Ben: A Typical Day in Venezuela

June 20, 2009

By now, anyone who has been reading about my trip to Venezuela probably has the impression that every day is some new and exotic adventure, and that my life has become a cross between an issue of National Geographic and an episode from a travel show. In a sense this is true…on a daily basis I am surrounded by a culture that is foreign to me; the language, the people and the food are all new and different. However, at the risk of disappointing some, I feel that I have to set the record straight by explaining that I actually have a fairly structured ‘typical day.’ Actually, most days here are exactly the same for me. I have a family and school, both of which come with schedules and responsibility. So, although not as dramatic as some of my other posts, I think it is time to introduce what life is like for me in Venezuela.

I am going to start by introducing my family. They have been by far the best thing that has happened to me in Venezuela. While I have heard horror stories from other students, I look forward to going home after school. My family is incredibly engaged with me, asking each day what I have learned in school, helping me practice Spanish, cooking for me, showing me around Mérida and generally including me in everything that a typical Venezuelan family does. In short, I have been treated as one of the family since the night I arrived, and I don’t believe that there are words strong enough to express my gratitude for that.

Here is my family:

Señor Jorge, mi Papá.

Señor Jorge, mi Papá.

Papá: Señor Jorge is a very kind and funny man. He is retired now, but he used to work as a manager at the airport in Mérida. Recently the airport was closed to commercial air traffic (although private flights still operate from there), and I believe that is when he retired.

On my first night in Mérida I asked Papá if he spoke English. He told me no, but since then I have discovered that wasn’t entirely true. I cannot count the number of times when, during a dinner discussion with Mamá or Alejandro, we get stuck only to have Papá spit out the correct word in English in order to get the conversation moving again! Ironically, it always happens when he seems to be paying no attention to what we are talking about. He appears completely engrossed in whatever he is doing, eating, watching television, or reading the paper, when he suddenly throws out an English word. Perhaps my favorite example is when Mamá was saying good-night to me with the phrase “felíz sueño” which I had not heard before. Standing in the hall in our pajamas, Mamá tried for about a minute to explain exactly what that phrase meant, when suddenly, from the bathroom in their bedroom, and obviously in the middle of brushing his teeth, I heard Papá say “sweet dreams.”

I don’t think anyone in the family knows exactly how much or how little English Papá actually speaks, but everyone always has a good laugh when I tell them that I believe Papá speaks English better than I speak Spanish.

Señora Nilda, mi Mamá.

Señora Nilda, mi Mamá.

Mamá:  Señora Nilda used to work as a counselor in a school, and before that I believe she was a teacher. Once a teacher, always a teacher. She is the perfect combination of patient and strict and frequently makes me repeat a phrase in order to correct my pronunciation. She is always encouraging, and she gets fairly upset if she hears me say that I should have known a word, or that I said something stupid. Instead, she reminds me of exactly how many days I have been in Venezuela and how little I knew when I arrived. Although she speaks no English, I speak to her more than anyone (with the exception of Franko and Andrea whom you will meet shortly).
She treats me just like one of her children, at times calling me “hijo” or son. She tells me that she is proud of me for how much I am studying and how quickly I am learning. She has a very good sense of humor, and she thinks that I am very funny, even in a second language.

One night I came home from school and told her about a mistake I had made in class that day. My professor had asked me to describe what I had for dinner the night before, so I told him I had bread and some soup. At that moment I could not remember the word for chicken, and of course to my horror, he asked what kind of soup it was. So, I gave it my best shot and used a word that was close. Chicken is “pollo” (po-jo) but the closest word I could think of was “pelo.” Pelo means hair. I literally told him my family made me hair soup for dinner.

Well, Mamá laughed a lot, but then after we had cleared the dishes she immediately asked me to describe everything we had just eaten. I am pretty sure that part of it was the teacher in her wanting me to practice more, but I also think that a part of her was mortified that anyone might possibly believe that they would serve a guest hair soup.

My brother Alejandro.

My brother Alejandro.

José Alejandro: Alejandro is my little brother. He is 17 years old and in his last year of high school. He is very smart, and although he speaks limited English, we have spent quite a bit of time discussing politics, religion, and any number of other hard topics. He is fascinated that I have been to Russia as he is hoping to go study in Moscow someday.

Alejandro is actually Mamá and Papá’s oldest grandchild. They have raised him ever since he was a baby, and I believe that they think of him as their own child.

When I found out whom my host family was the email told me that Alejandro was a nine year old boy. Knowing that baseball was very popular in Venezuela, Jess and I purchased a kid’s glove and a baseball for him. It was very amusing that first night to present those to him and then have to explain the mistake in the information I received.

He is so enthusiastic no matter what he is talking about, and when he really gets going he speaks so fast that I have no chance of keeping up, but it always makes me smile. His enthusiasm is contagious.

One morning I told Alejandro that I had seen some men playing fútbol (soccer) and that I loved the sport. He told me that unfortunately the season did not start until after I left, but a few days later I found out that he had arranged a game with a whole bunch of his friends so that I would have a chance to play before I left Venezuela. He is very busy with school and he did not have to do that… but I am glad he did. The match is this afternoon at 4 and I can hardly wait.

I live with Mamá, Papá and José Alejandro. I have my own small room, and I share a bathroom with Alejandro. It is very comfortable, and there is almost always at least one of them home for me to talk to.

There is a lot of crime in Venezuela, and every residence that I have seen has bars on the windows. Our house is no different. The home is actually walled in, with a small driveway to park the cars on out in front, and in back there is an open air patio with a few hammocks, a sitting area and even a little garden where tomatoes and some herbs are grown. The driveway is separated from the street by a large iron gate that must be rolled back before you can get in or out. There is also a smaller iron gate made for walking through. None of this seems abnormal because every house I see is like this. It is just their way of life. Actually, in some neighborhoods the walls are topped with barbed wire or electric fences. Or, since those are expensive, many families that don’t have as much money simply line the tops of their walls with broken bottles, sharp side up. It is much cheaper and from what I understand, fairly effective.

Our house has been made into a duplex, and right next door my sister Andréa (Mamá and Papá’s youngest daughter) lives with her husband Franko and their one year old daughter María Eugenía. Franko and Andréa are my best friends in Venezuela and I spend almost every night over there.

Franko is a medical student has classes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. He is incredibly smart and taught himself English by watching television and movies. In truth, Franko has better English (and less of an accent) than anyone else I have met in Mérida. He is funny, at times sarcastic, and loves music. Franko and I share many similar interests, and I believe that we would become friends no matter where we had met. It is wonderful to have my best friend in Venezuela living right next door. He has been able to explain many things about politics, Venezuela, etc. to me because he speaks English, and at times, after a long day of studying in Spanish, it is nice to have the option of just speaking in English for a little while.

Andréa is also very intelligent and although she insists that she cannot speak English, she understands almost everything that I say. She is also going to school where she studies Criminology.

When I really want to know how to say something correctly I go to Andréa. She is an amazing teacher who has a real knack for breaking words and phrases down into manageable syllables for me to repeat. Just like her mom, she is very patient with me and she seems to get excited when I am making progress.


Franko, Andréa and María Eugenia.

The first night I was in Mérida I explained (in very broken Spanish) that I was a little sad because I was missing my wife. When she found out that I was married she immediately invited me over to their house so that I could use their computer to Skype with Jess. Every night since, Andréa reminds me that it is important that I Skype with Jess every day. She has told me that she cannot imagine being away from Franko like that, but if she had to be she hopes that someone would help her find a way to communicate with him. Andréa also told me on the very first night that she is my sister and this is my family and if I ever need anything I just need to ask. She is a very caring person.

So that is my living arrangement. Three generations represented in two households that all exist at one address.

My typical day is fairly straight forward. Monday through Thursday are school days for me. I wake up sometime between 6 and 7 in the morning and I shower, get dressed, and make my bed. Then I meander into the kitchen where Mamá is cooking breakfast. (Note: I will need to do a separate post on food.) I usually sit and talk to Mamá and Papá for a while over breakfast and a cup of coffee or tea before I have to leave for school.

There are two ways for me to get to school… either the trollebus which is free, or a busetta which I have to pay for. There are definitely pros and cons to both. As I said, the trollebus is free and it also is unaffected by traffic since it is on its own road. However, it is always very crowded in the mornings, and there is always the chance that I would not be able to get on and would have to wait for another one to come by. In Venezuela, schedules do not mean that much, and the next trollebus gets there when it gets there, so having to wait for one could make me late to class. On the other hand, a busetta is a small bus or van that carries a lot of people for a small fee. They are also very cramped, and at times you ride by literally hanging out the door with one foot on a step and one hand on a railing to hold on. They do run frequently in the mornings however, and I have never had to wait more than a minute or two before picking one up. Another advantage to the busetta is that it will drop me off right in front of school, as opposed to the trollebus which stops about 3/4 mile short.

In the mornings I have been leaving a little early and taking the trollebus for two reasons. The first is that it is free, and I would prefer to save as much money as possible, even if it is only 50 cents. The second reason is that breakfasts in Venezuela tend to be very heavy, and honestly, I always feel a little better if I walk a little before sitting in class all day. So while it is convenient that the busetta drops me off right in front of school, it means that I don’t get my extra exercise.

Upon arriving at school, one of the workers will buzz me in (there is a security door) and I immediately go to the cafeteria. Each day you need to sign up for lunch before 10 a.m. in order to receive it. I am afraid I will forget someday, so I have just made it part of my routine to go there right away. I usually chat with the cook for a minute. He is incredibly nice to me and even though I cannot speak Spanish very well I think that he enjoys that I make an effort. After that I walk through the commons area, usually say “Hi” to a few friends, and then head upstairs to my classroom. I like getting there before everyone because it is quiet and I can review what we did the previous day, or I can use that time to do last minute touch-ups on any homework. In my Spanish 1002 class we have a test every Thursday morning, so on Thursdays I use that time to study before the test.

Class starts at 9 a.m. and goes until somewhere around 12:30 when we take our lunch break. Then I am back in class from 1 until 3. We usually get a 15 minute break or two, but it is literally almost 6 hours of studying Spanish every day. I wish there was some way that I could describe how exhausting it really is, but I don’t think I can. By the time I leave class, my brain refuses to cooperate in even the most mundane tasks. Quite frankly, I am surprised that I have actually made it home every night without getting lost.

I have to take a busetta on the way home because the trollebus does not start running until 4. I could wait longer at school, but I prefer to get home to my family because my time with them is comforting. No matter who I see, they always ask me what I did in class that day, and if I had a test they always ask how it went. Depending on who I am talking to, much of this has to be in Spanish. It is more difficult after having been in class all day, but it also seems like the conversational practice I get at home is an integral component to actually learning the language. So, I struggle through it.

Dinner is usually somewhere between 6 and 8, so until that time I get to do whatever I want. Often this means just going over to listen to music with Franko (Andréa has classes in the afternoons). A few times it meant a nap, and lately it has meant exercise. The last two days in fact I have gone running inside the Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano, the soccer stadium in Mérida.

Eating dinner with Mamá, Papá and usually Alejandro is a lot of fun. We talk exclusively in Spanish and we always end up laughing a lot. Most nights we eat, and then I spend some more time talking with either Mamá or Alejandro for a while over coffee or tea. Then, sometime around 8:30 or 9, I head over to Franco and Andréa’s house. This is usually when they are starting to put María Eugenia to bed so the computer is open and I am free to Skype with Jess. We usually talk online for about an hour before I have to go. Then, Franko and Andréa make tea or a juice of some kind and we sit and talk for another hour or two, depending on how much studying or homework I have. I have grown to love my nightly chats with Franko and Andréa and I already know that it is going to be very difficult to leave them in 7 weeks.

At some point I head back to my room where I usually try to jot some notes in my journal, study a little, and then climb in to bed where I attempt to read a few pages from a paperback. So far I have never made it more than a page and a half before falling asleep.

I have no idea if reading this will seem like my days are filled to capacity, or if I am not really doing much (since in truth I am pretty much just going to school and then coming home and spending time with my family) but I can tell you that being here and living this on a daily basis is thoroughly exhausting. I don’t think I could possibly add anything else to my days, or spend any more time studying from a book. The balance that I have achieved is more out of necessity than anything. I am not sure if it is my age, my personality, or something else altogether, but this is just how my schedule needs to work.

The one thing I can say with certainty is that my schedule is exhausting, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Although I wish I was able to learn Spanish more quickly, I am able to see that I am making a little progress every day. I am also very happy to be here with my family. When you put those together it means that I am very content, and I cannot ask for more than that.

One comment

  1. i liked your description, it helped me with my tarea greatly…

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