Ciudad Juarez Pacific Time Washington, DC

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


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Scorching in the Southland

It is June 1st which in the borderlands, which means that triple-digit temps for weeks on end are fair game.  Last year I missed spending the entire month of June in Juarez as I was in Monterrey (where it was only 98 and humid), so this will be a first.  But when I came home, I witnessed what 30 days of 100+ degrees can do to one's garden, parching the life out of even my flowering desert succulents and sending them to a place from where they never returned.  This year I've tried a different variety of flowering succulents so we'll see if I have a different result.  I hope so, because they're quite charming. (I was planning on inserting a picture of them here, so I just went out into the garden to snap the photo and found their little blossoms shut tight for business. Hurrumph.)
But at least the bougainvillea are happy and willing to show off (there are two more pots with three different colors, if I may brag). 

Here is our work-week forecast:

A picture is worth a thousand "DAMN but it's HOT!"s

Please also notice that even though we have some cloud cover coming in, the chance of rain remains at, oh, zero percent. 

What do you do when it's this hot? Adapt.

We do the laundry a little differently now:

By the time we finish hanging a line's worth, the first items are already dry.  Something to do with the less-than-30% humidity perhaps?  I couldn't fathom turning on the dryer at a time like this. Please also note our camping tarp and tent poles my husband put together to make a nice shady spot.  (No, it's not the southern screened porch I've always wanted to be sittin' and sippin' under, but it works great and we don't have kudzu to contend with, so there.)

The Tabbies have adapted too. Toby, who is definitely from Scandinavian stock and has a double coat, goes outside for less than two minutes, just enough time to do the sniffing rounds of the garden and then safely retreat to his air conditioned 74 degree living room couch.  Dodger and Daphne, obviously born in damp and mild Washington state by accident, stretch out under the bushes FOR HOURS at a time.  Now before anyone starts firing off a cat mistreatment complaint, let me assure you that it's THEIR idea. Dodger especially begs to go out there; they are never left unattended, and there's a bowl of water right next to them.  They just soak the warmth up into their 16 year old bones and couldn't be happier. 

Last night my husband and I went to the schmancy mall near our house for dinner and a movie.  It was the type of movie I'd usually wait to see on DVD, but the excuse to get into a climate-controlled comfortable environment other than our own living room was too enticing.  We found about ten thousand other Juarenses had the same idea and we had to circle the parking lot looking for a spot like it was Christmas.  In my eagerness to find a movie that wasn't Godzilla, I didn't notice that the one I picked was dubbed in Spanish.  We usually go to the subtitled movies, and when the nice movie theater cashier heard our choice, she quickly warned us, "You know this is in Spanish, right? They'll be talking only Spanish in this movie and not English.  Do you want to pick something else instead?"  Okay, I shouldn't be surprised that she deftly figured out we weren't from around here when we walked up to the counter, but heck chica, I was ordering the tickets IN SPANISH.  But she had a point, as it would be our first no-handrail movie.  I'm pleased to say that we understood at least 80%, even if my husband admitted to reading the actors' lips and any other confusion was cleared up by context clues.  Besides, it wasn't a really dialog-driven movie, if you know what I mean.  All in all, we had a good evening and when we pulled out of the mall parking lot at 9:30 pm, it was still in the 90s.

So that's how we pass the time and survive the scorch in the desert. It's not so bad, really. Come back in a few weeks and see if I've changed my opinion.

Monday, May 26, 2014

What to Wear When Visiting a Mexican Federal Prison

I do not work in the American Citizen Services (ACS) section, although I'd love to, but a while back I put my name on a list of volunteers who would be willing to do prison visits with the other ACS staff when the need arose.  One of the most critical functions of the Foreign Service is to serve American citizens abroad, and ensuring that they are not being mistreated while incarcerated falls under that scope.  Therefore I was happy to receive the message that my name had come to the top of the list for an upcoming prison visit. 

Sounds crazy, being excited about going to a Mexican prison in Ciudad Juarez, particularly one known to house cartel members and assassins, right?  ACS needed a few of us to visit because just a short time prior, this particular high-security prison had a handful of prisoners successfully escape (read more here) and we needed to assess whether or not conditions had changed since the escape for the American citizens currently housed there. I wanted to go to gain experience in this important ACS function as my only prior experience was during training at FSI with classmates when we worked through scripted scenarios of prisoner and ACS officer in ConGen's mock jail cell, complete with bars, cot, Halloween spiderwebs and plastic rat.  I also knew that I'd be going with three experienced ACS coworkers, including a local staff member who could do these visits in his sleep and who could provide answers to the prisoners' common procedural questions about their court cases. Therefore - I felt secure that I'd be in good hands.

Those going on the visit met in the ACS section of the Consulate first and were briefed on what our visit would entail and what types of questions we should ask the men, what notes we should take, questions we could anticipate etc...  It was at this point that my female coworker took me aside and asked if I was wearing an underwire bra.  I've gotta' say, I wasn't quite anticipating THAT question, and the answer unfortunately was, "Why yes I am; it's all I have. Will that be a problem?"  

"Well, yes.  See as this is a high-security federal prison, we're going to be searched and scanned completely, including with metal detector wands, which will hit on the underwire. You won't be allowed in wearing it."  

Hmmmm....  my mind racing for another option.  

"I have a swimsuit at home that, err, maybe I could wear underneath my top?" was the best I could come up with.  No, that wasn't going to work as we needed to hit the road directly. Therefore, popping over to the mall across the street to pick up the sports bra I'd been meaning to buy for quite some time was also out of the question.  My friend glanced at the top I was wearing and took in, shall we say, the totality of the situation and said, "Let's just go into the restroom and see, you know, how bad it would be to, you know, go without."  

To think that just the night before I'd carefully picked out my goin' to prison outfit: something professional, but not too formal, and definitely not revealing, tight or too feminine given the expected audience.  All that planning was stuffed - unused - along with the forbidden underwire bra, into my purse and away we went to prison.

We took a Consulate van to the southern edge of the city, well out of any neighborhood I'd been to previously, to an impressively-secure looking prison.  (Frankly, I haven't really seen other countries' prisons, except for a women's prison in Bogota near a beautiful Colombian military base where I'd take Saturday riding lessons.  I'd get out of my car in my breeches and boots and walk alongside a long line of family members waiting for the weekly visit of their mothers/daughters/sisters/wives.)  As anticipated, we were scanned and wanded from head to toe, and I realized how it would have been far more embarrassing had the forbidden underwire been discovered on site, in front of all the guards and supervisors who were escorting us in.  

The three of us sat behind a long table in a large empty room and received the prisoners three at a time.  They were all unfailingly polite and the conversations were easier than I'd expected.  I kept very strong eye contact with each guy in an effort to keep their gazes from dropping. Thankfully, I hadn't worn a white blouse that day, but instead one of those blouse-with-vest attached professional-looking "onsies" (this one here, actually), and so I'd like to believe that no one but me noticed the difference.  But running through my mind all the while was the Seinfeld episode where Kramer decides to "go commando" leaving "nothing between him and us but a thin layer of gaberdine!"

Moral of the story: When planning your next visit to a Mexican federal prison - check the dress code BEFORE!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Jefa de Grupo

Back when I was working in the NIV (non-immigrant visa, or tourist visa) section, a common part of the interview was to ask people about their jobs. In Juarez, a major source of employment is the assembly factory industry, known locally as maquiladoras.  Massive operations they are; we took a tour of one of the larger ones in the city and I was awed by the organization, division and sub-division of labor on such a large scale.  One of the jobs many people have is that of Group Leader, or in Spanish known as Jefe de grupo. As the title suggests, this person generally leads a small working group and acts as the link between that little pod of workers and others.  

This month I am Jefe de grupo, or more correctly the feminine version - Jefa de grupo, of our IV (immigrant visa) section.  It's a rotation that any officer with six months on the line can volunteer for and it means stepping away from the interview window for the month and picking up the fire extinguisher.  USCG Ciudad Juarez processes 20% of the world's immigrant visas (not Mexico's - the world's!) and therefore we're a pretty busy place. Therefore the new position felt overwhelming at first, facing the unending stream of people needing assistance all day (and I mean "unending" it the literal, non-exagerrated sense).  Whether it's responding to requests to reinstate visa petitions that have had no activity for a year, correcting printing errors on visas, assigning tasks to the line officers, trouble-shooting system errors with our IT departments, communicating to the line officers about the daily workload, working with our managers about staffing shortages or making decisions on cases for officers who have moved on - the work flows in from all directions and has to be continually re-prioritized, or triaged.  

Fortunately, I now find the stream of requests invigorating as they require either simple actions I don't have to think too much about, or real puzzles where I need to consult any number of people to solve. Through this problem-solving, I'm gaining a better understanding of the whole process of immigrant visas: from first petition in the U.S. to the final printing and delivery of the finished product here in Mexico.  While I miss hearing the day-to-day stories from our applicants via the interview window, the management challenges are stretching other mental muscles.  It's also putting me in direct contact with all sections of our own maquiladora that is the Consulate floor, and the other jefes de grupo to help solve problems, plus it's nice now to have more names behind the familiar faces.

The closest approximation from my prior life is restaurant work, especially working as a hostess.  The guests continually came through the door hungry and hopeful, everyone wanted a window table, all the waiters were "too busy to take another table now," the cooks were shouting to get the food out faster, the bar tenders needed more ice, clean glasses or change for a hundred dollar bill and we'd inevitably run out of the prime rib. Honestly, the survival skills learned in that setting are keeping me alive now.  

Lesson learned once again: the actual work of diplomacy, in all its facets, can't easily be replicated, but all the tools needed can be picked up in any number of places. 

Until next time, back to the factory!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

An Elephant in the Room?

I'm still wondering if this title is a bit misleading, because it makes it sound as if I'm going to write about something that everyone knows about, but that no one wants to talk about. The misleading part comes in because I think this topic IS talked about to a small degree, but to me it's tangible to a HUGE degree and therefore worthy of mention. Plus, I've had many conversations with co-workers and/or their spouses who note that it was an unpleasant surprise once they joined the Foreign Service.

So what is it?  Competitiveness.

Big deal? Depends on the person, I suppose.  For me it was a very palpable thing, really elephant-sized, that became obvious to me as I first started investigating the idea of joining.  

As a disclaimer, I should start off by saying that by nature I'm a very non-competitive person. By that, I mean that I don't like to win for the sake of winning.  When I win, whether it is in a board game or an athletic endeavor, the flush of excitement of prevailing over others is quickly dampened by the realization that my victory comes at the cost of their loss and that now they probably feel bad. It really ruins the whole victory thing if I care about the person I out-whatever'd because who can feel up when another person is now down? (However, if they were a boastful, show-off to begin with, well then all bets are off.)  Before I sound like a sappy dishrag, I must note that I am very self-competitive, which means that victory, achievement, challenge-and-success IS very sweet to me when I beat my own expectations, when I push myself to succeed or reach a difficult goal.  That kind of stuff I love because I feel proud for having the determination and discipline to have accomplished whatever the thing is. I'm just not the person who wants to feel superior to others, or that I've bested them in a "Ha! In your face sucka'!" sort of way.  

The  competition thing became apparent when I first joined the many Yahoo groups that exist to help people learn about the testing and hiring process for the State Department. These groups are extremely informative about the various examination steps and how to prepare for them, but one also gets a pungent whiff of one-upmanship on these message boards.  (By the way, they are very useful. I don't think I would have gotten through the hiring process without this preparation.  Please see this link for a comprehensive list.) Upon joining these groups, I quickly realized that I had to be on top of my game to play in this league.  All the time.  Mistakes or misinformation posted by one person innocently, even when in an effort to help another person, are quickly brought to light by other users under the guise of setting the record straight, but sounding a lot more like being outed by Donald Sutherland in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."   It was a very good introduction to the kind of pool I'd be swimming in.  Yes, people are supportive and friends can be made, but this competitive element is just, well there, all the time.  Consider yourself forewarned.

Why should I be so surprised? Why does this even bear mentioning?  After all, it is a very competitive process to get hired with a small percentage making it through. It's a very competitive job once you DO get hired, and there is an up-or-out system where one must continue to be promoted in order to keep your job.  Promotions are competitive; we're compared to others within our group. Why should excellence be a flaw?  It keeps us progressing and looking for better ways to do things; it makes people stay sharp.  All good points for which I have no defense, and all the truth.  

I also shouldn't be surprised about this competitive thing when I look at the mix of people who gravitate towards this career, and it's quite a mix. From the fellowship program members who are fresh out of grad school (usually in their very early 20s) and who have already been successful in a highly competitive selection process and who have earned graduate degrees from serious-marquis named universities; to retired military Colonels, to former lawyers, former doctors, former Indian chiefs, to mayors of cities and life-long scholars with PhDs in neuro and rocket science - I have colleagues who have been nearly all the above.  These are not slackers; these are people who are used to challenging themselves and achieving results. These are usually people who are used to being the smartest kid in the room.  These are academic introverts, natural leaders, captains of industry and problem solvers.  Why should I now expect them to be any different? 

For those of us who feel we got hired because we happen to have a sunny personality, who prepared ad nauseam for each step in the process, and who feel that we just had a few good days - lemme' tell you, it can be pretty stressful to have to keep up this pace.  

So how does this competitiveness look and feel in the day-to-day working life?
(Another disclaimer: I am now assigned to a post that is a rare creature among posts worldwide. It is a consulate the size of many embassies with 47 entry-level officers [ELOs]. That means 46 other first and second tour, nontenured officers who are fresh from the starting block, ready to learn and make their mark, eager to be noticed and prepared to elbow their way to the front of the crowd.  Eager once again to be the smartest kid in the room. This is not the average post and my reaction could very possibly be in response to this particular setting. Your mileage may vary elsewhere.)

Back to the question:  Competitiveness is palpable when assignments are handed out and quickly the whispering starts about why someone was or wasn't chosen and why didn't I get selected instead?  Who is the fastest visa adjudicator and has the highest numbers? Who has the best handle on the language and who still keeps saying it wrong? Who knows the FAM (Foreign Affairs Manual) inside and out and is a resource for the other slackers? Who gets praised publicly with awards? Who did or didn't make tenure?  ARGH.

The very first day at post, when I had meetings with each of the Consulate's senior leadership, I noticed a recurring theme among the advice they offered: As an ELO, my only goal should be to just do my best at my job, be a generally nice person to work with and tenure will naturally follow.  After that, keep up with this motto and promotion will follow.  I now understand why each of them made a point of saying this, because I'm sure they see all us chickens, squawking and pecking at each other when we really don't need to.  

But now back to my calling this competitiveness an elephant in the room:  While I appreciate the advice given by our senior leadership that first day, it seems that unfortunately we DO need to elbow each other a bit.  We do need to have certain achievements on our annual employee evaluation reviews (EERs) to get tenured and promoted, and to get these achievements, we have to be a bit better than the average bear.  We have to make process improvements, which means always looking for a better way to do something, fixing what the other guy just did.  We have to take leadership roles which inevitably entails telling our colleagues what to do and how.  We have to make ourselves known and shine just a bit brighter than the rest.  (Sidenote example: my husband volunteered to work the grill at a Consulate BBQ recently along with a handful of ELO coworkers. He noticed that each ELO who took their turn manning the grill would rearrange the food and preparation process slightly different from the previous person to do things just the way they liked.  I thought that was hilarious, and very true.)  And unfortunately it means that we're subject to taking a tiny bit of pleasure in hearing about another person's shortcomings. 

I'm finding that I'm guilty of all the above and I don't like it. Not the job; I love my job. But I hate that this competition brings out the high-schooler in us all. I hate that it's an atmosphere where it's hard to be wholeheartedly happy for someone else's success.  I hate that I feel like if I have a few bad days, I'll lose pace with the pack.  I hate that I have to very carefully choose with whom I confide my own shortcomings or worries for fear that they will be used against me in the future.  I find that I relive my work day nightly in my dreams, using that time of mental relaxation to find any possible errors that need correction or ways to do things better the next day.  In fact, in our first three months in Bogota, I experienced more stress-related health issues than ever before in my life.  

When viewed individually, I truly enjoy 97% of my colleagues, finding them interesting, funny, and often generous and kind. In fact, it's hard to pinpoint just who is responsible for this competitive ambiance, as in, "Well when so-and-so leaves, it'll all be so much more relaxed around here."  Therefore I conclude that it really isn't some ONE, but rather an unconscious collective effort among us all.

Is this what life these days is like anywhere?  Do teachers and firefighters feel like this too?  Will I achieve higher highs for having swum with these sharks when it's all over? After all, steel is hardened only by tempering, right?  I'm sure that even at my ripe ole' age, I'll benefit from this competition.  Honestly, it could go one of two ways: either I'll eventually say (in my best Cartman voice) "Screw you guys, I'm going home!" or, "Wow, I really could do more when pushed a bit!".  

I suppose it's all up to me.  I've wanted to write this for a while to let y'all know the reality of what it's like and also to help myself discover what the best answer could be. Thanks for listening, and good luck to us all.