Only I could run right by a dead body and not even notice. I didn’t feel like I was in the zone that much this morning, as it was hot and humid (as usual), Frieda was pulling me in sled dog fashion (as usual), and I was counting the minutes until I could be back home in the comfort of air conditioning (as usual). But then there was the body, which I learned about only after I had run by it. As I approached the U.S. Consulate from the border levee, I spotted two friends – wives of other officers – below on the street, getting ready to begin their usual morning walk. They beckoned me to come down from the levee. Once I did, they told me that they had just been informed that a body had been found next to the levee earlier in the morning and that I shouldn’t run in “that” direction… meaning the direction from which I had just come. Though I was grateful not to have seen anything, I wasn’t terribly surprised at this news. It seems that lately, there has been an increased number of reports of strange happenings in and around Matamoros… enough to make this morning’s warning feel usual. It saddens me to think that way. May the person who was found rest in peace.
I am gradually learning that this lifestyle is not for the faint of heart. It is not for the inflexible, and certainly not for the noncommittal. On the surface, it may appear, particularly to our family and friends, to be utterly glamorous: frequent travel, housing provided, diplomatic license plates, fancy dinners, schmoozing with foreign dignitaries… a life that closely resembles a never-ending exotic vacation. After all, we get to see the world, learn new languages and cultures, and feast on international cuisine. While all of these traits of the foreign service lifestyle certainly make for an exciting life adventure, they do come at a price.
However, we also have bars on all of our windows, spiked metal prongs at the top of every edge of the house, and windows that look out onto concrete walls. We are pretty limited in where we can go in town – about four miles south of the border is considered the edge of the “safe zone”. There is a curfew in place for us between midnight and 6:00 am. Nearly every week since I have arrived here, I have heard a report about a shooting, kidnapping, or potential kidnapping, in or around town. Exploration and driving to other towns and cities are out of the question. Even getting to the airport requires an armored vehicle escort.We knew when M. got his assignment to Matamoros, labeled a “dangerous post” by the State Department, that things would be a little bit rough here. Rough they are, though not in the sense that one might expect. We live in a beautiful two-story house with a lovely back patio and a grill built into the wall. We have modern appliances, air conditioning, and plenty of space. For the first time in my adult life, I can actually offer any potential guests their own bedroom and bathroom. We have a washer and dryer and even cable (also something I’ve never really had before… and the idea that I can pause and rewind television continues to fascinate me).
It’s hard to comprehend all of this in a smallish town like Matamoros, where my daily interactions with local citizens are warm and friendly. Our favorite restaurant here in town has wonderful, courteous service, excellent food, and a cozy outdoor ambiance. It is rare that I, obviously a gringa, am not greeted with a hearty buenas dias or buenas tardes when I am out walking or running. And Frieda… well, she attracts positive attention all on her own. A dog who doesn’t bite? People always seem surprised. In a town with so many hard-working, friendly people, it is easy to forget about the drugs, the smuggling, the violence… until we hear those reports, or until we see the pick-up trucks packed with armed soldiers driving down the street, the soldiers’ automatic weapons pointed at traffic. And then we are reminded. Matamoros is considered a danger post for a reason.
In addition to the challenges associated specifically with our post, we are learning as we navigate our way through our first tour that there is a fine print that accompanies foreign service life, and a lot to be said about settling down in one town and establishing some roots. Frequent moving, in spite of being a hassle, is a fact of life in the foreign service, and something we knew would be required of us. But there are other little things that had never crossed my mind… grey areas that no one seems to know the answers to. For example, we aren’t sure where I should renew my driver’s license. I’m not a resident of Iowa anymore, and though Texas is less than a mile away, I have nothing to prove that I am a Texas resident, because – surprise – I am not a Texas resident. In fact, I am not a legal resident of any state at the moment… what does that mean for the future of my driver’s license? And speaking of driving, let’s not get into the complications of having insurance in the U.S. and in Mexico.
I also wonder about seemingly less important things, like whether I am getting enough fluoride, as we can’t drink the local water. Oh, and did I remember to bring my passport with me to the grocery store? What about my consulate ID? Is that in my running shorts pocket? And did I bring both my U.S. cell phone and the Mexican cell phone? And the emergency phone list in case something should happen?
We are trying to make the most of our situation here. We have a good group of people with whom to spend our free time, and we have enjoyed many laid-back evenings at home, experimenting with different recipes. We are fortunate to have Brownsville close by for groceries and other shopping. I am learning the best times to cross the border so that I don’t get stuck in line for two hours. We lead a quiet, simple existence here, though at times it is impossible to forget about the potential dangers that surround us. We learn as we go, taking note of the fine print that underscores our adventures along the way.
Thank you for reading!