Archive for the ‘HEADACHES’ Category

My Head Hurts

Saturday, December 4th, 2010

I made my way from St. Barths at around noon last Saturday. In order to get a flight out of town and to Brasilia I had to take four flights: to Saint Maarten, to San Juan, to Miami, and then to Brasilia. Neither the flight to St. Maarten nor the flight to San Juan left anywhere near on time and I was very very nervous about that.

Here is a shot from the 6-seater airplane landing in St. Maarten.

However, it worked out and I arrived in Miami with time to spare, right in front of a Cuban cafeteria there. I had a delicious meal: a Cuban Sandwich, a plate of plantains and a Materva yerba mate soda. The Cuban was a little dry, but I wasn’t complaining. The plantains were delicious and the Materva tasted like some sort of ridiculous bubble gum carbonated thing (not like mate, but good anyway).

Delicious dinner last Saturday looked like this:

When I made it to the gate I found out they were offering a handsome sum to anybody who would consider changing their flight. I turned out to be the only American to take it, which was something that the Brazilians noticed very quickly. To me, it was most of the cost of a return flight, so I couldn’t say no. I got on a flight two hours later to Sao Paulo with a connecting flight to Brasilia about 6.5 hours after arriving there. I was willing to put up with that inconvenience because I didn’t have a fixed schedule Sunday to deal with. I did have to get a hold of my host because I was worried about an errant trip to the airport. He may have gone, and I don’t know.

I arrived in Sao Paulo exhausted and, to my surprise, without luggage. I didn’t find out till later that my luggage had already made it to Brasilia. So I spent about an hour and a half dealing with that and left the concourse to find out that it was about $120R each way to take a cab into Sao Paulo proper from this suburban airport – which was something that I couldn’t afford. Plus the traffic there is legendarily unpredictable and I couldn’t be sure that I could get back if I went. I just found out last night about some sort of incredible record bazaar that is offered in the middle of town. I am pretty annoyed that I missed that, but am also fairly comfortable with the choice I made: I went to get a SIM card at a suburban Sao Paulo mall, which helped smooth over my arrival greatly.

I spent another hour dealing with my luggage in Brasilia, but they found it rather quickly and I had it by 10:30 Monday. Afterward I went to an industry news organization (kind of like Bloomberg) and hung out in my host’s office digging around with emails and telling my bank at home to chill out re: purchases I made in St. Barth (gift for Jess, mailing academic stuff back to PGH), Sao Paulo (internet), and Miami (internet). All of these were unscheduled stops in my trip. Welcome, but unscheduled.

My host doesn’t have the internet, so I found several ways to get a plan. Unfortunately none had panned out until yesterday. All of the options were incredibly expensive except for getting a monthly rate.

First I tried to get a data plan for the BlackBerry I borrowed for this trip. I used the service provider Tim, which appeared at first to be very flexible. They offered me a prepaid plan for $36R (about $20) and a data plan for $.50R per day. However then they took it away from me because they don’t let BlackBerries use prepaid wireless. I found this out the hard way when I tried to communicate with Jess via email on the 2nd day of having the service. My email wouldn’t send. They explained the problem when I took it to the the Tim Store to try to deal with it. I made the lady explain the problem three times not because I didn’t understand, but by the end, because I was so annoyed at their inflexibility and wanted to be inflexible myself.

I don’t have a Brazilian social security number here and they wouldn’t let me use my passport number like I could in Venezuela. It was killing me. For the reasons above I couldn’t get a prepaid data plan with a BlackBerry and I couldn’t get a billing-style plan that would accommodate a BlackBerry because I don’t have an SSN. I can’t get my own internet plan with any company because I lack an SSN and I can’t get even a prepaid plan without one. I shopped for a wireless modem for almost an entire afternoon, and the only one that is offered prepaid also requires an SSN.

For 20 miraculous minutes Monday night I was able to get my phone to tether and serve internet to my computer. During that time I was (barely) able to send Jess an email telling her that I am alive and OK. It hasn’t worked since.

I went Tuesday to try to get a prepaid plan and my friend and I went to the wrong store (an authorized reseller). They couldn’t help me get a prepaid plan there because they weren’t a real store. By the time I went to the correct mall, the real store was closed because it is a local religious holiday. I accepted my loss and went with a friend for a caipirinha (it was huge, too) at a Lebanese restaurant. We also had some kibbe, kufta, and hummus. That helped greatly.

Basically the same thing happened Wednesday – then my phone signal died when I was in the mall and I couldn’t get a hold of my friend until it was way too late. However by then I was resigned to being patient. I found several internet kiosks including a shack near the house. The folks there were super helpful and even told me about how to navigate the bus system.

The “communicating with family, friends, and colleagues” aspect of the trip has been frustrating. However, I have had interviews and am finally getting somewhere on that front.

I changed wireless carriers yesterday. My host and my friend joined me for lunch. We went to the mall an in about an hour and a half I had the best possible phone plan and the best possible internet plan. They’re both regular monthly billing plans. My host generously vouched for me. However, unlike the US they are “sem fidelidade” which means you don’t get penalized for cancellation. I will cancel my monthly plan at the airport on the last day I’m here in Brazil. I split the cost of the wireless modem that I’m using with my host. He’ll keep it after I take off. He’ll also keep the plan, but I’m pretty sure he can cancel it if he doesn’t want it. Total cost of switching everything over ran to about about $240 Reais, which is $150. Total communications cost to date on this trip is about $175.

Meanwhile, this is what I get to see every day when I make my way past the capital buildings. The block buildings at the sides are government ministries. The building at the end is the national congress building.

Brazil is great but every step of the trip here has been truly complicated. Fortunately my Portuguese only benefitted from using very similar words and grammar in Venezuela last month. I am pretty comfortable speaking and thinking in it right now. Of course people are very patient too. They keep asking me “where did you learn to speak Portuguese?” like it’s an anomaly. It is, but with close to 190,000,000 people living here, there’s plenty of reasons to study this thing.

I’ve got a bunch of food pictures coming. I’m really stoked to show them to you. I also want to talk about some of the cool food things that I haven’t yet photographed so I will get to work on that.

Tonight there is a samba show on the big yard between the ministries. It was National Samba Day this week and the celebration in the capital is this weekend. STOKED

International Travel Fail, or Porque Estoy Burro

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

I missed my flight out of town and showed up a day late to the Simon Bolivar International Airport at Maiquetia. Thank goodness my cab driver didn’t have a 50 Bs. F on him to make change for my 150 Bs. F trip. I wouldn’t want him to have suffered for getting up so early.

As it turns out my flight out of town (my ticket anyway) was for Monday. There was some miscommunication between me and the travel agent, and I never confirmed that the dates were the ones I needed. I showed up at 5am at the airport today to make my flight.

I became really confused because a flight of the same number leaves Caracas at noon on Tuesday. However, I waited seven hours and paid an extra $50 to make it onto the Tuesday flight. Because the flight from Curacao to St. Maarten (a stop on the way to St Barth, where I’m going) leaves at 9am every day. So I flew here and am waiting in a Dutch paradise for my flight to another Dutch paradise.

It has taken just shy of a couple hundred dollars and an overnight stay in Curacao to fix this problem, but it’s almost corrected. Believe it or not, this is what I thought I’d have to do to get to St Barth’s before I discovered this mythical flight I should have boarded.

Here is why they call it Blue Curacao:

Here is the oil refinery:

I landed here.

I headed through immigration. They said, “don’t you have a place to stay?”

I said “no, this was an emergency. I will find one as soon as you let me through. I couldn’t call before I left.”

They said “you’re not allowed to do that here, but we’ll let you slide,” and I said, “Believe me i don’t want to sleep in the street.”

Look at all these people who have hotels. Good for them.

Anyway I ended up at a Hilton because I liked the pictures of the waterfront, and I was really worried about a non-chain not taking a reservation I made with the free airport wi-fi minutes before arriving in a taxi.

Here in Curacao I don’t think the sand beaches are natural, but i wanted to go to one, so I did, and that is why I’m staying here.

There is also a restored fort on the property:

I asked the front desk what kind of food they thought was good and cheap, and here, they asked: “do you want something that is expensive and good or do you want something of lower quality that is cheap”

There isn’t cheap and good on this island?

So I walked on the beach/ rocks past the Hilton, then past the other Hilton, found this and chilled out a bit:

Then went past the Marriott, both very fancy places!

I was kind of walking aimlessly, until I found what used to be a trailer:

It had a grate in what used to be the window. Through the grate was a kitchen (in the van) Two people were hanging out on the other side of the trailer. I walked up to them and said “whatever you are cooking, I will eat.”

The thing about that was, they were talking amongst themselves in some sort of Dutch-Spanish combo language I later found out is called Papamientu. I had no idea how I was going to get across to them that I wanted whatever came out of that former van. I tried Spanish. That didn’t work.

I tried English. We agreed on the word “food.”

I had $6 on me (I had to count to make sure I could cover this), and they only wanted $5. Then they told me they’d give me chicken saté and batatas. While I waited, I was invited to take a seat. I photographed some friends who thought I’d feed them, and the inside of the van.

I followed rules #1 and #2 to great success. All the sauces they offered made their way to the plate. In addition to the fry toppings, there was a delicious peanut sauce waiting for that well-seasoned chicken. There was also a salad of white onion and tomato covered with lemon pepper.

It was really good. I sat on a public beach under a palm frond-covered picnic table and ate my cheap and good food. Here were the boats that I saw in the Sea:

Here is a shot from the walk back:

I then hung out and watched the sunset:

Dare I complain? It would have been nice to be hanging out with my folks. Here are a few night photos of Willemstad, Curacao:

Here is the other side of the inlet. Crossing the inlet is the Queen Emma Bridge, which is a pedestrian bridge that pivots across the inlet when a big boat needs to go to the refinery. The one side of the bridge has an engine with a propeller and it literally pulls the bridge (the bridge is pivoting against the other shoreline) out of the inlet and to shore.


This reminded me of Leidzeplein in Amsterdam:

The above street/park food above was better than what I had for dinner, but I did get to have a Leffe Brown, and man did it taste good. I left those plantains on the plate.

Real Beer!

Out on the town

Friday, October 29th, 2010

I’ve been making my way out into town, first Wednesday in the neighborhood with my most gracious host to get my SIM, and since into Petare, Las Mercedes, and into Los Chaguaramos. I’ve been getting around via taxi and today I took the metro.

Here is a photo (from the web) of the exterior of my building with the Avila mountains in the background:


There is a small basketball stadium in front of my house in Parque Miranda:


Here is a shot of the mall down the street:


Here is a fake shot from the basement that is accurate. the mall is open-air and you can see the sky from the basement:


My friend works in the municipal government of Sucre and helped me to talk to a member of one of the participatory governance initiatives that were started a few years ago here. He took me on a tour of the colonial part of Petare, which is one of the earlier settlements in Caracas. It’s over 400 years old and looks like this:

Here is the church:

Here is a street:

More street views:

Here is an aerial view of the whole thing. The gridded section in the lower left is where we were Thursday. The neighborhood continues to the east, following the natural variation of the terrain and is less traditional in its architecture than the colonial part.


We left there close to 5pm and it was time to get out of there. It becomes a bit more dangerous in the late afternoon.

Afterward I hopped in a cab with my friend and we went to Las Mercedes. It took 2 hours to go 3 miles. This was pretty standard fare, apparently. Traffic in Caracas:

The cab ride ran us 45 Bolivares but we paid 50, a difference of $.60.

I met with another friend of her’s who was able to help. And the neighborhood is great. Best comparison is Dupont Circle in DC.

This morning I trekked out on the Metro. Carcas is shaped like a K that is facing downward. The Metro’s design follows three major valleys: one that runs across the base of the Avila mountains, and two that feed into that major valley. The Metro lines follow these valleys. Most of the major stops are in the main valley, but I ended up on one of the other lines heading to Los Chaguaramos. I had to do some walking to get from my stop to get to the place where I had my next meeting but it was super convenient to get on the Metro and head, even though it was as packed as I’d ever been on a train and there were some delays. Here’s a shot of the Metro stop where I was today:

While in Los Chaguaramos, the NGO folks with whom we were meeting got hungry and suggested that we eat at Arturo’s, which was fried chicken that was pretty close to Roy Rogers in its texture. Looked like this:

Afterward I returned home to get ready for a party, but it was cancelled. No biggie – I was pretty wiped out. I stayed in and cooked a big dinner of braised beef and tomato sauce that I can parcel out over the week when necessary. Tasted pretty good in arepas.

The Leones faced the Magallanes tonight and I watched the game with my host. The Leones won 18-3, the largest margin in a game ever in the LBVP. We were pulling for the Leones to even it out to 20. The Caribes are only .5 games back of these teams, and I’m expecting Tabata to give them a boost when he suits up after Monday. Here’s to hoping, because they lost tonight.

Being in Caracas involves taking the inequality that divides informal communities, people who don’t have cars, people stuck in traffic in nice cars for hours, and fancy restaurant districts and simply running with it. But the divides are so stark. I’m so fortunate to get to see parts that wouldn’t be open to a visitor 10 years ago, even only during the day, because they are more open than they have been. There is a sense of more inclusion even at moments with heightened income and status inequality, even with violence. This is a fascinating and complicated place to be.

Update: getting settled

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

As soon as I landed in Miami, I was immediately a little nervous because my flight was arriving as my international flight was departing. However, things came together slowly enough that I was even able to use the internet and confirm that I had a taxi driver waiting for me in Caracas. The Caracas airport and ride into town was nowhere near the den of scum and villainy that the State Dept said it would be.  I had my bags and was at the place by midnight. Of course checking in with Jess and my mom didn’t quite work as well as planned, as the text messages I used to get the word out arrived at different times. Jess’ arrived at like 3AM which doesn’t tell her anything about where I was when I wanted her to know.

My languages skills are rough. The immigration official talked too fast at me and made me flustered at my expense and the cab driver and I shared a nearly silent ride here. I’m definitely expecting to look like an idiot over the next few days as I get to speed with getting my thoughts out in Spanish and listening to people speak so rapidly (and in Venezuela they drop the last bit of the word… bonus?). This will certainly affect my ability to get stuff done, but I’ll figure out a workaround.

Here are photos of where I’m staying. It’s a beautiful, modern, secure place with a wonderful host. Her son just moved out to live with his girlfriend. Unfortunately he took the dog with him, but that’s ok. Here are photos:

My room:

My bathroom:

The Kitchen:

The Living Room pt. 1

Living Room Pt 2:

View from the Kitchen of neighboring buildings (nicest neighboring buildings):

Here are a few photos of the view from the living room and office of Avila National Park. Caracas is situated in a valley right next to the mountains, which speak for themselves.

View from living room:

Little closer:

From the office:

The mall is within walking distance. It’s a nice place to go. Today I visited the there to pick up a SIM card, which ran me $16 and change for the month, with a data plan. Shop around, kids.

I had a snack at the mall: tequeños. All I have to say about this snack is YES.
Here is an image:

via como es la cosa,

A salty cheese, wrapped in dough, and deep-fried. This is what perfection tastes like.

I just recently got back from walking to the supermarket where American soft rock was playing. I heard Styx – Babe and that song “How Do I Live Without You?” Soft rock in grocery stores is probably why it takes me so long to shop, so I’m very happy to find out that the experience won’t be missed here. We tipped our grocery bagger to bring the groceries back, and the whole time he fought with my host about how far it was. It was like 3 blocks, and he knew where he was going. Oh well. Groceries are here. Thank goodness I had my host with me at that moment.