Veteran editor Howard Chua-Eoan takes Time Magazine’s Caracas correspondent to an Italian joint for lamb ragu, Aperol spritz, and a dose of Jedi wisdom
I had met Girish Gupta only once before, even though we’d worked together several times when I was the News Director of TIME and he was our intrepid reporter in Caracas. So, to be safe, I decided to take Girish to a place that anyone would adore: Rafele, a smartly lit, solid Italian restaurant on 7th Avenue South and Morton Street.
I had been there several times before and was particularly fond of the pettole ragu made with lamb, the arancini with three cheeses, the lovely plump mess of calamari and the aperol spritz that always seemed sprightlier than any other in the city. Girish, on the other hand, is grateful that it’s Italian because it’s a familiar cuisine, and he seeks out the least adventurous ravioli on the menu. I order a number of things to start, including my favorite arancini, which he takes a bite of and does not return to. He nurses one cocktail throughout the meal while I go through an Aperol spritz, a rosè and a dolcetto. He happily eats his ravioli but refuses an offer of calamari. In truth, he says finally, food is merely fuel to him. I could burn him at the stake for saying such things.
How does he manage the mean streets of Caracas? Carry a lot of cash, he says.
Fortunately, his ability to carry a good conversation more than makes up for my disapproval of his eating habits. Born in Britain, he’s only 26—less than half my age—and has been in Caracas since 2010. He very quickly developed a reputation for expertise on Venezuela. How does he manage the increasingly mean streets of that country’s capital? It’s counter-intuitive. Carry a lot of cash, he says. But not all in one place. Would-be robbers won’t believe you if you say you don’t have money. So hand them the cash and they’ll walk away. And if someone else accosts you, do it again. But find a cab quickly.
He has had a bit of a financial windfall this year. The death of Hugo Chávez and the spate of news since, including the election of Nicolás Maduro to the country’s presidency, have led to freelance job after freelance job. Now he can pick and choose assignments for the next year. His post-Chavez mini-boom financed a three-week sabbatical in New York City and, just before, an extended foray into other countries—Ecuador, Brazil, Egypt, Lebanon—to see if those places may be fruitful arenas for coverage in the near future.
Not that Venezuela doesn’t have its opportunities. Should national security whistleblower Edward Snowden ever actually be granted asylum in Caracas, I wouldn’t bet against Girish getting ahold of just the right people to score the first big interview. He may not have any clue about food, but he has no lack of ambition.
As a retired journalist, I am always heartened by the enthusiasm of a new generation of reporters. Throughout my three-decade career, I was ensconced at TIME’s headquarters in New York, writing stories from reports sent in from far away places, never myself traveling to where the news occurred but managing those who ventured into dangerous places. I loved hearing their stories and shaping their material into the pieces that ran in the magazine. I’ve always admired their courage.
Girish didn’t start out to be a journalist. He was a physicist who helped create a computer model of the human heart to study atrial fibrillation – or abnormal heartbeat. You can still see how fascinated he is by it all: his enchantment over Euler’s Formula — e^ix=cos x + i sin x – and his citation of Richard Feynman’s description of it as a jewel of mathematical proof. It would have been almost infectiously mystical, like a cultist trying to give away secrets of his religion, if only I wasn’t so mystified.
Though he misses physics, Girish didn’t want to be a scientist all his life—and so he began a series of transformative shifts. Originally enrolled in Cambridge, he thought the 800-year old school too quiet, without the girls and the bars and the inspiration that he thought might come from them. And so he gave up prestige of place for university in Manchester. There he worked at the school paper while pursuing computer modeling of the heart—and then went off South America where he came to the attention of TIME’s regional bureau chief Tim Padgett.
Girish says halfway through the meal that he’s fallen in love with New York and wishes it could be his base of operation. I, too, fell in love with New York as an immigrant from the Philippines. But there’s a part of me that wants to caution him about being stuck in one place, recalling my 30 years as a journalist in a glass tower in Manhattan.
So I try to be wise and bring up a book that I adore: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. A slim volume, it is an almost scriptural text arrayed around a secretive mathematical structure and a beguiling premise—the well-traveled Marco Polo describing to Kublai Khan the cities of the Mongol empire, a realm so enormous that the emperor himself cannot possibly see it all. But Marco Polo has seen it all, so Kublai Khan orders him to describe the cities of his empire to him. Slowly, however, it becomes clear—from strange city to strange city—that what the Venetian is describing is not a multiplicity of cities but refracted visions of a single one: Venice, the city that Polo left as a young man and that he still longs for. The Italian word for city— città—is both singular and plural.
Everything comes together: invisible cities and pale blue dots. I have no doubt we’ll meet again in New York.
And suddenly I don’t know what I’m trying to say. Girish is listening so intently that I feel I have to come to some sort of conclusion, something an elder imparts to a younger. But all I can see is the city and its very different neighborhoods and districts melding into each other and shifting into something universal and yet diverse, a place where you roam and travel and search and yet remain in one place, ever wondering, every wandering. I am suddenly very jealous of this young man and the wisdom that lies ahead of him. He later shows me a passage from a text that he says has always inspired him, “Pale Blue Dot”, Carl Sagan’s description of the earth detected from way out in space:
That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
Everything comes together: invisible cities and pale blue dots. I have no doubt we’ll meet again in New York. I will continue to try to make him truly appreciate food. And he will continue to resist, his mind flitting instead to science or stories or adventures yet to come.