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!]
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.
During the past few weeks, the amount of coursework and difficulty of my Spanish class has started to accelerate. Our tasks have become more complex, at least for me. I have found myself more frustrated that my performance in class activities does not seem commensurate with the amount of effort and study I put in. I also feel mentally tired, experience procrastination and brain freezes, and need more alone time to recover. Of course, I am not bad at everything, and I have good days and bad days. I guess it is typical at this point to think you suck when you’re actually doing OK. The whole two steps forward, one step back thing.
I don’t recall feeling as “on” all the time during my FSI Russian class (2014-2015). It wasn’t easier, but our activities felt less intensive. The expectations were also definitely lower. However, I have also been heartened by a couple of special opportunities to help my learning – an invitation to a side course in consular Spanish, and a possibility to travel to South America on an immersion language trip.
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.
Last weekend was a three-day weekend due to the Columbus Day holiday, and it was also my birthday. Long weekends for me usually mean a chance to bug out of town, especially when I can’t take any time off. So now that our car has been repaired and I trust it more than 15 miles in any direction, we decided to spend the weekend in Berkeley Springs. Berkeley Springs is a little town in West Virginia about two hours from DC, and it was a great break from the city and our daily grind.
During our time there, we went to the Apple Butter Festival, hiked in the forest, visited an 1830s-era canal tunnel, and tried out the local food scene as I marked the beginning of a new year.
If the theme for the first four weeks of Spanish class was accepting whatever came my way without saying no and letting it all wash over me, the theme for the past week has been playing along. I don’t mean that in the sense of “humoring” the program or instructors in any way. What I mean is that I’m trying to do what they ask me to do, in the way they are asking me to do it, in order to learn quickly and demonstrate that I can build fluency.
I play along – I learn the vocabulary and text building blocks they give us the best I can, and I try to deploy them when I produce speech. When I mispronounce something, I try again. When I don’t understand something, I ask for clarification. In summary, I try to work with I have without trying to be perfect or make the curriculum anything other than what it is. So far, this strategy is working pretty well.
After wrapping up our second diplomatic tour in Australia, we spent the entire month of August on mandatory home leave in the United States, where I hadn’t been in 25 months (my longest time out yet).
As I described in my previous post, we spent the first week of our four-week home leave in Honolulu, Hawaii, where neither V nor I had ever been. We drove just over 300 miles around the island, and then we flew to California, where we threw our eight suitcases into a Nissan Pathfinder and spent three more weeks visiting family, friends, and touristing our way through California, Oregon, and Washington. Here are a few snapshots and highlights from the “mainland” part of our home leave, in which we drove 1,700+ miles through three states, after flying 7,683 miles from Canberra to Sydney to Honolulu to Sacramento.
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.