Dennis on the Road

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

death defying christmas adventures

Murray, at 14.5 years old, feeling youthful in the snow.

There was a moment at the very beginning of my Christmas journey when I was afraid that I would make the headlines but never make it back to Michigan. “Pipe wielding madman slays holiday traveler.” I hadn’t even made it to BART yet, to catch the train to SFO, when a reckless driver took a sharp right into a parking lot, forcing me to jump out of the way. My memory of it is much more graceful than reality, but since I’m telling the story, imagine it as a scene from The Matrix. I’m Keana Reeves. And while leaping to save my life I connect a solid kick to the rear side panel of the car. Beautiful, wasn’t it?

My dad, brother, and I on the Rouge River in front of Tom's new pad.

Of course this pissed off the driver who I could hear yelling through the window of his car… and a moment later could hear yelling much clearer and closer to me. I turned around and there was a very short very angry man wielding a foot-long metal pipe. I slowly backed away, feeling much less like Keana now. I dropped my carry-on suitcase to free my hands. Angry Motorist Man continued to yell at me, but instead of striking me over the head, redirected his physical anger to my suitcase. He kicked it a dozen times and then began to beat it with the pipe. Perplexed bystanders began to gather… at a very safe distance of course to watch a defenseless piece of luggage be pummeled. Finally a friend of the crazy guy appeared, dragged him away, and ordered me, in a thick accent, to “get your shit and go.” Which I did.

Noah & Abigail (nephew & neice) with my Grandma and Grandpa Herrema in the background.

The rest of the trip was smooth and enjoyable. I actually like flying and hanging out in airports. I get shit done. I caught up on emails, did some reading, and even applied to be the director of a summer youth program in Cape Town, South Africa. At every opportunity I volunteered to get bumped. It happened once. I was rerouted through Atlanta, got in to Grand Rapids an hour later, and netted a $400 travel voucher (and 7 bucks for lunch).

Me with the Grandparents

I don’t remember the last time I spent Christmas with family. I’ve been out of the country for each of the past three holiday seasons. I’m really glad to be back here (for a week). I’m blessed to have three living grandparents, in their mid and upper 80s. All are sharp and active. Grandma Guikema is on fire. We hung out on Christmas Eve after she worked a full day at the jewelry store. She was overflowing with energy, and when my dad gave her a Christmas present of a certificate for a glider ride, she smiled widely and in her sweet Midwestern accent said, “Heck, that’s right up my alley!”

I've posted a file of Christmas pictures at my photo site. They start with the bash I had at my apartment on the 16th... then on to the wild and crazy 11th annual Skeeter's ornament exchange party... and then on to reams of family photos.

2:30 AM with sisters Amanda and Staci at Yesterdog!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Goodbye to Good Friends

(This is the final Venezuela blog that I wrote on the flight home but am just now posting… Sorry about the delay.)

10,000 meters above the Caribbean and the past three months seems like a dream. I’m equally as confused about where I’ve been as where I’m going. One thing I’ve learned from travel is that the lessons of each trip are rarely immediate. I have no idea what the value of this trip will be, and I won’t likely know for years.

I’m equally as up in the air about what is ahead. I don’t know what continent I’ll be living on in the coming year, who I’ll meet, which roads I’ll travel or what influences will effect the course of my life. Exciting. And scary as hell.

The Leon family and friends. My adopted family!

I woke up this morning at 5:30 and once out of the shower I turned on my iPod to shuffle. Waren Zevon’s Keep Me in Your Heart for a While was the first song. Leaving my close friends in Caracas was tough, but made easier knowing that I’ll be back. What amazing people. What incredible generosity, kindness, love, and sincere friendship. Five siblings, spouses, kids, et. al. where over for dinner (and of course some rum). Lots of laughing and goodbye hugs. I already miss them and I haven’t even flown over Cuba yet.

Reflections on Chavez & Venezuelan Politics

(I wrote this in Venezuela but am just getting around to posting it now… Sorry)

One of the greatest things about this trip is that I’m NOT in the US right now. Don’t get me wrong, I love my country, but I think that everyone needs an international perspective, especially in these times.

It is amazing how blinded we are to what is happening in the world and what the roll of the US is in that. For example, how many times each day do you think about the fact that we are at war. Does it feel like it? Do you experience it? Can you imagine what it means that well over 100,000 Iraqis have died?

As I’m sure you can imagine, the perspective of the Venezuelan media of the US and US/Latin American relations is very different than Fox News. There was a lot of coverage of Bush’s recent trip to Argentina. Chavez was there too, and he packed a soccer stadium with socialists and progressives. Chavez does not hold his tongue when speaking about “Mr. Danger”, who is universally disliked in Venezuela. Even the most fiercely anti-Chavez Venezuelans I met didn’t think for a second before answering “¡absolutamente no!” when I jokingly asked if they wanted to trade presidents.

It barely made the news in the States when Chavez offered to help the victims of Huricane Katrina (which Bush, who was famously slow in his response, refused), or when Chavez unveiled a plan to help poor Americans in urban centers with far-below market oil for heating their homes this winter.

In an interview with Ted Koppel in September, Chavez said, “We do love the people of the United States. We want to be brothers and sisters of the people of the United States, independently of their government.” The two months of kindness and generosity I am experiencing on this trip is evidence that Chavez was sincerely speaking from the hearts of his people when he said this on US Television.

After traveling throughout Venezuela, a lot of conversations, a bit of reading, and a lifetime of leaning left, I confess that I am a “Chavista.” I like the man’s bravado, but more than that, I appreciate his vision for Venezuela and beyond. The US would do well to study some of his “misiones”. For example, there is Mision Mercal, a government-owned chain of grocery stores in poor communities, with fresh and healthy food that is far less expensive than commercial stores. Contrast this with the fact that the poorest communities in the US are served almost exclusively by liquor stores with real groceries nowhere in site. Then there is Mision Robinson, a nationwide adult literacy campaign. The woman who ran the small posada where I stayed in the Andes, hours from a paved road, was learning to read for the first time in her life. It seems simple, but seeing her write a note for me to take to a friend, slowly and carefully sounding out each word, really touched me. There is are misiones to open new universities that cost next to nothing all over the country and to improve the quality of elementary and secondary education in the poorest areas. In another mision, Chavez has brought thousands of doctors from Cuba to establish clinics in the most needy areas, and with Mision Milagro he funds all expenses for those needing cataract surgery to regain vision to travel to Cuba for the operation. The slums of Caracas, crudely built houses that seem to be piled one-upon-the-next on the hills above the city, attest to the fact that an overnight about-face is impossible, but I believe that a course has been set in the right direction. To get a glimpse of some more of the programs Chavez has introduced, skip to the second half of this article in the LA Times

For the few of you who have actually read to this point and are not yet bored with political discourse, I suggest these links to keep up on news in Venezuela.