TMONE in Hand: Second Tour Daydreaming

With less than a year to go in my current post, it’s time to start looking towards tour #2. Earlier this week I received the official State Department confirmation of my second tour: my TMONE. It’s basically a diplomatic cable announcing your assignment to your current post and your new post. Come 2019, I will be headed to the US Embassy in Riga, Latvia!!

I’ll be the Cultural Attache, basically my dream job of representing American culture to Latvians through exchange scholarships, cultural programs, and more. It was my top bid and I feel incredibly lucky. Explaining to people where Latvia is located has been fun too.

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Thankfully, I’ve known where I was going for my second tour for almost 6 months now. It’s been really nice to know this far in advance. Looking at pictures of my new home in Latvia has gotten me through some tough days at the border. Riga will be incredible and I am absolutely thrilled to live there for 2 years. My main criteria after the border were: 1. a big, vibrant city with things to do for singles, 2. somewhere with no security restrictions, and 3. in Europe. Riga is the perfect fit for me. I so look forward to walking through old town Riga, exploring all the restaurants and bars, not to mention the national parks, forests, and beaches of Latvia!

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Bidding for my second tour in the Foreign Service was way different than I expected. Unlike in A-100, it’s your job to research each position and make sure the timing works. Doing this for 15 positions is challenging when you have to consider your limit of 78 weeks in training for entry-level officers, getting an in-cone job (whether that is consular, public diplomacy, etc), equity if you come from a hardship post, when language class starts, and personal preference. Oh yeah, I also had to do this during our busiest temporary work visa season (!)

The way my timing worked out is pretty standard for other public diplomacy officers I know. Language training and cultural affairs officer tradecraft will have me back in Washington come fall 2018. I’ll be living in DC again for about 9 months before moving to Riga. Getting paid to learn Russian makes me really excited, but also slightly terrified. I probably wouldn’t want that any other way though.

I’m kind of a nerd about bidding because I love to imagine where I’ll be in the next few years of my Foreign Service career. I still read a lot of post reports (talesmag.com is excellent) out of pure curiosity. It makes sense why I’m in this career… 🙂

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Backpacking in Canada- the Juan de Fuca Trail

My first major vacation at post was this past August- I went backpacking in British Columbia with my dad! It turned out to be one of my favorite trips ever. But it did take quite a bit of time to coordinate the logistics. Hopefully this helps anyone considering this trail in the future, I certainly read a lot of trip reports before hitting the trail 🙂 All our planning was more than worth it- nature is always the best form of therapy for me. I have felt so much more relaxed back in Mexico after backpacking for a week.

 

Part 1: Getting to Canada

Both my dad and I flew from Texas to Seattle- much cheaper than Vancouver. From there we took the Victoria Clipper, a 3 hour ferry from Seattle to Victoria, British Columbia. I was slightly nervous about getting seasick, but it was really smooth for us both ways.  Victoria is a really cool city with tons going on- we were there to hike so we sadly didn’t have much time in the city itself. This is the point I noticed that I was not at all used to the “cold” 70 degree weather 😀

Part 2: Driving to the Trail

Our first night was car camping at China Beach, which is about an hour drive from Victoria. Renting a car made the most sense for us, but there are also hiker shuttles from Victoria to various parts of the Juan de Fuca trail. We spent the first day getting our packs ready for the 5 day hike. It was really nice to have a relaxed setup day at the start. We hiked the trail backwards- leaving our car at the China Beach day use area and taking a shuttle early the next morning to Botanical Beach, 47km away.

 

Hike Day 1: Botanical Beach to Payzant Creek (moderate)

The first backpacking day- at first I was a little intimidated by all the other hikers who seemed to be in way better shape than me, but we made it to our first campsite! Highlight of the day was watching the eclipse from Botanical Beach. This part of the trail wasn’t too hard, lots of boardwalks to start and some elevation gain. Not as muddy as we’d expected. But thankful that we settled for Payzant Creek instead of Little Kuitsche Creek as originally planned! I was not yet ready for an extra 6km of hiking with my heavy pack.

Hike Day 2: Payzant Creek to Sombrio Beach (moderate)

The trail guide calls this moderate, for me it was the hardest day. Once you reach the beach walking part towards the end, lots of scrambling over slippery rocks. I discovered I have pretty bad balance. But happy to be camping at our first beachside campsite!

Hike Day 3: Sombrio Beach to Chin Beach (difficult)

My favorite day of hiking. Lots of wandering along the coast this day, passing the emergency shelter cabin right after Sombrio Beach. This was the first day we had an issue with the high tide- we had to get our feet a little bit wet to cross the beach right at the end! Ending the day with one of the coolest sunsets I’ve ever seen right at our campsite on the beach.

Hike Day 4: Chin Beach to Bear Beach (most difficult)

Definitely the most physical day- up and down over hills the whole day. Having the other end of Bear Beach to ourselves was a highlight.

Hike Day 5: Bear Beach to China Beach (moderate)

Hiked out to the car at the end of this day. Bittersweet- ready to be done with the trail and having real food again, but not wanting vacation to be over.

 

Update from Post- La Frontera y la Canícula

I had originally decided to stop updating this blog for personal security reasons. Now that I have been in Mexico almost a year (wow!), I feel somewhat more comfortable about my life here at post. Adding an obvious disclaimer that these are purely my thoughts and do not represent the official opinion of the State Department 🙂

There is such little information out there about Nuevo Laredo and other border posts- I know when I was bidding and researching it was tough to find even basic details. Some surprises include ballet performances at the Centro Cultural, which is in the “restricted zone” but we are allowed to attend if we let the security office know. One major aspect of life at the border: the summer heat.

When I arrived in the winter, local staff told me about la canicula- the hottest time of the summer where it would be 108 degrees or higher. I’d say it generally lasts from June-August and we all try to just stay inside during the day! I think the best way of dealing with the heat is escaping on the weekend to the nearest beach- Mustang Island!

Related to work, I have had the opportunity to already work in 3 major areas of the consular section: non-immigrant visas, American citizen services, and the fraud prevention unit. I also got the chance to TDY (temporary duty) to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic for 3 weeks which honestly deserves its own blog post. It was truly an island paradise and I’d serve there in a heartbeat.

It is a little crazy to think that in October I will have been here for one year. I am basically halfway through my first tour in the Foreign Service. It has been much more challenging than I expected- there have certainly been days where I’ve counted down the time left. The 25% hardship isn’t for nothing. Thankfully I have some incredible colleagues who I am so proud to call close friends for life.

Also, I now have my onward assignment- I found out in late April that my second tour will be in Riga, Latvia doing public diplomacy! It is truly a dream job and was my top bid. I’ll be back at FSI in fall 2018 to study Russian and PD tradecraft for about 9 months before moving to Latvia. Until then, I’ll be trying to visit places on my Mexico bucket list (Tulum!) and make the most of having my family and many friends close by in Texas.

Tres/Tres, or I Passed My Spanish Test!!

About two weeks ago, I found out that I passed my end of training Spanish test at FSI!!

Since then, I’ve been getting everything ready for my impending departure for la frontera, aka Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. I am thrilled to be done with training and so ready to leave very soon! Here are a few of the cool things I have done recently in preparation for starting my dream job in Mexico:

-Talked to a group of interns at FSI about the Foreign Service application process while realizing how lucky I am to have this job

-Attended Crash Bang, the State Department’s counter terrorism training in which I ducked for cover and rammed cars in a simulated attack on an embassy

-Sent thank-you emails to everyone in the Spanish department I could think of for their part in my (surprising) success on the test

-Bought a real car and mentally prepared myself for all the driving I’ll be doing in two years

-Planned goodbye dinners with friends in DC 😦

It’s crazy exciting to me that after 9ish months of living here, I’m finally headed to post. I cannot wait to find out what my job will be like as a consular officer. While I’m comforted by a few things (there are 3 Chick-fil-a’s right across the border in Laredo!), I don’t really know what to expect about my new home. But I am sure excited to start my tour!

Reflection on Language Training

I am writing this from the gazebo on my lunch break at the Foreign Service Institute. One of the major things I’ll miss here is the absolutely amazing campus we have with trees, paths, places to escape the classroom.

I’ve been meaning to write a post like this for a while. TLDR: language training is hard. I am both amazed at how far I’ve come in Spanish and how much there is left to learn even after the 3/3.

I am 3 weeks out from my end of training exam and at times, have never felt so stressed in my life.
While I still completely love the fact that I get paid to learn Spanish, it is honestly much harder than I imagined. Sometimes I’ve found myself overly comparing myself with my colleagues and their results- even though I have met or surpassed our goal on every test.

Also, I wish someone had told me that language does end up taking over your entire social life. I’ve had to work harder than I thought to keep a balance between spending time with friends, exercising, and studying. And this is me as a young, single person without other responsibilities like a spouse or kids. I’ve honestly forgotten what life was like before I had homework and language studies all the time. 

I am deeply looking forward to later this year in Mexico when I can actually start doing consular work. It’s easy to lose track of why I’m really learning Spanish- not to argue over nuances of a political opinion article on Argentina’s “dirty war,” but to  adjudicate visas in a crucial part of the world and help Americans at the border. 

La Mitad del Mundo- Spanish Immersion in Ecuador

I recently got back from an awesome 2 weeks in Quito, Ecuador. Amazingly, the Foreign Service Institute sponsored my trip and I didn’t have to take leave! Two weeks of individual classes, field trips to cathedrals and museums in the historical center, and living with a host family. 

It was great to get away from the normal routine of studying Spanish at FSI. I already miss the opportunities to use my Spanish 24/7, even when I didn’t always want to. But this immersion just made me much more excited for moving to Mexico in 2 months!

Here are a few of my favorite moments from the trip:

View from la basilica in Quito, after climbing up several scary staircases 

Me in La Ronda, fun street for eating, drinking, and dancing

Ceviche Peruvian style 

Street art in Quito’s historical center

Plaza de la Independencia in the historical center

View from atop the teferico (cable car)

Day 2 of Spanish Language Training!

A lot happened since I last posted on Flag Day. Since then I’ve been sworn in as an official Foreign Service Officer, passed and completed ConGen (6 week consular training class), and started Spanish!


I’m still psyched that it is now my full time job to become fluent in Spanish. The US Government is paying me to study Spanish for the next 6 months, which is incredibly cool.

Spanish was my #1 preference in my first post. It’s awesome to think that later this year I’ll be interviewing visa applicants and representing American interests at the border in proficient Spanish!