Sunday, October 27, 2013

One more day...

Somewhere amidst the craziness of this past Friday at work (1 walkthrough, 1 training, 1 meeting, 1 lunch event, 2 hours of overtime and the whole 'day job' thing on top of it) I got a friendly reminder from my CDO. No big deal, just passing along the very important tidbit that our bidlist comes out next week (i.e. THIS week!)

It suddenly became very difficult to focus on visas and paperwork and cleaning out my inbox.

Despite the fact that I do really love Nigeria, I've been anxiously waiting for this moment. It's a big world out there and my 'scratch-off-the-countries-as-you-travel' map is still irritatingly blank.

They passed the instructions along to us already and so I spent a productive hour figuring out what my timing will be. I thought it would be a complicated process but it turns out I'm pretty lucky with my timing. Just to clarify for the friends and family out there, there are three big factors involved in the process. Bear with me for a brief explanation.

1 - Timing

It doesn't matter what's on the list. This is what everyone has impressed on me as I get ready to bid. It only matters which posts on the list actually fit with your timing.

Timing is bookmarked by your expected leave date from your current position (TED) and the date the new position is supposed to be filled. The time in between is filled with home leave (4-6 weeks, but 4 weeks for bidding purposes), language training, and functional training (political tradecraft courses, ConGen, etc).

My TED is January 2015 - perfect for January or February language start dates. It's kind of complicated to explain, but if my TED was a month off in either direction it would have cut in half the number of languages that would work for my timing. Also, having two options for a lot of the major languages means that I have the flexibility to take my home leave on either end of language training. That means I can make a lot more bids work with my timing.

2 - Cones

For my non-foreign service friends, there are five career cones in the foreign service: Consular, Economic, Management, Political and Public Diplomacy. All officers have to do at least a year of consular work in their first two tours. Then they usually want to work in their own cone. It's also possible to work in another cone, but this doesn't happen as often.

Again, I think I'm kind of lucky on this front. I'm a consular coned officer and I've done my consular tour already, so I could bid on jobs in every single cone. Many officers are disappointed that so many positions on the bid list are consular, but for me it doesn't really matter. I'll either get an opportunity to try something new or a chance to build more experience in my career track. Both are good options.

3 - Equity

The nice thing (in my opinion) about bidding in the entry-level is that you get 'points' based on where you've served. Difficult places give you more points. Lagos, for example is very near the top of the list as far as hardship points (and while I love Lagos a ton, it gets all those points for some very good reasons). The people with the most points get to bid first for their next assignments. Since I have so many points (so much equity) coming out of Lagos I'll be among the first people to bid.


Of course there are other factors. Every officer has a different set of bidding priorities. Some people are looking for good schools or higher pay, some need to find countries where their spouses can work or where they can bring their pets, some want to serve in a specific region or learn a particular language. The benefit of being on my own is that I can bid based on wants, not needs.

Now it's that golden moment when - for a few brief days or hours before the list comes out and brings me back to reality - the world is my oyster. I can revel in the possibilities without the pressure of acting on them, at least until tomorrow.

It's a good day.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Ghana 2

My recommendations for Ghana:
*spend at least 1.5 or 2 days in the Cape Coast area
*definitely visit the slave castles but skip the tour
*stay at the Kakum National Park overnight so you can do the early morning tour and canopy walk and increase your chances of seeing some animals
*you don't need more than a day or a day and a half in Accra
*buy fabric - yes there's the ubiquitous kente cloth which I didn't manage to drum up much interest in, but there's also some really great cotton fabric that reminds me of the 1950s
*places we liked
  • For shopping - Trashy Bags (nice bags made from recycled billboards and plastic bags); Wild Gecko - reasonably priced tourist stuff
  • For eating/drinking -  the seafood restaurant on top of Atlantic Lobster  (they have  a set price 7 course seafood meal that was amazing and I would highly recommend it); The Republic - a nice bar to get a feel for the Accra scene; CafĂ© Dez Amis - an actual coffee shop (haven't yet found anything like it in Lagos) with free wifi, good drinks, pastries and food
*it might be easiest to rent a car or hire a car/driver combination to do Cape Coast and the Kakum National Park, but within Accra taxis are cheap and safe
*skip the WEB Dubois museum - it was terrible
*the national museum was ok and worth an hour of your time
*stay in Osu while in Accra
*visit the beach but NOT Labadi (it was dirty, loud, and crowded)
*consider seeing a soccer game while you're there. I've heard from people in the know that it's not really a good idea in Lagos, but Accra seemed like a good place to jump into the action
Canopy walk! It only took about a half-hour, but it was a lot of fun.

Very, very shaky.
 

Cape coast

The Vienna City something... restaurant at Labadi beach. While I wouldn't recommend Labadi beach, if you do go there I would recommend this place for lunch.

Even in Ghana I couldn't escape the visas! BTW - did you hear Nigeria is no longer a diversity visa country?
 
Ok, that's all. Back to our regularly scheduled program next time.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Ghana

Wow. I didn't realize it had been so long since my last post!  Clearly I was having too much fun and being pretty busy and important.

Since the last time I wrote we had a five day weekend (Columbus Day plus Eid). I took the opportunity, along with a colleague, to fly to Ghana for a different take on West Africa.

There are probably too many observations and photos for one post but I have no intention of wasting several hours organizing my thoughts coherently. So, I give you - Ghana in 4 days - Part 1.

Ghana feels like a whole new world. Compared to Nigeria the pace was slow and everything felt very safe.

As a result of the safer environment the expat crowd is completely different too. Rather than a group of almost exclusively oil workers and diplomats, the expat scene in Ghana was a mix of aid workers, students, and what appeared to be actual tourists. That's not something you EVER see in Lagos. It was nice to see so many people just enjoying West Africa and it gave me a glimpse of what Nigeria could have if the security situation ever clears up.

On our first day we did literally ALL the things. We flew in to Accra, drove three hours to Cape Coast, visited the slave castle, then drove to Elmina for another castle, then drove to the rainforest for a  canopy walk, then drove three hours back to Accra for dinner with a TDY friend at a great seafood place, then hit a nice bar in what I assume was the young, hip part of town. We were up for almost 24 hours and used up pretty much all my vacation energy in that one day but it was pretty spectacular.

If I could do it again I would have spaced the Cape Coast stuff out over two days.

The next day we hit the beach at Labadi. It was very forgettable.

Otherwise, we spent a lot of time at the craft market, saw the W.E.B. Dubois Museum, the National Museum, wandered the neighborhood of Osu and checked out a couple of restaurants.

I'll post some of my recommendations tomorrow. For now, here's some pictures  - mostly from the Cape Coast and its castle.

The only picture I have from inside the castles. This is where the men were kept before being loaded onto ships. There would be 200 people per room (women were kept in separate spaces). It was hard to imagine such an otherwise peaceful place hosting so much violence and suffering. But I would still highly recommend a trip to the castles (there are several along the coast) as a way to understand the history a little better.


Immediately outside the castles is the beach where all the fishing industry is centered. It was such a crazy contrast to see kids running and playing and have a busy commercial center next to a reminder of such dark times in West Africa's history.
All the white, wind-washed buildings were just beautiful.

Flags. I don't know why but Ghanaians seem to LOVE flags. Every taxi we rode in had at least three different flags of random countries. No one could ever explain to us why or how they picked their flags, but it certainly was patriotic.

 
 
More tomorrow...

Friday, October 4, 2013

Today


It was a good day.

 

Well, work was a mess. We got a group that threw us off right from the start and it took two hours before I felt like I was back in my normal rhythm. I think the rest of the line felt the same way.

 

But things started looking up from there.

 

I took on a new project (the idea of a good friend here) and I’m already really excited about how it's going to solve a longstanding issue we've had at post. Hopefully  we'll streamline our workflow and in the process be able to provide better customer service to our applicants. And while it might seem to some of our applicants that all we do is refuse visas, we do all actually care about our applicants and want to give them a good experience.

 

After work I had a couple errands to run. Normally in a developing country - and really, even in a non-developing country - you can't ever get ALL the things done on the first try. Inevitably you've forgotten a form or the office is inexplicably closed, or the shop is out of peas or whatever. Today though? Nothing but net. I picked up some ginger for the ginger snaps I've been craving for two weeks and some lime for my favorite lime fizz recipe. I dropped off my membership application for the Nigerian Field Society (I've been meaning to do this for - I kid you not - 3 months). Now I'll get emails about all the cool activities they do - more on that in the future. In the process I discovered a great little coffee shop/boutique - Quintessence. I bought a highlife CD (love it already) and a book I've been wanting to read - I do not come to you by chance - by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani. It's a particularly relevant book for anyone doing consular work, especially ACS, in Lagos. I promise I'll review it when I finish. I also found out that this place sells my FAVORITE art in Lagos. For months and months I've been seeing these great metalwork wall hangings and I just had to have one. But the only place I found that sold them charged WAY more than I was willing to spend. I knew they had to be cheaper than that. Sure enough this new store has them for exactly what I'm willing to pay. Perfection. And to top it off, I swung by the MTN store and they cut my SIM card to fit in the new iPhone my parents got me for my birthday. I've finally joined the 21st century!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Not at work today

It's 7:01 and I'm officially late for work - or would be if I was working today.

I bet you're assuming I'm off work since the government is furloughing non-essential employees. But if you read the Washington Post's breakdown you'll see that the State Department is still operational - and that the Bureau of Consular Affairs, since it is fee-funded, is continuing work as normal.

So what's this about me not being at work today?

Today is the 53rd anniversary of Nigerian independence.  You can read Secretary Kerry's message here. As for me - I'd just like to say:

Congratulations on your independence Nigeria!
 
I plan to spend the day reading my new book - Ake by Wole Soyinka - and tracking down my little Nigerian flag so I can wave it, should the occasion arise.
 
And of course, tomorrow morning I'll be right back at work, alongside my Nigerian and American colleagues, serving our visa applicants and American citizens regardless of what's happening in Washington.




And just because...
See? A special doodle just for Nigeria's independence day. Not sure if you can see this outside Nigeria, hence the hyperlink.
(It's not official until Google says it's official.)