Friday, March 3, 2017

Vicarious Tourism: The Danakil Depression

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit one of the most unique areas of the world, right here in Ethiopia. The Danakil Depression is a geologically active area in the Rift Valley, one of the lowest, hottest, and driest places on Earth. It's almost like being on an alien planet. Lake Assal has barren white salt flats stretching for miles, with salt so thick it looks like snow.

My favorite part of the trip was Dallol (pictured above), a geothermic area full of weird rock-and-salt structures and bursting with color from complex chemical reactions and the extremophile bacteria that call this place home. No big geysers like in Yellowstone, but there's plenty to see - and no railings. "Try not to step in anything wet," said our guide, "it might be sulfuric acid." Ah, the things they never let you do in America.

The other big attraction of the area is the Erta Ale volcano, one of a very few opportunities to get up close and personal with a pool of lava. Or it was - an eruption last month changed things a little so the old caldera is now too smoky to visit. There's another one an extra hike away that you can only see from a distance since it's full to the rim, though it obligingly overflowed for us, making a river of fire down the slope. Amazing. The hike out there was rough; as a "new path" we did a lot of trailblazing ourselves on unstable volcanic crust. One of our group fell through to his waist and had to get hauled out, and we all had cuts and scrapes from catching our own falls on the sharp rocks. And did I mention this was all happening in the dark? A good headlamp is a literal lifesaver.

I think it's safe to say that our group had a pretty atypical Danakil experience. In one of the driest places on the planet it rained for most of the first two days we were there, including a downpour at 2:30am that forced us to spend a sodden night in the Land Cruisers since roofing in that part of the world was not exactly designed with waterproofing in mind. On the bright side, thanks to the clouds and the rain, the hottest place on Earth was downright temperate. I had thrown a fleece into my backpack at the last minute, and I was grateful for it. Even with unusually reasonable temperatures this was a physically demanding trip with very little in the way of amenities, but so, so worth it!

Monday, February 13, 2017

My Addis Fives

Here we are again, halfway through tour #3, which means it's time to sum up how I feel about living in Addis Ababa. On the whole this has been a good tour for me so far, but nothing's ever perfect is it?

Top Five Things I Love About Addis:

1.   My Job: Man, my job is so great. Working at USAU I get to cover a huge range of really interesting economic and political issues with a continent-wide scope. Sure, it's a lot to keep track of sometimes, but I never get bored, and I feel like I'm doing things that matter. People in Washington read and value my reporting, which I know because I get a lot of positive feedback on it. That doesn't always happen. 
2.   The Country: Ethiopia is an amazing place. Astonishing natural beauty, rich history and culture. And, with one recent notable exception, it's been relatively easy to get out and experience all that Ethiopia has to offer. I still have barely scratched the surface of the country, and I hope to see much more in the time I have left. 
3.   The Food: I love Ethiopian food. But there's also really good Italian food in Addis, plus hipster burger joints, jazz brunch, Korean barbeque, French, Indian, all kinds of stuff. And the coffee, of course, is unparalleled. Food is a key morale issue for me, and Addis makes me happy in that department. 
4.   My Social Life: Addis is the diplomatic capital of Africa with over 100 missions, and there are lots of other expats here for other reasons. This means endless parties and cultural events, and lots of great people to hang out with. Addis has live music and festivals and new-release movies, (even in 3D!), so there's plenty to do. 
5.   The Weather: One of Ethiopia's tourism slogans is "13 Months of Sunshine." While this isn't totally accurate, 75 degrees and sunny is the usual state of affairs for most of the year. My house has no heat and no A/C, and doesn't really need it. It's lovely. 

Top Five Things I Hate About Addis:

1.   The Driving: Driving in Addis is terrible, even worse than Conakry. Pedestrians, taxis, minibuses, motorcycles, giant honking tour coaches, overstuffed trucks, handcarts, donkeys, flocks of sheep, stray dogs, all moving around on the streets in whatever way seems best to them at the time, sometimes seemingly oblivious to the presence of other vehicles. Despite the scattered existence of lane lines and traffic lights, the only real rule of the road is whoever gets in, wins. And watch out for potholes! In some places half the road washes away in the rainy season. I have been lucky enough to avoid any serious accidents so far (knock on wood), but my swearing has increased 10-fold since I first got behind the wheel. 
2.   The Air Pollution: Addis isn't Delhi, but it's not crystal mountain air either. The embassy installed Africa's first EPA-standard air quality monitors in Addis earlier this year, and the readings aren't looking great. Living in a city packed with fume-spewing 40-year-old Ladas is not ideal for one's long-term bronchial health. 
3.   The Internet: Ethiopia has Africa's most expensive internet, and you're not getting much bang for your buck. Sometimes you can do a little low-res streaming, and other times a simple Google search is too much to ask. As a state-owned monopoly, the local telecom has little incentive to improve, and sometimes shuts service down altogether for political reasons. On the bright side, I read a lot more books then. 
4.   The Altitude: A year and a half in and I'm still gasping for breath after two flights of stairs. Every time I think I'm getting acclimated I go on vacation and seemingly have to start all over again when I get back. Send me back to sea level! (Ideally in the vicinity of the actual sea. I'm not a fan of landlockedness either.)
5.   City Living: I got spoiled in Dublin with so many wonderful options to just go take a walk or a bike ride. Addis does not have those. There are hardly any parks or green spaces to speak of, and with broken sidewalks, pickpockets, and the aforementioned diesel fumes, the streets of Addis are hardly ideal for a stroll. Driving everywhere all the time makes me fat. And swear a lot. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Say Cheese!

Living overseas, especially in a less developed country where it's harder to come by the comforts of home, people start to get creative about making things themselves. Particularly food things. Some people pickle and home brew; yours truly has previously tried her hand at making bagels and growing mushrooms, both otherwise unavailable back in Conakry. Addis has better food availability in general, but there are still things lacking, gaps to try to fill. And one of those is cheese.

It's not that there isn't any cheese at all. There is a crumbly local cheese often served on injera with the rest of the traditional meal, but I tend to find it a bit redolent of sweaty gym socks for my personal taste. There is also Planet Cheese, a truly marvelous little shop not too far from my house that stocks some fresh cheeses and a variety of imports, though many come in frozen and lose a little in the texture department thereby. But there is one specific class of cheese that I have been 0 for 3 at posts so far: Mexican cheeses, the ideal taco toppers. So, when I found a kit that would teach me how to make my very own queso blanco (and several other types of fresh cheeses as well) I knew I had to have it.

Making fresh cheese is startlingly simple in concept; it's just adding acid to hot milk. However, getting the exact flavor and consistency of cheese you're looking for takes a little more nuance, some careful measuring, and close attention to the thermometer. I took a stab at queso blanco for my Texas Independence Day party and my first attempt came out, well, okay I guess. It tasted pretty good but was a little stickier and less crumbly than I had hoped. Subsequent tries have come out a little better, but still not quite scratching that itch. What I really want is cotija, that perfect salty creamy snack that squeaks on your teeth, but that's a more complicated project I'll have to work up to. Or, you know, buy some when I'm next in Texas.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

How to Win Friends and Influence People

For me, the hardest thing for me about the Foreign Service isn't the moving or the culture shock; it's having to build a new social group from scratch every 2-3 years. Making new friends as an adult is hard for a lot of people, not just FSOs, though we do it more often than most. This American Life had a great segment recently where two men who recently moved to a new city went on a friend blind date; it was kind of awkward, but ultimately effective. And because this is the 21st century, there's an app for that. Making friends is especially challenging for me, because I'm the kind of person who thinks reading a good book in my PJs with the cat is an amazing Friday night. But I still want to have friends, so I have to go out and find them somehow.

Over the years I have developed a strategy for building a social life that works pretty well for me. I have followed it with varying rigor at different times, but I try to be strict about it particularly in the first couple of months of a new tour when I don't know anybody at all, and around summer rotation season when I find a lot of my friends have left. It's pretty simple; there are only two rules:

RULE 1: Accept all social invitations unless you have a Really Good Reason not to. This is self-explanatory, except for the Really Good Reason part. Here you have to be strict with yourself. Really Good Reasons include previous engagements, being out of town, actual illness, and for-realz emergencies. Just not feeling like going out is not a Really Good Reason. Does this mean sometimes I go out when I don't feel like it and have a lousy time? Yes, but rarely. Mostly I end up having fun, and getting over that initial hurdle of leaving the house is completely worth it.

RULE 2: Once a week, invite someone to do something social.  A meal, a drink, a movie, a joint workout, a cultural event of some kind. Anything at all. They don't even have to say yes. The important thing is that you make the effort; the response is out of your control. Of course, when they do say yes, you are not allowed to bail unless you have a Really Good Reason (see Rule 1), so pick something you'll enjoy. A side benefit of this is that, knowing you have to invite someone to something every week, you are more likely to actively look for fun things to do in your town instead of just surrendering to Netflix and Chill.

The beauty of this system is that it's self-reinforcing: the people you invite to things under Rule 2 are more likely to invite you to things, which you accept under Rule 1, and where you may meet new nice people to invite to things under Rule 2, and so on and so forth. Is it foolproof? No. Maybe you're at a tiny post with security restrictions that make it hard to go places, do things, and meet people. In that case I'll give you some book recommendations. But after three moves in the FS and a whole bunch before that, I have learned that the single most important factor in making new friends is to TRY. Make an effort. Most of the time it pays off. You're good enough, you're smart enough, and doggone it, people like you!

And for those times when you need a little bit more encouragement, here is your anthem:

Monday, August 1, 2016

Elections, the Foreign Service, and Me

As you may have noticed, there's a U.S. Presidential election going on right now. And not just any old election, but a tight race with controversial candidates. For at least a year now the election has been inescapable on the news and on social media, and coverage will only get more and more intensive in the coming months as Election Day draws near.

As an FSO, I, like all federal employees, am restricted in political participation and expression by the Hatch Act of 1939. The purpose of the Act is to prevent the considerable power and resources of the federal government from being used to influence elections, a goal I wholeheartedly agree with as essential to safeguarding American democracy. In addition to banning such obvious no-nos as intimidating voters, bribing them with jobs or money, and using federal funds for political campaigns, it also includes a long and detailed list of things federal employees may not do in terms of political activity, designed to prevent the inappropriate influence, or appearance thereof, of federal workers on electoral processes. Let's just get one of those out of the way right now:

"A covered employee may not post a comment to a blog or a social media site that advocates for or against a partisan political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group."

All those "may nots" don't mean we're not allowed to have opinions, and to talk about them; it's right there in the long and detailed list of things we are permitted to do, but with quite a caveat:

"A covered employee may express opinions about candidates and issues. If the expression is political activity, however — i.e., activity directed at the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group — then the expression is not permitted while the employee is on duty, in any federal room or building, while wearing a uniform or official insignia, or using any federally owned or leased vehicle."

And there's the rub. As an FSO, I am essentially on duty 24/7. I work in a federal building, and the federal government leases the house I live in. The things I say and do reflect on the U.S. Government, whether or not it's during working hours or I'm wearing my friendship pin. And this is an election with international interest; at every meeting, every official representation event, every casual get-together, people want to talk about it. There was one single day this summer when I thought the subject might not come up, but then one of the candidates made some controversial remarks, and we talked about it anyway.

So what I'm getting at here is that it's hard to avoid getting swept up in all the excitement. Especially when a solid half of my Facebook feed is election-related, it's tough to hold back. It's hard to be careful at meetings and cocktail parties (though most of these questions are looking for wider analysis rather than just my opinion). But the Hatch Act is important, and minding what you say is an important part of being a diplomat, so I'm doing my best. However, I can't say I'm not looking forward to the day this is all over and we can move on to different topics of conversation. 100 days and counting.

In the meantime, there is one thing I can say about the election that is entirely, unambiguously, in keeping with my role as a USG representative: VOTE! Make sure you're registered. If you're overseas, request your absentee ballot. Do it right now, before you get caught up in something else. It's important.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Hotel-Office-Hotel Rwanda

All last weekend I was in Kigali providing support to the U.S. delegation in town on the margins of the African Union Summit. Observers, such as the United States, were not invited to the summer Summit this year, but the recent resurgence of violence in Juba meant that some senior State Department people had some urgent messages to deliver to various African leaders. So I came in, bringing my previous Summit experience, to help facilitate that.

It was a long weekend of long days, trying to organize meetings on iffy phone lines, manage the schedule, get notetakers to the right place at the right time, and other administrative things. There were long periods of waiting around punctuated with sudden rushes of activity. But one way or another things worked out. Thanks in part to me but mostly to the incredible efforts of Embassy Kigali, the United States got a lot of really important diplomacy done in a few short days.

With a hectic and unpredictable schedule I had no time for tourism. In fact, I did not get to see much of Kigali at all besides my hotel room, the embassy, and the road between them. I did not see the Rwandan Genocide Memorial or the Hotel Milles Collines, where the (mostly) real events of the film Hotel Rwanda took place. And I didn't get to see the famous mountain gorillas in the north of the country. That all just means I'll have to find some time to go back to Rwanda and see things properly, without a huge work event getting in the way.

At least I did get to see some pretty flowers and sunshine, a nice break from the rainy season going on in Addis right now.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

This is Summer?

The rainy season has begun, right on schedule. This was not a surprise, and I thought I was ready. After all, I've seen rainy seasons before. I've got my wellies and my giant umbrellas for sudden downpours. My car has a nice high clearance, and growing up in Houston I'm good at driving in flood conditions. The surprising part? It's COLD. The air is cold. The rain is cold. The rainy season was "cold" in Guinea too, but that meant it got down to the '80s. Here it gets actually legitimately chilly at night, and there's no insulation or heat in my house except for a little space heater, which I accidentally blew up a power strip with the other day. Oops. 

So I'm getting out my flannels and my winter duvet, making pot pies and hot whiskies, lighting fires in my fireplace and wrapping up in the woolly blankets I bought in Ireland (and didn't think I'd use again until I went back to DC). In fact, come to think of it, it's not too terribly different from summers in Ireland, except that the rain comes down much, much harder. Only 2.5 more months. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Coffee Break

Get comfortable, it's coffee time
Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. According to legend, the great discovery came about when a goat herder named Kaldi noticed that the bright red berries made his flock extra frisky and brought a sample to the local elders for investigation. They thought the berries might be evil and threw them into the fire; a delightful toasty smell arose from the flames and a worldwide caffeine craze was born. While countries as far afield as Vietnam and Brazil have since eclipsed Ethiopia's coffee production, the drink remains as important as ever in Ethiopian culture.

Ethiopian coffee isn't just a beverage - it's a ritual. It starts with green coffee, which has been separated from the cherry and dried. In some parts of Ethiopia this may have been collected from wild coffee trees and dried on big sheets in the sun, as Ethiopians have been doing for millennia. Your coffee preparer then roasts the beans right there on a charcoal stove, stirring and shaking the husks away, while the smell of roasting beans mingles with the scent of burning incense. She (always a she) then grinds the beans by hand with a mortar and pestle and brews the coffee with water in the traditional clay pot. After being strained through a filter, the coffee is ready! Ethiopians drink their coffee with lots of sugar but no milk, and it's usually accompanied by savory snacks such as popcorn or toasted barley. Three rounds of coffee is traditional, so I hope you're not in a hurry.

The traditional coffee ceremony is still popular, but it's not the only way to get your fix these days. The Italians introduced Ethiopia to fancy new methods of making coffee during their attempts to colonize the country in the early 20th century. Espresso and macchiato (like pizza and pasta) proved much more popular here than Mussolini did, so today you can get quality espresso all over Addis and in most of the regional centers as well. More recent coffee innovations have also started to trickle in, so if you believe Chemex pour-over is the only coffee worth drinking, I know just the place.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Mo Money Mo Problems

tl;dr: personal finance is HARD, especially in the Foreign Service.

One of the 13 Dimensions on which one is evaluated during the Foreign Service Exam is Quantitative Analysis: to identify, compile, analyze, and draw correct conclusions from pertinent data; to recognize patterns or trends in numerical data; to perform simple mathematical operations.  It really is an essential skill, not only for tasks related to the actual job but for figuring out how to manage your own finances while overseas.

Personal finance is complicated for everyone. I was lucky enough to be raised in a household where money management was discussed from an early age, and I had an amazing high school economics teacher (thank you Ms. Franklin!) who covered this stuff, so I consider myself to be on the higher end of the general-public financial literacy scale. I'm pretty solid on compound interest and budgeting and lifecycle funds and all that jazz. But. FS life adds its own special wrinkles to financial planning.

The first challenge is just figuring out how much money you make. It should be simple right? It's on your paycheck! Yeah, but hardship differentials, danger pay, and cost-of-living adjustments mean that your income changes every time you go to a new post. Since it takes a while for these things to kick in you may be several months into your new post before your paycheck properly reflects your new income, and trying to work it out ahead of time is a headache. And it can change without warning once you get to post too: Embassy Addis lost its cost-of-living allowance a few months ago, which meant I suddenly saw a cut to my take-home pay of several hundred dollars a month. Ouch. I had plans for that.

Next is working out how much money you spend. Prices on basics such as food, gas, internet, and other goods and services procured locally vary widely from country to country. Visiting my sister in Dubai I discovered that a tank of gas there is cheaper than a glass of wine, which speaks to both the low price of gas and the high price of alcohol relative to the United States. Prices and availability of essentials can also change suddenly and dramatically. (See: Venezuela.) And don't forget to factor saving up for home leave into your budget; having time in the States between tours is wonderful but it can be very expensive, especially if you're buying a car or consumables for your next post, and/or don't have friends or family you can crash with for free for a couple of weeks.

The way you pay for things also makes a difference. For example, Ethiopia is a mainly cash economy, so to have money on hand I cash big checks one or twice a month, which may not actually be deducted from my account until a couple of weeks later. My internet bills often don't turn up until months later. This is a lot harder to keep track of than having everything posted immediately from your debit card. Emergencies can also be very cash-intensive: when I had some health issues a few months ago I had to pay for for everything up front, and I'm still waiting for my insurance to reimburse me.

And then, once you have a handle on your current money situation, there's planning for the future. Oh. My. God. I'm thinking about going back to DC after Addis and buying a condo, so I spent HOURS doing research and putting together a spreadsheet trying to figure out how much money I'll be making, how much I can afford to spend given my expected income and down payment, and whether it's financially more advantageous to buy in DC, VA, or MD given the different income and property tax regimes. There were multivariable equations involved. Later I found out I screwed it up, mostly because there are lots of nitty gritty things I don't know about mortgage payments and the tax implications thereof.

One thing I've learned from this little exercise is that it may be time to outsource to a professional. I would hope my quantitative analysis skills are solid enough to recognize when someone else has comparative advantage.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

A la Recherche du Temps Perdu

In the course of my duties this morning I stumbled upon the State Department's Office of the Historian, which someone probably mentioned once in the torrent of new information that was A-100, and it completely failed to sink in. That was probably for the best, productivity-wise, as I have now lost most of my afternoon in only-tangentially-work-related trawling through old documents, hilariously inaccurate historical maps, and an interesting comparative piece on the legacy of French colonization on West Africa. Most of the stuff is publicly available, either in the form of links to non-USG resources or as documents on the Office of the Historian's public-facing website.

The public website is not terribly intuitive, being based on the Foreign Relations of the United States book series the office has been churning out for decades now, but for some quick history fun you can check out their Twitter feed (where I learned that the State Department was briefly housed in the DC Orphan Asylum building, which seems somehow appropriate) and Tumblr (sadly not often updated, but interesting nonetheless). They also have summaries of the history of U.S. diplomatic relations with every country we've ever engaged with, including the Central American Federation, Lew Chewthe Papal States, and Texas. You can learn that the first foreign leader to visit the United States didn't do so until 1874, and that was King Kalakaua of Hawaii. (He went to Omaha, for some reason?? Twice!) And as part of the ongoing WWI centennial commemorations, there's a fascinating and colorful look at the lives of diplomats and their families at the U.S. Embassy in Paris during the war.

And now that I have succeeded in destroying your afternoon's productivity as well, I should probably get back to my email and try to make up for lost time!