Friday, May 23, 2008

Walking tour of Caracas

Well, yesterday was quite a whirlwind. On the 21st I had called a man recommended by my Lonely Planet guidebook as providing walking tours with a "less conventional view of Caracas". He was busy, but he recommended a friend of his, Carmelo Velasquez (0412-375-1388). I called Carmelo and we agreed that he would meet me at 6:30 AM at my hotel, and we'd spend the day walking around looking at things for the princely sum of $60 US.
I wasn't sure what to expect, but it turned out to be absolutely great. Carmelo is a friendly, voluble and knowledgeable young man who spends the bulk of his time doing translation services, using his excellent English, for foreign dignitaries and celebrities (Naomi Campbell, recently, apparently) and for oil companies and other big corporate interests. But he says that if he were a rich man, and didn't need to earn money, he'd spend his time giving people tours of Caracas, and I believe it. He was incredibly helpful to me; he translated a few key phrases to the staff of my hotel that smoothed over some difficulties I had been having, exchanged money for me through a shadowy friend of his (who I never even saw) at well above the official rate, and made reservations for me with a trustworthy taxi driver to get me back to the airport at the end of my stay.
And the walking tour itself was great too! We started out by climbing a long flight of outdoor stairs in a sort of park called the Parque el Calvario overlooking the center of the city. A few photos from there, including one of the place where Hugo Chavez apparently spends much of his time (I was only allowed to take one photo of that, and yes, there was a friendly but watchful armed policeman standing nearby to ensure compliance). Then we walked around the center of town for a while, seeing various buildings designed by famous architects, catedrals, and so forth.
The tour quickly turned political; I had hoped to coax Carmelo into discussing politics a bit, and it didn't take much coaxing. He himself is somewhat left-leaning but with a good splash of globalism and economic realism thrown in; he believes that reforming Venezuela so as to make it a better tourism destination is an essential step for progress, and he shakes his head over many of the unfriendly or dangerous aspects of Caracas. He's cautiously optimistic about Chavez, but thinks his power is in fact very limited; he is not at all the omnipotent dictator that the Western mdeia presents. As an example, he said that Chavez had actually wanted to raise the price of gasoline in Venezuela (which is absurdly low), but public protests had forced him to abandon the idea. He thinks that whether Chavez is successful in helping the country or not depends greatly upon his ability to compromise with, or outmaneuver, the many vested interests in Venezuela that limit his actions. For that reason, he rolled his eyes when I mentioned the speech in which Chavez called Bush the devil; that is not the way, he seemed to feel, for Venezuela to build the international alliances and goodwill that it will need to succeed in the global economy.

He took me to see several very political sites in Venezuela. One is a statue commemorating those killed during a recent period of political unrest (I won't try to get into the exact history, since I don't understand it); he showed me bullet holes in a wall near the statue. Another was a big mural of the PSUV (Chavez's political party), personified as a man in a red shirt and green cap, and a snake labeled "IMPERIALISMO" with George Bush's head; the man is strangling the snake while kicking away rats and hunchbacked stooges with various labels. The last political site was huge, wonderful mural depicting Venezuela's history from pre-Columbian times through to the beginning of the Chavez era. It was very depressing; the parade of exploitive, corrupt dictators that Venezuela has endured is a long one. But it was also very funny; Ferdinand and Elisabeth are shown above a big poster that says "La Guerra Justa" (the just war), with a tiny subtitle reading "O Matanza del Indigeno Caribe" (or, the massacre of the indigenous Carribeans"); El Dorado is depicted with the subtitle "La Maravillosa Ciudad de Oro que Solo Existo en la Cabeza del Conquistador" (The marvellous city of gold that existed only in the minds of the conquistadors); a Catholic priest, depicted as a fat ogre in a Franciscan robe, shouts "Tened FE!" (have faith!), and the natives before him mumble "...also que nos dejen tener..." (at least they let us have something...). And so forth, onwards into the 19th and 20th centuries. At the center of the whole thing is Bolivar, who is revered in Venezuela almost as a deity.
Well, onward. We visited a mosque; besides speaking Spanish and English, Carmelo also speaks French, Italian, and German, and has been taking Arabic from one of the officials at the mosque for the past six months, so we got to go inside and look around. It was similar to the other mosque I've been in (in California): simple and spare, but aesthetic. It had a huge, beautiful chandelier hanging from the ceiling with ornate geometric ironwork, quite an exceptional work. The mosque was built by a prominent sheik from Saudi Arabia, I gather, and Caracas has a significant Muslim population (enough that there is a Shi'ite mosque across town to complement this mosque, which is Sunni).
Then we walked though a long park towards the university, and then around the university itself; both the park and the university had sculptures and other works of art dotted around, and both were populated with occasional students making out on benches. Carmelo said he had done the same when he was a student, and intimated that the darker corners of the park were often utilized by students unable to afford hotel rooms for their trysts. We visited a botanical garden next to the university, and it was much the same; it also had a nice section of xerophytes that reminded me of California.
We had lunch at the university, a "typical plate" of beans, rice, plantains, and a spiced (but not picante) mixture of fish, peppers, butter, and perhaps other things. It was quite tasty; the best food I've had in Caracas thus far, in fact. At other spots I've eaten, the food has been quite greasy and full of cheese. Carmelo confirms that Venezuelans love cheese, although it's not quite what Americans or Europeans would call cheese; it's a slightly tart white substance perhaps vaguely reminiscent of Indian paneer. The university's architecture was quite distinctive and interesting, if not really to my taste; the focus was on concrete used creatively, which was the fad at the time, I guess. Some spaces were very well-developed, though; it had an openness that was pleasing, and the omnipresence of art around the campus made it feel avant garde. The gorgeous young ladies attending the university also contributed to an aesthetic ambience, I must say; Carmelo is justifiably proud of the beauty of Venezuelan women!
At this point we were both sweaty and tired, so we went to Carmelo's apartment (shared with a variety of extended family members) on the south side of town, cleaned up a bit, drank vast quantities of cold filtered water (well, I did; Carmelo does not seem to require water), and logged on to the internet briefly to check email (but not to post to my blog, since I wasn't prepared to do so there). We went up to the roof of his apartment building (he lives on the 23rd floor, and the roof is above the 25th floor, and the elevator wasn't working that day!) to see the views, where were spectacular. From the spot he lives, nearly half of the horizon is taken by land owned by the Venezuelan military (with the house of the head of the military perched on the top of a hill in the midst of that area, surrounded by nothing but green expanses for miles around); much of the rest of the horizon is barrios. Carmelo explained to me that in most of Latin America, "barrio" means simply "neighborhood", but in Venezuela, as in the U.S., it has come to mean poor neighborhoods in particular. The terms "ranchos" is also used in Venezuela for the poorest areas, which sounds very odd to my New Mexico-tuned ears. The barrios look almost like the peublos of the Anasazi at Mesa Verde: tiny rectilinear dwellings stacked and jumbled together to form a continuous high-density blanket of housing covering the land. All that is missing are the kivas and the ladders. They are decrepit and forlorn, and according to Carmelo, so dangerous that even the police won't venture into them beyond a certain point (fourth warning from a native; I am starting to take all this seriously :->).
To end the day, we went to a neighborhood to the east called Sabana Grande and had some very tasty beers (Solera was the brand) and some little cheese filled rolls (I want to say they were called taquitos, but that's not quite right; Carmelo says they are typical wedding food in Venezuela, and can also be had at cafes and bars). Then we went on to Altamira, a very wealthy district (according to Carmelo, probably the richest neighborhood in all of South America), where we had dinner (at a Sicilian restuarant, where I got some unexceptional gnocchi) and saw a big obelisk, one of the clutch of obelisks that the French under Mitterand sprinkled around the globe as a goodwill gesture. (I know I've seen perhaps three others in my travels, although I'm not sure exactly where; perhaps one in Egypt, one in Italy, and one in Paris?) This obelisk was lit at the top, which I don't recall the others being.
I took a taxi back to my hotel with Carmelo; the taxi driver was quite a character. He seemed to be a very good story-teller, and had Carmelo laughing and trying to translate the whole way. He's a policeman in some sort of special forces unit specializing in disassembling bombs, but they don't pay much so he moonlights running a taxi business on the side. (Carmelo said that's quite common, and in fact said he intends to do the same once he's saved enough money to buy a car.) So he was telling stories about crazy taxi customers, and about criminals shooting at him with machine guns (the police only have Glocks), and about how annoyed he is that the police are supposed to wear red in support of Chavez or some such -- the police should be above politics and taking sides like that, he said vehemently -- and about how dangerous the barrios are (warning five).
Well, enough sitting in my hotel room typing (I haven't found a good spot to sit and use my laptop yet; I haven't seen a single person using a laptop publicly in Caracas, so I don't feel safe doing so anywhere). I'm going to go to a museum now, and then meet up with Carmelo for dinner, if things go according to plan. I may go hiking up in the mountains above Caracas tomorrow with a fellow who works at my hotel, if that plan goes off properly. More later!

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