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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.