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Bogotá (2005-10-19 to 2005-10-30)

by Richard Stallman Contributions Published on Jul 13, 2010 10:43 AM
On Oct 19 I began the first trip in many years that wasn't primarily for the sake of my work. Tania asked me to go to Bogota to be with her in her thesis presentation. I was happy that my presence was important to her, so of course I said yes. After various schedule changes, we settled finally on Oct 19 to 28. That would give me a fair amount of time after her presentation, when she would be more relaxed.

While in Boston a couple of weeks before the trip, I had an idea: I would bring along some Chinese recipes and cook them. I picked recipes from my favorite cookbook, and asked Tania to check which ingredients were not available in Colombia, so I could carry them with me.

I looked for these ingredients in New York a few days before departure. I could not find star anise in the neighborhood, which ruled out soy sauce chicken. Produce would have to be obtained in Colombia, but I did bring some dried black mushrooms with me, hoping there would be no problem with customs. I also brought along a number of books that Tania wanted to read or that I hoped might interest her. In any case, I had no problem that evening, because both of my suitcases were left behind in Miami. I had to return to the airport the next day to pick them up, and then went through customs in the worst possible way. In fact, they saw something that worried them in my bags, but it was a metal object; I don't recall which. There was no problem.

I was staying with Tania in the two-room apartment inhabited also by her brother, her brother's girlfriend, and two of the programmers of her company. Quite a crowd--but it felt like home, albeit a not a materially comfortable one.

Tania's thesis was supposed to be finished before I arrived, but as I arrived she was working around the clock, not sleeping at all most days. I tried to make her work easier in whatever little ways I could, by getting groceries and supplies she needed, and otherwise staying out of her way. Once in a while one of us would go over to hug and hold the other for a minute, for emotional invigoration. When she considered the thesis finished, she found out that it was dozens of pages too long according to the rules. Just how much too long was uncertain, as each new attempt to format the text, based on learning more about the rules, gave a different amount. I provided suggestions for what she should cut. The thesis was ready the day before the presentation--which meant she could start on the slides for the presentation itself.

Custom required that she bring various food and drink to the presentation, and I went to get them, but I objected to buying a bottle of wine because that's a task I don't know how to do properly. (I decided many years ago not to try to keep track of wines; I also did not know what might be perceived as adequate or inadequate by the people this was intended for.) I said that I would choose based on total ignorance if she was sure she wanted me to, but that if she wanted good results, it would have to be done another way. I suggested she call for advice from people who knew enough to make intelligent suggestions. I am not sure how, but in the end someone bought something.

On the day of the presentation, we arranged that I would raise my hand if I thought she was speaking too quickly, as a signal to slow down. I did that a few times, but she was too excited to remember the arrangement, and thought I was commenting on the substance. But this did not really matter; her speech seemed to be entirely audible to everyone else, and the professors were extremely pleased with the presentation.

But they had other appointments and had to leave, and we had to vacate the room too. Thus, they did not have any of the food or the wine that Tania had been obligated to bring. She went off to sign various forms, I spoke with a couple of university officials about how to get them advice on migrating to free software, and her other relatives and friends sat on stone seats in a corridor and ate some of the food. (We finished off the rest later on.)

I had two whole days left to give a couple of speeches at universities. But then someone organized a meeting with people from Bogota city hall, for Friday, the day I was supposed to leave. Fortunately I could change my flight to Sunday.

The mayor, who a year earlier had been eager to move to free software, was out of town, but people from various city departments attended. They raised issues about obstacles that they faced in converting to free software--and from listening to them, I found that the biggest problem was the lack of real will to convert. One said that his department had made a tender recently for a new web site, and that only one bid offered to use free software, and it lost to a lower bid. (Tania told me that only large companies could meet the requirements; hers could not even try.)

I told them that the most essential thing they need, if they want to make progress towards freedom, is a firm policy of refusing to backslide. They need to adopt a clear requirement for use of free software. One of them told me that a city ordinance was being considered to change the software procurement, so I asked to see a copy. He promised to send me a copy that evening, but it didn't arrive. It doesn't look like the Bogota city government really has the will to migrate.

The two-day delay at least provided a good opportunity to do the Chinese cooking I had planned. I decided to make two dishes I had made before--beef soong (on a bed of fried bean thread) and a meat cake with sausage--and one new one, stir fried string beans with garlic. I couldn't find the vegetables I really wanted for the beef soong, and it turns out I had bought pork instead of beef, but the dish tasted good anyway. We were unable to get the pork for the meat cake chopped, so we had to settle for cutting it up into smaller pieces. Chinese sausage was not available, and I thought chorizo would go badly with the recipe, so we ended up using an "American sausage", more or less a frankfurter, which tasted ok in the end. The string beans were quite underdone, and I think the recipe must have been intended for much thinner beans, but even raw string beans would have been enjoyable to eat. Everyone there, including Tania and her mother (who cut the vegetables and meat), was pleased with the food. However, as I removed the fried bean thread from the hot oil, a tiny drop hit my finger and caused a burn that hurt all through the meal.

I'm writing this in New York on Dec 31. In a few hours I will be meeting Tania at the airport.

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