Ben: El Centro

June 27, 2009

My summer in Venezuela is proving to be a very complicated balancing act between the need to study and the desire to experience. Although initially nine weeks sounded like a long time, the truth is that much of my time here is consumed either in school or studying for school. After all of the time I spend studying, there is not much left of those nine weeks. Let’s just say that I am very glad I will be staying down here an extra two weeks after my classes are over.

I am discovering that there is a strange relationship between studying a language and actually using the language. If I simply wandered the streets trying to pick the language up, I would not be able to learn the grammar required to pass my exams. At the same time, studying constantly and mastering grammar does not mean that you have consumed the language enough to be able to answer even simple questions in a conversational setting, regardless of how you do on your exams. So, like I said, it is a rather complicated balancing act.

That being said, this past week has been testing my sense of balance. Since it was the final week of my Spanish 1002 class most of the week was spent preparing for Thursday’s final exam. In addition, I also had to write two papers in Spanish. If you have never had to write a paper in a foreign language that you do not know all that well, I am not sure that you can ever really understand how difficult it is. I found out that I could not simply write in English and then translate because I do not understand the Spanish language well enough. I am not talking about vocabulary… you can always look a word up in the dictionary. What I am talking about is how the language itself is constructed… how you phrase things… how the language actually lives and breathes. The truth is that in order for me to write a paper in Spanish I need to start in Spanish and work with the limited grammar that I understand. It can be very frustrating and a little humiliating because you feel like you are writing like a child (which I suppose I am). It would be roughly equivalent to drawing well enough to receive an art scholarship, and then have someone hand you a coloring book and tell you to practice staying within the lines.

A small plaza hidden in el Centro.

A small plaza hidden in el Centro.

Wednesday was a national holiday so the school wasn’t open, but a friend and I hired our professor to meet with us at a café for a few hours of extra practice. After that, I went home to write my final paper, ate dinner, and then spent the rest of the night cramming for my exam. By 1:30 in the morning I fell asleep with flashcards in hand, hoping that it was enough. Although I exhausted myself, I ended up getting 96 out of a possible 100 on the final exam. Thursday night, after enjoying congratulations from my host family, I passed out in a tired heap on my bed. The long 24 hours of studying had done me in completely.

I woke up Friday morning feeling strange. I lay in bed for a while contemplating what it was that I was feeling. I first I considered that perhaps my test score from the previous day was creating a wave of motivation that I could surf into a few more hours of studying, but that didn’t seem quite right. After about ten minutes it hit me. The last week had been all studying, academic and now what I needed was to tip the scales in the other direction. I didn’t need to study… I needed to go out and experience Venezuela.

Josh waiting patiently while I take pictures.

Josh waiting patiently while I take pictures.

I sent a text message to my friend Josh, another student at VEN-USA (my school). Josh has previously taken Spanish in both high school and college, and most of the course work is fairly easy for him. He is down here primarily to travel around and experience as many things in South America as he can, so I knew that he would be interested in spending a day doing just about anything.

Mérida is a city that is nestled within a deep valley. No matter where you are in the city you can see steep hills and mountain peaks in every direction that you look. The city itself is situated primarily north and south (technically a little northeast and southwest) and is also on a fairly sizeable hill, so the people here are constantly referring to locations in terms of either north, which means uphill, or south, downhill. Long and narrow, many people live on both the north and south side of town, but there is a very busy section of town called el Centro that is in the north half of the town.

One of the narrow streets in el Centro.

One of the narrow streets in el Centro.

Seemingly constructed from a dizzying array of tiny shops, narrow streets, and an overwhelming volume of traffic (both motor and pedestrian) el Centro is a virtual labyrinth of commerce bustling at an incredible pace. It is fairly large, and incredibly easy to get turned around in. Oh, and it also happens to be the part of town where tourists frequent, which means that the odds of getting your pockets picked are much higher in el Centro. For this reason, whether you are turned around or not, you do not pull out a map…that would be roughly the equivalent of a bright neon sign flashing the words “please rob me” for everyone to see. El Centro is the heart of Mérida, and it was exactly what I needed.

Josh and I texted a few messages back and forth before deciding where and when to meet, and roughly what we were going to do. The goals for the day, aside from just getting out into the city, were to do a little shopping and to find a Mexican restaurant we had heard about. The shopping list was not long, but sort of important. At the top of the list was a belt for me. One of the many things that I forgot, without a belt my pants have literally been falling off the entire time I have been in Venezuela. I also wanted to purchase a new notebook (since I already completely filled one in my first three weeks of class) and possibly look at some shoes.

his ice cream store has over 900 flavors!

his ice cream store has over 900 flavors!

We took a busetta into el Centro and got off on 31st. Josh knew that the Mexican restaurant was on the southern side of el Centro, but was not sure how far south, so we had two choices…either walk uphill or downhill. Since uphill took us deeper into el Centro we decided to head that way. We stopped at a few stores to look at shoes, and I attempted to discreetly take a few photos. Yes, I realize that if a map is a flashing neon sign, a digital camera is a megaphone announcing to the world that I am a tourist. However, I felt a little better with Josh watching out for me as I snapped a few pictures when I could, and as a team we slowly worked our way into the middle of el Centro.

The first few stores that we stopped in I had problems even understanding when an attendant would ask if I needed help or if I wanted to look at something. Like I said, you can study all you want, but it does not prepare you for conversational situations. Josh attempted a few times to ask different people about the Mexican restaurant, striking out each time. Eventually we reached 26th, the main street that marks the middle of el Centro, and were about to turn back and head south when I realized there was a store that had a lot of belts hanging on a rack. So, we went inside.

It took a little doing, but with a lot of help from Josh, I finally understood that the girl who was waiting on me was asking for my waist size. I found a belt I liked right away, so she disappeared upstairs to find one in my size. While she was gone I found a few more belts buried at the back of the rack that I liked better. They were presentable, but also different enough from anything that I had seen in the United States that made me like them better. Fortunately for me, the girl returned (after a surprisingly long time) only to tell me that they didn’t have that belt in my size. So, I pulled out the other two that I had found and had her go and look for those. In the end it was the third belt I chose that I ended up buying, and that was only because the size I needed happened to be the one that was hanging on the rack. I am still not sure if there were actually belts in the upstairs room, or if she was just taking breaks. In any case, I purchased a belt, and for the first time since I have been in Venezuela, was able to walk normally without having to pull my pants up every fourth or fifth step.

After buying the belt we started to work our way south again. I think at this point Josh was starting to get frustrated because no one seemed to know anything about a Mexican restaurant. The closest he got was that someone vaguely remembered hearing about one, but that was all they knew. It was definitely not enough information to be even remotely helpful. So we continued on our own.

There is graffiti everywhere in Mérida.

There is graffiti everywhere in Mérida.

About three blocks south of 26th I saw a store that sold paper products, and since I needed to get a notebook, I decided to walk in. I needed to do this one on my own, to prove to myself that I could, so when the woman asked if she could help me, I knew it was now or never. All of the products in the store (actually in most stores in el Centro) were behind a counter and you need to ask for them, so I did. I told her that I wanted to look at a notebook. She was very nice and appeared to have understood me perfectly because she pulled a few different types of notebooks out to show me, laying them on the counter. I asked how much one or two of them were, and after she told me, I picked one. As she was ringing me up she chatted a little bit, and although it was all I could to do follow what she was saying, for the most part I was able to follow along. This made me feel fairly confident, and after she handed me my change and thanked me for stopping in, I decided to take one more chance. I said “We are looking for a Mexican restaurant.”

The look on Josh’s face was amusing. The woman immediately smiled and nodded and then called to a girl who was stocking shelves in the back. Suddenly we had two people who knew about the restaurant, and more than that, were actually giving us directions! In truth it had absolutely nothing to do with my Spanish other than the fact that I made the effort to ask. But, ironically, the person with the worst Spanish was the one who happened to get the answer. We laughed about it a little bit as we left the store. We laughed a little harder when we looked at the directions and realized where the restaurant was…exactly half a block south of where we had started.

Mexican food in Venezuela was kind of a big deal for both Josh and me. For starters, we both like spicy food, and while the cuisine in Venezuela is many things, spicy is not one of them. The other reason it was kind of a big deal is because we were both scheduled to go to Mexico for the summer until the swine flu panic rerouted us to Venezuela. So perhaps this lunch was a little symbolic as well…some kind of closure on the trip we had been planning on taking.

Although we both had a bit of difficulty speaking with the waitress, the restaurant was actually great, and my burrito was spicy! We also had sour cream, guacamole and picanté sauce. They did not have bottled water, but we both gladly ordered a Coke instead and then sat back to enjoy our meal.

Josh needed to meet his girlfriend across the viaduct around 2:30, and since it was only about 1:30 at this point I told him I would definitely walk over with him and then just work my way back on my own later. This way I could see more of el Centro, and I would get a little time on my own. So we headed north back to 26th. On the way we were about to pass a book store when I had to stop Josh. I wanted to go in.

I need to flashback a few nights to Tuesday when I was watching the movie “Empire of the Sun” with Franko and Andrea. It was in English, but we had the volume turned down a bit and I found myself reading the Spanish subtitles when I couldn’t quite hear what was said. I was by no means perfect, but it was pleasantly surprising how much I was able to gain by seeing the words in Spanish. It was that night that the seed of an idea had been planted in my head; I wanted to get a book in Spanish and try to work my way through it.

Of course I had immediately thought about a “pre-teen” book, something like Harry Potter or Twilight. I actually saw Twilight in the paper store for 60 BfS (BfS stands for Bolívares Fuertes, the Venezuelan currency) and thought about buying it, but after receiving directions to the restaurant all I could think about was getting food.

Walking into the bookstore was like coming home. I had a similar experience in Moscow. I think that I just have so many fond memories of books that no matter what language they are in, I feel a connection, comfortable, relaxed. Even the man working behind the counter looked like he belonged in a bookstore. I saw Twilight on a rack right away but it was for 85 BfS, so if that was the book I was going to get it would be much smarter to head back to the paper store. However, at that moment there was no way I was going to leave. I was drawn deeper into the store, forgetting about el Centro, Josh, homework, everything. All I could think about were the books that surrounded me.

Exploring a bookstore in Venezuela.

Exploring a bookstore in Venezuela.

I saw Spanish dictionaries, books on computer programming, even a book on the art of Wassily Kandinsky. There were volumes on Shakespeare, engineering, self-help guides, and eventually literature. When I rounded a corner I saw a rather plain looking yellow book, fairly thin and definitely not flashy, that kind of called to me. As I picked it up I started to “read” the back. I say “read” because I have to skip words that I don’t know, the same as I do when I am reading the newspapers here, but surprisingly, for the most part I am able to piece together what is going on. In this case, the book I was looking at was written by Arturo Uslar Pietri, a Venezuelan author and intellectual who wrote this while living in France in the late 20s and early 30s. It is a story about the Venezuelan war for independence from Spain. The back of the book also said that Arturo Uslar Pietri was an important literary figure in Venezuela, and that this was his first novella.

For those of you that don’t know, I have a habit of trying to purchase “local” authors whenever I travel. A trip to Boulder, Colorado, introduced me to Kent Haruff, while my journey to Savannah, Georgia, brought me “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Last summer I was particularly thrilled to reread “Crime and Punishment” while I was in St. Petersburg, Russia, the city that the novel takes place in. Also, and this is story for another time, earlier in the week I had attempted to write (yes, I said attempted…like I said, a story for another time) my final paper about Simón Bolívar and the battle for Venezuelan independence. This book was perfect. The man at the counter seemed pleased with my choice, and his expression was so kind that I tried my Spanish out again and asked if it would be okay if I took a picture of the store. He simply replied “Claro.” Of course.

The items I purchased on my trip to el Centro.

The items I purchased on my trip to el Centro.

Josh and I eventually walked across the viaduct, through a mall, and hung out for the rest of the hour before I said goodbye and headed back towards home. Sitting on a busetta, I paged through the book. It is not going to be easy for me, and it will probably take its toll on the pages of my dictionary as well, but I have always wanted to read a book in another language, and there in my hands was that book. I am fairly certain that nothing I could write in a blog entry could possibly convey the magnitude of what that means, but for me, it was a very significant moment.

Snow on the peaks high above Mérida.

Snow on the peaks high above Mérida.

Later, after I had already started writing this, Franko knocked on the door to my room and told me I might want to come outside. High above Mérida, a storm had dropped snow on the peaks. It was beautiful. Franko told me that it does not happen that frequently, maybe once a month at best, and that often when people see the snow up there they jump in their cars to drive up and see it. Standing there in a t-shirt next to a palm tree, I realized that it never snows in the city and that the white coating on the peaks above must seem almost mystical to the people that live here. To me, the entire city seems a little mystical. It is not very clean, it is congested and it is frequently loud, but it is alive, and today I got out and experienced it.

As I stared up into the mountains, I swallowed the last sip of the papilon con limón that Franko had given me. I smiled. This day had been exactly what I needed. I wonder what tomorrow will be like.

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