Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Next Level Day 4: Just a little demo...

On saturday, the Next Level Academy continued.  The program opened with a warm-up dance lesson session for the entire group.  This was an important addition to the program, as ALL the students wanted to be involved in the dance program and this was our way of placating those who were in other groups. Our instructor Jukeboxx taught them some steps, then had the students do a cipher and as they danced had to pretend that their bodies were covered in ants, or while doing moves were dodging bird droppings (angry birds- to help the simulation, DJ 2Tone and I tossed lil scraps of wet toilet paper at the dancers).  The State Dept should consider sending a DanceMotionUSA team to Patna....

After the dance lesson, the groups broke into workshops to continue honing in on the skills involved in the various hip hop labs.  The students have been picking up the skills quickly.  

In the Emcee workshop, the students are already turning poems into rhymes and beginning to work on the intricacies of performance.  Students in the DJ and Beatmaking workshop are showing real promise and potential in the respective crafts.  The dance workshop focused on steps, choreography and honing in on moves rather than just dancing.

During American Music Abroad auditions and Next Level Orientation, we give the bands worst case scenarios and ask how they would deal with the situation.  Generally, that you are in Beirut, delayed by checkpoints on your way to a small music class at a refugee camp.  When you arrive, instead of 30 kids for a workshop there are 300 kids for a concert.

Well...we got kinda close to one of those situations in real time.  

The Principal of St. Karen's asked if we could do a brief demo of the various hip hop elements for a few students going on vacation.  We were busy in the workshops and PSAs, but I agreed we could do a small ten minute demo.  I agreed that if it was small it could be done in between the break between the workshop and PSAs.  

Instead of a small demo, we walked into a giant concert of 300 students and teachers in the hall. 

The NL team laughed a bit, and got to work on an impromptu concert.  I spoke to the crowd of the upcoming concert and the origins of hip hop as a voice for communities as the artists warmed up.  They then demoed each respective craft, and how it fit into hip hop.  For the grand finale, the students began demoing what they had been learning.  

Teams of boy and girl students showed off the dance moves, while our student DJ students spun tracks.  The school was abuzz with energy from the performance by the NL Academy students.

After we re-grouped from the impromptu concert, we got down to business on the PSA workshops.  The Gender and Environment group were in the process of script-writing and location-scouting, and plan to start shooting monday and tuesday, respectively.  The Civic Engagement PSA is being crafted as well.

At the end of the day, we had a surprise for the students.  The NL teachers and I bought 4 giant watermelons to reward the students for their hard work ahead of a day off.  We finished the day and first series of the academy over sweet slices of watermelon that were shared by students, teachers and staff alike



I walked down the busy street to my hotel.
I was drawn in to a temple with the percussion of a table and the stare of a guru. I sat cross-legged on the ground on a rug over the marble floor. I closed my eyes and listened to the chants echo off the marble and through my head.
Oh the dulcet chants.
I sat like a buddha with my eyes closed and my ears open.
And I played the day through my head: of women in colorful saris wrapping red string around banyan trees as the sweet incense burned.
The sweet song ended.
I opened my eyes and gave namaste to the musicians.
The guru, with piercing black eyes and a soft salt-and-pepper beard blessed me with a saffron tika on the center of my skull.
A saffron third eye if there ever was one.
The guru sent me off with a handful of crystal anise sweets and boulder sugar candy. And he bade me take a bowl of lentils and rice in a bowl made of leaves.
And I carried my leaf bowl of dal and my handful of candies into the white lights of the swerving traffic of the night.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Under the Bodhi tree

I sat with my eyes closed, tired.  I sat under the bodhi tree.  The Jew in the Lotus.  I sat and I listened.  To the sound of the saffron-clad monk chanting prayers next to me.  Picking up little dried fallen berries from the holy tree.

He chanted very deliberately, and I listened with my eyes closed.  Feeling the breeze calm me as it slide softly across my face.

I felt jealousy.  I felt jealous that he took a dried berry that had hit me.  It was my fruit of the tree.

I closed my eyes and listened to the wind.

I tried to think deep, but something told me open your eyes.

I awoke to the beaming face of a shaven-head Chinese monk.  She radiated joy.

And I looked at the faces of all those around me.  And there was so much joy.  So much happiness to be at such a special place.

Another dried fruit of the tree dropped, and I picked it up.  I laughed at myself for coveting a dried fruit from an ancient tree.  And the berry that came to me was beautiful.  The grey fuzz on top was soft with age.

And I thought that the world should be seen with the eyes open.  That we must love the world around us-- for it is so utterly beautiful.

And I found peace.  And I wanted to share it with people I loved.  So I got up and started walking.  And a young monk who I had chatted with came roaring up on his motorcycle.  And I climbed on back and he raced me back to my hotel.

Dj2Tone and Purple laughed when they saw me come roaring in on a motorcycle with a crimson-clad young monk driving.

Monday, May 26, 2014

A night off

After a very long time, I finally had a night off.

I walked down the side of the busy road, and stopped to have dinner under a tarp held up by bamboo sticks.  A woman and child slept silently in the corner.

I picked at the sticky clumps of rice and poured over the dal lentil stew.  I mixed it in my hands with red onion, stewed okra and mango pickle.

The fellow sitting next to me tossed half a chapati to a hungry stray.  I added to the feast by tossing dal rice balls for the meal.

I am used to the gentle stares and I like them.  But what I like more is when the staring stops and people get back to eating because I am not eating any differently than they are.

And because I am not as interesting as a silver plate of dal and rice.

A soft rain began to fall.  In India, rain is always a blessing.

But getting rained on is how you get sick.  It is known.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Next Level Day Three: The Gang's All Here!

Our delayed NL India team members arrived safely yesterday to Patna--excited as can be to begin the program.  

After the incident with our driver, which I will describe later (or not), we had new drivers waiting this morning to take us to St. Karen's School.

We arrived and I introduced the two remaining members Sheikia "Purple" Norris and Ansley "Jukeboxx" Jones.  Purple spoke to the students about MCing, and hip hop as storytelling within their environments.  She worked with some students to get them to freestyle based on things in their realities, and treated them with some of her own rhymes.  

Meanwhile, Jukeboxx-- perhaps the most anticipated member as the Indian students were dance fanatics, spoke to the students about expressing themselves through motion and connecting with their feelings through dance.  She then called all the students on stage, and ran a hip hop dance, breakdance and bollywood cypher.

After the excitement, we divided up into the workshop groups.  This proved a little tricky, because the overwhelming majority wanted to be part of the dance workshop.  It made sense, given that dance is already something tangible to them, while MCing, DJing and Beatmaking are far more foreign and abstract concepts.  But we were able to get the appropriate group numbers by compromising with the students that we would hold a brief hip hop dance workshop for all the students prior to breaking up into the rest of the workshops.

Regardless, we were able to divide into full groups. Approximately 7 students and 4 teachers actively participated in the emcee workshop. A brief description of an emcee's role and responsibility was presented and each student selected a name based on their characteristics, aspirations/interest or point of view. Students were paired up to collaborate on an original poem or short story. Each pair presented. Most participants overcame the reluctancy to try and delivered very engaging work on day one! 

In DJ 2Tone's first workshop with the DJ students (approx 12) at St. Karen's they identified the basic components of a DJ controller and how the machine works.  From there the students learned how to search, select and load up music using the Serato DJ program in conjunction with the DJ controller.  They also took turns loading up music on the computers by themselves and playing it.  During the next workshop they will begin discussing timing and practice dropping in songs on beat.

In Ko's Beatmaker workshop, the students (approx 11), the students began experimenting with beat making software and drum kits.  They broke down beats from music from different countries and styles.  They also began their hands at creating more complex beats.

The most popular group was dance.  We had almost 30 students join that class. Jukeboxx worked with the dancers on how to warm up correctly, then dove into different steps and stunts, and tied different dance styles in hip hop dance to more classical forms, while drawing out from the students the connection between classic Indian dance and its modern forms. They learned the names and historical background of hip hop dance. The students learned toprock, drops and foot work/floor rock. They learned choreography for our show next friday and had a wonderful cipher. They even learned about being safe dancers and dancing without harm to the body, especially since breaking can be a very harsh form on the body--but it is only as harsh as you allow. 

After a break, we sent out the teachers (the student feel more comfortable and freer to open up) and began working more in-depth on the PSAs.  DJ 2Tone introduced the broad overarching topics (Environment; Gender Equality/Gender Violence; Civic Engagement).  The six members of the NL Team paired off to lead a respective workshop (DJ 2Tone & Ko- Environment; Jukeboxx & Purple- Gender; Anshul (Videographer) and me- Civic Engagement).  We allowed the students to select their own group, and it divided up rather evenly.

During the Environment PSA session, 2Tone and Ko engaged in a more in-depth discussion with the students about various categories of pollution that affect their community and India as a whole.  From there they brainstormed for ideas about what the PSAs may look and sound like.  In addition, they had the students take time to think about ways in which the environmental PSAs will effectively speak out about the issue and suggest solutions to the problem.

The Gender PSA was filled with emotion.  Jukeboxx and Purple spoke about power relations and the power dynamic in gender dynamics.  They outlined levels of uncomfortability from staring up through outright harassment, and also addressed issues of victim blame.

In the Civic Engagement PSA, we spoke of ownership in society.  We discussed how people connect to their home, their school, their city, their country and onward.  We delved a lot into verbal and nonverbal messages, socialization and how messages are absorbed consciously and subconsciously through direct and indirect messages.  

The Next Level Academy continues to grow and progress.  Their is a palpable excitement among the students for all the workshops, and we can see the gears turning.  

Later in the day, we went to Radio Mirchi- our radio partner in Patna.  We had an incredible 1.5 hour taped interview chat with one of the jockeys.  It got far deeper than we could have dreamed, but it a very special fashion.  The jockey asked Jukeboxx about how dance is a form of expression, and she very eloquently answered about its role of communicating joy through motion.  Meanwhile, Purple spoke of hip hop's role in giving voice to the dispossed and freestyled over a Hindi tabla beat.  

When I was asked about why hip hop was being brought to a backwards region of India, where there could be backlash against different cultures, I replied that we didn't consider any region to be "backwards" just a bit more traditional than other places and we were pleased to see a side of India than most Indians from cosmo cities visit.  I also said that India had been absorbing different cultures, tastes and ideas for centuries and found a way to incorporate it-- and that America had done something similar, just in a shorter time span.  I also explained that this was a two-way exchange and that our artists were learning as much as teaching, and we wanted to share to create something together.

Another amazing day in the books.

Gastrodiplomacy Gives Foreign Chefs A Fresh Take And Taste Of America

Friday, May 23, 2014

Next Level Day Two: Verbal and Nonverbal

The Next Level program continued into the second day, and continued to be quite incredible. We began the program with a couple of icebreakers to help introduce verbal and nonverbal communication and expression.

We got the entire group into a large circle and played the game “telephone.” DJ 2Tone explained about the filtration of messages, and gave the group a hip hop phrase (“hip hop, it started out in the park”); The phrase got passed around the circle and return in a quite different form. He discussed how messages change when filtered through different lens.

Then, he explained about how crowds communicate through motion and noverbal messages. He explained about “The Wave” at sporting events. Then we held hands, and sent a wave through the circle. We continued two more times, going faster—then slower. Finally, while holding hands, we passed along a hand squeeze from person to person around the circle.

After the last exercise, we pulled the group in close concluded the program by discussing verbal and nonverbal communication. I explained that there are many ways of communicating both verbally and in a nonverbal fashion. We saw that basic messages can get misunderstood when passed through a long distance; we also saw that we don't need to speak to communicate energy and meaning. I spoke about how hip hop began in communities that felt that people were not listening to their problems, or were not understanding their messages. 

 I talked about how hip hop offered an avenue to share their feelings about society around them through verbal and nonverbal messages via hip hop music and dance. I also explained that these communities in New York used hip hop to deal with issues in their own communities as a form of nonviolent means to deal with conflict, and tied that to India through Gandhi's practice of nonviolence through symbols of verbal and nonverbal communication.

We took a break to do a yoga session led by one of the St. Karen faculty with the students.

We then divided up the students into two groups, and alternated them in 40 minute workshops on DJing and beatmaking.

DJ 2Tone Jones conducted a workshop on a brief history of Hip Hop and the DJ's role within the culture. He explored some of the differences in sound and style between some of the genres that have influenced Hip Hop ranging from Disco to Reggae, as well as some Indian music.  He spoke of how it was teens the same age of the present students that helped create hip hop. He spoke of hip hop as a lifestyle and a culture. DJ 2Tone also spoke of hip hop artists as “street journalists.” Lastly, he emphasized the importance of self-expression within Hip Hop and our expectations for the students to express themselves through the music, dance and performance that we will be creating throughout the Next Level program.

Meanwhile, beatmaking Ko setup a projector so he could show the students a video about the history of sampling, talked about break beats, and then had the students stomp and clap a simple "We Will Rock You" beat. The class then tried to transfer it over to the drum pad and he briefly explained the use of a click track/metronome. He had a few students take turns overdubbing drums into Reason. Finally they sampled a Bollywood song a student brought in, chopped it up and took turns playing it over the drums.

After the sessions, we finished the day with the PSA workshop session. Similar to yesterday, we dismissed the teachers to make it a safe space for the students to discuss their issues. As I mentioned in my previous update, we gave the students homework to come write out 3-4 lines on a issue that they felt was most pressing in their lives/community. 

Today, we had the students pair off, and discuss the problem they had selected with a partner. After 5 minutes of discussion, we called them back and had them go around the circle and speak about what their partner thought was the most serious issue.

We received many variations on the topics we had identified already as fodder for the PSAs. We were very heartened to see a number of boys who brought up the issue of gender violence and gender inequality. We also had many answers related to the environment, as well as child labor. 

We gave the students homework tonight of finding one verbal and one nonverbal example of how the issue that their partner chose was tackled around the world-- in any medium (film, photo, music, theater, dance) that they could identify.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Next Level Day One

Just jumping right into my next life as a cultural diplomacy roadie and public diplomacy camp counselor...

The Next Level program opened today in Patna at the St. Karen's School, and we had a phenomenal start. After meeting with the principal, we addressed the students and teachers of St. Karen's about the different aspects of the upcoming Next Level program and introduced the Next Level artists who had already arrived.

DJ 2-Tone Jones and Ko (Beatmaker) explained their music, their backgrounds and their instruments. DJ 2-Tone demonstrated how he mixed music together, and Ko explained how he took music apart over a Bollywood song he chopped up into its beats.

 After the brief demonstration, we invited the students and the teachers to try out the equipment. The students (and teachers) had a blast scratching on 2-Tone's controller and making beats on Ko's drum pad. The line of students stretched on (although it was often their teachers who we had to remind that everyone needed a turn and they had to move on).

 Following the demonstration, I sent the teachers out of the room and we all sat on the floor and discussed the program more in-depth. I explained that it was a two-way exchange, and that we were here to learn as much as teach. We discussed the dynamics of the workshop and performance We also spoke about how the history of America music creates the music we listen to today just as the history of Indian music creates what they listen to, and that we would play with both cultures of music during the Next Level Academy.

We had a very good discussion about the PSAs, and the issues that we had considered (Enviroment, Equality/Rights/Gender Violence, Civic Engagment/local democracy). I gave them homework to each write 4 lines about an issue that affects them and how it affects their community; they gave me homework as well-- I need to learn two phrases in Hindi and one stanza of a Bollywood song.

After a tour of the facilities of the school, we returned to play some music for the students. A simple music performance turned into India Bandstand, and students took the stage to show off their dance moves. As you can see from the pics, we are working with some really talented students.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Aloha Venezuela I

Working backwards cause it has  been busy! But amazing....

I am a week behind on the blog so I will try to catch up on all the fun that has transpired in Venezuela. I hate being so far behind because it ends up being a listing more than a description.

Well, for starters Keola, Moana and Jeff arrived in Caracas early in the morning on May 7.  They had traveled for 2 days to get down here, so spent the day resting.  We all met up later for dinner at an amazing restaurant called Maute Grill.  It was incredible.  They have grills placed right next to your table as to provide you the freshest cooked meats.  They presented us with the cuts to inspect, and then grilled away.  Then they placed the fresh-seared meats on cutting boards for us to devour.  It was a feast.

The next day we started a bit later, and headed over to the unoccupied U.S. Ambassador's residence in the hills of Caracas.  Venezuela and the U.S. have not sent ambassadors since 2010, so the home is used for occasional programs like ours.  We were having a jam session with Eduardo Betancourt y su grupo, a Venezuelan joropo group.  Eduardo was an incredible harpist.  We were also joined by the C4 Trio, which was actually a quartet of cuatro players. The cuatro is a cousin of the ukulele, as both were descended from the Portuguese braganza.  We were also joined by two Venezuelan alumni of the sibling cultural diplomacy program OneBeat.

Anyway, the jam session was absolute MAGIC.  The bands quickly bonded over adept plucking and music styles.  The room was abuzz with incredible music and real people-to-people connections over thecollaboration.  I had to shake my head at the irony the the empty diplomatic residence was being put to such good use for public diplomacy.

We were joined by the Chargesd'Affaires for the event, the highest ranking diplomat at the Embassy in absence of the ambassador. 

Meanwhile the CAO Neal, who is originally from Hawaii and has been the main driver behind this program, had organized the Venezuelan equivalent of a pig roast. The piggy was roasting in a wooden box for hours with coals on top of the box cooking it through.

After they jammed and jammed, all the artists sat out on the patio to feast on the pig roast. Neal introduced us to his favorite rum, Diplomatico which was the best rum I have ever tried in my life. It was more like cognac that rum, it was fantastic. It was an incredible start to the program.

After the lavish lunch and jam session, we headed over to the Fundacion Bigott, a cultural center in the pastel historic colonial center in Pet. At the Center, we set up and had an a demonstration first of Venezuelan music. It was fascinating to see the evolution of the Braganza and Oud, and how those Iberian and Middle Eastern instruments would later influence both Venezuela and Hawaii. I had not fully connected the Oud to Braganza and Ukelele prior, but it was clear when hearing and seeing it together.

And the Venezuelans danced for us. I wish I had such rhythm.

And the Ambassadors of Aloha shared their Hawaiian music and culture. The Venezuelans were fascinated by the music, and more importantly the story-telling through Hula. That is always the X-Factor of this program. It is such a tangible way of connecting into the Hawaiian culture, and always brings everyone into the programmatic fold in a very oblique fashion.

After the Hula lesson, the Venezuelan dancers gave us another demonstration. Moana remarked about the similarities in the Polynesian styles of dance.

The program was fantastic, and really connected the audience to Hawaiian music and culture.

After the program, we headed to a restaurant called Leal. Restaurante Leal is a Venezuelan fusion restaurant. No sooner had we sat down, we were greeted by the famous chef Eduardo Leal. The affable chef cracked jokes and recommended dishes. I had a Cazuela de Corvina (a delicate white fish caserole) that was good. The restaurant was Caracas chic, with all the beautiful people about.

The next morning we visited the old colonial town of El Hatillo- a pastel historic part of town. We did a little shopping at a store that had crafts from across Venezuela. After the shopping and coffee-sipping, we were to El Cine- a futuristic sushi joint strangely out of place in the historic neighborhood. The place had ipad menus, and fusion sushi. It was delicious.

As we were driving from lunch to the next program, the skies opened up and started pouring. The streets began flooding, and motorcyclists pulled under bridges and overpasses to stay dry. We slowly drove through the rivered streets.

Eventually, we reached the Centro de Accion Social por la Musica (CASPM)- the headquarters of the vaunted El Sistema program. We worked our way from top to bottom on a tour of the famous Venezuelan classical music program. The program has been a huge success both in Venezuela and in other places as a way of connecting kids to classical music and thus creating them more connected to culture. We received a very in-depth tour of the building, although politics dictated that the tour was a bit at arms length.

But it was still quite interesting. We heard about El Sistema work with teaching music from neo-natal care on through connecting young students to different instruments and beyond. We saw the different studio spaces and concert halls, and got to see and hear a student practice session.

The real highlight came as we got to attend the Friday evening concert of the top student youth orchestra. We got to listen to an incredibly talented youth orchestra play.

After the concert, we waded our way back through the evening traffic. Moana was not feeling well, so Jeff, Keola and I went out on our own to a restaurant a block away. It was a good local place, and introduced them to Arepas Reinia Pepeiadas (The Queen of Arepas). We were tempted by a plate of grilled carne and got a sizzling platter that we split over a lot of red wine and some good rum from the establishment. After we shut the place down, Keola went to sleep and Jeff and I caught a little jazz and cumbia at establishment next door.

On Saturday, we had the concert. We did the morning sound check at the futuristic concert hall just around the corner called Teatro Cultural Chacao. The giant futuristic orange structure made a good concert hall.

After soundcheck, I ducked out to meet a friend of a friend for lunch named Ileana. We had tried to meet the year prior but had been unable because of the tour cancellation.

The concert went extremely well. Neal had done a tremendous amount of outreach to the Deaf community (“Inclusion Diplomacy”) and had a large contingency of Deaf people at the show. While unable to hear the music, they connected with the Hula dancing, and the sign language interpreter even interpreted the music- moving his hands with the tempo and style of the music.

The concert was quite a success, and the crowd loved it. Especially the collaboration pieces at the end, when the Hawaiians joined in to play Venezuelan joropo music and the Venezuelans played Hawaiian music.    

That night, Keola, Elena, Neal and I went to a cool restaurant with a 360 degree view of Caracas from up on high.  And we got a nice intro to Caracas.  As we got out of the taxi, we heard a loud boom, and saw smoke rising. It was a tear gas canister fired just 15 feet from us. Post-haste, we ducked around the corner and into the hotel to get some pizza.  Amazing that from up on high, the city can seem so peaceful and oblivious to the distress below.

I can't say that I was exactly sad to leave Caracas....

Saturday, May 17, 2014


"Brazil is becoming like Argentina. Argentina is becoming like Venezuela. Venezuela is becoming like Zimbabwe."

Monday, May 12, 2014

Friday, May 09, 2014

It's all about the Bolivares!

One thing I need to address here in Venezuela is the money situation.  The currency here is called the "Bolivar" (pl- Bolivares).

It is officially about 6 Bolivares to the dollar.  That is the government exchange rate, and the rate you will be charged on your credit card.  Unofficially, it is approximately 60 Bolivares to the dollar.  Yes, 10 TIMES the actual rate.

I exchanged $500 US dollars for a mountain of bills that stuff my wallet and sit in my safe.

Last night we went out for a nice dinner at a lovely Venezuelan fusion restaurant called Leal.  We had delicious appetizers (shredded duck eggrolls; real fried cheese sticks; other shrimpy things I couldn't eat), dinner (I had a Cazuela de Corvina), drinks and dessert.  It was ultimately 2,000 Bolivares per person about $33 USD per person.  If I had put this on my credit card and received the official rate, it would have been $333 USD per person.

Oh, and PS: it costs 5 Bolivares to Fill a tank of gas in your car.  Yes, you can fill a tank of gas for 12 cents.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Bolivarian Nightmare

With permission and a recommendation of an area to visit, I headed over to Plaza Altamira.  I hopped the bustling metro with the 3 Bolivares ticket to ride (4cents).  I got on to the packed car of multi-hued Venezolanos two stops to La Plaza.

I walked up from the underground to a giant golden statue of La Virgen staring down.  A gold crown on her head; the baby Jesus bundled in her arms.

I crossed the street past a small protest on the corner- standing in traffic against the death that has overtaken Venezuela.

I walked slowly up to the dilapidated obelisk and stopped at the green grass plaza in front.

There were cardboard tombstones of the recent dead of the protests against Maduro. These cardboard tombstones were held up with water canisters holding flowers above the tombstones.  I looked at the pictures of the dead; they all seemed to be my age.

Leading up to the obelisk was a crucifix on the ground made of placards of the dead- their ages, where and how they died. I followed the cross, then returned to offer a prayer and pay my respects in silence.  In the "cemetery" there was a book structure that held quotations from Bolivar about how the county should never turn on its people.  All around the area, graffiti spoke of liberty, of freedom, and of Maduro the assassin.

A young man was tending the makeshift memorial, and was relighting candles for the dead.  I slipped 200 Bolivares in the jug collecting funds for the revolution.  My meager contribution to the cause.

As I was returning, a phalanx of riot cops and motorcycle police had circled the small protest.

Once upon a time, I would have stayed to watch; I'm old enough now to know where i have no business. I turned the other direction.

I crossed the street, walking past a graffiti sign declaring:
Tu indifferencia es tu complicidad 
Your indifference is your complicity.

In the end, the riot police just moved the young protesters off the street and back on to the curb of the plaza.

Cars honked for the young protesters--and the traffic stalling the city, as a light rain began to fall. 


In foreign places, some people look over an imperceptible menu and try to find something they recognize; I do just the opposite, and pick what I have no idea the dish to be.

Sometimes this works out well; other times not.  But curiosity hasn't yet killed this cat with a case of salmonella.

As such, today I tried something called a cachapa. It was like a giant corn flapjack pancake folded over and filled with carne mechada- shredded barbecued meat.  I slathered a chili sauce on top of this Venezuelan hot cake.  It was pretty good, and very filling.

Perhaps this is the Venezuelan equivalent of chicken and waffles?

Perhaps IHOP should take note if they really want to be International.

Perceptions of meddling

When my sister broke up with her college boyfriend, it became official when she changed her facebook status to "single."  My father (who I am not Facebook friends with- perhaps for such reasons) chimed in this change of status with a "like."  He thought he was being supportive of his daughter; she went apoplectic at his admission that he was happy to see her be rid of the boy.

 I share the above story in the context of Venezuela, and the coup that took place against Hugo Chavez in 2002- something I blogged about when he passed away. I will be lazy and simply repost that post:
There is a wonderful irony between Chavez and Castro when it comes to the role of U.S. intervention into their own actions. 
Years ago, a young Fidel was in Washington to reassure America that his regime was taking a third way. And he kinda was, until the Bay of Pigs invasion. With his regime threatened, he went squarely into the Soviet camp, and the rest is history ("I got hit with a guided muscle"). 
More recently, Chavez was elected also promising a third way. He was not a firebrand, but used rhetoric more like Tony Blair. There are pics of him shaking hands with one President Clinton. Then there was the 2002 coup against Chavez, and the Bushies recognized the plotters way too quick. Chavez was never the same. After that, he became the Leftist firebrand that he was forever known for.
I won't miss Chavez, I thought he was a putz at best. I think he royally screwed Venezuela, perhaps for years to come. I called him a hijo de puta when he was 20ft from me on live Argentine tv. His security was not pleased.
But I also recognize the role our meddling has played in shaping the adversaries we face.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Reina de Arepas

Oh Arepa, we are friends. Loving the Venezuelan maize flat cake arepa stuffed with shredded chicken and avocado and slathered with Caribbean chili sauce- so named Reina Pepeida. Reina Pepeida, you are Queen of the Arepas

Meanwhile, I sat watching beisbol on the flatscreen tv in the restaurant.  Venezuela loves baseball; any country that loves baseball, we can be friends with and find some common ground..  I was reminded of the scene from Traffic:

Things Noticed

-While I expected Venezuela to be diverse, Caracas is even more mixed than I anticipated.  I knew it had a big Afro-Venezuelan population, but I am still surprised (and pleased) at the city's diversity.

-I can't understand a word of Venezuelan Spanish.  They mumble, chomp and swallow words, and there is a lil lisp (nothing like the Castillian lisp) that makes everything perfectly unintelligible.  I have a similar problem with Dominicans in New York.  Maybe it is something related to the Caribbean's effect on Spanish?  No se.

Ronald Reagan's Benghazi

The New Yorker's terrific journalist Jane Meyer has a great piece on Beirut compared to Benghazi.

The Bolivarian Dream

Recognize this country?

This was Gran Colombia.  Bolivar's dream that didn't last.  If I am the last of the Yugoslav nationalists, then I am definitely the last of the Gran Colombianistas.  Will the last General in his labyrinth turn off the lights?

What was Gran Colombia broke down into Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama and parts to a number of other countries.  What a colossus it could have been.  A South American giant with everything from fertile lands to oil to gold.  A counterweight in the South to balance out the Americas.

Que lastima.

So instead, I am in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,  home of the "Bolivarian Revolution."  I have seen signs around town of Commandante Chavez in fatigues with the words "1954- por siempre (forever)," but his so-called revolution seems to be on fumes.  There is graffiti calling Chavez' successor Maduro an assassin, and showing unflattering caricatures of his bigote.

And so what to make of the vaunted Caracas?  This city called the "Baghdad of South America" for its high crime rate.  

Well, it feels like any other South American city I have been to.  I got some permission to walk around the general area, so long as I did not bring my other guests with me, and I got to walk through the city center a bit.  

Just like any other city, with finely dressed business men smoking cigarettes and chatting on their phones. Workers in t-shirts filling pothole ditches.  Latinas in tight jeans strolling in high heels.  Kids in school uniforms flirting and laughing as they walk back from school.  Choked, snarling traffic as the commuters try to get home after a long day at work.  In short, life living out its daily existence with no care to how the media portrays it from the imperfect snapshot proffered.

Caracas has some charm to it.  A soft Caribbean breeze fills the city streets and sends the palms leaves rustling.  I sipped tiny plastic cups of coffee at 5 Bolivars a pop (either $1 or 12 cents, depending who you ask) and I watch people chat under canopies of trees or wander in and out of markets.  While I am not planning on pushing my luck, the Caracas bogeyman is just that.

As always: Kol ha'olam kulo-- the world is a narrow bridge, you mustn't be afraid to cross it.  As always, journey on.

Monday, May 05, 2014

As the world turns

I was checking in to Copa Airlines for my first leg to Panama and on to Venezuela.  The woman behind the counter got wide-eyed when she looked at my itinerary.

Panama to Venezuela to Germany to India to Dubai to the US.

I gave my Paul shpiel and explained what I was doing.

She called over her colleague and pointed to the screen.  Her eyes widened as well.  They started talking in Spanish, then looked at me.



So I explained to her and the rest what it is that I do.

(in Spanish)

Do you need anyone to work for you?

I could use some dancers.

How do we apply? 

You are applying. (Esta aplicando)

You are the boss?

Soy el jefe.

I laughed at that.

I cleared security and went to the bar.  The woman next to me asked me to watch her phone while she went to the bathroom.  When she returned, we got to talking.

-What do you do?

-Insert Paul spiel

-Wow, that is not what I pegged you for.

-What did you peg me for?

-An accountant.

No, I am definitely not an accountant.

And so my world turns in perpetual transit.

Hulaing while Caracas Burns

About one year ago, I was supposed to take Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar legends Keola Beamer and Jeff Peterson, with Hula Master Moanalani Beamer to Venezuela on an American Music Abroad tour.

Unfortunately, we had the misfortune of heading south just days after the contested Presidential election, and the country was up in flames.

Instead, we went into exile in Baltimore, and on to Brazil early.

Today, we had south for a second attempt, and I am honored to accompany Keola, Moana and Jeff- the truest Ambassadors of Aloha.

I wish I could say that things have sorted themselves out in Venezuela, but they haven't. But there is believed to be enough space that we can conduct this cultural exchange and share the spirit of Aloha.

Aloha, as I have learned from my Hawaiian friends, is the spirit of love, compassion and peace. Venezuela needs a lot more aloha these days, and we can hope to share just a bit.

And as I learned in Sarajevo, the show must go on. So, the show must go on.

Journey on.

Fight on.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

the holy handjob

I'll Fly Away

Some glad morning when this life is over
I'll fly away 
To a land where joy shall never end
I'll fly away.
I'll fly away, O glory I'll fly away
When I die, Hallelujah, bye and bye
I'll fly away

Friday, May 02, 2014

Revanchism Returns

A great piece by Prof. Walter Russel Mead on the return of geopolitics.  And I love that spell check doesn't recognize "Revanchism" and instead offers "Anarchy"

And the response.


Light, my light, the world-filling light,
the eye-kissing light,
heart-sweetening light!
Ah, the light dances, my darling, at the center of my life;
the light strikes, my darling, the chords of my love;
the sky opens, the wind runs wild, laughter passes over the earth.
The butterflies spread their sails on the sea of light.
Lilies and jasmines surge up on the crest of the waves of light.
The light is shattered into gold on every cloud, my darling,
and it scatters gems in profusion.
Mirth spreads from leaf to leaf, my darling,
and gladness without measure.
The heaven's river has drowned its banks
and the flood of joy is abroad.
Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali