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.