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.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

We're now approaching that critical point where if I don't post something on the blog, nothing will ever get posted. So, we're moving forward into reckless no-edit mode. I've only got half an hour left on the internet, and we'll just see how far it takes me, and then will be done for the day. Likelihood I descend into bullet points? 54 percent. Let's get started:

Belize: a glorious place. Having already mentioned the joys of Caribbean English, I'll mention only briefly what captivated me most about the country: everyone is fully bilingual in Standard more-or-less American accented English and Belizean Creole English, which means you might be talking to someone who will, inexplicably, switch from sounding like they're from Arizona to being maybe 30 percent comprehensible. It's FASCINATING. It's also a little bit hard to observe, since Belizeans only speak their creole to one another, and never to anyone else, since everyone else understands English and their creole is pretty close to impossible.

Anyhow: On day two in Belize, I woke up early, found a dive shop that was running that day, and opted in. In Thailand, where I learned to dive, the dive shops had all the right answers to all the questions you're theoretically supposed to ask. (Do you have insurance? Yes -- both for injuries and for decompression. Ratio of divemasters to students? Usually not more than 2 to one. And etc.). In Belize, the answers were the direct opposite. Do you have insurance? "No. Well, yes. The boat's insured, so if like there's a hurricane or something, but for like people getting hurt? Don't you have your own insurance?" How many people do you take at a time? "Well, the boat can't really seat more than 12." I see. Ever had any injuries or anyone get bent? "No, but I've only been doing this for three months."

And so, suitably comforted, I bought in. The dive master was a rockstar ("I got my equipment in Cancun, next to the WORST STRIP CLUB EVER. Seriously, man -- the pole was like. RUSTY. ") He asked the deepest I'd ever gone. (The answer: 18 meters -- what PADI recommends without special training). He: Let's go deep, man. Seriously. 30 meters! Let's do it! It's only, like, 40 feet more than you've already done!

Two dives, choppy seas, small boat: this I can tell you: if you find yourself at about 20 feet underwater and feeling like you're going to throw up, don't take the regulator out of your mouth, as your dive master will in fact freak out. It's better throw up into the regulator, and then hit the clear button, and watch the fish congregate around you to enjoy what had previously been your breakfast.

The diving in Belize was actually a little bit disappointing. Aside from the whole getting sick underwater thing (which, yes, sucked), there just weren't many fish, the coral was dead looking or covered in gross algae, and it just wasn't all that great. Such is life, I suppose. But I'm still glad I went, so that now when people talk about diving, I can say on good authority (and by that I mean, obnoxiously) how disappointing it was. (Also, for the record: unbelievably expensive. Almost 90 bucks for a morning of diving? Are you kidding me? The fish: not gold plated, people!).

Moving on: Guatemala. From Belize City via bus to the border (passing a store en route: "Exotic Barbering") and then on to the temples at Tikal.

Let's just get this out of the way: I have no idea why Guatemala isn't 500 times higher on the American tourist radar. It's SPECTACULAR. There's an unbelievable amount to see and do, it's crazy cheap, the Guatemaltecas are hilariously friendly, and it's a REALLY quick flight from the States. Honestly.

The temples at Tikal are Mayan ruins, completely surrounded by forest. It reminded me of Angkor Wat, only much, much better, since Angkor Wat was over run by Korean tour bus tourists and the temples themselves clogged with trinket and drink salespeople, whereas at Tikal I was one of maybe 10 tourists there at the time and the only place to buy a soda was outside the grounds of the temple complex. It was empty. It was a little bit misty as sunset approached, there were hordes of monkeys in the trees and on the pathes, and the whole thing had an Indiana Jones sort of feeling that one (somewhat embarrasingly) can't help but get when one is standing on temples that are over a thousand years old. It was, quite simply, awesome.

And then on to Guatemala City, via overnight bus. I had a plate of nachos while waiting for the bus, and since it's not possible in my world to have nachos without beer, I downed a fistful of beer ("Gallo" is the local brand -- "Rooster"). As such, I slept hard on the bus to Guate (yes, the cool kids abbreviate it to Guate) and had to be shaken awake by the conductor and asked if maybe I would mind getting off the bus. (I was later told that the bus ride was terrifying -- driving rain, 100 + kilometers an hour and a generally psychotic bus driver; I'm both glad and sorry I missed it).

Guate to Antigua. Antigua. Antigua is the sort of place you (and by "you" here, I mean "I") fall in love with and then dream for the rest of your life about returning to and retiring in. It's tiny, ringed by volcanos (volcanos!), and has perfect cobblestone streets and seemingly hundreds of tiny cafes that open into interior courtyards that are stuffed with greenery and hanging plants and whatnot. It's got a fistful of monestaries, one of which has been converted into a hotel at which I (shamefacedly turning my back on my budget roots) stayed with the HK and her new Sig-O. The monestary is all old stone and large plants and Macaws (the real macaw!), and plays opera in the background until nighttime, at which point they illuminate the pathways with hundreds of candles. It's beyond magical. It's fantastic.

From Antigua we rented a car (I say we, but in fact the HK's hyperfluent Sig-o ("LL")) rented a car, and we all piled in to go to Pacaya, a nearby volcano. Purchased snacks, hired a guide (names Eusimio -- "I'm the best guide you could've possibly gotten. All the other guides aren't nearly as good. No one's as friendly as I am, and no one goes as high as I do up the mountain." Eusimio was in his late 40s to early 50s, a spry old man lacking any body fat, who outsprinted pretty much all of us to the top of the mountain), and then started up.

We make it to the first vista about 45 minutes before sunset, and find ourselves surrounded by a pack of about 30 Guatemalen tourists. We're also standing about a foot from the lava that's oozing out of a pile of hardened pumice. The guide grabs a stick and pushes it into the lava; the stick promptly catched fire and starts shooting out flames. The flames stop when he pulls it out, leaving a surprisingly intact (albeit blackened) end of stick. He encourages us to try it. The end result: pushing a stick into lava feels like pushing a stick into thick pudding. Not that I've pushed a stick into thick pudding, but maybe you get my point here.

The three of us confer with the guide. We're can see the summit of the mountain from where we are, and the guide tells us ("I'm the only guide who goes up there") that it's about a 30 to 45 minute walk to get up there. We decide to go for it.

As we're walking through the crowd of Guatemalan tourists, they start hurling firecrackers into the lava. Which seems to me maybe like not the best idea on the planet.

We begin to summit. Before we get there we come across a lake a mostly hardened lava that's got portions of bright red scattered throughout. We stop to hurl baseball sized rocks down into the lava pit.

And then up. The slope is mostly sand and pea-gravel, steeply inclined and damn near impossible for HK and I to get up. (The guide and the Sig-O, the hyperfit LL, have no issues). We cross an area of thick sulfurous smoke, and the rocks underneath us get hotter the higher we get. It feels like something out of a movie. It's creepy.

And then we hit the summit. The guide points out the spot where you can see into the crater itself, into the face of the sun, the 2000 degree molten lava pit. The whole place reverberates with a deep bass undertone from the movements of the core, and it's simultaneously unsettling and awesome. We stick around only briefly, as the sun is setting and dusk doesn't stick around at the equator.

Back at the first vista, with the sun down and the tourists mostly gone. The lava has settled into a long river that glows in the early evening dark. Our guide takes an empty water bottle and hurls it into the lava. It melts, catches on fire, and ceases to exist. We head down. The rain starts in, heavy, with about 30 minutes left to hike. We end up soaked, but well content, and purchase cheezy t-shirts at the bottom that indicate that we climbed the volcano at Pacaya, before heading back to the monestary for hot showers and a nice meal of risotto, and butternut squash ravioli.

To briefly recap: cobblestones, cafes, monestaries, volcanoes, hot water, and risotto. I remain extremely unclear on why no one knows about Guatemala: it's fantastic.

Posted by Dakota on 7:49 PM link |

Monday, August 21, 2006

The saga of my exit from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is one that will have to wait for another day. The ongoing hilarity of it all (car trouble, plane trouble, onward flight trouble, baggage trouble, hotel trouble, flight trouble, what have you) will eventually make it's way here, but for now there are more pressing issues at hand:

I've been in Belize for about 3 hours, and I'm madly in love with it. I'm a sucker for places that typically get described as "laid back." Maybe it's because people tell me that I'm not at all laid back -- "high strung" is what I normally get -- but I love places like this. Honestly.

It starts in Miami International Airport: I begin uncontrollably humming -- and then singing out loud -- song lyrics into which I cleverly substitute the word "Belize." I start with "I Belize in miracles (you sexy thing!)", move forward into "Belize it or not, I'm walking on air," and end, mortifyingly, by unconsciously singing, out loud in a very croweded place, "Belize Navidad."

I sit next to a Belizan woman who doesn't mind at all that I've stolen her window seat ("Dis one's got a seat belt too"), and even though her child shreiks the majority of the flight in, it doesn't dampen my mood at all. We pass three cruise ships on the open water, and I think how glad I am I'm not on a package tour.

I fly through customs. ("Just got a backpack, man? Anything to declare, some rum or some cigarettes or something? No? Well then, man, welcome to Belize! Cut around the line here, you've got no need to wait with those people.")

My cab driver coming in from the airport ("About how much will that fare be?" "Hey man, you don' wanna take my word for it -- we made a sign so you don' have to take NOBODY'S word for it!") informed me that I'd be fine in Belize City, as long as I didn't take directions from strangers. He, like almost everyone here, speaks English with the inimitable and extremely endearing carribean lilt. "Don' matter where you ar' in Belize, man, you never gonna be lost. Because any way you turn, you gonna hit water, man, an' dat's de truth."

Immediately after arrival I hop in a water taxi and head to an island, Caye Caulker (Caye like "key," and "caulker" to rhyme with "talker"), to dive and eat fish and do nothing. Just off the port is an abandoned, wounded sail boat, listing to one side; the visible side is painted with the words "Sexy Chicken." Just off the dock a guy on a bicycle leans over and asks "hey man, how you feelin', how you FEELIN'? Ya doin' all right today?" and when I tell him I am he calls back -- "all right man, then you need to lose those pants straightaway and get yourself a beer, man!" And I think he's right.

I wander the town; there's a guy who's set up a barbecue grill and sells shrimp-on-a-stick for 5 Belize dollars -- $2.50 -- that's just down the street from a hut that sells smoothies. There's no electricity in the smoothie hut to operate the blender, so they've rigged up a normal blender to what looks like a gas-powered lawnmower engine, complete with ripcord. Everything's painted pastel and is a little bit ramshackle, not in a poverty sort of way so much as in a "why would I bother to repaint that?" sort of way. It is, in short, awesome.

And here we are. It's happy hour in the internet cafe where I came to write home and tell mom and dad I'm alive. Happy hour in the internet cafe means that internet time still costs the same amount as always, but for an extra Belizan dollar you can get a rum and coke, which is about all I want when I'm blogging. I'm not sure how many more good stories are going to come from this island, but for now it's everything I've been hoping for.

There are about a dozen people to whom I owe emails; that said, hotmail is, for whatever reason, inaccessible from this island, so it's going to take me a few days before I can get back to any of you.

In the mean time, the best of shrimp-filled days!

Posted by Dakota on 4:32 PM link |

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Today, Saturday the 12th of August, at 5:00 in the afternoon:

Dakota's last frisbee at US Embassy Islamabad.

Posted by Dakota on 4:39 AM link |

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

I'm less than two weeks away from my departure from ISlamabad, and I've started to get a little misty eyed about leaving here. Islamabad has very much become home for me, and while I never thought I'd say it, it's true: there's a damn lot I'm going to miss about Pakistan.

Like the hills that line the northern side of the city which, during the past month of monsoon have been ringed in clouds and shimmer an exceptionally deep green and are strikingly pretty in the early morning sun. And the Pakistanis I work with, some of the most talented and hard working people in the country, all of whom are hilarious and all of whom I like immensely and the vast majority of whom I'll never see again. And the call to prayers that sounds around the city, all the mosques at roughly the same time but a few seconds apart from one another so the sound overlaps in an ongoing echo. And the bats, the fruit bats with their enormous two to three feet wingspans, that live in the the trees on compound and tend to explode out of them, Hollywood-esque, in the early evening moonlight. And the guys who run the fruit and vegetable stands who always asked what I was cooking, and who invariably ended up giving me half my produce for free to entice me to come back to them later. And the Marines, some of whom I've become fairly good friends with, with their lighthearted camaraderie and easygoing nature, some of whom are finally beginning to break the habit of using the 'gay' as a negative adjective. And the happy hours on Wednesdays and Fridays, with free appetizers that rarely fit the bar motif, like greek salad, and cole slaw, and meatballs in barbeque sauce. And frisbee on Saturdays, like clockwork, with new teams every week and no one caring who wins since all we wanted was an excuse to run around. And margaritas by the pool on sundays, lounging around doing nothing at all and invariably deciding that it wasn't worth it to go into the office. And the ICE attache, one of the nicest guys I've ever met, who continues to ridicule me for the baking disaster that was chicken soup flavored cookies. And the Lebanese restaurant with the ridiculously good food and enormous outdoor balcony, and the sleazy Chinese restaurant in someone's home that always felt a little bit illicit but that had the best spring rolls in town, and the semi-French place by the expat market with the semi-French onion soup that was as close as you could get to home, and the Thai place in the Marriott where you could sneak in wine that they'd pour into tea pots and tea cups while filling the wine glasses with water. And lounging on the nurse's third-storey porch, sipping beer and waving to the people walking by. And the receptions at the DCM and Ambassador's house, with the trays of appetizers and fascinating people whom I'd have otherwise never met, like the person at the forefront of the Pakistani women's rights charge, or the lawyer specializing in Islamic law who was brigning a case in front of the Pakistani Supreme Court to fight against some laws in place as being too strict, or the DJ from the local radio station who was on her way to an Ivy League school on a Fulbright. And running around compound and having all the guards standing detail greet you, or salute you, or call out their encouragement. And the people from USAID, all of whom are fantastically quirky and easy to talk to and have stories that start with 'When I was living in the Rainforest...' And the people at the health unit who welcomed me with open arms and let me hang out and talk medicine, and the old doctor who was warm but fantastically sarcastic, and the new doctor who's dead set on getting me to go to med school. And the local canteen, with its menu only in Urdu and its heaping plates of steaming Pakistani food for pennies. And the guys from ODRP, who hang out on the balcony during happy hours and make Pteradactyl noises to try to encourage people away from the gym and into the bar. And the mules, the intended-to-be-utilitarian oversized golf carts that people use to get around compound, and the few occasions when they've entrusted me with the keys. And the menu at the American club, which everyone gets sick of almost immediately but which included the "Quinche of the Day," an item that will prevent me from pronouncing quiche correctly ever again, and the enchilladas that always seemed to be exactly what I wanted. And the maintenance guys on compound, who would walk out of their way to shake my hand and ask how I am and tell me they appreciate me speaking Urdu. And my guard, Shah, who invariably responded to my 'how are you' with Alhumdulillah, it is God's blessing, and who spoke incomprehensible Urdu and had appointed himself as my caretaker and generally made sure that I was ok and that my house was in order, and who saluted with the full Pakistani military salute, step, stomp, salute, every time I came home or left the house. And the hotspot, an ice cream parlor in what felt like a box car, with it's movie motif, too-cool-for-school atmosphere, and throngs of Pakistani high school students who crowded in on the weekends. And the hiking in Margalla to the Chicken Shack, a grim set of lean-to huts with a kitchen, a fistful of chickens, and a menu that boasted of being one of the nicest restaurants in the country. And of course, the seemingly hundreds of people with whom I've lived and worked, either on a permanent basis or those just passing through, who have been my friends and acquaintences and because of whom I have never once, throughout an entire year, been lonely or bored.

Yeah. It's been a damn good year.

Posted by Dakota on 12:45 PM link |

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Where have you gone, Dakota Maggio?

Once upon a time, a Danish cartoonist drew some blasphemous pictures of the Prophet Muhammad, and published them in a Danish newspaper. Some irresponsible bloggers reposted those cartoons on their blogs, which were hosted on blogspot.com, which, you'll recall, also hosts a certain site about Facing the Sun. The Pakistani government proceeded to punish those irascible bloggers by banning their site outright, and to this day all blogspot blogs are not accessible by anyone using a Pakistani ISP.

In the mean time, I returned from R&R to find a series of new computer policies in place; these policies, an embassy (or perhaps department-wide, I have no idea about such things) decision due to some high-level hacking-type security breaks (which were published widely in the Post and elsewhere), basically meant that any site that required a password was blocked in the system. And thus, hotmail, my bank and credit card accounts, and a whole slew of other sites including blogger.com, the website that I use to write the blog, became off limits from work computers.

The Pakistani government didn't block blogger.com, but did block blogspot, so from home I can theoretically publish to the blog. The US Government did the opposite, so I can read the blog in the office but not publish or make any edits to it.

This situation is basically annoying beyond words and thus, for the past month and a half, I have been incapable of making myself blog. It just can't be done. Apologies

In the mean time, it's the heighth of summer transfer season here at post. Summer is the big moving time for the State Department, and at any normal embassy something like 20 to 30 percent of the people will leave and be replaced during the summer. But Pakistan is a one-year tour for most people, so our summer transfer season will see well over 50 percent of the embassy turn over.

The long and short of it is: I'm now starting to feel like I'm at summer camp, but I've stayed a week longer than all the other campers. All of a sudden all these new campers have showed up, but everyone I know has left, and I can't be bothered to meet new people since I'm leaving so soon. It's an odd feeling.

So I'm now down to pretty much counting the minutes until my departure. I'm out of here in 2 weeks, which is kind of killing me because there's an unbelievable amount of stuff that needs to get done before I go. The bureaucratic mechanics of moving between continents while working for the Government involves a hilariously large amount of paperwork, the majority of which needs to be signed in quintuplet.

The movers came on Friday and packed my life into boxes; I can now say on good authority that I officially own 1,895 pounds of stuff, the vast majority of which is books. I have made my plane ticket reservations, and have my orders to move on to DC. (I don't have my orders to China, but hey, one step at a time).

For those tracking my movements in anticipation of purchasing me welcome-home beer (that should be all of you, for the record): I'll be hitting American soil at just after 11 p.m. on Friday, the 18th of August, in sunny Atlanta, Georgia. I'll be hanging out with mommy and daddy for the weekend before flying to Belize (via Miami). I'll be meeting up with the HK in Guatemala before meandering over to Tegucigalpa and then flying back to DC. I'll be arriving in DC at 9:55 p.m. on Monday, the 4th of September, and moving into my glorious apartment at 18th and Mass. Everyone's welcome.

Posted by Dakota on 2:55 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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