Random pictures to sum up my last few months

I have be terrible about updating this blog lately, which is probably because I’ve been so busy. It’s a bit of a Catch-22: when I’m bored I have nothing to post and when I’m active I don’t have the time. Suffice it to say, these last few months have been on the hectic side. Here are a few pictures from my phone which may or may not give a timeline.

May: I had a birthday

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Tres leches!

Some friends came to visit

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Mom and Jayme came down!

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June: We went to a conference in South Africa

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Then on safari afterwards (I got a camera for my birthday)

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July: Simon spent his birthday here

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We actually did more than hang out at a bar, but this is one of the only pictures I have.

A bar dog ate the bar

IMG_20140816_201811 August: We went to EnglandIMG_20140821_110907 IMG_20140821_103503 And then to Poland

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Lovely Gdansk

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My favorite window, across from the flat we rented

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Gdansk panorama

IMG_20140826_041521IMG-20140826-WA0005 I learned that bread sometimes comes in a can

IMG_20140827_020658 We ate a LOT of pickled and/or smoked fishes

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And dumplings

IMG_20140828_132229 And saw quite a few musicians playing Disney and Broadway tunes in arched walkways

IMG_20140827_134659I bought some shoes that had to be safety pinned to actually function as shoes- but are pretty cute

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And then went to Trzclanka via Poznan for a wedding

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And we ate more

IMG_20140830_141327And drank a LOT of vodka

IMG_20140830_141523 Then back through Poznan, then England, and Atlanta

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I still haven’t figured out why there are so many statues of Neptune in Poland

And now I’m home! Until next week. (Don’t tell Mia)

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Belize blues

I have to admit, I’ve been a bit down lately and haven’t really felt like updating the blog. The government shutdown pushed back Simon’s next trip back indefinitely, and since I was supposed to be in Cuba and Mexico for three weeks at the end of November it was looking like we were not going to see each other until Christmas. But Cuba is probably off (for me anyhow), so we might be able to squeeze in a November visit. Boo for missing Cuba, but yay for not missing Husband!

That’s not to say that I haven’t been busy! September is a really fun month in Belize (I am  working on that post, albeit late), with two national and one international holidays. And boy do Belizeans love a parade. Work has been good, and I’ve actually made it off island! To another island! And I did make it to the mainland this past holiday weekend as well. Here are some pictures from the last month or so.

Eclectic golf cart anyone?

We finally found a bar with a sunset view, on the lagoon side. Just need to make it back there.

Belizean kitty!

Chinese-Belizean spicy fried chicken and chow mein.

The Split at Caye Caulker

Cute, quiet Caye Caulker

These are the BEST Ramen Noodles in the world. I eat far too many of them.

50% off half and half! Oh happy day!

Oh. Nevermind (I took this photo last week).

And I finally made it to the mainland for something other than work-related activities. My friend Jen and I went down to Hopkins, which is a small Garifuna village about halfway down the coast. We were hoping for some drumming and Garifuna food, but there wasn’t much happening down there this time of year. So we settled for the beach and some rum.

Staying out of the rain while waiting for the bus

And finally, here is my standing desk setup at work.

That’s it for now!

Belize, here I come!

Well, it’s official!  I start my new job in San Pedro on May 9th, so I’ve got exactly 35 days to get my shit together.  My last day at work here will be May 7th, which is my 10th anniversary as a contract employee for the US government.  While I chose my last day with that in mind, there have been lots of other little signs that have pointed to this being the right decision.  The first came the day after I accepted the job, when we got this email from the Center Director:

You may have heard through the media or other sources that NOAA implemented an agency wide hiring freeze effective March 27, 2013.

So I was 100% correct not to trust them when they said they would get my application through as soon as possible.  We’ve already got one of our bedrooms rented through October, and if we can keep the other occupied we should be able to afford a nice one bedroom for me with a futon/couch for guests.  Simon will continue to work here full time through July, then will probably go part time so he can split his time between the US and Belize.

Thus far the worst parts have been 1) my boss, who fought for me to stay until the bitter end, and whose job will suck that much more when I leave and 2) taking my cat Squirt to my mom’s house.  I miss him curling up in my lap on the couch in the evenings, sitting on the bar stool when I make dinner, running into the kitchen any time an ice cube hits the ground, and coming in to meow at me when I sneeze.  We plan to bring Mia with us, but moving two cats to another country to live in a small apartment would just be too much.  Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.  Simon has no regrets.

Other than that, I’m pretty excited!  My contract title will be a “Learned Professional,” which is pretty freaking cool, though my official title is Technical Coordinator for the Gulf and Caribbean Sharks and Rays Program.  My first week there, we will head out to Lighthouse Atoll (where the Blue Hole is) to conduct a longline survey for sharks, and do some diver transects for turtles and rays.  We’ll be camping on the beach, and I’ll even be able to leave in time to make my cousin Brooke’s wedding!

Now to figure out what to sell/pack/store. This is going to be a busy month.

Nicaragua

Though we hadn’t discussed it previously, when taking stock of our
honeymoon, Simon and I both agreed that we genuinely liked Nicaragua
better than Costa Rica.  We spent a week in each country, and I
suppose we might have come to a different conclusion had we gone to
Costa first, rather than the other way around, but I don’t think so.
Looking back on it, there’s not any one thing I can point to that
brings Nica ahead.  Really it was a combination of factors that led us
to favor the poorer country.  However, we are definitely out of the
norm of most travelers, who prefer luxury over genuine culture (to a
point. We did stay in some “spa hotels” along the way, and I’m not
going to lie, they were fabulous).  That’s not to say that Costa
doesn’t offer genuine experiences, but the prevalence of “eco tours”
that are actually giant tour bus excursions turned us off a bit.
Costa Rica has really taken charge of their own fate (for the most
part, excluding the land grab that is going on right now) and provide
some excellent and easy access adventure tourism. For a price.

However, I was talking about Nica.  Up until the whole Ollie
North/Contra affair in the 80’s, Nicaragua was actually the richest
country in Central America.  But, the communists (Cuba) started
sniffing around, and Regan couldn’t abide that sort of thing in his
back yard.  Long story short, there was a semi civil war, and all of
Nica’s vast resources were spent fighting off the American-funded
Contras (it’s really fascinating, you should read up on it).  Today
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere
(Behind Haiti).  Oddly enough, Nicaraguans don’t seem terribly hostile
to Americans, but they’re probably too busy working to feed their kids
think about it.  There have also been some amazingly corrupt
politicians along the way, and one local guide told us that 3 families
own all of the major money making ventures in the country (including
the presidency).  I’m fairly sure the move “Moon Over Parador” was
based on Nicaragua (see William Walker’s biography for an example).

The fierceness is offset a bit by the Nativity.

Which brings me to the first thing that was amazing about Nica.  ALL
of the work was done by hand.  From cutting the grass to chopping down
trees, machetes were the most common tools we saw.  It’s an
agricultural country, so obviously there was some heavy machinery on
the larger farms, but for the most part, the heavy lifting and
dragging was done by men and horses.  Sugar cane was cut down by hand
and taken away by horse and cart. Horses pulled carts on the highways,
kids rode horses, kids led horses down the highways and city streets,
kids led horses down highways while riding bikes, horses pulled pipes
and culverts to wherever they were going.  Obviously I’m not the most
well-traveled person ever, but this is one of the only countries I can
think of where horses are still predominantly working animals.  And
while they were definitely skinny creatures (more so in the cities
than the countryside), the horses were mostly well taken care of and
sound.

Horse and rider and rider

Horse and buggy vs truck

There’s a guy in that tree with a machete

Look at the upper left

Being a country kid at heart, I was utterly fascinated by the rural communities we came across/drove through.  Driving cattle, mostly angus beef, was the main occupation.  Pigs were prevalent in the landscape, but seemed to mostly do their own thing.  The cattle were multicolored and well fed. And mostly oblivious to our car.  The thing that most grabbed my attention, I must admit, was the tack.  Instead of bridles, hackamore-type halters and reigns were used on ridden horses, and the saddles had leather coverings with two or more feet of fringe hanging well below the horses’ stomachs.  We guessed that this was to help keep flies off the horses, which was confirmed by some guys who let us ride their horses around a volcano.  It was really impressive, though some horses were more decked out than others.  I took as many pictures as I could (while trying to maintain a respectable distance), and the internet is woefully low on pictures. However, here are some examples.  Excuse the dust.

This is, by far, my favorite horse and rider.

Click here for a video of the rider (for some reason I can’t get it to embed, so I’m giving up). You may want to turn down your speaker volume.

Cows and cart

More herding

City horse

Our tiny horses for the volcano ride

These guys donate “fly fringe” to horse owners in Nicaragua and Honduras: http://www.worldhorsewelfare.org/you-help/flyfringe

The landscape in the western part of the country is, I guess, “dry
rain forest” (which seems like an oxymoron to me, shouldn’t it be an
arid tropical forest?) and we were there during the dry season.  It
was not what I would call hot, but the sun was intense and the
humidity was low despite the proximity to the Pacific Ocean.  The land
cleared for cattle was fruitful, while the existing native forest
consisted of large, though not terribly tall, trees.

The cities of Leon and Granada were built in the colonial style, with
beautiful, and sanctioned, pastel colored buildings and cobblestone
streets.  Nicas are also very proud of their churches, which are all
huge (the largest Catholic church in Central America is in Leon) and
extremely ornate.  Unfortunately, the prevalence of several active
volcanoes means that earthquakes and lava flows are frequent and the
large structures haven’t fared so well.  A fondness for grandeur
coupled with a lack of capital has led to a bit of a “Wizard of Oz”
type architecture for recent construction; very grand entrances, but
if you peek around the corner you’ll see that the front is a facade
hiding the actual tin-roof structure.  Another aspect of city life
that we noticed was the evening social gatherings of people in front
of their houses.  Nearly every house, no matter how spare and small,
had beautiful hand crafted rocking chairs that were moved out to the
sidewalks in the evenings.  Front doors were left open so that you
literally were looking in on everyones’ living rooms as you passed by
on the street.  It took quite a while to get used to, and I’m afraid I
gawked at (and even took a photo of) the grand Christmas decorations
and rocking chairs.

Rawr

Sleepy lion

Sad lion is sad (Ruben Dario’s tomb)

Giant stations of the cross

Rocking chairs on the street

Oops, that’s a living room

A lively, and typical of Latin America- late night social scene meant that street food was prevalent and delicious.  Our favorite snacks were the fried plantain strips, served in a plastic bag with shredded cabbage and a pickled chile salsa on top, but pretty much anything you could point to in a cart or on a food truck was guaranteed to hit the spot.  We dined on chicken taquitos one night in Leon, which were served with cream and the same cabbage/chile salsa that was ubiquitous on the tables of cafes; it made a sort of spicy coleslaw that soaked into the fried tortilla.  And the chicken.  From fried chicken to chicken soup, anything with chicken in it was guaranteed to be good. We loved the sopa de pollo so much, we had to try it once we got back (link).

Taquitos

Plantain chips with salsa and some kind of pastry in a honey sauce

Leon’s night time food vendors

Plate lunch in Masaya with a cacao drink

So, what was our favorite part?  It’s really difficult to say.  It wasn’t so much any one thing that drew us to Nicaragua, as the overall experience and the people.  We didn’t make it to the Caribbean side, so obviously that’s the next thing we need to check out before we solidify our opinions.  And while it seems Costa Rica has the more spectacular scenery, we just can’t stop thinking about getting back to Nica.

Vulcan Concepcion

Frijoles over Lake Nicaragua

You talking to me?

Getting married in Mexico is complicated-the long version. Day 2.

We felt pretty good at the end of the first day, and got a little overconfident about the pace we could set on Day 2.  After all, we only had to drop off the translations, grab the finalized documents from the Civil Registry (8:30 am), and meet with the judge (5:00 pm).  We made tentative plans to travel back to Majahual to see our families for lunch, pick up the best man and the photographer, and be back at the hotel by 3:00 pm for a quick rehearsal.  I was pretty excited.

The beginning of the day should have been an indication of the way the rest of it would go. We were up early in order to meet Elizabeth by 8:00. Simon went out to order breakfast at 7:30, and I started getting ready.  It was right when I was completely undressed that I heard it: running water.  Horrified, I looked toward the bathroom and saw a mass of water flowing down the stairs and straight for the hem of my wedding dress, both of our suitcases, and a variety of scattered clothing, speaker equipment, and wedding decorations on the floor.  Working quickly, I moved as much stuff onto the beds as I could while throwing all of our towels on the water.  This left no time to find any clothing to put on myself, as every time I dashed towards my suitcase (now buried under everything we owned), I would notice something else in the path of the flood.  I finally threw a chemise over my head and ran out the door to find Simon.  Not wanting to shout “the toilet is overflowing!” across the entire hotel, and also not keen to run across the pool deck and into the restaurant in my nightgown, I struggled in vain to mime “I need help!” using large hand gestures from about 100 feet away.  Simon continued to talk to Armando while giving me quizzical eyebrows.  I finally gave up and yelled “COME HERE PLEASE!”  After becoming fully aware of the situation, Simon went to the front desk and told them “we have a flood in our room.”  Fortunately, Armando was able to talk to them in more detail and I managed to get dressed and eat so we could take care of the last of the paperwork.

Sign of things to come?

During breakfast, we were told that Mexican wedding ceremonies last at least an hour.  This was news to us, as we had read that all Mexican ceremonies have to be secular and fall under strict guidelines.  In fact, we had been planning to have Simon’s sisters speak for a bit of filler so that our guests would feel they got their money’s worth.  An hour standing outside in the Mexican sun!  There were going to be some angry kids, and lots of gringos falling out all over the place.  We decided we needed some parasols and/or fans.

On the way into Bacalar, we were given our medical records: clean bills of health for both us.  But, when we arrived at the Civil Registry office, we got some bad news.  One of the forms we had filled out prior to arriving in Mexico, a form that had the names, addresses, occupations, and dates AND places of birth of us, our parents, and all four witnesses was not acceptable and had to be completely redone.  We settled in at a local cafe so that Elizabeth could begin the painstaking process.  I went for a quick wander to look at flowers, and the form was finally completed by around 10 am.  It was then back to the Civil Registry to make sure the paper was in order.  We meet up again with the Stern Lady, who suddenly became extremely sweet and asked us if she could have a photo of us for their wall.  She explained that we were the first foreigners to get married there, and so they were learning what to do along with us.  She apologized for any confusion.  We then had to pay somebody, presumably for the license, which took another hour to complete.  At this point we realized our dreams of meeting up with our families in Majahual were not going to happen.  After all of this was done, we were walking back to the car when Elizabeth told us that our birth certificates “live in Bacalar from now on.”  We stopped walking.  After some flabbergasted conversation, we realized that she meant that our translated birth certificates would be filed and stay at the Registry office in Bacalar.  We started walking again.

Lab results

Local flower arrangements

When we arrived back at the hotel, we were pleased to find that our room was dry and clean, and that the maid staff had even put a few romantic touches on the place (which also meant two extra towels!).

We then coordinated with my mom, Will, and Alex so that they could get to the hotel by 3:00 to do a quick rehearsal.  Since we had a couple of hours to kill, we decided to make a quick rum run to the Free Zone between Mexico and Belize.  We wanted a few bottles of One Barrel for the reception, and they only sell the stuff in Belize.  We also thought we could pick up fans/parasols and some more decorations for the photobooth.  This was an unmitigated disaster.  It’s a long story, but we ended up paying a guy to get us out of there (and to get us some extremely overpriced One Barrel) because 1) we neglected to go through immigration, 2) none of the shops in the Free Zone sold One Barrel and the guy went into Belize to get it, and 3) Simon didn’t have his exit visa on him.  Simon threatened to stay in Belize because he seemed to think that it was all my fault.  I fed him some plantain chips and a coke and he agreed to come back to Mexico, but still contends that it was all my fault.  At least we had some rum to show for it.

We arrived back at the hotel just in time to meet with the gang, and then a surprise group of visitors arrived: all of my siblings and their kids!  They had gone to a ruin and decided to stop by on their way back.  While in the jungle they were caught in a deluge, so everyone was a bit soggy.  We got in a quick practice, made some tactical decisions, and Alex figured out his camera placement setup.

The judge arrived shortly afterwards, and was just a really lovely man.  He and his translator showed us the written ceremony, which turned out to be exactly what we had hoped for.  It was thoughtful and sweet, with just enough American/English touches to make it recognizable as a wedding.  When I asked how long the ceremony would take, he responded, “10 or 15 minutes.”  We breathed a giant sigh of relief.  Simon and I thanked him profusely, and he said that he only requested that we come back in five years to renew our vows.  Finally, something was going right.

And then, Stern Lady showed up. And she was stern again.  There were several spelling mistakes on the translated documents (my name was spelled Ivi, and they got Simon’s last name wrong again among other things).  These issues seemed to be fixable, until we got to my place of birth.  On one form it said I was born in Dubach, Louisiana, but on another it was listed as Ruston.  This was not good.  This was bad.  Es terrible, no es posible.  Cannot fix it, it is on the birth certificate, we do not know what to do.  The wedding is tomorrow and the forms need to be finalized tonight.  By this point we had quite a crowd, and my brother, who was thoroughly amused by the pronunciation of our hometown (Rrrrroostone), was obliged to tell the story about how I was born in a car in Dubach, but brought in to the hospital in Ruston post-delivery.  They did not seem amused.  After a few more minutes and explanation, Stern Lady said “Ruston esta cerca de Dubach? Ah, ok!” Once they realized that Ruston and Dubach were neighboring towns in the same state, we got the final Si on the Mexican No No Si dance.

It looked like we were actually going to get married.  Simon headed back to Majahual to spend the evening with his family, and Mom, Marianne, and Jayme stayed at Bacalar with me.  Malia and Walter arrived, along with a few extras and we settled in for a nice night on the lagoon.

Up next: The wedding day (in case you forgot Mexicans take weddings seriously, you will be fingerprinted. During the ceremony)

Getting married in Mexico is complicated-the long version. Day 1.

My secret ambition is to become a travel writer, so a few years ago I started keeping a small notebook on me at all times to jot down quick notes.  I like the little moleskine mini notebooks- they are small (about the size of my smartphone) and easy to carry in any little bag.  When we traveled somewhere new, or at least new for me, my goal was to keep a daily log of my impressions and funny things that happened.  Generally, I was really good about doing this for about 4 days, then would inevitably forget/get lazy and stop writing. Which is a shame because going back through my few days of notes a year or two later inevitably makes me giggle and remember events that I otherwise would have forgotten about (amusing taxi drivers, ways to remember our street name, etc).

During the wedding/honeymoon I redoubled my resolve and am proud to say that I kept up with my journal entries for the entire trip, with only a few days off due to exhaustion or lack of time (first links can be found here).  Because of that, I hopefully will remember most of the craziness that was involved with getting hitched in Bacalar, Mexico.

I underestimated the amount of stress involved with coordinating the movements roughly 70 people in a strange country, especially when our accommodations were well out of cell phone range.  Saturday and Sunday were chaotic, and our families all met each other right around the time that Simon and I really needed to leave (which is to say, at 9 pm on Sunday).  I said hi and bye, and we dragged ourselves south to The Hotel Laguna Bacalar. Fortunately, Alex had his camera and I was able to live vicariously though his pictures of everyones’ interactions.

Monday, December 10th.

We met with Elizabeth (the wedding coordinator) at 7 am, and drove into Bacalar to start all of the official necessities. At 7:30 we had our blood drawn at the health department.  This was the first time we would encounter what we came to call the Mexican “no, no, si” dance, or more accurately “no, no, no, welllllllll… ok.”  Firstly, the Mexican government takes marriage very, very seriously.  There are no cutting corners, and all of the paperwork has to be submitted and filed in a very specific manner, with very specific people and timelines.  But!  When you get to the office or the person or the place where these specific things need to be done, they will inevitably tell you that whatever you are asking for is impossible.  There will be much shaking of heads and frowning and looking at watches.  After a second “no, no es posible,” and a few more rounds of frowning and generally negative feedback, their resolve will start to falter, and then, finally, the person will give in and give you whatever it is you needed in a timely fashion.  

After our blood was drawn, the lab technician told us to come back for the results on Wednesday morning; there was no way to get the results before Wednesday.  But of course we were getting married on Wednesday and all of the paperwork needed to be done by then.  Elizabeth explained this, they talked for a bit, and then the lady said, “ok, come back at noon.”

At 8:30 am we had an appointment at the Registro Municipal Matrimonio, with a woman we called Stern Lady, who must have been the clerk of courts or something similar.  She wore red lipstick, lots of torquoise jewelry, and frowned a lot.  There was quite a bit of copying and very serious conversation about our documents.  Simon’s second middle name would prove to be one of the more confusing aspects of our documents for the Mexican officials; they really wanted him to be Simon John Brackley-Gulak.  We were eventually told that our (Apostilled) birth certificates had to be officially translated, and that there was only one translator in all of Chetumal that could do the translation.  So, after breakfast we picked up Martha (the hotel manager) and Lulu (masseuse-cum-translator), and drove to Chetumal to “look at the cake” and find the translator for the documents.

Elizabeth and Martha

Around 10:30 we arrived at the pasteleria, and it was at this point I realized that they were expecting us to pick out a cake- not look at one that had already been ordered.  You should imagine a giant folder full of pictures of exactly what you would expect most Mexican wedding cakes to look like- giant, tiered, and amazingly tacky.  I started to hyperventilate a little, but with some help from the ladies we managed to order a sheet cake with a simple flower in the middle.  We were still hoping that the cake would be tres leches, but they were hesitant to do this because they said it would spoil.  They were also not terribly pleased about the timeline- December 12th is a major religious holiday celebrating the virgen de guadalupe in Mexico, involving lots of pilgrimages between churches.  We encountered these pilgrimages at all hours on the roads and highways-people on bikes, joggers, groups of joggers followed by trucks full of relief pilgrims.

But, back to the task at hand.  The oddest thing about the cake shop was that all of the bride and groom cake toppers had blonde hair and blue eyes.  Anyhow, the cake ordered and paid for, we set off to find the translator.  An hour later, we finally located the office and found that, of course, nobody was there.  After much cell phone use, writing of notes, and texting, it was decided that we would kill some time at the local shopping mall.  Simon and I wanted to try to find some candies for favors, get some cash out, etc. and the ladies were keen to find some handbags.

At 2:30, having made contact with the translator, we drove back to the her now occupied office.  This lady took one look at our birth certificates, looked at her watch, frowned and said that all of the offices were closed and there was no way for her to get all of the necessary things that needed to be done.  No way.  Absolutely not.  She continued to flip through our paperwork, look at her watch, and shake her head.  Nope, the offices aren’t open.  Not possible.  More flipping through paperwork, more watch-looking, and then “well, these aren’t terribly complicated.”  Flipping of papers, looking at watch, frowning.  “Ok, come back at 4:30.”

On the drive back, Elizabeth said, “Ivy (pronounced eevee). Estas cansada (are you tired)?”  I said, “si, un poco.”  “From the stress?”  I laughed, “si!”  Elizabeth: “me too.”

We were too late to pick up the medical results, so Elizabeth sent somebody from the hotel to get them for us.  Let me repeat, some guy who we’ve never seen went to the medical offices and picked up a manilla folder containing the certificates with our names, addresses, blood types, and HIV and hepatitis results on them.

Having made great strides that day, we headed back to Bacalar to drop off the ladies and pick up Stix and Ilona, the lone Brits in town.  We swung back into Chetumal for what we hoped would be a straight forward hand off of our translated birth certificates.  There was a bit of a delay as expected, but the translator did finally produce beautifully sealed and very proper documents.  We headed to the bayfront for a sundowner and a ceviche.  Our day successfully completed, we retired to the pool side bar at our hotel for a few beers and good company.

Up next, Day 2: revenge of the misspellings.