Infeliz Caracas

I came across a short memoir written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez recently, and fell in love with it so much I ended up translating it into English. And just as he describes, Caracas has snuck its way into my heart slowly over the last few months. What he says is true, especially in today's uncertain political climate: it's hard to be happy thinking of Caracas, but it's impossible not to think about it.

I've included the original Spanish version after the English translation. 

Unknown photographer

Unknown photographer

The first time I heard of it was in a quote by Simon Bolivar: Unhappy Caracas. Since then, I’ve rarely heard the name spoken without being preceded by the tired prestige of unhappiness. It seems the city’s fate is the same as many people’s under great strain, who cannot be loved but for those capable of suffering through it.

Since that remote primary school phrase, Caracas has been much like an obsession for me. In the town where I was born, which also had something of hell (and not only for its hellish heat) one would encounter Caracas in the water and salt. It was a haven for expatriates and stateless persons around the world, but there existed a group apart, much more ours than the others, who were fugitives from the hell of Juan Vicente Gomez. They left me with Caracas forever stamped on my heart, sometimes in the horrors of its prisons, and sometimes with the idealization of nostalgia. It was hard to be happy thinking of Caracas, but it was impossible not to think about it.

No one taught me as much about that unreal city, as the old woman who filled the happiest years of my childhood with her stories. She was called Juana de Freites, and was intelligent and beautiful, and a person more human and with more sense of drama than any I ever knew. Every afternoon, when the heat subsided, she sat in the doorway of her house in her rocker with snowy hair, wrapped in her dressing gown, and told us the great stories of children’s literature. The usual suspects - from Snow White to Gulliver’s Travels - but with one change from the original: all took place in Caracas.

That was how I grew up with the magic certainty that Genevieve of Brabant and her Unfortunate Son took refuge in a cave in Bello Monte, that Cinderella had lost her slipper at a gala in El Paraíso, that Sleeping Beauty was waiting for her prince in the shadow of Los Caobos, and that Little Red Riding Hood was eaten by a wolf named Juan Vicente, the Ferocious. Since then, Caracas was to me the fugitive city of the imagination, with castles of giants, genies hidden in bottles, singing trees and fountains that turned hearts into toads, and wonderful girls that lived in the world on the other side of the mirror. Unfortunately, nothing is more horrendous or raises more misfortunes as the combined world of fairy tales, so my earliest memories of Caracas remained unchanged: Unhappy Caracas.

All this was on my mind on December 28, 1957 - the Day of the Holy Innocents - while flying from Paris to Caracas in the paper airplanes of the time, which was a trip long enough to give me much time to think.

 

Despite the heat, the roar of traffic on the highways, the world’s longest short distances, I recognized with every turn of the wheel the familiar places of my childhood as if I wasn’t seeing them for the first time. I recognized on the steep slopes colored huts belonging to dwarves, dragons made from candles, the tower of the king, and a demonic building that just by its name surpassed from afar all horrors of my child’s world: the Helicoide de la Roca Tarpeya. I remember seeing it for the first time, peering at the deadly precipice, and remembering again: Unhappy Caracas.

My first Sunday in the city I woke up with the singular feeling that something strange was going to happen, and I attributed it to the mood inspired in me by the fables of Juana de Freites. A few hours later, as we prepared for a lovely Sunday at the beach, Soledad Mendoza raced up the stairs in two strides of her Seven League boots. 

“The air force has risen!” - she shouted. Indeed, 15 minutes later, the city unfurled completely in its natural state of literary fantasy. The Caracans had taken to the rooftops, waving jubilant handkerchiefs at the battle planes and clapping with joy as they saw bombs fall on the Miraflores Palace, which for me was still the Castle of the Mad King. Three months later, Venezuela was briefly, but unforgettably in my life, the freest country in the world. And I was a happy man, perhaps because never since then had so many singular things occurred in a single year: I got married, I lived a revolution in the flesh, I set a direction for my life, I spent three hours stuck in an elevator with a beautiful woman, I wrote my best story for a contest I did not win, I defined forever my concept of literature and its secretive relationship with journalism, I drove my first car and had an accident two minutes later, and I acquired a clear political view which would cause me twelve years later to join a Venezuelan party.

Maybe that’s why one of the beautiful frustrations of my life is not to have stayed forever in this infernal city. I like the people, and we are very much alike, I like the tender and brave women, I like the madness without limits, and the experimental way of finding meaning in life. There are few things I like as much in this world as the color of the Avila at sunset. But the greatest miracle of Caracas is that amid the iron and asphalt and traffic jams that have not changed in 20 years, the city still preserves in its heart nostalgia for the countryside. There are evenings of spring sunshine when you can hear the cicadas more clearly than the cars, and one sleeps on the fifteenth floor of a glass skyscraper, dreaming of singing frogs and the sound of crickets, and despairs on waking in the thundering dawn, which still is purified every morning by the crowing of a rooster. It is the reverse of the fairytales: Happy Caracas.

Unknown photographer

Unknown photographer

La primera vez que la oí nombrar fue en una frase de Simón Bolívar: La infeliz Caracas. Desde entonces, pocas veces la he vuelto a oír nombrada sin que vaya precedida de ese antiguo prestigio de infelicidad. Al parecer, su destino es igual al de muchos seres humanos de gran estirpe, que no pueden ser amados sino por quienes sean capaces de padecerlos.

Desde aquella remota frase de la escuela primaria, Caracas ha sido siempre para mí algo muy parecido a una obsesión. En el pueblo donde nací, que también tenía algo de infernal y no sólo por su calor de infierno, uno se encontraba a Caracas en el agua y la sal. Era un refugio de expatriados y apátridas del mundo entero, pero existía una categoría aparte, mucho más nuestra que las otras, que eran los fugitivos del infierno de Juan Vicente Gómez. Ellos me dejaron a Caracas sembrada para siempre en el corazón, a veces por los horrores de sus cárceles, y a veces por la idealización de la nostalgia. Era difícil ser feliz pensando en Caracas, pero era imposible no pensar en ella.

Nadie me enseñó tanto sobre esa ciudad irreal, como la gran mujer que pobló de fantasmas los años más dichosos de mi niñez. Se llamaba Juana de Freites, y era inteligente y hermosa, y el ser humano más humano y con más sentido de la fabulación que conocí jamás. Todas las tardes, cuando bajaba el calor, se sentaba en la puerta de su casa en un mecedor de bejuco, con su cabeza nevada y su bata de nazarena, y nos contaba sin cansancio los grandes cuentos de la literatura infantil. Los mismos de siempre, desde Blanca Nieves hasta Gulliver, pero con una variación original: todos ocurrían en Caracas.

Fue así como crecí con la certidumbre mágica de que Genoveva de Bravante y su hijo Desdichado se refugiaron en una cueva de Bello Monte, que Cenicienta había perdido la zapatilla de cristal en una fiesta de gala de El Paraíso, que la Bella Durmiente esperaba a su príncipe despertador a la sombra de Los Caobos, y que Caperucita Roja había sido devorada por un lobo llamado Juan Vicente el Feroz. Caracas fue desde entonces para mí la ciudad fugitiva de la imaginación, con castillos de gigantes, con genios escondidos en las botellas, con árboles que cantaban y fuentes que convertían en sapos el corazón, y muchachas de prodigio que vivían en el mundo al revés dentro de los espejos. Por desgracia, nada es más atroz ni suscita tantas desdichas juntas como la maravilla de los cuentos de hadas, de modo que mi recuerdo anticipado de Caracas siguió siendo el de siempre: la infeliz Caracas.

Todo esto lo pensaba el 28 de diciembre de 1957 – día de los Santos Inocentes, además – mientras volaba desde París hacia Caracas en los aviones de cuerda de aquella época, que tanto tiempo daban para pensar.

A pesar del calor, del fragor del tránsito en las autopistas de vértigo, de las distancias cortas más largas del mundo, yo iba reconociendo a cada vuelta de rueda los sitios familiares de mi infancia desde que atravesé la ciudad por primera vez. Identificaba en las laderas escarpadas las cabañas de colores de los enanos, los dragones de candela, la torre del rey, y una edificación luciferina que sólo por su nombre sobrepasaba de muy lejos a todos los horrores del mundo infantil: El Helicoide de la Roca Tarpeya. Recuerdo que al verla por vez primera, asomada a su precipicio mortal, volví a recordar: La infeliz Caracas.

Mi primer domingo en la ciudad desperté con la rara sensación de que algo extraño nos iba a suceder, y la atribuí al estado de ánimo que me había inspirado con sus fábulas doña Juana de Freites. Pocas horas más tarde, cuando nos preparábamos para un domingo feliz en la playa, Soledad Mendoza subió de dos zancadas las escaleras de la casa con sus botas de Siete Leguas.

-¡Se alzó la aviación! – gritó. En efecto, quince minutos después, la ciudad se abrió por completo en su estado natural de literatura fantástica. Los caraqueños habían salido a las azoteas, saludando con pañuelos de júbilo a los aviones de guerra y aplaudiendo de gozo cuando veían caer las bombas sobre el Palacio de Miraflores, que para mí seguía siendo el Castillo del Rey que Rabió. Tres meses después, Venezuela fue por poco tiempo, pero de un modo inolvidable en mi vida, el país más libre del mundo. Y yo fui un hombre feliz, tal vez porque nunca más desde entonces me volvieron a ocurrir tantas cosas definitivas por primera vez en un solo año: me casé para siempre, viví una revolución de carne y hueso, tuve una dirección fija, me quedé tres horas encerrado en un ascensor con una mujer bella, escribí mi mejor cuento para un concurso que no gané, definí para siempre mi concepción de la literatura y sus relaciones secretas con el periodismo, manejé el primer automóvil y sufrí un accidente dos minutos después, y adquirí una claridad política que habría de llevarme doce años más tarde a ingresar en un partido de Venezuela.

Tal vez por eso, una de las hermosas frustraciones de mi vida es no haberme quedado a vivir para siempre en esa ciudad infernal. Me gusta su gente, a la cual me siento muy parecido, me gustan sus mujeres tiernas y bravas, y me gusta su locura sin límites y su sentido experimental de la vida. Pocas cosas me gustan tanto en este mundo como el color del Avila al atardecer. Pero el prodigio mayor de Caracas es que en medio del hierro y el asfalto y los embotellamientos de tránsito que siguen siendo uno solo y siempre el mismo desde hace 20 años, la ciudad conserva todavía en su corazón la nostalgia del campo. Hay unas tardes de sol primaveral en que se oyen más las chicharras que los carros, y uno duerme en el piso número quince de un rascacielos de vidrio soñando con el canto de las ranas y el pistón de los grillos, y se despierta en unas albas atronadoras, pero todavía purificadas por los cobres de un gallo. Es el revés de los cuentos de hadas: la feliz Caracas.

Hospitality across the world

For a recent project I dove back into my anthropology books to do some research on how various cultures have integrated the concept of hospitality throughout time. The resulting tiny cultural portraits I gathered were so lovely that I thought I would share them with you. It’s heartening that the concept of hospitality (Gastfreundschaft in german, which translates literally into guest-friendship), is a central part of pretty much every culture I looked into. It is a testament to our joint desire to reach out and build connections with others, despite our differences. 

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In Pashtun society (whose members largely inhabit what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan), Pashtunwali is the code of ethics and rules that governs social interactions. The principle tenet of Pashtunwali is known as melmastia, commanding followers to show hospitality and profound respect to all visitors, regardless of race, religion, national affiliation or economic status and doing so without any hope of remuneration or favour.

 


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In ancient Greek society, the concept of guest-friendship, or xenia, was closely tied to god-friendship, or theoxenia. There are numerous cautionary tales in Greek mythology in which someone denies a beggar or traveller the hospitality of their home, only to find out that they had denied hospitality to a god in disguise. As such, extreme hospitality was shown to all who asked for it. In Homer’s Iliad, the warriors Diomedes and Glaucus meet in battle, but before attacking Diomedes inquires into Glaucus’ lineage. When they discover guest-friendship ties, they trade armor instead of fighting.

 


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In the Trobriand Islands, men will travel hundreds of miles by canoe to neighboring islands to exchange gifts of shell necklaces and armbands. This circular gift exchange is known as the Kula ring.


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The Native Americans along the northwest coast held ceremonial feasts known as potlatches. A tribal chief whose village had a good year would invite neighboring villages and gift goods such as blankets, food, and copper items. The bigger the gift, the higher the social prestige of the chief. If the village had a bad year, they could count on a neighbor to reciprocate the potlatch. 


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In Hindu culture, the phrase atithi devo bhavah translates into “guest is god”, and guests are greeted with the utmost hospitality. Formalities observed while hosting guests include ensuring a pleasant fragrance, placing a lamp between guest and host for visibility and communication, and providing food. A vermillion tilak is placed on the forehead of the guest, which is a symbol of being undivided, and the highest form of welcome in Hindu culture. 


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In Papa New Guinea, a chief will deliver a moka (a gift), usually consisting of animals such as pigs, cassowaries and cows, to a neighboring chief. These gifts a reciprocal in the long term, usually with the returner giving more than he received, creating a long-standing relationship between neighboring tribes. 


 Whether xenia, gastfreundschaft, melmastia, or atithi devo bhavah, and whether shown through mokas, potlatches or kula rings, we all reach out to help others so much so that it's an ingrained concept in every culture I've run across. The cynic would say that this itself is just another survival mechanism that doesn't reflect any inherent good in people - but in the end, even that makes me hopeful for the future. Cultural indicators that our survival is dependent on acceptance, hospitality and generosity speak clearly that messages like the Dalai Lama's should not go ignored. 

 

Note: for further reading, many of these case studies were taken from Kottak's Sixth Editions "Mirror for Humanity" 

Curating a Bookshelf

Since I learned to read, books have been my escape, my inspiration, and my teachers. The library was like a second home, and I’d retreat into my books for hours on end. As we move further and further into the digital age, even my fierce love of books in their beautiful tactility hasn’t stopped my personal library from moving into the digital realm. But I’ve taken it as an opportunity to turn my bookshelf from a place for every book whose spine I’ve ever cracked into a carefully curated repository of the books that have continued to remain relevant throughout the years. Here are the books I will gladly read and re-read. There’s a little of everything, from the classics to sci-fi and fantasy, design, anthropology, urban studies, botany, linguistics, mathematics and philosophy. This is not everything on my bookshelf, but these treasured tomes come with the highest recommendation. I hope you find something new and exciting here. 

Letters to a Young Poet
By Rainer Maria Rilke
The Alchemist
By Paulo Coelho
The Little Prince
By Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
By Shunryu Suzuki
Pride and Prejudice
By Jane Austen
Aurora Leigh (Oxford World's Classics)
By Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Stranger in a Strange Land
By Robert A. Heinlein
The Time Traveler's Wife
By Audrey Niffenegger

Rendering wizardry

In most design fields, rendering images is a powerful way to communicate a vision without having to actually produce a physical product. When working with clients, especially people who are not comfortable or familiar with visualizing ideas, it can be the most effective path to making sure everyone is on the same page. And it's also one of the best way to get that immediate visual impact. 

For a quick workflow when I render, I'll usually use a combination of Sketchup (or Revit imported to Sketchup), Kerkythea and Photoshop. This workflow has been very heavily influenced by Alex Hogrefe's tutorials over on his website, which I definitely encourage everyone to check out. Here are some before and after images of renderings, from a screen grab out of sketchup, to kerkythea renderings, to the final photoshop processed image. To see the full project with additional renderings and process work, go to the project page.

 

Sketchup

Sketchup

Kerkythea rendering

Kerkythea rendering

Final photoshopped image

Final photoshopped image


Sketchup

Sketchup

Kerkythea rendering

Kerkythea rendering

Final photoshopped image

Final photoshopped image

When Music makes Magic happen

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Music has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember, from piano to guitar (and ukulele!) through broadway jazz, choral singing and finally a vocal performance minor in college. I think that's when my (very one sided) love affair with Eric Whitacre began. Put aside for a moment the fact that he is indeed a total dreamboat and completely crush-worthy for most women out there, and let's focus on his music for a second. Eric Whitacre is in my (admittedly amateur) opinion one of the great composers of our lifetime. His music is faceted, brilliant, and above all, tells stories. Known to most for his stunning choral compositions, Whitacre also composes for various orchestral settings, and though I have a penchant for choral music, his instrumental compositions are equally (if not more) riveting. Take a listen to "Equus", for example - you can hear that horse galloping through the entire piece. Whitacre put his latest album, "Water Night" on Spotify with bonus tracks for each song; recordings of him telling stories about how each composition came to be. Give it a listen if you have some spare time and mental space, it makes the music that much more special.

 On our 2006 Europe Tour, our University Choir (Cal Poly University Singers & Polyphonics) performed one of Whitacre's most famous pieces: Sleep. The original piece was set to a poem by Robert Frost called Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, but due to licensing issues he had to rewrite the lyrics to the piece. Below is the recording, as well as the original poem and the replacement lyrics.  

Water Night
By Eric Whitacre

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

 

Sleep

The evening hangs beneath the moon
A silver thread on darken dune
With closing eyes, and resting head
I know that sleep is coming soon

Upon my pillow, safe in bed
A thousand pictures fill my head
I can not sleep my minds aflight
and yet my limbs seem made of lead

If there are noises, in the night
A frightening shadow, flickering light
As I surrender unto sleep
Where clouds of dream, give second sight

What dreams may come both dark and deep,
Of flying wings and soaring leap
As I surrender unto sleep 
As I surrender unto sleep


To me, the most beautiful thing he's done so far is adapt the popular children's book "Goodnight Moon" into a lullaby. In the recording below, you can hear his wife sing the piece, which was written for their son. 

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 *Note: I don't hold licensing for this music and am making no profit through this post.