Saturday, September 18, 2010

Signing Out

Well, I need to apologize a little first about yesterday's posting. It was intended for an audience of one - me. I don't know why I felt the need to share it with the blogosphere.

Obviously I have a lot I need to work out. As such I can't continue this blog anymore. (Please, no crying.)

I hope you've found this space entertaining and informative. It was a pleasure writing for you and even a greater pleasure reading your feedback.

Good luck on all of your travels, and for those of you trying to get in, good luck with that as well.

And to you bloggers out there, keep up the good work.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Turning Over an Old Leaf

Yesterday was Mexican Independence Day (no, for the last time, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day). This year it is a big deal as this country celebrates its bicentennial.

But more than that, this year also marks the 100th anniversary of Mexico's second revolution, which culminated in 1917 with the new Mexican Constitution, so yeah, everyone here is pretty excited.

Entirely coincidentally, this period is marking a personal revolution for me as well. I'm locked in a war with myself trying to get rid of the person I've become and return to the person I used to be.

Like all bad habits, this version of me probably started a long time ago and continued to change me in small ways until I wake up and realize I don't even know myself anymore. Perhaps it started four years ago when I was denied a promotion I thought I had earned. Or maybe it was six years ago when my younger brother died. Maybe it goes back even further.

At one of those starting points, I became more of a pessimist whereas I had always been more of a happy-go-lucky optimist growing up. It was easy back then. I was given every opportunity to succeed, and for most of my life, I did. I took chances always expecting that if I worked hard enough, everything would turn out right in the end. And they usually did. And if they didn't, oh well, I'd either try again until I got it right or saw the error and moved on. Sure, there were frustrations, but I brushed them off easier.

Some where along the way, when something didn't turn out right, I'd blame part of the problem, or all of it, on someone else. How could it be my fault? I worked hard, am relatively intelligent and have a strong track record of success. Obviously, someone else is holding me back, maybe even intentionally.

All of this placing blame on others turned me into the angry, spiteful person I became. Which only made it easier to hold grudges, place more blame and so on and so forth. It consumed me, and it got to the point that even started blaming (in private) my wife for some of my hardships here. Though I never said it to her, my attitudes certainly were being reflected in my behaviors.

This came to a head, and after some long soul searching, I came to all of those realizations above. It took Mexico 100 years before the people said enough is enough and forced changes. I don't have that long. I've already started my revolution. I called my freelance editor and apologized for being a jerk for the past four years, as one example. Though as I replayed that conversation in my head after hanging up, I think she must think I'm going through the 12-step program. Whatever, it doesn't matter anymore, and maybe it will buy me some extra sympathy.

I'm trying to right my wrongs and along the way return to my old brighter outlook on life. Viva la revolucion, indeed!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Last week, we, the Endangered Families in Mexico (EFMs), had a scare-you-out-of-being-complacent meeting at the Consulate with all of the higher-ups there.

In other circles, I suppose this is considered a security briefing, but as this is a relatively secure city - look, I'm already pretty complacent about Hermosillo's violence, or lack there of - they talked mostly about the blood and carnage in Monterrey (which while upsetting and bad, is still no where near the disaster that is Juarez [can't pronounce Juarez without "war."]).

We are living in Prohibition Era America here where mob rule rears its ugly head from time to time. More so in the northeast, but it works its way into Sonora from time to time.

This wasn't my first security briefing since I've been here, and of course there are several unofficial security briefings in which you hear stories.

All in all, here is my list of findings regarding safety here:

Hermosillo is a safe city. So maybe this isn't a no-lock-your-door-at-night, American Heartland city, but I almost feel the only way you are going to be insecure here is if you go out of your way looking for trouble. Another American here describes Hermosillo as the eye of the storm, meaning that while all sorts of bad things happen around us, Hermosillo is quiet. My only problem with that analogy is that implies eventually the eye will pass and Hermosillo will go up in flames like some of the other cities, but I don't think that will happen here.

We are in the long narrow section on the left - no competition.
Life is better under single cartel rule. The big problem in the northeastern part of Mexico is that a part of one cartel broke off and created a rival faction. So now there are turf wars and competing interests. Here in Hermosillo, we essentially live under the thumb of the Sinaloa Cartel. Sure, it sucks that a cartel can have such a strong presence, but as long as it is one group calling the shots, we live in relative peace and tranquility.

The only threat is the effects of the war on drugs. The latest scare-you-out-of-complacency meeting did have one lingering effect on me. We were told that the Mexican and American governments' war against the drug cartels has resulted in fewer drugs and weapons crossing the borders, which is hurting the cartels' bottom line. This means they will look for alternative sources of income. One such source is kidnapping, and the fear is that there has been increased kidnappings in the northeast.

Red states have more cartel violence. Green has less.
We live in a dark green.
 As long as the cartels are strong, which will be for as long as I'm in Hermosillo, there is always the threat of danger. But in Hermosillo, we aren't exactly living in fear of potential outbreaks. Yeah, you are best off avoiding some areas at night and you want to stay off the highways at night for sure, but much of the crime here is similar to that you'd experience in any city with about million people, many of whom live at some level of what Americans would consider poverty.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

EFM: Earlier Football Mornings

I can't decide if this is the most or least appropiate
jersey to wear here. But if you were unaware, the
Bengals have a player who changed his last name
to Ochocinco (formerly Chad Johnson).
You can go ahead and move this one into the plus column: Mountain Standard Time = three less hours of waiting for football to start. At least for the time being. After day light savings, it will be two hours, but still an improvement.

Saturday morning, it was college football at 9 a.m. Today, the NFL kicks off at 10 a.m. It used to be in the States, I'd seldom stay up to watch all of the Sunday night game because it started so late as well as the Monday night game. Now they will be starting before dinner.

In my previous life before foreign service, I spent a week in London for work; tough assignment, but someone had to do it. It was about this time of the year, actually, and I remember how weird it was that the early games - the ones that start at 1 p.m. on the East Coast - didn't start until like 6 or 7 p.m. The afternoon slate didn't begin until 9 or 10 p.m. Forget about Sunday and Monday night football. Of course, I was in London for one week, so I really wasn't that interested in football anyway. I could survive a week without.

I don't know how those of you serving east of Eastern Europe get by. I love watching pro football, and even some college football, if there is a good match up. I found waiting until 1 p.m. to be a horrendous task at times. I couldn't imagine waiting until dinner, or later, or missing the season altogether.

It is just about 8 a.m., which means I only have two more hours until kick off. I am ready for some football.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Stressful Friendships

A foreign service lifestyle is demanding and stressful. Many of us are moving to places we've never been too for, and in some cases, places we've never heard of before.

We are leaving behind our family, friends and much that is familiar to us.

It seems to me one of the few ways to remain sane (assuming we had some semblance of sanity before arriving - a large assumption in some cases, I suppose) is to make friends with the people at post, American or native.

If only it were that easy. Foreign service life is never that easy. There is always a curveball in store.

On Thursday morning, one of the families that we had become very close to moved back to the States.

The end of their tour will not mark the end of our friendship, but it highlights one of the frustrations of this lifestyle. During a short six-week period, we made new friends only to watch them leave.

I'm not trying to be overly dramatic about this. They weren't our only friends here, and they might not even have been our closest friends. But they are good friends to us, and having to say "See ya in a long later," after such a short period of getting to know each other hardly seems fair. It is enough to make you wonder what the point is sometimes. Should we only attempt friendships with those who arrive about the same time we did because we both will be here for a while. No time wasted in short acquaintances.

Of course not. Actually, I think that just goes to show how awesome this family was. When we arrived, they could have said, "Welcome, good luck, we're leaving in six weeks." They could have said even less than that.

But not only did they choose a different, more sociable route; they allowed themselves to make a connection with us. These are the type of people you want to make friends with.

I don't know when our paths will cross again. Probably not for a couple of years. Possibly longer. But I will miss them and look forward to a reunion. And this after just six weeks of knowing each other.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Untouched by Hallmark

One of the first tasks we had to address upon arriving in Hermosillo was to get a 40th birthday card for our brother-in-law. (For once, I actually planned ahead better than Natalie as I bought my Dad's birthday card in the States and left it at home to make sure it would get there on time.)

We stopped at a Wal Mart thinking it is an American chain, so it probably has everything American Wal Mart's have. And there indeed was a greeting card section, but the organization is, well, different. There were four types of envelopes - pink medium and pink large and blue medium and blue large. And they were all over the place.

The card selection itself was sparse, mixed up and generally poor. Cards had smudges and corners were tattered. We settled for a few blank inside cards, though we might have been better off making something at home. People should be expecting e-cards from us in the future.

Though we did find that the Sears here does have a much better card selection. Sears is a department store here - something between Kohl's and Macy's.

Natalie had more luck finding a card.
But alas, I'm not cable of driving to Sears by myself yet, so I had to turn to the slightly-better-than-Wal Mart selection at one of our grocery stores to get a card for our anniversary, which is today. Sadly, I couldn't find card and flowers on the list of year-appropriate anniversary gifts, but we just got back from Mexico City and spent a considerable amount on an obsidian Aztec God bust; plus it is just too hard for me to shop here right now.

I planned ahead to cover the month of August, but I should have bought cards to cover the rest of the year before coming to Hermosillo. Surprise, surprise, all of the cards are in Spanish.

Fortunately, I've been here long enough to know some words. For example, I know what Happy Birthday looks like, so I was able to eliminate them, though I did have my eyes on a couple that looked appropriate (they were flowery) if I couldn't find anything else. But then I saw the keeper - one that said Love on the front. I skimmed for familiar words in the inside to make sure I didn't find concubina or something else offensive when I came across "congratulations." A wedding card, apparently (later confirmed), but close enough. And other than that final word, everything else was very much appropriate for an anniversary.

Seriously, would you buy Hallmark cards,
if you knew this guy founded the chain?
From the best I can tell, Hermosillo, and possibly the rest of Mexico, has not embraced the greeting card. Apparently Joyce Hall and his brood do not have this country's male population by the balls like they do in America.

But alas, there is some expectation to have cards for some events, so the next time we work our way north to Tucson, I'll be card-loading to get me through 2011.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

EFM: Exploring the Finest of Mexico

So I've fallen a little out of rhythm since the arrival of our ground/surface/sea freight which flowed into a Labor Day weekend getaway. That set me back a few days, but I'm closer to being caught up, and only a few boxes remain.

We took advantage of the long weekend to get out and see Mexico outside of Sonora for the first time. It was a reasonable price and only a two hour flight to Mexico City (or D.F.E., kind of like D.C. vs. Washington). I don't understand the airlines here, by the way. Mazatlan, which is much closer to us, costs about twice as much to fly to compared to Mexico City. Other cities in Mexico, such as Cabo San Lucas and Puerta Vallarta and Cancun, are essentially non-reachable within Mexico from Hermosillo. We save hundreds of dollars by driving to Phoenix and then flying to Mexico. The joke here is that we can't wait to leave Hermosillo so we can explore Mexico.

Anyway, Mexico City, yeah. It is like D.C. and New York City combined. According to Wikipedia, its metro population is about 21.1 million people, though the number we heard down there was more like 29 million. Depending on the number you believe, it is either the second or third most populated metro in the world. Following Wiki's numbers, D.C. and NYC metros combine for about 24.4 million people, so approximately the same as Mexico City.

But similar to New York, Mexico City is the cultural center of the country while also playing the role of D.C. by serving as the governing center and historical center. We only got to spend three days visiting, and if I don't make it back there before leaving Hermosillo, I will consider it a colossal failure on my part.

One view from the observatory.
A good place to start your first visit to Mexico City is from a top the Torre Latinoamericana. It gives you a good idea of how vast of an area Mexico City is. We were there during the rainy season, which meant it was cooler there, and of course rainy, but that cleared out the smog.

We spent the rest of the day with a scary experience on their subway system, the Metro, just like D.C. But unlike D.C., it costs only three pesos (about a quarter) to ride. As it was a Saturday, it was not crowded, relatively speaking. We still had to wait for a second train to come as the first was packed beyond capacity, and the train we did get on also was beyond full. The problem with such tight confines is that it affords men (and women, I suppose) the opportunity to grope those nearby, which a few of female companions were subjected to. We were told that during the work week, there are cars reserved on trains for women and children only to avoid such an incident. And then we went around to some markets and ate at a couple of nice restaurants for lunch and dinner. Mexico City is similar to NYC and DC combined, but not when it comes to prices. Just like in Hermosillo, dining out does not break the bank.

From the Temple of the Sun's base, but
this angle doesn't do it justice.
From the Temple of the Sun, you can see
the Temple of the Moon through the fog.
Any visitor in Mexico City has to make the journey out to Teotihaucan (teh-oh-tee-wah-KAHN). We went on a Sunday, which can be very crowded, but the rain kept many people at home. It also made the stone temples that much more treacherous to climb, and I assume it closed off the upper tiers of the Temple of the Moon. Even if it is dry, this can be a dangerous trek as the steps tend to be narrow and steep. The people who built this place must have been 20 feet tall, with tiny feet and had very strong legs because we all had wobbly leg syndrome after climbing just one temple. This was a full day event, and I imagine if it had been crowded, it could be difficult to get to see everything here in one day, especially if children are involved.

Our final day was originally going to be spent at Xochimilco (soh-chee-MEEL-coh), which is a bit like Venice in that you ride gondola-type boats down canals, but with it being rainy season and all, we thought we check out the various museums in Chapultepec Park. But alas, it was a Monday, and we arrived to find the gates locked. Quite amazing, actually, when you consider the park is kind of like the National Mall in D.C., but only ten times larger. (By the way, we had two tour books that said some of the attractions might be closed on Mondays. Neither said anything about the entire park being closed.) So our Xochimilco visit was back on, and fortunately the rain held off during our boat ride.

A few more boats joined us on the canals.
Be ready to be swarmed by vendors and performers while on your boat. We saw multiple mariachi bands on boats (and bought one song; I'm sick of mariachi already and I have about 22 months to go here) as well as craft and food vendors. And because it was not particularly crowded, we were targeted by everyone.

It was a hectic three days with a lot of walking, but it only whetted my appetite to see more of the city. Chapultepec Park itself could consume an entire week to visit. And I intend to see it all.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Still Unpacking, and I'm Old(er)

First let me say that it was not lost on me that when I gave the first update on unpacking our stuff, I posted an Amazon ad for a book on leading a minimalist lifestyle. I'm curious how it ends. When you are done reading this book, throw it away; you don't need things, remember.

The unpacking process is a bear of a task. But by the second day, I had achieved a couple of small victories such as finishing the kitchen (about one-third of our stuff goes in the kitchen) and all of my clothes.

I decided that this was a good time to get rid of clothing that is in tatters, out of fashion (Natalie might say they were never in fashion) or just never worn. I did a little of this pre-pack-out, but you don't really appreciate how much garbage you own until it is paraded through your front door by a bunch of Mexicans.

This is one of the youngest shirts to get tossed out; I'd estimate it to be circa October 2005. It was part of a Halloween costume in which I donned a Bill Clinton mask (Natalie was Hillary; in no way did we have any idea that she would be working for Hillary for the State Department five years later.) By the way, now that Hillary is the chief diplomat, does that mean Bill is the chief EFM? Anyway, I was never really that picky. I think Tiffy might be a closet Republican, and she sleeps with us all of the time.

Moving right along, you might think this T-shirt is from 2003, but it is actually from the class of 2003, which means this one is circa the Summer of 1999. This was my first "free" college T, which was courtesy of a bookstore for spending way too much money on books. I later learned that I could buy the book, copy the chapters we would cover, and return the book for full value. The copies only cost maybe $10 to $20 as opposed to the $150 or whatever for a new textbook (which I also still have somewhere, speaking of collecting garbage.)
Reaching still further into history is this high school football state championship T-shirt, circa December 1996. I'm proud to say that not only was I a member of that team (I kept the bench very warm), but that 14 years later, the shirt still fits. This wasn't the oldest high school football T to get tossed out this time around either, but they were all pretty close to each other. These shirts had a little sentimental value, but not to the new minimalist version of me that can do with out.

I can't confirm it, but I'm fairly certain this was the oldest shirt I could dig up. The front of it says Kentucky Wildcats Basketball 1995 (or is that 1945?), so I would estimate it to be a birthday or Christmas gift from 1995; the only times I really got new clothes other than right before starting a new school year. That would make this sweatshirt 15 years old (still fits), and in a somewhat unrelated note, I turned 30 today. I'm no mathematician, but by my estimations, I have been wearing this shirt for half of my life.
In all, I filled a box with about two dozen shirts, many of which were at least 10 years old. I guess I'll see what the local flea shops will take, but many are probably too tattered even for a Mexican flea shop. But at least I lightened the load for future moves.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

This Is NOT Christmas

I don't know who said it first, but the arrival of all ground/surface/sea possessions does not remind me of Christmas at all.

Our skill in growing boxes can't be denied.
Sure, there are lots of boxes and and unwrapping and things; for example, we planted some box plants yesterday morning, and look at how fast they sprouted in our back yard.

That is about one-third of our emptied boxes, which we threw into the backyard to make more room. Then Mother Nature thought it would be funny to let it start raining. I'm still laughing.

And I guess like Christmas can be, the whole day was stressful and overwhelming.

The delivery truck arrived around 10 a.m.ish with four crates, and perhaps six Spanish-speaking Mexicans to unload them. Then the parade of boxes begins. One by one, a Mexican brings a box through the front door, angles it so one of us can see how it was labeled, and then make a decision on where they should take it. In Spanish. Of course, as good as our pack-out guys were, they didn't always do the best job labeling the boxes. And after the first two, crates, were unloaded, it became more a matter of just finding space for them.

Then the real fun begins, which I suppose this is the "Christmas part" begins. The joy of opening and unwrapping all of the boxes. Oh, and the trying to find a place for everything.

Now maybe it was the past two months of living mostly out of suitcases and the welcome kit, but I grew accustom to living a bit of a minimalist lifestyle. I kind of miss those days already.

Don't get me wrong, I like a lot of my stuff. But if I forgot we owned it, odds are we really don't need it, or probably don't really want it. Kind of wish we would have taken more time going through our things before the packers arrived so we could have moved more things into storage.

For example, we have three sugar bowls and cream pitchers. I like my coffee black, and Natalie seldom drinks it. And speaking of Christmas, we have Christmas-themed salt and pepper shakers. Actually, I think we have an entire Christmas-themed kitchen that will be stored somewhere until December arrives and put away after New Year's Day.

I like to remember my Christmases as a big breakfast, opening of gifts, and then playing with the new toys and enjoying some family time. Yesterday was a little heavy on the gift-opening and a little light on all of the fun parts of Christmas.

But hey, I got my coffee back, so all and all, it was a good day.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Administrative Note and More Bullets!

I've been getting a few new faces stopping by here, and so I thought I'd probably clarify my position on the Comments section.

The way I see it, the Comments section is for the readers' use. Generally, it is anything goes unless I start getting really terrible, hateful comments or if I start getting spam. At that point, I'll reassess the posting process, but let's hope I don't have to cross that bridge.

Also, because I view the Comments section as your territory, I generally do not comment in that section. My feeling is that I've already stated my opinions or views on the topic, and I don't want to be trying to get the last word in. That said, I'll post in the Comments if someone asks me a question directly or if it is apparent people are not understanding my message.

But I do read all of your comments, and they are much appreciated. I enjoy getting some of these conversations started. I also receive e-mail notices when a new comment is left, so even if you are commenting on a really old posting, I still am aware of it.

Now, on to some bullets:

• It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas here. There has been a ground/surface/sea packages spotting in Nogales, and the is loaded and ready to make the trek south. Just because they are a bunch of sadists, they are making us wait until Monday to deliver the goods. I assume it works this way at all posts, but Natalie will take a Home-unpacking Holiday Event (HHE...dead to me, except when it is a holiday) on Monday. There will be dancing in the streets! And coffee for everyone!

• Today is the day I've been dreading ever since right before we left Crystal City for the long drive southwest. On just about the last day possible, I got a very short haircut, secretly hoping it would last two years. Alas, I made it almost two months, but I concede it is time. For my entire childhood and into young adulthood, only one man cut my hair. It was a bit of a traumatic experience when I went to college and finally had to get someone else to do the job. It almost felt like I was cheating on my barber. Then I moved to D.C., and for the first time, I had a woman cutting my hair. Another unnerving event for me. But today, when one of Natalie's colleagues takes me to visit Miss Arizona (not the beauty-queen contestant, I assume), it will be the first time I will get my hair cut by someone who doesn't speak English. Maybe I just need to shave myself bald and avoid this stress.

• Here's a little leftover item from looking back at our arrival here. Would it be too much to ask to get the Internet ball rolling before we arrive. I'm guessing in some of these developing nation posts, there is probably only a single provider, so there really isn't any reason why someone at post can't make the necessary phone calls or whatever so the Internet will be waiting on us instead of vice versa. We actually had two options here, sorta. There are two providers, but if you want anything close to American service, you have to go through TelMex. And TelMex has three plans, but if you want anything close to American service, you have to buy the most expensive plan (about $85 USD per month). Still, we didn't have to wait terribly long - less than a week - but still, this seems like an unnecessary amount of dead time.

• Google AdSense received Strike 1 a few days ago. The ads, apparently, aren't the same depending on where you are reading from, so what I see here in Mexico can be different than what you see in the States or where ever else you might be. But I saw an ad for a quasi-religious group that almost made me pull the plug on this operation. Without repeating its name and accidentally give Google an excuse to hit me with it again, it is a group that serves Hollywood types that believe you have to give the organization money to learn stuff. Oh, and it was founded by a former Si-Fi writer; if you need more clues, Tom Cruise is a member. Anyway, in case anyone else noticed this, let me say that I do not endorse said group, and I will trying to see if I can't block future ads from them.

• Mexican culture, like several European cultures, dictates that when a woman is involved in a greeting, there is cheek-to-cheek air kissing. A little awkward, but when in Rome, right? I still find myself forgetting time to time and there is either an awkward pause before I remember my manners, or an even more awkward handshake only because I forgot my manners altogether. That is when I greet a Mexican woman. What is the protocol for greeting an American woman in Mexico? I've seen Natalie's male colleagues approach it either or, so I suppose it is a preference thing.

• Finally, I think a marketing genius invented the slogan, "It's a dry heat." This is the first or second most common marketing expression I've heard, with "What Happens in Vegas" being in the running as well. So in D.C., the summer is high 80s to low 90s (barring a heat wave) and humid. And it is miserable to go outside. You feel like you are getting steamed. Here, it is mid 100s to mid 110s (barring a heat wave) with just a little humidity (we are in the rainy season, after all), and it is miserable to go outside. You feel like you are getting baked. So either way, you're cooked and better off staying inside, which, by the way, is what most people do here in the late morning through early afternoon. So much for that dry heat baloney.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Familiar Faces in the Crowd

This might be hard to believe, but it can be pretty difficult to keep a low profile while broadcasting your life experiences on the Internet. Shocking, I know. This is the kind of analysis you can't find any where else but here.

But I get that deer-in-the-headlight look every time someone says "I read in your blog..." Wait? You mean not only were you aware it exists but you wasted your time by reading it?

I've said it before, and it is worth repeating, but I like writing for a faceless audience much more than writing for my friends, family, neighbors and colleagues. In short, I like to write without really having any accountability.

Which creates some interesting scenarios now that I am living amidst some of my readers (I use that term loosely, more like, people who know I have a blog and have stopped by on occasions probably to make sure I didn't reveal too much about them). It also makes it a little harder to write some of theses postings, such as when I might have bemoaned a favorite topic of conversation, or when I advertised to anyone who would listen that my culture adaptation process finds me in the dumps on occasions. I mean, I don't need people looking at me like I'm broken or something.

I don't make it a point to tell people here that I blog - quite the opposite, actually. But alas, I know some people here do know, and I can only assume others have caught wind of it. It's my own personal policy to not include names or pictures of anyone else to let them enjoy their privacy, but I can't help but wonder if knowledge about my blog and fear that something might get said on it might cause some to behave slightly different when I'm around.

Many of you have been doing this longer than me: writing about your life in the foreign service. Do you let others know about it? What kind of reception do you get? Do you find yourselves holding back because you don't want to offend colleagues? I'd be very interested to here some of your tales about blogging about life abroad while the relatively small American communities we live in are both readers and players.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

EFM: Emissary on a Free Mission

What's the biggest difference between serving as a tandem and being an Extra Freeloader in Mexico (EFM)? A second government paycheck.

OK, so the second paycheck would be earned through putting in hours at the Consulate, and I'd have to pass all sorts of tests, but whether I like it or not, I'm a diplomat. (And, yes, I know the feeling is mutual. Like it or not Americans, I'm representing you and your image down here. I apologize in advance for any lasting repercussions.)

EFMs are kind of like First Ladies in that way. We didn't really sign up for this job when we married our spouses, and the government didn't really get too much of a say in picking ideal EFMs to accompany their Formally Selected Officials (FSOs). The only screening they did on me was a background check and a medical test. Essentially, the only requirement to being an EFM is not getting into too much trouble and being disease free. (And who knows, they might not even care that much about those two criteria either. Anyone know of any potential EFM being rejected for medical reasons?)

Also like the First Ladies, how we fulfill our role is entirely dependent on our own ambitions. We can be Hillary Clintons and be - perhaps - too involved, or we could be Laura Bushs lead and be essentially out of sight.

That said, I'm not locking myself in the house and never making public appearances. And when I do go out, I am representing how Americans behave. And I stick out a bit, too, given that I have paler skin than most of the native Hermosillians, and that I also probably have a general look of confusion.

Some of us are better at this job than others. Take Novakistan (formerly Minnesota Gal) for instance. She does us proud in her job as a diplomat. These two stories - this one written by her, and this one written by her friend who was visiting - are some of the best things I've read from fellow foreign service spouses since I entered the fold. If you have time, you definitely need to read these pieces. If you don't, then stop reading this one and go check them out instead.

I don't have the language skills, yet, to be able to be that involved, but I did get to practice a little this past weekend doing some Beach Diplomacy.

There are two beaches near here - San Carlos and Bahia de Kino. From the best that I can tell, Kino seems to be more of the locals' beach whereas San Carlos is more "vacationy." While at Kino this past weekend, we - Natalie, one of her colleagues, and I - had a Frisbee with us. It wasn't the most effective toy with the wind making it difficult to throw, and when it went into the water, it sunk making it hard to retrieve. In short, it was a crappy Frisbee.

Near by, there were two young boys (both 6-9ish) playing in the sand. I think they were digging, but they didn't have any tools. They also didn't have any bathing suits and were just wearing their underwear instead. Natalie's colleague invited them into our game of throwing the Frisbee and looking for it in the Gulf after we inevitably missed it. They were loving it.

They left eventually, and we were getting ready to go our hut when a young girl (9-12ish) walked up to me - I was holding the crappy Frisbee - with a JuMex box in her hand and said "Hi," in English. A bit relieved that she spoke some English, I decided to test it. "Do you want to throw?" "Yeah," and then she handed her juice box to some and threw the Frisbee to Natalie's colleague. She threw a few more times before she started getting bored, or distracted, and then her little sister came over and we played with her some.

She was fascinating, and I'd love to have had more time to talk with her. But I did learn that she was born in Phoenix while her parents and older sister were born in Mexico, and that she had (or still does?) attended school in Tuscan. Her English was incredible, probably even better than some of her American contemporaries. But she also said it was her job to teach her parents and her sister English, too. Like I said, I would have loved to hear more of her story.

But the game ended and we went our separate ways. I'd like to think that the parents were watching and were thinking that those Americans aren't that bad after all. And I'd like to think that as those children get older, they'll remember playing with some Americans on the beach, and that we didn't have fangs or fences.

You'll never find me serving the United States in a Consulate or Embassy, but I'm just find deploying a little Beach Diplomacy here and there.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why a Maid Isn't in the Cards

An appropriate subtitle: Because I was a stubborn ass, penny-pincher in the States, and that isn't going to change just because I'm in Mexico.

I appreciate the thoughtful suggestions, but this one just won't work with me. I actually gave it a long, serious thought the other day, and I found myself getting physically ill.

I'm sure maids are great and they help a lot people get through the day-to-day living in a foreign country not only through their cleaning services but also through the insights they can share into the local culture and language.

A.) Hiring a maid would put me out of a job. While the freelance work trickles in ever so slowly, I'm not bringing much to the table financially. But I can save the house a little money by doing all of the cooking and house maintenance instead of outsourcing it (by the way, I dropped the term cleaning because that is a losing battle. As soon as I stop sweeping one corner and move on, that corner is already getting dirty again. So house maintenance it is.) This goes beyond contribution, too. It is hard to replace the satisfaction of doing a job well, even if it is only unskilled labor.

Consequently, my toys have changed quite a bit. This is my cleaning collection to date. Seems like every weekend I add a new piece. And the Swifter Jet is on its way.

2.) Not only would hiring a maid put me out of a job, but maintaining the house is a large part of my day. Given the chores on my list, we're talking at least two hours of work - usually more.

c.) Have I mentioned yet that I'm cheap? Just for the same reasons I can never bring myself to buy a second coffee pot, I can't justify buying something I already have or paying for a service I can do myself.

IV.) Unlike many other countries, the culture here is too different from American culture. Even more so here than in other parts of Mexico. The people here have been or want to go the States often to do their shopping or to go to Disney Land or live (legally or otherwise). They really are not all that interested in Mexican culture. And other than a few bizarre ingredients, the food isn't that exotic either. I have faith in my ability to pick up on a few of the differences without an instructor.

• And finally, I have alternatives for learning the language skills. I have the Stone. I will be attending a weekly course at the Consulate for Expat Families in Mexico (EFMs). And to top it all off, I'm in the process of signing up for the Distance Learning Program as suggested by a fellow male EFM, or BRO if you'd prefer, from Locke'd Up Abroad. See, I am capable of taking some suggestions.

And if I still can't handle Spanish after all of that, then I'll consider the maid thing again, with a healthy side of Pepto to help me swallow my pride.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

It Ain't All Bad

So last post was a bit of a downer. It was a hard decision to make as to whether or not I would make that post, because I didn't want to stir a pity party in my honor, and I didn't want to overly upset my family and friends.

By the way, thank you to everyone who posted their concern and offered some suggestions. It was much appreciated.

That said, I thought it was necessary to post that times aren't always great being a foreign service spouse. There are definitely challenges. And many people - at least it seems to me given some of the remarks I heard State-side - believe that it is a 24-7 vacation.

If that is your expectations or chief reason for entering the life of a foreign service spouse, then you are in for a rude awakening. It isn't all fun and games. But hey, when life (or your neighbor) gives you limons, then I say cut 'em up and add them to your beer. (Corona, we can talk later about trademarking. And to the rest of the Mexican beer companies, in no way is this an official endorsement of Corona. I'd be more than happy to accept advertising from the highest bidder.)

Those limons - ping-pong-ball-sized limes - were courtesy of our newest American expat neighbors who were fortunate enough to have a home with a limon tree in their backyard and kind enough to share their bounty. Blessed with a bag full of limons, we just had to buy some Coronas to go with them. Otherwise, this little fruit seems to be the favored flavor (trying saying that a few times fast - it was even difficult to type) to add to tacos.

I also get the irony in pointing out that the foreign service lifestyle isn't always a vacation when I spent today at the beach. So it isn't always a vacation here, but you can make it one from time to time.

Here is a quick little riddle for you? At Bahia de Kino, what does a roaming beach mariachi band and tiki hut have in common? Tick tock, tick tock...give up? They both cost 50 pesos (less than $4 USD).

That's me before in a true comedic, can't-catch-a-break moment, my chair broke and I landed on my butt in the sand.

So that's the hut. Then where is the mariachi band? Well, ladies and gentlemen, for your listening and viewing pleasure, I'm pleased to present to you one of the several beach-roaming, 50-peso-per song, all-Mexican Mariachi Muchachos (my name, not theirs).

Note to users: A little useful tip if you are uploading your own video. Start uploading the video first as you can type away while it uploads, which takes a very long time. Then, when you are done typing, go out and see movie. Then come home and take a nap Rip Van Winkle style. After waking up, get a bite to eat, and then wait about 10 more minutes to publish your post.
Or just upload it on YouTube and embed the link. For once, going through a middle man actually expedites the process.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

EFM: Evidence For Moods

If you were reading through the comments in the first part of the leaky ceiling story, the last one on there might have seemed like an overreaction.

In actuality, I'll Take Mine...To Go, Please! was responding to a comment I had left on another blog. To quote Shannon from Cyberbones:
You know that handy little chart that floats around diagramming the stages of acceptance at a new post? If you are not FS it goes something like this: honeymoon, depression, resigned acceptance, happiness. Well I completely skip the honeymoon period everytime.
I added her comment section that my honeymoon period is over and I feel stuck in the depression. (Not to worry, family, that is an overstatement. This is not a call for help.) I also asked for a copy of said schematic. Well, ask and you will receive, which is where I'll Take Mine...To Go, Please! came to the rescue. (And thank you very much for that!)
OK, so first off, how did Natalie spend from September 2009 through June 2010 in A-100 (introduction to the foreign service, essentially) and Federally Supervised Instructions (FSI) without ever receiving a copy of this thing? How did I attend three or four FSI courses and never receive this thing? Sure, learning about how to seat guests at a state dinner is a skill I use everyday, but in hindsight, I wish they offered a course on coping with cultural adaptation instead of etiquette.

So moving across the chart, I didn't really have the pre-departure ups and downs. I wasn't excited about pack-out day or living in a hotel for 10 days, but it had no bearing on my emotional well-being.

I definitely enjoyed an initial honeymoon stage, or as I like to think of it, becoming accustomed to this awesome house - leaky roof aside. But after about a week or so, I began to slip into what the chart refers to as culture shock/acute homesickness. I don't know if those words feel appropriate for what I was actually feeling or not, but you get the picture. The emotional well-being red line dipped.

(Important case study note, in which I'm the case study: The chart, while cool and scientific looking, is a generalization. In my particular case, I think my honeymoon and culture shock stages were more intertwined and instead of a nice smooth curvy line, mine is more jagged with more ups and downs. Even in the culture shock area, there are still good days; it's just that the bad days are a little more intense than bad days back home and a little more frequent.)

So because FSI has failed us all by its lack of cultural adaptation class, I'll offer my four lessons from my own struggles.

1. I wish I would have been more studious in learning Spanish. This is 100% my fault, and I accept the blame, but that isn't helping much right now. I've been using the Stone a bit more (still don't particularly like it), and Spanish class is to commence soon at the Consulate. I hope ironing out this inability-to-communicate wrinkle will make life here better, but I'm not putting all of my eggs in this basket.

2. Speaking of eggs in a single basket, I wish I wasn't so reliant on a single client for my freelance work. The problem with working with this magazine - other than the fact that the editor holds a personal grudge against me - is that both the editor and publisher are lousy communicators and fear confrontations. So are they not responding to my e-mails because they are angry with me, are just being lazy about hitting the respond button, or do they just not want to tell me they think my story ideas suck? Another situation in which I saw the red flags before coming here, but I decided to leave it all to chance that it would work out.

3. I miss my stuff. I'm not really a possessions-oriented person, but I miss my coffee pot, food processor, toaster and/or toaster oven and cookbooks. I also miss our DVD player, DVDs (and VHS tapes) and books. I feel like Steve Martin from The Jerk. "I don't need this or this. Just this ashtray...And this paddle game ... And that's all I need. I don't need one other thing, not one...I need this." (And yes, that is my second movie reference in as many posts.) So I wish we had better planned our air freight.

4. This is the big one - managing expectations. I'd like to say I came here with no expectations. I thought I was coming here with no expectations. But after the first couple of weeks here, I found myself saying to myself, "This is not what I expected," so I must have expected something, right?

I had heard Hermosillo described as a small town within a big city. I really have no idea what that means. But I grew up in a small town. I went to college and had my first jobs in a small town. Hermosillo is not a small town by any stretch of the imagination. In a small town, you can count the number of stoplights on two hands or less. In a small town, there is two or three main roads that go no further than two miles without leaving the city limits. In a small town, you can live anywhere and still walk to what the locals refer to as its downtown.

Hermosillo has almost a million people here (some anticipate that the 2010 census will push past 1 million). Sure, there aren't any skyscrapers like in big U.S. cities, but a small town has like 50,000 people at most, not a million. And it is spread out. There are a couple of downtownish shopping areas, but none in walking distance from where we live. Not that you would want to walk in this heat anyway, but still.

In truth, having seen a few pictures of our home before we arrived, I didn't have high expectations for it, so I was pleasantly surprised when we got here. The few descriptions I had of Hermosillo had me expecting something else, and given my current standing on the emotional well-being line, I guess that wasn't such a pleasant surprise.

But with any luck and some hard work, will be getting the rest of our stuff soon and I'll get a better grasp on Spanish. And maybe the working situation will improve - it seems to ebb and flow. And after some time, I'll get used to this version of a "small town." For starters, just having this chart bumped up my emotional well-being line. It was refreshing to know that this is such a common experience there is a scientific-looking chart to describe it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

It's Salsa Time! (and not the dip)

Before moving forward, I guess you all want to hear the conclusion to my riveting leaky ceiling story.

After finishing that posting, about 10 minutes later, right around 10 a.m.ish, again, the doorbell rings. Surprise, it is the all-too-familiar face of my Fast Service Networker (FSN). I was rather worn out that morning having not slept much the night before, and also having just hashed out the tale for all to read, I'm sure my disheveled appearance underscored just how exasperated I was with the situation.

I greet with an English "hello," and as I'm saying that, he greets in a Spanish "buenos dias," so I recovered and echo the same. "How is your Spanish?" he asks. Not good, but I'm studying some on The Stone and there is going to be a class at the Consulate soon, which I'm looking forward to taking. Though the whole time, I feel a little like Jennifer Aniston from Office Space (just substitute "pieces of flair" with "words in Spanish," and yeah, you get the picture. And yes, I just compared myself to Jennifer Aniston). "I don't really like talking about my flair."

Moving right along, I ask the FSN point blank, "Any chance they finish this today?" No. "OK, well, thanks."

Tweedle Lazy took the the day off, I guess, so Tweedle Dee was on his own. First he tinkered on the roof for a couple of hours, followed by his mandatory lunch and smoke break. Then they came back, painted in the ceiling, and the FSN shocks me by saying they are done. It will be interesting to see how our new roof holds up during the next rainstorm, as I got the impression some corners were cut so they could Just Finish the Job Already. At least I don't have to deal with that for a while, and consider the lesson learned: Only in the most dire of situations will I be requesting work done on the house.

There is more to Mexican culture, however, then poor work performance. And last night, we sampled a little more of it. One of Natalie's colleagues got a flyer about a salsa dance lesson and invited us to come along.

That yellow smiling face to the right is actually a pretty good rendering of our instructor, though a little less cartoonish. He even wore the hat.

Want to try something hard? Try being naturally void of rhythm, grace and coordination; then try learning some complicated dance steps; and for the kicker, receive those instructions in a language you don't know. Oh, and I forgot to mention that we were in a non-air-conditioned gymnasium. There is a lot of movement in salsa dancing, but it is a far cry from being an intense aerobic workout. All the same, I was sweating like two-a-day football workouts in full pads under a Kentucky August sun.

The first dance steps we went through were pretty intense. There were probably about 40 steps or so to it, and I did my best to watch his feet because I wasn't getting anything from the oral instructions. In high school, I had learned a few basic steps such as a grapevine and the cha-cha-cha step, which was very similar to the move he referred to as "classico" and was used as the starting point and ending point for the dances. So that helped some.

But this was a whirlwind experience. There was no keeping up this dance - not at the rate he was teaching it, anyway, and definitely not for a beginner  like the three of us.

The second dance was much easier, as long as you were the man. This was a co-ed dance, and the man's main job was to showcase and guide the woman while she twirled about. I made plenty of mistakes, but as long as I was paired with a woman who knew what she was doing, I actually did alright. Poor Natalie, however, has about the same natural dancing skills I possess, plus this dance was very complicated for the woman. She was relieved, I believe, when this lesson ended. Sadly, we don't have any pictures (or video) of our attempts at salsa.

When that was done, they handed out some Tecate Light and we watched while the instructors and some late arrivals took to the floor and amazed us with their dancing. Then, shocking to us, many of our "classmates" got up and started doing steps much more complicated then the ones we just learned. We couldn't understand why they were taking the class when obviously they already were experienced dancers.

For example, during the crazy-hard first dance, there was a pubescent, tall, overweight guy behind me. Being behind me, I never really got to see him dance, but I was guessing it wasn't good. After the first dance, he sat out the second. Made me feel good. Sure, I suck, but at least I was brave enough to keep going. And I don't even know Spanish.

During the dance party, he went out there with two girls, and was spinning them all over the place. Then he started twirling and spinning while spinning them. He was very, very good. I was shocked because on the surface, he looked like he was an awkward teen still growing into his body.

Don't know if this was a one-time only experience or not, but it was fun if not a bit humbling.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Finish the Job Already!

Part of the purpose of the last post was to set this one up. Remember how I said different doesn't necessarily mean worse or better. Well throw that out. In this case, this cultural difference is absolutely worse.

A couple of weeks ago, we had a pretty bad rainstorm. Backyard flooded, thunder shook the house, hours and hours of heavy down pours, et cetera, et cetera. I learned later that it was essentially a 10-year storm, which means that a storm that bad only passes through about every ten years.

This storm was so bad, in fact, that the ceiling in our converted-study sprung a series of small leaks. Nothing devastating, but we had been informed that it is our responsibility to inform the consulate in the even that any thing goes awry in our sparkly new home. Being naive and grateful for said home, I passed the word on to Natalie who sent in a work order.

Either that same day or the next, a Fast Service Networker (FSN)came over to assess the problem. I showed him the few spots that had dripped a couple of times during a pretty bad, and not too common storm. Structural problems are not the consulate's business, so they would have to work with our landlords. Besides, it was raining again, and there isn't much you can do to fix a leaky ceiling during the rain.

The next clear day, the FSN returned with a very old man; let's call him Tweedle Dee. He came and looked at where I said the leaks had appeared, climbed on to our roof and left saying he didn't have everything he needed to fix the problem with him.

Fast forward one week later, and another intense storm later - one that was so intense it knocked out our power for almost two hours, but not so bad that the ceiling leaked anymore - and the FSN arrives with Tweedle Dee and another guy; his name will be Tweedle Lazy. They get started around 10 a.m.ish, which was rather disruptive for me because I had planned to go grocery shopping that day and had dropped Natalie off at work so I could have the car.

Noon rolls around, and the FSN asks if I have some water I could spare the Tweedles. No problem, it was very hot out. They proceed with a two-hour lunch break, work for about 30 more minutes, and call it a day. They'll come back tomorrow. Fine. Works for me; I still have time to go grocery shopping.

Friday is the same routine. They start work around 10 a.m., take a two-hour lunch, mooch some more bottled water (they know they are taking a lunch break; why don't they bring their own damn water?), leave my ceiling looking like this, and leave for the weekend saying they'll see me on Monday.

Well, Friday night another bad storm arrives in the middle of the night. Knocked out power again, briefly, and it probably had more to do with the heavy wind than anything else. Natalie suggests we (me) should check on the study to make sure it isn't leaking. Nah. The only time it leaked, it poured for hours; this storm isn't another 10-year storm. Next morning, sure enough, there is a small stack of very wet papers. The Tweedles have managed to worsen the situation, and in only three weeks time. And there is a chance of rain every day this week, so it is unlikely they'll be here at all and likely that it will continue to leak with every storm. This is your reward for doing what you're supposed to do.

So to tie that exhaustive story back to the beginning of this post, for whatever reason, Americans are a very industrious people. And while not trying to be racist, that trait does not seem to translate to our neighbors in the South.

(Some would say it is our Puritan heritage, but I wholly disagree. Speaking of which, has any historic group benefited more from America's success than the Puritans? What if our nation had not come out on top and rather was a struggling nation? Would people blame the Puritans? After all, what do you expect out of a nation that was founded by Puritans who could make it in Europe? The Puritans and the Founding Fathers definitely are doing better today than they probably ought to be. And before you question me on that, remember that it was the Founding Fathers' failure to end slavery that sparked a civil war some four score and seven years later, so let's not try to invoke their visions when it comes to legislating this country today. But I digress.)

Cultural difference are bound to rear their head from time to time, and we need to keep our guard up so that our reaction will not be insulting to our host nation. But this one I just don't get. Finish the job already!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

EFM: Embracing Foreign Methods

Being able to adapt. Accepting other cultures are not inferior - just different. Willing to try new things.

All pretty basic stuff if you want to enjoy your stay in the foreign service. And a lot easier to say than to actually practice.

On Thursday (our first month in the books) I found myself in the grocery store by myself (for the second time) and having some difficulty buying food to prepare for dinner.

In my cart, there were some fruits, a package of chicken breasts and some processed foods. Staring at it, I couldn't think of a thing to make with what I had and I found myself growing irritated and depressed simultaneously.

Which led to my come-to-Jesus moment. My cart was bereft of local staples. During my previous solo grocery trip, I took note of some of the subtle difference between American and Mexican grocery stores. Some of the differences in the aisles and some of the different products available. But I was still pretty certain I would be cooking my foods. The stuff I was used to doing.

Now granted, once my toys arrive in our ground/surface/sea freight, that will make it a little easier to go back to cooking what I know, but for the most part, those toys just increase cooking efficiency. In other words, I'll probably still be facing the same problems of not knowing how to work with what they sell here.

Throwing caution to the wind, I went back to the produce and started filling my cart with some vegetables. They have a lot of tomatillos here, and in different places, so these must be important. Let's pick some up. Have to have some chili peppers, right? How about a couple of serranos, then. Onions are important in every culture, let's get one of those, too.

A brief side story: I don't know much Spanish, which can make grocery shopping a real treat at times. So I grabbed a reporter's notebook for this trip and wrote down the names of all of the foods that I didn't recognize or wasn't a 100% sure on. Then I looked them up on SpanishDict when I got home. The notebook will be my grocery shopping Bible. Best translations to date, a toss up between "chicozapte" (a delicious American fruit, which is odd because I'm not familiar with this fruit) and "grasa mixta comestible" (which literally means edible mixture of fat, but in practice, this is lard).

Now I have some stuff I can work with, but I still have no idea how to blend this altogether to make something "comestible." I try a few Internet searches with lines like, "These are my ingredients" until I finally came across a Web site I favorite'd immediately, Go play with this Web site. It is incredible. You just enter the ingredients you have, then you can highlight the stuff you want to use, and it is filtering through various other recipe Web sites what options are out there for you.

I ended up with grilled chicken breast and a roasted tomatillo and tomato salsa. Not too bad.

But I was on a role now, so I needed to make a side, too. I love black beans, but I can never cook them well. So I did a few searches and apparently every one cooks canned beans. I wasn't interested in canned bean recipes, I have dried beans. Through the magic of Internet surfing, I eventually found the Web site to the American Bean Association which offered great tips on cooking dried beans.

I found that one of my fatal flaws was adding salt to the beans while they cooked. A big no-no that leads to very dry beans. And here I was just thinking I wasn't letting them soak long enough, which, by the way, the whole soaking over night nonsense is just a myth. Instead, add beans to hot water, bring to a boil, and let the boil continue for a couple of minutes. Then remove from the heat, cover and leave it alone for about four hours.

Using these tips and what I had in my pantry, I made my first successful black bean dish. And there was much rejoicing not only because now I can cook one of my favorite beans, but because I finally decided to alter my methods to fit the environment.