Monday, October 6, 2008

Visiting Granddaughter

Hey, we're in Kansas City spending time with our 7 month old granddaughter and her parents. This is a real treat for us and it's a lot of work. Babies are a lot worse than bosses for making ambiguous demands designed to multitask you to death. The redeeming thing is that they are a lot cuter than bosses.

Our princess seems to be a baby of great robustness and strength. She's in the ninety-something percentile of size in all dimensions such as length, weight, and head size but a little slow in the hair growth department. Despite the pink outfits, our daughter is always receiving dubious compliments from strangers such as, "Great baby. He's going to be a bruiser isn't he."

Ayla is her name. This is a girl's name in both Finnish and Hebrew, so it recognizes respectively her paternal grandfather and grandmother. It is also notably the name of the protagonist in Clan of the Cave Bear, that bright, courageous, and decisive little Cro-Magnon orphan girl who had the misfortune to be found and raised by thick-witted Neanderthals. Our daughter read the book when she was a child and emphatically announced, "If I have a daughter I'm going to name her Ayla." I have suggested to her that she probably identified with Ayla, particularly the part about being raised by thick-witted Neanderthals. Disclaimer: She does not always find my lame attempts to analyze her psyche particularly accurate or amusing.

Back to Ayla. She is in the exploratory stage now. That means she instantly grabs anything in reach and stuffs it in her mouth, with both hands, to assess by gnawing. For instance, she can grab a paper table napkin, stuff the whole thing in her mouth and gum it to shreds in the moments it takes a stiff-backed grandparent to bend over and pick up the spoon she just tossed on the floor. Her two parents, four grandparents, and four surviving great grandparents have provided her with a wealth of colorful, jangly, child-safe baby toys to satisfy her intellectual curiosity but, as her father notes, she definitely prefers the choking-hazard non-toys in her surroundings.

Ayla is impatient to crawl so she can more quickly reach fragile and dangerous articles. She can do push ups and she can stand up on her feet with her face mashed into the floor but she hasn't gotten all four limbs operating in sync yet. Her current traveling method involves the snowmobile technique wherein she uses her face like a sled runner (lubricated by a stream of saliva like a snail track) while her powerful legs serve as the traction propulsion device. Then she takes a couple of rollovers before assuming the snowmobile again. This can get her from the highly engineered baby teething toys to the skull and crossbones hazards as quick as a flash.

We take lots of outings with Ayla. She likes stroller rides, I guess because of the jiggling motion and changing scenery. She even tolerates latte stops if there are enough straws and table napkins to eat. Here are some pictures of some of our weekend outings. One notable stop was at an adult exercise station in one of the parks. This was particularly pleasing to Grandma who seems to be the genetic source of the boundless curiosity and energy passed to her descendants. Click any image for a larger view.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Willy C Becomes Rowdy Beaver

While driving from Liberal, Kansas (actual town name) to Kansas City on Monday my wife and I got hungry about 50 miles before Witchita. This was a natural consequence of the fact that it was two hours past lunch time. I wanted to stop at some reliable convenient place like one of the many golden arches and KFCs. This never works when traveling with my wife. She feels that every meal may be our last or at least our last in that part of the world and thus must be special. It must be delicious, low caloried, and memorably representative of the character and history of the region. This causes her to research all our AAA books and interview numerous passers by in quest of the ultimate dining experience. It drives me nuts.

As we were approaching Wichita, she read all the quick histories and restaurant reviews of Wichita from our AAA and other reference guides. She came up with the "must eat at" restaurant, Willy C's. We dutifully programmed the address of Willy's into our trusty new Garmin GPS. Ms. Garmin got us off at a certain exit then immediately directed "Turn left…" on some street then, "Arriving at destination on right." when we were in the left lane with lots of traffic on the right and no sight of anything called Willy. Almost immediately it was into, "Recalculating: Turn right on Elm St. Recalculating, Turn Left on Oak Street. Oh Golly, Go back". Then my wife starts in with, "No it's got to be on West street; go under the freeway." I respond, "I can't go under the freeway; I'm in the left turn lane." Then all hell breaks loose (this happens all the time) with wife, Ms. Garmin, and me all squawking at each other hysterically and wife insisting that I'm losing my temper and becoming an unsafe drivers so I should stop there in the middle of the freeway ramp and let her drive.

So, to make a long story more tolerable we somehow moved wife into the driver's seat and caught a few honks and middle fingers as we headed off with her in pursuit of Willy's. This time she resolved to stop right where Ms. Garmin said, even though it definitely did not say Willy C. (a rare moment of agreement with Ms. Garmin). It turns out that this was not Willy C's but the Rowdy Beaver. We went in and learned that Willy's had gone bust and the Rowdy Beaver had just opened two weeks ago in its place.

In the end it was good. The Rowdy Beaver was my kind of place. They had much paraphernalia for sale including, prominently, manikins with tiny very narrow-fronted thong bikinis that said Rowdy Beaver on the front. They had many micro brew beers and ales to choose from with good names like "Flying Dog Doggy Style pale ale". They had big burgers with thick beef patties and they weren't all soggy with that crappy mayonnaise and pickle relish that runs downs your forearms when you try to eat burgers at most of the fast food chains. There were lots of flies but we were able to swat them with carefully aimed blows of our menus. I really liked the place. I think my wife did too; she figured it was soooo authentic Witchita.

Crazy Woman Takes Charge

Why do I only think up a good response after the incident has passed?

Last week I was driving to the north rim entrance to the Grand Canyon when I saw some people standing in the road flailing their arms up and down. It was in a meadow area so I could clearly see the road beyond them. Other than a couple of parked cars and some more people on the shoulder there was nothing on the road, so this was a bit puzzling. As I approached more closely one woman began running toward me in the center of the road flapping her arms more wildly and looking quite angry. I had to stop because she was completely blocking the road. She ran up to my door still flapping her arms wildly and demanded, "Don't you know what this signal means?!" I tried to get my window open to hear her better but in my nervousness I accidentally had my finger on the wrong button so I kept opening and closing the rear window. Finally I opened my door so I could better communicate with her.

The lady continued raging, raving, and flapping her arms while blurting, "This means SLOW DOWN. There's been an accident up ahead!" Since I could see the roadway was completely clear ahead and I was completely stopped I reasoned that I had slowed down sufficiently soon and thoroughly to satisfy any reasonable person. I just gave her my best Jack Nicholson glower and only slightly snidely asked, "Well what do you want me to do about it?" This really set her off and she yelled, "I want you to SLOW DOWN!" Then she rushed at my door with both hands and tried to slam it. I don't like people getting physical with my car so I held it open until she stopped pushing, then closed it gently and proceeded very slowly on. When I got into the middle of the area she was guarding I saw a crunched up motorcycle off the road in the meadow and I could tell that the people on the shoulder were tending to a man lying on the shoulder, presumably the unfortunate rider.

The rider was wearing one of those pirate-like bandanas that bikers who disapprove of helmets use to protect their hard craniums during an accident. OK, maybe that remark is unfair. Perhaps he was wearing a helmet when the accident happened and Ms. Take Charge had wrenched it off his head oblivious to the dangers of neck injuries. So, anyway I proceeded on, hoping this unfortunate fellow would survive and feeling very annoyed at the bossy rude woman.

What was this woman? My school teacher wife said she was probably a school teacher because they instinctively and aggressively try to take control of any situation that looks like an emergency even if they don’t know what the hell they're doing. I just kept mulling over the answers I should have given her when she demanded, "Don't you know what this signal means?!" Perhaps I should have said, "I'm just back from Venezuela and there it means 'I'm from FARC and I want to kidnap you and hold you hostage for six years'". Or perhaps, "This is a national park so obviously I thought you were a wildly excited German tourist trying to share with the world that you had spotted a cute chipmunk eating a pine nut." Or maybe just, "I thought you were listening to a Rufus Thomas CD and just got an uncontrollable urge to leap out of your car and start doing the Funky Chicken dance in the middle of the road.

Anyway I guess I said the right thing. As it was, it irritated her enough to make her charge my car like a bison bull in rut. By the way, this isn't the first time this has happened to me. The previous time it was an almost identical situation except it was a lady police officer who went berserk. I know there are those who will say I'm from an era when men thought a woman saying "stop" really meant "go further" but this isn't true. In both cases I had female witnesses who attested to the fact that I had slowed sufficiently soon and thoroughly and that the berserk woman was truly delusional.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Old dogs can't even do OLD tricks!

I just went windsurfing in the Columbia River gorge…barely. Decades ago in the infancy of the windsurfing sport (when I first did this) sailing in the gorge was considered a badge of honor. You didn't have to excel, just survive. My son James prodded me there this time. He's a black belt windsurfer. Well I guess it's not a belt; it's a harness.

To be honest, in the heyday of my youthful windsurfing skill, nearly 20 years ago at about age 45, I was really a long board light wind sailor. My trips to the gorge could be easily counted on two hands and my successful jibes (the essential short board U-turn) could probably be counted on one hand. At least I could awkwardly water start, an essential skill for one who falls on his jibes.

Back to the present. When I arrived at the "Event Center" beach to attempt my sailing I had already make a bad decision by drinking too much coffee. This amplified my jitters which were already strong from fear of death or (worse yet) damaging some expensive equipment. I knew I was off to a bad start when my hand slipped off the rubber bootie that I was tugging on and socked myself in the groin almost causing me to fall off the stump I was sitting on. Somehow I mounted my inappropriately long skinny old Mistral Pandera board and made it out through the other crazy windsurfers and kite boarders to the middle where there was some real chop. Of course I fell off in my tack but then I somehow managed to remount with a rope start. I steamed back in to shore feeling relieved about missing all the other kiters and windsurfers until I hit an invisible submerged sand bar and broke off my fin screw.

I thought I was off the hook but unfortunately I found another fin screw and (with James' urging) made repairs with trembling hands. When I was done, I looked out and counted 15 kite boarders and 10 windsurfers slashing through the area where I proposed to sail. That was it for me; I didn't want to hurt them. My vision of myself was like one of those metal balls in a pin ball machine; round, stupid, totally at the mercy of the laws of physics and highly likely to collide with any of several colorful objects in my trajectory. I spent the rest of the day reading a book and snapping some photos of James.

I felt bad that I kind of weenied out. My best excuse, advanced age, was shot down when I saw that there were quite a few other wrinkled old prunes out there doing a good job of it. I do aspire to freshen my skills a bit in some less intimidating venues. Here are some pictures of James, not me.

We also did some hiking on the flanks of Mt. Hood on our final day in the vicinity. Here are some pictures of that. With all of these pictures, click to see an enlargement. There are also more pictures of these adventures on James' blog.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Granddaughter Swimming

Anna and Ayla have a swim in Kansas City motel pool.

Click snapshots below for a larger image. These were taken in Kansas City while Catherine helped Anna and Ayla survive a series of motels after starting her new job there. They were awaiting availability of their new apartment and the arrival of Joonas from Columbus with the moving truck.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Visiting the Crypts of Venezuela's Doctor Death

Today we bring you another blast from the past. The narrative below was written in the evening after our November 5, 2006 pilgrimage to the hacienda ruins of prominent German-born Dr. Gottfried Knoch. It continues the strangeness theme of this wacky, weird, and wonderful country that was also exploited in the post on Maria Leonza, the nude tapir rider.

Our adventure de la dia was a bush-whacking hike through steep mountainous jungles to the overgrown ruins of Dr. Gottfried Knoch. His hacienda, crypts, and laboratory date back to 1886. They are the legacy of this man, an apparent necrophiliac 19th century doctor. Besides nice humanitarian stuff like offering free services to the poor, he also appears to have been a scientist in quest of a method of mummification to embalm bodies in a humid, tropical environment. Apparently that task is difficult in climates that are not extremely dry or perpetually below freezing.

The story of doctor Knoch appears to be in the genre of Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde…except it's true! Dr. Knoch's great scientific work began with experiments on dogs and other small animals. After refining his methods, his work spread to humans. One of the complications of the process was the need to anticipate the onset of death and inject special mummification chemicals just before his patient's heart stopped beating. Apparently Dr. Knoch always timed it just right. After administration of the chemicals, his patients always passed away right on schedule.

Dr. Knoch's experiments may have met with some skepticism in the coastal community, causing him to move his work place. He built a home and laboratory several thousand vertical feet up a steep mountainside with a spectacular jungle overview of the Caribbean. Deprived of a willing population of patients, he was forced to develop his technique on his own family members. Among the beneficiaries were his daughter, his wife, and his nurse/mistress.

Our hike this morning started with an ascent in five, 10-passenger 4X4 vehicles up a treacherously narrow and twisting (but actually paved) road over the Avila Mountains that separate Caracas from the sea. After descending to 2 or 3 thousand feet altitude on the sea side of the mountain ridge, we reached the trailhead. There were lots of us: students, teachers, and family members. The trek in on foot was not long horizontally but was steep and overgrown with banana trees, briars, and every other kind of tree, grass, and brush known to thrive in the tropics. Mud, slippery rocks and insects added to the challenge. Well acquainted with the threat of chiggers, we hosed ourselves down with insect repellant. Some of the other's neglected to do the same. Our hearts go out to them.

Needless to say, there were many falls, skinned knees, and bruised buttocks. Catherine slipped on a rock and slid off the trail, but thanks to the entangling vegetation, did not take a long plummet.

After a sweltering hot ascent, we arrived at the remains of Dr. Knoch's mausoleum, just as a chilling mist blew in around us. (Why didn't we do this adventure on Halloween?) The mausoleum was a moss and fern covered tower reminiscent of some South and Central American Indian pyramids. It containing six open crypts, long since emptied by either souvenir hunters or a failure in the mummification process. Steep stone stairs led to the flat roof of the building which provided a splendid viewing platform over the mist covered jungle and distant Caribbean. There we ate our cheese, crackers and chocolate before bushwhacking our way down to the overgrown ruins of his hacienda and laboratory - a dark cellar-like place of stone or concrete. Returning the way we came, we arrived at our vehicles just as the mists turned to rain causing Catherine to turn a big banana leaf into an umbrella.

Perhaps this place and its history will inspire a really great movie some day – something in the style of an Indiana Jones thriller. Under my direction, it would probably turn out more like a 50's horror movie for the drive-in movie theater market. Uh…do they still have drive-in movies?

You may click the pictures to enlarge. In order they are, the mausoleum, the empty crypts, the one remaining wall of the hacienda with the doctors spiral symbol at the top, and a slightly "creeped out" visitor exiting the doctor's dank laboratory.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Current Granddaughter Pictures

After a steady string of Venezuela posts I'm going home to family now. Here are some new pictures of the foremost thing on my mind, our new granddaughter Ayla. Click to enlarge. For any visitors who don't know me, the handsome gentleman with white hair is not me. He's Aimo, Ayla's other Grandpa from Finland and Israel. I'm the ugly guy at the top left margin of the web page with a brazen parrot trying to steal his gold tooth.

Buff Nude Woman Rides Tapir

There she is, right in the middle of the urban Caracas arterial, a gigantic statue of a buff nude woman riding a tapir. Well, why not?! This is Venezuela after all. First (for those of you who didn't have Mrs. Mulligan for 9th grade biology) a tapir is a big animal that looks like a giant pig with rhinoceros toes and a little elephant trunk. Tapirs live here in Venezuela along with nearly every other exotic animal that stepped off Jonah's ark. What's weird is that people normally don't ride them – probably for some good reason.

So who is she, this amazing woman in the statue? My detractors will no doubt suggest that I find something perversely erotically tantalizing about buff nude women riding tapirs. That of course is untrue; I am simply intellectually curious about how this seemingly mythic figure fits into history and weaves into the social fabric of Venezuela. After inquiring about her for nearly two years and getting nothing but shrugs from natives as well as expats, I got the brilliant idea to Google her. She is Maria Leonza, the central figure in a very blended Venezuelan religion sometimes referred to as a cult. The woman herself is supposedly a historic figure born of an important native chief in about 1502. According to legend she was a very buff woman and perhaps a goddess or queen. She was particularly noted for reigning over savage beasts and she liked creepy reptiles too.

Getting back to this religion that Ms. Leonza dominates, it combines indigenous Venezuelan, African slave Santeria (supposedly from the Yoruba of Nigeria), a touch of European spiritism, and Catholicism of course. It's got something for everybody, whether you like forest spirits, animal sacrifice, Jesus, or buff nude women who ride tapirs. It's no surprise that it remains popular. Maybe I'll convert. I think the Catholic part was a later add-on. The local priest missionaries here in the 16th century didn't always follow the "my way or the highway" dictates of their management back in Rome. If they couldn't convert the natives, they'd at least mess with 'em and try to stuff a little Christianity into their native religion and a few genes into their gene pool. Accordingly they managed to give Ms. Leonza her proper Catholic name of Santa María de la Onza Talavera del Prato de Nívar, which means (I think) Saint Mary of the Jaguar Something Something Something.

Well, anyway, I'm just starting to copy stuff from Wikipedia and some other web articles now so I'll quit. If you find this interesting like me and have time to fritter away, Google it yourself. I have to go to the grocery store now.

Friday, May 23, 2008

They're watching us!

I have often mused that Venezuelans seem enamored with the United States. However their image of us seems glamorized much beyond reality. I have attributed this to movies and television. Many or most movies showing in Caracas are Hollywood products and roughly half of the cable and satellite channels feature USA movies or sitcoms with Spanish dubbed or subtitled. Even some of the local shows are knock offs of American TV shows like Wheel of Fortune and Candid Camera. Anyway this cartoon that appeared in the Caracas El Nacional Sunday magazine sort of validated my assumptions. So, we Yanks have to set a good example. They're watching us.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Pájaro del día

Monday Catherine played hooky and we took a hike in El Avila Parque Nacional. The trail head that we took is just a nine buck taxi ride from our apartment. In fact from the high point on our steep scramble we could see our apartment building with our binoculars. But, the first things we saw were several members of one of my favorite Venezuelan bird species, the Querrequerre. It is the Inca Jay in English. The Latin name is Cyanocorax yncas. These were almost tame, probably because of being fed by the hikers. You can click the picture to open a larger image.

After the hike we had a late lunch at Tarzilandia (Tarzan Land) just outside the park entrance. You enter and walk through a tropical garden menagerie with large birds, most notably three species of Macaw parrots. In the outdoor dining area it is white table cloths and waiters with tuxedos. The décor is jungle. Among the decorations were large Loggerhead turtle shells. I didn't want to think of how they got those but the restaurant has existed about the same since at least back to the 50's so I assume they were acquired legally and morally before the animal was known to be endangered. The food was great and reasonable, even considering the dollar's nose dive. We saved nine bucks coming home though by just walking down hill to the Altimira Metro stop and taking the subway free (because we're over 60) to Chacaito where it's just 15 more minutes walk to our apartment. Ahh, life is good when you are retired.

Douglasses Do Downtown

We went downtown Saturday. That doesn't sound like too big a deal but it's kind of a big deal here. Downtown Caracas is the old part of town where the offices of the federal government are located along with the Caracas city offices. Many gringos and even some Venezuelans won't go there because it is considered a bit dangerous. It is somewhat run down. It is also a stronghold for government supporters, and we all know the government position regarding the USA is that we are a bunch of dirty Yankee imperialists. I'm still not sure whether the alleged danger is more from ordinary pickpockets and street bandits looking to prey on anyone who looks like he may have a few Bolivares in his pocket or if its political animosity toward gringos. I think mostly the former.

We felt pretty safe because we were hosted by our new friend, whom I shall call Freddie (because I'm not sure he wants web publicity). He is a devout Chavista unlike most of the people we know here who are exactly the opposite. We did not see any signs of contempt or much interest expressed in us by anyone. We of course had dressed for obscurity by wearing simple drab colors and no jewelry of any market value. At Freddie's recommendation we had bathed well and put on all clean clothes before our departure because he said the locals can smell stale gringos. Freddie gave us plenty of safety warnings and had me stand guard with him behind Catherine when she made a quick photo sprint to take pictures of a dramatic wall mural that chronicled the history of Venezuela. Freddie said motorcycle bandits are skilled at purse and camera grabs. There were some places where he advised against showing the camera at all. At one point he had us abruptly change direction because he said a suspicious young man was walking too close behind us. Freddie is used to rough neighborhoods. He used to live in New York so some of his security habits may have come from that experience.

After we got off the subway in the downtown area we were confronted by a giant work of wall art. It is very common in Caracas. This example symbolizes much more than I can recall. It is notable because it shows Bolivar's beloved mistress whom he credited with being a great source of his strength.

We saw some good stuff including the Plaza Bolivar, and the presidential palace. Most of the government buildings date from colonial times. We were able to walk through the beautiful capital courtyard. We visited the Cathedral in which many important historical people are buried. The most notable by far is Simon Bolivar himself. Here's a picture of his tomb with the motionless guards armed with rifles and bayonets. Freddie said they're not just for decoration because several years ago when his ex-wife stuck her foot beyond the roped off area to get a snapshot, they came off their posts real fast to send her scurrying back. Oh, by the way, you can click the pictures to see a bigger image.

We visited the spot where the famous (or infamous, depending upon your perspective) movie "The Revolution will Not be Televised" showed some guys firing pistols into the crowd (or empty street, depending upon who you believe) in the coup attempt of April 11, 2002. There is a monument there now.

We also visited the birthplace and first home of Simon Bolivar. It is well maintained and filled with large paintings and murals illustrating important events in Venezuelan history. I have a picture here of one of the paintings that shows the abuse of the Indians by the Spanish on the left and the protection of the Indians by the Catholic Church on the right. It's looks like both sides of the picture may end up in the creation of more mestizos.

The downtown and the government buildings are undergoing some renovations. The government buildings looked great and there were some museums in historic buildings with wonderful historic paintings and narratives about Caracas and Venezuelan history. One museum was dedicated to the renovations that Caracas is doing in the area and also new public housing projects. A very sweet young red-shirted woman proudly showed us around and gave us the standard handouts. One was the pin button shown that says (translated) something like, "For love, we put a stop to the empire." We all know who the empire is. When we left she thanked us for coming and with a big warm smile said "Bye" in English.

We wound up our visit with a nice lunch at what I think was a very old restaurant in an old building. At least it seemed old compared to our own upscale ever-changing USA-emulating neighborhood of Las Mercedes. The restaurant was on an upper floor that we accessed through an elevator that looked more like a refrigerator than an elevator. Freddie warned us to keep our hands away from the door because there wasn't an inner door. The eating area was a delightful breezy balcony overlooking Bolivar Square. We were just opposite a Cathedral bell tower that chimed every 15 minutes. The bell was charming in the day time but Freddie said it would be less than charming if you were trying to sleep in the nearby hotel rooms.

So what do I think of Chavez now that I see how he and his supporters are spiffing up downtown? Well, I saw a lot of pride, hope, and energy in the downtown. Still Chavez strikes me as a bit of an impulsive, paternalistic, patronizing, populist demagogue. He hasn't succeeded widely at eradicating poverty in blighted neighborhoods like Petare, but who the hell could?! A long enduring culture of poverty is a hard habit to break. It seems that too many Venezuelans either feel he is the solution to all Venezuela's problems or that his removal by any means would be the solution to all Venezuela's problems. Perhaps he's a man of noble aspirations, astute political skills, pathological ambition, and flawed character like the Lyndon Johnson portrayed in the Robert Caras biography, only more so. Whatever, I don't think just finding the right president is going to improve a country like Venezuela or the USA. I suspect it takes a whole lot of people willing to provide leadership and work hard at all levels of government and community to eliminate corruption, improve education, clean up the environment, and achieve an enduring stable, fair, and prosperous, economy. I don't have the key to jumpstarting that.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Hobnobbing with Saudi Diplomats then Getting Bossed by the Maid

I'm doing computer housekeeping and I just found my journal entry of September 12, 2007. It predated inauguration of this blog so I didn't post it at the time.

My wife and I had an interesting evening last night (September 11). We were invited by the Saudi ambassador to a major reception commemorating Saudi Arabia's national day. My wife is his son's school librarian and several of the boy's teachers and school administrators were invited. It was in a real swanky hotel and there was food in every direction from appetizers to whole roast sheep to an endless variety of to-die-for desserts. At first I tried to eat only with my right hand but that was awkward because we were standing, holding little plates as well as our (non-alcoholic) drink glasses. Also, I soon noticed that nobody else was worried about that.

Lots of people were there from the Chavez government including the former Vice President of Venezuela. There were some American embassy people, and lots of business persons and other diplomats of various nationalities. Most of the women dressed fairly conservatively out of respect for the host but there were a couple of "over the top" (in every sense of the word) highly revealing cocktail dresses worn by a few of the Venezuelan women. We met the ambassador and several Saudi diplomats in the reception line. Generally they greeted us in Spanish and hospitably switched to English when they realized we were Americans. They were wearing those little red and white checkered head scarves and had the obligatory little mustaches and goatees. There were some other guys in robes and Santa hats who looked like the notorious blind Sheik. Most of the Arab women were wearing the full hair covering things but none were wearing veils. The ambassador's wife looked a bit more modern with some pretty bright clothes and a more moderate headscarf that allowed some hair exposure.

We had quite a long conversation with the only Chavez supporter that we know here and her husband. They're both very nice folks and revere Chavez just as much as all our other very nice Venezuelan friends despise him. There seems to be no in between.

It is interesting to see how amiably the Saudis and the Venezuelans get along seeing as the former are tee-totalers who hide their women under bags and the latter are party drinkers who glorify and display the sexuality of their women. I guess they are united by their common purpose to provide oil to the thirsty US at as high a price as possible.

The Saudis gave each guest a gift as we left. It was a large beautiful print of a Saudi Beach and a folder with material from the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information.

Morning after now: It is maid day. That happens twice per week now but my wife still makes me wash dishes the night before. Maria, our young maid, usually has lots of questions for me and occasional assignments. She is a talented exterminator so my wife had asked her to zap the termites living in our cupboards and bar with her trusty cure-all chemical, "Vensol". That was not without complications as I have dramatized below, translating our dialogue into English.

Maria: Senor Johnny, can you fix this thing (showing me the hypodermic needle she uses to inject poison into the termite holes in our cabinets; it had a swelled and stuck rubber piston.)

I got it loosened and moving again with much friction.

Me: OK now, but you make suck much slowly. .

Maria: (later) It broke again.

Me: Oh. That sad.

Maria: What are you going to do about it?

Me: Uh

Maria: What are you going to do about it now?

Me: OK, I go pharmacy buy new one now. What it word?

Maria: Injectadora and while you're at it stop by the grocery store and buy some green plantains, potatoes, and chicken bouillon. (She's actually supposed to do the grocery shopping.)

Me: OK

Maria: Take your umbrella. It looks like it's going to rain.

Maria got the job done, even finding and harpooning one of the larva to show me. She fed me well, as usual. Yesterday's lunch was something like Beaufort stew except with chicken instead of shrimp and with a gigantic mountain of white rice. I have tried to tell her that I like her rice but that I prefer brown rice and much smaller portions. The only part that comes across is that I like her rice.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Tortuga Lodge: Naturalist Experience and Beach Paradise on a Budget

Hey! We just spent the weekend with a bunch of friends in the national park, Laguna de Tacarigua. At least I think that's the one it was. Venezuela has 43 national parks so it's hard to keep them straight. We stayed in Tortuga Lodge which cost about BsF 550 per couple or about $170. That price covers a big clean room with king size bed and private bath, three ample meals per day, and all the cokes and alcoholic drinks you want. It is right on the ocean with great surf and shady spots to repose under palm trees and large thatched roof sun shelters. You can walk on the beach for miles in either direction without encountering another human. Incredibly, for on the beach in front of the mangrove marshes, there were few mosquitoes and no no-see-ums bit me.

OK, so what's the hitch? The only minor downside was the potable water system was rather weak delivering a mere drizzle of brackish water from the sink and shower but the bottled drinking water was also part of the deal at no extra cost. I suppose finicky guests could even do a sparing post-shower rinse with it. Oh yeah, there was some lamenting that the fine new air conditioners didn't work, but personally, with the fans in the room and windows on both sides I felt well-ventilated and just comfy.

While we weren't lying around under the palms like Microsoft execs on their one weekend off per year, we were enjoying the naturalist experience. (That's naturalist with an l for all you unrefined smart alecks.) For a very reasonable price the same boatman who brought us to the lodge took us on an evening boat excursion into the mangrove areas where there was spectacular birding. The most dramatic and memorable were the scarlet ibises. We also enjoyed pelicans, storks, several species of heron, some magnificent frigate birds and a flock of white birds coming to roost that we couldn't agree on. We ruled out white ibises because of the beak shape. A retrospective review of my Steven Hilty book suggests cattle egret to me. The beak shape looks right and they live in the area. Perhaps some of my SCAN organization friends can tell me. They are in the roosting pictures along with the scarlet ibises and the cormorants. I regret there are no good close-ups. You can click on the pictures to blow them up to a larger size.

My Edisto Island friends will be pleased to know that the beach there is a protected nesting area for loggerhead turtles. The bar tender at the lodge remarked on my Edisto Interpretive Center T-shirt with the loggerhead turtle pictures. He recognized them as loggerheads immediately and found it rather remarkable and uplifting that someone from so far away also lived on a loggerhead nesting beach and was a volunteer in loggerhead protection. He said you can go to jail if you mess with the nests here. That was good to hear in this country where you can generally get away with anything.

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous: Beach Paradise to Caracas Barrio

Following a weekend of paradise, alternately swimming in the surf and lying around like royalty under palm-thatched sun shelters drinking cold caipiriñas, we went home. Dang! I hate that. Entering Caracas from the east the first big thing you drive through is the Petare barrio. I think barrio just means neighborhood in some Spanish-speaking countries but in Venezuela, it means slum. The US Embassy and other rumor spreaders claim that most of the approximately 65 homicides in Caracas on an average weekend occur in the barrios. Petare is one of the biggest and the worst. I never know where truth ends and legend begins in this country but our friends' sweet and wonderful maid lives in Petare. She sometimes is unable to get to work because she's hunkered down in her house ducking a flare up of street violence. A few weeks ago her nephew was murdered there.

Although my cultural enrichment-craving wife is dying to visit a squalid barrio, I hope to steer clear of them. I prefer instead to keep them as romantic fantasies in my mind like pirate ships. Zooming past one at 100 km per hour on the autopista, while taking snapshots out the window, is plenty close enough for me. I am peppering a few of the snapshots in this blog post.

Being an engineer (retired emeritus) and not a sociologist, I am most interested in the structure and infrastructure of the barrios. In a word, it's scary! Around Caracas they are built on prime view property, i.e. perilously steep hills. They ain't exactly geotechnically engineered for this kind of terrain. In fact, we are told they are all squatters' habitations and sometimes wash away in the wet season. There seems to be a lot of public land in Venezuela and poor people are prone to just find a piece of it, get some of the hollow extruded clay tiles that Venezuela is made of, slap 'em together with some mortar, then presto…a house. If the bare land is all taken up, they may just build their house on top of someone else's…literally! We just heard the other day that someone's maid was agitated because someone else was building a house on her roof.

I don't know a whole lot about how the utilities work in the barrios. I don't think the plumbing is pretty but I can at least testify that by dusk they are twinkling with the light of modern efficient screw-in compact fluorescent lights. Charles Hardy, a Wyoming native and former Catholic priest actually lived in a very impoverished barrio ministering to the occupants during the early years of Chavez' administration. He reports on life and infrastructure there in his book "Cowboy in Caracas". See His description of the habitations that he and his neighbors lived in was even more dismal than what you see in the photos. He says they were desperation shelters provided by a former "benevolent" right wing leader, consisting of cardboard walls with tin roofs. The bathroom was wherever the lowest corner of the concrete floor was so you could take a whiz and it would run outside under the crack between the wall and the floor. You did your number 2 on a newspaper then discretely took it outside and set it across the road to wash away (wherever away is) in the next rain. Somebody brought drinking water in on a truck that didn't always arrive. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that Charlie is a fervent believer in Chavez as a positive instrument of beneficial social change. I can agree with Presidente Chavez that his predecessors were corrupt right wing oligarch's and that his arch-enemy George Bush is an arrogant belligerent imperialist doophus. However, Charlie has a long way to go to convince me that Chavez has the intellectual capability and the genuine commitment to bring long term prosperity, stability, democracy, and an end to corruption and poverty. But, hey! I like the energy-saving screw-in fluorescents.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Caracas Breakfast with Macaws

In the middle of my scrambled eggs and ricotta cheese on the balcony this morning an impressive Blue and Gold Macaw parrot made a close pass. Soon I saw that there were three of them doing aerial maneuvers complete with the obligatory squawking. I was photographically unarmed on the first pass. I fetched my camera and took some pictures but I didn't get another opportunity for such a close shot. Here are three better shots out of dozens of so-so ones. See respectively an overhead pass, a wide shot of one alighted on a new palm tree shoot (Can you find it?), and a fully zoomed and cropped one of the bird on the palm shoot. Click any picture for a larger image. I'll miss these birding breakfasts when I'm back in the USA.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Girl race car driver - Selling it with sex

Have you ever heard of Danica Patrick? For those who don't remember, she's the girl rookie who at 100 pounds and age 23 led in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 race. She raced aggressively and wisely to finish ahead of all but 3 of the testosterone fueled veteran male drivers. I'm not a racing fan but I channel surfed into the race that day and was hooked. As father of a daughter the same age, former coach of a girls' softball team, and a believer in women's abilities to achieve as highly as men where brains and coordination are involved, the drama grabbed me. I was on the edge of my chair rooting for her.

Because I am not particularly a racing fan, Danica was quickly off my mental radar screen after the race. Once in a while I'd hear her name in the sports news as having placed in some position in some race, but that was about it. I never heard of a win… until now! She just appeared on my computer news page for having become, on April 20, the first ever woman to win an Indy car race and she's holding a third place point standing this year in that sport. I felt a little "hooray moment" and quickly Googled my way to her web site to revel in the excitement and see what this woman was all about.

Whoowee! Imagine my shock when the page opened up with a big splash of highly sexualized Bat-woman type whiz bang. The page opens ponderously slowly if you don't have an Indy-speed bandwidth but it links to this page. There she is wearing trashy little skimpy outfits and draped sensually all over a yellow '57 Chevy. This certainly doesn't promote my interest in Indy racing. If anything it makes me want…uhh…to have a vintage '57 Chevy. Then it only gets worse with a link to her Sports Illustrated swimsuit photo-shoot where she appears in various stages of squirming out of a racing suit wearing a tiny bikini and not always both parts of it.

Now I don't have anything against nudity or sexuality. In fact, sex is my favorite human interaction. It's just that this business of SELLING IT with sex really puts me off. There's not one chance in a googolplex that Ms. Patrick would blunder into this blog post, but if she did, she might comment "Mind your own business gramps. This is who I am. This is who I want to be. Don't confuse me with Nancy Drew!" Continuing this imaginary conversation I might say, "OK, fair enough. But consider the unique position you are in to inspire the three billion women and girls in the world to believe in and nurture their athletic and intellectual gifts." In 1993, pro basketball bad boy Charles Barkley defended his personal behavior, declaring that sports figures should not be considered role models. I couldn't agree more. But I say to you, Charles and Danica, sports figures ARE considered role models, whether or not they should be or want to be.

Danica, you ARE certainly cute draped over a yellow Chevy quarter panel with your hiney crack peeking out the top of your underpants, but so would be a million other young women. My grandfatherly advice is to save this for your close friends or spouse and keep your public image focused on racing. Women who can't back out of a parking place without having a thousand dollar crash can pose for these kinds of pictures. NO! On second thought, I don't want my wife posing for such pictures either. Well anyway, be careful zooming around out there so fast in your Indy car. I'm still your fan. I want to keep seeing you for a long time…holding trophies while completely zipped up in your racing coveralls!