Face The Sun: Let There Be Light!
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are exclusively those of its author, and are not in any way meant to reflect the opinions or policies of the US Government.

Past Travelogues.

Finland, Estonia, Petersburg

Kirovograd, Ukraine


Tirana, Albania

Macedonia & Romania

Budapest to Bucharest

Balkans and Poland.

Christiania, Copenhagen.

Northern Norway

Northern Finland


Kashgar, briefly

More to come, Inshallah, as I go through old paper travel journals.

The DC experience, archived.

July '05
June '05
December '05
October '04
More to come should interesting things happen to me. Ever.

Blatent Plagiarism

The nation's largest chain bookstore has indicated that, due to lack of consumer interest, it has stopped selling books.
--Frederick Raphael, The Glittering Prizes

I feel this is the equivalent of a surgeon, skipping through a radiology department singing, 'I don't have cancer, I don't have cancer!'
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

Mum is crying with her faced turned away from me, gulping and honking like an injured seal. And I'm rolled up in the back seat wishing the old man would stop the car and make her walk. That or buy her a fish.
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

I love it when well-educated women sweaar -- the words regain their original power and meaning when delivered unexpectedly with so much poise.
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

She lived with her mother, who looked like an old labrador, and an old labrador.
--Will Self, Great Apes

When I was small and would leaf through the Old Testament retold for children and illustrated in engravings by Gustave Dore, I saw the Lord God sitting on a cloud. He was an old man with eyes, nose, and a long beard, and I would say to myself that if He had a mouth, He had to eat. And if He ate, He had intestines. But that thought always gave me a fright, because even though I come from a family that was not particularly religious, I felt the idea of a divine intestine to be sacrilegious.
--Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Quality is merely the distribution aspect of Quantity.
--Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

...In the frank brilliance of the bright sun, which, as we all know, is the friend of heroes.
--Jose Saramago, All the Names

He stuttered so badly that you could go out and buy yourself a chocolate bar while he was wrestling with an initial p or b; he would never try to bypass the obstacle by switching to a synonym, and when the explosion finally did occur, it convulsed his whole frame and sprayed the interlocutor with triumphant saliva.
--Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

To Stand on Jericho's Walls and Face the Sun.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

So then, it's settled:

January, 2007: Beijing, Political.

I am not discontent with this assignment, although I am worried about the looming possitibility of mandatory tours in Iraq.

The time in between Pakistan (departure August 2006) and beginning work will be filled with leave (including my brother's wedding), followed by 2 two 3 months of in-country intensive Chinese brush up.

I look forward to returning to the 'Jing and reliving my days as a student -- only while making an American salary. Life could certainly be worse.

Posted by Dakota on 5:27 AM link |

Sunday, January 22, 2006

I don't know that I've ever been to a more depressing country than Cambodia.

Let's see if I can write this post without getting sappy. I'm not sure that it can be done.

I of course knew that Cambodia was crazy impoverished -- it's Cambodia, everyone knows it's impoverished! But before you go into a place like this, you have to brace yourself. And I wasn't braced. Angkor Wat is assuredly in the top five tourist destinations in the Eastern Hemisphere (I'd put it at number three, after the Great Wall and after the Terracotta warriors at Xi'An), so it's sort of easy to forget before coming that Cambodia is just off the heels of a zillion years of horrific combat.

So the hordes of impoverished and hungry children, the masses of amputees wandering the streets -- I didn't see that coming. I should've, I recognize that, but I didn't.

So then, Cambodia. Nice temples they've got here, but my god does this country ache with sadness.

Posted by Dakota on 9:36 PM link |

Friday, January 13, 2006

A big part of what makes Thailand so damn endearing is the Thai concept of Sanuk -- which translates pretty much literally as 'fun'. Every activity -- be it planting rice, going shopping, or working in a mundane office -- should be sanuk. If it's not intrinsically sanuk, it's up to the participants to inject some sanuk by joking, flirting, and generally clowning around.

Yesterday I purchased plane tickets from Bangkok to Phuket. Working in a travel agency isn't particularly sanuk from the get-go, but the lady helping me (her name was Pookie; if that wasn't enough to make me fall immediately in love with her, she signed the tickets simply as "Pook," and the deal was sealed) was determined to have a good time with this.

For example: he co-worker yelled at her for giving him the wrong piece of paper; she responded by making faces behind his back. When she handed me the receipt (confirmation number 1055586) she told me: "confirmation number -- one, zero, five... fivefivefivefivefivefivefive."

What it comes down to: it is culturally frowned on in Pakistan to have a good time in public, or to show in any way outwardly that you're having a good time. Smiling is rare, and (particularly for women) frowned upon. (Literally, I suppose).

Thailand is the direct opposite of Pakistan. And my god it's nice to be on vacation here.

In related news, hello from sunny Laos. Vientiane sort of prides itself on being the most laid back capital city in the world, and it really works hard to live up to it. There's not a speck of hustle to be found in the city -- even the street dogs can't be bothered to chase tuk-tuks, fight or play with one another, or go begging for food; they just lie around in the sun. And it this point in my life, lounging around after my second massage in as many days, I definitely think the Laotians are on to something.

The best of days!

Posted by Dakota on 3:57 AM link |

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Every year the Marines push Toys for Tots; it's their one huge community-involvement thing, and they do it well. Several of our Marines' mothers are big church people, and as anti-organized religion as I am (damn you, Catholic Church), I will say that church-people are quite good at rallying the proverbial toy troops. That, coupled with an embassy community that's largely overwhelmed by survivor's guilt following the earthquake, means that this year the Marines collected about 1400 toys to give out in refugee camps around Pakistan.

So they asked for help wrapping them. Twice, actually, because once barely cut down the pile of toys.

The Marines in Pakistan average about 20 years old -- the oldest is 23 and the youngest 18, I think. We're pretty starved for entertainment here in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and unleashing a detachment of 20 year olds on a pile of toys that fills 3 rooms is about as much fun as you can have on a lazy sunday afternoon. In between testing things out (the magnetic dartboard, the nerf footballs), they ordered pizza and then started arguing about whether they ACTUALLY had to give away all of the gifts -- the whoopee cushion in particular they were pretty reluctant to let go of.

On Saturday one of the Marines was spotted walking to the frisbee field wearing a pair of diaphanous, gossamer butterfly wings; he wrapped them reluctantly this morning.

This morning more people showed up, and the wrapping went quickly. The Marines had planned to barbeque but most people didn't stick around till the meat was done, leaving 5 steaks to every person present. To kill time in between wrapping and meatfest, they broke out a horseshoe set and made a makeshift in the middle of compound.

I grew up in Georgia. I pull no punches in horseshoe pit. Some talents come right back to you, no matter how long they've been dormant.

It's afternoons like today that make living in the IRP not all that bad. The fact that today was as about an ideal Sunday as possible doesn't change the fact that come Wednesday, I'll be SPRINTING for the airport for my first R&R, and Bangkok doesn't know what's about to hit it. The best of days!

Posted by Dakota on 6:27 AM link |

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

My office mate, a dazzling woman who outpaces me in every facet of life (any hope of competing with her was dashed when I learned that she's a former contributer to Slate. Slate!), has abandoned me, in more than one sense.

In the first, she's given up the life of an immigrant visa (that is, Greencard) officer and slid gracefully over to the non-immigrant (that is, temporary) visa side. That hurt, in and of itself, but she was replaced with a new officemate who's also spectacular, so the offense can be somewhat forgiven.

But in addition to interoffice abandonment, she's also abandoned the Islamic Republic to spend a few torrid weeks back in Sunny America. This also would be allowed to slide by, except for one glimmeringly miserable detail: she, caught between a rock and southern California, proceeded to saddle me with her cats.

Unwilling to leave them alone, lonely and pining for her during her three weeks of absense, and their original planned caretaker having left Islamabad to head Kashmirward on business, she asked coyly ("I think that we're now good enough friends that if you REALLY didn't want to do this, you'd tell me") if I could take them, knowing full well that I am completely incapable of saying no. This particular character defect makes me, at best, a pretty bad visa officer, and resulted directly in the occupation of my otherwise peaceful home by Mars and Coolia, tabbies to the stars.

Techinically they're not tabbies, which to me implies orange. Their color is luminous and indescribable, somewhere near a deep grey-black, mottled with an almost green undertone; were you to encounter said cats, you certainly wouldn't recognize them from that description.

Anyhow: Mars. Coolia.

Those of you who've known me for a VERY long time will recall that I used to think of myself as a cat person. Sure, I've always preferred a good puppy (and despite the exhortations of local cat owners to give a good home to newborn kittens, the only animal I've come close to adopting was a an adorable puppy born to an Americanized bitch in sunny Quetta, Balochistan).

I wanted a puppy throughout my childhood (extending well into my high school years), but my parents were unflexible despite years of pleading, and the best I wound up with was KitchenKat! (one word, two k's, punction mark not optional), a semi-stray orange heap of worthless that I found pawing around the backyard and declared as my own.

Said cat kept me more or less sated -- and quiet on future canine requests, as my parents were able to parry any future puppy requests with the plaintive response that it would assuredly kill the cat. I thought I liked cats, and was reasonably content.

And now Mars and Coolia have moved in to my house.

They're beautiful animals, I'll give you that. That said, it's winter in Islamabad. We have no central heating, but each room in the house is equipped with a small box called a split-pack that functions as an air conditioner in the summer and (vaguely) as a heater in the winter. In order for the heater to make the bedroom warm, the door must be closed at night.

As such, I escort the cats out approximately 10 minutes before bedtime, and then hurriedly shut the door before they (wily, cat-like) can dart between my legs into the bedroom. Tragically, at about 4 a.m. every morning, the cats decide that they've had enough of romping around the palacial house I call home, and proceed to sit outside the door, meowing at the top of their lungs. These cats are speed meowers -- I'd say they can fit in a good three meows per second -- and they couple their vocality with ongoing attempts to paw the door open.

The door is made out of metal. The cats paws are fur-lined, but they can still get something of a grip on the underbelly of the entryway and rattle with all their might. The steel reverbates, gong-like, until they finally convince me to exit my warm, cocoon-like bed and let them in.

I've made the mistake of letting them sleep in the room with me as well. At approximately 4 a.m. (the witching hour, apparantly), the cats declared war on the sizeable pile of change that I keep next to my bed, which more or less exploded in a rustling cloud of rupees and fur. The resulting noise caused the cats to dart across the room, romping through the bed heavy-pawedly, before coming to a halt in front of the steel door, at which they began meowing and pawing until I let them out.

On a few occasions I've bit the freezing bullet and left the door open for them throughout the night. On these occasions, the cats engaged in a fun game called late-night wind sprints before tuckering themselves out. They then plunked themselves down in the middle of my bed. I'm not hugely tall, but the bed is just a sniff too short for me, so I sleep diagonally on it. Tragically, with immovable lumps planted firmly directly in the middle, no such diagonality is possible.

I understand that the cats feel even more abandoned then I do -- after all, their owner has ditched them, seemingly without explanation for what may or may not be a permanent basis. Angsty cats have issues, but it doesn't mean that I feel the need for any sort of charitable forgiveness for their repeated sins.

What really gets me is that Angstfest 2005/2006 has been taking the form of the cats entering the litter box, kicking sand on to the floor of my utility closet, and then shitting in whatever small pile of sand results, despite the fact that I clean their damn box daily. And while I know exactly what they eat (cat food, and not much else; I'm hungry, cat, and you are not getting ANY of what I'm microwaving), I can still say without any exaggeration that Mars and Coolia are little more than breadloaf-sized excrement factories.

We're elbow deep in cat poop here, people.

In official communications from the USG, emphasis (particularly negative emphasis) is conveyed by repeating either the verb in a sentence or the word not, separated from it's predecessor by a slash -- as in, "There's a party tonight, and you are not/not invited," or "I saw the way you spoke to the Ambassador and thought I should let you know that you are/are an idiot."

It's apparantly a habit borrowed from the US military, and it's meant to be read "not -- repeat, not." I of course can't help but read it as "not slash not," but it still appeals to me and I've started using it in my regular communications.

As such, if the owner of Mars and Coolia is reading this, I'd like her to know that her cats very well might not/not survive until her return home, and regardless of whether they do, she will/will owe me a damn lot of beer for this little adventure.

The best of days!

Posted by Dakota on 7:36 AM link |

Monday, January 02, 2006

So then, it's 2006. And I'd say it's time to get back on the blog horse that threw me.

So happy 2006. I've already spent a lot of my life pontificating on how much I hate new years, so I'll waste no additional space here lambasting it as one of the worst holidays to ever walk the face of this earth. But since I wasn't around Quixote to hear him say it, let's get this out of the way: It's 2006! This is SUPPOSED to be the FUTURE! WHERE ARE THE FLYING CARS? WHY CAN'T WE CONTROL THE WEATHER YET??

Now that that particular bit of unpleasantness is out of the way, let's move forward.

New Years. Feh.

Winter has officially hit Islamabad; by "winter," I mean the winter rains, which started about 3 days ago and will apparantly last for the next two months. It's cold (but not that cold), but it's Seattle-like in that the sky has been dark for the past 3 days and there's no sign of any improvement.

So New Year's Eve was damp. That's the best I can say for it. I purchased a bottle of high-quality six-dollar champagne from the commissary, but try as I might couldn't convince anyone to come out of their hiding places to drink it with me before heading out to the various festivities. This meant that I, ever classy, brought it to said festivities with me.

Behold the Festivities: New Year's Eve Party at the Marine House.

Quoth the Marines: "You didn't think WE'D provide champagne?"

For the record, they didn't. At least, not until shortly before my departure, and the dixie cup shot glass of bubbly they provided was certainly not enough to quench the likes of myself, a certified cheap-champagne lover.

Fortunately, mine was stashed in the coat closet until it became room temperature, at which point the ball dropped and I felt it appropriate to open and consume.

There was a ball. Have no fear. The United States Marine Corps, boy-scoutlike in their preparedness, had created what appeared to be a glitter-and-sequin covered soccer ball, and gracefully lowered it from the top of the Marine house by rope at approximately 12:07 a.m. Pakistani time. The fact that they were late was noted by few in the crowd, as the de rigeur drink of the evening was tequila, straight. I, not desiring to have one of those sorts of mornings the next day, stuck to gin until the good Marines ran out of cups, and then switched to warm champagne.

Marine parties are always an experience, certainly. Specifically, from the other 3 that I've been to, they have a tendency to evoke memories of the "dances" circa middle school, in which no one actually danced but participation was mandatory. All that is to say, they tend to feature horrific thumping music in the background, overly bright flourescent lights, and a clear separation of the male and female species down the side of the road; they are usually not that great, but when you're in Islamiddleschoolabad, they're pretty much the social highlight of the month.

Courtesy of recent newsworthy events (yes, the Earthquake), Islamabad has had a marked influx of all things Camouflage-wearing. As such, the number of females present was approximately 4 (give or take 3). There might have been others there whom I missed, but they were undoubtedly in cammies, and as such I couldn't see them. I'm no stranger to party situations which feature exclusively the male species, but it is a bit odd within the work context.

Which leads to our next point: several of my staff -- that is, my Pakistani staff -- showed up to the party. I adore the Pakistanis I work with -- they're all smart, progressive, funny, and easy to get along with -- but it's a little hard to truly let loose when your staff (who do not drink), are at the party with you.

Regardless of all that, this was the first party I had been to which was actually at the Marine house. And let me tell you: the Marines have a pretty sweet little set up over there. Pool table: check. Foosball table: check. Air hockey: check. Table-shuffleboard: check. Fully stocked bar (from which drinks cost between $2.50 and $3, an exhorbitant price for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, but hey -- it was new year's): check.

The bar was being operated exclusively by the Marines (in shirts and ties; they put a lot of effort into this affair, several of them going so far as to Windsor-knot). Marines, despite hundreds of years of experience in consuming drinks, generally struggle to put together a gin and tonic. Some would argue that it only has two ingredients. To them I say: put some more gin into that, kid.

The party became packed shortly after my arrival and I spent the majority of the evening outside in the steady drizzle, sucking down cigarette after cigarette and talking to strangers, the majority of whom were weilding cigars and none of whom I can remember in the slightest. I forgot that it was new years until the ball dropped, and then shortly thereafter reforgot that the ball had dropped. Not particularly different than any other new years, if you will.

And believe it or not, that's all the news from Islamabad. Things have been hectic with affairs largely not blogworthy -- and while there have been quite a few things I was DYING to put on the blog, doing so would undoubtedly end in my untimely expulsion from both the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and from my beloved employer. So then, that's it for now. More from me as events unfold.

Posted by Dakota on 11:13 AM link |
Current Location:
The People's Republic of China.

Stop by any time: everyone's welcome.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem to Be Born

Comments and requests for dates should be directed to email.

And here I am.

And for all you random folks out there whom I don't know, for the love of god, email me. I'm abroad, know no one, and look forward to hearing from you. I'm especially looking at YOU, whomever YOU are who's Facing The Sun all the way from Kenya. And Sweden. And Canada. And whatnot.

Books Tackled, 2006:

1. Jarhead, Anthony Swofford
2. Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, Dennis Covington
3. A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
4. A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City, Anonymous
5. Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism, Dawn Prince-Hughes

This year's movies, in chronological order:

1. Kung Fu Hustle
2. A Wrinkle in Time
3. Pi: Faith in Chaos
4. My Big Fat Independent Movie
5. The Winter Guest
6. Voices in Wartime
7. What Dreams May Come
8. Farewell My Concubine
9. The Ring
10. Like Water for Chocolate
11. Sahara

Foreign Service Officers by day, Bloggers by day as well.

The Diplodocus
(Islamabad, Pakistan).

The Permanent Mission of Joshie
(Zagreb; Libyaward).

Prince Roy
(Chennai; Taiwanward).

Sue and not You
(Tbilisi, Georgia).

Life on the Mekong
(Vientiane, Laos).

FSO Globe Trotter
(Lahore, Pakistan).

Vice Consul: Diplomatically Transformed
(New Delhi, India).

Adventures in Good Countries

Our Man in Tirana
(Tirana, Albania).

Anne's Blog
(Kazakhstan; Greeceward).

(Bogota, Colombia).

Furnish Worldwide

Tasman's World
(Dhaka, Bangladesh).

(Lome, Togo).

World Adventurers
(Seoul, Korea).

Aaron Martz

A for Adventure
(Chennai, India).

The Excellent Adventures of Nickie P
(Paris, France).

Permanently Disco
(Dhaka, Bangladesh).

Consul At Arms
(Kingston, Jamaica).

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