Saturday, April 27, 2013


The whole family
One of my coworkers has a snake infestation in her yard. And not just any snake: spitting cobras. They've killed five of them so far, fortunately with no injuries. My yard has also been invaded by wildlife recently, with one tiny difference. Instead of snakes, I have an infestation of kittens.

Yes, kittens. Four of them, clearly the offspring of grey-striped Mom and black-and-white-splotched Dad, who Jabberwocky likes to howl at through the screen door when he gets too close to the house. They have completely taken over my yard - licking each other, rough-and-tumble roly-poly fighting, playing hide-and-seek in the bushes, pouncing each others' tails, and generally being adorable. I haven't been able to get close enough for good photography without breaking up the party, but trust me, they're super cute. [EDIT 5/5: now with photographic goodness!]

Watching them gambol and frolic and cavort and feeling my heart melt into a puddle of ooze under such an irresistible onslaught of cute, I can't help but think that I am betraying my Jabberwock. I mean, I'm not going to do anything about it. I won't feed them; that introduces a whole new layer of responsibility I don't want, especially given that I'm leaving in six weeks. I won't play with them. I'll certainly never scoop them up and nuzzle them. Even though I really want to. Especially the dark striped one, he's my favorite. But I'm just looking! And that's okay, right? Right?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Weight Loss

One of the defining features of the Foreign Service lifestyle is its mobility; every two or three years you WILL pick up and move. You WILL pull your every possession out of whatever shelf or drawer or corner you have it crammed in, look at it, and have to decide what to do with it. This biennial migration provides both an excellent incentive and an excellent opportunity to really think about all of your stuff and what it means to you.

As FSOs go, I'm already traveling light. It's just me - no spouse, no kids, and none of the stuff that comes with them. Granted, Jabberwocky has a surprising quantity of toys and furniture and other accoutrements, but nothing like the amount amassed by another human being. I hardly owned any furniture before I joined and I gave some of that away when I got assigned to a post with furnished housing. My earthly possessions fit comfortably in the back of a U-haul.

And yet, as moving time rolls around again, I find myself overwhelmed by all my stuff, particularly the stuff that just sits there. Clothes I don't wear, books I don't read, gadgets I don't use. I could just toss these things in a box and cart them across the Atlantic again - I've sure got the weight allowance - but why? They don't add anything to my life. Last time I moved I mostly did just throw everything in a box because I was so busy preparing for this new life that I didn't have the time or the energy to really consider each and every item. This time I'm getting a head start on the sorting and packing process, because it's time to slim down.

I set aside about a hundred books - old textbooks, novels I didn't bond with, classics I can get on the Kindle for free - for donation to the embassy's Information Resource Center, which serves as a public source of information on the United States and one of Guinea's rare English-language libraries. This probably accounts for less than a fifth of my current collection, but it's a decent trim, and except for travel guides I haven't bought a physical book in years. I went through my drawers and my closet and came out with a huge stack of clothes and shoes that don't fit my body or my lifestyle anymore. Some of them were nice pieces, expensive pieces, that were hard to put in the pile, but if I can't wear them they aren't doing me any good so they may as well do good for someone else. I also have a plastic bin I like to call The Box Where Technology Goes to Die: it's full of old external hard drives with less memory than a flash drive has now, blank CDs, and cords, cords, cords. I'm not quite sure what to do with that stuff, but I'm sure I can find someone to take it off my hands. And there must be plenty of other things lurking in dusty corners that I'll want to get rid of but haven't yet unearthed.

Of course, even as I'm working on divesting all these old things I am simultaneously dreaming up new things to acquire for Ireland - a sunlamp, a bicycle, basically an entirely new wardrobe. The cycle of consumerism continues. I'm trying to slim down more permanently, I really am, but somehow I suspect that when I move again in two years I'll find myself right where I am now, wondering what to do with all this STUFF.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Conakry: Hipster Paradise

The other day I was talking to my sister about food trucks, which have recently started popping up around town here in Conakry. I haven't tried one yet, but I'm pretty sure they're not selling designer cupcakes or upscale mac'n'cheese. I made a joke about Conakry turning hipster soon, but after further reflection it occurred to me that Conakry actually already has plenty of hipsters' favorite things:
  • Farmers' Markets - Everyone, and I do mean everyone, gets their produce at the farmers' market. Except for a very few grocery stores selling overpriced wilted imported arugula to expats, there's really no other choice. Guinea has no cold chain and farmers can't afford fertilizer, so you can be sure it's all organic and locally-sourced!
  • Thrift Stores - No one loves a great bargain on secondhand clothes like Guineans. People buy used clothes in 100-pound bales to bring to Guinea and feed the insatiable demand. And the prices here are way better than at the Goodwill in Williamsburg, by the way. 
  • Pre-Gentrified Neighborhoods - Your tiny shared apartment in a converted factory in a rough part of New York is SO mainstream. Conakry hipsters live in handcrafted shacks made of scrap aluminum and plastic sheeting with no electricity or running water. Edgy.
  • Not Having a Television - You're so above and beyond mass-market popular culture that you don't even own a TV. You're in good company in Conakry, where no one else has a TV either because no one can afford one. 
  • Obscure Bands - Most of the music you'll hear in Conakry will never be found on the Top 40 hitlist. It's so niche it's not even on Pitchfork. I could give you some names, but you've probably never heard of them.
  • Urban Farming - Raising chickens is not enough to set you apart anymore. To really make your mark as an urban farmer you also need ducks, goats, sheep, and maybe a cow or two. Conakry will show you how it's done.
  • Vintage - So you've got an old turntable or a pillbox hat. How about a 1950's farm truck? A foot-pedal sewing machine? These items and many more can be found in Conakry, not as museum pieces but as integral parts of daily life, because people here use things until they can't be used anymore. Besides, people just don't make things like they used to. Now they make things that require electricity, which is in short supply around here.
Sure, there are a couple of hipster touchstones that haven't quite caught on in Conakry yet - oversized plastic frame glasses, Instagram, fixed-gear bikes (it would help if the roads were paved), mustaches, irony. Minor details. Look out Portland, Conakry is gunning for you!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Adventures in Guinean Health Care, Round 2

One of the many things I need to do to get ready to move to Ireland is health paperwork for the cat. Ireland is a rabies-free country and they plan to keep it that way thankyouverymuch, so any pet coming into the country from a place like Guinea, where rabies is endemic, needs to prove that it is rabies-free. You do this by having an approved vet take a blood sample and sending the sample to an approved laboratory in the EU for analysis. Sounds simple enough, right? But this is Guinea, where even simple things can become an adventure.

Per EU regulations, the blood has to be drawn 3 months before traveling. I planned to get it done a week or two ahead of time, as I had a sneaking suspicion this might be a somewhat complicated operation. However, a poorly-timed week's worth of violent protests put the Jabberwock and me under house arrest. So much for planning ahead. Fortunately, things cleared up before the deadline, but only just before.

I took a Monday morning off work, shoved the cat in his despised carrier and took him to the vet we used last time, who looked over the paperwork and said this was not something he could do. He suggested that I try the Ministry of Livestock, all the way downtown. My little princeling has never been referred to as livestock in his life, but you gotta do what you gotta do. We showed up at the Ministry and the charming office director told me he had no clue what I was asking for, but whatever it was, they couldn't help me. He suggested I try the Ministry of Agriculture a block over. So I traipsed over there in my kitten heels with my kitten in his bag on my shoulder, and found some guys who did know what I was talking about. But they don't do that either. There is, they told me, one man in all of Guinea with the training and qualifications to perform this task, and after fifteen minutes of watching five men frantically flipping through cell phone contact lists and rifling through desk drawers I had his phone number.

We drove to the other side of town and found a guide to Dr. Keita's house, where he has a small clinic in a spare room. Dr. Keita appears to be about eighty and is assisted by his son, who looks about seventeen. We filled out the paperwork together, assisted by flashlight since the power was out. We weighed the cat to determine the appropriate dosage of anesthesia; this was accomplished by having the son stand on a bathroom scale twice - once with the cat and once without - and doing some math. With the cat knocked out, I sat in the waiting room next to a partly-disassembled dentist's chair (a sideline business?) while they shaved his leg with a drugstore razor and cleaned the area with hand sanitizer, as they didn't have any rubbing alcohol. I trembled as a headlamp-assisted Dr. Keita said, "where's the vein?" and Keita Junior said "it's right there!" But they got what they were after, and we settled my zonked-out Jabberwocky back in his carrier as the son ran out to turn on the generator for a few minutes so they could use the centrifuge. After a quick spin, they put the blood serum in a little vial. They put the vial in a film canister - remember those? - filled with ground-up wet grass to keep the vial from breaking and to maintain humidity. They sealed it with packing tape and I had my sample.

Given the low-tech veterinary medicine I had just witnessed I had my doubts about the viability of this plan, but I popped it in the mail and hoped for the best. And it worked! I got the results back today - my beamish boy is officially rabies-free! As if there was ever any doubt. But now that the paperwork's sorted out, that's one less thing to worry about. Many more still to come.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Who Says You Can't Go Home?

I leave Guinea in two months. I am very much looking forward to this, but at the same time whenever I imagine getting on that plane it never feels quite real. Regardless, it is going to happen and I need to get ready for it.

One of the more pleasant things I need to get ready for is home leave: a Congressionally-mandated 4-week-minimum break between tours for the purpose of reacquainting American diplomats with the country they spend their careers representing. Legend has it that a congressman was inspired to implement this policy after encountering FSOs with British accents at our embassy in London. "Going native" is an occupational hazard our employer wishes to avoid, and if they choose to combat it with a month of paid vacation every 2-3 years I for one will not complain.

Some of this time I will put to humdrum practical use: going to the dentist, taking the cat to the vet, buying sweaters and a raincoat for Ireland, that sort of thing. I plan to spend a lot of it just hanging around with family and friends I don't get to see very often, doing nothing in particular. But there's also time for some travel in there, and there are so many awesome things in the US of A I haven't seen yet. I haven't been to Yellowstone, or the Grand Canyon, or many other gorgeous national parks. I haven't been to Hawaii, except the airport, which doesn't count. I've never been to New England. I could go spend some time in California wine country. I could do an Old South road trip. I could take a cruise to Alaska. That's a whole career's worth of home leave ideas right there.

This time around I'm doing Yellowstone, and a spa weekend with a friend at a resort near Austin.I thought about maybe also going to the USVI to finally learn to scuba dive, but that's a lot of travel for just a few weeks. (And Ireland isn't really known as a scuba destination anyway.) I can't wait to get back. I love that my job gives me the chance to go places most people never go, do things most people never do, and see things most people never see. But at the same time, there's no place like home.

Friday, April 5, 2013


OH. MY. GOD. The internet. It WORKS! Like, REALLY WORKS! Ladies and gentlemen, we have achieved BROADBAND!

Guinea FINALLY got hooked up to the Great Big Offshore International Broadband Fiberoptic Cable Thingie (it's a technical term) and the government and private sector telecoms FINALLY agreed on how to manage and monetize this sucker, and this week someone turned on the tap and the megabytes are FLOWING!


Video! STREAMING video! I can click on a YouTube link and it just STARTS. And it KEEPS GOING! No buffering required! I can watch Netflix! And Hulu! I can watch my TV shows when I want to instead of when they happen to be on AFN, if they happen to be on AFN. I can download music! I can actually load the App Store and buy some goodies for my fancy new iPad! I can update my software! Did I mention the STREAMING VIDEO!?

Words simply cannot adequately express how THRILLED I am about this! Neither, apparently, can egregious overuse of caps lock and exclamation points. I could steal a page out of Kolbie's playbook and say it with an animated GIF, but by God, I've got BROADBAND! BRING OUT THE VIDEO!