Thursday, December 28, 2006

Some news that isn't altogether excellent

Well, we've hit a snag. While I still don't know what the ultimate outcome will be, there is a problem with my visa, vis-a-vis work. Basically, in a shocking "violation" of international tradition (if not law), Colombia doesn't have an exactly reciprocal spousal employment policy.

In the US, Europe, and most countries, marrying a national of that country grants you the same rights as any citizen, including work, excluding voting. Essentially, I have the same right here in Colombia, but not "free and clear" like in the US or other developed nations. In the US, a spouse gets the immediate (depending on processing time) and unrestricted right to work. Not so in Colombia. While I have the right, potential employers have to provide 3 documents to the government to legalize my employment. Two of the documents are non-issues. But the 3rd is a "proportionality" document that basically justifies the employment of a foreigner and demonstrates that the proportion of foreigners is not excluding Colombian citizens from employment.

I understand and some ways agree with the Colombian law on this issue. There is a serious unemployment problem here and the government has to introduce policies aimed at helping its citizens first. However, this is a problem for me. The company already has a number of Americans (or foreigners) and it is still unclear if they are able or willing to go through this process on my behalf. Not only that, the attorney for the company told me that it could take up to 5 months to complete this process (from what I've heard, she was exaggerating, but still, 3 months or so is a long ass time).

Of course, all of this is complicated by a gross outbreak of chimchumbia (slang Colombian spanish that you use when something goes wrong or people bend/break the rules for you when they shouldn't). Had the company merely talked with their in-house attorney back in the middle of November when they decided to hire me, she would have explained to them the problem of my visa and a solution could have been decided at that point. However, they, like I, made the assumption that with a spousal visa, it wouldn't be a problem.

So here we are. I'm feeling pessimistic about this and, needless to say, my wife is quite upset about it as well. See, the clear implication is, if I can't find a company willing to "sponsor" me, we're going to have to leave Colombia much earlier than we were planning. I know that Diana isn't ready for that and I'm feeling that I need more time here to continue to improve my Spanish, as well as get experience in my field. More than anything, we don't want to be "forced" to leave Colombia, we want to leave when we choose. But, if my career can't proceed here we really won't have any option.

What next?

Well, immediately, we're going on vacation. Tomorrow we leave with the family for Girardot, a small town about 2 hours outside of Bogota. We're staying in a resort until Monday, it's going to be hot, hot, hot and we're just going to relax, eat, and do nothing else. After that, we're going to Anapoima, which is about 30 minutes closer to Bogota than Girardot. We'll be there for 5 days or so. When we finally return to Bogota, we'll have some decisions to make.

In the short term, it seems likely I'm going back to teaching english. Hopefully I won't be at the same institute as that place was boring as hell and the ever changing schedule was driving me nuts. We'll see. I'm not totally thrilled about this development. In fact, you could say I'm quite peeved or even completely opposed to this option, but I need to continue doing something and this looks like the only short term money maker.

The other part of my short term plan is to find an organization that does work I'm interested in and volunteer my time there, possibly as much as 20 hours a week. I'm looking into this.

I'll also be working my contacts here, searching for new opportunities, and generally pursuing things with a bit of fervor in the hopes of finding a permanent, paying position.

At this point, I'm trying to look at the positive. The following is a list of my primary career/academic interests:

1. Genocide
2. Conflict Resolution (war and peace)
3. Refugee Assistance and Support
4. Human Trafficking
5. Peacekeeping

As you can see, Sustainable Development doesn't appear on this list. So maybe if I don't end up working in this capacity, it's a blessing in disguise. I don't know, but I'm definitely trying to look on the bright side. So, my idea is to volunteer with an organization for the short term with the ultimate goal of generating enough resume builders that wherever our future leads, I'll be stacked to actually work in my areas of interest.

Of course, all of this means it's likely that the trip to Brazil is back on and could mean a couple extra days in the US. We'll see. The ticket prices have gone up quite a bit and with me not really earning much, I'm not sure exactly what is going to be possible. But at the least, I don't have a strong restriction on my time in the US.

Well, that's about it for now. I hope everyone has a good New Year and I'll be back posting in about 10-12 days.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas Eve

Well, it doesn't much feel like Christmas to me, but apparently, it's Christmas Eve. I've been thinking about this all week. Why doesn't it feel like Christmas to me? And I think it's a combination of factors.

For one, the weather. It's just hard to feel Christmasy with 65 and sunny every day (although it's turned cloudy and cold the last two days and looks to continue today). To me, the Christmas season is bundling up in a jacket, drinking hot apple cider, and generally being miserable every time you step outside (yes, I loathe the cold).

Also, not working in a steady job has taken it's toll. When you work in an office, there are Christmas parties, decorations, and constant chatter about the "holiday season". Not so when you're sitting on your ass waiting for some government employees to stamp "approved" on your salary so that you can get started on your next job. So, I guess I've missed out a bit in that regard.

But even more profound is the lack of the Christmas environment. The commercials, the constant overdose of Christmas movies on TNT, the lack of real Christmas music. I guess I just didn't realize how powerful an effect pop culture has at Christmastime. Even when I was living in London and wasn't feeling particularly Christmasy, I still was bombarded by the message and couldn't help avoid a direct confrontation with the season.

Perhaps also contributing is the absence of a Christmas tree in our house. We shall remedy that next year. But this year, we just didn't make it happen. We talked about it, but other priorities kept intervening that ultimately kept us from Exito (kind of like the Colombian WalMart) and from buying a very nice, fake tree. Also, there aren't exactly any presents under our absent tree either. We both needed new glasses (which were damn expensive) and with our New Year's plans and me not working much this month, there is a general shortage of funds at the moment. So, no presents that we haven't already received.

The final factor is the difference of Christmas traditions. Colombia has a very distinct tradition called "Las Novenas" or The Ninths. Basically, nine days before Christmas, people get together and have a small prayer session where they recount the story of Mary and Joseph's passage to Jerusalem. There is a Novena for each of the nine days before Christmas and companies sponsor prayer books so that you can easily have one of these ceremonies at any moment. We haven't done a Novena for every day, but maybe we've done 4.

It's kind of like a contest really. From what I understand, every year the family competes to have the first Novena and the scheduling goes from there. This year, however, there weren't that many, so maybe people were just busier or something. Either way, for me, the Novenas are a bit boring. The language is a bit formal and difficult (using Vosotros and the more archaic form of the past subjunctive, for example) and religious vocabulary is much more difficult to follow than every day speech. So really, after a period of concentration as I attempt to decipher the story, I kind of drift off into my own thoughts. But, it is interesting that Colombia has this tradition, a tradition that appears unique in the Spanish speaking world (if anyone knows of other countries that do this, please let me know). So, it's been cool to have the expierence. But in the end, it didn't make me much more Christmasy.

So, after thinking about Christmas and what it is to feel in the Christmas Spirit, I decided that for me, it's cooking and sharing with friends and family. That is more difficult this year than one might imagine. For one, the majority of my family is in the US. So we won't be sitting around the table gossipping as we wonder who will eat more, my brother in law or me (Christmas dinner is serious business). There also won't be any cute nieces or nephews running around screaming with excitement and pleasure.

But even worse, my wife's grandmother, bless her heart, basically trumped the whole Christmas dinner prepartion by buying us all sorts of food including a cooked turkey and what I think it's a pig's ass (also cooked). So, while it was indeed quite lovely for her to think of us, it ultimately robbed me of one of the great pleasures of Christmas, which is giving the gift of tastiness and succulence to my friends and family.

(Aside about grandmother: She urged us to buy a case of wine to keep in the house last week. We declined because really, what the hell would we do with a case of wine? We don't drink that much and we're not inclined to have an "alcoholic house". Now, after receiving various gifts, we have 3 bottles of wine, a bottle of scotch, a bottle of tequila, and a bottle of cachaca. So much for not having much alcohol in the house.)

At any rate, I've decided to remedy this situation by preparing a very nice Christmas Eve dinner for my wife and I and by doing a fabulous Christmas breakfast. On the menu for tonight is Chicken Parmesan (if I can find some damn bread crumbs!). It's a pretty easy dish to make and definitely should fit into the tasty and delicious categorization (although clearly not succulence).

For tomorrow, I'm going to cook a traditional Bogotana breakfast soup called Caldo de Castillos. The first time I experienced this soup, I was very suspect. Generally, North American soups are best used for testing the drain in your sink and the idea of a breakfast soup with Cow ribs was a bit unwelcoming. But then, after I tasted it, I became a complete Caldo fanatic. But I've never made it. So tomorrow is the day I learn how. I need to perfect this soup. It's too good not to and if I perfect it, I can prepare it for my relatives and wow them with my cooking mastery. (A bit of sarcasm there. This soup is so incredibly easy to make the toddler that commented about my Iran/Korea blogs could even make it successfully.)

At any rate, maybe that will make me feel a bit more Christmasy. We'll see. Either way, Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukkah, and Joyous Kwanza to all. I hope this season brings you that which you desire and if it doesn't, that which you need.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Random News Bits

Vietnam all over again?

Civilian leadership directing the war in Iraq over the wishes of the military brass.

Not good.


More evidence that abstenence only education is profoundly stupid.

I laughed so hard I almost cried. That's 95%, yo.


Piecemeal nuclear talks with North Korea failing.

More evidence that this strategy isn't going to work. Of course, why would it when we're not offering any significant carrots and we're keeping our sticks in place.


Colombian political elite in bed with the paramilitaries.

This is more of the same really. But, imagine if instead of being indicted by the FBI for bribery, that a US Senator was arrested for being directly involved in genocide.

The more things change here, the more they stay the same. I'm extremely pessimistic about the political future of this country.

One has to wonder just what sort of justice a paramilitary leader is going to receive from the Colombian judiciary. Maybe on the lines of the "amnesty" deal that the government started a few years ago. It was so great that it put away mass murderers for no more than 7 years and allowed the paramilitaries to reconstitute their forces.


Rep Virgil Goode (R-VA) is a xenophobic racist who wants to block Muslim immigration into the US because, you know, all them Muslims be radicals and sh*t.

Get used to this. If 2008 includes Barak Obama on the Democratic ticket this is just the beginning. Dude's not even Muslim, but they're already painting him as a Muslim with the ever so fearful middle name of Hussein, as a way of stirring up fear and xenophobia. Politics makes me want to puke sometimes.


And last but not least, sham Libyan court reconvicts 6 humanitarian aid workers and sentences them to the death penalty for intentionally infecting children with HIV.

This is so self-evidently stupid that it's shocking that Khaddafi is going through with it. There is ample evidence that the patients had HIV as far back as 3 years before the doctor and nurses arrived, not to mention that they have absolutely no motive to infect innocents with HIV. But hey, simply the best from our "great ally" in North Africa, right?

Hopefully a deal with be done so these people can return to their countries of origins. But, if I'm a prospective humanitarian worker, would I ever go to Libya after this? No way in hell. Same thing for Iraq and pretty much all of the Middle East. The politics of narcissistic stupidity only end up hurting those that need the help the most.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Responding to a comment

While I always enjoy receiving comments on my posts, yesterday's comment was a bit confusing. Firstly, the author used a perjorative expression "these people" which pretty much says it all. Whoever posted the comment clearly doesn't believe that any negotiation is possible with "these people", probably because they're crazy muslims or something.

But what was really confusing was the brief history reference.

Claim: Ronald Reagan negotiated with Iran.

Fact: Only when he illegally sold weapons in the Iran-Contra scandal.

This was the most confusing claim of all because what is very clear is that Reagan NEVER negotiated with Iran. There is a conspiracy theory that suggests that the Reagan campaign asked the Iranians to not release the hostages until after the Carter-Reagan election, but this theory is self-evidently stupid since the Iranians would have had absolutely no incentive to go along with such a request since Reagan was more hardline toward the Islamic Republic than Carter. At any rate, what is clear is that Carter negotiated the release of the hostages, even if it was too late to save his presidency.

However, even more bizarre (as related to the comment) is that everyone should have seen by now the photos of Donny Rumsfield shaking hands with Saddam Hussein, circa 1983. That's because the Reagan administration sided with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. Iran was (and remains) our enemy and for a lot of reasons, but mostly out of a fear of the spread of Islamic Fundamentalism, Reagan actively worked to contain Iran, including launching a one-day offensive at the end of his term in retaliation for the mining of one of our navy vessels.

Ultimately, any suggestion that "Reagan tried negotiating" with Iran is distrubingly inaccurate. You can read the highlights here.

The second claim from the comment is that Iran's president embarrassed Clinton at the 2000 Millenium Summit. This claim is just bizarre to me. I've never heard of such a claim before and a quick google search reveals no further information. What is clear, however, is the history (as detailed in this excellent CRS Report).

When Clinton took office in January 1993, he strengthened the US containment policy toward Iran primarily by increasing the depth and impact of the previous sanctions regime. In 1997, the Iranian reformer Khatami won a landslide victory for president and the US almost immediately shifted it's containment policy to one of rapproachment. There were some talks, initial steps were made, Albright conceded that the US had meddled with internal Iranian affairs in the past, and generally good will was generated (a prerequisite to substantive talks). This all culminated at the Millenium 2000 conference where Albright and President Clinton attended President Khatami's speech as a sign of respect.

The Bush administration put and end to this touchy feely rapproachment. Six years later, we've got an Iran with a crash nuclear program, a conservative president, and a policy of undercutting US action and leadership in the Middle East.

All of this (as well as the report I posted yesterday and the above mentioned CRS report) suggests that we had a real chance to begin a substantive rapproachment with Iran that could have yielded tangible benefits. That doesn't mean it would have worked. But we had a great opportunity and Bush blew it.

The last part of the comment that is more frustrating than anything is this part:

"It's not that we don't negotiate with the Iranians. We do, on background. It's that we don't go to them hat in hand. Sure they want "grand bargain" negotiations, where they end up in charge of the Persian Gulf and domination of the Arab League states is assured."

These sentences suggest I either failed to be clear in my original post or that the commenter has the reading comprehension level of a 2-year old. Of course we have had "quiet diplomacy" and "background" talks with Iran. We have those things with most of our "enemies". That wasn't my point at all.

In fact, I borrowed the phrase "grand bargain" for what I imagine was the exact same reason the orginal author used the term: To highlight the differences between peicemeal negotiations and comprehensive negotiations. If one thing is clear from recent history with negotiating with rogue states, it's that peicemeal negotiations don't work, primarily because it usually involves us asking them to do something they're not inclined to do absent a "grand bargain".

North Korea is a great example of this. In the early 90's, they racheted up their nuclear program and their rhetoric, primarily to get to the bargaining table. They wanted a comprehensive deal with the US, including a formal end to hostilities, lifting of sanctions, and an eventual reunification with the South. The first step to that was the Agreed Framework which was negotiated in November 0f 1994 and essentially guaranteed that the US would build nuclear reactors for the North, provide fuel oil during the construction phase, and in exchange, the North would cease it's nuclear program. This was a first step in what should have been an eventual resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Unfortunately, domestic political problems in the US essentially slayed the deal. While there were definitely problems on the North Korean side (mainly missile sales unrelated to the deal, but perceived by the GOP Congress as a violation of the spirit of the deal), what ultimately killed the deal was two things. First, the US didn't really follow up on the construction of two nuclear reactors as promised. At least, three years later, nothing had been done. North Korea, rightly, questioned if anything was ever to be done. And second, in 1997, the Republican Congress slashed the fuel oil funding from the budget, essentially as payback for the Lewinsky scandal. The effect of the budget cuts left North Korea with no way out. Either they had to restart their reactors to power and heat the country, or they had to suffer the indignity of a freezing winter and frequent losses of electricity. Ultimately, the North perceived these two actions (or inactions) as the straw that broke the camel's back. The US "broke" the deal, according to them, so they did the logical thing and restarted their nuclear program.

The point of this historical diatribe is that comprehensive negotiations worked with North Korea. And they could have (can?) worked with Iran. Even though the deal eventually fell apart, North Korea shelved it's nuclear ambitions with the drop of a hat because their goals were not simply to acquire nuclear arms. Just as Iran's goal in 2002-2003 wasn't simply to become a nuclear power.

A lot has changed since then and it remains to be seen if comprehensive negotiations could work with the current Iranian government (not to mention the Bush government), but I think the clear point from this history lesson is that peicemeal negotiations don't work. North Korea is not going to shelve it's nuclear program just because we demand it and use sanctions to back up our demands any more than Saddam Hussein was going to or Iran will.

Any negotiation between parties has to include tangible benefits for both sides and the US posture the last 6 years (if not a lot longer) has been to essentially demand a rogue take the first step with the promise of eventual negotiations and benefits in the future.

In essense, it's like walking into McDonald's where they demand you give them a fiver with the promise that the next time you come in, they'll give you a Big Mac combo. You wouldn't do it, just as a rogue state won't give up it's one bargaining chip in exchange for the possibility of future talks over normalizing of relations, easing of sanctions, etc.

So that's the point, Captain Anonymous. Sanctions don't work. Piecemeal negotiations don't work. Creating deals and then breaking them doesn't work. Perhaps it's time to step up to the table and actually give the strategy of comprehensive negotiation a real try.

And if doesn't work? Ok, we go back to shunning Iran and North Korea with as much fervor as possible. But I gotta say, if one things clear, it's that not only has our coercement/containment strategy completely failed to prevent North Korean (and Iranian) nuclear development, but it's also completely unlikely that it will cause Iran or North Korea to come to our table with their hat in hand, asking for forgiveness as Condi Rice likes to think.

So there you have it. Either we continue with the status quo, nuclear proliferation in hostile states continues, risking nuclear or dirty terrorism in American cities, as well as undercutting our Middle East strategy, or we take a chance on some real, comprehensive negotiation and see what type of deal we could get. I'm with former Sec State Baker on this one. Let's sit down at the table and see if a deal is possible.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Iran and North Korea (to a lesser extent)

Whether one supports the Iraq war or not, it should be clear that things are not going as planned. In fact, there is a great likelihood, if not inevitability, that the Iraq war is going to replace Vietnam in the annals of history as the great blunder in American foreign policy. The long term effects of the president's failed Middle East strategy is likely to make the world more dangerous, especially for Americans.

It doesn't have to be that way, however. One of the key players in the region is Iran. (Syria plays a role as well, but is a lesser financial force and more easily contained.) Iran is, without a doubt, one of the great problems in American foreign policy because of it's hostile leadership, vast natural resources, and the role it plays in supporting terrorist organizations like Hezbollah.

That being said, this report makes clear that there was the very real possibility of US-Iranian rapproachment in 2003. The US and Iran, unbeknownst to the majority of us, had a quiet diplomatic channel open in which they hosted monthly meetings. This process continued for over a year, with only a 1 month disruption occuring when the President famously labeled Iran a part of the "axis of evil" (a clear mistake if there ever was one). After it became clear that the US was unwilling to negotiate with Iran, the process collapsed. This occurred on the brink of the Iraqi invasion and after that point, Iran played an active role in supporting the terrorist insurgency.

Some people, most notably SecState Condi Rice, argue that Iran's role in Iraq, it's drive for nuclear weapons, it's repeated rhetorical position against Israel, it's undemocratic character, and it's president's repeated denials of the Holocaust, makes Iran untouchable. Essentially, they argue for a policy of shunning Iran, not negotiating, and expecting Iran to unilaterally stop all of that behavior. Bizarrely, Sec Rice doesn't seem to realize that Iran is one of the Middle East's only democracies.

To me, this diplomatic and policy position is bankrupt. If one analyzes Iran's foreign policy position, one can easily see the realpolitik being played by their leadership. They initiated a negotiation strategy under the previous government that failed. When their security concerns were not addressed through diplomacy, they shifted toward a more aggressive stance of building up their weapons arsenal and working to undercut US interests in the region. This doesn't make them crazy or even an enemy of the US. This was the logical reaction to what they perceived as a hostile, nuclear armed power that was directly threatening them (and continues to threaten them).

Condi Rice's "we won't negotiate with Iran" position only exacerbates the situation because it's further evidence to Iran's hardliners that the US is hell bent on destroying the Islamic democracy. In fact, the US rhetorical position toward Iran since the beginning of the Bush administration has only served to exacerbate relations between the two nations. In the end, it's clear that we missed a great opportunity to normalize relations with Iran when they had a reformist government. Now, it's not clear if we can make negotiations work, but as former Sec State James Baker III said (and I'm paraphrasing): It's always better to talk, than to not talk.

Sec Rice thinks that Baker and the rest of the Iraq Study Group is living in a pre-9/11 world (or a Cold War world). She thinks that the new Middle East doesn't work like the old and that attempts at negotiation are bound to fail. Thus the support of her, "You change first and then we'll see about normalizing relations" strategy. But with all due (dis)respect, someone said recently, "It's amazing how smart people can say and do incredibly stupid things." Unless Rice believes that the nature of international politics has fundamentally changed in the last 5 years, then her position is ideologically and philosophically bankrupt. And I've got about 4,000 years of history to back me up.

But, it's also completely ignorant of the very real security concerns that a state like Iran (or North Korea) have. Let's face it, states don't just wake up one day and decide to build nukes. They always have legitimate (or percieved as legitimate) security concerns that justify their decisions. North Korea has a nuclear program because we're technically still at war with them and they have little hope of defending themselves in a conventional war. They jacked up their pursuit of nukes after the fall of the Soviet Union because they lost a key part of their security umbrella.

(Interesting hypothetical: If the Soviets had "won" the Cold War, wouldn't Japan be the "rogue" state in Northeast Asia?)

In the 1990's, the US and North Korea had a deal in place (that's basically the same thing they're asking for now) that could have worked. But a combination of a short US attention span, North Korean dishonesty, and a Republican Congress hostile to Bill Clinton doomed the Agreed Framework. (It's quite fascinating actually. The GOP defunded a key part of the US-North Korea deal - fuel oil - as retribution in the Lewinsky scandal. Never has one BJ in the Oval office caused so much global instability.)

The situation in Iran is similar. The Iranian's feel threatened by the US. They've been under harsh economic sanctions since the inception of their state. The last 5 years have seen an increasing volume of US "threats" towards the Republic. And, prior to the destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, they had real regional security threats that provided impetus for their drive for nuclear weapons. Now, those regional threats have been replaced with a global power, but the security dilemna for the Iranian leadership is the same. For them, a world with nuclear arms is a level playing field that equalizes the security imbalance between Iran and the US and forstalls a US invasion, vis-a-vis Iraq.

None of this is news. But what is news is that Iran was, and probably is willing to engage in comprehensive diplomatic negotiations. What's needed, as Mr. Leverett (linked above) argues, is:

"...a “grand bargain” with the Islamic Republic—that is, a broad-based strategic understanding in which all of the outstanding bilateral differences between the two countries would be resolved as a package." (p20)

This "grand bargain" would be a comprehensive package the normalizes relations between the US and Iran, halts Iran's nuclear program, halts Iran's sponsorship of terrorism, and grants security guarantees to the Islamic Republic. (I'm a little unsure what Leverett means by 'security guarantees' but I think probably something along the lines of a non-aggression pact.)

The agreement would have to be verifiable. The UN arms control apparatus could provide verification through inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities, although verifying the end of terrorist sponsorship would be more challenging. Doable, but challenging.

This "bargain" would immediately improve the security situation in the Middle East and could lead to normalization of relations between Israel and Iran (something that would be huge for the peace process). But not only that, the US has a strong economic motivation to settle things with Iran. The Republic, in sum, has the 2nd most hydrocarbon resources in the world (behind Saudi Arabia), the majority of which are untapped. By normalizing relations with Iran, we would immediately open up one of the greatest oil and natural gas reserves on the planet. Oil prices might actually drop and economic gains would be had for both the West and the Iranian people.

In the end, state decisions are always based first and foremost on security concerns. It's this fundamental proposition that is being ignored by the Bush administration. Instead of cooly analyzing the Iranian position, the President found it too easy to label them "evil" and discard any chance of a negotiated settlement. I believe this will prove the fundamental undoing of the war in Iraq. With Iran as an ally (even a tentative one), the Al Queda prescence could have been minimized inside Iraq. Only Syria would have been a legitimate channel into Iraq and patrolling that border would have been a (relatively) easier task. Iran had the right government for negotiation. They had a reformist president, a positive political climate for talks, and a willingness to create a mutually beneficial agreement. Bush and his team blew it.

Whether it's still possible to create a deal or not has yet to be determined. But if there is any recommendation from the Iraq Study Group that makes the most sense it's the goal of US-Iranian rapproachment. At the least, we should give it a legitimate try. If, in the end, Iran rejects the talks or refuses to reach terms we find acceptable, then we can work to contain them. But the idea of shunning Iran indefinitely, as Rice advocated in the Washington Post last week, is a policy that has clearly failed and only worsened our security position in the Middle East.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

A mix of updates and thoughts

Spanish Class

Well, I finished my Spanish course at Universidad Javeriana. There aren't any more levels to be had, therefore I must now speak perfect Spanish, right? Well, maybe not.

While I do speak reasonably adequate Spanish, I have to say that the Superior level at Javeriana pretty much was entirely terrible. I don't feel like I learned much in the course, although I did get some pretty decent practice, I suppose. Really, the problem was two-fold.

First, one of the teacher's was a woman named Monica. In short, she's a terrible teacher who has no business teaching Spanish at any level, not the least at the top level. What's worse is that I knew that going in because I had her in the intermediate course where she was without a doubt, a Hall of Shame candidate for her disastrously poor abilities. But, I had little choice but to continue at Javeriana. Bogota isn't exactly replete with quality Spanish instruction and Javeriana had, on balance, been really good for me. So, I took the course.

I wouldn't call it a mistake, per se, but it definitely didn't work out well. Monica is someone with whom I could never get along in a normal social environment and would never associate given the choice. She has a penchant for saying incredibly unintelligent things, the types of things that get my hackles up and, over time, leave me with absolutely no ability to control my outrage. This lead to arguments and heated discussions which, while were in Spanish, certainly didn't further the greater educational cause.

[Sidebar: I know conspiracy theories are extremely popular and even enjoyable to entertain occassionally. But whether this is a Colombian thing or a Monica thing, I've never heard so many ridiculous conspiracy theories passed on as absolute truth before. The utter stupidity that emanated from that woman's mouth every day would have been sufficient to fertilize several acres of prime farm land.]

The second problem with the course is that, programmatically, it was poorly thought out, filled with expectations above and beyond our (my) capabilities, and just bizarre. The subject matter we studied included: tildas, letter writing, prefixes and suffixes, and ways that Spanish speakers change the ending of words (pequinita instead of pequena, for example). All of those (with the exception of letter writing, something we did at EVERY level) could have been great things to study and to understand except when one considers that those topics comprised 50% of the course!

In the end, I think I lost focus and interest at about the halfway mark of the course. Then I got sick and missed a full week of class and was a zombie for the 2nd week of my recovery. When I saw what I had missed, well, I was underwhelmed to say the least.

Ultimately, the director of the program (who was one of my teachers) had high hopes and expectations for us but clearly was unable to diagnose that, at least on my part, we needed a continuation of grammer and, most importantly, practice to reinforce what we had learned in the previous level.

This all culminated in the final exam, which was essentially one giant justification for letter writing (we had all complained about the excessive attention to letter writing). There was a reading comprehension section with an article about the value of letter writing, there were two large compositions that required us to write two different types of letters, and there was a vocabularly section about different types of words or phrases that can be used in different types of letters.

Get with the times. I rarely ever write letters and I'm sure I'll never write one in Spanish.

The final also included a listening section in which they played a tape of a short story and asked very specific questions about some of the finer details and asked us to write down 5 examples of hyperbole. Now, not only was this task entirely beyond my capabilities, I really don't have a clue what the hell hyperbole is, not to mention I wouldn't be able to identify it orally in Spanish. So, it goes without saying that I bombed that section.

(Literature is infinitely more difficult to understand then say, a news report, as literature associates disimilar concepts to create a "poetic" or decriptive prose. That, combined with the complete absence of any form of practice or listening exercises pretty much guaranteed I had no choice to succeed on that part of the exam.)

I also bombed the reading comprehension section. Whether that was due to my outright seething anger at my professors for selecting an entirely ridiculous article justifying the importance of letter writing or because of subtle nuances in vocabularly, or a combination of both, the end result was I had little chance of passing the course. Not that I'm bothered by that. I don't feel like I learned anything so I don't think I deserve a certificate stating that I did.

We all filled out evaluation forms for the class (as is the custom) and mine was fairly scathing. I'm guessing that the others were too as we spent about an hour or so talking with the director about the problems we had with the course and with the other professor, Monica. The director seemed pretty miffed about it (as she should be since her design was a complete failure), but did write down a great number of notes. I'd like to say things will probably change for the better, but I'm certain they won't. We had extensive complaints in both previous levels and nothing changed (I even explained various problems in the middle of those levels, yet nothing changed).

In conclusion, Javeriana is better than most programs here, but isn't the best it could be. They're hamstrung by two factors: Monica and Marisol (an 'Advanced' teacher) and a poorly designed program at the top. Ultimately, I would recommend the program, but not the Superior level. Not unless some great changes were made.


Driving in Bogota is one of the most stressful and least enjoyable activities that I do on a day to day basis. The people here drive like crap, there's tons of traffic, and you always have to be on the lookout for the left turn from the right lane or vice versa. I really detest it.

At any rate, I witnessed an accident the other day in which a smallish car tried to take a right turn from the left lane in front of a giant ass Chiva (old school bus) and, not surprisingly, got plowed. Now, no one was hurt, aside from some jackass' ego, but I couldn't help smiling in pleasure at the turn of events. The best part was it occurred directly in front of a police officer who watched the whole thing.

I find myself unable to resist the urge to wish similar circumstances on the great majority of Bogota's drivers. While I don't want anyone to get hurt, perhaps a costly lesson could help to curtail the absolute outbreak of assholishness that dominates Bogota's roads.


Paying bills in Bogota is an entirely different experience than what you would find in the US or Europe. First of all, paying by mail is out. Impossible. The mail service here is so bad that when you receive your bill, you have days to pay, not weeks, meaning that any attempt to mail a check would ensure that your services were cut off for weeks.

So, the solution is these machines they have in the banks. The machines look like credit card readers and basically what you do is swipe your ATM card, enter a series of numbers from your bill, and payment is debited from your account. This is a reasonably good solution to the problem except that the machines often don't work or the lines are excessively long. In fact, Bogota's banks closely resemble those of London in that you know going in you'd best dedicate at least 30 minutes to standing in line for whatever service you are after.

At any rate, sometimes those little machines don't work or can't be found. And situations like that are a serious pain in the ass. We had a problem with that last Friday. We received our water bill on Monday or Tuesday, the pay day was Wednesday, the cut off day was Friday. For various reasons, we couldn't pay it before Friday and on Friday, I couldn't find a machine that worked, so we couldn't pay the bill.

I expected this wouldn't be a great problem as the bill says we can pay over the phone or over the internet. Not so fast, smartiepants. Paying over the phone was a complete failure and paying over the internet isn't something you can easily sign up for (it requires a trip to your bank and yes, 30 minutes of waiting). The other problem is when the bill says you have to pay by Friday, it doesn't mean midnight. It means by 9 pm, although it says that no where.

We were unable to meet those deadlines. In fact, it was incredibly annoying because we finally found one of those pay stations at a local grocery story and tried to pay, but it was 9:30 and the system blocked us out. That was the 4th place we went looking to pay the bill.

Fortunately, we were able to pay at the office of the water company on Saturday morning and avoid having our water cut. But, the cumulative effect of that experience left a very bad taste in my mouth. I know that this is a developing country and I know that there are great problems with people not paying their bills, but the fact that the pay system caused us to use several hours of our time to try to pay a bill is just Fing annoying. Plus, their pay system is obviously not automatic. A 9pm cutoff is absurd, but it exists because they literally have employees who manually enter the data of bills paid into their computer system. Those people leave work at 9pm. I really was apoplectic when I found that out. It's like the have a 3/5th's of an electronic system when they could easily and efficiently have a fully automated system that would improve everyone's experience.

But this is Colombia. Disorganized, inefficient, and, at times, incredibly aggravating to one raised in North America or Europe. This is one thing I'm not going to miss when we move away from here.


One thing I will miss is the relatively low cost of what I'll call "body and relaxation services". And no, I'm not talking about whiskey and whores.

Instead, I'm talking about massages, steam rooms, saunas, hot tubs, and manicures for the ladies. That kind of stuff is cheap here.

On Sunday, some friends invited* us to go with them to a club/spa and engage in a day of relaxation. (*Invited* in Spanish means they paid.) Of course we couldn't turn it down.

We drove outside of Bogota to the north. It wasn't all the way to Chia, but maybe halfway. There they have a social club in which our friends are members. I have no idea how much it cost, although I'm sure by US standards it was dirt cheap, but we had a great time.

The turkish bath, the sauna, the jacuzzi. Very nice. I've never sweated so much at one time. It's a cleansing experience and I enjoyed it. (What I didn't enjoy was the overwhelming number of obsese people, which is bizarre in Colombia.)

The massage was great as well. Only 30 minutes, but well worth it. That woman had hands of steel and she was committed to working out all the kinks in my back.

Afterwards, ahem, about 5 hours later, we left and went for a nice lunch. All in all, a very relaxing day. I do wonder how much it cost in total, but I know our friends aren't rich, so it can't have been much. By comparison, a 60 minute massage at the local beauty salon costs Diana about $60,000 CP or less than $30 USD. It's a different world down here.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Christmas for the Internally Displaced

Yesterday, my wife and I volunteered our time to give out food and gifts to some internally displaced refugees. The following is a detailed description of our day.

We left the house quite early for a Saturday, about 7:45. We had to pick up a friend (who is the main organizer) and drive to a house on the other side of the city. We were the first to arrive, although that's not saying much since the total group was 6 (plus 3 who came for the second part). But after a few minutes, the others arrived and we could get to work.

The first task was to package food supplies into black garbage bags which would be given out, one per family. We were giving basic food stuffs - pasta, rice, beans, lentils, flour, etc. We were told that we had to use black bags for two purposes: to more easily carry the supplies and to hide the contents from the people so as to prevent a swarm effect. This would become a theme for the day. There were many precautions and safeguards to ensure that the food would be delivered to those truly most needy without sparking a riot.

Packing up 100 bags of food took quite some time. Dry goods are heavy and even with six of us working, it was a good 90 minutes or so before we finished up. One hundred bags of food. It's enough to feed 100 families for a month. Plus, there were over 100 toys for the kids as well. Things like plastic trucks for the tots, barbie dolls for the girls (thank you China, 800 pesos each), and futballs (soccer) and basketballs for the older kids and larger families.

After everything was packed up, we wrote numbers on post-it notes for each category. One hundred numbers for food, 72 for barbies, 36 for balls (soccer and basketball), etc. I didn't fully understand the necessity of the system until we arrived to one of the poorest parts of Bogota.

We set out sometime around 10:30 or 11. It took a long time to get to the neighborhood. It's far, far to the south and not easily accesible by car. But after quite a bit of back and forth through narrow streets brimming with humanity, we finally arrived at our stopping point - a police station.

While driving up the hill and through one of the poorest sections of Bogota, I couldn't help but be struck with just how normal everyday life seemed. There were food markets and shops of all types and people laughing and talking and going about their lives. This was not extreme poverty. Poverty yes. But not extreme. Instead, it was just poor people trying to do their best with what they had while enjoying their lives. I don't know if I expected anything different except that it was completely out of character with my experiences with poverty in the US. Where US poverty is something I've always seen as dismal, hopeless, and depressing, the mood on the street in Bogota was more communal, vibrant, and alive. While I'm sure the problems of crime, drugs, and failed dreams are just as severe in Bogota (or throughout the poor areas of Colombia), the air of optimism has not been extinguished here as it has in so many places in the US where the poverty is so much less severe and the possibilities for personal advancement are so much greater.

At any rate, we had to go all the way to the back of the neighborhood, the very top of the hill (mountain) to reach the areas where the displaced have established rudimentary homes. These are the people who live in abject poverty. They are forced off their land by violence (guerillas and paramilitaries share the blame), they lose their livelihoods, make their way to Bogota in hopes of some help from the government or jobs that will enable them to raise their children. But when they arrive, they find a government unable to do much, jobs are scarce, and the numbers of poor are so vast that they just become another statistic. There is little hope for the displaced. They are unlikely to find a future in Bogota, yet are unable to return to their land. It's the classic rock and a hard place being played out for millions of Colombians every year and it defines the word tragedy in the truest sense.

We had to park in front of the police station and leave our cars there. For obvious reasons, it wouldn't be safe to leave our cars anywhere else, but also we wouldn't have been able to drive into the Neighborhood of the Displaced as there is only a steep dirt road and our cars would not have been able to top it.

After discussing our plan with the police, we hopped into a police van for the trip up the mountain. The inside of the van was damp and when we inquired as to why, they explained that the night before had been extremely violent and they had just washed out the blood. Apparently, poverty and alcohol don't mix.

The trip up the mountain was a bit harrowing, at least for me. I'm not a fan of heights and there was a serious dropoff just to the left of the van. Falling over that ridge would have meant a sure death for us all. But, somewhat miraculously, we managed to get most of the way to the top before the road bested the van and we had to get out. We walked the rest of the way into what can only be described as a refugee village.

The first thing you notice is that the buildings are built from a hodgepodge of materials. Anything from metal peices to tarps to cardboard will serve. As long as it keeps the rain out and provides a bit of shelter. The "houses" were stuck to the side of the mountain like boulders after a landslide; there was no rhyme or reason to their position, they appeared built in completely random intervals.

The other thing you notice is the smell. There was a garbage pit to the side the road that gave off a powerfully unappealing odor, but after passing that, the dominant smell is of waste. Animal or human, I could not tell and did not want to know. But the smell of waste product and unwashed humanity will linger in my nose. Of course, by living on a mountainside, the people are spared the worst as there is a great deal of wind and fresh air that blows through. So the smell wasn't unbearable or even particularly heavy for the most part. So for that, they are fortunate. It could be a lot worse.

Our group split up at this point. There were eight of us, so we split into two groups of four. The other group went directly up the mountain to our right, while we went to the top of the hill and up the mountain to the left. The idea was to reach the most difficult to reach homes first to ensure that those people received food and then help those closest to the road last on the presumption that other charities don't have the same persistence.

The climb up the mountain was very difficult and a bit harrowing. The residents had literally cut steps into the mountain earth, but they weren't like a nice even staircase or anything so easy. Instead, they were slick and damp and cut at irregular intervals meaning that it could be a very large step or a very small one. Finally, after considerable effort, we reached the top of the mountain and the fun began.

The idea was to only give out tickets to parents. This is mainly because the extremely poor will do anything to get as much as they can and, as we had limited supplies, our goal was to provide assistance for the maximum number of families.

It didn't take long for the news to spread. After handing out tickets to the first 10 or so families, we got mobbed. Soon there were legions of children following us around the mountain, pushy mothers begging us for tickets, and people who already had tickets telling us they hadn't received any. Managing that was a bit nighmarish. While on the one hand you want to help everyone, when you have limited supplies there is only so much you can do.

We continued to trek around the mountain for quite some time until finally, we ran out of tickets. I believe we distributed them equitably but had it not been for the vigilance of our leader, that could have been different. She is the one that started this project 5 years ago, so she obviously has the experience.

Throughout the process I was struck by the number of families in this relatively small place. When you walk into their "village" you can't imagine that 100 families live there. But the truth is that many houses have 2 or 3 families each. The people are packed together, making the best with what they have because they quite literally don't have any other choice.

I was also struck by another factor. With only rare exception, the vast majority of the parents that we found were women. In fact, the only place I saw a lot of men was in the one "bar" they have in the village. And they were drinking the day away (with whatever scant funds they had to afford such a luxury). But house after house after house was run by women. It makes one wonder where the men are. Were they killed before their families migrated to Bogota? Were they out working? Drinking the day away?

There were no answers to my thoughts, but I suspect that they were either dead or had deserted their families. It's a tough life these women have now, raising children with virtually no money and no hope for a better life. And it's especially tough when the men were the ones with the generational knowledge of farming techniques. Even if the people manage to get their land back, who's going to farm it if the experience and knowledge of previous generations has vanished?

After we had distributed all the tickets, we returned to the police station. There was already a line waiting for us. We started giving out the food first, one bag per ticket. That process was mostly orderly. Of course, one of our helpers, who was obviously less than clever, didn't keep the tickets that she received and enterprising people picked those tickets out of the trash and tried to use them again. Fortunately, we got wise to that quick and didn't give out second bags of food to the same families. In the end, I feel that the food was distributed equitably. There were some people complaining that they didn't get any, which might have been true, but most of those people were the ones that found the tickets in the trash and tried to reuse them.

The toys were different however. I didn't really participate much in the distribution of toys as I was on food duty, but as I saw, the kids and families were pushy and sometimes disappointed. It's a tough thing. We didn't have enough money to get toys for all the kids. So it was basically one toy per family. And you hate to see kids disappointed. But at the end, we gave out what we had and hoped that it made a difference.

One thing that was not surprising, and one of the reasons we distributed these items in front of the police station, was the number of people from that neighborhood that tried to get in on the handouts. We specifically targeted the internally displaced because they're the poorest of the poor. The people who live around the police station, while poor, have houses and hopes. That didn't stop them from pushing their way into the process and trying to get whatever they could. With virtually no exception, all of our goods when to the displaced. As sad as it is, someone else is going to have to help the rest.

At the end we felt good about what we did. For the price Diana and I paid for new glasses (2 pairs), we fed 100 families for a month and gave out Christmas presents to over 100 kids. But ultimately, I can't help but feel that it's not enough.

Think about it. The total money collected was $1.3 million pesos. That's about $600. And Diana and I paid $300,000 pesos just by ourselves. We can do more. The people need the help and the size of the donations required to make a huge difference is nothing to us. What I find hard to believe is that the donors didn't give more.

Not only that, those people need more than just food donations. They need doctors. I saw a little boy, no older than 4, who had a wound on his wrist that was seriously infected. I fear that if he doesn't get treatment, he'll lose his hand, if not worse. There were countless others with health problems that are easily treated. The Colombian government is either unable or unwilling to help. The US government gives $400 million annually (roughly) just for military assistance. The UN tries to do what it can. But in the end, these people are mostly overlooked, forgotten.

We can do better. Internally displaced persons are the victims of the worst kind of violence. They lose their lands, their livelihoods, and more often than not, critical members of their families. When they appeal to their governments for help, they receive silence as their response. They're left to fend for themselves under the most difficult of situations and they have little hope for their children's future. At the end of the day, it doesn't take a lot to help. A little money, a little effort and you can make a big difference in their lives.

I don't know what we're going to do next, but we're talking about organizing another charity drive. Whether it's food or clothing or something else, we hope to do what we can to help with what we have.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Mostly Back in the Swing of Things

Well, it was a rather unpleasant Thanksgiving afterall. I ended up coming down with a particularly nasty viral infection in my intestines that I am still fighting. I was out of commission for over a week and I still have lingering fatigue and exhaustion. I lost about 12 pounds in 5 days, so that pretty much tells the story.

At any rate, I'm back at Spanish class and teaching english (unfortunately) and I'm still waiting for the job to come through. I've filed all the paperwork they asked for, now I'm just waiting for a salary offer. I've been told that it should come through either this week or next (probably next). And, I've given notice at my english institute meaning that my last day teaching will be Dec 15th (and this Friday is a holiday!).

I think you pretty much know that english teaching isn't for you when you spend the majority of your pre-class thought process planning ways that the student won't show up or will be late. In fact, I can say unequivocally that teaching english is one of the least pleasurable jobs I've had. That's not to say it's horrible. It's just a real pain in the ass and, for the most part, boring as hell.

For example, one thing I absolutely hate about teaching english is that about half my classes are outside of the office. Instead, they're either in the student's office or their home. Normally, it's not too difficult to find the student's office. Pain in the ass, yes, difficult no. However, I can't express enough just how aggravating it is to go to a student's house. I've spend hours looking for houses that are ridiculously difficult to find. Part of this is Bogota's fault and part is the student's fault.

The city is in the process of renumbering all of its streets and buildings. Sometimes, like on our apartment, the numbers change very slightly (116#29 to 116#22); other times, the numbers change radically. The students, who are almost evenly divided between rich jackasses or rich nice people (but always rich), rarely put down the new number for their building, leaving teachers like me (i.e. foreigners) struggling to find their address. When we end up arriving late, the students are invariably bent out of shape about it, even though IT'S THEIR FAULT because they gave us the wrong damn address. (One time it was wrong by an order of 15 city blocks!)

Now I have pretty good relation management skills, so I rarely have a problem with my students even if I am late. After informing them that the address they gave us is incorrect, we find a solution (half of a class, for example) and move on. This includes the jackass who has a ridiculously difficult to find house and refused to allow me upstairs to even discuss the problem with him. Five minutes of talking on the phone while making him look like the foolish jackass that he is pretty much guilted him into having 1 hour of class instead of 1.5 hours.

As frustrating as that experience was (and trust me, I was ready to start cursing this particular fool out), I think the problem is a little more systemic. In fact, I think the problem is a bit specific to Colombian or Latino culture. See, Colombia is a service country. The people generally don't lift a damn finger to help anyone who is providing them a service. When they want to catch a bus, even if the damn thing stops 5 feet from them, they wait until it moves to just in front of them so they don't have to demean themselves by actually moving a bit of ass. Or, if a store clerk is overloaded with a Colombian's would be purchases, said customer will idly watch the clerk struggle instead of offering to lift one finger of help. Frankly, it's damn rude and it's something I absolutely abhor about Colombia.

All of this is damn ironic too, given the Tu and Usted forms of "you". The language is inherently polite, but the people are generally rude. Of course, the irony extends to another level as well. Colombians are generally among the nicest and most welcoming in the world if you are invited to their house or introduced by a friend. But if your a stranger, you can go F yourself. Go figure.

At any rate, as I currently work in a service capacity, I run into this attitude more often than not and it's enough to drive me batty. At some point I just want to say, "Piss off then. I really don't give a damn if you learn english or not!" And let's face it, I'm not exactly raking in top Peso here. I certainly don't get paid enough to put up with some of the nonsense that I've seen on this job.

Of course, I think all of this is really about an evolutionary process that is rather new here in Colombia. And by that, I'm referring to the evolution of good manners. I have a theory about this. I think that the older the civilization, the better the manners. The British, for example, are widely heralded as the best mannered in the world, but they've got over a thousand years of practice. Or Asian culture, for example, is extremely old and, coincidentally, well mannered.

Colombia, however, is still early in this process. One example that I think speaks volumes is passenger behavior on the Transmilenio. Now, I ride the city's bus system quite a bit because it's the easiest way for me to get to Javeriana and will be the easiest way to get to my new job as well. So, I see a lot of different types of people.

But, no matter the social status, people pretty much behave the same. Here are 7 easy steps to follow if you want to fit in with the usual bad behavior:

1. Always stand directly in front of the doors to the bus, even when you don't want to get on that bus. This has the lovely effect of preventing anyone from exiting or entering the bus.

2. Get bent out of shape when someone pushes you out of the way because you've positioned your waste of oxygen body in front of said door.

3. Forceably push your way onto a bus even when other people are trying to exit and when you get pushed around, see #2.

4. Never move out of anyone's way, even when they politely say, "permiso" or "discupla". But do give them a slightly disinterested glance that says, "go f*ck yourself, I'm not moving".

5. Never move to the center of the bus and always crowd the door even if you're not getting off for 15 stops. This is great because this causes most of the buses to be extremely crowded at each door, but mostly empty between doors. The cumulative effect is that the buses seem more crowded, carry less passengers, and your trip is much more uncomfortable.

6. Never give up your seat for an elderly or pregnant person, at least not until your guilted into it by your fellow passengers.

7. Always push as hard as you can to get on a jam packed bus, even when there's another bus directly behind that is mostly empty. Bonus points for being an elderly woman with a neck brace that pushes like a linebacker and jammers with unceasing anger that no one will let you on the bus. (Then again, that woman might have just been totally insane.)

At any rate, I find the whole process unpleasant. Fortunately, my new job is relatively close to home so I won't have too many stops when I take Transmilenio.

However, the bus system is only part of the problem. I've spent a lot of time getting to know Colombia and its culture and I'm not exaggerating when I say that some things that go on here really bother me at a core level. The flagrant disregard of the public for anything and everything resembling manners is only part of it. There's also a complete disregard for people who are in need - whether it's long term, systemic poverty type need, or someone getting assaulted on the street. The people here either just don't care, are too numbed by violence and poverty, or are too afraid to lift a finger.

This problem manifests itself in all parts of Colombian culture. In stores, when driving a car or taking a bus, in the streets, and any other place you can imagine. My wife says that "Colombians aren't team players." I say that Colombians are generally selfish. It's a me first world to the exclusion of everyone else.

I've seen that attitude before in the US and in Europe. It's not uniquely Colombian. But here I feel it in a more pronounced way. It's worse, to me, than I've found before. And if there wasn't any other reason, I believe this is the one that would drive me from this country some day. I'm just getting tired of it.

At any rate, I'm feeling a bit fatigued now and since I have class in 2 hours, I'd best do a bit of Spanish homework. And since I don't want to bitch too much in one post, I'll save my complaints about my Spanish course for next time.

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