Saturday, February 3, 2024

Holiday Travel to the U.S. and Excitement in Abidjan

For my first trip back to the U.S. since getting to Abidjan, I took a nice long holiday vacation, spending time in Michigan, Minnesota, and Colorado. I worked until right before Christmas, departing on December 22 and getting back to the U.S. on December 23. Because I was taking so long off work, I expected my time in the U.S. to feel relaxed--and I certainly did get plenty of time to unwind--but it really was pretty packed!

The day I landed mom, dad, and Mer picked me up at the airport, and then Aunt Ellen almost immediately stopped by the house to spend some time. That evening I attended the church's Lessons and Carols service and read one of the lessons (despite being very tired from having slept on the plane). The next day, Christmas Eve, was the big Brehob extended family Christmas, then on Christmas Day we did the BreKapp family gift exchange. The day after Christmas, as per tradition, we drove to Minnesota, and then on the 27th we did the Kappauf family Christmas. We had a couple of quieter days in Minnesota, then drove back to Michigan where I fretted about packing and got a haircut, and then it was off to Colorado.

The reason I departed for the holidays so late was because my Peace Corps training group decided to have a reunion on MLK day weekend. I thought I could just about make it work to attend the reunion by combining it with my holiday travel, but if I was staying so late after, I didn't want to use a ton of leave before the holidays. When I told my other friends who live in Colorado that I was going to be there, and would they like to get dinner if I got there a day early, they suggested that I come a week early and go snowboarding with them that weekend. That then left me with the week to fill in between the two weekends--I couldn't bring myself to fly back to Michigan for just four days or so!--so I managed to convince my dad to fly out and join me for four days of skiing, for six days in a row, total.

I guess the snow conditions weren't great at Breckenridge, per the Coloradans, but I don't get to go skiing much and hadn't gone for more than a day or two at a time since I was in high school, I'm pretty sure, so it seemed fine to me! Worse was the cold, which even natives agreed was unusually punishing. With my grad school friends I stayed in an AirBNB, the steep and snowy drive up to which made me very glad the car rental place had upsold me to a 4WD Jeep. When I swapped out and joined my dad, he had booked accommodations for us maybe a three minute walk from a ski lift, it was fantastically convenient! Both with my grad school friends and with dad we took it pretty easy with lots of breaks to warm up and not forcing ourselves to shut down the lifts.

Unfortunately, the first day I ran into dad--I thought he was doing a turn but was going to keep going, and only realized he was pulling up for a full stop too late. Even he agreed (maybe just being nice) that it was a pretty light hit, but definitely still bad! There's no excuse. It hurt his arm and although he kept going the remaining three days, it kept hurting and he was worried it might be a hairline fracture. Fortunately, unless he's lying to me to keep me from feeling guilty, it was just a soft tissue injury and is already feeling a lot better. I also fell the first day, no one to blame but myself, and hurt my ribs on the left side, where the hurt after I fell running in April last year--I've since seen the Embassy nurse in Abidjan who said it's almost certainly just a muscle strain, so it's good to know it's nothing serious, but running seems to irritate it so for the last couple of weeks I've been exercising less, and mostly on the stair machine or elliptical when I do. Chronicling the injuries makes it sound like it couldn't have been a very fun trip, but we had a good time! It wasn't too crowded, and we tried a few new things. We also went to Keystone one day, which I'd never been to before.

Me and dad at Breckenridge! The combination of the cold and the dry air wreaked havoc on my skin, it was fully flaking off my skin by the end of the week and I was slathering on petroleum jelly to keep it from cracking painfully. Still worth it!

We drove back to Denver the night before dad's flight, rather than the morning of as we'd originally planned, due to a storm warning. That made it pretty smooth to drop him off at the airport, and I had a nice relaxing day in Denver--I'd originally planned to get a massage, but the appointment got cancelled last minute, so I did a light hike in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and did some shopping. We can't have lithium ion batteries shipped to post in any of our official shipments, whether by air or cargo ship, we can't have them shipped through diplomatic post or pouch, we can't even bring them in checked luggage, the only way we can get any modern devices to post is in our carry on bags, so I had requested as holiday gifts things that I'd been wanting for a while but couldn't get shipped to post, namely, an insect repellant device from REI to use on my porch, and more controllers for my Nintendo Switch to better enjoy Mario Party. While in the mountains, I'd tried someone's TheraGun and thought it seemed pretty great, and when I considered that I couldn't get one shipped to post and would have to wait months or possibly more than a year if I didn't get one right away, I decided to just stop at a Dick's Sporting Goods and buy one.

Me at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal--it was a nice hike, and practically balmy after being up in the mountains. There are buffalo in the background, trust me.

And then I picked up some Peace Corps buddies from the airport and drove back into the mountains, this time to Granby. It was a really great weekend--we listened to our favorite songs from the Peace Corps and caught up on everyone's life developments and went for walks and to a hot spring. They're not people I talk to on a regular basis anymore, but it's really nice to know that the dynamic does come back when we're able to get together.

Getting back to Abidjan from Granby was quite the adventure. There was a winter storm warning active the entire weekend, so I and a few others with early flights Monday had decided that we were going to drive down early to try to avoid traffic, and I was monitoring it most of Sunday. When we went to the hot springs, there was a sign on the door advising that they expected the pass that we wanted to take would be closed soon due to avalanche risk--no big deal, there were other roads that would take us where we needed to be. We left around 16:40, and at the time, google maps predicted that we'd get in around 19:15. We were looking forward to getting dinner and having a restful evening before turning in early so we could get to the airport early.

Google maps' predicted arrival time kept getting later and later. Occasionally we'd go through an area with no signal, and when the signal was back, the predicted arrival time would have jumped 40 minutes later, or a full hour. Eventually we were on I-70 in a complete standstill. It took us 90 minutes to go one mile. People were getting out of their cars to pee on the side of the road, or just to talk to other people. At that point I'm pretty sure we didn't have cell signal because the network was overwhelmed, it's a pretty major highway so I suspect we usually would have had service there. We had to pull over to the far right to make room for emergency vehicles and tow trucks multiple times. Eventually we got past the stoppage, but we couldn't see anything to explain what had happened--as traffic funneled into one moving lane, there were a bunch of police cars and two semi trucks with no apparent damage. Maybe the more damaged vehicles had already been towed away at that point. Even once we got past that, it was slow going because it was completely dark and snowing pretty heavily. I absolutely did not want to slide off the road or get into an accident, so I was driving pretty far under the speed limit. All told, we got to Denver SEVEN hours after leaving Granby. Everything was closed, even the Taco Bell that google maps claimed would be open and on which we'd pinned all our hopes for some kind of warm meal. We ended up going to a gas station so I could fill up and just bought snacks there--I got Nutter Butters and Fritos as my last meal in the U.S. The attendant asked if we'd been stuck on I-70, so I guess the traffic was bad enough it made the local news, at least the radio. It was a hellacious drive, but I really appreciate the passengers for being so calm and patient. We weren't completely free of anxiety, but I've definitely known people who would have been freaking out a lot worse. We managed to mostly just have nice conversation, interspersed with practical discussions about if we'd even be able to sleep or just have to go straight to the airport, or at what point we should think about rescheduling our flights.

One of our Denver-based Peace Corps hosts let us crash at her place, but we didn't get much sleep, falling asleep after midnight and waking up shortly after 04:00 to get to the airport. I dropped my driving buddies off at the airport, then swung back to the rental car place to drop off the Jeep as soon as they opened. The shuttle back to the airport was so cold that I took off my shoe and started massaging my foot to stay warm--even with all the frigid time on the mountain, it was the coldest I'd been the entire trip! But the whole ordeal paid off, more or less, because everyone who'd gone in my car made our flights. I was nervous for a bit at the airport, the snow was still really coming down and a lot of flights were being cancelled or delayed, but my flight left only slightly late. The others in our group who drove down the morning of got stuck on the mountain because I-70 itself was completely closed. I think they ended up having a decent time, being able to change their flights and having some nice additional bonding time, but I was definitely glad not to have to deal with rescheduling anything so last minute.

I made my connection in Detroit by the skin of my teeth and with a lot of luck, including my luggage for the first time I can remember being some of the first off the plane, and a very nice desk agent letting me skip the line to check in when I told her I was in danger of missing my flight. I was especially nervous because these tickets were booked separately--I'd used my government-funded rest and recuperation ticket to get to Detroit, but had paid for my own ticket to Denver, so they wouldn't automatically rebook me if I missed the Detroit-Paris flight because my flight from Denver was late, even though they were all Delta flights. But I did make it, and from there the rest of the travel went pretty smoothly.

And it was right back to work in Abidjan! I got in at about 20:00 on Tuesday, and was back in the office at 07:30 on Wednesday. I'd been contacted the week before to let me know that the Secretary of State was coming to Abidjan, and to ask if I would be site officer for his meeting with the Minister for Foreign Affairs. His schedule ended up changing and he didn't have a full meeting with the Minister, so I got moved to a smaller role at the airport during his arrival, but it was still quite a welcome back to work! The African Cup of Nations has also been taking place since I got back, and Cote d'Ivoire is still very much in it (with a little rescue from Morocco!) so that's causing lots of excitement.

Similar to the buffalo, you just have to trust me that Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in the distance in this picture.

With everything going on I still feel like I'm getting back in the swing of things after leave. Soon I'll be moving from the immigrant visa portfolio at work to American citizen services, and I have a few small trips coming up, but it shouldn't be anything as eventful as my three week expedition back to the U.S.

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