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!
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!]
Three months ago, during the last week of July, my diplomatic posting to Australia was ending and my colleagues threw me a going-away lunch. Over Indian food, one colleague asked what I would miss about serving in Canberra and what I was looking forward to in the United States. Funny he should have asked, because at that time, what I was going to miss about Australia was a topic I had been thinking about a lot. I’d actually been sketching a blog post outline about it for several weeks!
However, life happened and I didn’t manage to finish writing and editing the post before I left, or even during the past several weeks since we returned to the U.S. I started thinking about it again when I saw the post sitting in my drafts folder, and during my recent Spanish evaluation, when I was asked to compare and contrast life in the U.S. with life in Australia.
So here are my thoughts, in no particular order, about what I miss (and don’t miss) about living in Australia.
I just finished the fourth week of Spanish language training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, where the State Department sends its diplomats and staff for training ahead of overseas assignments, sometimes for months at a time. In my case, late next spring I will become Deputy American Citizen Services (ACS) Chief at our consulate in Cuidad Juárez, México, so I get six months (24 weeks) of Spanish. FSI teaches dozens of languages and tradecraft courses, so you’ll find employees from across the U.S. government studying there, too.
For me, the change of pace from a busy political section at our embassy in Australia – where the bilateral relationship is huge – to sitting in a small classroom for several hours per day has been nice, but challenging in its own way. It’s also crazy to think I am one-sixth done with Spanish already! My first progress evaluation is on Monday, so this is a good place to pause and reflect.
Tomorrow marks three weeks since V and I returned to Virginia and started the several months of training required for my next assignment to Mexico. A few aspects of the transition and settling-in process have been bumpier than I expected. Although moving to the U.S. (“home”) should be easier than an overseas move to a new country, in a lot of ways it isn’t. Without an embassy to help you set up your life (again), there is a lot of surprisingly tedious stuff to deal with on your own, and not much time to manage it.
During this Permanent Change of Station (PCS) from Australia to Virginia, between problems with our new apartment management, problems with timing our unaccompanied air freight (UAB) and storage deliveries, and problems with my car turning up damaged from two years of overseas government storage, the past few weeks have felt like one aggravation after the next. And all of that doesn’t even take into consideration my new full-time job of Spanish learning, and the challenge of going from two incomes back to one. However, on the bright side and after a lot of effort, expense, moral support from friends, and some luck, things are starting to settle bit by bit into place. (Warning: lengthy rant ahead.)
In early August, V and I spent the first part of our home leave in Hawaii. Home leave is Congressionally-mandated vacation in the U.S. or its territories (you can cost-construct against your Home of Record) after an overseas diplomatic posting. Home leave is designed to help you reacquaint yourself with the country you are serving. It starts the first business day after your travel day (the day you land in the U.S.), and should last a minimum of 20 business days before your onward training or posting starts. I had counted backwards from the first day of Spanish class this coming September to determine which day we should depart Australia and make sure we took at least the minimum home leave.
Although home leave is required, it isn’t paid for; officers and their families have to juggle expenses and decide whether to visit family, go to a new place, or some combination. Going on vacation in a first-world country for a month, usually with no car or house, can be really expensive! Compared to our first home leave in 2017, this time I prepared better and saved up. Since Honolulu falls roughly 2/3 of the way between Australia and California, and neither of us had ever been to Hawaii before, it seemed like a terrific stopover point to kick off our home leave. Honolulu and the island of Oahu did not disappoint! In case you are curious or planning a visit, here are the things we enjoyed most – in no particular order – during our five nights and six days there.
Last Friday afternoon, we paused a moment in the foyer of our home to say goodbye and thank it for the last two years. Even though it was empty of our belongings, it still didn’t feel quite like “just a house.” We’d drug all eight of our suitcases and carry-ons out to the driveway right before the taxi arrived, and now they were loaded. It was time to go. We left all the keys, alarm fobs, and garage door openers on the kitchen counter, locked the front door for the last time from the inside and pulled it shut. We had a flight to Sydney, and then a flight to Honolulu to catch. I was about to break my longest streak yet outside the U.S. – two years, four days.
It makes me sad to write this post, because it means that later today we leave Australia. We arrived on a cold winter day two years and four days ago, full of anticipation and excitement and hope for a terrific tour. And then all of the years and months and weeks and days and hours dwindled down as we worked and traveled and struggled and celebrated and laughed and worked and worked some more, until they ran out. And yesterday as I walked out of the embassy for the last time with nothing but my purse and some souvenirs, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with how lucky I have been to serve here.
Sulphur-crested cockatoos are relatively large white parrots that live throughout northern and eastern mainland Australia and Tasmania, its island state. Colloquially called “cockies,” the novelty of these screechy natives can take visitors by surprise, but cockies are common in Australia, like squirrels in the United States! Since I lived in Australia in 2005-2006 as a grad student, I have loved sulphur-crested cockatoos. Although they have a reputation for being pesky and destructive, their intelligence, curiosity, and sheer brass make me love them anyway. Their brilliant white feathers, bold yellow crests that fan out in dramatic greeting or warning, and the way they strut around is just so… Aussie.
V and I have adored them in Canberra and are going to miss them when we leave. A lot. As my predecessor told me recently, “It’s hard to live somewhere with ‘normal’ birds after Australia.” I wanted to write a broader post about Australian backyard birds, but since time before our departure grows ever shorter, I will narrow it down to my long-time favorite. Here are some funny pictures and videos to remind us of cockies when we are gone and want to reminisce, and also to share with those who are unfamiliar with these entertaining rascals.
During the final three days of our 12-day Ghan trip, we hung around in Darwin and took a day trip to Kakadu National Park. It was our first trip together to Australia’s “top end,” and a chance to visit – albeit briefly – its largest terrestrial national park. Established in the late 1970s, Kakadu covers about 7,700 square miles and is home to 2,000 species of flora and fauna.
[This post is the final in a series of five posts about our Ghan train trip nearly 2,000 miles across Australia. If you missed the previous posts, you can find parts one through four in order at these links: Adelaide and Kangaroo Island, Marla and Alice Springs, Uluru and Kata Tjuta, and Alice Springs and Katherine.]