farewell

We were honored by the beautiful farewell party put together last weekend by Guadalajara friends who make it even harder for us to go!

Lovely Mexican paper flowers…

13606790_10101244520023694_4591872590619710818_n A bounce house…

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More decorations…
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A churro stand churning out these fresh goodies to order…
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Saying goodbye is sad…

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But luckily for us, the fates have been working hard to help make us a tiny bit less sad about leaving Guadalajara.

How?

By making our last week as horrendous as can be.

For example: a car wreck three days before our car was supposed to ship! We’re fine, but the car is not. It’s in the shop now and likely won’t be fixed before we leave Guadalajara. So that will be fun to deal with from afar! Plus much, much more. We’ll tell you more if we ever manage to get to the other side of these next few days…

Posted in FS Life, Mexico, Tandem Issues | 2 Comments

living it up before leaving it behind

We’ve been continuing to ignore thinking about our upcoming departure as much as possible because, well, we’re happy in Guadalajara. We don’t really want to go. But now, we must finally accept that the end is near.

We must accept this because we finally have tickets for the plane that will take us away. One of our cars has already shipped off. The other is going soon too. We’ll be spending the weekend getting ourselves organized for our pack out next week (scheduled for the last possible day they would let us get away with).We aren’t replacing lightbulbs when they burn out. Flynn is done with school. We are scrounging through our refrigerator and cabinets to try to use up the last of our food. We are resisting the urge to even go to Costco. The milk we’re buying at the regular grocery store won’t expire until after we’ll be gone.

And also, we’ve taken our last trip.

Our last trip was over the Fourth of July weekend. Along with two other families (hello DiploDad!), we rented a private villa in the beach town of Manzanillo, about a 3.5 hour drive from Guadalajara.

Terrible view, eh?

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And did I mention the house came with a private chef?

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And lots of space for hanging out.
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And studying sea critters.

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And hanging out some more.
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As if the private chef and lovely home weren’t already enough, we also brought along our nanny. And so did the other two families. So we had nine adults looking after five children. Overkill? Nah.

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A good time was had by all. Except maybe that inflatable whale.

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Now, we’re back from vacation, and back to reality. Back to the reality that we’re leaving this place where we’ve been so happy. We’ve been so busy enjoying it all these last two years that we haven’t stopped by as often as we should have to tell you, our dear three loyal readers, all about it. Apologies for that. But trust us, Guadalajara is incredible. Come if you ever can!

The beauty about the Foreign Service lifestyle is that with every goodbye comes a hello. Much as we dread leaving Guadalajara, we’re looking forward to spending some time stateside. And we’re excited about discovering India too. We’re sad yet excited at the same time.

Well, most of us. Curiously, Flynn says he isn’t at all sad to leave Mexico, despite having carved a space for himself here perhaps better than any of the rest of us, fluent Spanish speaker that he now is and all.

“Not even a little bit sad?” I ask him.

“Nope,” he tells me.

“Why not?”

“Because every place we go will always be better,” he explains. “India will be better than Mexico, and where are we going after that?”

I tell him that we don’t know.

“Well, that place will be better too,” my five-year-old assures me.

I sure hope he’s right.

Posted in FS Life, Holiday, Kids, Mexico, Travel | 4 Comments

textiles, mole and more in oaxaca, mexico (with kids)

We spent a whirlwind three days recently in the lovely town of Oaxaca, Mexico, right before the teacher protests turned violent and the U.S. Department of State forbid us employees from going.

When we were there, we saw plenty of signs of non-violence protest: hundreds of teachers, supporters and their families camped out in tents on the Zocalo day after day; everyday Oaxacans reading the news for updates (like below); our taxi driver expressing his disappointment about the whole situation which had kept the community’s children out of school the past month; and more.

We’re sad to read about the turn the protests have taken in this wonderful small community. Our thoughts are with them all. But hopefully, peace will return for the community members, and you too can safely visit Oaxaca soon!

These shots are from Mercado 20 de Noviembre–a lovely indoor food stall spot for a quick lunch of tlayudas or whatever else. Quick, casual and delicious, so perfect for those traveling with kids!

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We chose to stay down by the Zocalo, thinking it was the center of town. It’s probably the center of the real Oaxaca, but if you’re looking to be more in the tourist heart of town, look a bit further north, near the Templo de Santo Domingo.

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Up there, there are lovely streets like these ones.
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And fancy galleries like this.

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But throughout Oaxaca, you’ll find lovely colors.

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And of course, carpets!

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One thing I wish I’d better understood before going, though, was that while there are some carpet shops in town, if you’re serious about Oaxacan textiles, you really need to travel the 45 minutes or so to the small rural community of Teotitlan del Valle, where all these carpets are made. It’s really incredible to see. Nearly every house you pass has a loom and a small display selling their goods.

I went twice: first with En Via, an amazing responsible tourism organization that uses tour funds for small loans for the women you visit. We got invited into several real homes to learn how the rug making magic happens. We had the chance to buy from these women, but not to really shop much more.

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IMG_5092So, I headed back to the town again in a private taxi. I looked into tour groups and vans, but since a private taxi arranged by my hotel was going to cost only $8/hour, that seemed like the better option. And indeed it was! My driver took me to private homes, small shops and larger operations too. I regret that I didn’t make any major purchases, but to be fair, I do already have a few Oaxacan rugs bought at expos in Guadalajara.

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Another must in Oaxaca is chocolate. There are stores all over making chocolate right before you. Mayordomo is the most famous. There are several branches, but this one has a play area in the back for kids–take note!

The chocolate is a little chalk-like to eat–it’s really meant more for drinks or cooking. Try the hot chocolate or the malt they can make for you on the spot, and buy some mole for the road!
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There are so many day trips you can take from Oaxaca. Because we were traveling with young children, we chose to stay fairly close and only went to see the ruins at Monte Alban, about a 20 minute drive away. Our trusty $8/hour taxi driver friend took us and waited around for our return.

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We took a popsicle break, of course.
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And shopped.

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And bought this.
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And explored.

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And of course, ate street food. Aside from the market already mentioned, the area around the Zocalo is your best bet for street food like this. Most stalls have little tables and stools set up even.

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It’s really a lovely small city.

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We aren’t big museum people, but we did find the free Museo to Textil to be worth a quick stop.

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Mostly, we just walked around and took photos.

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And ate well, very well. A great starting point for your mole exploration is Los Pacos, which has this sampler platter of all seven moles. This will help you find which you like most so you can focus on those the rest of your trip.

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I will leave you with one last lovely carpet.

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Posted in FS Life, Mexico, Travel | Leave a comment

ripping off the band-aid

“It’s ok buddy,” I prodded Flynn. “Just jump in.”

We were in Playa del Carmen a few weeks ago and I was trying to get Flynn to play in the swimming pool at our hotel. “But it’s too cold,” he insisted.

“Don’t worry, it will feel warm if you just get in and wait a few minutes. You just have to jump in all at once, like ripping off a band-aid.” He looked at me skeptically. Ripping off a band-aid was a concept I had explained before, and one that I knew he understood, even if he didn’t quite believe it was true. He stood on the first step of the pool, trapped between his desire to go play on the pirate ship in the middle of the water and the comfort of the warm sun.

***

We’ve been in Guadalajara about 22 months. 22 months means that we’ve been here for two Christmases, two rainy seasons, two gritos, and two earthquakes. We were smart enough to ask in advance this year when the Mother’s Day breakfast would be at Flynn’s preschool, knowing they wouldn’t volunteer that information until the week before. We have favorite grocery stores and Flynn can be overheard saying “go Chivas!” when we are playing foosball and he gets to be the red team.

In short, we’re comfortable. And we like it here. We put Guadalajara at the very top of our list when we were bidding three years ago, but that was a last-minute change. Because we were bidding off of a special list for those posted in DC, we knew there was a good chance we were going to get our first choice. After ruling out all the places that didn’t have a job for both of us, we were left with about ten options. Instinctively, almost without thinking about it, we threw some of the more glamorous posts in the top few spots. Did we want Rio or Sao Paolo? Which one was closer to the beach again? Which one had hipper high rise apartments? Will we be there for the World Cup and the Olympics? In the end, cooler heads prevailed. We ultimately made our decision based on boring things like commute, proximity to the US, and what language we wanted to learn. The day before our bid list was due, Guadalajara found its way to the top.

When we got the official word that we were heading to Guadalajara, there was some disappointment. I guess we would have a shorter commute, but we weren’t going to the World Cup or the Olympics. Making practical decisions just feels so… practical. Nonetheless, we learned Spanish while also learning about mariachis and Mexican politics. We convinced Flynn that moving to Mexico would be exciting, while sort of trying to convince ourselves of the same thing.

Despite our initial buyer’s remorse, we soon felt at home in Guadalajara. Our housing is great. The city has a lot to offer. Our boys have a great nanny. Flynn is speaking Spanish like a pro. There’s delicious, affordable food. We’ve all made good friends. On top of all of this, though we had heard about the grind of consular work, we both really like our jobs. Without a doubt, we would stay another year if they would let us. We even hypothetically talked about what school we would send Flynn to next year.

But the fact is that we will not be staying another year. We have a new adventure waiting for us in a part of the world neither of us knows, but that we are both optimistic about. Transitions are a fact of life in the Foreign Service. They can be hard, even if you’re excited about what’s to come. Meanwhile, we still have a little over two months here in Guadalajara. We’re trying to enjoy the time we have left and not focus too much on our upcoming move. That’s becoming harder and harder as we plan our pack out, review our travel orders, and apply for our Indian visas. We make our grocery lists more carefully, knowing that buying two bottles of Coke Zero might be a good idea, but that three for one sale on jumbo peanut butter jars could be a waste. When a light bulb burns out, we are more inclined to just let it be (our bathroom is super dark now, Alex reminds me).

There is a big part of me that still thinks about the hypothetical school that Flynn would attend next year in Guadalajara and that tries not to dwell on the fact that my travel orders have my car being shipped to Belgium for some reason (I should probably look into that), or that I’ve probably been to my last Chivas game.

But there’s another, smaller part of me that wants to skip over the next two months, all the logistics and tying up of loose ends. Flynn’s best friend is moving away this week and we can already see how rough the slow procession goodbyes is going to be. Part of me doesn’t want to draw out the inevitable. This part says that when it is time to move on, then it is time to move on. This is the part of me that wants to just rip off the band-aid.

***

Flynn ultimately decided that “tomorrow” would be a better day to go play on the pirate ship. The water was too cold and the sun too warm and inviting. So instead we walked over to the small bar and grill near the pool and ordered a pair of sweet, frozen, chocolaty drinks, the same ones we ordered the day before. Later in the week, when he was ready, and when the water wasn’t as cold, Flynn had a blast pretending to be Captain Hook, steering his ship through Never Never Land, with Jonah at his side as Mr. Smee. But for that day, Flynn wasn’t quite ready to rip off the band-aid, and I can’t say that I blame him.

Posted in FS Life, India, Mexico | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

mid-level bidding

A lot of the people who read this blog are friends and family who really just want to see pictures of the kids and make sure we haven’t fallen off the grid. But we were reminded of something a few weeks ago by our neighbors, who, possibly in a slight exaggeration, said that our blog was the reason they joined the foreign service (hi guys! Sorry about the sorry state of our lawn. We’ll totally clean it up soon). Some other visitors to this site are here to learn more about what it’s like to be in the Foreign Service. We know blogs were really important to us when we were going through the process to join. With this in mind, I wanted to write a post about mid-level bidding (that is, bidding for your third tour and beyond).

While there are some differences between bidding on your first tour and on your second, the process is largely the same: you get a list of available positions, you rank them in order along with a brief explanation of your overall goals, and then you send it to HR back in Washington. Then, over the period of a couple of weeks, somewhere in an office deep beneath Foggy Bottom (we assume), HR makes the assignments based on your preferences, the preferences of your fellow officers, and the needs of the Service. Then they tell you where you’re going. You’re either happy with it or you’re not (and most people are), but the process is relatively short and uncomplicated.

Bidding on your third tour is a different beast. You still have a list of available positions, but that’s where the similarities to entry-level bidding end. Instead of sending a list to HR who will make a decision, you basically job hunt: you create a resume, reach out to decision makers at each post, lobby individual bureaus, and create a list of references who will vouch that you’re a good officer and that you’d be a great addition to any office. Leading up to the day that official offers can be made (knows as handshakes), posts may contact you strongly hinting that they want to offer you a job (known as a wink) and asking if maybe you like them enough to consider accepting a hypothetical offer. If you wink back, then all you have to do is wait until handshake day to get your official offer and then post the news to Facebook.

But what if you don’t get a handshake? Don’t worry. Nobody is left without a job. You’re allowed to continue bidding on leftover positions or positions that get unexpectedly added to the list for several months before you’re eventually just assigned to go somewhere by HR (this last option rarely happens). We know officers who have gotten great assignments after handshake day and we know others who avoid most of this and only begin bidding once the first round of handshakes come out.

As a tandem, we not only had to go through all of those steps listed above, but we also had to make sure that everyone knew we were a package deal. We’d only accept offers if we both got them.

If this all sounds complicated, that’s because it is. And the State Department has started a new initiative to find ways to simplify and shorten the process while still meeting the needs of the service and allowing officers some degree of agency in their assignments.

Bidding worked out well for us this time, with both of us getting jobs in our cones at the same place. But we can’t help but look back fondly on the days when all we had to do was send HR a list and wait our assignment to appear in our inboxes.

Posted in FS Life, Tandem Issues | Tagged , | 7 Comments

onward to india

Not so fast! We do still have more than half a year left in Guadalajara. But, bidding ended in November, and despite all the craziness and frustration and stress, things actually turned out fine for us. We managed to achieve what we have come to think of as the triple crown of tandem bidding: two jobs in our respective cones (management for Andy, public diplomacy for me), at the same post, and in a place we are excited to discover.

Off to India we’ll go! Chennai specifically.

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According to the Interwebs, Chennai is known as the Detroit of India, so it’s probably destiny really. Andy’s going to have to take a bit of time away from his cheering for the Tigers, though, to learn enough cricket so as not to embarrass himself. Or me. Mostly me.

Have you even heard of Chennai? Probably not. Even though we have been talking about it for months, my mom still keeps accidentally calling Chennai China, which leads me to believe it’s not a place people most people know. We might not have heard it either if a family previously posted in Chennai hadn’t recently arrived in Guadalajara.

Well, let’s see. Chennai is India’s fourth largest city with 4.9 million people, making it larger than Los Angeles. It’s home to the world’s second largest urban beach. Tamil is the primary language spoken around town, although we won’t receive language training as most people also speak English. It’s located in a predominantly Hindu region, and thus is largely vegetarian.

Chennai is not as well-known or tourist friendly as someplace like Mumbai or New Delhi, but we were sold by the breathable air (a rarity these days in India), the great travel options both within India and throughout the region (cheap, direct flights to the Maldives, Bangkok, Dubai, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia and more), the prospect of doing our jobs in a language we feel mostly competent in (English), and the fact that by all accounts Chennai is both an interesting and a family friendly place to be.

We won’t know specifics about our housing for a quite a while, but we’ll likely be in a nice home with a large yard, in an area with a reasonable commute to the consulate. The school where Flynn will start kindergarten is supposedly great — although Andy is having trouble coming to terms with the fact that the tuition at his son’s elementary school is higher than his college’s. We don’t like to think of ourselves as those people. But, who are we kidding? We are going to be working two demanding jobs in a place with affordable household help, so we are already having conversations about how to structure the schedules of our A and B shift nannies. We probably became those people a long time ago.

Despite the benefits of this job and lifestyle, there are challenges too. For instance, as happy as we are to have wound up with India, as much as we’re looking forwarding to our jobs and all the curry we can eat,  I feel compelled to mention that it’s not what we originally sought. Since I know a lot of folks considering signing on to the Foreign Service peruse blogs like this one, I think it’s important to be honest about what worldwide availability really means. We originally wanted to stay in Latin America for the sake of our kids’ Spanish skills and to be closer to our families in the U.S. But two jobs that worked for us both weren’t easy to come by. And we’re worldwide available, after all. We get some say in where we wind up, but only so much.

During the course of bidding, we found ourselves asking questions like… Can we justify taking our kids to a critical crime post… somewhere armed muggings and in-home invasions are the norm? Is that a risk we’re willing to take in order to allow them to maintain their Spanish? Or would a sleepy, safe post somewhere else in the world be better, even though there they would have to take malaria meds with unknown long-term consequences? What about a lively, bustling city that we would surely enjoy, but with air pollution so bad that the kids could develop asthma or worse? These are the kinds of things we Foreign Service Officers weigh, not whether we would prefer waffles in Belgium or baguettes in Paris.

People hear that we’re diplomats and sometimes assume we are going to fancy functions in Vienna or Prague, but the reality is that there are many, many, many more countries in the world than those in Western Europe. And, usually, the diplomats who end up in Western Europe served somewhere like Pakistan or Iraq first, something that Andy or I could do too if we wanted, but that would involve living away from our children for a year — a sacrifice we are not willing at this point to make. But some people are. Because we Foreign Service Officers (and families) all do make sacrifices… it’s just a question of which ones.

To be sure, there are perks to our jobs — like the nannies, like Flynn’s expensive kindergarten, like being paid to do work that’s meaningful and interesting — but there are always sacrifices and hardships too. This time around, we are sacrificing our kids’ Spanish skills and proximity to the U.S. in order to serve our country in a place that is safe, with good medical care and no major health hazards.

Speaking of hardships — hardships far worse than any we know — if you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you have probably seen that Chennai is currently being attacked by the worst flooding in 100 years. Please keep the people of Chennai in your thoughts.

Posted in FS Life, Personal, Public Diplomacy, Tandem Issues | 1 Comment

chivas

With Flynn officially part of his own soccer team (or Mexican Football, as he calls it), I had been thinking it was time I took him to a soccer game. Then, while sitting at home one Sunday morning, trying to figure out what to do with the kids that day, I decided to see if Guadalajara’s most famous soccer club, las Chivas, were in town. As luck would have it, not only were they in town, but kids got in free that night. So I headed down to the stadium and bought tickets.

on our way!
on our way!

Even though Flynn was initially disappointed that the “surprise” I came home with didn’t involve chocolate, he eventually got excited (especially when I told him there might be chocolate things to buy at the game). I’ve taken Flynn to a few baseball games and even a high school hockey game, so I knew that the keys to making sure he had a good time were to get seats where he could see and to keep the snacks coming. With that in mind, we set out to the game, both decked out in Chivas red.

Chivas plays a new, modern stadium on the outskirts of Guadalajara that’s only a short drive from our house. I’d been there earlier that morning to buy the tickets, but Flynn was excited to see a soccer field that was even bigger than the one where he played, and even bigger than a house.

not exactly a chivas jersey, but it's the best we could do
not exactly a chivas jersey, but it’s the best we could do

The game was exciting and Flynn paid more attention than ever. He stood up and cheered when Chivas scored. He liked looking at the section where everyone was waiving flags and he told me that the goalies were wearing different shirts so no one would kick them when they went to pick up the ball.

Much to Flynn’s disappointment, Mexico, or at least Estadio Omnilife, has not quite caught on to the trend in American stadiums to offer as many different kinds of foods as possible. There was pizza and hot dogs, popcorn and chips, but not much else. Especially not the ice cream I promised Flynn.

somehow he survived
somehow he survived

The wonderful thing about soccer games is that from start to finish, they are over in two hours. This is especially great when you’re with a four year old. The game was winding down at just about the time that Flynn decided to lay down on the seats. We grabbed a taxi and headed home, Flynn happily spilling his potato chips in the back of the cab, and me determining that I was going to buy Flynn a real Chivas jersey one day.

Posted in Kids, Mexico | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

vallarta vacation

When we found out we were coming to Guadalajara, I had visions of jetting off to Puerto Vallarta on a pretty regular basis. It looks so close on a map, after all! And it will be so close once the currently under construction super highway is completed, but in the meantime, the trip involves quite a ways on a windy, one lane mountain road where getting stuck behind a truck can turn your 4.5 hour drive into a 7.5 hour one. Seeing as how we have young children and thus car trips aren’t particularly enjoyable, and seeing as how Andy grows increasingly curmudgeonly with each additional minute we are stuck behind said aforementioned truck(s), we pushed off our Vallarta vacation again and again and again. But you can’t be in Guadalajara and not make it to Vallarta, you know? So, finally, we went.

Flynn discovered a love of boogie boarding.

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And giant water slides.

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We soaked in some street scenes.

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In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I bribed Flynn with cotton candy to let me take this shot. (Worth it.)

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There is no greater joy than a two year old about a throw a fist full of sand.

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We searched for seashells by the seashore.
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Jonah tired of my photo taking.

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We met baby sea turtles and then watched them being released out into the sea.

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We embarked on a pirate ship.

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And met crazy creatures.

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And went on a treasure hunt.

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And of course, spent time on the beach.

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We even shared our ice cream!

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And came home with loads of seashells.

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Will we return again during our stay in Guadalajara? Honestly, probably not. Manzanillo is just way easier.

Posted in Kids, Mexico, Travel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

yep, still alive

Where has the time gone? In the last — what, six months? — since our last post, we have:

Dropped the kids in Ohio for an adults only trip to the Yucatan.

Tulum!
Tulum!

Explored the colorful colonial town of San Miguel de Allende.

Smiles in San Miguel.
Smiles in San Miguel.

Celebrated America’s birthday on a Mexican beach.

Lucky little boys.
Lucky little boys.

Turned two (Jonah).

I'm two!
I’m two!

Turned four (Flynn).

Pinatas!
Pinatas!

Entertained some guests.

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Taken a Mom and Flynn only trip to Connecticut and New York City.

Future Yalie.
Future Yalie.

And much more!

Mostly, we’ve just been living the good life here in Guadalajara and counting our blessings for what we still think is the nicest Foreign Service posting we’ll ever see.

(Can you tell bidding season and all its related stress and pessimism is upon on? More about that later.)

Anything here you want to know more about? Let us know in the comments. Otherwise, we’ll try to resume regular glimpses into life in Guadalajara soon.

 

Posted in FS Life, Mexico, Travel | 1 Comment