Sunday, November 11, 2012

Falke: Eight years later, I finally get the memo

I spent the better part of five years reading books about the most far-flung places and abstract social problems I could find. Fascinated by the Middle East, China and a smattering of cross-sectional studies about random social problems, the place I lived became something of a local-yokel backwater that I relegated to office hours. I came back to Caracas feeling like I needed to give Venezuela the same intellectual attention that I had been giving to Lebanon, the Nagorno Karabakh or the rise of the global sushi industry.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Caracas’ quiet renaissance

Hundreds of plastic bags filled with mock seaweed and fake fish lined nearly half a city block, lit up by Christmas lights beneath them, with an ambient sound backdrop of croaking frogs and echoing drops of water. The soothing effect of it had people crowding around in the warm evening air to take pictures and gawk. Incoherent performance art that sheds its veneer of intellectual seriousness actually turns out to be a lot of fun.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Our baby steps toward adoption

It’s official – we’ve gotten the ball rolling on adopting a Venezuelan kid.

A year after this process started kicking around our heads, we’ve made our first tiny step toward actually making it happen. We began the process in Brazil, and it got cut off for the obvious reason that we left the country. Somehow it always seemed like this was the place where it would make sense for us to adopt, and our first meeting really made it feel that way.

Foraging for green mangos, making jam

It's mango season again.  All over Caracas, trees are weighed down by green mangoes. It looks like this.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Scratch paper can still beat a Blackberry in a fair fight

People keep chuckling at me for writing stuff of bits of recycled paper instead of tapping it into a sleek digital device. They can keep chuckling. For the all the breathtaking advances in telecommunications technology, it’s still paper that comes through in the clutch.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Somehow, she found me

When friends visit my apartment for the first time, there’s nothing I enjoy quite as much as pointing to the paintings on the walls and saying “Isa did that.” Her glorious rendition of Venezuelan painter Cesar Rengifo’s Them and the city, with its dramatic Caracas skyline, is always a crowd pleaser. As is the copy of Mexican cartoonist Miguel Covarubias’ image of 1930s lindy-hoppers. The untrained eye is unlikely to notice her ceramics in our kitchen, the home-made lamps in the living room, the couch pillows she quilted herself.

Such an artistic streak often leaves people surprises that she’s also an electronic engineer. Perhaps nobody is quite as surprised as Isa herself.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Life by the Drop

Sometimes music is moving and inspiring even when I don’t get it. A song can strike me at some particular moment of my life or resonate with a given circumstance until it sinks into my mind, and I stop trying to figure out what it means. From time to time the question sort of nags me – what are they really talking about?

Sunday, April 1, 2012


It’s been nearly a month of strange limbo between visitor and business traveler in Bogota, maybe unusual enough that I’m only now sitting down to write what seemed like an obvious thing to blog about from the outset.

Bogota feels like the Andean sister to my adopted Caribbean hometown. The cleaned-up and orderly place where service is impeccable, streets are clean, poverty is well-hidden, history is visible and present. I’ve grown to love how it always feels like something between a warm fall day and a cool fall day, how the air feels fresh from constant rain, how bogotanos walk through a heavy drizzle without batting an eyelid or reaching for an umbrella, as if they were born waterproof.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Saudade redux

It was easier for me to leave Brazil than I had expected. Emotionally that is, discounting all this nonsense.

At times I try to remember the last time I walked the dog along the Aterro de Flamengo, watched the sun set over Pao de Acucar, or took a dip at Posto 10 in Ipanema. Truth is our last week in Rio was so horridly overcast and rainy that Isa and I were spared those last moments of sighing as we sipped a coconut juice by the water, pining to ourselves – the famous “saudade” that permeates Brazilian music – and wondering “how could we ever leave this place.”

It’s funny how saudade can catch up with you at unexpected moments. Listening to my Pilates teacher’s samba mix was one of those.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The existentialism of decaf

You never know what you might find at the bottom of a cup of coffee.

I rediscovered the marvel of decaffeination on my last trip back to the US, and I suddenly felt freed from the inherent constraints of being an inconsistent and somewhat repentant coffee drinker. No matter how much I love the aroma of a coffeeshop, the tingling sensation of a strong espresso on my tongue, or the richness of foamed milk, the caffeine is too much for me.

I broke my coffee addiction a couple years back, and can now drink a marron pequeño from time to time as long as I don’t get back into the habit. But the coffee buzz still goes to my head. It gives me a surge in the morning and then leaves me needing a nap by the early afternoon. In Venezuela I’d come to accept that these were the rules of the game, since asking for decaf is an invitation to a blank, uncomprehending stare.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Can the US and EU really tighten the screws on Iran?

After nearly a decade of hearing the same back and forth between Iran and the West, the situation has heated up as the US and the EU look to clamp down on Iran's oil revenue. Tough talk from the Bush Administration for years amounted to sanctions that Iran was largely able to ignore; the routine newsroom joke during that period was that Washington was blocking imports of Iranian dates, prunes and carpets. This time it's for real, this time it's oil.

All over the newswires I read that Iran is in panic, people are lining up to buy dollars, and the currency is collapsing with the threat of the new sanctions. But I'm still confused at how the mechanics of this would work in the long run, because not everybody is on board. China, which is a major buyer of Iranian oil, has already blown off the sanctions. Russia, which is a major oil exporter and therefore not a buyer of Iran's crude, is using its diplomatic clout to warn against the sanctions and is now raising the specter of potential war by Western powers.

The issue here is that oil is a global market. If one country, or group of countries, decides not to buy from a particular seller, that simply rearranges the way the oil is traded but does not affect either the production or the consumption -- and therefore the supply and demand -- of the product in question. This came up over and over when Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez repeatedly threatened over the years to cut off oil exports to the United States. His detractors pointed out that that would just mean Venezuelan oil would go to another country, displacing the oil that country was buying from Saudia Arabia, Indonesia, or Libya, which would in turn end up in the United States.

The same thing strikes me as happening here. The US, EU and Japan all band together and put their foot down about Iranian oil, and start to buy it from somewhere else. OK, that in the short term will make the price of oil go up because of the uncertainties involved, bringing speculators into the mix, and at least temporarily roiling the markets. The logical next step would be for China to simply increase its purchases, some of which it can do through barter exchange (oil for ipods?) and absorb the slack. If the fundamentals remain the same, the prices would go back down, with a system that's probably less efficient because it would have to be based on politics rather than the geography.

At the same time, both the EU and Japan are seeking to get three to six-month wavers to give them time to figure out where to buy oil and petrochemicals. Makes sense. But would it not also stand to reason that Iran could use that three to six month window to figure other places they could sell their oil?

The only obvious effect I see would be giving the Chinese a buyer's monopoly (or monopsony in fancy econ-talk) over Iranian crude. They are already negotiating pretty steep discounts from Tehran. Helping the Chinese get cheaper oil seems like a bizarre way for Europe, the US and Japan to halt Iran's nuclear program. But I would wonder how long even that can last. And I would guess there are plenty of small African or Eastern European countries that the big powers pay scant attention to that would be happy to start taking some cargoes from Iran under the table. China wouldn't be the only buyer, at least not for long.

Something doesn't add up here ...

Thursday, January 5, 2012

El vigilante

Today was one of those few days I when I thought about these people that are in every corner of my life. I was looking for a key to our stairway door, and popped by the security guard’s window on the way out of the apartment.

You’ll have to ask the concierge, I can’t go up those stairs. Or even go into the lobby or the parking lot. They barely even let me in here, he said, pointing to the small, cramped security guard booth.

It’s the sort of job most likely to go to Venezuela’s most luckless. These are folks that live in and don’t have highschool degrees or marketable skills. It’s a clear isolation on the other side of the luxurious office towers and swanky apartment buildings to industrial warehouses and buildings in construction. With crime an increasing concern in Venezuela, the vigilante is a fixture of life.

Fifty years ago maybe they would have been cutting cane, lifting blocks or hauling salt. Today that manual labor has been replaced with constant boredom, texting and fiddling with a cell phone, and the struggle to stay awake on shifts that often last 24 hours at a time – one day on, one day off. A one-liner I heard not long ago summed it up fairly well – Ando mas ladillado que un vigilante sin saldo … I’m in a worse mood that a security guard with no credit on his phone.

I’ve always thought it questionable what sort of security they can really provide under these circumstances, particularly given that they’re going to be the first in the line of fire if something does happen. Nobody with any means would consider living in a building without a vigilante, but almost nobody trusts them.

“Whenever something goes wrong, the first one they blame is the vigilante,” said the security guard at my mother-in-law’s lower-middle-class gated community after a house was robbed a block away. The kid’s got a technical degree and trying to finish highschool but he can’t get his studies done while on the job. My in-laws get along well with him and his coworkers, taking them food on holidays and cracking jokes on the way in and out of the gate.

That’s not the usual relationship. In one apartment I lived in, the landlord was shocked when I asked him to leave the key with the security guards. “With those criminals? Are you crazy?”

Trouble is I can understand the mistrust. These are folks at the edge of poverty and simultaneously at the edge of opulence. They live in hillside slums that generally function as little villages, everybody knows everybody and everybody knows everybody’s business. My gut instinct says it’s not the security guards themselves that get mixed up in crime. But something tells me it’s only a matter of time before some true criminal approaches them and asks them for some small piece of information that would enable a break-in, a car theft, a kidnapping. Many would probably back away. I can imagine many others would not.

Investigations of apartment break-ins nearly always turn up evidence that the people who did the hit had some kind of inside information that helped them do it. That is almost always followed by genuine shock and consternation that such information could have gotten out. People in Caracas do all sorts of other things to take their security seriously – a battery of car alarms, triple locks on doors, electric fences and security cameras. Rarely does anyone mention the idea of paying for security guards whose social conditions might allow them to live further away from the criminal elements they are supposed to protect folks from.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Where are all these ADD drugs going?

Drugs to treat Attention Deficit Disorder are in short supply these days. The story is making the rounds this week, with full takeouts both here and here. I've always wondered when this issue was going to bounce back into the media particularly into the financial wires.

Drugs like Adderrall, Ritalin, Stratera and a host of others are meant to increase focus and improve concentration for people -- mostly kids -- that suffer from ADD. They are generally stimulants of various different forms that not only keep people more focused but also let them stay awake longer. They're supposed to be very closely controlled, but reality appears that they're not. The trouble is that people who don't have ADD and take drugs like these -- unlike a non-diabetic receiving insulin -- receive the same benefits as the folks they are actually prescribed for.

This story from the New Yorker three years ago hit on exactly this issue. Instead of remedying a genetic or psychological  disorder, these drugs are turning into performance enhancers for kids who want to be able to get good grades while still partying to their heart's content. In many cases they're used not by failing students to improve grades but rather by kids that already get good grades but want to do so more efficiently to have more time for their extracurriculars.This story (and others that I've heard from friends) suggest it's not very hard to get these meds. Just show up at the campus shrink with vague descriptions of a series of pre-determined symptoms and you're on your way.

So it really a surprise that these things are in short supply?

Breaking the body to build the mind

For more than a year I’ve been kicking around the idea of doing one of these 10-day meditation marathons as a way of adding to my five tepid years of the practice. I think I can handle the emotional isolation involved, but I’m genuinely concerned about the physical pain.

We’re talking about sitting cross legged for 10 hours a day for ten straight days.  I can’t sit cross legged for 10 minutes without pain shooting up my back and down my sciatica. I famously can’t make it through dinner without standing up to stretch my legs. I’ve got two partially herniated discs that I’ve managed to control over the years with a combination of exercises and abandoning the fun stuff I used to do like long-distance running. How am I gonna make it through a marathon of sitting up straight?

The primary complaint about physical discomfort for folks that do Vipassana is back pain. And this is for people that don’t generally suffer from back pain.

I’ve done a few Google searches and found a lot of references to Vipassana meditation as a way of reducing back pain, which is often linked to stress. This seems like good and bad news. I’d be happy to add it to my back-relief arsenal that already includes stretching, sit-ups, pushups, and all other manner of funny looking abdominal exercises. And I’ve always been underwhelmed by Western medicine’s approach to back pain, as well as Western society’s horrid treatment of our backs. It took me some time to stop expecting doctors to be able to do anything about back pain, and once I did I found that I could get along with them a lot better. These days I don’t bug those doctors and they don’t bug me, but then again they ask me to sit on my butt for 100 hours.

Still, there’s something scary in this “it’s all in your mind” approach, even if that happens to be true. My guess is upon starting Vipassana I’ll try to explain that I’ve got disc hernia that makes it hard for me to sit still, and a peacefully smiling instructor will tell me that back pain in fact comes from spiritual imbalance and that there’s nothing for me to worry about. Everyone goes through back pain during meditation, they’ll say, you’re no different, and you have to stop listening to what those doctors tell you.

If you’ve ever had chronic back pain you know it sucks. I’m fully ready to believe that a good chunk of it’s in my head. I’m hoping this will teach me how much of it is.