Saturday, December 31, 2011

How'd I do?

This time last year, I set out a series of goals for the year.  It's now time to look and see how I did.

  • Quit smoking (again).  I quit smoking after law school, but started social smoking this year.  That expanded to regular smoking late this year.  I quit again on December 22 and so far, so good.
    • Well, I started smoking again after I wrote this post in January.  But, I quit again in May and I have smoked only 3 cigarettes since then.  I consider this a win.
  • Travel to at least 3 central American countries (in order of preference) - Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador.
  • Watch at least two sun rises and sunsets.  I have had this goal every year and I usually make it.  Sunsets are much easier for me to watch than sun rises.
    • I know that I saw well more than two sunsets.  I know I saw one sunrise while i was in Guatemala.  Pretty sure I saw at least one more, so I will count this one as completed.
  • Get an awesome second posting.  This summer, I will get my bid list and get my assignment for my next post.
    • Frankfurt, Germany - May 2013.  
  • Date more.
    • I definitely dated more in 2011 than I did in 2010.  I had a couple of second and third dates, although nothing went further than that.  I count this as a success.
I am compiling my list of goals for 2012 and should post them soon.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Traditions

It's funny how traditions start sometimes.  You don't usually mean to start a tradition, but you do something that you enjoy and everyone wants to do the same thing again the next year and in no time at all a tradition is born.  What's magical about a tradition is how important it becomes to the participants.

One of my favorite family Christmas traditions is how we open up presents.  I think Christmas present opening always says a lot about a family.  Does everyone go at once ripping through paper as fast as they can like in A Christmas Story?  Are presents opened on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?  Does Santa come for adults or just kids?  Does Santa wrap presents?

Our tradition has always been to open up our presents from each other on Christmas Eve.  I think we always did this, but it really started in earnest when we lived in Shenandoah.  We would have to wait HOURS for my Dad to get off work (he usually closed the restaurant around 8 on Christmas Eve).  When he got home, my little sister Katie would sort the presents.*  We'd go in age order, with the youngest going first and the oldest last.  We'd go round and round until all the presents were opened.

*Mom and Dad never used name tags, everyone's presents were wrapped in different wrapping paper and you never knew who had which paper until Mom told Katie when she started the sorting.  Often times, Mom couldn't remember and I think she once had to open one of the gifts to remember who got what.


On year, probably about 15 years ago, my Aunt Lynda (or was it Laura) gave my Dad a joke present for his birthday.  It was a VHS cassette tape of a crackling fire in a fireplace.  The tape played classic Christmas songs.  We all thought it was a riot, but we all wanted it next year.  Each year, we'd make fun of the Yule log, but each year we all wanted that Yule Log playing while we opened gifts.

On Christmas morning, Santa would have always arrived in the night and set out our gifts.  Each person had a different pile of gifts and the stocking would be full and sitting on top.  Santa not only brought toys and fun stuff for us kids, but he was also a practical Santa who brought underwear, socks, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and other necessities.  As we got older, Santa brought deodorant and razors and fancy shampoo.  He always brought a calendar, a movie and a CD (now he usually goes with the iTunes gift card) .  Everyone could go through their own pile when they woke-up and as the rest of the family got up, we'd show each other what we got.

Over the years, we traveled more at Christmas time - usually going to Omaha for Christmas Eve and then staying in hotel overnight.  Santa continued to find us, but since he couldn't bring our stockings, he started using large gift bags covered with Sesame Street characters.  Eventually, Santa decided he liked the gift bags better than the stockings and he started using them every year, even when we were at home.

This year was a bit different.  Katie is engaged and this was our first year of split Christmas.  She and Paul went to his family's house for Christmas Eve and came back here for Christmas Day.  We threatened to open presents without her, but we didn't.  When we opened presents, Katie didn't get to go first anymore (both Paul and my 7 month old 2nd cousin got to go before her).  With all the moving this year, we didn't have the Yule Log video.  Santa didn't come until after Christmas Dinner, but he still brought underwear and socks and he brought them in the gift bags.

Ultimately, Christmas is where my family is.  The day we celebrate may change.  Some traditions may die - others may start up.  But, as long as I get to spend the time with my family I will be happy.  Living off in Belize - away from home - makes me cherish these times together so much more.

Mom, Dad, Shelley and Katie - I love you the most.  Merry Christmas.  Paul - welcome to the family.  So far, it seems like you will fit right in.  Bob and Shannon - It was great to see you guys again and to get to meet little Lizzy.  I wish our lives allowed us to see each other more often.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Walking around naked in your living room

I dropped my dogs off today at my housekeeper's house, where they will spend the Christmas holiday when I go to Arizona to spend the holiday with my family.  Anytime I am in the house and the dogs are not here, I feel naked without my four-legged shadows.  Every time I get up, they get up.  If I go to the kitchen, they follow me. Luna even follows me in to the bathroom.  So, walking around the house without them here just feels wrong.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Greatest day yet in Belize

I had about as good of a Sunday as I could imagine yesterday.  It all actually started two weeks ago when I decided I wanted to complete the "La Ruta Maya" - a four day canoe race across Belize.  Each year, the Embassy sponsors a team, but I was going to put together a second team that only had the goal of finishing.  I talked to my friend Beth and she was all gung-ho about it too.  While we were still looking for a canoe, I got the chance to go out this weekend with the Embassy team and practice with them.
This is how you hold a paddle, right?

We were taking a "short" trip from Spanish Lookout Bridge to Valley of Peace Bridge.  I'll be perfectly honest.  Within three minutes of going down the river, I knew I didn't want to do this anymore and I was just hoping to get out of it without embarrassing myself or hurting myself too badly.  The two locals guys - Macario and Jose -   were monsters on that river.  Macario just did not stop paddling.  It was so intimidating to watch him because I just couldn't do it.


You can't tell from the picture, but I already want to stop.
As we went down the river I settled into a pattern, I would paddle thirty strokes and then take thirty strokes off.  Unfortunately, this plan did not work as well as I wanted.  I kept losing my balance in the boat.  We almost capsized about every five minutes.  And not when the water was rough or anything - just me losing my balance.  Anytime we got to some rapids (nothing more than a Class II), I would stop paddling and just make sure I didn't dump us in the river.

As little as I paddled (probably about 1/3 as much as the other two guys), my arms still got extremely sore.  I don't think my triceps had gotten such a workout in years.  My sore arms wasn't actually the worst part, it was my legs.  This canoe is not built for someone my size.  I couldn't sit with my feet planted on the floor because the canoe wasn't deep enough.  I couldn't comfortably put my feet out in front of me and still paddle (I also had no balance in this position), so I ended up sitting cross-legged (or Indian style as we said when I was a kid).  The problem with this is that my right knee kept rubbing up against the side of the boat and my legs still cramped up.

Despite the uncomfortable and strenuous ride, it is one of the coolest things I have done in Belize.  I felt like I was in the "real" Belize.  The river, surrounded by jungle, cuts a fine path through the country with views you don't see from the road.  We saw several dozen iguanas high up in the trees.  These large lizards looked like they weighed about 20 pounds and were 2-3 feet long.  If we got too close, they would dive into the river for protection.  Also up in the trees were howler monkeys, egrets, herons, and another dozen birds I couldn't name.  It was a fantastic day on the river.  I couldn't have asked for anything better (except maybe for a boat with a motor).

As great as canoeing on the river was, that wasn't the highlight of my day.  That afternoon, I drove down to San Ignacio for a poker tournament at the casino there.  This was the first poker tournament that the casino had ever hosted and they were broadcasting it live on one of the local Belize channels.  (Note: if you don't want to read about poker, just skip to the last paragraph).

The tournament was horribly run - not only had the casino never hosted a tournament before, but they don't normally have poker, so the dealers don't know how to deal poker.  (The primary job qualification for their dealers appears to be a cute young girl).  Moreover, I don't think that the people running the tournament had ever played in a poker tournament before.  The tournament started 90 minutes late and took horribly long breaks every time one person had to switch tables.  The dealers couldn't catch the chips and one (admittedly complicated) three way all-in hand took over 15 minutes to settle.  The blinds went up super fast - started with only 3000 in chips and 40 minutes in, the big blind was 400 and kept doubling.

Despite the mess and confusion, I played really well and got really lucky.  I made an early all-in where I tripled up.  As the blinds went up, I won enough hands to stay in the game and everyone else kept dropping by the wayside.  When we got down to the final table, I started to think I could actually make the money (top 3).  I was around 4th or 5th in chips to start and many of the players could barely make a single bet.  After one round, no one had been knocked out with several people winning their all-in bets.  I knocked out one guy with AK suited.  Then, a few hands later, I had KQ spades vs. 10-10 and A-8.  The flop came J-9-4 rainbow.  A 10 came on the turn to make me the winner with a straight and chip leader.

With six players left, I started playing a few more hands trying to steal the blinds and antes.  The blinds were so big that just winning the blinds was worth 5% of the total chips in the table.  We traded chips for a while when there were four players.  I stole some more blinds, but tried to avoid hands where someone already called.  Finally, the other three players got involved in a big hand with two all-ins.  One guy was knocked out and suddenly I was in the money with the guy in third crippled.

After a few hands where no one called and the big blind won the hand, I was on the button with K-4.  The blinds were 10,000 and 20,000 but the guy in the big blind spot was all-in with 13,000.  I called 20,000, as did the small blind.  Flop was J-J-2 and both me and the small blind checked.  K came on the turn giving me two pair.  Small blind checked and I checked behind so that we had a better chance to knock out the big blind.  The river came 8 and the small blind bet 25,000, which I called.  He flipped over a 9-2 and I won the pot.  I wasn't trying to trap him, but it worked out well.  Were were heads up and I had a 4-1 chip lead.

Throughout all of this, the TV crew is trying to broadcast all of this.  They apparently spent five minutes debating my nationality (no one asked for a while).  I kept hearing calls of "Mr. Al with the cheap lead.  He is playing a strong game."  Besides the TV crew, there were about 40 people hovering around us watching the game.  Since almost every hand was an all-in, it was actually pretty exciting to watch (unlike regular poker which can be as dull as watching paint dry).  There was a definite buzz in the air and it was really a lot of fun.
When we got to heads-up, they did interviews with us to put it on TV.  I sent friends texts letting them know that I was playing on TV.

The cash is on the table
Finally, we were heads up and on the very first hand, I see A-7 off suit.  Any Ace is a great hand heads-up, so I raise him all-in.  He immediately calls with pocket kings.  I got an Ace on the flop and another on the turn to win with trip aces.  It was all over and I had won.  I got a fancy trophy and, more importantly, cash.  With a buy-in of US$100 and 45 players (plus several buy-ins), top prize was just over US$3,500.  This was, by far, my biggest cash in a poker tournament, although I have won three other larger tournaments (two online and one live).

All-in-all, a pretty good and long day.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Slow Tornado

Tonight we had our annual Christmas party at the Ambassador's house.  I have previously stated that we have a really great Ambassador in Belize, but seeing him dance "Slow Tornado" with some of the local staff just proved how great he is.  This song is by far the most popular Belizean song since I have been here.  It is played at every club and every party and is quintessentially Belize.


One of the other great songs here in Belize is Supa G's Lay di Pipe.  No where near as popular, but this video is just plain awesome.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Belize Bucket List

I leave Belize 6 months from today.  It takes a few minutes for that idea to sink in.  I still remember seeing the Belize flag and hearing my name called just under two years ago at Flag Day.  My knees were shaking so bad that I stumbled into the wall as I was climbing the steps back to my seat.  Yet, despite how vivid that memory is, my time here is over 75% complete.  That thought freaks me out a little bit as well because I haven't done everything I wanted to do yet.

So, in order to make sure I don't miss anything I want to do because the time runs out, here is a list of the things I need to do before I leave Belize.  These are in no particular order:

  • SCUBA dive with the whale sharks
  • Caracol Mayan ruins
  • Lamanai Mayan ruins
  • (I should probably also make it to Altun Ha and Cahal Pech, but I won't cry if I don't go to these ruins)
  • Visit the Toledo district
  • Participate in La Ruta Maya (either as a paddler or a support team member)
  • Belize zoo (can't believe I haven't done this yet)
  • St. Herman's Cave
  • ATM Cave
  • Visit Cancun or other part of Mexican Riviera
  • Visit one more Central American country (preferably Costa Rica)
  • Turn 30!
There are a few more things that I am surely forgetting right now, but hopefully I can get all of this done in the next six months.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Red Dress Run

One of my favorite things about living in Belize is our very active group of Hashers.  For anyone who doesn't know what the Hash is, the full name is the Hash House Harriers.  We bill ourselves as a "drinking club with a running problem."  The group started as a bunch of British soldiers in Malaysia who would go running after long weekends spent drinking.  Rather than any set trail, each event has a new trail set by the hare.  Those who find the end are rewarded with beer.

The Belize Hash has been fairly active for around 3 years or so.  Most of my friends are hashers and it provides us with a regular excuse to get together on the weekend and participate in a bit of exercise and day drinking.  Many of the traditions of Hash are quite silly, including Hash names, songs, charges, and ridiculous rules (such as if you wear new shoes to a hash, you must drink a beer out of the shoe).  But the more people get into the ridiculous traditions, the more fun everyone has..

One of the more ridiculous traditions is the red dress run.  Hash lore states that a hasher invited a girl to a hash in San Diego (or San Francisco) without explaining what the hash was.  She arrived in a red dress and high heels.  Despite the ridicule received from the hashers, she went on the run anyway.  The following week, several hashers showed up in red dresses and a tradition was born.  Each year, most hashes will host a Red Dress Run for charity.  Last year's Red Dress Run was one of my favorite events of the year, with over 80 people in attendance and at least 50 wearing red dresses.

Due to a variety of reasons, this year's event wasn't nearly as well attended and there were a lot fewer dresses.  (I blame this on the fact that the flyer this year said that dresses were not required).  It's too bad that more people didn't show up, because the event was done much better this year.  We had a DJ, tons of food for the cookout and the location was great (although tables and chairs would have been nice).

Tilapia Taco and Visa Molestor (yes, I have an awful hash name)

The Pasquale's chef with her two best customers, Vespam and Visa Molestor.

All the dresses for the Red Dress Run

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Great Pretzel Shortage of 2011

With Thanksgiving tomorrow, I decided I would make chocolate covered pretzels to take with me to the two dinners I am going to tomorrow.  I get the chocolate chips, I get the sprinkles and can't find pretzels at my normal store.  Then, I can't find pretzels at stores number 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7.  I even called my friend Margarita for suggestions and she was gonna have her friend check in Spanish Lookout, but there weren't any there either. For some reason, there just aren't any pretzels in Belize right now.  It is reminiscent of my struggle to find mini-marshmallows last year at Thanksgiving.

The (almost) perfect week

Being the Embassy Duty Officer is not fun.  Forced to carry a cell phone around with you wherever you go, your day can be ruined with quickest of rings.  Every time the phone rings, you worry that someone died (the worst calls), someone was arrested (also bad), someone is crazy (happens way too often), someone is sick or lost their passport, or just wants to say hi (seriously, that one has happened to me).  Every time the phone rings, your heart jumps in your chest.

That is why a week with no phone calls is the dream.  A perfect week.  And just like with baseball's perfect game, there are rules that apply to the perfect week. 

Rule number 1 - you cannot get excited about the possibility of a perfect week until the weekend is over (past the 6th inning).  Sure, it is nice to not get any calls on Wednesday or Thursday, but until you make it through the weekend, don't get excited.

Rule number 2 - you cannot talk about the perfect week.  Ever see the late innings of a perfect game in baseball.  No one sits anywhere near the pitcher.  No one will talk to him for fear of jinxing him.  This rule actually tripped me up the last time I got close.  I made it to Tuesday with no calls and then got slammed Tuesday night with four calls.  I not only blew the perfect game, but also the no hitter and even lost the game that week.

Rule number 3 - the opponent doesn't matter.  Achieving a perfect game (week) is hard no matter the opponent.  A major league pitcher playing against a high school team would not regularly achieve a perfect game.  So, it doesn't matter that this is about as slow as tourism season gets in Belize.  Achieving a perfect week would still be an amazing accomplishment.

So, I followed all of the rules this week.  I even thought I was going to lose the perfect week last night when the phone rang.  It was a wrong number (similar to a fielder making a great catch to take away a hit).  Then, this morning, at 745 - a mere 15 minutes before my time as duty officer is over, I got a call from a woman who needed information about doctors in Belize.  I felt like that Detroit pitcher who got the 27th batter to hit a ground ball, saw the throw to first beat the runner, and watched in disbelief as the umpire called him safe.  I knew I had my perfect week and had it snatched away from me at the last possible moment.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Learning to be a man

There are things that every man should know - 
  • how to change a tire
  • how to tie a tie
  • what the infield fly rule is
  • how to grill a steak
  • Cast a fishing rod
  • drive a stick shift (I still struggle with this one)
  • how to play poker
  • how to build a fire
  • who Walter Payton is
Tonight, I got to cross one more off the list.  I cranked up Journey on my iPad and changed the battery in my car.  It only took me an hour and the assistance of one friend.  Turns out once we had a flash light and the proper tool (socket wrench), it was pretty easy.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Rough week

I had kind of a rough week this past.  Nothing super bad and, as my sister was in town, I had fun this week too, but a lot of little things went badly. 

On Monday, I left the back door open to the porch.  I wanted the dogs to be able to get a little fresh air while I was at work.  Luna decided that getting onto the porch was not enough so she chewed through the screen and hobbled out the back.  I got a call from the Ambassador's wife that she was out and spent half my lunch unsuccessfully looking for her around the housing compound.  It wasn't until I was driving back to work after lunch that I spotted her hiding under a bush at the RSO's house.

Then starting Monday, Luna decided that she needs to whine loudly in the middle of the night for no reason.  Plus my stomach was upset and I ended up taking a sick day on Tuesday.  On Wednesday, I made it back to work and left Luna and Bailey at home.  Luna, unable to get to the screen door, decided to try to chew through the front door.  Yep, CHEW through the DOOR.  Moreover, the check engine light came on in my car when Shelley was driving back from SCUBA diving.

In order to prevent Luna from chewing holes in my house when I am at work, I decided to kennel train her.  She had responded to this by pooping in her kennel almost everytime she goes in there.  Since the kennel is a wire kennel, this has required me to clean poop off the floor several times this week.  

Finally, when I took the car in to get fixed on Friday, they told me I needed a new battery.  They didn't have any in stock though and I was going to have to buy a US$180 battery.  Since I had not had any battery issues, I thought it would be fine to wait a few days to find a better deal.  No such luck.  Car wouldn't start on Friday night and then Saturday was a national holiday, so there is no where open to buy a new battery until Monday.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Her name is Luna

Thanks to everyone for the suggestions.  I decided to name her Luna.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Meet ????

Here is a picture of the puppy I rescued.  I am looking for name ideas - please put them in the comments.


Forgot to mention - the puppy is a girl.  On the ride back to Belmopan, when I was more worried about whether she would survive than whether she was a girl or a boy, I had a great boy name picked out.  One of the children injured in the accident was named Gibson.  I thought it was a great dog name - no offense to Gibson the human - and would be a good tribute to how I got her, but I already have one dog with a pseudo cross-gender name (Bailey is a male dog) that I've decided I can't go with Gibson.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Welcome Home

I had a great trip to DC this last week.  I got to see good friends, the weather was great (crisp but not cold), the food was amazing and (surprisingly) the training was really useful.  But with all of that, the most interesting thing of the week happened on the way home from the airport.

Right after we passed Hattieville, we came across a van overturned on the side of the road.  There were several a half dozen children and several adults standing around.  They all looked American and it looked like people might be hurt, so I had the driver stop and I got out to help.  The driver had been coming down the road and swerved to miss a dog.  When he got onto the shoulder, he flipped the van onto his right side.

I made sure that the ambulance had been called.  Two of the kids had cuts that may have required stitches, but nothing serious.  Lots of scared parents and kids.  They had spent the past week on a family mission trip near Dangriga.  They were on their way to the airport to go home when the dog ran out in front of them.  As the police and ambulance arrived, I made sure they had contact information for the Embassy and the airlines (they were likely to miss their flight).

As I made my way back to the car, I saw something on the shoulder about 100 yards up the road.  When I got there, I saw the dog that had presumably run out in front.  She was hurt pretty badly.  He back legs were injured and she was trying to drag herself down the road.  When I got near she just laid down on her side.  I didn't know what to do - Belize doesn't have animal control.  The police officer laughed at me when I asked if they could do anything.  The dog wasn't dead, but she would die if I left her there.

I decided to load her into the back of the Embassy SUV (there was some cardboard in the back).  We brought her back to Belmopan and then I took her to a local vet.  He is going to keep her overnight for observation.  He said if she lasts the night, she will likely survive.  If she survives, I will either adopt her or find her a home.  I wasn't planning on getting another dog, but I couldn't just leave on the road.

Friday, October 28, 2011

What I am looking forward to in DC

Next week, I am headed to DC for training.  I haven't been to the U.S. since February, making this the longest I have ever been outside the U.S.  Here are definitely a few things that I am looking forward to in DC.


  1. Friends - I will get to see friends from high school, college, possibly law school, work in DC, and people from Belize.  A lot of people to fit into a short week.
  2. Halloween - Even though Saturday will be the big night out, it should be fun going out to a bar on Monday.
  3. Bars, Pubs, Happy Hours - Drinking a beer that is not Belikin will be such a delight.
  4. Food - Steak, Roast beef, Ray's Hell Burgers, Five Guys, Pot Bellys, yummm
  5. Chilly weather - Hope the snow that is supposed to hit DC this weekend is gone by the time I get there Sunday night, but crisp fall weather will be pleasant.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Fun with kids

Spent this past weekend in Hopkins celebrating my friend Kevin's birthday.  There were about twenty of us who went down there, including seven kids ages 1.5-10.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Who done it?

When I joined the foreign service, I assumed that I would spend much of my time attending fancy foreign dinners.  I had images of downing vodka in Moscow with toast after toast following the signing of an important treaty (note - much of my images of diplomats may come directly from Tom Clancy novels).  During my time in Belize, I have been to a grand total of two representational events which were not thrown by our Embassy.  I attended the Lebanese Day celebration my first month here and the Brazil Independence Day celebration.  Neither of these involved fancy sit-down dinners with multiple forks.  Last night I finally got my fancy dinner.  It wasn't a celebration of a fancy treaty, a major holiday, or the birthday of an Ambassador.  No, it was a murder mystery dinner hosted by Margarita and Emile.

The theme of the night was an island wedding gone awry when the bride is murdered.  I played Michael Cavanaugh, an international croquet champion and gigolo who has a preference for rich women in their 70s and 80s with one foot in the grave.  Joining us for the evening were the groom, his father, the wedding planner and her ex-husband lounge singer, the bride's hippie half-sister, the groom's secret half-sister and the groom's ex-girlfriend.  Despite the incredible hokiness of the game, we had a lot of fun with it.

In addition, the food and the decor were fantastic.  We had five or six courses, champagne, wine, and all the fancy forks you can imagine.  Margarita went all out with her decorations.  She even went so far as to have a "rehearsal dinner" with her kids the night before.  I would happily let Margarita organize any party I would ever host or attend.

The dinner table.  How amazing is this?


Check out the wine bucket on the left.  It is an ice sculpture with flowers frozen into the ice.
It took her 4 days to make this.
Dean Cash and his awesome lounge singer mustache.


The second course - lobster and fruit salad served in a coconut half.

The wedding cake - she even had a bride/groom wedding topper next to the cake.

Turns out that the ex-girlfriend (and beauty queen) did it!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Guat's Up Dude?

Last October, my friend Chris from A-100 came to visit me in Belize.  This weekend, I got to make the return trip.  All in all, it was just about a perfect trip - the complete opposite of my disastrous vacation in Panama.

Chris with US Embassy
I arrived on Friday afternoon and after Chris picked me up, we headed to the Embassy for a quick tour.  The US Embassy in Guatemala is located in a fairly central part of town.  The building is a 3 story concrete office building straight out of the 1970s.  Compared to our Embassy in Belmopan, there is a lot less green space.  All of the offices seemed fuller and a bit more cramped - given how many people work there compared to Belmopan, it should be no surprise.  Despite being 3 pm on a Friday, the Embassy was actually closed.  Everyone works 9 hour days Monday through Thursday and gets a half day on Friday.  I wouldn't mind adopting that in Belize.

Three volcanoes outside Guatemala City
(note the middle one is smoking)
Chris's apartment in Guatemala is amazing.  Guatemala does not have a housing pool like most posts.  Instead, the officers are allotted a specific amount of funds and have to go find their own place.  Chris did pretty good in finding this place.  He has a view of three different volcanoes from his balcony, a roof top pool, two living rooms, an amazing kitchen, maid's quarters, and a jacuzzi in his bathroom.
After a few beers on his balcony, Chris's girlfriend, Monica, joined us for dinner.  We went to a local steak house and our dinner was delicious.  The next morning, Monica made us a traditional Guatemalan breakfast with plantains, eggs, beans, and guacamole.  It was delicious.

Overlooking Antigua
After breakfast, we headed to Antigua.  Antigua is actually "Antigua Guatemala" or "Old Guatemala."  It was the capital of much of Central America during Spanish Colonial times.  An earthquake destroyed much of the capital, so the Spanish moved it to the current Guatemala City.  Only about 45 minutes from Guatemala City, the quaint town is a great get-away from the hustle and bustle that is Guatemala City.  The town is surrounded by the mountains and has a nice little town center.  There are lots of shops, restaurants, and bars.  It really is a great place to spend a leisurely afternoon or a nice weekend.

The highlight of my weekend was Saturday night.  Two months ago, when Chris and I planned this trip, I mentioned to Chris that I would like to be able to watch the Nebraska-Ohio State game.  Chris is also a college football fan, so he understood.  We went to watch the game at pretty big sports bar, where we had the largest plate of nachos I have ever seen.  The first half of the game I was miserable.  The Huskers were playing awful.  The game was conspiring to ruin my weekend.  THEN, the Huskers started turning it around.  When Taylor Martinez scored in the 3rd quarter, I jumped up and yelled, forgetting I was in a bar full of Guatemalans who couldn't care less about this game.  After the next TD, I didn't care who stared at me.  By the time, Nebraska scored the winning TD, several Guatemalans were cheering on Nebraska with me.  I know that I am way too emotionally attached to a football team, but this comeback really made the weekend better.

Celebratory shot after Nebraska's win
The other major revelation of the weekend came when the bar played the classic Richie Valens' hit "La Bamba."  I have always known the chorus of that song to be, "La la la la la bamba."  I was singing along when Monica called me out.  She insisted that the words were "para bailar la bamba."  I called bullshit and we playfully argued about it the rest of the night.  The song was even played at another bar that night and I still heard the lyrics my way.  It wasn't until the next day when I looked up the lyrics online that I was convinced.  This is truly mind-blowing.

Sunday morning, we drove through the mountains to Lake Atitlan.  Lake Atitlan is formed by a volcanic crater and is surrounded by three volcanoes.  The lake is gorgeous and the surrounding cliffs are majestic.  Our hotel was fantastic.  They had a botanical garden and an aviary.  There was an infinity jacuzzi and TWO helipads.  The nearby town of Panajachel was a fun little town.  Nearby, there were a variety of adventure sports - SCUBA in the lake, kayaking, zip lines, hiking.  If I were to come back to Guatemala, I could see spending several days in the area.

My favorite photo of the weekend - Antigua

Check out Chris's chicken bus t-shirt.  After spotting it in Antigua, we  made fun of the shirt all night.
So when we saw it in Panajachel, Chris had to buy it.

The view from our pool at Lake Atitlan

One of the Macaws in the aviary.  These guys were nasty.
They would screech at me if I came near and raise their talons at me.

This waterfall was right off the road.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

National TV

Last Thursday, and again this morning, I started my day off by appearing live on national TV and radio to promote the Diversity Visa Lottery.  It sounds so much cooler to call it national TV than to point out that as Belize only has a population of 300,000, I likely reached no more than 15,000 total people.  Still, it is nice to get out of the office and being on TV (and simulcast on the radio) is fun.

(If you happen to be a non-U.S. Citizen reader and are interested in immigrating to the U.S., you can go to http://www.dvlottery.state.gov/ to register).

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Congratulations Katie

I've been looking forward to October 1 for weeks now.  It was jam-packed.  Nebraska's first Big Ten game against the Wisconsin Badgers - possibly the biggest game of the year.  The first ever Scavenger Hash, which I was "setting."  Rotary's annual Wine and Cheese fundraiser, one of the biggest social events of the year in Belmopan.  It was my little sister's 25th birthday.  And last week, the St. Louis Cardinals had completed a miracle comeback to win the wild card and would start the MLB post season on Saturday.

So, I had been looking forward to this day for a while.  But though some of the things I was looking forward to were awesome (the Scavenger Hash) and some were not (the Huskers game), the biggest news came from my little sister.  At just after midnight on her 25th birthday, her boyfriend Paul proposed to her and she said yes.

Congratulations Katie and Paul
Katie and Paul in San Pedro

Monday, September 26, 2011

Funeral of George Price

Last Monday, the primary founding father of Belize, George Price, passed away at the age of 92.  Although I knew George Price was the "George Washington of Belize", I had never really looked into the history.  According to one of the local papers, Price became active in politics in the 1950s following a devaluation of the currency.  In 1956, he was elected mayor of Belize City.  In 1961, he was mayor when Hurricane Hattie devastated Belize City.  George Price was the first to advocate for moving the capital to the center of the country, what we now call Belmopan.

Price was one of the founders of the People United Party, which was the driving force behind independence and is currently the opposition party to the United Democratic Party.  Price and other independence minded individuals began calling the country Belize (as opposed to British Honduras) in the 1970s.  Although the British did not appear to oppose independence for Belize, the main opposition came from Guatemala, which maintains a territorial claim over the country.  In 1981, the British formally agreed to a defense guarantee and independence was granted on September 21, 1981.  Price served as the first Prime Minister until 1984, when the PUP lost to the UDP in the elections.  Price was not done, however, as he was elected to serve as Prime Minister again from 1989 to 1994.

Price never married and had no children.  I've heard and read that he was never known to have a romantic partner.  Price was a strong believer in Catholicism and even attended seminary as a young man.  He never owned a car or had a regular driver and was known to walk everywhere even late into his life.

The accomplishment that I personally find the most amazing is one that is hardly written about.  In the history of colonialism, it is often easy to keep the people united when they are fighting for a common goal.  What is infinitely more difficult is to keep those factions united once independence begins.  Few who have never lived in Belize would realize how multi-cultural this country is.  In a country with only 300,000 people, there are significant Creole (Kriol), Mestizo, Mayan, Menonite, Garifuna, Chinese, and Caucasian, as well as other ethnic groups.  Yet this country remained united throughout its history and there is little dissension today.  That is truly remarkable and is a testament to the leadership of George Price and others.

Today was declared a national holiday for the state funeral.  I am watching the funeral from home and I am struck by two things.  First, I know and recognize a lot of people appearing on TV.  I often forget how prominent my friends and acquaintances are in Belize.  Second, there is way more white in the crowd than I would usually see at a funeral in the U.S.  Many of the women are wearing black, but most of the men and some of the women are wearing white shirts with black pants.  I think this is due to the weather more than anything.  It is hot out there and anyone wearing a suit jacket has got to be suffering in the heat.  So, instead of seeing black jackets, we are seeing the white shirt.  I should also note that men often wear a white guayabera in formal situations in Belize.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

New People and other stuff

Lots of new people have arrived at the Embassy in the past month.  All told, I think close to half of all the Americans at Post have arrived within the last month.  Lots of new kids too.  Hard to remember who belongs to who, but I am starting to figure it out.

September is a very holiday-friendly month in Belize.  For Labor Day, I went up to Cancun.  Then, for the Battle of St. George's Caye, I went to Hopkins.  Then Wednesday, September 21, was the 30th anniversary of Belize Independence.

Sadly, George Price, the first Prime Minister of Belize and one of the driving forces behind Belize independence died on Sunday.  On Monday, Belize is having a state funeral - the first in its history.  They declared the day to be a national holiday, which means I will get one more day off this month.

On Thursday, I will be going back on national TV and radio to promote to Diversity Visa Lottery.  Last year, it was possible to listen over the internet.  I will try to post a link and time later this week if I can.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cancun!

Sam, Betsy and Kris in high school
If it seems like I have disappeared for most of the month, it's because one of my best friends from high school has spent the past two weeks hanging out here.  Sam and I have known each other since junior high and became good friends in high school when he started working at my Dad's restaurant.  He had a pool table in a detachable garage and many of my high school memories take place in that garage.  Despite the fact that almost all of my friends from high school live in different places, we have remained close. So, a few months back, I started talking to Sam about visiting me here in Belize and he managed to get two weeks off work and a cheap flight to Cancun.

My original plan was to drive to Chetumal on Friday, stay overnight, and then drive the rest of the way to Cancun on Saturday.  On Thursday, however, I got a call from my sister Shelley.  She had been scheduled for her first ever overnight trip to Cancun (she is flight attendant) for Friday.  So, I decided to drive all the way up on Friday and stay with Shelley.  It was great to see Shelley, even though she got in late at night and had to leave early the next morning.

View from Shelley's hotel.
Cancun is awesome.  Really, really, awesome.  The beach is utterly fantastic.  The hotels are gorgeous, the food was fabulous.  The clubs were rocking.  I loved Cancun.  The main tourist area is called the hotel zone and it is a long thin stretch of land, shaped like a 7, that juts off the mainland.  The Caribbean is open on one side and a lagoon is enclosed on the other side.  Luxury resorts line the Caribbean side for miles.  The lagoon side tends to feature restaurants, malls, shops, clubs, etc.

People kept asking me how Cancun compares to Belize.  The simple answer is that it doesn't.  Some of the resorts in San Pedro are nice, but nothing compares to the luxury of Cancun.  The beaches are nicer in Cancun, the ocean is nicer (I like having some waves).  The food is better.  The shopping is way better (although I didn't buy much).

Sam and Yiselle (she had just changed after shift)
After spending Saturday morning at the beach, I drove to the airport to pick up Sam.  Given that it was the first day of college football, we then went to lunch at Hooters.  This way, I could watch the Nebraska game and Sam could watch the Hooters girls.  We sat by the kitchen so we I could watch the game we I wanted.  This had the added bonus of being where the waitresses hung out when they weren't serving their tables.  One of the waitresses, Yiselle (pronounced Giselle) decided to hang out and flirt with us.  Her English was limited to the Hooters menu and our Spanish was limited to four years of high school Spanish over a decade ago (officially, I am 0+).  But, we Sam made do.  The hardest part was that she asked us to translate the Hooters slogan on the back of every t-shirt, "Delightfully tacky, yet unrefined."  We were not successful.

We made our way back to the hotel to enjoy the beach and pool before it got dark.  Unfortunately, Sam decided to leave his glasses on when he went into the sea.  The Caribbean did not like his decision and decided to take them off for him.  So, surrounded by beautiful scenery and beautiful women, Sam can't see anything more than three feet in front of his face.  He spent the rest of the weekend surreptitiously asking me if a nearby girl was as hot as her blurry figure made him think she was.

We had a fantastic night out on Saturday.  We started at Senor Frogs, a restaurant bar, where the food is okay, the drinks are overpriced, but the atmosphere is fantastic.  This place is what Margaritaville would like to be, if it weren't a corporate chain worried about of offending customers.  They even have a water slide that goes into the lagoon.
Sam, the Vegas inspired club area

After dinner, we headed to the club area.  We ended up getting free cover to this one club.  We hadn't planned to stay too long, but two girls were seated by us and we ended up spending the evening talking to them.  As the night wore on, the place filled up pretty quickly.  The people watching opportunities were fantastic.  The people watching was fantastic and the music was great (over the last two years, I have noticed that I have started to like club music.  Not sure if this is due to a change in club music or a change in my tastes).

Me, Sam (no glasses) and Elyce
At one point in the night, I had mentioned that every time I stayed in Mexico, I had gone to a Mexican Strip Club.  Moreover, Sam and I had talked about finding a club until he lost his glasses.  The girls we were talking with thought going to a club was a fantastic idea.  So, around 2 am, we hopped into a cab and he took us to the shady part of town.  This club was much nicer than either of the ones I had gone to in Chetumal.  It was very much an American-style strip club.  A lot more dancers, better looking dancers, but a lot more expensive too.  We eventually made our way back to our hotels around 530 in the morning.

Obligatory shot of my feet at the pool
On Sunday, we woke up late, ate some lunch and then spent the afternoon at the beach and pool.  I got a bit burnt by the pool.  Sam halfheartedly combed the beach for his lost glasses.  It was a beautiful and relaxed afternoon.  This is why Cancun exists.  We ate delicious tacos at a relaxed Mexican restaurant off the main strip.  There was a mariachi band.  We made it an early night as we were getting up early to drive back to Belize.

I had so much fun in Cancun, that I have decided to celebrate my 30th birthday there next spring.  I've invited friends and family from Belize and the US to join me for a long weekend there.  Should be fun.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Meeting people on the road less traveled

I was thinking about the famed Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken, today.  The final three lines have always spoken to me.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I -
I took the road less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

When you take the less traveled road, you get to see and do things that most people don't.  The less traveled road has always seemed more adventurous, more fun, more spirited, more daring.  Frankly, I have thought of the road less traveled as distinctly the better road (which, when you think about it, is counter-intuitive).

The biggest downside of the less traveled road has always been that it is, by definition, the lonelier road.  But, I no longer think that is necessarily true.  My road has gone from Omaha to Shenandoah to Kirksville to St. Louis to Washington DC to Belize, with several detours to Europe.  No one has made this entire journey with me, but I have never really been walking alone.  Each leg of the journey has simply had different companions.  Meeting these new companions is the best part of the journey.  So, I shall continue to take the road less traveled by.


Friday, August 26, 2011

Acting

Work for the last few weeks has been a bit busier than usual.  In addition to my regular dosage of non-immigrant and immigrant interviews, I have also been acting Consular Chief.  My supervisor has been on three weeks training and she asked me to fill in while she was gone.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't really expect to have to do all that much.  A lot of the job is long-term planning and staffing decisions.  Since, by definition, long-term decisions don't usually need to be made all that time, I figured I'd attend a few more meetings, sign a few more forms and just make sure the place didn't go to shit.  I figured I could handle that.

Turns out there is a lot more to the job* than I expected.  There was a lot of preparation that went into Tropical Storm Harvey.  Although it didn't really turn into anything, we had to prepare for the fact that it might hit as a hurricane.  That meant a warden message Emergency Message from the US Embassy about the storm, Emergency Action Committee meeting and other issues.

I definitely did NOT expect to hire anyone while I was acting consular chief.  Our biometrics coordinator position had been vacant for over a year and then I had to interview someone for the position the first week.  We had also requested a State Department intern for the Spring.  Because of the long clearance processes, we had to make the decision now.  I got to sift through dozens of applications and resumes, pick out a few good candidates (in truth, they were all good candidates), conduct phone interviews, and then select a primary and alternate.  Given the fact that I had never hired anyone in my life, it was a strange experience.  It was honestly difficult to choose.  Three of the four candidates seemed like they would be good fits and there was nothing quantitatively to exclude one over the other.  In the end, I went with the one who seemed liked she would fit in the best.

The last big issue I had to deal with involved implementing our new public operating hours which starts next week.  Logisitically, I had to figure out how many appts. to schedule at what times.  Plus, we have been trying to promote it to current  applicants. 

There were, as I expected, more meetings, more forms to sign, and unusual cases to deal with.  But, I enjoyed the work.  I got a few ideas of how I would approach this job if I did it full-time.  It will look good on my EER.

* By job, I mean the job of Acting Consular Chief, as opposed to the Consular Chief job.  I knew the Consular Chief did a lot, I just didn't think all that much would occur during the three weeks I was at the helm.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Katie and Paul

My sister and her boyfriend were here last week.  I swear they did more in a week than I have done in 14 months.  We had a blast out in San Pedro and then they spent the rest of the week doing more in three days that I think I have done in months.  Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures because my sister lost her camera and then used mine all week.

On Saturday, Tropical Storm Harvey made its way to Belize.  Although we spent all week preparing for a possible hurricane, Harvey turned out to be a pretty weak storm.  It rained a bit throughout the morning, then really, really hard for 30 minutes.  Just after the storm, we still had the Hash.  We thought it was gonna pour on us, but ended up being great weather.  Plus, it was pretty fun to fun to hash through all the puddles.  That night, I hosted a party at my house.  We had a great time, but I swear I am still recovering.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

My sneaky dog

Bailey always appears to be a good dog.  He never gets up on the furniture, unless he is called up there.  Or at least he doesn't when I am home.  Since my sister had my car today, he couldn't hear me when I came into the house.  Guess who was sitting on the couch with a guilty grin on his face?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Sharks and shitty hotels

My sister Katie and her boyfriend Paul came into Belize on Friday last week.  As soon as I picked them up from the airport, we headed out to San Pedro for a weekend at the beach.

Our hotel was a complete disaster.  My sister found it online and it shouldn't have been so bad, but it was just awful.  We should have known it was bad when our cab driver didn't know where the hotel was.  When we finally found it (we had driven right past it, but there was no sign), the pool was cordoned off and 1/4 full.  We only agreed to stay there because they said the pool would be filled later that afternoon (it wasn't).  Filling the pool ruined our water pressure and we still didn't have water after we got back from snorkeling the next day.  We finally gave up and switched hotels.  If you are coming to San Pedro, I do not recommend the Tides Beach Resort.

What wasn't a disaster was our snorkeling trip.  I had previously used the snorkel guide Lil' Alphonse and I made sure we used him again.  While almost every snorkel trip takes you to the same two spots (Hol Chan and Shark-Ray alley), Lil Alphonse does more than just drive the boat.  In Hol Chan, you swim just above the reef and thousands of fish are visible.  As you swim along, Lil Alphonse points out the fish and then tells you what kind of fish it is.  He knows so much about these fish that he can tell you whether it is young or old, male or female, whether it can change colors and what colors it can change into.  Now, I will be the first to admit that I have no idea if he is telling us the truth, but he sure sounds like he knows what is talking about (which is what is really important with a tour guide).

Amazingly, shark-ray Alley is even more amazing than Hol Chan.  Although the spot is nothing more than a sandy area, dozens of sharks and sting rays hang out there.  (I am sure it has almost everything to do with all the guides chumming the water and feeding the sharks and rays).  The sharks are all nurse sharks and the highlight is Alphonse diving down and pulling one of the sharks up to the surface.  Then, he will let you pet or even hold the shark.  It is so awesome to hold a shark.  The skin is a weird texture.  Almost like the dimpled texture of an artificial basketball.

The rest of the trip was pretty awesome as well.  The band that I really like was playing at Fidos.  The food, as always, was amazing.  The nachos at the Sunset Grill were to die for.  The lobster, shrimp and fish were all fantastic.  I did two pretty cool dives on Sunday morning and I got to hang out with my sister and her boyfriend.

(Note: my sister brought a disposable water camera - so we will have pictures of me holding the shark once she gets it developed).

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Poker Night

A few weeks ago, the Main Event of the World Series of Poker was shown live* on ESPN.  I love poker and watched way too much of the coverage.  Starting with the second to last day, they started showing a player from Belize named Badih Bounahra.  Despite his short stack, he kept inching closer and closer to the final table, which will be played in November.

As the tournament wore on, the announcers starting talking about the man from Belize.  They said he owned a poker room in Belize City.  I thought that was impossible because I didn't think there was a poker room in Belize.  Considering that they also called Belize City the capital of Belize, I figured the announcers just had bad information.  Turns out they were right and I was wrong.

Ever since I learned there was a poker room at the Princess Casino in Belize City, I have wanted to make a trip up there.  The Princess has a less than stellar reputation and despite having the only movie theater in the country (currently showing Transformers 2), one of two bowling alleys in Belize, and a casino, I had somehow never made it there.  I sought to fix this oversight last night and headed up to Belize City.

I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the poker room.  They had quality tables,regulation chips, and professional dealers in a room separate from the rest of the casino.  Most of the players were polite and knew what they were doing.  (There was one guy who never stopped talking and bet big into almost every pot.  He won several big hands, but ended up losing approximately US$800, so despite his obnoxious personality, I was glad he was there).  The rake is absurdly high, 5% up to $25.  (Normally, the rake is capped around $4).

I started the night off hot with pocket kings on my first hand and I won the first three pots at the table.  Within 30 minutes I had pocket kings again and I was up $75 quickly (with an initial bankroll of $100).  From there, things turned sour with a run of bad cards.  Twice the boorish guy beat me on the river and I was down $200.  With my last $100, I quickly tripled up to get back to even and won a few more big pots to end up ahead by $250 for the night.  Not too shabby for a Saturday night.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Staying connected

About a week ago, I saw the following status from one of my A-100 classmates:

talking to grandma in falls church via skype, watching the daily show online, listening to WBEZ streaming complete with local traffic updates: sometimes i'm not sure we're living the foreign service as it was intended. (the internet is amazing.)

It really is amazing how connected I can stay despite living so far from family and friends.  And it is not just facebook, skype, and e-mail.  Netflix, Hulu, online newspapers, and internet radio all make it like I haven't even left the United States.  This isn't necessarily a good thing.

Compare this to just twelve years ago when I went to Italy and I wrote letters to friends and family practically every day.  The fact that communication took time was important.  It helped me develop friends and learn to solve my own problems.  I truly became immersed in Italy on this trip, something I haven't done on any trip abroad since (although the definition of an immersion has probably changed as well since most host families probably also use facebook).

The point of this post, however, isn't to talk about the changes in living abroad, but how to take advantage of staying connected to the United States (if that is what you want).  Below is a list of the most important technological devices/products/services that I have found to stay connected.

  • A VPN (Virtual Private Network) - whether you are living under an oppresive regime or just want to keep up with the latest episode of Grey's Anatomy, no service is more important than a VPN.  (Do people still watch Grey's Anatomy).  The VPN establishes a secure connection between your computer and a server in the U.S. (or U.K. or where ever you want) and then tells the rest of the world that you are in that location.  Many American websites, including Netflix, Pandora, Hulu, etc. have restrictions on allowing access to the content outside the U.S.  This allows you to still watch your favorite movie or TV show while abroad.
    • There are dozens of commercial VPNs out there, but I have had great success with StrongVPN.  They have a variety of options which should be able to suit your needs and only costs about US$55 per year.  StrongVPN can be used by multiple computers or devices, but only one can be logged in at a time.
    • In order to have multiple devices logged in at once, I purchased a separate router from Sabai Technology.  This specific router is designed to work with your StrongVPN account and will broadcast a wireless VPN connected signal.  Although the router is a bit pricey at $140, they have fantastic customer service if you need help setting up (you probably will).
  • Magic Jack - Some people swear by Skype, but I personally prefer Magic Jack.  This awesome device lets me have a US phone number and call anywhere in the US for free using a real telephone.  I plug the telephone into the computer and voila!  The reason I prefer Magic Jack is I find it easier to call family on their cell phones than arrange for skype dates.  For only $20 a year, it is a great deal.  I haven't really looked into calling non-US numbers yet on Magic Jack.  I know it's possible, but not sure of the costs.
  • XBox 360, Wii, or PS3 - If you are a gaming enthusiast, then you probably already have one of these systems.  If you do, you can generally connect it to the internet and use it to stream Netflix and other programs.  I have used Xbox and while I would recommend it over nothing at all, I am not in love with their service and the inability to pay with a credit card that bills a DPO or APO address.
  • Roku - What I would recommend is the Roku.  This tiny device fits into the palm of your hand and connects your TV to the internet via its various channels.  The five key channels are Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Amazon Instant Video, and MLBTV.  I have not had the Roku long, but it already is going to surpass the XBox for streaming to my TV.
  • Netflix - If you haven't heard, Netflix now offers streaming video and TV shows.  The movie selection is quite limited, the TV show collection is quite extensive.  For $7.99 per month, it is totally worth it.  I, personally, like to also get the DVDs through the mail as it allows me to see some movies quicker.  Given that there is no way to rent movies in Belize, it is worth the extra expense for the extra options.
  • Hulu Plus - Almost all currently running TV shows and many older ones.  You can get the most recent TV show episodes for free on your computer through regular Hulu.  Hulu Plus expands the inventory and allows you to stream to your TV.  (I haven't tried this yet).
  • Pandora - It's awesome.
So, as you can see it's like I hardly left at all.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Hurricane exercise

We had a hurricane hit Belize today - more accurately, we pretended to have a hurricane hit Belize today in order to prepare for such a crisis.  The exercise was put together by the crisis management team in DC.  They put together a crisis exercise and then simulate phone calls and e-mails from the public, the department, the press and Members of Congress.  We work on inputting the information into the Crisis Task Force software, develop talking points and generally get an idea for how chaotic such a situation can be.

I actually had it a little bit easy this morning.  I was on Congressional and media duty so I got all the phone calls from Congressional staffers and the press.  All my callers were calm and collected.  Other people in the section were getting calls from friends and family, as well as American citizens affected by the hurricane.  The callers really get into their roles and really amp up the stress level when someone is yelling at you or crying or doesn't speak English.

Although the exercise was useful and went pretty well overall, I really don't want a large scale disaster to hit us while I am here.  We'd figure it out, but it'd be messy.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Rejuvenation

It is not often you feel rejuvenated the day after staying out to until five in the morning closing down bars in a Mexican (southern) border town.  But after a pretty rough few weeks at work, a trip to Chetumal really soothed the soul.  Highlights of the weekend include:

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II - Loved it.  It followed the book fairly closely and I didn't mind the changes.  My favorite addition was the line from Prof. McGonagall, "It's good to see you Potter."  The look on her face says everything and sums up the emotional connection we all have with the story.
  • Dr. Pepper - They don't sell it in Belize and they don't sell it in Mexico, but we found a random case on the shelf at the grocery store which I had to buy.  I was so excited that I almost didn't cringe when I realized I paid US$12 for the case.
  • Pirate bar - a bar shaped like a pirate ship.  Enough said.
  • Road beers - we walked the two-mile stretch of bars and restaurants along the sea and soon realized that it was more enjoyable with a can of Sol bought from a drive-thru beer store.
  • Gaudy belt buckles - several outdoor stands were selling belts with jeweled belt buckles.  Common designs included jeweled dollar signs, jeweled marijuana leaves, and jeweled guns.  These things were so awful that I think even Mexican gangsters would only wear them ironically.  Some of the best designs had spinners in the buckle like the rims on cars that were popular 5 years ago (are those still popular now?)  We saw these several times when we were sober, but we couldn't find them after we had been drinking or else purchases would have been made.
  • Closing down the Mexican strip club.  Around 3, we decided that we couldn't go home without trying to improve on my previous experience in a Mexican strip club.  Our first attempt got lost in translation.  We didn't know the word for strip club, so our best Spanish speaker asked the taxi driver to take us to the "bar for women without clothes."  The club was rocking, but we soon realized it wasn't what we were looking for as no one was taking their clothes off and most of the women in the club were really men in drag.  Our next cabby understood us better and took us to a different club.  Absolutely everything was better about this club than the one in April.  After two dancers, the turned on the house lights and closed down the club.
  • Wal-Mart.  I should not get this excited about a store but can't help myself.  Between the internet and what is available in Belize, I can get almost anything I want.  But with internet shopping and small stores, you lose the ability to browse.  Plus, the produce is so much better in Mexico.
  • Tacos

This weekend was just what I needed. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Update

So, the past couple of weeks have been rough at work.  Starting at the beginning of July, I rotated back to the visa section.  The transition hasn't exactly been smooth.  I am not going to air all my grievances out here because (a) it would be unprofessional, (b) it wouldn't accomplish anything, and (c) I don't know who at the Embassy reads this.

What bothers me the most about this is not the situation itself, but how it has been effecting me.  I have been finding myself increasingly frustrated about issues that don't really matter.  I am becoming petty and complaining about things that would normally roll off my back.  I have honestly prided myself in the past on ignoring office politics and just doing my job, but I can't seem to find that inner peace here.  Moreover, it has nothing to do with the job.  I still really enjoy almost every part of my job.

Going forward, I am striving to just focus on the job and let the other issues resolve themselves.  I need to refrain from continually trying to find solutions for problems when it is not my job to solve it.  Let's call it a mid-year's resolution.

Today, I also found out where several friends are getting posted for their second tour.  I have one good friend going to Kathmandu, Nepal.  In fact, two people from my A-100 class will be there after one person from my class did her first tour there.  Imagine knowing 3 people who are living or will live in Kathmandu!  Others are headed for China, India, Pakistan (followed by The Hague) and Mexico.

The second group of summer bidders got their bid list yesterday.  Glancing through it, I had a bit of bid list envy as several fantastic posts jumped out at me, such as Croatia, Krakow, Poland, Maputo, Mozambique and many repeats from my list.  Two people will be joining me in Franfurt for Consular positions.  Considering that I will likely spend almost 3 years with these people (9 months in training and 2 years in Germany), I am hoping we get along.

Finally, I am headed to see Harry Potter in Mexico tomorrow.  I still can't believe I have to drive 3 hours and cross an international border to see a movie, but such is (my) life.  We're staying the night in Chetumal to get some good food and do some shopping.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Happy Birthday Jack

Today was the Deputy Chief of Mission's birthday.  One of the great things about being at such a small post is that I consider Jack and his wife Linda to be friends.  We hang out in the same group.  Jack, aka "Up the Cric" is an avid hasher.  I've been to dinner at their house and they came to my birthday BBQ.  So, this weekend I headed down with a group of friends to celebrate Jack's 65th birthday.

The birthday party was being held at Villa Verano in the resort village of Hopkins.  This Villa was absolutely fantastic.  It was three floors of luxurious living.  Marble and granite every where.  Ornate hardwood tables.  Fancy showers, monogrammed towels, and ornate sinks in the bathrooms.  A fantastic pool on the beach.  I do not say this lightly when I say that Villa Verano is the nicest place I have ever stayed.*  We had a fantastic weekend eating great food and relaxing by the pool.
Beth and Kevin on the rooftop

The pool and the beach

My shower and bathtub - I love the granite on the back

The coolest fan ever.  These blades rotated around as if on a spit
which was controlled by a bicycle chain.

The downstairs great room with view of the pool

The other view of the great room

The downstairs kitchen (about half the size of the upstairs kitchen).
*The villa wasn't all that expensive either.  For ten total rooms, we paid BZ$3,000 or US$1,500.  That broke down to $150 per room.  We had 20 adults and 6 kids and could easily have fit in quite a few more in.