Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Sorry we didn't do anything exciting this weekend other than dig ourselves out from under the mountain of Thanksgiving dishes. The photo department has been on a self-assessed hot streak though, so you can cruise over to Flickr for your Guatemala fix today.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Turkey Day

We hosted a whopping 26 people for Thanksgiving dinner in our apartment yesterday. It was a lot of work and the kitchen is still a disaster, but the event was definitely worthwhile.

Despite the fact that The Lovely Katherine was intensely uninterested in touching the turkeys, and that the only time I have ever been in the kitchen during turkey preparation was to grab another root beer from the fridge while Grandma did all the work, we cooked two delicious turkeys. I managed to carve them satisfactorily, although every source of instruction on the topic gives detailed direction on carving the breast and then assumes you know what to do with the rest, so all the dark meat was chopped into bitty pieces. Thanks to our twin-oven, twin-turkey plan, we had the perfect opportunity to do Grandma's two kinds of stuffing, sweet and sage. The sage dressing turned out to be "my" dressing because Katherine was unwilling to deal with sauteed turkey liver. I'm not sure I would have been such a fan of sage dressing had I realized as a child that it involved sauteed giblets. But now I know and it was no less delicious; even though there was no sage to be had in Guatemala, our slight variation was not too far off from the original. We even had leftover gravy.

A good time was had by all. We hope to never do it again.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Photo Department Wins International Acclaim; Cheif Correspondent Quits in a Huff

The snowball is beginning to roll downhill on the Holla photo department's inevitable domination of the world market for tourist photos of Guatemala. The staff photographer's photo of a guy who sells pony rides in Antigua has been chosen for inclusion in the web-based promotional materials for the Friends of World Heritage. The photo is reproduced in extra-tiny eye-strain-o-vision on a flyer about how to be a socially conscious traveller or some such, and also included in a handy .pdf version, in case you want to carry it with you on your travels. (If you want to see the photo in visible size, you'll have to check it out on Flickr or you can see it real big, too.)

This organization, Friends of World Heritage, contacted me after finding my picture on Flickr, with a message that said something to the effect of: "We like your picture and we reckon you're amateur enough to give your work away for free, and we don't really want to be paying actual pro photographers for their work." I looked at their website, which looks professional enough, and it's got an actual UNESCO logo on it, so it must be a legit and worthwhile organization. So I told them that they could use my picture for free as long as I was attributed as the photographer. Which they did, on a separate page (way at the bottom), that nobody would ever look at unless some browser malfunction took them there by accident. (Some Holla readers may recognize another name on the list, as well -- pure coincidence.)

Anyway, since the Holla's prose has never been published anywhere outside of this shabby forum, the photo department has had to receive several lectures reminding them that we are all one team and that they best not let it go to their heads, as 99% of the photo departments' masterpieces languish in obscurity on Flickr.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Of Glorious Workers' Paradise

There are not very many Guatemalan institutions that one would feel good putting a lot of faith in. Without veering into actual verboten editorializing about any particular government or political party or subcompartment of the bureaucracy, I think even those in the employ of the State Department could say that it is a matter of public record that Guatemala's public sector has some serious problems with corruption and inefficiency.

Which is what makes the Instute for Workers' Recreation such a surprise. The Instituto de Recreación de los Trabajadores de la Empresa Privada (IRTRA) is basically a public version of Six Flags. A payroll tax funds a small amusement park, water park, and complex of hotels and restaurants in Retalhuleu, a few hours toward the Mexican border from the capital. We figured that Veterans' Day would be a perfect time for a visit as we'd have the day off and the Guatemalans wouldn't so there would be no lines for the Guate version of Space Mountain. Many in our traveling party had heard that the parks were nice, but I was still shocked.

The hotel was of a quality that is seldom seen in Guatemala, the grounds of the parks were meticulously maintained, everything was clean, and the staff were all friendly and professional. There were no ferris wheels rotated by hand like the ones seen at small town fairs here -- all the rides appeared to involve actual safety equipment and one could ride them with only the fear they were designed to produce, not the fear that they were going to fall apart because they hadn't been oiled in years. At one point when we were trying to walk back to our hotel from the theme park, an employee ran out and yelled to us that we were going the wrong way -- we all agreed that it was perhaps the first pro-active, informative, and conscientious action we'd seen by a Guatemalan public employee in... well, perhaps ever.

We payed nearly extortionate rates at the hotel since we were not paid into the IRTRA tax system, and rates at the amusement park and water park that were high for Guatemala but certainly far less than we would pay for similar attractions in the U.S. The Guatemalans who pay the IRTRA tax get into the parks for free and pay next to nothing for the hotels.

Let's put aside for a moment whether or not building amusement parks is an appropriate public-sector activity or maybe something better left to private enterprise. If they want to tax everyone so that some people can ride a roller coaster until they puke, I guess it's only different from our National Park system in degree. More important was the demonstration that the Guatemalan public sector can actually put together an enormously succesful operation when they want to. If they put the guy who runs IRTRA in charge of the Public Ministry here, who knows what they could accomplish?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Except they didn't end it with "Stairway to Heaven"

Maybe your office has an annual uncomfortable christmas party, and a summer barbeque, but we have both of those, times two, plus one with a DJ and a sit-down dinner: The Marine Ball.

One may suppose that after some time as a diplomat, one grows accustomed to gala evenings of tuxedos (known locally as "smokings") and ballgowns. After enough National Day celebrations and balls and such, perhaps they stop feeling silly. Maybe there is, after all, a point where one can stop referring to such things from the only frame of reference your average young Foreign Service Officer can, i.e. "It's like the Prom. Except with an open bar."

Suspecting that my slight cynical streak may have taken root early, one of my colleagues asked me not too long ago if I had attended the prom in high school. I told her that I had indeed gone to the prom, stinking of irony, because it seemed like such a corny, funny thing to do. She replied: "That's so sad." I suppose she was right, and fourteen years later, we went totally irony-free to the Marine Corps Birthday Ball. I didn't manage to rent a smoking, but I did manage to wear a tie that didn't have any cartoon characters on it. The Lovely Katherine even went out with the girls and got her hair did. Maybe we're older and have learned to appreciate the rare moments that pass by without keeping them at arm's length. Or maybe it's just easier to get enthusiastic about a dance with an open bar.

The event itself is celebrated at every U.S. Embassy around the world (and probably other places that Marines gather) to honor the anniversary of the founding of the Marine Corps. It features a speech by the oldest Marine veteran in the country, the symbolic cutting of a birthday cake with one of those Marine swords, a DJ playing salsa and hip-hop, and (did I mention the open bar?) a couple Guatemalan bartenders who stare at customers blankly when you order complicated drinks like "whiskey en las rocas." It was a fabulous time. With luck, we still have plenty of time before we slide from sneering past enthusiastic and all the way into world-weariness.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Under the Sea

It has once again been some time since I last sent word of events in Central America. This time around, though, it was not pure sloth that prevented your coresspondent from writing, but the presence of family members in Guatemala, and then a week of what I would consider well-deserved vacation in Honduras.

Appetites whetted by this blog, your correspondent's parents came to see Guatemala firsthand, and within a couple days they were cavalierly hailing unmarked cabs off the street and chatting up the locals like long-time residents. Perhaps someday they will publish a report of their adventures here.

After they had a week of soaking in the local color, we decamped for Roatan, Honduras and Anthony's Key Resort, an entirely foreign experience for your correspondent. While accustomed to traversing washed-out dirt roads to visit remote hamlets and sleep in scorpion-infested flophouses, the experience of an all-inclusive resort was uncharted territory. My spirit of adventure undimmed, I bravely agreed to give it a try. Anthony's Key is primarily a scuba diving destination, and the "all-inclusive" tag means not just three squares a day, but three trips out to dive on the reef surrounding Roatan. The meals were all served by waiters who universally refered to the guests as "my friend" and the drinks served by bartenders who referred to the guests as "buddy." There isn't really a beach to speak of, so visitors who choose not to dive would be limited to sipping fruity cocktails by the swimming pool. I can't imagine why one would choose a tropical resort without a beach if diving weren't the goal, but there were some individuals who were fixtures at the pool, plowing through trashy paperbacks or cartons of cigarettes, demonstrating that people like to do all sorts of weird stuff on vacation. For your correspondent, other than a quick horesback ride along the beach, and a quick kayak trip around the little island, I spent the week doing two things: scuba diving and scratching bug bites.

Your correspondent learned to scuba dive three years ago in Vietnam, under the tuteledge of a French instructor, which had the advantage of being able to close one's eyes and imagine being taught to dive by Jacques Cousteau. I'm sure he was a good teacher, but not all his lessons found a permanent home in this pupil. Upon arrival at Anthoy's Key, your correspondent asked for a refresher lesson in diving, to which the dive shop replied that I ought to give it a try and see how it went first. This doesn't seem particularly safe, but we were in shallow enough water that it wasn't really life-threatening when I went under for the first and made it immediately clear that I had no recollection of what any of the tubes or buttons on the scuba gear were for. The divemaster now convinced, I took my refresher lesson and was ready for the week of diving ahead.

As a dive-centric resort, there were a whole fleet of boats equipped for dive trips. Each guest was assigned to a boat from which they would dive for the entirety of the week. So, not unlike joining an organized tour and rolling the dice with whatever other tourists sign up for the same tour, we spent a week diving with, and getting to know, an odd assortment of fellow travelers. Among them were a Catalonian couple who had wetsuits that looked thick enough for use in the North Sea, perhaps to compensate for the fact that each of them appeared to have about 0.5% body fat; a gregarious Georgian (as in Atlanta, not Tbilisi) who had been to Anthony's Key just a month ago and was already back and shared a seemingly endless supply of veteran pointers (e.g. "A lot of people don't realize that the guy at the pool bar brings his own boombox to play music at the pool, and if your camera says your batteries are too low for the camera, they can still power the boombox, so it's a good idea to give him your batteries instead of throwing them away"); a middle aged Sicilian from Detroit who seemed to always have what looked like a matchstick hanging out of his mouth who was probably not a mobster, but could play one on TV in a pinch; and a 57-year-old guy and his 10-year-old daughter from Vicksburg, Mississippi, which young girl was apparently missing school to go on a dive vacation, and seemed a bit young and reckless to be diving, but was mostly harmless, and which older guy was relentless in videotaping every second of his daughter's every dive, and was not shy about bumping fellow divers out of the way to get that Scorcese-esque camera angle he needed of her. They were all fine people, although we certainly spent more time chatting with some rather than others. But there is something a little odd about spending a substantial amount of money to go on a relaxing vacation and for an integral part of that vacation to involve long stretches on a small boat with randomly assigned strangers, not knowing for sure whether they're going to be tolerable or not until about halfway through the week. Maybe we were lucky, or maybe people are always going to be generally pleasant when they're on vacation; one way or another, we lived.

The diving was fantastic, as it would have to be to support a week of hanging out in one place with nothing else of note to do. For nature enthusiasts, diving is like going hiking, except that the wildlife doesn't scurry off and hide when it smells you five hundred yards away. As such we saw at close range sea turtles, moray eels, giant crabs, one seahorse, and an almost infinite variety of technicolor fish. The Holla regrets that we were unable to send the staff photographer along to snap colorful pictures of Blue Flathead Parrotfish and Juvenile Spotted Drums, although having seen the behavior of many underwater photographers, you're not missing that much. Your correspondent was trapped on one merciful brief water taxi ride with a fellow guest who insisted on showing off all the pictures of fish he had captured underwater, and while the staff photographer is certain that he could have given underwater shots a little more compositional interest than this gentleman, he still suspects that most such photos will more often than not just look like a bunch of fish. (Although the staff photographer would like to encourage you to click on the picture above of the fish that lived in the shallows near our bungalow to see a larger version of it.) Even so, we particularly regret not having visual record of the shark dive, when we went 80 feet down with a bucket full of chum, and spent ten minutes swimming within a few feet of 20 circling reef sharks bigger than we were. Your correspondent was still focused enough on not screwing up the whole breathing underwater thing to feel even a tinge of fear from the sharks, who, honestly, weren't going to put the effort into biting off anyone's leg when there was a whole bucket of already-dead fish waiting for them.

That may have been the most compelling story of the trip, but maybe the most amazing view was on the final day of the trip when we dove near the pointy end of the island, where the piscine superhighway passed by. One could look left and right along the reef and see thousnands if not tens of thousands of fish stretching as far as the eye could see in each direction, eventualy merging with the deep blue of the water.