Saturday, July 31, 2010

Rainy Season in the Desert

How bad could it possibly be, right? Desert rain storm seems like an oxymoron, does it not? In fact, during our first two weeks here, all of which were during rainy season, we had a few drizzles here. Granted, there would be a heavy storm somewhere else in or around Hermosillo, but a few pop-up showers that effect a small area didn't seem like much of a rainy season. Well, then the storms came in full force.

We had planned on going to the beach today (about an hour west of here), but after two days of torrential, non-stop rain and a gloomy forecast, we nixed that idea. After all, it isn't like we can't go some other time, and being stuck in Hermosillo during a rain storm is one thing. But being stuck on the beach during a storm is entirely too depressing.

On Thursday, the rain started around 3 p.m.ish, and it was the most intense storm the city had seen in almost a decade.

That is our backyard taking a beating to the point it was a couple of inches under water. It uprooted one of our tiki torches. A while later, I looked in the backyard again, and it had started to float away. Not that it could have gotten too far in our prison, but I put on some flipflops and started after it, about ankle deep. In hindsight, that was a very bad idea considering all of the lightning and iron-rod gates in our yard. That could have been an embarrassing death notice - struck down by lightning while in ankle deep water retrieving a 60-peso (about $5) tiki torch. It probably would have secured a place on Spike's 1,000 Ways To Die.

Some of the thunder that accompanied the storm shook the house causing Tiffy to cower at feet under the desk. Usually, she barks at thunder and whimpers a little, but I guess these cracks were a little too intimidating to elicit much of a response other than genuine trepidation.

This city was not really built to withstand such storms. Apparently there is no underground sewer system, so the water just fills the streets causing several high-water situations. So bad, in fact, several Consulate employees (my wife included) hung out in the office past 6 p.m. to wait for the water levels to dip to a point that one of the SUV owners could take everyone home. Our car stayed by the Consulate that night.

It stopped raining eventually that night, but we woke up to more rainfall. It started off not terribly bad, but then picked up to a steady down pour that continued for about five or six hours. Fortunately it fell just slow enough to avoid all of the flooding issues.

As I mentally prepared for moving to Hermosillo, I was ready for intense heat. People here know how to handle heat. They just stay in doors. But epic thunderstorms was something that caught me a little off guard. I'm surprised to say that I think I actually prefer the devastating heat to the rain. At least there is somewhat of an option to leave the house during the heat. Sure, the temperature drops dramatically, but these rain storms truly leave you feeling sequestered.

This is the view of our flooded street from our garage door, which sometimes I have to open during the heavy rain to let the water out.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hodge Podge Kind of a Day II

So much to say without any real theme to link it altogether. If only there was some sort of format that would allow for me to jump from one topic to the next without having to worry about transitions...Oh wait! There is. You get more bullets!

• Leading into this move, I was worried how Tiffy would cope with everything, especially the heat. As last reported in Crystal City, she adopted the Sheraton as our new home rather quickly. She also fared pretty well during our series of one-night stays. I wish I knew what she thought of this place. She knows the neighborhood pretty well including all of the homes that have dogs. And we do lots of exploring during our morning walk outside the gates. This morning, we went a long walk, and I thought it wiped her out. But when we got home, she was really frisky, grabbed a tennis ball and sprinted around our dining room table (Though that is her collapsed on the kitchen floor a few moments later). She hasn't gotten to do much sprinting in a long time, so I think she really needed to stretch out. As for the heat, we do well in the mornings and evenings. The afternoons can be dreadful, and what used to be a 30 minute walk is sometimes reduced to about 10 minutes - with breaks.

• Speaking of Tiffy, I had occupied myself before leaving with getting Tiffy's paperwork together. Boy am I glad. I don't think anyone even knew we had a dog in the car. If they did, they sure as hell didn't care. Though I suppose had I not done all of the paperwork, they certainly would have asked for it. Sort of like a few years ago, my dad bought a snow blower. It didn't snow for several years after that, so in essence, the thing did its job: it kept the snow away.

• Tea is okay, but it is a poor substitute for coffee.

• Verizon is on the verge of joining Papa John's on our very short, Do-Not-Patronize List. Natalie sent them an e-mail earlier this week asking them to cancel our plan, which is currently on a month-by-month basis. Sorry, we need to talk to you on the phone to do that. Okay, but we are in Mexico; our phones only serve as time pieces and paper weights. All, but wait. Call this magic number and your phone will work from any where, they say. Natalie called the number. You don't have to be Nostradamus to have predicted that didn't work. Fine, you can cancel via e-mail, but not until this billing cycle is through. Oh, and thank you for your five years of patronage, please consider us when you move back to the States. Here's the problem, Verizon, unlike Mexico, the U.S. has several cell phone providers, so (ear muffs), Fuck Off! (sorry about that)

• Did anyone know Mexico refers to itself as the United States of Mexico? How many united states are there throughout the world?

• I imagine every country is this way, but many Internet sites are in Spanish unless I use a different URL. For example, if I type, I go to Mexico's Yahoo! page. To get the English version, it is I even had to adjust blogger's dashboard settings back to English.

• And finally, this never gets old to me. Any idea who the largest bakery in the world is? Bimbo. This brand, which is the only brand I buy here, also owns American brands Arnold, Boboli and Wonder and even Thomas English Muffins. On top of that, the American division of Bimbo is Bimbo Bakeries USA. I guess no one had the cajones to mention to them the way Americans use the term "bimbo." And like NASCAR drivers, sports teams here plaster sponsorship on their jerseys, so there are three Mexican soccer jerseys with BIMBO in big red letters on them.

And there you have it. Feels good to have gotten all of that out there.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Air Freight Nightmares

Before I delve too deep into our lessons learned about packing air freight, let me first call your attention to a new page to EF'M. It has a permanent link in the left column with the disclaimers, but it essentially is a list of hated, and thus replaced, State acronyms and phrases. Instead of typing out "air freight (EF'M no longer recognizes the use of UAB)" every time, I'll just link back to this page.

Moving on, we failed miserably in packing our air freight. Which is doubly embarrassing considering we drove to post meaning we should have had amble space for bringing necessities to Hermosillo.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that we made too many assumptions about the welcome kit. For example, we left behind our toaster and coffee maker thinking those would have to be in a welcome kit. I'm also wishing we would have brought a cookie sheet or two as well become some frozen food just doesn't microwave well.

Alas, we are toaster, coffee and baked goods-less for the next month or so. In fact, our kitchen is quite bare and makes cooking a dreadful, unfulfilling task. I didn't realize how much I love my gadgets and seasonings until I've been asked to cook without them.

"But you guys had 450 pounds and a car load. What did you pack?" you might ask. And a good question. Also by not knowing our welcome kit, we've doubled (and tripled) up on some items. For example, our government-issued bed came with bedding. So did we. Two sets of bedding, actually. But wanting to use government bedding is understandable, I suppose.

The welcome kit also came with towels. So did we. Almost our entire linen closet made it here, actually. This was part of the problem with our pack-out plan. Natalie was in charge of the air freight while I kept an eye on everything else. And we didn't really do a good job of prioritizing our possessions.

That, and Natalie really likes clothes. And she brought everything except her dead-of-winter wardrobe. The good news is that she has her Emmitt Smith Cowboys jersey I haven't seen her wear ever. And at least two bath robes, including the heavy one, which is so necessary in the desert in the summer. She also really likes hangers. I'd estimate that we packed about 30 pounds of hangers. (The welcome kit also had about 20 of those.)

I shouldn't pick on her too much, though, because I probably went a little over board on the clothes as well. I brought all of my dress pants because it is important to be dressed while sweeping sand and doing dishes.

We also had to take care of Tiffy by packing a 50 pound bag of dog food in our air freight even though we were driving with about 30 pounds or so in the car. Better safe than sorry, I suppose, but I highly doubt we'll be opening another 50-pound bag of dog food before our ground/surface/sea freight arrives.

There are a few success stories, however. We had our desktop computer and printer sent in the air freight. For anyone else shipping a printer, it is a good idea to remove the ink cartridges before it is sealed because I guess those tend to leak when jostled about.

I also smuggled one frying pan, spatula and pizza cutter without Natalie knowing. When I told her, she was a bit annoyed, until we started using it. The welcome kit does come with some pots and pans, but I would hate to rely on these for much more than boiling water. They are on the thin side, and I couldn't imagine trying to cook anything like a chicken breast on it because the outside would get crispy well before the inside would be done.

The major lessons learned are this. You don't need nearly as much clothes as you think you do. You'll have a washer and dryer after all. And get to know your welcome kit. I wouldn't ask the post what is in it, because it is a pretty long list. Rather, ask specific questions, such as, "Is there a coffee maker in the welcome kit?" That should not take the people working at the post quite as long to determine.

Good luck to those of you who have pack-out day on the horizon, and please learn from our mistakes.

Monday, July 26, 2010

EFM: Elated For Milestone

Jan. 5 seems like a long time ago. But back then, about six and a half months ago, EF'M made its first appearance on the Internet. On this day in July, we celebrate the 100th post.

Traditionally, television shows would take the 100th episode off and just go through a clip-reel of past season highlights. But not here. No, sir. Nothing but new material.

In the spirit of celebration, I'll provide recount of Friday night - our first night out on the town in Hermosillo.

It all began innocent enough. We went out with a group of six other Americans to see a movie at the new theater in the new mall, only months old. It is a VIP cinema, so all of the seats are leather recliners, and they provide a wait staff to take food and drink orders.

An okay movie and just an okay overall experience. But at the price of less than $9 per ticket, I don't think I'll ever be able to attend a movie in the States again. Not even a matinee.

The other interesting part was watching an American movie - "Knight and Day," or in Mexico, "Encuentro Explosivo," which definitely is not a literal translation, though I give them credit for coming up with a better, more appropriate title - with Spanish subtitles. My Spanish is beyond bad, but even I could pick up on some of the unintended humor provided by the brief, simplified subtitles. For example, every curse, which pretty much was just "shit" was translated as "diablos." Diablos, of course, means "devils." Also, through out the entire movie, an incredulous Cameron Diaz is constantly saying "Oh my God." Translation: "cielo" or "heavens." But otherwise, I could see how watching enough movies and television with Spanish subtitles could be a helpful way to improve my Spanish.

Moving along, at this point, about half of the group called it a night, while the rest of us went out to a restaurant near the Consulate aptly called Casa Centenaria (a terrible Web site, by the way). Aptly named because of how it coincides so neatly with this my 100th posting. I couldn't have planned this myself.

The food was good, and for American standards, very inexpensive. I have been aching to have some authentic Mexican mole, but I probably should have stuck with this region's specialty and ordered a steak. That I will do next time.

But what really makes this place a gem is the atmosphere, which they fail to promote on the Web site. It was a little warm, but we sat in the walled-in, outdoor patio section, where they had a live jazz band, which was really good, especially the drummer. And I don't particularly care for jazz. And when they were taking breaks, they had a large screen projection of American music videos, which was mostly 70s and 80s rock. The highlight was a Muppets rendition of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." This is required viewing.

Casa Centenaria also has an incredible selection of cocktails that always came out beautiful, as you can see them in Natalie's hand. I stuck to beer, however, because I got burned at the theater trying to order a beer, or at least what I thought was a beer that I had never tried before, and instead I got a beer-clam juice-tomato juice cocktail. Yuck!

Now it is starting to get late, and a few more of group head home leaving us with Natalie, myself, and one of our neighbors and we decide to go find a club. He took us to a relatively new place he had been wanting to check out, so we went to Classico.

Ladies get in free, and there was a 100-peso (12 pesos = $1, approximately) for the men, and we all got patted down and Natalie's purse was checked. The place was fairly dead, but due to the no cover situation, the women greatly outnumbered the men. And while I'm a married man, I don't mind saying more single American men need to visit Sonora.

There was a mixture of American and Latino music and is another place I'm sure we will go to again. The people were so friendly to us, especially one couple that came over and started talking to us in English (though the music was so loud the man might as well have been speaking in Spanish). He apologized for the club being empty saying Hermosillo usually isn't this boring but there was a big event going on this weekend at San Carlos, a beach a little more than an hours drive away. Then later in the night he tried to improve my poor dancing when I reminded him I'm a gringo. "There is no white here," he said. When you consider the current climate of American-Mexican relations with the Arizona racist approach to curbing illegal immigration, the Hermosillians I've met have earned high marks in civility.

But like all good things, the night had to come to an end at 2 a.m. when things close. And post number 100 is in the books. Here is to hoping I don't get canceled before post 200.

Friday, July 23, 2010

"Welcome to Hermosillo, This Way to Your Cell"

Mexico is a dangerous place these days.

Just before we started our journey, we were greeted with this news about a gang fight outside Nogales (where we crossed the border) resulting in 21 dead. The cynical (i.e. Me) wouldn't be too upset by this news as it does not appear any innocents were harmed. In my book, this is somewhat akin to Taliban and al Qaeda killing each other. We should be so fortunate - no tears were lost by me.

And then during our first weekend here, the big news was the car bomb triggered in Juarez (can't pronounce Juarez without "War").

Perhaps coincidentally, less than two weeks after the Nogales incident (but before the latest in war-zone-esque Juarez), the State Department issued yet another travel advisory in Mexico. I'll outline some highlights of this lengthy report:

Common-sense precautions such as visiting only legitimate business and tourist areas during daylight hours, and avoiding areas where criminal activity might occur, can help ensure that travel to Mexico is safe and enjoyable.

Continued concerns regarding road safety along the Mexican border have prompted the U.S. Mission in Mexico to impose certain restrictions on U.S. government employees transiting the area. Effective July 15, 2010, Mission employees and their families may not travel by vehicle across the U.S.-Mexico border to or from any post in the interior of Mexico...This policy does not apply to employees and their family members assigned to border posts (Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, and Matamoros), although they may not drive to interior posts as outlined above.

And finally, the one of most interest to me:
Travel is permitted between Hermosillo and Nogales, but not permitted from Hermosillo to any other interior posts.

Not sure if your familiar with the Mexican map, but there is nothing of interest along the road between Nogales and Hermosillo. We can't drive east or south due to this most recent travel advisory. Fortunately, we can still go west to the beaches, but I imagine we are one incident away from losing that privilege as well.

As a reference, I've brought back this Mexican crime map from an earlier post. Sonora, the state we live in now, is the big yellow one in the upper left. Working your way right, you have the more dangerous, reddish states of Chihuahua, Coahuila de Zaragoza and Tamaulipas. The yellow state south of Sonora is Sinaloa, which probably has been upgraded to reddish now.

One of the other diplomats pointed out that this city has become very isolated and hard to get in and out of. Welcome to Hermosillo, Africa.

Hermosillo itself is not that dangerous in terms of drug-trade-related crime. The city has your typical big city petty crime such as pick-pockets, burglary, etc. Some one told us it used to be the case that the drug lords had an understanding of sorts to keep the drug fighting out of this city because many of the lords have families in Hermosillo. Sure, let the thugs off each other in other parts of Mexico (Juarez), but let's not let it effect our families. But even that understanding is starting to wear off as there has been some drug-related violence here.

In my last post I lavished praise on our house. And I do love this house. But what I saved for today is that these homes are designed to keep intruders out, which has the flip effect of being difficult for us to get out.

I don't want to go into too much details about the security measures here for fear that could upset some of the government types, but we have bars in our windows and doorways. We have spikes and nasty barbed wire on walls. We have security systems. We have secret handshakes. We don't mess around when it comes to security.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mi Casa es muy Awesome!

The Internet is up courtesy of the good people at TelMex (and the very rich Carlos Slim, a catchy name) and a little up from Natalie's sponsor. I assume this goes for all posts, but the posts assigns a sponsor to help with the moving in process and another to help with the moving out process.

See, I'm already getting distracted with side stories. So much to relay, but for now, let's focus on the house.

Apparently, Hermosillo post housing is suppose to be some of the nicer housing for diplomats. No complaints here. We arrived to find three bedrooms, three and a half bathrooms (sort of), a kitchen, dining room, living room, greeting room (foyer?), garage, laundry room, reading room, walk-in closet, garden room and what we believe to be a live-in maid quarters. Until this past Thursday, we always lived in one-bedroom apartments together.

Before we really get into the tour, first it is time to discredit some fool's knowledge.

There are no carpets in diplomat homes in Mexico, so buy rugs unless you want to walk around on tile floors all day.

False. We were pleasantly surprised to find a lot of carpet in our home including in the foyer, dining room (above), master bedroom, the reading room and Natalie's walk-in closet. The only downside of so much carpet is that it might be difficult to find space for the huge rug we bought before moving out.

Bathtubs don't exist in Mexico.

False. The bathroom attached to the master bedroom has a bathtub/shower.

There is little to no grass in Hermosillo.

Partially false. There definitely is very little grass around here, but we managed to score a backyard that does have grass. At one time, more of the diplomatic housing around here had grass, but after years and years of diplomats failing to take care of their yards and not hiring someone to do it, the landlords started to pave over the yards.

In addition to grass, we love that our backyard has a palm tree, a pink-flowered bush that attracts humming birds, and a built-in, out-door grill. We bought some tiki torches as well.

One of the challenges about living in a new home - especially a home you know you have to give back in two years - is making it yours.

One thing we did was take the bed out of one of the two guest bedrooms and turn it into a study. And now we have one guest bedroom with two twin beds in it.

We also converted the maid's quarters into a room for Tiffy's stuff. Even if we needed a live-in maid, I couldn't imagine asking him/her to live there. There are no air conditioning vents making the room very warm, and the attached bathroom has a toilet and shower but no sink (the sort-of whole bathroom). Granted there are plenty of sinks around the house, but the one person who should have clean hands would be the live-in maid.

We still have a lot to do to make this house our home, but that will have to wait until our ground/surface/sea shipment (EF'M no longer recognizes the term HHE) arrives. For example, the television room is used more for now to house our empty boxes, the kitchen, while huge, doesn't have any of my gadgets in it, we have no pictures, and we just haven't lived here long enough to make this feel like our home as opposed to guests.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Internet Withdrawal

So we made it. It is as hot as advertised in Hermosillo.

It's way too early to comment on the city as I've seen very little thus far. Thursday, the day of our arrival, was filled with a long drive south through Mexico, which really didn't look too different than from southern New Mexico and southern Arizona. By the way, the scenery in the southern part of those states can be very pretty - from a distance. Once you are in the middle of the brush, it isn't so attractive. But then you look further down the road and see the mountains, and it looks pretty again. And then you get there, and it is all brush. So the scenery is pretty from a distance. Perhaps that should be their mottos - "Southern New Mexico and Southern Arizona, Pretty from a Distance."

The biggest difference on the drive are the topes, which roughly translates as "hazardous, mountainous speed bumps on the highway." The highway is a dangerous drive not just because there is the threat of cartel hooligans, but because there are some hazardous turns, no shoulders, and the topes, which are even more dangerous at night.

After the drive, we reached our home, which was an overwhelming experience. There were a few Americans there from the office to greet us as well as a few Friends Supporting Nicely (FSNs) who unloaded our air freight (EF'M no longer recognizes the term UAB) in our living room. Lots of activity as God's Servent Overseas (GSO, who also was the one who escorted us from the border, not the secruity officer as I falsely reported before) explained the security features; Tiffy was running all over the place; boxes were being unloaded; and, oh yeah, I was taking in the new home. It is a great home though - a huge step-up from the couple of one-bedroom apartments we've lived in. I'll write more on our home later.

Everyone then left as we unloaded our car, got cleaned and then went out with most of the American officers for tacos. I feel a little guilty because we are surrounded by tacos, which I like, but not nearly as much as others might.

I was busy all day Friday unpacking, and then we attended a baby shower for one of the FSNs and had more tacos. Saturday was spent grocery shopping and picking up a few other odds and ends. And finally, Sunday, today, I got a taste of the Internet.

The biggest change thus far has been the lack of Internet. It isn't just about blogging, either (sorry faithful readers). I miss e-mail. I miss reading sports columns. I really miss sports in general. I miss updating my fantasy baseball roster (though my team seems to be doing fine without me).

And now that I'm in Mexico, the Internet will be playing an even greater role in my life as it will serve as a phone as well. I plan to Skype more with my family and friends. I'm going to hook up a Magic Jack to do work.

But alas, we are still some time away from getting the Internet to our home. Currently, I'm relying on the bread crumbs that fall from the tables of other American diplomats and their generosity to muster up enough time to put this blog entry together.

I hope this update is enough to hold you over for a little bit, as I'll likely go back into hibernation for a few days (or longer, gasp) until we get the Internet.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Our Luggage is Here...So Where Are We?

NOGALES, Ariz. - So I lied yesterday. You get one more scintillating posting before we find ourselves on foreign soil.

Natalie is spending the morning doing some consultation work with the Nogales Border Control while I use my remaining hours in our motel room in this bustling city. Well, by bustling, I mean deserted. Last night, we represented half of the rooms booked in this motel. It is kind of depressing.

Though they still served us a free hot breakfast this morning. A woman arrived to work for one hour (for $6) and as we approached the lobby, she asked if we wanted ham or sausage with our eggs. Meat and eggs? I was expecting an old toaster and individually wrapped bagels like at the La Quintas.

We said yes to the ham, and then she surprised us with eggs, ham, sausage, hash browns and toast to go with our coffee and juice. That was all free, though given the fact that we are on a per diem, which we've been way under, and she was nice and working for so little, we felt obliged to leave a generous tip with her.

When I found out we were crossing at Nogales, they might as well have told me we were crossing at La-La Land, as I have never heard of this place and had no idea what to expect. My impressions was this city's last economic "boom" occurred in the 1970s, maybe earlier. There are several vacant buildings with for rent signs including a neighboring motel, the Bud Get Inn (I assume it was the Budget Inn, but who knows), that didn't make it and a gas station across the street that is vacant as well. I think the only thing keeping this city going is the one-night guests that don't want to traverse Mexico at night. So they drive to border, stay the night, maybe get dinner, and cross the next morning leaving Nogales behind.

Anyway, the big news of the day is that while I was using time to catch up on some blog reading, I received a phone call from our regional security officer letting me know that if we need any last minute items (as if our car could hold anything more) that I could stop by the Wal Mart. Then he also added that our air freight (EF'M no longer recognizes UAB) has arrived already!

Other than for the obvious reasons of having more of our stuff here already, this also is a huge bonus for me as it will give me a lot to do in these earliest days of adjusting. Unloading our car and sorting those items is a small task that I figured I could knock out before today is over.

Unloading and sorting our air freight will keep me busy most of the day tomorrow, I imagine, as that also has our desktop computer and printer in it.

At this rate, it shouldn't take much time at all before our Hermosillian (?) home starts to feel like our home.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

On the Verge

EL PASO - I'll keep this short, but we're on our way out of Texas (finally), and we cross the border tomorrow.

It has been a long, four-day, 2,000-mile, eight-state journey thus far that has included a couple of stops with family and a couple of stops in La Quintas across Texas.

The end is near, but we had a few loose ends to tie up in El Paso before we could leave Texas once and for all. By the way, after we drove through Odessa and before we reached El Paso, there exists about 250 miles of desolation. A couple of small town-gas station stops, a couple of mountain ranges and a lot of sand and brush. Nothing else. I hope I never need to drive through west Texas again. No offense to west Texans.

Our chief reason for stopping in El Paso was to visit the Border Patrol to interview for our SENTRI skip-the-border-crossing-lane pass. Our appointment was for 8 a.m., and we were staying about 10 miles from the Border Patrol building we were to meet at. Deciding to play it safe, we left around 7:15 a.m., and it was good that we did because we needed a little extra time to find our way around the Border Patrol compound.

Still, we got there about 20 minutes early, and thus began the waiting process. This is where the Border Patrol morphs into the DMV. But with shorter, slower moving lines.

We signed in at 8 a.m. and waited 30 minutes until I got summoned to meet with a Border Patrol officer. He went through my documents, took my fingerprints and photo and interviewed me. It took about 30 more minutes. Then Natalie had about a 15-minute interview - shorter due to the fact that our officer did not need to double up on some of the information.

He was nice enough, though he seemed a bit shocked that neither of us have ever been to Mexico before. He asked both of us several times about different cities in Mexico and if we'd ever been to them.

Then back to the waiting room for another five or so minutes to fork over almost $200 for the SENTRI passes (we were both approved). Then another short wait to get our car inspected. Our appointment was for 8 a.m.; we left at 10 a.m.

We got our first look across the border and our first Border Patrol experience. We're excited about crossing tomorrow, and our future ex-pat comrades are excited to receive us. We're going out for tacos tomorrow night with them!

This probably closes the book on pre-post EF'M. I have to imagine the next time I post, it will be from Hermosillo.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

One Fast Drive!

Apparently the border is much closer than we thought! On the map, it looks like a vast distance.

Funny though, I figured there would be a bit more security at the border instead of just a caution tape.

Okay, okay. Just joking. That isn't the border. It was a sign on the National Mall from the Folklife Festival. The country featured this year: Mexico, go figure.

On Thursday morning, we put on our tourist hats and visited the American History Smithsonian, and on the way back to the Metro (which I definitely will not miss), we saw a photo op we couldn't pass up.

Friday morning, we were on the road before 8:30 a.m., logged about 515 miles and decided to save the taxpayers a few dollars and set up camp with my parents. The farewell tour continues this evening as my friends and family will come and wish us "bon voyage" (or the Spanish equivalent), and then we get back on the road tomorrow morning.

This first leg of the drive was a familiar route, as we got to wave good bye to some of the oddities of western Maryland, such as the road sign pointing us to "I-68 to Ohio and all Points West," which as this site points out in the last two sentences, I-68 doesn't go to Ohio, and the re-creation of Noah's Ark. How am I just now finding this Web site? Hilarious. I've been driving this route since 2002ish, and the "ark" hasn't been altered in the slightest.

All of these sights, we expect to see. It will be interesting what we see en route to the border as we traverse roads for the first time, or the first time in a very long time.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

EFM: Exit without Final Meal

Reading other blogs, many writers talk about eating from their favorite restaurant one last time before leaving for post or for home, or enjoying their favorite dish one more time without knowing when the next opportunity might present itself.

Hell, one of my favorite reads is named for this phenomenon, For Lack of Tacos.

I don't have such a restaurant or cuisine in Crystal City or the D.C. area that has climbed to that status.

There are a couple of places I like, such as the Kabob Palace on S. Eads St. I highly recommend getting take out from there at least once for anyone living in Crystal City. That is the restaurant Natalie and I would frequent most often, though that just means we went there about a half dozen times or so per year.

Unrelated note, but I've only known if this place post-Sept. 11, and I'm quite amused by their prominent use of American flags on their to-go containers, but as a Pakistani restaurant, I can understand why they do. I'm not questioning their American patriotism; after all, they've done quite well here, but I'd be curious to find out if they've always had those containers.

Anyway, you know it is good food and probably pretty darn close to authentic due to the fact that there are always many cabs parked outside.

We also like Pizzaiolo, which is almost catty-corner from the Kabob Palace, but if I never eat there again, it would hardly be categorized as a tragedy. And we used to like Jaleo a lot, but then they went and changed one of my favorite tapas - apples manchego.

Part of this lack of restaurant loyalty stems from the fact that I'm no longer a picky eater as I was growing up, and I want to try something new if we are eating out. Another reason is that we just didn't eat out that much while living here. It's too expensive and too unhealthy, and I enjoy cooking.

And the desire to try something new has continued to play out as we say our "see ya laters" to our D.C. friends. We are hitting up new restaurants instead of turning all nostalgic about a few of our favorites.

For three years, this posed only a small problem when we had visitors who would come and ask us to take them to our favorite restaurants while they were in town, but now that we are leaving and getting ready to embark on a lifestyle that favors those who don't let their roots grow too deep, I'm more excited about the new restaurants and cuisines we'll get to try than I am worried or disappointed about missing out on what I already know.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Cleaning Up before Hauling Out

Our current, temporary, hotel residence offers two major pluses for us. It is pet-friendly (sort of) and very close to our old apartment residence.

That is critical for two more reasons. We don't have to splurge on a parking spot at the hotel ($23/day), and we have a lot of cleaning to do to avoid cash penalties.

Other than on Independence Day, we've spent a couple of hours every day painting, scrubbing, brushing, mopping, spackling, vacuuming and did I mention scrubbing? It culminated into a five hour day yesterday in which we used so much chemicals, we should have been wearing HAZMAT suits.

Even though it was nearly 100 degrees, we had to open up the windows to get some fresh air. My nostrils were burning slightly. We were coughing from the inhalants from time to time. Both of us got a little light headed. Maybe Tiffy did, too, but she didn't let on.

Little work remains, including disposing of everything we aren't taking with us and cleaning out the fridge.

We very easily could have left the place in relative disarray and just pay the apartment overlords to clean it for us, but several factors made that not even an option ever discussed.

For one, we gave them so much rent money already, the thought of giving them more invoked a gag reflex. Secondly, we both come from penny-pinching families, so it is hard to be wasteful. Finally, there isn't a whole lot for us to do anyway. We've seen the sites, several times, and this is just a better use of our time.

One final, unrelated note. After we start our road trip west on Friday, I'll have unreliable Internet access for the next few weeks until we get settled in Mexico, so posts will probably be more sporadic than usual, which is part of the reason why I'm knocking a bunch out right now.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Banner Year

Remember way back in March when I shared my little secret that sometimes I post a blog entry for very selfish reasons and that that the topic probably won't appeal to anyone. This is one of those posts.

But I had to reflect on what kind of year my favorite sports teams have had during the 2009-2010 seasons.

My old high school alma mater got things kicked off in a big way in the end of 2009. In Kentucky, basketball is king, but in my hometown, we love football (the American kind), and our high school is always among the best in the Commonwealth. This probably has something to do with being so close to Ohio and Cincinnati which has several high school football powerhouses. In 2009, the mighty Bluebirds, one of the weakest mascots in the history of football, knocked off a Cincinnati school for the first time in history, went 15-0, won the state championship, and finished the year ranked in the top 10 nationally in several polls.

During that same stretch, my other alma mater, Ohio University, made its way to the fifth bowl game in school history while also winning more games than any other season. However, the Bobcats came up a little short in winning their first bowl game. It is worth adding that while I was at Ohio, during three of the four years there, they won a total of five games.

You know you are having a great year whenever the Bengals make the playoffs. This was one of the historically bad franchises in all of professional sports in the 1990s. In 1988, the Bengals lost in the Super Bowl. A few years later in 1991, they broke Bo Jackson's leg in the playoffs, and then didn't put together a winning campaign until 2005. We called them the Bungles. In 2009-10, they beat the Browns and Steelers twice and got to the playoffs before losing the first game. Baby steps.

I've already discussed the successes of my college basketball teams, so I won't go into too much detail here. Ohio University made an improbable run to make it to the NCAA tournament and knock out the much higher seeded Georgetown, which was extra nice being surrounded by Georgetown fans. Also, this was the first time the OU football team and basketball team made a bowl game and the NCAA tournament during the same school year in OU's history. And the University of Kentucky had a strong bounce back year making it to the Elite Eight for the first time in several years, had the school's first number one overall pick in the NBA draft, and became the first school to have five players picked in the first round of the draft.

Finally, we have baseball. While not one of my hometown teams yet, the Hermosillo Naranjeros won their championship. Plus they have a very cool mascot that will be easy to cheer for. And as of this writing, the Cincinnati Reds are in first place of the National League Central and are making a strong push for their first playoff appearance since 2000 when they had a one-game playoff with the Mets to make the actual playoffs. At the very least, the Reds are in good shape to have their first winning record since 2000.

And if you want, you could throw in the U.S. and Mexican World Cup teams, which both did very well.

It has been a great year in deed for my sports teams.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Trooper

Apparently, I've underestimated my dog.

For the nearly three years we've had Tiffy, we've always lived in the same apartment. Sure, there have been trips during which she's stayed in hotels or other homes, but those were in different neighborhoods.

I wasn't sure what to expect out of Tiffy after moving to a new residence in the same neighborhood, though I figured there would be some awkward moments in which she would try to take me to the old building during walks.

Hasn't happened. In fact, after being out for 20 minutes or so, she starts dragging me to the hotel as if this has been our routine the whole time.

In our old place, as soon as we got into the hallway, she knew where to go to get to our door. She isn't quite there yet here, but as we approach our door, she picks up the scent.

Obviously this place is much smaller than our apartment, but I think she might actually prefer the hotel. All of our windows were too high from the ground and had too much crap around them for her to be able to look out. Our hotel's windows stretch to the floor, and she loves to sit my the window and look out.

I can't help but wonder if she realizes she is looking down on the neighborhood. Does she recognize anything? How far can she see? When one of us leave, she runs to the window to look for us. Any chance she can actually find us?

Leading into the move, I was worried how she'd react to everything. And while she knew something was amiss, she has adapted with apparent ease. She is more resilient than I gave her credit. Perhaps she'll thrive in Mexico, too.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Pack-out Diaries, Epilogue

Dear Pack-out Diary,

After 15 hours total, the movers/packers wiped their hands clean of dealing with us. All of our possessions, save for those we can carry in our car, are in some remote location, hopefully starting the 2,500 mile journey to Mexico.

I've got a few leftover items that didn't make it into yesterday's post, and a few other observations from our experience to wrap this series up.

First, someone who knows a lot more about etiquette than I needs to put together a comprehensive book on the rules of tipping. I'm at a loss on this topic. There really isn't rhyme or reason to what is a good tip and who you tip.

For example, the first time a gas station attendant pumped my gas, I felt obligated to tip him, so I gave him $2. He looked surprised. I told my dad the story, and he said that is because you don't tip gas station attendants. Why not? We tip bell hops for flagging down a cab or moving our bags on a rolling luggage rack.

So, yesterday morning as the movers/packers were finishing the job, Natalie called Free Studies Inside (FSI) to get their advice (Natalie edit: actually, it was the travel office), because we felt like tipping here seemed appropriate. Plus, as I mentioned yesterday, we liked these guys; even the schmuck was a nice guy. (Though our opinion is subject to change depending on the status of stuff when we get it.)

The word that came down from FSI is that the government doesn't cover tipping the workers, and that often times, people provide food and drink for the workers. That would have been good to know during the first day of packing, but not so helpful during the second day. (And to add insult to injury, not only did we not buy them lunch, we ate our lunch in front of them...we aren't bad people, just ignorant on these matters.)

So we tipped each of the three movers $40 at the end of day yesterday. I have no idea if that what was cheap or overly generous, but I say that compares pretty favorably to a $10 lunch. Though they probably didn't feel that way on the first day of packing.

Also during the first day of packing we had lots of visitors. The State Department sent over an inspector, which was surprising because we didn't ask for one. He was a very nice guy and gave us one good piece of advice. Buy a guest book for our travels. The moving/packing company also sent an inspector.

I don't really have tips for how to prepare for pack-out other than it seems that unless you dedicate an absurd amount of time sorting through every thing, you won't ever be 100% ready. We were ready enough that our air freight shipment (I now consider UAB obsolete) has most of our necessities. Though the ratio ended up something like this: Natalie - 350 pounds; Tiffy - 60 pounds; EF'M - 40 pounds. I guess this was my penance for poorly overseeing Al's pack-out.

If we had this move to do all over again, I suppose I'd spend more time preparing our air freight. That is probably the only good, over-arching piece of advice I can offer.

The thing is is that every one's situation is different. For us, about 80% of our items were going ground/surface/sea (so long to HHE, too). For non-local hires, I'm guessing there is a lot more going into storage.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Pack-out Diaries, Chapter 3

Dear Pack-out Diary,

This morning marks Day 2 of the pack-out, and I'm waiting for the call that the mover/packers are here to finish the job.

Before I get any further, I apologize in advance if I come across particularly caustic this morning as I didn't sleep well two nights ago - nervous about the pack-out, I presume - nor did I sleep well last night either - our alarm clock went off in our super-secret hidden bunker that will be our home for the next week. Mind you, we didn't set; rather the previous guests did. But I'll save my complaints for a later post, and to be fair, I'll wait a little longer than one night to give my impressions of this place.

Instead, I'll turn my Righteous Laser Beam of Justice (patent pending) toward yesterday's events as well as previous events that led to yesterday's results.

First, I liked our movers/packers, which is good because we spent 12 hours together. There were three of them, and one was very nice and helpful. The second was quiet, but he appeared to be working very hard. The third was a bit of schmuck, but he was helpful in the beginning in explaining to Natalie that she had about 2,000 pounds of stuff marked for UAB.

Second, I've heard several stories about over-aggressive packers that wrap up everything from garbage to cats quicker than the foreign service family can keep up with them. This definitely was not our experience. We began with the Post-its system, but after our UAB was ready, which happened quickly, it essentially morphed into a pile system. All of our storage stuff, which wasn't much, was piled on one of the couches going to storage. That, and large furniture items in the bedroom and living room were for storage. Everything else must go! And the bathroom was off limits for packing.

After several hours of packing and loading, Natalie and I started finding several items that had not been packed. Most of them were in the bedroom where the schmuck was working, but there were a few items all over the place. But we did get everything we wanted packed eventually.

Third, I raised a question before about pack-out privacy, which wasn't a problem for us, but many comments pointed out that these guys have seen everything during their careers so there isn't any judging. In fact, while talking with the guy working the kitchen, he said he often gets asked about the strangest things he packed. Well, we added something new to that list. That is all I'm going to say about said item; it was in the kitchen.

Fourth, during about the eighth hour of pack-out, I asked our kitchen guy how many pack-outs he does a week. They work five days a week, which is shocking considering they were in the midst of 12-hour day. He explained that they receive a worksheet every day they start a new job describing the estimated weight, number of workers and how many days the job is.

As I described earlier, the guy with the magic calculator estimated it was a two-day job. By the time that information filtered down to our three packers/movers, it morphed into a one-day job. Well, at some point during the day, they called to say one day was impossible. Typically in jobs like the one we had, they would arrive and pack one day, and move everything the next.

Finally, one of my continuing complaints is stupid acronyms. I've been a part of two pack-outs now, and during the pack-out, I've never heard anyone say "UAB" or "HHE." The movers don't use these expressions. I'm not entirely sure they even know what HHE means.

Why does the State Department instill this vocabulary into its employees when at the time it matters most - pack-out - the people packing stuff don't use these terms.

UAB = "air freight" or "air"
HHE = "ground freight," "sea" and/or "surface"

There are probably more terms the movers use, but these are the ones I've heard in two pack-outs. State, please stop using UAB and HHE! It only confuses things. If you must use acronyms, which I don't think you do in this case, let the movers pick them.