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.

Monday, October 7, 2013

How Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

The picture to the left is a typical Jakarta surface street on a Saturday morning when traffic is light. What the picture cannot tell you is that the speed limit here is basically, "How fast can you go?"

Most days, that means 0-5 miles per hour. On the rare  light traffic days, it can reach 30 mph. The worst is when the traffic is heavy but moving, because everyone is desparate to get as far as possible before the inevitable traffic jam. But you know what you don't see in that picture or most anywhere else in Jakarta? Sidewalks!

Sidewalks, traffic lights and streetcrossings do exist in some places, but since those are merely lights on a pole or lines of paint on the street, they don't do much to slow down traffic. And yet, many times in Jakarta you simply must cross the street. What to do?

Your first few days or weeks, you wait until a local is crossing the road, and you use the slip stream to get across. Usually this is a little old lady in a hijab, and you feel like a total Wuss-keteer keeping a little old lady between you and onrushing traffic. And then sometimes you need to cross and there are no toddlers and old ladies to hide behind. So, one day you decide to use It. The one device that locals swear by when it comes to crossing a road full of moving traffic without the benefit of a crossing, stoplight, or anything else than your guts and your need to get across the road. 

Here it is:

This is the human hand, also known here as the "tangan dukun" or black magic hand when used to cross the street here. Here is how you use it. First, swallow hard and get very philosophical about whether you are going to live longer than the next 2 minutes. Then, put the magic hand out at shoulder height or lower in the direction of oncoming traffic. Step off the curb and walk at a consistent speed across the road, no matter how fast the cars are coming or how soft and squishy you feel compared to the buses and trucks heading towards you. That's it. I've seen it work a thousand times in my tour so far, and never seen anyone run over. But there are some "dont's" you have to avoid:

1. DON'T look at the drivers, only your destination. If the drivers see you look at them, they know you can see them and should avoid them. This can be hard to do if you are only 1/3 of the way across and have already been buzzed by 20 motorcycles. Stay tough, stare straight ahead.

2. DON'T vary your speed once you start across. The drivers rocketing towards you are assuming a constant rate of speed on your part as they calculate how close they can come to clipping you. If you get scared and stop, or think you are close enough to run the last little gap, you will be crushed.

3. DON'T react to cars and/or motorcycles hitting the horn as they draw even with you. Especially if you are an expat, because getting a "bule" (boo-lay) to jump two feet straight up into the air is great sport. Show some toughness and pride.

The only alternative is to hail a cab so they can go to the nearest roundabout and, depending on traffic, get you to the other side of the street in 10-20 minutes. You can do this. 240 million Indonesians can't be wrong, right?


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Celebrating Three Years Of Having Three Kids

Today, the day after a very special anniversary for our family, I was invited to join some friends who were heading out to volunteer at a local orphanage. Being an adoptive parent, I am particularly vulnerable in such a setting. I love kids and have worked with kids from various backgrounds in the past. My heart is definitely on high alert in such a place but I have no current plans to add to our family. It also helped my resolve knowing that there is no legal avenue for us to adopt a child from Indonesia. There are lots and lots of criteria we could never meet; we have three kids, we have previously adopted kids (that rule sort of fails the logic test for me), we are over 40, and the list goes on. All that to say, I walked into the place knowing I could play and enjoy them without feeling the need to add another place setting at our table. 

Well, I believed my head and my heart were firmly attached in the right places, but it didn't take long before I was beginning to wonder if the rules I had been told about adopting here were actually 
correct. I even began to speculate that there may be a loop hole or two for a child who has special needs. I am thrilled to report that many Indonesians do adopt. This orphanage was not over run with waiting kids. The orphanage was nice, clean and well staffed with very kind nannies.

While we were there we met a lady who is the aunt of young family who is adopting one of the babies. She had stopped by to play with her and check on her. She said they have one more hurdle and then she's home for good. We all cheered and the baby clapped. So sweet.

Indonesian kids are beyond adorable!  

 Then, there was this one little boy who grabbed my heart. I watched him play and interact. He reached over to feed me a bite of his Lego block. I pretended to take a bite and acted like it was delicious. He shot me a shy smile, looked away and then back again to see if I was still there. What a cutie!  I could almost feel the ivy like veins of love gripping around my heart. I decided not to hold him or focus on him. But, as I watched the little boy play it got to me. My eyes and nose burned with phantom tears. I believe that my broken heart went undetected. It would have been silly for me to go to that emotional place when I KNEW going in that I could not adopt these any of these kids. The sweet little boy has a few developmental delays and challenges certainly lay ahead of him. One specific physical defect was obvious. I assumed that defect was the reason he had not been adopted after all this time. He is clearly over a year old. It's difficult for me not to judge people for this. He is beautiful, engaging and intelligent. I could love him and provide him what he needs. His needs seem so minor. If he had the love and attention of an experienced family and some minor medical attention he could overcome in no time. I will certainly be praying someone will see past these minuscule issues and bring him home to be their miracle boy.  Then I remembered our fear as we filled out the numerous papers for our adoption. We had requested a healthy child. My heart stung in the revelation of my own hypocrisy. Pretty sure my eyes leaked a little.

I thought about our youngest son and what he might have looked like as a baby. What did he play with? What did he like to eat?  As an adoptive parent I am incredibly lucky because I have a few of his baby and toddler pictures. I will cherish them always. And yet, I lament. If only I could have held him, protected him and cradled him as he slept in my arms. I literally ache for the time we lost with him but that pain is completely over come by the three wonderful years we have had with him. What a treasure he is!

A picture from Our "Gotcha Day" Sept. 11, 2010. We had an awesome group
of family and some of our closest friends at the airport to welcome him home. 

It was just three years ago as of yesterday when we landed in Houston's airport with our youngest son. It's an anniversary that reminds us that our hope and desire to adopt an amazing kid was more than fulfilled. Our life has been blessed beyond our wildest dreams. He is an incredible person. He is funny. He is mature. He is wise beyond his years. He has got me heart and soul. I honestly can't remember life without him here. All three of my kids my treasures. I am a very lucky mom!

They all look SO YOUNG AND LITTLE in this picture!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Learning Curve

I feel like the last two months I have been living way outside of my previous experiences and yet I feel oddly at ease living in Jakarta. But when I come up against a learning experience that requires me to give myself a little grace I toss the situation into a file I call Lainie's learning curve. We are new to Jakarta, new to serving abroad with the Foreign Service, therefore grace is required as we figure these things out, this is what I tell myself probably 10 times a day.

 Many kind people have inquired, "How is the transition going for you?"  I do a quick mood diagnostic and most of the time I can say "I think I am hanging in there pretty good." I've had a few frustrating situations that had me in tears but I think we are all doing really well for the most part. 

  One of our family members has yet to arrive and oh how we are missing our beloved old Molly dog. We are still working on her import requirements. It's not easy being a FS dog. 

So, here's the Learning Curve list as it stands so far. It is in no particular order.

Clean water vs non-potable water, learning what I can and can't use tap water for. I thought I would present myself as a real world traveler and use local tap water to brush my teeth. I have since learned that is not a good idea. Maybe one day I will have steel plated expat guts but not at this point.

EFM (family member of an officer) Embassy Jobs,  Picture this: 25 over qualified people all want a shot at the four mostly clerical or managerial jobs currently listed (reason for this is that our diplomatic status prevents us from working within the local economy).  Here is a hint: If you are applying don't say a word to anyone. If you do let it slip that you interviewed for a job do your level best to make sure you let it go and are not bothered by the fact someone you know and like well got the job and you didn't. It's just part of life at post, apparently.
Secondly, the interview panel may ask you, "What are your career goals as an EFM?" and it may not be to your advantage to express that you feel that the question is a just a bit condescending. When asked I found myself struggling with the expected (interviewer wants to hear) answer and what I felt was a more honest answer. So, I went with my gut and suggested that a better question would be, "What are my hopes for my career as an EFM?" instead of "goals." And, while it seemed to generate a few nods and smiles at that very moment I don't actually know if they got it. With that brave (and ironically prophetic) moment behind me, I do not regret being true to myself and explaining that I feel my wisest plan for being successful at EFMhood is not to have clearly defined personal career goals (which does suck pretty darn bad). Bottom line, we EFM's are basically powerless in the career dept. There are possibilities but they are not the same at every post and it is rare to find a job in our particular career field or skill set waiting for us at post. EFM's need to have a built in flexibility that allows us to reinvent ourselves at each new location. How do you do that and answer the question, "What are your goals as an EFM?"  I would love for some wiser more experienced EFM's out there to chime in here.

Post Housing. When you do go into your post housing the first time go alone, or at least do not enter it with anyone who has not promised to love and cherish you until death do you part no matter what you say or how immaturely you react to ugly bathroom tiles. I do love our location and I've decided
the house is actually nice. Our house is growing on me all the time, however, my ridiculously minuscule closet space rash may act up again when our HHE (7k lb. of our personal items) arrives. On an amazingly happy note: we were given permission to paint the walls!
And paint we did! 

Driving Bu Lainie. I knew we would have to buy a car and hire a driver when we arrived at post, all of it out of our pockets of course (mentioned just in case some readers thought otherwise). Though I had anticipated a feeling of "lack of independence" before we arrived I had no idea how truly odd having a driver drive me around all day would actually be. Initially, every time I climbed in the 2nd row I felt sort of ridiculous, it's a very used '04 Toyota Kijang, not a limo, it's not a taxi, it's my own vehicle. Then, there are the logistics, was my driver sitting out in the hot car as I grocery shopped? As I had lunch with friends? I hoped not- so therefore- I hurried and worried as if my dad, my husband or my son was outside impatiently waiting for me. I have since learned that the drivers usually have nice sitting areas where they play cards, get a drink of cool water and just hang out- so that burden has lifted somewhat. When we are home, between errands, my driver literally sits at a table under my car port and waits for me to need to go someplace or to send him for something. I really wrestled with all of this at first. I wondered, "Was it my job to keep him busy the whole time he was on the clock?" It felt odd, him waiting outside to be asked to drive me someplace while I was inside reading a book on my couch with no intentions of going anywhere. Dare I say I might have even resented it just a bit because I felt guilty that he was constantly waiting for me. Learning not to feel bad when our driver is driving me/not driving me has been/is one of the major items on my learning curve.
The day I took this photo my car was full of people, which is rare. Usually me and the Pak, our driver. 

Managing Home Staff. Oh, I gotta tell ya... I didn't realize how amazing it is to have a clean house, like a really clean house, and beautifully ironed shirts ready for Sean each day. I am realizing how unwired I am to do those things now that I have seen domestic masters at work. Wow! However, this situation is pretty much the peak of my learning curve here. I am still struggling to learn how this home staff thing works. As a modern American in 2013 I have always believed that it is my duty to undo classism. I still do. But, I have hit a cultural wall. I believe the American ideals of personal empowerment and advancement are the best but- they live here. I am just a visitor. If I raise expectations while I'm here what happens when I leave? It's tough. This type of employee/employer relationship is difficult for me on a lot of levels. These dedicated, kind people are in my house all day. The job we pay them well to do is to take care of us. They work hard and seem to care about us. How can I not care about them? I genuinely want to know about them and about their ideas, thoughts and concerns. I am grateful they are here with me. That's just me, I am this way with everyone. I constantly have to hold myself back from asking them personal questions. Then there is the privacy issue- with our maid in particular, I felt like I had lost all rights to privacy and control over the stuff I had managed alone for years. Though I love not doing dishes as much, it has not been easy for me to give up my territory, ie... the kitchen. I had no idea I felt that way about my kitchen until I had help managing and cooking the meals. Also, for a while, I would not put my own dirty clothes in the hamper. I didn't mind her washing everyone else's underwear but I wanted to maintain my own laundry after she went home each evening. Which brings us to another prickly issue, "How do you say it?" Is it better to be direct from moment one or ease into it all? The answer, be DIRECT and write out a detailed list! I'll spare readers all of the things I've learned on this one topic but suffice to say managing skilled, experienced domestic employees who are in/around my house all day has taken up most of the real-estate on my learning curve.

Things on my "Loving Life" curve are the amazing fun people I've met so far, some are ex-pats and some are local. So far, I really like Jakarta. I think we totally lucked out having this as our first post. 


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

It's Christmas in August!

For those of you readers who have been overseas for the State Department before, this blog post will seem like very old news. But, hallelujah, our UAB arrived! This was 800 lbs of stuff that we sent airfreight from Virginia very shortly before we left for Jakarta. It took a few weeks, and things were delayed by the Lebaran/Idul Fitri holiday, but it came! It came!

This is our first overseas post, so this is all new to us. After weeks and weeks of using the standard issue coffee pot, dealing without the use of a great deal of our valued electronics, and only living with the clothes we could bring with us on the plane, you start to think that it will always be this way.

Not to be ungrateful at all. There is a welcome kit waiting in your house when you arrive, and it has plates and cups, kitchen utensils, even a nice but small TV. Everything you need to live a normal life. The fact that State makes these things available to you until all your things arrive is wonderful. But all that stuff isn't yours. It's not the things you chose for yourself or got used to over the years. Things like the Keurig coffee maker that changed your life when you got it last Christmas. Or the iMac that replaced the laptop that has been doing yeoman duty since we got to Jakarta. Or the slob clothes you haven't been able to wear since you packed your bags.

Just seeing all these things again creates a feeling of familiarity and comfort that is hard to describe. Last night we slept with our own blanket and pillow again. If you've ever been away from home a long time and then come back to sleep in your own bed, you know how good that is even if you truly enjoyed the trip.

Well, it's all here now. And this is just a downpayment on when the next huge load called HHE arrives later. When that one comes it will include all of our cra-I mean valued possessions that we haven't seen since joining the Foreign Service. Churches and NGO's throughout Indonesia will be flush with donations when that arrives, let me tell you. But for now, it's Christmas in August around here.


Friday, July 26, 2013

At Post- Hello Jakarta!

We've arrived at post! I would say things are going quite well so far. Jakarta is a very busy modern city. Getting around is tricky but there is a lot to see and do. The people are awesome, the food is good (and I was worried) and the temperature is cooler then I had assumed it would be primarily because it has been raining more than we expected.  

We have been here for two weeks now but just moved into our housing today. We are very excited to finally be in our new place. Going the first couple of weeks without wifi was almost as difficult as being on a no carb diet!

In our first week we had lots of excitement but almost immediately I made a "welcome to reality" language blunder. The first morning that we woke up in Jakarta I needed to explain to our gate guard that my friend was coming to bring me some Rupiah (Indonesian currency). I needed to let him know so that he would allow her to enter when she arrived. So, in a moment of courage and good hearted ignorance, I tried to explain the plans but I could tell something had gone suddenly awry. As I spoke the young man seemed suddenly disturbed, his body language changed from a listening stance to a defensive/concerned look. I knew I had made an error and tried again - reusing the same words. After no marked improvement in his response it was clear to me that I had made a mistake.  I started over again, this time adding a few more words here and there. Apparently he understood because a few minutes later my sponsor popped in, no problem with the guard was mentioned, thank goodness.  Later that evening, I told Sean the story and he asked me to repeat what I had said to the guard. I did. Sean roared in laughter and said, "Oh honey, do you realize what you actually said? You basically asked the young man to be your friend and give you money!" He laughed harder still and said, "Then.... You asked him to please come inside!"
 Oooohhhh the shame. Complete and total fail. I never wanted to leave the house again. So, please  learn from my mistake and get your second and third person pronouns correct! It makes a big difference.

Other than that and a few fights with intestinal parasites, we're doing great!

More Jakarta pics and  details soon...

Friday, June 21, 2013

It's Almost That Time...

With apologies to General Eisenhower's message to the troops on D-Day, things are starting to feel like that around here: Diplomats of the United States- the great undertaking for which you have been training these many months is at hand!

Our stuff at the apartment is now in the magic three piles of UAB (air freight, quickest delivery), HHE Ship (slower, literally by ship) and HHE Store (at that place in Maryland where it looks like they are storing the Lost Ark).

For the last few months I have been going through Consular training, Political/Economic Officer training, and a brief stint in Consular Affairs at Main State as a sort of OJT. The quality and rigor of the training is excellent, not just because of the great substance to the classes, but because they do their best to teach you how to think like a diplomat. We Foreign Service Officers have knowledge that is a mile wide and an inch deep. You never know if today is the day you must address an unruly group in your host country, respond to an urgent request from Washington, escort a visiting dignitary or respond in an emergency situation on behalf of American citizens. In other words, they can't prepare you for everything you are going to face. If I heard it once I heard it a thousand times, we must be flexible in order to adapt to sudden changes.

I have also had the pleasure (and I really DO mean pleasure) of maintenance classes in Indonesian. My skills were the sharpest the day of my language test. Since then it has been masses of detail in two different areas of professional training. Let's just say that the old hard drive isn't as big as it used to be, so sectors of the brain devoted to when to use passive-voice type 1 or passive-voice type 2 have been overwritten with the 15 things required for a student visa and what the significance of investment as a share of real GDP is.

My language instructors, always friendly, have become friends now that the stress of an impending test is gone. They have told me that they could tell I was a student who really wanted to know the cultural background and not just the grammar rules, and that I was really motivated not just to regurgitate vocab but to understand. If you are starting language at FSI, you need to know that your instructors can tell who is checking a box and who is enthusiastic about learning their language and culture. For your future career success and quality of life at post, you want to be one of the latter.

And so, as my friends who came into the Foreign Service with previous languages send around emails about where they are going on their SECOND tours, a few haggard veterans of the 168th A-100 class are finally about to get to post. I can't believe how fast all this training has gone, and I can't believe how long it has taken at the same time.


Friday, June 7, 2013

Rules For Packing Out (Without Freaking Out)

Reliving last summer's pack out nightmare is NOT my idea of a good time but it was such an extraordinary lesson in getting our crap together that I feel like one way to redeem our misery is to write about it so that someone can learn from our mistakes.

We have been here almost a year now (stateside still) and I am still fighting off the bitter root of last summer's wheeling/dealing hustler movers and their demanding, nightmarish take over of my home and my emotions. We still are dealing with the effects of having no control over our moving process. We probably will be for a while mostly because our stuff is in boxes with weird labels. The manifest has almost nothing helpful written on it. I have at least 3 shoes in my closet that are missing their mates. Which box are their mates in? Who the heck knows! They were in pairs in my UAB pile before I was whisked off to work in the garage with Guy #2. It is a mystery.

I need to establish what will be made clear to everyone who reads this (and who does not already know me)... I am totally aware that I am a sucker. Oh.. the stories I could tell! Being a people pleaser is a DISEASE! Lol! Call me a late bloomer. I suppose this post is written for other late bloomers or people who lack experience with this sort of move.

#1 Rule of Pack Out: You are in charge. It is your move. It is your stuff. Get it together before they arrive. Organize, sort, group...whatever you want to call it. Have it in a specific spot and say, "This is all HHE" or "This is all UAB" (alphabet soup FS terms, sorry).

** Please, don't go picking through a box as they are trying to pack it up- for goodness sakes.

#2 Rule of Pack Out: It would be wise of you to write down the list of items as they go into each box. They have to let you do that before they tape it up and send it to the truck. It is their job to pack items carefully and get it to the storage place. They are not going to write down everything that goes in each box.

Your manifest thing will read something like this...

Notice it doesn't say which or who's foot board, not even a bed size is mentioned. You are
supposed to check a box on a long list (pages and pages) and guess which footboard you would like when
 you move to post. (In case you are wondering, the word under that says "side rail" not "silk nail") 
So, when they pack a box they write the number of the box down on a big sheet of paper and next to it they write something like "glass". But, the truth is, the box is actually filled with:

  •   a trio of old coffee mugs
  •   a toaster oven
  •   a ceramic Easter Bunny decoration thing
  •   a cheese grater
  •   a pair of orange flip flops that I took off in the kitchen while the movers were there
  •   an old bag of my favorite Christmas Tree Nougats candy
  •   a box of toothpicks,
  •   an almost empty bottle of Advil,
  •   an old medicine bottle of my oldest child's first baby tooth from 14 yrs ago (I know- don't judge)
  •   a nearly full 2 liter of Diet Coke from the party we had the night before the movers came
  •   10 red plastic party cups with kids names written on them
  •   and... a box of dog biscuits for the neighbor's labrador (throw him a handfull of biscuits and you have approx 2 seconds to jump the fence and grab your frisbee- see)

 I suppose "glass" is better than " kitchen junk" but I am guessing that each box will contain a few items that will either embarrass me or make me gasp due to the fact I used part of my 7200 lbs to ship them to Jakarta. I'm totally expecting to find that bottle of flat Diet Coke in one of the boxes labeled "Glass".

#3 Rule of Pack Out:  If the movers get pushy, pick up the phone and call State. Seriously! You gotta blow the bully whistle on movers who are taking a power trip at your expense, not listening or pushing you around.

Everyone who hears my "wheeling/dealing movers" story shrieks and asks why in the world I put up with that. Answer- I did not know I could call the travel people at State and tell them what was going on. It never crossed my mind, honestly. I had never had packers come and wrap up my stuff before- ever.


Movers do not manipulate you into going to get them lunch or dinner - on your dime. You can offer to buy them lunch- it is up to you. It is nice to have waters in a cooler with ice for them, maybe sodas or sports drinks. We went all out for our wheeler/dealer packers lunches, you know, to be courteous. But after that they were happy to tell me what they wanted to eat, and when they wanted it. Yeah... between helping Guy #2 I was running snack patrol. Puke!
I did go get what they wanted because they only drove their moving truck and the taco place, or whatever, was literally around the corner. But, in retrospect, they did have a phone, they could have ordered pizza for themselves.

THEY SHOULD NOT RUSH YOU. Our wheeler/dealer movers were completely done packing a four bedroom/family of five's house in less than 36 hours. That is just about unheard of. There were just two men and they were moving so fast that we could not keep up with anything that was happening. Plus... Our movers came a day or two earlier than they were scheduled and would not take no for an answer when we explained that we were not ready. THIS WAS WRONG.

THEY ARE WORKING FOR YOU! THEY ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO FLUSTER OR INTIMIDATE YOU.  The morning they arrived they showed up 3 hours early. Then, Guy #2 told me my job was to stay in the garage with him, that it was best to stay out of the boss's way because he had a bad temper. Yep. He was right.  Guy #1 would say, "What are doing in my kitchen?" when I would walk through MY KITCHEN for a drink of water or to wash my hands. He was the main master mind between these two hustler/wheeler/dealers. I'm not kidding, these guys were pros at running the show.

#4 Rules for Pack Out: Demand to be heard

 While working like an idiot in the garage with Guy #2 I noticed that he was mislabeling boxes. He labeled my son's stuff from his room as "Garage Corner" and I said "No, this is Jackson's room books" he yelled at me "Look lady, these boxes are in the garage corner, I can NOT label it Jackson's Books."

All of my son's treasured books were in the garage because we had loads of potential home buyers walking through our house all summer and most of his personal items (90% being books) were being stored there. Wheeler/dealer hustler Guy #2 finally understood when he started working in my son's room later that night and said, "Where is all your kid's stuff?" and I said, "In a box labeled Garage Corner". His face dropped. He finally realized what I had been trying to tell him. I realized at that moment that he had taken big advantage of my lack of FS pack out experience. Now, somewhere in a warehouse my oldest son's stuff is labeled "garage corner" which is not something that I would normally want sent to wherever we get posted. I was sooooooo angry. I am still angry because I have to request as many boxes as I can now because so many things have been mislabeled.

Try to find ways to reduce the insane amount of wrapping they do. It adds a lot of weight. 

To FS families: This is what your crates of stuff look like. Inside those
wooden boxes are more and more boxes and stuff wrapped in brown paper.
We had to pay $280 to go there to retrieve ONE FREAKING piece of paper. 

So, this time around I have had the benefit of my experienced FS friends here to ask them HOW not to make the same mistakes I made last summer.

1. Sort stuff into similar groups- like all shoes into one box so that when they write "Shoes" on the manifest it will actually be shoes and not actually one pair of shoes and a winter coat and preschool art projects from 1997.

2. Throw/give stuff away. Our new rule of thumb is "if you have not touched it or used it in a year it is gone" and "if you have not touched it or used it in 6 months- you must have a compelling reason to keep it." The Foreign Service life is not the lifestyle for hoarders.

***If you are wondering how long it will be between A-100 and your ship out date, I would say expect a year. Possibly less but most people I have met are staying at Oakwood for six months to a year. It is more or less a year for most Generalists who are learning a language. * Even if you have a second language expect to test with an extremely scrutinizing team of instructors... in other words you will be going to language school. Just accept that fact now. Diplomatic language skills must meet very high standards. People who majored/minored in Spanish (one lady I know was even a native Spanish speaker) were still sent to the full 24 weeks of language training. However, it does seem like Specialists are here for a shorter amount of time because many Specialist jobs do not require a full language course.

3. Group stuff together and put them in plastic bags or little containers before the movers show up. Reason being- this keeps the packing weight down. A friend told me today that if you take all your forks/spoons/knives and place them in a plastic container they will just pack the plastic container. Otherwise, if you leave them in the kitchen drawer the mover will wrap each piece with paper which adds a lot of unneeded weight to your load.  I love her advice (thank you, Christy!).
Right now, I've just got it all piled up in "sort of" similar groups.
This is the cleaning stuff HHE pile. 

Here is a link to my favorite gold mine of practical info, advice and real time experiences all piled into the awesome Hardship Homemaking blog .

Monday, June 3, 2013

Ode to Oklahoma (With a Lesson in Cloud Watching)

Growing up in small town Oklahoma gave me a wonderful start in life. I love my home state because the people are friendly, gritty and they follow the Golden Rule- most of the time.

But along with the many wonderful things that go along with living in Oklahoma- tornados are the crappy part of the package. Fearing tornados was part of my life while growing up in Oklahoma. The weather could be just fine one minute and then all hell would be breaking loose a second later- that's just the way it is in the plains states. I knew that all too well. When I was five years old a tornado made a surprise visit to our neighborhood. It left an indelible impression that tornados were wild and very destructive. We were home when the tornado hit and even though my mom stayed calm I knew it was a very serious, very scary situation. I remember the event quite well and it happened in 1975. These things don't just fade away like an average day.

I think my grandma was a good example of how to react to a bad storm. In 1999 there was a really big storm that took out Moore (yep, same Moore) and kept whooping everything in its path. It had started in central Oklahoma and was now on it's way towards my hometown.

I called my grandmother's house and said, "Grandma! A big tornado is coming! You gotta go get in a closet or the bathtub or something!"

She calmly replied with her killer southern accent,  "Well... you think so?   Oh-I think Bill and I are just going to set right here and watch the news until we think we ought to move."

I wailed, "But, Grandma, this one is bad. It's been taking out everything it touches. It's coming right for you guys!" I could hear the tornado siren in her background. I was really scared for her.

 Again, she scolded me, "Oh now... no tornada can keep-a-going for that long."

This had been one of those freakishly big and very deadly tornados that didn't seem to be following the rules at all. So naturally (for me) I got all bossy and all but demanded that she and Grampa Bill go get in the hall closet, a bathtub, something.

She laughed at me this time and said, "Well.. if I go and do that I won't be able to hear the man on the TV. If it passes and I've gone and gotten myself all stuffed up in that closet, how am I gonna' get back out? "

I couldn't argue with that. I hadn't taken into consideration the fact that these two 90 year olds would be stuck in a closet. If they did get in the closet it had better be a sure thing, otherwise I would feel terrible if they went and got themselves all "stuffed up" in there and couldn't hear the news well enough to know when the danger had passed.

Grandma was right, that massive tornado fizzled out before it got much farther. They would have been "all stuffed up" in a closet for nothing if they had listened to me. My point is, Grandma and Grandpa Bill weren't new to this. They had lived in Oklahoma all their lives. They probably have seen enough tornados throughout their lives to know when to get serious. I think they also knew that if it was going to be really bad that a closet wouldn't really do them much good. Frankly, if I were to live in Oklahoma ever again I would hope that I would have a house with a storm cellar (called "fraidy holes" in Okla).

 I think we had Doppler radar back in those days but I'm not sure. We also had the emergency weather broadcast "bleeeeps". Then, finally, in the mid/late 80's our little town got Tornado Sirens installed. That was one thing that actually did give me some peace of mind.

 After you've been through or experienced the after math of a tornado I think it just takes a while to realize that tornados aren't dropping out of the sky with no warning. They are fairly predictable, especially with the technology we have now.  We know the factors that create these storms and there are tools being used all day/every day to pick up on atmospheric changes. Getting educated on the details reduces the fear a lot.

I decided to learn more about super cells right after that May, 1999 storm happened. We lived in Oklahoma at the time and I was the mom of two kids. Our oldest was four or five and was aware of tornadoes because we had to jump into a neighbors storm cellar one night. It was pretty creepy and she wanted out of there. We had to keep telling her that we had to wait until the storm stopped. I totally lied and told her not to worry that are we are safe "in here". I decided if I was going to live there then I had to beat back the fears as much as I could, especially since I was driving along some of the more notorious Tornado Alley roadways when I went to visit family. From that moment in the neighbor's storm cellar I decided I had to start learning asap. I enrolled in a night class at a local college, I took Physical Science and learned quite a bit about the weather. Nowadays, I'm a bit of a weather junkie. I take notice when there is a serious cloud forming. I can sometimes even see where updraft is occurring. Not all updrafts are visible though. Not all clouds or big storms are waiting to demolish your house, either. Getting educated helped a lot.

Here is my way of coping with inclement weather:

I look for visible updraft when I see a cloud growing taller. Thought, updraft
 is not necessarily scary or anything to be overly concerned about. Frankly, I think updraft
is pretty cool to witness. An updraft is basically fuel for a storm that could be brewing. 

That downward shoot is a wall cloud. Wall clouds usually drop down from the
 base of an anvil top cloud. I would be concerned about this if I saw this tube or
 wall forming, especially if I could see rotation. Most tornados are connected to the
wall cloud. At the very least you're look at a severe thunderstorm here, it looks serious.

Yeah, I don't like this one at all. The light gray fluff there is a descending wall cloud.
Behind the wall cloud could be a funnel cloud, you really can't tell because a wall cloud this low
can act like a curtain. I would be quite concerned if I were near this storm. If this were a video the
fluffy light gray part would be moving and swishing around. This had to be a serious storm.

Ok... this photo explains a lot. This funnel cloud is a classic example of a tornado that forms like a tail behind a wall cloud. You can clearly see the wall cloud in the background. This storm would most likely be heading away from the photographer.
 There is probably rain/hail coming down just in front of the wall cloud.  I would say this is a typical tornado. 

Moore Oklahoma, May 2013, F5 tornado. This funnel cloud is HUGE and was
reported to be as big as a 1.5 miles wide at some points. Winds were between
 200 to 300 mph. This is not a typical storm. Thank goodness F5's are rare.

Oklahoma, my heart is with you. I think about all the kids and adults who have lost so much. Some are still searching for the bodies of loved ones presumed to be dead. Their homes, their lives, their peace of mind have been shattered. Losing a family member or a friend, plus your home/livelihood all at once would be beyond devastating.

The kids and families who have had their lives demolished by these recent tornados are surely struggling to maintain their sanity right now. They have to be in survival mode. Yet, the hearty people of Oklahoma rally on, making progress, making jokes and are making life happen in spite of the obvious need for help.

"Gone with the wind" - Well, that's one way to look at it I suppose! :)
Please pray for the people of Oklahoma, for God's mercy and peace for them all.


Monday, May 27, 2013

Wrapping Up DC- Part 2

Wrapping Up DC- Part 2

So, the Cherry Blossom Festival was beautiful. I'm grateful to have seen the entire area be covered in the pink blossoms. Truly glorious!  But, Passport DC was by far our favorite city wide event this year, better than New Years in Old Town, better than a lot of them. I hope someone from Passport DC event group reads this post because I really can't say enough about it. We love love loved it!

Passport DC is a huge bash! Many of the foreign embassies located in DC open their doors, host tours, offer tasty treats and invite guests to participate in various artistic/cultural moments. Not all countries participate (but they should) and not all countries do a great job of it. The embassies who understand the value of public diplomacy go all out- it's obvious they are excited to have the opportunity for positive exposure.

Passport DC seems like was designed for people like us- culturally curious, diplos and just all around "embassy people". It was great to see many people being excited and involved.

It is interesting, we really could get a sense of each country by our interactions with the people working the events, in very general terms- of course. For example, the way people from a particular culture answer questions that are asked can tell you a lot. I was reminded of an important cultural difference when I asked someone in one of the embassies, "Excuse me, where is your restroom?" I noticed her body language changed dramatically. The young lady looked straight down and whispered an answer. I could tell she was essentially saying "no" but her answer started with the words "yes". She replied, "Yes, there are guest restrooms outside- at another location- very close to here". It struck me immediately that the young lady had somehow side stepped the word "no". This is a common situation in many cultures. There are places around the world where being asked a direct question puts one on the spot and it is unpleasant to be put on the spot. To have said "we don't have a guest bathroom" would have caused them to feel/look bad. So, in this case, she said "yes" and then explained that they did not have a restroom for guests without ever crossing the "no" bridge. It was like I had asked one question and she had answered a completely different one.  This was one of those suddenly "self-aware" moments when I felt like a big clumsy American who needs better manners, and yet my question was so benign that it took me half a second to recognize what I had done. I could tell she was miserable with my direct eye contact and thank goodness somehow I resisted the temptation to say, "Ok, where? Do you mean a port-a-potty or at a store?" but I did not say it. It was obvious that my initial question (asking where the restrooms are) had struck the young lady like a dart being thrown from across the room. I realize now that I should have asked her in the same indirect manner that we practiced in my Bahasa Indonesia classes. Oh yes! I should have known. Sean and I both struggled quite a bit learning how to ask a question or even reply to a question "indirectly". Most Asian countries prefer this style of communication.  The American "yes/no" question style is a bit harsh in comparison. In countries with "no" issues you should try to approach your inquiry in a way as to exclude any person or institution from any blame. See- I should  have asked, "Did a bathroom for guests find itself inside of this building?" Come to think of it, her answer would have actually made more sense if I had asked for a restroom in this "indirect" manner. Lol!
But- yes- other than nearly peeing our pants before figuring out that "outside, another building, close to here" actually meant about five blocks away (at Paradise Pizza) we thoroughly loved our day at Passport DC.

Our first embassy was the Indonesian Embassy- of course. It was the most beautiful of all of the embassies we toured. I loved chatting with local embassy staff there- I am really looking forward to living among Indonesian people. They are warm, sincere and very gentle hearted people. I genuinely like them and enjoyed talking to them.

From there we went to:Japan - They had the best displays (real humanoid robots) and made the most of this diplomatic opportunity. As you can see security was tight and the line was long but it was worth it (that's right, THIS many people and no restrooms).
The Japanese Embassy did the most to impress guests and if I were voting I would say they win!

 Ethiopian Embassy- We love Ethiopia and have many Ethiopian friends, that is why it saddens me to say that this was our least favorite of all of our embassy tours- which was heartbreaking considering how much we love and respect Ethiopia. The only time anyone spoke to us was outside where they were selling goods. This embassy SOLD hot coffee for $5 a cup (really???) when most other embassies offered small samples to guests. Frankly, my feelings were hurt for my Ethiopian born son. Not a single person spoke to him, asked him his name or showed him any form of inclusion or community.

 Bangladesh Embassy- Active, beautiful colors and interesting music. A little like an over priced market. I can't find a picture... sad because it was beautiful and interesting inside.

 Malaysian Embassy - The best food by far! We enjoyed the music, the displays and the awesome FOOD!

 Ghana - We seemed to have missed the fun but people were friendly and warm to us. By the time we got there everyone was winding down but but we got to meet a king, King Peggy. I bought the book of her amazing journey to accept the title handed down to her. She was very approachable and I could tell she was fun. A movie about her story is coming out next year starring Queen Latifah.

Pakistan- We loved the Heal Not Hate mini bus. The vibe there was quite nice and we are so glad we made it in before the event had ended. This embassy was our last stop.

I have to admit none of these photos were mine. I had taken amazing photos and for some reason they are GONE. I'll find them and replace these fine photos with ones that I actually took. Thank you to the people who took and uploaded these photos.

Toilet notes**  Everyone planning to join Passport DC needs to be prepared to go a long time between bathroom breaks- my only serious complaint about the whole thing.

Parent notes** Passport DC doesn't strike me as a kid loving event. Not that they aren't welcome because they are. I just don't think most kids will like this event unless they are old enough to be interested in other cultures, languages, and can handling standing in a long line and/or walking a good bit. Our nine year old was right on the edge of his tolerance level and he's fairly mature for his age. I think he liked it but he was over it a lot sooner than we were.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Ending Phase 1: Savoring DC and Falls Church, NOVA

Wrapping Up DC- Part 1

We are definitely starting to feel that familiar feeling- the temporary mindset that kicks in when you are on the count down to leave a place. Sean and I will start thinking, "we should have steak tonight because we may not have the chance to eat it again for a long time", or tacos, a falafel or BBQ. We start trying to imagine what we will miss once we are gone. I still find it amazing that I live in the DC area and have had too many trips to the museums to count and have gotten to know a few of the neighborhoods around town.

Savoring DC and Falls Church/NOVA-

This is what a Cherry Blossom Tree looks like in full bloom. Glorious!

Cherry Festival 2013

Due to a winter that seemed like it was being managed by an indecisive administrator with ADD, the wise old DC Cherry Blossom trees held off and waited for Winter and Spring to finally stop their feuding and get their act straight.  Finally, about April 10th (give or take a day) the blossoms hit their "peak" and it was more beautiful than I had expected. I would go far as to say that it was Breath Taking! This DC event should be on everyone's bucket list if you appreciate flowers or if want to experience the thrill of having pink petals rain down on you. This is a such a neat and beautiful thing to experience. If only the timing were easy to predict- that's the thing.

Here are few pics:

Cherry Blossom Petals storm. Notice the pink piles down the street.

 The Cherry Blossom Festival is a big deal around here and the entire thing is mingled with many Japanese cultural events. The same day we went to see the blossoms we also went to the Japanese Street Festival which I can't say was much fun because it was SO CROWDED and maybe a little weird but the people watching was pretty unbelievable.
 I've never felt so boring and old in all my life.

I can say that the Cherry Blossom Festival is amazing and very much worth the waiting (and that includes the line for the porta-potty).

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Unga Bunga

Photo courtesy of Laura Kramka Petrie

Happy news! I have completed the fast course for Bahasa Indonesia at FSI. I loved it and admitting that automatically guarantees me a seat at the inner circle of the high order nerd club. 

Lilac bush. Photo courtesy of Terri Dunggan Schwartzbeck.
I am perfectly happy with that because Sean and I plan to make extraordinary use of our new language even after we leave Jakarta. We look forward to buying a car and being able to talk in front of the sales person without giving away our bottom line or which of us is the easy mark. 

Photo courtesy of Mary-Catherine Dennehy.
Lupines in the White Mountainsin New Hampshire.   

We have already practiced these skills while complaining about something one of our kids has done using our Bahasa Indonesia - while the kid is in the room. So far so good...

Aren't purple flowers lovely?

Iris. Photo by Gregg Shipman Photography

I've mentioned this before but initially Bahasa Indonesia sounded something like alien creatures talking in the cantina of the first Star Wars movie. In fact, I found a blog that makes me think I'm on to George Lucas and the Bahasa Indonesia thing. Very interesting~ deserves a little more research I'd say!

Mountain Laurel.
Photo by Ginger Sipes Young

Some of the words are funny sounding- they just are. There have been times when I have had to turn my head as I tried to stifle a giggle or hide my amusement, such as the day our exercise was to add the word "dong" as an added emphasis (no real meaning). I know it's juvenile but I was dog tired and everything had become funny. I'm pretty sure anyone would have laughed if they had to say "Ya dong" to answer a question when they were so tired that it seemed that the ceiling tiles had started to dance. I "mostly" maintained my dignity, mostly... 

Photo of a lavender rose by Joseph Crabtree
Bahasa Indonesia's pronunciation is not difficult at all.  For the most part the vowels are all long vowels, except for the vowel "a" it is an "ah" sound, such as the word "soft". Basically, it sounds the same as the Spanish alphabet minus a few letters here and there. 

Here is one of the words that had me hiding my face: 

"Kakak" (kahk-kahk) means older sibling. Here is a picture of my Kakak!

Kakak saya, Robin.

Here comes the grammar lesson:
"Orang putih" (or-ahng ...the ang part sounds the same as in the word long) Orang means person  and (pooh-tee) putih means the color white. 

This noun phrase has an opposite word order from English so it translates literally as "person white". Ex. Robin is an Orang Putih.

  "Sepupu sepupu baik" (seh-pooh-pooh 2x's) sepupu means cousin and (buy-eek) baik means good person, well made or of good character/quality. Again, note the word order. In Bahasa Indonesia you are literally saying cousins good.

The beautiful young ladies in this photo are my kids' sepupu sepupu baik (to make something plural you say it twice). Hope and Zoe are sepupu sepupu baik!

 Sepupu Hope, Kakak Robin and Sepupu Zoe! 

Words that would otherwise have made me either cringe or giggle now have meaning.  And that is how language training goes- 

Photo by Kaye Kohler

So, recently, while explaining some of my favorite Indonesian words to a friend I had a sudden realization that I now know what  "Ungu bunga" means! That's right, (oon-gooh) ungu= purple  (boon-gah) bunga= flower.  Who knew? Ungu bunga means Purple flower! Over the years we somehow must flipped the word order, it should actually be "bunga ungu".

And, there you have it. If you ever find yourself outwitted in crowd of know-it-alls you just might be able to impress the dong out of them by telling them what ungu bunga means!

Here is a test: please watch and translate this Bugs Bunny cartoon:


Saturday, April 27, 2013

What Does a Consular Officer Do?

So, having escaped with my life and career prospects intact from Indonesian language training, I have moved on to professional training at FSI, specifically consular work.

Many of my friends, upon hearing I had chosen the consular cone for my new job, took me aside and told me that while they valued my steady friendship, they were very worried that my personality type (INTJ) wasn't very well suited to counseling people, what with me being introverted and cold and all.

When I explained that instead I would be at a visa window interviewing dozens of potential immigrants and visitors to the US every day and deciding whether or not they were eligible based on the law, the facts and my judgment their concerns for me were reduced on the personality scale, but they then decided my new job was well, the DMV but for Indonesians.

But as I already knew (and my training has made even MORE clear), consular work is a lot more than that. We live in a global economy, and the US depends on international trade and tourism to a huge and growing degree every year. So you can imagine the interest our government, private companies and people overseas have in consular types facilitating legitimate travel as much as possible.

There are also people out there who want to hurt us, and they also very badly want to get into the US. As consular officials, we are the first of many lines of defense against those kinds of people. Whenever something bad happens in the US now, one of my early thoughts is "who was at the visa window, and how did they make their decision on that visa application?"

Then finally by our history, heritage, and character the US welcomes immigrants and visitors from around the world. This diversity is a tremendous source of strength for our country, and something that sets us apart from many others. We always have to apply the law fairly but with an eye towards who we are.

So, with these important and sometimes competing goals, we now have to add the element of speed. In many places around the world, non-immigrant visas are given 5 minutes or less to be determined. So, the job at the visa window comes down to "let the right ones in, keep the wrong ones out, as quickly as possible." It isn't the job for everyone. But as I continue with training, I am coming to realize more and more that it IS the job for me.