Monday, September 16, 2019

Running Uphill in Venezuela

I am not a natural runner. I can wield a hoe or push a wheelbarrow for hours, but somehow a trot around the block always winded me.

In Venezuela we don't really need to run anyway. All of us are trying to conserve hard-earned pounds, not shed them in vain by racing around. Mothers in my village often get angry at their children when they run, because it makes them hungrier and wears out their shoes.

Walking, however, is definitely in vogue in Venezuela. Many of the four million people who have emigrated have literally walked their way to other countries.

For those of us who remain, walking is our main transportation mode. With an oil change costing a month's salary, and a set of tires worth a year's wages, cars and buses are left to collect dust (and in our case, a family of homeless snakes). Even if a vehicle does run, finding gasoline is a major challenge.

Running short of gas in a nation that sits atop the world's largest oil reserves is quite a feat, and the credit goes to the Maduro-Trump Alliance. Ok, I guess alliance isn’t the right word, since both leaders intensely hate one another and actively wish each other off their respective thrones.

But, this is a relationship that seem to me to serve both sides extremely well. Trump's economic sanctions give him political brownie points (and create scarcities of almost everything essential in Venezuela, including chemicals to refine gasoline). For his part, Maduro gets to blame all of his nation's woes on Trump, and thus stay firmly in power.

So, back to my running. Why on earth do I do it? God knows I get enough exercise walking everywhere and growing much of my food. I have no natural running talent. There is not one square meter of flat ground in my entire town.

Maybe it's the temporary release from this sadness as I watch my adopted nation implode. Maybe it clears my mind as I struggle to see the way out. Maybe it’s a break from hauling water, splitting firewood, grinding corn, searching for the food I can’t grow. Maybe it's just a.way of being momentarily alone, in this society that craves togetherness.

As I exit my farm for a run I head left, down a steep dirt road, nothing but mountains around me. Running downhill is actually a cop-out since gravity does most of the work. However, that does leave going uphill to the last, when you are already exhausted. I solved that problem brilliantly by deciding to return always at a walk.

My turn around point is Amadeus's gate, after which steep becomes vertical all the way to the river. I used to linger there before turning back. The sun setting over the mountain is lovely. Amadeus's farm, though, is uninspiring - a jumble of tumbleweeds like most farms around me. I pause there to wonder how such a hungry (and fertile) nation has managed to almost completely stop growing food (with the tiny exception of some such as our group of intrepid farming kids).  I know the answer of course, a toxic combo of sanctions, corruption, ineptitude, indifference. Plus greed: it is way more lucrative for government insiders to distribute food boxes than to actually help farmers grow food.

One evening I lingered too long, and as night began to fall, I was several miles from home. Darkness comes fast near the equator, leaving only the moon as a guide over the mountains. (Electricity is mostly a memory now, so no hope of seeing twinkling house lights in my village ahead). That day, my faithful four-legged running companion Cocoa had stayed behind to nurse her pups, And so I realized that if I didn’t want to be trapped in darkness with steep ledges around me, I should probably run back home, steeply uphill.

And so I did, sweating and panting, the encroaching darkness pulling me forward, fear trumping exhaustion. Looking back,I realize that if I had not returned, my partner Ledys would have simply grabbed a flashlight,rallied the dogs and found me in a jiffy, But at the moment I envisioned sharing a rocky bed with  snakes and scorpions.

.That uphill run was a turning point. It filled me with a sense of heady victory .When everything else around me is not working, at least my body can. Poco a poco I began to run uphill a tiny bit more each day, my lungs burning, my heart pounding, my sweat pouring, my mind clearing

When I finally reach my gate after these runs, I fall onto the grass, and catch my breath as the Fumarola mountain gently disappears. I feel such peace.

I need that peace, I need that hope, I need that cleansing, I need that solitude. Those of us who have stayed in Venezuela are running uphill every single day. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

Venezuela's ragtag rebels take on the enemy

I might as well confess upfront. I have created a band of young Venezuelan rebels. As a matter of fact, some of you have helped me to arm them. With hoes and shovels, wheelbarrows and chicken wire, pitchforks and rakes.

Their entire arsenal of weapons is being directed at the heart of the Trump Blitzkrieg on Venezuela and simultaneously against the the Maduro Madness. How, you may ask, are they able to do this especially given that most of these rebels are around 14 years old  Quite simply, by unleashing the full force of their powerful  Operation Grow Food.

This strategy is extremely dangerous. It specifically targets the  lethal weapon used  by both Trump and Maduro: WEAPON HUNGER! The hunger weapon seeks to control the population, vilify the enemy (by  blaming them for causing the hunger),while turning you into a superhero as you pretend to combat it. 

As Operation Grow Food confronts Weapon Hunger, it is becoming increasingly clear that this band of rebels must be controlled, before it catches on! 

One of the fiercest rebels is Nazareth, known by her nom de guerre: Naza. Don't be fooled by the fact that she weighs a mere 80 pounds. She can wield a pick ax like Serena Williams with a tennis racket, and can plant a mango tree as fast as it takes you to check your Facebook. 

Let Interpol be warned. I am openly training these rebels in the powerful art of permaculture. Once they learn this art, there is no turning back. Ok, I know, I'm a repeat offender. You would think that after being detained at the Maiquetia Airport for the crime of bringing bok choy and kohlrabi seeds into the country, I should have learnt my lesson. But no, I'm at it again. 

Now, it's quite likely that the mere threat of these rebels might push Guaido-Trump and Maduro-Putin to acquiesce to the idea of elections. After two months of talks in Barbados both sides have told the kindly King of Norway that they are getting a bit bored of pina coladas and shark empanadas and midnight tussles on the beach.

If so, I've got the line up for elections. Ok, so we may have to slide the electoral age down to 12, but hey, it's time to get creative in Venezuela. Here is my slate:

Vivi president. Vivi's platform is simple, based on a skill he has finely tuned during his 14 years: laughter.  And, after five years of Maduro's Collective Crying strategy, Cellective Laughter just might be a winning formula.

Mamari. Minister of Planning. Mamari is my choice to gather the scarce resources left in Venezuela. She is known to get a raging cook fire going even after a rainstorm, whip up a pot of delicious soup from no apparent source, and make sure that every one gets the exact same serving with no one leaving the table until they fall in a food-induced stupor. I think it would be a clever antidote to the 20-pound-weight-loss Maduro diet implemented by him and his ministers.

Heiner, Minister of Defense. Until two years ago, Heiner was cross eyed, and teased mercilessly by many. This situation led him to load up with a powerful weapon that he skillfully unleashes unexpectedly, unarming his assailant immediately : a smile. The great thing is that this weapon can instantly be loaded to all citizens of Venezuelans. Even if Trump does send the Marines, with 20 million smiles, we should be in pretty good shape.

Fabi, Director of the Central Bank. Knowing how quick Fabi is to the draw, she would immediately have us convert to our currency from the worthless bolivar to the highly valued banana. We could store our money in everyone's front yard, and grow our economy daily. By pegging its value to its calorie content, I'm pretty sure the banana currency (BN) would soon dip below the current ten million percent inflation of the bolivar (BS).

I'm all for reducing bureaucracy, so let's leave it at that.

If after reading this highly classified report, any of you feel called to support these food-growing rebels, please send ammunition (in the cleverly disguised form of vegetable seeds.) You will be rewarded with abundant smiles and laughter.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Saving Venezuela: A Lesson from Cocoa

Last Tuesday, as Juan Guaidó was trying to liberate Venezuela via a military coup, my dog Cocoa went into labor. The kids from our farming group noticed that she was restless, shuffling in and out of the shed, pawing at the dirt. The liberation of her pups was imminent.

As Guaidó called on generals and citizens to join him in the streets, Jose Manuel helped me make a cozy den for Cocoa. We laid cardboard on the dirt floor of the shed, covered it with an old blanket, and set out fresh water. But as the afternoon wore on with a flurry of tree-planting, we kind of forgot about Cocoa.

Night fell and the stars lit up the night (gone is the time when light bulbs lit up the night). I noted that Cocoa was still very pregnant, still very restless. She refused her evening meal. The following day was the same. Her pups seemed reluctant to heed the call of liberation.

And so it seemed with Venezuelans. Few responded to call of Guaidó to “liberation”. The generals – those to whom is call was primarily directed – remained snug in their barracks (although they did send out some soldiers in tanks to plow down the few souls who headed the call).

The few young people remaining in the country mostly opted out. In their short lives they had seen too many end up behind bars or in a coffin for taking to the streets.

Older folks knew too well. They were spooked by the serpentine smiles of of Elliott Abrams and Donald Trump peeking right behind the shoulder of Guaidó.

Everyone else was too busy standing in gas lines, chopping firewood or hauling water to even notice. Within a few hours the coup leaders had slipped into embassies and the streets were calm. Maduro was dancing in front of his presidential palace. Two liberation efforts seemed stalled: that of Cocoa and of Guaidó.

The following morning I awoke to soft squeals. I raced outside to find Cocoa atop my rocking chair, a rather unusual birthing center. Two pups next to her were dead, and a third barely alive. Within an hour two more arrived lifeless.

Cocoa and I valiantly struggled to revive the lone survivor. As Cocoa licked the pup’s face I coaxed her on. Wakú - Cocoa’s mother - checked on us from time to time, offering silent support. She was busy with her own set of five puppies, three weeks old, fat, happy and always hungry.

Finally, an exhausted Cocoa gave me the saddest look possible on the face of a dog. It was also a look of permission. Her eyes told me: Take her too and bury her with the rest.

As I laid the pups into the ground I felt the weight of an immense sadness. Two failed liberation efforts in two days.

Wait a minute! Obviously, I wanted the puppies to live. But, I couldn’t possibly have wanted a US-backed military coup to succeed. Could I? My entire life has been built around standing up to violence. A pillar of my 40 years in Latin America has been that of calling out the horrific legacy of US intervention.

But on some crazy irrational momentary emotional level I just wanted an immediate out to the situation for my beloved Venezuela. I wanted new life for a dying nation. A quick and magical end to this hunger, violence, mass migration, disease and despair. I wanted my adopted nation back again, not this ugly, desperate shadow of a country, a frightening no-man’s-land where contraband and corruption are king. I gave my cheek a slap, and slowly, my rational mind struggled to regain control.

I didn’t see Cocoa for the rest of the evening or the next morning. To distract my worry, I decided to go check on Wakú and her pups in the gazebo. To my surprise, there was Cocoa! She was regally wrapped around three of Wakú´s plump pups, happily nursing and vigorously cleaning them, as though she had done this her entire life. She radiated purpose and passion. Next to her was Wakú, nursing the other two, looking delighted with this new arrangement.

And so the following days passed. Both birth-mom and adopted-mom took the pups to romp in the grass. Sometimes one gave the other a break, to sneak out to eat a fallen mango. The grossly fat pups fell into a heap under the acacia tree, nursing randomly from either mom, often double dipping before falling into a drunken slumber.

As I watched an idea hit me. Here we are in a country with two (male) presidents. Each spends enormous effort and grotesque sums of money to blame the other for the suffering of the Venezuelan people. Each seems willing to do anything. Not for the good of the Venezuelan people, but for power.

So, maybe what Venezuela needs is not two presidents, but two moms. After all, the total focus of moms - the ilk of Cocoa and Wakú – is the well being of their pups - or people, as you may have it. What a dream that would be…...

But in all seriousness, as I watched Cocoa and Wakú work long hours together, day after day, to raise five gloriously healthy and happy pups, I thought, maybe they have a solution of how to save Venezuela.

The very survival of Venezuelans, of this nation itself, requires - demands - working together. This prolonged battle of winner-take-all is strangling us. There are no winners this way, only losers. Even if power flips, the winners will soon become the losers, because the losers will not let the winners in peace.

The only real solution for this Venezuelan disaster is for all major actors to come to the table and nurse this country back to life instead of collectively smothering our final breaths.

So….come to the table. Come Maduro. Come Guaidó. Come others who represent a much broader swath than either of you. Dissident chavistas. Moderate opposition. Churches. Civic groups. Farmers. Workers. Business. Come together to facilitate a way in which all Venezuelans can choose, in peace and transparency, their path forward, to life.

This new transitory authority can call itself whatever: Transition Government. National Pact. Interim Authority. Provisional Power. Constitutional Committee. Shared Space. Viva Venezuela. Go by whatever name you want.

But just do it! Because THIS is what Venezuelans want.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Food as Bullets in Venezuela

As the Humanitarian Aid Battle revved its engines on Saturday morning on the Venezuela/Colombia border, our group of young conuqueros (farmers)was gathering for our weekly work day.

The morocha arrived with a kilo of rice to share, generating some excitement. Her mom is in the militia, so her family receives two boxes of food a month versus the one box every four months the rest of us are allowed to buy.

On conuco days we eat what we grow. Our greens and fruit are delicious, but these young growing bodies yearn for calories. In this thin mountain soil the main calorie crop we can coax in abundance is plantains. The kids try multiple ways of preparing them - as soup and arepas, in caraotas and quinchonchos, but sometimes we yearn for a change.

Juan Carlos had also brought a pumpkin. It was so ripe that it had split open, its fragrant orange flesh distracting.

Chairs gathered into a circle to begin our work day - as always, with a song and reflection. The chorus of the day’s song seemed fitting for the moment. Venezuela, por haberme dado tanto, estoy contigo en la risa y en el llanto (Venezuela , for having given me so much, I am with you, in laughter and tears.)

In the reflection that followed, each person was asked to think of a word that expressed what Venezuela had given them, then write the word on an a heart-shaped piece of banana leaf (one of our many substitutes for un-affordable paper).

When planning the reflection, Ledys and I had wondered what these kids, ages 11-14, would be have to say in their brief, isolated, difficult lives. A lot, as it turned out. 

As each spoke their word, I had to squeeze my eyes to keep the tears from falling. Conuco. Family. Tradition. Solidarity. Humility. Strength. Community. Beauty.

We ended the reflection in an embrace. It lasted a long time. Venezuelans have no problem expressing their affection. I knew however, that this hug was for Venezuela.

I couldn't help but wonder if that same passion for Venezuela was in the hearts of those who were pushing this aid into Venezuela like bullets. Or those who were defending Venezuela from this aid with real bullets. Or those who threatened to make sure this was aid accepted. OR ELSE! Or those who stood on the world’s stage with false smiles, defending Venezuela’s sovereignty, while stuffing their pockets with its oil and gold.

As Team Humanitarian Aid (the Opposition) and Team Defend the Homeland (the Maduro government) and Team Invade (The US) and Team Rape the Nation (China and Russia) lined up on their respective sides, our conuqueros divided into the day’s teams. One team to gather firewood and cook. One team to turn the compost piles. One team to weed and fertilize the banana plants.

By mid-morning one compost pile had been turned, the rice and pumpkin were boiling on a hearty fire, half the banana plants had their weeds cleared, stomachs that had no breakfast in them were rumbling. I went into my house and found the one piece of birthday cake sent to me two nights ago from Chichila and divided it into 16. one-square-inch pieces for each. I took the grounds of the mornings coffee, added water and reboiled, with a few teaspoons of precious sugar. Then I brought the meager fare to the shade of the siempre verde tree and called the kids to the log benches. By the look on their faces, Julia Child could not have laid a finer table.

As the kids feasted, laughed, teased, laughed, drank, laughed, collected cups and laughed, I felt their joy lift me up. Every single time we gather these kids of skin and bones, of strength and spirit, Ledys and I receive what we call our vaccination of joy. Against all logic and reason, the laughter never ceases.

As we were about to return to our posts my phone buzzed. Cell coverage had been coming in and out for days, lasting often only seconds at a time. I read a message saying that one truck of aid had crossed the border. As I read the message to Ledys the kids overheard and cheered. When will it reach Palo Verde? (our town) asked Alexibel excitedly.

By the time the few trucks of aid that managed to pass the border had been set ablaze in a massive plume of black smoke, the kids had returned home, stomachs filled with rice, pumpkin, a tiny piece of cake and a sip of coffee.

I needed their ever-present laughter to slop the flow of my tears as I looked at the image of those trucks loaded with food, burning black at the border. As much as I knew the motives of those trying to ram the aid through, I couldn't help myself. This hunger has lasted too long. I have worked too hard to grow just enough food. All I could feel was a visceral sense of rage upon seeing so much food go up in flames. The opposition blamed the government. The government blamed the opposition. No matter who lit the match, the result was the same.

Four days later, I remain haunted by that image of that burning food. And all I can feel is this: Basta! Enough food as bullets. From all sides.

Enough food as bullets from the government. Food has been withheld, stolen, resold, converted to massive wealth for a few, doled out as favor and taken away as punishment for too long,

Enough food as bullets from the opposition. The hunger of Venezuelans has been abused for their political gain. And it has been used to obtain US sanctions causing more hunger. And now as justification for the unspeakable threat of military action.

Enough food as bullets from the US. While what lies in those boxes at the border is likely some version of food, its real contents are the desire to overthrow Venezuela’s government and install one favorable to them. To regain a foothold in this land of oil and gold.

Enough food as bullets from Russia and China. While from one side of their mouths they speak out against US aggression, on the other side they are plundering Venezuela’s wealth.

Enough food as bullets. They rain down on us from all sides. Enough.

I am well aware that food bullets  may soon turn to steel bullets. The drums of war are real. I have traveled up and down Latin American listening to horror stories of the legacy left by US intervention. 

So many people have written to ask me: Lisa, what can I do. As US citizens, our greatest gesture of support for the people of Venezuela is to tell our country to back off.  Even for those who long to see Maduro go, the threat of US intervention has given only him the gift of oxygen. The rivers of blood carved by U.S. throughout Latin America still run red. 

I"m not sure what next week will look like. Or even tomorrow. But today I'll join Ledys in planting one more banana tree. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Lisa's Lemons for a New Venezuela

Last Thursday, as Nicolas Maduro was being inaugurated to six more years as Venezuela’s president, I was busy climbing up and down my many lemon trees with friend Fabi, collecting scratches galore, along with 120 pounds of bright yellow fruit. We filled two burlap sacks and I glowed knowing that their sale would provide for necessary items we can neither grow nor barter: oil, salt, flour, toilet paper.

I never cease to be amazed at the beauty of what nature and I working together can produce. And I never cease to be amazed at the ugliness of what self-interest in Venezuelan politics can produce. Lemons - bitterness, beauty, thorns and all, seemed a fitting image to accompany this particular inauguration day.

In our Venezuela of the past, lemons were used to make lemonade, to squeeze over fried fish, to give a twist to a rum and coke. All the ingredients needed for those combos are long gone now.
With lemons seeming superfluous now, Ledys and I decided to allow ourselves to sell them, our first fruit sale in two decades of planting trees. All the other fruit we grow – mangoes, avocados, oranges, guavas, etc - thousands of pounds yearly – is given away to neighbors in ourd small village of Palo Verde. Their calories help to fill in the missing blanks.

After we dropped off the two sacks of lemons at the mega-cooperative CECOSESOLA (one of the few remaining projects in Venezuela that actually works, very well) we were given a receipt for Bss 21,800. About $20. 

We had to wait until the next day to collect the lemon payment, which made us a bit anxious. With inflation now pegged at two million percent annually, prices can double in two to three days (or two hours). When we finally received the funds - in cash, in a sack - it felt like we had won the lottery. And, we knew we had to spend it fast.

As we crossed the city from end to end end in search of open stores and affordable prices, we discovered that few vendors would accept our Bss 10 bills. By next week - they told us - those bills will be obsolete. After two days of supply-hunting, the sum of our treasures fit into one small Trader Joe’s tote bag. Still, with my tote-sized supplies for a month, I felt like a queen, crowned by my lemons. 

For his new term of presidency that began on my lemon-picking day, Maduro received a sash. But perhaps a crown of lemons would have been more fitting.

Lemons are both beautiful and bitter. To those who believe that some day Maduro will resurrect Chavez’s dream of 21st socialism, it would be a bright beautiful golden crown. They remember the free doctors on almost every corner, the classrooms bursting with students - of all ages - day and night, the cheap and abundant food, the two million free houses. The seemingly indestructible hope of a people who have been excluded for generations, upon suddenly being included. Who doesn’t want to hold on to that dream?

To the two or three million Venezuelans who cast their vote with their (tired) feet – some literally walking to Colombia and beyond - Maduro’s lemon crown is a bitter one. To those who struggle in vain to find enough food for their families on a $6 minimum wage, or who furtively search through garbage bags at night, it is a crown of thorns. To those who believed that votes could bring about change - but whose candidates were nixed from the presidential race – this is a crown not to be honored.

To China and Russia who hoist Venezuela up as a counterweight to US interests in Latin America, Maduro’s crown is a glorious one. They promise to defend it to the bitter end (encouraged by all that fabulous oil and gold). To the Trump Administration, Maduro is not fit to wear any crown. They are desperately trying to find someone – anyone – to wear it. 

Yesterday I went to the procession of Barquisimeto's virgin, the Divina Pastora, along with two million others. January is citrus month in Venezuela (yeah lemons!). Each year the city buys truckloads of citrus fruit to throw into the thirsty crowd. Last year it was tangerines. Several hundred of them, however, ended up not in the mouths of devote, but on the pristine uniforms of the Military High Command, as they prepared to take their seats on a viewing platform. The top brass quickly exited, all that delicious tangerine juice flowing down their dress whites.

This year the fruit tossed to the crowd was oranges, and the target of all that citrus was our state governor, who bears the double X of being both a military officer and a politician. The wrath of so citizens coming face-to-face with those they perceive to be responsible for this disaster was a fuse. The power of numbers and safety of anonymity lit the match. The spontaneous unleashing of citrus power was a sight to be seen!

Part of me wanted to collect every lemon remaining on my trees to help fuel this citrus revolution. Lemon juice would definitely be the best collateral damage one could hope for in a political sea change here. But then again, I’m not sure who would would be the kingmaker and who would get the new crown.

So, I think I’ll keep the rest of the lemons on my trees, and dispense them, poco a poco. They might not be needed for lemonade or Cuba libres, but they are a great stand-in for deodorant or toothpaste, both impossible to find. Likewise, as disinfectant or cleanser, or with baking soda, a great criollo alka selzer. And they help keep colds abay and digestion chugging along.

So, I’ll leave my lemons as a my mini contribution to the healing of our nation, in hopes that maybe we’ll gain the strength – someday - to dig ourselves out of this hole. And start to build afresh. I guess I”m more of a bottom-up than top-down person anyway.

But, boy, a spontaneous citrus revolution definitely sounds like more fun.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Fabi's Food Forest

Fifty kids were gazing up in astonishment at a squirrel nibbling at the ripening fruit of my chio tree. Eyes wide, they looked as though a dinosaur had suddenly appeared on the scene. 

Andres couldn't contain himself and scaled the lower branches.  Juan Carlos called out: squirrels must be delicious! Jose Manuel started gathering rocks. 

Suddenly, a shrill whistle rippled through the air. All eyes fell on 4 foot 2 Fabi. Leave the squirrel alone! commanded the 12-year-old camp counselor. Back to the soccer game!

Fifty kids quickly scampered back to the grassy field. I’m not sure what surprised me the more: the kids’ excitement about a mere squirrel or Fabi’s absolute power over her young charges at the vacation program.

But wait a minute…. Mere squirrel? Seeing a squirrel where I grew up in Virginia was certainly mundane, but I realized that this was the first time a squirrel had made an appearance in my 22 years on my little farm in Venezuela.

Conuco Colibri - or Hummingbird Farm  – is two acres of rolling green, bordered by tiny houses on one side and sprawling potato fields on the other. The potato fields are mostly barren now, over-plowed for decades, plied for years with layers of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Contrary to what logic would dictate in a nation seized by food shortages, seeds and farm implements have become almost totally inaccessible to regular folks, controlled almost exclusively by mafias. The fields lay devoid of activity, even now, during the rainy season.

Instead of seeds, small boxes of packaged food are delivered every two or three months to each home in our village of Palo Verde, an area rich in agricultural potential. The box contains food grown in Mexico, Portugal and Turkey. The title on the box is: Local Committee of Supply and Production. I guess Mexico is considered local. It’s only 4,288 kilometers from Venezuela versus 10,563 km to Turkey.

I knew that Fabi's vocal protection of the squirrel did not come from any compunctions about killing an animal to eat. She grew up herding her grandfather's sheep and cattle, though there were hardly any of those left in our village now. (Price controls had  made the raising of animals more expensive than the price of their meat). But by then, Fabi was well versed in the animal birth-to-death routine.

The night before the squirrel’s appearance, Fabi had even helped Ledys hunt opossum. She actually led the endeavor, since Ledys felt queasy even to step on a cockroach. But Fabi had convinced him that these resident robber barons had to be stopped. They were stealing all our mangoes that we preciously hoard for the kids and threatened our chickens as well. Plus, she said, they made a delicious breakfast. She handed Ledys the flashlight and grabbed the club herself. 

The squirrel, on the other hand, wasn’t eating anything we needed. His presence was good news in Fabi’s eyes. Conuco Colibri was slowly evolving from tiny farm to mini food forest, a transition that was helping it to become ever more fertile, ever more productive. The fact that the squirrel had arrived there - probably coming some 20 miles from the Fumarola mountain, meant that he found conditions similar to his forest home. 

Fabi had jump-started this food-growing journey to begin with, some two and a half years ago and now, she was helping to raise it to a new level.

It was Fabi who had motivated me to start growing anything and everything edible we could in-between, around, and up and down the many trees I had planted through the years. She tucked pigeon peas, sweet potatoes, and chayota at the base of the trees. Squash wound around banana trees, pole beans and passion fruit grew up them, Seed potatoes were plunked in tires and yucca stems plunged sideways into abandoned piles of dirt. Sheep poop was hauled from the mountain paths to help them grow.

The land was now generating copious amounts of organic material for the compost, plentiful shade from the harsh midday sun to protect sensitive plants, abundant food and shelter for beneficial animals and insects. Companion planting allowed for efficient shared use of drip irrigation. Everywhere you looked, there seemed to be something to eat. 

Much of that something ends up in the huge pot of our weekly Sunday soup , a hearty bean and veggie affair, cooked over an open fire by the kids of Club Conuco Colibri (CCC) a hybrid version of a 4H-CSA). A welcome way to end a long hard day of group farming. The ripe fruits and veggies of the week get hauled by the kids to their homes on Wednesdays. All of this is never enough to totally keep hunger at bay. But it takes the edge off, a bit.

Recently the CCC kids participated, with great gusto,  in a gathering to celebrate local seeds. Their enthusiasm and organization caught the attention of the state's governor, who happens to also be an Admiral in the Navy.  When she asked the kids how they started their project, all directed her attention to Fabi, universally beloved as our founder. The Admiral shook Fabi's hand and said: Fabiola Trejo, some day you will do great things.

Some day? How about now. Right now she is doing great things. Right now is what matters. 

As I write these reflections about my adopted home of Venezuela, I hold in my heart the millions of Venezuelans who have left because of hunger, or the fear of hunger. Some say it is 1 million. Some say 4 million. Whatever, it is a lot.

While that box of food from Turkey and Mexico does help a lot - when it comes - I can't help but wonder if that is the real solution to this hunger.  I can't help but wonder if Fabi may have a much better idea.    

Fabi sees the urgency of growing food in every corner possible when hungers knocks on the door. The necessity of growing food to eat, not to sell. The importance of growing variety, as a way of hedging bets that while some things might not do well this round, others will. 

Of course Fabi, a tiny twelve-year-old is doing this on the teeny tiny two acre plot of Hummingbird Farm. A handful of kids going slightly less hungry seems microscopic compared to the millions fleeing hunger. 

But I'll hold on to the legend of our Fumarola mountain, the majestic mountain that frames Conuco Colibri. According to this lore, it was the hummingbird, the colibri, the tiniest of all the animals in the forest - who put out the raging fire that threatened to consume the majestic mountain, home to all the forest animals. While the other animals fled the fire or roared with laughter at the ridiculous antics of so tiny a creature, the colibri stayed on task, diligently dropping tiny bits of water from her beak onto the flames, until the fire was stopped. In doing so, she saved her home, their home.

Fly Fabi fly.  

Friday, July 13, 2018

Mamari turns fifteen

Last Thursday Mamari turned fifteen. She announced that if I would like to give her a gift, superglue was a great idea. That way she could patch together her aunt’s broken sandals, and waltz the night away at her quinceaños celebration. The one she is organizing herself for this weekend.

One thing is for sure: Mamari can dance! Every Sunday, as we wait for the soup to boil after a long morning of farming, she kicks off her rubber boots and spins any willing victim around the improvised terracota dance floor to the melodies of tamunangue. That dance may have originated 300 years ago by Venezuelan slaves, but for Mamari, it is now, it is life, it is joy.
I’m not quite sure how she will do with the 18th century European waltzes traditionally played at a girl’s quinceaños. But  have no doubt that Mamari will kick up the dust in style and dance the night away.

In my little town of Palo Verde, anyone is allowed to come to a party, invited or not. If you hear music, you show up. You can dance with whomever you wish. Seven-year-old old boys spin septuagenarian grandmas around the floor, Four-year-olds move their hips like lava, using muscles that mine never developed. Pre-teens grab a partner with the confidence of Maradona in front of a soccer ball.

But for most guests, the highlight of any party these days is the food - soup, and then the grand finale, cake!

Cake has become a status symbol here in Venezuela, its ingredients symbolic of what has gone missing in our lives today. With no wheat grown in the tropics, and the exchange rate $1 = three million bolivares, importing wheat flour is a thing of the past.

Cane fields still produce, but sugar refineries have gone the route of most industry: shuttered. The remaining sugar is controlled by the government, purportedly for our monthly CLAP allotment, (which in our town’s case has become once-every-three-months). In reality, everyone knows that a sizable share of the sugar lies snugly in the cupboards of many National Guardsmen’s homes.

Fortunately for Mamari, her uncle’s partner’s sister’s boyfriend is a National Guard. Thus, she is optimistically counting on one kilo of sugar. Venezuelans may be corrupt, but they are loyal to family. Eggs are less of a problem, and I have promised six of my hen’s best as a gift, in addition to the superglue.

What might present as massive hurdles to others are mere minor challenges to Mamari. As the middle child of eight, she’s been jumping over them all here life, in magnificent style, just as she would jump over my fence at age five to procure as many mangoes as her nimble hands could fetch in five minutes. She would then distribute them to her dozens of cousins, calling them to line up, with the youngest at the front. Mamari makes a dashing Tropical Robin Hood.

A few weeks before she dropped out of school for good, at the end of fourth grade, Mamari decided to “borrow” a debit card from her teacher’s purse. Rather than hide her crime, she gallantly invited her three sisters out to the one diner in our town. There, they lavishly stuffed themselves with pepitos, enjoying with relish the delicacy of meat, not experienced in months. Mamari’s mom found the card on the kitchen table the next day, and brought it to the teacher, thinking her daughter had found a lost item. She suffered great humiliation upon learning the truth, but made sure that Mamari spent the next month planting caraotas in the Poleros’ field until she earned enough to pay the teacher back in full.

Mamari may not know how to read, but man can this girl harvest potatoes and steer a horse-driven plow with the strength and skill of any strapping man. Over the past month she has been showing up at 5 am at any field hiring day laborers, hoarding her her 10 cents/day wages for party goods. In the afternoons, she joins other kids from our group to scrounge for left-over small spuds in already-harvested fields to fill the large soup pot. In the evenings she tucks green onion roots into the ditches, happy that seasonal rains have helped them grow enough to give the soup some flavor.

This past Sunday our group of young farmers “Club Conuco Colibri” set forward the day’s tasks: plant a dozen banana trees, set 100 sweet potato slips into a barren hill, clear a field of weeds to make room for yucca and cook a lentil-squash-potato soup for the 30 participants over the open fire. As usual , we divided into teams to attack.

I can’t remember exactly which group Mamari was assigned to, but by the time lunch rolled around, I realized that Mamari had dug at least half of the banana holes, had single handedly cleared most of the brush with a machete, had instructed how to set the sweet potatoes to catch the rains, had chopped most of the firewood and many of the vegetables for the soup, and played the drums to entertain us all. Indifferent of whether she is on the weekly cook team or not, Mamari always is the one to dish out the soup and insist that everyone remain silent until someone please say grace. Then, she sits down, the last to eat. With gusto.

Over the past months the tidal wave of Venezuelans crossing over the borders into Colombia has swelled to 50,000 a day, according to relief organizations. At first I witnessed swarms of young professional friends racing for the exit, to a dozen or so countries. But now, friends and acquaintances that I never thought would leave have gone: waiters, teachers, plumbers, musicians, grandparents, children, electricians, day laborers of my town’s potato fields.

Somehow I think that Mamari will never go. I have no doubt that she could gallop to the border of Colombia bareback on a horse faster than Simon Bolivar. But tamunangue pulses through her blood. Waters of the Fumarola fill her gut. The crisp mountain air of Yacambu light her spirit. Her enormous family grounds her like a magnet. Mamari will stay behind to plant the potatoes, to make sure the smallest remaining has food

Sometimes when I glance at her from a distance as she plants, I think of that scene from Gone with the Wind, the one where a fierce and beautiful Scarlett O’Hara plunges her hands into her beloved land, swearing something about loving the land and never going hungry again. Other times I think of Venezuela’s goddess Maria Lionza, who culled the powers of the land, the indigenous, the African slaves and is still invoked with drums and chants as a powerful deity.

For the millions who have left, to wait out the crisis elsewhere, hoping to someday return to a new Venezuela, they may have Mamari to thank. Without Mamari - and the millions of Mamaris who choose to remain, to trudge to the potato fields, or schools or hospitals or offices at 5 am, there might not be a nation to which to return.

This Saturday, as Mamari and her glued sandals waltz in the moonlight over the dirt of her family patio, I will know that with each step she is blessing the land so that someday, perhaps, my grandchildren – all of them Venezuelan - may return to this heart-breakingly beautiful land and perhaps call it home.