Our Cheese is in Texas

We’ve just returned from a two-week vacation to the U.S., burning our R&R tickets on a visit to see our families in VA and NM. We began auspiciously by leaving late with a very disorganized house. The kids attempted to dress for summer, despite our advice to the contrary, sitting in the car with shorts and flip flops until Jean and I “politely asked” the kids to please dress in proper clothing. We burned rubber across town, fording massive puddles in the season’s first real rainstorm, and getting stuck in traffic because the ZESA (electricity) was out and the robots (stoplights) were malfunctioning as a result. Hence, the check-in desk folks told us check-in was closed and we couldn’t board. A small bribe helped to grease the wheels, and we checked in, our five bags getting tagged and thrown on the conveyor belt to be seen in VA the following day. Of course, this is Africa, so the plane we were supposed to board hadn’t even landed yet, and would be departing from a different gate. We saw some friends in the airport, also departing for South Africa, and bided our time in the boarding area.
Some time later, we winged our way to Johannesburg, a short flight from Harare. The travel agency had alerted us earlier in the day that our flight to Amsterdam would be delayed by an hour, leaving at 1:15am, so we had quite the layover scheduled. We settled down at the Mug & Bean to pass the time, and I finished writing my Christmas Cards. At around 12:30, we made our way to the departing gate to board, where we were yelled at for being late (what?) and were indeed the last people to board. We should have known, this is Africa (#TIA) after all. The plane climbed into the African skies and made its way north across the continent towards Europe. Bye-bye, Africa!
The kiddos slept a bit, except for Lucas of course, who has clocked more movie-watching hours on international flights in his life than most kids have clocked on the ground. Some 11 hours later, we arrived in Amsterdam mid-morning and immediately made our way to the next flight, a 8 1/2 transatlantic journey to Dulles, VA. Several movies and a couple of “meals” later we arrived in snowy, sleety VA (kids: “It’s so cold, what’s wrong?”), where my Dad picked us up in his new dualie. We had planned on going to a holiday party that very afternoon, but understandably we bailed. My dad, ever aware of the kids’ affinity for his cooking, had even brought along a freshly baked loaf of his bread.
My parents set us up in their house, and over the next week we proceeded to do what any foreign service family does upon entering the U.S. after a hiatus; shop. Unashemedly, we took the kids to a movie ($10 for matinĂ©e tickets?!), Wendy’s (looking around at the clientele, we know we shouldn’t eat this food every day), and replaced various household goods on the cheap from Target, BJ’s, and the like because it’s the U.S. and WE CAN!, and I indulged in craft beer and eggnog. We attended a family Christmas party and saw many of the Phillipson-related clan in VA. The kiddos even got their wish and were able to go sledding, getting extremely muddy in the process; the first snow they had seen in three years!
My Grandmother Betty and Uncle Andrew flew in for an early Christmas celebration, and Laura even drove over in her PJ’s for present un-wrapping. Jean went running and I…didn’t do anything.
We hosted a Solstice party with my parents, and got to see many friends, some from high school and college, some from our past careers, some from Nepal, some from Zimbabwe even, who are now posted to the U.S.
A week into our state-side visit, we packed up yet again, posting some boxes of things to ourselves in Zimbabwe (groceries from Trader Joe’s, etc) and flying off to El Paso, Texas, the closest airport to Las Cruces, NM, to where Jean’s parents have recently relocated, and where Kathy’s mother lives as well. Bob’s mother was living there up until her recent passing, and it’s very fortunate that Bob and Kathy were there. Of course, we forgot the soft cooler pack of cheese (permesan, cheddar) in my parents’ refrigerator. (Cheese is very expensive, if not hard to come by in Zimbabwe)

In Atlanta, en route to Texas, we met up with the NcNairs, also on their way to visit, and enjoyed a short reunion before boarding. Once in Texas, we were met by Kathy and Bob at the airport, and loaded up the bags and kids before the one hour drive to Las Cruces. Kathy and Bob have a nice house in a wonderful location on the west side of town with a beautiful view. We were treated to views of the Organ Mountains, xaroscaped overpasses, and restaurants on every corner boasting 50 cent tacos and happy hours. We spent the next week reuniting with Jean’s siblings and their families, the McNair clan (seriously, they have Scottish heritage), and eating our way through every good New Mexican restaurant in the Las Cruces area, not to mention shopping for more home goods and (embarassingly) additional suitcases to hold them. The original plan was to replace a couple of our dilapidated suitcases, but of course the acquisition of childrens’ Christmas gifts put this silly notion to rest. My parents posted the cheese to us (yes!) and it arrived in short order.
Bob took the kids out on his quad bike for some fun in the desert brush, we hiked to Picacho Peak, and Jean and I got to take out Kathy and Bob’s bikes. Jean went running some more…and I didn’t. The kids (seven cousins in total) and the adults filled up the house. Amazingly, everyone got along swimmingly, though I don’t think anyone won awards for belting out tunes for our holiday sing-alongs. We even got to go sledding on the dunes at White Sands (kids: “The sand is so cold, what’s wrong?!”) one afternoon.
At the end of our stay, Kathy drove us to El Paso where we made a last minute purchase of an iPad for Jean, and we checked into one of the airport hotels, for a short overnight stay before our 6:00am flight the following morning. I’m glad they don’t charge extra for overweight passengers, because I definitely clock in higher than when we started this vacation.
Now we’re back in verdant Zimbabwe and it’s New Year’s Eve. Alice, our ridgeback, is ecstatic we’re back. The garage ceiling plaster has caved in. One of the cars won’t start for a dead battery. We have some interesting science experiments in the refrigerator. The sugar bowl is full of ants. The kids woke up at 3:00am (waking Jean up in the process, and she didn’t go back to sleep!) and have generally wacked out sleep schedules.
And our cheese is in Texas, in the hotel refrigerator.

Happy New Year!

A year in Zimbabwe

20131231-093433.jpgWe’ve been over a year here in Zimbabwe and are now counting down the months (lamentably) until we post out. We’ve really been so busy enjoying the country that I’ve not made the time to blog about it, or really anything! So, just what have we been up to?

We’ve very much enjoyed making new friends in our small expat community of both U.S. and other embassy missions, not to mention Zimbabweans and NGO/International School people. Harare’s expats enjoy hosting braai’s (BBQ’s), so most weekends we are in town we’ll be at someone’s house (or hosting) for a brunch or midday braai.

The children are quite occupied with school and afterschool activities, and hanging out with their friends afternoons and weekends, or attending birthday parties. We keep our closet decently stocked with gifts!

Jean is quite active in her job at the embassy, and even got to be an official observer for the elections this past July.

I am continuing to enjoy my role as stay-at-home dad, or “life coach for young people” as I sometimes say. Harare is a very large and spread-out city, though quite unpopulated for the size. It’s possible to cycle to close-by things like school and some markets, though the “Combi’s” (Commuter Omni Buses) make cycling treacherous at best. Mostly I drive, sometimes up to 200km’s a week!

When we are not in town, we are out enjoying the country-side. Zimbabwe keeps a number of national parks, and has lodges and campsites within. We’ll either be there on our own, with friends, or with house guests. We try to get out once a month, though sometimes it’s more like three times a month and then no traveling for two or three months!

When we told friends we were coming to Zimbabwe, those who were from here and/or had lived here were quite excited for us, telling us we’d love it. Why? None of them could quite put a finger on just why, simply telling us we’d love it. Now that we’ve been here a year, I can put it in some words, especially for world travelers like those in the Foreign Service.

The weather here is perfect. I’ve heard it called “champagne air” because of it’s arid and clean quality. It’s sunny most all the time, and to cool down one only has to step into the shade. The roads, though sometimes a bit bumpy in neighborhoods, are for the most part un-clogged and wide, with decent frontage between houses and shops and the road-side. One can get most anything one needs here, sometimes albeit at a price. The people are pleasant and friendly; always willing to give a thumbs up and children always happy to wave.

As we begin our second year here, we inevitably begin looking at the pantry to see what we should be buying to last the year; more toilet paper? Any more Scotch? We don’t want to have too much on hand to leave behind, or try to shove into our suitcases or household effects. We are also making our mental checklist of places left to visit, things left to do before we go. Should we visit that one national park again, or visit a new one?

We are also quite excited for our next post, Pristina, Kosovo, and the inevitable U.S. tour that comes along with it: Albanian language training! This means we’ll be in the U.S. for nearly an entire year while Jean is learning Albanian, and the children will be in the U.S. school system for an entire school year! This also has major implications for us: we’ll get to shop at Wegmans! (It’s a grocery store, the very best one, and for foodies like us…well, it’s pretty awesome) We’ll see friends and family, and not just compressed into a four week frenzy! We’ll be driving on the right side of the road for the first time in four years! We’ll be directly exposed to the political and marketing engine of the U.S. economy. We’ll get our mail in days rather than weeks. We’ll have to think about car registration, speeding tickets, and we’ll have to pump our own gas! We won’t have a maid!

Home Leave 2012: Azimuth Check

An azimuth check, as Jean has just reminded me, is a bearing point, a time when an outdoorsman pulls out his compass and chooses a point on the horizon as a waypoint. We ask certain questions at this check: Where are we? Where are we going? Where have we been? Is our course good or do we need to change it? I think our home leave is just such a check, a good place and time to take a breather and assess the situation.

Where are we? There are a couple ways we can answer that one…Home leave in the USA!
Where are we going? Zimbabwe for two years, Jean serving as a political officer. Embarking on a lifelong journey of adventure. To Hell and back. We’ve swapped our roles as breadwinner and childcare provider, providing at least me with a modicum of satisfaction.
Where have we been? Nepal, having completed our first (hardship) tour in the Foreign Service as a family, Jean serving as a consular officer. Before Nepal, raising kiddos and toiling in the rat race of Northern VA’s grind. Built a house from scratch.
Is our course good or do we need to change it? We both agree that this is an AWESOME lifestyle and well worth the tradeoffs. We think that our kids are getting a lifetime of unique experiences, not to mention our own, and a worldwide perspective.
Azimuth check done, let’s go!

So we’ve been back in the US for about 5 weeks, just 2 to go. And getting back here has been awesome don’t get me wrong. But the reverse culture shock has made me awestruck in more ways than one.
To give this list some context, I’ll summarize what Nepal has been like for us in a few sentences. Nepal only opened its borders in 1951. Prior to that, it has had no colonization, only influences from India and China. Hence, everything still operates in a 14th-century village mentality. All modern conveniences are an unexpected novelty, and are quite often unreliable and shoddy. Most things are not imported (kitchen drawer hardware, furniture, etc), but are rather made, either from memory, or an idea of what a westerner might think is useful. Since the Maoist insurgency in 2006, when many villagers immigrated to Kathmandu from their villages for safety, the population of the city has exploded from under one million to over four million people. The government, in a standstill since the constitution has been undergoing (supposedly) reform since 2010, is not prepared to deal with the traffic, the trash, the infrastructure needs (electricity, water, etc) that so many people generate. Hence, power is available most of the time in the rainy season (it is primarily hydroelectric), but one can go nearly 24 hours without power in the dry season, EVERY DAY. The Hindu and Buddhist attitudes have given rise to a saying, “Ke garne” (KAY GARNAY), or “what can you do?” which is a fatalist way of not getting too worked over what is just outside their front step. Indeed the concept of “frontage” for one’s property is uknown. The economy operates nearly 100% on cash. Labor and local goods cost nearly nothing. Food quality is always suspect, so one sticks to places of repute. Plastic wrappers and waste litter the streets. The climate is harsh on roads, and repair methods are ancient. The sandy soil of the valley is easily swept away by the monsoon rains, so sinkholes often cause large portions of roads to collapse. The air, being trapped in the valley, becomes quite polluted in the dry winter season. The risk of a catastrophic earthquake is paramount in our minds, the last one being in 1934, and the country quite overdue for one. Grocery stores have decent food on occasion, if you see an imported good you buy a three month supply at the very least, as next week no one in town will have it. Fast food is nonexistent, for better or worse. Still, one can live anywhere for two years…

The list:

  1. Gas station pumps have tv screens. Because advertisers need a go at me in the five minutes it takes to pump gas. And there’s no mute button!
  2. Gas station credit card swipes require a zip code. Where do I live again?
  3. There is NO TRASH anywhere. At ALL. Seriously.
  4. The roads are AWESOME, as in nearly no potholes. And I can drive over 35MPH. OMG.
  5. WEGMAN’S, the best grocery store on earth
  6. Museums are clean and well laid out. And they’re free (Smithsonian).
  7. McCafe. Not that I’m a McD’s fan, but where is Ronald? Where are the arches? Where are the plastic red, yellow, nay even beige furniture? WHAT? It’s all different from what I remember
  8. Craft beer is now in cans. OMG, Consumables for next post just got AWESOME.
  9. The. Internet….Bracingly. Fast. Netflix works! (not that my kids are particularly surprised, it’s just something else to take for granted)
  10. Arlington is full of beautiful people shopping in jogging outfits. I can’t stop staring. It’s been a while since I saw this.
  11. The power has not gone out once. No kidding! (ok, there was that storm just recently)
  12. There are as many hybrid vehicles here as there are Suzuki Maruti 800 cabs in Kathmandu. It’s a thing of beauty.
  13. Bike trails are marked with blazes. And sometimes signs. And sometimes small PSA’s(public service announcements). In some cases, hazards (trees, rocks) are constructed on some trails on purpose and are marked with tiny orange flags. This was quite confusing at first. Some group of people thought about public safety, eventually decided on a method of execution, and made this happen. Probably in less than a year. Marvelous.

These points above and more acquaint me to the phrase of “reverse culture shock” where-in I find some things aren’t quite where or how I left them, and with other things I simply perceive them differently now that I’ve been living in another culture for a couple years. The kids loved coming back, though it’s more for visiting with their family and friends than the creature comforts we enjoy as adults. With the advent of the internet, and therefore our American culture being more pervasive than ever, the need to come back to the states isn’t as much as it used to be I think, but it’s still a good reminder to us why we think the U.S. of A as the best country on earth.

Anyway, in about two weeks (of BLISS AND GLORY, THANK YOU AMERICA*), we’re departing for Zimbabwe, where we’ll spend our second tour for a couple years. Thanks to the good graces of our collective parenting meerkat clan, we’ll have packed out our consumables (my next blog post) and our UAB (air freight) by a couple weeks from now, and will be well on our way to Zim life.

Speaking of life in Mugabe-land, we’ll be looking forward to getting settled in and saying hello to our friends from Nepal and Vietnam.

*Odd point here. In the eastern hemisphere, the USA is called “America,” contributing to collective educators’ chagrin when the youth of our great country repeats this in self-reference, and adults using the term with “America! expletive-yeah!” When one gets a taxi to the embassy in Kathmandu, for instance, you say:

American Embassy jaane!

If you say something about the U.S. Embassy, you may very well end up at the Russian Embassy, or perhaps just Thamel, the tourist district, the cabby assuming you are just a drunk trekker.