Tuesday, February 25, 2014

- Maltesers (Part 1) --

At Dublin Airport, warm and empty corridors shelter everyone from the implacable Irish winter, McDonald's breakfast aside. Outside the airport terminal ,the planes are being prepared for yet another hectic morning and suddenly passengers are seen rushing through the long glass corridors to the many boarding calls invading the building.

I follow the Ryanair flight to Malta announcement. kindly nicknamed The 'Senior Express', given the age and profile of my fellow passengers, desperate to run away from a stormy Ireland and enjoy the benefits of basic sunshine exposure.

In between large airplanes completing their trans-Atlantic journey and timid European departures, we leave the windy airport behind and sleepily, I spend the next four hours looking outside the window whilst the landscape underneath changes from a grim English coast, to the snowy Alps, to the Italian Coast and to the island of Sicily.
On approach , nothing but blue water can be seen. Seconds later, a light brown tall cliff, a green field, a few houses and a runway just pass by. We have landed in Malta, my 62nd visited country.

As soon as I step outside the aircraft, all problems seem to suddenly vanish. Bright sunshine, blue skies and warm air. Good-bye to the hectic routine of my new managerial job routine, the stormy weather or even the flu. Relaxing is the main word for this holiday and could indeed be the main credo of this little island stuck in between Sicily and Libya.

I buy a public transport day-pass for over an Euro. Malta is now my own little playground, and the buses make sure to give me a proper tour of the city on their journey from the Airport at Luqa, consisting in infinite loops to the Mater Dei hospital and some courageous take overs and climbs through narrow motorways and tiny little roads. The neighbourhood of San Giulian is next, glowing with its expensive restaurants and rather posh vibe.
The sinuous coastline seems to be a Maltese hideaway for rich elderly people in Europe, surrounded by tall holiday apartment buildings as we follow perfectly-manicured seaside roads, sprinkled with little white yachts which dominate a row of organised marinas.

My hostel is in the neighbourhood of Sliema which is next. A combination of middle-class old fashioned Maltese houses in a clearly strong Arabic-influenced architecture which brings intense memories of Al-Mansoura, that little neighbourhood which I called home for months when I lived in Qatar.
I had decided to book the "Two Pillows Hostel'' due to its reviews online. I then found my first 'hostel boutique', an old and almost ancient brown bricked building, featuring random modern pieces of furniture, dorm-style!. Let alone the friendly Maltese staff, my first impression of this island's inhabitants, a genetic mix of North African and Mediterranean looks.

Japanese-style tour ahead: running downhill for a ferry connection with the capital, La Valetta.

The capital region of Malta lies on very steep coastline in which the sea has carved a number of inlets and bays for centuries. Sliema being one of them, La Valetta being the second one (and the capital) and the third one divided into three cities: Vittoriosa, Senglea & Conspicua.

An old blue little ferry docks just besides us. It's our transportation across the Marsamxett Bay to the hilly capital, a crossing which only takes about 15 minutes in between wind, waves and a series of gasp and camera flashes.
Brown stone-walled buildings crowned with old balconies and laundry, share the streets with small stores selling all sorts of edibles and goods. It's like La Valetta stopped in time with its steep narrow streets and its Arabic and Mediterranean architecture mishmash, an invite for slowing down and losing yourself in the quietness and rhythm of this small and proud country.

Pedestrianised streets with lined up upmarket stores lead to the ruins of an old theatre and the city walls, which aggressively seem to dominate a landscape of soft hills with its light brown and earthy colour , rising for meters and creating the impression of a city-fort, standing still and firm through centuries.

I end up at the Barrakka Gardens and one of the most beautiful views of the three cities, present in the form of three massive arms covered in brown houses and the busy Valetta waterfront, welcoming ships and ferries of all sorts, framed by Mediterranean-looking archways (for better pictures).

I return to the hostel with a stop for a stone-baked pizza a la Maltese (with sausages, fresh onions and eggs) and the last ferry crossing whilst Valetta changes its shape with the night lights and the cold air of the winter.
The next hours pass by while my brain process the architecture and ambiance of a place which seems very familiar, organising the new input which seems to be strongly attached to old memories.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

-- Venezuela: A mixed reality (Part 2) --

A friendly knock on the bedroom door wakes me up win the middle of the early morning darkness. It is fresh outside and after a light breakfast, we depart the cold mountains of San Antonio de los Altos with the first rays of sunshine, heading downhill through a sleepy Caracas and into La Guaira in the Vargas State.

The navy blue Caribbean Sea roars as the water crashes against thick rock walls, placed here after the famous Vargas disaster of 1999 in which thousands of people died in a matter of minutes when the tall mountains collapsed, bringing massive mudslides downhill after days of heavy rain.
 La Guaira is a row of beaches only an hour away from the International Airport. A long row of beaches squeezed in between the tall green mountains of El Avila National Park and the Caribbean Sea.

We reach ‘La Pantaleta Beach’ (the Panty Beach, don’t ask me why) at around 8:00am. The place is still empty and the temperature is already high, despite being ‘winter season’ in Venezuela. A place to relax for a few hours whilst bathing in the cold Caribbean Sea, battling with foamy waves and strong currents.

Locals sell all sorts of typical products: from hats to bracelets, to ice creams, to delicious reddish seafood chowders.

Only an hour later, La Pantaleta shows its popularity with the locals and the place quickly fills up with tanned Caraceans descending to the Coast in sport cars playing loud reggaeton music and starting a drinking and eating frenzy just a few meters from the shore.
Girls wear tiny bikinis , exposing their ‘modified’ perfectly shaped bodies and their heavily worked tan whilst guys play some football or go for a quick swim.
I remember an advert from a famous local beer brand and its slogan : ‘Si hay’ (Yes, there is) featuring a few aspects of the Venezuelan party culture. This looked exactly like the advert.

Three hours later and with my pale skin acquiring a dramatic ‘boiled prawn red’ tone, we decide to go back to the capital, taking two local buses which quickly bring us to Caracas and the Gato Negro metro station which we have to take to go across the city to Los Cortijos, a middle-class hideaway in Eastern Caracas.

Caracas metro is comfortable enough and air conditioned. It is also one of the cheapest metro networks in the world with a price of only 20 cents of a Euro per journey.
At Los Cortijos, I meet my hostess' local family and I am given a brief, yet complete glimpse of the Venezuelan middle class lifestyle.
Around a big square table with arepas, homemade burgers, fruit juices and freshly brewed coffee, conversation flow easily. I notice that everyone seems to know about politics and social issues. Most importantly, everyone seems to be hopeful of better days for the country. I feel like I have made friends for life in a matter of minutes.

The dark night discreetly disguises the poverty pockets which cover the hills of the narrow valley. As we drive to Caricuao, one of Venezuela’s most dangerous neighbourhoods in order to give a family member a lift, an almost never-ending set of lights seem to disappear and mesh with the mountains.

Tons of skin cream are needed next. I am badly sunburnt.

The next morning, I see what Caracas is really about. Monday morning rush means that a 15-kilometer journey from San Antonio will take around two hours to be completed. These are the famous ‘colas’ or lines. With petrol prices so cheap, driving is a must in Venezuela despite the restriction on new car imports and the lack of infrastructure.

I have a few work meetings lined up in the wealthy neighborhoods of Chacao and Altamira where tall buildings hive with business people wearing suits and briefcases running away from the scorching heat of the streets or hiding in the conveniently located shopping center. Squares and gardens are perfectly manicured and the Guarda Bolivariana is everywhere. It is one of the few areas in Caracas where you would feel relatively safe.

An opportunity to visit the nearby shopping center arises in between my meetings. Stores are open but their stock is reduced, shelves look empty. I find it impossible to find an after-sun skin cream despite looking for it in four pharmacies. Supply shortages become obvious, even in the richest parts of the country.

Business meetings finished. I am driven through Los Proceres, a long avenue where late Hugo Chavez and its government organize military parades. A cachapa (corn-based pastry filled with local white cheese) in San Antonio is next. On the TV, a local baseball match is being played. The only country in South America where this sport is popular.

My last day in Venezuela becomes a mixture of emotions and landscapes. From the early morning visit to the stables and riding school in the Valley near Los Teques, to a typical ‘pabellon criollo’ lunch with my new Venezuelan family and finally, to a rather melancholic drive to the airport, strongly guarded by advertising outdoor signs featuring the late Hugo Chavez’s stare. Oddly enough, I feel like I am being watched by him forcing me to believe that the aim of such media trick is to send a subliminal message to the general population, the regime is here to stay, you are being watched.

Last arepa at the departures hall, queues, sad good-byes and immigration controls. Air France flight 385 is called for boarding and we are called in groups of 20. Inside the air bridge, sharp instructions are given:

-          'Good Evening people, hand luggage in front of you please'.
-          'Now step back'

Sniffing dog is brought to search for any traces of drugs or explosives. He detects something on the bag belonging to the person beside me. He is immediately separated from the group and brought to a room for questioning. Despite not having anything dodgy on my bag, my heart races fast.
We proceed to a second security check just beside the airplane’s door. Our bags are opened and we are separated into male and female queues for a light session of ‘tapping’ and questioning.
I am lucky enough to have two seats for myself and I barely notice the ‘atipically pleasant’ 10-hour journey on this Air France flight. My transit in Charles de Gaulle happens in surprising 15 minutes, finding enough time to check my emails and my Masters degree last semester results, don't worry 'B' happy.

Dublin on the little Bae-146 is next. It is sunny this time, it is pleasant and it is home.

Thoughts about Venezuela linger in my mind for days. It is a place I have somehow felt identified with, a strong social contradiction between resources and education.
The tropical heat, the healthy fresh food and most importantly, a population with an amazing ability of seeing a brighter future through their darkest days, united as a country.

As I write this, social unrest and clashes have become public in worn out Caracas. Students have been murdered by the military forces while media and outbound information has been blocked by the so-called Bolivarian Government. Venezuelans have endured several years of bad administration leading to shortages and violence and, just as I was told on my visit to the country, they seem to have had enough.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

-- Venezuela: A Mixed Reality (Part 1)--

I rush through a long and bright corridor which abruptly ends on a massive immigration and customs room with a sea of people slowly moving through the long queues and counters. Queues (lines for the American readers) that most probably define the social situation in this Caribbean hideaway.

A good-looking tanned lady working as an immigration officer asks me a few questions before stamping my passport, timidly saying 'Welcome to Venezuela, enjoy your stay' as I walk away, scene firmly stared by two armed guards wearing red berets and machine guns.

Luckily, I am only travelling with hand luggage and fly through the next room towards the main Arrivals Hall. My local contact, who is in fact the sister of a friend who lives in Dublin has been waiting for a few minutes. She stares through her round glasses and smiles while holding a small sign with my name on it.

- ' How are you?'
- 'How was your flight?'
- 'Did you bring cash? US dollars?'. 

Venezuela is a country that has seen tremendous social changes over the past decade at the head of the late Hugo Chavez whom half of the country see as an extreme Left-wing Communist dictator as well as some see him as a Saviour, a commander and a leader.
Due to government policies, Venezuela has a very rigid foreign currency exchange policy, making the importation of US Dollars, Euros or Sterling an extremely arduous task for the locals. A black market has been created, following an inflation of nearly 60 per cent in 2013 only. 

On the naked eye and as we walk through the hot and warm Simon Bolivar Airport international terminal, I am explained that a US Dollar in the black market is worth ten times more Bolivars (local currency) than the price in the official market. As a tourist, paying on a debit card means extortive 15 USD coffees or impossible-to-pay accommodation options. Exchanging in the black market is inevitable to have a rather affordable stay in Venezuela.

I notice a pattern on the parked cars: they all have dark tinted windows, a must-have in Caracas, a city that boast the unfortunate title of most dangerous capital in the world. Driving with the windows wide open is asking for trouble and with fuel prices very low, everyone can afford having a powerful air-conditioned system.

The airport lies on the Caribbean Coast whilst Caracas lies on the mountain. Both places are conveniently linked by a windy and modern motorway boasting long tunnels and tall bridges which cross El Avila National Park in no time.
With nearly four-million inhabitants, Caracas shows itself as a massive combination of tall buildings, wide highways and slums. Slums that climb up steep hills occupying every piece of land possible, creating a tridimensional effect of red-bricked poverty. I am told only locals are allowed to climb up the slums, doing so without knowing who lives there is a life sentence.

We are lucky and traffic is light, which gives us the chance of adventure to climb up El Avila, a 2,765m green peak which silently watches the activity of the bubbling city underneath and the main playground of the Caraceans on their time off.

The climb is done in a comfortable cable car whilst enjoying a typical 'tizana' (fruit juice mixed with more fruit in a vivid red colour) and being suspended several hundred meters above ground, dodging steep valleys, looking at the city beneath us getting smaller.
In 15 minutes, we are at the top of the mountain range, some 1.600 meters above the city.  It is cold and windy, but the upbeat of the typical Caribbean rythms being played in the background it's intoxicating, providing us with enough energy to take several pictures, look at the sun setting behind us, buy some Venezuelan sweets (tamarind, you were missed) and stare at the city slowly disappearing underneath a thick layer of clouds which happen to be underneath us.

Descending into the city is a different story. At 19:00pm everyone in El Avila seem to have had the same idea at the same time and nearly two hours pass by from the moment we start queuing until we actually jump on one of the little red cable cars, a wait sweetened with some strawberries & cream.

I am driven through a rather sleepy city. Going out at night time has become a dangerous task for Caraceans. Streets are empty and red lights are ignored (stopping might lead to assaults or mugging) when we climb up the Southern valleys to San Antonio de Los Altos in the Miranda state.

Stop for refuelling the body with a typical arepa which is a flatbread made of ground maze dough, this time filled with some succulent pork meat and a fresh strawberry juice, and refuelling the car. Fuel is heavily subsidised and exploited in Venezuela. Filling up a tank costs around 2 cents of an Euro (or 20 cents of an Euro in the official market).

My first day in Venezuela proves to be demanding but at the same, extremely interesting. My mind is numb processing the beautiful landscapes and the stories told today. Stories that currently define the society of a country which seems to be divided in between two different worlds and times.

I am sure learning has just begun. Caribbean tomorrow, business meetings the next two days.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

-- Overseas Family Moments ( Pt. 2) --

With only around 144 hours left in the so-called 'City of the Rings', a very hectic week follows in order to meet old friends and enjoy of some quality time with my family.

Starting with a trip to the little town of Samaipata, only two hours away following a narrow and windy road through the Bolivian valleys on the Andean Mountains foyer.

Our little hideaway, where the fresh winds of the high-altitude region run across a wide valley covered in eucalyptus trees, vineyards and weekend cottages which work as the perfect escape for the people living in the city, desperately running away from the high temperatures of the scorching wet summer.

Our little cottage is modest yet has an amazing view of the valley and the town just a few hundred meters below us, a combination of wooden and clay-built houses crowned by brown roofs.

A homemade lunch, prepared on my stepdad's typical and skilled way is served on a heavy wooden table overlooking the little town with some wine, practically hypnotised by the conversation and the sound of the tall eucalyptus trees being shuffled by the breeze. No car sounds around, no loud music. A place to rest and enjoy the company of my parents and some delicious food.

The remaining of the week focuses around meeting friends in pleasant coffee or dinner meetings, training in my old swimming club, sharing massive ice cream bowls with my stunning nieces and nephew and having drinks by the swimming pool in a newly-discovered piece of paradise with my parents.
The main motto for this trip seems to be revolving around 'nostalgia'. Memories and flashbacks from easier times are constantly being brought into fun conversations. Times where we used to dream about perhaps becoming an Olympic swimming champion, or a pilot, or an engineer, or a world traveller. 

I decide not to sleep on my last evening in the city and instead, I meet family members and friends in a night time barbecue & red wine frenzy just to pick up my luggage only a few hours later and be driven by my parents to the International Airport in the middle of the dark and warm early morning.

A week has just flown by and I am once again hugging my mother strongly while trying to catch some breath on a failed attempt of containing my emotions. It is hard to let go but my flight is being called. It is a scene that have been repeating itself for many years (and posts) now. A moment that will always feel the same despite any age or time spent abroad. 

The first rays of sunshine break through the boarding gate big glass windows. The little Lima-bound Airbus is cleared for departure when I get a text from two of my best friends who barely missed me and look out the window only to see them at the observation deck waving good-bye at the plane, lightening the bitter taste of yet another departure.

The plane speeds up and the green fields of the Bolivian Amazon are quickly replaced by the cold Andean Mountains. I fall asleep only to wake up before landing in the Peruvian capital, where I connect almost immediately onto a flight to a new destination in my list: Venezuela.

I spend the nearly four-hour flight reading ,taking a little nap and sleeping as the plane dodges thick tall rain clouds, crossing the Equator line and the endless greenery of the Amazon.

Descent is announced over the city of Maracay, rapidly crossing the green and steep mountains of the Venezuelan coast before getting into a thick layer of fog where nothing can be seen. Flaps are moving, landing gears are down. I see a row of buildings which rapidly turns into a runway.

I have now landed in Maiquetia International Airport and Venezuela becomes my 61st country visited.

Friday, February 7, 2014

-- Overseas Family Moments (Pt. 1) --

The quietness of the early morning through the halls of the shiny glass and steeled structure of the Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport marks the start of yet another adventure to the Southern Hemisphere, in an attempt to run away from the cold Irish winter.

I board the small green Airbus which quickly fills up with early commuters heading to the largest city in the Netherlands and soon we take off in a steep and bumpy climb North and East towards continental Europe only to land in between smoky chimneys and foggy colorful crops in Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam over an hour later.
A pilgrimage through terminals and endless rows of duty-free shops ends up with a stop for a small breakfast 'Mc Donald's-style' consisting on a cheeseburger and an apple pie, just before entering the boarding lounge for a full-house bound to Lima, Peru which departs with a slight delay.

I have a window-seat on a crowded Boeing 777. I manage to find entertainment whilst trying to figure out a Dutch newspaper, watch a few TV series, eat, sleep ,watch a movie, watch more TV series, write, sleep again, bathroom break. Still a few hours to go, repeat the previous tasks. Still a few more hours to go. The flight seems to stretch forever until I foresee the coast of Suriname just minutes before flying over the Amazon Basin with its dense clouds and heavy turbulence.

13 hours later after take off,  the night darkness catches up with our plane just before our descent through the Andes Mountains into the Peruvian Pacific coast. We fly in circles over a shiny and busy Lima minutes before landing at Jorge Chavez International Airport.

No wi-fi this time, luckily my layover is of only two hours, used to wander around the modern terminal before finding a comfortable seat to sleep on until my last flight of the day is called.
My last full-house as well. Unnoticeable this time as I fall asleep as soon as I board the plane in between Avianca & El Salvador Tourism Board adverts, barely wake up to munch on a dry midnight sandwich and a drink, only 45 minutes before landing in the small and crowded airport of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

Once again, my heart starts racing as soon as we touch down. The plane comes to rest and I rush to the gate, through the air bridge to clear immigration and customs as soon as possible. On the other side of the busy arrivals halls: my family awaits and what follows is a moment where time seems to stop for a second, a moment when the happenings & travels of a whole year are suddenly remembered mixed with a feeling of relief and accomplishment. 27 hours after I left my apartment in the rainy Dublin, I feel once again complete. At least for a week.

A cold shower and a four-hour sleep later, I am ready to face a busy week in this South American continent by having a delightful breakfast and helping my brother on the last preparations for his wedding, only a few hours away and the reason why I crossed the pond this time.

The heat on the street is unbearable yet rewarding. Short, shirts and sandals are the main dress code for the balmy and sunny days, though this particular night I have to wear a tux.

Weddings mean last-minute arrangements, stress, sweat and worries that seem to finally disappear when the couple-to-be are declaring their feelings to each other at a point of breaking their voices in a physiological manifestation of true happiness and certainty.

Long gone are the times when I missed the opportunity of sharing these family moments which, whilst staring at my brother exchanging rings with her wife-to-be and tightly squeezing my mother’s hand, I learn are the most important thing in life. We might be oceans and continents away, but our hearts will always be linked to those we love and grew up with. My brother, who I used to tag along with everywhere as a kid and have massive fights over the most silly things stands there proudly as a newlywed and a grown up man.

A celebration is followed with copious amounts of wine, fine dining (oh, steak), wedding cake and an improvised speech made by me and my already drunk brain neurons, on the couple's request, guessing all those evenings of constant advise through Whatsapp meant something for them.

The night finishes with a powerful summer thunderstorm pouring down the Amazonian city of Santa Cruz. A quick reminder of the fact that I have landed in South America and a call to enjoy the rest of the week with the family.