Monday, July 30, 2007

Colombia, now Japan!

One last account of my Colombia travels should just about cover everything noteworthy. It really is a great country, and it seems to be much safer than its reputation might imply.

Throughout my time in Colombia, I occasionally wanted to just hang out and watch a movie or play a video game. It just so happens that Colombia is the best place I've ever been when it comes to buying these two things. These wonderful people openly and proudly ignore copyright law and sell fake movies/games not only on the streets, but in legitimate storefronts. I simply walk up to a store, and they hand me a binder full of every game I can recall being made. I point, and they deliver a piece of software like magic. Magic that costs two dollars a pop.

Behold the unlawful bounty.

The best part about buying a playstation game for 2 dollars is that we already haggled them down from 3 dollars.

My theory is that this whole stealing of say, a movie, is a vicious cycle. It seems that the typical DVD sold in Colombia is imported from the US. This drives the cost to a point thats even higher than what we pay. Average Colombians cant afford to pay this, so they rely on the illegal copies. This brings down the number of legitimate DVDs sold, making each DVD more expensive to ship, continuing the process.

I was excited yet dismayed to see that my favorite "religion" had infiltrated this innocent land. I tricked Angelica into taking me into this place. Sure, it looks like a storefront, but it just happens to be selling the meaning of the universe.

The Colombian office of the coolest religion ever, Scientology.

In case you are still in the dark, here is a quick summary of the key to the meaning of life.

I arrived in Japan last night. I haven't checked out the neighborhood yet, but my apartment is pretty quality, plus a lot larger than I imagined. More on Ashikaga as it reveals itself. Later

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Colombia, Gwen Stefani Showdown, and the Simpsons Movie

July 20th is Independence Day for the good people of Colombia. I assumed that some amount of fireworks or other impressive festivities would ensue. Instead, the population seems to treat this as any other government holiday that doesn't specifically touch their lives. Yes, everyone gets a day off work, and there is a noticeable increase in national flags, but that was about the extent of it. There is a government sponsored parade that normally occurs in Bogota, however even this entertainment was robbed from me. It seems that Nicaragua has been expressing interest in gaining power over the Colombian island of San Andres for some time now. The national parade was held on the island as a statement that those people are Colombians too. One parade. In the whole country. On an island...

What I did get to see was some sort of anti government demonstration parade walking down the streets(one would think that the government might have just a smallish parade to prevent this demonstration from happening.... but hey, its their country). As I couldn't fully understand what these people were whining about, the most impressive part of the action was the police that were assigned to the march.

Pretty cool crowd control vehicle with a water cannon. Looks like it has seen some past action.

Phalanx of policemen on the march.

We later made a visit to the Museo Nacional. I love museums, but without any written translations anywhere, much of the information was lost on me. One of the most memorable exhibits were mummified natives had had been scrunched into the fetal position and stuck in holes in the side of cliffs. Pretty crazy. I took a few shots of the random artifacts that I thought looked interesting.

The museum's exterior had a stately castle look to it.

"Crab people, crab people, taste like crab, look like people."

Looks like an ancient advertisement for a Coca flavored soft drink.

An interesting story began to unfold one Saturday morning. I had watched a bit of the local news, and it seemed that Gwen Stefani had just arrived at Bogota airport. I still find it amusing that even famous people are occasionally subjected to the same torture as the rest of us at airports, so I watched a bit more then moved on with the rest of my day. That night we all went to Andres Carne de Res(the website is awesome and constantly changes, give it a look). It is a pretty awesome restaurant, with a decorating style the likes of which I've never seen. Even the menu is weird: a small scroll inside a metal box. One must turn one of two handles on the box to scroll through the abundant menu items. Theres an account of my first visit to this place in the 5/7/07 article (accessible through the archive tree to the left of this article). Anyway, on with the story. So aside from being an awesome place to eat, Andres turns into a pretty happening dance club when the sun goes down. People everywhere, hard to walk around: it took us forever to scavenge a table despite our reservation. At one point in the night, the music stops, and there is an announcement. "Someone as important as Shakira is here and wants a table. If someone would give up their table that would be great". (Things to bear in mind: #1 Shakira's hometown is Barranquilla, Colombia. #2 She is the highest record selling Colombian artist of all time.) We all speculate about who it might be, but none of us care enough to go look, and when the music starts up again we all forget the incident. Some time later, the music stops again, bearing another announcement. "Gwen Stefani has left because she couldn't get a table," along with a comment like "we are happy that important people want to party here, but you are all important too." The next song to play on the dance floor was Sweet Escape by the old Gwenster. I laughed my head off about this for a time, remembering the earlier TV coverage. Not only that, but for the rest of the trip, just about every Coca-Cola product that I put my hands on featured advertisements for the Coke-sponsored Gwen concert occurring that Saturday. Very entertaining.

Sweet Escape Music Video

I originally thought this picture was a good way to illustrate the genius of the Colombian practice of handing out little plastic gloves when serving messy foods like hot wings. It also has a bonus Gwen Stefani advert in it. Hehe

"Sorry Gwen, we got here first"

Yesterday I attended an early screening afforded to all of the Springfields that didn't win the (fixed!) contest to host the premier of The Simpsons Movie. I give the movie a so-so review, only because I love the Simpsons and I wasn't blown away. The animation quality was noticeably beefed up with the help of computers, and everything was looking spiffy. No extra hoopla at the showing by Springfield dignitaries, unfortunately.

Springfield, ILLINOIS! Recognize

Colombia, International Drivers License

As fate would have it, Angelica got a call from the US embassy during my trip. It seems that after all this time they finally decided to grant her a visa to come back to work in Illinois. It also meant that I got to finally check out this embassy that Ive heard so much about. I inquired about any possible tours by email to the embassy's website with no meaningful answer, unfortunately. I was amused to find a small industry had developed surrounding the US compound, offering things like visa photos and various documents. When we finally got to the front of the visa line, the bastards wouldn't even let me go in the gates with her because I didn't have any visa business of my own. Something about a Colombian telling me that I couldn't enter the US embassy bothered me pretty bad, but I understand that why they wouldn't want people strolling around without any real business. Whatever. I was consoled by the fact that it didn't look real interesting inside anyway.

I could smell the delicious freedom emanating from our embassy.

Angelica at one of the numerous visa repair shops.

There was some sort of widespread demonstration not long before I arrived in the country. It was a protest demanding the release of some lawmakers kidnapped by revolutionaries some number of years ago. I occasionally ran across some evidence of these protests.

I visited the national post office to pick up some souvenir stamps. Some patriots had recently redecorated the building.

Today I went to pick up an international drivers permit from AAA. I showed my current license, gave them some passport sized pictures, slipped them $15, and voila! Instant drivers license, good in Japan for 1 year. No test or anything. Sure I cant read most of the Japanese road signs, and maybe Im not used to driving on the left side of the road.. but who cares! I have a piece of paper from my local travel agency! Hurray!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Back for a Limited Time

Whew! There's something very Wizard of Oz about boarding a plane in the historic capital city of Colombia, Bogota(map), taking a nap, then waking up a few hours later in the US. Unfortunately I've had about an hour of total internet access during my stay in the ol' Bogota, which hurts me deep in my soul. How can I check random facts at a whim without the internet? Its like I have to rely on my previous education here.... shudder. So, readers, that means that you get a couple of general recollections of my travels rather than the day by day account.

This time I decided that I didn't want to annoy Angelica's family by living in their apartment for two weeks, so I stayed someplace else. Her dad got me a room in this pretty excellent hotel meant for veterans and their families. Not only was it a nice and very cheap hotel, but it was part of a compound containing several restaurants and bars, a few stores, a bowling alley, minigolf, swimming pools and so on. Everything was fenced in and patrolled by military police, which was really the best. I didn't have to worry much about the safety of my belongings. The subject of security leads me on a bit of a sidetrack...

Just to park in this place requires a bit of extra time. You have to stop your vehicle at the gate and show ID. At the same time, soldiers carrying very large guns check out your trunk. Often they have a bomb sniffing dog check everything as well. While this may seem like a lot, a trip to one of the many local malls isn't much easier. Private security mans the gates and the bomb dogs, but the process is mostly the same. Security patrols the lots and watches from above. I assume that this security is a remnant of more turbulent times, but it gives one a safe feeling anyway.

Here is a man dutifully watching over the mall parking lot from his guard tower.

Bomb dogs diligently keep the Hard Rock Cafe Bogota safe from terrorists and disco lovers.

A big thing that I had the opportunity to see was the 2007 Agro Expo. It reminded me a lot of the part of the Illinois State Fair(which I am going to miss this year, boo hoo) that deals with farm stuff. This was more on the trade show side of things, with some buildings devoted to something specific like meat packing equipment that someone outside of the industry would have very little interest in. Apart from the serious farm equipment, there was plenty for the average person to do. Like every good fair, there were all kinds of different foods to try, and I just happen to be a professional eater. I had food and drink samples shoved at my face from all directions, which is something I could get used to. Also nice: I couldn't understand the sales pitch following the sample, so I just politely left and went to the next booth. One of my favorites were small pieces of banana dehydrated until chewy but not completely hard, then covered in chocolate.

A little arch marks the entrance to the Agro Expo.

Here we have one of the most unexpected exhibits at the Expo. These people were selling all kinds of things made from the Coca leaf. I passed on trying any of this stuff... I imagine that a Coca soda might produce some unwanted drug test results in the future.

I happened upon an interesting demonstration of how a kind of unprocessed sugar can be extracted from sugarcane. Here the stalks of the plant are ground up and the husks removed.

On the other side of the sugarcane operation, the mashed up plant is boiled down to retrieve the sugary goodness. Its then poured into square molds to harden.

Here some teenage police enjoy the fair. I believe that there is some sort of mandatory service for young people in Colombia, unless you are rich enough to pay your way out of it, of course.

More Colombian adventures await. Check back tomorrow to be thoroughly astounded and/or amazed. I leave for Ashikaga, Japan on the 29th, so I only have a couple days left to pack and digest some last morsels of amercian culture. Keep it real.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

World Tour

Friday was my final day at Karmak. My coworkers had a nice miniature potluck for me and everything. I really do value my experiences there. I learned many things that will be serve me well in the future. Just spending some time learning how to operate in an office setting is pretty crucial, not to mention all of the technology that I became familiar with. My job took me to six states, two that were new to me. I regret not having the opportunity to see any other countries during my work travels, but I can't complain much. The people there are really friendly and welcoming... Goodbye Carlinville! Nice place, but Im not going to miss the commute.

I am going to spend some more time in Colombia before I head to my new teaching position. I figured I should share a couple of things about the last trip that I inadvertently left out. Its crazy to think that this excursion was only a week of my life. I feel like I saw and did enough to fill a month.

The first big site that deserves to be mentioned was Pie De La Popa in Cartagena. This amounted to yet another religious building on the top of a large hill. Besides a great view of the surrounding city, I don't recall it being very noteworthy in my mind, but it seemed to command a degree of importance that I never understood. I gathered from a few pictures on the walls that Pope John Paul II had visited and blessed this place, so if its good enough for the Pope I guess I can manage.

During our wanderings in and out of the religious buildings, there was something I couldn't stop thinking about. When we were finally ready to leave, I had to see it again. At the gates to this place, among all of the really annoying peddlers, was a guy holding two sloths. These might be the coolest animals that I have ever seen with my own eyes. They move ridiculously slowly, and a little scrunched face on a longish neck reminded me a bit of a hairy E.T.. They also had really long claws. I read that they are usually safe from being hunted by humans because their claws are so long that a lethal bullet isn't enough to dislodge their body from a tree. Pretty crazy.

Every church should have an exotic petting zoo

This next picture is a kickass statue of Simon Bolivar that we discovered during a night time stroll in a park. Before going to Colombia, I didnt really know much of anything about this man. But he seems to be the historical rockstar of the continent. Imagine a George Washington figure, who, after leading the United States to independence, decided to go ahead and liberate 5 other countries and serve as president in each. He seems to have just plain dominated the Spanish wherever he went. Beast man.

Well my time in the ol' US is winding down. Let's hope its memorable!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

More Chicago and My Pick for President

Sunday was time for more exploring the mean streets of Chicago. I spent pretty much the whole day at Lincoln Park Zoo(website). I really should go to the zoo more often. I forgot how much fun it is, plus its free. And free is fun. I could watch the gorillas and monkeys all day. I love their facial expressions and the way they interact with each other.

Nice tiger shot

These camels were posing pretty excellently.

I was also treated to an unpleasant tour of the transportation options available in Chicago. We left the zoo a bit over an hour before I needed to be at Union Station to catch my train home. So we hop on the appropriate bus to begin our journey. This particular bus is completely full. To make matters worse, the back doors don't work, so whenever someone wants to get off they have to crawl over lots of people to get to the door at the front of the bus. This slows us down considerably, and eats up all the time that we had allotted. So we frantically get off the bus and hop in the nearest cab. I jump out of the cab and run all the way to the gate where the trains reside. At this point it is about 5 minutes before the train leaves. The lady at the gate lazily looks at my ticket and talks to me a bit about how late I am. She then mentally gives up and just says that I'm too late to board the train. Not cool. That being the last train of the day makes things a bit more complicated for me and my homeward aspirations.

The only place left for me to turn is the Greyhound bus station. The people here are a bit rough around the edges for my liking. The first thing that we are told at the ticket booth is "that bus is sold out for today". After much conversing, the bus guy says that I can buy a ticket for the next day's bus, and then hope that someone cancels for today's bus. Long story short, I just get on the bus without waiting, probably screwing someone else over who had a legitimate ticket. Sucks for them. Overall, I appreciated the trip despite the setbacks. Chicago is always a fun place to visit.

For those of you that don't live around here, Springfield, IL is currently in the running to host the premier of The Simpsons Movie(website). The city of Springfield is competing in a video contest with several other cities of the same name located all over the US. At stake is the honor of being recognized as the city with the most "Simpsons Spirit" and the right to host the upcoming premier. You can see the videos and vote for who you think should be the winner at the official contest website. Vote for Illinois!!!

Speaking of voting, I've been paying a bit of attention to the presidential hopefuls as of late. I think that one of the candidates really stands out as an intelligent statesman who actually has ideas based on facts rather than political nonsense. Ron Paul(wikipage) is a hardcore believer in the constitution and wants to trim the government back to its intended role. He is opposed to just about every kind of government spending and inefficient bureaucracy. He has stated that one of his first goals would be to eliminate income tax and the IRS(wikipage). Plus, I think he is just plain more interesting to hear speak. You can check out some of his views at his campaign website. Give it a look.

Here is Ron keeping it real on Bill Maher’s Real Time

There are several more serious interviews and debates on his campaign website. Check it out.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Taste of Chicago

Friday night after work I took the train up to Chicago to visit some friends from high school. I figured I should come up and do something different, as the weekends that I have left to enjoy in the US are becoming very few indeed. The train ride itself was relaxing. I wish people would support Amtrak(wiki) so that it doesn't go out of business. It is definitely a leisurely way to get someplace, the frequent and unpredictable delays mean that one needs to be very flexible about what time they arrive.

Lucky for me I came to town when the Taste of Chicago(website) is running. Eating weird food that I've never had before is one of my favorite things, and this festival more than satisfied the quest for exotic munchies. The setup was pretty typical as far as these things go. They used a ticket system, which unfortunately masks the cost of everything, but makes the lines a lot less painful. The only downside to this was the enormous amount of people who decided to attend at the same time as me. In the worst areas, just walking across the street took real determination and planning. Not only that, but everyone is carrying various messy foodstuffs, which means that bumping into someone could quickly change the color of your clothes.

A ticket booth at the taste.

I ate all kinds of stuff. The first was at a tent which featured African food. I had goat meat with coconut rice. The meat was still on chunks of the bone. A little bit chewy, but satisfying.

This was good times

The next thing I just had to try despite what common sense would dictate. Turtle soup. I've heard it said threateningly in so many episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles(wikipage) that I couldn't turn it down. I should have. First of all, there was no turtle meat in it, which was disappointing. The soup consisted of broth only, and what a weird broth it was. Colored a dark, swirly yellow, the soup had a bad smell and a sour taste. I didn't even want to finish it.. bleh. Shredder should've threatened to make the ninjas EAT turtle soup, could be more scary than becoming it. That's the risk in trying weird stuff I guess... but its a risk worth taking.