Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hong Kong

Hong Kong was absolutely amazing.  A few things stood out about the trip:

  • Hong Kong is truly a city of levels.  Despite walking almost everywhere, we were rarely at street level.  We were either walking below ground, or a few stories above ground.  Public paths often went through the lobbies of private buildings.  Escalators and elevators were everywhere.
  • The city wasn't nearly as "Asian" as I expected.  Not sure what I was looking for, but I was surprised at how Western everything was.  Specifically, everyone dressed in Western and American styles - people even wore shorts.  The city was modern.  No bikes or tuk-tuks on the roads.  All in all, just a very modern Western city.
  • Lots of green in the city as well.  Surprising how many parks there were in such a crowded city.  But, we walked through quite a few of these parks and most of them had an aviary or small zoo or botanical garden.  All very nice places for a stroll.

These trees - with the roots growing everywhere - were all over HK

The harbor at night was gorgeous with all of the dazzling lights 
Love the ominous clouds

Gorgeous boat in the harbour

View of the city from the 50th floor 
Occupy Hong Kong - tents were there, but no people.

Hong Kong is famous for its double-decker trams

Hong Kong at night

We went to Ocean Park - an amusement park built on top of a mountain the falls into the sea.  AWESOME.

Ocean Park was also half-zoo, with cute little red Pandas

and awesome Giant Pandas
World's 2nd largest sitting Buddha

View from the cable car ride to Sitting Buddha

Riding the world's longest escalator (although it was really a series of escalators)

Bamboo scaffolding

Hong Kong wet market - featuring live fish

Enjoying a liter of beer with Aaron

Monday, May 28, 2012

(Literally) The Longest Day Ever

It's ten o'clock on Monday night and I am sitting in the San Francisco airport waiting for the red eye to Dallas. I had an awesome trip to hong kong, which I hope to post about in the next week. But first, I need to point pit that today is literally the longest day of my life. I finished my beer and said good bye to Aaron and Brianne at midnight Sunday night/Monday morning. That was thirty-six hours ago... And I still have three more hours until Tuesday. Fortunately, I put all the extra hours to good use. I have spent the day walking around San Francisco. For years, my parents have always said it is their favorite American city and I can see why after walking around all day. Too hilly for me to ever live here (I struggled up some of those hills), but a great place to visit. In fact, I will be back here in just over a month on my west coast road trip. Speaking of the road trip, I hope to post regularly on the trip, but things don't always work so well when you are traveling. But for the curious (namely my mother and probably a few aunts), here is my very tentative schedule for the next few months. May 29 - June 14 - last two weeks in Belize. I still need to do my pack out and say goodbye, etc. It will undoubtedly fly by quickly. June 15 - 21 - home leave in Arizona with my family, probably split between Phoenix and fountain hills. May try to sneak in a day trip to visit a college friend in Tucson. June 22 - 26 - Las Vegas. For mothers day I got my mom and me tickets to see Garth Brooks in concert. Then on Sunday, I am entering one of the preliminary events for the world series of poker. The tournament will last up to 3 days and using last year as a baseline will pay out around 250,000 for first prize. June 26 - July 20 - road trip. The current itinerary is very loose, but has a few set dates and locations. I will first head to San Diego and Tijuana. Then, I will pick up my friend Sam in Los Angeles. He will spend two weeks on the road with me. We hope to spend the fourth of July back here in San Francisco. We will drive up the coast at whatever pace suits us. Must sees on the list include Seattle, the redwoods, and Astoria, Oregon (where The Goonies was filmed). When we reach Seattle, we will turn west to the mountains and come south through the Rockies. July 22- fly to dc for pol/Econ training. July 28- fly back to Omaha for cousins wedding. Should be a busy few months. Also, I typed this on my iPad, so please ignore the typos.

Monday, May 14, 2012

What I will miss about Belize

As my time in Belize slips away, I’ve started to think about what I am going to miss the most about Belize.  Most of these are little things that just make life a bit easier or a bit more fun in the world’s smallest capital, but a few of these will leave gaping holes in my life that will never fully be filled. 

Dress Code – Over the last two years, I have worn a suit four times.  The first was my friend Kris’s wedding just before I arrived in Belize.  The last was for my fraternity formal two weeks ago.  Both of these occurred in the U.S.  The other two times were for Hash Ball where I only wore half a suit as it is formal on top and sporty on bottom.  Actually I have worn a dress as often in Belize as I have worn a suit. 

My housekeeper, Roberta -  I’ve read a ton of foreign service blogs where officers swear that they will not hire a housekeeper or nanny, only to break down a few months later.  I was the exact opposite – I wanted to hire a housekeeper before I even got to country.  For US$25 per week, my housekeeper washes and irons all my clothes, sweeps and mops all the floors, does the dishes, cleans the refrigerator, dusts the shelves, and straightens up.  It is the best money I spend every week.

Settlers of Catan – Before I came to Belize, I randomly bought a board game called ‘Settlers of Catan.’  Turns out that this was the favorite game of Beth and Kevin – the couple who owned the pizza place in town.  Sam, the young British lawyer, was also a huge fan.  For six months, the four of us got together almost every Monday at Beth and Kevin’s to play Catan.  Our friendship really developed over those games (mostly while we waited for Sam to decide what to move to make).  Although we still play Catan occasionally, it hasn’t been the same since Sam returned to the U.K.

SCUBA Diving – One of the activities I was most looking forward to in Belize was SCUBA diving.  Although it took me longer to get certified than I wanted, it was all worth it in the end.  In the past 18 months, I have done around thirty or so dives.  I reached into the depths (140 feet) of the Blue Hole, explored the barrier reef and dived with whale sharks.  As much as I love seeing the fish and the turtles and sharks (oh MY!), my favorite part of the dive is the quiet solitude.  When I am diving, I spend forty-five minutes to an hour lost in my thoughts.  No TV, no internet, no music.  Just me and the sea.  I will keep diving after I leave Belize, but who knows when I will live this close to the ocean again.

Salbutes, Tostados, Papusas, and Tacos – Growing up, my experience with Mexican food was limited to Taco Bell and Old El Paso taco seasoning.  In this, my parents truly failed me.  In Belize, I have discovered amazing Mexican and Salvadoran food that is delicious, filling, and stupidly cheap.  Today, I ordered three salbutes and an order of three panades for lunch.  This cost me US$1.85.   Papusas are tortillas stuffed with goodness.  I have contemplated driving to three hours to Chetumal simply for the fantastic tacos.  Hopefully, I can find some good places in DC to tide over my cravings.

Pasquales – My parents owned a restaurant when I was growing up.  By the time I was a teenager, I worked there three or four days a week.  I still think that I ate more often at Pasquale’s the past two years than I ever did at my parents’ restaurant.  The food is above average, albeit a bit pricey.  But the company is top notch – on almost any day, I can find Nigel in his “office.”  The staff all calls me A-1 (one of the delivery drivers mistook my name for my house number and kept trying to deliver the pizza to the wrong house).  Pasquale’s was always my go-to restaurant when I didn’t feel like cooking (which was quite often).

Consular Work – Turns out that I like Consular work.  Unlike people who find visa interviews tedious and repetitive, I find it fascinating.  I get to listen to people’s life stories every day.  What they do for work, where they live, why they want to go to America.  Visa interviews are like 3 minute mini-trials.  How could I not like the work? 
In American Citizen Services, no two days are ever the same.  I’ve dealt with everything from arrests to suicides to missing persons to lost passports to car accidents to pirates.  No, seriously, I have a piracy case.  I visit people in jail and explain to their families that Belize was recently named the best prison in Central America, so really, it could be worse.  I never know what I will be doing on any given day and that is what I love about my job.

Weekend Trips – I’ve gotten to take lots of weekend trips while living in Belize.  Since the country is full of resorts, you can often get good bargains on empty rooms during slow season.  I’ve taken fantastic trips to San Pedro, Chetumal, Placencia, Caracol, Calabash Caye and Hopkins.  You can’t beat spending a long weekend with good friends on the beach.  It’s even better when Margarita plans it all and all I have to do is show up.

Belmopan Party Central – I have probably had more fun at Belmopan Party Central than anywhere else in all of Belize.  Margarita and Emile’s back patio has been the site of numerous fantastic parties.  These parties always feature great food, good booze, and fabulous friends.  Usually, the party involvesda theme of some sort – we have had pajama parties, Greek toga parties, roaring 20s, Africa themes, cupid themes, and even a murder mystery dinner.  In a town where you often have to make your own fun, Margarita makes the fun for us.

Hash House Harriers – I have been Hashing now for almost two years – since I almost killed Bailey with heat stroke on our first hash.  Since then, I have set four hashes, attended two hash balls, drank countless beers, and even named two hashers (Boga-tatas and Piece of Schitzel).  My best friends in Belmopan are all Hashers.  I will probably Hash elsewhere (DC, Frankfurt, beyond), but it will never be the same as the Belize Hash House Harriers.

Belizeans – It can’t be said enough how nice Belizeans are and how pleasant it has been to live in their country.  Personally, I have yet to live in a country with unfriendly people, but I hear that they exist.  Belizeans are exceptionally friendly and laid back.  They often go out of their way to make sure that you enjoy their country.  I have never once felt like a Belizean was anything but happy to have me enjoying their country.

Pig and Parrot – On almost every Wednesday night for the past two years, I have made my way over to the British High Commission Housing Compound to the club house/pub that they call the “Pig and Parrot.”  With apologies to Cheers, this is truly a bar where everyone knows your name – mainly because you have to be on the guest list to enter.  Besides the company, the best thing about the P&P was that they didn’t sell Belikin.  We drank imports like Stella Artois, Strong Bow, and Guiness in tall boy cans.  Ironically, the Pig and Parrot is where I felt the most diplomatic as I regularly hung out with other diplomats and even ambassadors.  The whole atmosphere always felt very British colonial (in a good way).

Commute – Each morning, I wake up around 6:45.  I shower and dress by 7:10 and then take the dogs outside.  I eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast and turn on the Daily Show at 7:30.  At 7:52, about the time Jon Stewart is interviewing the day’s guest, I turn off the TV and get in my car.  I circle the block to reach the gate.  I wait, up to a minute, for both gates to open.  I take a left turn to the end of the block.  A right onto the gravel road, a block later I turn left onto the street where Barry used to live, which ends in front of the Embassy.  A right hand turn is quickly followed by a left into the parking lot.  I lock my car as I walk into security, tell the guards good morning and go inside the chancery, through the lobby, past Post One and the elevators and through the atrium to the Consular Section.  I say good morning to my staff and log in to my computer when I reach my desk.  The computer tells me it is now 7:59.  It took me longer to write this paragraph than it does to commute to work each day.  I will really, really, really, miss the commute.

My friends – More than anything else, I am going to miss my friends when I leave Belize.  In October 2010, my grandfather was really sick and we worried he would not make it.  I felt so alone at the time without having any family here.  Although I had friends in Belmopan, I didn’t really feel close enough to really talk to anyone here about how I was feeling.  If, heaven forbid, something similar happened again, I could talk to Kevin or Beth or Margarita or Emile or Nigel or Jackie.  These people are no longer just friends; they are my family in Belize.

Leaving my friends here is going to be especially hard because I know that even if I see them again, it will never be the same.  About half of my friends are in Belmopan indefinitely, while the other half have already left or will leave in the not-distant future.  So, even if I return to Belize for a visit, half of the people I know will be gone.  The ones who remain will have moved on with their lives.  I will always be welcome back (Margarita will make sure of that), but it will only be as a guest.  I’ve done this move enough times to know that it always changes and it’s never the same when you go back.  (I am sure it is not the same when you stay in the same place either, but the changes happen more slowly, so you barely notice).

Facebook makes leaving easier.  I can keep up with their lives.  I will get to see Max Spiegel and the Mena kids grow up in pictures.  We may meet up one day ten years from now and I can tell a mortified Max the “I wanna poops” story.  (Kevin and Beth have told Max that I will be leaving Belize soon.  Now, every time I say goodbye, he gets this petrified look on his face that I am never coming back.)  Margarita swears she will be coming to my wedding and she is crazy enough that I believe her.  Nigel and Jackie have a house in Croatia – I WILL be seeing them again.

The cliché is that we shouldn’t say “Good bye”, but rather we should say “See you later.”  While the sentiment is nice, it is also crap.  We might see each other again later, but time will have changed us enough that we will greet each other as semi-strangers.  These friendships, as I know them, all have an expiration date of June 14, 2012.  So, while I will miss my housekeeper, the commute, and the diving, nothing will compare to how much I will miss my friends.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Whale Shark Diving

I spent two days this week trying to see the largest fish on the planet, which was a surprisingly difficult task when you think about the fact that it is the largest fish on the planet.  The whale shark spends each spring munching on the spawn of various fish, particularly the cubera snapper.  The cubera snapper spawn just off the Belize barrier reef each month just after the full moon.  Find the snapper and find the shark.

When I arrived in Placencia on Tuesday, I was excited to hear the divers talk about how many sharks they had seen that day.  One group saw three, another saw four, one lucky group saw seven sharks - including three at the same time.  So, it was a HUGE disappointment when we went on our first dive and didn't see shit.

Moreover, the dive is not an easy dive.  Essentially, the group dives in open water with a depth of up to 2000 feet.  There is no reef, no wall, no floor, nothing to give you a fixed reference point.  The only ways to gauge your depth is to compare your position to the other divers, the fish and the shark, or to constantly check your depth gauge.  The experience can be quite disorienting at first.  To make matters worse, I had trouble getting the right weight and had too much weight on almost every dive.  On one of the dives, I was sinking much too fast and couldn't find the attachment to put air into my BCD.  I started to panic for a split second that I would sink all the way to the bottom.  Less than 10 seconds later, I had air in my BCD and I was fine, but it was a little freaky for a moment.

We had much better luck on our third dive as we quickly found the school of cubera snapper.  This alone was really fascinating.  I had never seen such a huge school of fish, which numbered in the several hundreds if not quite a thousand fish.  They were swimming in circles, up and down and all around.  Each adult fish at least ten pounds, some closer to twenty or more.  They regularly would flash their belly at another fish, which our guide said was a mating gesture.

All of a sudden, our guide starts banging on his tank and pointing into the depths.  At first, I see nothing.  Then, a few blue fluorescent dots shine in the murky deep blue water.  As I focus on these dots, I can't recognize what I am seeing.  My gaze widens, like a camera zooming out dramatically, until I realize that this giant shark is grazing beneath me.

The whale shark is huge.  The first one we saw was at least 30 feet long.  The second one bigger - closer to 40 feet.  The head on these animals is huge, probably close to 10 feet at its widest point.  They move very slowly - surprisingly slow.  At one point, I out-swam it as I raced to get a better view.  The fish mostly ignore the shark, barely making an effort to get out of the way.  The SCUBA divers (and there were dozens of us in the water) all clamor for a closer look.  The shark decides he has had enough of all these divers and slowly dives deeper, out of our range.

Although we did not have the luck of the divers the day before, we did see two whale sharks over two days.       It was a great trip.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Back to School

This past weekend, my fraternity, Pi Kappa Phi (Delta Delta chapter) celebrated 40 years at my alma mater. Truman State University.  I got to see lots of old friends and brothers and meet new initiates.  I graduated eight years ago and haven't been to Kirksville since just before I left for Belize.  Being back in Kirksville is always a weird time warp where everything is both familiar and peculiar at the same time.

I was very involved in the fraternity when I was active in college.  I lived in the fraternity house two different years.  I served in multiple leadership positions, including a year on the Executive Council.  During my sophomore and junior years, I attended Push Camp - where Pi Kapps from around the country spend their Spring Break building stuff at camps for kids with disabilities.  In many ways, Pi Kappa Phi helped shape me as a man.

But, I realized something important this weekend.  I am no longer the same person I was in college - not by a long shot.  In college (and high school and middle school before that), I was made fun of a lot.  I took so much shit (and took it so well) that I actually won our fraternity's brown helmet award (annually given to the guy who gets the most shit) three years in a row.  I learned in college not to take the ribbing to heart.  Fraternity brothers give each other shit all the time and I gave almost as good as I got.

This weekend, I fell back into that old role.  This type of thing always tends to happen when old friends reunite.  We fill the roles that we used to play, even if we are no longer that character.  Once again, I found myself the butt of jokes from fraternity brothers.  In fact, my most persistent tormentor from college emcee'd the formal dinner on Saturday night and practically roasted me (and a few others) in front of 200 of my brothers.  The jokes were on point, funny, and, truth be told, I actually enjoyed the attention, but it also made me feel like I was 19 again.

What struck me most about the whole weekend, though, was how I was not that person anymore.  The metamorphosis began in law school and continued through my work in DC and Belize.  If you asked my friends and co-workers in Belmopan to give out a brown helmet award, I don't think I would come close to winning it.  Filling that old role over the weekend helped me realize how much I have grown over the last eight years.  I like the person I have become - the person I am.