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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The United States is opening back up after almost 16 months of the coronavirus pandemic. According to Google, as of today about 152 million (or 46%) of U.S. residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. I have seen other figures that say half the country is vaccinated, and a quarter does not intend to get the vaccine. But for nearly 10 million vaccinated American adults like me with immunocompromised or immunosuppressed conditions, early data is showing vaccine efficacy may provide low or even nonexistent protection against the deadly virus. Medical experts warn immunocompromised people should get vaccinated, but continue maintaining the same masking and social distancing protocols we have the past year. In other words, get vaccinated, but behave as if unvaccinated. For how long, no one can say yet.
For the immunocompromised population, the so-called end of the pandemic feels like a party we have not been invited to but cannot leave. As people unmask around us and celebrate their safety and return to normalcy, public policy – and apparently most everyone we know – has decided the rights of the chronically ill to also be safe and protected from the virus should be sublimated by the convenience and comfort of the healthy, able-bodied majority. Amidst soaring hopes that society will soon be totally back to normal and unreasonable expectations about what activities are safe and medically appropriate for the immunocompromised to participate in, is it any wonder immunocompromised people could use more allies right now?
Last week marked seven years (lucky seven!) since I launched the Collecting Postcards Blog, and my (virtual) return to work following spinal surgery.