Saturday, August 23, 2014

Living on the X

When we arrived in Ciudad Juarez, over 18 months ago, the "Equis" (the massive X pictured above) was still under construction, and was completed shortly after our arrival.  There are many theories as to what it represents, and many people wondering why here, why a big ole' X standing on the Mexican side of the border, but nearly straddling the country divide.  One belief was that someone was spelling out MEXICO from coast to coast along the border, and being in the middle, naturally we go the X.  But as nobody had heard of an M or a C or an O anywhere else along the line under construction, that theory was quickly dismissed. Another more credible belief was that it was to represent the crossing of cultures between Juarez and El Paso.  After all, the full name, "El Paso del Norte" brings up images of a frontier trading post where people from disparate regions are funneled together to make it through the pass to the other side.  It's a crossing of cultures between Native American (as in native cultures from whichever side) and European, whether Spanish or English-speaking, or other. While I still haven't heard a definitive word on what it really means, like any type of art, it means what you want it to mean. To me, it's the representation of the melting pot in general. But if you're not satisfied with that answer - head on down to Matamoros or Tijuana and look for the big "M" or the "O" (depending on which side you're reading from) and let us know what you find. 

Recently, my husband and I, accompanied by a couple who've become good friends of ours, spent the evening at a park in Juarez called Parque Borunda.  Located towards the outer edge of our "green zone" (i.e. about as deep as we're allowed to stretch our legs into the city), it's a regular city park with grass, benches, a fountain (no water) and trees - the usual parky stuff, plus a small amusement park with brightly lit and colored rides, a baseball diamond and a midway of food stalls. We came for an evening of "fair fare" and people watching on a warm summer night and wandered through the food stalls, picking out our dinners: Garibaldi hot dogs, tortas de bifstek, agua fresca, elotes, churros rellenos and paletas.  (That's the sum of all our dinners, not what we each ate, I must add.)  

We sat on a small retaining wall, eating our dinners and trying not to get the food on our shirt fronts, and watched the families, couples on dates, teen music/dance troupes, a puppeteer and an assortment of stray dogs (who were occasionally trying to make more stray dogs, thereby causing a kerfuffle among the kids watching who then tried to figure out just what those two dogs were doing?!).  

So much of the food we saw looked like puro Mexico and the rest looked like country fair Americana. Stalls sold "Dorinachos" - someone's ingenious creation wherein single-serving bag of Doritos are carefully sliced open sideways and melted cheesy sauce or salsa is then dumped on top of the chips - presto ready to go and no thin paper boat to eventually leak all over your lap.  
The Dorinacho in action

The Garibaldi hot dogs are called "hot dogs," first of all, and not "winnies" as hot dogs are often called in Mexican Spanish, and come bacon-wrapped, then grilled/fried and topped with cheesy sauce, mustard, ketchup, pickles and jalapenos. (Oh my what the best of two countries can create!)  While waiting in line deciding if I wanted the chico or grande, I watched the two guys manning the stand outright hustling to quickly serve the long line of salivators preparing to raise their serum cholesterol levels in a single delicious serving.  The rest of the food was truly Mexican: the devotion to elote (corn) is apparent and it's sold either roasted whole and smeared with spices and mayonnaise, or sliced off the cob and served in a cup with any combination of condiments mixed in. Churros are certainly no stranger to the American fried-food scene, but it wasn't until I came to Mexico that I saw the churro relleno (filled churro).  Another brilliant person created a churro-reamer which creates a pocket inside the wand of doughy fried goodness to be filled with chocolate, vanilla or caramel cream.  If that is too rich for you, there are paletas which are real-fruit popsicles of every color and combination (I had a white and pink strawberry vanilla).
Elote off the cob and in the cup
Churros rellenos - there is a god

Life here, on the X as it were, is neither here nor there. Neither Mexican nor American. Border life is a third nationality on its own, like our giant read Equis, that has feet on either side (well almost). 
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the Texas side of the border out west here is really not the Texas one imagines with its Texan accents, cowboy boots and big trucks.  Sure, it has all those things, but instead the accent here says, "I grew up bilingual" instead of "I grew up on Southfork Ranch with JR and Miss Ellie"; more often the boots are Mexican pointy boots and the trucks, well okay, they're about the same. 
(Side note: Texan trucks may have gun racks, but the other day in Juarez we were driving behind a black full-sized Silverado truck that instead of having a gun rack in the back window, had a guy standing in the pick-up bed carrying an AK-47. Hmmm... kinda' the same as a gun rack only far more terrifying.  We hoped he was an "undercover" Federale because he was wearing just jeans and a plaid shirt and riding in an unmarked truck, but then we figured that the large weapon he was carrying kinda' blew his cover - if he had one to begin with - so we just kept our distance instead.)

Anyway, pretty much everyone on either side of the border, but particularly on the Juarez side, has family por otro lado.   That's often how the US is referred to here - the other side, or simply alla, "there."  Families have been coming and going since there were families.  Listening to El Paso radio amuses me as the DJs chat with each other or with their callers making dedications, switching between both languages as if it were assumed that everyone were bilingual: "This song goes out to mijo que va a cumplir 16 anos  on Saturday and will be starting on the high school football team!" "Orale! We wish him well, from su mama Rosa!"   

Looking for a particular item at JC Penney's in El Paso the other day, I asked the store employee if they had the thing. She responded, "Let me go ask my colleague," and so we found another woman and the first woman asked, "Mire, ella busca una bolsa para llevar sus, sus, pequenos bottles of shampoo, you know, like for travelling? Las tenemos, o no?" I then described in Spanish the little toiletries bag I was hoping to find, which I thought might get a surprise reaction from the clerks as I will never be mistaken for someone who looks like a native Spanish speaker (it didn't, and they didn't miss a beat), and we continued to make our way through the possible sections of the department store, in both languages, until it was decided that I better just "look for it en linea, si, seria mejor."  I've decided that people use whichever language fits the situation best, is easiest to say, or just captures the sentiment most accurately. Listening to two native Spanish speaking coworkers chat in front of me (one Puerto Rican and a Mexican), it was all "Andele pues...let's just call him and see if he can come here on Wednesday."  "Ay, si, si, OK andele pues, hasta miercoles..."  ("Andele pues" being the go-to phrase for "alright," "let's go," "sounds good, okay" and as the 1-2-3-4 for the lead singer to start up the song.)

Between food, families, language or music - the border is the gentle blurring of one country gradually into another.  A place where Boston Irish kids go to their friends' quinceneras and where the jalapeno is as common a condiment as ketchup (and boy am I going to miss that!).  It truly is, life on the X. 

(*Footnote: I must give credit to my friends MJ and JF, the ones we went to Parque Borunda with, for coming up with the slogan "Living on the X."  Besides perfectly embodying the cross-cultural border life, it is also a double entendre to those of us who went through the mandatory anti-terrorist threat training before arriving in Juarez.  Again and again, the instructors told us that our first goal was to "get off the X!" Meaning, if you realize you're in a situation that is about to get bad, or get that feeling that you're about to be pounced on from some direction - get off the X and get out of there!) 

Saturday, August 02, 2014

TDY: Lessons Learned

Last summer I was selected to come to US Consulate General Monterrey for an entire month with three coworkers to help them in their busy season, and it was a great experience.  So this year I raised my hand again when the call for volunteers went out for more TDYers (Temporary Duty-ers) to go to Monterrey to help them segue into their brand new Consulate.  This time it was only for one week, but perhaps that was the right amount of time given that I only have six months left in Juarez and a husband and three Tabbies to miss.  

Ten of us from Mission Mexico were selected, along with numerous  local staff (two from Juarez, including one who always makes me laugh, like the time that she said that her horrible handwriting was only because she "had her own font").  We descended on Monterrey to Adjudicate In Their Time Of Need!  Well.... fate had something else in store for us.  Perhaps you heard it on the news that the CCD was "down."  In English, that means that the Consular Consolidated Database was, basically, broken leaving all posts worldwide unable to fully adjudicate visas.  We could interview folks, but we couldn't complete the process to send the visas to the printing queue.  This system snafu included American citizens who were trying to renew their passports and a bunch of high-profile celebrities and world leaders who were awaiting their US visas for legitimate travel.  Bottom line - a headache on a world scale.  (My favorite appropriate quote: to err is human, but to really screw things up takes a computer.) 

So here we are, over a dozen of us in our hotels in Monterrey, excited to be out on assignment with suitcases packed with appropriate clothing and our brains locked and loaded to work hard and work fast to help out this busy season and Monterrey in their new facility.

And the CCD was down and we couldn't do 85% of what we came to do. 

The powers that be decided that there was no point in sending us home because we still couldn't do there what we couldn't do here.  Especially considering all the airline change fees and additional administrative hassle that comes with changing airline and hotel reservations.  Therefore we interviewed as many folks as we could (Thursday appointments were completely cancelled) and finally by Friday afternoon were able to actually issue about 15% of the cases we had adjudicated.  

Being a TDYer is relaxing in a way because one can focus simply on doing the Consular work we came to help with: interviewing.  There isn't the additional pressure of taking care of all the outside portfolio work (whatever projects, teams, visits you've been assigned to) that your home post demands.  Plus, you have a new environment to explore.

In the case of Monterrey, I had already checked off a good bit of the tourist list last summer and felt comfortable in familiar environs.  Same hotel, same shuttle van, same restaurants for dinner, same hotel breakfast buffet, same pool of applicants - it all came back even after one year of absence.  But what was the cherry on top was the incredible new Consulate facility that opened just a week prior to our arrival. The post went from an outdated, cramped, stinky, sitting-on-each-others'-laps Consulate that did not have enough windows for everyone to adjudicate at the same time, to a building that looks and feels more like a modern art museum - all I can say is Wow!  

This time my Juarez colleagues and I were mixed in with officers from Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana, giving us a great opportunity to share "how do you do it? here's how we do it" best practices (and war stories, of which Consular officers have many).  We got to meet and work with new folks and learn more about posts we may/may not want to work in in the future.  It's great, to be honest, even if for a week.

Going on two TDYs isn't uncommon when assigned to Juarez, and a bunch of officers have even had three assignments.  We're used as a "donor" post to Mission Mexico because we are well-staffed and generally not over-stressed as some posts are. Therefore we have the luxury of being able to send a few warm bodies hither and yon to help out as needed.  

It's Friday night and we've done all we could and tomorrow we'll scatter back to our home posts.  The CCD is still not functioning 100% and the case load at home is not going away nor is the tide of incoming applicants receding - but for now we can enjoy a bit of ignorant bliss. And enjoy the views.

Please enjoy a few snapshots taken from the new US Consulate General in Monterrey.  If anyone reading this is considering bidding on Mexico - take these pictures into consideration:

View from the terrace where you can eat your lunch everyday

Now that's a backdrop!

Nearby American School - families with kids can now return to Monterrey

Yeah, this could be the view from your desk

On my final evening here, I took advantage of the free drink coupon we got upon check-in to have a glass of white wine by myself in the hotel atrium lounge. The view was only slightly different from this one above, different mountain peaks mostly.  Sitting alone, I tipped my head back against the overstuffed lounge chair and gazed out over the hotel's lush landscaping and fountains to the rocky peaks of the Eastern Sierra Madre.  Birds flitted by the atrium windows, doing their birdy business, and in this absence of modern world distractions, I digested all I'd seen and learned in the past week.  The cases I'd heard and decisions I'd made; the personalities and management styles and what I could learn from them; the stresses of the CCD crashing and how we all worked around it.  It all pales in comparison to the sight of these volcanic peaks, making me and my preoccupations seem silly and minute.  Life moves on, CCDs crash and then work again, applicants come and then go, puzzles are solved and either learned from or forgotten. Yes, this is what goes on behind my eyes while I sit mesmerized watching water coursing around rocks in a stream, a campfire or a 12,000 foot peak.

Being surrounded by the beauty of nature helps me put things in perspective and not let myself get wound up in the drama de jour, which is so easy to do wherever one is. Tomorrow brings the return trip home and the excitement of seeing husband and Tabbies again.  Then Monday morning when I slip my badge over my neck and head back to the window, I'll have all that I absorbed here still in mind: both the calmness gained from being in beautiful surroundings and the collective wisdom of working with dozens of new people in a challenging situation.  Who knows if the Data Engineers will find that one loose plug that started this all, or fire the guy who spilled his coffee on the server and everything will be dandy again, but either way, there's no use getting too wound up about it.  Just look out the window and enjoy the view and remember that this too will pass. 
Thanks TDY.