Sunday, April 29, 2012

Friday, April 27, 2012

April Showers

It's raining. The first rain Conakry has had since Octoberish, and I am so happy to see it.

Those of you who are more familiar with the traditional four-season cycle should know that Guinea has two seasons: wet and dry. In the wet season it rains really really hard for two to three hours every single day. In the dry season it doesn't rain at all, ever. They both last about six months, and by the end of each you are thoroughly sick of it and can't wait for the other one to start.

I arrived in Conakry early on in the wet season, and by September I had had enough of vaulting into Land Cruisers (in skirts and heels, no less) to avoid the rushing floodwaters in the street and was fed up with everything being covered in mud and just feeling kind of clammy all the time. I longed for the better travel conditions and more reliable sunny swimming pool time the dry season would bring.

And indeed, those things made me very happy for the first couple of months of the dry season. But I soon got frustrated with dry skin, dry grass, huge clouds of red dust getting all over everything, and the sheer monotony of endless sunshine. Several times over the last couple of weeks I've thought I heard rain on the roof and dashed to the window, only to find that it was just the air conditioner and wishful thinking.

But today it rained for real. Not for long, only a few minutes. Not long enough to get rid of the dust and make the trees look green instead of a dull dusty brown, but I know it's coming. Soon I'll be reveling in the lushness of the foliage and how clean everything looks with all the dust and at least some of the trash washed away. And then I'll be sick of it again and pining for the simple pleasures of a ceaselessly sunny day. C'est la vie.

Monday, April 23, 2012

We're Gonna Party Like It's 1776

I haven't written about work in a while. Partly this is because I was out of the office for several weeks, and partly because my usual econ portfolio has taken a backseat for the last few weeks while I devote my time and attention to planning for the embassy's 4th of July party, the annual Big Event of any U.S. embassy. It may sound a bit early for that, but one thing I've learned in the Foreign Service so far is that holidays are very flexible. For example, the Japanese Embassy moved the Emperor's birthday (December 23) up a couple of weeks so the dip corps could attend before heading home for their Christmas vacations. In Guinea the actual 4th of July falls smack in the middle of the rainy season, and apparently a couple of years ago a huge storm put rather a damper on the festivities. (Storm. Damp. Heh.) Anyway, in Conakry we'll be celebrating the 4th of July in May.

The party planning is being handled by a committee of first-tour officers, another one of the many ways in which I am told Embassy Conakry differs from every other embassy there is. (I expect my next tour, wherever that may be, will provoke a little culture shock.) I have been put in charge of catering and corporate relations, so over the past weeks and months I've been devoting a lot of time to soliciting and organizing donations from American companies, designing sponsorship banners, putting together catering prep schedules, and approving service staff lists, a far cry from my usual activities.

It kind of makes a nice change, and is teaching me new things about the nitty gritties of running an embassy and having a big event. Things I never would have thought of, like making sure the catering team has enough wine openers and paper towels. Finding ice machines, and making ice for weeks ahead of time to be able to fill hundreds of glasses all at once. But it's also a lot of work and a lot of pressure, since the Independence Day party is the Big Event, the main time the Embassy as a whole puts itself on display, and we want everything to be PERFECT. Every guest greeted with a smile, every banner straight, every cue hit, every glass filled. It's a major organizational undertaking ahead of time, and a complicated logistical operation during the event itself. It's a party for the guests - for staff it's work, working to make sure the guests have a good time, no matter what it takes.

But the nice thing about doing the official party so far in advance is that we can use the real 4th of July to have a party for us, where we get to have fun. Probably beer and barbeque poolside - as long as it doesn't rain.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Battle of the Bulge

When you think about Africa and food, "fat" usually isn't the first thing that springs to mind. But there's a big difference between the lifestyle of the African kids with big eyes from those Sally Struthers commercials and the lifestyle of me, pampered office drone, and that difference has not been good for my waistline.

Having left DC - with its walkability, farmers markets, and abundant gyms, sports fields, and yoga studios - and moved to Conakry - where I drive everywhere, sit in the office all day, and eat way too much fried stuff with rice - I have put on a few too many pounds. To be precise, about 10 pounds over my previous high and a good 25 pounds over where I'd like to be. Jabberwocky has gotten a little porky too, though this is mainly a result of his tricking both his Uncle Seamus* and his Uncle Seamus' housekeeper into feeding him while I was on vacation. Manipulative little furball.

The cat's slim-down plan is simple: I've cut his rations. But for those of us with opposable thumbs it takes a little more dedication. Time to make some changes:
  1. I will go to the gym more often. I'm shooting for an hour, three days a week. That sounds doable, as long as I also make of point of getting out of the office in time to go to the gym.
  2. I will drink water instead of soda and eat more fruit instead of snacks and desserts. It's mango season! Yay!
  3. I will quit eating the delicious but greasy fried snacks the DCM leaves in the front office kitchen. This one's going to be hard, since it's all of 10 feet from my desk, but I have willpower and 100-calorie popcorn bags. I can do this. 
  4. I will grill more, despite the hassle, and put more veggies in my diet.
  5. I will bring my lunch to work. I used to do this all the time, but I got out of the habit when I moved and was discouraged by how many of my standby work-lunch recipes needed things that are tough to find in Conakry. If you have tasty, easy, healthy, portable lunch ideas, I'd love to hear them.
I know, people usually do this in January, but it's never too late for self-improvement. Let's hope it works.

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

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

E-I-E-I-O

There's something about Guinea - its natural fertility perhaps - that makes people want to get back to the land. Not me, so much, but other people. My housing compound has already been functioning as an agricultural co-op; we have avocado, papaya, mango, and coconut trees on the premises, and periodically the gardeners will come around with armfuls of fruit for each of us, harvested from our very own trees.

But my next-door neighbor Ricky* wanted to take the next step in his quest to become a gentleman farmer, so with the approval of the Homeowners' Association (the four of us who live there), he has decided to raise chickens. After months of tooling around with chicken wire and locating a source of high-quality poultry from approved bloodlines, the compound has now welcomed its newest residents.

Introducing Josiah, Jedidiah, Jisbeth, Jasper, and Jinger**
Other embassy wannabe chicken farmers have not had very good luck with their pullet pursuits. Their fowl have gotten sick or wandered off or fallen victim to various marauding carnivores, but Ricky is determined to beat the odds. I'm less optimistic, but it would be nice to have a steady source of super-fresh eggs in the event that they do make it to maturity. In the pioneer bartering spirit, I'll trade desserts for eggs. Cardamom molten chocolate cakes perhaps.

There's also been idle talk about expanding the menagerie with a peacock, or perhaps a goat. But peacocks are notoriously bad-tempered and our other neighbor Seamus* only wants a goat if it's a designer miniature goat small and cute enough for Paris Hilton to carry around in a Prada bag. Like these. We're not sure if Guinea is quite hip enough for those to be readily available. And as for me, I have my hands full with the cat, who seems very eager to get to know our new neighbors. He's already been on me to invite the new chicklets over for a playdate...

*Not his real name, but he picked it out.
** Yes, those are really their names.

Monday, April 9, 2012

I Have Created Fire!

You do not have to spend a lot of time around me before you discover that I am from Texas. And like all Texans I enjoy that most Texan of pursuits, cooking meat with fire. However, being a dutiful child of Big Oil and Gas, I am accustomed to getting my fire from a source that makes BBQ purists shudder. That's right - propane. It's so civilized and convenient. You turn a knob, press a button, and poof! Fire. You want more fire, you turn it up. You want less fire, you turn it down. When you're done, you turn it off. Clean and simple.

But I live in Conakry. Although propane does exist here, gas grills are rare, the propane is expensive, and I don't have a whole lot of trust in tanks of pressurized highly flammable gases obtained in Guinea. This means it's time to learn about charcoal. I've had several huge sacks of charcoal hanging out for months while I assembled the necessary equipment: a charcoal grill, grill tools, and this cylinder thing you use to heat up the coals when you can't get lighter fluid.

So tonight I finally pulled it all together: charcoal, tools, and scrumptious tender Texas sirloin steaks hand-imported from my last R&R in an insulated tote bag in my luggage. Time to cook meat with fire! It took me a couple of tries to get the coals lit, but they finally caught, and ten minutes later when I found myself gazing at the blue-flamed inferno I had to somehow transfer to the grill without bodily injury I wondered if I had gotten myself in over my head. And yet, somehow it all worked out. Yes, I still have a lot to learn about temperature regulation and all that, but I have made fire the primitive caveman way, with nothing but my own two hands, a variety of advanced mass-produced specially-designed implements, and one of those long-nozzled lighters full of butane. And I cooked meat on it.

And it was good.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

United Airlines Hates America. And Cats.

Those of you who read all the other FS blogs have already heard this story and may go about your business, but if the rest of you could pay attention for a minute I'd appreciate it. There's a cat picture in it for you.

I have posted before about the trials of flying overseas with pets, but things are getting worse. United recently changed its pet policy in a way that makes things hugely more complicated and expensive to fly overseas with a pet, especially if you have to make a connection with a different carrier. You can't send pets as extra baggage anymore, only as cargo, and United won't transfer them to your connecting flight. This means you'd have to get off flight A, get thee to the cargo terminal, collect your pet, and go back to the passenger terminal to check them in for flight B, sometimes in the span of a pretty tight layover.

Recognizing the hardships this could present to the dedicated hard-working government employees who sacrifice for their country, United instituted a waiver for military personnel moving overseas on government orders. FSOs were not included. The American Foreign Service Association ran a letter-writing campaign asking United to waive the policy for FSOs as well, and in response were told that the policy would be limited to the military only, "in recognition of the commitment made by members of our military and the family members (including the four-legged ones) who share in their sacrifice."

Because FSOs don't make a commitment. They don't sacrifice. It's not like the government ever sends FSOs anywhere isolated or dangerous for their country. It's not like they ever put their lives on the line in the service of the United States of America. And there's absolutely no reason they might want to be able to bring their pets with them. Surely FSOs never need a furry snuggle when the power goes out in Deepest Darkest Africa. Of course not. They're too busy living it up at fancy cocktail parties in Vienna or whatever.

Look at this face, United. How can you say no to this?
I have mixed feelings whenever FSOs complain that our service isn't really appreciated like the military's is. It can seem a little whiny and pathetic. I do my job because I like it and I think it's important, not because people tell me how awesome I am. But this time I completely agree. We're not looking for applause and adulation. We don't need medals or anything. We just want to bring our pets to post without a ridiculous hassle and major expense. Is that so much to ask?

United seems to think so. And even though my parents live at a big United hub, even though I have a bunch of flyer miles with them and even have their loyalty credit card, I will do my damnedest to avoid flying United until they think otherwise.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Vicarious Tourism: South Africa

If the blog has been a little quiet lately, it's only because I've been on vacation. The embassy sent me to a training in Johannesburg to learn how to make myself more useful to American companies interested in working in Guinea, and I decided that since they spent ALL that money on the plane ticket and I spent ALL that time to get down there I may as well tack some vacation on the end. I stayed for an extra week, which was absolutely nowhere near enough time to even scratch the surface of South Africa but may have been enough time to me to recharge my batteries a bit.

I love South Africa. Love it. It's like a giant California, but cheaper. Good food, good wine, good weather, amazing geographical variety. And so beautiful! I'm normally more of an indoor kind of girl, but just driving around in the countryside made me want to go hiking and biking and kayaking and parasailing and swimming with sharks and stuff. Maybe next time. I'm also normally more into words than pictures, but even though I was only there a week I can't really come up with a brief and clever description that would do the place justice, so I'll break character and give you a little slide show instead: