Thursday, May 3, 2018

Coffee from Scratch

As soon as I discovered the coffee trees growing in my yard, I was determined to turn those beans into coffee of my very own. And then I forgot about it for a while. But as my time in Ethiopia is drawing to a close, I finally pulled it together and got it done.

Processing coffee is a lengthy, multi-step process. I used these instructions for what is known as the "wet method," where you remove the beans from the cherries before drying. The traditional Ethiopian way is the "dry method," which dries the beans still in the cherries in big sheets in the sun. This works best when you've learned at your daddy's knee how to tell when the beans are ready. For the rest of us, the wet method provides more easily observable benchmarks.

These are the beans on my coffee tree, or one of them anyway. Yields per tree are pretty low and with variable sunlight and rain in different parts of the yard all my trees have their own unique growing schedules, so I only got a handful of beans. Make sure to wash the cherries really well!

My instructions told me to squeeze the berries by hand or tamp them with a piece of wood in a bucket. After an hour or so of painstaking squeezing I hit on a (much preferable) third method: squish the cherries gently with a bench scraper or the flat of a chef's knife. The beans pop right out, and you can do 4 or 5 at a time. Keep the cherries, as you can use them for a special bonus drink.

Next you ferment the beans by leaving them in a bowl of water for 24 hours. You'll know they're ready when you wash a few and the beans feel gritty, not slippery. Once that's done it's time to dry the beans. I did mine on a wire drying rack lined with cheesecloth in my dining room, which gets lots of sunlight. The beans are sufficiently dry when the outer hull is a pale straw color and feels brittle, and the bean inside is grey/blue and hard, not chewy, between your teeth. I was kind of paranoid about this, so I dried mine for three weeks, stirring occasionally. After that you need to rest the beans in a can or jar for another two weeks to let the remaining moisture resettle.

Your beans still have a tough parchment layer on the outside that needs to be removed; this can be done by hand, kind of like shelling very small pistachios, or if you have a food processor with a plastic blade (to avoid cutting the beans) you can give them a gentle spin. At this stage you finally have green coffee.

Those coffee nerds with their own fancy roasting and grinding equipment can take it from here. I don't have that stuff, so I roasted my beans the Ethiopian way, in a dry pan. Keep the beans moving for a more even roast. They'll start popping and smoking when they're getting close to done, so keep a window open. Once you have reached your desired roasting level, cool the beans by swirling them around in a fine metal strainer. This also helps remove the very last layer, a papery skin. Rubbing the beans in a clean dishtowel finishes the job.

Run the beans through a grinder (or in my case, a mortar and pestle) and you're ready to brew your coffee in whatever manner seems best to you. I made mine in an Italian-style Moka pot. And it was good! Smooth and mellow, with some hazelnut undertones. Success!!

Special Bonus Drinks: Cascara Tea and Coffee Leaf Tea

Cascara tea is made from dried coffee cherries, often mixed with cardamom and other spices. It's popular in coffee-producing areas where the beans are all sold off, but the cherries are available for free as a byproduct. Just dry the cherries at the same time as you're drying the beans, grind the dried fruit, and add spices as desired. Pop it in a tea strainer with some boiling water, and you're done! Add sugar or honey to taste. When I tried it without anything added I got a mild beverage with a light melon flavor (and some unpleasant terroir - I guess my quick rinse wasn't quite enough.)

Coffee leaf tea is exactly what you think it is: coffee leaves dried, crushed, and brewed in boiling water. I haven't tried this yet, but it's on my list. It's apparently full of antioxidants and whatnot.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Diploskills: Know the Lingo

nonpaper, n.: This doesn't sound like something that could exist, but it's a document circulated informally for discussion in a multilateral environment with no identified source or attribution, and that doesn't represent anyone's official negotiating position.

no-host, adj.: Some kind of an event, usually a meal, where participants will pay their own way, as opposed to a "hosted" event where the person/organization inviting covers the costs.

OBE (Overtaken by Events), adj.: You were working frantically on a briefing paper or some other project, but then Something Happened to render all your hard work suddenly useless and irrelevant. Your project is OBE.

cable, n.: Once upon a time, many years ago, diplomatic messages were sent using the telegraph system. A whole set of terms related to official messaging rose up in these days of yore and the terminology has stuck around even though the technology has changed. A "cable" is therefore official for-the-record correspondence, as opposed to a regular old email.

reftel, septel, n. or adv.: These are both ways of referring in one cable to information discussed in more detail in another; "reftel" refers to a cable that has already been written, citing the appropriate reference number, while "septel" means the other cable hasn't been written yet, but keep an eye out for it!

not/not, adv.: Back in the telegraph days cables were all submitted IN ALL CAPS, ALL THE TIME, JUST LIKE THIS. One of the limits of the technology. This made it hard to express emphasis, especially when you really wanted to tell the folks in Washington that whatever they're thinking is totally and completely wrong. Some clever officer came up with the expression not/not, or NOT/NOT, as it was in the day, for when something is so not it's worth saying twice. Since the State Department has made it to the 21st century we now have access to lowercase and fonts and bold and italics and other stylistic ways to show emphasis, but this phrase in particular has stuck around.

Friday, June 23, 2017

You Say Goodbye, and I Say Hello

It's transfer season again, always a bittersweet time as you say goodbye to your colleagues, your friends, who are moving on. My schedule is filling up with farewell parties, which are both fun and a little sad. The constant churn is one of those inevitable features of FS life that you can only kind of get used to.

It's more bitter than usual for me this year - I extended my tour in Addis for an extra year, so now everyone who came in with me two years ago (already?!) is leaving, and I'm not. I'm still happy with my decision to extend, but it's hard to see so many of my friends go. It's always easier to be the leaver than the left behind, but that's what happens when you decide to stick around for a change.

Of course, transfer season works both ways. As so many people are leaving, so many new ones are coming in to take their places. New people to work with, hang out with, be friends with. Nice people, cool people. People worth getting to know. And that's always something to look forward to.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Vicarious Tourism: Okavango Delta

Somehow I managed to convince my bosses to send me to Botswana earlier this month for training, and I added a couple fun days on the end to go see the Okavango Delta, one of the world's more unique ecosystems.  The Okavango River and its tributaries are mostly filled by rainfall in Angola, which, instead of finding its way to a lake or ocean, simply flows into the Kalahari desert and dries up. But before it does that it forms a vast and varied river delta in northern Botswana that serves as home to an astounding quantity and variety of wildlife.

It was entirely different from previous safaris I had been on in Tanzania and South Africa, where you do your game viewing from the safe remove of a Land Cruiser or similar vehicle, ensconced in steel high above the ground. In the Delta you get around in a makoro, a traditional dugout canoe poled by your guide, who also leads you around on foot on the larger islands. It's a much quieter, more intimate experience, with far less bumping around and dust. It kind of reminded me of kayaking in my home wetlands in southeast Texas, but with more hippos and elephants and whatnot.

Yes, it can be harder to spot the animals through the tall grass, but I still saw lots, and even when there aren't really any interesting critters around you can still learn about plants and animal tracks and droppings. (Male giraffe droppings are pointier on one end than female giraffe droppings. Who knew?) I learned that elephants like to use termite mounds as pillows, because their heads are really heavy and make it hard to get up from the ground. I learned that lions roll in dusty-smelling wild sage, which was everywhere, to make it harder for prey downwind to smell them.

The lodge I stayed at (and highly recommend) is truly in the middle of nowhere, only reachable by tiny charter aircraft landing on a packed-earth airstrip. There's no internet and no phone service, but plenty of good food and hot water. And it is VERY close to nature, for better and for worse. The first night I was awakened by a hippo with poor table manners splashing and sloshing in the water outside my tent as he sucked up the tender new grass. The second night I had an elephant on either side of my tent snacking loudly on grass and saplings. Every so often one of them would casually brush up against the platform my tent was on and the whole thing would shake. So I didn't sleep that well, but for really cool reasons. It was a quick trip, just a few days, but well worth it.

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.