Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: The Best of the Rest

2010 was filled with more twists and turns, highs and lows, smiles and tears, endings and beginnings, and hellos and goodbyes than any other year of my life. These was the most incredible 365 consecutive days I have ever experienced.

They weren't all happy. In fact, some were downright unbearable. But they were all incredible.

And the mind boggling thing is that this is only the beginning. In a year filled with so much change, it is sometimes hard to comprehend that the majority of that change, the nine months we spent living in Falls Church, VA, was only a precursor to the lifetime of change ahead of us.

I've been blogging off and on since February, but as I look through a year's worth of photographs, I realize that I only scratched the surface. I would like to end 2010 with a few of my favorite memories (in no particular order, but mainly chronological) that, for one reason or another, never made it into this blog.


Tequila! with Brad and Tristan;
Winter Park boat tour with Nisrine and Maya
Saying goodbye to Alfie and Sylvio

Lunch with Minnie and Ryan;
1st EVER Dumbo ride;
Meeting the cast of my fave Disney flick

Last night out in Orlando and TJ makes a new friend;
TJ hamming it up right before getting assigned to Guadalajara;
Yann and Charles drop in from Fance

Patrick comes for a visit gets mugged, er, hugged on the Metro
Meeting the Peanuts Gang at Kings Dominion;
Turning 30 in a new city

Wizarding World of Harry Potter with Kris and Troy;
Universal's Rising Star with Craig, Dan, Marciano, and Kristyn


One last visit with my parents before starting my new life abroad;
TJ posing at the Consulate Posada seconds before a pinata stick almost clocked me in the head;
The pets arrive safely in Mexico


What a crazy year it's been! But well worth all of the headaches that come with any life transition.

I hope that the New Year finds all of you healthy, happy, and living the life that you've always dreamed of.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Year Without A Santa Claus

What do Jews do on Christmas? Well, according to Judaism 101, there are a few options:
  • Go out for Chinese food
  • Go to your local Matzah Ball
  • Go to a movie
  • Get together with family
  • Go to work
That might be great for American Jews holding non-government jobs, but for us US government employees living abroad, that proved to be a bit tricky.
  • In the US, non-Christian Chinese-Americans run the Chinese restaurants. Here in Mexico, they are run by Catholic Mexicans, who are most likely not working on Christmas.
  • A Matzah Ball is a dumpling made from matzah meal. But in this case, it also refers to a singles dance. Doesn't really apply to us. Maybe next year. Ha!
  • We've seen all of the Engish-language movies that we want to see that are currently available at the cinema
  • Family is far, far away
  • Consulate = government = closed

So, what were a couple of recently converted, newly displaced Jews to do?

Well, thanks to ustvnow.com, we did manage to watch the 27th Annual Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade hosted by Ryan Seacrest.

We joined a coworker for drinks and a holiday film (Four Christmases) last night, and will be joining them again this evening for a delicious Christmas dinner.

Wait. So why, as Jews, are we celebrating Christmas at all? Glad you asked. There are three reasons that come to mind as of this writing.

First, it is perfectly acceptable for people of different faiths to appreciate the customs (music, movies, foods, decorations) of others and to celebrate those customs with family and friends of different backgrounds. Jews do the same when we invite friends and family to our Passover seders.

Second, Christmas is impossible to escape, especially now. In our pre-Jewish, pre-Foreign Service days, TJ and I would decorate an artificial tree, buy each other a few presents, and cook a large meal on the 25th of December. There would be the occasional Secret Santa exchange at the office, but for the most part we kept to ourselves. This year, we have found ourselves attending the Consulate's Christmas Posada, the Consul General's Christmas Party, a wonderfully moving charity Christmas dinner at an orphanage, and a tree-shopping excursion with friends. We have politely declined offers to attend a Christmas potluck dinner, another Christmas party, and two other Christmas Posadas. A large percentage of this occurred in early December, as we fumbled through our first Chanukah by ourselves. The Jewish community in Guadalajara is small, and although we converted under the Reform Movement, there is no Reform Congregation to be found.

Third, it's almost impossible to disassociate with 29 years of personal tradition, especially in light of reasons one and two. I am not just newly Jewish. I'm newly religious, too. In my family, Christmas was always about decorating, gift-giving and overeating. Like many that celebrate the holiday, Christmas for me was never more than a good excuse for a fun party.

Okay, so thanks to the Consulate's Posada,
Santa wasn't totally absent this year...

Perspective must change when one considers religion, though. Even though many Christians don't necessarily associate the holiday with the birth of Christ, Jews must. To celebrate Christmas is to either insult your own religious background by honoring a figure not central to your faith, or to insult the religious background of others by making light of a figure (that should be) central to theirs.

Religious holidays are a no-no. Secular and civil holidays are perfectly fine. That means New Years Day, Columbus Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, etc. are perfectly acceptable.

Except, for most Jews living in Israel, and Orthodox Jews in general, December 31/January 1 are just ordinary days. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and occurs much later.

Columbus Day opponents in the 19th century saw the holiday as a tool for further expansion of Catholic influence.

Halloween finds its origins in the pagan holidays of Pomona and Parentalia, or perhaps the Celtic festival of Samhain. Celebrating Halloween is considered taboo by certain branches of Judaism and Christianity.

There is even evidence to suggest that the first Thanksgiving was inspired by the Jewish Festival of Booths (Sukkot), which occurs in the autumn and celebrates the gathering of crops. Is it possible that the entire country has been unknowingly celebrating a Jewish holiday since 1621? Would it even matter to anyone if this was the case?

I've seen many discussions online asking why Christians don't celebrate Jewish holidays. There's certainly Biblical basis for it. The answer of course is that Jews stick to the Hebrew Bible (known as the Old Testament by Christians) whereas Christians draw inspiration primarily from the New Testament. That is what the New Testament says to do, after all.

Holidays are a tricky business for the religiously inclined. For all any of us know, we turn into traffic lights in western Arizona when we die. And yet, if you have made that commitment to follow a certain faith, you should hold yourself accountable for your actions. Where do you draw the line between fun and sacrilege? I certainly don't know. Well, yes, I suppose I do. I should leave Christmas in the past and find pleasure in all of the new holidays I have gained:

Purim. Passover. Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur. Sukkot. Chanukah.

Heck, in Judaism, every Friday night is considered a holiday (Shabbat).

Over the past year I have been able to experience each of them to some degree, and have found them to be quite wonderful.

So why, then, do I care so much about Christmas? I mean, Easter certainly never meant much to me (which, since it is the more important of the two to Christians, is definitely a good thing for my Jewish identity).

I'll tell you why I love Christmas.

I love the fact that every year since birth my mother would buy me a dated ornament for the tree.

I love the fact that every year since we met TJ and I have had an ornament personalized for our tree at Disney's Days of Christmas.

I love the fact that, when we were forced to move on Christmas Eve, Santa was kind enough to bring my 5-year old self a new present every time we returned to our old house for a fresh load of boxes. I got Castle Grayskull that year.

I love the fact that, when we had no plans last Christmas Eve, my friend Alfie shared his family dinner with us.

I have studied Judaism for over a year now, and the only thing that gives me pause is Christmas. Not the story of the Virgin Birth. No, it's the memories of days gone by, where Christmas was a huge, secular ball of joy.

But giving up Christmas doesn't change the past. The past is precious, and will always exist in our hearts, photos, and personalized ornaments.

So what changes without Christmas? Let's see.

I love the fact that I can still treasure the Christmas ornaments from my childhood, though stored in the closet they may be.

I love the fact that this year I was able to purchase an ornament for personalization at Disney's Days of Christmas that was completely secular. I was also able to purchase a "Happy Hannukah" plate featuring Mickey Mouse and a pile of presents.

I love the fact that I'm old enough and solvent enough to buy my own Castle Grayskull if I want to. And that I am able to bring some small amount of cheer to those less fortunate than I ever was or will be.

I love the fact that, even though we are far from home, we still have friends who will invite us over to share their holiday dinner.

When I look at it that way, I guess nothing changes without Christmas.

So, I encourage lots of discussion on this one. Christians, how do you feel about the current state of Christmas? Lifetime Jews, how do you feel about the "Christmas Dilemma?" Converted Jews, how have you adapted your love of the holidays to more suitably match your new lives?

....and would it be such a bad thing if I wanted a Chanukah bush next year?


Friday, December 24, 2010

Some Cosas Never Cambio

Why do language instructors spend so much time telling their students that proper names will never change?

Do they know how much confusion this causes a person when he walks into a Mexican McDonald's to order a Happy Meal, only to find that it is called a Cajita Feliz?

Or when he learns that not only are "The Flintstones" really "Los Picapiedros," but that Fred is actually Pedro? Remarkably, Pebbles, Bam-Bam, and Dino escape unscathed.

This is something that I am noticing with increasing frequency. Things that should change, don't (Hunt's Classic Italian Garlic & Herb Spaghetti Sauce). Things that shouldn't change, do ("The Jetsons" become "Los Supersónicos"). What does and doesn't change is inconsistent ("Friends" is still "Friends," while "The Super Friends" are "Los Amigos Super". And some translations are just plain weird ("Jennifer's Body" becomes "Diabólica Tentación" instead of "La Cuerpa De Jennifer."

Just an observation. It doesn't bother me at all, and in fact I take immense pleasure in it. Part of the adventure of living in another country is never knowing what stuff is called or how to find it.

At least we had "Los Picapiedros" last month. State-side, I believe you were subjected to "Hola, Gato." I mean, "Hello, Kitty."

And before anyone asks why I have these plushies, I can assure you that it was purely to act as a visual aid in discussing today's blog.

Yup. That's it. For real. I promise.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Guadalajara's Top 20, Number 1: Lake Chapala

Started working at the Consulate this week. It's great because now I get to escape the house for several hours a day, have lunch with TJ, interact more with the people that we will be living among for the next two years, and make a little bit of fun money. Oh! And I get to avoid paying third party pirates for my health insurance! Standard EFM (Eligible Family Member) position, but so far I'm enjoying myself.

Yesterday I had a bit of downtime and found myself reading through the CLO (Community Liason Office) section of OpenNet. I found a link to something called "Out and About in Guadalajara." It's a list of the twenty must-see places in and around the city. What a great idea for a blog series, I thought.

In fact, I was so eager to get started that I apparently went to one of the places on the list two days before I even found the list.

Lake Chapala is located approximately 25 miles (45 kilometers) southeast of Guadalajara, and is the largest freshwater lake in Mexico. The lake sits on the border between the states of Jalisco (where we live) and Michoacán (where we don't). The town of Chapala and her neighbor Ajijic have become home to a large number of American and Canadian retirees thanks in no small part to the amazing weather and beautiful scenery. Rumor has it that if you visit Ajijic (not yet, on the to-do list), you will find that most signs are in English.

Beyond the novelty of being among Americans, there's not a whole lot to do here, but it's very relaxing. Lots of local restaurants and shops, weekend markets, boat excursions, and pony rides!

Sepia. Because all good cowboy pictures are in Sepia.

This was very exciting for me, as I had never ridden a horse before. Ok, so I sat on Sharon Trojan's horse once in high school. But she didn't know how to fasten a saddle correctly. I basically hopped up on one side and slid off the other. This was different, though. Of course I was the only newbie in the group, so my horse got lead around town by a leash. Or is that a lead? Choke collar? Hell, I don't know. I just told you I've never ridden a horse before.

Although I enjoyed myself thoroughly, I won't lie and pretend I wasn't a little nervous at first. In fact, when we left the safety of the horse pasture and stepped out into the city street, my horse pooped and for a split second I actually thought it had been me.

Other than what you see here, I didn't take many photos. I wasn't aware at the time that Lake Chapala was the pilot episode for a new blog series. Although there's not a lot to do, there's certainly a lot to photograph. I look at this first visit as more of an exploratory mission, and hope to post "Lake Chapala, vol. 2" in the not-too distant future.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Men Just Don't Understand

One thing I can say about Guadalajara is there sure are a lot of Nativity Scenes set up during the Christmas holiday season. There's one in practically every mall, store, town square, yard, and church that I've come across.

But this one's my favorite.

We stumbled across it today while waiting to meet a friend in El Centro. At first glance, it's really no different than any other Nativity. Or is it?

Something is...missing.

Joseph: "Don't cry, Mary. WE can try again soon."
Mary: "Ugh. Men."
.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Eight Crazy Nights / Ocho Noches Locas

Chanukah ended nine days ago, and I cannot believe that I have yet to comment on it. Maybe it just took a while to process. It was, after all, kind of crazy.

As Jewish holidays follow the Hebrew Calendar (as opposed to the more well-known Gregorian/Western/Christian Calendar), they do not occur on the same day/week/month every year. Chanukah is an eight day celebration that begins at sunset on the 25th day of Kislev. This year, that happened to be December 1st.

What this meant was that our very first Chanukah would be celebrated without proximity to Christmas. Or rather, Christmas would occur without proximity to Chanukah. There could be no Christmas tree disguised as a Chanukah bush. No tacky Christmas bulbs masquerading as a Jewish Festival of Lights. Chanukah would be Chanukah, and Christmas would be Christmas. I would have to enjoy Chanukah on its own merits.

And, you know what? I think I did.

When a Foreign Service family prepares to leave for post, they have two packing options. One is your UAB (unaccompanied air baggage), which should be at your new home within a few days of your arrival. The other is your HHE (Household Effects), which takes a couple of months longer to arrive. You can put whatever you want in either shipment, but you should choose carefully, as there are weight limits.

When we left Virginia, I put our Shabbat candlestick holders in my carry-on bag, but put the menorah in with our UAB. Since we were arriving in Guadalajara on November 8th, we both assumed that our UAB would find us long before December 1st. In the meantime we would be able to continue our Friday night tradition of having Shabbat dinner.

What we didn't account for was that our UAB would not be released to us until we moved into our permanent home. For those of you that have been following this blog, you know that we were placed in two temporary homes before making our final move. We made that final move on Friday, December 10th (photos coming soon). Two days after the conclusion of Chanukah.

Fortunately, we had managed to pick up an electronic menorah while in Houston. It was intended to be a decorative piece for our window, but ended up being the centerpiece for our Chanukah dinners.

On the first night of Chanukah, I prepared a large spread of Jewish foods. No small undertaking, as 1) I had never prepared a Jewish meal, and 2) some of the ingredients are hard to come by in Mexico. Nevertheless, I prepared a grand meal of Raisin Challah, Chili-Lime Baked Chicken, Latkes, and Kugel.

The first night of Chanukah was also the night that we found out that one of our dogs was missing. Only, she wasn't. So there was the first night, full of great food and even greater stress.

The second night of Chanukah brought with it the arrival of our pets. So there was the second night, full of great leftovers and urine-soaked, traumatized animals.

The third night of Chanukah saw Chloe, our golden retriever, knocking the menorah off of the table, shattering one bulb and causing another to light only sporadically. So there was the third night, full of ok leftovers and worries about our ability to complete nights seven and eight.

The fourth night of Chanukah was celebrated following an afternoon Posada hosted by the US Consulate (at which I won a bottle of tequila during a post-lunch raffle...woo!). So there was the fourth night, full of so-so leftovers and a popular Mexican Catholic Christmas tradition.

All the while, we searched in vain for compatible bulbs.

And so it went, until the seventh night, where our fears were confirmed and the seventh bulb would not light.

On the eight night, we weren't even home to pretend that the final, empty slot would illuminate, because we were at the orphanage assisting with their Christmas party.

On December 10th, our UAB arrived with the beautiful menorah we had purchased a month prior at Crate & Barrel. It matches our Shabbat candlestick holders perfectly. Next Chanukah will be beautiful.

The irony of Chanukah slapped me in the face two days later. While sorting through our belongings, I found the box that had once contained our electric menorah. As I was about to throw it in the trash, I located two spare bulbs hidden behind a folded piece of cardboard. The menorah packaging had made no mention of extra bulbs. Had I found this hidden treasure just a few days earlier, we would have experienced a true Chanukah miracle.

But, you know what? This Chanukah season brought with it a new life in a foreign country, my first attempt at Jewish cooking, the safe arrival of our pets, and a treasured night bringing joy to children in need

I think that's pretty miraculous, after all.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Best Night of My Life

Growing up as an only child, I had the best of both worlds: undivided attention and more toys than I could shake a stick at. The latter was a great thing to have, because we lived in a rural area and my parents, perpetual loners, were just fine with few-to-zero visitors.

Sure, I had friends at school, but at home I usually had to rely on the random He-Man, Ninja Turtle, or GI Joe for company. Oh, who am I kidding? Random? I practically had them all. I had a lot of stuff.

As an adolescent I retreated into my belongings even more. Ever afraid that my friends and family would discover and reject the real me, the gay me, I knew that I would always have my stuff...and the more I collected, the more I needed to collect. Toys, movies, books, stamps in my passport. Whatever.

Even as an adult, happy as I am with TJ and life in general, I still LOVE buying stuff. What can I say? Old habits die hard.

And Christmas? I love Christmas. Because at Christmas, not only do I get stuff, but I get to give stuff to other people, too!

When we lived in Orlando I would always make an effort to donate toys to one charity or another during the Christmas holidays, pat myself on the back for a job well done, and continue living my stuff-filled life of blissful ignorance. One year we had a Christmas party for all of our friends. In a moment of selflessness, I sent out invitations suggesting that, in lieu of a “Secret Santa” gift exchange, everyone bring a toy to donate to charity. Then my selfish stuff-needing nature kicked in, and I sent everyone a text message suggesting that it would still be cool to do “Secret Santa,” too. Stuff, stuff, stuff.

In fact, losing Christmas was the hardest part about converting to Judaism. Not because of any unresolved religious feelings. No, no, no. I was going to miss the tree, the presents, the lights, the presents, the songs, the presents, the food, and the presents. You know, the reason for the season.


On Wednesday, December 8th, 2010 the Consulate threw a Christmas party for a local orphanage, Casa Hogar Nacidos Para Triunfar, A.C. A toy drive was the first order of business, so of course my top priority was to buy stuff. I mean, how convenient was this? Here I am, a newly converted Jew craving a little taboo Christmas cheer, when an orphanage presents itself as the perfect excuse to do a little celebrating. I'm not completely selfish. I know that stuff makes other people happy, and I'm more thank willing to share.


God forgive me, I'm such an idiot.

They're orphans. They don't want toys. “Stuff” doesn't interest them. Santa himself barely registered on their radar. They crave love. Human contact. A warm meal.

TJ and I were the first to arrive, and we were immediately swarmed by the kids. They had no idea who we were and they didn't even care that my Spanish is worse than that of a six-month old. They just wanted to look, talk, and touch. As TJ held intelligent Spanish-language conversations with several kids, I awkwardly stood there and let a couple of them swing from my arm. They had fun, and I didn't have to embarrass myself by talking, so I think we all lucked out.

The rest of the evening's volunteers soon began to trickle in, and the evening kicked off with a little entertainment.


El Show de Mago Richard is a magic/comedy show with a little bit of puppetry thrown in for good measure. There were card tricks, disappearing/reappearing coloring book pages, and bottomless water pitchers. Richard brought along his puppet friends for a little end-of-show entertainment. He had a duck, a dog, a Mariachi man, and a Santa Claus. And the kids loved every minute of it. Well, most of them did, anyway...







This little guy loves ketchup. That's actually a cup full of ketchup he's drinking/eating. When the show started he took one look at me and jumped into my lap. He took an instant liking to my camera, so I let him try it out. He spent the entire show taking pictures of his shoes, the floor, and the backside of the other kids' heads. Any time he thought he took a good one, he'd smile and show it to me, then snuggle in closer. He spent so much time taking pictures of his feet, and I spent so much time making sure the camera was ok, that neither of us saw much of the show. But that's ok...I think we had a better time by ourselves, anyway.


He ditched me as soon as the show was over, but I didn't feel too terribly rejected. It was dinner time, after all, and I was hungry, too. One look at the 100+ kids shoveling chicken tenders and french fries into their mouths (courtesy of Outback Steakhouse), however, and I knew that I wouldn't be eating until I got home that evening. There were plenty of leftovers, but there was no way I could deny one of those kiddos a second helping. This was a treat for them. The orphanage recently lost it's biggest food supplier. Dinner usually consists of a donut. A donut.

While dinner was wrapping up, I helped bring the toys into the room for Santa's grand entrance. Suddenly, the part I had been most looking forward to was the least important thing in the world. Stuff was meaningless. Is meaningless.


This little fella latched onto me just as Santa Claus arrived. He didn't even notice. He just wanted to sit on my lap and sip his juice. I held him for about an hour. If I even tried to put him down, he'd burst into tears.

As limited as my Spanish is, it didn't matter. He wasn't old enough to speak much. But he understood a lot. For instance, I know that his juice was "muy delicioso," because I asked if it was, and he nodded.

He was the last to get a toy from Santa, and only then because I stood in line for him. It brought joy to my heart to see how horrified he was of Santa. What is a childhood without one good freak-out from ol' St. Nick? He got a Fisher Price toy that looks like a dog. You push it's tail and it barks. The mouth opens and a flashlight turns on.


Only, it didn't. The battery was dead. There was no bark to be heard, no light to be seen. But he didn't care. He was happy anyway. Not because he had a new toy, but because I took the time to show him how it was supposed to work. He wanted to walk the doggie, so I put him down. He walked the dog for a couple of feet before he lost interest, looked up at me, lifted his arms, and cried to be held some more.

If it had been me, I would have been ticked off that my toy didn't work. I mean, what kind of crap is that? But for him, it was all about the interaction. It's just stuff, after all.

He eventually fell asleep in my arms, and was put to bed by one of his caretakers. I didn't get to say goodbye, but it's probably for the best. If he started crying, I think I would have too.

TJ and I have talked about the possibility of adoption in the past, but it's something that has always seemed intangible. Unattainable. And would I really even want to? Do I have anything to offer to a child? I'm pretty selfish, after all. I'm not proud of it, but I own it. If we're being honest, and this is horrible, I've always secretly wondered if I am too selfish to love a child with which I share no biological connection.

After Wednesday night, I have an answer to all of those questions.

Yes, I want to adopt. I have all the love in the world to share. And screw biology. Adoption is the only path I would ever consider.

I'm not going to belittle anyone and pretend that I'm a better person now. I still like stuff. I'll always like stuff. Heck, I will probably always look for excuses to have a little Christmas cheer.

Despite that, I did leave the orphanage with a little bit of perspective. I know what's important, and I know what I want. And what I want isn't just stuff. Not anymore. I'd love to adopt one day.

In the meantime, the consulate makes bi-weekly visits to the orphanage. I look forward to it with immense happiness.

In closing, I just want to share a few photos that the kids took. They all loved the camera, and I let them hold onto it for most of the event.













Monday, December 6, 2010

Foreign Service Pets: A Series of Unfortunate Events

One of the chief concerns for any pet owner new to the Foreign Service will surely be what the pet regulations are for your future country of residence. I know that, for us, part of the bidding process included finding those countries with difficult or impossible importation requirements and placing them at the bottom of our bid list. This may not be something we will always have the luxury of doing, considering the need to diversify TJ's resume for future career advancement, but for the first time out we wanted to make sure our family stayed together.

Anyone that knows us or has read this blog for any length of time knows that we have three pets: Sophie (ill-tempered but loving-in-her-way gray kitty), Zelda (skittish but devoted Beagle/Jack Russell mix), and Chloe (dopey but happy Golden Retriever).

We love them dearly. Because of this, we may not have known much about the climate, culture, or history of every country on the bid list, but we certainly knew whether or not our animal friends would be welcome. And yet, at the conclusion of the Flag Day Ceremony, we still made a bee-line for the FLO (Family Liaison Office) to double check that, yes, Mexico would allow all of our pets to tag along.

The FLO offers two packets of information regarding Foreign Service pets:

  • Worldwide Pet Import and Quarantine Restrictions” is a useful tool that provides breed and quantity restrictions, veterinary care requirements, and time (if any) in quarantine. You will, of course, always want to notify post of your intention to bring animals, as not all housing options accommodate pets.
  • Shipping of Pets Checklist” gives a general pre-departure to-do list and provides a list of companies that can facilitate the entire process for you, if you choose to go that route. Which we did.

Club Pet is a USDA-Licensed facility that offers boarding, airport pick-up and delivery, veterinary care, and assistance with Import Health Certificates and whatever other documents Customs may require. They were listed as a viable option. Let me just say that it is my understanding that many FS families have been satisfied with their services. But this is our story, and we found them to be practically useless.

Ventura Air Cargo is an international freight import/export service. The Mexican government requires that one such organization act as the intermediary between Customs and the pet owner. Ventura is the company selected by the US Consulate in Guadalajara to handle these brokerage needs. Until recently, FS families and their pets were allowed to drive to Guadalajara. Security concerns have necessitated a change in this policy and everyone must now fly into the city. To our knowledge, Ventura has only been commissioned for one other act of brokerage, and the pet in question arrived only after spending several nights alone in the airport. He was covered in feces, dehydrated, and half-starved. A beautiful, older, giant bear of a dog that deserved much better.

Well, that doesn't sound promising, does it? But what choice did we have? Let our comedy of errors begin.

Club Pet only offers veterinarian services on Sundays. This was a huge concern, given the fact that we were told, by Club Pet, that once the veterinarian completed the Import Health Certificate, we would only have 10 days to import the pets.

We had to be in Houston from November 5th – 8th. The previous Sunday was October 30th. Ten days from then would be Tuesday, November 9th. Given that our first afternoon in Guadalajara would be on November 8th, this did not allow much room for error if troubles arose. It was decided that our best course of action would be to leave the pets with Club Pet beginning on Wednesday, November 3rd, to receive an examination on Sunday, November 6th. We were told that the documents would be overnighted to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) via FedEx, and should be returned on Tuesday, for shipment on Wednesday, November 10th. This would provide ample wiggle-room if there were any issues.

Any issues? We had NO idea...

When we arrived at post, we learned two very interesting things. The first is that the health certificate does not start the countdown to expiration until the USDA stamps and returns it to Club Pet. The impression that Club Pet had given was that the countdown started the day of examination. What this means is that we could have, in fact, had the examination done the week prior to departure, thus ensuring pet arrival same-day as us (or soon thereafter).

The second thing we learned was that, once the USDA signs off on the documents, they must be forwarded to a 3rd Party Agency in the country of Import, which takes several days to certify and return. One would think that both of these details should be familiar to an organization that prides itself on pet import/export.

Needless to say, the Health Certificates expired, and had to be reissued, thus causing delay number one.

Fine.

It was around this time that Club Pet failed to deliver on a specific request. The Mexican government requires that the Import Health Certificate be certified by the USDA and written in English and in Spanish. We were assured that Club Pet would make this happen. Yet, when the documents were returned to Club Pet, they were only in English. Fortunately, I was ressured by a representative from the Consulate that this would not be an issue, as there were plenty of English speakers in Customs.

Fine.

Delays number two and three were the result of Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and Mexican Revolution Day all being celebrated within the same two-to-three week period. When the government is shut down, paperwork doesn't flow very quicklly. I'm not sure if I can blame any particular organization for this without jeopardizing the credibility of this otherwise sensible rant, but it was still irritating.

FINE.

Delay number four came when Club Pet called to advise that the renewed health certificates had not arrived on time, and they would have to reschedule the flight.

FINE.

It was finally decided that the kids would arrive on Monday, November 29th. We received a call late in the afternoon on Saturday, November 27th. Club Pet needed the name of the broker that would be picking the pets up at the airport before they could book the flight. We provided the information, but for some reason this resulted in a one-day delay. I asked why this new piece of information was so important now, when the flights had been booked three times previously without such a requirement. Club Pet's response? “I don't mean to get short with you, sir (okay, lady, then don't. I'm not paying you to get short), but I only know what I've just told you.”

FINE.

This additional delay also caused a new wrinkle. The pets would be flying from DC to Guadalajara with a layover in Houston. The second leg of this journey was full, so the dogs would be coming on Tuesday, but Sophie would have to spend the night in Houston, arriving in Guadalajara the following morning.

FINE.


"I never liked you people much, anyway."

Tuesday arrived. Zelda and Chloe did not. We received a phone call from Ventura Air Cargo to let us know that our dog was doing well, but would not be released until the next morning because the flight arrived late.


FI...No. Wait. Our what?

Customs only received one dog. We have TWO. Ventura was unable to tell us which dog they had, or where the other one could possibly be. After several heartbreaking hours, in which I both called to let my mother know what had happened (It always helps to pass your fear on to others) and called our Houstonian friend, Patrick, to let him know that I might need him to break into IAH in the middle of the night to find out which animals, if any, might still be there, we were informed that both dogs were in Guadalajara, but the air bill (provided by Club Pet) only listed one animal on the flight.

FI...you know what? It's not “Fine.” None of this has been “Fine.”

Anyway, now that we could breath easy, we headed to Starbucks for a drink and some Internet time. Out of curiosity, we checked the flight plan. The plane had landed on time. We had been lied to by Ventura.

Upon bringing this to their attention the following day, the story changed. The plane had arrived on time, but the dogs were delayed in customs. Why? Because, despite the fact that two dogs were sitting in Guadalajara, the documents that proved that there were two dogs cleared to arrive in-country were in the cat's crate. The cat was in Houston.

Who's fault was this? Continental? Club Pet? Ventura? I certainly don't know, but I would guess Club Pet, as they are the one's that, you know, PACKED THE CRATES.

Sophie 's flight landed shortly before noon on Wednesday, paperwork in tow...and yet, for some unknown reason, Ventura did not deliver them to our home until after 8pm. They arrived in what looked like a U-Haul moving truck. When the driver opened the cargo door, I was horrified to see that our pets had been sitting in a completely dark space for (best case scenario) an hour, and that their crates had not been strapped down. Fortunately, everyone was sitting in the upright position. They reeked of urine. They were visibly shaken. Despite the long separation, they didn't even look happy to see us. Who could blame them?

Twenty-nine days passed between the time in which we said good-bye to our pets and the time in which we were able to welcome them to their new home. Twenty-nine days. It was supposed to be seven.

Five days have passed since their arrival, and only Zelda appears to be back to her old self. Chloe looks depressed, and Sophie rarely comes out from under the bed.

We could have had our own veterinarian conduct the Import Health Certificate examination. We could have FedExed the documents to the USDA...or, even better, scheduled a face-to-face appointment. We could have scheduled their flights. We could have done everything, minus the boarding, which wouldn't have been necessary if we had ensured that all of the paperwork was where it needed to be and then scheduled the pets for a layover in Houston while we were also there.

But we chose to pay good money...LOTS of money...to a company that was supposed to make this easier. I fully admit to not knowing all of the nuances of such a complex transaction. The thing is, Club Pet should know the process. It's their job.

The broker is the one thing we couldn't have changed, but two miserable days in the Guadalajara airport wouldn't have been so bad if we could have shaved off a couple of weeks at Club Pet. This, of course, does not change the fact that the broker has thus far refused to provide us with an official bill for services rendered, nor have they verbally told us a total amount due. They apparently prefer to do business first, then tell you what you owe.

I have a feeling this could get uglier still.


"Sigh..."

The good news is that everyone is alive and well. Despite the troubles, I will say that everyone was well-fed, and, besides smelling of urine upon arrival, it was evident that they had been cared for while being boarded.

It's a shame that all-around incompetence forced them to be boarded for so long, however.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Los Gigantes de Guadalajara

Did you ever have one of those days that was so full of activity that the concluding event seemed to be separated from the initial event by days, not hours?

Yesterday was one such occurrence.

Since November 23rd, Centro Historico de Guadalajara has played host to "Los Gigantes." Yesterday was the final day of this once in a lifetime event, and we wanted to make sure that we were there to bear witness. After a delicious brunch with friends following the Walk for a Life Without Violence, we parted ways and embarked on the long walk to Guadalajara's Center, where we found three sleeping giants:

"The Mexican Giant"

...the dog, "Xolo"

...and "the little Indian Girl"

Why were they here? Glad you asked!

To celebrate the bicentennial of Mexican independence and the centenary of the revolution, the Royal de Luxe Company brought it's world famous giant puppet show to Guadalajara.

Royal de Luxe is a French mechanical marionette street theatre company. They have performed in France, Belgium, England, Germany, Iceland, Chile, Australia, and, now, Mexico.

It all started on November 23rd, when a mysterious painting appeared in el Centro. The mural told the story of a giant girl who had been separated from her uncle during the war of independence. The mural predicted their 2010 reunion in Guadalajara.

Over the next few days the giants would meet in the streets, to the sheer enjoyment of all witnesses. Publicity and word of mouth resulted in the spectacle drawing huge crowds. Huge crowds. As the parade time drew closer, personal space became a thing of the past.

TJ and I have had a running joke ever since he gave me my Nikon D5000 for my birthday that I would one day win a Pulitzer. We also know that the only way to win a Pulitzer is to photograph something horrifying. When these kiddos hopped up on the roof to get a better view of the parade route, I just knew my Pulitzer was on its way. But the little buggers didn't fall. Oh well. Maybe next time.

Despite their success in the matter, neither of us were willing to climb a wall, so we sought refuge from the crowd and the heat by finding a shady spot some distance away form the crowd and by purchasing a drink called "Rusas" from a street vendor. It looked like he made it with 1tsp sugar, the juice from 1/2 lime, and 2c of Squirt soda. After tasting the vile concoction, however, we realized it was salt, not sugar...And so now we needed refuge from the crowd, the heat, and the Rusas.

TJ soon discovered that he does not like coconut milk. I discovered that Coke still tastes pretty good.

Feeling refreshed and knowing that it wasn't going to get any better, we jumped back into the crowd and impatiently awaited the arrival of the giants. And I am so glad that we did.


The giants' finally concluded their journey here in Mexico when, awakening from their siestas at 3:30pm, they took one final walk down Avenida Alcalde.

A we say goodbye to The Giant, take a moment to appreciate the mechanics of this endeavor. To make him walk, a succession of crewmen had to jump from the vehicle, marionette strings in hand. Dangerous? Exhilarating? Art?

All of the above, my friends. All of the above.