Thursday, March 24, 2011

What a week

I've mentioned that I am now working in American Citizens Services and this week the American Citizens have really needed a lot of services. This week alone, I have had 4 arrests, 3 victims of crimes (including 1 rape), 3 deaths, 5 emergency passports, 2 non-immigrant visas where the applicant has a claim to U.S. citizenship, and a pair of destitute Americans. All of these are around our monthly average, squeezed into less than 4 days.   Plus, one of our two ACS local staff is on vacation.  And it's only Thursday!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Diving the Blue Hole*

I went SCUBA diving in the blue hole today.  That's a picture of the blue hole on the right.  It was created thousands of years ago when an the roof of an underground cave collapsed under the weight of the Caribbean.  The depth goes from less than 20 feet all the way to over 400 feet in just a dozen feet of lateral distance.  Surrounding the hole is a ring of rock and reef.  (Despite what it looks like in the photo, none of the green areas is above the water.  It is just very shallow).  The day I found out I was going to Belize, I vowed to SCUBA dive here.

From the surface, the Blue Hole doesn't look all that impressive.  But once you get underwater, it is amazing.  The dive was more than twice as deep as any I had gone on before.  There was not a whole lot of aquatic life in the hole, but the amazing rock formations more than made up for the few fish.  A few months ago, there were ads for some thriller movie where these people go diving in a huge cave system.  That's what this felt like.  You don't expect to see stalactites underwater, which makes it all the more beautiful.

After we left the Blue Hole, we went diving in two more locations.  The first was called the aquarium and the second was Half-Moon Caye.  I could try to tell you how awesome these were (especially the aquarium), but pictures speak louder than words, so I will let them talk.

Our guide was blowing "air rings"

This fish had no side fins, only a dorsal and bottom fin.  Really interesting looking.

Spotted Eagle Ray - unfortunately kept moving away from me

A red Squirrel fish

*When I posted this as my status on facebook today, one of my friends thought I was making a dirty Avatar joke.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Birthday in Belmopan

On Thursday, I will turn 29 years old (for the first time).  So, last night I threw myself a birthday party.  My original idea was to rent out a bar and bring in this awesome band from San Pedro, but they wanted $1200US to come play, so I decided to have a BBQ on my back porch with music from my ipod.

Now, since my birthday is St. Patrick's Day, I encouraged everyone to wear green.  I also asked people to bring side dishes or desserts with bonus points for green food.  As with every theme party here in Belmopan, people went all out.  There were two green cakes - one of them shaped like a leprechaun hat.  Moreover, there was green bean dip, salad, zucchini, and even green hummus (looked gross, tasted great).  Plus, I made watergate salad (which is also green).

The BBQ was a big hit as around 30 people consumed two dozen burgers, two packs of hot dogs, and more than a dozen chicken kabobs (which were delicious), plus two and half cakes and all the side dishes.  We also polished off 15 bottles of wine, 6 bottles of liquor, and over two cases of beer.  It was a good night.
The food was delicious
Sharanya, me and Jessie
Me, Jessie, Marco and Margarita
Rebecca likes this photo because it shows off her legs
Jackie, Nigel and Beth all claiming to be sober
Happy St. Patrick's Day
Beth is still claiming she's sober

Friday, March 11, 2011

A new perspective

With all of the recent disasters around the world, both man-made (Civil War in Libya and Ivory Coast, protests in Egypt and Tunisia, etc) and natural (earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand, floods in Australia, etc), I feel for those affected by the disasters.  But now that I work in the Embassy, I can't help but think of the work facing those consular officers.  Sleepless nights and long hours, identifying bodies and calling next of kin, not knowing what to do when there is so much to be done.

So, when I woke up this morning and saw the devastation in Japan, my heart went out to all those directly affected.  But, I also thought about those who are dealing with the aftermath as well.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Apparently, there is a theme this week for State Department bloggers to talk about their housing.  Several of the posts have been about the downsides of Post housing.  One post actually spends time talking about how bad her couches were - the exact same couches sitting next to me right now.  And, sure, they may not be the best looking couches ever, but I lived in an apartment for a year that had no couch.  I never had visitors because they wouldn't have anywhere to sit.  So, let's be honest, I can handle a couple of ugly couches.

The housing in Belmopan is actually pretty damn nice.  I have a two bedroom house with a den.  Throw in a huge kitchen, dining room, living room, about 17 closets, two storage rooms, a laundry room, and a screened in back porch that runs the length of the house and I have more space than I can use.  The floors are all tile (I would much prefer carpet) and the walls are all white, which annoys some people.  But I have ceiling fans in most rooms and great recessed overhead lighting.  In terms of housing, I don't mind saying it is probably the nicest place I've ever lived.

Most of the Americans at Post live in the housing compound (as I do).  Four houses are the same as mine - twelve houses are two-story, three-bedroom houses.  The DCM's house is a bit bigger than the two-story houses and the CMR (Ambassador's house) is huge.  There are about a half-dozen off-campus houses as well.  The compound has a pool, tennis court, basketball court, walking path, and a large field.  It can be a bit of a fish bowl and everyone knowing everyone's business.

The biggest issue with housing is how much the government pays for it.  When the Embassy moved to Belmopan five years ago, there was not adequate housing.  So they entered a "build to lease" contract.  I don't have the actual numbers, but the government pays somewhere more than $10,000 per unit.  That is U.S. dollars per month.  This, in a country, where most people make less than that in a year.  AND the government pays the owner a monthly maintenance amount.  Hopefully, when the contract ends in a few years, it is renegotiated lower.  But, if my experience in contracting is any indication, it won't ever get lower.

Dining room with soccer scarves
Awesome back porch
Awesome kitchen (this is less than half my total cabinet space)
Party in my dining room

Saturday, March 5, 2011

La Ruta Maya

One of the greatest things about my job is the opportunities to experience events and festivals that simply don't exist anywhere else in the world.  And while millions of people from Rio to Trinidad to Venice to New Orleans are celebrating Carnivale this weekend, Belize is celebrating the "La Ruta Maya" canoe race.  

The race covers 176 river miles from near the Guatemala river to Belize City and the Caribbean Sea.  Although the race itself is relatively young (I believe this is the 13th year), the route has great historical underpinnings.  The Mayans often used the rivers for travel.  More recently, British loggers used the rivers to get their mahogany from the forests to the seas for shipment back to Britain.  The best part is some of the names of towns that the race passes - Roaring Creek, More Tomorrow, Burrel Boom, Spanish Lookout, Teakettle, Bermudian Landing, Ladyville, and my all-time favorite, Double Head Cabbage.  I assure you that those are all real names of real villages in Belize.

Our current DCM, who used to work in the boating industry before he joined the Foreign Service, built a canoe while here in Belize.  It's not a dug-out canoe, rather he glued thin strips of wood to a frame, sanded down the edges, and put a bunch of sealant on it.  It's actually quite an awesome little boat, named "Up the Cric", although it obviously does have paddles.  He finished this boat last year in time to enter an Embassy team for last year's race.  The team (all Belizean FSNs) had little practice time, but made a solid showing.  This year, they have gone out twice each weekend for the past month and put in practice time.

On Friday, we got to the Embassy at 530 to take a van to San Ignacio to support the team.  About 40 people from the Embassy, both Americans and local staff, were there.  San Ignacio and Santa Elena were packed with people that morning.  Although I am awful at estimating crowds, I'd say there were at least 2,000-3,000 people there.  This is easily the largest crowd I have seen in Belize.  People lined the banks and were on both the high bridge and the low bridge.

Once the horn sounded, the boats took off  paddling furiously.  Within a minute, most boats were out of my site.  A few were clearly in no hurry and several capsized before they reached the low bridge.  Apparently, the low bridge usually causes a few boats to go down and this year did not disappoint.  I saw at least 4 or 5 boats capsize at the low bridge.  One poor boat flipped over 4 times in between the bridges.  They were going to have a long day.

The rest of the weekend is apparently a traveling party, with supporters setting up camp at each of the launch and exit points.  After the first leg, the Embassy team was in fourth place in its division.
The route of "La Ruta Maya"

Approaching the low bridge

Peace Corps volunteers getting their canoe ready

Launching canoes in front of the low bridge

Up the Cric (with paddles)

Steam comes off the water in the early morning chill

My absolutely favorite name for any of the boats

The U.S. Embassy team in Up the Cric

The race begins

People watching from the low bridge

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Diplomatic Children

There is a great article in the Washington Post about how diplomatic children are affected by world events, such what has been going on the Middle East.  The best line in the article is a quote referring to Oakwood Falls Church, "It's like the State Department ghetto."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

My great cable revenge

Anyone who may have followed my non-State Dept blog, The III Degree, would know that I have had problems with cable companies.  I find that cable companies abuse you more than any other type of utility and that satellite and FIOS offer competition in theory only.  I have spent countless hours on the phone or in line with cable companies arguing over charges and service, etc.  With one company, I refused to pay a disputed charge for months, always deducting it from my monthly payment and informing them in writing that I disputed the charge of $12.84.  Finally, I moved and closed the account with the disputed amount on there - and they sent me to collections.  Assholes.  After I threatened to sue the collection company for harassing me over a disputed debt, they left me alone.

So, when I was in Crystal City last year, I had Comcast (again) and was mostly satisfied with their service.  They screwed up slightly when I canceled my service and I had to see them about getting $10 taken off the bill.  When I went to the store, the guy removed the charge with no problem and told me to have a nice day.

What he didn't realize is that he credited the account for the whole amount, which left me with a negative balance -$1.75.  Since then, for the past 10 months, they have sent me a statement informing me that I have negative balance.  Each month, I happily get the statement and throw it away.  For all the countless hours I spent arguing with them over money, they now waste money each month sending me the statement.