Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hash and Man-A-Thon

I had an awfully busy and tiring weekend.  After a pretty tame Friday night, I got up to set the Hash on Saturday morning.  If you don't know, the Hash is a "drinking club with a running problem."  Two people (the hares) set a run and the Hashers have to follow the trail.  The reward at the end is beer.  I had already done 3 hashes and yesterday was my turn to set the hash.  I was doing it with an American friend of mine and we decided to set it in  Guanacaste National Park.
To set the hash, you use flour to mark the trail.  A simple drop or glob of flour means you are on the path.  A circle of flour means that there is a "check."  The hashers then have to search around the area to find the trail (the drops of flour).  The fun part is that the hares may set a false trail at the checks - so the hashers will go down the trail a bit only to find an "X" flour telling them they went the wrong way.  We had several false trails on the hash, which is always entertaining to the hares.

After the hash, there is the circle.  There are tons of rules in the hash and a violation of one of those rules can lead to you being charged.  A charge  results in drinking a beer while the others sing a song.  It can seem really silly, but it is a lot of fun.  One of the rules on the hash is that everyone has a "Hash" name.  These names can be (and are) quite crude.

You get your name after you set your first hash - and since I set my first hash yesterday, I was to be christened with my new hash name.  In order to come up with your name, the groups asks you questions.  During my interview session, someone brought out the story about how I made a 7 year old girl cry when I declined her for a visa.  This led to my very unfortunate nickname of "Visa Molester."  (Note - I really debated about whether I wanted to actually put the nickname on the internet, but I decided the Hash is a part of what makes my life in Belize fun - both the good and the bad).  Then, after you get your name, they cover you in beer and flour.  For the record, the two other people named yesterday were christened "Cockspur Squaw" and "Junk in the Trunk."

After a long day yesterday, today was the International Men's Club "Man-A-Thon."  This was a 10 event contest of sports and drinking.  We started off with golf - teams of two playing a best-ball scramble for 2 holes.  The best TIME wins.  It doesn't matter how many strokes, but how long it takes to get it in the hole.  Due mostly to the skills of my partner, we managed to finish in 2nd.  (For all events with partners, we randomly drew teams).  The second event was a 3 legged race.  This was a pure travesty on my part - we didn't even finish.

The third event was darts - teams of 2.  Winner was the quickest to score 150 points.  I managed to finish tied for 2nd in this event as well.  After darts was pool - sink 3 balls in the shortest amount of time.  Despite some awesome strategy, I failed to place.  The fifth event was based on Trivial Pursuit.  Each team had to answer 3 questions.  Fortunately, this was an American edition and I rocked this event.  I finished first and moved into the top 3 overall.

The last 5 events all took place at our housing compound.  We had beer pong for event #6.  While beer pong is always fun - it took a bit long in the middle of a whole other bunch of events.  The next three events were more athletic.  Sink 2 free throws (we had one individual who took 4 minutes 46 seconds to sink 2 shots) in as quick as time as possible (I tied for first).  Knock over a beer can by hitting it with a tennis ball (I sucked at this).  Kick a soccer ball through a goal as quickly as possible when starting 100 yards away (I did okay).  The last event went back to the drinking aspect of the day with a canoe race (teams of 4 slamming beer in order).  My team finished second, which gave me a 3rd place finish for the day.

A lot of people will say that there is nothing to do in Belmopan.  And, in many ways, they are absolutely right. There are only a handful of bars or restaurants.  There are no museums, theatres, sporting events, bowling alleys, movie theaters, casinos, etc.  There are no real tourist attractions of any sort.  Belmopan is not Rome or Paris or even Hermosillo or Brasilia.  But, if you try and are willing to do things outside your comfort zone, there is almost always something to do.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Little Things

You know the old expression, "You don't know what you're missing until it's gone."  I have found that to be especially true here in Belize.  None of these are super important, but they are all a bit annoying.

  1. Paved roads.  We have made it a habit in the US of complaining about road construction.  Widening of roads, patching roads, building new roads, painting lines on roads.  We complain about these things, but most people (like myself 4 months ago) never think about what would happen without all that construction.  The roads range from okay (paved, two lane highways with some potholes) to bad (roads paved several years ago with no upkeep, many potholes) to worse (never paved, but good dirt roads with pot holes) to God-awful (stone roads where there aren't really potholes, so much as you drive in the potholes with big stones in your way).  I swear that I will not complain about road construction in the US ever again.
  2. Radio.  I've mentioned it before, but the radio here is just awful.  Its not just that they don't play good American music.  There are no stations where you can regularly get music.  Then, when the stations do play music, the DJs constantly interrupt it with their inane blathering.  I often will actually listen to the Christian radio station sometimes because it is actually playing music with a tune that is not being interrupted by the DJs.
  3. The little ties on bread wrappers.  Seriously, do you ever think about the clasps or twist ties that you use to keep your bread closed?  No.  That's because your bread comes with them.  Most of the bread here does not come with those.  I had to steal a bunch from my garbage bags and when I am done with a loaf of bread, I save the twist ties.
Like I said, it's the little things.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Cave Tubing Part II

One of my roommates/interns was working the weekend that we went cave tubing a month ago.  Since she leaves tomorrow, she wanted to do it before she left so we went today.  We had 7 people going this time and I was the only person on both trips.  (I also realized that of the 8 people who went last month, only 3 of us are still in Belize!)

We went with Jaguar Paw this time.  Though both groups do cave tubing, this experience couldn't be different from the one last month.  Unlike last time, there was a lot less exploration and a lot more relaxed tubing.  Despite being slower paced and less adventurous, we actually had a lot more safety equipment.  We had to wear helmets and life jackets and all the tubes were tied together.  While I fully understand the need for safety - this may have been taking it a bit far.

The cave itself was still quite cool - where we started was in a break of a long section of caves.  There was a bit of a swimming hole and we were able swim around a bit (in our helmets and life jackets).  Despite being rainy season, it didn't rain at all in the last week, so the river was quite low and quite calm.  Once we went in the cave, there were not nearly as many formations (columns, stalactites and stalagmites) as on the last trip, but it was still pretty awesome.  The best part was the waterfall where another cave system met up with the system we were in.  The roof had caved in (a millennium ago) and so there was light and jungle next to us.  You can actually hike through the jungle and into the cave from that side.

Besides the cave tubing, we also got to do some zip lines.  Zip lines are always fun.  I always love the expressions on the guides faces when they try to figure out how to handle me.  (For those who don't know me, I am a bit on the bigger side).  These guys gave me an extra harness around my chest - I never mind an extra bit of protection in this scenario.

We did 5 lines and a rappel type thing (where they control the ropes).  It was pretty awesome.  Flying through the air is always awesome and the jungle is so green.  Given my weight and the laws of gravity, I fly down the lines.  We only had one small incident where my roommate forgot to keep her guide hand behind her and started spinning - she crashed into our guide a bit.

(Sorry there are no pictures, I didn't really take any.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bid List Envy

Yesterday, the bid list for 2nd tour officers who leave post next summer came out.  So, this is about a year ahead of what I will be bidding.  But, I can't help but look at the list with wonder.  There were 3 Italy posts and the Vatican!  A bunch of Germany posts!  Lithuania!  China! Costa Rica!  Norway! Poland! Australia (although I can't bid on that). So many good places.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Busy Social Calendar

I am going to be busy in the next month or so.  In the past 28 hours, I have gotten invitations to

  1. The Brazilian National Day on 7 Sep (the State Department always wants you to write the day of the month first and then the month in a 3 letter code. Sadly, you quickly get used to it).  
  2. Invitation to a going-away party for the interns (my roommates) on Friday.  
  3. The Ambassador's wife invited a group for tea at the Ambassador's residence next week.  
  4. The Military Liaison Office is having an open house on Friday.  
  5. The Ambassador is hosting a representational event on 30 Sep to welcome new officers and mingle with contacts.
Plus, my older sister is coming for 2 weeks at the beginning of September.

So, I am going to be busy for the next month or so.

On the plus side, there had been a serious chance that I would be the ONLY consular officer for a week in late September, but now it looks like we will have enough staff.  I know I work in a small section, but trying to handle all of the visas, all ACS, all the admin stuff, plus any emergencies seemed to be a bit much for an officer who has all of 4 months experience.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Busy Weekend

I had a very busy and fulfilling weekend.  (A quick precursor, the Embassy recently started a program to promote fitness, whereby employees can get 3 hours of admin time per week to work out.  I have been taking advantage of this and due to a leg workout in the weight room on Friday for the first time in years, my legs have been sore all weekend).

Saturday, we started off with the Hash.  As you may recall, the Hash is an international club.  We bill ourselves as a drinking club with a running problem.  Basically you walk or run along a path set by the hare and then it ends with a circle, which involves songs, drinks and ridicule.  Everyone has a nickname (you get a nickname after you set a Hash, which I will be doing in 2 weeks) and there are tons of little rules.  It really is a good time.

Saturday night, my two roommates and I were throwing a party.  (A few weeks ago, I invited the two girls interning here this summer to stay in my guest bedroom so they wouldn't have to return to the house with no A/C and no internet).  We invited most of the Americans and a few of our friends in the international community.  All told, we had probably 20-25 people over.  A few people, myself included, may have drank a beer or two too many, but everyone had a good time.

Sunday we got up relatively early (relative to my bed time) to go out on one of my co-worker's boat.  The boat was a bit bigger than a large ski boat, but not much bigger.  On the way out, the water was pretty rough.  I started to question whether I really was a boat person.  Most of my boating experience was on lakes where the ride was smooth.

Any rough water was worth it when we got out to the caye.  We were on Rendevous Caye which is about half the size of a football field.  The Belize coastal waters are dotted with these small islands that help form the world's second largest reef (behind the Great Barrier Reef in Australia).  We went snorkeling and it was amazing.  The color of the choral was not as bright and vivid as I expected, but it was still amazing.  The fish were fantastic.  Bright colors.  Just amazing.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


About a month ago, the two interns here this summer had their trip to Tikal cancelled at the last minute because of their plan to take the bus.  I told them that I would try to plan a trip there before they left and that I could drive.  The trip expanded to 8 people in two cars.  Along with the interns, we had my boss and his wife, the Ambassador's daughter, and an American and a Brit who work for the Solicitors General in Belize.

Throughout the weekend, we had the problem that I like to call the "Slowest Common Denominator."  Basically, this means that any large group always moves only as fast as the slowest person in the group.  It's not always the same person, but there is always someone at every stop.  On this trip, I think we were all the slowest common denominator at some point, but the big annoyances were the Guatemalan border crossing and every restaurant we ate at.

Due to weather concerns and a lengthy delay at the border (there, the officials were the slowest common denominator), we headed straight for Flores rather than Tikal.  Flores is a town on an island in the middle of a lake.  We had a great lunch, featuring the world's largest kebabs.  These things were huge and delicious.

After lunch, we found our hostel.  The 6 younger people were all staying in Los Amigos Hostel.  The atmosphere at the hostel was great.  Very rustic and they even had a parrot.  But the accommodations were a bit lacking.  While I still think I am young enough to stay at a hostel, I fully realize that I am willing to pay more than $7 a night for some A/C or my own bathroom.  I think by the time I turn 30, I may have to say good bye to the hostel for good.  But, I still have a few years left.

We wanted to go swimming in the lake.  Just down the road, there was a dock jetting out into the water.  Lakes are my preferred body of water.  I grew up on a lake in Nebraska and would one day love to be able to go boating on a lake on a regular basis.  The water was perfect.  Not too cold, but not too warm.  The lake was very deep so we could dive off the pier without worry.  Two of the girls decided they were going to swim out to the (much) smaller island near by (see the background of the picture to the left).  After swimming, we changed and then walked around town before we went to dinner.  It was a fairly early night as we were getting up early to head to Tikal.

Tikal is home to some of the largest excavations of Mayan ruins in the world.  In its heyday, Tikal was home to over 100,000 people.  Considering this about the size of Belize City or about 1/3 of the entire population of Belize, this is a pretty astounding city.  The city was "lost" for years before being discovered in the mid 1800s.  Real excavations of the site did not begin until the 1950s and it is still ongoing today.

There were five main temples and lots of other low-lying buildings.  Temples I and II are on opposite sides of the Grand Plaza.  You can climb Temple II which gives a great view of the Plaza and the Temple I Great Jaguar across the Plaza.  (see right).

After trekking through jungle for another 2 miles or so, you can also climb Temple IV.  Temple IV is the tallest structure and provides a view like nothing I have ever seen before.  The canopy spreads out before you like a rolling green sea, until it melts into a green-grey horizon.  Poking above the trees, like sailing masts drowning are the tops of the other temples.  In the picture on the left, you can see Temples I & II on the left and Temple III on the right.

After we left Temple IV, we tried to make our way to Temple V, but got lost and ended up on the path out of the park.  We decided to head for food and then for home.  A few more pictures below.
Sam and I with the canopy and Temples behind us.

First crisis

So, I got back from Tikal today and I will write up a post about that soon, but I have also had a very interesting evening.  I got a call from the other Consular officer that there was a situation where a girl and her mother may need emergency visas.  Essentially, the girl needed to travel to the US for emergency medical treatment due to an electrocution accident this weekend.  Unfortunately, neither her nor her mother had valid passports.

So, I spent about 3 hours talking to various people in the US and in Belize, trying to find out what we could do to help this girl.  The problem for me was to figure out who I could call and talk to on a Sunday night.  I eventually got on the line with the State Dept. Ops Center.  The Ops Center is the 24 hour emergency crisis line AND the phone book for the State Dept.  They connect all of Secretary Clinton's calls and they were quite helpful connecting me to the right people.

While nothing has been confirmed yet, it looks like we should be able to help this girl get the medical treatment she needs.  This is the first real time-sensitive situation I have dealt with, especially outside of normal work hours.  Honestly, it was a huge rush.  In some ways, it reminded me of last year when I was working as a prosecutor - everything being done on the fly in an imperfect situation.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


I am headed to Guatemala this weekend with some people from the Embassy to see Tikal.  By my recollection, this will be my 25th country that I have visited.  A brief re-cap -
  1. United States - 1982-2010
  2. Mexico - 1991, 2010
  3. England - 1999*, 2002, 2007*
  4. Italy - 1999, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007
  5. San Marino - 1999
  6. Vatican City - 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007
  7. France - 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007
  8. Belgium - 2002
  9. Netherlands - 2002
  10. Denmark - 2002*
  11. Sweden - 2002
  12. Germany - 2002
  13. Austria - 2002*
  14. Switzerland - 2002
  15. Monaco - 2004
  16. Spain - 2004, 2006
  17. Hungary - 2005
  18. Portugal - 2006
  19. Morocco - 2006
  20. Costa Rica - 2007
  21. Ireland - 2007
  22. Poland - 2007
  23. Israel - 2010
  24. Belize - 2010
  25. Guatemala - 2010
  26. ???

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Dinner at the Ambassador's

When I got to work this morning, I found an e-mail from the Ambassador's wife asking me if I would join them for dinner.  Not sure if I did anything to merit the invitation, but I was not going to turn down the chance.  Besides myself, they invited the two interns who have recently moved into my guest bedroom. (They were house sitting at the Ambassador's house while he was on vacation.  There other option was a house without A/C or internet.)  Additionally, the Ambassador's daughter has recently come in country and will be staying for 6 months or so.

We arrived around 7 and mingled for an hour or so.  Ambassador Thummalapally is very friendly.  He used to run a CD and DVD company and before that I think he was in the recording industry.  His wife, Mrs. T, is always smiling.  Although I have seen more of the Ambassador and his wife than most junior officers will, I had not really had the opportunity to talk with them in small informal setting since my first night in Belize.  That night, I was too intimidated to really talk much.

The highlight of the evening for me, besides the food, was listening to the two of them talk about how they knew President Obama.  Mrs. T and the President went to the same school, Occidental College, in the late 1970s.  This was before President Obama transferred to Columbia University.  Amazingly, given the geography and time, they remained friends with the President as he progressed through his life and career.  They were there for many of the big moments in his life - his wedding and all of the campaigns.  When he was thinking of running for the Presidency, Mrs. T started volunteering full-time for the campaign and the Ambassador was eventually on the finance committee.  They would drive all night from Colorado to campaign for a weekend in Iowa and then drive back all night to get back to work.

There may be a few downsides to Belmopan, with its size and lack of amenities.  But I get to have a bunch of wonderful opportunities here that I don't think I would get to have at a large metropolitan post, especially an informal Tuesday night dinner with the Ambassador and his family