Category Archives: Everyday Life

Venezuela’s Beauty Queen Factory

Caracas — Inside Venezuela’s Beauty Queen Machine

By Ted Rabinowitz for Asylum.com

Beauty queens

Last month, we brought you Alamut, the Secret (and very real, if very crumbly) City of the Assassins. This month, we move from implied violence to implied sex. We’re going to … the Secret City of Official Hotness.

Not L.A. Not Paris. Not even Rio. No, only one city in the world has ever had an actual, official Committee of Beauty. Come with us now, to that exciting land of glamour queens that is … Caracas, Venezuela.

A Matter of National Pride

Who cares about its collapsing, oil-based economy and the gradual erosion of its civil libertiesVenezuela has won more international beauty pageant titles than any other country.

And in Caracas, the capital, the citizens are so committed to the tiara and sash that pageant winners have their own Wikipedia category, and there’s a beauty salon for every two restaurants in the phone book. The store-window mannequins have nipples, and not even Hugo Chavez, el queso grande himself, dares to interrupt the Miss Venezuela pageant.

Forget the Beastmaster: Caracas’s Own “Beauty Master”

Like any decent secret city of something, Caracas has its own high lama: Osmel Sousa, head of the Miss Venezuela Organization (aka the Venezuelan Committee of Beauty) who cheerfully tells wannabes to go under the knife if they want to make it.

Thanks to Sousa, Caracas is full of insecure 20-year olds with boob jobs and the middle-aged businessmen who love them.

Beauty Basic Training

High in the hills above Caracas, Sousa’s Miss Venezuela Academy has would-be pageant winners running, hiking, lifting weights and God knows what else.

Hopeful moms send their princesses to pageant training schools like Sousa’s at the age of 7 or 8. If they win, they can look forward to careers as models, actresses, TV reporters or even politicians. If they fail, of course, they’re disposed of in the underground shark pit. Kidding, kidding.

Don’t Get Out Your Passport Just Yet …

Since the pageantistas look like this, and their boyfriends look like this, you might think Caracas would be the place to go for the world’s best hot-girlfriend ratio. But what the boyfriends lack in looks, they usually make up for in wealth, power and/or general badassery, Chavez having at least one of these attributes from what we’ve heard.

Think of it as an incentive to excellence in your own life. Or at least another reason to start your own people’s revolution.

Beautiful Photos of Venezuela’s Páramo Highlands

The páramo are the Andean highlands of Venezuela. This ecosystem is found in the high elevations, between the upper forest line  at 3,000 meters elevation and the permanent snow line at 5,000 meters. The páramo is cold, with animals uniquely adapted to the temperatures, such as the woolly donkey pictured below. These areas consist mostly of valleys, grasslands, lakes, and occasional patches of forest. It is a harsh environment: wet, windy, and receiving a high degree of ultraviolet radiation due to the elevation.

These photos are by a California-born agroecologist named Mason London. He provides us with a look at the paramos of the Venezuelan state of Merida.

Torre Confinanza, Venezuela’s Squatter Skyscraper

Torre Confinanza in Caracas Venezuela

Living the high life in Torre Confinanza in Caracas Venezuela - not for the faint-hearted

By Will Grant
BBC News, Caracas
18 December 2010

The views from the 20th floor of the Confinanza Tower are among the most spectacular in Caracas, reminiscent of those from an expensive penthouse apartment.

But the homes being built in this high-rise building, which actually goes up another 22 floors, are not expensive apartments. They are the kind of breeze-block shacks found in the city’s hundreds of shanty towns.

This is perhaps the most curious skyscraper in Venezuela, being one of the tallest squatter buildings in the world.

A resident of the "squatter skyscraper" in Caracas

A resident of the "squatter skyscraper" gazes out of a makeshift window.

Isabel Morales is still haunted by the latest tragedy to happen here.

“A little girl fell 18 storeys to her death,” she recalls, shuddering slightly.

“The neighbour who was looking after her only took her eyes off her for a minute. God only knows…”

Her words trail off as she nods towards her own three-year-old son, who is charging around their incomplete, brick shack, playing with a toy truck.

She has good reason to worry. Behind her is a gaping hole in the floor. She and her husband have boarded it up as best they can, but she must be constantly vigilant in case the child climbs over their makeshift barrier. There is a sheer drop of several floors onto the concrete below.

These are the daily risks being run by some 700 families who live in this extraordinary skyscraper in central Caracas.

Buzzing with activity

Torre Confinanza was never meant to be lived in. In the early 1990s, it was going to be a bank. One of the tallest office blocks in Latin America, the bank that owned it went bust in 1994, and the semi-completed building passed into state hands.

There it languished for more than a decade, gradually deteriorating and becoming a haven for drug-addicts and prostitution.

Alexander Daza, resident of Torre Confinanza in Venezuela

Alexander Daza pins his hopes on negotiation

But today the building is again abuzz with activity and construction. Three years ago, hundreds of families who could not find decent homes elsewhere in the capital descended on the derelict building and started setting up their houses.

Little by little, they have built small, brick homes on more than half the building’s floors. Isabel’s house is inside the multi-storey car park.

“I came here from the Andes in search of work and a better education for my children,” she says, adding that despite the risks, she considers the tower to be her best option in Caracas.

“We have built a space where we can live in peace and harmony,” community leader Alexander “El Nino” Daza tells me. “We don’t want violence, or drugs, or bloodshed, none of that.”

The violence of Caracas is something he knows well. Mr Daza is a former gang member who became an Evangelical pastor after turning to religion in jail.

Three times a week, he leads other members of the community in prayer and song as they give thanks for the space they live in. He shows me the new church that he and the other followers are building.

“We’re not stealing anything. We pay for the electricity and the water legally. Every family must pay around $15 (£10) a month to live here in order to pay for the things the community needs.

“We’re trying to do everything through the proper legal channels so that if the government ever tries to throw us out, we’ll have the paperwork ready,” he says.

Planning objections

The government says it is working with the community to try to find a solution, and Mr Daza says that most families inside the tower support President Hugo Chavez. They are confident that the issues raised by living in the former bank can be resolved through negotiation.

Ongoing building work on Torre Confinanza, Caracas

Many residents carry out their own building work in the tower

But some residents of Caracas do not believe it is responsible to let the families simply convert the skyscraper into homes.

“For me, it’s a symbol of anarchy, a symbol of a lack of government and of public inefficiency,” says Sulemar Bolivar, who sees the building every day from her office, as head of urban planning for the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, who is a member of the opposition.

“It’s like rewarding the man who steals because he’s hungry. No? Their act of invasion was not justified,” Ms Bolivar argues.

“There is a housing deficit of more than 400,000 homes in Caracas, not to mention those who live in homes which are unfit.

“If the government chooses to give these people that building, there must first be a proper process of refurbishment involving the fire service and other public bodies. It cannot be simply handed over without proper consultation,” she says.

Ms Bolivar also believes that more should have been done by previous administrations. “There are several other buildings like this in Caracas which are also a result of the banking crisis in the 1990s.

“When they passed into state hands, they should have been auctioned off. That would have generated much more for the city including more employment and new housing,” she says.

Back at the Torre Confinanza, there are no working lifts, so young men and women are carrying building materials up dozens of hastily-constructed concrete staircases, with no handrails on either side.

Construction work without a hardhat or harness 20 floors up is not for the faint-hearted or vertiginous.

But further tragedies like the young girl’s death may prompt the authorities to step in, risking an angry response from the families who have made the former bank their home.

Fear and Paranoia in Caracas

caitlin from the letters to gringolandia blogI thought this was a very thoughtful post about how our fear and paranoia can close us off to meeting new people and getting the most out of our travels. It comes from Jake and Caitlin’s Letters to Gringolandia blog.

Caitlin wrote this post when she had only been in Venezuela for a few weeks. I wonder if her interactions with Venezuelans changed with time, and if she answered her own question: “How do we move on and build a life here in Caracas after feeling so on edge and distrusting of everyone?”

Here’s her post:

***

The most telling experience just happened. Jake and I went to a performance tonight, a bizarre story told through acrobatic movements called ”Sueños de Golpe.” Although a little weird, it was nice to finally get out at night, especially to experience the arts in Caracas. After the performance we debated taking the metro or a taxi, since everyone has warned us not to walk on the streets after dark. But we decided it seemed safe enough to take the metro with the bunches of other people leaving the theater as well.

Everything seemed fine, the metro being very clean, fast, and efficient. As we were getting off the metro a young man in his twenties, wearing a navy blue turtleneck sweater that seemed to be out of an LL Bean catalogue, came up to us and asked something in Spanish while pointing to what seemed to be outside the metro. I couldn´t really understand him and I assumed he was asking for directions, as someone else had earlier that day. I don’t know if under other circumstances I would have understood his question, or whether his Caraqueño accent and fast speech made it impossible.

Either way, I was so caught off guard I just responded, ‘’No sé, no sé nada.’’ It was obviously a response to feeling endangered, which is how we’ve been made to feel here at all hours of the day, always skeptical of people who look at us or, god forbid, speak to us.

A Caracas metro station

A Caracas metro station

Constantly looking over my shoulder, I have yet to feel at ease in this city. The man at the metro asked if we spoke English or French. I said English reluctantly but reconfirmed my Spanish speaking skills by repeating, ”No sé” in response to his earlier question. My immediate reaction was to make sure he knew we spoke some Spanish and weren´t lost or unfamiliar with Caracas. I also wanted to get rid of him as fast as possible. (I have yet to let my guard down here.) Yet I couldn’t fool him with a response such as, I dont know anything.

He began to speak to us in near perfect English, explaining that he was also at the theater tonight, the same show as us, and wanted to know what we thought of the ending. A big sigh of relief. He was at the play and was just curious to hear our reactions to it.

We chatted for a second as we walked up the stairs to the street. This feeling of relief lasted no more than a minute though, because as we aproached the street we immediately reverted to action plan mode, needing to orient ourselves to know which direction to walk. So as we stopped to discuss this, he just kept walking. We didn’t even say goodbye.

The last thing he said was, ”The whole time during the performance I was waiting for a good ending, a way to finish, but the ending didn’t satisfy me.” It’s true. It was abrupt, as if ending in the middle of a conversation, just like we did as we walked opposite directions but never had the chance to say goodbye.

I still feel unsettled, and not from the performance, but from that one conversation we’ve had with a random Venezuelan. The one stranger who’s actually tried talking to us. He was not attempting to rob or cheat us, but just interested in hearing our opinions. I can’t help but wonder if he thought we were ”rude Americans,” as is a common perception of U.S. travelers. Or if it seemed like we didn’t want to talk with him. This is a perfect example of how this city feels so far – like we’re not allowed to trust anyone, even men in navy blue turtleneck sweaters, and especially anyone who has an interest in talking with us.

How does a city survive with its people constantly distrusting one another? Maybe it’s just a feeling tourists experience to such an extreme. It seems women often walk alone at night, or in suposedly dangerous areas, so maybe all the warnings are extra precautious for us as tourists. Do Caraqueños feel as much distrust in each other as we foreigners are made to feel in them? Caraqueños are the ones telling us to be careful, con much cuidado, not to walk certain ways, not to be in the streets at night, to hold on tight to our things. It’s wonderful to have so many great people looking out for us here, but it’s also a lot to worry about when trying to discover a new city.

So the question then for Jake and I becomes, where do we go from here? How do we move on and build a life here in Caracas after feeling so on edge and distrusting of everyone? That will be our biggest challenge.

-Caitlin

Missing the special things about Venezuela

Family together for Christmas food at Maracay, Venezuela

Family together for Christmas food at Maracay, Venezuela

Erin, a North American who lives in Venezuela and writes a blog called Adventures in Places I Don’t Belong, recently wrote about a stomach bug she’s trying to beat, and the music from next door, and the things about Venezuela that she’ll miss if she has to move, and… this isn’t making much sense, is it?

I’ll let her tell it, but I just wanted to say that the things she describes that she will miss are almost universal to Latin American countries, and in fact to all third world countries, where people are not so much focused on precise punctuality and the Protestant work ethic, as on people.

She writes:

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 thoroughly 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 fact 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 and enjoy on 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 people blow up with spontaneous negative emotion I get WASPily awkward and bug-eyed, which totally ruins my chances of genuinely responding in kind.

Life in Caracas: lavish malls and BMW dealerships, amid poverty and crime

Plaza Bolivar in Caracas, Venezuela

Plaza Bolivar in Caracas, Venezuela

I enjoy reading the San Francisco Chronicle, but I recently discovered an Alternative Daily called “BeyondChron” that bills itself as “The voice of the rest.”

Eli Rosenberg, a writer for BeyondChron, wrote a piece back in 2006 that described in precise terms the constant diverging realities of Caracas, Venezuela. He wrote about the haphazardly placed skyscrapers and glittering shopping malls, surrounded by the “ranchos” or ghettos in the hills.

I really enjoyed his piece, and I’m reprinting it here, along with some photos that I added:

Life in Caracas

by Eli Rosenberg

Caracas, while home to nearly a fifth of Venezuela’s 26 million inhabitants, is a city so poorly conceived in design that it appears to have sprung up from the ground, without warning, overnight. Nestled in a long and narrow valley, it is a tangled urban agglomeration of towering skyscrapers, cluttered streets, curving highways, world-famous shopping malls, and of course, ranchos that blanket the hills surrounding the city, covering every inch of exposed land as if they were fighting for daylight.

Stacked haphazardly on top of each other, the red cinder block and tin-roof dwellings of the ranchos can be seen from the valley floor, serving as a constant reminder of the harsh reality that many buying Versace or Polo in the air-conditioned cool of a mall try to forget, but are forced to acknowledge upon leaving; que peligroso (how dangerous) they’ll say, glancing fearfully at the hills, adding even que feo (how ugly). They’ll show you the golf course too, the golf course and country club in the middle of the city that Chávez is trying to take away. He would take away our golf course! They’ll say, with the indignation of a child who hears the word no for the first time.

The division between rich and poor is even more blatant in Caracas than in other parts of the country; consecutive city blocks often alternate between these two constituencies, and on many streets, bright and modern apartment buildings, circled by tall electric fences, stand in stark contrast to much smaller, crumbling brick buildings which surround them.

Yet in parts of Caracas, it is also deceptively easy to forget the fact that more than half of the people in Venezuela live in poverty, and that a quarter of the population lacks the means to eat adequately. In a shopping mall in Caracas, one could be in any wealthy region of the world; unabashedly extravagant, they are filled with the global chains of the world’s upper class- designer clothes, first-rate electronics, and endless shoe stores on par with any upscale mall in the United States. These malls are located in neighborhoods of BMW dealerships, “American” styled and themed bars, and areas where it is possible, even preferable, to pay for apartments in dollars. It is hard to believe that such contradictions could simultaneously exist in such close proximity, with such scarce middle ground.

Millenium Mall in Caracas, Venezuela

Millenium Mall in Caracas, Venezuela

Eating at one of the slick restaurants or glamorous bars of Las Mercedes, one could easily be in Los Angeles, and the similarities between the two cities are frightening; the blatant discrepancy between classes, the complete ill-conception and lack of planning, and the flaunting of wealth and almost psychotic emphasis on material goods and beauty. There were even mass riots of the poor in Caracas in 1989, called El Caracazo, which seemed to frighten the wealthy caraqueños perpetually, to a similar effect that the Rodney King riots had on the citizens of Los Angeles. And then there are the malls.

The wealthy in Caracas seem to embrace this retreat into irreality, flocking in hordes to lavish shopping malls, where some spend all day perusing the designer outlets, paying American prices to eat at American chains like TGIF and Cinnabon, listening to the American pop music that is piped into the cool air. These are the places they will recommend to you if you ask them where to visit in Caracas, these are what make Caracas the best city, they ‘ll say, if not in Venezuela, then the world.

Never mind the fact that you can get a good meal for a fraction of the price outside or that you could probably take a vacation here for the same amount of money spent in an afternoon at the mall. Maybe the outside world really does disappear the moment one enters a mall; how could poverty exist side by side with such profusion of wealth?

2. The other side of the coin

Boasting one of the highest murder rates on the continent, Caracas is an undeniably dangerous city. Upper-class neighborhoods surrounded by heavily-fortified walls and guard stations give some areas of Caracas the appearance of a war zone, and it is generally accepted that one does not walk around the city at night, with the exception of a few small areas in the wealthiest districts, conveniently surrounding the upper-echelon malls. Yet the ever-present paranoia of the upper-class in Caracas is almost more palpable than the danger here; I could not count the number of times that I was told to be careful in Caracas, and cautioned that Caracas is peligrosisimo (very dangerous), and sucio (dirty) too, deemed by many not even worth visiting because of this.

Caracas street vendor sells watches

A street vendor displays a stopwatch souvenir of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez weeks before plans to turn back the country's clocks by half an hour.

The small hotel I stayed at was located in an area called La Candelaria, a busy neighborhood near the central district of the city. Contrary to what I had been told, the area compromising the center and capital of the city was by far the most interesting part of the city. The streets surrounding Plaza Bolívar teemed with action during the day, alive with street vendors who covered the sidewalk for blocks on end, selling clothes, food, used books, household items, and pirated CDs to the masses of people who passed hurriedly by. This was dense urban living at its finest: the currents of people, the noise and smog, the movement on every street and corner, the hustle and struggle of everybody moving to the chaotic clockwork of modern city life.

In what appeared to be an impromptu speech, a man talked loudly about the virtues of the revolution into a microphone set up in Plaza Bolívar to the sparse crowd gathered there it seemed for other reasons, some restlessly tossing popcorn at pigeons, others nodding off on the benches around the huge statue of Simon Bolívar. A man gave me a “No a la Guerra!” sticker as I sat down. In Caracas political graffiti is everywhere, large government posters hang from office buildings showing giant profiles of Chávez, and a few beautiful murals cover the city’s walls.

A few blocks from the center, El Capitolio is the district where the National Assembly meets, where the building that houses the Supreme Court is under renovation, and where El Palacio Miraflores, the presidential palace is located. Palacio Miraflores, the site of the 2002 coup in which Chávez was removed from office for roughly 48 hours, sits on streets that are blockaded on all ends, streets that you are now forbidden from even walking down.

Caracas is a place that feels like it is at war with itself; fighting between two extremes, the city burns with conflict. Chávez clearly has his support in those who believe he can narrow the immense gap between those who reside in tall apartment buildings of Altamira and those who can only watch from their hillside shanties, but despite the programs, initiatives, the constant talk and emphasis, the task remains as necessary as the distance formidable.

Kidnapping in Venezuela is out of control

The film Secuestro Express was about a Venezuelan kidnapping gang

The film Secuestro Express was about a Venezuelan kidnapping gang

The guardian.co.uk published a recent article by Roy Carrol titled, “Fear grips Venezuela as even the poor are seized by kidnap gangs.” The article says that “pensioners, students and children are grabbed in streets and shopping malls.”

This kidnapping plague seems to be spreading all through Latin America. In Mexico of course it has been out of control for a long time. In Colombia it’s practically a way of life. In Panama, supposedly a stable and economically prosperous country by Central American standards, these sorts of kidnappings have just started to appear.

Often (though not always by any means) police are involved and are even running the show. This boggles my mind. The idea of dirty cops is not new to me and I know that a lot of cops all over the world are not averse to pocketing a little money, but running a kidnap gang? How does someone become so corrupt.

Anyway, I was dismayed to read that even poor people are being targeted by Venezuela’s kidnappers. The article says:

A wave of kidnappings across Venezuela is spreading fear and anger among communities who say that criminal gangs are out of control.

Hundreds of men, women and children have been swept off the streets in broad daylight and held for ransom, forcing their families to sell homes and other assets to buy their freedom.

The national assembly debated a bill last week that would make sentences of up to 30 years mandatory for kidnapping, as part of a long-promised government crackdown. Official figures released last week recorded 166 abductions so far this year, more than one a day. Most of the kidnappings go unreported and the real figure is estimated to be up to four times higher.

“It’s horrific. We have had four students abducted from the campus,” said Briceida Morales, a lecturer at Santa María University in Barinas, the worst hit state. “People are snatched from shopping malls. Women, children, pensioners, it doesn’t matter if you’re wealthy or not, they take anyone.”

In one incident, three men seized a three-year-old girl from her mother at a bus stop in a Barinas slum. The mother gave up the family’s most valuable possession, a fridge, to pay the ransom…

The virus infected neighbouring Venezuela about a decade ago when armed groups started seizing victims – especially farmers – in remote border areas.

“Even if they don’t kill you, you’ve got nothing left. Your home, your livelihood, everything you’ve built, gone,” said César García, 58, a rancher held for four months until his family paid a ransom.

The gangs realised that even poor families could drum up thousands of dollars by selling household possessions. “Insecurity has got worse and there is a sense of impunity,” said Jhonny Campos, a police commissioner in Caracas.

The topic inspired a former justice minister, Fermín Mármol León, to publish a thriller detailing four kidnappings. One family with showbusiness links ran a comedy night to raise a ransom. The relative was freed last month.

Some of the gangs use unlicensed taxi operators at the arrivals terminal of Caracas airport. European diplomats and American journalists have been among those who have had guns pulled on them.

So-called “express kidnappings” can end within days, or even hours, if the ransom can be drawn from cashpoints. A 2005 hit film, Secuestro Express, depicted a young couple’s terrifying night in a gang’s clutches in a seedy Caracas underworld. “Kidnappings are so common in Caracas I first thought they weren’t movie material,” said the writer and director, Jonathan Jakubowicz. “Every year Venezuela gets more violent. What has risen the most is kidnappings done by cops.”

Of 12 kidnap gangs identified by a special police unit, the CICPC, nine are linked to Colombian armed groups and three are home-grown, including one comprised of police officers. Local crime reporters say the proportion of home-grown groups is higher. They have nicknames such as “Los Invisibles” and “Los Rapiditos”.

The government hopes that freezing the assets of victims’ families, as well as tougher sentences, will curb the epidemic. Amid a rash of new abductions police celebrated one victory: two brothers, aged 14 and 16, were freed in Caracas after detectives intercepted a gang member collecting a bag he thought contained a £96,000 ransom. On his way there the kidnapper, Carlos Guerrero, texted his mother: “Mum I’m on my way to work, send me a blessing.”

Personally I feel that most criminal justice systems are seriously out of whack. Is it so insane to demand the death penalty for violent crimes like kidnapping, while advocating alternative sentencing and treatment for non-violent offenses like drug use or petty theft?

One of the basic jobs of any government is to ensure a certain minimum quality of life for its citizens, and that includes personal safety. The rise in violent crime, including kidnapping, has got to be stopped. I don’t know what that will take, but drastic situations call for drastic measures. Latin America as a whole needs to put a spotlight on this issue and come up with some serious solutions.

Dating Venezuelan Girls

Venezuelan girls

Venezuelan girls

I was just browsing today and came across this website called Road Junkie Travel. It’s got blog posts by travelers from many countries, including Venezuela. You can see the Venezuela page here:

http://www.roadjunky.com/article?c=Venezuela

There was a funny post by a guy named Seb Kennedy about dating Venezuelan girls. Apparently there are special challenges in dating a girl who expects drama, cheating, and general bad behavior from her man. He writes:

Put simply, dating Venezuelans is great if you are after a casual fling or a holiday romance. It’s when you enter into a proper relationship when the problems and cultural differences emerge.

Venezuela is an extremely macho country and girls almost expect their men to treat them badly. They expect them to periodically leave them at home and go out drinking all night with their mates, wind up at a brothel, and come home in a mess the next day. Then they will have an insane shouting match where things get thrown about, she ends up in a huff and he goes out on the piss again. Eventually they will make up, and they will be so in love it will make you sick until the next time he goes out to screw hookers.

When a Venezuelan girl doesn’t get this from her foreign boyfriend she will be very surprised and will either ask to marry you on the spot, or spend months trying to figure out why she isn’t being taken for granted. For some girls, haranguing their boyfriends is their second favourite pastime after gossiping, so they may miss the melodrama when they date a man from a country where women expect to be treated as equals.

For a foreign woman dating a Venezuelan man the relationship works in reverse. He will most likely be unfaithful to her, but will still rely on her to perform all manner of domestic duties. She may even find him turning up unannounced at her house with a huge bag of washing and a shirt missing a couple of buttons. Any attempt to engage in a discussion regarding gender equality will fall on deaf ears and will be dismissed as foreign nonsense.

There is a thriving gay scene in Caracas, catered for by a fair selection of gay bars. If you are lucky, you will find one playing host to a karaoke show featuring drag queens and transsexuals grinding away in enormous spangley stilettos to Madonna classics and “Sobrevivire” – “I Will Survive” in Spanish. It may seem unusual to find a lively gay scene in such a macho country, and although the word “marico” (queer) is a common insult among men and even women, the attitude of straight Venezuelans to homosexuality is typically one of slight amusement or bemused indifference, rather than the jeering ridicule you may expect.

Personally I’ve never dated a Latin American woman, but I have North American friends who have, and one of the complaints I’ve  heard consistently is the cavalier attitude of the women toward keeping dates and showing up on time. Of course they expect the same thing from the man, so to me it’s miracle that anyone ever actually gets together. Or maybe they get together just long enough to do the deed, which is perhaps why I see so many single young mothers. In some cases the father drops in from time to time to visit. But I’m getting off track.

Another complaint I’ve heard is that once you get something steady going with a girl, her entire family expects you to underwrite their expenses and fund their business ventures. It seems that you do actually have to lay something out – otherwise what would be the benefit to the girl of dating you? – but you also have to know where to draw the line between being generous and being a sucker.

Have you dated a Venezuelan girl? What was the experience like for you? Share your comments.

A New Life for At-Risk Kids in Venezuela, and Music Too!

By Humberto Márquez

 

Gustavo Dudamel, Conductor

Gustavo Dudamel, Conductor

Source: IPSNews.net

 

CARACAS, Aug 24 (IPS) – On tour in Germany after performing to rave reviews at the BBC Promenade Concerts in London, the members of Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Youth Symphony Orchestra and its wild-haired conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, have made a remarkable journey from their less than promising social origins.

They received a standing ovation at the Royal Albert Hall, in London, on Aug.19. “In 30 years of attending every season of the Proms, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said John Douglas, professor of music at Oxford University. 

Behind their success is “the system,” shorthand for the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela (FESNOJIV), a network of 125 youth and children’s orchestras founded 28 years ago by José Antonio Abreu, which has put instruments and music scores in the hands of 400,000 children and young people. 

Abreu, 68, an economist, organist, conductor and minister of culture from 1989 to 1993, started to give underprivileged kids a new beginning when he gathered 11 young people together for a rehearsal in an underground carpark. The next day there were 25, then 46, and then 75. 

The children’s orchestras then began to spring up all over the country. Abreu sees them as a way of rescuing children and young people in at-risk social, health or school situations because of poverty. Eight Venezuelan administrations have financed the “system”, which has a budget of about 30 million dollars a year. 

“For most of the children we work with, music is a pathway to social dignity. Poverty means loneliness, sadness and anonymity. An orchestra means joy, motivation, teamwork. This is a human development project, which is also the aim of the Venezuelan state,” said Abreu in a recent interview with IPS. 

Xavier Moreno, a former executive secretary of FESOJIV, has said: “Our main goal is not to create professional musicians. Our goal is to rescue the children.”

Venezuela's Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra

Venezuela's Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra

They succeeded in the case of Lerner Acosta, who was arrested nine times for theft and drug possession before “the system” offered him a clarinet. 

“At first I thought it was a joke. Nobody would trust someone like me not to steal an instrument like that, but it was for real,” Acosta said. Now he plays the clarinet in the Caracas Youth Orchestra, and teaches at the Simón Bolívar Conservatory. 

Edicson Ruiz worked part-time as a bag boy in a supermarket to eke out his mother’s meagre salary until he was nine. He still remembers being given a viola and a seat in the middle of the orchestra. At 17, he became the youngest ever double bass player in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Two feature-length documentaries have been made about the experiences of kids from “the system.” “Tocar y luchar” (Playing and Fighting), which offers the stories of six boys, is by Alberto Arvelo, who was himself a musician in one of these orchestras between the ages of nine and 17. “Maroa,” by Solveig Hoogesteijn, is about a young girl rescued from a life of crime through music. 

Now in Germany, the Simon Bolívar Orchestra is waiting for Argentine-Israeli pianist Daniel Barenboim, the soloist in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, to be performed in the Berlin Staatskapelle on Sept. 16 and 17, conducted by Dudamel, 26, who was once his student. 

Dudamel, too, is a product of “the system,” although his family was better off than most. He studied music from an early age, taking up the violin at 10, and when he was 14 he began to study conducting with Abreu and other teachers. By 1999 he was already conducting the Simón Bolívar Children’s Orchestra, and by 2000, the Youth Orchestra. 

Since 1999 he has won admiration in Chile, Mexico, the United States, France, Italy and Germany. In 2004 he won the Gustav Mahler conducting competition in Bamberg, Germany. 

Last year he won the Pegasus prize at the Festival of the Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, and was named principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, which he conducted in the 2006 Proms. Dudamel has now been named to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in the United States. 

In September he will continue to accompany the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra to the German cities of Essen, Lubeck, Leipzig, Dresden, Bonn, Frankfurt and Berlin, where he will be joined by Barenboim. 

“The ‘system’ has been a real source of inspiration. Our musicians love music passionately, and enjoy it. That’s why they make the audience enjoy it, too,” said the young conductor. (END/2007) 

 

Fantastic photo of the youth symphony orchestra!

Fantastic photo of the youth symphony orchestra!

Recipe for Arepas (Venezuelan Flatbreads)

Venezuelan arepas with beef, beans and cheese

Venezuelan arepas with beef, beans and cheese

 

In a recent post I mentioned a common Venezuelan treat, arepas. Arepas are traditional Venezuelan flatbread sandwiches made with maize flour and cheese. Often meat is added. Variations such as avocado or sour cream are quite tasty as well. Here is a typical arepas recipe:

Arepas (Venezuelan Flatbreads)

Ingredients:

  • 300 grams maize flour (preferably the type intended for arepas)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 100g white cheese, grated
  • 500 ml cold water (or more, if needed)

Method:

Arepas with cheese

Arepas with cheese

Combine the flour, salt and cheese in a large bowl then add just enough of the cold water to make a firm (but slightly moist) dough. Cover the bowl and set aside for the dough to rest for 5 minutes).

Divide the dough into 10 pieces and roll these into balls. Flatted each ball slightly then lightly oil a griddle pan and place over medium heat. Once hot cook the arepas on this for about 5 minutes per side, or until a light golden brown curst forms. Transfer the part-cooked arepas to a baking tray and place in an oven pre-heated to 180 );C. Bake for about 20 minutes, turning them every five minutes or so, until they are cooked through. Serve immediately.

Traditionally these flatbreads are served with a black bean stew.