Three years ago at this time, we were settling in to Australia, and as much as I love Australia, that was sure a bumpy period. I wrote then about the challenges of settling into a new overseas posting when everything keeps.going.wrong. My post was called Glass Half Full, and it was about the struggle to stay positive and keep things in long-term perspective. The attitude of my then-boss (who had nearly 30 years in the Foreign Service) inspired me to reframe some of my struggles as things to take in stride, no matter how much they all sucked in the aggregate.
Some of those lessons have been coming in handy again over the past few weeks; I have made progress settling in to my life here, and have racked up some small wins. But the difficulties posed by the ongoing pandemic, the steep learning curve of a new and busy job, managing a remote team, the general amount of time and effort it takes to wrap up a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move, and most importantly, the fact that my husband V had to leave for a business trip seven weeks ago and still has not been able to return, have all weighed on me. Because I have been through a few bumpy PCS moves now myself, I know that it works out eventually. Some of the problems – like waiting for your diplomatic accreditation or household effects to arrive – resolve on their own with time and patience. Other problems require more energy. It is both helpful and necessary to keep reframing the inconveniences as temporary and part of the adventure, and reminding yourself that the settled life you had before was once something you had to build from scratch, too. But as one of my colleagues here on his 11th tour recently confessed, I like the beginning of each tour the least.
Some really terrific things have happened since my last blog post, and also a few less-than terrific things where I had to search for a silver lining.
First and foremost, I received my physical Global Entry card in the mail on September 11, a week after my interview in El Paso. It seemed fitting somehow. A week later, I brought the Volkswagen to the Mexican government’s Línea Exprés office on the border, and provided my diplomatic passport, car registration, driver’s license, and proof that I had added the car to my Global Entry account. After reviewing all of this, Mexican officials allowed me to buy the windshield transponder sticker that allows me to use the northbound U.S. SENTRI lane out of Mexico, and put it directly on the car for me. That afternoon I came back and did the same thing with the Toyota; since V is still in Washington, I had to bring the cars myself one at a time.
There was quite a wait, and social distancing protocols, waiting room capacity issues, and their 08:00 to 16:00 office hours all made it a little more tedious. It also cost about USD $289 per car for the annual unlimited entry pass. (Depending on how much we end up crossing, I may revert to a 90 or 120 count entry pass for future years, but for the time being, it seemed prudent to not limit ourselves).
I had to rush back and forth between my house, work, and the Línea Exprés office for most of the day, standing in line in the heat, trying to navigate the wild one-way streets, and getting caught in one traffic jam of big rigs headed to the border, and then another traffic jam as local maquiladoras (factories) changed shifts. Dozens of converted green and white school busses jammed the dusty, laneless roads in all directions to ferry employees home, and I sat complacently waiting my turn to escape back to the consulate.
Glass half full: the Línea Exprés staff were so professional and helpful, and using the SENTRI lane northbound has been life-changing. A day’s trouble and expense was so well worth it. I have crossed the border with it a few times already, and the entire crossing never took more than six minutes. And given my hours-long crossing struggles of August and September, and the recent announcement from the Department of Homeland Security that it would extend land border closures between the United States, Canada, and Mexico to October 21, the opportunity to cross the border rapidly in my personal or official capacity is priceless.
Last time I crossed, our cherry red 4Runner was covered in mud; although it was mostly the result of a sudden rain storm followed immediately by wild dust, it looked more like I’d done some major off-roading. The female CBP officer contemplated my floral dress, curled hair and makeup, pearls, and diplomatic passport. She paused, managing to frown and look nonchalant at the same time. “Ma’am,” she asked me, “Is this your vehicle?” I laughed. Oh yes. Yes it is.
Then there were the PCS expenses. Whenever we travel on government orders, we use our government travel credit cards for authorized expenses like hotels, gas, and meals. The idea is that the billing cycle for official cards is longer (usually 60 days), and you can avoid being out of pocket while your reimbursements are being processed.
When we drove here in July, I only used my official card for hotels and my personal funds for everything else. It was simply more convenient for me (accumulating points on my own accounts, gassing up two cars at the same time, etc.) – although it’s worth noting if an FSO has a lot of debt, or relatively limited lines of credit, this could be a bad idea. The credit line on the government card is high enough to where you shouldn’t have a problem using it for the whole trip, but since I am personally responsible for all of it whether my reimbursement comes through or not, for me it all comes out in the wash.
Anyway, when I prepared my voucher, I itemized all my expenses in full. But there were a bunch of delays and problems getting my voucher approved, and the Department in its wisdom decided to only reimburse me a portion of my hotel and gas expenses for our long trip here in July. Glass half full: it is probably an error, and I will follow up on it, but in the meantime it was not problematic for me to absorb the loss. I had already paid for all the bills out of pocket back when they were due. In fact, I was able to buy myself an early birthday present: a discontinued Louis Vuitton purse that was only made for fall 2007. It hasn’t come yet, but every time I look at my pictures of it I feel happy. It just looks so beautiful and unusual to me, and I love wearing rare pieces that almost no one has.
Student Loans – Almost a Thing of the Past
And maybe some of the best news was that I received notification of an award from the Department through its Student Loan Repayment Program (SLRP) that will wipe out the small remaining balance of my undergraduate university loan that I first took out in 1997. I have been paying it back faithfully for more than 15 years. SLRP is a benefit available to FSOs serving in hardship posts who are still trying to pay off their student loans. It took some time to deal with the application bureaucracy this spring, but since I was eligible during my Tashkent tour, I knew the program works well. I love having no mortgage debt, no credit card or consumer debt, no car loan debt, and soon I will be able to add no student debt to the list, at last. (I paid off my grad school loan in 2017, which was a higher priority for me because the interest rate was higher.) For what it’s worth, I feel that my student loan investment has served me really well – without my degrees I probably would have never ended up with the professional trajectory I started back in 2002. But it will be such a celebration to finally be out from under it at my age!
Health & Beauty Wins
I also really lucked out with finding awesome new ladies to do my hair and nails in El Paso. If you have ever moved to a new place and had to start over, you know how hard this can be. I still have to find new doctors and a new dentist.
And since the consulate medical unit is not going to receive a batch of flu shots until late October, the proximity to the border allowed me to get a flu shot last weekend, courtesy of Walgreens pharmacy.
Car Troubles, Fixed
On another note, as I previously mentioned, my beloved Volkswagen Hilde had some mechanical problems while I was attempting to take V to the airport in mid-August when he returned to Washington. I luckily managed to address it the same day, and V made his flight by continuing to the airport himself in an Uber. But in true “settling in” fashion, that was not the end of it.
After replacing the ignition coil, and a couple of weeks later bringing Hilde in for her 60K mile service including replacing all the spark plugs, *that very evening* while returning to Juárez, the engine light started flashing and the whole car started bucking and shaking. I realized that if I avoided accelerating uphill and babied it, driving at slow speeds and essentially driving it like a bomb about to go off, I could manage.
But Texas is the land of big trucks and big freeways, and poking along at 35 mph in a 60 mph zone could get you run over. And driving any vehicle that could break down and leave me on the side of the road in Ciudad Juárez, which has one of the highest murder rates and one of the poorest security situations in the entire Western Hemisphere, was a flat non-starter. I got home safely that night, but was most genuinely displeased at having poured more money into the Volkswagen only to have it again in an undriveable condition.
Glass half full: a few days later I took the day off, and a very slow, breath-holding drive back to the Volkswagen service center in El Paso. I had them replace the other three coils, and since then Hilde has been running like a dream. I am also very fortunate to have the Toyota too, so if there is an issue with one car I can always drive the other. And, after Hilde was in good shape, I drove her up the scenic drive to Murchison Rogers Park in southwest El Paso to take a look around. Outdoor adventures alone are pretty much the only semi-normal thing I have right now, and something to look forward to doing together with V when he returns home.
It was a really cool chance to look out over the greater metropolitan area of sister cities Ciudad Juárez and El Paso; if you don’t know where the border is, it wouldn’t really be possible to tell where one country ends and the other begins.
HHE Arrival & More Good News on the Horizon
And finally, three of the most heartening developments! One, V will return to the area very soon; two, we will take a trip to New Mexico’s White Sands National Park; and three, yesterday, our HHE arrived!!
The larger shipment (five huge wooden crates nailed shut and sealed with diplomatic stickers) we packed out in Canberra, Australia in July 2019, so we have not seen those things for nearly 15 months. We were only allotted a small air freight to bring with us for what was supposed to be 7-8 months in Virginia, but because of the pandemic stretched to 11 months. The rest of our things in HHE were not lost all this time; as V and I returned to the U.S. and took home leave in summer 2019, our household effects sailed on a ship from Australia to the Port of Long Beach, California, and were then transferred to a warehouse in El Paso, Texas to await our arrival. They have been waiting for one year. There was also one smaller crate that we packed out in July 2020 from Virginia, which were the items that would not fit in (or that were too fragile for) our air freight.
I have not opened most of the HHE yet, but I am so pleased that nothing was missing or obviously broken. I will be checking it all in the coming days (weeks?!) to make sure we don’t need to file an insurance claim. Myself and the lead supervisor from the moving company inventoried every box against our master lists and in the end, it was all there.
Watching my wedding china, V’s bicycle, my antique dresser and rocking chair, our beds, gardening equipment, stone patio table, and everything else come out of the sealed crates bit by bit brought a rush of emotion and a renewed feeling that we are really at home in Ciudad Juárez now. And when V returns, it will literally be the first time that we have had all our possessions with us in one place since my first PCS to Tashkent in May 2015. (We put things in government storage, either in Hagerstown, Maryland or ELSO in Antwerp when we packed out to and from Tashkent, ironically our biggest house where we could have just put appliances with the wrong voltage and whatever else in the basement. I recalled everything last year to Arlington and we went through it and got rid of our shelving, our old dining room table, etc. and now what we have left is what we want and need.)
This employment benefit of household shipping always feels more like “FSO Christmas,” and especially after witnessing a heartbreaking line of people waiting in front of an El Paso food bank last week to fill their trunks with food, I feel more grateful than ever that our problems are so small. We are working, relatively healthy, and soon we will be back together again. We will build our life here in Mexico and enjoy it the best we can, even if 2020 continues to give us all a good walloping.
Over the last couple of months, I have received some really great feedback and questions to the blog’s email inbox, firstname.lastname@example.org.
I feel like I should apologize for my response time – I have been working my way through a queue of messages and I think I have two more to go. I am always so glad to hear from readers and answer your questions personally, and thanks for your understanding if it takes me a few weeks (or months) to organize my thoughts and respond. Some of these Q&As will also appear in an upcoming “Your Questions Answered” post.