A Friends Letter

Last week, a very close friend of ours showed me a letter he had written to Senator Boxer, Senator Feinstien, and President Obama on our behalf.  Both Carlos and I were so touched that it brought tears to our eyes.  I’d like to share his letter with you now:

Dear Senator Feinstein [Boxer / President Obama],
 
My name is Eric Barber and I’m writing you on behalf of two of my very best friends. Their names are Aaron Stark and Carlos Torres. They met a few years ago in San Francisco and quickly became one of those couples that almost makes you sick because they are so happy together, so perfect for each other, and so in love! As soon as New York legalized marriage for all people, they made a trip to the Big Apple and returned home to San Franciscoas a legally married couple. Even though (thanks to proposition 8) California doesn’t recognize their marriage, the handful of states across this country that have passed marriage equality laws do.  And, I have no doubt in my mind that as soon as this whole prop 8 ordeal is done in the courts, California will recognize their marriage as well.
However, the reason I am writing you is not because the state of California doesn’t recognize them as a married couple, rather because the United States Federal Government does not. Carlos Torres has been living in San Francisco on a student visa which expires in the middle of April.  He is a citizen of Colombia, South America, but loves living in the United States, especially in San Francisco.  He is brilliant, speaks fluent English, and has been a productive member of our society for the past few years and wishes to do so in the future. Sadly, because of the impending date of the expiration of his student visa, he will not be able to do that. Aaron and Carlos thought long and hard, weighing the options about what to do about this upcoming date that will drastically change both of their lives. Their options basically boiled down to the following options: One…Aaron remains in San Francisco and Carlos moves to Colombia, neither of them knowing when they will be able to see each other again. Two…Carlos stays here in the country illegally, but they get to remain together. Three…Aaron moves with Carlos to South America.
The first option was their least favorite. I can’t even imagine the idea of the two of them being apart for an unknown and very extended period of time. The idea to them, I’m sure, was completely unthinkable. The second option was also not very appealing to them. For starters, the last thing they want to do is anything illegal. They decided that they needed to follow the law concerning this horrible ordeal. Also, they know that if he did stay in the country illegally and was caught, he’d be thrown out of the country and not allowed to return for 10 years. So that option was thrown out. The third option, moving to Colombia, was the one they decided to go with.
Aaron, who is surrounded here with a loving family who accepts Carlos as one of their family members as well, has decided that moving to a foreign country, a country about which he knows very little, and does not speak much of the language at all, is the best of their options. Therefore, next month, they are both packing their bags and moving to an entirely different continent just so they can stay together.
            This infuriates me! They are a legally married couple. However, thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, they are not given the same rights as those people who are in opposite sex marriages. A straight couple would not have to go through this at all. A United States citizen can marry someone who is a citizen of another country. But in an opposite sex marriage, the person from a different country can stay here. That’s one of the rights of married couples in this country. People do it all the time…even people who do not love each other. Many of these “marriages” are shams, people who just want to live in this country. In this case, these are two people who are madly in love, willing to do anything for each other, who do not have the same rights as two drunken gamblers who meet at a poker table in Vegas and decide to get hitched at a drive-thru chapel.
            Thankfully, the option of moving to Colombia, South America, does have its advantages. Believe it or not, they will actually have more rights as a married couple in Colombia than they do here in the United States (which, honestly, I’m still having a hard time wrapping my mind around!). Aaron is going to be allowed to stay in that country on a spousal visa. Also, he has made arrangements with the company that he currently works for to continue working for them by telecommuting. We are thankful for that because he is not allowed to work in Colombia on a spousal visa because he would be taking a job away from a Colombian citizen. However, the country of Colombia is happy that Aaron will still be working for a company in the United States because he will be spending his money he makes in their country, which will help out their economy. And, as a politician in today’s economic environment, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that this does not help to improve our economy here at home. It only makes it worse. All the money he makes between now and when they are finally allowed to return to the United States is money that could have been spent here to improve our own economy.
            The Defense of Marriage Act does not do anything to protect anybody’s rights, anybody’s marriages, or anybody’s lives. Not only is this hurting a loving married couple, but also their friends and family. Also, in a country where we are trying desperately to improve our economy, the Defense of Marriage Act is doing the exact opposite. I ask you desperately for your help. Not only do I selfishly not want my friends to have to leave, but there are many many many other couples across this country who are going through the same thing. I know you’ve stood up for gay rights in the past, but I implore you to please help in this situation. In 3 weeks, they’re gone. They do not want to go, but are willing to do whatever it takes to stay together…something that opposite sex married couple would not have to do. Please help.
 
Desperately Begging
Eric E. Barber
 
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First Couple of Weeks

Well, I’ve made it a couple of weeks.  Here are some random thoughts and observances I’ve noted:

Security

Whereas Bogota has recently become known as a safe city, security presence is prevalent.  For example:

  • Almost every building has 24 hour security guards.  We have to go past security to get into our own apartment.
  • At malls and other public places, cars are searched by dogs for explosives and other weapons.
  • For armored car pickup/deliveries, guards surround the area with guns drawn.
  • Cell Phones are not allowed to be used inside of  Banks.

Banks

Banks are utilized for much more than just making deposits and withdraws.  You pay your utility bills, government fees, taxes, etc. from within the bank.  Some banks have a normal “stand in line” queue, however some larger banks took a “DMV” approach where you are issued a number when you walk in and wait for your number to be called.

Getting Around

At 613 Square Miles, getting around Bogota is not easy.  There are several options available, but all come with advantages and disadvantages:

  • Car:  Owning a car(s) is the option that most people choose.  This has caused massive traffic on the city streets.  It’s so bad that there are driving restrictions during the week; the last digit of the license plate determines whether or not the car can be driven that day.  Whereas it seems like a good idea on the surface, it really does not help as many families simply get a second car so they always have a car to drive.
  • Bus:  There are many buses in Bogota, but most of them are independently owned and small.  We’ve taken the bus a few times with pretty good success.  Catching the bus is fun.  You simply flag it down and it will stop; but hold on tight because it will start up again before you have both feet inside.  Getting off the bus is the same way…
  • TransMilenio:  According to a 2009 article in FastCompany, TransMilenio bus system is the most advanced in the world.  (See article here).  Today will be our first time riding these buses.  Last night, we did some research online to find the routes and fares.  It looks pretty slick and I’m hoping that it will become my primary source of transportation.  Stay tuned…
  • Taxis:  Cabs are sometimes your best bet, but you need to be careful.  There are some cabbies who are less than honest and will either rob you or coordinate for someone else to rob you after you’ve reached your destination.  There are ways to avoid this and so far, we have had no issues.  First, you call the cab company and order a cab.  Catching a cab from the street is not advised.  When you call, they will text you the license plate of the cab who is going to pick you up.  You can then look the license up on a “Yelp” style website where the public rates the drivers.  As an added measure of security, the cab driver will ask you for your “code” which is the last digit of your cell number.  This is to assure that you are the one who ordered it.  Unfortunately, cabs still have to drive on the same congested roads as the cars, so fighting traffic is still a challenge.

Many of the roads are in desperate disrepair.  Bogota is becoming known as the pothole capital of the world, and for good reason.  The amount and size of potholes in the streets is unbelievable.  Some of them are larger than a car.  This causes drivers to swerve into other lanes to avoid the massive void in the road ahead.  And when I say “lane”, I mean it figuratively.  Yes, sometimes there are painted lines in the roadway, but they are really there just for decoration.  Cars typically jam the roadway where ever they will fit.  This, of course, just adds to the traffic congestion.

Grocery Stores

There is a big grocery store almost in our front yard.  For the most part, it’s just another store with isles stocked with food and household goods.  There is a liquor, deli, bakery, and meat department.  However, if you look closely, there are some distinct differences from what I’m accustomed to:

  • There is an “International” isle where I found exotic good such as Safeway salad dressing and Pringels.

  • The milk is not kept refrigerated.  Instead, they are on the shelf in airtight containers.  (Once the milk container has been opened, you have to refrigerate it).

  • Eggs are sold the same way; not refrigerated.

  • The Liquor department is roped off at 11:00pm every night.  Alcohol is not permitted to be sold after 11:00 pm.  Thankfully, this law does not apply to bars and clubs as they stay open until the wee hours of the morning.

Well, that’s it for now.  Stay tuned for more Colombian Adventures.

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My First Day in Bogota

Flight(s) to Bogota, Colombia (SFO –> MIA, MIA –> BOG):

On Wednesday, April 11, 2012, Carlos and I had to get up at 2:00am in order to catch our 3:15am shuttle to SFO.  That was fun, as you can image, but we did it.  Our flight was scheduled to depart at 6:50am, but the shuttle service insisted we catch the 3:15am van.  We ended up getting to the airport about 4:00am, but the ticket counters didn’t open until 5:00am.  So we waited…  When we finally made it to the ticket counter and checked our bags, we were pleasantly surprised that we were not charged anything for our 4 bags.  We were expecting to pay $140, but the agent didn’t charge us.  Yay!

The actual flights were pretty eventless, but long.  We did manage to get about an hour of sleep on the plane, so that was helpful.  After about 8 hours of air time, we landed in Bogota.  I was quite worried about getting through customs, but it was actually really easy.  We went to the customs agent and handed our passports over.  He reviewed them, stamped them, and sent us on our way.  We had to scan our luggage one more time when we left the customs area, but the agent was not really even looking at her screen (not that we had anything that would have raised any flags).

Because Bogota is 8,600 feet above sea level, I did have a little trouble at the baggage claim.  The small task of getting the bags and putting them on a cart made me very light headed and dizzy.  Uggg.  Thankfully, Carlos was helping me and together, we made it to the curb to wait for our ride to our new home.

Cra 11 # 140-41

Crazy as it sounds, that is the address of our apartment complex.  Carlos and I cannot fully express the gratitude we have to Carlos’ family.  They found and rented our apartment for us  and stocked it with some essentials like a bed, dishes, towels, linens, refrigerator, pots and pans and various other items.

Upon our arrival, we were greeted with a little family reunion of sorts.  Carlos’ parents, brothers and their significant others had a little wine, crackers, and meat & cheese plate ready.  It was really overwhelming to visit our new home for the first time.  Tears were shed.

Here are some pictures of our apartment:

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Moving Day #1

What a chore the past two days have been.  We spent ALL DAY Easter Sunday packing.  It would not be so bad except that we were really packing for two destinations.  We limited ourselves to 100 lbs of checked baggage each, plus our carry on’s.  That is all that we’re bringing with us to Colombia; the rest of it had to go into a container to be stored.

Sunday was spent sorting out what we wanted to bring, what we wanted to store, what we wanted to give away, and what we wanted to toss.  So many decisions… our brains were fried.

Once we figured out what we wanted to bring, we had to sort it out so that no one suitcase weighed over 50 lbs.  For the record, American Airlines baggage fees are OUTRAGEOUS!  For our international flight, we are allowed one checked bag each with a weight limit of 50 lbs.  If the bag weighs 51 lbs, there is a $100.00 excess weight fee.  Additionally, each additional bag (50 lbs) is $70.00!  Yes, you read that right.. SEVENTY DOLLARS for a suitcase.  If that same suitcase weighs 51 lbs, the price jumps to $170.00.  Crazy!

We did manage to get everything sorted out and packed by about midnight and of course crashed shortly thereafter so we could be up early to pack the container.

Monday morning, the storage container arrived.  We did quite well in packing it in a timely manner.  We were done in about an hour. After the container left, we had the fun task of cleaning the apartment, turning in the keys, then making our way to the hotel… Which is where we are right now.  Feet swollen, bodies tired and fingers worked to the bone.  But all is good because the bottle of wine we polished off really helping us relax, which is just what the doctor ordered.

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Saying Goodbye

A few friends met Carlos and I at The Lookout on Saturday to bid us a fond farewell.  The Lookout was chosen because it is where we first met 🙂  We both had a wonderful time and want to thank all who came.  We laughed, we cried, but best of all, we got to see our friends one last time.

Thank you Steve, Will and Tyler for our lovely Easter bonnets.

 
Thank you to Addie for thinking about my well being 🙂

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Eleventh Hour Twist

When I first asked my employer (in January, 2012) if I would be able to continue my work while in Colombia, they said that I could.  After all, I work from home and can complete my work where ever I have internet connection.  Because I’d be working for an American company with no ties to Colombia and not taking away any Colombian jobs, everything seemed kosher.  The Colombian consulates office even agreed.

Then, just last week, I was thrown a slight curve ball.  I was told that, after much debate and international attorney consultations, my employer determined that it would be best if I were to resign as an employee, create a business entity and be retained as an independent contractor.  Whereas I completely understand their position, I wish I would have known about it about a month ago.

This gave me a few action items.  I knew that I’d have to get a Fictitious Business Name statement filed in Santa Cruz County so I could then open a bank account under the business name.  So that Thursday after work, Carlos and I rented a car and drove down to Santa Cruz, stayed the night with my Parents, then made our way to the county building to file the paperwork.  I had to be back at work by noon, so we were really hoping this would be quick and easy.  Upon our arrival, we were a little surprised that we were able to park right up front, but didn’t think anything of it.  When we got to the main door of the county building, the doors were locked and the note on the door said they were closed for Cesar Chavez Day!  WTF!  Needless to say, we made it back to San Francisco well before noon because we got nothing done.  Ugggg…

Thankfully, I was able to mail the application to my father who was able to file it the following Monday morning.  In the end, it all worked out.  I received the FBNS and opened the bank accounts.  Thank you Dad!  One more crisis averted.

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Getting my Visa

I went to the San Francisco office of the Colombian Consulate to see what my options were to obtain a Colombian visa.  I was thinking it would be a long and very difficult process, but, to my delightful surprise, I was told that I could get a renewable 3 year spousal visa because I’m married to Carlos.  I was in complete shock!  That, by itself, is a much larger benefit that Colombia gives same sex married couples than my country does.

The woman who assisted me gave me a check list of documents I needed to attach with my application.  She said that I was not able to apply for my visa more than 30 days prior to my travel and that it would take about 2 or 3 weeks to process.  Okay.  This gave me an application date of around March 1.  Completely doable.

One of the documents I needed was an Apostile for our marriage license.  I had never heard of the term Apostile, so I had to Google it as soon as I got home.  Found out that it is like an international notary public; used to certify signatures on documents for international use.  I had to have the Secretary of State issue the Apostile.  Since we were married in New York, I had to mail it to the New York Secretary of State.  The next day, my marriage license was in the mail along with my check to cover the fees.  About a week and a half later, I received the license and check back with a note saying that the Secretary of State cannot verify the signature on the license and that they can only verify signatures from County Clerks.  Ugggg… After several phone calls, I learned that I must first order and have mailed to me a “certified” copy of the marriage license from the New York CITY Clerk.  Then mail that to the New York County Clerk and have it mailed back to me.  Then, finally, mail it back to the New York Secretary of State and have them mail me the Apostile.  Each one of these agencies had a 3 to 4 week turn around time.  Ahhhhh… I only have 30 days to complete the whole process!

After several more phone calls begging for expedited service and over $100.00 in overnight postage fees, I finally received the Apostile in about 3 weeks.  Whew!

Because I knew time was not on my side, I wanted to make sure I had all of the required documents for my Visa, so I made another visit to the Consulates office to have my application package reviewed before actually submitting it (it was about a week prior to March 1).  Again, to my shock, they processed my application right on the spot and issued my visa that same day!  I now have the ability to enter and leave Colombia as many times as I want for 3 years!  Amazing.  It was a long, stressful path, but in the end it all worked out great!

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Welcome

Welcome to my Colombian Adventures blog.  My name is Aaron.  If you don’t already know my story, you can click on About and learn a little about why I’m writing about Colombia.

I hope you enjoy reading about my adventures.   🙂

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