Je parle un peu français

I left Dhaka, Bangladesh the beginning of April after a flurry of goodbye parties and packing. I’m now back at one of my favorite places, the Foreign Service Institute, learning French. I will have to obtain a level 3/3 to be able to depart to my next post (Dakar, Senegal, in case you weren’t paying attention!). My life right now is 5-6 hours of language training a day, 5 days a week, plus homework and self studying. It is intense, but I’ll be glad to French once I get to Senegal. Plus it will come in handy in future bidding. Bengali was fun and challenging to learn, but I would only be able to use it in two posts – Dhaka and Kolkata. French opens up a lot of countries I can go to in the future.

Once I get to a 3/3 level in French, I should be “able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations in practical, social and professional topics.” For example, I would be able to “use the language as part of normal professional duties such as answering objections, clarifying points, justifying decisions, understanding the essence of challenges, stating and defending policy, conducting meetings, delivering briefings, or other extended and elaborate informative monologues.” Since I’m not even sure I can do this in English most of the time, it will be a challenge! 

Since my last posting, I was able to travel to Singapore for a weekend as well as to visit friends in Oman. Oman does not strike most people as a place to go to for vacation, but I wholeheatedly recommend it. I had a blast even though I was only there for a few days. We went to a secluded beach, and to a stream in a canyon where we swam through emerald green water to a cave that actually had a waterfall inside. Unreal!

 

 

After departing Dhaka and saying farewell to my awesome driver, housekeeper and everybody at the Embassy, I headed back to my hometown for  home leave. I travelled with my family to Yosemite (gorgeous!), then left them to visit my friend in Washington where we expored the Olympic Peninsula, then I left her to head up to Alaska for some mountain time. Highlights included biking around Yosemite with my family with gorgeous weather and amazing views, strolling along a gorgeous beach at low tide with my friend in Washington, and going on a glacier cruise where a pod of orcas came right up to our boat.

 

 

Home leave was good overall, though it felt strange to have no real task for 5 weeks. It’s hard to relax once you’ve been going non-stop working and travelling for 2 years. I guess that’s the point though – to get some rest so you can recharge and get ready for your next challenge. Plus, connect with my Americanness again.

I’m  enjoying the U.S. so far. It’s nice to be able to walk outside, go to restaurants, catch up with my A-100 colleagues and folks who also served in Dhaka. I love my apartment. However, I am really really excited to be headed to Senegal in 6 months. I love the ocean, and I will be living within a short distance of it, so that’s pretty fantastic. I have heard the Embassy community is supposed to be good, and a lot of people choose to extend their service. Many of my colleagues and friends did not understand why I put Senegal first on my bid list. It’s simple to me as it checks all my boxes – A cool location (ocean, wildlife, deserts, fun travel opportunities to nearby countries), a great Embassy community, freedom of movement, fulfilling and interesting work, direct flights back to the U.S. (no more 30 hour flights!), great food (seafood!!!!), fantastic culture – music (Youssou N’Dour. Baaba Maal, hey even Akon is of Senegalese descent), art, dancing, hardship differential (to pay for my fun travel opportunities)….what’s not to love??

Recently I added to my family. I adopted a new kitty. She is a rambunctious little thing who likes to annoy my first kitty. Hopefully he will start liking her a bit more as time goes by. Does she look ready to travel??Fleur

Well, that’s about it for now. I will be a better blog-updater now that I have a little more free time on my hands. Thanks for reading this especially long post!

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Nearly there

Wow, it’s been an incredibly long time since I last posted. Life has been busy and after I reached my one year mark, things have gone very quickly. I am now wrapping up the last couple of months of my first tour and preparing to return to the U.S. in April to start langauge training. I’ll spend a month of home leave travelling around and soaking up ‘Murica before heading back to the Foreign Service Institute to begin learning French for Senegal. I am pretty excited to return to the U.S. for a bit – ride my bicycle on the Mt. Vernon trail, walk the National Mall, see friends and A-100 colleagues, eat delicious American food, and more. I’m also excited about moving to Senegal next December. Let me try to do a re-cap of the past 6 months or so.

I finished up my portfolio as the American Citizen Services Officer in October – it was quite a wild ride, especially being on call 24/7. Fortunately, I did not have too many huge crises to deal with. I am now working at a Fraud Prevention Manager – which means I deal with anybody who we suspect is trying to circumvent or break U.S. immigration law by attempting to hide something about themselves (marital status, age, identity, criminal offense). It’s a challenging job but I really enjoy it.

Since my last post, I have been on 2 R&Rs – one to Sri Lanka, Maldives and Nepal, and the other to New Zealand. Both were fantastic trips – there are breathtaking places in the world, and I’m happy to have gotten to experience some of them. All three countries of my firsr R&R took my breath away. I hiked, snorkelled and ate delicious food.

On my second R&R, I hiked nearly 90 miles in 2 weeks. The highlight was the 30ish miles I did on the Kepler Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. I hiked with a friend for 4 days, 3 nights, staying at huts along the way. It was incredibly challenging since I’m terribly out of shape (not being able to walk in Dhaka doesn’t help that), but I managed to complete most of the hike – I cut off some on the front and the back end. The best part of the journey was meeting the other hikers and hanging out with them in the evenings.

In between these R&Rs, I was also able to hit up China, Singapore, and also met my parents in Thailand.

Summer turnover last year was rough – 80% of our Embassy left, and I was one of the few remaining who was here during the Holey Attack. However, over the past few months, I’ve been able to build new friendships and create a new community. It’s definitely a downside of this career – you start growing attached to people and then they leave you, or you leave them. It can be emotionally draining, especially in a place like Dhaka where it is difficult to create friendships outside of the Embassy. It’s a price I pay to live the kind of life I want to live.

Well, I will try to wrap up here for now. Hopefully I will update this more as things start moving along in preparation for my departure from Dhaka. Eek. Until then, dekha hobe!

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The downward slope

My year anniversary in Bangladesh was spent in Bangkok, Thailand. Now I am nearly at 14 months and it feels like time is flying. Work is incredibly busy, now that I have a new portfolio (American Citizen Services), every day is like a little mini whirlwind. I help process passport applications, serve as a notary public, and interview American Citizens to see if their children born abroad can qualify for US Citizenship. In addition to these daily duties, I also help assist with Americans in need – if they get arrested, are sick, or need help locating somebody, I help connect people to resources. And in addition to these other varying duties, I also help plan for larger crises – natural disasters, terrorism, etc. I will be in this portfolio for 6 months, and am on-call 24/7. It’s never a dull moment! Americans get themselves into some really interesting situations abroad…

Since I last wrote, I travelled to Thailand to see some A-100 buddies (and walk outside!) and just came back from a weekend in Myanmar/Burma. Yangon/Rangoon was actually nicer than I thought it would be – clean streets, people who follow traffic laws, and pretty quiet. The Shwedagon Pagoda was stunning. pagonda

We went at sunset and watched the colors of the pagoda change, and the night lights made everything glitter. Walking barefoot around the crowd, semi-unnoticed (as opposed to being stared at constantly in Dhaka), was just magical.

Unfortunately, the next day, as we were on the fun train that circles the city, I had to jump off to throw up on the side of the railway. Apparently a buffet I had gone to in Dhaka a couple of days before had some bad food, and I was overcome with food poisoning. The next 20 hours of my life were spent in bed, miserable. While I do not regret the trip, it would have been more enjoyable if 2/3s of it hadn’t been spent sick!

I have a lot of good trips coming up, so stay tuned.

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A Day in the Life

Now that I have nearly been here a year, I am finally feeling like I’ve gotten my bearings….usually. I still learn new things every day, and I still make more mistakes than I would like, but all in all, I’m starting to get comfortable as a consular officer. I thought I might walk you through a day in my life (using today as an example).

Early morning: After the mornings’ harrowing ride through insane traffic, and safe arrival at the Embassy, I send my local driver off to the tailor with a dress that needs hemming, since I cannot go myself due to security restrictions. I meet up with a few friends from other sections for a coffee and breakfast in the Embassy before heading to the consular section to see what kind of day I will have.

8:00amish: Open up my interview window and call the first applicant, who is patiently (nervously) waiting on a bench. Today is non-immigrant visa day, when we have people coming in hoping for visas for business, pleasure, study and a host of other reasons. I interview mainly in the Bengali language, assessing their purpose of travel, personal and professional ties, and make fair and fast decisions under immigration law. This usually lasts 2-3 hours depending on the applicant load. I enjoy speaking with folks about their lives and seeing their excitement at going to see grandchildren, going to a good US university and more.

11:00am: time for a meeting to discuss our upcoming National Day (4th of July) celebration. While it is still a few months away, there will be plenty of work to do to get things ready

11:45am: Lunch! Time to go to the Embassy canteen and see whats on the menu for the day. I sit with folks from other sections and we catch up, joke, and relax for a little while.

12:30pm: It’s back to the office to catch up on back office work, looking at peoples documents they send us, answering emails, and other administrative work

2:00pm: On some afternoons, we call in folks to reinterview or to look at more complex cases up close at the window. This can last anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours based on how many people are coming in.

3:30pm: Time for last minute catch-up work with visas and seeing what is on the docket for the next day – the last hour seems to fly by as I try to keep up with emails, meetings, and side projects, including several commmitees I participate in

Evening: Time to head home to get ready for the gym, make dinner or order in, and maybe meet up with some friends to play board games. I rarely stay in in the evenings, as there is usually something to do – which is ironic since we are so restricted in our movements.

There it is, a day in the life. Not terribly exciting, maybe, but very interesting to me. There is always something to do and never enough time to do it, but I have a supportive group of colleagues. Tomorrow is our immigrant visa day, where I will interview future Permanent Residents and Citizens who have been petitioned for by their families. I enjoy the opportunity to experience both non-immigrant and immigrant visas in Dhaka, since in many other posts officers do one or the other.

There you go, my life in a nutshell!

 

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Transitions

Things have been fairly quiet here, as far as Foreign Service life can be quiet. Mid-January I went on my first R&R, which was delightful. I met my parents and one of my best friends in Nairobi, and together we went on a 2 week tour of the Maasai Mara, Ngorongoro Crater, and Zanzibar.

It was wonderful to be outside and breathe clean air. It took about 4 days for my lungs to stop burning (Yep, lots of air pollution in Dhaka). We had really great luck, as well, and saw several leopards, baby lions, elephants, and even baby hyenas. I had been to both Tanzania and Kenya before, but this was something even more. It was great to share it with wonderful people, but it was difficult to leave them behind at the airport.

Shortly after I came back from R&R, I travelled to Ko Samui, Thailand with some of my Dhaka colleagues. We rented a beach-front villa together, and so began 5 glorious days of beaches, swimming, and relaxation.

 

So now I am back in Dhaka for a bit, with no vacation in the near future. Luckily, rainy season is coming and the air quality should improve a bit with the wind and rain coming in. I also look forward to slightly warmer days where I can sit in the sun by the pool, instead of the smog-ridden skies.

Work is fascinating as usual. I enjoy complicated visa cases and trying to figure out what is really happening. This summer will definitely be a challenge – the vast majority of the older, more experienced staff are leaving and suddenly I’m one of the senior folks. We will also be very short-staffed, so I will get a lot of different types of experiences. It will be strange to be training new folks, since we have no had any in the past 11 months. I know the dynamic will change, but I’m also excited to get some ‘fresh blood’ in the section. Hoping we can hold it all together!! Until next time…

 

 

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2017 At Last!

Finally it is 2017. The holidays are always a little bit rough, but this one seemed especially so with many of my friends gone out of Dhaka. The Consular section was extra quiet, with only a few of us staying behind to man the post. Thankfully, though, it was generally a quiet holiday season, though a few raids on militants happened and Bangladesh experienced its first female suicide bomber.

On January 5th, our Authorized Departure status was terminated and we are now considered “partially unaccompanied” or something to that effect. We issued a newly updated Travel Warning. Only spouses that are working at the Embassy can accompany their spouses, and no children allowed at all. It has been a little over 6 months since the Holey Bakery Attack, and I think we are mostly relieved that the wait for AD to end is finished.

Another disturbing event recently was the shooting of a consular officer in Guadalajara, Mexico. My A-100 colleagues working there are safe, but I’m sure in shock. No motive has been discovered yet, but it reminds us all that we do not live in a safe world, and I do not have a safe profession. That being said, even when my life here seems difficult, I’m proud of my position as a Foreign Service Officer, and I am still so happy to have the opportunity to serve the United States and its people.

In a few days, I’m headed on my first R&R. I’ll post photos when I am back, but I can say that I am really ready to get out of town for a bit. The air pollution here is just brutal, and my lungs are never happy. Also the lack of sun and freedom definitely gets one down. I’ll desperately miss my friends here but happy to have a break. It has been nearly 2 months since I last walked outside in public, so bring on the clean air, open skies and freedom!

 

 

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December Reflections

I’ve been at post for over 8 months now, and its definitely been a whirlwind. Earthquakes, terrorist attacks, dengue fever, and more. My time so far in Dhaka has been eventful, and I still struggle sometimes to reconcile my current life with my previous. Christmas time here at post seems especially strange, with a large chunk of the Embassy gone on vacation. Things will be quiet at the Embassy, and hopefully quiet in Dhaka as well!

Since my last blog post, I visited Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with friends and had a wonderful time. It was lovely to just walk around and be normal people. Nobody stared at us, we could walk the streets freely, eat in delicious restaurants, and have a normal-fun-person-time. I’m looking forward to my first R&R in January, when I will travel to meet my parents and friend in Kenya and Tanzania for a 2 week long safari!

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A few weeks ago, I was sent a list of about 70 cities to bid on for my next assignment. This time around felt quite different than A-100 bidding. I at least knew a little bit more about how the State Department works, and a little more about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ posts. A few places popped out to me immediately, and I was surprised to see that I would statistically most likely be learning another language, as most of the posts were language designated.

Bidding for your second Foreign Service assignment is pretty complicated, because unlike in A-100, you are given start dates and you know when you will leave your current post, but you have to work out your own training schedule that has to fit in between those two dates perfectlyl. And you have limits on how much training you can take in your first 5 years, so this adds further complication. Plus you have to work in 20 days of home leave. Since I’d already spent 11 months at FSI, I had to be careful to bid on posts that did not put me over the limit. We were given about 2 weeks to research, so I had a lot on my plate. Finding posts that worked with my training timeline, were consular-coned, could accomodate my cat, and most importantly, allowed me freedom of movement, reduced me to tears a number of times. But I narrowed the list down to a top 10, held my breath, and pushed the submit button.

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On November 22nd, I woke up around 3:00am to my phone buzzing. I had a dozen text messages asking “Where are you going??” Apparently, assignments were out. Being at home, I had to remotely log into our system to check my email. My computer decided it didn’t like to do that, and it took me a good 30 minutes (interspersed with a lot of cursing) to log in. I had just woken up from a dream that I’d been assigned to a post that I didn’t really want to go to, so my heart was definitely in my throat. I found the email from my Career Development Officer, scrolled down, and smiled.

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Dakar, Senegal!! 

It was my number #1 choice! The timing works perfectly with my schedule, I get to learn French for 6 months at FSI. There are so many reasons that I chose Senegal. When I turned in my bid list, my top choice surprised many (who may not know me all that well) in my office. With my equity from Dhaka, most thought I should try for Paris or London. But for me, Dakar ticks off a lot of boxes. Great food, fantastic music scene, an Embassy directly on the ocean, interesting consular work,  minimal pet import restrictions and freedom of movement. Furthermore, it is a travel hub for West and North Africa and easy to get to Europe and the US. Plus, there is a 20% differential to help with travelling expenses, and a large expat community to hang with (plus awesome locals too of course). Senegal itself is a great country – relatively safe, lovely beaches and some nice parks…I can’t be more happy. I’ll be heading out of Dhaka in April 2018 to go back to FSI. It’s a long way off, but a nice something to look forward to.

Until next time!

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