Five days to go (is four too many)

Packing out 2 weeks (or more) before departure can make you crazy. You have packed up all of your personal belongings and yet you hang around. You hang around because you are shipping your stuff from one country to another and you need to wait around for customs shipments and the like. You need to hang around “just in case.”

Yet, I would think that most people when moving do not move all the personal things out of their home, leaving only impersonal borrowed furniture, watch all their things drive away in a truck and then sit around the rather empty house for two more weeks. Not ever having a “normal” move I am not really sure. But if I were to have a move that was not orchestrated by the government, I think I would leave the very next day if not that night. I daydream about such a move.

The first day or two after the pack out, I felt exhilarated. The pack out meant departure was near. And regardless of whether you are happy to leave or not, leaving brings about a sense of excitement about the next move. For me it meant I was soon to embark on my wild and crazy nomadic home leave plan. It meant nine weeks traveling with my daughter (and 2 with my cats – hush, I’m sure it will be GREAT). But then the excitement rather wore off. I just don’t want to be here anymore – coming home to the soon-to-be-someone-else’s home that is full of the same generic furniture found in all your colleague’s homes all over the world. I had much of the same furniture in Jakarta and I am sure I will have it again. With our own wall art and decorative pieces, we can make this furniture our own. Yet, when our personal pieces are stripped from the home, it feels empty even with furniture still inside.

At the beginning when you arrive at post the home is similarly empty. However at that time you are busy settling in. You are getting to know your neighborhood, your new city, your new job and colleagues. You figure out the way to the supermarket and the department store and you stock up. Maybe you buy plants or flowers, a few new local pieces to add a touch of local flavor to the new home? But now, I am not buying anything. Well, I should not be. Though I went to the supermarket last night and bought a block of cheese, a dozen eggs, a stick of butter, a head of lettuce, a bag of tortilla chips, 2 avocados, and a packet of bolis (icees) for my daughter. I have 5 days left and I am spending the weekend in El Paso. I already had 7 eggs at home…. I’m not sure what came over me.

On Monday night, the night before my home and furniture inspection, my daughter took my black eyeliner and drew all over one of the white bathroom walls. She has never drawn on the wall before and I could only think it was part of some terrible cosmic pack out too early joke that she would choose to do so that night. Friends on Facebook suggested I use the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. I am sure it works great in most circumstances. My circumstances unfortunately were it was 9:30 pm at night, I live in Mexico, and I am packed out. I found I still had some first aid kit alcohol wipes, tiny sized, about an inch square. So I painstakingly rubbed my daughter’s first abstract art piece in charcoal off the bathroom wall. Some of the paint came off as well. Shhhhh, don’t tell anyone, I did pass the house inspection the next day.

On Tuesday I went to pay my final phone bill. The Consulate staff at the General Services Office (GSO) recommended I did not pay my final bill at the bank but rather at the TelMex kiosk in the store located in the mall across the street from the Consulate. Unfortunately the ATM in the lobby of the Consulate was not functioning (a somewhat regular occurrence) so I went to the mall to use an ATM there first. Except there, the first ATM would not accept my card, despite three tries. So I thought I would go to the TelMex store and see if I could pay with credit card. I was informed that was impossible as it was “not compatible with their systems.” Sure, I could understand that given it is 2014 and credit cards are used by only a handful of people in the world. (heavy sarcasm here) So I went to another ATM on the other side of the mall only to find it charged $3.50 for the privilege of withdrawing my own money (compared to the usual $2.40 charge at my usual ATM). I circled back to the first ATM to find someone using it successfully! However, three tries later, I still could not withdraw money. One more ATM left in the mall and it charged $6.30 to withdraw money! I returned to the Consulate without pesos and without paying my bill, exhausted and dejected.

I was able to pay the phone bill today (hooray!) but came home to find my daughter had an unexplained rash. The nanny showed it to me as soon as I walked in the door but explained it was only on her upper back. Except it wasn’t. It was also on her lower back, and chest, and tummy, and shoulders…and within 45 minutes it was also on her arms and on her cheeks. As I write this she is happily watching her Cat in the Hat DVD and seems to be in good, though itchy, spirits. A plus of being posted to a US-Mexico border post is I can take her to a doctor in Mexico or drive across to a pediatrician in the US. I’m in a wait and see mode right now.

Tomorrow is the Consulate farewell party for me and two other departing officers. After which I will have four days left in country. It will likely be three too many.


The 10,000 Club (or What Do I Do Exactly?)

The other day a colleague mentioned we should hold a small party for a someone who would be leaving our section of the Consulate for another and in the process toast “the 10,000 club.” I must have had a quizzical look on my face as she went on to explain that surely I too am a member of the 10,000 club – the club for Consular Officers who have adjudicated at least 10,000 visas. She mentioned it’s a pretty big deal to be a part of this club as not all officers get there.

I do not think this club is a real club. I doubt there are secret handshakes and induction ceremonies or even awards and recognition. (Or I have yet to receive my engraved invitation!) It is just a way for some of us to participate in a little self-congratulation for having reached a milestone, an often unsung one, in our Foreign Service Officer careers. So yes, I am a Foreign Service Officer. And yes, that means I am a diplomat. Right now though my specific position is that of Vice Consul and what I do is interview visa applicants and adjudicate their cases.

All U.S. Foreign Service Officers spend at least one year of their careers adjudicating visas. Often officers spend a full two-year tour doing so and increasingly, as there is a rising demand for visas to tour, work, study, and live in the U.S. particularly from countries such as China or Brazil, some officers spend three or four years of their careers adjudicating visas. That is what I will be doing. I have spent two years here in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico adjudicating visas. I spent my first 14 months working in the Immigrant Visa (IV) section and then my last nine in the Non-Immigrant Visa (NIV) section.* I head next to Shanghai, China where I will work my entire 2 years in NIV (unless I am the lucky recipient of a rotation to another section such as American Citizen Services). I will work in two countries with a lot of demand for visas. Basically, I am going to adjudicate A LOT of visas.

Did I join the Foreign Service to adjudicate visas? Well no, not exactly. I joined as a Political-coned officer right from the test registration. However, adjudicating visas is part of the process of becoming one. I’ll be honest here, no need to sugar coat it, there are days this is hard to do. Day in and day out interviewing people “on the line” can be mentally and physically draining. On the IV side, the cases can be emotionally draining as well. I have cases from the IV side I will never forget – some because they were so heartwarming and some because they were so heartbreaking. With IV cases, which are very paper intensive, we are generally expected to conduct 5 interviews an hour. With a 5-6 hour interview day, that is 25-30 interviews a day. Mission Mexico standards for the NIV side are 80 interviews and 40 interview waiver cases per day, though in many posts other than Juarez the sheer volume of applicants is so high that officers are interviewing more like 120 or 150 applicants a day.

Soon after my arrival in Juarez, just before the end of the fiscal year 2012, Mission Mexico reached 2 million visa applications (and issued about 1.3 million NIV visas)! The only other countries to currently issue more than a million visas a year are China (Hello, second post in Shanghai!) and Brazil.

And so today, yes the very day that I am posting this, I reached and surpassed 15,000 NIV visa adjudications. From my IV time I adjudicated just a few short of 4,000 and exactly 100 fiancé visas. I have only a few days left in Juarez but I have two more years in Shanghai – so the 10,000 club is just the first of many milestones I will reach.

*Yeah, so 14 months and 9 months do not equal 24, but rather 23 months. It’s true. I have not lost all my math skills since joining the State Department. I arrived in late July 2012 and I depart 1 July 2014. It is all perfectly legit.

Packed Out!

On Monday morning I was out of bed at 6 am. I have trouble sleeping the night before a pack out. Once up I popped open my Diet Coke (I am not a coffee drinker – have never had coffee actually – but I do love my caffeine in the form of the ambrosia that is a nice, cold can of DC), and I put on my pedometer. I had some breakfast and then I got to work.

At 7 am the nanny arrived. I had thought I would not want her to be there just yet, I liked the quiet solitude of working in the house with my daughter sleeping, no one else there. But my nanny, besides the times she drives me absolutely nuts, is actually not only a great nanny but a helpful person. Also once the movers arrived she took my daughter out to the park and a neighbor’s house so she would not be bothered by all the packing.

I could have sworn from the pre-pack out survey that the movers were arriving at 8 or 9, but they did not show up until 10:30. All the better as I was still puttering around preparing piles and hemming and hawing over my clothes – I would need work clothes for two more weeks but I am about to head out on 9 weeks of travel / Home Leave, so I did not want too much.

When the movers showed up I felt a little disappointed and concerned. Again, the boss at the pre-pack out survey (when they look around at all your stuff to get an estimate of weight and volume) had implied it was going to be a long day, but they would surely be finished by 5…or 6 pm. And here were the packers, just 1 man and 2 women, arriving at 10:30.

But they exceeded my expectations. They got right to work and worked quietly and efficiently, taking only one short 30 minute break around 2 o’clock, when two more men arrived with the truck to start loading the boxes. Imagine my surprise, dumbfounded surprise, when all was done, the truck driving away with almost all of my worldly belongings at 3:30, a mere 5 hours after the movers had arrived. This is my fourth “pack out” (move with the government) and only the one from DC to Mexico had taken less time. That was due entirely to the vast majority of my things already packed and in storage in a warehouse in Maryland after my return from Indonesia. My pack out to Indonesia and the one return both took two days.

Of course later that night I started thinking maybe they were too fast… Maybe I will open up my boxes of things in Shanghai 8 or 9 months from now and find some of my things did not survive the moves… Well, nothing I can do about it now. I tell myself that to try to calm myself down.

So yeah, my fourth pack out is complete! I would say they do not get easier, only different. Departing from DC to Indonesia I was a single woman living in a three bedroom, one bathroom rent controlled apartment in Washington, DC. I did not own a lot of things, but I did have some furniture I put into storage. Leaving Indonesia 2.5 years later I had acquired two Jakarta street cats and was 8 weeks pregnant and a tad ill to my stomach at pack out. At my third pack out from DC to Mexico, I was leaving the one bedroom temporary housing provided during my training, but with a six month old baby. I now leave Mexico with a 2 ½ year old. I think I prepared better, but I still was not all ready when the packers showed up. I’m not sure I will ever be completely ready. The next pack out will be sometime early next year, hopefully in January if I successfully pass the first attempt at my Mandarin Chinese test. We will again be departing from temporary quarters during training, the majority of my things awaiting sea transport from a Hagerstown, MD warehouse.

At 3 pm the Consulate brought over the Welcome Kit – this is generally a large trunk of items such as bedding, towels, plateware, silverware, coffee maker, pots and pans, TV, etc., the items that should help you get along when you have only what you could pack in your suitcases (or in your car in the case of border posts). We received the Welcome Kit when we first arrive at post, and again after our pack out. I waved goodbye to the truck, or rather my things, as it pulled away.

At 4 pm my nanny returned with my daughter and I braced myself for her reaction. I had been feeling like a rather wicked mommy not buying her anything new recently (with the exception of toys that were inflatable!) and many of her toys recently had been sold, given away, or packed up. I should not have worried! My almost 2 ½ year old daughter is a travel pro! She has, by the way, already lived in two countries (US and Mexico) and traveled to five other countries (UAE, Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, Ireland, and the United Kingdom twice). For her second birthday I signed her up for her own United Mileage Plus account. In May, after flights to Cancun, Ireland, Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, and Manchester, England, she is already a Silver level member! My little Diplotot!

She entered and started cantering (she loves horses and pretending to ride them) and whooping and hollering Yeehaw! to hear the near echo quality in our now almost empty house. She pulled the cushions off the sofa to do some jumping. She played with her few toys still in the house with extra gusto. And she found the fly swatter in the Welcome Kit to be an amazing new toy (If you see my earlier post about Mosquito Terror, you may understand why. She is taking on her fear and conquering it!).

Still, it has been only three days since the pack out and though part of me likes the very minimalist style of the house and my closet right now, the pack out is the harbinger of my impending departure and though there is much I will miss, I am ready to go.

P.S. By the time the movers left the pedometer was over 13,000 steps. That’s over six miles IN MY HOUSE.

P.S. P.S. My UAB only weighed 324 pounds total!

Pack Out Eve (2014)

It is the night before pack out. It’s 10:30 pm. I am exhausted. I have spent all this weekend preparing my things for the arrival of the movers Monday morning. Tomorrow. TOMORROW!

I took several boxes across the border to Goodwill this afternoon. By my calculations, I donated $472 worth of goodies. In addition, I took two other donations, to Goodwill and an El Paso children’s home, in the past month. I am now close to $1000 in donations. I also took several bags to recycling and several more to the trash. I have made a large pile of items near the front door that will all go into the air freight or unaccompanied baggage (UAB) that we will receive in late August to have at our temporary housing in Virginia during my training. I am given 250 pounds of UAB for myself and an additional 200 pounds for my daughter. Four hundred and fifty pounds total. I have no idea how much my pile by the door may weigh.

Then all the items I have piled in the guest room are for the ocean freight or household effects (HHE) that we will not see again until a month or two after our arrival in Shanghai, some 8 or so months later. All Foreign Service families receive a maximum of 7200 lbs of HHE regardless of family size. I am not worried about that weight. I arrived in Juarez with 4800 lbs and my goal has been to depart with at least 1000 less. I’m pretty sure I have done it, though I will not find out for sure until the truck pulls away tomorrow.

Unfortunately I have a bunch of little odds and ends still tucked away in drawers. I expect those drawers will be opened and dumped into a box and then wrapped up. Despite my best efforts, and I have really done a good job here (much better than my pack out of Jakarta, Indonesia three years ago), I am going to open up some boxes in Shanghai and wonder, “what was I thinking?” It is inevitable. It is a time honored Foreign Service (or any situation where one constantly moves) tradition to pack up random things. When I arrived in Jakarta I found the movers had packed up my bedroom trash can complete with all the trash contents still inside!

I am worried though how this pack out will affect my daughter. Tonight, I carefully selected 10 of her 35 DVDs (we do not have “television” here, i.e. no cable or antenna or anything of the like, just DVDs) to remain with us the last two weeks and then be packed up in the car. The other 25 DVDs will be in the UAB. I tried to pick the 10 DVDs she has been requesting the most in recent weeks. But what if she asks for the “snow” episode of the Backyardigans and it is not among the favorites?

My normally pretty easy going two year old has been a little more prone to temper tantrums in the last few weeks. I cannot be sure if this is the result of the packing process or because she is nearly 29 months old. All I know is that I am taking a huge heaping dollop of mommy guilt right now on top of already being in an irritable pack out eve mood.

Maybe it is not my two year old that has been more temperamental? Maybe it is me? Though moves are a regular part of the Foreign Service and have been a regular part of my life for some time (approximately ten moves in the past ten years, probably at least twenty in the past twenty), it does not mean that I enjoy the actual process of moving. With the Foreign Service at least a bunch of movers show up to help me do this. Though to be honest in my pre-Foreign Service and Defense Department moves, I never really had a house full of things to move. It was whatever I could carry on the plane or ship ahead of me. That was it.

I’m not even sure if I am making sense anymore. I am just so tired. Unfortunately I will have to wake up early tomorrow before the movers arrive to try to do some more last minute preparations. I still have not decided on my closet full of clothes. What stays with me for two more weeks and then goes in the car? What goes in UAB and in HHE? No idea right now.

I guess the bright side is that by tomorrow evening, probably by 5 pm, this will be done. The decisions, for good or bad, will be done.

An Unplanned Visit to a Thai Prison, January 2002

As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of emails I sent on past travels.

In December 2001 and January 2002 I took the five week winter break between my first and second semesters of graduate school and headed back to Southeast Asia. I spent the first two weeks in Indonesia, on the island of Bali, with my then-Balinese boyfriend. Originally we had planned to travel together for the rest of the weeks, but soon after my arrival it was apparent the relationship was not going to last. So, we broke up and on January 1 I flew into Bangkok to begin three weeks of travel split between Cambodia and Thailand.

On January 18, 2002, I had planned to join the usual guesthouse-organized visit to an elephant camp in northern Thailand, except I woke up to late. That sleep in resulted in one of the most extraordinary unplanned activities I have ever done while on vacation. I sent this email that same day, right after visiting the prison.

I stayed up rather late last night talking with my two dormitory roommates, so I slept in this morning and gave up trying to get out to see the elephants on my own. I had breakfast and went for a short walk, but I wanted to do something. The night before one of the dormitory roommates has shown me a nice map of Chiang Mai and suggested I might want to visit the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison. I did not even know if I could get in or if I really wanted to. I wondered what I would say to get in and would I sound convincing and would they think I was a journalist.

Generally, when people think of Thailand, they think of the beaches and mountains, beautiful ruins and great shopping, tuk-tuks and traffic and backpackers. I doubt prisons come into many people’s minds when thinking of Thailand, though of course they are there.

So I walked down to the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Facility, which is located almost in the center of the four kilometer square city walls of old Chiang Mai. I walked up to the gate, which was two metal slabs of a kind of celadon green, with a small square hole that slid open for people to talk to the guards inside. It rather made me think of the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy arrives at the Emerald City. Someone inside opened the gap and asked if they could help me. I said, “I want to go inside.” They told me to wait a moment. This seemed almost too easy. After some time – the gates open to let in a truck and some Thais carrying plastic bags of food – two female khaki-uniformed guards come out to speak to me. They ask me if I want to visit the American prisoner. I say I do.

One of the guards informs me that only her parents, brother and sister are usually allowed to see her, but I stand firm. I want to visit the American prisoner. So she tells me to go across the street to the store to buy some things for her and then come in for a visit.
I walk across the street wondering what I should buy. What would this woman need? The guard told me I could buy some soap and a toothbrush and toothpaste. So I purchase these items as well as a bottle of Coke, some talcum powder and some lotion. There is not much to buy in the store and I do not know anything about this woman other than she is American. At the cashier there are some other foreigners trying to buy some things for themselves. They are confused; they do not realize this is a store for prison visitors to buy items for the prisoners. A man at the counter tries to explain this to me and when I tell him I am buying these items for a prisoner who looks surprised. I pay for my purchases and fill out a piece of paper written completely in Thai. Someone tries to help me but one of the questions is the name of the prisoner and I do not even know that. I start to write “American Prisoner” when the clerk speaks with some guards and then turns to me and says “Rebecca.” Yes, I am here to see Rebecca.

The slip is stapled to a bag and thrown into a pile. I protest. I tell them I will be visiting Rebecca and I want to bring her these items. I want to visit her! I sound so sure. Do I really? They inform me it will be delivered to her and I am directed to a small office behind the store. There I wait on plastic seats waiting with a group of Thais. A guard calls out some names and some people waiting come forward and then cross the street to the prison. I wait for my name to be called. The guard merely looks around for me and nods. I want to get my gifts I bought at the store but I am told those will be delivered at 3 pm. It is now 2:05 and visiting hours end at 2:30. I am told to cross the street. This time the green gate is opened to me. I am now inside the prison.

Inside is yet another waiting room with more plastic chairs. There are many people here, perhaps 20 or 30, even some small children. I am told to place my paper in a small wooden trough hanging on some bars. I place it there and step inside another small room where there are people standing in wait. A Thai man next to me tells me in English, “Now we wait.” From there I can see another area. One the outside are guards who are checking the plastic bags of food, writing the names of the prisoners on them, and then passing them through a small window. Beyond that is the visiting room. I can see a long row of chairs and a glass partition separating the visitors from the prisoners. There is a lot of chatter in Thai, most people appear happy. A buzzer sounds and the visitors in the visiting room stand up and file out, a new group of visitors file in. The prisoners are led out, a new group is led in. I wonder what to do. The helpful man tells me, “You will be next, in the last group.” Then a young woman comes up, she looks at me and speaks to the man. She turns to me and asks, “Are you here to see Rebecca?” I tell her I am. The man asks, “What is her relation to you?” I tell them, “just another American.” I ask them, “Do you think that strange?” “No,” the man tells me, “Rebecca will be happy. It is hard in the prison.” He tells me the woman next to him is his daughter. He tells me she used to be inside the prison and she knows Rebecca. The buzzer sounds and the man’s daughter tells me she will take me in to Rebecca.

Rebecca does not have an American accent. Her age is hard to tell. A guard outside told me she has been in prison for about 2 ½ years. I would say she is 35 or 40, but I have no way of knowing. She has reddish-brown hair cut short, and held to one side with a barrette. She sounds German but speaks English well. And yes, she is very happy to see me. She asks my name and why I am in Chiang Mai. She tells me she was born in the US, but only lived there one year, and grew up in Europe, mostly Switzerland. She is in prison because she changed money with another traveler, receiving traveler’s checks in exchange. When she tried to cash them, they were of course with another person’s signature. She tells me she tried to exchange at two places. She says her sentence was 2.5 years for the first attempt and three years for the second. When I say that sounds harsh, she tells me that actually her sentence could have been 11 years but since she plead guilty she received half the time. I am astonished. Surely, this seems wrong.

She has been in prison two years and seven months; she has two years and eleven months to go. She lives in a cell with 150 other women. She tells me the hardest thing is the loss of privacy, but that things are better now as she used to be in a cell with 250 women. She tells me most of the women in the prison are in there on drug-related charges and most are hill tribe women who do not understand as opium is a common cash crop for their tribes. Rebecca tells me that before the sentences for these women were not too long but now they are often for life or even the death penalty. In comparison, Rebecca’s sentence seems light.

She does not tell me any of this angrily or sadly, but matter-of-factly, and even with a slight smile. She has smile lines around her eyes and I wonder how many are from before prison. She admits that she wrong to have done what she did and appears to accept her punishment. I let her talk. She tells me she is glad to talk to someone. Although she has learned Thai, she is currently the only foreigner in the prison. She jokes, “I have been here 2 ½ years and they haven’t managed to catch another foreigner.” The buzzer sounds. She asks me how long I am in Chiang Mai and I tell her I leave tomorrow. I feel sorry to say it, if I were staying another day I could buy her a few more things. She tells me she very much enjoyed our ten minutes and thanks me for coming. She tells me my visit will make her weekend much brighter. I am embarrassed I did not get her more things or that my visit, from a total stranger, could mean that much to her. When she rises, she presses her hands to the glass and I press mine opposite hers. She waves goodbye enthusiastically. I wave in return.

A Blast from My Travel Past

Just days ago I received a LinkedIn invite from someone I met a long time ago.  It was a very pleasant surprise to have communication again with A, who I met while backpacking in Romania in 2000.  It brought me back to that time, when I was in the midst of an 11 month solo backpacking trip through Europe and Asia, long before I was a mom, when the Foreign Service, even my graduate degree, was just a twinkle in my eye.

I do not have any email stories from that time in my life.  I know I sent some, but the Internet was a much newer thing, and anything I sent during that time is lost to cyberspace.  Romania was sort of a turning point in my trip, most certainly when I look back at the people I met there and in the weeks just after.  I had already been on the road for 3 months.  Beginning in Helsinki, Finland, I had made my way through the Baltics, to Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bavaria, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Hungary to arrive in Romania.  I was getting tired.  I nearly missed a train change at the Hungarian-Romanian border when the train stopped somewhere around midnight and I noticed I was alone.  I was wide-awake as I had been primed to fear strangers coming onto the train to rob me or gas me and do me harm.  I stepped off the train and noticed there was another train on an adjacent platform idling its engine, while my own train engine was already growing cold.  There were a few men, wearing dark clothes, moving like shadows around the train yard, lit only by a few poor lights.  I asked them if they spoke English.  They did not, and only laughed.  Somehow, I do not remember how, I figured out the other train was the one I need to be one and I changed, grateful then for the other passengers.

Once on the right train and with the morning coming and more passengers, I allowed myself to sleep.  And so I missed my stop at Sighisoara and ended up disembarking at Brasov.  In Brasov, I was harassed by two bus ticketing thugs, who muscled me off a bus and then demanded money and my passport when I did not comply.   Because it was midday I defied them, arguing with them, telling them with bravado I did not feel that if they wanted money from me I would be happy to accompany them to the nearest police station.  I only escaped when I jabbed my finger unexpectedly into the chest of one of the men, yelled “leave me alone!” and turned and ran as fast as I could for several blocks.  I lost them.

Then on my final day in Bucharest I was attacked by dogs.  No kidding.  I was walking along, minding my own business, headed for the Palace of the Parliament, the world’s second largest public building (after the Pentagon), when out of nowhere four dogs appear and surround me.   They are barking and jumping and nipping at me.  A woman leans out of a nearby window on the third or fourth floor to yell.  I think she is telling me to be quiet and not the dogs.  Maybe I am screaming?  The dogs start tearing at my clothes.   I know one dog had my left hand in its mouth.  Another was pulling at my pants behind my left knee.  A third was pulling at my right pant leg at my ankle.  I have never been able to remember what the fourth dog was doing.  A man approaches and holds off the dogs and tells me to run.  I assume he told me in Romanian, but in my head I heard English and I took off like a shot.  I ran across a large street, I’m not sure how many lanes, and the dogs did not pursue.  I catch a glimpse of myself in a tinted bank window and I look like a crazy person.  My hair is a mess, my fast red and tear splotched, my pants torn.  I collect myself and limp a few more blocks to the Palace of the Parliament.  There I first request a ticket for the next tour and then a first aid kit if they have one.

It is after the tour I head back to the hostel.  I start every time I see a dog.  And there were a lot of dogs.  According to the “Welcome to Bucharest” brochure I find at the front desk of the hostel upon my return, the approximate population of Bucharest is 3 million people and 2 million dogs.  The brochure explains that the dogs have become wild and rabies shots are required if bitten.  I think about whether I would have wanted to know this information before my incident, and cannot make up my mind.  What I do know is that my plan to depart Romania that evening on the night train to Bulgaria seems too much for me to take on.

It is at this point I meet A.  He is backpacking for a few months through Europe while on leave from a teaching job in the UK.  He tells me he is traveling to Bulgaria the next day and I can tag along with him instead of leaving that night.  I feel so relieved.   (especially as on the way to dinner that night with another hostel-mate, we watch a dog attack another person in the street)

And wouldn’t you know it.  As we try to leave the next day we are confronted by a fake policeman at the Bucharest train station.  As soon as we enter the station he approaches and requests to see our passports.  We hand them over.  He gives an exaggerated sigh and tells us that unfortunately our permission to remain in the country has expired and we will have to pay a fine.  We have had enough of these poor attempts at bilking tourists and we grab our passports back, tell him to shove off, and continue on our way.   Yet our trials with Romania are not complete.  At the Romanian-Bulgarian border a fake border officer boards the train and tries one last shakedown.  We almost fall for it until A notices the officer’s badge is flimsy, like a Cracker Jack sheriff badge toy, and hanging off his nondescript khaki uniform at an odd angle.  Minutes later the real guys come through and it is obvious our first guy is an imposter.

I travel with A for 5 days.  We visit Veliko Tarnova and Sofia and the Rila Monastery.  In Veliko Tarnova I search the Internet for information on rabies and grow a little concerned that my days are numbered.  A agrees to monitor my progress and let me know if I start frothing at the mouth.  He goes with me to the US Embassy in Sofia as I make inquiries with the Embassy doctor about my possible rabies vaccination plan.

After Sofia we parted ways.  I headed on to Macedonia and A went back to the UK.  He and his girlfriend were preparing for a visit to Iran, a country Australians could visit, though Americans could not.  His girlfriend was having an abaya made to wear while they traveled.  A and I kept in contact for a long while.  After his trip to Iran and the end of his contract in the UK, he made a plan to return to Australia entirely without flying.  He traveled by train across Russia to Beijing, south to Vietnam, then by bus through Southeast Asia to Singapore, then by boat through Indonesia to Bali.  It was only on Bali when he learned he had missed the boat to Australia and the next would be awhile when he finally hopped on a plane.  He joined Australia’s version of the Foreign Service and served in Vanuatu, then Afghanistan, when we lost tough.  Until now, when returning to Australia after 3 ½ years in Pakistan, on the recommendation of a friend he joined LinkedIn.

It’s hard to believe it has been nearly 14 years since we met in a hostel in Bucharest.  Those days in Romania do not seem that long ago.

Adventure to Tangier May 2002

As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of emails I sent on past travels. 

In May and June 2002 I backpacked solo for 4 weeks in Spain and 2 in Portugal.  In Granada, I met up with my Monterey, CA roommate, P, who was in Spain for language study, and we decided to make an impromptu trip to Gibraltar and then across to Tangier, Morocco.  What I remember most about Gibraltar was I had the best gorgonzola pasta I have ever had anywhere in a lovely outdoor cafe.  Strange that I remember that more than the Rock and the monkeys.  At the time of posting, this one day trip to Morocco is my only trip to the country and given all the things to see in the country I do not really consider myself having visited Morocco.  Tangier is like many border towns;   the city is more about getting elsewhere than staying put.  It is a gateway to Europe for many from all over Africa.  I did not like Tangier, something I very rarely say about a place.  But it was certainly an adventure.  

In Gibraltar, my friend P and I discover there is just one boat to Tangier a week, and that it departs on Fridays at 6 pm.  Well lo and behold it was a Friday around 3 pm.  So the information people give us a map and directions to the ticket office.  I was thinking we could just take a bus to the center of town, find the office, buy ours tickets, quickly take the funicular to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar, then back down, then hop on the boat and viola, we are in Tangier!  Unfortunately, few things work out like that.

It took us maybe 30 minutes to find the ticket office as we kept walking past it because the sign wasn’t very noticeable.  We go in and ask about the boat and they are all very friendly, but they inform us the boat is broken, but we can instead leave on Tuesday!  What would we do in Gibraltar all that time?  So, we ask if they have boats leaving from Algeciras in Spain and they say they do and give us a schedule.  We thank them and leave.

Just out the door P thinks we should ask how early before departure we should check in, so we return to ask.  When we explain we want to leave the next day, the guy scowls at us and tells us in an exasperated way that the boats are broken.  Seems the whole fleet is indisposed!  We ask about other boats and the guy gets indignant telling us they ONLY know about the schedules for THEIR boats.  <sigh>

We decide to leave the next morning and get a hotel in Gibraltar for the night because we have wasted so much time finding out about these broken boats.  We find a nice place, put our things down and head to the funicular but are waylaid by a very friendly local offering a tour of the Rock.  It appears his tour only cost three euros more than trying to go up ourselves and since things are spread out up on the rock, it would save us time.  We agree and are soon whisked into our very own van with our loquacious guide.  He keeps saying things like “girls” and “love” and the like to address us.  He talked a mile a minute, but I found overall it was a good tour, we learned a lot about Gibraltar (such as it was most likely an island before, because good ‘ole Chris Columbus said when he sailed by it, it was on the LEFT, meaning he sailed between the rock and Spain) and saw the Pillars of Hercules, part of the caves dug by chisel and dynamite when Spain tried to take Gibraltar during some historical juncture, and of course the monkeys.

The guide said we could have our photos taken with the monkeys on our shoulders.  I start to protest when suddenly a 30 pound monkey jumps on me and the guide orders P to get my camera and take my photo!  And before P knew it she too had a monkey friend and I was trying to take her picture.  However, as I was taking her picture I dropped something, leaned down to get it and another monkey was on me.  Ah, the amazing fun on top of the Rock!

The next morning we were up early and out of the hotel at 7 am to catch a bus to the border. Unfortunately, we discovered the buses did not start running until 8:30 am, so it being Gibraltar, and not a particularly large place, we started walking.  Once across the border and back in Spain, we caught a cab to Algeciras.  We made it to the terminal at 8:15, we think just in time to catch the 8:30 fast ferry, except no one wants to give us a straight answer.  We kept being told to go to this one counter to get the fast ferry, only to be told at that counter the ferry is broken.  So, we are sent to another window where we are told that it is now too late to make the 8:30 ferry.  So we pay for the 9:30 slow boat.  We change money, get some refreshments, and head up to the departure lounge.

The ferry is nothing special.  It plods along slowly, taking 2.5 hours to Tangier.  But when we arrive in Tangier and go down the gangplank, we discover we need an immigration stamp which was given on the boat, 15 minutes before we docked.  It was the garbled message reminiscent of drive thru windows made about 20-30 minutes before we docked.  We were not alone back in the ship awaiting the return of the police; there were maybe 40 of us.  We had to wait maybe another 45 minutes for the immigration police officer to return and get us all stamped, and then we were finally allowed to enter Tangier.

We made it through the gauntlet of “official tour guides” and taxi drivers, probably only because most of the boat had gotten off earlier and the majority of the mob had grown tired of waiting.  We had a humorous conversation with two port policemen about how to walk up to the medina.  It was only maybe a 10 minute walk, but they thought we should take a cab.  We found some accommodation for only 50 dirhams a night ($5).  A “helpful” Moroccan (I think “enterprising” is a better word) showed us to a Moroccan restaurant.  He insisted it was not touristy.  But the waiter very confidently, in good English explained the three course meal.  It turned out that the meal cost $12 per person.  We seriously doubted many locals frequented that place at that price.  So we found bread for 1 dirham and a coconut for 3 dirhams and we were fine.  We discovered our hotel room did not have a bathroom, and the only toilet was on the first floor, a rather smelly squatting affair.  But, we figured, ok, it was for only one night.

We explored the Medina for about an hour.  Then, we explored the new town and were rewarded with a McDonalds: cheap, recognizable food, a lovely view over the town, and nice toilets!  Yippee! (especially for the toilets)  We found an English cemetery.  We went back to the hotel.  After all the trouble to get to Tangier we were rather at a loss of what to do now that we were there.  An hour before the last call to prayer, the women and children came out into the streets, and so did we.  We got ice cream and explored the streets more and watched more people.  Then back to the hotel and more people watching from our balcony, then an early bed, because we wanted to catch the very first ferry out the next morning.  (Both of us we had already had our fill of Tangier).

Of course when we arrived at the ferry terminal the next morning, the first ferry, at 8:30, had been cancelled, and we had to take the 9:30!  We needed that one, because Moroccan time is 2 hours before Spanish time, so it was 11:30 in Spain when we left Morocco, and after a 2.5 hour trip, it was 2 pm in Spain.  My bus to Cordoba left at 3, P’s back to Granada at 4.  Somehow, by some miracle we both made our buses and I was off to Cordoba.

Three Weeks to Go

So what is it like to have just three weeks left at post?  It is stressful.  Apparently so stressful that it can cause you to fall off the treadmill.  Well, that is what happened in my case at any rate.  Yes, last night at the gym while on track for one of my faster 5Ks I made a misstep resulting in an Oscar-worthy fall, scramble on my knees, and finally a had-to-be-funny-to-watch slide off the end of the treadmill.  I cannot be sure it is correlated to my impending departure, but since I have never fall off a treadmill before I cannot but find the two are related.

Three weeks left at post mean that shopping trips have become boring espisodes in my life.  I am duty-bound to do them but they hold little interest.  I buy items because we need things like eggs or milk.  I do not buy extra things although the temptation to do so grows ever stronger knowing it makes NO SENSE to do so because anything extra I buy today I will not see after pack out for 2 months (if in my unaccompanied baggage – UAB- which will be sent to DC during my training) or 8 months or more (if in my household effects – HHE- that I will see again only after we have arrived in China).  When previously in Indonesia, yeah, I may have bought a few extra handicrafts that were on my “must-buy” list for awhile and I wanted to remind me of my time in country.  Yet in Juarez the handicrafts sold here are generally from elsewhere, like Oaxaca, and if I am going to buy Oaxacan handicrafts I would rather buy them in Oaxaca.  And to be honest, the things I want to buy now are in Target in El Paso.  These are not things I need now by any stretch of the imagination.  Wants must be surpressed.

Three weeks left at post mean every single time I look at any item in my house I am thinking whether it will 1. go in the car with us, 2. go into UAB, 3. go into HHE, 4. go to Goodwill, or 5. be thrown out?  Every single time I look at ANYTHING!  All of my “stuff” is under scrutiny.  It is mentally exhausting to do this.  As a daughter of pack-rats I find the purging that comes with regular moves to be carthartic.  That doesn’t mean I like it, but it can be helpful.  Cartharis is defined as “the purging of the emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, especially through certain kinds of art.”  And there is an art to the pack out.  I’m not saying I am particularly good at it, but I have my own mad, crazy technique.  And in the end when the pack out day comes, regardless whether my technique is good or not the movers drive away with my stuff in boxes headed for the next post.

Three weeks left at post lends itself to going without some things.  Like when your vitamins or your favorite tea run out you do not buy more because what would be the point?  You’ll just end up with one more thing to pack and you cannot stand the idea of one more thing to pack.  Or you ration items, like, say, cheese.  While maybe in the past you were more generous in your cheese portions you are not now because you don’t want to buy more and end up having to give it away.  I mean, a half a bag of shredded cheese is not the kind of gift most people ask for.  Or you hide items, like salt.  If you have perhaps a nanny who has a tendency to use up your staples without asking and you are down to the last bit of salt, you might find yourself hiding the salt container high up on a shelf behind a gift box of Starbucks expresso cups.  I’m not saying I know anyone personally who has done this, but it could happen. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Three weeks to go mean I become that person at work who when someone asks me a question like “how do I do blah-blah-blah?” I respond with an answer that invariably ends in the annoying phrase “and I have only X number of days left.”  I don’t want to be that person but I have become that person.  I cannot help myself.  It is as if it is my moral imperative to become that person.

Three weeks mean it is too early to change your address although you do not receive mail at post anymore.  It means you are on your way out but you still have enough time left at post for it to not quite feel real yet.  It is a weird and stressful and exhilarating time.  And sometimes even when you think you got a handle on things you stumble.  On the treadmill.


Working out in Juarez

So yeah, just a two days ago I finished a four hour spin-a-thon here in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.  FOUR HOURS on a bike in 90+ degree heat.  And I did it!  I rode every single second of that four hours and lived to tell the tale.  I could even walk just fine the next day. How about that?

Yet when I arrived in Ciudad Juarez nearly 2 years ago, I had no idea how exercising was going to go here.  I was a single mom with a 6 month old baby moving to a post with 15% danger pay.  Trying to find an exerise routine while overseas in the Foreign Service or otherwise can always be a challenge.  For example, when you are in a country where exercise may not be the norm because it is a leisure activity that the vast number of people do not have time for.  Gym facilities, if existent, are quite different from home.  Running outside may not be advisable due to security or other reasons.

My previous assignment, when I was with the Department of Defense, was in Jakarta, Indonesia.  In my apartment complex we had a treadmill, a bicycle, and an elliptical in a glassed-in gazebo in our parking lot.  You can imagine in a tropical country that a glassed-in gazebo surrounded by black top might get a bit warm.  It did.  Also, perplexingly, there was also a grill in the gazebo, though I never saw anyone use it.  I also belonged to the gym at the hotel located three buildings down from my complex.  I even had a trainer there.  The gym had some pretty good equipment, though the air conditioning never seemed to be working, so it was like exercising in a sauna.  And though there was a television in front of each of the machines they were not connected to the machines, so if others were excercising and watching television you had dueling volume issues.  Running outside was difficult.  Jakarta is hot and humid, the sidewalks, if there, are uneven and full of open holes, and are often used as an additional lane by motorcyclists.  On Sundays though it was “car free Sunday” when the main drag was closed to traffic for a few hours.  So if you wanted to battle the crowds it was possible to run.  I did once, but imagine my surprise when without warning the lanes re-opened to traffic and I found myself in the middle lane of a 4 lane highway with cars suddenly driving around me!

But that was in Indonesia and now I was in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico with an infant.

Ciudad Juarez is located in the Chihuahua desert.  It is a high desert climate.  It is dry and very hot in the summer.  In the winter it is generally in the 30s (farenheit) in the morning but there might be as much as a 30 degree increase by afternoon. The altitude is close to 4,000 feet above sea level.  In the Spring, starting around February, strong winds blow through the city kicking up sand and dust and all manner of things I am apparently allergic to.

So I had exercised abroad before.  I had even exercised thus far as a mom – but in the nice apartment gym in Falls Church, VA while my mother watched my daughter or running with the jogging stroller on lovely Northern Virginia running trails.  But here I was in a new city as a new mom.  I wanted to get back into running, wanted to lose the rest of the baby weight, and wanted to be a role model to my daughter.  How was I going to do that?

I started off going to the Consulate gym where I had access as a member of the Employee Recreation Association.  With a six month old, I would go when it was her nap time and she would snooze happily while I ran on the treadmill.  I also set up my bike on a trainer and rode for an hour or two on Sundays while my daughter napped. I ran my first 5K in September 2013 in Marfa, Texas as part of the Marfa Lights Festival over the Labor Day weekend.  It was hot, I was slow, and I finished the run with a flat tire, deflated completely by a giant desert thorn.  But I did it.  And I kept going.

I have had to make adjustments, of course.  When my daughter stopped taking a second nap or even a very long nap, I had the nanny or a friend watch her after work or on weekends.  And when an off-duty police officer was shot in his truck along my running route (he survived and drove himself to the hospital) or when there was a quadruple homicide at a garage I sometimes ran by, I changed where I ran.  When the dust storms of Spring made it very difficult for me to run, I joined a gym with childcare, though still had someone watch C on Sundays (gyms in Juarez are only open until noon or 1 on Saturdays and closed on Sundays).

And here I am at the end of my tour and I am so psyched to say that I finished:

Three 5Ks (1 in Marfa and 2 in El Paso)

Two 10Ks (two years running of the “World’s Fastest 10K” in El Paso)

One dualthon (Mission Valley Duathlon in El Paso – my first duathlon ever!)

Two spin-a-thons (in Ciudad Juarez, one was 3 hours, the other 4)

Eight half marathons!  (El Paso, TX; Indianapolis, IN; Santa Fe, NM; Boston, MA; Ciudad Juarez, MX; Las Vegas, NV; Salt Lake City, UT; and Cincinnati, OH)

Changes are ahead for us with home leave, training in DC and then on to Shanghai.  I’m not sure how I will work out, but I know I will find a way.


Mosquito Terror

In the last week my 2+ year old daughter has developed a sudden irrational terror of mosquitoes.  Until now the only other thing I have discovered she is terrified of are adults dressed in mascot costumes…  Anyway, it started the day when the water pressure in Juarez was so ridiculously low that it took me 20 minutes to fill the bathtub, and this included me alternating between filling two of my larger cooking pots with water in the downstairs sink and carrying them up while the tub filled itself.  While finally lying in our bath at 10:30 pm at night, my daughter lets out a terrified shriek.  Just jumps up and begins thrashing about the tub as if she were in a shark attack.  She points to the ceiling and screams “Mosquito!”  First, I am rather impressed she even knows the word “mosquito” but my proud humor soon turns to concern as the screaming does not abate.  I look up and do see a mosquito flying about.  I tell her it is okay.  However, my calm words have no effect whatsoever and so I have to get out of the tub and chase it around and kill it.

Here in Juarez we are not actually abound with insects.  I’m not saying there are no insects, of course there are, but we don’t see many in our house.  I was rather surprised to learn after my arrival that this desert landscape would be of interest to mosquitoes, but it is at some times of the year, though not really right now.  With a water shortage and the Rio Grande river near our house a dry, dry, desiccated bed of sand, there isn’t exactly a lot of water around to attract mosquitoes.  I have found little brown scorpions in the house, which is disconcerting in and of itself, but they are small and infrequent.  Sometimes a small beetle and occasionally those scary looking black flying sprickets (part cricket, part spider).  However, overall, not much in the way of insects.

Sure, mosquitoes are worthy of fear.  They carry some pretty bad diseases.  I was once terrorized a long sleepless night in a cheap guest house on the island of Bintan in Indonesia by probably hundreds of the buzzing beasties.  The next morning I left bright and early and took the first ferry back to Singapore covered in at least 80 bites.  It is a wonder I did not come down with something.  When I last worked in Jakarta, Indonesia, a country where they regularly fog for mosquitoes, one co-worker and another’s daughter both came down with Dengue.  But this isn’t exactly what I would expect the average two year old to grasp.  Not that I don’t want to proudly boast that my daughter is smart, she is, but understanding the disease carrying properties of insects might be a bit beyond her.

And still she screams.  The second time she screamed I was downstairs and I heard a terrified “Mama!  Mama!” followed by loud terrified bellows as she quickly came down the stairs.  She told me it was a mosquito.  I went up to check and found nothing.  Yet, not five minutes later the same thing occurs.  I go up and discover there is a fly in the house.  She has said the word “fly” before, but she will not accept that this particular insect is a fly.  She screams and clings to my leg yelling “mosquito!”  And so I kill the fly.  I try to show her that it will not hurt her now but that only results in her running to her room, standing in the corner, screwing up her face and screaming in her best horror picture impersonation.

This has happened two additional times since.

At first I was perplexed.  What would cause this sudden change?  Where would she get the idea that mosquitoes were something to fear?  Then it dawned on me.  She has a Go Diego, Go! DVD in which Diego goes to Africa to help a friend with a perplexing problem: all the elephants have disappeared.  Through some kind of magic a mosquito has been transformed into a magician and she flies around taking revenge on all the animals.  This magician has a particular dislike of elephants so she has turned them all into rocks.  She also makes the giraffes have short necks and shrinks hippos to tiny versions of themselves.  All the while flying around and cackling.  Okay, it is kinda scary.  However, my daughter has actually watched this particular DVD approximately one bazillion times before developing this terror of mosquitoes, so I am not sure this is really the source of the fear.  But it is all I got.

But here is the thing: after Juarez and home leave and five months of training in DC my daughter and I move to Shanghai, China.  To Asia.  I am pretty sure there are going to be LOTS of insects in Shanghai.  I know I have been terrorized by giant flying cockroaches in more than one Asian country.  Want to see me get really really wigged out and reduced to a whimpering mess?  Put me in a room with a giant flying cockroach.  That will do it.  I have also seen the largest spiders ever – as large as my head – in Asia.  I have a particularly vivid memory of watching a large tan colored spider the size of a crab run across a street in Bangkok.  It’s legs clicking on the pavement.  I know, you are thinking to yourself, hmmmm…maybe because of the color it actually was a crab?  NO!  It most certainly was a spider.  And I have the traumatized memory to prove it.

And so, I worry how my daughter and her new found fear of insects is going to handle this?  Perhaps this fear will already have faded by then?  I am hoping our housing will be so amazingly wonderful as to be almost as bug-free as here in Juarez.  I am hoping the only insects we might see are in the Shanghai Natural Wild Insect Kingdom, safely behind glass.