Sunday, September 30, 2012

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

Interactive migration map shows how Americans are moving.
Surprisingly beautiful broken Kindle screens.
How a new format threatened to destroy the publishing industry but transformed it instead - not the e-book, the paperback.
Glow-in-the-dark mushroom rediscovered after 170 years. Nature is insane.
Weird and creepy deep ocean creatures. Nature is insane.
How cats purr
Indiana Jones movies that could have been: Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3
Costumed actors out of character
MIT paper solves the "grandfather paradox" of time travel
Ben Folds Five + Fraggles = awesome:

Friday, September 28, 2012

Flying Solo

I have survived the first week of my Reign of Terror as acting consular chief. So have all the other U.S. citizens in my consular district, for which I am grateful. It's so much better than last time (though it could hardly have been worse), since now I'm only running consular and not consular and pol/econ simultaneously. I also have some idea what the hell I'm doing this time around, which is certainly helpful.

After three months in consular I'm getting the hang of the routine stuff, so now being the sole consular officer at post is giving me the chance to learn more about the non-routine things consular officers do. I sent out a warden message about some protest marches planned for today (we're all fine Mom!), researched the law on some especially complicated visa cases, learned a little about some of the management responsibilities of a consular section, and started on a child welfare case. There's still plenty of visa interviewing and passport processing, but it's nice to have some variety to keep things interesting. Not TOO interesting though - let's try to leave the death cases and emergency evacuations for when the boss gets back.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Wildlife

(Photo via Wikipedia)
Other parts of Africa have lions and elephants and zebras and gorillas, the kind of wildlife people travel halfway across the world to see. We have Gambian pouched rats.

According to Wikipedia, Gambian pouched rats can grow up to three feet in length, only half of which is tail. They have pouches in their cheeks like hamsters (hence the name) to fill with food that they can carry home to their lair.

A day or two ago one of them decided to make its lair under the hood of my car, where it got stuck, died a grizzly death, and remained there until the guards pulled it out, reeking, this morning. Joy. It wasn't quite as big as the one in the picture, but close. I had hoped we were rid of these things a few weeks ago once we caught the one who had been living in Seamus's attic and driving him crazy by slowly, slowly, night after night, scratching down through the drywall.

Clearly we have a little more pest control to do. On the other hand, Wikipedia also says Gambian pouched rats can be trained to put their excellent sense of smell to work, detecting landmines and tuberculosis. Maybe instead of exterminating ours we should collect them and start an NGO instead. Or maybe not.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Field Trip!

Today I got to get out of the office for a change and give a consular services presentation for the fine folks at Mercy Ships. They have a hospital ship docked in Conakry for the next nine months or so where they will do free surgical procedures for people who desperately need it - cleft palates, facial tumors, cataracts, burns, orthopedics, you name it. The ship is manned almost entirely by volunteers who travel to Africa on their own dime and donate their time and expertise to help improve people's lives in a uniquely dramatic way.

But I am ashamed to admit, that's not the main reason I'm excited to have them here. This is why I'm excited:


Starbucks people. STARBUCKS. Everyone's favorite love-to-love or love-to-hate giant corporate caffeine dealer is one of the organization's sponsors and as part of the deal they keep the ships well supplied with sweet, sweet coffee drinks. I was rewarded for my visit with a toffee nut frappuccino and a giant platter of chocolate chip cookies to bring back to the embassy with me. It tastes like home. I'll have to see if I can come up with some more excuses to head down there...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

End of an Era

The lady herself
With the embassy attacks across the Middle East these last few days it has been a tumultuous week for all of us. Here in Conakry things have been calm and peaceful, but here too big changes are on the horizon: Ambassador Moller has left post.

At this point in my brief career, Ambassador Moller is the only ambassador I have ever worked for. As such, she has been not just an ambassador but THE ambassador. Everything I currently know (or think I know) about what ambassadors do and how they do it, I learned from her example. For me she is the default, the standard against which all future ambassadors (and specifically, incoming Ambassador Laskaris) will be judged. And I have to say, for a tiny woman she's leaving some pretty big shoes to fill.

From Ambassador Moller I learned that the most important part of communication is not speaking, but listening. I learned that patient persistence pays off. I learned that the theory of diplomacy may be about policy, but the practice of diplomacy is almost entirely about people. I learned that hospitality is an essential tool of the trade: it's amazing how much gets done over lunches or dinners, and how more open people can be on a couch with a cup of coffee than in an office. I also got the recipe for her outstanding oatmeal bars.

Especially in a small post like Conakry the ambassador sets the tone for the whole mission, so a new ambassador can mean a whole set of new procedures, new relationships, and new quirks to adjust to. More experienced officers have told me that Embassy Conakry under the Moller regime was unusual in many ways, and not an accurate model for how things work at a "normal" embassy.  But for the moment it's the only model I know, so it will be interesting to see how things change when the new guy arrives.

In any case, it's been a pleasure and a privilege to serve with Ambassador Moller, and we'll all miss her warmth, her energy, her decorating flair, and her famous punch. Au revoir excellence, et bonne chance!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Requiem

As I'm sure you know by now, four American diplomats, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, were killed yesterday in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi. Over a movie. A movie that had absolutely nothing to do with them or the State Department or the U.S. Government, but they happened to be the most convenient target for misplaced rage, and they died for it.

This morning I came into work. I read the news. I raced through my mental list of FSO friends; I didn't know anyone in Libya yesterday, but many of my colleagues are not so lucky. It could have been my friends. It could have been me. I watched the footage of the consulate building in flames, and I felt sick. And then I went to the window and adjudicated visas, because that's my job, and even for a tragedy like this the work doesn't stop. All around the world FSOs did the exact same thing: they watched, they grieved, and they kept doing their part to represent our country abroad with dignity and honor, no matter what. This is what we signed up for.

When you join the foreign service they tell you that you are now the face of the United States of America, on duty or off, in the office or at home, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And we are expected to conduct ourselves in a manner that reflects well on our country. Well, guess what America. You are - all 314 million of you - the face of the United States of America. In this interconnected modern world you don't even have to leave your house for a foreigner to meet you and judge you and your country by your words and deeds.

No one, especially not me, is going to argue that these killings were in any way justified, or that the individuals who perpetrated the attack do not bear ultimate responsibility for their actions. Nevertheless, those of us who are, knowingly, voluntarily, the most convenient targets would sleep a little better if some of our countrymen remembered that they are ambassadors too and conducted themselves as such. It's hot enough out here already without our fellow Americans fanning the flames.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Ambigudextrous

True confessions: I've never been good at the whole left vs. right thing. I was one of those kids who found the left-hand-makes-an-L trick to be a lifesaver. Okay, truer confessions: I still do, and I pity similarly confused folks who grow up in languages where the word for "left" doesn't start with an L. How do they ever figure it out?

A lesser-known side effect of consular work is to exacerbate this confusion. When you're walking people through the process of getting their fingerprints taken and you say "put your left hand on the green light" you demonstrate with your right hand, because the applicant will mirror what you do and use their left. Then when you want to print their right hand you raise your left hand. Works like a charm.

However, raising the left hand when I say right and the right when I say left over and over again, day after day, week after week, is completely destroying any tenuous grasp I ever had on what the two sides of my body are called. Be warned: I can no longer be trusted to give accurate directions. When trying to explain where to turn I will say whichever of those two words first comes to mind, and it will probably be "left" because that's the hand we always fingerprint first. Stick with GPS, or ask somebody else.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Signature

The optional theme for this month's FS Blog Round Up is the "signature." When I read that it took me a few seconds to figure out that she means the mini posting history some people in the FS use as an email signature - mine would be "Conakry 2011-2013, Dublin 2013-2015." Wow, 2015. Seems so futuristic. However, as a devoted viewer of cooking reality shows, the first thing that popped into my mind when I read the prompt was the "signature dish", a single plate that is supposed to encapsulate a chef's personal approach to cooking, show off their skills, and also taste delicious. I have one.

(Photo, like the recipe, from Epicurious.com)
My "signature dish" is Gingerbread Puddings with Candied Apples. Unlike the chefs of TV fame, I didn't come up with this all by myself - you can get the recipe here (though I may have tweaked it a tiny, tiny bit). I just made it, loved it, and kept on making it. I serve it every year at Christmastime, at a family celebration or a dinner party with friends. It's not a terribly difficult recipe but it does require commitment and lots of advance prep. To make the puddings you first have to make the gingerbread, then dice it into little cubes, make a ginger custard, soak the gingerbread in the custard, and bake it. The apple garnish requires a lot of time at the cutting board and hours to simmer. If you're in Conakry or someplace like it, you'll need to make the ice cream to put on top of it as well. When serving it's important to get the timing right and have a quick assembly line, because these things have to be eaten right out of the oven.

But my friends, it is worth it, because this dessert is a SHOWSTOPPER. Every spoonful is warm and spicy, cool and tangy, and cold and creamy, all at the same time. Men (and women) have proposed to me after tasting this, only mostly in jest. If I ever meet a guy I'd want to take up on such an offer you can guess what I'm going to feed him. So now you too have the secret to my signature dessert. Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Paradigm Shift

Getting a new assignment changes things. The second you read the email that says "congratulations, you're going to Whereverstan" your entire outlook shifts, and not necessarily for the better.

For me, ever since that fateful day when the word "Dublin" suddenly took on new significance, it's like Conakry has just faded into the background. I don't care anymore. I'm not really following the local news. The city's vivid and bustling street scenes, which I always found fascinating before, can't hold my attention. I have lost interest in finding new restaurants and going on day trips. I don't really feel like doing anything anymore but holing up in my house with a mountain of DVDs and a vat of chocolate chip cookie dough until it's time to go to Ireland.

Things that didn't bother me that much before, things I considered part of the Grand Guinea Adventure, are now strangely upsetting. When the power keeps going out when I'm trying to cook dinner or my radio starts beeping at oh-dark-thirty or the grocery store doesn't have what I want or I can't download a software update or a fender-bender blocks off a main road for an hour, where I used to shrug and take it as part of the West Africa Experience I now turn suddenly peevish and think "this time next year I won't have to deal with this crap." You won't believe how often crap happens in Conakry that I won't have to deal with in Dublin (both figuratively and literally).

I don't LIKE this. I don't like being snappish and irritable all the time. I don't want to waste the next nine months of my life imagining being somewhere else. And I especially don't want this to become a pattern. Once I do get to Dublin I'll be there for a year or so, and then one day I'll get another email - "congratulations, you're going to ________." Will that email ruin my second year in Ireland too? And what about the post after that, and the post after that?

Clearly I am desperately in need of some "living in the moment" lessons. And after a lazy long weekend I'm running out of TV shows, so I'd better figure this out quick.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

That Was Then, This Is Now

A few weeks ago a mysterious envelope appeared on my desk – it turned out to contain photocopied pages from Guinea Weekender: A Collection of Essays on Travel to the Interior of Guinea. This series of travel vignettes was written in the mid-‘90s by Paul Pometto, then Embassy Conakry’s Management Officer and now back at the Mothership after a stint as DCM in Djibouti. The copy I have (posted with permission) seems to be missing the verso pages so some of the stories are incomplete, but it's enough to get the flavor of the place.

It was fascinating to compare Pometto’s Guinea with the Guinea I know today. He was a much more adventurous and wide-ranging traveler than I have been so far, but many of the places he wrote about I have been to as well. Some things have changed, both for better and for worse. Inflation has eroded the Guinea franc to the point where Pometto’s prices all look like they could use an extra zero. Many of the hotels and restaurants he visited are now long gone, but others have arisen. The roads have probably improved overall, though perhaps not by much, especially during the rainy season. Electricity supplies have probably declined, at least in Conakry. My friend Alfred* has a photo book of Conakry from the same period, and it’s amazing to see photos of places that I know, but with the buildings brightly lit, freshly painted, and standing tall instead of dark, mildew-stained and crumbling at the edges as they are today. 

Other things haven’t changed at all. The beaches, mountains, and waterfalls are still much as Pometto left them. The stories he tells of rattling over washboard roads and camping out in upcountry hotel rooms still resonate. Mali still has an annual potato festival, and Kindia’s market still bustles. In Conakry local pirogues still ply the waters to the Iles de Los, where drumming lessons and fish kebabs are still on offer, just as they were 15 years ago. And Guinea's people are still every bit as friendly and generous as Pometto describes.

It's strange to think that when I leave Guinea next summer I'll probably never come back.  It's not the kind of place you tend to find yourself without a really specific reason. I'll be gone but time will go on, as it always does. Who knows what Guinea will look like 15 years from now?


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