Tuesday, May 03, 2005

SAS Email 10 - Venezuela

Okay, well as many of you know by now, I’m back in the US. We docked and disembarked in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on April 28th, and it’s been a slow readjustment period since then. But first let me detail my Venezuela experience, before I forget any of it…

So April 21st we woke-up in Laguaira, Venezuela. The view from the 7th deck off the back of the boat was breathtaking, as it fully displayed the entire city with its congested housing scaling up the countryside hills. Laguaira isn’t the nicest city and doesn’t have that much to offer the international traveler, so I went with three friends on the hour cab ride to Caracas. The ride itself was actually really cool, as we saw the diversity of Venezuela’s countryside. Some parts were barren, while other areas would have small colorful houses basically piled up on top of each other. In Caracas we ate a great lunch in the Las Mercedes area, shopped in a mall for a little while but couldn’t find a single thing we liked, then took the shadiest cab ever (the radio was a small cassette player strapped to the old drvier’s hip, and I broke the metal door handle in half when I pulled it to enter the cab) to the Chacaito area. There were a bunch of small indoor/outdoor markets in the Chacaito area, but because of it’s intense congestion there is a lot of petty theft. After coming from some of the Asian markets we’d been to, the truth is this Venezuelan one was pretty weak. At one point as we were walking through, a shop owner I started speaking to told me that at that very moment we were being targeted because we looked like Americans and that we were probably gonna get robbed soon. He told me to always stay alert, and not make a right out of the market to this other market because it was more dangerous than going to the left… so of course we went to the right to checkout that market, haha. Everything was fine although we still couldn’t find a single item to buy, and around 4pm we returned to the ship in Laguaira to meet up with friends. It was my roommate Jaret’s 21st bday, so it was celebration time.

Thirteen of us got semi-dressed up (the guys wore ties with shirts untucked while Jaret wore a full suit) and hired this clueless cab driver with a 14 passenger van to take us around. We found a nice place to get dinner that had a keyboardist and singer, ate a great meal, had the whole restaurant sing Happy Birthday in Spanish to Jaret, drank some good Sangria and beers, had Jaret do another “Strong Man Shot” (if you’ve forgotten what it is, please revert to my Hawaii email), and headed to a club. We searched for nearly an hour for “The Loft”, which was supposed to be the best hotspot and when we finally found it there was a huge line. Since I was the only one who spoke Spanish I was kinda leading the night, so I figured we should all get into character (it’d worked everywhere else and was pretty fun). I called over the main bouncer (guy with earpiece, suit, looking real serious) and told him in Spanish that I was at the club with 12 other people. I pointed to Jaret in his nice suit and said he was the son of the US diplomat to Venezuela, and I was only a friend of the family’s but because I spoke some Spanish I was asked to take him out tonight. Obviously we were here unannounced because of political security, but because it was the diplomat’s son’s 21st bday I took him here for a good time… Within 5 minutes the bouncer got us all in, free of the $25 cover charge, and once inside we were offered a private table. There was some crazy hip-hop videoshoot/show going on in the club that was pretty cool, and once we accepted our private table (we had to buy one bottle of liquor as a stipulation, which was only $40!) they took us to the rooftop where we could see the city lit-up in front of us. Around 1am, something weird starting happening and then we realized it… the roof was retracting! The roof completely retracted so it was open air and we could see the entire city all around us… just an amazing night and fortunately Jaret had a blast on his bday.

The next morning we flew to Managas, Venezuela to begin our “Orinoco Delta” field program… fortunately two of my best friends on the ship (Reed and Dennis) signed up for the trip with me, so I knew we’d have a blast. After the 1.5 hour flight, we had a 2 hour bus ride down to the delta, then boarded ships and took an hour speedboat ride to where we were staying. On that ride through the Amazon (the Orinoco delta is an extension of the Amazon) we saw monkeys in the trees and river dolphins in the water. Our lodging was on a small island with waterfront wooden cabanas on stilts, and the three of us got our own cabana on the water itself… plus for some reason they had a caged jaguar and puma on the island, with the puma being our next door neighbor. The first night we arrived late from a flight delay so we basically ate a great dinner, had some drinks (full bar at the lodge, and once the bartenders starting talking to us they got hammered and couldn’t stop handing us free drinks), relaxed by the waterfront, and passed out once Reed had pushed all three of our beds together to make what he called “the world’s best and biggest California king.”

The next day was one of my favorite of the entire voyage… in the morning we were up early, boarding our 15 person boats, and went for a jungle walk. This was no hiking trail, we just stopped by a random entrance to the jungle and got out of the boats. Our main guide Mario (think Venezuelan Crocodile Dundee… this guy was rugged) and our Orinoco guide Raphael (only spoke Spanish, small smiling guy with 6 fingers… all of his fingers except his thumb were completely gone from one hand… we all speculated he chopped it off with his machete but he later told me he lost it in a farming accident) led the way, with Raphael just cutting down trees or brush with his machete and walking ahead. They’d stop every so often to show us cool stuff like a tree root that contained water, which they cut up and we drank from, and a tree that when you cut into it literally started bleeding this red blood-like liquid. After the hike we had a delicious lunch of fresh-made pita bread, some tuna concoction, cuba libre (rum & cokes) and many many beers. Once we were pretty liquored up, we went back on the waters and sped around on the boats for a while taking it all in… the Amazon was just incredible, with the indescribably sights, sounds, and the way these local Warao people lived was amazing. The children wore almost no clothing, had pet tucans next to them at times, and families lived by themselves on wooden-stilt huts on the water.

We stopped in one large village, which basically meant it was a bunch of open-air wooden stilt huts on the water with a 500 foot boardwalk connecting them. We spoke to some of the locals (they had their own dialect but a few spoke some Spanish), played with the kids, and after an hour were off… but it began to rain, and rain hard. At first we covered ourselves with plastic tarps, but realized it’d be so much more fun to get wet so we took em off and basked in the rain while speeding around in the boat. There’s just this feeling when you’re in boat, traveling across the water while warm rain is drenching your body, and I can only describe it as elation. Once the rain stopped after 15 minutes, the intense sun came out to dry us as we went through this one narrow pathway to search for anacondas. Unfortunately we didn’t see any, but from there half the 40 person group went back to the lodge while the rest of us stayed to go swimming in the Amazon. After a few flips, pencils, and splash contests, we just chilled on the boats while witnessing a tranquil blue sunset with a full moon ahead of us.

That night at the lodge was a blast as I befriended this bartender named Ricardo who was obsessed with chess. I’ve probably played chess ten times in my life and this guy was studying to be an official referee, so during our first game after one of my moves he’d suddenly start putting the pieces back in their original positions to start a new game. I was in shock, asking him what the hell he was doing and he just goes “I resign to you, I want this game to be fun, this one will be mas-sac-ray”… I’m like “what the hell is mas-sac-ray, why’d you restart the game” and he just writes on the napkin “massacre”, and laughs and goes “it would have been av-a-lancha”… Hahaha, so I laughed and agreed I’d probably done something that would have led to him pummeling me, although I had no idea how, and then he proceeded to whip me handily the next game. A few cuba libres and Polar beers later, Dennis and I were playing for a huge Pride Dollar, and I’m proud to say the victor was yours truly. We also had this delicious beef dinner, and through a little Spanish charm I got a 2nd plate from the cook. I was feeling pretty good so I ate the 2nd dinner alone with just fingerless Raphael and over this 45 minute Spanish conversation he told me all about his life, his family, the Amazon, the people and Venezuela itself. It’s simple things and connections like that that I take the most from on this trip, more so than anything I could see in any museum.

The next morning by buddy Dennis was pretty damn sick, probably a combination of overexposure to the sun, dehydration, drinking, and maybe something he ate. Of course, he was in the tiny bathroom (our shower was literally a faucet head, with water coming out like it was a hose) making use of two out-holes simultaneously so Reed and I decided to snap off a bunch of pictures. You can find one posted as my last picture in my online Venezuela album, which his family apparently had framed and was sitting on his desk when he returned home. The morning consisted of a few short boat rides, meeting a fisherman floating in his boat which was a hallowed out tree trunk, and then we fished for piranhas in the river for a while. That was really cool, although frustrating because they’re smart fish and would eat just the bait but rarely take the hook… although we probably caught about 15 piranhas in all and my buddy Reed somehow managed to hook a small fish by its tail. We then took the boat, bus, and airplane rides back to the ship and boarded at 9pm… from there we sailed back to the states… thus concluding my in-port experiences.

One thing I haven’t detailed much, if at all, are my experiences on the ship. While this may be the case, they were just as amazing and integral to the trip as the in-port events. My classes on the ship were highly educational, three of my professors were outstanding including one who is by far the best lecturer I think I’ll ever witness (Lawrence Meredith… buy his book called “Life before Death”), and I had countless unforgettable days and nights on the ship (themed pub nights, dances, open mics, the talent show, the Ambassador’s Ball, jams on the 7th deck, improv shows, movie filming and screening, etc etc etc).

The morning of April 28th at 6:45am I was awoken by the PA system, but there was no voice or announcements. “Coming to America” was simply played in its entirety, and then the PA went off… It was the perfect wake-up call, and once I went up to the 5th deck after breakfast to lookout on the crowd I spotted my grandmother (Ma) in a classic purple jumpsuit holding two large red balloons, which read “Welcome Bugika!” I know I’ve done observations on several ports, but my list of observations upon returning to the US could go on for pages, and it’s one of those conversations I’d love to have with people face to face. I’ll just say this, the largest culture shock I received on the trip was neither India nor Africa, it was returning to the United States. In terms of my usual insight, I think I’m gonna address the trip experience as a whole.

Before coming on this trip, I saw a lot of great travel quotes by various philosophers, politicians, and other famed figures. I used personal quotes like “You can sleep when you die”, “When in port…” and “Don’t be a tourist, be a traveler” as mantras throughout the voyage. It seemed like just when I needed a certain motivation during the voyage I would find some inspiring quote from a song lyric, novel, textbook, professor lecturing, movie, engraving at a site, or anywhere else that I least expected it. I’d never really enjoyed quotes that much because I thought they were so cliché from hearing many speeches (hence my Africa email quoting the brilliance of Lonnie), but now I realize how perfectly fitting some can be. So allow me to share my opinions relating a few of my favorites…

Proust said “The real voyage of discovery exists not in new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

For so long I loved this quote, especially during my moments of discovery on the voyage. I felt myself changing; thinking and seeing things from a completely new perspective. But upon returning to the US, and the strange disorientation that I felt in a place I thought I was so uncomfortable with, I’ve realized the error in Proust’s quote… While the real voyage of discovery may lead to an altered perspective, it does not result in new eyes. Inside I am still the person I was when I left, and there is no way that I can lose the pre-voyage experiences and views I’d held. Together those views are still a part of me, but they consisted of only one angle. I looked at the world through a single eye, which as most know leads to only a two-dimensional view. This voyage has given me a second perspective, one which is completely different but still complementary to my old views. To extend the metaphor, with this second eye, the world can take a three dimensional view and flat shapes become raised objects. It is not fresh new eyes that should come out of a voyage of discovery, but having two eyes to created a three dimensional worldview incorporating the experiences and ideologies of both past and present, East and West, That is why I encourage all of you to travel to places outside of your comfort zone, like India, Vietnam and South Africa, where you will be forced to accept a worldview containing all three dimensions.

And I hate to bring religion/spirituality into this because it’s always a touchy subject, but I think it’s a necessity after all the things I’ve been fortunate enough to see and learn about… Many of you are firmly entrenched in some religious tradition, which may be your greatest strength and confinement at the same time. That’s what my religion was for me for a very long time… I know others put me in a box because I’m Jewish and I put myself in a box as well, thinking that I could only believe what my religion allowed for and never questioning that edict. I also didn’t look intensely into any other religions except Christianity and Islam, and in doing so was completely ignorant to many of the beliefs of others… Now I realize that neither Buddha nor Muhammad were ever to be revered or seen as G-d but as merely mortal men, that there are an estimated 30,000 translation errors alone in the King James translation of the bible from the previous Hebrew version (as told to me by a reverend), that there is no reliable written record of the Torah in Hebrew until the 10th century BC… I urge you to ask questions about each great faith- Why are Christians and Muslims so inclusive, wanting everyone in the world to join their faith? Why are Jews so exclusive, wanting no one but born Jews to be a part of their faith? Why are Buddhists neither? Each religion contains several great truths, but if you are willing to make such a large commitment to one religion I suggest you at least learn about the others. And I’m not limiting that to saying Catholics should know about Protestants, Jews should know about Muslims… You should learn about the Suffi mystics, Hindus, Sikhs, Caodaism, Taoism, Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Baha’i, Christianity, Islam, and the list goes on. Huston Smith said “If you know only one religion, you know no religion”, and I couldn’t agree with him more. There is so much beauty and so much to learn from each religion, and we tend to stigmatize certain religions into a few stereotypical beliefs… don’t do that, learn about them as a whole, and ask critical questions. Still keep your religion close to your heart, but try considering the validity of others. The thing that hit me really hard, was when I thought to myself that if G-d is such a great and positive force, why would most of the world believe so firmly in some religion that was completely erroneous? Most of the world does not have the same religious beliefs as you, so either G-d wants to trick most people on Earth to be completely wrong except you, or maybe there’s something bigger going on here… maybe they each contain a correct piece to the puzzle…

Lastly, Professor Meredith in his commencement speech proclaimed, “Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but I say the unlived life is not worth examining.” That’s my mantra for the future.

For those of you that read through these pseudo-journal entry emails of mine, I hope you enjoyed them. Please feel free to write, call or tell me how you felt about them, especially if you have some counter views which I’d really like to hear about. Sorry for making them so long, but now that they’re complete I’ll have something to look back on in years to come.

As always, be safe and stay classy,