Monday, March 14, 2011

Best Disguised FS Couch

Well, I guess I’m in on the contest. Fantastic FS blogger Zoe, over at Something Edited This Way Comes, has initiated this contest to help us celebrate one of the most consistent aspects of FS life – ugly couches.

So – I’m in. But…don’t hate me…we don’t have to disguise our couch. It’s nice. Like, actually nice. I would buy it for my own home.

Some how, somewhere we ended up with this new edition of the FS couch. I have not seen it in any other home here (from the almost tippy-tippy top of the totem poll to the very, very newest of the most not-senior FSO).

Would you believe it’s the first thing people comment on when they come to our house for the first time? They ask us if we brought it from home. Or, they simply launch into, “How did you get that couch!?” I have seen many a manager (or manager’s spouse) swoon over our sofa/loveseat pair. It’s couch envy. To mark it as ours (at least until we leave) I have jazzed it up with that nice $5 Ikea blanket.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Níspero - Another Crazy Fruit

That looks like a ball of dirt, right? Well, it is not. It is a delicious fruit called a níspero. Some of you might remember my efforts to fall in love with the decidedly ugly zapotetwice.

I really, really wanted to give the zapote a chance, but our love was just not meant to be. Fortunately, the DR is one of those places where wild, delicious, tropical fruit literally falls out of the sky, lands at our feet and says, “Go ahead, enjoy!”

That’s how I learned about the níspero. There is a níspero tree at my office. Every day one of my colleagues will try to collect up the fallen ones before they get squished by the vehicles coming in for the day. Then, at lunch, we cut them open and enjoy.

I really thought that these must be related to a zapote. Despite the difference in size and shape, they both have a light brown, sandpaper-like exterior. And the seeds are also very similar. The níspero has more seeds and, of course, they’re smaller, but they look a lot alike.

However, where the differ is the taste. Níspero taste like cinnamon and vanilla and almost just like an oatmeal cookie. I promise! The texture is a bit like a cross between a pear and a plum. They’re super sweet and almost remind me of a fig in their richness – like one of those fruits that makes you feel like you’re indulging in a delectable dessert.

A bit of wikipedia research reveals that they are indeed related to the zapote. And, they’re also common in India and other parts of Latin America. In other Spanish speaking countries there are also called Sapodilla. The scientific name is Manilkara zapote.

Of course, I have been getting my fill of níspero for free up until this point, but I was on a work-related trip on Friday and decided to stop at a roadside stand and pick up some to take home. I really had (and have) no idea how much they should cost. A banana is 5 pesos at a fruit stand – I figure that price is pretty constant and can serve as a my guide. When I asked the guy how much for the níspero he said 150 pesos per dozen. That seemed a bit high for me. Bargaining is the norm here so I counter-offered. I thought maybe 10 pesos would be more reasonable – the fruit are seasonal and rarer than bananas and the poor guy was the last stand after several and probably wasn’t going to get much business. “120 for a dozen,” I said. He agreed. I did my bargaining. I got my níspero. That all felt pretty good.

But, today I saw this article in the New York Times. For those of you who travel – or live – abroad, this has some good tips on how to bargain and still help the poor fruit seller, trinket hawker or odds-and-ends dealer when you’re in an economically struggling country. Although I try to keep these things in mind anyway and, of course, you can’t expect to ever do this perfectly (there’s always a grey area), it’s good to have someone else’s perspective and a bit of a reminder about where our dollars, pesos and rupees go. Next time I’ll pay the 150 and ask him to give me 15 of these tasty níspero.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


It has crossed my mind that one of the worst possible things here would be to need emergency services of some sort – police, fire department, ambulance. Sometimes as I sit in traffic bumper-to-bumper, door-to-door, three lanes easily turning into five and I hear an ambulance behind me and I think, “Good god I hope that person isn’t really in need of urgent care.” Of course, there is a fad here of buying car horns that makes a police, fire engine or ambulance sound – presumably to get people out of your way. Those people are marketing to the wrong country. Even if drivers want to move out of the way – it ain’t happenin’.

Unfortunately, I had first-hand experience with a high-speed ambulance transport about a year ago. Thank goodness for us it was 10:00 PM – the roads were practically empty.

Today, I got the first-hand introduction to the Santo Domingo bomberos (fire fighters). My boys’ school caught on fire. It was early – only a few children were there and they were quickly evacuated. Then, the teachers and parents and neighbors and rubber-neckers waited outside until the fire trucks arrived. As we were pulling up, the section of the school that was burning (a small gym on the side of the school) was down to the metal braces (I’m guessing it had been a good 20 minutes from spark to bonfire). About ten minutes later a fire truck finally inched its way through the traffic to check out the scene. Fortunately, the school maintenance man had bravely climbed up on the building with a garden hose to have a go at the flames, so it appears the bomberos* were mostly on check-out-the-scene duty. They opened some windows and sprayed some water…I think…I’m actually not sure about that part. It was a bit chaotic. Then another fire truck came.

This is where I just want to say – I love it here, but AGGGHHHH! It’s a SCHOOL! It’s on FIRE! DANGER! To top it off, I feel I am getting way too used to this type of thing. While I was deeply concerned by the delay in the fire fighters and despite my little thirteen word outburst above, I really felt very little true frustration. It was more like, “No way! This sucks! How sad. Oh well, no school today. Load up boys.” My husband is a little more freaked out. I get it. I mean, jeez, it is crazy.

Then, after I was moving on and heading to work, I (well, our car) got hit by a carro público driver (carro públicos are like tin cans pretending to be taxis that run like buses on fixed routes)! Did I freak out? Cry? Worry? No, not really, I got out, attempted to examine the damage. Watched in dismay as the carro driver jumped out of his car, hopped into traffic, ran up the block and then returned with my hubcap. He popped it back on and smiled. I said, (translated from the Spanish obviously) “Good for you it wasn’t worse than that.” He said “Yep.” I said, “Have a good one.” He said, “Same to you,” and then we were on our way. No harm. No foul.

I recognize on the one hand that this might be ideal Foreign Service adaptation behavior. When in Rome, right? Imagine if you got upset every time things like this happened in Pretoria, Dhaka, Kuala Lumpur or San Salvador? You’d be screwed. You would be one frustrated and exhausted human being.

But, I do fear that this sets me up for a life of expecting very little if/when we’re ever posted to the States. “Ms. H, your child broke his arm today. He’s waiting it out on the playground. We gave him a sucker. I’m sure he’s fine.” Or “I am sorry to inform you that you will no longer be receiving electricity. The State of Virginia has decided to ration such services. We’re at your service. Please feel free to call…Monday through Friday noon to three.” Or perhaps, “I’m so sorry, we don’t sell milk or bread anymore.” I imagine myself kind of shrugging and walking away, only to be told by my non-FS friends that this type of thing is actually not acceptable in the United States. Hmmmm, that must be what home leave is for. Re-adaptation. A chance to remember to have standards….any standards. Good. I’ll need it.

* No Dominican fire fighters are being blamed by me for the delayed response. They are paid a shameful $120 per month to attempt to respond to fires. I am sure they dream of quick and efficient rescues that elude them on a regular basis.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

On the Horizon

We are now, even with 6 ½ months left, in count down mode. I am resisting the urge to move into the tic-toc tic-toc, but it keeps being apparent in ways that I do not expect.

For instance, today the guy who cuts the grass for our complex asked us to loan him some money. He’s never asked before, he always does a good job and his mom is very sick in Haiti and needs surgery. Yes, perhaps I’m an idiot, but the money, although a large sum for him, is very little for us. Of course, in the end, maybe his mom isn’t sick in Haiti. Maybe he doesn’t even have a mother. I like to assume whatever the reason, it’s probably an actual need – whether he’s sick, his neighbor needs school fees for her child or his church’s roof caved in, all are worthy causes in my book. A loan is a loan – we’ve all asked for them at some point, right? Anyway, I calculated how many more times we would be paying him before we leave (15) and decided how much would be taken out each week to return the money. Only 15 more paydays! How is that even possible?

And, we have also decided to go to the States in a few weeks. We’ll probably go for 10 days or so in the summer too and then we’ll have a month of home leave when we finish our tour here. These big markers of time when we will be visiting friends and family make our remaining months here feel so divided into brief periods.

We keep saying we’re going to make a list of things to do here before we leave, but we haven’t gotten around to it. I’m not sure why. In some ways I think we’re defeatists. Presumably, we will both be working right up until our last days here – where in the world would be find time to do the things that are remaining? The reasons we haven’t done them thus far have to do with time and distance. I think we figure we will have lived it up here to the best of our ability. There is no doubt about that. And, time is not being wasted – we’re still trying to reach every corner possible – with or without a bucket list.

Our oldest child is perhaps our biggest reminder of what’s up ahead. Every couple of days or so he asks, “When are we going to Madagascar?” or “When will we get to Africa?” in the same sort of sing-songy, slightly whiny voice that’s usually left for long road trips. He loves it here, but like his parents, the next adventure is always a welcome horizon. We keep reminding him of the months we have left here – with his room, his friends, the beach. He hears us, but it doesn’t seem to sink in. As for Oakwood – I think he’s in denial. We’re trying to sell it on the snow (which we will surely have), the train and the Air and Space Museum. He remembers these things fondly, but when we explain it he says, “And then we’ll go to Madagascar!?”

The everyday reminders, the planning, the over-and-over again explanations – these are the things that make the clock tick. The craziest and yet most certain thing of all is knowing that when it’s time to board the plane – we will be so, so sad to go and so, so ready to leave.