Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 12 for 2012

I am going to try and follow in Donna's and Zoe's footsteps with a Top 12 for 2012 blog.  They both did a great job of linking theirs to blog posts, but since I may have been a bit lax about posting some momentous occasions, mine will be less awesome that way. 

1.  My family is healthy.  The year started out with a pretty major health scare for my mother, but she (and we) weathered it well, and we've been lucky otherwise.

2.  Weddings!  I attended the civil ceremony of one of my best friends in London in April, a beautiful affair joining two wonderful families.  In August I officiated at the marriage of my brother and sister-in-law, an absolutely perfect event that also brought together two wonderful families.

3.  I finished my first tour in the Foreign Service, in Jeddah.  This went a long way in proving to myself that joining the FS was the right decision for me AND that I can live in a difficult place for two years.  I had a great tour in Jeddah, with some days being harder than others, and it was a great place for me to learn a lot, fast, about the FS. 

4.  I moved back to Africa!  I spent much of 2003-05 living in South Africa and traveled extensively in the southern countries of this awesome continent.  I was excited but a little cautious moving back to Africa, albeit a different region, wondering if I'd idealized these youthful years.  I hadn't.  I love it here.  It's a huge continent with dozens of countries and thousands of different experiences, so generalizing is always a bad thing, but I think AF is a bureau I'm happy to stick with.

5.  Travel - I visited and/or lived in seven different countries this year, including four new ones for my life list (UAE, Oman, Uganda, and Ghana). 

6.  Friends.  2012 has been a great year for meeting new friends and reconnecting with tried and true friends. 

7.  Family.  I got to spend time with lots of family members, including all my brothers and their SOs and children, and lots of extended family.  My youngest niece and nephew are learning about Africa and Uganda and sort of understand why I'm not around all that much.  My grandmother and I did a fun road trip in WV this fall and discovered some new spots to visit and gorgeous scenery. 

8.  My cats not only survived numerous overseas and domestic moves this year, but they've become decent travelers.  Not good, but not as horrible as I had feared.  They love Kampala and are happy in my apartment.  Griffin is convinced the small guest room is his and guards it fiercely against intruders.  Callaghan prefers the top of the bookshelves or the linen closet.

9.  Between home leave and training, I had a great time reacquainting myself with U.S. culture.  I especially loved my time in DC and revisiting some favorite spots and discovering new ones.  Seeing lots of FS friends was great fun, as was the training itself.  Bonus was meeting a plethora of FS bloggers - such an awesome group!

10.  Parrotfish Festival - this one kind of goes along with #s 3 and 5, but it was on my Saudi bucket list and so long-anticipated that it definitely qualifies as a top 12.  And, really, where else could I have participated in such a phenomenally fun and offbeat tradition?

11.  I turned 30 in 2012.  And the world didn't end.  The two aren't related, really, but it was an exercise in patience and forgiveness to fully embrace 30.  Though I still get excited when demographic surveys place me in the 18-34 or similar group :-). 

12.  This is sort of a cop-out, but I really enjoyed getting to do things like go see the Celtics play, see Lyle Lovett in concert (twice!), go to the movies, and the like.  That wasn't generally possible in Saudi, and even in Kampala I've been able to go to a pantomime, Christmas concert, and a ballet performance in my first weeks at post. 

All right.  That was slightly more difficult than I'd anticipated, perhaps because I lumped a lot of things into pretty broad categories.  And I did manage to do more blog links than I originally anticipated!  AND I got it done before 2012 ended!  Though I clearly need to do some updates dating back many months...

Here's to an awesome 2013 for all of us!  I'm not into resolutions, so I won't go there, but may 2013 be all that you want it to be, and more :-).

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Kittens in Kampala

I'm taking advantage of decent internet to post a few photos.  These are of my kittens in their various favorite spots in our new apartment.

Actually, this is the kitties in our NYC hotel during Hurricane Sandy.

Griffin finds the highest spot in the kitchen on our first night.

Content, isn't he?

That's more appropriate, ottoman in the living room.

Or chair in the master bedroom.

Callaghan playing with one of his favorite toys.

Griffin on top of the china cabinet.

Griffin in the (un)packing paper.

Callaghan on pillows on hangers on a chair.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

And I have been remiss about posting.  And this won't be too exciting a post.

Things have been quite busy here, which has been great.  I've gotten to participate in some neat things for work and feel like I'm getting a better pulse on the goings on here.  That feels really good.  When I left Jeddah, I was pretty confident about what I knew, who I knew, and what I didn't know.  Things were easy because I knew my way around.  My last official event was one where I knew almost everyone quite well, and the ease I felt with them had taken an entire tour to build.  Now, I'm starting over.  This is the way life is in the Foreign Service, and it comes with its own rewards and challenges.  Having one tour under my belt and starting over here makes me appreciate this reality a little bit more.

I've started driving here.  Just a little.  And only a couple days a week.  I still don't feel comfortable in rush hour.  I thought I'd be more comfortable driving than I am, but the perils on the road are numerous and difficult to avoid.  Traffic isn't the problem.  It's more sharing space on the road when it's full of cars, matatus, boda bodas, pedestrians, occasional animals, and more than its fair share of potholes and steep drop-offs.  This takes a certain familiarity that I don't completely possess yet.  But I can drive if I need to and know my way around well enough not to get hopelessly lost.  I am planning to hire a driver but arrived at the wrong time of the year for picking up someone from a departing family.  Maybe after the holidays my leads will pan out.

It's wonderful to come home to a home-cooked meal a few days a week!  My housekeeper is a fantastic cook and often knows what I want even if I don't.  She also keeps me well-stocked with fresh fruit salads and lots of great vegetables.  I take a huge tupperware container full of fruit in to work everyday and munch on it all afternoon.  It's perfect for those moments when my blood sugar starts to tank and I need a little pick-me-up.

A couple weeks ago I got a great introduction to Kampala's cultural offerings, attending a pantomime of Red Riding Hood and a performance by the Ugandan National Contemporary Ballet in the same week.  So much fun!  I can't wait for more outings like this.  I also attended a wonderful Christmas concert at a local church with a renowned choir, which was a fabulous way to spend a Sunday afternoon.  I did a CLO-organized dinner cruise on Lake Victoria, which was very pleasant.  What a gorgeous setting with good friends, great music, and decent food.  I look forward to more lake adventures - though the very serious bilharzia threat will keep me out of the water itself for the most part.  There's something about parasitic snails...

I'm planning my first getaways for the new year, both in Uganda and out.  More on that later.  Some very exciting trips in the works!

Decorating for Christmas has been quite haphazard since I can only find 2/3 of my Christmas tree among my HHE - and the part that's missing is the bottom and stand!  So I have trinkets out here and there that the cats knock over for fun numerous times per day.  Christmas will be a fun day of celebration with friends and lots of food - I'm excited!  It's the second best thing to being with family.
Anyway, I hope all of your celebrations are wonderful, whatever your chosen holidays are!  More, with photos even!, soon :-).

Friday, November 30, 2012

Happy Kampala Days

I am firmly in the honeymoon stage of culture shock, and I'm loving every minute of it!

So here's what I'm loving so far (for those moments down the road when I'm deep in a culture shock valley):

-Work:  Awesome.  Challenging, rewarding, entertaining, and fun.  And that's all I'm going to say about that.

-Housing:  Awesome.  After Jeddah I was due some good housing karma, and I've got it in spades.  It has its quirks, but it's pretty darn wonderful.  And my neighbors are all awesome as well. 

-Settling in:  My car was in my driveway the day after I arrived.  My HHE and UAB were delivered within a week.  I have two internet sources set up, and today I had DSTV installed. 

-Weather:  Pretty much perfect.  I even love the rain!  60-80 every day of the year, give or take a few degrees?  It doesn't get much better than that.

-People:  Old friends, new friends, an abundance of good people.  Colleagues and Ugandans alike - they're all wonderful.  It's not every post you can get invited to a Thanksgiving with people you've just met and feel right at home. 

-House help:  I am lucky to have found a wonderfully caring and talented housekeeper my first week here.  She loves my cats, and they love her.  She cooks well, does the grocery shopping, and anticipates things.  And she's not too zealous about putting things away in places I'll never find them, which is always a plus!

-Happy cats:  The cats settled in quickly and never looked back.  They're slowly getting over their fear of strangers - Callie even emerged when the DSTV guys were here and making noise today!

-Green:  So, so, so much lovely green.  After two years in the Gulf, it's much appreciated.  I will never get tired of looking at banana trees and palm trees and fields of lush crops.  This is an amazingly fertile country.  Which leads me to my next point.

-Food:  The fruits and veggies here are great - fresh, quality, and affordable.  I do miss berries, but it's a tradeoff for the most wonderful bananas and pineapples and mangoes and papaya and...  I've been to a few restaurants, all of which have been really good.  I can get pretty much anything I need on the local economy, so I'm feeling good about this.

-Life:     No matter what time of day or night, the city is full of life.  On a drive to the airport a few weeks ago in the wee hours of the morning, I was amazed at how many people were up and about.  Comparatively, Saudi felt fairly sterile in terms of life on the streets as you drive through the city.  Some parts were more lively than others, but they pale in comparison to Uganda.  Or, maybe, it was dominated by cars and not people.  Here, I never fail to smile on my commutes to and from work - there's so much to see and take in!  People, shops, animals, markets, street food, farmers, factories, matatus, boda bodas, and more - it's awesome.  Someone said to me when I arrived that I shouldn't have the notion that streets were meant for cars to drive on - that's merely one of their many functions.  And it's true!  It's a little scary to imagine driving in these very chaotic but exciting streets, something I'll try out this weekend, but I'm excited all the same.  You really get to know a place by driving there, and it was something I missed out on in Saudi.  I do want to hire a driver for part of the time, but I am not over the novelty being allowed to drive. 

I know I'm forgetting something, but it's the end of a long week, and I have my bedroom finally almost perfect with the addition of working A/C, so sleep is a pleasant thing again :-).

So, dear reader, please remind me of this post in 3-5 months when I'm cursing many of these same attributes of post!  Gotta love the roller coaster of culture shock!

Friday, November 23, 2012

True Thankfulness

Happy Belated Thanksgiving!  I meant to post on the actual day, but I slept super late and got up just in time to go to  a coworker's home for a lovely, delicious dinner.  Even though I was away from family, it was wonderful to spend a cozy holiday with new friends :-).

There is much to be thankful for this year.  I have a phenomenal family, amazing friends around the world, a rewarding and challenging career that provides me endless adventure and financial stability, two fuzzy and loving kitties, and oh so much more.  But I would be remiss if I didn't mention one of the defining events of 2012:  I am immeasurably thankful that my mother is still with me. 

I didn't blog too much about it at the time, but I came terrifyingly close to losing my mother to a brain aneurysm in January 2012.  But for luck and a world-class neurosurgeon and surgical team, things could have gone very badly.  It has been a long year of recovery for my mother, who also had a knee replacement in the weeks before the brain surgery, but she's doing phenomenally well.  The recovery has been frustrating and slow and, at times, just plain humorous, but she's back to work full time (and then some) and back to her old lifestyle (now improved with less knee pain!). 

I'm thankful that my father - who has been a rock through all of this - and I were able to lean on each other during that horrific week, when we came home every night from the hospital to an empty house, not sure what the next day would bring.  Along with my brothers, we clung to every improvement by Mom, whether it was coming out of her medically induced coma days earlier than predicted or yelling at nurses (anger is a common side effect of brain surgery, apparently) or taking her first unaided steps or coming home from the hospital.  We laughed and cried and celebrated together, and I'm not sure any of us could have done it alone.  And we didn't do it alone - our family, friends, and communities came together to support our family in incredibly touching ways.

And so, when my mother danced with my brother at his wedding this summer, to the family favorite "If I Had A Boat", I broke down (along with many others in the room) because it was something that we just weren't sure was going to happen months earlier. 

While I wish our family, and especially Mom, never had to go through this ordeal, I am thankful that we had the best possible outcome.  Not a day has gone by that I haven't felt thankful to have my family healthy and intact. 

And, in the parlance of my family's newest inside joke courtesy of a post-anesthesia/post-craniotomy haze, I am eternally thankful that the wombats weren't really out to get anyone that week.  Or any week since.

I hope you all had memorable and delicious Thanksgiving celebrations, whatever the circumstances and wherever you found yourself this year.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

So Jet Lagged I Don't Even Know Any More

My lack of blogging lately is not so much related to settling in as it is to more travel.  My first week in Kampala was awesome - work is great, city is great, home is great - and was punctuated by the delivery of my UAB and HHE from Jeddah.  Quadruple YAY!!!!  Now my primary guest suite is covered in boxes, which I will make my way through as time goes on.  I finally have rearranged all the furniture where I want it, so I'm feeling good there.

But right after my first full week, I flew to Accra, Ghana for a week-long training workshop.  I was super excited for this training, and it was completely awesome, and it was fun to see Ghana, but...  I started really missing Kampala by about Thursday.  I missed my kitties and my bed and my clothes coming from somewhere other than a suitcase.

That's when I realized I've been in transition since mid-July.  That's a long time.  And I think I just met my limit.

Not to mention the jet lag - still overcoming the 8 hour transition to Kampala, then add in a minus 3 transition to Accra and then plus 3 back to Kampala.  *Mind explodes at complexity*

So arriving home today was blissful.  Even after a red-eye flight and a sleepless night.  And the tiring exercise of lugging my 26kg suitcase stuffed with goodies from Ghana up 38 stairs.  My cats greeted me at the door - well cared for by my awesome new housekeeper.  I took a four hour nap and feel slightly more human now.  It's time to eat the awesome ready-made dinner (chicken, stir fried vegetables, cabbage and kale, and fruit salad) left by my housekeeper and get a good night's sleep.

Photos and stories to come, from Uganda and Ghana!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Journey to Kampala, Part II: The Flights

See Part I here...

That night I packed everything up and got ready for the next day's journey.  I woke up in the morning and started trying to get a ride to the airport.  The hotel quoted me $75.  I decided to try a cab for $52.  Turns out, NYC cabs were not available for airport runs due to extreme gas shortages and new restrictions on number of passengers in vehicles entering Manhattan.  I called the bellhop again.  Car service prices had risen to $90 in 25 minutes.  I sighed but said fine.  When he came upstairs he apologized and said the price had jumped to $120.  He was apologetic and genuine, and I am pretty sure this was city-wide.  (At least it was according to a few other people I talked to at the airport.)  He tried to find someone else to share the fare, but the timing didn't work.

The other hitch - my flight was at 6:45pm, and I couldn't check out past noon because the hotel was fully booked.  I planned to hang out at the hotel where it was comfortable for a few hours, but the uncertainty of the car availability made me choose to go to the airport earlier.  I knew it would suck for the cats, but it was better than not being able to get a car out at all.

We got to the hotel at 1:15 and had to wait until 3:30 to check in.  I found a quiet-ish corner and faced their carriers out the window.  After two hours we made our way into the line with some difficulty (three suitcases and two cats and just two arms made it a process, even with carts).  We got a sympathetic gate agent who checked them in without issues.  She never asked to see the health certificates, and the total charge was half what it could have been (long story that worked in my favor). 

Once we checked in, it was time to screen the bags.  We made our way to the TSA screening section, where they asked me to remove each cat from its carrier.  I was prepared for this.  What I was not prepared for was the baggage assistance woman shouting at me the entire time, "hold on tight! Cat gets loose, cat is dead.  We get a lot of dead cats that way.  Hold it tight!  Don't want a dead cat!"  After she shouted at me for the entirety of one cat and then wouldn't help bring the carrier back to me so I could re-load him, I lost it.  I told her I knew exactly what would happen, that I had lost a pet in transit before, and that her shouting at me made both the cats and me more nervous and more likely to drop.  She stopped shouting but still muttered on and on about dead cats while I wrangled cat #2. 

Once that ordeal was over, her counterpart told me to just leave the cart with the cats and he'd bring them to the plane when it arrived.  I didn't really like this arrangement, but he seemed to know what he was doing, so I said goodbye and moved on. 

The flight to Amsterdam was on time, packed, and uneventful.  My seatmates were Swedish businesswomen who had been in NYC for a conference and were stranded by the storm.  They had seen me checking in and were all excited about the cats, with lots of questions.  The flight attendant checked on the cats for me and confirmed they were on board, and I relaxed and zoned out.

I had two hours in Amsterdam before boarding, so I had breakfast, walked around, and tried to check on the cats.  Nobody seemed to know where they were, which was disconcerting.  They assured me it wasn't unusual.  I sighed and headed for the gate.  The gate agent agreed to check again for me, and she told me a few minutes later that my cats were at the plane and, as she said, "were happy and jumping around."  Ummm - those are clearly not my cats.  Plus, the flight attendant on that fateful flight from Frankfurt to Jeddah confirmed Hattie was on board and "hyper and making lots of happy noises."  I didn't take that as a good sign.  But at least I knew they were alive and in the right place.  (I worry about traveling with pets A LOT these days...)

A flight attendant confirmed the cats made it on board and were sharing the hold with some "tiny birds."  I can only imagine how that went!

The 8 hour flight to Kigali was pretty quick, all things considered.  I lucked out and had an empty seat next to me on a very full flight, so I could stretch out a bit.  I worried a little about the Kigali stop but tried not to think about what could go wrong.  We landed in Entebbe early, and I was met at Immigration by an expeditor from the Embassy.  He was very excited to tell me that my cats had beat me to the terminal and were all set.  I was thrilled!  We sped through immigration, and I almost ran to see my cats on the other side.  They were both a little shaky but alive and well.  I let myself relax finally.  The baggage people checked the tags to make sure I was the rightful owner (which didn't happen this summer in Boston!), we waited for my bags, and off we went!  I couldn't believe how easy it was.  Granted the Embassy had helped out with import permits ahead of time, but still.  I was so grateful. 

My amazing sponsor met me in the terminal along with the Motorpool driver, and we loaded in and headed to Kampala.  Traffic wasn't bad, and we arrived at around 11:15 pm.  After lugging the cats and my luggage up to my apartment, I bid them goodnight and explored my new place.  It rocks.  Completely.

But that's a post for another day.  Suffice it to say I'm loving life right now.  I also love that, after Skyping with me and learning that I was finally "all the way in Africa" (how we refer to it with my niece and nephew), my almost-six-year-old nephew made my mom download him an African safari iPad app :-). 

Photos to come soon!

Journey to Kampala, Part I: The Storm

Greetings from Kampala!

Almost fifteen months after receiving this assignment I finally arrived.  And it's everything I hoped for and more.  I know we often have the honeymoon phase right after arriving, but I'm basking in it. 

Uganda is beautiful and welcoming - the land and the people, my apartment is phenomenal, my neighbors and colleagues are wonderful, my job will be a lot of fun as well as a challenge, my cats are happy, my car is in my driveway(!), and my HHE is in country.  Amazing.

Getting here, though, was a stressful experience.  I was scheduled to fly out of NYC on October 30.  Which, by about October 25, was clearly not going to happen.

There were two options - go with the flow or try and solve as many potential problems proactively as possible.  I can be go with the flow, but in situations like this it's better to be slightly neurotic and plan ahead.

On Friday I started making calls.  First was the umpteenth call of the week to the visa folks to see how my passport was working its way through the two different visa processes I needed.  It was halfway.  Which, after three weeks, was pretty frustrating and frightening.  They promised to overnight it on Monday to me for my Tuesday departure.  Which would be all well and good if there wasn't a massive storm coming.  So we had a 'what if' conversation and left it at that.

Next I called the hotel and booked an extra two nights.  At a significantly lower rate than my initial booking.  So I promptly rebooked the initial booking two.  The reservation agent was helpful but had not heard about the storm so didn't seem to know what I was talking about.  Which worked out in my favor, since there was availability at a reasonable price.

Then I called the airline.  They had no flight change waivers in place and had no real suggestions.  I was most concerned about rebooking the cats if our flight was canceled. 

I felt better but fretted through the night about the flights.  When I saw that Delta had implemented a flight change waiver for those in Sandy's path, I immediately called them.  And four hours later I finally got through to an agent.  Who was remarkably helpful, rebooking me at no cost on the same route two days later and making space for the cats.  (Or so I thought.  A look later at my booking made me think only one cat was booked.  Two more hours on hold later, an agent confirmed there were two cats on the reservation.  On a hunch, I asked her if it specified two cats in two carriers.  She thought it did.  Two days later, though, they THANKFULLY called me back because, lo and behold, they had booked it as two cats in one carrier.  All was fine.)  I was also super worried about their health certificate, since the new departure date would be the last day of the ten day validity.  The airline agreed that storm-related flight changes would grandfather the existing certificate in, so I could stop looking for accredited vets in Manhattan...

Anyway.  My mom drove me from NH to NYC on Sunday.  It was an easy trip, aside from the white cat in the backseat crying the. entire. way.  UGH.  We arrived about 4:30 pm, checked into our hotel, un-crated the cats, heard about the subway closure that evening, and went out to explore Times Square (just a half block away).  It was fairly crowded, but as we walked around we noticed that all the stores and restaurants were closing between 5-6 for the storm.  All of them.  We started worrying about food availability so we ate an early dinner at a restaurant across from our hotel that wasn't closing until 9pm.  I stocked up on water at the neighborhood store.  At $4.50 for a two-liter bottle. OY.

We got back to the room and watched the news.  And saw that NYC was basically shutting down.  My consultations for the following day (the entire reason for being in NYC) were canceled because the offices were closing.  In DC, the government was announcing its own shutdown along with Metro. 

Mom left early the next morning to hopefully beat the storm as she drove back to NH.  It's good she left early, because later on several of the highways and bridges she used closed down.  I went for a short walk in the intermittent drizzle and grabbed breakfast at one of the only open shops.  Later that afternoon I bundled up in rain gear, grabbed my camera, and headed out for a walk.  The streets were deserted.  Few cars, fewer pedestrians.  Nothing open.  I walked to Rockefeller Center, which was entirely abandoned.  Unbelievable sight.  Times Square had slightly more activity, but stores were all still closed.  The Naked Cowboy was wearing a life preserver. 

It was raining steadily by then and the wind was pretty strong.  I had to duck into several doorways to regain balance as I walked around.  I headed back to my hotel, dried off, and settled in.  I ordered in food from one of the still-open Vietnamese restaurants and prepared for the storm.  The airports had ceased all flights by now and would soon shut down altogether.  Schools and government closed up and down the east coast for the next day. 

I was extremely lucky as my hotel never lost power, and I had plenty to eat and drink.  My heart goes out to those who lost so much in this storm - their homes, their lives, their livelihoods.  The New Jersey coast in particular was just plain destroyed.  So, so sad.  A terrible tragedy that will take a long time to recover from.

On Tuesday I stayed close to home and tried to reassess my own situation.  While it pales in comparison to the stories of so many, I had my own unique set of problems as a result of Hurricane Sandy.  First and foremost, it was beginning to seem unlikely that I'd get my passport in time to fly out on Thursday.  Not only did I need one additional visa, it wasn't entirely clear if the government would be open the next day to work on my case.  About midafternoon the announcement of an open government on Wednesday was made, and I relaxed a little.  Just a little, because that's when I realized that none of the express mail services were operating, except to deliver supplies to hospitals.  (A decision I completely agree with, but it complicated things.) 

I weighed my options.  I could *hope* that mail was functioning enough to get my passport in time.  I could change my flight again, but that would probably mean change fees AND procuring a new cat health certificate.  Or I could just go get the darn thing myself.

Amazingly, I found a rental car company within walking distance of my hotel with available cars.  I made the reservation and then assessed the route.  It seemed all the relevant tunnels/bridges/highways were open.  The biggest question was whether my passport really was physically where I thought it was or if somehow it was in the ether of transit/processing.  I confirmed through a call to the passport duty officer that the office was truly open the following day, and I took a gamble.  I got my car the next morning and started off.  The gas tank was almost empty, which frightened me, since the first few gas stations I encountered had no gas or no electricity.  Thankfully I found a functioning one on the NJ turnpike.  (Which, as the day progressed, became one of the stations where people lined up for miles/hours waiting to get a few gallons of gas.)  My drive was long but easy.  There was very little traffic and no road debris or hazards.

I called the visa folks as soon as they opened and explained the situation.  They confirmed that my passport was there with my Ugandan visa and that I could pick it up that afternoon.  They even promised to try to get the other visa I needed.

So.  After that call I relaxed considerably.  I got to the DC area around noon and promptly encountered traffic due to a car crash.  Upon passing that, I made a quick stop at Target/PetSmart to get additional water dishes for the cats' crates (as the ones I'd ordered were lost in the UPS interruption ether) and a new GPS cord (same UPS ether for the TWO I'd ordered).  That hurdle jumped, I headed into the city.  I found the building and parking fairly easily, and I literally jumped for joy when they handed me my passport with BOTH visas inside.  YAY!  Mission successful!

I left DC around 1:45 and made it back to NYC at 6pm.  Not bad.  I filled up with gas in Maryland, correctly predicting that NJ would be a tough place to fill up farther north.  The amount of relief I felt was phenomenal.  Things were looking good.

See Part II for more...

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Confessions of a Disillusioned Apple Loyalist

I am not a morning person.  I do not make good decisions in the morning.  I know this.  And yet I let myself try and resolve something this morning when I had no business being awake, let alone making decisions.

Last week, my 4th generation iPod died, after three years.  It's been on its last legs for a few months now, but the death knell tolled.  So I did what any loyal Apple customer would do - I logged on to the store and bought a new one.  I was excited to see a new generation - in fun colors no less!  I placed my order and was giddy.

Then I realized that the iPod I'd ordered was brand new and was just now starting to ship.  Okay.  So I checked the order status, and it said it would be delivered between Oct 24-26, too late for my current address.  So this morning, while waiting for the moving company to come do my pre-packout survey, I tried to change the shipping address.

Now.  This is when user error enters the equation. 

It was impossible to change the shipping address for an in-process order.  So I made the horrible, terrible, no good, apocalyptic decision to cancel my order and place a new one. 

It became quickly apparent that this was a bad decision, since the new ship date was November 2, after I would already have left the country and surrendered for two years my ability to receive items containing lithium batteries by mail. 

So I called Apple.  And over the period of two hours, I spoke to five different representatives and one online representative.  There was no way to recall a canceled order.  I really shouldn't have done that.  No, there was no way to get expedited delivery.  No, there was no way to skip into an earlier place in line.  No they couldn't tell me if stores had it stock.  No they couldn't ship to a store in the time frame.  No.  No.  No.

Now.  I realize I made a stupid mistake by canceling my initial order.  But.  For the company to keep transferring me to different departments and telling me there was nothing to be done and making excuses for system limitations just made my blood boil and the tears run.  I know it's a new product, I know Apple likes its cloak and dagger routine, I know all this.  But frankly the whole experience was just frustrating.  Because I know that a company as technologically savvy as Apple does not have the system limitations it was touting, and the fact that nobody would transfer me to a supervisor was just annoying.  Now all the reps were nice and pleasant and sympathetic, but they just had no collective power and no helpful solutions.  One woman even unhelpfully told me that the prohibition on lithium batteries via U.S. mail really shouldn't be a problem since all Apple products are made in China and have to get to the U.S. somehow.  Umm - seriously?!  Seriously?!  Another told me to just wait until I got to Uganda and buy one at the Apple Store there.  Again, seriously?!  There is not an Apple Store on the entire continent of Africa, let alone in Kampala. 

By this time it was 40 minutes before stores would start to open, so I began to resign myself to a day spent driving from Apple Store to Apple Store in pursuit of the elusive iPod. 

At 9:50 I called the closest store.  I told my story and asked about the availability of the iPod model I wanted.  Yes, they had them in stock.  But there was already a line at the door and I better get there quickly.  No, they would not reserve one.  No, they would not indicate how many they had.  I finally said to the guy, look, can you at least tell me whether I should try you first or start going to other stores first., based on the line and his knowledge of their inventory  I think he got my drift because he told me I should definitely try their store first but quickly.  Of course.  Because urgency is the best sales tactic.

I was there 18 minutes later.  No line.  The store was as empty as I've ever seen one.  There were veritable hordes of underutilized Apple employees waiting to help.  And, lo and behold, there was indeed a 32GB pink iPod Touch in stock.  Based on the sales clerk's reaction, there were many of them in stock.  I bought it, relieved that my entire day wasn't ruined with having to drive all over the DC metro area.  But I was still angry and disappointed and frustrated.

This is a company I love.  I've been an Apple loyalist since the 1990s; I've owned stock for more than a decade.  I use few other tech products and am fiercely loyal and protective to the brand.  But the cloak and dagger routine is just annoying.  I mean, it's one thing to be mysterious when an item is released or in preorder status, but once it's out, the jig is up.  Really.

I am especially frustrated because I've just seen companies like Amazon, Old Navy, and Nordstrom go out of their way to replace orders destroyed when the U.S. Embassy in Tunis was attacked last month.  And Apple couldn't even expedite delivery, a service for which I was willing to pay.  

As I went about my day, I happened upon the Ballston craft fair.  One of the stalls had jewelry made from salvaged computer parts.  It was unique and quite pretty.  I liked the teal pendants in particular.  Then I had a brainstorm.  I asked if any of the pieces were made from Macs.  And, amazingly, the beautiful teal ones were.  I bought one on the spot.  (Here's the vendor, if you're interested.)

I liked the pendant on its own merits, but it made me feel a little more vindicated and powerful to wear a broken piece of Apple around my neck.  I know that's a wee bit dark, but it's the truth.

It's 12 hours later, and I'm still hyped up and angry - hence the blog post.  I haven't opened the new iPod yet - I want a clearer head before I do that.  But that beautiful pendant is firmly around my neck.

Excuse the poor lighting - I should have shot this in the daytime

Blurry, but more of the detail is visible

It's staying in the box until I'm no longer mad.  Or tomorrow, when I finally break down.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

So. Far. Behind.

Just a quick post to say I have not fallen off the face of the earth; I've just been consumed by consumerism and training and post prepping.  Seriously - home leave and training and pre-post U.S. time is just a money suck.  Part of it is my own fault for having a slight addiction to Coach Factory Outlets, but most of it is for consumables - particularly liquid consumables, which will be more difficult to replenish via pouch.

I do love, though, that when you go to Trader Joe's in NoVA and ask them to package up 30 jars of pasta sauce and 25 bags of ravioli they ask you, "oh, are you throwing a party or moving overseas?" instead of looking at you like you're absolutely insane.  The cashier, when confronted with my ridiculous cart of copious amounts of dried exotic mushrooms and 150 dried fruit bars, had the exact same "party or moving?" reaction and again did not consider this a freakish occurrence.  Have I mentioned how much I love Trader Joe's.

One more stop - the grocery store - for the particular chicken broth and cream of mushroom soup that the bulk foods stores didn't have and then I'm done.  I hope.  I really, really, really hope. 

Anyway, lots of stories and photos and observations to share, but for now it's time to sort these consumables.

Also, I am loving meeting so many FS bloggers!  So far I have gotten to meet the masterminds behind such blogs as The Dinoia Family, Travel Orders, dp's Blog, Tuk and Tam, My Intermittent America (formerly of Life in the Land of the Long White Cloud), and 365 Bad Days.  So much fun!

Friday, September 21, 2012

DC Love

I am completely, totally, entirely loving my time in DC.  It feels so good to be in a familiar setting and reconnecting with this city and region that I love so much.  So I decided to list out all the things that make me so happy about this time in DC.  (BTW even though I am living in NoVa, I am going to refer to it as DC.  I know this is controversial, but it's what I'm going to do, so just bear with me.)

It has been such a tragic few weeks for the FS, but I'm going to use this post not to dwell.  As the Secretary said at the transfer of remains ceremony, "So we will wipe away our tears, stiffen our spines, and face the future undaunted."

I adore the training I'm taking - every day is more interesting than the next, and I am pretty much bursting at the seams to get to post and actually do this work.  I come home energized and excited, which makes me more likely to go out and do things at night.

The weather is perfect.  Cool, sunny days with a bit of crispness sneaking in.  The rainy days are spaced out nicely thus far, though there has been a fair amount of crazy weather with them.  But after two years in hot, humid, hazy Jeddah, it's blissful.

Farmers' markets.  There was one afternoon in June in Jeddah when I was just at the end of every rope I had and feeling like nothing was coming together the way I should.  So I spent an hour or so perusing the website of the Arlington Farmers' Market, and the anticipation made me oh so happy.  So my first Saturday in DC I took the metro (!) over to Courthouse and spent a blissful morning perusing the stalls and talking with producers.  I bought exotic mushrooms, locally-sourced scrapple and bratwurst, heirloom tomatoes, fresh pasta, inventive sorbets, fresh baguette, and more.  Since then I've discovered the Ballston Farmers' Market, conveniently on my commute home on Thursday afternoons.  There I find crisp apples, free range chicken, fresh goat cheese, AMAZING crab cakes, flavored honey, and just-baked fruit pies.  Love.  Love.  Love.

Public Transportation.  I have my car here, but I am only taking it out a couple times a week.  The metro is super convenient to where I live, though weekend track work is making train wait times kind of a pain.  But during the week it's super easy to hop into the city for dinner or meandering about.  I can commute to work by shuttle bus, which is also super convenient in terms of times and location.  I rarely drive to work, because the bus is easier. 

Walking.  My FitBit is super happy these days.  My daily step count is through the roof (for me).  I'm motivated to walk those extra few blocks because I can and because it's so pleasant to do so - people yield to pedestrians, every crosswalk has walk signals, the sidewalks are in great condition, and it's safe to walk around without hassle. 

Being at FSI is a lot of fun.  I love the diversity of languages being spoken, in addition to the familiar FS language spoken by clusters of people throughout the campus.  It's not unusual to hear the most random declarations by people involving far-flung locations and improbable (in normal life) travel or work scenarios.  I would provide examples, but it's late and I'm tired and can't think of anything clever.

OMG the food.  First of all, the sheer variety and availability of restaurants.  Imagine my sheer delight to find out that my favorite college Thai place now is located down the street from me!  I will never exhaust the options in even my neighborhood.  I've been loading up on Thai and Vietnamese food (mmmm pho!) but ordered my first pizza yesterday with delicious results.  And yes I do cook (got to use the above-mentioned market finds!), but it's nice to have all these other possibilities as well. 

I'm taking full advantage of being in the area and trying to meet as many FS community members as possible.  I finally met the legendary Jen Dinoia, the always-entertaining Dave Pernal, and the awesome Alex of travel orders in person and look forward to meeting more bloggers and others soon :-).  AFSA and AAFSW are both headquartered here, and I'm enjoying meeting more and more of the people I seek advice from on numerous issues through their various resources.

I'm not exactly saving money these days, but I'll deal with that a bit later.  I'm stocking up for Kampala, consumables and much more.  I bought several modular shelving units at the Container Store this evening (one of my favorite stores ever!) and ended up having great conversations about the FS lifestyle and career with several (awesome!) store employees.  One of them is interested in the FSOT, so I pointed her in the right direction.  I love having these types of encounters - it makes shopping more fun and meaningful to have positive interactions like these without navigating cultural divides.  Don't get me wrong, I love the challenge and excitement of shopping and meeting storekeepers and vendors where I travel and live overseas, but it's nice to be around Americans every now and again.  I had similarly awesome experiences at Origins and The Body Shop last week and pretty much most of my store trips. 

On that note, who wouldn't love the proximity of Wegmans and Trader Joe's?  I don't think I need to even explain this one. 

One of the wonderful things about being in DC is the sheer number of awesome friends who are here.  I run into friends and colleagues every day at FSI, and we do a pretty good job of organizing ourselves for get-togethers, and it's awesome to reconnect and share stories and laugh and commiserate and dream about future posts.  I also love reconnecting from great friends from throughout my life and have been fortunate to see several already.  Lots of laughs and reminiscing and catching up and general merriment.  I also have a lot of family in the area and look forward to some fun family outings soon too.

And I would be remiss if I didn't include the setting itself - the beautiful city of DC.  I spent most of last weekend traversing some of the most well-traveled (and a few less-traveled) monuments and memorials and buildings for a series of photography classes, which was great fun.  Perhaps I'll get motivated enough to upload photos at some point in the near future!  Whether it was gazing at the White House, thanking Korean War veterans for their service at the Korean War Memorial, finding the echo point at the Albert Einstein statue, people-watching at the National Sculpture Garden, or gazing at the magnificent architecture of Union Station, it was so much fun to revisit all of these familiar and beloved sights.  It made me realize how privileged I am to represent our amazing country, and I'm thankful that I get the opportunity to periodically return to Washington, our nation's capital, to reconnect.  On my DC bucket list for this stay:  finally getting to the American Indian museum, visiting the new MLK Jr. memorial, browsing Eastern Market, and walking from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol Building - one of my favorite walks in the world.  I hope to do much more, of course, but I need to keep the wish list reasonable to motivate myself to actually do all of these things!

And now, I need to get to bed so I can wake up in time for one of my other favorite DC wonders - grocery delivery!  I get my beloved seltzer delivered in bulk so I don't have to lug it to and from the car and up elevators and down hallways.  It's well worth the delivery charge. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Service & Solidarity

This has been a horrific week for the U.S. diplomatic community.  In addition to the senseless murders of Ambassador Chris Stevens and Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and Tyrone Woods in a possibly planned attack in Benghazi, our Embassies and Consulates and protecting powers have been engulfed by protests - some violent - in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Iran, and possibly several other countries.  All over a movie.  There are no words to express the disappointment I feel that one individual's exercising of free speech in a country that expressly allows him to do so has spiraled out of control into rage and anger and violence against my colleagues who dedicate their lives in service to said country.  I in no way condone the content of the video (which I have not seen), and I stand firmly in favor of religious tolerance and embracing diversity without denigration or belittlement.  But I also agree with Secretary Clinton when she said "America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear – there is no justification for this, none. Violence like this is no way to honor religion or faith. And as long as there are those who would take innocent life in the name of God, the world will never know a true and lasting peace."  There is no justification.  None whatsoever.  I did not personally know any of these four men, but I'm only one degree of separation from them, and I grieve alongside my friends and colleagues and the victims' families and friends.  The image of their flag-draped coffins being loaded on board a military transport plane to come back home made me cry when I saw it tonight.

This moment of grief and solidarity among the Foreign Service community, though, has been thought provoking for me in several ways.  First, I am thankful to be where I am right now, surrounded by colleagues who all understand this on the same level as me - and for some who knew these fallen heroes, on even deeper levels.  Second, despite the stark reminder of the inherent dangers in my chosen profession, I am more certain than ever that I've chosen the correct path.  I am so proud to serve my country, the land of the free and the home of the brave.  The idealist in me wants to do more to explain American values of free speech and tolerance and inclusion to other people so as to prevent these types of travesties from happening ever again.  I am not naive enough to think we'll ever get to a shiny, happy people type of world without discord or disagreement, but I believe we can do better than this.  The outpourings of support by the Libyan people and people across the globe for my fallen colleagues and my fellow diplomats has been heartening - there's a reason these images are spreading across Facebook like wildfire.  It's sad that the misguided actions of a small group of extremists and the death of innocents is what brings us to this moment, but it's the nature of the beast, sadly.  I've had a lot of flashbacks to 9/11/01 this week and the collective national and international response of humanity and love. 

Most thought-provoking of all, though, has been seeing more clearly than ever the parallel worlds that exist in my life.  I want to phrase these next thoughts carefully because I don't want to be misunderstood, and I'm not complaining here.  I'm reflecting and realizing.  But I had the same conversation several times today, both online and in face-to-face and phone conversations, and I am realizing that I was not the only one.  So bear with me.  The Foreign Service community lives a unique lifestyle.  What we do is often hard to understand to anyone else, let alone how we do it.  We speak our own language(s), we use impossible acronyms constantly, we plan our lives around bidding and assignment stages, we live much of our lives outside America, and there's a certain degree of mystery around what we do.  There's a lot of misperceptions and assumptions about what we do (cocktail parties and cookies and needlessly spending taxpayer money come to mind!), and we're perhaps not as good as we should be at advocating for ourselves and taking away said mystery.  That's a whole other conversation.  But I guess what I'm getting at is, because we're such a small group with unique life circumstances, we are tight-knit and supportive, out of necessity as much as convenience.  I've written about that a lot, especially specifically in terms of the FS blog community. 

So here's why this is relevant right now.  My FS community is rallying.  We're posting articles and photos and statements and messages of grief on Facebook and our blogs.  We're huddling around tv screens to watch CNN during breaks at work and trying to fill in the blanks with whatever information the next person might have.  We're calling each other, going out to dinner or lunch or for drinks after work.  We are changing our profile pictures to the now viral black ribbon with the State Department logo.  None of this is official - we're all doing this on our own time and of our own volition.  But what has struck me this week is how few others are.  I have had a lot of family and friends check in with me and express condolences on things I post, but I can count on one hand the number of Benghazi- or Embassy protest-related posts by non-FS people on Facebook this week.  And my mom counts for at least two of those.  Let me be clear - this is NOT by any means a judgment on what other people choose to post or a selfish belief that what is going on right now is the center of the universe.  It is merely an observation.  Granted I'm a bit biased, but CNN and other media outlets are legitimating my 24/7 focus on my colleagues around the world, as are all my FS friends/colleagues.  (The two words are often interchangeable.)  At least for this news cycle.     But I spoke to my mother about this today who also had noticed this phenomenon among her own communities, which made me think about it a bit more.  It just reinforced this parallel world that what I spend so much of my life focused on is so far off the radar of so many others, even when it's on the international news radar.  Again, I'm not judging; this happens for so many other careers/professions/communities every day.  But it's been food for thought for me this week.  The realities of life for ever person are entirely different and incredibly fluid and dynamic, and the interconnectedness of social media allows us to see that much more clearly and in real time.  But when something like this happens and so many people rally like they're doing, it creates a visual (if partially virtual) representation of these parallel worlds.

I don't know what I wanted to achieve with this post, aside from expressing my profound grief for my fallen colleagues and sincere condolences to their loved ones, as well as to do a dump of the many jumbled thoughts in my head.  And I don't think I've been very articulate (I blame the head cold), but for some reason I think, maybe, some of my FS peeps (that's soooooo not a word I use, but I'm using it here for lack of a better one) will indeed get it, as disjointed as it is.  So to the friends and colleagues and, especially, families of Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and Tyrone Woods, I offer thoughts and condolences and thank yous for the service of your loved ones.  They paid the ultimate sacrifice for the country they loved, and I respect and honor that commitment.  To my friends and colleagues worldwide, stay safe.  Continue to represent America as you do so well, but be vigilant and cautious.  We can't afford to lose anyone else in our community.

Statement by Secretary Clinton:  "All over the world, every day, America’s diplomats and development experts risk their lives in the service of our country and our values, because they believe that the United States must be a force for peace and progress in the world, that these aspirations are worth striving and sacrificing for. Alongside our men and women in uniform, they represent the best traditions of a bold and generous nation."

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Home Leave is Officially Over

What a month!  Home leave is officially over - I start training tomorrow morning.  I will post several home leave stories over the next few weeks; it was surprisingly busy for a month off!  The culminating event was a wonderful, wonderful weekend surrounded by family and friends, new and old, during which my brother married the love of his life.  I had the privilege of officiating their ceremony (thank you Church of Spiritual Humanism!), and it was beautiful in every way.  Stories and photos to follow; my Facebook page is already overflowing with photos.

I drove down to the DC area yesterday with the cats.  We made great time (less than 9 hours with stops!), and I even had time to run to Target and Trader Joe's in the evening.  Unpacking is about halfway done, and we're well stocked after a Wegmans and mall run today.  Oh how I missed these three stores!  I think if every overseas post had a Wegmans and a Target there would be no hardship posts...

The cats are settling in fairly well, though their anxiety and stranger danger is slightly more acute.  They apparently were terrified by the housekeeper today and didn't come out from under the bed until after I'd been home for hours.  Then I realized Callaghan was shivering while sitting with me on the couch.  A friendly Google search convinced me he was hypoglycemic (they did travel all day yesterday and have been slightly off their food patterns), so I spent the next forty minutes trying to spoon feed honey to both cats.  When that didn't work, I forced their mouths open and rubbed it on their gums to try and right their blood sugar.  It wasn't till hours later when I started shivering while sitting on the couch that I realized the A/C vent is right there and blows directly onto anyone sitting there.  So, I rearranged the furniture, and we're all much more comfortable now!  I still want to move the dining room table again, but that will keep for another night. 

My clothes for tomorrow are laid out, my bag and lunch are packed, and I'm ready!  Now to bed to get up early.  After more than a month off, this may be painful.  Can't wait to see many familiar faces tomorrow!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Home Leave Miscellany

So clearly I've been lax about posting lately.  I'm amazingly all caught up on reading blogs (yay!), but my own posts have suffered.  Home leave has been much busier than I anticipated, and I've been having lots of fun hanging out with family and friends.

So here's a quick post while I work on several others about what, exactly, has been consuming my time.

I've been spending a lot of time with family and friends, lots of lunches and dinners and BBQs and random encounters.  It's been a great mix of people I see whenever I'm home as well as several I haven't seen in years - how cool to catch up!

My brother is getting married next week, which will consume much of my time and energy (I'm the officiant and am currently working on a draft of their vows - so writing this post is actually a form of procrastination!).  So excited to see more family and friends and celebrate!  That will be the last hurrah before heading to DC for ConGen, about which I am fantastically excited!

I am really enjoying going to the grocery store and buying all the things I couldn't really get in KSA - cottage cheese!  Raspberries!  Claussen dill pickles!  Fresh spinach!  Bagels!  I miss my kitchen and am sad I won't have all the great tools while I'm in DC for training.  I've never had my awesome kitchen set up while living in the States.

The cats are doing quite well, considering last week's encounter with Tripper (who also seems no worse for the wear).  See photos from this morning below for proof.  They're being quite considerate house guests for the most part - the only casualty so far from kitty fumbling was a jar of barbecue sauce. 

Anyway, I'm going to try and knock out a couple more posts tonight... or work on the vows.  Or both.  Maybe. 

Stairs!  We like stairs!

The better to survey our new kingdom...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Cat Drama

I have not slept well the past few nights.  I have a horrid, pathological fear of spiders.  So turning back my bedcovers the other night and finding a large (for NH) icky eight-legged beast there pretty much ruined the night for me.  I was the only one awake and had a choice between fleeing or killing.  I chose to kill (for one of the first times ever), helped along by an electronic bug zapper.  Ignore the fact that I kept the voltage on for so long that the thing eventually sparked...  Anyway, after completely redoing my bedclothes I tried to sleep, but the night was ruined.  Every noise or slight movement made me jerk awake frightened.  And it doesn't just last one night.  I had another horrid beast run across me in the living room last night, which almost had me launching my precious laptop across the room in an effort to flee from the chair as quickly as possible.  So I have not been sleeping well.

This morning I woke at approximately 5:30 to Callaghan jumping on me asking for breakfast.  I do not tolerate such behavior - breakfast is served at more tolerable hours, like 11am.  I quickly went to the bathroom and then went back to bed.  At 7:03 I awoke to a horrific scream.  It took me a while to figure out what it was.  I got up and saw Griffin run into my room.  I heard the scream again.  As I walked out of my room I saw a flash of white tear past me, with a black and white cat quick on his heels. 

It took me a few seconds to put this all together.  What I was seeing was our outdoor feral barn cat, Tripper, chasing my indoor pampered house cats.  Tripper had never been in the house before.  I didn't know how he got in.  By this time my cats were hiding in my room, so I closed that door and went to see about Tripper.  He ran past me into the kitchen and then, when I attempted to herd him outside, ran into the bathroom.  So I closed that door to buy some time to assess the situation.

The back door was still closed and locked; no broken windows; no other open doors.  How did he get in?  I went to the bathroom and opened the door, and he tore past me into the spare room.  I followed him.  And saw it.  The window screen was punched out.  I hadn't even realized the window was open with a screen.  Callaghan and Griffin had recently caught wind of Tripper (literally, smelling him through the back door), and he them.  They had had a few staring matches through the kitchen windows.  But this was evidence of an all-out territory war. 

About this same time I realized that there was white fur in large patches all over the spare room (currently home to my brother's t-shirt screen printing machinery and all its accoutrements).  This scared me, as I realized it had not been just a chase but, more probably, a fight.

I heard my mother waking up and alerted her to the situation.  She came downstairs and went in to talk sense into Tripper.  By this time he was loudly meowing and trembling in a corner.  She was able to pick him up with only a few scratches and took him back outside.  I closed the window and removed the screen.

By then my heart was pounding a mile a minute and I started to worry that Callie was injured.  I opened my bedroom door, and Griffin came out cautiously.  I opened their breakfast food and spoke soothingly, hoping to coax Callie out.  Griffin went to inspect breakfast, still no Callie.  A few minutes later he emerged.

His normally luscious white coat was marred by spots of black and orange - apparently a result of brushing against the industrial ink cans in the spare room during the pursuit/fight.  He did not appear to have any blood or visible wounds, and he certainly didn't look like he had lost a pound of fur.

He let me pet him but remained hidden under a chair, haunches up and trembling.  A few minutes later I picked up Griffin to reassure him.  It was then things got really weird.  Callie started growling - a low constant growl.  Griffin hissed back at him.  I have never, ever seen either of them act that way toward one another.  Frankly that was frightening.  For the next few minutes they circled each other, hissing and growling and refusing to cede territory.  Wow.  I started to get all upset and googled cat behavior post-fight and tried to figure out what to do.  My mother told me they'd be fine in time; they just needed to work it out and get rid of the adrenaline.

I went back to sleep for another couple of hours, very uneasily again.  Griffin came in to check on me but didn't stay.  I think Callie sought refuge upstairs.

I woke up a bit later and witnessed some more posturing, growling, and hissing between these previously inseparable kitties.  I hoped it would ease in time, but I was pretty paranoid that I was facing permanent traumatic behavior and personality changes.

After checking all possible points of entry to the house, I reluctantly left the cats and went to the gym.  I worried about them the entire time and was unsure what I'd come home to find.

Both cats greeted me within a few minutes of coming in the house, and I saw both of them eat and drink.  They weren't actively hissing/growling, but they weren't near each other either.  I sat down at the computer, and they both joined me for pets.  On separate sides, but near each other.  After a few minutes I caught them both curled up on the couch - not touching, but close to each other.  A little while later they both curled up in the same armchair - again, not touching, but pretty close.  Neither cat joined me for an afternoon nap (hey, I'm on home leave and am not sleeping well at night!), which is unusual, but they were both affectionate when I woke up and when Mom got home.  I am feeling mighty relieved.

When I envisioned writing this post earlier today, right after the incident in question, I assumed I was going to be writing to seek support.  Luckily after 13 hours we seem to be close to normal.  Callie's ink spots are even fading.  I think we're on the road to recovery.

Tripper, however, is nowhere to be found.  He ate breakfast but hasn't touched his food bowl since them.  Tripper came to us in 2004 as a kitten from a friend's farm in PA, originally named Ortiz.  His littermate, Pablo, also joined us.  (My family are all Red Sox fans!)  They were barn cats but friendly and not afraid of people.  Pablo disappeared several years ago, having either moved on to a better home or meeting an untimely demise at the hands of a fisher cat (all too common for feral cats around here).  By then Ortiz had been renamed Tripper, for his penchant to dangerously wind in between my father's legs as he did outdoor chores.  About a year ago he disappeared.  Completely.  Not a trace of him was to be found.  We assumed he'd had an unfortunate encounter with a fisher cat.  (This happens a lot, sadly.  We've lost many a cat to the wilds of the woods.)  So imagine my parents' surprise when Tripper showed back up a few months ago after more than 10 months of not being around.  The joke is that he came home to retire.  He spends his days lounging in sunspots in the yard and entertains himself by hunting mice (and a rat yesterday - well done!) and terrorizing chipmunks and squirrels.  He continues to live up to his name.  I think today's event was just as traumatic for him and he's probably nursing his psychological wounds somewhere safe and quiet.

Oh the cat drama! 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Jeddah: Five Good, Five Bad

The OTP for this edition of the FSBRU (thanks Jill!) is five good and bad things about your current post, in honor of bidding season.  Given that I am between overseas posts and that there are precious few NH jobs (hi Melissa!) and none where I live, I'll concentrate on Jeddah.  You can also see a previous post here about things to love about Jeddah.  I may repeat myself a wee bit. 

First, the good.

1. Quality of life:  It is possible to maintain a very high quality of life in Jeddah.  The basic infrastructure and consumer goods market is such that you never want for items in grocery stores, anything you desire can be found somewhere in the city, and electricity and water are extremely stable.  The roads are in pretty good condition, even if drivers are insane and traffic a bit chaotic, and they're well maintained.  Domestic help is plentiful, affordable, and dependable.  The sheer variety of stores means shopping for name brands is easy (and popular among locals). 

2.  Great professional experience/visibility:  This is especially true for people working in FSO reporting jobs - PD and P/E, FCS - who not only work on very high priority portfolios but spend much of their time out and about working with their counterparts.  (Plus, for untenured FSOs, this means mucho comp time as you work more than 40 hours pretty much every week.)  Your reporting gets the attention of high-level people, and you're working on current issues and seeing history in the making.  Internally-focused jobs have less visibility, but they are just as important and given incumbents the opportunity to see and do a lot during their tour.  It's a relatively small post - and a constituent post at that - so there's plenty to go around.  We had regular Cabinet-level visits and lots of other VIP visits in addition to our normal duties while I was there.  Particularly for first and second tour FS professionals, you'll see a broad spectrum of situations and problems and opportunities and gain a lot of experience in a very short amount of time.

3.  Recreation:  There is so much to do!  This is a great family post as every restaurant/mall/store has, at the least, a high tolerance for children and, more typically, diversions and amusements geared towards them.  Amusement parks abound (with varying degrees of safety), playgrounds and pools are everywhere, and there's always kid-centered activities going on at the compounds.  The Red Sea is right there with its beautiful beaches and inviting waters and coral reefs.  Superb snorkeling and diving, boating, fishing, waterskiing, you name it.  Lots of barbecuing - grilling is a year-round activity.  Lots of family-oriented events.  Jeddah is home to awesome restaurants from every ethnic and trendy persuasion, and you can be a true gourmand at post.  Everything from hole in the wall local food to high end hoity-toity hotel brunch buffets, with everything in between.

4.  Travel:  Millions of people pass through Jeddah each year for Hajj and Umrah, so it makes sense that Jeddah is extremely accessible.  This means that the source countries of pilgrims are also very accessible, which is pretty much every country in the world!  Flights to amazing destinations are plentiful and can be quite affordable if booked well in advance.  I visited numerous neighboring countries as well as a couple more far-flung destinations.  I made it a point to travel at least for a long weekend every 6 weeks to 2 months, which made my tour much more enjoyable. 

5.  Non-smoking!  Right before I left, Saudi Arabia announced that smoking of any sort will be forbidden in public, to include restaurants, malls, and stores.  Hurrah!  A similar smoking ban in airports took effect shortly after I arrived, and it made traveling oh so much more pleasant, even if implementation was spotty.  The new ban includes shisha as well as cigarettes/cigars, which will make dining out oh so much more enjoyable.  I wish this had happened earlier, but I'm glad it happened at all.

And, of course, the bad.

1.  Not being able to drive:  This only goes for women, but it will permeate the lives of everyone.  At first I thought it would be really cool to be driven everywhere, but it got old really, really quickly.  Our drivers were great, but I missed the spontaneity and independence and privacy that comes with being able to drive yourself.  So advice to all:  ship a car.  Single women - you can hire a driver if you want to have your own 24/7 person transport; I was close to wanting to fork out the money for this at some points.  Men and families:  the key to high morale is having your own car.  Seriously.  Don't rely on Motorpool.

2.  Culture shock:  Every post has a degree of culture shock, but KSA is very different in many ways.  Women will likely wear an abaya most of the time (I usually didn't, but I was the sole exception during my time there among Mission women), and even when you don't you always have to be conscious of conservative dress - long sleeves, long pants, long skirts, high necklines, etc.  For men - no shorts, modest t-shirts at a minimum.  This doesn't sound very difficult in itself (and relatively typical of the Gulf), but combine it with the following, and it becomes oppressive at times:  EVERYTHING closing five times a day for 30+ minutes at prayer time, the constant threat of running into the religious police (mutawwa), gender segregation in most public places, navigating the single vs family entrances to restaurants, etc., etc., etc. 

3.  Weather:  For eight months of the year it is difficult to enjoy outside activities.  From mid-March to late October the weather is oppressive.  Highs well above 110 and averaging 100+ with varying levels of humidity.  It can be likened to constantly walking in the path of a hair dryer or sticking one's head in an oven.  Pools are unbearably hot during the day unless they have chillers, which are expensive and infrequently found.  Playgrounds during the day are abandoned because the equipment is too hot to use.  I loved to walk outside in my compound, but even at midnight during the spring/summer it was unbearably hot and muggy still.  Outside events are impossible without multiple concentrated fans/misters.  Walking even from your home to your car to your office will leave you soaked by sweat and uncomfortable for the rest of the day.  Keep in mind the public dress code of #2 and it's even more difficult to stay cool.  That said, the weather during the winter is quite pleasant and conducive to outdoor dining and outdoor pursuits, especially in the evenings. 

4.  Safety concerns:  This one really runs the spectrum.  There's a constant high level of threat (Consulate General Jeddah was attacked in 2004), which I don't need to detail.  This doesn't generally impact one's day-to-day living, but it's something that needs to be taken into consideration.  On a more applicable level, my biggest pet peeve about KSA was the nonuse of seatbelts and car seats.  It's unusual to see anyone belted in, but it's disturbingly common to see infants and toddlers riding on laps in the front seat (sometimes steering the car from the driver's lap) or older children careening from the front to the back to each side of the car.  I never ever ever saw a child secured in a car seat - occasionally sitting in one, but never actually strapped to the seat nor the seat to the car.  It's even worse because traffic accidents are frequent (rules of the road are anything goes, and drivers are generally self-centered) and traffic fatalities common.  It hurt my heart to see all these children unrestrained.  Beyond that I question the safety of many of the amusement rides that are everywhere and other little things that now escape my mind (ah, the bliss of home leave!).  However, you can get a sense of some of the concerns from these items.

5.  Smells:  (This may just be me, but I am running out of things...)  I am extremely sensitive to strong scents (they cause headaches, migraines, and nausea) - I can't even have scented candles burning in the house or wear fragrances.  This can be difficult to navigate in everyday life anywhere in the world, but I found it particularly challenging in Saudi.  Most people wear strongly-scented perfumes and colognes most of the time, and I constantly had to hold my breath to avoid the onslaught of smells.  Oud and incense are very popular and omnipresent, and one whiff of these have me running for fresh air and an Excedrin constantly.  The strong cardamom-infused coffee served EVERYWHERE actually makes me physically sick, and it's impossible to avoid.  I actually hated going to millions of meetings each week just because I knew I'd have to somehow dodge the coffee.  At the time, smoking of cigarettes, cigars, and shisha was rampant everywhere, and smoke from these sickens me quite quickly.  The sweet smoke of shisha is particularly potent.  I felt I was never free from these heavy scents except in my own home, which got tiring after a while.  I know this may seem a petty thing, but it significantly impacted my life for two years.

Overall, Jeddah and KSA are what you make of them, like most posts.  You can be insanely happy and fulfilled professionally and personally, or you can be bitter and negative and count the days till R&R and PCS.  You can make mountains out of molehills or embrace simple changes in the pace and pattern of life.  I enjoyed my two years there, but I think I would have enjoyed Jeddah more if I had a family there.  It's a difficult post for singles, particularly women.  But in the grand scheme of things, how many people can honestly throw out the line, "when I lived in Saudi Arabia..."?  It's a guaranteed conversation starter for the rest of my life!  Happy bidding!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Immigrating to America: Two Cats' Story

Welcome to America Callaghan and Griffin!  From Saudi street kittens to pampered diplocats...

It has been a blissful five days at home, and I just haven't had the inclination to write a blog post yet, but I want to document the success of the journey home before it becomes a repressed memory.

First of all - many thanks to those of you who offered advice, support, and assistance during the last several months as I navigated the process of getting the cats out of Saudi.  And many thanks to everyone who empathized as I bid goodbye to Hattie and shared my grief and pain.  Your support is immensely appreciated.

The cats and I began our journey at 10pm Tuesday night (3pm EST).  They were somewhat reluctant to go into their carriers (having had two annoying trips this week already, once to the vet and once to Ministry of Agriculture for exit paperwork) but didn't cry too much.  We were met at the airport by our regular expeditor and a shipping specialist, as I didn't want to take any chances.  The paperwork and check-in process took a good hour, so I was very glad I was there as early as I was.  I had put trilingual notes on each cat carrier, imploring airport/airline staff to "please help me get to Boston safely" in English, Arabic, and German.  In Jeddah I asked several airline staff to ensure the cats were well treated and kept in A/C until boarding.  I was assured they would be.  I told everyone how much I loved my cats and how important it was they made it safely.  They were sick of me by the end, but I figured overkill had better odds.

The total cost from Jeddah to Boston?  $200 each for a total of $400.  Well worth it, and much less than it would have been had I been forced to fly United or a codeshare.  Thank you Open Skies!

We went into a private screening area to run the carriers through the x-ray machine.  While there were no extra people around, it was a large warehouse-like space, and I worried that the cats might bolt while getting in or out of their carriers.  I took them out carefully, one at a time, and took the opportunity to formally introduce each cat to the airline staff.  They were freaked but well-behaved and tolerated the introductions.  I put them back in their carriers with a final seal of approval and even some joking by the customs official.  Good signs.  They were then put on the luggage belt and disappeared from sight.  Enter nervewracking travel mode now.

At no point during the check-in process did anyone ask to look at their health certificates or exit permits...  Just saying.

When I boarded the plane a couple of hours later I asked a flight attendant to make sure the captain knew there were pets on board and to ensure proper pressurization and temperature.  She smiled and assured me all would be fine. 

The flight was uneventful, and I woke up shortly before landing in Frankfurt.  I had a six-hour layover but first went to the service center to check on the kitties.  They had already been scanned in on arriving in Frankfurt, and the very nice CSR indulged my paranoia and assured me that they'd rest comfortably in the Animal Comfort Lounge (or something to that effect) and be fed, watered, and given an opportunity to use the litterbox. 

Thus comforted, I began my wandering around the terminal.  I took the Skytrain to the other terminal to take advantage of slightly more dining and shopping options and had a wonderfully fresh pretzel for breakfast.  I followed that up with an overpriced but much needed manicure and chair massage.  Then more wandering. 

I finally meandered to my own terminal and went through security there, which took forever.  Something in each my bags triggered a closer look, and they ended up taking EVERYTHING out to rescan.  And given that I had a cell phone, kindle, iPod, laptop, camera, GPS, and many, many cords in addition to a change of clothes and travel miscellany, this was a time-intensive process.  Finally I made it though and proceeded to do some additional wandering.  I bought my favorite Frankfurt indulgence - a soft pretzel with cheese and bacon - and a terrible-tasting banana.  I read at the gate for a while until - five minutes before boarding time - they announced a gate change.  A sprint through the airport energized me, and boarding went smoothly.  Sadly, this was a completely full flight, so I didn't get an extra seat like on the earlier one. 

The flight seemed super long; I was unable to sleep, being woken up every time I started to nod off.  The A/C wasn't working properly, and we were all overheating.  I asked a flight attendant upon boarding to confirm the cats were loaded, and, while she didn't understand why I needed this confirmation ("it will be fine if they made it to Frankfurt"), she gave me a thumbs up shortly after takeoff.  A little late for my comfort, but better late than never.

I was ready to bolt off the plane by the time we landed in Boston, but deplaning of course took forever with such a full flight.  Immigration was pretty quick, and I headed to the baggage claim area with my customs forms reading "cats" in red marker.  I grabbed two luggage carts and asked someone where the cats would come out.  She didn't know, and it wasn't entirely obvious.  Luggage was already on the belt, so I walked over to see if mine had come out.  They hadn't, so I tried to find oversize baggage.  It was tucked into a corner, and, lo and behold, there were my two cat carriers!  My heart was thumping as I walked over, the memory of the last time I had been reunited with a pet carrier fresh in my mind.  I abandoned my luggage carts for a moment and ran forward to grab the cats.  Callaghan was whining a bit and started meowing louder when he saw me.  Griffin was turned around in his carrier and gave me a scare before he finally turned around and nuzzled my finger.  Nobody checked my luggage tickets - kind of scary, really.  There was nobody there...  The Lufthansa flight crew was there, and my helpful flight attendant from before congratulated me on the happy reunion.  (Though, "see, I told you they'd be fine" is not as comforting to someone who has lost a pet in transit as she probably intended.) 

I loaded the cats onto the carts and headed back to the belt.  We found a quiet corner away from crowds, and I scanned the belt.  Still nothing.  I reassured the cats that their journey was almost over and let them nuzzle my fingers through the cages.  My bags arrived after about 15 minutes, and I took a few minutes to rearrange things on the carts.  I started for the exit and was met by a kind and helpful TSA agent, who even helped me maneuver the carts!  She brought me to the side, avoiding the line, and asked for their proof of rabies vaccination.  After a couple minutes we were ready to head out!  I walked out the doors to the terminal, searching for my father.  People started the predictable "look! it's a kitty! it's two kitties!" calls and finger pointing.  My dad found me after a minute and we had a wonderful reunion.  I introduced him to the cats, ran quickly to the restroom, and then we headed for the car. 

As soon as we got outside it started to downpour, so the kitties also learned about rain, unfortunately.  They were crying by the time we reached the car, and I got them strapped in and dry as quickly as possible.  It was only 3:45 pm, but the traffic had already started, and it took us a while to get out of the Boston metro area.  The cats were very well-behaved on the almost three hour drive home, only meowing and crying for a few minutes total. 

We arrived home and I got to greet Mom and introduce her to the kittens as well.  I took them straight to my room, where the litter box was already set up, and closed the door and opened the cages and showed them the box.  I got them food and water and a scratching post and left them alone for a while.  After about an hour I went in and played with them; they had both used the box and seemed in good shape.  They were remarkably friendly when Mom came in to say hello to them and both let her pet them (they usually have stranger danger tendencies when they first meet someone).  After a few hours they seemed to be doing so well that we opened the door.  They hesitantly emerged and stayed close to me in the living room, exploring gingerly and jumping at sudden movement.  But given their 27 hour ordeal, I think they did pretty well adjusting!  They adore stairs - a new addition to their environs - and seem to really miss having A/C.  They sleep with me but are getting braver every day about exploring the house.  They seem to like my parents but still jump at sudden movements.  Thunder seems to frighten them (another new thing!), and they were not big fans of my five year-old nephew.  He didn't really bother them one way or another, but he's loud and talkative, and this didn't endear him to them.

We've gradually given them the run of the house, but they still prefer my room when I'm not home.  They'll hang out with me elsewhere in the house and are definitely "my" cats.  They're finally eating and drinking normally, even asking for wet food and treats at the routine times.  They have been great about only using scratching pads but are starting to jump on counters on the table, behavior we discourage.  All in all, they've tolerated the move remarkably well, with no discernible personality changes.  This has gone a long way to make me feel more comfortable about international pet travel, but I still don't relish the idea of doing it again in a few months...