Friday, February 25, 2011

Meeting Americans

As I think I have mentioned on here before, after Christmas, I switched from visas to American Citizens Services.  Unlike many of my friends at large posts, I get to experience almost all components of consular work. And from now until at least the summer, I am in charge of American Citizens Services (ACS).

ACS is, as we say, a cradle to grave service.  We literally do birth reports and death certificates.  We also do passports, help victims of crimes, visit prisoners, help Americans get home, and find lost Americans (or more accurately, Americans who haven't checked in with family).  This past week has been quite busy with several arrests, a quarterly prison visit, a possible child abuse case, and a town hall meeting.  And this was a four day week!

On Wednesday, I went to Hattieville to visit the prisoners.  While each police district has its own small jail to hold prisoners temporarily, all long-term prisoners go to Hattieville.  Run by the non-profit Kolbe foundation, the prison looks like something out of O Brother, Where Art Thou? The land around the prison is flat and relatively treeless.  The whole complex has around 1500 inmates.  There is a chain link fence on the outside of the whole complex and several fences inside separating the various housing units.  In all honesty, escape would not be that difficult.

The atmosphere appears very relaxed compared to a U.S. prison.  The prisoners don't have uniforms - they wear whatever they can get.  Unlike some other Central American prisoners, they are fed by the prison.  There are a couple of woodworking shops and a jewelry shop and most of the inmates do some work.  The guards have uniforms, but aren't armed.

There are currently fewer than five American prisoners in the prison.  I can't go into any details about them or why they are there, but I was able to meet with all of them personally.  We go to the prison at least once a quarter.  We always bring some toiletries (toothpaste, soap, deoderant, etc).  We also try to collect clothes, books, magazines, etc for the prisoners.  In general, they were pleasant to me and happy to have someone to talk to about their case or what they will do when they get out of prison.

On Thursday, we had our first town hall meeting of the year.  We try to hold meetings around Belize to give people the opportunity to meet the Ambassador and our staff, to ask some questions, and to learn what we do.  Our meeting this week was in Belize City.  Given that it is, by far, the largest city in the country, we expected a good turnout.  Instead, we had fewer than a dozen people come.  Those who did come seemed to be engaged.  Even though our presentations were done by 1230, most of the people were still there by 130-200 mingling with each other as well as the staff.

This week was the first time since I started on ACS that I really got out of the office and got to meet Americans without bullet-proof glass between us.  I really enjoyed this side of consular work for the first time.  I had been dreading doing this for 6 more months, but I actually enjoyed it this week.

Now, let's just hope the duty phone doesn't ring all weekend.

Monday, February 21, 2011

1848, 1968, 1989, 2011?

All views in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of the State Department or the U.S. government.

I majored in history in college and one of the concepts I remember vividly is that in many years, very little happens.  Sure, they write things in the history book for every year, but if I were to ask you what major events occurred in 1983, you'd probably have to look to Google to find out.  (My quick search shows the most significant world event in 1983 to be the bombing of the Embassy in Lebanon).

But some years are chock so full of events that important events are given no historical coverage.  I'm not talking about years like 2001.  9/11 remains the single most important event of the 21st Century.  Moreover, the US invaded Afghanistan following the attacks, but not much else happened of huge historical import.  I'm talking about years with so much going on that the years become linked with the events.

In the past 200 years, there have been quite a few of these years.  Any of the years for WWI and WWI would qualify.  But outside the war, there are three years - 1848, 1968, and 1989 -  that most historians agree are defined by the revolutions that spread across the globe during these years.  After what has happened during the first two months of 2011, I would not be surprised to see the current year join these historically significant years.

1848 - The year was characterized by a series of revolutions throughout Europe.  Often called the Springtime revolutions, popular uprisings occurred in Italy, France, Denmark, Habsburg Empire (Austria), Hungary, Belgium, Switzerland, Poland, Wallachia, and even Brazil.  Though there was very little immediate change from these revolutions, the unification of both Germany and Italy can be directly attributed to these revolutions.

1968 - The year of the student protests and socialist revolutions were in a large part a response to the US war against Vietnam.  Millions of students around the world protested against the war and for civil rights for women and minorities.  Protests in Czecheslovakia and Poland were ended by violent responses from the Soviet Union.  Assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, along with the violent protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago were just some of the major events that occurred in 1968.

1989 - This was the year of the anti-communist revolutions.  Protests in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czecheslovakia, and Romania led to the fall of their Communist regimes.  In Berlin, the divisive wall came down in November.  The Tiananmen Square massacre occurred in April of that year.  Over the following years, the USSR fell apart and democracy took over Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

2011? - I will be the first to admit that 2011 is not quite there yet.  But the events of the first 50 days this year have sown the seeds of revolution in the Middle East.  We have already seen mass protests lead to the fall of long-time dictators in Tunisia and Egypt.  Protests in the Sudan (as well as the Southern Sudan independence vote), Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Morocco, and Iran (and Wisconsin?) all have the potential to add 2011 to the short list of monumental years.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Al and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

One of my Mom's favorite stories to read us as kids was Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  If I recall, Alexander keeps dreaming about going to Australia to escape his awful day, but at the end realizes that bad days happen even in Australia.

When I was home over Christmas, I ordered a 55 inch Multi-system LCD HD TV.  This is my first real luxury item I have bought myself since I started to earn a decent income.  Other than my car and some trips I have taken, it was by far the most I had ever spent on anything.  When it was delivered to my sister's house, the delivery guys were jealous.  Even the box looked beautiful.  I had specifically arranged for a second HHE shipment just to get this TV.  So, when our logistics guy told me they could deliver my shipment on Friday, I was super excited.

I must admit that the first half of my day was uneventful and not at all bad.  In fact, I got back the final version of the Post of the Month and the article is awesome and was barely changed at all.

I took off a half day so I could meet the shipment, as well as the guys removing my old entertainment center (too small), plus the guys who were coming to mount the TV on the wall.  Additionally, my internet hadn't been working right since I got back from DC.  The wireless modem wouldn't connect directly to the computer and the VPN wireless router wouldn't let me connect through the VPN, but I could still connect to the internet.  I had an online appt. with the VPN company to fix the router.  Not only was she unable to fix the VPN aspect of the router, but she managed to break it entirely, so that it would not send out any signal.  Aargh.  So two wireless signals and neither one would work.  Fortunately, I happen to own another wireless router, so I can connect through that.

Look at how beautiful this TV is.
When the TV and other HHE got here, there were no problems.  Everything was on the truck, even my beer. (Yes, I shipped a case of Natty Light.  I rule.)  Then, the guy came to mount it on the wall and we took it out of the box.  It was amazing, in all of its glory.  Bigger than I had even realized.

Unfortunately, as the guys were messing with the wall bracket, I noticed that their is no coaxial cable input.  Sure, most places have cable boxes or satellites and connect through A/V cables.  But Belize just uses the old fashioned coaxial, straight from the wall into the TV cable.  Somehow, I am completely oblivious to the fact that the plug is one of those weird three pronged ones like you have on your stove until the carpenters pointed it out.  Not only is the plug messed up, but the voltage is 220 only.  Belize is a 110 country like the US. FFFFFFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK.

Now, I spent weeks researching TVs, I knew what I cared about and what I didn't.  The thing I cared about most, more than anything else, was that I could take this TV around to post after post with me.  I paid quite a bit more for this TV so that it was multi-system and would work where ever I went.  Now, it won't even work where I am!!!!  I couldn't contact the seller because they were closed, so I vented on facebook.  Several people felt it necessary to mention that their houses (in Belmopan) are wired for both 110 and 220 and volunteered to take the TV off my hands.  The carpenters were more helpful and stated I may be able to get the electricians to come in and wire a 220 socket for me (I didn't know this was possible).  Someone else suggested that I could get a converter, which would be at least a temporary solution.  This being Belmopan, I tried two suggested stores, who were both out of stock.  Figures.

To add to my misery, when I got home I had a letter from my bank.  Now, I love my bank.  Not only do they not charge ATM fees for out of network ATMs and refund the fees charged by the out-of-network ATM, but they also refund the VISA transaction fee for international withdrawals.  Last year, I specifically did not switch to USAA because TD Bank was better.  So, now, of course, today's letter tells me that they are ending all of that.  Not only are they not refunding me other people's fees, but they are tacking on their own as well.  I now have to decide between being a smart customer (and leaving) and being lazy.  I will probably switch over to USAA, but if anyone else has an awesome bank out there, please let me know in the comments.

So, by 6 pm today, the internet broke, the TV won't plug in and my bank screwed me over.  Why should't I try to put together an IKEA TV stand.  There is no way that this will cause me any pain or frustration.  But, I need to put together the TV stand so I have something to put my old TV on until I get my new TV working.

So, even in Belize can you have a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Happy Anniversary

Hard to believe it has been a year already.  A year ago today was my first day of A-100, or as it is more commonly known in my A-100 class, as the "Badging day from Hell."  A lot has happened in a year - most notably moving to Belize, etc.  And while I have been at Post for 8 1/2 months, others from my class are just arriving or have not finished training yet (learning Chinese and Arabic will do that to you).

I spent last week training in DC.  I have recently switched from visas to American Citizens Services.  I am not the go-to person when someone loses their passport, is arrested, has their Crocodile Sanctuary burned down by an angry mob, or is killed by a jaguar.  I am also the point person to help victims of crimes and international parental child abduction.  So, last week, I joined a dozen officers and foreign service nationals for training in Assisting Victims of Crimes and International Parental Child Abduction.

Both of these are probably bigger issues than you would first think.  Sadly, thousands of Americans each year are the victim of a crime overseas.  The great majority of these are property crimes, but we also deal with murder, rape, child abuse, armed robbery, assault, terrorism, etc.  We strive to help the victim file police reports, provide them with information about the local judicial system, contact family and friends, and put them in contact with resources in the US.  Unfortunately, we are not able to do the things that most victims want (restitution for their lost property, investigation, and arrest of the criminal).  I do not look forward to these difficult cases, but I think that the training definitely helped me understand what I can (and cannot) do for these victims.

International Parental Child Abduction is a much bigger issue than most of us realize.  It refers to when one parent takes the child to another country without permission.  The most famous case was the Sean Goldman case which got tons of press in the last few years.  These cases are usually governed by The Hague treaty, which essentially states that the kid should be returned to the country of usual residence and the courts of that country will decide custody.  It probably doesn't surprise you to learn that this often doesn't happen as it is supposed to.  The class wasn't very good, but the information was useful.

More enjoyable for me than class was meeting with old friends.  I got to meet up with a friend from high school - Brandon; a friend from college - Nick (incidentally, today, Nick's wife played in a quartet with Medal of Freedom winner YoYo Ma at the White House while President Obama quietly listened in the corner); a friend from the U.S. Attorney's Office - Katie; and several friends from A-100 stationed in DC on their first tour - Morgan, Ian, and Tryg.  I had great food, great beer, and great conversation.

This week, I am trying to do my taxes.  I usually do my own taxes, but I may have to get some help this year. The federal return is no problem, but I am struggling with the State taxes.  When I joined the State Department, I picked Missouri as my state of domicile.  I have my bar license there, spent 7 years for college/law school in the state and the taxes work in my favor.  But, I also lived part of the year in Virginia (both with and without VA domicile).  I am not a tax attorney nor a CPA, but from what I understand, there are three possible scenarios of what I have to pay on state taxes:

  • Scenario 1 - I pay VA taxes on my Coast Guard income.  The moment I joined the State Department, I became a Missouri tax payer and ceased to be a Virginia tax payer (despite the fact that I continued to physically reside in VA).  I'm even with VA and Missouri refunds me all of my withholdings.
  • Scenario 2 - I pay VA taxes on my Coast Guard income and my State Dept. income up until I moved to Belize.  Since no withholdings occurred on the State Dept. income, I owe them taxes on approximately 4 months of salary, while Missouri refunds me all of my withholdings.
  • Scenario 3 - Virginia says I am still a resident of the state, despite living in Belize, and I owe them taxes on everything.  Furthermore, they charge me with tax fraud, I lose my security clearance and job.
I've been assured that Scenario 3 is unlikely, but also told that VA likes to hound military and foreign service officers to keep them as residents.  I think Scenario 1 is the proper way for this to break down, but getting the online tax software to accomodate these issues is tough.

So, if anyone out their in the foreign service world has dealt with this issue, or knows of an adequate, cheap, tax preparer (except the whole state thing, my taxes are simple), please send me a message or leave a comment below.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

DC Update

I'm having a great time in DC - learning new stuff about ACS, eating good food, and meeting up with old friends.     Last night, I found out my friend Katie was featured in the Washingtonian magazine in December for her work as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office in DC.  This is the office that I worked for when I was preparing for the Oral Assessment and doing my security clearance.  It is an interesting read, offering insight into the office I worked in and it showcases one of my best DC friends.  The article fails to mention that most of the attorneys handling the misdemeanor cases are not actually hired by the US Attorney's Office.  Rather, they are brought in from other federal agencies to get the attorney valuable trial experience.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Losing and gaining friends

People come and go.  It's a part of my life that I have to get used to.  But some people leaving is harder than others.  From my first days here, I have been closer to Aaron and Brianne than anyone else in Belmopan.  Aaron took me out and introduced me to everyone around town.  They were the couple that was closest to me in age and who didn't have kids.  Most of the fun stuff I have done in Belize has been with one or both of them.  When I needed someone to talk to when my Nanu was sick, I talked to Aaron.  Sure, I've only known them for 8 months, but you have to make fast friends in this life and Aaron and Brianne were good friends.  Of all the people in Belmopan, they are the only people who I know I will see after I leave Belmopan.  If we are ever posted to the same continent, we will make that trip together.
Aaron and Brianne - you will be missed in this small corner of the world that is Belmopan.
In other news, I apparently made a friend this week as well.  Unfortunately, it wasn't the kind of friend you hope to make.  A few months back, at a Christmas party, I met a friend of a friend.  We talked for a while and I got her number from my friend.  We've gone on a few dates and both had a good time.  And while I was hoping this would develop into something more, I found out this week that I've moved into the "friend zone."  In the grand scheme of things, not a big deal, but with such a limited dating pool here, you have to hope for the best when an opportunity presents itself.  I think Nada Surf put it best: 

"Be prepared for the boy to feel hurt and rejected/
Even if you've gone together for a short time and haven't been too serious/
There is still a feeling of rejection when someone says/
She prefers the company of others to your exclusive company..."
Nada Surf - Popular