Monday, September 7, 2015

Welcome Back to NOVA. Did You Bring Your Checkbook?

After living for two years in Jakarta, we got very familiar with insane traffic, the same weather every day, and an inshallah attitude to things that should have worked or been available but weren't. We have been on home leave for about a month in Texas and the Pacific Northwest, and have had a great time. But it's time to get back to work and for kids to go to school, so we just landed back in everyone's favorite childrens gulag, Oakwood Falls Church.

The public schools here still treat us as invaders, and thinking about how transient and high-maintenance we State people are, I can understand, though the attitude is a little hard to take sometimes. Both sides know we are one family-friendly post going on authorized departure from flooding their schools. Still, I think I was nicer at the visa window giving somebody a lifetime ineligibility to travel to the U.S. than some administrators have been in demanding papers from us. It's high stress for everybody involved, so maybe a little more kindness or courtesy from all sides would be welcome.

What I had forgotten (or maybe it really has gotten worse) is what I would call the friction or hassle of living here. Non-Virginia resident with out of state plates? You still have to register with the City for a parking permit or get fined. New since I was here last: an additional sticker to purchase for non-residents to travel down certain streets during rush hour. Not to park-to travel through the streets. This is revenue enhancement taken to a new level. There are also many "everybody knows, so why tell you?" aspects to living here. Lots of people get their touch on you just for moving to town, registering your kids for things, and trying to settle down.

When we were overseas, we followed events in Ferguson, MO and other places closely. What struck me as a former defense attorney the most was the Justice Dept. report that showed that, in an effort to keep taxes low and make things attractive for the middle and upper classes, the police and courts were treating the poor as a revenue source, issuing multiple tickets for a single stop, piling on court costs and additional fines when someone couldn't pay the first ticket, etc., and being complimented by the city government for doing so. In this scenario, police become not primarily law enforcement but revenue agents, because promotions and pay follow the amount of tickets the cop writes. Cops who complained about this in Ferguson were more or less told to shut up and write more tickets.

So when I came back to NOVA, I saw more roads with 25mph speed limits. These are four-lane boulevards that in many other states we visited during home leave had 35-45mph speed limits. Along most of these roads is an additional sign proclaiming the area to be a residential zone that adds $200.00 to any other fines and fees for speeding. Some of these "residential zones" have at least as many businesses as residences on them.

On Sunday morning, we were driving Route 7 to Tyson's Corner to visit an auto dealership. I saw two different people pulled over by the police for some traffic violation. At one point I turned off of Route 7 onto a side road. A city cop made a hard turn behind me and pulled up to my rear bumper so close I could not see his headlights. He followed us like this for over a mile. If I slowed down in fear, would I be ticketed for creating an obstruction? If I had pulled over, for illegally driving on the shoulder? If I tried to get more distance between us, surely it would have been a speeding ticket. So, I drove at 2 mph under the speed limit, slowed down to the recommended speed in the turns, etc. After that mile or so the cop crossed a double yellow line to pass me, and hooked a left at an intersection without slowing down for a stop sign.

The whole thing feels like the locals are aiming to prey upon us out-of-towners so that they can become the tick on the right.

And we haven't even started back at work where we will be fighting the email transfer and ID badge renewal process...

Saturday, July 18, 2015

First Post Reflections

We are only a few days until lift off. Reflecting back two years ago I can't believe how incredibly good our tour here has been. Rest assured, "incredibly good" does not mean super easy, low stress, or without it's frustrations. Not at all. I call it good because we have learned so much, seen and experienced many crazy awesome or interesting things. But alas- We have reached the end of our time here.

1. We have made good friends here! People we will keep in our hearts no matter where we are.

2. Indonesia is simply amazing! Jakarta's traffic is horrendous but other than that the physical land and sea of Indonesia is beautiful. The places we were able to visit were pretty much post card perfect.

3. Volcanoes are really cool!

4. I liked it more than I thought I would (our 11 yr old son).

5.. The world has plenty of self-serving turf mongers but life is more fun when you have friends.

6. The Triangle of Doom: Don't do it!  
Point A (your home) + Point B (your office) + Point C (favorite expat or western restaurant) = depression.

7.  Life happens at Post. You name it- it happens.

8. No matter where you are or what you doing- while at a foreign post you are representing the United States. The same is also true for your whole family.

9. Not everyone feels they "are where they are supposed to be". If you do have that assurance you are going to be happier in general.

10. Rules are strictly enforced for almost everyone but for a select few they don't apply at all.

11. If your spouse is the CLO- so are you.

12.  The typical reward for a good work is more work.

13. If you need things to be predictable and the same day after day you will need to find a different job.

14. Somedays you are giving speeches, some days you carrying someone else's luggage. Be prepared for both, and have the right attitude either way.

15. Vacations off of the usual tourist track are amazing, but never let yourself be too far from an SOS clinic.

16. Only you can control how happy you are (our 17 yr old son).

17. Having a canteen or a common lunch room inside an embassy is very important.

18. Watching people with really big feet (mens sized 13) trying on shoes in a store can draw a curious crowd.

19. How Americans treat and care for their dogs can be a source of entertainment for non-Americans.

20. Having trustworthy help around the house is really awesome. Pay and treat them well.

21. DEET is your friend. You DO NOT want dengue!

22. Diarrhea experiences are considered appropriate discussions inside the Foreign Service community.

23. The whole Diplomat thing - it might not be as cool as you think it will be (our 20 yr old daughter).

24. We had a good social sponsor and they made a big difference. 

25. Learn the language, it makes your whole experience come alive.

26. You are going to pay extra because you're American - just deal with it.

27. Know what to do and who to call in an emergency.

28. People are going to want to take pictures of you and with you. "Photo photo, mister?"

29. Choose your friends wisely. 

30. International schools are more fun and rich than regular schools (our 11 yr old son)

31. I'll pay way too much for good cheese!

32. I love and say prayers of thankfulness for the DPO and pouch.

33. If you are in Jakarta for long, you will feel inclined to adopt a scruffy cat with a bobbed tail.

34. Even if you would never in a million years consider riding a motorcycle in the US, you'll probably give it strong consideration in Jakarta.

35. Cones don't matter all that much in the end. Working smart and consistently do.

Friday, July 17, 2015

A very McKeating anniversary:

 Sean and I just celebrated 24 years as married people in typical McKeating tradition- we packed boxes and were knee-deep in "stuff". Ah, the romance of a transcontinental move! 

Take a look at heart thumping romance, McKeating Style!

At a less chaotic moment, I started calculating the times we've had a normal anniversary (like on tv) vs a more  utilitarian celebration (like sharing a role of tape). The answer: the utilitarian version, by a long shot. Truly, I think the month of July is rigged or something. We don't move every July, but when we do move it usually falls during the month of July, our anniversary month. Maybe that explains why we've never been the red roses and blue Tiffany's box kind of couple, though I wouldn't mind giving it a try (we did go to Vegas once). Instead we are usually hyper focused on getting some big out-the-ordinary project wrapped up, or maybe we are just starting one at that time. It could be because our big day is so close to a major holiday, too. In our case this year, it's all of the above. We are just wrapping up our first Foreign Service tour. It's been exciting, to say the least. We can both say this experience has far exceeded our expectations. We are also embarking on our next big adventure: Brasilia, 2016! Actually, Oakwood and FSI first, but that's where the adventure gains traction. 

I've claimed next year's anniversary for Buenos Aires, or maybe Lima - I only know that no boxes and no rolls of tape are allowed. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

All The Blog Posts In My Head

I have to apologize for my long silence but since I joined the "appreciating the work/life balance" crew (full time mom and full time employee) I struggle to find the creative space to sit down and write a post- though I haven't really been as neglectful as it may seem; I think about our blog readers all the time. I see something, I go somewhere or experience a new taste sensation and I think, "I must write a blog post about this!"  Such as Martabak, an amazing dessert that somehow made it onto my fork.

One of my favorite things is my once a month book club. We're a small and loud (I think we would
prefer the word "robust") group but over the months we have read some really good books; some are better than others of course, but a few in particular have been fist-pounding argument-provoking autobiographical summaries of women's lives. I've learned a lot- such as the fact that I am susceptible to mom guilt due to my subletting some of my previous domestic details. The fact that view these things as "my domestic details" proves that I've got a way to go. Even though I am working I still consider my family time as a measure of how well grounded I am to the commitments I have made as a parent- this fact means that no matter how many freeing lines I highlighted in my copy of Lean In, I still willingly invite the mom guilt fairy to come in and nest on my head. Rest assured, as I read the book I had several blog posts bouncing around in my head, such as, Does The Author Of Lean In 
Have Real Problems Or Does She Have Some Upgraded Version Of Reality?" but then I applied
some of her basic "sit at the table" concepts and when that went well I asked myself the one basic question the book asked over and over. "What would I do if I weren't afraid?" The answer?  I got up the nerve to apply for the one job I had wanted since I first learned about it- CLO Coordinator.

This is a pic of a few ladies in my book club on the night we reviewed Lean In and Bossy Pants. Our 
cake says it all!

Here is another blog post that I wrote (in my head)- This Spring I was lucky enough to have my dear cousin Phil and his wife Carmen make the long journey from Texas to visit us. They were such fun guests because they didn't mind a little discomfort (such as picking any random reflexology foot massage place in the rougher side of town) in order to have some new experiences. Well, Phil had done his research on the various fun things to do in Jakarta. He had barely stepped off of the airplane when he said that his goal was to visit the Jakarta cobra markets. And that we did! Phil was a trooper and hung in there as he unknowingly ordered a magical tincture made of the blood of one cobra and two other black and yellow snakes and some local "jamu" (herb based medicine), oh and the "squeezins" of the cobra's gall bladder (or that's what we assume it was). Poor Phil believed he had walked into a restaurant where he could order up a basket of fried snake fingers- not an old Javanese traditional version of Viagra. 

Ah, drink up Cousin Phil, you only live once!  Actually, he didn't want to drink it but once he realized that a few snakes had been volunteered to the cause, he felt morally obligated. What a trooper!

So see... I've been writing all of this in my imagination for months!

Here is another blog post I've had in my head- island hopping. This is a shot from the beach of our favorite Indonesian get away- Gili Trawangan. Gili T. is a tiny island located in the gorgeous turquoise sea between Bali and Lombok. 

There are also the sad blog posts that I feel compelled to write. Here were some wild animals being sold in random outdoor markets. 

Neither one are happy in their cages. It's heartbreaking. 

Jakarta has enough going on that I could write about it every day. I'll try to check in sooner and not let so many things stack up in my mental blog file. 

Btw... I got the job! 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Home is Where the Stomach Is

One of the drawbacks of living overseas is missing all the food from back home. We are lucky and blessed to have a commissary at our post, so if you just can't live another day without your favorite junk food or beer, you can probably get it here, as long as money is no object. Somedays, only a Pop-Tart (c) will do, you know what I'm saying? 

But what you really begin to miss are the ethnic and local foods available at restaurants back home that just aren't available, or even more frustrating, they have something with the same name here but it just isn't the same. But lately, good things have been happening.

We have managed to find, not too far away even, a taqueria. It is a little hole in the wall joint that seats about 17 close friends, it's cheap, of amazing taste but dubious healthiness. Almost like what we enjoyed in Laredo!

Then, last night we had dinner at some Foreign Service friends' house where we got to enjoy for the first time since we left the DC area:

Oh, yeah, all the favorites. Injera, doro wat, that spinach dish :-), and small cups of atomic-strength Ethiopian coffee for dessert. Our friends bring t'eff from America when they go home and make injera for their family every week. They have said come over any time. If we went as often as we liked, they wouldn't be saying that any more.

It was a lovely evening with colleagues who had been posted to Addis Ababa, talking East African politics, eating until we burst, and listening to Teddy Afro.

So, in the last two weeks we have had two homecomings for our stomachs, and things are good, really good. As long as we meet Mexican and Ethiopian friends at all of our Foreign Service posts, we may just be able to make it in this life.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Long Absences and State Brain

So, obviously we haven't written in a while. Christmas Season at the house for L and Christmas travel season at the consular section for me made for a hectic end of the year. So, yes, we are still alive, still in Indonesia, and still gainfully employed. 

Since our last post, things have gotten way more hectic in our lives. L starts work at the embassy tomorrow, and we have had to adjust for two full-time working parents in our household of three kids and a dog. My job has also changed a great deal recently.

In our consular section, we are small enough that every six months or so we rotate through portfolios like non-immigrant visa (NIV), American citizen services, etc. I started, as all new officers do, in NIV. It takes the most time and personnel of anything that we do, even after we rotate away from strict NIV work into one of the other rotations. Any day people are out sick or away, or for some reason we have a large number of applicants, we leave our rotations and go back to NIV for as long as we are needed. So really, when you take a rotation you don't get to change one job for another so much as add one job to another, at least some of the time.

Between this development, front office projects, outreach and VIP activities, etc., let's just say that I have had to expand my capacity for work. Rest assured that in my diseased mind this is a good thing, and I am loving it. The increased pace has led me to adopting what I call State Brain, but any organization that demands a constant high pace probably has the same thing.

With State Brain, your mind is full of one concept or task and completely engaged for as long as it takes, some times hours, some times minutes. Then an email, phone call, or person comes to you with the next thing to focus on. You quickly have to dump out of your head what you are working on, load in the new task, and concentrate fully on that one. Repeat, either several times a day or here recently many times an hour. The capacity for your brain to act like a rail car or commercial truck for which the cargo carriers are being loaded, moved some distance, and then replaced with another one is what I mean when I say State Brain. It's not multi-tasking, just high demand fast switching between tasks. A to-do list is an absolute must to avoid anything being dropped. Lunches are no longer anything other than mandatory nutrition loading. You start taking work with you to the bathroom. Any first year associate at a large law firm or medical resident knows exactly what I am talking about.

Prior to taking the full time job at the embassy, L worked for three weeks on a special project. She is starting to develop State Brain too, for she has begun to communicate with me in dreaded three-letter acronyms, and recently gave me provisional instructions on what kind of flea prevention to buy our dog, because she wanted time to check out different brands and prices. A normal person would say "I am thinking we should buy brand X but let me check around some first before you go to the store." What she actually told me was: "Brand X at Store Y. Get the variety for our dog's weight. Green package. HOLD UNTIL I CLEAR." 

To which I can only say, "Welcome, L, to you your new brain."


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Now, That's The Stuff

We didn't join the Foreign Service just to interview people for visas and talk to people in our host country's government, as important as those things are. We also wanted to meet ordinary Indonesians and serve them in some way. After a little while getting the lay of the land, we were fortunate to meet a local lawyer who put us in touch with the Yayasan Pemimpin Anak Bangsa, or the National Youth Leader Foundation. Sounds like a big-time NGO, but it's basically a school where both children and adult students come for several hours every Saturday to either get primary or GED education, or help with preparing for the national university exams. 

Lainie's first visit- This is a group of older students who are working
hard on their high school/middle school studies.
*Note the Indonesian bunny ears thing.
Kiki, the founder of the school, wanted to give non-traditional students a place to learn at an accelerated pace, in English (somewhat), and eventually have the students pass the national exams. The location itself is hosted by a retiree from the national power company and is located on the grounds of his house in Central Jakarta. It is not in the glitzy high-rise part of Jakarta, although you can see them past the huge electricity towers located there. It is in an area one step above a slum, with lots of poverty, single-parent families, and people who had to stop their education because they had to work to eat. Besides the land owner and the founder, the school is staffed on a rotating basis by lawyers and other professionals who want to give back to the community. Classes include English, mathematics, and national test preparation for the older students, and basic skills for the younger ones. Lainie went last week to see the school and couldn't stop talking about it. You could say this kind of thing that is right up her alley. She talked me into going back out yesterday with our local friend.

We started our visit by attending the younger kids' class. It was a mob of kids, more students than usual because word spread around the neighborhood that Bule' (white foreigners) were at the school. We led the kids in some English exercises, sang some songs together, and talked about our family, life in America, and watched them fidget and roughhouse. At the end of class, we handed out potato chips from the States, which was a huge hit.


After that we were milling around in the street waiting for the adult classes to start, and I asked one of the kids if he wanted to get launched like a rocket. After some fear and trepidation, he was ready. So "tiga, dua, satu (3,2,1)..." and I hiked him up into the air and put him back down, with rocket noises. Instantly the entire class also wanted to be launched, over the roof, across the river, or to America. After about 15 of these the launch pad had to be closed because the rocket (yours truly) was out of fuel! Then came re-enactments of Bruce Lee movies, tackle the "monster" and everything else possible when a smiling giant is in town. It was panic in the streets for awhile.

Our Indonesian teachers were thrilled with all this, and they brought us to the small teacher's lounge for a meal. The meal was a box of street food and a cup of mineral water. Unlike other posts in SE Asia and around the world, Indonesian street food is NOT safe for Bule'. However, there was no way in the world we were going to insult our hosts and have them and us lose face by refusing the food. Down it went with a prayer to the stomach gods and a promise to find the vodka bottle for a medicinal dose when we got home. So far, so good!

After dinner we were introduced to the adult class. Here my Indonesian language skills were given a workout. These were non traditional students that have jobs and a very busy life but are motivated to continue to learn to better themselves and their families with education. They have my great respect.

They asked about where we were from, what I liked and didn't like about Jakarta, about my job and things they knew about America. I answered those questions with as much humor, humility and proper Indonesian as I had. I asked them about their studies and families. We had a ball together. And then came the inevitable request that I had been dreading. Would I please sing something?

Now, this is a very Asian thing. To refuse would not exactly be an insult, but it would put distance between us. So, I asked what I should sing. My wife, God love her, suggested an Eagles song. No way. Then one of the volunteer teachers suggested our "lagu kebangsaan." I hadn't heard this term but I knew "lagu" was "song" and "bangsa" was national, and the dime dropped as I realized they wanted me to sing the Star Spangled Banner. In public. By myself. The song with the weird rhythm and crazy range that wrecked a thousand sporting events. But, just like dinner, I could not refuse. With a hard swallow, I began belting it out with gusto, and what did I hear but my wife joining in! You can't imagine how good it was having just one more person to sing with in those circumstances.

After that came what I have learned is a Jakarta tradition after any event. Photographs! Always two or three with everyone being serious, and one with everyone acting crazy, putting rabbit ears behind each other's heads, etc. A long walk down a dark alley to the main road later, and it was a taxi ride home. A long, exhausting, exhilarating experience.
As a Consular officer, we meet with people outside the government everyday at the visa window. But the people rich enough to travel to the U.S. are still in the upper 5% of Indonesian society. Our great fortune in meeting our local friend and her connecting us with this school has given us a chance to meet at length with ordinary Indonesians. For some hours yesterday, we were America for the kids and adults we met and talked with. These people would have little chance of meeting us in other circumstances. Now, it was hot and humid and we were surrounded by mosquitos, burning trash, and all the other marks of poor areas in the tropics. We got out of there late, bitten, sticky and tired and then enjoyed a 1.5 hour taxi ride to travel 10 miles in the usual Jakarta traffic. (More singing together as requested by the taxi driver, this time the Rolling Stones). I still have two more days to wait to see if my dinner is going to send me to Singapore.

But, man, THIS was why we joined the State Department. One of our country goals is "Increase people to people contacts," and that was yesterday to a T. Either things like yesterday drive you insane, or you can't get enough of them. Representing America to people we wouldn't normally have access to, eating with them and belting out the national anthem to a room full of strangers? Oh, let me tell you, that's the stuff, my friends. I wouldn't have traded yesterday for the world.