Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Old School - I got a toilet seat

Back in the day before blogs existed, I sent out mass e-mails to friends and family with all my doings when I was living abroad.  I saw some of these in my e-mail account and thought I'd share some every once in a while.  If I edit anything, I will bold that.  The following is an e-mail from March 2005, when I was working in Rome.


That may seem like an unusual title, but its true, I
just got a toilet seat. If you've ever been to
Europe, you know its fairly common to not have a
toilet seat on public restrooms. it is however
unusual to not have one in private homes. For the
first few weeks I lived in my apartment, we didn't
have a toilet seat but now we got one.

On other apartment situations, I believe my roommates
hate me. This is mainly due to the fact that i had my
three loud dirty friends stay here about 4 days after
I moved in. I specifically asked my landlord if I
could have people visit and he said yes, but the day
he was installing my toilet seat, he told me that my
roomates were complaining. Since we made it through
those few days, everything should be okay now. the
rest of my guests should not be nearly as loud as my
fraternity brothers.

My last letter was quick and that is because I was in
a hurry as we were leaving that day to go to the
Almafi coast. If you've never heard of the Almafi
coast it is the famous two lane highway (that is a
generous description) between Sorrento and Salerno,
south of Naples. We rented a car from a place near
Villa borghese, about 20 minutes by public transit
from my apartment. Just Lukin and I went to pick up
the car. It then took us 45 minutes to drive back. 
The streets of Rome are crazy, very difficult to drive
and very difficult to navigate. We picked the others
up and there were five of us in the car. Lukin was
driving, i was navigating and Aaron, Kyle and Julie
were in the back seat. (Julie is a Danish girl we met
on Sat night. Lukin asked her if she wanted to come,
she said yes, and surprisingly did come with us.) We
drove a Renault Scenic, which cost us about 35 Euro
each, including the extra insurance.

We loaded the car with our stuf and a case of peroni
(cheap, but delicious Italian beer) and tried to get
out of Rome. There is a big loop around the city that
connects you to the Autostrada. Since I had no idea
of how to get out of the city, we just tried to drive
in a straight line until we hit the loop. It took us
a little while, but we made it there and had a fairly
uneventful drive to Sorrento. The only problem was
the Autostrada just stopped and we had to get off, but
this led us to Sorrento without problem.

When we got into Sorrento, i had looked up a few names
of hostels and addresses, but we really had no way of
finding it. We had no map and no street name is valid
for more than 10 blocks. As we were driving around,
we drove right past the hostel, stopped and got beds. 
We stayed up for a little while, but basically went to
bed as we didn't get there until 1130.

The next day we got up around 9 and left the hostel by
1030. We headed for the coast road, but the traffic
was horrendus. There turned out to be an accident in
front of us. Once we passed the accident, the only
problem was the narrow roads. This presented a huge
problem as we found ourselves between hitting an
oncoming car or a parked car. Lukin chose the parked
car and broke our side mirror. Oops, good thing we
got the extra insurance.

The Almafi coast was absolutely beautiful and was
absolutely terrifying. The roads were so narrow and
so curvy. I wasn't driving, but just riding in the
car was scary. I have never felt car sick before, but
I did here. We stopped in Positano, home of the
famous Lemoncello. then we drove to Minori, where we
sat on a decripit old pier. We eventually made our
way to Salerno, the end of the coast road and our stop
for the night. 

In Salerno, we found a place to park our car and went
in search of our hostel..We miracuosly found the
hostel in just a few minutes, without using the
directions. We then went to the beach. The beach was
disgusting and dirty, but there was a nice little
boardwalk, where we sat and drank and people watched. 
After a few hours there, we went to eat dinner. We
all had some type of seafood pasta and it was
delicious. All the fresh seafood and stuff - yummy.

After dinner we went back to the beach and just talked
and watched people. Kyle and Aaron were a little
drunk (read alot drunk) so they went back around 930. 
Julie, Lukin and I stayed out late until about 12. 

The next morning we left Salerno anddrove back to
Rome. We returned the car without a problem (except i
think I gave myself an ulcer from Aaron's driving). 
We took a little nap and the guys went out exploring
Rome for the last time. We met up at the Spanish
steps and then went to dinnner. After dinner, we went
to my firend Joe's house where they were having a
little party. When we left there, we decided to walk
back home.

As we were headed up the great road of the
reconcilliation (built by Mussolini as a great
entrance to the Vatican) it was approaching midnight. 
Literally, as we stepped into St. Peter's square, the
bells of the Church began to ring in the new day and
my birthday. the others sang me happy birthday in
front of the great church. it was a very surreal
moment.

The next day we all got up early, the guys to catch
their flight and me to go to work. I gave a tour on
my birthday and right after it was over my parents
called me. After the tour, i went out to lunch with
one of the other guides. That evening, I decided not
to go out (mostly as all my friends either were
working, hungover, or left the country that day). 
Instead I went to a movie. I saw Hitch, which was
okay, but nothing spectacular. Then I went home. Not
the best birthday ever, but fairly enjoyable.

Yesterday, i gave another tour and then went shopping
at the bookstore. I bought two books - An Italian in
America and Deception Point by Dan Brown. Then I
spent most of the evening at home relaxing and went to
BellaRoma for dinner. bellaroma is the other hostel
owned by the same people as sandys and Ottaviano.

Today the Vatican was closed for St. Joseph's day. 
Sincwe I couldn't give a tour, i went to the Colloseum
to follow one of our other tours. I followed that
twice (I get to follow it again tomorrow). I decided
to walk a little way back rather than take the metro,
which gave me a little entertainemnt.

If you didn't know, today is the second anniversary of
the Iraq war, so there were major demonstartions
across Europe. Here in Rome was no exception. I ran
into the rally and followed to Piazza venezia, past
Largo Argentina, towards Piazza navona. All the
traffic throughout centro Storico was shut down. 
There were no cars anywhere. it was really
interesting to watch the whole thing.

I'm against the war (I have been from the beginning),
but I am not against the United States. Watching these
people lump all Americans with the warhawks in DC
really annoys me. Pollitcal discussions aside,
watching a massive demonstartion and march is
amazingly interesting.

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday and I am planning on going to
see the papal blessing and Shelley comes tomorrow.

Ciao, 
Al



Me, Aaron, Lukin, and Kyle on the Almalfi Coast (2005)

Drinking beer along the sea in Salerno (2005)

Where to next?

Congrats to all my friends and colleagues who found out their next assignment today.  A year from today, I will get to experience that same excitement from Flag Day.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

My first Hurricane

In my first four months at Post, I will have 4 different bosses.  There was a staffing gap of about 3 months between Consular Chiefs, so they filled the gap with a WAE (the acronym stands for While Actually Employed, because they are retirees who only get paid while actually employed - a stupid acronym but a good program).  The first WAE was not going to be able to stay until the permanent replacement got here - there would be a gap of about 3 weeks.  During this gap, there would only be me (3 months experience) and one other consular officer (8 months experience).  Moreover, the other consular officer had vacation scheduled for this week, which would have left only me.  Needless to say, I was not excited about this prospect.  Fortunately, they decided to send another WAE to fill that gap.

With our appointment schedule, I can limit how busy we are and arrange so that one officer can handle all the routine business.  But, the problem is that it is September in Belize, so we are in hurricane season.  If some sort of disaster occurred, I would be the only Consular officer here.  It may surprise you to know, but I don't really know what to do in a disaster.  Lo and behold, this week arrives and what is coming our way this weekend but Tropical Storm (soon to be hurricane) Matthew.  Thank God they sent the second WAE.
My weekend plans

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Guest Bedroom is Now Available

  • I have now been in Belize for three and a half months.  During that time, I have had my Mom here for a week, my cousins for three days, the interns lived here for a month and my sister just left after spending two weeks here.  It has been really nice having guests.  This house is really too big for just one person and a dog.  But, as of now, I have no guests scheduled to arrive anytime in the future. 
  • September is a big month here in Belize.  The anniversary of the Battle of St. George's Caye, where the English defeated the Spanish to maintain control over Belize, is on September 10.  September 21 is the 29th anniversary of their Independence.  Both days are national holidays.
  • One of the most intriguing things for me is to see how patriotic the Belizeans are during this month.  You see flags everywhere.  You also see red, white, and blue banners.  There are parades and performances.  I know it shouldn't surprise me - but I think this is the first non-American place I have lived that showed this type of patriotism.  In Italy, I never really saw the Italian flag except during the World Cup.  I didn't spend as much time in Ireland or Spain, but I didn't see anywhere near this type of patriotic display in those countries.  It's very refreshing.
  • I hosted a poker party at my house last night.  On one hand, I turned a straight flush.  I won the tournament.  I am awesome.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

La Isla Bonita

The highlight for most people of Belize is San Pedro.  On the southern tip of Ambergris Caye - the largest of the cayes - San Pedro is why you come to Belize.  There were five of us on the trip - me, my sister Shelley, and three co-workers.  Friday was a holiday here in Belize (wasn't everyone celebrating the 212th Anniversary of the  Battle of St. George's Caye?), so we flew from the municipal airport in Belize City.  The plane held 14 people and my sister rode in the co-pilot's seat!

Like everything in Belize, the island is small.  San Pedro  itself consists of three main streets running north and south with a few side streets connecting them.  There is a limit on the number of cars that can be on the island, so everyone drives around in golf carts.  South of town, there are string of beach front resorts.  North of town, there are fewer resorts, but some more residences and restaurants.  That's it.  We were staying at Caribbean Villas Resort, where we actually had the place to ourselves (this is the lowest part of low season).  They had a pool and a beach, but like most beaches in Belize, the ocean floor is covered in sea grass making swimming off the shore unpleasant.

One of the highlights of the weekend was the food.  I have had a few okay meals in Belize and no respect to my friend who owns the local pizza joint, but there is really nothing here to write home about.  Well, apparently all of the culinary talents are in San Pedro.  Without a doubt the four best meals I've had in Belize were this past weekend in San Pedro.  At the Blue Water Grill, I had the mixed grill, which consisted of grilled lobster, snapper, and shrimp, served over garlic mashed potatoes with grilled zucchini.  It was awesome!  I also had lobster tail stuffed with crab and shrimp, beer-battered fried shrimp, stuffed jalapeños, steak quesodilla, and homemade chips and salsa.

The food highlights weren't limited to the restaurants.  As I've mentioned before, the grocery stores leave much to be desired.  But, in San Pedro we found the best grocery store that I have seen in Belize.  It was outrageously expensive ($7.50 US for a box of golden grahams), but they had so many things we can't find in Belmopan (or even Belize City).  They had Mountain Dew and Dr. Pepper, a full array of candy, frozen pizza, lemon juice, hollandaise sauce mix, creamy horseradish, A-1 steak sauce, actual produce.  It was phenomenal.  We literally went there everyday we were in San Pedro.

The true highlight of the trip was snorkeling with Lil Alphonse.  A co-worker had recommended him to my cousins a few months ago and they loved him, so I made sure that we booked with him.  It was unbelievable. We first went to Hol Chan Marine Reserve.  Before we even got in the water, we could see a couple sea turtles and hundreds of silvery fish called 'jacks.'  We saw so many fish, it would be impossible for me to remember them all.  The most memorable were the grouper, the moray eel swimming along the bottom, barracudas, and the spotted eagle rays, which are apparently very rare.  Alphonse was so great because he really guided us through the reef.  I don't know the difference between two fish, but he was able to explain everything to us despite the fact we were under water.

After Hol Chan Park, we went to Shark Ray Alley, which gets its name from the numbers of sharks and sting rays that populate the area.  After he chummed the water, there were hundreds of the jack fish and a half dozen nurse sharks and rays.  Alphonse was able to grab the animals and bring them over to us.  I HELD A SHARK!  It was much meatier and denser than I expected - very muscular, which probably shouldn't have surprised me but I did.  The sting rays - the very same kind that killed the Steve Irwin - were very slimy on top and very dry on the bottom.  It was very cool.

Friday, September 10, 2010

What makes us smile

I am spending the weekend in San Pedro (see "La Isla Bonita", Madonna) with my sister and 3 co-workers.  Despite a fabulous lunch with beautiful vistas and water so clear you can see a penny at 60 feet, we got most excited about a grocery store that stocks such luxuries as Diet Mountain Dew, Reeces Pieces, and more than 1 type of beer.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A few pictures

Me with my two temporary roommates.
What can I say?

Taking a nap on the caye
Yes, the water is that clear
Why did the iguana cross the road?
A parade in San Ignacio
The water is so calm you can take a nap

Insert Corona commercial here
The private caye we went snorkeling on

Closed for September

My sister Shelley got to Belize on Saturday.  I picked her up at the airport around 11 and then met Brianne and Aaron for lunch in Belize City.  First, we stopped at Premium Wine and Liquor to pick up some duty-free wine, then we went to Riverside Cafe for lunch, and then to Save-U to go to a real (sort of) grocery store.  Now, I have been to Belize City 3 times.  Once was to pick up my car at the port.  The other time was when we went to watch the World Cup and pick up my mom from the airport.  Two of the three times I have been in Belize City, I went to the exact same four places (airport, Riverside, Premium Wine, and Save-U).  I think I need to branch out a bit more.

Saturday night, we just came home and listened to the Nebraska game.  I am a huge Husker fan and we tried to watch an illegal feed of the game through Justin.tv, but it got shut off after 3 plays. (Note - I would gladly pay someone to be able to watch the game online.  I can watch every single MLB game online, I can get every NFL game (overseas only), I am pretty sure that the NBA and NHL, as well as soccer, golf, tennis, etc. all have methods of watching the games online.  Yet the sport with the most rabid fan base has one of the worst options for watching games on the internet.  This should not be.)  Anyway, Nebraska won pretty big and it was a lot of fun.  Shelley and I then spent the next few hours playing Dominion.

Yesterday, we planned to go to Xunantunich, a near by Mayan ruin.  The site is located about an hour away on the Western highway - not far past San Ignacio.  One of the more interesting aspects of the site is that it is just across the Belize river from the Western Highway.  They don't have a bridge; rather they have a hand-cranked ferry.  The ride is free - although we tipped him a few bucks - but it takes a bit of daring to drive your car on to this contraption.

Once across, we made our way into the park.  After a short hike, we were transported back to another ancient Mayan temple.  Similar to Tikal, the main plaza here features one tall temple and several smaller mounds.  You can climb all the way to the top of the temple on the original stone steps.  When we got up top, we could see a thunderstorm roaring in.  We planned on staying  on the top to let the storm come in, but it took longer than we thought and some annoying Americans joined us up there.  The other great thing is that you can see that Xunantunich is a working archeological site.  There were several small hills near the main temple that even an untrained eye could tell were hiding more ruins.  It would be like "Archeology for Dummies" - anyone with a shovel could find a ruin.
Shelley and I on top of Xunantich with the storm clouds rolling in.
After the ruins, we decided to stop at the Princess Casino in San Ignacio.  My family loves to gamble.  I have been to more casinos than I can count (I actually just spent 10 minutes trying to count and failed).  So, I know a good casino and I know a crappy casino.  One of the worst casinos I ever went to was the first casino I went to.  When I turned 18, there was an Indian casino about 3 and 1/2 hours north of my hometown.  My parents, of course, drove us up there for my birthday.  The place was a dump, but it was the only place I could go.  My parents were ecstatic when we turned 21, so they would never have to go there again.  The casino in San Ignacio reminded me of that casino.  In fact, I swear many of the slot machines were the same exact slot machines they had in Sioux City a decade ago.  But, I managed to spend an hour there and only lose $10 (The machines actually only accept US dollars).

Today, we had planned to go cave tubing.  Our original plan was to go with Cave's Branch, where I did the first cave tubing.  I couldn't get a hold of them until this morning when I found out that they were closed for September.  September is a big holiday month in Belize, as the two biggest national holidays (Battle of St. George's Caye Day and Belize Independence) are both in September.  Combined with the peak of hurricane season and school starting in the US, this is the lowest of the low seasons, so many of the resorts close.  We couldn't get a hold of the other cave tubing company, so we decided to scrap that and head down to Hopkins - a small beach town.

First, we tried to get lunch at Hamanasi resort, but they were closing for September the next day and only had nachos.  They suggested going to Beaches and Dreams, who was also closed for September.  They suggested a less fancy place called "Uh Ga Da" which I believe is Creole for "You gotta."  The food was okay, but by no means outstanding.

We then headed down to the beach - we drove up the road and found another closed resort and they said we could use the beach (really, all beaches in Belize are public beaches, but they were still nice about it).  We had the beach virtually to ourselves.  Two guys walked by as they commuted home from work.  Think about that, their commute home was a walk along the beach.  The water was warm and there were even a few waves.  It was very relaxing.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Acting like Children

Today was one our friend's birthdays. An Italian married to a Brazilian diplomat, D is always the life of the party.    He is a playful child in a gangly, grown man's body.  He is a true class clown.  And when M and E sent out invitations for a surprise birthday party earlier this week, over 30 people turned out for the festivities.

This was the third party I went to at M and E's house.  They have a great covered patio and the pull out all the stops.  There is food, drink, more drink, party favors, noise makers, party hats, a pinata, cake. And, at this party, there was even a clown.  Yes, a clown.  There is something surreal about seeing the American and Brazilian Ambassadors wearing party hats and playing games with a clown.

So, my colleagues in Paris may have the Louvre and Brazil may have their beaches and Japan its temples, but we have clowns and pinatas.