Monday, June 24, 2013

Vicarious Tourism: Travaasa Austin

Yes, this is Texas
After two years of sitting at home twiddling my thumbs and watching my hardship pay pile up I decided I was allowed to have a little splurge, so on Friday my friend Kellie and I headed out to the Hill Country for a weekend of indulgence at the Travaasa Resort just outside of Austin. Austin has a number of resort hotels, but the others I looked at were either more family-focused than I wanted or were very high-end retreats for the bored and botoxed of Texas' ritziest neighborhoods to pass the weekend comparing juice cleanses and bitching about their husbands. I was happy with my choice. While not exactly cheap, Travaasa is more of a fancy summer camp for grownups; there's yoga and facials, but also a variety of more exciting activities like archery, crafts, cooking lessons, and a mechanical bull fitness class (yes, really).

Scenery from a morning stroll
By the time Kellie and I arrived a lot of the more interesting classes were full (book ahead if you can!), but that turned out not to be much of a problem. At Travaasa you can fill your time with fitness classes and your stomach with gourmet vegan cuisine, or you can lay around doing nothing much and eating ribeyes and chocolate cake. We chose the latter. Seven months pregnant and temporarily freed from the demands of a very cute but energetic four-year-old, Kellie was more interested in soaking up the tranquil atmosphere than anything else on the agenda. Sure, we caught a demonstration on how to make grilled margaritas and learned how to two-step, but mostly we just lolled by the pool, admired the scenery, savored the excellent meals, girly bonded, and sighed contentedly. It was a delightful weekend.

The view from our balcony

Sunday, June 16, 2013

I've Come to Look for America

I've been back for almost a week now, spending some quality time with the parents, running errands, and readjusting to the US of A. It's great to be home, but I am certainly experiencing some reverse culture shock.

One of the things I found most unexpected on returning to the Land of the Free is, paradoxically, how many rules there are. Take driving. Driving in Guinea is a complex activity but has almost no rules. There are no street signs, no traffic lights, no lanes, no speed limits. You drive in whatever part of the street seems best to you, in the manner and at the speed of your own choosing. You have to pay very close attention to the cars and pedestrians around you, but you need give no thought whatsoever to whether you are allowed to go or stop or turn at a particular time or place. In America the "allowed to" part of driving is a huge deal. Maybe I *can* turn left from where I am, but am I *allowed to*? Only if I'm in the designated left-turn lane and I have a green arrow. I notice it most in driving, but the preponderance of rules shows up in other areas as well; sometimes it seems like you can't do anything here without showing ID and filling out some forms.

Another thing that shouldn't surprise me but does anyway is how big everything is, and how much of it there is. Buildings, cars, vegetables, you name it. Venturing solo into a SuperTarget I found myself a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume of consumer goods available; I stood, paralyzed with indecision, before an astonishing variety of deodorants that claimed almost half an aisle before grabbing one almost at random and getting out there as fast as I could.

There are little things too: forgetting it's okay to drink tap water, still worrying about malaria every time I get a mosquito bite, occasionally trying to speak French to black people (who think I am INSANE). But on the whole I'm getting the hang of it.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Goodbye Guinea!

So this is it, my last day in Conakry. I'm all packed up, I'm ready to go. In a few short hours I'll be leaving on a jet plane, don't know when I'll be back again. I cannot truthfully say that I hate to go. I had some good times here in the last two years but there were hard times too, and I am looking forward to a nice long vacation and then starting my new life in Ireland. But still, even now with suitcases in hand, the reality of leaving Guinea for good still hasn't quite sunk in. My house will no longer be my house; my office will no longer be my office; my boss will no longer be my boss. I know this, but it doesn't feel real. I haven't exactly fallen in love with this place, but it's grown on me.

Despite the trash fires, the intermittent electricity, and the occasional weekend on lockdown - perhaps in part because of them - this has been a good tour for me. I got a lot of great experience and made some valuable mistakes without messing anything up too badly. I learned a lot about what it means to live the Foreign Service life, made some friendships that will last a lifetime, and saw up close a fascinating time in a part of the world most people never see or hear much about.

I arrived in the heady days following Guinea's first successful presidential election. Spirits were high, investors were pouring in, and the country was preparing to take its fledgling democracy to the next step by holding legislative elections. Guineans were starting to imagine a new, brighter future. As I depart investors are pulling out, and the legislative elections - long promised and much debated - are still in the works. Many Guineans' early optimism has acquired a tinge of bitterness and cynicism as this democracy project has turned out to be more challenging than originally expected. I very much hope that in the long run the time I had in Guinea will turn out to be just the awkward growing pains of what eventually turns into a vibrant, peaceful, profitable, democratic nation. After decades of repressive autocratic rule Guinea still has a chance to truly fulfill its promise. Even if I can't be here to see it happen in person, I'll be watching.

I have heard it said that Conakry is the kind of post where you cry when you get there and cry when you leave. I'm not usually the tearful type, but I will certainly bid Guinea a fond farewell. And now, on to the next adventure!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Ugh, Moving

I am an experienced mover. By my calculation I have moved no less than 15 times in my life, not counting all the toing and froing from college dorms. So far. Granted, for many of those I was just a kid and for the majority of them I was not the main responsible party. But I am certainly not unfamiliar with the process of packing up, picking up, and starting over somewhere else. I like to think I am pretty good at it by now.

You might think it gets easier with practice. You might also think that moving State-style would be a piece of cake. After all, there are people to arrange all the packing and shipping and ticket-buying for you. You don't have to pay for any of it. At packout time you don't even have to lift a finger to put a single item into a single box; you can just sit back in a lounge chair with a nice cold lemonade while the moving company does all the work. How tough can it be?

First of all, it may well get easier with practice, but moving is never less than a giant pain in the ass. And yes, State has does people who will arrange some things for you. But who arranges the arranging? You, the person moving. It is your job to track down who exactly is responsible for processing your travel orders and calling up the movers and booking your plane tickets, and then to make sure that the people who are supposed to do these things actually do them, correctly, and in a timely fashion. It is not always entirely obvious who is in charge of what and how you can reach them. Things also have to be done in the proper order, but it's up to you to figure out what that order is. Sometimes it seems like it would be easier to just do it all yourself.

And packing? On a lounge chair with lemonade? Not unless you don't care if all of your stuff goes to the right place or gets there in decent condition. In real life there are hours and hours devoted to packout before the movers arrive, prepacking some of your stuff and dividing your earthly possessions into piles depending on which shipment it's going in, or if you're bringing it along in a suitcase. And then once the movers arrive it's bedlam, as you rush around trying to keep an eye on three people at once, making sure the movers don't pack your wine glasses under your rock collection or throw any embassy-owned furniture into the mix. (The exact same stuff will be there waiting for you in the next place.) I was pretty impressed with the movers though; those guys rolled through my house like Katamaris, packing everything in sight, but it looks like things are well wrapped and should survive the voyage. I hope.

Now that the insanity is over my house feels weirdly empty. I think it's worse than when I moved in before my stuff arrived because then the house was just another new place and now it's home. Home, but stripped of everything that's mine except three suitcases and a few upgrades I'm leaving for the next occupant. And the cat of course, who spent two days hiding under the bed while the moving was going on, but seems to have recovered now that his ordeal is over. Little does he know this is only Stage 1.

Saturday, June 1, 2013


As the exodus of embassy staff from Guinea gathers momentum, the new arrivals are also starting to trickle in. It's fun to talk to them and see Guinea through their eyes, the way I saw it two years ago. I wrote a lot more cultural commentary pieces when I first arrived because everything was new to me; those posts gradually trailed off as I got acclimated and the things that had been unique and interesting - the roads, the money, the electricity (or lack thereof) - just became part of everyday life, hardly worth mentioning.

A perfect example of this is a movie trailer my news alerts recently brought to my attention. It's for an independent documentary called Black Out, which explores the phenomenon of Conakry schoolchildren studying for exams at gas stations and the airport because they don't have access to electricity at home:

Black Out - Trailer from HSI Short Films on Vimeo.

My initial reaction to the trailer was "well duh." Of course they do this. It's a practical (though limited) solution to a pervasive problem. It's something I see around me all the time, and hardly seems worth the trouble of making a documentary about it. However, I quickly realized that the only reason I think of this as unremarkable is because I have lived here for two years and I see it all the time. For most of the rest of the world both the solution and the underlying problem are remarkable indeed, because almost nowhere else will you find a capital city that gets this dark at night. 

None of this is to say that Guinea has lost the capacity to surprise me. I don't see that ever happening. But after two years you get pretty familiar with a lot of Conakry's quirks, and you learn to take Guinea on its own terms instead of constantly comparing it to the world you left behind.