Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Remembering the Gatorade: Reflections on our family trip to Venezuela

I spent about 2 ½ weeks in Venezuela this summer with my wife Maria, our daughter Barbara (age 7), and Sebastian (age 5, then 6). I then came back to a job I love in the US while the rest of my family remained for a couple more weeks. Most people I have seen since returning to the US have asked about the trip, and I have yet to find an answer that really captures an honest answer to the question, “how was it?”

Truthfully, there was some good and some bad, but in the end it doesn’t really matter how it was in some general sense. I tend to polarize my past experiences after the fact, and I often remind myself of this when I’m in the middle of an experience that lends itself to this type of polarization. For college in general, my summer working in Argentina, and a recent trip to Niagara Falls, I remember thinking I would probably idealize the experience ex post facto and – lo and behold – I think back fondly on those times, even though not a lot of dopamine was coursing through my veins at the time. The two weeks my family and I spent together in Venezuela, on the whole, were a great way to spend the summer, and, more importantly, were crucial to our kids' development. As time distances me more from the experience, I’m increasingly seeing things this way, though there was certainly a lot I didn’t love at the time. I call this remembering the Gatorade. Skip to the end if you don't particularly care about the details but still want to know what a sports drink has to do with memory.

If you’re curious about what all happened, here’s a brief list:
  • Our family of four was staying with my wife’s family, which is not without its issues.
  • Venezuela is currently a very dangerous country. One night, we returned to the house at 1am and had to call a friend who was ‘in’ with some of the local troublemakers in order to escort us back home. There’s a lot of stress because of this sense that things have never been this bad – most people we talked to had been robbed at some point in the past year, which can take its toll.
  • Venezuela is facing its worst economic crisis in recent times. When a store receives a shipment of butter, or corn flour, or toilet paper, there are lines down the block. It’s tough to live in a place where you don’t have access to what you need. 
  • I was sick for about half of the trip, which is par for the course. It’s all but impossible to avoid unfiltered water, even with a great deal of effort, and this water has the effect of absolutely wrecking my intestines. Every time.
  • The exchange rate is artificially held low (by a factor of 5) by the government. So the prices are sky-high for people who live in Venezuela, and dirt-cheap for visitors. 
  • Interestingly, we filled up a 30-liter tank of gas for 3 bolivars, which amounts to about 10 cents (at the unofficial exchange rate.) This one cent per gallon exchange rate is the result of exorbitant oil subsidies, which some op-eds in local papers assert primarily help the rich (who can afford cars.) I’m skeptical of this argument, since people who ride buses also end up paying for gas, albeit indirectly. Regardless, that’s some cheap gas.
  • I was on a plane a few weeks ago, and for the entire 40-minute duration of the flight, I was the most scared I’ve ever been. I filed an FBI report about it later, and I’d include the details here, but my sense is that the FBI doesn’t like people blabbing on about things you’ve asked them to investigate.
  • It was absolutely wonderful to spend so much time with Barbara and Sebastian.
  • Though it was a bummer to not be able to walk around Maria’s family’s neighborhood (for reasons of safety), the upside was that I got to read a lot. I read or listened to the following:
    • The Alchemist
    • Moonwalking with Einstein
    • Practice Perfect (again)
    • Antifragile (almost done!)
    • To Sell Is Human
    • The Book Whisperer
    • A bunch of Radiolab podcasts
…And, inspired by Josh Foer, I decided to memorize the only list I had handy, which was the list of 42 “rules for getting better at getting better” from Practice Perfect. Going into PD season, this has definitely come in handy!

  • Barbara started speaking Spanish with everybody she could find, having extensive conversations about anything and everything. 
  • Sebastian’s last trip to Venezuela was when he was 2. His Spanish isn’t as good, and he was getting really frustrated with the fact that everybody seemed to constantly feel the need to tell him that his Spanish wasn’t very good. His response was to ‘prove’ that he speaks Spanish by rattling off a quick dialogue: “Yo  sabe español. Como estas bien como estas tu bien como estas tu bien gracias.” Sadly, as those of you who actually habla the español already know, this didn’t help his case very much.
  • After I came back, Sebastian had his 6th birthday party, and apparently a good time was had by all.
  • I really enjoyed spending time with my father-in-law. He’s a good guy, and we haven’t spent a lot of time together in the past. My favorite episode on this trip was when he invited himself (and me) to go fishing at 9pm with a fisherman who was going out for his daily catch. They caught the fish; we promptly fried and ate it. 
  • The low point of the trip was at a concert (which was great – Billo’s Caracas Boys, which is still a phenomenal group) when I ran to the restroom, only to find that there was no toilet paper. I ran to another restroom owned by the same locale and again found no paper. I ran out and told the manager there was no toilet paper, and he replied, “That’s correct.” Ultimately some napkins from the bar had to suffice, but nothing can take back the sheer terror of his response.
In the end, though, this trip wasn’t about me having the time of my life. I left for the last two weeks (to come back and work), and my family stayed; by the end of the trip, our kids didn’t want to come back because they were having so much fun with their cousins. Barbara told me she wants to go back to Venezuela when she’s 25. I say that sounds great, as long as the country is less of a mess by then.

So, looking at the above, if all incidents have equal weight (which they don’t; wondering how your kids will do when you likely die in a plane crash isn’t something you cancel out with fresh fish), there’s about an equal ratio of positive to negative comments. That’s nice, as it allows me to choose how I remember the trip. 

For guidance, I’ll go with my natural tendency, but look to Barbara for guidance on what to call this tendency:

Barbara told me something about the trip yesterday that made me think we’re probably doing some combination of raising her right/being very lucky parents and maybe not talking about social norms quite enough. We were walking through the soda/sports drink aisle at Target, with lots of people around, when she loudly broke the silence with: “One day in Venezuela I had really bad diarrhea. I had to eat only mashed potatoes and drink Gatorade all day. It was the best day ever.”

 Let’s coin the phrase “remember the Gatorade” to describe the glass-half-full phenomenon when applied retroactively. So, remembering the Gatorade, it was a pretty good trip. We reconnected with a part of our family we don’t see often, our kids developed a more rounded sense of who they are and where they come from, and we’ve all gained in some way from the experience of truly living in a place so radically different from where we are living now.

Teaching tip (look for this in Teach Like A Champion 2.0):
Use the last 20 seconds of your class to Remember the Gatorade, reminding kids of what a great time you’ve all had, how hard everybody worked, how much they all embraced and learned from mistakes…even if this stuff only happened a little bit. People will remember the end of class positively, and – if this is what you’re doing at the end of class – will, by extension, remember all those positive attributes and come to class tomorrow ready to learn from mistakes, work hard, and have lots of fun doing it.

4 comments:

  1. This really touched me, very emotional and at the same time so objective, excellent article Rob.

    -Cenobia

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  2. What a nice story,I enjoyed reading about your experience.At the same time it makes me sad to know that you got to experience first hand what Venezuela has become.I left on August 28th,1981 and had gone back a few times, always find my country in worst shape than when I left.I still have hope that one day things will get better,but doubt seriously it will happen in my lifetime.

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