Monday, January 2, 2017

2017 Update

It's happened again - two months went by without my posting a thing. And there's much to tell! So from the beginning...

November 2016 saw me return to the U.S. for my first ever "R&R". This a type of leave that the Foreign Service grants where I use my regularly earned annual leave but the State Department pays for my airline ticket. Every post is different in terms of whether you earn an R&R or not. In Mali, we earn three for a two-year tour. I took three weeks of leave and used my ticket to fly to Durham, NC, where I visited my parents. During that time, I also zipped up to DC to get some doctor's appointments out of the way and to visit friends there; and down to Miami to visit my grandmother, aunt and cousin. The trip was exactly what I wanted it to be: relaxing, somewhat social, but not terribly busy. During my stay we celebrated my mom's birthday as well as Thanksgiving, for which my brother and sister-in-law drove in. Getting to see everyone was really fulfilling and reassuring for me, somehow.

After my R&R, I headed to Johannesburg, South Africa, for a leadership workshop, which was very useful and also gave me the opportunity to see familiar faces from training. It also eased me back into the work mindset. My class organized a trip to a nearby safari park and I got to see giraffes (those goofy, oddly graceful, lovable animals!) and hungry lions, as well as a wildebeest!

And finally, it was time to return to Bamako. Aside from one of my suitcases getting mysteriously separated from the other and going to Ethiopia, the trip home was pretty smooth (and the suitcase arrived three days later, intact). Just as I got back, many others went on holiday leave, so my last few weeks have been curiously calm. Still busy, of course, and still filled with a variety of tasks and challenges that keep things interesting, but minus the manic feeling I've gotten used to. A not-too-small part of me hopes that I can hold onto this calm!

In other news, I found out about my next assignment. In 2018, after going back to DC for consular training, I will be heading out to experience the thrills and chills and joys and challenges of...

Paris, France!

I'm incredibly excited, obviously! Paris will be 180 degrees from Bamako in just about every sense. About half the people I tell warn me about how difficult it will be, how unhappy most are there, how crazy the work schedule gets, etc. And I believe them to some extent: it's a large embassy and will probably not have much of the cohesion that I love so much here in Bamako. My section alone will have fourteen people in it and we will live in different places in the city. Consular work can be difficult and Paris is Paris, so there are tons of high-profile visits, which for a junior officer means lots of 'volunteering' to do things like babysit luggage. Also, Parisians are notoriously difficult to befriend.

However. If I cannot enjoy two years in Paris, it seems to me I'm doomed. My hope is that in the time up to summer 2018, I can do enough research and reaching out to find groups, hobbies, adventures, etc, to keep me occupied and meeting people. It seems to me that if I get lonely/bored, I can invite friends from all over to come see me. I will take a day trip to Marseilles, or Brussels, or Prague, or anywhere I want.

So that's my news! 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

En Route

It's been an exciting week so far, and it's only Tuesday night. And it's gonna get more exciting!

Bidding
Over the weekend, I researched various cities and countries so that I could try to put in my best "bid list" for my second Foreign Service posting. The first time I bid, it was a very different process, where I just designated each post on the list (~100 jobs/posts) as "high," "medium," or "low," and provided a short comment on the side to explain particular reasons for my designations. 

To clarify - bidding is the term used for when we try to figure out our onward assignments in the Foreign Service. It can happen anywhere from a few years out to a few months out. In my case, I'm bidding in November 2016 for an assignment in 2018. 

This bidding experience started out with (not surprisingly) confusion. I thought I wasn't supposed to bid until spring 2017, then realized at the last minute that I needed to do it now. My bidding options are limited by job type, since it's required that I do a consular tour next. This is because every Foreign Service Officer is required to do some time in the consular field within their first two assignments, and I've been doing management work in my first tour. 

Anyway, once it was clear that my bidding research had to go, go, go, I dove in! The listed started out with almost 150 options, which quickly got reduced as I scratched off non-consular tours. The locations on the list varied widely across all regions and most continents, including large metropolitan cities and tiny hilly-side towns or far-flung places I had to enter into Google maps to reveal their actual locations. 

The next step was figuring out "timing." This involves figuring out what month I can leave my current post (for me, March 2016) and determining how much leave and training I'd be required to take versus how much I'm allowed to take. Each post on the list includes a month and year that they want someone to show up, so my list was vastly reduced as I crossed off places marked as 2019 or 2016 (too late, too early). There's a limit on how much training one should take within their first couple years, so that knocked a few others off the list. 

At the end of it all, I had 19 choices and they covered many languages (including French and English, as well as Mandarin, Spanish, Lao, Thai, Portguese, etc), regions and timings. I submitted my bid list to my Career Development Officer and now... I wait. 

I'm not good at waiting, at least not patiently!

Voting
More important that bidding, I finally voted! I did my overseas vote in the presidential elections and am proud of myself for getting it in on time. Not much to say on this point, but it felt very good and it's incredibly sad that I'll miss the election results 'in the moment', because...

R&R
I'm at the airport awaiting my flight! That's right, it's finally time. I'm on my way home, at last, and I'm very excited. FAR more excited than I could have predicted six months ago. My R&R plans include resting and relaxing and catching up with my parents in Durham; visiting friends in DC; and visiting family in Miami. Also eating tons of good food (mostly from my dad's fantastic kitchen!) and trying my best not to think about work. :)

Never a dull moment... so long for now, Bamako! I'll be back!

--Z






Sunday, October 30, 2016

Coming up on R&R

It's been awhile since I've written. It's been a busy month since my last post. Work, as usual, continues at a somewhat frantic pace. I'm settling in with my new boss, hosting all sorts of work-related visitors, and preparing to go on my first R&R trip home. I took a weekend trip to Dakar, Senegal; volunteered a couple times at a Malian orphanage; took a group of ten people on a hike; and so lots of other fun stuff. 

Below are a few photo clips of my last hike... I'll try to get some orphanage and Dakar pics up soon!

Another Siby Arch Hike


Saturday, September 17, 2016

WAWA

It's a week before my six-month mark here at post. I don't know why but that seems important to note. 

Two weeks ago, little bugs started showing up in my master bathroom shower. I asked the Facilities Maintenance section of the embassy to come fix it. After one failed attempt, in which the facilities team came to my apartment and looked everywhere for bugs except in the master bathroom shower, they caulked and sprayed. The next morning there were bugs – termites, I then learned – streaming out of the holes in between bubbles of caulking.

I put in another work request and decided to use the guestroom shower. Turns out, there’s no hot water hooked up to that bathroom.

Work during the week was busy with last-minute emergencies, the arrival of a new boss and the process of getting him all settled in, and the discovery of really upsetting mistakes in long-term, highly visible projects. I stayed too late every night and didn’t get much done overall.

The facilities team then gave a repeat performance, in which they went to my apartment and checked everywhere for termites… except for the master bathroom shower. I held it together enough to ask the team, politely, to go back immediately. When I came home from work, the sight that greeted my eyes was one of a carpet of dead termites covering the floor of my shower. Also, several little dead bodies were caulked into the shower corners.

After washing the little buggers down the drain, so I could take a hot shower, I decided to check my e-mail. Turns out, the internet company turned off my internet. Though I paid for a full year of service (it’s usually monthly here), the company turns it off each month and it takes between a week and a month to get them to turn it back on.

On my way back from a friend’s house, a friend who had internet, I decided to go grocery shopping. I got lost, naturally, because there are many destinations that require knowing exactly where to drive between gaps in the road-side barriers in order to access them, and I missed the gap. Twice.

I gave up and ordered out. Put on a movie, settled back… and the power went out.

I realize that I’m privileged, in an amazing job, and that things are not at all bad. Compared to the majority of Mali’s population, I live in a palace, eat like a queen, and live a life of ease.


But this time, West Africa Wins Again.

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