Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Nos Toca

Hours after writing my last post, still enjoying a quiet Sunday at home, the phone rang. It was my supervisor to tell me that as part of the consulate's phone tree, he needed to let me know that one of our FSN (foreign service national) staff had been killed the night before. He said his name and noted that he worked in the Facilities Maintenance Department. He had been attending a kid's birthday party in his neighborhood when two trucks of men armed with long guns burst into the party and killed three men, wounding a fourth. He said his name was Victor Ochoa, and I recognized it instantly.

You see, just two weeks ago our garage door broke and Victor came out to repair it. It was 4:50 on a Friday evening, but he came out knowing that a broken garage door represents a security risk. The following Monday, he spent the whole day not just fixing the door, but completely reworking it so that it hung correctly, the springs were adjusted as they should have been and it would be good as new. That entire day, my husband chatted with him as Victor meticulously worked. They knew each other already, as it was Victor who came out a few weeks prior to repair the gas leak we'd been smelling. That time it was the clothes drier, and two previous attempts by other workmen had been unsuccessful at stopping the worrisome odor. We were so impressed with his work that I wrote an e-mail to his supervisor, asking for the full name of the nice guy who had done such great work, you know, the one who wears the cotton "Gilligan" hat? I wanted to write him a formal thank-you note, and include the head of his section. It was something I'd been formulating in my head, trying to get the right way to say it in Spanish. I figured I'd ask one of my Mexican colleagues to look it over before I sent it out; it was something I was going to get to... yesterday. 

Victor had worked for the Consulate for 15 years, since he was 23 years old. That last night, he was with his family at a neighbor's house for a kid's birthday party. Children's parties here aren't just for cake and presents and going home at 2 pm. They often last into the evening or night as the adult family members are invited, too. It was just after 10 pm when the men burst into the house with their guns, demanding to see a man who wasn't in the room. When Victor stood up to plead with the men to leave, that this was a family party with kids present, they shot him to death. His daughter had been pleading with him, "Papi, no, get down!" The next man in the room stood up to do the same, to ask why they'd done that, could they please just leave? Tragically, he met the same fate.

Why did a little girl know that it wasn't right to stand up to men with guns? What has she already seen or known of in her young life to know that? When there is so much violence in our world, it is so easy to come up with reasons why what happened to someone else won't be our personal reality. It won't happen to me because I'm not a drug dealer or cartel member. I'm not a guerrilla overthrowing the government. I'm not in the wrong neighborhood at two in the morning. I'm not in a crowded popular movie theater. I'm not in my kindergarten class. I'm not delivering books to children in the countryside. I'm not watching a world-renown athletic event. I'm not with my friends and family, quietly enjoying the evening. 

Where IS safe?

Today I walked back to work from lunch, passing through an area of the Consulate grounds where the maintenance guys often take their lunches together with an impromptu game of soccer in the parking lot. On Fridays, sometimes they have the grill going. It seems like such a great team, and I think to myself, "What a super place to work and what camaraderie they have. With all the violence and danger this region has seen, these guys are here working hard and then safely having a lunchtime game, some laughs, some carne asada and then back to work in a stable, secure environment." It makes me smile each time I see them out there.

They weren't there today, or yesterday. Instead, I found a few of them signing the condolences book that had been set up in the Consulate lobby on a table full of framed photos of Victor and his coworkers, a fragrant vase of lilies beside the book. I tried to sign that book three times, and each time I'd start to read what these callous-handed men had written to their friend, and the tears prevented me from seeing the lines in the book clearly. On my third try I was able to get out a few words and a signature, but nothing will compare with the sentiments on the pages before. 

During the morning I'm busy with interviews, distracted with the facts and faces in front of me. It's so easy to do that, and I think it's necessary and unavoidable. Hours go by and I don't think of what just happened, or what his family might be going through. But then just as suddenly, I remember, and think of his little daughter who witnessed what no child should, and I feel sick. Sick that humanity could so easily waste a life, a life full of friends, family, childhood memories, fears, hopes, talents, weaknesses. Each person we've lost recently, from Boston to Afghanistan to Juarez was full of all these things. Sometimes it's just too much to let ourselves feel as much as we could for each loss. But once in a while, one of these stories and faces is allowed in, allowed to sink into that place so real that we can put ourselves in the shoes of those left behind who were closest. Whether it's an eight year old boy in a crowd, a 25 year old American woman in Afghanistan, or a Mexican father of four who happened to be a whiz at fixing things - it's just not right that they shouldn't be here with us anymore. 

And I don't know what to do about that. 

Regarding the title:
Nos toca = it's our turn
But literally, it could also translate to "it touches us."
In this case, both are true. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Around the World in One Week

Subtitle: Cultural Exchanges

Last weekend my husband and I decided to go to the local Alliance Francaise here in Juarez for their movie night. This is something we did in Bogota, too, and as he still likes to keep up with his French, plus we thought it would be a nice habit to get into here. We found the small private house that had been turned into a school/French center in a nice middle-class type neighborhood not too very far away from where we live. The "theater" probably used to be their living room, now with a screen, projector and about two dozen folding chairs. Two by two, others arrived until the room was at max capacity and the movie began. It was a French comedy (yes, with Gerard Depardieu - I think it's the law) with Spanish subtitles that was actually pretty good. Better, as we were able to follow along with about 92% with the subtitles. I was surprised that Juarez, who has experienced such hard times, would have an Alliance Francaise, but voila, there it was and we had a nice evening and will certainly go again. 

After the show, we headed out for dinner at a Chinese restaurant down the road. The entire staff was Mexican, but the waiter told us that the owners and cooks were Chinese and the restaurant had been around for about 30 years, and it certainly looked as if it'd been quite the place when it was new. The walls and ceilings were paneled with no-expense-spared scenes from the old country and tiled Chinese motifs. Gilded dragons and Buddhas were showcased in the corners and a large plasma screen displayed a view of some modern Chinese city at night. Even having lived in places with big Chinatowns (San Francisco, NY), this place was still probably the largest and most ornately decorated restaurant I'd been to. I ordered a combination lo mein, and was only slightly disappointed when it arrived as spaghetti stir-fried with meat and veg. Ah, it was close, and the ambiance made up for what the authenticity of ingredients lacked. 

Then last night, we headed north for a night out of dinner and a concert. After eating at a Mongolian grill, we went into the heart of old-town El Paso to find the super-funky old theater that now is the Tricky Falls club, with Bowie Feathers lounge/restaurant upstairs. The venue's logo is a cat face with whiskers, and it seems the owner named both places after his/her two cats. What's not to love, right? The opening act, which we hadn't been expecting, was a surprisingly good Brazilian carnival/samba percussion group complete with about eight capoeira performers (what would you call them?) You know, that Brazilian martial arts stuff that involves all sorts of gymnastic dance moves where they mock fighting moves without hitting or kicking each other? Their headstands, cart-wheels, jumps and kicks were well-choreographed and super impressive, as was the samba lady in full-feathered carnival headpiece and beaded hip-kerchief that she worked very hard to shimmy and shake to the relentless drums and whistles. I was amazed at the performers' strength, stamina, grace and willingness to go barefoot and full-body contact on the drink-spilled, undoubtedly sticky, and certainly-not-recently-mopped floor for so long. But hey, they were all about their craft.

The headliner was a Malian singer named Fatoumata Diawara. She came onstage in a black leather Gaultier-like bustier, fringy colored miniskirt, bright blue lipstick and slinging a red electric guitar. Starting off tamely, she grew more and more enthusiastic when little by little people got to their feet to dance in front of the small stage (mostly the capoeira group, still barefoot), which was good because the over-50 NPR-listening crowd was pretty thick in the theater, and few of us were up and movin' it it like she wanted us to. By the middle of the show, Fatoumata was also dancing, sometimes as if in a frenzied trance, wildly swinging the shells that tied off her braided hair and reminding everyone that "love is the answer to peace for her brothers in Africa." She was a very impressive singer, and backed by an equally talented band from France, the Congo and Cote d'Ivoire who wailed out their original-blues rhythms. We're still wondering how this performer got booked into such a funky old venue in sleepy downtown El Paso, TX, but we're glad she did. 

So, in one week, we were able to visit five distant and distinct cultures, each of which where at least one of my A-100 classmates is now living: France, China, Mongolia, Brazil and Mali. Not bad for not even leaving our familiar, dusty borderland. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Old Challenges, New Locations

The Department of State has a very clever hiring process, and I've talked about this before, but I want to mention it again. To become a Foreign Service Officer, one does not have to have a particular college degree, work background, language skills or even overseas experience. BUT, one most somehow, from whatever source, possess certain personality traits and skills that can then be applied to an enormous variety of situations. That is to say, they want raw material, not necessarily pre-made and packaged employees. (This, naturally, is my take on the whole hiring process and not the official word, but I don't think I'd ruffle too many feathers by stating that.)

In my A-100 class I was surrounded by classmates with graduate degrees in public policy, international relations or public diplomacy. You couldn't swing a cat (NOT THAT WE EVER WOULD!) without hitting a former lawyer or Harvard Kennedy School of Government grad. But this kind of education is not required, and that's what I love; that's what I've been figuring out little by little.

To illustrate my point, let me offer a few examples. I've now been a Consular Officer for just over two months, not too long, right? But in my daily work, I've already put to good use a great variety of former careers (or just part-time jobs), none of which required mortgage-sized student loans to achieve:
  • As a professional horsewoman, I had to hop onto unfamiliar horses all the time, especially when competing in collegiate equestrian events where we drew a horse's name out of a hat (literally!) and simply mounted up and rode that horse into competition minutes later.  Now, as a Consular Officer, the applicants come to our windows totally blind. Meaning, we have exactly zero time to review their case before their bright shiny faces are at the window, staring at us as we read through their applications. Will it be a convicted felon? A student from a third country? A retired farmer from a tiny town? Someone who has been caught and deported multiple times? We review their cases, formulate questions and make important decisions as they watch. Just like at the horse show: I have to figure out what I've got as I'm already in it, keep my focus and do the best I can. Will I get bucked off? Will the horse bolt for the jumps or will I have to kick and kick to get him going? I make my best decision and then the next person is in front of me. Like riding a jump course, it's over one obstacle and then eyes-up and ahead to the next turn, the next obstacle, doing your best to judge if it's a scary vertical, an easy cross-bar or a technical water jump - you can't dwell on what you just did, you just focus on the next, and the next and the next.

  • Although I don't yet work in American Citizen Services, I am aware of what the work involves and I'm certain that my years as a civilian in the police department will directly apply. People will come to my window or call me on the duty phone in need of things like new passports, in distress after crimes or accidents, off their medications, or just to ask basic questions. They'll have to tell me things that are embarrassing and personal and I'll have to give news that can be devastating. I'll have to follow laws and procedures and know who can hear what information and what has to be kept private - exactly as anyone in any police department across the country does. (In fact, I really think any police employee would make a great Consular Officer because of the similarity of the work! Really - think about it!) I'm grateful every single day for this experience. Planning on lying to me? Bring it on - I won't take it personally! Having a hard time with your spouse/child/parent? No worries, I'll listen patiently and not judge. Confused by complicated regulations? Hey no worries, let me explain it... again. (This stuff is gold, Jerry, gold!*)

  • Got 800 applicants to interview today and they're all starting to line up in the waiting room? Sure reminds me of all those mornings at ski school in Colorado when the families would pile into the ticket office to buy their lift tickets and ski lesson packages. Nobody wanted to wait in our office wearing all that ski gear, their precious vacation hours ticking away as they waited their turn at the window. We worked hard and fast as a team and the feeling of pushing ourselves without breaks to get it all done on time was exhilarating.

  • Don't understand what someone's trying to tell you, but you know it's important? So you find one way, then another, then repeat, then use your hands, then watch them use their hands until finally, both of you laugh and say something like, "Oh, okay, I get it!" That was daily fare when I was backpacking in Greece, Mozambique, or even just in France and needed to find a hostel, a bus stop, something to eat or book a berth on a ferry. Yes, I did have all that fine language training at FSI and passed that fancy test, but I never learned how to say, "I embroider dresses," "I work on an assembly line making Christmas ornaments," "I'm a forklift operator," "I own a pawn shop," or "I'm a meter-maid." But that's the stuff we hear everyday and need to figure out, one way or another, and being shy or too proud to keep asking isn't the way.

  • VIP visitors coming to town and you've volunteered to be a site or control officer to keep the visit running smoothly, all details worked out so that the visitors can make the most of their time and not have to worry about bags, rooms, transportation, where the next meeting is or how to make their cell phone work in wherever-country? That's where all that time you spent bartending at resort hotels, waiting for that one guest to finally leave the bar and go to their own darn room so you can clean up and go to bed comes in handy. Being able to just make it smooth, make it seem easy and let them feel welcome while inside you're just waiting until it's "wheels up!" is crucial.
In short, every life experience is like a spice that can be put into your pot and simmered, sometimes for decades, until sooner or later you find yourself drawing upon those little flavors you've picked up from here and there. I'm finding that being a FSO has been the best culmination of a lifetime of training. I'm sure that Harvard, Princeton and Georgetown do a great job preparing future FSOs, but I like the route I took and am glad that the Department of State was willing to take a chance on such a checkered, errr colorful, past.

*if you don't know what this means, you haven't spent enough hours watching Seinfeld re-runs, which is also something I recommend.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

More Loss

Please take a moment to read Secretary Kerry's words regarding the loss of a fellow Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff in Kabul, Afghanistan:

"Yesterday, we lost a very bright and brave young woman, a young diplomat. We lost her to a horrific attack in Afghanistan. And today, our hearts are broken. Anne Smedinghoff was 25 years old, Mr. Foreign Minister, and I think that in this tragedy, there is a stark contrast for all of the world to see between two very different sets of values.
On the one hand, you have Anne, a selfless, idealistic young woman who woke up yesterday morning and set out to bring textbooks to schoolchildren, to bring them knowledge, children she had never met, to help them to be able to build a future. And Anne and those with her were attacked by Taliban terrorists who woke up that day not with a mission to educate or to help, but with a mission to destroy. A brave American was determined to brighten the light of learning through books written in the native tongue of the students that she had never met, but whom she felt compelled to help. And she was met by cowardly terrorists determined to bring darkness and death to total strangers.

These are the challenges that our citizens face, not just in Afghanistan but in many dangerous parts of the world, where a nihilism, an empty approach, is willing to take life rather than give it. What did that terrorist accomplish? What did his cowardice and his nihilism buy him? The grief of parents who now have to bury their children. It also brought the strengthened resolve of a nation, a diplomatic corps, a military, all resources determined to continue the hard work of helping people to help themselves.

So yesterday, we saw the vilest form of terrorism, but as I hope the world will have learned by now, and if it hasn’t, it will over time, America does not and will not cower before terrorism. We are going to forge on, we’re going to step up, we’re going to continue to do the work that we do to try to improve the lives of other people. We put ourselves in harm’s way because we believe in bringing hope to our brothers and sisters all over the world, knowing that we share universal human values with people all over the world of dignity, of opportunity, of progress.

So it is now up to us to determine what the legacy of this tragedy will be. And where others seek to destroy, we intend to show a stronger determination in order to brighten our shared future, even when others try to darken it with violence. That was Anne’s mission when she woke up yesterday morning, and it will be ours every single day from this morning through the next as long as God gives us the ability to make that choice.

So I want to emphasize that Anne was everything that is right about our Foreign Service. She was smart and capable, committed to our country. I had the privilege of meeting her, Mr. Foreign Minister, just a few days ago. When I was in Afghanistan, she was part of my team. And she was someone who worked hard and put her life on the line so that others could live a better life. Our hearts go out to Anne’s mother and father, with whom I spoke yesterday, and to the two sisters and the brother who survive her, to her friends and colleagues at home in Chicago, in Caracas where she served her first tour of duty in the Foreign Service, and in Kabul as well as around the world. And we also express our sadness and our condolences to every member of the United States Department of State with whom I am today privileged to work and call colleagues."

This has been excerpted from his remarks to Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu.