Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Amazing Adventures of Cars and Caracol

I wrote this post over several times and I never really liked it.  Caracol Hash was a blast.  Lots of good times with old friends, new friends, and their kids.  We had a bit of car trouble when the car I was riding there in broke down on the way there and the car I was riding out in went into a ditch on a slick and muddy road.

But rather than try to poorly capture the adventure in words, I am going to just put up some photos.

Salina's car broken down on the highway
My first tent (and I set it up all by myself)

Bailey climbing the ruins

Kids!  Kids!  Everywhere!

I love how the light shines on the bottle

Max was so excited to explore the ruins and then show us what he discovered, like this bedroom

Luna loved exploring the ruins too

Luna was making friends

Mayan temple

View from the previous temple

Max climbing everywhere

More temples

Exhausted after the Hash

Camping out

Waking up early

Cool Mayan mask on one of the temples

I'm proud of myself for climbing up

This temple is so big that it has its own yard.  (Also, love the sky in this picture)

Did I mention that we saw monkeys?   
And then we went to a cave that has a beach

Bucket List Update

I have a real post coming out later today about Caracol, but I wanted to update the list.

  • SCUBA dive with the whale sharks (Planned for May just after the full moon)
  • Caracol Mayan ruins Completed last week. 
  • Lamanai Mayan ruins (Still no plans, but I do have several free weekends)
  • (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) (no plans yet)
  • Visit the Toledo district Went to Punta Gorda yesterday for the Town Hall.  It was good to see, but I don't think I really need to go back.
  • Participate in La Ruta Maya (either as a paddler or a support team member) La Ruta Maya was a couple of weeks ago.  I did get to see the team take off and even watched them from another bridge, but I was not a support team member or a paddler.  So, I didn't really complete this one.
  • Belize zoo For my birthday, I received a coupon from Margarita and Emile for one visit to the zoo, complete with lunch and kids.  It is currently scheduled for tomorrow, but we'll see.
  • St. Herman's Cave (Haven't even made plans)
  • ATM Cave This was awesome
  • Visit Cancun or other part of Mexican Riviera I am going to spend next weekend in Playa del Carmen for Easter.  Going up there with some new friends - should be fun.
  • Visit one more Central American country (preferably Costa Rica) Or Hong Kong!  Yep, I am going to Hong Kong instead.
  • Turn 30! I successfully completed this one a few weeks ago with a fantastic costume party.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Reuniting through film

Back in 2005, I was living in Rome and working as a tour guide.  I regularly hung out at a nearby hostel where some friends worked and I could use the internet.  One random night, I ended up going out on the town with four British guys who were staying at the hostel.  We had a grand night out (in Trastevere, I think) and one of the guys, Harry, was fascinated by the fact that I came to Rome and became a tour guide.  I told him if I could do it, so could he.

Fast forward a month or so.  I am stopping in the hostel to say good bye to my friend Melissa as I am headed home for the week to surprise my sister Katie for her high school graduation.  To my surprise, Harry is there, hoping to find a job in Rome.  My company was looking for new guides and my landlord was looking for a new tenet.  I introduce Harry to my boss, give him my landlord's number and go catch my flight.  When I return a week later, Harry has pulled a Talented Mr. Ripley and is living in my apartment and doing my job.

Harry's big passion was film.  He had a few short films that he worked on in Rome, but his passion was to complete a full-length feature set in Rome.  By the fall, I was in law school and Harry was back in the U.K. working on his film.  Later that year, he shot his film on location in Rome, with many of my friends and fellow tour guides acting in the film.  In fact, I had a pretty big crush on Kathy, the tour guide who plays the female lead.

Anyway, he eventually completed the film in 2007 or 2008, but I never had the opportunity to see it.  He screened it at a BAFTA event and I think he had a few other showings in the U.K. and Europe at various film festivals.  Finally - this year, he released it on DVD through Amazon.  I bought it and watched it for the first time tonight.

There is something fascinating about seeing people and places that you know appear in a film.  In one early scene, Harry (as Ollie) is just off the plane and goes to Pensione Ottaviano.  The creaky elevator in the lobby, the common room, and then he goes into the staff room (portrayed as a regular room in the film) and looks out at the window onto Piazza Risorgimento.  The Foot Locker is across the street.  A friend's house is used as a location for one of the scenes.  The Ex-pats hang out in the "American Bar".  All of this is familiar, from another life.

The film itself is pretty decent as well.  Admittedly, it is a film student movie.  The use of black and white, the choppy narrative, and the overly-stylistic way that some of the scenes are shot declare it to be a young filmmaker's attempt to do too much.  But, considering the whole shooting budget was the cost of two round-trip Ryan Air flights from London to Rome, I'd say they did a damn good job.

Friday, March 16, 2012

My Roaring 20s

Ten years ago today, I was a sophomore in college celebrating the end of my teens at a house party in Kirksville, Missouri surrounded by dozens of my fraternity brothers.  Our fraternity band, Short Bus, was blasting 90s rock classics like Silverchair's "Tomorrow" and Stone Temple Pilot's "Interstate Love Song."  At midnight, I took a shot and slammed a beer.  I had no idea what the next decade held for me, but here are just a few of the highlights (in no particular order).

  • Graduating College - Graduating college is one of those things that I always expected to do and so I am not nearly as proud of this accomplishment as I probably should be.  But, I did pretty darn good - graduating with honors with a bachelor or arts in History and minors in Italian Studies and International Studies.  I had a bit of fun, too.
  • Relationship with my family - When I was 19, I didn't talk to my parents very often.  I didn't have a cell phone back then and had to actually pay more for long distance calls.  But, despite the fact that I have only lived in the same town as my parents for about eight months in the last ten years, we have gotten much closer.  When I lived in the U.S., I would talk to my parents daily.  Living abroad, I still talk to them weekly.  I am close with both my sisters and have traveled extensively with Shelley.  I love the relationship I have with my family.
  • Studying Abroad - During my 20s, I studied in Rome (college), Madrid (law school) and Cork, Ireland (law school).  Each of these were fantastic trips - I had a great time, made some good friends, and even learned a thing or two.
  • Bailey (and Luna) - I adopted Bailey when I was 23 years old and in my first semester of law school.  Worried that law school would be super busy, I wanted a dog who was chill.  When I walked through the kennels at the humane society, all of the dogs jumped and barked, except one.  He sat in the corner and barely lifted his head too look at me.  In almost everything I have done over the past 7 years, Bailey has been there.  Luna came to me by accident, when I found her injured on the highway.  Although she has her difficult moments, I still love her.
  • Law School - Ask any lawyer about law school and they will moan and sigh about the experience.  I am the exception to the rule in that I liked law school.  I liked the classes and I loved the Socratic method.  I actually even enjoyed the tests (much prefer one or two big tests than being graded over the whole semester).  Plus, I did well in law school - finishing just outside the top 5% in my class.
  • Tour Guide in Rome - This is perhaps my favorite thing that I did in my 20s.  Worried that I would never get the chance to live abroad (HA!), I took a gap year between college and law school.  For five months, I got paid to go to the Vatican museums every day and to take people around Rome and tell them cool stuff about the city.  
  • Foreign Service - From the time I was 22, I was trying to get into the Foreign Service.  Once I got in at the age of 27, I have worked hard to excel at this career.  All in all, I think I am doing a damn good job at work.  I have really enjoyed my work at the Embassy and am really looking forward to my tour in Germany.
  • Belmopan - Immediately after Flag Day, I went home and googled "Belmopan."  Wikipedia told me that Belmopan was one of the smallest capital cities in the world.  I was worried that I would spend two years here with nothing to do.  That has hardly been the case.  I have made wonderful friends and done some amazing things.  Belmopan is not for everyone, but it is a great place for me.
  • Prosecutor - I only worked as a prosecutor for six months, but it was one of the most exhilarating and challenging things I have ever done.  I did it well, too - winning 17 of 20 trials.  I loved that nervous feeling I would get in the pit of my stomach as I began a case.  The competition between prosecutor and defense attorney.  The skills I learned in thinking on my feet and speaking under pressure.
  • Visiting  25 Countries - Europe - Spain, Portugal, France, Ireland, United Kingdom, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Vatican City, Monaco, Poland, Hungary, Switzerland; North America - U.S., Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador (airport only); Africa - Morocco; Asia - Israel.
Pretty good decade, huh?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Hong Kong!

So, I have been planning a vacation for 10 days in May for about a month now.  I got the time off, but couldn't decide where to go.  My first thought was to explore more of central America - after all, I put that on my Belize bucket list - but I couldn't get super excited about anywhere.  I've been to Guatemala and Panama during this trip.  I plan to go with my sister and she had spent a few weeks in Costa Rica before.  That left Nicaragua, Honduras, or Panama and none of them jumped off the map for me.

After making central America my back-up plan, I began to look at South America.  Many of my A-100 friends are posted in South America and I have loved looking through their photos.  Tops on the South America list were Brazil, Buenos Aires and Montevideo, Chile, or Peru (Machu Picchu!).  I ruled out Brazil because I didn't want to go there in winter.  Peru was a possibility, but I wasn't really sure if I could hike up to Machu Picchu and I didn't really know what else there was to do in Peru.  Buenos Aires was definitely the leader in the club house, but I couldn't find flights that I liked, so I kept looking.

Then, two weeks ago, I found the perfect flight.  For only $1200, I could fly from Belize to Beijing.  Leave Belize on Saturday afternoon and arrive in Beijing late on Sunday.  My two best foreign service friends are in Beijing.  Spend a week in Beijing and then fly home in the longest day of my life (due to the international date line, the day would last like forty hours).  It would be awesome.  Turns out the fare didn't exist and only appeared online due to an error.  I was devastated.

But, finding that flight got me to expand my vacation search.  South Africa? Tokyo?  Bangkok? Vietnam? Australia?  The world was my oyster.  Finally, last night, I found a great flight to Hong Kong.  It looked just like that Beijing flight from two weeks earlier, but when I called American, I could actually book the flight this time.  I  quickly messaged my sister on facebook to confirm that she would want to go to Hong Kong and booked the flight.

Now I just have to figure out all of the details - do I need a visa for Hong Kong? (no) Do I need a visa to visit the mainland? (yes)  Where should I stay?  What should I do?  Do I want to go to Macau (probably, as I love to gamble).

So, if you, faithful reader, have any experience in Hong Kong, please let me know what I should do in Hong Kong.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

ATM Cave

The all-time coolest thing I have ever done in my life was have a snowball fight on an erupting volcano (Mt. Etna in December 2002).  Attending the Pope's funeral in 2005 and seeing President Obama's inauguration in 2009 are high on that list.  The newest addition to that list is the ATM Cave trip I took last Saturday.

First, our guide for the trip was Dr. Jaime Awe.  Dr. Awe is the head of archaeology in Belize and he quite literally discovered the Mayan artifacts in this cave.  In the early 1990s, he was doing a documentary for the Discovery Channel and showing them a few caves.  They wanted to film him exploring a cave he hadn't been to before and a friend suggest Actun Tunichil Muknal.  As they explored the cave, they found more and more artifacts.  It was one of the biggest cave discoveries in Belize.

The amazing thing for those of us who are not archeologists is that they did not take everything out of the cave.  With the exception of a few pots close to the entrance of the cave, everything has been left in situ.  This includes hundreds of pieces of pottery and several sets of human remains.  Much of what you see is out in the open in the large dry chamber.  But Dr. Awe also took us to a few out of the way places that the other guides are not allowed to go to show us how the Maya left some of these pots in the nooks and crannies of the cave.

As amazing as the Mayan artifacts were, my favorite part of the day was simply climbing in and around the cave.  This is no cave tubing cave as we had to climb over boulders and up waterfalls, squeeze through narrow crevices and swim through the river.  I really couldn't have had a better time.

The entrance of the cave

Skull not red - fancy lighting used to make it look creepier

The Crystal Maiden

Not everyone got this muddy

I can't resist playing in waterfalls

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Indecision 2012

Yesterday was election day here in Belize, and I got to be an international election observer.  In everything I have done with the foreign service, this felt the most diplomatic.  I went around the country and got to see how another country does their elections.  I must say, I was impressed.

First, much of the election process is the same as in the United States.  Yesterday was the general election (voting for the National Assembly), as well as municipal elections.  People came to the polls, stood in line, voted and left.  The guy (they were almost uniformly men) who got the most votes was elected to the National Assembly.  Anyone American who witnessed this would recognize it as an election.  So, although I am going to focus on some of the differences, it really is basically the same.

The first big difference is the attitude of the voters.  Almost everyone in the country seemed to be engaged in the election.  Voter turnout was low despite being well over 60%.  The supporters of the parties all wore shirts the color of their party (red for the incumbant United Democratic Party and blue for the People's United Party).  Outside the polling places were crowded parties celebrating the election (and doing a bit of campaigning too).  The government declared yesterday to be a holiday, so most had the day off, but it was still a stark contrast to U.S. elections, where 'get in and get out' seems to be the norm.

One of the other big differences was in how they work to prevent voter fraud.  Just like in the U.S. everyone has to be registered, but here they also have a voter ID, with a master file that contains a photo.  They also dip the index finger in ink so that no one can vote twice.  The ink was like a cross between the "I voted" stickers we wear in the U.S. and the ashes Catholics get on Ash Wednesday.  Voters displayed their purple fingers as proud citizens.  In all honesty, I think we should adopt such a tactic in the U.S.  It seems a bit archaic, but it is so simple and effective.

Results coverage is one area where Belize could certainly take a few points from the U.S.  Results were being reported by the media in raw numbers with no context and no visual reference.  They would read candidate names and then the vote total.  Moreover, there did not seem to be anywhere on the internet to get up to date information.  There was no ticker on the bottom of the screen.  Unless you listened to the raw numbers very closely, it was hard to tell who was winning (they would announce totals box by box, rather than a sum).  Someone with a simple blog could do real well for the next election to just post results online as they come in.

Perhaps the best thing about Belize elections is how blissfully short they are.  Back in late December and January when roads started being re-paved and painted, smart observers stated that the PM would call elections soon.  But the entirety of the true election period was only 5 weeks and then it was over.  There is a bit of chaos in the five weeks leading up to the vote, but it is better than the indefinite elections we have now in the U.S.

Ultimately, the elections were very close.  Many races were within 100 votes and one was separated by no more than 11 votes.  The incumbant UDP had previously held 25 of 31 seats in the National Assembly.  After last night's elections, they only held on to 17 of 31 seats.  The UDP will maintain control, but with a much smaller majority.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Goonies Never Say Die

If you follow this blog, you have probably seen that I still have the Belize zoo on my bucket list.  The Belize zoo is supposed to be a fantastic little zoo - the Best Little Zoo in the World.  Everyone who goes speaks highly of it.  It is only about 20 minutes from Belmopan and I still haven't made it there.  And I LOVE zoos.  So, on Friday at the Prince thing, I told my friend's Beth and Kevin that we should go to the zoo on Saturday with their kids.  But, as Saturday morning turned into Saturday afternoon, we decided to put it off until Sunday.  Then, on Saturday night, they decided that we should go with another family to the Mountain Pine Ridge.  So, I still haven't been to the zoo.

I have made two previous trips into Mountain Pine Ridge (Waterfalls! and Trial and Error), with its odd pine forest and treacherous road.  But, I had not made it down to the Rio On pools yet.  These natural pools are a serious of small waterfalls where people can swim and even slide down the waterfalls.  This now goes on to my list of things that everyone should do when they come to Belize (snorkeling, cave tubing, and a Mayan ruin are the others).
View of the falls from above

The Rio On pools

Sitting under the waterfall is one of the coolest things I have ever done.

Yep, just hanging out on the river on a Sunday afternoon.

Sliding down the natural water slides

Friday, March 2, 2012

OMG, Prince Harry is here

Not a whole lot happens here in Belmopan.  So, when it was announced a month ago that Prince Harry (the "cute one who still has his hair" as I was told) was coming to Belize, it was kind of a big deal.  When we found out that he was actually coming to Belmopan and would actually be just down the street from the Embassy, it became a huge deal.  Rumors have been circling for the past month about where he was going and what he was doing.  I'll admit, I was pretty disappointed when I realized that there wouldn't be any exclusive diplomatic function that I would get invited to.  I was just going to be another commoner.

The actual celebration was a street party changing the name of Cohune Walk Boulevard to "Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II Boulevard" (seriously, that is the whole name).  The street party started at 4 and the Prince was supposed to show up at 530 or 6.  Of course, he didn't arrive until 645.  After a few quick speeches and a dance, he walked down the Boulevard, stopping at various booths to drink some Belikin Beer or Caribbean rum, and presumably ate some rice and beans (they fed his grandmother some gibnut when she came here in 1994 and it is still known as the "Queen's rat.")
The most disappointing part of the evening was that I couldn't convince our intern Kristin (who was semi-obsessed with this visit) to toss out a glass slipper in front of him.

Hash Ball

One of my favorite events each year is the Hash Ball.  Basically, the members of the Hash and anyone else we can invite have a nice night out with dinner and dancing.  In traditional Hash style, we all get dressed up - with formal top and sporty bottom.  It's great, you get to look nice and dressed up, but still wear comfortable shoes.  This year was great fun, too.  I even won an award for Best Hash for the Scavenger Hash that we did last year.
Crash Test Dummy and Me

Me with Hairy Bread - two of the nominees for Best Dressed

Me with the Door Prize

Tilapia Taco and Imeldabait

Lamb Chop won the award for most hashes

The nominees for best dressed for the women

Tilapia Taco and me

Pretty sure they are singing "Poker Face"