Is Accra expensive?

I have to preface this by acknowledging that my perspective on the cost of living here is an incredibly privileged one. As in Mexico, we are seeing things from the very advantageous viewpoint of a family functioning on a solid U.S. salary. Our housing is provided for us. The kids’ schooling is covered. All of that means we are in a position of real wealth by any conceivable standard, for which we are thankful. To not acknowledge that would be unfair. When I talk of things being expensive or cheap here I realize it’s a true luxury to be able to think about these things from the comfortable vantage point we have.

Accra is a COLA post, meaning that we receive a certain amount of extra money each month to account for a higher-than-average cost of living. I can’t recall the exact calculation, but State figures a family spends a certain amount of the officer’s salary on food, groceries, household expenses, etc., and we get – I believe – a 15% increase on that portion of Andrés’ salary that they calculate goes to daily living expenses. Before we came here we read on post report after post report that Accra is expensive. That food is expensive, restaurants are expensive, services are expensive. Knowing our habits and tendencies – that we aren’t loyal to particular brands or even types of household products, that we try not to eat too many convenience foods or processed foods, that I cook and bake from scratch more often that not, that we are open to learning to cook and eat local dishes – I was curious to see if we found that to be the case.

We’ve been here two weeks now and my sense is that it definitely can be very expensive in Accra, and that even without wanting or needing very specific U.S. products we will still not save the kind of money we were able to save in Mexico, but that we won’t be needing to watch every pesewa either (cedis – pronounced SEEdees – is the denomination and pesewas are the coins). I’ve been truly amazed at the prices of some U.S. products. When we first visited the nearest grocery store we needed laundry detergent. I bought a local brand at a cost of about $3 for a bottle that will probably last me a few weeks. I could have spent $40 (!!!) on a jug of Tide that may have lasted me a month or, at the most, two. Yesterday I bought some locally produced paper towels. They cost about what I’d expect to pay in the U.S., maybe a bit less. They were about $1.50 a roll for pretty fat rolls.  The same store had a large package of Bounty paper towels, I think 12 rolls, for (the magic number!) $40 or so. I just can’t imagine loving Bounty that much, quicker-picker-upper though it may be.

So that’s one realm of super expensive grocery products – U.S. brands. Certain processed foods, regardless of their origin, are also quite expensive. Marisela ate way too much Nutella in Mexico but we won’t have that problem here – Nutella costs something like $8 a jar. Doubt we’ll ever buy it. And if you want Jif or Peter Pan the peanut butter here is not cheap, but if you don’t mind buying Ghana-produced groundnut paste, it’s quite reasonable. I bought the groundnut paste, made the kids’ sandwiches for their lunch boxes, and only heard how tasty it was – no complaints.

Services, in our experience so far, are widely varying in price. Taxis aren’t expensive by U.S. standards. Getting to and from a store that’s about 4 or 5 miles away last weekend cost us about $6. But dry cleaning, which Andrés needs as he wears a suit every day, is about the same cost as in the U.S. and with a far longer wait time (no 24-hour turnaround – more like three or four days). Cell service is quite inexpensive here by U.S. standards – as much as we use our phones on wifi and as little as we actually use them out and about, I think we’ll pay about $5 a month, maybe $10 for my phone. Even when I accidentally called my mom using my cell service instead of one of the many wifi-based options we have I only used a bit more than a dollar’s worth of my credit for a nearly hour-long call. We went ahead and activated a phone for Isaiah so he can call us or the Embassy if ever he needs to when he’s out and about, and we have a backup phone activated since power surges and theft are definite threats to our phones here. We’ve never had multiple lines before, in part because we just couldn’t justify the cost.

As relatively inexpensive as cell service is, though (including data), internet service is not a bargain. We were advised to have two providers – one a DSL service through our phone provider and one a 4G connection with a wireless router – since outages are very common. Between the two services we pay about $150 a month. (Having a backup was a good idea – we’ve been about one week now with one of the two services not working). That’s a stark contrast to the $20 or so we paid for phone and excellent internet service in Mexico, especially given the unreliability of the service we’re paying so much to maintain. But I think the difference reflects the fact that cell phones are very common here – I would venture to guess that far more people have cell phones than landlines – and so the cost is accessible. Internet service is still a luxury of the wealthy, and the prices reflect that.

So I guess the verdict is mixed – if we wanted to use Bounty and Tide and eat Jif peanut butter and spread Nutella on everything we’d run through that COLA and then some. I didn’t mention produce, but it’s what you’d expect: if we want to eat berries and peaches and veggies that don’t grow here (or just aren’t generally eaten here) we would blow through our grocery budget very quickly. But pineapples and pawpaws (papayas) and the tastiest bananas I’ve ever eaten are extremely affordable, as are cucumbers and tomatoes and green beans and spinach and lettuce. So we definitely won’t lack for delicious food. The tomatoes I’ve eaten here taste like they’re straight out of a backyard garden and I’ve never had such sweet pineapple. We have yet to visit any fine dining type restaurants but the few everyday places we’ve eaten have what we’d consider everyday prices in the U.S.: lunches at $7 – $10 a plate or so, dinner a bit more, drinks for a few dollars, etc. It’s not our dear Taquería Aaajiji, where we could eat dinner with drinks, desserts, and any extras we might have room to eat and spend $25, but it’s not Paris or Tokyo, either. It’s not even Bishop Arts or Santa Fe. I think we’ll be just fine.

 

 

 

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Life on foot

We are, for the moment, car-free and loving it. We briefly pondered bringing Andres’ Ranger over here, but a relatively short family trip from Juárez to Hatch, NM (for green chile cheeseburgers, of course) made it clear that, extended cab or no, our 6’+ kiddo was just not going to be comfortable in that vehicle. At least not with the seat pushed up enough for Marisela and me to fit in the back seat. The trusty Focus was sold in Virginia. I see cars as small as the Focus on the roads here, but they are generally operated by taxi drivers who make up in confidence and bluster what they lack in vehicle size. I just don’t see developing that kind of commanding vehicular presence. So we’re biding our time, watching the listings of cars for sale in the diplomatic community, and using our feet, taxis, and neighborly goodwill to get where we need to go.

On many, many counts I’m thankful to have landed with the social sponsors we have (thank you, Diosa and Rob!). During our first week our sponsor cheerfully showed me store after store – not just the big supermarkets but the fruit and egg stands she likes the best, the craft supply store, the telecom offices, the dry cleaner’s, her favorite coffee shop. So now, thanks to her, I have a good idea of where to point myself when I need something. What I didn’t realize at first, between my jet-lagged fog and the intensity of Accra traffic, was how close by most of these places are. I find myself once again in the happy condition of having most of the necessities within walking/biking distance. A little throw-back to my Oak Cliff days.

Both yesterday and today I got out and walked. Yesterday it was to go pay the phone and internet bill (another shout-out to our social sponsors for making sure we had backup internet – our internet was there, and then suddenly it was gone; now that I’ve paid, well, it’s still gone. Working on that, but since the kids both have daily online homework, I’m extra thankful for the backup.) I also went to get the poster board that Marisela came home Monday insisting that she HAD TO HAVE RIGHT THAT MOMENT but then turned out not to actually truly need quite so urgently. Today I walked to a multi-floor supermarket/department store/food court.

I love walking and biking because it’s such a different way to experience my surroundings. Even after two years in Juárez there were stretches of the very street we lived on, Gómez Morín, that I craned my neck to inspect whenever someone else was driving because the shops and restaurants were so densely packed I never got a full view as I zipped by in the car. I love being able to see everything.

Then there are the smells. Not always a plus, granted, but always an experience. Here, in addition to exhaust on the larger streets, there’s sometimes the smell of burning trash, and then there are the (often open) gutters that line most of the streets, not always emitting the most pleasant odors (more about those later). But there are also lovely smells. Right around the corner from our house is the “Eat and Smile” food stand – a kind of improvised outdoor restaurant with a tarp-covered seating area. On one corner after another are vendors grilling plantains or frying what look like beignet-type doughnuts. Other vendors have what look like pasties or empanadas. The fruit is sometimes so perfectly ripe that the stands smell tropical and sweet as I walk by. All of that is lost in a car.

Walking means I don’t have to contend with aggressive traffic, but it does carry hazards of its own, and it’s a different kind of walking here than anywhere else I’ve been. The primary concern just from a physical point of view is that there’s little consistency and many obstacles. By which I mean that there may or may not be a sidewalk. And when there is not a sidewalk there may or may not be a worn footpath. And when there is no footpath there may or may not be some reasonable amount of space on the side of the road that isn’t already occupied by cars. And then there are the gutters. Most of the roads are lined by open gutters, often running with water of varying degrees of nastiness. The ones that are running, actually, are the more pleasant ones. It’s the ones where the water seems to just be sitting there that look and smell the least appealing.

So clearly this is no place for staring down at a phone or being otherwise distracted while walking. I feel perfectly safe leaping from path to sidewalk to street and back to path, but it’s essential that I watch where I’m going. Sometimes the gutters are covered with concrete or steel grates, and then suddenly they aren’t. Sometimes the grates are loose and don’t look wise to step on. So it’s all about being on the alert and keeping an eye on what’s ahead.

It seems to me from my few days of walking that lots and lots of Ghanaians walk, but in general foreigners do not. And that accounts for another unique aspect of walking here – the constant taxi honks. Taxis are everywhere, it seems, all the time, and in such volume I don’t know how any one driver makes any money at all. Every time I’m out walking pretty much every taxi that passes slows down and honks to see if I want a ride. I don’t, so I keep walking. And they keep passing and honking. I clearly look like an excellent business prospect, but they don’t know my crazy walking ways.

Lest anyone become concerned about my safety: I did attend a very thorough security briefing at the Embassy. I am well aware that in addition to being a good business prospect for the taxis, I’m a good business prospect for thieves. And unlike in Juárez (or at least in the parts of Juárez we frequented), there is substantial petty crime here and it definitely does target foreigners (who are perceived as wealthy because, well, by Ghanaian standards we definitely are). In addition to being well aware of my physical situation with the gutters and pathways and such I am well aware of my vulnerability to purse-snatching. I only carry the bare necessities, I walk well-used paths where other pedestrians and vendors are walking, and I never act lost or tentative. It probably helps that I have to stay alert to the physical side of walking because I am unlikely to ever be ambling along in a distracted daze.

What I enjoy most, probably, is walking among all the street-level commerce. I’m not sure that I’ll ever get tired of seeing people carrying things they’re selling on their heads. As I walk I see people (mostly women, but not all) carrying bananas, shoes, peanuts, papayas (called pawpaws here), combs and brushes, kettles of food, all stacked and balanced perfectly. There are also roadside stands selling everything from freshly prepared foods to mops and buckets to clothing to hand-woven baskets to scratch-off cards for cell phone airtime (this is how cellular accounts are managed here – when you’re running low on credit you buy a card, scratch off a strip, and enter a series of numbers into your phone). I have yet to visit the huge market here but on the way to the supermarket/department store today I passed a market that’s maybe the size of a city block or so. I love it. I love the energy and people and chaos of it all. Something about being surrounded by all this action and life just makes me happy. So we’ll probably get a car. We want to get out of the city and see other parts of Ghana. We want to go to the national parks and the botanical gardens and the beaches. But even once we have some wheels again, I think a good part of my daily life will still take place on foot (or on two wheels rather than four).

Shedding some light on our life in Accra

So I’m going for something really timely and critical and hard-hitting for my first post from Accra: our light fixtures.

One of my favorite things about travel is seeing the small differences in day-to-day objects. In this regard our home in Mexico was not much to see – it could easily have been located five miles north in El Paso. Accra does not disappoint, though, in the small differences department. Doorknobs here are all of the lever kind (at least in our house) and light switches are tiny and of the push variety rather than the elongated switch we tend to have in the U.S. Most of the electrical sockets are U.K. style but there are a few in our house that are European style (thankfully – since some of our welcome kit appliances have European style plugs). The sockets also have little switches above them so they can be turned off when not in use.

My favorite I-couldn’t-quite-imagine-that-in-the-States feature of our home, however, is our light fixtures. As a child of the ’70s I find them somehow comforting – they definitely seem to belong to the disco era and would not feel out of place in a roller rink.

Even the two patio lights, upstairs and down, are a bit funky and fun:

 

But that’s really nothing of note once you walk in and see this beauty in our living room:

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It’s almost unfair to the other ones to go after that because the living room light definitely wins the blue ribbon. But our dining room puts up an impressive showing as well, as does our upstairs little family room area:

As a tennis fan I find the dining room fixture evocative of a can of tennis balls, which of course makes me happy. I really love these light fixtures. They are part of what makes our house here already by a very long shot my favorite of our foreign service abodes so far.

More highly relevant posts to come soon, I am sure. Still enjoying the cool season here despite daily warnings not to get used to it. Still loving the sights and sounds of this new home of ours. The kids both had a fantastic first week of school. I think we’re going to be quite content in Accra.

My new favorite city (I think)

I still have many cities to visit. I’ve been to some pretty wonderful places, both in the U.S. and around the world. I’m thankful to have been able to see as much as I’ve seen and look forward to seeing more. Berlin and Istanbul and Barcelona and New York, London and Copenhagen and Ljubljana and Guadalajara and Washington, D.C. So many beautiful, electrifying places to see and experience (excited to add Accra to that list soon).

Maybe it’s the excitement of recent experience or the building sentiment and anticipatory nostalgia of almost being done with our Mexico posting, but at the moment, at least, I have to say a new Favorite City in the World has emerged for me: Mexico City. And I feel the need to spread the gospel of this beautiful place and its warm inhabitants.

While I’m not terribly fond of the kids’ school year stretching nearly to July, I do love the long breaks they get throughout the year: the three-week Christmas break, the last Fridays of the month off, the two-week spring break. We’re on week 2 of spring break now (ensconced in my parents’ home in Santa Fe, yet another lovely city I’ve had the opportunity to know) and I’m finding myself with an unusual amount of time to reflect and write. Week 1 was spent with Andrés and the kids in Mexico City and I can’t say enough good things about our experience there.

One thing that struck me about Mexico City is what an amazing blend of “old” and “new” worlds it is. I had to remind myself repeatedly that I was not in Europe but in Mexico. The streets and buildings of the city center felt far more like Europe to me than like anything I’d ever experienced in the U.S., Canada, or other places in Mexico (though, granted, my experience of other places in Mexico is still sadly limited). There are sidewalk cafes and cobbled streets. As Andrés and I sipped coffee and the kids nibbled waffles and fresh pastries I was reminded more by far of Budapest than of our temporary home of Ciudad Juárez. But there is a clear and omnipresent connection to the city’s pre-European past – most strikingly seen at one end of the central square, the Zócalo, where it’s possible to stand on a sidewalk with the city’s towering cathedral on one side and the ruins of the pre-Columbian Templo Mayor on the other.

One thing that was undeniably, recognizably Mexican was the warmth, pride, and generosity of the people we encountered. In all of my travels I have never met people more genuinely happy to welcome visitors and share their culture, their food, and their enthusiasm for life than the people I’ve come to know in Mexico. When Andrés asked a fellow customer for recommendations at a street food spot in Xochimilco, the man came over to us later to see if we had enjoyed the foods he had suggested – and seemed genuinely pleased that we had. When we were clearly perplexed by the purchase of fare cards for the light rail, a family we had casually chatted with in line ushered us over to the turnstile, used their card to let us onto the platform, and would not allow us to pay them back for our fares. Cab drivers acted as tour guides, telling us about their favorite sights and destinations, really with no expectation of earning anything in exchange for their knowledge.

We got ripped off, too (my rose-colored glasses are firmly in place, but I know nothing is perfect). We paid more than twice what we should have for our boat ride in Xochimilco and the touts were unapologetic about their scam. It was Good Friday, everyone was on vacation, and the boat launches were jammed with people. It was a great day to make some extra money and nobody, Mexican or foreign, was paying the “proper” set rate that day. The tour we took to see the pyramids at Teotihuacan was expensive and ran us through an overpriced tourist trap store and a mediocre (at best) restaurant where we were a captive audience for mediocre (at best) mariachis who knew most folks would still feel obliged to tip them reasonably well. But our guide was also incredibly knowledgeable and we learned things we would never had known had we gone on our own. It still felt like money well spent.

So I encourage everyone who can: visit Mexico City! Stay in the center. Take the metro (though at rush hour it’s kind of crazy). Eat the street food. Keep your wallet and phone in your front pockets (it is a huge city, after all) but don’t be carried away with worry. Enjoy the electric thrill of the crowds. Eat ice cream and churros. And go see Frida Kahlo’s house and then tell me about it: it’s the one great disappointment of our trip that, despite arriving well before it opened, the lines were already several blocks long and we did not get a chance to visit. Enjoy my new favorite city.

Two years almost gone . . . two months ahead

We are just short of two years in Ciudad Juárez, with just over two months remaining before we leave. The time seems to have just vanished. It hardly feels like months have passed, let alone years. My memories of arriving are as vivid as thoughts of yesterday or the day before. The only way I can really understand the passage of this time is to consider how much has changed since we arrived. A lot has changed, I have to acknowledge. So maybe two years isn’t quite as short as it seems.

Spanish has gotten easier. When I arrived it had been decades since I regularly used Spanish. Living in Oak Cliff I had certainly heard plenty, and I had helped the kids with their dual language studies at Rosemont, but it had been since my United World College days (some 25+ years past) since I heard and used the language on a daily basis.  It was surprisingly difficult at first, but I generally understand what’s going on around me now without having to focus intensely. I don’t have to practice too much in my head before tackling a new conversation. Usually I can respond to direct questions without sputtering and flailing (too much). I don’t have random words of other languages I’ve tried to learn popping into my Spanish sentences.

I also don’t get lost in Juárez any more. I’m amused and baffled by the thought that for a few days I had a hard time remembering which way to turn out of our neighborhood to get to the border crossing we use, or that I was once so confused crossing back in to Juárez about where to go and where to stop that a CBP officer knocked on my window to ask if I was OK. I must have looked intoxicated.

Marisela has gone from knowing only a handful of words and simple sentences to rattling on in Spanish just as quickly and tirelessly as she does in English. Isaiah has tackled physics and chemistry in Spanish, not to mention French and Japanese – taught in Spanish. They’ve both learned to love comida picante.

Andrés has become well-versed in an incredible array of visa classes and ineligibilities. He’s adjudicated well over 10,000 visas and has served as deputy fraud prevention manager at what we’ve heard is the busiest fraud prevention unit in any U.S. mission.

Isaiah has grown from a relatively tall but still “little” boy to a 6-foot-tall teenager. He’s had braces put on, adjusted, and removed. He’s learned to play tennis to the point that I’m a bit afraid to play him when he’s really on form. He’s started writing a novel and is further along in it than I have ever been in any writing project.

In addition to learning Spanish Marisela has learned how to swim, how to do long division, how to play the recorder and read music, how to play a bit of piano, and how to navigate friendships across cultures and over long distances. She can whack a piñata like nobody’s business. She can also use a sewing machine and bake a delicious cake from scratch, complete with real buttercream frosting.

We’ve taken full advantage of our proximity to the U.S. and visited family and friends frequently – multiple trips to Dallas, Lubbock, Santa Fe, and the Oklahoma farm. We’ve also visited the family cottage in Leland and taken trips to Big Bend, City of Rocks, the Chile Festival in Hatch, Truth or Consequences, the Davis Mountains and Fort Davis, Tucson, Las Vegas, Colorado, Cancún, and the amazing Mexico City.

So I guess despite it feeling like no time at all has passed, things have, in fact, changed pretty significantly during our two years in Mexico. We’ve accomplished a lot, grown a lot, seen a lot, done a lot. We’ve met friends we’ll never forget. And we still have two more months to go. The temptation is great to start to disconnect, to loosen the ties that bind us to Juárez to make departure easier, but I’m going to try to resist. Two years is a short time, after all, but there is still so much that can be seen and done – I don’t want to miss chances and make the time even shorter than it actually is.

It’s not all deep thoughts and melancholy

I often turn to my blog when I’m feeling blue and trying to sift through it all. So it probably gives a considerably skewed impression of just how blue I feel and just how much of my time I spend pondering arcane ideas about why I’m feeling blue. Thought I’d take a few minutes to share some things that make me very happy in my day-to-day here in Cd. Juárez:

The people. Love love love the people I’ve met here. From the other officers and their families to the kids’ friends and their parents to the wonderfully warm and patient guy who teaches us tennis this post is full of folks I’m delighted to know.

My walks. There’s a perimeter path around our neighborhood that – with a little imagination – almost makes my morning walks feel like a hike (minus any elevation changes). I cue up a podcast and make my rounds for an hour or so and the world feels like a wonderful place.

The food. For example: dangerously close to our house is a little joint called Taqueria Aaajiji. Thankfully getting there involves crossing a treacherous street. Otherwise I’d have to be walking twice as much to compensate for excess taco consumption.

El Paso. Any of my New Mexico friends (especially any Las Cruces friends) probably understand the extent to which I must swallow my NM pride to admit this, but El Paso is a pretty cool little city. The ballpark, the Plaza Theater, restaurants like Tabla and Anson 11 . . . growing up I definitely adopted the attitude that the only reason to go to El Paso was to get to the airport, but I grudgingly admit I’ve enjoyed having El Paso so nearby. But the Organ Mountains are still far and away more beautiful than the Franklins.

The climate. This is not something I’m guessing most folks would consider a plus as far as Juárez is concerned but I love the desert. I love the dry air and I don’t really mind the heat. Raindrops feel like precious gems here and very little is more nostalgic for me than the scent of rain in the desert.

Tennis. I love tennis, and while I tremendously miss playing sets with my friend back in Dallas, we have a fantastic coach here who gives lessons at the Consulate. He’s helped me correct years’ worth of self-taught bad habits and he’s helped the kids learn to enjoy the sport. If Isaiah ever gets past his current floppiness and reluctance to hit balls that don’t just land right within his (pretty significant) reach he might be a real contender.

Easy access to the U.S. It’s great to be able to see friends and family regularly. We’re no further from Lubbock than we had been in Dallas and we’re much closer to Santa Fe. It’s hard to beat that.

Happy Kristin, over and out.

 

 

 

The foreign service chronotope

I walk most mornings, generally in circles around our neighborhood, and as I walk I listen to podcasts. Yesterday I listened to an episode of a podcast called Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People in which the host had a conversation with a U.S. college professor who spends her summers in Paris, living with U.S. expat friends there and writing. They discussed the concept of “chronotopes,” which I never fully understood, though it intrigued me. Whatever a chronotope actually is, the caller and host were using the term to describe a set of circumstances that create a time and space that has its own existence, somehow separate from the rest of the world. The caller had heard the concept discussed at an academic conference and mentioned that it’s often used in reference to videogaming. She was using it in reference to her Paris existence vs. her existence at home. And it got me thinking about how much of my life seems to exist in a weird universe of its own.

Nothing bothers me more in my personal life than failing people I love. And yet I seem to be pretty good at it. I suppose we all are prone to this, limited beings that we are. I would like to think of myself as a considerate person, but I do have certain traits that set me up to fail people: I’m a forgetful person, and organizing myself to make up for the forgetfulness does not come naturally to me; I tend to try to accomplish more than maybe I should in any given day, leaving me more likely (especially as a forgetful person) to not be able to keep track of everything I should keep track of; I sometimes lose myself in details and fail to see bigger-picture stuff, or – in a different version of the same shortsightedness – might focus on the biggest things looming for me and in doing so lose sight of details that really matter to people I care about.

Living the dueling choronotopes (I’ll go ahead and use this word though I’m sure I’m using it wrong) of Juarez life and the life I try to maintain with friends and family back in the U.S. doesn’t help matters in this regard. Today I came to understand that I had really failed a dear friend of mine in the States. I had known she was experiencing some medical problems and that she had a surgical procedure scheduled. I had known that she was scared and in need of friendship and support. And yet I lost track of when her procedure was scheduled and I failed to let her know how very much she was on my mind and in my prayers (although, as it turned out, at the wrong time, as I’d remembered it being a week later than it actually was). Reflecting on this failure (for which my kind friend has very graciously forgiven me) has left me feeling frustrated and puzzled at the dissonance my two lives create. Why? Why is it so hard to reconcile these two realities? Why do they even feel like two realities? Am I just making excuses for myself?

Daily life in Juarez is not hard. There are well-stocked supermarkets and good schools and we have a comfortable home in a secure neighborhood. I have good friends and never lack for interesting things to do. Should I ever want anything I can’t find in the stores here I can hop over the border within minutes. Although using a different language to navigate this world adds a certain level of complication, my Spanish is more than adequate for the tasks I have to perform. But still somehow I get caught up in things. I get into this little bubble of life here and though I’m doing all the same things I would be doing anywhere else – the same things I was doing in Dallas – that other world inhabited by friends and family just on the other side of the border seems somehow distant and distorted. It’s an effort to keep up . . . when are my nieces and nephews starting school? When is my friend’s family moving to their new house? When does my mother-in-law have that eye surgery? Social media both helps and hinders, I think, making it easier to stay up on the superficial but also feeding a false sense of really knowing what’s going on, since actually only a fraction of our lives tend to be shared in these arenas.

But I also wonder how real this dilemma I’m feeling actually is. When Andres and I moved from New Mexico to Dallas our ties to New Mexico loosened. The closeness and immediacy of our friendships with people in NM gave way to a less intimate connection. Our sense of being truly engaged with the daily lives of our NM family faded. It’s natural, and I suppose it was even necessary in order to let us forge bonds and develop a sense of place and belonging in Dallas, our new home.

So why does this feel different? Why, despite being at an easy post in easy travel distance from friends and family, does this feel like a far more different life – a chronotope, as I’m (mis?)using that term – and one in which I’m somehow more removed from life in the States than I was from life in Albuquerque when we moved to Dallas? Am I just trying to maintain an unrealistic level of connection with a life I need to acknowledge I’ve left behind?

I’m not sure about any of that, but I’m turning over a few ideas in my head about how this all seems like a new thing:

  1. This life is far more different from my life in Dallas than my Dallas life was from my Albuquerque life. We live in a bubble, to a large extent, and we have a lifestyle, day to day, that is very different from anything we experienced previously (sometimes in ways that are not only unusual to me, but uncomfortable). We live in a home that is bigger and more ornate than anything we ever would have chosen for ourselves – not to mention the fact that we must live in a guarded, gated neighborhood, which is something we scoffed at in the U.S. Our kids go to private schools for the first time in their lives, and language and cultural differences also play a part in accentuating the other-ness in our school situation. These are not things I would choose and I don’t feel altogether comfortable in these situations. Except that I have to acknowledge that I have chosen them, by virtue of (together with Andres, of course) choosing foreign service as a lifestyle for our family. This stuff is part of the deal.
  2. We have met wonderful people and have friends here who are very dear to us and with whom I hope to maintain lifelong connections, but the face-to-face element of foreign service friendships comes with a set expiration date. It somehow makes these friendships feel simultaneously more intense and more fragile than friendships in the life we left behind.
  3. Our proximity to the U.S. messes with my mind. It feels like it shouldn’t be different (especially having grown up so nearby), and yet it is. And that throws me off. It feels like it should be a great opportunity to extend our close contact with friends and family in the U.S. (as opposed to what it would be like had our next assignment – Ghana – been our first). It is a great opportunity, and in many ways we’ve taken advantage of that, with frequent visits to Santa Fe and Lubbock and Dallas. But somehow there is the sense that this is almost a mirage . . . something temporary and not to be entirely trusted.
  4. There is a constant sense of the fleeting nature of all things associated with FS life that makes it feel both more necessary and also more difficult to maintain deep roots back in the U.S.

All of this notwithstanding, I do not in any way regret the life we’ve chosen. I have to remind myself that – in the scope of my nearly 45 years – this is still a very new venture. In January we’ll be two years in, and just a year and a half at our very first post. I know I’m still processing it all, and will have to process each move as it comes, although I assume and hope I will develop a certain level of skill in dealing more gracefully with the lifestyle as a whole. I love all my people. In all my chronotopes. I am truly, truly thankful for the many incredible people I love and who love me, near and far, and I hope they can bear with me as I figure out how to weave them into my life in such a way that these cherished friendships don’t unravel.

On being said goodbye to vs. saying goodbye

We knew this, of course. Intellectually. It’s much harder to be the people left behind than to be the people who leave. When we left Dallas it was hard. We were breaking away from the friends and places and routines of the last 12 1/2 years of our lives. It was the only home the kids ever knew – practically their entire universe, contained within a few square miles. And yet we were heading into a new adventure that required total engagement and it was impossible not to be at least distracted from our grief, if not dissuaded from it.

Less than four months later it was goodbye again. We were among the first in Andrés’ training group to leave the Washington, DC area for post. Knowing that timetables are usually tight, foreign service people don’t mess around when making friends. We had very quickly forged close friendships and it was not easy to once again leave everything behind. But this time we had an even more absorbing project ahead of us: settling in to our first post, where we would live for two years. Living not just in a new city but in a new nation with a new (albeit familiar) culture and language. And the consulate community in Juárez was incredibly welcoming, so we quickly had new friends to add to our ever-growing collection.

And so it continued for a year. We’ve stayed in touch with our Dallas friends and paid a few visits, keeping those ties as strong as we can. Our proximity to the U.S. means we’ve been able to see family at least as often as we did when we were in Dallas. And Marisela, in particular, has been a letter-writing and craft-making champ, sending notes and drawings and rubber band bracelets around the globe. Despite the fact that our foreign service friends have now made their way to locales as widespread as Mauritius and Italy and Nepal and Indonesia and Belgium we have done, I’d say, a reasonable job of keeping connections alive.

But a week ago today, for the first time we were the left rather than the leavers. We met Abhisneha, briefly, during our first full day in Ciudad Juárez. We were touring the school that would eventually become Marisela’s, and Abhisneha was already attending. When, later in the summer, Marisela and Abhisneha had the chance to spend more time together, they became very fast friends. Over the next year they learned together, painted together, sang together, giggled together, gardened together, and just constantly grew in affection for one another.

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We said goodbye to Abhisneha, her five siblings, and her parents last week and now we’re learning how tough it is for life to just keep going as if nothing is different when it feels like everything is different. It’s a bit easier for the older members of the family to remain philosophical about this. Isaiah really liked Abhisneha and her family but they were not daily fixtures of his life. But for Marisela this is a huge loss. Her world has once again, for the third time in about a year, entirely shifted under her feet and this time there’s no distraction to dull the pain. Thankfully, she still has a very close friend in the consulate community who is also in her class at school, and she has local friends at school as well. But I imagine she can’t help but be thinking ahead to the end of this year when that other consulate friend, too, will be on her way to her family’s next post.

And that brings me to a thought that has recurred for me many times over the challenging year and a half we’ve spent so far in the foreign service. For as long as I can remember I have known the passage from Thessalonians about giving thanks in all circumstances. Somehow it has taken me decades of life and this period of intense emotional trials to actually feel like – sometimes, at least – I not only understand but truly appreciate what it means to do that.

Marisela struggles intensely with anxiety. We have had some exhausting, incredibly painful times over the last several months as she has battled with it, and this latest blow has definitely reawakened the amygdala-dwelling beast she has named “Stinky” – the voice of her most primal and hard-to-control fears. And yet somehow I can, with complete honesty, say that I am thankful for all that we have experienced in this year and a half. Somehow I can say I am thankful, even, for the mornings like the one I had today – a morning when Stinky was in full control and it was tough to get Marisela out the door and off to school (where, thanks to my dear friend Mimi who is chaperoning a field trip, I know that she is thriving and having a great day).

I don’t believe it is my own goodness or strength that allows me to experience this thankfulness (the goodness and strength I possess are pretty wobbly in and of themselves). I know that many of my friends do not share my particular faith or subscribe to any particular faith at all, but I personally can only make sense of this as a gift of grace from the Holy Spirit. It is a perspective that I do not believe I am capable of having on my own: the perspective that shows even these times of intense pain as life-affirming, spirit-building, and ultimately part of what makes life a beautiful experience.

A little over 26 years ago I graduated from an international boarding school. It’s a two-year school, so although I was together with the friends in my graduating class for two years, I was only together with those in the classes above or below me for one school year. One or two school years, approaching 30 years ago, and I still feel a close bond to many of my UWC classmates. So when I wonder and worry about whether my kids will really experience close friendships when their lives are so very riddled with leaving and being left, I think about my UWC years. The friendships were so intense, the parting so hard, but the connections lifelong. So very much to give thanks for.

 

Gotta Go to Ghana

So we finally did get the bid list. I think it came a month, more or less, past the time we were first hoping it might arrive. In fact, it came exactly at the point at which I’d stopped thinking about it, and certainly beyond the point at which I had convenient blocks of time to work with it. May has been packed to bursting with good and bad. Lots of fun, many outings and dates and cool things going on with the kids at their schools. But also a round of viruses the likes of which I never remember encountering this far into spring. It’s been an interesting time, to say the least, at which to need hours to devote to the eye-straining task of sifting through a State Department bid list.

For those of you not State Department affiliated, here’s the quickest summary I can give of the second-tour bidding process (well, it’s not quick at all, actually – but it may be in fact the quickest summary I am capable of giving, as I like details): first, all the officers who started at their first post more or less when Andrés did were organized into groups based on the level of hardship at their current post. Our 20% hardship in Juárez put us (barely) into the first group. Then the list went out. It’s a formidable document with, give or take, 350 positions listed. Each position has an estimated start date – a target arrival month for that job at that post. We were tasked with taking that 350-post list and whittling it down to 30.

This kind of thing is just not Andrés’ cup of tea. And although I will probably be happy to complain about doing it, I actually find a nerdy enjoyment in combing through minute details. So I volunteered to do the legwork, figuring out which of the 350 were even viable so we could then eke out our 30 to submit. The first sweep was easy: we can’t serve in Mexico again for our second tour. Second sweep: easy to get rid of posts for which a new language is required, but that start not long after we leave Ciudad Juárez (can’t learn French to FS standards in three weeks). Third sweep: remove jobs that aren’t consular (Andrés’ focus within foreign service – and because there’s huge consular need this didn’t eliminate a huge number of jobs). Fourth sweep: also easy to get rid of places Andrés and I agree we just don’t want to go. We’re pretty cool with most places, but don’t want to land somewhere with a security situation so tight we won’t have much freedom of movement. Especially considering that Isaiah will be in his mid-teens at our next post, we really don’t want a gilded cage situation.

That part was easy. But we still had, I don’t know, probably 100 posts left. Lots of really great posts. It was exciting. But lots of work remained to be done. And that’s where it got less exciting. Because at this point there was no avoiding diving in to the picky details of timing. We are, in theory, supposed to leave Juárez in May, 2017. At some point between posts we must take home leave, which is 20 – 30 work days (so that’s one spot where we have wiggle room in timing). Each job has different training requirements – language is the primary type of training we had to look at since we were honed in on consular jobs and Andrés has already been through consular training. Then there are a few days we can plan on for “consultations,” which basically gives us another week of wiggle room.

In making up our 30-post bid list, at least 20 of those bids have to be “perfect,” meaning we leave Juárez in May and arrive at our new post in whatever month the bid list designates for that particular job, with no awkward gaps between departure, home leave, training, and arrival. This is where I came to my first very disappointing moment. Every single language-designated post was imperfect for us, meaning we would have to request an extension of our time in Juárez in order to avoid a gap between departing, doing our home leave, and starting language training in September. We have no problem with the notion of extending. Given the demand for consular work in Juárez and the abundance of housing here, I’m guessing the powers that be here at the CDJ Consulate would have no objection to Andrés extending. But that still means that we can only bid 10 out of our 30 bids for language-designated posts (other than Spanish, which Andrés already has). 20 have to be for either English- or Spanish-designated jobs.

That was a bummer. Because we’re thoroughly enjoying Juárez but are hoping to not do back-to-back Spanish-designated tours. And on this particular list the English-designated posts are not in Botswana or Tanzania or Namibia. They’re in Dublin and Toronto and Sydney and such. I know: cry me a river . . . you have to bid on English-speaking posts in the developed world. Boo hoo. But seriously, those are not places we are super enthused about going. They just aren’t. And sadly enough for us, of the two English-designated consular posts in Africa, one is not a perfect timing match and the other is in a country we’d love to serve in, but that does not have high school education available at post (which Isaiah will need – and I’m not quite ready to send him to boarding school yet, even if I did go myself when I was not much older).

So our once-very-long and robust list was suddenly feeling less inspiring. I dug back through and salvaged a few English-designated jobs at African posts that aren’t consular jobs. There’s not a chance Andrés will get them – too many of his non-consular colleagues need those jobs to get experience in their chosen areas – but they will allow us to knock a few places off the list that we don’t want to go. We’ve spent several days now arranging and rearranging the list and we’re pretty happy with it, but we’re certainly crossing fingers that we can get a nod for one of the “imperfect” posts.

Our top five posts are all imperfect. Four are language-designated and our super-duper fingers-crossed number one is Accra, which just has the wrong start date for our schedule. Here’s what gives us hope, though: often, people who serve at 20%-and-up hardship posts for their first tour very reasonably take advantage of their early choice in the bidding process to pack their top 10 with places like Paris, London, and Rome – places designated zero hardship. The lowest hardship of any of our top five is 10%. Most are right around the 20% hardship we have here in Juárez. We’re hoping State Department will see this as a win-win . . . a good consular officer will be around to help out for a couple of extra months at a very, very busy consulate that could certainly use the help, and then will cheerfully take up a consular position at a second hardship post. That should work, right?? We’re certainly hoping so.

Our top five, by the way: Accra, Colombo, Ho Chi Minh City, Muscat, and Ulaanbaatar. Your geography lesson, boys and girls (who aren’t FSOs or EFMs), is figuring out where exactly those cities are. We would be beyond delighted to go to any of them. Start saving your frequent flyer miles, friends and loved ones. Our motto for bidding season: Gotta Go to Ghana!

Year 1 in pictures

I haven’t done much in the way of incorporating photos here, so this will be something new and different. A photographic retrospective of our time since leaving Andrés’ training last May . . .

First, our trip from VA to CDJ . . . through Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas . . .

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And our first days in Juárez, sampling local cuisine, meeting neighbors, finding a church to attend (with the bonus of delicious shaved ice to enjoy after the service) . . .

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Summer featured water park fun, a trip back to visit Dallas friends, a family reunion at the Dyche farm in Oklahoma, tennis lessons, and visits to some New Mexico landmarks.

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Then school started!

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Mexican independence day (16 de septiembre) brought celebrations at school and the Consulate, and a visit from our cousin/uncle Steve Higley . . .

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October took us back to the U.S. again, this time to Colorado to celebrate the wedding of Andrés’ Peace Corps buddy, Bill.

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It was pretty cool when cousin Ethan’s high school band accompanied their football team to a game just a few miles up the road in El Paso. And Marisela and I also paid a visit to family friend Armando for cuts and styles at his salon in Las Cruces, just like my sister and Mom and I used to do.

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Halloween featured trick-or-treating in Mesilla Park, the Las Cruces neighborhood where I grew up. Here the kids are in front of my childhood home. We also enjoyed Día de los Muertos. Marisela and her friend Abhisneha had fun making altares with their classmates at school.

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And then birthday/holiday season was upon us . . .

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One of the local employees at the Consulate invited us to a mass, followed by dancing and celebration at his family’s home, in celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I remember elementary school friends dancing in the village of Tortugas, outside Las Cruces, on this feast day.

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After Christmas and New Year’s we were off to Cancún for a week of blissful relaxation.

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Not exactly sure where February went. I guess it wasn’t very picturesque. Because next thing you know we’re at Big Bend for spring break.

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And then at Trinity Site. I’m sure we’ve all changed over the course of the year, but if you scroll back up to the picture of the kids and Andrés with the turquoise convertible at Graceland you will see why I am still scratching my head and wondering where my little boy went.

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And that’s pretty much it up to now. Thanks to all for your constant love and support.