Since our terrific socially-distanced trip to New Mexico six weeks ago for my birthday, V and I have been settling in to life in Ciudad Juárez together. It has been both great, and tedious, and prolonged, kind of like 2020.
Typically when a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) arrives at a new post, they spend much of their first two weeks “checking in.” Check-ins consist of a variety of consultations with people in your section, the leadership of other sections, security and HR briefings, and one-on-one meetings with any people you supervise. There are also the practical matters of getting your badge, receiving your unaccompanied air freight (if you’re lucky), navigating between your house and the consulate or embassy, and generally orienting yourself and finding your way around your new environment. But my first two weeks were spent mostly quarantined at home, in line with Post’s 14-day stay-at-home policy for all new arrivals.
So how does checking in work in the time of COVID-19?
If you’ve been reading the blog for more than a couple of years, you’ve probably noticed that every time you see a post called “X Miles Later…” it means we just finished a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move.
Previously, these moves have all been via airplane: my 2015 move to Tashkent for my first tour (6,329 Miles Later); our 2017 departure from Tashkent (6,498 Miles Later) quickly followed by our move to Australia for my second tour (7,572 Miles Later… which, by the way, brought my total airline miles in 2017 to a whopping 37.4K, a personal best); rounded out by our 2019 departure from Australia (5,225 Miles Later…). But of course this PCS was a little bit different, as we drove almost 2,200 miles across the south to our Mexican border post and no planes were involved.
We left Shreveport as early on Thursday morning as we could muster and set out for the Louisiana-Texas state line, less than a half hour away. It was to be our lightest day of driving at only (!) 369 miles. We also had a visit to my dear friend K in Fort Worth to look forward to before breaking for our final night in Abilene.
Last Tuesday morning, we woke up in Hoover, Alabama (just outside Birmingham) and headed for our next hotel stop in Shreveport, Louisiana. On the way, we planned to stop in rural Mississippi to visit W, one of V’s best friends who had retired there several years ago. In our 2013 wedding, W was a groomsman, and literally gave V the shirt off his back when V forgot the undershirt to wear underneath his tuxedo. So, a 454-mile driving leg in a pandemic or not, there was no way we wouldn’t stop and see W. But little did we know we would find a bit more trouble in Mississippi than we bargained for.
We said goodbye to D and left South Carolina on Monday, headed for Georgia on interstate 85 south. It was a morning full of minor irritants: between severe insomnia the night before, wheeling a luggage cart back and forth four times in the morning heat and humidity to load the cars, and getting stuck at a gas station for an inordinate amount of time dealing with low tire pressure, we didn’t say goodbye to D and get on the road until just after noon. We also missed the chance to eat breakfast with her, since she’d slept as poorly as we had and needed extra rest. Then we had one mishap after another trying to eat on our own – two places in a row closed due to the pandemic, another with indoor-only seating, a final had closed its breakfast menu 45 minutes before we arrived. I was pretty well ready to go back to bed and start over by that point! But instead we just got out of Charlotte; strong A/C, tunes, and a lovely resort in Alabama we knew awaited us made for a good trip once it did get underway.
Last Saturday we hit the road on our 2,000+ mile journey to my third diplomatic posting at U.S. Consulate General Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Since Juárez is directly across the border from El Paso, Texas, our move is by car rather than by plane. After I’d received the assignment in late 2018, I’d perused blogs of others who had been posted along the Mexican border and read about how they turned their PCS moves into fun road trips. I collected information and daydreamed about places we could stop, people we could visit, and things we could see and do on the way to Juárez.
If someone would have told me that when we left, the United States would be in the middle of a national health emergency, that a viral pandemic would be sweeping the country and infecting millions, and that we would tear through the south like it was burning down rather than doing those fun things I’d planned, I would have been gobsmacked.
Since we found out just over two weeks ago that Ciudad Juárez moved to phase one and our Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move could go forward, we have begun preparing to leave the United States in earnest. Finally knowing our departure date has allowed us to do so many things that have been tangled in knots since the shelter-in-place orders started in mid-March. We are now less than two weeks away from departing for Mexico, and although there is still a lot to do, I feel like we have it pretty well in hand.
In the last 10 days, tremendous progress has been made towards our move to Mexico, which froze in time when the coronavirus pandemic lockdown started in March. First, U.S. Consulate General Ciudad Juárez transitioned from phase zero to phase one in what the Department calls the “Diplomacy Strong” framework, harking a continuous three-week decline in COVID-19 cases in Juárez and green-lighting moves for incoming officers. Second, we sought and received a packout date for later this month, freeing us to divide our possessions between air freight and car carry (since we are driving), and things we will finish, donate, or leave behind. These two key steps have unlocked all the tasks that we couldn’t do when we had no idea when we were leaving – post office change of address, purchasing a second car, planning our driving route and making reservations, and more.
Perhaps “isolation” is no longer the best way to characterize the way we are living, but in some regards it still feels very true. We continue to have the tedium of sanitizing all of our groceries and mail, wearing a mask when we go out, and trying to avoid touching any surfaces unnecessarily. But we have now made an effort to go outside more, venturing a 40 minute drive away for a hike at Mason Neck State Park in Lorton, VA. Wearing masks on the busy trail and later picking up takeout instead of going to our favorite local Mexican restaurant both highlighted the oddity of the times and made us grateful that things are starting to feel different. We also recently learned the gym in our building may reopen soon, with social distancing and mask requirements.
Today marks the 87th day of staying mostly home, teleworking, not seeing friends in person, and adjusting just about every aspect of our lives to avoid getting sick from the coronavirus. Although it’s good to self-isolate to protect ourselves, it can be really lonely.
Today marks the 60th full day since V and I went into self-isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the end of the ninth remote work week. As we have hidden mostly indoors (and thankfully in an apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows), we have watched spring arrive in the Washington, DC area. With limited safe outdoor space close to our apartment, I have lamented “missing” one of my favorite seasons here. It isn’t yet hot and humid, and flowers, fresh breezes, and the occasional shower remind us to enjoy it while it lasts; the fetid swamp of DC summer will be here soon enough. Ordinarily, spring days here would be packed with people enjoying outdoor activities and spilling out onto sidewalks in packed brunch spots across the metro area.
But with the reality check of virus cases in northern Virginia continuing to rise and the Foreign Service summer transfer season postponed for a third time, I have tried to just accept the situation as it is and make the best of a lot of quiet time indoors.
The coronavirus pandemic has much of the country and the world stuck at home, and everyone is coping the best way they know how. For me, it is a mere worry and an inconvenience, as we were supposed to leave for our next assignment in Mexico last Saturday and now our departure date is unknown. For others, it is unbelievable fear, grief, and stress. This makes me feel both grateful and ashamed for my safe place to live, job, and food security. Although I am scared for my parents in their 70s and my nana in her 90s, and I myself am at higher than average risk for contracting the virus and developing life-threatening complications if I catch it, I have taken extreme precautions to keep this from happening. This of course is afforded by the many privileges I have, not least of all the ability to telework. I cannot equate my experience in isolation with the actual danger and trauma that millions of others are experiencing. And so I won’t.
Yesterday we passed the one month mark since we self-isolated in our Arlington, VA apartment to try and hide from the coronavirus. During that time, I have taken two walks for fresh air, sat outside my building once for 15 minutes, walked one time to the post office wearing a mask, and drove two miles to DC for blood tests at my rheumatologist’s practice – where I was the only patient.
For me, it hasn’t been enough; today on the third day of severe sciatica pain and back spasms, it became clear to me that I need to get more exercise, immediately. Being sequestered for weeks in a tiny apartment like an astronaut on a spaceship is not a normal condition for a human being. But on the other hand, maintaining social distance from other people in such an urban hot spot has to take precedence for V and I, who are both at higher risk to catch the coronavirus. My immune-compromised status has sufficiently scared us to just stay in the apartment, but the consequences of that for weeks or months on end are also undesirable. And so last night I was very pleased to discover on my 90-minute test walk (that I began just after 10 p.m.) that while others can have the sunny spring days, the nights are all mine.
Since we drove home on March 16 from Glen Allen, VA and our failed attempt to participate in Foreign Affairs Counterthreat (FACT) training, we have been sequestered in our apartment. I took the trash out once to the chute in the hallway, combined with one trip to check the mail. Another day I went to my car to take a scan of my registration card. And once I sat outside for 10 minutes under the night sky waiting for an ice cream delivery. That means I have been out of the apartment for a cumulative total of less than 25 minutes over the course of the last 18,720 minutes, or 312 hours, or 13 days.
V has dumped the trash and recycling and checked the mail a few times, and collected ~ I think ~ three Seamless/Door Dash takeaway deliveries. (Coming back into the apartment necessitates a tedious process of hand washing, using Lysol on our keys and the doorknob, changing clothes, etc., especially after we found out this week that someone in our building is infected with the coronavirus and is still in and out of common areas to walk her dog. We are also following the grocery and takeout container cleaning protocol outlined in this doctor’s YouTube video.)
Other than that, we have been enjoying the solitude, teleworking, having some laughs, fretting about our move, talking and FaceTiming with people, and trying to find the end of Netflix.
Regardless of personal circumstances, life for most of the world has become stranger and more disconcerting by the day. When things will return to normal, no one knows. For me, it isn’t the staying home that is so odd, because I stay home a lot and as an introvert, guilt-free time alone is always welcome (although I’d gladly trade it for this pandemic to not exist).
On one hand, about a month out from a planned permanent change of station (PCS) move, it feels like there is a lot more I should be doing than laying around and watching films. Given the uncertainty, though, I’ve become OK with a certain amount of paralysis and have given myself a pass to do what I can, without a lot of expectations about how it all turns out. I don’t feel like I need to be busy every moment, or even justify why I feel that way. Priorities have come down to the basics. Suddenly time – arguably the most precious resource I have had during my adult working life – has become drawn out and surreal.