Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tropics and Checks

Caracas, Venezuela (December 16, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 15, 2004 ---

The capital of Venezuela was built by the spanish conquerors on the site of one of the largest indigenous settlements, inhabited by a population called “Caracas” (hence the name of the city). Built in a valley at 900m on the sea level (2700 ft), separated by a mountain from the caribbean sea, it has a warm but not hot climate. The Caracas and the spaniards knew what they were doing when they chose the place where to built their cities. Thanks to this ideal location, there are parts on the city resembling a tropical garden, with gigantic plants and flowers. The orchids above are growing in the garden of Mayli’s father house.

Satellite antenna
I am a little sick, so I didn’t do much today. I spent most day at Mayli’s father home, except for a short visit to a supermarket where I experienced how cashing a check can be quite a complicate business in Venezuela. In Italy people rarely use checks, because cashing them is almost impossible (you need to physically go to the same branch where you opened your account, in the couple of hours of the few days of the week when the banks are actually open to the public). In US people usually buy their stuff with credit or ATM cards. In Venezuela instead checks are apparently in vogue. So there is a fancy system in which you give a signed check to the cashier of the supermarket, and the computer at the cashier desk prints everything on it. Nice, uh? Well in theory. In practice you have to wait half an hour because the computer cannot connect to the bank to certify that the check is valid, and then the cashier has to talk to the supermarket supervisor to know what to do. Bottom line: if you can, use cash. Too much technology can be counter-productive if you don’t have the infrastructure to support it.

Mayli instead went to the US embassy to renew her visa. That was pretty fast (fortunately, these things can be pretty random) and the visa was approved the same morning. She will get the passport back with the new visa stamp in a few days in Merida (a city on the Andes where we will go at the end of the week). That of course after Mayli paid a $100 fee plus other $100 paid by her University, plus $40 in high rate telephone calls to get the appointment at the embassy. Getting a US visa (even a touristic one) is not cheap, which is quite unfair given that americans do not have to pay that much to have visas of other countries. A few countries however have the guts to retaliate. Every time I go to Chile for an observing run, I walk through immigration without any delay and fee. My american colleagues instead have to stop at a separate office and pay their $100, which it seems fair to me given that chilean have to pay the same to enter US. Anyway, I hope Mayli’s passport will arrive in time while we are in Merida.

--- Updates (September 10, 2013) ---

There may be a reason why checks are popular in Venezuela.

Credit/Debit Cards, assuming one can afford them, may be too easy to counterfeit. Venezuelan were famously ingenious in counterfeiting telephone cards (remember those?), doesn't matter hot technologically complicated they were. They even invented fake fronts for the ATM machines that look identical to the actual machine behind, give actual money, but clone the card in the process. Credit cards would be a piece of cake to counterfeit. 

Cash is too dangerous. Robbers wait people at the exit of the bank to steal the money from their pockets at gunpoint. Happened to a person I know. He knew this kind of things are common, so while still in the bank he split between his two pockets the cash fresh from the ATM. Robbers are however the wiser, and he was asked to show that both pockets were empty. When the robber saw he was trying to trick him, he got pissed and mock-executed the poor guy (there was no bullet in the gun, but still). And this was in full daylight, at the center of Merida which is a relatively safe city.

Speaking of robberies and shopping malls, just behind the corner of Mayli's father house there is a movie theatre. A few years ago, armed robbers entered the theatre, robbed everybody and then left, in the middle of the movie feature. Just like that. I wonder if they were projecting Pulp Fiction... Nah, and I doubt that Samuel L. Jackson was there.

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