Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Pulled Over

Tomorrow marks three weeks in our new home. I have learned a few things in these past three weeks. I will impart that wisdom to you, because I'm generous like that.

Driving.

Oh my goodness—driving.

Until this month, I have always considered myself a cautious driver. A considerate driver. A I'd-rather-add-ten-minutes-to-my-trip-and-take-the-next-exit-and-turn-around driver. I always use my blinkers. If I can't get across the lanes of traffic to make my turn or my exit, I'll just miss it and try the next one. I drive under the speed limit. I do not accelerate quickly—I just wait my turn. I always felt that if you waited long enough, a window in the traffic would appear perfect for you to fit in.

That doesn't really work here.

The motto here seems to be that "if it fits—well, it will fit." I thought I was driving in a one-lane street. Well, the other cars didn't get the memo. If they can squeeze next to me, they will.

I wouldn't have thought a biker or cyclist could get through that space safely, but they obviously knew better than I did.

I really didn't think there was room for a pedestrian to cross safely there, but I have been proven wrong, time and time again.

I wouldn't have thought that curbs were a great place for sitting, but apparently car lanes do have enough room for cars and feet.

I am also becoming much more acquainted with how much space my car actually takes up. My old motto was that I had to see the entire front of a vehicle in my rearview mirror before I would change lanes and get in front of that vehicle. That rule is out the window now.

You have to be aggressive. Or you don't get anywhere. And a lot of people honk at you. I get honked at more often when I am being cautious than when I am being aggressive.

Jeff said a few days ago, "I think I would leave Juárez happy if we just don't get in a wreck while we're here."

I'm not sure if that is going to be possible.

Drivers make double turn lanes out of single turn lanes (sometimes they make them triple turn lanes!). They drive the wrong way in one-way areas. There are potholes big enough to eat my entire tire. And there are millions of unmarked speed bumps just waiting to take me out. And U-turns are happening everywhere.

That said, I wouldn't say I am surrounded by bad drivers. It is more like I am surrounded by incredibly confident drivers. I don't actually see that many accidents compared to the United States.

And I am getting used to looking at my kilometers per hour rather than the larger numbered miles per hour on my spedometer.

Along the theme of driving: left turns. There are lots of different ways to make left turns here. I don't even have words to describe all of them. But I am doing a lot better now that I am familiar with which streets do left turns in which ways.

There are also various roads that split into two but are still the same road. Sometimes they converge again; sometimes they don't. It's more that you just need to know way ahead of time where you are going to turn and which of the road options you need to be on.

And then there are the red lights that say "permitido con precaución." Those are what I am still not used to and that still kind of scare me. There are places where you can go straight through a red light if there is no oncoming traffic. Also places where you can turn left at a red light when there is no oncoming traffic.

So these lights scare me even when I have the green light, because I worry that people won't notice me and they will go through the red, because they would be allowed to if I weren't there.

I'm sure I'll get the hang of them, but they are pretty intimidating to me right now.

I've learned that my favorite lane is the middle lane. It tends to have fewer potholes. Also, in the left lane, you never know when you are going to slam on your brakes because someone has come to a complete stop to do a U-turn or turn left. (There are a lot of U-turns here.) And in the right lane, it seems like the buses stop constantly.

(The city buses here are school buses that have been painted colors other than yellow (usually white). And the "stop" sign on their sides have been deactivated, so the sign just sits on the side of the bus not doing anything rather than extending and stopping traffic.)

Oh, and I mentioned potholes. To be fair, I must also mention that I have seen potholes being repaired. So the city is at work fixing the road, a lot of construction. It just appears to be an uphill battle.


And while I'm still talking about driving, I should share another experience I had.

The younger children's school asked for pictures of the children to put on their boxes. I have no pictures of them currently (other than tiny passport type photos), because the majority of my stuff has not arrived. So I decided to try and print them off through walmart.com. Well, first I kept getting sent to walmart.com.mx. (We have the VPN thing-whatever set up, but I don't know how to do utilize it.) Walmart.com.mx is apparently separate from walmart.com, because it wouldn't let me log in; I didn't have an account with it. So then I finally got it to switch to walmart.com, and it let me log in, and it had my pictures saved, and I went to order them, but walmart.com would not let me choose the Walmart store closest to me in Juárez. It only gave me El Paso options. (I know I could have just created a Mexican Walmart account and uploaded the photos again, but I was frustrated at this point, and my internet does not upload very quickly.)

So, I chose the closest El Paso option.

I thought the kids and I could just drive over there, get the pictures and a few other things, and come back over the bridge. Easy peasy.

Well, the photos weren't ready. I ordered them 1-hour, but they were not there when I showed up. So I shopped a little longer, and the photos still weren't there. The photo lady actually said my order didn't even appear as existing. Great. (I received an email a few days later saying they were ready for pick up; I don't know why my 1-hour turned into 3-days. Maybe they could tell I ordered from a different country.)

So I had driven to El Paso and paid the bridge tolls for nothing.

Then I got lost. And I had no cell phone reception, because we had canceled our American service and gotten Mexican service and hadn't done yet whatever we needed to do to have our new Mexican service work in America.

I don't know how long I was lost, but it became night, and my vision is not that great, so it was incredibly difficult to read the street signs from far away, and it was just really difficult in general for me.

I finally found my way back to the bridge, and narrowly avoided ending up with the trucks (again, it's hard for me to read street signs from far away and even more so at night), and crossed back into Mexico.

I could barely tell where the lanes are during the day, and I had no idea where they were during the night, so my plan was to just follow the car in front of me.

We came to a very wide intersection with two sets of lights. They started blinking green, so I had the green blinks and the yellow to make it through before red, but it was still red before I made it all the way through. I totally ran a red light.

And then I totally got pulled over.

Now, I have a somewhat irrational fear of Mexican police officers. I know the vast majority of them are honest and brave and doing a very difficult job, especially in my tough town. But you've probably read in the news, as I have, that some of them are dishonest and work for the drug cartel instead of the government.

So I was very scared to get pulled over, in the dark, in a part of town I was unfamiliar with.

The police officer was very kind though. He did nothing to scare me; it was all my head and all of the emotions I had leftover from not getting my photos and then getting lost and then not being able to read the signs and all of the extra emotions I always have right now from being pregnant.

He wanted my driver's license. I told him I didn't think I should give it to him and asked him if I could call the consulate. (I have been told that I am supposed to make a photocopy of my driver's license and give police officers the copy, because they keep your license until you pay your fine, or they will take your license plates off your car and keep those until you pay your fine.)

I called the number I had for the RSO (Regional Security Officer), but I think I wrote the number down wrong, or maybe it is because it was after-hours, but I ended up getting a native Spanish speaking person. A guard, I think. I confused him quite a bit, and, embarrassingly, I cried.

The police officer apparently decided that this emotional American diplomat was not worth it, because he drove away. But he drove away without saying anything to me, so I wasn't sure whether I was allowed to leave or not. There was another car pulled over in front of me, and I couldn't tell if my police officer had just gone to go talk to that police officer and get advice about what to do with the uncooperative pregnant woman or if he had actually left.

I continued to thoroughly confuse the consulate person I had on the phone until the pulled-over car in front of me drove away, and I could tell that all of the police officers were gone, and I was just sitting in the right lane, blocking traffic, in an unknown part of town, at night, for seemingly no reason. So I told the person on the phone that I guess I didn't need his help anymore and drove home.

I got to my garage and just completely lost it. Lots of crying.

Jeff, mind you, had no way to get ahold of me during most of this time because of the lack of American cell phone reception, so he was worried about us. All he knew was that we had gone to El Paso a few hours before and had no idea why we weren't back yet. We had plans with a friend to meet up at 6:00, but I got home so late we missed it, so he was worried.

I finally got out of the car and calmed down, and then my doorbell rang. I was a little confused (and slightly worried the police were still coming for me), but it ended up just being more Consulate guards following up on the phone call. They wanted to make sure the police officer hadn't bullied or threatened me. So I had to reassure them that the officer was completely nice, and that it was all my own ridiculous fault for crying—that the officer had not made me cry.

It was nice of them to follow up though. Made me feel safe.

A week has passed since that incident, and now I just feel guilty. I really did run a red light, and I would be happy to pay my fine to society and be an upstanding citizen again, but I don't know how to do that without making things really complicated. I doubt I could just show up and ask how much it costs to have run a red light. I would have been happy to accept a ticket; I just didn't want my license taken away. But now I feel kind of like a jerk, like I've used my well-I'm-a-fancy-diplomat excuse to get out of a traffic violation. But I'm not that kind of person. Except that apparently I am.

So it is a frustrating memory.

And I don't think I'll run any more red lights. I fully respect the blinking green light now and have learned that the yellow light here is very short.


In other news, Daniel turned four shortly after we arrived here. I thought I would be all fancy and pretend I had already conquered the grocery store and cooking in Celsius and make him a cake.

I had him pick out a mix from the store. This is what he chose. Easy peasy, I thought. I may not always conjugate correctly, but surely I can follow the instructions on a cake mix.


I followed steps one and two perfectly, and then I got to step three. What in the world?? Has anyone else ever seen that before? Baking a cake on your stove top?


I decided to ignore the instructions and bake it in the oven, but after 45 minutes, it was still much more liquid than solid. (I have since purchased an oven thermometer and realized that it takes a really long time to get the oven hot enough, and you have to set it for even hotter than you want.) Jeff and I were already nervous about the whole stove versus oven issue, so we decided he should take Daniel to a bakery and pick out a cake just in case.

Daniel was thrilled to pick out a bakery cake, as you can see. (And my cake did end up working. So we just had a massive amount of cake. We took it to the consulate the next day, and Daniel shared his fancy cake with all of Jeff's staff.)


In other news, Jill and Daniel are enrolled to play soccer. I signed them up on Wednesday, and they had a game on Saturday. Their team had just lost two players this season, so Jill and Daniel were allowed to play even though they had never practiced.

Now I could be wrong, because I've never had my kids in soccer in the United States, but I'm going to go ahead and say that little kid soccer in Mexico is at a different level. I expected to see a lot of "bunch ball" playing, but there was actually passing and even a header. Apparently most of the teams in our league are "soccer academy teams," which I think means they practice a lot. Our team is just through Jill's school, so they only practice for an hour on Mondays and Wednesdays and then have a game every Saturday.

My kids' team was creamed 0 to 8. My kids didn't seem to mind though.

A few highlights: Jill was the only girl on either team. My kids are super easy to find on the field, because they are the only blonds.

At one point, somehow, miraculously, the ball was all alone, and Daniel was the closest player to it. It should have been a beautiful moment, a perfect chance for a nice kick. Instead, Daniel ran up to the ball and . . . tackled it. He jumped on top of it, completely covering it with his body. (Perhaps he should play goalie??) This gave the other team a PK, because it was within the box, but impressively our goalie blocked the shot.

Later in the game, after one of the other team's many goals, Jill was given the ball by the coach to take it up to the middle to start the game again. Presumably the mix of never having played soccer before and not understanding Spanish yet combined, and instead of taking the ball to the middle and giving it to the referee to begin again, she dribbled the ball all the way to the other goal and scored. It didn't count, of course, but she is still pretty pleased about her goal.


I thought their uniforms would have their school name on it, but they don't. The uniforms make me think of race car drivers, because they are covered in advertisements, which makes me think they should have been free, since my kids are going to be billboards, but they weren't free. Apparently the uniform is modeled after a popular Mexican soccer team (C. F. Monterrey). (And after a quick google search, I can attest that is true.)

The kids were very excited to see "Home Depot" on their right arms. (They love it because of the kid workshops.)

And I chuckle to myself every time I see the jersey, because the main sponsor across the front is "Bimbo." It is a Mexican bread and sweets company, like Hostess or WonderBread. But it still seems funny to me to see Jill being a "blonde bimbo." I don't think I'll tell her what the word means in English.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Settling

Well, we're here. We made it. The "homelessness" of December came to an end. And our new house is great. A little overwhelming, because I've never (as an adult) had a home this large before, and I'm not convinced that four toilets are really necessary (especially not if I'm the one who has to clean them), but I do like the house. It is nice to not have to shush the older children the entire time the youngest is napping, because I finally have a home where the upstairs is just for sleeping and the downstairs is for living, and the family room is not at the bottom of the stairs making sound travel easily. So yay!

I also really like that the closet in the master bedroom is actually in the bathroom. It is nice to already have your clothes where you get dressed after a shower. So convenient.

The laundry room is on the second floor, which is pretty fantastic.

There are lots of windows and sunlights in the ceiling, so during the day I don't need to flip light switches, which I also really like about the house.

The house is super noisy right now—all of the children's noises echo massively. We're planning on buying some rugs, and once our stuff arrives, we'll get our pictures and paintings hung. I'm hopeful that will cut down on the echo.

The entire house is floored in tile. Entire house. I assume this helps the house stay cool during the months of 100+ weather. Right now it is making me grateful that I own slippers. Jeff just ordered some for himself online. It is pretty cold.

It may be because we moved here in the winter, but it is very brown. Lots of dirt, sand, and rocks. It is a desert, so perhaps I will just get used to the brown, or maybe there will be more color in the spring and summer. However, the Mexicans have compensated for the lack of color in the landscape by having very colorful homes. I love it! I love all the reds, yellows, greens, oranges, and blues! These houses are so pretty. Our house is a neutral color, but our garage is a bright color that really pops. It makes it easy to direct people to our house, because it is the only one on the street with that color garage. So cheerful. The kids love it, too. Jill has proclaimed it to be her new favorite color.

We attended our new ward (congregation) today, and everyone was really nice. Jill was pretty nervous during sacrament meeting, but after primary and Sunday school, I asked her how it went. She said, "It was good. I didn't understand what they were saying, but it was fun. My teacher knew some English words." Alice and Daniel seemed to do fine as well. Being older, Jill has been the most sensitive this move, so I am glad that she declared church as "good." I am curious to discover how long it will take them to learn Spanish.

I'm trying to think of some of the things I have noticed about Mexico that are different from the US, or at least things about Ciudad Juárez that are different from the parts of the US that I have lived in.

Happy meals come with pineapple slices instead of apple slices.

You can buy apple yogurt and grape yogurt.

The green traffic lights start flashing to warn you they are about to turn yellow.

The street lane lines are either faded or nonexistent, so I'm not always sure how many lanes there are or where my car is supposed to be.

The street name over the intersection in green is the street coming up at the next intersection. The street name over the intersection in white is the street you are currently crossing.

Police officers have their lights on at random, seemingly all the time; it does not mean you are being pulled over.

Strangers ask to have their pictures taken with my children or just pictures taken of my children, because they think my children look like dolls. I have to admit that I find this flattering. Ha.

That's all I can think of so far.

Oh, here is something I need to google or ask around about—the grocery store had a large display of fresh cactus being chopped up and bagged. What dishes do you cook with cactus? I wonder if I would like it.

The grocery store was also full of hundreds of cakes for January 6, a holiday called Epiphany, or Day of the Kings, or Three Kings' Day. Originally a Catholic holiday, it celebrates when the magi found the baby Jesus. Apparently it was traditionally the day in Mexico when gifts were exchanged, but American gift-giving on Christmas has rubbed off, so now they give gifts then as well. Or perhaps instead, I'm not sure. But January 6 does still (from what I've heard) mark the end of the Christmas holiday season, and it is when you put your Christmas decorations and lights away. Another part of the tradition is the ring-shaped epiphany cakes we saw at the grocery store. From what I've heard, you have a Kings' Day party and serve the cake, which has a figurine baked inside. Whoever discovers the figurine in his or her slice of cake gets to (has to?) throw a party for everyone present on February 2. (Mexican friends, please educate me if I'm getting any of this wrong.)

Some of our belongings are supposed to arrive in about two weeks. The remainder is supposed to arrive in two to three months. I'm hoping that since we only moved to Mexico, as opposed to Turkmenistan or Saudi Arabia or wherever, that it won't take the full two to three months. Right now, we are living off of what we had in our van and the "welcome kit" provided by the Consulate, which includes linens, dishes, kitchen items, trash cans, etc. The house is also fully furnished, so we are quite comfortable.

We are looking forward to our next two years!

The view as you drive into Mexico from El Paso.

On a sadder note, I am quickly becoming acquainted with one of the harder aspects of Foreign Service living. I had a taste of it last year while we were in Brasilia. My sister had a complicated birth with her fourth (umbilical cord prolapse), and it was very hard to be so far away, feel so helpless, and not know whether she and her daughter would make it through unscathed. Thankfully, their story has a happy ending—modern medicine worked as it can, and they are both healthy. But the waiting was so hard.

Three days after arriving here, I received an email from my mom saying that my aunt had had a heart attack. Then that afternoon, I received an email from my dad saying that my aunt had died. The viewing and funeral are later this week in Indiana, and my mom will be giving the eulogy. My mother has five brothers, so some of her sisters-in-law have been like sisters to her. This particular one, my aunt Ramona, became a Homer the same day that my mom traded in Homer for Boling. (They were married on the same day in the same temple.) So, they began with that fun connection of a shared experience and shared anniversary. Then they both had kids who were the same ages as each other, and since Aunt Ramona and her family lived near my grandparents, we got to see them a lot while I was growing up.

I got to see my aunt the day before Thanksgiving. She and my uncle had made cute little Santa Clauses for my kids with applesauce heads, juice box bodies, meat stick arms, and raisin legs. My kids ate them during this long road trip we had in December, and I was grateful for the gift and my loving aunt and uncle. I meant to tell her and Uncle Steve how much their treats were enjoyed after we arrived, but I ran out of time.

Her health has not been the greatest in recent years, but she always valued family time and made the effort to travel. She came to my wedding and the blessings of my babies.

Here is a picture of Aunt Ramona and Uncle Steve at my home in Cincinnati for a family gathering after Daniel's baby blessing in 2011.

You will be missed, Aunt Ramona.

I wish I could be closer and hug my mom on what will undoubtedly be a hard day for her. I have a feeling that this is just the beginning of wanting to be closer during hard times but instead being very far away.