Saturday, July 8, 2017

Diploskills: Know the Lingo

nonpaper, n.: This doesn't sound like something that could exist, but it's a document circulated informally for discussion in a multilateral environment with no identified source or attribution, and that doesn't represent anyone's official negotiating position.

no-host, adj.: Some kind of an event, usually a meal, where participants will pay their own way, as opposed to a "hosted" event where the person/organization inviting covers the costs.

OBE (Overtaken by Events), adj.: You were working frantically on a briefing paper or some other project, but then Something Happened to render all your hard work suddenly useless and irrelevant. Your project is OBE.

cable, n.: Once upon a time, many years ago, diplomatic messages were sent using the telegraph system. A whole set of terms related to official messaging rose up in these days of yore and the terminology has stuck around even though the technology has changed. A "cable" is therefore official for-the-record correspondence, as opposed to a regular old email.

reftel, septel, n. or adv.: These are both ways of referring in one cable to information discussed in more detail in another; "reftel" refers to a cable that has already been written, citing the appropriate reference number, while "septel" means the other cable hasn't been written yet, but keep an eye out for it!

not/not, adv.: Back in the telegraph days cables were all submitted IN ALL CAPS, ALL THE TIME, JUST LIKE THIS. One of the limits of the technology. This made it hard to express emphasis, especially when you really wanted to tell the folks in Washington that whatever they're thinking is totally and completely wrong. Some clever officer came up with the expression not/not, or NOT/NOT, as it was in the day, for when something is so not it's worth saying twice. Since the State Department has made it to the 21st century we now have access to lowercase and fonts and bold and italics and other stylistic ways to show emphasis, but this phrase in particular has stuck around.

Friday, June 23, 2017

You Say Goodbye, and I Say Hello

It's transfer season again, always a bittersweet time as you say goodbye to your colleagues, your friends, who are moving on. My schedule is filling up with farewell parties, which are both fun and a little sad. The constant churn is one of those inevitable features of FS life that you can only kind of get used to.

It's more bitter than usual for me this year - I extended my tour in Addis for an extra year, so now everyone who came in with me two years ago (already?!) is leaving, and I'm not. I'm still happy with my decision to extend, but it's hard to see so many of my friends go. It's always easier to be the leaver than the left behind, but that's what happens when you decide to stick around for a change.

Of course, transfer season works both ways. As so many people are leaving, so many new ones are coming in to take their places. New people to work with, hang out with, be friends with. Nice people, cool people. People worth getting to know. And that's always something to look forward to.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Vicarious Tourism: Okavango Delta

Somehow I managed to convince my bosses to send me to Botswana earlier this month for training, and I added a couple fun days on the end to go see the Okavango Delta, one of the world's more unique ecosystems.  The Okavango River and its tributaries are mostly filled by rainfall in Angola, which, instead of finding its way to a lake or ocean, simply flows into the Kalahari desert and dries up. But before it does that it forms a vast and varied river delta in northern Botswana that serves as home to an astounding quantity and variety of wildlife.

It was entirely different from previous safaris I had been on in Tanzania and South Africa, where you do your game viewing from the safe remove of a Land Cruiser or similar vehicle, ensconced in steel high above the ground. In the Delta you get around in a makoro, a traditional dugout canoe poled by your guide, who also leads you around on foot on the larger islands. It's a much quieter, more intimate experience, with far less bumping around and dust. It kind of reminded me of kayaking in my home wetlands in southeast Texas, but with more hippos and elephants and whatnot.

Yes, it can be harder to spot the animals through the tall grass, but I still saw lots, and even when there aren't really any interesting critters around you can still learn about plants and animal tracks and droppings. (Male giraffe droppings are pointier on one end than female giraffe droppings. Who knew?) I learned that elephants like to use termite mounds as pillows, because their heads are really heavy and make it hard to get up from the ground. I learned that lions roll in dusty-smelling wild sage, which was everywhere, to make it harder for prey downwind to smell them.

The lodge I stayed at (and highly recommend) is truly in the middle of nowhere, only reachable by tiny charter aircraft landing on a packed-earth airstrip. There's no internet and no phone service, but plenty of good food and hot water. And it is VERY close to nature, for better and for worse. The first night I was awakened by a hippo with poor table manners splashing and sloshing in the water outside my tent as he sucked up the tender new grass. The second night I had an elephant on either side of my tent snacking loudly on grass and saplings. Every so often one of them would casually brush up against the platform my tent was on and the whole thing would shake. So I didn't sleep that well, but for really cool reasons. It was a quick trip, just a few days, but well worth it.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Vicarious Tourism: The Danakil Depression

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit one of the most unique areas of the world, right here in Ethiopia. The Danakil Depression is a geologically active area in the Rift Valley, one of the lowest, hottest, and driest places on Earth. It's almost like being on an alien planet. Lake Assal has barren white salt flats stretching for miles, with salt so thick it looks like snow.

My favorite part of the trip was Dallol (pictured above), a geothermic area full of weird rock-and-salt structures and bursting with color from complex chemical reactions and the extremophile bacteria that call this place home. No big geysers like in Yellowstone, but there's plenty to see - and no railings. "Try not to step in anything wet," said our guide, "it might be sulfuric acid." Ah, the things they never let you do in America.

The other big attraction of the area is the Erta Ale volcano, one of a very few opportunities to get up close and personal with a pool of lava. Or it was - an eruption last month changed things a little so the old caldera is now too smoky to visit. There's another one an extra hike away that you can only see from a distance since it's full to the rim, though it obligingly overflowed for us, making a river of fire down the slope. Amazing. The hike out there was rough; as a "new path" we did a lot of trailblazing ourselves on unstable volcanic crust. One of our group fell through to his waist and had to get hauled out, and we all had cuts and scrapes from catching our own falls on the sharp rocks. And did I mention this was all happening in the dark? A good headlamp is a literal lifesaver.

I think it's safe to say that our group had a pretty atypical Danakil experience. In one of the driest places on the planet it rained for most of the first two days we were there, including a downpour at 2:30am that forced us to spend a sodden night in the Land Cruisers since roofing in that part of the world was not exactly designed with waterproofing in mind. On the bright side, thanks to the clouds and the rain, the hottest place on Earth was downright temperate. I had thrown a fleece into my backpack at the last minute, and I was grateful for it. Even with unusually reasonable temperatures this was a physically demanding trip with very little in the way of amenities, but so, so worth it!

Monday, February 13, 2017

My Addis Fives

Here we are again, halfway through tour #3, which means it's time to sum up how I feel about living in Addis Ababa. On the whole this has been a good tour for me so far, but nothing's ever perfect is it?

Top Five Things I Love About Addis:

1.   My Job: Man, my job is so great. Working at USAU I get to cover a huge range of really interesting economic and political issues with a continent-wide scope. Sure, it's a lot to keep track of sometimes, but I never get bored, and I feel like I'm doing things that matter. People in Washington read and value my reporting, which I know because I get a lot of positive feedback on it. That doesn't always happen. 
2.   The Country: Ethiopia is an amazing place. Astonishing natural beauty, rich history and culture. And, with one recent notable exception, it's been relatively easy to get out and experience all that Ethiopia has to offer. I still have barely scratched the surface of the country, and I hope to see much more in the time I have left. 
3.   The Food: I love Ethiopian food. But there's also really good Italian food in Addis, plus hipster burger joints, jazz brunch, Korean barbeque, French, Indian, all kinds of stuff. And the coffee, of course, is unparalleled. Food is a key morale issue for me, and Addis makes me happy in that department. 
4.   My Social Life: Addis is the diplomatic capital of Africa with over 100 missions, and there are lots of other expats here for other reasons. This means endless parties and cultural events, and lots of great people to hang out with. Addis has live music and festivals and new-release movies, (even in 3D!), so there's plenty to do. 
5.   The Weather: One of Ethiopia's tourism slogans is "13 Months of Sunshine." While this isn't totally accurate, 75 degrees and sunny is the usual state of affairs for most of the year. My house has no heat and no A/C, and doesn't really need it. It's lovely. 

Top Five Things I Hate About Addis:

1.   The Driving: Driving in Addis is terrible, even worse than Conakry. Pedestrians, taxis, minibuses, motorcycles, giant honking tour coaches, overstuffed trucks, handcarts, donkeys, flocks of sheep, stray dogs, all moving around on the streets in whatever way seems best to them at the time, sometimes seemingly oblivious to the presence of other vehicles. Despite the scattered existence of lane lines and traffic lights, the only real rule of the road is whoever gets in, wins. And watch out for potholes! In some places half the road washes away in the rainy season. I have been lucky enough to avoid any serious accidents so far (knock on wood), but my swearing has increased 10-fold since I first got behind the wheel. 
2.   The Air Pollution: Addis isn't Delhi, but it's not crystal mountain air either. The embassy installed Africa's first EPA-standard air quality monitors in Addis earlier this year, and the readings aren't looking great. Living in a city packed with fume-spewing 40-year-old Ladas is not ideal for one's long-term bronchial health. 
3.   The Internet: Ethiopia has Africa's most expensive internet, and you're not getting much bang for your buck. Sometimes you can do a little low-res streaming, and other times a simple Google search is too much to ask. As a state-owned monopoly, the local telecom has little incentive to improve, and sometimes shuts service down altogether for political reasons. On the bright side, I read a lot more books then. 
4.   The Altitude: A year and a half in and I'm still gasping for breath after two flights of stairs. Every time I think I'm getting acclimated I go on vacation and seemingly have to start all over again when I get back. Send me back to sea level! (Ideally in the vicinity of the actual sea. I'm not a fan of landlockedness either.)
5.   City Living: I got spoiled in Dublin with so many wonderful options to just go take a walk or a bike ride. Addis does not have those. There are hardly any parks or green spaces to speak of, and with broken sidewalks, pickpockets, and the aforementioned diesel fumes, the streets of Addis are hardly ideal for a stroll. Driving everywhere all the time makes me fat. And swear a lot.