Saturday, December 21, 2013

Winter Coats and Sunglasses: It's Christmastime in Juarez!

Now that the excitement of getting our new assignment has quieted down, it's back to focusing on life in the present instead of the future. 

Speaking of presents: it's Christmastime in the borderlands! 
While Juarez can't compete with Bogota's lighted wonderland of city parks with their fake snow machines and nightime bike riding on the cyclovia, Mexico does have some awesome traditions that we've been learning about.

Two weeks ago it started with our first posada, which is like the Colombian novena where people gather with friends and family in the evenings during the weeks leading up to Christmas.  Two weeks ago we went to our first posada, invited by a neat guy who works in the Consulate's warehouse.  He gave us rather vague directions involving going to a particular landmark bar where nearby we'd see a road and a private house. After a half-dozen u-turns on a busy avenue, looking for the nondescript road and private house, we finally called him and were directed down a scary, dark, narrow dirt lane that dead-ended in a dirt parking area in front of a cluster of tiny houses and the posada well underway.  It was a terribly cold night, so there were bonfires going from trash barrels and people warming up in the small three-room house in front of huge pots of pozole.  Pozole is a spicy soup made of broth with hunks of pork and/or chicken stewing away with hominy and then garnished to taste with fresh lime juice, sliced radishes and chopped onion. It was delicious!  After having our fill of pozole, we went outside into the dirt lane to see our host's family perform as dancing matachines.  You can take a quick look at this link, or just picture what looks like a Native American dance, complete with dancers of all ages and both genders in headdresses, beaded and fringed pants and skirts and a nearly trance-like devotion by the dancers to keep up with the rhythm of the heavy drum section.  The Mexican twist is that it's done in devotion to the Virgin de Guadalupe in a representation of paganism vs. Christianity.  El mal (evil) was represented by what looked like a guy dressed in a Halloween hobo costume who is apparently defeated by good in the end - no big surprise there.  Three families of matachines came in one after another, and after watching for nearly an hour, the drumming and dancing still hadn't missed a beat. The cold finally got to us and we left with the festivities still in full swing.

The next night, our neighborhood had its third and final party of the year in the park in front of our house.  Besides pozole, tamales are also Mexican Christmas traditions and there was a huge table full of trays of red, green and sweet tamales.  It seems that many Latin American countries claim to have the first, the best, or the only kind of tamales and we certainly saw the Colombian version wrapped in banana leaves with whole hunks (sometimes with bones) of chicken.  But here we have a version that is more familiar to me, wrapped in corn husks and full of shredded beef. There are red and green ones depending on the chiles used, and the sweet ones were stuffed with raisins and some kind of sweet-tart filling.  After the eating came the music until the early hours of the morning. We were warm in bed by that time and only catching strains of karaoke drifting from across the street.  

Finally we had our own Second Annual "Why did I put THAT in my HHE?" white elephant gift exchange with a big group of friends and coworkers. HHE = household effects, i.e. the stuff that we start dragging around the world, growing in size like a snowball through the years. Our first party was in Bogota, and we had such a fun time we decided to do it again.  People really got into the spirit of getting rid of things they'd been packing around for a while, including among many other things: a 3-foot hookah from Tunisia, many small kitchen appliances that seemed useful at the time, a much-coveted set of Super Hero glasses, a 4-DVD set of the Andy Griffith Show (now on our shelf), a 2004 DreamWeaver user's manual, a bird feeder and pounds of bird seed (which were actually from different people, but married up in the end) and a 10-pound stone molcajete (guacamole grinder) - among other things.  My husband made pots of Mexican hot chocolate and mulled wine and we shared plates of Christmas cookies and a giant San Francisco sourdough loaf of bread shaped like a snowman.   There was lots of cheering each other on in stealing presents and I think we've started a tradition to carry on to our future posts. 

Meanwhile, it's crisp and cold outside and our garden has gone dormant with the last leaves of our pretty umbrella trees finally hitting the ground. We have a gorgeous red male cardinal visiting us and about eight ring-neck doves fluffed up to keep warm in the garden each morning

Next week will be our first Christmas in Mexico.
Feliz Navidad everyone!

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Flag Day - Part Three!

I'm not sure if I can officially call this a "Flag Day" as there were really no flags, no ceremony, no auditorium, and no family watching and holding their breath. But to me receiving an onward assignment will always be Flag Day, and is probably in the top three reasons why I joined the Foreign Service to begin with: the thrill of wondering, waiting, imagining and finally knowing where the adventure will take us next.

On Monday we hadn't heard any news. That's to be expected after a long holiday weekend, we all said. "We all" refers to the eight other winter bidders with me here in Juarez.  When Tuesday morning rolled around, we'd already deflated our expectations of hearing until maybe Wednesday and were back to concentrating only on our interviews.  Until 10:00 a.m., that is. I don't know how Washington does it, but the CDOs (Career Development Officers) have some magical way of simultaneously sending hundred(s) of individual assignment emails.  They don't send the messages one at a time, or in one message with a long list that one has to frantically scroll and scan through.  Instead, in the same instant we all get our personal messages. I had already planned with my husband that as soon as I saw the message from my CDO come into the inbox, I would forward it to him and then walk over to his section where we could open it together.  Luckily I had just finished an interview and was about to pick a new case up when I saw the message arrive. I opened my Outlook to send it to my husband and in the process, my eyes dropped to the one single line at the top of the message announcing our new assignment.  I gasped (just a little), smiled, and then leaned back in my chair to see my coworker at the next window with the same little smile. Very quietly (we're the only two winter bidders in our interviewing section) we gave each other our news and a hug. 

I then went to find my husband to read the message with him.  Unfortunately, I found him rushing to get to a meeting, so I just had to tell him in one word that, guess what honey, we're going to....

I'm super excited about it!  It was our number two and three choice (there were more than one position in Bucharest on our bid list), so I must admit it wasn't a total shocker as I felt I'd stacked the deck heavily in that direction.  But one never knows until the know, and so I also had images of us getting a really low bid and going somewhere we really kinda' would rather not go.  It happens all the time; in the Foreign Service we're all taught just to not believe something until you have your travel orders, or better yet, are actually AT your new post.  In fact, the ink won't dry on the assignments for a few months yet, as a panel has to meet to grant the positions. This is what gives the employee their official notification. But chances are more than good that it will stick. Things that come up to change it could be that the person I'm due to replace suddenly curtails and the new post doesn't want to wait for my arrival. Or the post decides to cut that position, or to change the position to a higher/lower level that doesn't match my level. That stuff happens all the time, so we just learn from the start not to count any chickens.

But still... I'm excited. I will be a Consular Officer again for the full two years and I will have to/get to learn Romanian to a 3/3 level in speaking and reading. That's the same level I have now in Spanish. Of course, I came to FSI with three years of high school Spanish still rattling around in my memory. Even without this prior experience, being in the US just about everyone should have some familiarity with Spanish from reading packaging, going on Mexican vacations, watching Sabado Gigante now and again on TV etc... But Romanian? Yeah, Nadia Comaneci is the extent of my knowledge on the subject of the Romanian language and I'm pretty sure it's a proper name, not a verb conjugation. 

Part of our bidding strategy was to learn a new multi-country language, and preferably a "world language" like French, Russian or Portuguese that could be useful in a long list of interesting countries. But our list, once whittled down for timing, spousal work options, cat travel etc... offered us lots of really cool places with lots of, shall we say, "boutique" languages that would carry us to only one post. Now that the doing is done, I can tell you that we also bid high on positions in Vietnam, Thailand and Japan which would have given us a new language, albeit a super hard one. As much as I was thinking how awesome it would be to live in one of those places, I'm secretly relieved I don't have to learn a tonal language. My Vietnamese-speaking friend told me, "Oh don't worry, speaking Vietnamese is like singing, just practice Karaoke!"  Right. In finding something similar that I have zero talent for, she may as well have said, "Oh, it's just like flying a jet. Or free climbing Half Dome. Or salsa dancing!"

Our number one and four spots were Casablanca, Morocco and Montreal, Canada specifically for the opportunity to learn French, a language in which my husband already has a strong base. Bucharest ended up in spots number two and three because we figured, hopefully, that at least Romanian is one of the five Romance languages and therefore would be more familiar  to us than say Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian or Hungarian - all options also high on our list. And although I've never been there, I'm told it's a beautiful country where we'll have four true seasons, amazing mountain scenery (my favorite), inexpensive living, super regional travel opportunities and the Black Sea coast just a few hours' drive away.  It's a medium-sized Embassy and with what I'd call a "healthy-sized" Consular Section. It's going to be great. I will leave you with a few nice pictures of Romania, all shamelessly copied from Google images. Thank you nice people in internetlandia for sharing these with us.

Yup, there's an Arcul de Triumf there, too. (There's also one in Juarez, btw)

What's Europe without a fairy tale castle or two?

One of the world's largest buildings

Northern Romanian countryside

And a handy map for those of you too embarrassed to ask where Romania is.

PS The Tabbies were a bit upset to learn that they will be "pisici" (or "pisica" in singular). They think that looks too much like "swimming pool" in French. They hate swimming pools.

PPS We were a bit disappointed to see that our new flag for our collection looks too much like our last flag.  We'll let you all be the judge. Do you know which is Colombia and which is Romania? No fair scrolling up to compare. 


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Oh the Possibilities!

It has been a tough month. 
From leaving the comfortable routine of life in the NIV section; to the start-all-over-again mental gymnastics that is being in a new and more complicated section (IV), add in two VIP visits to the Consulate, and oh right, a 400-post bid list to sift through and narrow down where we want to live and work for two years - there's been a lot going on lately! It all came to a head last week when our in-Spanish, after-work salsa class started to get way too complicated and I felt like my brain was just going to send out a little puff of smoke and then seize up.  There might have been tears when I got home that evening; there certainly was whining and self-pity.

But now the visitors have come and gone; I took a break from salsa for a week, and best of all - the bid list has been turned in to my Career Development Officer.  There's nothing to do but wait while they put together the assignments and deliver us the news in a very non-Flag Day unceremonious email.  It doesn't even have a little drum roll that activates when you open the message, which truly it should. 

 I don't want to jinx our chances by telling you what we're hoping for, but I can throw out some hints. 

  • Our top ten posts are located on five different continents;
  • They represent the chance to learn one of six new languages, two of them tonal (I'm going to kick myself if one of those comes to be); 
  • We will either live in dry sunshine in a coastal country, or have four distinct seasons surrounded by thick forests and mountains, or live in a teenie urban apartment where we will change out of our shoes into little slippers whenever we come home;
  • We've already visited three of the ten cities, and I've lived in two of them;
  • Four of the countries are known internationally for their amazing cuisine, as in, "Should we go out for x, y or z tonight?" and three will most probably never make this category. 
As you know, I love bragging about our amazing weather down here in the northern Chihuahua desert. Two years full of blue-skied sunshine and the ability to do outdoor activities 11.5 months of the year. So, while going through our bid list, I began thinking of the opposite and romanticizing life in northern climates, even mentally trying on the wardrobe I'd need. I caught myself thinking, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a 'real winter' again? I could wear my sweaters and we'd walk through snowy cityscapes to our new favorite little restaurant on the corner, you know - the one with the fireplace?"  Our cozy home, kitties curled up in their baskets, will certainly be located in a Thomas Kinkade painting. 

While across from me at the dining table, with his own list, is my husband the tropical weather beach lover, with his own images: weekend trips to post card beaches, sweating when he steps out the door each morning and sitting on our patio in the evening, hearing and smelling the surf nearby. 

However, probably the truth will be closer to this:


But now we're in the relaxed, ignorance-is-bliss time where everything is still an option and the images are all positive and exciting.  When we finally get The Email containing our assignment, and realize that we'll be in urban drear from October to May, or I come to grips with the fact that I'll be one of only three employees at a tiny consulate, having to be duty officer every other weekend - well that will be the time for dealing with reality. 

Right now, we're loving the romantic possibilities instead. 

Monday, November 04, 2013

Winter Bidding

It's a scary time of year here in Mexico, what with:

Dia de Muertos 

...and the new bid list was just released.
Yup, it's bidding time again! Time to start day dreaming/nightmaring about where we'll be going next:

As an entry-level FSO, my first two tours are directed. Which means that we're allowed to submit our general priorities and then rank the list of positions we're offered, but the final word on where we're headed is made by the nice folks in the assignments department in Washington. Even though this will be our third post, because I switched from being an FS Specialist OMS to an FS Generalist Consular Officer, my directed assignments clock was re-set when I got to A-100. Further, while all of my OMS classmates recently received tenure (woohoo!), due to my switch over, I've gone to the back of that line, too and won't be eligible until a minimum of two years have passed in the new job.  

We arrived at post in February, therefore we're considered "Winter Bidders." The year is broken up into Winter, arriving from October-April, and Summer, for those who arrive between May-September.  (It might be November instead of October, so don't quote me on that part.)  Once two directed tours are completed, officers are able to lobby for their own jobs and there is a lot of jockeying that goes on to try to get onto the Summer bidding cycle.  This cycle is far better for families with school-aged children, and so the vast majority of the available positions come onto the Summer cycle.  People play with home much home leave, training, vacation etc... they take to try to become Summer bidders.  But for us now, it's Winter Bidding time and here is how it boils down:

I'd like to explain Bidding Math 101, not for the faint-hearted:

Start with a list of available positions for your bidding cycle, sent to everyone on your bidding cycle at the same time, all over the world. Our list has close to 400 positions.

  400  Then subtract all the positions that are in your same country, as we can't repeat yet.
-   91    Minus Mexico
= 309   

Now go through the list and cross out any position where the timing for arrival will not work out. For example, if they want someone to be at post in April, already being able to speak Russian to a 3/3 level, then I have to cross that out because I speak no Russian now and we will be leaving post in February. We have a Congressionally-mandated minimum of 20 work days of home leave to be taken within the United States, for which we need to tack on one extra month, so really we're not eligible to be at any post until March. I don't think I can go from 0/0 to 3/3 in Russian in one month... so that post gets scratched off the list.  Go through each and every position and do the "timing math," crossing out as you go, even if that means heartbreak for eliminating a prior "dream post" that just won't work out. 

Using the comprehensive bidding instructions and a guide to when language and functional training classes at FSI start, we begin to shape which positions are viable simply based on timing. They fall into two categories: "perfect" bids wherein they want me in October and I can arrive in October, and "imperfect" bids wherein they want me in October and I can arrive in either September or November.  We must whittle down the list to come up with 30 bids: 22 of which must be perfect, and there can be no more than eight imperfect. There can be ZERO "invalid" bids, which means they want me in October and I can get there in December or August only.  Plus we have to list a minimum of two different world regions and six of the 30 bids must be in our own cone; I'm Consular-coned. 

To add more wrinkles, if we were not at a hardship post (10% differential or more), we'd have to select a minimum of 15 posts at 15% hardship or more, and if I were still on language probation - I'd have to select posts that are language-designated so I could be trained in another language.  If I'd never served a Consular tour, I'd also have to do that. Coming to Juarez scratched all three of those requirements off the list in one go, so we didn't have to worry about that part. Phew. 

So now let's get personal.  We need to consider places where my husband has a better-than-average shot of getting a job, either in or out of the mission. We determine this by reading post reports from officers living/having lived at the post and from reports of how many family members are currently employed there and whether or not the host country has a work agreement for foreigners and/or an economy to support foreign workers.  

Then we consider hauling three elderly kitties to post: are there quarantines? Will it take three flights and 31 hours to get there? Will there be decent vet care once we're there? Will we be able to buy or import pet food? 

But wait, there's more: will we be learning a language that will be useful to daily life in the host country? For example, there are frequently officers trained in a non-native language to serve a particular population in the country. Example: learning Farsi (to serve the Iranian population) in Turkey, but not learning Turkish and therefore not being able to direct a taxi, order food in a restaurant or speak to your neighbors. Hmmm.... important considerations. 

We made an elaborate Excel sheet enumerating our priorities and tabulating how each of our top contenders ranked.  We're also realizing that the whole is not equal to the sum of the parts, meaning a post we really aren't interested in might just numerically come up the highest. We've decided to reserve vetoes for these occasions. 

And on a far more frivolous note, my husband and I also have a flag collection for the countries we've lived in.  Countries with cool looking flags are very attractive, like this one, and I'll let you figure them out...

But then the following flags of very interesting countries kinda' look all alike. Hmmm:

And keep in mind our last post looked like this:

So I think we need to mix it up a bit more. Oh the decisions!
Stay tuned, we should know before Christmas.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Over 10,000 Served

After eight months in the non-immigrant visa section of my post (plus one month temporary assignment to Monterrey), I have hit the watermark of over 10,000 served. And by that, I mean visas adjudicated. I remember when I was in training at FSI, ConGen, and we all had to do mock interviews at our "windows" complete with characters, crazy plot lines and disguises, and after completing about eight of these interviews, each lasting probably 20 minutes, I felt so proud. And then I read a blog from a Consular Officer leaving her post in Hermosillo, Mexico where she talked about adjudicating X-thousand of visas in her two-year posting. It sounded like an impossible number to reach and I couldn't imagine ever attaining it. But now I'm there, and it really wasn't that hard. In fact, there wasn't a day that I dreaded going in to work - really.  And if I was ever lacking energy, just the act of walking through the Consulate grounds en route to my little window, alongside the waiting areas where the applicants stream in, all pressed or curled, perfumed or cologne'd, kids woken up early to make the 7:45 appointment time - and I realized how important my role is. They've put in everything for this interview, they deserve my 100%. It was always as easy as that.  

Now that I'm feeling confident and comfortable in my spot, able to train others and answer questions with some degree of certainty - I get my walking orders to move over to the next rotation. I'm due to move to the immigrant visa section in a matter of a few short weeks. The steep learning curve will begin anew.  I'm excited because as a Consular-coned officer I want to soak in as much experience as possible in my time here before being sent off to who-knows-where. I want the "trifecta": IV, NIV and American Citizen Services (ACS) as a minimum before leaving Juarez.  They say that if you can work on the border, you can work anywhere because our cases tend to be the most complicated due to the border being such a, well, such a "living thing" with people coming and going, family members on both sides etc... I am excited to absorb every little bit. 

It was just yesterday that my A-100 class challenged each other to write "Day in the Life of..." journals to share with each other describing what our lives and works are like now, more than one year past the end of our times together at FSI. Some people have completed their first one-year assignment and are back at FSI in language training; others are 50% through their first tours; and a few have only just arrived at their first post. When I read what my classmates are doing, I can't help but think that the all-knowing powers that be (fate?) truly picked the right spot for us. A better place could not have been chosen for me and I am enjoying every day of life here. 

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Familiarization Tour

When all Consular Officers leave for their first posting abroad, they are required to make a one day stop-over for "consultations" with DHS (Department of Homeland Security) at whichever major airport serves the region of the world where they're heading, usually Miami, Los Angeles, New York or Washington, DC.  Consultations involve the new officer observing DHS in action as they screen incoming visitors, take some into secondary questioning areas etc... They also get to watch USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services) interviews with new/potential immigrants to the US at a separate location. Because we drove to post, we didn't do these consultations, which was disappointing. However, due to our proximity to the border, we're able to do them after arrival and once we have a bit of experience. In this way, we have a better context for what we're seeing and can ask more educated questions. 

Better than just consultations, however, is the week-long tour my husband and I just completed. Involving visiting agencies and businesses on both sides of the border, it gave us a great familiarization with the setting and the processes that are ancillary to our work. In a group of about ten, we met with representatives from the Mexican equivalent of Child Protective Services, Social Security and Voter Registration. We did site visits to passport agencies in both Juarez and El Paso, toured the civil registry where Juarenses get their birth and marriage certificates, and learned how the office of vital statistics tracks births and deaths.  We headed north and met everyone at the El Paso Mexican Consulate, seeing how similar their structure and purposes are to ours. We learned that there are 50 Mexican Consulates spread throughout the U.S. and El Paso is one of the five largest, understandably.  We also visited a midwife clinic in El Paso, a place where many Mexican women choose to give birth, thus creating new U.S. citizen babies.  Living on the border, nearly every household has a mixture of citizenships among its family members: from the common Mexican-American combination, to the Mexican-Canadian mix frequently seen among the state of Chihuahua's Mennonite population, to the growing Mexican-Chinese population in Tijuana and Juarez.  Seeing this clinic gave us a good idea of how the process works to better understand it from our applicants.  

We also visited an immigration detention center where people are held while awaiting deportation and sat in on an afternoon of immigration court hearings. We observed about six cases, some were pre-deportation hearings and some were asylum hearings. In each asylum case, the young men claimed credible fear for their lives due to gangs in their home country (El Salvador and Mexico in these cases) whom they stated were threatening to harm them if they didn't comply with their illegal requests.  The judge clearly felt for these asylum seekers, but had to tell them that their cases did not fit the U.S. definition of asylum, and rather they were simply (if one should use that word) victims of crime. Later, while discussing what we'd observed in the courtroom, my Mexican coworker noted her agreement with the judge stating, "They're just living with what we all go through" and alluded to the fact that if that were to be considered asylum-worthy - the whole region would be lining up.  

As interesting as the immigration court visit was, I think my favorite part of the tour was the morning spent at the maquiladora (factory).  The maquiladoras are northern Mexico's lifeblood, particularly here in Juarez. We visited one of the factories of an American Fortune 100 company (think home security and thermostats) and learned all about the hiring, training, management structure, wages and general working environment of a "typical" maquiladora. Working in the non-immigrant (read: tourist) visa section, this gave us invaluable context for the majority of our applicant pool.  The average entry-level factory worker (think assembly line) here earns approximately $250 per month, and with skill and experience can move up to about $400 per month. The benefits, however, add substantially to their packet and include $80 per month in food coupons, free cafeteria, free in-house dentist and doctor, savings bonuses, free transportation to and from their neighborhoods to the factory and overtime for working Saturdays, which many take advantage of. Maquila life is truly a family affair, often with multiple generations working for the same company. We were shown a wall of photos of employees who were rewarded for bringing process improvements to the attention of their supervisors. Each idea was displayed with photographs and brief descriptions and granted a certain number of points. These points could later be turned in for cash by the employee. Among the line operators, our tour guide said that the split between genders ran 80% women and 20% men.  This wasn't too surprising as factories in all corners of the world have relied upon the dexterity and small hands of women workers to perform small-scale assembly work.  

I have to admit that some of our visits made less of an impact, and to absolutely no fault at all of our generous hosts. Perhaps on the next tour the hour-long lecture on the Mexican voting registration processes should not take place after lunch, in a darkened room, with wordy PowerPoint slides, in rapid-fire, professional-level Spanish. I think you can imagine what happened. 

All in all, it was a truly informative and interesting week spent getting some great context on all aspects of not only our Consular work, but Mexican life in general. Besides the endless blue skies, I found this tour to be just another perk to working in Juarez.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Public Diplomacy

The Foreign Service has five "branches" (called "cones" or career tracks) of generalists (different from specialists), and as you all probably know, I'm Consular-coned. However, we are considered generalists which means that we're supposed to be willing and capable of filling any position: Consular, Management, Political, Economic and Public Diplomacy. In Ciudad Juarez, our primary function is Consular, especially considering that we process 25% of the world's immigrant visas and a whole heck o' tourist visas. But we also have a Political/Economic office with two officers and a Public Diplomacy office with one officer and a host of super local staff. Their job is to let the local public know about the U.S. (cultural affairs) and also to let them know about the services the Consulate offers - namely visas.  Quite frequently a call for volunteers goes out to the crew of 45 entry-level officers here (which means on their first or second tour) asking for people who want to do public outreach events regarding any number of subjects. Recently I took up the challenge: first it was with visitors to our Benjamin Franklin Corner in the capital city of Chihuahua where folks come to practice their English or to learn more about American culture. I spent a few afternoons discussing via digital video conference with visitors about the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and what the Civil Rights movement meant/means to the U.S., and another time we chatted about the lighter topic of popular movie themes. These two outreach events were in English, no preparation required and enjoyable - easy peasy, right?

So a few days ago I decided to risk putting my hand up and volunteer for an in-Spanish presentation on student visas at a large annual book fair here in Juarez. Along with one other Consular Officer, we were to discuss the how-tos of applying for a student visa to prospective Mexican students. Fortunately we had a Power Point presentation to follow along with, but it still entailed standing with a microphone in front of a (small, but interested) crowd on a stage.  I think it went well, actually, and I don't think I shamed my FSI teachers nor promised visas to any and everyone. Okay, it was actually kind of fun. We have these opportunities come up frequently and I guess it's time that I keep trying to push myself to do something slightly uncomfortable.  Heck, many of my coworkers do radio interviews, online Facebook chats and even TV spots on popular topics, usually visas.  But in the back of my mind is our "Composure Under Fire" segment of A-100 where we practiced being cornered in a public event by someone who is particularly ticked off with some recent U.S. policy. So far, the crowds have been very kind - but still - I'm waiting for that luck to run out and for someone to mention something very political or, well, something I haven't exactly been keeping up on. 

However, because I'm a pinky-sworn generalist, I have to be ready to take an assignment outside my particular cone. I've been testing the waters a bit, trying to imagine if I could be an Economic officer or Management Officer, and now I'm seeing if Public Diplomacy might be something I could wear, even if just for one tour. Jury is still out, we'll see.

In the meantime, it looks like my time in the non-immigrant section will come to an end shortly as I've been slated to rotate over to the immigrant section in the coming months. Once again, it feels like as soon as I've gotten comfortable somewhere - it's time to move on. But that's what keeps things interesting, right?  

Sunday, September 15, 2013

El Grito!


¡Vivan los héroes que nos dieron patria!
¡Víva Hidalgo!
¡Viva Morelos!
¡Viva Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez!
¡Viva Allende!
¡Vivan Aldama y Matamoros!
¡Viva la independencia nacional!
¡Viva México! 
¡Viva México! 
¡Viva México!

Thus goes "El Grito," the call that goes out on September 16th at 11:00 pm in towns and cities across Mexico to cap the Dia de Independencia. First delivered in 1810 by Miguel Hidalgo in the town of Dolores, it is traditionally a call-and-respond, with the President (or town mayor) calling out the names of revolutionary heroes and the crowd responding with a loud "Viva!"  In Mexico City, this takes place at the city center (the zocalo) and is delivered by the President in front of a massive crowd, accompanied by the ringing of a huge bell and followed by an equally impressive fireworks show. 

My husband and I only learned of this tradition a short time ago, and decided we'd love to see it first hand from Mexico City. However, by the time we learned of it, it was too late to book tickets or a hotel room in Mexico City anywhere near the zocalo. So instead - we got to take part in much smaller gritos that gave us a taste of the excitement. Yes, a very small taste, but we got the idea.

The first was last weekend in our neighborhood when the park near our house was transformed again into a party stage decked out in red, white and green bunting with decorated tables. Our neighbors handed out patriotically-colored beaded necklaces to the women and kerchiefs to the men. Like the Mother's Day celebration earlier this year, everyone gathered for food, music and dancing, this time to a live mariachi band that played until at least 02:00. Live mariachi has its place and time, let me say. In Bogota live mariachi in the apartment directly beneath ours in a sound-magnifying brick building = not so much fun. In a community park, under stars and waving flags, surrounded by your dancing neighbors and enjoying the warm evening breezes = yes. Granted, we left shortly after midnight and the party was still in full swing, but we were able to sleep courtesy of our white-noise producing air purifier machine in the bedroom. 

Community park getting dressed up for the party

Our neighbors' balcony carrying the colors

Party decorations: Mariachi dress

The spread! Traditional dishes served up by our kerchief-clad neighbors

Not exactly the President, but rather the homeowners board delivering el grito.

Patriotism under twinkling lights

The second grito was yesterday in the small northern California town where I'm staying visiting my father and sister. My husband stayed behind in Juarez, so I went down to the town park in my sister's town alone (which has a majority Mexican population) to see their version. There were booths selling tamales, tacos, elotes and all sorts of fruity drinks and a small (non-Mariachi) band playing. Instead of waiting until 11 pm, el grito was delivered at about 6:30 by the public affairs officer from the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco. She waved the Mexican flag as she called out the patriots names, and the crowd called back the obligatory "Viva!" after each name.  It was a far more subdued crowd than in our Juarez neighborhood, maybe because most of the families present have lived in the US for many years, their kids being born in the US, so it felt a bit more like a celebration of "things we used to do" to keep up the tradition. It was fun, nonetheless. However, no matter that I spoke in Spanish to the ladies selling the tamales, they always answered back in English. Ah well.

The color guard delivers the flag... the Public Affairs Officer from the Mexican Consulate for the call. 

Next year we hope to take in the event from Mexico City itself. We'd better make hotel reservations about now. See if you can catch it on the news tonight wherever you might be.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Road Trip: Puerto Penasco, Sonora

It is with great pleasure that I tell you that I'm writing this from the 11th floor condo overlooking the Sea of Cortez, about 20 miles south of the Sonoran resort town of Puerto Penasco. Yeah, I had never heard of it before either, and unless you're from Arizona or this corner of northwestern Mexico - it's a pretty good secret. 

Well, as much a secret as a fully-developed beach resort within four hours' drive from two major Arizona cities can be, which is really not a secret at all, then is it? (Okay, okay, so it was a secret to US!) Before I go too far, I'd just like to set the scene so you can have an image in mind as you continue to read:

Anyway, it's been well over a year since my husband and I had a true vacation, even if only for a long weekend. Mostly because popping away for the weekend is always easier in theory and our daydreams than in reality due to the whole find-a-good-cat sitter dilemma. The Tabbies have become pretty high-maintenance in their old age. Dodger doesn't want to eat, Toby will eat everything, and Daphne is somewhere in between. So last time we headed out to Marfa, TX, we hired a young co-worker to come in twice a day to feed, water and scoop litter boxes. Which he did. What he didn't do was clean up the puddles of barf that Toby left after he inhaled Dodger and Daphne's unattended meals and promptly got sick to his stomach. (Note to self: Never hire young folks whose mothers still do all their cleaning and cooking to keep your pets and home in ship-shape. Lesson learned.)

But this time we rolled out of town full of confidence that the mother and two young daughters from the neighborhood with whom we left our key (along with two pages of detailed instructions and one test-run under their belt) would take excellent care of the fur family. 

So back to the vacation: We drove north into El Paso, and then west through New Mexico and Arizona before turning southwest across the Tohono O'Odham Indian Reservation, then due south through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to the small border crossing at Lukeville, AZ on one side and Sonoyta, Sonora on the other. The whole thing took nearly 10 hours, longer than expected, but it was also far more beautiful than expected. Join us en route:

And you already figured that he has the naked babe painted on the gas tank, right?

Really? Right where we're headed. Awww man. 
As luck would have it... the wind blew in our favor

Stunning backdrop to the Organ Pipe Cactus Nat'l Monument

The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was, from our quick drive-through view, really spectacular. The Organ Pipe cacti are about 12-15' tall and apparently come in all shapes and poses. While I was privately anthropomorphisizing the cacti into humans in all sorts of he-larious poses, I then glanced at the horizon and saw an even more surprising backdrop of mountain peaks and ranges. Man, who knew this was all here? Gorgeous. 

So we get to the border crossing, and by now all the traffic that we'd missed by leaving Juarez early had caught up with us coming from the nearby Tuscon and Phoenix. They were there in force, and they brought their toys. All I was thinking was, "Damn! What are the chances that these yahoos are going to be staying in the same condo with us and will be ATV'ing their way up and down the beach in front of us?!"  

The crossing at Lukeville, AZ is much smaller than any of Juarez crossings, and the little town on the Mexican side was colorful, pleasant and quite a bit tidier. But it still had that familiar hard-scrabble, nursing-stray-dog-trotting-down-the-sidewalk, concrete-brick-house feel to it that we're used to and we felt at home at once. Not tempted by dentists or inexpensive pharmacies so popular in the border towns, we were through Sonoyta quickly and back onto the wide-open desert highway towards a coastline that if I hadn't already read the map - I would never have believed existed so close by. (What a surprise it must've been to the first explorers. "Well I'll be... Hey guys, would ya' come take a look at this!")

Mexicans head north for cheap shopping and Americans head south for affordable medical services.

Colorful roadside offerings for those stuck in cross-border traffic. 
We got to the outskirts of Puerto Penasco, turned left at the roundabout that the nice guy in the rental office told us to look for, and headed again into the desert (as in "totally deserted" kind of desert) on a road paved only with packed sand, towards the hope of the condo we'd rented popping onto the horizon sometime soon. And after forging a handful of  "water over roadway" sections that made me glad we hadn't bought a sports car, we found the property. Not too shabby, eh?  We're on the second-to-top floor, far left. In case you're interested, here it is. 

The plus side is that the place is serene, directly on the beach, nearly vacant and with so many pools to pick from that this afternoon I just didn't know where to start. So I used them all and then read and napped in the little shady chair casitas.

I'd like to state for the record that we're not luxury resort kind of people. So this felt like we'd stepped into an episode of International House Hunters by accident. (Which, by the way, I can now watch from one of the condos two TVs with Direct TV. Will the wonders never cease?) 

We visited the town of Puerto Penasco twice: once for a quick look-around and grocery shopping and the second time for a sunset dinner on our last night. The malecon (downtown waterside walkway) was busy with bars, restaurants, souvenir vendors, and hawkers of all sorts. If that's the scene you want -  then stay in town. We enjoyed it for one dinner and quick look around; I loved seeing the pelicans perched atop each mast of the fishing fleet in the small harbor, but personally, the tranquility of being isolated was more our style. This is how we prefer to see a beach, and did, just by turning our heads to the right from the balcony:

While I was happy to indulge in some HGTV catching up, Tim got to see his alma mater play on Saturday college football. Can you guess who we were rooting for? He dared me to make this statement in the sand below our balcony. Let's just say that ain't no Tide gonna' Roll over this! (For at least 12 hours that is...)

But all vacations must come to an end, and so on Monday morning, we reluctantly packed up and pointed the car back towards the border. Sonoyta was bustling with business, loaded with roving vendors selling pottery, ice cream, carvings and baskets. We resisted, even the fusion US-Mexican Dia de los Muertos painted pottery skulls wearing NFL helmets and the life-sized iron T-Rex.

Man, I'm glad he's chained up!
We pulled into our rugged city and then our tidy neighborhood, to find that the kitties had been beautifully cared for and were happy to see us again. They all three slept on the bed with us and only got just a bit of revenge at 03:00 when they decided it was time to be let out of the bedroom. 

You know, Mexico is really an awesome place. You all should come see more of it.

C'mon back down an' see us again!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Los Animalitos

One of the things I find charming about the Spanish language is the tendency to call things in their diminutive form. When someone has to wait for you, it's only for a momentito; your friend quickly becomes Juancito; if he's short, he's a chaparrito; and even farmers in the interview window tell me they have animalitos on the ranch that turn out not to be herds of hamsters, but cattle, pigs or sheep. 

I'd like to dedicate this posting to our own animalitos, or as they're known now that we live in Mexico, Los Tigres del Norte. As you may already know, our own tigritos are senior kitties. Except for their time in our Bogota apartment (at 64 degrees and partly cloudy every day) and another year with all four seasons (hurricanes to snow to 97% humidity as appreciated from their small balcony in Virginia), the gatitos have lived in the mild and generally overcast Pacific Northwest all their life. So the past seven months in their little walled and lawned slice of the Chihuahua desert have been just what the veterinarian ordered for their furry selves. I'm fairly sure they think we've finally taken their suggestions and have retired to Arizona. After all, they can't see over the wall outside the neighborhood to the sandy, barren and tumbleweed-strewn lot across the street. They simply know the life of daily blue skies, a row of flowering bushes to lounge under, grass to chew on and then barf up on the rug, and two big umbrella trees for shade. They soak the sunny warmth deep into their bones and relish the cooler evenings when they can stay outside comfortably for more than ten minutes at a time. Even Toby, wearing what I think is a thick Norwegian Forest Cat coat, likes to stay out in the heat of the day until his black fur is hot to the touch. Too hot? Just come inside and stretch out on the cool, tile floors. Even Daphne's arthritic limp that has kept her off of a lot of furniture in recent years has seemed to have diminished.

Our garden also provides a steady stream of avian entertainment for them. In the mornings the ring-necked doves swoop down to peck at the lawn, and all day and evening at least four hummingbirds fight for dominance over our two feeders. They zip between our house and our neighbors' like Jedi fighters, squawking and buzzing, determined to keep each other away the sugar water feeders. They hover over the lounging cats, sometimes only feet from them, assessing the risk from all angles. There is no risk, trust me, and the little picaflores figure this out quickly and now pay them no mind. The cats were at first intrigued, no doubt driven by some long-lost hunting instinct, but promptly realized that there wasn't the slightest chance of catching one and now don't bother to even flick an ear their way. 

Hummingbird in action 

Having to stay off the table doesn't count when it's patio furniture

Daphne's evening lounge

Each morning after breakfast, they line up by the screen door asking to go out. (Side note: this whole screen door thing is a wonderful addition to our life that I'd like to share with my FS friends who live in places where screens aren't common, but bugs and iron-bar security doors are. Just buy a roll of screen fabric, you could probably order it online and have it sent to wherever you're posted. We just went to Lowe's - ah, border life. Then use your glue gun to attach it across the inside of your iron-bar security door. If the housing inspection folks don't like it when you move off to your next post, you can just peel it off. But really, who doesn't love a screen door? Let me answer this question: the cats don't like it. They loved the security gate because it was truly just one big built-in cat door they could pop through at will, and now they have to ask permission. And I should acknowledge the bumped noses and confused looks in the days after it was installed.) 

Yeah, they could hardly see the new screen either
Anyway, they go outside each morning to read the news of the neighborhood. Walking the perimeter, they each sniff out exactly which neighborhood cat had visited THEIR yard overnight. These interlopers skinny down the trees from the cats-only interstate system that is the grid of stone walls between each house. Unfortunately, there is an orange tabby male who brazenly sprayed directly onto our french doors, probably in full view of the Tabbies, one night. Daphne chased him up the tree once, so this was surely retaliation. One such visitor is not so unwelcome, however. There is a female fluffy tabby, we call her Stray Cat (imaginations are wonderful things), who Toby took a shine to. For a week after he first saw her, he waited under the tree each evening for her hopeful reappearance. Like a pre-teen with his first crush, he sat for hours with his neck craned to the top of the stone wall, head flicking left then right. "Did you hear that? I think someone's coming! Was that shadow moving? Is it her?" It was embarrassing. But like most crushes, it faded after a few weeks and now I think he's just not that into her. 

Nearly seven months into our life here and we still haven't seen a scorpion in the yard or the house (sound of knocking wood in background). The neighbors have seen them; our friends in neighborhoods nearby have had lots of them, but so far, we've been spared. I have a suspicion that Cats On Patrol have been keeping these arachnids from being attracted to our yard, but that notion in still just a theory. After all, if the scorpions saw how the Tabbies have treated the dozen or so large roaches that have meandered through the kitchen, they wouldn't be afraid to come on in either. The cats have taken a very diplomatic, UN-like posture towards the roaches: We are here merely to observe and report. We will simply follow you, observing your advancements, but we will neither harm nor hinder your existence in our house. Thanks guys; way to earn your kibble, eh?

So that's life as they know it for Los Tigritos. I'm sure they like it here (except for the thunder, that still sucks), and I'm also sure they Never Want Another Five Day Roadtrip Again. Flurries of activity in the morning, like when we're running behind and have to get ready for work quickly, or when I pulled out the suitcase last month, still cause instant hiding under the bed. Perhaps in 17 months they will have forgiven and forgotten when we have to pack up again and hit the road. (Yeah, I doubt it too.) But they love and trust us, and eventually they'll settle into their new tiny Roman apartment, or high-ceiling'ed Parisian pied-a-terre, if the assignment gods should bless us in such a way. 

Meanwhile, there is lawn to lounge in and a selection of couches to cover in fur. What more could an animalito want? 

Dodger enjoying desert retirement living