Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Work is fun

Every day on the visa line is unique.

Today an applicant pulled her boob out at my window. No, she wasn’t breastfeeding (not an uncommon occurrence), and no, it wasn’t a wardrobe malfunction. She was explaining to me about the surgery she had undergone a few years ago and (for some reason) figured that visual aids were necessary. Sheesh.

In my (almost) 6 months on the visa line, I’ve seen people faint, puke, have panic attacks, heart attacks, and throw hissy fits. Though there haven’t been too many of the last one. The people here take denials well. Not that we deny all that many people. About 80% of Costa Rican visa applications are approved.

So, most applicants are not the fainting, puking, flashing sort. I’ve met several Hollywood folks (some names you’d know; some you wouldn’t), many government officials, dozens of doctors, and even more lawyers (side-note: I’ve noticed that lawyer-lawyer couples have a high divorce rate). But the good news is that you don’t have to be a lawyer/doctor/legislator to get a visa. You just have to demonstrate strong ties to your country.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but U.S. law presumes that everyone is an immigrant unless they convince a consular officer (me) that their ties are strong enough to compel them to leave the U.S. at the end of their stay. Some people insist that this is all about money, but it isn’t. Personally, I think some Americans need to come to grips with the idea that not everyone wants to live in our country. Yes, financial ties are a major factor we consider, but according to the law, social and family ties are to be considered as well. I’ve issued visas to plenty of poorer people who have credible ties here.

All this work talk is reminding me of our case notes. Because of the speed with which we work, even I make frequent typos. I’ve written countless times about an applicant’s “good toes” or “credible toes” (instead of ties). I’m sure they are relieved that I find their feet credible.

Work is fun.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Our latest excursion in Costa Rica was Tortuguero (tor-too-GEH-roh), a popular tourist destination on the northeastern coast. It was our first trip to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. It was also our first group trip; there were 30+ other embassy folks along for this one.

The bus took the winding mountain roads out of the central valley because the highway (also winding, but less so) was inaccessible due to heavy rains (not surprising). Two passengers puked (not surprising). The boys managed the bus ride like champs; it was Sara and I who were both feeling ill most of the ride. Once out of the mountains, we traded winding and paved for straight and unpaved. It’s hard to say which is worse.

We made two interesting stops along the unpaved road. The first was at a banana “processing” facility. “Processing” because it involves a total of two steps, repeated several times: cutting and washing. Everything was open to observe; we watched the heavy branches rolling in like clothes on a clothesline, and the flashing blades of practiced cutters as they crafted familiar-looking store-shelf bunches.

Our second stop was a small bakery operated by some local ladies. They came on the bus and sold (for $1 apiece) empanadas, quesadillas, and various fruit, nut, cheese, and dulce de leche pastries. Through the efforts of the tour company (making regular stops at the bakery), the ladies have been able to improve their facility and expand their business. Also the stuff they make tastes fantastic. We were all happy to stop again on the way home.

The bus ride behind us, we all boarded a long, narrow boat and headed off into the costal canals. Our hotel was not accessible by road. Malachi especially liked the boat ride (so did I). We saw two crocodiles and a turtle (and lots of birds) on two-hour ride.

We arrived at the hotel just in time for lunch. From our room, we could see the canal out one window, and the ocean out the other. The grounds were beautiful, with a host of wildlife and wide variety of fruit trees. Malachi’s favorite part of the hotel was probably the swimming pool; which was large, free-form, and always full of his friends. Simon’s favorite part was all the attention he got for being so cute (and serious). His least favorite part was not having a bed. The first night he shared with mommy; the second night we built a cage bed on the floor for him.

We participated in a number of scheduled activities: a nature hike through the jungle (LOTS of spiders), a tour of the nature park at the hotel (butterflies and poison dart frogs), and, of course, mealtime. The food was not bad; definitely a notch above resort food, and it was included in the price of the hotel, so no complaints here. In lieu of one planned activity, I napped for three hours in a hammock. We weren’t allowed to swim in the water because of riptides and sharks; but Malachi and I had a nice walk on the beach one morning where we saw some sea turtle eggs.

Sara and I separately went on night excursions to watch the sea turtles nesting. For me, the experience was quite impressive, although the turtles were only a small part of that. I did get to see a turtle laying her eggs, covering the next, and returning to the water.

The more magical part was the atmosphere. We walked out onto the beach around 10:00 p.m., so the sun had set five hours earlier. But there was so much light from the stars, more stars than I’ve ever seen before: planets, shooting stars, the hazy course of the Milky Way. While waiting for the turtle to prepare her nest, I lay on the beach for nearly an hour, watching the surf in the starlight. I could make out the dark line topping each wave as it rose toward the shore, followed by its violent change to light as the wave broke. It was like a horizontal lightning strike arcing along the waterfront. Beautiful and primal.

The ride back to San José was better because the highway was open, though our boat ride was rainy. This is definitely a trip that I would recommend for visitors to Costa Rica, but I’m not sure we’ll repeat it next year (just because we like doing new things). Below are some photos. Enjoy!

Malachi said, "Look! A person in the trees!"

Simon and Malachi enjoying the boat ride.

Destroying the bed

Malachi and a boa

I am NOT amused.

Butterflies snacking

Poison dart frog

Iguana on the tree

Bullet ant (HUGE)

Spider of some variety

Crocodile along the canal

View of the canals

Canal house

Getting ready to board the boats

Looking down into the central valley

Friday, June 4, 2010

Manuel Antonio

Sara decided that she had had enough of this not having a car business. So we rented a car and went away for the weekend (last weekend; I know; I'm slow.). The car rental process was fairly painless. They even dropped the car off and gave us a discount. Prices weren't bad; it was all the extra insurance I paid for that jacked it up. Even so, it was worth it.

I employed a travel agent I met to find a good hotel deal for us. He got us a 50% discount at a eco-boutique hotel. It wasn't ON the beach, but the views were impressive and the beach was very close. A nice surprise when we arrived was an upgrade in our room. So we ended up with the honeymoon suite. Since we've started traveling with kid(s), we appreciate suites so much more. It's partly because the extra space is needed, but also because it helps get them to sleep when you can close a door.

The view from our balcony.

It was about a 3-hour drive from our house to the hotel (the nearest beach is only about an hour). The costal plain is significantly more humid than the central valley. We lunched a little Tico place and arrived a the hotel early in the afternoon. Malachi enjoyed the pool and waterslide before dinner.

The family pool at Si Como No

The next day we visited the national park. We opted for a nature guide, and it's a good thing we did. Otherwise we might have missed all the birds, sloths, monkeys, crabs, lizards, and other animals we saw. The day started out a little bit cloudy (this is the rainy season, after all), but quickly cleared up.

After the park we ate at El Avion, which is exactly what it sounds like (in Spanish). It's an old cargo plane that was abandoned by its owners after the Iran-Contra affair broke open. The inside of the plane is a bar, and there are tables surrounding the outside of it. Good food, great views, and a unique experience. The history of the plane is interesting, and worth a read at the link above.

El Avion bar & restaurant

We finished the day with a couple of hours at the beach. Malachi had a fantastic time--he maintains that the best part of the trip was playing in the waves. Simon took a comfy, tropical nap on a beach chair. At night, the family hit the sack pretty early, so I slipped out to the hotel movie theater and watched about half of Sherlock Holmes.

Malachi & I in the surf.

Simon getting his beach on.

In the morning we visited a butterfly farm and reptile lagoon. We were the only ones there for most of the time, and the guide was very attentive and informative. Malachi and Sara were plagued by mosquitos, but they didn't really bother me. Learning about butterflies was more interesting than I expected.

Blue morpho butterfly.

When we returned home on Monday afternoon, we had enough time to take ourselves shopping. That was a real treat; I can't wait to get our car.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


This is my 50th post. I know, not impressive compared to Sara's 300+, but it's pretty good for me.

Ok, here's the post about work. This being my first post, and me being a consular officer, I've started out in NIV (non-immigrant visas). That means that I spend about 4-5 hours every day interviewing people who want to come to the U.S.A. on a temporary basis, whether as tourists, for business, schooling, work, etc. Costa Rica has a relatively high approval rate (80% or so), so that means that a healthy majority of our applicants are qualified.

U.S. immigration law basically states that everyone applying for a visa is presumed to be an immigrant, and to qualify for a non-immigrant visa, one has to convince a consular officer that they possess strong enough ties to their home country (work, family, economic, etc.), that they will come back.

Another nice thing about Costa Rica is that it isn't a "visa mill" like some of the posts out there. I hope that having medium volume and a majority approval will keep me from becoming jaded too quickly. Still, after thinking, speaking, and writing interchangeably in two languages all morning, I feel fairly mentally exhausted when we finish.

So what do I do in the afternoons? I'm glad you asked.

Sometimes I eat lunch. There is a cafeteria at the embassy, but I haven't eaten there much. I've gone a few times to some local places; all have been cheap and good. The consular section is very much like a marketing department, in that there always seems to be food around. And not usually the healthy kind. There's even a club (I confess: I'm a member) that brings in desserts to share on Mondays.

Sometimes I write letters responding to people (could be lawyers, congressmen, senators, etc.) who are inquiring about visa cases. Earlier this week I went to a local school to give a speech (in Spanish!) and pass out certificates to students who earned scholarships to study English. A couple of weeks ago I worked the Costa Rican presidential inauguration.

All in all, it has been pretty awesome so far.

A big reason I chose the consular cone was to have a lot of interaction with the local populace. I thought about my past travels, and realized that the people really make a place special. And since I interview about 70 people each day (this should increase with experience), I have the opportunity to engage the culture on many levels.

One the interesting things I've discovered is the large number of Chinese people in Costa Rica. I remember being surprised in Guatemala when we drove through a veritable Chinatown, but the Chinese people here seem to be more integrated. I've interviewed plenty of people with names like (changed for security) Chang Jimenez or Huang Sanchez.

Another interesting thing is how a native Spanish speaker's Spanish accent changes if they speak English. It's subtle, but I am getting pretty good at guessing the people who speak English before I ask them.

In the consular section we wear ties 4 days a week and relax a bit on Fridays. I've had to wear a suit at least once a week since I started for some reason (important meetings, outings, etc.). One thing that isn't cheap here is drycleaning. It costs almost $5 per shirt. The sad thing is, at that rate, it is more expensive to dryclean my shirts than to hire a part-time housekeeper who will wash, dry, and iron our clothes, not to mention clean the rest of the house and maybe cook.

And so this weekend we'll be interviewing potential domestic helpers for the first time in our lives. Hopefully I can figure out the right questions in Spanish, and hopefully we find someone who fits well this first time. We're want to start with someone part-time and move them to full-time next year.

Earlier today I experienced my first earthquake. I was sitting at my desk when there was a loud rumbling. I heard it and heard a few people around me start to react, but before I could ask what was going on, the shaking started. Honestly, it was really cool. I've always wanted to feel an earthquake. It only lasted a few seconds, but it was a pretty good rush. I'm looking foward to more. Costa Rica generally has a good number each year.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sorry; I lied.

I know I said that I'd write about work, but it will have to wait at least until next time. I will say that I'm enjoying my job, my co-workers are great, etc.

We've started getting some of the things we ordered through the mail. Sara's birthday present finally came (pictures below were taken with it). We got the diapers we ordered. Of course now we know that we like the ones we get here better; and they're cheaper. Oddly enough, baby formula is also cheaper here. So far, those appear to be the only two things that are cheaper in Costa Rica. Well, those and haircuts.

I'd gone quite a while (more than a month) without a haircut. There's a little barber across from the embassy. I walked in yesterday and got a great cut for $6. I had one moment of panic when he pulled out the straight-edge razor. Sara and I saw Sweeny Todd back in February and I had a flashback. Thankfully, he didn't cut my throat.

Speaking of cheap things; right in front of the barber shop is a lunch kiosk where you can get a huge plate of chicken/beef/fish, rice, beans, salad, veggies, plantains, plus a drink for $4. Ok, so there are many cheap things here. But I can tell you one thing that isn't cheap: drycleaning. I took 6 shirts and a tie to the drycleaner and it cost me $28. At least I think that's expensive. Sara used to take my clothes for me. I'm going to try a different place next time.

We've clocked over three weeks here. It has gone pretty fast. But it feels wrong that we haven't gone to the beach yet. Who spends three weeks in Costa Rica and doesn't go to the beach? Oh well; we'll get there. I've started making a list of things I want to do before we move again. One of the things we're looking forward to the most is having visitors.

In gardening news, my thyme is coming up nicely, and I'm pretty sure I see some movement in the pineapple. If growing everything here is going to be this easy, I should be fairly successful.

My thyme pot.

The back of our house and some of the side yard.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Home Life

We've been here a little over 2 weeks now, and things are still going well.

There was a marked improvement in the mood around the house once internet was installed. We've especially enjoyed talking with friends and family via Skype and MagicJack. You get what you pay for with internet service. I had heard a lot of complaints about slow service here. I don't know; maybe it's that our internet service in Virginia was SO bad, or maybe it's that I'm paying for a gold package static IP, but it doesn't seem very slow to me.

What IS slow, however, is the mail. Some things we can ship to our DPO address (like an APO/FPO), but many companies and products can't go that way. To solve that problem we have something called the diplomatic pouch, which can carry many more items to us. It, however, has some restrictive rules (no peanut butter or kitchen knives, for example), and can be pretty slow. I understand that they have more important things to deliver than our Pampers, but Huggies (which we can buy here) are just awful.

Another benefit of internet installation is cable TV. I opted for non-digital until our HHE arrives. We still have something like 50 channels, including NBC, ABC, & CBS from Denver (so we haven't missed an episode of LOST). I'm hoping to find a line-up that will make my TiVo work once it gets here. Malachi really enjoys watching U.S. cartoons in Spanish. Go figure. I'm enjoying Food Network.

We've had a break from the afternoon rains, so last week Malachi and I planted pineapple in the backyard. We probably won't be here long enough to actually harvest one (assuming it grows--I think its spot is maybe too shady) but the plant is supposed to be very pretty. I also planted some thyme in a pot out back. I chose thyme because I wasn't sure what the other seeds were (names of Spanish herbs & spices were not taught at FSI). But this functions as an introduction to something I'll probably talk about often in the future: gardening. I'm planning on having two raised-bed (6'x4') vegetable gardens during our stay here. The wood is coming in HHE and I'll have to find soil/compost and seeds/plants locally. There are lots of nurseries around here (and a Home Depot clone) so it should be no problem.

I was going to write about the actual work, but I think I'll save that for next time.

Things we wished we'd brought with us or put in UAB: measuring cups, some sort of baking sheet.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Pura Vida!

Let me rush through the last couple of months.

First, the baby was born a few days after my birthday post. Details are on Sara's blog.

Second, I did receive my 3/3 in Spanish in March.

Third, we moved to Costa Rica (that brings us up to last week).

Everything went smoothly with the move. We even got to spend about a week in Texas visiting with friends on our way south. It was fun to see everyone we've been missing, and be at our church.

We've been in country for a few days now. It really is beautiful. There are mountains in virtually every direction, and we some great views from near our house. Also, I love waking up every morning to a tropical breeze and palm trees outside the window. That, however, will probably stop when we get our air conditioner in the bedroom. It is quite humid here, if not very hot.

We are at the beginning of the rainy season, so it has rained every day we've been here for between 2-5 hours. The sun always shines in the morning, and the rain always comes in the afternoon. Speaking of the sun, it rises at 5:00. We've been adjusting our schedule to go to bed and get up earlier because of this.

Being here without a car is difficult; we don't have any other embassy families within walking distance and feel bad relying so much on our sponsors for rides. No estimate on when our wheels will arrive, but our initial shipment of stuff (UAB) is already here. Fortunately I can use motor pool to get to and from work for a while.

Our house is nice (if a little overwhelming). Malachi says his favorite part of the house is the yard, but I think he likes all of it. He's never had so much space to run.

On Sunday we took a walk into the nearby downtown area. Not a lot was open on Sunday morning, but once we got to the central plaza (where the Catholic church is located), it was pretty busy. After we got passed by horses and ox carts, Malachi remarked, "Costa Rica is very different." We were all sweaty (and a little sunburned) when we got back, so Malachi enjoyed playing in the sprinkler for a while. In the afternoon our sponsor took me shopping.

Overall, the city is quite small. Driving isn’t nearly as bad as many have made it out to be. Of course at this point I’ve only been riding… The embassy is very close to stores like Hiper Mas (Walmart..no, really), a Home Depot clone, malls, restaurants, etc. There's even a brand new IMAX theater here--hopefully we can go see Iron Man there.

Once we have internet at home (coming soon) we can start to post some pictures of our life here.

Friday, February 5, 2010


So it was my birthday on Tuesday. For a number of years now, birthdays haven't meant all that much to me, and this year especially. It's not that I'm bothered by getting older--partly because I'm still quite young, and partly because I am firmly committed to the idea that my life will always get better and not worse.

But this year, my thoughts weren't really focused inward. I was torn between thinking about the imminent arrival of our second son, and the premiere of LOST. Both momentous occasions, and both had the potential to occur on my birthday.

One did.

It wasn't the baby.

LOST was fine; no major complaints. We did have a nice birthday/LOST party with a lot of friends at our house. Between adults and kids we had nearly 30 people in our apartment, but it thinned out to about 12 hardcore nerds before LOST started.

My brother, while in India this week on business, granted my birthday wish.

Cambiando de tema...
Many of my A-100 classmates have just had their final Spanish exams, or are about to take them. I still have six weeks of class left, but I'm starting to feel the pressure. Honestly, I feel pretty confident, but I don't want to be overconfident.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Haiti Taskforce

Spanish class is interesting and important to my job, but it doesn't actually feel like I'm contributing anything to the world. That's one reason that I've enjoyed working on the Haiti Taskforce this week. The primary responsibility of the State Department is to assist American citizens who are overseas. So it's easy to imagine how busy the department has been since the earthquake in Haiti.

I grabbed a couple of overnight shifts answering phone calls, emails, and placing calls to Americans who had/have loved ones in Haiti. The work was interesting and certainly emotionally challenging at times. There are a lot of families in the U.S. trying to get their children back from Haiti (they may have been visiting family, going to school, etc.). In some sad cases the parents died in the earthquake, leaving the children to the responsibility of uncles, cousins, or grandparents in the States who may never have met them.

In retrospect, overnight shifts right before Spanish class might not have been the best idea. I've been pretty sleepy this week, and my lovely wife has been very good about letting me nap during the afternoons. My last shift is tonight.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Restaurant Week

This last week in D.C. was "Restaurant Week," a biannual event where some of the best restaurants in D.C. offer complete meals for a fraction of their normal prices. With so many great eateries here, it's an amazing opportunity to sample what the city has to offer without a lobbyist's salary.

Sara and I had a great dining experience at Tosca, and only paid about half of what we normally would. This was probably our last real date before the baby comes, so I'm glad we took our time and really enjoyed ourselves. I wish we were going to be here for the next Restaurant Week; I definitely would go out more than once.

In Spanish news, I'm currently in negotiations with various people in the department to extend my time in Spanish. We're also checking on the possibility of heading to post a little early.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


Yes, THAT Avatar. I am by no means a film critic, so I'll leave that up to more qualified persons. I just have some things I want to say.

First, I really did enjoy the movie. I had mild interest after seeing the trailers, but it was the Metacritic score that finally convinced me to go. The film took me by surprise; it exceeded my expectations. And yet, I didn't feel blown-away like some viewers (some that I know and some that I've read). And yet (again), I felt like I should have been blown away. It was a disturbing conundrum. Why wasn't my reaction as strong as it should have been? Why didn't the thrilling 3-D visuals leave me breathless? Why did this incredibly foreign, incredibly immersive world feel altogether too...familiar?

I blame World of Warcraft (WoW). Or more specifically, I blame massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) in general. WoW is just the most recent game of my MMORPG career (including UO, EQ, DAoC, NWN, and more). For the benefit of my readers who are not familiar with these types of games, they provide a fully-immersive, detailed, persistent world for the gamer, complete with social interaction, progression, and economic systems. Click here for a more detailed explanation.

I want to be clear that I'm not simply making a visual comparison between Avatar and World of Warcraft, although that's striking as well. But the experience of MMORPGS is more impactful than the visuals. It's the experience (the immersion, the parallels to real life, etc.) that make the games so addictive and fun. All of Avatar's best aspects (the visuals, the otherworldliness, a captivating story, senses of progression and accomplishment, sexy natives) are present in World of Warcraft with one critical, pivotal difference: it's wholly interactive.

So instead of simply watching Jake fly his dragon-bird around the floating moutains, YOU can fly YOUR dragon bird around the floating mountains of Nagrand. Instead of watching one army fight another, you can participate in the battle. Instead of marvelling for nearly three hours at exotic flora and fauna, you can spend unlimited time trapsing through the jungles of Stranglethorn, the swamps of Zangarmarsh, or the mountains of the Storm Peaks. You can fish, bake, tinker, eat, drink, sleep, swim, run, fly, tame and ride animals, and so much more. And many, like Jake, have taken the ultimate step and decided to stay in MMORPGs forever, costing them jobs, family, and sometimes (Google "World of Wacraft suicide") even their lives.

To me, Avatar was a three-hour commercial for WoW. It was like a cinematic cut-scene before a new expansion. I admit that in the weeks since I saw the movie, my desire to reactivate my WoW account has grown substantially, but I'm managed to hold off so far. And it's not easy. So if you loved Avatar and want more, I recommend trying out an MMORPG. But if you value your time and family, well...maybe you should just watch more movies.


If you thought this post was going to be about the message and politics of Avatar, please read this interesting article by David Brooks instead.

Friday, January 8, 2010


We're surviving winter in Virginia. While the blizzard a few weeks ago was annoying, I think I prefer lots of snow to lots of cold. I know our 20ish degree weather doesn't really compare to the windchills of Minnesota, but it's still pretty bad on my Texas-adjusted skin. I can't wait to get down to Costa Rica, where "winter" means it will only get up to 70, and "summer" means it might get as high as 85.

It feels unnaturally calm around here lately, despite the fact that life is accelerating. The baby is coming in about a month, I'm nearing the end of Spanish (I scored a 2+/2+ on my evaluation today), the big move is only a few months away, the final season of LOST starts in four weeks, wait... But really, I feel pretty peaceful about everything that's happening, and that's a good thing.

Only about one third of my A-100 has gone to post, so we still have a decent group of people around. It's amazing how quickly such a large group can gel, and at the same time, it's amazing that we've already been here for over six months. I imagine that life will get more lonely as more and more folks head out. Not that there's a lack of people around. Four more A-100 classes have started since I did, and it doesn't look to be slowing down.

And it only took six months (this is an actual improvement, I've been told) to receive my presidential commission. That's the official document that states my appointment by the president and confirmation by the senate. It's a nice certificate complete with signatures and the official seal.