Saturday, June 17, 2006

Trapped in Guate

Our normally frenetic pace of Central American exploration has ground to a halt of late. In part, we've seen everything that's easy to see on a two-day weekend trip. But return visits or slightly more ambitious expeditions have been stymied by harsh reminders that we are in the developing world. Most of the major roads out of town have suffered either derrumbes (landslides onto and blocking the road) or hundimientos (landslides out from under the road, often taking a good chunk of the road with it).

Tropical Storm Stan (also alternately known as Hurricane Stan, because it sounds better though it may or may not be technically accurate) caused many of these roads to wash out, and the Guatemalans responded with an aggressive chewing-gum-and-duct-tape campaign to patch the roads up. Being fair, there's just no money in the coffer to do much else. Be that as it may, it's not surprising that one month of the six-month-long rainy season has already washed away most of their jury-rigged repairs so much as it's surprising that the repairs lasted this long to begin with.

In any case, there is still plenty to be seen, we'll just have to refocus our efforts on the pleasures of the more immediate region.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Big ups to the family

About six weeks ago, I gave up on the visa interviewing bit. Or rather, I rotated into the American Citizen Services section. "What the hell does that mean?" I can hear you asking. Mostly it means that instead of doing interviews to see if Guatemalans qualify for visas, I do interviews to see if purported Americans qualify for passports. This breaks into three types of interviews:

1. Obvious gringos who got pickpocketed or robbed while on vacation, and need a new passport to get home. These interviews are easy and boring.
2. Ex-pats who may look like gringos or may be of mostly Guatemalan blood in for routine renewals. These interviews are easy and boring.
3. Kids ranging from age two to age eighteen claiming that they were born in the US when their parents were there illegally, and then they were sent off to live with Grandma in Guatemala when they were a few months old and now they want a US passport for the first time. These interviews are nearly impossible.

The other part of the job is being on call at all hours in case any American is arrested, hospitalized, victimized, or killed. The two big cases I've had to work on so far have been gentlemen with various forms of mental illness who have been living on the streets of Guatemala for an unknown period of time, and now need help getting back to the US.

(Little known fact for US Citizen readers: if you are destitute in a foreign country, your government will pay to send you home. Until doing the training for consular work, it never would have occurred to me if I completely ran out of money to go to the Embassy and ask for a ticket home. A lot of folks apparently have no such mental barriers, and come in asking for money until they realize that we're going to call their mommy first, then loan them money and cancel their passport for further adventures.)

These gentlemen were true hard-luck cases, and the worst part was that they had nobody in the world who would help them. We contacted each of their parents, none of whom were willing to provide any assistance in bringing their kids home. I guess I was hoping for a somewhat higher level of diplomacy then trying to get mom and son to patch things up when I signed up for this gig. Anyway, a big thanks to all the folks back home who would spot me airfare to get home if I fell and hit my head on the sidewalk in Guatemala, which is sadly not something everyone can count on.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Appropriate Force

Today I felt like a true diplomat. Or was it a cop? I represented our country in formally signing the papers to accept custody of a guy who was being extradited from Guatemala to the United States. The handover happened in a room probably no bigger than 12 feet on a side, which turned out to hold at least nine Guatemalan National Police carrying automatic weapons, wearing helmets, with faces covered, as if there might be a riot in the airport. These nine heavily armed guys, plus a couple of my fellow bureacrats, handed over the prisoner to the US, represented by me and two Deputy US Marshals who were dressed like they were going to the beach. I guess the beach attire made them inconspicuous on the airplane, to whatever extent you can blend in when you're leading around a guy in handcuffs.