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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…