Sunday, December 20, 2009

2009 in Review

Here are a few highlights from 2009.

January 1, 2009 - The first annual Baghdad Bowl in the Green Zone.

February 2009 - I traveled to Madagascar (above) and Tanzania (below). What an amazing experience.

February 2009 - Playing tourist in the Green Zone with a couple friends, we get our picture taken with a squad of Iraqi soldiers.

March (or was it April?) 2009 - Meeting Secretary Clinton during her visit to Baghdad.

June 2009 - My final R&R started with a few days exploring Jordan. This picture was taken on a mule ride to a monastery above Petra.

June 2009 - On a dream vacation - a Mediterranean cruise starting in Barcelona and traveling to Monte Carlo, Italy, Greece and Croatia, ending in Venice (above, St. Mark's Basilica).

July 4, 2009 - Independence Day, Baghdad style. The DFAC staff always does an amazing job decorating for the holidays.

August 2009 - Leaving Baghdad after a 13 month assignment. I really enjoyed depositing the flak jacket and helmet for the last time!

August - September 2009 - Home Leave in California. I spent some time with family then finally got to enjoy the cabin I purchased in January. Big Bear offered lots of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. The photo above was taken during a hike on the north side of Big Bear Lake.

November 2009 - After a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner, my family and I stayed at the cabin for a few days. It snowed like crazy, but we managed to have fun.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2010.

The Test

At FSI, the festivity of the holiday season has been overshadowed by the fervor of the language test season. In that spirit, I'd like to propose a radical idea - get rid of the language test. This is not a knee-jerk reaction to getting a bad grade on my first progress test (I did better than I had hoped), but based on my own experience and the experience of colleagues, State should seriously consider eliminating the language test. Here's why.

The most important reason is that passing "the test" has become more important than the true purpose of language training - preparing diplomats for their jobs overseas. How much class time is spent practicing for the test and learning tricks for getting a good score? ("Don't forget to start the speaking at length portion by saying, 'This morning I will speak to you on the topic of computers.'") I admit that test-taking skills often overlap with skills that will actually be useful in our jobs, but that is a fortunate coincidence, not necessarily by design.

Secondly, the test is a sword of Damocles hanging over the head of untenured junior officers. JOs need to pass the test to be eligible for tenure; therefore, the test becomes a painful distraction. The test is also used to measure, to some extent, the success or failure of instructors and sections. Think about the consequences of that.

Lastly, as any language student (and a fair number of instructors) will tell you, the test does not accurately measure a person's language proficiency. Nerves, a poor choice of topics, and even lucky guesses can affect a student's score.

I'm not sure what an appropriate alternative would be. Perhaps a panel of instructors observing students in class over a period of several days. Or students get to prepare a presentation on a topic of their choice followed by a Q&A session by instructors. I don't know what the answer is. But I think it's worth considering that the focus FSI puts on "the test" does not prepare students for their jobs. If you're lucky, your instructor will be able to balance both goals. If you're not lucky...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Where a Diplomat's Self Esteem Goes to Die

Language training is designed to constantly push you further, so you never reach a comfort level. In preparation for my first progress test, I've been reading a lot of articles about bus accidents (apparently this type of thing happens a lot in Nepal). Just as I've gotten pretty good at reading for gist and for details, my instructor took me to the media lab and had me listen to some Nepali news reports about bus accidents. Holy crap.

I had two reactions to the news clips. The first - Why is he shouting at me? The second - Is he racing through the story so quickly because he gets paid by the number of stories he can squeeze into the newscast? More often than not, I leave class thinking, "I suck."

I guess language training is not an exercise in developing self-esteem.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

How Many Languages Can I Butcher in One Sentence?

I know enough Nepali to be able to construct simple sentences, but not enough to have a vocabulary that enables me to always communicate precisely what I want to say. When this happens, my brain reaches for the only non-English word it can think of. This is usually a Romanian word (although German occasionally pops up, too). So these days it's not uncommon for me to throw together Nepali, English and Romanian into a single sentence. While this is likely entertaining for my instructors, I don't think it will impress the testers when the time comes to evaluate my progress.

It reminds me of a time when I was traveling through Europe a couple years ago. The man at the airport check-in counter asked me a simple question to which I responded "Da, I mean yes, I mean ja, I mean si, I mean... where am I?" It's a very cosmopolitan life I lead.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


A month into Nepali language training, and the steep incline of learning has abruptly flattened to a plateau. That first month was great. I absorbed every drop the teachers threw at me. Learning a language full-time is much easier the second time around; I was miserable for most of Romanian language training.

I am the only student in my class. This is good for a few reasons. Namely, I'm only in the classroom 4 hours a day (but there's plenty of homework) and my teachers can customize the instruction to fit my pace and fluency. The other edge of that sword is that there's nobody else to take the heat for a while. It's all me all the time. And it would be nice sometimes to have another native English speaker in the class to help understand the grammatical explanations given by the non-native English speaking instructor. ("Did you understand when to use 'maa' in the post position and when not to?")

The other downside is that by the last hour of class on Friday my brain is slush. It just shuts down, like a stubborn mule that refuses to budge no matter how hard you kick it.

So now my stubborn mule brain and I have scaled the initial steep climb and have leveled off. I can see up ahead the rocky path of complicated conjugations, illogical verb tenses, and frustrating sentence structures. I'll need some sharp spurs in the next 9 months.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Circle of Strife

FSI Day 1

Me: I'd like to request access to my OpenNet account and get my FSI INET account password.

IT guy: It looks like Baghdad hasn't transferred your account yet. You'll have to send them an email and ask that they transfer the account.

Me: Um, how can I send them an email if I can't log on?

IT guy:
Try logging on to the NEASA server. It might take a while the first time.

Me: Ok. And my FSI INET account?

IT guy: Here's your password. You should be all set.

Day 2

Me: I tried logging on to my FSI INET account but it says it's disabled and to see the network administrator.

IT guy: Huh. Let me try something... Ok it should work now.

Day 3

After 40 minutes, I was able to log on to OpenNet through the NEASA server yesterday and sent an email to Baghdad to have them transfer the account. But today I logged on but couldn't get anything done. Before the system crashed for the fourth (and final) time, I saw that someone in Baghdad had replied to my email, but I couldn't read it.

IT guy:
Oh. Go see Oliver, he'll have to help you. But it looks like he's pretty busy with someone else right now.

You're telling me that out of all the people at the IT Help Desk, only Oliver can assist me, and out of all the people at the IT Help Desk, only Oliver is unavailable right now?

IT guy:
Yeah. Do you wanna wait?

On the next episode of The Circle of Strife - payroll & voucher bureaucracy.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bye Bye Baghdad

As my departure from Baghdad approaches, I've been thinking about the past year. Here's what I will miss and what I will not miss about Baghdad.

What I won't miss:

Stepping outside and getting sandblasted by 115 degree wind and dirt
Iranian-made rockets
Action memos and 8-page cables

Baked fish and steamed vegetables
Personal Protective Equipment (aka kevlar vest & helmet)



What I will miss:

Some incredible people
Flying in helicopters
Free all-you-can-eat ice cream
Girls night
Big guys with guns opening the door for me
The DFAC when it's decorated for holidays

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Kurdistan Elections

At the end of July, the Kurdistan Regional Government (a semi-autonomous area in northern Iraq) held elections for their parliament and president. I was part of a small team from the embassy that travelled to Erbil for a week to help monitor the voting and ballot counting.

The election monitoring teams were split up, and I travelled to Sulaymania and Dohuk. Each location is about a 3 hour drive from our base in Erbil. Kurdistan is very safe compared to the rest of Iraq; in fact, the Kurds like to boast that not a single American has been killed in the region (I guess that’s true of you don’t count certain cities in disputed areas along the border with the rest of Iraq).

Despite the safer environment, our security was tight. Our convoy included 5 armored Suburbans and 11 armed bodyguards. Our driver was a “banged up” former Special Forces soldier from Georgia wh
o addressed everyone as Sir or Ma’am. We wore our body armor in the car. This was not a low profile movement.

The first day in Sulaymania I observed the special needs voting for the KRG soldiers, called the Peshmerga. The second day in Dohuk I observed the general voting. Our main job was to observe the actual voting process to make sure everything went according to the regulations. But the part I enjoyed the most was talking to the Kurds. Most seemed very happy to answer my questions (through an interpreter), although it’s likely they were just interested in a pleasant distraction from waiting in line in the extraordinary heat.

I was happy to see th
eir enthusiasm and their confidence that this would be a free and fair election. I saw a surprising number of elderly people, but also young people. Some voting centers were more orderly than others, but standing in the heat for a couple hours would make anyone cranky.

As it turned out, the elections had a large turnout and the new opposition party, the Change party, won nearly twice as many parliament seats as expected. It was a historic election and I’m glad I got to see it up close.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Independence Day Baghdad Style

When it comes to holidays or special occasions, we have a saying - this is Baghdad, we make do with what we've got. Today, July 4, is a good example of this.

I woke up this morning to yet another duststorm. Let me try to describe what this is like. The dirt is so fine, it hangs in the air effortlessly. It sneaks into the buildings and fills the hallways with a haze. It creeps past doors and blast-proof windows and settles on everything. Walking outside results in a grimey coat of dirt on skin and in hair. People cover their noses & mouths with surgical masks or handkerchiefs to avoid breathing in the dust.

But today is the Fourth of July. Grilling outdoors is not ideal, so we make do with eating our hotdogs and burgers inside the DFAC. The staff did a wonderful job decorating and it even cheered me up a bit. I enjoyed a traditional American meal of BBQ chicken, corn on the cob, potato salad, and root beer, followed by apple pie with vanilla ice cream. Not bad.

Embassy volunteers set up carnival-style games and contests. Throwing footballs through hoops and bouncing ping pong balls into bowls, all in the hope of winning a t-shirt. The highlight, of course, was dunking my roommate. I can't imagine how we got a dunk tank in Baghdad.

I missed the parades, the music, the outdoor BBQ, the flags, and the fireworks. But in Baghdad, no fireworks is probably a good thing.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A New Regime

There have been many changes in the front office. With the exception of the DCM's OMS and myself, the entire staff has turned over. I recently returned from a 3 week vacation and found myself in the position of being the office veteran. Change can be both good and bad, but I think the positives are outweighing the negatives. The demand on us staffers is different; the hours are still long, but I am not chained to my desk as strictly as before.

The best change for me has been a sense that I can make a valuable contribution if given the chance. As the "office veteran," I am being utilized in a way that I haven't been before and it's nice. Of course, my time in the front office is coming to an end so this nice feeling will be short-lived.

A junior officer emailed me the other day because she is thinking about bidding on this position. She asked me to tell her about the job and it forced me to summarize the past 11 months; it wasn't easy. I told her about the dark side of what is a thankless job - the mundane tasks and the monotony. But I also told her that when I look back on this assignment when it's over, I will probably focus on the unique experiences it offered and the amazing people with whom I had the privilege to serve.

Two more months to go!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Day at the Museum

The Charge was invited to tour the newly re-opened Iraqi National Museum and I tagged along. As we pulled up to front of the building I saw a small group of people holding signs and a few reporters with cameras. I panicked because I had told the Charge there would be no press and she doesn't like surprises. It turned out that they weren't there for us; they were protesting the removal of the previous Director of the museum. This is Iraq, after all, and even something as seemingly innocuous as a museum has political intrigue.

The Deputy Director led us on a tour of the museum's impressive collection. Being a history nerd, I got a kick out of the small clay tablets with cuneiform writing that served as ancient trade contracts. I also saw statues and wall carvings that are thousands of years old. And illustrated manuscripts that reminded me of old illustrated bibles painted by monks.

The Embassy has been collaborating with the museum to not only preserve, catalog, and display its artifacts, but also to help return artifacts that, one way or another, ended up in other countries. The National Museum has come a long way in a couple of years and I hope it will become a great source of pride for the Iraqis.

Monday, April 6, 2009

VIP Visits

President Obama visited Baghdad on his way home from Turkey. The original itinerary had him arriving in Baghdad in the late afternoon, calling on the Iraqi leaders in the Green Zone and visiting Embassy staff for a "meet-n-greet" before returning to Camp Victory to meet the troops. During the hours leading up to his arrival, everything was going smoothly until shortly after lunch when someone spotted an Arab press report announcing "President Obama in Iraq." All hell broke loose. We scrambled to get everyone up to the conference room and phone calls to lots of important people were placed. A variety of scenarios was considered: cancelling the trip altogether, cancelling the calls on the Iraqi leaders and only doing the airport and the Embassy, keeping the itinerary the same, or only doing Camp Victory. In the end, a brewing sandstorm made the decision easy - the President would land at the airport and meet the troops, but not come into the Green Zone. While the military scambled to accommodate a last-minute press conference and high-level meetings between the President and the Iraqis at Camp Victory, the Embassy scrambled to coordinate the transportation, escort and staging of no fewer than 5 Iraqi leaders (and their motorcades) to Camp Victory with virtually no notice. In the end, the President got his photo op with the troops and his face-to-face meetings with the leaders.

Embassy Baghdad receives Distinguished Visitor (DV) trips every month. This month alone we have three Congressional Delegations (CODELS). Unlike at most Embassies, where such a visit would shut down normal operations for weeks, these visits (with the exception of a presidential visit) rarely register more than a blip. That's mainly because we have a Legislative Affairs staff that coordinates the logistics of these trips. So the only extra work for me when a DV or CODEL comes to town is a little more paperwork.

CODEL itineraries usually include lunch with military constituents. I've never seen a member of Congress request to meet with constituent Foreign Service officers. Soldiers in fatigues make a better photo op than diplomats in suits.

Kudos to Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina. When his CODEL arrived in the front office this week to meet with the Charge d'Affaires and the Commanding General, he broke away from the group to say hello and introduce himself to us lowly staffers and thank us for our service. That's never happened before.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Basra Transfer of Authority

Earlier this week the Brits handed over control of the southern portion of Iraq to the Americans. I accompanied the Charge d'Affaires ("acting Ambassador") down to Basra for the transfer of authority ceremony. The Brits certainly know how to stage a ceremony. A bagpiper led the VIPs to their seats and a military band played and marched for our entertainment.

There were speeches by the British military, the U.S. military (General Odierno is speaking in the photo below), and Iraqi military. There were also benedictions by U.S. and British chaplains and a Muslim cleric. The U.S. raised their company flag, the Brits lowered theirs, and the band played all 3 national anthems (the Iraqi women sitting behind me sang their anthem proudly).

I bumped into a couple representataives from the Romanian army. General Tomescu is the deputy commander of one of the multi-national divisions. He was very excited to hear my "Buna ziua" greeting and we exchanged business cards.

A ride back to Baghdad on the C-130 (I miss the roomier C-17s!) and a helicopter ride from the airport to the Green Zone and I was back in the office by 4:30. Just another day in Iraq.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Jambo! Karibu Tanzania!

I thought writing a blog entry about my trip to Tanzania would be easy, but it turns out that it's not. I wish I was a better writer because I don't think words, and even pictures, can convey what a great experience this was. Despite a number of headaches getting there, I arrived at Ndarakwai Ranch, where my safari began. The ranch is private land, so the animals that roam there are protected from poachers and predators.

From the back porch of my tent, I watched a huge tribe of baboons walk onto the property in the morning and walk back out at dusk. Monkeys played in the tree just outside my tent. The sounds of Africa at night are fascinating... until about 11:00 when it's time to use earplugs in order to get to sleep.

I spent 2 full days with a guide and we went out in a car and also on foot. There is a watering hole on the ranch that attracts the animals, especially during the dry season. But the real joy was exploring the property and finding elephants, zebras, giraffes and other animals all around us. Tracking a group of giraffes on foot was a very cool experience. Early March is the end of dry season so there isn't much flora to look at, but it's a great time of year to see the babies. All the animals I saw had at least one baby in the group.

The next part of my trip took me to Ngorongoro Crater. This is an amazing place. Amazing. I saw everything I had hoped to see and more. Elephants, zebras, gazelles, lions, hippos, flamingos, rhinos, and birds whose names I can't remember.

And if that wasn't enough, I also visited Lake Manyara National Park. The highlight there was the group of hippos resting themselves at the small pond. They reminded me of the sea lions at Pier 39 in San Francisco - big fat gray creatures lying on top of each other and occasionally barking at each other.

After my safari adventure, I spent a few days lying on the beach in Zanzibar. I only have one picture - the view from my back porch - because all I did was lie on the beach and read. Aside from a little annoying attention from a couple of locals, it was a very relaxing way to end my African adventure.

Monday, March 16, 2009

C-130 Ladies Room

Because my arrival home has been delayed and I am unable to upload photos from my Africa trip, I thought I'd share a mini-adventure from Amman - Baghdad - Kuwait flight (bad weather diverted us to Kuwait for a couple days).

The flight was on a C-130, an Air Force cargo plane that was designed for transporting cargo and hardened soldiers; it was not designed for transporting spoiled diplomats who cried when the Department stopped providing upgrades to business class, and it was certainly not designed for women. As part of the introductory briefing on board, the airman explains that for men who have to... relieve themselves, there is a fold-out urinal along one of the walls. For women, they have... a bucket.

What was supposed to be a 90 minute flight turned into a 4 hour trip. Some of us ladies just couldn't hold it anymore, so someone requested that accommodations be made. The airman, bless his heart, said, "gimme 5 minutes." He assembled a makeshift ladies room that consisted of a bucket, a small toilet seat obtained from God-knows-where, a plastic bag, and a tarp. Tragically, I did not take a photo of the C-130 ladies room, so the best I can do to share the experience of going to the bathroom on a C-130 is to describe it in the following way:

Step 1: Carefully make your way up and over the cargo pallet in order to access the ladies room from the un-tarped side.

Step 2: Don't look too closely at what you're about to sit on.

Step 3: Try to get as steady a footing as you can between the cargo pallet and the wall, compensating for the 40 degree slant on which the ladies room toilet has been temporarily set.

Step 4: Do your business and pray to Jesus that the tarp protecting your modesty from the rest of the passengers doesn't fall down.

And that is how a lady goes to the bathroom on a C-130 while it circles Baghdad.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Madagascar Reflections

I arrived in Madagascar a week ago to stay with a friend of mine who works at the Embassy in Antananarivo. Despite the ongoing threat of political protests, I explored the city a bit and enjoyed a few good meals. "Tana" is a confusing city to get around - narrow streets with no signs (not even to tell you that it's a one-way street) and a lot of pollution. I can't say I was sorry to get out of Tana and go into the countryside.

Our weekend road trip got off to a late start Saturday afternoon because my friend was obliged to hang around to see if the planned demonstration would turn violent. It didn't, so we hit the road and arrived in Ampefy in time to take a bottle of wine onto the hotel terrace and enjoy the sunset and a lightning show before having a nice dinner.
The next day we drove off-road to see if we could find the Chute de la lily waterfall. A group of kids accompanied us on the 10 minute walk, carrying baskets of volcanic rock souvenirs on their heads. I tried balancing a basket on my head as we walked along, which amused the local kids immensely. The rural villages are often just small mud and brink dwellings and the people live off the land. Pineapples, bananas, and other fruit I don't recognize are sold along the road just about everywhere.

The highlight of my trip to Madagascar was my visit to Andasibe and Vakona Forest Lodge. I arrived on Monday, just before lunch. The lodge is beautiful and there is amazing wildlife all around. The lodge has its own lemur island reserve. I have to say this was one of the most fun things I've done. The lemurs are well-accustomed to humans and eagerly approach when they see people coming (and smell the bananas). To be able to touch and feed them was incredible; and to see them close up and watch them leap from tree to tree was almost unreal. A canoe ride to the other islands allowed me to see other species of lemurs, the ring-tailed lemurs being the most entertaining.

After such an amazing experience, I wasn't ready to go back to my cottage, so I walked up the road for a while. Some kids saw me and yelled out, "Bon jour" and squealed with laughter when I responded, "Bon jour." English is only just now starting to be taught in school, so I wasn't able to communicate much with the locals. But their excitement at seeing me was enough. I got back to my cottage just as it started to rain, so I sat on the porch and enjoyed watching the birds and listening to the mysterious sounds of the forest. Sitting there doing absolutely nothing except enjoying where I was made me wonder how I was so lucky to be there.
The next day, I hired a guide to lead me through a nearby national park. Being the intrepid explorer that I am, I was well-prepared for an arduous 4 hour hike, but instead I was distracted every 30 seconds by a giant colorful butterfly or a camouflage gecko or a kingfisher or an unusual plant. We also saw 2 kinds of lemur, including the Indri. They are much harder to track in the wild than on Lemur Island and it's certainly harder to keep up with them stumbling along the forest floor while they are flying through the trees above. And they don't cooperate with people trying to take their photo. For this reason, I'm particularly proud of the photo I finally got; even though it's really not that extraordinary.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sightseeing in the Green Zone

Embassy Baghdad is a 7 day a week embassy. Even when we do get some down time, there aren't that many things to do. So when the rare occassion arose when I and a couple friends all had a free morning, we went for a drive around the Green Zone and hit a few of the "tourist" attractions.

The crossed swords is a must-do photo op. There is a pair of giant "Saddam hands" holding swords at either end of the parade grounds. At the base of the hands, helmets obtained from captured or killed Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq war are embedded in the cement.

The parade grounds are also a staging area for joint U.S.-Iraqi military exercises. As we left the crossed swords, we passed by a group of Iraqi soldiers who were happy to pose for pictures with us. I've never seen a dozen camera phones appear out of nowhere so quickly. It was a lot of fun and, as a staff assistant, just about the most interaction I've had with Iraqis.

Next stop was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A very large clam shell shaped monument, that, apparently, has a tomb somewhere beneath it. It was a pleasant change to be a tourist for a couple hours.

As we walked back to the car, one friend snapped us back to reality by reminding us to "check the car for sticky bombs." We didn't find any.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Mail Run

Another sign that Embassy Baghdad is not like normal embassies is that the mail run between the Embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs requires bullet-proof gear and a 3-car convoy. Today it was my turn to do the mail run.

I donned my flak jacket and helmet, got my instructions from the security agent in charge, and got into an armored suburban. Rule number one when travelling with a PSD (personal security detail) – never open or close a door, the PSD does that. This is a good thing because those doors are heavy!

It is a short drive to the check point and we barely drove into the red zone before we arrived at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All three vehicles parked in front of the building and, remembering rule number one, I waited. A team of armed men got out of the other two vehicles, surrounded the vehicle I was in and did a quick survey of the environment before opening my door. Then they surrounded me as we walked into the building.

Once inside I took off my flak jacket and found my contact with whom I exchanged the mail (we have diplomatic notes for them, and they have diplomatic notes for us). While I was waiting, the Iraqi official started off by congratulating us on our new president and then going on a rant about President Bush. I have a feeling he was just testing me to see if he could get a reaction from me, but I kept my mouth shut.

This is the good part. After we exchanged the letters, he asked how someone would go about finding a marriageable American woman. I thought perhaps I didn’t hear him correctly, but then he said very plainly that he wanted an American wife. I said something vague like, “that’s not an easy thing to do,” disliking the turn the conversation had taken. Sure enough, he asked me for my business card. I didn’t have one with me. "Next time," he said. Sure.

I don't know if the PSD agents are trained in extracting unmarried female diplomats from unwanted marriage proposals.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Lunch at the Freedom Cafe

There is a market/cafe just down the street from the new Embassy compound (NEC) called "Freedom." A few of us walked there for lunch. I had been there a couple times before, hoping to buy some items, like butter, that we can't get at the PX. There weren't many people there; others have told me that the customers were usually American Embassy officers desperate for a non-NEC meal.

This time was different. The lunchtime crowd was mostly Iraqis and nearly all the tables were full. We walked to a table in the back, getting the stares that a black man, two white guys, and two red-headed women could expect from a cafe full of working class Iraqi men (I did spot a woman at one table later on). We had a wonderful meal of lamb and several side dishes of potatoes, beans, and eggplant.

The market/cafe is owned by Christian Iraqis. I know this because 1) the first time I visited, my colleagues introduced the owner; and 2) on the back wall is a large picture of Jesus and his disciples at the last supper, the framed print accessorized with a shiny tinsel boa. While Christians may suffer harassment in other parts of Iraq, at least here they seem to be doing good business.