Two Weeks Backpacking in Portugal, June 2002

As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of emails I sent on past travels.
In June 2002 (between my first year of graduate school in Monterey, California and the start of my one year of study in Singapore) I backpacked through Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar and Andorra for a total of six weeks. Two of those weeks were in Portugal. I entered the coastal south of the country by bus from Seville, Spain and departed from the midsection by truck to Caceras, Spain. I visited Tavira, Lisbon, Sintra, Obidos, Nazare, Porto, Viana do Castelo, Coimbra, Evora, Portalegre, and Marvao.

It was a fantastic two weeks, I think in a large part because I traveled about one week of it with CH, a woman from New York I met in a hostel in Lisbon. I remember us heading to a small bar/restaurant in Lisbon to listen to Fado music. In Obidos we stuffed our faces with plums we stole from someone’s tree. In Porto we took a wine tour and watched the US beat Portugal in a World Cup match shown live in a local theater. In Viana do Castelo we strolled through the old town and skipped rocks on the beach. And the most memorable part of Coimbra was our drain-less shower in the hostel! CH and I are still friends to this day.

I also particularly remember Portugal because I hitchhiked there. Twice! I still have a hard time believing I really did that, but I did. I have only done so maybe 5 times in my life (twice in Japan and another time in Taiwan).

Day One
I entered Portugal from Seville to stop first at Tavira on the south coast. I am sure I stopped here for historical reasons and chose to avoid the more touristy/more popular town of Faro on some kind of principal. Unfortunately I did not like Tavira. Perhaps I was too tired from the bus ride and the already two weeks backpacking in Spain? The only thing I wrote about Tavira was “Great if you like absolute Boredom! OK, I am not good at relaxing. I was so bored I paid 2 euros to ride toy train about town. And the town was so small they even took us to some run down parts which you wouldn´t think would be on any tourist toy train trip.” Ouch.

Day Two
I took the train to Lisbon. Part of track was broken, so at one point the whole train load had to get off and take buses to the next part of the track. Then we changed later to a boat to take us into Lisbon. Lisbon is nice but I was tired. It was an easy day.

It does not sound easy when a train has to unload and then take buses to the next part of the track and then load back onto the train and then change to a boat, does it? However, in my travels I have found I am often amused and delighted by such things as train delays. In my day to day life this would drive me nuts, but I am willing to accept and embrace it when traveling. I remember when I took a bus from Sydney to Canberra in 2000 and the bus broke down. I recall it being fun.

Day Three
Lisbon. I visited the Aquarium. I had to since I attend graduate school in Monterey where there is a popular aquarium. I also visited the Monastery at Belem-beautiful. I took a tram up the windy streets to Sao Jorge castle, but disembarked early because of an overzealous American hater. I only asked him if this was the way to the castle and I got a monologue ‘I don´t know. I have been going nowhere for 20 years. My wife and I love Portugal, come here every year (and yet he does not know where the castle is?). We just were in Paris, but are stopping here for a week. Best place, Lisbon. Up ahead on the left is a church where they had the body of the king of Romania for years because no one else wanted him. [I interject with a “wasn´t he executed?] What? No! They never execute anyone here, not even the bulls…..Where are you from? America? They don´t much like Americans here, and I agree. That crazy president…’ As he simply continued on and on I got off the next stop I could. That night I went to see Fado, a traditional Portuguese song and music, with two girls from the hostel. Really nice Fado, really bad waiter.

Day Four
I visited Sintra, the former summer residence for the monarchs of Portugal. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These days I absolutely love visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites – I thought I was at the time I visited Sintra as well. Yet the only thing, and I mean the ONLY thing I wrote about the town was that it is “Beautiful, but COLD.” It must have been quite cold. I do have a pretty strong dislike for the cold and apparently it can blot out memory of all else. Perhaps I need to visit Portugal again?

Day Five
Obidos and Nazare. I took a bus to Obidos, a really nice town, with two women from the hostel – Sun Hua from Korea and CH from New York. We left our bags at a grocery store and explored until the bus to Nazare arrived. As we walked around the town we found a plum tree. CH marched up and plucked a plum and ate it. So soon we were all robbing the tree of its fruit and stuffing it into our bags and mouths, though mine all went into my mouth. We walked atop the town walls and met a nice American couple and did the obligatory photo exchange. Then we happened upon a guy below the wall behind a house doing the same as my man in Seville. The guy was busy exciting his equipment in full view of the wall, and it brought more excitement to him that we came upon him. I couldn´t believe this, two guys in less than a week. I am sure this happens frequently enough, but I don´t usually happen upon them! We took off as quickly as the thin walls with a 10 foot drop would let us hurry, though later we thought we should have heckled him or something.

We then caught the bus to Nazare, known for its traditional dress of seven petticoats, and for the most aggressive housing ladies in Portugal. I was a bit disappointed that only one lady, with big hair, gold teeth, and lots of gold jewelry, met our bus. She was aggressive, but after all only one. We got down to the main street and then we were swamped with offers of places to say about every few feet. It was difficult to walk the 10 minutes to the tourist office, because we had to stop every few feet to find out about some place to stay. I was very keen to take the funicular car up the hillside for the great view, but of course it was broken! So we walked up. Nice view though. Cute little town, and the older women really do wear the traditional clothing.

Day Six
Porto. It was raining, a bit of a disappointment. Porto is supposed to be really nice, but at first it was hard to tell in the rain. And it was a bit COLD. What in the world, it was JUNE! We found a nice place to stay though, the woman there was so super. Smiles all the time. Really sweet. She more than made up for the rain. So we rested. I was still traveling with Sun-Ha and CH. In the evening Sun-Ha fell asleep really early, but CH and I took advantage of a lull in the rain to take a bit of a stroll about town. The big bridge over the river was beautiful at night.

Day Seven
Porto. We caught the Portugal-USA World Cup game for free at a theater, where a wide screen television was set up. We got all kinds of stuff, whistles and some plastic things to beat together, as well as a game schedule. It was quite fun, but as you can imagine since the US won, the mood was a bit somber as the crowd filed out. We tried to get on tv, and they did come over to us, but then proceeded to ignore CH and I in order to interview Sun-Ha. What! South Korea wasn´t even playing! Then we headed over to a Port wine cellar for a free tour and free samples. None of us were wine drinkers but we each had a taste. It was fun, and the weather was very fine! We walked back over the top of the bridge (all the wine cellars are on the other side of the river because the temperature and soil are better or something). I want to go back someday in September when the grapes are harvested so I can take part as some wine houses we still do the wine processing the traditional way-with feet! I want to do that! We also visited some sights in Porto, including a tower and the old Stock exchange. A very good day.

Day Eight
Viana do Castelo. It rained for much of the morning and early afternoon. I was thoroughly disappointed that once again the funicular which was to take me to a top of a hill for a beautiful view was out of service. What is it about the funiculars in Portugal? CH and I had an adventure trying to find the supermarket, but we took a wrong turn and it seemed everyone had been sent to avoid us. We saw an old man who looked as though his path was going to intersect ours so we slowed down to time it right. CH went up to ask him and he ignored her! She said ‘Pardon’ about three times before he seemed to notice we were there. CH and I took a stroll around the old town, which seemed deserted, and skipped stones by the beach.

Day Nine
Coimbra. I had not intended to visit Coimbra, but I wanted to head south to the city of Evora next and the trip by bus was going to take me 8 HOURS from Viana. I just couldn´t face it. So I decided to rest a day in Coimbra before venturing on to Evora. Coimbra is home to Portugal´s oldest university. Of course it was cold and raining when we were there. We still went up to the University and checked things out. But even with umbrellas the special sideways rain soon has us soaked and we took refuge in the Geography building, or it could have been the Science building. Anyway, we joined the ugly, unfriendly dog already hiding out there, and hung out and sang songs and watched the antics of the dog and his little dog friend until the rain subsided. The most memorable thing about Coimbra was the dog.

Day Ten
Evora. Evora is supposed to be Portugal´s premier town, a UNESCO world heritage site. For me a backpacker now on my own again, and really needing to pee, it was a nuisance. After hopping off the bus, I inspected the bus station toilets, which were horrible. Squatters and each with a little surprise pile in the middle of the toilet. I thought I would just walk into town and find a place to stay and go there. Yet it took me one and a half hours to locate the tourist office and a place to stay. The youth hostel was booked up, and so were all the other cheapies. Luckily there was a public toilet I could use and I didn´t have to wait the whole 90 minutes and the place I found. I paid 22 Euros for it, the most so far! And it was bare. No sink, no toilet, just a bed and a night stand. Though it did have a tv with CNN, so it was okay. The shower was a trickle, and there was this annoying ritual to get into my room. The room I was staying in was in another building from the reception. So I had to go to the other building first to have them let me into my building every time. I asked why we couldn´t have a key to other building and just received a withering glance from the 14 year old boy running reception. So I often went to the public toilets instead of back to my room for emergencies while strolling about. And there were no grocery stores. I had to eat in restaurants! The shame of it! 🙂 I have just been eating cheaper recently. The one grocery store had about three little aisles, with old vegetables, candy, a few blocks of cheese, and a whole aisle for detergents and stuff. Not exactly a place to stock up on food. There was the Roman era Temple of Diana; that was nice. The center of town was nice too. I followed the aqueduct out to an old poorly cared for fort, and that was it. So I decided one day was enough in Evora.

Day Eleven
Portalegre. I caught the bus from Evora here. I was going to continue on to Castelo da Vide, but since I had to wait several hours for the connecting bus I gave up and decided to stay. Besides Portalegre looked appealing as we drove up on the bus. (It had finally stopped raining when I was in Evora). And they had a REAL supermarket. So, I stayed the night there. I walked around the nice center of town and found it more pleasing than Evora.

Day Twelve
Castelo da Vide. I was the only person on the bus from Portalegre to Castelo da Vide. A whole 20 minute trip that I waited overnight to do and paid 4.80 Euros. Robbery! I paid 11.70 Euros for the four hour bus trip from Coimbra to Evora, and I paid only 1.10 Euros for the 50 minute train ride from Lisbon to Sintra! In C. da Vide I put my bag down in the tourist office, picked up my tourist map and had a look about town. It is a very nice town. Again, I enjoyed it more than Evora. I left my bag at 12:30 and was to pick it up at 2 pm when the tourist office opened again, but I caught the last 30 minutes of the Portugal-Poland game in a smoky cafe, where I was the only woman. I got a few looks, but I didn´t care. It was a great last 30 minutes.

Then I had to decide what to do next. I wanted to go to Marvao, a town about 12 kilometers from C. da Vide, but it being a holiday there were no buses, only taxis. Sso I decided to try hitchhiking. I had a black marker and I printed in big letters MARVAO on a piece of paper, then I headed down the road. I figured even if I was unable to get a lift, it would only take me FOUR HOURS. Surely I could not be so wimpy as to be unable to walk for 4 hours with my pack on, could I? Off I went. I sang songs to myself and amused myself with thoughts as I walked. When I heard a car approaching from behind, I would hold my sign up over my head. I managed to sing the whole of 100 bottles of beer on the wall! It was warm, there was shade and the walk was not all that unpleasant. After one hour of walking I got a ride! Three siblings, two brothers and a sister, picked me up. They live in Lisbon but have a house in Marvao, which is a small hamlet of only 187 souls perched high on a hill, with almost everyone still living within the old medieval walls. As we drove up, I thought I would have never made it up that hill… The siblings not only gave me a lift but also invited me to dinner and to stay the night. So I stayed with them. I took a stroll around the town, which is applying for UNESCO status, and again, I liked it more than Evora.

Day Thirteen
Return to Spain. Now Marvao being near the border as it is, of course has no public transportation to Spain. There was only one train leaving from another town 9 kilometers away, departing at 1 am. Very convenient. Since I thought the border was only 5 kilometers away, I was resolved, with my success from the day before, to walk across the border and get a bus there, or to get a ride all the way to Caceras in Spain, just 100 kilometers away. I made a new sign CACERAS-ESPANA and started to walk. But at 10 am it was already hot and there was no shade. I quickly doubted this was a good idea. Still, I kept going. But lucky me because a Spanish truck driver stopped for me just 20 minutes into my walk. As he was heading to Valencia he agreed to take me the whole way. We conversed about the EU, the possibility of a Mexico-US alliance like the EU, jobs, the differences between cows, and the like in Spanish. It took a bit longer to get to Caceras because the truck was old and he had to pull over and check the tires and other parts a couple of times. Yet he did take me all the way to the center of Caceras, shook my hand, and then was off. But now back in civilization where buses roam, I will be back to buses.


Why Not Waikiki? (Home Leave Phase Two)

So I began the second part of my home leave fresh. Er, well, not quite. My fasciitis in my left heel was acting up, my ulcerative colitis was active, I’d developed a chest cold with an unfortunate cough, and it seemed I had sunburned my lips somewhere during my drive. (I blame Texas) Yet, knowing I would not be driving every other day and the cats would not be joining as they would be enjoying the rest of their summer sniffing breezes on window sills at my aunt and uncle’s house, I WAS feeling fresher despite the ailments.

So less than four days after returning to Virginia, C and I boarded a plane for Honolulu. The ten hour flight flew by.

Just kidding.

Three hours into the ten hour flight I was again wondering what my state of mind had been as I plotted this trip. I am sure the lure of the islands played some part. Blessed with very fair freckled skin and reddish hair, I am no beach bunny, and would never have expected a love affair with Hawaii to develop. Yet I have visited the State (and four of the islands) at least seven times, including living on Oahu for 6 months while working as a Research Assistant on Asia Pacific security at the Pacific Forum CSIS in 2004. So, it made sense, in fact it felt imperative I visit this summer with C. And hey, it’s Hawaii, so why not?

I had decided on Oahu, and much more specifically Waikiki, for our trip as I had read it is the most toddler friendly place on the islands. There is the zoo and aquarium right in Waikiki and of course the beach. A hotel with a pool would round out our busy schedule. Though many sites will tell one the “must sees” with a toddler include the Dole Plantation and Sea Life Park and that both are “near” Waikiki, they most certainly are not, especially without a car. I had no intention of renting a car and either renting or dragging along a child seat just to visit these places. And a quick search of bus schedules informed me a ride to either attraction would be a “quick” hour and a half. ONE WAY! I have been to both attractions before and C is too young to know she is missing anything. So it was easy to knock those off the list. On this trip I was going to keep things simple.

We landed just after 1pm Honolulu time. So it’s maybe 5 or 6 hours behind what my body thought it might be (I cannot be sure what time my body was operating on after out drive) It’s after 3 by the time we are checked in and nearly 9 in my head. I woke at 5:30 am and did not sleep at all on the plane, so I’m sleepy. I’m wondering again if this was a good plan.

I stock up on some food items at the ABC Store downstairs. Then C starts jumping up and down yelling “Beach! Beach! Beach!” so though it feels like nearly midnight I take her. Watching her enthusiastically testing the sand with her toes and screaming with delight when the surf approaches and catches her and I know this was a great decision. I love Hawaii.

We wake up at 2:30 am and eat and shower and then head to the beach for sunrise. Once again the pure joy and enthusiasm with which my daughter greets the beach is affirmation that we are where we should be. As the sun rises in the overcast sky and the iconic shape of Diamond Head reveals itself, I think if we do nothing else all week but rise for sunset and play on the beach, it is enough. I find this almost startling as I am not one who finds relaxing easy.

We make it to four sunrises and two sunsets, and in my opinion, that’s pretty darn good. I take C to the aquarium and the zoo and the children’s museum. I take her over to the Hilton, too, to see the penguins and flamingos only to discover all the penguins have been sent to Baltimore and the flamingos are just gone. C does not know what she is missing and is delighted with the ducks, turtles, and carp. Five years ago if you had asked me if a one week trip to Oahu would have included the aquarium, zoo, and children’s museum I would have laughed.

I also manage to work out five mornings. FIVE! I book C into the Japanese-run daycare at the Sheraton, just 5 minutes walk from our hotel. It’s a pricey at $25 per hour with a two hour minimum, but it is SO worth it. C does not want to leave at the end of day one and cannot take her shoes off fast enough to play on subsequent days. And me? I feel a tad guilty leaving her, a plump of pride that she takes to it so easily, and a rush of excitement that I will have TWO WHOLE HOURS to myself. In those five days I manage 60 minutes cycling, 110 minutes elliptical, and a total of 14 miles running. And most days I pick C up, she’s slumped over in her stroller asleep before I can get her back to our hotel. Hello nap time! I manage to start and finish THREE books.

Additionally, an upside to being the older single mom with a young toddler staying in Waikiki is that we are not approached by a single tour our timeshare person. I actually start to get a bit suspicious that we are not stopped even once. We must not fit the timeshare target demographic and I know we do not fit the luau, catamaran cruise, submarine, Pearl Harbor, helicopter, or round island bus tour type either. I have done all those things in Hawaii before, including the timeshare tours, so it’s quite refreshing!

With the warm air, cool trade winds, glorious sunrises and sunsets, quality time with C as well as time to myself…we have reached near-Nirvana levels.

It was tough to leave. Yet the oversold flight we volunteered to get off of and the $400 flight certificates and the upgrade to first I received in return made up for it just a tad.

On to the next phase.

The Not-So-Normal (or My Experience with the Virginia DMV)

I was going to take a few days off from writing when this morning I did something that prompted me to reconsider:
I took my car to get its Virginia Safety Inspection.

That probably does not sound like much, but here is the thing: this is the first time I have ever done it!

I am not one to blurt out my age but suffice to say I am no spring chicken. I would expect most Americans my age would have done this a dozen times or more in their adult lives. Yet here I am doing this for the very first time. I was so nervous! I tossed and turned the night before worrying about it. My aunt accompanied me to the inspection center. I could not focus I was so nervous and excited on the way there and while waiting. Also when I paid, the cashier gave me a strange look and repeated “This is YOUR first time?” Clearly he was doubtful.

Look, I grew up in suburban Virginia, right outside of Washington, DC. We did not move around. I did the things most suburban kids do. However, as an adult, I have spent 12 years outside of the United States. Only the last two have been with the State Department. I studied for a summer and semester in China in college. I taught English in Korea for a year. I taught English in Japan for three years. I spent a semester studying and volunteering in Manila. I spent a year backpacking through Europe and Asia. I spent twelve months pursuing a Masters Degree in Singapore with two months before and two months after backpacking abroad. Three months studying in Yogyakarta and later two and a half years working for Defense in Jakarta, Indonesia. So I missed out on activities like watching Friends before it was in re-runs and having my car inspected.

Besides being nervous about doing something bureaucratically important for the first time I had two more reasons to be concerned: childhood memory and my unfortunate recent experiences with the Virginia DMV.

My aunt told me it was an easy enough process but as a child I watched my father have his vehicles rejected by the safety inspector again and again. There was the VW bug that was missing the floor on the front passenger side. I remember him driving me to dance class watching my legs dangle over the empty space as we bumped over the gravel road. Also the Datsun, whose starting system he rigged with a creative button that my mom had to use two hands to start. The Dodge Caravan, whose dented bumper and side he corrected with duct tape. After all both the duct tape and the car were silver. The VW bus my mom had to slow down, but not stop, to let us out at Middle School. I remember many a day sitting sweltering by the side of the road awaiting repairs or the times I had to, as the oldest child, get out of the car and push.

So there was that….

And also the drama the Virginia DMV put me through during my time in Mexico. It’s a long story that I will try to explain, because I think it sheds light on some of the problems Foreign Service Officers go through.

When I purchased my car in September 2011 I contacted State Farm for insurance. I told them from the get go I would be moving to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico the following year, approximately nine months later. I asked if they would cover me in Mexico. I was told “No problem.” A few months before departure, I stopped by the office and spoke with the head agent. I was again informed there would be no problem. About a week before departure I called and let them know the departure was imminent. It took some checking, but again I was reassured – we got you covered. Then just hours before I am to start driving to Mexico the office calls and tells me, hey, I see you are moving to Mexico. There is NO WAY we can cover you. My initial response could not be called diplomatic, but I stopped by the office, spoke with someone else, and once again was told, yeah, we have an office in El Paso with a Mexican Team. I’ll send your information there–no problem.

A concurrent issue that happened was my change in address. When I first returned from Indonesia, I was placed in Oakwood Falls Church housing, a common place for new and seasoned officers and their families to be housed during training. Unfortunately, I was assigned an un-renovated apartment. Though, I was informed at check in this would not be an issue, four months later and six months pregnant, I was required to move down the hall to another, already renovated apartment. Two months after that I had to move out of that apartment after giving birth, as I had been informed State would not cover my housing (that turned out to be incorrect, but discovered long after it would have helped me). Six weeks after that I moved back to Oakwood. Four months after that I moved to Mexico. I filled out a forwarding address form with the post office…

I then find myself in Juarez and the State Farm office in El Paso ducks my calls and an in-office visit for a few weeks before admitting they cannot cover me. So I purchase a Mexican insurance policy through a much-used international insurance company that also covers me temporarily, up to 90 days in the US. I think all is well…

Until I contact the Virginia DMV in February 2013 to enquire how to renew my registration/tags from my location (I still have Virginia plates as we live on the border and cross frequently). I am told, “No problem, you can do that online; however, we must inform you your license has been suspended.” What?! Turns out that because the DMV contacted me for insurance information and I did not respond within the allotted time I am now suspended, face a $145 reinstatement fee and a possible $500 fine.

I am stunned. I call. I fax in my travel orders, a copy of my diplomatic passport and visa, my Mexican diplomatic card, and my insurance documents. No dice. Though my vehicle is not garaged in or driven in Virginia, my insurance does not meet Virginia requirements. The fees and fine stand. I appeal. During my appeal process my license is reinstated and I register my tags. In late October, I receive notification that my telephone hearing has been scheduled. Failure to take part results in a reinstatement of my suspension and the fees. The date of my hearing? One week BEFORE I received the notification! I am stunned yet again. I call. They put together a hearing right then and there. I am asked questions for approximately 30 minutes and then fax in all the previous documentation again. I am told to wait 3-4 weeks as the result of the hearing will be mailed to me…

I win!

After 11 or 16 months, depending on when you decide my ordeal began, I am through it and I have won. Yippee!
Given all of this, I think you would understand why I approach dealing with any and all Virginia Department of Motor Vehicle issues with extreme trepidation.

I cannot begin to tell you the immense relief I felt when my car passed the inspection with flying colors! No driving around with my 8/2012 sticker waiting for a ticket, no expensive repairs. Whew!

I have now completed my first Virginia vehicle safety inspection! Six months from now I will sell the car and we move back overseas and I do not know next when I will own a car. Such is the life of a Foreign Service Officer!

Am I Still on this Crazy Drive? (Home Leave Phase One Part Two)

Day 7 of my travel from post / home leave began with a drive from Natchitoches, Louisiana to Jackson, Mississippi. I think I made a very wise choice in changing my route from the original seven hour drive to Orange Beach, Alabama to the four hour drive to Jackson. Again, I am shaking my head. What was I thinking? Within minutes of starting the drive the cats were mewing again and after an hour on the road my sweet little toddler was asking “hotel?” There goes my mother of the year award.

Yet even for me four hours on the road felt too long. Good thing I at least knew this would happen and started scheduling in more than one night at each stop for us all to recharge. The drive along some back roads and then I-20 to Jackson had little to occupy my attention with the exception of the unanticipated bear crossing sign (bears? In Mississippi? I would never have thought!) and driving over the Mississippi River. I tried to point out the river to C, but at 2 ½ she cannot see much out the window and just does not get excited about things like the fourth largest river in the world. Gosh, I remember taking a cross-country Amtrak trip from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles with my mom, an aunt and cousin, and two sisters when I was eleven years old. Crossing the Mississippi, going through a tunnel in the Rockies, and the 30-minute stop in Albuquerque to wash the train, were the major highlights.

I so wanted to stop at Vicksburg, Mississippi to at least see the National Military Park. After all, this is what home leave is for, right? It is not just to reacquaint ourselves with our country but to see and learn more of its amazing history and culture. I am seeing a lot of the highway system, which to be honest, is certainly part of our society and customs—our love of the automobile and being on the open road. Right? Or so I tell myself as I pass by exits with enticing signage of things I would like to stop and see but just cannot do so with the cats or even with C.

To be honest I also hate having the junky car – the one with the visible piles of crap on the front and back seats. As the daughter of pack rat parents, whose habits extend to their cars, I have tried very hard to keep my car clean and stuff-free. However, it simply was unobtainable for this trip. Oh, how I envy those childless, pet-less, single people driving out of Juarez in their SUVs… I know, I know. I am the one who adopted my two kitties from the mean streets of Jakarta and brought them to Juarez. I am the one who had the adorable child. I am the one who bought the high re-sale value nondescript Honda Civic… No one forced me.

We make good time to Jackson. No sooner have I checked into the hotel and unpacked the car, when I turn around and take C to the Mississippi Children’s Museum, where we spend THREE hours having a blast. This is hands down one of the best children’s museums I have been to and we have now been to them in Indianapolis, Boston, Santa Fe, and Houston. Though both of those in Houston and Boston made Forbes’ top 12 best children’s museums in the US, I think they may have made a mistake not including this one in Jackson. I am reinstated to the Mother of the Year award competition.

Day 8 is another of those days when I miss out on historical sites that tug at my brain strings. Both the Old Capitol Museum and the Eudora Welty home call out to me. Though there is no way C will remain patient through a by-guided-tour-only visit to Welty’s home, the Old Capitol Museum might be a possibility. Except it is a Monday and both places are closed so the decision is made. I briefly flirt with the idea of making an early morning dash to the Old Capitol on Tuesday before returning to en-cage the cats and hit the road, but realize this is another of my delirious moments and let it go. Instead I take my daughter to the Natural Science Museum, where we still enjoy an hour and a half of fun, and then we finally have some pool time at the hotel and I wisely wash a load of laundry.

Day 9 began with the knowledge that Cat One and Cat Two had each chosen a separate mattress base to hide in. Yet the evening before, as I snuggled in bed with my daughter, I felt incredibly blessed to have this time to spend with her. It’s like one extended sleepover. So I pick up those mattress bases and shake out those kitties with the best attitude I can muster. I choose to see it as my morning workout. Also, although the drive was longer, I did rather enjoy it. I was thinking wow, our highway system really is extraordinary.

I drive to Albertville, Alabama. I wanted to stop at Gadsden, Alabama to visit the Noccalula Falls Park, which I had found on a list of top ten places to visit in Alabama. Unfortunately, there were no hotels in Gadsden available (that accept pets) so Albertville was the closest I could get. Though tired when I arrived at the hotel at 3:00, I mustered the energy after unpacking the car and getting the cats settled to get C and I back in the car and drive back to Noccalula. I was glad I did. The falls and the park are quite nice and my daughter had a great time on the little train and at the petting zoo.

Day 10. Oh man, here I am driving again. This time from Albertville to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. This time the four plus hour drive feels a little harder – easier enough to diagnose since I had not had a day of rest. I really notice the greenery surrounding the highways. It has been green for days, but it particularly strikes me today. After living in the desert for two years, though I found it beautiful, I also often felt starved for color, especially green. It is otherwise an unremarkable drive until I hit sudden and grindingly slow traffic just miles from our destination. We have arrived at one of the most popular summer destinations in the East, what seems like a cross between Ocean City (without the beach or boardwalk) and Las Vegas (without the strip clogged with pedestrians carrying gallon sized alcoholic beverages). I am informed by friends on Facebook I have reached a hub in the “Redneck Riviera.”

I am a HUGE fan of aquariums and have probably visited 50 or so all over the world. I had thought I would visit the following day, but I found out Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is open until 9 or 10 pm during the summer. So, although tired, I do rally after a rest at the hotel and take my daughter over to Gatlinburg to see the fish. She is thrilled; yelling “Fish! Fish!” in the car.

Day 11. We head to Ober Gaitlinburg, the mountain-top playground accessibly by a large tramway or a curvy road. The day is all about C. I buy tickets for unlimited rides on the Carousel and other kiddy rides, which she takes very, very seriously. Seventeen times total on the rides as well as at least half an hour on the playground! I am so exhausted when we get back that I take a nap as well.

And then I received a rather extraordinary message from C’s paternal grandmother. She tells me that her and her husband happen to be in Sevierville, just down the road, for a wedding this weekend. I immediately message her back and ask if they have had dinner and want to get together. This is so amazing. I kept my route home close hold because I knew it could change – and it did. I also had no idea her paternal grandparents would be in this area. We only met them in person once, last summer. They let me know they are up for dinner and text me the restaurant, which also coincidentally happens to be one right behind our hotel! It was a really nice dinner and my heart felt so full seeing C and her grandparents interact with one another.

Day 12. The plan for this day was “Mommy’s Day” since the day before was all about C. I wanted to visit the Old Mill and also take an auto tour of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A friend had recommended the Cades Cove loop drive. It sounded lovely. Yet by afternoon everything from all the days of driving and sightseeing caught up with me. C fell asleep in the car as we drove to the Great Smoky Mountains visitor center on the road to Cades Cove. The parking lot at the Visitor’s Center was swarmed. As I parked the car in the extension of the extension lot I just could not muster the energy to get out of the car, rouse C from her seat and carry her leaden 28 pounds in my arms to get information. Though I wanted very much to see the park, I wanted a nap far, far more. The nap won.

I reminded myself yet again this is a drive. This is a trip to get us, the cats, and a bunch of stuff from Point A to Point B with some rest time and maybe, just maybe, a chance to see and do some things other than driving along the way. I had more than succeeded on this score. We were able to see the Old Mill and C’s grandparents again that evening for about an hour.

Day 13. Eight hours in the car to finally arrive in Winchester, Virginia to stay with my aunt and uncle for a few days. Finally, staying in a home and not a hotel. Though we still have 50 more miles to arrive at our actual home leave destination but I consider the drive done.

Total Drive: Six States. Eight Stops. 2,221 Miles. $246.67 in gas. One audio book finished. One Kindle book started. No one threw up in the car. Phase One of Home Leave 2014 completed. Success!

Me, Two Cats, and a Toddler (Home Leave 2014, Phase One)

I think I might be crazy. In the last few months of my posting in Juarez, when I would envision myself getting on to I-10 East and just going, this was not quite how I fantasized it would be. In my imagination I did not have two mewing cats in the back seat, the car was not crammed full of my poorly organized stuff, and I was neither worrying my toddler was going to throw up nor singing “Old MacDonald” for the umpteenth time.

Home Leave, it’s an amazing and strange gift. Straight from the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM), home leave is a Congress-mandated leave “to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis.” Basically, it is an opportunity to be reacquainted with the country we serve. We earn 15 days of Home Leave per year and one has to serve at least 18 months overseas in order to use it. The minimum amount of Home Leave is 20 days, the maximum 45, and that does not include weekends. There are other regulations associated with it, but that is the gist of it. And yes, we are still receiving our paycheck while on Home Leave. Pretty sweet, huh? All you have to do is sign up for worldwide availability (the willingness to be posted to any country in the world we have a mission) and move every 2-3 years.

I do admit it is one of the perks of the Foreign Service. Yet many of us do not actually have homes in the U.S. and for those that do, most have renters they cannot just kick out during that 1-2 month period. Me, I own no property anywhere and I have been saving up for my Home Leave for over a year. I will be traveling for almost nine weeks, which includes the six travel days I am granted for driving back from Juarez to my official Home Leave location (my sister’s home just outside of Washington, DC), and my 40 days of Home Leave. For some reason that escapes me at this time, I decided to travel the whole nine weeks rather than renting a place in one or two locations. Like my driving fantasy, this too seemed a great idea at the time I was plotting it out.

Not even to the border on the first afternoon of driving and the cats are alternating meowing with just enough pause for me to get a meow in as well. Cat one: meow. Cat two: meow. Me: meow. Repeat. This amuses me for about 30 minutes or so. After 30 minutes driving east one is still technically in El Paso, though the city and all signs of civilization (except the road and other vehicles) are gone. I am not going to deny that the desert of West Texas does have a certain kind of beauty. Yet, I still find watching that same landscape for three hours is exhausting. Instead of exhilaration upon arriving at the hotel in Fort Stockton, I just dragged myself, the two cats in their cages, my daughter, my suitcase, my daughter’s suitcase, my daughter’s four Stuffies (the elephant, the “horse” – it’s really a pink camel, the cat, and the chihuahua), the three bags of toiletries, and my handbag into the hotel. Whew.

The following morning the cats are already wise to the operation and Cat Two hides herself inside the base of the bed. Yeah. The base is hollow and some previous pet had already made a nice hole to get through the mattress base into the area between that and the floor base. Just great. I have to call the front desk and tell them so they can send someone to assist. It feels like déjà vu. Two years ago we stayed in a La Quinta in Odessa, Texas and my cat found a vent cover left off a hole in the wall. That time I had to call the front desk and the return of the cat involved a buzz saw and the bathtub in the adjacent room. This time though my daughter finds it incredible amusing to watch myself and another grown up chase my poor, terrified cat around the hotel room. Such giggles!

Thankfully Cat Two is caught and I am able to load up the car for the next drive from Fort Stockton to Seguin. Once we arrive in Seguin I am the one most ecstatic to get out of the car. To think I had initially planned on a straight shot all the way to Houston, another 2 ½ to 3 hours away. Again, I must have been delirious when I was planning this!

OK. I will not say this is awful. I love that I have this time to spend with my daughter. My aunt tells me that I am still tired because I left Juarez tired. True. But this is not the most relaxing way to spend one’s home leave…Recall it is July and we are driving across Texas and the South. I also have two cats in the car and I have been apprehensive about stopping somewhere to eat for too long to come back and find some crazed pet savior smashing in my windows. So, no, we are not stopping whenever the desire strikes, when I see a sign for a historic marker or picnic area or scenic route. I just drive on and cross my fingers this two week drive does not translate into a ten pound weight gain or a loss of my sanity.

Week one is basically done. Juarez to Fort Stockton. 1 night stop. Fort Stockton to Seguin. 1 night stop. Seguin to Houston. Two nights stop (and I took my daughter to both the Houston Zoo and the Children’s Museum. Gained mom points). Houston to Natchitoches, Louisiana. Two nights stop (Great July 4th celebration here and then I dragged my daughter to historic sites. Lost mom points.) Tomorrow we head to Jackson, Mississippi. This is a change in plans. Originally I was headed to the Alabama gulf coast beaches but the thought of the long drive, back south, is too much for me. I need to be pointed toward home.

Farewell Juarez

Wow. I can hardly believe this, but I have departed Juarez. Let me write that again. I have departed Juarez. Yeah. This afternoon I drove across the Zaragoza Bridge into El Paso for probably the last time (always leaving room for that future possibility). For the last time, Customs and Border Patrol invited me into secondary. Yeah, I don’t know why either. I have been “invited” into secondary only three times in my two years in Juarez, but twice have been in the last two weeks. Thanks for the memories, CBP.

Thursday afternoon was my Despedida or farewell party. And suddenly this departure thing got REAL. Oh my goodness…I am leaving, actually leaving. I woke up Friday morning around 5:30 a.m. worrying whether all the things I have left in my house will actually fit in my car. Yet my daughter and I spent one final staycation in El Paso this past weekend. I could not stand the thought of spending the whole weekend in my nearly empty home. So instead I took my daughter to a children’s museum in El Paso and then we attended the El Paso Chihuahua’s baseball game. On Sunday morning we hit a few final places on my El Paso bucket list, including a trip up the Wyler Aerial Tramway for an “after” photo (we first visited in September 2012).

Then Sunday afternoon we returned and I had a panic attack. How was I going to get all this stuff in my car?? My daughter and my cats wanted to help, which means they made it absolutely impossible for me to pack up the car Sunday. At 11 pm I gave in.
Yet, obviously I got that car packed (though my nanny happily walked off with a LOT of stuff that just want not going to fit) and I departed. Here I am writing this from Fort Stockton, Texas, which does not have very much to show for itself, yet it is not Juarez.
Still, I spent two years in Juarez and I should say goodbye to it properly.

What I will not miss:
The lack of water pressure. In two years in Juarez I have not ever had an awesome shower. The miserable stream of water that suffices for my shower at full blast is laughable. Except I do not laugh. Every single time I went on vacation I looked forward to the shower. I wish I were kidding.

Pigeons. I have no idea why Ciudad Juarez, this dusty city in the Chihuahuan desert attracts so many pigeons, but it does. Several houses in the neighborhood have fake owls and eagles set atop their roofs to dissuade pigeons from landing. It does nothing whatsoever, other than providing the pigeons some fake roof companions. I disliked waking in the morning and hearing the cooing and clawing of little pigeon talons on my roof. It reminded me of a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Speed bumps. Though I have no exact data, I am fairly certain that at any given time 85 to 115% of Juarez roads are under construction. Besides constructing and reconstructing terrible roads, the Juarez government enjoys building speed bumps. Giant two feet wide speed bumps. One-foot-high, transmission-killing speed bumps. Stealth speed bumps with no discernible notice to alert the unsuspecting driver they are there. These are their specialties. Arriving two years ago, I was not in the city ten minutes before I heard a sickening scrape along the bottom of my car. I think my favorite is the one on the main road from the Zaragoza-Ysleta border crossing: smack across a three lane road with a 60 kph (37 mph) speed limit and no notice that it is coming. I might really miss that one.

Sand storms. Strong winds are always fun, right? So strong winds with gritty sand in them = extra fun! Especially, when this windy period seems to last for months on end…

Morning Mariachi. It happened only a few times in my neighborhood – the mariachi wake-up call – but it is an experience one cannot easily forget. Nothing like having your sleep interrupted by loud yip yip yip vocals accompanied by high-energy guitar and trumpet playing, and not for just a few minutes, but for two hours, starting around 2 or 3 a.m. I actually enjoy the sound of Mariachi or Norteño music. Just not in the middle of the night.

Border Crossings. When I first arrived in Juarez my mother joined us for the first three weeks to help with my daughter as we settled in and I looked for child care. While we waited for mine and my daughter’s SENTRI passes (it’s a long acronym that basically means rapid entry for trusted travelers) we traveled in the regular lane. The first weekend we waited in line approximately 30 minutes to enter the U.S.; the second, over an hour. Yet later, although I had SENTRI, the crossing became more and more cumbersome to do. It cannot say it was harder, only it felt harder. I know, I know. I have colleagues who are in some pretty difficult places far from home who might give their right arm or their first born to be able to travel to the U.S. for just a few hours of shopping. But all things are relative, right? I know in many ways I was spoiled as a Foreign Service officer posted to Juarez. Yet, over time, especially as the probability of being stopped, subjected to unfortunate questioning by the CBP or a car inspection by Mexican immigration authorities, increased, I simply found it less desirable to cross.

What I will miss:
Doctor’s hours. This might seem an odd thing to miss. Yet, when my daughter or I needed to see a dentist or a doctor and I did not want to cross the border, we went to them in Juarez. They were so convenient. The dentist’s office, located a five minute walk from the Consulate and ten minutes walk from my house, is open 10 to 2 and again 4 to 8. Yes, after work! She also had Saturday hours. Yeah. Think on that for a little while. The pediatrician, located in the same building as the dentist, is open 4 to 8 in the afternoons by appointment. Also, if I did not feel like getting an appointment, my daughter and I could head over to the drugstore, just a five minute drive from home, where a doctor sits for several hours for consultations for 150 pesos (about $11.50).

Parking spaces. Especially at the S-mart supermarket near my home. They were HUGE. I mean, you could easily fit 1 ½ cars or a car and a motorcycle or a tank in them. No precision parking skills needed, such as at the stingy spaces in many a U.S. parking lot. No worries about trying to extricate my daughter from the back seat.

Beauty. Many people might not think of Ciudad Juarez as beautiful. One of Mexico’s largest cities, it is flat, dusty, spread out. It is monochromatic. The few spots of green are hard-earned with lots of precious water. Otherwise even the green gets covered in a coating of tan colored sand. Yet, there is an incredible beauty to the Chihuahuan desert. The contrast and detail of the Juarez Mountains set between the crisp azure sky and blazing tan desert is stark and stunning and could be seen from just outside my neighborhood. I also never grew tired of the incredible sunsets. I have been all over the world and I am not sure any place can really rival the sunsets over Chihuahua.

El Paso and the Southwest. I know that some of my colleagues were less than impressed with El Paso, Texas, our neighbor to the north, though while it is no New York or Chicago or Washington, DC, it is a pleasant city. My daughter and I visited the Museum of History, the El Paso Museum of Art, the Exploreum (Children’s Museum), the Railroad and Transportation Museum, the National Border Patrol Museum, the Museum of Archaeology, the Magoffin Home State Historic Site, the Wyler Aerial Tramway, the Old Fort Bliss Replica Museum, the Mission Trail, historic Concordia Cemetery, the Zoo, and took a historic walking tour of downtown El Paso. El Paso also served as a gateway to the U.S. Southwest, a place that beforehand I had seen very little of. We traveled to Marfa, Alpine and Fort Davis, Texas. We also visited Mesilla, Roswell, Truth or Consequences, Albuquerque (for the famous hot air balloon festival), Santa Fe, Alamogordo, and Columbus, New Mexico. That last one the site of Pancho Villa’s 1916 incursion into the U.S. and the site of a small but high quality museum run by the National Park Service. I absolutely love history and this area is full of it.

I am sure that as time passes I will discover there is more that I miss about Juarez and our life there. It just has yet to sink in that I am not merely on vacation but rather will not be returning. This was my first posting with the Foreign Service. This is where my daughter grew from an infant to a toddler (she has spent more of her life in Mexico than in the United States – four times as long in fact). Juarez, the good and the not so good are part of me now. Farewell, Juarez.