It’s All Happening at the Zoo…

July 9, 2009 - Leave a Response

Merida has a beautiful zoo.  It’s carved into the side of a mountain complete with multiple waterfalls and walking paths leading to quiet secluded areas of the forest, perfect for reading, writing, or–if you’re 13–making out with your boyfriend/girlfriend on the sly.

traipsing through the zoo

traipsing through the zoo

There aren’t a whole lot of animals, but the way the zoo is set up is pretty engaging (completely lacking US safety standards, and thus allowing you to put your hand in the lion’s cage and pet him if you so desire.  And, believe it or not, I’ve seen people desire).  On quiet days, I like to spend time hanging out with the amazing felines.  Whereas typically animals in the US need to be playing or moving or doing something to keep me interested, these lions and leopards are SO close, that just watching their stomachs rise and fall as they breath can keep me glued by their side.

Prrrrrrrr

Prrrrrrrr

On busy days, these animals are a little harder to be around.  Visitors mob their cages, yelling at the animals, sticking their cell phones between the bars to catch a photo and even sometimes throwing straws or other garbage at the animals.  It’s pretty disturbing to watch, and the question “where the heck are the employees who are supposed to be stopping this?” often comes to mind.

When my friend Bri was visiting a few weeks ago, we took an afternoon outing to the Zoo.  It was toward the end of the day, and the crowds were slim.  After passing some pigs, a condor and a few tropical birds, we bee-lined it to the lion’s cage.  After whispering sweet nothings at our feline friends, a group of 17 or 18 year old Venezuelans arrived.  They were posing for pictures with a male leopard in the background, and one of the guys had this uncanny ability of making a “meow” sound that would cause the leopard to pop his head up and look right at the camera.  We were all giggling at this typical zoo-going fun, when a man came over and started hitting the bars of the cage with a stick.  The animal was clearly frightened, but the man continued doing this.  He then walked to the lions cage next door and started doing the same thing.  That’s when I realized THIS is the zoo employee I’d been willing to come stop visitors from harassing the animals in the past.  The group of Venezuelans, Bri and I were all visibly uncomfortable with his behavior and moved on toward the monkeys (not without whispering to the lion first that he had full permission to bite this dudes hand off, if given the opportunity).

As we approached the monkey cages, we stopped to check out a bear and a sloth.  I couldn’t believe my eyes at the sloth cage.  This little guy was eating…literally tearing to shreds…a cell phone case.  Sure that this wasn’t part of a well-balanced-sloth-diet, I looked around for a zoo worker to come take care of the situation.  Finally I caught the eye of someone overseeing a paint job on the snake house.  I waved, pointed at the sloth and raised my eyebrows.  

Plastic. Just delicious...

Plastic. Just delicious...

He shook his head and flicked his wrist as if to say “oh sloths will be sloths now, won’t they??”  My hate for the Merida Zoo workers suddenly went up another ten points.

We told Mr. Sloth to take it easy on the plastic lining, and turned the corner toward the monkeys.  At this point, my only option was to laugh.  There were tons of adorable monkeys swinging through the cage and grooming one another, doing their monkey business…But what really caught my attention was one furry escape artist, sitting on top of a sign right outside his cage.  People were snapping pictures and feeding him chips from their palm.  When was my last Rabies vaccination…?  Yeah, I think it’s time we leave.

My mom once was moved to the front row at an Oprah Winfrey taping in Chicago by giving the “best” parenting advice within the studio audience.  “If I want to get my kids to go to the zoo with me,” she explained, “I just tell them ‘oh honey! The monkeys are mating!”   Though I never heard this “incentive” first hand (and Im pretty sure my reaction would not have been along the lines of, “Oh wow mom! You know how I love being a perv…LETS GO!”) I think what would have made the zoo more engaging growing up was having a sense of being WITH the animals.  Clearly, Merida’s approach has more faults than I can list, but the proximity I can get to the lions and tigers and bears…and monkeys, apparently…has made trips to the zoo more awe inspiring and engaging than anything I’ve experienced at home.

Now if I can just figure out a way to get that lion to eat his handler…

Escaped Monkey

Escaped Monkey

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Hire Me To Breath Down Your Neck (I’m Cheap!)

June 21, 2009 - Leave a Response

Last year when I went to spend the summer in Morocco, my grandmother (mom’s mom) called my dad and told him he had to stop allowing me to go to “dangerous places.”  My dad told her he didn’t really have that kind of control over my life, which I don’t think gave my grandma the satisfaction she was looking for.   

Overall, my parents are actually great about giving their kids the freedom to trot and gallop around the globe without too many warnings or negative reactions to choices in locale (hello, Venezuela?).   I really appreciate it.

But, with the death of a close family friend only days before my sister came to travel with me in Colombia and Ecuador, I think my dad’s desire to express his concern for us was too overwhelming to ignore.  “Please be careful,” he pleaded, “I don’t think I could handle to lose you two.”

Not hearing that sort of thing very often, I really took the request to heart.  When Madelaine and I arrived in Bogota, we took all the percautions we could think of.  We didn’t walk around the city much after dark, we were cautious about the taxis we took and we even splurged on a tour guide.

 Whereas normally we wouldn’t rely on much more than a guidebook and local advice on where to go and what to see, a family friend who lives in Bogota asked if she could set up a tour with a friend who offered his services for VERY cheap.  We had already spent one afternoon alone in Bogota, and found it to be pretty safe and easy to navigate, but she really stressed that this would make our visit much more enjoyable and safe.  

Sure…why not?

Pedro, a sixty-something Mr. Rogers-like character picked us up around 10am that morning.  He asked what we would like to do first, and we suggested heading over to Monserrate, the mountain with a funicular and teleferico, and great view of the city.  He asked if we’d like him to come up with us.  I told him that it was up to him.

Me and our (self-inflicted) chaperon

Me and our (self-inflicted) chaperon

Pedro decided to join us, but I was a little surprised when I was directed to pay for his ticket to the top.  Was it too late to uninvite him?  We didn’t NEED him to ride the funicular up with us, for gods sakes.  Once we disembarked, Madelaine and I started taking pictures left and right.  Pedro, however, seemed to be on a schedule and kept herding us along.  “let’s continue now,” he would say as we snapped shots of the beautiful landscaping and buildings on top of Monserrate.  I tried to include him in our discussion and ask him questions about the city and the church located on top of the mountain.  Pedro had a surprising lack of knowledge about Bogota for being a “tour” guide

After buying ourselves (and Pedro) a coffee, we headed back down to the car and drove toward the beautiful and historic Candelaria.  We hopped out at a plaza that some say was the first settled part of Bogota.  We walked to the edge of a colorful, tiny street and Pedro explained that this area got really busy around 5 and always had a young crowd hanging around.  I started to walk down the street and he said “now, back to the car.”  huh?  “could we maybe walk around a bit?” I asked?  He complied, but wasn’t very good about hiding his surprise at the request.

The rest of the afternoon continued in the same vain.  Madelaine and I had to nearly beg Pedro to let us walk the short 5 blocks to the Plaza Bolivar.  He didn’t have a single specific description of what we were seeing…pretty much everything was “a government building.”  But the emergency meeting on “How Do We Ditch Our Chaperon” didn’t happen until we entered the Botero museum.  We stepped into the first room of paintings portraying chubby people and chubby things, when Pedro came to my side and said, “let’s continue on, now.”  I was furious (and pretended I didn’t hear him).  It’s an art museum, dude!  Go sit in the courtyard, give yourself a break…no one is going to steal us as we contemplate the brush strokes on one of Botero’s fat lady moles.

Madelaine and I were starving and didn’t want to suggest lunch out of the fear that we were going to have to treat Pedro.  It was time to cut the cord, and because I was the one with the Spanish, I had to do the dirty work.  Gently dumping our old man chaperone?  Not my forte.

 “Umm…uhhhh….Pedro.  Thank you for everything.  Um, we are going to walk around this area for a few hours after the museum, and don’t want to make you wait for us…so…um…I think the tour is over.  Like… now.  Ok?”  (note to self: get vocab for “letting someone down softly” next Spanish class)

Candelaria

Candelaria

Pedro told us he could wait to drive us to another location once we were through exploring, but Madelaine and I decided we had had enough breathing down our necks for one day.  Even if we could save on cab fare by having Pedro wait, the stress and annoyance of trying to ditch him a second time just wasn’t worth it.

We paid Pedro, said adieu, and booked it to the first open restaurant we could find.  Table for two, please.

The Oink

June 20, 2009 - Leave a Response

When my sister, Madelaine, and I first arrived in Ecuador a few weeks ago we were met by some pretty intense health screening.  Unlike Venezuela and Colombia where they simply had us check off boxes on a piece of scrap paper (which they weren’t very diligent about collecting) whether or not we had a cough or fever; Ecuador took a photo of each and every arriving passenger documenting their body temperature.  If it seemed too high, you had your temperature taken with a thermometer and then possibly went onto the hospital for quarantine from there, depending on your symptoms.  Even though I felt completely fine, I couldn’t help but get nervous as I posed for my picture (Venezuelan style, of course) and gave the Health Police my contact information.

Madelaine and I met up with some friends in Quito who were forced to wear face masks until they made it out of the Quito airport.  Not confident that a paper mask can stop you from catching the flu, we all giggled at the extreme measures the Ecuadorian government was taking. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Not a week later, everything seemed a whole lot less funny.  Steve, my friend Bri’s boyfriend, had an incredibly high fever our last night in Quito.  Everyone was supposed to fly out of the country at 6am the next morning, except for Steve who wouldn’t leave until 11pm.  That’s a whole lot of alone time without a hotel room for someone with an ER-worthy fever.  Without putting more thought into it than “we need to get you some tough meds!” we called the hotel doctor to come take a look at Steve.  

We all realized our mistake when Bri asked into the phone: “well are you going to help him, or are you just gonna turn us in??”

Whoopsie Daisy.  Health Police on the way.

Bri got off the phone and told Madelaine and me that it might be a good idea to get the hell outta dodge…at least for a few hours.  The doctor was on his way over to examine steve for Swine Flu.  In the meantime, they were going to be quarantining Bri and Steve in the hotel room until the doctor could get them to the hospital the next morning.  If the test turned out to be positive for Swine Flu, they would be stuck in Ecuador for at least three days.  Bri hadn’t mentioned there was anyone else staying in the room and thus exposed to Steve, so if we wanted to get out of the country on our scheduled flights we had better split.

Madelaine and I went into the city for some dinner, hung around the hotel lobby and twiddled our thumbs in the hotel bar.  Finally we called up to the room and were told that we needed to come up carefully–there might be someone guarding the door to our room so that Swine-Flu-Steve couldn’t make a run for it.  I was nervous.

Huge exhale: there was no gaurd.  But, we were warned, there would be hotel staff bringing up perscriptions and checking in.  Madelaine and I hid out in the bathroom (squeezed into the stall with the toilet to be exact) when visitors arrived.  At one point we sat in silence, tightly smushed on top of the pot, for about ten minutes until Bri came in to pee.  She had forgotten to tell us the hotel staff had already left the room.  We felt pretty…stupid.

So at 4am the next morning Madelaine and I snuck out of the hotel to catch our flight.  We made it to the airport and out of the country without a hitch.  Part of me felt incredibly irresponsible for making a run for it whilst possibly carrying the swine flu with me…but I really didn’t want to sit in a hospital room, perfectly healthy, for the next three days. 

While Madelaine and I were making our getaway, Bri and Steve were picked up at their hotel room by hotel staff and a doctor, all wearing face masks and talking into fancy little ear mic walkie-talkie systems.  They were escorted out the back door and taken to the hospital in a hotel car with tinted windows.  Bri said she never felt so important or dangerous in her entire life.  Once they arrived at the hospital, they were again taken to the back entrance, but instead of going inside, they were brought into a makeshift tent.  They took Steve vitals and without processing any type of swab or internal test, determined him to be Swine Flu Free.  

Apologies were made (Bri missed her flight due to the pig flu false alarm) and Bri and Steve were dropped back off at the hotel…At least this time they got to use the front door.

Well, is he married?

June 19, 2009 - Leave a Response

Literally within the first five minutes of meeting my host family back in January, I was asked about my love life.  Before I could formulate an even half-Spanish response, a cacophony of voices started shouting “Venezuelan guys are feo (ugly)” and “Find yourself a gringo!”  

Whaaaatever, I thought, I’m here for the SPANISH, foos!!

Well, fast forward to a few months later when my novio, who lives in Caracas, came to visit me in Merida for the first time.  I sat my host mom down at the kitchen table before the visit and broke the news, “I have a boyfriend.”  She started clapping like a little kid and gave me a hug and a kiss like I had just received an A++ on my report card.  

But then, she abruptly stopped.

“Is he married?” She asked me.  I thought I had certainly misunderstood the question.  Didn’t I just tell her my boyfriend was coming?  Why would I invite some random married dude to spend the weekend with me in Merida?  “What?” I asked.  “Is he married,” she repeated with a tone of gravity.  “Noooo…” I responded, eyebrows furrowed, still not sure I fully understood the question.  “Oh,” she said, “well great!  Is he divorced?” she asked.  

“What the heeee-aaalll is going on here?” I thought.  

“uh, no. no, he’s not divorced,” I told her.  Of course there was one last question: “does he have kids?” she probed.  “No kids,” I told her, having a hard time covering my discomfort with the conversation.  “Oh well, GREAT!” she smiled, “That makes everything SO much easier when he’s single.”

What the….?  It made me pretty sad for The Venezuelan World of Relationships that these questions were the first ones that popped into my host mom’s mind.  Instead of being asked the typical “what does he look like,” “Do you like-like him” or even “what’s his name!?!?” the focus was solely on the teensy-tiny, very naked wedding finger.  I mean, I saw what happened with my host sister earlier this year when she caught her boyfriend two-timing her…but I had no idea suspicion, distrust, and I guess by default, infidelity, was this deeply ingrained in the culture.  

A few days later I was talking to a friend who is married to a Venezuelan.  She and her husband went to visit her mother-in-law, and they started making small talk.  My friend told her mother-in-law she had been on a hike with a good friend of hers a few days earlier.  The mother-in-law’s response wasn’t “oh that’s great!” or “how nice it is to have good girlfriends.”  No…instead she said this: “You better keep an eye on her.  Make sure she doesn’t try to steal your husband.”

Wow.

I’ve found it’s easy to get worked up by statements like this.  I have encountered so many strong and independent women while living in Venezuela.  It makes me upset to think that it is almost a part of their role as women to keep tabs on their man, make sure he isn’t cheating on her, read his emails, check his cell phone records…pretty much obsess over his every move and not have an ounce of trust in him.  And on top of all that, totally distrust women.  

My boyfriend came for another visit a few weeks later, and this time he had the pleasure of meeting my host mom.  Once he left, my host mom sat me down and asked once again about his marital status. “you’re sure he isn’t married?” she asked me.  I shook my head solemnly, not wanting to get into this conversation again.  “Well that’s great.  You’re lucky he’s single.  You need to stick your talons in him, and hold on tight.” she informed me.  

barf.  I thought about telling her I wasn’t raised to go about relationships that way.  I didn’t really plan on sticking my “talons” into anyone.  I’m in Venezuela for six months, I don’t plan on leaving with a  ring on my finger, no matter how much that may disappoint her.  But, I knew it would all be met with the weathered skepticism of a woman who had seen too many couples having affairs, hitting up “love motels” during their lunch break and being dishonest with one another.  And call me what you like–naive, ignorant, estupido–but I just didn’t want to have to be inundated with that kind of attitude and outlook.  

My novio hasn’t seen the fam in a few months, but they still ask about him nearly every day.  It’s kind of awkward, because…Well, I’m still trying to figure out how to break the news that I just found out he has kids.

(Juuuuust kidding)

The Nutcracker

May 25, 2009 - Leave a Response

Hmmm…memories of The Nutcracker, eh?  Well, it’s beautiful, and festive…and…simply ideal for a mid-winter’s nap.  

Even though there are giant chunks missing from my Nutcracker-Storyline-Knowledge, that’s not to say I didn’t (/don’t) have major delusions of being one of those prima ballerinas up there on stage.  The tu-tus, the toe shoes, the giant rat…

I did ballet for one year when I was around eight years old.  There are conflicting stories on why I was taken out of classes (a teacher who called me a fat french fry and told me to suck in my gut may have had a little something to do with it), but I have been more or less regretting the fact that I can’t “grand jete” to save my life ever since.

After graduating college, I started my search for a ballet school that teaches beginner classes to adults.  No luck.  But a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a flyer that read “It’s not too late to learn ballet!  Take advantage of this opportunity: Beginning ballet classes for adults, three times a week.”

I spent about two weeks just trying to locate the school.  It was tucked behind a section of town full of car mechanics and scrap metal yards.  Not the kind of place you’d think to find a ballet studio.  I had my first class last Friday, and loved it.  There were only three of us in the class that day and the teacher gave a very basic lesson on the different positions and bar exercises.  I couldn’t help but laugh aloud every time I looked up into the mirror.  Not only because it was very clear I had no idea what I was doing, but I also stood about twice as tall as every other person in the room.  I was, in no exaggerated terms, the awkward giant swooshing her feet around in socks and ratty spandex as the other women stood poised and well-equipped in their leotards and ballet slippers.

I was excited to come back on Monday for my second class.  Who could have guessed that I would leave Venezuela a ballerina?  I got to class to find twice as many women at the bar stretching.  Class began and right away I knew I was in for some trouble.  There were no slow, pointed exercises explaining feet and arm positions for each move.  The music was fast, the moves were faster and I was loooooost.  I thought maybe the teacher would come over and give me some “special” instructions since I was a beginner.  But no.  When the other girls pulled their legs up to their ears, the teacher would say “Whitney…aren’t you going to try?”

uhhh…my body doesn’t bend like that, lady.  

At one point we were doing a stretching routine at the bar that ended with everyone doing the forward splits.  I got about two inches down and then would collapse over to my side and try to feign “standing up like a princess” to end the series.  The second time through the exercise the teacher called out “Girls!  Your splits stop when you decide to stop.  You will make it to the ground if you want to make it to the ground.”  This of course was delivered while starring straight at me.  So, I decided to give it a try.  “Body, you want to go all the way down to the ground,” I commanded as I started to slide toward the floor.  The instructor may have had something with that statement, but even when my body wanted to make it to the ground it stopped short about a foot from splitsville.

The class ended with the instructor teaching us part of a nutcracker song.  (bada bada bada bada ba-da badadadaDA…you know the one.)  There were moves that I definitely had not even seen, let alone butchered at the bar in one of my two ballet classes.  We were leaping, doing weird twists with our legs and there was so much arm coordination involved I got dizzy.  I stuck to the back of the crowd and my image barely made its presence known in the mirror as we practiced the routine as a group.  Then she split us into two groups.  Surely she’s not going to make me do this in front of everyone, right?  I looked like Justin Timberlake in his Single Ladies SNL skit…manly, uncoordinated and a total joke.  But yes…when it was my group’s turn to go I was waved onto the dance floor and I gave it my all.  My arms went up when others’ went down.  my leaps looked more like puddle jumps and I definitely spent the entire time intently watching the girl in front of me for cues on timing and the next move.

I think things would have been better had everyone just joined me in laughing hysterically at the situation.  I was so clearly out of place!  But the only strange look I got was when I asked the instructor after class when I could pay.  “you really want to sign up?” she asked in overt shock.  “I’m going to be a ballerina GOSH DARNNIT!” I growled in English (in my head), and simply responded, “pues, si!”

So…I’m committed for at least a month.  Either I will learn how to twirl and plié, or I will have a solid month of getting comfortable looking like a fumbling fool.  Call me crazy, but I have hope.  Nutcracker 2009, here I come!

Whitney Houston Has Left the Building

May 20, 2009 - 2 Responses

What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…

Kind of like a Whitney being called a Whick-me…or Whinne (da p-eew)… Right Shakespear?

My name isn’t The Greatest for international travel.  But in many ways, my adoptive names are some of the best souvenirs I have from my time spent abroad.  I was dubbed Willie while studying in Madagascar, for example.  Admittedly, I found it a little strange at first…but there is nothing that will send my thoughts catapulting back to my four months abroad faster than having a friend (or even my parents) call me Willie.  

Here in Venezuela Whitney has once again proven to be a problem.  But unlike former experiences abroad, this time there’s been a lack in nickname consistency.  Depending on whether I’m visiting a Rotary meeting or introducing myself to a neighbor, Whitney can be transformed into anything from “Whindy” to my personal favorite, “Wimpy.”  In the past, I’ve actually been ok with just letting people call me whatever they’d like.  So what if Wimpy isn’t my real name?  I know who they’re talking to…I mean how many Wimpy Eulich’s are out there in the world?  

But, recently, for some reason I’ve become quite adamant that people get my name right. (I’ve been equally persistent in pointing out that I studied Social Policy, which is not the same as Political Science…sounds like someone is getting a little crotchety in her old age.)  Typically when I encounter someone having trouble with my name, I throw in the helpful line, “…like Whitney Houston.”  It’s worked like a charm in the past.  “ohhhh! yeees!  Whitney Houston!  You sing like Whitney Houston too? hahhahaha.”  (The laughter usually shifts to tears when I pull out my rendition of “I Will Always Love You.”)  

But.  I have some bad news to impart.  Whitney Houston ain’t what she used to be.  Nine times out of ten, when I conjure up the formerly fail-proof comparison of flaquita, gringa Whitney to druggie, knock-you-over-with-her-vabratto Whitney, I’m met with a hesitant nod and a blank stare.

This has some serious implications on my ability to go by the name of “Whitney” outside of the US.  If Whitney Houston is indeed falling off of the pop-culture radar, what does that leave me with?  Name tags?   Practicing my Spanish alphabet as I spell my name aloud?  Ms. Houston’s 1980s-themed fan-club page doesn’t give me much hope for a rebound in popularity…  

Maybe it’s time I throw in the towel and make things legal:  Hello, My Name is Wimpy.

Strike a Pose

May 19, 2009 - One Response

The rumors are true: beauty is important in Venezuela.  And sex sells.  Big boobs are applauded.  And plastic surgery?  Suuuuure that’s an appropriate Quinceañera gift!  

It would be unfair to say that everyone buys into the skimpy clothes, lots of makeup, fake body “accessories,” and sky-high heels packaged deal.  I’ve met plenty of down-to-earth, au natural girls while living in Merida.  But one thing I have found to serve as national proof of the importance of beauty and looking good, is the intensity and frequency of  impromptu Venezuelan photo shoots.  

It doesn’t matter your age, your profession or your style: when the cameras come out, you strike a pose.  Some have a preferred picture face (my host sister, for example, loves the “thumb and pointer finger cradling the chin” look), but most everyone has a range of “looks” to offer.  From sassy to innocent to downright raunchy, as an American I sometimes find it hard not to laugh at these intimate moments Venezuelans have publicly with the camera.

"Brrr...I'm so cold, but SO hotttt"

"Brrr...I'm so cold, but SO hotttt"

One night during Carnival my sis came home with a few new outfits.  She put on the knee high boots and furry jacket, modeled her new sexy tank tops and showed off her new earrings by aggressively flipping her hair from one shoulder to the other.  My host mom was loving it.  “Whitney! Whitney! Where’s your camera?”

“Really?  I have to be an accomplice in this?” I thought.  I got my camera and was instructed on where to stand, how close to zoom in and what angles were missing from the portfolio I was starting to compile of my sister scampering around in her new digs.  I tried my hardest to keep my jaw from dropping once my sister started incorporating furniture and other living room “props” into the photos.  She put on her new furry coat and faux-shivered in front of the paintings of snowy mountains on our living room wall.  She put her arm above her head and leaned into the door frame while flaunting her new blinged out jewlery.

When my parents came to visit, they noticed this photography trend pretty quickly.  Their first day in town, we took a trip to see the giant telescopes a few hours outside of Merida.  This was a school excursion, and one of my teachers brought her two adorable daughters, both well under the age of ten.  Halfway through the tour, everyone pulled out their cameras to snap shots of the Austin Powers-esque telescopes.  Without missing a beat MaFe and Daniella were popping their hips and giving ‘tude to the cameras.  At one point my mom and dad, almost in tears from laughing so hard, jumped in beside the girls and started giving the camera everything they had. 

Gringo He-Man with Beer. Hubba Hubba.

Gringo He-Man with Beer. Hubba Hubba.

This camera-loving national pass time didn’t stop in Los Andes.  The beaches of Los Roques were covered with thong-sporting, overweight women rolling in the sand, while their lovers crawled around trying to get the best variety of angles.  The waterfalls of Canaima proved to be a great back drop for animal-like poses and the infamous “whipping of the wet hair” action shots.  Our family photo album, of course, now consists of many of our own renditions of this surprising, sometimes frightening behavior towards cameras.  Having grown up in a household (and generally speaking, a culture) that encourages looking natural for the camera and discourages posing, pulling off a good Venezuelan photo shoot was pretty challenging at first.  Standing alone on a beach, wearing a bikini and trying to figure out what to do with all these limbs, not to mention facial expressions was hard to get used to. 

The secret, we discovered soon enough, was there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.  You’re not considered vain if you come home from vacation with photos of you seducing the camera in a variety of natural backdrops.  Sure, our renditions look a bit more comical, but no matter the interpretation of “prrrrr,” if you don’t own the camera, the camera will own you.  Whose ready for their sexy close-up?

Suddenly smiling with your hands by your side seems so LAME

Suddenly smiling with your hands by your side seems so LAME

You don't have to be neck'ed to conquer the camera

You don't have to be neck'ed to conquer the camera

The Fightin’ Spirit

April 30, 2009 - Leave a Response

When I was studying abroad in college, I had one incredibly memorable meltdown.  I was at an Internet cafe, and my computer just wasn’t working.  I had waited about 5 minutes and finally told the woman running the joint that I needed a new one.  I logged on to a different machine and after sending off my weekly list of emails, went to pay.  The woman, to my surprise, charged me for the initial “sign-in” fee for both computers.

Now, the total cost, mind you, was probably about $1.  But it was the principal of the matter: her computers were crappy, and I didn’t see why I should be charged for something that didn’t work.  I tried to argue my point.  I wasn’t expressing myself well.  I started to cry.  Not because of the money, but because I had no way to put my frustrations into words.  I paid up, stormed out of the shop and went and bought myself a faux snickers at the grocery store to cheer myself up.  Pathetic, but true.

I’ve never enjoyed arguing for sport, but my experience at the Internet cafe in Madagascar, and subsequent, more successful second language arguments, have taught me there is something incredibly satisfying about victoriously putting up a fight in a foreign tongue.   

Today I went to rent a tent in town.  I’m going camping for one night on Saturday, but because tomorrow is Labor Day, they asked me to come in and pick up the tent this afternoon.  I got there, and found they were charging me for three days.  “Uhhh, disculpame, but I’m only going for one night,” I told them.  “Yeah, but we charge from the time you pick up until you return,” the flojos explained.  “yeah, ok…but I dont WANT to pick this up until Saturday.  You asked me to come today.  Why should I pay?”  (correct grammar AND a look that says ‘you’re messing with the wrong girl, mister’? Whhaaaat?? Five points for the gringa)

We had a nice back and forth, until finally the guy called his boss.  Now, full disclosure, I’m not sure I actually “won” the face-off.  I still put down the full deposit and three days pay with an offer from the salesman to “discuss it with the boss” upon my return…BUT…the guys working at the shop fully understood me.  And I them.  Which felt awesome.  (Not to mention I had dry eyes and an extra skip in my step once the final bell rang).

 I left the shop with my tent in tow, ready to pick a Spanish fight with the next person who crossed me.   Look out!

My Two Dads (and Moms)

April 29, 2009 - 2 Responses

Who stepped forward to shake hands first, Chavez or Obama?  …Well, in this microcosm of international relations, both sides were nearly nose diving for a hug and a kiss.

My “real” parents (henceforth referred to as RPs) came to visit me in Venezuela last week, and a highlight of the trip was definitely the inter-family mingling.  On Friday morning my host mom prepared a “traditional” breakfast of arepas and cheese (…and some more cheese for good measure) for my RPs.  We were force-fed cafe au lait and I think my RPs realized that I had not been exaggerating in the least about my dairy-lovin’ diet here.  Considering my RPs don’t speak Spanish and my host family doesn’t speak English, conversation was actually quite spectacular.  Lots of laughter, and great Spanish practice for me in my temporary role of translator extraordinaire. 

Meeting of the United Nations (of Parents)

Meeting of the United Nations (of Parents)

On Saturday night my host family held a family birthday party for one of my older host brothers.  The RPs and I attended and they were without question The Life of The Party.  All of my little girl cousins were asking my dad to dance (and my host sister may or may not have been grinding on him toward the end of the night.  Ew.) and my mom got to salsa her little heart out in front of the whole Venezuelan family.  

Leading up to this visit I was nearing the end of my rope in terms of host-family-supportability.  I felt like I was experiencing a lot of the negatives of living with a host family (limited independence, feeling like a guest in someone elses house, etc) and few of the positives (cross-cultural exchange; being invited to share in family activities like going to church or neighborhood gatherings; language practice; etc).  I think having my parents come really served as a wake up call for both my host family and myself.  I was reminded how LUCKY I am to be in such an open and loving family.  And I think my family was reminded that, oh yeah…I’m not from here.  I still have a lot to learn about the culture and I look to them for a lot of cultural answers and advice.  In short, I really depend on them for a lot more than three square(ish) meals a day.

After the long weekend in Merida, my RPs and I  headed to the beach and gran sabana…absolutely amazing, and photos to come!  My host family is still talking about my parents’ visit, and after a week away traveling, I returned home to an excited family ready to smother me with much appreciated Venezuelan love and attention.

Mi Corazon

April 14, 2009 - 2 Responses

Before moving to Louisiana in the fall of 2007, I don’t think I could have ever imagined being called “baby,” “honey-child,” or “sweet girrrl” on a near daily basis.  Even less so could I wrap my head around the idea of liking these names.  But after a few short months in Baton Rouge, it was cause for a moment of introspection–“did I do something to piss that person off?”  “Was I supposed to have something to him/her today?”–if a local colleague called me just plain ole “Whitney.”  It’s funny because had any of my coworkers in Chicago or DC called me “sugar” or “baby,” I probably would have socked them in the face. 

But this period of getting used to “pet names” in the work place was, of course,  great training for Latin America.  I can’t help but feel instant love for the cashier at the bread shop in the bus terminal when she calls me her “amour.”  There’s something that just tickles my soul and makes me smile when the chubby man sitting next to me on the bus calls me his “princesa.”  And you really want to make me melt?  Just call me your “corazon.”  Gets me every time.

It sounds cheesy, but there is some magical power of making you feel really close to someone when they use these nicknames.  We’re strangers.  We may never see each other again.  But…I love you!  You’re not calling me “miss” or “ma’am”– salutations that instantly distance us from one another.  You’re inviting me, if only for an instant, to be your bff, your daughter or your sister.  How can you not excuse someone from knocking you over on the sidewalk when their apology includes “my queen?”  

I think the greatest part of all, though, is the fact that these pet names in English just don’t have the same effect.  Sure, being called “baby” and “sugar” grew on me in LA, but only a limited number of people could get away with it.  Here, age, gender, race…it doesn’t matter.  You sweet talk, and it works.  I’ve met a few people who, against my protests, like to practice their English when they’re around me.  And every time I hear a direct translation of “my heart” or “my princess” I just lose respect.  The giggle that typically results from being called someone’s corazon transforms into a grunt of “oh please.”   

So in short…need to ask me a favor?  Learn some Spanish, mi corazon!