Saturday, July 27, 2013

Kabul--at the beginning

The beginning of an experience is a good place to start.

After almost a year of anticipation, I finally arrived at this place and experience that is the US Embassy Compound in Kabul, Afghanistan. The experience of living in this American compound could almost be anywhere. Yet, it is situated in the middle of a large city which is remote and unreal. There is no sense that you are among a few million people in this capital city that live their own daily lives.

 Here, I am surrounded by about 1000 other Americans or those who work for us living in a construction zone with walls around us, bunkers and sand bags to protect us from the possibilities of danger. Contiguously is a NATO (ISAF—International and Security Forces) military base which has members of the Italian, German, British, American and other forces. Additionally, nearby or around the city there are other similar bases of various sizes and stages of drawing down. Helicopters at time buzz over us to land somewhere nearby (always two of them). But surprisingly, it is very quiet here on the side where I live with the exception of the constant hum of the compound’s generators or the air conditioners-all background white noise. I did have the opportunity a couple of times to go to the top roof of one of our buildings (5 floors). At the top, you see all over Kabul, a third world city trying to recuperate from years of war. Only then, do you realize what surrounds you.

The compound has two sides separated by a road with an underground tunnel connecting the two (people just love going up and down those two flights of steps). The one side houses the more permanent office buildings and apartments with 3 other buildings under construction for offices and apartments. On the other side, where I live, are the less permanent buildings including the majority of the 2 floor stacked container housing units (CHUs) and some offices. On this side where there are long warehouse type office buildings and through the tunnel are very large (10 by 40 foot) photos on canvas of scenes from all over the US. My favorite is the orange poppy field that occurs in the spring in the desert in Antelope Valley California. This is where I lived at one point as a kid and return to see if I visit there at that time. When I come out of my room (Hooch), I see Cannon Beach, Oregon—(a fond recent memory from a visit with my sister in April). In the limited green space and in containers, the facilities’ people have planted gardens with flowers or vegetables which really does help with the monotony of all the concrete and construction fences.

My room is small but adequate with my own bathroom, twin bed, desk, bureau, armoire, a microwave, small refrigerator, etc. I have my own coffeemaker for my morning dark roast brew to get me through the day. I have tried to make it a home for me—and it is fine except I am situated on the lower level which means I don’t have much light through my small window. If you come with a spouse, you enjoy living in a relatively nice apartment with a kitchen and a large bedroom. I could choose to be on the waiting list to share an apartment—but I figure it is safer just to be on my own in this small room for the duration. We are limited due to security as to where we can take photos--but I am allowed to take photos of my room.

 I have added pillows, a local rug, some local fabric to make it more like home.

Desk and phone with a US area code

A memory of the war in Afghanistan and a local ottoman

There are two DFACs or cafeteria that manage to feed people three meals a day. The food is decent given the situation and there is always a salad bar and fruit option. There is an effort to give a variety although already the choices are becoming tiresome. As the food is plentiful including many desert choices at all meals, one could manage to gain quite a bit of weight. Luckily, there are many gyms and work out opportunities from treadmills to a variety of weights, spin, yoga, core fit classes and running groups (the running option around the compound is limited, however). I work out regularly at the gym and also enjoy the high intensity spinning classes in the morning at 6 am along with yoga classes in the evening and the dance classes.

We are not allowed to travel outside the compound unless for mission necessary travel or on your way in and out to the airport. Since my mission is inside the walls, I stay here for the most part (although I have gone out to pick up medical supplies at one of the military bases). There is an effort to keep people busy with activities such as game night, quiz night, dance classes, movie night, wine tasting and whatever else people are willing to organize. There are a few bands that get together and perform at the “Duck and Cover” bar. There is a real effort to keep people entertained and busy. There is a saying before you arrive that is passed along—Will you become a “hunk” (works out all the time) a “chunk” (eats a lot and gains weight) a “drunk” (obvious) or a “monk”- (These people keep themselves busy by working almost continuously, leave late and take their meals to their room). Luckily, there are people who choose to be a combo of all at various times.

We have satellite TV that has AFN (Armed Services Network) stations that show a variety of shows from US with military messages as commercials. Additionally, there are a number of English speaking stations from India showing American movies, sit coms from US, UK as well as some Indian sit coms (with alot of commercials). Rounding it out are Afghan stations only in Dari and although I don’t understand what they are saying, it is interesting to watch their limited offerings from news to political discussions, movies and game shows.

There is a wide variety of people here from various agencies, contractors from all over the world coming and going. Many are the contracted diplomatic security forces who carry weapons and patrol the compound. This security force is made up of Americans and third country nationals such as Nepalese, Peruvian men. They live on another compound of their own. The mix of male to female on the compound is about 75/25 with a mostly younger population and not too many more mature ladies like myself. There is a group of older white men working mostly as contractors of some sort that come and go. The typical State Dept. tour length is one year but those who work for USAID (a lot of contractors) stay 1-2 years while folks working for Dept. Justice, DEA etc. stay 3-4 years. The people who stay longer tend to be those who go out to the places where there are camps or field stations (PRT) setting up programs, doing education, working with the military, etc. So, they are not “stuck” on the compound for extended periods. Presently, there is a large turnover of people during the summer transfer season although there is always turnover with so many temporary duty people coming and going. Since I was one of the first of the new people coming, I stepped into the established groups who not only had their own friends but also had one foot out the door. It has been difficult to make many friends although people are always friendly and basically all in the same situation. So, slowly, I do know more people and making some superficial friendships.

The Health Unit is the largest one so far where I have worked. Presently we have 3 FSHPs (Foreign Service Health Practitioner), a DOS doctor, a family member Nurse Practitioners, 2 psych social workers and an American nurse. Additionally, we have a local doctor who runs our lab, a local nurse and 4 local office support staff (all men). There was only 2 office staff, but we were given 2 other young men to help out when they were brought to Kabul from other parts of the country. (They worked as translators for Special Forces and when the operation concluded, they were brought to Kabul to basically wait for their special immigration visa. There are a number of people working in the Embassy in such a situation after working for the Americans.) I am the first person in the new group that is arriving this cycle and have tried to find my position in an established group who have been here for 2 years. The redundancy of staff is designed to make certain there is enough staff as someone is always away on leave. Additionally, there needs to be enough providers available in an emergency. While we still provide routine care, we are also are equipped for emergency care as well as training first responders for mass casualties given we are in a war zone. Additionally, we have few local resources and look to the NATO military bases for additional medical support. On the compound, the contracted security forces have medics trained to assist in an emergency. One of the FSHPs leaving in August is not being replaced, so I look to take on some more duties as tasks are being reassigned. I have taken on the new duty of shooting X-rays which has been fun to learn to do. It is also a challenge to procure medications and supplies. As the military draws down, one of our reliable sources will be diminishing. There will be a turnover of physicians in September and the third FSHP will be replaced in November. The replacement for the American nurse leaving on October as not been announced.

As there are areas in the country where we have mission members serving in other parts of the country (provincial reconstruction team or PRT) , someone from the Health Unit travels occasionally to these locations. There is a consulate in the west in Herat that has mission members. It is located in a former hotel which now houses both offices, including a health unit and living quarters for those 30 plus who serve there. I did travel there a month ago to serve those at the consulate and also to review the military medical facilities at one of the remaining NATO bases there. As in Kabul, there is minimal movement outside the much smaller compound on non-mission related business. Since most of these people are healthy, there is little clinical work to do but provide morale boosting. The consulate does have much better food and a lovely view of the city below. I will make a visit again this week. It is uncertain how long or if the consulate will remain open after the draw down of the troops.

We work Sunday through Thursday as Friday and Saturday are the Muslim days off. However, most everyone works on Saturday and the Health Unit is open half day. We rotate working on this day and taking medical duty call. Friday is the one day where you feel comfortable walking about in shorts and T shirts. On alternate Fridays, there is no construction work going on and it is nice to enjoy the quiet. Besides catching up on sleep, laundry, cleaning, many people enjoy shopping the local vendors that come to the Embassy compound or on the ISAF base. Others play volleyball, tennis or sit at the pool all on the compound. At the base, there are softball games that must interrupt their play if the helicopters have to land on the field.

The news of the ongoing attacks in all parts of Afghanistan is received through the usual media sources here. At times, I receive other news that I may not want to know about. Within the first week of arrival, there were two “duck and cover” alerts causing us to suit up in our personal protective gear and waiting in a hardened structure until the threat had passed. There has not been any direct attack on the compound but in areas nearby. During another attack in the city, I was at the airport waiting to fly to Herat (via Embassy Air)—got out of the compound just in time. Since then, it has been quiet nearby but security has tightened during Ramadan. I learn every day how we spend the taxpayer’s dollars—better not to make comment at this point.

The weather has been hot ( upper 90’s in the day—cooling off at night) and very dry. At 6000 feet, it is cooler than in Herat or in other lower altitude cities. The dryness and dust wreaks havoc with your skin and eyes and leaves a constant layer of dust on your clothes and furniture. The summer winds have not yet begun in full force and I have been told, it can be nasty. With all the construction, most of the clothes and shoes brought will be left here.

As it is the holy month of Ramadan and this is a religious country, most Afghans fast from sun up to sun down. The summer can be very difficult for them due to the heat and the longer hours of the day for fasting. The schedules of the workers are accommodated and the pace of getting work completed slows considerably. I have noticed, that the construction work seems to stop in mid-day and continues after sunset for a few more hours.

I am planning my first of five trips that I am allowed to take away from the Embassy. I have a choice to take 3 R&Rs (a plane ticket to the US/London or a cost construct to your destination of choice) or 2 R&Rs and 3 regional rest breaks (plane ticket to Dubai or cost construct). The rule to receive all your benefits is that you have to have “boots on the ground” 300 out of 365 days for the tour. My first trip will take place mid-August to Beijing and Hong Kong. I started the process only to find out that the Chinese consular in Kabul has not found any American visa applications acceptable for the last 8 months (I imagine it is because there is no extra cash with the application). So, I hope to fly to Hong Kong first where I don’t need a visa and obtain the Chinese visa there. I hope to visit the doctor with whom I worked in Ankara who is now posted in Beijing. I am looking forward to the break from here and seeing another part of the world.

I posted some photos to Facebook of my stop in Dubai on my way to Kabul. Additionally, I also have photos of my air trip across Afghanistan between Kabul and Herat as well as some scenes from Herat and some photos from the 4th of July party on the compound.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Happy 2012 from “The Ongoing Adventures” Blog!

I obviously took a hiatus over the last months. However, the adventures have not ended. A new posting in Ankara has thrust us into the cradle of civilization stepping into the past while living daily in a modern country with a growing economy and influence in the world.

Most know that we left Luanda in June and spent the next five weeks in the U.S. on “home leave” along with consultations with Med in Wash DC. It was good to see family and friends, catching up on doctors’ appointments, taking care of personal business. We traveled to LA to see brother Michael and Brenda and then Portland to see sister Monica & Tom. We completed the trip by stopping off in Calgary to see our good friends Kathy and Greg. As we had been warned, there was more to do during home leave than expected with time swiftly passing.
Here are some photos from our trip. To see a larger view of the pictures, click on the photo and it will open the album in a new screen.

Although beginning a new tour in Ankara seemed familiar, the new post was not. After stepping off the plane, we realized again the reality of living in another country not knowing anyone in a strange city with another foreign language we don’t understand. The American Embassy in Ankara is a relatively large post in a strategic position in the world. As a result, there are not only State Department personnel but many other agencies like Agriculture, Justice, DEA, FBI and a decent size military presence. Additionally, there are consulates in Istanbul, Adana and Izmir also supported by the Embassy. Because of this, there are many official visitors that come through here including the VP, Sec. of State and many congressional delegations.
Here are some photos when we met VP Joe Biden. Additionally, I had a chance to meet and hear Sandra Day O'Connor speak about her experiences in life.

We were warned that the larger embassies lack the intimacy of the smaller embassies like Luanda. Although we had been ready to leave the “fishbowl” life in Luanda, we have missed elements of it here. We are beginning to have more friendships with other members, but it is definitely not the same. The housing is scattered about the city although not too far from the Embassy. While some apartment complexes have more mission members than others, we live in a building that only has a few families. So, at times, we miss that ability to just go down the hall or downstairs to connect with others as we did in Luanda. However, we are enjoying this post with the access to historical and cultural sites and the freedom to visit them. Everyday life seems more “normal” or familiar here.

Ankara is a city of almost 5 million people although it does not seem that large or densely populated. The city is located in the middle of the Anatolian Plain at an altitude of 3100 feet. Ankara had been a relatively insignificant city until Ataturk (the leader of the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923) decided to make it the capital of the new Republic. His goal was to establish a capital consistent with the new identity of Turkey with a break from the past Ottoman Empire. The city has grown over the years with its many government and military buildings. As the population grew, the high rise buildings replaced the small single family homes scattered about the city. The air quality has improved immensely as the move to natural gas for heating has replaced coal. Even now, in certain areas, coal is still used for fuel which creates the haze that hangs above the city in the winter. While Ankara cannot compete with Istanbul in terms of night life or a general cosmopolitan feel, it is more of a livable city. In many ways, it seems the difference between living in a city like Cincinnati versus New York City. Large shopping malls have replaced many of the older commercial areas and provide one of the major entertainment venues for the local folks. Families flock to the malls on the weekend to stroll about, eat at one of the restaurants, see a movie, music performance or find the Turkish version of Barney to entertain the children. In the summer, families stay at their summer home or gather on Sunday at one of the parks in or outside the city for the day.

The Anatolian Plain has a semi-arid climate with four seasons. The dry summer heat was bearable and now the dry winter air, even with snow, does not seem as bone chilling as in the Midwest. As the Turks feel it is best to be warm at all times, we enjoy a constant 75 degree temperature in our apartment without even turning on the radiators. 

These photos of Ankara give you an idea of the old city combined with the new. During the holidays, the Turks love to bring out their flags and photos of the revered founder and first president of the Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

We live in a newer high rise building complex (13 floors) on the eighth floor in a 4 bedroom apartment. It is a pleasant place with adequate space, ceiling to floor windows or balcony with a stunning view of the city and vistas of the surrounding hills into the plain. It is located in an area among the smaller embassies of the world and the personnel that staff them. Shops are nearby and we can walk daily to do food shopping if needed. Public transportation is also nearby and affordable. As cars are expensive to own and operate, taxis are ever present and also affordable. For us, when we first arrived, we walked as much as possible and then took a bus or taxi. (I have used more taxis in the months here than in my entire life). As we live a few miles from our Embassy, I walk daily to and from work. Ankara is situated in a bowl with the center city in the base and the residential areas located on the surrounding hills. The walk down the hill to work in the morning is easy but the one home provides a good cardio workout. (Think walking from downtown Cincinnati at the river to the top of Mt. Adams) When we first arrived in the summer, it was quite an adjustment not only with the heat but also with the altitude adjustment. Now that is winter and I have acclimated, it seems an easy trek home.

We enjoy the ever changing views from our apartment. We also have bought carpets and kilims to decorate our home.

My position as the Health Practitioner in the Health Unit is also different. Having over 550 Americans with access to the Health Unit, I perform more clinical care than in Luanda and find a nice balance of clinical and administrative work. Additionally, I alternately visit the consulates in Istanbul and Adana to provide care to the American staff there. I work with a physician (the Regional Medical Officer or RMO), Behzad, who is a Turkish/Iranian origin and spent many formative years in Istanbul. He went to university and medical school in Texas and remained to work there. He is now an American citizen and joined the Foreign Service only a year before me spending his first tour in Sudan. He is a very nice single guy and we get along very well. Having a colleague who speaks Turkish and understands the culture has been invaluable. As the medical facilities and care are of high quality in the large cities, I am able to easily refer patients to local specialists for care. Certainly, here, I am not “the only game in town”. When I first arrived, the local staff in the Health Unit consisted of two nurses, one British and the other Turkish as well as an administrative assistant. I knew before I even bid on the post that there had been long standing personnel issues. The British nurse did not treat her colleagues with respect and more recently all three staff members argued regularly among each other. The British nurse did not treat Behzad with respect causing even more tension and dysfunction in the HU. When I met with the Med people in Washington, however, I was assured that things would be fine and I should arrive with an open mind.

I did arrive with an open mind, but it did not take long to see just how bad things were. I did not know how I was going to manage in this situation for the next 2 years. Because Behzad and I were united in improving the functioning of the HU, we worked with Human Resources to attack the problem head on with a performance improvement plan. The three ladies did improve in their treatment of each other, but, the British nurse’s treatment and disrespect for Behzad and then, me, only worsened. Despite counseling with her, she just could not see that there was a problem with her behavior and the problem lie with us. After many hours of worry and GI distress, we made the decision that either she left or we did. With the support from the front office, she was finally terminated. But, of course, this was not the end. She presented a 27 page appeal filled with such vicious attacks and inaccuracies, that I almost became physically ill reading it. She solicited support from previous Med personnel with whom she did respect for the appeal. The appeal was denied but it also caused a ripple in Med and a review from our regional manager. After his review, he was satisfied that the dismissal was warranted and that it should have taken place long before we arrived. However, the entire experience felt akin to a whistle blower who experiences repercussion from doing the right thing. And the experience underlies a weakness with DOS and movement of personnel every 2-3 years. It is easy to ignore personnel issues when you know your time in that situation is limited. But, for us, we couldn’t ignore it. Since the dismissal, the atmosphere in the HU has improved immensely. The tension is gone and we have taken back control of the HU. Duties have been redistributed among the remaining two employees. We are finally going through equipment and dealing with issues that have been neglected for a long time. Hopefully, this atmosphere and efficiency will remain.

The adjustment to this new post has been more difficult for Jim. The connection to the Embassy for him has been limited from the beginning. And there have been adjustment issues to life in Ankara with the crazy drivers and getting around without the language skills. There are many very well educated spouses (mostly women) and limited employment opportunities which lead to many dissatisfied people. The Turkish government only allows diplomatic family members to be employed in education, and unless you speak Turkish, you are limited to the English speaking schools. There are a few international type schools and a few universities, but the opportunities are limited. The universities have not even responded to his inquiries. While the elementary/high school schools are interested in his services as needed, there are only so many students. He has done some substitute teaching and has a few American clients he sees via the Health Unit. He was accepted for a contract position with the military to be a consultant at any American base in the world for 3-6 month stints. However, that also has gone nowhere for the time being. So, for now, he enjoys the freedom to set his own schedule. He works out a lot at the health club we joined, is taking Turkish lessons at the Embassy, cooking wonderful meals and exploring future employment options. He made a trip home for 3 weeks in October to attend the Ohio Psychological Association and spend time with his family. It is difficult to say how this will all play out during this tour and may affect future plans for life in the Foreign Service.

Living in Ankara is a big step up from Luanda. Daily life seems more normal in general in that goods and services are readily available and affordable. The Turks are generally friendly and gracious and, despite the language barrier, will try to help. Many people in the larger cities have some basic English but it doesn’t help much at the supermarket or giving directions. Bureaucracy abounds and, at times, it seems an organized version of Angola (it took us 2 months and paying a contractor to get our car registered). The infrastructure is also good for the most part with decent roads, internet speed (we can now stream TV and movies!) and consistent power sources. The price of gasoline is one of the highest in the world at $9-10 a gallon. Since we don’t have to pay the tax, the price for us is about half that. The food is plentiful and good. There are restaurants everywhere although most serve typical Turkish fare. There are a few American fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King (who deliver), Domino’s Pizza and KFC. Produce is plentiful and we enjoyed amazingly fresh, tasty fruits and vegetables well into the fall. Since there is a large military presence left in Ankara, we have access to the US military commissary and BX. We are then able to buy American products or better priced meat from Europe. We feel spoiled at times after Luanda.

The country is secularized but predominantly Muslim with a current conservative government. Mosques are everywhere and you hear the call to prayer five times a day. There is a mix of more secular and religious people in the city while the more religious conservative citizens dominate the rural areas. There is also a varied mix of dress for women ranging from western garb to the Hijab of the conservative group. While these women do not wear the traditional burqa, they do wear head scarves and long coats (even in the summer!!!) to cover up. Even then, there is a range of fashions from just head scarves and jeans to long skirts and coat. During the long month of Ramadan, there was a wide variation of adherence among the sections of the city and the rural areas. This year, Ramadan was in the month of August which means one had to rise at 4 am to eat before sunrise and could not eat or drink before sundown which was between 9-10 pm. People were really wilting at the end of the work day!

The two greatest annoyances for us are the Turkish drivers and the lack of Turkish language skills. The Turks are scary drivers and just don’t seem to have a sense of their car, the road and other drivers. There is little respect for other drivers such as driving randomly the wrong way down one way streets, stopping or pulling out without much regard for others or randomly double parking. There is minimal enforcement of rules by the police. While we felt we were driving in the Wild West in Angola, here Jim has characterized driving as Mr. Toad’s wild ride from Disneyland. Jim has a major problem with the drivers (many American men seem to feel this way) which causes him much distress at times. We left the Land Rover behind in Angola and bought a small Ford Focus from another diplomat which has been fine to navigate through the streets. However, it is an undertaking at times between the drivers and not really knowing where we are going once outside our known area.

The Turkish language is difficult to learn. While the script is Roman, the words and grammar have no connection to any European language with which we are familiar. Words can be long with numerous suffixes added to verb roots. Luckily, the words are pronounced phonetically once you understand how the specific letters are pronounced. Jim and I have been taking classes although there has been a hiatus due to the uncertain budget situation. We really do not have the opportunity and need to speak regularly which also makes it difficult. So, our goal is just to be able to buy groceries, travel from one place to another and give familiar greetings to people.

Since arriving, we have traveled a great deal in Turkey and have seen some amazing historical and cultural places. One of our earliest trips was to the Black Sea city of Amasra.

On the return home to Ankara, we stopped at a quaint old city, Safranbolu.

We also found a weekly hiking group organized by a local Turkish guy who takes people (mostly Turkish) 1-2 hours from Ankara in the rural areas for adventurous long day hikes. One was a water hike with many challenges, but fun. While we did this frequently before the winter started, we have only gone once this winter.

Although we are not the tour type, we have gone on a few group tours with a small American tour company here in Ankara. These have been a great way to see the country without worrying about the details.

Our first organized trip was to Eastern Turkey in early September traveling to the borders of Armenia and Iran. We visited the ancient remains of Ani looking into Armenia. As we traveled south, we saw Mt Arat in the distance. This is where remnants of Noah's Ark was supoosedly found. Continuing south we completed our 3 day trip in Van, the epicenter of the most recent earthquake.

Another trip was with many embassy families to Cappadocia. Amazing scenery with "fairy chimneys" and ancient underground cities.

Friends from Cincinnati came to Istanbul in October and we spent time with them exploring the city. We spent one afternoon cruising the Bosphorous on the Consulate boat.

While Jim traveled to the US, I spent the Turkish-Muslim holidays in the south of Turkey on the Mediterranean with some new friends. Although it was November, the temperatures were pleasnt and the views spectacular. These areas on the coast are filled with remnants of Roman cities. Having a digital camera allows me to take more pictures than I should--but I love it!

Why should we spend Thanksgiving eating turkey in Turkey when we can go with the tour group to Northern Cyprus? We spent the weekend enjoying the sea, more Roman and early AD ruins.

We braved the cold Anatolian Plain weather a few weeks ago to visit two Hittiite (2000 BC) remains, Hattusa and Alacahoyuk. (only a couple hours away) It is amazing to consider the history of man just under our feet. I am always humbled!

We made a last minute decision to spend Christmas at home in Cincinnati when vacation plans for Behzad changed. We knew the boys would be there and I just had a feeling that I needed to be with my parents. The flight prices were reasonable and readily available. In the end, the timing was fortuitous as my dad was hospitalized for a GI bleed. While he recovered from this, his strength and willingness to walk has declined. We were able to help my mom bring him home and help return to a more normal routine. It has been difficult to watch his physical and mental decline. My mom keeps on pushing him but, at 88, she is also wearing out. She is determined she will not allow him to be cared for anywhere else than home.

Over the next couple of months, we have more trips planned. I will travel to Tajikistan to be a mentor to a new FSHP and stop in Istanbul on the way back to work at the Consulate. I will attend our yearly Med conference in Bangkok in March and Jim will accompany me this time. We will spend extra time in Thailand to visit our “Thai son”, Ton who lived with us in the early ‘90s when he was an exchange student. We haven’t seen him in many years and are looking forward to this trip. So, look for another update after this trip.

Monday, February 21, 2011

An Uexpected Adventure

I’m sitting here on the common porch overlooking the city as the sun begins to set. There are billowy clouds in the distance across the horizon. These are the dog days of summer here and it has been particularly hot and humid this week. It hasn’t rained in awhile but it feels like it should. When we walked this morning at 6 am, the humidity was almost suffocating; I was drenched with sweat when we returned. Jim loves it but, it has become oppressive for me. However, up on the ninth floor, there is a wonderful breeze that makes being outdoors a pleasure. Below me on the street, I see the traffic stopped by the military. This means the President is about to come home to one of his numerous houses located just a few blocks away. Almost daily, at any time of the day, traffic will be stopped for his movement for lengths of time creating more congestion on the already snail paced streets of Luanda.

The latest ongoing adventure was unexpected; a medical evacuation to Pretoria, South Africa. This all began at the end of October, when I had an episode of, what I thought, was acute gastroenteritis. Most people have episodes from time to time attributing to something you ate. But this time, it continued. After 10 days or so, I reviewed my symptoms which seemed to be more consistent with a parasite. Giardia, I thought. I sent off stool samples which came back negative (not unusual). So, I decided to treat myself with the appropriate antibiotic anyway and I improved. But, not quite….so, despite more negative stool samples, I did a second round of antibiotics, which did finally seem to treat my symptoms. Yet, I continued with intermittent episodes of fatigue, malaise, nausea, some abdominal pain that would last a few days and resolve. I had no appetite, aversion to most food and drink and was losing weight. I did research on post infectious Giardia symptoms which can continue for awhile. And, after consulting with a few people, it was felt this is what I must be experiencing. Then on New Year’s Day, I couldn’t get out of bed and for the next week, pushed myself to go to work despite increasing intestinal pain, diarrhea, fatigue etc, etc. Finally, after consulting with the doctors at the Embassy in Pretoria, I was on a flight to Johannesburg with immediate admission to Kloof Hospital in Pretoria. Between the doctors at the Embassy and a local GI doctor, it was felt I had some type of inflammatory bowel process going on (my serum inflammatory markers were quite high). The prospect of having new onset ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, after never having any indication in the past didn’t seem possible. I couldn’t imagine having a chronic illness. But, luckily for me, once the GI doctor did a colonoscopy, I was diagnosed with amebic colitis. So, I had a parasite, Entamoeba Histolytica, that created chaos in my colon. The doctor let me wake up during the procedure (which I wasn’t happy about) but I did get to see quite impressive images of all the abscesses present in my bowel. The biopsies confirmed the diagnosis and once I was started on a three week course of 2 different antibiotics, I recovered nicely. When I thought I had Giardia, I partially treated the Amebiasis but since I did not completely eliminate the luminal trophocytes with the second antibiotic, it just took hold again. Luckily, it seemed to be confined to my colon, but it can spread to the liver or brain if not treated.

How and where I acquired this parasite is not known. I am very, very careful of what I eat, drink, how I prepare food. etc. Many people are asymptomatic carriers but I do know that people die here of untreated amebiasis. When I think about my previous travels to third world countries, I ate food from stalls on the street, drank the water and only had one episode of gastroenteritis in 3 years of traveling overseas. So, how did I get so lucky this time? Why don’t other people in the Embassy contract it?? Maybe my age or just bad luck? Whatever the reason, it was a very sobering experience. And with all experiences, I have to learn something. This time, I learned a lot about intestinal parasites, how difficult it is to diagnose the specifics and the importance of completed treatment to eradicate them. The regional State Department doctors in the medevac center at the Embassy in Pretoria had no criticism of my treatment approach having many years of experience of similar situations. I was satisfied with the care I received in Pretoria and very appreciative to the Health Unit staff there. The upside to all this? I lost a bunch of weight and hope not to gain it back.

It was coincidental that the illness just preceded our trip to Cape Town. A few days after my hospital release, Jim traveled, as planned, to SA and we continued with our brief vacation. It was a wonderful way to recuperate without the pressure of returning to Luanda and work. We spent the next 8 days seeing the sights of the beautiful Cape, enjoying good food, orderly traffic and lovely walks. The surrounding area around Cape Town is so similar to central and northern California without all the people. Despite my fatigue, we enjoyed short hikes in the Cape Peninsula and the lovely Parks in the city. One day, we visited Robbin Island, the site of the prison where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were kept for 30 years. The guides on the tour were all former political prisoners, each telling their and others’ stories of time in the prison. Despite the beauty of the area and seemingly normal western type life for many, there are still shanty towns with a great deal of poverty on the periphery of the city. And, in the end, it is still Africa.

Here are some photos of our trip.

Back in Luanda for our last few months, I was recently informed that I will leave here the beginning of June. We will be ready to go. My replacement will be another new hire straight from orientation. And, although I offered to stay a few days to overlap and orient my replacement, I was told here that due to housing issues, this was not possible. I will have a few days of “consultation” in DC before month long “home leave”. We will divide our time among family members in Ohio and the west coast before onward to Ankara.

So, in the meantime, we continue with our experiences of life in Luanda, Learning to make tasty creative dishes with what we can find or afford here augmented with our last Samtrex order (an online store from South Africa that sells food to Embassy personnel in Africa. We receive a consumables allowance that we can use to ship things from the US. I sent lots of Charmin, Bounty paper towels, canned chicken and tuna, almond butter, etc. and if you have weight left over you can use it to ship your Samtrex order. After a year, your weight allowance expires.)

We have learned how to deal with mold—imagine coming back from our trip and despite having the AC on, finding two closets and one room covered with mold; clothing, shoes, purses, items hanging on the walls etc. I spent 2 days just washing clothes and now trying to keep it from taking over the closets again.

We have the opportunity of using different brands and types of appliances. (If anyone ever considered buying an all in one washer-dryer from Bosch—don’t do it!!! The clothes take forever to wash and you never get them dry. When we moved into this apartment, we had to give up our regular washer and dryer as this type was included in the apartment due to space constraints.) And, of course, dealing daily with the issues of a poorly constructed new apartment building and its mentally unstable landlady.

Jim continues to be a great CLO. In addition to teaching water aerobics, he is now teaching swimming to some of the local staff. Although they live near the water, few know how to actually swim strokes. They want to feel more comfortable in the water and they have been consistently attending his classes. Jim also has started to read books—something he has not done since I have known him. Additionally, his blood pressure has dropped 20-30 points from borderline hypertensive to fit normotensive. He didn’t realize how much stress he experienced in his daily life in Cincinnati.

I also finally joined a book club a few months ago made up of international expat ladies. Presently, we are reading, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo by Michela Wrong. It is a very interesting and well written book that really keeps your interest. It gives you a good idea how these wealthy African countries are raped by their leaders leaving nothing for their people.

And to continue a look at reality in the third world of Angola, go to this link from the Economist:

and another entry from the same guy.

Expensive Angola
Hot on Dubai's heels
Feb 9th 2011, 17:29 by O.A. | LUANDA

THE Angolan government this week said it sees Luanda, the capital, as a "new Dubai" and there certainly are similarities with the emirate. Luanda has access to vast oil wealth. If only they could get visas, tourists would love the beaches and game parks. Flight routes have been improving following the opening of a modern airport; planes arrive non-stop from Europe and America, mostly carrying oil engineers. Ryanair, the low-cost carrier, has looked into the route from London.
Then there are Luanda’s new skyscrapers. Oil money has swept into local banks and quickly seeped into the construction sector (even though the country much more desperately needs farm loans to boost agriculture). Half a dozen more luxury hotels are under construction along the Marginal, the waterfront promenade, adding to the spiky shadows over the marina on the sandy Ilha peninsula where a $5.5m 110-ft Ferretti lords it over the other super-yachts.
If only that were enough. Dubai’s rise may have started with oil but it has long since run out and the emirate now relies on banking, tourism and foreign investment, sectors where Luanda, and Angola in general, do poorly. Few banks give the appearance of commercial savvy or probity. One critic refers to them as "Laundromats". The American government recently froze the accounts of the Angolan embassy in Washington over irregularities.
Suspicion runs both ways. In formerly Marxist Luanda, foreigners from capitalist countries are not warmly welcomed. It is nigh impossible to get a visa unless one has a powerful sponsor or some other in. Those who make it past the airport face additional hurdles. It takes 56 steps to set up a business if you are Angolan, and foreigners must jump through even more (even tighter) hoops.
Baobab was walking along a seafront road between the presidential palace and the national police command this week when an armed policeman approached and asked to see my passport. Two Japanese were caught in the same drag net. We explained—using primitive sign language--that we were not carrying our passports and in any case did not speak Portuguese. The copper became increasingly irate. He spoke no English except for "mani, mani" (try saying it out loud). His less-than subtle demands for a backhander eventually led him to write $10 into the sand with a stick. We continued to insist that we didn’t understand. He stammered, "Angola… policia… bandidos." We smiled broadly and repeated, "No Portuguese". The policeman shook his head—presumably at how thick the world outside Angola must be—and let us go.

We finally made a trip with friends an hour north to Shipwreck Beach—basically a tanker graveyard. There are theories about why the ships are here but the most likely is that the ships were just dumped here to get them out of the way.

I will leave this entry with the last of my reality photos of sites around Luanda when there is heavy rain. We were with a group going on another field trip a few hours north. To get out of Luanda, we had to drive through typical scenes. At one point we had to turn around and take another road. But in the end, the rain stopped and as the last photo will show, there can be a rainbow!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Seasons Greetings and onward assignment

The holiday season is here and we wish our friends and family the best of the season. Throughout the holiday season, we share the celebrations with our Embassy family.

For those more accustomed to the typical winter weather, celebrating in the heat and humidity of the summer makes it more difficult to imagine the time of the year. We attended a Christmas choral event at the British Embassy but even that had little impact on our holiday mood. However, in Luanda, there are Christmas lights on the streets and commercials for goods with the traditional carols on the radio. The street vendors carry small artificial trees up and down the street selling to those waiting in the unending traffic congestion. The one mall in Angola boasts an impressive Christmas display (but without Santa) where families come to enjoy and snap pictures.

This also represents the year anniversary of my arrival in Angola Thanksgiving week 2009. As documented, this year has been an interesting and challenging experience; certainly one that neither Jim nor I could imagine the specifics of the events that have unfolded. For now, we are content with our decision and look forward to more ongoing adventures.

Jim and I enjoyed our travel to the US in September. Coming back into the country through immigration for the first time on a diplomatic passport was emotional as the immigration agent welcomed and thanked me for serving my country. We had the opportunity to see family and many friends while enjoying the transitional weather of the Fall season. It is always interesting to see familiar places such as in Cincinnati in a different light after being away in a new environment. Adrian and Colin traveled to Minneapolis for a family reunion with us as well as with my sister Monica and her husband Tom. This was their last week living in the Twin Cities as they have moved to Portland, Oregon.
From family 2010

Although the trip home was nice, the two very long journeys were exhausting. Since I had two long flights (each way), I had the opportunity to have an overnight “rest stop’. This time I took advantage of it on the way back staying overnight in Paris (Jim did not do this as we did not fly the same route). Although it was not restful, it was nice to have a day to spend in the Louvre and stroll about the streets of Paris.

Back in Angola, we had another opportunity to see the countryside with the Angolan Field Group. This 3 day trip took us east to Mélange to witness the demining operations being performed by the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) group. Along the way we stopped at the Kalundula water falls and Pedras Negras where I visited last year.

During the 30 years of war, mines as well as a myriad of traditional ammunition and explosives were used by both sides of the conflict making Angola one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. Large portions of the country are still not accessible to the population due to these mines and explosive remnants of war, and it is estimated that one fifth of the population has its day to day life affected by them. The NPA, along with a number of other agencies and the government are involved in the process of demining. While the government focuses mostly on the demining around infrastructure (dams, bridges, and electric lines), other agencies like NPA and the Halo Trust attempt to secure land so the people may return. Unfortunately, funding for many of these agencies has declined since the global financial crises. Additionally, donors feel that as Angola is pumping 2 million barrels of oil a day, they should take more responsibility in returning the land to its people. Princess Diana visited Angola in 1997 bringing the tragedy of landmines here and other countries to the forefront.

As the US State Department is the largest donor to NPA, some of the Embassy staff involved with this grant has visited this operation. The Angolan Field Group had the rare opportunity to undertake a similar day long tour and we were lucky to be included.

Our tour was led by a Bosnian technical operator and the Angolan director of operations. The Bosnian had been involved in mining his own country during their war and afterwards suffered a partial leg amputation when he was involved in the demining of the same area. His injury was a result of not following his own rules when performing such operations. The NPA has an incredible safety record in Angola with only one injury in the last few years. Once again, it was a result of the individual not following the safety rules. Luckily, it was not a life threatening injury to this arm and he was able to return to having almost full use of the limb. Although we did not venture into the specific area where land mines were still present, we were taken into a cleared area and received demonstrations on the process. Only a few meters separated us from the cleared and uncleared areas. After the demonstration, we were taken to a village not far away that was able to return and begin construction on their new homes. The scope of the work is daunting and it is estimated it will take many years and much money to return most of the land to the Angolan people.

The remaining part of our trip took us to some of the loveliest natural resources of Angola. This time, Jim got to enjoy them as well as drive the Land Rover a number of hours on unpaved roads. Additionally, we made some new friends from all over the US and Europe in our group mostly working in the oil industry. Having friends in this business and with NGO groups puts a different perspective on each industry.

Jim was invited by the regional medical officer in Nigeria to come to Lagos to perform psychological testing on children from the Consulate there. In the end, he tested 7 children in 5 days. This may be an opportunity for him to provide such a service to other missions in the future. It was an interesting experience for him to travel alone in Africa and see another African country. Due to the routing of the flights, he had to spend an overnight in Johannesburg. There, he had his first experience in South Africa, so much different from the rest of Africa.

Our life in Luanda has become routine for the most part. Due to the logistics of the city, including safety and traffic, we find ourselves limited in our easy mobility. The Marginal was closed a few months ago as it is being extended into the Bay; we lost our easy and safe place to walk in town We now walk in our Miramar neighborhood and drive to a particular beach on the weekends if only to just to be able to walk free of the congestion. Driving somewhere requires energy and patience; at times it doesn’t seem worth it. We visit or have friends over for dinner versus going to a restaurant where we are unsure of the quality for a grand sum of money. With each of our roles, Jim and I have become the twin support group. We are organizing a water aerobics class at the Embassy pool and trying to offer ways for people to deal with the stress of life here. The annual Marine Ball that commemorates the founding of the Marines (235 years) takes places at most embassies in the world was held in November. We enjoyed a lovely evening with Americans and others from Luanda.

Marine Ball

The sights and sounds around Miramar have become routine. As there are many homes of wealthier people here, each home has a guard(s) out front. They have their ways to keep themselves occupied during the long hours with radios, TVs and conversation 24 hours a day. There are parties, sometimes loud and late in private homes or the expensive reception facility down the street. The small public park echoes with the voices of children or adults playing soccer or enjoying each other’s company. Our building is adjacent to a public maternity hospital. So, depending on where your windows face, there are different sounds. In the front of the facility, women and children camp out on the side walk on a very busy street waiting for family members to deliver the baby. Those overlooking the facility can hear the screams of the women during labor while we hear the cries of the families and friends as they take away the coffins of the mothers or babies from the back of the hospital. At 6 a.m. many days of the week, the “mourning ladies”, I call them, come to wail as they retrieve the bodies of their loved ones. I am amazed at the numbers of women and infants who die as a result of childbirth. But, this is life in a third world country which is the largest oil producer in Africa.

Here are some more views of Luanda we see everyday. We marched in the annual AIDS (SIDA) march in the streets of Luanda. Another day we walked about downtown Luanda with our Portuguese teacher who filled us in on the history of the city.

On a more upbeat note, I have learned of my next assignment. We are very excited to be posted next in Ankara, Turkey for at least two years. The prospect of living in a place with history, culture, good food and relative safety is very exciting. The Embassy is much larger and I will be co-located with one of the regional medical doctors who travel to other embassies in the region. I hope to have a better balance of clinical and administrative work. We also hope Jim will have an opportunity to have clinical work as there is a large US military operation there. On the downside, we will return to colder winter weather as in Cincinnati, but the trade off is worth it. Hopefully, this will be a place where family and friends may want to come to visit us during this time.
I am uncertain the specific date I will leave Luanda but, most likely, it will be in July. We will have about a month of “home leave” before we are off to Ankara.

Both boys have also moved onto new adventures. Colin has remained in Wash DC for now and is working for a company administering aptitude tests and counseling on the results. He continues to study voice. He also moved into a new apartment in DC proper. Adrian left Clorox after 2+ years to take a job at the Lawrence Berkeley Labs. Besides having a fabulous view from the Berkeley hills, he hopes to enjoy a more technical job at this lab. He has applied to a number of graduate schools to begin work on a PhD in chemical engineering next fall.

We have planned a trip to Cape Town in mid January for 10 days—a needed escape. In April, I will attend our Med conference in Istanbul (how coincidental). Before we leave here, we also hope to travel to Botswana for a safari and cross to Zambia to see Victoria Falls. I believe time will go quickly over these next 6 months.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Normalizing Life

The ongoing adventure in Luanda now includes Jim. We were reunited in Lisbon on July 3 and enjoyed the next 10 days in Portugal. We spent time touring Lisbon and the area surrounding the city as well as a few days at the beach in the south of Portugal. Colin joined us for a few days in Lisbon as he was on his way to his summer program in Italy.

Spending time in Portugal allowed me to discover the origins of many fundamentals of architecture, food, brand names, traffic patterns etc. reproduced in Angola. History surrounds you like most other European cities as we visited churches, castles and monuments. The beaches were pleasant in the Algarve as we shared them with multiple generations of Portuguese families enjoying their summer holiday together. We lit candles at Our Lady of Fatima shrine and traced the steps of the children who reported the visits from her. We drank good but inexpensive Portuguese wine and I fed my craving almost daily for grilled salmon that I cannot enjoy in Luanda.

Jim hit the ground running in Luanda. After only a few days here, he was offered and accepted a temporary position at the Embassy as the “move coordinator”. As the apartment building behind the Embassy was finally completed, a major relocation project began moving many of us into this building. Because we were dealing with new apartments, a lot of his job was evaluating the adequacy of the construction (which was very inadequate). He had an experience in international relations, trying to communicate with people from Southeast Asia and India (the building workers) and Angolans (our guys) and a very histrionic landlady (Ethiopian American married to an Angolan). Additionally, he had to do a lot of handholding and listening as many of our colleagues dealt with the stress of moving in mid tour. Indeed, he used all the skills acquired in years as a psychologist. He made friends easily with the local staff whom he has come to enjoy and impressed the management with his organizational skills (What a surprise!).

So, we are now living on the 9th floor on a hill overlooking the city and the bay in a medium size 3 bedroom apartment. Once again it is a million dollar view with a short commute across the street. We live in somewhat of an upscale neighborhood for the city center of Luanda with other houses and a couple of small parks. I do not miss the daily crazy drive and parking challenges when I lived on the Marginal. And although there is still noise at times, it is a much quieter environment most of the time. As the Embassy occupies the top 5 floors, we have established a more cohesive community. Jim and I have hosted a few parties already where we can open our door and extend the living space to a small lobby and community porch for all to use.

With Jim here and living in a new place, life has become normalized and pleasant. Jim is enjoying the adventure and living a relative stress free life. He did not realize how much stress he experienced all these years and feels liberated from it. He sleeps well, exercises a lot, is reading books for enjoyment and discovering cooking. We have found some good restaurants we enjoy and better options for buying meat. Both of us find living in Luanda involved with the American Embassy a pleasant, alternative life.

However, Jim does want to be involved in some work. Initially, he thought he would work 2 days a week at the International School although management at the Embassy hoped he would work full time for us. However, the school only wanted to employ him initially at an “insulting salary” for a few months while another part time Dutch psychologist was on maternity leave. Given the long tedious commute and these factors, he decided to decline their offer. This last week, he was offered the job as the CLO—Community Liaison Officer, a position that entails supporting and enhancing the life of the American families at the Embassy. Because he will be involved with potential emergency situations with access to sensitive information, he will need a top secret clearance like the rest of us. The job will suit him well for the next year and will allow him to acquire some overseas embassy life experience he can use for future posts.

The mood and morale at Embassy Luanda has also changed. Most of the personnel finished their 2-3 year tour this summer and the new group continues to arrive. With this, a more positive outlook has replaced the previous negative one and morale is improving. The hope is to continue this enthusiasm and make this Embassy one that is not viewed as so difficult. We have an interim Ambassador for another week (a retired former Ambassador to Uganda and Zambia who now works at Cal Berkeley) and are just waiting for the Congress to approve the appointment of the next one.

I have continued to organize the health unit and discard the many years of accumulated and expired supplies and medications. I still do not have a regular medical administrative assistant or nurse although the process to hire one is underway—always a slow process here. I have a teen summer intern of one of the employees who has been amazing in her efficiency and speed with what I need to have done. My Portuguese slowly improves and I have now taken on another (volunteer) job as the coordinator of the post language program. So much of my work is administrative and supportive in comparison to clinical work. While I don’t mind, I do miss it. I am teaching CPR classes, overseeing the cleanliness and food handling issues of our small cafeteria and will continue to promote overall good health for everyone.

As part of my ongoing training, I will attend a Comprehensive Advanced Life Support course at the University of Minnesota. I will join other new Med personnel in this class including those from my orientation class that began one year ago this next week. Like Berlin, it is always nice to catch up and compare notes.

So, this allows me to come to the US on September 17 to attend the class the next week followed by a week of leave in Cincinnati visiting family and friends. Jim will also travel with me, will visit his family in Cleveland while I am in the course and join me in Cinti the following week. Adrian and Colin are coming to Minneapolis to meet us that first weekend. My sister and her husband who have lived in Minneapolis for a number of years are spending their last week there at that time before heading off to a new life in Portland, Oregon. We are looking forward to the trip and hope to visit with our friends in Cincinnati when we are there.

Here are some photos of our trip to Portugal

Our new apartment and neighborhood.

We are enjoying time with friends and the beach. Jim is attemptint to learn to surf with help from one of the Marines.

We went fishing and I caught some fish!!! We cooked them that night.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Winter in Luanda and volcanic ash

A couple of months have passed since my last update. More than 6 months here and I feel somewhat more settled on some days. While other days, not so much.

I was told that winter here is the most pleasant time of the year and, as predicted, it is true. The daily, almost oppressive heat and humidity has given way to pleasant breezes and temperatures in the upper 70s low 80s throughout the day with lows in the low 70s to upper 60s at night. The “Ilha” across the bay from my apartment is usually a very busy place on Sunday in the summer for the local Luandans. However, today, I went to have lunch with others at a restaurant on the beach. It was so pleasant with only the expat community enjoying the beach. I have the veranda windows open presently to enjoy the breezes as on Sunday the traffic below is not too annoying. It is amusing to see the local people wear jackets to keep warm at these temperatures.

I have stayed in Luanda on most weekends these last couple of months. There are social events at times but other times, there is a need just to be alone from others with whom you work and see daily. Last night I went to the British Embassy with a group of Americans to watch and cheer on our soccer team as they played England in the World Cup. It was a fun time and happy that the US did not lose but tied 1-1. I have also explored the streets of Luanda on foot and finding that the actual city itself is not that large. There are some stores that have reasonably priced items such as clothing and home items. But it is still difficult to know where to go for other items such as car maintenance items etc. Slowly, I suppose I feel more comfortable living here. There seems to be slow improvements in the quality of life here. There appears to be less garbage on the streets in certain areas of the city although I always wonder whether it is that I am becoming accustomed to it. The lines at the gas stations have decreased dramatically. There is speculation among us as to why this is. Some think it is because there are more gas stations opening outside the city while others speculate it is because there has been less cash dispersion by the government to the employees. Whatever the reason, it is a welcomed improvement.

I could have never imagined that volcanic ash could disrupt my traveling plans to Europe. I was to travel to Berlin for our State Department med conference in April; the weekend that the main disruption in travel occurred in all of Europe. At the time, I felt desperate to leave Luanda and was very disappointed that my plans were not to take place. However, I recovered from the disappointment and felt more able to deal with life here.

The conference was rescheduled a month later and I did travel to Germany at that time. I flew to Frankfurt a day early to visit with Anne and Thorsten in Saarbrucken (2 hours by train from Frankfurt). Anne stayed with us in the early 90s when she was an AFS student. Jim and I had traveled to Germany to be present at their wedding a few years ago. They welcomed me to their new “old” home they purchased last fall. Although this house is in decent shape for a 1900 house, there are maintenance issues that need to be addressed. It brought back memories of those same types of decisions we had to face with the N. Avondale house.

I traveled on to Berlin for the conference which took place at a hotel in the middle of Berlin at Pottsdamer Place just down the street from the American Embassy and the Brandenburg Gate. At the Med conference, I met other Foreign Service health practitioners and physicians at other posts. The continuing education focused on the relevant topics for us in the Foreign Service. At the end of the day though, I could enjoy the city. I love Berlin! As the daylight remains until close to 10 pm, I was able to walk the city streets after the conclusion of the day’s proceedings. I enjoyed the good food and ate too much while there. It was also nice to stroll about shops in a relaxed, clean atmosphere. I went to one of the operas available and toured museums I had not seen in the past. And I enjoyed the efficiency of the Germans being able to leave and arrive on time at all my destinations.

While at the conference, I confirmed that I will switch to the summer bid cycle. In the Foreign Service, the tours at one post last 2-3 years. The time to switch posts occurs either in the summer or winter although most people switch in the summer. Depending on your cycle, you “bid” on positions in posts that are available during your transition time. Decisions are made by you, the new posts and the need of the Department as to where you go next. Since I came to Luanda as a 2 year posting in November, this is considered the winter cycle. But because Med is small compared to the other groups, they prefer to have everyone on the summer cycle. So, I either have to “curtail” a few months early or “extend” 6 months longer to be included in this cycle. I have chosen not to extend. So, I will remain here until next summer. I also can have some say as to where I will be posted next depending on those places that will have an opening.

And, finally, and most importantly, Jim is scheduled to move to Luanda in a few weeks. Our plan is to meet in Lisbon, Portugal on July 3. I am taking my R&R to Portugal and I was able to route Jim through Lisbon. It is hard to believe he will finally be joining me. He sold his office and closed on the sale last week. He has closed his practice and is completing the courses he is teaching at Xavier. The lease on the house on Paxton ends on June 30—we will be “packed out: at that time and he will be on his way. Of course, I worry about how he will adjust here and how he will occupy his time. The director at the English speaking International School has promised to employ him at least 2 days a week for now with the new school term in August. What else he will do is not certain. But, he tells me not to worry that he will be ok and can manage for the next year. Another chapter begins in the ongoing adventure.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010


March is now over which means I have been working here for more than 4 months. The time is moving quickly although some days seem long. While the US and Europe experienced record cold and snow fall, the hot and humid summer months have prevailed here. Despite the humidity, there is little rain in Luanda or on the coast of Angola. Luckily for me, I have consistent air conditioning and electricity as part of maintaining some American standards of living. There are regular power outages but each residence has a back up generator; sometimes used for days at a time. Despite this, the Embassy receives regular invoices for electrical usages never delivered. There are meters in some places but they seldom work and no one ever reads them. The same situation exists for water. Again, we all have a back up storage tank and pump to keep the water flowing. Each residence also has a water distiller for safe drinkable water. When I see the polluted bay and rivers, I wonder how people survive here.

There are changes coming to the Health Unit in Embassy Luanda. Marina, the nurse who has maintained the unit for 7 years is now leaving this job. She and her husband (one of the Embassy’s facility’s supervisor) are returning to their home on the coast of Namibia to take over a Wimpy’s franchise in a coastal city. (Wimpy’s is a UK hamburger chain in much of the world other than the US). Philip and Marina are an interesting couple. Both are S. African born (although Philip spent most of his childhood in Namibia) and met while serving in the S. African army. Philip spent many years as part of the SA forces fighting with UNITA (the opposition to the present government led by Jonas Zavimbi and funded by SA and other anti communist governments like the US) in the long 30 years war. After he left in the 90s, he worked in much of southern Africa in de-mining and other construction projects. He ended up in Angola to help build the present Embassy. They both enjoy traveling overland in their Range Rover and camping in the wilderness. They have some interesting stories to tell. The last few years have been more difficult for them here with long commutes to work and difficulty obtaining work visas. So, their life in Namibia will be different for them but they are very happy to return to the home they own and where Philip’s parents live. Namibia is a sparsely populated country (2 million) relying heavily on tourism with its lovely, sparsely populated beaches, sand dunes and interesting game parks. As a former German colony, there are still many German tourists and retirees that spend time there each year.

While I will miss Marina as a friend, it became increasingly obvious that there isn’t enough work to keep both of us busy. I have requested a clerk to sit in the health unit to deal with people dropping by, answer the phone, perform some clerical duties and translate for me as needed. Luckily there is a clerical worker in another section who was not as busy as should be. So, she will come to my office, free up some needed work space in another section and perform both duties. Hopefully, it will work out for all of us.

I am asked frequently, how I like my job and living here. I am still tentative about it. The job is fine at the moment although I wish I was busier clinically. From a daily life standpoint, I find it still difficult. I hoped that as time went on, it would be easier to be here without Jim. That has not changed and his arrival at the end of June seems a long way off. I worry about how he will adjust here, if we will be able to find something he will like to keep him busy and whether this kind of life is what he wants. He tells me not to worry but I do. We keep in daily contact either through email or Skype. Yet, I am happy that he is there helping Colin through his next transition and our parents when needed.

The other stressor here is the language barrier. Most of the DOS officers receive some language training before arrival; but Med does not. In the past, I managed well enough when I was traveling as there was always someone who could speak English. But living here is different and only a handful of people do so. There has been minimal sustained contact with the English speaking world here as the main connection has been with other Portuguese speaking countries like Portugal or Brazil. Even the government ministers have difficulty with communication once they leave here to try to deal with the rest of the world.

However, I am making an effort to learn Portuguese. I have a teacher 2-3 times a week for an hour and am also taking a distance course from DOS. It is helping and I am making progress. But, as usual for me, it is too slow. I understand much better than I speak and I find it so very frustrating to try to communicate. I remember when I lived in Israel and tried to learn Hebrew. I would try to speak but all my co workers would just look at me as I struggled, sigh and tell me just to speak to them in English. Here, no one does that but outside the Embassy, they are very impatient if I try. However, those in the Embassy have been very supportive and help me when I do try.

As I was walking today on the Marginal, I saw a young boy wearing a Cincinnati Bengals’ shirt. Certainly, it was not from loyalty. You can find all those Tshirts you gave to the Goodwill at the local open air markets. I went to a very large one where you could find just about anything you want laid out on the ground for inspection. There were piles of second hand clothing waiting to be sifted through. T-shirts, hats with old logos or those T-shirts with past events that you gave away—they are there. I am glad to know that someone is using them.

I had a recent conversation with one of the new political officers about her recent experience traveling with the Ambassador outside of Luanda to the provinces. She is a young African American woman on her first tour and other than her time studying in Brazil, had not been to any third world countries. She expressed shock at the poverty and living conditions in the cities she visited. Welcome to Africa and the third world.

Angola is typical of so many other countries yet it has an amazing number of resources that go untapped. Indeed with 30 years of war and so many people being driven from the provinces into the city, it is difficult for fertile land to be utilized for farming to its potential. Land mines are interspersed everywhere and the de mining process is slow. Even once the area has been deemed safe to return, the repatriation and education of farmers is even slower. USAID and many NGOs are involved in this process.

For now, oil is the main economic fuel for the growth of the country. The majority of it is pumped off shore in the north of the country although there is exploration occurring in other areas. Various companies have bid and been assigned blocks of land in the interior to explore. I went on a geology trip with a Canadian geologist, who took us to areas where the oil seeps through the rocks. Angola’s economy did take a hit when oil prices dropped last year. Numerous projects underway were halted as a result. Apparently, the government realized that they needed to diversify their portfolio and have looked into other opportunities. Diamonds are still mined especially in the east but it seems more of a quiet business than oil. Apparently the diamond trade helped fund UNITA’s ongoing operations during the war despite the ban on such a practice.

Despite the existence of oil, there is only one refinery in Angola. Gas stations are at a premium, especially in Luanda, although you see more being built in the provinces. Obtaining gas for the big SUVs in Luanda is an ongoing headache and can consume up to 2 hours of your time to fill up your tank. There is a large station down the road on the Marginal which I can see from my balcony. I usually check it out to see how long the line is before venturing out. Luckily, the line moves rather quickly with 8 pumps (unless the gas tanker is there) going at any time 24 hours a day. No self service here at about $1.70 gallon. I end up spending about 45 minutes or so to fill up and luckily I don’t have to do that very often due to my short commute.

The Angolan government recently changed the constitution to allow the party in power to appoint the president. The present president (Dos Santos) has been in this position since 1979 and even if he resigns from the presidency, he will, most likely, remain head of the party MPLA that has been in power for many years. The party in power also appoints the ministers and the provincial governors. There was parliamentary elections last year that gave the MPLA about 86% of the vote. Their campaign promise was stability after 30 years of war. There is much corruption and cronyism making some people very rich. Despite calls for change, little has changed. A co worker told me that one of the large condo (about 25-30 floors) high rises under construction has already sold all the units each costing $1-2 million. Last week, a new club behind my building opened up. A friend had made acquaintance with the owner’s son, so we had a chance to see it before it opened. A nice place--$5 million dollars worth that will cost $150 for entrance but if you want to visit the restaurant or VIP lounge, it will cost $10,000. But outside, the roads are full of potholes, mud and you have to step over the garbage to get to the entrance.

Unless you are well connected, the chance of opening a business is slim. The average Angolan barely gets by but is resourceful given the restraints. As there are few true “stores” there are thousands on the streets selling everything from food to clothing to car accessories. While you are stopped in traffic or waiting in line for gas, they are there. The ladies carry their items in baskets on their head with the baby on the back. On one trip, we needed to fill up the cars with gas but the station was out of gas. But nearby, the ladies were sitting with their cans of gas waiting for people like us desperate to fill up at a premium.

The rest of the world has taken notice of this country’s undeveloped wealth and have come calling. The Angolans seem to choose what seems best for them. The Chinese are here in great numbers building roads, high rise buildings and industrial parks. They bring their own people to perform much of the work which aggravates many people here. The Brazilians and Namibians also are here building much better roads than the Chinese. S. Africans bring their expertise in business and goods manufactured in SA. The Americans have a presence with Chevron and Exxon. Other companies are knocking on the door as well. The American government has made some progress over the last few years with the Angolan government over the last few years which was evident with the brief visit by Secretary Clinton last summer. However, the Angolans make it clear they are in charge and still have a very Russian leaning. Many of the older government officials from MPLA spent time in the Soviet block for education and training many years ago.

So much of the problems here stem from the Portuguese presence for 400 years. Their colonial rule and the way they treated the people was different from the other European countries. There is a website you can visit that is actually from the area studies program for the US government. It gives a good overview of the history of Angola through the 1980s.

I continue to have opportunities to see the rest of the country. About a month ago, I spent a 4 day weekend with others traveling to the south almost to the Namibian border. Again, once outside Luanda, the country side is minimally inhabited. The other larger towns are easier to navigate and have vestiges of life in Angola prior to independence albeit still limited. The distances between places are deceiving in terms of time to drive as in the US. The roads for the most part are new with minimal traffic (except for cows, goats and dogs). Carnival (Angola’s Mardi Gras) was festive and an interesting mix of Rio and Luanda. Last week I joined the Angolan Field Group again for a history tour to view monuments and places dedicated to the first president of Angola—Aghostino Neto. He died mysteriously in Russia while being treated for cancer. There is a rumor that the Russians were not happy with him once he was president. They had strongly supported him during the war years but once he was president he had a mind of his own.
During this trip, I was challenged with off road driving in the Land Rover—lots of mud and water. But I gained respect from the men in the group as I plowed through with mud and water flying!!

I have included some photo albums to view. This is what has taken me awile to get organized. You can click on the photo for the albums--you may want to open it in a new tab.

This album is Luanda scenes.
Luanda Scenes

I have been "kind" to the views of Luanda for now.

The next album are some views of the beaches near Luanda.

Beaches near Luanda

Here are some photos of people I have seen mostly outside of Luanda. I especially like to take photos of the women
Angolan People
Luanda celebrates Carnival (Mardi Gras) on a smaller scale but it is a holiday. The festivities occurred on the Marginal not far from my apartment. I did take some video which includes all the sounds and music. For now, here are some photos.
Carnival Luanda 2010

The remaining albums include my various trips around the country.
Rio Longo Trip

Malanje Trip

Benguela, Lubango, Namibe Trip

Geology Trip

History trip