Saturday, November 22, 2014

Recon on Future Assignments?

Sub-title: Vacation to Argentina!

It would be nice if, as someone who has to move to a different country every two to three years for their work, I could deduct vacations scouting trips to new countries from our federal taxes.  Without too much stretching of the truth, I think a reasonable argument could be made for this expense: visiting the Embassy, the neighborhoods and typical housing, checking the transportation system, trying out the language, and seeing what the local economy is like are all truly job-related activities, no? 

Therefore under this pretext, my husband and I just returned from a purely job-related vacation week in Buenos Aires. It had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that we had enough frequent flier miles saved up to cash in on nearly-free plane tickets. Nope. And heading south of the equator in late November when we'd be stepping into early summer with jacaranda trees, gardenia bushes and rose gardens in full bloom under blue skies was also complete happenstance. 

Further, in my attempt to keep this blog related to life in the Foreign Service, it is now the appropriate time to mention something endemic among my colleagues: rampant travel. I don't know of any other profession where people pop off to Greece, Belize or Fiji "just because" for a week.  Is it because by nature we're the type of people who love foreign places (if not, we've made a grave career error)? Is it because we probably have A-100 classmates or former coworkers with spare bedrooms in travel magazine destinations? Are we returning to places where we served internships or studied abroad? Or are we just taking advantage of regional travel, "while we're here" at our current assignments? As with just about everything, I'm certain that the truth lies in all of the above. I've heard all these reasons from friends about their travels and one coworker recently popped off to Russia just to check it out before he had to bid on his next post. Quite a trip from northern Mexico, but he reports that at least now all his romantic notions of a Soviet life have been squashed. 

My husband and I tend to do weekend trips, mostly because of the Tabbies, and then save up our vacation time for one big trip every year or two, and this was it.  The rest of this posting will change tone and become more of a travelogue about Buenos Aires and environs. If you're considering a trip to South America, all I can say is don't miss Argentina!  So here you go:

First, find a little pied a terre in a great neighborhood. We always use Vacation Rental By Owner and have had only positive experiences with houses or apartments (knock wood) in a variety of countries.  This one was no exception and for about $100 less per night than a single hotel room, we got a cute apartment in the tony neighborhood of Recoleta.  Having an apartment means we can have a kitchen, which means we don't have to eat out three times a day and lets me pad down the hall in my jammies to brew my peppermint tea in something other than a hotel-room coffee pot, which no matter how much hot water you flush through it, still tastes like coffee. Also, having an apartment lets us experience what life in that city is like, instead of just being a tourist in a hotel.  Our apartment came with an owner who met us the morning we arrived, gave us great suggestions for places to visit, transportation, restaurants etc... and was willing to let us check in at 9 am and check out when we needed. Check it out here: Our Recoleta Apartment.  We'd go there again, for sure.

Stunning statues

View from our apartment

First impression of the city was that it was more like Paris or New York than any Latin American city I've ever visited. Admittedly, that is not a long list, but the difference was striking. Not only in the architecture, but in the faces of the "portenos" (Buenos Aires residents) who defend this fact by stating that they're NOT Latin, but completely European.  This makes for a great mixture of food, too, as the Italian influences are overt and the broad tree-lined avenues, parks and gardens made us feel like we were in France or London instead of just a stone's throw from Bolivia and the Amazon. The fashion is also so NOT Latina! And by that, I mean not super tight and sexy everything and spiked heels. Quite the contrary, Portenas are wearing chunky all-terrain platform shoes, flowery maxi dresses and loose tropical-print pants.  Frankly, it wasn't my style, but I had to give them props for not bowing to the torture of fashion, especially in such a cobbled and walkable city. Perhaps they are on to something (hint hint Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico)? 

I'd definitely wear that dress!

...But not with those shoes, popular as they are.

Our next step was to figure out the timing of meals in our new city.  My husband and I have spent many a vacation eating in empty restaurants and annoying waiters who want to leave/just arrived at work.  We were forewarned by our apartment owner that dinner starts at 10 pm, and to arrive before 9 pm would be *awkward.*  Further, if we wanted to go out to a club, we should plan to get there no earlier than 2 am (we didn't).  When asked directly, with unflinching eye contact on my behalf, Argentinians were unable to give me a clear answer as to just HOW everyone got up the next day to go to work if they finished dinner at 11:30 on a Tuesday night?! Stutter, blank look, "It's just what we do," was the best answer they could come up with.  Coming from a region that necessitates car-only movement, we were relieved to be in such a walking and taxi-friendly city and struck out in different directions each evening for dinner.  Arriving only minutes before 9 pm each night was accidentally a great strategy. We were seated right away and only had to endure the cold stares of locals as they arrived fashionably at 10 pm to find THEIR table taken by THOSE PEOPLE (emphasis added but not exaggerated).  On about the third night of eating at this hour, we noticed we were always and only in the company of senior citizens, and therefore were dining at the equivalent of the 4:30 pm "early bird special" seating. Ah well. 

Our favorite local restaurant Pichi Huasi, notice that it's before 9:30 as you can still get a table.

Because at 10:30 - this is what the other places look like.

Need flowers or a coffee at 11 pm - no problem!

Each day took us a different direction in either the city or the region. The first two days were over the weekend and demanded our attention to the various markets (of the antique, artisan and flea varieties) of Buenos Aires. In San Telmo, we found not just one city plaza, but one city plaza plus about ten linear miles of pedestrian-only streets crammed with vendors' stalls. To prepare a weekly market of this size certainly required an incredible amount of planning and set-up, even harder to imagine when you remember that everyone got home at 3:00 am the night before! There were impromptu bursts of tango (both the music and the dance), a zillion stalls selling mate (as in yerba mate) materials, an incredible selection of antiques from around the world, gaucho-inspired knick-knacks and art and roaming empanada and tarta salespeople.   

Antiques shopping in San Telmo

Mate mate everywhere and not a drop to drink

Market lunch stand for tartas and empanadas

Impromptu bursts of tango

There were also three day trips, each taking us to a destination completely different from the previous. First was to the town of Tigre and the  ParanĂ¡ Delta, which is an area of islands and intersecting rivers (Plata, Saramiento to name the only two I recall - but there are a ton more) where people live either full-time or in weekend and summer homes. Transportation is purely via the water in boat taxis, ferries or private watercraft of all sizes and descriptions, including a darling water school bus we passed delivering the students to little docks where their parents met them and walked them home on island sidewalks to their stilt-raised homes. 

Tigre town boat station

Home, home on the Delta...

Water bus service for locals

Next was the UNESCO World Heritage site town of Colonia de Sacramento across the "river" and into Uruguay.  I say "river" in quotes because it looks too wide to be just a river, took us an hour in a high-speed catamaran to cross, and really feels more like an ocean inlet. But I guess technically it has been designated as a river by people who know these things, so I'll stick with that label.  We left from the port of Buenos Aires at noon, going through the official immigration process that required being stamped out of Argentina and, next-window-please, stamped into Uruguay on both ends of the trip.  Our return boat was scheduled to leave at 9:45 pm which concerned me as to how we'd pass so many hours wandering an old town and made me imagine napping on park benches to kill time. But as it turned out, we could have easily passed another few hours there. Between meandering cobbled lanes that were simply dripping with photo-opp charm (crumbling stone doorways, flowered windowsills, rambling roses on garden gates - OH MY!), the river shore beaches, the lighthouse, harbors, restaurants, wine stores, ancient double-spired churches, tiny touristy shops and gelatto stores - who could be in a hurry to leave? Okay, it would have sucked in the rain, but that's the only thing that would have put the damper on our day (or intestinal distress which frankly ruins anything).  And we got a glimpse into a very relaxed, socially-progressive and peaceful country that seems to fly under the political world radar, i.e. a great spot for a future assignment (Monte Video the capital is just a short bit away from Colonia and Buenos Aires). 

Town square shaded by brilliant jacaranda trees

Calle de Los Suspiros, Colonia de Sacramento

Rows of Colonia shops

Colonia town cathedral

Our final day on the southern continent was spent in the countryside at an estancia (rancho in Mexican Spanish, finca in Colombian Spanish).  We chose Estancia Dos Hermanos near San Antonio de Areco , the muy-gaucho town just outside of Buenos Aires. As a lifetime horseperson, I wanted to ride the llanos (plains) of Argentina and eat the famous grilled Argentine beef from the parilla, and we did.  It was a Thursday, so we got lucky and had the place to ourselves with our gaucho/guide Felipe, the owner Pancho and their driver/cook/guy Friday Andres who picked us up at our apartment and later deposited us in front of American Airlines for our late-night flight home.  We spent a day being far more pampered than we're accustomed to, from the door-to-door transportation, to the breakfast, lunch and tea that was served outside on the estancia lawn, to the nearly four hours in the sheepskin-covered saddle.  Felipe politely endured our (and by "our" I mean "my") endless questions: "And what bird is that? And is this tree native? And how many people come out to stay usually? And when is the rainy season? And is it usual for the horses to not need shoes here? And, and, and..."  as we rode across the meadows, hock-deep in daisies and other local flowers that I'm sure Felipe told me the names of.  We got to herd in the herd of horses at the end of the day, giving us the feeling of being somewhat useful, and my husband who hasn't ridden in a number of years was able to canter his horse "Laguna" easily across the fields.  While we were on our post-breakfast ride, Andres was busy preparing our not-for-the-faint-of-heart lunch of grilled beef ribs, beef and pork chorizo, salad, sweet potatoes, onions, sliced baguette, water or lemonade? beer or wine? tea or coffee? flan? After gorging ourselves shamelessly and unbuttoning our jeans a bit, we then napped in hammocks to the sound of very chatty wild parakeets for at least an hour. Then it was time to hop onto our horses again for the afternoon tour.  Once again, that Andres was up to his tricks, and upon returning from our ride and after trying to convince our horses that apples are indeed good horse treats (only one accepted), we had tea and fresh-made scones waiting for us.  We noticed that Felipe didn't partake in the scones, which was when Andres confessed that one of the estancia dogs "Truco" was "up to his tricks again" and had eaten all but two of the freshly-baked scones from the kitchen table. Although there were no witnesses, he was a repeat offender in baked-goods stealing and certainly guilty.  The owners kindly offered us an unoccupied guest cottage to shower in before tossing our bags into Andres' car and heading to the airport. It really couldn't have been a more lovely way to round out our Argentinian experience. 

Estancia Los Dos Hermanos

Parilla lunch!

You can stay at the estancia, too

Heading out

Final impressions? Argentina is an incredible country to visit of which we have only seen a wee corner.  Ditto Uruguay.  In keeping with the motivation for our trip, we'd gladly bid on a two or three year tour here and would recommend this itinerary as a vacation for anyone wanting a sample of South America. 

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Reaching Out: On a Mission in Mission Mexico

(A quick note before I start: my husband truly bristles to hear me, or anyone, use the phrase "reaching out" when the speaker really means that they are going to talk to, write to or in any other way CONTACT another person.  So just to tease him, I titled this posting as I did.)

I am a Consular Officer by cone, but my actual job is that of a Foreign Service Officer Generalist, which means we're all supposed to be able to wear any/many hats when needed.  Lately I've been wearing the Public Diplomacy hat as part of the Immigrant Visa Mexico Outreach team.  The team consists of three officers and two local staff members who divide into teams of two with the goal of visiting each consulate and the embassy in Mission Mexico.  There are ten in total, so this means lots of travelling for our little crew. 

All the immigrant visas (IV) for Mexico are processed in Ciudad Juarez.  The Embassy in Mexico City used to process a small slice of the IV pie, but as of very recently that is all being transferred to Juarez to be housed under one roof.  The other consulates and the Embassy, in terms of visas, process only non-immigrant (NIV) visas (for tourism, students, temporary workers etc...).  Therefore someone smart figured out that it would be great if people trained in the processing of IVs would familiarize the NIV staff throughout the country on the topic of IV and how to better respond to people who have immigrant visa-related questions.  Also, there are thousands of potential petitioners and applicants for immigrant visas here in Mexico, and so much misunderstanding about the complex process, therefore community outreach is more than just a good idea, it's really a necessity. 

So that's how I found myself on a couch next to the beautiful, young morning talk show hostess in her shorty-short dress, stilettos and long, Sofia Vegara hair in Merida, Mexico last week.  And on air with Senor Suave the mustachioed veteran radio and TV host in Tijuana last month. And in front of an indigenous community group serving the Mayan population of the Yucatan. And typing as fast as we could to answer the questions pouring in via a couple of live Facebook chats.  

It's all in the name of reaching out, errrr, contacting people who want to learn about the immigrant visa process, the process in which people can enter the US lawfully and apply to become Legal Permanent Residents.  As Mexico (namely Juarez) processes approximately 19-20% of the world's immigrant visas, there is a big crowd of people who want to learn more about the topic.  

With less than three months to go before we leave post, I feel I'm finally becoming more fluent in the topic and am ready to take on new challenges. Trust me, being on-camera live was a VERY new challenge. I have new-found appreciation for how talk show or radio hosts can really make a guest feel comfortable (or the opposite), how they can make smooth transitions between questions and responses on topics they previously knew nothing about (from "how to make the best banana bread!" yesterday to "how to petition for your wife and kids to come to the US!" today) and can help their guests deliver the desired message. We got lucky with some very good hosts, which helps build confidence poco a poco.

I think we did a decent job; at least there were no questions about US involvement in Middle East conflicts (or any similar nightmare) like we were trained to handle during the "Composure Under Fire" portion of A-100. I know I made grammatical errors in my Spanish (oh, yeah, did I mention this was all in Spanish? Just adds to the fun, right?) and I wished I could have rephrased quite a few answers given a Groundhog Day opportunity to do it over again, but no international incidents were caused and perhaps we even helped a few folks. 

Live! Coming to another Mexican border city near you - your immigrant visa outreach crew!