Friday, September 30, 2011

The Backup Plan(s)

I’ve been scheming on ways to work and live abroad since before I ever met my husband so it was no big leap to decide to do this. Admittedly, I never saw myself living in the campo in any of my living abroad adventures. So you may be wondering, if this chick likes living abroad so much, why even bother with the visa? Well, most of my wanting to live/work abroad stems from the travel itch I contracted while studying abroad in Mexico. That was the single-best-most life changing experience in my life, to date. After falling in love with Mexico all I wanted to do was get back out there and explore the world! I was young and idealistic and I wanted to “help people”. But first I had to get through school which was no easy feat. It took me NINE YEARS to get my degree. I changed my major five times because I’m alternately interested in many things and I can very easily change my mind when I think something’s not working. I think I mentioned before that I want to go to grad school but have yet to pin down exactly what I want to dedicate myself to studying. My friend claims to have a list of the many jobs I can see myself doing and I challenge her to post this supposed list in the comments.

So things change. While living abroad may have sounded romantic and exciting in my 20s, the 30s Julie wanted to settle in and have a family and a house and job security and a fat 401k. I could surely satisfy my travel itch with annual international vacations. What I wanted now was stability. But M’s immigration status was threatening my security gland. And his a bit too. How could we settle down and have kids when at any moment he might not come home because he’s been picked up by immigration. It’s not as if we hadn’t thought about this when we got married. All the (free) lawyers we consulted told us to wait for immigration reform. I wish I had done more research. I wish I had found my current lawyer back then. I wish now we had started this process as soon as we got married but, live and learn.

Staying together has always been my number one priority. That doesn’t mean I wanted to be together at the expense of shirking all our responsibilities but we had some time to prepare. We actually made a few bad decisions, one might say I made some bad decisions but let’s stick with we, this is a team effort after all. Basically, I got house fever and we bought a house. We then decided to take on some renovations and went into debt. We now rent the house out but this whole moving abroad thing would be easier without the house headaches and without the debt weighing us down.

So seeing how I was no stranger to the living /working abroad concept, I got right to work thinking up possible places we could live and make a little money during our waiting period. They all involved me teaching English because that is the easiest and most lucrative job you can get abroad for someone with no hard skills like me. I studied linguistics which makes me sound somewhat qualified to teach a language. I also took a TESOL certification class and taught briefly at a community college. That teaching job is when I decided I didn’t want to teach ESL. I love languages. Learning them, talking about them. I regularly think about word etymology and linguistic clues to language for fun! And I like working with students on a one on one basis. But getting up in front of a class is HARD. You have to be ‘on’ all the time and I’m the type of person that likes to do my work and fade into the background. I actually think I’d be good as some kind of counselor. Not an emotional counselor, but maybe school/college counselor. Anyway, I don’t consider myself a great teacher but I’m willing to do whatever it takes to support my family.

I did a lot of research on the possible places to teach abroad. I read a ton of blogs and spent a lot of time on the forum Dave’s ESL CafĂ©. Tons of people teach ESL as a way to live abroad or escape the cubicle. In a lot of places the only requirement is a college degree. In some places, even that’s not necessary. I had pretty much decided on Korea as best bang for your buck. All that’s required is a college degree in any discipline and they provide you with a plane ticket, a place to live (sometimes), and about 30k net. This info might be out of date since I haven’t researched teaching in Korea in quite awhile, but this was how it was at the time. Everyone I corresponded with said you could easily save money working in Korea. I never looked into the visa situation for M but most countries allow spouses to tag along on the working spouse’s visa. Then something clicked. I had actually thought about doing this Spain program years ago but didn’t for some reason, who knows. But it was perfect for our current situation. Even though it doesn’t pay NEARLY as much as Korea has the potential to, both of us speaking the language was a major deciding factor. Everything I’d read also led me to believe that if one wants to work, one will find extra work. The Spain gig is only 16 hours a week which leaves plenty of time to give private lessons or look for a second job in a language school. And there was the potential that M could work too. We probably wouldn’t make 30k but with our savings (that was a requirement for M’s spousal tag along visa) we knew we wouldn’t be homeless or hungry.

All of this stuff still is part of the current plan but should the waiver be denied, we will be facing ten years from our departure date before we can reapply. We could possibly make a ten year career out of teaching ESL or maybe go into backup plan numero dos. I also just want to clarify why some other places didn’t make the cut. Many teachers in Latin America work under the table. Or at least start out that way. Anyplace I went as a tourist, we would be limited to a short stay, usually 90-180 days. And places like Mexico would be out because Salvadorans need visas to travel there. In general, I’ve also read that Latin America just doesn’t pay that much to new, inexperienced teachers without teaching credentials like myself. For most people doing the Latin America teaching gigs in that situation, I think it’s more about wanting to immerse themselves in the Spanish language and culture than make a pile of money. So you may be saying to yourself, ok you’ve ruled out Latin America but you and M can get your papers in order and work in El Salvador. Yeeeeahhh. I will admit, I haven’t done much research on teaching in El Salvador but it’s definitely not out of the question. The thing now is that after living in M’s hometown, I don’t really want to live and work in San Salvador. I have no clue what teaching jobs pay there or what kind of credentials most jobs require. I also know there are possible jobs working in a call center and I’ve heard rumors it pays as little as $400 a month on up to $1500 a month. But again, those jobs are in San Salvador, not the campo.

Some of our other not so great backup plans involve me working in the US and sending my husband remesas or building a simple house with our last bit of savings and living a simple life in the campo while M does milpa and I sell banana bread.

Our #1 backup plan if our waiver is denied is to apply to Canada. I was born in Canada and my family on my mom’s side lives there. The biggest hurdle in this plan is establishing ties to Canada since I’ve lived my whole life since six weeks old in the US. We actually started the Canada process before the US because of some thought I had back then that I can’t remember now. But then I went to Canada one weekend to look at apartments and had so much anxiety about it all, it just didn’t feel right.

So there you have it. 1500 words about what we’ll do if this whole waiver thing doesn’t pan out. Keep your fingers crossed and say a little prayer for us!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Miami to Madrid

I really hate flying. I'm not scared of flying really I just find it to be unbearably uncomfortable. The flight from Baltimore to Miami actually wasn't bad. The flight wasn't full and I was all the way in the back and the middle seat between me and the guy in the window seat was empty. It was about a 2 hour flight. The guy next to me looked Salvadoran. I can't be certain since I didn't talk to him. You know how sometimes you get chatty people and sometimes you don't. And I mean chatty in the pleasant way. The kids in front kept turning around and talking to him in Spanish though. He laughed and joked with them. He and I were the last ones off the plane and I heard the stewardess say to him, "They're waiting for you," and I glanced back and saw him get handcuffed. It was disturbing. I'm not familiar at all with the deportation process but I would guess that was what was happening. I got really teary and emotional which is stupid since I don't know anything about him. I know some people are relieved to get back to their country, but for many others it can tear families apart.

The flight to Madrid was of course long and uncomfortable. I didn't sleep at all. Arrived in Madrid this morning about 11:00. I had read on the hotel website about a shuttle from the airport that stopped right in front of the hotel. I made my way out to the buses and started asking around and finally found it. Of course I was pushing my two huge duffle bags and carryon bag on a luggage cart. I had to drag them one by one on the bus by myself. 30 minutes later I was at my stop, dragged all my bags off the bus and just sat there and thought about how this is a two person job. I gave myself about two full minutes to feel sorry for myself before trying to figure out where the hotel was. I saw a sign for HOTEL like a block and a half away but I just couldn't manage my bags by myself. I literally got a cab to take me there for €2.70. Still cheaper than a taxi from the airport would've been.

Tomorrow is orientation all day and then Saturday hopefully I'll be settling into an apartment. I can't wait to get rid of all this baggage!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Plan Stan…

I get this a lot from friends & family: So what are you doing again? What’s the plan? What are you going to do if M doesn’t get his visa? I get that one A LOT.

I know people are naturally curious since it’s a definite possibility that his waiver might not be approved. I have a couple of backup plans but I don’t want to focus on them or get too far ahead of myself because that’s not what I want. The current goal is us back in the US as soon as possible.

After M has his appointment in October we will submit a visa waiver packet. This packet basically lays out all the reasons why it would be an EXTREME HARDSHIP for me to not have M with me in the US and/or why it would be an extreme hardship for me to live in El Salvador. Like a lot of people, I don’t feel like we have any hardships much less extreme ones. In fact I think if M had to find the one American girl who was willing to pack it all up and try out someplace new, he couldn’t have picked a better girl. I do have to admit that now that I’m out here in that new place, it’s not easy. Homesickness and culture shock are real things. They can make you hide in your room for a month and cry at the very mention of your dear cats’ names. All that to say, I feel confident that I could live and be happy in a lot of different places. I spent my early years living on various military bases and I’m nothing if not adaptable. More like blendable. I tend to fade into the background. So how can that be a hardship when clearly I’ve already packed up all my junk and planted myself in the campo? I don’t know but I have a lawyer who seems to know what she’s doing.

So the plan….

The current plan is:

· Spend the summer with M’s family while waiting for his consular interview appointment. –CHECK!

I get asked a fair amount why we didn’t wait until we had his appointment date to come to El Salvador when we could’ve kept working and living in the US. The answer is, one, we needed to submit a solvencia/background check from El Salvador and we waited and waited and waited to get it from the Salvadoran consulate in Virginia and it never came. It was the last thing we needed to submit our docs to the NVC and our lawyer said we probably wouldn’t get the date without it. We also weren’t sure exactly how to get it in El Salvador. We NOW know that a designated person could’ve gone to San Salvador and got it but it would’ve been just as much hassle for them as it was for us. Two, we needed to go to the Spanish embassy in San Salvador to apply for M’s visa to Spain. In hindsight, I wish we had at least tried to get it in DC instead of asking so many questions and being such rule followers. It would’ve been a lot easier but in the end we got the visa either way, it was just way more hassle. Three and most importantly, M hadn’t seen his family or hometown in 8 years. We were both burnt out from working and just ready for a change. These last few months that he’s spent with his dad are priceless and were worth way more than any potential income from 3-4 months of work. Three months in the campo will really make you evaluate what’s important to you and strangely will also make you want to shop for nice handbags. Frivolous I know, but I can’t help it.

· Consular interview appointment. Get medical exam done and bring copies of all documents to appointment. –Pending

· Mid-September-head to Spain and get acclimated, find apartment, test dry runs of walk to job, meet up with contact person at the school, find neighborhood grocery store, learn way around. –FAIL.

Once I found out M’s appointment was in October I knew I wanted to spend as much time with him as possible before leaving for Spain. I was pretty bummed. I knew I couldn’t go into the embassy appointment but I wanted to be there to support him. In the end we decided that it was best if I didn’t miss the new job orientation and that I start on time. And I secretly think it’s good he does some of this stuff on his own. I have no idea what the consular interview is like but we have a bona fide marriage so how bad can he really mess this up?

· Sept 28-M picks up passport and visa from Spanish embassy.

· Sept 29-arrive in Madrid. Sept 30-orientation in Madrid. Oct 1-take train from Madrid to Asturias, meet potential landlord at the train station, check out apartment and hopefully settle in that night. Oct 2-find food and internet. Oct 3-start new job.

This is the part that has me all nervous. I was really counting on having M as my support system for this newbie time. Someone to be there to help navigate a new city, find an apartment, cook dinner, and take the edge off. It’s like Peace Corps all over again, except without the pit toilets.

· Mid-October-Video chat with M all about his appointment! –Pending!

· Late October/Early November-M flies from El Salvador to Spain and settles in, looks for temporary work, inevitably finds 3 soccer teams to play on instead. Also spends free time watching GOLtv and Jorge Ramos y su Banda. Slingbox=greatest invention ever and money well spent.

· Christmas break-depending on finances, possibly take a small trip somewhere, either within Spain or maybe Portugal.

· January-possible visit from friends.

· March-hopefully have a good idea of what our immigration timeline is and decide whether to renew for second year in Spain if so far so good.

· Spring Break-another possible visit from friends.

· June-Spain job ends. 8 months after appointment date, waiver hopefully approved!! If not yet approved, haven’t yet decided where we’ll spend the summer. Possibly work summer camps in Spain.

I’ll be back tomorrow with more on our possible backup plans.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Cheese Mule

I’ve now traveled to El Salvador and back again 3 times. Each trip I have played the role of cheese smuggler. When news spreads that you’re traveling to the US you start to hear things like, “vas muy encargada?” or “do you have a little space in your suitcase that I could send something small to my family?” I literally told ONE person in the US that I MIGHT be coming home for a short visit and people in El Salvador the next day would say, “I’ve heard you’re going to Estados Unidos…” How in the world…I haven’t even DECIDED yet! Anyway, it is hard to say no. These are family members or family members of people who live with your family members. All year long they receive their remesas and they really want to send something in return. It is ALWAYS CHEESE. I get it, there’s nearly nothing they can send from El Salvador that one can’t buy in the US. I would even say that, one can buy Salvadoran cheese in the US. It doesn’t taste EXACTLY the same, but neither does the cheddar I bought from Super Selectos, so we’re even.

So they show up, the day before you’re scheduled to leave with a small package, wrapped in foil and black plastic bags and masking tape all around declaring PARA LUIS or quien sea. It is 5 lbs of cheese. Plus a few marquesotes and quesadillas (another 5 lbs) and after 5 people do this, you have eaten up your entire 50 lb baggage allowance on cheese. You also must thoroughly interrogate them on what’s in the bags because they will not tell you unless you ask and they will slip other things in. This is important because a) if it’s a liquid it can’t go in carry-on luggage, b) you can face penalties and fines for not declaring stuff at customs, and c) some things are not allowed in.

For example, someone wanted to send eye drops to their loved one in the US. Regardless of the fact that we have eye drops in the US, these weren’t some special eye drops, literally just visine, they need to go in checked luggage. Someone else wanted to send some dried fish. You know those small tilapias they farm everywhere in El Salvador…dried was the only way to describe them. Now, I don’t know if this fish is allowed in or not but it’s going to get questioned. Last time I brought a bunch of little bags of pepitas (roasted pumpkin seeds). In general seeds are not allowed and specifically pumpkin seeds because of some beetle. Customs has all kinds of reasons why you’re not allowed to bring stuff in. You aren’t allowed to bring ANY citrus in because of possible citrus diseases. You actually are allowed to bring cheese in, the drier the better. If it’s runny though, it’s probably a no go. So I know I’m allowed to bring in the cheese. I’m not exactly smuggling it. The problem is, if you declare it, they WILL search you. If you say you have cheese, well they need to SEE the cheese and make sure it’s not the kind that’s prohibited. That takes TIME that you might not have when you’re running to make a too tight connection and don’t want to get stuck in Miami, Houston, or Dallas. So, I’ve heard, many many people take their chances and don’t declare their food items. Either one, because they know they’re not supposed to bring them in or two, because they don’t want the hassle and are trying to make a connecting flight.

The other thing is the weight. Cheese is heavy. I thought I had found a great deal on a flight from San Salvador to DC on Spirit Airlines, $65 plus taxes, so $165. I was only going for a short trip so I just brought a few t-shirts and one pair of jeans. I could’ve packed it all in a tote bag as a “personal item” which is the only free bag Spirit allows. Instead I ended up paying $38 to check a suitcase that was literally filled with 70lbs of cheese, marquesotes & quesadillas (dense sweet breads), and tamales de elote (again HEAVY). Since it was over 40lbs I also got hit with an overweight charge of $50 which brings my ticket price closer to $250. Which is not really a deal. The only deal part of it is that it’s a one way ticket and I didn’t know exactly when I was going to return so I wanted a one way.

SO knowing all that, my American friends inevitably ask, why don’t I charge them a fee? I knew the Spirit fees upfront and I thought, well I’m bringing some clothes anyway and a carry-on bag costs nearly the same as a much bigger checked bag so it’s no big deal. The big deal is when they bring 20 lbs vs. 5 and move me into the overweight category. At Spirit it may be $50 but American charges $100 for each overweight bag. Also, I did sorta suggest it once and the look I got was incredulous. It said you are a greedy heartless woman to charge someone for such a *small* package.

All this ranting to say, yes I’ll still smuggle your cheese for you. But I’m going to bitch about it on the internets every step of the way.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Things I'll miss when I leave El Salvador

I'm back with a few things I'll miss when I leave...

toasted tortillas with cuajada--I actually eat this at home too but it tastes better in El Salvador!

buying a stack of tortillas for a dollar--We eat tortillas when we're in Maryland too but only when family comes over and makes them. In Maryland, M's family always made tortillas and there were always tortillas at the ready so I thought it was so weird when we got here and I learned that his sisters don't make tortillas. They know how to make them, they just find it easier to buy them. You can get a big stack of freshly made tortillas for a dollar.

joey meowing outside our door to let him in--joey is the kitten that wandered into the house one day and never left when he figured out he had hit the jackpot. I am acat lover. I have three cats at home (monica, chandler, and phoebe) and this little kitten made me feel a little less homesick during that first month here. The only problem with joey is I got him too late. He is evil! He doesn't know not to bite and I've tried everything I've read on the internet. He will grab my hand with his paws and pull it to his mouth and gnaw on it. Not biting through the skin, just chewing and then licking. Everytime you try to pet him, he grabs your hand to chew it. He is the most hyper cat I've ever seen and he follows me to the bathroom and runs ahead and climbs up the tree and then swats my head as I enter the bathroom. Malo!

picking limes off the tree when you need one--I never knew I needed a lime tree until I moved here. They call them limones indios but I'm pretty sure they're key limes. When they're fully ripe they're a really yellowish green color.

sweeping mountain vistas--the scenery here is beautiful. No picture I take can do it justice. It helps that it's the rainy season, everything is so GREEN. Verdant!

little kids showing up to play uno--I taught M to play uno just so he could teach the little kids here. Uno is great cause it transcends language. The only English word on the cards is WILD and that's easy enough to explain. Endless hours of fun.

getting to know all my new little nieces & nephews & cousins--I thought I'd want to live in San Salvador, thought I would HATE living in a small town. It's really not that bad and the little kids make a big difference.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Things I won't miss when I leave El Salvador

I know this sounds negative, BUT, I'll be following it up with a post of things I WILL miss.

frequent brown outs--this is more annoying than anything. The lights will frequently go out, then come back on, or dim and then get bright. If you use the microwave you can literally hear when the voltage drops.

hotdogs in tomato sauce--I eat pretty much anything that my sister in law makes if it means I don't have to cook, but hotdogs in tomato sauce or 'salchichas en salsa' is just wrong.

fridge that was never cold--I put all my drinks in the freezer, 'nough said.

4am trips to the letrina--I cannot make it through the night without having to go to the bathroom. I go right before I go to bed but still, 3-5 hours later I wake up with a need to pee that is like no other. So I have to get up, find my flip flops, grab the flashlight, and make my way there and I slip on the brick path every. single. time. These bricks get covered in moss and are damp from the rain. Even though I step carefully, I always slip. You guys are going to think I'm mean, but because of this, I make M get up too to make sure I don't fall and break my neck. Whatever, he has to pee too.

mosquito larvae in the pila--the pila is supposed to be emptied and cleaned with bleach every two days. We're not always on top of things and sometimes it doesn't get emptied or cleaned. Then these little mosquito larvae show up in the water and, well it's just not good.

dirt in the bed--it's hard to keep dirt out of our room because our bedroom door opens up to an open air area. I'm putting this one squarely on M, he will walk outside barefoot and then come back and hop in bed without cleaning his feet. IT DRIVES ME UP THE WALL. I constantly have to sweep out my bed.

charco (mud)--it obviously rains a lot here during the rainy season. The dirt roads turn to rivers and are so muddy. I have never worn shoes other than flip flops here because I don't want to have to clean my shoes. At least with flip flops I can just pour water over my feet and flip flops and be clean in a minute.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

departure pending

I haven't written in a long time. I've been meaning to, I just haven't had much to say. I took a little break from El Salvador and went home for two weeks, stuffed myself full of American food. Einsteins has a pretzel bagel now. Then I came back to El Salvador for two weeks to wrap up some paperwork stuff, and pack up my stuff. Then I'll be heading to Spain, orientation in Madrid on the 29th, then to Oviedo on the 1st.