Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Next Year in Jerusalem

It's hard to believe that it has been over two years since Flag Day. Two years since we learned that Guadalajara would be our home for TJ's first tour as a Foreign Service Officer. Two years since I anxiously posted a picture of the Jaliscan flag, announcing to the blogosphere that Mexico was on the horizon.

And now, I get to do it again.

Yesterday afternoon we received notification that TJ's second tour, with a targeted start date of August 2013, will find us setting up shop in Jerusalem.

Anyone that has followed this blog for any length of time will understand the significance this holds for us. We both converted to Judaism right before arriving in Guadalajara, only to find ourselves with a scarcity of options for expressing our newfound faith.

Suffice it to say, that will not be a problem on the next go 'round.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Charreada: The Mexican Rodeo

Growing up in a small Texas town, it didn’t really matter that I wasn’t destined to be a farmer, rancher, or home economics wizard. What mattered was that many of my peers were. And so every year we would get a day off from school for a field trip to the Bell County Youth Fair & Livestock Show-Rodeo. Whether this was to support our classmates who had entered into the fair, a way to use up those useless snow days, or just so the teachers could have a break from lesson planning, I’ll never know. But it was generally fun. I do remember one moment, though, in what I believe was third grade. We had boarded the bus and were preparing for the drive home when suddenly a lesbian couple walked by, holding hands. The requisite number of hateful taunts spewed forth, most of which containing colorful language that could only have been learned from the ignorant parents waiting for us at home. I don’t remember how I reacted that day, whether I joined in uncomfortably or just sat in nervous silence. But I remember how it made me feel. Embarrassed. For the couple? For myself? For my classmates? Maybe everyone. But definitely embarrassed.

Years later I found myself attending the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo on more than one occasion with my friend other-Aaron (dubbed thusly because he was, in fact, the other Aaron). His father had business hook-ups for the weekend concert series, so we would occasionally find ourselves moseying around the fairgrounds on a weekend afternoon and then enjoying a concert that night. It worked great. He didn’t have a car with which to make the hour+ commute, and I didn’t have concert tickets. We were a match made in heaven. During the spring of my senior year, I happened to be dating someone that lived in Houston and was working on lighting effects for the rodeo. I had not yet come out to other-Aaron, and would not for another 2-3 months. I was afraid of how he would react, given his strong Catholic background, so I awkwardly excused myself on one such rodeo afternoon to go have a quick chat with the guy during his break. Sidenote # 1 – I’ve never been what you’d call “slick,” so I was fairly sure other-Aaron knew I was up to something. Sidenote # 2- When I eventually came out to him, his response was a fairly disinterested “So what?” which was followed by “That’s why you snuck away at the rodeo, right?” Yup. I’m very clever and sneaky. There was no handholding. There were no evil 3rd Graders. But still, I felt embarrassed. Because I was hiding.

Yesterday (and nine years later, give or take) a friend of TJ’s invited us to a charreada. A charreada is a competitive sporting event similar to what we in the US would call a rodeo. A remnant of Spanish colonization , the first charreadas were competitions between haciendas, but today’s teams are often made up of extended families that have been competing for generations. This is very different from US rodeos, in which most events are an "every man for himself" kind of thing.

Other differences between the charreada and the more familiar rodeo: Trophies are more common prizes than cash awards, as charreadas are not considered to be a professional sport. Whereas rodeo competitors are judged on time-to-completion of their specific tasks, charros are scored primarily on finesse and grace. Despite amateur status, charreadas tend to hold greater prestige in Mexico than rodeos do in the United States.

The charreada itself consists of nine events:

Cala de Caballo (Reining) demonstrates the rider’s mastery of the horse rein. The horse is required to gallop, come to a sliding stop, spin on its hind legs, and then walk backwards back to the starting point.

Piales en Lienzo (Heeling) requires that the charro throw a lariat at a running horse, catching it by the hind legs.

Coleadero (Steer Tailing) is an event in which a charro rides alongside a bull, wraps its tail around his right leg, and tries to roll the bull as he rides past it.

Jineteo de Toro (Bull riding) is basically a bull riding event similar to what you would find in an American rodeo competition.

Terna en el Ruedo (Team Roping) is a team roping event in which three charros attempt to rope a bull - one by its neck, one by its hind legs, and the last then ties its feet together.

Jineteo de Yegua (Bareback on a wild mare) is similar to bareback bronc riding.

Manganas a Pie (Forefooting) finds a charro on foot being given three opportunities to rope a horse by its front legs and cause it to fall and roll once, all while the horse is being chased around the ring by three mounted charrs.

Manganas a Caballo or (Forefooting on Horseback) is basically Manganas a Pie, except everyone is on horseback.

El Paso de la Muerte (The pass of death) closes out the show with a charro riding bareback on one horse attempting to jump onto the back of a second horse, which he will then ride until it stops bucking. The two horses are pursued by three other mounted charros, meaning the risk of trampling is severe.

Many thanks to Wikipedia for all the info. It’s a cowboy’s world…I just live in it.

Overall, it was a fun afternoon of learning about, and experiencing, more Mexican culture. There was no handholding. There were no evil 3rd graders. But I'm, finally, far removed from the days of embarrassment. Hate speech would no longer be tolerated in silence. Not that such bravery was needed. At least not yesterday. When we arrived, a little cowboy gave TJ’s friend the “elevator eyes.” A couple of the charros looked like they could have been playing for the home team, too.

My, oh, my. The times, they are a-changin’.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


I was thinking yesterday morning how different my blog is now versus when I started it waaay back in February 2010. When we first made our journey to Falls Church, VA, the Foreign Service life was, well, foreign. This blog was filled with growing pains-type angst as we (through the filter that is my keystroke) adjusted to our new lives. Most of what I wrote from February through November 2010 was about my new place in the world, meaning it was heavy on Foreign Service-type stuff.

By the time we arrived in Guadalajara, we were accustomed to the politics and so forth, and I jumped right into "Hey, look-a-there! See what cool things I did and saw this week?!?"

This occurred to me because yesterday we were waiting for the bid list...our first peak at a whole bunch of places we could potentially be living come 2013. I wondered what will happen once we move back to DC for training. Will this blog go all Foreign Service-centric again? I also wondered what will happen when we arrive at our new post. Will it be as comfortable as Guadalajara, or will I just find myself with a slew of things to bitch about?

Well, the list never did make it into our Inboxes, but something else did that snapped me back to reality. Foreign Service reality, that is.

At 3:10PM on Friday, March 09, 2012, the Guadalajara SMS Emergency Alert System was activated. Messages were sent to every current employee, as well as every Eligible Family Member that had registered an e-mail address with the consulate. A dozen or more messages would arrive by 7:10PM. Warden Messages were communicated via Facebook to American citizens living in Guadalajara.

Yesterday afternoon, Guadalajara was under siege. Each message contained little tidbits of information, telling us what type of attack had occurred, and where it had taken place. We were given directions on when/if we could leave the office, school, or home, and instructed to keep our walkie-talkies close by.

This was merely the latest in a casual string of narco-related activities in this otherwise beautiful city. I've never really commented on them before, unless the outcome somehow inconvenienced me, because they are so few and far between, and generally limited in scope. And also, the media does such a good job of scaring you all, I'd kind of just like to hit the high points.

But yesterday? Helicopters were canvassing the city, police units were out in full force, and employees at the US Consulate General in Guadalajara were put on lockdown until our Regional Security Office could find out just what the heck was going on. This wasn't just something that happened in the wee hours of the morning while we were blissfully, ignorantly, asleep. This happened and we knew it was happening.

All told, we were allowed to leave around 5:30PM, which is basically your average work day, so nobody was put out too terribly much. We were told to go straight home, and to stay there. So that kinda sucked.

Generally speaking we don't live in a war zone down here. We live in a country where a few bad people do really nasty things to other bad people (fellow traffickers)...or the good people (law enforcement agencies) that proactively make their lives more difficult. In this particular case, it is theorized that a couple of high-profile arrests had occurred and the attacks were a smokescreen to prevent further capture. Unfortunately, as was the case yesterday, sometimes there are innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire.

Yesterday's events served to remind me that there are a plethora of dangerous posts out there. There are also far cushier posts. And so I'm still left waiting for the bid list, wondering if we'll be bragging or bitching next calendar year.

Meanwhile, the rest of Guadalajara seems to be recovering nicely, finding humor in a bad situation.

Behold! The cause of yesterday's panic!...according to Facebook.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

FICG27: Festival Internacional de Cine en Guadalajara

The Inauguration of the 27th Guadalajara International Film Festival was held last night at Auditorio Telmex (a familiar venue), and thanks to a ticket donation made to the consulate, I found myself attending my very first red carpet event!

The week-long gala, held each March in Guadalajara, is considered to be the most prestigious film festival in Latin America.

TJ was able to attend last year's event, and had a blast. Something about sitting right behind Willem Dafoe. The Green Goblin! I was jealous. This year he left the tickets for someone else, wanting to share the wealth. Oddly, there were no takers, so he giddily snagged the tickets at the last minute and we both got to go.

Sadly, there were no Willem Dafoe sightings, but we did lay eyes on cutie Kuno Becker, whom I have never heard of but made the ladies go wild.

A different country is selected as the Festival's "Invited Guest" each year, and this time around the honor fell to the United Kingdom (TJ tells me that Israel took the reins last year).

After a brief awards ceremony in which Mexican actor Gabriel Retes received the Silver Mayahuel award and Cuban-American actor Andy Garcia (Oceans 11, Godfather III, The Untouchables) received the Ibero-American Mayahuel award, British directer Mike Leigh was presented with the Guadalajara International Award.

Brief remarks were made by British Ambassador to Mexico Judith Macgregor, after which Mike Leigh's film, Another Year, played for a full house. The film explores the lives of a happily married couple whose friends and family are experiencing love, loss, loneliness, and emotional despair...sometimes all at once. Throughout the film, the husband and wife prove to be the rock for a myriad of characters who ultimately find no resolution. And why should they? Real life doesn't reach a satisfying conclusion. We all simply struggle through just another year at a time.

Old Places, Familiar Faces, and More Sick People

Mom certainly picked an inconvenient time to go and start showing theravages of old age.

Somewhere along the way our friends Joey, Sergio, and Brian decided they would pop in for a visit. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, except for the fact that none of them know each other and were therefore planning three separate trips.

Joey decided to come January 19th - 25th. Brian thought February 16th - 26th was ideal. And Sergio, who has family in Guadalajara, had decided to pop down from Mexicali for a robust three week vacation spanning February 1st - 26th. No big deal. Brian and Sergio would overlap somewhat, but we should have plenty of time for both.

Or maybe not. Mom's medical issues began picking up steam in late December. Several doctor's appointments were scheduled and nobody had the slightest idea as to when the procedure would be scheduled. It began to look as if I was going to miss at least one of our visitors. Maybe two, if things went awry.

We began our planning, which mainly consisted of my praying that the procedure didn't fall during Joey's visit, as of the three he's the one that TJ knows the least. Well, it didn't, and I was able to show Joey around for the entire duration of his trip. And I learned something. Joey is kinda ballsy.

He isn't remotely afraid of foreign countries, which although admirable, made it difficult to tell him the sort of things that I felt I should have been able to. Things like "I know we've been sitting here ignored for 30 minutes, but don't yell at the waiter," and "Put your shirt on...nobody runs in this park half nekkid." Or maybe "I don't think it's a good idea for you to walk to that yoga class. It's dark, you don't have a cell phone, and you don't appear to know the address."

Oh, and his Spanish is better than mine. So I totally hate him for that. I still think it was a good vacation experience, though I can't say that we saw too many things that I haven't already seen AND blogged about. The various sites of El Centro, the Tequila Express, Tonalá. There were a couple of giant alebrije set up behind Teatro Degollado (okay, I haven't blogged about that, but it IS the subject of a future post) one afternoon, so here's a picture of one of those.

With one visit down, our attentions turned towards Sergio. Now, with him coming for a month, I wasn't so much concerned that I wouldn't see him as I was worried that I would miss TJ's birthday weekend in Nuevo Vallarta, which we had all planned together. TJ even went so far as to ask our other friend Sergio (I feel like everyone I know here is named Sergio. It's rather confusing.) if he would like to go if I couldn't. Mom's procedure ended up being scheduled for February 8th, meaning that I was just barely able to make it to Vallarta. Sergio, however, arrived in Guadalajara with bronchitis and had to cancel. So other-Sergio was able to go despite my presence.

While we were in Vallarta, the bronchitis turned into pneumonia, and Sergio #1 found himself hospitalized for the better part of the following week. While I was home with mom, TJ loaded up our Wii and held Mario Kart competitions in the hospital with Sergio and his boyfriend Carlos. Although I made it back from Texas in time to have one dinner and another short visit with the pair, I'm afraid I got no photos. So here's a picture of Mario. They spent more time with him anyway.

While in Texas I managed to sneak away from home twice. The first time was to visit an old friend from college. Cory was the academic advisor for an organization I belonged to during my sophomore, junior, and 1st senior year (yeah, I took a victory lap) at Texas A&M. A kind soul and a good listener, poor Cory somehow got roped into listening to my woes for almost three long years. Boy troubles, family troubles, you name it, she had to listen to it. This was the first time I had seen her since graduating, and it was a wonderful feeling to
meet as peers. Well, not peers. She's got far too much awesome in her for me to dare claim equality. To meet as adults, I should say. We spent a wonderful afternoon chowing down on some Freebirds and walking around campus. I realized something that day. I've completely moved on. Whatever memories I had from college, good or bad, they don't seem all that important anymore. Even the renowned Freebirds burrito had lost its oomph. Ancient History. But Cory? She's a keeper. Here's a picture of us being bad and standing on the football field, which we were told not to do. I hope I see her again before another nine years have passed.

My second outing was for a quick lunch with with some of my best friends from high school at one of Temple's fanciest restaurants, Olive Garden. The fanciest used to be Applebee's. Temple's moving on up. I can't joke too much, though, as it was my suggestion. Mexico has a lot to offer, but Darden Restaurants aren't part of the package. I also made my parents take me to Red Lobster. *nomnomnom*

In high school I tended to run with a crowd of six. Three boys, three girls. I guess in a perfect ABC After School Special world, we would have all gotten married and been besties for life. But you can't even blame me for that not working out. None of the others got together, either. Of the five, three were able to join me for soup, salad, and to-die-for breadsticks. Becca's happily married with two precious little girls. Rachel's been in a steady relationship for years, and Trey and his girlfriend were expecting a bouncing baby girl any day (FYI, she was born last week and is absolutely precious). It was a nice meal with wonderful conversation. Time had done its work, though, as it was obvious that these three, despite still living fairly close to each other, weren't in regular contact with each other. Still, it was nice to see them, and I hope to catch them again on my next visit.

I returned from Texas just two days before Brian's visit. Brian, like Joey, is a friend of ours from Orlando that, like Joey, ultimately hightailed it out of there for greener pastures. Brian's currently doing the pharmacist thing up in his hometown of Pittsburgh, PA. This visit was the exact opposite of Joey's. His Spanish was worse than mine, which I liked, but sadly, he did seem to have a slight aversion to Mexico. After a great weekend in Puerto Vallarta, the poor guy managed to get food poisoning twice. This took its toll, and he became overly cautions about things like water, grocery bags, and earthquakes (hey, they happen). Overall, I think he had fun, and I hope it wasn't too traumatizing. I didn't lug my camera around too much during this particular visit (though we also didn't really do much new stuff this time, either...well, except for an Elton John concert at Estadio Omnilife..the man sang for almost three hours!) and Brian hasn't downloaded his photos to Facebook yet, so please enjoy this picture of the cutest Mariachi player in the world, who we happened to see on the Tequila Express. Yeah, that's right. I did the Tequila Express twice in a one-month period. That doesn't mean I have a problem. It's all in the name of cultural exchange for my visiting gringos, you see.

After almost two years of adjusting to life abroad, interrupted only by the occasional visitor or trip back to the states, it was both exciting and a little disorienting to see so many faces from the past in a one month period.

Family. Friends. I love you all. I miss you all. I enjoy seeing you all. But please, let me take a 15 minute break.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Worst Thing About Getting Older... that your parents do, too.

The end of January leading up through the end of February was just about the busiest, most worry filled month I believe I've ever had. Well, actually, I guess it all started in December. Or maybe it was years ago.

You see, my mother had been complaining of hip, leg, and lower back pain, pains she had attributed to a fall while walking on crutches during a recovery from a heel spur surgery that occurred so long ago that TJ and I were living in Florida at the time. Over the last couple of years, her primary care physician and chiropractor have bickered back and forth over the cause of the pain, with the PCP's vanity and/or ego preventing him from authorizing an MRI.

Meanwhile, fresh off of our cruise in November, TJ and I turned our attentions to the inevitable R&R that the State Department provides for its FSOs living in Mexico. Faced with the choice of taking another fun vacation or sucking it up and visiting family, we decided to kill two birds with one stone and invite my parents on a cruise. We were surprised when my parents, never ones for adventure, agreed to accompany us on a Western Caribbean voyage on the Carnival Triumph this April.

The only roadblock was my mother's crippling pain, which had reached the point that a trip to the mailbox and back was almost out of the question. My Aunt Sister (Sylvia, although I couldn't pronounce that as a toddler) was quick to inform her dear sister that if she couldn't enjoy a leisurely stroll through the produce aisle, she definitely couldn't board a cruise ship. Whether this was said out of familial concern or vacation jealousy, we'll never know, but it did give mom the courage to finally seek out a second opinion. She saw her new doctor on December 27th. An MRI was scheduled for the 29th.

On December 30th she received a call saying that she needed to come back in for a CT scan on January 2nd. This scan would ultimately confirm that my mom was suffering from a blocked aortic valve. She was told that a lifetime of smoking had finally caught up with her, and that the occlusion was the cause of her years of pain. After several appointments to determine whether or not she would need to have stents installed or undergo a more serious bypass, it was ultimately decided that the stents should suffice.

My parents were encouraged. Both quit smoking on the spot and even bought a treadmill, confident that my mom would be ready to exercise in no time.

I'll spare you the suspense of it all and assure you that the stents worked, neither parent has smoked since, and mom has started using her treadmill.

But I didn't know this at the time. What I did know was that this was the first medical emergency my family had faced since I graduated from Texas A&M in the spring of 2003 and fled the state. I also new that the last time I had seen my parents was November 2010, surpassing the once-a-year average we had attempted to maintain over the years. Sure, I would see them in April. And, sure, mom insisted that I shouldn't waste the money on such an expensive trip home. But would any of us be able to forgive me if something went wrong during the procedure and I wasn't there? Not likely.

I departed Guadalajara shortly after noon on February 7th and returned shortly after 8pm on February 14th, effectively missing TJ's birthday and Valentine's Day. But we had discussed it, and both knew it was the right thing to do. We're young (early 30's) and healthy (if not slightly-to-completely out of shape) and have plenty of birthdays and holidays left in us.

That first night, I watched my mom as she faked courage and optimism for the outcome of the following day's procedure, nervously arranging candy in a bowl as though it were a bouquet of flowers. I listened through paper-thin walls as she cried herself to sleep.

The following morning, the morning of the procedure, I sat in the back seat with my Aunt Sister while dad drove us to Austin and mom resumed her brave face from the evening before. We all went a little slack-jawed as the doctor, previously confident in an 80% chance of success, changed his tune to "I'll sure do my best." I sat in horror for the first hour of the procedure, having realized that after coming all this way, I had actually forgotten to kiss my mom and tell her that I love her right before the big event. Such a jerk.

Three hours in, and I knew she was going to be ok. I could just feel it. One hour later, and this was confirmed by the doctor. Four hours later, we were finally allowed to begin the hour-long drive home.

Throughout the remainder of the week, my mother spent her days recuperating on the couch. I would go on to have an enjoyable lunch with some high school friends and a wonderful day with an old friend from college (we'll get to that next time), but for the most part, I just lounged around the house.

I wasted time on my laptop and fiddled with my NOOK Tablet while my parents wasted time on their own laptops and channel surfed. I got to see American Idol for the first time in 2-3 years. I realized I'm not missing much. I got to see The Voice for the first time ever. I made TJ watch it on-line as soon as I got back to Guadalajara.

I took photos of the old house. I talked to my dad about all the cars he has built and/or raced over the years. I went to the Temple Mall, and left without entering a single store (Damn, I grew up in a small town). I spent one unexpected afternoon watching snow, having no chance of accumulating, drift hopelessly to the ground. I can't recall seeing snowfall in Texas since I was four years old.

I had hoped to bring with me delicious, healthy, low-carb recipes so that my parents could begin a new lifestyle, but all I managed was preparing one delicious meal during the seven days I spent at home.

Oh, who am I kidding? All of the meals were delicious. They just weren't healthy. But I've decided to cut my parents some slack. They've had a rough few months. They have faced their own mortality, they have quit smoking, and they have spent hours (and thousands of dollars) in hospitals.

Let them eat as they like for now. I know they'll do their best.

All told, I'm not sure my presence had much of an impact. But my mom is. She called me her good luck charm, and proudly reports that she is walking a mile each day on her treadmill. And as for that one healthy meal I managed to cook for them? She's recreated that once or twice, too.

I can't say that I walked away unscathed, either. TJ and I are eating healthier. I've lost almost 10lbs, and am running almost 5K every day in the park by our house. Maybe I'll complete that New Year's resolution after all.