Language-Induced Diabetic Coma

Now that we are living in Caracas, my college Spanish gets me around town sufficiently (it definitely could be better and has some weirdly Chinese quirks to it!) but there are times that it utterly fails me. Friday night was one of those nights that a mixture of cultural confusion and language nuance left me in the lurch- or in this case, a near diabetic coma.

The night started out great. It was our inaugural Taste-Testers outing, a monthly dinner scheduled through the CLO office to get folks out and about to new restaurants in town. For the first one, we decided to stick fairly closely to home, at a place just down the hill from the embassy. With a reservation limit of 16, we were pleased to get nearly a full house. Dinner was fine. It started with a variety of appetizers, including ceviche and spring rolls (both of which I passed on, but I did enjoy the herb butter and bread that also showed up on the table) and then moved in a rather timely fashion (not a service to take for granted) to main courses. Around the table there was everything from pastas to fish and chicken dishes and I think I even saw a burger at the far end of our group. Overall, the restaurant was good (although I must admit to liking the one we went to, directly across the road, last week better) and the company was great. It was nice to get out of the embassy and spend time talking about life beyond work.

After dinner, as the ubiquitous discussion of how to best pay the bill was happening, a side-conversation about dessert was also taking place. (By the way, the bill discussion was not at all about how much to pay, as that wasn’t a big deal, but more the actual method of payment, as this is a perpetual issue here. Do you pay with your debit card? Who has already hit their daily limit on their card? Is cash even possible? What about the tip?) Some of the group sorted out the split and the tip (paid on different machines, because “it’s Venezuela”), while the rest made plans to walk across the road to an ice cream/pasty shop.

This is where my issues begin.

I always have room for dessert. As a matter of fact, I am fairly sure that biologically I am created for a sweet treat after meals, as I am a firm believer in the “dessert stomach.” I may be full of pasta or steak or pizza or what-have-you, but I can always find room for cake or a doughnut or a brownie on top of dinner.

The sweets shop we went to was enormous, with a huge selection of gelatos and baked goods. The way it works is you decide what you want after drooling over the offerings beautifully displayed in glass cases and then you go to the cashier to pay, taking your tiny receipt back to the food counter to get your actual order. While Thad went with a mini-strawberry pie thing, I decided I wanted ice cream. There were these cute little waffle cups on display, which I figured were the perfect size for a single scoop of ice cream. So I pieced together an order for a waffle cup in Spanish and was a little surprised at the total that popped up on the register. It seemed rather pricey for a single scoop, especially in Caracas where I just paid about $13 for a fine dining dinner and drinks across the road. But, whatever. Expensive for Caracas is normal (or less) in D.C.

With my little slip of paper in hand (little slips of paper are pervasive here- you get a receipt- or two- for everything and that’s IF your debit card is accepted on the first try), I went to the ice cream counter to get my goodies. The girl asked me what THREE flavors I wanted. Three? I told her I was just one person and one scoop was enough, at which point she told me that the little bowl I had ordered was actually a three-scoop undertaking. A bit shocked, I explained that it was just for me, so please make them little scoops (less scoops was not an option), and ordered Oreo, brownie, and chocolate chip. (For the record, I am pretty sure all three of those were actually the same thing.)

Fine. I have a three-scoop bowl coming to me. Not the end of the world.

I was wrong.

It wasn’t just three scoops. It was three scoops of ice cream and then dessert art on top.

Watching my after-dinner snack come together was like watching the creation of a sculpture. It started with the three scoops in the waffle bowl. From there, the girl added florets of whipped cream over the entire structure. (It is basically a mini-mountain at this point.) Obviously, this is not enough sugar for one human being, so once it was fully covered in a thick layer of whipped cream, a healthy amount of unhealthy sugar-syrup-coated strawberries were added to the pile. But, strawberries are not a finishing touch. That was still to come. On top of the strawberries went drizzles of both chocolate and caramel syrup and then, as a flourish on top, the entire thing was covered in sprinkles.

As I became more and more horrified watching this thing that I had innocently ordered take shape, the other gal at the counter told me to go ahead and sit down and that they would deliver it. Apparently, it is too much to self-carry. (Everyone else in our group just got their small, little treats at the counter and took them to the table themselves.)

A few minutes later, my mammoth dessert arrived at our table. What I pictured in my mind and thought I ordered was a far cry from what showed up in front of me. So much for a little Friday night treat! This thing was enough to feed a small family and definitely enough to put someone into diabetic shock.

Needless to say, after scraping off the outer layers to get to the ice cream (the thing I actually wanted), I passed the remains around the table for others to sample, and no, I did not clear that plate before leaving the restaurant. There was just no way that was going to happen.

Looking back, I am still not sure where the communication broke down. I looked in the glass cases and decided what I wanted. I went to the cashier and ordered that thing. I ended up with Mt. Vesuvius recreated in sugar. But, I did learn an important lesson. From now on, when ordering, I will always ask “how many does it serve?” because my dessert debacle was served with three plastic spoons! If only that had come up earlier…

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I’ve Got a Pocketful of Gold, Now in Search of Silver

Transitions are tough. I feel like I sit down at my laptop and write a version of this blog post every couple of years. If I haven’t written it, I’ve definitely thought it. And I know I’ve had this conversation over sandwiches in Washington DC with Rory, fried rice in Chengdu with Stephanie, chocolate chip cookies in Kuala Lumpur with Jaclyn, and HST cafeteria lunch with Kristie. These memories stand out in my mind like sunflowers in a garden patch.

Each move is different and comes with unique challenges, both socially and when it comes to the embassy/consulate itself. The transition always entails its own twist with new work, new colleagues, new housing, new money, new stores, new food, new everything it seems.

Except the things that don’t change.

The challenge of finding a new friend group always looms. This hearkens back to the days of middle school when you’d walk into the cafeteria, quickly scanning for your clique and having a mild panic attack if they were nowhere to be found. Where do you sit? Do you take your tray to an empty table and sit alone, hoping some other lost soul will join you? Or do you take a deep breath and chance rejection by asking if there is an open seat at a pre-established table? This is how the first weeks (months?) at a new post feel. Sometimes you meet someone early on and just click and you’ve got your next few years all lined out for you, but other times you meet person after person, all of them (okay, not all, but I am trying to be diplomatic) lovely, but none with whom you just click. This can be especially difficult as a married couple without kids, as the built-in networks formed on playgrounds and back-to-school night are not ours to have. (How creepy would we/could we be?)

This current move definitely takes the cake in terms of difficulty. In Caracas, there seem to be extra challenges, as movements are restricted and getting out and about before our car arrives has proven to be difficult. There are a few options available, but they are not available 100% of the time. Walking isn’t the safest option, so I’ve gone from DC where I walked two miles to work each morning and two home in the evenings, plus regular sightseeing with visitors to being at the mercy of anyone willing to pick me up and take me anywhere! (Seriously, I am willing to go anywhere to get out and about. Last week I went to several liquor stores with a diplomatic spouse here who was getting ready for a farewell party. I’ve also been to the butchers and school supply shopping with soon-to-be colleague because she was running errands and offered to take me along. In the US you could easily convince me to go back-to-school shopping with you, as I’m a hoarder of all things stationery-related, but the butcher? That’s going to be a tough sell.)

On top of that, our housing is not ready so we are headed into our third week in temporary housing. The apartment we are in is fine and would be sufficient for the entire tour, but knowing that it is not home has made it hard to settle in fully. Most of my clothing is still stored away in packing cubes (I’m obsessed with packing cubes- I will preach to powers of the cube any day of the week), piled up in my enormous L.L Bean rolling duffel bags, waiting for a closet to call home. I pull out just what I need to get by (which is minimal since I am not getting out nearly as much as I had hoped) and have tried to maintain some semblance of organization, but alas, the room with all my PCS luggage in it is starting to look like a tornado touched down.

And don’t even get me started on spending money. That is a long and complicated blog post all its own, but suffice it to say that while I have money in the bank, the current economic crisis makes it nearly impossible to spend it locally and without our VPN set up (waiting on permanent housing!), many US commerce websites are off-limits. When I went in search of a bit of retail therapy last week, I was unceremoniously shut down. Those adorable lightweight sweaters that Land’s End sent me multiple emails about and even a coupon for? Nope. Couldn’t browse my options. The perfect relaxed jean capris that would look great with my bird blouse and Chuck Taylors? Kohl’s won’t let me visit, so they are a no-go as well. I have money. I wouldn’t mind parting with a bit of it for something cute and sparkly. But, alas, it is not meant to be.

But, this isn’t meant to be a page-long Debbie Downer post, but rather a reminder to myself (and all of us) that transitions are tough and we should be thoughtful of one another in this crazy Foreign Service lifestyle. If you are settled at post (or heck, even in the States, not living a semi-nomadic life of if you are headed back to school this week [looking at your Kels-a-roo, Keeg, and Keira!] ) take note of who is new. Invite them over. Check in with them. Over the last seven years I have met some amazing people and made life-long friends. Some of those were people who I was introduced to on my first days in a new place and others are people who came in behind us in the transition process, but whether we were there first or they were there first is inconsequential. We connected. We bonded. We became friends. I just need to take a deep breath and remind myself that the same will happen here in Caracas.

I’m reminded of a song I learned before I became an early Girl Scout dropout. (That’s a long story, but the crux of it is I didn’t make it through Brownies because those chocolate brown uniforms were hideous.) When I Googled the lyrics, I realized it is much longer than my 6-year-old brain stored away, but the opening lines are what I can still hear rattling around at times of transition:

Make new friends,
but keep the old.
One is silver,
the other is gold.

I’ve definitely got a pocketful of gold, so now it’s time I go in search for the silver.




Lovin’ Some Llama (and Alpaca) Time

Being raised in rural Idaho, my family always had a small menagerie of animals around. At various points in my childhood, our backyard/field was home to chickens (and an evil rooster), a variety of pheasant breeds, rabbits, dogs, cats, cows, and llamas. Yes, llamas. I must have been in upper elementary school when my parents bought the first three and the herd expanded from there. Throughout the years, we took them to nursing homes and schools, walked them in holiday parades, and spent the most time with them as 4-H entrants.

Unfortunately, my prime 4-H llama showing (and judging!) skills don’t hold a lot of weight in Washington D.C.

One would think that with so much llama-time under my belt, seeing a few in Peru would not have been a big deal, and yet, you’d be wrong. As any semi-regular reader of this blog’s travel writing knows, I am a sucker for an animal. I’ll suggest a rather out of the way side trip (as in a plane ride away) to *hold* a koala rather than just pose near one; I’ll put extra efforts into organizing an official consulate trip to the panda reserve to get as close as possible to those dumb, yet adorable, creatures; I’ll risk life and limb to reach out and touch whatever fuzzy critter might be native to my current location. I recently heard a rumor that sloth-sightings are possible at our next post. I now want to put “possibly of sloth encounter” as my number one request on our housing survey. Family negotiations are not complete on this point yet.  If it is an option, I’ll do it. (I once tried to bribe our guide in Terengganu, Malaysia to find me a tapir. I was totally willing to pay up too, but unfortunately, there was no tapir to be found that day.)

Anyway, cuddly digression aside, I was thrilled with all the llamas and alpacas in Peru! (This is not the place for lesson in the differences between llamas and alpacas- let alone guanacos and vicunas- but let me just remind you all they are different and pretty easily recognized with a bit of Googling.)

Lima itself, being at sea level and on the coast, didn’t have any llamas, but they did have endless stores of llama-themed items, everything from hats and scarves to pens and dolls. You want something with a llama on it? This is your place!

Cusco- now that is where the animal action is at! As the jumping off city to Machu Picchu, people usually spend a day or two in this fantastic town acclimating to the elevation. (At 11,500 feet above sea level, the altitude is no joke.) Lots of tourists taking it easy means lots of tourist traps, many of these being in the form of older women dressed in traditional clothing with brightly colored pouches slung over their shoulder, each containing an adorable lamb, and trailing behind them was often an alpaca on a lead. For whatever price you deemed appropriate (for me this ended up being all the random change in my pocket at the moment), you can get a photo with this woman and her small petting zoo.

Yes, I know it is a racket.

No, I don’t care.

If you are giving me the chance to snuggle up to a ridiculously fluffy alpaca for a handful of coins, there is no way I am going to walk away.

Which I did not.

Multiple times.

I could chalk it up to fuzzy thinking from the altitude, which was a bit of a strange sensation, but most of you would see right through that excuse. Lack of good oxygen was not at the root of my experience. I just never pass up the chance to pet/nuzzle/play with an adorable critter.

In all fairness, I do think I need to make one disclaimer before wrapping up this post about my inability to walk away from this delightful tourist-trap found on every corner of the city. The alpaca-on-a-lead was not my only run in with the species.

I may have had alpaca stroganoff for lunch.

I did it.

I couldn’t not.

I grew up with a field of llamas behind my house and I spent the day petting as many alpacas as I could before my change ran out.  Curiosity got the better of me. (For the record, alpaca meat isn’t bad. It was a bit tougher than beef, but in a stroganoff, I’m not sure you’d recognize it as not-beef if you weren’t told otherwise.)

Out of politeness, after my meal of alpaca meat, I did steer away from the street-corner critters for the rest of the evening. I was terrified they’d be able to smell their cousin on my breath!

It felt a bit like coming full circle, after having a field of llamas behind our house growing up to visiting them in their native Andean habitat. They’ve been to my place. I’ve been to their place. We’re just a lovely circle of life now.

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Machu Picchu: From Rubbish to Reality

I’ve always loved textbooks. As a kid, at the end of each school year, I would bring home any that had been deemed old or unusable. This usually involved some dumpster diving outside the high school where my dad worked (Go Cougars!), but a few scratches from rusty metal are nothing compared to the haul I’d come up with each early June.  Why else would we have been given tetanus shots if it wasn’t go provide us with the opportunity to hunt through less-than-sanitary garbage bins? With a boost from my sister, I’d rummage around in what high schoolers considered trash, but I thought of as treasure. There were nearly empty notebooks (college-ruled!), brightly colored binders in decent shape, and most importantly, old textbooks that were to be replaced in the fall. I’d toss as much of this over the edge as I could, where we’d then collect it in boxes and haul our booty back to my dad’s woodshop classroom. I think he was usually less-than-impressed with our desire to bring home garbage, so after some hardball negotiation, we would trek most of the notebooks and binders back to their blue bin-demise, but keep a few golden nuggets, like history and English textbooks.

Summer had arrived!

Now that I am lucky enough to travel all over the world (I’m just missing one continent- dang you, Antarctica, I will get to you!), I often flash back to the snapshots in those discarded history and geography textbooks. There are iconic photographs of instantly recognizable locations: The Great Wall, Angkor Wat, the Sydney Opera House, Pompeii, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa are just a few that I’ve been lucky enough to stand in front of in real life. Each time it happens, when I am standing in the spot the photographer stood in decades before to capture those images, I can’t help but be moved.

Machu Picchu was no different.

I can still recall pieces of a chapter in one of those long-ago discarded high school textbooks that compared the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan empires. Each description had a photo alongside it, with the Inca’s section being portrayed by a crisp, clear photo of Machu Picchu, taken somewhere above the ruins. The green of the grass and moss around the gray of the stone, with a clear blue sky above was an eerie juxtaposition and one that I remember being fascinated by as a kid. What a world! Decades (yikes, decades is right) later, as I stood in nearly the same spot as that photographer did all those years ago, watching the morning clouds move across the valley, I couldn’t help but feel the power of that image. The places I daydreamed about through those textbooks are one after another becoming real life experiences.

I took a minute and soaked it all in.

Okay, I took about ten seconds and then I realized how terrifyingly close to the edge of the mountain I was, so made a hasty retreat to ponder life from a safer vantage. Machu Picchu is many things, but full of safety measures, it is not. The only place I really saw much of a barrier against falls was at a similar overlook, where a rope was loosely strung between two poles, hanging about ankle height. Yup. If you didn’t stumble and fall on your own, Machu Picchu is happy to assist, providing a wiggly tripwire to help you on your way.

Lack of safety aside, Machu Picchu is amazing. I went at the end of the main tourist season and the start of the rainy season, so it was no surprise when the morning was a wet one. Luckily, by the time I arrived at the ruins, the rain had let up and the clouds were starting to clear. Observing the entire site and up into the steep mountain ravines from that iconic overlook at the site of the ancient city, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a pterodactyl swoop from behind a nearby peak or see a brontosaurs amble across the floor of the valley. The entire area had a prehistoric feel and the low hanging clouds sweeping in and out of the area just added to that eeriness. (Sweeping may seem like an odd verb for cloud movement, but it is accurate. The clouds moved through the ruins at an incredible speed. In one moment the entire valley would be sheathed in an impenetrable white and then a blink of an eye later, a break in the fog would appear, giving a perfectly clear and amazingly spectacular view of the city.)

Of course, no trip to Machu Picchu is complete without some serious llama sightings. You’d think I’d not be that into llamas at this point in my life, having had my share of llama-time growing up, but to see them wandering around the ruins, I couldn’t help but smile. And, not just wandering, but frolicking. There was some serious young llama playtime happening, with skips and hops and chasing to and fro. Again, so iconic! Llamas and Machu Picchu go together like roasted guinea pig and chicha morada. (More on that combo later.) As a true tourist, you just can’t have one without the other.

So yes, those dumpster-scavenged textbooks from days of yore were probably outdated rubbish, and heck, they were probably torn and marked up as well, but to a curious, book loving kid, those were insignificant details; all I remember is creating a mental photo album that comes to life with each new opportunity I have to travel. Now, I get the chance to stand on precarious ledges alongside those photographers from the previous century and rather than use a viewfinder to center my photographs, I snap a selfie that would make my generation proud!

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