Two weekends ago, V returned after an eight-week work trip to Washington, DC to help me celebrate my birthday. As if that weren’t great enough, the Columbus Day holiday also made it a three-day weekend. Longtime readers know what that means – a road trip out of town. But socially distanced and in the great outdoors, given the current situation.
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.
Today is el Día de la Independencia de México, or Mexican Independence Day. A lot of Americans think Mexican Independence Day falls on the fifth of May, but they would be wrong. (Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates a battle victory in Mexico’s war with France during the 1860s.)
No, Mexican Independence Day is on September 16. It was on this day in 1810 that a famous priest in the town Delores, Mexico rang the church bell and issued a call to arms. His shout, “The Cry of Delores,” marked the beginning of Mexico’s war for independence from Spain. If it weren’t for the coronavirus pandemic, I could have had a chance to see the re-enactment; every year on the eve of the holiday, the president of Mexico delivers “el grito” (the shout) from the balcony of the National Palace in Mexico City. But unsurprisingly, the festivities for 2020 have been mostly cancelled or virtual.
Since mid-March, the U.S. land ports of entry shared with Canada and Mexico have been closed to non-essential travel, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as a joint cooperative measure between the three countries to “limit the further spread of coronavirus.” (Non-essential travel includes travel that is considered “tourism or recreational in nature.”) Each month since the initial announcement, DHS has extended the closure for an additional 30 days. Most recently, the governments have agreed to extend the closure through September 21.
And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and sister cities along the border like El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico are hit especially hard, DHS announced it would further tighten its restrictions.
Typically when a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) arrives at a new post, they spend much of their first two weeks “checking in.” Check-ins consist of a variety of consultations with people in your section, the leadership of other sections, security and HR briefings, and one-on-one meetings with any people you supervise. There are also the practical matters of getting your badge, receiving your unaccompanied air freight (if you’re lucky), navigating between your house and the consulate or embassy, and generally orienting yourself and finding your way around your new environment. But my first two weeks were spent mostly quarantined at home, in line with Post’s 14-day stay-at-home policy for all new arrivals.
So how does checking in work in the time of COVID-19?
If you’ve been reading the blog for more than a couple of years, you’ve probably noticed that every time you see a post called “X Miles Later…” it means we just finished a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move.
Previously, these moves have all been via airplane: my 2015 move to Tashkent for my first tour (6,329 Miles Later); our 2017 departure from Tashkent (6,498 Miles Later) quickly followed by our move to Australia for my second tour (7,572 Miles Later… which, by the way, brought my total airline miles in 2017 to a whopping 37.4K, a personal best); rounded out by our 2019 departure from Australia (5,225 Miles Later…). But of course this PCS was a little bit different, as we drove almost 2,200 miles across the south to our Mexican border post and no planes were involved.
Today I mark 15 years of federal service.
We left Shreveport as early on Thursday morning as we could muster and set out for the Louisiana-Texas state line, less than a half hour away. It was to be our lightest day of driving at only (!) 369 miles. We also had a visit to my dear friend K in Fort Worth to look forward to before breaking for our final night in Abilene.
Last Tuesday morning, we woke up in Hoover, Alabama (just outside Birmingham) and headed for our next hotel stop in Shreveport, Louisiana. On the way, we planned to stop in rural Mississippi to visit W, one of V’s best friends who had retired there several years ago. In our 2013 wedding, W was a groomsman, and literally gave V the shirt off his back when V forgot the undershirt to wear underneath his tuxedo. So, a 454-mile driving leg in a pandemic or not, there was no way we wouldn’t stop and see W. But little did we know we would find a bit more trouble in Mississippi than we bargained for.
We said goodbye to D and left South Carolina on Monday, headed for Georgia on interstate 85 south. It was a morning full of minor irritants: between severe insomnia the night before, wheeling a luggage cart back and forth four times in the morning heat and humidity to load the cars, and getting stuck at a gas station for an inordinate amount of time dealing with low tire pressure, we didn’t say goodbye to D and get on the road until just after noon. We also missed the chance to eat breakfast with her, since she’d slept as poorly as we had and needed extra rest. Then we had one mishap after another trying to eat on our own – two places in a row closed due to the pandemic, another with indoor-only seating, a final had closed its breakfast menu 45 minutes before we arrived. I was pretty well ready to go back to bed and start over by that point! But instead we just got out of Charlotte; strong A/C, tunes, and a lovely resort in Alabama we knew awaited us made for a good trip once it did get underway.
Last Saturday we hit the road on our 2,000+ mile journey to my third diplomatic posting at U.S. Consulate General Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Since Juárez is directly across the border from El Paso, Texas, our move is by car rather than by plane. After I’d received the assignment in late 2018, I’d perused blogs of others who had been posted along the Mexican border and read about how they turned their PCS moves into fun road trips. I collected information and daydreamed about places we could stop, people we could visit, and things we could see and do on the way to Juárez.
If someone would have told me that when we left, the United States would be in the middle of a national health emergency, that a viral pandemic would be sweeping the country and infecting millions, and that we would tear through the south like it was burning down rather than doing those fun things I’d planned, I would have been gobsmacked.
For the first time since early March, last Friday we welcomed other people into our home. But they weren’t guests; they were masked movers coming to pack so we could finally leave for Mexico, three months late to the day.
Since we found out just over two weeks ago that Ciudad Juárez moved to phase one and our Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move could go forward, we have begun preparing to leave the United States in earnest. Finally knowing our departure date has allowed us to do so many things that have been tangled in knots since the shelter-in-place orders started in mid-March. We are now less than two weeks away from departing for Mexico, and although there is still a lot to do, I feel like we have it pretty well in hand.
In the last 10 days, tremendous progress has been made towards our move to Mexico, which froze in time when the coronavirus pandemic lockdown started in March. First, U.S. Consulate General Ciudad Juárez transitioned from phase zero to phase one in what the Department calls the “Diplomacy Strong” framework, harking a continuous three-week decline in COVID-19 cases in Juárez and green-lighting moves for incoming officers. Second, we sought and received a packout date for later this month, freeing us to divide our possessions between air freight and car carry (since we are driving), and things we will finish, donate, or leave behind. These two key steps have unlocked all the tasks that we couldn’t do when we had no idea when we were leaving – post office change of address, purchasing a second car, planning our driving route and making reservations, and more.
I remember the afternoon in August 2014 that I got my flag for Uzbekistan, surrounded by my cheering A-100 colleagues. And I also remember the hot summer evening in June 2016 when I received my second tour assignment to Australia and stood bolt upright in my Uzbek wallpapered living room.
And very early this morning, I had that moment again. I checked my work BlackBerry and saw an email with the subject line “Handshake.” I actually waited almost 30 seconds to click on it, fumbling for my glasses and barely breathing.