Home, in five senses

1. “Señores pasajeros, bienvenidos al Aeropuerto Internacional La Chinita de Maracaibo.”

I’m flying home for five days of family events. As I am leaving the plane, I brace myself for the heat, the chaos, the paranoia surrounding crime … en fin, the Venezuelan-ness.

But the first thing that hits me is the sound.

As soon as I leave the plane, I hear a car alarm going off. On the tarmac. In the airport.

Could it be possible that they are stealing a car in the next gate?

The familiar sound of the car alarm tells me I’m home. Nee-naa, nee-naa… followed by a crescendo horn, an unbearable ripple, and three other tones. You’ve heard it a million times, but if you live outside of Venezuela, it’s been a while since the sounds assaulted you.

As we wait for immigration, the alarm continues to howl, but it is deafened by the noise from the queue. The fact that 130 of us are crammed into a tiny hallway with short ceilings and the air conditioning at full blast while everyone talks at full volume creates a deafening echo that can only mean … I’m home.

——-

2. Breakfast on special occasions in my house means one thing only: deep-fried stuff.

Courtesy of reaching middle age, I’ve decided to have grapefruit for breakfast every day. You know those people that say they like grapefruit? They’re liars.

Well, no grapefruits for breakfast in my house, partly because in Venezuela you can’t find the darn things. Today, it’s pastelitos y tequeños for breakfast.

No matter how many empanadas I try in different parts of the world, nothing beats chewing through deep-fried, golden-colored corn dough. Crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside, and after you’re done with the dough, Venezuelan white cheese or the explosive flavor of carne mechada await you.

Breakfast of champions.

——-

3. I hadn’t seen Miraflores in a long time. As we’re driving up from Maiquetía into Caracas, our driver decides to take the Baralt and the Cota Mil to avoid traffic. We drive by Hugo Chávez’s house, in all its red and pink glory.

Miraflores Palace is not a particularly impressive building. Built in the late XIXth Century by one of our many caudillos (one who, coincidentally, came out of Parapara!), the building’s main claim to fame is the outsized role it plays in our collective consciousness.

As most colonial buildings in Venezuela, this one was intended to be white with red tile roofs. Hugo Chávez has decided not only to paint the columns crimson red, but worst of all, the walls are now a shade of pink that would not look out of place in a Katy Perry video.

Red and pink go together as well as Christianity and Marxism.

——-

4. We arrive at my aunt’s house and an immediate, familiar scent assaults me: we’re having tajadas for lunch.

Around the world, people cook more or less the same. The smells are the usual: onion, garlic, salt, and other spices make up the daily staple pretty much everywhere. But there is something distinctive about the sweet, fruity, yet salty smell of ripe plantain bananas being deep-fried in vegetable oil.

The smell triggers the taste buds: caraotas negras on white rice, batido de guayaba, carne mechada, ají dulce, bienmesabe. A full meal.

——-

5. Have you ever noticed how Venezuelans don’t kiss on the cheek when they first meet someone of the opposite sex? A common social norm is that, when you’re introduced, you shake the person’s hand, and when you say goodbye … that is when you give them a peck on the cheek.

It’s not just any peck on the cheek, mind you. The key is to put cheek against cheek and kiss the air. Foreigners who try to follow the rule end up planting their lips on your cheeks when greeting you. Every time that happens, I feel like asking: “So, why do you think it’s your lips that are supposed to go on my cheek and not the other way around?”

It’s one of those ungraspable details that will forever elude them, because setting them right would simply be too awkward.

So you just let it fly.

Handshake when introduced, kiss when saying goodbye … and it all comes naturally, as if I’d never left.

61 thoughts on “Home, in five senses

  1. Juan: welcome back…! :-)

    Miraflores is not a palace (it is merely a big house), it is not a colonial building (it aspires to be palatial, but its style is neo-classical; inside, it has faux-Napoleonic or faux-Italian decorations), and it was not originally white (architects and the restoration crew during the last Caldera presidency found out -among other things- that the original colour was pale green; Don Rafael decided against that detail and kept the off-white look).

    • The original features of Miraflores no longer exist because Marcos Pérez Jiménez destroyed them. When he became president, he ordered to totally remake the interior of the palace since he thought it looked “old” and “unsuitable for the majesty of the presidency”. Walls were teared down, floors were teared out and all pieces of furniture were thrown away. No wonder the discovery of pale green as “original” color… in agreement with the mindset of a 1950s military officer.

      Miraflores was going to be a lavish version of Villa Santa Inés. Anyone interested in how it must have looked like should check out the latter at Av. Principal de Caño Amarillo, Caracas.

      • Apparently the pale green was form the 1890s: After that coat, there was merely brick and mortar… The pictures of the Palacio in the 1950s do not show anything but white. BTW, Perez Jimenez also affected the Capitolio’s 1870s dome (which was a lot more ornate and in an turquoise shade), changing for the golden, air-condition looking new one… Ironically, this damaged the paintings below, which were badly restored back then. The former Supreme Court quarters in the Capitol were also changed to the current “Salón de los Escudos”, with the famous Pedro Centeno Vallenilla’s triptych “Venezuela recibiendo los símbolos del Escudo Nacional”.

        As for Caldera’s choice: could you blame him? Imagine a government plastering and colouring the city with its own party’s colours. ;-)

  2. Loved the post

    1.-My daughter claims that there is nothing in the world that can compare with fried tajadas and white cheese. I agree.
    2.- No need to get to CCS to feel closer to home. Long time ago I realized that even getting to New York, let alone Miami, has already the effect of stepping into another world. The sounds, the people and the weather.
    3.-Make the elevator test while in Caracas.
    i recall I once entered an elevator in the very discreet canadian way and then I had the whole elevator tribune reminding me that I had just entered with a loud “BUUUEEEENAAASSS”

    • Love that, “Bueeeenas!” Also, “buen provecho!”, something other Latin American countries don’t do quite as well. Here in Chile, for example, nobody says that.

      • I personally love to use the “Buenas”, even if it’s sometimes more a reflex action. It keeps some civility and manners in the chaotic everyday life we have.

        • I say “Buenas” to everyone but nobody says it back,or even look at me. I feel like i’m in El Metro de Caracas sometimes

          • I always say Buenas, or Buenos días, and almost always get a response. If I say it loud and clera, and even a tad proudly, I get a response from more people. Anyway, this is Maracaibo, where, though it may be a disappearing custom, people say Good morning or Good day when crossing each other on the street. I would imagine in the Andes will give you even better results.

              • I’m also in Mcbo, most people don’t.I love Andeans, they are very polite and helpful.

  3. I’m not lying. I like grapefruit….with a little sugar sprinkled on it….sometimes…okay, yeah you’re right. Anyone who says that is a liar xD I like the juice though…with vodka in it jaja

  4. “Could it be possible that they are stealing a car in the next gate?” No, some dope got a car alarm and never bothered to learn to program it, so it goes off by itself and with every noise or vibration however slight. Every car has an alarm, and always one is going off withing hearing range with a generic tune (dope never bothered choosing a distinct tune either) that could belong to a hundred cars in the vicinity. Which actually nullifies any warning or scaring effect they might have for thieves. Yes, and you noticed the F*#&!NG NOISE! everywhere in Venezuela there’s people. From cars and machines to blaring music to people.

    “You know those people that say they like grapefruit? They’re liars.” Grapefruit is overrated, expensive and tastes like orange irrigated with bitters. But Healthy is not necessarily Masochistic. There are thousands of fruits cultivated by humankind that are tastier and healthier. Choose local and/or in season. “I try in different parts of the world, nothing beats chewing through deep-fried, golden-colored corn dough.” Unhealthy and tasty.

    Really, they pimped Miraflores? And you would say that chavismo has no taste, they have it, only heinous. Goes with the kitschy, muscled and bling ridden Bolivar images. Truth in advertising, by now it’s an established whorehouse, a franchise of the Castros’ Island Empire of Prostitution and Revolution.

    Tajadas is the best way to eat “platanos”. We have many foodstuffs in common with Africans south of the Sahara, and other people from the tropics, but most don’t know what can be done with platanos y queso. Should show them and ruin their cardiovascular health.

    As long as you don’t try kissing on the lips everything will be OK. However, on first meeting a person ever, tell them it’s just handshake to be sure. And no cheek kissing among men.

  5. i’ll be going back to Caracas for a week on July after 10 years, the list of things to eat is massive. My only plan for the night i get there is to go drink a couple of “cervecitas” at El Leon.

  6. You know, JC, you have gotten home when your stomach tells you you are.

    I can get plantains here in DC, but they NEVER taste like those from “South of the Lake” because they are picked green then shipped.

    You can get Harina Pan just about anywhere, but there is no substitute for hard white cheese, “quest de Mano” or “de telita” as found back home. You also cannot find Aji Dulce, so things do not quite taste as they do back home

    When I go to Venezuela I stay with my aunt, and when she asks what I would like to eat I always say “whatever you make” because all those things you cannot find outside are (still) found back home!

    • Roberto, I am in Mexico so there is no shortage of plátano macho, and I can readily find Harina Pan, but as for the taste of the plátanos in DC, here’s what you can do… Buy them as ripe as possible, and then leave them for a few days outside the refrigerator and wrapped in a sheet of newspaper… it will accelerate the ripening process and you would get your delicious tajadas… As for the cheese, I know queso palmizulia or any kind of Venezuelan cheese should be next to impossible to find in La Capital del Imperio, but you might a Mexican specialty store and get some queso Cotija, it is a strong, white, crumbly cheese and the closest thing I can think of you might find in the Uessofei.

      As for the post… JC, you got my mouth watering, I now need to go home and make Arepas and Mandocas and Empanadas AND Cachapas… and lomo negro, and carne mechada -my loving Mexican wife makes a mean carne mechada and Reina Pepiada stuffing- … so goodbye weight-loss regime…

    • Tom:
      Thanks for the tip, I do just that, ripen them in newspaper and that works, to a point. Because they are picked when green, however, they do not get a chance to develop the sugars from its starches that plant ripened ones develop, hence leaving something to be desired. Since I have access to food wholesalers here in DC I can stalk the platano area where sometines I do find a case that seems to have been allowed to ripen more than others and sometimes get close to “tropical” tajadas. I like my tajadas sweet with the edges caramelized, so sugar content is important to me! I’ve tried the Cotija and other Mexican and Central American variants, pero queso de Año es queso de Año!

      Daniela:
      You are my newest best friend! Holy cow, I can’t wait to order from those guys! Mil gracias por el link!

    • Roberto, there’s a couple of restaurants by the name of Sardi’s Chicken. One’s in Gaithersburg, the other in Frederick. Get there ASAP and order a quarter chicken with beans, rice and plantains. BEST PLANTAINS in the DC Area, period.

  7. *pounding headache the whole night
    *taking care of a 5 months old baby

    remedy: this post and bruni’s comment …. I laught A LOT

    Btw I miss the thumbs up in the blog.

  8. Love the post JC….Your sensory impressions are priceless. Your memory of the fragrance of ‘tejadas ‘ brought back home for me in a big way, as it was usually an every day kinda smell ; a bit like cornbread and collard greens here :)

    Also the smell of aji dulce, which I cannot find here ties me to my home there.When I first arrived in Venezuela the smell of aji dulce stood out, and nauseated me.It took me years to learn to appreciate it.Many other foods were strange to me as well , like ‘chino’.I didn’t know quite what to do with it…put pepper on it? butter? peanut butter? er…but what? But soon it became a must for me in a sancocho and it was one of my favorites….I miss so many things …but it is fun to remember.

    The tensions you describe also bring back memories, especially of my last years there.We get addicted to tension and often feel bored without it.This is a shame.

    Take care, be safe, and above all have fun.

  9. Thanks for the comments, y’all. Now that my semester from Hades is over, my relative absence from the blog has come to an end. To get my writing juices flowing, I went for something a bit different this time…

  10. For all ye expats and ex Venezuelans out there, whenever you get a chance have some friend or family member send you guys some aji dulce deshidratado. It may not be the same as eating it freshly picadito en el guisito, but…. It’s quite good. They sell it picadito and neatly packed in supermarkets everywhere. Queso blanco may be found at large expat colonies. They have paisa in panama’s RIBA smith supermarkets and in westonzuela there is cafe canela. And some people in Madrid actually doing it. I have expat daughters all over the planet. I agree that maduros out there never taste the same. Pero mijito algo es algo! JC keep it up…. You made me laugh and cry as I am con un pie aquí y otro mas allá dependiendo de lo que suceda. Everytime I think of not seeing the Avila every morning while I eat my arepa con Queso blanco duro rallado my heart constricts. :’(

  11. Aji dulce is one matter, another is Apio. Impossible to find apio anywhere here.
    Someone told me the peruvians have them and it is called “arracacha”, but I
    could not find it.

    About the cheese…for those living in MTL, there are two course of action:

    1.-Go to épicerie Andes on St. Laurent and buy “colombian cheese”
    2.-Go to any lebanese épicerie (for instance Adonis) and buy Baladi cheese.

    Of course, they are not “telita”, far from it, but when they are fresh, they kind of
    remind you of home. Be sure to lure the cheese clerk into letting you know WHEN
    they unpack the cheeses, so you can go buy them fresh. It makes a lot of difference.

    As for the banana plantains…never ever buy in your local supermarket, they just
    do not ripe correctly. The best I have found are the ones on Andes and on Kim-Phat,
    a chinese place south shore. Buy them yellow or green and allow them to ripe at home.

    To finish my culinary chronicle. For batidos, I just found an amazing product, imported
    from Colombia (big thumbs-up to hard working colombians that are now exporting
    processed fruits). One can find all sorts of frozen pulps (guanábana, guayaba, etc.).
    No, I have not found níspero…sorry. Also at Kim-Phat, close to the cashiers.

    • for those living outside major cities, in Canada, a near substitute for white cheese is President’s Choice “Halloom” from Loblaws supermarkets. Warning: sodium is on the high side.

    • Bruni,

      We get apio here because of the abundance of Mexican grocery stores.We also get a variety of fresh root vegetables including ocumo chino.The frozen fruit pulp is also available but cannot compare to the real McCoy in my estimation.

      Nispero is sorely lacking in NC as well as chirimoya, which was one of my favorites.

    • Bruni!

      I always get cheese (and malta, and harina de cachapas, and pulpa de tamarindo y guanabana y guayaba,) at Sabor Latino on Belanger off of St. Denis – https://plus.google.com/102935321208183711684/about?hl=en

      The Queso Andino there is 99% of the way with Palmizulia (not 100% due to a bit too much salt.)

      And plantains (along with lechoza, yuca, ocumo, CAÑA DE AZUCAR, and even – very ocassionally – fresh mamones and guanabanas) are at Sami Fruit, either in Lasalle or Jarry. http://www.yelp.ca/biz/maison-sami-t-a-fruits-lasalle

  12. I have always liked grapefruits and have them for breakfast twice or three times a week. I guess that, as we use to say: “hay gente pa to”. I live in Maracaibo and, while it’s true you can’t find them always, they’re not scarce, just maybe not everywhere.

  13. A venezuelan expat entreprenour is making paisa and telita in Alberta with reasonable success. It beats superstore’s hallom IMO.
    For plantains, go to the local african food staple stores, their product is better than the superstore alternatives… Harina Pan is easily found, the problem here is disposing of the used frying oil. Its an enviromental offence to pour it down the drain. It must be collected in containers and brought to the firehouse for disposal…..

    Try saying BUENASSSS in the elevator here and you will be taken into custody and questioned for harassement…

    Air kissing always surprises the locals and many mention envy for our so natural custom….
    Some you win, some you loose.

    Welcome Back Cati, your writing was missed.

    • Luis F…..Don’t they say something else to people upon entering an elevator in Alberta?

      Here it is custom to say something to the tune of: ” morning”, or “hi ya’ll today?”

      Perfect strangers will ask me how I am doing to which I am supposed to reply something perfunctory.

      On the other hand, the kissing thing is now becoming a no no.Back in my grandmother’s time, kissing visitors to one’s house was common or old southern tradition…but many Northerners have moved in and changed things thus the saying: “Some bad Northerners come, set up camp, and try to change our ways,but other good Northerners come, visit, and then go back home :)

  14. The last time I flew into Maracaibo I didn’t get farther than boarding the plane in Panama before I knew exactly where I was going!

  15. Just came back from a few days in South Florida after many years without going and you can definitely feel the larger Venezuelan presence everywhere.
    Both El Doral and Westonzuela have “areperas” in most gas stations, just like the Paradores Turisticos when you drive in the highways back home… Some had great tasting cachapas con queso de mano, others had decent arepas (for $7) and the tequeños were a mixed bag. However there were two things that almost made me want to stay and brave the summer heat:
    One was the queso guayanes made in Florida by a place called La Pradera which was as good as anything I ever had. In fact, I’m trying to figure out a way to get it shipped to Los Angeles.
    The other thing was ordering a Marroncito and having the other person understand exactly what I’m asking for…
    Man, I miss home!

  16. All right now, Nagel, fess up.
    Did you and the passengers clap when the pilot landed the plane at La Chinita?

    That practice doesn’t seem to happen anymore on landings at Maiquetía — a huge cultural loss.

  17. IN my sleepy gringo town (Oxford Ohio) today feels like Maracaibo – noise, happy people and Venezuelan food, very humid and over 100ºF…so enjoy the good things, you could be visiting a place as hot as in Maracaibo but boring!…Although after 2 weeks in Caracas three years ago I was missing my boring gringo town, only if plantains taste as good here as in Venezuela.

  18. Oh man…. from the overheated Midwest (Indianapolis – IN), this is starting to feel like a criollo-food mirage! ; -) Neverthelesss, thanks JC ( & the rest of the bloggers); for a brief mo, all that once was, is real again…..

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