Monday, January 19, 2015

Adios Juarez

It's finally here.

I don't mean "finally" as in Christmas morning, but rather "finally" as in that dreaded dental appointment. 

The last work day, the last hug goodbye, the last look around our house and garden, the last time we turn the car north and head for the border, the last crossing over the big sandy depression that is the Rio Bravo/Grande, the last chat with CBP and then we're away and into Texas.

Time is such a mercurial, fickle friend and sometimes enemy.  Time has both flown and crept since our February 2013 arrival. May to January slipped by in a blink, and yet it seems as if I've been aware of the passing of every hour in our last week. Yesterday we drove by the El Paso hotel where in Feb 2013 we spent the last night of our road trip south before meeting our social sponsor and heading across the border for the first time.  I saw the window of the hotel room where we stayed and remembered what I had been thinking as I looked out over the twin cities that would be our home. During the day it was all very beige (very beige!), and at night Juarez spread out beneath El Paso in a rolling, twinkling blanket of lights.  But the skies were so crisp blue (they still are) with the widest and brightest horizon I'd ever seen.  I think that horizon was emblematic of my time here: broad and full of possibilities. 

Professionally, this assignment could not have been better suited to me. Back in Bogota when I was an OMS and hoping to be a Consular Officer, I got some advice from one of the Consular managers that, should I make it to A-100, I should seriously consider going to the border for everything I could learn there.  (Sorry Canada, but when we say "border post," we're usually talking about the southern border.)  I'm sure I smiled and nodded, tucking away her advice, all the while privately thinking that I wanted to go somewhere far more exotic.  But she was right. Cutting one's teeth in arguably one of the most complex immigrant visa sections in the world has been an incredible learning experience for me. 

Personally, our time here has been equally satisfying.  That's such a milquetoast word, "satisfying," for something so meaningful.  The most important elements to a successful tour are often completely unrelated to the actual job. Is your family happy? Do they like their jobs/schools? Are the pets safe and comfortable? How do you like your house/apartment? Do you like the local food? What is the weather like? Are there fun things to do outside of work and friends to share them with?  Everything has come our way in each of those categories.  In fact, I'm a bit worried that we've used up all our Foreign Service luck in that respect. 

I think I've made my point that I've loved it here. And that's why it's so sad to see that the time has come to close the doors on this experience and move forward.  And why I feel so guilty thinking that time is now my enemy, barely crawling by when I just want to get it over with and go. This is by far the hardest part of a Foreign Service life: the departures. Not the technical pain-in-the-butt stuff like pack-out and writing EERs, but the "it's not goodbye, it's see you later" when you're pretty sure it really is goodbye. 

So I'm just going to leave you with a really snappy song and video about our dusty, ole' city and a few pictures that I hope show this place off. It's not a beautiful city, but the soul of the place and the people here make it as warm as it is hot. Our Consul General, in giving a going away speech for a few of us, said that there are some posts worldwide that are "snakebit," meaning that no matter how lovely the setting - they're just full of bad juju that persists year after year. He didn't know what the opposite of that was to describe this consulate, sunkissed perhaps, but he's right.  Through all the tragedy the city and post have endured, the soul and spirit continues to welcome. I'm proud to have been a little part of it all.

With that...

Ciudad Juarez es Numero Uno! Just try to get this song out of your head afterwards. 

A blanket of lights on both sides of the border

Amazing skies and Juarez's mountains to the west.

Best sunsets!

The Equis (X) at the crossing of countries and cultures

La bandera grande, slowly waving in the sun rays
Thank you for everything my friends. It's time to head north.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Oh the Glamour of Being a Diplomat

There is a cliche complaint in the Foreign Service world, but frequently cliches got their start in some good, old-fashioned truth:

Pack-out sucks.

There, I've said it. 

Yes, this also sounds like a true first-world complaint so if this doesn't garner any sympathy - I can understand that.  My goal in writing this is to offer warning to anyone thinking of joining the Foreign Service and imagining the glamorous life of a diplomat, dashing hither and yon around the world between cocktail parties and Serious Work.

Let me dash that image first and lower your expectations a tad.  Instead, imagine the life of a postal employee who has to reevaluate all their worldly possessions every two years, pack them up and move somewhere else. For this post, I'm going to get into the details of that last bit.

We're less than three weeks from leaving post. In this time frame we're expected to pack-out so that our belongings can clear customs while we're still here in the country, or something like that. Meanwhile we get to live out of the "welcome kit" for our final weeks (provided one has remembered to request it from the warehouse that is).  Some folks don't remember this and are left waving goodbye to the moving crew in a completely empty house. 

What all does pack-out entail? This year, it meant that for three solid days my husband and I have touched every single belonging of ours and had to designate each item one of to the following categories:

  1. Will never use again = give away to charity, friends, housekeeper, co-workers
  2. May use again, but not at the next post, maybe because of space restrictions in new housing, electricity changes in new country or wrong climate = long term storage
  3. Will use again, but not in the near future (ie holiday decorations, wrong-season clothing, camping gear etc...) = Household Effects aka HHE to arrive approx 3 months after arrival at next post
  4. Will need to use within one month/shortly after arriving at training or at new post = Unaccompanied Air Baggage aka UAB, still takes about a month to arrive even though the "A" in the name seems to infer AIR travel to the destination
  5. Must use on a regular basis = stuff into luggage/car and hide from movers so they don't pack it into long-term storage by tragic accident
Each category now has to be moved into a separate physical space in our house so as not to get mixed up with the other categories.  The Tabbies and category five will be hiding in our bedroom while the swarm of bees moving crew goes about their work wrapping and boxing everything up tomorrow.  We've packed-out five times in fewer than four years now and so far have had only one broken tea tray (we glued it back together) and one plastic frame (we got a new one). Not a bad record, the credit going completely to the various moving crews who have done all the heavy lifting (pun intended). 

The Foreign Service hiring process should include evaluation on the elements of the pack-out process, which draw more on logistics and planning skills than anything else. It is not for the faint of heart, the pack-rat nor the procrastinators among us. Having pets or children only complicates matters, as it requires imagining exactly what arriving at wherever will look like, and what will be needed vs. what will be available. This year, we're heading to home leave first, so we need to plan for litter boxes, cat food bowls, climate-correct clothing, books, and other things to keep us occupied for one month.  And all that must fit into our car.

Arriving for training at the Foreign Service Institute, we have to have a supply of business-casual clothing for the Northern Virginia climate, plus paperwork and files for travel/ transfer orders and vouchers, Department ID badges that we haven't used in two years, and any language materials we may have picked up along the way. 

Arriving at post, we need fancy meet-the-Ambassador clothes, appropriate work clothes which will completely depend on your post and assignment and climate, extra photos for the obligatory country ID cards, PLUS the same lengthy list and quantity of survival equipment for pets and family members who will now be stuck alone in new house or apartment while we head off to work.  

ALL this needs to be completely planned in the few days before pack-out!

Now do you see why I'm complaining?  

In 24 hours the brunt of it all will be over for us and we will be enjoying the comforts of our scraped-bare home and the contents of the welcome kit.  The thoughtfully provided sugar bowl and creamer set will complement the cup of tea I will boil up in the single cooking pot. We can dish out fruit cocktail or sorbet from the small carved glass bowls offered for such occasions, but then we'll retire to bed under the single, fleece throw blanket and coverlet offered to warm us in our over-the-garage bedroom (ie no insulation) in January's sub-freezing temps. Ahh... I shouldn't fuss, the welcome kit did provide us with four of each plate, bowl and piece of silverware, cleaning tools, an ironing board and iron, and very thoughtfully, a TV and an ashtray for late nights of stress relief after the whole ordeal. 

To illustrate my little rant, I offer the following glimpses into our real-life example:

No, No! Not another pack-out and move! Wake me when it's all over.

Advice: Separate all items into UAB, HHE, Storage and Luggage.
This was our living room, now is our UAB room. Can you judge what 450 lbs looks like?

Just leave us a bit of space, please. It's a simple request.

For HHE. And why do we have so many pillows?

Last year's welcome kit sheets were turquoise zebra print. This year we're more muted with beige stripes, gray blanket and chocolate and strawberry pillow cases. Any guesses whose side of the bed is whose?