Our Venezuelan Adventure
February 28, 2002
We are back from the short strange trip that was our South American adventure. Tiffany's company is producing some animation for a Venezuelan Cola Company and they needed someone to go down to Caracas for a meeting. Apparently they're very into face to face meetings in that part of the world, and seeing as Tiffany is the only one in her office with a valid passport, she was handed the job. This was all very last minute, and once her boss started to learn about the political unrest and pick pocketing that goes on in Venezuela, he got increasingly nervous. We think he didn't want to send a woman into the lion's den, so to combat the machismo factor, he suggested that Alex go as well. We felt sure that the Company would never agree to pay for a second last minute plane ticket, but a few hours later we had to decide whether we both wanted to go. This all took place Friday evening, so we didn't quite believe this trip would happen as we poured through tourist books at Barnes and Noble over the weekend. The more we read, the more apprehensive we became. These books lead us to believe that we were heading into a hotbed of criminals and thieves and that we'd be stripped bear as soon as we set foot in the country. Alex had resigned himself to the fact that he was definitely going to get mugged. He had various bills stashed all over his person, and a Xerox of our passports that we'd leave in the hotel. We were prepared. Neither of us have ever been mugged before, and though we knew it wouldn't be fun, we figured we probably wouldn't get hurt, and could chalk it up to experience. Having survived the last 48 hours, it turns out that the drive to JFK airport was the worst part of the trip.
The flight down to Caracas is a short four and a half hours. We left in the evening and as we approached South America from the window Alex could just make out the Southern Cross low above the horizon. This is the furthest south he's ever been. (Tiffany's the world traveler, this being her sixth continent!) We were able to see stars that we've never seen before. Once on the ground we emerged into another world. It was almost midnight when we arrived, and the air was warm and thick with the scent of the tropics. We were met by a driver who had a sign with our names on it. At least we knew we were in the right place. He spoke no English, so we trusted he knew where to take us. We sped up the mountains and through the tunnels that lead to Caracas, about 12 miles inland. Lights from countless houses dotted the hillsides as we raced into the city. Twenty minutes later we pulled up to a hotel built like a high security prison, with stone walls topped by barbed wire. A guard behind tinted glass buzzed us in. Once inside we found ourselves in a tropical garden. The concierge was polite and spoke flawless English. After some confusion as to what room to put us in, we got settled. Coming from our tiny apartment, the hotel room felt palatial.
In the morning we had breakfast of fresh fruit on the patio, then waited for a phone call to tell us where to go. After a few hours of waiting when we thought we should've been exploring the city together, we were driven to the production company to meet the gang. It's amazing that commercial production companies are virtually identical the world over. We could've been in LA, New York or London. There's a definite type of person that this business attracts, so we felt at home in familiar surroundings. We met the director who spoke good English, and had a short meeting to talk about the spots. We both fell into production mode and despite the language barrier, we all were speaking the same "film" language, so we got on quite well.
They took us out to lunch at a local steak house. Lunch is the main meal in Venezuela and can last for hours, so we knew we were in for a treat. Between us all we must have eaten an entire cow. The steaks were incredibly tender, and the table was cluttered with appetizers of all the local specialties, though the names are all forgotten now. Drinks flowed freely, and being so near Columbia, the coffee was amazing. This is definitely a smoking country. You can smoke anywhere and people did. In restaurants, offices, everywhere. We’re a little more used to it from New York, but being Californians it was still a bit startling.
After lunch we parted ways. Tiffany was off to more meetings with the ad agency and the clients, while Alex had the afternoon to himself.
I had planned to explore the city on foot, but the guys at the production house thought I'd enjoy other things better. They had arranged for a driver to show me around. After getting a list of things to see from the director, the driver Pedro and I headed off. This guy spoke no English, so with my very broken Spanish we were in for an adventure. I had my passport and money belt secure, and an extra $20 bill in each shoe. We drove to a small town about 20 minute outside of Caracas called El Hatillo. On the way there I was snapping pictures out of the car window as we sped out of the city. We raced past the slums that cling to the hillsides around the city in all directions. Trash litters the streets and chokes the roots of Banyan trees. Decrepit busses and American cars belch out black smog as they cough there way up the hills. It's amazing to see such poverty right next to grand hotels for the business travelers, and the pollution amongst lush tropical vegetation.
El Hatillo is a small traditional town with narrow streets and countless cafes. Pedro dropped me off outside a fairly touristy souvenir shop. I wandered around there for a while stocking up on postcards, various ceramics, and trinkets, not knowing quite how much I was spending. I then walked around the town accompanied by the sounds of children playing amongst the colorful houses. I sat in the shade of the main square where I sketched the statue of Simon Bolivar, who is the national hero known as the Liberator.
After El Hatillo, Pedro and I drove around the hills surrounding Caracas. Mountains that are National Parks surround the city, and from almost everywhere there are spectacular views.
After lunch the production company people – Director Felix, Producer Douglas & our contact who hired us for the spot Yeyo - and I went to the Ad agency’s office for the big "pre-pro" meeting. There we met with the agency people and others from the commercial production house. As we said, it could have been a meeting anywhere. All the players are very similar to what I’m used to. The clients came, three women from Coca Cola, and we were off.
The whole meeting was in Spanish but I listened very hard & looked at everyone when they talked and was astounded at how much I could understand with a word here & there and all the hand gestures. I believe I was the only one there without a cel phone. It is certainly a cel phone city, I only saw about 3 land lines the whole trip. Almost everyone got or made at least one call during the long meeting. The director pitched his view of the commercials then we went over the locations, the casting, the wardrobe the music and the animation. The Caca Cola executives made their choices and approvals and they were off… in the true Venezuelan style of hugs & kisses all round. Then Yeyo & I talked with the agency people. They gave me their ideas about the character & the BGs etc and we finalized some thoughts.
We got stuck behind a car parked behind us in the too crowded lot but finally got back to the office. A with any production company it was a hive of activity. We waited while they made me a tape of the actors in the commercials and got me some bottles of the soda the commercials are for. The "PAs" were watching a reality show on TV. You just can’t get away from it. =)
That evening Alex met up again with Tiffany and the gang from the production company. We went out to a Chinese restaurant and once again got thoroughly stuffed. After this we said goodbye to our new friends, and went back to the hotel to pack for the flight out in the morning.
We drove out of Caracas as the full moon was setting over the mountains. We entered one of the many tunnels below the peaks as the sun rose behind us. Emerging from the mountains to the north the Caribbean stretched before us. We dropped to sea level and to the airport which lies on a thin stretch of land between the ocean and the wall of 5000 ft. mountains. After clearing many stages of security and immigration we found some stamps to mail out postcards. We left the tropics of South America and slept the whole plane trip back. From near the equator we traveled 30 degrees North to New York where we were greeted by gray skies and snow flurries. Add 30 degrees of latitude and subtract 50 degrees of temperature. Now we’re back in the cold and gray city, unpacked and tired. Our new Venezuelan folk music is playing on the stereo and our souvenirs add a little spice to our apartment. We stepped foot onto another continent, and it only whets our appetites for more travel.
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