Ciudad Juarez Pacific Time Washington, DC

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Recon on Future Assignments?

Sub-title: Vacation to Argentina!

It would be nice if, as someone who has to move to a different country every two to three years for their work, I could deduct vacations scouting trips to new countries from our federal taxes.  Without too much stretching of the truth, I think a reasonable argument could be made for this expense: visiting the Embassy, the neighborhoods and typical housing, checking the transportation system, trying out the language, and seeing what the local economy is like are all truly job-related activities, no? 

Therefore under this pretext, my husband and I just returned from a purely job-related vacation week in Buenos Aires. It had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that we had enough frequent flier miles saved up to cash in on nearly-free plane tickets. Nope. And heading south of the equator in late November when we'd be stepping into early summer with jacaranda trees, gardenia bushes and rose gardens in full bloom under blue skies was also complete happenstance. 

Further, in my attempt to keep this blog related to life in the Foreign Service, it is now the appropriate time to mention something endemic among my colleagues: rampant travel. I don't know of any other profession where people pop off to Greece, Belize or Fiji "just because" for a week.  Is it because by nature we're the type of people who love foreign places (if not, we've made a grave career error)? Is it because we probably have A-100 classmates or former coworkers with spare bedrooms in travel magazine destinations? Are we returning to places where we served internships or studied abroad? Or are we just taking advantage of regional travel, "while we're here" at our current assignments? As with just about everything, I'm certain that the truth lies in all of the above. I've heard all these reasons from friends about their travels and one coworker recently popped off to Russia just to check it out before he had to bid on his next post. Quite a trip from northern Mexico, but he reports that at least now all his romantic notions of a Soviet life have been squashed. 

My husband and I tend to do weekend trips, mostly because of the Tabbies, and then save up our vacation time for one big trip every year or two, and this was it.  The rest of this posting will change tone and become more of a travelogue about Buenos Aires and environs. If you're considering a trip to South America, all I can say is don't miss Argentina!  So here you go:

First, find a little pied a terre in a great neighborhood. We always use Vacation Rental By Owner and have had only positive experiences with houses or apartments (knock wood) in a variety of countries.  This one was no exception and for about $100 less per night than a single hotel room, we got a cute apartment in the tony neighborhood of Recoleta.  Having an apartment means we can have a kitchen, which means we don't have to eat out three times a day and lets me pad down the hall in my jammies to brew my peppermint tea in something other than a hotel-room coffee pot, which no matter how much hot water you flush through it, still tastes like coffee. Also, having an apartment lets us experience what life in that city is like, instead of just being a tourist in a hotel.  Our apartment came with an owner who met us the morning we arrived, gave us great suggestions for places to visit, transportation, restaurants etc... and was willing to let us check in at 9 am and check out when we needed. Check it out here: Our Recoleta Apartment.  We'd go there again, for sure.

Stunning statues

View from our apartment


First impression of the city was that it was more like Paris or New York than any Latin American city I've ever visited. Admittedly, that is not a long list, but the difference was striking. Not only in the architecture, but in the faces of the "portenos" (Buenos Aires residents) who defend this fact by stating that they're NOT Latin, but completely European.  This makes for a great mixture of food, too, as the Italian influences are overt and the broad tree-lined avenues, parks and gardens made us feel like we were in France or London instead of just a stone's throw from Bolivia and the Amazon. The fashion is also so NOT Latina! And by that, I mean not super tight and sexy everything and spiked heels. Quite the contrary, Portenas are wearing chunky all-terrain platform shoes, flowery maxi dresses and loose tropical-print pants.  Frankly, it wasn't my style, but I had to give them props for not bowing to the torture of fashion, especially in such a cobbled and walkable city. Perhaps they are on to something (hint hint Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico)? 


I'd definitely wear that dress!

...But not with those shoes, popular as they are.

Our next step was to figure out the timing of meals in our new city.  My husband and I have spent many a vacation eating in empty restaurants and annoying waiters who want to leave/just arrived at work.  We were forewarned by our apartment owner that dinner starts at 10 pm, and to arrive before 9 pm would be *awkward.*  Further, if we wanted to go out to a club, we should plan to get there no earlier than 2 am (we didn't).  When asked directly, with unflinching eye contact on my behalf, Argentinians were unable to give me a clear answer as to just HOW everyone got up the next day to go to work if they finished dinner at 11:30 on a Tuesday night?! Stutter, blank look, "It's just what we do," was the best answer they could come up with.  Coming from a region that necessitates car-only movement, we were relieved to be in such a walking and taxi-friendly city and struck out in different directions each evening for dinner.  Arriving only minutes before 9 pm each night was accidentally a great strategy. We were seated right away and only had to endure the cold stares of locals as they arrived fashionably at 10 pm to find THEIR table taken by THOSE PEOPLE (emphasis added but not exaggerated).  On about the third night of eating at this hour, we noticed we were always and only in the company of senior citizens, and therefore were dining at the equivalent of the 4:30 pm "early bird special" seating. Ah well. 


Our favorite local restaurant Pichi Huasi, notice that it's before 9:30 as you can still get a table.

Because at 10:30 - this is what the other places look like.

Need flowers or a coffee at 11 pm - no problem!

Each day took us a different direction in either the city or the region. The first two days were over the weekend and demanded our attention to the various markets (of the antique, artisan and flea varieties) of Buenos Aires. In San Telmo, we found not just one city plaza, but one city plaza plus about ten linear miles of pedestrian-only streets crammed with vendors' stalls. To prepare a weekly market of this size certainly required an incredible amount of planning and set-up, even harder to imagine when you remember that everyone got home at 3:00 am the night before! There were impromptu bursts of tango (both the music and the dance), a zillion stalls selling mate (as in yerba mate) materials, an incredible selection of antiques from around the world, gaucho-inspired knick-knacks and art and roaming empanada and tarta salespeople.   


Antiques shopping in San Telmo

Mate mate everywhere and not a drop to drink

Market lunch stand for tartas and empanadas

Impromptu bursts of tango

There were also three day trips, each taking us to a destination completely different from the previous. First was to the town of Tigre and the  Paraná Delta, which is an area of islands and intersecting rivers (Plata, Saramiento to name the only two I recall - but there are a ton more) where people live either full-time or in weekend and summer homes. Transportation is purely via the water in boat taxis, ferries or private watercraft of all sizes and descriptions, including a darling water school bus we passed delivering the students to little docks where their parents met them and walked them home on island sidewalks to their stilt-raised homes. 


Tigre town boat station

Home, home on the Delta...

Water bus service for locals

Next was the UNESCO World Heritage site town of Colonia de Sacramento across the "river" and into Uruguay.  I say "river" in quotes because it looks too wide to be just a river, took us an hour in a high-speed catamaran to cross, and really feels more like an ocean inlet. But I guess technically it has been designated as a river by people who know these things, so I'll stick with that label.  We left from the port of Buenos Aires at noon, going through the official immigration process that required being stamped out of Argentina and, next-window-please, stamped into Uruguay on both ends of the trip.  Our return boat was scheduled to leave at 9:45 pm which concerned me as to how we'd pass so many hours wandering an old town and made me imagine napping on park benches to kill time. But as it turned out, we could have easily passed another few hours there. Between meandering cobbled lanes that were simply dripping with photo-opp charm (crumbling stone doorways, flowered windowsills, rambling roses on garden gates - OH MY!), the river shore beaches, the lighthouse, harbors, restaurants, wine stores, ancient double-spired churches, tiny touristy shops and gelatto stores - who could be in a hurry to leave? Okay, it would have sucked in the rain, but that's the only thing that would have put the damper on our day (or intestinal distress which frankly ruins anything).  And we got a glimpse into a very relaxed, socially-progressive and peaceful country that seems to fly under the political world radar, i.e. a great spot for a future assignment (Monte Video the capital is just a short bit away from Colonia and Buenos Aires). 


Town square shaded by brilliant jacaranda trees

Calle de Los Suspiros, Colonia de Sacramento

Rows of Colonia shops

Colonia town cathedral

Our final day on the southern continent was spent in the countryside at an estancia (rancho in Mexican Spanish, finca in Colombian Spanish).  We chose Estancia Dos Hermanos near San Antonio de Areco , the muy-gaucho town just outside of Buenos Aires. As a lifetime horseperson, I wanted to ride the llanos (plains) of Argentina and eat the famous grilled Argentine beef from the parilla, and we did.  It was a Thursday, so we got lucky and had the place to ourselves with our gaucho/guide Felipe, the owner Pancho and their driver/cook/guy Friday Andres who picked us up at our apartment and later deposited us in front of American Airlines for our late-night flight home.  We spent a day being far more pampered than we're accustomed to, from the door-to-door transportation, to the breakfast, lunch and tea that was served outside on the estancia lawn, to the nearly four hours in the sheepskin-covered saddle.  Felipe politely endured our (and by "our" I mean "my") endless questions: "And what bird is that? And is this tree native? And how many people come out to stay usually? And when is the rainy season? And is it usual for the horses to not need shoes here? And, and, and..."  as we rode across the meadows, hock-deep in daisies and other local flowers that I'm sure Felipe told me the names of.  We got to herd in the herd of horses at the end of the day, giving us the feeling of being somewhat useful, and my husband who hasn't ridden in a number of years was able to canter his horse "Laguna" easily across the fields.  While we were on our post-breakfast ride, Andres was busy preparing our not-for-the-faint-of-heart lunch of grilled beef ribs, beef and pork chorizo, salad, sweet potatoes, onions, sliced baguette, water or lemonade? beer or wine? tea or coffee? flan? After gorging ourselves shamelessly and unbuttoning our jeans a bit, we then napped in hammocks to the sound of very chatty wild parakeets for at least an hour. Then it was time to hop onto our horses again for the afternoon tour.  Once again, that Andres was up to his tricks, and upon returning from our ride and after trying to convince our horses that apples are indeed good horse treats (only one accepted), we had tea and fresh-made scones waiting for us.  We noticed that Felipe didn't partake in the scones, which was when Andres confessed that one of the estancia dogs "Truco" was "up to his tricks again" and had eaten all but two of the freshly-baked scones from the kitchen table. Although there were no witnesses, he was a repeat offender in baked-goods stealing and certainly guilty.  The owners kindly offered us an unoccupied guest cottage to shower in before tossing our bags into Andres' car and heading to the airport. It really couldn't have been a more lovely way to round out our Argentinian experience. 


Estancia Los Dos Hermanos

Parilla lunch!

You can stay at the estancia, too

Heading out

Final impressions? Argentina is an incredible country to visit of which we have only seen a wee corner.  Ditto Uruguay.  In keeping with the motivation for our trip, we'd gladly bid on a two or three year tour here and would recommend this itinerary as a vacation for anyone wanting a sample of South America. 



Saturday, November 1, 2014

Reaching Out: On a Mission in Mission Mexico

(A quick note before I start: my husband truly bristles to hear me, or anyone, use the phrase "reaching out" when the speaker really means that they are going to talk to, write to or in any other way CONTACT another person.  So just to tease him, I titled this posting as I did.)

I am a Consular Officer by cone, but my actual job is that of a Foreign Service Officer Generalist, which means we're all supposed to be able to wear any/many hats when needed.  Lately I've been wearing the Public Diplomacy hat as part of the Immigrant Visa Mexico Outreach team.  The team consists of three officers and two local staff members who divide into teams of two with the goal of visiting each consulate and the embassy in Mission Mexico.  There are ten in total, so this means lots of travelling for our little crew. 

All the immigrant visas (IV) for Mexico are processed in Ciudad Juarez.  The Embassy in Mexico City used to process a small slice of the IV pie, but as of very recently that is all being transferred to Juarez to be housed under one roof.  The other consulates and the Embassy, in terms of visas, process only non-immigrant (NIV) visas (for tourism, students, temporary workers etc...).  Therefore someone smart figured out that it would be great if people trained in the processing of IVs would familiarize the NIV staff throughout the country on the topic of IV and how to better respond to people who have immigrant visa-related questions.  Also, there are thousands of potential petitioners and applicants for immigrant visas here in Mexico, and so much misunderstanding about the complex process, therefore community outreach is more than just a good idea, it's really a necessity. 

So that's how I found myself on a couch next to the beautiful, young morning talk show hostess in her shorty-short dress, stilettos and long, Sofia Vegara hair in Merida, Mexico last week.  And on air with Senor Suave the mustachioed veteran radio and TV host in Tijuana last month. And in front of an indigenous community group serving the Mayan population of the Yucatan. And typing as fast as we could to answer the questions pouring in via a couple of live Facebook chats.  

It's all in the name of reaching out, errrr, contacting people who want to learn about the immigrant visa process, the process in which people can enter the US lawfully and apply to become Legal Permanent Residents.  As Mexico (namely Juarez) processes approximately 19-20% of the world's immigrant visas, there is a big crowd of people who want to learn more about the topic.  

With less than three months to go before we leave post, I feel I'm finally becoming more fluent in the topic and am ready to take on new challenges. Trust me, being on-camera live was a VERY new challenge. I have new-found appreciation for how talk show or radio hosts can really make a guest feel comfortable (or the opposite), how they can make smooth transitions between questions and responses on topics they previously knew nothing about (from "how to make the best banana bread!" yesterday to "how to petition for your wife and kids to come to the US!" today) and can help their guests deliver the desired message. We got lucky with some very good hosts, which helps build confidence poco a poco.

I think we did a decent job; at least there were no questions about US involvement in Middle East conflicts (or any similar nightmare) like we were trained to handle during the "Composure Under Fire" portion of A-100. I know I made grammatical errors in my Spanish (oh, yeah, did I mention this was all in Spanish? Just adds to the fun, right?) and I wished I could have rephrased quite a few answers given a Groundhog Day opportunity to do it over again, but no international incidents were caused and perhaps we even helped a few folks. 

Live! Coming to another Mexican border city near you - your immigrant visa outreach crew!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Life Cycle of a Foreign Service Posting

Just the other night, my husband and I were sitting outside in our back yard, no doubt I was chatting about the weather and probably he was sipping a beer and listening, and I commented on how the feeling of fall was in the air already.  Although it's still warm here, even hot in relation to other parts of the country, there's a distinct feeling of a different sort of warmth, a different angle to the sunlight and a different smell in the air that says "winding down" instead of "heating up."  The roses are looking tired instead of ostentatious; the trees are starting to drop their leaves and some days even start out overcast - which would never happen in April, May or June.  I notice fewer hummingbirds zipping by and I half-expect to see our cardinal friend return to over-winter with us. 

All this reminds me that time is passing and that we won't see another summer in Juarez. We've had the last of our 108 degree days.  This then causes me to think about the life cycle of a Foreign Service posting in general, because like the seasons or like a real lifetime, it has a distinct pattern to it.

It all starts with Flag Day for a first tour, or the day an assignment is confirmed via email for all subsequent postings.  I equate this to the day one learns about a pregnancy: some people are jubilant, some are scared, some are taken by surprise, and some have been working to make this come true for years.  Either way, knowing one's assignment is an equal mix of excitement and trepidation - especially the first time, much like knowing that a baby coming.  

Then, also like a pregnancy, there are months and months of preparation before the big day arrives. In the FS, we call this language training, and it often comes with as much anxiety and morning sickness as having baby on board.  During this time, especially if you're assigned to a "consumables-allowed" post, you'll start buying copious amounts of things in preparation for the move/birth and preparing the pets and other kids for How Life Is Going To Change. (Consumables are the hundreds of pounds of STUFF that you can pre-buy because you won't be able to find it where you're going - like Kraft Mac-n-Cheese, toilet paper that isn't waxed, laundry detergent, ibuprofen etc...) And if you happen to really be pregnant AND going off to a consumable post - you'll have to estimate how many diapers an infant will use in the next six months.  Just in case, I recommend tossing in a few extra. But I digress.

Pack-Out
About a week or two prior to departure/delivery day comes pack-out. This is the day(s) when the movers come to take away all your worldly possessions and leave you sleeping on an air mattress or on your sister's couch.  In keeping with my pregnancy analogy, hopefully you won't be on someone's couch, but perhaps you will be packing your go-bag for the hospital. 

D-Day: Departure
Tears, well wishes and a taxi to the airport/hospital.  The cats say, "I knew it!" in the realization that they were right about the bad omen they felt when their beds and scratcher were packed up by those bad men. The other kids are left with a sitter.

Arrival
The most exciting day when you finally get to see what your new city, and more important, what your housing assignment is like.  Or, the day when you look into the little one's eyes for the first time. 10 fingers and toes and does she/he look like you or your spouse equates to: How many bathrooms? Closet space? Is there a yard or a balcony? What about air conditioning?  These can be make-or-break issues to a happy assignment (but I think you're supposed to love the kid regardless of how it comes out). 

First Day at Work
Absolutely no different than your first day in kindergarten.  Someone takes you in to work/walks you to the school bus; you don't know your way around; you're nervous; you hope your boss/teacher/the other kids are nice; you don't know when or where you're supposed to have lunch; and you hope you picked out the right outfit.  

First Month at Work
You're going through training and are starting to figure out what's expected of you.  
With luck you have a good teacher/trainer and the other kids are still nice.  You know your way to the cafeteria and bathroom by now. You know your way home or which shuttle to get on, but still get lost trying to find the front office/principal's office and do so with equal amounts of trepidation.  You're eager and you want to meet new friends and you're starting to figure out which kids you like to hang out with. 

Month Three
Like the start of sixth grade, you know your way around the playground and your friends and life outside of work/school are becoming more important.  Now comes the beginning of the awkward adolescence where you want to prove yourself as capable, and are starting to take on more responsibilities, but are still just the new kid. You want to be included in all the after school/work activities, and in fact probably feel pretty slighted on Monday when you see on Facebook that there was some fun party or weekend outing that you didn't get invited to, but you're also beginning to gravitate towards a like-minded set of friends.  Even though my husband and I generally have little interest in the whoop-it-up parties that last until 0300 that our 20-something coworkers put together, we still want at least to be invited, to be thought of as someone they'd like to have present.  In the early months, not being included stings, whether or not you wanted to go. 

Month Six
You've made it to high school! But this time offers a mix of confidence and that awkwardness as you cross from being the senior "new kid" to the junior "she/he has been here long enough to know better" employee.  About this time you're feeling more secure with your responsibilities, maybe are even ready to lend a hand to those who arrived after you. Perhaps you're considering volunteering for a new assignment, like a rotation into a different section or a TDY?  You have a routine of favorite restaurants, bars and neighborhoods in your still-new city and are seeing the seasons come and go for the first time.  This is the period of enough confidence to make you feel good, but yet still the newness enough to not be bored or jaded. 

The One Year Anniversary
Top of your game! You're fluent, proficient, have seen everything once and calmly work your way through new challenges.  In real life, this could be your senior year in college. While you're still full of energy and enthusiasm for what you're doing now, the turn of the one-year mark changes the mental calendar from one of counting up, to one of counting down.  You're playing the back nine now.  You're getting your first annual employee review/college degree, and there is still a lot of time left to really spread your wings, to make your mark, to figure out what you'll be remembered for. People come to you for advice now and you're already looking ahead and are bidding on your next assignment. 

Month 18
Mid-career professional now, you're well-established and know your strengths and weaknesses.  You have a strong set of friends and are no longer bothered by not being invited out by those you may not have really had that much in common with anyway. And it's okay like that.  Your reputation is already set and nothing short of sparking an international incident or initiating a productive peace dialog between warring nations will really change that reputation.  You know where you're going next and are taking leadership roles in your current position.  All is good. 

Month 21
Okay, now you're getting tired and it's time for retirement.  You're checking off all those places you wanted to visit from your bucket/before we leave this continent list and frankly, already have one foot out the door. Sure, you're still healthy and all, but your work ethic may be slipping a bit, or just propped up by the knowledge that you still want a good final annual review/chance to get into heaven. 

Month 23
People start suggesting that you all get together for one last time to see that favorite place or eat at that great restaurant "before you go."  Your best friends are also leaving one by one and are being replaced by bright, shiny new faces that you just don't seem to have as much energy to be excited about anymore. After all, you're not going to be around long enough to really know them anyway, so maybe your good manners slip some and the real you comes out more than before.  Every day is casual Friday.

Month 23 and Two Weeks
Day by day, you're just going through the motions until the day comes when they finally come pack up all your stuff.  You're living in the borrowed "welcome kit" of household items that aren't yours; your house isn't the same and the kids and pets are getting that sinking feeling again.  Nobody expects anything of you at work except that you leave your affairs in order.  Basically, you're in hospice now and just waiting.  

Departure Day
One final sad set of goodbyes and tears.  Last hugs with whichever close friends are still around, and promises that this isn't really goodbye, but rather see you later.  You take one last look around, close the door and give back the keys/your Blackberry.  
Your work here is done and it's time for the long journey home. 

Reincarnation (For those who believe in this sort of thing.)
WooHoo! Now you're on your one month vacation called Home Leave/heaven where you are briefly reunited with all the friends and family you can manage before heading back to FSI to start all over again. 

Rebirth
Scroll to top of page and repeat.

And the cycle repeats itself as we move through the larger cycle that is a life itself in a Foreign Service career.

Enjoy it. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Living on the X






When we arrived in Ciudad Juarez, over 18 months ago, the "Equis" (the massive X pictured above) was still under construction, and was completed shortly after our arrival.  There are many theories as to what it represents, and many people wondering why here, why a big ole' X standing on the Mexican side of the border, but nearly straddling the country divide.  One belief was that someone was spelling out MEXICO from coast to coast along the border, and being in the middle, naturally we go the X.  But as nobody had heard of an M or a C or an O anywhere else along the line under construction, that theory was quickly dismissed. Another more credible belief was that it was to represent the crossing of cultures between Juarez and El Paso.  After all, the full name, "El Paso del Norte" brings up images of a frontier trading post where people from disparate regions are funneled together to make it through the pass to the other side.  It's a crossing of cultures between Native American (as in native cultures from whichever side) and European, whether Spanish or English-speaking, or other. While I still haven't heard a definitive word on what it really means, like any type of art, it means what you want it to mean. To me, it's the representation of the melting pot in general. But if you're not satisfied with that answer - head on down to Matamoros or Tijuana and look for the big "M" or the "O" (depending on which side you're reading from) and let us know what you find. 

Recently, my husband and I, accompanied by a couple who've become good friends of ours, spent the evening at a park in Juarez called Parque Borunda.  Located towards the outer edge of our "green zone" (i.e. about as deep as we're allowed to stretch our legs into the city), it's a regular city park with grass, benches, a fountain (no water) and trees - the usual parky stuff, plus a small amusement park with brightly lit and colored rides, a baseball diamond and a midway of food stalls. We came for an evening of "fair fare" and people watching on a warm summer night and wandered through the food stalls, picking out our dinners: Garibaldi hot dogs, tortas de bifstek, agua fresca, elotes, churros rellenos and paletas.  (That's the sum of all our dinners, not what we each ate, I must add.)  

We sat on a small retaining wall, eating our dinners and trying not to get the food on our shirt fronts, and watched the families, couples on dates, teen music/dance troupes, a puppeteer and an assortment of stray dogs (who were occasionally trying to make more stray dogs, thereby causing a kerfuffle among the kids watching who then tried to figure out just what those two dogs were doing?!).  

So much of the food we saw looked like puro Mexico and the rest looked like country fair Americana. Stalls sold "Dorinachos" - someone's ingenious creation wherein single-serving bag of Doritos are carefully sliced open sideways and melted cheesy sauce or salsa is then dumped on top of the chips - presto ready to go and no thin paper boat to eventually leak all over your lap.  
The Dorinacho in action


The Garibaldi hot dogs are called "hot dogs," first of all, and not "winnies" as hot dogs are often called in Mexican Spanish, and come bacon-wrapped, then grilled/fried and topped with cheesy sauce, mustard, ketchup, pickles and jalapenos. (Oh my what the best of two countries can create!)  While waiting in line deciding if I wanted the chico or grande, I watched the two guys manning the stand outright hustling to quickly serve the long line of salivators preparing to raise their serum cholesterol levels in a single delicious serving.  The rest of the food was truly Mexican: the devotion to elote (corn) is apparent and it's sold either roasted whole and smeared with spices and mayonnaise, or sliced off the cob and served in a cup with any combination of condiments mixed in. Churros are certainly no stranger to the American fried-food scene, but it wasn't until I came to Mexico that I saw the churro relleno (filled churro).  Another brilliant person created a churro-reamer which creates a pocket inside the wand of doughy fried goodness to be filled with chocolate, vanilla or caramel cream.  If that is too rich for you, there are paletas which are real-fruit popsicles of every color and combination (I had a white and pink strawberry vanilla).
Elote off the cob and in the cup
Churros rellenos - there is a god

Life here, on the X as it were, is neither here nor there. Neither Mexican nor American. Border life is a third nationality on its own, like our giant read Equis, that has feet on either side (well almost). 
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the Texas side of the border out west here is really not the Texas one imagines with its Texan accents, cowboy boots and big trucks.  Sure, it has all those things, but instead the accent here says, "I grew up bilingual" instead of "I grew up on Southfork Ranch with JR and Miss Ellie"; more often the boots are Mexican pointy boots and the trucks, well okay, they're about the same. 
(Side note: Texan trucks may have gun racks, but the other day in Juarez we were driving behind a black full-sized Silverado truck that instead of having a gun rack in the back window, had a guy standing in the pick-up bed carrying an AK-47. Hmmm... kinda' the same as a gun rack only far more terrifying.  We hoped he was an "undercover" Federale because he was wearing just jeans and a plaid shirt and riding in an unmarked truck, but then we figured that the large weapon he was carrying kinda' blew his cover - if he had one to begin with - so we just kept our distance instead.)

Anyway, pretty much everyone on either side of the border, but particularly on the Juarez side, has family por otro lado.   That's often how the US is referred to here - the other side, or simply alla, "there."  Families have been coming and going since there were families.  Listening to El Paso radio amuses me as the DJs chat with each other or with their callers making dedications, switching between both languages as if it were assumed that everyone were bilingual: "This song goes out to mijo que va a cumplir 16 anos  on Saturday and will be starting on the high school football team!" "Orale! We wish him well, from su mama Rosa!"   

Looking for a particular item at JC Penney's in El Paso the other day, I asked the store employee if they had the thing. She responded, "Let me go ask my colleague," and so we found another woman and the first woman asked, "Mire, ella busca una bolsa para llevar sus, sus, pequenos bottles of shampoo, you know, like for travelling? Las tenemos, o no?" I then described in Spanish the little toiletries bag I was hoping to find, which I thought might get a surprise reaction from the clerks as I will never be mistaken for someone who looks like a native Spanish speaker (it didn't, and they didn't miss a beat), and we continued to make our way through the possible sections of the department store, in both languages, until it was decided that I better just "look for it en linea, si, seria mejor."  I've decided that people use whichever language fits the situation best, is easiest to say, or just captures the sentiment most accurately. Listening to two native Spanish speaking coworkers chat in front of me (one Puerto Rican and a Mexican), it was all "Andele pues...let's just call him and see if he can come here on Wednesday."  "Ay, si, si, OK andele pues, hasta miercoles..."  ("Andele pues" being the go-to phrase for "alright," "let's go," "sounds good, okay" and as the 1-2-3-4 for the lead singer to start up the song.)

Between food, families, language or music - the border is the gentle blurring of one country gradually into another.  A place where Boston Irish kids go to their friends' quinceneras and where the jalapeno is as common a condiment as ketchup (and boy am I going to miss that!).  It truly is, life on the X. 

(*Footnote: I must give credit to my friends MJ and JF, the ones we went to Parque Borunda with, for coming up with the slogan "Living on the X."  Besides perfectly embodying the cross-cultural border life, it is also a double entendre to those of us who went through the mandatory anti-terrorist threat training before arriving in Juarez.  Again and again, the instructors told us that our first goal was to "get off the X!" Meaning, if you realize you're in a situation that is about to get bad, or get that feeling that you're about to be pounced on from some direction - get off the X and get out of there!) 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

TDY: Lessons Learned

Last summer I was selected to come to US Consulate General Monterrey for an entire month with three coworkers to help them in their busy season, and it was a great experience.  So this year I raised my hand again when the call for volunteers went out for more TDYers (Temporary Duty-ers) to go to Monterrey to help them segue into their brand new Consulate.  This time it was only for one week, but perhaps that was the right amount of time given that I only have six months left in Juarez and a husband and three Tabbies to miss.  

Ten of us from Mission Mexico were selected, along with numerous  local staff (two from Juarez, including one who always makes me laugh, like the time that she said that her horrible handwriting was only because she "had her own font").  We descended on Monterrey to Adjudicate In Their Time Of Need!  Well.... fate had something else in store for us.  Perhaps you heard it on the news that the CCD was "down."  In English, that means that the Consular Consolidated Database was, basically, broken leaving all posts worldwide unable to fully adjudicate visas.  We could interview folks, but we couldn't complete the process to send the visas to the printing queue.  This system snafu included American citizens who were trying to renew their passports and a bunch of high-profile celebrities and world leaders who were awaiting their US visas for legitimate travel.  Bottom line - a headache on a world scale.  (My favorite appropriate quote: to err is human, but to really screw things up takes a computer.) 

So here we are, over a dozen of us in our hotels in Monterrey, excited to be out on assignment with suitcases packed with appropriate clothing and our brains locked and loaded to work hard and work fast to help out this busy season and Monterrey in their new facility.

And the CCD was down and we couldn't do 85% of what we came to do. 

The powers that be decided that there was no point in sending us home because we still couldn't do there what we couldn't do here.  Especially considering all the airline change fees and additional administrative hassle that comes with changing airline and hotel reservations.  Therefore we interviewed as many folks as we could (Thursday appointments were completely cancelled) and finally by Friday afternoon were able to actually issue about 15% of the cases we had adjudicated.  

Being a TDYer is relaxing in a way because one can focus simply on doing the Consular work we came to help with: interviewing.  There isn't the additional pressure of taking care of all the outside portfolio work (whatever projects, teams, visits you've been assigned to) that your home post demands.  Plus, you have a new environment to explore.

In the case of Monterrey, I had already checked off a good bit of the tourist list last summer and felt comfortable in familiar environs.  Same hotel, same shuttle van, same restaurants for dinner, same hotel breakfast buffet, same pool of applicants - it all came back even after one year of absence.  But what was the cherry on top was the incredible new Consulate facility that opened just a week prior to our arrival. The post went from an outdated, cramped, stinky, sitting-on-each-others'-laps Consulate that did not have enough windows for everyone to adjudicate at the same time, to a building that looks and feels more like a modern art museum - all I can say is Wow!  

This time my Juarez colleagues and I were mixed in with officers from Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana, giving us a great opportunity to share "how do you do it? here's how we do it" best practices (and war stories, of which Consular officers have many).  We got to meet and work with new folks and learn more about posts we may/may not want to work in in the future.  It's great, to be honest, even if for a week.

Going on two TDYs isn't uncommon when assigned to Juarez, and a bunch of officers have even had three assignments.  We're used as a "donor" post to Mission Mexico because we are well-staffed and generally not over-stressed as some posts are. Therefore we have the luxury of being able to send a few warm bodies hither and yon to help out as needed.  

It's Friday night and we've done all we could and tomorrow we'll scatter back to our home posts.  The CCD is still not functioning 100% and the case load at home is not going away nor is the tide of incoming applicants receding - but for now we can enjoy a bit of ignorant bliss. And enjoy the views.

Please enjoy a few snapshots taken from the new US Consulate General in Monterrey.  If anyone reading this is considering bidding on Mexico - take these pictures into consideration:


View from the terrace where you can eat your lunch everyday

Now that's a backdrop!

Nearby American School - families with kids can now return to Monterrey

Yeah, this could be the view from your desk

On my final evening here, I took advantage of the free drink coupon we got upon check-in to have a glass of white wine by myself in the hotel atrium lounge. The view was only slightly different from this one above, different mountain peaks mostly.  Sitting alone, I tipped my head back against the overstuffed lounge chair and gazed out over the hotel's lush landscaping and fountains to the rocky peaks of the Eastern Sierra Madre.  Birds flitted by the atrium windows, doing their birdy business, and in this absence of modern world distractions, I digested all I'd seen and learned in the past week.  The cases I'd heard and decisions I'd made; the personalities and management styles and what I could learn from them; the stresses of the CCD crashing and how we all worked around it.  It all pales in comparison to the sight of these volcanic peaks, making me and my preoccupations seem silly and minute.  Life moves on, CCDs crash and then work again, applicants come and then go, puzzles are solved and either learned from or forgotten. Yes, this is what goes on behind my eyes while I sit mesmerized watching water coursing around rocks in a stream, a campfire or a 12,000 foot peak.

Being surrounded by the beauty of nature helps me put things in perspective and not let myself get wound up in the drama de jour, which is so easy to do wherever one is. Tomorrow brings the return trip home and the excitement of seeing husband and Tabbies again.  Then Monday morning when I slip my badge over my neck and head back to the window, I'll have all that I absorbed here still in mind: both the calmness gained from being in beautiful surroundings and the collective wisdom of working with dozens of new people in a challenging situation.  Who knows if the Data Engineers will find that one loose plug that started this all, or fire the guy who spilled his coffee on the server and everything will be dandy again, but either way, there's no use getting too wound up about it.  Just look out the window and enjoy the view and remember that this too will pass. 
Thanks TDY.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

T Minus Six Months

It was just Friday that our transfer schedule was approved, giving us our official last day in Juarez as January 21, 2015.  Which means that tomorrow will make exactly six months until we pack everything into the car again, Tabbies included, and make the return drive north to the mothership (FSI).  We will stop en route at a house we've rented for a month in Florida for our Congressionally-mandated twenty business days of home leave in which we're supposed to reacquaint ourselves with American life.

This opening paragraph states some basic facts upon which I feel compelled to expand. Not only because it's my nature to explain (just ask my husband), but also because it could lead people to some great misunderstandings.  Where to start?  

With the "housekeeping" basics:  The cycle of an Entry-Level Officer is such that our first two tours are directed.  We received our second posting late last year and a few months ago submitted to our Career Development Officer and Assignments Officer what we'd like as our transfer schedule.  There is a bit of horse-trading that goes on to make this schedule because it involves contacting our onward assignment (US Embassy Bucharest) and asking them when they want us to arrive.  Their decision is based on factors such as when my predecessor will leave, when a house will be available, when a physical work space will be available or whether or not there's a large event going on at that time that would make a newcomer's arrival a hassle (i.e. my friend was told not to arrive in Brazil until either well before or after the World Cup, and not during).  Keep in mind that I was asking them this information 18 months in advance, with a good chance that the people answering will not even BE in Bucharest when we get there.  They responded by giving me a date, Aug 20, 2015.  I also had to consider the start time of my language training using the FSI course calendar and work backwards from that date to make sure we have 20 business days (not to include federal holidays!) of home leave, and sufficient driving days to our home leave destination.  Being on the border, most of us drive to our home leave, whereas the rest of the world flies, naturally. (Side note: our current Consul General and his family, including multiple cats and dogs DROVE from their assignment in Honduras to home leave in the US many years back. Naturally with today's security situation this adventure would never be approved, but it certainly endeared me to him and his wife when I heard this story.)  We're told that we must leave post in the same month in which we arrived, and any deviation would require a fine-tooth-comb examination of the reasons for such an extension or curtailment.  In our case, we requested a 10-day curtailment in order to have those 20 days of home leave before language training starts on February 23rd.  Fortunately, it was approved, but that is by no means always the case.  

Okay, so now we have a fixed departure date.  Unfortunately, the transfer schedule that was returned to me wants us to arrive in Bucharest on August 16, not August 20 as post wanted, all because a short course at FSI that I proposed taking has been cancelled, meaning we have to get out of Dodge as soon as Romanian training is over.  Now I have to recontact Bucharest and horse-trade again for those extra four days.  Arriving on a Sunday, which August 16th will be, is no fun for anyone.  It means that my sponsor and an Embassy driver have to work on a Sunday to meet us, and that my first day of work will now be a Monday with a full work week ahead of me when I'm exhausted from travelling overnight with three cats.  (See why we all want to arrive on a Thursday now?)  Therefore Bucharest just might not approve the August 16th arrival and the bargaining will begin again.  

Now back to my opening paragraph:
When I state that we are now "T minus six months from departure" it should be understood that I am not excited about leaving Juarez, but I am excited about moving on to our next adventure.  

Just the other night, my husband and I were watching the show "The Bridge" which is set in El Paso/Juarez and is all about two detectives with very different personalities: one Mexican and one American, working together to solve a murder/many murders. Unfortunately the show is set in Juarez's bad ole' days and its plot capitalizes on the danger of the city, whereas today's truth is vastly different. Just so you all know - it's not like that now.  My husband rolled his eyes and teased me about exclaiming, "Look - there's that road/building/highway!  Look, it's border the crossing! Awww... the El Paso star!" in fondness as if I were seeing footage of a place long missed.  I'm really glad I'm watching this here and now where I have it all just outside the door and can still be living and enjoying this quirky neither-here-nor-there slice of our continent.  I have great fondness for our dusty, beaten-down city and I am NOT looking forward to leaving.  

The Tabbies love it here.  The heat is great for old bones and they love their garden and all the roaming room our two-story house offers.  I love our vet just over the border for these old bones and the ease in which I can buy their 30-pound boxes of cat litter. I love the fact that my husband has a great job and with a salary where he can save a bit for the minimum and unavoidable eight months of unemployment he'll face next year when we move.  I love my six minute walk to work.  I love that it takes two short flights to visit anyone in my family and the time zone difference requires adding or subtracting ONE HOUR to call them.  I love that I have been given free rein (pun intended) to ride lovely horses nearby and good friends to share this with. I love the challenges of the complexity of my work, even the stress that comes along with it.  (I don't LOVE that part, but I know I'm learning from it.) 

And I love our local coworkers.  As we're in the height of transfer season now, our despedidas (going away parties) are now for four to six people each time, instead of just one.  During these despedidas, the leaving officer generally makes a goodbye speech in front of the whole Consulate crew and invariably it ends with a, "...and more than anything, I'm so thankful for our awesome local staff who have taught me so much, been so kind, patient, welcoming, hard-working etc..."  And they're right.  I can't relish the day when we cross northbound for the last time simply due to the friendships that I've made here. We Americans will cross paths again in this giant salad-spinner that is the Foreign Service, but the local staff will stay here and continue to be themselves in their lives for wave after wave of new officers.  Pretty soon it will be, "Remember that officer so-and-so?" and maybe they will, or maybe they won't.  I'm doing my best to be one of those officers who they actually DO remember, and do so with a smile. Is that because besides always wanting to explain, I also always want to be liked? Sure. But also because it's important that I am that person people want to work with who is knowledgeable and does good work as a leader and manager - which is where all officers end up in short time. Juarez is teaching me all of that.  

In a very big nutshell, having our end date now fixed is very bittersweet.  I still have so much to learn here.  While the excitement of the new adventure is ever-so-savory, we have a good life here now and should never forget to recognize that by only looking forward to the next big thing.  

A coworker who just left Juarez wrote this post about her time here, the good and the not-so-good parts. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Finding Beauty in Small Details

In one respect, the following is only tangentially related to life in the Foreign Service. But on the other hand, it is about finding beauty (and humor) in the small details of unfamiliar, seemingly unpleasant or uncomfortable environments - which is all about life in the Foreign Service. 

I hope to write this more via pictures than words.  I'm also including a link to a friend's blog where he documents 101 changes in his life - both good and bad - in the past year since his wife signed on the dotted line with the State Department and they moved to Brazzaville, Republic of Congo.  

When my husband, the Tabbies and I drove west from Virginia to Ciudad Juarez over one year ago, we were somewhat prepared for living in a desert environment.  By "prepared," I mean that we obviously understood that it would be dry, beige, hot and windy.  It wasn't too many hours' drive out of Dallas that and got our first glimpse of the scenery in West Texas and the Northern Chihuahua desert and what our lives would be like for the next two years.  This was the first view from the car window:


We got your wide-open spaces here, alright.

Now I see why there are so many train songs in country music.

We began to explore our new home, and little by little, began to find beauty in the desert landscape. It's often a subtle beauty:
A small patch of standing water along the highway made us hit the brakes one day. 

Sidewalk markets are reliable sources of color and beauty. 

When flowers won't grow on their own.

Beauty persists in the toughest of conditions. 


But then again, sometimes it's a big, awesome beauty, which could compete with the architectural beauty of any cathedral:


Moonrise over the desert.

Sunrise makes waking up early worth it. 

Our own cathedral spires.

Besides being able to find beauty in a new environment, and recognizing and appreciating things simply because they're NOT what you're used to, finding humor in the face of sometimes ridiculousness is also necessary. Like when it rained last summer and the major avenues flooded.  (Driving on the sidewalks or in oncoming lanes can be exhilarating and oddly freeing!)

 Yes, that's a rebar fence hidden in the depths. 

I'll now hand you over to our correspondent in the Congo, for his take on what changes a year can bring to a life.  What I liked about this slideshow is that he picks up on this theme of noticing the beauty, the humor, and often the exasperation of life in a new environment. This collection illustrates my motto: when in doubt - do whatever will make a better story later!

Life Changes

Enjoy.