Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas in Arizona

As Belize is such a horrible, god-awful place, the State Department provides each employee on a two-year tour a Rest and Relaxation trip.  The general rule for R&R is that you can fly to (a) your R&R point or (b) anywhere in the United States or (c) anywhere on a cost-construct ticket, as long as the place you want to go is relaxing.  The R&R point is usually a first-world city like London, Rome, Sidney, etc.  For the Western Hermisphere, our R&R point is Miami, so I obviously was just going to go home.  The government only pays for the flight, the employee is responsible for the time off, housing, food etc.

As Belize is so close to Belize, I will make multiple journeys to the US, but I wanted to take my R&R at Christmas when tickets are usually the most expensive and when weather problems can cause the most headaches (the government generally buys higher fare tickets that are refundable and also bump you higher on any standby list).  In addition, I wanted to go to both Phoenix and Omaha.  I was able to cost construct and pay the difference in fare to go Belize-Phoenix and then return Omaha-Belize.

When I left Belize on December 23, I ran into five people that I knew at the airport.  Four of us were on the same flight out of town.  Belize really is a small country.  After a quick layover in Houston, my parents picked me up at the airport only ten hours after I left Belmopan.

Christmas is all about traditions and my family has many that I love:

  • Our Christmas tree is covered in unique ornaments that we find whenever we go on a trip, or we made growing up.  Every ornament has a story and putting up the tree is a walk down memory lane.  Now that I have my own tree, this is a tradition that I have continued.
  • On Christmas Eve, we usually eat Italian.  We had my father's delicious lasagne this year.
  • We also open our presents from each other on Christmas Eve.  We pass out all the wrapped gifts and go one-by-one opening a single present from youngest to oldest.  This year, my little sister's boyfriend joined us and for the first time, Katie didn't get to go first.
  • Our family loves to play cards and other games.  The game will change depending on who is there, but this year we've played 'hand and foot', progressive rummy, and scattergories. 
  • On Christmas morning, Santa comes with our stocking gifts.  Every since we moved to Shenandoah when I was in middle school, Santa started using large gift bags instead of actual stockings.  Santa is very practical at our house, he often brings underwear and socks, as well as toiletries or other useful items.  He also brings fun stuff as well.  This year, we decided to draw for Santas.  It was a nice change and I'd guess we'll keep it going next year.
  • We usually go see a movie on Christmas night as well.  This year, we saw "The Fighter" which was quite good.  Christian Bale was phenomenal.  It's nice to be able to go see a movie without having to take my passport.
 My older sister just bought a house and is moving into her house this week.  So, I get to spend a good part of my vacation helping her move a whole bunch of stuff.  Not my idea of a great time, but I'll do what I can.

I am also organizing a second HHE shipment.  Since I did not use all of the allotted weight during my first shipment, I can do a second shipment within the first year of going to post.  Since this was my first tour, they allowed me to amend my travel orders to allow for a shipment from Arizona.  I've purchased a 55" Plasma Multi-system TV.  I've also spent the past four days buying tons of stuff that is either not available in Belmopan or much more expensive there.  The amount of crap I've bought is astounding.  I am also getting a bunch of stuff from my parent's house.  I will hopefully get a photo before the packers come next week.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Quick hits

A few pictures as I count down the last few days before I head back to the U.S. for Christmas.  Besides Christmas and the holidays, I plan on buying some stuff and making another HHE shipment.  I will also head up to Nebraska/Iowa to see my friend Kris's new baby and see extended family and play in a poker tournament.  I also am getting to go to the dentist - YEAH!

I've been attacked by 'no-see 'ums', aka sand flies.  I apparently break out in a bad rash when bitten by these things and they itch like crazy.  The rash actually got worse then this before it went away.

This is the first year I've lived in a house since I was in high school.  I had to decorate and went all out with the six foot inflatable snow globe.  The kids love it.

A couple weeks ago, I took my Dad to the Big 12 Championship in Dallas.  We had a great time together despite the fact that Nebraska lost.

Beth and Kevin's son Max underneath my tree.

Most of the Consular section at the Embassy Christmas party - Mark, Jennifer, Ashley, Karla, Charise, Me, and Sue.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A typical day

Whenever someone tells me what they do for work, my next question is almost always, "What does that mean?"  If someone is "relocation coordinator" in Dubai (I met someone with that title yesterday), it means that they help all of the expats who work for the large corporations settle in and get housing, utilities, licenses, etc.  I still have no idea what a project manager does, despite the fact that I have known several.  They can never adequately explain it.

So, what does a Vice-Consul do?  Every post is unique and Belmopan is smaller than most (or all) posts.  Because of this, I am not just a lowly vice-Consul, I am also the Visas Chief.  This means that I have more things to do than just hundreds of Non-Immigrant Visa interviews.

A typical day starts at 645 when I get up.  I am usually showered and dressed by 715, so I eat breakfast and surf the internet until about 755.  Then, I leave for work.  I arrive at 8.  (Yes, I have a five minute commute).  Generally, I will spend a half-hour to 45 minutes checking e-mail and catching up with anything left over from the afternoon before.

Sometime between 830 and 930 (depending on how busy we are), I will start NIV interviews.  During our slow season (now!), we have between 20-35 interviews.  During the busy season, we will have between 50 and 70 per day.  For each interview, I have to review their application and file, take their fingerprings, ask them some questions, take notes, and then determine whether or not they qualify for the visa.  I try for about 5 minutes per interview.  This is slower than some of the visa mill posts, but still fast enough to keep people moving.  Depending on the volume of cases, I will finish interviewing between 11 and 2. 

Generally, I will take my lunch break at noon or when I finish interviewing.  I go home for lunch about half the time and eat at our cafeteria the other half.  Occassionally, I will go out for lunch to one of the few restaurants in town.  Lunch is an hour and I am generally back at my desk by 1.  I then spend between a 30 minutes to an hour catching up on all the e-mails that were sent while I was interviewing.

In the afternoon, I will usually either do Immigrant Visas (on Mondays and Wednesdays) or catch up with the backlog of all the other work I have going on.  Immigrant visas are a completely different beast than NIVs because there is a lot more paperwork and the people are obviously moving to the US permanently.  These take a lot longer than NIVs - about 30 minutes per case.  Longer if there are multiple applicants.

I generally finish between 3-4 and spend the rest of the day catching up with cases.  Anyone who does not have all their information at the interview needs to have the case reviewed when everything is available.  I respond to Congressional inquiries.  As I said before, I have to do a lot of other things that are outside the normal junior officer's role.  I have to write performance reports for the local staff.  I have to work on all of the weird visa cases - the ones Post only sees once or twice a year.  I am in charge of the Visa section of the website.  I have been working on establishing DNA testing procedures.  I am one of three board members on the newly created Commissary.  I will be writing the "Post of the Month" report for Belmopan in State Magazine.  I am doing less fraud now that our new Vice-Consul is here.

I work to fit all of these things in to the late afternoons and Fridays.  I leave for work around 5 and am usually home by 505.  I will usually relax for an hour or two and then go to the Pig and Parrot or the Tuesday Tumble or one of my friend's house.  Generally, I head to bead around 11, read for a bit and am asleep by midnight.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Lots of small things today as I get ready to head to Dallas for the Big 12 Championship Game
  • Made my first prison visit today.  We make quarterly visits to the prison to see the long-timers.  They were all friendly enough and were happy with the items we were able to bring (toiletries, some donated clothes, magazines, and a holiday meal donated by people at the Embassy).  I didn't get to see enough of the prison to know how bad it is.  I know I wouldn't to spend time there, but I am pretty sure there are worse places to be in prison.
  • I have been attacked by 'no-see'ums'.  These tiny sand flies have been all over Belmopan recently and I got tore up last week.  The itch is worse, in my opinion, than mosquito bites.  Plus, I apparently have some reaction to them as my leg turns all red and splotchy from the bites.  Quite disgusting.
  • It's Christmas time and I have been trying to do my part in decorating my house.  Unfortunately, things are not working out as well as I'd hoped.  Half the lights my parents sent aren't working and I haven't taken the time to get them working properly.  Palm trees are much more dificult to string lights on than the oaks and elms of my Midwestern youth.  I can't hang any lights on the house, except for icicles on the gutters because I can't get the lights to stay up (guess what?  Duct tape CAN'T do everything).  Now, I have been having electrical issues with one of my extension cords apparently causing the circuits to break.
  • The one big hit has been the inflatable snowglobe I bought.  The neighborhood kids love it.
  • Belizeans use "good night" as a greeting.  It strikes me as odd every time I hear it.  Where an American would say "Good evening", the Belizean will say "Good night".  I constantly feel like people are telling me to leave.
  • Wikileaks sucks, though it has no immediate effect on my personal job.
  • I can't believe the 2022 World Cup was awarded to Qatar (it is actually pronounced "cutter").  I think it would have been great if the US had won, but it probably has been too soon since they last hosted.  Twice in 30 years is a bit much.  What I am surpised, however, is that Qatar got it over Australia.  Qatar is smaller than Rhode Island, it is HALF the size of Belize.  I just can't imagine having 12 World Cup size stadiums in a space the size of Rhode Island.  If Qatar had combined with another Middle Eastern country like Belgium and the Netherlands did in their bid, I could see it.  That being said, I can see myself bidding Rio 2014, Moscow 2018 and Qatar (I don't even know what the capital is) in 2022.  I think following World Cup soccer is as good of a bidding strategy as anything.
  • I started SCUBA training last week with my confined pool dive and will likely continue my certification next weekend with a couple of dives.  More on that later.
  • I have no problem with the proposed pay freeze for federal workers.  I'd like to have the 2-3% raise that government workers get every year, but I can do without.  What I won't be happy with is if it turns into a pay cut.  Federal workers who are in DC get locality pay, which is approximately 22% on top of their base salary.  When you serve overseas, you don't get this.  You do get, however, hardship pay, danger pay, or costs of living adjustments depending on the post.  What has happened, however, is that when people go from DC to somewhere like Nigeria, they actually have a dip in their take-home pay.  This clearly removes the incentive to go to Nigeria.  In order to increase bidding on the hardship posts, Congress approved the overseas comparability pay, which would eliminate the gap between DC pay and overseas pay.  So far, we have received 16%, with another 6% due in August.  It is almost certain we will not get the 6% bump, but there are rumors we will also lose the 16%.  Needless to say, this would suck.