Video

Apartheid in London’s Piccadilly?

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A replica of Israel’s separation wall was erected at St James’s Piccadilly, London, as part of an artistic project to bring down the wall and build bridges. We went down to offer our aerial video services and found Rev Lucy Winckett to be most supportive. We did this 2min aerial video of the project. What are your thoughts?

Coming Home; Around The World In 40 Years

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Receiving our citizenship after swearing the oath.

My wife (centre) and I (right) Receiving our citizenship after swearing the oath.

NOTE; Both my wife and I became British Citizens on the 25th of June, 2013. It is a milestone in a journey that began a decade before. Having said that, the paths that led us to the point of migrating to the UK were for her and I very different and so for the purpose of this account, I have focused on my personal story.

Coming Home

On the 25th of June, 2013, I became a British Citizen. Just over ten years ago, on March 27th, 2003, I arrived back in the UK after having lived here whilst in boarding school in my teens. For the first time in my life I can convincingly say, “I’m home!”

In 1967 I was born in Caracas, Venezuela. A short time later life took me to live in: Panama, Sweden, Turkey, Finland, Italy, England, Israel, USA, Belgium and, again, Israel. I lived an average of three to four years in each of those countries. Then finally in 1990 at the age of 23, The Gulf War was the straw that broke the camel’s back and I happily boarded a one-way flight to where I was born. Being a perpetual foreigner had become exhausting. Going home was what I longed for.

I felt emotional and was even teary eyed as the plane approached the runway in the moonlit darkness. Through the window behind the wing I caught a glimpse of the nativity-like hillside city lights reflecting on the Caribbean Sea below. It was beautiful. I was home; a Venezuelan among Venezuelans.

The honeymoon didn’t last long. It would soon hit me that I had gone from being a stranger in foreign lands to being an alien in what seemed like another planet. Looking back, the peculiarities that would shatter the fairytale return were there from the very moment I left the plane and entered the modern, spacious, air-con cooled airport, and they would haunt me for the rest of my stay.

Customs was efficient and uneventful. However, as I calmly walked wide-eyed through the extensive corridors towards the baggage claims area I began to notice men in full-military combat outfit with assault rifles everywhere. They gathered in groups of three and four; some sitting, some standing. Having lived in Israel, this in itself was not unfamiliar or uncomfortable for me. But these military personnel were like none I had ever seen. They were soldiers who did not inspire respect. But for their shiny black boots most looked scruffy. The ones that sat, slouched, their polished boots up on the counters. Many were physically unfit. All gave the impression of being out of their depth as if they were in costume rather than in uniform. They were comical, scarily comical because it was obvious that they were void of discipline meaning that their authority resided in their weapons.

Once stood in front of the luggage jolting conveyor-belt, the noise of the place hit me. My fellow passengers had suddenly switched from European mild manners to hot blooded agitated-behaviour-mode. Everyone seemed to be speaking just louder than necessary and all at once. In every voice there was a self-important tone that excitedly demanded attention. Screeching, the conveyor belt came to a stop. It was stuck and the few suitcases that had emerged were orphans.

Over the next forty-five minutes the human noise got louder. Amused, I watched the soldiers become a pass-the-suitcase chain and some of the luggage was claimed. The remaining passengers and I were chaotically informed in a reprimanding manner that we would have to wait a couple of hours, that there was a problem, that the suitcases were lost, that someone who was not present was to blame.

By now it was close to an hour since the plane had landed. I knew that my eldest brother, Henry, had come down from the city to pick me up from the airport and I was acutely aware that he must have been worried. Since there were two more hours to wait, I made my way over to the exit to see if there was a way of communicating with him, without having to leave the custom’s exit point-of-no-return.

My heart skipped a beat at the thought of seeing Henry; it had been years.

As I approached the exit there was a large glass wall that separated the customs area from the rest of the country so even though I wouldn’t be able to talk to my brother at least I could signal what was going on. Then I saw him. It was so beautiful to see him after such a long time. He was as I admiringly remembered him.

Through the glass Henry too saw me and to my surprise he swiftly greeted me with a barrage of sign language; a lot of waving of the arms and pointing at his wrist watch. It had that same crying tone of ‘listen to me’ self-centred urgency, which was by now deafeningly loud in the air all around me. Though I couldn’t hear him at all the message was clear; ‘I’ve been fucking waiting forever, my life is very important and we have to go now!’

I did not bother to sign back and left my suitcase in the baggage claims area behind. A few catatonic-culture-shocked days later I returned to the airport by bus to collect my belongings.

As a diplomat’s kid, because of all the travelling, in my school days I was taught about culture shock and how to deal with it. Ironically, culture shock never affected me until I got to Venezuela. This is not entirely unusual except for the fact that for the time I remained in that country the symptoms would never entirely leave me, mainly: sadness, confusion and loss. It is not that those first few hours marked me or that I could not get over my broken expectations of what ‘coming home’ should mean, but rather the fact that in some form or other the bizarre events of those first few hours were repeatedly, in some form or other, re-enacted daily for the next thirteen years.

At first I thought it was the capital city, Caracas, which was the problem. So I moved to Puerto La Cruz, a town on the coast, and then Mérida, high in the Andes Mountains. Generally I found more of the same.

Here is what I found; status within society was almost exclusively externally validated. The guns were the soldier’s authority as money, degrees, brands and looks were the way the rest of society was ‘ranked’. Hard work, honesty, trust and humility, were scarce. Worst of all short cuts, cheating and ‘getting away with it’, even abuse of power, were accepted, even praised, as the norm for achieving validation.

This inverted set of values fed a profoundly paranoid distress, which translated into a high-strung defensive atmosphere of blame among people. Principled-based endeavours were not considered a realistic option and those who attempted invariably failed, were singled out or mocked. Doing what is morally right went against the grain and was at best ignored. People seemed to be frozen, inactive, expecting things to change, aware that there is a different more honourable way of living, but seemingly unable to do anything other than talk about it. Waiting was thus synonymous with action and the solution for any problem. Waiting, problems and blaming abounded. Blaming was what was done while waiting took place.

I must nonetheless avoid being unfair. In Venezuela I also witnessed what can only be described as awe inspiring natural beauty. From the weather to the coastline to the high mountains to the flatlands and the jungle and the amazingly magically colourful wildlife, the country is heaven on Earth. The people too are physically beautiful as if God had mixed the cutest ingredients of all the races to produce His splendour in human form. Furthermore, as much as Venezuelans are in many ways quite lost, their sharp sense of humour, which is not too different from that of the British, also makes them a delight. And, in spite of what I here expose to be critical weaknesses of character, the people’s sense of family, joy and fun are undoubtedly qualities to be admired. Last but not least I will never forget the passionate love of coffee, chocolate, natural juices, fresh homemade meals and music all of which are the backbone of any day in that sweet Caribbean country.

Nevertheless throughout its history Venezuela has been highly conflicted. During the time I was there between 1990 and 2003 the people suffered:

  • Two military coups and one vacuum of power
  • Crippling national strikes
  • Unheard of anti-social violence that resulted in the murders of hundreds of thousands of civilians
  • The imprisonment of innocent people without trial
  • The migration of the country’s brightest sons and daughters who began to run away from political anarchy and social lawlessness
  • Widespread poverty
  • Rampant corruption, and
  • The irreparable loss of the state’s entire infrastructure, institutions and democracy.

By the millennium the country had spiralled into a paranoid frenzy. Anarchy had taken over and I now believe the cause to be the fact that as a people, for decades, they Venezuelans had been navigating on a warped moral compass.

On December 6th, 2002, my wife and I, video cameras in hand, were out documenting the spreading of a national strike. We had parked on the hard shoulder of a motorway intersection along with hundreds of others, near a square known as Plaza Altamira. The atmosphere was electric yet this was commonplace. Looking back it was not much different at that moment in the height political tension than the tone at the luggage claims area twelve years before. I had become accustomed to the fact that spoke in a ‘state of emergency’. But suddenly we heard gunfire. Within seconds it seemed that the radios in every parked car were blaring accounts of snipers and that the mobile phones, which all rang at once, were reporting nothing less than a cold-blooded massacre.

Sadly, this time it turned out to be true. It was later confirmed that a government sympathiser had killed three people, including a 17-year-old girl by randomly shooting into the crowd, twenty eight more were wounded.

The following morning just after dawn I returned to Plaza Altamira, moist swaths of blood still covering large parts of its pavement. For the first time since I set foot in the airport all those years before, the place was silent. I calmly walked wide-eyed taking in the sorrow, my soul profoundly burdened. Mourning as I walked I realised this was the point of no return; this ship would not survive the storm, it would sink and many would drown.

By the end of March of the following year my wife, who was then my girlfriend, and I landed in the UK. It was the beginning of an amazingly beautiful adventure. It was so relieving to find that I was not the alien after all, not the crazy one who did not understand the world, but rather that the world I had been living in was unhealthily bizarre. In short the nightmare ended and I was home.

I hate to report that I was right about the sinking ship. Over the last ten years the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, as it calls itself since 1999, has drifted into unreachable depths and undergone shocking social, political and economical traumas. It was recently a worldwide joke that there was a nation-wide shortage of toilette paper in Venezuela. Sadly that’s the least of the problems. In spite it being one of the richest countries in the world supermarket shelves are as bare as those of Cuba and worst of all the blame game continuous and the waiting and the blaming and the waiting…

I pray Venezuela finds its way, as it must, for the beautiful country I also described here does exist. God willing, sooner rather than later, the nation will find its way and recover all its internal splendour, learn from the years of hardship and begin to live honourably.

As for me as a good friend recently advised me, I will not write off my country of birth because after all it is in my blood through and through! Yet, having said that, or the first time in my life I can convincingly say that since being back in the UK, “I’m home!”

A Story From My Missionary Days

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Above is a picture of Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia AKA Lollipop before and after face changing surgery (Taken from Internet)

AKA Lollipop: a true story by Renn Diddo

When the warden asked if we wanted to meet Chupeta, which means ‘Lollipop’ in Spanish, I didn’t think to question who he was; I just translated. Bill Brister, the North American missionary I had been interpreting for, did ask the obvious question: “Who is he?”

“Quien es el?” I parroted in Spanish.

The warden paused. She looked me over and then slowly, in a patronizing tone said “Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia.”

“Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia,” I mimicked her satirically. I had no idea who this woman was referring to and I knew that Bill would be even more clueless.

Visibly disappointed at not having made an impact with her star inmate, the warden simplified it for us by explaining, “He is the head of the Cali Cartel. He’s here in Zone 7.” The Cali Cartel, was one of the world’s most powerful and dangerous cocaine cartels.

“Of course we’d like to meet him,” I replied excitedly in Spanish, even before telling Bill who the unlikely nicknamed ‘Lollipop’ was.

“Wow, a real, dangerous-ass-world-stage criminal: How COOL!!!” I thought to myself. Now pleased by my obvious interest in her star Cali Prison convict, the warden, declared: “I’ll take you to the door, only you and Bill can go in, and the rest of the missionaries will be escorted out of the prison.”

As soon as I told Bill who Lollipop was, he too became agitated. “Get me the best Bible,” he said to one of his assistants, “the one with Jesus’s words in gold, the BIG one.”

Bill and I were left standing in front of a blue iron door set into a tall, concrete wall.

The racket of the prison, which had been incessant, even from outside its barbed wire topped walls, seemed to have been swallowed up by the moment. From here on in, the warden had warned us, everyone was an inmate: there was no prison security presence within Zone 7.

The door opened and an inmate, who I nicknamed Mastodon, waved us in. He was a tanned, hard-faced, six-foot-four muscle of a man, dressed in a tight white t- shirt, faded blue jeans and brown sailing shoes. We stepped forward; the thick iron door was closed behind us. Another blue door just like the one we’d stepped through stood locked in front of us. The place felt like a concrete dressing room. For some reason, in spite his size and the large vertical scar that jumped over his left eye from his forehead to his cheek, Mastodon was not intimidating.

“Que llevan ahí?” he asked.

“Perdone?” I replied, surprised at the sweet-auntie like voice coming out of this mountain of a man. I looked up at his towering head with searching eyes, for a second unsure if it had been Mastodon who had spoken.

“En el bolso? Ábranlo!” The sweet, plump-middle-aged woman’s voice was his! I quickly turned to Bill.

“The backpack Bill,” I translated in a loud urgent whisper. “Open it and let him see inside.”

From the moment we had first been let in to ‘spiritually reach out’ to the all-male inmates of Cali Prison’s population, we were met with what can only be described as sub-human conditions. Dirty, emaciated, knife-scarred inmates wore mostly rags, or, only shorts and sandals. The areas that we’d visited earlier were packed to the point that little movement was possible along the damp cramped walls. The place was all mustard-yellow-brown-and-grey, like a fading monochrome film but with disturbing sounds and smells to match. The sky, if it was visible, had no home here. Aluminum tins were water cups. The sense of imminent danger was everywhere and fear was evident in the eyes of the weak who, according to the warden, more frequently than not died at the hands of others. But now we weren’t with the main population anymore.

“Welcome to Zone 7,” announced Mastodon. The first thing I heard was a woman’s grunt. As the door finished opening I saw a beautiful tall athletic blonde who had just served a volleyball. As the ball was returned I followed the trajectory to its source only to see another beautiful slim, tall, dark woman in a very small top and tight shorts running to the net preparing for a jump. I stopped and slowly took a step back.

“What is this?” I asked myself in silence.

On the left, beyond the full sized rubber volleyball court, was a bar; a long dark brown wooden bar with stools, just like one would find in a Spanish Tavern. To the right of the bar I saw a series of doors. These were light brown identical doors with round silver handles, probably aluminum. On the left of each door was a small window, some with curtains on the inside. On the left of each window was a grey air conditioning unit sticking out of the wall. My eyes lifted and I saw that there was another identical set of doors above the ones at ground level. The top ones had a railing in front of them making a long balcony. There must have been twelve in total and with the stairs to the right, they reminded me of what motels look like in American movies except this place was bright, clean and shiny. That’s when the loud Salsa music hit me.

I turned to my right, to see that behind the volleyball court was a large modern Nautilus gym. It was fully carpeted with floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall mirrors and a large stereo system. “Paulo! Paulo!” I heard Bill calling urgently.

In front of Bill stood a well-dressed Colombian man in his mid 40s. I blinked several times focusing hard on what was going on.

“Welcome,” said the man in perfect English, “I understand you came to see Juan Carlos. Follow me, we’ll get him for you.”

As we walked around the volleyball court past the barman who was drying glasses with his white apron I was struck by the size of the place. The ceilings were extremely high and in the middle of it all there was an open space through which you could see the clear blue sky. We walked up to three padded chairs. One chair was backed up against a column, the others set in front of it. The Colombian man gestured at the chairs that were next to each other. Bill and I sat down.

“Avísale a Juan Carlos que estamos listos,” yelled the Colombian at someone out of sight. Turning to Bill and I he then said “He may be a minute. He’s sleeping,” smiled tightly and walked away.

Nobody else paid any attention to us at all. Bill and I may as well have been ghosts. I took the opportunity to turn around on my chair and check out the volleyball game. Wow! These women were truly gorgeous! I felt Bill’s disapproving look upon me so I turned back, caught his eye and noticed that he was as puzzled by this whole scenario as I was, though I was quite enjoying it by now.

After about 15 minutes a handsome pleasant looking man with sharp movie star features, stepped out from one of the top floor doors, he glided down the stairs and then towards us. The man was immaculately dressed, yet casual. His look had a million dollars written all over it but it wasn’t extravagant. He had a large gold Rolex Oyster, I noticed. This was Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia. As he approached, Bill and I stood to shake his hand. “Siéntense!” Said Juan Carlos smiling as he waved us back into our chairs.

We remained standing. We greeted him and shook hands. We sat down; Juan Carlos politely sat last. After introductions Bill got to the point of our visit and gave the message of salvation; offering the drug lord a loophole out of Hell. Juan Carlos accepted that he needed it and seemed jovial about the possibility of going to Heaven.

I noted that Juan Carlos, was extremely charismatic and likeable, and it was he, not the situation, who was making me feel important. Bill too, I could tell by his tone and gesticulations, was enchanted by the man and weirdly seemed eager to please him.

“We brought you a Bible,” Bill offered pulling out the massive leather bound gold-lettered book out of his backpack. “Read The New Testament. Here, this bookmark has the most important verses highlighted.”

Bizarrely, Juan Carlos seemed genuinely grateful. “Let us lay hands on you,” Bill said. At this Juan Carlos let out an unnerving laugh, as if someone else had laughed for him. “No, no, no my friends, that’s not possible,” I interpreted. “Now I must go. I thank you.” The Colombian who’d guided us here had come over with a mobile, which he handed to Juan Carlos.

“Muchas gracias señor Chupeta,” said Bill as he stood.

“No Bill,” I thought, “it’s ‘señor Ramírez’ not ‘Mr. Lollipop’ for God’s sake!” Juan Carlos froze. I froze. Bill stood grinning his naive Texan look with his hand outstretched.

I swallowed and said in Spanish, “it has been a pleasure, Mr. Ramirez, we are grateful for your time.” Juan Carlos slowly passed his phone over to his left hand, smiled then shook Bill’s hand.

“I must say,” I translated for Bill, “it seems that you live more comfortably here than we ever have.”

“Yes, but you get to leave,” retorted Juan Carlos solemnly. I shook his hand; he turned and walked away to his phone conversation.

That was 1997. By 2002, after having served only six years of his 24-year sentence, Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia was released from the Cali prison, from which he had continued to run his drug trafficking empire. Up until 2008, when he was extradited to the United States from his hiding place in Brazil, the reputed $1.8 Billion fortune he had accumulated through drug trafficking and murder had served him well.

Back in the concrete dressing room, Mastodon locked the door to Zone 7 behind us.

“You should go to Hollywood to be a movie star,” I translated for Bill, who flattered Mastodon because of his perfectly proportioned physique. Mastodon blushed at this. Once again I was confused.

The thin, short, wrinkled 50-year-old warden, in her below-the-knee brown skirt and white blouse, approached us smiling.

“Como les fue?” she asked as she walked briskly. “Muy bien,” Bill smiled back, finally getting something right in Spanish. “That was excellent,” I told her, “Juan Carlos is very charming, a real gentleman,” I said. The warden smiled broadly, happy with my answer.

“We get along very well. He protects me. I used to get death threats from inmates. That doesn’t happen anymore,” she said proudly, as if speaking of a son. “Juan Carlos once blew up a civilian plane just to eliminate one man. The inmates respect that.”

My mouth went dry at the thought.

“And he’s well protected too,” replied Bill breaking the silence. “That body- guard at the door is the biggest man I’ve ever seen. I bet Arnold Schwarzenegger, looks small next to him.”

“Yes but he’s hopelessly gay,” replied the warden twisting her eyes in disapproval. She walked us out. We thanked her gratefully and went on our way.

Dr. Deo. is my new ‘ask me if I care’ hero!

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On Wed., June 12th, I received a note from Cedar Surgery (see below) asking me to contact them “to make an appointment with Dr. Deo re a letter she has received from Phillipa Gardner.” I thought this strange as I had never heard of or met Dr. Deo.

However, I called and the first available appointment with Dr. Deo, was booked for Thursday, June 20th, at 340pm.

My wife and I arrived at Cedar Surgery at 330pm, on the 20th. I signed myself in electronically on the efficient touch-screen at the reception and we took ourselves to the upstairs waiting room just as the friendly gadget asked me to do. Twenty minutes later the ticker-tape-type display high on the wall of the waiting room announced that I was to make my way to Dr. Deo, Room 5.

We got up, took a right and then another right and knocked on the door. My wife and I made our way in.

We greeted the doctor. Dr. Deo greeted us.

I sat in the chair closest to the doctor’s desk; my wife sat on my left between my chair and the sink.

“How can I help you?” Dr. Deo asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, “you asked me to come. I received a note asking me to make this appointment with you.”

The doctor looked puzzled.

“Did I send the note?” she asked.

“No, the reception sent me this note here.” I took my phone out as I had a picture of the note. I handed her my phone with the note on the display.

Dr. Deo read it, frowned and said “it must have been my colleague who requested this. Let me look at your records to see what it’s about.”

As the doctor looked at her computer screen for a few seconds I asked if there was anything more powerful than ‘Piriton Liquid’ that I could take for my hay-fever?

“There are many things,” she replied without looking up from the screen. For a second I thought her dry response was a joke. As it turned out that was all she would ever say on the matter.

“Right,” she continued “I see here that you’re to have follow up therapy in six months time for your depression. And I need to ask you if you’d like to take medication to deal with your anger. That’s what I think this is about.”

“But,” I said, “I have an appointment with Dr. Swamy, for this for next Monday. Dr. Swamy saw me two weeks ago and asked me to see her on the 24th, to discuss this.”

“So there’s nothing else.” Dr. Deo said abruptly.

“Well, what else can I see you for,” I thought out-loud trying to sound friendly so as to at least make the most of the administrative blunder which had brought me there.

“There doesn’t need to be anything else”, said Dr. Deo, dryly. I ignored her flippant attitude as best I could.

A that moment my wife stood up and said, “this chair is wet.”

The chair next to mine, the one by the sink, was soaking and had drenched my partner’s trousers. The doctor acted as if nothing had happened. My wife realized I was distressed at her having gotten all wet and quietly said “it’s all right,” and just stood there in her sodden trousers.

I turned to the doctor and said, “actually there’s this spot on my leg.” It is a tiny bright-red growth that has concerned me since I first saw it on my calf about three weeks ago. I was wearing shorts so I was able to put my leg up close to the table and show her.

“It’s nothing,” said the doctor in a millisecond.

Again, taken aback yet not reacting I tried to make light of the situation. “So it’s nothing I’m going to die of tomorrow?” I asked.

Silence.

“Right,” I said confused at the doctor’s dismissive attitude and lack of consideration. I was still trying to make up for my time and the journey to the surgery; after all we’re given 10 minutes for an official appointment and we’d been with her for about 3, not to mention that I had rearranged my plans for the day to attend the unnecessary meeting I had been called to.

“Yes, one more thing,” I said remembering a question a friend of mine had suggested I ask my GP regarding my depression, “do you know anything about ‘key-workers’? Do I get referred to them by my GP?”

“No I don’t. Google it. Google is a great source of informantion,” said Dr. Deo.

My wife and I were in shock at the doctor’s rude lack of kindness, manners and professionalism.

The situation was so awkward that in my experience there was no adequate reaction that fit.

“Well, I can see you’re very busy so we’d better leave,” I said.

“Not at all,” replied the sarcastic doctor.

I got up and walked out after my wife who had left before me.

It wasn’t until the car park when I said to my wife, “that was bizarre.”

“She is very rude,” she responded, “I couldn’t believe the tension in there. Are you ok?”

I wasn’t and I was. I was confused and saddened by the encounter yet imagined that the doctor must be going through some difficult times herself and was just stressed out. That is the best thing I could imagine. It is what I chose to believe. If anything depression has given me a degree of empathy and compassion for people who are being anti-social, like I can sometimes be when the world inside of me gets too dark to be polite.

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