Friday, May 29, 2015

Lima: First Impressions

Hi all! We have officially survived a week here in Lima, and I thought I'd share some of my first impressions of this awesome city! Some things are exactly what I expected, and others, not so much. For example, when people said there are no bugs here, they were lying. Also, it *does* rain in Lima (although when a cab driver said to me it was raining a lot I had to laugh because it was barely a drizzle).

In terms of very first impressions, the airport was pretty straightforward, which was a relief after arriving in Yekaterinburg for the first time and feeling completely disoriented. The drive to our house, unfortunately, took two hours (note to future visitors: don't arrive during rush hour). But the house itself is amazing. I ran through it like a kid at Disneyland our first night here. The yard is gorgeous, and we have more than enough room for company.

Our backyard on a sunny day.

That being said, it definitely has a few quirks, as all houses do. The washer and dryer are outside, for one thing, which is already proving to be an inconvenience. There is a ton of dust here and when it combines with the drizzle, it makes a real mess. All of our floors are white. All of our walls are white. And I'm considering updating Will's wardrobe to all brown, because when he crawls around here he is instantly filthy. We also have these beautiful glass doors along the entire back of the house, but there is nary a screen to be found, so we can't leave them open thanks to those bugs I mentioned. But these are all minor inconveniences.

This giant bug, for example, managed to make his way inside.
The main hurdle for me at the moment is our lack of car. We're in a new development - hence the gorgeous house - but we aren't in walking distance to anything, especially because there are no sidewalks. People were definitely NOT exaggerating about the traffic here. It takes 30-45 minutes to go pretty much anywhere, which doesn't sound so bad until you factor in the distance (usually 5-8 miles). The cab drivers like to leave their windows down, and the dust and exhaust combined with stop-and-go traffic leaves me feeling pretty queasy by the time I get anywhere. Fortunately, cabs are cheap, and I've taken advantage because I refuse to sit in my house all day for the 6-8 weeks it will take to get our car. Lugging Will's car seat around is another hassle. Yesterday I hired a driver for five hours and took the boys to the coast, which was lovely. There is a ton to do in the Miraflores area, and I regret not choosing to live there. We do get more sun where we are and John is thrilled with the cycling opportunities, but I would have been much happier in a walkable area with museums and playgrounds rather than the suburbs.

Larcomar, Miraflores

The embassy and school are both fabulous, which is super exciting coming from a post that had neither. The food is as amazing as we were led to believe, and we haven't even scratched the varnish on the surface of the restaurant scene here. Every time I crack open an avocado I want to weep with joy. In addition to the very American-esque grocery stores, there are fruit and vegetable markets with a huge variety. Lima doesn't feel nearly as foreign as Yekaterinburg did, so far. The people are very friendly and helpful, and they absolutely adore Will. I plan to exploit this as much as possible.

I'm pretty sure I didn't see a plantain, pineapple, or coconut in Russia, ever.

Perfect avocados, every time.
Overall I think this is going to be a great tour. Once we have our belongings, this house will really feel like home, and our car is going to open up so many opportunities for weekend trips (and even trips to Starbucks, because they have them here!). I have a couple of friends here already, and so does Jack, and I'm eager to find other moms who want to get out and explore during the day like I do. Two years is going to fly, and there is so much to see here in Peru and further afield!

My Spanish name shall be Maria Ruiz. Because spelling Rutherford is a pain in any language.

John wasted no time getting on his bike and exploring over the hill.

I'm sure I'm forgetting something, so feel free to ask questions in the comments. And visitors, start planning your trips! We're already booked for August ;)

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Five Pros and Cons of Yekaterinburg

Many Foreign Service bloggers are participating in a Five Pros and Cons blog hop, and as we get ready to move to Peru in ten days or so, I thought it would be nice to reflect back on our time in Yekaterinburg. It's not a well-publicized post, so I think bidders appreciate any info they can find. And even though I've been home for a year and a half, John's only been home about 8 months, and he assures me my experiences still hold true (it is worth noting that the ruble has fallen considerably since we both left, and a lot of our favorite businesses have closed; it's also much harder to get imported goods). So, without further ado, the Five Pros and Cons of Yekaterinburg, Russia:

1) NO BUGS: Okay, this might not be a big deal for some people, but it was huge for me (especially when I see pictures from tropical posts and the rodent-sized insects some people have to share their homes with). I saw two or three spiders and a handful of flies in our house while we were there, and I can't recall any bugs outside except for the occasional ant or mosquito in the summer. We did get the tick-borne encephalitis vaccine for our hikes in the woods, but I never saw a tick either. It was glorious not to encounter a single house centipedes for nearly a year and a half (which can't be said about my time here in Alexandria).

2) NO ALLERGIES: Our oldest son and I have major allergies in the spring and summer. Prior to our move to Russia, I was on at least one or two allergy meds year-round. In fact, the summer before we left for Yekat, I finally bit the bullet and went to an allergist. It turns out that I'm highly allergic to grasses. And guess what? There was hardly any grass in Yekaterinburg! Okay, so that might sound negative, but now that we're back here and poor Jack is an absolute mess thanks to his allergies, I kind of miss the itch-free days of Russia.

3) AUTHENTICITY: I've heard a lot of people complain about Foreign Service life that doesn't really feel...well, foreign. Russians refer to Yekaterinburg as the "real Russia." If you drive outside the city for an hour to one of the smaller villages, it gets even more real. For anyone looking for an authentic FS experience, where you'll definitely get to use that language you spent months learning and spot only the occasional tourist, Yekat is your post.

4) TRAVEL: Yekat is on the outskirts of Siberia. In terms of travel, you've got to go far to get anywhere worth going. But it's a small post, and everyone understands the need to get out of town as often as possible. With nearly twenty holidays (combined American and Russian) plus annual leave, that's a lot of time off. And John earned so much comp-time during his time there we had even more leave. We went on several major vacations while we were in Russia, and that for me was huge.

5) HISTORY AND FOLKLORE: If you're a Russophile, you'll obviously be thrilled to be in Russia. But I love the folklore, particularly the Urals-specific stories. Heck, the novel that landed me an agent was completely inspired by Russia. There are several decent museums in Yekaterinburg, though it helps to have a local guide because very little information is in English.

1) WEATHER: This should come as no surprise. It's Russia. It's winter six months out of the year. Worse for me was the darkness. There was so little sunlight during the winter, and I'm not just talking overcast and cloudy. I'm talking the sun rises at 10 am and sets at 4, and in downtown Yekat it never gets above the tops of the skyscrapers. On the plus side, I can now say I've braved a Russian winter. Surely that's good for something.

2) ISOLATION: Yekat is kind of in the middle of nowhere. Flights to Moscow are frequent and relatively inexpensive, but they still take 2.5 hours, and the Moscow airports are some of the worst I've ever seen. Since we left they canceled the flights to Frankfurt, which were only twice a week but were still better than nothing. There used to be once-a-week flights to several destinations in Europe, but those are mostly gone. It's pretty much Dubai, Istanbul, or Moscow. It's not such a big deal if you don't have kids, but those red-eyes and eight-hour layovers were tough with Jack. I wouldn't want to do it again. We also felt very cut off from the embassy and didn't have nearly the resources folks in Moscow and St. Pete have at their disposal (including a med unit). And of course the time difference was pretty awful (11 hours). It took ten days just to get readjusted every time.

3) NO SCHOOL: John (and I, as the CLO) tried really hard to get the international school going in Yekat, but we just couldn't get past the bureaucratic red tape. Man was that frustrating. Small kids are allowed at post, but not having an English-language preschool was a major drawback for us. It wasn't just the language, either. Russian preschools are very different from what we're used to. There is also no such thing as part-time preschool. It's either full-time or hour-long classes with parents. Even though several schools advertised English-speaking teachers, their English was about on-par with my Russian (ie, not good). I didn't feel comfortable leaving my three-year-old alone with no other English-speaking kids, either. This is obviously a personal decision, but it was tough for us.

4) NO EXPATS: Okay, there are SOME expats obviously. But the community is tiny. Something like 130 Americans in the entire (large) consular district. And it's not like I needed to hang out with Americans - anyone I could communicate with was great! I made a few friends who spoke English, but the lack of community (especially as a mom) was really challenging for me. There was one other spouse when I got to post and no other kids. Fortunately, if you're heading to Yekat in the near future, there are going to be quite a few more family members at post, including small kids. That should really improve things for family members. And of course, if I'd spoken Russian it would have been a very different experience.

5) POLLUTION: The air quality isn't great in Yekaterinburg -- lots of sooty black dust in the warmer months, exhaust from so many cars, enormous forest fires, and cigarette smoke everywhere you go -- and the water is pretty awful. We were provided with a distiller for drinking and cooking, but the water was so dirty that Jack had skin issues almost as soon as we arrived. We ended up ordering filters for the shower and kitchen sink. At one point, cholera was found in the reservoir. Several months of the year the water was brown and foul-smelling. It's not a huge deal, but it isn't pleasant, and it kind of makes you wonder what you're doing to your child (the heavy metals in the water are another concern). Seeing small children swimming in a lake with a factory directly adjacent to it was scary. And the experimental nuclear power plant just 30 miles away was always at the back of my mind.

So there you go! Five pros and cons of Yekaterinburg, Russia. Can't wait to see what Lima has to offer!