I’m Choosing My Own Adventure

Life in the Foreign Service is a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. There is a basic plotline that the story is going to follow (A-100, 2 directed 2-year tours, promotions, mid-level tours, etc.) but that main narrative can take more twists and turns than the Road to Hana, depending on the choices you make:

  •  Unhappy with your housing assignment? To appeal, go to page 5. To stick it out and find cool things about what you have, go to page 11.
  • Struggling to find EFM employment? To publicly complain/blame others, go to page 14. To update your resume/interview skills and keep plugging away, go to page 21.
  • Don’t know where to go on your next R&R? To spin the globe and pick a spot based on where your finger lands, go to page 23. To just go to Singapore and people watch at the Merlion yet again, go to page 31.
  • Getting kicked out of your host country with less than 48 hours to prepare? To pack calmly and methodically and with thoughtful intent- Not an option. To pack after not sleeping for more than 24 hours and after working a 17-hour day- This is your only option. Turn the page. Keep reading.

With all its ups and downs, I know I live a charmed life and have no room to complain. I checked this book out from the library and refuse to return it, regardless of what lies on the next page or the one after that. Fines be damned.

Thad’s job with the Foreign Service allows us to travel the world, living in and visiting far-flung corners of the globe that seemed unattainable to my 8th grade self, sitting in second period World Geography with Mr. Shake, grumbling about having to memorize countries and capitals. (If only at the age of 14 I knew that I would visit Borneo multiple times and stand on the geographical center of the Asian continent and take a death-defying flight over Angel Falls and plummet down a hillside in a giant hamster ball in New Zealand. Maybe I would have focused more on the location names and less on the how to best color-code my map to get the right mixture of ROYGBIV before stashing it away in my knock-off Trapper-Keeper.)

The Foreign Service lifestyle has given me the chance to choose my own adventures that led to bathing with elephants, holding a koala, petting a panda (illegally, but I saw my chance and took it), cuddling a wombat, sharing my water bottle with a quokka, and swimming with dolphins and sea turtles.

But it has also taken some crazy turns that make me think it would have been nice to hold my place with a finger while I took a sneak peek at the outcomes of the options provided.

This last tour in Caracas took would definitely have been nice to cheat and see my full range of options before picking. (Not that I would pick differently, but maybe I’d change a few decisions along the way.) Getting pulled out (or kicked out, depending on your point of view) of the country with a mere moment’s notice meant leaving behind all of our personal belongings. As of right now, nearly everything in the apartment I have been living in for the last five months is not mine. I own two dish towels (thank you Shannon!) a vintage typewriter (long story about how it ended up here, but thanks Melys and Matt!) and what came out of Venezuela in my luggage a few months ago, including way too many scarfs and not enough sundresses. It was January and I had no plans to be here until June!

I do not have my photos from our time in Peace Corps China. I do not have the thoughtful Christmas gifts sent by friends and family over the holiday season. (My new Caboodle!) I do not have the ugly circa-1970 orange and yellow casserole dish that is perfect for a two-person family and that I love so much. I do not have the wall hanging my best friend quilted for me a few years ago. I do not have my hilarious #2 pencil costume for Halloween or my awesome beach hat that got to go to the beach one last time the weekend before we evacuated. I do not have the fertility gourd that was our going away gift from our danwei (Communist work group) leader in Chengxian. I do not have my books or my patio chairs or my super comfortable memory foam mattress topper.

This things are all still in my apartment in Caracas. The bed is made. The towels are hung. I could walk in tomorrow and take up my life without missing a beat. (I know this because our amazing housing team from Embassy Caracas sends me pictures each week, letting me know that all is well.)

 

There are so many things that I do not have, but all is not lost.

Today, I added one more thing to the collection of “items I own while on Ordered Departure.”

Today, a daring escape was made!

Today, I was reunited with an old friend who has been to sleepovers and family vacations and college and study abroad and Peace Corps and a million other places with me.

Zugly, my dear buddy that I wrote about in “Moments” successfully made his way out of Venezuela (I wonder if the immigration team photographed his visa on their personal cell phones, much like they did mine on my last trip out) and to Washington DC. It took the help of a wonderful member of our local staff in Caracas to get him on a plane (carry-on—no luggage hold for Zugly!) and bring him “home” so he’s ready to embark on whatever adventure story we pick up next.

zugly

We are still awaiting a final say on where our next book will be set- it could be Asia or South America or Africa or here in Washington DC. It is still up in the air, but wherever the globe stops spinning, I’m ready to choose. Ready to choose to be excited for the new adventure. Ready to rejoin the hunt for employment. (Hopefully it is a short one!) Ready to uncover a new neighborhood, meet new colleagues, and make new friends.

It is time. I am ready to choose my next adventure with Zugly in the suitcase and a promise to always add him to the top of the evacuation pile.

 

Mexico 2017, Take Two

Ways to know you had a successful mini-vacation to Mexico City:

1)      You have a hard time stepping into your pants due to muscle soreness on one entire side of your body. You’d like to say this was from falling off a Mexican pyramid, as that sounds way more adventurous than the truth- you jumped/fell off a wall at some Mexican pyramids.  Instead, the real story is that after climbing up two enormous pyramids, both of which were terrifying, as heights may not be your “thing” and there are not nearly enough safely railings/ropes to make it the smartest choice ever, your legs were like jelly. Rather than thinking through the fact that you were doing well to be upright and making forward progress in the midday heat of Mexico City in May, a city that sits nearly a mile above sea level when you live in a city that clocks in at about 400 feet above sea level,  you considered yourself invincible and without pondering the possible repercussions, you jumped (in the end “fell” is probably a more accurate verb, but for this part of the tale we’ll stick with the more self-guided “jumped”) off a short wall rather than walking around the long way to get to your destination. Said wall was about three feet high, but because your legs were still quivering from the last terrifying pyramid descent, when your feet hit the ground, rather than holding you up in a graceful manner, your thighs melted like butter and you hit the ground like a giant sack of potatoes. Yup. All the way to the ground. As you peel yourself off the red dirt ground, you brush gravel from your palms, calf and rear of your capris and try to make a nimble exit. (It’s hard to imagine an Aztec, native to the temple complex, biting it so hard, although you content yourself with the thought that all peoples must have had klutzes in their midst.)  As with many injuries, it wasn’t the day of the spill or even the following one, but that third one when the soreness really set in seriously. Your colleagues might be sympathetic, but you know they are also laughing because there is no good way to explain your ridiculous limp and the groans that emanate from your cubicle each time you sit or stand. But, limping around the building after a vacation is just a sign that you did it right!

2)      Those same pants fit a bit tighter in the waist because you ate all the chicken tacos and a good number of the churros in Mexico. You might be a picky eater, but the food in Mexico was right up your alley. Imagine a place where most items are brought in pieces and you get to assemble them, as desired. This means you can make chicken tacos without the hot salsa or with a few beans on top or without the fried onions or with a bit of cheese.  You can have it your way, day after day. Plus, there is a lovely little corner restaurant devoted entirely to churros. You can get churros by the foot, you can get little churro nuggets, you can get churros with hot chocolate or ice cream or dipping sauces. You can get churros! (As a side note, because of the current Foreign Service hiring freeze, you did ponder, for a few moments, the need for a new career in the future and churro cutting guy’s job looked pretty enticing. Just you, a giant spiral of freshly fried churro, and a pair of sharp scissors. Churro cutting might be where it is at!) Needless to say, tacos and churros do not make for a skinny-traveler diet.

3)      You caught up of months of chatter with friends, covering everything from common connections from previous posts to current Foreign Service policy and book recommendations to tales of first dates and matchmaking. Yes, you can keep track of friends by Facebook stalking them or through occasional messages here and there, but a few days wandering a city, exploring sites, and eating meals together creates the perfect opportunity to discuss all the things, from tiny to tremendous, going on in your lives and around the world.

4)      You paid a small amount of money to watch grown men (and a couple of women) don tight spandex and fight it out in a sweaty wrestling ring, inside an arena that smelled more than vaguely like puke. You’ve seen it referenced online and you remember seeing clips of WWE on TV as a child, but you haven’t really experienced Mexico City until you’ve enjoyed an evening of luche libre wrestling. Of course, you can’t pass up the chance to sit in the crowd as the hawkers sell beer in cups that look like they can hold a gallon of liquid and bear witness to the craziness that is a luchadores match crowd. You might be a bit horrified by the things being yelled, bilingually, at the fighters, most of it wholly inappropriate for the eight-year-old sitting in the row in front of you, but boy did he get a multilingual vocabulary lesson that night. Yes, you cringed when Sam Adonis, the “American” wrestler runs around the ring with a giant Stars and Stripes flag with Trump’s face plastered in the middle of it, encouraging the crowd in their crazy screaming and you have to cover your eyes as wrestlers thrown themselves off the ropes onto the cement floor of the stadium, but you cannot pass up the chance to experience this ridiculous form of entertainment. (And, of course, your better half can’t walk away from the venue without purchasing his very own luchador mask, so Blue Dragon is now a part of your life for the foreseeable future.)

5)      You spent an afternoon in what must be the party boat capital of Latin America.  Xomilcho is a cultural outing that must be experienced and you had no intention of not taking part. The kinder internet sites refer to it as “floating gardens,” and you give them credit for their diplomatic renderings, but you quickly realize that Xomilcho is a strange blend of bumper boats, picnicking, floating bars, and agile salesmen unlike anything you’ve seen before. After a price (per boat, not person) is negotiated, you settle in to your brightly colored party cruiser (cruising= being poled up the canals by a boatman, Venice-style, without the same panache) and head out for a two-hour float. Over the course of the next two hours you experience a water jam that would make Malaysian drivers proud, with boat owners calling each other idiots as they push off one another and the banks to try to make their way up the waterway. You also enjoy a snack of roasted corn in a cup, sold to you by a man in a small skiff. You can’t leave without the purchase of a plastic flower headband- all the girls are sporting them. You opt not to hire a floating mariachi band, although you do enjoy their music as they serenade other boats full of people out to enjoy El Dia de Los Niños. Oh, and drinks. Lots of drinks. Your boatman’s sidekick brought a bucketful of ice and beverage options at the outset and counted empties at the end. It can’t get more convenient than that!  

6)      You come home with the same passport you had when you left the country (as you know from previous posts, this isn’t always the case with Mexico trips).  There isn’t much else to be said about this. Usually you are a very organized and contentious traveler and then sometimes the world conspires against you and you find yourself passport-less in a Mexican beach resort town. These things happen. But, they did not happen this time, so it counts as a win.  Borders are crossed. Passports are stamped. All is good in vacation-land. (Posts about January’s missing passport can be found here and here.)

7)      You feel like you need a vacation from your vacation to recover from said injury, weight gain, chatter, and hours of sightseeing. You get back to the United States and are a strange combination of exhausted and relaxed. (You fought a bit of a stomach bug on the way back, plus you flew United, so overall you are happy to have flown without any major incidents of any kind!) You are eager to get back to work and catch up on what you missed (and boy, did you miss things!) but you also struggle to wrap your mind around going back into the office and settling back into your cubicle. But, you struggle into your adorable coral-colored ankle pants because no one likes that guy who calls in sick the day after vacation. Sore and scraped and tired, you throw yourself back into your work and begin to daydream of your next adventure (Iceland in June!).

(A *huge* thank you goes out to our wonderful and gracious hosts in Mexico City,Jessica and Paul!)

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(Photo credits go out to Thad R. and Paul O.)

Playin’ with Pachyderms

Never one to pass up a conversation about adorable animals, I was drawn into a couple different ones at the office over the last few days. Just today, chatting over the tops of our cubicles like we often do, a couple of us were talking about shipping pets. In the Foreign Service, this is a major topic that comes up time and time again- how to get a pet (usually a dog or a cat, but I’ve seen serious discussions about birds, rodents, turtles, etc…) from post A to post B. Never a cheap proposition, flying a pet around the world adds up quickly, with thousands of dollars (each move!) going to meet veterinarian requirements, buy tickets, and endure the quarantine process.  For some though, a pet is synonymous with family and no expense is too great to have them accompany tour after tour after tour.

In this rambling tête-à-tête about shipping between posts, I learned that the Frankfurt airport is apparently the Shangri-La of airports for travelling pets. In addition to nice rest facilities for the critters, and staff who are attentive and actually seem to care (apparently this is not a given), the airport has a top-notch veterinarian on call at all times.

Wondering why an airport would put so much effort into animal transportation had me a bit baffled, until a colleague mentioned that the airport is used as a main hub for circus animal movements in Europe.  Of course, this sent my brain down a widly different path, as the thought of sending circus animals by plane had not really ever occurred to me. Apparently, my childhood selection of picture books, plastic toys, and Disney movies has me eternally convinced at all circus animals travel by train- you know, the one with the red engine, the elephant with his trunk sticking out of the side of a car, the car with the giraffe head periscoping out of the top of his roof, and brightly painted advertisements up and down its length. This is how circus has moved, does move, and will always move. Right?

Welcome to the 21st century, Michelle! Circuses are fancy and travel by air. Sadly, this just doesn’t create the same nostalgic mental image as the train congers up. There are no lions roaring in the belly of the plane, no head/trunk holes in the fuselage for various critter pieces parts, although maybe if it were a private plane it could be brightly painted in primary colors.

Of course, with my recent trip to Johannesburg, the talk of elephants and lions smoothly slid into one about trips to various animal parks in South Africa. Unfortunately, I was not able to get out of town to do full-on safari trip, but I did squeeze in half-day trips, one to an elephant halfway house and the other to a lion park.

Yes, I said elephant halfway house.

Just a few hours outside of Johannesburg is an elephant park that houses a mere handful of pachyderms at a time- those who are awaiting placement in new homes. These giants come from a variety of places: one from a zoo that had closed down, one from a bigger park that was having social issues within its herds, and a couple from private complexes that could no longer house them. The day I went to the park, I was unable to meet the oldest member of the transient crew, as he had apparently “gotten up on the left side of the bed” and was in no mood for visitors. The keepers said the transition from the zoo has not been an easy one and he often opts of our socialization.

But, even if Old Man was grumpy that day, I still got to meet and spend the morning with some awesome creatures. The park is small and has a rolling population, but they have a great visitor program. Paired with an attached monkey park (which I opted out of!), elephant visitors still have to make their way through a free-range monkey enclosure to reach the sanctuary of the big guys. (There were monkeys out and about, but not in the terrifying numbers that still haunt my dreams after a trip to Monkey Forest in Bali. At no point was I concerned for my well-being or pondered the possible full ramifications of a broken-skin monkey bite.)

The tour started with a time to feed two of the elephants, mostly just a mash of pellets that they sucked into their trunks like powerful wet/dry vacuums. Our group was mostly adults and some folks were satisfied after dropping a handful or two into a trunk, so with a half-full bucket of pellets left, I went ahead and took a few extra turns at snack time. (The two kids our group were terrified of the elephants and hid behind their parents, regardless of the amount of coaxing by those they trusted. The adults didn’t seem overly interested, and the way I saw it, those enormous mammals ended some serious calories to survive the day, so really, I was the hero of the morning, at least in the long-lashed eyes of my new friends.)

Feeding time was followed by a really nice informational session in an outdoor classroom. We all plopped ourselves down on wooden benches and learned about the differences between Asian and African elephants (the usual, size, ears, toes, etc.), but also some really cool facts about how elephant skulls help cool their brains and about their five sets of ever larger teeth. Coming from someone who signs up for every imaginable animal outing possible when I travel, I was really impressed with the mini-biology lesson I got from the ranger and definitely came away from the day not only having interacted with elephants, but with a bit more critter data in my cranium.

The highlight of the morning was getting up close and personal (up close and pachydermal?)  with the stars of the show. Having no fear of the enormous animal, I walked right up to him and his trainer, full of questions about his age, history, future, etc. The trainer looked at me and said, “Have you spent time with elephants before?” I could only laugh and reply in the affirmative, as a detailed list of my many animal visits wasn’t on the morning agenda. After some hugs and kisses, it was time to bid adieu to our new friends and their wonderful keepers. (These men obviously loved their charges and took amazing care of them. It was really impressive to see the relationships that had been formed between man and animal and to hear of how hard the reserve works to send their animals away from the halfway house to safe and healthy forever homes.)

Elephants were the itinerary for the first weekend I was in South Africa, but after that incredible outing, it was time to get down to business. I flew to Johannesburg on business and it was time to clock in.  I had a week of community liaison office coordinator training ahead of me- a very full week of conducting training sessions for CLOs posted mostly in Africa, but a few from other regions, who were looking for support and a deeper understanding of their roles in their embassies and consulates. This was an amazing week of teaching (it made me realize how much I miss my classroom!) and networking, but as soon as we wrapped up the last session on Friday afternoon, I was off making plans for a Saturday trip to the lion park!

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