Photo credit: T.Ross
Photo credit: T.Ross
As a nervous swimmer, I wasn’t entirely sure that I was not going to drown, but it didn’t matter. I quickly determined that donning a pair of flippers and hopping into a cove with dolphins was worth the risk. You could have upped the ante on that one and I probably (okay, let’s be honest, definitely!) would have made the same choice.
You see, I’m a pretty responsible person. I got my first job at sixteen, working at ShopKo in the lawn and garden department and then transferring to jewelry when the season ended. I went to college at seventeen, study abroad in the Dominican Republic at eighteen, and then married at nineteen. I had my first middle school classroom by the time I was twenty-one, owned a house at twenty-two, and started my first master’s degree at twenty-three. Needless to say, I’ve never been one to shy away from the responsible choice.
Unless, it comes to animals.
Dangle the possibility of touching an animal, or better yet hanging out/playing with almost anything in the fauna world and the possibility of poor choices rises dramatically. (Okay, in my book, there are a good number of creepy-crawlies that don’t earn the label of “animal” and are absolutely not a part of this equation. No spiders. No snakes [although snakes HAVE unwillingly happened].)
Most of the time, my animal encounters are in safe and organized arenas, but they don’t have to be. If I can get close to it, I will. When we were in Perth a few years ago, we went to Rottnest Island, home of the absolutely adorable quokka. These crazy little creatures are just wild around the island and when we stopped to hole up in the shadow of a bush after a brutal bike ride, we found friends who also were using the same shrub-shade. Knowing that I was famished from the heat, I figured these guys were as well, so I shared my water bottle with them. Yes, I let the marsupials drink from the same bottle I was using. I am sure there are no diseases or possibly problems with a bit of a saliva swap. We’re all friends here!
A couple of weeks ago when we took a little trip out of Caracas to Curacao, animals were the top of my to-do list. (Animals, followed closely by cheese shopping. Luckily, both boxes were checked.)
I’d done a bit of online research before (basically avoiding working on things I should be doing) and found a small aquarium in Willemstad. The aquarium itself didn’t seem like much to write home about (and in proved not to be in person), but their handful of flamingos and a few random fish tanks were not the main draw. Instead, it was DOLPHINS! (As cool as fish can be, mammals always win out over fishes.) The aquarium website offered up a couple of dolphin options, including one where the participants stood on a platform in the water, but that didn’t seem nearly engaged enough for me. Instead, I opted for the one where you don a pair of fins and bail into the cove with the dolphins for an hour of chillaxing.
As a non-proficient swimmer, I was a bit nervous about this choice. I tread water okay in a pool, but that has very finite edges and bottom and I know what is around me. In elementary school, I took years of swim lessons, first at the local city pool and then private lessons when I repeatedly flunked out of the public sector. (Those initial ones were the ones when parents signed me up for the first two weeks of June at the 8AM slot, in Idaho. That is not outdoor pool weather! I blame the early-stage hypothermia for my failures.) When it comes to oceans, I am even less confident in my abilities and am pretty much always convinced something is touching me. (It doesn’t help that when I was getting my SCUBA certification, on the first open water dive, we got caught in a super strong current and even the dive master had a terrible time getting back to shore and had to call the dive off. I was pretty sure I was never going to make it back to the beach and the Tioman Island vista would be the last thing I glimpsed on this earth!)
With survival in question, I grabbed my flippers and headed for the dock. Not even possible drowning was going to keep me away from those dolphins.
Facing death by the sea was worth it for an hour with my new dolphin buddies.
Luckily, my giant flippers were quite proficient at keeping my head above the water. (I was surprised at how terrible a swimmer one could be with the help of flippers. This is key to keep in mind for future oceanic excursions!) I spent the next hour swimming, dancing, having water fights, and just generally hanging out with my new BFFs. The younger of the dolphins was just like a big, slick puppy. It didn’t take more than about one stroke down his side and he’d flip over on his back to get a tummy rub. The first time he did it I was afraid I had broken my dolphin! (You break it, you buy it, right?)
Unfortunately, I did not get to take my dolphin home with me at the end of the day. That would have been the best door prize ever! It doesn’t matter though, because I spent the morning swimming with dolphins in a cove on Curacao. There’s not much there to complain about. Caracas might not always be the easiest gig I’ve ever had, but experiences like this one make it worth the frustrations of not being able to find sandwich bread, my car still being in Miami three months after getting in Venezuela, or trying to figure out how the bolivars that I transferred last week are now worth a fraction of their previous value.
At the end of the day, none of it matters.
I’ve written about it before, but it is worth noting once again: Halloween is not my favorite holiday of the year. As a matter of fact, it probably ranks as one of my least favorite, with maybe April Fool’s Day beating it out for worst-ever. (April Fool’s Day as a middle school teacher was definitely the worst.)
With that noted, I don’t hate everything about Halloween. I love little kids in costumes-toddlers and younger elementary kids in creative outfits are fabulous. This year I saw an adorable bumblebee (who would not let me borrow her wings), a little doctor, a fantastic flamenco dancer, and a couple cute skeletons. And nothing makes me a happier than to see little girls in non-princess costumes. A good friend sent me a picture last week that I must have pulled up on my computer twenty times one afternoon. Her little girl (born when we worked together in Kuala Lumpur) had costume night at dance class. With all the little princesses sitting in a circle, her adorable dancer stood out from the pack of ruffles and tiaras, as a fat, fuzzy, yellow chicken. Don’t get sucked into the world of pink and princess and fluff! Be you. Be a chicken. That’s my kind of girl.
You’d never know my general disinterest in the holiday judging by my schedule this last week: three Halloween parties in seven days (in a country that doesn’t even celebrate it, no less). Partially, I think it is the draw of an American holiday when we are overseas; things that we don’t put much effort into while in the U.S. suddenly take on a new level of interest. (For example, trivia nights were huge in the D.C. bar scene, but I went to exactly one during our two years in the District. Now, we try to get to the embassy trivia night every single month. It doesn’t hurt the prize is often a collection of consumable goodies.)
Party #1 was at the Hard Rock in Caracas. (Yes, Hard Rocks are still a thing! Who knew?) They hosted a costume party with a live band- Hair Force One. Hair Force Once is an 80s cover band that one of our embassy officers plays in, so whenever they are featured at the restaurant, we see a good community turnout. The theme of the evening was 80s, although costumes were all over the map, including several folks who opted out entirely. (Even I am not that Grinchy!) With not a lot of 80s-options in my repertoire, I did do a bit of shopping when we were in Curacao a few weeks ago. (By the way, there are definitely blog posts coming about that. Blame all these Halloween parties for having me to busy to actually write them!) I was surprised to find a Claire’s in the mall there, so picked up some ridiculously neon dangly earrings and a rather large hairbow to match. (As a side note, can we talk about Claire’s for just a moment? Has it always been geared towards the pre-teen crowd or am I just getting old? It has never been high quality, but it does seem that it was in the 14-16 year old range when I was frequenting the mall on weekends in high school, but the one in Curacao felt solidly in the 8-10 year old range. Were those enormous hoop earrings I rocked in 6th grade just not as cool and mature as I thought they were? Claire’s Curacao has made me question many things about my middle school fashion choices.) Add to that a neon star-covered blouse that came from a French boutique (that I totally now plan to wear regularly to work and not as an 80s reference!) and a pair of black pegged jeans and a whole lot of pink blush and blue eye shadow, I was ready to go. (BTW, pegging Lycra-infused skinny jeans is not an easy task! Either I have lost my pegging skills of yore or my pants are made of something entirely different these days. It took multiple attempts to get the peg to take!) The band was great, with the only downside of the evening being that the venue didn’t really have a dance floor and it is awfully hard to sit in your seat during anthems like “Living on a Prayer” and “Sweet Dreams.” I mean, it’s Bon Jovi. I love him so much I braved the crowds in Kuala Lumpur to see him in concert. (I went to the Bon Jovi show with the not-a-princess-but-a-chicken-instead’s mom.)
Part #2 was the one that kept me up nights ahead of time. It was the embassy Halloween party, an event we opened up to the kids of both our American officers and the local staff. On Monday before the party, we had forty kids RSVPed. 40 is doable. By Wednesday morning we had 100 kids on the list. Okay, that’s a lot, but still manageable, although I was starting to worry about my cupcake/cookie count. And at 4PM when trick-or-treating kicked off, that 100 was well-short of the actual attendance! While the event was open to the kids of staff members, I’m pretty sure a whole lot of neighbor kids, nieces, nephews, and maybe even distant cousins made it onto the list!
To prepare, my office sponsored a door decorating contest within the embassy. I was thinking they’d put up some cobwebs and a ghost or two and hand out candy to the kiddos that came door to door. (My office put up some cute Halloween garland and a not-at-all-spooky “boo” sign that my wonderful mother shipped as a surprise holiday package earlier in the month. I thought we were doing okay.)
Nope. I was very wrong.
Door decorating became office-wide decorating with massive amounts of creativity and effort. One office went with a Coco theme, which looked super cool on Tuesday afternoon when I wandered by. They brought in huge piles of fresh flowers to decorate their alter and the entire floor smelled wonderful (although a little bit like a funeral.) BUT, they were not done. Wednesday afternoon as I was putting the finishing touches on plans, (i.e. hanging arrow signs so that the ghosts and goblins didn’t wander off the trick-or-treating path into the marines office or through a server room) I heard music coming from down the hallway, so took a quick wander to see. Coco went full-on-authentic. They HIRED a mariachi band for the afternoon! That’s right, the office hired a band to come in and play as a part of their Halloween decorations. It was amazing and also a huge distraction and I couldn’t walk down the hallway without stopping to listen for a bit. (This definitely threw off my afternoon schedule!)
Not to be outdone, another office (same floor) went with Pirates of the Caribbean as their theme. They moved all sorts of office furniture to turn their space into a giant ship, all-inclusive with a brig, lots of booty, and photo booth for the kids. And their Jack Sparrow was on-point! This band of pirates was a hit with the kids and became a bit of a chokepoint in the trick-or-treating route because no one wanted to leave the wonderland that they had created. Who wouldn’t want just one more picture with pirates and props?
Embassy Caracas had full-buy-in for Halloween this year!
The regular evening thunderstorm rolled in just before 6PM, which meant the bounce house had to come down and served as a perfect way to head people on their way, although it was time to wrap it up anyway since we ran out of popcorn and cotton candy and cupcakes and cookies and Coke by that point. (Also, I’m pretty sure that the accommodating officers who volunteered to man the bounce house will never have children. An hour of that and you’ve got a lifetime of birth control in the bag.) Full of massive amounts of sugar (high quality, shipped-in-from-America-candy), we sent both the American and the Venezuelan kids home to their parents for what I am sure was a fight over eating real dinner and going to bed at a decent hour. If that’s the case, I call it a job well done!
Party #3 was an event in and of itself- an adult version of what happened on Wednesday. Our chargé de affairs (Caracas does not have an ambassador- Google that one if you are interested in the political details) hosted a party at his place on Saturday night- one that had well over 100 people in attendance, all in spectacular costumes. Hair Force One played again (having an officer in the band helps!) but then later in the evening, things took a turn to the more local when a salsa dance group showed up and took things to a whole new level. It was amazing to watch the crowd come alive. Two women wearing little more than feathers and high heels were accompanied by a man whose hips definitely did not lie! (I took this chance to fade my #2 pencil into the background, never a big fan of audience participation.)
While I don’t love dressing up in costumes, I figured if I were going to do it (and I kind of had to) I should follow the in the footsteps of my dear chicken-friend and go full-on ridiculous. No sexy-this or sexy-that or super fancy princess-y getup, as none of that really fits me. Instead, I opted to be a giant banana and a oversized #2 pencil. Both were hilarious. (At least I thought they were hilarious and that’s what really counts.) So if there is any takeaway from Halloween 2018, it has to be this: random yellow objects make the best costumes!
Now, it is time to move onto the ever-present-issue of procuring Thanksgiving turkeys overseas (I don’t really want to admit how much I paid for turkeys each year in Asia!), trying to organize a turkey-day turkey bowl and maybe even a community pie event in the evening. Why do one event when you can do three? In the U.S. people may feel like fall skips right from Halloween to winter Christmas, but in an embassy community, we go hard for all American holidays!
There is always a straw that breaks the camel’s back.
You would think it would be the fact that we have been in Caracas for three months now and still do not have a car. (As a matter of fact, our car hasn’t even left Miami yet. That *might* happen this week. Fingers crossed. Long story, but right now the goal is to have our own wheels by Valentine’s Day.) Or you might think it would be the fact that we spend more time sorting out banking issues than we ever have in our lives. (How many bolivars can I get for $1? The answer to that changes twice a day. I feel like I need a degree in economics just to go to the market in Venezuela. And then factor in the DICOM rate vs. the black market rate and the rising prices in the stores and the math becomes overwhelming in very short order.)
But no. It is neither of these things.
For me, the straw came on Friday afternoon in the embassy cafeteria. As I stood in line, holding my tray and looking down the line of options, I struggled to stomach another day of a pounded flat chicken breast and a side of rice. For a moment, I thought I had gotten lucky with a pasta option, but as it turned out, the macaroni with a strange sauce also contained strings of vegetable, but not edible vegetable. These were the parts that one would normally peel off before cooking. (As my faithful readers may know, I’m not a huge veggie-fan to begin with and then veggie that is more ruffage than substance? Not a great option.) My only saving grace on Friday was the Jell-O. A cup of red Jell-O was my lunch. (To be fair, purple was also an option. In retrospect, I probably should have just gone double-Jell-O.)
Now, it is hard to be too dramatic about my daily serving of chicken because I am WELL aware how lucky I am to have a chance to each chicken EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Many Venezuelans would jump at the chance and so I have tried hard not to grumble about it with my local colleagues. I get it and try to be outwardly chill about the whole thing.
At the same time though, I hit the chicken wall on Friday.
All I really want is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. Maybe a side of applesauce or a pudding cup. And I have almost all of these things in my pantry, thanks to a hefty consumables purchase.
So what’s the problem?
It is not easy to find anything resembling sandwich bread here.
I thought I had hit the bread jackpot when I spotted loaves of it at our embassy’s Wednesday market. I quickly bought a loaf and carried it home, ready to for a week of PJ and J. My dreams of an elementary school cold lunch were going to come true.
Inside the loaf was more hole than bread.
There was a good crust and then where the bread itself should have been was probably 1/3 air. Just a giant hole. (Needless to say, I crafted a ridiculous sandwich anyway, not willing to let even a holey loaf go to waste, but once again rethinking my sandwich-making options.)
So, as I pushed my weird pasta around my plate on Friday, I decided it was time to just bite the bullet and start making my own bread. I have a bread-maker that Thad bought me when we were living in Chengdu and I was having a whole different set of bread issues (if I remember correctly, it was again the desire for peanut butter and jelly, but instead of no bread, I could only find what I lovingly called “shit-in-the-middle” bread- bread with bean paste cooked into it. Not ideal for sandwiches of any kind.) I brought some bread mixes with me in our consumables shipment, but when I was in D.C., I was struggling to find any “normal” mixes. They were all Italian herb and cheese or 490834-grain bread. (Okay, maybe 9 grain, but sometimes it feels like an awful lot of oats in those hearty breads!) Both of which I like, but neither well-suited to crunchy peanut butter and strawberry jam. I’ve sporadically looked online for some normal wheat or white options, but have either come up empty handed or found them at a price I was not willing to pay. (Side note: I’m super annoyed with Amazon’s change where most food items are now party of Prime Pantry. I already pay too much for Amazon Prime and now they want an extra fee for food items? Nope.)
But as I said, the final straw settled on the camel’s back on Friday, meaning cost was no longer an impediment. With just a hospital serving of red Jell-O in my belly, before I embarked on my afternoon to-do list, I went online and paid (too much?) for white bread mixes. (Before those of you who have some semblance of domestic skills asks, yes, I suppose I could order the flour and whatnot to make bread from scratch, but let’s be honest- the box mix is pushing the limits of my kitchen-skills.)
Starting Monday, I’m going to be a “cold lunch” kinda’ girl. Until my bread mixes arrive, I plan to jimmy together options from what we have: pretzels, pudding, apple sauce, etc. My lunch is going to look like some harried mother let her 5-year old loose in the pantry, but I don’t even care. Sides for lunch it is!
I just can’t face the pounded chicken breast one more day.
Video credit: T. Ross
Photo credit: T. Ross