Category: Foreign Service

Life on the Border: 10 Times When Heading ‘Across Town’ Can Be More Than You Bargained For

Serving at U.S. Consulate General Ciudad Juárez as a Foreign Service posting has had the unique benefit of proximity to the United States: El Paso, Texas is less than five miles away. Ciudad Juárez and El Paso in many regards feel like one city. If you read about the history of this area and in particular the resolution of the Chamizal dispute in the 1960s over 600 acres of disputed border territory, you will start to see how the geographical, historical, social, and economic ties in the second-largest U.S. border community (behind San Diego and Tijuana) have been tightly interwoven over hundreds of years. And despite the border closure to non-essential travel between March 21, 2020 and November 8, 2021, those ties remain strong.

However, proximity doesn’t always equal easy or convenient access, even for the most privileged of us. FSOs could be forgiven for being lulled into complacency routinely traveling back and forth between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso when it feels like a run across town, only to be slapped with the reality of it actually technically being diplomatic travel to and from your country of assignment across an international border. This is highlighted only when something goes wrong and you realize, this would have been a lot easier were I only driving across town. Here are 10 examples (plus one bonus) of times going across town was more than I bargained for during the last year and a half.

The Land of Enchantment, Part II

The first week of October, we took a long-awaited trip back to New Mexico for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Albuquerque is about 280 miles due north, or four and a half hours away, and it was a first visit for both of us. From the first time I saw a postcard of hot air balloons floating over Albuquerque stuck to my nana’s refrigerator as a child, I was mesmerized. Fortunately, after weather foiled several attempts to balloon in New Zealand in 2006, I got to experience hot air ballooning with V during our diplomatic assignment to Australia in 2018 – in Canberra where we lived and over New South Wales’ Hunter Valley as we celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary.

In Albuquerque we opted not to fly this time, due to cost and the inability to socially distance from other people in a hot air balloon basket. Instead we watched the 49th annual dawn Mass Ascension spectacle from the ground as more than 600 hot air balloons launched from a 78 acre field. This also gave me a better chance to see and photograph the balloons instead of being absorbed with our experience and logistics. While in town, we also visited the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, stumbled into a fall festival at the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden, and went hiking at two of the three Petroglyph National Monument sites – Boca Negra and Rinconada Canyon.

Carlsbad and El Desierto Frágil

In early September, less than two days after I returned from a nearly 3,000 mile solo road trip to California, I turned around and went on another road trip; this time with V, and much closer to the borderland, three hours away to Carlsbad, New Mexico.

We wanted to celebrate the Labor Day holiday weekend by visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park. In a three-day flurry of outdoor pandemic-safer activity, we also visited Sitting Bull Falls in the Lincoln National Forest, the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park, and the Pecos River Flume and Heritage Park. The latter is featured on “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” as being “The World’s Only River that Crosses Itself,” and not even a sudden and hellacious storm thwarted our exploration of it.

One of my favorite things about serving on the U.S.-Mexico border has doubtless been the proximity to places in my home country I have wanted to visit. My experience traveling in the American southwest has been so limited there will be no way to check everything off the list this tour, but getting out to Carlsbad Caverns was something I really wanted to do.

Synchronicities and Forks in the Road

Instead of returning to my third diplomatic posting in Ciudad Juárez through the Nevada desert after I visited my family in northern California this past August, I decided to loop back home through San Diego and Tucson instead. This year marks 20 years since I graduated from San Diego State University and mailed off my application to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer – one day before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks – during my last semester in college. Other than three brief visits to friends in 2002 and 2005, I had never since returned to San Diego. Having the opportunity to simultaneously be in the Foreign Service and be within driving distance of my family and alma mater will not likely happen again unless I serve in another border post or a rare domestic assignment outside the DC area. So, I returned to the place where I once chose the next in a series of forks in the road that, in retrospect, led me to where I am today, although I could not have known it in 2001.

Motherland Calling

If the first two days of my August road trip north and west carried a “fury road” theme as I mad maxed it across the deserts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada, putting 1,279 miles between me and Ciudad Juárez in less than 37 hours, the following two weeks held a sweeter and more nostalgic appeal. From the pine tree-studded Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California to the beaches of San Diego, my first trip to my home state in just over two years was a time to slow down and do as little as I wanted. More importantly, I got a chance to spend a little time with some of the people who I love the most and who I hadn’t seen in far too long.

It’s Not Over Yet

It may seem from my recent lack of posts that I am losing interest in writing for the blog. It has been more a matter of having too much to say and too little time to write it out, or maybe too little brainpower to discern what is appropriate to publish, or both. I have multiple posts drafted but none through editing. I haven’t even managed to answer messages in the inbox for some months. There are good reasons for all of this, primarily around how much I am working and how many struggles I have unfortunately been having with my health. For now, as September comes to a close, I didn’t want to miss a month without posting and ruin my perfect record of seven and a half years.

Go West

Since I was old enough to drive, I have always taken road trips. It was not unusual for me even at the age of 17 to drive for five hours between my mom’s and my dad’s houses, either alone or with my younger brother in tow. I later went to college in San Diego eight hours away, and when I didn’t fly home for holiday breaks, I would drive overnight, alert as an owl, burning up the road north after going to class all day and working all evening. I’ve maintained this affinity for driving throughout my adult life, taking any opportunity possible to get behind the wheel. Unlike friends and acquaintances who prefer to snooze the miles away and let their partner do the driving, there is little tedious about driving to me; I love every minute, every technicality, the precision of every operational movement.

So when I decided to take my first real vacation since summer 2019 to see my family in California and celebrate my brother’s 40th birthday, and did not want to expose myself to airports and air travel during COVID-19, the idea of driving the 21+ hours and nearly 1,300 miles alone did not faze me. It actually sounded like a welcome chance to get away and clear my mind from what has been a difficult period for most people, and particularly for those juggling the pandemic against health challenges and demanding on-call work.

Nepenthe

Over the last couple of months as spring has turned into summer, I have found solace spending time outdoors. While I have deferred real hiking in well-known places, the dry heat and flat desert-like walks over the border in El Paso have provided me with a number of things I need: the mood-lifting and weight loss benefits of exercise, continued healing from spinal surgery, arthritis relief, fresh air, and safety and solitude away from others.

Suckerpunch

The last several weeks have been among the most difficult in my Foreign Service career. From my perspective, life has been worse overall these past two months than during the prior 14 months of the pandemic put together. This might be hard to understand and even a little hard to believe, given how many people – at least in the U.S. – seemingly feel their lives are finally returning to some sense of normalcy. But it isn’t hyperbole. As an immunocompromised person who has been living with autoimmune disease since my late 20s, and who is currently slipping into the public policy and social chasm between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, I truly feel left behind and isolated during this stage of the pandemic. Although I continue to be employed, meet my weight loss goals, and heal from back surgery, the rest of my life has become a slow rolling nightmare I never anticipated. I’m surrounded by a society that feels ignorant and selfish at best and eugenicist at worst, and rocketing towards a future where COVID-19 is endemic and those of us with compromised immune function face never getting our normal lives back, as everyone unapologetically eats cake right in front of us that we once talked about eating together.

Testing Limits and Healing in Las Cruces

Back in early May, my husband V flew to North Carolina to see his eldest daughter A graduate from college. Being less than seven weeks beyond major spinal surgery where healing of my bone fusion was critical, I was sadly unable to navigate a trip like that to attend. Each member of her graduating class only had a couple of tickets to share with friends and family, anyway, and she was unable to invite to the ceremony many people I’m sure she would have loved to share that important life milestone with. I attended virtually from Mexico, cheering from a hard-backed chair.

For me in early May, I was moving fairly slowly, had some difficulty getting up and down, and was not permitted to lift more than five lbs. I had been back at work since mid-April and in physical therapy since the end of April though, and the mental and physical haze of weeks of bed rest and the shock of the operation were beginning to lift. After spending a long work week in the office and coming home to an empty house night after night, I was ready to be somewhere else. I decided to take a Mother’s Day trip to Las Cruces, New Mexico; at about an hour and 40 minutes away from Ciudad Juárez, Las Cruces promised fresh air and a chance to change the scene while making some use of my new and fragile body. In other words, to feel like me again.

Unmasked

My last post was a round-up of reader questions to the blog inbox, but in the last several weeks since I’ve written a ‘real’ update, so much has happened. The world’s eagerness to get back to life as we knew it pre-pandemic is progressing quickly. Although only about 41% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated as of May 29, I’m seeing an awful lot of the lower halves of people’s faces.

Your Questions Answered, Volume VI

It has been six months since the last edition of Your Questions Answered, so in this post, I will share some questions recently asked and answered by the blog’s email box – as always, anonymously and without attribution.  In this edition, we discuss the rewards of consular work, being single in the Foreign Service, what I know now that I wish I knew when I’d joined the Foreign Service, financial matters like savings and what expenses Foreign Service Officers should plan to budget for overseas, and the typical Foreign Service “car.”  Enjoy!

Rest, Now

The week before last I went into the hospital in El Paso, TX for spinal fusion surgery. It seems like much longer ago. The operation was something I had wanted and pursued for months: finding a neurosurgeon, consulting on different treatment options, and even getting a second opinion. Had it not been for the pandemic I would have acted sooner, because the pain and left leg/foot numbness that started within a year of my 2018 back surgery was becoming unbearable.

By all accounts the procedure went well, although letting the fusion heal successfully over the coming weeks and months will be key. Although proximity and access to U.S. medical care has been a major plus for us at this post, the hospital “care” experience for me from start to finish was less than I expected and a rude re-introduction to many aspects of the U.S. healthcare system (especially after Australia!). Less than two weeks later, the whole thing already feels like a surreal dream.

Tumbleweeds

For the last several weeks, I have been filled with ideas for blog posts, but have been working so many hours that I have deferred them to a future, calmer time. In preparation for a long-awaited spinal fusion surgery this coming week, I have been trying hard to clear the decks at work and at home. I don’t know if I have been succeeding, but one thing has become increasingly clear: I would not have been able to put the recent amount of hours on the clock I have without crashing and burning, were it not for the protective bubble of pandemic-related health and safety protocols around me. For the first time in my adult life, I have now passed 13 consecutive months with zero viral illnesses.

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