Posts Tagged ‘Venezuela’


Robert: Lo que no mata engorda

May 25, 2010

“Our standard of living is a matter of functioning and capabilities, not a matter of utilities, commodies, or opulance”
– Amartya Sen, The Tanner Lectures

I have been in Mérida for five days and one of the things that stands out most to me is the shortage of the basics. Some of these shortages are chronic, others are periodic, but all are annoying.

Rest has been one of the most limited resources of late.  As a matter of the demands of the VENUSA program, my class schedule, and thrill-seeking behavior, every day last week I woke before 7 a.m., came home after 8pm and twice stayed out past 1 a.m.. My classes go from 8:30-5:45 p.m. Monday–Thursday. Afterward, there are typically events with the language exchange program “Nuevos Encuentros.” After that, many people were excited to go drinking and dancing. There are about a half-dozen well known “discotecas” or bars that Venezuelans and foreigners travel between by taxi, dancing at each one until the early morning. The shortage of rest broke yesterday when I decided not to go on a trip to the hot springs with most of the US students.

Another shortage that ended shortly after I decided not to go to the hot springs was the shortage of contact with my family. Venezuela has a great system of call centers that are very affordable but they are not, as far as I know, typically open before 8 a.m. or after 8p.m. On Saturday I talked for over an hour for 28 Bolivares, which is the equivalent of about $7 at the official exchange rate.

Incidentally, Venezuela has the highest rate of per capita cell phone ownership in Latin America. I also took the opportunity on Saturday to buy an inexpensive Samsung cell phone with a Movistar plan.

The shortage of clean clothes also ended yesterday. My host mother agreed to take my bag of clothes to the laundry, and I went two days later and picked them up wearing the only (dirty) clothes I had. On the trip from Miami on Monday many other students commented how lightly I packed. Indeed, I packed 27 kg of luggage and only half of it was clothing. I will be here for 12 weeks and I hope to buy least a few shirts, pants, and other articles.

On a more serious note, space is still limited on the TROLMERIDA during the morning commute. To correct an inaccurate observation I made in my last post, riders are not allowed to hang out of the trolly. That only happens on the busetas, which are busses privately owned and operated.

The idea of jamming into a bus became serious for me on Wednesday when I was inches away when an elderly woman who was squeezed between some seats and the door as it opened. She moved too slowly and there was no place for her to go on the trolly so her torso and purse were trapped and she was slowly squeezed for about 10 seconds until she slipped out. Afterward, many people on the bus were talking about how unsafe the trolly is and how no one follows the rule to let older people sit in the special seating. I don’t know how serious being squeezed was for her but it looked painful. In any case, it was dangerous and unnecessary.

Another significant shortage is that of electricity. Beginning several months ago, the main source of electricity for the region, the Guri Dam, has experienced severely low water levels due to a prolonged drought. For months on end, Mérida had days-long power outages. My host mother told me yesterday that when the last group of US students arrived in Mérida the city was in complete darkness. My first experience with the electricity shortage was on Thursday morning during class. The lights in the salon went out for about 15 minutes. I thought the light had burned out but my teacher didn’t seem surprised and just opened the windows. Later that day I saw the outage was city-wide and caused a lot of traffic in the city center. During the news, I saw President Hugo Chavez guarantee that no more outages would occur during peak hours or on weekends. Saturday night the electricity went out until about 10 a.m. on Sunday. My host mother pointed out the contradiction and explained that the power outages are also caused because the state oil company is not producing enough gasoline to power the new backup generators that were installed just outside the city.

The politics of shortage in Venezuela are heated. As I understand it, Chavez the nationalization of private factories (empresas privadas) because they are in the hands of greedy capitalists that are breaking the law and hurting the poor by not producing the recommended amount of goods (they are producing too little) at the recommended prices (the prices are too high).

Opponents, as I understand, say that Chavez only nationalized the factories so he can put them out of business so that no one in the country is rich except him and he can have complete power. Read the rest of this entry ?


Jim: Arrival in Venezuela

May 24, 2010
I haven’t had much of a chance to post yet. This first week has been crazy: traveling, figuring out housing, figuring out schedules & transportation. I certainly haven’t settled into any kind of a routine yet, but I generally know where I’m at & where I should be next (usually in class). This post will be brief as I’m still working on getting pics online. I’ll probably be posting several times this coming week to get caught up on things, but in summary:
  • The trip here was uneventful (a good thing)
  • The housing situation was a little confusing at first. It’s still a little confusing, but at least that much has been accepted. Mostly.
  • Classes are long & difficult. Three hours of biology (Tropical Ecology of the Rainforest), followed by a three hour lunch—everything in town, even the trolley system, closes for 3 hours. Then six hours of Spanish.
  • Transportation and directions for getting around are simple. Whatever it is, it’s either uphill or downhill.
  • There is only one post office in town—and it is uphill from everything.
  • Internet connections, cell phones, & electricity all seem to work most of the time. Not great, but good enough. They go in and out with no apparent rhyme or reason, but it keeps things interesting.
I’ll try to fill in a few blanks later. It’s mid afternoon & it sounds like the town is waking up again so I’m going to get moving.

Jim: Mérida here I come

May 12, 2010

A few people have asked about where Mérida is, so – here it is! Mérida is in the Northern part of Venezuela (West by NW, I suppose). It is near the top of the Andes, just South of Lake Maracaibo. Even though it is pretty close to the equator, the altitude keeps the climate reasonable – a little on the warm side, but not too bad if you aren’t spending your days splitting wood or working in attics. 5,348 ft in altitude. As a point of reference, Denver is at 5,280 ft (close) & Minneapolis is at 830 ft (not so close).

Que lastima – ¡Hasta luego!


My Last Final…

August 7, 2009

In case anyone has failed to notice, there has been a decided lack of new entries in my blog. I feel that I owe an explanation, but honestly, the only one that I can come up with is that Mérida sits atop some kind of vortex that distorts time. Actually, it may be even more complicated than that, as I have discovered that during the past three weeks (coincidentally the same period of time during which I have been taking Spanish 1004) time has been moving both rapidly and excruciatingly slowly, but this somehow occurs simultaneously! At times, I feel so overwhelmed by the course work and the amount of material that I am required to remember, it seems like it will never end, and that all I do is go to school, study, and occasionally eat and sleep. On the other hand, weekends seem to come and go with the blink of an eye, and suddenly, here I am, sitting in a classroom with only two days of school left.

Yes, the truth is that I have been too busy to blog. That does not mean that there has been nothing to report, however, and my experiences here have continued to be amazing. I am writing this, what may be one of my final blog postings from Venezuela, as an attempt to quickly capture some of the more exciting points that have occurred while I have been here, and also as a brief synopsis of what the next three weeks hold for me.

Holiday in Plaza Bolívar, downtown Mérida.

Holiday in Plaza Bolívar, downtown Mérida.

So, let’s start with the immediate future. I have the last exam of my undergraduate career tomorrow. The format has been revamped, and now each of the students in my class is responsible for “teaching the teacher” in an effort to prove that we know the material inside and out. We did this for the last exam as well, and I have to say that it was both enjoyable and an excellent way to review. All three of us received great grades, but we also had the opportunity to go over everything point by point, further solidifying that which we have been studying during our tenure in Mérida. And that’s it. That is the culmination of six long years. I am very excited, and can not think of a better way to finish it off than by studying here in Mérida and actually gaining the ability to speak in a foreign language (or at least give it a pretty good try).

The three weeks that follow are going to be a lot of fun I think. Tomorrow night I will be getting on a bus with three friends…Lucas, Alec, and Madeline. We are taking an overnight bus up to the colonial town of Coro in the north of Venezuela. Founded primarily by German immigrants, Coro was the very first capital of Venezuela and still boasts some of the most interesting and well-preserved architecture in Venezuela. It is also home to several interesting places, including a house that has over 100 windows in it, and the oldest Jewish cemetery on the entire continent of South America. The bus ride itself is a 12 hour journey, and from what I have heard the buses in Venezuela require several layers of clothing because the air conditioners run at full blast, usually putting the air temperature in the bus at somewhere just above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It should be interesting…

…and just in case that is not interesting enough, there are a few other “unknowns” that still have to be uncovered. For instance, we tried to purchase our bus tickets yesterday, but were told that you have to buy your tickets on the day that you travel. That means that tomorrow morning, the four of us need to show up at the bus station at 7 a.m. in order to buy the tickets before class. The trip doesn’t really happen unless we can get bus tickets. The other big unknown is where we are going to be staying once we arrive in Coro. Now normally I probably wouldn’t worry too much about this, but Venezuela (yes, most of the entire country) has August off. That’s right, they have the entire month…off. It is referred to as “temprana alta” or the “high season” and from August 1st to August 31st prices are much higher, and availability of EVERYTHING is severely diminished. No problem, we could just make reservations, right? Well, not so fast. Reservations in Venezuela do not simply require a phone call and a credit card in order to hold your room. Instead, it is a complicated process that requires you to receive a bank account number and physically go to a bank, make a deposit of half of the total, and then call the hotel or posada again in order to confirm that they have received the payment. Needless to say, since we are leaving tomorrow, we do not have the time to make that happen. So (assuming we can get the tickets) we are headed to Coro hoping to find a place to stay.

My friend Lukas the day we headed to El Valle together.

My friend Lukas the day we headed to El Valle together.

We are going to spend a brief two days in Coro before heading over to Puerto Colombia, a beach that is relatively close to Caracas, and where almost all of the other students from VENUSA are going to be congregating on their way out of town. We will have one full day at the beach to soak up the sun before saying goodbye and heading our separate ways. For most that means a trip to Caracas and the airport… for me it means a 12 hour bus trip back to Mérida, solo. When all is said and done, I will have something like 38 to 42 hours of time on busses during the next 6 days. Suddenly I am very glad that I brought Shogun (a HUGE book that will hopefully carry me through the entire journey).

Next Wednesday night is when Jess is supposed to arrive in El Vigía, and I can hardly wait. I have rented an apartment for us in Mérida where we will stay for a week. During that time I have scheduled a few day trips…hiking in the mountains around Paramo, taking a natural sauna in El Valle, a visit to the indigienous village of Jají, and of course, a schedule parapente jump! But more than anything, I am looking forward to being able to show Jess where I have been living for almost three months. We are going to hang out with my family here, and we have also been invited to have dinner and play dominoes at the home of the cook at Venusa, Joan, and his wife Yiya. I have become very good friends with them in the last few weeks, and I am very much looking forward to being able to go to there house and see them again before I leave. Read the rest of this entry ?



August 7, 2009

The final project of my undergraduate career was talking about World of Warcraft in Spanish for ten minutes. Fantastic way to go out!

Today was the last day of classes for VENUSA, and I did really well here academically. Which was kind of surprising considering how many distractions I have here every day. I’m very relieved to be done, and excited to attend the going away party at VENUSA tonight.

Tomorrow morning I leave for a town called Trujillo where there is a giant statue/temple dedicated to the Virgen de la Paz (the Virgin of Peace). I guess it’s big enough where people can walk around inside and have 3 or 4 different views of the city. So that should be a lot of fun. I’m glad I’ll be able to take one more trip before I leave Venezuela.

Then on Saturday we’ll come back to Merida, and I’ll try to get the bulk of my packing done, because we have to leave the city around 5 a.m. on Monday, drive about 1–1.5 hours to El Vigia where we take an 8:30 a.m. flight to Caracas, then hang out in the airport for a looooong time (something like 7 or 8 hour layover, ouch.) Leave Caracas at 7:15 p.m., get into Miami around 11:15 p.m. Overnight in a hotel there, then get up and back to the airport for my flight, getting back into the US around 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday. Whew! Even writing it was tedious!

It’s a bittersweet ending. I’m so thankful I was able to take this trip and experience all that I did, but I think on the whole I’m definitely ready to come home and eat steak with homemade mac & cheese. And have a glass of milk (has it really almost been three months since I did that!?!?) and eat fruits that don’t need to be peeled or washed in vinegar, and drink water out of the tap and have ice cubes in my drinks without worrying about getting a parasite.


Say “Chichiribichi” Five Times Fast

August 7, 2009

Had a great time at the beach this weekend. From the beginning:

DSCI0092.JPGThis is the private bus we took to get to the beach. It took about 12 hours (uugghhhh…) because we had to go south then west north/east and finally north because of the mountain and road situation. It was pretty ridiculous.  There were 16 of us on the trip, and 10 of us were americans. The bus blasted salsa, reggaeton and various other musical styles the whole trip. There was even a point where we had an improv limbo session in the aisle. Good fun. Until we wanted to sleep, then it just got annoying.

DSCI0111.JPGSo we come to the original “posada” we were going to stay in. It was brutally warm in here with no breeze, and we did not have running water or electricity. It would have been complete Hell to stay here. I can’t believe the renters provided this utter lack of comforts and still expect us to pay and stay there. 16 people with a toilet that doesn’t flush? No thank you. Luckily our accompanying Venezolanos were able to walk around the area and talk to people so that we could stay somewhere else.

DSCI0121.JPGThis picture was taken just after we left the dock to go to one of the islands. Next to me is another American, Lisa, who is studying in Venezuela for a year. The woman on the right with the amazing smile was the group “mami”. This trip was organized by her and her daughter (who is a young english teacher at VENUSA). Her other daughter of 16 and son of 15 came along too. They’re a great family, and Mami rocked my world with her awesomeness.  She didn’t speak any english, but took great care of us and was always smiling.

DSCI0200.JPGI really like this picture, because it captures the complete beauty of the beach as well as the meager living conditions of most of the people in this area. It’s such a weird contrast, especially when you think of how ridiculously wealthy people are in the U.S. who have ocean-side property.

Great trip, though. I’m really glad I spent the money to make it out there. Only two weekends left in Merida, and I’m not planning on taking any more trips (I feel like I’ve done pretty much everything I came here to do, which is a great feeling.) This weekend I’m going to need to do homework and final projects, and the last weekend I’ll probably just party around the city when I’m not packing up to go. Ah, such adventures!




Ben: Parapente

July 13, 2009
A cloudy day meant no thermals.

A cloudy day meant no thermals.

It was strange to spend the Fourth of July outside of the United States. Actually saying that sounds almost sarcastic coming from me (who is not exactly the most patriotic of individuals on a good day), but this year I missed being there. I kept thinking that if I was at home Jess and I would probably be over at Jeff and Gene’s playing bocce ball. Instead, I was stressing out about my new Spanish class and wondering if I am actually going to be able to graduate or not. Not exactly ideal, in fact, I felt a little depressed. So, like any sane individual, I realized that the best solution was to jump off of the side of a mountain.

The story really begins about two days earlier when our guide, Bruce, started talking about getting a group together for parapente. Parapente is essentially hangliding using a parachute, and Mérida is reputed to be one of the best “launching” sites on earth because of the mixture of accessible altitude and crazy thermals. At the time, a large group of people told Bruce that they were interested, but while people were signing up on a scrap of paper he stressed that it was important to get an accurate count since he needed to arrange for one pilot for each of the people that would jump. It was at that time that we realized that all of the students who signed up had just arrived in Venezuela and no one besides me had a cell phone, so I was elected the group leader by default, and Bruce told me that he would be calling me on Friday about 3:00 p.m. to get the final list.

So, in an attempt to make everything easier, I took advantage of us all being stuck on the same bus and told everyone that if they wanted to go on Saturday morning, they needed to friend me on Facebook and then send me a message asking to be added to the parapente list. I also told them that this needed to happen before lunch on Friday. I thought this would make things simple…that Bruce would call me on Friday, I would log on to Facebook and get the final count and that would be it. Man, was I wrong. Read the rest of this entry ?


Ben: Paramo

July 3, 2009

The last week has been tough, although I am not exactly sure why. Perhaps it is that my first class ended, and without classes for a week I feel a little bit of “what am I supposed to do now?” happening. Or maybe it is because many of the friends that I had made just left Venezuela, heading back to their homes in the States. Possibly it is knowing that I am starting a new class, a harder class, in less than a week. Although I got an A in my first class, I still feel like I am not ready to be in Spanish 1003. Or maybe being abroad is starting to catch up with me…I have read that most students who study abroad have an initial high about being someplace new, but then at some point it fades and is replaced by a serious longing for home. Maybe I have just finally hit that point and just need to work through it. Whatever the reason, the important thing to understand is that I have been in a bit of a funk. Is that accepted term? I hadn’t been out of the house for a few days, and was just spending a lot of time lazing around. Studying a little, reading more, sleeping the most. I didn’t feel depressed, just tired. Maybe I really was just recharging, but it was beginning to feel like I really just needed to force myself to get out of the house.

I said that I didn’t have school for almost a week. This is because the new kids arrived on Monday. They will be down here for the last 6 weeks, but nothing really gets started until after a few particulars are taken care of. Tuesday they have an all-day orientation, and then in the afternoon there is a tour of the city. Wednesday is a day trip up into the mountains. Since I came down halfway through the first semester I didn’t get to participate in any of this the first time, and was invited to go now. I really didn’t feel like it, but as I said, I needed to get myself out of the house. Besides, I loved to hike, and the chance to see the Paramo region (which is where the group was headed) was one I knew that I should jump at.

Man-made waterfall at one of our stops.

Man-made waterfall at one of our stops.

So on Wednesday I had an early breakfast, threw a few things into my backpack and headed out the door. I got to VENUSA earlier than I had expected and had about 30 minutes to kill. Well, 30 minutes if we had left on time. Somehow, students from the United States and all of Venezuela have the same understanding of schedules. Although we were supposed to leave at 9, we really didn’t get into the bus until about 9:30, maybe 9:45. I can almost feel several of my friends snickering as I type this, but believe it or not I am aware that my obsessive type-A personality adores sticking to schedules, and that at times like this I need to remind myself that Venezuela (and apparently college students) move at a different pace, but that somehow, it will be alright. So as we finally piled into the bus, I picked out a seat near a window and settled in, quietly chanting to myself “Schedules don’t matter…schedules don’t matter…” Ironically I will probably start to get used to this concept about the time I need to go back to work in the United States were schedules DO matter. Okay, I can hear my friends laughing again. You are all right, I will NEVER get used to that. Schedules are a part of who I am, and so far, this trip was tough for me.

We needed to stop a few times along the way to acclimate to the altitude. Mérida itself is somewhere around 5,500 feet and we would be ascending to over 13,000 in the course of a two hour bus ride. That means that we were gaining altitude to quickly…we needed to take a few 15 minute breaks. So, at each stop, we clambered out and I would scamper off by myself to take pictures. As the 15 minutes was up I would rejoin the group and climb back onto the bus. Read the rest of this entry ?


Ben: Hiking in the Andés

July 2, 2009

I have been in Mérida for three weeks now, and although I have been exceedingly busy (with school, studying, family events, etc.) I am constantly finding myself staring up at the tree covered hills leading into the mountains, wondering when I will have the chance to get out and hike in them. I see them from the patio at home; I see them as I gaze out the window during class. In Mérida, you see mountains everywhere you go…but I wanted to see them closer.


A teleférico car suspended in space.

Before coming to Venezuela I had read a little bit about hiking around Mérida, and about the different ways to reach the peaks. The easiest (and quickest) way to get up into the mountains is to ascend via a cable car system known as the teleférico. In fact, Mérida is home to the longest cable car in the world, measuring at just over 12.5 kilometers! It goes through 4 stations, and ascends a ridiculous amount of altitude before dropping it’s passengers off at Pico Espejo at an altitude of around 4,765 m (or around 15,600 feet!). The best part is that the teleférico leaves right from the edge of el Centro. It is about a 2 hour ride, and then you are free to hike around the mountain until you decide to catch the teleférico going back down. As I said, that is the easiest way to get up into the mountains…when it is working.

I discovered shortly after I arrived that the teleférico has been broken since last August. Rumor has it that the system will be operational again by this August, but that is only a rumor. There was a prior rumor that it would be done by April of this year, but that didn’t happen. As I am learning, many things in Venezuela move at a unique pace, and there really isn’t anything to be done about it. As a matter of fact, the last time that the teleférico was shut down for repairs, it took 7 years. So I am probably not going to be able to use it before I leave.

I consulted a guide book on Mérida and noticed that there is actually a trail that, according to the rough map I was looking at, appeared to depart from the same spot as the teleférico. So I asked Franko about it and he confirmed it. He also told that hiking in the mountains can be a bit dangerous, and that every year a lot of people get lost, disoriented, trapped by storms, or succumb to any of a plethora of other misfortunes. He also warned me that the trail leaves from the edge of town, but is fairly secluded for a while and might not be safe to hike alone. Read the rest of this entry ?


Erica: Such and Such

July 2, 2009

I had my last first day of school today (of course that’s making the presumption that I won’t someday go to grad school or pick up any vocational degrees, but still.) I met some of the new students at VENUSA and they seem like a pretty good crew. I am sure I will meet a lot more tonight at “Nuevos Encuentros” and afterwards when we make it to whatever bar we end up going to.

My schedule this semester looks decent, I’m taking Cross-Cultural Communications, Spanish 1004, and am attending (but not enrolled for) Field Botany in the Andes. I really-really-really wanted to take that class, but the folks who signed up for it wanted it in spanish, and since I don’t have the language skills to keep up with that, I’m just showing up and learning whatever I can. Plus, if I didn’t go to that class, I’d be done at 1:30 p.m. and wouldn’t know what to do with myself for the rest of the day.

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