Saturday, August 19, 2023

Uprooted: Culture Shock in One's Own Country

 It didn't take much time working in our garden for me to declare that no seed falls on infertile soil in El Salvador. New sprouts popped through the dirt before I'd even hung up the rake, potting soil came with stowaways confidently sprouting by the time I cut open the bag, and a thin layer of dust on the patio was encouragement enough for something to take root and unfurl a few leaves before we unceremoniously plucked it out. 

This shouldn't have been a surprise; it's a tropical, agreeable climate with an ample supply of both water and sunshine. Seeing a sapling pushing undeterred through a crack in the pavement or a retaining wall never ceased to make me smile. Beyond the environmental factors, however, Salvadorans themselves are naturally open and welcoming, their easy smiles and relaxed manners inviting you to not hurry on, but sit and enjoy a moment. The warmth of the climate and people simply encourages everything to grow roots, to persevere despite difficulty, to live and to thrive. So we did. We let our own roots grow, establishing a home, friendships, favorite places, and learning not just the roads, but also the way. 

Therefore it felt all the more brusque when our tour ended and it was our turn to be yanked from the soil. This was our ninth move in 12 years, yet it was by far the most difficult. It seems we'd become rootbound.

Initially, I was really looking forward to returning to the United States. I longed for the comfort of the familiar, for cultural fluency, familial proximity, for not being the foreigner, for being able to express myself with clarity, nuance, even humor, instead of blunt basics. Plus, we'd have changing seasons, plants we'd know the names of, and driving habits that wouldn't make us shout. But with just two weeks back on U.S. soil, I'm finding the transition to be less of an easy slide into comfortable slippers and more like I got off at the wrong bus stop and am standing on the corner wondering where in the hell am I?

While in the past four years we had a few family visits and a one-month home leave to the U.S., in retrospect I see that was enough to merely notice the cultural shifts without having to adapt to them. The pandemic exponentially accelerated what might have been normal, evolutionary changes, leaving me and my husband running to catch up. Whereas the pandemic's lasting effects on El Salvador seemed only to be that restaurants plastic-wrapped meals before carrying them from the kitchen to the table, it feels like American culture is still bent on reducing human interaction and keeping people in the "comfort of their own home." What were initially pandemic-era necessities have stuck around as the new normal way of life. Businesses tout being contact-less, door-to-door delivery, no-cash, easy peasey. Malls and office buildings are nearly empty as everyone shops online; grocery stores are mostly self-checkout; and medical appointments are increasingly virtual. All this requires more technology and less humanity. "There's an app for that" does not warm our hearts but instead makes us grind our teeth as we create yet another account, user name and password, only to be rewarded with promises that all the data sharing will make our lives so much easier. 

The other night we were having Vietnamese Pho for dinner at a nearby restaurant and, as I can't resist doing, I started a conversation with the Vietnamese waitress. The place wasn't too busy and she was quite chatty, and so within about 10 minutes we'd learned quite a lot about her and her immigration journey, which was really interesting. While she was recounting her story, I saw a handful of individual customers come into the restaurant, pick up their to-go orders, pay the cashier, and leave. Convenient? I suppose. But by staying isolated in our self-controlled environments we miss out on the happenstance interactions (with people, animals, the weather) that give our daily lives color, interest, depth, and a better understanding of the other humans around us. Is this really the most fertile environment for life

Waiting for the bus the other day, no doubt grousing about this unfamiliar world we've found ourselves in, my husband wisely concluded, "We just have to consider this a transition to a new culture, as we've done before. We have to figure out from scratch how to adapt." He's right, because so far it feels like an inhospitable climate that doesn't want us to grow roots, but instead just wants to extract our resources and leave us wilted and yellow. 

To weather these changes, I need to soak up the parts of this American life that still fuel me; to fertilize my own roots, if you will. I can do this by having analog interactions with others to remind me of their humanity and not just their other-ness. I can do this by getting away from the sterile, paved-over environment and into the trees, along the water's edge, and out to broad horizons. There is nothing more soul-affirming than sitting on a precipice overlooking a valley and being face-to-face with what is tangible, grand, and inspiring. Something that has - and will - outlast the things of man.

Now that's the type of soil I can grow in.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

El Salvador - Que Le Vaya Bien

 I can't remember not knowing El Salvador. I no longer have the images in my head of what it would be like before coming here. I know I wasn't scared or trepedatious, but while I am always curious about new places, I just hadn't been drawn to Central America previously. It was lumped into a box labeled hot and humid, bananas and sugarcane, troubled politics, and insecurity. Other than our Salvadoran housekeeper Jeanette who told me in the 1980s about crossing the border on foot while pregnant to escape the civil war, I didn't have other sources of information about the country to update these impressions. 

It was sometime in 2018 when I ran into a friend in D.C. while eating lunch alone on a terrace at work one day. He had just arrived from overseas for a Washington assignment and over sack lunches we caught up on the intervening years since we'd last talked. He's someone whose kind and easygoing nature I've always appreciated, and as evidenced in his writing and photography, I felt we saw the details of life through a similar lens. Anyway, I mentioned I was bidding on my next assignment and was looking overseas, hopefully somewhere English or Spanish speaking.  

What about San Salvador? He asked.

Hmmm, I hadn't really given it much thought, I replied, thinking about a friend who'd been in neighboring Honduras and told me she thought she needed therapy to recover from all the cockroaches she'd had to kill in her house.  

I'm not so sure. 

No really, it's great! You'd love it. Put it this way - for as much as I loved it there - my wife and four kids loved it even more.  In fact, if the timing were better - I would consider going back.  

Really? Hmmm...

That was the kind of endorsement I understood. 

Clearly I did consider it, because now I can't even remember what it was like not to know this country: the faces, the landscape, the towns, the colors, the smells, the sounds, the weather, the birds, the history, the silliness, the work ethic, the local names, and overall - the warmth of the people.  And now I can't imagine what it will be like to not live here anymore.  

My husband and I dug into the country, observing daily life and talking to people in each of the 14 departamentos (states). While I have thousands of photographs of the country's gorgeous landscapes, these aren't its best assets. It's the people who make this country more beautiful than the sum of its beaches, waterfalls, volcanoes, mountains, and lakes. Therefore, it is their stories that should be told to bring to life to what happens alongside the lush scenery. 

With acknowledged great generalization, I can lump El Salvador into three economic strata, each clearly divided from the next, and yet inseperably entwined, with the common thread among each being the tightly woven fabric of family

The literal tightly woven fabric of family at a small San Sebastian family business.

Let's start with the regular folks.

The other day my husband and I were driving home from the beach along the La Libertad highway. It's a four-lane highway connecting the capital San Salvador to the central coast beaches promoted collectively as "Surf City." We don't surf, but we do visit the beaches, so we were taking advantage of the well-paved road, complete with new bypass, to zip from shore to home in about 35 minutes. Here, as in other parts of the country, life is on display on the roadside. Given the steep topography of the country, with most places covered in dense or jungly vegetation, plus the fact that so many people don't own cars, walking along the road is often the only way to get anywhere. A good percentage of this country walk, wait for buses, sell things, cook food, sell food, eat food, hang their washing, dry their corn, or simply just visit with neighbors on the roadsides. All it takes is looking out the window to see what life for the majority of the population is like.

The most perfumy-delicious "panades" mangos: 3 for a buck

As we headed home that day, I noticed three pre-teen girls walking in a tight cluster. Their heads turned in together, they were chatting and laughing about something. The three were thin and leggy as colts in their t-shirts and knee-length skirts, and each carried a sturdy plastic cántaro, a 3 gallon water jug. Each girl had a different colored cántaro: red, green, or blue. I saw they were empty as the girls carried them easily, tucked under an arm or swung by a few fingers in the handle. They were walking from their houses along the highway to the nearest water source, a walk they likely took a few times a day. Had I seen them on the reverse trip, they'd have balanced their cántaros on their heads, on top of a rodete (a circular fabric bun) to keep the 25+ pound jugs of sloshing water more stable. But in that moment, they were just young friends, laughing and going through their daily routines together. I smiled at seeing them, remembering my own early teen years walking languidly home with friends after school, taking our time to avoid the waiting house chores, homework, or general family oversight.  

Carrying a tub of corn masa home, little brother "helping."

A few minutes later we passed a family hurrying down the road. The father led the way about 20 feet ahead of his wife, a stern look on his face and his torso inclined forward in that gait that is still a walk but is about to be a jog. He looked very intent on getting somewhere and I wondered where that could be? His wife, rushing to keep up as best she could in flip-flops and a tight skirt, was carrying her toddler son draped across her body, supported into the crook of her right arm. With her left arm, she simultaneously held the boy's head to her left breast and also kept the left shoulder of her blouse from falling down as she nursed her son on the run. His legs and right arm swung limply with her quick steps, his dead-weight resting completely on his mother. My husband narrated the scene in the father's voice: "... and we're not stopping!" 

Finally, another few minutes up the road we passed an elderly woman walking alone, carrying two full plastic bags. Her strides were short and labored, and her posture so stooped that her neck had to crane upwards to see where she was going, not unlike a turtle. I assumed she was on her way home after buying some food, but there were no markets nearby, so likely her bags were full of produce bought from neighbors. I hoped she didn't have far to go at that pace and also wondered if there would be anyone home to help her when she got there. But if there were, why did they let her make this trip herself? 

An old man and some good friends in Juayua.

In just 10 minutes, I saw the life span of a Salvadoran woman born into seriously low economics. I'm trying to avoid saying "poor" here, but there's no way around it. With the minimum wage somewhere around $300 per month, this majority of the population teeter on the economic brink. Barring extraordinary circumstances, the three girls will soon be the young mother breast feeding on the go, and eventually the stooped elderly woman, likely a widow, fending for herself. If they're lucky, enough family will have remained nearby to care for them or at least help out. The girls will probably stop school at 6th grade and thereafter go from caring for their parents and siblings to their own families. The cycle of life on display in one short car trip; it's no wonder Salvadorans consider making the trek north for what's generally considered "better opportunities." 

Life in the Middle

Meanwhile, firmly in the middle class, we have three sets of Salvadoran friends currently considering leaving El Salvador to migrate to the United States. Not illegally, but because they are or soon will be beneficiaries of immigrant visas. While the country is the smallest in Central America at approximately the size of New Jersey, according to a recent study of the largest foreign-born populations in the United States, Salvadorans are fourth behind the population giants of Mexico, China, and India. With the Salvadoran diaspora in the United States at well over two million, and a total country population at just 6.3 million, there's an excellent chance that everybody has somebody in the United States. That means for many, legal migration through family is an ace held up the sleeve just in case. 

Beach resort Mizata hosting international tourists and surfers who can afford it.  

Of our three friends, one family with two teen daughters has been excited about the prospect of moving to Georgia as the mother will soon be the recipient of a Special Immigrant Visa as reward for her years of service to the U.S. Embassy. While tempted by the possibility of expanding the educational and career opportunities for their girls, the parents are also concerned about starting afresh as mid-career professionals. They live comfortable, suburban lives now; they are not escaping poverty or insecurity. Instead, they are evealuating their current lives and concerns about the political and economic stability of their country against the reality of starting from scratch in a very expensive country without the family network that puts grandparents and cousins within easy reach. Plus, one family member is recovering from a serious illness that would be considered a pre-existing condition in future insurance coverage. 

The next example is a dual-citizen friend, born in North Carolina to Salvadoran parents. He returned to live in El Salvador after college where he met his now wife. She just received her immigrant visa and they are poised to head north with their two very young children. But as he looks at the slim job prospects substantial enough to support a family of four and compares that to his current comfortable lifestyle - golfing on the weekend, friends with beach houses - they too question if it's worth it. Plus, the skyrocketing number of school shootings has them seriously concerned about brining up their children with that type of fear. 

Finally, a third colleague will soon receive his immigrant visa and is tortured by the same "Is it really better there?" questions. His visa class requires him to be unmarried at the time of issuance, yet he's in a serious relationship. Should he immigrate, they would need to marry after he entered the United States and then be separated for a few years while she waited for him to petition for her own visa. They have a dog who is like their child, a home they're improving, and two solid jobs. While they speak perfect English, they also question job prospects, the cost of living, and starting afresh in a new culture and climate. 

For the middle class where immigrating is not a decision based on necessity - it's questionable if the American Dream is the one for them (or if it even exists).  

The Wealthy

To be more precise, the super wealthy, members of a small cadre of elite families engrained in the country for generations but not native to the land. Their last names are recognizable as being captains of industry, creators and concentrators of great wealth from coffee, construction, retail, banking, or real estate. Most seed money came from generations ago as the great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents moved to Central America from Europe or the Middle East and owned giant swaths of what is now El Salvador, making fortunes in coffee or indigo. Today the family names are replaced by the business conglomerates they operate.

With no claims that this little tyke is from a uber wealthy family, I'm still fairly confident she won't be carrying the family's water on her head.

Although we live in a secure, middle to upper-middle class neighborhood with home prices similar to that of major U.S. cities, we don't rub shoulders with this level of wealth. But we have met a few, here and there, at the barn where I ride every week or through my husband's work in the Embassy's American Citizen Services section. There he took their passport renewal applications as many are dual citizens, and met their polite, perfectly mannered, bilingual children. After leaving his ACS job, my husband crossed paths with them again when looking to volunteer at foundations bearing their family names. In our limited experience, this upper crust has been very kind and welcoming and have not turned their noses up at us. We see their Ferraris on the streets and hear their helicopters overhead, rising above the din of the city's traffic. I've gone to the horse shows and seen the polo fields where they compete on beautiful, imported horses. Yet down at the stable where the two ends of the social strata form a circle, the grooms who care for these lovely horses do their best using makeshift or broken equipment to keep the horses healthy and the barns together. 

"We improvise" was the response I got from the head groom when I asked about what tools they had to do their jobs. I think of the horse owners who can afford to helicopter from the barn to their beach house to avoid traffic and yet don't arrange appropriate machinery to clear tons of mud from the barnyard after a landslide, or to bury a horse who died of colic on the property overnight. It seems no backhoe was offered then to help the head groom dispose of the horse's body, so once again he improvised - with a machete and a shovel.

It is this disparity that bothers me the most about life here, but this a sensitive, complicated and therefore often untouched topic, so I'll leave it there. 

Lasting Impressions

We've come to really love this country and the Salvadorans we've been fortunate to meet. It's a complex society - as most are - with each level depending on the other for its existence. While I've certainly experienced my share of frustrations and have shouted "If only they would...!" more than once, there are MANY aspects where El Salvador excels. First on that list are the tight-knit families who spend weekends together en masse, or the rural communities who raise their children collectively with large support structures. I compare that to the recognized rise in "more developed" countries of youth depression and suicide and question who's doing it better? 

Spontaneous smiles for a stranger from a family.

I regularly marvel at the Salvadoran ability not to take oneselves too seriously and let themselves have old fashioned FUN together. I relish their unequivical warmth towards visitors and immediate instinct to help someone out who needs it. Every goodbye is not an "Adios" but a "Que le vaya bien!" (take care!) delivered with a smile. Anyone with food near them will be wished "Buen provecho!" by another walking by. I see their back-breaking physical work to achieve what could be done so much easier with the right equipment - all without complaint. And among the majority, there is zero sense of entitlement, perhaps to a fault. What they receive is humbly accepted with thanks given. 

Leaving here after four years, I know I will keep these people, their stories, their faces, their questions, their struggles, and their joys alive with me. I will leave you here with a snippet of a regular Sunday at the beach that to me exemplifies the spirit of El Salvador: a little dangerous, a bit chaotic, full of energy and love, and with the innate ability to let go and just enjoy. 

These videos are best viewed full-screen to see the people's faces:


El Salvador - I leave you with a final "Quelevayabien!" 

Sunday, March 19, 2023

A Change of Plans: Breaking an Assignment and Finding Another

When we last left off, the four of us were looking forward to our next assignment to Lusaka, Zambia where I'd be Consular Chief in a small section. Okay, truth be told, the non-Tabbies didn't yet know they were ever going to leave their beloved Salvadoran house garden after four years, but at least my husband and I were enthusiastic about the idea. I'd tucked three Zambian guide books (travel, culture, and birds) under the Christmas tree for him. We'd gotten congratulatory messages from friends who knew the country and were excited for us to get to know it, and others who started planning their Zambian vacations. We began receiving welcoming messages from the embassy and questionaires about our housing preferences. We were imagining life in our new city, and were considering options for buying a right-hand drive car. Essentially, it was all systems go on this new destination. I began to negotiate my transfer timing between what's referred to as the "losing post" (San Salvador) and the "gaining post" (Lusaka) for later this summer.  

Meanwhile, something was not sitting well with me. I heard myself dropping bits of unidentified, nagging anxieties into conversations, making light of my concerns by expressing them with a chuckle. I'd gauge my husband's, friends' or coworkers' reactions to see if my fears were off base. I secretly wished someone would say what I was too afraid to say myself: "You don't HAVE to go there, you know."  I considered the odds of some sort of divine intervention making the decision for me.

Was it Zambia? No! We weren't trepidatious about living there at all. We were excited to meet the people and explore the country and region. 

Was it the job? Not entirely. I had only heard the best about the post and people in charge. Great ambassador - I was told I would be very fortunate to work with him and a friend thought we'd get along well. From my interview, I really enjoyed the Deputy Chief of Mission who would be my direct boss and was looking forward to stepping up and being part of the Country Team. 

So why the turning stomach? 

It started almost immediately after receiving my handshake when I began in earnest to research the travel to post. Negotiating the timing of our departure and arrival was a bit contentious, as is often the case, with each post wanting me to stay the longest and arrive the soonest. Balancing this meant most likely we'd be flying from our west coast home leave location to Zambia with the cats, an itinerary of three flights, two of them overnight, and close to 30 hours of travel. I began to imagine the worst case scenario for them during transit and the worst case began to snowball. 

Then came the realization that should I need to come back home for whatever reason, I'd have to repeat that trip (sans cats) all the while juggling my responsibilities as Consular Chief with only one other American officer in the section to handle affairs in my absence. The belt began tightening around my waist. 

Yes, I was getting to the heart of my qualms now. 

We lost my/our mother a year ago very suddenly, but fortunately I was able to get north to see my family with relative ease. When my father died a few years back, we were in DC which made it even easier to catch a direct flight to the west coast a few times over his last six months. Being only a few time zones away made for easy communication, too. In addition, there were two other serious family health issues where forces were mustered to help out. Being in El Salvador left much of this burden to the geographically closest siblings, something I regret. And let's face it, none of us is getting any younger and the chances of wanting or needing to be physically present is only growing. This simply wasn't the time to be half a world away in a stressful, highly responsible position. 

But I'd actively bid on and accepted the position, so now I had to make the best of it, right? In an effort to imagine what life was going to feel like in my new role, I started quizzing friends who are Consular Chiefs in similar-sized sections. "What is the stress load like? Do you have time for family? Are you enjoying the work?" All were kindly supportive, as good friends are, giving me assurances of "Of course you can do it!" I began to psych myself up with a chorus from The Little Engine That Could. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can! All the while, their assurances didn't settle my nerves because I hadn't been asking the right questions. I didn't need an answer to CAN I do it, but do I WANT to do it? Or really, do I NEED to do it? That answer could come only from me. 

So over one weekend, after the drumbeats of my dropped hints were getting louder and louder, I just said the unthinkable out loud: I need to break my assignment to Lusaka. No sooner had I declared this than my husband said he'd support my decision 100 percent. I tried to back-pedal: but our plans, but the guide books, but another adventure in the chapter of me and you, but, but, but... He held firm in his support. 

The instant we agreed, it felt as if I had taken off the tighest, most binding pair of pants and shoes you could imagine. Like that moment when you come home from work, kick off the pinchy shoes, strip naked just steps inside the front door, and pull on your favorite sweats. That's how releived I felt at making this decision. 

Now, it's important to add some context about breaking an assignment.  First, as Foreign Service employees we swear from day one to be worldwide available. To uphold this, there is a strong culture of service, pride in taking one for the team, buck up buttercup this is what we all go through, not everyone can go to Paris, you know...  I don't point this out as an intrinsically derogatory feature of the profession, mind you. We need to be made of sterner stuff to serve around the world, and the harder the post, the greater the (financial) reward. Further, I pride myself on NOT being a whiner. My husband and I adapt well to local environments. We are not motivated by doing just what increases our comfort, or trying to export an American lifestyle to Timbuktu. It's just not us. Plus, keeping committments is a really, really big deal to me. I will put myself out first, before doing so to others.  

Therefore putting myself first took a lot, first to accept and then to enact. I faced the doubts of "Am I not up to the work?" or "We all have had hard times - that's just life, get over it" and the shame of not being willing to simply soldier on. Perhaps these are only my own whispering demons, but they are likely shared by others as well.  

Then I had another realization which has come into sharper focus with each passing decade. Simply put, why accelerate my car towards a destination I don't necessarily want to reach? My new assignment would be a big career step and would likely lead to promotion. But was that really the desired destination? What exactly is the exchange rate for limiting my ability to take care of myself and family, and stressing the hell out of our cats? As is, my career has a maximum life expectancy of eight more years before mandatory retirement. In the end, being mentally and geographically available to those I love is so much more important than the nursing-home bragging rights of saying "...and I retired from the Foreign Service as a mid-level manager..." to a big round of eye rolls from the audience. 

So that's it. I explained my reasoning to those who needed to know and the future boss I was looking forward to working for was just as supportive and understanding as I could've hoped for. My assignment was broken and I was on the market again - for a domestic job this time.  

After some weeks of searching, I believe I found the best fit. The next stop on this adventure will be a familiar one: back to the DC area and the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) where I will be a Deputy Coordinator with the Orientation Division. I will be on the team conducting the six-week "A-100" generalist and specialist orientation courses for all new Foreign Service American employees. I'm really excited about it! It combines everything I naturally gravitate towards: teaching, facilitating conversation, organizing, sharing experiences, mentoring, and feeding the energy of bright shiny pennies as they begin their own new career adventures. And - I'm a direct flight away from family. I can do this, no chest-thumping affirmations required.  This is a two-year assignment, after which, who knows? I would rather cross that bridge as I get there than try to predict where the turns in the road will bring us. 

In the meantime, it feels as if I'm wearing the most elasticy-waistband, softest, brushed cotton pants with fluffy, supportive slippers.  

Now that's a good fit. 


Friday, November 11, 2022

Flag Day Part 6: Our Next Tour

Bids have been cast, decisions made, handshakes offered and accepted and for many of us, the latest bidding season has come to a close.  Although there is only one true Flag Day at the start of our careers, I still like to think of the day we get the bureau's handshake email notifying us of our next assignment as Flag Day. Even though it arrives unceremoniously in an email, the event still forever changes the trajectories of our lives and careers and therefore should be given due respect. 

Therefore, I announce the sixth flag to proudly hang in our Hall of Flags (i.e. the sunporch) will be:


Not looking familiar?  Try searching for "flags of the world" and scroll alphabetically through the list.  Don't worry; I'll wait.  Keep scrolling.  You'll find it second to last on the list, just before its neighbor Zimbabwe.

Yup - Zambia here we come!  

Lusaka, Zambia to be precise.  My next assignment will be the Consular Chief at our embassy in the capital city Lusaka.  To your next question -  what the heck is a Consular Chief?  Is it the Consul General? Well, no it's not. In a small consular section like Lusaka's, the role is called Consular Chief.  I'll be working with a staff of one (or hopefully two) other American employees and four locally employed Zambian staff. That's six or seven of us total.  In comparison with my first tour in Ciudad Juarez where I was one of 48 (interchangeable) entry level officers each responsible for a very thin slice of the pie, now I'll be running the section and sitting on the Ambassador's weekly Country Team meeting.  My pie slice just got a lot bigger and I'm waiting to start feeling hungry. 

It's a good assignment and we are very excited to be headed there.  I'm particularly grateful to have a tangible spot on the horizon towards which to orient the next eight or nine months. During bidding, I'd heard only positive reviews from friends about the country and my husband and I are starting to learn about the country to begin picturing ourselves in these new lives.  

Let's start with a few fun Zambia facts and how those might translate to our lives:

  • While English is the official language, there are 72 spoken languages stemming from the Bantu language family. Bemba and Nyanja are the predominant ones, and we'll hear Nyanja in the capital. 
    • Translation: No FSI language training. Zikomo kwa ine!
  • Zambia is roughly the size of Texas, Maryland, and Vermont combined.  Or the size of Ukraine, Greece, and Montenegro combined.  Hmmm, those are odd comparisons.  How about this even weirder map comparison that makes Zambia look disturbingly like the United States' sonagram:
    • Translation: It's a big country with long distances to drive to go see the cool stuff we'll want to see.  No more Salvadoran day trip decisions: 45 minutes to the beach or 90 minutes to the mountains? More like three hours to "Are we there yet?"
  • A few traditional Zambian foods: 
    • Nshima (corn meal like grits or polenta) 
    • Ifinkubala (mopane worms/caterpillars) 
    • Kapenta (dried sardines)
    • Samp (coarser corn meal, more like hominy)
    • Ifisashi (general term for stewed greens mixed with ground peanuts)
      • Translation: I will not be eating Ifinkubala. Sorry. 
  • There are some really awesome things to see in Zambia: 
    • Victoria Falls!  
    • Game reserves! 
    • Camping in game reserves!
    • Canoeing with hippos on the Zambezi! (We're in the canoe, they're in the river - at least that's what I'm assuming.  Hmmm...)
      • Translation: Choose your own adventure and danger level.
Petting friendly cheetahs - definitely acceptable danger level. 

Sitting in the water at the precipice of Victoria Falls - 100 percent unacceptable danger level, but that's just me.  This does give me a glimpse of some of my future American Citizen Services clients.  Good to know. 

  • We'll live in a house with a big yard, maybe even a pool.
    • Translation: Cats will continue to live in the style to which they have been accostomed in El Salvador. I'm picturing weekend mornings on the veranda curled onto a ratan couch, a linen-lined tea tray within reach, watching the cats chase butterflies across the manicured lawn.
Okay, this house is not going to happen, but a girl can dream, no?  

We did hear that some houses allow residents to keep chickens or even goats. 
On second thought, chickens attract snakes and goats attract goat stew.  Hmmm...

Hey, we can have flowers and fruit trees!

So that's where we are now.  It's fun to start trying on the new life, imagining that in a year we'll be saying things like, "Hey, I'm popping down to the Abo Abbas, can I get you some horned melon?" Already my husband bought two new cots and is eyeing a tent big enough to put them in.  His research on camping in game parks brought about a conversation I didn't think we'd have: "Yeah, so they say not to worry about the elephants as they'll generally avoid your tent and if they do come close, they're careful about stepping over the lines.  Apparently it's the hyenas we have to be wary of as they'll carry away anything we leave outside.  And if we wake up with a snake curled up next to us - not to worry, it's just trying to keep warm.  Just give it a poke and it'll be on its way." 

You may notice that all my day dreaming and preparation seems to involve the life and not so much the work. Preparing for the job happens in the middle-of-the-night-wide-awake hours.  I will be taking a big step up in responsibility and am wondering how that suit might fit.  I'm not motivated by power or more responsibility as many others are.  I'd rather wait in the wings and cheer that person on, truth be told.  But it's coming, so all I can do is my best when the time comes.  And whisper to myself, "I can do hard things. I can do hard things."

Meanwhile, I'll picture that wide, shady veranda and wonder what a cheetah's purr sounds like as I run my fingers through its soft fur. 

Who's coming to visit?

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Mid-Level Bidding: Round Three!

(New to the process of mid-level bidding? This primer from my 2018 experience will bring you up to speed.) 

Greetings from still-in-El-Salvador where we've just crested our third year and due to my tour extension are headed into the final stretch with one year to go. This means I'm now at bat for another rousing inning in the game we call bidding. To be more precise, I'm in the warm-up circle, taking some swings, sizing up the pitcher, looking for weak spots among the fielders where I might be successful in finding a gap and sprinting to base. At this point in the game, I'm still confidently/naiively imagining I have the chops to get to at least second. However, the competition is tough and the reality is that many good players will strike out in their bidding at-bat as again this year there are fewer bases than batters. Therefore a lot of folks will end up back on the bench.  

Where's the bench? That's a matter of opinion, eye of the beholder and all. Fortunately, one player's bench is another's home run.  For me, the bench is in Washington, DC. Not because I disliked my DC tour and two years of free museums - quiet the opposite, I loved my job and office. It's my bench specifically because spending about $65,000 in rent when I'm a tour or two from retirement would not be a wise investment decision. And no, we're not going to buy a place.

This means I'm left swinging for the fences in the hopes of landing a position that I could not only be relatively successful at, but my husband will enjoy, our cats won't hate, and that might even be kinda' fun. No pressure.

Here's the suspense-building timeline:

About May 2022:

Look at the Projected Vacancies list.  

Ha! Who am I kidding? I started eyeballing this list the week I arrived here three years ago!  Not out of disatisfaction - not at all - but because it is a compulsion, nay, an addiction that the Department fuels via a constant drip-feed of "What's the next adventure? Thinking of a promotion? Oooh, I want to work with THAT person again - where are they going next?" Keep your eye on the horizon, woman! What changed in May was that the list began to gel and offer a somewhat more realistic view of what would be its final version in September. 


Okay, Maybe Late May As I Couldn't Contain Myself:

Start contacting the incumbents (the people currently in the position I'm considering) and ask a bunch of questions about what the job's like, what are the challenges, what are the pleasures, what's the morale, what is the country like? These responses are sometimes standardized by posts, generally encourage bidders, occasionally are refreshingly frank, but more often depend on the personal outlook of the writer. It can be a mixed bag and so gathering more intel sources is required. 

I suggest getting the inside scoop from anyone you know who has served there.  The old fashioned way...

Here are some of my favorite responses that were instrumental in narrowing my choices, for better or worse:

  • Did you read the OIG report?
  • Local staff are knowledgeable about the country's generous local labor laws and take full advantage of them.  
  • I would say the section would benefit from someone with experience navigating performance improvement and HR issues. 
  • Re driving: All these men who grew up watching "The Fast and The Furious" suddenly found themselves behind the wheel of a car with predictable results. It genuinely made doing anything that involved a drive intensely taxing. We nearly got into serious accidents on every outing.
  • Want to know what housing is like on a partially closed military base? Google Chernobyl. 
  • I would describe the environment as light-hearted and low-impact. Very rarely do I feel challenged here. 
  • This country could not possibly add any stress to your life. If you like excitement, this is not the place for you. Your day is almost always going to be exactly what you expect. 
  • The workload is manageable and we are fully staffed.
  • The locally employed staff are extremely experienced and highly knowledgeable; several staff members have been in the section more than 20 years and are an absolute joy to work with. 
Key phrases like "hidden gem," "fully staffed," "great weather," and "amazing produce" caught my eye, too.


While continuing to whittle down the best options, we also have to start marketing ourselves for these jobs. That requires gathering recommendations from current and former colleagues. As I'm only bidding on consular jobs, I have to request 7-15 Consular Bidders Assessment Tools, aka CBATs or 360s, selected from supervisors, peers, and supervisees who we can reasonably expect will: 
A. Be responsive and willing to take the 15-20 minutes on your behalf;
B. Say something positive about our performance, or at least not too damaging.
September 12- The Green Flag Drops and the Race is ON

The final version of the bid list is published! My list ended up with just over 100 options, not a bad start. We must now submit our Statement of Interest. Again, this is the Consular Affairs process, which differs from other bureaus. The Statement of Interest includes three standard questions that will help CA/EX, the office making the decisions on consular jobs, put just the right person in just the right job, or that's the theory anyway. Here are the questions:
  1. What experiences and skills make you competitive for these positions?
  2. What professional development opportunities do you hope to gain from these positions?
  3. Are there other factors affecting your bidding preferences?
The instructions, in brief:

  • We will refer to this statement throughout the bidding process, so keep it direct and succinct.  (Read: Don't make us wade through a bunch of wordy, over-personal babble again and again. It won't make us love you.)
  • Save your edits and re-writes for your EER! (Friendly chuckle tone implies that one can simply dash off responses to the above questions.)
My translation:  Spend entire Sunday crafting just the right "This is what I can do for YOU!" statement that is confident, professional, polished, error and typo-free while at the same time guiding them to conclude only that Vancouver, BC is what I mean by "close to elderly family" and not Nogales; or "opportunity to collaborate with colleagues in a multi-post mission" clearly refers to the United Kingdom and not China.

Phew, that's done. Oh, I should note that we can't make corrections once the big submit button is hit. Again - no pressure.

Next, add your position preferences in priority order. This is the fun part. Fun part for me because for the past few months I've been carefully updating my color-coded Priority List spread sheet, tweaking it ever so slightly until it represents exactly my Dream Post wish list. Or for some, usually tandem couples, the pick-the-least-poisonous-posts list. This year mine has ten posts. Oops no, nine posts. I just learned that one post requires imported pets to be present in the country of export for six months prior to arrival in country (or something complicated like that that I didn't want to risk). That ain't going to work. Sayonara Singapore.  

This list, fortunately, can be updated anytime as the bid season moves on. And trust me, it will be, as we have conversations with CA/EX that may go something like this:

"We see your preferred positions are quite heavily bid. For example, while you listed lovely, stable, English-speaking Zambia - how would you feel instead about a year of language and then going just next door to somewhat less-stable and war-riddled Democratic Republic of Congo? I mean, they're so close and all. Remember, not everyone can go to Sydney, Paris or Tokyo!" 
Cocktail party laughter ensues. 

September and October - 
Consultative Versus Non-Consultative Postions: A Primer

Essentially, jobs that are chiefs of section (Consular Chief instead of just American Citizen Services Chief or Immigrant Visa Chief, for example) are considered "consultative" meaning that post is consulted on who they might like in that role. This person will sit at the big table as part of the embassy country team so it's understandable that post has some say in who that is, but still CA/EX has the final word. How posts discern who their top candidates are requires a good old fashioned resume and references submission and a job interview. This year, I've selected two such consultative positions. For one, a less-popular post, I was offered an interview immediately and had a lovely conversation with the (sort of) decision makers. Fingers crossed. For the second, a heavily-bid annual favorite, they will review my CBATs and then decide if I made it to the swimsuit and talent, interview round.

The remainder of my selected posts are non-consultative, in which case I can just send courtside tickets tucked surreptitiously into fruit baskets to the decision makers - and light candles. 

That's where we are now. Oh wait, I forgot one step: The regular refreshing of the bid count list! The number of people who have submitted bids on all posts is updated thrice daily. This update schedule is posted primarily, in my opinion, to keep us productive throughout the day and prevent us from wearing out the refresh button. My nine bids are registering bid counts from four to 15 and we're only on Day 3.  I eyeball posts with 0-3 bids, just in case, and find myself musing, "Kuwait, hmmm - once you hit 115 degrees the rest is just academic, right?"  

Up Next: October 31 - The Big Reveal... for Some