Suburban Macondo

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

But my boss is the State Department ...

Thanks to one of Suburban Macondo's most devoted readers, Gary Toczylowski, we all can enjoy this article/warning.

Condi's too busy to notice me, right?

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Running (away) of the bull

“The spectator going to a bullfight for the first time cannot expect to see the combination of the ideal bull and the ideal fighter for that bull which may occur not more than twenty times in all Spain in a season and it would be wrong for him to see that the first time. He would be so confused, visually, by the many things he was seeing that he could not take it all in with his eyes, and something which he might never see again in his life would mean no more to him than a regular performance. If there is any chance of his liking the bullfights the best bullfight for him to see first is an average one, two brave bulls out of six, the four undistinguished ones to give relief to the performance of the two excellent ones, three bullfighters, not too highly paid, so that whatever extraordinary things they do will look difficult rather than easy, a seat not too near the ring so that he will see the entire spectacle rather than, if he is too close, have it constantly broken up into bull and horse, man and bull, bull and man—and a hot sunny day. The sun is very important. The theory, practice and spectacle of bullfighting have all been built on the assumption of the presence of the sun and when it does not shine over a third of the bullfight is missing. The Spanish say, ‘El sol es el mejor torero.’ The sun is the best bullfighter, and without the sun the best bullfighter is not there. He is like a man without a shadow.”
—Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

Thanks for clearing that up, Ernie.

To start, I went to a corrida de toros, or bullfight, to celebrate the Feria del Sol here, better known in most parts as Carnaval. It was my first time, though I wasn’t new to the art of the bullfight; when studying in Spain, I lived 10 minutes from the Fenway Park of bullrings, the Real Maestranza de Cabellería. I’d wanted to attend a corrida there, but it was expensive and difficult to get tickets. Here in Mérida, though, it was easy enough: a 20-minute wait in line and Bs. 25,000 per ticket.

As for the bullfight itself, it’s a fairly complicated show. Every little detail is a tradition (like the way the bulls’ pen, or toril, is opened at the start of the bullfight), and almost every object has its own name (for example, the capes used early in the bullfight are capotes, while the cape used at the end is known as a muleta). The torero, himself, is full of ritual. He wears a skintight, bright colored and bejeweled outfit called the traje de luces, or suit of lights. (A quick bullfighting joke: If he’s wearing the a suit of lights, where are the batteries? Between his legs.) [You have to picture the bullfighter with his incredibly tight suit to make sense of that one.] The torero also grows out the back of his hair to put up in a ponytail and, because he is theoretically facing death every show, prays in the plaza’s chapel before each corrida.

I don’t want to brush over the mechanics of the event, but like Hemingway said, you don’t want it to become just a series of “bull and horse, man and bull, bull and man”. It’s much more than that, and you have to see it from a far view—both when you’re watching it and when you’re thinking about it as a tradition and, as many Spaniards argue, as an art form—to appreciate it.

However, to fill you in on what actually happens, here goes. There are four parts to every bullfight. First, the bull is let out of the toril and runs around crazy, looking to gore something. Then, the torero’s assistants, the banderilleros, do some passes with the capotes while the torero looks on from outside the ring. He then gets in and completes a few passes of his own. The horn sounds, and two blindfolded and armored horses enter, each ridden by a man with a long lance, or vara. The men, called picadores, wait for the bull to charge into the unknowing horse before they jam their lances into the bull’s neck to loosen up its muscles. They do this so the bull won’t be able to hold its head up later, which allows the torero to get the angle to slide his sword between the bull’s shoulder blades and kill it. After the picadores do their job, the horn blows again, and the banderilleros re-enter. This time, two of them take turns placing three pairs of banderillas, or long wooden sticks with sharp, barbed steel points, behind the bull’s neck. The banderilleros are pretty amazing; they stand on tip toe, arms out, taunting the bull until it charges, and at the last minute they stealthily hop out of the bull’s path and slam the picks into the bull’s back. Then, when the six banderillas are inserted, the horn sounds again and the torero reappears. He salutes the crowd, drops his hat in the center of the ring, and begins to make his passes, tiring out the bull. When the bull is sufficiently tired, he will even play with it, purposefully putting himself in danger to draw the support of the crowd. In the end, he aims the sword at a spot between the bull’s shoulder blades and drives in the sword. If it is a clean kill, the bull dies quickly; if not, it sputters and staggers and loses liters of blood through its nose and mouth. Not a pretty sight.

Anyway, the bullfight we saw was pretty standard. There was no sun, which definitely makes a difference. It changes the spectacle, and as Papa put it, the best bullfighter isn’t there without the sun. Although it was my first bullfight, I’m pretty sure the best bullfighter wasn’t there anyway, regardless of the weather. I guess I wouldn’t have known the other day if I were watching a bunch of hacks or the second-coming of El Cordobés or Manolete, but to me, it seemed like we had one torero who was flashy but ineffective, another skillful but boring, the other neither exciting nor efficient—and the bulls basically average. Except one, that is.

I’ve been wondering what Hemingway would’ve thought about the fifth bull of the day, a 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) behemoth that had that look when it came charging out of the toril. It was pissed off. This bull wanted no part of death, especially at the hands of a fancy-pants young torero who acted like he was hot shit but then did things like drop his capote during one pass and nearly get gored during another in his first fight of the day. The torero was looking to make up for his earlier bumbling, but the bull wanted no part of it.

So what did the bull do? Jumped the fence, of course.

Let’s put that into perspective: the bullring is surrounded by a five-foot-high fence. The bull weighs more than a half-ton. And the beast cleared the fence like he was on an equestrian course.

I don’t think there are contingency plans for things like this. At least, there didn’t appear to be when it happened. The bull jumped the fence. All of a sudden, he was in the space between the ring and the box seats—essentially the walkway in front of the seats for the wealthiest, and oldest, spectators. These are the people who like to tell their friends things like, “Man, my seats are so close I could reach out and touch the bulls.” They probably never thought, “Man, my seats are so close that if the bull jumped the fence I would have to run for my life and likely mess myself in the process.” That, though, is exactly what happened.

As you could expect, the crowd went nuts. Those who didn’t mess themselves running from the bull messed themselves laughing at the runners. The torero and the banderilleros were as clueless with the bull outside the ring as they had been fighting it. People were running and jumping everywhere. The bull charged around the ring, as if he were waiting to be let loose on the streets of Pamplona. Finally, about halfway around the ring, someone opened up the gates to the rings, and the bull re-entered.

The crowd, delighted, cheered, “Toro! Toro!” If there were to be anything memorable about the day, it would be the bull that, for a moment, got away.

Ten minutes later, though, the torero’s sword gracelessly clanged off the bull’s spinal column, and it died slowly, without much dignity at all. It seemed unjust, unsavory. I guess in my mind, the good guy lost.

Sunday, February 06, 2005


Word of the week: apestar (to suck, as in the vulgar American youthism “It sucks that WOTW is actually Word of the Whenever the Hell You Feel Like It”, not the more standard “Go suck a lemon, dude; I’ve got other things to do than to be a Blogger-sponsored Spanish-English colloquial dictionary.”)

Luis knew before I even told him about the week. There I was, hanging out in the posada, waiting for him to get off of the phone, and before I had a chance to say hello or what’s up or anything, he asked, “¿Qué tal Morrocoy?” How’s Morrocoy? And then, without missing a beat, he spit out “¿Apestó, no?” before laughing and slapping me on the shoulding. Yeah, Luis. It sucked.

Parque Nacional Morrocoy, located in the northern state of Falcón, is well known for its islets, islands and cays, its many coral reefs, its white-sand beaches, and its variety of wading and water birds, like ibis, herons, cormorants, pelicans and flamingos. Ever since I saw photos of Morrocoy and later read more about it, I had my heart set on going there and loving every minute of it, even though, after going, I still have no idea what a cormorant is. Not hiking to Los Nevados was my chance to finally get there, to my personal idea of paradise.

*Ian’s Rule No. 1 for not having a vacation totally, totally apesta: Don’t ever build something up as perfect or paradise-like in your mind. Especially don’t do that and then actually go there. You will be disappointed.*

So we got on a late bus last Sunday and headed off to Valencia, where, after arriving at 6 a.m., we transferred to the bus going along Route 3 to Tucacas and Chichiriviche, the southern and northern gateways, respectively, to Morrocoy. Despite a not-so-wonderful Lonely Planet review (This is a hot, ordinary town on the Valencia-Coro road, with nothing to keep you for long.), we decided to stay in Tucacas due to its proximity to a bunch of the cays to which we were most interested in traveling.

*Ian’s Rule No. 2 for not having a vacation totally, totally apesta: Don’t choose to go to a place that the books say are bad. They are. They’re not lying. Sometimes they’ll make something okay sound great, but never, ever is something better than they say it is. It’s not a movie review, people.*

Anyway, we arrived at the highway-side bus stop at about 8 in the morning. It was cloudy, but no worries: it was our first day of a week at the beach (don’t want to burn too much!), and it was early in the day. Tucacas didn’t have much going for it, though. It seemed downright ugly, with two restaurants and 10 liquor stores on the main street. One of the posadas mentioned in the book didn’t even have a sign with a name; it just had “Sí Hay Habitación” posted over barred windows. Great.

*Ian’s Rule No. 3 for not having a vacation totally, totally apesta: Trust your first impressions. Don’t drag out a crappy time by hoping for paradise to appear. It’s lost and gone forever, friend.*

We decided to walk all the way through town and down to the entrance of the park. After crossing a bridge, the road plunged into the middle of scrub brush and swampland. Sadly, there was garbage of all sorts everywhere. The crabs and the lizards, the pelicans and the crocodiles, all of them had to deal with human waste. Beer bottles, potato chip wrappers, plastic crates, condom wrappers—if you didn’t know, you’d think “national park” translated to “landfill” in Spanish. It was that bad, and when we arrived to the main beach, the only one in Morrocoy connected to the mainland, it also was trashed. The weekend tourists had come and gone, but their mark awaited us Monday morning.

Just like the book had said: The park is a popular destination for Venezuelan beachgoers, who come en masse on holidays and weekends and leave the islands badly littered. Unfortunately, we put too much stock into the next line: You can still enjoy deserted and apparently virgin beaches on weekdays. Virgin like Miss Venezuela, apparently.


So, we end up in Posada Las Palmas, or Posada de Carlos, or, as it says on the street, “Sí Hay Habitación”. It’s run by, you guessed it, Carlos, who was friendly enough. Everyday he organized tours of the park for Bs. 25,000, or $10, per person. By looking at the pollution on Monday, we missed out. Tuesday would be the day for the tour, and Wednesday we’d go to the one cay that had impressed us most during the tour. Above all, we’d soak in the sun and relax. Ah, yes.

Monday we hung out and did nothing. Brooke had a killer headache, so missing the boat trip was okay. But we were inside the posada a lot, too much, and the little gnat-like puri puri there were eating us alive. It wasn’t fun.

*Ian’s Rule No. 4 for not having a vacation totally, totally apesta: If you start getting bitten by any sort of mosquito-like insect, buy more repellant. Otherwise, you will run out. You will continue to itch.*

Before we went to bed, I ran out to the panadería across the street to get Brooke some crackers and, at her urging, some food for myself. Sick of bread and cheese, I naturally got a slice of pizza with ham. Bread, cheese and ham—the Venezuelan staple, and a blog post for another time.

We woke up the next morning and immediately I knew something was wrong. I had to run to the bathroom twice in 10 minutes, and I started to have flashbacks of some crappy, crappy times. Anyway, I got it together enough and was waiting for the boat captain to arrive at the hostel to take us on our tour of the park. Brooke was raring to go. It was 9:50. A minute later, I was on my knees in the bathroom, puking up Pepto-Bismol chewables like there was no tomorrow. I was a sweating, pink-liquid-emitting nightmare. And I wasn’t going to see any tropical cays that day, either.

So, to review: after two days in Morrocoy we’d suffered one killer headache, one bout of diarrhea and one instance of vomiting and hadn’t spent any time at a tropical beach, sunning, snorkeling, or generally enjoying ourselves. My idea of a vacation!

There was always Wednesday, right? And even if things didn’t go well, we could always head to Chichiriviche, the other town near Morrocoy, or just split and head to Coro, a colonial town three-plus hours away that is near a desert-like series of sand dunes and more beaches. But first, we’d wait to go on our tour of the cays.


So Wednesday came, and so did the rain. We woke up to clouds and waiting for the boat captain in a downpour. The day before, while I was in bed with a fever, I could see the beautiful blue sky outside my window all day long. Not a cloud in sight. But that was Tuesday, not Wednesday.

We were supposed to leave at 10 but didn’t set out till 11:30. We toured around the inlets off the bay and watched birds flap and flock over our boat. We ended up at a gorgeous beach called Playuela, and the damnedest thing happened: the sun came out. Brooke and I played in the water. We walked on the beach. We even took pictures. And then, 15 minutes later, it ended. It started to rain again.

The boat picked us up later, and we got to see another beautiful beach and visit another great cay. But there was no sun. There was coral, there was stunning greenish-blue water, and there were fun little crabs in tiny little shells, but there was no sun. It still was the highlight of the trip.

That night, we packed up and went to Chichiriviche. It couldn’t be as bad, right?

*Ian’s Rule No. 5 for not having a vacation totally, totally apesta: Don’t ever assume that a vacation couldn’t get worse. It can always get worse.*

When we got to Chichiriviche, we weren’t surprised that it was ugly. It was essentially a smaller Tucacas. But there were restaurants, and a promenade overlooking the bay, and nearby cays, and places to buy gelato! (Inexplicably, there were many Italians in Morrocoy. It must be a package-deal thing.) Our posada was cute, and Aurelio, the Spanish owner, was very nice. We even ate some delicious, fresh red snapper for dinner. Things were looking up. We would go to Cayo Sal, the biggest of the nearby cays, the next day, get tan, and maybe go back to Cayo Sombrero on Friday. Our vacation was just starting.


We woke up and noticed the water in the bay was brown. Well, reddish-brown, actually. Not greenish-blue like everywhere else. No matter, we thought: on the other side of the cays, the side facing the Caribbean, there would be waves, clear water, etc. We got a boat and went to Cayo Sal. Once again, there was no sun, but we were convinced it would come out later. Besides, we had to get to the other side of the island.

To do that, we had to go through the giant salt marsh in the middle. And we thought the mosquitoes were bad before. Anyway, we had been assured there was a beach on the other side. There was. It’s just that the beach had more trash than sand. All of it had just washed up into this moon-shaped beach, so we didn’t stay long. The sun still wasn’t shining.

We attempted to walk around the outside of the island to get back, instead of walking back through the marsh. There have been better ideas. We tramped across coral and garbage for about an hour, then had to sludge through shallows full of blue-orange crabs. Finally, the water was too deep to keep wading through, so we had to walk through the island anyway, and get devoured by puri puri all over again.

An hour before the boat came to pick us up, the sun broke through the clouds. As if it mattered at that point.

*Ian’s Rule No. 6 for not having a vacation totally, totally apesta: Get while the getting’s good.*

So we promised ourselves that we’d leave Morrocoy if we woke up Friday and it was raining. It was, and we did. Back to Valencia, back to the gross Big Low Center (actual name) to find an overnight bus. We somehow found one, one that was going to El Vigía (a town an hour away from where we live) at 10:30 at night. Because of Carnaval—remember that?—everyone was going west to Mérida. So, we had about nine hours to kill. Where better to end our trip than at Valencia’s biggest mall, Metropolis?


I could go on and on, of course. About the stupidity of the mall, about the annoying teenagers in the movie theater, about the Chili’s-style restaurant called Memphi’s, about the torturous ride home. But it’s too much, really. We just wanted a vacation. From what, who knows? Just a little vacation.

Of course, Luis had another way of looking at all of this. “You know you could have taken a four-wheel drive up the mountain to Los Nevados, right? You didn’t have to go up in the teleférico. Then none of this ever would’ve happened.”

*Ian’s Rule No. 7 for not having a vacation totally, totally apesta: Don’t leave yourself open to potshots from your friends after complaining about the awful vacation. You know why? They’re usually right.*

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Prelude to a bad vacation

Mérida didn’t want us to leave last Sunday. We tried to go up the teleférico to hike to Los Nevados. We didn’t even need to go to the last stop on Pico Espejo, which has been closed for months; no, we just needed to go to the second-to-last stop, Loma Redonda. But Mérida wouldn’t budge. It was closed for three days: Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It doesn’t run Monday or Tuesday. So, we were stuck.
Then Brooke had a great idea: screw the mountains and the working vacation—let’s go to the beach, instead. Excellent idea. All we needed to do was head to the bus terminal and buy two overnight bus tickets to Valencia. Two quick bus trips and we’d be there; we’d purchase the tickets and we’d be back within an hour. That is, if there were no such thing as Carnaval. Or the parade that happens a week before Carnaval starts.
Of course, this parade runs on Avenida Las Américas, right where the bus terminal is located. No buses are passing through. So we decide to walk for about 40 minutes in some serious heat to get there. But really, no big deal.
And the parade was great. People everywhere, selling everything from cold Polar to ice cream to shish kebobs to water balloons (a Carnaval tradition). We watch the parade for a while, with its line of scantily clad 13-year-old girls dancing like their 18-year-old sisters, its group of black-faced transvestites, its drum corps and its salsa bands, its old cars and its beauty queens. There was even a vulture with a trainer; at one point, the trainer, wearing a big piece of material on his arm to protect him from the vulture’s talons, put the vulture on its cage and backed off, as if to have the vulture fly to him, only to have a drunk Venezuelan come up and distract the bird with his half-full bottle of Regional Light beer. Eventually the drunk was shooed away, and the vulture’s flight completed, but still, you’ve gotta love it.
Anyway, we eventually crossed through the parade and got our tickets. Getting back, well, that was a whole lot more walking, and one hell of a bus ride. Think of it this way: if the bus’ limit was 50 people, there were about 120 sitting, standing, leaning, floating, scratching, dragging, whatever. They did everything but bungee-cord people to the wheel wells and tie us to the roof. But we got home, three hours later. The trip that would follow that night, and the disappointment of last week, well, that’s another story.