it, avoiding concrete thoughts about what it would be like to hang up in the valley, to waft around on this and that draft, to fly. To fly.

But here I was on the edge of the cliff, strapped to a pony-tailed, pajama-pants-wearing Venezuelan hippie, waiting to leap toward the valley below. In front of me, the Chama tore a rough-hewn canyon through the mountains, and a bit higher up, the road to El Vigía shouldered up to the plateau on which several Mérida suburbs invisibly sat. Behind me, on a cow pasture among rolling Andean hills, a group of pale gringos readied themselves to trust a swath of nylon and a complete stranger. I was the first in our group to have to make that commitment.

Back on the winding mountain road from Las González, I had focused on the beauty of the ascent. A one-lane steel bridge over soft river rapids ceded to a series of rocky switchbacks, and at each hairpin the valley became farther away and the villages across the way that much more particular, separated. The divisions were striking: sky meeting jagged horizon, verdant hills against stark páramo, urban congestion and rural solitude. The views from the back of our oversized Land Cruiser made me forget the parachutes on the roof and the anxiety in my stomach, and save for a bit of car sickness due to the relentless turning and climbing, climbing and turning, I was ready for almost anything.

Brooke had taken pictures while Carlos strapped me in, but before I could even wish her well, tell her I loved her, thank her for a great run, I was connected to José on the edge. We waited for the wind to come and drive us into the valley, to lift us up and take us in her arms and let us fly, soar like the hawks and the eagles and the condors that make Andean myths, to throw us about at her whim and at our delight. By the time she finally came I was caught unawares, and the ground slipped from beneath my feet and the cliff fell lower and lower toward the river. I looked back at the pasture and saw nothing but miniature friends, their bodies and their concerns and their feelings reduced to nothing while we maneuvered around the valley, drooping and banking and gliding, oh, gliding, past small rock outcroppings and over larger-than-they-seemed trees, around the rim and over the road.

After a while we had companions in the air, and the hurtling height became a matrixed highway, criss-crossing in different directions and cutting the currents into sharp wisps and flowing curlicues. José talked about his life as an adventure guru, and I listened tentatively. I worried about my slipping straps, about the seat that constantly slid out from underneath me, leaving me standing in air, tied in at the groin and chest, flailing about. When I tried to heed José’s advice and stay back in the seat, my back seared and seized and left me shaking and unable to talk, adding to my disorientation.

It wasn’t until he mentioned that often people vomited on him that I began to get dizzy. The hills were no longer part of a beautiful landscape; they had turned into a depth-perception trick, a mind game of constant sinking and rising, rising and sinking. We spun about in tight circles, and I screamed to show off my exhilaration. Instead I think I showed my fear. My hands, which had earlier stuck out at my sides in imitation of the hawks circling below, now clutched the straps tight enough to induce sore knuckles. A half an hour had seemed like enough, like a good ride. The last 10, 12 minutes, though, dragged through shut eyes and swirling trees and lifts and loops and nauseating drops. We descended only to re-ascend, and I tried to gallantly keep asking questions, keep playing cool, keep readjusting my seat and saying I was fine and laughing at the other flyers, some of them yelling with delight, and others, like Brooke, tearing up with a flipped stomach and distorted vision. Landing, coming back to Earth, leaving the hollow space between top and bottom—that’s what I prayed for then.

I hardly remember hitting the ground, but I do remember failing to run, as I’d been instructed. My legs crumpled beneath me, and while I tried to bounce back up and sprint through the deserted lot and past the 10-year-old helpers and their small, belt-unbuckling hands, I couldn’t. I sat there, unable to move, and it took a little boy, dark-skinned, dirty, to tug at my fleece to rouse me to move. The flight was over. We had touched down. And I finally smiled as José grabbed me and jolted me back to my grounded life, back to my sensibilities, back into my body. I looked back up at the cliff, smiled, and muttered, “Never again.”

Seven Years Ago Today

11/29/1997 was foolishly carved on a ring I gave Brooke six years ago, one year to the night of our first real date. I had no reason to think we’d be together for a long time, and save for teenage notions of chivalric love, no reason to give a ring to my girlfriend.

That’s what we did in high school. We didn’t question our relationship; we didn’t wonder too much about the future. We lived in the moment of creating a perfect suburban high school love and were blissfully naïve, at least until it was time for one of us to head to the Piedmont, the other to the Berkshires. At that point, we only knew what people told us, that college was the place to explore and grow and learn … and dump your high school sweetheart.

And so we tried. We tried so hard to stay together, and we tried even harder at times to split apart. But dates were like long hours at the library, or flossing: they were things you know you should do, but actually had no real desire to do, whatsoever.

After a year in New York, an impromptu, loving marriage ceremony and a couple of months in Venezuela, here we are. Seven years from sipping hot chocolate in a lofted Hartford coffee bar. Seven years from a dorky attempt at grabbing her hand so she wouldn’t walk out into the street by herself. Seven years from a stolen backseat kiss that took all of the courage I could muster.

Seven years from a night—from a girl, from an infatuation—that remains etched forever in my mind.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004


Before we start, a quick note: WOTW will likely be Word of Every Other Week due to my increasing laziness. Also, it will occasionally feature phrases, like this week’s entry.

Word of the week: a la orden (at your service)

Back in 1940, when Latinos in the United States were no more than “spics” or “wetbacks” to the average gringo, the government’s Office of Public Opinion Research conducted a nationwide poll to gauge views held by Americans of Latinos. Participants were given a card with 19 adjectives on it and were asked to indicate those words that seemed to describe best the people of Central and South America.

Eighty percent of respondents chose “dark-skinned” as a Latino quality, making that the most-selected descriptive word. In order, the percentages of each word follows: quick-tempered (49%); emotional (47%); religious (45%); backward (44%); lazy (41%); ignorant (34%); suspicious (32%); friendly (30%); dirty (28%); proud (26%); imaginative (23%); shrewd (16%); intelligent (15%); honest (13%); brave (12%); generous (12%); progressive (11%); and efficient (11%).

Now, other than the fact that it’s always fun to look back at ignorant Americans (>34%, I fear) from a simpler time, I point out this list because it’s missing two key adjectives that Brooke and I have found to be characteristics of Venezuelans, or rather, of Merideños: courteous and annoying. Better expressed, it’s one description made from two words: annoyingly courteous.

When you walk into a store, pass by a street vender, or even look at a menu posted in a restaurant window, you invariably hear a la orden here in Mérida. Constantly. Brooke and I noticed it at first in Caracas, but we figured that was just a way for the buhoneros, or street vendors, to suck up to a pair of pasty foreigners. Then we arrived here, and a trip to get a tablecloth made us think otherwise.

We were near Plaza Bolívar and decided to go into this huge cloth superstore right on Avenida 3. We walked in, dropped off our bags at the register and started meandering through the store, looking at the variety of fabrics, from nylon in military camouflage to silk in flashy magenta swirls. In the States, this is the kind of place where one or two very old, very New England women sit behind a central counter with a tape measure and wait to be approached. Beg to be approached, even. But Victoria and Charlotte never move. They listen to Lite 100.5, hum “Landslide” and talk about their hair appointments with the gay fella down the street.

Here in Venezuela, though, these stores are landmined with clerks. Back at that fabric store, there was another one—BOOM!—every five feet. Bouncing from one to the next, I grew disoriented listening to them all say, as if connected to a motion sensor, a la orden. Brooke, who always is the take-charge (read: not comatose) one when we go shopping, looked at me amidst the reams of cloth and fabric, appalled, and then play-punched me (I hoped) on the arm. “Why don’t you say anything?” she demanded, her eyes changing from delightful to devil-sent. “I, um, well, hmm,” I stammered, and kept walking, trying to avoid eye contact with her and the seven or so clerks whom I’d just shunned.

Courtesy is an issue here in Venezuela. That is, there is too much of it. It’s awkward. Imagine always having to respond to people saying “At your service!” at a grocery store in Glastonbury, or at a head shop in Carrboro, or at a sex shop in Chelsea. What do you say to these people? I’m just looking for some grapes—oh, and here they are! Or, Um, I don’t actually smoke—you know, cancer, brain cells and whatnot—but am trying to look cool to the stoner chick outside. Do you have anything, you know, in hemp or something? Or, worse still, Yeah, what exactly do you do with these beads? I mean, are they for, like, internal use? Exactly. There are times when you just want to pay and leave, foregoing human contact altogether.

The problem here is that if we say nothing, we look like a bunch of dumb foreigners vacationing for a week from Gringolandia. Obviously, we must not speak Spanish if we don’t respond. But it’s not like you always want someone’s service. And you certainly don’t want someone following you around throughout a store, watching your every move. It seems, therefore, that there are few options for the socially awkward or the painfully shy.

The one safe zone, as unlikely as it seems, is the Chinese-run market, be it the Kamins-like junk store (quincallería) or the bodega-like grocery store. There, no one, and I mean no one, says a la orden. Hell, they don’t say anything. They may watch you the entire way, following you up and down the aisles, waiting for you to steal something, but they’ll not once utter a la orden. So, as much as we dislike going to the chinos, as the stores are known, it’s sometimes just a hell of a lot easier. And even though our friend Virginia says that the Chinese here in Mérida are a miserable people, they don’t bother us too much. They don’t taunt us to ask for help by constantly calling out a la orden, and we don’t act like the average Venezuelan and pull back our eyelids, slanted, to indicate that we’re talking about a chino.

It’s a fair tradeoff. I guess.

But more importantly, we’ve gotten better with Venezuelans and their pseudo-etiquette. Generally we just smile now toward the on-coming offender, and that’s usually enough for them to back off a bit. A lot of times, if we really do need help, Brooke will just punch me until I say something. And man, do I love that.

In the end, no matter how much I prefer doing my shopping in silence, it ain’t happening here. Not with the whole friggin’ country—annoyingly, courteously—at my service.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

What'd you say?

There’s loud, like college-town frat-party loud. You know the recipe: start with some thumping bass, sprinkle in staccato whoops and yelps, top with a crescendo of police sirens. Then there’s louder, like New York loud, with the screeching subway brakes, the blaring Midtown taxi horns, the screaming Wall Street brokers, the pulsing, writhing Williamsburg lounges. And then there’s Venezuela loud, which makes the sorority girl and the New Yorker cringe in disbelief and cover their ears, appalled.

When I went to Caracas a year ago, I quickly found out. Noise—decibel upon decibel of eardrum-popping noise—was everywhere, from the baseball stadiums to the bars to the streets to even the hotels. You couldn’t escape it. It rang in your head and interrupted your sleep. But I figured that was just the capital. Moving out to Mérida, with its slower-paced Andean lifestyle and its semi-bohemian university-town feel, would be the perfect fix. If there were to be a softer side of Venezuela, Mérida would be the place.

Not so much.

From Day One, our ears were under assault. In Plaza Bolívar, in the city’s center, hair-raising political songs (brought to you by Chávez’s party, the Movimiento Quinta República, or MVR) attacked you from the enormous speakers that filled the beds of pickup trucks. When the national soccer team, La Vinotinto, finally won a game, soccer-crazy Merideños packed the streets, filling the city with shouts and screams and car horn anti-melodies. A few weeks ago the elections ended, and parade after parade turned Avenida 4 into a shaking line of red-tinted, MVR sound. And last night, while on a quick beer run near my friend Andreína’s house, some kids decided to chuck a cherry bomb out their car window—about 20 feet from my head. The fact that I was catatonic and basically deaf after the explosion was one thing; the fact that Brooke, 400 yards away in Andreína’s sixth-floor apartment, jumped and nearly messed herself is quite another.

I suppose those are exceptions. The daily rhythm, though, is enough to make suburban Connecticut seem like an auditory paradise. From the rooster squawking at 4 in the morning to our downstairs neighbor belting out made-up lyrics to her favorite Venezuelan love songs four hours later, it’s dizzying and nauseating. Add in the fact that our apartment has high ceilings (great for echoes) and sits between two vertical corridors (ditto), and you’ve got noise on top of reverberated noise, rendering normal earplugs useless.

Take right now, for example. I’m sitting here, typing. I can hardly hear the clacking of the keyboard because of P. Diddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You” flying up the corridor from downstairs. Is there anything worse than a Venezuelan man singing, in falsetto, Faith Evans’ part in a Biggie tribute? I’ll help you with that one. No way. Not possible.

Let’s put it this way: If there ever were an Aural World War, the best you could hope for from the Battle of Mérida would be a Pyrrhic victory. The good guys might win, but at what cost? Forget the story about Loca Luz Caraballo going crazy because she lost her sons to Bolívar’s army. She knew how out-of-control loud this place would be after winning independence, so she just threw up her hands and said, “Fuck this.”

The only way to combat noise, then, is with more noise. Can’t write because of a juiced-up Juanes CD downstairs? Crank up the iPod. Can’t hear the announcers during the Magallanes-Caracas game? Jack up the TV’s volume. Can’t hear your friend at the bar because of the 10-foot subwoofer next to your head? Yell louder.

Soon enough, I’ll be typing LIKE THIS, JUST SO I’M SURE YOU CAN HEAR ME.

In the end, I guess, pollution begets pollution.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Poco a Poco

I don’t know what brought on the flashcards. It was probably the fact that I have the Spanish vocabulary of a 7-year-old—a mute 7-year-old from a remote village without common modern necessities. Sadly, I also have the Spanish pronunciation of his deaf brother.

So, like I say, my Spanish isn’t that good. No, really. I know I’ve mentioned this before in this space, but now it’s time that I actually confront it. (That’s the reflexive verb encararse con in Spanish. Or enfrentarse a. Awesome, no?)

Okay. Ya voy a encararme con este problema. From third grade to my senior year in college, I always was in some sort of Spanish class. Somehow, though, I’ve learned more in three weeks in Mérida than I did in my entire four years at Carolina, including the four-plus months I spent in Sevilla. How does this happen?

The biggest problem, it seems, is vocabulary. I look around my apartment and have words for only about two-thirds of everything I see. Wall socket? (Enchufe.) Not sure, although I probably should know that one. Doorknob? (Perilla de la puerta.) That’s a gimme, right? I mean, I took two literature classes at the Universidad de Sevilla and several more at Carolina—these words had to be in some of the books I read. Then again, maybe Cortázar and Borges were too busy being geniuses to worry about little details like how their characters entered buildings or plugged electrical appliances into the wall.

Maybe it’s my fault, though. My buddy Luis, whom I met at the posada across the street when we first got to Mérida, is a burgeoning English speaker. He is taking classes at a language school here called VENUSA (a not-so-clever combination of—get this—VENezuela and the USA), and just moved on to Level 6 (of 8). Not only does he know more American slang than I, he also knows ridiculous words like “car dealership” and strangely, “rapist.” (Although we worked on that, starting at “raper”, which I assured him is no way the same as “rapper”.)

Luis is a quick study. He absorbs words, devours them even, and better than that, he is incredibly industrious when it comes to learning vocabulary. If he can’t remember a word, he’ll write it down 20 or 30 times and say it again and again until it sticks. Hence, “car dealership” doesn’t faze him. It’s just another notch in his linguistic belt.

My linguistic belt, on the other hand, seems to be one-size-fits-all these days. If you thought my non-stop uttering of “good times”, “not so much”, and “I’m not gonna lie” was annoying in English, then you’d never want to hear me in Spanish. It’s as if I only know six or seven sentence constructions, and I just put them on one continuous vocal loop all day. Tengo que … voy a … es que … por eso … ¡coño! Over and over again.

So, with Luis as my example, I’ve attempted to become an auto-didact. That’s right: I want to be the Ragged Dick of Spanish comprehension. What exactly does that mean? Long hours with my Spanish 50 book, Manual de Gramática, and even more time with Inglés Ilustrado, this little book Luis gave me that includes vocab from every location and situation possible. And flashcards, of course. Now, words like nail-polish remover (quitaesmalte), mascara (rimel), eyeliner (delineador) and tweezers (pinzas de cejas) don’t bother me in the least.

That my vocabulary is tilting toward that of a cross-dresser, well, that’s another post altogether.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

El Buzón

Here is the first installment of Suburban Macondo’s mailbag, lamely named El Buzón. (Hey, “The ’Bag” already was taken.) Because I currently have an audience of two—my father-in-law and my fantasy-football commissioner—I had to improvise a little. Read: If you see your name and you didn’t ask a question, tough break. My question was probably better than yours anyway.

Let’s start with some baseball season follow-up questions, since 90% of the three questions I’ve been asked had something to do with baseball. In case you didn’t know, the Boston Red Sox won the 2004 World Series. And somehow, the ceiling of my apartment didn’t fall in when I wrote that sentence.

From reader Gtocz, aka el suegro, back in Glastonbury, Conn.:
What I want to know is—if they are in the ALCS next year, will you make a trip back to the Andes, or should I say, will your family make you take a trip back to the Andes?

This was asked before the end of the playoffs. The answer is, of course, yes. Although there’s a slight chance we’ll already be somewhere in the Andes during next year’s playoffs, there’s no doubt Brooke and I will get up from wherever we are and head straight to Pico Bolívar. We’ll nod at Loca Luz Caraballo, fry up some trout, crack open a few Polar Ices and voila! World Series No. 8.
This is inane.

(Oh, and don't tell Brooke about this. Please)

From evan, the Commish, presumably writing within earshot of the in-corretta-ble Aaron Fitt:
Will the Sox winning the WS take all the mystique out of RSNation, as they will no longer be the lovable losers who just can't quite make it?

Last time I checked, the Sox were the anti-lovable losers. Since when does any team once featuring—though not at the same time, gracias a Dios—Izzy Alcantara, Carl Everett and José Canseco and managed by the likes of Butch Hobson, Kevin Kennedy and Jimy Williams seem lovable? Butch is just now fighting off coke. Izzy is sharpening his spikes for the next time he kung-fus a catcher in the stomach. Insufferable losers, deserving of nothing. A sad, sad bunch.

I know one thing: My dad never once has called them “lovable.” Bums, sure. Jackasses, of course. Lovable losers, though, absolutely not.

So, no, I don’t think that mystique is gone. Instead, there will be no more Jeannie Zelasko talking about curses. No more Steve Lyons “on the psyche of the Red Sox.” Just Tim McCarver, making no sense whatsoever. That’s a real curse.

Will said RS fans then feel jealousy towards Cubs fans?

Last time I checked, Mia Hamm’s husband still plays for the Cubbies. So no, no jealousy here. Pity, maybe. Every team deserves a shortstop with some range.
Besides, how could Sox fans have any real bad feelings toward the Cubs, jealousy or otherwise? My buddy Doug wrote me several times from Peru during the playoffs, and you’d have thought from his excitement that the Cubs were about to win the Series. Good people, Cubs fans are. It’s not their fault they’re stuck with Sammy and have a crappy ’pen.

Okay, no more sports, please. After all the baseball watching I did last month, I don’t think I can take anymore. And yes, I know once Carolina tips off in a couple of weeks I will be finding ways to watch NCAA hoops on ESPN Deportes.

Back to the suegro for question #4:
What do people down there think about the States’ political situation? Do they think about it at all?

When you think about Venezuela, you have to think about it as a once apolitical country in which strong man dictators ruled for most of its independence. Not good at all, but somewhat stable. Since about 12 years ago, though, the country has endured three coup attempts, including one involving fighter jets in downtown Caracas. One of the leaders of the first coup, Hugo Chávez, is now president. He was the victim of a coup attempt that lasted exactly one day several years ago. You think the elections in Florida were sketchy? Come and vote in Venezuela, where all of Chávez’s guys win, no matter what. (Although, to be honest, it doesn’t help when 55% of the electorate doesn’t vote because it lacks faith in the democratic process.)

What was your question about again? Oh, yeah. The States. Well, people here hate Bush, largely because he doesn’t exactly project himself as a friendly international leader. That said, Chávez consistently has told his country that Americans are not to be trusted, for fear that they might be CIA agents (out to get Chávez, of course). In a country where Chávez is hated by seemingly all middle- and upper-class people, his anti-Bush rhetoric is still a winner with pretty much everyone here. Chávez’s never-ending speeches make numerous references to the imperial Americans and their low-oil-price-wanting, free-trade-pushing government. Because of that, people here think that we Americans think about Venezuela all the time. It is, after all, one of our major oil producers. Then again, when was the last time you thought about Venezuela? Exactly. People here are shocked, and maybe a little saddened, at that.

From my dad, who has basic concerns:
What is the weather like in Mérida?

Warmer than Glastonbury and cooler than Caracas. Actually, it’s surprisingly consistent: It’s sunny and cool in the morning before the clouds come over the mountains at about noon. At 3 or 4 in the afternoon the clouds produce a little bit of rain, and then, after a 10-degree drop in temperature, it rains pretty hard for an hour or two at night. This happens every day, without fail. Apparently, once December hits we’ll move into the dry season, which lasts until about April. During that time it’s essentially a drought with lots of sun. So, no more, ‘How’s the weather there, Ian?’ Nope. It’s always the same, Pa.

From Anonymous (though I have my suspicions):
What exactly are you doing there again?

Um, do you work for the Fulbright Program? Next question.

From gmu, Chapel Hill, N.C.;
Have you made friends there in Mérida?

Yup. Although I’d love to go into detail on Luis, Virginia, Andreína, Moises, Jessie, etc., that will have to come poco a poco during the year. I can’t explain them here, not like this. Too much to say.

From my mom, who doesn’t use the Internet but who asks me a thousand times on the phone:
Why haven’t we seen any pictures yet?

They’re coming, I promise. We’re e-mailing out several batches tonight (?) … if you want some and don’t get the photos in your inbox, send me an e-mail and I’ll straighten that out.

From wick, Upper West Side:
What are the women like there?

Dude, I’m married. Remember? (And besides, the censor is reading this in a minute.)

So, that’ll wrap things up here in Mérida. (Blog, not chat. Blog.) Anyway, the quality of El Buzón clearly depends on the quality of questions asked, so keep them coming. That is, start them coming. Like now.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Gone Missing

I woke up this morning and wondered who stole my country. Have you seen it?

I trusted in this election. The country would make a change. I felt it deep down, viscerally. With so many things gone wrong and so many disillusioned folks, it was time for a change. That I knew.

But I don’t know my country. I don’t understand the evangelical in Mississippi any better than I understand the anti-abortion protester in Seattle. I don’t speak the Wall Street/frat boy/I-banker language and certainly not that of the Wyoming rancher. I can’t picture a Latino in Santa Fe choosing his president based on a state-managed issue like gay marriage, just like I can’t picture a small-town Ohioan watching W speak and thinking, “Man, he’s just like one of us.”

That, according to the polls, is our country. Forget the other 48 percent. Forget the rest of us. Our president, with House and Senate majorities, already has.

Today, I feel isolated in my mind, in my ideals, in my hopes for an equal, energized and safe society. The world in which Brooke and I resided for five years—the university ideal, liberal Brooklyn, with artists and writers and the like—has sunken into the muck of more than a year of war, of tax cuts, of children left behind, of New Deal and Great Society privatization, of evil axes and videos and torture. We are left questioning what we believe, what we teach, what we know.

Politics are that way, of course. There are ebbs and flows. There is struggle and there is party dominance. There is rhetoric, and then there is action. For people like Brooke and I, there is much questioning to be done—of our beliefs, and how those compare with those of the American public; of our candidate, and how people like us decided on him; of our two-party political system, and how it sucks true choice away from voters. Mostly, though, there is shock and frustration, disappointment and disgust.

Sadly, I fear it has just begun.

Internet, por fin ... and WOTW #1

Finally, Intercable has come and connected us to the Internet in our house. A day late for an election blog (sigh), but good enough for future writing.

As promised, the weekly features start now, with the Word of the Week.


Word of the week: chévere (fine, cool)

I don’t like to trust guidebooks. A lot of times, Let’s Go or Lonely Planet will recommend a “hidden treasure of a bar” or “secluded scenic hideaway”—and when you show up, there are 30 other pasty-skinned, camera-toting, Germanic-language-speaking tourists, each with their own copy of your guidebook, each looking for a place that no longer exists.

Sometimes, though, they’re right on. For example, on page 938 of Lonely Planet’s South America on a Shoestring, the reader is informed that chévere (cool) is a common phrase in Venezuela. I think it’s pretty funny that the book includes common phrases, as if someone who speaks no Spanish will all of a sudden drop local slang into their broken conversations. (Imagine a foreign tourist in New York asking you, “Where is situated the Empire Structure?” and then thanking you by saying, “Dope info, dog. Truly phat.” Then again, imagine anyone saying that, ever. Well, anyone who doesn’t edit at ESPN The Magazine. )

That said, chévere is the word here in Venezuela. I found that out when I was here a year ago, working on a story for The Mag and translating for my friends Scott and Serge. That’s when we met Luis.

I can see him now, pulling in front of the Gran Meliá in Caracas in his rusting, black GMC Jimmy. Before his arrival we knew only that the Phillies were providing us with a driver. We didn’t know what he would look like. We didn’t really know where he was coming from, thanks to my laughable telephone Spanish. All we knew was that his name was Luis, and he was meeting us out front early in the morning.

We were going to be in the Jimmy for a ridiculous amount of time—it was like letting a stranger drive you from New York to D.C. and back several times in one weekend—and I was a little concerned about Luis, if only because neither Scott nor Serge spoke Spanish. Actually, I’m not giving them enough credit; Scott had perfected the word permisito (excuse me), and Serge was well on his way toward saying hola and even gracias. So if anything went wrong with our trip, it would be my fault. I was the translator. After struggling today to give someone my cell phone number in Spanish, I find that to be pretty funny.

Anyway, when Luis arrived he got out and took our bags and tossed them in the trunk of the Jimmy. Serge managed a nodding hola and Scott, feeling frisky, went with an enthusiastic buenos días. Luis smiled at the two of them and asked me how I was doing. I said that I was great before asking him in turn.

Chévere,” he replied.

Today, I know few things about Luis. I know he was from Maracay. I know he had the staying power of an I-40 trucker. I know he’d been to Miami once and thought the driving there, with its straight roads and working stoplights, was fantastic. Most importantly, I know that Luis was a sort of Venezuelan caricature, at least when it came to speaking.

Everything, I mean everything, was chévere to this guy.

How’s it goin’, Luis? Chévere. What’s the driving like, Luis? Chévere. What’s Puerto La Cruz like, Luis? Chévere. Are we making good time, Luis? Chévere. Are you sure you want to drive back to Maracay now and not get home until 4 a.m., Luis? Chévere. We don’t want you to fall asleep and kill yourself, Luis, okay? Chévere. Are you listening to me, Luis? Chévere. No, really, that’s pretty annoying. Chévere. Okay, well, what do you do during your spare time, Luis? Chévere. Do you have a lady friend, Luis? Chévere. Is she cute? Chévere. Umm, well, how’s your sex life, Luis? Chévere. Wait a sec, Luis, where are we going? Chévere. This is a dirt road, Luis. Chévere. Don’t do anything you’ll regret, okay, Luis? Chévere. We’re getting out the car this instant, Luis. Chévere.

Okay, so I never asked him about his sex life. But you get the point. He was, at least to me, Luis Chévere.

We were in the car with him for hours and hours that weekend, but finally, after Serge got what a Mag photo editor called “the poverty shot” (something like the money shot, only worse) in the barrios outside the city, we arrived back at the Meliá, a day before our flight back to New York. We thanked Luis for his help, paid him the Bs. 200,000 fare and were ready to leave when he tapped me on the shoulder. I turned back and saw him there in front of his car, smiling. “So, how was your trip? What’d you think of Venezuela?”

As if there could have been another answer. Chévere, Luis. Chévere.