Friday, August 26, 2011

Introductions

As you may know, from either knowing us personally, or from reading our little intro to the left here, there are actually five of us on this journey into life in the Foreign Service. But so far, my stories have been mostly about me and the two Tabby boys, Dodger and Toby. I'd like to properly introduce the other two players who are about to enter from the wings to center stage: my husband Tim and Dodger's littermate sister Daphne. As I type these words, they are at SeaTac airport preparing to join us in our new South American home.

I left for FSI in mid-March; however, Tim stayed behind in (the other) Washington to see his youngest (Mike, age 18) off to college, prepare our house for renting and complete his contract at his job. The task of preparing our house, for the big pack-out (last Monday) and eventual rental was no easy feat. It's not huge, and we live quite simply - but we/I have been there for over 13 years and face it - stuff accumulates! I had my entire childhood entombed in cardboard boxes to go through. We had belongings to sell, give away, throw away, store for later (when?), take immediately or take eventually. We each made many, many hard decisions and double that many hours of work to make this long-held dream of moving abroad a reality. Tim spent every single weekend this summer on the house: between repainting, landscaping, going through the stuff, dry walling, taking care of all those little chores that we've all been "meaning to get around to," he did it all. But it's all done now. With the help of a local property management company, we have found a renter who wants to, in her words, "live here forever!" and every last chore has been completed. While he's traveling quite a bit heavier than his passport-and-toothbrush-in-breast-pocket dream, he is finally able to join us in this new life.

Of the married/coupled friends I've met over the past six months who are new to the FS life, we've all shared experiences (highs and lows, for certain) of how our significant-others have coped. Many wives and husbands have been left in hometowns across the country to do the heavy lifting of the big pack-outs; they have left their jobs and homes to live in temporary apartments crammed with kids and pets and not much to do; they have scrambled to find appropriate schools for the kids in their new post while the spouse-employee goes to training. They have found ways to mentally handle being the "trailing spouse" and have learned to accept that the information about their lives, from simply the daily mail to where-the-heck-will-we-be-moving will be funneled through the spouse/employee. It isn't for everyone and I hope that those of you who may be considering this path are able to really discuss these subjects before signing on.

So I'd like to say THANK YOU (insignificant words) to my husband for his efforts towards our goal. He will arrive tomorrow mid-day after a red-eye flight through Miami. Daphne will have been without her litter box for over 16 hours and has already been living in a motel since their pack-out. The boys have grown accustomed to their bachelor lives without their bossy sister, so it will be interesting to see how they adjust to her presence. As I write this, they are blissfully curled up on the couch, totally unaware of what is coming tomorrow.

We'll keep you posted.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sunday Excursion

My first weekend trip out of Bogota was last weekend when five of us from the Embassy got an early start on our Sunday and met at the Usaquen train station in the northside of the city. Each weekend this train station comes to life as the admittedly tourist-train takes people (we were the only Americans that I saw) a few hours north into the countryside to two small towns: Zipaquira (Zee-pack-ear-ah) and Cajica. In Zipaquira there is an optional side trip to the Salt Cathedral by bus, where the visitors can meet up with the train on the return trip in Cajica. However, we chose the simpler route, and spent some time in Zipaquira first, then a longer time in Cajica for lunch and looking around.

The train is a beautiful old steam train, fueled (I think) by coal, judging from the car I saw loaded with coal as we boarded. Oh, and the black steam/smoke that drifted by the window when the wind was blowing our way. We pulled out of Usaquen and began chugging and rocking along the tracks through the northern reaches of Bogota, into a countryside where brand-new American-style suburbs are being constructed. It was odd to see familiar cul de sacs and townhomes in such a foreign setting,and I wondered where all these people were coming from to buy all these modern new homes. We continued into more open land: all very, very green, and past a horseshow in progress; greenhouses full of rose bushes answering my question about where all the perfect long-stem roses come from that are sold at every intersection, alongside one of the previously-mentioned dog fincas; and by loads of fat cattle grazing in lush pastures, although often tethered by their necks or crude halters with rope. The mountains rose steeply to both sides, creating a wide and green valley.

To keep us entertained en route, if the scenery weren't enough, bands came through the train cars, stopping at each for a few songs. They were really good, and quite loud:


At each tiny settlement or town we passed through, everyone within sight and earshot of the tracks rushed to see the train go by and waved, smiled and pointed us out to their children. It was as if this were an annual, not weekly, occurence; they were all so happy to see the train. By about 11:00, we pulled into Zipaquira first, where well over half of the train lined up for buses to the Salt Cathedral. My friends and I stayed behind to explore the town and walked first down a narrow, partially car-free lane and onto the main plaza headed by a huge brick cathedral. The other sides of the plaza were lined with important-looking old government buildings (based on their flags) or lovely storefronts with wooden balconies on the second floor. One of my friends noted that the plazas were usually built so spaciously to allow for room for executions and crowds of witnesses. Hmmm...

We explored a bit, found the weekend market full of candy and clothing stalls, and got back on the train for the short trip to Cajica. I don't recommend visiting on an empty stomach, as every-other store seemed to be a bakery or candy store! (We gave in and tried some local pastries before lunch.) 



Cajica seemed to be a larger town, and we were met by a throng of restaurant hawkers passing out paper fliers and menus. As it was past noon, we made our way into the town square area and found a lovely plaza with a center park full of flowers and a fountain and a cathedral packed with people just outside. Fortunately, we got into the restaurant "Jica" just before they did, as the place filled up fast for Sunday lunch. I ordered a Colombian favorite soup, "Ajiaco" (chicken soup with corn and other bits), but all my friends went seriously carnivore and ordered a variety of mixed grill-type platters. And I mean platters!  After a big lunch, typical here, we waddled back through town and onto the train for the trip home.
At the train station, I learned about another favorite Colombian passtime: kites! Alongside the tracks was a big field full of families flying kites. Even in the crowded streets in the town, families and groups of kids flew kites despite what I had always believed was a certain way to electrocution - low wires. One kite's string was wrapped around some electric lines and draped across a busy road. While waiting for the train to leave, I watched car passengers, to my surprise, get out of their vehicles, and carefully lift the kite strings as the drivers continued beneath them. The group of teens at the other end of the string seemed oblivous to what was happening.
The train took its time, stopping inexplicably along the way a few times, and brought us back to Usaquen before 5pm. It was a lovely day in the country of my new country and gave me a nice look around at the horizon that so far has been obstructed by tall buildings and windowless offices.

In two days Tim and Daphne (third Tabby to be introduced soon) will join the boys and I finally. I'm certain that there will be many more weekend excursions like this one in the next two years!

C'mon down - it's lovely!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Colombian Curiosities

This is my third weekend in my new country (and continent for that matter), and I’ve been noticing a few curiosities I’d like to share. It’s specifically these differences between countries that give them their flavor, so please don’t take my noticing these oddities as my belief that they’re wrong or silly, just different and therefore interesting.
Going shopping
·         Weekend trips to the supermarket have brought a few things to my attention. First, upon driving into the large parking garage my neighbors and I (they offered to take me shopping) are met by security guards and their explosive-sniffing dog. We stop the car, open the doors and trunk and the dog gives a quick sniff-search before we’re allowed into the garage. This reminds me that despite the lovely neighborhoods, clean streets and friendly people – this still is a danger post.
·         Paying with a credit card? At check-out they will ask you how many payments you want to make for this purchase. Or, if you’re me, they’ll say something and look expectantly at you as you try to fathom what the heck they want and why aren’t they satisfied with the smile and nod. If you have a local credit card, you can designate that your $60 purchase (for example) should be split into three payments over the next three months. You can then go into the next store, buy $45 of stuff and have that split over six payments. Sounds like an accounting nightmare to me, but what do I know? Word of advice: if you have an American credit card, just say “una” when the nice cashier asks you something and won’t proceed until you answer. Again, thanks to my friends for ‘splaining that to me!
Must Love Dogs – or – Gata Non-Grata
This is a dog-friendly country, not so if you have chosen feline friends. I would like to offer some proof:
·         Dog fincas (farms): A coworker (and many others, apparently) sends her dog four days per week to a dog finca. A man with a van comes to her apartment in the morning to pick up “Bella” and deliver her to a farm in the nearby countryside where she gets to frolic outside with other city-dogs. There is a farm house where each dog has their own little area to come inside, complete with their own particular food. At the end of the day, the well-exercised dogs jump back into their van (again, divided with separate compartments) and are delivered back to their city homes. My friend told me of one dog that is so accustomed to this routine that when he’s let out of his apartment by the maid, she rings for the elevator, he goes in, she selects the floor, he takes it to the ground level, exits, and the doorman opens the door for him where he then jumps into his van to go to the doggie farm. Repeat in reverse at the end of the day. For this full-service operation, four days a week costs just $125/month.  
·         Mobile dog-grooming services: See exhibit A. This van was parked outside my apartment the other day. Yes, there is a Golden Retriever inside receiving his beauty treatment before being taken back up the elevator clean and fluffy to his owners.
Exhibit A

·         Costs of cat supplies:
Clumping cat litter – when you can find it – costs about $2/lb. I spent $42 on cat litter yesterday, plus the taxi fare to and from the store I found where they actually sell it. Heaven forbid you should need one of those Hill’s Science Diet recipe canned foods for Puss. Depending on the recipe, they run $2-6 per can (and I mean for the tuna fish-sized cans!)  Scratching posts? Sure, I saw them in the store. Plan to shell out about $75.

Public bathrooms:
·         I was saved last-second by my friends from an unfortunate learning experience, so let this be a word of caution: if the restrooms have toilet-paper dispensers outside of the stalls – use them, because it means there aren’t any inside the stalls. And if they have seat-cover dispensers, it probably means you’re just going to be sitting on the rim!
Taxis:
·         To call a taxi you should use a land-line, from which the automated dispatch service will automatically recognize your address, you press 1 to confirm, and then they give you the license plate of the cab that’s being dispatched and a “codigo” (secret code) to tell the driver to confirm that you’re actually the person who called. He punches that into his meter and away you go. Apparently it’s far more dangerous for driver and customer alike to just hail one from the street. I would never have figured this out on my own had it not been for a coworker explaining the process.
Bottom line: coming to a new country you’re going to make some social faux-pas. You’re going to stare blankly at cashiers; you’re going to do things wrong and no doubt people are going to laugh at you (hopefully after you leave). I’m getting used to asking friends or coworkers about anything new I undertake in case there’s some odd custom or habit I’d never have predicted. I’m sure there will be more to add to this list as the months unfold.





Sunday, August 7, 2011

Waiting for the Cable Guy

Waiting for the cable guy…
My first success so far in my new life here was the negotiation of internet and cable TV service with the nice lady from TelMex who comes to the embassy every week to sign up new subscribers. She only spoke Spanish, so I was quite proud of myself for being able to successfully understand the plan options, make a selection and schedule a date for the installers to come out. That day was today, specifically, this morning. I was woken up by the Tabbies who discovered that I hadn’t fully closed my bedroom door and proceeded to walk across me, nudge me and knead me all the while meowing incessantly. I fake-ignored them for over an hour before finally getting out of bed way too early for a Saturday (0715) to feed them. But hey, this was going to be a great day; the cable and internet dudes were going to be here anytime this morning after 0730! Heck, I’d better hurry and get dressed and showered, I thought. And just look at that gorgeous bright sunshine streaming over the mountains and into my windows; it’s going to be sooome day!
Silly me.
It’s now 4:14 pm and I think you can tell by the change in my tone that I have spent the entire day inside this apartment waiting for TelMex to no avail. They didn’t call, they didn’t text and they certainly didn’t come by, despite my giving all my contact information to the earnest representative. It seemed toooo easy to be true, and apparently it was.
So instead of relating to you all one simple success; one solitary process that went from A to B without visiting all the other letters in the alphabet first, I’m going to tell you about a day in the life of a nice Bogota neighborhood. Because frankly, with no TV and no internet, I’ve got some time on my hands. Oh, and yes, I already scrubbed the toilets (all four, two never used), swept and vacuumed the floors and dusted the furniture. Let me start at the beginning of a day:
This morning at 0413, I was awakened by a strange sound. It was the sound of utter silence. There was no party downstairs with its deafening bass line. There were no loud conversations reverberating through the brick airshaft and into my windows and vents. There were no cars! There were no Skil-Saws or hammers or tile cutters and there were no doorbells or other-people’s-phones ringing to make me dash across the house expectantly. Everyone within earshot of my bedroom was doing the same thing I was doing: they were simply being quiet. It was so pleasantly amazing, and it lasted about two minutes.
Squatters house
Out my bedroom windows is a row of two-story, semi-demolished connected homes. In the center house, there appears to be a family squatting. They have no electricity and I watch the parents go out to the back yard to collect water from some kind of man-hole cover over a well. I’ve seen the mother doing her laundry in big plastic tubs that she hides among the rubble of the neighboring house. She tucks away a bag of detergent and some other little wash buckets and climbs into the debris to retrieve them. The kids, they could be twins and are about four years old, play in the yard and scream and run as kids that age do. I can see into what was once a lovely glass sunroom to the broken up bits of furniture and a few of their things. There are dolls, or perhaps just doll heads – it’s hard to tell, but they move from place to place inside the room, so I think the kids still play with them. I’m certain that this row of small houses will be torn down any time now. In its place will eventually grow another elegant brick apartment building like mine, which will completely block the mountain view and eastern sunshine, not to mention what it will do to this family.
Rising above the broken-down houses across the street is a six-story brick apartment complex with big picture windows and balconies. While waiting fruitlessly for you-know-who not to show, I watched my own neighborhood TV: people playing with their dog on the balcony, a dog too small to see anything but the tips of its ears; the mother with her new baby; the young woman smoking and texting on her balcony; the man rearranging his living room furniture and the older women sitting at their kitchen table all day. I wonder what they’re all thinking of me?
My view east

There are dog walkers in the neighborhood in the mornings; men escorting five, six sometimes seven dogs at once through the streets and into the parks. The dogs seem to be very happy to be out en masse and I haven’t seen a fracas yet. There are also flower guys who set up buckets of long-stem roses and lilies and all other sorts of flowers for sale. They work alongside the parks and sidewalks, carefully trimming the stems to equal lengths and stripping the extra foliage. Flowers are one of Colombia’s biggest exports (yes, ONE of the biggest exports… we needn’t say more on that) and so the bouquets are very cheap. Also, in the midst of this modernity, are the horse-carts. I’m not sure what they’re hauling, but they could be scavenging recyclables from the trash outside of the apartment buildings and carting their take off to salvage yards. I’ve seen – and been told – that we don’t have to worry so much about separating our recyclables from the trash as this de facto service will take care of it. It was a bit surprising to see such a fragile horse and cart merging onto the busy highway in front of the embassy van the other day, however.
Flower sellers

So now let’s talk about traffic. It’s not crazy-crazy here, like India or China crazy, but it’s well… how about nutty? Something slightly less than crazy. Lanes are optional, space between vehicles negligible and there is no guarantee that the car to your right isn’t going to swerve in front of you to turn left. But that’s all standard-issue outside-of-America driving. I imagine Italy is like this, too. What I find interesting among this chaos and danger is that all the motorcyclists, of which there are many (not like Vietnam many, but still a lot), wear their license plate numbers boldly marked across the back of their helmets (yes, they wear helmets!) and across the back of their reflective safety vests. I’m not sure why all the extra care goes into identifying motorcyclists; is it so that they can match the body with the bike after a wreck? So you can more easily identify the driver who just ran you off the road or stole your purse? Why spend so much effort towards safety for these guys and so little towards, oh say, making sure that people don’t swerve across four lanes to reach their exit? Although my little blue truck is currently en route to Colombia, I’m not convinced I’ll be doing any of the actual driving (thanks Tim!).
That’s it; that’s my new home life.
A pretty house in the neighborhood

PS I'm using my neighbor's internet to write this.... called TelMex after getting the phone number from her - they have no record of my account. Good times.

Monday, August 1, 2011

We've arrived!

Greetings from the top (almost) of South America!
The Tabbies and I have arrived in Bogota and are settling into our new apartment. The trip down here was generally uneventful, and at the worst - tiring. My "cat coyote" friend accompanied  us and carried Dodger while I had Toby. Having two people meant that they were able to come on board the plane instead of having to send one via cargo. Their carriers were at our feet and partially unzipped so I could see them curled up and sleeping the whole way. I was quite impressed at how well they took the whole ordeal.

We arrived late at night and the airport was packed! I loved being able to skip the enormous line and walk to the utterly empty Diplomats line and break in my new black passport. I felt very important, even if I was carrying a peed-in cat carrier and wide-eyed feline. We were met by the driver and my new supervisor and a mob of fans outside the security barriers of the airport. They had a band and banners and all sorts of horns.
Oh wait, what?
You mean that wasn't for us?
What soccer team?  Oh, the under-20 world championships are in town now?
Nevermind. 
The van, driver and supervisor - however - were there for us and drove us to the new apartment where my social sponsor greeted us with a pre-stocked fridge and basket of fruits and bags of cat treats; she really went all out and has taken kind care of me since.  We were all utterly exhausted and knowing I had to show up at the embassy all polished and professional the next morning - I hit the hay as soon as I could. Cat coyote went on to her family's home in town and it was just me and the Tabbies in a big, empty apartment for the first time. Wanna' take a look?

Living room

Toby checks out the fireplace
Study ready for books!
Living/dining room and big picture windows
One of the four bathrooms - I need more towels!
Kitchen

So that's the place! It is very nice, with high ceilings and lovely hard-wood floors. The doors are so tall! The buildings in the neighborhood are all quite elegant with nice water features and landscaping outside. We don't have a balcony or any outside living space, so I've pulled some chairs close to the windows for the fur family to have a nice view. They're still in a bit of shock in the new environs and as we can hear a lot of doorbells and other phones ringing (and music - that story may come in a later episode!), they are still rather skitish. But they're eating and drinking and doing what follows - so that's a relief (pardon the pun).

I've had two days of checking-in at work and getting to know the embassy. It's a busy place full of employees from loads of different agencies and military groups. I hope to start learning my job this week so that I can feel useful rather than just decorative. Right now I'm more questions than answers, which is a bit uncomfortable. I've met some very nice people already, though, and I'm sure in about two years - I'll be settled and feeling confident and then... oh darn, it'll be time to go again!

Okay, next episode will be more about my new city and surroundings. Tim is busy preparing everything in Snohomish and will be headed south in about a month, too. He hasn't been able to start this new life yet, and the Tabbies and I have been at it since mid-March already. Think smart thoughts for me; I'll need it as I try to figure out the ins and outs of my OMS life.

Hasta luego...