Tag Archives: politics

Visa in 30 Minutes or it’s Free

Well it’s not free but getting a Chinese visa has been one of the easiest things I’ve done recently. Actually getting to the office is another story.

The first thing to know is that the visa office is not in the Chinese Embassy proper. It’s in a small office complex near Georgetown in Washington DC. There are two problems with this. The first is that the building is completely unmarked in any way. 2201 Wisconsin Avenue is a gray building, no flags or signs or anything. If you didn’t write the address down you’re going to have trouble. The second issue is that the office is located in one of the few areas of the city not served by a metro stop. The two closes stops are each about two miles away, not too far but not close either.

One of the sights close to the visa office is the US Naval Observatory, the home of the national president. Using my amazing powers of planning and Google Maps I decided on taking the slightly more complicated walk from the Woodley Park/Zoo metro stop to the office since that would lead me right past the Observatory complex. Why not? Get my paperwork done and do a little sightseeing. My other option was to get off at the Tenleytown stop and follow Wisconsin straight to the office. The safe but boring option.

Making my way to the office from the Woodley Park stop was an exercise in futility to say the least. Google Maps makes it look like there’s a nice circular road that surrounds the Observatory. Right before that road is a small park with some foot trails to hike though. It didn’t help a whole lot that it rained the previous day, lots of mud and wet leaves to manage.

But I was getting close to the road. I had a map on my phone and was tracking my progress through the park. I finally got to where I would be able to reach the road….. and there was a big ole fence. Sometimes I don’t let things like fences stop me often going over or try to slip through. However the vice president’s abode is not one of those times. I can be daring, but I’m not dumb. I don’t want any Secret Service attention.

So I followed the fence and using my map I slowly worked my way out of the park and got on to a proper road. The Observatory complex actually forced me to go about a mile out of my way so I spent an extra thirty minutes trying to make it to my destination.

I finally got to the office at 9:35. The office opens at 9:30. I felt pretty good that I made it so early even after getting lost and battling some messy trails in my nice shoes. I walked into the office, got a ticket with my number, and noticed there were fifteen people ahead of me.

I settled in for a long wait. It is the government after all. They never can work quickly. I pulled out my Kindle and listened to numbers be called. They were actually going through all the numbers quite quickly. People who didn’t respond within thirty seconds of their number being called were just skipped, on to the next person. The visa officers were not there to waste time. Far sooner than I expected my number was called.

I made it a point to have all my paperwork organized before I left the house, the information about what is needed is easy to find on the embassy’s website. I passed over all my papers, the lady helped me fill in some parts of the application I wasn’t sure on and then I was done. Unfortunately they weren’t able to rush job the visa so I could get it the same day. I was required to return in two days to receive my passport and visa, so I made plans to come back into the city. I gathered my belongings and walked out the door. As I left I checked my watch. 10:05


The Armenian Flag

I ran across this in an Armenian friend’s dissertation I am proofreading and felt like it was worth sharing.

The Republic of Armenia law on the flag (2006) specified the meanings for the three colors on the flag.  The red symbolizes an everlasting struggle of the Armenian people for a long life, Christian faith, and an independent and free Armenia.  Blue correlates with the wish of the Armenian people to live under a peaceful blue sky.  And orange celebrates the creative talent and hard working characteristics of Armenians.

The Armenian Flag

However, some school students apparently are taught a different version of the flag: red, blue, and purple.  This stems from the idea that the Armenian word for purple is ‘trisaranagyun’ derived from the words apricot, tsiran and color, gyun.  The apricot is the national fruit of Armenia and one of the defining characteristics of the culture.  So some schools play songs where the flag colors are red, blue, and purple.  The red stands for Armenian blood that was spilled to keep the country safe, blue for the blues skies that look over the Armenian people, and purple for the ears of wheat that feed.

I’m not farmer but I’m not really sure where the purple comes from when dealing with wheat.  I’ve seen pictures and they’re golden.  I’m sure there’s a reason though.

End of the Line

This is the final entry about Peace Corps’ evacuation of Bolivia in 2008. You can read part one, part two, part three, and part four. Or just keep on keeping on here if you don’t care about the build up.

So Peace Corps got us to Lima. They put the whole lot of us in a resort just outside the city. Four bed bungalows, good food, we were living the high life. Or we would be if we weren’t the most depressing lot of PCVs you ever saw.

We tried to occupy our time exploring the area which wasn’t so hot since we were in a small town on the outskirts of Lima. But a few things happenings do stick out.

I had the best Chinese food I’ve ever had (we’ll see if that stands when I actually move to China) was there. Some friends and I skipped out on dinner because we wanted to go out for drinks. We hadn’t had Chinese food in months because it doesn’t exist in Bolivia. We all sat down and were reading the menu in Spanish. Almost all of the dishes came con chaufa, ‘with chaufa.’ And near the end I could get beef or chicken chaufa on it’s own for like two dollars. None of us knew what chaufa was but drawing upon previous experiences with Chinese restaurants and the price tag for the chaufa, I made the logical jump that chaufa was some sort of eggroll. Probably a bigger one if you get it on it’s own. So I got two, a beef and chicken chaufa.

Our food arrives and lo and behold what do I get? Two plates of fried rice. The mounds of rice were the size of my head. The serving sizes all around were enormous. They served dishes that were twice as big as any normal human being would eat. Wasting food sucks, but there was no way we would have been able to finish all of it. They literally had to pull up a second table next to us just to put our food on.

Another restaurant story happened to a couple of friends. One evening PC hired a bus for us to take us into downtown Lima. Some of the guys went to Hooters because they had this deal, unlimited wings and beer for about $40. So while we were hunting out ceviche and pisco sours they were just crushing wings. At the end of the night it turned out there was some fine print. They had to eat a plate of wings and drink a beer, if they ever got two plates per beer or two beers per plate instantly it went over to having to pay for each beer and set of wings. Of course they didn’t know this and ended up with a $400 bill between the five of them.

At our ceviche place, the waitress asked us to speak English because we all learned rural Bolivian Spanish and she didn’t understand our dialect. That was pretty embarrassing.

Those were the highlights. The low came when the country director gathered us all together for a conference. There it was announced that Peace Corps was temporarily suspending the program in Bolivia. It was like taking your first blow in a boxing match. It wasn’t unexpected, but hurt all the same.

Later that night you wouldn’t be able to find any alcohol within five miles of the resort. We bought it all. Lots of tears and anger at Washington for screwing us. Solace was found at the bottom of a bottle.

Have you ever tried to deal with a hundred and forty hungover and pissed off PCVs? Not a job for the faint of heart. But deal with us the staff did. Suspending a program entails a whole bunch of paperwork and logistical nightmares. They walked us through it, holding our hands every step of the way. We were given the option to finish our service in Latin America (what most people did) or do a complete two years somewhere else (what I did, ending up in Armenia). They brought down counselors to help us deal with the rapid readjustment and in general went way out of their way to make us happy. Not like that was going to happen though. We all had friends in Bolivia we were leaving behind. Training groups that were like families were scattered across the globe with less than a week to cope.

Peace Corps said the program was evacuated for volunteer safety. Most of us think that’s a cop out reason. The commonest theory is that PC Bolivia was caught up in the Bolivia – America diplomatic scuffles and we were just a pawn. Washington took us out to spite Bolivia for some slight and Peace Corps is a whole lot less important than a DEA mission I guess.

The First Cracks

This is the second part of the dissolution of the Peace Corps mission in Bolivia.  The first part about coca is here.

Coca is a sticking point in US – Bolivian relations, but it is not the only one. The current Bolivian president Evo Morales is an unapologetic leftist leading his Movimiento al Socialismo political party and the Cocalero union representing coca growers of Bolivia. He’s also the first indigenous president of Bolivia and a loud critic of many of Washington’s policies in South America, especially the war on drugs. He grew up dirt poor, not even finishing his schooling. A bit informal, he still acts like a campesino and prefers to go by Evo than anything else.. Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela and another critic of Washington gained stature in Latin America due to investing Venezuelan oil wealth into social projects throughout the continent. Together Evo and Chavez try to act as an alternative to US leadership in Latin America, having success with some other leaders in the area.

A bombastic leader, Evo was also forced to deal with tensions within Bolivia Directly tying into the end of the Peace Corps/Bolivia relationship was a series of protests and referendums in 2008 spearheaded by the Media Luna, an informal name grouping the eastern, lowland provinces together. The center of the conflict involved the distribution of profits from natural gas extracted in those areas. Strikes and protests broke out throughout the region that eventually led up to a bombing of a vital gas pipeline and a clash between pro and anti government supporters that left twenty killed.

As disruptive as the protests and riots were for the country, Peace Corps volunteers were left basically unaffected. The large scale violence happened in cities, not in the tiny villages the volunteers were stationed in. Peace Corps Bolivia’s security officer was good at getting the information out to volunteers keeping us in our sites where we were safer since we had relationships in the community. But on a higher level there were some changes. For one, Evo accused the US ambassador at the time of being involved with the civil unrest trying to undermine the government and declared the ambassador a persona non grata, kicking him out of the country. Washington responded in kind expelling the Bolivian ambassador. This was the beginning of the end for Peace Corps Bolivia.


This is the first entry in a long saga about how the Peace Corps ended their relationship in Bolivia.  You can read more about the political situation here.

What is coca? At the most basic it’s a plant. But there’s much more than that. If you ask the United States government they’ll tell you it’s a security threat that needs to be wiped off the map through prodigious use of herbacides and fire. If you ask many people in South America they’ll tell you coca is a miracle cure. Harvested for over eight thousand years, coca has helped the Andean people fight altitude sickness, fix hangovers and stomach problems, relieve pain, even combat malaria. Where’s the disconnect?

Coca can be refined into cocaine. This makes coca a premier target for US law enforcement. A key tenet of the war on drugs in South America, is the eradication of coca. Aerial fumigation and bulldozing of coca fields happen on a regular basis. This doesn’t stop the peasants from growing coca, there’s just not enough money to be made elsewhere. Study after study has shown that to effectively reduce the amount of coca being grown to reduce the amount of cocaine coming into America development projects aimed at helping the cocaleros transfer from growing coca to other crops need to be ramped up with money and personnel. Unfortunately this isn’t happening quick enough so the status quo remains. It’s a Catch-22. When coca is destroyed, prices go up. When prices go up more people plant it. The unfortunate result is that cocaine is still easy to find in America.

Daniel Ritiere

On the other side, coca is an integral part of traditional Andean culture. Along with the medicinal uses, some people believe that coca leaves can be used in divination. It also plays a heavy role in traditional religions. This connection to the past should be no surprise in the Andes where many people still speak Quecha, the language of the Incas. My host grandmother I lived with only spoke Quecha, her daughter had to translate the Quecha into Spanish so we would be able to communicate. With coca being so important to their culture, the coca eradication program has fanned anti-US sentiment in the region. A common refrain I heard through conversations, ‘If cocaine is such a problem in America, why aren’t they fixing the problem in America?’ There are those who claim that the war on drugs is nothing more than an attempt to finish the job the Spanish tried and crush out all indigenous culture. US law enforcement officials are no more than neo-conquistadors in their eyes.

Coca is legal in Bolivia and the Bolivian government does cooperate with US authorities to destroy illegal coca fields. Evo Morales does have many issues with the United States, but he agrees that cocaine manufacturers are a security risk and need to be dealt with. He has worked to extend protection to legal growers and tried to reduce the eradication program from the US with varying degrees of success.

Legal coca leaves are sold in bags by weight, ranging from a few ounces for a day’s supply up to hundreds of pounds to resell in local markets. It is often chewed giving off a slight tingling and numbing sensation. You can also find mate de coca which is a tea made of coca leaves. This is more common throughout the whole country, the chewing intake is normally limited to the more indigenous parts of the country.

As a foreigner there are some risks involved with coca. Outside of South America, most countries don’t differentiate between cocaine and coca. In America coca is considered a Schedule II drug, just like cocaine. So bringing any back to the states is a big no-no. Customs may let you slide on an ignorance plea, especially since the amount of coca needed to refine cocaine is outrageous, but in this day of constant security risks in airports it’s not worth it.