Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Pearl of the Antilles or The Journey That Almost Wasn't

I don't think we'll have to worry about catching the bus. 

Hello friends, nice to chat again.

Been a crazy week (not in the party/booze sort of way), but rather the return from traveling, jump back into the mix, and a situation that has really shook some things up.

As you may recall my friends and I may or may not have taken a trip to an island that typically isn't visited by Americans.  In fact, I only know of three others that have: Jay-Z, Beyonce, and Anthony Bourdain.  I'll take that company.

Due to the length of the trip, the various topics that could be focused on, and the said situation, I'm just going to touch on two aspects of the trip tonight- the actual commute and Hemingway.  Don't worry, don't worry, I'll get to the other stuff in a later post.

The Journey

After getting special permission to leave school early and catch our flight, we got to the airport about three hours early. You would think this would be plenty of time to get checked in, customs, and whatever...not so fast my friend, this is Venezuela.
The manager and the mob.  That's Jose (Marshall's bud) just of his left shoulder.

The abnormally long line seemed to take forever to move.  By the time we got to the top 10, things were starting to get tight.  Our three hour window had shrank to 70 minutes, we didn't have a visa, and there was mass confusion about what was needed.

As we finally made our way to the front of the line, we received the news that they were out of visas and we had to wait in another line.  This new line was not the most jovial of lines and seemed to have a Dante-esq feel of despair to it.  We threw our stuff down and waited.  Slowly there started to be more of a commotion.  Groups of Venezuelans were asking about visas, arguing with the employees, and voicing their concern about getting through customs. As you can imagine, this caught our attention. 

"Who we gotta bribe to get on this plane?"

At this point, Jon and Randi started to eavesdrop on the discussions while Marshall made friends with a young man and his mom.  Soon, the manager of the airline came forward and said there was no visas.  This dog does not hunt, because if there is not visa- there is no trip.  People were really starting to lose it.  Cultural hand gestures and raised voices were paired with swarming this manager.  While the patrons were frantically gesticulating, tensions in our group started to rise.

Would we get a visa? Where do we go? What if there are no more seats? Where are we going to stay? Marshall continued to speak to the new friends, and talk with them to the employees to try to get something figured out.  Jon and Randi kept trying to decipher what the hell was going on.  Meanwhile, I popped a xanax to prep for the flight (I knew we would make it). 
That was the mood right before it turned out ok. 

At this point the scene was about two straws from chaos and Marshall's new bud left the line and found a dude selling visa.  Seven visas to be exact.  Five for us and two for him.  Perfect.  No we had to continue to jockey for position and figure out just what is going on and how to get us on the plan.  Turns out they overbooked the plain, but since we already had tickets paid for in October and the visas, we got shuttled to another line where after making a phone call and shooting a text, they guy certified us to travel.  Problem was, Marshall's new friend couldn't get on this plane and had to take the next one (three days later- we know this because we ran into him on the flight back).

The five us take off from the line, hustle to customs, fill out our forms and get through security. At the last stop before hitting the terminal, the customs agent I was funneled to noticed something odd.  I was in Venezuela on a family visa.  I had no idea, and the two other times coming into this country no one else said anything.  I have no idea who my family are here, but I feel bad I haven't visited them.  After calling Jon and Randi over for help, the guy had a laugh with us and we finally hit the road to our gate.

We hustled about, grabbed some food, and shortly thereafter were called to board.  We went down a flight of stairs and waited in another what... yep, another line (you probably didn't guess it).  They had to take groups in a bus to our plane via the tarmac.  Yeah man, that's old school.  We finally reached the old bird, took our seats, and promptly drifted to sleep.  

Now the not so fun part. 

We get off the plane and walk through the terminal to the customs lines and wait in a groggy state.  It was about 1AM and everyone was kind of out of it.  Slowly and surely the lines moved up and we were next.  While we were sized up and passports investigated, we had to remember to tell them to not stamp the passport. 
1AM customs.  Lucky line number 13.

Things went according to plan for all of us sans two.  Yep.  Passports stamped- this was not good.  This was not good at all.  Cue the brief shower of terror.  Luckily the group rebounded, we figured we couldn't do anything about it now and we had some time to figure out what to do.  

We changed currency, got a beverage and cigar, and finally hailed a cab to head for the hotel.  

Unfortunately it wasn't Tony Danza.

What a weird eight hour emotional roller coaster.


You probably don't know, but Hemingway is in my top three favorite authors.  So when we had the chance to galevant around and check out places that he hung out during his years abroad I was all about it.  

The Lonely Planet makes it easy to find these little nuggets of awesome and we quickly started checking them off.  Hemingway was a cosmopolite (not to be confused the female semi-smut mag Cosmopolitan) and a man that pushed the envelope.  While I don't idolize the un-virtuous aspects of his life, there are very admirable qualities of the guy.  He was fearless, confident in his own zen, and had a unique perspective on how to live life (even though he fell short in some spots).  All in all, you can't say he got cheated and his work will stand strong against the ages.  

The short of it is the guy was a bad ass and Jon and I were stoked to follow his old trails.  

Enough of an intro onto the photo tour:
In front of the.. well you can read it.  Hemingway's favorite daiquiri. 

Inside the bar.

The man (on the right).

I think we'd be a power trio.  Maybe jazz fusion or prog rock.  

Hemingway's onetime semi-permanent residence. 

Roof top view. 

Other side. 

My first of two mojitos.  Seriously, not really my deal- too classy. 

En route to room 511.

This plaque was approved by the people for Jonathan Moreno Ramirez.
"It's Herbie Hancock."

Coolest bar on the whole island.  Hemingway's mojito joint. 

Nat King Cole's autograph is somewhere on this wall. 

'Nough said.

The Dude abides. 
The Hemingway stamp of approval. 

Telegrams congratulating him on his Nobel Prize. If you don't know google it. 

Yep, that's creepy. 

Hemingway and the winner of his fishing tournament.  I wonder what happened to that guy?

That typewriter wrote Old Man and Sea, Death in the Afternoon, and a little book called For Whom the Bell Tolls- you may have heard of them.  
Man that trophy is nice, I wonder who that guy is. 

The view from room 511.

The setting for Old Man and the Sea.

Hemingway used to hangout in the this old Spanish Fort.
That dude needs to shave. 

Another shot of the Old Man and the Sea setting. 

Remember anything from Spanish II? Ready... GO!

Some hairy guy next to the Hemingway bust. 

The bar referenced in Old Man and the Sea. 

Ryan Robinson's Links of Knowledge 

Some hot action in Valencia the past few days.
Big butt problems in Venezuela.
The Venezuela air-travel paradox
On the US front: Heartland is hurting, 70/99 Iowa counties are losing people.

Well this old boy needs to hit the hay.

However, I do have a request.  If you have a free minute and a chance to shoot my family a positive thought and/or a prayer we'd greatly appreciate it.  We are dealing with some challenging circumstances and could use your support, while respecting our privacy. Thanks.

Due to the above circumstance, I may miss the scheduled blog time but we'll see.

Thanks for following along and have a great week.

Until Next Time,


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Caracas Revisited


Caracas, Venezuela was much nicer to us the second time around and both staff and students are limping to Semana Santa.

The long days are starting to erode the drive of the kids and you can see the wear on the faces of the staff.  Energy levels are bottoming out and by the end of the week, most are exhausted.  In passing I tried to pump up a colleague today and he replied, "Only two months and I can relax." I think that sentiment echoes throughout the halls.

The stress level, as one can assume, is still pretty high.  Staff are really grinding now and you can see  how it wears heavily on them. I think I noticed a few more lines on my smile, and a change in my crows feet (there goes my Jared Leto comparisons).  This stress isn't the worried about day to day school stuff stress, but rather the long day, more work, don't let there be any more unrest, end of the quarter, get me to break kind.  The cars break into the parking lot just before contract time starts, shoulders tilt a little forward, and the jokes that used to garner a laugh (mainly my bad jokes/sarcasm) are drifting towards annoying (I'm working on it- more Big Lebowski/Will Farrell jokes).

This is also the time of year when sophomores and juniors really start to develop an attitude that they didn't possess at the beginning of the year and the seniors begin to coast to the finish.  I can see issues with a few students after break on the horizon. Happens every year, ask a high school teacher.  

Overall, even though are meeting the needs of student interaction, are really draining (especially the students) and the break for Holy Week should (hopefully) recharge all the guilty parties.

Caracas Part II

After getting the nod to get our visa this past Friday, we were set to bail on Thursday night to head to the world's 3rd most dangerous city, Caracas, Venezuela. Morris graciously volunteered to drive his Space Wagon van and after a short analysis/debate we agreed that it would be best to minimize the number of cars for the trip.  We saddled up and hit the road.

Naturally, there was some civil unrest and campus cleared out quick (nerves run high) so after grabbing Rexin we hit the highway.  The ride there was your typical VZ travel experience.  Heavy traffic, people stopping for food/drink/accessory ON the highway thanks to "businessmen/women" in the roads peddling their goods.  Luckily, Jon borrowed Eric's GPS and we had little trouble up until Caracas.

Once we broke through the city limits, we had a errant turns (I blame crazy roads/old GPS) and hit some solid traffic due to student protests.  Our hotel was in a "hot" area, just a few blocks from the scene of Leopoldo's arrest and the Altamira area that serves as a frequent battlefield.  It was pretty chill outside of Friday night. 

Friday night we were hanging out in the lounge having some free food and drink when all of the sudden a few loud pops, a flash or two, and some blurry bodies ran by the gated exit.  Shortly thereafter, the other exits followed suit closing down and locking us in.  Many people ran to the doors to investigate, but I stayed on the couch not caring about the commotion.  Jon was in the bathroom and said that he heard over the radio of one of the two guards that were in there the call of a code something.  This caused one civil servant to bust out of the stall and the other to run out with wet hands.  
Fifteen minutes later it was over.

Friday morning was a cake walk.  We drove to the embassy, got in lined, were helped, found out we needed about 1/4 of the documents we were told to bring, and everyone was good.  The problem lies in the fact we had to give them our passports and we need them to go to Cuba on Friday.  The passports will be done by 3pm on Friday and our flight leaves at 8pm.  A little wiggle room, but in this country those five hours might not be enough.  We're going to have a courier get the passports and meet us at the airport.  Sounds simple.  We just have to hope traffic isn't bad, there are no civil protests, and that the visas actually get done.  

It's ok, it'll work.  It has to.  No other way around it. 

The rest of the weekend I spent sleeping, in the hotel pool, the treadmill, and eating steak (hey, it's tough to find around here).  We also walked around the streets near the hotel, it was definitely a interesting little walk seeing all the graffiti and landmarks from the news. 

Jon, Morris, and I holed up in our hotel room when not hanging in those locations.  We watched the NCAA tourney while eating Domino's (!) pizza and laying on unkept beds.  It was glorious. 

The ride back was fairly smooth and the weekend was over.  Not a bad deal overall after dealing with the continual failure of the first trip. 

Ryan Robinson's Links of Knowledge 

The cries of "coup" fall on deaf ears when your government is full of ex-military.  

Maduro interview with the Guardian.  Hey, he is a Led Zeppelin loving dude that says his philosophy for peace and tolerance came from the '60s and '70s (sarcasm).  

Opposition/Chavista talks could resume if...

Maduro's op-ed with the New York Times.  My colleagues and I are looking for the reports behind the data... and his speech writer. 

We all know that college athletics are a money maker, but this report may surprise you. Community Colleges to D-II are starting to get on the athletics before academic spending bandwagon.  

Photo Gallery

Not much going on here, so enjoy some pictures from Caracas.  Translations done with Google Translate so specific "Venezuelan Spanish" (slang based) statements will be off. 
"Man, the world is just"

"Peace" Jon and Idaho dig it. 

"The GNB reprimand you, but your indifference is killing an entire country"
 GNB is short for Bolivarian National Guard

Jon looking for a good Cuban cigar. 

Morris keeping an eye on the streets.

Most badass photo of my VZ experience.  Jon and Morris walking through the plaza.

Two people stuck out in the plaza. This dude above and yours truly...the only white guy around for as far as the eye could see. 

"Off Cuba" "Not the Regime"

"You are silent just like the Cubans were."

Jon, Morris and I walking to the Caracas Cultural Center.  We're not just teachers, we're cultured. 

Proof of our culture. 

Every 20 minutes someone cries.

 " No one will die, who dies just forgets"
"Here you are at risk"

"We are an oil country and we like up for food"


Well that's all I have for this week.  No column next week as I'll be in Cuba (unless I somehow stumble across wifi and want to type on my phone- no cell service otherwise).  I hope to have some cool pictures and words to share about the trip.  

Hope you're having a great April, summer is almost here.

Until Next Time,