Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Home Leave

Somehow when I wasn’t looking the last 2 years flew by. Tomorrow is my last day in Consulate Juarez. This time tomorrow we will officially be on home leave. I’m going to miss my amazing co-workers and the friends that I’ve made in the last 2 years, but one of the best parts about the Foreign Service is that it is a small Foreign Service. I know I’ll see most of them again in the next few years. In fact, I’ll see a number of my co-workers back at FSI in a few months. I’m looking forward to being back in DC and excited about learning French and Arabic (I get a few months of French and then 8 months of Arabic) but first there is home leave!

Before I met Shaun I started planning home leave. For some reason I’ve always wanted to get to Monument Valley. And I figured if I was going there I should go to the Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde. Then when I met Shaun and told him about my plans for home leave,  he went from saying “cool, that sounds like a neat trip” to “oh and we should stop here and here and here….” That was how I first had an inkling that he was thinking about coming with me. After nearly 2 years of talking about the Epic road trip it has grown to cover a pretty good swath of the US. We’ve added a bunch of Archaeological sites to our itinerary and ended up with quite the trip. If I’m not totally brain dead from all the driving I’ll try to chronicle a bit of it. It will be a nice tour of the US before we depart for Morocco next year.
View Home Leave in a larger map

 

But first one last day in Juarez and one last trip across the border.

How to draft yourself a Scuba buddy

I felt like since I got a beautiful ring, Shaun deserved some sort of engagement gift. What I settled on may turn out to be a bit of a “from: me, to: me”, kind of gift. I went with scuba certification for Shaun. I got certified in El Paso back when I first arrived at post and have been diving in Puerto Vallarta and Cancun since then. Both were amazing but I didn’t have a dive buddy which has been kind of lonely. I’ve meet some interesting people that way, since you always get paired up someone on the boat but I thought it would be more fun to have someone to dive with. The solution seemed totally obvious to me, I’d just draft my asthmatic fiance! Fortunately he is a very mild asthmatic. So, after doctors clearances and getting him outfitted with equipment and everything else he is now half way to being certified. When I did it we had our pool sessions split over two weeks. They decided to cram all 5 pool dives into one insanely long day. Shaun pretty much rolled in the door and fell asleep. On the bright side he seems to be enjoying it or at least is being a good sport about it. I’ll take it as a good sign that he’s added a few Scuba stops on home leave trip. We’re now going to be detouring to dive at some wreck sites. The grand plan is to take advantage of the fact that Spain is a short cheap flight from Morocco and the Canary Islands are a short cheap flight from Spain. Grand Canary here we come!

Highlights from January-February

So I did the disappearing act again by accident. The last few months have been a bit busier and a bit crazier than I expected for a variety of reasons. A few highlights or low-lights from the last few months would be:

Those are all butterflies on that tree!

-On the highlights side was road-tripping through Mexico State with my best friend who came from South Korea to visit me, ruins, and the Monarch Butterfly Migration. That trip definitely deserves its own post but here is a sampling from the trip!

-Skiing in Albuquerque with some of my co-workers over a long weekend in February. There is nothing quite as odd as sitting on a chairlift staring out at dessert just beyond.

-Staring a delicious cupcake war with one of my co-workers. Really this is an evil plot to get him to bake more, if I have to make a few cupcakes in the process it is a sacrifice I am willing to make.

-Finding out where a number of my colleagues are going to be going on their next tour, western Europe is going to be filled with former Juarezidents. Hard to believe in a few short months, I’ll be bidding again.

On the down side was…

-Freezing temperatures in Juarez that caused most of us to lose heat, power, and water for at least a few hours and for some of us a few days. I spent most of that week without water. I particularly enjoyed the ironic messages from friends on the east coast where the temperatures were in the teens, telling me how lucky I was to be in Mexico where it was warm. Little did they realize at one point it was 2 degrees in Juarez… Amusingly at the end of the week I flew up to Michigan where it was actually warmer than in Mexico/Texas. Thank you mother nature. Unfortunately my water pipes still aren’t working quite right since the deep freeze.

So that and a lot of work is what has been keeping me busy. In the next few weeks I’m plotting another road trip with a friend of mine at the consulate in Merida and a trip out to Carlsbad Caverns with some friends. Hopefully I’ll be a bit better about updating this.

Cancun and Braving Juarez

Since I seem to have caught the plague that has been circulating around the consulate and I’m home sick at the moment, it seems like as good a time as any to get caught up on the blogging. It’s hard to believe I’ve been back from Cancun for a month and haven’t actually gone anywhere since! A whole month in Juarez/El Paso, this is kind of a new record for me.  Last weekend was spent getting out of my 2 square miles of Juarez. A small intrepid group of us trekked down to the main market in Juarez. We had been there before on a CLO tour, but since it is the holiday season the market seems to have expanded and taken over the streets outside the normal market building. I’ve also never been so happy to see a parqueo before, because without a parqueo we seriously might have circled the streets for hours. Bless the parqueos (words I never thought I’d utter)! I’ve been to lots of markets in Mexico by now. Most of them sell things like handicrafts and sculptures, or artisan works. Not the Juarez market. Pretty much what you find there is love potions, vodoo dolls, and herbal medicines. Ah, gotta love Juarez, it has a character all its own.

Cancun was beautiful though. It doesn’t quite feel like Mexico since I think I heard more English spoken there than I do in El

Chichen Itza

Paso, but the beaches are gorgeous. The highlight of the trip was heading to Chichen Itza to check out the ruins. I’d never been to a ruin when this year started, but in the last 9 months I’ve been to Tikal, Teotihuacan, Monte Alban, and Chichen Itza. Not bad, now if I can just get out to visit my friend in Peru and check out Machu Picchu, I’ll be set. The main temple at Chichen Izta, is pretty amazing. If you stand in the right spot and clap it sounds like a bird call echoing out of the building. Also on the solstice the sunlight forms a serpent on the side of the building, tragically we were not there at the solstice. I was also able to meet up with my friend from the Merida consulate, and spend a night out experiencing Cancun nightlife, which is insane. I thought Oaxaca was wild at Day of the Dead time, Cancun is just crazy all the time.

Since then I’ve spent most of my weekends around El Paso battling border traffic. I’ve never seen anything as insane as the shops and the bridge crossing in El Paso around Christmas time. I’d also thought until recently that the scariest thing I’d seen in El Paso/Juarez was the cow I saw tied in the back of a chevy a few months back, until I started seeing all these cars with reindeer antlers and Rudolph noses tied on them. It is a strange, strange world down here sometimes.

Day of the Dead

Decor around Oaxaca is heavy on the Skeleton theme.

Decor around Oaxaca is heavy on the Skeleton theme.

High on my list of things to do while in Mexico has been to visit Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead. I recruited my sister to come down for this one, since we are both bona fide foodies and Oaxaca is the land of the tasty grasshoppers and moles. After a few mishaps with changing flights we arrived in Oaxaca to find our hotel is literally right in the heart of Oaxaca. We are right on the Zocalo, which is great… until about 1 am when you really want to go to sleep and the party is still raging. And here the party does rage! It is like being in the middle of mardi gras. I’ve reached the point where I am so high on mole and sleep dep that I’ve embraced it and have just been enjoying the front row seat to the endless concerts and parades that are going on right outside our balcony. I will be glad I think when we get back to Juarez for the peace and quiet (words that were probably never before uttered about Juarez I am sure).

Oaxaca, though is absolutely amazing, we’ve visited a bunch of the markets, unleashed my Spanish upon the world, trekked all through the historic area, and attended a cooking class. In the cooking class we

Learning how to make salsa for the tamales.

learned to cook a bunch of different types of tamales including a red mole tamale. Tragically the one thing we have not yet found is the grasshoppers, they appear to be out of season. The plethora of delicious moles does make up for that somewhat. The decorations around town are amazing, we haven’t made it out to the cemeteries yet but almost every restaurant, hotel, or shop has an alter up in honor of their deceased relatives. I’m rather fond of this tradition. When I go, I would like my ancestors to leave me gifts of chocolate, and sugar skulls, and beer (take note future descendants–bring me annual tributes of booze and sugar please).  The whole city smells of incense, and pretty much around every corner is some sort of music performance or a parade. The actual Day of the Dead is today

Sugar skulls, one of the staples of the Day of the Dead, on an altar.

(I’m still awake thanks to the endless revelry outside my window), so I’m anticipating it being a bit more low key. As always we have met some really interesting people while traveling through Mexico. Though I really need to learn not to mention what I do for a living until I know for sure no one in the room needs a visa. Ah well, fortunately this couple was very nice about the whole thing… not like when the girl caught me at the bridge on the red light and used the fact that I was a captive audience to ask me about all about her cousins visas. Tomorrow we’re off to see some ruins outside of the city, and search for a vegetable since between all the mole and a the Oaxaca chocolate we really haven’t seen anything green in the last few days.

Tucson and Idiocy Translates

So I’ve been bad about updating since I got back from Guadalajara. Truth is, nothing terribly interesting has happened. I’ve mostly

A really big cactus in Tucson

been trying to weed my way through learning how to adjudicate immigrant visas, and taking on some additional responsibilities at work. I spent Columbus Day weekend with the fabulous 148th ladies of Juarez and Guatemala City in Tucson. Cross another state off the big list of states to get to! Tucson was a good break though. We mostly hung out at the resort, lounged by the pool, and drank copious quantities of margaritas. Until recently, I tragically hadn’t had a good margarita in the El Paso/Juarez area. The really sad part is that the margaritas in Juarez are just not that good. The best one is at the airport, so you have to be getting out to get the good stuff. I prefer my margaritas a bit tart… Mexico seems to like them doused in sugar. However, the resort in Tucson was able to put out a very good margarita. The other highlight of the Tucson trip was the sunset trail ride I did with one of my friends. I now feel like I have been to the old west, since I have ridden off into the sunset on a horse. My horse, though, was not the most well-behaved and liked to stop every 5 feet to munch on cacti. Who knew they were so tasty?

I have also discovered that I seem to have a knack for making a royal idiot out of myself with the guards. The first time I met the roving patrols was when my garage was flooding last July and they came over to verify, yep, it was flooded. Of course, I was in my pajamas and looking like a royal mess. Since then they have periodically knocked on my door to inform me I’ve done something insanely dumb like leave the front gate open (that one has been a few times unfortunately), or like my latest endeavor, leave the garage door wide open. Of course every time they do this I have added insult to injury. During the front gate incident they rang the bell right after I had dumped ketchup on myself (yes, I’m a professional klutz).  Most everyone else never even knows they are there, me… well when they see me around the consulate they don’t even try to hide the chuckle anymore. At least I add a little entertainment to their lives.

Anyway, next up my sister is the first and probably only member of my family to work up the courage to come and visit me in Juarez! We’re going to be in Oaxaca for most of her visit but I’m excited. Finally we shall be off to the land of the tasty grasshoppers!

Adventures in Tequila and Puerto Vallarta

Blue agave plants, waiting to be distilled into tasty Tequila

So I have been bad about updating for 2 reasons. I’ve been out enjoying Jalisco the last two weekends and I caught a monster cold. My first weekend here I decided to take the Tequila express since this is the land of Tequila. I did get to see a lot of the country side (it was beautiful) from the train, but the train doesn’t actually go to Tequila. It goes to Amatitlan. I did get to tour a tequila factory which was the goal, but the main point of the Tequila express seems to be to get as rip-roaring drunk as humanly possible in 6 hours. I’m sorry to say that in this respect, I did not represent the U.S. well. I and my liver were not up to the challenge, despite the copious quantities of free-flowing tequila available. I think I had a total of 2 tequila drinks the whole day. My seat-mates however, sure were up to the task! I made friends with some very drunk Mexican military auditors that were TDY like me. Unlike me they only had one day off during their entire trip. Ouch. I think they really enjoyed their day off though. Between their slurred Spanish and my not-so good Spanish, it did make for interesting conversation… Amazingly we seemed to make it work and it was quite a fun day.
Continue reading ‘Adventures in Tequila and Puerto Vallarta’

Tlaquepaque

I decided to spend the second of my days off shopping. I have come to the right place! I heard that Tlaquepaque was one of the

A small school group playing near the Parian in Tlaquepaque in honor of independence day.

best places to go shopping for artisan items. Wow! I finally had to come home because I couldn’t carry anymore. The glassware is absolutely beautiful… I may have to go back to get more. I was limiting myself because my suitecase was just barely below the 25 kilogram limit (thank you scuba gear), but my hotel is next to Fedex and there is a DHL in downtown Tlaquepaque… so I am figuring I can buy what I want and just ship it back. Of course this will involve some crossing of fingers to make sure it gets there safely, since most of what I am planning on buying for gifts is glassware. I bought an entire set of 6 classes and a pitcher for $23, I really can’t complain!

The first shop I stopped in I wound up chatting with the owners for a good long while. They asked me where I was from… like I said Juarez is a sure fire conversation starter! The shopkeeper was pretty quick, he asked me if I was with the consulate. He seemed to use the logic that there was no other reason for an American to be working in Juarez. Apparently his brother was the architect who designed the Mexican consulate in El Paso, which unfortunately I have yet to see. I gave a mental sigh of relief when they

One of the statues outside of the gallery that I fell in love with.

mentioned that they already had their visas, apparently the rest of their family is already Amcits and live in El Paso. Since they had their visas, I figured I could admit what I actually do. We had a very nice little chat about life on the border since they visit frequently. More chance to practice Spanish! After that I continued my epic shopping. I completely fell in love with this one little art gallery that sells bronze statues. I briefly contemplated giving the visa a work out and getting one of the smaller statues, but I decided that since I had no way to bring it back and that it would look vaguely ridiculous in my weed-overgrown garden, that it really wasn’t a very practical idea. Sorry visa, perhaps another day!

Happy Birthday Mexico!

In honor of the 200th anniversary of Mexican Independence, President Calderon declared Wednesday and Friday to be national

This was the rotunda next to the Cathedral where I was supposed to catch the tour bus, alas the tour was canceled.

holidays (Thursday was already a holiday). Mission Mexico decided to follow suit… so here I am on TDY in Guadalajara and I have the rest of the week off! Pity I already planned my trek to Puerto Vallarta for next weekend, or this would have been the perfect time to go. I’m sure we will pay the price next week when we are slammed with applicants, (we already felt the brunt of the first wave yesterday as some of the appointments were already rescheduled) but in the mean time I’m certainly trying to enjoy the extra time off. I thought I would start the day by going down to the center of town and taking the Tapatio Tour bus which stops at the most popular tourist spots all over Guadalajara and goes to the shopping district of Tlaquepaque. It was a good idea in theory but the roads were all blocked off and most of the museums closed… so no bus. Instead I spent several hours hiking downtown and walking through the various plazas. Since I have a love all things kitchy, I figured the Plaza de los Mariachis would be a good bet. I attempted to navigate by my moon guide map which didn’t seem to have all the streets labeled quite right. Luckily I spotted a

A torta aghogada, and a pretty tasty one I might add!

tourist information booth. Armed with my brightly colored map I headed in the direction of the Mariachis.

On the way I spotted a Torta Ahogada stand. The literal translation is basically drowned sandwich. It is a Jalisco specialty, a pork filled sandwich drowned in spicy tomato sauce. After a quick lunch I continued my walk through downtown Guadalajara towards the plaza. It took me a while to figure out I had made it because once I got there all I saw were people sitting around and a few street sellers hawking

The only mariachis I saw in the Plaza de los Mariachis

t-shirts. The only “musician” I saw was a really drunk guy singing tunelessly into a bullhorn and the only mariachis were the ones painted on a wall and a few statues on a building. Apparently there was a shoot-out in the plaza a few years ago which scared a lot of them off. Maybe they are still there on the weekends, but tragically there was not a mariachi in sight there today. Given that all of the tourist sites were pretty much closed or roped off, I figured I would head back to the Plaza del Sol and do some shopping. I stopped in the local Starbucks on the way back because I was in need of caffeine, I also remembered that my friend in Nuevo Laredo said she has been hanging out in Starbucks as a part of her plan to make friends. Since I had been trekking around alone all I day, I figured chilling out in Starbucks in the hopes of having a conversation couldn’t hurt either. Jackpot! The barrista came over and struck up a conversation with me after a few minutes, asking me where I am from (I guess my thick accent gives me away pretty quickly). I have found that telling people even though I am from the DC area, that I live in Juarez is a sure fire conversation starter. All in all, a very successful tourist outing despite the number of closures. I managed to see a pretty good section of the downtown area and had a lovely chat in Spanish. He claimed that my spanish was very good, how kindly he lied. I shall have to remember the Starbucks tip in the future, something about coffee seems to make people social. Being here has certainly been a good opportunity to practice my Spanish. Tomorrow hopefully I’ll be off to Tequila or Tlaquepaque depending on the road closures.

Pasear y Conocer

A group singing in the plaza del Sol.

So if you ask 80% of our visa applicants why they want to go to the U.S. you get “Para pasear y conocer,” (best literal translation is to walk and to learn) I have to admit until now I’ve sort of mentally grimaced every time someone says that. Really? Can’t we be a little more specific? But after 2 hours in Guadalajara I’ve decided that is a totally valid answer. I spent most of my little hour walk doing what could only be described as “pasear-ing and conocer-ing”. I just sort of strolled down the street from my hotel room and gawked. Guadalajara is for starters incredibly cool a the moment, and by cool I mean a delightful low 80’s. After the soul-searing heat of Juarez, it is positively wonderful to just be able to walk outside without feeling like I need a shower 30 seconds later. Like Mexico city there are also trees and people on the streets. I walked through shopping center next to the hotel, Plaza del Sol, and there was a group singing in the middle of the plaza for independence day. It is nice to experience a Mexican city with a bit more of a city life. These are kinds of things I love about New York. You never know what you are going to find around the next corner. I’m looking forward to exploring more of the city in the next few weeks. Not to be down on Juarez, I really am enjoying my tour there and if I had to bid again knowing what I know now I would probably have put it as a high on my list, but still it is nice to see another side of Mexico!

I’ve found in my limited experiences traveling in Mexico that I have pretty good window Spanish at this point and pretty good tourist Spanish. Meaning I can adjudicate a visa without too much of a problem and I can make a reservation, order food, call a taxi, ect. with a minimum of mishaps. Where I completely fall down is when people actually try to have a conversation with me. Thursday night there was a representational event at the CG’s house which was a good way to actually talk with people from the community and even with my limited Spanish I did manage to have a few good conversations and meet new people, but those types of situations make me realize how limited I am. Also when the guy next to me on the plane tried to talk to me, it really didn’t happen. I guess it is a work in progress. Now off to pasear and conocer the Chili’s that obligingly just arrived at my room. Yes, I realize I am lame for ordering in from one of the most American restaurants out there, but I’m using the excuse that I’m old and tired from my flight. Never mind that it was three hours. 😉