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Tuesday, November 17, 2020

It was all a wash

Between Awash and Addis Ababa

With about seven months to go before we're scheduled to leave Addis Ababa አዲስ አበባ for parts unknown, it's the "parts unknown" clause that continues to give me grief. The bidding process this time around has been a nightmare, with still no end (as in an onward assignment) in sight. I suppose I could take solace in knowing I'm far from the only one in this situation - thanks to COVID-19 and the resulting drawdown in consular operations around the globe, there aren't enough consular positions at my pay grade to go around. 

At this point, though, it's all I can do to restrain myself from going on a profanity-laced angry rant over the unfairness of the assignment process. The original draft of this post, in fact, consisted of several paragraphs of venting that in the end I decided should be left for another time. I will say that the process of deciding who goes where is not based on intangibles such as experience and qualifications, but more on who you know and what they think of you. And in order to protect what little if any reputation I may have in the decision-making corridors of our nation's capital, it's best to keep my feelings in check for now and avoid being called onto someone's carpet for a dressing down, even though no one reads this blog. 

And so here on the ground in Ethiopia it's been 13 days since fighting broke out between the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and the Tigray People's Liberation Front ህዝባዊ ወያነ ሓርነት ትግራይ (TPLF) in the country's northernmost Tigray Region ክልል ትግራይ. For what I assume are obvious reasons I won't comment further on the military and political situations. I will, however, provide some links to articles from the likes of the BBC, AP, CNN and the Economist which try to explain what is going on (and why it's happening) at this moment roughly 750 kilometers from the Addis Ababa.

Somehow I found myself spending last Saturday night in Awash, a market town in the southern Afar Region, around 4½ hours by car from the capital. Security concerns meant having to return to Addis on Sunday without accomplishing what I had set out to do, but at least I was able to get a glimpse of the Ethiopian countryside, and to take a few photos in the process...

Stopping for a toilet break in Metehara:

One of three overturned trucks I saw on the way to Awash, the result of bad driving and not military action:

Sunset from my room at the Genet Hotel. Approximately $21 for a room with no hot water, but it did come with AC, and the attached restaurant wasn't bad (bonus points for no gastrointestinal difficulties the following day):

Morning from my balcony (yes, those chickens served as alarm clocks)...:

...and from the hotel roof:

A group of baboons hung out by the side of the road just outside of Awash, apparently because truck drivers stop and give them bananas:

Another one of the three overturned trucks. Hopefully the drivers of these vehicles weren't seriously injured, because it was a long way from any clinics or hospitals:

The scenery was often starkly beautiful:

Because Awash is known for its oranges, a stop had to be made on the way back to Addis to procure some citrus:

One form of local transport:

Just as with cathedrals in medieval European villages, Orthodox churches were usually the most impressive structures in the various towns and villages I passed through:

Camels congregating by a disused railway:

Even along the most remotest stretches of highway, cattle and goats could be seen:

Stopping for a restroom break in Adama አዳማ, a major city about 2 hours by car from the capital:

The scenery as I got closer to Addis Ababa on Sunday afternoon:

I guess you could say the trip was a wash (rimshot). 

In other recent news, I wore a Seychelles national soccer team jersey while on Seychelles Street, and the only reaction I got was from a local who asked me if I was Cuban:

Waxing nostalgic for my college days:

A splash of color:

A typical shop on a residential street:

Looking down side streets:


Chinese expats playing tennis on a weekend afternoon:

The mountains that surround Addis begged to be hiked, but security concerns preclude any solo excursions:

Affluence on one side of the road, poverty on the other:

People going home following an afternoon service at an evangelical church:

እንዴት አደርክ:

After 33 days of only cooking for myself or ordering from Deliver Addis, I finally ventured outside to Pizza Hut:

North Korea also has an embassy in the city. I so want to drive by and have a look, but my daughter won't let me:

The Iranian embassy (along with some other diplomatic missions) is located in an upscale neighborhood (in case you're wondering, those are just houses pictured below):

A church with a small shopping strip out front:

Mekanisa Square, where Lesotho, Egypt and Guinea Bissau Streets meet:

A church...:

...and a mosque. This is the one I hear around 0500 every morning:

It's been 49 days since Amber and Shu-E left for Taiwan. On the other hand it's only 33 days until they rejoin me here in Addis, barring any drastic changes in the security situation. In the meantime, they're enjoying a relatively normal life (like going to night markets) in this coronavirus-ravaged world, thanks to a government that actually listened to science and common sense. I miss them so much:

In the meantime, I'll keep watching this scene from Sid and Nancy over and over and over again...:

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Jumping through burning hoops

Not Ethiopia, unfortunately (see below)

Assignment notifications will be sent out from tomorrow. Yours truly will probably be left out in the cold (again). Hence the following rant...

My first week back in the office is in the books (four days in total as Thursday was a national holiday – Mawlid መውሊድ, the birth of the Prophet Muhammad). Including the two weeks’ quarantine in my residence I did after arriving, I’ve now been in Ethiopia for 23 days. 23 days during which I find myself feeling ever more depressed. The most obvious cause is the separation from my wife and daughter, now going on 32 days, and whom I miss terribly. But at least Shu-E and Amber should be back here before Christmas, which gives me something to look forward to. There’s also the still-smoldering resentment over having spent more than six months confined to a small apartment in Ballston, Virginia because the “voluntary” aspect of Authorized Departure turned out to be largely a fig leaf. But that’s in the past, and going ahead I should be feeling more hopeful, right?

Except that bidding season is coming to an end, and once again it appears I won’t be assigned to any of my desired posts. This is how it works in the State Department: for your first two tours, you’re given a list of available jobs/locations, you submit your preferences and then sit back and wait for the assignments people to decide where you would best fit. Such is the way I ended up in Shanghai and Vilnius for my first posts. From the third tour on, however, it changes to a process that can only be described (by me) as “ridiculously stressful” and “unnecessarily stupid”. You have to reach out to people at your desired posts and introduce yourself and why you would like to serve there; you have to submit a resume despite the fact you’re already employed (and “bidding” isn’t “job hunting” per se in the conventional meaning of the term); and, worst of all, you have to submit to a series of telephone interviews, answering the same irrelevant questions that D.C. provides to its outposts around the world. Because the most effective way of determining if someone is “right” for the job at hand is to talk to them via Skype or Teams, and not from the information on that person that should be available to all decision-makers (employment background, employee evaluations, glowing testimonials from coworkers and supervisors etc.). Needless to say, I absolutely suck when it comes to being interviewed in such a manner, not unless long, awkward pauses can be taken as an auspicious sign.  

Now I obviously wouldn’t be writing this if I had scored one of my hoped-for postings. But it looks as if I won’t, judging from the “sorry, loser, we don’t think you’re good enough” (oops, I mean “you are currently not a leading candidate for any of the…positions on your bid list”) email that I received earlier this past week. I’d gotten the same correspondence three years ago, the last time I had to bid, which is how I ended up in Addis Ababa አዲስ አበባ - one of those places that was still up for grabs for what would eventually become obvious reasons. And now it appears history will repeat itself when the anonymous bureaucrats charged with making assignments get around to deciding which scraps to toss in my direction.

What’s most frustrating about this whole fucking exercise in frustration is that prior to joining State I spent 23 years in Japan and Taiwan, accumulating a lifetime worth of experience and knowledge of local conditions that would just be wasted in places like…oh, I don’t know, Ethiopia. But as was pointed out by a friend, those that assign pay very little attention to the talents that someone could bring to the Foreign Service from their previous life in the real world. I would like nothing better than to return to the East Asia/Pacific region to live and work, and in the personal statement that has to accompany my bid list, I noted clearly the family reasons for why I would like to be assigned to that part of the world. But apparently it’s going to come to naught again.

I suppose in the end it could all turn out well. Up until COVID-19 and going on Authorized Departure, I had gotten used to life in Addis, and had made plans to see a lot of the country of Ethiopia before we leave next summer. But the stresses of bidding have made we wonder if this line of work is worth all the bullshit that comes with it. I worry about the toll it’s taken on my family, and on my daughter in particular – is it fair every 2-3 years to uproot her from her friends, and take her off to lands unknown just to satisfy her father’s selfish wanderlust? But I also find myself wondering if I truly fit into the Foreign Service world, even after eight years on the job, spanning three continents. Yes, I am a white, bald, middle-aged male, which does fit the profile of an agency that still lags when it comes to ensuring a diversified workforce. But it many other respects I’m an outsider. I don’t have a Master’s degree - I was supposed to study for an M.A. in Sport Management at Indiana State University, but had to drop out after a month due to personal reasons I don’t wish to bring up again, now or forever more. But even if I had completed that program, I still wouldn’t been part of the club of graduates from DC area unis like Georgetown and GW that State so loves to draw on to fill out its ranks. I never studied abroad as an exchange student at a prestigious school – the three months I learned Japanese at the Yamasa Institute in Okazaki 岡崎 certainly don’t impress people. And all those years on the ground in Japan and Taiwan, in places like Yokkaichi 四日市 and Fengyuan 豐原 don't count for much because I wasn't under U.S. government supervision (i.e. in the Peace Corps) while I was there. I'm surprised I ever made it into the Foreign Service in the first place. 

After almost a decade working in the department, there’s still a noticeable gap in perceptions. When I tell people I used to be a teacher in Asia before joining State, without exception everyone has assumed I worked at an international school, because that’s the world they live in. Perhaps it’s more of a generational thing, but I was shocked while studying Amharic in preparation for my current job that my two younger classmates had never worked any kind of job prior to going to college (and certainly not while going to school, either); they seemed equally surprised that I used to work at a fast-food restaurant, just one of many McJobs I held while making my way through high school, community college (American River College) and then graduation from UC Davis. Yes, I transferred to UCD from junior college, another apparently lightly trodden path future diplomats almost never take.

Call it a mid-life crisis, for that is what it is. The positives still outweigh the negatives (though the latter are catching up), and when I’m finally sitting in a rocking chair on my front porch I can bore people with reminiscences of experiences in far-off lands that the average person will never come close to having. Then again, I was able to do that even before I got this job (thank you Japan and Taiwan!), so guess what State? You’re not that fucking special, after all. But no matter what happens during this current bidding process, I’ll make the best of what I’ll end up with, and I’ll make sure my family gets the most out of it as well.

I probably wouldn’t be a good fit for the Hometown Diplomat Program, however…

Now that the self-pitying whinge is out of the way, enjoy some photos...

My first Ethiopian-style meal since I came back arrived courtesy of a delivery service while I was in quarantine. It tasted as bad as it looked. In fact, food is going to be an issue for the remainder of this tour. Last Friday I had some fruit and vegetables delivered to the house, and the quality was...let's just say it left a lot to be desired. I bleached and washed the produce as one is supposed to do here, ate some for the first time yesterday, then ended up lying on my bed for about eight hours with the worst stomach cramps I've ever experienced. I could be facing a future of bland diets and frozen vegetables if this continues...:

While I was away on Authorized Departure, the government of Ethiopia introduced new banknotes in denominations of 10, 50, 100 and 200 birr (the latter newly introduced in response to high inflation rates). As a result, I've had to exchange all our old notes. This bank poster shows the new bills:

Before the stomach cramps set in, I went to the embassy on Saturday morning to walk around the compound in pursuit of the magical 10,000 step number, which I attained after roughly 90 minutes of going around in circles (kind of describes my life in general). It didn't take long to come across one of the embassy's two resident tortoises. The leaf turned out to be stuck on its face:

 Schools reopen on Monday in Ethiopia, and this one is taking no chances (though why it's announcing so in English and not in Amharic is a mystery). Unfortunately, the same apparently can't be said of the society in general. Going out for a walk this afternoon (Sunday), the majority of people I saw were not wearing masks. Minibuses were packed to the gills, as usual - no empty seats, no social distancing:

This apartment building down the road from our house is home to a contingent of Chinese. There's a large Chinese presence in Addis Ababa, primarily in the construction industry:

Signs at an intersection. I was drawn to the one in the middle, not for the malt drink, but for the background scenery. Unfortunately, I probably won't be able to experience Ethiopia's lusher side before the end of our tour, not unless a vaccine is put on the market from tomorrow:

Amharic graffiti. I would try and work out what it says, except that after six months away from the country, and with only about seven months left before we depart, I can't be bothered with the language anymore. I could go on a long, profanity-ridden rant about the way the State Department teaches languages, but that's a blog post for another time:

A typical neighborhood located not far from the African Union Commission የአፍሪካ ህብረት ኮሚሽን ዋና መስሪያ ቤት:

The building in the background is part of an evangelical training center, which begs the question: why are there missionaries in the world's second-oldest Christian country (following Armenia)? Don't followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church የኢትዮጵያ:ኦርቶዶክስ:ተዋሕዶ:ቤተ:ክርስቲያን worship the same magical man in the sky who, in his mysterious ways, has bequeathed to us all COVID-19?:

"China Aid For Shared Future":

I'm not sure what kind of "live show" is put on at this "posh" laundromat (granted, it does look pretty nice). A case of "Amharglish"?:

You too can look like a young Michael Jackson, before he inexplicably ruined his good looks:

Hachalu Hundessa ሀጫሉ ሁንዴሳ was an Oromo singer-songwriter and civil rights activist whose murder in late June sparked unrest in Addis Ababa and the surrounding Oromia region:  

This final set of photos was taken by Shu-E on Friday, when she and Amber visited the Gaomei Wetlands 高美濕地 in the Qingshui District 淸水區 of Taichung 台中. It's a place I'd visited with my wife when it was still a smelly stretch of mud in front of a concrete plant long before our daughter was born. We've also visited a couple of times as a family (in 2007 and 2011) after it'd been spruced up for tourists. It goes without saying that I wish I could've been there with them instead of here alone:

My late friend Louis and I both found the music of Black Flag to be strangely uplifting during those Churchillian "black dog" moments. I miss Louis and Mike, both close friends from my days in Tokyo 東京 I could talk to during times like these, who would have understood and help get me through them. Both, sadly, gone too soon:

And, finally, a shout out to Matt G. for the Coffee House Slugs mask and T-shirt, taking me back to those Davis days of drinking bottomless cups of coffee and shortening my lifespan with Camels, or the occasional Mild Seven purchased from a Japanese supermarket in San Francisco: