2012 exchange

Embajadas Communitarias – Diary

July 1. Heat. Sweat. Sun.

The first impression anyone of the “North” gets when arriving Maiquetia airport, Venezuela, is that of a humid, hot, tropical country. For my companion Joris De Bruyne and me, it is no different. We get our luggage, manage to see the last twenty minutes of the Euro football championships on the TVs in the airport (Spains wins!) and get into the car of a friend of our host family. Our adventure/project can start.

July 2. Mosquito bites and bullets.

When we wake up in the guest room of our Belgian-Venezuelan host family De Munter, Joris is confronted with another essential part of the Venezuela tropical reality: his back is full of mosquito bites. Adaptation is key, we’ll find out in the next few days; a spray and anti-mosquito candle do wonders.

At the breakfast and dinner table, Danny De Munter, the father of the family and a Belgian-turned-Venezuelan after his marriage here, tells us why peace projects here really matter. Caracas is by some accounts the most dangerous city in the world, with murders up 30 per cent this year, to reach 1,200 in the first half of 2012.

But those numbers get really scary when you can see them applied in everyday life. A neighbor of the De Munters’ was killed in a robbery a few years ago. Mister De Munter himself said he stopped counting the times he got robbed after 26 (!) times. Once, a thief walked up to him at a traffic light and put a knife to his ear while he was waiting in the car. He handed over everything, he said, including his Rolex. The next time he got mugged, he had to disappoint his opponents: he didn’t have a nice watch anymore.

July 3. Traffic jams and shopping malls.

We’re meeting Katherina today, one of our Venezuelan partners in the “Embajadas” project. As we’re not very mobile – we lack a car and public transportation is said to be unreliable – we decide to meet in a shopping center. Shopping centers are the center of middle class public life in Venezuela, it turns out; the streets and parks are often too dangerous.

But Katherina doesn’t show up until 2 hours after the agreed hour. Traffic jam. In Venezuela, car congestion another of those things that makes life a whole lot more complicated. In the 1950s and 1960s, Caracas had one of the world’s most advanced road systems, with a highway going straight through the valley in which Caracas lies. But as population growth exploded, more and more people needed to be in the city, and more and more cars congested the roads. Caracas lying in a valley, decentralizing city housing and offices  wasn’t an option; there’s a limit to the number of apartment blocks can be built on a steep mountain.

When Katherina finally arrives, we have a good meeting about the objectives of the project.

Tomorrow some more Belgian youth arrives, and we can start our “summer camp” with Belgian and Venezuelan high school students. Exciting!

July 4. Colored stones, colored houses

Our Belgian high school friends arrived! They will be joining us this month in our “Embajadas” project, reflecting together with the youngsters from the Petare slum to think about ways to make their communities more “liveable”.

On our way to Caracas, we see a flurry of colored stones. It’s a bit weird at first- why would anyone bother to paint stones alongside the highway? But we quickly appreciate it. The stones are colored in Red, Yellow and Blue, the colors of the Venezuelan flag. These people are proud to be Venezuelans!

And why shouldn’t they? Venezuela recently appeared in the top ten of most happy countries in the world! It’s one of the many contradictions of this country: faced with poverty, criminality and a lack of chances, many people still lead a happy life. People here have learned to make the best of life, whatever the circumstances. It is a lesson for all of us who often times are depressed, unsatisfied or insatiable.

Not only the stones are colorful in Venezuela. Lined up against the mountains, the colorful brick houses of the slums make the city appear a lot less cumbersome than you would think if you only knew the poverty statistics of this city. Venezuelans are colorful people!

July 5. Dancing and singing

We’re meeting our friends from “Petare” for the first time today, the high school children from the slums who are participating in our project. Place to meet:  the university Metropolitana, right next to Petare.

When the youngsters arrive, it becomes obvious straight away why Venezuelans are such a happy people. Out of nowhere, our Venezuelan friends start dancing and singing! We thought we’d do an ice-breaking activity, but for these guys and girls there is no ice to be seen. Tropical heat! Dance! Clap! Worries are for another day!

July 6-7. What a waste!

What do you do to stop people from littering the street? That’s the problem we’re tackling today, and the place to do so is the one and only Petare, the biggest slum of South America.

In this “barrio” or slum alone, more than 2 million people live, packed in small brick houses, with often three or four floors built one on top of the other, as the family that inhabited them increased.

It is also one of the most dangerous slums of the world, because of the dispersion of guns, drugs, and the lack of open spaces.

But what matters today, is how the slum can be a nicer place by preventing waste on the street. People here already lack parks, plazas, and now even the streets are loitered by its inhabitants. In a Model of United Nations-style debate, we talk about what the problem is, what possible solutions are, and how to make the solutions come true.

Curious to know the outcome of the debate? A more regular service of the municipal waste truck, more social control, and more places to store the waste, was what our youngsters proposed. Next year, they’ll actually be able to put those propositions in place, when they start the next phase of our project.

July 8. Ain’t no mountain high enough

Today we’ve set ourselves an ambitious goal: to reach the top of the Avila Mountain that forms the natural border of Caracas. It’s a steep and long walk, and after 2 hours of sweating, we decide that it’s enough. We take a break at the water fountain, lie down in the grass, and return downstairs for some games in the park.

Sport and social activities are an important element of our project here. We work hard, and we play hard. Also for us that is a healthy combination!

July 9-10. The Embassy is taking shape!

These two days we’re back in Petare, the slum in which we’ll set up our first Community Embassy, or Embajada. It is crucial that the youngsters who will benefit from the embassy, are also the ones who set it up in the first place. That is why our day today is entirely devoted to workshops in which the youngsters come up with their own ideas of which activities to organize in the Embassy.

It is quite clear what the topic is on everyone’s mind: violence. Caracas made it to the podium of murder capitals in the world, and sadly enough the insecurity is highest in neighborhoods like these. The youngsters understand though that they can’t address the violence in the street, as it is a too ample and too dangerous phenomenon. They instead focus on violence at home and in the school. To avoid that people become violent in the first place, they reckon, they need to grow up in an environment that is safe. We think they’re absolutely right!


July 11. Games and fun on the beach

Pleasant trip today: we’re headed for the beach! Caracas is only one hour drive away from the Ocean, and we figured that we couldn’t leave the country without at least once having seen the beaches.

For the middle and upper class here, as in our own country Belgium, trips to the beach or other places are fairly common. Many people have apartments or beach houses, and they take their cars to get there.

But for the kids of the slums going to the beach is a luxury they seldom have. As they don’t have cars, they have to take buses, which are often slow and dangerous. Even then going to the beach costs a lot of time and money, which they often don’t have either. We’re happy to see everyone has great fun. Being able to go to the beach should be possible for everyone, not just of the happy few!


July 12-13. The goodbye

The time has come for our Belgian friends to go home. The four teenage participants from Belgium have had the chance to do an incredible exchange with the class of sixteen Venezuelan youngsters who will be forming the first Community Embassy.

Thanks to the exchange, and the support of Zuiddag vzw and Davis Peace projects, we will be able to organize an exchange as well from Venezuela to Belgium. After that, the Community Embassies can actually be set up. What an amazing chance for us to make a difference in this world.

July 14-21. Preparing for the future!

Now that the actual exchange is over, my colleagues of Embajadores Comunitarios and myself (Peter, President of Bello Belgo) get the chance to refine our long term plan for the Community Embassies. During this week, and the first week of August, we draft our plan and prepare our budget for next year.

As part of the plan, one person will be working part time to set up and support the Community Embassies as of September 2012. There will also be a budget for trainings and projects set up by the youth in the embassy. And of course, we will set up an actually physical space where the youth can safely gather and meet. In the long run, we hope and plan for the youth to actually take over the organization of the Embassies, and attract and train new generations of participants. Exciting!

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