What I saw in Washington, D.C.

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I will be writing about my perspective on the political implications of the November, 2016 election in other outlets, but the shift in the country is having many personal impacts that I will be writing about in the coming months.  I have been dismayed by the racism, xenophobia, misogyny and anti-lgbtq sentiment on display in the last few months, the blatant use of power by ICE and CBP agents, stopping individuals from places like Australia and even the former Prime Minister of Denmark at airports (not that these types of stops are new). The weekend that the first executive order on immigration was released I barely slept – but quickly realized that I couldn’t keep up that kind of pace. We are in a marathon not a sprint. I’ll have to pick my battles carefully and not get caught up in every issue where I have some expertise.

My last trip to D.C. was in 2013 for Barack Obama’s second inauguration. Since then, the country has, of course, gone through some major changes that I could not have foreseen at that time. I expected a very different place when I took a quick trip to Washington D.C. in late February. This trip was for a meeting at the American Political Science Association, and I was curious to see what the atmosphere would be like under the new administration.

I arrived early evening to my hotel and immediately headed to one of my favorite restaurants near Dupont Circle for some dinner. I rarely watch TV news, I tend to listen to NPR, but CNN seemed much more relevant as I sat at the restaurant bar in our nation’s capital. CNN was reporting on the breaking news that Reince Priebus had asked the FBI to discount the reports that Trump’s campaign had contacts with Russian officials. As I sat enjoying my meal, I couldn’t help but overhear a group of twenty-somethings discussing the political situation.  I chatted with them for a bit, sharing our interest in politics, and the need to understand populism and racism in the current climate.

The next day I made my way to the White House and was surprised to find it surrounded by fencing and no trespassing signs.

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The obstructions are there ostensibly because of the inauguration, but this is the longest it has ever taken to tear down the stands and construction after the inauguration. It also conveniently keeps protestors away from the White House. I did find the peace protestors who have had a long-standing presence near the White House and they explained the situation – the Park Service has been accommodating, but they are subject to the dictates of the White House. It does not feel like the people’s house anymore. I’m glad I was able to visit with my boys while Obama was still President.

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Later I met with friends who talked about how the helicopters used by Trump and Pence would “buzz” the bike paths and I even noticed how the helicopters would fly low over residential areas – under Obama the helicopters would do their best to fly over the Potomac and avoid residential areas and the park. Friends who work in government agencies are concerned that they still don’t have agency heads, don’t know what will happen to their funding, and are concerned that programs that provide a lot of bang for the buck will no longer be funded, hurting the U.S,’s standing in the world.

These are the small changes that don’t get into the news – but they have great impact on those who work and live in DC, and ultimately, the way our government functions. We need to pay attention to all of these changes.

Belize: The Forgotten Country?

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Let’s Make Belize A Place We Can Be Proud To Call Home!!!

I took this picture during our last evening in Belize, near the light house in Belize City. This sign epitomized the feeling I got as we drove around Belize – a country that clearly has a problem of low self-esteem. As a social scientist, I couldn’t help but observe the class and race divides in the country.  One evening while we were in San Ignacio we had a discussion with the proprietors of our jungle lodge.  I asked them about the divides in the country and they noted that many of the hardest workers came from Guatemala, and the women favored these men as husbands.  The Belize of San Pedro and Ambergris Caye was very different from that of the Cayo District or Belize City.  Our hosts also noted that the people who lived in Belize City looked down on the people in rural areas, although it wasn’t apparent that the poverty in the rural areas was any worse than in Belize City.  In fact, we found it much harder to navigate Belize City without being set upon by children or disabled people begging for change.

Although Belize has gang violence, it is nowhere near the scale of that in Guatemala or Honduras which is leading to the flow of children and families to the U.S. (see http://www.immigrationtexas.org/2014/07/unaccompanied-minors-and-refugees-from.html).  A very small country, with a population of only ~325,000, and having only gotten independence from Great Britain in 1981, Belize seems to be struggling to develop a middle class.  There are expats from the U.S. and other countries who buy land and even develop businesses that employ many people, but poverty seems to be a persistent problem.

Flag of Belize
Flag of Belize

I was struck by a story from one of our guides who wanted to come to the U.S., just as a tourist. He had to save up the $250 needed for the application form, and then hope that it would be approved which it was.  Still he had to save up the money to actually make the trip, and he said it would be a couple of years before he would be able to make the trip, even though his visa had been approved.

When we visited the Belize Zoo, all of the signs were clearly written to encourage Belizeans to preserve and support their wildlife. Tourism has had a positive impact, for example, people realize they can make more money by helping breeders find iguanas for their preservation program rather than hunting them for food.

I plan to read more about the history of Belize, but given the current state of the country, the British had to have left the country in a very impoverished and under-developed state, and the country has had to work very hard to build an economy that seems to rely primarily on tourism. I felt very safe in Belize, and the people were very friendly and grateful for the tourists who came from the U.S., Europe, and even Australia. However, the border with Guatemala will be a concern as well as general economic development that can help the country build a middle class.  I am no expert on Central America, but I feel like I learned a great deal from our trip to Belize and I hope to learn more as I observe from afar.

Belize: CAVES! Barton Creek Cave, Cave Tubing & ATM

We are back in Austin and I wanted to take a little time to process our trip before writing this post on Belize.  Belize’s geology includes lots of limestone which leads to the development of caves.  They have many cave systems that were also used by the Maya as long as 1300 years ago. I hadn’t read much on the caves, and our guidebook didn’t give much detail on them.  I was very glad that we had a guide with us who could explain some of the reasons the Maya were thought to have used the caves.  We started this lesson during our trip to Xunantunich, where our guide Edgar explained that in Mayan mythology the caves were the underworld and where water came from.  When drought hit, the Mayans headed to the caves to try appeal to their gods for relief, and toward the end of the Mayans habitation of the sites like Xunantunich, they appeared to become more desperate and offered human sacrifices along with food and prayers.

We began our cave exploration with Barton Creek Cave, near San Ignacio.

IMG_2050 IMG_2083They have found evidence that the Maya used this cave for ceremonial purposes, and there are still some shards of pottery on ledges where they may have performed ceremonial rites.  There were lots of interesting formations in the cave:

IMG_2091 IMG_2068 IMG_2058 IMG_2051After the canoe trip through the cave, we went to the nearby butterfly “ranch” where the owner gave us a tour and talked about the various species that they breed and a “walking stick” that likes to hang out around the butterflies:IMG_2103 IMG_2107 IMG_2108 IMG_2112 IMG_2125

There was also a great variety of hummingbirds who would come to the feeders and even sit on branches for their portraits!IMG_2142 IMG_2137 IMG_2136The next day was dedicated to cave tubing, but the boys couldn’t resist trying out the zipline first:IMG_2150 IMG_2147After the thrill of zip-lining we had a long hike through the jungle with our inner tubes to get to the mouth of the cave:

IMG_2167 IMG_2177 IMG_2174The water was fairly low, so we often had to follow the rule of “butts up” to avoid hitting rocks, but we had a great float through the caves. Our guide told us stories about Mayan culture and history, and how they revered the caves as the underworld.  Lots of great formations, like in Barton Creek Cave. At the end, we had a nice float in the open, through a few small rapids – it was great fun:

IMG_2179 IMG_2185 IMG_2184That day ended with a visit to the Mayan site Cahal Pech. This site is currently being excavated so there were a few archeologists there who could answer some of our questions – they are working to fix some of the damage done in the 1990s by previous archeologists who tried to reconstruct parts of the site using bad methods.

IMG_2192The next day, however, was truly the most magnificient cave – we definitely saved the best for last.  Aktun Tinichil Muknal (aka, ATM Cave) was discovered in the late 1980s and has remained untouched (for the most part) and unexcavated so that visitors could enjoy the site as it was originally found, with artifacts left by the Maya exactly as they were 1000 years ago.  It is also known as the cave of the “Crystal Maiden” for the skeleton that lies at the end of the tour, at the to of a grotto.  They actually aren’t sure if it is male or female, but the presumption is that this body and several others whose bones you can see were ritual sacrifices.  We weren’t able to take any pictures, but check out this video to get an idea of what the interior of the cave is like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MW9bdBVPeDQ

It was a pretty strenuous hike to get to the cave, then we started by swimming into the entrance and hiking through several narrow passages, in an out of the water.  To get to the main site of the artifacts, we had to climb a ladder, and then scramble on our knees through a narrow slippery area.  I still have a bruise or two and skinned knees to show for the effort, but it was totally worth it.  I would do it again for sure! This was definitely the highlight of our stay in the Cayo district.

Belize: Snakes, Tarantulas, Iguanas and Mayans

If you have a problem with bugs or lizards, the Belizean jungle may not be the best place to go – but we had a great time seeing these cool creatures (thanks Animal Planet). Last Friday was spent mostly at Black Rock Lodge, doing activities on their property, including a hike to the top of the hill, tubing on the river and a night hike to look at all the stuff that comes out at night.  One of those animals was one of the most venomous snakes in Belize, the “fer de lance” — luckily none of us is particularly scared of snakes, since Andrew was obsessed with snakes when he was younger and we all had to get used to them. However, Brandon is scared of spiders, and our hiking guide decided he was going to help Brandon get over his fear.  So he found a tarantula, and actually convinced Brandon to first touch it, then hold it – he was very brave! We saw a few more night creatures, including a very well camouflaged bird, scorpions, and various insects.

Brandon holds a tarantula
Brandon holds a tarantula

The next day we started out with a trip to the weekly market in San Ignacio. It was very colorful in a variety of ways.  Lots of produce, clothing and crafts.  Also, lots of people from different backgrounds, showing the diversity of Belize.  We stopped at one shop and bought a couple of items:

A stall at the market with nice crafts
A stall at the market with nice crafts

After the market, we went to the Belize Iguana Project at the San Ignacio Resort hotel – they do tours every hour, and it was a very hands on experience.  They started by showing us the larger iguanas, once they reach full size, they release them into the wild. We started with feeding them, and we could hold and touch them — one of them decided that Andrew was tasty!

Brandon and Andrew feeding iguanas
Brandon and Andrew feeding iguanas
Andrew gets a love bite from an iguana
Andrew gets a love bite from an iguana
Ouch!
Ouch!

When we went in to see the baby iguanas, they had one that had been born the day before, very tiny.  We got to hold the older ones (anywhere 3 to 10 months old) and Brandon held a bunch of them all at once!

Brandon covered in baby iguanas
Brandon covered in baby iguanas

After the iguanas, we headed to the Mayan archeological site that is just down the road from San Ignacio. My favorite guide on this part of the trip is Edgar Avila 501 624-2415 (a Belize number so you have to dial 011 from the US) – we met him at Xunantunich, where he offered to be our guide. This site has the second tallest pyramid in the Mayan world, known as El Castillo, or the castle. Edgar was very knowledgeable and helped us understand what we were seeing, including the numerology used by the Maya, the legends and why they built on high ground. We also hired him to guide us at the cave tubing which we would be doing on Monday – more on that later.

Masks on the side of the castillo
Masks on the side of the castillo
Looking at a stella
Looking at a stella
A view of the castillo
A view of the castillo

Belize: Caye Caulker

Today is our only full day in Caye Caulker.  Mike and Andrew went on a SCUBA outing while Brandon and I did a snorkel trip with The Caveman — it was awesome.  We saw manatees, sea turtles, sharks, and we were even chased by a moray eel!  Even the Caveman had never seen that happen before.  He really took care of us and it was a small group, just one other couple besides me and Brandon.  They didn’t speak much English, so I ended up doing some translating — good for practicing my French. There was some excitement when a big moray eel decided to come up out of it’s hole and chase us around a bit…but it eventually went away with some discouraging kicks of the fins. Swimming with the nurse sharks was cool, saw lots of rays as well.

The Caveman!
The Caveman!
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Brandon getting ready to snorkel
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Feeding tarpon

 

 

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Tarpon waiting for some sardines – I actually fed one from my hand.
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A view of the split from the channel

We had a great time, as did Mike and Andrew.  We were all tired, and so we just headed down to the bar at the split to watch some soccer and relax.  Dinner was at Terry’s grill, which is just around the corner from our hotel. He also does BBQ across from our hotel on the beach during the day. We had lobster again – not sure when we’ll be back, and it probably won’t be lobster season.  Tomorrow we head back to Belize City and then on to the jungle around San Ignacio.

 

 

From Berlin to Belize

Post has been updated with pictures! Got back from Berlin a week ago and then I headed off to Belize with my boys on Friday, June 13th, which turned out to be our lucky day, no flight delays to speak of, and smooth flying. We weren’t sure if we were going to take a plane or the water taxi to Ambergris Caye, but once we landed and checked it out, we decided to fly. It was a good decision, even though it is a short flight, it was great to see the sea from above, the water is remarkably clear and blue. We are staying at the Villas at Banyan Bay, which is south of the airport in San Pedro. The hotel is very family oriented with fully equipped condos surrounding a nice pool. We chose a pool view room, which was a little less expensive than a sea view, a good choice since our boys are spending most of their time in the pool, and we can watch them from our front porch.

Andrew and Brandon at the pool
Andrew and Brandon at the pool
Villas at Banyan Bay
Villas at Banyan Bay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This iguana is a regular at the pool in the morning.
This iguana is a regular at the pool in the morning.
Playing at the pool
Playing at the pool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On our first full day, we started off with a walk into downtown. San Pedro is full of restaurants, excursion providers, etc…very much geared toward the main industry, tourism. People are friendly, and a broad mix of backgrounds. In the afternoon, we took a trip to Hol Chan, a marine reserve where Brandon and I snorkeled while Mike and Andrew tried out their newly certified SCUBA skills. I have snorkeled a few times, but this was the most amazing array of wildlife I have ever seen. Our first treat was a beautiful sea turtle who swam with us for a bit. Next I saw a few nurse sharks – they are bottom feeders and totally harmless, but one of the women in our group wasn’t as comfortable around them.

Hol Chan is a marine preserve, so we had to have a guide with us – he was great in pointing out the various types of fish, and corals, some that sting and others that are as sharp as razors. The coral isn’t colorful, but there are lots of fish of all sizes, we saw barracuda, and there was also a large eel that I couldn’t see because I’m getting near-sighted. I’m wondering if there are face masks for us near-sighted folks…although I didn’t have much trouble seeing most of the fish. We then went to a place where the sharks and rays hang out waiting for chum from the tourist boats. They swarm around the boats initially then move off once the food is gone. Brandon and I waited until they had moved off a bit, but we saw plenty of nurse sharks and a couple of big rays. One of the guides held onto a nurse shark so we could tough it. It was very docile, and didn’t seem to mind the attention. Nurse sharks are one of the only sharks that can sit on the bottom and “sleep” we saw a couple of them doing that. We all had a great time in the marine park, and may do it again before we leave, or go to a place called Mexico rocks.

The boys after snorkeling/scuba
The boys after snorkeling/scuba

For dinner, we chose a Jamaican restaurant, Jambals. The jerk chicken and pork was great, spicy but not too hot. It’s low season for tourists, but there were still lots of folks out at the bars, also watching the world cup soccer games. The strong winds have kept the temperatures very tolerable, and I haven’t noticed any mosquitos so far, although I’m still suffering from bites I got before we left Austin.

Today is Sunday, and the local electrical utility is doing some major work, so the power has been out since 6am and is supposed to be back on by 3pm. This hasn’t cramped our style at all, we are planning to rent a golf cart to drive around town, after the boys are done playing in the pool.

— We are back from our trip with the golf cart, had a great lunch at Estel’s on the beach, we had barbeque and the location was perfect. Then we took a ride in our golf cart to the southern part of the island. Looks like it was hit hard by the end of the real estate bubble, but still has lots of nice houses and condos. Mike walked through the Mayan ruin site we forgot to bring bug spray and I’m a mosquito magnet so the boys and I waited for him. Lobster fest starts tonight in San Pedro, so we will be heading up for dinner tonight to see if we can get lobster!

Andrew enjoying his meal and the view
Andrew enjoying his meal and the view

— We enjoyed a nice lobster dinner and the boys got papusas at Waruguma restaurant.  The boys enjoyed watching them make the papusas.

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Berlin Day 3: Of monuments and memory

I started rather late today, with breakfast at Schwarzes Cafe on Kantstrasse, a nice spot for eggs and hot chocolate:

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I then went for a walk through the Tiergarten on my way to the German Holocaust memorial.  The Tiergarten is a beautiful, peaceful space in the middle of a busy city. I discovered that they have refurbished several monuments that were badly damaged during the war, but you can still see bullet damage:

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Mozart, and Beethoven
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Goethe

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The next stop was at the Holocaust memorial, it’s a very large space and it was teeming with young people, as usual:

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I had heard about a new memorial to homosexuals who were also victims during the Holocaust, the monument was a little hard to find, but poignant, inside the box a video of same-sex couples kissing plays:

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I ended up at Potsdamer Platz and hung out for a bit before my conference started with a reception at the Canadian Embassy – had many interesting discussions about immigration, discrimination and the role of cities in integrating immigants. As I rode home in a taxi, I had an interesting discussion with my young Turkish driver who complained that despite his college degree he was discriminated against in Germany and that many of his friends were planning to leave Germany once they got their degrees…a story I have heard many times. Despite Germany’s history, there is little recognition of the issues of discrimination today…

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Sony Center
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Canadian Embassy
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Old friend (Simon Woolley) and new friends
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Sunset view from the top of the Circus Hotel – BBQ and brew