Travel::Kids::Tech::Foreign Service

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?

Power

It’s been out a lot this weekend and yesterday.  When the power goes out here, it doesn’t seem to be just a neighborhood, it seems to be most or all of Caracas.  Some of the grocery stores will run on diesel generators, but otherwise everything’s off.

Yesterday’s outage was a surge and then blackout, which fried the surge protector our fridge was plugged into.  That’s a little scary, because with the spotty food supply we are relying on keeping stuff frozen and cold.  The fridge survived, and I relabeled the mystery circuit board, but I didn’t get any cooking done.

I was reminded once again of how fortunate we are; if our apartment loses power, we don’t lose water, and we aren’t really inconvenienced other than NO INTERNETS OMG!!!!  Chatting with the neighbor’s maid today about the power outage, she told me that the women in her neighborhood took to the streets yesterday, banging pots and pans and chanting “WE WANT WATER! WE WANT POWER!”

So the government sent in the National Guard.

201002-w-taxi-caracas

A Caracas taxi

This post was inspired by Rhiannon’s post about public transportation in Ecuador.  I haven’t tried public transportation here yet; there’s a metro, but I’d have to drive to the metro stations, so like in Los Angeles and Kuala Lumpur, I feel ” why bother?”  There are buses, and one even stops right under my window, but I hate buses under the best of conditions, and judging by the battle damage I see on all the buses here, this isn’t the best of conditions.

Taxis are how I usually get around in foreign countries, and each country has their own idiosyncrasies about taxis.  In Romania, they were basically fine, but you had to stay on the driver to make sure he didn’t drive you all over creation to run up the fare (so you had to know where you were going already).  In Kuala Lumpur, if you got one from a stand, you got one…but if you called for one it was 50-50 whether it would show up or not.  The national motto should be “No taxi, lah!”  Even on my last day in country, the taxi I’d reserved for my trip to the airport didn’t show up.

Taxis in Athens were their own special problem, because you had to interview with the driver for him to agree to take you.  And no one ever wanted to go to my neighborhood, because they couldn’t get a return fare.  One day I stood in the hot sun holding my baby in my arms on the main street while 17 taxis rejected me.

Here in Caracas, we have a list of approved taxi services we can use, and we’re supposed to call them (radio taxi), never get one from a stand.  Our car arrived about a week after I did, so I haven’t used them.  When we have to do a long trip here or go into most of the city, we have to use a driver in an armored car.

All this means that for most of my overseas life, I’ve been driving myself around.

Driving in places that aren’t the US

There are very few countries that observe traffic rules like the US does, and they are mostly in Europe.  If you’re driving in the developing world, remember that most other drivers haven’t been driving as long as you have (I got my license at age 15, which means I’ve been driving approximately 25 more years than anyone else on the road), didn’t go through Driver’s Ed, and have no idea that they are controlling a lethal weapon.

Truck-Buses Crash in Trujillo - 1

What happens when a truck decides to pass a bus and hits another (Trujillo, Venezuela)

Even in some European countries like Greece, you will see at least one accident every day, usually involving a motorcycle.  Keep your head on a swivel, and don’t let your desire to start playing real life GTA come out.  (This is how I used to get to work in the mornings in KL; the in-bound side of the road was jammed with rush hour traffic, so all the motorcycles would be on my side, coming straight at me.  “Ride of the Valkyries” would start playing in my head and I’d just drive right into them.  What else can you do?  I never knocked anyone over, but there was always the gentle thump-thump-thump of handlebars, foot pedals, and knees bumping off my car).

In Caracas, there is one traffic rule: “Yo Primero.”  For us Americans, there’s a second: “The American is always at fault.”  Just keep those two things in mind, and understand that your paint job will not survive the tour.  It’s OK, you’ll never see your car again anyway; the Venezuelans won’t even bother to ship it to you for at least 9 months after you leave, so you’ll probably sell it here.

I thought I had excellent Third World driving skills, but I’ve already been schooled here.  I realize I’m a little cautious with a kid in the car, so I need to stop that, and remember the key to getting anywhere:  Establish your space on the pavement.  If you show weakness, you’ll be stuck forever.  Don’t be polite, don’t be considerate, don’t think that people take turns at intersections.

I say this in one of the worst countries for vehicle fatalities.  And drunk driving.  Connection?

While I haven’t done much driving down in the hugely congested urban valley or on the rural mountain roads (the worst locations), my sense has been that traffic here isn’t nearly as terrifying as it was in Peru or Yemen.  I’ve rarely been as scared for my life as I was driving in Lima, and in Yemen I was mostly scared for other people’s lives – I knew too many Americans who’d hit kids that had run into traffic or behind a backing-up car.  My commute in Yemen was peaceful by comparison; I sat in a bulletproof SUV trying not to get carsick as we inched along with the tiny Ethiopian cows and the camels in the afternoon cattle drive.

Caracas-traffic

downtown Caracas

Caracas is somewhat similar, in that it’s hard to get going fast in the urban areas because it’s a permanent traffic jam.  What should be a 45-minute trip can easily take 3 hours.  This of course leads to road rage, and people doing stupid things.  In KL, you’d have to worry that the road rager would get out of his car with a parang (a big machete/sword thing).  Here, in a country with about 25 million illegal weapons and no justice system, you’re just likely to get shot.  I saw people get out of their cars with handguns to settle disputes in Los Angeles; here they will have AK-47s.

As a result, I limit my driving to the high valleys, where there aren’t freeways or roads, but there aren’t too many cars either.

All that special driving training we got

Depending on where you’re going, State Department will put you through a course affectionately called “Crash and Bang.”  Since there are so many express kidnappings here, where the gangbangers stop your car and take you and the car (returning you for ransom, in theory), you’d think this training would be useful.  Some of it might be, and you know I’m going to try it if I’m ever in that situation, but like many combat engagements, it turns out that terrain is crucial.

I don’t think I can adequately describe the roads here unless you’ve lived in steep mountains.  Remember that mountain road that twisted and hairpin-turned down a 45-degree grade, with a steep drop-off on one side and a cliff on the other, and it was the ONLY road?  That’s what we drive on.  Plus, the edges of the road are crumbling, so it’s not wide enough for two cars to pass each other.  And there are always people walking on it, because there’s no other way to get from the bus to anywhere.

Now imagine flooring it in reverse uphill on that road to get away from the bad guys, trying to turn through those curves backwards until you can flip the car around, while the little red dots of laser sights play across you and your passengers.

Yeah.

In conclusion, a healthy dose of zen, a lack of concern for keeping your car free of dings, and a confidence in your right of way will see you through.  Oh, and develop a deaf ear for horns.

Weekly food post

Due to political reasons, the market was full on Inauguration Day.  There was even sugar, for the first time in months.  I loaded up at the store and have been cooking and freezing stuff for when the food disappears again.

I also received a Zoku pop maker that I’d ordered a while back. Mal loves some of the fruits and veggies (Chilean apples, broccoli, watermelon, and pineapple), but won’t touch the leafy greens, anything squash or root-like, or the citrus. I have to say, there are no lemons here but the oranges are a better substitute than the limes, they are so tart.  So my plan is to make veggie/fruit/yogurt smoothies and make those into popsicles.

Random branding notes:  The chocolate powder to mix into milk is called Toddy, and the box fruit juice is Yuky.

OK, two quick recipes that I made this week:

Garlic Clams

I’ve been trying for years to recreate the garlic clams that I got all the time in Panama, but I haven’t found the right kind of clams in the States, or gotten the sauce right.  The clams should be about the size of superballs, with grey rounded shells.  I thought maybe the chipi-chipis here would work, but as I remember digging them and playing with them on Gulf beaches as a kid, I can’t eat them (we called them coquinas).  However, I found the perfect clams this week, so here’s what I did with them, and it’s pretty good.  All amounts are approximate as I totally pantsed it.

  • 1 kilo small clams, scrubbed and open ones discarded
  • about a tbsp of olive oil
  • garlic (I used about 12-15 cloves of the tiny red Venezuelan garlic; maybe 3-4 cloves or to taste), minced or pressed
  • about 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1.5 tablespoons butter (the only butter I can find is salted but unsalted would be better so you could add your own salt)
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley

Saute the garlic in the olive oil in a dutch oven, then add the wine and reduce by about half.  Add the clams, cover, and steam until they start to open.  Add the butter and steam until they fully open, shaking occasionally to distribute the butter and juice.  Don’t use any of the clams that don’t open.  Serve by putting the clams into the serving bowls, spooning the broth over, and sprinkling with parsley.

Fake Korean BBQ Chicken Wings (link the to recipe I found on Food.com).  This was a HUGE hit with the family.  Served with white rice and green beans.  We saved the leftover sauce for another use, probably more chicken if I can find it.

 

Click Clack Mao

Click_Clack_Moo_small_w_titleThere’s a kids book that Mal and everyone else loves called “Click Clack Moo.”  Our interpretation of it has always been that it shows a socialist revolution, which happens when the workers control the means of production and start issuing manifestos.

Yesterday, for political reasons, the markets here were flooded with food, which meant that for the first time since I’ve been here we could get fresh milk (as opposed to powdered or UHT), and I got to see the results of what happens when your cows unionize:

Hecho en Socialismo

Hecho en Socialismo

 

If you used the Amazon cloud player, you probably already discovered this…but man did I get a shock yesterday when I went to play some music.  Amazon now provides an electronic copy of every album you’ve purchased from them physically!  It’s called Amazon AutoRip, and I’m thrilled because while we’ve ripped almost all of our *mumble*about 8,000 *mumble* CDs, we haven’t uploaded them all to Amazon yet.  My DH is the music geek and I had only recently convinced him to go to Amazon cloud player for ease of listening at work, and while he’s hooked he hasn’t been able to transfer over new purchases since we’ve been here (I think I mentioned the low bandwidth).

There are still some hiccups.  For example, I often buy music for other people that I wouldn’t necessarily listen to myself, and now it’s in my cloud player.  For myself, I usually just buy the digital copy, so it’s not a huge benefit.  And for my DH, who adamantly buys the actual CD, he often goes through a third-party reseller to get them used, and those aren’t part of AutoRip.  (He’s probably going to stop doing that anyway, as he’s had one too many experiences of the wrong disk being in the case).

This is great for another reason too:  Mal likes to listen to classical music as he falls asleep, but hates wearing earbuds.  As there’s no classical station here, now I can set up a laptop with the cloud player and have hours of music streaming for him.

(Not that we couldn’t get this in the US, but apparently we live in a snowglobe.)

Mal:  What’s that painting and writing on the walls?

Me: It’s called graffiti.

Mal:  What’s it for?

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So every time we go out driving now, I make him translate the graffiti or tell me if it looks like a gang tag, or if he thinks that someone was doing art.  Our favorite so far is a garage door that says “PABLO ES EL HOMBRE.”  Good for you, Pablo.