Tuesday, October 29, 2013

1000 Miles

Ames, Iowa (October 27, 2013)

+Rurousha  linked this article about the irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger, and his habit of random walking as a method to study the flora of Ireland. Walking is my favorite activity and an integral part of my photography. The description of Praeger attentive walks, where the focus is not on the destination, but on the walk itself, resembles the way I walk when I am in the "zone". My goal may be the scenic viewpoint at the end of the path, but most often than not the view waiting to be found is in the anonymous bend in the road. I never know in advance where my next photo is waiting for me. If I had not walked focused on the path, rather than the path's end, I would have missed it.

Fortunately for me, Kero also likes (demands) long everyday walks, one to two hours every day, no matter the weather or the temperature. He does slow down in Summer, as Samoyeds really don't like hot weather, but makes it up as soon as the thermometer turns downward. So we don't quite average the 1,000 miles per year recommended by the article, but we get quite close to that number. And even if we tend to go mostly in the same places (Ames is not that big) every day is different. The weather changes, the light transforms, life makes sure that every day there is something new to discover and bring back home.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


East River Valley, Ames, IA (October 26, 2013)

During the last month I have been posting assiduously on Instagram. As you are most likely aware, Instagram is a cameraphone-centric photo hosting free site. I wrote cameraphone-centric because by far the preferred way to access and interact with the site is via their smartphone app, both for viewing and for submitting photos. Since I started using more regularly the camera on my iPhone 5s, I found myself posting photos more and more frequently on Instagram. And the experience has been quite liberating.

Let me explain. I am very careful and disciplined with my photography. I try to think ahead and shoot in a format meant for long term preservation of my images. I always shoot raw (the equivalent of digital negatives), which gives me the maximum possible dynamic range (the number of "stops" saved in the digital file) and later freedom in editing the image. I use a raw-file capable image processing software (Lightroom) that preserves intact the original data, applying reversible edits to correct for brightness, contrast, color balance and composition (crops). I strive to only do the minimal editing, not because I have something against photo manipulations, but because each step invariably degrade a little the quality of the final image. In practice I try to do to my images nothing more and nothing less than a good wet darkroom photographer would have done to transfer his or her negatives to paper.

Instagram is the opposite of all this. Cameraphones generally save their images in JPG format, which uses lossy compression algorithms (each time you save a JPG file you lose details). The Instagram smartphone app allows you to apply heavy handed "filters" and "frames" meant to reproduce the look and feel of old polaroid and toy cameras. The app by default scales the image, cropped to a square format, to 640x640 pixels. This low resolution guarantees that you will never be able to print it on paper, unless you want to restrict yourself to very small print sizes (scale it up to even the traditional size of polaroid photographs, and you will see pixels). Given all this, why did I say that my experience with Instagram has been liberating? Well, there are two main reasons. Instagrams are limited in the same way that a real-world polaroid camera (or a toy camera such as Holgas) are limited, in the fidelity in which they can reproduce the scenes they capture. Still their peculiar look-and-feel has spawned communities of photographers choosing to use those cameras as a way to express their creativity. The limitation of the medium is not a limitation in creativity, just a challenge more. The rough Instagram filters are without doubt a shortcut to more rigorous digital darkroom techniques, and a sure way to degrade the technical quality of the images, but who cares? The artistic value of an image is not necessarily equivalent to its technical perfection. Instagram is liberating because it gives you less options: with the camera working in automatic and very limited editing possibilities, you only have to think about subject and composition, which is in the end what matters.

There is however also a second reason. A common saying among photographers is that "the best camera for the job is the one that's with you": I only have my Nikon D700 camera and lenses with me when I go out purposely to take pictures. I don't carry it unless I have some expectation of spending some time dedicated to photography: I don't bring it with me every day in my walks, and often I don't even carry it in my backpack when I am going on a work trip where I expect to spend most of my waking time in meetings or working in my hotel room. My phone, however, is always with me, and it takes 10 seconds to pull it out of my pocket and shoot. And with pervasive wireless internet, less than a minute later the final Instagram is available, for the whole world to admire, on the internet.

--- Last considerations ---

I shot the small photo on the left from the same vantage point of the large photo above. The large photo was taken with my D700 camera and 24mm wide lens, and edited in Lightroom. The small photo is an Instagram taken using one of the standard Instagram filters and enhanced contrast adjustments, and no further editing. At full resolution, the details of the Instagram are clearly inferior than the D700 photo, and it won't print as well. Still the Instagram is perfectly fine for the web, and much more immediate than a D700 picture.

The Instagram image resolution issue is actually easily solved. Shoot your image with the native cameraphone app (modern cameraphone CCDs have now a pixel count comparable to semi-professional digital SLR cameras, even though the smaller sensors will generally be much noisier), and import it in Instagram later. This will save a local copy on your phone with full resolution, even though the photo transferred on the site is probably still 640x640 pixels in size. The only part of the Instagram processing that doesn't scale up to full resolution is the frame border: you will get a blurred version of a 640x640 pixmap of the border, which you will have to crop out if you want to print your Instagram.

You can see my Instagrams at: http://instagram.com/oornitorinko

Ames, Iowa (October 26, 2013)

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Ames, Iowa (October 19, 2013)

This is not really a duotone, just a background that is half sky and half dry autumnal grass bokeh. The flower (I don't know its name) blossoms late in the Summer, and then produces this fluffy white "fur" made to disperse its seeds in the strong Iowan winter months. It is purple when blossoming, but I almost like it more in the fall, so dignified with its silver crown of hairs.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

November Weather

Ames, Iowa (October 19, 2013)

Weather finally catched-up with us: it was snowing this morning in Iowa. Not the January snow, the one that sticks hard to the ground and you can walk on it as if it is white marble. More like the November one, the slushy snow that becomes rain as soon as it touches a surface. Any surface, be the grass, or my hand. Or the snout of a dog too eager to go out for his morning walk, oblivious of the miserable weather. Loudly dragging me outside, when I would just have stayed tucked-in for the rest of the day.

The yellow daisies in the park have long lost their petals. Their dark heads are still standing up, proud, on their thin dry stalks. They will soon wear fashionable sparkling hats. How long until autumn's golds will turn into winter's whites? 

Ames, Iowa (October 19, 2013)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Farewell to Venezuela

La Guaira, Venezuela (Dec 29. 2004)

--- Originally published on December 29, 2004 ---

The last day has finally arrived. We had packed everything the night before, and at 6:30 AM we were ready for the radio taxi we had reserved to go to the airport of Caracas in La Guaira (photo, from the airplane). Getting a taxi in Caracas can be an interesting experience. The easy and expensive way is to call a radio-taxi. They arrive at your house with large black SUV, and you are taken where you want to go without troubles in an aseptic vehicle with darkened windows and air conditioning that physically isolates you from the world outside (the highway passes in the middle of the "ranchitos" of Caracas, see photo below). For all appearances, you may as well be in New York. This kind of transportation is useful if you have to go to the airport early in the morning, because you are sure to have the taxi waiting for you at the requested hour. The 30-40 min trip to the airport from Caracas costs 40,000 bolivares which is about $20 at the official rate, ok for us but quite expensive for the average venezuelan.

There are of course other options. The more affordable other way is walk down to the closest taxi station or stop a taxi in the street (taxis in Caracas do stop, like in New York, and differently from Boston). The only problem is that you need to figure out if you the driver can be trusted or not. Things are usually ok if the taxi has some “official” sign, but most of the taxis are now living in a semi-legal status after a liberalization promoted by the government. Many of the taxi drivers do not have a license, they put a fake TAXI sign on the top of their patched cars and start driving around (instant taxi!). For the taxis hired in the street it is advisable to ask beforehand the price of the ride, to avoid being ripped off. We had taken such a taxi a couple of times, like when we went to the Universidad Simon Bolivar for the second day of Mayli’s conference, paying a few thousand bolivares for a ride that had costed Mayli many times more the day before with an “official” black SUV taxi.

Anyway, the ride was smooth and we arrived at the airport in time,checked-in, pass through the first of the many security checks of the day, and soon we were on our way to Miami. In Miami we had the first disappointment of our return to the US: we couldn’t find a decent place to have lunch in the gate areas, and we had to resort to a Pizza Uno. Ugh, welcome back to the famous US cuisine.

The second (expected) disappointment was when landing to Boston (with one hour delay because the plane cleaning crew in Miami didn’t show up in time): everything was covered by a white mantle of snow. This was expected because we received the city email snow advisory, but the hard reality of returning to winter after 20 days of summer still hit us hard.

Once at home we had the final blow: as a consequence of the snow emergency declared by the city, we got three fines for a total of $90, because of parking on the wrong side of the road, and not moving the snow-submerged car within 48 hours. So we spent the first hour back home shoveling the snow to avoid getting more 48 hours fines... Welcome Back to Boston!

This is the last post of my Venezuelan diary. It was quite an effort keeping up with the posting while traveling, but I did enjoy fixing my thoughts and travel impressions at the end of each day. And it also forced me to start screening my photos right away, rather than leaving them for weeks after returning from a trip. I hope you also enjoyed the reading and the photos as much as I liked posting them. In the next few days I’ll resume the regular posting of the blog: I took several hundred pictures during this trip, from the beaches of Los Roques to the mountains of Merida; many of them are just crap, but there will be some worthy to be published, and I’ll post them in the weeks to come.

--- Updates (October 20, 2013) ---

This was the last post of my 2004 Venezuelan travel diary. I remember it being quite an effort, keeping up with posting while traveling, but it was also a good exercise rethinking all that happened at the end of each day. It also forced me to start screening my photos right away, rather than leaving them untouched for weeks after returning from a trip, which is what I usually do. Much has changed since 2004. Chavez is gone, but the Chavismo is still alive. The years of innocence, when Venezuela was the darling of the international left, have been replaced by the harsh reality of yet another corrupt, incompetent and populist government using ideology as an excuse to maintain its power. The open question is now for how long the little chavistas that have replaced Chavez will manage to keep their hold on power, now that "El Comandante" and his enormous charisma are gone forever.

Thanks for reading this far. If you happened to hit this page and want to know what is this all about, you can jump to the beginning of my Venezuela travel diary HERE. You may also enjoy my other travel diary published here: the Japan travel diary.

Ranchitos de Caracas (December 28, 2004)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Back to Caracas

Merida, Venezuela (Dec 28, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 28, 2004 ---

Merida, Venezuela (Dec 28, 2004)
Inevitably, our vacations are getting to their end. This morning we left Merida directed to Caracas, where we will stay for just one day before flying back to freezing Boston. We flew again with one of the small propeller planes that serve the route between Merida and Caracas. These planes actually land in the Merida airport. Landing in Merida is quite an experience. The city is on a valley between very high mountains (the Pico Bolivar is over 5,000m), and the airport is right in the middle of the city. Until a few years ago large jets were authorized to land, but only especially trained pilots were able to do the frightening maneuver of diving through the peaks and stopping on the short runway (the runway is really short, to the point that the bakery near the airport had to pull down its shutters at the time of the daily jet flight). Now only small planes are authorized to land, and the situation has somewhat improved, even though the landing stage can still provide quite an adrenaline rush, and the probability of getting in town the same day as your luggage are slim. Despite the clouds and being again seated on the same side of the sun, we were treated by a wonderful view and I was able to do a few nice shots, like the one above. We will spend the night in caracas, and tomorrow morning we will suffer another early wake up to get back to the airport for our return flight to the US. This time we didn't lose our luggage, which is good given that we would have had otherwise to arrive in Boston with our summer clothes on.

--- Updates (October 18, 2013) ---

As mentioned in this other post, the airport in Merida is closed due to a fatal accident, and is now necessary to fly to El Vigia, a very inconvenient airport down in the plain.

--- Updates (October 20, 2013) ---

David left this comment on Facebook:

"Es bastante increible lo pertinente de esta foto: Estoy 95% seguro q esas lagunas las conocimos Javier y yo la única vez q acampamos juntos... Nos quedamos al lado de la más grande, la del medio. Se llega subiendo por la Musuy, y una de ellas se llama La Carbonera... nunca había llegado a ver esta foto.. Espectacular!!!"

It turns out I have a couple other photographs taken about at the same time from the plane, that show the lakes in more details, and the nearby area. I am adding them here.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


Alejandro and Anabela, Merida, Venezuela (Dec 27, 2004)

This is possibly the post where I have changed more my position since 2004. If you get upset by reading the first part, read on to the updates.

--- Originally published on December 27, 2004 ---

Anabela and Roxana
We spent our last day in Merida at la Finca, where we had lunch, to say goodbye to Mayli’s grandmother. There, we found some of Mayli little cousins, among which Alejandro and Anabela (in the photo above) and Roxana (right, in the photo on the right). When I proposed a photo session they were initially shy. Once started, however, they didn't want to stop and started fighting to be in front of the camera. I filled one full 512MB card (50 photos) just with them posing and and playing on the swing. We then went to the Merida market, which is the combination of a farmer’s market with little shops selling local artisan craft. Mayli’s mother wanted to give me a T-shirt as a present, but we couldn't find any I liked, so we got a very nice “gres” cup which I can use in my office tea. We also got two small T-shirts for Alice and Mililla (Letizia), my baby nieces in Italy.

Back at Mayli’s mother's home we listened to some stories about the ongoing land reform from Mayli’s father. He had recently met a cousin unhappy with the government and the way the reform is implemented. As many other south american countries, Venezuela suffers the problem of the best land being owned by a handful of families and multinational corporations, who use their extensive land holdings to raise cattle for meat export (this is one of the root causes for Venezuela dependence on food import, as the best land is used for foraging and is lost for farming). In many cases legal ownership titles of these holdings do not exists, as these lands have been accumulated during the turbulent historic processes leading to Venezuela independence and subsequent civil wars, at the expenses of displaced indigenous populations and small farmers. These violent processes have strongly contributed to the creation of the the huge slums crowning Venezuelan large cities.

Attempts to reform the situation have been made by successive governments during the 40 years of Venezuelan democracy, but have never succeeded to seriously dent the problem. Land distributed to would-be farmers without proper training and resources have been left unused, ultimately sold back to the same large landowners, while the would-be-farmers returned to the city, exacerbating the problem. The current government is trying to reverse the trend with a new reform, aimed to limit the maximum size of land holdings by purchasing or expropriating unused land from large owners, and then assigning small parcels to cooperatives of farmers trained in professional schools part of the “misiones” program, and granting them loans to purchase equipment and seeds.

The problems with this scheme is that the legal process for the expropriations is lengthy, and so far not many parcels have been assigned. This situation has triggered spontaneous occupation of land by landless peasants, at the expenses of the large landowners, resulting in some cases in a violent and deadly conflict.

After the last elections, emboldened governors of rural areas from the president’s party have decided to push forward the process by promulgating local decrees facilitating the process of expropriation, with the idea of forcing large landowners to negotiate a settlement. Among such governors is the re-elected governor of the state of Cojedes. In Cojedes, a dozen families and one british corporation own most of the land. The case of the british corporation is emblematic, as 90% of its land has been occupied by peasants that, without a legal title, are unable to cultivate the occupied land and cannot be included in the government program.

This initiative has naturally sparked yet another national controversy with the opposition press, accusing the government of communist measures by not respecting the land owners rights. Chavez himself had to release a communicate, just before a state trip to China, saying that the government has no intention of abolishing the private property, adding that: “Is communism the alternative? No! It is not pursued right now, as our reference point is the bolivarian Constitution of the state, and our social economic model. We are not proposing to eliminate the private property. We are not proposing this extreme. Nobody knows what will happen in the future, but in this moment it would be madness”. Is impossible to say if in the future Venezuela will become a communist country, but despite what the opposition claims, the current policies of the president Chavez are far from being totalitarian. The social programs so far are very respectful of individual freedoms, and the economic policies are not much different from the ones of the current governments of Brazil or Argentina. They have been lauded by international organizations as the International Monetary Fund and the international press like the Wall Street Journal, which are not exactly communist entities.

--- Updates (October 16, 2013) ---

In 2004 Chavez could still claim that Venezuela was not headed towards a socialist economic model, but he gradually reversed its course. The change was codified just two years later, when in 2006 he tried to change the constitution to decisively shift the country towards a more socialist model. The constitutional changes were defeated at the polls, but many of the provisions were later implemented, piecewise, by the National Assembly as part of common laws.

The main effect of the land reform initiated by Chavez has been the destruction of the agricultural production in the country, which is one of the root causes for the scarcity of common foodstuff plaguing Venezuela (the other being the exchange control, that limits the availability of foreign currency necessary to import products which are not produced locally anymore). As in the previous attempts of reform, the expropriations have not been followed by a return to production, resulting once again in the replacement of productive farms with unproductive land. The consequence of the reform have been similar to the "fast track" reform disastrously applied in Zimbabwe in 2000.

Another component of the disaster had been the nationalization of the industry providing agricultural services (seeds, fertilizers and credit) to the sector, primarily a company called Agroisleña. The result of the expropriations had been once again the destruction of the industry. One of Mayli's cousins told us the story of some land he own, that he has rented to local farmers for potato cultivation. Potatoes grow extremely well in Merida, and after the first year the yield was so large that he proposed the farmers to rent more land to increase production. He was answered that while they would liked to rent more land, it was impossible for them to increase production, because the nationalized seed company was only providing a limited amount of seeds to each farmer, due to seeds scarcity in the country, and the impossibility to import them from abroad.

This state of affairs is however not just due to incompetence, but also to corruption. The emblematic case of land reform gone horribly bad in Venezuela is the one of Franklin Brito. Brito was a biologist and agricultural producer in the Venezuelan state of Bolivar. In 2002 he submitted a project to the state-owned Corporation Venezolana de Guayana (CVG) to combat a disease affecting the yum plantations in the region. The project was however in conflict with another proposal submitted by the town Mayor, member of the Chavista party. When the project of the mayor, after allegations of misappropriations, was rejected, Brito was fired from his post at the local agricultural institute, as well from the secondary school where he was teaching. His wife (a teacher in another public school) was also fired. The vendetta was completed when a sizable portion of his farm was given by the national land reform agency to his neighbors. Despite several tribunal sentences in his favor, the land was never restituted, and Brito started a hunger strike. The hunger strike would ultimately lead to his death, under the watch of the military hospital in Caracas, where he was forcibly interned for "his protection". The story became a "cause celébre" in Venezuela and abroad, and a symbol of the abuses and corruption of the bolivarian government under the facade of a socialist revolution.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

La casa del arbol

Merida, Venezuela (Dec 26, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 26, 2004 ---

Today Mayli stayed home to take care of her mother, while I went to visit Alejandra at her “casa del arbol” (the house on the tree). She lives in a small little house near Merida, which is built around and on top of a tree. The tree grows from the center of the house, and exits from the roof and the windows. There even is a small natural cave in place of the "basement" of the house, nested in between the roots of the tree. We talked again a lot (Alejandra was my office-mate when I was in graduate school in Trieste), and I am very happy to be able to spend some time with her in the rare occasions that this is possible.

The “casa en el arbol” is inside the garden of a larger house, which is owned by very interesting and nice people. One of their sons was also a physicist, but left the profession to become a cook, and is now the most famous chef in Venezuela. He wasn't there today, but I still had a very good dinner, a “paella”, the spanish dish cooked by an argentinian architect of japanese origins that is working in Chile and spending his vacations here in Venezuela (he is the one in the photo above). After dinner we played with old wooden games and toy kaleidoscopes of all shapes.

--- Updates (October 12, 2013) ---

You can actually follow Sumito's blog here.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Christmas day

Merida, Venezuela (December 23, 2004)

In case you missed the beginning of this series, this is a travel diary of our trip to Venezuela in December 2004, with updated comments reflecting the current status of the country a decade later.

--- Originally published on December 25, 2004 ---

After coming back very late on Christmas night from la Finca, we slept until late in the morning. During the day we really didn't do much, apart going to a “communication center” of the local telephone company to call my parents at a low telephone rate, and visiting some friends of us living in Tabay (photo on the left). Tabay is one of the small villages along the roads to the Paramo.

Friends in Tabay
Tabay has an interesting story. As part of the “barrio adentro” program, the government offered to place one of the cuban doctors that are organizing basic health care centers for poor neighborhoods. This is a program done in collaboration with Cuba (which provides the expertise and the actual doctors for the program, to supplement the scarcity of venezuelan doctors available to practice for a very low salary in poor neighborhoods), in exchange for oil. The deal is that the government pays the small salary of the doctor, while the community provides the location to install the little hospital. Being the mayor of Tabay affiliated to an opposition party, the offer was refused, and the local community had to organize independently from the town officials to find a suitable place. As a result, in the last elections one month ago the incumbent mayor lost his office, and now the town is governed by the pro-government mayor that organized the community to keep their cuban doctors. The “barrio adentro” program of course can only provide basic health care, and cannot substitute the need of real hospital to cure serious illness, so have been criticized as a waste of money that should instead be used to fix the problems of the proper national health care system. The recipients of the “barrio adentro” program, apparently, do not think this way and are ready to go a long way to support the initiative (how barrio adentro is effectively improving the quality of life of poor people is one of the recurring themes in Mayli’s uncle description of his life as a priest in a poor Merida neighborhood). Of course having cuban doctor is not a long term solution, but the program is gradually training doctors and paramedics from the local communities, with the aim of having a program which is self-supporting in the future. The effects of this program on the lives of poor venezuelan is however something that tends to be hidden from the daily life of the rest of the country.

After dinner, we received the visit of one of Mayli’s cousins. He was happy because he is opening a new small commercial activity in Merida, and was assured cooperation from the city officials. He said that he got it because he always maintained an equal distance between the pro- and anti-government factions during the struggles of the last few years (his philosophy is that there is no point in swimming against the current). When he went to talk to the city pro-government officials, they checked that he didn’t sign for the recall referendum against the president (the list of these signatures is public), and then said that they will be very happy to make business with him.

The large photos above and below have nothing to do with this story. I didn't take many pictures in the last few days, though, so I decided to post some more image of Merida’s mountains, this one taken a couple of days ago while driving to Mayli’s cousin restaurant on the Valle de la Culata. Despite all its social and political problems, Venezuela is a beautiful country.

--- Updates (October 9, 2013) ---

In 2006, a couple of years after this entry was originally posted, I got some heat from a commenter upset of my positive treatment of the "barrio adentro" program:

Wow. It’s amazing how deep and accurate your comments about the situation in my country are. I suppose that for an Italian guy must be very mind-easer to support a “leftist government” that “helps” poor people by giving them everything they need. This is 2006 and those humble and nice poor people you feel so sorry about are now demanding houses, cars and everything “THEIR” government promised them would be given. If not they are just going to take it... Guess who is going to be stolen.... Well, let’s see...oh yeap, that forgetful and selfish bad middle class people who are in the opposition. But it’s OK you'll see the news on the civil war sitting in a nice balcony back there in Italy drinking a hot cappuccino thinking to yourself ... “poor people”. Just to finish I really hope you have such a president like mine in your country.... Ooops, sorry you already had one like him Mussolini I think his name was.

This was my answer at the time:

Yeah, you are not the first venezuelan calling me “Intelectual de Cafetin”.

There may be a lot to say about social justice in Venezuela, and who has “stolen” from whom for many years, but this is not the point.

The point I was trying to make is that the social programs the government is making in Venezuela are hugely popular among their recipients. One can argue if these programs are the best way of developing the country, or not, but it does not change the fact that the people in the barrios like them, and feel their lives are improved because of them. As a consequence Chavez is ever more popular among a large fraction of the voters. You can call this populism, if you want, but unless the opposition understand the need of social justice coming from the lower classes, they don't stand a chance of ever getting rid of Chavez, or the Chavismo (unless, of course, they try another coup, but this seems unlikely right now).

If I were in the opposition shoes, I would try to recognize more what are the good things that the government is claiming to do (the fact that they actually deliver is a different issue) in order to focus better on the bad parts. In this same post I mention a little episode about how the signatures for the referendum have been used (and are still used) to discriminate who is getting help and business from the government. Even if it is true that similar mechanisms were existing in the previous AD-COPEI parties power-sharing era (you could do business only if you were of the right crowd), it does not make it right. It is dangerous when a “revolutionary” impetus becomes excessive to the point that that people are blacklisted for their ideas or for exercising their democratic rights.

If you want to find a comparison with the Mussolini years in Italy, this is a good point. During the “ventennio” if you didn't wear a black shirt, or if you were not subscribed to the fascist party you were out (or in some cases locked in some jail, or killed if you were making too much noise). Venezuela is nowhere near the level of brutality and totalitarianism of the fascism in Italy (try to have an opposition newspaper at the time!), but it is still a slippery slope. And there are elements within the government supporters whose zeal is dangerously reminiscent of the Mussolini epoch. That said, if I were to look for fascists in Venezuela, I would find many of them in the opposition ranks, as illustrated by the short lived measures promulgated by the smiling Carmona, that would have made Mussolini and his concept of State very proud, if he didn't end up shot and hanged upside down in Milan in 1945.

These comments are still valid, even though the situation in the country has further degenerated since 2006. The ideological absolutism of chavismo has gotten worse, and the obstacles imposed to the supporters of the opposition, reminiscent of the "proscription lists" during the Italian fascism are even more wide spread. The press (especially the TV) are more and more controlled and effectively censored by the government (newspaper to be printed need paper, and the venezuelan government retains the monopoly of newsprint paper in the country). I could go on but now, if you would excuse me, is time to get me another cappuccino.

Merida, Venezuela (December 22, 2004)

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Xmas vigil

Merida, Venezuela (December 22, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 24, 2004 ---

My family in Italy always celebrates Christmas with a lunch on December 25th. In Venezuela the important day is the Christmas vigil on December 24th. Mayli's family reunites on December 24th at her grandmother’s house (“La Finca”) to spend the vigil together and eat sancocho (chicken soup) and hallacas (hallacas explained here). Venezuela is a conservative catholic country (even though protestant evangelical churches are making serious inroads), and the church is still a powerful force in the society. As in Italy, you can find churches everywhere, even at a pass over 4,000m (12,000ft) as in the photo on the left. So Christmas is deeply felt, and in Mayli’s family is very important to be at La Finca for the Christmas hallacas.

Pico del Aguila
The whole day was in preparation to this event, with the exception of a short visit to Alejandra (one of the physicists in this photo) who had also returned to Merida, and was preparing her hallacas with some friends. I showed her the photos on this blog, and some of the comments I posted triggered a discussion about politics (about the “bolivarian process” from the point of view of university professors), unfortunately cut short because we had to leave early for la Finca.

Mayli’s family is quite large, and most of it tries to be at La Finca on Christmas night. Of course it is impossible for everybody to give presents to everybody else, and this logistic problem has been solved with the “intercambio de los regalitos”. It works like this: each person is randomly designed to get a present for another component of the family, getting in exchange a present from a third family member. This way everybody gets and receives one present. Mayli and I had two of many Mayli’s cousins as present recipients. After the intercambio we sat down for the midnight dinner, where again I was involved in a conversation about politics with one of Mayli’s uncles (again about the “bolivarian process”, but from the point of view of a priest working in a poor neighborhood).

All these talks about politics are something new. The first time I visited the country, maybe 6 or 7 years ago, nobody was talking about politics. One of the consequences of the strong polarization of venezuelan society (some say this polarization was created by the divisive attitude of the president, but I think these divisions were already present before, just hidden), is that politics is now an important issue concerning everybody. People is often wary to talk freely, because the polarization is so strong that more than one such discussion has ended with fist fights between members of the same family. Once triggered, however, people is likely to vent off their frustrations, especially with an outsider like me who is happy to listen to both sides.

To understand what is really going on in this country one would have to spend several months traveling in every corner of its territory, visiting each small village in the Andes, the flooded plains or the Amazon, or living a few months in the slums surrounding Caracas where human life is not worth less a dollar. Touching with one’s hand the situation of the 80% of the venezuelan population living below the line of poverty is probably the only way to go past the propaganda from both sides, and to form an independent idea of what it is really happening. As a tired astrophysicist visiting family during Christmas holidays, this is however not going to happen, and all I can do is to listen to middle class people seeing the situation through the lenses of their own situation, which is definitely only one side of the story. It doesn't work very well, because the segregation in Venezuelan society is very strong, and people of different classes barely talks to each other, and when they do is never on equal basis.

Differences, however, do exists. People removed from the daily lives of poor classes tends to complain that the government is not doing enough, and that the measures that are actually carried on are just populist acts which do not change the roots of underdevelopment of the country, while the corruption and inefficiency is as as rampant as ever. Other people who have instead a greater contact with the struggling lower classes generally have a more positive view of the government initiatives, and reports a significative improvement in their lives.

Who is right? Probably both, from their own point of view. Maybe it is true that all the “misiones” are just “pañitos calientes”, palliatives that won't solve the structural problems of the country. But is also true that previous governments, when the poor where rioting for food, were sending the army to shoot them down. Now the army is used to distribute food and build schools. Too little? Maybe. Better than nothing? Maybe.

Merry Christmas.

--- Updates (October 6, 2013) ---

If you want a (very limited) assessment of what 10 years of "misiones" have produced, look at the "updates" in this post. It doesn't look pretty, and the current situation vindicates who was asserting that the "misiones" would be of little significance in solving the structural problems of the country.

Certainly from the point of view of the middle class and intellectual elite of the country, Venezuela has degraded significantly in terms of services, infrastructure and development in general. Corruption may have changed color, but is more than alive. The resentment towards the ideological absolutism of the "chavistas" is fully justified, and engendered a society less open and free than before. It is not surprising that Venezuela is suffering a brain drain caused by the double punch of a deep economic crisis and a toxic atmosphere where, if you are not aligned to the ideological purism of the government party, you are out of luck.

What I cannot assess, is how the developments of these ten years have been felt by the impoverished classes, the traditional strong supporters of the government. Despite their inefficiencies, the "misiones" are still there. During the last elections (the first after Chavez's death), the government still got a lot of votes (who really won is a different issue that I don't need to discuss now), suggesting that at least for part of the population, "chavismo" is still popular despite the shortages, the brownouts and obvious evidences of government corruption. Given the current long-term unsustainability of the government "misiones", how long is this going to last?

Merida, Venezuela (December 23, 2004)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Las cinco aguilas blancas

Pico Bolivar, Venezuela (Dec 23, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 23, 2004 ---

Today we had an invitation for a very special restaurant. Juan Antonio, one of Mayli’s cousins, is the chef of a gourmet restaurant at La Culata, one of the many beautiful valleys in Merida’s Paramo andino. 

Mayli and Juan Antonio
The restaurant had originally been a vacation house for the family, and has been recently converted into a restaurant by Juan Antonio and his wife. I really recommend anybody passing by Merida to stop at the restaurant, not just because they are family, but because the cuisine is really good. The pork in orange sauce I had today was simply awesome and worth the trip on the winding mountain road to get there from the city. Along the road the usual magnificent scenery of Merida’s Andes. Today the sky was covered by high clouds, and the usual low level clouds hanging on the peaks were missing, so we were treated with a view of the Pico Bolivar (photo above), which is the highest Venezuelan mountain (5,007m = 16,427ft). The Pico Bolivar is one of the five “aguilas blancas” (white eagles), which are the five peaks around Merida once covered by glaciers. Due to global warming the Pico Bolivar is the only venezuelan mountain left with a small glaciated area, which is retreating at an accelerated rate. The five aguilas blancas are so called because of an ancient legend of the local indian population.

The legend was recorded by Tulio Febres-Cordero, Mayli’s great-great-grandfather which was a local historian and spent his life collecting legends and traditions of the local indian population. This legend says that once upon a time there were five enormous white eagles flying in the skys of Merida’s mountains. These were the times of Caribay, spirit of the aromatic forest, the first woman of the indians Mirripuyes. She was the daughter of the fiery Zuhe (the sun) and the pale Chia (the moon).

One day she saw the five beautiful eagles, whose feathers were shining like silver, and she wanted some of them to adorn her regal dress, as she was the princess of the Andes. She started to call the eagles, running after them through valleys and mountains, to no avail. She started to cry, asking for help to Zuhe, her father, and the wind carried her supplications, but the eagles had flown out of sight in the twilight. She then called Chia, her mother, as the wind stopped to make silence. In that moment, when the stars shined over the majestic mountains, the moon came and around her silvery light there were the five white eagles that had returned her call. The five eagles came circling the high peaks, until they descended on the top of the five highest mountains, digging their claws into the living rock. And there they stayed in silence. Caribay started to run, anxious to grab some of the feathers for her dress, but as soon as she arrived to one of them, she gave a cry of fright: the eagles were petrified, and their magnificent plumage was converted into a cold glacier. The moon darkened, the wind blew and a storm covered the five mountains with great quantities of perennial white snow, which can still be seen today as a memory of the furious awakening of the five eagles, when the whistling of the wind in the Paramo echoes the song of Caribay.

--- Updates (October 3, 2013) ---

While Mayli remembers times where Pico Bolivar still had significantly more ice than now, if we go back to the beginning of last century the change is astounding. Have a look at this report (in Spanish, but you can still look at the photos): these glaciers were real glaciers like the one in the Alps: all gone now.

Nothing to do with the current post, but I stumbled on this article about the current economical situation in Venezuela. There is a quote from some guy saying that in 2007 he purchased a used Chevy truck for about $3,200. Today he could sell the truck for nearly $24,000. Venezuela is the only country in the world where you can buy something, use it, and the next day it costs more.

Road to Piñango, Venezuela (Dec 22, 2004)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Paramo andino

Road to Piñango, Venezuela (Dec 22, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 22, 2004 ---

Our idea for today was to get into our rented car and drive to the “Pueblos del Sur”, a chain of small villages along a road crossing the mountains south of Merida. These villages are way out of the touristic route, and still preserve their traditional colonial architecture. We later learned that the mother of one of Mayli’s aunts was born in one of these villages. At that time the village was only reachable from Merida after a two day horse ride along a steep mountain path. Mayli’s aunt father only made the trip twice: after the second trip along the grueling path he decided that this was too hard. He eloped to Merida with his sweetheart and they got married. We too had to give up before even starting, the conditions of the road were still too rough for our Fiat Uno. So we decided to drive along to the road of the Paramo.

The Paramo is a high altitude (12,000ft) grassland ecosystem unique to the Andes of Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. The Paramo is very beautiful and rich of endemisms, species that cannot be found in any other places in the world. The road of the Paramo connects Merida with the plains of Central Venezuela climbing through valleys connected by two high mountain passes, one of which is called Pico del Aguila, and is over 4,000m (12,000ft) on the sea level. That was our destination.

Paramo's Horsemen!
Once we reached Mucuchies (which is the village where Mayli’s grandfather was born), we however took a detour towards a remote village nested in a secondary valley where Mayli had been many years ago. The problem was that Mayli didn’t remember the way, nor the name of the village. However the people living in these mountains are really nice, and we managed to ask our way around even with the few memories that Mayli had of the place. The little village, Gavidia, is indeed set at the end of a long secondary valley, reachable with a paved road climbing through a spectacular gorge. After the gorge the valley opens up again, with the village spread in its middle. As far as I could tell the village is populated mostly by farmers and herders of native origin. Along the way we had been stopped innumerable times by little kids asking for change, for the “año viejo”. This is a typical tradition of the Andes, in which kids build a puppet made of straws (the "año viejo) that is set on fire on new year’s eve. They place their año viejo on the side of the road and ask for money at the passing cars. As you can guess we soon ended without any change left, well before reaching Gavidia. Once we arrived at the village (and after Mayli took the ritual photo of the local “mercal” - read this previous post for explanations) we drove back, following a red truck with three little kids playing peek-a-boo with Mayli as she was trying to photograph them.

After Gavidia we drove back to the main road, towards the astronomical observatory, and then to the Pico del Aguila pass. There, we took another secondary road to Piñango, another semi-isolated village. We had been in Piñango a few years ago, and it was definitely too far for today, as sunset was already approaching. However, just driving for a few kilometers along the road was enough to enter a highland filled with frailejones, a dry climate plant endemic of the Paramo. The photos above and below were taken there. The name frailejones (“big monks”) derives from the fact that the plant at a distance looks like a monk walking in his robe. The most amazing characteristics of the frailejones are their furry leaves, that remind me of rabbits ears.

After filling one full 512MB card of pictures of frailejones we drove back to Merida, where we arrived when it was already dark, after stopping again in Mucuchies for dinner.

--- Updates (October 1, 2013) ---

This was probably the last time Mayli and I managed to escape from the beaten path and travel alone in some remote area in Venezuela. In part this is because work commitments makes it impossible to stay long enough in Venezuela to actually have time to explore, but another reason is that the country is less safe for travel (even though the villages in the Andes are still the safer area to be).

You can check out the two kids hiding in the truck on my instagram feed.

Road to Piñango, Venezuela (Dec 22, 2004)