Sunday, September 25, 2011

Getting Out and About

Each weekend, Tim and I try to get out and visit a new part of the city. We’ve started with the traditional touristy-type destinations, and will work our way deeper as the weeks pass. To catch you all up on our recent forays, here are some pictures and descriptions:
At 10,401 feet, perched above the sprawl of Bogota, Monserrate can be seen from nearly any point in the city. The white church and its tower is accessible via a long walk (1500 steps, so my guidebook says), a gravity-defying funicular that crawls up the nearly vertical mountain face, or the teleferico cable-car (like from a ski resort). We went up on a Sunday, which was nearly half-price from the other days for some reason that I could only chalk up to Monserrate hoping to encourage folks to come to mass which seems to run every hour during Sunday mornings into mid-day. We chose the funicular for the way up, and packed into the little car as the only gringos among loads of Colombian families and couples. It was a quick trip with great views of the city interrupted only by the tunnels and drifting clouds.
View from inside the funicular
At the top, we unloaded and explored the mountain-top cathedral and beyond to a lane of trinket shops and further to an alley of, I can’t really call them cafes or restaurants, more like an alley of kitchens with picnic tables offering amazing views to the backside of the mountains and the usual carnivore fest of choices. I truly don't know what vegetarians do in Colombia! I had my usual stand-by ajiaco soup, instead of an entire chicken, a three-foot long chain of sausage links or a side of beef (i.e. what everyone else was eating).
We did mention that this is a BIG city, right?

There were also a few restaurants in beautiful old buildings with views over the city, fancy dining rooms and extensive menus. 
We continued past all the lunch stalls to the end of the alley to a clearing where there was a little beer stand at the very peak of the mountain, under the radio towers and among the stumps of huge eucalyptus trees that we're being cleared for some reason. The view to the east, the opposite direction from the cityscape, was very Man From Snowy River, with incredibly steep faces covered in eucalyptus and evergreens.
Not sure what this is - but it's at the top, too.
Carn-fest with a view

This is where we could have eaten...

...but this is where we DID eat.

Beer shack at the top of the world.
We had hoped to take the teleferico back down the mountain, but the line was over an hour long, and so we returned in the funicular instead.

Yesterday we went down to the Botanical Gardens and walked around through different types of forests, each with neatly labeled trees, and later through a maze of glass greenhouses that varied in climates from dry desert to sweltering Amazonian. It felt great to be above 65 degrees again, until it got to about 100 degrees and I thought I was going to faint in the sudden heat and humidity. There was also a butterfly room where we walked through a collection of tropical plants decorated with tropical butterflies.
One of 30,000 varieties of orchids
After the garden, we walked through parts of the enormous Parque Simon Bolivar, and stopped into a sports complex that was hosting the PanAmeican Championships for Wheelchair Rugby. We watched part of an exciting Colombia vs. Argentina game (the US vs. Canada game was later and meant to be the headline event, but we couldn't wait that long). Instead, we found a taxi just 15 minutes before a gully-washing shower descended on the city, turning our street into a navigable river.

Sidebar: Word came from the customs and shipping guys in the embassy that our truck has finally reached Bogota and is "out there" - somewhere in the city, hopefully behind some form of security fencing. It will be another eight weeks before it can be released by the MFA and licensed, so our weekend trips will remain within walking and taxi distance until then.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Subtitle: What to do before your HHE arrives

First, let me define my terms: HHE =  Household Effects, basically your stuff. This is the stuff that gets packed up and sent over land to the edge of the land, and then via boat to your new country. This process takes months. When it arrives in your new country, the MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) has to allow customs to release it so that nice men in jumpsuits can bring it to your house in cardboard boxes the size and strength of which I'd never seen before. Really, you could live in one of these things. HHE is not to be confused with your UAB - Unaccompanied Air Baggage. Please don't be fooled by the "A" in the title and think that this stuff (weight restricted to 250 lbs for the employee and 200 lbs for the spouse) gets here at the speed of an airplane. Tim has been here four weeks now and apparently the airplane from Seattle with his UAB still hasn't made a blip on the Bogota radar screen. He has been living out of his suitcase since arriving.

So what does one do while waiting for your stuff? You get resourceful. I'd like to give you a few examples that Tim has come up with:

We have highly-polished State Department-provided wood tables and nightstands that we don't want to damage with cup and glass rings; we need coasters. Why look at this styrofoam meat packaging! Bit of soap and water, a pair of scissors and we now have chic black coasters on each table. Got houseplants? Use the entire meat tray and the lip will keep the water from dribbling onto the table. 

They sell roses for about $5 a dozen here, or $7 for three stems of lillies that will last two weeks and perfume the whole apartment. But what are you going to put them in? Empty wine bottles, of course.

Our bathroom is a well-organized shrine to dinners-past with the nail clippers, scissors and other little bathroom objects neatly corraled in a green plastic tub that our sliced mushrooms came in. The Q-Tips? Always tidy and within reach in a tomato paste jar. The sugar next to the coffee pot got the same treatment.

In the kitchen, we only have what the "welcome kit" provided us. This kit comes in a sturdy Rubbermaid footlocker and has 4 plates, 4 bowls, 4 knives, forks, spoons, a few pots - you get the picture. Therefore although we have a lovely dishwasher, we can't use it for anything more than a drying rack as we simply don't have enough dishes to spare. Having company for dinner can be a challenge, and the other night we hosted two friends and warned them that it was a "BYOPM" affair (Bring Your Own Placemat). When it's just Tim and I, magazines serve us well under our dinnerplates, but for company... well, it would just have been a bit tacky. I'm not sure what we'll do if we ever invite more than two people: BYOPKFS?

By the time our stuff actually does arrive, it'll feel extraneous; we've got just about all we need now!

Okay, except for my tea kettle. I really miss my tea kettle.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Day of Service

Embassy Bogota took President Obama's call for a national day of service in memory of September 11 seriously, and yesterday found dozens of embassy folks at a nearby Colombian Army batallion supporting soldiers who have been permanently injured in the wars Colombia has been fighting against the FARC or guerillas for decades. We came in support also of Corporacion Matamoros which provides training and services to the soldiers and their families. The focus of the day was to get the families, particularly the children, involved in games or art, and to share our understanding of how the soldiers and their families have suffered by reflecting on our own losses via terrorism. It sounds kinda' heavy, but actually it ended up being at first poignant, and then just fun. 

The day started with the playing of both countries national anthems (our Ambassador McKinley sang along with Colombia's ¡Oh Gloria Inmarcesible! which I found impressive), speeches from some of the batallion's comanding officers, the Ambassador (see news clip here, select Noticias then scroll down to the words "Homenaje a las victimias del 11-S en Colombia" I think the picture of Old Glory makes it obvious), a director from Corporacion Matamoros, a wounded Colombian soldier and my embassy colleague, Joe Giblin. Joe recited a story about of watching the September 11 events firsthand. Many of the batallion's soldiers, none looking older than 25, are amputees, have been blinded in explosions, or are tramautic brain-injury sufferers.

After the formalities, we divided into groups with the older kids and adults playing frisbee on a large lawn, and the younger ones coming into a large hall where we spread out art supplies on rows of lunch tables. The kids were pretty little, no older than about 6, so their families and the embassy volunteers helped them quite a bit with painting, drawing, molding clay and sticking glitter to anything/one they wanted. I shared a table with a darling young man, Alexander, his three-year old son Dylan and his mother Lucero. Alexander was very open with me in stating that he'd been ambushed while on patrol and had a grenade go off just to his left side, leaving him deaf on that side, damaging his face (you couldn't tell - they did a great job in surgery) and affecting him with PTSD and traumatic brain injury to the point where he now cannot go outside unaccompanied. His wife left him after saying he was "too crazy" and he functions only with heavy medication. Lucero (I don't know how she spells her name) was a very sweet woman who sprinkled "mi amor" into all her sentences, as in "darlin'" and helps with Alexander as much as she can. He told me he receives psychiatric therapy every day, but will only be able to stay with this batallion for another six months. At only age 24, he doesn't know what he will be capable of for the rest of his life. They showed me a picture on the mother's cell phone of the other brother, the spitting image of Alexander, who is currently serving with the Army, "in the jungle somewhere." Other young soldiers admitted to my colleagues that seeing their friends return to the batallion as amputees has made them very afraid to know they'll be heading out to the countryside soon to continue fighting the anti-government guerillas.

I wish that my Spanish skills were stronger, because I spent a lot of time misunderstanding or having them repeat what they were saying "en otras palabras, por favor" (in other words) so that I could grasp it all. We drew pictures of pets, houses, race cars (Dylan) and managed not to spill the paint all over ourselves. After the Frisbee and art activities, we gathered on the big lawn in the center and had burger lunches catered by the embassy. I sat with my "family" and I think I was invited to Dylan's baptism... but I'm not really sure. (As I said - I really wish my comprehension was stronger!)

It was a wonderful experience and I'm very glad I took part, however small my role was. I see from my friends' blogs that there were embassies all over who joined in the day of service. Here is another example from my OMS friend in Rabat, Morocco.

Next up: More weekend excursions

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Why I'm here

For the second time I’m watching a September 11th memorial service on television from outside US borders. The first time was the on September 11, 2002 and I was at a backpacker’s lodge in Hermanus, South Africa. I was one of perhaps two or three Americans in a group of the usual mixture of nationalities, but also a half-dozen local South African fisherman who were just in town off their boats in the Indian Ocean-side town. We were lounging in the common kitchen and TV room, chatting about typical backpacker stuff, sharing kitchen space and joking around, when a documentary, “9/11”, hosted by Robert DeNiro, quietly came onto the TV. (If you haven’t seen this film – CBS is going to air it again tonight. It’s amazing.)  Little by little conversations dwindled, sentences hung mid-air unfinished, as our attentions turned towards the screen. Quickly the room grew silent as we watched this movie, a documentary about the first days of a young firefighter’s career in lower Manhattan, replay the events as they unfolded. Even the tough-guy fishermen quit their chatter and focused on the images instead. At the end, and during the movie, the people in the room of other nationalities walked by the few present Americans and touched our shoulders, offered kind words or even gave a hug, and their actions weren’t weird or untoward; I have never felt such general understanding and caring simply for being an American.
So now I’m in Colombia, and we’re watching the memorial service on TV again. I can’t say that the 9-11 events directly spurred me to this career, really. But in July of 2001, I started to plan a trip around the world knowing that there had to be something more for me “out there” than simply staying in Snohomish County as a riding instructor. My mother and step-father were on vacation in France on September 11, sharing a country house with friends. Confused and shocked by the reports they were hearing, they took turns trying to translate the international news and began to fathom what was happening 3000 miles away. Being on the west coast, I woke up after the first plane had already hit the first tower, and was on the phone with my sister Eden in California, trying to make sense of what we were seeing on the morning news. Together on the phone, we watched the second plane hit the second tower and spontaneously shrieked in horror at what we were watching. That day, and for a week or so after, strangers would just stop and talk to each other in the grocery store. It didn’t feel weird if someone you didn’t know reached out and touched you or gave a hug. Although I hadn’t yet met Tim or the kids, we were at the memorial site at the Seattle Center at the same time days after the attacks, reading the notes and seeing the mounds of flowers, candles and stuffed animals that people were leaving alongside the International Fountain.  
I can’t say that I knew anyone who died that day. I haven’t felt the deep pain that so many thousands feel still today of having lost someone close. The closest I can say is that an Irish friend was in the first airplane, only minutes away from landing at JFK, which was turned away and sent to Nova Scotia. She stayed at the Halifax airport, and then in the home of local Canadians who opened their doors to stranded travelers, before eventually being returned to London and then Dublin well over a week later. Living in the opposite corner of the country, we certainly felt the events, but not to a shadow of a degree of what the folks in NY, DC and PA felt, obviously.
My mother and Herman came back to Seattle after their vacation and weeks later my mother, once a proponent of my plans, said, “Oh you’re still not planning to go on that trip are you? Really!” Yes, I was.  It was on that trip, when I realized that I could become an example, outside of our borders, of what I believe are the best of American values and beliefs, which solidified my drive to be here today. 

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Geopolitical War

Daphne joined her brothers after being "Only Cat" since March.

Daphne makes herself at home
  People have asked if she resumed her spot as "Top Cat" or not. I will let you all decide for yourselves, after examining the evidence:

Dodger and Toby make themselves fit

Sunday, September 04, 2011

From micro view to macro view

My post last night described what I personally do in a work day or week. Here is what the State Department and USAID do, and why all of us are here to begin with: 

The author of this article, Thomas R. Nides, was the speaker at my Specialist class swearing-in day.

(I'd like to thank Kitty Non Grata for this link.)

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Thinking of being an OMS?

Life as an Office Management Specialist (OMS) – Five weeks in:
Let me start by saying that there have been few jobs in my life where every moment I was at work, I was actually earning my kibble, and I mean every moment, bathroom breaks and lunch aside, of course. Bartending on busy weekend nights; working at ski school during Christmas break; sale weekends at Mills Horse and Tack; the day shift in Everett PD Records and now here, Embassy Bogota. My previous job was more feast and famine, with busy times followed by days where we just kept the home fires burning and I had to dig up projects or work to do. But being an OMS at one of the largest embassies in the world is a whole different story.
I’ve taken the 12 Dimensions, the criteria upon which new Foreign Service Specialist applicants are judged, and have added my own definitions. First, the real ones:
And now how these dimensions translate into real life:
1.    Composure: The ability not to break into tears or hysterical nervous laughter when your co-worker or supervisor tells you that they’ve added a side trip to a remote city for that VIP visitor, “while he’s here,” and all the flight, hotel, motorpool and in-country travel clearances will need to be made. It’s 3:30 on Friday and he needs to leave on Monday morning. You then get three “out of office” replies to your go-to people in the travel section.
2.    Cultural Adaptability: The ability not to feel like a total fool when you walk into a store and the shop folks greet you with phrases that you only recognize as greetings from their context, despite months of language training and countless hours of homework. Add to this, the ability to gracefully exit when you realize, after 15 minutes of browsing through the clothing racks, that this is a maternity store.
3.    Experience and Motivation: It really helps if you WANT to feel out of sorts, uncomfortable and lost, at least for a little while. Either you’ve had this type of experience in the past – and liked it – or your motivation to serve the USG overrides the (hopefully) passing sense of “what have I done?” There should be some little corner of you that harbors an adrenaline junkie who can hit the ground running and thrive on things being not how you’re used to them.
4.    Information Integration and Analysis: Being able to remember how to use eight different new programs for travel, time and attendance, personnel evaluations, supply ordering, high side, low side, combinations, passwords, swipe card codes, plus the usual Microsoft suite of office software.
5.    Initiative and Leadership: Not ignoring/deleting that e-mail that says they’re looking for volunteers who are willing to give up their lunch hour for the next week to solicit donations in the embassy cafeteria for cause de jour that the Ambassador is standing behind.
6.    Judgment: Even though you’ve been working all week on Big Project #1, when Bigger Project #2 is suddenly thrust upon you and it’s full of yucky details you’re uncertain how to do – knowing that it truly is the new priority and Big Project #1 will have to be back-burnered temporarily. Sprinkle in lots of easy tasks that you can complete in “just a second” to get them out of your inbox and continue to reshuffle the priority deck when Even Bigger Project #3 walks through the door. The ability to know whose requests need immediate attention, and what can stew a bit.
7.    Objectivity and Integrity: Without these, you probably won’t get past the security clearance.
8.    Oral Communication: You will be working with some really, really smart people. Being able to express yourself in complete, coherent and somewhat intelligent sentences will be necessary to gain respect from coworkers and colleagues you will meet while representing the US. Oh, and do this in a foreign language, too, please.
9.    Planning and Organizing: This is my favorite dimension and perhaps one of the most important. Your email inbox will fill up every day with messages you’ve been copied on. You’ll need to discern: does this really apply to me now? What about tomorrow? Where will you find it in three weeks when someone says, “but I sent you a message with her phone number; can you find it for me? I need to call her NOW.” Remember that your email inbox has a strict size limit; you can’t keep it all. You’ll need to devise a system of sub-files for people, projects, miscellaneous, future stuff, might be important but I’m not sure stuff and then stuff you’ve deleted stuff. Same goes for the paper files, and remember that in two years – it will all have to make sense to the person who will take your place.
10. Resourcefulness: Oh boy is this one important. Fortunately, everyone realizes that we’re all new here and two or even three years in one place is barely enough time to become fluent in your work. Therefore you need to know who to turn to for what. This will usually be the locally engaged staff who are truly the skeleton of the embassy. Who is your friendly go-to for technical issues (like when the $#@#$ printer is doing “that thing” again!), or who in motorpool has a sense of humor when you have to cancel/change the van schedule one more time. Or who knows how to use that blasted new program that has been foisted upon you? How do you order (and design) business cards for the new officer? How do you get a cash advance for an invitational traveler? How do you procure interpretation services and equipment for a conference of 300 guests… by next week?
11. Working With Others: Can you be solution person, not problem person? Can you say, “sure – I’ll figure it out!” to the A-type coworker who has overextended his/herself… again? Can you avoid the temptations of office gossip? Can you be friendly at 0704 in the van to the embassy with that person who just drives you nuts?  What if your supervisor is one of the infamous “screamers” who we’ve been warned still lurk front offices worldwide? Are you willing to make and bond with some really amazing new people, only to have to move on in two years?
12. Written Communication: So much of our work is done through email now; can you express yourself clearly, politely and succinctly without sounding brusque or rude? Can you figure out the necessary business pleasantries in your new country’s language? And finally, can you write a stellar self-evaluation for your annual review that demonstrates everything you’ve done from the above list so that you can perhaps be considered for tenure or promotion? So that you’ll have more responsibility and more things to do at your next post….

Now, do all the above in a new country, time zone, climate, language, culture, food supply, sometimes with or without family support. I recommend the following exercise: run full speed towards a target about 100 yards away. At 96 yards, a whistle will blow and you’ll have to stop, turn and run as fast as you can the other direction. Then, after only 25 yards, there’s that whistle again and you stop, turn and run a third direction still not knowing if you’ll ever  know the relief and relish of reaching a finish line and a job well done. Lather, rinse, repeat. This job is not for the faint of heart and the USG is certainly getting their money’s worth!