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Diversion

On Wednesday afternoon the embassy took a little break from our usual tasks to host a Candyland Embassy Tour for our FSO kids and some kids from Mercy Ships. Halloween meets Take Your Child to Work Day. In consular we decided it would be more fun to show what we do than talk about it, so we did what we do best – visa interviews.

Each child got their very own personal visa interview, during which they were asked such daunting questions as “how old are you?” and “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Those determined to be qualified (i.e. all of them) got a single-entry visa to Candyland with their name on it and a pack of Twizzlers. That’s not a bad deal, considering that a normal visa interview costs $160 and does not come with candy.

Our visitors took the interviews very seriously, especially the younger kids, who stood on a chair at the visa window and gravely told the interviewers the names of their schools and their favorite colors as if the fate of the universe was hanging in the balance. Just like real successful visa applicants, they were all relieved and elated to pass the test and get the visa, though I think perhaps the candy was the real draw in this particular case.

Everyone had a good time, including our local staff, who got to step up and do the interviewing for a change. I have it on good authority that ours was the most fun section on the tour, except maybe the Marines, who let the kids play with their target practice simulator. How’s a mere paper pusher supposed to compete with that?

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No Nomad

I am overdue for a vacation. I haven’t left Guinea since my long weekend in Dakar in July, and I haven’t been gone for a significant amount of time since my trip to South Africa back in March. My next trip will be back to Texas for Christmas, but it feels so far away (37 days and counting!). It’s at times like these, when I am desperate for a change of pace, when my alarm goes off on Monday morning and every fiber of my being recoils from the thought of going in to work AGAIN, ALREADY, that I think enviously of people who ditch the daily grind and just go travel.

I have a couple of friends who have dumped unsatisfactory corporate jobs for a few months to a year of globetrotting before settling back down into something new. And then there are the people, like this guy, who go a step farther and make a new life and identity for themselves as global nomads; they live cheaply, own only what will fit in a backpack, and stitch together short-term work and writing assignments for enough of an income stream to keep themselves going. And going, and going, and going.

Why don’t I do this? Why am I not on a beach in Bali right now, gazing at a perfect sunset while wrapping up a brilliant, poignant article on pearls of wisdom gleaned from the local fishermen? I am not doing this because, fundamentally, I don’t want to. I do love to travel, but that’s not the only thing that makes me happy. I love going places, but I also love coming home. I love having a kitchen to cook in. I love eating at fancy restaurants. I love spending time with my friends. I love my cat (and he does NOT care for travel). I also love structure and planning. I love my emergency fund and my 401(k). A transient life of couchsurfing, backpacking, and hustling for the next gig would not be fun for me, just lonely and stressful.

So I joined the Foreign Service instead. “Home” will change every 2-3 years but I’ll have one, a place for my kitchen and my cat and my stuff.  Friends will move in and out of my life, but over months or years, not days or weeks. I won’t have the total freedom to just go wherever I want, whenever I want, but I will have plenty of travel opportunities and the money to enjoy them. It’s not perfect. I could definitely use a few more vacation days, better air connections. I do not spend every minute of every day overjoyed with my chosen life and career. But then, who does? Even when I’m not thrilled with the Foreign Service lifestyle it’s hard to think of another one I would really prefer, all things considered. Perhaps I’m in the right place.

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Empire State of Mind

The universe made it quite clear that I was to make bagels this weekend. Anne made bagels. Another friend posted this link on how to cut linked bagel halves. I stumbled across this recipe for everything bagel bombs. Fine universe, I can take a hint. I made bagels.

I used this recipe, and they came out pretty nicely. A little lopsided, could have used a bit more crispness on the outside, but I’ll call it a success. (Side note: although the recipe claims to make “8 medium-sized bagels” it actually makes 8 ginormous, no-one-person-really-needs-to-eat-this-in-one-sitting bagels. I’ll try ten next time.) I whipped up a little garlic-scallion shmear, popped in a Woody Allen flick, and pretended I was in Noo Yawk. Except for the tropical sun and coconut palms outside it was pretty convincing.

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DiploSkills: Bucket Shower

As I’ve noted before, upcountry hotels in this part of the world can be a bit basic. However, these accomodations are much easier to deal with if you pack appropriately (bring EVERYTHING) and know a few simple tricks. One of those is how to take a bucket shower:

  1. Gather supplies. You will need: a large bucket, a scoop/cup, a washcloth, soap, shampoo, flip-flops, a towel, and a flashlight. Forget the conditioner. You’re not going to look like you just stepped out of a hair product commercial anyway, so save yourself the trouble.
  2. Fill your bucket with water. This may be accomplished by ladling it in from the larger water reservoir in your room or, failing that, at the pump outside. The water will probably be on the cooler side of lukewarm but that’s okay – you’re sweaty from your night in a hot humid unairconditioned hotel room.
  3. Turn on your flashlight and find a strategic place to position it. The hotel turned its generator off half an hour ago and your bathroom is pretty dark.
  4. Strip down except for your flip-flops. These are all that stand between you and god-only-knows-what on the floor. Treasure them.
  5. Use the cup/scoop to ladle enough water over your head to get wet all over. Dip the washcloth in the bucket and fill in any spots you missed.
  6. Ignore the writhing death throes of the cockroach on your bathroom floor. He’s too far gone and is no threat to you. Keep calm and carry on.
  7. Lather your hair up with shampoo and your body with soap. Ladle more water over yourself until clean. I hope you put enough water in your bucket at the beginning or you’ll be a little sudsy at the end.
  8. Congrats! You’re clean! Towel off and get ready for your day!
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It’s a Scholarship Program

Guinea is crazy for beauty pageants. I’m from the South, where pageants are a big deal, but I have never seen anything like this. Every high school and university, every neighborhood, has an annual pageant. You can’t drive down the street on any given day without seeing banners for at least one. So naturally I was excited to get an invitation to the Miss Conakry pageant at the Novotel on Saturday and to have an opportunity to see what all the fuss is about. Seamus* and Anne and I went, and it was quite an experience.

Formal wear, Guinea-style

The format was pretty familiar. The contestants did three runway walks – traditional dress, swimsuit, and formal wear – and each had one question to answer about the challenges facing Guinea as a country and society. There was no talent portion. I was actually very impressed with the questions, which covered topics such as HIV/AIDS, corruption, female circumcision, judicial reform, national unity, and the candidates’ messages to Guinea’s political leaders. Not a softball in the bunch. The answers were similarly impressive; while one or two contestants stumbled a bit, the majority came across as intelligent, articulate young ladies with a clear vision for the future of their country. Every one of them comported herself better than some American beauty queens.

A tearful transition

This year’s winner was Kadiatou Bah, who was my personal favorite. I may be slightly biased, but I thought her answer to the question she got on illegal emigration was spot-on, and she seemed the most relaxed and personable onstage. Of the 16 contestants, the new Miss Conakry and seven other finalists will move on to compete in the national Miss Guinea pageant in a couple of weeks. Seamus, our resident beauty pageant expert, had the honor of pinning the sash on the first runner-up. So congrats to Miss Bah and the other finalists, and good luck!

(Also, I really want to watch Miss Congeniality right now.)

*Not his real name, but he picked it out.

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Observation

Although some Texans are apparently not too keen on the concept of international election observers, this Texan is a fan. As such, I gave up my customary weekend loafing to serve on a joint U.S./U.K. team observing Saturday’s presidential, parliamentary, and local elections in Sierra Leone. Our embassy in Freetown is a small one, so Embassies Conakry and Monrovia each sent a few teams to cover the voting in their respective border areas. My team was working in Kambia District, right up against Sierra Leone’s border with Guinea.

Holding an election in a country like Sierra Leone is a completely different proposition from holding an election in the United States. Most of the population is illiterate, has relatively little experience with voting, and lives in tiny villages with no electricity located miles and miles of unpaved road from the nearest town of any substance. The logistics of the whole process – registering and educating voters, training staff, transporting supplies, and counting and verifying the votes to make sure that the election results are a true representation of the will of the people – are daunting, to put it mildly. It’s a huge task, but especially in a country that’s still fragile from a decade-long civil war it’s vitally important to get it right.

It’ll be a while before the final results are tallied and verified and the observer organizations make their official declarations on how things went, so there isn’t much I can say about what I saw in making my rounds on Election Day. What I can say is that it was a treat for me to get out to some of those remote villages and see the people – old men, pregnant women – who were willing to walk for miles and stand in line for hours in the blazing tropical sun for a chance to make their voices heard.

The increasingly exhausting and exasperating multi-year marathon the American presidential election is turning into gives one plenty of reasons to be cynical about democracy: red states and blue states, zillion-dollar campaign budgets, a cacophony of negative campaign ads, endless statistic splicing, Super PACs, gaffe-watches, vitriolic Facebook messages from normally pleasant people, and spin, spin, spin. But seeing all the Sierra Leoneans lining up to give their thumbprint to the candidate of their choice reminded me that none of those things are what democracy is all about. No matter who wins this particular election, no matter what the final verdict is on its fairness, just seeing the commitment of ordinary people to the democratic process gave me new hope for the whole concept of government of the people, by the people, for the people.

It sounds corny, I know, but it’s true. So thanks Sierra Leone, and good luck!

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Why I Love to Cook

My job involves a lot of paper pushing. My ultimate goal at work, the thing I strive for all day every day, is essentially an absence of work – a clean desk, an empty inbox, a to-do list with every item checked off. But I never do quite get there, and even if I did it would only be for a brief shining moment before the next avalanche of paper descended. It can feel a lot like the first thirty seconds of this Futurama clip (though I have to admit, stamping things never really gets old):


Comedy Central
And then I go home and cook dinner. I take raw ingredients, useless in themselves, and make something out of them. When I’m done I have created a physical, tangible object that did not previously exist. Something I can point to and say, “look what I did!” And then I get to eat it. Not only did I make something, I made something useful, something with a purpose. Something that satisfies my stomach and tingles my taste buds, and lets me know that the last hour or so of chopping and grating and mixing and sauteing was not in vain. It’s also something I can share, and when I do people tell me how awesome it is – and by extension, how awesome I am. I had some Peace Corps Volunteers over for dinner last week, and the praise and appreciation they lavished on a humble eggplant parmesan far exceeded anything ever inspired by, say, a correctly-processed passport application. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

After eating my cooking people not infrequently ask me why I don’t open a restaurant or a bakery or a food truck or whatever. The answer is that I don’t want to lose this. I want to cook what I want, when I want, for whom I want. I want cooking to be a choice, not an obligation. I don’t want it to turn into just another item on the to-do list. I have enough of those already.

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Things I’ve Liked on the Internet Lately

Not gullible enough to buy the Brooklyn Bridge? How about the Eiffel Tower? You wouldn’t be the first. (Or the second.)
Nobel-winning economist on horse meat and dwarf-tossing – and they call it the dismal science.
Bored heiress + dollhouses = CSI
For the lawyers and/or Harry Potter fans out there, The Magic of the Law
Two nifty ways to make new technology the natural way – bacterial power cables and spider-silk computer chips
Pictures of kittens improve your concentration. Seriously.
Bored? Try an online jigsaw puzzle. (Sure, it misses some of the key joys of the real thing – like not finding a place for a piece because you’ve been holding it upside-down the whole time; mashing the little nubbin because you’re so convinced that THIS piece MUST fit HERE no matter what the laws of physics and geometry have to say about it; and everyone’s favorite, the missing piece – but it’s still pretty good.)

Paris vs. New York

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La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Sometimes I wonder if consular work is making me a worse human being.

I refused a lot of visas this week, as I do every week. I denied people opportunities to go to school, to go on vacation, to visit their families, to get medical treatment. Some I refused dispassionately. Some I refused happily. Some I refused regretfully, then mentally seized and rooted out that regret as soon as I noticed its clinging tendrils creeping up around the edges of my consciousness. I am getting better at this.

It’s a defense mechanism – consular work is about implementing U.S. law, not about doing nice things for my fellow man. Sometimes the two are the same thing, but not that often around here. In the visa window you have to learn to take a step back, to not get personally involved, to not care, for your own protection. Empathy can be a liability in this job sometimes, but in normal life people who lack empathy are called psychopaths and generally considered menaces to society. That’s not really the kind of person I want to be. On the other hand, feeling guilty when I know my decision was right only serves to make me miserable, and I have more than two years of visa processing still to go. That’s time for a lot of misery, if I let it be that way.

Perhaps the optimal solution would be to turn my heart to ice every morning when I come to work and thaw it out again every evening when I leave. My office gets pretty chilly, I’ll grant you, but probably not cold enough to pull that off. Until I can get my hands on a freeze ray I’ll have to toughen up as best I can, and suffer through the occasional pang of regret in the knowledge that I haven’t gone fully over to the Dark Side yet.

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Vicarious Tourism: Bel Air

Now this is the story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down…

Okay, no, it’s not. It’s a story about how I had a nice long weekend at a beach resort about 4 hours’ drive from Conakry. The Hotel Bel Air was built under the Lansana Conte regime on what must be the only stretch of Guinea’s coastline that has actual sand instead of rocks and mangrove swamps. You should take the use of the word “resort” with a grain of salt – this is still Guinea after all. Power and water availability were erratic and there may or may not have been rats living in the attic of the villa we stayed in, but it was clean and relatively comfortable. They even provided towels and toilet paper! The food is fine, though somewhat lacking in variety; bringing your own supplies in a cooler is a good idea. The swimming pool resembled an experimental aquaculture tank, but the beach and the ocean were clean enough, much better than anything in Conakry besides the islands. There’s no internet and minimal phone coverage, but that’s more of a feature than a bug.

I went up with some friends from the embassy and spent a couple of lazy days lying on the beach, picnicking, floating in the ocean, playing with rocks and sand, taking languorous walks, and toasting marshmallows over a blazing beach bonfire beneath a sky full of stars. Delightful. I hadn’t left Conakry since July’s trip to Dakar and was starting to get stir-crazy, but I now feel considerably more refreshed, albeit a little more sunburned and mosquito-bitten. Worth it.