Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Field Study Venezuelan Style

I came to Caracas on November 26th as part of a group of six students and a faculty advisor from Tuck for the Field Study in International Business program. We were chosen for a project with DHL Venezuela. The team included Vikram Chitkara, Alexis Hoopes, Navin Rajaram, Sienna Rogers, and Michelle Schneider. We were fortunate to be placed in a cohesive group with a variety of personalities, experiences, and perspectives.

Our faculty advisor for the trip was Annie Bauer. Annie is a fascinating woman with a deep background leading teams in a variety of settings across private enterprise and international development. We found Annie to be a tremendous asset in helping us to manage our team dynamic, develop our project goals, facilitate interaction with the client, and adapt our work style to logistical and cultural challenges.

The Caracas experience was split into two parts – the 3 week consulting project (a ton of work) and 1 week of travel (palabra). During the consulting project we used our 2 weekends to explore as well. Following the project, team members chose their own adventures. The following stories highlight some of the experiences that I was fortunate to enjoy on this trip.

The pictures at this link accompany these stories.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Hiking in Los Nevados

At noon on Tuesday December 20th, Sienna and I peeled ourselves out of our seats and hopped in one of the many 1970’s style V8 taxis awaiting passengers outside the Merida bus station. Armed with a few tips from the guidebooks and a phone number for a travel agent called Guamanchi Expeditions we were ready to tackle the Andes.

It took a little bit of searching to find space available in a hostel for two nights. But it was a relief to discover very cheap rates for reasonable accommodations ($7 per person). It was now clear that Merida was a reasonably priced town for tourism in an otherwise expensive country (also the bus tickets to Merida only cost $22 per person each way).

During our first day, we sampled a $1.25 lunch at a local restaurant, did a quick tour of the city, and tasted ice cream from Merida’s international celebrity. A Portuguese migrant has become world famous for his wide variety of ice cream flavors – including tuna, garlic, spaghetti with meatballs, avocado, and others. We stuck to relatively safe flavors and found the ice cream to be very enjoyable.

After our urban explorations we headed to a travel agent to find out what kind of trip we could fit in during the remaining 48 hours. Guamanchi Expeditions was recommended to us by Adriana, Commercial Director at DHL Venezuela. The agency is owned by John and Joelle Pena who are close friends of Adriana’s niece. Of course, in Latin America family and friend connections appear everywhere and are always helpful to exploit.

Upon arrival we met Jan, a friendly Danish guy, who quickly dispelled any plans of climbing a 5,000+ meter peak. Logistics, preparation and acclimatization were the critical impediments sighted. I was less aggressive than usual given our 48 hour time limit and my travel partners novice climbing level.

In lieu of a real climb, Sienna and I signed up for a jeep trip to Los Nevados followed by a ~15 kilometer hike to a mountain pass at 4200 meters and a ride back down to Merida on the longest, highest teleferico in the world. This would get us close to three of the peaks and back to Merida in time for our flight on Thursday evening.

On Wednesday morning, a young Meridian hipster picked us up at our hostel. He was very careful in sculpting his hair and maintaining his look throughout the drive. The three of us swung by Guamanchi to meet up with our guide Rafael. Rafael is an enthusiastic 22 year old climbing/hiking guide looking forward to his graduation from Universidad de Los Andes in the summer.

With Rafael in tow the four of us departed for the 4 hour drive to Los Nevados. Breathing in dust and taking in beautiful mountain views, we listened intently to Rafael’s adventure stories and the local park ranger’s update about someone getting killed the previous night (no real details available). Also, we were intrigued to hear about 2 Belgians who have not been heard from in over 4 weeks after heading up Pico Bolivar.

When we arrived in Los Nevados we took quick power naps in the hammocks at the hostel and headed off for an afternoon hike. Our hike took us past a river and up to a local farm where Rafael got reacquainted with a family he met hiking with his father many years before. (Rafael’s father was a climbing and hiking guide as well and has been taking Rafael out since he was seven).

The farm is populated with 4 children and 3 adults and a wide variety of animals. The matriarch is an older man of 86 years who walks with a cane and has some dope glasses and a killer hat. His wife and sister are also very mature and equally warm and friendly. We took a few pictures, shared some stories, listened to Rafael play the cuatro (Venezeulan 4 string guitar), and then got back on our way.

In the evening Rafael introduced us to another local patriarch. The 83 year old woman is now bedridden from a stroke and was surrounded by members of her family in what, as near as I could tell, equates to a death vigil. She and Rafael shared stories from previous trips he made through Los Nevados.

The following morning we got up early and left at 7am for the hike up to the Alto de La Cruz pass. We left from 2700 meters and made our way up a very well traveled path. This trail serves as the dirt highway for the locals that send goods into town via the teleferico (our final destination).

The weather was emaculate and the views breathtaking as we ascended to 4200 meters. We were accompanied by two very friendly dogs and two more focused mules. Although we did not use the mules, they were included in the excessive fee that we paid to our new friends at Guamanchi.

In any case, we arrived at the pass around 12:30pm and got our first close up glimpse of the highest peak in Venezuela. Pico Bolivar was less ominous then I anticipated and made me long for an extra day to get to the summit. I was also struck by the disappearing glacier on the peak and the receding waters of the glacial lakes at the base. The glaciers, of course, mark another piece of direct evidence I have witnessed in recent years of the impact of our industrialized world.

After taking in the view, we made our way to the teleferico a few hundred meters away and headed back down to Merida. The quick visit to Merida was a big refresher for me. Sharing my love of the mountains with a good friend, Sienna, was a pleasure. The solitude of the long hike provided time to rebalance my thoughts. The clean fresh air soothed my lungs after three weeks in the toxic Caraqueno air. And Rafael’s youthful enthusiasm reminded me of my love for the outdoors and my thirst for adventure.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Travelling by Bus in Venezuela

On Saturday December 17th I began a search for bus tickets to Merida, a mountain town in southwestern Venezuela (the northern most part of the Andes). I knew tracking down tickets would be challenging given the holiday season. All forms of travel – flights and advance bus tickets - were in very high demand.

I first headed to the ticket office for Aerobus Ejecutivo which doesn’t have service to Merida. I crossed town to the office for Flamingo buses and posted signs noted tickets to Merida were sold out until December 27th. At this point my level of anxiety began to rise. The thought of staying in Caracas for an entire week would be sub-optimal as a tourist both financially (it’s very expensive) and because I was tired off the concrete jungle.

I headed to La Bandera – the sketchy bus station that I was told to not go anywhere near – to check out the situation there. I learned that pre-sold tickets to Merida were sold out for every company. But I found that one company sells tickets only on the departure day.

On Monday December 19th, I arrived at La Bandera again about 7am in order to beat the crowd. But I hadn’t taken into consideration that every bus for every destination would be on sale at the same time. The bus station was a spectacle of meandering lines from the 8-10 different companies doing day of sales. I found my position at the end of a ~300 person line for Llanos Express and settled in for the wait.

After 3 hours creeping slowly forward, I found myself at the desk and was rewarded with two tickets on the overnight bus. The next person in line asked for the same tickets only to be told the bus was now sold out. I smiled at the ticket agent, she smiled back and I left to find somewhere to stash my 40 pound pack.

I now settled in for a long wait for the overnight bus at 8:30pm (it was 10:00am). I also was left wondering if Sienna would arrive from her weekend trip to Los Roques (carribean islands) in time to catch the bus. Fortunately, everything went off without a hitch and Sienna and I were safely in the waiting area an hour prior to departure.

Not too unexpectedly, the departure area was an absolute mess. Hundreds of people in different states of preparedness were waiting in a variety of lines with little idea of what was going on. The system was designed to have 5 buses departing from one of 3 gates all at the same time every 15 minutes. Then they get on megaphones and tell people to form into lines by time slot of bus departure.

This system is built to breakdown if buses are late. Given the dramatic traffic problem in Caracas it was not surprising to be part of a throng of people as the 8:00 and 8:15pm buses failed to arrive. Sienna and I found ourselves in the middle of said throng as the temperature and the anxiety level of the crowd began to rise to uncomfortable levels.

Dripping with sweat we were fortunate to hear that the 8:30 passengers were being permitted to pass through to the awaiting buses. We literally pushed our way through the crowd and were finally catapulted toward the open doors.

Without an employee in sight – I ventured out into the parking area where I saw over 25 buses in various states of boarding/departing/looking for parking/etc. After asking a few drivers where bus 1054 was – I located our passage to Merida at the end of the line. Soon enough Sienna and I found our way into the cool, comfortable camabus and settled in for a 14 hour ride. Departing 2 hours late, we were on our way to the mountains at last.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Caracas: A list of experiences and impressions

Arriving in Caracas on Saturday November 26th, the first impressions were scenes at the airport and on the drive to the hotel. It was immediately clear that we were in a very modern city. The airport was enormous and the rows of planes reflected a high volume of flights. Leaving the airport, the roads appeared well maintained and the skyline was rich with tall office buildings and flashing neon lights.

Cash - Our first 24 hours in Caracas were spent in and around the hotel because of a total lack of access to cash. The Bolivar is fixed at 2150 per USD and trades in the black market at 2600 per USD. The government introduced rigged currency controls during the crisis of 2003. These controls help to keep the currency from weakening further and also made us completely unable to obtain cash from ATMs, convert traveler’s checks into dollars, or even change US dollars into Bolivars.

Our cash problems were alleviated on the first day of work when we each became Venezuelan millionaires. DHL provided us our three weeks of per diems in cash on our first day of work --- an amount exceeding 1.8 million Bolivars. The distribution took place in an interior office where one man sat in front of an enormous stack of bills worth over 12.5 million Bolivars.

Walking – Without any money for cabs we tried to do a walking tour our first day in Caracas. We quickly learned that the section of the city we were staying in was not designed for walking. In order to get back to the hotel the only route available meant crossing a major highway – which we did on foot. We were fortunate to get assistance from an ice cream man turned guide.

Gas – Our first day of work we were introduced to Caracas’ traffic issues. The government has chosen to subsidize cheap petrol at about $0.18 per gallon. As a result, everyone has a car… everyone. Traffic is terrible and constant. And, of course, the air quality suffers dramatically. Our headaches, itchy eyes, and a general tired feeling were blamed on the bad air.

Chavez – We were fortunate to witness a major election during our stay. The events around the election included the withdrawal of the opposition party, heavy Chavista propaganda, and the infiltration of our hotel by an EU contingent (overseeing the election). I took the opportunity to view a 2 hour Chavez speech the night prior to the vote and to discuss politics with anyone that was willing. I also read the two national papers to find out what the journalists had to say (both national papers are opposition papers). I spoke with taxi drivers, DHL managers, students, and others to find out how people felt about the government. I was not surprised to find many people in opposition. I was surprised to find opposition across class lines.

Beisbol – My first cursory introduction to the fanaticism of Venezuelan beisbol fans occurred when I visited a sports bar to watch the Copa Sudamerica Final (Boca Juniors v. Pumas) with Navin. We were told the game could not be put on until after the baseball game (a midseason, meaningless game). Our real introduction was on a trip to the stadium during our second week to watch the Leones v Tiburones. In sharp contrast to experiences at MLB games, the stadium was exploding with energy. Despite attendance of only about 15,000, the noise level was deafening. Baseball games are a spectacle of dancing, screaming, and cheap beer. I believe the beer prices are set to encourage the throwing of beer – which occurs at frequent intervals and left us laughing and soaked.

In one of the middle innings we made a food run – the hotdog stand was a huge hit. The chef was an artist and the assortment of toppings were dulce. I remain a huge supporter of the smashed potato chip topping. After stuffing our faces and headed back to the beer shower.

Doormen and Taxis – We lived out of the Eurobuilding (pronounced Aerobuilding) Radisson during our consulting project. The hotel was comfortable and close to work. The doormen were a huge hit and did their best to get on our good sides. This included negotiating with taxis for us, recommending restaurants and bars, and even offering up prostitutes to the guys (we declined). Speaking of taxis, Caracas’ derth of cars has not resulted in a derth of cab drivers. In fact, we quickly learned to build a rolodex of cabbies direct numbers and make pickup arrangements far in advance. Our learning process was reinforced by hour long waits for cabs and 35 minute walks to the hotel.

Models, Weddings, TV and the Hotel Lobby – The hotel lobby was an absolute spectacle. At any time of day or night you never knew what you were going to find. Typically, it would be anything from a world class model preparing for a quick TV clip with an older latin man in a stiff black leather coat and an oversized microphone or a dance troop of 16 year old high school girls in tight uniforms. Another big hit were the steady flow of wedding parties on the weekends. Lavish affairs, the weddings were characterized by guest arrivals that resembled prom. We found it particularly amusing when it was difficult to tell mothers from daughters (it often was).

Necklines, Mid-drifts, and Silicon – It took some adjusting to and a few days to find the right places but Venezuela definitely has a supply of beautiful women. The beauty crosses age, class, and ethnicity although not gender lines (according to our female compatriots). And Venezuelan women flaunt it whether they have it or not. Oh… and this is a breast culture if there is such a thing. There is an epidemic of fake breasts. The surgeries are done inexpensively and it is not unusual to see them prominently displayed on single women, young mothers, or mature married women. The coverage of real or fake breasts is tight and limited. The pants and skirts are chosen for similar attributes. It was a pleasure and a curse.

Xmas in Caracas – We had the great fortune of being invited to the DHL Venezuela Christmas party on December 10th. The party started at DHL offices at 10:30am where we piled into shuttle buses that took us to the party. The bus trip included lots of ribbing, classic marangue, plenty of reggaeton, impromptu dancing and singing by Jose Gregario (interior manager for Maracaibo), and plenty of laughs. The party was held at a country house on a hill an hour and a half from Caracas. It was a rainy day but that didn’t dampen the spirit of the crowd. Caja de Tejas was set up with a dominos room, a big white tent for the traditional Christmas meal, a stage for the bands, a dance floor, and plenty of bars. Despite our office location (in the basement of the building) it quickly became clear that EVERYONE was aware of our presence. Being the center of attention has its privileges. There was no shortage of dance partners or people to talk to.

The party was amazing. Complete with four live bands, a comedian, a booty shaking contest, performers on stilts, and whiskey of course. We met so many people it is hard to remember them all. But there were some personalities that stood out. Jose Gregario (mentioned above) had an endless supply of energy. ‘The Rock,’ a Matt Dillon clone that is ‘easy on the eyes,’ had the mental aptitude of… well a rock. Sabrina, one of the DHL socialites, took booty shaking to a new level (think exorcist). And Valmore, of course, who served a stellar role as our host. Others included – the drunk guys on the bus, Roman, Yoli, Alexandra, Strategic Parts, the Customer Service crew, Valentina, etc.

The rumba lasted all day. But with mild pre-sleep hangovers, the gringos admitted defeat and dragged ourselves back to the hotel at midnight. Of course, the DHLers continued the party til 6am at local bars and clubs.

Shopping Malls – In Caracas, shopping is only a by product of the mall experience. The real experience is seeing and being seen just like the rest of the city. San Ignacio is the epicenter of Caraqueno nightlife (as far as we know). An open air mall with dozens of cafes, bars, and lounges - there are also full scale clubs. And a spectacle of revealing clothes. We approached the mall with skepticism and left amused and entertained.

Travel Agents and Tourism – Travel agents in Caracas are on par with other customer service establishments in Latin America. They leave the customer with a sense of confidence that arrangements are being made but in reality only react to constant badgering. With heavy demand for all forms of transportation during the holidays, our travel was consistently a challenge. The first planned trip to Los Roques was scratched for an impromptu visit to a local beach.

A more surprising lesson learned very early again involved money. Tourist destinations in Venezuela are expensive. For example, 2 nights in basic accommodations at Los Roques runs in the $450-550 range and 2 night trips to Angel Falls in Southeastern Venezuela run $750-$1000. These were not in my price range and did not fit with my previous experiences in other Latin American countries.

Public Transportation – On my weekend alone in Caracas (after the departure of Navin, Alexis and Annie, and while Vik, Michelle and Sienna were in Los Roques), I sampled public transportation. Surprisingly, there is a very clean and efficient Metro system that crosses Caracas. Rides are a bargain at about $0.15 each way as compared to typical cab fares of $3-$5. In contrast to warnings I heard from friends, I felt very comfortable in the Metro.

I also took a few rides on the local buses. These charge twice as much as the Metro but are still a very reasonable $0.30 each way. The buses were a bit more interesting in terms of diversity of riders and there was a lot more staring at the odd ball gringo. The dramatic concerns for our safety seemed to be unfounded during my local travels.

Theater – I also took advantage of my weekend in Caracas to get a real Caraqueno cultural experience at the theater. Of course, I had no idea what play I would be seeing. I was pleasantly surprised to be able to understand most of what was being said from the start of the work. More surprising yet was the final portion of the first act, all of the actors on stage stripped naked and one couple began sequencing a nude love scene on a bed. It turns out, this was a play about the differences between men and women with a ton of nudity to help demonstrate the normalcy of sexual relations and the human body. It was a comedy and it was funny. The actors were not difficult to look at either.

Restaurants – Dining in Caracas was a mixed bag of excellent, mediocre, and not so good restaurants. The quality level was closely aligned to the price. With our $40 per diem we were able to sample some of the finer restaurants and without exception the food was excellent. We were also treated to a handful of dinners by our fine hosts at DHL. The mid price restaurants were a definite gamble. Some were passable, some left parts of the group clenching their stomachs the next day.

Hospitality – Venezuelan people were the happiest, friendliest, most energetic, positive people I have interacted with in my travels. They have an amazing zest for life. Our hosts at DHL made us feel right at home and part of the DHL family --- which we found out is truly a family with plenty of fishing off the company pier. We were able to quickly make friends with people we worked with and other people we met during our various outings. I will always remember the warmth of the people in this country.

Friday, December 09, 2005

A Day at the Beach

Our little group made an excursion to Caracolito/Chirimena near Caracas today. The trip entailed renting two taxis for the day (one for the guys / one for the girls) to get a ride to and from the coast (approximately 2 hours away). A pretty good gig for Jesus - a friend of a friend - who I think got a very good price for a day at the beach with some gringos and his friend (the 2nd driver).

Jesus apparently was pretty well known around these parts. As we passed through the small towns between Caracas and the coast with our windows down, locals were waving and hollering at our driver/casanova. It worked out well for us as he picked up one of the ice cream cart men for a ride the last mile to the beach and he gave us all free ice cream. I also got a good chance to talk with him about his family and local politics (hates chavez).

Upon reaching the beach we waited for about 30 minutes for a lancha that would take us to the correct spot (a more secluded section). As usual, we were not clear on exactly where we were going or how we would get there. After waiting for about 30 minutes we learned that the surf was too rough for the small boats to come in and pick people up.

Plan B - Our drivers took us to a second lancha location where we were able to load up and head to the secluded beach. It was a short 30-45 minute boat ride away to what appeared to be an appealling strip of sand nicely situated with a small island (with an abandoned white house) just off the coast. Upon closer inspection the beach was a bit dirtier then you would hope for with a decent amount of litter. However, we were happy to be out in the sun on a beautiful day.

We spent the entire day lounging on the sand, enjoying the water, and having some fun and drinks with Jesus and his buddy. We also got a great lunch of pargo, avocado, chips, and salad right on the beach. A storm passed by on the horizon making for some photo opportunities with the island with the white house in the foreground.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Hiking in Parque Nacional El Avila

Yesterday we had our first opportunity to explore Avila, the mountain which runs along the north side of Caracas (hiding the ocean from view and helping keep the pollution nicely situated overhead). We began our journey with a taxi ride to the trail head for the journey up to Hotel Humboldt. Hotel Humboldt is perched safely on a ridge on the western end of the mountain range overlooking the city.

As we began our assent, we were armed solely with a rough outline of the route and plenty of enthusiasm. The weather was clear and sunny and the sky was a beautiful shade of blue. And we were all amazed at the proximity of such a lush natural area just minutes from our hotel in this bustling metropolis.

We began our assent at 1,100 meters on a paved trail populated with hundreds of Caraquenos. I was highly discouraged to be on pavement which for me does not count as good hiking terrain but happy to see plenty of the local talent getting exercise and gazing upon this motly crew of gringos.

The trail changed over from pavement to dirt quickly enough and the grade became fairly steep but we made steady progress. The weather changed from dry warm air, to thicker more humid air as we gained altitude. Cloud cover moved in as well and we were greeted with our first sprinkles of water about an hour and half into the hike.

After taking refugee from a down pour under a four post shelter – we made our way further up the trail. At this point there was some uncertainty about where we were heading and we began to check with people coming down the trail to find out how far we were from our destination.

We soon realized that the looks of confusion and concern on the faces of our advisors was an indication that we may have made a wrong turn. Two young caraquenos assured us that we could get to Hotel Humboldt but we had to traverse from the top of the mountain we were on to another and it would take another 3-4 hours. Keeping in mind we were 2.5 hours into a 3-4 hour hike this was not welcome news.

Fortunately, the landmarks they suggested were clear and we found the proper turn off to begin a westerly traverse of the mountain ridge. Unfortunately, as we began the traverse the sky opened up once more and our hiking trail was quickly converted into a flowing river of water shin deep. Having reached an elevation of 2,350 meters we were also now in much colder air – without proper clothing and soaked to the bone.

The traverse was enjoyable for some and a concern for others. Visibility was very poor with cloud cover surrounding us. At the very least, we had left behind a steady incline for a more level and forgiving trail. However, the rain continued beating down on us with unrelenting force.

After several fits and starts and some intense debate about where we were heading – we emerged from the clouds and rain to get a glimpse of the ocean which lies north of Avila. We also caught a glimpse of the original destination – Hotel Humboldt. However, at this point it remained a good distance away.

With renewed enthusiasm and an easing of group tensions we picked up our pace and headed toward the first man made structure we had seen in several hours. We celebrated our arrival at Humboldt with some pictures, some laughs, and by quenching our hunger at the variety of food stalls set up for tourists that arrive via the teleferico. Then we huddled ourselves into the cable car and began the easy assent down to awaiting taxis and warm showers at the hotel. Although it took some convincing – we were able to coax a taxi driver into accepting our fare despite our miserable appearance and were soon home nursing our sore joints.