Matamoros, Mexico: Washington, D.C.:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Good Times, Great Friends

I just got home from a long weekend getaway to celebrate the wedding of two very good friends of mine. The bachelor party, rehearsal dinner, and wedding went off without a hitch. The ceremony was beautiful, and I'm happy to see my friends joined together as one.

While I won't go into too much detail about the wedding festivities themselves, I do want to comment on the extended weekend as a whole. In the past six months or so, I have taken to getting away from Matamoros rather regularly. For reasons that are complex and probably boring for you, dear reader, I've been managing to take small trips, vacations, or holidays almost every few weeks. I've got the Brownsville airport routine down so well that it takes me about seven minutes flat to get from my car to my seat on the airplane (yes, the airport is that small.)

Being away for this wedding ranks right up there as one of the best trips I've taken. Not only were my good friends getting married, but our friend group was reunited in its entirety for the first time since we all graduated in May of 2010. I spent four solid days with some of my closest friends, reveling in our deep-rooted friendships and picking up where we last left off. To be honest, it was much-needed, and it felt amazing.

To convey exactly how great it was, I'll share this short anecdote before signing off for the evening. After the wedding, the groomsmen (plus the wives of two of the groomsmen) returned to where we were staying. We were all thoroughly exhausted after a long but wonderful day of wedding festivities. I assumed we would end up asleep within thirty minutes or so, but I was proven wrong quickly - and I'm so glad that I was. We spent the next three and a half hours just sitting around a kitchen table sharing stories, catching up on each others' lives, and spending time together. There is honestly nothing better than spending quality time with the people you love, and that's a fact.

Living in Matamoros has not been easy, to be sure. While the work is fantastic, my personal life has certainly suffered somewhat. I tend to call it the Matamoros fluke - that is, a "perfect storm" of circumstances converged upon me to create a strange situation. I believe I've mentioned in previous posts that I'm the youngest person at post, which means it's automatically more difficult to find friends. I love my coworkers and enjoy them greatly, but after work, they mostly go home to their families and children. Suffice it to say that I've been a bit lonely lately.

Of course, those few short days of reunion with friends had to come to a close, and here I sit back in Matamoros, ready to return to work tomorrow. A quick week lies ahead, to be bookended by the wonderful Christmas holiday. I hope you will be spending it with your family and friends, enjoying the true gift of friendship that I described above.

Until next time...peace (on Earth, and goodwill toward men.)

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Tale of Two Doctor's Visits

It all started last week.

On Tuesday, I had a pretty upset stomach all day at work, but I pushed through it and made it to the end of the day. Since my body had been battling something all day long, I was pretty exhausted, so I went to bed at what must have been a world-record 8:15pm. Waking up around 10:30pm - after just 2 and a half hours of sleep - I needed to go to the bathroom. I sat up in bed, and suddenly I saw them: bears, sleeping in my bedroom. Four brown bears, to be exact, breathing deeply with their massive chests rising and falling in what appeared to be a deep sleep.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Training in DC

First things first: Yes, I'm aware that I haven't posted in the past two months. My apologies to those of you who emailed me asking whether or not I had been kidnapped by drug traffickers or if the tigers had gotten me. Rest assured that neither of the two happened. I'll try harder to keep up with y'all.

I've been in DC for the past week for some training. Now, the Foreign Service seems to be generally pro-training, in the sense that managers and bureaus greatly support the idea of both on-the-job training and taking courses back at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, VA. Whether or not you actually get the opportunity to come back from your overseas post for training depends almost wholly on money. If you're in the middle of nowhere and it takes almost 48 hours to fly back to DC (and, subsequently, thousands of dollars), you may find some Debbie Downers or Negative Nathans out there who point out that the State Department's budget is already getting slashed in the FY'12 budget. (Which, I'd like to point out, still hasn't been passed. Good job,  Congress.) How could we afford to send you back to DC in this budget climate?, they may ask. Or, as may be the case in smaller posts, how could we survive without you being here?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Happy Anniversary!

Hello friends! Just a quick blog post tonight to let you know that I've officially been working for the State Department for one year! And, as of a few weeks ago, I've been at post for six months already!

One year ago today I walked down 23rd Street to the intersection with C Street, slightly jittery, mostly giddy, and excited about the fact that I was about to be sworn in as a federal government employee and an officer in the United States Foreign Service.

It has been quite a humbling, exciting, and incredible experience thus far, and I can only hope for many more years and a great career ahead. Oh, and the "administrative promotion" certainly doesn't hurt, either!

Thanks for coming on the journey with me. As a completely random treat, check out this video that has boggled my mind. Japan is so stinkin cool.


Until next time...peace.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Foreign Service as a First Job, Part 1.5

So, you've probably noticed that my "series" of blog entries about the Foreign Service as a First Job has kind of stalled a little.

After I posted it, I was pleased. I thought it did a decent job of explaining an interesting paradigm of my new job and would perhaps be found useful by others who may be experiencing (or about to experience) the same thing. Before I decided to release it into the wild, wild internet, I had a conversation with myself about whether or not I should post it.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Foreign Service as a First Job, Part 1

I write this blog for a few different reasons. It helps me keep up with family and friends who can read about what's going on in my life, whether it's Foreign Service related or not. That's why you may sometimes see a post that appears to have absolutely nothing to do with my job. Other times, I try to write about the Foreign Service itself, to give people a look into what the job is like, how I managed to get it, and personal experiences that I face. This post will belong in the latter of those two categories.

As I sometimes do, I'd like to call your attention once again to the small disclaimer found at the bottom of this blog. These thoughts are my own, are completely personal, and are not the views or thoughts of the Department of State or the U.S. Government whatsoever. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Legal Immigration Flowchart

This post is brought to you by the Free WiFi I'm mooching off of at Brownsville's local frozen yogurt joint, where I've been the past few hours downloading my legally-purchased episodes of my favorite US TV shows from Amazon.com, who (appropriately but frustratingly) won't let me download from my Mexican internet at home.

Anyway, I noticed this humorous-but-accurate cartoon flow chart that explains the convoluted U.S. immigration process. I'm not doing any immigrant visas whatsoever here in Matamoros because the only place to get IVs from Mexico is in Ciudad Juarez (plus Mexico City for a few specific types, like F4 and adoption cases.) Who am I kidding... you probably don't care where you can get an IV in Mexico anyway. Obviously, there's a bit of a lack of interesting things to blog about today.

Here's the flow chart. Suffice it to say that I hope none of you readers are currently in the process for one!

Props to Kolbi over at A Daring Adventure for mentioning it first.

Until next time...peace.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Get Off the Escalator

Many of you have asked me whether or not I'm actually hiding all of "the real stuff" that goes on in the Foreign Service for fear of retaliation from the Department or my bosses. The answer is no...not really.

Granted, there are certain things that I know I shouldn't talk about. After all, this is a public forum, and once something is on the internet, it's on the internet forever. There's no going back. That being said, however, I feel like I'm OK at telling it like it "really" is. I don't hesitate to post about things I find interesting or odd about the Foreign Service. In fact, the Department has an entire open forum (available only on the intranet - State's internal internet) devoted to allowing people to express their opinions and ideas, be they negative or otherwise.

So, with that small disclaimer, I'd like to share with you the following video. A friend of mine from work sent it to me after I had taken a little initiative and changed a process that appeared inefficient and illogical. Apparently, no one had thought to change it. No one had wondered if there was a better way to do that thing, because, well... that's just the way it was done.

I've come across other examples of this kind of thing happening. The Department is really big on precedent and what has happened in the past. Now, it's true that I also think the Department is innovative and willing to take some risks, but in a ginormous government bureaucracy like ours, some things never are super hard to change. If something happened to you in the past that rubbed you the wrong way, you will forever be afraid to try to step around that something in the future. And more than likely, you'll pass that along/down to whoever you're working with.

With that, I leave you with this video. It's titled "Government Employees," though the video itself doesn't seem to specify that they're G-men (G-people, for those of you who are sensitive to that kind of thing.) I don't really find it insulting or offensive. In fact, I find it to be rather accurate....sometimes. In any case, let's just say that I make an effort every day to get off the escalator...and to bring others with me (instead of just fixing the escalator.)

Enjoy.


Until next time...peace.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Time for Some Updates

It seems that my blogging has slowed down as much as the Sun has as it moves across the sky during the summer. And let me tell you, it is painfully, uncomfortably slow down here in sunny Mexico.

I'm not sure, exactly, why the blogging has slowed. It could be because of the noticeable uptick in busyness at work (for more info, see that last blog post I made.) Then again, it could be due to just a lack of interesting things to blog about. I'd say it's kind of a mixture of these two.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Working Late

My deepest apologies, dear readers. It seems I've been slacking a bit on my blog posting. There's a good reason for that - I promise.

I've been working late. Quite a bit, actually.

Last week, I think I worked late almost every night, including one workday that lasted from 7:30am until 8pm. This week has been the same thus far, though I'm averaging 6pm this time. Why, you ask? I suppose there are a few different factors.

First up, of course, is that my boss wants a project done by a deadline. Fair enough. I'll get it done, and right now I'm on track to get it done a few days early. The project itself isn't really the issue, though. It's the fact that I've got so many other responsibilities at Post that it's hard to make time for other projects. I assume this is true at most small constituent posts. Too much to do and too few officers. I'm not complaining, though - don't get me wrong. I love the fact that I'm getting tons of experience that most entry level officers at big embassies only dream about getting. In fact, I hear at some posts that just volunteering for any project is enough to put on your EER (evaluation), because there just aren't enough projects to go around for everyone. Suffice it to say that I've got plenty of projects, which means plenty of great EER opportunities.

My second reason for working late is more personal. As you know, I'm single, no kids, and living in a heightened security area. Which means I don't get out much. I'm doing my best, but honestly there just aren't too many options. As a result, I don't mind staying late at work, because it's amazing what you can accomplish when no one else is there, emails aren't flooding in, and phones aren't ringing. (Example: last week, in one 30-minute span when I stepped away from my desk mid-morning, I received 29 different emails. I kid you not. That has to be some kind of record. Granted, it's unusual, but still...). Sometimes I just enjoy staying behind to wrap up the projects I have going on and send a few emails that have gone unanswered recently. There's not much difference from working alone at work than sitting at home on Facebook. Except that one of those makes you feel more productive.

I wonder if other FSOs feel that way. I'm certain it depends on the post, really. I suppose that at most posts, there is a wealth of activity and opportunities to get out and have fun. For now, though, I'm content where I am, and I'm sure getting a lot done.

Until next time...peace.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Props to Diplomatic Security

Hey folks,

Just a quick blog post tonight to highlight this video from CBSNews about Diplomatic Security. I've done some of the driving and weapons training shown in the video, and I can personally attest to the fact that these DS guys are truly fantastic. The agents we have here in Matamoros are top notch, and I'm sure the rest of them around the world are as well. If you don't know much about DS, here's a good primer.





Until next time...peace.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

You Said What?

I'm writing this post from a newly-opened café in Matamoros, which has surprisingly good food, free WiFi, and great atmosphere. I haven't found anything like it since I arrived a little more than three months ago. Can you believe that - it's been three months since I got here. Time flies.

I figured I'd take this slow morning to document some of my favorite (and slightly embarrassing) Spanish flubs thus far. Now, I've been studying Spanish for more than eight years now. I have a bachelor's degree in the language. Yet I'm still not great at it, as evidenced by the following little stories - that I actually find hilarious - about some of my better screw ups. If you speak Spanish, this will be extra funny to you. If you don't, I think you'll still get a kick out of it.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Furthering Education

I'm considering taking some graduate courses while I'm here on the U.S.-Mexico Border. I've got the free time (unmarried, no kids, nothing to do in Matamoros in the evenings), and I've recently rekindled a desire to further learning.

Brownsville (the Texas town on the opposite side of the border) has a small university named University of Texas-Brownsville, aka UTB, that is literally within biking distance from my house in Matamoros. They're not the most prestigious university around, but considering it's convenience, I'm looking into getting a master's degree there. They offer various degrees, but the ones I'm most interested in are a M.A. in Spanish Translation, a Masters of Public Policy and Management, and an M.B.A.. Most of those programs are 36 hours each, so I don't really know if I can finish before my tour is up, but I'm going to look into it. There's also a 15 hour program to get a Graduate Certificate in Spanish Translation, which I suppose could be my back-up plan.

I'm just not really sure I'm going to do it or not. There are a few negatives on my pros and cons list. First, getting a masters won't have much, if any, impact on my job with the State Department whatsoever. My salary won't increase, and I won't necessarily get any better jobs. Why should I bother? It's certainly not necessary to possess graduate degrees to move up in the Foreign Service, not to mention that there are some (albeit quite competitive) programs available where I can get an assignment to get a master's degree arranged by the State Department. I think I like that idea most!

The other negative is how much it will tie me down to Brownsville/Matamoros for the next two years. If I have class, I can't really skip out and go on random vacations as much as I want, which is certainly an important consideration for me at this point. I don't know... perhaps I just need to accept that fact and hunker down to do it.

The pro list is sparse, but the pros are pretty strong. First, it would be pretty cheap to get it from UTB. Second, as I've already mentioned, I've got the spare time to do it, and the opportunity to do it here at the border region is unique and would be nearly impossible overseas, unless I did an entirely online course. The number one reason, though, is simply that I just love learning. Ever since I graduated I've felt like I want to keep studying, to keep learning. I have little-to-no background in business or management, which I feel would be important and useful for my continued career with the Department.

In any case, I'm considering it. I'll probably try to arrange a meeting with a counselor at UTB sometime soon to discuss my situation and find out if I can even finish in time before my tour is up. I suppose I could always request to extend my assignment, but I'd rather not have to do that.

We'll see. Until next time...peace.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Props to Ops

I know I've been a little absent from the blog recently - sorry! Sometimes it's nice to take a little break every now and then to focus on other things. I've got some fun trips planned for the upcoming weeks, but until then I just wanted to share this with you, in case you haven't seen it.

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the State Department Operations Center. The first time I heard about the Ops Center was from a great (and humorous) WaPo article about it. I operate best under pressure and when time is limited, so I was fascinated by how the Ops center works 24/7, tirelessly, to keep the State Department moving.

Monday, May 2, 2011

On OBL's Death

It's been less than 24 hours since the world found out that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces. There is certainly a lot more information yet to come in the days ahead, but I would just like to repost a few things for the sake of highlighting them.

This is certainly an historic event. I'm not sure if it's one of those "remember where you were" events for me personally, but it absolutely is an historic and future-shifting event nonetheless. Humorously, I found out by none other than Twitter, the internet medium I used to scoff at and dismiss as a fad. Who would've thought it would be how I would come to find out that OBL had been killed? (On a side note, it also appears that Twitter was the very first place the event was reported - the tweeter just didn't know that his tweet was so important.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Oh, Silly Congress

So, I realize that I work for the United States Government, so really it's a little faux pas and ironic to be criticizing it.

But I mean, come. on. I have a bone to pick with Congress as a whole. (Once again, I'll refer you to the footnote disclaimer found on the bottom of every page on this blog.) Can't you guys just, oh, I don't know... do your job? Didn't we, as the American people under a federal republican (small 'r') government, elect you people to represent us and, you know, govern?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Boy with a Coin

I'm a big fan of Iron And Wine, and the music video to their song "Boy with a Coin" has me quite simply enchanted.

I don't know exactly what about this video has me so captivated, but I swear I've watched it more than 20 times in just a few days. Perhaps it's the dancers, the choreography (that's flamenco, right?), or maybe just the pairing of the song with something so visually enthralling.

In any case, I share it with you here (turns out, they won't let me embed the video here) here's a link to the video for your own enjoyment. Que se divierta.


Until next time...peace.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

How to Enjoy A Weekend

Step 1: Leave work promptly at 5pm on Friday afternoon. Make sure that when you leave work, you really leave work. Promise yourself that you won't do anything related to your job or your daily Monday to Friday routine once you get home.

Step 2: Receive a great gift from a great friend sent via old-fashioned snail mail.

Step 3: Ride your bicycle a few blocks over to the public park to enjoy watching the annual Motorcycle festival held in your local town. Make sure you're there to watch the Esfera de Muerte, or Sphere of Death, and marvel at how these people don't die every few seconds.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Happy Monthaversary!

Hey folks,

Just a quick note this evening to point out that today is my one month anniversary of being at post! Wow... It has gone by really, really fast. At this rate, my two years will be up in no time!

Nothing really eventful happening since my last major post. On Monday I'll be going to local schools to talk about the importance of recycling and our numerous Earth Day events coming up in April. I suppose I should go learn some Spanish words that have to do with trash, recycling, noxious chemicals, etc. Piece of cake, right?

Until next time... peace.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Iran? Really?

Hey folks,

Just a quick note here. I was perusing the stats of my blog this evening when I noticed something really, really strange. Check it out:
Do you see the last country on the list? Yeah, that's right. It says Iran. In the last 24 hours, my blog had one visitor from the country of Iran.

I don't know who you are or why in the world you are checking my blog, but I have two things to say to you:

1) If you're in the Iranian intelligence service... bugger off.

2) If you're just a random Iranian... thank you! Peace be with you... and let me know if my site gets blocked by your government! Democracy is where it's at!

Until next time.... peace.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Swing of Things

I've been at post for almost exactly a month, and so far I'm really enjoying it here. When I arrived to my awesome house, friendly coworkers, and easy access to the States and the beach, I was reassured that I will have a great two years here.

I ended up getting to work pretty quickly after arriving. They say you should take it slow and ease into it, which I did for the first few days. But then you start to get restless, and you're ready to jump on the visa line and do what you've been in training to do for the last six months. Though I'm honestly not concerned with "the numbers", mine are already on par with the rest of the officers who have been here for a while. That's definitely a reassuring thought, because back in ConGen I always wondered whether or not I was going to get this stuff right. Not that I don't make a mistake from time to time. It's just that I feel decently confident about the decisions I'm making.

Speaking of the officers who have been here a while - wow! They're all incredible folks, and they're so eager to help out when I have a question about something. (You know, they tell you in ConGen that there's so much more to visa work than they can teach you in six weeks, especially without being in "the real world environment." That is so. incredibly. true. Add to that the fact that you're on the border, and there's a whole world of issues and procedures here that differ slightly from the rest of the world.) My coworkers are very knowledgeable about what they're doing, and they're always willing to drop what they're doing to teach me something new. As one of them put it, they're so ready to have a full compliment back on the visa line that they don't mind taking a moment to teach me if it helps me get there! They're truly wonderful teachers, and I'm looking forward to my time here with them. Though, being the new kid on the block, they will all rotate out at some point, making me one of the old timers. Yikes. I'd like to apologize now to whoever will be rotating in at post in about a year and a half, when I'm the one responsible for teaching you the ins and outs! ;)

Along with doing the full amount of visa work, I've also gotten a few of my first major portfolio assignments. The most important one, other than visas, is drafting the Consul General's weekly column that is published in the local newspapers. Oh, did I mention that it's in Spanish? Crikey. I'm really glad I majored in Spanish in college and had to write a lot of papers, otherwise I think it would be much more difficult than it is. That being said, I went through about five drafts last week before we arrived at the one that ended up being published. Here's hoping I can cut that down a bit in the coming weeks.

After writing that, I'm also responsible for the Correspondence team, which answers questions that come to our public visa email address, as well as helping to handle congressional inquiries and other dealings with the public (in regards to visas.) Add to that the task of updating the Consulate's website and making a Facebook page and you arrive at the thought that.. wow.. I've got a lot to do! Luckily, I seem to have gotten into a good work flow that will allow me to get everything most of it done on time. Here's hoping that remains true.

Today was a Mexican holiday, but it was also Dia del Turista, or Tourist Day, in one of the border towns about an hour away. I volunteered to go and represent the Consulate at the event, which ended up being a great decision and one I really enjoyed. I got there about 9:30 for a program that was supposed to start at 10AM. It actually started around 1PM. I suppose I should have expected that, but I guess I was being a bit of an eager beaver this morning. Anyway, immediately after I introduced myself to the coordinator of the event as "a Vice Consul from the Consulate General in Matamoros," I was called up on stage by the clown that was entertaining the crowd. The coordinator watched in half shock, half amusement while the clown proceeded to put no less than 6 different balloons on me, including a belt with scabbard and sword, a hat, and - to top it off - butterfly wings. As I got off the stage and went back to the coordinator, I met the president of the organization sponsoring the event. And I was still wearing my butterfly wings, hat, and belt/sword. At this point, I can only hope the local news taped over that footage of me on the stage, because at that point of the day, they didn't yet know who I was.

Anyway, later that day, I did my representational duties and met the governor of the state, various other municipal officials, and businesspeople, which was finished by a nice lunch with them all. During all of that there was also an interview with a Mexican TV crew... in Spanish. I'm seriously hoping I didn't say anything stupid. I'm sure our public affairs person will let me know tomorrow if I screwed up.

I also got hit with a number of visa questions, ranging from personal inquiries about their own cases to generic stuff. I was advised ahead of time that this would be the case, so I came prepared with some good background information and some standard answers. Though the 5th or 6th one did get a little repetitive, I still enjoyed being a "real live person" these people could talk to.

Suffice it all to say that I had a great experience on my first solo representational event, and I hope that the rest of them are similar. Minus the balloon butterfly wings, of course. Though I suppose I wouldn't mind having the sword again.

Until next time...peace.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Oh, The Time (It Is) a-Changin'....

So here I sit in my living room in Matamoros, Mexico.

And I have absolutely no idea what time it is.

I'm fully aware that the United States observes Daylight Saving Time, and that the one-hour spring-forward happened last night at 2A.M. The problem is that I don't know if Mexico does that, and thus far I haven't been able to figure it out.

At this point, I'm operating on the assumption that they do, because it will suck if every time I cross the border for the next six months I have to add an hour to the current time. I'm headed into Brownsville today for some shopping, so I plan on asking the toll collector guy at the Mexican-side of the bridge what time it is. That should be a pretty official source, right?

There's really not much going on here at the moment. I'm looking forward to next Monday when we get the day off for a Mexican holiday. If any of you want to come visit, that would be a good time...

Because it's a nice lazy Sunday, I've decided to do something I haven't done before on the blog. I'm now taking requests! Leave a comment on this post and let me know something you'd like for me to blog about. It can be anything at all, and I'll do my best to respond. It's open season!

Until next time... peace.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lessons from a Newbie

Today was my first day on the visa line doing actual, real-live interviews. Although I didn't actually do near as many as my colleagues who have been doing this for a long time, I still feel pretty accomplished.

Unfortunately, I somehow managed to get every kind of bad (read: difficult) case possible. Let me make a quick list of things I learned today - things they don't teach you in ConGen, mind you. (I loved ConGen, don't get me wrong - there are just some things you don't learn until you get in the "real world.")

First. Working on the Mexican border is a whole different ballgame. There should really be a separate section of ConGen, or at least a special class, about border-specific visa work. Like, in class, when they tell you to consider a person's financial solvency (i.e. capability of even affording a trip to the U.S.) when making a determination. If you're in, say, the middle-of-nowhere Mongolia, then sure, whether or not they have the money to afford the trip can help you make your decision. Well, here at the border, it costs a whopping $0.25 cents to cross the border. Hmmm.. I'd say pretty much everyone can afford that, don't you?

Second. While comparing photos of people, there is a HUGE difference between "Not Adverse" and "Not a Valid Match." One means the pictures on the screen in front of you are not of the same person, and one means that it is the same person but that it's not a bad thing. This may or may not be how I managed to accidentally declare someone a terrorist today. Oops. (Don't worry, I fixed it later.)

Third. People who grow Sorghum making freaking incredible amounts of money.

Fourth. In reference to #1, we see just about every nationality here at the border. Today, in order and one after another, I saw at my window an Indian, a Nepalese, a Venezuelan, some Mexicans, and another Indian.

Fifth. Having an occupation of "I sell used stuff" is not uncommon.

Sixth. I'm a softie. My colleagues say my heart is too big. I put a lot of "human interest" (aka emotion) into the cases at my window. This all translates into making it very hard to say no to someone, and then feeling bad afterward. I've been told this will change quickly. ;)

Seventh. I'm a dream crusher. In regards to #5, when I say no to folks, sometimes it really does crush their dreams of America. Just call me Dream Crusher Andrew.

I think that's it for now. I have certainly learned a lot more than this, but most of it is about visa and immigration policy which I'm sure you couldn't care less about. So I'll leave it at that.

Until next time...peace.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Jon Stewart Rocks

Those of you who live overseas will understand the frustration involved in trying to watch American television without actually being in America. There are numerous ways to try to do it, but none of them are perfect. Websites like Hulu, Netflix, and the major broadcasting networks all put restrictions on what they can and can't show you when you're outside the U.S.

But one man (well, two if you count his counterpart) stands above the rest. That man? Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I Live in Mexico Now

Wow. That's really cool to say.

I live in Mexico now.

Who knew that less than a year after graduating from university, I would end up living in a foreign country? What's more, who knew I'd be doing it on government orders? Certainly not me. (Though, admittedly, I was definitely hoping for those things to be true about this time last year!)

There are so many things to describe and tell you about. I don't really know where to start, but here goes nothing!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Almost Time

Here I sit in my apartment, with nothing but two suitcases of clothes, my laptop, some important documents, and some boxes of matches that couldn't be put into my UAB/HHE shipments.

Somehow, the quantity of my belongings increased dramatically between my UAB-only move to DC and my UAB/HHE packout to Mexico. I don't think I explained the unfortunate ordeal the last time around, so allow me to digress for a moment.

On my last packout, I opted to go for UAB only (no HHE at all) because I really didn't have much stuff, and I was driving my truck to DC. I had plenty of space in the bed of the truck and in my backseat to take whatever wouldn't fit in the 250lb UAB shipment. The movers came (from a moving company that will remain anonymous), I told them what I wanted in the shipment, and they went to work. They finished packing after just about an hour or so - again, I didn't have much - and they left. The day before I departed my hometown, I emailed my State Department travel tech to get a status update on my shipment. That was the first time I had heard that my UAB was 80lbs over the 250lb limit. Oh, thanks for informing me. The thing is, the movers had ensured me that the shipment wasn't going to be over 250lbs, and that they would call me if it happened to be over (which, of course, it wouldn't be, even though they were using a BATHROOM SCALE to weigh the giant cartons). To put the rest of that story in a nutshell, I ended up reclaiming one of the THREE tri-wall UAB shipping crates and tossing it in the back of my truck to avoid paying something like a few hundred dollars to ship it as planned.

Fast forward to today. I was explicitly clear with my moving company (a different company this time, fortunately) that I had a bad experience last time, and I wanted them to be sure to bring a good scale and to really focus on the weight limit. The two guys that showed up were great. I had such a completely different, and much better, experience this time around. They ended up packing everything I requested to be in my UAB, and it weighed 242.5lbs. Perfect. And it was even weighed on a legit-looking much-more-professional scale to boot. It's actually kind of nice to know that someone else is handling my entire move.. I didn't pack a single box.

About three hours later, the movers left with all of my stuff, leaving me in my relatively empty furnished Oakwood apartment. Needless to say, I'm a little bored.

Tomorrow I've got some final wrap-up stuff to do at FSI, get the oil in my truck changed, and then meet up with some friends for a last-night dinner. Strange, really.. I've been here just under six months, and I'm already on my way out. I suppose the rest of my life will be like this... get settled in then pack up and move.

And you know what? I'm so looking forward to that.

Until next time...peace.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Seriously? This is my job?

Have I mentioned recently how much I love my job?

I just spent the last week in the Foreign Affairs Counter Threat course, otherwise affectionately known as Crash Bang. Let's break it down.

Crash Bang lasts for one week. The first two and a half days are spent learning about surviving a kidnapping, surveillance detection, and medical training. I now have enough medical training to be dangerous. If you have massive hemorrhaging out of one of your limbs, I can put a tourniquet on it faster than you can blink. That's right.. I'm a tourniquet professional at this point. I can also seal up any holes you might have in your chest (aka sucking chest wounds) and take care of  various other injuries to boot.

We then spent an afternoon going through a weapons familiarization course. They weren't training us to be marksmen or anything, but it was nice to get an opportunity to do some shooting. Three different pistols and two rifles later, I'd say I'm a pro (yeah right.) Just throw a penny up in the air and I'll put a hole in it (I wish). Obviously, as diplomats, it would be a bit of an oxymoron to give us weapons. The idea is that, if the proverbial crap hits the proverbial fan, I'll be able to defend myself using a weapon if I had to.

Thursday and Friday were the icing on the cake, though. I spent those two days driving around a track with an instructor learning how to do all kinds of stuff in a car that I've never done before. I mean, seriously... I got paid to do that! It was like an educational theme park for adults! I had an absolutely thrilling experience there, and I hope I get the chance to do it again. Interestingly enough, most of your basic driving instincts and habits are actually totally wrong and don't work in the heat of the moment. I've now been given some knowledge that can seriously save my life if I'm caught driving around in Mexico and come upon a roadblock or vehicular attack from those narcotraffickers.

In other news, I'm moving in less than a week. I'll be at post in less than two weeks. I can't believe this. It feels like I just got settled in here in Washington and here I go again.

Speaking of moving... I've got lots of things to do. The countdown begins.

Until next time...peace.

Friday, February 4, 2011

I passed!

I took my final Spanish exam today to complete my training at FSI before going to post.

I passed with a 3/3+! I couldn't believe it... especially after the humorous Spanish mistakes I've made this week!

A few days ago in Spanish class, we were reading an article about Tax law in Ecuador (I know.. exhilarating, right?) The article was half book review half commentary on the tax law. Well, I thought that this book that explained tax law was actually a play. Yes, a play. I was sitting there thinking "wow... a play that explains tax law. How dreadfully boring that must be." Needless to say.. my classmates laughed at me for a few days.

Then yesterday I was telling my professor that I was going to come early before my test to have a one-on-one session with a native speaker as a warm-up before the real thing. Note to everyone learning Spanish: avoid the phrase "warming up" whenever possible. Let's just suffice it to say that I accidentally suggested that the native speaker and I would have some inappropriate relations. hahahahaha.

Regardless, Spanish is done. Next week I have the Foreign Affairs Counter Threat course, also known as "Crash Bang." A whole week of learning/using firearms, explosives, detection- and counter-surveillance, first aid, and offensive, defensive, and evasive driving techniques? Yes please!

Two week countdown to departure for post starts... now!

Until next time...peace.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Funding Knowledge

Why can't the U.S. get its act together? Sure, it's a bit of a hyperbolic statement, but I think we really have quite a few things we need to work on.

Now, I'm no economist, and I truly despise anything having to do with math, numbers, and money whatsoever. (Any guesses as to which career track I'll probably never work within in the Foreign Service?) But last weekend I read a short column by Zachary Karabell in the Jan. 10th issue of Time that made me wish the U.S. economy would wake up and smell the garbage out there.

Ironically, the Karabell has a rather positive view of the economy, one which I believe is probably quite deserved. The media does tend to blow things everything out of proportion these days, which then causes this general panic amongst the population, for example, to worry, Oh my GOD. Glenn Beck says our country is becoming a communist/socialist/fascist/everything-bad-you-can-imagine nation and that we're going to collapse like the Roman Empire did. What EVER should we do?! Save us, Glenn!!!!!, when, in reality, if people would just open their eyes and care to look around for a few minutes, they might find that things are going to be just fine. And I think that's what Karabell does in his column.

Moving past that nationwide groupthink, the author closes up his piece with two brilliant paragraphs that ring quite true:
But it's also important to note that this bout of self-flagellation is taking place against a different global backdrop, one that sees countries from China to Brazil blazing their own trails while the U.S. seemingly plods along. It's been shown that people assess themselves in relative terms, by how much they have compared with their neighbors more than by how much they have. Today, Americans have a surfeit, but relative to the world as a whole, the slice is shrinking.
Those new economic powerhouses are spending, too, but in smarter ways. They're pouring money into education and infrastructure. That in turn has led to increased personal consumption born of the fruits of those efforts. The contrast with the U.S., which struggles with political gridlock that makes it difficult to pass similar measures, is striking. That, more than the balance on our credit cards, should fuel legitimate American pessimism. [TIME]
I think he's got it dead on, here. Why does the U.S. spend such an embarrassingly small amount of money on education? When will we wake up and realize that education is perhaps the most important part of a well-functioning society, yet we're essentially tossing chump change at schools and hoping they make do? In my opinion, education is the key to solving most of our country's problems.

Instead of throwing untold quantities of cash at a problem, why don't we instead throw money at schools to train up young people who can fix the problem themselves with better knowledge, technology, and experience? Our nation might very well be experiencing a veritable brain drain, but not because the educated are abandoning the U.S. (as they've been doing in Africa for decades, for example). No, instead, we're causing our own brain drain because we're giving up on education.

So how do we fix the problem? Pshh, don't ask me. I have no idea, because that isn't my particular field. But I do have a few guesses: find, train, and pay higher quality teachers higher quality salaries, to start with. Give schools more money to invest in technology, the arts, and physical activities (because what good are smart people if they die early due to poor health/fitness?). Stop teaching for standardized tests and start teaching for students to learn something they are going to retain and apply. Why is the average median salary for teachers in some states as low as $27-30k (let's not focus too much on cost of living at this point)? Why do people view a profession in teaching to be less valuable or less respectable than that of a lawyer or doctor? Doesn't everyone hate lawyers, anyway?

I suppose this turned into more of a rant than a reflection on Karabell's piece, but it does raise some important questions. To all of my teacher friends out there: keep up the good work. Your jobs are important, and we should value you more than we do right now.

Until next time...peace.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

An Elegant Revolutionary

Saturday afternoons are a beautiful thing, aren't they?

This will probably be my last calm, relaxing weekend before I head off to post next month. As such, I've decided to take it easy, think about things, catch up on reading, reconnect with old friends, and, of course, do laundry.

I've been a subscriber to TIME magazine for somewhere close to a year now. When I was in college, I was usually able to work through the weekly issues quickly enough that I had finished one by the time the next one arrived. Since I've arrived in The District, though, the issues seem to be piling up faster than I can finish them. So today, I decided to read an issue from two weeks ago that captured my attention as soon as I saw the cover. *At this point, I should probably direct you to the disclaimer found at the bottom of my blog.

I'll admit that, before reading this article, I had known some general information about Aung San Suu Kyi and her peaceful resistance efforts against the Burmese government. I knew she had been imprisoned a few times, and that she spent quite a few years under house arrest. I knew she had been released from said house arrest in November of last year. And I knew that she almost always has flowers in her hair.

But after reading this cover story, I am much more interested in what she's trying to do for the people of Burma. For far too long, an estimated 56 million Burmese people have been living in poverty conditions that they did not bring upon themselves. Their government is entirely driven by a bunch of fat cat military generals whose sole purpose appears to be to keep the people oppressed and impoverished so they can continue to squander the nation's meager wealth.
Roughly 40% of the national budget is spent on the army, while just around 1% each is reserved for health and education. The new capital in Naypyidaw, which means "abode of the kings," was built with billions of dollars, even as nearly a third of Burmese live below the poverty line. For farmers, a hand-to-mouth existence is made worse by routine land seizures and orders to work without pay for the military. Even in Rangoon, power outages are as common as junta informants; both leave the populace in the dark. [TIME]
This makes me sick, really. I'll admit: I don't know what percentage of our national budget is spent on the military versus health and education, but I'd venture a guess to say we have a much better ratio than the Burmese do. I really dislike it when one group of people oppresses another group of people for their own personal benefit, especially when the group being oppressed has little means of fighting back. And that, to me, is where Suu Kyi comes in.

It's ironic that I used the word 'fighting' in that last paragraph. To be honest, fighting is the last thing that Suu Kyi would want. Her entire method is about non-violent resistance. I haven't read many quotes of hers, but I imagine she would say things like, "I don't believe in violence. I don't believe it accomplishes anything. Instead, I will peacefully resist these oppressors until the goal has been reached. However long it may take... however long I must wait. Even if it doesn't come in my lifetime." And you know what? I'm very much in agreement with her. She is an incredibly elegant example to the world of how to be an engaged citizen of a country, even at age 65. She never intended to be this unifying figure of revolution in her country. But I think that, long after she's dead and gone, historians and the Burmese people will remember her for completely revolutionizing their country for the better, without ever having caused an all-too-common outbreak of violence (from her side, at least. The Burmese government has used violence to oppress its people for years.)

There was one other portion of the article that made me stop and think. One paragraph described what life was like for Suu Kyi while under house arrest for roughly 15 of the past 21 years:
For so much of her recent life, Suu Kyi has been sequestered from normal human contact; noble ideas and fine words have kept her company. While under house arrest, she obsessively read books ranging from biographies to spy thrillers. "People think that I had nothing to do [while in detention]," she says. "But I spent five or six hours listening to the radio every day. If you're under house arrest and you miss one item, there's no one there to tell you about it, so I listened very carefully." Even her taste in classical music speaks to her sense of discipline and composure. Mozart, she says, makes her happy, which is all well and good. But she prefers Bach. "He makes me calm," she says. "I need calm in my life." [TIME]
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine all of the things you would have missed if you had been under house arrest, especially in a country like Burma? The article mentions the first time she ever used a cellphone was on the day of her release, November 13, 2010. While that's entirely perplexing on its own, it causes me to think about all of the other technological, societal, and even worldwide advances and occurrences in the last 15 years. There have been major, catastrophically destructive natural disasters. There have been technological developments that are almost innumerable, including shrinking a computer from its former gargantuan sizes to the current 9in. iPad. There have been major milestones like wars, peace accords, the death of Mother Teresa and the election of the first black United States President. It's all truly mind-blowing, really.

But it also makes me wonder about what must have been a beautiful simplicity in her life. Other than the stress of being confined for so long, I can't imagine that she would have lived a very stressful life there at home. No societal pressures to wear the right clothes, drive the right car, or make enough money. I kind of wish my life had that kind of simplicity in it. Don't get me wrong - I love my life thus far. But I really need to create more opportunities for rest, breathing, and enjoying that life to the fullest.

And I suppose maybe that's what I'm doing with this beautiful Saturday afternoon of reflection and relaxation.

Here's hoping that, one day, she will accomplish her life's mission. It makes me contemplate my own life and ask myself, what is my life's mission? What is my driving passion, that one thing that I would be willing to sit in house arrest for years with only a radio, books, and limited human contact?

What about you? What's your passion...and what are you doing about it?

Until next time...peace.

As a completely random post-script, the following music was deeply enjoyed as I wrote this entry: The Civil Wars, Mumford & Sons, and Mandi Mapes.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

T-Minus 30 Days

The clock is ticking. I leave for post in less than thirty days. I've still got quite a bit left to do, but I am SO ready to go.

Here's just a quick snippet of my upcoming to-do list:
  • Write and send introduction letters to principal officer, DCM, and Ambassador.
  • Clarify my possible visa situation as a result of being reassigned.
  • Verify that my new assignment doesn't require any vaccinations I didn't already get.
  • Find, get a loan for, and buy a new-used vehicle (Xterras, anyone?).
    • Get insurance for said vehicle.
  • Schedule and prepare for my packout.
  • Consider whether or not to buy furnishings here and ship them or just buy them in Brownsville, TX.
  • Change mailing addresses for all of my regular subscriptions.
  • Finish applying for my SENTRI pass.
  • Take and pass the Spanish exam, hopefully receiving a 3/3 or better.
  • Complete Crash/Bang (heck YES!)
  • Make a will.
  • File my taxes, if possible.
I'm sure there are some things that have already slipped my mind, but I'll use this list as a starter.

And the great thing is that I'm a huge fan of lists and checking things off. This bureaucratic job I have is great for that.

Until next time... peace.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Friends in town

There are currently five people staying in my one bedroom apartment.

Since a little before New Year's, I've had one friend staying with me while his school is on an extended winter break. It's great to have someone to hang out with after a long day of speaking Spanish at work.

But this weekend, I picked up three more friends who came in to town to see me before I leave for Mexico. I'm an extrovert by nature, so having this many people here at once is awesome for me. Today we hit up all the normal touristic sights in DC - the monuments, memorials, and White House. Good stuff.

Tonight we've got dinner (sushi?) and a movie, followed tomorrow by more tourism at the Smithsonians.

Friends are a great thing, and are not to be undervalued or underestimated.

Until next time... peace.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

How Quickly Things Change

On October 8th, at my A-100's Flag Day, I was assigned to a two-year Consular tour in Monterrey, Mexico.

On December 22nd, I arrived at work with an email from my Career Development Officer in my inbox. "Good morning, Andrew. I hope you're doing well. Something has come up that we need to discuss. Please call me at ###-###-#### as soon as possible. Thanks."