When I was living in Indonesia, I went almost every night to the guy down the street who made his living selling roasted corn, and banana-chocolate sandwiches. We bonded, primarily because I was the best customer that the guy ever had, putting down two to three ears of corn, coated in three kinds of butter (one sweet, one salty, one spicy) pretty much every night and usually polishing off a couple of banana sandwiches as well.
At one point, the gentleman who made me my corn pointed at the moon and said something in Indonesian. I assumed he was pointing out that the moon was full and nice to look at at, and I responded that yes, the moon was nice. And then I went home, and Eva, who spoke the best English of anyone in the house and was cursed with a first name that contained a consonant which doesn't exist in the Indonesian consonal scheme thus making her forever doomed to be Ewa to all who knew her, stopped me outside and asked if I had seen it -- "the... uh... eclipse."
I was thrilled to find out that it was an eclipse, but the first question that came to my mind was -- where in god's name did you learn the word Eclipse? And she responded -- "you know... from that song -- total eclipse of the heart!
Posted by Dakota on 1:45 AM link |
We talk the big talk about pilgrimages, about going to the annual hobo festival or driving 5 hours in the hopes of seeing a Leonid meteor shower, that sort of thing. But we rarely if ever follow through.
But then from time to time, you stumble across someone who plans to drive a fistful of hours on miserable roads to one of the most dangerous parts of the universe, all in the name of seeing a 3 minute solar eclipse, and you think: this person is a hero.
Posted by Dakota on 1:40 AM link |
Some furious googling on the topic of Dubai led to the discovery that members of the US Navy, while in town on shore leave, are partial to a tex-mex establishment called Pancho Villas. Some handy work with a map revealed that said establishment is just across the river from my hotel, and since god knows Mexican food -- and more importantly, Margaritas -- are a reason to get out of bed in the morning, I zipped across for dinner.
Pancho Villas is a hooker bar. This much I perhaps should've guessed, given the US Navy's enjoyment of the establishment, but it never occured to me as a possibility in an Islamic state. The hookers are Chinese and aggressive, and I steadfastly ignored them (pointedly, avoiding eye contact at all costs) until one of them, standing behind me, told her friend in Mandarin: "He must be gay." It was tempting to whirl around and yell at them in Chinese, but that would've undoubtedly let to more social interaction with them than I was looking for.
It was about then that the Russian-Korean coverband, with a hearty "Ladies and Gentlemans!" got fired up on the stage. There were two lead singers, one Korean, one Rooskaya, and they were rockstars of heavily accented Kareoke music. "Kirring me softly wiss 'is song" was the opening number. By the time I left they were launching into Phil Collins's opus, "Oh! Sink twice. It's anozzer day for you and me in Paradaiss!"
The menu at Pancho's is a primer on mexican food, and includes the pronunciation of the word Fajitas and a half-page of directions on the method of shooting tequila. It's also emblazoned with the logo "Wev'e got atmosphere!" This tragedy of punctuation placement is carried further, on to the placemats ("Wev'e got fun!") and is painted it on the wall in foot high letters behind the Kareoke band ("Wev'e got it live!").
I was one of 4 tables in the establishment; there was one other gentleman there flying solo, and he had a beer and a sheepish grin on his face while talking to the hookers. At this point in my life, I haven't spent quite enough time in hooker bars to know if he was there as a John, or if he just wanted a beer and a place to sit. The fact that I was unable to discern this information from his sheepish grin tells me that when I get back to the States, I should be spending more time in hooker bars, researching that very topic.
Posted by Dakota on 1:24 AM link |
Dubai is hilarious.
Dubai is maybe not hilarious, but certainly my reaction to Dubai has been hilarious. I feel like I've been scooped out of a village in middle America and drop-shipped to New York City. I'm finding myself wandering the city in slack-jawed amazement, and spending long moments staring at things that don't merit staring at (neon signs! ooh!).
I haven't been in Pakistan for all that long, really (7 months now), but I suppose I've acclimatized to it. Buildings over 4 stories now seem ENORMOUS to me. The grocery store -- a normal Western grocery store -- blew my mind. In typing that last sentence, I had to go back and edit it, taking out the words "unbelievable," "enormous" and "overwhelmingly awesome." I spent about half an hour wandering in the grocery store (the Lulu HYPERMARKET! Hypermarkets are like five steps better than supermarkets!) like a tourist, before making a few purchases from the prepared foods counter and eating lunch on the curb, embarrased by how much I enjoyed the whole process.
The other glorious thing about travelling on the Arabian peninsula is that knowledge of the Arabic language is actually not at all useful. The 20 percent of the population that speaks Arabic as their native tongue are off busy investing their bazillions of dollars or flying their private jets, and are not the shopkeepers and taxi drivers and service personnel that I've been interacting with in this country.
The remaining 80 percent of the population is largely Pakistani and Indian (although there are large numbers of Phillippinos as well), which means that Hindi/Urdu is 28 thousand times more useful than Arabic. Three times now (three!), I've had to force money onto my cab driver, since he was insisting that I, as an Urdu speaker, was his guest and couldn't pay. When I checked into my hotel, the guy behind the counter was Pakistani -- from Islamabad, too, his house 3 sectors away from mine -- and enarmored with me living in his country, living in his city no less, and speaking his language, went ahead and gave me the free upgrade to a king-size suite.
Posted by Dakota on 3:39 AM link |
The word on the street: Muscat's an odd place. 40 kilometers long but only a few kilometers wide, it's basically a series of suburbs without a discernable center. It's nice, mind you -- quietly nestled on the coast, pristinely clean, and decidedly NOT in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan -- but it feel completely empty. The streets are deserted, the majority of the stores have been closed all day (it's Thursday, which is like Friday in World o' Islam, so the weekend isn't to blame for all the stores being closed), and taxi cabs outnumber people five to one. There are a few fishing boats in the harbor, and a fistful of dustily craggy mountains topped with forts (closed, sadly, to the public: apparantly they still need to be in tip-top working order lest the Visigoths or other unsavoury marauders make an appearance once again), but aside from that there isn't too much here. I'm debating leaving Oman entirely tomorrow, or going to a place in the North of the country; in the meantime, it's just plain nice to be in a place that's not dangerous, where you can walk around freely, and where it's so clean even the tap water is drinkable. It's luxurious.
And in related news, travel to Yemen was unrestricted, and visas were (and still are) available at the airport, making my dream of seeing forbidden Sana'a almost attainable. But then in early February, 23 Al-Qaeda operatives escaped from a prison in Sana'a and the government restricted all non-essential travel there for official Americans once again, which means that my rose-colored Yemeni dreams will have to wait for another day.
I think we can all agree that this is yet another way the Al-Qaeda ruins Christmas for EVERYONE.
Posted by Dakota on 7:48 AM link |
It's Tuesday night. Tomorrow night, by extension, is Wednesday night. Tomorrow night I'll be boarding a plane and zipping off on a mini-vacation to Oman (Muscatward!) before hitting a conference for Entry-Level officers that starts next week in Abu Dhabi.
Oman is a place that, in my mind, has always been overshadowed by Yemen. Yemen for me is an obsession country, one of those places of which I once-up-a-time saw a picture and have always wanted to go. (Previous obsession countries to which I've been: The Former Soviet Republic of Georgia; Uzbekistan. Other obsession countries to which I have not been but maybe some day will: Yemen; Syria; Burma; Rwanda; Swaziland; Mongolia; Lesotho; Cape Verde; Bolivia; The Maldives; Eritrea, and multiple others I can't think of right now).
Yemen is currently categorically off limits to me; it's completely forbidden by the US government for me to go, and the Yemeni government (even if I had a visa, which I don't) wouldn't let me leave Sana'a (forbidden Sana'a!) without an armed escort. They would provide me one (free of charge! it's a service for tourists!), but we've already seen how well I handled myself with an armed guard in the past, and it wasn't too pretty, so for now Yemen is going to have to remain an unobtainable obsession.
Posted by Dakota on 9:53 AM link |
Last night I flew back from Karachi to Islamabad, and I don't think I've ever been so happy, ever, as when my plane touched down and K-town was 1000 kilometers away from me.
Security leaving K-rach is of course crazy, crazy tight, and it was my first time to travel as the guest of honor in a motorcade; it was, ultimately, more scary than comforting. (um... guys? everyone in the ENTIRE CITY is staring at us. Wouldn't we be better off tossing on Burqas and zipping to the airport in a broken down Suzuki Mehran taxi?)
When I arrived at the airport, several of the gentlemen with guns hopped out of the follow car and escorted me into the airport. I have never had an armed escort; I have not ever known anyone who had an armed escort. I found it rather awkward -- thinking, as I hurried toward the doors, are they going to have to put their rifles through the metal detectors? Is this a routine thing? If I just ignore them, will the go away?
Even more awkward: I'm flanked on all sides by my armed escort, wearing a suit and carrying my bags towards the door. A gentleman sees that I am (apparantly) someone of importance, approaches me, and asks that fateful question:
"Sir, Business Class check-in?"
And I, still flanked by men with guns, have to hang my head and tell him: no. Economy. Because while the US Government will spring for guys with firearms and a commanding presence, they ain't about to pick up the tab on a little extra leg room.
Posted by Dakota on 7:52 AM link |
Once upon a time, I decided that I was going to read Ulysses, and I was going to read it RIGHT. I bought the book, bought the concordance, bought the 'bloomsday book' of plot summaries, and then spent a ridiculous amount of time in the Caribou Coffee at 14th and Rhode Island, poring over the damn thing and wishing I were dead.
I stopped reading at page 41, after several weeks of effort.
Today, as I was paging through other people's blogs, I stumbled across someone who quoted David Foster's Wallace's second book, Infinite Jest, as being her favorite book. Infinite Jest is nothing if not Ulysses-esque -- weighing in at over a thousand pages and meandering along with little adherence to traditional novel form (400 footnotes!) -- so I of course SPRINTED to Amazon.com, and now the book is rocketing towards me. If anyone wants to go to Kramerbooks and pick up a copy and have a good old fashioned sprint-through-Infinite-Jest reading contest, like that one back in the day that sapped all of our wills to live, just let me know.
Posted by Dakota on 4:16 AM link |
Beijing has just informed me that all in-country language classes are one-on-one.
5 hours a day, one-on-one. Paradiso.
Posted by Dakota on 10:34 PM link |
I've taken a few minutes to link to a fistful of Foreign Service Bloggers on the right hand side of the page. I don't know who the vast majority of these people are, and the links were taken from other people's pages.
That said, I also took a second to add in where each of the bloggers are posting from, and if you scroll through there's a definite trend: something about going to South Asia apparantly gives people an uncontrollable urge to blog. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are all well represented, and make up almost half of the blogs there.
In related news, should you be Foreign Service, and should you have a blog, send me an email and I'll add you to the list.
Posted by Dakota on 10:29 PM link |
There isn't a whole lot I can say about Karachi, except this:
1. Every morning and every afternoon, on the drive to and from work, I am terrified.
2. The tap water here in K-town has a semi-sulfurous chemical undertone that makes it smell almost exactly like boiling cabbage. It's bad enough having the water running while brushing one's teeth or shaving; showering borders on unbearable. I can't help but think that the small of cabbage is lingering on my body, and that if I were to stay here long enough it would be a permanent feature of my life, following me around unshakeably.
The stench of the water, coupled with the understandably oppressive security environment here (Karachi is arguably the most dangerous place to serve in the entire foreign service; the list of attacks and attempted attacks on this place even in just the past 5 years is impressively long) makes Karachi one of the very few places on this earth that I have no desire to serve in for any long period of time.
In the mean time, a few days break from Islamabad is welcome, and the work in Karachi (which also covers Balochistan, a hotbed of fascinating things) is interesting and more than enough to keep me occupied over the course of my time here.
Posted by Dakota on 6:49 AM link |
Since I'm on a roll here with posts, I'll go ahead and add one more. I'm the self-appointed publicist for Kickball at US Embassy Islamabad. The better the sign, I think, the more likely people are to drag their tails out to kickball. Every week strives to outdo the last. The week's kickball sign:
Because it was specially designed to not interfere with basketball. Because it's an incredible sporting activity that will make you better at basketball, or frisbee, or Clouting cables, or whatever it is you do when you're not playing kickball. Because the President is gone. Because before the President left, the White House presented us with a gift of six shiny new kickballs, and because not using them would be an insult to the leader of the Free World. Because chicks dig guys who play kickball. Because chicks do NOT dig guys who do not play kickball. Because you can substitute in a slangy term for males in the last two sentences. Because on a Sunday afternoon you've got nothing else to do, and try as you might to come up with an excuse, it remains Sunday, and whatever it is that you're trying to pass off as more important than kickball can definitely wait until Monday, or at least until kickball is over. Because kickball is the opposite of CODEL. Because everyone will be talking about it at the next happy hour. Because the Marines want you to be there, and what the Marines want, the Marines get. Because your R&R is rapidly approaching, and it's high time you toned up the muscles in your right thigh.
Because everyone has an equal chance of getting to first base. Because it's been weeks since the last time we played due to protests and POTUS and kickball deflation. Because last time we played someone brought beer that was free to everyone, and that just might happen again, and in the uncertainty of life in Pakistan one never knows where one is going to snag one's next free beer. Because life is too short to ignore your inner kickball player. Because hurling rubber balls at your colleagues in other situations is considered unprofessional, but up until now you've only barely been able to suppress the urge to wing one at the individual in the cubicle across from yours. Because you're gearing up for the big spring inter-office kickball tournament. Because you have fond memories of the third grade. Because you, like everyone else at this embassy, have secret daydreams of getting the ball to soar over the back fence. Because you used to do a lot of yoga, and kickball has been scientifically proven to increase flexibility. Because when you call back home to your friends or your spouse and they ask what you did over the weekend, you can tell them you played kickball, and they'll be jealous. Because you're looking for an opportunity to wear that clothing you made that indicates your deep love of kickball. Because your EER area for improvement noted that you should really try to lighten up and have a little fun. Because at the end of the day, kickball just makes life better.
Posted by Dakota on 9:01 AM link |
So then, el Jefe, el Presidente, what have you:
I was supposed to go Karachi, that much has been covered. My trip was cancelled pending the arrival of the Leader of the Free World to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which means I got to stick around for all the fun.
Big visits are, generally speaking, nightmares of logistics and planning. A POTUS visit is a nightmare within a nightmare, involving pleasing not only staff members, chiefs of staff, and Secret Service, but also doing one's level best to please the Leader of the Free World; remaining on the president's good side is one of my priorities in this life.
Since these visits are nightmarish, Embassy staff are assigned jobs as control officers (in charge of one particular person), or site officers (in charge of a single location or event, like a dinner or reception or whatever). I was slated for Karachi, not Islambad, so I wasn't assigned as a control to anyone or anywhere. In other words, at the end of the day, I was pretty much not accountable for anything; all the big responsibilities fell to other people, and I was just there to play the role of clean-up and get things done without having to worry about being yelled at.
So then, what exactly did I do for the POTUS? Before we answer that question, let's get this out of the way: in the English language, we don't abbreviate "of" or "the" within acronyms. It's the USA, not the USOA. I can understand why the Leader of the Free World wouldn't want the abbreviation PUS, but it still drive me crazy.
I didn't do anything for the POTUS. I worked exclusively with the FLOTUS. It goes without saying that I find Laura Bush's acronym to be overwhelmingly hilarious.
FLOTUS held an education roundtable, primarily discussing programs in Pakistan supported with US aid money; I was her designated note-taker. So I followed the first lady around, puppy-dog like, and wrote down everything that she said, and everything that people around her said. Normally the first lady visits an elementary school on her trips; security precluded that, so the embassy bussed in a class of kids from a nearby school to give the first lady a model lesson. All of you who made fun of me in college for my habit of taking verbatim notes, be advised: the White House appreciated those notes, complete with translations from Urdu.
And speaking of the White House, a brief aside: Kickball has made a comeback here at US Embassy Islamabad. Three weeks ago we played our first game, with about 20 people showing up to revisit their third grade roots. The weekend after the inaugural kickball game, the big protests-cum-riots occured here in Pakistan following the publication of the cartoons in the Danish newspaper. Kickball had to be cancelled. (In related news, it's been MONTHS, and people here are STILL protesting those cartoons. Um, guys? We got your point. The horse is dead; stop beating it).
I had to go around the embassy and put up signs to let people know that there wouldn't be any kickball, so that all the die-hard fans wouldn't brave riots to show up for the game. In an attempt to be diplomatic, I worded the signs as follows: Due to events beyond the control of the Embassy (including but not limited to the untimely deflation of the kickball), Sunday Kickball has been cancelled. (The kickball had in fact deflated -- we've got some powerful kickers here at the Embassy -- but it's still usable if pumped up every other inning or so).
Someone on the White House Advance Team saw the sign. Enamored with the idea of kickball here at US Embassy Islamabad, they gave the command to someone back in DC who was headed this way: we're going to need some kickballs. So they sent someone out to Toys-R-Us, and a week later gifted the embassy with 4 shiny new rubber balls. It was possibly the greatest gift I've ever received. Apparantly when they were unloading the supply plane, one of the White House people handed a Toys-R-Us bag to a colleague of mine, and asked: "uh... Do you know who these are for?" He responded: "What is this? Oh. Kickballs. Yeah, I've got an idea who they're for." Touching.
Leaping back to the topic at hand, the FLOTUS occupied my morning. The afternoon was reserved for the meet-and-greet, a handshakey good time featuring the Leader of the Free World, the Wife of the Leader of the Free World, The Secretary of State of the Free World, and me, vice consul to the stars. The Ambassador was also present, as was his wife.
The President spoke. He was surprisingly witty, quite smooth, and didn't bobble anything. He even handled the pronunciation of Iftikhar Ahmed's name reasonably well (although he pronounced the Ahmed in the American style, as "Akhmed," rather than with the Pakistani pronunciation of EH-med; that said, as much as I'm a fan of leaping on the President's verbal gaffes, I can't fault him for that one).
He opened his speech with a moment of silence for David Foy and Iftikhar Ahmed. He quipped about the stress of the visit, and how he appreciated all that the Ambassador had done for him, including but not limited to giving up his bedroom for the night. He presented an award to the Ambassador, which we later found out applied to the entire embassy, thanking us for all the work we've done in the aftermath of the Earthquake. He thanked us all for our service so far from home, and thanked all the Pakistanis for their work for the embassy and in helping to bridge the divide between the US and Pakistan.
And then he shook hands. I was there, in the crunch, front and center. I was less than 10 feet from the President throughout his speech, and I was right there for the handshake afterwards. As he came through, people were saying things to him: "Sir, it's an honor," and "thank you for coming, sir," and that sort of thing. He was responding to each in kind, a throwaway response -- "thanks for your service, thank you," whatnot. He got to me.
I looked him in the eye. I shook his hand. I said nothing. I think he was waiting for me to say something, and because I didn't, he had no response and kept quiet. I had an awkward moment of silence with the Leader of the Free World.
I consider this to be our "first date."
Did I get a picture? Sort of. You can clearly see me. The president is somewhat obscured, however, but I think you can definitely identify him by his nose and mouth, which are clearly in the picture. Perhaps not the best photo -- perhaps not suitable for internet dating -- but nonetheless, a photo.
Next came the first lady. She shook my hand, and I told her: "Mrs. Bush, I was your designated note-taker this morning, and it was a pleasure." "Oh!" she responded, in that surprisingly thick southern accent, "that was fun!" The picture with the first lady is perfect. She did not, however, appear to be aware that she had a designated note-taker, a fact which hurts me a little bit.
I stepped out of the crowd hoping to move over and shake Condoleeza Rice's hand; she moved too quickly, and I missed her. I did, however, lean over the rail and hold my camera at arm's length, thereby getting an excellent picture of part of my face, with the president somewhere in the background. It's about all I could want in the world. Secret Service was less than pleased with this maneuver.
This much I can tell you about the Secret Service: there are two types of Secret Service agents, no less, no more. One type is bracingly attractive, rippling walls of muscle draped in rambo-style ammunition belts, radio in ear and command presence in place. The other type looks distinctly like an old-school undertaker, pale, pasty, and looking uncomfortable in an ill-fitting suit that rides up around the neck. Having them on the embassy compound was NOT comforting. They give the impression that ther red badge around your neck doesn't mean a whole lot to them -- one overly fast move, fatboy, and you'll be getting a free trip back to the States in a government issue bodybag. I walked with my hands out of my pockets at all times while they were around.
So then, pictures are coming eventually, when I finally get around to downloading them off the camera. Should you find yourself in Islamabad this weekend, feel free to stop by for the White House memorial kickball game, Sunday, at two thirty.
Posted by Dakota on 7:55 AM link |
By this time, everyone knows that David Foy, facilities manager of US Consulate General Karachi, was killed in the bombing in Karachi last week. He died with Iftikhar Ahmed, the driver, and a few other people who were unfortunate enough to be nearby when the explosion occured with enough power to blow a four foot hole in the concrete and fully demolish a Class-V armored vehicle.
I was supposed to go to Karachi on Wednesday of last week; the bombing took place on Thursday. If I had been there, it's quite likely that I would've been involved. The gentleman I was set to replace that week had been scheduled to be in that shuttle, but overslept and missed it. I would've definitely been timing my arrival to match his -- I probably would've been in that car. Lucky.
On the morning of the bombing, the Ambassador sent everyone a brief email: It is with profound sadness that I inform you that our colleagues David Foy and Iftikhar Ahmed were killed in the bombing this morning in Karachi. They were in a vehicle at the entrance to the Consulate General compound. Our hearts go out to their families. The rest of the world was told the name of the person killed after the family had been notified.
The morning after the bombing, there was a flag raising ceremony in honor of the two killed. The Ambassador said a few words. Paraphrased: We've come here today to honor David Foy and Iftikhar Ahmed. Their death is a reminder that we are engaged in a war, a very real war on terror. And despite their deaths, the fact that we remain here is a statement: We Shall Prevail.
The Marines were there in full dress uniform, and the majority of the embassy -- pretty much anyone who wasn't on duty for the sort of job that requires physical presence in an office -- turned out. The Marines marched forward, attached the flag to the hoist, and raised it all the way to the top of the staff before lowering it, extremely slowly, extremely deliberately, to half mast.
Sometimes you forget how powerful a symbol the American flag is. The flag raising ceremony, honoring two people whom I've never met, made me choke up. A few people cried; I think that most people hadn't met either of them, but it was still a very moving ceremony. The Marines saluted, marched off; the embassy went back to work.
Karachi, previously short-staffed, is now overwhelmed. As such, I leave for Karachi on Sunday evening, staying until Thursday night. Lightning never strikes twice, they say; let's hope it's true.
Posted by Dakota on 7:38 AM link |
So then -- some times you look back on events that you had previously labeled as horrible or tragic in a personal sense, and then you think: well... I dodged that particular bullet.
Trip to Karachi was cancelled; was supposed to get on a plane last night at 7 pm, but the DCM (2nd in command of the embassy) cancelled my trip because he said I was more needed here.
This morning there was a double car bombing outside of the US Consulate in Karachi, in the area between the Marriott (where a room was booked for me) and the Consulate it self. I'd definitely have been close enough to hear it, if not feel it or be killed or maimed by it.
Part of me was sad to have missed it -- when's the next time I'll have the opportunity to be in a car bombing? -- but then the rational part of me takes back over, and just wipes the sweat off the brow, and keeps doing paperwork. And now we've learned that a US diplomat and a Pakistani employee at the Consulate were killed, and that emotion, looking book, feels callous and horrible. This is devastating.
I didn't know either of the two people killed, but this news is nonetheless devastating, and I am, ultimately, lucky to have not been there, and lucky to be alive.
Posted by Dakota on 11:24 PM link |
Apparantly the Department REALLY wants my Chinese to be top-notch.
Updated training schedule: Beijing, Language School, October 2006 through July of 2007.
Huzzah! Additional free schooling!
Posted by Dakota on 1:48 AM link |