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.

Spintencity en la Ciudad

So last night I participated in a four hour spin-a-thon in Ciudad Juarez. I’ll leave why I subjected myself to that particular kind of fun for another post, but the amazing thing is that the event was held in downtown Ciudad Juarez, in an open plaza, with approximately 200 participants.

When in August 2011 I was assigned to Ciudad Juarez for my first post, the city had a per capita murder rate that gave it the unfortunate distinction of the murder capital of the world. The rate had however dropped enough from the previous year to warrant a drop in the danger pay from 20% to 15% by November 2011. I had heard that officers in Ciudad Juarez during that time period generally stayed indoors and outings were reserved for border crossings to El Paso, Texas.

By the time I arrived at post in late July 2012, the city was already experiencing further improvements in security and a sort of rebirth was occurring. This has only continued throughout the time I have lived here, with families venturing out to visit family and friends regularly and filling restaurants and parks. The Plaza de la MeXicanidad and La Rodadora, a world-class children’s museum, both opened in Juarez last year.

This is not to say that all is well in Juarez. During the time I have lived here, there have been at least four armed incidents at the shopping mall just across from the Consulate and an easy 10 minutes walk from my home. This included a robbery of a jewelry store, a robbery of one of the parking attendants, and a shooting of a local employee at a gym. I twice adjusted my regular running route when shootings occurred along it. One morning as I prepared to head to work, I heard what distinctly sounded like gunshots as I prepared to head to work one morning. Even one from our Consulate community–a locally employed staff member–was gunned down in front of his family by armed men who burst into a children’s party.

But, when I see people taking control of their lives and participating in healthy activities, I think that it is a sure sign of a healthier community too. When out running I have always run into other locals running. Not a lot mind you, but if the prospect of insecurity wouldn’t keep people from running, then the harsh desert climate (hot, dry, dusty) with few running-friendly places ought to – and yet people are STILL out there running! Gyms have been sprouting up all over the city and these gyms are sponsoring events such as the spin-a-thon. Last October I took part in the 4th Maraton Internacional Gas Natural de Juarez. Despite a less than scenic course, I was impressed with the organization and participation from both runners and spectators. A local gym also organized a year-long series of 10Ks for this year and our Consulate organized the first Green Race held in May.

So there I am last night, some time into the third hour of the spin-a-thon and I start to feel a bit misty-eyed. I think about how far Ciudad Juarez has come in the two years I have lived here and what an honor and privilege it has been for my daughter and I to experience the city at this pivotal time. It could have been because the spinning instructor, waxing on at length over the physical and spiritual benefits of spinning, suddenly yelled “Viva Juarez!” or because my bum and palms were losing all feeling, but I felt extremely grateful not only to be participating in the event but to be in Juarez.

Viva Juarez indeed.

Here we go…

Yes, here it is.  My first blog post.  I am finally taking the leap and starting a blog.  Back in the days when I backpacked and sent back email stories of my trips to friends and family members, many encouraged me to start a blog.  I thought about it.  A little.  But I didn’t start.  And then life got in the way.  I started working more.  Then the same month I accepted an appointment to the Foreign Service I found out I was pregnant.  And here I am 3 years later, about to depart my first post as a Foreign Service Officer, FINALLY starting a blog.  Well, better late than never I suppose.

And so, yeah, here we go.  Here I go a-writing.  And in less than 30 days (23 to be exact, but who’s counting?) my daughter and I depart Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, my first Foreign Service post, to start the next phase of my Foreign Service career and our Foreign Service life.

It will be bittersweet.  I arrived here nearly two years ago with a 6 month old baby.  I will leave here soon with a 2 1/2 year old toddler who speaks about as much Spanish as she does English.  She has spent more of her life in Mexico than in the United States.  Just this past week two neighbor kids stopped by three times to ask if my daughter C could come out and play.  If we were a normal family and stayed in the same place, my daughter would grow up with these kids – who at 4 years older would soon grow pretty tired of playing with her – but they would grow up together nonetheless.  However, we aren’t exactly your normal kind of family.

In a few weeks we will begin approximately nine weeks of travel.  Five days are allocated by the government for our drive back from Ciudad Juarez (just across the border from El Paso, Texas) to Washington, DC and then 8 weeks of the Congress-mandated Home Leave, during which I will reacquaint myself and my daughter with our country.  I have a pretty crazy plan in mind.  But I’ll leave it for future posts.

Here we go….