Being unceremoniously kicked out of a country is not a lot of fun. (Okay, there was some ceremony. Mr. Maduro made our expulsion very public and was seemingly thrilled with sending the Yankees packing.) There is a lot of heartache and tears in the process. Simultaneously it feels like you are abandoning your colleagues and their fight but also some (guilt-filled) relief that the next time you go to the grocery store there will be food to purchase and your queue wait-time will be minimal. This whole crazy situation is compounded by the fact that we have no idea what is going to happen or where we will be a few weeks from now, a couple of months from now, or by mid-summer. Back in Caracas? (Hopefully!) In D.C., still assigned to Caracas, continuing to work with the embassy and Venezuelan people? (Possibly.) Reassigned and looking for a new job/building a new community in Wuhan? Singapore? Lagos? Copenhagen? Panama City? (Not impossible.)
Going on ordered departure, saying goodbye, wrestling with conflicting feelings, and living with a daily dose of uncertainty are not easy, but that doesn’t mean this whole experience hasn’t been without its moments of levity.
When a dictator gives you 72 hours to leave a country and then your leadership and security teams decide that safety requires a more expeditious departure, preparing to go becomes a bit of a circus. For clarity’s sake, here was our “out of Caracas” timeline:
-Wednesday (mid-afternoon)- Mr. Maduro PNGs entire embassy
-Thursday (6AM-8PM)- Working at the embassy, getting officers and families ready to depart
-Friday (morning)- On a plane out of Venezuela
There’s not a lot of wiggle room there. And I’m not really a wiggly person, but I am a planner and it doesn’t matter how many times I talked to people about being prepared, there is no way to be fully ready to turn your world upside down in a matter of hours. For me, this (along with the literal zero hours of sleep Wednesday night to Thursday morning) played out in some very strange packing choices.
After a day of controlled chaos at the office, I came home to find my suitcases laid out on the bed and ready to be packed. (For some reason, Thad, who had worked overnight the night before, so was home earlier than me, didn’t want to do my actual packing. Sometimes when I look at what I did/did not bring, I think he may have made better choices. At least then I may have had a winter-weather appropriate number of socks.) I started with work clothes, knowing that I’d be coming into the office in Washington. Dresses, skirts, blouses, camisoles, cardigans, blazers, ankle pants. I’ve got a pretty extensive and random selection of things to wear into Main State each day. (Thank you packing cubes! It is amazing how much more I can get in a bag with the Tetris-like assistance of these miracle-working plastic bags.)
Great. Office-wear is covered.
Next, casual/weekend clothes. This is a bit trickier as with the amazing weather in Caracas, jeans and a light shirt or a cute dress were my go-to options outside of work. Getting kicked out of amazing weather in January left me short on options that were DC-in-winter-appropriate. I grabbed what I could that would layer- mostly the couple long-sleeved cotton shirts that I kept for airplane travel, since I am always freezing as I rocket through the sky at 30,000 feet.
So far, this is all fairly standard. But this is where it all started to fall apart.
You see, late in the day we found out that American Airlines was going to give each of us a third checked suitcase for free, knowing that we were in a difficult situation. I feel like it is this bonus-bag that was my undoing. With two good-sized REI duffel bags cradling the load, I stared at an older paisley-patterned suitcase that has seen many overseas trips. What would I do with that extra space suddenly available?
That’s right. With packing seemingly under control, and pushing 10PM, I decided it was absolutely necessary that I load an entire suitcase with shoes. Black pumps, black dress sandals, gray heels, nude pumps, nude dress sandals, dusty rose Chucks, sky blue Chucks, bright aqua Chucks, black flats, brown flats, riding boots, tennis shoes. All of them strategically layered into the bag to ensure maximum space usage.
Did I not know I was coming to the land of DSW? I can get on the metro just a block from my apartment and be at two different DSWs on opposite sides of town in less than 20 minutes. Why did I need to empty my shoe closet?
But that’s not all.
You see, my shoe-tcase also had a huge pocket on the inside of the opening flap. Not big enough for shoes, it still seemed a waste to not fill it, so in when the scarves. Yes, scarves. Not winter scarves that would ward off the below freezing cold that I would walk to work in each morning for the next month (and counting), but fun and colorful “fashion” scarves, meant to pull an outfit together, but not necessarily to provide warmth of any measurable amount.
Which scarves made the cut? Let’s see. Blue and white with red crabs, gray with forest critters, magenta with tassel-y fringe, white pleated, coral and pink stripes, purple Count of Monte Cristo, blue chevron, Old Navy floral, Johannesburg teal with white elephants, and pink variegated. Yes. I brought ten non-functional (other than cute!) scarves with me on evacuation.
It isn’t over.
So, three suitcases (and one backpack) are packed with clothes and accessories, but my handy-dandy luggage scale says I still have some weight allowance and I know, especially in those expansive duffels, I have pockets of space left.
If you are packing up your life, what, other than clothes do you take?
The answer was easy: books.
I had a couple of piles of unread books on my nightstand, which I dreaded leaving behind. (Again, it did not seem to register with me in the fog-of-PNG that I was headed to the land of Amazon 2-day shipping, Barnes and Noble, and airport bookstores.) In went the books.
I evacuated twelve books from Caracas.
When push came to shove, it was books that I was pushing and shoving into the crannies of my bag, smashing everything together so that the zippers would close.
Before those zippers made their final onomatopoetic slides, there was still time for crazy to find a few more ways to wriggle into my luggage. Because, as I am figuratively watching the world burn, of course I need to shove my favorite throw blanket and a super weird and random stuffed sheep into the bag. To be fair, the throw blanket is the one that rests on the back of the couch and I sit under every day regardless of how warm it is outside because I love the coziness of a blanket anytime of the year.
The sheep though.
I have no idea.
The sheep was always on the bed in the spare room- a room that was largely used as storage space for our immense OTC medicine stash we brought to Caracas, as well as home to the suitcases and linens. Why I even wandered into that room on Thursday night is a bit of a mystery and then, as I scanned the space, why the sheep is what stood out as a “must go” item, I will never know! Whatever the reason, the sheep now sits on the dresser in my temporary apartment, judging me with his weird little smiling face on a daily basis.
At the end of the day, stuff is just stuff and I have very little in Caracas or here that cannot be replaced. (My wedding jewelry is already squirreled away with my sister-in-law, having never made the trip south to begin with.) It’s not a matter of what is here or what is there in terms of value, but more just a reminder of how ridiculous the combination of no sleep and lots of work stress can be. My evacuation pack-out brain was obviously not firing on all cylinders (evidenced also by the fact that I used a full ½ of my carry-on space to bring a Costco box of Rice Crispy treats to the airport to share because I was convinced officers and families were going to be starving. I did give out about half of the foil-wrapped treats, but still have probably twenty more still in the box, awaiting, I guess, our return flights to Caracas).
But, for the foreseeable future, if you’re in DC and you’re looking for some size 9 women’s shoes, a cute scarf, of just a sense of humor about this whole departure, I’ve got you covered.