Saturday, July 31, 2010

Electronic Entertainment

In a place like Belmopan, where there isn't exactly a ton to do, you have to rely on quite a few other forms of entertainment.  Fortunately, Belize has it pretty good.

Cable - In one of the best surprises, Belize has great cheap cable.  We get 100+ channels with all major American networks and cable channels, including movie channels.  There are also about a half dozen local channels, a dozen soccer channels, and more Spanish channels that I usually see on US cable packages. Our local network channels (now) are from Denver.  Apparently, every few months, the local channels will get shut down and they will change the local market.  There is a pirate movie channel - it literally shows new release films that are recorded with a camcorder in a theater.

The only downside to the cable here is that I can't use a DVR.  I truly fell in love with DVR the last few years in the States.  It is really hard to go from having it to having to actually watch a TV show when it is on.  I also don't have a menu that I can scroll through to see what is on.  I'm actually back to channel surfing.  But, the cable only costs me about $20US per month, so it is totally worth it.

Internet - While cable is cheap, the internet is not.  I just paid the bill for my first month and installation and it was over $300US.  I do actually get pretty fast connection here.  I can watch streaming video - it is not great quality, but I can watch it.  However, the internet company blocks most VOIP, so I can't use Skype, MagicJack, or other such services.  Since I am outside the US, I am also unable to watch Hulu or other TV shows on the internet.  In order to fix this, I had to get a VPN (virtual private network), which gives me a US IP address.  So, the internet thinks I am in the US, which allows me to do anything I can do in the US.  (If you want to get a VPN, I used  It cost me like $55 for the year - totally worth it).

Radio - There is no nice way to put this - Belize radio sucks.  There are maybe a half dozen stations that come in regularly.  LoveFM is the most popular.  Most of the time, they are either talk radio, or the music sucks.  But every once in a while they will play a good hour of music.  It's what we listen to at work and it is the best of a bad media.  The most annoying thing that all the stations do is the DJs cut into the music constantly.  They will just start talking over the music, or sing along, or other crap.  Before I left the US, I bought a new car stereo solely for the input jack.  Best investment I made before I arrived.

Netflix - One of the great benefits of being abroad with the foreign service is my DPO address.  Essentially, I have a US mailing address, which allows me to get DVDs with Netflix.  I've been watching Lost since I got here and I am in the middle of Season 3.  Combined with my VPN, I am also able to watch movies on my computer.  And soon, I will add a router that will allow me to hook up my Xbox to the VPN, so that I can download Netflix direct to my TV.

Overall, the entertainment options are much better than I will see at many other posts.  I can watch US tv, I have good internet connection and I can even rent movies through netflix.  It may be a bit expensive, but I am going to enjoy it while I can.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I'd heard about it well before I got here - the Sam's Club in Chetumal.  A mere 3 hours away was a store with so many products on the shelves you had to buy bulk.  Not only was there an abundant selection, the prices were also low - both in stark contrast to Belize.  Since the Men's Club trip to the private caye was cancelled this weekend, I decided to head up to visit this Mecca of Central American shopping.

I was heading up with the two interns, although one of them was just hitching a ride to Mexico as she was taking the bus to Cancun to meet a friend.  When we got to the border, the girls had to get out of the car to go through immigration.  The driver stays in the car and I just had to flash my dip passport.  At the Mexican part of the border, they just waived us through.  FYI, there is a river separating Belize and Mexico - I did not know this before.

When we got into town, our first stop was the Jeep dealership.  Since I had that flat a few weeks back, I'd been unable to place the spare on the back of the car because the lug nuts were stripped.  I'd been unable to find lug nuts in Belize that fit the bolt.  Fortunately, the Jeep dealership had the lug nuts in stock and I was able to reclaim my trunk from my tire.  After dropping Sam off at the bus station, we headed to the mall.

Chetumal has a full, American style mall.  There is a department store, electronics store, a movie theater, arcade, and a plethora of boutique clothing stores.  Oddly, while the mall itself was air conditioned, none of the stores had A/C.  Our original plan was to see Inception at the cinema, but it wasn't playing.  Instead, we headed to the massive grocery store.  After almost two months of Chinese stores with dusty shelves, produce from a parking lot, and meat and baked goods in separate stores, this store was a revelation.  The bakery was huge and cheap.  Large muffins were 5.9 pesos - at 12.7 pesos to the dollar, that was about $.50 per muffin.  Bread, donuts, pastries, and tortillas were all plentiful and cheap.

Then, there was the dairy section.  This store had more shelf space for yogurt as the entire city of Belmopan has for all dairy products.  There were multiple varieties of cheese, along with salami, sausages and olives.  I honestly spent a half hour just looking at these options.  Hell, the pharmacy was the size of the grocery stores in Belmopan.  The produce section - small by American standards - seemed so large and luxurious that I didn't know what to do with myself.  They also had a bunch of other products similar to Wal-Marts or Targets.

After we left the mall, we headed to Sam's club.  The store was the exact same model of Sams that you see in the US.  A few of the products might be different, but mostly it was the same.  I had a few things I needed to pick up - beer, wine glasses, drinking glasses, a few tiki torches, and some food.  Okay, the tiki torches might have been an impulse buy.  Perhaps the best part of Sams was that we ran into one of my co-workers there.  It's like when I lived in Shenandoah - we'd always run into people from Shen when we shopping in Omaha.  We drive 3 hours to see the people who live across the street.

On the way back, Nancy and I decided to play a car game I played as a kid.  Whenever we'd go out to the lake, we'd always guess the number of bikers that we would see on the road.  The Price is Right rules were in effect (closest without going over).  Initially, I guessed 26 and Nancy guessed 17 - we hit that before we got out of Corozal Town.  We upped our bids to 63 (Nancy) and 71 (me).  We zoomed past that.  Finally, as we pulled into the housing compound, we had counted 118 bikers.  It really is the most popular sport in Belize.

Friday, July 23, 2010


I will admit something unflattering about myself - I am a grocery store snob.  I'm not talking about the organic, health food, snobbery of most of the people who love Trader Joes or Whole Foods.  I am a snob for customer service.  See, the thing is I worked in a grocery store my senior year in high school and during summers while in college.  I even went back to my old store for my first job after college.  When I was working there, I had some great bosses and our store director had a few very simple, but very effective rules.

Rule # 1 - Never make customers wait in check-out lines.  People have a limited amount of time for shopping.  When you go to the store, you know that you have only 30 minutes.  If you are at a store where you know you will have to wait 15 minutes to check out, then you will only shop for 15 minutes and then head for the check out.  If you know it will only take 5 minutes to check out, then you will shop for 25 minutes.  Thus, you buy more.  So, rule number one was that if more than one person was in line to check out, you called up additional checkers until every person in the store was up front, no one was waiting anymore, or every check out stand was being used.

Rule # 1 is also the one that is most often broken in places not Hy-Vee in Shenandoah, Iowa.  In DC, I would have to wait for 10, 20, 30 minutes.  I HATED this.  I loved going to the fancy, expensive grocery stores just to not have to wait to check out.

Rule # 2 - Keep the shelves full.  90%  of the items in a grocery store don't sell so much that you have to worry about them running out on the shelf.  The main exceptions are larger items where you have a limited amount on the shelves, such as milk, pop (soda) or cereal.  This is especially true when there is a sale.  Again, this is a rule broken too often in the States.  In DC, one of the chains would have a sale of Pepsi products that required you to buy four to get the sale price and the shelf would be empty.  You could never find any more.  This leads to Rule Number 3.

Rule # 3 was to always personally take the customer to the item they cannot find.  Hy-Vee's slogan/theme song was "There's a helpful smile in every aisle."  If you can't find something, (a) you won't buy it and (b) you will spend your limited shopping time (see Rule #1) searching for the product.  You will buy less and be more frustrated.

So, how does shopping in Belize compare to shopping in the US?  Well, there are essentially 3 different types of grocery stores here.  First, you have the typical crappy Chinese store.  It is called a Chinese store because it is owned by a Chinese or Taiwanese family.  These are typically very small, very dirty, with limited amounts of products with varying expiration dates.  Not exactly whole foods.

Second is the Belizean grocery stores.  In Belmopan, this means Brodies.  Brodies is small (there are larger versions in Belize city that are more like American stores).  About half the store is non-perishables like bathroom supplies, towels, sheets, plates and glasses, votive candles.  The other half is typical grocery store stuff.  Some food (a surprisingly small portion of the store), cleaning supplies (a surprisingly large portion of the store), a bit of alcohol and paper products.  Brodies is the most expensive place in town (they sell a quart of icecream for $18 US).  BUT, they typically have the same products every time you go there.  I know that if I want to pick up a box of cake mix that Brodies will have it.  The other Chinese stores are not as predictable.

The third type of store is the fancy Chinese store.  In Belmopan, there are a few of these.  Fancy, of course, is all relative.  About the size of a large 7/11, they have more products than the small Chinese stores and are dependably cheaper than Brodies.  For the most part, you can find things there on a regular basis.  This is where I usually do my shopping.  A new store opened up on the edge of town which is really nice and almost like a real grocery store.  I haven't been there enough to evaluate the prices.

The one thing that is sorely missing from all of these stores are the 'departments' in American grocery stores.  There is no meat department, no produce section, no bakery.  Don't even think about artisan cheese or a deli.  This is what I miss the most.  Especially the produce.  We have the farmer's market on Tuesdays and Fridays, but I am just never prepared enough to take full advantage.  I'm not good enough at planning meals.  Plus, if I am honest, the produce scares me a bit.  I don't recognize a lot of it and don't know how to cook a bunch of the stuff that I do know how to cook.  For bread, you go to the bakery and for chicken you go to the chicken place.

But, where Belize lacks in selection, they truly make up for in customer service.  I never have to wait to check out.  The one time I asked where something was and they actually had it, the guy took me to the product.  And the shelves are always full.  If something isn't on the shelf it is because they don't have it in the store.  So, in many ways, the stores here suck.  And the next  time I make it into a real grocery store, I will marvel at all the selection and variety.  But, when I wait in line while the rude check out person slugs their way through my order, I may actually look back fondly on the Belize grocers.

(Note: this post inspired by my trip tomorrow to go shopping in Mexico.  We are driving 3 hours and to another country in order to shop and go Inception, which better be as good as advertised).

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cave Tubing

Without question, the coolest thing I have ever done in my life is have a snowball fight on an erupting volcano.  Yes, you read that right, I had a snowball fight on an erupting volcano.  When I was in college and studying in Rome, some buddies and I went down to Sicily.  We rented a car and drove an erupting Mt. Etna.  It was as awesome as it sounds.

So, when I found out I was going to Belize, I discovered out that there is something called cave tubing.  I quickly realized how awesome this was going to be.  It basically is what it sounds like.  You ride down a river through a cave.  There are several of the companies that run these tours near Belmopan.  We had originally planned on going with Jaguar Paw but they canceled on us the day before we were to go.  Instead we went with Caves Branch.  (I met the owner of Caves Branch back when I went to the Lebanese Day celebration in June.

While many of the tours are just a relaxing trip down a lazy river which goes through a few caves - this wasn't that.  I, unintentionally, signed us up for the Caves Exploration Cave Tubing, which was more exploring, less tubing.  When we got to the resort, we first signed our life away.  Then, we hopped on a bus that was taking us to the starting point.   During the ride over, we forded a river.  If you look in the picture to the right, that's the river we are crossing in a short bus!

Once we go to the river, we crossed it on foot and walked upstream a short bit to the entrance of the cave.  Then we got in our tubes and crossed to the far side of the river.  The current was strong enough that the guide had to use a rope to pull us across one at a time.  We then continued to move UPSTREAM into the cave.  Bats started dive bombing us in the cave.  There were both fruit bats - traditionally what we are used to  - and insect eating bats - which are tiny, tiny bats.

As we got deeper in the cave, the bats disappeared and we could see more and more stalactites and a few stalagmites.  We continued to move upstream.  In some places, we would walk where it was shallow.  In other sections, we would move upstream in a chain.  We were all hooked together, feet and legs under the person in front of us.  I was at the head of the chain, so the guide gave me a rope, paddled upstream, and then pulled us all up with the rope.  We went all the way to the far cave chamber, which was used by Mayans for rituals.  The picture on the right is me, my cousin Bob, and his wife Shannon in the cave.  On the left is a "candle formation" of a stalagmite.  The bottom picture is a carving of a fertility god.  According to the guide, women who had trouble getting pregnant would visit the god.  They were then required to sacrifice their first born child in order to have more children later.

After we finished the first chamber, we floated down a ways to another chamber.  This chamber was about 30 feet above the river.  We had to climb up some slick and muddy rocks. Then we went deep into the dry part of the cave.  Back here we had a picnic lunch, which was pretty awesome.  Even though we weren't far from the river, this chamber was completely still and quiet.   The only light came from our headlamps.  Part of the floor had collapsed down and I got to go and explore in this area.  There was another small chamber that was just amazing.  Tons of formations and a so many crystals, it looked like it was blanketed in snow.  After we left this chamber, we made our way back down to the river and floated most of the way back to the extraction point.  (In some places, the river current was too fast and we had to walk in a shallower area).

Our cave picnic

Some old school Maya pottery.  Pottery used in rituals was always intentionally broken so it couldn't be used for less asture purposes.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Changes... they are a coming

This was a busy short week at work.  Summer is our high time for visas.  This still only amounts to about 60 or so visas a day, but combined with all the other duties, it can be busy.

Moreover, next week is my boss's last week.  His temporary replacement comes this weekend and will work through the summer.  Then, the permanent new Consular chief arrives at the end of the summer.  One of the other vice-consuls will also leave in another 3 weeks.  His replacement won't arrive until sometime in September, so we will be down to 3 officers until then.  It's kind of weird how the transitions work in this business.  The two people who have trained me how to do my job will both be nothing but blips in my two years here.

In more personal news, one of my uncle's died this week.  That's my Uncle Johnny in the bottom left of the photo, the last time I saw him.  He was my Mom's oldest brother.  When I was growing up, we'd always get together for one of the holidays and my Dad and uncles would play poker.  We young kids always wanted to play.  It was great when we were finally old enough to play.  One of our favorite games was called "Shit on your neighbor" and it was a high-low game.  Uncle Johnny ALWAYS went for low.  He could be dealt a pair of kings and he would just fold the hand because it wasn't low.

Johnny hasn't been healthy for years, and he has been really sick recently.  It wasn't a surprise that he passed away, but it is still sad.  My parents haven't had the easiest time in the past year and especially the past week. So, if you are the praying type, please say a prayer for my Mom, my Uncle Johnny and his family.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A day at the beach

Today, my mom and I, along with the two interns headed to the beach.  The day was less adventurous, but just as awesome as the day before.  Here are some of the pics.
The blue hole is a sink hole which is fed by an underground aquifer.

It is right in the middle of the jungle - though just off the highway.
This is the first time I have seen my Mom in the sea since I was 4 years old.  

I think we were shooting a Corona commercial

This is the house I decided that I want to buy.  It was even for sale.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Trial and error

Today, my Mom and I decided that we would go out exploring Western Belize.  Our main goals were to see Spanish Lookout, see some Mayan ruins, and eat lunch at a lodge owned by Francis Ford Coppola, which was recommended by some friends.  Somehow we managed to accomplish none of these things, while still having a great day.

We first headed out on the Western Highway towards Spanish Lookout.  I have no idea where the name comes from.  Spanish Lookout is the home of some of Belize's large Mennonite population.  By some estimates that I've heard, Mennonites account for 10% of the population of Belize.  They are quite common to see around the area.  They hold much of the agricultural sector of the economy, especially poultry, dairy, and grains.  And Spanish Lookout is one of the areas where they live.  The land looks like mid-western farm land and the roads are well-paved.  Unfortunately, we did not stay on the paved roads and got lost in the gravel roads between the fields.  We took one road all the way until it literally ran into a river.  There was a boatman who may have been able to take us across, but we chickened out and turned around.  Eventually, we asked some guy how to get back to the Western highway and he took us back himself.

Once back on the highway, we stopped at a gift shop that was billed as the best in Belize.  It was quite nice, although a bit expensive.  We were in there for a half an hour and when we were leaving, we noticed I had a flat tire.  Some how we punctured the tire on the gravel.  Then, it turns out that my new car did not have a tire jack or the lug nut wrench.  Fortunately, the people at the gift shop had a jack and wrench to help us. Unfortunately, the lug nuts on the spare tire were very worn and we couldn't get the spare off.  They eventually had to chisel the last lug nut off.  But with a new tire, we headed off again.

We went to San Ignacio which is the biggest town in the area. We planned to go from there down the road to the Francis Ford Coppola resort.  Some friends had recommended it for lunch.  The road was absolutely awful.  It started off paved, then quickly broke down to gravel.  Turns out the gravel was the good road.  I kept thinking, "Hey, at least the road can't get any worse."  It would then proceed to get worse.  Parts were dirt, and gravel, and mud, but the worst was stone or formerly paved with such huge potholes.

We did get to see a few sites on our drive.  Our biggest attraction was the "Mayan" ruins we saw along the road.  Turns out the Mayan ruins were some sculptures that the people who lived there made.  It was still pretty neat to see the place, but it wasn't the Mayan temple we were hoping for.  We also never made it to the Coppola lodge.  We did have a good time.  Tomorrow, we are headed to Placencia to hit the beach.

a little help

Does anyone out there know how I can get facebook to automatically put up a post when I post something on here?

Friday, July 2, 2010

My first diplomatic reception

Happy 4th of July, everyone.  The calendar may say July 2, but yesterday was the Embassy's 4th of July reception.  The preparations have been going full force for about the last week or so.  Invitations sent out, duties assigned, and flags hung up.  (Seriously, there were a lot of flags.  There was the one normal giant one in the atrium, two more giant ones hung outside the building, tons of bunting, a Belizean and American flag at each door, more tiny flags than I could actually count, and several people were wearing flag pins as well).

The dress code for this function was probably less formal than many other 4th of July receptions around the world.  Belize formal dres is more casual than in America.  Most of the men were wearing slacks, nice shoes and a button-up shirt.  Some were long-sleeve and some were short-sleeve.  A very few men wore suits, including one seer-sucker.  The Prime Minister and Governer-General both wore the Guyabara shirts that are popular here.  Most of the women wore summer cocktail dresses and heels.  I don't know enough about women's fashion to comment more, but they looked good.

My duty of assignment was to be a 'puller.'  There are two typical duties assigned to officers at functions - the pusher and the puller.  The pusher's job is to greet the people at the front entrance and lead them to the reception line.  The puller's job is to take them from the reception line into the party, so that the reception line can keep moving.  Most of the officers I was working with knew quite a few of the guests, so they would usually take those they knew.  But, I think I pulled my fair share of guests.  I never got fully comfortable with the job, but it was my first time.

The reception line ended after the Governor-General arrived.  (The Governor-General is a Belizean appointed by the Queen to be her representative in Belize and to function as the head of state.  The Prime Minister is the head of government.)  The rest of the evening was spent schmoozing in a typical cocktail party situation.  I met a couple of ministers, the head of the largest TV and radio stations in Belize, a recent Belizean graduate of the US Air Force Academy, a few Brits and locals who I already knew, and a few other people who I don't know who they are.

Since my Mom was in town, she got to attend as well.  While I don't think these types of functions are normally her cup of tea, I think she enjoyed herself.  Seeing all the ceremony is fun, for the first time at least.  When you think about it, how many Americans get to attend diplomatic functions.  While FSOs may soon tire of them, it is, the words of our Vice President, "a big effing deal."

The reception also featured a couple of speeches by the Ambassador and the Governor-General.  The Ambassador told his story of the 4th of July.  He was born in India and came to the United States for school.  He said he was always fascinated by the holiday.  Then, he and his wife got married on the 4th and later his daughter was born on the 4th of July.  I always love hearing the stories of naturalized citizens and how they view American holidays.  The Governor-General talked about how the world celebrated the election of Barack Obama and highlighted some of the many achievements of the Administration.

All in all, it was a fun night.  My back hurt and my feet were sore, but I had fun.  I hope to post a few pictures later, but I just found out my car arrived today, so I should be heading off to get it soon.

(Photos: Embassy set up for the 4th of July reception; Mom and I at the reception; the Ambassador's speech during the reception).

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Home is where your Mom is

I have to admit, I had forgotten how nice it can be to live with someone else.  Since I started law school five years ago, I have only had three roommates.  I lived with Con, the old Irish guy who talked so long I would skype call my own cell phone to get him to leave the room.  I lived with Amy, a law school classmate who was a great roommate, and I lived with David, the quiet guy who stayed in his room and never talked to me.  I hadn't lived at home since 2004.

So, it has been a special treat having my Mom stay with me this week.  She got here Sunday and after a quick tour of Belmopan (is there any other kind?), we just relaxed at my house.  That is pretty much what we have been doing the whole week.  She has helped me finish unpacking a few belongings and cleaned the place up a little bit.  She even did my laundry and washed my sheets.

All of that is great, but the best part has been having someone to talk to when I get home from work.  I have always been close to my parents.  We would talk regularly on the phone.  But there is just something different about having the person there with you.  We've sat out on the screened porch talking, cooked dinner together, watched Top Chef, etc. etc.  I had forgotten how much I enjoyed talking to someone who talks back (no offense to my dog, Bailey).

I have also showed my Mom life on the town in Belmopan.  We went out to dinner at the Bull Frog Inn with two of my friends here.  Last night, we went to pub night, where she debated great bands of the 60s and 70s with the British High Commissioner (she wasn't impressed until I explained that he was the British equivalent to the Ambassador here). 

Tonight is the 4th of July party.  I got my Mom on the guest list.  After listing the Prime Minister, Ambassadors, Senators, Supreme Court Judges, prominent business leaders, etc. all the way down at the bottom is "Al's Mom."  I plan to post a recap of that party later on.

My car has finally arrived in Belize.  But I don't have it yet.  Hopefully, I can pick it up tomorrow.  If so, we will take a trip around Belize, hitting up some Mayan ruins and maybe the beach.  If not, we will stay closer to Belmopan and still have a good time.

(Photos - Mom at the Belmopan market;
Me and Mom at pub night at the British high commission)