Thursday, May 31, 2012

Relative Danger

It's a common refrain when I tell people that I live in Colombia:

"Really? Isn't it really dangerous there? Is it safe?"

And last year, when my husband and I told people we were joining the Foreign Service and were going to be posted anywhere in the world, many people responded with concern. Weren't we afraid for our safety in other countries?!

Isn't it a horrible irony then, to have a triple-homicide (with two more in critical care as I write this) in a cafe just four blocks from our family house in Seattle as we were getting ready to leave for a day of appointments. Followed by the same gunman taking the life of a women 30 minutes later as he stole her car to escape. This scene, coincidentally, was just blocks from my appointments. He later killed himself miles away as the police surrounded him.

These deaths bring the count to 20 murders in Seattle this year, where the yearly average is 26. It's only May.

And they say that Colombia is a danger post...

So, are we really safer inside our own borders?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Back to the familiar

Friday morning I headed out on my first R & R. The Embassy van pulled up in front of the building at 05:20 – ugh – and our doorman Francisco helped me drag my bag to the curb as I was barely dragging my own self. I took the front seat near the driver, and we started to make typical morning chit-chat. I told him I was leaving to visit family back in the States, to which he asked, “Extraña su tierra?”

I opened my mouth to answer, and then paused, started again and paused again. Do I miss my country? I thought that would be easy to answer, but as I gave it more than a moment’s thought, I couldn’t say definitively that I did or did not. In such a diverse nation like the US, we are accustomed to hearing people from all over the world talking about “in my country…” and longing for their familiar culture, music, food or just particular ways of being. So how should I answer that innocent question for the driver this morning?
I think I miss cultural fluency most. Being able to read a situation, whether it’s in the grocery store, at work or on the road, is a luxury that goes unnoticed until it’s gone. Also, having a shared sense of humor or frame of reference means that things don’t have to be explained and aren't so easily misunderstood; it can keep daily interactions with others lighthearted, easy, and comfortable.
I also miss a common understanding of “how things are done,” which sounds like cultural fluency, but here’s what I mean: There are certain things that people just DO or DON’T DO in American culture, and when someone crosses those lines – it’s apparent and they risk suffering the consequences either legally, criminally or through social scorn. For example, you just don’t slap your child in the face in the supermarket. I’m not saying that they do that in Colombia (quite the opposite, actually), but it’s an example. Living in another country one instantly notices these breaches of our own ingrained social norms, and I’ve caught myself thinking (and sometimes saying out loud), “WHAT?! You can’t just drive in the oncoming lanes! I don’t care how slow your lane is – you just don’t drive the wrong way in the other lane!” But here – you do; it’s simple efficiency.  If the lane next to you isn’t currently being used, why not pop across the ole’ double yellow and take advantage of it, right? So what if you’re on a curve on a windy mountain road. So what if it means that you arrive at the head of the traffic jam by passing 40 other cars and now you have to push back into line – it’s every man for themselves! Or, as the Colombians would say, “Que pena!”

“Que pena!” is the perfect example of a breach of a social norm that drives Americans living in Colombia batty. A common catch-all expression, it can mean, “Oh dear, I’m sorry!” in an honest way when someone can’t stop the elevator door in time for you to enter. It can mean, “Well then don’t park there next time and I won’t have to back my car into your headlight!” And, sadly, it also means, “Sucks to be you!” when it is the only apology offered from your upstairs neighbor whose housekeeper just used way too much water to wash the tile floor, causing your ceiling to fall in and your lights to blow out. 

Okay, I've got to say this: there is the utterly maddening habit Bogotanos have of stopping wherever they are for whatever reason, with complete disregard for whatever is behind them. This means a four-person-wide conversation in a narrow, busy hallway in the Embassy, or someone stopping to reach for a particular CD on the floor of their car while on the highway. Or my husband’s favorite – parking the shopping cart in the middle of the aisle (and leaving it there), to search for whatever it is you wanted, despite the fact that there are five people pushing their carts directly behind you.

So THAT’S what I miss about mi tierra. I miss what I’m used to. I miss the following of unspoken rules. I miss knowing how formal or casual to be in any given situation. I miss “common sense” that really is only common to one’s own culture. True, being surrounded with a whole new set of norms is at first interesting, sometimes jaw-dropping (“No! No! No! You simply CAN’T leave a manhole uncovered on a busy road!”), sometimes fun, and often frustrating. In nearly any country I can find American music, TV, movies, clothing, or food – that’s not what I miss. The part that can’t be duplicated to the same degree outside the borders is simply the comfort of one’s own social understanding. Even crossing into Canada, which on the surface seems to offer a barely discernible difference, there is a (subtly) distinct difference. I’m not saying that I only want the same – quite the contrary! But I can’t deny a certain guilty pleasure in enjoying the familiar that is relaxing and rejuvenating.

Perhaps that’s why they call it R&R!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Less Than an Hour Outside of Bogota...

Now that our time in Colombia has a much-sooner-than-expected end date, Tim and I are trying to cram in as many trips to our wish list destinations in our final months as we can. Colombia, the so-called "Land of Contrasts" has so much variety to offer visitors, it's hard to choose where to start. Should it be Leticia, in our little corner of the Amazon? The "Zona Cafetera" and the heart of the coffee-producing country? Perhaps Medellin, a city of parks, colorful birds darting about, a proper Metro system (which we aren't allowed to use) and great museums. Maybe El Cucuy National Park, an easy 11-hour drive from Bogota (sarcasm noted?) which I've heard described as the secret Andean gem of South America. Or there's the tropical island paradises of San Andres and Providencia


Unfortunately, each of our wish list spots involves an airplane and an overnight stay. And our movements are restricted by topography and security concerns. The Andes surround us, making driving more than a few hours outside of Bogota difficult at best. In fact, due to the infrastructural-challenges, shall we say, I've been told that it costs less for a cargo shipment to come from China to the west coast of Colombia, than for that very same shipment to get from that port to Bogota. 


Lest we forget that this is still a danger post, as there was a terrorist attack just 10 minutes south of our apartment last week that took the lives of the driver and bodyguard of a former Minister while his armored vehicle was stopped at a red light. The blast left dozens injured in a bus that was stopped alongside the motorcade. It was the first attack of this type in central Bogota for quite a while and was a rude reminder that there is still a very active and dangerous insurgency in the fringe Departments that occasionally spills over into our Big Brick City. 


So... after my lengthy preamble, I will say that we chose to head to the mountains above Bogota, to the area around the lovely town of Guasca. Despite the light rain that set in as we headed up La Calera to the mountain plateau above Bogota, and the steady overcast and 63 degrees that accompanied us throughout the day - it was just perfect. With a free map given to us by a friendly tourist-agency woman at her roadside booth, we decided to head off the paved road to find a nature preserve, a little cafe for lunch and then a historic chapel in the middle of the hills before ending our tour in the town of Guasca. We'd visited there before and were enchanted by the quiet and welcoming feel of the hillside town. 


Let me now give props to our Ford Ranger for carrying us up the rutted, pot-holed, slippery clay Andean dirt roads. And let me apologize to my liver and kidneys... it was quite a rough ride that infrequently let us hit second gear. But traveling at 6 mph let us see just how lovely this country is. 


The nature preserve folks turned out to be busy taking a group through their property, so we only stopped long enough to learn this. Next we headed across the hills to look for the cafe noted on the map. After getting "red barn" directions from a farmer alongside the road, ("He said we should look for the waterfall and then curve right." "Waterfall? I thought he said we'd come to a crossroads and go straight!" "The map doesn't show this road coming to a T-intersection! Now where?" "Are you sure this isn't someone's driveway? I think this looks like a driveway!"), we finally found the entrance to Cafe Huerta.  Created by a so-called "eccentric gringo" from Texas 20+ years ago, the cafe, bar, restaurant and inn was an amazing find! It felt as if we'd just stepped into a 19th century Irish cottage, with low-timbered ceilings, a coal-burning fire, fresh roses at every table and small-paned windows offering views into the central courtyard garden. We knew it was a good sign when we pulled into the driveway to see a chef buying fresh leeks and other vegetables from the back of a farmer's truck. I was figuring that lunch would be a quick soup or sandwich, but instead we had what amounted to an anniversary-or-special-occasion full lunch. It started with a small skillet of warm cornbread and a shared bowl of garden salad with homemade buttermilk dressing. After that I moved to a fillet of beef wrapped in bacon and soaking in a cream and blue cheese sauce (please don't tell my coronary system...). Mmm hmmm... As we left, we noticed the framed excerpt from "333 Places To Visit In Colombia Before You Die." 

Preparing to be stuffed!

Cafe Huerta Grounds


Dining Room - Cafe Huerta
Inside the Capilla
Capilla de Siecha
With full bellies, we headed back to the roads to look for the Capilla de Siecha. We found it standing in a manicured pasture overlooking the valley just below. Seconds after pulling the truck into the adjacent field, the caretaker appeared to greet us and request the $1 admission fee (for both of us). He told us the chapel dated to the 1600s and walked us through the perfectly white-washed interior and upstairs to a little balcony. His sheep were responsible for the tidiness of the pasture, and were still grazing with their lambs on the grounds. Next to the chapel were the ruins of another building of the same vintage. He said (something) about them taking off the roof and letting the place fall to ruin, but I didn't fully understand what he was telling us. And you reach a point where asking someone to explain it again in other words just gets tiring for the poor narrator.
The friendly caretaker and guide
Resident among the ruins
Finally we turned up towards Guasca, encountering a young boy and a very broken bicycle on the road. We offered him a ride home and tossed his bike in the back of the truck. We drove him (Andres) into the town and dropped him off where we figured he'd either get a walloping for accepting a ride from strangers, or nobody would believe him that the gringos with the blue license plates picked him up in their weird American camioneta and drove him home. 

After that it was time to head back to Bogota...

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Passing the Spanish Test

I don't mean to lead anyone astray in thinking that I'm going to give you the secrets to passing a language exam... I just wanted to get your attention to say that if anyone is looking for a Spanish tutor to help improve their skills (at whatever level you may be) - I have a good recommendation. For the past few months I have been working with Maria Elena Guzman via Skype in private tutoring sessions in preparation for my FSI phone test. Even now that it's over, I will continue with her to keep from losing any ground. Plus, I know that once I get to FSI - the official in-person test will come a' calling once again.

Anyway, she came recommended from a friend who was an aspiring FSO (and now is working in Bogota with me), and I can say that her patience, yet persistence, really helped me enormously. She is in Antigua, Guatemala (hence the Skype lessons), and has been teaching for 27 years, particularly with FS officers and aspiring FS officers and Peace Corps volunteers. And just anyone who wants to learn Spanish!

If you're interested, here are the details:
Maria Elena Guzman
maestrago at yahoo dot com

Her sessions are extremely reasonable and she has no end of patience.
Heck - she helped ME pass!

Buena suerte!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

An EFM Work Solution and Taking Pets Abroad

That's a pretty long title, touching on two weighty issues, but I've been meaning to give an update on my husband's work situation. Plus, I'd like to offer a sobering reminder about bringing pets into the FS life.

First, after applying for nearly a dozen embassy jobs and interviewing for about five  without success ("We really liked you! You gave such a good interview! It's just that the other man/woman already had the same job in Japan/Bolivia/Tajikistan..."), Tim decided to take an intensive one-month course to earn his CELTA certificate to teach English to adults. Fortunately, the course was offered here in Bogota, as the majority of his classmates traveled from all over the world to attend. He also has a professional background in education so we figured that unless we be assigned to Canada, England, New Zealand or Stockholm, he'd be able to find plenty of students. His decision made sense.

He completed the course at the end of February and in a short span of time, signed on with a company that sends English teachers out to businesses for their employees. He now teaches PT for execs at Nestle and walks 15 minutes to work each morning. Plus, through the Community Liaison Office (CLO) and advertising on the Embassy newsletter, he was able to find Embassy-community students who need after-school tutoring or SAT-preparation classes. It means a very broken-up schedule of mornings, lunches and evenings - but it keeps him busy and he is especially enjoying  meeting the Colombians and learning more about life here.  Now that we're headed back to FSI, he'll try to get as much training as is allowed (for EFMs, it's on a space-available basis), especially in language training.

Okay - now the aforementioned sobering reminder:

This past week was one of great highs and lows. First, learning about my A-100 invitation and having passed my Spanish test. But then on Wednesday night we noticed that Dodger, one of the Tabbies, was acting very strangely. He was exceedingly restless, running around the apartment in an abnormal manner, and going to the litter box again and again. It was when I noticed that he was able to produce only a pea-sized drop of blood-tinged urine that I realized we had a serious problem. Of course, it was 10 pm...

First thing in the morning, I called my vet and my boss (in that order) and brought Dodger in to the vet's office at 8:15 am. At 8:30 the vet determines that his blockage isn't too bad, and that with an antibiotic and an anti-inflammatory, plus a day of observation, he should be fine. Seconds after administering the antibiotic/steroid mix via injection, and before my terrified eyes, he goes into anaphylactic shock and begins to vomit and convulse. I thought I was witnessing his.. well, I can't even bring myself to type that word. My vet, recognizing the severity of the situation, scoops his now-limp body up in a blanket and tells me we're taking him immediately to the emergency vet nearby. We jump in my truck, and with her holding Dodger and me trying not to crash in the morning traffic, we drive less than 10 minutes to the emergency vet. En route, she phones the other vets to describe our situation so they'll be prepared to receive him. We pull up, she jumps out and I go try to park. By the time I return, he is in kitty ICU being attended by the emergency vets. Within 90 minutes, I am allowed to see him and he's in a glass incubator-type cage with an IV of steroids and fluids, receiving oxygen in a warmed environment. He looks like my Dodger again. He stayed there all day, and by 5 pm he was stable enough to go home. He is now 90% better, and we're monitoring the urinary blockage problem and his status in general.

So here is why I bring this up:

As a FS pet owner, or I should note - as the mother of a fur family - because that is the depth of feeling I have for our cats, I have to accept that there is a chance that we will be assigned to a place that is not pet-friendly. We could be assigned to an island nation with lengthy quarantines; we could be posted to a country where there is barely health care for humans, much less animals; we could be posted to a country where it will cost thousands of dollars to get each kitty to post via cargo; and we could go to a country suffering civil unrest where we may be evacuated with two hours notice and no-pets-allowed on the evacuation flight.

These are all realities that haunt me regularly.

We were exceedingly fortunate to have been in Bogota when this event happened.
I had a car to drive my ailing cat to his vet. She had all the necessary supplies to treat him. When the situation dramatically changed, there was an EMERGENCY vet only ten minutes away with competent, well-trained staff and people who believe that animals are worthy of saving. If any one of these pieces of the puzzle were missing - I shudder to even think about it.

How do I handle these two realities: the worry for my cats' health and the knowledge that many posts will not offer the necessities I've listed above.

Basically, by putting my fingers in my ears and going "blah-blah-blah... won't happen to us!!" and denying it. I have to admit that. Naturally, our bid list was submitted with the cats in mind first-off. But there's never going to be a guarantee that we won't get our last-pick, as someone has to go to that post, and what if we ALL have beloved pets?

I really don't have a good answer. It is a reality of FS life and all I can do is hope for good luck, have my "Emergency Cat First Aid" book on the shelf and their kitty go-bags ready for evacuation (pillow cases if needed). I wanted to chew on this subject a bit as I'm sure a good number of you out there find yourself in the same position.

Switching over to becoming an FSO means I've signed up for two more "directed assignments" wherein we'll have to throw the dice and see what comes up. We have not only the cats to think about, but also my husband's work and general life-enjoyment to consider. We got very lucky in Bogota. Let's see what happens in July...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

168th A-100 Here We Come!

Good Morning Ms. H,
The Registrar's Office is pleased to extend an appointment offer for the July 16, 2012 - Junior Officer Class

Looks like we're heading back to FSI!

Much to my surprise yesterday morning, while looking for the results of my Spanish phone test from last week, I found this message from the Registrar instead. I really wasn't expecting this to come so soon, so it's a bit of a shock. I contacted the Registrar to say, first, "YES!" and second, to ask if I'd been boosted up the register due to passing the language test. They hadn't even received the results yet, so the irony of it all is that after all my stressing and fussing and extra lessons - it looks like my plain ole' score earned me the invitation after all.

Oh wait, let me explain a minute for those who are new to the FS vocabulary. "A-100" is the nickname for the five-week foreign service officer's training course. It takes its name from the original room in Main State where it used to be held, before there was a Foreign Service Institute (FSI). When I went through the training to be an OMS, it was simply called a Specialist Orientation and it lasted three weeks. During this five-week course, besides learning about being a FS employee (again), we will also have sections like public speaking, and answering difficult questions. We will also get another bid list, much larger than the last one I got with only 13 posts on it, and we will have another Flag Day (yay!).

At the end of A-100, chances are good that I'll get six weeks of ConGen training. This is the very specific training for Consular Officers, complete with mock interviews, jail cell visits and volumes of immigration law to digest.

And let's not forget language training! As Consular Officers must communicate directly with the public all day, every day as they conduct interviews - language abilities are crucial. Just because I have some Spanish abilities is absolutely no guarantee that we'll be sent to a Spanish-speaking post. In fact, it's a running joke that if someone is fluent in French, chances are good they're going to be assigned to China instead.

Now for the frosting on the cake: I received word today that I actually did pass the Spanish phone test. Woohoo!!!

To understand more about what a Consular Officer actually does, here is some extra reading, if you have a moment. If you follow a few more links from this page, there are some cool examples of the work I'll be doing over the coming years.

How does my husband feel?  He's excited to reshuffle the deck of cards again and see what comes up. With his newly-minted certificate to teach English - he's far more portable now.

How do the Tabbies feel?
Shhhh.... we're waiting to find a way to break it to them. I think Dodger will be happy remembering his sunny balcony in our Oakwood apartment. Toby liked the wall-to-wall carpet and Tim has promised to take Daphne for walks by the pool. Hmmm... maybe we shouldn't bring that up just yet.


Monday, May 7, 2012

Ten Years Ago Today

Shortly before there was "the plan" between my husband and me to live abroad, there was "the trip." Beginning ten years ago today, I took off on an eight-month backpacking trip around the world. (Technically it was "around the world" as I continued to head east the whole way until popping up on the other side; however, there were a handful of continents I missed.) This period in my life is on my mind now not only because it's the 10th anniversary, but because it was that trip that solidified my drive to have a life that reached further than my neighborhood. At that time although I obviously knew about embassies and Ambassadors and diplomats, I'd never heard of the Foreign Service, per se. I didn't have a Master's degree in international relations (or any other subject, for that matter); I just knew in a misty sort of way that I wanted to do something on a larger scale.

SEATAC Airport Homecoming 2002


Ten years later, have I succeeded?

Does being an OMS in an embassy equate to "something larger"? I'm going to say yes, it does.

I'm not out there negotiating hostage releases or preserving endangered species and the forests they live in - true. But I do have a front-row seat to those who are and do. The piece of the pie for an OMS is to do all the stuff that would otherwise occupy the time of the people who ARE out negotiating treaties, or insuring intellectual property rights, or hashing out agreements on fishing permits, or ensuring that the military equipment we give other countries ends up in the right hands. I'm surrounded by important stuff, even if I'm simply making the travel arrangements for those who are DOING it.

I suppose I could feel inferior for taking this supportive role, but I don't. An OMS should like to make things easier on people, and I do. It was just a little thing, but one of my proudest moments in my new job was to receive an e-mail from a government traveler from DC who I'd been helping, who said, "It's people like you who give working for the government a good name."  It's not an international treaty - but it made me feel successful.

Plus, for my own part and that of my husband's, we're living "the plan" in an ever-changing and ever-challenging life that keeps us feeling alive. Yes, it keeps us complaining, adjusting, and hoping, too - but doesn't that happen in any life? It may have taken ten years (well, nine as we started last year), but I do feel like I've realized a dream, reached a horizon.

So now that I'm feeling settled and satisfied, another thought comes to mind. To explain it, I have to (roughly) quote one of my favorite movies: "There is no end-zone dance; you're never finished!" I learned on Friday that the person only three spots ahead of me on the Consular Register just got an invitation to A-100 for July. As my husband said, "fasten your seat belts!"  These coming months could get interesting!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Birthday, A Spanish Exam and The Consular Register

I would like to start today by wishing a Feliz Cumpleanos to two of the Tabbies:
Dodger and Daphne turned 14 today. This isn't the best picture, unless you're really curious about what the back of our closet looked like a year ago when the movers came to pack up all THEIR furniture. I took it because it was the first time since they were little kittens that they snuggled so close to each other. Sorry about the closed eyes; I was using the flash. Anyway, Happy Birthday to my two litter mate tabbies, my loves. Toby - you're next buddy!

Today was important for a few more reasons, too.

Let me start this section by saying that I am sooo loving stretching out in the luxury of my own native tongue right now. Full trains of thought effortlessly slip my from brain to my fingertips. No dictionaries, no thumbing through notebooks or loose hand-outs, no seeing what Google Translate has to say, and then backing it up with Word Reference. No, I can just talk or type and I don't sound like an idiot (okay, okay - how about just an occasional goofball?). I don't have that sinking feeling that five year-olds within earshot are itching to correct me when they hear me say something so obviously not right.

See, I took my (maldito) Spanish test today. Yeah... not too happy about it either. As you may remember, this test has seriously career-changing implications. If I pass - and I'm about 96.7% sure that I did not - I will receive extra points on the Consular register which will sling-shot me towards the head of the class. Without these points, my chance of getting called on to become a Consular Officer is, well, bromoso, err, I mean foggy.

I've been taking Spanish classes at the Embassy three mornings per week since I arrived. Recently I hired a private tutor via Skype for lessons twice per week. I've been practicing  with my Colombian co-workers over lunches and even did a marathon session on Saturday of about 5 hours of non-stop Spanish with a couple we know. I have to speak Spanish to our porteros (doormen) in the building whose version of the language frequently baffles me; I occasionally scare taxi drivers with my urge to make small-talk, and I chat with my co-volunteers at the animal shelter every Sunday. I HAVE BEEN TRYING! Is I guess what I'm getting at here.

But this morning, as I sat on the floor in the spare room, taking my exam via speaker phone to FSI and speaking what I had imagined would be complete, clear, grammatically correct and conjugationally-diverse sentences... I realized that really I was just rambling and not enunciating my vowels clearly enough to allow the examiners to distinguish between "pueden" and "puedan" (indicative vs. subjunctive - big difference) and frankly - sinking. I spoke for 23 minutes on a variety of topics. I can't be specific as we have a strict non-disclosure agreement for all stages of the FS testing process, but I can say that the topics they asked me about we not the ones I'd imagined leading them towards in my cleverly-crafted introductory gettin'-to-know-you part. I had mentally crafted stories about working on the Summit, about Colombia's Free Trade Agreement with the US, about all sorts of cool things that if I were an examiner - I'd want to hear about! Nope, they didn't bite. So instead I rambled on trying vainly to answer their questions and I'm fairly certain I failed. I will know sometime next week when I call the Board of Examiners and get some perfectly polite receptionist who looks my name up in a database and in one perfectly polite sentence, dashes my dreams.

So that's that.

But wait - there's a bit more:

In a huff, I wrote to the Consular Registar and told them to reinstate my candidacy. My in-case-of-emergency-break-glass shot has been taken. I am now actively on the register to become a Consular Officer, sitting proudly at number 25 out of 66. I got fairly excited hearing that news, until a few hours ago when I got a message from the candidate just in front of me saying that as of moments earlier, the registrar told her she was #27. Which means that in the space of one-third of one day, I dropped three spots to #28. The register is a cruel and mercurial mistress, and one's position can rise and fall like the stock market depending on the candidates in front of you. Who got pregnant and deferred? Whose candidacy expired? Who actually passed the maldito language test and just zipped past me? Who accepted an offer and is packing their bags to go to FSI? All these things affect one's standing on the register and the best one can do is just keep the day job and cross a bunch of fingers.

Oh, that and continue taking Spanish lessons because there's another exam with my name on it that will be scheduled for some time in November. Wish me luck.