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


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.