Armageddon has arrived

That’s what I’m thinking of calling my car, actually. I went down to the warehouse yesterday and watched them bring it out of the container. It was too wide for the ramp and tires squealed all the way down, but other than that, not a scratch.  Tie-downs have been known to snap, resulting in the vehicle rattling around inside the container all the way across the ocean. Thankfully nothing remotely close to that happened here.

The frustrating thing was that we’re required to carry Nigerian insurance but we can’t register it until we gain physical possession. Our shipping department was on top of it and tried to get it done in time for us (a buddy’s vehicle arrived on the same boat into Lagos and the same truck up from there to Abuja) but we couldn’t drive them home yesterday.  It all come together today, though, and one of the shipping guys offered to go over, gas it up, and park it at the embassy for me. I had a late night working and it was so very very nice to be able to clamber inside my beloved machine, load up the mp3 cd changer, and drive home.

I feel like I’ve finally arrived in Nigeria. What a wonderful birthday present, eh?

The joys (and horrors) of having a cat in Abuja

My Eminent feline, Sugar, has been a wonderful blessing to me. She came to me by happenstance, under conditions that led me to initially expect that she wouldn’t stay long. She’d rejected other families before, but she took to me and my friends and has been wonderful fun. She loves to play and wrestle, but she is also quite affectionate and requires at least one daily session of chin scratching and face stretching rubs.

She really likes to tackle my ankles and night and we then play a game where I gently stomp on her (no pressure!) and she rolls around on her back and fights my foot without scratching or biting. She also fetches Nerf darts and loves to jump up and bat them from a window after you shoot and stick them to it, then she brings them back to you for another round.  It’s awesome. I’ve also learned that she figured out how to open the doors in my apartment. They are lever type doors and she jumps up and grabs the handle until it springs open.  Way cool.

She’s also and active hunter. My apartment is pretty clean, no bugs or vermin, but occasional rather large (thumbsized?) cockroaches venture indoors.  The first time she got one, I found it on the bedroom floor in the morning. I was really proud of her but to my chagrin I discovered that it wasn’t completely dead. It tried to wriggle away when I went to pick it up and even though I pointed this out to her, she was convinced her job was done and didn’t care to finish it off.  Later on though, I’ve found two others, fully dead, again presented to me on the carpet near enough to my bed that I fear walking around without first turning on a light and putting sandals on.

Last Friday I got up to find her sitting on the floor near another prize, only this one didn’t seem to have taken any damage at all.  It scurried off when I went to dispose of it and she just watched it. I had to dispatch it myself with a shoe.

But tonight was the horror of horrors. I came home from dinner with the neighbors and saw an odd shaped, oddly colored “thing” on the floor. It was about 2 1/2 inches long and tapered to an end, in a rough triangle that had a very short base. It had some stripes on it and I thought that perhaps she had pulled one of the dangly bits from her toy. (This toy has a bell and a vaguely mammalian shape with feathers and stuff that hangs from a stick; I keep it stuck in the couch cushions and she plays with it all time). I pick it up to inspect and realize that it the terminal end of a lizard’s tail.


So now I have to face the prospect of coming across a tailless lizard carcass, or even worse, having it presented to me in the morning.  I saw my first indoor lizard today, a tiny little thing smaller than this piece of tail that my cat pried from a larger relative. I suppose it only makes sense that there’s a bigger one running around here.  Actually, that doesn’t make any sense at all.

Sugar does like to go out on the balcony but I’m pretty sure I’d notice if she brought something like this in. She got it during the time I was at the neighbor’s for dinner.  I really hope she scared it enough that it finds its way out however it came in; I really don’t relish the thought of disposing of lizard carcass tomorrow morning.

The making of a Consular Officer part 2

I’ve been here two and a half months. Most of the first week is spent getting your bearings and going through a rather detailed check in process at the Embassy and I did my first visa interviews about nine weeks ago. I’ve been here long enough that I know everyone now and am no longer the FOB FNG. There are people here who are newer than me and I’ve seen some friends leave as they transfer on to their next assignment.  That’s kind of disappointing, just as you are getting to know people, they leave, but that’s the nature of the job. I’m happy that the new section chief and one of the other officers and I arrived at roughly the same time to provide some good continuity in our section.

The new officer is replacing a colleague who’s been my mentor these last few months. It’s exciting to have the new guy here; we’d met in DC before I left so that adds to the fun factor, and the departing colleague is still going to be at the embassy, just transferring to a different section for her second year of the tour.  She’s been a great friend, patiently enduring my non-stop questions and desires to probe the edges of knowledge and rationale for why things are the way they are.

I’ve gotten very comfortable asking a lot of questions, but I realize now that its time for me start to be a bit more self-reliant. We got a new section  chief a couple weeks ago which is great to have, as we’d been operating without one just as a scheduling gap. My more experienced colleagues did a great job of running things but it is nice for them to hand off those extra responsibilities as well as to have the veteran guidance. I’ve noticed that I’ve been a bit of a burden on her though, since I naturally turn to the boss for questions but she’s still settling into the role and learning how things work in the section as well as the unique aspects of the job associated with working in Nigeria.

The Foreign Service seeks people who are independent, self-reliant, and able to deal with things on their own as needed. I’m comfortable with those expectations and responsibilities, but the nature of this job in particular requires that you hold back long enough to make sure you actually know what you are doing. US law is pretty comprehensive and it makes our job easier in a way.  Pretty much every scenario you’ll ever encounter is covered with some pretty good reference material that helps you understand how to apply the law.  But because it is the law and the decisions I make have a very real effect on people, I really want to get it right, you know? There are considerations when making an adjudication as well as general processes with the workings of the embassy.  I was also aware that my sectionmate in the desk next to mine was leaving for a different section in September and I wanted to get as much from her as I could. She was very patient, thankfully.

I realize that many of my questions recently have been more of the confirmation variety than of the clueless type. It always bugs my wife when I ask questions to just confirm my suspicions or expectations, but confirming what I think know gives me the confidence then to run with it once I know I’ve got it locked down. There is still plenty that I don’t know, but I’ve done a couple thousand visa adjudications, I’ve got a pretty good sense of what is going on. The new officer is going to depend on me for help and the chief needs me to step up as well.

I don’t really talk in specifics for a couple of reasons. The U.S. has very clear prohibitions on violating the privacy of others, be they employees, U.S. citizens, or visa applicants.  We have a very transparent visa process and there’s not great secret about how we make our decisions, but its important not to talk in specifics to avoid either violating privacy or revealing something that would provide applicants with an edge or a motivation to try to game the system. Many times ineligible applicants want more detail about why their application was denied. We can tell them that they don’t overcome the assumption of intending immigration (which is an assumption made about every applicant that they must overcome through the application process and interview). But there aren’t any magic bullets that will automatically qualify you for a visa, so if we provide any more detail, some applicants will believe that THAT is all that is needed and tailor their application (sometimes by misrepresenting themselves) in a certain way.  This information also gets shared among the applicant community and it isn’t fair to them or the officers who have to then shift through more crud to get to the underlying issues.

This has been kind of a rambling post (but if you’ve been reading this blog, you’re probably used to that).  I just wanted to try to explain how I’ve gone from the bewildered new guy trying to remember everything from the training to someone who knows is feeling comfortable assuming the mantle that is expected of me.  It’s exciting and to be honest, a proud development.

I absolutely love this job, in a general sense. I’m happy to be serving my country, I’m happy to be doing visas in Nigeria even though it is a pretty demanding job, I’m really really happy with the people I work with. Other than the obvious drawbacks of being separated from my family, I got no complaints, at least not yet.  We’ll see how well I hold up over the next 11 cycles of 2 months.

The unintentional hiatus (aka Hello, Stuff!!)

Arriving at a new post involves a huge transition in every aspect of one’s life. In a material sense there are always two and sometimes three major events that mark this transition: UAB, HHE, and POV.

UAB: Unaccompanied Air Baggage. This is 250 lbs of stuff (450 for a couple and 600 for a family of three, increasing by 150 lb increments for each additional member) that gets separated out from the bulk of stuff you want to ship over for your living quarters. It gets sent by air and arrives roughly 2 weeks after you do. Until that point, all you’ve got is what you brought in your suitcases, perhaps augmented by some stuff you mailed to yourself in advance of arriving and whatever you can buy on the local market.  Most people put in kitchen and bedroom essentials. I mostly had kitchen utensils and my pillows with a small amount of bathroom stuff such as some toilet paper, shampoo and conditioner, and so on. 250 lbs isn’t much but packed wisely, it can make a huge material difference in the quality of life.

HHE: Household Effects. This is the bulk of your stuff, sent by ship and typically arriving 2 months or so after you. Most housing in the foreign service is furnished and each family gets up to 7000 lbs of stuff.  You can have up to 18000 lbs total possessions, 11,000 goes into storage while posted abroad.  If you aren’t in furnished housing, you get a bigger shipment but I forget offhand if its 14K or the whole 18K.  Some posts also qualify for a Consumables allowance if the local economy isn’t developed enough to provide for the food and other stuff (shampoo, toilet paper, etc). I get 2400 lbs of consumables above and beyond the 7,000 limit for household effects. You can break the Consumables shipment into two parts and get the second delivered after the first year of a 2 assignment.  I didn’t have near the 7,000 limit for HHE and so packed all of my food and whatnot just as regular HHE, leaving the full 2400 lbs for delivery later on. I doubt I’ll bring that much over then, but it is nice not to have to worry about going over weight.

POV: Personally Owned Vehicle. Pretty self explanatory.  This also gets delivered by sea.

For Abuja, my HHE sailed to Europe and then was flown into Abuja and delivered by truck. My POV sailed into Lagos and then will be carted up to Abuja before being uncrated. Getting my UAB really helped with life here, but getting the HHE two weeks ago changed this experience from feeling like I was on a long vacation into living here. The first weekend I had my stuff I was totally occupied with unpacking, organizing, and setting things up.  I got most everything down now but there are still some piles of clothes and books that need to be put away.  But now I’ve got my TV, stereo, DVD player, XBox, computer desk, rowing machine, beer (!!) and food.  This is MY house now. But I was too preoccupied with taking care of business to update this blog. I’ve been reading a lot more too, which is nice, but MAN, do I have a lot of books.  If I read one a week, I might finish what I brought before I get out of here…

During the week, there isn’t much going on to report here. I get up, go to work, get home between 5 and 7, eat dinner, work out, go to bed. Without a vehicle, I don’t really get out of the house much on weekends either. There are barbecues and dinner parties, but those aren’t really good fodder for this either (not because they are scandalous but just because they aren’t very interesting after the fact). There is a really good community here that I am very grateful to have, but really, it’s just hanging out with friends.

The following weekend I was still settling into the house, but was surprised to find how much at ease I was at the weekend parties. I know people now, so the whole self-introductions and “I met them but am not sure if I remember names” is mostly past. It was the best weekend I’d had here, really just relaxing with friends and then of course celebrating the Eminent Child’s birthday.

She had a great weekend that started off with a pizza party with friends after school. They each got to make their own pizza and then made their own ice cream sundaes for desert. Her closest got to sleep over and the Eminent Wife set them up with a futon and goodies downstairs and just them stay up and play.  The Eminent Friend got a little unnerved when the lights went out (which is understandable considering that Japanese families often sleep in the same room well into elementary school), so the E.C. got the E.W. to come downstairs and provide a sense of security. E.C. emphatically pointed out that she was just fine without adult supervision; she just called her mom down to help her friend out.  Of course, the E.W. wasn’t allowed to sleep on the futon with them though and had to make do with the nearby couch.  At first I thought I’d dodged a bullet by being here, but then realized I wouldn’t have been invited down anyway because of my monstrous snoring.

This is all a long-winded way of saying I’ve been distracted the past few weeks as a result of getting my HHE.  Life is pretty good though. I still need to get some UPS (I mistakenly bought 60Hz units and Nigeria is 50Hz; was sure that I’d checked that out before buying, alas) and some propane tanks and attachments for my burners for the beer brewing and I’ll be fully settled in.

My POV has yet to arrive but it’s in Nigeria and just waiting to get processed through the port. It was supposed to be here last weekend and then this weekend but the beloved system here in Nigeria couldn’t deliver on those expectations, so I’m holding out hope for next week.  I did get my license and I know my plates are ready, so once its here, I’ll get to go out and watch it come out of the container, pay my local insurance fee, and I’m ready to roll. A new arrival at post agreed to include my new camera body in their UAB (thank you for giving me some of that precious early arrival weight!!), so hopefully within the next two weeks or so, I’ll have my car and my camera and can start exploring the city on my own.


Good fences?

They say good fences make good neighbors, but I can vouch for the opinion that good scotch makes for great neighbors.  Following the UN bombing, I really wanted to just relax with a glass of scotch and my neighbor let me raid his cabinet. The only scotch I found was a 15 year The Balvenie, Single Barrel and he insisted that it was okay if I opened it. It was absolutely perfect for the occasion.

I ended up making a dent in the bottle and he suggested I just take the whole thing and replace it when I get a chance. He revealed that it was a retirement present when he left the military, which really impressed me with his generosity. We also discovered that they had a 12 year Macallan that I would have been plenty happy with. Now I just need to find someone who will bring a bottle of scotch down with their stuff for me.  I’ve asked one friend but I’m already indebted to them for agreeing to bring my new Nikon camera down after it got turned away from overseas shipping (I’m guessing the battery violated a rule) and I may be pushing my luck asking for them to front me an expensive bottle of scotch.  I’ll figure something out, or maybe just give him one of my Lagavulin’s.

Actually, I think I’d better just find a replacement bottle.

I guess this is a good a place as any to mention that I’ve run into several people who have brewed, one of whom is departing the country in a few weeks and dropped off several cases of big bottles. They’re dusty but in prime condition with a few unique shapes and markings on them. There are even a couple Grolsch in there too.

4 Days without hot water….and counting

Actually it’s only been three days but it will be four tomorrow and we’re not getting hot water before then.  A pump went out and its proving difficult to get things working again. One of my neighbors mentioned that we’ve only been without water 6 times in 2 years, not too bad.  Depends on your standards, I suppose.

It’s all fine and well with me.  I’m still showering, just not for as long, and I’ve switched to morning showers for the time being.  Looking at the amount of sediment in the tap water makes me wonder how clean I’m actually getting.


Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink

One of my classmates in DC recommended this book after I was assigned to Nigeria. It was written by former US ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell. I couldn’t have read it at a better time as it provides an excellent review of Nigeria’s history and current challenges from the perspective of someone who was right in the thick of things.

I didn’t know much at all about Nigeria beyond the infamous issues associated with oil, violence, and scams.  There isn’t much about Nigerian princes but the violence and oil gets plenty of attention. I didn’t realize that Nigeria had suffered under such atrocious governance since its relatively recent independence in 1960. Successive military coups were followed by massively rigged elections into the 1990s. The corruption of this society is hard to comprehend: upwards of 90% of the population lives in poverty and there has been little fundamental investment in the country in terms of infrastructure or agriculture.

It’s hard to talk about the book without just recounting the information in it so I’ll just conclude with a recommendation for it for those interested in Nigeria, developing country issues, or are curious about how corruption can affect a country.