We departed Post Ciudad Juárez this past Thursday and crossed the U.S.-Mexico border for the last time into El Paso, Texas, officially ending my third Foreign Service tour.
My last night of every overseas tour, I have traditionally bid the assignment goodbye with a post I draft and publish upon my departure the following day. As much chaos as a PCS entails, once the packout is over, the badge is handed in, and the suitcases are packed, I will find moments of calm to reflect upon such an exercise. I did so in 2017, in the wee hours before the expeditor came for us in Uzbekistan, filled with gratitude and nerves. I did so in 2019 as we wrapped up our last breakfast in Australia on the back veranda, when the only thing that kept my heart from bursting was that winter had made our vibrant, colorful yard cold and still.
And now I’m getting ready to do it again in 2022. This morning we will load up our cars and begin our nearly 2,000 mile drive across Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee to our new home in northern Virginia. The end of this tour feels both too soon and like it should have happened months ago. I probably won’t truly understand how I feel about it for a long time, but it’s a definitive goodbye all the same. As we start over we will carry with us a piece of this place we barely got to know, and I will leave a piece of myself behind.
The new year has come and gone. In the week plus since my last blog post, and as the days tick closer to our Permanent Change of Station (PCS) packout, my tempo of pre-departure preparations has become more frenzied. I’ve come a long way, and given the amount we accomplished today there is still quite a bit to do tomorrow but we have made it to the home stretch.
Over the last two weeks as I’ve started preparing for our next Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move, I’ve also been what’s known in the Foreign Service as “Acting.” That’s when you cover your boss’s position while also covering your own, and it’s common during the holidays or transition seasons when many people request leave at the same time. Since I was also Acting for all of last December, my boss offered me the chance this year to take Christmas off. However, I’d elected instead to take leave in January for Orthodox Christmas and New Year; I’d wanted to take V to San Diego to show him old places I love, and to Tucson to explore new places together. Of course, since we subsequently decided to curtail, we need to prioritize packing out and returning to Virginia in favor of traveling for fun. I’ll still take a few weeks of home leave once we get to Virginia, but there won’t sadly be any desert or west coast involvement.
I will reflect in the future on the thoughts and feelings I have about things I won’t be getting to do here. For now, I am looking forward to returning to Virginia. I’m particularly grateful that it’s much easier to PCS from a border post than it is from posts that involve air travel. In my limited experience of three Foreign Service posts so far, it seems the more developed a country is and the more you set up your life there, the more difficult it is to unwind everything at the end.
As Christmas approaches, I am in a period of reflection and gratitude, but you might not know it from looking. This is the first year since 2006 that I haven’t put up a Christmas tree, and the only year I haven’t really bought Christmas gifts or sent a single holiday card. I’m not making Christmas cookies or any special holiday food. On the Autoimmune Protocol I can’t have the vast majority of it anyway, and modifying all the recipes would take more creativity and talent than I have at the moment. V didn’t put Christmas lights outside this year, or plug in our obnoxious inflatable snowman who rose with a wave for the last 15 years to greet anyone who approached our home for the holidays. It’s quite different than the enormous effort I made last year. And frankly all the years.
I’m not sad about it, although I admit it does sound sad. I love Christmas. Every time someone asks me, “Are you ready for Christmas?” with a bright smile, I smile back under my mask and say, “Yes I am.” I don’t say I am conserving my energy because I am exhausted, or it snuck up on me, or I’m busy covering my job and my boss’s job. I was doing all that last year too, and I still bought the gifts and trimmed the tree and cooked the dinner… even with a spinal cord injury!
I say I’m ready because we’re not doing it this year, so there’s nothing to get ready for. Our priorities have shifted: we are in full PCS mode. I have decided to end my assignment in Mexico, and in early January, we will pack out our house and return to Virginia.
In mid-November, I connected Veterans Day, a Mexican holiday, and one day of leave to a weekend, which equaled five days off. I crossed the border and took another solo road trip, this time across Texas to San Antonio and Fort Worth. In San Antonio I visited the Mission San Antonio de Valero (better known as the Alamo), Missions San Jose and Concepción dating back 300 years, and the city’s famed Riverwalk. I actually liked the Riverwalk so much I went there both during the day and later at night – thanks to my awesome AirBnB tiny house hosts who let me know the city would be turning on the holiday lights my first full day in town.
After a couple nights I headed to Fort Worth to see my friend K, who had visited us in El Paso in May during a trip home to Arizona to see her parents. K and I served in Peace Corps Macedonia together 18 years ago, and lived near each other for a handful of years in DC after I finished grad school in Australia. She was also a bridesmaid in my wedding, but this is the closest we’ve lived to one another in years. V and I had stopped by her place on our way to Juárez during the pandemic summer of 2020, and I was determined to make it back out there.
A couple of weeks after we returned from our Iberostar vacation, I sat in my office tangled up in bureaucracy and my to-do list. Finding myself in need of solace and something to pull me into the future, I scrolled quickly through AirBnB options for the weekend. A bunch of cabins in some wooded mountains caught my eye. I remembered Cloudcroft, NM was less than 120 miles away. Doable for a short hiking trip, and startlingly, we’d not been there yet. My boss, born and raised in El Paso, had told me about the town of less than one thousand inhabitants the year before. Sitting at an elevation of almost 8,700 feet above sea level, nearly a mile higher up than Ciudad Juárez, there the golden desert landscape transformed into a green alpine coolness we’d never seen in the southwest. I texted V, “Want to get a cabin in the woods for an overnight this weekend? There are pine trees.” At first he didn’t believe me. I didn’t mention it might be cold. Then the affirmative answer came back pretty quickly.
Monday, November 1 was Handshake Day for the Summer 2022 bid cycle. My handshake email came early in the morning and was not a total surprise to me. The Bureau of Consular Affairs had sent me an email on October 25 to tell me I was the Bureau Leading Candidate, or BLC, for the position and inquire whether it was still a valid bid for me. It was. I was very interested in the work and had interviewed for the position twice, including once from my family vacation at the Iberostar (on my birthday, unbeknownst to the interviewer!). None of my political coned bids had ultimately gone to the final stage, so I wasn’t expecting further BLCs. CA wasn’t going to offer me more than one choice, so it had come down to this. V and I discussed all of the implications and decided, as we had when we’d decided to bid jobs in that area, that we could make it work.
The morning V and I left with my dad and stepmom L for our flight to Cancun, we were up and packed well ahead of time. We even ate a good breakfast. They’d been visiting us in Juárez for a few days and we’d kept it low-key, hanging out around home and El Paso. But like most travel days, our control of things ended when we left the house. The shuttle I’d booked to Ciudad Juárez’s airport, where I’d never been and which required travel through a red zone, arrived a few minutes late and was a small sedan – not at all a “shuttle.” The trunk could only fit three carry-ons, so we had to ride three to the backseat and V in the front, all four of us somehow holding our large wheeled bags on our laps with V’s backpack slung behind my head in the back window. At first I was ticked off and embarrassed. I had explained when making the reservation we would be four adults, two traveling internationally, with luggage! Dad and L are in their 70s. I apologized to them but they are tough and good sports. After a few minutes we took selfies and started laughing about our stupid predicament. At least we all fit in the car, which to be honest I hadn’t been so sure was possible when it first rolled up.
Fifteen years ago today, on December 12, 2006, my husband V and I met for the first time when he walked through the door of my office at the Voice of America in Washington, DC where we both worked.
I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for (or worry about) Summer 2022 bidding, which started in mid-September 2021 and lasted about six weeks. Shortening my tour in Ciudad Juárez by a year had propelled me into bidding the day before a solo road trip to see my mom in northern California for the first time in over two years. And bids would be due several weeks later during my dad’s upcoming visit, when we would be at a Mexican resort almost a four hour flight away. I hadn’t seen him for over two years either, so I wasn’t open to changing my leave plans, plans I had made many months before when things had been different. If anyone had told me then I would be bidding and leaving Post a year early, I’d have told them the chances of that were somewhere close to zero. Bidding this year was the last thing on my mind, in terms of vacation plans or anything else.
[This post is a companion piece to Fourth Tour Bidding, Part I.]
As I mentioned in September, towards the end of this past summer, I decided to cut out the third year of my tour and bid for my onward assignment.
When I arrived here in July 2020, I agreed within a month to a third year extension. Most mid-level Foreign Service assignments are already three years in length. Some higher hardship posts like Ciudad Juárez are only two-year assignments, the length of entry-level tours, but grant mid-level FSOs who extend a 15% pay bonus called Service Need Differential (SND) for each of the three years. FSOs must serve all three years to receive the money; the SND cannot be prorated. If you receive some portion of SND money and don’t serve the full term, you have to pay it back. At this particular post, you can even extend to four years, and many do. It’s not a bad gig, so close to the U.S. and if you can stick out three years, the financial incentive is great in addition to getting off the death march of moving every other year.
In October we had our first visitors to Ciudad Juárez – my dad and stepmom L. My dear friend K visited last spring, but stayed in El Paso because she was road-tripping around the southwest with a big dog and no Global Entry card; my dad and L were the first to actually come into Juárez. When I suggested several months ago over the phone that, pandemic depending, V and I were planning a fall trip to Playa del Carmen and they should come with us, I didn’t think they’d necessarily want to go that far into Mexico or spend that much money doing so. It’s over 2,000 miles southwest of Juárez and on the Caribbean Sea where we’d spent our 2013 honeymoon.
But I hadn’t considered two things. One, my dad had made frequent scuba diving trips to nearby Cozumel over the past 30 years and was familiar with the area. And two, that 18 months of pandemic isolation had made them just as lonely and excited as we were about vacationing in a luxurious venue with ocean, sand, and unlimited cocktails, particularly after they’d relocated from the California coast to rainy Washington state in 2018. It occurred to me that not seeing them between August 2019 and October 2021 due to the pandemic is about the length of a standard Peace Corps Volunteer service – definitely too long to not see your parents, especially at this age.
To my delight they not only agreed, but made reservations. We decided first they’d spend a few days in Juárez with us, and then we’d fly south together. Then we all crossed our fingers that the pandemic wouldn’t interfere. Somehow in the luckiest streak of a rough 2021, I got boosted and they visited during what I now see was the lull between the Delta and Omicron variants.
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 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.