The Lighter Side of Heavy Bags

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?

Shoe-tcase!

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.

Don’t judge.

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.

Yes, twelve.

A dozen.

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.

But wait!

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.

Why?

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.

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Searching for the GOOD in Goodbye

The last two weeks have been interesting, to say the least. (That sentence is a strong competitor for “understatement of the year 2019.”) I almost typed that I’ve started this post multiple times in the last fourteen days, but that isn’t actually true. I’ve thought about starting this post, but have never gotten beyond pondering it in the shower that has endless hot water, or on my newly re-instituted walks past the White House on my way to work, or as I wander the aisles of CVS, fully aware that they are more groceries available in a single corner drug store in downtown Washington D.C. than there were in the supermarkets I frequented in Caracas.

So yes, the last two weeks have been full of changes- normally something that gets top billing at In Search of the End of the Sidewalk. And yet, my faithful readers (all 7.5 of you!) have heard nary a peep out of me- even the book reviews have been sporadic and off-schedule. Why? Because processing takes time. Because heartache is hard to put onto paper (or a screen). And because there is no way to explain what it feels like to be given 72 hours to pack up your life and to say goodbye to friends and colleagues and not be sure if you will ever see them again.

For me, that meant working a really long day, being so busy I didn’t even realize I hadn’t taken a trip to the little diplomats’ room in over ten hours- thank you middle school teacher bladder! I was holding it together well as long as I was fielding questions, sorting plans, and thinking about what needed to be done to get everyone on those planes. That all fell apart for me at about 4:50PM. I looked down at the clock on my computer and realized that the goodbye was coming soon- very soon. Updating spreadsheets made blurry by watering eyes, I staved off the inevitable for as long as possible. But denial can only last so long. Five o’clock is usually a great time of day, but not that Thursday afternoon. When Gerard, my CLO administrative assistant got up to go, I fell apart. I’m not sure we even actually said goodbye. A long and tight hug, followed by a second hug said it all for us. Tears flowed. He hid his behind sunglasses and I did the awkward hand-flap thing, neither of us able to pretend this was anything less than goodbye.

All of these things take a toll and while writing is therapeutic, blank space is as well. (I was going to make a clever Taylor Swift reference here, as I do enjoy some terrible pop music in my life, but then I realized that the chorus lyrics of “So it’s gonna be forever/Or it’s gonna go down in flames/You can tell me when it’s over/If the high was worth the pain” are really more fitting with the political side of Venezuela, a topic I’m going to steer away from as much as possible in this forum. I’m not going to talk about what may or may not be forever in Venezuela, what may or may not go down in flames in Caracas and whether or not it is worth the pain. I’ll have that conversation all day long in person, but not here. Not now. So, Taylor, my dear, no cheeky 1989 album references for me tonight.)

With a fortnight plus-plus behind me and most of the craziness starting to get under control, it seems like now is a good time to talk about our ordered departure. But how do I do that without getting into the politics? That’s a tough line to walk, but the best answer is to do it through an equally powerful “p” word- people.

People are what made it hard to leave Caracas and people are what made leaving possible.

The folks on the ground in Venezuela were amazing. Our GSO team (these are the officers and local staff who deal with our housing, our cars, our travel, etc.) was more prepared that I could have imagined with seats booked on American Airlines for the entire crew of departing personnel and families in a matter of hours. At the same time, they negotiated with American Airlines to allow us all extra bags (AA said three per person, but when we got to the airport, there was no counting or weighing- if you brought it to the counter, it got tagged and put on the plane- amazing customer service!) and to make sure the airline was prepared for the large number of pets that would be evacuating with the community. The actual arrangements to get everyone out of Venezuela in a safe and secure and expeditious manner was a massive amount of work and the GSO team at post was professional, but also deeply caring as they helped sort a variety of individual arrangements.

While GSO was on the phone with the airlines, the HR shop was cutting orders, not just to DC, but a variety of safe-haven locations both inside and outside the United States. This is a daunting task, one that requires hours of manpower and yet I never saw the team waiver- staying as late as necessary to make sure that people were ready to fly in a matter of hours.

And I can’t say enough fantastic things about our security team either. Quiet leadership and professionalism were the names of the game for the office on that Thursday of controlled chaos. While some of them had their own families to help prepare for the evacuation, they continued to make arrangements for our secure departure from the country we collectively called home. As they were in and out of my office that last morning and afternoon, it was a constant discussion about how to lessen the trauma of the next few days. One of the most amazing things that came out of the departure from Caracas was the help that our team in Caracas was able to secure with their colleagues in Miami. When we reached Miami with the first set of evacuees ( ½ came out on Friday and the other ½ on Saturday) we were met at the doors of the plane by a couple of field agents who told us to gather at the top of the ramp with the other agents. When we had the entire embassy crew together, these men carried babies, pushed strollers, opened passport control lines for our officers and diplomatic families, pushed us through security screening, and provided escorts to our onward gates. Amazing isn’t strong enough of a word for this group of agents. Astonishing. Astounding. Remarkable. All of these are fair adjectives. It wasn’t that we couldn’t have gone through passport control like we normally do. We definitely could have helped one another with babies and strollers and luggage. We could have stood in line to redo security checks and we definitely could have wandered the airport to find our gates. We had time. But, to have someone standing there, welcoming us home with smiles was special. We were emotionally spent. The goodbyes that morning in Caracas were tough- they were heartbreaking and many of us felt as if we were abandoning our coworkers and employees in a time of crisis. To have someone, just for a few minutes, take over and say “we’ve got you” meant the world. They were strangers to us, but we are all part of a bigger USG team looking out for the best interests of this nation. We didn’t need to know them beyond that for them to take us under their wings and provide much needed support. We are one team. And they had our backs in a really special way.

To top it off, when we arrived in Washington DC at the end of a day that felt endless, we were greeted once again by smiling faces. The previous CLO and a few former-Caracas State Department workers were in the terminal with signs and smiles and cheers and hugs and a few tears as well. (Also, not to be discounted, they had water and homemade cookies!) The people who were there were part of the crew that went on ordered departure back in 2017, so they got it in a way no one else could. They knew what our last 48 hours had been like- no need to rehash it or explain why tears and smiles went hand in hand.

This whole thing started with politics- politics that I feel deeply connected to and have strong personal opinions about. But in my two weeks of processing, I realize it is the people who have stepped up to make a difficult situation a bit easier, a bit smoother, a bit more humane. I can’t begin to compare my hardships with those of the average Venezuelan, but difficult times aren’t about comparing one set of pain with another- they are about being resilient in your own place at your own time and it has been the people around me who have helped to create a soft landing after what felt a bit like jumping without a parachute. It is those people who made me feel like I am ready to hop back on that plane and jump again. And again. And again, if necessary.

Living in Caracas was not always easy and at times it was frustrating beyond belief, but these people (and many others) make me want to be on the next flight back there. They make me want to be back at work alongside strong and compassionate colleagues and friends. And they make me believe that the political fight for democracy is worth all of this and more.

embassy

U.S. Embassy Caracas (photo credit: P. Branco)