Saturday, August 27, 2016

August Update: A brief look backwards

It felt surreal when I realized that I've been in Mali for five months. It's extra disconcerting since there are moments when I simultaneously feel that it's been both much longer and much shorter than that. In that five months, I've outlasted three bosses (one permanent one whose tour was cut short; on permanent one who finished his two year tour and departed for another post; and one temporary boss), and my fourth boss will be departing next week. In mid-September my fifth boss will arrive and all signs point to his staying for the remainder of my time here. Whew! As far as I can tell from the comments and advice of various mentors, this this has been an unusual beginning to a Foreign Service career, though not unusual in general of one's experiences in the Foreign Service as a whole.

During the last five months I've had the opportunity to learn quite a lot about myself: how I deal with work stress in general (though not how to cope with it healthily and well), difficult bosses, the realities of moving to and living and working in a foreign country, and other more nuanced challenges.

There are many things I'd planned to do back when language training in DC was my whole life and I was envisioning my time in Mali, that haven't come to fruition (yet). I haven't broken out of "the bubble," the solid wall of American community that is available to stay within. Sure I've met a few non-Embassy folks; however, I have not yet found Malian friends or a way or place to meet them. I haven't even really peeked beyond the bubble to find an expat community yet.

On the other hand, I do feel good about the community I've found and of which I'm now a part. I've contributed to it, and gotten to know people, and hosted a few get-togethers. A small start to my larger goal.

I'll end there because it's time to relax my brain: to not think of work, or difficulties, or reflection, but just to relax. I do this by reading fun fiction, or watching tv, or organizing some part of my apartment. I do it by napping in my hammock or cooking. And I do it because I've learned how absolutely critically important it is to my mental, physical, and emotional health.

The last five months has been a steep learning curve. I wonder what's coming up next!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Hiking Pics

Just outside of Bamako, a group of about ten people went for a hike today. Normally there would be a runner's group and a walker's group, but since we got rained out and some of the trails were deemed treacherous, we all hiked together instead.

Beginning of the hike. Interesting wall that stretched quite a ways, maybe marking a township? No idea, really. Just that there was a lot of trash on the side opposite the town. 


The hike begins along a dirt road.
Roadside view. 

Leaping over obstacles (puddles)!

There are a lot of partial buildings, the beginnings of construction, in Bamako. 

Workers in the field under the trees.  
Pristine silver tray and teapots amid the dirt and mud and concrete blocks. 

Intrepid explorers. 

First valley view of the hike. 

Man on phone under tree. 

Another great valley view.

Small home on the hill.

Trail-side view. 

The three most persistent followers, who asked if I had a ball to give them, or a PSP, or an iPhone or tablet. They also enjoyed having their picture taken.  
Fascinating and very large statue. No signs or descriptions anywhere. Just a guy on a horse overlooking the valley.


The climb down. 
Malian women are always so colorfully dressed and graceful, somehow.

A rainbow for our troubles!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Hodge-podge of Photos

The "lettuce patch" just in front of my home. Green after a rain.

One of Bamako's bridges behind two commuters in different local-style hats.

The fruit-sellers on their way to work.

At the Grande Marchée, motorbikes are parked and watched by 

Making the special cloth for Eid. 

Kids in front of their family's cloths. 

Color amidst the dust and dirt. 

Vibrant, drying cloth. 

A rainbow of colors. 

American Club July 4th event

Embassy July 4th event, before the guests arrived. 

Saturday, July 2, 2016

July Update

Having lived in Bamako now for a little over three months, I can say that things are getting easier. And harder. Funny how that works, isn't it?

My first supervisor was sent back to DC just one year into her third year tour, just about three weeks ago. Though I can't speak to the reasons, I can say it is a relief and a burden lifted. My first few months here were incredibly difficult, not just because of the hectic pace and incredibly steep learning curve, but because of a difficult boss. I didn't post much detail here, and still won't, but suffice to say that the pressure caused by the moral and interpersonal challenges she presented were pretty soul-crushing. The stress was really getting to me and I realized that I wasn't prepared for it. 

Now that she's gone, I see smiles on the faces of people in my office area, both locals and Americans, and where there were none before. Things seem a bit lighter overall, and people come to the GSO office to ask questions and say hello more than they did before. It's an incredible change to see. 

On the other hand, I'm now handling an entire GSO office where normally there are at least two people doing so. Instead of focusing on just three sections of the office, I must juggle all six. Thus far, it's been daunting: I have so much more to learn, where before it already felt like too much at once. The paperwork alone is overwhelming and the need to understand each sheet that I sign and stamp means my days are packed in just dealing with that. Never mind the 100+ e-mails I receive daily, the many procurement requests, housing issues, new projects, in-the-moment problem-solving needs, support requests from people inside the embassy and out... and the need to take care of myself. 

Throw in a recent decision to change our embassy status to adults-only, and you get a pressure cooker. Oh and hey, many key officers and leadership positions have recently been vacated, with replacements canceling their orders because they don't want to leave family behind. 

I'm learning so very much and am actually enjoying much of the GSO work. The sheer volume of it, though, and the pressure to learn, understand, apply and enforce the various laws, regulations, and guidelines, without a real chance to spend time reading them and ask questions... it's hard. I can't lie, the stress still gets to me and I'm still learning how to handle all of this. 

Luckily, though, the current team we have here is fantastic, supportive and positive and hard-charging. Hopefully we'll get help in the form of temporary assistance and soon, I'll learn to prioritize everything well, and get the most important things done well. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Croatia Vacation

At the end of May, I set out on a week-long vacation which did much to restore my calm and sanity. My first two months in Bamako had been busy and far more exhausting and stressful than I was expecting, somehow. Looking back, I think I didn't give enough credence to the fact that not only is relocating stressful; relocating to a place like Mali, starting a new job, figuring out a new organization (embassy life), and developing a whole new support structure is also all very stressful. Put it all together and what happened for me was a whole lot of stress without much prep in terms of how to handle it all. One person here warned me that one needs to practice "extreme self-care" here to maintain equilibrium.

Luckily, a while ago I decided to take some leave, and a friend of mine from A-100 invited me to join a trip to Croatia she'd been helping organize with others from our class. J, as we'll call her, told me that all the arrangements were already made, and all I needed to do was buy tickets (which she researched for me!) and tag along. My management was on board with me taking some time off and so off I went.

My flight out of Bamako left on a Thursday night. Well, technically Friday morning - 12:45am. I flew to Istanbul, spent a long layover finding different places to sleep and eat in the airport, and then it was
on to Zagreb. I caught a cab from the airport to the first AirBnB, where J met me with hugs and lots of energy. We went out for a delicious dinner at a traditional Bosnian restaurant called Sofra, gorged on meat-stuffed zucchini, veal, and meat pie. And wine, of course! That night, P arrived, and we all started catching up on each other's lives and stories of the daily grind.

The next day, J, P and I were off to explore Zagreb. The first thing we came across was a parade, which seemed neat until we realized it was a pro-life rally. Where one finds fetus signs, however, there are usually counter-rallies, and we found some great crowds of Croatian young folks giving speeches and rallying calls around the rights of women. Eventually, we met up with a colleague who lives in Croatia, who led us to a fun sidewalk cafe for lunch. There, we met W and his family, as well as E, all just arrived in town.

This set the tone for the entire trip: reunions, discussions about work (mostly consular stories, since everyone but me is doing their consular tour right now), admiration of the surroundings, and just general catching up.

Below are some pictures from the vacation. All in all, I highly recommend Croatia as a vacation destination. It's beautiful, easy, relatively cheap, tasty... what else does one need? Oh, right - Game of Thrones settings!



The Zagreb group
Carved doors in Zagreb
Pretty windows in Zagreb
In front of the national theater
West of Zagreb
Julia & the Ruins

Eavan ponders the countryside
Gorgeous views
Breakfast in Slunj

Pathways

Sheep & Sheepherder

The Sarajevo group
Sarajevo locks

Ruined Olympic stadium walls in Sarajevo

Bizarre bathroom in the coolest bar

Views!

Enjoying the views

Sunset over Dubrovnik

Our swimming hole on a day trip from Dubrovnik

View from the walls of Dubrovnik 
Pretty roof tiles in Dubrovnik

View from Dubrovnik walls

Dubrovnik group

Dubrovnik

180th Reunion!

Our ridiculous pool at the 18th century villa AirB&B