Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Merry Christmas, Omani Style

It's December 21st here in Muscat, Oman and Christmas is just around the corner.  But it just doesn't feel like it.  I'm not hearing Christmas songs on the radio, I haven't seen It's A Wonderful Life even one time and (can't believe I'm saying this) I actually miss hearing that bell being rung in front of stores.  Yes, it is Christmas in a non-Christian country and if you're headed to one, prepare yourself.  Go overboard in bringing lots of decorations and CDs to hear the music you always yearn to hear during December.  Since there are many British residents here, Christmas decorations are available in most store, but in short supply and not cheap! Stock up on gift type things, including wrapping paper, and don't forget to factor in shipping fees.  It is a big part of your budget!

I do miss my kids and my grandkids.  One of my friends is coming tomorrow night  from Sarajevo for 9 days and we'll experience Christmas in Oman together.  One good thing...all the stores will be open!  However, I'm not sure we'll find many bargains.  We will go snorkeling, see some 15th century forts, shop in the souk, or marketplace, explore the surrounding towns and just have a good old time.  My tree is decorated, what ornaments and decorations that made it from Honduras are on display and my one Christmas CD is playing.  I could use some more.  Maybe there will still be some Christmas music in stores when I get back to the states in July.  Maybe.

For me, 2010 has been a terrific year.  The years just keep getting better and better.  Oman is a wonderful place with great people and amazing sights to see.  I've already served 1/4 of my 2 years and will soon (this summer) begin the process of finding where I go next.  No more being assigned...after your second assignment, you are responsible for looking at the list of available embassy jobs around the world and the process of selling yourself and receiving an offer of a job begins.  For those of you in the FS, I highly recommend bidding on/requesting Oman.  Feel free to ask me about this post any time you want. 

I'm looking forward to 2011 and my travel opportunities.  Egypt, Bangkok, Italy, Washington DC and my home, Fort Worth, Texas are all in my sights for next year.  I hope that whatever you have in your sights is within reach for you too. 

Merry Christmas to all...and have the very best New Year!

Monday, October 04, 2010

Live and Learn and Learn and Learn

Living overseas has its challenges. But the rewards far outnumber the inconveniences and regional difficulties. For the most part, you enjoy the new and different things you encounter and hope that what you can't get where you're posted will just be small potatoes. I happen to love this lifestyle, but occasionally that little hiccup or hurdle presents itself and you have to deal with it. Right now, I am DEALING with it! If you are one of my followers who are with the State Department and are living overseas, learn from my experience.

Roll back the calendar to mid August. My Toshiba laptop arrived with my household effects and wouldn't you know it...the darned thing refused to boot up. No matter what I did, nothing. Nada. Zilch. I took it to the embassy and had the IT people look at it and they shook their heads and crossed themselves. Big sigh.

I went online and searched for a replacement. I searched everywhere, read reviews, analyzed what my computer needs were and made my choice...a Sony VAIO. When you order things while overseas, you have 2 choices of where it is shipped. (Well, most people have 2 choices.) If your embassy has an APO, you can order things to be shipped there. Lots of stores won't ship to an APO so you have to go to Plan B, which is your personal pouch. The pouch goes to a US address in Dulles, Virginia and takes a bit more time to arrive. As it turned out, Sony insisted on a signature upon delivery so I had to use the pouch.

OK, we're back to today. Two weeks ago, I went to the Sony site and could see where someone in Virginia had signed for the FedEx delivery of my laptop, which was shipped there from California. Good..that was progress! They accepted delivery on September 20th. Usually, in a week to 10 days after it gets to Dulles, it arrives at the embassy. I started getting a funny feeling about my laptop a few days ago. You know the one...the feeling that something is wrong, not right or just screwed up. It was just taking too long. So, today I asked my IT person if he could contact Dulles and see what the delay was.

Now comes the bad news...and the lesson you can all learn. Mike, my IT guy, was told my laptop was in the prohibited items area. Yep...prohibited. And just what part of my laptop was prohibited, you ask? The lithium battery. As a matter of fact, State (of someone at State) is drafting an ALDAC (much like a formal memo) prohibiting shipping lithium batteries in the pouch. I said...But Mike, my laptop was ordered before all this came about. He said it didn't was going to be returned to Sony. NOOOOOOOOOOOoo.....

I thought about my options:
  1. Have the laptop returned to Sony, which could have meant waiting for a refund and then re-ordering it and having it shipped to my father in Fort Worth and then have him ship it to my APO address (which doesn't have that restriction...yet). Double shipping costs. Ugh.
  2. Have the laptop returned to Sony and then try to contact them and see if they could re-ship it to my dad without having to re-order it.
  3. Ask the guy in Dulles if he would personally take possession of it and ship it to my dad in Fort Worth. (not a chance of that happening.)
  4. Stand on my desk and scream and holler at this new ruling. Naww....
  5. Find someone in the DC area who was willing to go and take delivery of my laptop and send it to my APO address. YES!
As it turns out, someone who was recently posted here in Oman is now in DC. Eric, the ARSO in my office sent him an email, telling me he felt sure Khamp wouldn't mind getting the laptop and sending it on to me. Hopefully, problem solved. Mike told me he felt sure that they would release the laptop with some authorization from me.

Now, let's talk about what you should take away from all this. If you're with State and living overseas, make sure you know what you can and can't ship in the pouch. Every time I shop online now and the site doesn't offer the option to ship to my APO, I send them an email and ask them to look in to making that an option. It probably won't do any good, but it makes me feel better. Make sure you review what items are not allowed in the pouch. Things you might not think about, like pop-top cans of fruits and vegetables. The tops can burst off, damaging other items in the pouch. I'm sure there are more so tomorrow, I'm going to pull up the regs and find out what can't go through the pouch.

Be thankful if you're at a post that has an APO. I can now understand the frustration of my friends who are at a post with only pouch delivery options. I'm sooo sorry!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Compromising...A Part of Life

I'm adjusting very well to life in Oman. I really love it here, especially now that the weather is beginning to cool down. Very soon Oman will have perfect weather for the next 5 months or so. Last week I went to the Oman Dive Center with some friends from the Embassy. We rented bungalows (sp?) and had a great time. We went on a dive boat with divers and as snorkelers who just float around on the top of the water, we had a great time. It's only about 30 minutes from where we live, which makes it a great little weekend getaway.

I'm discovering that although I don't have all the things I'm accustomed to here, I have made some compromises. Living in a Muslim country, you realize that you won't have an easy time getting some of the things you readily enjoyed in the states or other countries. Knowing I can't have (or am not willing to pay the price) for pork makes me desire it even more! I could get a whole pork loin for about $90US but I just don't think I'm ready to shell out that kind of money. Yet. Today, as I was looking for a can of tuna (nothing like good old Starkist Tuna!) in my cupboard, I saw the Dak canned ham that I brought back from Honduras. You know the a metal can with a key or pull tab? Probably just one step above Spam? My mom used to buy canned hams all the time when I was a kid. I loved them...the ham just fell apart in my mouth. Then, as I grew older and appreciated the finer things in life, I shunned anything but Honey Glazed Ham, Virginia Baked Ham or any other ham that hadn't been chopped, formed and had mystery ingredients added to it. Let me tell you...the times, they are a'changin'. I decided to give that old canned ham a try. Hell, the expiration date on it was clear in to 2015, so you know it HAD to be good! I struggled to get the pull tab pulled back but when I did, I smelled that good old canned ham smell. It had that familiar pattern of having been chopped and reformed to resemble a whole ham.
I grabbed my fresh baked cibata roll (baked fresh daily at the market), cut it in half, slathered it with some Hellman's mayo (I'm almost out...someone please send me some) and a bit of French's Honey Mustard and put some lettuce on top. I added a few slices of the succulent ham, some potato chips, grabbed a coke and went to the table. It smelled just like I remember. I took a bite and...and...darn, it was actually delicious! If I just didn't let my mind linger on the fact that it looked like head cheese, I was fine. If you don't know what head cheese is it definitely is not cheese. Anyway, it was a very tasty lunch. I can see me using the rest of it for a sandwich tomorrow and maybe frying a slice to have with eggs.

When you can't get the real thing, you just have to compromise. Isn't that what life is all about?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Me and My Possessions Reunited!

I have been in Muscat for about a month now. I'm thrilled to report that I have internet at home. Yeahhhh! Today sometime the men from the cable company will be here to install my cable, which means my evenings in front of the television will improve.

I received my HHE (Household Effects) Wednesday night. That's the big shipment that came by boat from Honduras. My UAB (Unaccompanied Air Baggage) is still a no-show, but they do know where it is. When it will get here is anyone's guess. I'm hoping this week. I've taken the past 2 days off as Administrative Days (you are all entitled to 3 days when your HHE arrives so you can set up your house) and could really use one more. But 2 days is enough and I really need to get back to work so I can get some rest! (j/k)

If you are a member of the Foreign Service, please heed this advice. Before you even leave your home for training in Washington, get your camera (video or still) and start making a photographic inventory of all your belongings. Don't forget to photograph jewelry and electronics and don't forget the things you will put in permanent storage. Open cupboards and closets and document everything because I'm here to tell you that during your move from post to post, you will probably lose something. When I left Texas for Washington, I wasn't aware that the movers should have taken the boxes from my house and put them in large wooden containers on the truck and then put a metal strap around them so they were secure with me watching. The movers just kept wheeling boxes out and putting them in a big truck. BIG mistake! Before the movers arrive at your home to do your pack out, you should make sure they will be securing your belongings in the large wooden crates on site. When I got to Honduras, I was missing a ton of things. My claim to Clements Insurance was almost $4000. And that's only the things I realized I was missing. Months later I would think of something else. During your training in DC you will probably be told to take responsibility for this sort of thing. Take their advice to heart. If you can have help at your house during pack out, try to make sure the boxes are marked which room they came from, not just "linens" or "misc. items" like mine were. It will make it easier for you to direct the workers to the appropriate room once they arrive. I pre-packed some things (we are told not to but I had them look in the boxes to make sure I wasn't transporting anything illegal) in clear plastic containers and taped them shut. If possible, be at the curb when the truck arrives at your new home so you can watch then cut the metal strap from the containers. I didn't even know they were at my house until they rang my doorbell. There were about 9 or 10 men, all with a box in their hand. I'm missing a box of kitchen items...sauce pans, frying pans, my good knives, dish drainer, my 2 favorite pasta bowls...and who knows what else. I'm also missing a ceramic casserole that was in my dining room hutch. I know the crates were sealed in Honduras so how does someone just take a box and put it in their car without others seeing it? I had 117 boxes brought in and they are all accounted for and opened by me. All the empty boxes are outside so I guess I will wait for some cooler time (oh Oman?) and make sure I didn't take an unopened box out, thinking it was trash. Highly unlikely, but I will do it before I turn in a claim. You can understand why I think this is the best advice I can give anyone new to this career.

Speaking of claims, without a doubt, you need to take out insurance on your personal effects. I have mine with Clements International and they didn't quibble one bit when I turned in my claim. They didn't demand receipts or anything. I also have my car insured by them (while in a foreign country only), which means I get a discount on the personal policy. Bottom line...if something happens to your things in transit, State is not responsible. Get the insurance! One small reminder...when you come back to the states for R&R make sure you have some kind of insurance. Pay for a rental car with your credit card only after you make sure you have basic coverage on the car.

I love my career. Moving every 2 years has many benefits. You may acquire lots of things as you travel the world but you get to purge yourself of many unnecessary items every 2-3 years when you go to your next assignment. Find a charitable organization near where you live and give them what you can. You will never again be possessed by your possessions!

At the beginning of this post is a picture of my very large kitchen, empty, before any of my stuff arrived. Below is a picture of what the kitchen looked like during the unpacking. Check back with me in a couple of weeks when all my other things arrive from Texas and hopefully, you will see a very nicely decorated kitchen...look for lots of red!

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Muscat, Oman...A Real Gem!

I've now been in Muscat, Oman for almost 3 weeks. Muscat is a beautiful city. The scenery is spectacular, with the white buildings with gorgeous architecture and the dark mountains in the background. You turn around and you see the Gulf of Oman. The other day we went walking on the beach and there are so many shells, you have to watch where you walk! I already have a huge collection of Omani shells. I love walking on the beach looking for shells, so I guess for the next 2 years, I'll have to try to control myself when it comes to which shells I want to take home with me.

Right now it's the hottest time of the year, so I'm told. When you walk out of a building, your skin goes through condensation! It takes about 5 minutes for your body to adjust to the heat but during that 5 minutes, all your exposed skin becomes moist from condensation...sort of like the outside of your glass of ice water but not like sweat. Very strange! In a little over a month it will begin to cool off and for about 5 months, the weather will be perfect. Until then, I am learning to love cool, sheer fabrics and good air conditioning!

I still don't have internet at home and I am anxiously awaiting the shipment of all my worldly possessions from Honduras. I am living in a beautiful home but it's so sterile, so plain and so not me. I need color. I need my 'stuph' surrounding me to feel at home. Bare walls are not pretty. When I arrived in Honduras, both the front and back yards were just grass. I transformed them into a tropical paradise. Fortunately, the same thing exists here. There are plants around the house but the back yard is a fairly large patch of grass. There are also flower beds surrounding the patio that are just about empty (or will be soon). Another gardening project!! It's too hot now, but in a month or so when it cools off, I will begin to cut down on grass and add flower beds for plants that will attract birds and give me some color. A birdbath will look good too. As soon as I get internet at home, I'll add some 'before' pictures to this post. I can't wait to get started!

The State Department tries to be fair in where the Foreign Service people are assigned. If you get assigned to a great place, like Paris or Madrid, you can pretty much figure you're going to get a hardship assignment next. They try to alternate cool place/not so cool place. I think I've been fortunate to have gotten 2 great assignments in a row!

More later...stay tuned for pictures!!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Counting Down The Hours

In less than 24 hours, I'll be on the first leg of my flight to Muscat, Oman. Tomorrow I have a flight from Washington to Zurich, about 8 hours. I will spend the night in Zurich and then fly on to Dubai, another 8 hours, where I have a layover of about 90 minutes. Then it's back on a plane for about an hour for the final leg, arriving at Muscat around 10:35 PM on July 21st. It's lots of travel in 3 days and hopefully I won't be too wiped out by jet lag when I get to Zurich. I'd like some time there to wander around and take some pictures. If I can get some sleep from DC to Zurich, I should be able to handle being awake for the rest of the day. I hope taking 2 Benedryl before the flight will make me drowsy enough to fall asleep for at least some of the flight. I really wish I had gotten an Ambien from someone!

For my one night in Zurich, I made a reservation at the Swissotel Zurich. It looks great online so I hope it turns out to be in a good location...sorta close to the airport but far enough away to be quaint and have lots of photo ops.

While I've been in the states, I think I've managed to eat at all my favorite places, shop at all my favorite places and have seen all my favorite people. It will be at least a year before any scheduled return here because the flight is pretty pricey. I plan on traveling to regional areas from Oman...Italy, Greece, Turkey, many opportunities. And I'm told the flights are very reasonable. I hope I've been told right!

My next entry will be after I get internet in Oman and I'm told it takes a couple of weeks. Believe me, it will be at the top of my To Do list!

Monday, July 05, 2010

Home Leave, Phase 3 - Washington DC

Home Leave morphed in to Training/Consultations with my arrival in Washington DC on June 28th. With 2 suitcases that weight right at 48 pounds, I really need to keep a safe distance from places where I can buy anything! The fee charged by the airlines for overweight bags is not something I am reimbursed for by my boss! I've already mailed several boxes ahead to Oman, anticipating that I would exceed the 50 lb limit so my shopping days are over. Well....Maybe. Next week my training begins and on July 19th I fly off to Oman. I think I'm at the point where I wish it were tomorrow! I'm ready to get back to work...before I forget all my passwords!!

Yesterday was the 4th of July and what a great day it was! I went to the Washington Nationals vs. the NY Mets baseball game (Nationals lost...booo) and then watched the fireworks over the National Mall from the grassy area in front of the memorial for those who fought at Iwo
Jima. What a gorgeous memorial...the largest bronze statue in the world.

The fireworks were magnificent and everyone loved them. I couldn't help thinking about those who fought for our freedoms many many years ago, as well as those who continue trying to preserve those same freedoms for us today. If you have never been to Washington DC and seen the many memorials, I recommend you make a huge effort to come here. It really makes you stop and think about how strong the desire to be free was/is and what huge efforts were made when this country was in its infancy.

July 4th is not just another paid holiday off work. It should be a day when we all think about what a great country the United States of America is and will be for many years to come. In my mind, the important thing is to be involved. Get to know who you are voting for, even in your local elections. Remember, it's those people who go on to be President. Once you live outside this great country, you really come to realize how good it is. Sure there are things I would like to see changed but, in spite of everything, it's still the best place in the world to live.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Home Leave In Pictures

Sometimes you just can't adequately express how things are in words. It takes pictures. So, here are some pictures of my Home Leave so far. Hawaii...Grandchildren, gorgeous flowers and beautiful scenery. Fort 95 year old father.

Micah is in his swimming pool, showing me his form on a boogie board and Makana is just looking all innocent. He's so cute...

Below is me with the beautiful NaPali coast of Kauai in the background. More pictures of our
day long catamaran trip, cruising up and down the coast of Kauai. It was wonderful...I highly recommend Capt. Jack's NaPali cruises. Great drinks, great food and a very entertaining crew. And of course, some breathtaking scenery.

We saw dolphins making an attempt to play around the front of the boat,
never quite figuring out which was the front and back of it. We saw gorgeous light shining on the cathedral-like peaks of the coastline. It was just a wonderful 6 hours on the water.

My son Bobby and his son Gavin enjoying the cruise.

And lastly, my wonderful Dad in Fort Worth, Texas. Last night he was all smiles as TCU won their game against UCLA. As I write this, UCLA is way ahead of TCU but we'll see how it ends. I sure hope TCU wins.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Home Leave, Phase 2, Texas Style

It's been a little over 2 weeks since I left Hawaii and arrived in Fort Worth. It's been great seeing my Dad again, as well as many other friends. Some of my friends include Mr. Macy, Mr. Hobby Lobby, Ms. Coldwater Creek and others, who had no trouble communicating with my credit card! Today the movers packed up all my purchases and they are on the way to Oman. Now the hard part will be to not buy anything else since my suitcases are already at about 47 pounds each and can't go over 50 or else it will cost me! I guess there's always the postal service. Monday my car will be picked up and sent onward also. In about 2 months, I might see everything again!

Since I've been here in Fort Worth, I've made a point of hitting all my favorite foodie places (BBQ, burger, steak, ice cream) and should be OK for another year. There's an artichoke in the fridge waiting for me to cook it, which I think I will do for lunch tomorrow. Yummm....I wonder if there are artichokes in Oman?

Monday, June 28th I fly to Washington DC. I will be attending some training there as well as meeting up with some new friends, a very old friend and having a face to face meeting with some of the people in DS who, for the past 2 years, I've been in contact with from Honduras. I also plan on meeting the corresponding desk officer for Oman. And I'll do my best to not wander in to anyplace where I can spend money!

Tomorrow is my birthday and it's nice to be home with my Dad to celebrate it. It won't happen again for a while. Dad is 95 and I swear, he hasn't aged a day since I left for Honduras in March of 2008....he's ageless! While I was in Honduras, I was able to make a few flights home to Texas at a reasonable cost. However, the same won't be true when I'm in Oman. A flight home will be way out of my budget so the next time I'll be here will be in a year or so.

I really miss everyone in Honduras. I knew I would and many of them are on Facebook so staying in touch will be easy. I still miss them. It was a really good first post and I learned so much from so many. I can't wait to get to Oman and start learning much more.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Looking Back...Looking Forward

My time in Honduras is now a thing of the past. It'sa good past, full of wonderful memories, lessons learned and so many people I'm glad to call my friends. I wouldn't trade my 2 years in Tegucigalpa for anything. As a 'first post' I couldn't have asked for anything more. Under the guidance of my great boss, Ted, I learned so much about security in an embassy. Whether he knows it or not, I learned much more from him, things you just don't learn in a book or from a class at FSI. I will miss his leadership and can only hope he is an example of what most RSOs are like. The difficulties we faced in Honduras were many but in dealing with each one, Ted went about it with confidence, calm and the knowledge that he was doing the right thing. I'll miss you Ted, and feel so fortunate to have worked with you.

Right now, I'm in Phase 1 of my Home Leave. As I sit here, I can hear the ocean and smell the salty breezes. The island of Kauai is indeed a bit of Paradise. My son lives here and visiting with him, Nicole, his wife, and my amazing 3 grandsons, Gavin and the twins, Micah and Makana, makes for the perfect Rest and Relaxation. Yesterday was Gavin's first day of preschool. He loved it and was looking forward to returning today. I stayed with Micah and Makana yesterday while my son and Nicole worked and we had a great time. I now know who Thomas, Percy and Emily are but can't figure out why the boys fight over who gets Percy. For those of you with no exposure to Thomas the Train, this will mean nothing to you, as it did to me before coming here. My son bought a huge box of miscellaneous cars, engines and tracks on Ebay and the boys sit and build tracks for hours on end. At just 2 years old, this is huge! I wonder what they did before to occupy their time? For more pictures of my stay on Kauai, go to my Facebook page.

Phase 2 begins Monday when I fly to Fort Worth, Texas for 3 weeks. My father lives there and I will spend lots of time with him. I'll also see many of my friends and catch up on what's been going on with them for the past 2 years. I'll also spend some times with other good friends, like Mr. Macy, Mr. Dillard's and Mr. Williams Sonoma! I'll be buying another car to ship to Oman and clothes for some very hot weather. And I already have a list of the places I want to eat...I can't wait for a good Mexican meal!

Phase 3 starts with my flight to Washington DC on June 28th. While there, I will take some classes in SharePoint and Excel. I'll meet with some of the people in Diplomatic Security that I may speak with while I'm in Oman, as well as some of the Directors for Western Hemisphere who I have dealt with over the past 2 years. Just putting a face on the name will be a good thing. I'll also be in DC for the July 4th celebration, which should be lots of fun.

Finally, on July 18th, I fly out of JFK headed for Muscat, Oman. The first stop is in Zurich, Switzerland where I will spend the night and most of the next day. I hope I have time to wander around and see something pretty enough to photograph. Then I fly into Dubai, which should be a sight to see with all the unusual buildings and man-made islands. After a 2 hour layover, I fly to Oman, landing at 10:45 PM, when it will most likely be 100 degrees. Being the eternal optimist that I am, I can only hope that over the next 2 years, I will be able to sweat off a few pounds!

So, farewell to a wonderful stay in Honduras and looking forward to an amazing 2 years in Oman. What a life!

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Return To Paradise...The Island of Utila!

Last weekend I made what is sure to be my last weekend trip in Honduras since I'm wheels up May 20th. I returned to Utila, where I had such a great time last year. There was plenty of snorkeling along the coral reefs, wonderful food, lots of great people watching, fun excursions in the golf cart on dirt roads and the best massage I've ever had! What more could you want in a weekend vacation? If you've never been, put Utila on your list of must see places! There was beauty below the water as well as above. The snorkeling was fantastic, as it was before. I think my next investment will be a new camera with a waterproof case. The underwater pictures here were taken with a disposable camera but I know the pictures would be much better with a nice camera. I went out on the boat with the divers and after observing the preperation to dive and all the equipment, I think I've decided I'm very content to float and bob on top of the water! That said, I won't say I won't go out on the dive boat again since the scenery was just as nice on the boat as it was below the boat!

On a small island like Utila, you rent golf carts to get around, which is what we did. We had more fun finding roads and following them to wherever they led. We came across ant hills, trees with funny roots and animals...egrets, cows, cattle (is there a difference?) and some really pretty scenery.

You just never know what you'll come across when you just follow a dirt road. The ant mounds were really neat. We watched the ants crossing the road with large chunks of green leaves in their mouths and then disappear into the mound. If you like this sort of thing...the driving around and exploring, be sure to use lots of bug spray!
But all fun things must come to an end and our trip was no exception. We dragged ourselves out of bed at 5:00am to get to the little airport by 6:00 to catch our flight back to Tegucigalpa. The plane was one of the smaller planes I've flown in. It had 4 bench seats (for 2) in it and there were 6 of us. I sat right behind the pilot and had a great view of the take off and landing. And he had a GPS mounted on the dash (is that what it is in a plane?) and fortunately for us, he located La Ceiba and locked in the coordinates! I wish I could say I'll be back but I don't see that happening. I'll have to be content with my memories and my photographs.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Chem/Bio Responder Debi!

I must once again describe something that was only made possible for me because I am in the Foreign Service. In 2008 when letters containing a white powder were sent to embassies around the world, the call came out for people to volunteer to be Chem/Bio Emergency Responders. Those are the people in the funny suits and gas masks that risk their lives to go in and test white powders and/or rescue people inside an embassy who have been made ill by contact with a chemical or biological agent (hence the name Chem/Bio). I immediately signed up to be a responder. The training was tough. Think about being in an airtight suit with gas mask, gloves, rubber boots and all seams taped up with duct tape...practicing saving people in 80 degree weather. That's what we went through in 2008 for this 2 day training. I was one of the 4 people chosen to 'rescue' someone who had opened an envelope containing anthrax. The 4 of us raced off with the stretcher. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be one of the instructors, who weighed about 200 lbs! We had to get him on the stretcher (he was dead weight), lift him and navigate through doorways and down stairs to get him out of the building. But...we did it! Then he began the scrub down. As Chem/Bio responders, we have the privilege of saying...STRIP! And they better obey us! Soap, bleach, water, more soap...soon he was decontaminated. It was only a drill but it was intense. We were in those suits for over 2 hours. When we finally took them off, we were soaking wet!

That was in 2008. Recently, more letters have been sent out to several embassies in Africa with a Grand Prairie, Texas return address. Embassies worldwide are on alert. You never know when the idiot will use the real thing so you have to be prepared. So, this week, we had a refresher course. As you can see, it's hard to tell who is who but we did have our names written on duct tape on our chest and back. Here I am with Mireya and Janie...I'm the one in the middle!! I'm sure you recognize those eyes!!

The next picture is of some of the responders getting suited up. There is an order to this...first you put on your gloves. I don't understand that too much because the gloves are XXXL and once on, you can't do anything with your hands! It makes pulling and cutting the duct tape to cover all seams such fun!!

Once you get the gloves on, you struggle to put your suit on, which is also an XXXL so that one size will fit all...with the help of a little duct tape! Pulling that zipper up is a bear! We suit up with the help of a buddy so it helps a little. But once you have your stuff all on, you get to help your buddy. Remember those XXXL gloves?

At the end of the class, we were all sweaty but felt good that we had a chance to have a quick run-through of what we do in case one of those envelopes comes to our embassy. And at the end of the class, I had to sit down,trying to breathe through that mask with sweat dripping down my nose, and thinking that one day, it might save my life and/or the life of someone else.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes...sniff sniff.

It happens every year here. Those who farm for a living know only one way to clear the land and that's to burn out the old growth and then plant. Under better conditions, that might work. I'm sure there's some benefits in the ash that remains, perhaps enriching the soil. doesn't work when there is a drought going on and there isn't a Plan B to keep the burn under control. Last Friday, there were 3 such burns close together and all 3 quickly because uncontrollable. I looked out my window and thought the entire north side of town was burning! To give you an idea of what it looked like, I have before and after shots.

Here's a picture I took some time ago on a clear day...really picturesque with the houses (such as they are) covering the sides of the hill. We really have the best view of the entire building! On nice clear days you can see forever.

But when a fire occus, it's not as nice and clear as this. During the burning season, there is usually some smoke in the air but never as bad as the photo on the below. There's a bonus in the second picture. About an hour before we noticed the smoke in the air, the yellow bus in the picture was driving down the street and his brakes failed. He saw the baracade by the building below and decided it would be better to hit that than to crash into the car in front of him. I'm not sure just how fast he was going because the traffic on La Paz is pretty steady. I doubt he was going more than 20-25 miles an hour. Good for the passengers on the bus and good for the small baracade! Fortunately, there were no in injuries. Unfortunately, it wasn't that way where one of the fires was burning. It was on the top of one of the many peaks that surround the city and there is a ginormous statue of Christ. In the nearby vicinity is a small zoo or animal reserve of some kind. Some of the animals died in the fire. I doubt it will send the message that it should...stop burning the fields...on a windy day...with no Plan B!

The air cleared up fairly well by the next day but there were still bits of charred 'stuff' raining down, probably corn stalks. It better rain soon...we're running out of water! Fortunately, my cistern (the water storage for water used in my home) is huge and I haven't run out of water but others are. The trucks that the embassy sends out can only service 4 houses a day, since they have to go and fill up and then go to the house and wait as it fills the cistern. That takes time...lots of time. The advice being handed out...check your cistern every day and call when it gets low, not when it's empty!!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

How Time Flies...

Almost 2 years ago, I arrived in Washington DC to begin my training as a Foreign Service Diplomat. I can't believe it's nearly time for me to depart my first post, Tegucigalpa, Honduras. During my time here, I think I've done more'living' than in the past 20 years! I know I've experienced so much and learned things I would have never had the opportunity to learn and experience if I had stayed in Fort Worth, Texas, making a decent living in healthcare administration. I had a nice house, a really nice car, had some great friends (still do!) and enjoyed living near my elderly father and his wife. But when my daughter suggested I apply to the Foreign Service, the thought of traveling the world, beginning a new career and meeting extrordinary people...I had to give it a shot. It was nearly a year from the time I applied until I received my Congratulations letter. And if I could do it all over again, I would applied years earlier!

So, here I am, 60 days from flying out of one of the most difficult international airports in the world (thank more landings into Toncontin Airport!), reflecting on my 22 months here. Here are some of the thoughts going through my mind:
  • How many people can say they were in the thick of things during the ouster of a President and the 7 months of political crisis that followed? Working at the US Embassy in the Diplomatic Security section, I looked out my window at the numerous demonstrations by the "Reds," (pro-Zelaya supporters), the "Whites," (pro-Micheletti supporters) and the other various groups who gathered outside the embassy to shout their approval and or disapproval of our policy or involvement. I watched for months as Roberto Micheletti, who was the President of Congress and took over as President of Honduras until the elections, did his best to hold things together. He led from his heart and stood his ground when so many around him (outside of the country) tried to force him to allow Zelaya back to power. I'm not here to judge, but right or wrong, he did what he thought was best to preserve what Democracy was left in the government. Outside another window on my floor, I watched as the throngs of supporters cheered the arrival of Zelaya, who took refuge in the Brazilian Embassy after sneaking back in the country, to the surprise of many. There he stayed for 4 months, turning that embassy into his own home base, directing his supporters, La Resistencia, in their demonstrations and destructive ways. The general election in January took place successfully, in spite of threats of death from the Resistencia, and Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo was Democratically elected the new President. He came to the embassy one day to visit the Ambassador. I happened to be working up there and he walked over to me and shook my hand. I was able to wish him luck in his new position. The Ambassador suggested that they walk through the embassy to the cafeteria and get some coffee. Imagine the looks of surprise from those walking down the hall to see the new President approaching them, reaching out to greet them with a handshake. He took the time to say hello to everyone, from section heads all the way to those ladies who were cleaning the floors and those working in the cafeteria. He has a difficult job ahead of him. Honduras is a country on the brink of bankruptcy. The poverty is horrific, crime is unstoppable and narcotrafficking is out of control. Fortunately, the new government is now being recognized and the worldwide help is resuming.

  • I have loved learning about life in an embassy, lessons I will continue to build on when I arrive in Muscat, Oman. Working in the security section has been wonderful. The men I work with are terrific and as a team, we have come to realize that none of us will let the other down. It's teamwork like I've never known before.

  • You would not believe how fast plants grow here! I'm really close to the equator and it's just amazing how soon a seedling will bloom. Until the drought hit a couple of months ago, my garden was a paradise. Well, it's still beautiful but the grass is now greenish-brown and I water my plants sparingly. They are still tropical! There are ficus trees all over the place here. The thing about ficus trees...the Hondurans are compelled to prune them into some shape...round, oblong, basket shaped and even the shape of a birdhouse. One of my posts here is on the ficus tree shapes. My favorite was the birdhouse that was just down the street from me. Every day, as I passed it, it made me smile. Then, one day I drove home and realized when I walked in my house that I didn't see it. It bothered me all night and the next morning, I drove slowly by where it was. I was shocked when all I saw was a sawed off stump! I would have noticed if it had died, so of course, the first thing that came to mind...someone stole the birdhouse ficus!!

  • On a trip to Utila, one of the Bay Islands, I had my first experience with a mask, a snorkel and swim fins. Oh my God...the beauty that is just below the surface of the ocean is something you have to see to believe! The fish, the coral, the plants, the activity...just beautiful! I've also been to Roatan, where I did a little snorkeling, but nothing like Utila. A friend of mine and I are going to take the course to get our PADI certification...I'm gonna be a scuba diver! We are going back to Utila next month and we'll be able to take the open water test...something I would have never thought of doing if I hadn't come here. I've been told that the coast of Oman is excellent for snorkeling and diving and I would love to arrive there in July ready to dive!

  • I will miss Gloria, my Home Manager. I call her that because she's so much more than a maid. She's extremely smart and if she lived somewhere else where there were more opportunities for her, she would certainly be holding down a job with much more responsibility and status that what she does now. She has a daughter who is 12 and we've talked for hours about how the teachers strike here and about her concern about her daughter getting a good education. She wants her daughter to be more than she is, as do most moms. I have an older Dell desktop computer and monitor and I decided to give it to her for her daughter. Gloria comes to my house every Wednesday and Saturday, so now, for the first hour every Saturday morning, we have computer class. Last Saturday was the first session and I had her working with the mouse. The double-click is not easy for an adult who has never held a mouse. She'll get it. Tomorrow I'll show her how to write something in Word. She needs to get to know the keyboard. I'm glad I decided to give her that computer. It's a good feeling.

  • While here, I've learned to be a survivalist driver. That's must survive these streets! Between dodging the motorcyclists who drive anywhere they want, including the sidewalk, the cars that come at you in your lane, and the potholes large enough to house a family of take your life in your hands every time you go out! Oh..and the taxi drivers...the worst! The last time I was in the states, I was driving a rent car with my son and daughter and my grandson and both my kids said I was driving like a maniac! Of course, I told them I wasn't but I'm sure they were right! If you can drive in Honduras, you can drive anywhere...but you better debrief your brain before you drive anywhere else or suffer the consequences. I've given it a lot of thought and come to the conclusion that driving is just another way that the Hondurans are taking care of #1. It's their culture to do what they can, no matter who is in their way, to survive. I'm not being critical, but how far do you think I'd get if I leaned out the window and said "Sir, you do NOT have the right of way!" There are no police to enforce traffic laws. You just have to believe that 90% of the people on the road, behind the wheel, probably have been behind the wheel for 10 minutes, with no prior driving instruction. If you do get pulled over by 2 police on a mini-bike (don't laugh), you probably broke no law other than smoking or talking on your cell phone while driving and for 600 lempiras (about $35) they will forgive your indescretion. They are not supposed to shake down diplomats but they do, especially the wives. It's sad...corruption is everywhere.

Believe it or not, there is so much more, but I'm stopping here. I think I'll save the rest for another first Zip line, Copan ruins, quaint villages. I hope to write one more time from Honduras before I'm wheels up May 20. From here, I fly to Kauai to visit my son, his wife and my 3 grandsons. After that, I head to Fort Worth to see Dad and my friends...and to shop for stuff to ship to Oman. Then it's off to Washington DC for some training. And on July 18, I'm off to Oman, with stops in Zurich, Switzerland and Dubai. Imagine the landing in those 2 places! I'll share some photos of that the first chance I get! I can't wait to begin the next chapter of my adventures in Oman!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Post Election/Inauguration Observations

The inauguration of Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo Sosa took place on January 27, 2010. Although by Honduran standards it was a grand affair, I have my own observations.
  • As President Lobo stood giving his speech, the people behind him sitting in chairs drove me crazy. They fidgeted, the talked, they passed bottles of water back and forth. They talked on their cell phones. One man in particular sat there, with his legs spread wide and any minute, I expected him to have an itch that required a scratch. Just waiting for him to do it was extremely distracting. It just seemed like they were watching a parade pass by instead of the newly elected president. Just lacked respect.
  • The delegation sent from Washington to attend the inauguration had no place to sit. They arrived and, gee whiz, where do they sit? Very quickly folding chairs were found and voila...they had seats. Who planned this anyway? There should have been seats!
  • I was bothered by all the people President Lobo thanked in his speech. The majority of them received resounding Booooos. I was at work during the telecast so I didn't catch all those who were booed but it also included many Hondurans. By the time Lobo finished his speech, 50% of the people had gotten up and walked out of the stadium. They too, didn't appreciate the people he thanked. I don't know if he ever thanked the citizens for electing him.
  • When it came time for Lobo to sign the document granting amnesty to Zelaya, they booed. Personally, I think the government will regret not forcing Zelaya to take political amnesty. As Zelaya boarded the plane, all he said was "Regresare" or "I will return." His resistence movement is continuing to mobilize and work toward the constitutional change (no term limits) and don't plan on disbanding just because Mel Zelaya is out of the country.

After the inauguration was over, the new President proceeded to the Brazilian embassy to fetch Mel Zelaya to take him to the airport. At the embassy, we all anticipated the departure of Mel. We had all been here when the whole thing started and this was kind of like closing the book on him. We looked out our windows to watch the motorcade drive off. As they all drove out of the street where the Brazilian embassy is and turned down Avenida La Paz, we all gave a sigh of relief. I bet the sigh of relief from the neighbors of the Brazilian embassy could have been heard for miles! What a horrible 5 months it's been for them!

Mel is currently staying in a mansion in the ritzy section of the Dominican Republic where celebrities have luxury homes. I've read that the citizens of the DR aren't very happy that they are footing the bill for Mel. You'd think with all the money he has stashed away that he could at least offer to pay the rent. It's reported that he won't be there long as Mexico is his next destination. Who knows if the Mexican government will house him for free.

According to local papers and the rumor mills, Mel is already forming his own 'cabinet' and one day has plans of returning to overthrow the Honduran government. I pray nothing like that happens. What this country needs to do now is move forward and heal...heal from the wounds caused by a megalomaniac who was only concerned about himself. He stole, mishandled government funds and couldn't have cared less about the state of the country he was elected to serve and protect. I've already read comments attributed to him that reflect how he really feels about 'his' Honduras..."Don't go to Honduras," "Countries of the NOT recognize the government of Honduras," "Do NOT give humanitarian aid to Honduras." Doesn't sound like he cares about Honduras now that he's safe outside of the country.

Move on, Honduras. Work hard at repairing your country. Get your teachers to teach school instead of demonstrating in the streets (and getting paid whether they are in class or not). Do something about the corruption. Do something about the rampant crime (14 homicides a day), and that means when you arrest someone, don't let them out the next day.

And last but not least, thank you to Roberto Micheletti. In your short term as President, you did a great job of holding your own. You held fast to your beliefs and convictions and didn't buckle under to the those who said you should restore Zelaya to power. And what a shame that Pepe couldn't have thanked you for what you did for the people of Honduras in his speech.

I wish Pepe Lobo luck. He is going to need it to get this country moving in the right direction.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

2010 - So Far, So good

2010, or Twenty Ten as I have decided to say it, came in with a bang. Lots and lots of bangs...from guns, firecrackers, fireworks and anything else that would make noise. I was at a friend's house for New Years and she has a magnificent hillside view of Tegucigalpa. In every direction you could see fireworks displays. The celebration began at about 11:55 and didn't stop for about 3 hours. It sounded like a war zone. Holy Sonic Boom, Batman! Several times I felt like I should take cover...the bangs, booms and crackles were so close! At times it even sounded like small bombs going off. The same thing happened on Christmas Eve...hours of noisemaking with anything that would go boom. Definately a huge change from the serene type of celebration on Christmas Eve that I'm used to.

Politically, things are, on the surface, calm. Craig Kelly paid a visit to Tegucigalpa last week and had meetings with Micheletti and Zelaya. The newspapers are reporting all kinds of things, most of which are probably not true. The most bizarre is that the US is offering money to Micheletti to resign and give Zelaya full amnesty. My maid told me she read that in one of the newspapers here in Tegucigalpa and there's also been discussions of it on local online discussion groups. I just don't see that happening. The only thing I can think of that might have been discussed would be economic assistance as an incentive for the resignation and amnesty. But I don't believe Micheletti will agree to anything that gives Zelaya full amnesty (political, that is). Even if he were to be given political amnesty, Zelaya would still have to answer to the other charges against him.

We'll see. I doubt 2010 is shaping up to be a good year for Tegucigalpa's own version of Punxsutawney Phil. When will Mel stick his head out and see if he has 6 more weeks of living in the Brazilian embassy? Ooops..since it's been reported that he has been told he must be out by Jan. 27th, inauguration day, he only has a week and a half left there. What Mel will do is anyone's guess right now.

What I do know for sure is that I have just a little over 4 months left of my tour here. On May 20, I leave for my home leave. I'll fly to Kauai to visit my son, his wife and my 3 grandsons for about 2 weeks. Then on to Fort Worth for a couple of weeks to spend time with my Dad and my friends. Then to Washington DC for some training and on July 18th I fly off to Muscat, Oman. It's a long flight with an overnight stay in Frankfurt, Germany. My 2010 sounds a whole lot better than Citizen Zelaya's!