So…

Not even halfway through my duty week, thus far I’ve had calls about a kidnapping, car theft, possible death case, a sick American needing a medevac and done my first jail visit. In fairness the kidnapping and sick American were out of district so those got punted to Mexico City (I apologize to the Mex City duty officer who ever you are!). I thought that since I had gone 14 hours without receiving a call that maybe it would be a quiet Saturday, then the phone starting ringing at 11 (that was my car theft followed by the arrest call an hour later), so much for quiet! I suppose no one ever promised me that Foreign Service life would be quiet! I had hoped that by staring at the phone and being in this constant state of anxious ready that I would avoid major issues but since that seems blown…. I wonder what the next few days will bring me! I can definitely see how satisfying American citizen services work can be. I actually felt like I helped calm down my car theft victims and gave them good solid advice on what they can do before ACS reopens Monday. Of course in all this I am just so, so grateful for the Duty FSN who has just made everything so much easier and has been putting up with my stumbling attempts to weed my way through duty week.  71.222 hours down… 87.778 hours left. Almost halfway there.

Duty week

Pardon the lack of updating, this week is my duty week. For those not familiar with duty week, basically I’m the person on call after hours in case Americans have any emergencies; I’m the point of contact. The nice thing about being at a large post like CJ is that there is a lot of support for the duty officer including an FSN who is on duty with me who is pretty much my lifeline. Still because it is my first time on duty I’ve been sleeping with one eye open. My first night was rough in terms of sleep since I also have to wake up to open the building. I thought since I had to get up at 4:30 I would go to sleep at 9ish. Well my 10:50pm visa call followed by a 3:38am visa call pretty much killed any hope of sleep that night. The line is for emergencies but the visa calls manage to sneak through anyway. I don’t mind those too much… well I was pretty irked at 3:38 am, but it is better than having a call from someone in a real emergency. Anyway, I doubt I will update much until after Wednesday when I am off the hook. I’ve been pretty much staring at the phone, with the theory that a watched pot never boils. So far, I’ve had mixed success with this strategy… worst thing thus far has been a car theft but I’ve only completed 64.857 hours of my duty week,  94.143 left to go. But who’s counting? On the bright side I look at this as a chance to get a taste of ACS work, which as a consular officer I’m sure there will be plenty in my future, and apparently duty week came with duty cereal. So, I have Berry, Berry Kix to keep me company while I stare at the blackberry. 94.072 hours left and counting….

The Hazards of Juarez

Like any city, Juarez has its hazards.  Most of Juarez’s issues are well covered by the news media. There are however a few little gems that go unnoticed… those would be parqueos, speed bumps, window washers and car buffers. Yep, every day it’s like a little game to see how many of these Juarez hazards I can avoid while getting all my business done in the city.  My friend and fellow Juarezident has already done a great job describing the perils of Juarez speed mountains bumps, so I’ll skip that little delight and go straight to parqueos. These industrious fellows lie in wait in ordinary parking lots, ready to direct the hapless driver into a “space” and then later back out again. I put space in quotes because sometimes their idea of an open spot seems to be up on a sidewalk or on top of another car. There seem to be 2 types of parqueos, those  that eagerly try to help you in and out and then those just magically appear right when you are about to pull out, and manage to stand right in your blind spot waving madly to “assist” you out. Of course, they all manage to appear by the window at tip time.  I’ve heard of parqueos directing people in to cement barriers and other cars, so unfortunately my recommendation to any future Juarezidents doing battle with this particular hazard is have a few pesos ready and proceed with caution.

Window washers and buffers, both work the same territory. These gentlemen hangout by traffic lights waiting to catch those unfortunate enough to get the red light. It doesn’t matter if you got attacked by the window washer at the last light and there isn’t a speck of dirt on your windows, they’re ready to wash again if the intrepid Juarez driver isn’t fast enough with the “no, gracias.” Sometimes they don’t even take no for an answer. I will say that for the most part they do a pretty good job. I must have given a heck of a tip the other day because the one who washed my windshield then proceeded to wash all my windows, my headlights, and my side mirrors. My car was pretty dirty, I will give him that, but I didn’t think it was that amazing of a tip. The most insidious of all these hazards is “the buffer.” They are the hardest to spot. You think it is just some nice guy crossing at the red light when all the sudden you hear a thump on the roof of your car and you realize you are getting buffed. They carry rags around for the purpose of well, rubbing the dirt around on your car in the name of shining it. But the problem is, it doesn’t actually do anything other than move the Chihuahua dust from one spot on the car to another. Lest you think I deprive these industrious gentlemen of their tips, I will admit I do carry a small cache of coins for when I “lose the game” and don’t manage to wave them off quick enough. I figure it’s my tax for failing to be quick enough on the “no, gracias.” Thus far, I’ve only been caught by the buffers and washers 5 times in 3 months and most of those were in the first month; I’m getting better…

El Otro Lado

Last weekend I took my first real vacation since joining the foreign service. My family has a summer home in the Adirondack Mountains about an hour and a half away from the Canadian border, so I went from one end of the country to the other. Despite a series of unfortunate events caused by Delta Airlines, I managed to have a lovely vacation. I hate to rant but after the abysmal experience I had with Delta if I can scare even one person off using that airline and save them the pain, then I’ve done my duty! After losing my bag and spending 3 days continually telling me that it would be delivered in a few hours, it finally turned up in Vermont. I flew in to JFK, I was flying out of JFK. If I’d been given the choice I’d have preferred to get it there. Instead they made me spend a day driving to BURLINGTON, VERMONT to get the bag, never mind the 9 times they told me they would

The Vermont Wildflower Farm billed as the "seediest place in Vermont"

deliver to me. To top it off the “lovely” customer service rep informed me I was basically out of luck and if I was truly blessed I would be reimbursed for the $30 worth of supplies I bought to shower and continually wash the 2 outfits I had with me. Never mind the money wasted on gas and the fact I spend 3/4 of my vacation waiting for a bag and trying to get in touch with Delta. The best part is if you try to call their complaint line you get “due to high call volume we can not take your call at this time.” I bet. Anyway that’s my story, I’ve sworn off Delta, proceed with caution when booking with them!

However, make lemonade right? So the impromptu trip to Vermont was not wasted. We visited a wild flower farm, a teddy bear factory, a vineyard and farm store for cheese. I found a pouch of wildflower seeds that are supposed to be specially selected to grow in the Southwest… we shall see if it can survive Juarez. To improve my mood I also acquired a cow-spotted bear for the bear factory. The drive to Burlington was a bit longer than it should have been because the bridge between Vermont and New York was washed out, which meant we had to take a car ferry! Which was pretty cool. It was funny being up at the other border, instead of Spanish everyone was speaking French and in place of a million Chihuahua plates there were a plethora of Quebec plates.

Inside the Main Street Ice Cream Parlor in Chestertown, it just oozes charm.

After reclaiming my luggage we trekked back to our cabin which is near a tiny town called Chester. Actually the Cabin itself is near a town called Horicon which is so tiny I don’t there are actually any businesses in it anymore and I don’t think it is even on the map. Comparatively Chester with its grocery store and 2 restaurants is the big city. My favorite place is a old fashioned soda fountain with a view of the mountains out the window.  It’s not a trip to the mountains without my yearly sundae! It was pretty much a low key weekend, spent visiting with family. My Aunt and Uncle have the cabin across from us, so it is a bit like the family ancestral stomping grounds. The cabin itself is over a 100 years old and until recently didn’t have such fabulous amenities like running water or at one point, a floor in the kitchen. Since it’s my home leave spot it’s nice to finally have a functional place. I’m sort of looking forward to home leave in about 2 years, it will be kind of fun to go from one border to the other. Oddly I’ve only been to Canada once. I think next summer I’m going to have to bring my passport and trek on up to Montreal, since it’s so close.

After all the hassle with Delta and the fact that it is a long trip up to upstate New York, I was glad to get back to Juarez. To

Sushi, Juarez style! Meaning deep-fried and featuring chipotle sauce, chili peppers, and bananas. It actually is really tasty.

celebrate a couple of friends and I went out to savor the delights of Juarez sushi. You know you are back in Mexico when you get jalapenos wrapped in your sushi and it’s topped with chipotle sauce!  We also seem to have made friends with the waiter at Sushi Express. When we walked in he asked us where the rest of our friends were. The music also seemed to change to “American friendly” meaning a lot of Lady Gaga once we arrived. Ah.. it’s good to be home. Back to work tomorrow!

Treking around El Paso

When I lived in Melbourne I never went anywhere without an umbrella, because inevitably every time I left the house without

Yep, that's a cow in the back of that Chevy. Only in Juarez!

one it poured rain. I think I’m going to have to start carrying sunblock everywhere I go, since I seem to be getting burnt every weekend.

On my list of things to do in El Paso has been the Wyler Tram Aerialway and hiking in the Franklin Mountains State park. Sunday I crossed the park off the list. The trek turned out be a little more adventurous than I hoped. I wound up getting a bit lost on my way back. I was following what I thought were ties on random trees and cacti meant to mark a trail. I think in reality it was just trash stuck in the branches. After an hour of hiking through a really “rough path” that was covered with shrubs and boulders it occurred to me that I had perhaps strayed off the path. Lo and behold I was hiking in a little gully next to the actual path which was delightfully flat and free of thorny bushes in my way. Sigh, I blame the sun for crisping my good sense.

Our chariot up the mountain

Today’s trek was little more successful. A friend and I decided to check out the Wyler Tram. On the way there were stopped behind a truck that was transporting a rather bewildered looking cow. The  poor thing was nearly pitched over the side about 3 times. I don’t know how he managed to keep his balance. We weren’t the only ones entertained by the poor cows plight. The street vendors seemed pretty perplexed by the  sight as well.

The tram was pretty cool too.  When we reached the top we were able to see New Mexico, Texas, and Juarez. It’s pretty neat to beable to look down and see the border between two countries.  Since I spend so much time in one small corner of Juarez I tend not to appreciate justhow big the city is. I have to say though, as cool as the view from the top of the tram was, that  the most impressive sight of the day was probably the cow in the Chevy.

Adventures in Juarez Dining

I’d like to say I used the unexpected day off to something wildly interesting but the honest truth is I ran errands and did housework. I think I entertained my community guard though. I have a tiny patch of grass in front of my house that is too tiny to use the lawn mower on. So I hauled out the weed whacker to deal with it. The day guard never sees me so I swear he hoped on his bicycle and started circling the street (which takes 30 seconds since it is a tiny street) just for the sheer entertainment of watching me trying to cut the grass without chopping down my bouganvilla shrub.  I lost a good solid branch in the struggle but now I can get into my garage without driving through branches and the grass is no longer taking over my driveway, so I declare win.

After my early morning gardening, this being Juarez and being so close to the border, we wound up trekking across the border to the U.S. for shopping. So there you have it, probably the most adventurous part of the day was when we went out for Sushi in Juarez. It was certainly like no sushi I had ever seen. I had a banana roll which was actually pretty delicious and a “Texano roll.” You could tell it was Mexican sushi because like most things in Mexico they chucked the whole thing in the deep fryer before serving it. I suppose I should be pleased since it probably isn’t a good idea to eat raw fish this far from the ocean… but really? Deep fried and breaded sushi? Don’t get me wrong it was actually pretty good if you adjust your idea of what sushi is, I just cringe to think what anyone from Japan would say if they saw this bastardized version of one of their signature dishes.

Hiking in Gila

Yesterday I decided to get out of Juarez. I planned on going to Franklin Mountain State Park in El Paso to do a little hiking but

The opera house in Pinos Altos, which was my first "ghost town" experience!

the weather was cool, in the 80’s which practically frigid here, and my GPS said Gila Forest National Park was only 2 and a half hours away, so I kept going. 4 hours later I rolled into the park. The GPS neglected to calculate that although the speed limit for the last 35 miles is 55mph, that it is impossible to go any faster than 15 mph without flinging yourself over the edge of a cliff. So deciding that I was in favor of not dying a horrid albeit pine-scented death, I took the trek at a leisurely pace. The drive was absolutely gorgeous though! There were pine trees! There were trees! It was green! So my joy at seeing green things probably sounds a bit insane I’ve been in the middle of the desert for nearly 3 months, so seeing green trees and a light drizzling rain was an actual treat.   It was also in the 60’s up in the forest, so it was totally worth the  long drive.

On the long meandering drive up the mountain to the park, I stopped at a “Semi-Ghost Town.” I call it Semi-Ghost because there are still people living there and a lot of motels and cabin rental places, so it wasn’t really an abandoned town.  Adding a little to the authenticity was the fact that it was a Sunday afternoon so pretty much everything was closed.

After checking out the little town, I and my honda civic continued our trek up the mountain. I’m pretty pleased that my little hybrid has managed to tackle mountains, deserts, and monsoons over the last 3 months. If only it could handle the Himalaya

Misty mountains in the desert.

sized speed bumps Juarez has constructed at random intervals (aka the middle of the freeway), life would be perfect. The forest was stunningly beautiful. It was drizzling a little bit up in the mountains but rain is another thing I’ve started to miss out the in the desert. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed rain so much before, when we get 2 drops in Juarez I practically do a happy dance.

There were a couple of scenic overlooks on the road up to the cliff dwellings, so I pulled over and took a few shots. It is pretty amazing to be able to peer over a cliff and see and smell pine forests but also see the desert just beyond. There were also various cacti growing between the stands of pine trees. Having lived most of my life in Maryland, I’m not used all these cacti yet!

The real reason of course I have been dying to go to Gila is the cliff dwellings. They were definitely worth the trek. There were probably only about 10 people on the trail so it felt like I had the park to myself.

The Gila Cliff Dwellings

Apparently the people that lived in the dwellings spent 15 years building them, and then only lived there for 10 years before taking off for greener pastures, though where those greener pastures were no one is exactly sure. Because the park was pretty empty I had plenty of time to talk to the guide at the park, who apparently once wanted to join the Foreign Service as well. So despite the fact that my GPS lied to me about the total travel time, it was definitely worth the trek. I think next time though I will stay overnight, because apparently there is another ghost town out in them thar hills that I missed.

I’ve also reached another important milestone. Clearly I cross the border too much. I get stopped every time coming back into Mexico by CBP for my out of state plates. Yesterday when I crossed back in one of the guys glanced at me and said “she’s good, she’s with the consulate.” Yep, when CBP starts to know who you are, I think it is a clear sign your crossing to often. Perhaps Juarez costco and I will have to bond… I’ve stopped going to my local supermarket because I think I’ve denied visas to every cashier in the place. I do believe that costco is still safe though…

Life in Juarez take 2

I’d been told many times before I got to post that eventually almost everyone in the Foreign Service gets a housekeeper. I was sure I wasn’t going to be one of those people. I’m used to living in 450 feet of space, which takes about an hour to clean and I like

This is my dining room, and living room, with a view of the outside patio. Part of the 1400 square feet of doom that has defeated me and my plans of cleaning my own home.

cleaning. Well, after two and a half months of trying to keep 1400 square feet clean, I’m calling uncle. My entire house is tile, which is lovely except that I get cat fur tumbleweeds rolling across the floor. So this morning I met with a lady who works for several people at the consulate. Not only did she put up with my pathetic Spanish and pretend to understand me, she seems really nice and judging by her work at other people’s homes, does a great job. There are a lot of things about foreign service life that take some serious adjustment, but despite my earlier thoughts I think having someone to help out around the house isn’t one of them. I’m so relieved that I don’t have to spend every weekend cleaning anymore. Instead I can refocus my efforts on gardening. The bushes that were in the yard before I got here seem to be thriving… the grass not so much. All the plants I bought at Home Depot died pretty quick, but oddly enough the morning glory seeds I planted are thriving and starting to climb up the columns in my back yard.

Typical Saturday afternoon crossing the border. Behold the glory of the Sentri lane!

One of the other things I hadn’t anticipated was how expensive moving overseas and having a home would be. For the first time I’ve to buy things like extension cords for a lawn mower, a weed whacker, trash cans for 3 bath rooms, a rake, shovels, sheets for all the beds, ect.  There are a lot of things that you need for a home that you don’t need for a tiny little basement apartment. I have been taking advantage of the proximity to El Paso to get a lot of those things, since it is probably cheaper to buy them here then it will be in the future. That means that I’ve wound up crossing the border almost every weekend. One of the things that makes life on the border a lot easier is a SENTRI pass. The trusted traveler program lets me cruise right on through. The funny thing is that I have no problem getting out of Mexico in the U.S. It’s when I try to get back into Mexico that I have a problem. I get stopped every time going back in because of my Maryland plates. I guess that is pretty weird out here, so I get the third degree. Not that I mind, the CBP guys and gals are pretty nice, especially once they realize I work at the consulate and I’m just trying to get home. It also gives me a chance to practice my English one last time before heading back into Mexico.

Catching up!

It’s been a busy few weeks so I’ve sort of slacked off on the blogging. I’ll try to be better in the future! So in the past few weeks I’ve survived my first 4th of July party, obtained an open water dive certification (yes, in the middle of the desert), returned to White Sands for some sledding in 105 degree weather, attended a change of command ceremony at Fort Bliss, and adjudicated a lot of visas. The verdict on the sledding is that it is terribly fun, though it is much easier on the snow and next time we need to check the weather report before we decide to spend an afternoon frolicking in the hot sun. The 4th of July party was better than I expected. The 4th is the major representational event for most embassies and consulates overseas so it’s a working holiday for us.  The result is no one in the Foreign Service really seems to look forward to the 4th.  It is a big deal and we invite a lot of important members of the local community. I don’t have much to compare it to, since I’m in the first year of my first tour but I think like most things in Juarez, our party was a little different than those at other posts. It was held earlier for starters because of the Mexican elections and it had a county fair theme so there were games and cotton candy, which sort of set the mood for what I thought was a more relaxed and enjoyable event. I had the opportunity to talk to a lot of interesting people from the Juarez community and I even managed to get through the night with my limited Spanish ability, or at least the lovely people I inflicted my Spanish on were polite enough to pretend they understood me. We also actually got to have the 4th or in this case the 5th of July off, which was an added bonus.

In other representational related events news I had the opportunity to go with a group to the Change of Command ceremony at

All lined up for the review of the troops.

Fort Bliss. Not having a military background, I found it really interesting. It was also just another example of how different a

Foreign Service post this is. In most places I would guess that a significant chunk of the representational events aren’t us representing to another branch of the government. Fortunately it wasn’t a hot day, which is amazing given that it was southern Texas in the middle of July. I would have felt bad for the troops if it was 100 degrees of blazing heat as usual.

On the downside, anyone who has followed the news lately knows the violence in Juarez continues and has been getting worse. Most days it is really easy to ignore. I spend most of my time at home, in El Paso, or at the Consulate, with the occasional lunch, happy hour, or dinner outings thrown in. There was an incident at the mall across the consulate which is one of the places I do go quite a bit. It starts to become a little more real when it encroaches on my little corner of Juarez. Last week was the first time I felt unsafe, it didn’t last long but there are moments when it sneaks up on you. Despite the situation here, I can’t imagine a better group of people to be at post with and we do have a lot of fun.

Outside of work I’ve spent the last three weekends doing class room, pool, and open water sessions for an open water certification. About 8 years ago I went diving on the great barrier reef and had a blast. I meant to come back and get certified then but being a broke college student it wasn’t in the cards. I was hoping to get posted somewhere near water so I could finally

Near Balmorhea- this is the slightly greener part of the desert.

get certified… but well, here I am in Juarez with all of the sand and none of the beach. But lo and behold, there is scuba in the middle of the Chihuahua Desert! Last weekend I went up to Balmorhea State Park in Texas for the open water sessions. It’s a spring feed lake and there were some interesting puffer-like fish there, not quite as spectacular as the great barrier reef but I think I was a little spoiled by my first dive. I’m completely hooked though now and I love the irony of having obtained my cert in the desert. The idea was to get certified before my trip to Cancun in November, though in order good news it looks like I may have the opportunity to hit the water a little sooner. I found out today that I’m going to get to go to Guadalajara for a 3 week TDY in late September. Guadalajara was actually one of the higher ranked posts on my bid list, so I’m incredibly excited to go. It also has the added bonus of being a 40 minute flight from Puerto Vallarta, so hopefully there is some more diving in my near future!

Inundación

Flooding seems to be a recurring theme in my life lately. Last week I was buried under a flood of boxes. I’d say that they are fully unpacked… but well, that would be a complete lie. I still have about 8 boxes left to be unpacked. I’m amazed at how much junk I brought. I forgot that I had about 3 junk drawers which were basically dumped straight into boxes and I think the time to deal with them has finally come. I’ve been attempting to sort and throw away as I go through them so it has been a slow process.

The second flood was of the more typical kind. Saturday morning I was awoken at 4am by my community’s guard telling me that there was massive quantities of water leaking out of my garage. It’s amazing how much Spanish I don’t speak at 4am, so it took me a few minutes to figure out what the heck was going on when he rang my bell. Sure enough though, massive quantities of water were flooding out of my garage on to the street. With the help of the guard I managed to get the top off water tank and turn off the water to the house so it would stop flooding. Apparently one of the pipes broke. Thankfully the consulate facilities maintenance people rigged it so I had a little water for Sunday and had the system fixed by Monday night. Which is when the next flood came! After weeks of seeing some terrific “thunderstorms” where the wind blows and two drops fall, it was kind of a surprise to see a massive deluge of rain fall last night. This morning the streets were so flooded I wasn’t sure I was going to make it in my little honda civic. I hear that this is normal during the rainy season, which means I might need to get an inflatable raft to make it work.

The Cathedral of Guadalupe in downtown Juarez

The weekend after my HHE arrived I also finally got out into Juarez. The CLO arranged a city tour, so we were able to get out and see the center of the city and one of the markets. The city itself isn’t that bad actually. My biggest complaint about El Paso is that it is a very flat city. Being used to cities like Baltimore and New York, I don’t feel like I’m in a city until I see tall buildings and dirty, gritty streets. Juarez feels more like a real city to me. Work itself has also been interesting. I’m actually enjoying working on the visa line, which is a good thing since I’m consular coned and there will be a lot of visas in my future.