It's been quite a while since my last post. Seventeen days to be exact, which is an eternity in blogger time. Apologies to all of our loyal readers out there.
The days in Venezuela, as ever, flew by.
My first salsa concert! My in-laws treated us to a night of Gilberto Santa Rosa and the seminal salsa band, El Gran Combo, making a stop on their 45th anniversary tour. The music was incredible, but perhaps most noteworthy were our ill-advised attempts to buy beer. Now, in my experience, most Americans prefer to stand in nice, orderly lines. Venezuelans, however, take a more aggressive approach to concessions. I was tossed left and right by anyone (fat young men, little old ladies, children) who had a craving for Polar Ice (to call it piss is an insult to piss everywhere) and a few Bolivars (1 US Dollar = 2,146 Venezuelan Bolivares) to spend. Ultimately it proved safer and more effective for me to linger at the back of the line and wait while my father-in-law muscled his way to the front, combating other Caraqueños, one of whom promised the beer lady a new set of fake breasts if she would serve him first. Another took a slightly more offensive approach, saying something to the tune of hey, negrita, it's bad enough that you're black, but you don't have to scowl at us too... At least he himself was black, I guess.
Well, we got our (warm) beers after about 30 minutes and missed most of Gilberto Santa Rosa (the Gentleman of Salsa). El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico was great though, and the audience was impressive, often drowning out the performance with their own singing and cheering. The temperature hovered somewhere around volcanic. Unfortunately, our boiling beers (to which we had added a few doomed ice cubes) were of little help.
Trip to the Finca (farm). Our uncle Manolo owns about the prettiest chunk of farmland you've ever seen, 1,000 hectares sprawling over the Venzuelan llanos. On it grow lush, endless fields of corn where birds flit around this birdwatcher's paradise. It was hot, and we cooled off with beer mixed with Seven-up. Sound weird? It is!
Along the way we stopped and visited the Virgin of Betania, a small sculpture of the Virgin Mary, who, according to legend, will answer the prayers of those who promise to return. On the surrounding rock walls people had attached words of thanks, thousands of plaques, some quite ornate, that read, "Thank you, Virgin, for the answered prayer." Others offered more specific thanks for a successful operation or a passed exam.
Touring colonial houses with aunt Yarima. Alex continued to research her novel by interviewing her aunt Yarima. Meanwhile, the three of us toured some of the remaining colonial houses in Caracas, including the birthplace of Simón Bolívar. All of them were cool, calm escapes from just about the craziest city in the world.
Montezuma's revenge. Actually, this was not really a highlight.
Many, many cachapas. One of Venezuela's specialties are cachapas, the thick corn pancakes typically folded over a giant hunk of white cheese. Oh man, they are the best, and I ate several of them, usually with a freshly squeezed tropical fruit juice. Dang!
America's Cup soccer game. My brothers-in-law and I had a great time watching Mexico beat Uruguay 3-0 in the game that determined third place in the America's Cup. The match was almost as cool as watching my father-in-law buy tickets illegally from a scalper in a place that was swarming with security.
Spencer's opening: It was great to see so many people show up for Spencer's opening at the Museo de Arte Contemporario, and great to share a delicious plate of octopus with the artist himself. The best thing was seeing my wife featured in one of the exhibits.
General observations on Venezuela and President Chávez:
While I love La República Bolivariana de Venezuela, I'd have a hard time living there. I don't think that learning the language would be the problem, but I'd have a tough time living year-round in a place where crime is so high and where you have to be so careful all the time and where a simple trip to the bank can turn into many trips to the bank and many agonizing hours lost because nothing ever seems to work.
President Hugo Chávez is pretty much demonized in the American media. On the CNN Youtube Debates, he was bunched together with Kim Jong Il and several other leaders we deem evil or oppressive. This is a joke.
My perspective of Venezuela is based on visits that occur every two years. Since my first visit, when the country was devastated by landslides and untold death counts, I have seen highways and bridges built, the subway system expanded, shopping malls erected, cars purchased and a general increase in commerce and construction.
That said, Caracas is still one the most chaotic and dangerous cities in the world. There is trash everywhere and the traffic is horrible.
Under Chávez the majority of the people, the ones living in absolute poverty, have received better health care. They are going to school. They are learning to read. They are voting.
Of course there is still a terrible animosity that exists between social classes and, in many cases, between family members. Much of this can be blamed on Chávez, who rails against the rich.
There also continues to be widespread corruption during Chávez' administration and a general lack of infrastructure, which is a disappointment. I also cannot say I approve of his closing of a public, anti-Chávez television station.
Hugo Chávez is a problematic leader, but on the whole it seems progress has been made. Why, then, is he made such a pariah by the American media? It just may have something to do with the fact that Venzuela is the world's fifth leading oil producer and that Chávez is a socialist. It's so obvious that the U.S. had its hands all over his very temporary removal from office. Look at any dirty regime change in South America and you will probably find U.S. fingerprints all over it.
Hugo Chávez. Crazy? Yes. Evil? No. Friend of Castro? Yep. Communist? Nah. Democratically elected? Oh yeah. A threat to the U.S.? Hell no.