Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Beirut: Five Pros, Five Cons

It's that time of year again! Time to start doing post research in eager anticipation of bidding season. I am thankful I am on my second year of not having to bid but have already started considering the projected vacancies list for next summer...

I have two posts to write about for the annual FS blogger 5 pro/5 con roundup headed by The New Diplomat's Wife this year. First up, a post I haven't written about too much yet, although I've been here slightly more than three months: Beirut!

This list comes with a caveat: I haven't been at post very long, and I have yet to get out for a break yet. So if I come across as either/both a bit cranky or overenthusiastic, keep those facts in mind.

First, the pros:

1. It's Lebanon! Not many people get to experience this amazing, tiny little country with a gorgeous location right on the Mediterranean. From the famous cedars in the mountains to the beaches of Batroun to the layers of history in Byblos, this country packs a lot into its small area. Beirut is a rapidly developing city with modern shopping malls, pedestrian promenades, and all the shopping anybody could ever want. You can find something to suit any interest here. And the weather is pretty great most of the year.

2. Food. Do I really even need to explain? Lebanese food is famous around the world, for good reason. And if you ever tire of heaping tables of mezze and grilled meats, there are plenty of French bistros and familiar chains to make sure nobody goes hungry (or loses weight). Plus, the grocery stores are well-stocked, and I don't need to be quite the hoarder I was in Uganda. I do miss being able to buy things like corned beef (for reubens) or whole spiral hams or Italian sausage, but these are minor things. And the bread. Oh, the bread. French baguettes and perfect pitas are just the tip of the iceberg.

3. Work. Whatever your portfolio, the work is fascinating and challenging. You work on issues that are absolutely relevant in Washington and have the attention of the world as well. I am lucky to work in a section staffed by some phenomenal local and U.S. employees, and even on the toughest days we can laugh together and I know I'm surrounded by competent, smart people who love their job.  

4. People. When I was in Jeddah I worked with some amazing Lebanese women, and I am happy to report it wasn't just a fluke. The Lebanese are friendly, hospitable, outgoing, and many other great adjectives, and it's absolutely a pleasure to meet and spend time with people here.

5. Travel. We get four R&Rs in a two year tour, and Beirut has direct flights to some amazing locations for shorter getaways. Cyprus is a twenty minute flight away, and Turkey is a popular weekend destination. I can't wait to explore some of the regional opportunities.

And now, the cons:

1. Security restrictions. The security situation dictates life here. You live and work on a small compound. Everybody remembers the Embassy and Marine barracks bombings in the 1980s, and the security situation in Lebanon and the region has been turbulent ever since. You can't self drive, your off-compound moves are limited, and things can and do change in an instant. If you're considering bidding Beirut, you need to know what you're in for. That said, we have an awesome CLO office, and between CLO and the employee association there's almost always something to do. I am never bored and am often spoiled for choice of things to do or see or (often) eat. In a place like this, people come together to make their own fun.

2. Work. There are always two sides to everything. The work is intense and never-ending, and the hours can be long. Infrastructure and resource deficiencies mean we are always operating with fewer people than we need, and so you're usually covering for colleagues who are out on (well deserved and much needed) leave. The stakes are high here, and you can't easily get away from work. This is the first time in a couple weeks I've left by six pm. I'm lucky, though, that I don't have to work weekends unless there's a crisis or I choose to.

3. Creepy crawlies. My biggest fear coming here was about finding a tarantula in my house. Particularly in my bedroom or shower. I still live in fear of this, especially after a close (outside) encounter with one of these nasty creatures a few weeks ago. Tarantulas, scorpions, and poisonous snakes are endemic on the compound, and everybody has a story. I hope I already have my one and only story.

4. War/crisis overload. Lebanon. Syria. Iraq. ISIL. Israel/Palestine. You name the conflict, we've got it represented. Lebanon - a country of four million people - has accepted and UNHCR has registered over 1.4 million Syrian refugees, on top of 500,000 Palestinian refugees who have been here for decades and the thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of undocumented Syrian refugees who are currently here. This permeates all aspects of life here and, particularly for those who work with refugee populations, can be overwhelming as the humanitarian crisis grows with every day the Syrian conflict continues. And this is all while Lebanon keeps a fragile political system aloft without a President for the last year and a political sphere overwhelmed by complicated history and numerous political, religious, and sectarian issues at play.

5. Smoke. I am pretty sure this was one of my cons when I wrote about Jeddah a few years ago. I am very sensitive to smoke of all kinds, and people here love their cigarettes, cigars, and hookah. Everywhere. Even the token non-smoking sections at restaurants. I go out far fewer places than I might just because of this issue.

Anyway, that's a glimpse at life in Beirut! I definitely recommend people bid here, but please make sure you do your research before doing so. Having people who know what their reality will be and are prepared for the ups and downs of compound life makes a huge difference to overall post morale.

Coming soon, Kampala. Previously: Jeddah.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

EAWE: Lake Manyara

Our start the next morning was late enough that we had time to have a sumptuous breakfast at the Serena, finally getting to see our surroundings after our late night arrival. We rushed through the last cups of coffee and pancakes to meet our driver with our luggage as agreed upon. But then he was in no hurry and took his time chatting with other guides. This "hurry up and wait" mode would, unfortunately, become a trend. We were very much beholden to his own internal clock, which seemed to know no logic. More on that later.

Having loaded the vehicle, we set off towards Lake Manyara park itself, a short distance away. The day was overcast, but it was a dry, dusty day. Before we got to the park we started seeing baobabs, one of my favorite African landscape features. I love their hauntingly empty branches for much of the year when everything around them is in full bloom. We also stopped for a troop of baboons on the road, including a very young baby clinging to his mom with such an inquisitive, hairless face that it was a striking vision.

Lake Manyara National Park is on many Tanzanian itineraries simply because it is located between Arusha and the Serengeti. But it's a lovely, albeit small, park with some stunning vistas, both savannah and forestland. It's famous for its birdlife, particularly the flocks of pink flamingos that are drawn to the lake itself. There are leopards and lions, but they're rarely seen. We first encountered several shy blue monkeys who did their best not to pose for photos. We drove through some gorgeous forests with lots of streams and pools of water and fig and mahogany trees before emerging onto the familiar savannah.

There we found a sleepy herd of buffalo and some very brown/red zebras thanks to the blowing dust and dirt. Soon we reached an oasis of sorts with hippos and many, many, many birds. There were several different species in attendance, but the most spectacular views were of the literally thousands of yellow-billed storks. Wow. With each bird standing up to three feet tall, a giant flock like this one is amazingly striking. Especially when hundreds at once take to the air. With wingspans of what seemed like 4-5 feet, it was quite a sight to behold. And behold it we did. For about 45 minutes longer than we wanted to. Don't get me wrong, it was great, but we did not need to spend an hour of an already-packed day sitting there. We tried, many times, to get our guide to move, but he appeared deaf to our appeals. Finally, we were off.

One thing we noticed immediately driving on was how white parts of the savannah appeared, the result of thousands of these white storks moulting. Fascinating. We passed the closest approach to the lake, which was quite far from the current shore given the water levels, and had a very distant view of pink. The flamingos weren't individually recognizable as such, but the sea of hazy pink told us what we were looking at.

We stopped at a hippo pool lookout and stretched our legs on the raised boardwalk before heading back to the lodge for lunch. On our way, though, in the middle of the forest, we came upon a herd of elephants. There were several older females and more adolescent males than I've ever seen at one time, as well as several babies. We were lucky to have the scene to ourselves for a good thirty minutes before another car happened upon us.

The adolescent males put on quite a display, sparring with each other noisily with tusks, trunks, ears, heads, and even sticks. One had already broken a newly-emerged tusk with his antics. An adolescent female was bullied relentlessly by the boys. The matriarchs were preoccupied with the babies, especially one very tiny, sickly little guy. We wondered if his mother might have died, because he clearly wasn't getting enough good. They kept him well hidden most of the time we were there, but they crossed the road at one point, giving us a heartbreaking glimpse of the malnourished young one. I doubt he survived much longer, sadly.

After leaving our private elephant show we drove back to the Serena for lunch before setting off on our long, hard drive to the Serengeti. (And those 45 minutes from earlier? They would have come in handy on that drive.) We didn't have long at Lake Manyara, but it was a charming encounter, albeit a brief one.


Baobab!

That face.

Blue monkey

Buffalo

Bird/hippo oasis

Yellow-billed stork

And in flight

Hippos, including a sweet baby!

Not an insubstantial bird

Crested cranes, Uganda's national bird!



Showing off their impressing wingspans

Furry brown baby zebra

Flamingos. Really.

Elephant family on parade

Follow the leader

Some of the youngest ones

A cheeky adolescent male, already missing a tusk

Nature's camouflage

Sparring

Teenage antics

Tiny baby. Too tiny. Not a nice sight to see


Keeping the frail young one close by


Now who's king of the pachyderms?







Tuesday, April 7, 2015

EAWE: Tanzania Day 1

I had been planning to write about the next leg of the trip, which I consider my worst air travel day, a couple of weeks ago. But then a pilot steered a commercial airplane into a mountain, killing all aboard, which made me reconsider what I considered a bad air travel day. That said, as far as non-tragic and simply inconvenient and frustrating travel days go, this was a pretty bad one.

After getting in late the night before, we woke up super early (1am) to head to the airport for our 5am flight. Everything was on track, we checked in and boarded and were ready to taxi and take off. Except we didn't. I was trying to fall asleep, but after several rounds of announcements about unexpected delays (I think due to the plane's electrical system malfunctioning, but I can't remember 100%), they finally had us deplane. No problem, we had a three hour layover in Nairobi, and we were still on track.

The first sign of things to come was not the decision to give us vouchers for breakfast at the terminal cafe but the extraordinarily unorganized way they distributed them and the cafe's woefully unprepared staff and inventory. Almost as soon as we sat down to eat, it was time to reboard. Still doing fine on time. We made sure the ground crew and flight crew knew we had a connecting flight. You'll make it, they said, we've called ahead. And then we sat on the tarmac. Again.

You can probably guess by now that we missed the flight. By the most ridiculous of margins. We taxied forever in Nairobi and then were directed not to the gate but to the customer service center. By the time we got to the gate the flight had pushed back. Without us. And the Kenya Airways crew at the gate were, shall we say, not the cream of the crop.

I won't go into the sordid details, but it was a comedy of errors for the next two hours as we waited in line to rebook, talked to our Uganda-based travel agent, and then finally obtained new boarding passes for the only other flight to Kilimanjaro that day. Nine hours later. Which would get us into Lake Manyara long after dark. There went our relaxing afternoon by the pool.

Don't worry, said Kenya Airways, we'll put you up in a hotel for the day. Those of you who have spent time in Jomo Kenyatta Intl Airport know it is not the ideal place for a one hour layover, let alone the remaining seven hours.

So we headed for the hotel. Sort of. We headed for a gate where we waited for a ride to the arrivals hall. When finally directed to said ride, as D stepped onto the bus she was screamed at by the same woman who had told her to get on. "Stop! I forgot! That's the Ebola screening vehicle." Whoops. This was August 2014, keep in mind.

We arrive at the arrivals hall to find others from our flight who had left the terminal hours before us still waiting for someone to help them get free transit visas. Finally we were assisted with this, sped through Immigration, and then were ushered out to a bus. Where - you guessed it - we waited. When we finally left, we were treated to a thirty minute drive through Nairobi in a bus with no air conditioning, which meant the windows were down to allow all the pollution and smog in.

Finally we get to the hotel and are given room keys and a meal voucher. And then we're told that the bus back to the airport will leave in 90 minutes. We wondered why on earth we were leaving so soon when our flight wasn't for another five hours. So much for a relaxing afternoon. The room keys didn't work, so we just used the lobby bathrooms and then headed to the restaurant for an abysmal lunch. We finally got new room keys and enjoyed 15 minutes in our hotel room.

Then we boarded the bus. And waited. And waited. And waited. We had been told in no uncertain terms to be there at the appointed time or the bus would leave without us. Yet the bus waited 45 minutes for two lingering passengers, to the vocal protestations of the 20 or so others on board. Back out into Nairobi traffic we went. The ride back - now in early rush hour - took more than an hour. Nine hour layover, and we got a dismal meal and 15 minutes to relax.

We got through security and Immigration and still arrived at our gate an hour early. Luckily this flight - on Precision Air - boarded on time and took off without delay. There was room to stretch out, and we were treated to gorgeous views of Mt. Kilimanjaro as we descended - our only glimpses of the trip.

By some miracle all of our bags arrived, and we didn't have difficulty with the Ebola screening or Tanzanian Immigration. Our driver was there to meet us, and off we went. The drive to the Lake Manyara Serena was relatively smooth on decent roads. We were stopped at several police checkpoints but didn't have any difficulties.

I had high hopes of some nighttime wildlife viewing on our journey; we saw a few jackals but nothing else. By the time we arrived at the Serena dinner was pretty much over, but they had very kindly kept the salad/dessert bars open and happily cooked us up delicious entrees even as we protested that the salads were plenty. I love the Serena brand of hotels. So reliably classy and service-oriented.

The rooms were well-appointed and comfortable, and we all headed off to sleep at 11:00pm, relieved to finally be back on track after a stressful, uncomfortable day. The best was yet to come.

Friday, March 27, 2015

2014 EAWE: Queen Elizabeth National Park Days 2-4

We had three nights in QENP to enjoy the lovely Mweya hospitality and find some awesome animals. I was hoping for a predator bonanza, but the lions and leopards had other ideas. We did see a few lions, but it was the other animals who made it a fun experience.

Saturday morning we woke up for an early morning game drive, excited to see all kinds of awesome things. It wasn't a very fruitful morning, sadly. I only took about six photos all morning, which is an indicator. The salt lakes were pretty; we saw some nice birds and antelope; but everybody else was sleeping. We headed back to the lodge for breakfast and a nap before the afternoon's boat ride.

The boat launch is quite close to Mweya, and we were able to get there early enough to snag good seats, which ired a group of Italian tourists to no end. They demanded we get up and let them sit where we had chosen. Seriously. Luckily some Brits came along and made up for their attitudes. We set off on a slow cruise along the Kazinga channel. Lots of birds, lots of hippos. A few interesting encounters. My favorite was the buffalo and hippo snuggle fest as seen in photos before. I mean, how incredibly cute was that?

We were also charged by a hippo who thundered through the water and then surfaced at our boat and made some movements to keep going but finally turned around. It happened very quickly, and I only got a photo at the tail end when he was out of the water a bit. A bit scary for a moment.

There's a fishing village in the park where the community interacts responsibly with the wildlife (and vice versa), and so they have not been evicted. It was lovely to watch the men preparing to head out for an evening of fishing as elephants grazed the hillside and meandered to the channel below. We turned and motored back to the launch and reached the lodge just as the sun was beginning to set. It was gorgeous. Or it would have been had the Italian tourists from earlier not driven up and started yelling insults at us as we took photographs. Seriously. Again. Time for dinner and bed.

Another early morning drive on Sunday with very few sightings, though we did see our first lion of the trip. A lovely male reclining a decent distance from the road, presumably watching over his pride we believed to be on the other side of the ridge. We drove to the other side to look but found nothing. There were lots and lots and lots of nervous antelope about, not to mention bones, but no other predators in sight. We stopped at a souvenir market and found a few cute things before heading back to the lodge. I took a much-needed nap while Mom and D read or sat outside.

After lunch and before the afternoon game drive, Mom and I were sitting outside the bar area reading and checking email when we saw a mongoose run across the terrace. Mom and D had seen a few mongooses running through the lobby earlier, but this was my first sighting. And then more came. Moms and babies, lone mongooses, mongooses with radio collars, and more. Some were digging, some were foraging, some were almost running over our feet. I was in heaven. It was amazing. So, of course, I did the natural thing and followed them. I followed them to a gathering point on the side of the lodge and just watched them for about thirty minutes. There were dozens of them, of all sizes. There were a few tiny tiny babies and some adolescents and several with radio collars. I took photos and videos and listened to them squeak and just watched them. Absolutely fascinating. Absolutely a highlight of QENP.

Our afternoon game drive was a search for leopards that was futile. We saw a couple of ellies and a few antelope, but it was mostly a slow day for animals. So a final dinner for Mweya and a good night's sleep.

We left a little later that morning and planned to drive straight through to Kampala and arrive early afternoon and have time to do laundry and rest before heading to Tanzania the next day. But things didn't go as planned. First, Abdul got a tip about a lion in a tree. We headed off in hot pursuit. Sure enough, Luna the lion was up in a euphorbia tree. She did not look comfortable. First of all, she was very pregnant, which made lying down in a tree difficult. Second, the tree was not the most suitable for climbing - no flat branches. Third, there were lots of people watching her. We watched her for a bit and then headed off, enjoying herds of waterbuck and troops of baboons as we exited the park.

We were making great time and were about 50km out of Mbarara, the approximate halfway point to Kampala when all of a sudden, as we were going up a hill and around a corner, I see the rear passenger tire go flying off the truck and behind us. Abdul did a masterful job controlling the car and stopping safely on the side of the road. We got out to assess the damage. The tire was completely intact, no tears or punctures, but the rim was a bit bent. I stayed with the car while the others went in search of the lug nuts. This was farming country, and a few of the locals came down to offer help. A couple young women found a few lug nuts, and before long we had the complete set. Abdul said he had checked the tire before setting off in the am and thought somebody might have tampered with it when we stopped for a bathroom break. From the way the lug nuts had flown - not sheared - off, they had clearly been loosened.

Just then a car full of good samaritans stopped and offered assistance. It took about an hour and lots of effort, but they were able to help Abdul get the tire back on and tightened. The truck was okay for getting back to Kampala, but the whole tire and axle would need a lot of work later on. I was very pleasantly surprised by the gentlemen who gave an hour of their time - and sweat - to help us. They tried to decline the money we offered them but finally took it with a thanks and a smile. We did get a few others stopping and asking us for money who hadn't helped, but they were easily brushed off.

We got back on the road - a bit slower and still in a bit of shock - and limped back to Kampala. We made decent time, considering, but we still arrived several hours after we had expected. That meant a furious bout of laundry (using several of my neighbors' machines that they kindly let us use), a quick dinner, repacking, and then sleep for our VERY early wakeup call the next morning. If 1:30 is really the next morning.

Stay tuned for our horrendous travel day story to follow, but with redeeming animal encounters and photos and stories after that.



Buffalo/hippo snuggles!

Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww

Can I help you?

The tail end (pun intended) of the hippo charge

Elephants near the fishing village

Ready for a night of fishing

Right before the nasty Italians showed up to insult us

Pretty Mr. Lion.

Sleepy Mr. Lion

Mongooses!

Running across the terrace

Note the radio collar on the one at the top right and the squee baby trying to nurse in the middle

Some of the many, many mongooses in this band

Pretty elly

A very pregnant and uncomfortable Luna the lion in a euphorbia tree


She just couldn't get comfortable

Gorgeous waterbuck

Riding with mama

A main road running through the park

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

2014 EAWE: Batwa Pygmies and Queen Elizabeth National Park Day 1

All right, time to stop being lazy. Here is the much-delayed continuation of my epic East African Wildlife Extravaganza when my mom visited Uganda in August 2014.

After our amazing gorilla trek on Thursday, the plan was to go on a tour of the local Batwa pygmy village. Mom, D, and I - once we convinced ourselves to stand upright again - decided that another two hour 'walk' up and down hills in the rain wasn't in the cards. No problem, our guide told us, some of the community will come up to the visitor's center to dance and tell you about their traditions. So we decided on that.

The Batwa people, traditionally hunters and gatherers, lived in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest until 1992 when it became a national park. Their eviction was then and remains controversial, but they've adapted to a more agrarian way of life and integrated with other local communities. http://www.batwaexperience.com, among other organizations, allows tourists to learn more about the Batwa and their cultural heritage. Think what you will about tribal tourism, but I remember watching National Geographic documentaries as a child about Batwa and other pygmy tribes in central Africa and being fascinated. I was happy to donate to the local school to meet some of the villagers and learn a bit. We were treated to a lively dance show, with children from all over the area joining in to hang out with the muzungu. The local matriarch is 94 and still going strong; after she danced quite energetically for us she proudly told us she lived the first half of her life in the forest and the second half outside and helps keep tradition alive among the new generations. After a quick discussion about traditional medicine and fire-starting techniques, we bought some beautiful baskets and presented a donation of both money and school supplies for the community. A lovely way to spend the afternoon.

After a tasty dinner by the fire recounting stories of the day (growing more exaggerated as we recalled the day's adventures) we retired to bed. Mom and I lay awake for a while marveling that we saw the gorillas and noticing all the new muscle groups who were making their presence known. My legs and feet were obviously tired, but then my arms started hurting from the exertions with the walking stick pushing and pulling myself up and down the mountain. Bruises started to appear within hours, badges of honor.

I slept well, thankfully, and woke the next morning ready for safari! After a hearty breakfast we bid farewell to Bwindi and were treated to amazing views of the rainforest and the clouds and mist. Gorillas in the mist for sure.

We had a several hour drive north to Queen Elizabeth National Park. The first part was on the outskirts of Bwindi so we kept our eyes open for forest elephants and antelope and gorillas. We saw a couple duiker but no big mammals, sadly. The next leg was through mainly rural areas on marginal roads, and we all tuned out a bit. Then the road improved and the towns got bigger, and soon we crossed into Queen Elizabeth National Park!

The southern sector of QENP, the Ishasha sector, is famous for tree-climbing lions. Most of the lions favor fig trees, which are abundant in this area and afford good views of the plains. We circled the main lion trees for an hour so with nary a sighting and then drove down to a gazebo to have lunch. The gazebo overlooked the Ishasha river (if I remember correctly) and feeds into Lake Edward a bit farther north. There was an active school of hippos hanging out, and between us we were the only ones in the area. Two hippos had a mouth fight, the most protracted one I've ever seen, which greatly entertained us. As we were wrapping up lunch our guide pointed that the far bank of the river (and far is a relative term; it was within an easy stone's throw, as you can see in the photos) was Congo. So close yet so far!

We headed back out for another look at the lion trees but finally had to give up and head north. There's a main road running through the park, and we had a lot of ground to cover, so it wasn't a relaxing game drive. Eventually we crossed the Kazinga Channel via bridge, which separates Lakes Edward and George. Soon after that we turned off into the approach to Mweya Lodge. D was eager to see elephants, but Abdul cautioned that we might not be lucky given the area and time of day. We stopped for a few antelope and monkeys, but no big game. We were almost at Mweya when we saw flashes of grey through the trees. And there they were! A small but lovely herd of elephants headed to the river to drink. We marveled for a while and then drove on, encountering a lovely hippo out of the water headed for his nightly foraging.

Mweya is a gorgeous lodge in a spectacular setting overlooking the Kazinga Channel. We checked in, oriented ourselves, relaxed on the terrace with drinks, and then enjoyed a tasty buffet dinner before bed. The next morning we'd head out on our first early morning game drive, of many to come!



Cows on the road leading out of Bwindi

Gorillas in the mist!

Bwindi on the left, farms on the right

Topi!

Uganda kob

Amazing fighting hippos

Those trees are in DRC


And back to regular life

Ellies!

Baby elly :-)

Mama

Hungry hungry hippo

Gorgeous elly