Thursday, November 04, 2004

M14 Vista De Venezuela

This week I had my first trip to Venezuela. The most I got to see of the country was my hotel room, the mall and the bank where I worked 16-hour days. I feared wouldn't get to know the country at all while cocooned within the trappings of business travel-land.

The week started off with my worst fears coming to fruition. Everything that was supposed to happen didn’t happen. Everything that wasn’t supposed to happen happened. And while it was happening, I had no idea of how it would happen to end up.

Imagine installing, configuring, testing and building applications in complicated enterprise software. Your client is equally complicated and even more demanding. You’ve never looked at the software on a server - only on a laptop. Now imagine doing it in a language you're just learning on a keyboard that doesn't contain such computer necessities as semicolons, colons, pipes and "@'s". In fact, without a semi-colon, your company’s software won’t even run.

Your primary technical point of contact doesn't speak the same language as you do and he won't let you lay your fingers on the computer where you're supposed to install the software. You have the pleasure of "backseat-driving" the install in a language you've never formally studied. The software you use to access the server uses some ancient form of terminal emulation invented before you were born requiring you to do manual screen refreshes adding half a minute to every mouse click.

When you arrive at the client site, Venezuela's second largest bank, the software CD’s your own company's local subsidiary are supposed to have brought, are not what the client asked for. But even if they were, it wouldn't matter; your company’s local technical consultant forgot to bring the special code to unlock the software.

Bienvenido a mi mundo! (Welcome to my world). It’s 9:30 Monday morning.

I start to forget about making a good impression with my new management. Instead, I try to focus my energy on keeping my job.

I am relieved to find out the local consultant my company has sent along to help with the installation has 10 year’s experience and had lived in the States for three. Great. He can help out both technically and linguistically.

Too bad he speaks less English than I speak Spanish and I quickly conclude he would need detailed instructions, a training class and hand-holding for installing AOL Instant Messenger.

Is he here to help or narc?

Our Venezuela office hired a driver for me who will not only meet me at the airport, but also drive me around on demand. He’s supposed to meet me with an envelope containing 100,000bs, Bolivars, the local currency, and a cell phone. I am picturing myself lounging in the plush leather seat of my very own black Lincoln Towncar – like the ones that used to ferry me back and forth to Dulles Airport. And rolling with 100,000 of anything has to be pimped! I could feel the wad of cash in my hand! I was starting to feel more like a drug lord than a software consultant!

I giddily Google “bolivar-dollar exchange rate” to see just how much I will have!

It turns out my bank roll will consist of coins. It’s a whopping $7.14US per day. I am pretty sure that won’t pay for my daily coffee fix. At least I’ll have the black Towncar and, the cell phone.

I arrive at the Caracas International Airport and my driver, Eduardo, is there holding the placard “Brian Kemler” as planned. Right-on. We walk through the parking lot and I am scoping out the cars. I don’t see any black Lincolns, but Eduardo is homing in on a beautiful new Volvo. Nice! I see the parking lights flash and hear the doors unlock on a beat-up Nissan subcompact, a street taxi, as Eduardo’s thumb presses his key chain. I am crestfallen.

The next day he takes me to the bank in rush hour traffic. Caracas makes Mexico City look like Bel Air. At night it looked like it got hit with a neutron bomb; no sign of human life.

Where did they get these beaters, er, cars? A junkyard circa 1978? The streets of Caracas are a giant demolition derby and every single car a battle-worn contestant. The word hooptie may have originated in the States, but I am sure the Oxford English Dictionary would tell you it was inspired here.

There are jacked up ‘70’s muscle cars, the kinds motor heads in my high school used as spare parts donor, prowling the streets. A broken taillight is easily replaced with hand-painted red Saran Wrap. Have a flat? Why there’s no need to either change it or to stop driving. I saw “micros” (think public transit meets the short bus) making their regular rounds with flat tires.

Back at the bank, I’ve learned they don’t have the same computers they said they would have nullifying hours of my work the previous week and necessitating more work this week. This delays the project by hours even though the boss can’t understand this.

While I am in the midst of recreating the software “plan”, El Jefe or the boss, Ivan, comes down to pester me. “Is it ready yet? No, when?”. It’s 11am Monday.

I fix the plan then I am onto the next, in what was a week of problems. I brought my own disks to install the software and my own special key to unlock it foreseeing this issue. The disks malfunction and won’t install.

I am screwed.

I realize we can hook my computer up to the network and copy my employee software to the bank’s computers. I am not supposed to do this. But technically, it will work; it’s my only option. Done.

As soon as I fix one problem, the Bank creates another by tampering with the computer by using the ID they purloined from me. Then they come down and complain that the software “no esta trabajando” – is not working. No shit. Why are you using it behind my back? And oh, how did those files get in that directory if you’re not screwing with my computer? Last time I checked, computers didn’t develop the ability to think on their own. Oh, and thanks for changing the name of that one directory, now I get to redo everything I already did.

I am communication in Spanish to such a degree that I astonish myself. In doing so, I’ve developed a rapport with the protective systems administrator and by the third day he’s relinquished control of the server. Yo estoy manejando ahora. I am driving now. He doesn’t speak a lick of English and doesn’t try, but he’s as friendly as can be and is a remarkably good sport about letting me commandeer his workstation for an entire week.

One of the developers, Frewuill is an avid mountain biker and had learned English from films. We have an instant rapport. The other two guys, the admin Miguel and Alfredo treat me like old buddies.

Frank, our consultant is doing nothing, but literally getting in the way. I guess 5:45pm is too late to work. He shuts my laptop off with out asking. I have a better rapport with the customers and I barely speak Spanish! The phone they gave me runs out of minutes on the first day. The new phone they give me a day later is nice till I turn it off. When I turn it back on, it requires a password which they didn’t provide.

So much for calling tech support.

These guys are hilarious. They teach me more Spanish than I’ve learned to date. They clue me in on the colorful Venezuelan modismos or slang words. Some have near equivalents in English, but all are more colorful and interesting. Coming back from lunch on day one we cross under a run-down highway overpass which doubles as the “DVD Mall”.

Here the DVD’s are actually DVD’s e.g. they are not filmed with hand-helds like the DVD’s sold in certain North American nations... There’s a section of porn which they laugh and tell me is called “carne con pappas” or meat with potatoes. I buy four films (no, none porn!); Simpsons, Maria Full of Grace, Big Fish and Daredevil mainly because these are the only films that have Spanish sound with English subtitles and vice-versa.

They laugh, I laugh. When I wasn’t stressing out, the guys had me cracking up. I ask where to buy coffee and rather than tell me Alfredo brought me a half-kilo of local coffee the next day.

One of the other co-workers came into to our cube area. They started making fun of him because of his fatness - gordo. Everyone was laughing though I felt awkward.

Elsewhere, we’re supposed to deny reality and pretend like everyone is the same. We’re not. Here, there’s sense of honesty and I don’t think it was done in a mean way or that he was particularly hurt. He didn’t seem hurt when he joined us for the lunch they served us every day on the top floor of the building in a special room reserved for guests (me).

Frewuill jokingly referred to the boss as “Ivan, el terrible” behind his back. I can’t imagine even joking about that behind my bosses’ back to a client or a customer. But it was hilarious. Elsewhere, everyone thinks these things yet no one says it. Here everyone thinks it and says it. Refreshing.

The installation was like a feeding frenzy for free information. I’d be trying to resolve a complex problem to be interrupted with yet another.

I’d literally have to say: “I can do *this* or I can do *that*; you tell me what you want me to work on and I will work on it; but I can’t do *both*”. Then I’d go back to doing what I was doing.

Every night I’d come to the Embassy Suites Hotel, study up and find solutions to the next day’s foreseen problems. Thursday afternoon, El Jefe was visibly annoyed that things weren’t running on his time table and working the way he wanted them – even though he had absolutely zero experience with the new version our software and thus no basis for any expectations. I thought he was going to blow a gasket like one from one of the old muscle cars on the streets.

“Esta no trabajando, esos no estan trabajando”. “This isn’t working these aren’t working.”

Okay, El Jefe, if you’re so smart, let’s see you go to a country you’ve never been and install software on a computer that’s in a language you don’t know with a keyboard made by Satan on a system that’s as fast molasses rolling uphill with a client that is constantly breathing down your neck, while 5 people sit behind you as you work, interrupt you constantly and change the operating environment without informing you.

Esta es tu tarea, El Jefe. That is your homework, El Jefe. Come back and talk shit to me then.

What the hell is he doing on the server with my id anyway? I though I was going to lose my {%$} at one point. I am busting arse, working till twelve and getting no appreciation. My boss is leaning on me to stay the weekend and I need to get out to catch a flight back to the states Tuesday.

I decide to take a stroll upstairs to silence Ivan the Terrible for once and for all.

“This script worked perfectly before you were here.”

“Ivan, what port are you using?”


“Try 7551”. Boom. Works, first try.

I sit down, he shows me more things that “don’t work”.

I’ve learned that “doesn’t work” translates poorly. It actually means, “I don’t know what the hell I am doing”. I fixed a slew of his other problems in succession, each on my first attempt. Within in an hour, he is laughing and smiling. The funny thing about this dude is you can read it all in his body language.

By the last day, El Jefe was eating out of my hands but I still had to fix two small problems. People don’t realize software implementations are complex and debugging is a normal part of the process. I love it when people ask me “do you know what’s wrong with it”? That has to be the stupidest question on the planet. If I knew that it wouldn’t be broken in the first place! I don't know, but I do know how to go through a process to figure it out.

I decide to call in the cavalry.

Steve, my buddy and colleague from SAS in Rockville is one of the cleverest technical people I know (in addition to being an all around a good guy). Even though his help is always in high demand, he always avails himself when colleagues are in need – a rare attribute in people with his level of technical expertise. Knowing this, I try to limit my help calls to him. But I am desperate now and I know he’ll come through. We swap emails and get on the telephone and get everything working at precisely 4:10pm on Friday.

Ivan was so excited he was going to pee himself. Truth be told, I was too.

The other guys are still regaling me with technical questions, but I jokingly say in Spanish I need mental vacation. Sometimes I think I don’t get paid for what I know but rather for the fact that I can think on my feet. Believe me it’s not all up in my head and more often than not, I don’t know the answer. But I guaranty you, I can figure it out or get help.

I don’t know how I pulled it off, but somehow, I did. Nothing went as planned, but everything worked out.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

M13 Once Upon a Time in the Favellas, Yo

A Report From Rio

My first reaction to the idea of Favella (slum) tours in Rio was a mixture surprise, humor and offense. Imagine someone doing that in Detroit or Camden. (Hey – maybe that’s my million dollar idea?) It sort of smacked of the idea that people in ghettos are like zoo animals in cages to be gawked at.

The more I read, however, the more interested I was. The New York Times wrote the tour up favorably as highly educational and interesting. Part of the tour’s proceeds is the principal source of funds for an after school program that has sent 130 kids a year to college for the last decade.

So I decided to check it out.

Marina, my guide, picked me up at my hotel with a van full of Brits. Everyone wants to know what I think about Kerry vs. Bush. I tell them it’s going to be close and it’s going to be like the 2000 election only I think Kerry is going to win. (Yes, I was wrong).

Marcelo Amstrong’s guide company started the tours which are popular with all but two groups; Brazilians and their government. It seems they would rather deny the existence of the favellas. The media in Brazil has fanned the stereotypes of the favellas as crime-ridden slums.

In reality, most actually leave their houses unlocked. The favella dwellers welcome the tours because they allow people to see for themselves the reality. In the 12 years Marcelo has been operating, he has not had a single incident. It seems all the crime takes place in the nice part of town. But I wonder if I am going to run into my shirtless 20-year old assailant with my Canon G5 digital camera.

Marina explains that slums are a parallel universe where people empower themselves building homes on public land where the market and the government have failed them. Brazilian law allows anyone to gain title to land if they have been on it for five years or longer. Many people actually hold title to their properties.

We drive through Imanema, go through a tunnel and then into a posh neighborhood with million plus dollar homes. I thought this was a slum tour?

The filthy rich and filthy poor are literally next door to one another. We park the van and go into the alleyway that leads to the favella. There are no streets, but the alleys have names and to the people there they are considered streets. They are so narrow it is impossible to fully open an umbrella here.

House is built on house defying any logical scheme. Some of the dwellings are no larger than my childhood tree fort. Some doors are barely chest high. There is electricity, cable and running water. Some people even have appliances they buy on credit from local department stores. Even though the have no collateral, their names are so valuable to them, they are typically lower credit risks than the rich people living below them. We walk down stairs in what looks like painting by M.C. Escher with palsy.

Small brick houses stacked haphazardly on one on top of the other on top of the next. Rats nests of cable wiring. Stairs leading up, down and sideways to doors. Friendly people who say hi and who are as curious about us as we are of them. A guy holds a puppy through a window for me to pet.

Damn. I wish I had my camera. I’ve recruited a Brit to take pictures from me. She is actually from Zimbabwe and I ask her and her mother what it’s like living under such a ruthless dictatorship. Since they hold British citizenship, they feel they can always leave.

Marina was fascinating and the tour was enlightening. I ask a question; who consumes all the drugs, the rich of Rio? Apparently, not. According to Marina, the drugs are just “passing through” on their way to the states. This was the only thing she said I found hard to believe. While I don’t doubt some of the drugs do pass through on their way up north, I am sure there is a local market as well.

In the favela, an unwritten code of order is enforced by drug gangs just as in, “City of God”. In the film, a car runs into a crowded restaurant, the police come and ask what’s happened. No one admits to seeing a car even though it’s right there in the middle of the restaurant. Criminals want no trouble and when there is any, they brutally repress it.

We drive to Rio’s largest favela. It actually has a street with a bank that was robbed by the police. It seems this is a parallel universe where the criminals keep order and the police break it. For a moment, I fantasize about being an anthropologist, immersing myself in and integrating into the community. One day they will accept me as their own. Then I wonder what it would be like to once again leave. I know it’s some thing I could make the most of. Though the thought is entirely momentary and fleeting.

We walk by a chicken shack where you pick your own live chicken to be butchered on demand. On display are freshly killed chickens, eggs still in tact dangling from their halved bodies. How even the most hardcore meat eater could not be disgusted is beyond me. I wonder if this is lost on everyone on the tour but me. Probably.

Needless to say, it reaffirmed my vegetarianism but also made me wonder if more people would be vegetarian if their food came in the gory form of dismembered carcasses instead of in “nuggets”, “wings” and “breasts”.

“City of God” draws the parallel between violence against animals and violence toward humankind in its opening and closing scenes which are quite hard to watch. I definitely think there is a connection.

Nearby, a hearty street cat is patrolling for scraps. No doubt this guys eats better than most house cats. He is on a perfect Atkins diet in this part of town. The place is a bustle with people. This is the first time I feel like I really stand out in Brazil. Till now, as long as I keep my mouth closed, I fit in.

We finish the tour on the roof a house that has the best view of Rio. A panaroma spanning the Christ Statue, Sugarloaf and Impanema beach and beyond is visible. The other members of the tour look at paintings and handicrafts (it wouldn’t be a tour with out a stop at the “gift shop”) while I gaze out over the wonder that is Rio from above.

It’s a view that the poorest people of Rio get to enjoy every day.

Monday, November 01, 2004

M12 Sin Camara

Another Report From Rio

One of the goals I set for myself a few years ago was to do more writing and photography. I’ve been prodigious beyond what I set out to do. My Powerbook’s hard drive is stuffed and I now have to delete old photos just to make way for new ones.

On a typical extended weekend, I may take as many 300 photographs. Only a fraction make it to my website and fewer still get the attention they deserve in Photo Shop with my limited time (and more limited photo-doctoring skills).

I draw inspiration from contrasting settings, but the enthusiasm is the same regardless of the setting. The grittiness and urbanity of Mexico City inspire me as much as the sharp colors and archeological wonder of Tulum.

Photography is my way of connecting to place.

My third day in Rio, I took my camera, carefully hidden in my messenger bag out on my daily excursion. I shot the beach. I shot the hot honeys, the fat dudes, the foot-volley ball games and the Christ statue. I shot the unique and stylish pattern of the promenade that looks like a record cover put out by 18th Street Lounge Records.

I had just come from eating lunch in Impanema with a girl (not the girl) and was taking a stroll on a posh side street when inspiration hit. A wrought iron mailbox engraved with a humming bird. I checked the street, took out my camera and snapped two shots.

I enjoy finding beauty in small objects and was caught up in a moment with my back toward the street and my concentration stolen by my subject.

Suddenly, I am on ground, fingertips are pressing my eyeballs back into the recesses of my skull. I am being hit on the back and there is one human being on my back and another one in front of me. I didn’t know what was happening until I found myself in a tug-of-war with one of these guys with my camera as one end and the strap as the other end of the rope. I don’t know how I got up, but I did.

For a moment, I continue to hold on to the camera. My thoughts shift to my cash, ATM card (which I almost never carry) and more importantly, my safety.

I realized the camera is my sole bargaining chip. I set my mind, release it and bolt the other way. Then I turn, while running, to see if they are in pursuit. One of them was standing protecting the other two in a rear-guard action while the pair nonchalantly walked down the street in the opposite direction. I walk the other way with my head turned backwards. I think about going after them, but I am helpless.

My camera is gone.

The girl going into the house in front of me with her bike, watched the whole thing. She said and did nothing, even though she was safely behind her locked fence from where she could have yelled or called the police (or both).

I learn that the Rio of the film “City of God” and the Rio of today are quite similar. When crime occurs, bystanders are silent and after it happens, the police are useless.

“City of God”, set in the ‘60’s, is an incredible film based on the true story of a boy growing up in the Rio favellas (slums) who makes his escape from a world a violence and official corruption by becoming, of all things, a photographer. His friends grow up get into drugs and violence and mostly ended up getting killed. His ticket out is his camera and love of photography. Eventually he defies the odds to become a famous photographer.

Twenty minutes later the girl with the bike found me on the next street corner, one lined with cafes and restaurants where the “Girl From Impanema” was written. She helped me find the police and we communicated in a mixture of English and Spanish.

There were three, all plain clothes, but we end up driving around in regular, marked police car, sirens blaring, as if to tip off the perpetrators. The trigger-happy trio, drew their nickel-plated pistols with glee while toying with the safeties as we drive around Impanema looking for my assailants.

Any black person was instantly suspect even though I barely emphasized the fact the three guys were black. “Is that him?” “How about him?” No, no, no. I was shocked as they stopped the car and then suddenly made a black guy empty out his backpack on the sidewalk.

How many times did I have to describe these were shirtless 20-somethings without bags? This seemed to be a show for the tourist. But instead of impressing me, it offended me. I made them take me to the station to fill out a police report so I can eventually file an insurance claim. I knew it was an exercise in futility as they typed it up on an old typewriter using carbon duplicate paper. The only other crime victim at the station was another tourist who had also forgone his camera to this “tourist tax”.

I will get a new camera and at the rate at which digital photography is advancing, I will even get a better one for less than I paid for the original.

I would like to think the thieves are putting the camera to use as their ticket out of the slum like the protagonist in “City of God”. I would feel slightly better. Unfortunately, both for them and for me, my money is they’ve pawned it.

Good luck finding a power cord for it, boys.

I leave the police station and I walk around the beach with fondling the lens cap which was still in my pocket. I toss it in the trash. They took my camera and my pictures, but I still have the memories and I still had a good time.