Monday, July 21, 2014

Aloha Venezuela II

Way behind on this blog, it dates back to May.  Better late than never...

The day after the concert in Caracas, we headed out of town past the creepy billboards of the eyes of Chavez and on to the airport. We had a ton of stuff to check. I got a little worried because we were 40 kilos (88 pounds) overweight and I had not received anything in the grant to cover domestic travel overages. But because fuel is so cheap in Venezuela, it only cost an extra 256 Bolivares for the extra 40 kilos ($4). Incredible.

Our flight was only 35 minutes but we were delayed an hour and so we passed time at the airport playing Uno.

Once we took off, the flight was quick. We arrived to Isla Margarita, and drove to the Hotel Isabela La Catolica- a boutique hotel with rooms named for the kings and queens of Spain. I asked if I was getting the Torquemeda room.

Once checked in, we had a lovely 8 course meal of small plate delights that connected with the island's tastes. I am starting to think the biggest threat of cultural diplomacy is on my waist line.

The next morning we had a special breakfast at La Repisa Restaurant in La Asuncion with the Mayor of La Asuncion Richard Fermin. Mayor Fermin is the second youngest mayor in Venezuela, he is only 29 years old. We had a tour with the chef of the restaurant and gastronomy school. The breakfast was a lovely affair of different tastes of Isla Margarita like cazon- shredded baby shark.

The only strange thing was the cafe con leche tasted awful. It tasted salty. I sent it back and just drank the normal coffee without milk. Later we found out that because of the situation in Venezuela, there is a shortage on milk at times, and the restaurant had instead given us baby formula in our coffee. I was reminded of Lula- the former president of Brazil, chiding Chavez over the fact he couldn't get milk for his coffee as a symbol that Venezuela was having issues.

After breakfast, we toured the city. We visited the lovely old plaza, one of the oldest plazas in the Americas. We stopped in to see the El Sistema program, which we would be working with later. We also visited a beautiful pastel church but it was closed so we sat out in the courtyard and enjoyed the island breeze. I found a Virgin Mary tree.

That afternoon we had an incredible workshop on Hula dance at the Casa de la Cultura de La Asuncion. It was a workshop for Deaf students and hearing dance students. It was extremely poignant to watch the Deaf and hearing students interact and help each other and learn from each other as they learned the story dance of Hula. It was a very special engagement.

The next day we had a tour of the El Sistema program. We had an adorable group of kiddies play a song for us on tiny violins and trumpets. Then we headed over to another El Sistema program in an old university for a masterclass. The masterclass was excellent. All the old windows of the room were wide open, and a sea breeze was blowing in. It was a little warm, and we didn't have any water so I ran over with the driver to a little store to get some agua. It was a three-stop process of standing in line, ordering, going over to the cashier to pay, then returning to get the bottles. I returned to a marvelous jam session with the music students and Keola and company. 

That night we had an intimate performance at the hotel restaurant called Juana La Loca.

The following day we had the morning free. We had lunch at a little beach cafe with our feet in the sand. I had some ceviche that was a little too , but fine. After lunch we returned to the El Sistema building for a small class with the El Sistema students, and a bigger jam session with some of the professors. The head of the school was there, and looked like the Dos Equis guy. He had a grizzled old salt-and-pepper beard, and played the quatro. His deep voice boomed on the collaboration song La Luna de Margarita, which all the teachers in attendance sang along to. It was pretty special.

That night we had a concert in the middle of the square in La Asuncion. Keola and company had a raised stage to perform on in between two old colonial buildings. We were supposed to have the collaboration partners who we jammed with earlier in the day play with us, but politics got in the way. Two of the musicians arrived and said, “oh, we forgot our instruments.” That basically meant that it was too politically difficult for them to perform in public with American musicians brought down by the U.S. Embassy. But a third musician decided to perform anyway, and borrowed a guitar from Keola.

Before their concert, we had a group of local dancers perform for us some of the local dances. It was beautiful, they flared their colorful dresses as the performed local dances. Then Keola, Moana and Jeff performed beautifully under the full moon rising over the cobblestone city square. And we had a bit of the collaboration, and the crowd all sang along to La Luna de Margarita under the white light of the moon. After the concert, the mayor of La Asuncion presented Keola, Moana and Jeff with certificates that made them honorary residents of the city. They presented him with a decorative Hawaiian quilt.
The following day, we drove to the center of the island to have a special lunch at Casa de Esther. Casa de Esther was an eclectic old estancia filled with records on the wall, and typewriters and sewing machines around the open air courtyard. The lovely matron Esther had filled the place with wooden shapes that looked like animals. There were hammocks, which I cocooned myself up in.

The lunch was immaculate. Esther cooked with real love, and it was apparent. We ate monkfish egg pate and cazon (shredded baby shark) tortillas, as we sipped white sangria filled with mint and cucumber. 

 The main course was exquisite. Esther made a few different plates, and divided them up depending on what she thought people should eat. Keola and Jeff received steaks that had been marinated in rum and espresso; I received a pescado blanco in a plum salsa with a side of shredded plantains and saffron rice with raisins.

Dessert was even more amazing, as we arroz con leche (rice pudding) in cinnamon syrup covered with pumpkin icecream and shredded coconut. We also tried crema de marcuja that was wonderful. We sipped coffee laced with fine rum, and tried to take in all the deliciousness.

After the immaculate lunch, Keola, Moana and Jeff presented Esther with Hawaiian cookbooks, Hawaiian salts and Hawaiian coffees.

And they performed the Green Rose Hula for her, which left her so touched that she had tears streaming down her face. She spoke of the music as the language of love just as she cooks with. She was so moved that she declared that lunch was on the house. We tried to protest, but she would hear nothing of it.

That night, we had a concert at El Castillo- a giant stone fort overlooking the city. The view was spectacular as the sun began to set across the horizon and heavy clouds flanked the peaks in the distance. One of the students remarked to me that this was a site of the early fight for independence for Venezuela from Spain. He looked a little perplexed when I remarked that it was less a fight for Venezuelan independence and more a fight for Gran Colombia's independence. I doubt such history is taught.

The concert began with the students of El Sistema who we had jammed with the day prior at the old university performing, then doing a collaboration with Keola and Jeff.

Keola and Jeff gave a wonderful performance on the stone platform above the courtyard where the audience was seated below. On the stone incline leading up to the stage, Moana performed her hula dance. During Jeff's portion of the show, he spoke about the wonderful lunch we had at Casa de Esther, and performed a song he had written that afternoon in honor of then feast. Yes, he wrote a song in the afternoon and performed it that night in Esther's honor. Keola also spoke of the incredible lunch we had, and the whole crowd was left curious of what we had dined on that afternoon. The wonderful concert ended with a toast and presentation by the Isla Margarita board of tourism. After the show, there was a wine reception, and then on to a reception held in Keola and co.'s honor.

All of it struck me as amazing given how much the Embassy was doing for this program, compared to how little I could get other post's to contribute to upcoming programs. It left me shaking my head.

The following day we had a final program with the Deaf students we had been working with. We had a breakfast buffet at a nearby hotel, and the kids were frankly amazed at the amount of food available. They ate and ate, and we sure didn't stop them. After the breakfast, the students performed some local folk dances and “sang” for us. Keola and co. reciprocated with a last hula.
The students presented Keola, Moana and Jeff with gifts, including one that left me touched. The students had drawn a pair of hands, colored in US and Venezuelan flags—the significance profound given that the deaf students communicate with their hands.

We checked in and had a delayed flight. We stopped in the duty-free shop to kill some time. The CAO Neal pointed out an extra-special bottle of Diplomatico rum that was about $85. When he walked away, I schemed with Keola and Jeff, and we purchased the bottle for Neal as a thank-you for all his efforts on the program. But rather than save it, he opened it to share with all of us. We sat around the food court and drinking expensive, exquisite rum out of plastic cups. We played “Roses and Thorns,” a game I conduct on my programs to discuss 3 “roses” (good things) and 3 “thorns” (bad things) that happened during the program. We were all moved when the Cultural Affairs Specialist said, with tears in her eyes, that in her 8 years doing cultural programs for the Embassy this program most directly connect with the heart of the Venezuelan people.

We returned to Caracas and were picked up by the Embassy's van. I watched the sun set over Caracas through the bullet-proof windows of an armored vehicle. We checked into a Marriott near the airport, and spent the evening relaxing at the hotel overlooking the ocean.

The next day I got my charges off on their flights, and departed myself on to Frankfurt and on to Delhi after that.

The Aloha Venezuela program was one of the most profound cultural diplomacy programs I have ever participated in. The U.S. Embassy really went out of their way to create real programs to connect Venezuela and Hawaii, and thought of every possible detail to build a meaningful connections.

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