During this past week, I was in the State Department’s Mexico area studies course put on by the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). It was similar to the two week Russia/Eurasia course I did in 2014 while preparing for my assignment to Uzbekistan. Most area studies classes at FSI are regionally-focused, but the complexity, depth, and breadth of the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship means Mexico has its own dedicated course, and it was both useful and fun. Narcotics, crime, migration, American Citizen Services emergencies, difficulties in determining citizenship, film, art, culture, indigenous issues, trade, mariachi bands, and tacos – what else do you want?
Last week I took my End of Training (EOT) test in Spanish. Although the testing experience was pretty much what I expected, I have to say that the outcome was not.
The last two weeks have been eventful, as I’ve juggled full-time Spanish study, illness, and lots of social events. With only a week left until my End of Training (EOT) test, it has certainly come down to the wire!
This past week of Spanish has been the most arduous for me yet. We have less than a month to go in our 24-week program, by which time we must earn a 3/3 on the End of Training test (EOT) – with the numbers indicating levels of speaking and reading, respectively – in order to go to our foreign assignments. Our instructors and learning consultants are hitting us with so many assignments and activities at once it has made my head spin. The workload and intensity have jumped dramatically in the fourth and final phase. But the instructors aren’t torturing us to be mean. They want us all to make that steep climb to success in the short time remaining. And for that, we have to be constantly reading, talking extemporaneously, and stuffing ourselves full of as much español as humanly possible.
The last five weeks of Spanish since I’ve returned from Ecuador have been characterized by three things: the holidays, getting sick, and the pressure of my formal pre-end of training evaluation.
Between the winter blues, studying Spanish, working on my New Year’s resolutions, and despairing over wildlife affected by the Australian bushfires, it has taken me a few weeks to get my act together enough to write this post, a post I would normally write in the first couple of days of the new year. But I didn’t want to skip it because there was some interesting data to reflect upon and it’s also a tradition, so finally…here it is!
In 2019, I wrote more posts and content than in any prior year, and the blog received – by far – its greatest number of both views and visitors to date. I also traveled thousands of miles across Australia, finished my role as a political officer in Canberra, and returned to Virginia to prepare for our next assignment to México. I also spent two weeks in Ecuador on a Spanish language immersion trip and visited eight U.S. states. In summary, 2019 was a year filled with movement, and a lot of change.
Over this past holiday season, we have been lucky to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends, reconnect with people we haven’t seen in a while, travel out of town, and enjoy a quiet Christmas at home. All of that has meant a lot, since our Christmas ornaments are at a port warehouse in Long Beach along with the rest of our worldly goods, and coming home to Virginia has felt at times more like a way station than anything else. Before our NYE celebrations planned for later tonight, I wanted to send some good end-of-decade vibes out into the world.
I recently wrapped up my 15 day language immersion trip in Ecuador with a graduation ceremony and a trip to some thermal springs before returning to a DC winter. Here I reflect on my last days in Ecuador and the value of a language immersion program.
During the first part of week 15 in Spanish (and the second week of my language immersion in Ecuador), I continued enjoying the great outdoors while generally getting my butt kicked by high altitude, thin air, humidity, inflammation and old injuries, and stairs. I had the last laugh though, because I practiced my Spanish, saw new and cool things, and made it through each challenge without quitting.
During the first week I was in Ecuador, I also had the opportunity to visit one of Quito’s most famous basilicas, explore a variety of local foods and markets, party on a fiesta bus (chiva), and hike a volcano. The latter was one of the most physically grueling activities I’ve ever done, not only because I ascended to an altitude of over 15,500 feet (4,800 meters) without being in great shape, but also because of the thin air.
[This is the second blog post in a series of four on my Spanish immersion experience in Ecuador. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.]
I flew into Ecuador’s capital, Quito, from Panama City the Saturday before last and immediately could feel I’d arrived somewhere new. The misty mountains ringed the airport and the cool, rainy air felt precariously thin. Quito is a city of 1.9 million people, perched in the Andes on the slopes of the Pichincha volcano, at an incredible elevation of 9,350 feet (2,850 meters). It is the second highest capital city in the world, after La Paz, Bolivia. Previously I think the highest elevation I had ever reached outside an airplane was Denver (around 5,500 feet). Just standing at the baggage claim in Quito, my heart rate was over 120 beats per minute!
My prior travels in Latin America have been limited to Panama (in 2013) and Mexico (too many times to count since 1991), so I was really looking forward to this adventure.
[This is the first blog post in a series of four on my Spanish immersion experience in Ecuador. More posts coming soon!]
During week 13, we entered the second half of our 24-week Spanish program. Since we had changed classrooms, instructors, and classmates the week before, we were more or less still adapting to the new ecosystem. Another adaptation was the start of Phase 3; week 13 was the first week we had two topics to discuss (immigration and narcotrafficking) instead of doing the lessons in our online platform. That meant that we spent even more time debating, preparing structured presentations, and learning new ways to express opinions on these and ancillary issues.
Three important things happened during the past two weeks of Spanish. One, I passed my second progress evaluation. Two, we hit the midpoint of our 24-week program. And three, the Spanish Department shuffled students and instructors to create new classes. The latter two things were painless and turned out great. The first, well, that’s a different story. Buckle up, things are going to get uncomfortable.
Earlier this month, V and I went back to West Virginia for the long Veterans Day weekend, but this time to Harpers Ferry and the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The town is probably best known for John Brown’s 1859 abolitionist raid on the Federal Armory, which ultimately was put down by U.S. Marines. John Brown had been hoping to incite a large-scale armed slave insurrection, but instead the government executed him and the members of his band who survived the fighting for treason – two years before the American Civil War began and only a handful of years before emancipation became the law of the land anyway.
During the past two weeks as we have worked our way towards the end of phase 2, the course has shifted slightly in content and structure, foreshadowing expectations for phases 3 and 4. Since we are getting closer to the halfway point of the 24-week program, we are supposed to complete our “building the base” activities so we can move into professionalization and consolidation of what we have learned. As my second speaking and reading progress assessment looms first thing on Monday morning, this post is a short update before I buckle down and disappear into my preparation for the next 72 hours.