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.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Losing Lucy

Our dog Lucy died last night. We found her in the morning, in the shade of her beloved mango tree in our backyard of Barquisimeto, where we shared countless conversations and even cups of coffee. My partner Ledys always saved the last half of his coffee for her, when milk and sugar were readily available. Lucy would sit patiently at his feet, awaiting that glorious moment each morning.

Lucy was patient with us even when the milk and sugar ran out, and the only drink we could offer was water. She still looked lovingly into our eyes, not a bit less dedicated to us with all the affection she could muster.

For half of her eight years, Lucy lived joyfully off the abundant scraps from our table. I should point out that our table is rather gigantic, owing to its prime place in our family’s lives, a hub for sharing, dreaming, scheming with friends and visitors from near and far. Lucky for Lucy, this habit provided her with a steady stream of nutritious scraps.

Slowly, though, as Venezuela’s crisis deepened, the food and the gatherings and the celebrating began to disappear. And with it, the left-overs. A kilo of rice procured after days of searching and standing in lines transformed each grain into a nugget of gold. Fewer and fewer grains found their way to Lucy’s bowl.

With no scraps to share, we pounded the pavement in search of dog food. At first we only had to search for an hour, buying a sack for about $2. The hunt turned to an entire afternoon, then a day, sometimes longer. The price went to $5, then $10, $20, $60, about a year’s salary for the average Venezuelan.

Still, Lucy’s bowl under the mango tree was filled each morning. But even as the price of dog food skyrocketed, the quality plummeted. Name brands disappeared from the shelves, the only options became sacks of ever more questionable quality.

I can’t say for sure that Lucy died from the food crisis of my adopted country, but I think that might be the case. I can say for sure, her loss has broken my heart

This afternoon I sat under the guama tree in our farm in Sanare and cried my heart out. At first it was for Lucy, and the memories of those cups of coffee, those silent tete-a-tetes. But then it was for all the country.

By the time of my afternoon cry, I counted 19 people who had come to visit me that day. Lelo and sons and granddaughters brought posts for my fence, Eli and Mamari returned a table, Bebe and Yeli came to stomp mud for my chicken coop, Nani and Lucia and Maria Jose brought milk from their grandfather’s cow, Marigres and Elida came to ask about borrowing chairs for their sons’ graduation. Juan Carlitos brought me seeds to plant, and Manuela brought her kids and cousin and long lost friend Emiliano to visit.

Over 19 cups of coffee, my neighbors and I shared the ins and outs of our day, our lives, our country, our woes, our hopes. As Ledys and I had done so many mornings with Lucy under the mango tree.

Lelo shared how he spent the past three days with fever and aches, and no medicine for relief. Marigres told me of her search for a nebulizer for her two asthmatic kids. They had missed three months of school. She cried silently in the nights as she rubbed their backs, her hands being the only medicine she could offer.

Bebe and Yeli had spent the morning following bees near the river, striking it rich with a find of wild honey for their hungry daughter. Tiny Lucia trailed along with her cousins just to give me a hug, her body fragile in my embrace. Alba was enjoying a day of rest from her daily long walks to and from school where she earns $5 a month as a teacher. There are almost no public buses running, she explained. Elida wondered what the next six years would bring, dumbfounded how the same president who presided over this tragedy had been re-elected.

I let the tears flow like the waters of the Fumarola that nourish our small village. Its waterfall – the lovely backdrop to my front yard, hurls free fall down the face of the mountain at a dramatic speed. Waterfall and tears all felt like one. Falling, churning, burning, cleansing, draining, all at once. I let the pain go

Then I came back into my kitchen and poured a treasured bag of rice into my biggest pan and cooked it all up with three enormous overgrown kohlrabi from the garden that Emiliano helped me cut up, boiling the heck out of them, and blended them with rice. I don’t know if kohlrabi rice is recommended for dogs, but I had to do something. There was no way I was going to lose my two farm pups to Lucy’s fate. 

And so it is with my days here. I have to do something. Tomorrow afternoon the guides from our kids farming collective will come, we will continue to prepare the beds for the 60+ kinds of seed donated by amazing people who don’t even know them

Such a mystery in each seed that such life, beauty, nourishment, springs from something so tiny, so inanimate, so mundane. Such a mystery in each of these kids who come from some of the poorest homes on the plant but have the richest of smiles and hugs and spirit. Such a mystery that a four legged creature with a tail could rule my heart.
Lucy is gone. The Venezuela I knew for 35 years is gone. I must trust that something will grow from these shared seeds of pain.

Meanwhile, someone please hand me a hoe.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

In Venezuela, Hunger is the New Oil

I hadn’t noticed that I lost some fifteen pounds last winter until my pants starting slipping south as I rushed between chores on my little farm in Venezuela. Between planting bananas and yucca and yams, collecting my horse’s manure, grazing sheep and chickens, picking weeds and putting in seeds, I found myself constantly pausing mid-chore to hike up my jeans.

Over the past three years I had morphed from hobby gardener to novice farmer, joining the majority of Venezuelan in dedicating the bulk of my day to sourcing food. The lucky ones with land - like me - pound the ground to produce it, while the majority of this mostly urban nation pound the pavement in search of this ever-disappearing commodity. Meanwhile, all of us have all fine-tuned the art of bartering and scavenger hunting.

I considered myself lucky that I had dropped only fifteen pounds or so. My neighbor Juan Carlos says he is now hast lost some 60 pounds over these three years of crisis, somedays eating what he calls a baby’s portion of food, just to survive, when food is really scarce, passing the rest to his kids.

It’s the lost pounds of the kids that hurts the most. Even those in our little farming collective (who at least bring some healthy extra calories home each week) seem to be shrinking before my eyes, their limbs as thin as twigs. Still, their willowy strength on our Wednesday and Sunday farming days always surprises me.

Sometimes I find myself amazed to remember that it only a few short years ago feeding ourselves meant only a drive to he supermarket, followed by a few minutes at the gas stove to whip it into a meal.

Just driving own’s own car has feels like a thing of the past, something like flip-top cell phones. Batteries, motor oil, and tires just aren’t to be found. My neighbor uses his sedan as a chicken coop, and our lifeless jeep provides shade for our dogs to nap. My son’s abandoned Honda lends support to the recently planted fig tree.

Even if we could get the car to go, the supermarkets in our town have long ago closed shop. At this point, almost all of the nation’s food distribution is in the hands of the military, and our little town appears not to be on their favorite list.

Then there is the problem of cooking the food, once you do actually find it. Cooking gas is needle in the haystack. Sometimes - after days in line starting at 4 am - we get lucky. But we always need other options. Last December we gave our little electric burners away to my partner’s nephew who left the country for Peru, joining a stream of exiting Venezuelans that today has become a rushing river. The stove is not really missed, since these days electricity has become another hit-or-miss affair.

I’m glad that I have planted a lot of trees since their trimings make a decent fire. But, yikes, it takes a long time to cook this way, and makes a sooty mess of pots and pans. My young neighbor Carly taught me to rub blue soap and oil on the outside of the pan before putting it on the fire, but first all soap disappeared from stores shelves, then the oil, then the stores themselves.

Last February I lay aside my sooty pans and adopted country, scrounged up an old belt from the bottom of my drawer, and boarded a flight to Washington, to visit my family.

My favorite hangout soon became the local Trader Joe’s.There is just something so incredibly comforting walking around all these aisles bursting with tasty food and filled with people calmly filling their carts with it. Not a single person seems desperate. I imagine strolling the aisles with Carly. Thanks to this new hobby, I have easily regained the vanished pounds in these three months, and am ready to head home, to Venezuela.

I will be returning just in time for the presidential elections. You might think that with food so scarce, wages averaging less than $5 a month and inflation breaking world records, it would be a slam-dunk for any candidate opposing the current government to win.

But remember what the slam-dunk election mindset brought us recently?

While Venezuela might be short on Russian trolls, Fox News or James Comey, we do have one thing that trumps all. Hunger. Hunger is the Ace of Spades in the hands of all the major players in this poker game for control of Venezuela.

Our hunger just may be what allows the government to stay in power. Their small subsidized bags of food keep us dancing on a string, to say nothing of giving a vote. Our hunger gives the political opposition a pass. They need not even bother to organize an effective political campaign, relying instead on our lost pounds to justify any method for regime change. Our hunger even provides the Trump Adminiation with a faux moral flag, their “concern” for our lost pounds poorly cloaking lust for a strategic political foothold and all that lovely oil.

I used to think that Venezuela’s prize commodity was oil. We do, after all, have the world’s largest supply under our soil. But as I cram my suitcase with oatmeal, honey and peanut butter, all the while wondering in what condition I will find Carly, Mamari, the Morocha, Vivi, Sebastian and all the others, I realize, that has now changed.

In Venezuela, hunger is the new oil.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Andrés for President

My motley crew of running mates assembled at our gate just as the peaks of the Fumarola took on a soft pink glow. That last hour of daylight in these foothills of the Venezuelan Andes is the most magical of all.

As soon as I stepped outside, Andrés took my hand, with purpose. Knowing that I was new to running, he figured I would be safer jogging down the steep mountain road in the sure grip of his five-year-old hand.

I asked him the whereabouts of his older siblings - the twins, and the Pelona. His mom forbid them to run today, he said. Running made them even more hungry, and they were hungry enough. I’m not sure how Andrés was granted an exception, probably via those gentle doe eyes.

The runners, ages 5-13, were all members of our farming kids collective, Club Conuco Colibri. We had set Tuesdays and Fridays as days to run together, just for fun. Soon, we were off….. Whizzing past caraota and potato fields, past skinny cows and grazing horses, past sheep and shephards, past the eucalyptus trees casting shadows onto the irrigation lake.

The cool air mountain filled my lungs, the majestic Fumarola lifted my spirits and the warm hand of Andrés lifted my heart, I was flying, my worries about this imploding country flung aside, my anguish for these beloved little running mates tossed to the wind. As the gentle slope coaxed me easily downhill, I felt déja vu for the easy slide into good living Venezuela had experienced only a few years back. Healthcare, education, housing, food, the good life - it seemed there for everyone.

As we ran on and on Andrés held tight to my hand. I was not used to jogging while hand-holding (or jogging at all for that matter), but it was kind of nice. He had no problem keeping my pace.

Several kilometers later we reached our goal - the cotoperí tree right beside the churning river. We tumbled into a pile and Andrés plopped in my lap. We allowed ourselves to rest and to laugh and just be together. No need to think about the approaching night, or the long uphill walk home, or the hunger stirring in our bellies.

But as the mountain turned from pink to crimson, we rose quietly to begin the long return hike. How different the journey home: Arduous, steep, dark, dangerous, and with hunger in our bellies. Like that journey we are on now as a nation – or at least those of us remaining.

As crimson turned to black I realized that I was following these children, so sure-footed on this mountain. They looped their arms into mine, grounding me, guiding me, protecting me from unknown precipices, lurking snakes, ghosts of which they spoke quietly. As the stars began to fill the night sky, Andrés deposited me at my gate, tired but safe. Hasta mañana Lisa he said with a huge hug, then raced up the hill to his home, and probably an empty table.

Andrés is the youngest of our kids farming collective, which is best described as something of a ragtag 4H group, or perhaps a community CSA where kids are the farmers and the shareholders. It all started a few years ago - rather spontaneously, when my neighbor Fabi – then age 10 - showed up one day to help me plant (yet another) mango tree and asked when I would start planting something that turned into food more quickly. Until then, I had only planted fruit trees – hundreds of them, but admittedly, it took several years from digging a hole to getting something into your mouth.

This was just the beginning of the food crisis (little did we imagine…..) but Fabi already had a vision, as she eyed the only flat spot on my land, recently bulldozed for a future gazebo. She showed up at 6 am the next morning with her cousin Jonjon, a sack of goat manure, some bamboo poles and a plan. They set to work with hoes and shovels and by early afternoon we had some decent raised beds.

By the next weekend Fabi returned with 5 of her siblings, the next Sunday she showed up with 10 of her cousins, and before we knew it, we were gardening every Sunday morning with some 40 young neighbors. Soon, we were swimming in lettuce and chard, tomatoes and green beans, zucchini and kale.

Before long, salad veggies made room for higher calorie-protein crops craved by the hungry kids: yucca and plantains, squash and corn, a rainbow array of soup beans, growing on vines, bushes, covering trees and coffee plants. We even grew our spices, our medicine, our drinks and our bowls (via a totuma or gourd tree). And of course our sweets: mangoes, bananas, mamones, guamas, guabas, guanabanas, and much much more.

Andrés – my running mate - was all of three when he joined his three siblings - Morocho, Morocha and Pelona - those first Sunday mornings. I worried that he would just be in the way at such a young age, but far from it,. Each Sunday Andrés found a task to take on and set forth with unflagging determination and order. Often, his focus was the compost pile. Like a one-man army of ants, he spent hours carting buckets and buckets of materials to help it grow: leaves, sticks, weeds, peels, sheep poop, hay. He seemed to innately understand that this – a pile of discarded rotting objects, would become the key to our food, our lives.

Before long, teachers and community leaders were asking the kids to give workshops to share their pretty successful and unique techniques. Inevitably, Andrés offered to take over when the explanation of our compost system came its turn.

In our farming collective our leaders are quite simply those who work the hardest. The kids themselves decide who should be a “guia” , which basically means you have to do a whole lot more work than everyone else.

In our country of Venezuela, our leaders have been chosen by elections. All of a sudden, eight months ahead of schedule, a snap presidential election has been called, by the president. Causing everyone who is not the president to shuffle a bit. It’s a bit hard to get a presidential campaign together in a few weeks.

(Personally, I would be all for just calling forth those who just work the hardest like our guias of Conuco Colibri, but of course, that never works in politics.)

And so, that leaves one big problem. No one wants to run against the president. Some say because no one can beat him. Others say because the rules of the race are set by him and for him. But, no matter what, it’s become an embarrasing problem to find at least one running mates to make it look like a real election. An obscure evangelical pastor just stepped forward, but he so unknown and so scandal-clad that it´s a stretch to get him on the ballot.

So, here is my solution: Andres for President. Sure, he is only five years old. But he has a better handle on the solutions to Venezuela’s main problem than does the current president and the political opposition combined, hands down. He knows how to grow food. (Seems like no one else does in the country). He know how to work hard. (Granted, that is a bit hard these days since it costs more to go to work in a day than what you actually earn at work in a day.) He can turn a garbage dump into gold. (Handy, since our oil industry is all but kaputs). He gives a helping hand to those in need. (Seems better than giving a hand only to those who gives you the votes first).

And, listen, he has the cutest little doe eyes that would look fabulous on bilboards. He’s got my vote. Andrés for President.