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Archive for the ‘Foreign Service’ Category

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).

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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.

Yesterday was the day I lost it

I’ve been here almost exactly a month, so it was right on schedule.  Things have been piling up, and yesterday I hit the breaking point of “screw this place, I want to go home.”  I’m familiar with my adjustment patterns to moving, so I’m more mellow today, more in the “flow like water” mode, but dang.

One of the reasons I’ve been blogging (along with trying to get Mal to keep a journal) is that I’m lazy, and writing stuff up one time is easier than writing it over and over in letters to friends and family.  But because this blog is out here for anyone to find, I’m self-censoring a bit, and not complaining about things that could reflect poorly on me or my family as representatives of the US here.  I’m going to keep doing that, and not go into huge detail, but I am going to lay out a list of the difficulties in working for one government and living in another.

Power.  It’s been sketchy.  Which means that once again, I was unable to submit my timesheet back to my company in the States when it was due, because I didn’t have internet.  This is a Thing with me, because even in the best of cases I’m flaky about timesheets.  I find my company’s schedule and rules for them almost impossible to fit into my brain.  So I feel bad.  But I also feel ridiculous for worrying about a timesheet that’s worth ZERO dollars to me, since it’s not like I’m working here.  I had been trying for months to find a way to keep my job, or at least keep working for my company (which has an international presence) for about a year before I moved.  In fact, the imminent move was one of the reasons I came to this company a couple years ago, rather than staying with the small, local one I’d been working for.  I thought I had things pretty squared away; there didn’t seem to be any reason I *couldn’t* work here, but after I moved, someone in management at my prospective client decided against it.

I have many work options here.  The problem is that they are mostly low-skill and low-pay.  There are a couple that are better, but they still don’t come close to where I’m at professionally either responsibility-wise or salary-wise.  My DH and I make about the same amount of money, and my benefits really help us prepare for Mal’s college and our retirement, so having one of us quit is not a good plan, not when we’re as close to retirement as we are.

All of this, combined with the constant rumors of an ordered departure for spouses and children, convinced us that as painful as it is, Mal and I should return to the States where I can go back to work.  In a complete and total blessing, I can get my old job back, a job I love like crazy with a wonderful team.  This is far better than being evacuated with no job to go to.

But it feels like losing, and I hate losing.

And it leaves the DH here by himself, which is awful, and it splits up the family again, which is awful.  We decided Mal would come back with me, even though I won’t be moving back into our house (we can’t kick the renters out) so he won’t be on familiar turf, but Mal wanted to stay here with his dad.  This is in part because he was with me for two months while his dad was here, and in part because he loves the school here, and in part because he’s been preparing mentally for this move for a year and doesn’t want to recalibrate.  So we took a good hard look at how life would work for the DH as a single father at post.

There’s a reason there are almost no single parents in the Foreign Service.

Everyone at the embassy has been super-supportive.  But the security situation here is such that the bus will only drop the kids off at their homes, and then only if a parent or nanny is right there waiting.  The DH would have to leave work every afternoon to meet the bus, and because of traffic, there’s a two-hour swing of when the bus arrives.  On Tuesday, Mal left school at 3:40 and the bus got here at 5:15.  It’s about 1000 meters away as the Andean Vulture flies, and 3.5 km as the roads go.  It takes 8 minutes without traffic.  This meant, for me, that I had to wait downstairs in the courtyard for one hour and 20 minutes.  A working person can’t do that.  I don’t know how I would manage it if I was working here as planned.

In other places, we’d hire household help, who would be at home to pick him up.  However, due to the security situation, maids and nannies will not stay in our neighborhood past 3:30, as they need to get home before dark.

Anyway, while I was hanging out waiting, the vigilante (think sentry or guard) told me I should wait inside my apartment and watch the window, and he’d call when the bus arrived.

So that’s what I did on Wednesday.  But we had a substitute vigilante, and he didn’t call.  The driver called the school, the school called me but didn’t have the right number, so no one answered.  Another women who lives in the building arrived at this time, and told the vigilante to call me, and which apartment I was in.  He did, I said I was coming down…but when I got out of all of our security doors and gates, the bus was gone with Mal still on it.  I asked the vigilante why he’d let the bus leave, and got a shrug, “You took too long.”

This is when I had officially HAD IT.

Anyway, it got sorted – I called the school, let them know I was on my way, then walked to the embassy and got my car, drove to the school and picked Mal up.  He’d been freaked out and terrified – all the American kids are scared of being kidnapped or robbed, and you can’t tell them “Oh, it won’t happen” – but was doing his homework in the office.  We did a big solid hug, and I apologized, and we talked about how he’s safe with the school.  On the way home, I said, “You know, just when I think we’re getting settled and doing OK here, something bad happens,” and Mal responded, “Yes, but whenever I think it’s awful here, something good happens.  So let’s not jinx it.”

He’s being surprisingly mellow considering he’s trying to fit into a new school (and one of the other new kids kinda bullied him this week).  I am less mellow.  But what else could go wrong?

Violence

Venezuela, the most violent country in South America, recorded a new high of 21,692 murders this year along with a surge in kidnappings, prison riots and random shootings.

The Venezuelan Violence Observatory came out with its annual report a couple days ago, and Venezuela surpassed itself again.  The country’s also surpassed pretty much everyone except Honduras.  In 2012, Venezuela is averaging 73 murders per 100,000 people.

There are more murders in Venezuela than in the United States and the 27 countries of the European Union combined. In Caracas the murder rate is more than 200 per 100,000 inhabitants. (I think it’s like 4 per 100,000 in the US, and that includes New Orleans, Baltimore, and Detroit).

I’m going to quote from the NYT Latitude blog on the topic (for the full opinion piece, you can read the article here; I’m disinclined to get into the political causes and consequences on my blog).  Also, I think the “drink the Kool-Aid” reference in the article is in poor taste since Guyana is right next door.

There are more murders in Venezuela than in the United States and the 27 countries of the European Union combined. In Caracas the murder rate is more than 200 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Imagine an attack on the scale of 9/11 every three months, for 13-and-a-half years. Or consider this: from the time of the 2003 Iraq invasion until this January, while 116,705 civilians were killed in Iraq, according to the Iraq Body Count project, 124,221 Venezuelans were murdered, says Mármol García. All that with no suicide attacks, no Apache helicopters, no I.E.D.s and none of the organized machinery of war.

Perhaps the closest parallel is the drug war in Mexico, which claimed some 12,000 victims in 2011 (for 19,336 in Venezuela). But even that’s not a very good comparison. Mexico’s population is four times larger than Venezuela’s. And there it’s a handful of well-funded, well-armed and well-organized drug cartels that accounts for most of the violence. The thousands of street gangs responsible for the bulk of casualties in Venezuela are small fry by comparison — just guys shooting it out for control of their slum’s tiny share of the retail drug business. More Stringer Bell than Pablo Escobar.

Venezuela is one of just five countries in the world to average more than 40 murders per 100,000 people between 2005 and 2010. The other four are far smaller, far poorer countries in Central America and the Caribbean: El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Jamaica. Venezuela’s murder rate is just unheard of among middle-income countries, to say nothing of oil-rich states on the receiving end of massive new petrodollar flows.

As a side note, we don’t get danger pay for serving here.

 

Our Apartment

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As usual, the embassy furniture is designed for a Middle America rambler, not any housing available in the rest of the world.

This is the smallest apartment we’ve had in the Foreign Service.  Considering we’re a lot higher ranked these days and have a bigger family and this is a hardship post, that’s not how it’s supposed to work. It’s a deal smaller than our house back in the States, a fact that the cat points out from time to time when she runs her laps.  However, I’m not complaining, as this is a very nice apartment and more space than we need.

I am complaining about a couple things related to the design of the apartment (nothing that the embassy can control, really), and a lot of things related to the fit and finish.

It’s an aggressively modern apartment.  I think it was conceived as a bachelor pad, where upwardly-mobile Venezuelan or ex-pat men could bring their dates to score.  It’s somehow very masculine, and its best feature is a panoramic view of the city that’s quite romantic at night.  The master bedroom features a pass-through closet between the bedroom and the bathroom, with a built-in closet system on both sides.  And both sides are designed for men’s clothes and shoes.  The shoe racks are too short for heels (and let me assure you that women here wear heels), and there is only one full-length section where you could hang a dress.  It’s 4 linear inches and next to the space for suits, so I think it’s for overcoats.  There are several pull-out drawers designed for ties and men’s socks, but no place for jewelry or women’s accessories.  Ideally this apartment should go to a gay male couple.  As it is, my dress clothes are in the remote storage closets behind the guest room.

The master suite itself is all dark wood: floor, closets, and doors.  It’s handsome.  The sink counter is slate as is the bathroom floor.  The far end of the bathroom is one huge shower behind a plate glass divider.  Six people could fit comfortably in it, if they were intimate enough to shower together.  It would be ideal for the wheelchair-bound, except you couldn’t get a wheelchair through the closet into the shower.  The bathroom walls are slabs of undersea rock with actual fossils – the kind of tile that people pay through the nose for in America.  The fossils are amazing.  They creep my DH out and he tries to not look at the walls.

I’m creeped out by the bedroom walls.  They feature gold-yellow wallpaper in both a Victorian print and vertical stripes.  I try to remind myself that I’m not confined to the bedroom, there’s no writing desk, and I wouldn’t be able to circumnavigate the room anyway, as one wall is all window.  Really the place isn’t like The Yellow Wallpaper at all; it’s the least haunted place I’ve ever lived.  Completely flat.

The rest of the apartment is white walls and travertine floors, except the kitchen and maid’s quarters which have black marble floors and backsplashes.  The kitchen is set out very well and easy to use (although the oven’s only in Celsius, which is my weakest conversion).  I could do with more than one electrical outlet in the kitchen, of course.  Our red or stainless steel appliances look awesome here, but they are all running off the same power strip.

Most of the floorspace is the main room, which is huge and will be excellent for entertaining once our stuff gets here.  The lighting is also well designed, and unlike most embassy folks our lightbulbs seem to survive the power fluctuations.

However.

The place is filthy.  We cannot keep it clean.  The 30-foot expanse of windows on each side are great, but they are overlapping glass with half-inch gaps between; they don’t seal.  So all the pollution comes in and settles, and everything gets a daily coat of thick black dust. Mal and the cat have to be washed daily as they get covered in it from being on the floor.  (There are no bathtubs, but Mal kind of digs the huge freaking shower with its handheld sprayer).  We are also obsessive about food or anything that could attract bugs – there’s a gorgeous planter in front of the windows that attracts hummingbirds like crazy, but it’s also full of ants who will have no trouble coming in through the windows if they want to – heck, the hummingbirds can almost fit.

Also, while the place was designed with a certain level of artistry, it wasn’t built particularly well.  Currently two of the five (five!) toilets work, and only one of the bathroom sinks (at least it’s one that’s in a bathroom with a working toilet).  The maid’s toilet doesn’t even have a toilet seat; if we were to have a live-in maid I guess we’d have to hire one from a culture that was cool with squat toilets.  There’s a lot of built-in furniture (an entertainment center,  a computer desk), but none of it was installed correctly so it’s unusable.  If you put weight on the computer desk (like, say, a laptop), it pulls out of the wall.  Things like that.

So we mop, and then hang out solely in the main room, watching the city and the birds, and then mop again.

The building itself is nice as well; there’s a little bit of a yard with a play area, and the sentries are pleasant and professional.  The electrified wire topping the wall into our compound is subtle and hidden behind very pretty tropical landscaping.  We are in a gated community that provides a second perimeter of high concrete wall and electrified fence.  It’s basically an oval, and has a nice park at one end.  Many of the embassy folks come here to run; the oval is a half mile around, and it’s free of traffic and the flattest place around.  By “flat” I mean that if you run the oval 4 times (2 miles), it’s the equivalent of climbing 26 flights of stairs.  (I love my FitBit).

In general it’s easy and pleasant to live here, and it doesn’t really feel like the minimum security prison it is.