14 October 2020
When we returned to the U.S. in August, we were looking forward to reconnecting with family, but planned to be making big steps towards the next chapter by October 1st.
Seven weeks of quarantine, a long-overdue month with family, then, onto whatever’s next. Early on, that seemed totally realistic.
Leaving Cambodia, we even had a number of leads ⏤ solid prospects in Thailand, Mozambique, Fiji, Malaysia, and the Republic of Georgia.
The latter looked like the best bet, and one we had been courting for a couple of years.
But life (and Covid) had other plans, as we looked on in helplessness at a world becoming increasingly closed off to U.S. citizens.
We briefly considered throwing in the towel for the time being and relocating to somewhere in the Pacific Northwest to ride out the pandemic.
Doing so, however, would require us to completely reorient our entire lives for a short period of time.
Even just to stay through the end of the year meant a significant amount of up front investment and coordination that we didn’t want to have to shoulder unless absolutely necessary (getting a reliable car, securing and paying for a U.S. health insurance policy, furnishing an apartment, researching (and paying for) potential day care options, adverse tax implications, and so on).
But by September, it was feeling like we had few other options.
It was then that Lori and I started seriously considering the remote consulting route, which many former colleagues had recommended taking advantage of.
With belts tightening in the foreign assistance sector and remote work becoming more of the norm during Covid, consultancies were becoming increasingly prevalent.
Prior to Noe’s birth, I worked as a consultant for the World Bank and a handful of NGOs.
I enjoyed the flexibility, particularly while we were living in Belize, and the pay was good.
But, when we decided to start a family, the lack of health care benefits for a family made us reluctant to rely primarily on my contract work.
With that in mind, and with the pandemic, we were initially hesitant to go down that road again.
If we chose to relocate our young family far from the U.S. again, we preferred to have the support and benefits of a large organization ⏤ medically, logistically, and diplomatically.
If the country went into lockdown, or we were forced to leave again, we didn’t want to get caught holding the bill for our rental deposit and four seats on an emergency repatriation flight.
We also wanted to be covered for medical evacuation if any of us needed it, not just for Covid, but for anything.
For example, in Vientiane (Laos) right now, it’s nothing short of a logistical, financial, and diplomatic nightmare to get yourself across the river to Thailand for medical care ⏤ something we took for granted when we had to do it twice for Noe when we were living there, pre-pandemic.
But, if we chose to work remotely from the U.S., we’d barely break even, given our increased tax liability as self-employed contractors on U.S. shores, in addition to everything mentioned above.
So, I redoubled my efforts to find us a “digital nomad” home overseas.
I devoured all of the online resources and lists of best places for remote consultants in the time of Covid.
The vast majority of places open to us required entering on an expensive digital nomad visa, and many (particularly islands) had a high cost of living that didn’t appeal to us.
But there was one place that kept cropping up on those top ten lists and news articles again and again.
Oddly enough, it was a country Lori and I planned to relocate to at some point, but hadn’t considered for our next move right now.
After living in far flung places like Cambodia, Laos, and Mozambique, I guess it was a bit too obvious.
“Lori,” I said one day, “What about Mexico?”
I knew what her answer would be.
Lori speaks fluent Spanish, and has spoken it almost exclusively to the boys since birth. She’s spent a lot of time in Mexico and it’s probably my wife’s favorite country she’s been to.
Coincidentally, a consultancy opportunity had fallen into Lori’s lap a few days earlier. It would get us through the end of the year, with a very real possibility of extension.
We quickly narrowed down where we wanted to relocate to, and a short time later, had a four-bedroom house AND preschool lined up.
Things were looking up, and we were excited by the prospect of finally moving forward.
There was just one problem…a pretty big problem, in fact.
Lori still didn’t have a passport.
For a large number of Americans, even pre-pandemic, not having a passport is no big deal, it seems.
For us, it’s like losing our drivers license, work permit, professional license, and a piece of ourselves wrapped into one.
Our passports are something we both value enormously and take for granted.
For us, a passport isn’t simply something we use to hop on a plane for a week or two to escape the world.
At a practical level, to leave the U.S., all of us would need valid passports, and for either of us to secure long term employment with an NGO (or any overseas employer), we would need to submit 4 valid passports weeks beforehand for visas, contract, and plane tickets.
On a more personal level, a passport is the key component to living a way of life that speaks to us, calls us, and allows us to engage in work that challenges us and draws on our best talents and abilities.
Passports are the keys to our kids’ familiar ⏤ the paired-down, low-tech, dynamic, multicultural, multi-lingual day-to-day they have known since infancy.
Me and passports also have a bit of history.
In a previous life with the State Department, a big part of my work revolved around reviewing and signing off on passport applications.
I became intimately familiar with every detail of that little blue book and the process, and even trained others in the Department.
Which make our helplessness with Lori’s passport all the more excruciating.
When we sent off the application in mid-August, we were hopeful that the State Department would put a big dent in their backlog and reopen enough agencies to resume expedited (rush) processing.
But by mid-September, the situation looked pretty dire.
Our many calls to Passport Services only seemed to make the situation feel more hopeless, as each seemed to end with the same depressing news: Lori should expect to see her passport maybe some time in November.
And there was nothing that could be done to speed up the process.
I reached out to a few of my old colleagues at the State Department, and even wrote our U.S. Representative.
But no dice.
Then, in late September, we were ecstatic to learn that expedited processing had resumed! …until we learned that it might not actually speed up the process.
The estimate at that point for routine service was 10-12 weeks turnaround.
The estimate for rush service was 4 weeks.
And, the fact that Lori’s passport had already been in process for over 6 weeks didn’t seem to matter ⏤ it was still estimated to take four MORE weeks!
I refused to believe this was the case, but it’s what we were being told.
At any rate, we still asked to have the application upgraded and paid the additional fee with the hope that it made some sort of a difference somewhere in the process.
As the beginning of October came and went, we felt like we were caught between a rock and hard place.
Lori was contracted and due to start producing deliverables mid-month.
The boys were becoming restless and harder to manage in their temporary digs, and the grandparents had various impending obligations beginning mid-October.
The holiday tourist season in Mexico loomed, meaning that the landlord couldn’t hold the house for us indefinitely, and housing would become increasingly hard to come by where we were looking to move.
It was clear, we needed to do anything we could to get that passport.
I spent more time brainstorming with a former coworker who had risen in the ranks and bent over backwards to find a solution.
But the delays stemmed from larger systematic challenges facing the Federal Government as a whole.
Then, one day, it seemed we’d caught a break.
The Seattle passport agency was due to reopen to the public for applicants with imminent travel needs. All we needed were plane tickets.
If we got there early enough, they could issue the passport that day and we’d be on our way! Or, it could be the next day…
It was in no way an elegant or preferred solution, as it meant a 14-hour roundtrip drive and we had two little ones to factor in.
Lori had to be present, and I didn’t feel comfortable having her drive for so long when she’d only driven a few miles in the U.S. in the past two years.
So that meant both of us doing a quick run and leaving the boys behind with the grandparents for an unknown period of time.
To make matters a bit more complicated, no one seemed to know the exact date the agency would be reopening, or how far in advance the appointment system would come back online.
We made our preparations, prepped the grandparents, and waited.
The best guess was that all of this would happen some time on Tuesday the 13th. But Tuesday came and went.
I had just finished up with dinner and was putting Noe down for the night when I got a message.
The agency was opening up tomorrow and they could get us in, but only if we arrived before noon ⏤ and the earlier, the better.
We had to leave now.
With the boys asleep, Lori and I notified the grandparents that they were now on watch, grabbed our things, and headed north in the black of night.
It felt like an adventure akin to what Lori and I would find ourselves on frequently before kids.
It was also the first night together away from the boys since Noe was born; not out of fear of leaving him or Riley with a trusted loved one or anything like that.
When you live so far away from close family and friends for most of the year, that’s just how things pan out.
Nonetheless, it made for a good laugh. Lori and I always assumed we’d find ourselves doing some hardcore backcountry camping in the mountains, or at some beach resort on our first night away from the kids.
We didn’t imagine that first night away would be spent in a car on the Interstate driving to get a passport.
We stopped at my sister and brother-in-law’s place on the outskirts of Portland just long enough to drop off our Mexico-bound footlockers and get a few hours of shuteye before continuing our journey into Washington State the next day.
We hit a stretch of gorgeous mid-October weather and sunk into the drive.
I noticed the previous day that Lori’s dad’s car that we were driving was well overdue for an oil change and was starting to smell a bit. So, I thought we better make a quick stop to get that addressed.
We pulled into a Valvoline in Woodland, WA at 8:15, and ten minutes later were on our way with fresh oil.
I checked my phone for messages, then checked the status of Lori’s passport application online and was happy to see it was still “In Progress”.
I had been checking the status a bit obsessively over the past 24 hours. The last thing we wanted was to be within spitting distance of Seattle and have the passport issued elsewhere.
I placed my phone in the center console to charge and hit the final stretch. It was a gorgeous autumn day, we were 2 hours and 15 minutes from the Seattle Passport Agency, and spirits were high.
After our unplanned whirlwind move out of Cambodia and two months of limbo in the U.S., we were finally going to have Lori’s passport in-hand TODAY and be moving forward with our lives.
We were thrilled at the prospect of moving to Mexico, a place we’d dreamed of spending time in for years, but that always seemed a part of longer-term goals.
The fact that we were able to jump ahead to meet that objective in a year where everything else seemed like backsliding, was exciting.
A while later, we passed through Tacoma and I asked Lori to message my old friend and colleague at the passport agency who I hadn’t seen in ten years to let her know we were getting close.
Lori grabbed my phone and noticed I had a couple of voicemails. Her phone’s volume was turned on, but my phone had been on silent, apparently.
Ten seconds into the first message she told me to exit the freeway immediately and find some place to park.
Hmm…that’s never a good sign.
She replayed the 90-minute-old message and we both listened in horror.
Lori’s passport had just been ISSUED!
!!! IN NEW HAMPSHIRE !!!
This could not possibly have been worse timing.
In normal times, a passport renewal can be reissued from ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD based on the electronic information at ANY POINT IN TIME UP UNTIL ISSUANCE. Once an application is approved and the book is printed, game over. It’s out there in the world and you have to wait to receive it in the mail.
Lori’s passport application had eight weeks in which any adjudicator or consular official from anywhere in the world could have issued it…in normal times.
But these were far from normal times.
For the scenario above to happen, you generally need two things: a passport agency open to the public, and to be able to be physically present at the agency.
The Seattle Passport Agency opened to the public for the first time since March at 7:30am on Wednesday, October 14th.
Lori’s passport was issued in New Hampshire (where a good many of renewal applications like hers are sent) at 8:35am on the same day.
Which meant that in the span of two months we had just over an hour window to get her passport at the Seattle agency. And it just so happened to be when we were almost to Seattle.
If the passport had been issued the day before, we wouldn’t have hit the road. If it had been up for issuing a day later, the adjudicators in Seattle could have intercepted it in time to issue on the spot.
SERIOUSLY. WHAT ARE THE %$#&^* ODDS!?
Another mile north on I-5, the skyline of Seattle comes into view. To be so close was brutal.
By the time we confirmed there was nothing else we could do and no point in continuing north. If we left now, we’d get back just in time to kiss the boys goodnight.
Back on the road, we crossed over I-5 and took the southbound onramp.
So what happens now?
After approval, the application will be electronically transferred to TUCSON where it will be printed and shipped USPS Express Mail.
It’s Wednesday and our flight to Mexico is on Sunday.
If it had been FedEx, I wouldn’t worry. But the Postal Service hasn’t exactly been a model of speed and efficiency during Covid.
My buddies at the Seattle agency are hoping it’ll get shipped out today, but there are no guarantees of that even happening.
All we can do now is…wait.
Something that is becoming uncomfortably familiar.
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