Its been a busy month. I have been traveling, and am presently in the UK. Earlier in the month however I paid my first visit to Venezuela.
Venezuela was named “Little Venice” by Christopher Columbus because its many coastal waterways reminded him of the Italian city. It is a nation settled by Spanish conquistadores, and subsequently by other European peoples. Portuguese and Germans came at various times. African slaves arrived and of course there is a substantial Amer-Indian minority. Together they have created a very diverse community that like other Latin cultures exhibits great joy and enthusiasm. Sadly the nation, and particularly the capital, Caracas, has a terrible reputation for violence and high rates of homicide.
It’s a beautiful country with lots of forested mountains. The capital is both on the coast, and three thousand feet up in a valley between mountain ridges. Staying first in Junquitos and then in Colonia Tovar, I was respectively at 5,000 and 7,500 feet.
One of the first things I noticed along the roadside was the large number of election posters from the recent campaign. Hugo Chavez’ cherubic face looked down with the message: “Heart of My Country” proclaimed in Spanish. He has ruled for fourteen years and just won a new term. I asked colleagues in Venezuela if they believed his rule had been beneficial to the nation. In some places both within and outside Venezuela he is held in contempt, but just maybe he has done some positive things for his people and for the economic image of Venezuela. However, his rule has begun to look much like the kind of dictatorship that many new popularly elected leaders rush to condemn.
Venezuela is a very expensive country. Converting dollars to Bolivares at the official exchange rate – a much more favorable black market rate exists – gave prices of $30 for flip-flop sandals and $100 for some regular T-shirts. Food and restaurant prices also seemed expensive, however the idea of filling up the gas tank for not much more than a dollar quite appealed.
It’s also a nation that specializes in corn products. Arepas are a thin corn bread pancake that looks similar to a thin English Muffin. Cachapas are like American pancakes made with batter containing mashed sweetcorn. Fororo is a porridge made from ground cornmeal and much smoother than grits. And bollitos are somewhat like the Mexican tamale. Instead of rolling the masa dough around the filling and then steaming it in a corn husk, the masa is mixed with the filling (in this case, leek, shallot, bell peppers, olives and sultanas) and steamed in a banana leaf. They are all very good and a much better use of corn than mixing it in your gas tank, but then at a dollar a tank for the regular, who needs the ethanol.
A highlight for me was meeting some of the Warao people. Living in the delta of the Orinoco River, this ‘first people’ of Venezuela are one of the many tribes of Latin America who live on the edge of civilization. Often neglected by wider society and the government they suffer many of the ills of marginalization. Poor health, malnutrition, low rates of literacy combine to keep them on the edge. However, God is at work among them and Venezuelan churches have invested in compassionate outreach among the Warao and other tribal groups.