Suburban Macondo

Monday, January 24, 2005

No mo' Internet

That's right ... our Internet ran out this month. Hence, few blog posts. Few insights about mal de ojo or la paradura del niño. Few anything, really.

How does Internet run out, you ask? Easy. We have a plan for 220 megabytes a month, and 440 more a month between the hours of midnight and 8 a.m. Huh? Apparently, each page view is about .1 megs. So, you do the math for page views per day. Once your daytime megs run out, your late night ones are inaccessible.

So, the Internet café will have to do. And finally, I can get some work done on the book.

Monday, January 17, 2005


For the longest time Brooke and I hadn’t eaten fast food, or at least U.S. chain fast food. No Whoppers, no Zesty Chicken Border Bowl, no 99¢ Value Menu, and sadly, no McRib sandwich. It started well before Brooke moved to the International Green Team, but the fact that she’s a vegetarian added to our aversion. So did our overall disgust at eating greasy fries and greasier burgers of suspect quality. But that doesn’t mean we’re above a cultural experience. So Saturday, for the first time, we hit up some fast food, Mérida style. We went to La Nota, the Mickey D’s of the mountains, the Arby’s of the Andes.

Fast food is not a foreign concept here in Venezuela. There are plenty of types of Venezuelan fast food, most notably arepas and cachapas, each filled with their own combinations of half-melted cheese and pinkish pork products. On weekend nights, street vendors sell everything from hot dogs and burgers to shwarma and pizza near the bars in the Centro. Also, there are American chains everywhere, including two (!) TGI Friday’s in Caracas. Even in smallish Mérida there are three sets of golden arches, one right off of Plaza Bolívar in the city hall building, the other two in the afueras with Auto Macs (drive-ins), playgrounds and all the fixins. And like in many other non-European countries, McDonald’s is a special treat. It’s cleaner and more expensive than the average restaurant (which means it costs roughly the same as it does in the States), and it often has cheap Internet stations to check your e-mail while you raid the contents of a Cajita Feliz (happy little box, or Happy Meal).

None of this had interested our appetites. But while out on Avenida Las Américas the other night, a little tipsy after several Regionals and Cuba Libres, Brooke, Luis and I ventured over to the La Nota near our bar. Luis kept assuring us that we’d like it, that it was much better than McDonald’s, that it was one of the best places to eat in the city. Sí, Luis.

Anyway, we got to the restaurant, which looked just like its huge, newly built I-40 fast food counterparts, and walked inside. Immaculately clean, no lines, fluorescent glow and plastic shine. And because it’s open all 86,400 seconds of the day, the fact that the clock read 1:30 a.m. didn’t matter one bit.

Instead of walking to the counter and queuing behind one of the touch-screen registers, we were immediately ushered to a booth. There were about 20 people there, all sitting down at tables, talking, waiting for their food. Strange, I thought. Soon, our waiter comes and gives us menus. At this point, Brooke and I are already dumbfounded. Waiters at a fast food place? Menus? At 1:30 in the morning? Our amazement at man’s ability and utility had just started.

After surveying the three-page menu for a few minutes, we decided on our orders. There was so much to choose from: parrilla, burgers, chicken, fries, desserts—seemingly everything your gluttonous little Venezuelan stomach could ever want. Brooke, obviously, would have La Nota Vegetariana, which wasn’t a veggie burger but rather a burger-less burger with tons of cheese and veggies and little potato sticks, too. For Luis, a solomo sandwich, or sirloin tips on Bimbo bread. I went with the 1/2 Libra, or half-pound burger. We paid the waitress and prepared for our feast.

Then a curious thing happened: they started bringing us sauces. At first, ketchup and mustard and barbecue. Simple, American fare. But then La Nota went venezolana, and the sauces came from all angles. Tartar. Cheez Whiz. A mayonnaise/corn/cheese blend. A straight-up mayo and cheese combo. And the coup de grace: a bright blue (take Carolina blue and Wal-Martify it) Roquefort sauce that defied all natural logic. I mean, the sight of Luis loading up a fry with blue goop was indescribable, appalling, hilarious.

So in the end, when the food came, the table was littered with three trays of more-than passable food (in fact, it might have knocked off the once-powerful Frostee-chili-junior bacon cheeseburger trio at the top of the fast food chain), three sodas, tons of napkins, and eight sauce bottles, one of which contained a liquefied version of Papa Smurf. Ah, Venezuela, even when you imitate the worst of the States, you rarely disappoint.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

The return of El Guapo

I’ve strayed away from sports posts since the Sox won the Series, and rightly so. I’ve had other things on my mind, most of them somewhat more important then men throwing, catching and shooting animal-skin spheres. But last night, something magical happened. Richard Garcés came back into my life.

You know El Guapo. Remember old number 34 plodding in from the bullpen, the entire Fenway crowd cheering wildly for the obese Venezuelan? Remember the hilarious weight fluctuations from season to season—one year the notes columns would mention how the front office was pleased with Garcés’ “new trim physique”, and then, months and months of arepas, pastelotes and hallacas later, El Guapo looked like he was ready to ask Maury Povich for a gastric-bypass operation? Remember the T-shirt jerseys, still are seen from time to time in New England, that had “El Guapo” on the back … and that, for some reason, put a tilde over the E?

So anyway, I’m at a bar in Mérida last night and I’m watching some random Venezuelan League game on the big screen over the dance floor. Miguel Cabrera’s team, Aragua, is whuppin’ up on Pastora in a postseason round-robin game. It’s the 8th inning, and los Tigres are up 6-1. It goes to a commercial, I grab a new Polar, and then he appears in all his splendid hugeness. He’s wearing the purple road uni of Pastora, and if his pants had been morado, too, I’d have pegged him as the Latino Barney. El Guapo was unmistakable: barrel-over-Niagara top, tree-trunk bottom, jowls that long ago swallowed his neck. I had heard he was playing for Magallanes, his old winter league team, but since they didn’t make the playoffs he must’ve moved over to Pastora. And here he was, pitching for me again.

Since last night, I’ve read up a little more on Garcés. The all-time Venezuelan League save leader is the front-runner for Comeback Player of the Year. He pretty much tanked last year, leaving his team after the rest of the league touched him up for a 9.00 ERA, but he returned, fat as ever, to record a bunch of saves and be quite effective this season.

Last night, though, was like watching vintage 2002 Garcés. He was awful. He had the leadoff guy 0-2 and gave up a rope to right field. He gets the next guy to ground into a DP ball, but the second baseman kicks it, and they only get the guy at first. One out. The following batter tops one to the first baseman, who tosses to El Guapo to get the guy at first. Two outs, a runner on third and lots of laughs watching the fat man cover the bag. He then proceeds to give up a Posada-like blooper to score a run. 7-1, runner on first. Then a walk. Then a hard-hit ball to left field that can’t score the guy from second. Two outs, bags juiced—and Cabrera coming up. Cabrera already hit a three-run bomb earlier in the game, and the fans in Maracay are pumped. El Guapo goes 2-1 on Cabrera and then uncorks a curve ball up near Miggy’s head. Cabrera dives out of the way and it looks like it hit him in the hand (the bat went flying like 10 feet), but the ump calls it a foul ball. Then, on 3-2 with the bags juiced, Garcés reaches back into the magic bag … and promptly drills Cabrera with another terrible yakker. 8-1. Bases loaded still. And El Guapo heads to las duchas.

So, his final line? 2/3 IP, 3 H, 3 ER (the next reliever came in and drilled the next hitter on the hip, forcing in a run), 2 BB, 1 HBP. But I don’t care. He’s never once failed to make me laugh, paunch or no paunch, tilde or no tilde. And besides, doesn't this mean he soon could be pitching for the Sox once again, lumbering to the mound to standing ovation after standing ovation?

You're right. Probably not.

Friday, January 07, 2005

A continuación

It has been a strange week or so. On top of being home in Glastonbury for about 10 days, which would take another blog—not just another post, but an entirely different Blogger site—to explain, we also were staying in Harlem, partying in Tribeca, paying $10 for two orders of fries, a Presidente and a Fanta at the Santo Domingo airport, waiting for new passengers on an airstrip in Curaçao (it really exists!), killing cockroaches and watching “Master and Commander” in Caracas, and sleeping, kind of, on a double-decker bus for 13 hours to get back to Mérida. So forgive me. I’m a bit out of rhythm.

My Spanish is flooding, er, trickling back, and the city is unsurprisingly unchanged from the last time we were here about three weeks ago. Our friends are still here, the noise still noisy, the machos still macho, and the buses still everywhere, clogging traffic all day long. I don’t know what I expected, but nothing fundamental has changed about Mérida—or more importantly, about the way I view Mérida—since returning from the States. Maybe after being here for eight straight months I’ll look back and say, “What? I thought that?” Maybe not.

But our time at home, and at the beaches of Choroní before that, has refreshed us. It’s put our first 10 weeks here in question, and now we’re ready to interact with our space, to work hard but not forget the incredible cultural and educational opportunities around us, or, best said, to live a new and better life here. And it let us do things that we can’t do here, like seeing our families. Aside from the few who might make it down to Venezuela by August, we won’t see them until nearly Thanksgiving, so it was particularly nice to spend time up in New Hampshire with both Brooke’s family and mine on Christmas day. Add in all the gallivanting with my mom, watching the Red Sox DVD with my dad, hitting a bar with my brother, drinking home brew with Gary, joking and s’moring with Judith, Paul and Pat, venturing to Hartford reunion bars with Cort and Caroline and snow angelling with Duncan, and it was a pretty good stay.

But we did more than just hang out with the fam while at home. I mean, come on: in New York, alone, I got to: hang at The Mag and not get paid to do exactly what I did every couple of days there (you can guess); eat 50%-off sushi at a place that makes you spend $14 before you get the rebate (which is always in effect) instead of just cutting all of its prices in half; go to a pub next to a Houston Street gas station and explain that my friend Lee’s name wasn’t, in fact, Wade; wake up the next morning and walk around all of Fulton Street Mall and the Atlantic Center (and why is there a huge indoor mall in the middle of Brooklyn? And why isn’t the FSM called the Fulton Bazaar, and the Atlantic Center the Great Suburban Paradise?), entering every Jimmy Jamz and Foot Locker in search of a black T-shirt with a yellow Wu-Tang symbol and a red or green Red Sox New Era fitted hat (7 3/8 or 58.9 cm) with the two socks, not the B, and finding neither; have terrible stomach pains after eating at an East Village Middle Eastern place oddly named Moustache (and apparently pronounced chez français: Moos-tash); watch Hitchcock’s “The Birds”, in all its eye-pecking glory, at a gay bar blocks away; head to a salsa bar in Tribeca (or TriBeCa? Argh.) that was filled with non-Latino banker types who didn’t salsa and that had no clocks or televisions to announce the New Year and that had bartenders who didn’t know how to make drinks—not even a Shirley Temple—and that had a DJ who, on top of ignoring the advent of 2005 entirely, said, when asked about the absence of salsa music at a salsa bar: “Oh, that’d be cool. But I brought reggae.”; buy Pepto-Bismol at a bodega later in the night for instant relief; wait underground for the A train at West 4th Street for 45 minutes, all the while listening to some woman talk about needing to get back to her man uptown to change his world; and, finally, a day later, wait for a bus to Newark that never came to 135th and 7th before negotiating with a gypsy cab driver and getting there plenty early, anyway.

That doesn’t happen here in Mérida. Well, maybe the stomach pains do, but not the rest of it. But I think now, finally, I can deal with that. As Bob Dylan told Ed Bradley when asked if were disappointed that he could no longer conjure up the great songs of his mid-sixties life, I can do different things now.