Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Water Hazard

I guess it proves that I'm American and will never truly understand the beautiful game that I don't know what the ruling is if the ball lands in small inland sea that has formed in the middle of the playing field.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

On Language

All the Americans in our Embassy are trained and tested in Spanish before they are shipped to post. Most of us have what you would probably call "functional" Spanish upon arrival, moving into "proficient" Spanish after a couple years here. Some few colleagues who served in the Peace Corps or grew up speaking Spanish are better-off, but most of us come to a point where we can hold our own.

The Guatemalan employees, who outnumber the Americans by a significant degree, almost all speak fluent English.

It makes for an interesting workplace. I can carry on a pretty fluent conversation in formal Spanish. And I can mostly get by with more colloquial Spanish, guessing slang words or run-together words on context. But in either case, I still have to think about it. Imagine your average cube-farm sort of workplace where you can overhear the conversations of your ten closest neighbors. It's pretty hard to concentrate. And whenever you go by the water cooler, you're going to pick up a little of what everyone's talking about. You can't avoid it, short of covering your ears and yelling "la la la la I can't hear you," because the language you've spoken since you were two drifts by your ears, and you would have to be completely transfixed by something else to not hear what your neighbors are saying. understanding spoken English for me is unconscious, and even if I would rather not be distracted, it takes some effort to stay focused on work if there's another conversation in earshot.

In a mostly-Spanish-speaking environment, the script is reversed entirely. I can walk into our little kitchen where several colleagues are chatting in Spanish and unless I make an active decision to listen to them, it's just as easy to fill up a glass of water and leave, blissfully ignorant of the latest gossip. And when we're all at our little government-cube desks, everyone else in the place can be chattering away and I can maintain constant focus on my work (or my personal e-mail, while we're being honest).

It's definitely a big plus for productivity. Of course, in a managerial sense, one begins to realize how much there is to be learned by just picking up bits of conversation from colleagues. The "management by eavesdropping" strategy is a little harder when the boss has to drop everything and actively listen to the speaker to tell if she's whining about her husband or if she's whining about the boss.

As Promised: More on Belize

Following the Holla's usual production schedule, we are exactly one week late in bringing you a report on our trip to Belize. Hopefully you'll find that the extra time has allowed for further reflection and refinement of the ideas inspired by our time in Belize.

Which would be a surprise, since your correspondent is struggling to come up with much to say about Belize beyond a catalog of things we did. We scuba'd. We snorkeled. We consumed island delicacies. We soaked in the Caribbean atmosphere.

As regards the scuba, it was pleasant. The reef there is magnificent. The most exciting (and really, only) major animal sighting was a few huge spotted eagle rays gracefully swimming by. We also saw an abundance of what are technically known as Pretty Tropical Fish in formats that we're pretty sure we hadn't seen before. But further taxonomic precision escapes us.

As regards the snorkeling, it continues to surprise your scuba-snobby correspondent. I have been snorkeling a total of two times in my life, both after I was already scuba certified, and have thoroughly enjoyed it both times. Assuming one is doing it in appropriately shallow water, one gets just as close to the sea life as one does diving. You'll never see some of the really magnificent stuff snorkeling, but you'll see other really magnificent stuff. In this case, there were more Pretty Tropical Fish. But also at one of our snorkeling sites, the sound of the boat is associated with fisherman dumping off unwanted fish entrails (or so we're told) and so a whole swarm of stingrays (and one huge barracuda) show up whenever the boat does. It sort of felt like cheating. Then again, watching stingrays swim is so cool, it was worth cheating for. Thus, the photo department's first attempt at just-barely-underwater photography, seen above. Obviously still a few kinks to work out of the system.

Which brings us to the matter of the island delicacies, of which there are apparently two. First, June 15th brought the beginning of lobster season to Caye Caulker, so every restaurant in town had a cheap lobster special. I'm not so into lobster and the attendant labors of eating it that I would ever order it in a restaurant in the U.S. But on the opening weekend of lobster season, a $15 full-lobster dinner is hard to turn down, so I had two. The other island delicacy is a drink known as the "Panty Ripper," which is a simple mix of coconut rum (in the States, you could use Malibu, I think the Belizeans use something that one of their fellow islanders distills in his bathtub) and pineapple juice. Your correspondent does recommend the combination, although he couldn't bear too many as they are a bit too sweet and fruity for his masculine pride. In any case, such a simple combo shouldn't be exclusive to Belize, but if you do a Google search on "Panty Ripper," several of the top hits are about Belize. (At least, that is, if you've set Google to filter out all the pornography.) If any loyal reader is a Malibu fan who enjoyed this drink under a different name, perhaps in your sorority days, do let us know.

Lastly, there is the Caribbean atmosphere. If you haven't been, the rumors are true. The ocean is gorgeous turquoise. There are lots of guys selling rasta-themed souvenirs. There is way too much reggae music, though it was a nice break from the reggaeton music that is inescapable in Guatemala. There is no rush to do anything at all. In fact, the motto of Caye Caulker, inlaid in mosaic on the dock where the water taxi drops you off upon your first arrival, is "Go Slow." We met one guy who had moved from Florida to Belize for the express purpose of going slow. Well, that and because there were too many Mexicans in Florida, so he moved to Belize so he wouldn't have to learn Spanish. Anyway, he now makes his living slowly, selling barbecued shrimp kebabs from a hibachi on the beach. Many fugitives from all over the world come to Belize based on the understanding that the police there will also go slow. As for your correspondents, we have a hard time with going slow, especially when we've only got a three-day weekend minus travel time to cram in as much sightseeing as we can. But you don't really have a choice sometimes on Caye Caulker, so we went as slow as we could.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Truth in Advertising

From Caye Caulker, Belize, where advertisers apparently favor the direct approach. More on Belize coming soon.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


We went to an all-inclusive resort. We drank fruity cocktails. We lounged.

One of your correspondent's colleagues departed Guatemala for good today, and to send her off in style, a crowd of hearty diplomats rushed the Royal Decameron Resort in Salinitas, El Salvador. For your correspondent, and his faithful traveling companion, this was something of a change of pace. We're more accustomed to $20 middle-of-nowhere lodges where one prays there is hot water. Many in our traveling party raved about how great the price was at the Decameron, whereas your correspondent was suffering a bit of sticker shock. Traveling party responded to any hesitation with the irrefutable reply: "But it's all-inclusive!"

Faithful readers may recall our previous visit to a resort-style destination. But that trip was Scuba-focused. This resort is rather more for the "sit in a beach chair and drink Mai-Tais" inclined. Which suited us mostly fine, and we had a great time sitting in the pool and chatting with our friends and enjoying ridiculously named drinks like the Banana Mama and the PasiĆ³n Tropical.

Ridiculous activities were available for the more active set, such as water aerobics done to deafening 180 beat-per-minute techno music (which appeared to be mostly just an excuse to have one extremely fit "instructor" of each sex to girate rhythmically at poolside for the viewing pleasure of participants and non-participants alike (mostly non-participants)), or some game where teams of two use towels to toss volleyballs around a circle. We, despite considering ourselves "active," declined to participate.

This is apparently not a top-notch, five-star resort, as evidence by certain online reviews bemoaning the lack of "towel art" in the rooms. I would guess at the really pricey resorts of the Caribbean, you needn't leave your lounge chair to order another Makers on the rocks. That was not true here. This resort's tactical response to all-inclusivity was a three-pronged attack of cheap plastic-bottle booze, dixie cup servings, and no waiters. Here, we counter-attacked by bringing our own Big-Gulp sized cups to minimize trips to the bar and befriending the bartender so we could without hesitation ask for just a bit more vodka and tabasco in that Bloody Mary. (By Sunday, your correspondent had consumed as much rum and citrus juice and pre-mixed colada as he could handle and had to stick to vodka, perhaps a positive sign for Northeastern European days to come.)

In any case, your correspondent values the rich tapestry of personalities that makes the human experience so varied and interesting. But people who choose to go to places like this for their whole vacations leave me baffled. Though the staff photographer did enjoy the near-studio light on our balcony, as seen above, your correspondent was getting a bit itchy about all the doing nothing on day two. A whole week would be fatal.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Belize, Part Two

We now present part two of this unintentionally serialized story of our brief trip to Belize. When we last left your correspondent, we was describing the group's arrival in Belmopan...

... Maybe we were just punchy from the drive, but we laughed and laughed. Such is the result of wandering off into the jungle for hours, only to reach the exotic post of assignment that would, in fact, not look out of place along the interstate beltway circling any American sun-belt city. Except that instead of having a highway next to it, it had a dirt road cutting through scrubby secondary growth. To some extent, the joke was on us, as in our 90 minutes in Belmopan we ate at a Chinese restaurant that was far, far better than anything in Guatemala City, and actually would give most any option in Washington, DC a run for its money; coupled with beer that proved without a doubt that Belize was a British colony, not a Spanish possession (despite some continued Guatemalan opinion to the contrary).

After this delicious feast, we really had seen just about everything there is to Belmopan. Our traveling companion shuttled us through Belize City and off to the airport in her beau's stylish Jeep. And, as we were getting the autograph of legendary Belize City airport bartender named "Jet," our friend was driving said Jeep back to her sleepy little gated community. And as we were possibly in the air on the way to Guatemala via El Salvador, she blew out a tire (or something) on the wide Belizean highway, flipped said Jeep and rolled it several times on the Nebraska-flat landscape near Hattieville, totalled the S.O.'s Jeep, and walked away while various Belizean on-lookers gathered to dig through the glove box for anything portable and valuable. She spent a night in the hospital and a week away from work, but the bigger tragedy is that now she's trapped in Belmopan without a car, despite all our efforts, and nothing to do but eat the best Kung Pao Chicken this side of California.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


It has indeed been forever since I rapped at ya. There has been some amount of nothing happening. And I've been laid low by some of the things that have happened. But this last weekend, we checked off one of the final Central American destinations we had yet to visit, the erstwhile 22nd province of Guatemala.

Many think of Belize as a destination for lazing on the beach or snorkeling from one of its many Caribbean islands. Not your intrepid correspondent. One of our dear friends from the Embassy is being temporarily assigned to Belmopan, Belize for six weeks while they are desperately understaffed. Recognizing the islands as the primary attraction of the location, she was dedicated to driving so as to avoid being trapped and car-less in the jungle interior. This involves some amount of remote highway frequented by brigands and highwaymen. So we agreed to pile in the 1998 Chevy Lumina with her and trek down the mountains, across the desert, through the jungle, and on to Belize, seeing some of the Guatemalan countryside we had not yet enjoyed. The Lumina was a late scratch, and a gentleman friend of our colleague agreed to loan her his Jeep (for the whole six week assignment!). Slightly later than originally planned, we set off down the treacherous mountain. Hours of highway driving stretched on, and we eventually met the owner of the Jeep in the remote jungle lair where he was training with the Guatemalan equivalent of the Green Berets. (No, really. More on this later.)

After a day of not really that many hours on the road, we were nevertheless drained by the challenging road conditions upon our arrival in Flores, Peten. The travelling party was dedicated to enjoying our last evening together for six weeks, and so managed to drink a variety of tasty beverages while barely keeping our eyes open. The next morning, we met up with our police escort for the notorious final two hours to the border, crossed into Belize with just about the expected amount of hassle, bought Belizean car insurance, and pushed on for the capital city of Belmopan.

The exhausting weekend of driving was proved entirely worthwhile upon seeing Belmopan. The city was created in the middle of nowhere when the government grew weary of the capital, which was then located on the coast in Belize City, getting knocked over by every hurricane that passed by. As capitals go, you might say it is a little sleepy. There may be as many as 15,000 inhabitants, but I doubt it. There is a modest city center, a few blocks of small residential developments, and then a few blocks of scrubby undeveloped land split by dirt roads, and then one runs into the massive, thoroughly modern U.S. Embassy. Then, after a few more blocks of scrub and jungle and dump, one finds the U.S. Embassy employee housing complex, built half a mile away from the nearest development, surrounded by a 10-foot-high, bright yellow wall and containing 14 identical tract houses. Maybe we were just punchy from the drive, but we laughed and laughed. Such is the adventure of venturing off into the jungle for hours to reach the exotic post of assignment that could possibley