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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