Travel::Kids::Tech::Foreign Service

So easy it’s cheating

Living in the States, at least here in NoVA, is so easy it feels like cheating.  The stores have food, driving is pleasant, you can even drink the water.

This is why I say “here in NoVA,” by the way – I’m not about to drink the water in my hometown.  I doubt it’s actually poisonous, but I also doubt it’s really fit for human consumption.  Up until I was about 18, I thought ice cubes were supposed to be opaque white and sink to the bottom.  And that it was normal for your glasses to not be see-through after a few months of use.

Meanwhile, back at our place in Caracas, the cold water line to the washer ruptured, spraying water everywhere.  Now there’s no rinse cycle, and wash in seriously hot only.  Additionally, the dishwasher now trips the breaker whenever you turn it on.  I guess these are mostly irrelevant, though, as the apartment hasn’t had water all weekend.  Even without water, somehow the wall next to the master bathroom started leaking yesterday – apparently the air conditioner broke and is flooding inside the wall.

As the walls are poured concrete, this could be fun.

Here in the developed world, Mal and I are enjoying our condo.  I guess it’s a condo, I’m never clear on what the difference is between an apartment and a condominium.  It’s on the top floor (which in this area means 3rd), so there’s only one wall and the floor that are shared.  It’s a two-story place, with the upper floor being all Mal’s – bedroom, bathroom, and play area overlooking the living room.  He is a big fan of having his own aerie, and also of the jacuzzi tub and the fireplace you switch on.

I could use a bit more kitchen, but it suffices, and the place is light and airy and nice.

I could also use an elevator for getting furniture in.  I’m not sure what to do about a couch – I really don’t want to haul one up four flights and then back down in 6 months.  And I’m staying with the air mattresses as much as I don’t like them, same reason.

However, the water works, and the heat works, and the electricity works, and it’s quiet.  No one’s blasting Gangnam Style at 2:00 am.  There are not hordes of purse-size dogs yapping in the concrete stairwells.  The floor and surfaces aren’t covered in gritty black diesel exhaust.  I can walk to the grocery store, and they have food there.

I remember when we got back from Romania I almost started crying in Giant (this was in the bad old days, before Romania was part of the EU, right after Ceaucescu died).  Nothing makes you appreciate the US like not living in it.


Well, I’m back.

Trivia question:  What famous book is this post’s title the last line of?

It may be the last line in the movie version of the book as well, but that movie has so many endings I’m usually numb by that point (and still pointing out inaccuracies).


Anyway, yes, Mal and I are back in the US.  We are in an apartment on the top floor of a building, and Mal has the upstairs garret.  All the toilets and sinks work, in a refreshing change from the place in Venezuela.  There’s a small gas fireplace, and we’ve been camping on the floor on an air mattress next to it.  Thankfully it was (insanely crazy) warm when we first arrived, so we were able to acclimate, and had time to buy winter clothes.  I’d had a coat for each of us shipped ahead of time from Amazon, but of course mine didn’t fit and we needed additional warm layers.  These have been achieved, but it’s still cold!  The snow today was a nice treat, though.

My departure from Caracas coincided with a Diplopundit post about Caracas, which asks questions we all ask a bunch there.  I will say that the new Management Counselor is trying to make improvements, but otherwise the article seems accurate.  I didn’t blog about any of that while I was there because I didn’t want it to come back on my DH, and as he’s still there I’m still going to stay pretty mild in this forum.  But the pay adjustments for COLA and danger worldwide are not fair or accurate.  Venezuela is extremely dangerous, and it’s dangerous for diplomats, and yet, no danger pay.  Rome’s COLA is twice that of Caracas’, but I’m pretty sure a panini doesn’t cost $40 in Rome (and when you get your panini it probably has stuff other than bread in it).

I understand there’s no money for embassies…so maybe we shouldn’t have an embassy in Caracas.

On the other hand, Caracas probably represents the future, and maybe having an embassy to the future is useful.

I used to call it the “Favela Future,” but the Tower of David is everything William Gibson wrote about and more.  It’s like every post-collapse SF book I’ve read, except it’s real.  (Photos).

This is all in a country where the President is in a foreign hospital and hasn’t been seen for 2 months, but no one’s upset.  Imagine if Obama had gone into a hospital in a foreign country around Thanksgiving, and when it came time for Inauguration Day, the Supreme Court was like “Oh, he doesn’t need to show up,” and Biden was all “He’s alive, I just saw him.”  I don’t think Americans, as slow to action as we are, would be mellow about this.

But that’s only a small part of our life now, and only because we left friends and the DH there.  Now we are re-acclimating to a place where you can carry a smartphone in public and where the grocery stores have food.

It’s pretty nice.

Mas o menos

I have plane tickets and Mal and I will be heading back to the States next week.

Also, all of our household effects just got put on a ship in Baltimore today to be sent here.

exploreroftheworldBrain Pickings has a nice review of Keri Smith’s book “How to be an Explorer of the World.”  It’s intended as a prompt for creativity, I think, but it’s a good useful guide for just living, and especially just living in a new place.  You don’t have to be Making Big Excursions to really soak in the experience of being in a foreign country.

By way of example, yesterday Mal and I met some friends at the playground/park at the end of our street.  Sure, it was like any other playdate in the sense that the other mom and I chatted while the kids played on the monkey bars and teeter-totters…but it was also Exploring the World.  I showed Mal the little plants that grow in the grass that close up when you touch them (mimosa pudica, or “Shy Grass”), and he showed L. and they searched for them, then experimented with how close you could get your finger to the plant before it sensed you and how long it would take before the plant opened up again.  Then they found some of the hard fruit husks thrown down from the trees by the parrots, looked up, and sure enough there were macaws eating in the tree!  So we all got to see them up close and note enough details that we could identify them as chestnut-fronted macaws (this pair seems to hang out around here, so I’d already added them to my bird board on Pinterest).  Then L’s mom noticed a different bird in the lower branches, and we all checked it out and discovered it was a chachalaca, which is just fun to say.

I haven’t pointed out the really huge caterpillars that I sometimes mistake for seedpods, though.  Mal’s not a fan of creepy-crawlies, and these dudes are huge.


At dawn and dusk, the parrots commute, usually in pairs, always yelling at the top of their lungs.  They get great echo off the concrete buildings on the mountains.  They are freaking loud, and thus hard to miss.  The weird thing, is that when you see them silhouetted against the peach-colored sky and hear their croaking calls, they look and sound like pterosaurs.

Or,you know, what I imagine pterosaurs would have sounded like.

There’s something about this place that really reminds me of the time of the dinosaurs.  Many of the birds seem like they only just evolved yesterday (I’m looking at you, guans), and the palm trees, ferns, banana plants, and guzmahias are what we think of as the vegetation around when the dinosaurs were…but I lived with those plants for years in Los Angeles and Kuala Lumpur, and I never felt like I might be about to see a dinosaur…and KL was just downstream from honest-to-goodness ancient rainforest.

Obviously I’m not unique in this; when science fiction writers wrote about a lost valley where dinosaurs still lived, it was in South America.

I blame the parrots.


Mal has turned a corner with his Spanish, and that corner is “Oh crap, all my potential friends speak Spanish!  I better learn if I want to play with them!”  You can tell a kid this for a year, but it won’t take at all until he’s living it.

Actually, two of his best friends speak mostly Portuguese, one being from Portugal and the other from Brazil, but their Spanish is better than their English, so Mal’s actually trying to learn and use Spanish as much as he can.

Me, I’m suffering.  My comprehension is adequate, and I’m finally getting used to the Caraqueno accent (wherein they leave off syllables, so “por favor” becomes “por fa” and “buenos tardes” becomes “buen tar” and no one thinks my “Buenos TARDIS” pun is funny), but the Merida accent still kills me.  They speak for the rhythm of the language, instead of emphasizing the key words, so it’s like listening to a kid read Shakespeare – you hear the soothing iambic pentameter, but the meaning washes over you and is gone.

If I think about it and prepare in advance, I can speak…but if I have to converse, Romanian comes out.  I haven’t used Romanian in 20 years, but I’m still more fluent in it than in Spanish, and it’s so close that I can slip into it halfway through a sentence and not notice.


This was a three-day weekend for the embassy, and for the school, but on different days (the school got Friday off, the embassy got Monday off).  We didn’t do anything other than I got a mild case of food poisoning.  We tried to – the initial plan was to get to Angel Falls this weekend, but turns out there is no waterfall in the dry season.  So the backup plan was to take the cable car to the summit of the Avila…but with the rampant power outages we decided that might not be the best idea ever.  The DH and I almost got stranded by a cable car in the Transylvanian Alps once, but it’s one thing when it’s two adults.  It’s another when it’s with a child who freaks out every time the power cuts out inside his apartment.

I suggested the zoo, but we aren’t allowed to drive to that part of town, and we aren’t allowed to take the metro at all ever, so that option was crossed off.  I then suggested we head downtown to a premier chocolate factory on Saturday morning so I could get some chocolate to take back to the States.  The DH said “But the 49ers are playing!”

“On Sunday.”

“But I could get kidnapped and miss my game!”

As it turned out, the Niners game was almost as nerve-wracking as being kidnapped.

So ultimately we played board games (7 Wonders, I highly recommend it) and Mal started reading Lord of the Rings…on the iPad, so he can read even when the power’s out.  I did my nails and tried to not think evil thoughts when the neighbors started blasting “Gangam Style” for a party.

Weekly food post

We tried to go for pizza last night, but the place we wanted to go was just closing up due to lack of supplies.  So we went to McDonalds…and had the most expensive Big Mac in the world.

Flow like water, dammit

I’ve been keeping busy cleaning up loose ends from moving (like confirming AGAIN with the trash service that they need to stop billing us for picking up trash), and now I’m adding to that preparations for ANOTHER international move, this one back to the States.

I found a place to rent that seems like it will be good for a kid, and I’m thankful for craigslist, friends in VA who help out with looking at places, and a woman who seems like she’ll be a very cool landlord.

I’m enrolling Mal back in school in the States, with much sadness.  The only plus is that the school system there hits the STEM classes harder; Mal is way beyond the math and science they are doing here.  But I really appreciate the work they do here on language arts and history.

I’m trying to find after school activities for Mal, which looks like it will be tae kwon do again, instead of the rather awesome selection he has here (soccer, swimming, beisbol, cricket, climbing wall, legos).  I’m making a list of all the stuff I’ll need to buy to live in a rental for at least 6 months, until we can move back into our house (like winter clothes!  Going back into winter will be tough!), and it’s all going fine.  I really thought I’d be back at work in the States next Tuesday.


It turns out that I can’t get travel orders out of here, because I never officially arrived here.  Nor did Mal.  Which explains why we haven’t been receiving the right amount of COLA (cost of living adjustment), in part.  So even though we turned our passports in to the Venezuelan government via the American embassy a month ago to get our carnets, the embassy never registered that we were here.

(A side note about carnets…most countries have a national identity card, and diplomats living in the country get their own version of it.  It’s what you show when someone demands “Papers, please.”  Which has in fact happened to us, back near the end of the Cold War in Eastern Europe.  There’s lots of stuff you need it for.  For instance, here you need it to buy groceries.  Yes, every person has to show their papers to the cashier, who enters them into the computer, before they are allowed to buy food.  It’s been a month, and I don’t have my carnet yet, so just like in any bureaucracy, the system is in working around the system.)

I’d been worried about how we were going to be able to leave without our passports, but that got solved.  Now it’s more that we have to arrive here first, so who knows when we can leave?  Again, trying to look on the bright side, I’m glad we are finding this out now, and not while being evacuated…or not being evacuated, as the case would be.

In other fun stuff, the moving company who packed us up now says we were over weight, so we are being personally charged a lot of money.  Apparently even though they estimated us as at weight, and even though I then sold a lot of stuff including really freaking heavy furniture, they can just say this without proving it.

Also, we were planning on selling our car here, which most diplomats do.  There’s a 3-year wait to get a car if you are Venezuelan, so it’s a good market…and for us, it makes sense, because once you leave post, your car remains here for at least 7-9 months before being put on a ship, so you are without a car for a year anyway.  I’d been trying to figure out what to do about a car once I’m back in the States.  I can get the Miata out of storage, and that’s fine for me and Mal, but not for trips to IKEA to furnish the place, and not for when the DH comes to visit.  We hadn’t wanted to buy a car just now though, because we want to use that money to buy plane tickets so we can all see each other as much as possible.  Anyway, the thought had been that it might not be so bad to buy a car if we are selling a car here…today, the Venezuelan government announced that people can no longer personally sell cars here.

We aren’t as affected by that as Venezuelans, of course, but it’s an annoyance in a week full of them.

And I don’t even want to talk about how much money we are out of pocket personally as a result of having to move here.  When someone talks about Federal employees sucking at the government trough, I will gladly explain how much we pay personally for the privilege of serving our country.