Thursday, December 29, 2011

Paris - day 1 :)

Dinner, part I

Dinner, part II

Sacre Coeur Basillica (kinda underwhelming on the inside)


I was walking around, not paying attention to anything in particular, and then I saw this.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Stribling goodies

Nothing beats harvesting your own food! These apples are from Stribling Orchard, where apple pie/cinnamon/mulled cider smells waft out of its creaky-floored gift shop.

Homemade pecan pie (an ode to my Momma).

Cinnamon-sugar donuts (also from Stribling Orchard). Still warm and perfect with cider.

Green tomatoes frying in generous spoonfuls of butter. Also an ode to my Momma and my Gamma.

The makings of velvety mashed sweet potatoes. Simmered in their own juices for 45 mins.

Farmer's market tomato rainbow!

I love the purple-y rouge color of these onions.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Lovely Sarajevo

Took this pic from my yellow-curtained window in Bascarsija, Sarajevo's lovely old town.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A true amour

I ran into her in front of the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris after walking alone for hours, frozen-fingered under a broken umbrella in the hail. She was so majestic and calm. Amour at first sight!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Aabee y azul

This is the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, the fourth largest city in Afghanistan. Particularly appropriate today because the lovely and cosmopolitan Miss Zoe So is in town from Kabul on a whirlwind five-day tour of the eastern seaboard! She will return to compound living in Kabul before re-adjusting to our time zone.

I took this photo on a key of Los Roques (a Venezuelan archipelago). Giulio and I visited in May 2009 for our first dating anniversary. Coming from the city, Los Roques felt like another planet. The water is warm--you can walk half a mile out and it only reaches your knees.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Barbary figs

I want to eat this fruit I found while googling recipes for Morrocan Lamb Tagine. It's called a Barbary fig and is native to Morocco. So many colors!
I'd like to eat one on a breezy Marrakech evening, surrounded by similarly colorful lanterns. And then I would head into the market my sissy so beautifully captured below:

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sick day

I'm the worst at staying still when I am supposed to rest on a sick day. Today I only made two new things, but both were deliciosos!

Hot Lemonade: a cinnamon stick plus honey, juice from 2 lemons, 1/2 lemon sliced thin, and hot water. The hot lemon is the perfect response to a cold/sick day. And cinnamon is known for increasing both heat and hunger within the body. So that feature and plus the name Hot Lemonade makes it amazing.

Choux de bruxelles aux lardons
(Brussel sprouts with lardons and golden raisins)
Everytime I make a dish with foreign origins, I'm going to refer to it in its native tongue. The goal of the inexperienced, insecure cook is to impress people, and when you say things in another language, people really think they're being treated, even if the translation of your creation is celery. For example, "I'm making you boeuf bourguignon" sounds slightly more enticing than, "I'm making you beef burgundy." Also, I think it shows respect for the identity of the dish. Highlighting its uniqueness in this way helps me savor a feast.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A New Lurve

I never really understood friends who stayed in and cooked all the time. I also felt condescending sympathy (the kind only a 22-year-old can feel) for women who traveled abroad, fell in love and then eventually moved back home. I couldn’t imagine when boarding a plane and waking up in an unfamiliar place could possibly trump staying in one place.

I found that exact moment: it’s when the smell of recycled plane air becomes so nauseatingly familiar that the last thing you want to do with vacation time is hand your ticket to a stewardess and bid adieu to fresh air for 14 hours to arrive hallucinating, but just awake enough to realize that your only bag with clean underwear actually boarded the connecting flight to Cote d’Ivoire.

Four years later, with half-destroyed suitcases tucked quietly under my bed, I would much rather stay in on most nights to squint at flour-dusted cookbooks, admire the fleshy redness of a tomato, and clumsily drop eggplant slices into crackling oil, all to the sound of Jacques Pépin on YouTube telling me how his fresh pesto is just Heaven.

It’s probably a mix of cold weather plus the nesting bug, a term Mom uses with restrained delight since I left a travel-heavy job that culminated with voicemails like, “I’m flying home tomorrow and can’t tell you the flight number because this phone is tapped, and I don’t want to get arrested at immigration.” But I just spent an entire Saturday reading about why lean meat would be a mistake for slow-cooked stews and why chocolate, in spite of its heaviness, rises just as effortlessly as other ingredients in a properly-orchestrated soufflé. And I lurrrrved every minute.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Phenomenon

Many foreigners come to Caracas and are swept away by what Giulio and Miguelangel call The Phenomenon.
The Phenomenon is, in my interpretation, an insensitive, starry-eyed fascination with this country’s president, his followers, his outrageous claims; and also the levels of crime, inflation, and other aspects of present-day Venezuela that depress locals to the point where, when people say, Did you hear what he did today!? the only response is: I don’t want to know.

Another friend says that Venezuelans have experienced crisis fatigue for a while now. They are not outraged by, but rather tired of the threats and breaches of trust bucketing down on them from their leader. So that’s why I think The Phenomenon discussions are somewhat disrespectful: its followers come to Caracas and quickly arrive at brazen and superficial conclusions about the status of things, then have a neatly wrapped story to send home about how “crazy and wrong” things are “over there.” It’s insensitive because it’s a frustrating / difficult-to-escape reality for some, and for others, a passing topic of conversation, kinda like what bar you went to last night.

It’s also too easy to criticize The Phenomenon up and down; all the “shocking” observations are predictable and all the political themes are “sexy” as we love to say in the development world.

I recently read the NYTimes’ opinion piece on Japan’s “dysfunctional and troubling” hostess culture. Below is the one comment on it that rang true for me:

Analyzing Japan’s social customs is a silly and somewhat arrogant endeavor. Lefacido (sic) Hearn’s books and comments started it all and everyone since chimes in as if their comments register with someone somewhere in Japan. They don’t.

While I think the individual plight of a human being who is forced to sell her sexuality should be made known to a wide audience, I’m bothered by criticism of a culture as it presently is, as if any single person’s standard of cultural judgment is the correct one. I myself am guilty of this all the time (see: this blog). And while all traveling humans experience culture shock in some form, this is a call to all us expats to please keep The Phenomenon discussion to a (bare) minimum. As in, please do not discuss it or I will awkwardly interupt the conversation by asking what bar you went to last night.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

L'ultimo Bacio

Last night Giulio and I watched a lovely Italian movie rife with emotional running and screaming (which, as Giulio told me, is common for Italian films. Love it.). Its callled L'ultimo Bacio, a dramatic comedy with exquisitely gorgeous Italian women and their soon-to-be-a-father-angst ridden beaus, older couples lamenting their lack of passion, and other relationship/ life transition themes expressed through more screaming and running.
The actresses have luxurious names like Giovanna, and the men love yelling about their feelings in a way that's neither annoying nor threatening (lots of vaciliating between "TI AMO!!" and "TI ODIO!!"). It's the perfect mix of light--but realistic--drama plus comedy, and it inspired me to learn more Italian, if only to emulate the characters' hot-temepered convos.

Monday, August 3, 2009

1950 comes to Caracas

I just read a book that I (wishfully) thought would be a constructive critique of cuaimas, but is actually a full blown celebration of the cuaima.

If, in 300 years, an alien comes to Venezuela and reads this book, it will think that the life of a woman passes no further than her house, her child’s school, and her church; and that her self worth depends entirely on making her children lunch and ironing her husband’s shirts. The author forgets to feed herself breakfast while making elaborate meals for her husband and children, labels her plastic surgeon a “magical god,” and seeks guidance from a priest who informs her that the habits of her egoistic and alcoholic husband are something for which she needs to “be stronger.” And that the "strong" friends she really needs are the one that also cry when she goes to them with repeated sob stories about her husband’s behavior.

The narrator’s “breakthrough” moment is when she realizes that she doesn’t need to “clean what is already clean” (como se le occure hacer eso??); and that she can, in a motion of self discovery, take a walk outside with her friend, go window shopping at the mall, or go to the gym to pursue a “beauty routine.” Amazingly, even if she does not clean the house that day and pursues these “independent activities,” the house will still probably be as clean as it was yesterday--so worry not.

Throughout the book I found myself hoping for a sign that it was all a farce; that the author understood the nature of her codependent existence and wrote all that drivel as a form of mockery, or at least as the "what not to do" section of a corny advice column, or that the book was a reprinted version of the 1950 edition, but no.

I recently had a discussion with gringas and venezolanas about dating/ gender stereotypes here. Highlights:

-One friend was asked by an older woman, on three separate occasions, if her boyfriend was indeed single and not married to someone else.

-After getting a haircut, one friend was complimented that if her boyfriend was married, he would leave now indeed leave his wife for her. Congratulations.

-One friend's mother regularly tells her that if she does not stay pretty and cuidar a su novio, then he will unquestionably leave her.

But alas, things are the way they are, and no point in getting pissed off about them. Off to bed.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Craigslistia dreaming

The agua is out in my office again, making today one of the days I daydream (via craigslist ads) about life in the US of A. We still don’t have any contract news, so life in New York is the only somewhat concrete plan I have to cling to.

I idealize New York so much. I like the accessibility of anything I want to do or learn (while in the dreamy NY Public Library). And cheap dance studios in every neighborhood. And being able to walk around and get lost. And being able to flush a toilet without fearing the menacingly motionless toilet response signaling that no hay agua.

And the mix of people, from anorexic supermodels to budding actors /musicians /painters, “prairie” hipsters, geeky foreign professors, money grubbing finance guys, and people speaking languages I can’t recognize and cooking food I didn't know was edible. I have this idea that NYC has many people who are extreme versions of whatever they want to be, and they all seem to coexist on that tiny island (plus boroughs) in a hectic, but delightful, way.

I'm also still toying with the idea of a delicious and financially-irresponsible long weekend trip to Paris. My heart still irrationally beats for gay ole Paree in the way it wishes the euro would drop below $1.20 again.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Fun with names

Courtesy of the sandwich shop, the following are examples of creative Venezuelan interpretations of my name from this week:

- Herrín

- Erílyn

- Eileen

- Edy

- Helen

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Silver lining to my bug

Something about recovering from my fifth (or sixth...?) stomach bug has made me feel inordinately grateful for my job and the opportunity to be in Venezuela. I was putting fresh sheets on my bed earlier (a task one can only enjoy after being horizontal in bed for 50+ hours) and heard Don Omar's latest Virtual Diva (from the album iDon) float in from a neighbor's window, when I felt a rush of nostalgia for my life here. I'm a bit heartbroken by the idea that I might be forced to move away if our contract isn't renewed in a few months.

Though I will not miss the bimonthly stomach bugs, I will miss the special things about Venezuela that have made me enjoy life more. I really like the focus on today instead of the thirty-year plan, celebration and appreciation of family, the freedom of spontaneous emotional expression, the humor that is a bit more bitingly funny than what I find at home, the attention to home-cooked meals, and the always perfectly breezy evenings.
In any place, including my original home, there are things I want to focus on and enjoy in this culture, and other things I've simply grown to accept but not really adore. The things I've merely learned to live with include the lawlessness, lack of accountability, inflation, thick traffic, and anxiety-causing crime levels. Also, when hot tempers surface, I get awkward and bug-eyed, which totally ruins my chances of genuinely responding in kind.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Beauty school

I just returned from Giulio’s graduation and in the midst of teary parents, moving faculty speeches, and thoughts about life transition markers, my mind kept returning to one thing: judgement.

I was reminded of how important school prestige is in the U.S. And the fact that since I moved to Caracas, the question, “So where did you go to school?” has only come up amongst gringos, not locals.

Which school you attend is also important here, and people certainly judge you by it, but not nearly as ruthlessly as people in the U.S. do. It is so important in the U.S.that colleges have essentially turned into businesses—you pay (a lot) for the name—and which college you’ll attend is in some areas a serious topic of conversation as early as age 11.

Lots of people in the U.S. think they know everything about you once they learn your alma mater, or what you do for a living. So that is our superficial standard for judging strangers.

As I sat in the audience watching heads of luxuriously shiny hair proceed down the degree line, I realized that the only near-equivalent here is beauty. I’ve met many Caraqueños raised to understand that a good-looking person, especially a woman, is successful in ways that supersede her appearance alone. You can (irrationally) extrapolate information about a beautiful person in the same way people in the U.S. (irrationally) extrapolate information about a Harvard graduate.

In Caracas, people think they will get everything they want in life if they are beautiful, and it is a perfectly logical goal to do whatever you can to become more beautiful, even if that quest involves painful surgery and spending hours at a salon on a more than frequent basis.

In the U.S. the reaction to such decisions would be you must have nothing between your ears if you spend so much time on that, and therefore I don't want to talk to you, but the common response here is: good for you—you have direction in life and you must know something about how to get ahead that I don't know, so please, let's meet for a coffee. And if you don’t take care of your appearance, then you are not quite as worthy of adoration and respect; most likely poor at handling life in general.

That's not to say that you'll fail at life if you are ugly here, but Caracas is arguably the
worst place in the world to be ugly, in the same way Concord, Massachusetts is the worst place in the world to not be accepted at a Top Ten college.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Office magnet

Today we’re having a special lunch at the office: pabellón criollo, a delicious and satisfying Venezuelan staple.

Around 11:30, a magnetic force seems to have drawn all men from their respective stations and into the finance room; all women towards the kitchenette. The women are immersed in a giggly flurry of arepa/rice/beans/plátano/carne mechada preparation while the men, hungry and chatting across the hallway, lean against file cabinets in an untroubled way that says “I am a man.”

Sunday, May 24, 2009


In an unexpected turn of events, Lost has increased my cultural awareness in Spanish-speaking countries. Sawyer was mid-arrest by the Others when the word esposas came up as a subtitle. (Huh? Alrighty. I must have missed something, because esposa means wife, and there is no wife in this scene; and nor is Sawyer married, because he would never settle down like that.)

Then it happened again: Ponle las esposas!

(Put the wives on him?? What are we talking about?)

Indeed! the translation for handcuffs is the same as the Spanish plural for "wife."

Before my brain delved into the sociological significance of this translation, it took a brief but important detour, in which I imagined two doll-sized but life-like trophy wives in red Jessica Rabbit dresses wrapped around Sawyers wrists.

Apparently, the words share the same etymological root: the latin word spondere, which means to promise.

Even with this academic explanation, I had a hard time wrapping my brain around the idea that these two words are IDENTICAL. But it actually makes some sense in Venezuela, where the term cuaima is popular.

Cuaima literally means "snake," but in Venezuela it more commonly refers to a woman who, according to my googling, is "trained since childhood to screw men over and to be suspicious, jealous, possessive, manipulative, dominating, controlling, fear-inducing."

If I, as a theoretical man, had committed my life to a wife with those traits, I might also theoretically feel imprisoned.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Jacobo doles out bread at the panadería on the corner of my street. The inside of his mouth reminds me of the surface of scraggle rock—jagged stones spurting from the earth and fighting for space amongst themselves. This arrangement makes him sound like he has marbles in his mouth. So in addition to the fact that he speaks very fast Spanish, each word that leaves his mouth is first subject to sound editing by the zigzag of teeth that block its exit.

When he speaks to me at the store, I squint my eyes and tighten the skin on my face, creating a buffer for words to reach my ears as directly as possible. He repeats phrases two or three times, but never changes his pace or enunciation—for example, “Ji ute ta busano ao mevisas,” which roughly translates to: “Ifa looin summin lemmenah.”

On the rare occasions when I do understand his words, they often paint the picture of a personal experience or acquaintence that I have no capacity to understand in the immediate way he implicitly requests. It reminds me of the way three-year-olds yell out to their mothers in excitement about the picture they’re drawing and ask, “Isn’t it pretty!?” when their mother is downstairs doing laundry.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Lost in traducción

A few days ago, Giulio sent me history's best on-screen bilingual interview. I've now watched it 25 times and feel a need to share with all you Spanish speakers:

What makes this interview is the confidence and authority with which the interviewer BS's her way through all translated responses. She could be saying that the sky is fuscia, and clouds are made of cotton candy; but her body language and intonations suggest she just returned from Harvard's campus, where she completed a two-week long fact-checking mission to substantiate her claim. I have no doubt she will be successful, if not annoying, in life because of that.

Upon being asked, "What is your favorite part of Venezuela?" the musician responds:

"Um.. The people, of course."

Her translation:

"Ok, he tells me that Venezuela hasn’t changed much, that what he likes the most are the landscapes and the motos thats he’s had the opportunity to see on the streets and highways of Caracas. Anyway, very little has changed and he hasn’t had the opportunity to see much."

Earth's growing pains

Last night, all of Caracas experienced a terremoto. I would describe it like being in a small ship at high sea, attacked from underneath by five sharks on sugar highs. When it happened, I was in the midst of yet another outrageous dream involving Lost characters, so it seemed appropriate at the time.

Friday, April 24, 2009


Being sick in Venezuela is not that bad, because people here are great at taking care of others, especially the weirdos like me who live alone. My boyfriend brought me lovely soup and arepas last night, and another woman made chicken soup for me today. It was so delicious that I just had to know how she made it.

As soon as she started with "you just throw in xyz..." and not "boil water for 15 minutes then add 1/4 cup of onion" I knew I had no chance of replicating this sensation of a meal. But I smiled and told her I "can't wait to make it!!" anyway.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Friends Anais and Andreina introduced me to Caracas' regular Mercados de Diseño. Fabulous. Like everything else in Caracas, the goods at the Mercado are ridiculously overpriced, but it's a field day for crafts ideas.

We saw some really colorful painted lampshades, which caused me to run home and round up all the white lampshades in my apartment like cattle awaiting their multicolored salvation.

Painting them with watercolors is especially divertido:

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Who doesn't like an unfair and biased comparison?

Its been a while since I cracked the writing whip and I’m bored as H right now, so I’m going to do a little review of life in the USA vs Caracas.

Positives about living in the USA:

1) I don’t worry my pants off upon accidentally swallowing tap water or getting a mosquito bite.
2) I can be a vegetarian without withering into a shadow of a human being for lack of imitation meat and tofu.
3) Easier to be a shady McShadster (I can walk places alone at night).
4) I can have a conversation with anyone and not wonder what exactly we are discussing.
5) U.S. prices for most goods are half the Venezuelan prices, so I can easily convince myself that I am actually SAVING money instead of spending it with every hack of the credit card.
6) Extravagant and gorgeous free public libraries.

The positives about living in Caracas are a bit more difficult to pin down and have more to do with my general sense that Venezuelans are a happier bunch than gringos.

Granted, they know how to make themselves miserable just like the rest of us. I realized on a Miami-DC plane, though, that all the gringos were mired in a cloud of their own late-winter anguish and didn’t want anyone to bother them while sitting in it (hence the blackberry/Economist/headphones combo).

Venezuelans are much more sociable—on planes, on buses, in lines, on street corners, in tow-trucks (during Carnaval, for example, Giulio got to the heart of our truck driver’s recent near death experience within 15 minutes of meeting said gentleman).

Sometimes I think they have an unlimited capacity for social interaction, which probably has to do with the fact that they live with their families until marriage. Alone time doesn’t seem to be quite as valued.

I’ve finally adjusted to most of the Venezuelan value system and the only problem is that I now severely judge others in a way I never thought possible: beau-tay.

A woman sitting in front of me on the plane had slightly unbrushed hair and no makeup. In a most shocking and upsetting moment, the following serious judgement crossed my mind: Her hair is so...not shiny.

Monday, February 16, 2009

"SI" wins

Results were announced earlier than expected last night—54.5% of voters support the removal of presidential term limits in Venezuela, while 45.6% oppose it. Chavez can now be re-elected for life.

My opposition friends seem devastated in a personal way, as if this means the loss of a country they love, because it will only lead to an increase in its negative aspects such as crime and rampant inflation. Some feel that those who voted "SI" are ignorant and naïve for giving this government so much power.

They say they're depressed, shocked, and angry--that there’s “no way back.” Everyone has Facebook here, and people are using it as an outlet to express how disappointed they are in the 32% of fellow Venezuelans who didn’t vote, lamenting that “cada pueblo tiene el gobierno que se merece.”

We saw the opposite reaction at a Chavista rally, however, right after the results were announced. People danced on top of moving SUVs, cramming into the backs of trucks and stroking passing cars with endless rows of “SI” banners. We also saw caravan after caravan of guys on motorcycles with red bandanas placed over half of their faces, revolucionario-style.

One of the older Chavista women who is always at the same corner on Ave. Francisco de Miranda was wearing a red sparkly hat and red spandex pants to compliment her bright red hair. We saw overjoyed hugs and watched reverentially silent crowds huddle around a small TV to witness their idol's post-win speech.

I was personally starting to align Chavez with really persistent men who get repeatedly rejected for dates without noticing or caring, but this was a big win for him.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Fireworks at dawn

I awoke at 5:30 a.m. to massive fireworks exploding in front of el Avila. At first, I thought it was either gunshots or the birthday of a socialite who’d gotten too drunk to set them off at a reasonable hour. Then Giulio reassured me it was the government, encouraging citizens to get up and vote because today is the Big Day.

From a foreigner's point of view, it’s exciting to see a huge capital city rallied like that in a positive way, regardless of the political side of the impetus.

Early morning fireworks over Caracas.

I am, however, secretly relishing that my immigration status relieves me of the duty to stand in line for five hours to cast my vote.

All who vote here must stick their pinky finger in purple ink that doesn’t come off for several days (I don’t know how the beauty-obsessed women deal with it). The specially-engineered ink is a way of ensuring that people don’t vote twice with fake IDs, but I think it’s also a social symbol in a country where people have such extreme views about politics. I don’t know any Venezuelans who come out of an election day without that stamp of participation, and I wouldn't want to be subject to the ridicule a non-purple pinky would spark.

It’s not raining, those who live in the poorer cerros won’t have as much trouble descending from their steeply positioned homes to voting areas. It seems participation will be high in major cities.

The decision on whether or not the president, governors, and mayors are no longer subject to term limits should come back late tonight.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Floating in a sea of slow walkers: this is the Caracas sidewalk. I glance around tensely and see only relaxed arms, slow gaits and drawn out conversations. I find my leader—a random stranger. But he is brave, and probably really late for work; he understands my frustration. I nearly latch onto him, a sweet freedom in this sea of oppressively slow movers. His haste creates a path of liberation as we glide through the dawdling crowd.

We arrive at the stoplight. I am silently grateful, while he is still oblivious to his role as my sidewalk leader. I smell autonomy, seconds away—the light reaches its final yellow moments. Red will come and I will launch myself onto the temporarily open road. Prepárate.

But the Chavistas smell that open road first: I am quickly enveloped by red shirts and signs instructing stopped cars to vote SI. A monstrously large poster, a horn, two jumping ralliers, five men rushing into the streeet carrying a banner: SI SI SI SI! two students with red hair shouting UH!AH!

I reach the other side, defeated and entangled once more in the languid crowd.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A stroll down Dios lane

Today Giulio suggested we go to the MACCSI (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas Sofía Imber). While I was excited to see a new part of Caracas, contemplating the meaning of a big black circle on a white canvas doesn’t really turn me on.

But damn, was I pleased with our visit. They had a photography exhibit on mythology from various Latin American countries. I looked at each photo and tried to place myself in that moment—standing alongside, for example, an elderly Quechua tribe leader with a perfectly proportioned feather headdress, gazing at the dreamlike mountainous terrain before him.

Or beside Kalakshé, dueño of the impenetrable jungle of the mountain that provides infinite resources for his tribe. Or next to Awishame, Colombian dueña of the the coca plant, valued for the energy and clarity it provides while engaging in cultural traditions.

I liked the photo they associated with the Mawari, evil spirits of the table-top mountains in Canaima. They are the enemy of man, responsible for the deaths and disappearances of those who dare climb.
The visit put a little painting seed in my head. So when I got home, I went up to the roof, put on Gustavo Santoalla's Montaña, gazed at my lovely Avila, and made this:

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The return of the goat

Vero likes to say things that she knows I don’t understand. Today we had this convo en español:

Me: Matt’s party will be fun.

Vero: Yeah totally. There will be mostly guys there.

Me: Are you gonna bring your new man?

Vero: I'm not going to bring a goat to Coro.

Me: Umm.

Vero: You don’t bring a goat to Coro.

At first I thought: FINALLY! I understand this one. She’s talking about how she doesn’t bring a
goat, meaning, higher up fancy man, to Coro.

Coro must be a low-brow bar, where one would not bring a fancy man. Like Matt's party.

No, not at all.

Coro is a place in Venezuela where there are lots of goats. So it’s like saying “you don’t bring sand to the beach.”

Her point: Time for Vero to meet a new man.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Yesterday, my boss sent me an excerpt from a book written in 1963 by historian AJ Toynbee. He shared it because he believes much of what Toynbee said about Venezuela in 1963 is still true. This part was the most interesting to me:

Venezuela has the makings of an earthly paradise. It would, in fact, be one if a paradise could be stocked solely with minerals and plants, without needing any complement of human inhabitants. Venezuelan human nature is probably no better and no worse than the general run of the mill. Venezuelan wealth, however, is something quite out of the ordinary, and extra-ordinary wealth puts human nature to one of its hardest tests. Can human nature stand this? That is the critical question for Venezuela.

Caracas in 1963

The excerpt got me thinking about what it would have been like to live in Venezuela before the "golden rain from the oil-fields and the iron mountains began to descend on the capital." There is so much wealth here and it's interesting to think about the effect it has on the human psyche.

Toynbee briefly discusses that idea:

In present-day Venezuela, as in the present-day World as a whole, one is conscious of a tension in the air. Was the atmosphere as tense, I wonder, in the days--still not so long ago--when poverty was the Venezuelan people's common lot, and when even the largest landowners were no millionaires?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A tale of two presidents

Today I got the front-seat view of a little movie I like to call "National leaders are absurdly influential on the psychology of individuals."

I opened my office window to a sunny day and felt a movie-like euphoria (complete with birds chirping and babies laughing): Bush is gone and, more importantly, Obama is President.

We'd just watched his speech dubbed in Spanish. Some of his key WOW lines came out more like yonoentiendoniuncoño, but nevertheless I gazed starry-eyed at the screen, still in disbelief that he is President. It’s like a national dream from which we'll wake up next month. (Maybe the wakeup will happen when, three weeks into his term, Fox News demands, “WHERE’S THE CHANGE?”)

I’m reading articles about “getting used to the new president,” as if our national senses have been numbed by two Bush terms and must be reawakened to adjust to positive feelings towards our leader.

While I don’t yet burst with pride every time I explain, soy de Estados Unidos, I can see a light at the end of the awkwardness-as-a-result-of-my-nationality tunnel. And watching his speech from Venezuela made me yearn for the chance to be in Washington and feel the energy of his symbolic triumph.
Below my office window, though, student marches are starting. Next month, there will be another constitutional referendum to eliminate term limits here. I had the impression that Venezuelans are tired of being bombarded with this kind of thing (what my friend calls crisis fatigue), until I blindly stuck my camera out the window and caught this girl:

They’re mockingly wearing red shirts that say “NO” on the back. Red is Chavez’s color, so when Vero spotted them on the street below, she groaned and got all, ay coño aqui vienen los revolucionarios (“oh f*ck here come the revolutionaries again...”)

Despite the idea that
afuera todo es más arrecho (“everything is much better outside of Venezuela”… read that link if you are a Spanish speaker--it is hilarious), Venezuelans I know are way more proud to be from here than gringos are to be from the U.S. At the same time, there is far more political strife here and often, things don’t work the way people want them to (like when you're sitting in traffic for 30 minutes to turn a corner, or when the water dies for five days during your 20-person Thanksgiving dinner and you can’t wash any dishes so the chiripas—mini cockroaches—step up to the task). But in general Venezuelans seem pleased with themselves when they talk about where they are from. This is especially true for some when they completely separate their national identity from their nation's highest representative, as if the two were totally irreconcilable.

I, on the other hand, get more of a “alrighty well, let’s change the subject!” feeling when I have to talk about my home country in general. But I didn’t get that feeling today.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


I decided on a vegetarian trial run two weeks ago. It’s going OK. I don’t miss meat (aside from the crushing realization upon suggesting we visit the Colonia Tovar because it "has great German sausages!”)

Vero believes this switch means I'm loca, as the food chain is a natural part of life—lions eat deer (or whatever the hell they want), birds eat fish, and so on. But I'm doing it because of what I’ve been reading about Buddhism. The views on meat eating vary from school to school, and I’m not enough knowledgeable to know which makes the most sense to me personally. Mahayana Buddhism, for example, argues that if one pursues the path of the Bodhisattva for enlightenment, one should avoid meat eating to cultivate compassion for all living beings. Reading that line (thank you, Wikipedia) made me want to let go of meat right away, and now I think of it whenever I see meat dishes.

The best part of my switch was the dog that Brit and I fed last night. He (who we later learned was indeed a she, then continued to refer to her as a he) got the best of my freezer’s parilla leftovers. She was sleeping in the garden in front of my building and emerged to greet us, escorted by her nose. One look at her sad eyes and round goofy ears gave me the impulse to do something--anything--give her my spare change? It left me sad and unsatisfied. So we raced upstairs, nuked some frozen pork, and mixed it with corn flakes and a raw egg.

She seemed hesitant towards her meal, circling it and then backing away as if it were still alive and she’d forgotten how to kill. We felt relief when she pulled the pork out of the bag and ate the whole thing. But she left the rest. Sensing my disappointment, and still a little disgusted by my decision to give her a raw egg, Brit reassured me: “Don’t worry--it just means she has good taste.”

We sat on the stoop and chatted while the dog finished eating, content that at least for tonight, she was well-fed. Upon finishing, she climbed to our eye level and looked at us: Do you think you could maybe pet me for a while? So of course we did, before leading her to a fount of fresh water and deciding to purchase a bag of dog chow.

I think I will name her Geduld, which babelfish tells me is German for patience.

Monday, December 1, 2008


“Can you go to Malabo on Friday?”

Not exactly the kind question one expects at 8 a.m. on a Monday in the heart of all things suburbia--otherwise known as Bethesda, Maryland.

It was the assignment everyone was suddenly “too swamped” to take. Malabo, in the words of my veteran supervisor, was the "weirdest place on earth.” By his account, six years in sand-stormy Sudan would be more pleasant than a six-day assignment in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea.

Aside from that sunny comparison, I had at my imagination’s disposal four facts about this location: it’s the only Spanish speaking country in Africa; photography is punishable by jail sentence; the government is renowned for torturing opposition supporters in “Black Beach;” and most of the population is extremely poor while foreign oil extractors live comfortably on Pleasantville-style compounds.

It was just the kind of place I wanted to spend Christmas alone.

My bosses needed a Spanish speaker to coordinate startup for a USAID project there, and it all had to be completed within two weeks, or else I’d be spending the holidays on Strange Island.

Before I knew it, I was floating in a sea of long faces and alligator skin attire at the Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. About 30 men, not so fresh off their flight from Dallas, looked like they were waiting for the Devil to swing by and escort them back to Hell.
Everyone, from the pilot to the rotund man named Jimmy sitting to my left, had one thought plastered on his face: What’s a woman doin' on this plane? Maybe she’s confused and thinks we’re goin’ to New Guinea in South 'merica.

After a few half-comatose and extremely disorienting realizations that the silent, deep indigo view I repeatedly awoke to was indeed the Sahara, and that all my sleepy co-passengers were indeed from America's Heartland, we descended upon Malabo.

The electricity-less terrain we’d just passed made the island of Bioko look like Vegas on steroids, with dozens of oil refinery fires thrown in for good measure (environmentalists seeking an image of natural resource exploitation at the height of its fury need look no further).

On that cold night under heavy rain an immigration officer looked me up and down with an unhurried, menacing grin. He gripped a bulky machine gun and posited his main question--the one thing every border patrolman must know: "Why are you without your husband?"

Welcome to Malabo.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Sensgiveen en Caracas

Last night was an unexpectedly very Thanksgiving-esque dinner en mi casa en Caracas. Turkey, wine, stuffing, sweet potatoes, green beans, soup—the whole deal. We even went around and each said what we’re thankful for en español. Por ejemplo, Thom and I said we were thankful for all the friends we’d made in Caracas; Steve said he was thankful for water (we had no running water, which made washing dishes/hands interesting...), and Giulio said he was happy for passing all the tests he needs to graduate (eeesooo). The mood was lovely and everyone left five pounds heavier than when they'd arrived.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Back for more

The cleaning lady at our office just sprayed the most oppresive brisas de vainila odor-eater throughout the office. HELLLLPPPP meeee!!!

So anyway, I’m now here on a courtesy visa, which is their way of saying "please get off our backs until we’re assured that Devil Barbie (Sarah Palin) will not be elected" (she just said she'd use military force here--that's fun! I’m really glad that she made that comment. It was well thought-out and reflected her nuanced understanding of relations with this country).

As much as I enjoy temporary corporate housing, it is so nice to be back here. Yesterday, it rained in that four-to-five-inches-on-the-streets kind of way; and when I said I was leaving to walk home (everyone else takes metro or drives), my coworkers wished me a pleasant swim. Even though it was 65 degrees out, they all rested assured that the boss-lady would be stuck at home with the flu the next day.

Instead of the flu, I came back with a Tupperware stocked with amazing cookies. Which leads me to the next point: I am becoming domesticated. Not sure where it’s coming from, but I actually look forward to grocery shopping—and I’m not even buying frozen meals. Last night, I washed and chopped vegetables with my boyfriend and actually enjoyed it—felt a cozy, appreciative relationship with the tomatoes and mushrooms.

Thankfully, domestication hasn’t reached the point of enjoying laundry, which is why I also made sure to purchase several weeks worth of extra clothing while in the U.S.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The magic wand.

Parks in Ha Noi are the kind of place where it’s difficult to walk ten feet without bumping into a man or group of men who are meditating, resting their untroubled gaze upon some placid body of water, or engaging in a similar mind/body/spirit expanding activity. What struck me about those guys (and other Vietnamese people I’ve bumped into on the street) is that they are relatively very soft spoken until you pull out the magic wand: a camera.

This device turns the shiest of Vietnamese into smiley, jazzy friends who think its so funny that you have a camera! A staff member in a red shirt blazed by me yelling “Hello! Where you from!” as I sat by the pond at the Temple of Literature.

Out of nowhere: a dragon pose.

I searched around me to see if one of his friends was about to snap a pic but no, he was waiting for me to capture his moment of glory—finger claws, snarled teeth and all—to be placed in the photo album he’d never see.

I then asked him where he was from. Time to get shy again. It was probably his lack of English, but the man went from a crazy fun-loving dragon to a self-conscious staff member who suddenly had to run away. Literally, he ran away from me, but at least he was smiling when he did.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


One of my four favorite things about being in Ha Noi is that I have absolutely no idea what anything means. I’m here developing an index for local governance that I call the Fiscal Integrity Index. I just got it translated to Vietnamese for a meeting with government reps. It looks so ridiculous to me. “Fiscal Integrity Index” apparently translates to the following: CHỈ SỐ VỀ TÍNH NHẤT THỂ TÀI CHÍNH CỦA CHÍNH QUYỀN ĐỊA PHƯƠNG. The one word that I actually understand and brings me solace is my name. But then it's followed by 1209 other words I am totally lost on.


I do hate the flaming ignoramus feeling when it comes to local languages, so I try to feign apprehension with cab drivers by repeating whatever they just said to me. The other day I met a lovely cab driver who had the most endearingly awkward bowl hair cut. He was so smiley that I couldn't help but want him to think I knew Vietnamese:

Lovely cab driver: Anh bao nhiêu tuoi?
Me: Ah! Yes, anh bao nhiêu tuoi .
Lovely cab driver: Tôi duoc ba mươi lăm tuoi...
Me: Oh--lăm tuoi—haha!
Lovely cab driver: (turns around, confused) hahahahaha!!!

Sa' tu donest'ah laof'ina de fax?

And now: a guest post. From Ms. Hina Strayer:

The most giant soft old woman with painted lips of coral and misaligned pencil drawn eyebrows just sauntered up to me. It was as if a Floridian shower curtain had ripped itself from a retirement home bathroom and found its way to my desk. She asks, in a dialect that could only be Caribbean Spanish, a long melodic question that sounded like "Sa' tu donest'ah laof'ina de fax?", followed up by an flagrantly frustrated "Oye, hablas espanol?". I reply amicably, "si, pero no se donde esta...", and she interrupts me by rolling her big tired-lidded eyes back into her head, just shaking it slowly back and forth. And waddles away without another word.


Thursday, July 17, 2008

Vietnam: I like my pants linen and my moto without a seatbelt

Crossing the street in Vietnam is like walking through a beehive and just trusting it will be ok if you go at the right pace. If you stop or get scared, ZING, you.are.dead my friend. Every time I do it I feel like a 13-year-old boy is directing all the motos from his Nintendo controller up above, just waiting to confuse one of the opponent motos into crashing into me.

I first discovered this while on my way to a meeting on the other side of town. A professor and I walked to his motorcycle and I put on my helmet in a way that wouldn’t mess up my hair, which is not possible. He couldn’t believe I’d never been on a mototaxi in Ha Noi, or that no one had told me how to cross the street Vietnamese style.

Time to look cool: “Well I’ve only been here 24 hours.” Even cooler: “also, I’ve been in Caracas, where riding these things is likened to a death wish.”

“Hah! Here too!” he shouted as we sped off around the corner, all of my precious papers nearly flying out of my lap and into the street. “The good thing is,” he continued, “I’ve only been in one accident. But it practically wasn’t my fault, you know?”

No. No I don't know.

I then determined why everyone in Ha Noi wears those face masks while riding motos: exhaust fumes. Mmm.

A few white-knuckled miles later, it was yet again time to enter Super Mario land o' oncoming motos. I stayed directly parallel to the professor and copied his movements exactly, in an attempt to use him as a buffer in case of emergency (likely).

Just because they stopped for two seconds is not going to keep them
from starting up while you're mid stream.

When we got to the meeting, rife with chivos (higher ups) in the international development community, I noticed many U.S. expats here like to wear linen, a look that says “I’m humble because I work in development—no 9-5 office clothes for me, no sir. I can take it without AC--just look how simple my office is--except when I get home to my U.S. tax-paid cushy palace that has three local maids and a cook. I also like to have peace of mind—an attitude embodied by these pants that easily adjust to locally practiced meditation poses, which I never do.”

For the love of a generator.

I saw a three year old in the park in Ha Noi today. He was all about this generator so I decided to take lots of pictures of him. And now I've created a mystical tale about their romance:

He had a feeling from the beginning that this generator was the one.

At times, he did wonder if this inanimate object was The one. After all, the tree was tall, dark and organic.

He soon realized though, that his love for the small gray metal box was unstoppable.

He ran into its nonexistent arms.

He greeted it with love and smacks.

He was sure: for him, there was no other generator.

Monday, June 30, 2008

The frirk

I’m on my way back from my 5th trip to Caracas and feel removed enough from U.S. culture to make some superficial generalizations. Namely, that we gringos are so awkward. I asked for soda water with a lime and this caused the stewardess to get all “uhh!! I’m going to have to—look—uhh! for that...later..uh!”

Alternatively, the Venezolana approach might have been to say no hay before flashing a deadpan upside down smirk (like a frown + smirk: frirk). The frirk no hay combo is deceptively simple but roughly translates to:

And what are you going to do about it? I’m not even going to mention what the other options are because you went and asked me for something I don’t have. And when you tell me what you want instead, I’m going to look in the other direction and pretend I didn’t hear because you know what? I have better things to be thinking of right now. God, it’s hot in here. No, you can’t get your money back, because I already made your receipt and the manager’s at his wife’s cousin’s aunt’s baby shower, and only the manager can give you your money back. He’ll be back at six. But we close at five.


Having a bilingual Venezuelan boyfriend is similar to having a personal translator. All I have to do is say a Spanish word with a certain intonation and he auto-feeds the translation back to me. It also works for phrases. My favorite is “You better WATCH yoself:” Mucho cuidado con una vaina. We mutilate it into a snobbier, single word: ’cho-cuiao-co-ua-vaiii always pronounced with an open, lazy mouth and sometimes an accompanying finger snap or threatening “OK” sign. I use it as an extremely dramatic overreaction to anything: getting too close to another car on the highway, stealing a fry from my McDonald’s meal—basically any act that slightly resembles a transgression calls for ’cho-cuiao-co-ua-vaiii.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Cheaper than water

Colleen just forwarded me one of those email jokes. This one looked promising because it was about gas prices, something I rarely concern myself with as a car-less freeloader.

The whole gas thing of course got me thinking about Venezuela's petroleo. On a lovely four-hour mountainous drive to the beach, Giulio and I pulled up to a gas station.

Oh yeah—offer to pay for gas. I’m getting a free ride here.

“No no—let me get this,” I selflessly offered.

"It’s ok,” he said, scrounging for some coins between car seats. "Do you have like, 15 cents?"

I looked at the register and wondered if the figure we saw was for one liter, or if they should have been using the old currency and forgot to add three zero's to the end, or if the machine was broken and computing incorrectly, or if the mountain air had induced in me a form of temporary numerical illiteracy and 98 cents really meant "109080 cents".

Nope. The whoooole tank: 98 cents.

Bienvenido a Venezuela.

Caracas: Why walk two blocks when you can drive?

Monday, June 9, 2008

My Paris parenthesis

It is greedy to dream of traveling abroad while in a foreign country, but I just searched for pictures of Paris because I have ahuge crush on it. If I were a city, I'd want to marry it, but would surely have to get in line with all the other (certainly more financially capable) admirer cities.

The photos stirred up my latent fantasies of being a petite Frenchy for a month or two--doing nothing but drinking vin rouge and writing about the quirky things Parisians do and say in the public places I'd stealthily observe them, like bus stops and park benches. My intermediate French language barrier would ensure mild alienation and thus an ability to feel completely at ease in taking notes while staring at strangers.
I would live in an exorbitantly-priced closet with a view of the Sienne; eat fresh nutella crepes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and stroll around listening to the Amelie soundtrack on my 'pod as though I were starring in my own petite scene. I'd probably try to find an old, bitter, but quirky and ultimately lovable, artichoke vendor like the one in the movie; but I wouldn’t be able to converse with him (or anyone) without sounding awkward. That’s fine though, because Paris would be lovely for exploring life as a hermit.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Raid and vulgarities: Venezuelan futbol

Going to a soccer game in Venezuela is the same as going to a Red Sox/ Yankees game, but just everyone is on crack. Upon arrival, I made the assumption that the fire shooting from the hands of fanaticos originated from special fire-spouting devices that one can only purchase in Venezuela.
Upon further inspection, though, I realized they were cans of Raid with a lighter held to the spout. So that’s fun to inhale in an enclosed space.

I got pretty decked out for this game and even bought my own devil horns to celebrate the red glory that is the Caracas fútbol team.

I wrote down and memorized the chants that everyone sings to the other team. Also similar to chants sung at Red Sox/ Yankees games, but everyone is 10 times more pissed off and 100 times more vulgar. When a special goal kick is made (I’m sure it has a name other than ‘special goal kick’ but we’ll take care of that bit o’ knowledge at another time), everyone shouts HIJO DE PUTA!! to which the other side of the stadium (Tachira fans) responds TU MADRE!!, to which we retaliate with LA TUYA!!! We also sing about how everyone says that Caraqueños are drunken delinquents.

This fan only looks innocent.