The last few week have been spent in the slow lane over here on the wrong side of the world. Most days I am taking Spanish classes, going to the gym (well, almost everyday), watching a lot of Buffy, slowly working my way line by line through Strathern’s The Gender of The Gift, and spending too long on the internet. Having realised that my Spanish was not yet up to the task of doing the research I wanted to, I set aside the last month of this year’s trip to taking classes and actually doing all that verb conjugation and vocab practice I don’t usual have time for. Its been oddly peaceful, which is handy because as soon as I get back to Chicago next week the world will explode again.

My Spanish teacher is a rather nervous young woman. We are getting to know each other quiet well, though I tend to find that’s often the case with such classes: you spend an inordinate amount of time having to talk about your personal life or express your personal opinions. We have argued over Bolivian politics, discussed our views on globalisation, ranged over my thoughts on my colleagues, my family, my love-life, my research and my recipe for moussakka. It makes me a little uncomfortable. (especially the moussakka part)

It doesn’t help that we’ve been covering the subjectivo, something that doesn’t seem to exist in English but is used to express doubt or opinion in a sentence. So I end up with exercises like the following:

Express whether it is/is not important/just/necessary that:
– we have much work
– parents discipline their children
– we help the poor
– children respect their elders
– there is contamination in the air
– that Man is civilised
– the US helps other countries
– the US makes peace with Russia

(Yeah that last one was a bit of a give away about the age of the textbook.)

The pedantic anthropologist in me can’t help but squirm. Alas I can’t give “well that depends on the context and how you define the concept of justness or civilisation” as an answer every time, even if I do use the subjunctivo to say it. I know, I know – they are just exercises. But until my Spanish is good enough to explain the concept of cultural relativism, these exercises are going to be tricky.

The number of personal questions can tend to make you start feeling like you’re in a therapy session. I remember one doomed introductory German course I took as an undergrad where even the basic statements, coming as they did at a rather complicated time in my love life, reduced me to tears. My poor study partner soon learnt to stop asking the marital status question and to stick to asking how many brothers and sisters I had.

Last week we were using a lot of airport based vocabulary, and I ended up trying to convey my airport rant (see a few posts below) in Spanish to my poor teacher. She got an even more confused and blabbery version than I wrote down there, given that it was in Spanglish. Recently airports and the mystic alchemy that is buying plane tickets has been somewhat on my mind though. Having followed the various rules for finding the cheapest fare (look before a tuesday because that’s when the prices go up, don’t use the same website too often for the same fare because they raise the price depending on how often people search for it, check out the secret student discount fares on the secret student website, pick an odd day to fly, stand on one leg bathed in the light of the full moon singing “she’ll be coming round the mountain” backwards while searching) I finally found a flight. And then of course it went up by $100 in the space of the 5 hours I was waiting to hear back from my relatives in the UK.

(Here’s an interesting maths question while we are on the subject. If a flight on Virgin Airlines between Chicago and London is advertised on the first page after searching as $630, but then when you click on the link to buy it, the cost break down on the next page is $288 fare each way, $462.31 tax and $750.31 in total, how much of the original price was tax, how much fare, and how much bullshit?)

But I brought it anyway. Sadly I was too late to make it back to the UK in time, and given that airlines don’t even like to give refunds when its their fault, I don’t think I will be getting my money back. So all I can hope for now is that the funeral can be arranged to coincide with the flight I brought. Its left me a bit up in the air about where I’ll be once I leave Bolivia – another reason to savour the calm here this last week.

The thing about a language class other than a normal conversation is that you the student tend to do most of the talking, rather than the teacher. So they get to learn a lot about you, but its hard to gauge what their personal reaction to your opinions is as opposed to their professional assessment of your grammar. The last class I had ended with a discussion on Bolivian politics in which I asked my teacher to tell me what she thought instead. She started to tell me how corrupt Evo Morales is, and how he is ruining the country, how the poor people in the countryside need to be taught and led because they can’t make decisions on their own in their best interests. Makes me wonder what she thought about my inarticulate replies to her questions on globalisation, international travel and politics. And makes me a bit more reluctant to try and express myself and my personal opinions in the last few classes.

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Facebook is usually my networking and gossiping space, rather than for conversation, so I’m transplanting a mini-discussion that got going there over here.

A elderly relative of mine is ill in hospital, generating a stream of emails and phone conversations from me to various family members back home. Sadly they are the horribly practical kind of conversations that go along the lines of ‘will he make it to Christmas, or should I drop everything and come home now?’. This is the kind of situation I have imagined having to deal with ever since I moved abroad, as I suspect every person who emigrates for some period of time does. One of those horrible cases where your normal sense of helplessness is compounded by being unable to do anything from a distance. There’s not much you can do other than send flowers and wait for someone closer at hand to make a judgement call.

Anyway, its looking like things are getting bad, so I started to browse flights last night with the aim of seeing how feasible it would be to go home for a few days before the quarter starts. And that’s what generated my immense shock at the discovery that taxes on flights have gone up an astronomical amount in the last few months. In some cases, the taxes were triple the cost of the flight! A non-last minute flight, even, is looking at being around $200-300 for the flight and $400-500 in tax on top of that. (And before anyone dares say to me that its not that much in pounds, I get paid in dollars. $800 is nearly two months rent, and over half of my termly wages for a graduate student teaching job.)

Partly the reason it seems so bizarre is the intensely annoying policy of not listing the tax as part of the cost. Something that, incidentally, makes budget shopping for anything in the US difficult if you are not particularly maths savy. On all purchases the price on the ticket is without tax, so its always more when you get to the till. Three years later and I still can’t make accurate guesses about how much the tax will be and so still get surprised at the till each time. Very annoying, especially if you are trying to stick to a budget. The only advantage I can see is that at least it makes it more obvious how much of the cost is, actually, tax.

Jim’s joke about my comment on the rise in tax on facebook was that it was socialism. Sadly I think that it probably is not. Tax is a sore point for me. On top of the normally high taxes here in the US, I get the ‘you’re a dirty foreigner tax’, which means that all my stipend and wage cheques in the US are taxed by a third. A third of my already below the poverty line income goes on taxes. And for that I get no health care, no decent public transport, if I had kids they would be in disgracefully bad schools and still have to pay for university, no free public cultural institutions… and so on. I do get a to help pay for a war though. And as a dirty foreigner, of course, I have taxation without representation because I can’t vote. Unlike in the UK, where you don’t pay tax until you reach a (admittedly very low) level of income, and students don’t pay tax at all other than NI, here its the rich who get out of paying taxes.

So yeah. While I’m in favour of taxes, I’m also in favour of them being fairly applied and spent on something other than a war. Each time I look at my pay cheque and my health insurance bill I get quiet bitter about the fact that this is not the case. Taxes alone do not make socialism.

But then back to airfares, because I’ve often heard the argument that I ought to be boycotting air travel because its damaging to the environment and a luxury. No doubt many argue that higher prices will serve as a deterrent and stop people flying so much. Well I disagree. Higher prices when there is no viable alternative will not make people stop travelling, it will just make it harder for poorer people to travel, and generate bigger profits for those in the loop. Travel should not be a luxury, in the same way that communication with the rest of the world (internet, telephones, mail services that work and so on) should not be a luxury. Luddite laments that life was grand when we all lived in our place and thought people from the next town were foreigners are something I will never have much sympathy with. Then again, the howls of derisive laughter over statistics that show Americans hardly ever travel outside their country are rarely balanced by approval that they are saving the environment either.

Air travel should be regulated, because its a disastrous and wasteful mess. But the answer is neither to make it more expensive nor to call for it to be boycotted altogether. I would rather see the moral outrage channelled into generating alternatives that don’t mean we all have to sit in our own backyard the rest of our lives, trapped in the jobs, lives and socio-cultural circumstances that fate happens to have thrown our way.

So lets think of alternatives instead. For a start, everyone who has ever had to do it knows that short distance air travel is ridiculous. It takes hours longer than advertised (a half hour flight involves at least 3 hours in waiting, delays and ‘security’), is – like all air travel – hideously uncomfortable and intrusive, and could easily be replaced by a more convenient, cost effective and environmentally sound alternative. If some of those taxes were being spend on developing train systems that made it actually possible to travel across the US by any other means than plane or car, then that would be a viable alternative.

Air travel is hopelessly inconvenient, stressful, and disorganised. It needs to be better organised and run for the purposes of allowing people to move around rather than for making profits. But there we run into that same old problem again, the one that begins with a big ol’ capital C. And we won’t get any closed to S for socialism through boycotts and taxes.