Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately (Streaming Video Edition)

I know y'all have probably seen all of these already, but humor me. I'm really happy to be getting reacquainted with YouTube.

The Sith Who Stole Christmas
Making Sand Art 
Last Dictator Standing
Chocolate Biscuit Cake - a recipe in stop-motion animation
From mental_floss, a compilation of Newsies mashups. Paperboys and Lady Gaga go surprisingly well together.
Stories We Make Up About Our Cats
TED Talk: How to Spot a Liar
For those of you in cold places, 25 Ways to Tie a Scarf
Conlanger - n. - one who constructs new languages
And a non-video submission: old-timey technology, deconstructed

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Vicarious Tourism: The United States of America

They have malls here!
Have you seen this place? Like really seen it? It's unreal.

Everything's so clean! There are no burning trash piles on the side of the road or random chickens or goats walking around, like you'd normally expect. The streets are so wide and so smooth, with lane lines and informative road signs and lights that actually work! There's so much light everywhere, and it hasn't cut out or even wavered in and out since I arrived. There are elevators and escalators and moving walkways and automatic doors and big tall glass-and-steel buildings to put them all in. No tin-and-cardboard-and-plastic-sheeting shacks anywhere.

There are so many restaurants where you can get delicious food and be pretty sure you won't get food poisoning. There's fajitas and kolaches and bagels and sushi and steak! Coffee shops! And when the check comes you can pay it with a credit card instead of a giant stack of odorous nearly-worthless bills. There are stores everywhere, that contain things you might actually want to buy, and they all take credit cards too! The grocery store has everything, everything! There are fresh raspberries, even though they aren't in season! YOU CAN DRINK THE TAP WATER.

The internet is so fast you just click on a link and the page is right there, without having to play a game of solitaire waiting for the page to load. I can watch video without it buffering at all! It's SO AMAZING! I can download music and update all my software! Google Maps can actually find things and give me accurate directions, no complicated landmark-based directions or hand-drawn maps required! I can watch Netflix and Hulu! There are so many TV channels! With commercials!

In case you can't tell, I'm pretty excited to be home.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Fungus Among Us

Normally when fungus is growing in your spare room, that's something of a problem. Not this time. One of the many fresh cooking ingredients I have been missing since I moved to Guinea is mushrooms. I don't know why there don't seem to be any here - maybe it's too hot, or they just aren't a big part of the local diet so no one cultivates them - but the only mushrooms you can buy around here are canned.

Well, this week I will be having beef stir-fry with my very own fresh oyster mushrooms, homegrown from a sack of used coffee grounds full of mushroom spores I bought on the internet (http://backtotheroots.com/ or on Amazon). I have a terrible track record on growing herbs and the like and I was worried that mushrooms would prove equally challenging, especially when nothing seemed to be happening for the first five or six days. But then on day seven suddenly fungus began to, well, mushroom forth, and now I  have a pretty tasty-looking crop I can't wait to sample. I'm going to declare this experiment a success, though if I should die a gruesome painful death from bad-mushroom consumption in the next few days I may be forced to reconsider that assessment.

Monday, December 12, 2011

If You Want Something Done Right...

On Saturday my friend Ricky* and I were invited over for paella at the Spanish Ambassador's house, and we were running late. Desperately late. Absurdly late. Embarrassingly late. Part of the problem was that we had misunderstood the start time for lunch, but the majority of the problem was that traffic was desperately, absurdly, embarrassingly bad. There's a key intersection in Conakry that has been under construction since before I arrived, and traffic pile-ups there are not uncommon. This one was uncommonly bad though - after perhaps 20 minutes of inching forward and then a good 10 minutes of solid standstill Ricky decided to walk up to the intersection and see what was going on.

I stayed in the car, being the driver and all, and noted to my pleasure and surprise that the situation did seem to have gotten better. The traffic was still very thick but seemed to be moving along at a swifter and more constant speed. The reason for the improvement was made clear when I got to the intersection and saw Ricky right in the middle, directing traffic. There he was in his flowered swim shorts and pink shirt, gesturing emphatically with his baseball cap and getting rather pink himself from sunburn and the exertion of giving Guineans spontaneous hands-on instruction in the theory and practice of the zipper merge. I wish I had taken a picture.

Meanwhile, the policemen who were supposedly in charge of managing traffic flows sat comfortably on a concrete barrier on the side of the road and gazed in bemused amusement at the crazy foté who had decided to take traffic law into his own hands. Once my car made it through Ricky jumped back into the passenger seat, after handshakes (and tips in small bills) all around. I hope they learned something about effective traffic management. We'll consider it our own small contribution towards security sector reform.

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

Friday, December 9, 2011

Work It/Make It/Do It/Makes Us/Harder/Better/Faster/Stronger

I have never considered myself to be much of a networker. Parents and guidance counselors and other such sages told me over and over how important networking is, but it took me a long time to get comfortable with the idea. In high school and my early navel-gazing over-philosophized college years I thought of networking as dirty, cheating, smacking of cronyism, nepotism, favoritism and a dozen other -isms that have no place in the meritocracy I thought we all should be living in. I wanted no part of it.

That changed in my late-college, grad school period when I accepted that we don't in fact live in a pure ideal meritocracy, that the fickle finger of fate has a lot more influence over our lives than we might like to believe, and that networking is a way to nudge that finger a little in the direction we want it to go. But just accepting that networking was useful and important didn't make me good at it, and I was terrible. I was in the job-hunt phase then, and a large part of the problem was that I confused "job applicant" with "job supplicant". I could not bring myself to believe that I, a lowly job-seeker, could possibly have anything an employer might want, so I went to interviews with little more than sad puppy eyes and a begging bowl. (It is only now that I have done some hiring myself that I fully understand what a rare and precious commodity good employees are.) That unfortunate situation persisted until I interviewed for a job that required an attribute that even at my most self-deprecating I could not deny possessing: i rite gud.

My current job is essentially all about networking. Sure, there's some event planning and some light number crunching and some of that juicy writing stuff, but you don't get anything to put in the event agenda or the spreadsheet or the report (or get good jobs later) without going out and meeting people and talking to them. They hammered this into us in training, first in A-100 and then in pol/econ tradecraft, and I was scared. They threw a lot of frightening words around like "managing contacts" and "interagency coordination" and "corridor reputation" that made the whole thing sound very awkward and painful, and since I was already pretty sure I was a networking failure I just knew I was doomed.

Good news y'all: I'm not doomed. I'm still pretty lousy at cocktail party chit-chat, but it turns out this networking thing can be kind of fun. Yesterday in a meeting I mentioned a pet project I've wanted to get started on, and the other guy said "hey, that's a great idea, and I want to help!" With that encouragement I sent an email around to some other folks whose help I might need, and they were all excited too! So, having "managed" a "contact" and "coordinated" with the "interagency" with any luck we'll make something happen, not in order to puff up my "corridor reputation" but because I think it would be great if Guinea had an American Chamber of Commerce and a bunch of other people think so too.

Networking: not so horrible after all.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Priorities

I have been feeding the cat first thing in the morning for ages. It seemed convenient - I'm always home at that time and the cat makes a very effective backup alarm clock, as he values his chow over my beauty sleep. But recently Jabbers has become a little too effective in his alarm clock capacity, waking me up long before my radio alarm goes off with a variety of unignorable tactics - loud repetitive meowling, jumping up and down on my torso, and clawing at my face, gently. I can thrash around and swear and throw pillows at him all I want, but ten seconds later he's right back in the game. It's a lot like this:



This week I gave up. I decided, for the sake of my sanity, that it would be better to feed the cat right before bed and save myself the morning shakedown for kitty kibbles. I filled up his bowl and snuggled into bed, looking forward to eight hours of uninterrupted slumber. But then, at 5:30am, there he was - pawing at the duvet cover, pouncing my feet, and pulling my hair, affectionately.

All this time I had the cat pegged all wrong. It's not food he's so desperate for in the morning, it's LOVE. Awww. Owww.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Vicarious Tourism: Freetown

For my first vacation since arriving in Guinea a friend and I went down to Freetown for the weekend, about a 6-hour drive from Conakry. Before we left I emailed the econ officer at Embassy Freetown, a buddy from my A-100 class, to let him know we were coming; he said he'd be pleased to see me but was a little incredulous that anyone would go to Sierra Leone on vacation. Well, believe it, because not only did I go, I had a wonderful time.

The highlights of the trip were a tour of the Tacugama chimpanzee sanctuary, where I took the fabulous photo at left, a day at River No. 2 beach, and a glorious evening stuffing my face at the only sushi restaurant between Dakar and Monrovia. I have never been so excited about rice and fish and seaweed.

The beach was the best part though, no question. Guinea has plenty of coastline but it's pretty much all rocks and mangrove swamps. Freetown has some very pretty beaches, though the ones in town were occupied by an endless string of energetic soccer games, so not best suited for lounging. River No. 2 is about an hour down the peninsula and zoned for tourism, with chairs and umbrellas for rent and waiters to bring you frosty beverages and outstanding grilled lobsters. The sand was white and warm but not hot; the water was a lovely clear green and cool but not cold. And best of all it was luxuriously uncrowded, even on a Sunday.

Sierra Leone has clearly come a long way since the end of the civil war, no doubt helped significantly by the rivers of aid money that continue to pour in. The road from the Guinea border to Freetown is a West African engineering marvel, which is to say that it's a wide, smooth, paved, marked road you can actually travel on at something approaching highway speeds. This contrasts markedly with the road on the Guinea side, which appears to be a rambling country lane punctuated with potholes. Freetown itself is much cleaner than Conakry and has what feels like a real downtown with colonial buildings that seem to have been maintained rather than allowed to molder and collapse into decay, though the streets are much too narrow to accommodate modern traffic. In the suburbs planned housing developments are going up - beach condos and gated communities. There's no way that's going to happen in Conakry anytime soon.

And best of all, the progress seems likely to continue. Right now Freetown is at best an "off the beaten path" tourist destination, but that will probably change, and soon. Once a few newer, fancier hotels are built (which has already started) and the road down to the tourist beaches is widened and paved (which has already made great progress) there's no reason Freetown couldn't be the next Banjul, with a resort area outside town hosting hordes of holidaymakers from Europe. They'll have to do something about the airport, which is inconveniently situated across a large bay from the main town, but that obstacle can certainly be overcome. Go now, beat the rush.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

Money: The Infographic. Because I still have a hard time wrapping my head around trillions of dollars.
Get bored while microwaving your ramen? There's an app for that.
Classic artwork, modernized.
Some great examples of forced perspective. A couple of these are photoshopped, which is cheating, but this technique always makes me grin.
Incredible sculptures made of books.
How Shakespeare messes with your brain
Need to express your displeasure but tired of the same old slurs? Try the Shakespearean insult generator, thou churlish tallow-faced canker-blossom!
Custom arcade game = free waffles for life
One of my regular comic book feeds is a daily Calvin & Hobbes strip from the Goode Olde Dayes. They're always great but I was particularly taken with this one, a rare case in which Susie doesn't get mad; she gets even:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Art Appreciation 101

The embassy is hosting an art fair in the atrium to give local artists an opportunity to exhibit and of course, profit from their work. There was a cocktail reception this evening as a launch event, which got things off to a pretty good start I think. Most of the embassy and a good chunk of the dipcorps were there, and by the end of the evening several purchases had been made. I had done some previewing on the sly while the artists were setting up and there was one painting I was taken with from the get-go. I was hesitant to buy it - it was one of the pricier pieces and wasn't a perfect match for my decor - but I kept coming back to it over and over. It looks like this:



Relatively early in the evening Gunny came over to make small talk, like you do, and asked me if I had seen anything I liked. I told him I really liked the big blue one, and he looked at me like I was a three-headed alien. See, Gunny had seen that one earlier too but completely didn't get it, so he dragged me over and had me explain what I saw in the painting: the unity of African women, each distinct but with the long dresses melding together into one. This pretty much blew his mind. As it turns out, when Gunny had looked at this painting the first time he had seen a giant furry unibrow. I told him that the great thing about art was that all interpretations are valid, but that wasn't enough for Gunny. For the rest of the evening he kept calling people over and asking them what they saw in the painting, like it was some kind of Rorschach test. We established that Gunny has a fairly unique perspective.

So after all that I bit the bullet and bought the painting. How could I not? It's lovely, and now it has a story too, which all art ought to have if it can help it.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

O Christmas Tree

After Thanksgiving comes Christmas, so as soon as I got home from work today I set up and trimmed my Christmas tree: a 7-foot genuine plastic pine with a wonky base that requires a fairly substantial weight on one side to keep the whole thing from toppling over, otherwise known as the Seasonal Giant Sparkly Cat Toy. I briefly considered not decorating this year since I'll be back in Texas for the big day, but I figured in the meantime my Christmas spirit could use all the help it can get. It took me longer than usual without a second pair of hands and the lack of Pandora meant I had to sing the requisite Christmas carols a cappella, but it got done in the end. The Christmas centerpiece is arrayed on the dining room table and the stockings are hung on the freezer with care. It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas, or at any rate as much like Christmas as it's going to feel in a 90-degree mostly-Muslim country far away from home.

Or it was, for an hour or two anyway. Then out in the living room there arose such a clatter I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter. Well, Jabbers must have been playing a little more roughly with his Seasonal Giant Sparkly Cat Toy than he did last year, because the base split nearly in two and the whole damn thing came crashing down. I lost several ornaments, including some of the best ones we made at the Great Recession Christmas Party three years ago. My tree is now lying pitifully on the floor, still decked in what remains of its holiday finery, while I decide whether to try to rig up a new base, see if I can get a last-minute real tree and start over, or just shove Christmas back in the box and forget about it. Bah humbug.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Things For Which I Am Thankful

Generators. Flashlights. Sisterskype. The world's cuddliest pest control. Lint removers. Frequent flyer miles. Household help. DPO. Contraband bacon. Sunscreen. Mefloquine. My 401(k). French/English dictionaries. Comp time. Dinner invitations. Job satisfaction. Having a job in a time when jobs are hard to come by. Pineapples. Neighbors. Perspective. Flexibility. Friendships that endure distance and time. Family who love me and miss me when I'm gone. Disposable income. Backyard avocados. Pool floats. Realizing every day how much I have to be thankful for.

Etc., etc., etc.

Monday, November 21, 2011

International Commerce

Given the dearth of quality shopping options in Conakry, and thanks to the miracles of the internet and DPO, most of us at the embassy have turned to Amazon and other sites to fill the consumer needs previously filled by grocery stores, pharmacies, convenience stores, and shopping malls, in addition to the ones already previously filled by Amazon. For example, I have recently purchased and mailed myself such disparate items as molasses, chip clips, cat litter, acrylic wine glasses, a staple gun, and an ottoman. This heavy reliance on imported items makes mail day really, really exciting. Whenever I hear that mail has arrived a little thrill goes down my spine, and I feel like this:



Also, when did they remake The Music Man? And WHY? Not that the new one looks particularly bad, but why mess with perfection?

Friday, November 18, 2011

EconOff, Can You Spare a Dime?

Most definitely not me
My job, as the embassy's Economic Officer, is to watch the money in Guinea. See where it comes from, where it goes, how it moves from person to person and place to place, what goods and services are exchanged for it, and what obstacles may be impeding its flow. Having acquired this precious wisdom, I write it up and send it back to Washington, where occasionally, every so often, someone reads what I write and even more occasionally someone actually cares. My job does not generally include passing out stacks of cash to all comers from my Scrooge McDuck-style vault, though this is a VERY common misconception.

Someone asks me for money in my official capacity at least once a week. For English lessons. For office equipment. For workshops or seminars. For training programs. For development projects. For dubious business schemes thinly disguised as development projects. (I especially love those.) One day I got hit up for $750,000 over the course of several different meetings. Sometimes I get pitches that make me want to burst out laughing or slap the guy in the face. But I'm a diplomat, so I don't. Sometimes I get pitches that make me wish I really did have a swimming pool full of cash I could give away.

But I'm a diplomat, so I don't. My office has some very modest funds to cover staff travel and training, and a representational event or two. That's pretty much it. The real money (if the State Department has anything that could legitimately be called "real money") is in Washington, in assorted funds run by assorted offices for assorted purposes with assorted strings attached. Sometimes I can get some of it, though it requires the bureaucratic equivalent of identifying the quarry, tracking it through the trackless forest in the dark of night, hitting it over the head with a rock and dragging it home, all the while fighting off a pack of rival hunters who want to make my prey their own. It's long, slow, time-consuming, frustrating, exhausting work, and successful funding hunters are (rightly) famed in story and song, with tales of their daring exploits told and retold around campfires and office kitchen coffee pots the world over.

I am currently conducting two such hunts simultaneously - one for an AGOA conference, one for a wildlife conservation project - with a third money-hungry project on the back burner. But I'm new to this so my grasp of the terrain is shaky, my weapons crudely fashioned and inexpertly aimed. And this is why I sigh a little every time someone asks me for money, especially if I really want to give it to them, because I know there's another laborious funding hunt in my future.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Homebody

Another three-day weekend for Veterans' Day, another one of those "holidays" I never realized was a real holiday until I started working for the government. I don't have the visas to go anywhere and have the duty phone this weekend anyway, so I spent the entire three days doing nothing. Intensive nothing. I read three books (okay, all of one and half of two), watched four movies, spent five hours at the pool and cooked, a lot.

I baked brownies to eat with last weekend's caramelized banana ice cream, made a giant bowl of guacamole with avocados from my backyard which I ate with tortilla chips from thousands of miles away (yay globalization), and assembled a truly outstanding sandwich from bacon, provolone, red pepper mayonnaise, garlicky sauteed spinach, a fried egg, and buttermilk bread from my bread machine.

However, my lethargic bliss was occasionally interrupted by a twinge of guilt, which I blame entirely on AFN. See, amidst the admonitions to wear seatbelts and advice on post-9/11 bill benefits they air during the commercials is a series of spots exhorting servicemembers to leave base every once in a while and experience their host country. The one that gets under my skin the most shows a TV-watching couple being haunted by a ghost who seems to have been hired by the local tourism board until they agree to go ride bikes down to the castle.

In case you aren't clear on this, there ain't no castle in Conakry. There isn't even a slave fort, which is a shame because I would be all about seeing it. I'm not saying that Guinea is a culture and entertainment wasteland because that's absolutely not true, but with no Time Out Conakry, no Conakryist, minimal maps, no tourism industry to speak of the amount of effort required to seek out the best Guinea has to offer frequently exceeds the energy I have available. So I stay home, and the Ghost of Guinean Tourism hovers uncomfortably in the back of my head

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Feline Interlude

My cat is a ridiculous creature.

He can spend days doing nothing but adorable things - curling up in sunbeams, chasing crinkle balls, sitting in my lap and purring - enough to make me think that he isn't actually a living being but a very highly advanced furry robot carefully designed for optimal cuteness.

And then the cat finds a cockroach, which he gleefully dismembers one leg at a time and tortures into a long, slow death before devouring his limbless victim like a vengeful avatar of Kali.

And then he throws it up on the rug.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Recalibration

I had a bit of a lull at work this week. Not too many meetings, no visitors, no big projects, no short-fuse taskers, no fires to put out. It felt very strange. For the first time in weeks I did not have so much work to do that I couldn't think about anything else. And I felt *guilty*. Like I wasn't doing enough, like I should go dig up more work to do. That was when I realized that I had gotten so used to being overwhelmed with work that I had come to believe that was the normal state of affairs. And that this was bad.

So, I did not go dig up more work. I embraced the lull. I cleared a bunch of smaller things out of my mental inboxes, both work and personal, that bigger, more important things had pushed to the end of the queue. I left the office at closing time EVERY DAY. (We close early on Fridays for prayers, but I had to ask when exactly Friday closing time was because I had never, ever left that early.) I went to the gym three times after not having set foot in there for two weeks. I floated in the pool. I read books. I petted the cat. I went to bed early, and fell right asleep because I wasn't keyed up thinking about work. It was amazing.

This must be that work-life balance thing people talk about. It's nice, I can see why people would want to have it, but it's not an easy thing to get. I'm going to have to try harder to make a little more space for sanity in my everyday life, but when your job is driven by external events it's really tough to schedule that me time. One of the "lower priority" tasks I checked off my list this week was doing the paperwork on my Christmas R&R, which I had been putting off for weeks because I just couldn't find the time to get it taken care of. But at the very least I can give myself permission to make the most of the slow times. God knows they don't come around that often.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

Five fairly ridiculous international borders
Amazing miniatures
Wittiest comebacks of all time. I'm especially fond of #3
Fabulous words English needs to steal
Emergency Teddy Bear. Everyone needs one, though I'd probably swap the vodka for bourbon, the cigarettes for granola bars, and The Catcher in the Rye for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Speaking of which, it really does need a towel.
Complementary flavors, in handy flavor tree form. I should wallpaper my kitchen with these.
Yes, you really do love your iPhone, and if I had one I'd love it too.
Anthropomorphic taxidermy, for fun and profit.

Hey, it's the '90s!

IT'S THE 90S! from Everything Is Terrible! on Vimeo.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Presidential Present

On Thursday I met His Excellency, President Alpha Conde. We had shaken hands once before but this time I was tagging along with the Ambassador and we were actually formally introduced. And I got a souvenir: a can of store-brand maple syrup. The President had just returned from Canada and was apparently much taken with its sticky sweetness so he brought a bunch home to pass around. We diplomatically refrained from telling him the maple syrup is better in Vermont.

I will now make myself a double-maple brunch: Presidential Pancakes and the Jimmy Dean maple breakfast sausage a coworker so thoughtfully brought back from DC. EPIC WIN.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

A while ago I was in the car on the way downtown to a meeting, staring out the window, letting my mind wander, when I saw something so unexpected I did a double-take. What I saw, which I found so unbelievable I had to look again to be sure, was a white guy driving a black guy around. And almost as soon as I took that second look I realized the assumption underlying it, and I was ashamed.

In the States that would never have happened. Almost no one at home has a driver, certainly not enough to make a racial stereotype about it. The Driving Miss Daisy days are long over. A white guy and a black guy in a car are friends or colleagues or dating or married or whatever. In Guinea they're a white guy and his driver, or so my subconscious tells me anyway.

The privilege that comes with being in the white majority in America is nothing next to the privilege that comes from being in the white minority in Guinea. It only takes a sideways glance to mark me as someone foreign, probably well educated, by Guinean standards filthy rich, and possibly somewhat important. There are rich, educated, important Guineans too of course - many who are much more of all three of those things than I am - but they don't have it emblazoned on their face like I do. And apparently like every other white person in Conakry does, because now I'm seeing it too.

The human mind is a great generalizer, a tremendous pattern-finder (or pattern-maker). I find it a little disturbing how quickly and thoroughly mine has picked up on the patterns of my new home. I'm certainly not about to generalize myself into taking up the white man's burden or joining the Klan, but it makes it a little more clear to me how those sorts of ideas take root.

By the way, what did I see on that second look? It turns out they were in a right-hand drive car; the black guy was driving after all. That did not make me feel any better.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Routine

Yeah, I know. I've been a bad blogger lately. It's not that there hasn't been anything going on - there has - but nothing that fits into a clever little anecdote. Our desk officer was here for a visit and stayed with me, so we went to meetings and watched movies and played Wii for a week. It was nice to have a guest. Things seem to be humming along fine at work, lots of interesting meetings on mining and labor unions and the like. The weather has been more reliably sunny as of late so I've been spending more time at the pool. I made chili and cornbread for dinner last night and it was very tasty. You know, life.

I'm starting to really get excited about my winter R&R - Houston for Christmas and Vegas for New Year's. Before I came out here people told me the key to surviving Conakry was to get out of town often. I scoffed at this a little, because I couldn't imagine that it could be so terrible. Now I believe it, not because Conakry is so terrible, but because it's getting a little humdrum. A change of scenery may be in order. Perhaps a weekend trip to Freetown or Banjul. That would give me something to blog about.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Princess

Last week the fine folks at OverthinkingIt.com - a glorious website that takes pop culture way, way too seriously - hosted a Disney week, in which we learned that Beauty and the Beast is really about schizophrenia and class conflict, that Aladdin is an Orientalist-tinged tale glorifying inept absolute monarchies, and that Sebastian is a traitor to his Jamaican origins. However, my favorite piece was the one that argued that Disney's most positive female character was not any of the myriad Disney Princesses but Miss Bianca, musine heroine of The Rescuers. I strongly recommend that you read the whole thing, but here's an excerpt I especially enjoyed:

"Miss Bianca is a bit materialistic, a bit heteronormative, and yes, she is a mouse that wears fur (which is badass as well as creepy, if you ask me, but nobody did), but she is pretty much the awesomest person/mouse ever. Calling her to task for caring for enjoying luxury seems inappropriate given her life of sacrifice and the huge risks she so casually makes on behalf of the people who need her. She seems virtually fearless in the face of near-certain death (until actual certain death comes around, then she gets a little scared), and inspires courage and hope in all around her.

As so many, she too has a stupid love-plot where she sells herself a little short (heh mice) for a schlubby janitor. But she’s always the high-status person in the relationship, and she does seem to actually like him, so I’m not so sure it’s quite so bad to engage in some relationship choreography. Oh, and he also turns out to be the Will Hunting of janitors-turned-rescue commandos, so maybe she is just a good judge of character.

Next to Miss Bianca, the seriousness and scale of the Disney Princesses seems way off. You want to be Mulan, you play soccer as well as the boys. You want to be Belle, you read a lot and maybe marry somebody your friends don’t like. You want to be Miss Bianca, you take the foreign service exam and go on to be Secretary of State."


YES. I fully admit that Miss Bianca is both classier and badassier than I am, but I am pleased to know that I am well on the way to emulating the coolest cartoon mouse ever.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Last night I had a problem. I got home from a very long day at work and needed to bake a cake, but I didn't have enough butter. In Guinea there is no 7-11 on the corner, no 24-hour pharmacy with an emergency grocery section. But I have neighbors! Neighbors I can call who will turn up at my house less than five minutes later with a block of butter in hand. How novel! How delightful!

In DC I lived in a sprawling apartment complex full of students and other yuppies. Or at least that's what they looked like when I passed them in the halls, since I didn't actually know any of them. I laid eyes on my immediate neighbors perhaps three to five times each before they moved out and were replaced by another equally anonymous but slightly different new occupant. I never knew any of their names and would not have recognized them at a restaurant or on the Metro.

But I didn't really *need* my neighbors in DC either. If I had to have butter, even at 4 o'clock in the morning, I could have it in the space of ten minutes from my friendly local convenience store. Other life needs, material or otherwise, could be handled with similar ease and expediency by enterprising participants in the local economy or my network of friends and acquaintances.

In Guinea things are a little different, and when you need a cup of sugar or whatever it's nice to have a neighbor to turn to.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Tongue-Tied and Twisted

Yesterday was a rather trying day. I attended a detailed hour-long presentation on Guinea's offshore geology and oil prospects, in French, followed by a fairly technical two-and-a-half-hour meeting on Guinea's new mining code, also in French. I felt like I was doing really well following it all, keeping up. And then at the end of the mining meeting we went around the table and gave our impressions. While the others were taking their turns I put together something relatively coherent and fluid to say, but once eight pairs of eyes were locked on me it was suddenly all gone. I fumbled around and came up with something, but it wasn't quite what I wanted and made me sound like an autistic child rather than the capable professional I want people to think I am. Sigh.

I think I can say without too much undue self-flattery that my English is very good, certainly above average. I'm used to having a vast army of words at my beck and call, to wield with surgical precision or poetic allusion as the situation requires. In French I don't have anything close to that, and it's so frustrating to struggle so hard to express myself and end up with such disappointing results.

Frustrating and humiliating. Everyone else in that room was at least functionally bilingual; many spoke three or four or five languages well. At this point I'm at about one and a half. Maybe. If I'm still having this kind of difficulty with French - a relatively simple language I've been studying in fits and starts since I was SEVEN - what hope do I have for my future tours where I may have to pull together a much more difficult language from scratch in a matter of months? Why is what seems so easy for other people so hard for me?

Yestrday was also trying because the traffic was so bad on the way back from the mining meeting that it took two hours to get home. But at least I could spend that part of the day in sweet silence.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Seasons

October. Crisp fall air. Leaves changing colors. Apples and squash at the farmers' market. Boots and sweaters. Soups and stews.

Not so much. This afternoon as I floated in my pool with a cold beverage and gloried in the sunshine and the gentle breeze in the coconut palms, did I feel a tiny smidge of sadness to be missing out on scarves and apple picking? Sure I did. After five years in DC I'd come to enjoy the annual autumnal atmospherics, and I know it will be at minimum two more years before I see them again. But before the shadow of loss could cast a pall over my lovely lazy afternoon I remembered something else: winter. I know there will be a similar afternoon in February (or several) when I lie back in my pool float and thank my lucky stars I'm in the tropics. That may be worth missing out on a fall or two.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Things I've Liked on the Internet as of Late

Despite being dead, Shel Silverstein releases a book of new poetry. My inner eight-year-old rejoices.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - the lost chapter. (The original link from the Times seems to have died, but the blog has the text.)
Are bookshelves getting obsolete? Not in my house, but I may just be old-fashioned.
The second Epcot that never was.
English has more happy words than sad ones. Isn't that nice? pleasant? wonderful? delightful? splendid?...
Astrophysicist discovers something useful.
Glow-in-the-dark kittens fight AIDS. No, really. You can't make this stuff up.

More kittens:

Monday, September 26, 2011

Emergency Preparedness

I went on a grocery run this weekend to stock up for what we are referring to as "Hurricane Diallo": Wednesday is the anniversary of the 2009 Conakry stadium massacre. The opposition parties have announced peaceful rallies for tomorrow and Wednesday; the governor of Conakry has announced that no rallies will be permitted, no way, no how. No one really knows what's going to happen - maybe nothing - but I'm hoping for the best and stocking up on essentials, just in case.

While out shopping I happened upon a rare treasure: 100 percent actually real Philadelphia cream cheese. Squee! I bought a bunch of it, so in the event that we do have to stay home for a few days due to "inclement weather" at least I'll have cheesecake.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

I Bless the Rain Down in Africa

We are (I'm told) approaching the end of the rainy season, but you'd never know it from the quantity of water falling from the sky. Most of the time it only rains for a couple of hours a day, but that's a couple of hours of pretty serious rain. It was especially bad for a few days last week, when the gutters overflowed and the streets were awash right at going-to-work time. I was really happy to have my giant umbrella, my knee-high approved-by-the-queen rainboots, my high-clearance SUV, and driving skills acquired in Houston where torrential downpours are fairly commonplace.

But today is Sunday. I have nowhere to go and nothing to do, so I'm perfectly happy to listen to the rain on the roof while I lie in bed with a book and a cup of tea and feel safe and dry.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Guinea Goggles

A while ago a friend of mine in Cameroon blogged about taking his family on vacation to a beach resort, to find that the restaurant was closed at dinnertime and the fridge, DVD player, and stove in the room were all broken. I read this post and I couldn't stop laughing, because the very thought of a DVD player in a hotel in Guinea was so outrageous. I bring this up not to denigrate his experience or to get in some kind of my-post-is-tougher-than-your-post fight, but to point out how much of a difference expectations make.

Around here we talk about having your Guinea goggles on, by which we mean acknowledging that things are different here and adjusting expectations accordingly. Hotels, for example. I haven't done that much traveling yet, but enough to know that in Guinea, especially outside Conakry, a nice hotel is one that has running water. Things like toilet paper and air conditioning bring you up to luxury status, especially if the A/C is quiet enough to have it on and still fall asleep. Would I rather be at the Four Seasons? Definitely yes, but it's easier to deal with a starker existence when you know ahead of time that's what you're getting yourself into.

My friends and I like to play a little game where we talk about Guinea as if it were the United States. Someone asks for directions to a store or restaurant and we tell them whatever they're looking for is in the strip mall with the Home Depot, right behind the Applebee's. We mention our need to run to Walgreens for breathmints and express our excitement about the new Ikea that's about to open. It sounds dumb, and it is admittedly a little juvenile, but it's also riotously funny. Trust me on this. The gulf between our new home and the one we left behind is so vast you have to giggle to imagine those worlds colliding.

Besides, it helps with the homesickness in those inevitable moments when your Guinea goggles start to slip.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Anniversary

A year ago today I put on a suit for the first time in ages and made my way to the State Department building on 23rd street. Quite to my surprise, they let me in. I found myself in a cavernous conference room filled with similarly besuited newbies who also couldn't quite believe they were really there. Finally.

It took more than four years to get from my first stab at the written exam to my first day with the Department. I'm a cynic by nature so I try to keep my expectations low, but when I finally got the job I'd been lusting after for so long I couldn't help but hope it would turn out to be all I had imagined it would be. And I have to say, it pretty much has.

A year ago, did I imagine I would be where I am, doing what I'm doing? Clearly not. A year ago I'd have been hard pressed to find Conakry on a map. But I imagined I would be someplace exotic doing work I found challenging and fulfilling. And now I'm in Conakry, working a job I love with amazing colleagues, friends, and neighbors, and I still can't quite believe it.

Happy anniversary 156th! I hope you are all loving this as much as I am, and that we'll all continue to do so for many years to come.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Alors On Danse

Last night I went to welcome party for our new Peace Corps director. It was a great time. Delicious food, excellent beverages (coconut milk and rum in coconut shells, anyone?) and a truly outstanding live band. They had incredible range: African music, jazz, salsa, reggae, you name it. Upon our arrival one of my colleagues turned to me and said, "why isn't anyone dancing?" I replied that the white people weren't drunk enough yet and the Africans were intimidated by the presence of too many white people. I was so right.

This unfortunate situation persisted almost until the end of the evening when the locals got fed up with the wasted music I had enough coconut liquid courage to accept a dance invitation from one of our local staff. Fortunately it was a salsa song so not only did I not look like an idiot I actually impressed the locals with my mad skillz. (Thanks Dani!) Several people came up to me afterwards to compliment my moves and exclaim how surprised they were that an American could dance.

This is why I think they should offer dance lessons at FSI. Not only is dancing fun it's a good relations-building opportunity, and diplomats have to work enough parties that we should have some idea of how to handle ourselves on a dance floor. And at the very least, FSI dance lessons would provide me with a more reliable supply of partners with whom to strut my stuff.

Monday, September 5, 2011

First-Tour Officers: 1 - Nightmare Logistics: 0

It's been a little busy lately at Embassy Conakry. We had a visitor; Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson dropped by for a couple of days last week. With a week's notice. At the end of Ramadan. With a good percentage of the embassy staff out on leave. Because of our low staffing levels nearly the entire trip ended up being handled by first-tour officers, some of whom have been at post for only a few weeks.

I had heard about the ordeal a VIP trip can be, but I was unprepared for the level of detail and complexity planning such a visit entails. The visiting team must be housed, fed, and watered. Transportation must be arranged, frequently a motorcade with several cars and a police escort. A detailed schedule must be prepared to cover the duration of the trip, or several schedules to cover contingencies. Timing is critical: the VIP should have enough time at each venue to accomplish what needs to be done but not end up sitting around twiddling his thumbs waiting for the next meeting to start. The visitors need to be briefed so they're up to speed. Someone has to make sure their luggage arrives and gets where it needs to go. The smallest things - like who sits where in which car when - have to be planned out in advance. It is a tremendous undertaking.

And quite frankly, I think we hit it out of the park. It wasn't perfect - there were a couple of hiccups here and there, a few wrinkles we'll iron out for next time, but nothing that impeded A/S Carson's ability to get where he needed to go and do what he needed to do. That seems like a successful visit to me.

The burden of a VIP visit falls particularly hard on smaller posts, simply because there are fewer people to juggle the logistics of the visit and keep the embassy running at the same time. Some of our larger embassies have entire offices devoted exclusively to managing visitors, but Conakry is definitely not one such. On the other hand, a visit to a small post means that everyone gets to meet the VIP. Every single American at post got to meet A/S Carson, and he even took an hour to mentor the new officers. That kind of face time is rare and priceless.

So it was exciting to have him here, and a valuable learning opportunity, but I think we're all glad to get back to our normal routine. I know I am.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

Curvy: a pretty simple game I can't stop playing.
Me, as seen by my cat.
My Body Gallery: mostly-anonymous photos of women tagged by height, weight, and clothes sizes. Maybe I'm not quite as hideous as I think I am, though that's no reason not to hit the gym.
Embassy Kabul torn apart over the fate of its cats.
Robots are now learning to think for themselves. I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.
Want an environmentally-friendly burial method? Try being eaten by mushrooms.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I'm on a Boat, Bitch


Or more accurately, the USCGC Forward, a Coast Guard cutter that's in town to train the local navy on counter-narcotics and such. The captain and the ambassador co-hosted a cocktail reception on the flight deck last night. I had a good time. It was nice to lay eyes on Americans I don't already know (some of whom were quite good-looking). It was nice to speak English at a work-related social event without feeling guilty about it.

But the unrivaled highlight of the evening was without doubt the catering. Ships' provisions are not generally thought of as haute cuisine, but I must say the cooks did themselves proud. And they had one very special thing that made my night: beef. Prime rib, roasted so tender and juicy you could cut it with a fork. With a PLASTIC fork. Oh my god. I had three helpings, to store it up like a camel until the next time a piece of meat that good comes my way. Which will be in December, when I go back to Texas for Christmas and gorge myself on steak and brisket and fajitas. Sigh. Maybe we can line up a few more ship visits between now and then.

Monday, August 22, 2011

In Praise of Modern Industrial Agriculture

When I used to buy sweet corn at the farmers' market, or at Whole Foods, or even, god forbid, at Safeway, it usually looked a little something like this:

This didn't strike me as remarkable in any way. That's what corn looks like.

Well, now that I have been removed from the comfortable embrace of the world's most advanced agricultural system I am seeing things in a whole new way. They grow corn here too, but it's a little bit different. For starters Guinean corn has about twice as much husk as its all-American counterpart and the ears are perhaps two-thirds the size. The kernels are smaller and less closely packed on the ear. They take longer to cook and are less sweet and toothsomely tender. The ears also occasionally contain caterpillars. When I buy corn in Guinea it looks a little something like this:


Now take that difference and multiply it by pretty much everything you eat. Onions are more the size of billiard balls than softballs and frequently have to have the outside layer or two peeled off because they're soft and mushy. Carrots are better cooked than raw because they're too rubbery to get that nice crisp crack. Eggs are smaller and need to have the dirt and straw and chicken poop washed off them before you crack them open individually over a clean bowl in case they turn out to be rotten. Happened to me twice last week. Even the mangoes, while huge and pretty tasty, lack the melting succulent sweetness of the ones I used to get imported from Mexico.

And yet, despite these challenges, I'm still somehow managing to eat pretty well. A little cardamom molten chocolate cake with homemade ice cream and candied ginger goes a long way.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Communication Trepidation

NoDoubleStandards at Muttering Behind the Hardline has closed his digital doors. The fact that such a major proponent and supporter of Foreign Service blogging has decided to close up shop sends shivers down my spine.

I have so far found FS blogging to be an overwhelmingly positive experience. It's helped me keep track of friends and make new ones. And as NDS said, "The Man" has been cool with it. I had a less positive experience in a previous job; after an entirely innocuous post that happened to mention the name of my employer I was summoned to a meeting with HR, where I was told - with clear intention to intimidate, though no actual basis for doing so - that although I hadn't actually done anything wrong, they *knew* about my blog and *were watching me*. Dun dun dun. In the FS I had heard stories about social-media-paranoid posts and didn't want to run afoul of any rules, written or otherwise, so I brought it up at my inbrief on the first day. The RSO and I agreed on a policy of "don't be stupid," which seems fair.

But the thing about the internet is that nothing ever really goes away, and I may not actually know when I say something stupid until it comes back and bites me in the ass a decade down the road. And when people read that stupid thing for the first time it has all the freshness and immediacy as if I had just said it - unlike memory, the text doesn't degrade over time. Thanks to the wonders of the information age, the fate of the presidential candidate being pilloried for something he once said on the record as a junior congressman can now belong to us all, at one level or another.

But there's really no 100% effective way to guard against this. To interact with other human beings is to risk rubbing them the wrong way. The miracle of communication that is the internet can amplify this effect but it also amplifies the benefits of human interaction in a million ways, which is why we all keep blogging and tweeting and obsessively checking our Facebook pages.

Godspeed NDS. We'll miss you.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

You've Got Mail

For the most part I am madly in love with my job. But as with all jobs, there are parts of it I just don't want to do. Probably the biggest one of those parts is delivering demarches.

For those of you who just said "...whaaaa?" a demarche is the fancy diplospeak term for an official message from one government to another. Demarches can be on anything but they seem to come in four main flavors: Do This; Don't Do That; What Do You Know About X?; and What's Your Opinion on Y?. We generally get a couple of these a week, with larger flurries around big international conferences and such. Delivering demarches is probably one of the most diplomatish things I do, but it can also be a tremendous time-suck.

Here's how it works. I show up to work one morning to find a cable from Washington instructing all posts to find out, for an example, whether their host governments think puppies or kittens are more adorable. It generally includes pre-written background and talking points. Those points go to the protocol office, where they are translated into flowery formal diplospeak, which looks something like this:

The Embassy of the United States of America presents its compliments to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Guinea and wishes to know whether the Government of Guinea feels that puppies or kittens are more adorable. The Embassy of the United States of America avails itself of this opportunity to renew to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Guinea the assurance of its highest consideration.

Then it goes to be translated into French, and comes out looking something like this:

L'ambassade des Etats-Unis d'Amérique present ses compliments au Ministère des Affaires Etrangères de la République de Guinée et voudrait savoir si le Gouvernement de Guinée est de l'opinion que les chiots ou les chatons sont plus adorables. L'ambassade des Etats-Unis d'Amérique saisit cette occasion pour renouveler au Ministère des Affaires Etrangères de la République de Guinée l'assurance de sa très haute considération.

I print up the original English and the French translation on pretty formal letterhead and put it into a folder. The folder and I then drive an hour downtown to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where I wait until someone is available to see me. I give them the folder and tell them what I'm here about this time. And they say, "Well, I can't really give you an official position on the comparative cuteness of puppies and kittens right now, but I'll pass this along to the Minister and we'll get back to you." I then drive an hour back to the embassy and send word back to Washington that I delivered the demarche as requested and they'll let us know.

And in all likelihood that's the last I'll ever hear of it, because when the MFA says "we'll get back to you" they don't mean *me*, they mean The United States of America. Their embassy in Washington will follow a similar procedure to inform the appropriate office in the State Department that:

The Embassy of the Republic of Guinea presents its compliments to the U.S. Department of State and has the pleasure to inform the Department that kittens are way cuter than puppies, duh. The Embassy of the Republic of Guinea avails itself of this opportunity to renew to the U.S. Department of State the assurance of its highest consideration.

Yes, believe it or not diplomacy still actually works this way. Every time I do this I feel like I should be a man in tux and tails with a top hat and a silk cravat and a vast and luxurious mustache. And maybe a monocle for good measure. One might think, in the 21st century, that we could just email our official messages to demarches@mfa.gn, and they could reply back to demarches@state.gov. I've heard that in more time-focused and communications-infrastructure-endowed countries it is possible to get a demarche done digitally, though one still has to pretty up the language and figure out whom to send it to. But in Guinea the government doesn't have the resources and know-how (and reliable electricity) to maintain an email server, so we still do it the old-fashioned, time-consuming way. And when I have a whole list of other things that need doing (which I usually do) it can be tremendously frustrating.


(tl;dr: Diplomacy needs to get with the times. Kittens are adorable.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Popularity

Well, it seems the old blog has come down with a nasty rash of spambots. Either that or I am the hot new thing in the coveted UK-users-who-read-blogs-through-a-variety-of-shady-looking-Russian-sites demographic. So far Blogger's been doing a pretty good job keeping the barrage from turning into actual spam comments but it's wreaking havoc with my precious statistics. I am therefore switching over to moderated comments mode. It may take me some time to approve your comments (especially when my home internet is out, as is often the case) but I'll get around to it eventually. Besides, it's not like I get that many comments anyway (sniff sniff).

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Alice Waters Can Bite Me

I haven't been nearly as excited about food and cooking since I moved to Conakry. Maybe this is because I've been working more so I haven't had as much time to cook. Maybe it's because the good grocery store is an hour away. Maybe it's because all of my favorite recipes seem to contain at least one ingredient that's simply unavailable here. Maybe it's because my shiny new 220V stand mixer tried to electrocute me last weekend. In any case, I took the opportunity afforded by a rainy internetless Saturday to reacquaint myself with my cookbook collection in the hopes of reigniting the Joy of Cooking. Figuratively.

The first one I picked up was Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food. I figured a back-to-basics approach might be a good way to cope with my new culinary terrain. This turned out to be a mistake. Surveying the anemic zucchini currently occupying my crisper drawer I was in no mood to be subjected to Alice waxing rhapsodic on the amazing produce available at her farmers' market in California or to be chided for attempting to cook with ultra-pasturized milk. Yes Alice, I know it "performs poorly in the kitchen" but it's all I've got, so lay off.

I was more heartened by a perusal of More Spies, Black Ties, and Mango Pies, a CIA family cookbook I picked up on my trip out to Langley last year. Many of the recipes would be easier to make in Southeast Asia or a former Soviet country than West Africa (go figure), but it was comforting to get stories from other people who were also trying to feed themselves in an alien environment, even if it does occasionally involve canned cream of mushroom soup. The salad section even contains a handy formula for oral rehydration solution, just in case. This is a little more my speed.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

I See White People

On Saturday I made the long drive downtown to the fancy expat supermarket, which was filled with delights. Cheese! Salami! Bacon bits! Not-too-terribly-bad-quality beef! Be still, my heart. It also contained another rarity in my new life: white people.

I see white people at the embassy every day but they aren't "white people", they're Ted and Jason and Lisa and so forth. But outside of the embassy and the occasional donors' meeting I've gotten used to being the only pale-face in the room/block/square mile. My sister Beth told me stories about going to tourist attractions in rural China and finding herself to be much more in demand for photos than the waterfall or whatever, because waterfalls were all over the place but white people were rare creatures. I'm not about to start snapping photos of my fellow Leader Price shoppers but I do kind of understand the impulse.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Crowdsourcing Decorating Advice

Ladies and gentlemen, the library:



This is currently my favorite room in the house. It needs only two things for perfection: a nail to hang up my framed photo of the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore in Paris and something to put my feet on while I read. This second need is turning out to be tricky. Of all the ottomans (ottomen?) I have looked at the only ones that work with the chair color and do not cost way too much money are white/cream, which does not work with my cream rug.

So I found another rug, which I think might work with the chair, but the overall effect might be too color-busy. The other option is to get a slipcover for the chair and change the color scheme altogether, but slipcovering a wing chair presents its own problems. What do you think? Should I get the rug and risk having to pay the return shipping?

Decorating is hard.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

All That Glitters

Today I do not love my job. Today my job was to look a very sweet man in the eye and tell him that in all likelihood his life savings were gone and never coming back, and there was really nothing we could do about it.

The gentleman in question had found himself ensnared in a gold scam, an all-too-common occurrence in Guinea. He came to the U.S. Embassy with a folder full of documents and a heart full of hope. He was sure the United States of America could make this right. And I wanted to. I wanted to so badly. I wanted to summon Captain America and send him downtown to punish the evildoers and get this nice man's money back in the name of truth, justice, and the American Way.

Unfortunately, in real life red-white-and-blue superheroes are a little thin on the ground. In real life when Americans find themselves in trouble in foreign countries their only recourse is whatever judicial and law enforcement system that country has to offer. We are not in charge here. Our laws and law enforcement do not apply. We cannot just call someone and make it all better. I wish we could. In real life pretty much all we can do is give you a list of local lawyers who can help you through the local legal system, if that's what you want to do. You're not in Kansas anymore.

So I told him this, although not quite in those words. He was perfectly polite about it, which made it even worse. The look of defeat in his eyes just about killed me. Short of telling someone about a death - which I may have to do next year in my consular capacity - this is about the toughest news I can think of to have to break. But it's my job, and I did it, as professionally and compassionately as I know how. At least he didn't argue when I told him his life is more important than the money; these things have turned violent before.

He went home disappointed, and I went home angry and swam laps until I couldn't swim anymore. I'm still angry, angry that bad things happen to good people and that I can't do anything about it. But I guess that's a bigger problem than just gold scams.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Spice of Life

One of the nice things about being at a small post is the variety in the work. I have a friend in the political section in Paris, one of our larger embassies, and all she does for 40 hours a week is keep an eye on France's relations with the Balkans. It's like that stereotype of specializing until you know everything about nothing. Being the one and only economic officer in Conakry I get to know a little bit about everything. (Except that sometimes I feel like I should really know everything about everything, and even just everything about everything about Guinea is a LOT.)

Anyway. I bring this up because today, in my capacity as agricultural officer, I received a bull semen catalog in the mail. Now, I was previously aware that cattle DNA is big business. I am from Texas after all. I had just never before had the opportunity to leaf through a catalog and familiarize myself with the various available options.

It's a lot like online dating. Each page has a picture of the gentleman, polished to a high gloss to look his best. There are some basic numbers: age, height, weight, mature scrotal circumference. Then it gets into the bovine version of SAT scores: ranks and ratings on a host of factors like marbling, daughters' milk production, and value per pound. Last but not least, each bull has a couple of bullet points for those personal quirks that don't necessarily come through in the numbers. Some of my favorites:
  • A standout for calving ease and carcass - he helps get the bills paid!
  • Your heifers dream about bulls like Selective.
  • Phenotype like no other - if you desire style, width, and muscle, this it it!
  • A true customer satisfier, siring cattle that perform and look good doing it!
  • If there's one bull everyone is talking about...it's Regis.
The catalog also comes with a handy gestation chart and an illustrated guide to insemination. Somehow I doubt Guinea's cattle ranchers have the wherewithal to afford the best bull semen America has to offer, but on the off chance that someone here needs help finding some quality sperm I am now better equipped to point them in the right direction.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

RTFM: computer beats game after reading the manual. (Note: it works for humans too!)
Books meet video games in the digital adaptation. I don't know if I would enjoy this, but maybe it'll catch on.
Bodice-rippers - now with more historical accuracy!
Experimental archaeology: making history real
Endangered snow leopards being adorable
How do you keep an elephant out of your farm? BEES.
Mark Twain's illustrated "Advice to Little Girls"
The History Cookbook - a little more Brit-centric than I'd like, but if you've always wanted to eat like a Viking or a Tudor this is the site for you.

When humanity wanted to put its best foot forward, this is what we came up with:

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan's Earth Guide For Aliens from NPR on Vimeo.


Awesome pop song mashup:

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Possession

My things are here! I have so many, and I love them all. It's going to take days to get it all unpacked and washed and sorted and put away but I am up for the challenge. I did my consumables shipment first. Surprising best addition: bottled Starbucks mocha frappuccinos. I put them in kind as an afterthought, since I was already buying half of Costco anyway, but I was really happy to see them come out of the box. I guess I underestimated my addiction to overpriced vaguely coffee-flavored milkshakes. The biggest waste of money? Two giant bottles of detergent for my nonexistent dishwasher.

The arrival of my earthly effects has driven home how totally I have lost all green credentials in my new lifestyle. I used to live in half of a modest apartment and walk places and take public transportation. Now I live in a house powered entirely by diesel generators and go to work in my massive SUV full of leaded gasoline. I used to move by wrapping my stuff in newspaper and old towels and packing it in boxes rescued from dumpsters. Now as I watch my dining room fill with virgin forests' worth of once-used cardboard boxes and special packing paper my inner Captain Planet curls up in a ball and sobs. There's no recycling in Guinea - the standard trash disposal method here is to toss it in a pile on the side of the road and set it on fire once the pigs seem to be done with it. And let's not even think about the carbon credits involved in getting me and all of my stuff here from Washington. Maybe I should go club some baby seals while I'm at it.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Eating For My Country

Madeleine Albright was on The Daily Show after wrapping up her term as SecState and said she had lost some weight since she was no longer eating for her country. It's not only the higher-ups who are called on to put their stomachs to the service of their homeland - on my trips this week I did it too.

Arriving at a mining town guesthouse on Friday night after six hours on a bone-shakingly bumpy road all I wanted was to crawl into bed, but my gracious hosts wished to honor me with a three-course meal. I ate, even the canned tuna and greyish green beans. What else could I do?

On Tuesday I visited the site of a juice factory currently under construction. The partners' wives made lunch for us: local specialties prepared under local hygiene standards. I ate, hoping to be spared the consequences I ended up enduring on Wednesday. How could I not?

Being Food People I fully understand that when someone offers you a meal it's not about nutrients. They are offering you a part of themselves, welcoming you into their life. It's a social thing but a personal thing as well, and as a diplomat you don't say no to that. You fill your plate with whatever it is and you eat it, at least a little bit of everything, and find genuine ways to compliment the chef. When I like people I feed them, and when people feed me I do my best to show them I appreciate it, even when the cuisine itself is not quite to my usual standards.

Who is my model food ambassador? Anthony Bourdain. I love No Reservations for the combination of food porn and travel porn, but I also love how good Anthony Bourdain is at realizing that sometimes the food isn't about the food. When he eats at fancy high-end restaurants he can be devastatingly critical, but when he eats at someone's house he's never anything less than absolutely complimentary and grateful that someone went to all the trouble to feed him whatever it is, even if it's yak butter tea.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Revenge

As it turned out, my job yesterday and today was to spend most of my time lying prostrate and compulsively hydrating as someone repeatedly pushed the self-clean button on my digestive system. Ugh.

I have now experienced the revenge of Montezuma's Guinean counterpart, whom a brief perusal of Wikipedia suggests is Samory Touré. It's not a perfect comparison though, because Touré was in fact little more than a local warlord when the French started moving into his territory. His Wassoulou/Mandinka Empire was smaller than the current territory of Guinea and existed for only 20 years before the French snuffed it out. On the other hand, he was under no illusions about the nature and intentions of the French and put up a lively resistance with more than 30,000 infantrymen armed with rifles purchased from the British. He is still remembered in Guinea today, with a major military base and a neighborhood of Conakry named in his honor. Of course, that probably has less to do with him than with his great-grandson Sékou Touré, who ruled Guinea for 26 years after independence.

Whatever the differences in historical fact, the revenge is very much the same. But the Cipro is doing its work and I should be back to normal in no time. And I got through a lot of my backed-up Economist articles, so it hasn't been a total waste.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Excitement

So, there was a little coup attempt in Conakry last night. Blocks away from my house, in fact. But I was out of town doing Roving Economic Officer-type things so I missed all the excitement. I was awakened not by gunfire but by a 4am phone call from the embassy, though I didn't get any sleep after that either. I kind of wish I had been home, for the street cred, though not so much for the fearing-for-my life bit. And then I didn't get to send any juicy coup-attempt-related cables or anything because that wasn't my job today. Today my job was to visit an agricultural research center and a women's co-op and a mango juice factory, so I shrugged off my sleepless night and did that. When I got back to Conakry the Chargé said my job was to go home and eat and shower and sleep as much as possible, because who knows what my job will be tomorrow.

I can't complain of boredom, that's for sure.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Opiate of the Masses

The State Department works really hard to recreate an American lifestyle abroad as much as possible, both to ease the culture shock for diplomats uprooted every 2-3 years and to maintain ties with the mothership. And what is it that binds us most firmly to our countrymen? What makes our American blood run red, white, and blue and our American hearts beat the rhythm of "The Star-Spangled Banner"? Television, naturally.

For our viewing pleasure all the USG housing in Conakry comes with free service from the Armed Forces Network (AFN). The selection is a grab bag of shows from network TV and basic cable grouped into a couple of thematic channels. It's actually pretty good: they have all my favorite shows, and our time zone 2 hours behind Germany means I can watch the Daily Show and the Colbert Report and still be in bed by 10 o'clock. The downside is that we're getting shows the day after they aired in the States, but nothing's perfect.

The other quirk of AFN is that there are no commercials. The time other stations use to sell cars and Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs AFN fills with mini news clips on heartwarming stories of the armed forces doing wonderful humanitarian things and PSAs exhorting them to not do less wonderful things like huffing paint, raping women, running up exorbitant credit card bills, and abandoning their pets on the side of the road when they deploy. I've heard of one warning women not to shake their babies but I haven't seen it yet. I guess I'm not watching anough TV.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Shop 'Til You Drop

Like driving - and like a lot of things actually - shopping in Conakry is a fairly chaotic activity. In my previous life if I wanted to buy a thingamabob I just asked Google, which gave me a selection of thingamabob purveyors in convenient map form. That doesn't really work here. The most reliable way to find out where to buy a thingamabob is to ask people where they get theirs, especially if you particularly admire the thingamabobs they have. Really, it's best to see if they will take you with them to their thingamaboberie of choice, since chances are you'll never actually find it on your own.

Like my definition of "street", my definition of "store" has altered significantly since my arrival in Guinea. Conakry does have stores like you probably think of stores - four walls, a ceiling, aisles of products, marked prices, checkout lanes, etc. - but those are exceptions rather than the rule. By far the most common form of dedicated retail establishment here is a shipping container. It makes a lot of sense if you think about it. Guinea imports much larger volumes than it exports, and it's probably cheaper to just dump the containers here than to ship them back to China empty so there's plenty of supply. They're well-made for what they are, and easy to lock securely at night. Conakry's version of a strip mall is a bunch of shipping containers lined up in a row, all selling something different.

The next step down is a stall at one of Conakry's many markets. These range from permanent, lockable installations to a folding table and an umbrella. Supplies vary and so do prices, widely. I'm not much of a haggler so I find the markets pretty intimidating, especially since my blazing whiteness makes it hard to pass unnoticed. On my first weekend my sponsor took me for a little a stroll around the Marché du Niger downtown, just to look, and in the space of two minutes we had accumulated a string of at least ten teenagers wanting to "help" me with my shopping, for a small fee.

And then there's the spontaneous retail sector - people selling mangoes from a table in the front of their house or on the side of the road. Traffic circles, construction sites, any reliable source of traffic congestion attracts a swarm of merchants selling just about anything portable. People think of America as the home of the drive-thru, but it's amazing what you can buy in Conakry without getting out of your car. There's the expected snacks and drinks, but I have also seen bath towels, CDs and DVDs, floor mats and steering wheel covers, mops and brooms, machetes and hedge clippers, maps of Guinea, and mens' pants.

However, except for perishables, I'm also buying things in Guinea the same way I've always bought them - I order them from the internet and have them mailed to my house. Amazon forever.


Side note: I reached 10,000 hits today! Thanks everybody!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Great Expectations

Yesterday I went to a reception to welcome Guinea's new Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) - twenty-some twentysomethings who will spend the next two years teaching English, math, or physics in remote villages scattered throughout Guinea's interior.

Most of them didn't know too much about Guinea - as I found out, it's a tough country to research - and were eager for my impressions, but I didn't have much to say. The life I live in Conakry is so different from the experience the PCVs are going to have it's like we'll be living in different countries. I wake up in my air-conditioned house next to the swimming pool, drive to work in my giant SUV and spend most of the day on a computer in my air-conditioned office. They will wake up in a tin- or thatch-roofed hut, walk to work and spend most of the day in a cramped classroom where air conditioning is last on a long list of badly needed supplies.

I thought about joining Peace Corps after college but I wimped out - I wanted to see the world, but in a way that would still let me take hot showers - so I went to grad school instead. And here I am in Conakry where my shower does make it if not quite to hot, at least to the upper reaches of warm. People back home tell me that my life is an adventure, but it's nothing compared to the adventures the PCVs are going to have. I wish them the best of luck.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Material Girl

Last weekend one of my fellow recently-arrived junior officers commented that living out of a suitcase for a couple of weeks made him realize how few material posessions it really takes to be happy. I couldn't disagree more.

I miss my stuff every single day. I've been here for four weeks today and my UAB is AWOL. It may be another month or so before the boat shipment with most of my posessions arrives. It's not like I'm depressed or anything, but every day without fail I feel a need to use something I know I own but do not have with me - a pair of shoes, a book, a kitchen utensil. (In fact, the majority of these wishes are kitchen-related.) I'm tired of wearing the same two suits to work. And aside from the utility of it, I want my things so I can hang up my pictures and set up my bookshelves and make my house feel like home instead of a very large hotel suite.

Mom has a little plaque-thing hanging on her wall that says, "Home is where your stuff is." Right now my home is in a shipping container somewhere in the Atlantic. I can't wait for it to arrive.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Never Drive Faster Than Your Guardian Angel Can Fly

Driving in Conakry is quite an experience. The infrastructure is, shall we say, limited. My definition of "street" has been vastly broadened in the last three weeks. The main streets in Conakry are paved and no more potholed than downtown Washington, but once you get off the main thoroughfares you are well advised to have a nice high clearance and good grips on your tires. Some of these lesser byways double as drainage ditches during the rains. The main roads are bordered not by a curb but by open sewers, so it's best not to be too close to the edge. Given the more challenging terrain 40mph now feels incredibly fast to me.

The rules of engagement are less actual rules and more traditions. The streets in Conakry are labeled with letter-number codes according to some sort of obscure grid system that doesn't seem to make sense to anybody, but as there are hardly any street signs anyway navigation is done almost solely based on landmarks. Conakry does have a few stoplights here and there, and people do obey them when they are working. Other than that it's a free-for-all. Lanes are not only unmarked but unheard of. I am working on cutting down my American following distance as a square inch of daylight between you and the car in front of you is an invitation for every other car on the road to occupy that space. Turn signals are used almost exclusively by taxis to signal when they are stopping. There are, by general agreement, some one-way streets, but the only way you'll know which those are is when bystanders yell at you when you try to go down them the wrong way.

And then there's night driving. The main streets have streetlights but they haven't worked in decades due to lack of power or having the wiring stolen or both. It's not that hard to see the other cars since they usually have at least some lights working, though you do have to be wary of the occasional fauxtercycle which is in fact a car with one headlight out. No, the harrowing part of night driving is the pedestrians - dark people in dark clothing crossing dark streets whenever and wherever the spirit moves them. This requires a delicate finesse on the headlight controls to have the high-beams on enough of the time to know where the pedestrians are but without blinding the other drivers.

I'm entering this new sport slowly and gingerly, and during daylight hours as much as possible. No casualties so far.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

First World/Third World Problems

In moving from DC to my new expat life in Guinea my standard of living has both risen and fallen at the same time. On the one hand, I now have a house with a yard and a car and a place to park it. I will have a housekeeper and maybe a cook once I get around to finding them. In my DC life these were unimaginable luxuries I never could have afforded. On the other hand, basic things I took for granted in DC cannot be gotten for love or money in Guinea, such as reliable electricity and internet service that doesn't remind me of 1998.

This means I now have more First World Problems, a term I love because it allows me to simultaneously complain and acknowledge how lucky I am. For example, last week I was sorely vexed because Pottery Barn was sold out of the patio chair cushions I want for my conservatory. Yes, my conservatory. That sure as hell is a problem I never had in Washington. In addition, I am getting new experience with Third World Problems, such as waking up on Monday morning with no electricity in my house.

But I have also discoved a hitherto unknown category of First World/Third World problems, when the two worlds collide. My haircut is supremely First World - it requires two separate electrical appliances to beat it into submission - so when that Third World no-power problem rears its ugly head I have no choice but to rear mine. It's irksome to not have lights in the morning, but even more so when it means one will have to represent the United States of America on television with one's best no-electricity-at-my-house-this-morning hairdo. Let me tell you, it was not pretty.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

Always wanted a superpower? You could have geomagnetic sight
Snowclones: to click, or not to click?
Bored? Four unsolved codes and ciphers. Go.
Help liguistic research: be part of a dialect map.
Göbekli Tepe: like Stonehenge, but older and more impressive
Spycats and The Cats of War


Another 4 minutes of your '90s childhood:

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Money Matters

So far the most difficult adjustment to my new life in Guinea has been learning to deal with the money. In the States I used my credit card for everything. It was easy and convenient and earned me frequent flyer miles. It also makes it really easy to track my spending. I remember in high school being embarrassed to put something $5 or less on a card, but I got over that a long time ago. Cash was just more trouble than it was worth.

In Guinea cash is the only game in town. There are a few places in Conakry where you can use a card, but doing so effectively gives your waiter or hotel desk clerk carte blanche to use your card too. Checks are worthless, except at banks. I get paid via direct deposit and then write checks to cash at the embassy bank. On Friday I forgot to do a bank run so I was broke all weekend. Oops.

So you have to have cash, and a lot of it. The Guinean franc is currently running at about 6,700 to the dollar at the official exchange rate (the black market rate is higher). While Guinea is a very poor country, doing things that expats do - eating out, shopping at grocery stores, buying gas - is not cheap. I have concluded that normal running-around money is probably about a half million francs, more if planning a grocery run.

Guinea's largest bill is the 10,000-franc note, which means that the aforementioned normal running-around money is at minimum 50 pieces of paper. I'm glad I never got around to buying a new wallet before I left DC because it would have been a total waste. I'm considering getting a pencil case or something to carry my bricks of bills around in. A larger denomination note might help with the cartage, but if ever a country needed mobile banking, it's Guinea.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Stepping Up

By the third day of work I'm mostly done with the check-in paperwork, so I got to do some actual diplomacy for a change. The embassy got a last-minute invitation to a ceremony in a protected forest for World Environment Day, which seemed like an ideal first outing for a wet-behind-the-ears econ officer.

I expected a nice little event where I would listen to some speeches, clap appreciatively, shake hands with the minister and be done, no problem. I traipsed off into the forest in my kitten heels (must find some office-worthy flats, pronto!)and was more-or-less comfortably seated in the diplomat section when the presidential security forces started showing up. Apparently this was a bigger event than we had anticipated.

I did listen to some speeches. I did clap appreciatively. I did shake hands with the minister. I shook hands with a bunch of ministers. I also shook hands with the prime minister and the president. And after the speeches President Conde, the prime minister, and all the various ambassadors in attendance planted trees. And since I was the closest thing to an ambassador the U.S. had on the scene I planted a tree too. I hope the picture came out okay.

So I survived my first representational event, though I'm afraid my shoes will never be the same.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Acclimation

So I have safely arrived in Africa. Contrary to expectations, the soundtrack to The Lion King does not play in the background on a continuous loop. In the three days I have been here the following things have happened:

1. My compound lost power once.
2. I consumed unexpectedly delicious food twice.
3. I was temporarily evicted from my house for several hours while a neighboring radio tower was dismantled after being damaged during a demonstration of used construction machinery.
4. I went to a great party thrown by some people from ICRC and the EU embassy.
5. Jabberwocky slew his first cockroach.

I'm still getting used to the house, which is large and sparsely furnished and sometimes echoes in a very lonely way. Must buy more rugs. It's also full of peculiar appliances that require wrangling with, including six dehumidifiers, a whole bunch of power converters, and a particularly intransigent iron that has prevented the dewrinkling of my work wardrobe. I also made and consumed the saddest bowl of pasta I have ever produced, having not thought to purchase garlic, red wine, parmesan cheese, salt, or pepper at the grocery store. I'm just so used to having these things all the time.

A period of adjustment is only to be expected, but despite some minor domestic inconveniences so far I'm having a fun time.

For Clay: