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.
My last night of every overseas tour, I have traditionally bid the assignment goodbye with a post I draft and publish upon my departure the following day. As much chaos as a PCS entails, once the packout is over, the badge is handed in, and the suitcases are packed, I will find moments of calm to reflect upon such an exercise. I did so in 2017, in the wee hours before the expeditor came for us in Uzbekistan, filled with gratitude and nerves. I did so in 2019 as we wrapped up our last breakfast in Australia on the back veranda, when the only thing that kept my heart from bursting was that winter had made our vibrant, colorful yard cold and still.
And now I’m getting ready to do it again in 2022. This morning we will load up our cars and begin our nearly 2,000 mile drive across Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee to our new home in northern Virginia. The end of this tour feels both too soon and like it should have happened months ago. I probably won’t truly understand how I feel about it for a long time, but it’s a definitive goodbye all the same. As we start over we will carry with us a piece of this place we barely got to know, and I will leave a piece of myself behind.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The week before last I went into the hospital in El Paso, TX for spinal fusion surgery. It seems like much longer ago. The operation was something I had wanted and pursued for months: finding a neurosurgeon, consulting on different treatment options, and even getting a second opinion. Had it not been for the pandemic I would have acted sooner, because the pain and left leg/foot numbness that started within a year of my 2018 back surgery was becoming unbearable.
By all accounts the procedure went well, although letting the fusion heal successfully over the coming weeks and months will be key. Although proximity and access to U.S. medical care has been a major plus for us at this post, the hospital “care” experience for me from start to finish was less than I expected and a rude re-introduction to many aspects of the U.S. healthcare system (especially after Australia!). Less than two weeks later, the whole thing already feels like a surreal dream.
This month brought us a tremendous gift: the opportunity to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
I always know it has been too long between blog posts when too many half-developed ideas jumble together in my mind, clamoring to get out before they morph into something else with the passage of time. I try to think through my ideas, make them distinct, articulable, frame a coherent narrative from which I can draw conclusions. But sometimes it is not until I just release the words to the page, as it were, that the cross-currents of thoughts begin to flow in one direction and I understand what it is I want to say better than I could when I left it in my own mind. It is almost as if writing is my process of thinking; whether and to what extent I succeed in making a point is another matter.
This isn’t everything, but it’s all true.
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.
It has been almost five months since the last edition of Your Questions Answered, so I thought I’d share some recent Q&A from the blog’s inbox, edited for length and clarity. In this edition, I’ll address how embassies decide which officers get language training (and how much), length of service vs. number of tours, whether officers serving on the U.S.-Mexico border can live on the U.S. side, and what consular officers do as they advance in their careers.
And as always, please remember these are my unofficial answers derived from my own experiences. Your mileage may vary.
Two weekends ago, V returned after an eight-week work trip to Washington, DC to help me celebrate my birthday. As if that weren’t great enough, the Columbus Day holiday also made it a three-day weekend. Longtime readers know what that means – a road trip out of town. But socially distanced and in the great outdoors, given the current situation.