Desierto norte de Chile

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Cinco dias con un embajador (five days with an ambassador)

Last Tuesday 16 March, I left the safe, secure, predictable, and socially just (well, for the most part) enclave of Annapolis and journeyed into one of the most dangerous cities in the world (actually ranked #1 by the Daily Mail (UK) as the "Murder Capital of the World"). Fortunately to meet me at the airport and accompany me throughout my five-day stay was my cousin and her husband, the Ambassador.

Here is a short photolog of my once-in-a-lifetime trip. Regardless of the daily details, I want to make clear several points at the outset:

1- My cousins showed amazing hospitality, to welcome me into their home, include me in their outings, take time off from their busy schedules to show me around the city, feed me delicious food, and generally do everything in their power to make me feel at home. Su casa fue mi casa.

2- The US Embassy in Caracas was also amazing: the cultural attache and many others worked on short notice to setup a terrific series of meetings with top scientists across the city, in Simon Bolivar University (USB), Central University of Venezuela (UCV), and the Venezuelan Institute for Science Investigation (IVIC).

3- Caracas is a huge and beautiful city that I didn't really get to see. Hopefully another time soon, when it's not so dangerous or politically uncomfortable. It might have been fashionable to be "snobbish" toward Americans in Europe in the past decade, but the Venezuelan government seemed to reach to new heights in its anti-West (and of course embedded within is anti-American) stance.

4- Venezuelan people are overwhelmingly friendly. I couldn't have asked for better.

Now, some photos, broken up by day.

Day 1: Tue 16 Mar
Flight from BWI to TSJ (San Juan, Puerto Rico) to Caracas. Puerto Rico is beautiful from the air: a classic Caribbean island with blue-green water, brilliant white sands, and colorful houses intermixed in a dense city. While over the Caribbean itself, I took photos of cloud "streets" and noticed a haze layer that grew increasingly thick as we approached the north coast of Venezuela - so thick that eventually it blocked out the ocean below, which I couldn't see again until we dropped low on our approach to Simon Bolivar Int'l (which is right at the coast). The Venezuelans call it "calima", which according to the spanish Wikipedia, means Saharan Air Layer. Whatever the name origins, it forms as a result of secondary aerosol formation (haze), which in the case of Venezuela, formed on smoke particulates from the many forest fires around the capital and northern part of the country. Who knew I'd encounter such an interesting meteorological phenomenon on holiday?

Mary and Patrick met me at the airport and we were off to the city! I had little trouble getting through immigration and customs: the immigration officer asked me why I was coming to the country (answer: "to visit my cousin in Caracas") and how long I would be in Venezuela (5 days). Customs consisted of passing my baggage through x-ray machine. I was a little worried about locating my family once through the aduana, but they found me before I spotted them.

They filled me in on some of Caracas's history and demographics on the hour-long drive into the city - and pointed out interesting features along the drive (even though they were hard to see as I was squished in the back-back seat of the special SUV, and thus had little window space). The ambassador travels with a veritable entourage - lots of security, etc., so even though the city has been listed amongst the most dangerous, I felt secure.

The residence is amazing: lots of space for hosting, huge kitchens, and nice colonial-style architecture. The guest suite where I stayed has hosted a wide variety, from a senator from Pennsylvania to the embassy's protocol officer to extended family of the ambassador (i.e., me!)

After touring the house, my family had to go out to a dinner, but they had setup a great dinner for me at the house with four embassy employees (three Americans and a Venezuelan). So I enjoyed chatting with them about life in Caracas, life as a Foreign Service Officer, their next journeys, etc. I know I enjoyed myself, and I think they did, too. We said our goodbyes after dinner, and headed off to bed to get ready for a full Day 2.

Day 2: Wed 17 March

My first full day in Caracas began with a delicious fruit breakfast - served on the ambassador china - out on the terrace. I'm not a big coffee drinker, but definitely enjoyed some excellent Venezuelan "cafe" each day for breakfast.

The cultural attache joined us at the residence and we were off to IVIC, a prestigious science laboratory in the hills surrounding the city. They have a great setup for research - including living quarters, a nice dining hall, a continent-leading library, and security/tranquility that life in Caracas itself doesn't provide. Several ecology-type scientists met with us to share about their research and talk about possible collaborations. One of the more interesting things was that the facility has a nuclear reactor (albeit not functioning) that has even the classic hourglass shape. I couldn't take any pictures because of the security (more on that later...), but there was a peer-reviewed paper published in 1997 that discussed potential radioactivity in the vicinity of the reactor.

They invited us to lunch in the cafeteria, where I had a great series of conversations with Dr. Tibisay Perez, whose current work includes examining mixing and nutrient cycling in the southern Caribbean Sea in areas of low oxygen (specifically the Cariaco Basin offshore Venezuela).

Here are some photos from our drive around town:

After the IVIC meeting, we drove back to the Embassy to meet with the Naval Attache and a scholar from the Caracas Mayor's office (who coincidentally studied disaster management at Oklahoma State University in the 1980s). One of the more interesting points of his presentation made reference to the "quebradas" (small drainage routes, similar to creeks, that are often dry) and how dumping of trash in them will result in major problems once the rainy season comes later this year. Incidentally, one of the national newspapers carried an article the very next day talking about the same problem. One the drive back from IVIC into town, we passed through an area known as Los Prócedes, where president Chavez reviews military processions and others, especially on national day. The most important part of the area is a long street lined by palms and various statues. It forms the perimeter of a large military base, including the Escuela Militar and supposed nightly dwelling place(s) of President Chavez. It's an impressive location, and I asked the driver - and car occupants - if it would be possible to take a few photos. The driver pulled over and I hopped out with my camera. I'd snapped no more than 2 pictures of the various statues of the great (military?) leaders of past eras when I was shouted at by nearby Army troops (maybe they were "Guardia Nacional", but somehow I'm not sure they have the same function as National Guard here in the US). I finished up the photo and rushed back to the car, not even looking at the guard. Nothing came of the incident - perhaps because our license plates clearly state "Cuerpo Diplomatio"? The driver pulled around to the other side, where I took a few more pictures of the area before heading back to the embassy:

After spending the afternoon at the Embassy, we returned to the residence for a quick snack and rest before heading out to the rooftop restaurant at the 5-Star Hotel Pestana for tapas and an excellent ambiance.

Day 3: Thu 18 March

Thursday dawned clearer than the other days -- as the calima (haze layer) began abating. The plan was to have a leisurely breakfast (where I got to read through 4 of the major national newspapers: El Nacional, Tal y Como, La VEA, and El Universal. The news was generally depressing: murders, restrictions on civil liberties, people relating difficulties in their lives (blackouts, water shortages, no regular trash pickup, lack of employment, etc etc etc...) What a positive start to my days, eh?

The cultural attache arrived at 9:15 and we were off to the Universidad Simon Bolivar to visit with a very interesting trio of archeologists and anthropologists. These researchers have spent decades extracting artifacts from the north of the country, and their collection is very impressive. Especially interesting is the connection between their artifacts and trade, history, and even climate change. They are pursuing funding in midst of a (very) difficult environment, and I wish them best with their projects.

After the morning out at USB, we returned to the Embassy for a quick lunch. I was excited to hear that the cafeteria was serving pabellón: a dish considered by many to be the Venezuelan national dish. It was delicious and consisted of rice, black beans, arepas, fried platanos, and shredded beef.

After lunch, we went out to a satellite office of the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) and met with Professor Karenia Cordova. We talked about her recent research in temperature variations across the country, and I was impressed by her creative use of LANDSAT data. One interesting point was that she had to download all of the datasets - which are quite large, over 200 mb each - at her home because the internet at work was unreliable. What a tough situation!

Day 4: Friday 19 March

Today the Ambassador and my cousin took me up to El Ávila - a beautiful national park in the mountains above Caracas. While definitely not the tallest mountains in Venezuela (El Ávila is up to 2750 m - 9000 feet - tall, but the mountains above Merida soar to over 4000 m tall), it is a great vantage point to see good portions of the city. The road to the top is steep and windy, and any prone to car sickness would be pretty bad off after a few minutes (the journey uphill took us perhaps 45 minutes). We ate at a neat Mexican posada (a restaurant that also has rentable bodegas aka cabins) with a pretty cool view. The descent took us back into Caracas, where I bought some famous chocolate from El Rey, which is said by many in Venezuela to be the best chocolate in the world (for my parts, I consider it quite good!)

After returning from the trip to El Ávila and buying chocolate souvenirs, we stopped by the Embassy to visit with some colleagues at their Friday talent show/karaoke. I returned for a final dinner at the residence - and an enjoyable policy/political science chat with the Ambassador - which included mashed yucca (unusual but interesting!) After dinner, I accompanied Claudia to the Marines house for a party, and then headed back to pack for a very early departure to the airport.

Day 5: Saturday 20 March

One neat thing at the airport - one of the Ambassador's bodyguards went up to the American Airlines staff (who were checking in over 100 passengers at the ungodly early hour of 3 a.m.) - and said "The guest of the American Ambassador is here and needs to be checked in now", and they just moved me right to the front of the line - immediate check-in! Plus my ticket had "Priority Access" printed on it (not sure if that's because I purchased the ticket with frequent flier miles in the "AAnytime" category?), but regardless, I didn't have to wait in that hour-long line. The security screening process was a little intimidating - as the National Guardsman (again, "Soldier" would be the best word) singled me out to "check" my passport -- maybe just intimidation? Fortunately his English was bad and I played dumb, so when he asked where I was going, I just said "home", and he looked over my passport only briefly before he handed it back saying "North Carolina" (which was printed as my birthplace). I half-smiled, said "yes", and kept shoving my things into the x-ray machine.

In spite of considering that the USA is predictable, I was treated to a surprise upon arrival in Baltimore. My connection in Miami went fine and I arrived back to BWI around 2:45 in the afternoon. I guess I left an overhead light on in the car the Tuesday before, because when I went to use the keyless entry, it was as dead as the starter was when I tried to start. Fortunately the $8/day parking fee comes with complimentary motorist assistance, so I called the number posted at the parking shelter and had a truck show up within 4 minutes! I was on my way with only a 10-minute delay.

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