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 sheds...er 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 sheds...er, 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 sleigh...er...truck 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 Blogger.com 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, www.supercook.com 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.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Selling Out, or Buying In?

There has been a slight change to the look of this corner of the World Wide Web; one that made Natalie gasp. "How did you get corporate sponsorship?" I signed up for it through Google. "How much did it cost?" Nothing.

It cost nothing in terms of money, that is. Maybe a little pride. But hey, I hear there is a lot of money to make on this whole Internet thing, so I thought I'd dip my toe into the water and see how that is done.

So hoila, Google AdSense is now part of this blog.

And in about one year, if I'm lucky, I'll earn like $10. But hey, that can buy a taco dinner for two here.

In all honesty, I signed up for AdSense and Amazon Associates because I was curious how these things worked. Because in an ideal situation, eventually I'd like to try and create my own Internet-based business. That is part of the reason I started this blog to begin with - to get an idea of what foreign service people are reading about, writing about and want to know.

For the mean time, I'm happy (sorta) with just doing the freelance writing thing and running this blog. It would be nice, however, to reduce or drop the freelance thing altogether and focus solely on my own Internet business. The appeal of such a system is that I won't have to be reliant on other people's table scraps to find work, and the Internet, so I've been told, can be access all over the world.

So in the mean time, I'm dabbling a little bit into these little ads to get a better idea on how they work. Feel free to ignore them at your leisure (hope my advertisers didn't read that). And I'll be keeping an eye on them to make sure they aren't promoting a product I'd never use. For example, I already have set to filter any Get Rich Fast Scheme ads as well as dating and sexually explicit ads.

But if I see an ad pop up for say, Verizon, then I'm canceling this thing. Or Papa John's. Those two companies find themselves on the wrong end of my do-not-endorse list.

I have a little less control with the AdSense than with the Amazon Associates, at least as far as I can tell from my first day of these things. Google sells my space for fractions of a penny to the highest bidder, and the bidders will be people who think their products somehow match up with what kind of content I'm providing. Good luck with that.

With Amazon, while I'm typing away, there is a little search box on my right that I can type in my own topic, and it will provide some search results that I can then link to. Then if someone clicks on that link to buy said product, I get a little something back. I opted for a couple of books from the "for Dummies" series because I had used one of them to teach myself a little about HTML, and it seemed pretty useful. I officially endorse these books.

I also added an Amazon search box in the lefthand column, though I don't think I collect any royalties if you use it. As far as I know, it is just a service I'm providing for you, my readers, and the good people at Amazon, which, as many of us have or will learn, is an essential online shopping tool. And no, Amazon didn't pay me to say that (though if they feel grateful, they know how to reach me - wink, wink, nod, nod).

So there you have it. That is why I look like I'm selling out. If you don't like it, let me know, and if enough complaints come in, I'll consider dropping the ads, but in the meantime, I think I've raised $0.00005 so far. Talk about a get rich quick scheme!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Power of the Peso

That was not intended to be a sarcastic slight against Mexico's currency (and the currency of several other former Spanish colonies including Argentina, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Uruguay, to name a few).

Sure, the peso has its flaws. For example, in terms of actual value, sure the peso doesn't stack up favorably against the U.S. dollar (unless you are converting to pesos). As of this morning, the conversion rate was $1 USD to $12.73 MXN. Though at the border, after the charge to convert, it was an even $12 MXN.

But it also has some advantages. Other than being a more vibrant currency (as depicted to the right), it also comes in different sizes, which makes it more user-friendly for the blind. Though I've also been told that sometimes the size also varies among the same denomination, meaning, not all $50 MXN are the same size.

(Interesting peso side bar, at least to me it is. The peso is the first currency to use "$" for shorthand. You can find that little tidbit, and much more, courtesy of the good people at Wikipedia. So you know its accurate.)

All the same, I'd stack the power of the peso against the almighty dollar any day.

I say this because in the United States, I would put about $50 USD in my wallet, and that would last about a month. Maybe longer. Today, I have $600 pesos in my wallet (about the same as $50 USD), and I'll probably be out in two weeks. Or less.

It's not that things are expensive here. Far from it. We can go get tacos for dinner - and what else would you eat here? - and spend about $10 USD for the both of us. Total.

The true power of the peso lies in the fact that the currency is actually used. American currency practically belongs in a museum. Everything is on plastic. Or being traded over the Internet, which of course is just an extension of plastic.

But you don't use credit cards in Mexico. If you do offer to pay with a credit card, I'm sure someone would take it and swipe it, and in most cases, everything will turn out fine in the end, though there usually is an extra fee applied courtesy of the bastards...oops, I mean bosses...at the credit card companies.

There is a risk, however, that once the card leaves your hand and is taken to a back room for swiping, someone will copy your information. The same risk applies in the United States, I suppose, and it is a wonder that it is not more of a problem. By the way, given how prevalent the use of credit cards is, doesn't seem like they are a little light in terms of identity protection. At least with debit and ATM cards, you have to punch in a code to complete the transaction. With credit, it is swipe, sign, and thank you. Sure, the clerk is supposed to check IDs, but that is a rarity in the United States.

We were told never to let our credit cards out of sight. Which means the only places that it can be used are at grocery stores where you can swipe at the register. You can't even swipe your card at the gas station, because they are full service here. And at about $4 USD per gallon, gas is not cheap. (Unlike the States, they don't advertise gas prices on marquees because PeMex has a monopoly. Doesn't matter what they charge, because you are going to pay it. So my $4 USD is an estimate based on the fact that it cost about $550 MXN to fill our 13-gallon tank.)

So, to get back to the point at hand (man, I've sidetracked all over the place), which currency has more power. The one that you have to keep on you or the one that is being fazed out to a degree?

One last side story, and I'm done for the day. While walking Tiffy one day, I spotted a small round piece of metal. Used to finding coins during our walks in Crystal City, naturally I picked it up. It was very small, maybe the size of a Spree, and very light. I saw a big 10¢ sign on it, and figured it was be a tenth a peso. Using $1 USD = $12 MXN, one peso is worth 8.5 American cents. A tenth a peso, therefore, is less worth than an American penny. I say that because all sentimental value aside, it costs the government more than a penny to circulate a penny. (Skip down to the third paragraph. And in the fourth paragraph, it claims that it costs 10 cents to produce one nickel!) It's time to kill the penny.

It is indeed a real coin, but apparently the Mexicans are a little more forward thinking than Americans when it comes to currency, and almost everything here is rounded off to the nearest peso or half peso. The 10¢ piece and 5¢ piece, while exist, are seldom ever used. I have never seen a 5¢ piece. And as a point of reference for the images of coins below, the peso is about the same size as a penny.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Visa (...yawn...) Speak

You'd think foreign service officers - getting to travel around the world and having such different backgrounds and all - would be interesting people. Coming up on our first month here, I'm becoming a bit concerned.

Almost whenever I go out with Natalie and a group of her colleagues, inevitably the conversation starts to head toward work. Then after about 20 minutes of I-275 (not a highway near Cincinnati, by the way) and 214b, I feel myself slipping into a coma.

On one particular evening, I think I sat through any where between two to four hours of such talk. I couldn't fall asleep that night because I had just spent the evening sleeping with my eyes open. Something I always thought was just an expression to describe boredom, but no, it really is possible.

Now granted, most of the officers here are on their first post, so they have less travels to discuss. But still, we're talking about at least 25 years of life experiences to share, and instead they opt to talk about the guy who shows up for a visitation visa with his "concubine" and their children. (Actually, that was one of the more interesting ones, but it is like a five-minute story or less to tell. Now imagine enough of those five-minute stories to drag in access of two hours. I'm drifting away just starting to think about it.)

Sometimes given the option of meeting up for drinks in the evening or staying home by myself, the latter is more appealing.

Spouses, what do you do? Do you just glaze over and nurse the drink in your hand (or start drinking more)? Do you attempt to hijack the conversation into something interesting? Or is this interesting to you and I'm just being a jerk? Or this is boring to you, and I'm still just being a jerk?

Not having a television, I can deal with. Being relatively isolated, I can deal with. Missing some of the familiar luxuries the States offer, I can deal with. An unforeseeable future of conversations about visa applicants, I cannot deal with. Please tell me this is just because everyone here is relatively new to the foreign service and this post.

P.S. No offense intended toward our Hermosillian colleagues.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Show & Tell: San Carlos

I'm not a big fan of simply relaying what activities I've been up to unless it can be used to illustrate life for any foreign service spouse. Today, I'm going against that general rule I put on myself.

I mentioned Hermosillo's isolation a couple of weeks ago and the fact that we can only leave the city driving north (to the U.S.) or west (to the beach). Over the weekend, we went west to San Carlos, or Sonora's Cabo San Lucas.

We drove down Saturday with a couple of Natalie's colleagues, and a scant hour and a half later, we were arriving. This can definitely be done in a day trip, and future expeditions will probably only be for a day, but we wanted the whole experience and booked a hotel room upon arrival.

Another early lesson from this trip was that bringing Tiffy wasn't the best idea. There is only one pet-friendly hotel that we're aware of, and it was not of the best quality. But at 450 pesos (a little less than $40), well, you get what you pay for.

We left Tiffy behind and went out to enjoy one of the private resort beaches for a couple of hours, which seemed like a good spot to snorkle, if we had the gear, before agreeing we needed to do a sunset booze cruise.

In addition to the sunset, we saw some of the islands and their caves in the Sea of Cortez, or the Gulf of California, depending on your preference.

The one-hour tour was BYOB (an acronym I'm fine with, by the way), and we made one mistake in trying something new. It was Sol, which is fine, but this was a lime and salt flavored variety. The taste was akin to take a beer can, dipping it into the ocean, and squirting some lime juice in. Fortunately, we also got some Tecate Light.

We went back to our hotels, cleaned up, had dinner and then went out to experience San Carlos nightlife. While there are a few bars and clubs, everyone seems to congregate at two or three establishments. After visiting some of the empty places (including one club in which there were five of us, five employees and no one else), we ended up at La Playa (the beach), which was a great choice. They serve cocktails in a jumbo styrofoam cups (perhaps the equivalent of three D.C. cocktails) for about 150 pesos (little more than $12), if I recall correctly.

We also did tequila shots (of course), though Natalie needed a little pep talk to take hers. Someone we met here is providing the encouragement. He is my favorite kind of Mexican - the kind that speak English. Though one of these days I'll be alright with the Spanish-speaking kind. Most every one in San Carlos, by the way, speaks some English.

The second day on the beach was Tiffy's first (and possibly last) beach trip. She enjoyed herself, but it is a lot of work to watch her as she would lay chase at any passing four-runner, or passing plane, or bird shadow. We were some of the first people to arrive, which worked out well because we could just turn her loose and wear her out before other people got there, and before it got too hot. By the way, not too bad for a dog that we got from a rescue shelter. Started in a shelter, and now she is an international traveler.

I don't think she particularly liked the water - not a big surprise. In the beginning, after Natalie and I would get in the water, she would want to come to us, but the waves (pretty big for the area, apparently) would scare her away.

Later in the day, when Natalie and one of her colleagues went out in the water, she finally mustered enough courage to make it out to her. Sadly, I didn't have the camera out. But she seemed to figure out that if she jumped at the first waves as they broke, she would stay above water and then have enough time to paddle her way out to Natalie. She did this once, Natalie caught her and carried her back to the shore, then she went back in.

Tiffy was upset about this, and about 10 minutes later, she went swimming back into the water. This time, Natalie was too busy listening to someone complain that his children couldn't get visas or American citizenship or something work-related (really, lie about where you work or say you're just visiting), so her colleague caught her. As she was beginning to bring Tiffy back, a large wave crept up behind her, and in an effort to keep Tiffy mostly out of the water while keeping her top on (I guess Tiffy's foot had caught it), she lost her sunglasses.

I started into the water as I saw the wave approach prepared to go grab Tiffy as I was sure she would be going under water. After the wave passed, I saw her paddling for her life as she made it back to land. Who knows how dogs think, but I'm fairly certain she was proud.

She spent the rest of the afternoon in the shade of her own personal umbrella, usually burrowed in the sand as well. The umbrella, by the way, was not intended for her exclusively, but we bought it at an Hermosillan Wal Mart. And just like in the United States, most things you buy at Wal Mart are a piece of crap. Cheap? Yes. Quality? Not so much.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Heightened Unease about Security

Everyone in our household will be a bit sluggish today as we had a good night's sleep interrupted.

I'm not really sure what time it was - I'd ballpark it around 4:30 a.m.ish - but our reliable guard dog got excited and started barking and growling.

At our apartment, this meant either a dog was in the hallway, some kids were running past our door or someone was at the door. And all of that would have been fine here as well, if she were barking and growling at the front door. After all, that leads to the street where anyone who got home late could be.

But Tiffy was growling at our backdoor, which leads to our walled-in backyard with spikes on top of the walls and where you need to know the secret handshake to enter.

Our initial reaction was to settle her down and get back to sleep; it was early, we were tired, and Tiffy sounding her alarm was nothing new to us. Nothing new to us in the States at least. It was new to us here. Especially at night.

So a couple of minutes passed and Natalie asked if I still was awake. Yeah. Should we (me) check the back door? Yeah, I think so. Peek through the blinds and couldn't see anything.

House is locked, right? Yeah. Maybe we (me) should lock the panic room just in case. The "panic room," by the way, is nothing more than an extra set of iron-rod gates that divide the house in half. My general feeling is that if someone managed to get through the gated community's security measures, past some of the other surprises the State Department provides and into our house, which requires getting through at least one more set of iron-rod gates and locked doors, and beat the security system (beginning to sound like Ocean's 11), I don't think another set of iron-rod gates will slow them down that much.

But it is early in the morning, we're both more than a little perturbed by Tiffy's outburst, so I more than willingly oblige. And it was a good thing I did, too, because it revealed a chink in our home's armor.

Another crucial part of the intricate security system is changing the locks between every resident. In changing our panic gate locks, it appears they didn't do such a good job in realigning the lock. The dead bolt hit the door as opposed to going through the hole in the door. Oops. Guess what it is getting fixed today.

So instead of easing the situation a little, trying to lock the panic gate probably only upset us a little bit more (at least it did me). The air condition would turn off, and it would be silent and I would listen for any sound. Then the air conditioner would kick back on, and I could hardly hear anything at all above the racket.

Eventually I heard Tiffy let out one of her big sighs, and I knew she no longer was upset about whatever she thought she heard in the backyard. And that finally let me try to get comfortable and fall back asleep. Which I eventually managed to do, though for had to be only a short period of time.

I have no idea what she thought she heard. Perhaps there was a critter lurking about. Maybe it was the Chupacabra. Maybe she heard something on the street behind us. In all likelihood, she was just having a bad dream.

<--- (Was this in our backyard? Consider it an unsolved mystery.)

But she did manage to draw our attention to a flaw in our fortress, and we only paid for it with a few hours of sleep. Nothing a large cup of coffee can't fix, so I walked to the nearest convenient store and indulged myself. (Ha...I bet you were anticipating another welcome kit rant. Not this time.)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

EFM: Enduring Free of Maids

Given this past blog posting on domestic employees/maids, it should come as no surprise that I've decided to tackle the house cleaning by myself.

After I got done with all of the unpacking, which was less than a day's chore, it wasn't like I had a whole lot going on anyway, especially before we got the Internet hooked up. Now that I'm finally back in touch with my contractors for freelance writing, I might find that my day is filling up quickly between doing work and practicing Spanish that a little extra assistance might be nice. But I doubt it.

But I've gained a new appreciation about how much work goes into keeping a house clean. The real reason women entered the workforce, I think, is based solely on the fact that housework is much more difficult than office work. I've done both now, and it really hasn't even been a contest. Then you figure in the whole added benefit of bringing in a paycheck as well and is it really a head-scratcher as to why women wanted out of the house?

We live in a fairly large home by our standards. There's a few rooms we never use. And we have no children, so looking over a house shouldn't be too great a task, you'd think.

Someone(s) had warned me that there is a lot of sand in Mexico, and it finds ways to your home no matter what you do.

And while I don't have a child to clean after, I do have a dog, and she leaves behind lots of hairs. Between the sand and dog hair, hardly a day goes by that I don't have the broom and dustpan in my hands for at least an hour.

And sometimes, I think Tiffy just likes to make more work for me. Here is her eating. Notice that she doesn't "hold over" her bowls. No, that would be too easy. Instead she takes a kibble or two out of the bowl at a time and chomps over the floor.

The other aspect of being a "home owner" is keeping a yard. There is a movement a foot that whenever a diplomat moves out, if he/she did not tend to the yard (or pay someone to do it for them) and it is either overgrown of burned out, the housing management company tears out the yard and either paves it (backyard) or fills it with rocks (front yard). Our front yard is full of rocks.

But we do have a grassy backyard, which equates to another couple hours of work for me each week with hedge clippers. There isn't enough grass to justify a lawn mower, and if I found a decent electric edger, I'd consider using that, but I've only seen gas edgers.

Then throw in laundry, dog walking, cooking and doing the dishes, and it isn't too hard to see how I fill most of my days.

It is a lot of work, but another part of the reason why I want to do it myself other than to fill my schedule is to take some ownership of this house. One of my first impressions of this place was "we just haven't lived here long enough to make this feel like our home as opposed to guests." One good way to not feel like a guest is to not have strangers come in every so often and do all of the cleaning for you. So far that is working, as I feel responsible for this place now.

And for all of that sand and all of that hair.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Expanding on the Welcome Kit

Based on a few comments and some of the search terms leading people to this blog, I guess there is some interest in the vaunted welcome kits. So I'll indulge.

That black chest is the bulk of the welcome kit in all of its glory. As mentioned in one of the comments by Something edited this way comes, there appears to be a movement toward disposable welcome kits; this seems entirely wasteful to me, but it probably is just a drop in the bucket compared to our nation's budgetary problems. Our welcome kit is of the nondisposable nature, which means we have to account for everything in it when we return it and everything needs to be in decent shape, or we have to pay some sort of penalty.

Given some of the items we received, I'd be curious as to what is in the disposable kits. We do have some pots and pans; granted they aren't the highest of quality, but they are reusable. We also have table settings for four and some Pyrex storage containers. All reusable.

The welcome kit also includes a microwave and television (obviously are not brand new), which I'm assuming those are in the disposable kits but probably are not to be disposed.

As Jen points out in another comment, much of what we receive in the welcome kit is not exactly top-of-the-line quality. So if there is something you can't live with out, say for example, comfortable, non-terry cloth towels, then you might as well bring your own and not rely on the State Department's towels.

Here is a little peak into our welcome kit to give you an idea of what we aren't using. Hangers, towels, wash cloths, bed spreads and a few kitchen items mostly such as a salt-and-pepper grinder (cheap enough just to buy some at the store), flatware (brought a set of our own), and a butter dish. That was one of the "What the F!@$" moments when going through the box. You mean we can have this all-important, can't-live-without butter dish, but you couldn't spring for a toaster or coffee maker?!?

We got a pie pan, which is another interesting inclusion considering we don't have a rolling pin to roll out the dough, or a pastry blender to make the dough. But I'm sure there are better cooks out there that I've figured this one out as I often fall flat when it comes to being a pastry chef.

And oh, how could I forget that they also provided a sugar bowl. You know, for in case if I want to add sugar TO MY COFFEE!!!! Argh! Where is my coffee pot?!? (Obviously, I'm not getting my regular dose of morning caffeine.)

Hope that helps for all of you first-time-diplomats-to-be as you start packing for your new adventures.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Grocery Shopping

I have completed my first out-of-the-house, flying-solo task since arriving here. I managed to drive to the grocery store and go shopping all by myself.

It only took about two and a half weeks, but I finally built up enough courage to drive about a half mile or so alone and rely upon only my own poor Spanish to communicate. Of course, one of the good things about shopping is that there really is not much of need to converse. Baby steps.

Getting started, I thought I would like grocery shopping a little more than I do. I figured this would be something similar to shopping in the United States. I was counting on there not being many American products, which is no big deal to me, and at first glance the layouts of American and Mexican grocery stores are fairly similar. You usually begin with produce and baked goods, there is a butcher usually along the back walls and then aisles of food.

Sadly, most of the produce we find is second rate, unless we go to Costco (annual membership, $14 USD), which easily has the best quality. There really aren't any leafy greens other than romaine, no russet potatoes and the corn is much starchier than American sweet corn. (That was a sad moment as we tried to enjoy grilled corn on the cob.) But otherwise, it was fairly similar to the States.

The snack aisle doesn't differ much either, other than they don't keep their salsa with tortilla chips (totopitos), and they don't seem to carry pretzels. Foods also are packaged differently here. For example, we bought a box of crackers (essentially Saltines) and instead of finding long sleeves of crackers inside, they are wrapped in packs of six. We have a box of 45 wrapped packets of crackers. Seems excessive. Lots of American candy bars and cookies seemed to be packaged this way as well.

Mexican grocers don't carry much wheat flour, but they do have a lot of corn flour. And I still have yet to find active yeast. I guess I'll be ordering that online (I love homemade pizza dough, pitas and pretzels). They also seem to like marshmallows here, as almost half an aisle is nothing but them. And the 'mallows come in the typical small size, the larger size that you'd use for grilling s'mores, and then a super jumbo size that are larger than my fist. The other half of that aisle is usually gelatin and various Jello mixes.

They don't sell cases of pop cans here, not even at the Costco. But they do sell bottled pop in 1, 1.5, 2 and 3 liter bottles. And they lover their juices here. The big brand is JuMex.

The butcher has every cut of beef imaginable, and some of the unimaginable, too. We can usually fine chicken breast and some pork (though I haven't found pork chops yet), but no turkey. I've found sliced turkey breast for sandwiches and turkey dogs, but that is it. I wonder if they import some for Thanksgiving, or if we will be eating Thanksgiving tacos this year.

In the dairy section, the only familiar brand of cheese I've seen is Sargento, which also happens to be my favorite, so that works well. But they also have a pretty good selection of local cheeses, and the Manchego here is really all I need in life. They have a much smaller yogurt selection than I'm used to, which is a shame because I don't drink milk opting for yogurt instead. It is much runnier here, and all of the varieties seem to be plain, with bits of fruit added. In reality, this is probably because it is more natural than the artificial flavors and thickening agents in my Dannon Light and Fits, but this stuff will take a little getting used to. Or I'll start drinking milk.

With my cart full, and I detoured to look at some DVDs, because I was delaying the part I was dreading the most - check out. Finally, I would have to interact with a person. As different as many of the products might be, in the end, it still is all food, and that is something I'm comfortable with. Even if I couldn't fine any thyme (very limited on spices; probably have to drive to Nogales to get that kind of stuff, or order online). And I knew at the minimum they would ask if I wanted plastic bags or the cardboard boxes. Neither of which I know the Spanish for. I wasn't thinking this far in advance when I started the car. I was just worried about getting to the grocer instead of ending up in Mazaltan or some other place I'm not supposed to drive to.

The cashier said something, and in the only word I picked up on was "Americano." Not what I was expecting. I was hoping I would hear the word "plastico" in there somewhere so I could repeat that phrase. So I just said "Por Favor" and he looked at me, and started scanning my stuff. Problem temporarily averted, I assumed.

Then the bagger/boxer said something to the scanner, and he said something back, and I saw a plastic bag in his hand, pointed at it and said "Si, bola plastico." (I had bought some trash bags, and thought the word on there was bola. It's bolsa, but close enough for an obvious non-Spanish speaker, right?). But I got plastic bags in the end, and tipped the bagger. (Thanks for the heads-up on that, Bryn).

Mission completed. And I got home, unloaded, and had a beer.