Monday, June 25, 2012

Bids Are In, Waiting Begins

I turned in my final bid list this morning. It's out of my hands. After spending the last couple of days obsessively tinkering, moving one post up a slot, one down, like there's really that huge a difference between 21st and 22nd place, I can quit thinking about it.

I'm not that thrilled with my final list, overall. The timing rules turned out to be a bit stricter than I had originally thought, and various quirks in my schedule and FSI's class schedule limit my options - with a very few exceptions - to English-speaking jobs. I have some exciting options at the top, fun-sounding reporting jobs in a variety of exotic cosmopolitan cities my friends and family would be delighted to visit me in. The middle is essentially made up of consular jobs in nice locales, so the work might be a bit out of my main interests but the rest of the time would be fun. The bottom is largely filled with jobs like the one I have now, in tiny, isolated African countries. Been there, done that, ready to move on.

I'm told that most people coming out of a first tour in Conakry end up with one of their top five picks for tour number two, so I'm not really that concerned about getting my #30 job. But there are no guarantees. I've done what I can do: I expressed my preferences, made my desires known. Now the best thing is to put it out of my mind until the day I get the portentous email revealing my fate for the next 2-3 years. That should be Augustish, for those of you who like to plan your travel well in advance.

Friday, June 22, 2012

10 Things I Love/Hate About You

It's an FS blogger meme, also seen here and here, among other places. So here we go: 10 things I love about Conakry and 10 things I'm not so crazy about:

LOVE:
  1. My house: For starters, it's a HOUSE, and not a tiny studio apartment. It's a lot of space for just me and the Jabberwock but it still feels cozy. My solarium is the envy of the neighborhood and I have a library. I've always wanted one, and it makes me so happy. The granite countertops are nice too.
  2. My job: Conakry is a great place to be a first-tour reporting officer because you get to do all kinds of things you'd never do in a bigger post. The econ portfolio is my baby and I can pretty much decide how I spend my time and where to focus my energy. Autonomy is awesome.
  3. The embassy community: Living in Conakry has its challenges, but the people here are all about rolling with the punches, helping each other through the rough patches, and facing each day as an adventure. TDYers say they've never felt so welcome anywhere as they are in Conakry, because it's a small post and every new face is noted and appreciated.
  4. Household help: I don't wash dishes. I don't do laundry. I don't clean or iron or deal with my dry cleaning or empty the litter box. This is deeply satisfying.
  5. $$$$: 30 percent hardship pay goes a long way. I make more money than I ever imagined I would at this point in my career and I have almost no expenses. I'm maxing out my 401(k), burning through my student debt, piling up savings, and still have cash left over for fun trips and fancy electronics.
  6. The weather: It gets a little muggy sometimes, I must admit, and two 6-month seasons can get a bit monotonous. But it never gets blazing hot and never gets cold, and even in the rainy season you can usually find some sunshine for pool time. The thunderstorms are fun too.
  7. The fruit: Mangoes. Pineapples. Coconuts. Papayas. Soursops. Avocados. All amazing.
  8. The people: Guineans are relaxed, friendly, low-key people who love America and Americans.
  9. The people-watching: I've been here a year and I can't stop looking at Conakry. It's so bustling and colorful and full of things I've never seen before, like women carrying antique sewing machines on their heads and peacocks for sale on the side of the road. I should take more pictures.
  10. DPO: The shopping here is not so great, but I can have almost anything I want shipped to me from the States for little to nothing, so who cares?

HATE:
  1. Terrible, terrible internet: It is SO FRUSTRATING to try to live a 2010s life on a 1990s internet connection.You can't even imagine it until you've tried.
  2. Driving: I can drive here just fine, but I don't like it. I've had a couple of close calls and I'm still terrified of accidentally killing a small Guinean child every time I drive at night. And the traffic can be such a pain it hardly seems worth going places sometimes.
  3. Lousy travel options: Even a quick flight to a neighboring country is ridiculously expensive, available only in limited schedules, and inconvenient to book. The only land option for a weekend trip is Freetown. Traveling around within Guinea wears you down fast, and there's not that much to see anyway.
  4. The food: I'm not a huge fan of the local cuisine - a lot of it is oily and either bland or mouth-on-fire, nothing in between. There are a couple of okay restaurants in town but nothing that makes my heart sing. My desire to cook is taking a hit with the limited availability of some of my favorite ingredients.
  5. Getting fat: I drive to work and sit at the office all day, 10 feet away from the snacks the DCM brings in every day. With few palatable workout options it's easy to pick up a few extra pounds and tough to get rid of them once you do.
  6. Boredom: Conakry has no movie theaters, no bowling alleys, no parks, a few kind of okay bars and clubs, very few concerts or performances or exhibitions. There's just not a lot to DO.
  7. Inconvenience: All kinds of normal everyday tasks seem so much harder here - booking a plane ticket, getting your car fixed, going shopping. The lack of street signs and the cash-only economy have a lot to do with this.
  8. Guilt: The poverty in Conakry is like nothing I've ever seen before, and while people mostly seem to go about their lives pretty cheerfully I see plenty of heartbreaking things, things I cannot change. So I just feel guilty instead. 
  9. Power cuts: Mostly these are not that big a deal thanks to our handy dandy backup generators, but even short ones can be exasperating if poorly timed.
  10. Socializing in French: Neither my French nor my cocktail chatter is very good, so trying to combine the two is frustrating and exhausting, and definitely not a recipe for a fun relaxing evening. 

If you haven't noticed, I really had to dig deep to find 10 bad things, which is saying a lot considering the reputation Conakry has within the FS. New suggested tourism slogan - "Conakry: Not Nearly as Bad as You've Probably Heard." Catchy, right?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me

In Conakry things tend to run on West Africa International Time, otherwise known as WAIT. Meetings start when most of the key people have shown up, and the more important those people are (or think they are) the greater the distance between the announced and actual start times. People like to take their time with decisions, to look at every angle of a question before making a choice. There's always lots of consultation and consensus-building before acting. People here are big on process, and will get to results when they get there.

For those of us from time-sensitive societies it can be absolutely maddening, particularly when your local partners don't really understand that the deadlines you're working with are actual deadlines and not optimistic suggestions of when it would be nice to maybe think about getting something done. When WAIT and Washington collide you tend to get long periods of nothing much happening and then a sudden frantic scramble at the end. When you're on your way out to an African post you hear about this ahead of time, and mentally check it off your "adapting to new cultural expectations" checklist, but it doesn't really sink in until you experience it for yourself. I'm a planner, and I do my best to build in buffer time and get everyone to stick to the schedule, but somehow I always find myself WAITing anyway and then killing myself to make sure everything comes together at the last possible minute. At such times of exasperation another 4-letter acronym comes in very handy: WAWA, West Africa Wins Again.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Do I Detect a Hint of Preservatives?

What does one do on a sleepy Friday night in Conakry right after the competent authorities have rotated 30 boxes of just-expired MREs out of the embassy stores? MRE tasting party, obviously.

For the uninitiated, MREs are "meals ready-to-eat," the DOD's finest cuisine, specially designed to sit on a shelf for up to 10 years and/or be carried through blazing heat and pouring rain to serve as calorie-rich emergency rations anywhere, anytime. Embassies all keep a stash, Just In Case. While optimized for durability, portability, and nutritional support for the military's finest calorie-burning machines, MRE design also recognizes the need for the food to be somewhat palatable in order for said calorie-burning machines to actually consume it, so we gathered a crack panel to evaluate their efforts.

I have to say, while none of it was what you'd call a taste sensation, some of it wasn't nearly as bad as I expected. Some of it was. I'm not a huge fan of the chicken and noodles that smelled like cat food, or the shortbread cookies with noticeable chemical overtones, something between window cleaner and plant food. But the sloppy joe was downright edible, as were the "cheddar snack crackers" and "pan coated chocolate disks". A lot of the snacks and side dishes bear a striking resemblance to certain popular branded consumer goods, whose expiration dates I now feel I can safely ignore.

While not exactly a rival to the chef's tasting menu at Komi, it was actually pretty fun and quite educational. I learned all sorts of things: proper use of technical jargon such as longboating* and ratfucking**, and vital MRE prep techniques, like how to use a chemical heating element and the importance of properly kneading the pouches before opening them. I also learned that, when I do find myself trapped in an embassy under siege and we all gather around the box of beige plastic packages that will sustain us through the hurricane or civil war or whatever, I'm making a beeline for the beef stew.


*longboat v. - To cut open a foil pouch of food lengthwise, as opposed to tearing it open crosswise as intended by the packaging design. This technique improves access to many main dishes.

**ratfuck (also rat fuck) v. - To rifle through MREs and take all the good stuff.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Worldwide Availability

When you sign up with the Foreign Service you commit to being "worldwide available," ready to go anywhere - and they do mean ANYWHERE - the State Department needs you to go. I wonder how many people are really truly aware of exactly what they're signing up for when they check that box. I certainly wasn't.

You guys, the world is big. BIG. It has SO MANY places in it, and the U.S. has a presence of some kind in more of them than any other country does. I consider myself to be a relatively smart, educated type of person. I read the Economist, I follow world events, I watched a lot of Carmen Sandiego as a kid. I think I have an above-average grasp of world geography. But when I got my first bid list I had to do a lot of Googling just to figure out where the hell some of the places on my list were. Same for list #2: my Africa geography has gotten a lot better since moving to Conakry, but there are plenty of other cities in other places about which I just have no clue.

To drive this point home (and pass some time on a lazy Saturday) I am proud to present the Worldwide Availability Geography Quiz: Places You've Never Heard Of But May One Day Live In. Some of these are on my bid list. Some were on my first list, so I have friends in these places right now. Some of them I just put on there because I thought they'd be fun/challenging, but every single one of them is home to a U.S. embassy/consulate/branch office/mission of some kind. Enjoy.

(Not that you need one or anything, but here's a cheat sheet.)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Apprentice

We have an intern. And not just any intern, but an intern who actually wanted to come to Conakry. An intern who is mainly interested in things that fall in the Econ portfolio. In other words, I have an intern. I am so not prepared for this.

I too interned for State, lo these many years ago. That 2-month stint in the Econ section of Embassy Brussels was what pushed me over from "hmm, this FS thing looks kind of interesting maybe" to "THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO DO WITH MY LIFE." The work was interesting, but I also remember being really impressed with the intelligence, experience, and professionalism of my bosses and coworkers. You know, mentor-types.

Of course our intern (hereinafter referred to, quite creatively, as Intern) will have a rather different internship experience than I did. Obviously, there's a big difference between Brussels and Conakry. But I also spent my intern summer in a mid-sized, fully-staffed, well-run dedicated Econ section where everyone was at least on their second tour and many officers were quite experienced. Conversely, Intern will pass her summer in a tiny, short-staffed, disorganized combination Pol/Econ section essentially consisting of two somewhat frantic and frazzled first-tour officers making things up as they go along. Somehow I suspect I will not be making quite as stunning an impression on Intern as my bosses made on me.

On the other hand, Intern is a Pickering Fellow, which means she's already signed a contract in blood and sold her soul to the Foreign Service for four years in exchange for a graduate school education, so we don't really have to woo her. She's already roped in, so seeing FS life up close, warts and all, will be useful preparation for her not-so-distant future. The Real World: Embassy Conakry - when people stop being diplomatic and start getting real. Just kidding. We're always diplomatic; it's what we do. But around here there's plenty of reality to go around.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Perfection

What makes a perfect bid? According to the bid list instructions, it's simple: a perfect bid is one where the timing of the end of your first tour, home leave, and training all works out to get you to your new post right when they need you, not too early, not too late. Based on this definition my list runneth over with perfect bids, including much coveted, highly sought after positions like consular work in Ciudad Juarez and just about every other Mexican border post. Avoiding a consular job in border towns was one of the main reasons I volunteered so enthusiastically for Conakry the first time around, and I can't say I've really warmed up to the idea since then. Fortunately, 8 of our 30 bids may also be "imperfect," meaning in this case that you would get to post up to a month before or after the month the new post really wants you. This broadens the spectrum considerably and has allowed me to put together a solid list of 30 jobs, any of which could offer me a pretty good two years. But now I have to rank them, and I'm completely at a loss.

Unlike my buddy Seamus*, who is bidding at the same time as me and has fallen head-over-heels in love with Montevideo, I don't really have a top choice. Maybe not even a top five. Every job on my list has some flaw. It's a good job in a bad place, or a bad job in a good place. Or maybe it's a good job in a good place, but I'd have to quarantine the cat, or it's in a bureau I don't plan to spend much of my career in, or I'd have to spend nine months learning a language only spoken in that country. How badly do I want to be able to speak Vietnamese? Would I rather go someplace dull and European with all the amenities or someplace more exotic but a bit less developed? How much money do I want to make and spend, and how do I balance that with everything else? I just don't know. In one sense the freedom of choice is killing me; if I had to base my decision on something like school quality or jobs for a spouse these minor quibbles wouldn't much matter, but in my footloose singleness I can/have to draw the lines a little finer. I guess I have a little more thinking to do before I decide what makes a perfect bid for me.


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