I’m With the Band

We’re all brothers and sisters, in the end. The same pains, sorrows, joys; the same struggles and little victories.

first in line at the sugar bar

The basest, most universal experience, though, is this: cutting in line. We’ve all tried to get on the list, or be “with the band” at the bar, or to get ahead of that speedy third grader in the cafeteria. Why wait with the unwashed, when we know how special we are? Here in Venezuela, land of long lines, there’s a special word for this move: chapear. A chapa is a badge, like you might wear around your neck at a festival. To chapear is to walk right past the herd to the front of the line, show off your badge, and be ushered into the promised land.

Last week, I got a chance to chapear at a neighborhood cultural center, where a band was playing their swing-jazz-novelty hits for an audience of grayhairs and under-sixes. My friend’s brother runs the place, and when we walked in a little late to a full house, we were waved to our reserved seats in the front row. Toddlers and grandparents gave us dirty looks, but that’s exactly what we’d expect from those people, isn’t it? The band did fun clarinetty numbers for the kids, alternating with surprisingly adult ditties about public drunkenness and big dicks. Midway through the second song, a few more people got in the door and sat–as they should, since we had chapeado our way in–on the ground at our feet.  (Side note: Tuesday, I waited an actual 35 minutes in the checkout line, at the Bolivarian Revolutionary Socialist Grocery. Two checkers, two endless line of customers and their carts, no possibility of chapeando.)

Dos perros con todo!

After the show, we stopped for a hot dog on the corner. When the sun sets, street carts light up the corners and our brothers and sisters gather ’round for a quick meal of nitrates, white bread, raw onions, and mayo. Also some crunchy potato flakes. Ketchup. And mustard–don’t forget the mustard. To order, catch the eye of one of the four men working feverishly at the cart. He’s busy; try the other guy–no chapeando here! Shout it out: Dos perros con todo! Sí, todo! In seconds, a third man will hand you the dogs in precarious paper trays, airborne onions trailing off into the night like falling stars. Eat fast, standing around with the other hungry souls. When you’re done, the fourth guy will add up your bill from memory, though they’ve served thirty dogs since you ordered five minutes ago. Throw a few small bills in for a tip, and they’ll stuff it in the box, calling out “fuerza en el bote!”, something like “cash in the can!”

Approx. size of a third grader

We begin each day at Escuela Campo Alegre by rising for the Venezuelan national anthem. It plays over scratchy loudspeakers in each classroom, the horns and drums and rising voices of a military chorus filling the school. But if you’ve ever traveled as a tourist in the New York subway, you know what happens when the unknown is transmitted via the unintelligible. Until last week, I thought I might never learn the words or even the tune–I don’t teach a first-period class, and I sit alone in my office, waiting outside the hot club while cool kids sing up and down the hall. But good news: a primary school class took over my empty classroom for a few mornings. The speakers scratched to life as white-shirted students stood at attention and lifted their voices in a real melody, with actual Spanish words. By the third day, I stood with my new little friends and sang along, mumbling through the parts I didn’t know, smiling at the small victory of a remembered line or a verse. At last, I was with the band–no badge necessary.

Next week: cuatro lessons with Profesor Angel; an overnight trip with sugar-mad ninth graders; my student’s knife- and gun-totin’ bodyguard.

Note: why pictures of hummingbirds? Because that’s all I’ve got this week. These guys live in a botanical garden in the outskirts of Caracas. There was one variety (I couldn’t ever get a good picture of them) at least as big as a man’s outstretched hand, twice the size of the little birds. They had wing-like flaps on their head that would flare when another bird tried to take the best spot on the branch or the feeder. They were like the bouncers of the hummingbird world.


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