Thursday, July 18, 2013

Rain! Glorious Rain!

I would like to dedicate this blog posting to discussing one of the world's oldest topics: the weather.

We've been in Juarez for nearly six months now and before today, I've seen it rain once. To be fair, I've seen evidence of rain a few times. It's not hard to tell that it rained overnight, which is when it usually happens, as the Juarez streets flood after so little as .25 of an inch of precipitation. This is because there are no storm drains (or drainage of any type) and the surface water drainage strategy is based solely upon the process of evaporation. Which happens pretty quickly in the desert, so I guess you can't really fault the city planners in saving a few bucks, right? But in the meantime, these occasional lakes cause hazards and hide things like unfilled ditches, curbs, rebar, fence posts, potholes, small children perhaps...

But today it started out overcast and sprinkling as I walked to work, turned into a light and steady rain by lunchtime, and ended in a healthy deluge by late afternoon. I never thought I'd be celebrating a rainy day so much! Especially after one year in year in Bogota where I relished that one day we had with completely blue skies (I still remember it was New Year's Day, as seen here.) And after many years in the Pacific Northwest, a sunny day was something to be cherished indeed. 

So then we move to the northern Chihuahua desert and for the first month or so, I opened my curtains to the daily wonder of cerulean horizons. Again! 

This is what it usually looks like:

And this is what constitutes a Juarez "partly cloudy day" (grab a jacket):

And finally, this is an overcast day (might as well be winter):

But summer time is actually our wet season, and so today I am delighted to report that there was water falling from the sky - for free! Clean, fresh water, not the tired, slightly salty stuff that we squeeze out of distant aquifers deep underground. I'm excited to see the damp and our applicants wearing their coats in July and ducking their heads and darting in from the outdoors to our interview waiting room. The garden, the lawn, the animals, the bushes - how relieved they must be. In the next pictures, you can even see that the sky is actually gray, that the trees are kinda' blowing in the wind that brought the storm in, that Toby, well, he's not about to go outside now, and that our neighborhood park now has a swimmin' hole.

I'm loving it, and I know that the desert and our little garden will be transformed:

C'mon Mother Nature!

Saturday, July 06, 2013

TDY Monterrey

TDY = Temporary DutY

About six weeks ago, the management at our Consulate asked if any officers would be interested in helping out other Consulates or the Embassy in Mission Mexico with by doing TDY assignments. They couldn't yet tell us when, where, or for how long, we just had to be willing to go where told. During the summer months, officer turnover is high as people transfer in and out, and this leaves big staffing shortages.  I volunteered immediately, and a few weeks later was told that I'd be going with three coworkers to US Consulate General Monterrey for one month to work in their non-immigrant visa section. I'd heard of Monterrey before, from friends at FSI and from a few other coworkers here who'd gone there on TDY before. It's one of the busiest visa sections in the country, particularly for the H2 visa program. The H2A and H2B visas are for temporary agricultural (A) and non-agricultural (B) workers and these are the guys (almost completely a male work crew) who pick berries in Georgia, work on golf courses in Colorado, in vineyards in California or in forestry in North Carolina. They work for a short time, depending on the jobs they do, and return home to their families throughout the Mexican countryside after earning a good wage legally. Consulate General Monterrey processes the same amount of this class of visa in ONE WEEK that Ciudad Juarez processes in an entire year. They have a well-oiled machine to handle this volume, but when the H2 visa season coincides with staff transfer season, as it is now, they need extra manpower to get through the numbers. 

My three coworkers and I were sent to Monterrey, three hours' drive south of the Texas border in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, to help out with the other visa classes - the tourists, the students, and the professional work visas. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon and were instantly amazed at the Alpine-like setting. How had I not heard more about this city before?! Monterrey is known as the "Beverly Hills of Mexico" due to the amount wealth that has accumulated in homes and businesses inside the city and its various suburbs. Like Ciudad Juarez, it has been greatly affected by the narco-related violence in recent years, and the assignment is currently a no-school-aged-kids post. Therefore the crew of 20+ entry level officers are primarily young, single and on their first tour. Unfortunately, the city is like an island for the Consulate staff, as the recent violence prevents them from driving in any direction out of the city. However, the situation seems to be stabilizing and we're all hopeful that these restrictions can be lifted in the near future.

Housed in a cramped and outdated old Consulate building in downtown Monterrey, this team does an amazing job of handling the volume of work that crosses their threshold each day. As a Consular Officer, working in Monterrey in NIV will teach anyone excellent skills, just as working as an Immigrant Visa Officer will do the same for an officer in Ciudad Juarez. I thought of it as a "finishing school" of sorts to sharpen my skills by exposing me to a new range of applicants. Monterrey did not disappoint in that respect. From private drivers and household staff applying to accompany their bosses on US vacations, to students attending private boarding schools, to high-level executives from multinational corporations being transferred to the firms' US branches - the applicant pool was far more diverse than that in Juarez. Naturally, there was also the familiar mixture of university students wanting to go shopping in Texas with their friends, factory workers, homemakers, and grandparents from el campo hoping to visit their adult children in Denver, Los Angeles or Chicago and willing to spend days on a bus to get there. Hands-down, my favorite applicant showed up with his granddaughter assisting him. He appeared at my interview window under his own power, with a full set of natural teeth, straight gray hair down to his ears visible under his cowboy hat and dressed nattily in an embroidered cowboy shirt. He was 103. I told him it would be an honor to authorize a visa for him to visit his son in Texas. (My coworker then leaned over and asked me if I gave him the ten-year visa... which of course I did.)

On the weekends, Monterrey offered a great range of attractions, from the man-made river Paseo Santa Lucia which floats visitors from downtown Monterrey out to Parque Fundidora. The park was, up until the 1980s, a massive steel foundry that was cleaned up and "remodeled" into an expansive green zone dotted with remnants of its industrial past. In the center is "Horno 3" (Oven 3) which has the interactive Museum of Steel inside the former smelter and opportunities to climb around on various levels of the rusty steel machinery, including a zip-line and a smart restaurant to escape the heat and enjoy a cold mineral water, chicken salad and serious dose of air conditioning with a view. Ahhh....

Surrounding Monterrey are the northern reaches of the Sierra Madre, and located in part of this range is Parque Ecologico Chipinque. Just a short cab ride from our hotel, my coworkers and I explored a mere fraction of what the park offers. Organized like a ski resort, the park is criss-crossed with hiking trails, defined by difficulty in a color-coded system of black, blue and green. There is also a road that reaches a high peak called La Maseta where hikers, or those who drove up, will find playgrounds, snack shops, shade and a rustic inn with a swimming pool and an amazing view. I imagine that one could live in Monterrey for a full year and take a different hiking trail every weekend.

Prior to entering the Foreign Service, I had never even heard of Monterrey, Mexico, and how embarrassing that is to admit as it's a city of approximately 4 million residents (suburbs included). With the variety of natural diversions, mild climate (69-98 degrees year-round), strong economy offering all the shopping anyone could want, and easy proximity to both the US and Mexico City (3 hours driving to TX and a short flight to Mexico City), plus a new Consulate on the way in 2014 - I couldn't recommend Monterrey more! 

Cerro de la Silla (Saddle Mountain) seen from Parque Fundidora

Navigating down Paseo Santa Lucia

Dolomites? Alps? Rocky Mountains?  - Nope, it's Nuevo Leon, Mexico!

The "M" above Parque Ecologico Chipinque as seen from our hotel breakfast table.

Parque Fundidora view from Horno 3 looking west towards downtown.