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


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.