Thursday, December 22, 2011

Open Letter to the Secretary

Dear Secretary Clinton, 

I have a suggestion that would instantly boost the morale of every single Foreign Service Officer. Get rid of the Fly America requirement for official travel. It's stupid and more often than not it costs the traveller more time and the Department more money. A more efficient way to handle official travel is to determine a maximum cost for a route, let the officer arrange his/her own flight, and reimburse the officer up to the max amount. Just like we do for hotel costs. This change may require an act of congress, which I realize makes the chances of this actually happening close to zero. But if you could pull this off, you would be immortalized in bronze right next to Ben Franklin at FSI.

A travel-weary Foreign Service Officer

Friday, December 16, 2011

Balancing Solo

Occasionally I hear the catch phrase "work-life balance." It's often used in the same sentence as "family." My colleagues with families have great built-in excuses for maintaining a healthy work-life balance - "my kid's birthday is this weekend" or "tonight is my anniversary." My work-life balance activities, on the other hand, don't sound quite so noble - "I have a tennis lesson this weekend" or "I have a Pilates class tonight."

This is not a slam against my married-with-children colleagues. I know plenty of FSOs with families who work late when necessary. But for single FSOs, it's too easy to ditch our non-work activities for something that may seem urgent (but is it really?).  I think it's even more important for single FSOs to make a concerted effort to maintain a non-work life. We don't have kids in play groups or spouses in book clubs to help us meet non-work friends. CLOs seldom recognize the unique needs of single FSOs. So in most cases we're on our own to develop a non-work life. That can be difficult.

The last few months have been insanely busy. I've missed a lot of Pilates classes and can't remember the last time I played tennis. Maybe my new year's resolution for 2012 should be to take better care of myself.  Yeah, right.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Road Warrior

I rarely drive in Kathmandu. After I rear-ended a bus that stopped in the middle of an intersection for no apparent reason, I hired a full-time driver. But he has Saturdays off so that's the day I drive myself to the American Club. The normal road hazards encountered in Kathmandu include: narrow roads, potholes, piles of trash (sometimes burning), insane motorcyclists, clueless pedestrians, and sacred cows that are used to having the right of way. But today I had to battle a new hazard - hanging electrical wires. I've never had to navigate a vehicle around live electrical wires so as not to snag my side-view mirror (they didn't teach us that in Crash and Bang). I still can't believe some genius in DC decided to decrease Kathmandu's differential to 20.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Road Show 2011

The Embassy's Road Show program in western Nepal may be remembered as the all-time professional highlight of my time in Nepal. We donated over 10,000 English language books and materials to schools and libraries in three towns. Over 20,000 students came to the book exhibition and several thousand participated in the various programs. During the opening ceremony, I gave a speech in Nepali (my first time). I'm sure this was extremely amusing to the local Nepalis.

We held movie and documentary screenings, gave presentations on Volunteerism in America, and offered advising sessions on studying in the USA. My favorite program was an American culture contest; students who correctly identified pictures of American presidents, cities, landmarks, and famous personalities won English pocket dictionaries.

As much fun as the contests were, I think I most enjoyed the informal conversations I had with many of the students. I shared some music from my iPad (Zac Brown Band and Sugarland) and they shared some Nepali music on their cell phones. A couple teenagers brought me some Nepali snacks that I had never tried.

It really was a public diplomacy grand slam. I had a lot of fun interacting with the students and I think that came across to them. Once word got out about the Road Show, teachers from schools that had not been invited showed up and asked if they could bring their students, even as hundreds of invited students were waiting in line to enter the book expo.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

In America's Best Interest

I haven't had a chance to respond to Mr. Perry's attack on diplomats until now; I've been a little busy traveling around western Nepal advancing the embassy's goals and promoting American values. I also haven't had a hot shower or a good night's sleep in a week. In whose interest am I doing all this, I wonder?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Logic is Futile

I was Skyping my parents and talking about going home for the holidays. As always, arranging a flight is a pain in the butt. If I want to get home in time for Christmas Eve dinner, I need to leave Kathmandu now because of all the layovers. My dad logically pointed out that there is a direct flight from Bangkok. But, I responded, it's not an American carrier. My dad logically pointed out that taking that direct flight would not only significantly reduce my travel time, but it would also cut the cost of the ticket in half and save the State Department $2000. My dad is a computer programmer and lives in a world where logic rules. I work for the federal government where logic is futile.

Update: Now my dad is logically suggesting that I just buy my own ticket and have the Department reimburse me. Ah, I remember the days when I was blissfully ignorant of the insane policies of our federal government.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

My Self-Righteous Indignation

Three months ago I accepted a handshake for a job in the Public Affairs section in Kabul next year. That was the easiest lobbying effort I will likely ever have in the Foreign Service. I contacted the PAS deputy in Kabul, we had a nice long conversation, and the first moment HR was allowed to offer handshakes for 2012 AIP positions, I received an email offering me the job. Piece of cake.

Getting an onward linked assignment has proven to be a frustrating pain in the ass. The official policy is that if an AIP bidder (currently serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Pakistan or who has accepted a position for 2012) can lobby for a linked assignment for 2013. The bureau must either offer the bidder the job, or provide a reasonable explanation for why they won't offer the job (i.e. not at grade, offered the position to another AIP bidder, etc).

It's been 2+ months since I officially expressed my interest in a position. The point of contact has twice promised to reach out to my references, but has not yet done so. My request for an estimated timeline for when a decision will be made has been ignored. At the time I applied, no one else had inquired about the position. And there is nothing to suggest that I am not qualified for this job.

I'm being stonewalled. Smart people whose opinion I trust agree that I should have heard something by now. So I emailed my new CDO to ask for help. Her response was basically, "I can't help you." This followed an equally worthless piece of advice from her predecessor, which was, "Be patient and don't do anything." These are not the answers I was hoping to get from my CDO. Someone explain to me what CDOs are for!

Not surprisingly, I'm a little cranky about this. I have volunteered to return for a second tour in a danger post, where the Department says it needs good diplomats. I'm not doing it for the money, nor am I doing it for other perks. I'm doing it because the job is interesting and I want to be where the action is. But I'll admit that I was hopeful that the Department would support me in getting a good onward assignment. What a let down.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Copy and paste this to your Facebook status

I think I need to stop reading blogs and Facebook status updates about foreign policy and programs written by people who either don't know what they're talking about or would rather sit back and judge what other people are doing to make the world better.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

iPad Diplomacy

This photo got some nice reactions on my Facebook page, so I thought I'd share it here. I was in the small town of Jiri recently. I made eye contact with a little girl who smiled at me, so I pulled out my iPad and showed her the Photo Booth app. Within seconds, half a dozen kids were pressing toward me to get a look. Within minutes, I was surrounded on all sides by laughing kids. It was a lot of fun.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

My Kingdom for Toilet Paper

I've travelled to some very remote parts of Nepal and discovered that you can always find any kind of Whiskey. Toilet paper, however, remains elusive. I wonder if USAID can do something about this.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Road Tripping in Nepal

Any good diplomat will tell you that getting out of the capital is the best way to gain a fresh perspective on the country in which you’re serving. In many ways, Nepal feels like two separate nations – Kathmandu and the rest of the country. I’ve been fortunate to have had several opportunities to travel outside of the Kathmandu Valley to meet with local journalists. Most recently, I visited three districts in the central part of Nepal.

On the road in Nepal

One of the priorities for the Public Affairs section in Kathmandu is the professional development of journalists in Nepal, especially in the remote areas where most working journalists have never received a formal education or training. My first stop was in the small town of Kusma, where 20 female journalists were participating in a week-long training program sponsored by the Embassy. I gave a presentation on the impact of new media on journalism and explained how the Embassy uses social media. The energy from these motivated young women was almost enough to run the projector when the power gave out (a common problem here).

Journalists from 3 remote districts participate in Embassy-sponsored training in Kusma

Visiting the training program was just part of the reason for the road trip. The other was to meet with local journalists to understand the press environment in the remote parts of the country. A common complaint is the threat of violence from thugs hired to intimidate and attack journalists who expose corruption or write negative stories about powerful people or businesses. It didn’t take much prodding on my part to get these journalists to share their thoughts on the impunity of criminal gangs and the failure of the local government to protect the press.

A highlight of the trip was a visit to a new radio station in Pokhara that is run by and geared toward children. I was interviewed by a veteran 16 year old girl who posed hard-hitting questions about my childhood and education in the United States. My odd situation as a never-married childless woman of a certain age was another topic of extreme interest!

On-air interview with a young reporter from Chhunumunu radio station

One thing I’ve learned from official travel is to leave enough time in the schedule for unexpected things: a dancing demon on the street outside the hotel, a walk across one of the longest pedestrian bridges in Nepal, and an unscheduled stop at an agricultural research center. While these things may not contribute to my knowledge of the status of the press in Nepal, they do help me understand the everyday life of Nepalis. These are experiences you can’t have unless you get out of the capital and get out of the car once in a while.

A colorful dancer on the street in Kusma

Hundreds of Nepalis cross this bridge every day

Taking a photo of the flowers at the Agricultural Research Station in Lumle

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Founding Mother?

This past week I was shepherding a media law expert from the U.S. to a series of speaking engagements around Kathmandu. I don't normally do programs, but because this was "media-related" and I was the one who had proposed the program, I slipped away from my normal press duties for a few days to accompany him to his events.

It was a very satisfying program, mostly because of how well-received it was. When I first came to Nepal and starting meeting press contacts, one thing became evident - there is a hunger for progressive laws that protect and support a free press. Nepal is (and has been for a couple of years) drafting a new constitution. It is still a new democracy (or, rather, on the path toward becoming a democracy) and just like the new United States of America 200+ years ago, the people of Nepal must decide what values they will enshrine in their new constitution.

So when the opportunity to bring over a speaker arose, I suggested we find someone who could describe how freedom of the press and speech has evolved in America and explain some of the important issues and consequences that have resulted. We scheduled presentations to the Nepal Bar Association, journalism graduate students, and working journalists. We also arranged for discussions with broadcasting executives, government officials, and journalism organizations.

Interestingly, while the vast majority of the people the speaker presented to clearly wanted press freedom and independence from the government, at every interaction there was inevitably a question about how "objectionable" or "irresponsible" content is regulated or punished. I could see that some people had a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that free speech means that people are allowed to speak their minds, even if their minds are full of garbage. We tried to explain that for Americans, tolerating some garbage in the "marketplace of ideas" is better than some government entity deciding for us what can or cannot be expressed. And it was even more troubling for some to realize that "free speech" puts the responsibility of judging what is good information and what is bad information on the consumer of that information - the king no longer decides what is suitable for the public, YOU have to judge for yourself the validity of the information you consume.

I heard wonderful feedback after each event, especially from journalism professors and media lawyers. I would like to think this program energized the champions of a free press in Nepal and will at least spark interesting debate among those who will influence how freedom of expression is ultimately defined in the new constitution.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Trisuli Adventure

Last month before I left for R&R, I went river rafting and camping on the Trisuli River. It was a great trip, pleasant weather, good rapids, and nice scenery. It's always nice to get out of the Kathmandu Valley.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What do Americans Eat?

I visited a Coca Cola bottling plant today. The Embassy has ties with the company (promoting American business in Nepal is one of our goals) and I tagged along with the Pol-Econ officers to see if I could plant a seed with them about future public-private partnerships.

Naturally, we were offered Coke to drink. As we sat down at the table for a brief presentation on their operations, I noticed an interesting assortment of snacks they had laid out for us. Mini pizzas, french fries, and what looked like egg salad sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

It's almost as if someone was tasked with preparing food that a typical American would enjoy. I was amused at the effort. It's like if I served egg rolls and fortune cookies to Chinese guests.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Youth Diplomacy

Nepal is an extremely young country. Nearly 3/4 of the population is under 35, but the youth have never raised their voices. Until now. And I'd like to think I have a little something to do with that.

Youth outreach is a hot concept at the State Department these days. Fortunately, in a country like Nepal, where the median age is 21, focusing on youth outreach makes sense (one of the rare occasions when I can use "State Department" and "sense" in connecting sentences). Last weekend the embassy launched the Ambassador's Youth Advisory Council. We gathered together nearly 50 Nepalis between the ages of 18-32 from all regions of Nepal, from different socio-economic backgrounds and professions, and from diverse castes, social groups and religions for a 2-day conference in Kathmandu. I've been working on this project for months.

After years of violent conflict and more years of political incompetence, it's no wonder that young Nepalis are frustrated and cynical about the state of their country and their own future prospects. But the youth we gathered were bright, enthusiastic, and eager to change Nepal by starting with themselves and their communities. It was a very successful event. Taxpayers will be interested to know that this event, and the planned follow-up activities, cost relatively little money. I stuck with the premise of "Keep it simple, stupid!"

Coincidentally we're starting to see young Nepalis rise up in society. A new Facebook group, Nepal Unites, has successfully organized peaceful rallies to call on the government to get its act together. I had lunch with one of the founders of Nepal Unites this week and was encouraged by his optimism, but also his realism. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

I'm glad we're able to support the youth of Nepal in our own way. I think the Youth Advisory Council is a nice example of the kind of work we do overseas that really makes a difference.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How to Earn Hardship Pay

It's not the kind of thing I normally discuss in detail with friends and family, but it's a common conversation in undeveloped countries. It's inevitable, no matter how careful you are. To put it politely - food poisoning, South Asian style. A colleague recently experienced her first bout and we compared notes. Warning: the following is kinda gross.

I've had it twice in my first 6 months in Nepal. I've never been so sick in my life. A few things that make the South Asian version so special:

It's violent. Honestly, I expected to see my stomach fly out of my mouth.

Unlike normal food poisoning or the flu, I didn't feel better after throwing up. I still felt like crap.

It comes out both ends. My colleague calls it "dual action." Running to the bathroom, I had to pause to make a decision - which end to accommodate first? I ended up sitting on the toilet with the trash can between my knees.

My colleague has made a few lifestyle adjustments as a result of her first bout of South Asian food poisoning. She's learned to line her wicker wastepaper basket with a plastic bag. And she now keeps a hair rubber band within arm's reach of the toilet.

We definitely earned our hardship pay!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

I Hate to Play Favorites, But...

As part of my job I get 6-7 newspapers a day. My favorite paper is The Himalayan Times. Until now, the only reason for this was because it publishes Calvin & Hobbes on Sundays.

Incidentally, another paper has recently starting publishing Calvin & Hobbes. Coincidence? Or is my influence in the Nepali press taking hold?

Anyway, I now have two more reasons to love THT. On April 1 it published a front page story about William & Kate choosing to spend their honeymoon in Nepal. It wasn't until the conclusion on page 3 that they announced it was an April Fools joke.

The second reason - yesterday they used the phrase "hoo ha" in their lead headline.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Gooooood morning, Kathmandu!

This morning I was awoken by a bullfight. No kidding. Two bulls fighting outside my house.

Let me set this up for you. Get comfortable, this could take a while.

First I need to explain that my house is not soundproof. I hear everything. My next door neighbors, every tweet and caw from any bird within half a mile, and, of course, the honking. My house is on the corner of 2 small streets. In the States, when a vehicle approaches a T intersection, it stops, checks to make sure there are no cars coming, then it turns. Not in Kathmandu. Vehicles don’t stop or even slow down when they make a turn. They just honk their horn to warn any oncoming cars to get out of the way. My point is that every car that passes my house honks its horn.

I’m a very light sleeper. Not a good thing in Kathmandu. So I use the embassy-provided air filter as a white noise maker to block out the city noise. I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep or stay asleep without it. The clean air it produces is an added benefit (especially these days when being outside for any length of time burns my eyes).

Kathmandu has an energy problem, meaning there is no electricity for much of the day. The embassy provides generators, but encourages us to use the timers so that the generators won’t kick in unless it’s when we need it to. My generator’s timer is set so that if the city power goes out from 11:00pm to 6:00am, the generator will not turn on. The power usually shuts off sometime during the night. Which means my white noise maker / air filter shuts off, leaving me susceptible to noises.

Cows and bulls roam the streets of Kathmandu freely. They’re supposed to be sacred, but I don’t understand what is so sacred about farm animals picking through piles of garbage on the street for food.

Are you still with me?

So at 5:00 this morning the power was out and my generator was off, so there was no white noise to block the hideous sound that woke me up. Wondering what on God's green earth could possibly make that sound, I peeked out my window just in time to see a huge bull finish his “business.” Just then a second bull appeared and I knew this would not end well. Sure enough, they went at it. Horns locked, the second bull slammed the first bull into my gate. After a little more rough-housing, and a lot more mooing, the bulls took their scuffle down the road.

Later that morning as I headed to work, I saw a big, poopy butt-print on the outside of my gate. It’s a glamorous life I lead.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Holi & Cheese

Holi is a Nepali celebration of colors. In reality, Holi is a day for smearing colored powder on your friends and neighbors and throwing water balloons at anyone who walks by. It’s great fun, especially if you’re watching the festivities on the street from the safety of a sealed motorpool van.

Multi-colored kids would pelt our van with water balloons. The RSO on board would respond by opening the window and shooting them with his water gun. This delighted the onlookers, many of whom had been earlier victims of the young mischief-makers.

The real reason for the motorpool transportation was for a trip to the farm of a French cheese maker. When I discovered that there is a French guy who makes fresh cheese just outside of Kathmandu, I insisted that the CLO organize a trip. So a group of use went up to the peaceful spot and enjoyed a nice afternoon of cheese, bread, and sausage (all made right there on the farm) and, of course, wine (NOT made on the farm). I almost forgot I was in Kathmandu.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Things They Should Tell You in A100

I've compiled some advice that should be given to all new officers in A100. This mainly applies to working at hardship posts. I'll add to the list as I think of new things, or as others contribute something.

ALWAYS carry toilet paper wherever you go. And hand sanitizer.

Bring comfortable shoes you don't give a crap about.

Learn to like, no love, tea.

Buy good earplugs.

Never ask, “What kind of meat is this?”

Always buy the generic first class letter stamps, not the ones with cute designs whose amounts will be outdated in a matter of months. (I still have an entire sheet of 39 cent stamps featuring classic cartoon characters.)

Online bill paying and Skype will be your best friends.

Buy the annual subscription to an online greeting card web site.

Courtesy of Hannah: Never wear heels when you're a control officer. NEVER.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Freak Show

I am a freak. When I walk down a road in Nepal (outside of Kathmandu) I am a pale-as-can-be, red-headed, blue-eyed freak that causes young and old Nepalis alike to stare in awe as I pass. Sometimes I'll smile at the kids and say, "Namaste." Satisfied that I won't bite, they squeal with laughter. The freak can speak!

This was most evident during my 5-day road trip in eastern Nepal. It was amusing at first. But by the third day of open-mouthed stares, it was old. As someone who doesn't particularly enjoy the spotlight, being on display all the time was annoying.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Power Struggle

Kathmandu has a chronic energy problem. Every few weeks a new loadshedding schedule comes out that shows when each neighborhood will be without power. These outages total 12-14 hours a day. Don't feel sorry for me yet, embassy residences have generators that kick in when the city power goes out.

But the city-provided power is often not enough to run basic appliances. Sometimes when I try to re-heat leftovers in the microwave, the food stays cold no matter how long I zap it. Forget about using the stove or oven.

Last month the embassy installed an electric gate on my compound gate to make it easier and safer for me to drive in and out of my residence. Unfortunately, the city-provided power is not enough to operate the gate. Remember when people had to manually open and close their garage doors, before there were remote controlled garage doors? That's me. So, rain or shine, I have to open the gate, drive out, park, close the gate, and get back in my car. Tragic, right? Ok, now you can feel sorry me.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Establishing Connections

Recently I met with the editorial board and some reporters of one of the major press outlets in Nepal. During the discussion, they asked my opinion of the Nepali press environment. It was an interesting question, considering my previous post was Baghdad.

Iraq was a controversial topic and reporters were always on the lookout for a juicy story. So embassy press folks had to be on guard. If a reporter asked if the ambassador had met with the prime minister that day, if you weren't careful with your response ("No, the ambassador didn't meet with the prime minister") the next day's headline could be problematic ("American Ambassador Refuses to Meet the Prime Minister").

It's nice to be in an environment where the free press is still too new to have developed "gotcha journalism." Most of the major papers here will make an effort to reach out to me for confirmation before running a story about U.S. policy.

Of course there are exceptions. A paper ran a story about the latest State Department travel warning for Nepal and included commentary from an official that we were trying to sabotage Nepal's Year of Tourism. We never had the opportunity to explain that it's standard policy to issue a revised travel advisory every 6 months, or that the new advisory's language about the political unrest and demonstrations was actually toned down compared to the previous advisory. I guess I need to establish better relations with that paper so they'll give me a call beforehand next time.

At the end of my meeting with the editorial board, one of the reporters asked me when is the latest they can call me? How about on weekends? Can you imagine a Washington Post reporter asking the Baghdad Info Officer if 10:00 pm is too late to call?

Monday, January 10, 2011

I Can Be Charming, Dammit!

I'm not a people person. There, I said it. I don't enjoy chit chat with acquaintances or small talk with people I'm never going to see again. I'm not interested in what some random person's kid's second grade teacher said about his artistic abilities. Nor do I care about some other random person's hellish traffic stories.

As you can imagine, the Foreign Service - and Public Diplomacy work especially - forces these exact scenarios on me regularly. I've gotten pretty good at faking it and if there's wine involved, I may even enjoy a conversation.

Recently I was asked to attend a not-very-interesting function on behalf of the Front Office.

Front Office: Thanks for attending this. Just go, be charming for a couple hours, then leave.

Smart-ass friend*: Heather? Charming?

Me: I can be charming, dammit!

And so I was.

*I realized that most of the people I consider to be friends are smart-asses. I'm not sure what that says about me.