Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Lights and Highlights

Christmas in Colombia can make you forgive the country its sins. Forgive the ridiculous traffic, forgive the rain, forgive the potholes and even forgive the $2/lb cat litter. Yes, it starts in late October, but that is just a warm-up. Come December 8th with the noche de velitas (the night of the little candles), we get our first Colombian holiday of the season and day off of work. This is followed by the novenas - nine nights of gatherings with friends and family for food, wine, singing of carols and readings about the meanings and origins of Christmas - kind of like Hannukah and Christmas combined. Finally, The Day itself when utter silence wraps the cities and towns in a feeling of, "Wow, this really IS a nice place to live!" Families stay inside their homes with each other, rarely venturing out to break the peace. Or they leave the crowded cities for fincas (country homes), for the beaches, or to meet with other family in smaller towns. Either way - the city is still and the streets are (nearly) vacant. It is a time reserved for families.

Here is a description of the holiday traditions we learned about or took part in, and overall - thoroughly enjoyed:
  • Nightime ciclovia: A circuit of major avenues is blocked off from 6 pm - midnight for "ciclovia nocturna" (nightime bike routes) when people take to their wheels, whether bikes or blades or skates, and visit the various light displays the city puts on in the popular parks. Entire families head out, or groups of teenagers, or singles with their dogs, or couples - and everyone wants a picture of themselves under the sparkling lights. As you can see here - I was no exception. (Notice the safety-minded and so- attractive-pants-in-sock look I adopted:)

  •  Let's talk about the lighted parks some more. Our favorite has to be Usaquen, a small "town" just a 15-minute walk north of our neighborhood that was usurped by the big city some years ago. It looks as close to a French village as one can within a South American city of 8 million residents. The town square, overlooked by a handsome church, has been decked out in completely lighted trees, an overhead canopy of stars and - best of all - artificial snow machines that disperse soapy snowflakes at regular intervals realistic enough to turn the biggest Scrooge into a giggling 10-year old. We stumbled upon this display after visiting the Irish Pub just half a block away one night, and discovered not only the light and snow show, but also hordes of families enjoying a song-and-dance act put on by wizards in purple gowns (I have no explanation for that - just reporting the facts); characters from Puss-n-Boots, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Mask and other popular-themed costumes ready for photo-ops with the fam. My favorite was Mirror Man, a man in more than just a suit of mirrors - a man whose entire body and every contour thereof from fingers to tie to socks to the divot under his lower lip, were covered in a mosaic of mirror pieces. Beneath the sparkle of the starry lights, he existed only as a reflection and sometimes disapperead. If I had my camera that night, you'd be seeing my goofy grin alongside his cool relection.  Oh, and let me not forget the food! Vendors with carts, or just people selling from their living rooms, kept us well-supplied with corn-on-the-cob, rice pudding (arroz con leche), flan, aromatica, hot chocolate, arrepas and coffee with Aguardiente (Colombia's version of the ubiquitous anise-liqueur) to keep us warm. And even though it was never chillier than, say, 52 degrees - the fake snow and spirit of the frosty season had us all believing it was a true white Christmas. The pre-teen girl standing next to me under the snow machine was all chattering teeth and bundled in a scarf to her ears.

  • Novenas -The Friday before Christmas, Tim, Samantha and I were invited to the home of the director of the animal shelter where we've been volunteering (ADA) to celebrate with their friends and family. We were told to be there from 8-10pm, and so in true American style, arrived at 8:01 to find our friends just starting to set up for the party. (Hey, we didn't mean to be so prompt; it's just that we found a cab way quicker than we'd expected!). They hadn't just stepped out of the shower or anything, but it was a full 35 minutes before others arrived. The evening started with home-made empanadas and salads, and once everyone was gathered, the music was turned off our hostess Martha made a toast to her gathered guests, and in a spirit of looking towards the new year, wished us all well and thanked us for being there to share the evening with her family. A booklet was then brought out to be read from, retelling the story of Christmas. The booklet was passed around the room in a circle, with each person reading a passage (including Tim and I - in Spanish, thank you) and a chorus of a carol was repeated between each reader.  After the readings, lively conversation and some spontaneous dancing ensued. By about 11, we caught a cab for home.

  • Christmas Eve - Just three blocks away, we noticed a church offering an 8pm mass for Christmas Eve. It wasn't the Misa de Gallo (Mass of the rooster - or Midnight Mass) that Tim was hoping for, but with my tendency to fall instantly asleep when sitting still for more than 15 minutes in a warm room past 8 pm - it was a much better option for me. It was a traditional Catholic Mass with readings, a sermon, carols we didn't recognize but the lyrics were projected on the wall and then time for quiet prayers/introspection. I wasn't raised with mass being a part of Christmas, but it is an important part of the holiday for Tim, so he was happy to find something close by. The pews were full and I think we were the only gringos in attendance, which made it nice as a cultural experience for me. Once we got home, we could see many darkened apartments of our neighbors who had already headed out of town for the holiday, but there were others who were hosting late-night dinners with friends.

  • Christmas Day - We woke to the sound of utter silence in the streets. A detour from a flood-damaged avenue nearby has been sending collectivos, chivas and honking commuters in front of our building for weeks, so the complete lack of traffic and humanity was as surprising as it was luxurious. We opened the rest of our presents and headed to a friends' for brunch. As it was Sunday, the regular ciclovia was in place and a major avenue near our apartment was closed to traffic, allowing families to walk or bike off their holiday meals. We took a leisurely walk to our friends' place, past the walled compounds of the Dutch, French and British amassadors' residences (a really lovely neighborhood!). Later, after resting our stomachs from the brunch feast, we walked to another friend's apartment for Christmas dinner. Finally, late that night, a pre-arranged embassy van came to take us all to the airport to make Samantha's red-eye back to the States.  With that, we said goodnight to our first Colombian Christmas and marveled at the completely empty highway on the way back home.

  • Day after Christmas - As Christmas fell on a Sunday this week, the embassy closed for the Monday following instead. After four hours of much-needed deep housecleaning, I took to the streets for a neighborhood stroll. The rainy season - as predicted - has seemingly ended, and we're left with what feels like Southern California weather. It was probably 70 degrees and the bright blue skies stayed all day, a rare occurence. I walked to a large, popular park nearby to find it crowded with families trying out their new bikes and rollerblades, couples feeding each other ice cream on park benches, and people lounging on blankets in the grass, shoes off. I sat on a bench and watched for quite a while before reluctantly heading back indoors.
Sunshine, tranquility, holiday good will and time off with friends and family - Colombia at Christmas certainly is doing its best to woo us!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Getting out and about

Although we've been here just over five months, this morning was the first time we packed into a cab and headed south to Paloquemao. We've been hearing about this massive wonder of fruits, vegetables, flowers, meat and fish since before we arrived, but it took Samantha coming to visit for ten days over Christmas to get around to actually going there to see for ourselves. (Side note: For those who don't know, Samantha is my 20-year old step-daughter who is visiting from college.)

Paloquemao embodies every color and smell that exist in Colombia: from the sweet and tangy smells of the alleys of fruit sellers, to the earthiness of the  tables of vegetables and sacks of potatoes, to the stinkiness of the fish and meat areas,  and finally to roses and lillies in the outdoor floral stalls that wrap around the edges of the market hall. We arrived at about 9:15, and although I'm sure the market had been in full swing a good few hours already, the hustle and busy-ness of people buying, selling and moving through the narrow aisles carrying sacks and pallets of goods hadn't slowed a single gear.

Each vendor called out "A la orden!" as we paused to appreciate the colors and choices of spices, baskets, ribbons, fresh herbs, veggies or cut flowers and their accoutrements. There was also a whole support structure for the vendors with tiny coffee stands, luncherias, and grills of roasting chickens and sausages. I got the impression that each stall was a family affair, and probably generations had been selling eggs, fish or flowers each day at this living beehive (and yes, there was also honey).

These pictures only offer a glimpse; let your imagination add the missing the sounds and smells.
I am particularly happy with my purchases, and if you forgive me a moment, may I brag about what I came home with?
Two dozen perfect pink long-stemmed roses, one bundle of white baby's breath to go with them, a large glass vase to put them in, a small vial of vanilla essence to use in a votive burner, a small bag of silver ornaments for our little tree, a ridiculously large bottle of vanilla, three meters of thin red ribbon to be tied into bows on our the tree, two large pitahaya fruits for breakfasts, a virtual bale of fresh hierbabuena (mint) and a one-pound bag of fresh mora (somewhere between a blackberry and a raspberry) to make my own aromatica (fruit and herb tea). Let's not forget the two long cab rides down there and back for three people.

Total: $30

Oh yes, we will be going back!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Christmas Gifts

Today has been the warmest day yet in Bogota! The skies are vibrant blue, only a few fluffy drifting clouds and the smell of blooming flowers wafts down the streets. It's not windy, nor wet, nor overcast and it feels as if summer is upon us and the rainy season is over.
Por ahora...

It's also the warmest day because of what we spent the day doing. Today was the Ambassador's Christmas party for the embassy community and for our invited guests: the Ayudame Orphanage and Fundacion de Quemado, a children's burn unit. The CLO (Community Liaison Office) has been organizing this event since September and many embassy employees turned out to help out. I'd like to give special recognition to the star of the show: Papa Noel.

Papa Noel hears a special request.

Does anyone recognize the man in red? I'll give you a hint:

I guess that makes me Mama Noel this year, but I was really more of a helper elf at the door, greeting and checking in our guests as they arrived. The kids from Ayudame came wearing matching t-shirts and proudly raised their hands or shouted out their names as we checked them in. I know it's cliche to talk about the darling orphans - but they really were.  I was struck by the tangible bond among them, as the older ones helped out the younger, making sure everyone was accounted for and pointing out to us who was who. The next two buses were from the Fundacion de Quemado, the children's burn ward patients. These kids ranged in age from about 2 to 15 and each brought a parent with them. An entire family of five children and their mother arrived, all of them patients, and I can only imagine that it was a house fire that struck them.

With two co-workers, we continued checking in guests as the kids, their families and guardians explored the Ambassador's residence. As the day was so warm and dry, they wandered the grounds and hillside and then came inside for treats, Santa visits and creative activites. The CLO arranged for troops of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts to come as well, and they played with the Colombian kids at  long tables where they could decorate sugar cookies, make necklace, draw or decorate Christmas bags. Embassy community teenagers were on hand to help out with the little ones and each table kept the kids busy.

Pictured are two teenagers from Fundacion de Quemado showing off their necklaces, and (below) a few boys from Ayudame eyeing the dessert table and gingerbread house. The girls were sitting on the sidelines, just watching the younger ones. At first I thought they were too mature or too "cool" to want to do the kids' crafts, but when I invited them to join the table, they drew huge smiles and straight away got to work making their necklaces. I was particularly fond of Jefferson (age 15) and his mother Daisy who I finally coaxed into conversation (she admitted that her hands were all blue because she'd been painting her house). The Ambassador and his wife, plus the DCM and his wife, were wonderful hosts, circulating among the guests (the Ambassador in a Santa hat) or serving empanadas and other snacks to us all.

A Colombian dance troupe called Dejeme Ser came out to entertain us and kept up high-energy song and dance routines wearing Britney-mics and satin outfits. An embassy mother-daughter team played Christmas flute duets and another woman sang carols.  Finally, Papa Noel came out from his chair alongside the Christmas tree to deliver presents to each of our Colombian guests. He started off reading the kids' names in Spanish, but I guess the gringo accent was losing some of them, so one of the Colombian women from the CLO office took over. Each kid got a present - from dolls to soccer balls to purses - and it was great to see Tim handing them out with his helper elves. The day was still summery warm as we wound down and saw the kids off onto their buses. Tim changed (secretly) back into his usual self and we headed home. He brought with him an armful of notes to Santa with wishes written in English, French and Spanish, depending on which school the particular kids attend. Unfortunately, we can't hang these up in the CLO office on Monday for everyone to see, as the kids will be so disappointed to notice that their message didn't stay with Santa.  
All in all, a really super first Christmas party at our first post!                                                         Coming next: Bogota and nightime ciclovia.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Estamos acostumbrado a...

We are accustomed to...

For better or worse, we are now used to the following:
  • Looking both ways before crossing a one-way street
  • Hedges of blooming star jasmine that stop me in my tracks with their amazing fragrance
  • The best home-made lemonade ever, with mint or coconut or just plain (it's green - there isn't an actual lemon in the country)
  • Pulling out my cedula (national ID card) for the simplest, even cash, transactions
  • Massive thunder storms and gulley-washing rains
  • El trancon! The traffic!
  • No warmer than 67; no colder than 50
  • The flowers and plants that were blooming in July are still blooming in December
  • Thinking about what time of day it is before greeting someone (buenos dias, buenas tardes, or buenas noches)
  • Heavily armed soldiers on the street corners, under every overpass and in front of any building with a gov't official living inside
  • Scented everything (for example: vanilla-scented trash bags, cinnamon-scented floor cleaner, pine-scented toilet tank tablets)
  • Seeing street performers stacked three high juggling fire batons in front of the line of cars at the red lights
  • The nicest malls with the best food courts I've ever seen
  • Beautiful leather goods, especially shoes, boots and handbags
  • Military funerals in process each time we walk by the chapel at the batallion near our apartment and realizing that these young men are still losing their lives fighting guerillas/FARC/narcotraffickers every day 
  • No bugs
  • Appreciating the breaks of sunshine all the more when they come
  • Getting second looks in stores and on the street for being a gringa; having store owners call out the teenager who speaks English from the storeroom when they see us walk in
  • Chit-chatting with the friendly porteros (doormen) and doing our best to understand what the heck they're saying
  • Realizing that we're on a different continent
  • Christmas starts before Halloween
  • Buying OJ, milk, sour cream, mayonnaise and ketchup in a bag
  • Delicious fruits we'd never before heard of or seen
  • No national (functional) postal system!
  • In general, people wanting to try to speak English with us, as they can
  • Every radio station playing latin music (really?)
  • Sun rising and setting at the same time all year
Looking forward to adding to the list!

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Our HHE has arrived!

I think the title says it all.
After over three months, our complete shipment of Household Effects arrived at our doorstep yesterday. This is the stuff that Tim packed up in late August, but I hadn't seen it since March when I left for FSI. So - are we excited to have our belongings with us?

Yes and no.

Yes - 60 more pounds of clumping cat litter arrived, plus all our kitchen stuff. I guess I should put those things in opposite order, but our lovely empty kitchen is now packed full. I was enjoying the free space in the kitchen after living with a "galley kitchen" for nearly 14 years (Tim called it a "one-butt kitchen" and swatted at me with a dish towel when I came in while he was cooking dinner). At least we now have more than four plates, four forks, four glasses etc... We also received our music collection, favorite prints for the white-on-white walls and a vacuum that doesn't suck - or that does suck - well, you know what I mean.

No - After having lived without these things since March, I'd grown quite used to being without them. The free space is wonderful and not having to dig through stuff in cupboards or drawers to find whatever it is that I'm looking for is a luxury. Also, many of the things feel like they're attached to a different life. Especially the clothes suited for a different climate, different work environment, different pastimes and hobbies.

We received about 60 boxes from the nice moving company. Not a thing was broken, not even scratched. Three champagne flutes and over a dozen glasses of all styles arrived in perfect shape; it was quite the testament to well-planned boxes and liberal amounts of tan packing paper. I know others have horror stories, but I'd like to add this happy ending to the mix to let people know it is possible.

If we may add a word or two of advice to those choosing "to bring or not to bring":
Don't bring.

This is just one couple's opinion, but I've heard it from others as well. To start, you will have to wait anywhere from 3-12 months for your things to arrive, depending if you stay at FSI for lengthy training or not, and by that time you will have acclimated to not living with these things. They may feel like interlopers in your new life, not quite fitting in and possibly cramping your new style.

What about the things that are very meaningful, irreplaceable even, that you don't want to be without? My coworker who just left Libya with only two suitcases lost all her belongings, including family photos and momentoes from her children's growing up. Her things are still in the house where she was living, or at least that's where they were left when she had to immediately evacuate. Who knows who has their hands on them now. If something is irreplaceable, you may want to consider not bringing it for fear of losing or damaging it in transit or in the event of an evacuation. It's not something we like to think of, but it happens.

So here we are, boxes mostly unpacked, kitchen cupboards stuffed ("Why do two people need 20 coffee mugs?") and clothes shoved into drawers where many of them will sit unworn for the next two years. We're already researching charity options for some of it.

If you're on a hiring register now, or if you're awaiting your clearances in the hopes of heading to FSI in the near future, may I suggest that you start garage-saleing, eBaying, Craig's Listing and giving to charity as much as you can stomach. Trim your sails now and enjoy the flavor of your new life when you get to your first post.

Just remember to pack extra cat litter - it's expensive out here!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Having a Ball

Our first Marine Ball...

Okay, this was taken by the portero (doorman) before we left for the evening. It was a very fun night, especially seeing everyone dressed up and enjoying the ceremony of it all as the Marines and the DCM spoke of the history of the Corps. Made me feel all patriotic again. After dinner, they carried out a massive multi-layered cake and cut it with a sword! That was pretty cool. After that - the dancing began. Being in Colombia, naturally, it was latin music which was great to dance to (provided one can dance, that is... the jury is still out on my skills in this department).

I've read from another blogger in a northern European country that their ball played 80s hits - so I think we lucked out. However, by about 11:30 it was getting a bit too techno for our tastes, so we headed home and I sadly took down the fancy up-do and called it a night.

I learned that in order for our Marines to enjoy their big night, Marine crews from neighboring countries came over to relieve them. Thanks to Caracas for letting our guard come out to play! I guess it's a tradition and we helped them out, too. And I think there were folks from Ecuador, too. It's a great feeling to be within a family of people who may not know each other, but will always have something in common to share and are willing to help out.

If your post has a Marine Ball - I recommend going. Let your hair up, have some fun and thank the Marines for being there for us.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Worthy Ways To Spend Our Time

This afternoon I found myself covered in kittens.
No exageration - there was one balanced on my shoulder cleaning himself; another was tucked inside the zip-up of my sweatshirt; a third was curled on my lap and a fourth was napping under my knees.

Those of you who already know me, will not be surprised in the least to learn that since arriving in Bogota, I have already found an animal shelter at which to volunteer. (Quickie for those of you unfamiliar: I spent a very rewarding 2 1/2 years volunteering with "Purrfect Pals" in the Seattle area Or, you might've noticed the title of this blog and presumed that I am fur-friendly.)

For the past month, Tim and I have been spending one day per week (and Tim twice a week) caring for the kitties, dogs and horses of Bogota at ADA (Asociacion Defensora de Animales y del Ambiente When we first agreed to volunteer, and before visiting the shelter, I was worried that the I would grow to care for the animals, only to have certain ones "not be there" the next week and I would be sick with worry about what happened to whomever. I was also concerned that the shelter environment would be institutional and not to the standards that I'd known at Purrfect Pals.

I was so wrong.

First, ADA is a no-kill shelter. Yay!

Second, while they scrape by (as most non-profits do) with the income from their vet and grooming clinic and public donations -the animals do not feel the brunt of their tight budget. The cats have a great "catera" where they get to hang out all day (in the literal sense of the word: see photo below), and large individual cages at night. The dogs have their own kennels and are walked in the neighborhood by volunteers everyday.

And there are horses! Bogota has a large population of recylers (I mentioned them once earlier) who drive horse-carts through every section of town collecting recyclable materials. Unfortunately, these folks are not known for their horse-husbandry, and frequently the police have to confiscate an animal due to mistreatment. These horses are brought to ADA for temporary care or for permanent rescue and rehoming. Those with injuries or needing immediate care (many) will stay in one of the shelter's four stalls until they are healthy enough to go to the "finca" (farm) in the country. From there, they are able to continue rehabilitation and either retire or go on to second careers as riding horses.
Catera door with residents
Author with Director Martha and "Miguel"
Horseshoes made of bent rebar.
Catera where the kittes spend their days
Isabel with her litter
Catera resident in cat-hammock (from below)
While Tim walks dogs in the neighborhood and to small local parks, I take care of cats and kittens. Frequently a new horse (or horses) will be in and I work with the shelter Director Martha and her daughter Daniela in either preparing their meals or tending to their wounds. And unfortunately, some of the wounds I've seen from these recyclers' horses have been pretty horrific. From either abuse, traffic accidents or harnesses - in my life of horsemanship, I haven't seen wounds like these before. The horses are typically very small "criollo" (mixed breeds) horses that are often far too young to be doing the hard labor that they do, and especially in the conditions where they're kept and worked. They are usually far, far underweight and overworked. Colombia has laws govering the use of these recyclers' horses, dictating the appropriate age range (between ages 3-10 only) and the owners must have a "carnet" (an ID card from the state) with them showing that the animals have received inspection, innoculations and that they are in the proper age range. In order to receive these carnets, state vets gather the recyclers regularly (by contacting the leaders of these groups in each barrio) to inspect the horses, vaccinate them and then issue the carnets. Last weekend, shelter director Martha and Daniela joined the team of vets and inspected over 70 horses in various barrios of the city.  However, despite these inspections and regulations - mistreatment and poor care is still rampant and it seems that every week there is a new horse or two in the shelter.

Fortunately, the shelter has a resident veterinarian to oversee the animals' care and treatment and to do all the spays and neuters for the adoptable dogs and cats. The cats seem to be more quickly adopted, but the dogs often take longer as it seems the citizens are pre-disposed to wanting purebreds and these are, well, shelter dogs. They are mixed breeds, naturally, and not always the prettiest. But they're fun, friendly and loving and Tim has been enjoying getting to know each of them as they walk through central Bogota's streets.

The next sentence may sound defamatory to Colombians, but please understand that this opinion is not one that I created from my own observations, but rather one that has been repeated to me time and time again by Colombians themselves: There simply is not a history or tradition of giving towards animal charities here. Children - yes, but animals - no. And it's not because people don't own and love their own pets here, as they certainly do, but a custom of donating towards animal shelters or animal charites simply hasn't taken strong root.  The night before Tim and I went to ADA for the first time, we were at a pub where we were chatting with a group of Colombians professionals. When we told them what we were planning for the next day, the look of "What? Why would you be doing that?" was clearly evident on each of their faces. For a city of over 8 million people, ADA is the only animal shelter within the city. It is not state-funded. They have been around since 1964 and are doing amazing work for such an enormous demand.

Can you see where I'm going with this?

I'd like to put out a request to our friends and families for some small donation towards ADA. They have a nice website - naturally in Spanish - but there are able to take donations online. Don't get scared when it asks for $50,000 or $100,000... you don't need  a second mortgage! The Colombian Peso is about $1900 to one $1 US dollar; therefore $50,000 is about $25-27 and $100,000 is about $50-53 (cut the number in half and chop off three zeroes).

At this address to donate here, you can follow the links to donate, and as you fill in the form with visa information, you'll see the question asking how many "Cuotas" you want. Just put 1, as in Colombia people have the choice of how many payments they want to make to pay off the specific charge, but as we all know with international credit cards (not Colombian), we can pay as we like. Anyway  - I hate giving a hard sell, but if you are considering a charity, please know that this is a very good one and Tim and I have been spending 12 hours per week with them. However they are carrying an enormous burden in a city this size.

Thank you for reading and for considering a way to help. I'm trying hard not to bring home any more tabbies to tow, and am enjoying letting them clamber all over me in the catera instead.

Next week: back to FS life.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Gotta' Minute?

Do you want to hear about what kind of day I've had?
Let me tell you...

Imagine that you flipped a switch in your house and expected a light to turn on. Simple, right?
Now imagine that you flipped that switch and then nothing happened. So you did some rudimentary investigating and found a frayed wire that was preventing the light from turning on. Well that's disappointing, but a quick call to the electrician will solve that. You go to the phone, and find that it's not working. Hmmm... that's weird, the phone usually works. Oh nevermind,you can just pop over to my neighbor's house and ask to borrow her phone.

Why hey, there's your neighbor in the driveway - could you borrow the phone for a moment, you need to call an electrician about the frayed wire. What? She's going to visit her grandmother in the hospital and noticed that her car was out of gas and perhaps you could just run her down for a really quick visit and then you two would return to use her phone to call the electrician to fix the wire? Oh... okay.

So you agree - it's just a quick trip - then you can use the phone and get everything arranged, right? But on the way to grandma's, you're pulled over for having an expired registration on the car. How could that be? You sent the check in weeks ago and, oh drat!, that's right - the new registration stickers never came in the mail. Yes, yes, you could tell that to the judge, sir.

You both eventually get to grandma's, and of course she's napping. So you wait an extra 20 minutes and then visit with her, say your goodbyes and quickly drive back home. Oh right, the phone call to the electrician. Into the neighbor's house where her dog jumps on you and puts a run in your new sweater, argh! Here's the phone, call the electrician - he's out of the office until next Tuesday. Gone fishin'!

You leave a message and return to your house. It's now dark and you hit the switch to turn on the light and when nothing happens, you remember how this all started and sigh with resignation as you go look for a candle and matches...

THAT'S the kind of day I've had.

To top it off: our HHE arrived today.

Sort of.

Tim spent last night and this morning preparing for the arrival of ALL our stuff. Three shipments is what we were told. What we assumed was one from Snohomish with my few items that I packed in March; one from DC with the things I had while at FSI; and one from Snohomish with the majority of our worldly possessions. Tim packed up the "Welcome Kit" we've been using (kitchen, bath and bedroom supplies) and moved all the furniture to the periphery of the room to make way for the Really Big Boxes that would arrive.

His first indication that something was wrong was when the movers arrived an hour early and sat outside in their moving van until the appointed hour. Why would they be so early if they had so many things to load up? His next clue was when they raised the truck doors to reveal not five, not ten, not fifteen, but two lonely boxes of belongings to be unloaded. Yup... only my things from DC.

He kindly unpacked it all by my return after work at 6:15. Nothing for him: no favorite kitchen appliances, no books, no clothing.

Finally, after dinner in an effort to salvage some feeling of accomplishment after this terribly frustrating day, I used the brand-new floor cleaner and disinfectant that Tim picked up at the store to counter the sickly-sweet stuff I found earlier. Oh it did the job alright. In an industrial-strength solvent kind of way, that is. On the label Varsol was touted as being great to treat stains on clothing, grease on surfaces and floors! It's the original! After listening to my protestations  and complaints about the chemically smell, Tim finally googled the product and found a group of people extoling the virtues of Varsol as a machine-parts cleaner and replacement for kerosene.

Yes... I was now cleaning our kitchen floor with it, swatting at the air and coughing as I  opened windows and grew concerned for open flames (like our gas stove three feet away).

No, THAT'S  the kind of day I've had.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Holiday Crazy

Note to Hallmark:
You guys are truly missing out on a HUGE market here in Colombia!

If one were to graph the situation here, the X axis would be the (surprising) lack of greeting cards, and the Y axis would be the love of holidays (and particularly of stretching them out for entire months), with the two lines intersecting at an apex of incredible commercial potential.

Let me explain:
In the US we have Valentine's Day, February 14, right? Sure, the hype starts a few weeks before with the red and pink candies and chocolates prominently displayed in store windows and grocery store shelves.

In Colombia: The entire month of September is for Amor y Amistad which is celebrated as a clever combination of Valentine's Day (the "amor" part) and Secret Santa (the "amistad" or friendship part) wherein co-workers draw names and shower their lucky recipient with gifts all month. The weekends are for date nights, hopefully with one's significant other or spouse, but I've heard that this is also a time for the "amante" (mistress) to be proudly dispalyed in restaurants around town. My current Spanish teacher clealy told us that this can be a time of great happiness or the opposite when the latter occurs.

Example two:

Halloween in Colombia is a BIG DEAL. Again, not just October 31st, but the whole month. This past Friday my work was utter mayhem as over 800 kids, accompanied by their parents of course, descended upon the embassy for trick-or-treating. Naturally, this swarm did not come as a surprise, apprently it happens every year, and so a tradition of serious decorating and celebrating has grown over the years. I watched as co-workers dedicated days and countless thousands of their own dollars to creating life-sized haunted forests with "trees" that grabbed unsuspecting, and therefore shrieking children; ancient Egypt (fortunately the pyraminds were NOT life-sized); the Pirates of the Caribbean; the Smurfs; the Adams Family; soccer stadiums full of fans; NYC (replete with cardboard recreations of landmark buildings); Carnival Colombia, and graveyards full of personalized tombstones with funny epitaphs. I emerged from my tiny office to find a river of costumed little ones and their parents swarming our corridors. The sections were all judged, and the winners will be announced sometime this week. A prize will be awarded for the most "green" display, which I hope will go to my Economic section as we did.. well, nothing. Hey, and in doing nothing - we consumed no resources, right? Okay, we contributed cash and candy to our zealous neighbors, but other than that, we were disgracefully schlumpy. 

"Do you see what I see?"

So - back to the holidays and how Hallmark is missing out:

Halloween has been going all month and now that it's nearly November, the stores (as of last weekend) have started to look to the horizon. And what do they see?

Certainly not Thanksgiving, the traditional demarkation between fall and the of the start of the Christmas shopping season. Because that's an American holiday, right?
No - here they have an inunterrupted view towards the Big One: Christmas.

Yes, that's right. It's not yet November but apparently 'tis the Season. Last weekend we discovered a great mall nearby (capital "g" Great, lemme' tell you- the Santa Barbara Mall) that was already decked out in garlands, red velvet bows and clusters of giant gilded balls. But the coup de grace was tonight when Tim and I walked home from the grocery store, and noticed that our neighbors were already proudly displaying a fully lit and decorated Christmas tree in their front window.


To summarize: These people know how to party. Whether it's three days of live Mariachi bands on one's birthday or a month of Valentine's Day and Halloween or two months of Christmas - this is a festive country. Perhaps because they don't have real seasons to mark the march of time they use holidays instead?

"Oh yes, I remember that, it was during Halloween..."

I don't know, but I must admit that if the weather is not going to change for our next two years (it will only be drier or wetter, but not warmer or colder), perhaps I can learn to look forward to a month of chocolate eggs in April; of roses and dinners out in September and witches and pumpkins October. Oh, and apparently Christmas is celebrated with fireworks - hey, why not?!

Let me be the first to say to everyone: Ho ho ho!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Quick Question for Saturday

How can you tell if someone's Household Effects (HHE) have arrived or not?

See Exhibit A below and decide for yourself:

Yes, those are more meat trays. They are proving to be quite multi-purposeful.

In case there is any lingering doubt, no, after 14 weeks our HHE has still not arrived.

Soon, though, soon - maybe only two weeks more.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


I was thinking this morning about my last post and also what my friend a fellow FS Specialist Mike commented, and it has prompted me to write about OMS training a little bit. I'm doing this primarily to defend the nice folks who trained us all, myself a little bit, and also to (hopefully) shine some light on what future OMSes and those in training now can expect. Granted, this is one person's opinion and not a carved-in-stone prediction of what everyone will experience. However, I believe it is common enough to be of value to others.

I must start with a FS  cliché that I truly hoped I'd never have to write: It depends.
OMS training is three full weeks of introduction to the super-varied work of an Office Management Specialist in the Foreign Service. The goal is to prepare employees for their roles in huge embassies and in tiny remote consulates; to help them be successful in Front Offices, in Regional Security Office positions or in Political and Economic sections. There is no one job description, no one way of doing things, no one standard procedure that is uniform for every situation. Therefore, the training is more of a broad overview of topics that we will one day (immediately or years from now) encounter, combined with hands-on-keyboard practice with some of the common programs that we will generally encounter in our new assignments. Things like time and attendance, travel arranging, tracking employee evaluations, ordering supplies and services, reading or retrieving cables - these types of programs seem to be common to nearly every section and an OMS should expect to face these tasks regardless of her/his assignment.

So if I'm defending the OMS training - then why did I feel so lost and unprepared? Why so much panic and so many (alleged) tears? Who or what is to blame?

First, I'm certain that I'm harder on myself than anyone else ever will be - so I should confess that the panic and tears were (mostly) internal.

Second, in order to get this job, we have to be the type of person who likes to do things well, who has been successful in their previous career(s) and is probably used to being the go-to person. When I left my former position, I was at the top of my game. I felt fluent and confident in every aspect of my work and relished my job because I understood it; I knew what was expected of me, how to do it, when and why. Then my confidence hit a new peak when I learned I was accepted by the Department of State to become an OMS - woo hoo, who's better than me?  I'd say that many of us felt the same way. We would not have been hired if we were low-achieving slumps.

So now take this same person and pull them from their familiar, warm bath and stick him/her in a new country, new culture, new language, new food, home, family, friends and coworkers left behind in the US, and plop them into a job where they have (generally) no overlap with their predecessor to show them what they're doing and what is expected, in a unique professional culture with very little outside equivalent, and it's no wonder you get someone who feels cold, naked and shivering. I think it's normal to have some deer-in-the-headlights months as we scramble to find our equilibrium and routine, our little victories and accomplishments that we've been so accustomed to from our previous lives.

This is where the "genius" of the FS hiring process comes in: they know all this.
They know that very few people are going to come to their doorsteps, resume in hand, with actual embassy experience. Sure, there are those who were interns, or who have experience from being a FS family member - but they are the minority. Many of us (myself included) had never been IN a US embassy before; some had never been out of the country before embarking on this career - it's not a job requirement. This is why they choose people with the raw characteristics (the 12/13 Dimensions), gleaned from every possible source and life experience, that they know will allow them to eventually float to the surface in the ocean of FS assignments. They didn't hire us because we'd used e2 Travel Arranger before - they hired us because perhaps we'd figured out other new programs in other jobs. They didn't hire us because we'd written a Dip Note before, but because we showed them we were resourceful in figuring out new tasks through whatever means available.

There is no way that OMS training (or any of the other trainings for generalists and specialists) can prepare new employees for every situation they're going to face; it's simply impossible. Every post, every section, every predicament faced will be different and therefore while they try to teach us about the variety of situations that probably/maybe will come up  - the bottom line is that they have to hire people who they trust possess the internal tools to figure stuff out.

This process of figuring stuff out can be painful for those of us who are used to already knowing what to do and how to do it. It can take months or a year, and as soon as we're snappy and fluent and feeling like the top of our game - we pack up and start all over again. This discomfort can make you feel alive or it can be overwhelming - and probably both. I know I will gain from the pain (sorry for that last phrase) in the long run.

In the meanwhile, apparently y'all are going to hear my creaks and groans. Please don't take this as an indication that the FS system or I are intrinsically flawed. I think it's just the way it is.

Thanks for listening.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tiny Victories

Subtitle: Confessions of a Freshman OMS

Today was an anniversary of sorts: it has been exactly 12 weeks since I first took my seat in the Economic Section at Embassy Bogota. It has also been about two months since I came home and cried in frustration, feeling like a total idiot for not knowing what the heck I was doing. So I'd like to take this time, if you don't mind, to celebrate some really tiny victories that came to me today. I will do this by way of before and after descriptions:

1. Task: Boss says, "Find me that cable I drafted in either 2009 or 2010 that had the words 'US Company' in the title."

Before: Stare at him blankly. Consult deepest darkest memory from OMS training (last April) about running advanced searches on our cable system. Start to hyperventilate when search result turns up 43,671 hits. Try not to cry.

After: Repeat same steps above with blank stare replaced by confident nod, and with only minor frustration at seeing the number of hits. Blame stupid search program instead of stupid self. Recall that previous OMS cross-referenced all cables since 2009 in handy Excel sheet; actually locate said Excel sheet and in one minute, find the requested cable. Print and send electronically to boss, feel like hero deserving of medal.

2. Task: Invitational traveler who we are bringing to Colombia for a conference will not divulge the personal information necessary for me to make hotel and airline reservations and arrange for electronic funds transfer for her travel advance.

Before: Panic. Pester co-workers with questions and start to hyperventilate (again) as they describe one possible Herculean work-around after another for my predicament.

After: No social security number for her new travel account? We'll make one up!
No bank account information? We'll bring her to the embassy cashier for a cash advance when she arrives!
No visa card number? We'll use her co-worker's to hold her hotel reservation!
Bring it on sister - is that the worst you can throw at me? Ha!

3. Task: Co-worker is out sick and that important letter from Secretary Clinton and corresponding Diplomatic Note (aka DipNote) have to go the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Before: Look terrified at boss as he casually lobs the task into my court. Frantically search office for other possible victim to assist and realize I'm the only one in today. Panic (again).

After: Feel - but don't show - terror (bosses can smell fear; this deception is an art you must master quickly). Consult electronic files of previous DipNotes for samples; realize that none match the requirements and start to sweat. Remember the nice lady from Protocol who I met months ago who does these things all the time and beg for help with the very, very formal and traditional formatting and wording. Semi-stifle a few "argh!"s as the formatting goes haywire, and by five minutes to five - have her return my latest version with only "a few small changes." Remember that these need to be sent via courier with a returned proof of delivery. Relish the knowledge that I know how to request a courier via eServices and how to say, "proof of delivery" in Spanish.

4. Very Big Deal Conference coming in three weeks needs interpreters for complicated technological topics for multiple days and in two cities: Bogota and Medellin.

Before: Consider new line of work and pull suitcase off shelf.

After: Breathe in. Start to break huge task into small chronological steps on notepad. Remember how to use ARIBA procurement system that made me cry just two months ago (there's a lot of that going around!). Write very detailed notes in ARIBA to overworked procurement staff regarding our needs (first, smile in the knowledge that we HAVE procurement staff and that I know their names and where they sit), attach funding information, list dates and technical requirements. Enjoy sense of relief knowing that when I have to contact these interpreters to finalize the details... they will be bilingual!

All these things happened today, and I'm still here alive and willing to share them all with you. In fact, most of them happened after lunch. I must admit that I still feel trepidation starting up the computer in the morning, wondering what fire will need to be put out, or what nasty knot in need of untangling will pounce on me via a casual e-mail. There are a LOT of things I do not know how to do still. A LOT. But there are now a few things I do know how to do, and that's what I'm happy about today.

Wish me luck tomorrow.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Rainy Day: Random Thoughts and Statistics

It's Colombus Day, which means no work for me and there's a nice thunder-n-lightning storm outside and I've done all my housework... so I thought I'd take this time to look at this blog's statistics of readers from around the world. As of today, here they are:

United States
New Zealand
United Kingdom     
I'd like to say "Hey!" and "Thanks for reading!" to the 49 Mozambican page-viewers (I visited and love the country - hope you're enjoying it, too), and the 58 Kiwis (ditto what I said about Mozambique). I must say I'm a bit disappointed in the number of pageviews of our fine neighbors to the north. Yes, Canada - that's you. Perhaps if I wrote more about hockey and less about cats, the numbers would improve? (I'm just teasing you.) I imagine the 123 Colombian pageviews are my husband (honey, you're skewing the stats!) but I'm curious about the Qatar and Japan readers...

I would like to know what information is most interesting and helpful to you all. I know that sometimes blogger makes it hard to leave comments, but if you can, let me know what would be interesting.

I figure two main types of readers work their way through my thoughts each week: those of you who are friends or family and are curious if we're still living and breathing (yes, thank you); and those of you who are aspiring OMSes and are looking for glimpses into this possible new career. And, according to the stats kept by blogger, there are dozens of people who hit upon this blog after searching for "Colombian Flag" on Google. Yes, there technically IS a picture of the Colombian flag (go back to late March), but this site probably wasn't what you were expecting, eh?

In speaking to the latter group (not the flag-Googlers): there is a brand-new batch of OMSes at FSI as we speak (24 of them, I'm told) who will be going through the excitement of Flag Day tomorrow. For all of them, I can't say that I wish you only your high bids, because if word-of-mouth is any indicator, many of my colleagues have been pleasantly surprised when fate brought them an assignment they never would have chosen for themselves. Today is the last day of your life as you know it. After tomorrow afternoon, your thoughts and focus will be on the coming horizon: what to bring, what can't I bring, what schools for my kids, what clothes for what climate, what languages to learn, what food, how many flights to get there and how much will it cost to ship my pet(s)? You will become fluent in all these questions and answers over the coming three weeks. Some find this exciting, some terrifying, some tedious - but it is an integral part of the life which you've just entered.

We are forever looking to the horizon and wondering what's coming. It doesn't end for this post, either. My co-workers, some with 20+ years in the FS, are still looking ahead and planning, plotting their career course, figuring out that even at age 53 they may need to spend nearly a year at FSI to learn a new language - but it would be worth it. I think if you weren't a day-dreamer or the type that asked, "But what's around THAT corner?" you mightn't be wondering about this life after all.

One of my favorite recently-overheard conversations on the van the other day summed up the FS mentality perfectly:

Person One: We're thinking of bidding on XYZ country, how did you like it there?

Person Two: Oh I loved it! It was a wonderful time.  Well, I did get dengue fever and dysentary and giardia - but other than that, it was great. You should totally bid on it!

We're not the typical breed of cat, and it is such a relief to finally arrive at FSI or at your first post, and be among people who understand your wandering motivations, people who talk about spending ten months to learn Estonian being a good thing, people who are fluent in the many forms of electricity and the appliances that can/can't work with them, and people who can discuss the various ways to keep armies of African ants out of the dog kibble bin.

However, if you're the person who said this to me while I was still back at home:

"What? Why would you want to leave here? Aren't we good enough for you?" ---
I don't recommend this life for you.

But I'm glad that you're out there, keeping the homefires burning while we scatter to each horizon. Believe me, we'll be envious of your easy access to peanut butter, rolls of wrapping paper and $3 boxes of breakfast cereal, for sure.

In the meanwhile, I hope these random thoughts give some of you an insight into our lives and maybe some inspiration or a feeling of relief that you're not alone out there as you try to explain to friends and family why moving to the Congo would be pretty cool.

Cuidate, y nos vemos!

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Tabbies Speak Out

The Tabbies have requested a moment to speak about their views of their new home, and seeing as this blog is named after them - we thought it only fair. I promised to transcribe their thoughts, and perhaps add an explanatory comment or two.

Things we like about being wherever we are, which frankly, we're not too sure about:
(I've showed them the map; it's right there on the wall, but they kept saying, "What's South? What's America? What's 'not Washington'?")

  • The weather is pretty good for those of us with luxurious coats. Not too hot (like that last place we were where we had to have that machine in the wall buzzing all day to keep us cool!) and not too cold and we haven't had to get wet going outside. Okay, we haven't been able to go outside at all, but at least we're staying dry and clean. These are very important qualities in a new home.
  • We have an entire bathroom just for us! Dad even mentioned something about just filling up the entire shower stall with sand and calling it a litter box, which would be really cool and sooo spacious! The sand we have must be the fanciest in the world; well, that's what Mom keeps saying, and she adds, "It better be at $2 per pound!" She even mentioned something about, "For these prices, we should recycle it!" We're certain she's kidding - that would just be gross.
  • The food we have is also the best in the world because it comes straight from the Amazon jungle. It's so exotic! (I don't have the heart to tell them the food is the same they've always had, and it's actually from
  • Dodger: We have this huge shower that I jump into and drink from every morning! And, it washes all the dirt off my paws - really! You can see for yourself how clean my paws are now because I leave my wet, dirty prints in the shower and on the bathroom floor, and sometimes I even jump on the bed to get the last of it all dried off on the comforter. There's so much less cleaning work for me now!
  • Toby: And I love having three shower stalls to pee in now! Did you know that cat urine cleans tile grout, too? And Mom just turns on the water and washes it all down, which saves on that fancy litter. I'm ecologically-minded, for sure.
  • Dodger: You did WHAT in my shower?
  • Daphne: I don't have to share my couch space anymore as we finally have armchairs for each of us AND a couch. This living is befitting a lady of my age and status.
Okay, we have to mention a few things that we're not quite used to yet:
  • Dodger: There's a lot more thunder and lightning down here, which is just not cool.
  • Daphne: And there are these huge birds, bigger than eagles, that fly in circles over the hills near our window. When I see those birds, I know the only safe place is under the bed. I'm no fool!
  • All: These wood floors make our toys go so fast across the room! And when we run around the corners, well, it's really hard to get traction (...and really funny...).
  • Toby: The couches are tall enough that we can retrieve our own toys! I can even get UNDER the couch now and sneak up on my sister (...also really funny...).
  • Mom keeps promising that our tower and scratcher will arrive soon. Something about being in a warehouse for months already - it seems to make her sort of mad to talk about it. 
We'd love to hear from our other FS cat friends: Boots, Mugsy, Bill - anyone?
Thank you for listening; this is the end of our tale.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Nice Surprises

I felt a little bad being negative about my host-country nationals in the last post (okay - I did have pretty good grounds, though), so in a change of mood, Tim and I came up with the following:

Nice surprises

There are a few things, pleasant surprises that I’ve noticed that Colombia does better than the US. This is not a comprehensive list; it is simply what I’ve noticed recently and I hope to add to this list as the months unfold.

·         Fruit juice. They have awesome fruit juice here. It’s fresh; it comes in all sorts of flavors that we don’t have and they make these deliciously creative mixes – like pear, green apple, mint and something tropical that I can’t remember the name of. But trust me – it’s amazing. And that’s just one example; the number of mixtures they come up with is exponential to the number of fruits and herbs that exist.

·         Aromatica. While we’re talking about delicious concoctions, I’d like to suggest “aromatica,” a brew of dried or fresh fruits and herbs that does NOT only taste like rose hips (like so much herbal tea does). Every batch is different depending on the creator; it’s refreshing and warm and sweet… Mmm hmmm. Why don’t we have this at home? And you can eat the fruit with a spoon afterwards!

·         Desserts. There are bakeries and ice cream and gelato shops everywhere. And flan, and things with “arequipa,” this caramel-like substance that makes everything better. Now, I know that Europe is renowned for their bakeries , so you French, Italian and Austrians out there don’t go getting all upset at this. This isn’t a world competition here – just nice things I notice in Colombia and their bakeries are one of them!

·         Taxi companies that recognize your address automatically when you call from your home phone and dispatch a taxi to your exact location and then tell you how many minutes it will take to arrive. All without talking to a soul. That’s pretty cool.

·         Parking lot security. Besides bomb-sniffing dogs that check every vehicle entering the shopping center parking lots, today we also saw what could best be described as parking lot lifeguards. There were guards in towers overlooking the outdoor parking lot, armed with whistles and binoculars. One was excitedly blowing his whistle and pointing at some offender, but I couldn’t tell what the crime was. Could it have been door-dinging another car? Leaving the cart to block an empty space? Forgetting your purse on the car roof? Either way, he was certainly On The Job and it was nice to see.  

I’ve given you five nice surprises of things that Colombia does really well. Protocol* dictates that I may now list one thing that Colombia is really lousy at, and I apologize in advance to any host-country nationals reading this, but you gotta’ admit that this is true: It makes NO sense to have the folks who re-stock the grocery shelves work during the busiest shopping times!  We have enough trouble working our way around each other and past the over-solicitous sample marketers in front of their skillets and pitchers of juice and little tooth-picked sausage pieces - we truly do not also need to contend with pallets and crates and boxes of groceries blocking the way and dozens of staff clogging the aisles that we now have to reach around, over, and under as they ignore us to chat with their coworkers. Really, these tasks are best left to the overnight hours.

Okay, that's it for now.