Sunday, September 18, 2011

Everybody Has One

These giant clamshells come from the Philippines but can also be found in the waters around PNG.

People said, "You're going to Pakistan!" "How exciting!" "How dangerous!" "What a fantastic experience it will be!" "You are so lucky!" And they were right. It was exciting, there was an element of danger and it was most definitely a fantastic experience!

People said, "You're going to Rome!" "How exciting!" "How wonderful!" "What a fantastic experience it will be!" "You are so lucky!" And, again, they were right. It was both exciting and wonderful. The two years I spent living and working in Rome were a truly fantastic experience!

People say, "You're going to Port Moresby, uh huh. Where is that exactly?" "Papua New Guinea!?" "Isn't that where one of the Rockefellers was eaten by cannibals?"

Let's be clear about one thing right away, while it's pretty certain that Michael Rockefeller was in fact eaten while in Papua New Guinea, the jury is still out on whether he was dined upon by his fellow man or consumed by a salt water crocodile. All the current research indicates that the cannibals down there haven't eaten anybody in ages. Headhunters are another story, but no one claims that Michael was a victim of those gentlemen and no evidence that he was has ever appeared in any of the souvenir markets hanging by its hair from a pole marked, "All Items Reduced For Fast Sale!!" However, a bit of headhunting does, apparently, still exist in the course of tribal warfare in the Highlands.

Papua New Guinea also has the distinction of being the last place that Amelia Earhart was seen alive, making it appear that flying off aimlessly into the uncharted South Pacific in a tiny two propeller aircraft was preferable to spending another minute on the island.

After people have googled Papua New Guinea, they come back to me and say, "Are you nuts?"

In fact, people now seek me out to give me what I have come to think of as 'The Bad News of the Day'. People outside the Foreign Service quickly become experts on the deplorable living conditions, the poverty and, more specifically, the high rate of violent crime on the island. "Do you know," they'll ask earnestly, "that Port Moresby is the worst capitol city in the world?" Again, in the interest of accuracy, Port Moresby was identified by the Economist magazine way back in 2005 as the 137th (with #1 being the very best) out of 140 capitol cities surveyed. It was clearly better than three other world capitols and, therefore, could hardly be considered the 'worst' as it didn't even qualify for the bronze medal. More current surveys rank Baku, Azerbaijan as the world's dirtiest capitol, Harare, Zimbabwe as the world's worst capitol to live in and on the 2011 list of the most dangerous capitol cities (with #1 being the most dangerous), Port Moresby ranks way down at 7th. There are neighborhoods in Washington DC that rank above 7th for crying out loud!!

People seem to feel it's their duty to seek me out to share their opinions with me. However, opinions are, indeed, very much like belly buttons; everybody has one and other peoples' are only of passing interest to me. I fully anticipate having a blast while I'm there.

My Foreign Service colleagues have the added benefit of being able to do 'research' (by which I mean that they listen to and/or create gossip, rumor and innuendo) regarding the embassy in Port Moresby. "Do you know," they'll ask earnestly, "that every single one of the Locally Employed Staff have quit to go work for Exxon?" (Our LEStaff are the backbone of our embassies and we could not function without them. To lose any of them is awful, to lose them all is an unthinkable disaster) Well, in fairness, not all of them have quit, we still have the ones that Exxon wouldn't hire! From the legions of people who have never been there, I have learned that the embassy staff are unmotivated, untrained and unwilling to work. Morale, they assure me with whispered sincerity, is low. "As you have never been there, how would you know that?" I ask. "I know a guy in Tokyo who has a buddy in Frankfurt who heard it from a friend in Jakarta and Jakarta is really close to Papua New Guinea." Ok then, as long as the information is that reliable I'll consider it. I have no idea what the situation is like at Embassy Port Moresby and I won't know until I get settled in down there. Part of me hopes that it isn't running with the efficiency of a Swiss watch because I'd much prefer to go into an embassy that needs some help and try to improve things than to go to one that is functioning perfectly and screw it up!

Whistling into this storm of negativity are the handful of folks who have actually served at our embassy in Port Moresby. To a man, or in several cases a woman, they are uniformly and enthusiastically positive about their time and experiences at the embassy and in the country. Some go so far as to call it the best tour of their careers.

Housing is somewhat of an issue in Port Moresby. About a year ago, right after I accepted a handshake for the job, I contacted post and asked them to reserve a specific house for me in our compound of six leased houses. I had the advantage of knowing someone who had just finished a two year tour there and she told me which house to request. "Make sure you get House #1," she said. We have six houses in the compound and three of them, including House #1, have balconies that face the sea. So I, dutifully, sent off my housing request to the Management Officer and GSO appealing to their sense of Management Brotherhood. I carefully mentioned that I have committed to three years at post and would really appreciate favorable housing. I must also confess to having a somewhat inflated sense of my own importance. After all, I would be the incoming Management Officer, a man of stature, a man of position and rank, and no longer a mere entry level officer. It felt pretty good to exercise my newfound power and I was already looking forward to that balcony with the sea view.

The utter audacity of my request apparently shocked the Management section into total silence because it wasn't until several months later, after the departure from post of the incumbent Management Officer, that I finally received a reply from the GSO. "Unfortunately," he said, "House #1 was going to be assigned to someone else. As were Houses numbered 2 through 6." Post, in fact, did not actually have a house for me, but they were looking. He felt certain that something would be found eventually and he would let me know as soon as that happened. In the meantime, I would just have to be patient. I can assure you that nothing brings your sense of self-importance back to reality quicker than having a guy who will report directly to you tell you that he'll find you a place to live when he has the time.

At post we have the six aforementioned houses, one apartment, a house for the DCM and, of course, the Ambassador's residence. We are adding several new American staff positions, a tandem (married officers who share a house) has left and been replaced by two single officers (who don't share a house) and we just don't have enough places leased to accommodate this influx of new officers. The housing market is ridiculously tight because Exxon has discovered an enormous bubble of natural gas in Papua New Guinea and is leasing up everything with four walls and a roof. In spite of that, the State Department reluctantly acknowledged that 'having a place to live' is required by the regulations and authorized the embassy to begin finding suitable housing for the additional officers.

This is a fairly straightforward procedure. Post locates suitable properties and after the Regional Security Officer (RSO) approves them for safety and security, post negotiates a lease. Finally, OBO (the overseer of all State property and leases overseas) must authorize the lease. The Housing section at the embassy found a building that is still under construction and reserved five apartments in it. As described to me, the apartments are two bedroom, two bath with balconies overlooking the Coral Sea. It's a new building right on the beach, with all the amenities, pool, gym, etc. and it'll be ready for occupancy in January or February.  The RSO gave the building a thumbs up for safety and security and the leases were then sent off to OBO for signature.

OBO looked at the bottom line on the leases, gasped, clutched dramatically at its small flinty heart and told post to "sober up and go find cheaper apartments." Post carefully explained to OBO that any acceptable properties in this dangerous city were going to rent for a king's ransom or more thanks to Exxon's entry into the housing market. After a bit of back and forth, which may or may not have included inviting OBO to "come on down and find a damn place yourselves", the apartments were leased. Ironically, several of those apartments are reserved for the OBO personnel going to Port Moresby to direct the construction of the new embassy compound scheduled to break ground early next year. Much more importantly, however, one of those ridiculously expensive apartments is mine! I'm fully prepared to be quite happy there.

A good friend of mine sat in on the internal negotiations for the apartments (which were conducted in Washington between OBO, post and the bureau) and sought me out to ask if I'd heard about my new place. "Sure," I said, "it sounds great! Ocean view, brand new building, brand new furniture and appliances package, indoor parking, secure and located right next to the new embassy site. What's not to like?"

He just shook his head and said, "Yeah, but they're small, very small."

"How small can they be?" I asked. "They have two bedrooms and two baths!"

"Yes," he said, "But they are very small bedrooms. Japanese small!"

So, apparently, I'll be living in a brand new 'cozy' two bedroom apartment with a view of the Coral Sea sunsets! Go ahead, try and make me unhappy about that. Of course, I'll be staying in a hotel for the five months just prior to occupying my new place, but I can live with that. Room service can be a wonderful thing!

Speaking of apartments, the woman who owns the one I rent while I'm at FSI has thoughtfully provided it with a treadmill. The treadmill, a state-of-the-art Reebok gym-quality machine, sits in the corner of the living room just by the tv. This apartment is a 'cozy' one bedroom, one bath and the living room holds the couch, the dining table, the tv and the treadmill. Lying on the couch to watch tv puts the treadmill directly into my line of sight. I am fairly adept at ignoring subtle offense, however, the treadmill goes too far. It questions my resolve, it assumes an air of silent disapproval and rolls its nonexistent eyes at my natural inclination towards laziness and sloth. I'll be resting on the couch minding my own business, happily watching reruns of Hillbilly Handfishin' while the treadmill assumes an air of mute superiority right next to the tv. A lesser man would undoubtedly succumb to this constant badgering and even I have been tempted to find my sneakers, put them on and begin exercising once again. But, I will not be bullied into submission by an inanimate machine. Instead, I realized that by turning the couch slightly and placing the pillow on the opposite end I can now watch tv without seeing the treadmill at all. Finding a non-aggressive solution is a key to good diplomacy!

I was told by several of the people who have served there that I would definitely need a vehicle in Port Moresby so I bought a Toyota 4-Runner online from a used car salesman in Japan. It's a 1996 but looks brand new in the photos and has fewer than 50,000 miles on it. The used car salesman's explanation for this suspiciously low mileage was that "Japanese people just don't drive that much." I suppose they prefer spending all their time in their tiny little apartments. Quite a few Foreign Service Officers have used this company when they've transferred to countries that require vehicles with righthand steering. The car, including shipping and insurance, cost a few thousand dollars but I can recover the shipping and insurance fees when I get to post because State will pay to ship a vehicle to post whether it comes from Maine or Tokyo. Generally, since we import the vehicles duty free as diplomats, we can sell them easily when we leave post. We're prohibited from making a profit but we can almost always recover 100% of the original cost of the vehicle. So I wired my several thousand dollars to Japan and have just received a notice from the company that my Toyota will arrive in Port Moresby on October 18th. That'll be perfect. As a rule, we tend to purchase vehicles that are low profile and won't attract any particular attention. Gray, white or black and no-frills are the norm.

This is my low profile Toyota 4-Runner in electric blue with fog lights, sun roof and bull bar!!

There will, no doubt, be things that I won't be able to easily acquire in Port Moresby. Odds and ends that might serve to soften the hardships at this critical needs post. Papua New Guinea is not one of our more sought after posts. It is, officially, a "hard to fill" post and anyone committing to spend an additional year there automatically earns a further 15% differential. The money is nice, make no mistake, but life must also be lived there during those three years so I just sent off my air freight shipment (UAB) packed to the gunnels with the necessities. Four boxes of cigars, a new iMac computer, a shower head to be installed in my bathroom that simulates an Amazon rain forest downpour, a full set of professional quality poker chips, a carton of sealed playing cards, three new bathing suits, a pair of flip flops and 20 pounds of Skippy creamy peanut butter. Bring on those hardships, I'm ready!

In the past month, Washington DC has experienced an earthquake that damaged the Washington Monument and rattled the desks at FSI, a hurricane that caused massive damage up and down the east coast and a flood of biblical proportions. I'm not referring to the flooding that accompanied the hurricane, that was unfortunate but manageable. I'm talking about the flooding that took place in my apartment when I inadvertently left the kitchen sink running while I sat on my balcony reading a good novel and smoking a cigar. The faucet in the sink has a lever that you push towards the water spout to turn off the flow. I was distracted and slapped at the lever but didn't realize that I hadn't completely turned the water off. It seems that the drain chose that exact afternoon to develop a block and, while I sat enjoying myself on the balcony, the sink filled and began to overflow. My conservative estimate is that it overflowed for approximately an hour or so before I wandered back in to get a drink. Water was everywhere! It took several bath towels to mop up the floor and every drawer in the counter by the sink was filled to the brim. The plastic garbage pail under the sink is a ten gallon model and it held the full ten gallons. Water had seeped under the exterior wall and soaked the carpeting in the hallway for twenty yards in both directions. The occupants of the apartment below me built an ark. It was not my finest moment but I coped with it by denying any knowledge of a problem when the building superintendent came down the hallway knocking on every door to find the source of the water. However, as the next natural disaster in line will certainly be a volcano, when one erupts in the middle of Arlington, I can assure you that it really won't be my fault.

I only have two weeks left in Washington and then I head out. I'll fly non-stop from here to Tokyo and lay over there for about six hours. Then I'll catch the non-stop flight on Air Niugini down to Port Moresby. State travel regulations give me the option of either using the Business Class lounge at the lay over point or breaking my journey and staying in a hotel. I prefer to just get there once I start going, so I'm opting for the lounge in Tokyo. Door to door, the trip will take about 30 hours and I'll arrive at approximately 4:30 am on a Sunday. Regulations also allow me to take the next workday off to recover but, unless I'm flat out of it, I'm pretty eager to see where I'll be working for the next three years so I plan to go in on that Monday.

I read in the news this morning that a French diplomat was partially eaten by a shark just off the beach in Port Moresby as he was sail boarding. The shark, for reasons that are not immediately clear, took a bite or two and then swam away. The Frenchman was flown to Australia for patching and repair and will recover. Two thoughts immediately came to mind when I read this piece of news. First,  sharks, apparently, do not respect diplomatic immunity and second, I wondered where he lived and if his spacious and roomy apartment might now be available!

With creative decorating and the strategic use of some mirrors, this apartment will look huge!!