5 Pros and Cons on Being Posted to Ciudad Juarez

I enjoyed the exercise of writing up the pros and cons of living in Shanghai so much I thought I will go ahead and do one for my previous post Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

PROS
1. Proximity to the US: Goods & Services. It is a little odd to find oneself posted “abroad” or “overseas” and yet be able to drive to the US in as little as ten minutes, with no seas whatsoever to go over. In this aspect I found Ciudad Juarez actually to be a post that could spoil a US diplomat. I arrived in Juarez with a six month old baby and did not once need to consider what size diapers or how many containers of formula or any kind of configuration for a consumables shipment. I did no massive shopping splurge before the departure to squirrel away US toiletries or medicines or laundry detergents or any number of hard to find US goodies into my Household Effects (HHE) shipment. There was no need. I knew I could drive to the US every weekend if I wanted. Heck, I could drive over after work.

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You will pass this sign many, many, many times.

Worried about what car to buy when considering what kind of service or parts you may find in country X? Well, I just drove my car over to El Paso for gas and servicing most of the time. Need a doctor? I found a great pediatric office in El Paso for my daughter that even had evening and weekend hours! I  had several medical procedures done across the border. I could be back the same day,  taking only a half day of leave. And my cell phone service – I not only kept the same US phone and AT&T plan (though with a US-Mexico addition), but in certain corners of my Juarez home I had a signal!

2. Proximity to the US: Travel. Unfortunately, most of the State of Chihuahua is off limits due to insecurity, but a posting to Juarez presents the opportunity to explore the US Southwest.

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Catch a game at the Chihuahuas Southwest University Park

Texas. El Paso itself is actually a pretty nice city. Enjoy minor league baseball at the stadium of the El Paso Chihuahuas, spend a day at the zoo, hiking or biking or running or taking the cable car in the Franklin Mountains, see a movie at the canyon or dance in the plaza. Visit the mysterious lights and past movie celebrity of Marfa or the National Historic Site and a Star Party at McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis. Explore the beauty of west Texas national parks like Guadalupe Mountains or Big Bend.

New Mexico. Search for aliens in Roswell, soak in the mineral baths of the game-show named Truth or Consequences, discover the excellent Pancho Villa State Park and museum in almost forgotten Colombus, wander in artistic and historic Santa Fe, trek and sled across the otherworldly dunes of White Sands National Monument, and ooh and aah the colorful ascension at Albuquerque during the world’s largest hot air balloon festival. Or explore Carlsbad Caverns National Park, ski at Ruidoso or Cloudcroft, or if you are into the final frontier follow New Mexico’s Space Trail, among many, many pursuits.

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Dawn ascension at the Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival

Further Afield. Travel around the US is within easy reach. The El Paso airport, though small, has a fairly good network of flights plus a bargain $5 a day long term parking, from which you can walk to the terminal. There are few places where you will be posted in the Foreign Service where you can fly to visit family or friends in the US for the weekend, without needing to take any leave.

3. The People. Despite all the violence and heartache the people of the city have been through, the Juarences are warm and friendly. My neighbors were kind and helpful (except that guy on the corner with the two mean free-roaming Chihuahuas who had the early morning mariachi party – see CONS). My nanny, a tough independent minded grandmother, had a heart of gold. And the local staff at the Consulate is absolutely wonderful. There is a reason that not only do we all leave Juarez with local friends but that probably more officers than any other post in the world marry Juarences.

4. Climate. Hot and dry. If you like that then you are in for a treat. The morning temperature is usually 20 to 30 degrees cooler than the high around 3 pm. This may mean a cold 30 degree morning in January that could warm up to 50 or 60 in the afternoon! Of course in summer this may mean 70 in the morning and a blazing 100 by afternoon but the humidity is low. Neighboring El Paso, TX, is nicknamed “Sun City” for its 302 days of sunshine a year. Weather-wise, what goes for El Paso, goes for Juarez. And the dazzling blue sky of the Chihuahua desert is truly one of the highlights of a tour in Juarez. Those skies and the incredible sunsets they produced. Here in high-rise, low air quality Shanghai, I miss them deeply.

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Sunset over my Juarez neighborhood. One of the many, many beautiful sunsets Juarez gifted to me.

5. Dental/Medical Care. During a Mexican expat panel discussion in DC, an overriding theme emerged – Mexicans like to go back to Mexico for dental care. Why? They are well trained, often in the US, and they offer excellent work at excellent prices. I took advantage of this and had cleanings and several fillings replaced. My daughter had her first dental experience in Juarez. Besides the friendly and professional care we received, the dentist’s hours were a huge plus. She was open Mon-Fri from 10 am to 2 pm and again 4 pm to 8 pm, also Sat 10 to 2. How convenient! I also took my daughter to a pediatrician at the local hospital, within walking distance of both my home and the Consulate, open 4 pm to 8 pm in the evenings with appointment. Just feeling a bit under the weather? Head to a nearby pharmacy where doctors have consultation hours and charge less than US$20. Plus our Consulate also had a really fantastic nurse. We were not sick often in Juarez, but I was glad we had so many great options when we were.

CONS
1. Violence. Earning the epithet “Murder Capital of the World” just a few years ago, Juarez is a danger pay post and for good reason. Although the situation has been improving, and this improvement has been featured in articles in the New York and LA Times and even an International Crisis Group report, murders, disappearances, extortion, carjackings and other violent crimes are still common in the city and throughout the state of Chihuahua. The murder rate dropped from over 2,000 in 2011 to almost 600 in 2013, which is still higher than the murder rate of any US city.

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A stark reminder. At the memorial recognizing the hundreds of Juarez feminicides.

Although I never felt personally unsafe or concerned about the safety of my daughter, there were times when the atmosphere of violence closed in. Over the course of the two years there were three armed events at the nice mall across the street from the Consulate (and within walking distance of my house) including the shooting of a fitness center receptionist. A policeman was shot two blocks from my house, on my running route. A quadruple homicide occurred in a garage that I had run by a few times, another happened in a popular Italian restaurant frequented by Consulate workers. I heard gunshots more than once. Also, sadly, one of our own local staff members was shot and killed in front of his family.

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I did not think I would have need for this service in the desert, but yes, mosquitoes are also a problem.

2. Wildlife. The first time I found a scorpion in the house some five weeks after our arrival I was a bit dumbfounded. I found it on the second floor of the house and I spent a long time wondering how it had found its way there. Had it crawled along the wall? Through some ducts? Up the stairs? The second time I noticed the cats playing with something on top of my baby’s play mat. The nanny came over, looked at it, and pronounced alacran in the same way one might say, “Oh look, it’s a puppy!” She declared it dead. But as I went to scoop it up in a cup, it scampered away. The nanny shrugged, “At least it is not a tarantula.”

Another day playing outside with my daughter a friendly, English-speaking neighbor came over to tell me, “You should be careful around those rocks, because, um, I cannot remember the word in English, because, because…” She conferred with a friend in Spanish. “Oh, yes, the black widow spiders, yes, they like to hide in there.”

3. Dust. It is everywhere. Juarez and its sprawling 1.5 million population is an island in the Chihuahuan desert, the largest desert in North America. Beyond the city limits there are miles and miles and miles of sand. During wind storms, often in the early part of the year, the wind lifts all that sand and blows it everywhere. Imagine that sand on your clothes, on your car, in your garage, your house, your lungs…

4. Cost. This might come as a bit of a surprise, but you are so close to the border many things cost the same as in the US. This will include your child care. I did not pay as much as I would in DC, but I paid almost as much in Juarez as I do in Shanghai. Some things actually cost less in the US, like baby/child supplies and toys, as evidenced by the hundreds, if not thousands, of Juarences who cross the border daily for shopping. For other things be prepared to shell out money double time. Driving to the US (except on the Free bridge) will cost a toll of $2.50 and $3.00 on the way back. You will need both US and Mexican car insurance. You will also need to apply for the SENTRI card to access the express lane for the US and of course the Mexican equivalent on the other side. You may need two phone plans or at least a special US-Mexico plan.

5. Middle of the night Mariachi/Norteño band parties. Like ones that start at 2 am, early on a Wednesday morning, without warning, at your neighbor’s house, and continues until 3 or 4 or…

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5 Pros and Cons on Being Posted to Shanghai

Several other Foreign Service bloggers are putting forth posts on the five pros and cons of their city/country. This might be a post better written with more time under my belt, but what the heck, here it is:

PROS
1. Things to do. There is no shortage of things to do in your spare time in Shanghai. Are you into museums? Shanghai reportedly has over 70 museums with something for everybody. These include large world-class spaces such as the China Art Museum, the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum, the Shanghai Museum, and the newly reopened, refurbished Shanghai Natural History Museum. Yet you can also find lesser known museums such as the Shanghai Post Museum, the Shanghai Museum of Glass, the Shanghai Museum of Public Security, and the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, which is so much cooler and fascinating than its title leads one to believe. There are also the little one or two room gems such as the Propaganda Poster Museum or the Shanghai Chopsticks Museum.

Are you interested in history? Although Shanghai cannot compete with the 600+ year history of Beijing, its history is nonetheless fascinating. Stroll through tree lined streets of the former International Settlement or French Concession area to see beautiful homes from the 1920s and 1930s during Shanghai’s celebrated and turbulent coming of age. Or stroll along the iconic Bund on a sunny day and contemplate the historic waterfront, then turn to look across the Huangpu River at the modern high rises of Pudong.

Do you like hills and nature? You might not believe it but Shanghai’s highest peak, Sheshan Hill, is surrounded by Sheshan National Forest Park and the 10 acre Chenshan Botanical Garden, one of the largest in the world, is nearby. You can also find restored Shikumen, a type of residential neighborhood popularized in Shanghai in the early 20th century, with winding narrow lanes filled with boutique stores and restaurants. The most famous are Xintiandi and TianziFang. Within Shanghai limits you can visit several ancient water towns, think Venice with a Chinese flair. There is a zoo and an aquarium and a wild animal park. If you like amusement parks Shanghai has several with the Shanghai Disneyland set to open in early 2016.

Of course there are also restaurants and bars galore serving all manner of cuisines and atmosphere. For kids there are indoor play areas, parks, and summer camps. If you like to watch sports you might be interested in Shanghai’s Formula One or the Rolex Masters. If you like to participate there is anything from tai chi in the park to the international marathon. There are even several vertical marathons, given Shanghai also boasts some of the highest buildings in the world. There are world-class stages where you may to see such performances as Chinese Opera or Katy Perry.

It is quite obvious I could go on and on and on. Yet I do not have the space and unfortunately even if you stayed here more than one tour, you would be hard pressed to see and do it all.

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Don’t hate me because my apartment is beautiful.

2. Housing. You will not be disappointed with your home in Shanghai. A common complaint in the Foreign Service is the Drexel Heritage furniture that you find wherever you go, whether posted to Jakarta or Juarez or Tbilisi or Timbuktu, but here in Shanghai you get a break from Drexel (or DrexHell as some lovingly call it) as all the housing is furnished in house. All are serviced apartments or villas with at least twice weekly housecleaning service. The amenities and conveniences in each of the housing options are numerous. Whatever your day brings you, your home in Shanghai is nice to return to.

3. Travel. Even with the incredible number of things to do in Shanghai you do occasionally need to get out of town. No problem. Shanghai has four main rail stations that will take you to famous nearby destinations such as Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Nanjing. The high speed rail will whisk you to Beijing in only five hours. Or head to one of Shanghai’s two international airports and head off to Chengdu to see pandas or Hainan Island for beaches or any number of incredible Chinese destinations. Or if you are tired of China, flights out of Pudong head to over 70 international destinations, with frequent flights to Southeast Asia.

4. Energy. There is a spirit and energy in Shanghai that is infectious. Although entrepreneurship is not easy in China, and sometimes the local government runs afoul of Beijing, people in Shanghai are making things happen. There is a buzz and hum to the streets. Seeing some of the tallest buildings in the world rise up to the sky and beautiful feats of architecture and innovation in the form of incredible new museums is astounding. When I first visited Shanghai in 2002 there were three metro lines with a total of 35 stations, today there fourteen lines with a total of 337 stations. People in Shanghai are literally moving and shaking! There are most certainly many wealthy people in the city (see the cons) and a certain amount of capital is required to make projects move, but it is the everyday people, both foreign and local, that are shaping the future of this city and beyond. It makes you want to do more yourself!

5. Work. There are plenty of pundits which define the U.S. – China bilateral relationship as one of the most important in the world. Of course all diplomatic work matters, but diplomatic work done in China is most definitely on the radar in Washington and Beijing. In whichever city you work, in whatever section you work, your contribution to the team effort is important. As part of the massive U.S. Consular effort in China, know that each tourist you approve to visit the U.S. spends an average of $5,400 during their trip. Every sixteen Chinese tourists to the U.S. supports one U.S. job. Last year that meant 1.8 million Chinese tourists spent over 2.1 billion dollars in the U.S.  That number is expected to grow in 2015.

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Pollution mask or no pollution mask? That is the question.

CONS
1. Poor Air Quality. It is very unfortunate with all the wonderful things that Shanghai has to offer that the pollution levels are at times too bad to spend much time outdoors. You will quickly bookmark the Consulate’s Air Quality Monitor link and even if a quick look out your window tells you the air is bad, you still check the AQM to find out just how bad.

2. Internet Access. You have probably heard by now that the Chinese government tightly controls access to the Internet and/or rather certain sites on the Internet. Over 2,700 sites actually. All you want to do is read the news on BBC, or get on to Facebook to post your latest photos from another day out in fabulous Shanghai, or send an email from your Gmail account, or watch a video on YouTube, or post to your WordPress blog, but every single one of these sites is inaccessible through the domestic Internet. In order to access such sites one must employ a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and it is a constant (and frustrating) cat and mouse game.

3. Costs. In 2014 Forbes ranked Shanghai the 10th most expensive city in the world. I talked about the high prices of many items in my post Lap of Luxury. There is a good reason that Foreign Service officers receive a 50% Cost of Living Adjustment here. Still I wonder who buys all of these luxury goods? Who can afford 200 RMB (US$32) for half a pound of cherries? The millionaires of course! Shanghai also ranks in the top ten cities with the most number of millionaires, over 166,000. There are also over 1000 multimillionaires and approximately 23 billionaires. If you have preschool aged children and want to send them to an international preschool (State Department does NOT cover this) get ready to fork out the dough.  The average cost is US$24,000 a year. For preschool!

4. Crowded/Lack of Privacy. There are over 14 million people living in Shanghai so it is a pretty good assumption you will never, ever be alone. If you make the mistake of heading to IKEA or the Science and Technology museum on a rainy Saturday (guilty on both counts) be prepared for the deafening crowds. If you attempt to stop to look at a display it is very likely you will be carried away with the flow. I have had bags ripped from my hands on the subway as people jostled to get on and off the train. Once I even nearly lost hold of my three year old in a similar crowd and it was a terrifying moment. And speaking of adorable blonde three year old cherubs; if you happen to have one or two, cameras will constantly be pointed at your child. A quick stop to check a map and I can look up to find we are surrounded by cell phone camera wielding Chinese. If you look anything other than Chinese, then when out and about, it can feel a bit like living in a fishbowl.

5. Work. You will be busy. Very, very busy. As awesome as it is to be part of something as significant as the U.S.-China bilateral relationship, it is also important to have some downtime to enjoy some of Shanghai’s numerous diversions. There are many days when I simply do not have the energy to leave the apartment again once home. (good thing for #2 in the Pros)

EDIT: Honorable Mention PRO: I have already received a few messages letting me know I have been remiss in not mentioning two very fabulous aspects of any Shanghai/China tour.  One would be massages.  I hear ya.  There is a massage place on just about every other block and if you can get off the main drag they are more than reasonably priced.  Another is shopping.  This country is the manufacturer of the world after all.  Yet I am not talking about clothes and knock off electronics.  Of course you can buy lovely chopstick sets, hand painted perfume bottles, and have your name carved into a Chinese chop.  There are also furniture shops and pearl markets.  So when the cons start to get you down have a massage to melt the stress away or indulge in a little retail therapy.

Three Months in Shanghai: The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Disgusting

Three months. Wow. I can hardly believe it. Here we are now one-eighth of the way through my two year tour. All of my Household Effects (HHE) have been delivered. The apartment is set up. C is in swim lessons. The nanny is working out great. I got the visa interviewing thing down.

When I started to think about this post, I wanted to write about all the great things C and I have seen and done since our arrival. Shanghai is a city chock full of things to do, places to visit, activities to experience.

Then it happened, that magical time in the cultural adaptation cycle when the honeymoon is over and you start to kinda, sorta, really, really, become bothered by little things. Sometimes Every. Little. Thing.  Culture Shock.

Culture shock graph

Yeah, there I am, right there in that trough.

Early this week I was walking to work the “short cut” way. It is not really a short cut in the true sense of the word. It is basically the same number of blocks, just less traffic on the “back way” allows for opportunities to jaywalk and thus arrive at one’s destination faster.

Anyway, I am walking along that road and get to this section of sidewalk that is just so disgustingly dirty that sometimes when I walk on it I slide. This section of sidewalk is only for half a block. It is caked with filth and for whatever reason a bulldozer is parked on one part of it. That morning I saw another person approaching me on the road rather than the grimy segment, and I too decided I would prefer the street.Of course I do not believe the street any cleaner however I do not expect a street to be clean and the sidewalk is an affront to my sense of order.

I thought to myself: I have been here for three whole months and no one has even attempted to clean this sidewalk. It is in a nice section of town and there it sits all mucky. Someone should power wash this sidewalk! I generally dislike power washing sidewalks because it seems like such a waste of water, but this here sludgy, slimy sidewalk screams “power wash me!” And I will probably walk this way on my last day to work in two years and it will STILL be sickening slick and revolting. It will never, ever, ever be cleaned.

I hate that sidewalk.

And the “work in progress” site that is directly in front of the Cartier store that has been in progress for three whole months without any visible work being done EVER.

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Art installation or social experiment maybe, but certainly not a work in progress.

And then while buying a salad in the swank Isetan department store the cashier, before giving me my change, turned back from the register, cleared her throat in the classic Chinese style, and hocked a loogie into the trashcan in front of me. Nice one lady. That sound may haunt me for weeks.

And there is the pollution. It makes me crazy that my top used bookmark for Shanghai is the Consulate’s Air Quality Monitor. Is it a face mask worthy day? Or a just don’t bother going outside at all kind of day?

First bad smog day Feb 4 2015

Hey, wanna play outside? Hang on, let me just get my air pollution mask with exhale valve.

And those people who ride the elevator in in our work building. Those ones, who even when they see you coming or even that you are right behind them, start pushing the door close button as soon as they can; I got hit with the doors pretty hard on Monday. Thanks a million lady. I hope one day you need a visa and you happen to get in my line… (I know, I know, undiplomatic thoughts, bad)

And as I predicted in my post Lap of Luxury, I have grown irritated running the luxury brand gauntlet to and from work. Or basically whenever I leave my apartment. After three months of passing a window display of a sweet pair of Ferragamo shoes on my daily commute, I finally went in to ask the price. Big mistake.

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See that lovely pale blue shoe on the left? Only 7,200 RMB or $1150. I hope it comes with a second one for free.

So, this is actually a really, really, really good time to remind myself of the many good things we have already experienced

I have a long list of things I want to see and do in Shanghai and I have most certainly not been remiss is getting out and about. In the category of temples we have visited touristy Jing’An Temple and the quiet, reserved Temple of the Jade Buddha.

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Temple of the Jade Buddha

We went to the top of the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower and even sauntered out on the glass bottom walkway. Especially for C we visited the Shanghai Aquarium and M&Ms World.

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C and her stuffed cat contemplate Shanghai from the top of the Oriental Pearl Tower.

I have also dragged her to the Shanghai City Museum, the Shanghai Municipal History Museum, the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum, the Shanghai Postal Museum, and the Propaganda Poster Museum. To C’s credit she usually promptly drops off to sleep to give me time to enjoy the exhibits.

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The incredible scale model of the city at the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum.

I have been through the culture shock rigmarole quite a few times and I know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. That sidewalk might bother me for awhile (especially if it is never, ever cleaned and/or that bulldozer never, ever moved) but the bright side is we have sidewalks, right? Not every place does. Just trying to keep things in perspective.