Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Os Diários do Paraíso (The Paradise Diaries)


1. There are 42 beaches!
2. They speak Portuguese. Hence, I can practice Portuguese.
3. Florianopólis is a haven for vegetarians. Chappatis and ghee are a common food.
4. There is samba four times a week (and I’ve already been three times).
5. You can buy vegetarian hot dogs at 4 in the morning (after leaving the samba).
6. Floripolitanos love outdoor sports. Floripa is a great place to swim, kayak, surf, bodyboard, kitesurf, bike, trek, and hike. Floripolitanos also are into yoga and Pilates.
7. The beaches are great for surfing (and there are lots of place to learn how to surf).
8. Even though it’s a city, you can hitchhike campo-style (even at 3 in the morning).
9. There are monkeys (That means that I can have a pet monkey and I don’t even have to train or keep it in the house. I just have to leave food outside)!
10. You never have to wear real clothes. T-shirts, shorts, summer dresses, sarongs, flip-flops, and swimsuits all year-round!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Other Side of Venezuela: America

Everyone told me not to go to Venezuela. Backpackers told me: “Skip it, it’s not worth it. Caracas is the worst city in the world. Go to Merida instead,” I went to Merida, a tourist town near the border with Colombia and wasn’t impressed. Colombians exclaimed: “Why would you want to go to Venezuela? Say ‘hi’ to Hugo Chavéz for me.” To tell you the truth, I wanted to go to Caracas and because of that exact reason, to find out about Hugo Chavéz. During college, I took a class called “Media Power in Latin America.” While learning about Venezuela’s forms of media communication, our teacher asked us to read a book which was slightly chavista (pro-Chavéz) to balance out the blatantly anti-Chavéz American media. The result? My friends and I became huge fans. Here was this radically left president criticizing Bush, calling out the U.S. for its erroneous foreign policy, supposedly redistributing oil wealth from the rich to the poor, and sending military out to educate the illiterate inhabitants in the countryside. How could a liberal not support him? Yet, liberals all over Latin America constantly criticize him. I took this class in 2007. I know things have changed since then. During the past few years I’ve been dying of curiosity about: a. what Venezuelans think of Chavéz b. the truth about Chavéz. By no means do I understand the complexity of Venezuelan politics after a mere week in Venezuela, but I did learn a great deal. Here is the other side of Venezuelan politics:

Politically speaking, the U.S. and Venezuela appear to sit on opposite sides of the spectrum. American politics are middle-right while Venezuelan ones are extreme left. The U.S. declares itself a capitalist nation while Venezuela deems itself a socialist one. Barack Obama is a democratic president while Hugo Chávez is a populist one. The more time I spent in Venezuela however, the more I became convinced that Venezuela is a mini-America. As my friends from Caracas put it, “Venezuela is America without rules.”

Let me clear up some myths. Venezuela is not a communist country nor is it a 100% socialist country. It is socialist in the sense that since Chávez became president in 1998, the economy has been moving in the direction of state control. The federal government initially expropriated the petroleum industry. Since then, it has taken control of several other industries including comestibles and banking. On the up side, the government’s actions redistributed the country’s oil wealth, which was controlled by 2-3% of the population. However, my friends explained to me that it had the nasty side effect of creating a new class, the nouveau riche, i.e. the government employees in control of the oil.

Venezuela is not a socialist country, although it has been moving increasingly in that direction. It has substantial capitalist activities. Nonetheless, signs all over the country champion the benefits of socialism stating productivity gains supposedly achieved by socialist means and featuring pictures of hearts with the words, “Hecho en socialismo” (“Made in socialism”). They appeared to me as blatant efforts to inculcate the people into a political doctrine. Even in China I never saw a sign declaring, “Communism is the way to go” (of course, if it existed I wouldn’t have been able to read it).

My friends view socialism as a myth. During the past eight years, despite the government’s claims of helping the poor, the low-income class has widened. One reason is the sky high rate of inflation. Officially, it is 27% per year! Unofficially, it could be much closer to 150%! I felt the impact of inflation on my wallet the one week I was in Venezuela as the official exchange rate of the bolívar fuerte to the dollar is 4.5 to 1 while the black market exchange rate is 8 to 1. As I had no cash with me, I was forced to take out money from the ATM at the official rate. The problem is that throughout the country prices are based on the black market rate. How the average Venezuelan could afford food confounded me. My friend explained that liquidity, the cash flow, is high. An enormous quantity of cash flows through the hands of Venezuelans. A large percentage of the money derives from black market activities.

That brings us to reason number two for the worsening economic situation of the population. While the government has created a number of programs targeting poverty, it has done little to ensure that the poor are recipients of these programs. One example is the creation of socialist stores that sell staples at lower prices. There are no restrictions on who can shop at these stores. A middle-class Venezuelan could buy goods there and then could resell them for 300% more in another location. Venezuelans constantly earn and spend large amounts of cash while retaining hardly any earnings as savings. In order to consider a business profitable in Venezuela, it must have a 100% profit margin, minimum!

My friend conjectured that were it not for the country’s oil wealth, Venezuela would have the same boat as Haiti. Five years ago, the bolívar was worth three times the Colombian peso. Now the situation is the reverse. While Colombia has progressed in the last ten years, because of investments in infrastructure, investments in health and education, expansions of security forces, and increases in economic production, in Venezuela things have worsened. Colombia’s coffee industry and tourism industry generate large economic gains. Venezuela, in contrast, produces absolutely nothing because the focus is entirely on oil extraction. The third largest income-generating industry in the world is the arms industry of which the U.S. is the number one producer. The first two income-generating industries are the petroleum industry and badly-administrated petroleum industry. These statistics imply that more money flows into Venezuela annually than the U.S.!

Accordingly, middle-class Venezuelans can afford to travel to other countries and buy luxury goods such as personal computers and specialized cameras. Being in Venezuela reminded me constantly of life in the U.S. Food products in the supermarkets were American, the clothes people wore were American, and the attitudes of the people seemed to me American. The restrictions on traveling to certain countries that Venezuelans are now starting to face reminded me of the obligatory visas for Americans and Canadians only that arose during Bush’s presidency. Unlike other countries in South America where motorcycles are the norm, the streets of Caracas are flooded with cars. I haven’t seen traffic like that since leaving the U.S. It’s easy for even a low-income person to own a car in Venezuela when gas is only 0.10 bolívares ($0.05) per liter. That’s $0.20 for a gallon of gas! A person can fill the eight-cylinder tank of their sports car or Hummer for less money than it costs to buy a 600-mL bottle of water. Presidents can only raise the price of gas at the cost of their presidency. I remember that until five years ago, gas used to be cheap in the U.S. as well because of government subsidies.

Venezuela at the end of the day, despite the socialist propaganda, appears to me a reflection of the U.S. The U.S. gets rich off of wars and selling arms, Venezuela makes money from oil. American politicians act in the name of spreading democracy and freedom throughout the world; Venezuelan politicians take steps to advance the cause of socialism and equality throughout the world. Middle-class Venezuelans have their own laptops, drive their own cars everywhere, eat at Wendy’s, travel, and grab bags of Doritos from the 24-hour pharmacy at 2 AM in the morning. So do middle-class Americans. How different really are Venezuelans and Americans?

23% increase in production of Café Fama since the government took control of the company. In the heart it says "Made in socialism"

Diana Industries, monthly record of tons produced

Socialist arepas

Milk made in socialism

Sunday, January 16, 2011

You know you're a backpacker when...

...these are your arms and feet

How a University Should Be

I had the opportunity to visit Universidad Simón Bolívar (USB), the university my friends in Caracas, Venezuela attend. Entering the university campus, I felt like I was leaving Caracas and entering California. The campus was an oasis of palm trees, green spaces, and well-constructed buildings. The university received a grant with the stipulation that it must always take care of the environment, a fact that was clearly noted walking around the campus. One grassy area was covered with a living art installation, foliage that changes colors with the seasons.

My friend showed me the cafeteria where students can eat for dirt cheap. True, there wasn’t a fantastic selection of food – a tuna fish sandwich, orange juice, and watermelon – but who can say that they genuinely enjoyed their college cafeteria’s food? Plus, the meals there are infinitely cheaper than the $10 meals they serve at American universities.

My friend explicated that USB is one of the best universities in the country. For many years, it contained the largest Internet center in the entire country. I was surprised that a school was the first place to embrace such a costly technological advance. My friend commented, “Isn’t that how a university should be, a center of learning and achievement?” I had to agree. The university set a precedent in Venezuela with its principles of academic integrity and honesty. My friend explained that unlike students in other schools in the country where students assist just to have fun, students at USB spend most of their time studying. Many of the students in fact receive job offers from other countries because of the reputation of their school. The university is truly a beacon of academic achievement and political freedom.

The cost of education at USB is only 55 bolivares fuertes. That’s $12 per year! For $30, a student can attend classes, eat, and use the ample physical fitness facilities. As I admired this haven within a city often described as hell, my friend proposed that I send my kids there: “It’s cheap and the education is good. All you need to do is pay to become a Venezuelan citizen.” Hey, that’s not a bad idea…

Why I Love Latin Americans

I was sitting on the Caracas metro during rush hour and it was packed. I had my luggage with me, a giant backpack and a smaller backpack, as I was on the way to the airport. There was no place to sit and people were pressed against each other. A woman and her daughter boarded the train. This girl was absolutely adorable, an eight year-old Venezuelan version of an American Girls Scout. The woman I was sitting next to sat the girl on her lap. A complete stranger. I had asked that same woman where my stop was located. Every stop she told me, “Don’t worry, we’re not there yet.” She made sure that I reached my destination safely.

The night before, I was taking a bus to my friends’ house and I was unsure of where to get down. The woman next to me started talking to me. I was thrilled because she actually thought I was Venezuelan for a few minutes. She asked me where I was traveling and suggested places I should visit within the city. She also ensured that I got down at the correct stop.

I honestly think that Latin Americans are the nicest people in the world. Complete strangers will strike up a conversation at the drop of a hat. Everyone wants to know your story and help you out. And it’s not just the poor people or the students; it is something that traverses economic and social class. I’ve had rich people, farmers, slum dwellers, old men, young girls, strangers on the street, and even the host of a sex talk show equally ready to help a hand to a foreigner. That’s why I love Latin Americans.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Up, Up, and Away

The last time I was strapped to a parachute I remember my friend commenting, “We’re just hanging out, having a conversation in the air.” Other than the initial part where the boat propelled us into the air, parasailing was smooth sailing. Paragliding yesterday (#7? on the list of adventures that haven’t yet killed me) was a much more exciting experience. I was still hanging out in the air, but this time I was hovering hundreds of feet above mountains and buildings, not just 50 feet above the ocean.

The idea of jumping off a cliff had my stomach in a knot. Luckily, as soon as my pilot strapped our harnesses together, a strong wind lifted us into the air. We floated out over the mountains carried by the powerful afternoon currents. We flew several miles away to a nearby town. I thought we were going to land in the town, but the pilot looped the parachute back around towards the mountains. Using the warm air currents coming off the rocks, we slowly rose higher and higher into the air. Finally, after about thirty minutes, we landed on the mountain from which we had taken off.

The ride was surprisingly calm and I had no fear of falling. I only experienced one brief moment of doubt and that occurred early in the flight when my pilot answered his cell phone midair: “Hello? I’m flying right now.”

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Other Side of Colombia

When you’re an American living in the U.S., the only things you hear about Colombia is narcotrafficking and the war against drugs. But Colombia is much more than that. It’s the country of Caribbean coasts, Cali, and cocaine; it’s the country of salsa, Pablo Escobar, plastic surgery.

Cartagena, la ciudad amurallada (the walled city), astounded me with its colonial architecture and Caribbean beaches. Walking along the fortress wall that surrounds the old town, with the orange and yellow buildings and view of the beach, reminded me of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The white-sand beaches with crystal-clear water rival those of Hawaii. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see behind the façade of the beachside resorts and visit the town where the locals lived on one of the commercial islands. I even witnessed a Caribbean wedding on the beach with the whole wedding crowd immaculately dressed in white.

Then there’s Medellín, formerly the capital of the Cartel de Medellín, Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel, now the capital of fashion and plastic surgery. In Medellín, everyone dresses to impress. Watching the women walk by with their greatly enhanced breasts and butts is like watching fashion show meets freak show. Despite the obsession with fashion, Medellín was my favorite Colombian city. Its rare beauty, a combination of beauty colonial churches, modern government buildings, and high-rises against a background of mountains, had a certain charm to it that captivated me. It is definitely a city that I would like to get more in-depth.

Huila Palermo is a small town six hours south of Bogotá. It offered me a glimpse into small-town Colombian life and a view of the Colombian countryside. To reach the so-called “tourist” sites, we had to leave the beaten paths and discover them for ourselves. My friend described our adventures there in terms of those of Indiana Jones in search of hidden treasures. Even though I wasn’t with my family, celebrating Christmas there I felt like I was among close friends.

Let’s not forget Cali, salsa capital of the world (after New York)! There I attended the Fería de Cali, a weeklong festival where the highlights are performances by the dozens of salsa schools, parades, concerts (including Choc Quib Town, the Colombian group that won a Grammy), rodeos, and the Ciudad Salsa, a liquor factory that is converted into Salsa City for a week. The performances blew me away because of the dancers’ rapid movement of their feet, acrobats, and salsa on point. As I walked through Salsa City, I was overwhelmed by the caleñas passion for salsa. They sang and danced along to old videotapings of salsa performances, cheered on the Cuban salsa singers performing live, and marked out the clave (beat) with bells or their hands as they danced.

Finally, there’s Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. To me, it is a typical Latin American city with a bleak commercial center and a colorful historic center. The nice thing about Bogotá is that every Sunday they turn one of their major avenues into a ciclovía (bicycle path). As my Colombian friend and I rode through town yesterday, she pointed out the impressive architecture of the colonial churches and government buildings, and the quirky green dwarves that sit on terraces around town.
Colombia is not what I expected at all. I’ve realized that a month is way too little to cover this immense, varied, and beautiful country. I’m definitely coming back!

A New Year’s Message

This year finds me celebrating my third Christmas and third New Year’s in South America. After two scorching Decembers in Paraguay, Christmas in Colombia was a relief. It was far from a white Christmas, but at least I celebrated it in a country that takes Christmas, i.e. Christmas commercialism, as seriously as the U.S. Every street in this country is covered by Christmas lights and decorations, even in the middle of the Amazon. Those are the reminders of Christmas that I miss from the U.S. The town that outdoes all the rest in its celebration of Christmas is Medellín. It’s famous for the 3 km stretch along the river with light installations in every shape and form: nutcrackers, gingerbread houses, candy canes, the Rat King, Christmas trees, elves, etc. Walking through this grand spectacle, I was like a little kid in a candy shop. I even took a picture with a Santa!

I spent Christmas Eve and Day with friends of a friend (= my new friends!) in the small town of Huila Palermo. While its lights did not rival those of Medellín, its novena (9-day Christmas show) did. We spent the days hiking, walking the Camino Real (the famous trail Simon Bolívar used to travel to Ecuador), discovering non-touristy touristic sites, visiting a farm, and riding on the back of a pickup truck, not to mention dancing until 4 AM.

I went to Cali for New Year’s as I wanted to bring in the New Year dancing. During the week in Cali celebrated (its fair) the Fería de Cali, aka the biggest salsa festival in the world in the salsa capital of the world. Although the week was filled with performances, concerts, and revelry, New Year’s Eve itself was much more tranquilo.

I spent New Year’s with Andrés, the Colombian whose house I’d been Couchsurfing at and his girlfriend. We set out around 11 AM for a nearby neighborhood. Andrés told me we had to pay toll. Toll for what? We walked through an alley and then right through a house, pausing for a moment to hand the house owner change. He was serious about the toll! “Whyy didn’t we go around the house?” I asked. He explained that the entrance to the neighborhood was a good distance away so the majority of people used the same shortcut. Charging 100 pesos (5¢) per person, he said the house owners make up to 60,000 pesos ($33) a day!

After the “tollbooth,” Andrés’s girlfriend took off for her parents’ house and Andrés and I went to his cousins’ house. We hung out on the balcony of the house where there was a giant speaker blaring the radio countdown over the whole neighborhood. As I looked out onto the lights-covered street, all the neighbors were doing the same thing. There was a family grilling meat and children exploding fireworks. It was like a neighborhood block party for the Fourth of July. A few minutes before 12, we toasted and hugged each other. I could tell that it was an intimate annual ceremony reaffirming the bond between brothers in a family where the parents are no longer around. As I stared out over the balcony awaiting midnight, I realized I was content; not exuberant or depressed, simply content to be spending my New Year’s Eve with new friends and grateful to still be in Latin America.

This New Year finds me still on the road, still traveling. Last year I spent four months traveling through Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. This year I’ll be traveling to Venezuela and Brazil. I know the question on many of your minds is, “Pooja, when are you coming home?” The truth is, I don’t know, but I can promise it will be this year! Happy New Year’s everyone!

Pictures of Colombia!