Regarding my morning walk…

We are fortunate to live just a few blocks from the U.S. Consulate, so I am able to walk to work every day. Even in the 100 degree heat I am able to get there quick enough that I don’t get too sweaty in my nice work clothes.

When I step out our front door I walk past the unique houses, palm trees, and decorative cacti of our neighborhhod. Kids play on the swings in the little park and ride their bikes to and fro. I walk out the gate past the guard shack with the tinted windows, waving hello in case the guard on the inside can see me. I walk through the parking lots of a few convenience stores, greeting the old men whose job is to make sure no one breaks into your car as you shop. They also have little flags that they wave to help you back out of your spot. This service costs you a tip of a few pesos…and it’s well worth it for the smile you get in return.

The sidewalk I travel isn’t much of a sidewalk. It’s a shoulder beside the main road that we pedestrians have worn a path along. There is garbage in the holes, and it gets quite muddy on the very few wet days that we have, but it works. The road beside me buzzes with all kinds of vehicles. Pickup trucks full of people, school buses that have been converted to brightly colored city buses, motorcycles, bicycles, and police vehicles that never switch off their flashing lights so you always think you’re being pulled over when you see them behind. The major intersections are full of people selling flowers, popsicle vendors, and even circus performers. The other day we saw a clown on top of a ladder in the middle of an intersection juggling flaming torches. I am told this is not an uncommon occurence. I must try to get a picture soon.

I can tell I’m getting close to the Consulate when I arrive at the strip of hotels, travel agencies, restaurants and other businesses that have risen up around it. Everything in this neighborhood revolves around the business we do at the office. Hotel rooms are filled by people who have traveled thousands of miles for a visa interview. Taxi drivers bring people in from everywhere. Three large clinics do a booming business by carrying out the medical exams we require for the hundreds of applicants who come every day. Travel agents sell tickets to people who pass their interviews. There is even a less than reputable side to this local economy: guides who help people cross the desert illegal (known as “coyotes”) have been known to advertise their services right outside our gates, as have many shady immigration attorneys. The Consulate really is the center of gravity around which this neighborhood orbits.

As I get closer to the gate I walk past the main waiting room, which after a few weeks still takes my breath away every morning. As I mentioned, hundreds of people show up each morning, and they all come to this waiting room. They don’t all fit inside, so the line flows out onto the sidewalk, flowing in both directions. They are young and old; rich and poor. Some are dressed in designer clothes while others are wearing what could be their only shirt. Some are in wheel chairs or on crutches. They come from every corner of Mexico, and the United States, many at great expense, many not knowing if they will be able to go back where they came from. Almost all of them look nervous, because it’s a big day. They have (almost) all come for the same purpose: to be interviewed and hopefully receive a visa to visit or move to the United States. It is like a modern day Ellis Island. You can taste the aspiration and hope in the air, right beside the diesel fumes and breakfast burritos.

And then I’m at the front gate, where I greet the guards, go through security, and start my day. It’s a humbling way to get started every day. There are a lot of people who have waited a long time (sometimes decades) and traveled a long way to stand in front of me or one of my colleagues to plead their case. Tomorrow I will conduct my first interview and make my first visa decision. I hope I do well.

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Regarding Mexico

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We’ve been in Mexico for a few days now. Things have gotten busy in a hurry. The State Department always has us head into the office on the day after we arrive in country, so there’s not very much time to recover from the trip. This wasn’t too big a deal on this tour since we only traveled two timezones over. It’s a little more challenging for my colleagues headed to more distant posts. Jet lag can be rough.

Anyway, we’ll start posting pictures of the house, neighborhood, interesting things we see on the streets, etc. in the coming days and weeks. For now, here are a few initial observations and impressions from South of the border…

1. It’s really dang hot here. It’s been at or close to a hundred degrees every day. It’s even hot and nasty when it gets dark out. It’s also been humid, which we are told is not normal. We are starting to get into the rainy season, which promises torrential downpours of biblical proportions. Look for photos.

2. Our house is a gargantuan palace…at least compared to anywhere we’ve ever lived before. We’ve already gotten lost a few times….

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3. The consulate seems like a pleasant place to work. I’ve spent three days in meetings now with my new colleagues and bosses (K was able to come along for two days of those meetings…partly because she has been offered a job, but largely because the Department is quite supportive of helping spouses to feel that they are just as important as the employee). The whole office seems to be a well oiled machine. This is one of the highest volume visa posts in the world; the NFL of facilitating legal travel, if you will. They’ve got a great training program, so I’ll have time to get used to my job before the expectations are too high. There’s a lot of support, and wonderfully helpful local staff.

4. The Americans at the Consulate are a fun bunch. We’ve already been out for pizza with colleagues, and over to a few different homes. Everyone seems to really like their jobs, and are pretty excited about welcoming in the newbies.

5. Almost all of the Mexicans we’ve met so far from Consulate employees, to shopkeepers, to people around the neighborhood, have been incredibly kind and friendly. This in and of itself isn’t terribly surprising…there are friendly people almost everywhere in the world. What surprises me a bit is how friendly people are in light of what their city has been through in recent years. It doesn’t take an International Relations scholar to know that Juarez has had a rough go of it. Thousands of people have died in the drug wars that ravaged the region for years. The violence has mostly ended, but I would expect the shock and trauma to last. It would be easy for a community who had been through so many challenges to turn inward, and adopt a stance of suspicious closedness. There’s a real sense of resilience in the air here, though. People walk down the street smiling, laughing, and greeting strangers. They go to parties and blast loud music until three in the morning. They get up every day and keep going. It’s refreshing and encouraging. I think there’s a lot to learn here.

More to come….

In which we say goodbye to the states…

Virginia said goodbye to us with a gentle rain shower, and a glimpse of the Washington Monument in the distance. We drove through Maryland, watching densely packed buildings of the big city gradually give way to the wooded hills of Pennsylvania.

We found our way down to the Ohio turnpike which bore us faithfully to the doorstep of the Great Lakes State. Michigan bade us farewell with wonderful quality time with lots of relatives, and some of the best Fourth of July fireworks displays I’ve ever seen. Watching a world cup victory was also awesome. We also had a fun visit to the small town where we had our wedding four years ago. Thanks, Michigan.

We blew through Indiana and Illinois in search of Wisconsin, and were pleased to discover that the Dairy state had brand new 70 mph speed limits. I guess it’s not all bad under Walker. Wisconsin gave us many gifts on this visit, including but not limited to time with family, many games of fetch with an enthusiastic dog, the best beer, wine and cheese known to man, and a beautiful evening under the stars watching fireflies and laughing about the past with old friends while dreaming about the future. Thanks, Wisconsin.

Next we crossed the mighty Mississippi and entered Iowa, where we found humid weather, incredible wide open skies, and the best local produce in America. And the people (mostly my sister…but also others) are incredibly hospitable. I suppose they’re not a bad set to put in charge of screening the presidential candidates. Thanks, Iowa!

We cut through a bit of Missouri, but didn’t have time to get to know it very well because Kansas snuck right up on us. Contrary to what you may have learned from certain depictions in film, Kansas is far from flat and colorless. It is a beautiful undulating blanket of emerald green fields that was a pleasure to drive across.

And what can I say about Oklahoma? Not much, except that it is true that the wind really does come sweeping down the plain.

Then there was Texas, where everything did seem to become bigger and started to feel different. This was the point at which I turned to K and said “we’re not in Kansas anymore.” (which was quite true, because we had left Kansas two states ago). The land was flatter, and we could see for about a million miles in every direction. The plants were foreign and exciting. Even the cows seemed to be a little less cheese and a little more beef.

Texas led us to New Mexico. I have to start by saying that I always thought the slogan “Land of Enchantment” was a bit campy…but I had never been to New Mexico before. The landscapes in this state are jaw dropping. Purple mountains provide a backdrop to plains that are as flat as a pancake and peppered with curly cacti, spiky yucca, and majestic cottonwoods. Whirlwinds pick up the dust and dance a hypnotizing dance across the plains. Road runners zip along the highway, and lizards can be glimpsed hiding in the sand. It’s an enchanting place, especially for two Northerners who are unfamiliar with the desert.

So here we sit in New Mexico. We have passed through more than a quarter of the states on our way here, and tomorrow we will get in the car and cross the border into Mexico to begin new jobs and a new stage in our lives. We’ve enjoyed this latest leg of the journey, and are eager to report on what happens next.

Eulogy for some suitcases…

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to bid you farewell; two faithful servants who have served their masters well.

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Originally acquired to serve the needs of a couple of kids headed off to college, you have spent more than a decade being stuffed, hauled, kicked, and dragged to sites near and far. One of you got to see much of South America. The other witnessed a military coups in Bangladesh, before getting lost and taking a side trip to France on the way home. Both of you had tiny pieces of colored yarn tied onto you as you entered Peace Corps service (to make you easy to spot on the conveyor belt). Both of you lived two years in the Dominican sun, and serving at various times as dressers, cabinets, doorstops, hiding places for small children, beds for dogs, and houses for rats. Your holes were mended with duct tape and dental floss, and you held together. You came with your owners back to Milwaukee, and served as the bearers of much of what they carried with them to their wedding and on their honeymoon. You went with them to the frozen Northwoods, and then to the humidity of Virginia. Alas, by this point in your life you had many holes, wobbly wheels, and broken handles. This is where your journey ends.

It wasn’t always a happy relationship. One of your owners frequently complained about your bulkiness and the room that you took up in the trunk. He preferred backpacks. But you have been with your owners through the most exciting moments of their lives so far. Constant companions. We thank you for helping us get there. Suitcases get old, and luggage gets lost, but the memories of the journeys you went on will last a lifetime.