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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Strange Advocates

number 5/2006

For the majority of the last two months we have been wedging geographic information into and in between every other topic or activity. Our heads have become globes, and they are spinning. 2,172 words.

[NL]—In my opinion, the starting point for this new life was back on October 12th, 2004. That was the day that Sunshine was assigned to her first foreign post. The internal post ceremony, called Flag Day, is a time-honored culmination of several months worth of struggle and fuss to secure a decent starting point within Sunshine’s field of employment. The story of that day is here. On Flag Day, we discovered that we were to be moving to Monterrey, Mexico for two years beginning in February, 2005.

On January 17th 2006 I was working a crossword puzzle with my mother in a little deli in Greensboro, NC when this process started all over again. I got a call from Sunshine who was at work in Mexico; she had just received the new list of positions we were to be bidding for next. Back in 2004, the list of available positions had been tailored to her graduating class, and therefore consisted of only entry-level positions, sized to correspond with the number of people in Sunshine’s class. From these, we had carefully chosen a list of viable positions based on Sunshine’s desire to possibly learn a new language and get some of her career requirements completed. During this time, every other member of Sunshine’s class was doing the same. A whole community, for a month, stopped talking about anything else. The air was filled with department jargon referring to cities, positions, and equities; ranked by how, were and, most importantly, why. It was sometimes hard to hold all of this stuff in one head. Plus, it was impossible not to at least half-way keep up with the lists of other people, people who were ranking the exact same positions we were. On Flag Day, we were assigned to post in Monterrey, México, based on Sunshine’s ability to speak Spanish and the need to fill a position there immediately. During the Flag Day ceremony, of course, we also got to watch the rest of our list be assigned to other people. It was a relief to finally begin concentrating on one country, only; but it was bittersweet.

This new bidding process opened a bit differently. Gone was Sunshine’s requirement to work a specific type of job, for example, within a specific type of language. Gone were certain restrictions based on first-time bidders. Lastly, the list was much longer due to the simple fact that it was no longer tailored for a specific graduating class. It was chilly that day outside the deli; and while mom worked our crossword for us, I stood and listened to Sunshine rattle off most of three hundred and sixty-four available positions abroad. It seemed unbelievable that we were going to have to whittle this down to a ranked list of twenty positions by February. My head was already spinning.

“Abidjan-CON, Abidjan-CON, Abu Dhabi-POL, Addis Ababa-COL/POL…”

“Addis Ababa is Ethiopia?”

“Yes. Ait Taipei-CON, CON, Ankara-CON, CON, APAO, Ashgabat-CAO…”

First, it was necessary to crop this whole list down to something a little bit smaller. We were able to eliminate many of the jobs because Sunshine was no longer required to do them, in the language Sunshine was no longer required to bid on. There were many posts we could cross off because they were unaccompanied positions in conflict-stricken areas. This meant that we were not really looking at much of the Middle East, the entire western hemisphere, or many interesting places in between. Also, while Sunshine is still interested in learning another language, it would be better for her to learn a country specific language that does not typecast her too much in a certain area. We already have that going on a little in this hemisphere, and Sunshine’s Spanish proficiency will likely have us bouncing back to Latin America on and off throughout her career. If we were to go to an Arabic speaking country now, for example, that would be it: we’d spend the rest of our lives in one or the other kind of place. We would rather have a little more diversity than that, if possible.

“No: Bogotá Bogotá-POL/ECON, Bogotá, Bogotá, Bogotá, but: Bratislava-ECON”

“Brussels-GSO okay, Bucharest-CON-ECON damn, Bucharest-CON, Bucharest-CON, Bucharest-AGSO though, Budapest-CON-POL, damn.”

“That’s it for the B’s. Cairo, Cairo, Cairo-AIO, Canberra. Skip Caracas?”

Once we’d done away with the things we weren’t looking for, we could concentrate on the things we were. It was a goal to gear our list toward smaller areas where hopefully our two-year stay would be adequate to see much of the country. In this way we were able to eliminate large and interesting places, like India and China. Places we are very interested in living later when Sunshine is tenured and our stays there are longer. Another important factor: salary differentials for hardship or danger get combined and recorded as accrued job equity. This helps during the process of bidding for a new job. Hardship differentials can be based on the difficulty in achieving expected quality of life due to a number of possible factors. These can include, badly paved roads or difficulty in obtaining goods or services. It can also be based on more immediate hardships such as the prevalence of disease, street crime, or distance from home. Danger pay almost solely consists of the possibility of the employee’s life being threatened by wars or political factions targeting Americans. More realistic dangers (hurricanes, mosquitoes, bacteria, corrupt police with AK-47s) tend to fall under hardship pay instead of actual danger. In our case, there is a five percent equity attached to our position in Monterrey, probably because of the pollution. This means that we will be able to pick our next position over people who are currently working positions with zero equity, posts like Paris or London; but after people in higher equity posts like Kinshasa (twenty percent) or Baghdad (fifty percent). Sunshine was interested in getting a little more equity this time around, and was thus able to focus her attentions toward certain types of places. After Monterrey, I just wanted to go someplace that got cold. Eventually, we were able to look at this long list in a far more manageable way. We had cut it down to a list of fifty-some positions that were all in one way or another interesting to one or both of us.

“Dar-Es-Salaam, Praia, Maputo, Cape Verde, Kinshasa, Cairo, what am I missing?


“No, Djer booty!”

This process above happened while we were in different countries during the end of January. There were long and strange international phone conversations back and forth. The two of us both worked with the list and independently, coming up with personal twenty-position lists picked in a vacuum. Sunshine did a major amount of internal research, learning about these jobs from the people who currently have them. She accrued facts about the housing, the distances necessary to walk or drive to get around in these actual city spaces abroad, and the consumer goods available at these posts. In other words, she learned useful things about the quality and cost of expatriate life in the cities we were considering. I did a little more “traveler’s fantasy” -type research, learning about the cultures, the architecture, the food. I looked up many photographs of interesting places in travel books and magazines, ruminated over the histories of seven hundred year old cities and important international regions. In this way, both of us managed to make personal bid lists that were wholly different from one another, using the same stock of about fifty positions. In some cases, it was because one or the other of us ignored the rules above for a really cool position (in my case, it was very hard to accept that we were not going to be bidding on Kathmandu, Nepal because Sunshine did not want to do the job that was available there). Mostly, our lists were different because we have different ideas about, and interests in, the world. By the time I came back to México at the beginning of February, we were ready to really wade into the thick of the process: from here on out we would become strange advocates for the places that had arbitrarily, over the previous two weeks, become very near and dear to our hearts. In this way we would try to percolate one final, two-person list from the two personal lists we had already made.

“Don’t think of it as a country, think of it as a city. Everything that ever happened in modern history happened here, first.”

“Is every known species of lemur indigenous there?”

“No, but it’s, like, a five-hour train ride to eight other places on this list.”

For those three weeks the odd conversations intensified. Each of us did a little giving-up on, and a little hard-selling for, our places of choice. There was never a sense that we were arriving at the final decisions we were making in any other way than harmonious and gracious discussion. Sunshine was interested in several places in Africa that I was less interested in. On the other hand, she had no idea originally what I found so alluring about many places in Eastern Europe. So we taught each other, and the final draft was tugged and nudged and finely-tuned until it was something very acceptable to us both. I was telling her all about the temperatures and the climates and colored houses and accessible canals, and she was telling me all about the price of cereal and the sitting rooms and the fact that there was going to be a new Embassy being built. In this way, our understanding of the actual fact of the new place, and the act of living and working there, was becoming far more well-rounded. We also discovered that we were very interested in places we had not thought about much before (Tbilisi, Georgia, for example), places we discovered an affinity for together. It was strange to watch my perception warp from the beginning of the process to the end of it. At the beginning, I would have been pretty happy to accept a position in any of the fifty-some places that became our master guideline, but by the end I was very much interested in the places I was advocating. The hardest stage for me ended up being the positioning of the list itself. Ranking these positions one through twenty was very difficult, and the prejudices I had to foster to keep it from seeming purely arbitrary made it more. It was obvious that on different days, for example, I was more interested in Chisinau, Moldova than Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania. The next day, I was unable to recapture what it was I had possibly been thinking, and these positions were reordered again. The strange conversations between Sunshine and me continued along these lines for days. On our final list of twenty one (we added one extra because we were worried that our first choice was scheduled too tightly), there were finally two places I was fairly uninterested in going. In at least one of these two cases, it was a place I had debated a week before to have higher on the list.

“Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, Chisinau, Bucharest, Dar-Es-Salaam, Maputo, then Hanoi again, then Antananarivo, then Ho Chi Minh again.”

“then Tbilisi, then Dar-Es-Salaam, then Maputo and Antananarivo before Hanoi again, then Djibouti…”

“I’ll move Tel Aviv to nineteen if Hanoi two can still be at seven.”

On the day we officially submitted out final bid proposal, February 24th, we had the only really tense moment we endured during the whole process. On the day we submitted, we discovered that one of our ranked positions had been closed. After having been very prepared for this deadline all week, we had to pick a replacement right then. Several harried phone calls later, our list was submitted to Sunshine’s career counselor. Sometime this week, he will sit down in a room with the career councilors of the other bidders and hash out, based on rank and equity and interest, which of Sunshine’s coworkers will get which position. I have heard that the waiting is the worst part of the process, but while I am certainly on the edge of my seat, I am glad that the choosing part is over. That part was grueling. By the time the results are in, I will have completely reverted back to my attitude at the beginning of this whole ordeal: there were twenty-one positions on that final list, and I would be happy to accept any of them. What was I thinking trying to decide between Antananarivo, Madagascar and Bratislava, Slovakia? How did I manage to do that? Maybe the very hardest part of the whole process is going to be the assigning itself. There is little danger of our getting posted to a place of tepid interest this time around, but once one position is chosen for us it will mean that we will have to mourn the loss of the other twenty possibilities.

photo © the Author

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

A Note Regarding Why

number 4/2006

I was up pretty early this morning reading the news. Violence is still escalating between cartels vying for control of the northern border. Suddenly, I heard a knock at the door…. 2,896 words.

Crossroads Town

[NL]—The town of Laredo enjoys a sleepy history seemingly incommensurate with its current woes. Born alongside Spanish colonial expansion into northern territories in the eighteenth century, the area which is now Laredo was first discovered because it was an efficient place to cross the muddy Rio Grande. Soon, petitions were written, permissions granted, and a small huddle of adobe houses officially cropped up there. The residents of these houses watched as their Spanish flag was replaced by the Mexican flag after the war of independence, the Mexican then replaced with the Texan during the succession of the Lone Star Republic, and then, finally, as the Stars and Stripes were permanently hoisted at the end of the long “Mexican War,” a border dispute concerning much of Texas, California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Between these milestones, forts and battalions sprung up on the banks of this crossroad, garrisons were stationed, and Santa Ana marched through on the way to the Alamo. The little village of Laredo even enjoyed a stint as the capital of the short-lived Republic of the Rio Grande, a de facto no man’s land between the Rio Grande, America’s declared southern border, and the more northerly Nueces River, the northern border declared by Mexico. During all of this, dusty little Laredo abided as an important and all but unnoticed waypoint.

But then something fundamental happened again, making Laredo pretty much unique, and somewhat determining the constancy of its difficult future. When the US finally convinced Mexico to recognize the Rio Grande as the border between the two countries, little Laredo, sitting on the river’s fertile northern floodplain, with its Spanish then Mexican heritage, was left in the wrong country. In response, patriotic Mexicans moved south of the river to retain their Mexican citizenship, and a new dusty little settlement was born: Nuevo Laredo. Throughout the years, these two Laredos have been inextricably tied together—the archetypical border towns facing each other across federal checkpoints and an intermittent river, evincing the worst of two worlds as a sibling love/hate thing. Together, they’ve seen cattle booms and onion booms and oil booms and tourist booms. Both have grown into medium-sized cities, with populations in the hundreds of thousands. Each has played its part as the other city’s exotic wild frontier, while both have sought to attract international attention through urban beautification, commercial opportunity, and an environment of multi-nationalism.

Newest Boom

A quick summary of Mexican drug trafficking is a difficult undertaking because the illegal drug trade here has a long and varied history. Any attempt to pair that history into a meaningful brief is arbitrary and quixotic, picking and choosing from the daily struggles of hundreds of players over six decades of crime. Still, I will attempt to make some sense of the pertinent details of the last twelve years, starting in 1993 when there were still about eight major narcotics syndicates running things in the north of Mexico, smuggling drugs into the US at the behest of Colombian cartels. Colombian cartels had been having a tough time of it, with the US War on Drugs cracking down on production in Colombia and shutting down trade routes through the Caribbean. By 1993, Mexican syndicates were picking up the smuggling and distribution slack with Colombia’s blessing, widening land routes across the northern border. Three Mexican Syndicates emerged from this new situation dominating the drug smuggling scene: the Juarez Cartel lead by Amado Carillo Fuentes, the Gulf Cartel led by ex-Mexican State Policeman Osiel Cardinas, and the Tijuana Cartel led by the Arellano Felix brothers, Benjamin and Ramon.

This Tijuana Cartel controlled the shipping routes into Southern California and along the Pacific coast of Baja California. Vying for power in the states of Sinaloa and Sonora, and revolutionizing trafficking through the implementation of state-of-the-art tunnels into Arizona, is the so-called Sinaloa Cartel, run by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a former enforcer for the Juarez cartel, and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, his stepbrother. This makes for bitter enemies in the Mexican underworld, and the Arellano Felix brothers attempt to have El Chapo Guzman assassinated in Guadalajara in May 1993, accidentally killing a beloved catholic cardinal instead. This lead to both an enormous public outcry—prompting the Mexican government to put the screws on the northern ganglands—as well as the arrest and imprisonment of Sinaloa clan’s El Chapo.

By 1997 these federal crackdowns within Mexico had made things tougher for the local cartels. The corrupt head of Mexico's anti-drug agency, Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, had been caught and jailed for allegedly being a cartel puppet. Federal agents and special forces were hampering trafficking across the border in strategic areas. Then, Juarez Cartel leader Amado Carillo Fuentes died during a botched attempt to change his appearance using plastic surgery, throwing the most powerful Mexican drug syndicate into supposed decline. Controlling the east coast syndicates, the Gulf Cartel honcho Osiel Cardinas was being harried by federal troops in his richest markets, Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros (across the border form Brownsville, Texas). Unconcerned, Cardinas enticed a bunch of these federal crime fighters, all military special forces, to desert the government cause and hire on as his own personal army of elite narco-terrorists. Once recruited, these enforcers began to recruit and train new people, and they rechristened themselves Los Zetas after a Mexican Army radio call code for “commander.”

But the Juarez Cartel was just biding its time. While shopping around for a new boss, it was situating its own people in corrupt high places, and rebuilding itself to its former glory with acts of drug-trade espionage. During 1998-9, the ruling party in Mexico, the PRI, was gearing up for the first election it would lose in seventy years, and Mexico was seeing a time of municipal change. By the time the PAN’s Vicente Fox took the oath of office in 2000, the Juarez Cartel was back to being bigger, and better placed, than any two of its regional competitors, rivaled only by the Gulf Cartel on the other side of the country. President Fox, in a showy effort to continue Mexico’s fight against its crime-riddled north, and in a show of cooperation with certain international drug initiatives, commenced a campaign in conjunction with US anti-drug agents that landed hundreds of wanted smugglers in jail, many of them high-placed cartel leadership. Mysteriously, this federal onslaught was most effective against all but the Juarez Cartel which was able to grow in the face of its competitors’ bad luck. In 2001, post September 11th reforms at US entry points effectively ended any ability to smuggle southern narcotics into the country other than by land from México, putting northern Mexican cartels in a position to control much more of the drug trade than ever before. Mexican syndicates creep over the border to control distribution and further trade through the US; but the statistics of drug use below the border also rises, the bottlenecked supply finding the point of least resistance in Mexican markets. Also in 2001, with the aid of El Mayo Zambada, Sinaloa Cartel honcho El Chapo Guzman successfully conducts a sensational escape from La Palma maximum security prison, hiding in a laundry truck and being delivered through the gates.* Thirty of the guards at La Palma, as well as the prison’s warden, are arrested and indicted.

By the end of 2002, federal dragnets have paid off big: Ramon Arellano Felix has been killed and his brother Benjamin jailed. By March of 2003 even the head of the powerful Gulf Cartel, Osiel Cardinas, has been arrested after a vicious shootout on the streets of Matamoros. This leaves a power vacuum that proves to be too tempting to both the re-emerging Juarez and the Sinaloan Cartels, and both seek to grab it from different directions. The Juarez Cartel makes a pact with El Mayo Zambada to attempt to gain control of the teetering and newly headless Tijuana Cartel to the west, while it directly attacks the lucrative trade routes of the newly headless Gulf Cartel in the east. The newly liberated El Chapo Guzman splinters off and, setting up shop in the state of Tamaulipas, begins a long and bloody campaign to flank these Gulf Cartel holdings from the east; attacking, primarily, Nuevo Laredo and its resident ex-military Zeta enforcers.

So the area is booming again. Big business for whoever ends up with control of America’s 165 million dollar a day drug habit, a vast majority of which is supplied to US distribution channels through the streets of Laredo. This former tough frontier-land joint and latter day revitalized shopping district is the most lucrative inroad to the US drug market, now handled primarily by Mexican Cartels on both sides of the border. Since 1935 the Pan American highway has connected it to the capital cities of Central America and Mexico, and just on the other side of the river US I-35 begins, a ribbon of asphalt that doesn’t stop until it reaches Lake Superior. Six thousand tractor trailers truck forty percent of Mexican exports over the three international bridges that connect the two Laredos every day. It is a drug smuggler’s paradise, and that is why El Chapo is fighting so hard to gain a territory that the imprisoned Osiel Cardinas and his autonomous gang of Zetas are tying so hard to keep. Caught in the crossfire, the people of Nuevo Laredo are grimly bearing witness to a staggering wave of violence. Charred bodies turn up in barrels on the sides of the highways weekly; firefights, between warring factions or police, take over busy streets in broad daylight. Reporters are threatened, kidnapped, even killed in retaliation for reporting these excesses to the rest of the world, newspaper offices are sprayed with bullets by the roving bands of enforcers. The Zetas roam the city in the backs of pickup trucks bristling with automatic weapons, strong-arming local businesses out of protection money, staging roadblocks, and in general running a lawless town their own way.

Things are similar in other border towns. Osiel Cardinas is apparently able to run his Gulf Cartel from his prison cell, as is Benjamin Arellano Felix. Their turf has not been left as unprotected as everyone originally assumed. In La Palma maximum security prison, after years of bitter rivalry, the two bosses were able to hash out an alliance to strengthen their respective syndicates; though they were separated after violence erupted in 2004, forcing the government to federalize the prison. Several of the most notorious prisoners were moved to a border prison in Matamoros where, a few days later, on New Year’s Eve 2004, El Chapo Guzman’s brother Arturo was murdered. There were more federal crackdowns there, of course, and twenty days later six prison guards were discovered a short distance from the jail tied up and shot in the back of a Ford four by four.

In 2005, Nuevo Laredo’s police chief quit and it took authorities until June to find someone brave enough to replace him. That man took office on the afternoon of the eighth and was gunned down in a parking lot less than eight hours later, so Nuevo Laredo was looking for yet another police chief. Federal agents involved in the inevitable crackdown, called “Operation Secure Mexico,” were fired on, with one agent wounded, by legitimate city police so confused and brutalized by two years of this conflict that they just shoot at any invading army. This prompted the government to suspend Nuevo Laredo’s entire police force of six hundred officers pending drug tests and criminal investigations. Six months later, less than half were allowed, or would volunteer, to return to the streets. By this writing, there is a new police chief who has remained alive in the position for seven months.

There is news of violence or brutal murder along the northeastern border daily. What is represented here is just a small sample, quixotically and arbitrarily plucked from the trove of available information. Mexico’s fight against the situation here, escalating to a fever-pitch in this election year, has come under proverbial fire for simply doing nothing but providing more troops for the mobsters in Nuevo Laredo to recruit. Violence from this territory war has spilled north into the US as far as Dallas, and south to all corners of Mexico, where secondary players are fighting for the jobs being left behind by the war’s casualties. Central American youth gangs like Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street Gang are crossing the border to hire themselves out as Mexican cartel enforcement. So are members of elite Guatemalan military units. All over Latin America, this run for the border is causing ripples of violence within the world of illegal drugs. But in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, the violence has long spilled into the everyone’s world. There the police, the reporters, the citizens, the federal agents, the politicians, and the drug lords are all getting killed. There were about one hundred and seventy unsolved murders in Nuevo Laredo last year. There have been over fifty already this year.

Shorty and Me

So far this violence has only rarely made the 225 kilometer trip down the highway to Monterrey. Here, the city feels poised for this eventuality, but has remained relatively untouched. There have been a few shootouts here, one in a popular local seafood restaurant shortly before I arrived, and one in a Dave and Busters down the road, apparently connected to the killings in Dallas referred to above. Bodies have turned up in Guadalupe, a suburb located at the base of Monterrey’s most iconic mountain. Our local Police chief was killed in heavy traffic in February (on the same day another police chief was killed in another little town off the highway between here and the border), and raids on local residences have produced caches of military-style weapons and groups of reinforcements apparently stopping over in route to the war up the road. All of the instances of violence here have been very premeditated and very much focused on targets within the narcotics trade. There is currently very little feeling of danger on the streets of Monterrey.

Of course, we are all very much on alert. The State Department has issued advisory after advisory warning US citizens of the situation in Nuevo Laredo. The US Consulate there closed its doors for a week in August of last year after an afternoon shootout on a busy nearby street. In Monterrey, Sunshine’s employers have begun to implement a heightened security routine including check-ins whenever traveling out of town. For me, the sole effect of all this violence has been that for three days I have had to get up at seven in the morning because professionals from the alarm company have been in the house, eight hours a day, grinding holes through my walls and running brightly colored wires everywhere. The three-foot masonry drills they use scream from every room in the house, and occasionally they test something that howls like a monster version of some ray gun toy I might have annoyed my parents with when I was nine. There are tall piles of plaster dust everywhere and all of my closets have been emptied out onto the bed. The cat has been wedged tightly between the wooden slats beneath our futon for days, eyes shut, counting the years being scared off the end of her life.

I have been recruited to oversee this contracted labor, leaving me with plenty of time between curdlings of my nerves to ask, well, “why?”. It seems rather ridiculous to me, in this posh neighborhood, behind electric iron gates (which are situated on an incline and open inward like all the security books say the should) with a twenty-four hour guard, that I would also need a alarm system. It would be incredibly difficult to scale the sixteen-foot privacy wall in the back yard (assuming it is possible to break into the neighbor’s gated community). Anyone getting in here will have to hurdle some serious odds. I’m not saying it isn’t possible; but whomever makes it to my front door is going to be sufficiently sly, or sufficiently well-armed, to be unconcerned with the toy gun that will go off when a window breaks. No, more likely it’ll be me who trips the alarm through no more dastardly a crime than sleepily pressing the wrong code into the complicated wall interfaces that have cropped up here and there, and then I will have plenty of Español explaining to do when the police arrive. Still, I appreciate the spirit of concern for Sunshine’s and my security, and as soon as I am awake, I will certainly feel even more comfortable in my still very safe city due to this drilling. While I am still very sleepy, though, I felt the need to dig up a twenty-eight hundred word excuse for missing so much sleep.

Further Reading about the Mexican drug trade.

Fun interactive Mexican Drug information produced by PBS

*Interestingly, in Mexico there is no law against breaking, or attempting to break, out of prison. Other laws broken in the commission of a jailbreak can be charged when or if the fugitive comes to justice; but in Mexico personal freedom is deemed an attribute so worth fighting for that the law very romantically makes no provision against its being sought by the incarcerated.

Wanted Poster courtesey the US DEA

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Friday, February 10, 2006

The Domestic Question

number 2006/3

One of the things that happened while I was away on sabbatical: we employed a woman named Rosy to clean once a week on Wednesdays. I met her right before I left, but today was my first official Wednesday since then. 1,371 words.

[NL]—Back on December twenty-first, the day before Sunshine and I were set to come home for the holidays, we finally interviewed a maid. Not that “maid” is the word I think most people use for what we were hiring. In the expatriate community, people hired to come into a home to clean or cook tend to fall under the catchall label “domestic” as in “domestic help.” A gardener, for some reason, is still called a gardener, and a chauffer is called a driver, but a maid is called a “domestic.” I think it is a play on words, domestic also meaning “from around here;” most people avoid the bureaucratic hassle of importing their own household staff. At any rate, I don’t like any of these terms for the position. “Domestic” has, as illustrated above, a rather ugly-tasting afterthought; and, while there is nothing terribly wrong with the word “maid,” it evokes some sort of costumed flounce dusting about in my Hampstead summer place. To me, maids come with butlers and nannies, and live in a little room under the stairs so they can dart out and polish something when I ring a bell.

The thing of it is that I never really thought of myself as someone who should need to have a domestic help. It just seemed silly. I am home while Sunshine goes off to work, and it just felt like it should be my job to keep the house orderly and neat. I am rather orderly and neat anyway, and it did not fall outside of reason that I could keep a nice house while I was getting whatever it is that I do done on a day-to-day basis. Based on the prejudices admitted to above, in my mind maids were for rich people, and we are far from rich.

Apparently, this is the attitude of most newcomers to this domesticity abroad: no one thinks they are going to get a housecleaner, though supposedly everyone eventually does. The houses are just so large and ornamental the daily tasks tend to take up the days, and the larger, sporadic cleaning gets lost in the shuffle. Eventually, an epiphany sets in: we could be employing someone who needs a job in México, instead of selfishly DIY-ing our household needs. It did not take long for Sunshine and I to eventually and predictably cave in. We started looking in earnest for someone to come and clean the house one day a week. We tried to get the woman who had been employed by our friends Tony and Christene when they left for the US in November, but she was snagged by some other household. We talked with a number of people, failing a number of times to act quickly enough to secure an applicant. Finally, we heard about Rosy from no less than three other people who employ her, positive things, possibly the most positive being that it seemed like she still had a weekday free.

On the first day we met Rosy, we were packing to go off and celebrate Christmas. I was in the middle of my normal pre-vacation ritual: sweating and screaming curse words while I jogged around the house trying to clean it up before we left. Not only is it nice to come home to a clean house after traveling, but it is also nice to pick the place up a little for the Zix kids, Bonnie and Hannah, who come in every day to feed the cat and water the plants while we are gone. So, in the midst of locking all of the alcohol in the upstairs office and squeegee-ing soapy water off the stovetop, I needed to pause so I could tour a prospective maid around the house. It seemed a little ironic, at the time. Still, it set up a pattern, and I continue to feel like I have to clean the house up a little whenever the maid is supposed to show up. That day in December she toured around the house, and taken the job on the spot; possibly out of altruism. She even offered to help us pack.

We hired Rosy, who comes into the house on Wednesdays, to deep clean and do larger jobs than the day-to-day level stuff that I am able to keep up with. Take out the garbage, wash the dishes, water the plants and make the bed? I do that stuff every day (almost). Push all the furniture out of the way, and mop the marble floors with a vinegar solution? That’s Rosy stuff. Rosy also helps out with the laundry (by doing it all), vacuums, sprays the accumulated North Mexican dust off the patio and out of the car port, and stands on chairs to do the same for the floor-to-ceiling windows scattered here and there around the house. Rosy tends to arrive at the house sometime after Sunshine goes to work at seven thirty, and leave before Sunshine comes home between four thirty and seven. For the six weeks after she took us on I was in North Carolina and Rosy was coming and going without really being seen.

All that changed this week when I was finally home for my first ever maid. When I returned to Monterrey last weekend, I was surprised and pleased that the house was as nice, if not more nice, than it had been when I left it. Rosy and Sunshine and the Zix kids had done a good job with the place: the cat was fat, the plants bloomed, and the floors were shiny. A month and a half of other people deciding where things should go had taken its toll here and there—I spent the weekend identifying things that needed to be relocated for the sake of my obsessive compulsion—but the place was undeniably spotlessly clean. Even more clean that anyone expected, frankly: Sunshine has discovered that locking things away for us to do later doesn’t really work—Rosy will find the keys and fix it all while we are not looking. The only solution seems to be to leave the stuff we don’t want her messing with spotless before she arrives.

Finally, this Wednesday, man and maid came face to face for the first time on the wet expanse of my kitchen floor, me seeking some breakfast a little after noon, and she dust busting cat hair off the kitchen counters. We can’t talk to one another, Rosy and I, because we do not share a common language, so we just sort of half waved and got on with it.

Having this help is nice. I can never tell when the house is dirty anymore. As long as I keep up with the dishes and small things, the place always looks like we just moved in, and I like that. On Wednesdays I will, at least based on yesterday’s evidence, feel like I am in her way a little bit. I will wave and say good afternoon when I finally wake up and emerge from my locked bedroom. I will smile and nod when she tells me something about the room she has just worked on. Mostly, I will try to leave her alone and let her work. She writes notes to Sunshine about anything important; she tries to teach me the Spanish for “see you next week.” On Tuesday nights I will still feel like I need to pick the place up some because the maid is coming soon, and it turns out that this is less ridiculous as it sounds. I don’t want the woman to take on the little things that need to be done on the other six days of the week; these things I am willing to do. I want her to do the bigger things that I wont ever get around to. Dishes in the sink, clutter laying around; she would fix this stuff instead of doing something important, and she’d probably, based on the evidence, just put the stuff away in the wrong place, anyway. I don’t have the words to explain to her where things go, so I will be jogging around cleaning things up a little on Tuesdays. It makes sense.

Invasion of the Cleaning Agents photo © the Author

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Friday Night Flights

number 2006/2

Flying is still a little bit of a trial for me, especially when I am leaving one home for another, especially with a highly-breakable monkey. Plus, we are expecting visitors, so I thought I would detail the routine. 1,693 words.

[NL]—I returned to Sunshine and the Monterrey and San Pedro valleys yesterday evening; to an honest-to-god feeling of homecoming and a little bit of Fall. In the backyard the big tree is bare, surrounded by crispy fallen leaves, the yard is weedy and temperature is actually a little lower than it was in North Carolina. The autumnal feeling does not extend to the inside of the house, however, where the plants that Sunshine has been tending for me are in the middle of a record-setting bloom. The cat, who sounds like a duck at the best of times, only spent about a half an hour reproachfully holding my six-week abandonment of her against me. More recently, she follows me around from surface to surface quacking balefully when I don’t pick her up. Sunshine is acting much the same. Subjectivity prevents certainty, but I suspect I am somehow displaying, in turn, just how much I missed everyone while I was away.

Flying internationally always makes for a rather interesting travel day. On the trip to North Carolina in December, I had to carry five or six breakable ceramic animals in my carryon bag, as well as one life-sized, gaily painted clay monkey that was too fragile to pack. This I carried in my hands when allowed, and in a take out-bag from a defunct San Pedro restaurant beneath the seat in front of me when I wasn’t. I trapped that monkey in place with my feet while it was stowed, ever fearful that the tiniest little turbulence would snap its festive tail right off. This was a big switch for me, this worry about the monkey. It was not too many flights ago when I was nearly paralyzed with terror, and I was happy to see that my brief bout with flight anxiety had passed to the point where I could worry about something else entirely.

The flight from Greensboro to Monterrey is like international travel in a bubble. It comprises, one after another, all of the irritating steps of going from one country to another, while drastically boiling the process down to just few hours. I still walk into an airport an hour and a half before I take off (boarding is a half an hour before the plane taxies, if possible). I still have to quickly take off my shoes, my belt, my rings, and my watch, slipping them, along with everything in my pockets, into buckets and sliding these through the X-Ray machine with my carryon, my camera, and my jacket. I get waved through a metal detector, but rarely get frisked with the wand thing any more. I have to hurriedly rearrange all of my stuff after being released on the other side of the security station: I have to find a chair or something to prop awkwardly against to get my boots on and I feel like a pervert fiddling with my belt in the concourse. All the while, suspicious uniformed officials mark my every move. Going to Mexico, I only have to do this once, but coming from there I have to do it before each flight. This routine was unbelievably enriched by the addition of the brightly painted and highly breakable monkey.

The next step is to wait for a while in the plastic chairs, trying hard to concentrate on something besides the upcoming flight because I am worried that I will feel anxiety. Since my first terrifying flight, my flight nerves have mostly gone away, and my preflight fear centers around the discomfort of worrying that they will return. Twenty minutes into the ride, with the airline crossword in my lap and the nose beginning to level off, is when I realize, lately, that I am okay; and then there are no more problems until the next takeoff. I spend most flights working that crossword and trying to convince the attendant to give me the whole can of soft drink. I usually sit on the aisle, and in yesterday’s flight, there was no other passenger in my row. I keep the window closed until I am sure that I no longer need to ignore the fact that I am thirty thousand feet in the air. When I opened it yesterday, finally, somewhere over Arkansas maybe, or northern Texas, the first thing I saw was enormous striking lightening slashing through a tall swirl of black storm between me and the horizon. I sat mesmerized by this display, watching hundreds of bolts of brightness tear back and forth in the sky just over there out the right window. In the distance there were the little lights of other aircraft floating through the middle of this yawning display. It was amazing and beautiful and I felt so lucky to be present that it didn’t even dawn on me to be scared. I was glad I wasn’t riding in one of those little lights in its midst, though.

Approaching Houston and Greensboro from the south there are fairly hard descending turns that can feel a little harrowing. Flying into Greensboro this is pretty extreme nose-down right bank, but in December the sunset was lighting in each consecutive window of the plane as we turned, and it was dark enough on the ground to see all the Christmas lights on the houses through the leafless trees. I found this distracting enough. Flying into Houston from the north is just a straight line in, and took place for me about two and a half hours into the flight, an hour after the snack, and two-thirds through the puzzle. Then there was the usual scramble to locate my stowed luggage (which is not necessarily right above my seat in these tiny Embraer Expressjets) and move down the line to deplane.

In Houston things can be pretty simple on the outgoing leg of international travel day. My bags were checked all the way through to Monterrey in North Carolina, so I don’t have to worry about picking those up and rechecking them, and the gates are “close” to one another. Yesterday there was about ten minutes between getting off of, and then back onto, aircraft in Houston. All I had to do was walk the half mile between spoke-like concourses of B gates from 22 to 76. Incoming international travelers are treated to double the walk, once though baggage claim and then through immigration and customs (rife with friendly Department of Homeland Security officers), and then again between concourses which are sometimes a train ride away from one another. Yesterday’s layover was a lot easier, and I was able to misread a sign, walk far, far out of my way, and correct it all before the deadline to board.

The last flight of my day yesterday was the shortest. It is an hour and twenty minute hop from Houston to Monterrey International, located conveniently in the small industrial municipality of Apodaca, about twenty minutes north of Monterrey proper. The flight attendant called this a “nose up, ass up flight” which means that there is really never a point where the plane levels off between ascent and descent. In that time there is a snack, a drink, and the hassle of customary paperwork. The flight attendant ran, quite literally, up and down the aisle throughout the entire ordeal. I had the really interesting first-time experience of being at the very front of the plane, in the single-seat number 1 row beside the flight galley. In the momentary pauses between dashing around, I got to chat amiably with my flight attendant. She made snide asides while pantomiming the security bullet points to the recorded instructions. She gave me the whole can.

I am fairly practiced at filling out the customs and immigration paperwork by now, and it is not in any way tricky anymore. I had plenty of time to finish the crossword puzzle on this flight, and then watch the twinkle of Monterrey valley fill every window in the plane as we plummeted toward the runway lights. Several rows behind me a man complained of chest pains, and the flight attendant called down to have Monterrey EMS meet the plane, and we all sat there on the runway while the man was walked off first. In Monterrey, the smaller airplanes park on the tarmac, and busses drive passengers to the terminal. I had been allowed to stow my bag in the flight closet with all of the cockpit crew’s flight jackets and things because there is no overhead compartment above, or a “beneath the seat in front of” 1A. This would have worked out badly for the monkey I took in the other direction. I was able to deplane very quickly from this position, however, and made it to the passenger busses before everyone but the EMS patient, who waited patiently with me while all of the other passengers filed in and we were all driven to the lines at Mexican immigration.

Here I waited in line to present my paperwork to the bored immigration official. He proceeded to give the same three- to six-month tourist card they always do, even though I have a two-year temporary resident permit stuck right there in my passport. A lot more walking up slick marble ramps and I was able to pick up my luggage without waiting, and proceeded rapidly through customs. At the Mexican customs checkpoint, and this is pretty much the norm all over Latin America, they have a traffic light activated by a button. When I walked up to the desk they checked my passport and declarations forms and then directed me to press that button. Supposedly, the traffic light randomly selects which travelers are let right through (green light), and which are immediately searched (red light) at the adjacent, stainless steel inspection area. Either way, all luggage goes through the X-Ray conveyor one more time. I got a green light, and walked out into the busy terminal where my girlfriend waited to usher me into a well-heated cab, through the twinkling lights of Monterrey and San Pedro valleys, and eventually into our Mexican home, complete with flowering plants and a vociferously quacking cat.

Watch the Monkey, Por Favor photo © the Author

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Christmas and a January

number 2006/1

We both got to go home for the holidays, only we mostly went to different places. I decided I would stick around in Greensboro for six weeks because it had been eight months since I’d last been there. 1,440 words

[NL]—There was a little while where, being on a rather lower rung of the departmental ladder, Sunshine and I were concerned that we might not be able to spend this Christmas in the US with our families like we normally do. Or more specifically: Sunshine might not, and I might have to go home and leave her here alone. There are apparently many people willing to cover the work during the relatively quieter time around the holidays, however, and this did not turn out to be the case. So around November we became certain that we would be able to come home at the end of December. Various itineraries and schedules were bandied about, and we eventually settled on the following: Sunshine was going to visit the family farm for a week over the Christmas holidays, and I was gong to head back to my North Carolina home at the same time; but stay there until after the New Year’s celebration at Café Europa, with its oyster shots and champagne. Then, with an eye toward giving Sunshine some room to work on the book that is to be the culmination of her 2001 Fulbright scholarship to Venezuela, I would go ahead and stay in the US for the rest of the month of January. Sunshine decided that she really needed to come to the Café Europa party also, even though there were days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve that she would have to be back in Monterrey. We bought three round trip tickets, and the deal was done.

I was really excited about all of this. Sunshine had gotten to visit her Kentucky farm back in August for her birthday, but I had not seen the family and friends since the night I had hit the road for the border. That had been April. I was really missing all the people, the restaurants and shops, and other things about Greensboro. Honestly, I was really looking forward to maybe seeing a little winter, a little snow, while I was there.

It is not normal for me to break the fourth wall in this blog. My style book indicates that I should very infrequently write in the second person, rarely relate interpersonal content that would fit better into actual correspondence, and never reference the context of this journal itself, like I am doing now. One of the reasons for this is to format this journal more simply as a string of personal essays, not a direct communication, in the hopes that the things that I am doing are worth recording as much as they are worth communicating. This decision is in a way a nod to this being a public diary, where my improbable readership may contain both people who know me very well, and people who stumble here accidentally. This presents problems at times, when I am trying to decide how to address certain issues. In this case, the majority of my supposed audience was seeing me on a day-to-day basis while I was in Greensboro, NC for six weeks; those people know full well what it was that I did there. But there are other people who live in far-flung corners of this hemisphere without that first-hand knowledge, but with less than passing interest in this personal topic. Today’s blithe abandonment of this blog’s normal MO is inspired by this ambivalence. The people who care about this subject already know about it, those who don’t can’t be expected to care. Honestly, the facts below the fold are presented only to mark the occasion of this time in my life for completeness’ sake.

Christmas was nice, and though the yearly struggle to get back and forth to so many places has been intensified now with the addition of international travel, it is really nice to have some tradition to fall back on in the midst of all this newness. I packed numerous highly breakable Mexican ceramics in carryon baggage, through security checks and customs lines, without breaking one thing. Presents I received I shipped home. Later, Sunshine imported even more breakables for her visit on New Year’s Eve. Speaking of New Year’s Eve, it was a blast. The party at Café Europa gets better and better every year, and many of my friends we there.

During my time in Greensboro, I satisfied many desires I had accrued while away: I ate Indian food, seven or eight times, in three different restaurants. I enjoyed leisurely daily stops in local coffee shops and bars. I indulged, far to often for the comfort of my budget, in that traditional Tate Street-type Sushi 101 that I so missed in México (but was sadly unable to ever manage to eat the more traditional Japanese-type sushi of Arrigato or Asahi or Kuki, in Raleigh). I got to eat Korean once, Thai a couple of times, and deli food almost every day. I browsed new and used bookstores for hours on end. I bought several used books in English and many new DVDs in a number of languages. Mostly, though, I hung out with friends, staying up very late at night, sometimes. Sometimes getting drunk. The only thing about the trip that was less than marvelous for me was the weather: a Spring-like sunny temperance prevailed, with temperatures in the upper fifties or lower sixties most of the time I was home. It never did snow, though this balmy January was occasionally punctuated with sudden rains that heralded a short-lived dip in the temperature. I will have to wait for another year to enjoy some longed-for wintertime.

Early in the trip I became lass sure of my extensive schedule. I was concerned that I might become overbearing to the people I had thrust myself upon. Few had even been aware that I was coming to visit, and even less were aware of the sheer length of my home stay. I was worried that there was going to be no way for me to fill the time, that people who have to work sixty percent of the week were going to be frustrated by the prospect of entertaining me in the interstices. Honestly, I was worried that the world had moved along without me, and I was just putting people out by showing up on Greensboro’s doorstep unannounced, begging attention like distracting novelty. At the worst of my doubt, I felt like I was a prank I was playing on everyone.

It is a strange little trick that time plays when someone is away, though, and I forget every time I come back home. For those in Greensboro, the eight months I was away didn’t seem like such a long time as it did to me, stewing out here in all that aforementioned newness. I arrived in North Carolina on December the 22nd and didn’t leave again until February 3rd, and during that time I was made to feel welcome in every case. I was never lonely or bored, I got to spend time with most everyone, over and over again, and I had a specifically wonderful time on every single day I was there.

I mentioned completism above as the reason for writing this dry, fact-based entry; but that is not the only reason. I had a wonderful and comfortable stay, and feel this necessitates my breaking that last rule I usually keep when blogging. Thank you Ian and Phil and Heat and Ellie and Dan and Piper and Jeff and most especially Chris and Mark and Hannah and mom and Anne for opening your houses to me because I needed it and also because I just really wanted to be there with you. Thank you Anne, again, and Jenn. for allowing me the use of your cars while I was bopping around town; in addition thank you James and Greg and Flora and Mr. Beaver and John and Cynthia and Alice and Mary and Sarah and Lucy and another James and Jason and Leslie and Andrew and Blake and Meredith and Myra and the other Blake and Toune and Alex and Lisa and Jae and Jeana and Nina and Brian and Alan and Shake and Nix and Jakob and Tim and another Chris and Steve and Frank and Rachel and Rob and Erin and Matt and the Buckner and Tom and another Tom and Jerry and Joe and Julia and Bill and Melinda and Joshua and Maggie and Sandy and Chronis and that belly dancer and Scott and another John and even, by god, Lilly, for hours or minutes of great times and companionship and conversations while I was cast adrift at home. --Jeremy Cavin

Happy New Year 2006 photo © Chris Young

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It's that time again. Beginner headquarters is picking-up house and relocating back to the United States on July twenty-fifth, 2009, to enjoy a month at home with family and friends. By the end of August we'll have set-up a semi-permanent household in Washington, DC, near the Cleveland Park metro stop on the red line. [DC metro map] Then, sometime after Labor Day, our boxes and boxes of stuff should catch up with us. After that it'll be smooth sailing till sometime in July 2010, when we will be moving abroad again, this time to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina for a little real winter.

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