Caracas Trollparty 2006: Part 1

Caracas Trollparty 2006

Wednesday 25th Janauary, Caracas.
My first few days in Caracas have been quite an experience. On Saturday a couple of guys tried to snatch my camcorder at gunpoint, and on Tuesday evening I spoke live to the nation on Radio National Venezuela. It is now day 6 and the Caracas Trollparty has started. The Trolls, invited by SAPI, now have a full program of activities in a large tent in Plaza de los Museos, right bang in the heart of World Social Forum activities.

Read on for the story so far…

Day 1 – Friday 20th January 2006

  • 10am CET
    European Trolls converge in Paris CDG to board Air France flight AF460 to Caracas.
  • 4pm Caracas
    Trolls arrive in Caracas airport and board SAPI-hired bus to hotel.

Trolls on Bus

As Jose had informed us, the main road into Caracas had closed a few weeks before our departure due to a broken bridge. Our bus took the old highway into Caracas. An enjoyable, drum-filled but traffic-delayed journey into Caracas found us at Hotel Anauco, our home for the next 10 days.

Trolls drumming on bus

After dinner, I left the other Trolls and went to meet Pablo at “La Oficina” (The Office), a bar known as a favoured hang-out for Chavez supporters, goverment workers and other keys figures in Venezuela’s “Revolution Bolivariana”.

Upon leaving the hotel I quickly discoverd from a friendly local that the metro was closed, but he pointed me towards the taxi rank just outside the station.

It was quite late, I didn’t really know where I was going, and couldn’t get through to Pablo on his mobile, so after a nice chat with one of taxi drivers I decided to get a few beers and head back to join the other Trolls. The Trolls were surprised to see me back so soon, but very happy to see the beer.

Day 2 – Saturday 21st Janauary 2006
My first mission was to top-up the Venezuelan SIM card Teresa had given me before I left London. Teresa hadn’t mentioned it when she gave it to me, but as well as saving me time and money, this also avoided me having to give my fingerprint to get a SIM, as is usual here.

After a quick bite to eat and a delicious cocktail of fresh fruit juice, I called Pablo, arranging to meet him at Chacaito station at 11.20am. This gave me an hour or so to spare, so I got myself a metro travelcard and headed to Plaza Venezuela to have a look around, see if I could work out where La Oficina was, and find an internet cafe.

I got to Chacaito early. Outside the station I was approached by a random friendly local called Jairo Loaiza, who had been attracted by my Peace Not War t-shirt. We discussed economic and policital systems, how governments have to borrow money at interest from banks, and the worrying dependency of our industrial food system on cheap plentiful oil.

He thanked me for my time, showed me a relevant passage in the bible (about the inability of financial riches to offer salvation) and gave me his card for Trasnporte Turistico Terrestre.

Once Pablo arrived we went for a quick drink and chat in a local cafe. I had missed a big party at La Oficina the night before. I gave him the belt and memory card he’d asked me to bring from London (techology is very expensive here, and apparently a good value quality belt is hard to find too) and in exchange Pablo lent me the essential Engligh-plug-adapter.

I showed him a bit of the footage I’d taken on my camcorder. “You don’t want to take that out (of its bag) too often”, he said. “You don’t have to worry about me”, I told him…

Just as we left the cafe (Pablo had to go and do a Bush voice over for TeleSur), Charley called. Charley, a good friend who lives in London with his Venezuelan wife, has been involved in the Hands Off Venezuela campaign for some time and knows Caracas well. He wasn’t far from Chacaito so I waited for him to join me and we decided to walk through the centre of caracas back to my hotel.

I filmed as we walked from Chacaito through the markets towards Plaza Venezuela, hoping to soak up some of the electric atmosphere. We were discussing the contrast between authoritarian and libertarian socialism. I was beginning to tell Charley about a comment made on Pablo’s Redpepper Venezuela blog about the “ominous signs of authoritarianism” of Chavez’s government. Just as I said the word “authoritarianism” someone tried to snatch my camera out of my hand…

Instinctively, I held on tight to my camera, which was strapped to my hand anyway. Time seemed to pass in slow motion as I struggled with the two men trying to rob me. Then I saw the gun. My first thought was a sensible one: let go. But the gun didn’t look real, and the gunman’s eye told me he wasn’t going to shot. My desire to be able to document my travels, and not to loose an expensive camera on day one, told me to hold on…

I continuted to struggle, trying to keep the man holding my camera between me and the man with the gun. Thankfully, suddenly, it was all over. The men gave up and disappeared into the crowd. The gun (real, or otherwise) was purely an instrument of intimidation. For reasons I don’t fully understand myself, I had not been intimidated.

Charley seemed far more shaken by the incident than myself; perhaps because he actually saw it happening. For me, as soon as it was over, it was almost like it had never happened. My heart didn’t start to race until I showed the footage to the Trolls later in the day. Still, I put my camera away before Charley and I continued our walk back to my hotel…

We walked through the market to Plaza Venezuela, got some smoking papers from El Gran Cafe, discoverd a nice vegetarian restaurant, and passed the pedestal where there once stood a statue of Christopher Colombus (some of Charley’s friends from media co-op “Calle y Media” pulled it down a while back).

After cutting through Parque Los Caobos we were back at the hotel, where went up to my room for a smoke…

Later that evening Charley popped over with and Johan from Access All Areas, Yasmin from the Justice for Jean Campaign (Jean Charles de Menezes, the guy mistakenly shot dead by plain clothed officials after the 7/7 tube bombs in London), and Anne.

Yasmin and Anne had arrived in Caracas from Cuba about a week ago, and are off to Brazil next. Interestingly, they both said that Cuba had felt like the safest place on Earth (though they did get constantly chatted up in the street, unlike here where, due to the contrast with Cuba, it felt like they suddently weren’t pretty any more!).

Fellow Troll Jason Diceman (of Co-op Tools and Dotmocracy) joined us before we all went to eat some Arepas (a typical “Venezuelan hamburger” type dish made with corn flour and stuffed with all sorts of yuminess). A few beers later we decided to track down “La Oficina”…

Pablo had told me that from about 9pm onwards we wouldn’t be able to miss the place (we’d been unable to find it before). Still, there was nowhere that stood out. Luckily a friendly local could tell we were looking for somewhere and asked “La Oficina?”. “Si” we all said, as he pointed to the (unsigned) bar on the corner that was empty and looked closed. It was closed, but since a couple of locals were already hanging out in there and the owner let us in, explaining that last night was a big party and apologising for the mess.

We had a good chat with Edgar, the owner of the bar. He is a Cuban who came to Venzuela when he was 15 and so has seen the country go through lots of changes. He said that Venezuala today is full of opportunities. He put some nice Cuban music on and showed us the pictures of famous Cuban musicians by the bar.

Later, Ernesto from political salsa/hip-hop band “Son Tizon” came in, and informed us about all the parties happening in the coming week, before he and his brother gave us a lift in their cars to “El Mani”, a salsa club not far away, from where they said it would be better to get a cab home.

We had a smoke with them then went our seperate ways…

Day 3 – Sunday 22nd Janaury 2006
After breakfast at the hotel, all the Trolls head off to to work in the SAPI offices (near Capitolio metro)

Trolls at SAPI

Erwan works on setting up the NOC. Nicod begins recycling operations, re-assembling bits old computers into more functional machines. Vale installs debian on some decent machines to be used to for multi-media. Mose and Tati work on the the Troll’s press pages and program. Julia gives me a lesson in making up ethernet cables. Daniel talks with Maria about our radio interviews the next day. Alex Main (the main who convinced Eduardo Saman to fund the Trolls) pops in to say hello. Luis Fagundes arrives from Brazil. Etc etc.

Around 8pm it transpires that we will not be able to work in the SAPI offices on Monday, that we can either work all night or leave straight away, and that there is nowhere else with connectivity we can go. This news provokes a mini-crisis of concern about how we’re going to get stuff done in time for our first planned activities. A Trollish meeting, and news that 5-6 of us would be able to work at SAPI on Monday, quickly resolved these issues.

We packed up our stuff, helped SAPI to clear the office for Monday morning, and got taken out for Arepas and beer by the SAPI Big Boss, Eduardo Saman.

Trolls eat arepas with Eduardo Saman

At dinner I had a good chat with Marc Laporte, Jason Diceman and Luis Fagundes about the pros and cons of drupal and tikiwiki. Tiki is easier for designers and developers to customise, but drupal’s (more complicated for coders to get into) architecture is more consistent. Drupal also has a better user and admin interface and better categorisation of content. Not a developer myself, I’m more impressed by the power and ease of use of drupal for end-users than by how easy it is for coders to hack into what they want. In fact, I’m so impressed with drupal’s progress over the last year that I’m working on being able to offer Bryght-powered services in partnership with The Phone Co-op in the UK. However, I have good friends in the tiki community, and I’ll be keeping a keen eye on tikiwiki developments as the community seeks to resolve tensions within the CVS admin group (something that came up again and again).

Back at the Hotel, the Trolls have a little party in room 403 🙂

Day 4 – Monday 23rd January 2006
Things begin to take shape. Daniel was off first thing in the morning to appear on local radio. Others went to SAPI to continue working there. The tent arrives and is erected in Plaza de los Museos. Electricity is sorted, but still no connectivity.

My day was spent relaxing and working offline in the hotel with Nicod and Tom. Later, Maria from SAPI arrived to take me, Djamel and Marc to appear live on Radio Nacional Venezuela with Cristina Gonzalez, President of Radio YVKE Mondial. The 8pm show, about 45 minutes long, focussed entirely on the Trollparty and free software, and went very well. Marc and I spoke in French and English, and Djamel did a great job translating. Before we even left the RNV studios, Cristina and Maria had already arranged another radio appearance for the Trolls, Wednesday morning on Radio YVKE Mondial.

Trolls at Radio Nacional Venezuela

Eduardo Saman (who was originally due to appear on the show with us) arrived in time to pick us up and give Cristina a lift home. They discussed how they can work together and Saman played hard to get for an interview on Saturday morning.

After dropping Cristina off we went to check progress at the TrollTent, and then to hang out with Saman in the Hilton lobby, getting introduced to the President of Vive TV etc.

I still had the one key to our room at our hotel (just round the corner from the Hilton) so I left Marc, Djamel and Maria waiting (for what, I wasn’t quite sure) with Saman. I was getting frustrated with standing around aimlessly and I knew others would probably be waiting for me to turn up with the key (I had forgotten to drop it off at reception).

Back at the hotel I showed people footage of our radio interview (I filmed the whole thing) and relaxed with a few beers before heading to bed.

All in all, a good day.