Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Conversion

When I first got my Kindle I was less than enthused. I adopted it out of necessity and expected to use it grudgingly for its utility value rather than getting any enjoyment out of it. Well, after eight months or so of acclimation I'm pleased to say that I really quite like it. I like the portability and the instant gratification (so dangerous!). I like the easy access to the built-in dictionary. To my surprise the Kindle has turned out to be even better than a book for pooltime reading; the fact that you can both hold it and turn the pages comfortably with one hand means no wet smudges on the edges of the pages and leaves the other hand free for something else, like holding a cocktail. Given the amount of reading I've been doing in a pool float since the dry season started (that's right bitches, swimming in January!) this is a major point in the Kindle's favor.

My Kindle love is not unbounded. I do not like that I have to interrupt the reading flow to change pages more often with the one-page display than with two-page spreads. Some of the books I've gotten for it have trouble displaying poems or songs or pictures interspersed in the text, though most of those were free and it may be a case of getting what you pay for. I really do miss that lovely book smell. But all in all I'm pleased with my transition to Book 2.0.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Avatar

I just got back from a four-day visit to the Fouta Djallon, Guinea's central plateau region. This was a work trip, my first since a thorough tour of Guinea's bauxite mines back in July. These trips can be a little exhausting - long hours on rough roads and nights spent in hotels that may lack running water or electricity or both - but I enjoy the chance to get out of Conakry and see some more of the country I'm living in and supposed to be an expert on. The Fouta was lovely, all beautiful hills and plains and cool enough this time of year to break out a sweatshirt in the mornings, a rarity for Guinea. The people were very friendly, the food was excellent, and I had a very nice time.

However, one thing about these upcountry trips that I find just unspeakably weird is that when I go to Labe or Pita or Timbi Madina or another town or village in Guinea on official business I am suddenly an Important Person. I am not accustomed to being Important. In everyday life I tend to be something of a wallflower, and in my job in Conakry I play a minor supporting role while the ambassador takes center stage. But in these smaller towns in the interior my presence is a big deal, an occasion for photographs and reporters and ceremonial dinners and such. It feels very strange, being Important, and I'm not terribly comfortable with it yet.

But when the reporters and the local government officials and so forth turn out to meet me they aren't really there for *me*. They show up for THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Which, despite rumors of decline, is still kind of a big deal. It just so happens that at that particular moment, at that particular potato farm or hydroelectric dam or artisans' cooperative, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA chooses to make itself manifest in the form of me, hiking boots and messy hair and all. (Note to self: in the future, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA really ought to remember to bring her hair straightener on upcountry trips.)

It's a tricky thing, learning to stop being me for a moment, or at least learning to be me and THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA at the same time. I don't think I'm very good at it yet, but I guess that's part of the reason I get to go on these trips, to practice. Any gaffes I may happen to commit in Pita or Labe are unlikely to do much damage in the grand scheme of things and will help train me up, so if I am one day called upon to be THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA on a somewhat larger stage I'll be able to do the job creditably. I hope.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Epiphany

Yesterday the endlessly entertaining blog Thought Catalog had a post entitled "What 20-Somethings Want." Here's a choice excerpt:
You want a job, a vacation, heath insurance, validation, a back rub, a scalp massage at the place where you get your haircut, people who are jealous of you, an ex who won’t stop texting you when they’re drunk, Twitter followers, happiness maybe sorta, someone to buy you lunch at a fancy restaurant, a mentor who can tell you what the hell to do with your life, a reliable internet connection, a reliable human connection, a gift card to the grocery store, dinner parties with friends where everyone will pretend to have their crap together for just one night, a nice flirty text message to wake up to every morning for the rest of your life, for everyone to like you even if you don’t like anyone, and one of those nights that doesn’t end till 9 AM and reminds you what it feels like to be young and alive.
 I don't agree with everything in the article, but it did crystallize a peculiar feeling I've had for a while now, a thought that's been lurking around in the back of my skull for a while but never came to the forefront because it seemed so outlandish:

People, I have made it! I have achieved adulthood!

Not that everything in my life is perfect right now - for example, back rubs and flirty texts are in notably short supply - but I have a steady job, and checking AND savings accounts that actually have something in them. I have an iPhone! The iPhone itself isn't really that exciting, though it is a nice phone; the revolutionary part is that I bought myself this phone, fresh and new from the Apple Store. I didn't get it as a present from my parents or as a hand-me-down from someone else who just upgraded to the newest version, and when I handed over my credit card I did so in the comfortable knowledge that I could pay this bill off in full without having to live on ramen and Rice Krispies for a month to make up for it.

I feel stable, grounded, and generally pretty happy with who I am and the way my life is going. Five years ago I never would have believed it. Five years ago I was figuring out ways to feed myself on $5 a day and despairing of ever having a job I enjoyed that challenged me and paid a living wage. When I looked in the mirror I saw failure, and I wondered whether it would ever be any other way. Well, now it is.

Maybe it's significant that I didn't get to this point until the very end of my twentysomethings. So now in a couple of months, having checked off a lot of those boxes, I can move comfortably along to whatever it is that thirtysomethings want. One of the higher-ranked Google results suggests that this is "individualized attention in service, authenticity in product and experience, and knowledge that feels more like the inside scoop." Interesting.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Vicarious Tourism: Banjul


One consequence of my flight misadventure was that my first vacation of the year kind of blended into the second one, so instead of going straight back to Conakry I met up with my friend Alfred* for a weekend in Banjul, the capital of the Gambia, that little squiggly country in the middle of Senegal. A strip of hotels on the coast just outside Banjul has developed a fairly brisk trade as a budget-luxury resort destination, accommodating fleets of charter planes full of mostly British snowbirds craving a break from the dreary English winter but unwilling to spring for a trip to the Caribbean. The place was bustling with middle-aged couples who sounded like they had just stepped off the set of EastEnders and constantly reminded me of Monty Python's travel agent sketch. There was also a significant crowd of over-painted under-dressed older women on the prowl for friendly young African men, one of the Gambia's most abundant natural resources.

Which way is the spa?
 Despite being demographic misfits Alfred and I had a pleasant time, enjoying the beach, the fancy salads, the well-paved roads, reliable electricity, and other such luxuries unobtainable in Conakry. Aside from beach bumming, for entertainment Banjul and its environs offer some golf courses, a craft market, some modest museums on local history and traditions, and a pond full of crocodiles docile enough to pet. It's not a terribly impressive place, but a sleepy little resort town is a nice option to have when the din and dysfunction of Conakry starts to get to you.

*Not his real name, but he picked it out

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Actually that's not very accurate. There was really only one event which led to a series of nonevents, unevents, antievents, which culminated in me bravely but unsuccessfully fighting back frustrated tears at the Delta International Rebooking desk in Atlanta.

What happened was this: it rained.

Last year was one of the driest years on record in Houston but so far 2012 is looking to make up for it. Torrential downpours and flash floods this morning delayed my flight by two hours. As a result of this delay, I failed to make it onto my flight to Brussels in Atlanta. As a result of this missed flight, I am unable to catch my connecting flight to Conakry and will have to get the next one. Four days from now. (One of the many inconveniences of living in the airline version of a one-stoplight town.) As a result of this appalling delay I will have to burn some extra vacation days I was planning to save for something else and will not be in the office later this week to complete some relatively important and short-deadlined projects. It also means I spent an entire day in planes and airports today just to end up right back where I started. We are not amused.

My control-freak self hates it when my best-laid plans go awry, but without ready access to a private plane or a Star Trek transporter or something there's not really much I can do but accept that the airline industry (and the universe, come to think of it) does not in fact operate according to my personal preferences. More's the pity. But if I'm going to stick with this whole Foreign Service thing I suppose I had better get used to it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Vicarious Tourism: Vegas, Baby!


How's that for a view?
After six months in Conakry I decided I was due for some serious pampering. It's been great being in Houston for the holidays - driving on real roads, making ridiculous Christmas cookies, acting stupid with my sisters, drinking non-shelf-stable milk - but for real over-the-top indulgence there's no place like Vegas. Mom and the sisters and I went for New Year's weekend and lived the high life for a couple of days, and it was great.

I had never been to Vegas before and quickly discovered that loud, smoky, crowded casinos riddled with headache-inducing lights are not exactly my scene. But that's okay, there are other ways to pass the time. We spent it mostly eating outstanding food, seeing amazing shows, and indulging in a truly outstanding spa experience. We all had luxurious hour-long massages and then spent an hour or so sweating in the steam room, soaking in the hot tub, and relaxing in the lounge with peppermint tea. There's nothing like admiring the lights of the Vegas strip from a hot tub to make you feel rich and famous. If I ever go back to Vegas I'll stay at the Mandarin Oriental and go to the spa every single day.

The other highlight for me was seeing Cirque du Soleil's "O". There are no words to adequately describe the jaw-dropping awesomeness of this show. I marvel that this show was even conceived, let alone that it is put into execution ten times a week. It's an aquatic circus show, but if you're imagining a cross between Barnum and Bailey and Ethel Merman you are so, so far off the mark. The "pool" built into the stage is a mechanical marvel, an incredibly complicated system of pumps and vacuums and platforms that raise and lower so that sometimes the water is deep enough to accommodate a breathtaking dive from the very top of the stage and other times there's no water at all. And that's just the logistics. I could go on, about the music and the set design and the art direction and the unbelievable feats of strength and flexibility, or you could just watch the preview.

So, I had a hell of a weekend and return to Texas much poorer than I set out, but it was totally worth it. I'm going to need some happy first-world memories to snuggle with in Conakry the next time the power goes out.

(Photo generously donated to the cause by Laura.)