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.