Sunday, March 25, 2012

Other Duties As Assigned

Each of us has this little caveat at the bottom of our job descriptions, right? The fine print that allows your supervisor to send you on odd errands or assign you to that committee that nobody else raised their hand for. I'd like to share a few of my recent "other duties" that an OMS might encounter. By no means were these horrible, in fact - they were pretty fun, but just slightly off my usual beaten path:
  1. Situation: The Doc Drop.
A VIP visitor from DC needs some important documents delivered to him NOW. These documents will be emailed to me, the OMS staying in the office keeping the home fires burning while my supervisor is with VIP out and about at high-level meetings all day. The documents are classified, therefore I can't just request a courier to deliver them. But where and how to rendez-vous with this moving party? The visit is going to be in a police-escorted motorcade following a Minister to a meeting with the President and the VIP must have the documents before the meeting. I arrange with motor pool for a car and driver to take me to the route the motorcade will be using. We park alongside the curb and wait and wait and wait for our moment to pounce. Finally, the motorcade driver warns us by cell phone that they're approaching. We can hear the sirens of the motorcade; the driver starts the engine and gets ready. The motorcycle cops with lights and sirens come first, then the Minister's vehicle, then the embassy's van with the VIP inside. Our driver guns the engine and we fly from the curb, tucking into the motorcade behind the embassy vehicle and in front of the (probably  rather concerned) rear police escorts. We're flying down the hill now towards the Presidencia, where our vehicle has not been authorized to enter, and realize we have to make the document hand-off somewhere very quickly. A red light with cross-traffic stalls the motorcade for just a second before the escorts can clear the intersection and I see my chance. With the vehicle hardly stopped, I leap out the door and run up to the VIP vehicle, the door opens, my boss's hand appears, and as his vehicle pulls away - we complete the hand-off relay-baton style. I then walk back to the car where the driver and I are smiling and relishing in our success, before we head back uptown in the heavy traffic. Two hours of sitting in the van for two seconds of fun - but it was worth it!


     2. Situation: Who's a Scientist Now?

My Econ Officer colleague has invited me to a lunch at the embassy for Women in Science, not because I have any science background - but as a nice thank-you for my daily efforts (and, I suspect, because she wants all the seats filled). She promises that while all the guests will be Colombian except for the few from the embassy, I won't be called on to speak. I figure I can muster some polite chit-chat  in Spanish between bites and accept. The lunch starts with the guest of honor speaking of the importance of encouraging more young women to continue their studies in the sciences and how we should all be mentoring such in our various fields of science. Naturally, she has no idea there is an impostor at the table - me. As she finishes her talk, she then turns the  group's attention to the rest of us, seated in a U-shaped table eating our lunches. 
(Keep in mind this is ALL in Spanish:)
"Please, introduce yourself one at a time and tell us a little of your background."

As the introductions begin, I hear from the president of a university, a physicist, a professor, a cancer research scientist... and look, it's my turn next.

"Yes, my name is xyz and I'm actually an OMS. Yeah, it's kind of like a secretary. Yup, got a B- in Biology in high school. That's it. Really. Sorry for taking up your time. Shall I give back my chicken and fruit salad now and just leave politely?"

...is what's coming to mind.

Oh dear, all eyes on me. In Spanish now, I say something like:

"Hello my name is xyz and I'm your host's colleague (thought that sounded more impressive). This is my first year with the embassy and in my previous career (true, even if it was six years ago) I was a professional riding instructor, a career for which I studied equine sciences for years (two years, to be exact - but who's counting?)."

Ha! There was even a hushed, "Ohhh...? around the room as no one was expecting to hear that.

As the rest of the room introduced themselves, naturally, I thought of silly plays-on-words I could have managed to say regarding working in the "field of equine sciences - literally" but those things never come to us when we need them, do they? The rest of the lunch went fine and I used the old trick of engaging people by asking them questions about themselves, leaving little time for me to have to answer any about myself. Phew.

Moral of the story: Being an OMS means being ready to chip in anywhere and being able to punt with accuracy to get a job done.

Thank heavens they didn't ask us all to sing!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Four Green Fields - St Patrick's Day Out of Bogota

First - Happy St. Patrick's Day to everyone out there!

 Today, in honor of St. Patrick's Day (and because it's the Saturday of a three-day weekend here), we headed out of the big brick sprawl and into the countryside to see some of Colombia's own green fields. On the drive out of Bogota, we listened to Irish traditional music and it got me thinking about the similarities between the two countries. Besides the obvious, the lush green landscape, I also thought of the histories of the two countries. The Irish speak of "The Troubles," and the Colombians of "La Violencia" - each a casual term for scars on their historical time lines. But today, as we rose out of the Sabana and over the mountain pass to the northwest of the city, past roadside grills, flower and fruit stands, cows in belly-high grass and small flocks of hens pecking in farmyards, the only thing "violent" that I could see was the way the Andean peaks burst from the valley floor in utterly vertical faces. The highway wound along curving cliff sides, and occasionally a portion of the road would be barricaded off after giving way to gravity and dropping off the side of the mountain. As we crested the pass and began descending towards the town of La Vega, the climate changed instantly. The green became more tropical and even over the music and the road noise, we could hear birdsong and could feel the humidity and warmth setting in. We dropped over 3000 feet in altitude and into the La Vega valley.

Once in the town, lined with stores selling inflatable pool toys and tourist hotels advertising swimming pools, we followed faded signs towards La Laguna El Tabacal. We'd read that it was a great spot for birdwatching and seeing all sorts of tropical flowers lakeside. The drive up to the laguna was only 7 kms, but the road hair pinned along the walls of the same mountain faces that we'd seen from the top of the pass. In one spot, an entire lane had given way and the other lane (the one we were on), was on its way to being undercut and washed away as well. The sign next to the gaping hole warned drivers  simply of, "Hundimiento" (dip, or sinking).  So  you can imagine what I was imagining when I rounded another corner and saw a sign that actually read "Peligro" (danger).  The road alternated between pavement and gravel many times, rising and dropping as it conformed to the unstable landscape, in places it appeared a pure miracle it still existed at all.

But the views were amazing!

We finally arrived at a pic-nic area with parking in a field for the laguna visitors. There were two mom-and-pop parillas (grills) offering the ubiquitous roasted chickens with criollo (baby) potatoes and sausages, plus a small camping area with somewhat soggy young campers cooking over their campfires. We ate our pic-nic lunch and bought the entry tickets and a little bag of fish food and headed up a stone-lined path for the lake. Immediately we could see brilliant yellow, red and blue birds flashing through the tree tops, and could hear cricket-like songs of tropical insects of some sort.

The Laguna El Tabacal is just a small lake filled with tilapia who swarm the lake edges, obviously well-used to the little paper bags the visitors bring full of fish-food pellets. We picked our way along the sides as far as we could until we came across an impassable rock wall and had to turn back. A light sprinkling rain started, but the tropical canopy was dense enough to keep us dry. We walked past bamboo groves (In Colombia? Yeah - I know, that's what I thought, too) and hillsides covered in massive philodendrons. Only two hours outside of Bogota, and a 100% difference in environment.

It was only fitting to spend St. Patrick's Day among the green fields (and in keeping with the day's patron saint - we thankfully saw no snakes).  I'll let the pictures below do the rest of the storytelling.

View from the road

Stems of tropical flowers
Laguna El Tabacal

Flower salesman
Lovely family and their puppies
Yeah - no kidding!

A new friend we met along the lake
NOT a snake!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

FS Life: A One Year Retrospective

One year ago today, the 119th Specialist Orientation started and I began my new Foreign Service life along with 68 classmates. I flew from the west coast to the east, and somewhere over the Mississippi River, my saying-goodbye sniffles dried up and I began to let myself get excited about what was in store. I arrived in Virginia, exhausted, with two freaked-out cats in carriers and suitcases stuffed with three weeks worth of suits and two years worth of hopes and expectations.

I was met by my first OMS friend who (literally) within minutes of seeing me settle the cats into their new apartment, was taking me grocery shopping and filling me in on everything I'd need. The next day I met the rest of my future classmates. We were a combination of specialties, from OMS to RSO (Regional Security Officers), from GSOs (General Services Officers) to FMs (Facilities Managers) with a smattering of health providers and HR specialists. We ranged in age from 22 to 59, and arrived in Virginia from all parts of the country and as many different backgrounds. That first day found us excited, exhausted and trying to figure out where to go, how to get there and what to do as we started at Main State for Day One. There was a day of in-processing where we got our badges and took our official oath. After that the briefings began: many speeches about "welcome to this great new life," and then something that confused most of us about travel credit cards that one year later I still don't know what are.

There is a new Specialist Orientation in session today, and I wish them the same incredible experience that the 119th had. As I'm feeling a bit sentimental, I thought I'd review the highs and lows of my first year working for the USG in the hopes of inspiring some, or just giving anyone who is interested a short look down the road of a possible new career and life:

Highs:
  1. The friendships made at FSI and at post. People I would otherwise have never met who I don't have to explain this whole FS thing to. People who respond, "Wow that's great - I'll give you the name of my friend who's posted there" when you tell them you're moving to Uzbekistan. The bonds made through countless evenings in our Oakwood apartments, poring over our bid lists or the insane amount of paperwork we had to go through, all the while sharing a bottle of wine, fresh-baked cookies, stories from our former lives and too much laughter. BBQs and send-off parties as we all spread to the corners of the globe.
  2. The excitement of Flag Day and learning what the next two years will bring me, my family and my friends. Already getting excited about the next bid list, the next post, the next set of friends, languages and challenges.
  3. Language training and being able to put it to use in my new country.
  4. Walking beside the enormous sandstone wall carved with "United States of America Embassy" and the eagle emblem and then past framed pictures of the President, the VP and Secretary Clinton when I come into work each morning and remembering who I'm working for.
  5. A cool apartment with more than one bathroom and more armchairs than we'd ever had before (one for each cat, even). Plus a dining table with chairs for six!
  6. Making phone calls, even if just to reserve hotel rooms, and saying that I'm calling from the Embassy of the United States and having that mean something to people.
  7. Reading cables that offer interesting background to the news headlines. Or knowing about the news before it's news.
  8. Seeing the massive Colombian flag waving near the embassy as I walk out to get the mail each day, its brilliant yellow contrasted against the dark green of the mountainous backdrop that reminds me that I'm on a different continent now.
  9. Meeting regular people in Colombia, from my animal shelter friends, to taxi drivers, to people in stores, and doing my best to be a positive example of what an American is.
  10. Finally not being freaked out by my work responsibilities and feeling proud of what my section accomplishes when we all work together.

Lows:
  1. Being so far from family and friends back at "home," which is what I still find myself calling it. After a year, are we just distant memories?
  2. Having nearly everything require 14 steps, three separate forms, a memo, and approvals from five different departments. Ah bureaucracy!
  3. Seeing how difficult it is for family members to find fulfilling lives and not feel like 5th wheels to someone else's life.
  4. Having a real face in mind when something horrible happens that makes the news. This year for me it was the bombings in Abuja, just down the road from two friends.
  5. Worrying about a possible evacuation and what what we'd lose, how we'd get the cats out to safety.
I think it's a good thing to have a 2:1 highs to lows ratio, so I'll leave it off there and won't spoil the symmetry by complaining about really expensive cat litter or lousy traffic.

Overall, it seems like my 119th classmates are well-settled and enjoying their new lives. At least I haven't heard any grumblings. Sure, there have been some who have been far too busy to write back (hey Tajikistan - I'm talking about you!), but in general it's been a successfully adventurous year. My favorite story is from my OMS classmate who was depressed after being assigned her 10th pick (out of a list of 13). After only a few months at post she reported that, "they couldn't have picked a better place for me if they tried!" raving how she loved her job and new country. 

From the 119th this year we've already had a marriage, a divorce, a pregnancy (twins!) and a birth (not the same one), and probably an affair no one else knows about. Nobody has quit (that I know of) and we're too new to have anyone promoted or fired. But the coming years will bring more checks to this list, plus some will decide to separate from the service, and someone's spouse will join up to form a tandem.
So, I wish the new Specialists an equally cool journey these coming months. Fill us in on your Flag Day stories, if you would, and believe me - this next year is going to fly by.

Monday, March 12, 2012

It's Been Busy!

Please pardon my silence over this past week - it's been busy!
I was chatting with my OMS buddy in Pretoria today about our jobs and generally catching up and she mentioned that her section has quieted down and probably won't be hosting a VIP until later this summer.

Later this summer?!  I wish! We don't have a visitor this week and that's about all the respite we're getting lately. And it really won't be a rest, because we're all running around getting ready for the Summit of the Americas that Colombia is hosting in mid-April. Perhaps you've heard about it on the news: all the "democratically-elected" leaders of the Western Hemisphere will be descending on Cartagena for a general pow-wow. The Castros decided to be good sports about it all and not come after Colombia's President Santos went to La Habana to chat with Raul on the subject. But if Raul's not coming, then his best pal Hugo Chavez probably won't either, which will cause a small domino chain of "well if they're not going, then either am I!" to fall through Bolivia, Ecuador and some islands in the Caribbean. So basically.. ALMOST all of the leaders of the free western world will be there. Either way - it's going to heat up around the embassy as we all prepare for a VIP group to the utmost degree.

A few months ago, most of the embassy personnel signed up to volunteer for all the various assignments for the Summit, from baggage handling in the airport, to site officers at high-level meetings, to manning control rooms in hotels. On Friday, after much speculation and wondering about who will be doing what, the assignments started to trickle into our inboxes. We all compared notes on the van ride home, and the reactions ranged from excitement for being named Control Officer for a particular CODEL (Congressional Delegation), to disappointment at knowing that one would be in the belly of the airport sorting and schlepping luggage into vans. I can't tell you what my specific duties will be, but let's just say that if you're hankering for green M&Ms served to you in a red glass bowl at 03:00 am in your hotel room, and you happen to be a certain VIP - it very well could be me who fulfills your wish. Or so my more-experienced co-worker described my assignment to me when I told her what I'd been given. Hey, why not - I can handle that!

It should be fun, this Herculean group effort for less than one week while enjoying the coastal sunshine (and humidity) of what is meant to be a lovely colonial city. I've never been to Cartagena, and I'm hoping that I'll see at least a bit more of it than the inside of an air-conditioned conference room somewhere.

Meanwhile, I've hired a Spanish tutor two days per week to help me prepare for my phone test scheduled for May 1. Yup - I have a concrete date now, a goal on the foreseeable horizon. Should all go well on the phone test, I'll receive bonus points to boost my standing on the Consular register. After that, it's just finger-crossing time to see what comes next.

So if you don't hear from me as regularly as usual - it's just because we're up to our eyeballs in work these days. Watch the news around mid-April, and when you see the 10-second news bit about the President and the Secretary's visit to the Summit of the Americas - just imagine all the rest of us behind the scenes making it all happen.