Un paseo por el Ávila

Between all our intercultural activities, preparations and UCABMUN-classes, we also take the time to discover the city of Caracas. Or what did you think? Caracas is not just a capital like the rest. The city is contained entirely within a quite small valley and seperated from the Caribbean coast by a big national park. Last Wednesday we decided together with one of our local host fathers, Jesus R., to take a closer look at the park’s fauna and flora. A short, climbing shoes (read white Nike’s…) and some bottles of water would suffice to our first introduction into the Venezuelan ‘jungle’.

To start with the facts: El Ávila National Park covers part of the mountainous region of the coastal area of north-central Venezuela. The park gets its name from the Cerro El Ávila (or better known as “El Ávila”), a long-streched beautiful mountain with a peak of 2.740 meters. By hearing this name we  had to immediately think back to the historic city Avila we had passed through by train on our way to Salamanca: cycle lovers – like us – will never forget the legendary victory of Frank Vandenbroucke on the medieval walls of the city in the Vuelta of 1999. Well, no historic walls on this mountain, but its slopes were at least as steep: our first climb in months (or years?) felt like carrying a backpack of rocks, rather than water.

However, for Jesus, our 67 year old guide, this little mountain track was just a weekly! appetizer. With a background in the Venezuelan Oil industry and a passion for history, politics and biology, he led us on our way through the beauty of the mountain and the history of Venezuela. We walked and listened carefully, fixing our eyes on the path and our ears on his voice. For the past decade Venezuela had been turning in to a socialist state, he explained us. Since president Hugo Chavez took office in 1998 a whirlwind of nationalizations and threats to private companies had changed Venezuela’s economic climate. The whole petroleum industry, banks, telecom companies, electricity providers, etc…have now been turned from “capitalist private companies to a state run socialist enterprises”.

We sat down, ate some Guayava (“fruit with the most vitamin C“, you dont eat this in Europe, eh boys”) and reflected on his words. Can big companies be run effectively by the state?  Profits spent on installing social projects, but what about long-term investments in those businesses? Looking at the state of public transportation and the barrios of Caracas, did the nationalization programme really close the massive wealth gap? We were realistic and sceptic at the same time and understood the growing concerns amongst the middle class people..

We did not plan to reach the peak (that is on our schedule later). The luck of having a local guide is rather that he knows the secret spots and must-sees. So, surrounded by tropical colored birds, enormous trees and plants Jesus led his four apostles to a 1600m high small lake with an incredible waterfall. Birds of a feather flock together, so like in ancient times each one of us  baptized himself by the strength of the ice-cold water. We cleared our mind…to be ready for an intensive conference-weekend…

Hasta pronto!

Koen

UCABMUN seminar

Today was a day we had been looking forward to: after months of preparation, we were finally going to meet the barrios-kids. Host place was the UCAB-university, where our Venezuelan colleagues study. Remarkable about the location is that this university is surrounded by the landscape of barrios (tiny houses built upon hills), very impressive. Each member of the Bello-Belgo team was assigned a high school with their corresponding students and Venezuelan faculties. Koen worked together with the Liceo Felipe Fermin Paul, Peter was assigned the Colegio Don Pedro (what’s in a name?), Michael had the honor to cooperate with the Colegio Andy Aparicio and Kin-Chi took care of the Escuela Canaima.

Our day consisted out of 2 parts:
During the morning, country presentations were given to the kids, as well as providing assistance in making their proposition papers. For the kids, this support was meant as final preparation before entering the SIMUN (San Ignacio Model United Nations) competition next week. This contest is similar to the more famous WorldMUN, but on a youth level. To work with the barrios kids is a real challenge, as their received education level is commonly lower than what middle-and high class students get taught in private schools. Patience is therefore an indispensable skill, but these kids looked very motivated and eager to learn something about European countries. Basically, we want to show these kids that they could do more with less, and that they don’t have to feel inferior to any other kid, regardless of their social background.

In the afternoon, a comprehensive presentation on the European Union was scheduled to be given to our Venezuelan colleagues. Our goal was not to explain how this institution looked like and how it works (we can all find it on Wikipedia), but what happens behind the scenes :

What is this so called EU-feeling? What binds us together? How come we work so well together while our cultural background is so different? How come we are so ‘united in diversity’? Even for ourselves, these questions were not evident. How could we wrap up a history of 60 years (Paris Treaty ’51) in a dynamic and ‘light’ presentation of 2 hours? We could have jumped out of a window, but we decided to take up this challenge. After 2 weeks of blood, sweat and tears, Peter kicked the presentation off with the history of EU and the EU nowadays, and gave the floor on to Kin-Chi, who talked a bit more about the history of the Eurozone and the current eurocrisis.

At 6pm, we all left the building with a very satisfied feeling and decided to celebrate this good start with some ‘Ronnies’ from Santa Teresa (slang for Coke-rum), worlds best rum… and brewed in Venezuela!

To finish this post, I don’t want to hold back some interesting ‘did you know’ facts we encountered during the making of our country presentations. Did you know that :
• Santa Claus was born in Turkey?
• Ireland is the only English speaking country in the Eurozone?
• Brussels houses more ambassadors, journalists and lobbyists than Washington DC?
• Italy has the lowest birthrate in all of Europe. How strange since Italian families are so large!

Hasta Pronto!

Kin-Chi

Ps : click here for more pictures of this day

Intercambio intercultural…

Last Friday the Bello Belgo team organized the first intercultural exchange activity with the people from Embajadores Comunitarios. The goal of this first joint-meeting was simple: get to know one other and learn some cultural habits. Being invited to be present at 7pm, most of our Venezuelan friends showed up one hour later. Or how sometimes actions can speak louder than words: the real exchange had begun, but with more than an hour delay…

The country Belgium, its people and certainly its politics appealed – even more nowadays – to the imagination of the Venezuelan graduates. How is it possible that a country with so little natural resources is capable of attaining a GDP per capita three times as high as Venezuela? What is “a BHV”? Are you Flemish? How do you survive without a government? Questions rose, answers were given. Pieter Breugel’s “Boerenbruiloft” illustrated how we Belgians know how to appreciate hard work, good food and beer. The scene was typical: we were humble, but in the same time diplomatic and efficient in presenting. Or how 4 young men demonstrated the characteristics of real Belgians…

Being Belgian, ‘all good and well’. But what were our intentions to do here in Caracas? In fact, for the past few months we had been preparing our mission and the timing was right to show in detail what we Belgians are capable of.

For the next 2 months we have structured our activities in 3 pillars, being

  • Financial support: short term funds from our present financial partners have been transferred. It is now up to us to set-up a strategy to realize a long-term inflow of funds for the Embajadores Comunitarios.
  • Academic support: two times a week the Bello Belgo team will train the organization and assist the classes. On the one hand we will school the youngsters with information about the EU, its countries and related diplomatic and strategic issues. These courses have to broaden their perspective on world politics. On the other we have engaged ourselves to develop the personal soft skills of the youngsters and faculties of the organization (by giving presentations on negotiation, conflict solving, facilitation,…)
  • Structural support: in the long run we aim to shape a continuous exchange between the Bello Belgo Foundation and Embajadores Comuniatrios. Here, we are to investigate how we can establish a university cooperation between Belgium and Venezuela.

By unveiling all of this, our Venezuelan crowd leaned back, opened their eyes and enjoyed. To us it was clear: on our first intercultural night we had impressed our partners. We finished the evening by emptying  some real Belgian beverages, forging some friendships and listening to some funny Venezuelan do’s and don’ts. Or how it in the end always ends up with drinking beer…

Hasta manana!

Koen

Bienvenido en Caracas!

Finally! Two weeks of intensive preparation and a 10 hour Iberia-flight later, we landed save and well on Venezuelan ground. The final ‘modus operandi’ of our project could begin. A warm welcome by our Venezuelan friends as well as a tropical Caribbean breeze set the perfect scene immediately.

Our intercultural exchange started as from the moment we closed the doors of the car: in Caracas people don’t follow traffic rules, they just set the rules. Cars passing by from the right, speeding, breaking, crossing the road verge – the what? – suddenly reminded us to Guido Belcanto’s famous classic “Pechstrook van het leven”:ultimately, we now know how to interpret that title.

Through our dark-blinded windows – “you better never show your face” – we cast for the first time a glance at the barrios of Caracas, perched on the hillsides of the city. Did you know that over 60 percent of the population of Caracas lives in the slums? In fact, they are not even on the map…impossible to count. Moreover – we had a look – the word Barrio is not even mentioned in the “Lonely Planet’ traveler’s guide for Venezuela. Our Caribbean working environment got shaped in our minds…

Many handshakes, kisses, a joke or two and a coffee later, we found ourselves relaxed on a couch at our respectively guest families. The four of us live with separate families in the districts of Santa Fe and Santa Rosa de Lima,  save neighborhoods for the middle-class. We were really happy to see the excitement on the faces of the people to meet some tall Belgians.

It gave us an idea on what to expect for our first intercultural exchange activity with the people of Embajadores Comunitarios…Looking forward to tonight!

Hasta pronto!

Koen

Unidad 5 – Hasta Luego Salamanca!

So it’s weekend again! After another week of Spanish and preparations, we get some time to look backwards… and forward!

Yesterday we finished our last classes, meaning it was time to say goodbye to our classmates and teachers. It was heartwarming to see how many of them wished us good luck with our project. Although it was a short period, we enjoyed Salamanca, its university and its people a lot, and for sure we will come back!

But every end means a new beginning, and for us this means that our flight to Venezuela is getting closer and closer…Exciting!

Over the last couple of weeks we got a lot questions what our project was really about. Well, here goes: with our Bello Belgo project, we are aiming for two things:

  • First, we want to support and strengthen ‘Embajadores Comunitarios’. This is an educational project in Caracas that intends to increase the number of high school students from poor areas to start and succeed in university studies. About this part of the project we will write more extensively in the coming days, and you can read about it here as well.
  • Second, we are doing a intercultural exchange with our Venezuelan counterparts. That means we’ll be getting to know each other’s culture, habits, language and gastronomy (Belgian chocolate, anyone?). Every week, we organize an ‘intercultural activity’, where we present to each other one of these aspects. This part of the project is financed by the Flemish Government, who has a subsidy line for ‘global youth projects’ (interesting!).

We’re leaving to Venezuela on Monday morning, but after the video that was sent to us by our Venezuelan friends, we can hardly wait! Hasta luego!

Unidad 4 – Let us introduce you Ronald, our Godfather

Some weeks ago the Bello Belgo team succeeded in one of its biggest missions: to find a godfather for the Foundation. A person well-known in Belgium and having Venezuelan roots? We didn’t have to look that far…

One of the best players at the moment on belgian’s soccer fields is a Venezuelan international, named Ronald Vargas! Since its transfer to Club Brugge in May 2008, Ronald has more than once shown its capacities as attractive player with excellent dribbling skills and great crossing abilities.

Having played and lived in Caracas, Ronald was more than eager to support our project. He knows the people, habits and lifestyles of the barrios in Caracas. Ronald acts as a role model towards the youngsters and wants to set the right message. The start of a beautiful collaboration was set…

…Unfortunately, this Sunday we received some bad news from Ronald’s entourage. During last Club Bruges football match Ronald got injured. According to a report on Sporza, Ronald has sustained ligament damage and he faces a six-month spell on the sidelines as a result. This injury comes as huge blow for Ronald and Club Brugge, since he has been the star player of this season and had already netted 15 league goals.

The whole Bello Belgo team wants to let Ronald know that our thoughts are with him and we hope that he recovers well in the next couple of weeks and months.

Ronald, que vuelva mas fuerte!

Koen

Unidad 3 – Mezclando Brujas y Lovaina en España

Today was a special day in Salamanca: el Dia de la Mujeres, the Day of the Women! Everywhere in the city, women wandered around the streets, while men sang them songs to show them their appreciation, and bought them dinner to impress them. Having no specific Salamantin girls to impress, we took this day as an opportunity to discover the Old City of Salamanca.

With its 2 cathedrals, its University and its Plaza Mayor, Salamanca truly deserves the title of UNESCO world heritage. Walking around here feels a bit like being in Leuven and Bruges at the same time: Salamanca has the look and feel of a medieval city, but the dynamism and youth of a University town. No wonder thus that this city is flooded by tourists. And they – and we –  have enough history to digest: the university was founded back in 1218, as the fourth university in Western Europe (Bologna, Paris and Oxford succeeded Salamanca). Later famous people like discoverer Christopher Columbus, conquistador Hernan Cortes, medicin Andres Vesalius or Saint Ignatius of Loyola studied, lectured or lived in the city. A city would deserve to be Cultural capital of Europe for less! After our cultural walk , we cooked some good old Kempische boerenkost, and had a Cruzcampo to go with it. A perfect way to spend a weekend! Hasta la proxima!

Peter

Unidad 2 – El fin de semana ha llegado!

So, the weekend has arrived! To us, that means that a busy work week has come to an end and… it’s time to enjoy Salamanca’s cultural and social life! Vamos!

Every day, we’ve gone to 5 hours of Spanish classes at University, covering the widest topics. Here’s a non-exhaustive overview:

  • Spanish history (did you know Queen Joana ‘the Mad’ and King Philip ‘the Beautiful married in the beautiful Flemish town Lier?),
  • Spanish cinema (the creepy movie ‘Tesis’ scared us all, but it’s a must see!)

And of course… we’re slowly but surely progressing on our Spanish grammar (soy, eres, es, somos, e… estis…. fueisteis?)

But of course, we have duties for our Venezuelan project as well. In our free hours all of us work on presentations, all with a specific focus:

  • Koen, webmaster, is our very own paparazzo, following us every where we go with his camera
  • Kin Chi, intercultural exchanger leader, is trying to make Belgian and European politics clear to our Venezuelan friends (not easy!)
  • Michael, educational officer, puts the last hand on our ‘soft skill’ presentations: how to negotiate, facilitation,group dynamics,… (thank you, ProCom!)

So after a week full of Spanish lessons and power point presentations, it’s safe to say: we deserved to go for some tapas and cervezas in this beautiful city! Hasta luego!

Written by Peter

Unidad 1 – “Estamos en Salamanca”

The Bello Belgo team has arrived in Salamanca! Guay!

To prepare ourselves for our project in Caracas, we need to start with the most urgent: learn spanish. We have signed up for a two week intensive language course at the famous Universidad de Salamanca, Spain’s oldest university.

Back to the books and being in class on time, it feels pretty nostalgic. For the next 10 days we will engage ourselves to follow courses in grammar, communication, lexicon and South-American history…And all of this right in the heart of the historic centre of Salamanca (‘La Ciudad Dorada’), showing us its Renaissance beauty.

Having classes with people from Iceland, Malaysia, South-Africa, Russia, Dubai, South-Korea, etc…puts us on the right track towards  full cultural integration…

¡Hasta manaña!