The Passion?

bogota colombia efficiency

I’ve been having an internal battle lately about whether I need to be more “positive” in my writing. And so I have been more positive, and I think my writing’s been OK, but I also think it’s been a bit…boring. 

This morning I was looking through my old blog A Finnish Summer! to see if there was something I could recycle, and I came across a post I wrote while in Bogota, Colombia, in 2014. It was a rant about the inefficiency in Bogota, a city of nine million people where (according to me at the time) efficiency doesn’t exist. 

I read the whole article and was mildly entertained. And then I tried to look for a something else because I feared this article was too “negative.” With each subsequent post I stopped reading after the first or second paragraph. And then I thought: Wait a minute, I just read that whole article about Bogota. And I didn’t have to force myself to read it. I wanted to read it. Maybe it was a bit negative, but at least it was engaging. It least it was honest. 

So maybe my writing needs to be more polarizing. A lot of times I filter myself because I don’t want to sound ignorant or offend people. But it’s OK to say how you feel, as long as you’re respectful and articulate.   Am I really only going to ever play it safe? Am I playing it safe? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and would love to know what you, the readers, the think. So if you’ve never left a comment, today might be a day to do so.

For now, here’s that post about Bogota, written February 21, 2014. 

The “B” in Bogota

(Ed’s note: I have no idea why I titled it this)

It’s been a long time since I’ve written for Finnish Summer.  I wish I was in Finland right now.  I wish I was anywhere but in Bogota.  I need a vacation.  I’m sick of the lack of eficiency here.  If you’re going to be on the beach drinking coconut water and surfing, inefficiency is the name of the game (though actually not with surfing, as that would probably involved trying to paddle your board with floaties on your arms or dragging a parachute behind you or something ridiculous like that).  But when you’re in a city of 9 million people, you expect there to be some form of efficiency, somewhere.  And yet there’s not.  Everything is ridiculous in this country.  Today I officially quit my job.  Normally when you end a contract I imagine it might be customary to get a form signed by your boss or some kind of person in charge saying that the contract is over.  And I had to do that.  I also had to get another formed signed by about 10 other people saying that they were “at peace” with me and that I didn’t owe them anything and that as far as they were concerned I could leave.  How ridiculous is this?  Is this not the very reason hierarchy exists, to avoid situations like this, so that a person in charge can make important decisions without having to consult with every person who works at the company?  There was a spot on the form for the cafeteria staff to sign.  The cafeteria staff!  In other words, there was a spot on the form for the lovely lady who gave us tea and coffee and poundcake at 430pm everyday to sign saying that I didn’t owe her any napkins or that I didn’t accidentally take seconds of the coffee.  Riculous.  Insane.  Welcome to Colombia.

This country seems to pride itself on paperwork and appearances.  For anything official there must be myriad documents to sign.  It must be a process.  It must be difficult.  Because “that’s how things are supposed to be”.  Or at least people think that’s how things are supposed to be.  When you go to the park you see people working out with personal trainers doing ridiculously easy and ineffectual exercises with all kinds of equipment like medicine balls and surgical tubing that maybe target one to two muscles to 4% of their capacity, and yet that’s how it’s supposed to be.  You’re not supposed to work out.  You’re supposed to look like you’re working out.  You’re not supposed to be a businessman.  You’re supposed to wear a suit and a tie and shiny black shoes and look like a businessman.  The work is completely independent.  Appearances are everything here.

Should I come here just to bash the culture?  Probably not.  However, I think it’s natural to compare your culture to that of the culture you’re living in.  Obviously you’re not going to be OK with everything.  And you might even be a little unreasonably judgmental at times.  I do not dislike Colombia.  I really like Colombia.  And for the most part, I really like Colombians.  This is a beautiful country with beautiful people, it just has a ton of problems.  What country doesn’t?  There are some things I will get used to,but there are some things to which I probably won’t.  I don’t need to go to Finland, but I do need to go on vacation, which is why my friend Steve and I are going to Villavicencio next weekend, a place where (apparently) the air is warm and the rumba and steak flows like wine.  I don’t want to become jaded, because no one likes a jaded person.  And no one likes a person who criticizes things only to be guilty of the same things themselves.  And I realize that many times when we hate something we are really hating something that exists inside of us.  I realize this.  I am fully aware.

But the cafeteria lady?  Give me a break….

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El Rincón del Mate

el rincon del mate guadalajara

The temperature is a brisk 85 degrees in Guadalajara, and I’m sitting inside El Rincon del Mate drinking a mate mocha, which is essentially a mocha but made with mate instead of espresso. I thought the chocolate was going to be ultra-sweet, processed Hershey’s garbage, but it tastes like real Mexican chocolate. My taste buds are rejoicing. Well, maybe not rejoicing. But at the very least my tastebuds are awake.

Even though this is the cafe in Guadalajara I come to most, it remains the only cafe I haven’t written about. I don’t know whether or not this will change today. When I sat down I was resolved to “not have an agenda” when I wrote. To let my mind wander. And so maybe I’ll talk about my immediate surroundings, since the temptation for every amateur writer is to write about his immediate surroundings. Or maybe I’ll talk about how this day has gone, how I woke up and went to Pan Regio, thinking I’d write about another pastry and thus complete the pastries in Guadalajara mini-series that’s arisen spontaneously over the past couple days. But the biscuit was unremarkable. This isn’t to say it was bad. It was definitely the healthiest item I’ve gotten from Pan Regio so far. It was made with whole grains, pumpkin seeds, and raisins. It wasn’t nearly as sweet as most of the things they make. My roommate said the other day he thought Pan Regio was expensive. The biscuit cost 7 pesos. I don’t really know how it could be cheaper.

Tomorrow is Friday, which means today’s my Friday. Friday is one of the few days where I have very little scheduled. This is because my online students are mostly in Spain and don’t want to have English class on Friday evenings. And also because I’ve stopped taking more work at Vancouver Language Centre, since the classes I have in the consulate are enough. I’ve never particularly enjoyed teaching English, but I think I’m coming around. I’m starting to understand the English language better. There are some subtleties that are nearly impossible for ESL learners to understand, let alone native speakers. For example, how would you explain the difference between the following two sentences:

1) “What are you going to do after work?”

2) “What are you doing after work?”

The answer (apparently) is that first question is more speculative, while the second question elicits concrete plans. When you say, “I’m meeting up with some friends after work,” it’s more concrete than, “I’m going to meet up with some friends after work.” The latter would sound better preceded by, “I think,” i.e., “I think I’m gonna meet up with some friends,” reinforcing the fact that this is, indeed, speculation.

Or something.

Honestly, I have no idea.

And I really wish I had another drink, but don’t want to spend another 30 pesos to get one.

But maybe I should?

I mean, I’ve worked hard today.

Come on, Mark, live a little.

But that’s exactly the mentality that got me into the financial trouble from a few days ago.

But, like, you only live once, right?

The music playing in El Rincon del Mate right now is from the Into the Wild soundtrack. This movie was popular in the summer of 2009, when I was working at a lodge in Alaska as a housekeeper. I’m not one to single out “favorite summers,” but that was definitely one of my favorite summers. When I’m wrinkled and grey I’ll talk fondly about the summer of ’09, about the time when we tried to live off the land but ended up living off whiskey, about the time Phil and I saw a bear and almost shit our pants.

And maybe when I’m old and grey I’ll talk about the winter of ’18, when I lived in Guadalajara and had few friends and spent most of my days in a small cafe known for serving mate. I’ll talk about how I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was a happy time for me. Though I guess if I’m writing about it now maybe I do realize it. Maybe I am happy.

A special thanks to Barry Sevig for supporting this blog both in spirit and for donating the laptop on which I write everyday. Without him my first website, Where’s Wetzler, would’ve never existed. And probably not this one, either.

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The Compact Object of the Pastry World

pan regio guadalajara

One of my English students via Skype is an astrophysicist. She’s taught me a lot about “compact objects,” which are things like black holes, dwarf stars, and neutron stars. Today I decided I would give her a presentation on astrophysics, because she was feeling a bit tired and might’ve had a headache and didn’t feel like talking that much. This worked out perfectly, because I love talking, and love making stuff up. I gave her a short presentation on High Mass X-Ray Binary Systems, and explained about things like accretion, compact objects, coherent pulsation, supergiants, quiescence, flares, etc. And the interesting part was that, on  some of the stuff, I wasn’t that far off. In fact, at one point she asked, “How did you know what that was?” and explained that I didn’t, that I was guessing.

Of course, for most of the stuff I was completely wrong and had no idea what I was talking about. One of the graphs had a jagged blue line with a spike in it, for example, and a bunch of red dots, and I said that the red dots were plankton and that the blue line represented whales’ hunger before and after eating the plankton. The best part was she wanted to participate, and she forgot she was speaking English. Whenever I asked if she had questions she played the part of the skeptical student perfectly, unmasking my spurious knowledge. It made me realize I need to strive for this more as a teacher. Forget about grammar, or correcting, or anything like that for at least 15 minutes a class, and just focus on getting the student as engrossed in a topic as possible. So much so that which language they’re speaking becomes secondary, and the focus is on communication.

After giving the class I headed out into the fresh Guadalajara morning. It’s getting hotter here. Yesterday the high was in the mid 80’s. I come home from teaching, strip down, put on my board shorts, and hang out barefoot in the cool inner sanctum that is the living room and kitchen of my house. It’s only bad for a few hours. And even during those few hours it’s not that bad. When evening comes the temperature is perfect again. Twilight is my favorite time of day Guadalajara.

As I did yesterday, today I got a bread pudding from Pan Regio for six pesos ($0.32). It was the last one left. On the way back I took a picture of it, because I knew I would want one for this blog. Also on the way back I remarked on the density of the bread pudding. It’s only about the size of a large brownie, but weighs about 30 times as much. How do they make bread pudding so dense? Is it filled with lead? But then I realized it must just have properties similar to those of a compact object. When the bread pudding (called “budin” in Spanish) sits on the shelf in the bakery, it attracts other objects towards it, slowly at first, but then they gain speed rapidly until they slam into the bread pudding, resulting in accretion. Some of the matter from the original object becomes assimilated into the bread pudding, and some of it is spewed into the atmosphere, in this case in the form of particles called “crumbs.” This process continues, croissants and buns and rolls and danishes slowly sliding toward the bread pudding when the shop employee isn’t looking, slamming into it, leaving their mark (and their mass).

And now this compact object is in my stomach. I have a neutron star in my stomach, a dwarf star, a black hole. Which finally explains my eating habits.

A very special thanks to Stefan Peter-Contesse for his (second!) contribution to this “bweeg.” 

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El Mono Silabo

mono silabo guadalajara

I’m at el Mono Silabo, a cafe in the Americana neighborhood in Guadalajara. I’d never come to this cafe before because it’s two doors down from El Rincon del Mate, the one mate cafe in Guadalajara and possibly in all of Mexico, and where I go at least several times a week. But today El Rincon del Mate doesn’t open till 2:30pm, so I thought I’d give this place a shot.

I’m glad I did. When I walked in there was Cuban music playing, and the courtyard was awash with light and people talking. Guadalajara is full of buildings like this; they don’t look like much from the outside, but inside there’s always an open air courtyard filled with plants, and the sounds of the street become a memory. Sometimes there’s a fountain, and always the din of soft music and conversation. El Mono Silabo has a big room off to the side that’s filled with floor to ceiling windows that let in the breeze, and also shelves of books. I love being surrounded by books. It feeds my soul, much like the jugo verde, or green juice I just ordered, that feeds my body.

I just finished giving my last English conversation class on Saturdays. This was the first job I ever had here when I arrived a month and a half ago. I’ll tell you what it paid now, because it’s over and I’m less embarrassed. Fifty pesos an hour. I’ll let you do the math. When you do you’ll see why I referred to it as my “volunteer job,” but when I accepted this job it was because I knew it was the right thing to do. The pay was secondary. It was a way to hit the ground running (see: jogging [see: slowly]), to meet people, to have meaningful interactions. And it’s also opened doors. I’m now one of two Spanish teachers at the American Consulate here, which is another job I accepted at the same company because I figured it might open doors. I’m still not quite sure what doors these might be. So far it’s just another underpaid job. But it’s also cool to meet people from the consulate, to see that world, and if I hadn’t accepted that job that never would’ve happened.

The reason I quit the English conversation job is because I now have a lot more online work, and this work pays over three times as much as what the Saturday conversation class was paying. This is not to say it pays a lot, because it doesn’t, but it pays a respectable wage for Mexico. I’m still not in the financial position to get my own place. I spent all of my savings in Sayulita, so I’ll have to wait till mid March, unless I somehow sell an article to the New York Times or other such massive publication, which might be hard since I’m not submitting articles to such publications. But I have this strange feeling that I’m going to come into a decent amount of money soon. Have you ever had that feeling? It’s a good feeling. It reminds me of the J.D. Salinger quote:  “I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.”

That’s kind of how I feel right now.

I’m debating whether or not to order a coffee, or a frappe, but really just enjoying the music that’s drifting in from the adjacent courtyard. My nostrils are being intermittently assaulted by some kind of sewage smell from the street, and I’m not sure where it’s coming from. I’m supposed to work on my novel today, at least 1,000 words, and I can’t be bothered. All I want to do is take a nap. Which is fine. Because it’s Saturday, and Saturday’s in Mexico are for cafes and naps.

Crucial information: 
El Mono Silabo
Calle Miguel Blanco 1405, Guadalajara
See photos

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How to Teach Online So You Can Travel the World

I’m buzzing right now because I just gave probably the best class I’ve ever given online. Her name was Maria. She’s an astrophysicist and lives in Spain.  When we were discussing the idea of doing classes online I asked her what she might want to talk about and she said, “Astrophysics?” and I thought she was joking. But it turns out she’s actually an astrophysicist, and thus spent part of our lesson today lecturing me on the properties of a neutron star and defining things like compact matter and explaining what a “high mass x-ray binary system” was.

It made me realize that teaching online, if you’re living in a place like Mexico (Note: If you work for the company Appen and you’re reading this I don’t live in Mexico, I live somewhere outside New York City [hence my IP address] and enjoy hiking in the Adirondacks and going into the city for coffee with friends), is definitely the way to go. I’ve always shied away from online classes because I thought they were awful. But the REASON I thought they were awful is because all the classes I’d taught online had either been through A) Open English, a company started by a Venezuelan guy that’s MASSIVE in Latin America but boasts, at least when I taught for them, one of the worst interfaces in the history of the internet, and B) On Skype using my cellphone. In retrospect, I don’t know how/why I ever taught on my cellphone. It was a joke. I would literally write things down on a piece of paper and flip the camera so my students could see what I’d written. In my defense I was (sort of) living in Germany at the time and was very confused. I was trying to answer the question of: What does it mean to be an adult? What does it mean to be self-sufficient? And actually I answered the question quite succinctly and quite easily. Being an adult means buying things like spinach and bell peppers that you don’t really like but you’re know they’re good for you so you buy them anyway. That’s it. Like I said, it’s easy.

So what are your options for teaching English, or just teaching in general, online?

They are myriad, and I shall explain them to you in great (medium) detail:

1. Private Skype classes

Private Skype classes are good because you get 100% of the plunder, but bad because there’s no kind of virtual classroom where you can easily show images or draw or things like that. It’s not a huge problem, because you can still use the chat box to accomplish most of these functions. That’s why the class this morning was (at least in my opinion) so dynamite. The chat box revolutionized things for me. Imagine being able to say one thing, and either type that same thing at the same time, or type something completely different. (You say: “You’re doing a great job, keep it up!” You type: “Your English is terrible. This is hopeless.”)

Also, if you do Skype classes, you (usually) have to find your own students. Where can you do this? Spain has a great website called Tus clases particulares, France has Le bon coin, and if you do a little light research you can usually find a sort of classifieds option for each country. Which is probably something I should do for Mexico, like, two weeks ago.

2. Online Tutoring via a legit company

I’m currently contracted with Varsity Tutors in the US. I’ve done zero jobs for them. They pay $15/hour, but a lot of the classes are for 1 hour and 1 minutes, which means you only teach an hour but get paid for an hour and a half. Twenty two dollars and fifty cents for an hour’s work??? This is unfathomable to me right now. I cannot fathom it. I will not fathom it.

Another similar site is The good thing about these sites is that there are tons of subjects to teach. On Varsity Tutors I’m set up to teach French 1,2, all levels of Spanish, and some levels of English. I tried to qualify for geography but failed the quiz, which caused me to have a flashback to the 8th grade Geography Bee when I got out on the first question because I confused latitude and longitude and then possibly soiled myself. Hopefully Varsity Tutors gets their shit figured out and starts sending me jobs soon.

[Update: Almost as soon as I posted this post Varsity Tutors sent me an email with a referral link. For each tutor I refer, I get $80 (if they get approved for ACT, Algebra 1, Calculus 1, SAT, or Statistics) and the tutor gets $80, too. For any other subject, we each get $40. THAT MEANS YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE TO TEACH. All you have to do is get contracted and approved and we both get $$$$$$. Here’s the link:]

3. Teach the Chinese

There are a lot, a lot, a lot of rich Chinese people who will pay gross sums of money to have their sucklings inculcated with the fineries of the English tongue. I’m currently going through the hiring process with VIPKid (“Part-time Teaching, Full-time fun”), a company based out of Beijing who boasts Kobe Bryant as an investor. The thing I HATE about these companies is that, since you’re teaching English to children, they want you to act like a clown. They want you to have a “fun background” behind you, like pictures on your walls, and smile a lot. Anyone who’s hung out with me for four seconds knows I despise smiling. So this is a struggle for me. But they pay well, up to $22 or so an hour, so it might be worth throwing self-respect to the wind.

These are all the opportunities I can think of right now. I’m sure there are more. I know there more. Which is why if you know of more, or know of any awesome ways to make money online, preferable cold, unbending US dollars, let me know in the comments.

I leave you with a quote from Good Will Hunting:

“Good day gentlemen and until that day comes, keep your ear to the grindstone.” – Chuckie, Good Will Hunting


Special thanks to Sam Kidder for supporting this this “bljaag.”

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