Monday, December 31, 2012

Jack Frost Ripping Off My Nose

Jack Frost has moved into Kabul and made himself at home. Seriously, it's cold. I'm one of the fortunate ones because my hooch is upstairs and in the middle, so it's well insulated and doesn't get too cold or damp. My commute to the office and to the DFAC is less than 60 seconds. Same goes for the laundry hooch; however, to do laundry still requires me to bundle up in a hat, gloves, and boots, and carry a bag of laundry down the icy metal staircase of death. But I'm getting hardship and danger pay, so it's all good.

If life here was dull before Jack arrived, it's even worse now. I spend a lot of time in my hooch. And with the arrival of my NetGrocer shipment, I have one less reason to leave my hooch. When I feel especially stir crazy, I force myself to go to the gym (blech). This place needs a coffee shop, or just someplace to hang out.

Happy new year. Let's hope 2013 brings some peace and goodwill.

Thursday, December 27, 2012


Diplomats often hear the accusation that we barricade ourselves behind high, concertina-covered walls. After the tragedy in Benghazi, I saw one article that suggested diplomats would "cower" in the corners of the embassy even more now. Let me dispel that myth.

I openly admit that the embassy in Kabul is not a normal place. I cannot simply walk outside the embassy gate and stroll along the main boulevards. I don't have informal conversations with shopkeepers. And there are certain times when we are not able to leave the embassy. The threats are real and I'd be a fool to ignore the security precautions designed to keep me alive.

That said, RSO has never denied my request to go off-site for a meeting or event. I have been fortunate to meet some incredible Afghans, from orphans and teenagers to media moguls. All the officers I know are eager to get out as much as possible, and I haven't seen anyone cowering in the corner.

There was an op-ed in the LA Times recently that articulated (better than I could) the balance that diplomats seek when working in dangerous locations. There is no one-size-fits-all security solution. We know the risks and we take precautions, but we're also here to do a job.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Drifting With Uncertain Fate

I recently met with a group of teenage Afghans and, having a captive audience, I asked them to share their thoughts about 2014 - the drawdown of combat troops and the new elections. Most were generally optimistic. But their optimism was colored with uncertainty. One young man said his female friends were buying burkas because they didn't know if they might need them soon. That sent a chill down my spine. A young woman - 17 years old - has high hopes for going to college and having a career. But she just doesn't know what will happen. I remember being uncertain about my future when I was 17. But my uncertainty came from an abundance of opportunities - I could do anything, it was just a matter of figuring out what I wanted.

These youths are old enough to remember what life was like 10 years ago, but still young enough to stubbornly cling to their dreams. They have spent the last 10 years going to school, talking on cell phones, and watching Bollywood movies. If the Taliban or the local warlord starts handing out guns and asks, "Who will fight and die for me?" the young adults I spoke to won't raise their hands. I hope this country has enough young people like the ones I met this week.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Real War on Women

Earlier I posted a good news story about the Afghan Premier League and the optimism it offers me about Afghanistan and its people. There's another, less pleasant side to my job. I manage a number of grants that expose the heartache and violence that many Afghans face: Adolescent girls being forced to marry old men to settle family disputes, the unrelenting violence women face on a regular basis, and the journalists who risk the Taliban's wrath to tell their stories and change attitudes toward women.

Looking at Afghanistan through the objective lens of Mission goals and American interests, I know that improving the condition of women here was not the reason we invaded. As the money coming to Afghanistan drops to a "normalized" amount, our work in this area may decrease. But one could argue that elevating the status of women in society is an antidote to the extremist voices that infect the country.

But I'll be gone by the time these decisions really come into effect. I wonder how easy it will be for me to walk away. After all, my father didn't sell me off at age 10 and I don't have a husband or in-laws who beat me senseless for not giving birth to a son. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Traveling Homebody

I'm a homebody by nature, which is why it was so surprising to find myself leaving my cozy condo in Marin County for a life of constant packing, moving, and unpacking every couple of years and living in places that are not "home." After more than 7 years of this lifestyle, I've discovered that the closest thing to "home" for me is a hotel room. I get to visit my real home in California only rarely, and the last few places I've lived what could be called "permanently" have not been very homey.

As much traveling as I do, I guess it's no surprise that hotels feel more like my home away from home than my actual living space does. My last night in Kathmandu was not spent in the place I lived for 2 years, but in Dwarikas Hotel and it was nice. When I go on vacation, or even when I'm transiting for a night, I take great care in selecting the hotel.

There's a "welcome home" kind of feeling I get when I walk up to the check-in desk. And there's a warm familiarity to the bathroom toiletries, the robe and slippers, and the room service menu. Sad maybe. So you'll forgive me if my taste in hotels has become quite snobby. It's not just a place to sleep, it's my home away from home away from home.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Afghanistan's Newest Role Models

If the only thing you know about Afghanistan is what you see on the news, I would bet that your view of the situation here is pretty pessimistic. So let me share something that gives me hope about Afghanistan's future. One of the biggest grants I manage is the Afghan Premier League, the country's first national sports league. The league consists of 8 teams representing 8 regions of the country; Men from different tribes and ethnic groups playing together as teammates.

The teams shake hands before and after the match.
Our grantee, the organizers of the league, has done an amazing job. They have raised the bar on professionalism in sports, demonstrated that corruption and favoritism have no place in the league, and given all Afghans a reason to cheer. Most importantly, and most remarkably, they have created role models for the country.

In addition to athletic conditioning and team practices, team members received instruction on how to behave on and off the field as brothers. They visit schools and youth clubs to spread messages of good sportsmanship and national unity. There are no fights on the field, no cursing at the referees, no scandals. And this example has set the tone for the fans.

The fans enjoying a pleasant afternoon in Kabul.
One concern I had at the beginning was that this experiment in sports diplomacy could backfire if the players or fans adopted a hooligan style of soccer. But although some of the players will mimic the over-acting of some soccer stars when they come into contact with an opposing player, they've managed to remain civil and respectful.

The league has taken the country by storm. I was lucky enough to attend a match one afternoon - in the VVIP box! (Even though the Department doesn't think I'm worthy, it's nice to know someone does. I have the ticket stub to prove it!) I'm thrilled to be a part of this project. In no way can I take credit for its success, but I can do everything I can to make sure the embassy continues to support it.

Friday, September 14, 2012


It's like passing a gruesome accident on the road. It's too horrible to look, but you can't help it. I know that when I turn on the news, check Facebook, or surf the web, I'm going to hate what I see. But I can't help it.

I shared the reaction of many Americans who were angry and confused about what was happening in countries where we had recently invested so much in their liberation from tyrants. I, too, wondered what that investment had meant and whether it would be better for us to pull out. Take our bat and ball and go home.

Then I saw the photos of the Libyans who had gathered with signs in Arabic and English expressing their sorrow about the death of Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi. It took enormous courage for them to  publicly support the U.S. in such a volatile time and place. And I realized that if we back out now, these are the people who would suffer. If we back out, the thugs who killed 4 Americans would have no opposition.

There are many, many people in Islamic countries who do not want to be ruled by violent extremists. And they're the reason I'm going to work today, despite my grief. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9/11/12 in Kabul

This morning there was a brief ceremony outside the chancery commemorating the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. It was a bit surreal to be standing in Afghanistan, the land from which those attacks were planned. The typical speeches were made and due solemnity was observed. The striking thing about this September 11 for me was the presence of our Afghan colleagues.

Afterwards, I asked one of our local staff how Afghans view this day and, in particular, the embassy's observance of it. With great diplomacy, he acknowledged the suffering Afghans have endured in the past 11 years, but also pointed out that for many, life now is better than it was under the Taliban. Not the same as a scientific poll, of course. But an interesting perspective from a young, educated Afghan man who was just a kid in 2001.

In the short time I've been here, I've met quite a number of impressive Afghans. I'm not claiming to understand the complexities of Afghan society, but I know more Afghans now than I did 5 weeks ago.  The friendly drivers who have been working for the embassy for years and who are always eager to practice their English. Seasoned businessmen who are establishing a semblance of an economy and free market. And young optimists who have returned to Afghanistan with the hope of helping rebuild their country.

There are some extraordinary people in this country and I'm proud that I'm working to support them. Will what we're doing here be enough? The answer to that is way above my pay grade. But now that I'm here, Afghanistan has become more than a name on a map associated with the most tragic day in my memory. It's a country of people with names and stories and hopes. Corny perhaps, but maybe I can be forgiven for being corny today.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

50 Shades of Beige

I arrived in Kabul without incident (not counting the 5 hour delay getting out of Dulles). Having served in Baghdad, my first reaction is to compare everything with that experience. In terms of the living situation, Baghdad wins hands down. That's not to say things are that bad here; in fact I'm fairly lucky. I have one of the nicer hooches, a storage container that has been converted into a "housing unit." I have a 30-second commute to my office, the gym, and the DFAC. The downside here is that so much stuff is crammed together and combined with all the closed-off construction sites, I feel like a rat in a maze. And my shoes will be destroyed before long. Some days I wouldn't mind wearing fatigues and boots every day like our military colleagues, rather than trying to pretend I'm in a normal work environment and wearing office clothes.

A 1-year tour doesn't give you the luxury of easing into the job and taking a few weeks to figure things out. So I hit the ground running. Grant work wouldn't normally appeal to me, but I'm pleased with the portfolio I have here. I'll get to do some interesting projects and the job allows me to get out of the embassy often enough to keep me from going stir crazy. In my first week here, I got out three times.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Four Cheap Umbrellas

I have three cheap umbrellas, one for each summer I've spent in DC. I keep forgetting about the summer rainstorms here, and so I never remember to pack an umbrella when I travel to DC. So when I packed out from Kathmandu five weeks ago, it was with great pride that I carefully placed my little green umbrella in my suitcase. It waited patiently, hidden in the bottom of my suitcase for a month of home leave. Then last week when I arrived in DC, I was so happy when I took it with me to Main State when the forecast said rain.

Then I promptly left it on the shuttle. I guess it's back to CVS to purchase cheap umbrella number four.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Nepal Lessons

I’ve travelled all over Nepal and have some fond – or, rather, interesting – memories that stand out. Some trips were personal, but most of my adventures in Nepal were official trips.

The road trips were the most educational part of my time in Nepal. I saw gorgeous views of lush green hills framed by the Himalayas. Beautiful birds and flowers. I also saw buses packed with people on the roof and abandoned trucks stuck in mud. I have done my personal business in places I would rather forget, and slept in beds that discouraged long-term stays.

During these road trips, my culinary experiences were usually pretty bland. Daal bhat or chow mein. After a week on the road and I never wanted to see rice or noodles again. But once in a while I would stumble upon something good. One time we stopped at a ramshackle tea house on the side of the road. We had a snack whose name I can’t spell and whose ingredients I can’t remember.  Sadly, I am resigned that I will never find that tasty treat again.

Speaking of food, while staying at “the best” hotel in Dhangadhi, it was too hot to leave my air conditioned room (I justified my laziness by telling myself that a hotel room with air conditioning was so rare, that I should enjoy it as much as possible), so I decided to order room service. The menu included hamburger, cheeseburger, chicken burger, etc. In a moment of foolish curiosity to see what a burger in a Hindu country might be (and an unwillingness to endure yet another daal bhat meal), I ordered a cheeseburger.  What arrived was two slices of bread… with a piece of cheese in between. Lesson learned.

Sometimes these trips taught me another kind of lesson. While in Jiri, I happened upon a funeral procession. A group of people was carrying a blanket-wrapped body, accompanied by musicians playing a melody that was difficult to discern, down to the river where they would set the pyre on fire. I asked another spectator how the person died and she told me he had been electrocuted. Another person had died the day before by drowning in the same river in which his body had been burned, and to which this stranger was being carried. Life is easily lost here.  Things I take for granted in America can kill you here. Faulty wiring, losing your balance while washing your clothes in the river, even diarrhea can be deadly.

It’s been an adventure. I can’t say that I enjoyed living in Kathmandu, but I’ve enjoyed exploring the country and having incredible experiences. I’m packing out soon and going on home leave, so I may not update this for a while.

See you in Kabul!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Spinster Diplomacy

As my time in Nepal comes to an end, I've been thinking about the work I've done here and forcing myself to honestly consider whether it's made a difference. While I can't boast about helping the government of Nepal get their act together (the political parties were unable to reach a deal on a new constitution and now the government has dissolved), I do think I've been able to make a small difference in how Nepalis regard America.

One of the controversial parts of public diplomacy work is that it's difficult to measure success. I think one measurement is the willingness of the host country to listen to what we have to say. Over time, our outreach efforts help us build credibility and develop an environment in which the public listens to us when we have something to say, rather than dismissing our message as "foreign interference." Of course, this is much easier to do in a country that is already favorably disposed to America.

I've travelled all over Nepal, engaged with thousands of Nepalis, and established friendships with a handful. While issuing press releases and posting messages on social media reach a large number of people (and seeing my words quoted in a newspaper never gets old), it has been the personal connections that I think have had the greatest impact. Swapping music with teenagers, sharing stories about my childhood at an American Corner, nominating a talented young woman for a prestigious exchange program to the States. These are what I'll remember most about my contributions in Nepal.

Most recently I met a young woman who works for an organization that assists survivors of human trafficking or domestic abuse. We started talking about the customs in that part of the country and what the expectations are for women of her age, religion, caste, etc. After listening to her for a while, I casually mentioned that I have never been married. She considered this for a moment and then her face lit up. "Oh, I'm so happy that I met you!" I don't think she had ever met a women who never married (certainly not one of my age) and to see a real-life example was shocking. She said so many girls are pressured to marry at a very young age, but she wants to get an education, pursue a career in social service, and continue living with and caring for her parents. I think she will fulfill that goal. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Better Things to Do

I'm not sure if it's because we're in primary season or because of the latest round of conjecture about Secretary Clinton's future, but I'm hearing a lot about the lack of women in elected positions in government. One reason that is often proposed is that politics remains a boys club where women are not welcome. I'm not sure I agree; I think the opposite is true. Based on my own unscientific, anectodal research, I think women are generally repulsed by politics. I know many intelligent, politically aware women who, when asked if they would ever consider running for office, said, "Hell no!" They have better things to do.

I'd welcome your thoughts on this, especially from the intelligent, politically aware women out there.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

No Mas

This is an open letter to all Nepalis (specifically, those who have my contact info),

Do not ask me to help you / your brother / your boss / your friend get a visa. I have no authority to issue visas and it is inappropriate for me to involve myself in consular decisions. Similarly, do not ask my staff to help you  / your brother / your boss / your friend get a visa.

If you / your brother / your boss / your friend applies for a visa and is rejected, do not send me a text message late at night telling me how unfair it is. There is nothing I can do about it and such a text message will only piss me off. You / your brother / your boss / your friend is not the first person to be upset about not getting a visa so do not expect special treatment from me.

I feel better now.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Why God Created Malls

I ran some errands today, including trying to buy a wedding gift for the daughter of one of my staff. I wanted to get something nice, not something you can find in Thamel, but not go overboard. If I was in the States, I'd go online and check out their gift register, or head to the Topanga Mall and look for some nice candlesticks. But I'm not in the States.

It's not easy finding the middle ground between doo-dads made in China aimed at tourists and overpriced doo-dads aimed at ex-pats looking for memorable Nepali souvenirs. But my persistence (and my driver's willingness to drive all over Kathmandu) paid off and I found a nice tea set.

Now… where do I find a gift box and wrapping paper?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

"F*** you, but thanks for your business."

I would estimate that the State Department has given millions of dollars in business to United Airlines over the years, much of that business it would not have gotten were it not for the absurd and grossly outdated Fly America Act. To say "thank you," United Airlines has rejected an AFSA-led campaign to extend the waiver of its new (and expensive) pet travel policy to Foreign Service Officers traveling on official orders. After United created the new policy, DoD flexed its muscle and United offered a waiver to uniformed service members. But they won't extend the same courtesy to FSOs.

So an Air Force mail clerk working at Ramstein can take his pooch without the extra cost and hassle, but a political officer going to the Sudan is out of luck.

Update (4/20/2012) - According to AFSA, United Airlines has relented and has extended the pet policy waiver to Foreign Service Officers!!!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Nepalis Call Them Hills, I Call Them Mountains

This past week I travelled to Simikot in the remote northwestern corner of Nepal to give a presentation at a journalism training program the Embassy sponsored. To get there required a flight to and an overnight stay in Nepalgunj, which is Nepali for "Land of Many Mosquitoes." Early the next morning (exact flight times are rarely known in advance) I flew in a 12-person plane that was at least 50 years old, based on the upholstery of the seats. It had an open cockpit, which I hate because I don't want to see what's going on in there, especially when we're about to take off and the pilot - I kid you not - attaches a Garmin device to the plane's dashboard.

Simikot is an isolated village in Humla, one of the most remote districts in Nepal.
Nepal is a small country, but it's geography is extreme. Within 45 minutes we had travelled from the lowlands in the south (500 ft above sea level) and through the hills toward the Himalayas. We flew pretty close over the hilltops and I could see the imposing Himalayas ahead (through the stupid open cockpit). I kept wondering when the pilot was going to go higher, but just as I was about to panic, he banked left and I could see Simikot sitting on a small plateau at 10,000 feet above sea level.

One of many such towers built to scare off evil spirits
Simikot is very remote and isolated. About 90% of everything the people consume and use has to be flown in from the outside. There are no cars, motorcycles, or bicycles. Although most inhabitants are Buddhists, Simikot looks like any other Nepali Hindu village. Polyandry (one wife with multiple husbands) is still practiced in a handful of villages in Humla, but it's dying out. Lots of Indian tourists pass through Simikot on their way to Mt. Kailash in China, the supposed resting place of Lord Shiva. It seems odd to me that a Hindu god would head north to China to die, but there it is.

One of the most prevalent castes in Simikot is the Lamas; not only an ethnic group, it's also a vocation (as in the Dalai Lama). On my second morning a guide took me for a hike outside of Simikot. She explained that the people erect a series of rock towers at the edge of the villages to keep out the bad spirits. Stones with Tibetan scriptures written on them are added to the towers for extra luck.
During the hike, my guide invited me to her sister's house for some Tibetan tea. Preparing Tibetan tea is quite complicated and the end result tastes like cream of butter soup. 

Inside the kitchen of a Lama household

It was a wonderful and informative morning. I learned a lot about how people live in the hills (I wasn't technically in the Himalayas, even though we were surrounded by snow-capped peaks). While I truly enjoyed the visit, I think living there would be difficult and, frankly, tedious. I admire the people who live there and make it work.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Pouch Trolls Strike Again

There are many things about living overseas that can be annoying. But a good FSO is prepared to handle life without a daily dose of Starbucks or first-run American sitcoms. Living in a developing country poses even more challenges, like bird flu and pollution. But this is the profession I chose and I have learned to live with the obstacles of living overseas.

What angers me the most is when the State Department, the United States government, lets us down. You would think after all these years of sending diplomats overseas, that the DOS would have it figured out by now. Think again.

Yes, the pouch trolls in Dulles have screwed me over again. I ordered some things for my bathroom to try to deflect attention from the tacky tile that covers the entire bathroom.* The towels and bath mat arrived just fine. But the soap dispenser and cup, shipped separately, were refused by Dulles. What part of the FAM did I violate by shipping small bathroom accessories? Which diplomatic security regulation did I jeopardize?

I've heard that Missions that still use the pouch in Dulles for personal mail (and don't have APO) will be converted to FPO. This change can't come soon enough. Down with Dulles!!! (The mail facility, not the town itself.)

*What is it about homes in foreign countries and their bathrooms with bold color schemes? Even if a home is tastefully done in soft tones and wood floors, but there is always one bathroom with garish mauve tile.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

What Time is it in Your Office?

You're planning a major event. With two weeks to go until the big day, you meet with the local nationals who are helping organize the event to discuss a few critical details that need to be worked out. You walk away from the meeting with an understanding of what needs to be accomplished.

What you're thinking: We need to get moving on this, there are only 2 weeks left!

What they're thinking: We're in good shape, we still have 2 weeks left.

Americans seem to have a different perception of time than the rest of the world. I have an app on my iPad that shows me what time it is in six different locations. What I need is an app that converts American time perceptions into Nepali time perceptions and vice versa. I'd pay good money for that.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Child-proofed for Your Safety

Our embassy provides each employee's residence with a large tin box filled with emergency supplies. It's usually stored in a shed, outside of the residence itself. Nepal is regarded as a high-risk country for earthquakes - a land-locked Haiti with only one airport capable of accommodating large military airplanes (by the way, a recent study showed that the runways at that airport would probably crack and be rendered useless in the event of a major earthquake).

So if a major disaster strikes Nepal, it's likely that we will need to access our emergency supplies. Some time ago I tried to open my emergency kit to check that I have everything I'm supposed to have and nothing is expired. But it had been secured with a plastic tie so I went back into the house to find a sharp cutting implement to cut the plastic tie. Recently I discovered that a new plastic tie had been put on.

I pointed this out to the officer in charge of the emergency kits and suggested that it might make sense to allow easy access to the emergency kit so that if an earthquake hits, I don't have to go into my house, which might not be stable, and find a pair of scissors to cut off the plastic tie. In response, I was told that the emergency kit is secured with a plastic tie because some employees might be tempted to take something from the kit (i.e. toilet paper) and not replace it.

What the what?

This is the same rationale that forces me to locate and use manicure scissors whenever I need to open a new bottle of Excedrin. Normally that's not a big hassle. Except when I wake up at 3:00 in the morning with a raging migraine. All because 30 years ago somebody's toddler ate a bunch of pain pills thinking they were candy.

Using my diplomatic skills to cover up my snarky inclinations, I observed that the point of the emergency kit is to provide necessary supplies to the employee in the event of a disaster, and by hindering access to the kit, we are negating the point of having it. He suggested that I buy a sharp cutting implement and keep it nearby the emergency kit, but keep it hidden so that I wouldn't be tempted to "steal" the toilet paper.

At this point I lost the strength to continue along this line of reasoning.

I would like to be treated as a responsible adult, not a pill-popping toddler.