Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Interesting Times

This is my front porch where I sit, read, smoke my cigars and relax!

Merry Christmas!

In Muslim countries the Christmas season coincides with the celebration of Eid. This celebration honors the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son upon God's command. After passing the 'willingness' test, Abraham was permitted to substitute a sacrificial animal for his son. Today, the Eid celebration, much like Christmas, involves family time, the exchange of small gifts and the sacrifice of an animal (or a badly behaved son). Goats, cows and camels are the preferred sacrificial beasts and there are two markets in Islamabad that sell these animals.

The other day I saw an article in the local paper about these markets and the high prices the animals were fetching this year. Goats were being offered at prices starting at $100! Cows were upwards from $500 and camels, well, don't even get me started on camels. Apparently, it's outrageous and the sounds of great and many lamentations were heard throughout the city. So, I thought I'd wander over and check the markets out. It would be an opportunity to see something unique and different and I'd try to take a few pictures. Prior to doing anything of this nature, we check with the RSO (Regional Security Office) to make sure it's okay. In the politest possible terms the RSO asked me if I was out of my cotton-pickin' mind and explained that the markets would be full of very disgruntled men who couldn't afford to buy the most critical component of their Eid celebration. Many of these men go about armed and could well resent having a Westerner wandering around photographing their plight. Under those circumstances, he explained, and because all Westerners are thought to be wealthy, I might just as well go into the markets wearing a sign on my back that read, "Kill me and rob me". Hopefully, this will explain the lack of some really interesting pictures of the animal markets on this posting.

The Eid holiday was Thursday and Friday and our Christmas break was Monday and Tuesday, so most of our locally employed staff were given a six day break. Because we were busy preparing for various visiting delegations and the Pakistan national elections, the Americans in the Embassy worked almost straight through the break. We were ordered to take Christmas day off and without that command, one Grinch or another would have surely called a meeting! Two of my colleagues hosted a Christmas dinner and invited thirty or so of us over to eat, drink and celebrate. The evening was a great success and provided some welcome relief from the pressures of preparing for our visitors and getting ready for the upcoming elections while attending to the day to day business of running an Embassy.

The following day (Wednesday) the first of our delegations arrived and we went into action like a well oiled machine. This particular group was headed up by Senator Arlen Specter and included Congressman Kennedy. They had a full agenda of meetings with various officials and dignitaries including President Musharraf and General Majid who is the new Chief of Staff of the Pakistan army. So, bright and early Thursday morning we hammered down the motorway to Rawalpindi to attend the first meeting of the day with General Majid. The good General thoughtfully provided a very nice room for the security detail, the drivers and me and we enjoyed his hospitality while the delegation met with him. Then, exactly one hour later, we were back in formation for the return trip to Islamabad and our appointment with President Musharraf at the Presidential Palace. It was a beautiful day so we opted to stand around with the cars rather than sit in the waiting room while the meeting took place. I'm sure you would be very interested in what took place in those meetings, but I don't actually attend any of them. However, I know from the people who do attend that it goes something like this...after greetings and pleasantries one or another worthy says, "blah, blah, blah blah" and someone responds with "yes, but blah, blah, blah blah" Then there is much nodding and shaking of heads and a few more "blah,blah blah's" It all gets summed up in the end with "blah, blah blah" everyone shakes hands and that's all there is to it.

The agenda had some free time for our visitors after their meeting with the President and I escorted Congressman Kennedy to the National Heritage Museum. It's a small facility on the outskirts of the city and is quite complete in its representation of Pakistan's culture and history. A Punjabi folk group played native instruments for the Congressman as we left and he had a great time. Then we escorted Senator Specter to the Islamabad Club where it had been arranged for him to play a squash match against a former world champion. The Senator seemed delighted with the competition and was in a great mood as we headed back into Islamabad so he could get ready for dinner with Musharraf and then a late night meeting with Benazir Bhutto.

We heard about the attack on Bhutto on the way back to the hotel and spent the rest of the evening trying to sift the facts from the rumors. As the truth gradually became known, all further meetings and events were cancelled and the delegation decided to depart the next morning. We took them out to Chaklala air base under heavy escort and saw them safely out of the country. Our return trip to the city was temporarily delayed because demonstrators had set fire to the road. For those of you interested in precisely how you set fire to a road, tires soaked in gasoline will do the trick. As soon as it was safe, we drove back without incident. The country was locked down in anticipation of widespread violence and we returned to the Embassy to wait, watch and plan. Later that night we were all safe in our own homes watching CNN or BBC. Communications with the States were nearly impossible because the sheer volume of phone calls and internet usage overloaded the systems here.

Things are quiet in Islamabad and the violence in the other cities has subsided today (Saturday). Bhutto has been buried next to her father in their family plot in Karachi and there is no indication as to whether or not the elections will go forward as planned on January 8th. The current debate on the local news broadcasts questions exactly how she was killed. Early reports suggested that she was shot prior to the bomb explosion but now the government maintains that she wasn't hit by bullets, shrapnel or pellets and that she died as a result of hitting her head on part of the sunroof as she fell back into her car. She had been standing up through the sunroof waving to the crowd as she left the rally when she was attacked. I suppose it's important to know the details, but the end result is the same; there was a successful assassination attempt on Benazir Bhutto and it has thrown Pakistan into even more turmoil than usual. Many nations have expressed outrage at the act and sympathy for the Pakistani people and the Swiss government announced today that it was dropping its money laundering charges against her...but would continue to pursue them against her husband. Hey, business is business!

I'll be back at work tomorrow (Sunday) trying to figure out how to run a motor pool without gas as all fuel deliveries have been temporarily halted by government decree. Maybe I can requisition some of those unsold sacrificial animals to lug people around? "Yes, Ambassador, the big camel in the front is yours, Ma'am. Watch your step and don't ruin your shoes in that pile of ..."

I've settled into my house and find that I like it more and more. It seems that, for one reason or another, several other diplomats were offered my house before me but turned it down. In fact, it sometimes feels like everyone I meet had a shot at living here before getting a place they deemed more suitable. For some it is too noisy, for others too small and for one woman it was, "not a place where a single woman would be comfortable". It is on the main Margalla Road, but that puts it across the street from the Margalla Hills and the afternoon sun lights them up beautifully. There is noise from the road, but not more noise than you'd find in any similar city. It has two very comfortable bedrooms instead of the six or seven commonly found in our houses here, but we are all here alone so how many bedrooms does one 'single woman' require? The furniture is Embassy furniture and, while very nice, is exactly the same in every residence, big or small. The yard is among the largest in our inventory of houses and has been whipped into shape by the gardeners in a very short time. It's true, I have a mosque across the street and the Imam leads prayers with an impressive sound system but show me a street in this country that does not have a mosque on every corner. All in all, I think my house is just fine and legions of diplomats to come can reject it again after I'm gone, but for now, I'll live here quite happily.

These are some of the bananas ripening on the tree in my back yard.

These are the trees I look at while I'm sitting on my front porch.

And this is the interior of my "too small, unsuitable, oft rejected" rent free house.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


This is a picture of the front of my house and my front yard.

Friday I hiked the perimeter of the Embassy. That meant walking around the outside of the compound walls with a security detail, checking the surrounding area. We look for blind spots between guard posts, evidence of tunneling, encroaching vegetation or cover and any other obvious security concerns. Although there weren't any security issues, I did come upon a family of wild pigs. A river runs along the back wall and, I suppose, these pigs were on their way down for their late afternoon paddle. They ignored me and I didn't intrude on their personal space. The boar was HUGE! I'm told they can be quite dangerous, but I'm a very non-threatening type so they left me alone. Interestingly enough, although pork is strictly prohibited ('haraam' in Urdu) for Moslems, wild pigs are hunted, butchered and sold as 'Mountain Game'. Perhaps they taste like chicken?

Yesterday I played golf at the Islamabad Country Club, Members Only. It seems that, as diplomats, we receive courtesy memberships and can play simply by ponying up the greens fees. There are no carts and we are required to hire the local caddies to carry our clubs. We also hire one or two fore-caddies to stand down the fairway to keep track of our golfballs. Our caddy displayed an amazing talent for finding the balls that were in the fairway but didn't prove to be so adept at locating the balls that went hither and yon. If I ever actually hit a fairway, I'm pretty certain that I could find the ball all by myself but I tend to lean more towards the hither and yon side as a rule. After I'd lost the third ball to the dense rough I suggested that he might try to watch where my ball was going, that being his job and all.  He said, "Yessir, but it would be much easier for both of us if you would just hit it into the fairway!" I've been playing golf for forty years and that simple solution has, apparently, never occurred to me. No wonder I lose so many golf balls. The weather was absolutely perfect for golf and I was playing with my own clubs, so most of my prepared excuses were invalid before we began. My caddy, Nassir, agreed with all of my club selections and consistently told me to putt to the "right side" of the cup. It wasn't until the fourth hole that I realized that the only words of English he knew were "good club" and "putt right".  He could, however, shake his head in eloquent disgust at every shank, hook and slice. In spite of my state of play, I had a great time and was surprised to see peacocks roaming all over the course. They are not dangerous, not haraam and probably taste like chicken. The whole day cost a little less than twenty dollars with gratuities thrown in. I think I'll play again.

Today we held the semi-annual embassy auction. Twice a year we auction off computers, furniture, appliances, equipment, rugs, and surplus items to the general public. The GSOs are responsible for the auction and I'm a GSO. We had a crowd of about 400 people show up to bid on 307 lots. We arrived at the site at 7:30am, the auction began at 9:30am and ran, non-stop, until just past 4:30pm. Every single lot was sold and we netted a bit over 7.8 million rupees, which is almost $128,000! It was my first opportunity to mingle with and talk to Pakistanis who were not part of the diplomatic community. We had very tight security around the compound we were using and the day went off without a hitch. Tight security is just a fact of life here given the current political and social unrest. The men, and the crowd was virtually all male, were a mix of small businessmen and odd lot brokers. We had a pile of broken stuff and assorted junk piled against one wall to a height of about fifteen feet. This was called the Junk Pile and it fetched the highest bid of the 307 lots. The Junk Pile went for 900,000 Rps. When we closed the doors and left, a group of men were gathered in the park across the road from our compound auctioning off the contents of the Junk Pile piece by piece. The next day we learned that the auction in the park lasted all night and the owners of the Junk Pile made a profit of almost 100,000 Rps from the resale. Here are some shots of the auction yard and a few of our customers.

This was the crowd gathered to bid on the big blue/green generator we put up for sale. It went for 610,000 Rps. You can just barely see it in the photo because a large percentage of the bidding audience is sitting on it.

This man is trying out a Stairmaster that the Health Club put up for sale. He seemed to be disappointed that he wasn't actually gaining any altitude no matter how hard he climbed. Frankly, I completely understand.

These gentlemen were quite willing to shout out their considered opinions to anyone who asked and many who didn't. Their opinions invariably fell along the lines of, "You paid too much, you dumb ....!".

Not everyone appreciated those considered opinions!

Nor did everyone find the auction to be a riveting and compelling experience.

I think Osama bin Laden just bought two used air conditioners, an office desk and a chair in reasonable condition.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Breakfast at BB's

As you may or may not know, Benazir Bhutto is commonly referred to as BB. She is back in Pakistan after fleeing the country to avoid prosecution on corruption charges. Nawaz Sharif has also returned (early) after agreeing to spend ten years in exile abroad to avoid jail time for his conviction on treason and terrorism charges. Each of these individuals was, at one point or another, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Now, however, the primary difference between them is that I haven't had breakfast with Sharif.

Part of my job here is to set up the vehicles and drivers for motorcades. Last week we had a delegation of Senators, Congressmen and staff come to Islamabad for a visit and they required transportation to and from their various appointments. They were invited over to BB's place for breakfast and, because I ride in the control vehicle, I had to tag along. Among her many homes, here and abroad, BB keeps a surprisingly modest house in a typical Islamabad neighborhood. For security, the entire street is blocked off and only pre-cleared vehicles are allowed to enter. Our motorcade was expected and we drove up the street and pulled all our vehicles into her private compound which was actually somewhat smaller than my own private compound. Had she but asked, I'd have happily loaned her my house for her breakfast meeting.

While our dignitaries met with her, I waited outside the house in the rain with the drivers and security people. Quite thoughtfully, BB sent out tea and sandwiches to us. When the meeting ended and everyone was leaving, I wound up standing next to her in the driveway. I thanked her for the tea and sandwiches, opened car doors for assorted congress people and staff and we left. From BB's we split the motorcade and sent the staffers back to the Embassy while the 'principals' went on to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Again, someone, very thoughtfully, sent tea and biscuits out to the drivers and security people. An hour later we were back on the road and headed for ex-General now Mr. President Musharraf's offices in Rawalpindi. As the 'control' vehicle I take up the last position in the motorcade, except of course for the battalion of heavily armed police and military escorts following us. We made the run to 'Pindi in no time at all in spite of the rain and heavy traffic. High speed motorcades are really the only way to travel and I highly recommend that you acquire one for yourself.

At the president's compound, my vehicle was denied entrance because an incorrect license plate number had been called in. While the proper information was being relayed to his security detail, we pulled into an adjacent alley and waited patiently. No one sent us tea.

It took about half an hour to get my vehicle cleared into the compound and we were then allowed to join the other drivers and security guys waiting at ex-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's old house which is the building right next to the President's office. Zulfikar was Benazir's father and was hanged instead of exiled, which pretty effectively ensured that he wouldn't return early or at all.

The proprieties were once again observed and the President sent out tea and some very tasty little cakes. An hour later we were pounding our way back to Islamabad on the 'Pindi Road. It occurred to me that the drivers, security people and low level Embassy staff (that being me) really had the best of the deal. We received the same tea and snacks that the 'principals' got and didn't have to sit and listen to assorted politicians offer each other their deeply sincere assurances. Diplomacy, from my perspective, is all about the quality of the tea and cookies.

I'm getting settled in now and I've hired a housekeeper/cook guy by the name of Saqib. He works for a couple of people at the Embassy and comes highly recommended. He'll come here twice a week to do laundry, clean the house and cook enough food to last me until he comes back. In addition, he'll be able to run errands for me, let in various service people and do my shopping. When I asked him for a reference, he told me that Floyd Cable at the Embassy is his boss. That's a coincidence because Floyd Cable at the Embassy is my boss too. I'm still a little unclear on what I'm paying Saqib, but we'll sort that out later.

I only have my telephoto lens at the moment but I wanted to put in a couple of pictures before my yard is finished. I have a gardening staff now and they are hard at it, digging and moving dirt and cutting stuff down. They are very industrious and seem like pleasant enough guys. They assure me that my yard will be "bohaut hoob surat" which means very beautiful. I'm not sure what I'm paying them, but we'll sort that out later.

So, all that now remains is for Nawaz Sharif to invite someone to a meeting and I'll have an opportunity to have tea and scones at his house. I'll keep my calendar open in case his people call.

This was the Thanksgiving table at my co-worker Lita's house. It was an excellent dinner!

This is Sher Muhammad, one of my 'permanent' guards. Apparently, I have three permanent guards, three temporary guards and a reliever corps. I give them 'tea' money once a month but I'm not certain how much. This too will be sorted out later.

This is the gardening crew.

My front yard. I'll take better photos of the house and yard after my wide angle lens gets here.

These are the banana trees in the front yard. There's a bigger grove in the back.

Lastly, this, for my Peace Corps friends, is my always on, built in, hard wired, automatic water distiller.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Ghurr Meetah Ghurr

It took me twenty-three hours to fly from Washington DC to Islamabad, Pakistan. The laws governing State Dept. travel allow us to fly in Business Class provided that our elapsed travel time exceeds fourteen hours. Whenever possible, we are required to fly an American flagged carrier. So, I took United Airlines to London, transferred there to a British Airways non-stop flight into Islamabad and got to fly Business Class on both carriers. I left DC on Nov. 13th at 10:00pm and arrived in Pakistan on Nov. 15th at about 7:00am local time. While I didn't really sleep on either flight, having all that extra room allowed me to stretch out and get a bit of rest and I got to use the BA lounge for my eight hour layover at Heathrow.

One of the benefits of traveling on a diplomatic passport is that you get to use the 'special' lines at the host country immigration point. However, flying into Islamabad these days you will find that virtually everyone on the plane is either a Pakistani national or a diplomat elbowing his way into the 'special' line. Fortunately for me, I was met by our Embassy 'expediter' and was taken to the head of the line, rushed through immigration, waved through customs and tossed into an armored Land Cruiser for a dash into town. I was shown my new home ("ghurr" in Urdu, "meetah" is sweet) and given a couple of hours to unpack, shower and change into fresh clothes. Then the motorpool sent a car for me and I headed off to meet my new colleagues at the Embassy.

My responsibilities will include overseeing the motorpool and the shipping/receiving sections, as well as backing up the other two GSOs on their portfolios (housing, travel, procurement, etc.). After I'd filled in a dozen or so forms advising all and sundry that I was now a permanent member of the American mission, had my first cup of decent coffee and adjusted the chair in my office to the 'that's just perfect' height and tilt, I was given a look at the upcoming schedule. I saw that we had a motorcade to the airport set up for the following day (Friday) to meet an important visitor and asked if I could tag along. Lita, my co-GSO and de facto mentor, gave me a funny look and said, "Sure, it's your job to run the motorcades so you might as well get started." Okay, I didn't want to come right out and ask what my job was, but now I knew.

Friday morning I ran around getting processed and badged and then we headed back out to Islamabad Airport to pick up Mr. Negroponte, the Deputy Secretary of State. Mr. Negroponte arrived on a small military jet and used the Chaklala Air Base, which gives a whole new meaning to the word 'special'. Chaklala and Islamabad Airport share a runway and nothing else. The arrivals area at Chaklala is beautiful, open and very tastefully decorated and was reserved on this occasion for Mr. Negroponte's exclusive use. Islamabad Airport is packed, old, down at the heels and teemed with at least one hundred thousand people when I arrived. Our VIP was met at planeside by the Ambassador and her entourage, his passport was given to an expediter for processing and he was sitting in the Ambassador's car within ten minutes of the plane touching the tarmac. As soon as his door was closed, we were off. His bags would be in a van right behind the main motorcade, no standing at the carousel saying, "Oh, oh I think the black one with the piece of duct tape down the side is mine!" for him.

This was a high speed motorcade. That meant full police escort with lights and sirens, all intersections closed, all traffic pulled to the side of the road and all vehicles in convoy with about ten inches between bumpers. We were traveling over eighty miles an hour with bursts up over one hundred, I felt like I was in NASCAR (except that we made right hand turns too). A high speed motorcade completely redefines the phrase "road hog". Without going into detail regarding the security arrangements, I will say that any external vehicle attempting to join our motorcade uninvited would have been severely chastised. It took less time for us to collect Mr. Negroponte, clear him into Pakistan and drive him to the Embassy than it took for me to get my bags the day before and I had been rushed through by our expediter.

I was given Saturday off so I could start putting my stuff away and get settled into my new home. I'll take some pictures of my house as soon as my camera gets here. I have four guards who are permanently stationed here, in fact, they live in the servants' quarters. Most houses have three guards, but I have four. They are Saqib, Ali, Sher Mohammad and Shabbir. It's like having my own personal army. I also have cable tv and internet. Next week I'll be interviewing housekeepers, cooks and gardeners. This is very similar to the Peace Corps except for the guards, the beautiful house and garden, the servants and the motorpool driver assigned to me. Yep, just like Peace Corps.

On Sunday we took Mr. Negroponte back to the airport and I rode out ahead with the baggage instead of in the high speed motorcade. After his plane was airborne, I spent several hours exploring Islamabad. There are small shopping centers in each neighborhood and they are each known for one thing or another. For example, the market in my neighborhood has the best meat in town. I bought a two pound fillet mignon ready to slice into medallions for just under five dollars. The market in Sector 7 has the biggest bookstore in the city and I picked up a couple of novels that looked interesting. My local grocery store carries Skippy peanut butter and Hellman's mayo, so I'm set. 

I live across the street from one of the many mosques in Islamabad and get reminded to pray five times a day by the Imam with his very very loud speaker. The first time I'm reminded each day is just before 5:00am. The next three reminders come while I'm at the Embassy but I catch the final call to prayers at the end of the day.

Now I think I'll take one of my new novels, a cigar and my glass of juice and head out to the patio to enjoy the remains of the day. The birds are all in full song and the sun is shining off the Margalla Hills. So far so good, but tomorrow I have to start work because my 'new guy' dispensation only lasted one day.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Musharraf: Shakespearean Scholar?

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers!"
Henry VI, Act IV, Scene II

Pakistan, as you may or may not have noticed, has recently become quite 'interesting'. I  mean 'interesting', of course, in that it seems to be the source of really bad news on a daily basis. Today, for example, the police have taken to the streets with batons and tear gas to prevent unruly mobs of briefcase toting umbrella wielding lawyers from threatening the military government with their demonstrations.  As your mother must have said, "Be careful with those umbrellas. It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye!" This has given CNN's talking heads a reason to stare seriously into their cameras and ask serious questions about serious matters concerning democracy, the rule of law and whether or not Pervez Musharraf will take off his uniform. As a possible indication of his intentions (what we in the diplomatic community call a 'clue'), the government of Pakistan has just disbanded the Supreme Court, rounded up several thousand lawyers who foolishly considered it to be in good taste to object to that move and declared a state of emergency. Pakistani media are now subject to the control and censorship of the government and the troops are in the streets. This is being done in order to 'save' Pakistan and ensure that the road to democracy remains open, if untraveled. Patriotism, as Dr. Johnson observed, is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Now a disclaimer, all of my information comes from the same sources you rely on for yours, CNN, the New York Times, People magazine, my barber and the guy who pours the beer during Happy Hour. I suppose that the State Department has access to other sources of information, but they don't share those with me. In a week I'll leave for Islamabad and I'll be better able to form my own opinions. More importantly, I'll be able to answer the most pressing question of the day ... what effect is all this having on tee times at the Islamabad Golf Club?

By happy coincidence I have just completed the Foreign Affairs Counter Threat training program known to one and all as 'Crash & Bang'. As a result I can now, confidently, injure myself with four different military grade weapons, three types of armored vehicles and a plethora of explosives, improvised and otherwise. I can easily spot anyone tailing me provided that they hold up a large sign stating that they are following me and occasionally draw my attention to it by blowing a bugle and waving their arms rapidly overhead. And if the do-do hits the spinning blades I can render limited first aid as soon as I recover from my faint. So, in answer to your unasked question ... Hell yes, I'm ready to go. I'm locked and cocked and ready to rock! (I think that's a line from "Rambo", but I'm not sure and I don't really know what it means but it sounds like it means that I'm all set to go.)

As part of Crash & Bang we got to drive police Interceptors and learned to perform several difficult maneuvers including high speed backing up, evasive swerving and full out emergency stops. I've discovered that, while I'm not terribly accurate at the high speed reverse thing (they assure me that they'll be able to pound out the body damage on the car) and I don't stop too well (fortunately orange traffic cones are relatively inexpensive), I can swerve with the best of them. Swerving, like procrastination, seems to be a skill I was born with, some have it some don't. However, when it comes to shooting, if a terrorist runs up to me, throws himself onto the barrel of the gun and holds it against his chest for me I have a fifty-fifty chance of hitting him. The other and equally possible outcome is, unfortunately, shooting my own foot. The purpose of the course was to familiarize us with various weapons, not qualify us in their use. Mission accomplished! Given a choice between a weapon and an eggplant I can identify the weapon every time.

Although I tend to make light of my own experiences, the course itself is designed to enhance our personal security overseas. It is well thought out and taught by professionals who have spent many years in the field honing their own skills. I am much more aware of the simple things I can do to keep myself out of trouble now than I was a week ago. Most of my colleagues in the course are headed for Iraq and most of those are going out to PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) scattered around the country. These folks are tasked with helping Iraqi communities establish functioning local governments. PRTs make the IZ (International Zone, formerly the Green Zone), which receives mortar fire every single day, seem like a country club. Well, it does have a pool! Four of us are going to Pakistan and one happy camper is headed to Beirut. All these people have volunteered for their posts and they all believe that they can accomplish some good in places that seem devoid of goodness.

So, what to do about Pakistan and its problems addressing concerns with internal security, rising Islamic Fundamentalism, an increasingly active and vocal middle class, external pressure from allies, widespread poverty, illiteracy and a military government? Beats me. I hope that isn't too technical and I try to avoid diplospeak as much as possible. I don't think that there are any easy solutions to Pakistan's problems but if one occurs to me while I'm playing with the motorpool, I'll pass it up the chain of command and humbly accept the praise of a grateful Dept. of State.

Now I have to pack and finish up all my admin tasks. I'll be in Islamabad next week and I'll keep in touch.

"If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces."
The Merchant of Venice. ACT I Scene 2.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Urdu Field Trip

I have one month left before I depart for Islamabad and begin my new job. I'm still grinding away at Urdu and, after four months of Early Mornings and two additional months of full days, I have a fairly decent grasp of the most basic grammar and about two hundred vocabulary words. The first month of full days was a review of everything I'd learned during the long summer days of Early Mornings and the second month of full days built slowly on that foundation. Two of my colleagues are receiving Full Urdu which means between thirty-six and forty-four weeks of full days. My eight weeks of full days is called a FAST course and is supposed to prepare me for basic communication.

If, by 'basic communication', we mean that I am able to tell someone that I have a blue house or that I am from America, then FAST has served its purpose. The past and the future cannot exist in my communications nor can I have basic telephone conversations, ask directions, order a meal, offer or solicit help, or schedule a meeting. The things I've been taught, I've been taught very well but my window for learning was always too narrow for me to learn the language perfectly.

It occurs to me that, rather than simply give me the first eight weeks of the Full course, I might have benefited more from a curriculum designed specifically for the FAST course. So, here's the suggestion I'm making to the Urdu Department; build a FAST course that crams survival Urdu into eight short weeks. Sample phrases using basic simple Past, Present and Future sentences would be useful, as would learning the basic sentence structure for Declarative, Interrogative and Imperative sentences. Lists of verbs (two or three hundred would be nice) should be provided along with lists of adjective pairs (big-small, wide-narrow, smart-dumb etc.). Crunching vocabulary would be mandatory and lists of words in categories like Greetings, Time, Numbers, Directions, Family, Food, Places, Body Parts and Daily News could be used to augment the basic sentence structure lessons.

On the other hand, last week we went on a field trip to the National Zoo. It was a nice break from the routine of the classroom and gave me an opportunity to try out my new telephoto lens on the still camera and the new HD video camera I plan to take to Pakistan. We learned the names of many of the animals in Urdu and dodged unruly groups of school kids who also seemed to be on field trips. I can say, "The lion is yellow", but not "Hey, get out of my way you little b@#$%*d". Some of those words would be useful too.

A week or so ago I had dinner with some friends at a restaurant called "Mini-bar at Cafe Atlantico". There are only six seats and you have to make your reservations one month ahead. Three chefs prepare the meal, one course at a time, across the counter from you and describe each dish as it's set before you. There are approximately thirty courses and all but one or two are consumed in one bite. The meal begins at six o'clock sharp and winds up around nine. By the time it's over you're reasonably full and have experienced an encyclopedic range of tastes and flavors, each more delicious than the last. It's one of the most interesting dining experiences in DC and I heartily recommend it.

Now all I have left to do is finish two more weeks of Urdu, one week of Crash & Bang (a personal security course) and a short course on Duty Officer responsibilities. Oh, and I have to buy a tux. Thirty course dinners, field trips to the zoo and diplomatic black tie events, just another day in the life of a Foreign Service Officer. I am also now able to lean over to the diplomat seated next to me in Islamabad and say with complete confidence in slightly accented Urdu, "My pencil is on the table, Sir".

Thursday, September 27, 2007


This, the ninth month of the Islamic (lunar) calendar, is called Ramadan. This is a time for reflection, charity, prayer and, of course, fasting. Apart from the very young, the very old, the sick or infirm, nursing mothers and travellers, devout Muslims are expected to fast during Ramadan. The first meal of the day must be finished before the morning prayers at sunrise then nothing can be eaten or drunk until after the evening prayers at sunset. Devout Muslims won't even take a sip of water on a scorching hot day during Ramadan. The practice of fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. The other four being the profession of faith that Allah is the one true God and Mohammad is his prophet, the obligation to make a pilgrimage, or Hajj, to Mecca once during one's lifetime (finances permitting), praying five times each day and performing regular acts of charity.

Our team of Urdu instructors are a truly wonderful group of people who go out of their way to teach us much more than just the language of their country. They believe it to be every bit as important for us to learn, understand and appreciate the culture and customs of Pakistan as it is for us to master the ability to ask for directions to the bathroom. Ramadan, or Ramzan in Urdu, is taking place now and our teachers have gone to great lengths to explain what is happening, why it's happening and what it means to them.

For example, today we were all invited to help prepare and eat Iftar with our instructors. Iftar is the meal served just after sundown and it can be as simple or as elaborate as you may want to make it. After class we met at an instructor's home and began to cook. Out of respect for our Pakistani hosts, who hadn't eaten since before sunrise, we refrained from eating or drinking anything during the afternoon. Most of us had eaten lunch just before we left FSI so this wasn't quite as big a sacrifice as it might seem. In my own case, a double bacon cheeseburger with fries and an ice cream cone kept me from fainting away during the long afternoon.

Tasnim Razi is our senior instructor and she made sure that we were all participating in the preparation of the food and that no one spoke any English. An instructor lapsing into English would be quickly brought back to task with "Ingrezi nihiin!!". We even played charades in Urdu. Have you ever tried acting out a word pronounced something like "ghhhrrgghnn"? Until today, neither had I. So we talked and we walked around the house identifying as many objects as we could and we played charades, but mostly we cooked. We cooked a huge feast of homeric proportions. Our hosts provided the food and the know-how and we supplied the willing, if moderately incompetent, labor. Under the inspired leadership of Malik Sahab, I made the salad.

By 7:00pm the students were keeping a close watch on the sun and the hungriest of us began to argue that, because the sun had gone behind a neighbor's roofline, it had technically set for us and we should eat. Surely the Prophet would agree. Funny enough there is a specific set time each day for Iftar and your neighbor's roofline has nothing to do with it. Who knew? Eventually, of course, the sun did set (it's almost inevitable that it will) and the fast was broken with sips of water and a 'khajoor'. 'Khajoors' are dates and they're the first food eaten after sunset. Then the Muslim men all went into the downstairs room to pray. While they were praying, the food was set out buffet style on a long table and we put out plates, forks, napkins and other necessities. We kept circling the table like kids at a game of Musical Chairs. Tasnim and the other female instructors were urging us to eat, saying that we weren't expected to fast. However, we felt that out of consideration for our hosts, who hadn't eaten since before sunrise, we should refrain from digging in.

Unless you're starving to death, because all you've had to eat since noon was a double bacon cheeseburger, fries and an ice cream cone, Iftar prayers are actually quite short. The men came back upstairs and Tasnim led the ladies and then the men in to the feast. Each dish smelled better than the one before and I fully intended to make a complete pig of myself until I remembered that there is an absolute prohibition against pork amongst Muslims, so I decided to make a cow of myself instead (thereby offending the three Hindus who had joined us). I loaded up with kabobs, chickpea curry, assorted vegetable dishes, meatballs in a gravy sauce and beef in a rice/curry dish. There was just room on top for a couple of slices of warm flat bread and I was off to find a seat.

I found a spot at a table with three instructors and was pleased to see that they, too, had filled their plates. The first thing I tried was a curry of beans and veggies. As I lifted the fork, one of my instructors said, "You'll like that curry, it's milder than the chickpea one." I smiled and shoveled the first forkful of food into my mouth that I'd eaten since noon. Flames immediately shot out of every opening in my body (just another reason to be thankful I've never had anything pierced) and I lost the ability to see, hear, think and play the piano. My instructors were, apparently, saying something to me, which I can only assume was the Islamic Prayer for the Dead, but I couldn't respond because my mouth was filled with radioactive curry, my nose was running like a track meet and I was weeping like a schoolgirl. Then I realized that I would have to finish every bite on my plate or risk offending my very gracious hosts, the people who will grade my efforts in Urdu...weeping like a schoolgirl with a broken heart. Bite by bite I managed to eat it all and they were right, the beans and veggies curry was milder than the chickpea curry and almost every other thing on my plate. I'm glad I know that now and I'm certain that the ringing in my ears will subside in a month or two.

This is a shot of me helping my classmate Stetson get the dessert ready.

Dave and I are preparing the salad under the watchful eye of Zaki Sahab.

This is the team that won the First Annual Urdu Iftar Charades Championship!

Malik Sahab has been my tutor since day one...way back in May.

I have a second hand Volvo that has been, for the most part, fairly reliable. Last Friday a message popped up on a small screen telling me that my driver's side low headlight beam had burned out. I looked up a Volvo dealer online, called them to verify that they could stick in a new bulb while I waited, noted that they were less than twenty minutes away and headed out. I managed to get to their general vicinity and then called to ask for directions. I spoke to Allen. Apparently, Allen or I misunderstood where I was and how to get from there to the Volvo dealership because I wandered off into parts of Virginia that still sheltered hopeful remnants of the Confederate Army. I saw Buick, Saturn, BMW, Jeep, Chevrolet, Ford and Hyundai dealerships, but couldn't spot the elusive Volvo lot. Finally, after circling the area for about two and one half hours, I called Allen to say that I was throwing in the towel and heading home. He expressed sympathy.

The next morning, Saturday, I awoke refreshed and determined to get my headlight fixed. This time I carefully wrote down the directions and, after calling to be sure that they were open and could change my bulb, I headed out once again. Allen expressed hope. I made it to the Volvo dealership without making more than a few wrong turns and asked to speak to Allen. I was told that he had just left for lunch. I explained that I was the guy he'd been giving directions to the day before and I'd finally made it in to have my light fixed. The man I was talking to put his hand on my shoulder and shouted out to everyone in the dealership, "Hey! The Lost Guy is here! This is the Lost Guy!" I was a minor celebrity and now I know how Brad Pitt feels. They took my car away, changed both headlights and didn't charge me.

I think I'll bring them a bowl of chickpea curry to thank them. I'll have to warn them, of course, that it's a 'little' spicy.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Chez Gemmell

Islamabad used to be a jewel in the Foreign Service crown. It was an extremely desirable post and was generally staffed with senior people who enjoyed the weather, the hospitality of the Pakistani people, the opportunities for travel in the region and the amenities. Now it is considered a Danger/Hardship post and families are not allowed to accompany or visit the FSOs posted there. Danger/Hardship posts are generally one year assignments and that's the case with Islamabad. I'll have a full year of the weather, the hospitality and the opportunities to travel but until I actually get to Islamabad, I won't really be able to describe those things in any great detail.

However, I can begin to describe some of the amenities because I've recently been assigned a house. Just like in the Peace Corps, housing is provided by the government as part of the deal. In Islamabad, the assigned housing is also furnished, so all the FSOs need to bring with them are the things that make a place feel more like their own homes. That, too, is just like the Peace Corps. We have no responsibility for finding our own places, they are simply allocated to us from housing already under contract. Again, this is very similar to the Peace Corps experience. The housing itself, however, is different from most Peace Corps accommodations. For one thing, you don't need to hold an umbrella over your head when you sit on the john because the water tank above the toilet leaks in a steady drip.

Here are some pictures of the furnished house I'll be living in for my year in Islamabad.

There are four bedrooms and four bathrooms. Other than that, it is no more or less splendid than your average palatial mansion in any similarly gated and guarded community. Thank goodness I'll have enough storage space for my golf clubs! The impression of life in Pakistan today, created by the news media, is one of anarchic chaos with mobs of unruly men marching up and down streets chanting anti-this or anti-that slogans. While this makes for good tv, it probably isn't a totally accurate picture of everyday life over there. I can make that statement with confidence because I've been told to bring my golf clubs with me. There is a group of three men who play every Sunday morning and they need to fill in the foursome. So, I'm packing my 36 handicap and my bag of clubs and I'll be teeing it up on the weekends.

I've been in touch with several people who are there now and they all seem to be enjoying the experience. They're working long hours every week but still find the time to get out and sample the local markets, nightlife and sights. I'm putting together a list of places I want to see during my stay and have my cameras and video equipment all set to go.

My immediate supervisor has let me know that I'll be responsible for the motorpool and shipping. I may acquire other responsibilities when I get there, but I'll start out with motorpool and shipping. We have a full complement of FSNs (Foreign Service Nationals, in this case, Pakistanis) working at the embassy and I'll be supervising the guys who handle the shipping of personal effects to and from post and the drivers and maintenance guys who play with the vehicles. I'm hoping that this will give me a chance to use and improve my Urdu. I'm already learning to say, "Where is my personal armored vehicle?"

Now life consists of Urdu lessons that begin at 7:30am every day. I have five one hour sessions with a different teacher each hour. Then I have a break for lunch, after which I'm expected to spend approximately three hours in the language lab taking advantage of the wealth of resources found there. There is, of course, homework every night and a take-home quiz every Friday. The Foreign Service takes language study very seriously! There are times when my brain gets so fried that I answer an Urdu question in Bulgarian.

So now I have just over seven weeks to go. I have a to-do list a mile long and an apartment that is filling up with stuff that will have to be shipped to Islamabad. I have an Urdu quiz to complete and my fantasy baseball team to manage. Oh well, it beats working.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Passport Task Force

I spent the month of August working on the Passport Task Force. Passport applications from far and wide are sent in to any of the several passport adjudication centers around the country and are reviewed, in most cases, by professional civil servants who have been thoroughly trained to detect and differentiate between legitimate and fraudulent requests. However, due to the tremendous backlog in applications, there are times when the applications are reviewed by someone with less training and skill someone, for instance, like me.

A legitimate US passport is a highly sought after document. It is proof of American citizenship and is forged and counterfeited almost as often as our money. The documentation required to acquire a legitimate passport is forged and counterfeited in far greater numbers than the passports themselves. Passport adjudication requires that someone check each piece of submitted documentation and determine its legitimacy and then to approve or disapprove the application. We call approving a passport application based on forged documentation "making an American". Once a person holds a legitimate US passport, they are an American. Those of us from the Foreign Service who were press-ganged into adjudication probably "made" a lot more Americans than the Civil Servants who were hired to adjudicate as their vocation, but we also knocked the numbers in the backlog down quite a bit too and I personally think of "making Americans" as "expanding the tax base".

We also check for "Holds" or reasons why a US citizen cannot be issued a passport. The most common Hold and the one that gives us the greatest pleasure for denial, is 'non-payment of child support'. If you are a deadbeat parent, mother or father, you cannot have a passport until the money you owe in child support is paid in full. The national media have carried several stories about the huge amount of money that's been collected from deadbeat parents who have just learned that they can't even go to Canada or Mexico with their new husband/wife until their debt is paid. It was the little pleasures, like catching deadbeats, that kept us all from going insane.

Mostly Passport Task Force was Passport Purgatory; a place where we had a meeting at nine o'clock every morning to be told that day's new rules. The rules on stapling and unstapling the packets of documents changed every day, as did the rules regarding the second photo and so did the rules on when we were supposed to work and when we weren't. Initially, we were required to put in at least 48 hours a week. This included a Saturday, but we could work longer hours on weekdays to cut down on the time we had to spend in the office on Saturday. Then the rule changed and we could only work eight hours a day on weekdays and had to put in eight full hours on Saturday. Then the rules changed again and we were told that we could no longer work through lunch, but had to put in eight and one half hours per weekday with a half hour lunch. Saturdays would be paid as overtime and a four page memo was sent to us describing the forms we had to fill out to actually receive the overtime pay for the mandatory hours worked. However, if you were a GS10-10 level or higher you wouldn't receive time and one-half but straight time. That was later clarified (during a subsequent 9:00am meeting) to assure everyone that no one would take an actual cut in pay for working the mandatory Saturday overtime. When it was pointed out that most of us are not on the GS payscales, we had to have another 9:00am meeting to address that bit of news. Periodically, one manager or another would wander through, apparently, to boost morale and our shackles would be loosened slightly so we could applaud. On the plus side, one very senior member of the State Department sat at a desk and worked alongside us for the better part of two weeks. That really did have a tremendous effect on morale and the example he set was extremely positive. Also, the on-site supervisors were excellent and offered support, knowledge and great attitudes.

So, in spite of senior management's best efforts, we managed to significantly reduce the amount of the backlog with a lot of good-natured kidding around and a little bit of hard work. I personally viewed it as an interesting experience, but I'm glad that I've completed my assignment and am now in Urdu full time.

I've had four months of Early Morning Urdu lessons. My routine was simple, I would report to Urdu, have a one hour lesson (usually with Malik Sahib) then go on to another course or, through August, rush downtown to do passports. However, for the next nine weeks I won't have anything other than Urdu to occupy my time and thoughts. It began today with a full day of orientation and tomorrow we get right into reviewing what I've learned during the past four months. After two weeks of review and evaluation, the Urdu language staff will begin to help me move up to the next level. In my case, I have to go up to reach a Zero/Zero, but I'm determined to put in the required time and effort. I'll have about four hours of classroom time a day with a different teacher each hour and then mandatory language lab time followed by at least three hours of homework (self-study) each night. The schedule is pretty intense and leaves precious little time for Fantasy Baseball.

There are six of us in the Urdu group. A fellow about my age took the seat next to me and we introduced ourselves. His name is David and I asked him if he's being sent to Pakistan. "I'm hoping to get there, if they change the rules," he said. I wondered what rules had to change and he explained that he's an EFM (Eligible Family Member) and, currently, EFMs aren't allowed to accompany their FSO spouses to Islamabad. "So," I said, "is your wife already working in Islamabad?" David said that she was already there and he was hoping to join her after completing the Urdu course. "That's nice," I said, "what does she do there?" "She's the Ambassador," he said.

I believe I've heard of that job.

Passport adjudication requires a keen eye, a dogged perseverance, an attention to detail not found in the common man and the two stamps I'm holding in my hands.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Poker Stud

For several years I have been playing online poker. Before any loved ones rush out to plan an intervention, I only gamble with 'play' money. Most of the online poker sites will credit you with $1,000 'play' money, you take your game to the table and best of luck to you. I noticed that, in the fullness of time, my $1,000 had grown to a robust 'play' fortune of several hundred thousand dollars. I halfheartedly looked into opening a real money account to try my luck but the thought of providing an online poker site with any financial information was most unappealing so I kept on piling up the 'play' dollars.

I went to Las Vegas over New Years, played real poker and won. I went to a casino in Connecticut, played more real poker and won. Obviously I'm good at this, and I will have to retire some day, so I decided to plan for that retirement by playing online poker for real. I went to a site called Full Tilt Poker and opened a Play Money account. My $1,000 grew and grew (because I'm good at this) and, therefore, I knew it was time to get into some real games.

There are many convenient ways to fund your real money online poker account, unfortunately, none of them actually work. You can't use your credit cards because the credit card companies won't process the transaction. You can't use a bank transfer because the banks won't process the transaction. You can't use Netteller, ePassport or PayPal because, again, they won't process the transaction. No, in the end, if you want to open a real money online poker account you have to go to a MoneyGram (Western Union will not process the transaction) outlet, slide real money through a small slot in a bullet-proof window and send it to one Senior Edgardo Mendez-Hurtado in Managua, Nicaragua and, bless his heart, he'll process the transaction.

To encourage you to open a new account with them, Full Tilt Poker offers to match your initial deposit up to a limit of $600. The minimum amount you can deposit using Senior Mendez-Hurtado's services is $250. So I slid $250 plus $10.00 commission through the little slot in the bullet-proof glass and raced home to begin building my $500 seed money into an early retirement treasure chest. Although, to be honest, in the back of my mind it occurred to me that Senior Mendez-Hurtado might be funding his own early retirement account with my money.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that my Full Tilt Poker account actually showed the $250 I had deposited. I was momentarily ashamed of ever having doubted the upright and honest Senior Mendez-Hurtado. My matching funds weren't in the account yet so I sent an email asking when I could expect them to be deposited. "Ah, perhaps you neglected to read the fine print", was the reply. Although the wording on the offer very clearly implies that Full Tilt Poker will match your initial deposit up to a limit of $600, what they actually mean is that they will give you the opportunity to 'earn' those matching funds. You earn the matching funds by playing poker. You receive some sort of credit for every hand you're dealt. The credit, it turns out, is in the order of approximately six cents per hand. You can't access this 'credit' until it reaches a total of $20. So, you have to see approximately 335 hands before you can claim your first $20 in matching funds and you must be in approximately 4,167 hands to see your entire $250 in matching funds.

This was a bit disappointing, but not a deal-breaker. After all, I'd played many thousands of hands of online poker and was confident that I could build up my $250 and, over time, claim the matching funds. I got into a game that called for an initial buy-in of $50, lit my cigar (a decided advantage over playing in a non-smoking casino poker room) and began to assess my opponents. They were an unremarkable group and, as I was mentally spending their money, I lost my first $50. I had two or three goods hands that I backed with strategic calls and raises only to be beaten when my opponent drew a winning card with the last card dealt (called the river card). It happens. I ponied up another $50 and built it up to the massive sum of $65 before the poker gods again frowned and I suffered another run of bad luck on good hands. Because it was three o'clock in the morning and I had an Urdu class in four hours, I decided to save my revenge for another day and get some sleep.

I waited until Saturday to play again and lost again, but less quickly than before. Okay, obviously there were some differences between playing for real money and playing for play money. I decided to abandon my usual 'shock & awe' style of play in favor of something more conservative. I was now down $150, but I wasn't worried because the cards tend to even out in the long run and I was certainly due for some winning hands. It took about three hours to lose my fourth $50 buy-in and I called it a day. I checked my 'matching funds' account and discovered that I'd only been credited about $12. Why? It was explained to me that I only get the .06 credit for hands in which I bet. When I fold before the first bet, I don't earn the credit. Oh.

On Sunday I played for almost four hours before losing my final $50. My 'matching funds' stood unclaimable at $18.75 and my hopes for an early retirement were again back on the performance of the stock market. There are a couple of things you might bear in mind should you decide to send Senior Mendez-Hurtado any real money. First, forget about Full Tilt Poker actually matching your funds, they won't. You might earn the matching funds but it will be very difficult to do so. Second, be prepared for the strangest run of cards you'll ever see. You may experience odds-defying defeats at the hands of opponents who always seem to pull a winning card on the river. Third, don't slam your hand on your table and cause your coffee to spill onto the new carpeting in your apartment when your four queens are beaten by a straight flush. It happens. Finally, if you're at a table and a new player arrives using the poker-name IrinaS, leave the table. IrinaS has an uncanny ability to draw those much-coveted river cards and she'll take your money without even saying, "Thanks".

By the way, I've been assigned to serve on the Passport Task Force beginning on Monday, July 23rd in Washington, DC. I'll undergo a week of training and then, on the following Monday, begin adjudicating applications. All participants on the Task Force will work six-day weeks, but my schedule has been arranged so I can continue taking Urdu in the morning at FSI Monday through Friday, so Saturday will still seem like a day of rest. Many of my colleagues will be working on passports for several months but I'm only assigned until September 1st. Then I'll begin Urdu lessons full time for nine weeks, followed by the mandatory Crash & Bang course and my flight to Islamabad.

Washington DC has a tradition of showing movies outdoors on the Mall during the summer and on the schedule for my birthday it seems that Casablanca will be playing! I'll be downtown anyway, so that's where I'll be that night. If you're in town, join me.

This morning I played online poker for play money at and I won...big time. That's because I'm good at this.

These photos were taken during the GSO firefighting day at Quantico. It was in the high 90's that day so it made perfect sense to dress up in full protective gear and play with fire.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Just Call Me Junior

New Foreign Service Officers are called Entry Level Officers. This is the politically correct update of the old term "junior" officers. On Tuesday, July 3rd, all the ELOs at the FSI were called to a mandatory meeting and advised that any untenured FSO was subject to re-direct. By definition, all ELOs are untenured and "re-direct" simply reminds us that we can be reassigned at any time "for the good of the service".

It seems that there is a bit of a backlog in processing passport applications for US citizens and the State Department has sent out a call for volunteers to help reduce that backlog. Although passport applications are normally the responsibility of the Civil Service, the backlog is so overwhelming that all State employees, including FSOs, are being asked to volunteer their assistance. Anticipating that they won't get anywhere near enough volunteers, State has seen fit to remind all untenured FSOs that we serve at the pleasure of the Department and can be re-directed without notice. Clearing the application backlog is a top priority for State this summer and all personnel are expected to pitch in and help. However, volunteering means completely rescheduling your program training, your required language training, your travel tickets and itinerary, your pack out and shipping arrangements, your arrival at post, and the start of your new job. As Foreign Service Officers we have an expectation that we'll work in Islamabad, Nairobi, Madrid or Chennai. As volunteers for the PPTF (passport task force) we'll be assigned to work in New Orleans, Washington DC, Seattle or Portsmouth, NH.

So, on the one hand, they were calling for volunteers at the meeting on the 3rd (and many of my colleagues stepped up and offered to help right away) but on the other hand, they were simply advising us that if we were needed we would be re-directed and that was that. I left the meeting feeling fairly certain that I wouldn't be called. Islamabad is a one year post and is already two GSOs (my job title) short of its requirement. Surely they would take that into consideration. I have been taking Urdu for over eight weeks and being assigned to the decidedly non-Urdu speaking PPTF would set my Urdu clock back to zero. Surely they would take that into consideration. I haven't taken the ConGen course, which is a prerequisite for adjudicating passports. Surely they would take that into consideration. I just signed a lease and moved into a new apartment in Arlington. Surely they would take that into consideration. In the meantime, I planned to hide as low as possible and not do anything to draw attention to myself. If I could just make it to November, I'd be out of the country before anyone missed me.

I opened an email this morning that read, "Thank you for volunteering to serve on the PPTF." Apparently, they didn't take any of that into consideration.

It seems that I've volunteered to adjudicate passport applications from July 30th until September 1st and will be given ConGen 'light' to learn how to do so. There are several passport offices around the country and my colleagues are being sent everywhere from Seattle to New Orleans. The office in Honolulu seems to be fully staffed and is the only one not requesting assistance. I'm hoping to be assigned to the DC office so I can continue to take my Urdu lessons and not lose the little I've learned. If that isn't possible, I'll ask for the Portsmouth, NH office and go live back up at the beach.

The only impact this will have on me is that my departure to Islamabad will be delayed by between two weeks to a month...or so. I will have all the courses I was scheduled to take during August rescheduled and will pick my program back up in September. If they take out the two gap weeks in my original schedule and drop one or two marginal courses, I could be departing almost on time. Several of my colleagues have been volunteered for much longer periods of time, so my one month seems like light duty indeed.

And now for the good news. During the meeting, it was explained to us that, "as volunteers on the PPTF you will all be assigned to six day work weeks. However, as Junior Officers (all of a sudden we were Junior Officers again, what happened to ELOs?) you will also all be entitled to overtime pay." For the first time in over thirty years I qualify for overtime pay. Allow me to express a heartfelt, YIPPEE!!

I was looking forward to getting to Islamabad and beginning my new job, but I don't really mind doing this. Only a very few people managed to get away before being volunteered, so almost everyone I know will be pitching in and helping. The 135th A100 class started today and their bid list consists of only the US cities with passport offices. They have been volunteered as a group to staff the PPTF immediately after they complete the seven week orientation course. Hey, unless they get sent to New Orleans, they won't have to worry about learning a foreign language.

So that's it. My fantasy baseball team (the OverPaidPrimaDonnas) is solidly in first place (I trounced my cousin Bill's team this week), I'm in my new apartment and I'll be here until I leave unless State decides otherwise, I'm making slow progress but progress nonetheless at Urdu, I'm still going to Islamabad even if it's a few weeks later than I had planned and I qualify for overtime pay because I'm a "Junior Officer"! Washington DC is entering the hot, humid and hazy summer and I'll be staying cool adjudicating passport applications...or, I will as soon as someone explains to me exactly what "adjudicating" means.

These two photos were taken on a recent camping/river tubing/hiking trip I took with some friends in the Shenandoah Valley.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Management Officers (GSOs)

See, I really am in DC!!

The first thing you're required to do when you begin the process of joining the Foreign Service is to select your 'cone'. There are five career tracks and you have to pick yours prior to taking the written test which is the first step in the road. The different career tracks, known as 'cones', are Political, Economic, Consular, Public Diplomacy and Management. I chose Management.

Management folks are the people who take care of the running of our embassies so the other cones can go about their business and not worry about procuring supplies, running the motor pool, acquiring housing, managing the local staff, etc. In short, Management Officers provide a support function at our embassies and go through extensive training to ensure that they have the skills necessary to keep the infrastructure operating smoothly.

At each of our embassies, we hire most of our staff locally. These FSNs (Foreign Service Nationals) are supervised, primarily, by the Management branch and they become, over time, the experts in most of the admin jobs. While Management Officers rotate in and out every one, two or three years, the FSNs remain in place and possess the institutional memory that is so essential in running any organization. So, wherever you go as a GSO or Management Officer, you have a cadre of local hires reporting to you who know the job and the routines much better than you do. That doesn't present an insurmountable problem because your job is to manage and supervise, not to get down and turn the wrenches.

The GSO's areas of responsibility include housing, supplies, purchasing, motorpool, warehousing, maintenance, human resources, and travel. A lot of work to be sure, with a wide range of required skills. Islamabad has a staff of GSOs and I'm still trying to find out which responsibilities they have in mind for me. I'm looking forward to being part of the team there even if it is still five months away. It will be nice to get back to work again.

From the sound of it, we Management Officers seem to have pretty interesting jobs. We get a variety of work, we are essential to the smooth operation of our embassies, we work hand in hand with host country nationals who have the expertise to make us look good and we generally bask in the warm glow of goodwill emanating from our colleagues in the other cones. Or, perhaps not...

I've spent the last week learning all about handling 'housing' complaints. From the sound of it, our diplomats abroad do nothing but complain about their housing and all of those complaints are directed at the poor GSO. I've come to the conclusion that it must be mandatory for everyone to complain about their housing as soon as they arrive at post. "Look here, John, you've been at post for nearly a week now and you haven't lodged your housing complaints. Are you having personal problems at home that might prevent you from whining? If not, get to it, Man, we have high standards of griping here in Kafiristan and we can't have you lowering the bar." From the way it's been presented to us, pretty much all we do is deal with complaints about housing that is a) too small b) too far away c) too close in or d) not as nice as... (fill in someone else's name here; who, by the way, is also complaining about his/her house). It's nice to see that no one ever complains about the housing being too expensive and that, of course, is because it is all provided to them for FREE. There are many other things that people complain about when living abroad, but housing seems to top the list. Of course, no diplomat in his/her right mind would ever bring a housing appeal forward based on the "their house is nicer than mine" argument, so they have security issues, or insoluble pest infestations, or 'official' duties that require larger quarters than their entitlement. Management Officers get management training, Consular Officers get consular training and I believe the diplomats (Econs, Politicos and Pub Dips) get a course on how to assess their status at post based on their housing.

This will surprise those of you who know me, but my plan is to try to make people happy with their housing in Islamabad if I end up with the housing responsibility. Just as long as my house is the nicest on the block and better than everyone else's under the rank of Ambassador, I'll work day and night to ensure that almost everyone has very little to complain about. Of course, some complaining will always be inevitable but people will come to see that malcontents end up in houses that barnyard animals refuse to enter.

Actually, there are very strict rules and regulations governing the assignment of housing to try to make it as equitable as possible given the variety of housing that exists at our posts worldwide. In Islamabad, for example, the housing reputation is terrific and the houses are, apparently, very nice.

I'm going camping and tubing this weekend on a river in Virginia. It'll be nice to get out of the DC area for a short break so I've signed up for this trip with about fifteen of my colleagues. The last time I went off into the wilds, I ended up climbing a mountain in Bulgaria! I'm hoping to float around in my tube with a beer in one hand and cigar in the other while telling rude jokes to my compadres. I'm leaving the Urdu books home and intend to do nothing more strenuous than walk all the way down to the river with my tube on my shoulder. There is talk of a hike on Sunday, but I'll need much more specific information on the definition of 'hike' before I strap on my boots. Some of my colleagues seem fit enough to stroll over to Kentucky and foolish enough to try!

This is the 133rd's Team Lunch Table in the cafeteria.

Would you let this man assign your housing? I intend to begin whining about my own house in the taxi on the way in from the airport!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Time Goes By

This is the VIP Entrance to the Foreign Service Institute.

This coming week will be the last week for the Acquisitions course and the final exam will be on Thursday. It turns out that along with that $5.5 million dollar credit card, I've been given a book of regulations governing its use. There are 1,983 pages of regulations so I, apparently, will not be purchasing the Ferrari right away. My own personal credit cards still have many tens of dollars in unused credit line available and the book of regulations governing their use simply says, "If you can afford it, buy it!" Still, I think I would have looked pretty good in a government financed Ferrari.

We must score at least an 80% on the final exam or face the very unpleasant prospect of repeating Acquisitions. With that in mind, I spent this weekend reviewing the material and wishing I'd paid more attention during class. The concepts involved in making purchases at post are fairly straightforward; ensure that funding has been approved, check three sources for competitive bids and go with the lowest price from a qualified supplier. Unfortunately, it appears that a few details were thrown our way during the past three weeks to elaborate on those three directives and many of those details will, undoubtedly, be on the exam. It would all be right in my notes, had I bothered to take notes. Not to worry, I have the reference material, a passing familiarity with the handouts and three days to 'refresh' my memory.

I received my "Welcome to Post" email on Friday! This is actually pretty cool because it lets me know that they are now aware that I'm coming. Over the next couple of months I can begin to get information on living conditions, which job I'll be doing and the specific date they want me to start. I finish all my scheduled training courses on the 26th of October, so anytime after that weekend will be great. A couple of my friends will be leaving for Pakistan over the next few months and I'll have plenty of firsthand information to help me plan my own departure. Several people who have returned from Islamabad have suggested that I ship my car over because having a car is a necessity there and the available used cars are pretty expensive. I asked if it made any difference that my car is lefthand drive (Pakistan goes with righthand drive) and was told, "no, no one pays much attention to any rules of the road there anyway". I'll ship the Volvo and keep the Mustang in storage.

If you plan to live in Pakistan for any extended period of time, there are a few things you need to get in advance. The recommended immunization list is as follows:

Hepatitis A
Hepatitis B
Yellow Fever
Japanese Encephalitis (Why Japanese and not Pakistani?)
Rabies (Yes, I can now bite people without infecting them with rabies!)

In addition to these precautionary immunizations, be aware that there is a high risk of contracting severe diarrhea and that tuberculosis is endemic in the area. There is a lesser probability of contracting dengue fever or leishmaniasis (both subcutaneous and visceral)...which as you may already know is transmitted by sand flies. And don't get me started on influenza! Pakistan appears to be an equal opportunity infector! So, roll up your sleeves and get your visa, I'm accepting reservations for the guest room now.

I'm putting a few pictures of the FSI (Foreign Service Institute) here. By the time I complete my training and leave for Islamabad, I'll have been here for eight months and, as you can see, it isn't a completely terrible place to work.

Outside the cafeteria.

Language Building


Old Building

Picnic Grounds

Finally, please remember that Aliph with the double diacritic zuber above it is pronounced as Noon when it comes at the end of a word. Oh, and the words for 'go straight' and 'turn right' seem to be exactly the same, 'sadhee', which apparently doesn't lead to as much confusion as you might expect, although I don't have a clue why not but it may have something to do with that 'ignoring the rules of the road' business!

How am I doing in Urdu, you ask....fair to middlin', fair to middlin'.