Thursday, April 26, 2012

It's Despedida Season

Despedida: A farewell.

Today marked the first of something that I will have to go through time and again in this FS life: my first co-worker to ship out. Yes, there have been a handful that I've known who have left the embassy this year already, but this was the first officer from my section. Someone I sat 20 feet from every day for the past nine months, who started in the Economic Section the same day as I did, and who I rode in the van with every afternoon in the glorious Bogota traffic. She's headed to Baghdad in a few months with her tandem husband, so naturally there's the extra little worry for safety and all. Tomorrow the rest of us will be back in the office in our chairs, typing away as we were yesterday and as we will be next week, and she'll be on the plane, seeing Colombia through a tiny window.

It seems that a few things have pushed me into a sentimental mood lately.

First, the Summit concluded and we've had some really great talks with the Ambassador lately (the most recent one today) about the meaning of what was accomplished there and the exciting future we're witnessing for Latin America in general and Colombia in specific. Listening to him speak and realizing that I'm a part of it all now, that my daily paper shuffling and keyboard ticking is all part of a huge, global picture - well, that has been making me feel proud... and that tends to make me all watery-eyed. I can better understand the value of all those VIP visits that I complain about, because I'm starting to see the outcome of all that they're working on, the impact of our efforts here on everyone out there. The vantage point has expanded to incorporate the whole world, and I'm understanding that what happens here has implications far beyond this hemisphere.

Second, as I mentioned above, my co-workers are starting to leave. Like dominoes, we're going to lose five of eight members of the Economic Section in the coming three months. They've all been friends and (unknowing) mentors as I've learned to make my way in this new career and life. Each in their own way, both small and huge, they've molded my understanding of the work we're doing. They will have successors, but not replacements.

Third, I just learned that the invitations for the July A-100 class of new FS Officers have started to go out. As you may know, my Consular Officer candidacy is still deferred, meaning that even if my name does come up on the list for an invitation to become a Consular Officer - I will be skipped over until I re-activate my position on the list. So now I'm starting to get antsy. What if I defer for too long and miss my chance and due to budget restraints they don't hire any more Consular Officers? I have my Spanish language test next week and without those extra points, it is possible my name might never rise high enough to get the big call-up. I tried to contact the person who is responsible for re-activating my candidacy with a question of where I'm standing now, and - true to government form - I received an out-of-office reply until next week. I'm taking that as a sign that I need to be patient.

Fourth, I'm feeling itchy to move on. Living close to the equator means we have no true seasons here: just rainy and less rainy, so perhaps it's the sensation of an endless stretch of the same thing ahead of me that has me feeling anxious. Is it because I don't like what I'm doing now? I don't think so, because I'm finally hitting my stride and I am getting fluent in my job requirements. There is a LOT of exploring in Colombia yet for us to do. My husband is enjoying a good work schedule finally (more on that in a later post) and really, this isn't a bad ole' city to live in. I think I need to find a way to just slow down and enjoy what's around me and not keep looking at the horizon. It's just sooo tempting to start getting excited about What's Next! As I've noted before, this is an intrinsic part of this life and probably why we chose it.

Speaking of which, what's next? The results of my Spanish test and perhaps an open Consular candidacy.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Cartagena in Color

On Friday the Ambassador called all of us who worked on the Summit of the Americas into one of our large conference rooms to have a wrap-up thank you session. We piled into the room and found tables and buckets of "toasting" material: a few wine bottles, bottles of beer, juice and soda. It was just a few weeks ago that we were in this same room for our final Summit countdown meeting, where he gave us a pep talk about how well the preparations were going; how important our roles were to properly represent the Embassy to Washington, and the US to our Colombian hosts and, of course, to the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Everything was still exciting and stressful in equal parts.

But yesterday, with all the answers  already in our heads as memories of "how it all went," the group was naturally more lighthearted, more relieved, and probably feeling pretty proud. We assembled with our chosen drinks and the Ambassador began to speak, starting by complimenting us on the work we all did on the President, the Secretary, a handful of CODELs and other cabinet-level Secretaries' visits. This was his seventh Presidential visit during his career, and he noted that this one was by far the smoothest... even with the "scandal." Because the Summit was, despite evidence to the contrary in most of the press, much, much more than just the Secret Service's shenanigans. It was our President and 30-something others talking, for great uninterrupted lengths of time, about matters that concern this entire hemisphere. It was about the incredible potential of Latin America to the US. It was our President, doing more listening than talking, learning about what Latin America is growing into. It was about granting land titles to Afro-Colombians; about bi-laterals, about tri-laterals, about women's entrepreneurship, about electrical interconnection for the entire hemisphere, about business opportunities for all of us, a bit about drugs and yes, even about "what are we going to do about Cuba?"

It was really exciting, and yeah, the shivers of pride to be here in the midst of it all came over me more than once.  For as much as it's easy to complain about the stress level in the preparations, the unending demands, the long hours, the wee hours, the last-second changes and, yes, the "scandal" - when it's all over and we can reflect on what was accomplished - it's certainly all worth it.

Without further sentimental babbling - I'll now wrap-up the subject in pictures:

Putting out the welcome flags

Cartagena fruit lady and her beautiful dress
Typical buildings in the old walled city

Now THAT'S a flower arrangement!
Local guys playing checkers

The pastel colors and flowering balconies are enchanting

Clock tower at entrance to the walled city
Batallion of women police from all over Colombia in Storm Trooper gear - way cool!

Look - it's the President arriving!
Tough, yes - but a lady at the same time

Row of artisan shops

Shadow cat

Beautiful details everywhere

Monday, April 16, 2012

Monday Morning After the Summit

Greetings from Cartagena, Colombia - the Monday morning after the Summit. It feels like the day after the prom, not because I now have a fancy dress I'll never wear or regrets about having too much to drink - but because after all the preparation, hopes, expectations and build-up about what it would be like, the excitement as the limos arrived, the adrenaline surge of being in the midst of it all - it's all over and life moves on in a normal Monday-morning fashion.

For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about and who apparently weren't glued to CNN Espanol this weekend: Colombia hosted the Summit of the Americas, preceded by a CEO Summit with head-honchos from Big Business. 33 heads-of state and many, many Ministers and Secretaries from the western hemisphere arrived en masse to discuss common matters of importance to those of us sharing the hemisphere. Imagine what my General Services Officer colleagues went through arranging the airport logistics for the landing, parking and departure of all those presidential aircraft!

These Summits occur every three years, with the last one being held shortly after President Obama took office in 2009. Secretary Clinton was also present, so in State Department speak, this was a POTUS, S visit, trumped only by the royal flush of a POTUS, FLOTUS, S visit. But they weren't just popping in; they were here for three days and two nights, an eternity in terms of logistics to all involved. Also here were two Congressional Delegations (CODELs) the Secretary of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) and an assortment of VIPs from the Ambassador and Assistant Secretary level, each requiring their own Control Officer to handle their movements, meetings, accommodation, translation, meals - EVERYTHING. I'm not mentioning their ranks to try to impress, but rank is everything in the State Department, as it is in the military, and the higher the rank, the more scurrying around behind-the-scenes that is required. These details are arranged to the 'nth degree to the point where as the VIP begins to bend their knees, they can have a reasonable expectation that a chair of their favorite design, with a cushion covered in a pre-approved fabric, adjusted to the pre-determined perfect height - will immediately and smoothly be placed beneath their descending backsides.

I haven't written in a while for two reasons: naturally I couldn't divulge any of our preparations before the fact for security of the parties involved, but also because we've been darn busy! Some of us more so than others, such as my co-workers in the ECON Section who were given very meaty assignments and whom I hold in incredible esteem for the hours they put in. As the preparations were coming to a full-boil on Thursday night, I saw one such colleague in our Control Room well after the rest of us had gone out to dinner, enjoyed dessert and had gone for a stroll through the city streets, still feverishly working on the details of her two assignments. I asked her how it was going, to which she was only barely able to glance at me and sigh, "Dude..." which I understood completely.

I think you may be getting the picture that the Summit was a Very Big Deal for all involved: for the country of Colombia as a success story to be hosting it, for the embassy and our Ambassador to be hosting it for our Washington principals, and for our President and Secretary to be here to discuss Very Important Issues with their hemispheric colleagues.

My little slice of the action was to staff the Secretary's Secretariat. A mouthful that means that I worked in Hillary's private office where her Line Officers (the folks in DC who arrange everything for her) and the senior staff members of her traveling party come to work. There are written requirements stipulating that besides x numbers of copiers and dedicated copier techs on call, y number of highlighters and reams of paper, z number of red, black and blue pens - there also must be two OMSes present. As the office runs 24/7 - thankfully, the Embassy assigned three of us to staff it. The Secretary's advance team suggested that the three of us "work it out amongst ourselves" as to who got which shift and, having done it for over a year at the police department previously - I volunteered to take the overnight shift. I walked to work each night through the city teeming with late-night restaurant diners, people dressed up and tottering off to the next salsa club or past bleary-eyed coworkers finally tearing themselves away from their computers, and made my way to the HQ hotel to my shift. I must admit,  the overnights were fairly quiet as by midnight when I checked in, the next day's preparations had been taken care of. But I was there - ready to jump into action should the need arise, and I was able to feel more productive in the mornings as the Secretary's staff came into the office to start their days with last-second adjustments to the schedule, printing of news  story compilations and the continual preparations for the next stop on their tour (Brazil).

During the daytime, before heading back to my hotel to sleep to prepare for the next night, I found myself asking innocent questions to certain VIPs I'd see in the hotel or street, such as, "How is everything going so far for your stay?"  Simple questions that led to horror stories about duplicated reservations at two hotels, suddenly missed flights, and forgotten/misplaced bags. However, I felt very satisfied to be part of their solutions and received some heart-felt thank-yous from the visitors. More than the gecko gave me, for sure.

Let's get to the goods: Did I get to meet the President? Did I get to swap pant-suit recommendations with Hillary?


Sadly, I do not have a lovely picture of myself with either of them to share here. Just blocks of text. I did see POTUS arriving to the Convention Center from my hotel rooftop, though. My off-work coworkers and I stood at the rooftop railing and watched the procession of presidential motorcades arrive to the main event across the street from our hotel. We tried to figure out which country was arriving by the size and configuration of the motorcades. Guyana (we supposed) arrived in what looked like a rented  blue Ford Fiesta and someone's borrowed Jeep. The US motorcade was unmistakable in its excess: not only did we have a caravan of matching black vehicles including a black ambulance bringing up the rear (my mom says that the President refers to it as the graveyard Hummer), but we were the only ones to come with lights, sirens, flags, limos and a line of perhaps 25 vehicles. It was really cool - but also rather over-the-top. I choked up a bit to see how excited my Colombian embassy coworkers were to see "our" President arrive.

On the final day, the Secretary came down to the hotel lobby for photo ops  with the staff. There were clusters of Marines for one picture, hotel staff for another, our Security officers for a third and then the Control Room staff in a fourth. But - and this kills me - they said it was not traditional for her to pose with her Secretariat staff and so I was on the wrong side of the camera for each of these pictures. There will be no newly-framed and proudly-displayed picture on my desk tomorrow morning. Just the memories (sniff, sniff). But I must say that the Secretary looks beautiful in person: graceful and gracious and a lot less tired than in many of the photos I've seen. Which is remarkable given the travelling schedule I've seen her put through!

Over-all this has been an amazing experience. I understand how highest-level, multi-lateral communications work now better than ever before. I see the importance of such Summits as opportunities in everyone's busy schedules to hash out matters of global pertinence. I knew that the Secretary went out dancing until 2:00 am before the press did and I learned how to catch a gecko with a water glass and a newspaper.

What more can I ask for?

Next edition: The photos of Cartagena!