Caracas Quarantinis, Long Walks (not on the beach), and Some HotJamz

Up until now, I’ve avoided booking myself a ticket on the COVID-writing bandwagon. The internet is already full of homeschooling (gone wrong- will 2020 be the year teachers finally get the raises they deserve?) stories and baking tutorials that I could never hope to live up to (I realized yesterday I didn’t even own ketchup- I apparently have the kitchen skills of a sad 13 year old) and first-person essays about how we all need to learn a new skill and come out of isolation as better people.(Who needs new hobbies? I prefer Friday night Quarantini Zoom calls with my former Caracas-crew where I get pro tips about convict workout videos available on Amazon. Spoiler alert- they are heavy on the pushups and you have to supply your own teardrop face tattoos.) (Additional important information- I just looked these up and they are FREE with an AmazonPrime account. This changes everything…) But as it looks like it will be longer and longer before I book a ticket anywhere else, maybe it is time to join the masses with a post for all seven of my loyal blog-readers. (We’ll not talk about the tickets to Taipei and Kuala Lumpur and Accra and Ho Chi Minh City that had I to cancel this spring. That discussion would go in a direction that we’ll deem “mentally unhealthy” and bury away for another day.)

Travel used to look like packed REI duffle bags (purple and monogrammed, of course!) and international tickets (see above parenthetical about voided trips) and a Jansport (pink with lots of pockets) full of books. Then just getting to Main State became a bit of a daily adventure with a llama-covered lunch bag (pb&j, cheese stick, and Cheez-Its), trains running on reduced schedules, and a Jansport (gray polka dot with just two pockets) loaded with my to-do list and planner. Now that I am fully ensconced in the “work from home” life, travel looks like a phone tucked into the waistband of yoga pants, a pair of Nikes, and Shell’s HotJamz on Spotify.

Oh, how the world has changed in four short (long?) months of one Blursday after another. As much as it pains me to admit it, on more than one morning as I brushed my teeth- the one necessary hygiene undertaking that MUST be completed before logging into work- I have had to ask Alexa what day of the week it was before she played my morning NPR updates. Hair brushing and face moisturizing happen on a mid-morning break and a swipe of mascara and pinch of blush only brighten my face if I’ve got a Teams call on the docket. (Side note: Always give your colleagues a 15-minute heads up if you are going to video call. It’s only humane. I can do a quick “tra-la-la-la-la” when my phone rings at 10AM and I realized I haven’t spoken out loud yet and don’t want to sound like a crazy old man grumbling into the line, and then answer as if I’ve been holding high level conversations all morning, but when that video call unexpectedly pops up on my screen, I cannot run to the bathroom, bust out the Caboodle and throw together enough face to not look on the brink of death in the time it takes before you hang up. 15 minutes. It should be a rule as sacred as the 5-second rule for food on the floor.)

The stir-crazy hit hard today. I don’t know if it was the gorgeous sunshine coming in through my sliding glass door or Diet Cherry Pepsi I have been mainlining or the really productive video call (I know, right?!) at the end of the day, but when 3 o’clock rolled around, I needed out of the “office.” (The office right now has two main spaces- a gorgeous desk that I am going to claim I built, which is “kinda’” true, but was mostly a matter of some basic hex key turning, pulled together with a flamingo-printed swivel chair and sitting on a high pile carpet on my living room floor, folded between the couch and the ottoman like a deformed pretzel. I vacillate between the two spaces, mostly dependent on where the current kinks in my back lie, but also occasionally by where my laptop is plugged in and how close to dying without a charge it is.)

Regardless of why, I had ants in my pants.

So, I changed out of my day sweats (differentiated from my pajamas only by the fact that they are what came out of the dryer first this morning) and into yoga pants, tied up my green and pink sneakers (I’m kinda’ dying for a new pair of brightly colored kicks..maybe a post-isolation treat) and headed out the door to stretch my legs for a bit. Opting for music over an audiobook (I needed something that required less brain power), I chose the aptly named “Shell’s HotJamz” station on Spotify and headed out. I must say, the curator of that playlist deserves a raise. She deftly maneuvered from Bon Jovi and Madonna to  Nirvana and Cake with a fun swerve into Nick Jonas and Maroon 5. And, not to be left out of the menagerie of genres, an occasional Clay Walker or Reba McIntyre made a showing in the rotation as well.

I was that crazy person this afternoon that you switch sides of the road to avoid. (Luckily, any sidewalk changing can be chalked up to social distancing and is now not only appropriate, but encouraged!) Walking through the gorgeous neighborhoods of highly manicured yards in Aurora Hills, I air-drummed along with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication”, fist-pumped to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” and finger-wagged at TLC’s “Scrubs” with the best of them. Luckily, the only real witnesses to this momentary madness were the beautiful red cardinals flitting between sculpted shrubs and the bushy-tailed fox that meandered up the road, as if social distancing were his cue to retake the Washington D.C. suburbs.

Do I know that these long walks, meandering through neighborhoods that I will never be able to afford are good for me? (Ironic, right?) Of course. Do I make it out each day to get lost trying to find a route to the Air Force Memorial without getting run over on a freeway? Nope. I always have good intentions, and yet some days it is easier to log off work and curl up on the couch with a new book or the latest episode of a reality TV show. The hard truth of it is that some days I am going to “HotJamz” it around the District and others I’m going to “warmcuddlz” under a heat blanket on my sofa. As long as I’ve not broken down and started doing “Convict Conditioning” in my workplace (because, you know, my living room would have to do triple duty for relaxing, working AND gyming), I’m chalking it up as another successful Blursday.

 

 

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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.

 

Moments

Moments. This last week has been filled with them.

All days are composed of moments, but most of them are mundane and just keep time moving forward. There is the moment while I am standing in line at the cafeteria with my grilled cheese sandwich. There is the moment when I ask the Dunkin’ Donuts guy if I can put $.28 on my credit card. (Answer: yes.) There is the moment when I am sitting with my nails under the dryer at manicure shop. There is the moment that I wake up at 1AM and pull my e-reader out from under my pillow, my body feeling as if it has had a nice nap, even though it is the middle of the night. And there is that moment when I am laughing out loud, alone in my apartment, to another rerun of Impractical Jokers.

These are the moments that come and go and we don’t think twice about them.

This last week though, has been filled with Moments- earning the respect of a proper noun.

There was the moment when I learned, via 11:50PM Tweet that our embassy in Caracas was going to suspend all operations and the last of our American colleagues were coming home. There was the moment when I saw pictures of the flag that flew so boldly over our hilltop embassy come down and fold into a tight triangle. There were the moments that same morning when I walked to work looking like a crazy lady with silent tears (and supposedly water proof mascara) spilling down my face as my WhatsApp was filled with photos of the final stages of our embassy closing. There was the moment when I met our returning colleagues at Dulles and was able to give them each a hug and thank them for sticking out the last seven challenging weeks. And there was the moment when I watched as our chargé d’affaires handed over the embassy flag to the Secretary of State, telling him he fully expected it back very soon.

Those are Moments with a capital M.

I knew the week had been rough, but I didn’t start thinking about it through this lens of moments until tonight. As I was cocooned out on the couch under my weighted blanket, watching some quality TV on  Hulu (The Voice – don’t judge- I’m secretly in love with Adam Levine, although I do wish he hadn’t gone with the stupid knuckle tattoos) my mind was wandering and it suddenly came to a halt, as if my brain slammed into a glass door. (This is an apt simile since there was a period in my childhood that I seemed to have made full-face contact with sliding glass doors on a semi-regular basis.)

Zugly.

I know. That word means nothing to most people, but to understand the sheer devastation that this seemingly not-a-word-word brought on, we need to go back more than three decades.

Pinpointing the exact Christmas that Zugly showed up in my life is not easy, as is seems he has been a part of it forever. (Google tells me 1986 would have been the year, so that puts me at the ripe old age of seven.) Zugly is an adorably hideous monster that has been by my side for years. He has a plum-purple head with an enormous zucchini-like nose that flops around his face. (Flaccid would be a great term for it, but the connotations conjured by that single adjective take minds to a place that are not fitting for the childhood pal that he was!) For the first week or so of his life, he had these zombie-esque eyes that were ringed in green and yellow circles, but after a few nights in my grandma’s basement, getting smashed against the concrete wall, his psychedelic paint quickly wore off and he spent the next 30-plus years with the white orbs of a blind monster. Sporting a handful of pink-yarn hairs and a single pirate-like gold earring, he is a fashion statement like none other.

He might not be pretty, but he has been at my side through thick and thin. He was my go-to as a kid when I was afraid of the dark (I’d take myself to “Zugly-land,” an imaginary land inhabited by his fellow kind-hearted ogres to help ward off the monsters that might be lurking in the closet or under my bed. Ironic, I know, but irony as a literary device was lost on my elementary self.) He was a listening ear when middle school wasn’t always kind. (Put those weird cauliflower ears to work!) He was a pillow when I had my wisdom teeth out. He’s been to college in Utah, study abroad in the Dominican Republic, on vacations around the world and on four Foreign Service tours. (I think he has spent time on every continent except Africa and Antarctica. I guess I should have taking him to CLO training in Johannesburg a few years ago.) He was evacuated from Peace Corps China when our tour came to an abrupt end a few months early due to the massive 2008 Sichuan earthquake.  And he has frightened more than one hotel housekeeper around the world. (I always love the ones who give him a bit of extra loving care, propping him up in the middle of a fancy king-sized bed as it he owned the room.)

But back to moments. I had another one tonight. Not a mundane cafeteria-time moment. And not a gut-wrenchingly emotional moment.

This was a quiet and personal Moment.

As our ordered departure from Caracas continues and its length and uncertainty are compounded, there is a part of me that fears I will never again see the things I left behind in the city. I’ve had this thought multiple times over the last seven weeks, but until recently, I discarded it as just unnecessary anxiety.

But the “what-ifs” are starting to creep in.

What if we don’t ever go back? (Fairly likely.)

What if we can’t get our stuff out? (I have a lot of faith in our team and the system, but this is a pretty unprecedented situation.)

What if all my clothes and shoes and books and typewriters and photos never make it back to the United States? (It is seemingly just stuff, but it is also so much more than that.)

And then, following that line of thought, as my brain made a mental walk through our apartment, my mind’s eye landed on Zugly.

What if Zugly never comes home?

I know how dramatic that sounds. The intensity could be pulled right out of one of the early afternoon soap operas that used to keep me entertained during my summer babysitting gigs. Drama to make a llama cringe.

But don’t discount the force of that moment- realizing that a possession, although it has zero monetary value but endless sentimental value, could be gone forever. There is no replacement. Clements might give me some money to cover the cost of a new Zugly (and all my other household items), but no eBay Zugly can replace the one with the irremovable bandage goo-stain on his nose from when I tried to cure his wart issue. No eBay Zugly will have his stuffing smashed out of his belly, making a perfect pillow, and into his feet so they balloon out like he is in the early stages of elephantiasis. And no eBay Zugly will have the rubber band of unknown age that holds together his fashionable bubble gum pink braid.

How Zugly got left behind is a much longer story, but one that boils down to optimism that we would return to our home and jobs in Caracas within a short time span. It is the same reason I didn’t pack up my desk and my wonderful colleague had to do it for me, emptying my drawers and shelves and files the last day the embassy was open for business. (My apologies for whatever weird things you found, Gerard!) I honestly believed that we were walking away for a few weeks or a few months at the most. I thought Zugly (and everything else) would be there waiting for me to return after a bit of grumpy time spent in the cold of a Washington D.C. winter.

It now appears that my DC moments are going to add up to more than I ever anticipated.

Moments are how we live our lives. They are hard to measure and easy to discount. But whether the moment is mundane or monumental, they are the building blocks of our lives. And, dramatic as it sounds, I’d love to have Zugly along for the next three decades of my moments. In a world that has gone Marie Kondo-crazy, this delightfully hideous monster sparks my joy.