A Quick Post

November 19th, 2010 by someclevername

Hey folks, on my way to a meeting, but I wanted to put up some new experiences. It has been difficult to post at night after running around, mostly because my schedule has been hectic in the runup to departing. Seems like the weekends are easiest to update. But hopefully here is a Friday treat.

Here’s a photo of Plaza Altamira with the clouds and Avilas, at dusk. The Avilas: A Continuing Series (of Beauty)

I went back to the baseball game.

Here is a shot of my friends Mercedes, Demetrio and Jose. Jose helped us get the tickets, which was really awesome. I wanted Mercedes and Demetrio to come because I’ve just been so thankful for their generosity, time, conversation and advice. I hope all of these folks can make their way to Pittsburgh at some point so that I can return the generosity.

Here are the dudes:

While there, I had some Arepas worth photographing.

Here is pulled chicken with Queso Blanco. Plenty of Picante and a little beer never hurt at the baseball game:

Here is Carne Mechada and Queso Amarillo with some ranch-like sauce. They love pulled beef here, and who could possibly blame them?

Each of these were 15 Bs F., which comes to about $2 on the black market. So this ridiculous meal was $4. I didn’t complain.

Oh, had some pizza at a panaderia in a neighborhood near an NGO where I’ve been hanging out. Here is a shot. Ham and Mushrooms. Best pizza I’ve had here. Crust was a little eggy, very good.

Had a Malta too. Maltín is nonalcoholic beer that is sweetened. This is not for me. It is, however marketed to youth by Polar, the biggest beer maker in the country. Candy cigarettes.

Street Food at a Weekend Market

November 15th, 2010 by someclevername

I had some street food at a market this weekend. It was great, and almost bordered on overwhelming. I finally got the chance to try two traditional dishes that people had been urging me to get to: the hallaca and the cachapa de Carabobo. Where as the last few street food experiences were rapid in nature, these were more slow-foods experiences.

I had a hallaca de chicharron, which was a tamale with pork skin, which was great. Super tender. This was a mini-serving, and appropriately called (in the diminuitive) ahallaquita. The corn masa was delicious, well seasoned and containing a little bit of peppers.

Apologies for the letdown of a photo. I forgot my camera.

My host, her niece and her great nephew led me to the cachapa stand, which had a serious line. Serious lines signify good food, so I was stoked. The cachapa de Carabobo is a product of the state of Carabobo here in Venezuela. Its diffusion over the state is a tribute to the availability of corn here as a staple. It’s a corn pancake, which is a little sweet. It combines ground corn flour and pureed corn kernels. It is fried on a griddle, served with a healthy helping of butter and an overwhelming helping of a sour cheese. Here is a shot of the cachapa, forgive the few bites I already took:

There was so much cheese I couldn’t finish it but I nearly got all the way through the pancake after eating the hallaquita. I had to put it aside. The flavors were great though. I can’t wait to make these when I get home. They had better corn flavor than your traditional johnny cake. They’ve got great potential as a breakfast staple at home. So good with just a little butter!

Comparing Pepitos

November 14th, 2010 by someclevername

Feeling the high from my pan con carne, I asked a student at a conference I was attending about his favorite food on the Universidad Católica Andres Bello campus. He suggested the Pepito Mixto at a semi-fast food restaurant. Mixto refers to both beef and chicken on the sandwich. This was sauteed on a griddle with peppers and served on baguette. Both of these sandwiches fell into the pepito genre, meat, goodies, soft baguette.

When the worker asked me what I wanted on it, I said “everything,” which resulted in a loaded sandwich.

Here is the pepito. Huge.

Here is a close-up of “everything.” This was not an easy sandwich to eat.

I think the pan con carne was better, because the meat was more tender. Kind of an “addition by subtraction” thing with the flavors that happened to win out. It was partially my fault from ordering everything, but I think the sandwich would have been better with more tender meat. It didn’t stop me from cleaning my plate though. I love the fried onion pieces that are all over sandwiches here.

Street Food, Round 2

November 12th, 2010 by someclevername

I got some more street food last night. Pan con carne. I loved it. It was tender, well-done beef, heated up quickly and sliced thinly. Looked like sirloin.

20 bolivares fuertes ($2.50 with the black market exchange rate). Served on a soft baguette with lettuce and tomato. I asked the guy who made it what his favorite sauce was. His response – avocado sauce, which I’m allergic to – prompted me to ask for his second favorite sauce. That was some tangy mayo sauce that looked like thousand island.

This thing had all the hallmarks of a Philly steak, hold the cheese. I would have been into eating one of the cheeses available and having it get melty on this thing, but this was still a solid sandwich.

Afterward I washed it down with some chicha, which is rice milk with some condensed milk, spices (nutmeg) and sugar.

It’s really delicious. Tastes like rice pudding in a cup, and is slightly thicker than horchata. It was warm, so there’s an ice cube in it. I’m looking for user-submitted suggestions of what booze should go into this, so fire away.


November 11th, 2010 by someclevername

Sunday night through Tuesday, I spent my free moments preparing for another fellowship application. Glad to have sent it out yesterday morning, I went ahead with the evening’s plans: visiting the Estadio Universitario for a baseball game between the hometown Leones de Caracas and the Cardinales de Lara. I had yet to have an opportunity to go to a game, because my friends and people close to me recommended that I not go to a game by myself for security reasons.

While I watched many a playoff game, baseball really stopped for me during late September when I attended my last Bucco game. I just really adore the live experience. So last night I went with friends I made.

Here is an outside shot of the stadium from a nearby parking lot. The stadium is a modern structure, mostly poured concrete. I think it looks really interesting for a baseball stadium.

José, his daughter and close friends.

We all arrived in a Ford Explorer he borrowed from work. People were sitting on laps in the back seat. These guys were awesome. José loves baseball so we talked about our favorite major leaguers, insight into the players I was seeing, where the nachos were, how the beer system works, ball, strikes, jónruns, carreras, and ponches (strike outs). I got along great with his daughter’s boyfriend who also loves baseball. Their favorite team in the Grandes Ligas is the Yankees, and the Leones are a reasonable analogue because they’ve won the most championships in league history.

Here is a view of the stadium from inside:

Here is a view of Kiss Cam:

Jose Castillo was playing for the Leones. This is him at bat.

He scored from first on a double hit over the right fielder’s head. There are a ton of light poles around the stadium. José explained to me that the players lose a lot of fly balls in the lights. That’s gotta be tough.

Here’s the final, even though I took the photo in the bottom of the ninth.

The Leones lost 9-3. The Cardenales hit five home runs in the game. The wind was blowing out and the air was less humid than it had been. The pitching on both ends left a little to be desired.

I never found the nachos. I found arepas though, and they were great. I had two: chicken with queso amarillo and carne mechada with queso blanco. Delicious with some salsa picante and a real-sugar Coke.

I’ve also had a bunch of plantain chips. That has been great. I had some covered in cheese powder here. Weird, but good. More food stuff to come.

Most sections have a beer guy, a guy taking notes and a runner bringing new cases of beer to the team. The beer guy pours and serves, and the runner is working constantly. You order, the note taker keeps track, and you take care of it later. The beer we were drinking is Regional, which is a part of the Empresas Polar company. Tasted like Milwaukee’s Best. I wasn’t specific at one point and ended up with Regional Light. I would have thought it hard to make worse beer than Regional, but apparently not. I do like the Polar brand Solera and Zulia, another brewery, but they’re both pilsners too. People in Venezuela drink the most beer per capita in Latin America, but man what I’d give for something dark to drink right now.

Visiting the Pastry Shops in Caracas

November 6th, 2010 by someclevername

The power went out this afternoon for an hour. According to my host, the quality of electrical service has been on the decline since nationalization. I can’t verify that, but I can say that I’m glad it happened today and not in the middle of the week while I was turning in a fellowship application. I burned a little battery time and churned through this blog update for you.

My host’s son is at work and his dog Khan is visiting. Khan is a little needy today. He’s super friendly, but a little mouthy.

I need to give you an update on the situation with the Avilas. The hurricane has brought some cloudy and rainy weather this week to Caracas. Today the clouds are hanging low in pockets on the mountains and it looks positively breathtaking. Allow me to illustrate:

If only I had some confidence in going up there and having it not rain today. Maybe tomorrow.

Today on my way back from a meeting with a civil society member, I did some browsing in the Boulevard Sabana Grande shopping area. It was really busy on a Saturday, testifying to the harried weekday schedules of Caraqeños.

It’s a wide pedestrian-oriented boulevard with owner-operated (for the most part) shops on both sides. Here’s a stock photo:

via radleysprague.com

The boulevard surface is currently under construction meaning that it’s muddy because of the rain, but the part that has been finished looks great. It’s pretty hectic and most of the time service inside the stores is great, because people really want you to buy their stuff. I asked around about buying records, but everybody kept telling me that it’s not really something that happens here. I want to find the Jerry’s of Caracas. Maybe I’ll find the Jerry’s of Brasilia.

On the way home, I stopped in the local bake shop, called Panaderia/ Pasteleria Doris, and is really top notch. I was talking with another leader of civil society organization on the other side of town and she said “Sebucan? Really close to Pasteleria Doris! Go there.” It took me almost a week but I’m glad I made it. Here is what it looks like inside.

Among the din and tons of delicious stuff, I found this delicious little lunch of coffee (espresso, taken “corta y negra” or black and short), profiteroles and a little ham pastry with cheese:

Here are the baked goods.

Pastry with Ham and Cheese. This was a delicious brushed butter croissant with savory filling. Heated until just warm, it made for a perfect lunch. I ate it before realizing that I didn’t show you what was inside. Whoops.

Profiteroles. Same name in most languages, these were incredible. Pâte-a-choux covered with chocolate and a little bit of whipped cream, here filled with pastry cream (custardy) and laid on a bed of some sort of flaky pastry crust. Here are two shots: one before, and the after, including the gooey insides.

The grand total was 20 Bolivares Fuertes, which divided by 8 at the black market exchange rate = $2.50. Shop around.

Luke, this is for you

November 3rd, 2010 by someclevername


I was talking with Jeremy the other day about the first sandwich I had on the street. It was a hamburger, sure but a hamburger de chuleta. He said “clearly they’ll put anything on a hamburger” in Venezuela. What we conceive of as the hamburger is the big soft buttery bun, fixins, and beef. Replacing beef with a pork chop, we’ve clearly gone to a whole new level here. It was ridiculous. It had the bone in it, which they guy asked me if I wanted to have him remove it. I said “yes” but I didn’t even realize what he’d asked until afterward.

Certainly desiring to outdo myself, and frankly fortunate that I happened to be heading toward Universidad Central de Venezuela, I found myself at a popular food cart outside the university. There were numerous people there every time I went, so I had the indication that I was in for a treat. I didn’t realize how much of a treat I was in for until I examined their menu. I discovered a hamburger de chorizo. I’m much more willing to embrace the hamburger as a shell that can contain truly beautiful things. I asked another customer which of the 5 sauces in squeeze bottles that he would recommend for me. He suggested the salsa de ajo - garlic sauce – and the – salsa de queso – cheese sauce. By my best abilities to discover, the latter was mayo with cheese bits suspended in it. I requested both in my hamburgesa.

I ate half of it at the cart, paid and walked the other half into UCV, eating while standing, and frankly, standing out a little. But I did so in order to pull out my camera and get a photo for you. In all its glory:

Allow me to go into detail:
The buns are big, buttery and soft. They hold a lot of fixins.

The fixins: Shaved yellow and white cheese, shaved onions, fried (think Durkee) onions, tomato, lettuce, garlic sauce, cheese sauce, mayo, mustard, ketchup.

The proteins: egg, a mortadella slice, chorizo.

Two surprises. 1. egg on hamburgers is practically standard. 2. bonus fried mortadella slice on them too.

The chorizo was cooked till crispy and was chunky. The velvety mortadella slice was a welcome surprise at the bottom of the bun. Egg on food, all the time.

I was a little nervous for a little while afterward and afraid I’d done myself in. I survived and was quite happy (also full).

For perspective: half the sandwich:

Upon reflection, I realized that I have three rules about street food:

1. If you don’t understand what they ask you, say “yes.” It’ll be way more interesting. And it has worked out: first time, the cook removed the bone on the pork chop. Second time, a cook asked if I wanted an egg. I wasn’t thinking about it and there’s kind of a habit of low-talking here, but yes meant egg.

2. Get as many sauces as you can on the food. Just do it. Cheese sauce? Indeed. More Sauces = better food. It’s science fact.

3. Be near a bathroom in case you’ve made a critical mistake. Nobody likes to make mistakes. Some mistakes require immediate action to be rectified. So far, so good.

Follow these rules on the street and you can never ever go wrong.

Out on the town

October 29th, 2010 by someclevername

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:

via inmobilia.com

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

via wikimedia.com

Here is a shot of the mall down the street:

via fotothing.com

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:

via Skyscrapercity.com

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:

via panoramio.com
Here is a street:

via panoramio.com
More street views:

via tvpetare.com
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.

via skyscrapercity.com

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:

via marteniza.blog.bg
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:

via tripadvisor.com
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:

via aldea.net.ve
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

October 27th, 2010 by someclevername

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, http://comoeslacosa.wordpress.com/

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.

Get out of town

October 25th, 2010 by someclevername

So OK after tearful hugs and goodbyes to Jess and Speck, I’ve made it through the airport. I’ve got a money belt on me because the black market exchange rate in Venezuela is double the official exchange rate. Count this as one of the many concerns I have for my stuff getting through two choke points between me and safety in the apartment where I’ll be staying. I’m a little nervous about this.

So the other day I asked Jess how to say in a letter “allow myself to introduce myself”  because I am absolutely not used to talking about myself or what I’m doing. Here it is in brief: I’m heading to Venezuela for a month and then Brazil for another month to conduct research interviews and come across whatever data I can get my hands on regarding two social programs that the countries have initiated. In Venezuela, the programs are called the social missions, or Misiones. In Brazil, the program I’ll be talking about is called Bolsa Familia, the more famous program of the pair. There are 17 social missions in Venezuela. They range from providing identification cards to a program where healthcare is provided by Cuban doctors in the informal neighborhoods called barrios. I won’t be looking at all of them. I’ll be looking at education-related missions, and one focused on funding mothers in the barrio. I intend compare these to the Brazilian plan of Bolsa- that is transferring cash to fund families’ livelihoods by keeping their kids in school and out of work. Like Bolsa, the Venezuelan programs involve cash transfers to the poor, some in the form of a “scholarship.” I think that coverage and disbursement in both countries’ programs have political factors motivating them. I’m going to ask people about these, and when I don’t get straight answers, I’ll ask somebody else to figure out what folks ARE saying.

But why I want to blog is much more interesting than that. I want to highlight the experience of an American dude while he goes through inconveniences and awesome stuff.

I found out that there’s a TGI Fridays in Caracas. I wanna check that out. I will post about my experience making food and eating, sharing cultural differences, and some similarities. Most important of those is BASEBALL. The Venezuelan league has just fired up and Jose Tábata will be there for the month of November. I’m going to figure out how to see him play. I’m really stoked on this. Here are the Caribes:

In Brazil I want to go crate-digging for psych records. I brought two mailers and I’m bringing home some records for me and maybe some for Ross, if he’s lucky.

Look at Gilberto loungin’ like he’s not trying to start a revolution.

I’ll post more later.