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

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Guilty Pleasure

My husband and I have done something I never thought I'd be admitting. After proudly resisting this for one year in Bogota, and even scoffing secretly at those who have done this, we finally gave in. In fact, it's been about three months now.

We hired help.

Yes, we must now admit that we have a once-per-week housekeeper. And worse, I must admit that I'm loving it. 

Now, let me dispel a few misconceptions first: She doesn't do our dishes, nor our laundry, nor does she cook for us. But we have a lot of tile floors, or wood floors, and three fluffy shedding cats. I was spending most of one weekend day sweeping, mopping, scrubbing tubs etc... and now I'm paying a nice lady to do it all. 

At first it was a bit of an uncomfortable mismatch when she (her name is "Cuca" which is a common nickname for those named Maria del Refugio) wanted to scrub the front sidewalk, wash the floor mats and bleach everything else. But now she understands that we're water-misers and washing the sidewalk and garage floor really isn't a priority and that floor mats disintegrate in the washing machine and really, I just want the cat fur off the sofas and the tub to be shiny. So now we're on the same page. 

It's a long-standing cliche that people assigned to posts in Latin America are always fortunate to "get good help," and it's true. I come home on Tuesday afternoons to the house already clean, smelling good and I don't have to either feel guilty for not getting the cleaning done myself, nor ticked off that I'm having to do it. Now I'm helping a woman put her twin kids through college, right? She is a busy lady, with 4-5 other Consulate clients. We often find things knocked off the wall, or cleaning products left in weird places as she rushes through our house to get on to the next. We get frustrated sometimes, but more often joke about it as just another "Cuca-ism" as we pull the dust pan out of the trash or re-hang the picture that she knocked off the wall while dusting. 

So there you have it - our guilty pleasure. But I our defense, I must say that at least we're not as indulged as some people we know who have full-time help (like every day!) to include all shopping, cooking and cleaning. The type of folks who have a dinner party and then say, "Oh don't worry about the plates - it's the maid's day tomorrow!"

Now THAT'S going too far.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Six Months In

This week marks the six-month point here in the borderland. Has it gone quickly, or slowly? Both. Six months, or 25% of the way through our time in Juarez, sounds like it has gone very quickly. However, obviously that means that we have 75% of our tour left. But then when I think that if I had stayed on as an OMS in Bogota, we would only now be leaving post - that makes it feel like we still have an eternity to go here. Because in the year that has passed since we left, I've changed careers, spent another six months at FSI, moved to Post Two and met a passel of new friends. So in that respect the time has moved slowly as it's been packed with new experiences. 

But now that we're settled into the wake up, work, what's for dinner?, feed the cats, what are we doing this weekend?, back to sleep routine, I'm certain that the days will start to rubber-stamp their way through the calendar pages. 

On that note, I'd like to talk about the life I've settled into as a first-tour Consular Officer. Before doing so - a bit (more) of a preamble: there is so much I wish I could share about the experience that I just can't. There are people who comb all sources of information regarding the whole visa/immigration process who would jump on any crumb of information and might try to use it against me, my colleagues, the Department etc... so I can only share generalities. I wish I could be more detailed, as I've learned tremendous amounts in this past year... but I just can't. 

Am I happy for the switch from being an OMS to a Consular Officer? 
Yes, 100%. 
Now in saying that, I feel like a traitor to my great OMS friends I've met along the way. But really it has nothing to do with being an OMS being a bad job at all, but for me, Consular is just a better fit. I am eternally grateful for everything I learned and the trial-by-fire I went through in a very busy Economic Section in one of the world's largest posts, and draw on that experience nearly every day here. However, the interview window is where I've wanted to be all along and raising my blind each morning and greeting the first applicant of the day just hasn't lost its luster. 

Really? Luster? 
I feel like I've found the right spot for myself and perhaps that means that I'm a true Consular Officer, as I'm not sick of it. Even on the busy days where I spend only a few minutes in each interview, I still enjoy seeing the applicants' faces and looking straight into their eyes while I hear a slice of their lives. The children are darling: from the little ones whose tiny fingers are near impossible to fingerprint, to the teenagers who giggle and say they just want to go to the US to go clothes shopping with their families, or visit aunts, to the huge grins of those who have been promised trips to Disney by their parents. I've had two little girls blow me kisses and one young boy instantly start jumping up and down and hugging his mother around her legs upon hearing the good news. 

Naturally it's not all smiles and thank yous, as clearly we have to uphold immigration law. Making determinations on ineligibilities and delivering the news in a matter-of-fact way is part of the job, too. So far there have been no tantrums, only a few cold stares and more tears of joy than of disappointment. That could be due to the nature of our applicant pool, however, as I've had colleagues in other countries report swearing, window pounding and overt threats after negative decisions were delivered. 

But with routine and familiarization comes a quickening of the passing of time. Already we're saying goodbye to colleagues and have watched them drive towards the border for the last time. In a way I'm envious seeing them pull out and head towards their new destinations, but at the same time I'm thrilled with all the possibilities that are still on the horizon for us here. Not just the weekend exploring we hope to do, but also the depth of professional training and experience that I'll receive. Sooner or later I will move into the complexities of the immigrant visa section, for which our Consulate is arguably the busiest in the world, and possibilities of rotations into American Citizen Services, Fraud Prevention, or the Communications Unit keep me from feeling like the road is simply long and featureless. I want to soak in as much as possible here, where we have awesome training and guidance, and take it all on to Post Three. Plus, my husband is getting ingrained in his new job and has started to talk about everything he's learning being applicable to future interesting work.

Speaking of which... the next oasis in hazy view is the arrival of our bid list, which we hope to get our mits on by the end of the year. Until then, I will soak in as much as possible of this interesting and constantly challenging work and day dream, sometimes out loud to my husband, about "where it might be nice to go next." 

Thank you nice person who took this photo and put it on Google Images. It's not that green down here.