Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Caracas Revisited

Hey.

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"

Crosswalk


DOMINOS!
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,

KRS



Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Incidental Loophole

The big machine keeps on spinning down here in Valencia.  Just when you think things are getting to normal, something goes awry.  

But I guess that is normal.

Political 

Things for the most part have maintained their current trajectory.  There are still marches and demonstrations around the country, some violent and some not.  The imprisoned mayors and police chief have remained detained and now a deputy to the National Assembly, Maria Corina Machado has had her seat taken from her.  

According to the Caracas Chronicles, "To put the event in context for US readers, imagine Harry Reid kicking Ted Cruz from the Senate, or John Boehner doing same to Nancy Pelosi." The inner party is in full control.

It doesn't look like much, but this line of cars was long and annoyingly loud. 

This is Ghostrider requesting a flyby. Negative Ghostrider the pattern is full...or not. 

Oh, and the president of the country also threatened to bomb the entire state of Tachira.  

The National Assembly was surrounded by the military (because that's normal) during its session today. 

Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia (or was it Eastasia).      

School

It's back to as normal as it can be. The extra 70 minute period at the end of the day, is like some obscene Roman torture device some days.  The kids can't physically handle it.  I mean who couldn't sit through five 70-82min classes in a day?  A 16 year old's attention span is definitely longer than that right?

I digress.

Today we had a bit of an exodus during 5th block as news of guarimbas (roadblocks) were getting put up.  After my PT, I was driving back and saw several already up.  One was well crafted with the sewer grating that goes perpendicular across the road were taken out, flipped up, filled with trash, and then lit on fire.  Think Super Mario-esq obstacle meets real life.

The third quarter ends Friday, and for some kids judgement day is upon them.  All the false promises of work to be turned in has settled and now the consequences of their inaction is upon them.  (Sorry, I've been reading Dante's Inferno and 1984 every day).

Loopholes

Well I officially am profiting off a loophole.  Like any country, many civilians find the loopholes in government programs.  For example, the US has welfare and food-stamp exploiters.  In Venezuela, many citizens will travel abroad and use their Cadivi (foreign travel allotment) to get some dollars while abroad.  I used another technique (without trying) that was brought up in an old Caracas Chronicles article.  

I went to the doctor.

I'm not Kobe going to Germany for blood treatment, but we are attacking my rehab. 


Let me explain:

Doc appointment and X-Ray= 1000 BsF 
Physical Therapy Evaluation= 320 BsF
Physical Therapy Session= 240 BsF (x6)
TOTAL= 2,760 BsF 

On the insurance form you choose the currency you want to be reimbursed for your care in.  I chose the good old USD.  

At the official 6.3 BsF (to $1 USD) rate that is approximately $438 that I have paid upfront for all these services.

Now the loophole...

I sold $100 at 87 BsF for a dollar giving me 8,700 BsF which is what I used to pay for my treatment so far.

Meaning, I actually spent $31.72 for all of that listed above.

Now take that state official rate cost (438) subtract what I actually paid (31.72) and that gives you...
$406 (these calculations aren't exact, so math friends relax)

After meeting the deductible and a few additional fees, I got reimbursed $316.84. I spent $31.72 and got 316.84 back. 

Crazy.  By no means am I bragging about this, but this is a flaw in the government system that provides people with the (almost im-) proper means (knowledge, person they know, finances, etc) to take advantage of and generate capital.  

I did confer with a local colleague (Frank) if this would be OK to share and he said it was fine.  It's not illegal, it's just the way it is.  

I guess here 2+2 does equal 5.

Notes

1) Frank celebrated his birthday this past week and it was a fun time.  Lucky for us the country cooperated with no civil disturbances. He made a great playlist too, just saying if teaching doesn't work out he could DJ. 
We're in the band.

2) I got cleared to play soccer, so I'm really hoping the game against our varsity doesn't get cancelled tomorrow.  I'm eager to get on the pitch, I may just rock my new USMNT jersey.

3) Prices are starting to really go up.  If you got a kilo of roast beef (lunch meat) at the bakery it would cost you 520 BsF or $82 USD.  Be thankful you have Hyvee, Costco, Whole Foods or whatever hipster market you go to.  Frank wrote about a large coffee at these bakeries generates them 7,500% profit due to the mark up. Crazy.

4) We are headed back to Caracas for Brazil visa round 2.  I hope this fight doesn't go 3 rounds, because we might not be able to go.  The school is in a tough spot with letting us get out of work while needing us to teach.  There is no personal days, but by contract you can  receive a day off for a visa. With all the changes in flights (due to VZ not paying the airlines [don't worry the just agreed to last week]), and the modified school day time off is a commodity.  

5) My building has been rationing water (only an hour or so three times a day)... guess who found that out the hard way?

My new canteen/wineskin.  Reminds me of the leg lamp for A Christmas Story, but mine is real skin/hair.

Ryan Robinson's Links of Knowledge 

Valencia this afternoon.

"I will send the tanks, the troops, the air force..."

Maria Corina loses her seat.  

An Economist article regarding how many bolivares makes up a dollar.  

Stopping hoarding and shortages in one swoop.  


Take easy on down the trail this week.  I heard Spring is making an appearance to the North, good thing too.  You guys earned it.  

If you are keeping track at home on the number of days left until it's summer break for me, it's 73.

Here's to the trip to Caracas going easy.

Until Next Time,

KRS

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

An Escape to Colonial Germany

Hope the polar vortex lets go of you soon (if you're cold) and that spring meets you soon.  Things are copecetic, but boring.  It's all good though because it's now 100 during the day, and the days left are under 80.  So that's cool.  

School is back to near normal, but the situational mental strain is still looming like the smoke lingering from the mountain's fires.  Lot's of teachers are looking for mini-trips to stay sane, so a bunch of us took one to the only place in Venezuela where I blended it in (meaning lots of other white people).

He still looms. 

Political Landscape

Highway demonstration.
Things have quieted down significantly in the past week, with the exception of one incident where the government arrested two mayors and a police chief.  The police chief part is significant in the sense that a family member of his attends this school.  The arresting of these opposition public officials has definitely drawn the ire of protesters and supporters across the country.

The roadblocks are almost entirely gone from the city.  Only a few remnants remain in certain neighborhoods and businesses are starting to return to normal working hours.  The problem is those normal working hours are fluid as a march or uprising can take place almost any time and then the businesses close down.

 The government just instituted a new economic policy, SICAD 2, which is to combat the parallel (black market rate).  It drove the parallel rate from 87 a few weeks a go to 58 today.  Some see it as a way to combat inflation and allowing more access to dollars, while others view it as a devaluation of the currency that will fail.  To quote Jon, "They are holding up a shit sandwich with shit scaffolds." Only time will tell what will happen.

School

We fired back up the CIC education machine last Thursday after a bout with the Online Learning Model.  After awful attendance Thursday, slightly better Friday, and a little better today, we're nearing full strength.  Our school's official data says 81% of our secondary kids are here, and I think it's fairly accurate.  I also think that 85% of our kids forgot what school was about and 75% are missing some work.  These stats are OK because 60% of the time statistics are correct 100% of the time.  With the quarter done next week, I feel this will end badly for them. But hey, they earned it.  Our superintendent, thinks we've been too lenient on the grading and don't have enough F's.  Well, they could be coming in droves this quarter.

To make up for lost contact time we've added a revolving period at the end of the day.  Our contract now runs from 7:30 am to 4:10 pm, so we got that going for us.  Many activities and events have been cancelled or shortened, and sports practices are condensed.  The days have been exhausting for me, so who knows how the kids are doing.  Oh well though, there's no other way without adding days at the end, and they can't do that because we all fly out within days of the original end of school.  My schedule now has school until 4:10, then PT until 5:15, then working out, dinner, and then an hour and a half or so until bed.  Full day.

Colonial Tovar


In our attempt to maintain sanity and experience a more "normal" sense of reality, a group of us went up the mountain to the city of Colonial Tovar.  This city was established in 1843 by German immigrants who landed in Venezuela and walked up the mountain to live in a cooler climate.  The town is a time warp back into German traditional housing and agriculture.  The workers in the restaurants wear traditional garb and serve the standards of sausages and sauerkraut- which was awesome.

The hotel.

The roads were narrow (cars creep by inches from you), hilly and the feel was vintage, but it was a good escape from the status quo of Valencia.  The sounds of the blended cultures are evident.  You hear traditional German elements (accordion, singing) with Venezuelan rhythms from cars and restaurant speakers.

Typical vendor. 

The streets are not only filled with cars, but all motorcycles, four-wheelers, and cyclists.  While there, we checked out the street markets that were full of fresh produce, jams, treats, and small trinkets. I scored some coffee, various jams, a hackysack, and a cool bota bag/wine skin. We also checked out and took pictures of the city center and the church.

A street with Randi and Rexin talking to a passerby.  

A look up the hill from the church. 

We were all excited to have some different food and be able to purchase clean, organic produce.  The cool mountain evenings were awesome, we actually all got to wear hoodies.  The beer, Tovar, is in my mind the best in Venezuela.  It's a little more expensive (comparatively, not complaining) and a little harder to find, but totally worth it.

Yours truly with a statue of the liberator, Simon Bolivar (and a weird photo bomber).

Me (with four hands and three beers) with Rexin and his accordion. 

A strip mall and a friendly guy with a stroller. 

A taxi (translation: not overfill). 

Not a boy band. Morris, Jon, and some bearded local. 

Jon in front of a creepy Jesus in a casket.  I don't get it either. 

They are knickers not capris...oh and the church form the outside. 
The only trouble we had was some car temperature issues on the way up and once on the way back. One car had a leak in a line or the engine coolant container.  It was a little stressful at times, but we made our stops "safety meetings" and keep the vibe positive. The minor hiccup was worth the weekend of relief.

Car seats...get it? No? Aw...

Also, on the way back our friend Brittany decided to do one of those parachute/glider deals (in Venezuela of all places).  We all sat, had a few drinks, and watched the stream of people flying up and down the mountainside.  A few (like hers) didn't make it back to the launch point due to a lull in the wind so they got picked up in a truck.

This kid was a falconer, no really he was. 

Cheesy, cliche, instagram-esq mountain pic.

Cooler (cliche) picture with the parachute people in the background. 

My first selfie.  
We stopped at town on the way back to let the car cool and grab some food.  We went to a mall food court (scary food) and ended up seeing huge groups of people watching TV screens in a variety of restaurants.  The big soccer match of Real Madrid vs Barcelona was on and heated.  The "El Clasico" ended up going to Barcelona due to a hat trick by Lionel Messi drawing an emotional reaction to both sides.  
TGI Fridays crowd.  No drink specials just futbol- El Clasico.

Ryan Robinson's Links of Knowledge 

A woman recording events would not give up here phone when the GNB tried to take it from her.  The scuffle lead to a National Guardswoman getting her fingernail broken and beating the woman with the cellphone with her helmet.  

President Maduro uses a rape joke on national TV. 

An attempt to curb currency issues and more.    

NPR's look into the economic status.  

Venezuela investigates 60 cases of civil rights abuse.  

US partially suspends tourist visas to Venezuelans and Disneyland suffers.   

Arresting other opposition party mayors and a police chief.  

Death toll rises.

Panama provides its seat at the OAS (Organization of American States) to opposition congresswoman Maria Corina Machado and the press weren't allow to hear what she had to say.

No mom, I didn't drink all of that...there's room left. I kid, I kid. 
Well that's all I got.  A Long week of work and a 1.5 day trip to Colonal Tovar. It was a good escape from the hubbub of Valencia.  Next week Caracas for the Brazil visa (failed once already) and the week after Cuba.  Hopefully, I'll have more to share of interest in the coming weeks and share it with you.  

Until Next Time,

KRS

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Different View and A Quick Rundown

Good evening or morning.

This week, I decided to do something a little different with the blog.  While things here are a weird mix of nothing (changing) and something (the curveballs of living here), I thought what better way to help shape your perspective of this country/experience/situation than having someone guest write part of it. I've asked several friends throughout my time here if they would like to write a bit for one blog, but most concede to my "ownership" or are reluctant to share...except one, Jon Moreno Ramirez.  I both commend Jon for taking the leap (sharing your written words is tough, just ask my students) and am stoked for you to see his view on the environment here.

Without further ado:

Let me introduce you to my good friend Jon.  He's a musical genius. He comes from a family of mariachi players and has the ability to play anything he hears...for multiple instruments.  He got his teaching degree from THE College of Idaho and married his high school sweetheart, Randi (pretty cool story to ask them over a beer- they started dated in 10th grade).  They have one child, Rexin, who plays the role of two year old boy, but also as a coping mechanism/de-stressor for many of us missing the little people in our families. Jon's got a heart of gold. Family/friend orientated, enjoys everything from sports to astrophysics, loves teaching, and is always looking to make sure people are having a good time.  He's a great dude and we are all lucky of have met him and his family through this teaching experience.

Here's Jon's take on things down here:

Jon (L) and Frank approve this blog.
This is what Venezuela is like for me, a 27 year old, married, father of a 2 year old, math and science high school teacher.

To fully understand, I need to start with the reason my family and I are here in the first place. A couple of years ago, I found myself in an Idaho education environment where the job was getting harder, and the pay and benefits were shrinking year after year. With a newborn baby, I decided to change something about my life otherwise we would go broke, and I would go crazy. Since my wife and I both love traveling, we decided to give international teaching a try. Long story short, after about a month I found myself in an interview with an international, private school, with great pay and benefits...in Venezuela.


At first we thought Venezuela would be great. We had experience with various cities in Mexico, so "how much different could it be," we thought. After a year and a half, we realized that the answer is "completely different." One could react to this situation in two ways. One, would be to be in complete despair and hate everything while counting down the days to the end of the contract (which we sometimes do). And two, would be to take the Kellen 2.0* approach and learn to be better humans from this experience. More often than not, it is BOTH at the same exact time. For my family and me, this has given us a deep appreciation for things we did not know we loved (until we lost them). I'll go through a few of them:

Jon, Rexin, and Randi at Halloween. 

Family

Being here, you realize how alone you are sometimes. Being here with my family...and only my family makes it both bearable and, well not bearable. Back in the 'States we could drop off Rexin to a family member for some alone time. Back in the 'States I could go to my parents' place while Randi could go to her dad's, or sister's for some alone time...from each other. Here we have to be with each other, ALL THE TIME. This, again, is both good and bad.

Food and drink

Availability is the key word here. You never know what is going to be available here at any given time, on any given store. This is even more significant because I haven't mentioned the fact that both my wife and son are allergic or intolerant to some of the most available things here: gluten, dairy, eggs. Even when we can find food that they can eat, it is a MASSIVE hassle to go to the store. Hour long wait time in lines, utter disregard to customer service, and rampant lack of store-going-etiquette. How can this have a good side, something of which Kellen 2.0 can be proud? Zombie apocalypse. Or any apocalypse, for that matter. We have learned to "roll with the punches" so well, that my family alone was able to host the entire extended family (Kellen, Maya, Brit) for almost a week during "Blockade Parade." This makes me think that the famous phrase about "making it" in New York, and anywhere thereafter must be revised to include a Venezuela clause.

Health

We have really good health insurance down here. Most everything is covered 100%, after you pay for it upfront, which is mostly okay. Last year my son had to get an ultra sound because due to his allergies he ended up passing kidney stones. I was thinking US prices when I went up to pay, very afraid that I did not have enough money to pay for it. The whole thing ended up to being the equivalent to 50 USDs. The bad side to this is that, although a socialist healthcare system is extremely cheap, so is the service. Doctors make no appointments. You take the entire day off from work to wait to be seen. It honestly makes us want to wait until the summer to get checked up in the 'States. We could get all of our teeth fixed, but I'm not sure it is worth the hassle!

Education

I am honestly teaching the best, most fun subjects I have ever taught, and I am having a blast. I cannot rave enough about the class sizes, the prep time, the resources, the facilities, etc. that being said, it is heart breaking seeing the complete opposite experience from my wife. Unfortunately when we showed up down here the counseling department was basically non-existent. She literally had to build the manual for this school, and mostly without recognition, or compensation since she is a "volunteer" at the school. With regards to my two year old, he is definitely learning a whole lot more Spanish than he would have learned by this time in the 'States. Unfortunately, he goes to a daycare that would be closed upon its first inspection. But hey, no choice means no choice.

I guess it could always be worse, just as it could always be better. It depends on how you decide to take it. It is probably best to always look on the bright side of life a la Monty Python, but it just feels damn right sometimes to spray hate where hate is due. I revert to a paraphrased Kellen 2.0 quote from this week:

"This had to happen in order for me to learn the infinite bounds of patience."

I just keep reminding myself why I'm here: money, traveling, growing.

- Jon Moreno Ramirez


* Kellen 2.0 was a half joking comment I made in regards to how I won't let the many difficult things (cultural differences or otherwise) of this country drag me down in day to day living here.  It's been tough lately, but somehow I've kept it going and now it's been a tongue in cheek joke.  I dig it. 

A Brief Rundown

March by day.
Things have settled down physically here in the areas where most of us live.  The blockades are up, but the spirit remains.  While traffic and the routines are regaining their formal statute, the marches and protests remain.  For instance, this evening several of us went to get some food after work and there were three protests in different areas of Valencia- all peaceful, but still present. 

Gather by night (look close and see the candles)
School is going to get fired back up on Thursday and Friday with half days.  We did the online model for about seven days and you should have seen some of the excuses we got from kids.  Ryan, Jon, and I are thinking about compiling a list of them (they would definitely make the blog- so lame!), but some of them are so frustrating.  We share several students and it's not uncommon for us to not hear from a few students while the other two teachers do.  It seems many students just didn't take it seriously and did not do the work, so we'll how things shake out.  We have several students out of the country still, so the next few days will be a filtering in process I assume.

We were supposed to go get our Brazil visas this week due to our flex schedule and online model, but with the switch back to regular in class teaching we cannot.  It's really throwing us for a loop due to the fact that you can only apply for a Brazil visa no later than 90 days before you enter the country and with no personal days or vacation days- we are really pressed.  Hopefully, we can work something out with the admin or it could get really hair near the end of school.  


Ryan Robinson's Links of Knowledge 

Why is Only Half of Venezuela in the Streets?  This will paint a picture with great analysis and graphs to show you what's up here- tons of oil and now money.  

A first person account of a protest turned to a battle.  

Conciliatory talks but the actions shows otherwise.  

Air Canada is the latest airline to pull out of service here.  

Troops try to clear out ground zero of the Venezuelan protests.  


President Maduro urges President Obama to join the "peace commission."

President Maduro: "I am going to give these 'Chuckies' who are taking over..." (yep, a president called some protestors Chucky.  

Does this look like the face of someone who wants to protest?

That concludes this week's blog.  I hope you enjoyed Jon's take.  I didn't give him much direction on what to write, but I'm happy that he showed his experience and provide you with a different lens in which to see this experience.

Until Next Time,

KRS