El viaje
January 22nd
Dorval Airport, Montréal

The wing dedicated to US departures is the least glamorous of Dorval airport's terminals: the industrial warehouses are little match for the goings on of the runway on the other side. We sit at the farthest gate with the Québec delegation, a heterogonous grouping of beige-suited professors, student activists, bearded trade-unionists, tourists flipping through lonely planets and a solitary businessman
reading a book about excellence.

I passed by the yawning American customs agents without any trouble, but Sibel had to endure a minor interrogation. "I expect there's going to be a lot of anti-American statements at that conference," said the guard, looking at her with that mandatory heavy stare, when they try to look directly into your soul, waiting for your comfort level to drop until your smile cracks and a tearful confession comes out. Or if you're Sibel you become giddy and friendly.

"Maybe, but I'm not anti-American." He continues his stare, waiting for her to fill the pause. "I'm sure it's not against the American people," she blurts.

A slight raise of eyebrows, then he smiles, "You have a good trip," and waves her through.

"Do you really need to convert the security guards?" I lecture her when she tells me this.

"I know, but I just can't stop being human, you know?" Humanity or nerves, it only gets worse as she finds herself chosen for an arbitrary baggage search. She giggles more with each item they ask to
look through: purse, handbag, laptop, by the time she starts taking off her boots she's almost has all the other guards in tears.

El vuelo
The flight to
Atlanta is full. Beneath us the outline of Montréal's South Shore is lined with ice: the river is half-frozen. It's like looking at the coastline of the Caribbean with the colours inverted. In the distance are the shadows of the mountains that ring the city. Soon I can see below the mountains of the Eastern Townships, the salt-and-pepper snowfall on their peaks, the tiny sheets of frozen ice
lakes surrounded by thick greenery or the baldness of uncultivated land. As we rise I can still make out the shrinking outline of farms, twisting riverways and straight highways, lakes so frozen they seem to be marked with tracks, although how pure ice could support a vehicle is beyond me.

Delta Airlines is notorious for its poor catering. A voice comes over to announce the menu, courteously trying to express it in French: "Nous avons les pretzels, les cookies, les granola bars et les crackers avec le cheese."

I look forward to seeing
Atlanta's airport, which Kasai tells me is in the middle of the woods. I don't find out, though, as we touch down in fog low enough to cover the top of the Control Tower.

The airport turns out to be enormous: a loudspeaker proclaims it is the largest in the world. Our wing is crawling with American troops decked out in their Desert Storm pyjamas. For a second we wonder
apprehensively if they are heading to the same place as us, but it turns out they are flying to
Frankfurt, home of a major military base and reportedly where casualties from Iraq are being sent. A perverse part of me considers inviting them to flee to Canada, but a moment's reflection buries this idea and we head to CNN Magazines to pick up something to read.

This flight is on a much larger plane and Sibel and I are not seated together. A complicated round of musical chairs later finds us finally side-by-side. Everyone on the plane seems to be going to the
Forum. We introduce ourselves to the third person in the row and it turns out to be a woman named Robin from the Christian Peace Team. She is quite visibly nervous as she was close to the three people from their group who were taken hostage in
Iraq recently. 

After the Forum, she will be heading to
Colombia where she spends most of her time standing between villagers and guns. She tells me about sleeping in the doorway of a house of the wife of a man wanted by paramilitaries. The family shivered inside while the paramilitaries appropriated the stove in their front yard. Apparently her role is the mother figure: she asks armed people about their lives, their families, why they do what they do. Other people play legal roles. While the rest of the plane watches some film with Cameron Diaz, I'm treated to a slide-show of their work in the Colombian Amazon. Meanwhile, Sibel is looking increasingly opiated from the anti-panic drugs she took to get through the take-off.

23 January 2006
Hotel Cumberland Chacao
Caracas, Venezuela

12:30pm Caracas was a black fog lit by candles when we pulled into our hotel last night at 5am; today we wake to hear it bustling. I get out of bed and open the window, not really knowing whereabouts we are after arriving in the middle of the night on a bus with tinted windows. We seem to be in the middle of the financial district: when I look out the window, I see myself staring back from the mirrored skyscraper across from us. Down below is a one-way street filled with honking
traffic and weathered buses. The cars here seem new, especially compared with the wrecks parked on the roads in the mountains on the way here.

Two weeks ago the main bridge into town collapsed, extending the trip from the airport downtown from 40 minutes to 3 hours. This becomes more complicated when we learn that the replacement highway is closed at night and we have to take another route that will have us winding through narrow streets in the mountains for up to four hours. The Canadian government's website helpfully advises that we not travel any of these without an armed escort. Sibel and I vow not to endanger our
lives by going along with this until we get to the airport the options suddenly narrow to either staying alone in the airport or going with the rest of the group to the hotel. Besides, says the guide, "The
President of this country said it's okay."

The main city of
Caracas is 1000km above sea level and the mountain paths of the suburbs wind much higher. We are a convoy of 3 buses snaking through the deserted residential streets. Looking up, the city resembles a rock stadium filled with lighters or a candlelit vigil as each house has a 60-wat bulb hanging outside the door and the houses climb the mountains in concentric circles. I would love to spend the whole trip staring out at the scenery, but the dim streetlights and tinted windows of the bus make everything merge into shadows of green and black. Besides, Sibel has just discovered
something she fears more than flying and is starting to hyperventilate. I snuggle up as close as I can to her on my seat, and soon I can hear her snoring softly. But perhaps I'm flattering myself, as the moment we get to the hotel the first thing she says is, "I didn't sleep at all."

Caracas: Ciudad Insurgente
Hotel Cumberland Caracas, 4:45pm

Mission Québec expedition to tour the Bolivarian Missions in La Vega

The bus departs forty-five minutes late, to a backdrop of Jean-Claude
Van Damme swimming in a bloodbath of counterterrorism that is quickly
replaced by an equally tacky—though perhaps more appropriate—salsa
karaoke DVD. Outside of the window our first tour of the city in
daylight is beginning to register. The sky is still grey, which means
the weather is not intolerable, and the peaks of the mountains that
surround the city are obscured by a thick cloud of fog. The streets
are covered with an uneasy mix of murals, revolutionary graffiti and
corporate advertising and deep green plant-life springs from every gap
in the development: tall grey apartment blocks drape greenery and
laundry like clothing from head to foot.

We are on our way with the Mission Québec delegation to tour the
Bolivarian Missions in the city's depressed suburbs, or ranchos as the
shanty towns are known in

We pass all the juxtapositioned contradictions urban Latin American is
known for: the ultramodern financial towers, sanitized shopping malls
and five-star hotels that share close geography with the corrugated
iron roves of makeshift houses, with their collapsing concrete walls
stuck together in impossible proximity painted in bright Latin
yellows, greens and turquoises. Laundry hangs out to dry on the iron
girders outside all the windows. On the mountains the shanties appear
to be stacked one top of the other, like Lego bricks.

The chain of billboards for cell-phones, Nescafé and Pokemania is
momentarily interrupted by giant posters of Hugo Chávez welcoming
guests to the World Social Forum, seems a good metaphor of the
country's competing interests. Further on is a string of other
posters that have Chávez smiling and gesturing either victory or
peace, celebrating "the construction of Socialism", the dangerous word
that was first used to describe the current Bolivarian Revolution at
the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre two years ago.

Our first stop is a
Mission in a dilapidated neighbourhood. The
Bolivarian Mission is both an experiment in localized democracy and an
extension of the welfare state. The site features a small health
clinic staffed by a team of doctors that includes one of the 30,000
doctors sent by
Cuba this year. There is also a community supermarket
that supplies staple foods subsidized by the state and a media centre,
where people can learn to use digital and print media as a way to
spread information about what they are doing and, according to one of
the organizers, "counter the disinformation of the business press."
Two types of newspapers are produced: community news reports on
projects carried out by the
Mission, while independent newspapers take
a more political focus.

Much emphasis is put on the autonomous and democratic nature of the
Mission, and the organizer is enthusiastic to mention his own
criticisms of the regime as well as of the Social Forum, which he sees
as being somewhat institutionalized and abstract from the real goings
on amongst the people. He also emphasizes that this kind of
grassroots organizing is the key to the future of the Revolution.
However, in Chávez's outlook their role is relegated to one of active
support for the regime rather than creating a rival power structure to
the existing state in the way that the cordonas did in
Chile in the

Afterwards we take a walk through the surrounding shanty town, which
has a mixed affect on the group. Some rush to take out digital
cameras, camcorders and recording devices while others find it
distasteful to "record other people's misery" and walk
self-consciously trying to avoid stares. Some find the brightly
coloured buildings quaint, others flirt with the kids, to greater or
lesser degrees of success (we overhear one kid say, "¡Señor habla
francés, es el Diablo!"), others prefer to keep to themselves and
stumble down the mountain quietly. Sibel and I speculate which is the
product of liberal guilt. The town is built on a steep slope and we
walk down a meandering path next to a stream that supplies the water.
It is not an ideal location for the baseball game that is going on,
but nonetheless a group of kids continue to hit tennis balls with
makeshift bats until we are close enough to be hit by them.

There is an ominous absence of begging. Sibel speculates that perhaps
poverty is not that bad in this sector, spotting designer t-shirts and
the ubiquitous presence of cell-phones. However, many of the houses
sport the slogan se vende (for sale). I wonder if they are too
dignified to ask for money, but on further reflection I realize this
may be part of the tour. In any case, their reaction to our presence
is similarly mixed: some wave enthusiastically and seem to find the
whole thing hilarious, some kids make fun of us, while others run
around posing for pictures.

Waiting in the middle of the street for the bus to pick us up is
probably not the best idea but none of us seem to notice until a car
pulls in and herds people around until the driver can get where he's
going. A car pulls up in front of us carrying eight or nine people
and displaying a window sticker that says, "The Diabolic". A young
guy about my age stares out at me from the passenger seat with some
kind of cynicism in his eyes that doesn't go away after I return his
stare with a nod and a "Buenos". In the back two 5-year olds are
yelling "¡Viva Chavez!" aggressively. As the car pulls out the guy
yells, "¡Viva la revólucion!" They seem to think we're American
tourists (who would expect a delegation of Québécois socialists to
show up in their town) and laugh in surprise when Sibel shouts,
"¡Viva!" back with her fist in the air.


  1. I think that the picture of the car stories needs to be removed because it doesn't do justice to the actual quality of the play that was brilliantly written by very talented people.

  2. Your just another victim


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