Tuesday 29 May 2012

Impressions from Venezuela

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

Two weeks ago, I arrived, together with two companions from my community in Toronto ― Daniel and Eric ― in Caracas, Venezuela. We are here to study Spanish and to be immersed in a different culture. There is an informal twinning between the Jesuits of Venezuela and English Canada by which we send each other men for language studies. Fittingly, we are staying in the Philosophate, i.e., the house of our Venezuelan counterparts who are studying philosophy. Apart from the superior and a theologian, there are about ten young Jesuits scholastics here. This provides for a lively environment and plenty of opportunity to converse in the local language. Meanwhile, our hosts have hired a tutor for formal language lessons; we are at it for a total of four to six hours a day during the week, not including homework, making for a truly intensive experience.

I have had the privilege of spending time in several different countries over my life and in recent years got into the habit of writing down my impressions and experiences to share with others. I kept a daily, online journal during my visits to the Atacama Desert of Chile, and last year, when I was in Nairobi, sent around a bi-weekly newsletter by electronic mail. This time around, I have decided to use the new-fangled ‘blog’ (viz., ‘web-log’) technology. I plan to make posts here at Ibo roughly fortnightly.

Out and About, Up and Down

The most immediately striking feature of Caracas is its topology. It is situated in a valley, but is spread among so many of the surrounding mountains that it is a rolling, hilly sort of place. There are a number of poor neighbourhoods, many of which sprawl up the sides of the hills in fantastical arrays of two- and three-storied buildings precariously perched wherever a foothold can be found; steep staircases provide access up and down to the main roads. These teetering edifices are fascinating to look at, but dangerous to live in. When it rains, it is not uncommon for houses to lose their foundations and collapse.

We have already had several visits to these neighbourhoods or barrios. Almost all the scholastics here have weekend ministries in them, mostly working with children and youth. We have been invited to join some of them on the weekends to get to know the Jesuit works and explore the city.

On my second weekend, for example, I went to a Jesuit parish-school complex in La Vega, a vast, impoverished region straddling a mountain in the middle of the city. This parish has to serve the whole neighbourhood of over a hundred thousand souls with only two priests. Needless to say, they are stretched. But there is a good network of faithful lay men and women who do much of the important pastoral and social work, plus the few scholastics who come on the weekends. On Sundays, services are offered at the main church (which is actually quite small) as well as at satellite chapels. I saw the ruins of one of these: it had been the victim of one of the aforementioned landslides and all that remained was the half the outline of its foundation.

A neighbourhood like La Vega is a difficult place to live in. Violent crime is prevalent, sanitation is poor and areas for children to play in are scant. Nevertheless, I was charmed by the people I met there. In the morning, I went to a youth group meeting at the school and afterwards played basketball with them. They were friendly kids and I could see that Johan, the scholastic I was with, is an important role-model to them. In the afternoon I accompanied another scholastic, Juan, to a satellite location where a children’s club was meeting. The only place they had for this was in a parishioner’s modest-sized home, but they made do―with gusto―despite the cramped quarters.

Like many cities, Caracas is a study in contrasts. This was made evident a few days after my stay in La Vega when we visited the pristine historical centre of the city. The main plaza is dominated by an impressive equestrian statue of Simón Bolívar and is flanked by government buildings and the cathedral. A block away is the house where Bolívar was born: one can see the very room in which he first saw the light of day. Not too far from the square is the historic San Francisco church, now run by the Jesuits. Its interior is a curious mixture of sober plainness punctuated with baroque flourishes here and there.

How Many Names are there for a Cup?

To return to the language studies, I have in my brief time here put a finger on something that I have often noticed before but not been able to articulate: it is easier to follow discourses on abstract topics than on everyday topics in my non-native languages. A discussion about something conceptual is more readily digestible than someone’s description of how his day went. This is rather counter-intuitive, but there are a couple of reasons why it must be so. The first is that the living languages I know apart from my native tongue―French and Spanish―share many Latin roots. These tend to be for more abstract words, whereas many everyday terms in English (but also in Romance languages) diverge.

The second (and more interesting reason) is that the concrete things in life are really the most complex. We tend to assume that abstractions are more difficult, but I doubt that this is really the case. Aristotle, at the beginning of his Physics, points out that the human mind latches onto generalities more easily than particulars. “A child,” he observes, “begins by calling all men ‘father’, and all women ‘mother’, but later on distinguishes each of them.” Correspondingly, the number and difficulty of words for everyday objects is much greater than those for concepts. Think simply of all the items in your kitchen, your garden or you bedroom and you can probably compose an extensive list of words describing a multitude of very specific things. How many different names do we have for the various kinds of drinking cup, and how many names do we have for justice? Perhaps this is what John Henry Newman was on to when he wrote: “Man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal. He is influenced by what is direct and precise. It is very well to freshen our impressions and convictions from physics, but to create them we must go elsewhere.”

In the meantime, I shall continue to be influenced by what is direct and precise here in Venezuela. In two weeks’ time, I shall be sure have more to report.

[Go to Impressions from Venezuela II.]


  1. I am delighted at the return of the Hincks fountain of ideas, observations and musings!

    1. I am delighted that you are delighted! Hopefully the fountain will continue to produce sweet water …

  2. I find your musings about language fascinating! Perhaps another (less fascinating) reason for our quicker understanding of more abstract conversations is that there is usually an established topic and associated set of vocabulary, whereas a discussion of everyday matters really has many more possibilities. Anything could happen!

    1. Yes, I think you're right. Often the problem isn't understanding what is literally being said, but understanding what the context is. In this case, it's often frustrating trying to convey to your interlocutor that you understand what he's saying, but that you don't understand what he's saying. Perhaps it is good to take a cue from you and be ‘die Stille im Lande’ every once in a while!